Archive for the ‘Climate Change’ Category

This Was The First Year It Ever Went To Zero

via The Guardian

via The Guardian

Yes, it really is that bad. California is shriveling up before our eyes. Staggering under the worst drought in history, the state is confronting the possibility that it might just plain run out of water. Cities and counties around the state are imposing draconian penalties on water wasters  – don’t water that brown lawn, don’t wash that filthy car – and the state is scrambling desperately to divert precious water from where there is some to be found to where there is none. Governor Brown just signed legislation putting a $7.545 billion water bond before the voters. There’s an impressively long and (mirabile dictu) bipartisan list of supporters of the bill ranging from environmental groups through agricultural and construction organizations to the state chamber of commerce. But all that broad support still leaves unanswered the central question of how to divide a disastrously diminishing water supply around a state as populous and diverse as California. Who is more deserving? Almond farmers or vintners? The Los Angeles megacity or the small towns in the Sierra foothills where the ground is literally sinking because wells have run dry?

In the shadow of those snow-bereft mountains, California farmers are emptying their wells of ground water – the aquatic equivalent to eating your seed corn. When that water is gone it’s as good as gone forever: replenishing aquifers is a job of decades and centuries. Jeffrey Sutton of a Sacramento area canal authority is struggling with the fact that this year for the first time, some of its customers will receive no water. Nothing. Zip. Nada. “This was the first year it ever went to zero,” he says. “You can’t allocate water that’s not there.”

If you crane your neck, you can look back 500 years or more to find the Anasazi people who disappeared from the southwestern US. Decades of relentless drought did them in. That was a disaster for them. What to do with the tens of millions of present day Californians? What happens when a whole state finally runs dry? No one sees any easing of the current drought coming anytime soon. And there’s really no question that global warming will only make things worse.

California has always had a parlous relationship with water. There’s a road much loved by sports car drivers called Mulholland Drive that hugs the crest of the Santa Monica Mountains. It’s named after William Mulholland, the man who so famously brought water to a sleepy little desert town called Los Angeles. If you want a terrific history of the politics behind that feat, watch Roman Polanski’s brilliant 1974 film Chinatown which is based on Mulholland’s audacious accomplishment. It’s a compelling illustration of just how ugly the politics around water has always been in the Golden State. It doesn’t promise to get any prettier.

Update: In an editorial in today’s Los Angeles Times Jay Famiglietti, a senior water scientist at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, warns bluntly that the state has “only enough water in storage to get through the next 12 to 18 months, and that’s it.”

These Stories Are Not Related

via Wikipedia

via Wikipedia

Remember when Freedom Industries shut down Charleston, West Virginia by spilling thousands of gallons of a toxic chemical into the Kanawha River? Perhaps you were wondering what consequences might befall the company for poisoning the water supply for 300,000 residents of the state capital. Wonder no longer. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration has fined Freedom Industries eleven thousand dollars – that’s $11,000 – for an incident OSHA itself described as one that could likely result in death or serious physical harm.

That draconian penalty is sure to impress the importance of environmental safety on the rest of the extraction industry.

Meanwhile, over in another coal-dependent state, state legislators worked themselves into a lather about new EPA carbon emission regulations. One Kentucky state senator illuminated the debate by informing us that “the temperature on Mars is exactly as it is here,” and pointing out that there are no factories or coal mines on Mars, so what’s the big deal, anyway? Not content with astronomical ignorance, another senator argued that just because the dinosaurs went extinct, we humans had no need to worry. “The dinosaurs died, and we don’t know why, but the world adjusted. And to say that this is what’s going to cause detriment to people, I just don’t think it’s out there.”  Well, okay then. If we humans die out, the world will adjust. Problem solved.

Come Christmas, some people might find a lump of coal in their stocking.

 

Ice & Us: There Is No Turning Back

Photo by NASA. Some rights reserved.

Photo by NASA. Some rights reserved.

The scientific community seems to talk about rising sea levels A LOT. This makes sense – as far as consequences of global warming go, it’s one of the easiest to explain, and one of the most potentially disastrous. We’ve looked at how a rise in sea level would effect us domestically and the results were not heartening. It’s pretty easy A-to-B math to see that if the sea level goes up, many coastal cities will be in critical danger of flooding and other natural disasters, and the entire ecology of the oceans will drastically change. And if that proof wasn’t in the pudding before, it sure is now.

Two new studies released this week confirm that the enormous West Antarctica Ice Sheet, the segment of the Western Antarctica continent that extends out into the Amundsen Sea, is losing mass at a rate that cannot be reversed. The ice sheet is estimated to weigh 25.4 million km3, however the accepted narrative in scientific communities for decades has been that it has been steadily and exponentially losing mass, to the point where snowfall is no longer replacing the amount of ice the sheet is losing. Between the years of 1996 and 2006, there was a 75% increase is the amount of ice mass lost, a statistic that seemingly should have set off alarm bells eight years ago. This week’s studies, then, should really just function as icing on a terrible, terrible cake, but judging by the reactions seen online, a lot of people were unaware that this was a problem.

