Archive for the ‘Mitigating climate change’ Category

The Ever Rising Seas

Tuesday, February 23rd, 2016

Since 1970 more than 90% of the extra heat trapped by the Earth as the climate warms has been absorbed by the oceans. The oceans respond more much more steadily than the terrestrial surface climate: they give us the real, underlying picture of the warming of the planet.

We have known for a long time that as the sea warms, sea levels rise – partly from melting ice sheets and glaciers, partly from thermal expansion, and partly for other reasons. People living in coastal regions know too this all too well they experience tidal flooding increasingly often.

Global mean sea level rise from 1970 until now has been at about 2.8 mm per year, but this graph hides the huge regional variation that exists. (noaa.gov)

Global sea level rise from 1970 until now has been at about 2.8 mm per year, but this graph hides the huge regional variation that exists.(noaa.gov)

We also know that sea levels are rising at surprisingly different rates around the globe. We’re starting to understand why.

A new study, using remarkable satellite radar altimetry and satellite gravimetry data starting in 2002, teases apart the various drivers of sea level. And it contains surprises.

In addition to thermal expansion (the ‘steric’ component), and meltwater from Greenland, Antarctica and land based glaciers, other contributors to sea level changes are hydrology (involving the water cycle of evaporation, precipitation and run-off), glacial isostatic adjustments (GIA), and a component called ocean bottom pressure (OBP)

Ocean bottom pressure refers to the weight of all the water on the bottom, ocean’s version of atmospheric pressure. It varies with tides, currents, winds, and water entering and leaving basins, and it changes over oceanic regions both seasonally and annually. It is difficult to incorporate into the picture, but the satellite gravimetry makes it possible, and it is an important driver.

The various contributing components to the rise of sea levels from 2002-2014. The lines are offset for clarity: the critical information lies in their slopes (pnas.org)

The various contributing components to the rise of sea levels from 2002-2014. The lines are offset for clarity: the critical information lies in their slopes (pnas.org)

The overall view? From 2002 to 2014, ocean levels rose globally by an average of 2.74 mm/yr (the steepest, thicker grey line). Of that, 1.38 mm was the result of the thermal expansion of the warming water (the top orange line), and 1.37 mm the result of melting glaciers and ice sheets (the green, light blue and darker blue lines). Other contributors such as OBP and GIA appear on average to be variable and less important, while hydrology (the bottom green line), slopes downward, indicating a loss of water from the oceans to the land due to more rainfall, floods, groundwater loss, irrigation, and reservoirs, and so less runoff back into the oceans.

But those are global means, of little help for warning or advising coastal regions of what’s ahead.

This new study goes a lot further. It shows us not only how great is the regional variation in sea level rise, but also how much the various drivers vary in their contribution. The biggest surprise is that thermal expansion, the steric component, is about twice as great as previous estimates: sea levels are rising faster than we had thought.

The relative contribution of the drivers of sea level change can be depicted in pie charts. The same colors indicate the various contributors: steric=orange, meltwater=2 blues and light green, Glacial Isostatic Adjustment (GIA)=purple, ocean bottom pressure (OBP)= light brown, hydrology=dark green. (pnas.org)

The relative contribution of the drivers of sea level change can be depicted in pie charts. The same colors indicate the various contributors: steric=orange, meltwater=2 blues and light green, Glacial Isostatic Adjustment (GIA)=purple, ocean bottom pressure (OBP)= light brown, hydrology=dark green. (pnas.org)

The variation around the world is striking, to say the least. Look at the Philippines with mean sea level rise of a whopping 14.7 mm/yr, and Indonesia with 8.2 mm/yr. Thermal expansion of the warming water is the overwhelming contributor.

Components of sea level rise around Asian coasts The boxed number on each pie chart is the mean sea level rise, mm/year.(pnas.org)

Components of sea level rise around Asian coasts. The boxed number on each pie chart is the mean sea level rise, mm/yr.(pnas.org)

The Northwest Atlantic (eg the east coast of the US) is the other region with the most rapidly rising sea level at 9.1 mm/yr) where glacial isostatic adjustments (GIA) still play a strong role: the land continues to subside from the elastic rebound following its release from glaciation. In contrast, along the west coast of the Americas and unlike most of the rest of the world, the sea level isn’t changing in any significant way.

