Archive for the ‘Adapting to climate change’ Category

Warming of the Gulf of Maine

Saturday, August 31st, 2013

The Gulf of Maine certainly tracks us closely.

For at least some thousands of years before the Europeans invaded a few hundred years ago, the ecosystem of the Gulf of Maine was dominated by finfish, particularly cod and haddock. They kept crab and lobster numbers under control, sea urchins were abundant and kept macroalgae from flourishing, resulting in extensive expanses of crustose coralline algae, impervious to sea urchin grazing.

Cold water sweeps counter-clockwise around the Gulf of Maine (

Cold water sweeps counter-clockwise around the Gulf of Maine (

Though the finfish were mostly fished out by the 1980s, tight regulations, including the moratorium on cod fishing that began in the early 1990s, have not resulted in their recovery.

Then in the late 1980s a boom-and-bust virtually unregulated sea urchin fishery occurred, feeding the yen of the Japanese for high quality sea urchin gonads. That fishery peaked in 1993, and by the end of the decade few sea urchins were left in the Gulf.

Green sea urchins once were hugely abundant in the Gulf of Maine, but now few are left (

Green sea urchins once were hugely abundant in the Gulf of Maine, but now few are left (

As a result of all of this, the top predator finfish were fished out, the single dominant herbivore, the sea urchin, was fished out, and the ecosystem flipped to a new and apparently stable state, lacking both the fish and the sea urchins. Instead macroalgae, especially kelp and Irish moss Chondrus crispus grow everywhere. The macroalgae provide excellent nurseries and cover for crabs, dominated by one species, the Jonah Crab, Cancer borealis, and excellent cover for juvenile lobsters as well.

Attempts to reseed sea urchins have failed because Jonah crabs surged in and ate them all. Crabs and lobsters are now the top predators, and are likely to remain so until finfish return.

And now the Gulf community is experiencing the warmest temperatures on record.

The lobster glut continues, and this summer lobster shell-disease has been noticed in a very small number of lobsters in the southern Gulf of Maine. This is a bacterial infection that disfigures the lobster’s carapace – it doesn’t effect meat quality, but it sure can make a boiled lobster on your plate look very unappetizing. The shell-disease is common in lobster populations in southern New England, with 20-30% of the animals infected, and predictions are that as the Gulf warms the disease will spread north.

The lobster shell-disease has arrived in the southern Gulf of Maine (

The lobster shell-disease has arrived in the southern Gulf of Maine (

Another sign of the warming of the Gulf involves the small and sweet Northern shrimp, Panadalus borealis, which live in the northern colder seas of the world in both the North Atlantic and the North Pacific. The Gulf of Maine has been as far south it has lived on the on the American coast, where it has been caught nearshore in mid-winter for decades.

The shrimp fishery has actually been tightly regulated – we don’t mess up every fishery through ignorance and overfishing. But last winter, though the total available quota was considerably decreased, the fishing fleet could not even catch the amount that had been allocated. The shrimp are very temperature sensitive, and they have shifted north, out of the Gulf.

What’s ahead for the Gulf? Colder water species like cod and northern shrimp will continue to respond to the warmer water by moving north. Crabs and lobsters will continue to flourish as sea urchins fail to re-establish themselves. The shell-disease of lobsters will move north through the Gulf. Other players of no economic value in the ecosystem, like starfish and sand dollars, will retreat further away from the shore into deeper, colder water. Macroalgae will will continue to flourish.

Nostalgia for the stable community that once was is wasted energy. The various species around us in the Gulf of Maine will die, depart, invade, and perhaps even adapt in response to never-ending resource exploitation and now climate warming.

We have learned to expect the unexpected. Of course this is true everywhere else as well. We just are documenting it more closely in the Gulf of Maine.

China in the Arctic

Tuesday, August 27th, 2013

The Arctic is a tantalizing target for exploitation, even among non-Arctic nations. Not surprisingly, none have greater plans than China, even though its ports are a long way from the Arctic.

The Arctic Council seems to have the power to negotiate how the Arctic will be developed, and China wishes to be included. Voting members of the Council are the circumpolar nations: Canada, US, Russia, Norway, Iceland, Finland, Sweden and Denmark (via Greenland). But twelve other non-polar nations have now received observer status, six of them added at the recent May meeting, and among these are India, Japan, and China. Polar Aboriginal groups also have observer status, but no votes – unfortunate, but also hardly surprising.