The studies (one published in Science and one in Geophysical Research Letters) reach the same unsettling conclusion – the ice sheet is falling apart, and at this point the process cannot be reversed or delayed. The melting process will unsettle neighboring sections the larger continental ice sheet, and will result in a 10 + ft. rise in sea level. This will continue to happen slowly over the rest of the 21st century and speed up in coming centuries to the point of total global crisis. Coming on the heels of very pessimistic reports on climate change from the White House and NASA, it seems the gravity of the situation is finally starting to sink in on the Internet at large. I saw links to both of the aforementioned studies linked to dozens of times on many social networks by all sorts of people who normally wouldn’t be inclined to share this kind of stuff. The reality of climate change has, for many, finally gotten personal.

Neil DeGrasse Tyson and Artificial Photosynthesis

Photo by Popular Science Monthly. Some rights reserved.

Photo by Popular Science Monthly. Some rights reserved.

It took a few episodes to really get me on board, but I think at this point it’s safe to say that I’ve been enjoying Fox’s reboot of Carl Sagan’s PBS science-series Cosmos (airing Sundays and hosted by Sagan-worshipper and all-around-cool-guy Neil DeGrasse Tyson). There’s no way Tyson could ever hope to replicate what Sagan did with the original series, and I think he’s done a good job so far of updating the feel of the show for the current era (cheesy effects and all) and finding new topics to explore. If I was a kid watching it, I think there’s a very good change I’d be having my mind blown every week and learning all sorts of stuff in the process, and that’s ultimately the best thing that can be said about a show like this.

This Sunday’s episode I found particularly enlightening, as it found Tyson piloting his magical future-spaceship into a dewdrop to explore a concept I have never really full grasped: Photosynthesis. Sure, yes: I know that it’s the process through which plants convert sunlight into energy. But watching this segement felt like a sublime return to Freshman year Biology, re-introducing the concept through visual cues and functional metaphors that anyone could understand. I won’t do you, dear reader, the disservice of re-hashing Tyson’s elegant explanation. Instead, I’d like to focus on how he took the concept one step further. As Tyson explains in his intro, if we can learn the “trade secrets” of how chloroplasts manufacture and store energy, we can change the future of energy for our species. To quote Tyson directly:

We understand on a chemical level how photosynthesis works, we can recreate the process in a laboratory. But we’re not as good at it as plants are, and its not surprising considering nature’s been at this for billions of years and we’ve only just started. But if we could figure out the trade secrets of photosynthesis? Every other source of energy we depend on today – coal, oil, natural gas – would become obsolete. Photosynthesis is the ultimate green power. It doesn’t pollute the air,  and is in fact carbon neutral. Artificial photosynthesis, on a big enough scale, could reduce the greenhouse effect that’s  driving climate change in a dangerous direction.

This is a concept I’m entirely unfamiliar with, even as I read week in and week out about alternative energy solutions. Of course, at this point we don’t have the technology or the method with which to implement “artificial photosynthesis” as a viable energy source – but that doesn’t mean we aren’t trying. HowStuffWorks has a nice breakdown of the efforts so far to harness this kind of energy, what it would require (beginning with a catalyst, something to interact with the provided sunlight to induce a chemical reaction), and what kind of useful outputs we could expect. Meanwhile, research continues at the California Institute of Technology’s Joint Center for Artificial Photosynthesis forges ahead, and their website has all sorts of useful and detailed information on what kind of work they’re doing to make Tyson’s dream a reality.

 

Reminder – Anecdotes Are Not Data

via Wikipedia

via Wikipedia

Much of the eastern United States has been smothered in snow this week. Not one, but two massive storms dumped up to eight inches of freeze from Kansas through New England. Along with the storm clouds has come the usual carping and snide commentary – how can there be global warming when it’s so cold and fluffy outside? Never mind the averages, I’m in a parka and gloves shoveling my sidewalk so, ipso facto, global warming doesn’t exist. Take that, pointy-headed scientists! Besides, Al Gore wears earth tone sweaters. This kind of junior high school taunting follows cold snaps as predictably as blue skies follow rain. The media then dutifully report the snark and remind us that scientists say any particular weather incident can’t be linked directly to global warming. 

So the whoppers that blanketed the eastern seaboard are two anecdotes about the climate. California’s record heat and drought are also  anecdotes. Here’s another from the great frozen north: temperatures in Alaska have soared this winter. Record warmth has been recorded across the state, a condition a national weather service spokesman describes as “spectacular.” Ski resorts have shut down and sledding races have been postponed or cancelled. Even the famed Iditarod is being altered because the lack of snow and ice makes its traditional route too dangerous. Plants are putting out green shoots. In January. In Alaska.

But those are just anecdotes. Don’t draw any conclusions from them. After all, it’s really cold in Boston.