Contributers to sea levels around the Americas. (pnas.org)

Contributers to sea levels around the Americas. (pnas.org)

Obviously seasonal, annual and decadal variation in winds and currents play a critical role in modifying steric and OBP contributions, but the data appear to be robust and the general picture is likely to hold: the global average rise in seal level is accelerating, the steric component is greater than we expected, and global variation in rates of sea level rise are remarkable.

It is this last statement that is perhaps most important for the coastal countries of the world to absorb. Rising sea levels are already affecting some regions far more quickly than others.

What can we do about this? We cannot at this stage reverse the rise, and we probably won’t not be able to slow it for a very long time. warming sea water will continue to expand, polar ice sheets and glaciers will continue to melt.

What’s left is for us to adapt as intelligently as we can, pulling back from our current threatened shorelines.

Current hotel construction on Clearwater Beach, Tampa Bay, west coast of Florida (tampabay.com)

Current hotel construction on Clearwater Beach, Tampa Bay, west coast of Florida (tampabay.com)

Or we can continue to be really short-sighted, greedy and ignorant.

MPAs in the New Canada

Sunday, December 20th, 2015

A welcome light has come on in Canada.

We have a new government that accepts evidence-based arguments concerning issues ranging from social justice for First Nations Peoples to human-induced climate change. The Ministry of the Environment is now the Ministry of the Environment and Climate Change, and Canada played a positive role at the recent Paris Conference on Climate Change. After the past 10 years of embarrassment on the international stage, this is taking some getting used to.

Catherine McKenna, Minister of Environment and Climate Change, with Hunter Tootoo, Minister of Fisheries, Oceans and Canadian Coast Guard  in the new government of Canada (thespec.com)

Catherine McKenna, Minister of Environment and Climate Change, with Hunter Tootoo, Minister of Fisheries, Oceans and Canadian Coast Guard in the new government of Canada (thespec.com)

Led by Hunter Tootoo, Minister of Fisheries, Oceans and the Canadian Coast Guard and Catherine McKenna, Minister of Environment and Climate Change, environmental and conservation questions are once again part of the national agenda.

For instance, a few days ago Canada’s national newspaper reported in detail on Canada’s existing Marine Protected Areas (MPAs), plans for their immediate expansion, and longer term plans to actually try to meet UN proposed targets: specifically 5% of ocean waters protected by 2017 and 5% more by 2020.

Until now, Canada has been very slow to protect its coastal waters. Currently only 1.3% are under some sort of protection, but only 0.11% is actually ‘no take’, with no commercial fishing or drilling.

In contrast, both the UK and the US now have about 10% of their oceans protected as no-take areas, with lesser protection over much more. This might seem an unfair comparison, since much of thees protected areas lie around remote Pacific islands. On the other hand, Canada has the world’s longest coastline, bordering three oceans, and a lot of it truly remote as well. There’s potential here for some major action!

The key questions of course, here as everywhere else, are how do we decide what to protect and how do we to protect it?

Existing and proposed marine protected areas in Canadian waters. Dark = existing reserves. Red = proposed. Far more will need to be created to meet the 20% target. (globeand mail.com)

Existing and proposed marine protected areas in Canadian waters. Dark = existing reserves. Red = proposed. Far more will need to be created to meet the 20% target. (globeand mail.com)

At present Canada protects 8 hotspots, important certainly, but very limited in size. The Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society proposes 14 further sites, including a few that are somewhat larger – like the Bay of Fundy, the St.Lawrence Estuary, and Lancaster Sound. That’s a start, but now is the time to plan on a much larger scale.

Politics will certainly intrude, particularly since this is an opportunity to protect Canada’s Arctic coastal ecosystems ahead of the coming thaw and development of the Arctic. Even in the New Canada, politics will still trump science. It always does.

And anyway, what do we mean by ‘protection’? Despite the accumulating evidence of the social, economic and environmental benefits of fully protected areas, full protection is hard to achieve. Globally, only 1.6% of the oceans are fully protected. Canada’s new 10% target needs to be of fully protected, no-take coastal waters.

