Tag Archives: climate change

Adiós, ancient coastal cities

Global sea level rise has long been a predicted consequence of global warming, as massive ice sheets at the poles and on mountaintops pour their melted water into the sea. (Pumping groundwater out of aquifers and onto land (which then ultimately drains into the sea) is also a culprit.) Coastal cities are already bearing the brunt of sea level rise, from aquifer incursion (making water too saline to use) to overwhelming sea walls and stormwater infrastructure.

Sea level rise is a growing threat to one of the oldest European settlements in North America. Founded by Spanish settlers in 1565, St. Augustine FL is now struggling to protect its heritage sites in the midst of profound state-level denial and delay. The likelihood of the city surviving another 450 years seem very slim. Of course, it isn’t helpful that these challenges are often overlooked in academic circles; a recent call for papers for an Urban Heritage conference has no mention of the impacts of climate change on ancient coastal cities, even though the majority of urban populations live along coastlines. Urban heritage preservation in the face of climate change impacts (floods, droughts, intense weather events, and others) will be an important area of work in the decades ahead.

Goodbye glaciers

The US-IALE conference in Anchorage was short but sweet — great science, wonderful colleagues, and new ideas.

However, as picturesque as the setting was, it was deeply unnerving. This winter was one of the warmest on record for Alaska, and indeed for much of the past winter, Alaska was warmer than much of the eastern US. When I arrived in Anchorage, it was at least 20 degrees (F) warmer than Houghton had been, and the trees were already fully leafed-out and blooming. Several wildfires contributed to a haze around the city that marred views and made our clothes smell like a campfire; the fire season started early and is expected to be a severe one, thanks to warm weather and dry conditions in the forests.

My son and I went on a glacier tour…. truly impressive! The blue hues and striations of black sediment made them far more beautiful than I had imagined. As we watched one of the glaciers calving, I wondered if any of those glaciers would be around for my son to show his children; odds are against it. Many speakers at the conference spoke of the difficulty that our “no analog” future presents us when we try to develop management plans for our ecosystems more than a few decades out. While they were talking about the vast reorganization of species and ecosystems that we are likely to see, I thought about how I might describe things like glaciers and tundra to my grandkids….. I am certain that my words, and even my photos, won’t do them justice.

National Climate Assessment rolling out now

Ignore the beautiful but dysfunctional interactive website, and instead go straight to downloading the highlights  or the full report. The documents are a treasure trove of data, documenting all of the changes in our climate that we have already witnessed and what is likely to come. The report offers data and projections by region, sector, and response strategies.

Why Confusing “Weather” and “Climate” isn’t Funny

[This is a post from Brad Barnett, a Ph.D student in the Environmental and Energy Policy program here at Tech.]

Last week Senator Jim Inhofe (OK-R) took a(nother) public stand against climate change science. From the Senate floor, Inhofe argued the recent polar vortex-induced freeze that affected the United States is proof climate change is a hoax. His rationale: it’s cold outside. Inhofe insisted the wave of frosty weather is evidence that global warming just isn’t happening. If it was, surely we wouldn’t be experiencing such chilling temperatures.

Inhofe is known to be a vocal opponent of climate change science and is often written off by many as another willfully-blind right-winger. His most recent comments were ridiculed because of his oversimplification of a very complex topic and resulted in the creation of the hashtag #InhofeLogic on Twitter (which led to a lot of hilarious tweets). And while much of the online world snickered at Inhofe’s tirade, the senator isn’t alone in confusing weather with long-term climate trends and subsequent opposition to climate change. And that’s no laughing matter.

Senator Inhofe and many other highly visible climate change deniers point to short-term frigid temperatures as evidence that global warming isn’t occurring. This is a fundamental misunderstanding (or misrepresentation) of climate change. The definition of “weather” is simply “the state of the atmosphere at a place and time as regards heat, dryness, sunshine, wind, rain, etc. On the other hand, “climate” refers to “the weather conditions prevailing in an area in general or over a long period.” Climate change scientists point to long term temperature increase trends as proof that the planet is warming. And while the recent polar vortex felt extreme, scientist say these deep freezes are occurring less frequently than they did in the past providing further support of climate change.

Despite the overwhelming consensus among the world’s scientist that climate change is occurring, a portion of the American public just doesn’t believe it’s real. According to an April 2013 study conducted by the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication, 37% of Americans still don’t believe climate change is happening. Even more concerning, the percentage of Americans that do believe it is occurring decreased by 7% compared to a previous study, and the researchers mostly attributed this to the colder winter of 2012-2013. Scariest of all, less than half of all Americans (49%) believe that climate change (if it’s happening) is caused by human activities.

