Archive for the ‘Coastlines’ Category

An Ocean of Troubles

via Wikimedia Commone

via Wikimedia Commons

Last month I noted the dangers global warming poses to the world’s oceans. Not for 55 million years has there been oceanic disruption of comparable severity to the calamity that lies just a hundred years ahead as a result of the climatic stresses we are placing on the oceans. But there are more prosaic threats than rising temperatures and increasing acidity facing the ocean’s. Rampant over-fishing and a rising tide of garbage are taking their toll as well.

How can that be? The oceans are enormous – some 70 percent of the globe is covered with water. The Pacific Ocean has the volume of the moon. But as big as they are, we are plucking the Seven Seas bare and replacing the fish with trash.

Two decades ago, Charles Moore discovered what came to be known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Sailing across the the Pacific, Moore was stunned to look out over the ocean from the deck of his racing yacht to see, not the pristine waters he had come to know and love, but rather plastic debris stretching as far as the eye could see. “It seemed unbelievable,” he wrote, “ but I never found a clear spot. In the week it took to cross the subtropical high, no matter what time of day I looked, plastic debris was floating everywhere: bottles, bottle caps, wrappers, fragments.”

Garbage patches now occupy immense areas of the Pacific, Atlantic, and Indian Oceans. More than merely an eyesore for sailors, the plastic garbage plays havoc with the entire marine food chain. Larger chunks are eaten by birds, seals, dolphins and fish, leading to fatal intestinal blockages. As the plastic degrades into smaller pieces (it never decays, it only breaks into ever smaller bits) it displaces food for animals which eat algae and plankton. Beside being toxic in their own right, the smallest pieces of plastic debris serve as vectors for viruses and bacteria to roam the ocean. And the debris isn’t just floating handily and visibly on the surface. The entire upper strata of the oceans can contain syringes, plastic bags, soft drink bottles, and disposable diapers moving like wraiths in the currents.

While sailors and fishermen who are intimately familiar with the oceans may be alarmed by the open leagues of rubbish, they haven’t made much impression on the public imagination: the Bounding Main is a bottomless pit capable of absorbing anything thrown into it.

Not only do we think we can throw anything into the oceans, we are doing our level best to take every living thing out of them. Indeed, we may be approaching “the end of fish.” We now have the technology to haul every fish in the seas to the surface. The fishing-industrial complex is hauling in so much seafood, that many of the world’s leading fisheries are on the verge of collapse. According to a report by the American Association for the Advancement of Science, all the current fish and seafood species on which we have historically depended may collapse by the middle of this century. Says the lead author of the study, “Species have been disappearing from ocean ecosystems and this trend has recently been accelerating. Now we begin to see some of the consequences. For example, if the long-term trend continues, all fish and seafood species are projected to collapse within my lifetime — by 2048.”  The implications, he reminds us, extend far beyond the oceans themselves. “The oceans define our planet, and their fate may to a large extent determine our fate, now and in the future.”

Some twenty years after Moore’s shocking discovery of the Great Garbage Patch, another yachtsman made his way across the Pacific from Australia to San Francisco via Japan. On that voyage, over waters he had decades of familiarity with, Ivan Macfadyen saw firsthand the dire toll the combination of over-fishing and junk-filled waters had taken on the Pacific. In the whole of the voyage from Melbourne to Osaka he encountered not a single fish or bird. He found himself surrounded by silence and desolation. One thing he did encounter was an immense trawler, one of the countless ships which crisscross the seas hauling up fish on an industrial scale. It was no wonder Mcfadyen caught nothing. There was nothing left to catch. “After we left Japan, it felt as if the ocean itself was dead,” Macfadyen said. “I’ve done a lot of miles on the ocean in my life and I’m used to seeing turtles, dolphins, sharks and big flurries of feeding birds. But this time, for 3000 nautical miles there was nothing alive to be seen.” Instead of fish, there were endless miles of garbage. The oceans, he says, are broken.

FEMA Fiddles on Future Flooding

Via Wikimedia Commons

Via Wikimedia Commons

Remember when Congress did things? Just last year, it passed a bill requiring the Federal Emergency Management Agency to figure out how the National Flood Insurance program should handle rising seas brought about by global warming. Congress wasn’t going all touchy-feely about the environment. The provision was tucked into a 584 page transportation funding bill.

The first step required by the bill was for FEMA to establish an advisory panel, called the Technical Mapping Advisory Council which was to consult with scientists to help ensure that flood insurance rate maps incorporate the “best available climate science” to assess flood risk, and to ensure that FEMA uses the best available technology to consider the impact of rising sea levels. How’s that working out? According to an investigation by ProPublica,  the entire program has stalled before it got out of the gate. ProPublica tells us that, to date, FEMA hasn’t named a single member to the council.

This may sound like an obscure bit of bureaucratic delay in an agency that has had more than its fair share of bad press. But if any part of the federal government will be impacted by global warming and rising seas, it’s FEMA. The agency itself estimates that sea levels will rise an average of four feet in this century, increasing the portion of the country at risk of flooding by 45%. The National Flood Insurance Program is the country’s first line of financial defense, but it is currently $25 billion in debt after Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Sandy. Many of the maps FEMA and the insurance program rely on are decades out of date and were drawn up long before anyone thought of rising seas presenting a threat.