China of course has a growing interest in the issues the Arctic Council is discussing. Shipping, for instance. The distance from Europe to China is far shorter through the Arctic Northeast Passage than any alternatives, and there is no threat of piracy en route as there has been around horn of Africa. The Northeast Passage is already open for months each summer, and an enticing seven month season is now likely.

The Northeast Passage, now open, is a shorter route for China to reach Arctic Russia and ports in Europe (

The Northeast Passage, now open, is a shorter route for China to reach Arctic Russia and ports in Europe (

And then the gas and oil. Russia has access to huge natural gas sources close to shore along its central Arctic coast, where it is building new liquid natural gas facilities, along with associated port services. With the Northeast Passage open seven months a year, it need not build pipelines south but instead can fill Chinese tankers directly. China has invested deeply in the operation, intent on getting most of the available LNG.

Russian energy company Novatek is building LNG facilities on the coast of Arctic Russia (

Russian energy company Novatek is building LNG facilities on the coast of Arctic Russia (

Meanwhile, in northern Greenland, near Nuuk, China has arranged to develop an extensive iron mine, planning to send about 3000 Chinese miners in to do the work. When the coasts open in summer, it will transport the iron ore to China.

What’s left? Oh yes: fishing. The international waters of the Arctic, the so-called Arctic donut hole, are likely to be a rich and irresistible source of fish. Though that’s 4000 km from Shanghai, China already sends trawlers 7500 km to the Antarctic to fish for krill, so the Arctic is well in range. Its trawlers will be there, as soon as possible.

Arctic International waters (the donut hole) will soon be ice free in summer, but as yet no fisheries regulations exist to protect it (

Arctic International waters (the donut hole) will soon be ice free in summer, but as yet no fisheries regulations exist to protect it (

In late April, the circumpolar nations also met to try to agree on how to protect and regulate the Arctic fisheries. Prohibiting fishing there would be reasonable, for it will take decades, or longer, for the ecosystem to stabilize as it adapts to the prolonged open water, the warmer temperatures, the increasing acidification, the invasion of Subarctic species particularly through the Bering Strait, and the probable loss of some Arctic species.

Arctic Sea ice is not just shrinking in area, it is thinning rapidly (

Arctic Sea ice is not just shrinking in area, it is thinning rapidly (

Will the international community agree wait to start fishing, or to exploit other resources? If so, that will be a first. What will stop them? The words of the recommendations of the Arctic Council read well. But what is the reality going to be?

International interest and pressure to develop the Arctic is immense. China of course is not the only major player – but it is new to this particular region, and it has become insatiable.

The outcome is increasingly clear. Without its ice, the Arctic has few defenses against ‘business-as-usual’ exploitation.

We’ll see what the Arctic Council will do under its new chair, the Canadian Indigenous politician Leona Aglukkaq. A political pragmatist and realist, Aglukkaq endorses the economic development of the Arctic.

China will be pleased.

Mitigation Still Has a Pulse

Tuesday, January 22nd, 2013

Finally, in his inauguration speech, President Obama spoke some of the words we so badly need to hear from him: “We will respond to the threat of climate change, knowing that the failure to do so would betray our children and future generations.”

Given the Congress he has been dealt, there is little that he can actually do that requires Congressional approval. But those working at other levels of government should feel reassured.

And there are critical initiatives at other levels, planning various efforts to mitigate climate change, not just adapt to it with fortifications.

The principle of cap-and -trade is simple. Making it work in the real world can be very complicated (

The principle of cap-and -trade is simple. Making it work in the real world can be very complicated (

Both the State California and the Province of Quebec have now instituted cap-and-trade policies to try to curb carbon emissions. Cap-and-trade may not be everyone’s preferred approach to mitigation, but it is a start, and the two jurisdictions are attempting a concerted effort – in itself an important event.

Governors of some states – New York and New Jersey, so battered by Hurricane Sandy come to mind – are determined to protect their coasts from the predicted greater storms accompanying climate change, and they are also exploring mitigation, seeking ways to reduce carbon emissions.