While it’s certainly a positive sign the majority of Americans believe climate change is real, the decline in public belief coupled with the frigid weather creates a troubling environment for policy makers who support policies to curb climate change. The climate change debate became such a hot topic last week that the White House released a video starring President Obama’s chief science advisor explaining how climate change works. Senate Democrats also publicly announced last week a new task force to advance climate change mitigation policies. What this suggests is that climate change believers on Capitol Hill are concerned that they are losing the battle of public opinion to climate change deniers. Combine this with the growing abundance of cheap shale natural gas accessible by hydraulic fracturing and petroleum from shale rock, climate change and energy policy in the United States is at a crossroads.

Educating the public (and elected officials) on the difference between temporary weather and climate trends would go a long way in removing a critical barrier to strong climate change policy. While it may seem like a very small measure, eliminating this source of confusion may help the public (and some senators) understand that global warming isn’t a joke.

30 years in the blink of an eye

Time, NASA, USGS and Google have joined forces to create a stunning tool to visualize the extensive change that has occurred on our planet at human hands. Dubbed “Timelapse“, millions of Landsat satellite images from the past 30 years have been joined to allow the user to pan across a landscape and witness deforestation in the Amazon, glacial retreat from climate change, tar sands mining in Alberta, mountaintop removal in West Virginia, and urban sprawl in cities like Shanghai, China and Las Vegas, New Mexico (with the accompanying water withdrawal from Lake Mead).

It is often difficult for us to conceptualize and understand the scale at which our natural resource and land use reconfigures our world, but this tool helps immensely. Take a few minutes to check it out……

Obama’s Climate Speech

Yesterday, President Obama gave a speech at Georgetown University on the issue of climate change. The biggest news to come from that speech is his directive to the EPA to limit carbon pollution from both existing and new power plants through federal regulations. There are, of course, different opinions about whether this speech and the President’s intentions are a significant step forward, or not. Many are extremely disappointed by his continued ambivalence about the Keystone pipeline, and Americans throughout the country are taking action this summer in support of more radical steps than those outlined in the President’s speech.

I find it interesting that this speech came just days after a detailed article in Rolling Stone magazine declared the inevitable disappearance of Miami by the end of the century. This article caught my attention because, in this year of 2013 and given increases in life expectancy, is it possible that some people alive today could actually experience the disappearance of Miami? Is it possible that some of the college students here could experience it in their lifetimes? Other parts of the world are already experiencing the disappearance of inhabited lands, but an article about the disappearance of Miami hits much closer to home for most Americans – perhaps we have vacationed there, or know someone who lives there or has lived there. Perhaps it is the sheer size and abundance of such a prosperous and modern city that makes the potential of loosing it seem so momentous. Climate change is a huge and multi-faceted issue. It is difficult for me to even think about it without thinking about all of the issues related to social justice and international relations that are inevitably intertwined; add to this the scale and complexity and the potential that it is simply too late to avert, and the whole thing can become quite overwhelming.

For me, the most important part of President Obama’s speech is hidden in two simple sentences; he said: “Don’t tell folks that we have to choose between the health of our children or the health of our economy.  The old rules may say we can’t protect our environment and promote economic growth at the same time, but in America, we’ve always used new technologies — we’ve used science; we’ve used research and development and discovery to make the old rules obsolete.” If the “old rules” suggesting that environmental well-being and economic well-being are inevitably contradictory are truly made obsolete, what kind of innovations and decisions and policies could we pursue? Throwing out these old rules seems like the most significant way to pursue sustainability in this country, opening doors to more consequential change in energy usage, certainly, but also in other fundamental ways that could shift both practice and perspective for the sake of the planet, and ourselves.

Ironic hypocrisy

For all of the teaching and research I do on sustainability…. living it, measuring it, valuing it…. I am occasionally a very poor example of it. In the past couple of weeks I have traveled to Scotland, Argentina, and Washington D.C.; ironically, those last two trips were meetings focused on the sustainability of carbon-neutral biofuels. Although I am very anxious about calculating my carbon footprint over these three trips (since I’d probably have to stop breathing for five years to get back to something close to carbon neutral), I am going to do it here as a form of very public shaming. I am hoping that it will motivate me to insist on more virtual trips…

Using this calculator, my total carbon footprint for the flights for these three trips was:

Houghton –> Scotland (measuring sustainable landscapes workshop) –> Houghton: 1.18 metric tons.