The gradual increase in global marine protected areas from 1985 to mid-2015. Area protected has increased from 2 million to 12 million sq km. The dark blue on the bars indicates the percent of the oceans that are fully protected out of the total percent MPA coverage (light blue), which is currently just 3.6%. Though the slope is promising, the total  area is still very small. Major recent MPAs and year established are listed along the bottom. The numbers on the line indicate events or agreements: #5 is the UN Convention on Biological Diversity (science.org)

The gradual increase in global marine protected areas from 1985 to mid-2015. Area protected has increased from 2 million to 12 million sq km. The dark blue on the bars indicates the percent of the oceans that are fully protected out of the total percent MPA coverage (light blue), which is currently just 3.6%. Though the slope is promising, the total area is still very small. Major recent MPAs and year established are listed along the bottom. The numbers on the line indicate events or agreements: #5 is the UN Convention on Biological Diversity (science.org)

Politics aside, a lot of excellent data-based advice now exists on how to do this right, and all of it is possible:

– Size matters: the bigger the protected area the better
– Full protection is essential, prohibiting commercial fishing, mining and drilling
– Corridors between reserves, forming networks of protected areas, allow fishing between reserves
– Adjacent coastal communities need to be involved in all aspects of establishing MPAs
– Enforcement is essential for success, and the new technologies are effective
– Comprehensive ecosystem-based management is worth developing
– Other issues, like illegal fishing, wasteful bycatch, overfishing, and the effects of climate change all need to be included
– Adaptive management is essential: the one thing we know is that ecosystem change will be on-going

The point of the 10% target by 2020 (set by the UN Convention on Biological Diversity) is to allow ecosystems to recover from current stress and to increase their resilience.

We also know that the target should be much higher, more in the range of 20-50%. But with the short time-line, 10% is a decent start, and it is achievable.

What has been changing globally over the past few years and now finally includes Canada is the emergence of political will to make it happen.

This is so unexpected and is really quite amazing.

The Long Decline of Shorebirds.

Friday, December 11th, 2015

First we – or at least our ‘sportsmen’ – shot most of the migrating shorebirds along the US east coast.

Flock of Sanderlings. They search for food in the soft sand beneath the receding wave (tgreybirds.com)

Flock of Sanderlings. They search for food in the soft sand beneath the receding wave (tgreybirds.com)

They are mostly small birds, but they are famous for their annual, energetically costly flights between Arctic feeding and breeding grounds in the northern summer to coastal mudflats in far southern latitudes in the southern summer, sometimes 9000 km or more away. Two of the major flyways they use as they migrate follow the eastern coasts of the Americas and the eastern coast of Asia.

Flyways of migratory birds. The two major coastal routes are the Atlantic Americas Flyway and the East Asian-Australasian Flyway (birdlife.org)

Flyways of migratory birds. The two major coastal routes are the Atlantic Americas Flyway and the East Asian-Australasian Flyway (birdlife.org)

They need to stop on occasion on these flights to feed on the coastal mudflats and sandy shores of eastern North America and of the Yellow Sea on the coast of China, and some of these areas attract – or used to attract – vast numbers of the migrants.

And that’s the problem.

In the 1800s, and lasting until the early 1900s, ‘sportsmen’ gathered at the extensive mud flats and sandy shores along the US east coast during migration season where the migrating birds gathered to feed, and they shot them by the many thousands, year after year, until not many were left, and the hunt was finally terminated, as usual far too late.

In 1821, near New Orleans, Audubon himself witnessed what he estimated to be 48,000 Golden Plovers shot by sportsmen in a single day (tringa.org)

In 1821, near New Orleans, Audubon himself witnessed what he estimated to be 48,000 Golden Plovers shot by sportsmen in a single day (tringa.org)

Cleveland Bent, a famous ornithologist of the turn of the century (he lived from 1866 to 1950), wrote Life Histories of American Shorebirds, filled with fascinating detail you don’t see in modern field guides. He also shot a lot the birds he wrote about, and then lamented their decline.