Hurricane Sandy was the largest hurricane yet seen (

Hurricane Sandy was the largest hurricane yet seen (

But what if a state governor or provincial premier provides no leadership, or even worse, like Governor Rick Scott of Florida, still denies that climate change is human-caused? The four counties of southeast Florida provide us with a remarkable model for response.

The counties are Monroe (includes Key West and the Everglades), Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach. Five million people live there, responsible for 37% of the state economy. Political leaders from both political parties have formed the Southeast Florida Regional Climate Change Compact, ratified by all four counties in late 2009 and early 2010. Last month they held their 4th annual meeting.

Using the best science available, they are responding to what is already happening and preparing for what’s ahead. Rising sea level, salt-water intrusion into underground aquifers and increased violence of storms bashing the coast are their major concerns. And they should be concerned – all the maps of rising sea level indicate that southeast Florida is one of the most vulnerable regions in the US.

Southeast Florida is particularly vulnerable to sea level rise

Southeast Florida is particularly vulnerable to sea level rise

Although adaptive engineering (raised and rerouted roads, pumps on canals, protected buffer areas to create resilience) understandably dominate their plans, they also plan to reduce carbon emissions and to create and encourage rapid public transit. Most importantly, though, they show us that significant action can occur at the county level.

Probably the most effective of all the initiatives are occurring at the city level. The World Mayors Council on Climate Change emphasizes initiatives to reduce carbon emissions. At their meeting three months ago, chaired by the mayor of Seoul, they said the appropriate things, but many of the 260 cities represented are small, and real action is limited. Still, the Council is an important one if only for political reasons.

The most impressive global organization though is C40 Cities Climate Change Leadership Group. Membership in C40 depends on the existence of actual action to mitigate carbon emissions. The mayors of the 63 included megacities and innovator cities share efforts to reduce carbon emissions, providing models for other cities and national governments. This month Vancouver, Oslo, Venice and Washington,D.C. were invited to join.

As NYC Mayor Bloomberg points out, city government has the ability to be ‘nimble’, able to take action quickly.

Adaptation to climate change of course remains essential everywhere on the planet. But mitigation of carbon emissions is not a futile hope. President Obama may not be able to deliver Congressional action to reduce carbon emissions, but he can encourage nimbleness at the state, county and city level. His endorsement can only help.

Now we have to find some way to encourage Canada’s Prime Minister Harper to say something helpful.

Salmon and Ocean Iron Fertilization

Saturday, December 8th, 2012

Last summer a Haida community on the coast of British Columbia arranged and funded a rogue initiative involving ocean iron fertilization in hopes of helping their vanished salmon to return. This didn’t hit the press until late October, and then pretty well everyone – government agencies in Canada and the US, along with environmental organizations both moderate and extremist – criticized the community for doing something so risky, without government regulation or monitoring, in violation of international agreements.

Areas (in purple) of the Pacific Ocean where levels of iron are too low to support extensive growth of phytoplankton. Most experiments were done in the Southern Ocean in the early 1990s.

The community hired Russ George to do the work for $2.5 million. He persuaded the community that by dumping iron sulphate in the ocean not only would plankton bloom and fish return, but also that the carbon sucked out of the atmosphere by phytoplankton photosynthesis would sink and become sequestered in deep water, allowing them to sell carbon credits to CO2 emitters elsewhere in the world and get their money back.

So what happened? Russ George scattered 100 tons of iron sulphate over 10,000 sq km in the North Pacific west of Haida Gwaii, the largest iron fertilization of ocean surface waters yet attempted. The phytoplankton bloomed, for that part of the North Pacific is low in iron. Herring, salmon, tuna, dolphins and even whales arrived in the area to feed over the next couple of months.

Haida Gwaii refers to the islands along the northern coast of British Columbia. The reds and yellows indicate areas where chlorophyll and therefore phytoplankton levels are high. The blues, offshore in the Gulf of Alaska where the salmon spend a couple of years, indicate areas of very low levels of chlorophyll (

This isn’t a surprise. Twice in the relatively recent past, volcanic eruptions sent clouds rich in iron dust over the same part of the Pacific, and phytoplankon blooms then occurred, followed by bumper salmon runs in the coastal rivers a couple of years later. That part of the science is solid.