Houghton –> Argentina (Pan-American sustainable biofuels workshop) –> Houghton: 1.81 metric tons.

Houghton –> Washington, D.C. (NSF Sustainable Energy Pathways meeting) –> Houghton: 0.31 metric tons.

Total: 3.30 metric tons.

That’s roughly the same amount of carbon that a person in the Maldives emits PER YEAR. It would take roughly a hectare of forest a year to sequester the carbon from those three trips.


Heat on the Rails

Although way up here in the UP we’ve been spared most of the punishing heat of this summer, I have had the opportunity to experience some first-hand but little reported consequences of this heat wave. Most strikingly, the difficulty of this kind of heat on our transportation systems.

Roads buckled under the intense heat, with dire consequences for unwary drivers.

Steel rails can warp, greatly increasing the likelihood of derailments. This occured in my childhood home of Glenview on the 4th of July, when warped rails may have caused a coal freight train to derail and then collapse an overpass, killing two people in a car underneath it.

And while I was in Portland, Oregon, two weeks ago for a conference, the extreme heat caused the electric train system to slow to a crawl, due to the threat of warping rails and sagging overhead powerlines. Ironically (and shamefully), the conference involved a lot of ecologists reporting worrying changes in species and ecosystems due to warmer temperatures across the globe; many of us contributed to this problem by flying all the way to Portland to give these results.

Losing a global carbon sponge

A paper published last week in Nature reviewed a growing body of evidence that suggests that a profound loss of forest cover in the Amazaon would have worrying consequences for the rest of the planet.

In “The Amazon basin in transition“, Davidson et al. describe how the impacts of agricultural expansion and climate events such as El Niño can conspire to destroy even more forest through drought- and fire-induced deforestation. When trees die or burn, they release carbon into the atmosphere. If more trees are destroyed than grow to replace them, more carbon is released than is absorbed; the Amazon sink becomes a source. According to the article, the Amazon rainforst currently sequesters roughly 100 billion tons of carbon, an amount equivalent to the carbon release from a decade’s worth of fossil fuel use.

Currently forest cover has been reduced to about 80% of its original area; the article suggests that if forest cover approaches 40%, a critical transition from forest to savanna may occur, given feedbacks between tree cover and precipition (see our summary in Science). If this occurs, we might witness what happens with the lost of “the lungs of the planet“.

Great PNAS article this week for Collapse fans

Well, perhaps I shouldn’t say Collapse “fans”, but rather scholars…. I would assume most people are not rooting for societal collapse!

In this week’s Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Zhang et al. look at specific ecological, economic, and social variables that changed with the global cooling event from 1560 to 1660 AD, a period of widespread societal upheaval particularly in Europe. Previous studies have found that civilizations in the past have been severely disrupted by climate change, but generally there have been insufficient records of most of the social and economic characteristics of these civilizations to study their collapse in detail, other than what we can gather from abandoned settlements and human remains. For more recent preindustrial societies, records indicate that it is most likely the rapid decline in agricultural production that is a proximate cause of the unravelling of a civilization, with climate change implicated in widespread crop failures. Studies like this fill in many details of a general hypothesis of how and why societies collapse, started by Joseph Tainter in the 1980’s and popularized by Jared Diamond’s book Collapse in 2005.

In this PNAS article, the authors look at European societies during both peaceful times and times of upheaval, to determine if the “dark” ages were correlated with climate change and to identify which ecological (e.g., agricultural production), social (e.g., population size, average height), and economic (e.g., grain prices, real wages) characteristics are most vulnerable to this change. They paid particular attention to whether the presumed cause preceded the effect, a detail that has been missing from previous studies due to a lack of adequate resolution in temporal data. They found that variables associated with agricultural production and per capita food supply followed immediately after the start of the global cooling period, with later increases in war, famine, and migration that were a likely consequence of food shortages and spiraling food prices.

Here was one of the findings that jumped out at me: “Grain price could be taken as an indicator and direct cause of conditions of harmony or crisis in preindustrial Europe.” This is a very strong argument for the importance of local and robust agricultural systems to sustainability, and we have already seen riots over food prices in the past few years.

The authors conclude with a bold statement: “Our findings have important implications for industrial and postindustrial societies. Any natural or social factor that causes large resource (supply) depletion, such as climate and environmental change, overpopulation, overconsumption, or nonequitable distribution of resources, may lead to a general crisis, according to the set of causal linkages in Fig. 2. The scale of the crisis depends on the temporal and spatial extent of resource depletion.

Hmmm…. has anyone looked at the Gini Index lately?