ProPublica quotes Jimi Grande, the senior vice president for federal and political affairs for the National Association of Mutual Insurance Companies who says, “We need to know what the risks are to have an intelligent conversation as a country.”

ProPublica tried to have an intelligent conversation with FEMA’s press secretary. That conversation went nowhere because the agency was on furlough due to the government shutdown.

Still Not Gone

Via Wikimedia Commons

Via Wikimedia Commons

I hate to keep beating the proverbial dead horse, but Fukushima is the gift that keeps on giving. Or the problem from hell.

Last week I wrote about how the Fukushima disaster had re-entered the news cycle, and not in a good way. After largely vanishing from public consciousness, the stricken reactors had emerged from the memory hole after Tepco, the plants’ operator, announced that massive amounts of radioactive water had escaped from temporary holding tanks and was headed for the open seas. In that post, I described Tepco’s response to the disaster from the get-go as hapless. That adjective hardly seems sufficient to describe the Inspector Clouseau of energy companies.

Following hard on the heels of last week’s announcement that, its prior multiple protestations notwithstanding, the situation at the devastated plants was not contained (and notwithstanding its hallucinatory plan to freeze the ground to prevent contaminated water from leaching into the ocean) comes word that the situation at the stricken plants is even worse than Tepco has ever let on. Or, more to the point, ever knew.

All along, Tepco has reported that the radiation emitted by the leaking water was around 100 millisieverts an hour. Well, the equipment the company was relying on to make those readings could only measure up to 100 milisieverts.  So, apparently, they took that as the actual reading of the radiation level.  Turns out the actual amount of radiation is 1,800 millisieverts an hour.  Garbage in, as they say, gives garbage out.

And how much is that? Enough to prove lethal in a mere four hours. Pause a moment to think of the workers who have been struggling to contain those leaking tanks.

You have to wonder where Tepco got their Geiger counters. Army surplus? Did Tepco simply not have the equipment to accurately measure the radiation? Did it know the amount and hope to keep mum about it? At this point, it scarcely matters. The company, the devastated plants, and Japan at large seem destined to stumble from one appalling revelation to another. Please join me in hoping I don’t have to post about Fukushima next week.

GAO Grapples With Climate Change’s Impact on Infrastructure

Photo by Wikimedia Commons

Photo by Wikimedia Commons

While the extractive industries and their political handmaidens continue to press the notion that climate change is nothing but a hoax, the actual scientific evidence that it is real continues to mount as inexorably as arctic ice melts and temperatures rise around the globe. Those greedy scientists who invented The Great Climate Change Hoax to get rich off grant money are now telling us that even the ice on Mount Everest which provides a water basin for more 1.5 billion people is melting.

As the “controversy” grinds on, the General Accounting Office and the National Research Council are not sitting idly by, waiting for the last skeptic to be won over. According to a newly released GAO report,  the U.S. already spends billions of dollars every year on infrastructure, but much of that infrastructure, such as roads and bridges, wastewater systems, even NASA centers are vulnerable to climate change. By way of example, the GAO points out that within 15 years segments of Louisiana State Highway 1—providing the only road access to a port servicing 18 percent of the nation’s oil supply – will be inundated by tides an average of 30 times annually due to sea level rise, effectively the port.

The report criticizes national and state decision makers for failing to systematically consider climate change in infrastructure planning. Replacing aging bridges and highways is an expensive and time-consuming task made no easier by piling climate change on top. But such planning is both essential and doable.  The GAO points by way of example to Milwaukee’s efforts to manage the risk of greatly increased rainfall by enhancing its natural systems’ abilities (including local wetlands) to absorb runoff.

The GAO report makes numerous recommendations, including the establishment of an executive agency to work with other state and federal agencies to identify and mitigate future disruptions and provided guidance on how agencies should address such disruption. Amidst all the hand-wringing and sleight-of-hand political distractions surrounding climate change, the report makes for refreshingly direct and level-headed reading. You can find the whole thing here.

Energy and Environmental Bills in the Washington Legislature

Gray wolf. Photo by uhuru1701, some rights reserved.

Today, we’ll look at energy and environmental bills being considered closer to home, in the Washington State Legislature. Energy and climate bills are center stage, but wildlife and land use bills are also on the agenda.

SB 5802 would authorize the Governor to contract with an independent organization to evaluate greenhouse gas reduction strategies and declare an emergency related to greenhouse gases. Its companion bill in the House went to executive session in the House Committee on Environment on Wednesday. Business advocates, however, are concerned that unilateral action in Washington will put state businesses at a competitive disadvantage nationally, and Republicans have proposed a substitute bill that removes “absolute” language on climate change and ocean acidification.