He wrote that the birds were “like a huge cloud of thick smoke, a very grand and interesting appearance. As the showers of their compatriots fell, the whole flock took flight, till the sportsman is completely satiated with destruction”.

And: “Those were glorious days we used to spend on Cape Cod in the good old days. There were shorebirds to shoot, and we were allowed to shoot them. It is a pity that the delightful days of bay-bird shooting had to be restricted. Ruthless slaughter has squandered our previous wealth of wildlife.”

Red Knot and Ruddy Turnstone (lynxeds.com)

Red Knot and Ruddy Turnstone (lynxeds.com)

Red Knots, Piping Plovers, Sanderlings, Dunlins, Ruddy Turnstones, Yellow Legs, Dowitchers , Wilson’s Snipes – the list goes on and on. Shorebirds were hunted close to extinction, some for meat but mainly for sport. Not unlike Passenger Pigeons and American Buffalo of the same era.

Yet only limited recovery of the shorebirds using the Atlantic Flyway has since occurred.

Red Knots fly from Tierra Del Fuego to the Canadian Arctic Tundra, stopping one last time on their way north in Delaware Bay to feed on the large fatty eggs of horseshoe crabs laid on the high tide shores. But because horseshoe crabs are harvested for their blood for human medical applications, Red Knots - and other migrating species - have lost most of the food supply that they depend on to complete their migration north.  (virtualbirder.com)

Red Knots fly from Tierra Del Fuego to the Canadian Arctic Tundra, stopping one last time on their way north in Delaware Bay to feed on the large fatty eggs of horseshoe crabs laid on the high tide shores. But because horseshoe crabs are harvested for their blood for human medical applications, Red Knots – and other migrating species – have lost most of the food supply that they depend on to complete their migration north. (virtualbirder.com)

Horseshoe crabs breed at the high tide mark, as Semipalmated Sandpipers dig for their eggs (delawareonline.com)

Horseshoe crabs breed at the high tide mark, as Semipalmated Sandpipers dig for their eggs (delawareonline.com)

Having more or less survived the hunt, migrating shorebirds on the Atlantic Flyway have been further stressed by the loss of coastal wetlands and feeding habitats over the past century. For shorebirds migrating along the coasts of east Asia from Siberia to Australia, following the Australasian Flyway, conditions are becoming far worse.

36 species of shorebirds migrate from Australia to Siberia to breed. Their numbers are about 25% of what they were several decades ago. The loss of feeding flats in the Yellow Sea is in part the cause. (science.org)

36 species of shorebirds migrate from Australia to Siberia to breed. Their numbers are about 25% of what they were several decades ago. The loss of feeding flats in the Yellow Sea is in part the cause. (science.org)

The problem once again is loss of food-rich coastal staging areas, particularly around the Yellow Sea, to agricultural and industrial development. China’s new Great Wall, sealing off the sea along much of its coastline, is eliminating most of the remaining mudflats, and eliminating the shorebirds as a result.

So we hunted many species close to extinction. We have damaged or destroyed the coastal wetlands they depend on for food. And now sea levels are rising, faster in many places than remaining coastal wetlands and mudflats can keep up.

A bleak scenario, once again. We could dream of not only agreeing to limit the rise of global temperatures to 1.5 or 2 degrees C but also to recover the coastlines, to back our development away from the wetlands, mudflats and beaches, to eliminate sea walls instead of building them to hide behind, and to free rivers of their dams.

Since all that is not going to happen, let us at least agree to protect the coastal wetlands not just for the absorbing barrier they provide us against encroaching seas, but also for the food they supply for the migrants in critical areas like Delaware Bay and the Yellow Sea.

And let’s try, if we can, to slow the rising of the seas.

Red Knot in flight (conservewildlifenj.org)

Red Knot in flight (conservewildlifenj.org)

Lessons from Tambora

Friday, October 30th, 2015

As time runs out for us to stop the planet from warming further, stratospheric aerosol-based Solar Radiation Management continues to be a possible option. No one believes that it solves the problem – at best it buys more time for us to control our emission of greenhouse gases.