But what happened to the dead phytoplankton and its carbon? Did it sink? Or did it recirculate instead? Only one study, an experiment done in 1994 in the Southern Ocean and finally published last summer, indicates that a reasonable amount of the carbon might sink. Does that apply to the North Pacific? Are there other unexpected side effects involving nitrous oxide or methane that should worry us? No one knows as yet and because of the risks there has been a moratorium on iron fertilization experiments since 1994, unbroken until now.

Does the Haida community really deserve criticism? At most it is guilty of trusting Russ George, who surely knew exactly what he was doing.

Wild salmon have always been central to Haida culture. What happens when the fish become so rare that few return to breed in the coastal rivers they were born in? The crash of the salmon fishery in recent years sent unemployment in the community from 0% up to 70%. Some kind of action was needed. The last thing they wanted was this attention. They just wanted to try to get their salmon back.

Salmon have long played a critical role in Haida culture.

The Haida community trusted someone they shouldn’t have. They won’t have a chance to continue with further fertilizations, for repaying their current debt will be hard, and now too many eyes are on them, including those of the very aggressive Sea Shepherd.

So what’s the right answer here? We loudly criticize and prevent any actions like that of the Haida, while we remain complicit partners with the global extractive corporations and carbon emitters that made their action necessary.

The Haida of Old Massett, on the north coast of Haida Gwaii, are no doubt frustrated and may be embarrassed by how this worked out.

But they are not wrong

Haida Gwaii, once known as the Queen Charlotte Islands, remote from the over-populated parts of the world, but still deeply impacted by the depletion of the salmon (

Hurricane Sandy’s Sea Change

Tuesday, November 6th, 2012

Now, after Hurricane Sandy, some of our political leaders are finally speaking up more clearly about the impact of climate change.

The conversation is not just about restoring all that was damaged along the shores of New Jersey, Connecticut and Long Island, and in lower Manhattan and in the surrounding boroughs.

It is also about preparing for more storms like Sandy, adapting to the new reality of higher sea levels, warmer sea surface temperatures, bigger storms, and more frequent ones. Finally.

Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey said more than a year ago that he recognized that climate change is real and that human activity plays a role in these changes.

This week he said “I don’t believe in a state like ours, where the Jersey Shore is such a part of life, that you just pick up and walk away.” But then he still raised the possibility that homeowners in hard-hit coastal areas could decide to sell their property to the state for conservation.

Surfers Point, Ventura, CA is now protected by ‘managed retreat'(

Governor Andrew Cuomo of New York, in response to Sandy said “…I think part of learning from this is the recognition that climate change is a reality. Extreme weather is a reality. It is a reality that we are vulnerable.”

And Michael Bloomberg, Mayor of NYC, wrote concerning Sandy: “Our climate is changing. And while the increase in extreme weather we have experienced in New York City and around the world may or may not be the result of it, the risk that it might be — given this week’s devastation — should compel all elected leaders to take immediate action.”

Sea walls, levees and beach sand replenishment are temporary solutions at best, and building offshore walls and storm gates are hugely expensive.

Drawing of possible sea gates to protect Staten Island – intriguing but so very expensive (

Bloomberg again: “I don’t think there’s any practical way to build barriers in the oceans. Even if you spent a fortune, it’s not clear to me that you would get much value for it.”

There are many possibilities besides building levees, sea gates and walls. Constructing buffering oyster beds, sand dunes and wetlands are real options instead. Managed retreat – moving homes, businesses and roads out of the harms way is now as well an essential consideration.

Imagine a grassy network of parks and wetlands extending around lower Manhattan, with tidal marshes to absorb waves. (

Or imagine oyster beds growing on reefs of rock and shell, buffering and absorbing storm surges (

No one thinks that climate warming necessarily caused Hurricane Sandy – but it likely influenced its size and its path. The melting and warming Arctic has modified the flow of the Jet Stream which in turn influenced the path the hurricane took veering into the east of North America instead of out to sea.

Now it appears that the Arctic melt is proceeding even more quickly than any of the models have predicted. The sea will continue to warm and rise, and storm surges will be ever higher.

So now we have an opportunity to face reality, not just to rebuild what has been lost but to adapt in many ways to what is coming. With strong and non-partisan leadership emerging, we can prepare ourselves.

We may need to nourish these voices.