State Department Gets Coy on Keystone

via Wikimedia

via Wikimedia

The State Department announced on Friday afternoon that it had gazed upon the Keystone XL pipeline and found it passing fair. A model of diplomatic even-handedness, the report concedes that, yes, the pipeline will increase carbon emissions but heck, those emissions are going to increase anyway. The tar sands oil in Alberta is going to make it to market one way or the other, it concludes, and whether the pipeline is approved or not won’t make much difference in the end. “Approval or denial of any one crude oil transport project, including the proposed Project, is unlikely to significantly impact the rate of extraction in the oil sands or the continued demand for heavy crude oil at refineries in the United States,” the Department said.

Unlike an earlier draft, the final report addressed other environmental concerns beside carbon emissions. But its tone and conclusions are mild, allowing both opponents and backers of the pipeline to brandish the report in support of their respective positions.

The State Department was at pains to note that its analysis is only one factor in the administration’s final determination to approve the pipeline, which will also weigh national security, foreign policy and economic issues. Which is as much as to say that approval is all but assured. The environmental concerns were the alpha and omega of opposition to TransCanada’s plan to sluice the heavy oil from Canada to refineries in the Gulf Coast.

Consider some of the issues involved. Tar sands oil is some of the filthiest fuel on the market. Extracting it consumes extravagant amounts of water and leaves a wasteland of slurry behind. Large swaths of Alberta are even now heavily polluted as a result of the oil that’s already been sucked up. The pipeline will run through the Ogallala Aquifer, threatening the water supply for the world’s bread basket. Consider, too, that TransCanada has a hard time keeping oil and gas in the pipelines it’s already running around the U.S. Add all that up and throw in ham-fisted and sweeping seizures of private property under eminent domain to build the thing, and you have a volatile and messy way of moving a filthy product to market.

The report is blandly reassuring about the possibility of spills, noting that TransCanada is planning to change the line’s route through Nebraska, and will rely on satellite technology and an increased number of shutoff valves to minimize the risk of spills and leaks.

Eight other federal agencies have yet to weigh in on the project now that the Department has released its report. Meanwhile, the 30-day public comment period will open on February 5. You can let them know if their report troubles or soothes you.

Shut Up and Light the Charcoal

via Wikimedia

via Wikimedia

What if you went camping with a bunch of friends and they decided it would be really cool to barbecue burgers and brats inside the tent. You take one look at the bright red warning label on the charcoal bag and pitch a fit (you’re also the one who pitched the tent). The label announces in no uncertain terms that burning charcoal inside can kill you. “You can’t grill in here,” you say. “We’re all going to die!” But your friends pooh-pooh your sissy concerns and insist there’s nothing wrong with throwing meat on a hot grill indoors. Where’s your scientific proof that everybody is going to die? What harm is a little smoke going to do? Besides, it might rain and  who wants to get wet? Would you stay in the tent? Slip into your sleeping bag after dinner expecting to get up in the morning for bacon and eggs cooked on the same barbecue? I doubt it.

But that’s pretty much where we are with greenhouse gases and global warming today. The warnings are clear and unambiguous but still there’s a concerted campaign to ignore the blaring claxons and carry on grilling in the tent. Between November 2012 and December 2013 2,258 peer-reviewed articles were published in scientific journals by 9,136 authors detailing man’s contributions to global warming.  Only one article, by a single author in the Herald of the Russian Academy of Sciences, rejected man-made global warming. A new draft United Nations report concludes that the nations of the world have dragged their feet so long in combating climate change that the situation has grown critical and the problem could become impossible to solve with current technologies within 15 years. According to the report, our feeble efforts at instituting alternate energy simply can’t compete with the subsidies offered to the fossil fuel industries. Even as more clean energy comes onto the market, emissions continue to outpace any reduction the clean energy might bring. Failure to reign in emissions, the report says, will saddle future generations with enormous disruption, enormous costs, and the challenge of solving the problems were are creating now with technologies which have yet to be invented.

Still, the climate change deniers soldier on, insisting that filling the tent with smoke is a capital idea and that anyone who says the contrary is a tree hugging alarmist. And the deniers aren’t just fringe characters. Some of them occupy positions of great power and influence, such as, say, the Chair of the House Science and Technology Committee. Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX), is a vociferous critic of any attempts to reduce carbon emissions, and has noisily denounced the Environmental Protection Agency’s pollution rules for new power plants. Representative Smith has not turned his back on science entirely, though. Just one day after condemning the EPA, he held a hearing to explore the possibility of extra-terrestrial life. Smith is hardly the lone denier on the committee. The Subcommittee on the Environment is now chaired by a representative who rejects the scientific fact of anthropogenic global warming.

If your camping buddies insisted on filling the tent with a colorless, odorless, and tasteless gas that could kill you within an hour, you could at least go sleep outside. There is no outside when it comes to climate change. We’re all trapped inside the tent.

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