Solar Radiation Management could involve a number of radiation reflection technologies, but sulfate injection into the stratosphere most discussed (geoengineering.weebly.com)

Solar Radiation Management could involve a number of radiation reflection technology, but sulfate injection into the stratosphere most discussed (geoengineering.weebly.com)

Most scenarios involve injecting sulfates into the stratosphere, but alumina and even diamond dust have been proposed. The idea of course is to shield the Earth’s surface from incoming solar radiation. The most conservative approach would involve injections that would build slowly, complementing CO2 emission mitigation and perhaps CO2 capture, and would be reduced and terminated as mitigation efforts grow. One author calls this the ‘less sub-optimum’ scenario.

It probably is.

We do, however, have plenty of relevant if uncontrolled experiments to think about before jumping for the SRM solution: the eruption of volcanoes. A major eruption, particularly a tropical one, ejects a massive amount of sulfates into the stratosphere 20-40 km above the Earth’s surface. Detected in the ice-cores of Greenland and Antarctica, each of the 16 largest eruptions over the past 2500 years was followed by a decade of colder temperatures, reflected by slower growth in tree ring samples.

The largest eruptions of the past 2500 years. The eruption of Tambora in 1815 (in red on lower right) was the 6th largest (nature.com).

The largest eruptions of the past 2500 years. The eruption of Tambora in 1815 (in red on lower right) was the 6th largest (nature.com).

So the connection is very clear: reduce the incoming solar radiation with reflective stratospheric particulates, and the planet cools a little.

Sounds too good?

For most major volcanic eruptions we have only the vaguest of information about subsequent biological and sociological effects. Fortunately, we now have a detailed account of the aftermath of one of the largest of these eruptions. Tambora – The Eruption that Changed the World by Gillen D’Arcy Wood, recently published, tells the astonishing tale.

Tambora's explosive eruption in 1815 caused extreme local damage in Indonesia while ejecting massive amounts of sulfates into the stratosphere (wikipedia.com)

Tambora’s explosive eruption in 1815 caused extreme local damage in Indonesia while ejecting massive amounts of sulfates into the stratosphere (wikipedia.com)

Tambora was a 13,000 ft (4000 m) peak on Sumbawa Island of the Indonesian archiplelago until, in 1815, it blew much of its top half 30-40 km up into the stratosphere. Though no one at the time made the connection, the sulfate ash cloud spread quickly around the planet with cascading cataclysmic impacts over the next three years. Wood has explored the events and connected them convincingly.

The volume of ejecta from the eruption of Tambora was immensely greater than any of the other more famous volcanic eruptions (abnextphase.com)

The volume of ejecta from the eruption of Tambora was immensely greater than any of the other more famous volcanic eruptions (abnextphase.com)

In Europe, the US Atlantic States, Yunnan Province in China, Bangali India, Indonesia – crops failed for two years, harvests were lost to frost, drought and floods, while starvation and famine killed huge numbers of people, forced populations into riots and survivors into emigrants, tearing apart the social fabric of communities and families. Cholera raged in Bengal, Typhus spread though Ireland. Meanwhile, Shelley and Byron wrote sensitive apocalyptic poems based on what they saw in Switzerland while Turner painted his famous sunsets in England.

Records of Tambora’s impact on Africa, South America and Australia don’t seem to exist. But though so much of Europe and eastern North America was devastated, Russia and the US states and territories further west were unaffected: there farms flourished and farmers sold their grains at high prices to starving Europeans and Atlantic Americans. Destitute eastern Americans migrated west to the rich grain-growing land around the Mississippi.

Europe in 1816 and 1817 experienced cold, crop failures and  starvation. Russia did not, and sold grain to Europe at high prices (scied.ucar.edu)

Europe in 1816 and 1817 experienced cold, crop failures and starvation. Russia did not, and sold grain to Europe at high prices (scied.ucar.edu)

And then in 1818 the skies finally cleared, bumper harvests returned, and the misery receded. Some repercussions persisted – shifts in attitudes about colonialism in India and optimism in the US, a shift to opium poppy growing in Yunnan, and cholera drifted on around the planet. As well, the US western farmers lost their market and their farms, bringing on the US depression of 1819-22.