Among this session’s more high-profile bills is SB 5547, does not address climate change directly but rather confronts the ocean’s rising acidity. It would create a Marine Resources Protection Council in the Governor’s Office to consider how to tackle increased acidity and its effect on reef development and marine life. The Washington Farm Bureau, for its part, has pointed to lack of definitive evidence relating local industrial activities to rising acidity, and the bill did not move out of committee.

Another set of bills address energy use. SB 5297, SB 5298, HB 1221, and HB 1222 would allow utilities to purchase coal transition power while still meeting the reduced cost cap for renewable energy investments, and to lower the obligations under I-937 that state utilities gradually increase the amount of new renewable resources in their electricity supply. HB 1301 promotes renewable energy by adjusting incentives. It modifies a tax credit to encourage energy consumers to meet on-site electricity demands by installing renewable energy systems, and would establish a fund to encourage clean energy manufacturing in the state.

On the other side of the mountains, Eastern Washington legislators are apparently very concerned about gray wolves. A total of ten senate and house bills have been proposed that for the most part would expand the ability of ranchers and counties to lawfully kill wolves that have killed livestock. Most of these bills are not making progress, though.

Finally, SB 5295, designed to reduce the burden of permit applications mandated by the Shoreline Management Act, is stalled in committee.

The Challenges to Offshore Wind

Photo by Rob Farrow, some rights reserved.

Mother Jones has a succinct piece on the challenges facing offshore wind projects, challenges that explain why the U.S. still doesn’t have a single offshore wind turbine. The UK has 870, and Germany has 416, for comparison. Now that has Congress extended the wind Production Tax Credit (after a long battle detailed here and here) and outgoing Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said he is optimistic that the Cape Wind project in Nantucket Sound will begin construction in 2013, it is a good time to look at the roadblocks that remain.

Though offshore projects benefit from the Production Tax Credit, worth $1 billion a year, and the Incentive Tax Credit, which pays 30% of wind projects’ constructions, higher construction and transmission costs make electricity from offshore turbines twice the price of electricity from more traditional sources. While in the U.S., states and utilities are understandably hesitant to embrace it, Germany, for example, fully subsidizes the offshore wind system.

The opponents of offshore wind that have gotten the most press are “stakeholders” in areas near potential projects, those who organize groups like the Alliance for Nantucket Sound in opposition to the Cape Wind project, which to date has fought a dozen lawsuits over the turbines’ effect on interfering with boat traffic, desecrating sacred sites, and harming avian and marine life (the GM has covered this here and here). Not surprisingly, these wildlife worries have been hijacked by waterfront homeowners; meanwhile, the National Wildlife Federation, Greenpeace, and the Sierra Club are all in favor of the project.

The strangest problem offshore wind is facing is a 1920 law requiring ships sailing between ports in the U.S. to be U.S.-flagged. This is apparently a problem because the small fleet of ships capable of installing a 400-foot turbine in the ocean floor is based mostly in Europe – and once one of those ships installs the foundation for a turbine, it qualifies as a ‘port,’ and cannot proceed to dock in the U.S. A shipbuilder in New Jersey is building a turbine-installation ship, but until its completion at earliest in 2014, the cost of bringing in ships from abroad can be prohibitive.

Finally, our beloved federal system of government means that states award utility contracts, while the Interior Department manages the deep water where wind turbines can be built. Developers worry that even if they get a contract with a state to buy their power, Interior could award the ‘land’ rights to someone else.

National Flood Insurance and Jersey Shore Demographics

Photo by U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, some rights reserved.

Back in 1968, Congress stepped into the flood insurance market to provide coverage where private insurers would not. Today, taxpayers back $527 billion of assets in coastal flood plains insured by the National Flood Insurance Program. Run by the Federal Emergency Agency, the program paid out $16 billion of claims for Katrina; Sandy-related claims could reach $12 billion. The program is already $18 billion in debt, as sum the government acknowledges will probably never be covered by higher premiums.

Besides the program’s cost, what is the issue? In New York alone, 200,000 people live less than four feet above the high tide level. Nationwide, the number of people living in flood-prone areas has been increasing, so each natural disaster damages more property and displaces more people than the last. An op-ed in Thursday’s New York Times opines that the time for the federal government to subsidize the insuring of homes and businesses in high-risk flood zones is long past. If property owners cannot find flood insurance on the private market, which in many cases they cannot, they should bear that risk instead of transferring it to the federal government.

One of the implications of changing federal flood insurance would be increased cost of living in coastal areas. Another Times article covers how Sandy and the coming National Flood Insurance Program rate hikes will make “seaside living, once and for all, a luxury only the wealthy can afford.” Building requirements for homes in newly mapped flood hazard zones could effect a demographic shift in the northeast, because much of the development encouraged by subsidized insurance would only be affordable to wealthy buyers.

The wisdom of subsidizing status quo demographics on the Jersey Shore to the tune of $18 billion aside, the point of reducing or eliminating federal flood insurance would be to end the cycle of natural disaster and expensive rebuilding without internalizing the risks of development in flood-prone coastal areas, which in light of recent events are certainly expanding. This is a step toward affordable environmental risk-management most people can back in good conscience.

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