During the three year impact of Tambora’s eruption, global mean temperatures appear to have abruptly dropped only about 1 degree Centigrade, yet many places around the planet experienced the crop failure, famine, epidemic disease, and catastrophic social disruption. Wood’s account is both gripping and very worrisome.

So we are well warned. If we do too little about the rate of current climate change, the scenarios are bleak. If we intentionally embark on Solar Radiation Management, we will without doubt provoke a cascade of unintended effects that could be just as bleak.

There is no quick fix. Our only option remains what it has always been. The importance of the upcoming Paris Conference on Climate Change grows ever greater.

Unexpected Leadership

Wednesday, February 26th, 2014

We need outspoken leaders who understand the risks of climate change and who can reach a global audience, willing to prod inactive governments and counteract the corporate power and cynicism of the oil companies.

US Secretary of State John Kerry is certainly expressing the appropriate concern about the risks, but with the US Congress still in denial, his voice is too easy to ignore.

Every winter the smog in northern China reaches hazardous levels. This month is worse than ever. It can't continue. (earthspacenews.com)

Every winter the smog in northern China reaches hazardous levels. This month is worse than ever. It can’t continue. (earthspacenews.com)

We still await climate change leadership to emerge in other high C-emitting countries such as China. Meanwhile countries that should have become climate change leaders have instead become international embarrassments: Australia has ditched its cap-and-trade policy, while the anti-science, pro-oil actions of the government of Canada continue to expand.

Canadian Rick Mercer rants about the muzzling of scientists by the government of Canada (cbc.ca)

Canadian Rick Mercer rants about the muzzling of scientists by the government of Canada (cbc.ca)

So it is refreshing, surprising, and maybe even hopeful to have Jim Yong Kim, President of the World Bank, speaking out over the past few months about the serious risks and costs of climate change. Kim, a physician, anthropologist and past president of Dartmouth is the first with any training in science to hold the position.

The World Bank is a UN international financial institution. It gives out loans to developing countries with a primary mission of reducing poverty. It doles out about 20 billion US dollars per year, which sounds like a lot, but that’s about what Facebook just paid for Whatsapp. It also gets its share of criticisms for how it operates and and how it manages the money.

What Kim has done in his recent speeches is to emphasize the link between the impact of climate change and poverty.

“Unless the world takes bold action now, a disastrously warming planet threatens to put prosperity out of reach of millions and roll back decades of development. Those least able to adapt – the poor and vulnerable – will be hit hardest.”

Kim talks a lot about the financial costs of climate change, and how much cheaper it is to make changes now rather than face the far greater costs 30 or 40 years from now. He reminds us that cities are the source of 2/3 of our CO2 emissions, and that among our challenges now is to make them low-carbon, and climate-resilient.

World Bank president Jim Yong Kim speaks out on the impact of climate change (the guardian.com)

World Bank president Jim Yong Kim speaks out on the impact of climate change (the guardian.com)

A few weeks ago Kim announced ex-NYC mayor Michael Bloomberg’s new appointment.
“The appointment of Michael R. Bloomberg as a Special Envoy for Cities and Climate Change to the United Nations should be applauded from Beijing to Rio to Mumbai. His selection is a huge boost for global leadership efforts to combat climate change.” And so it should be.

Kim speaks of all this as a paradigm shift, a time of transformational change.

How do we get there?

A meeting was held at Bali this month, initiated by the World Bank and Jim Yong King, to develop the Green Climate Fund, designed  to encourage low C investments and clean energy solutions in developing countries (chimalaya.com) .

A meeting was held at Bali this month, initiated by the World Bank and Jim Yong King, to develop the Green Climate Fund, designed to encourage low C investments and clean energy solutions in developing countries (chimalaya.com) .

And a final quote from Kim:
“Tackling climate change is not an effort that governments can take on alone. We need a response that brings together governments, private sector, civil society, and individuals, following a coordinated, ambitious plan. We can help in many ways, but perhaps most fruitfully by highlighting the increasing costs of climate change and by mobilizing climate finance from the public and private sectors.”

And that’s the problem. We haven’t figured out yet how to create such a response, but create one we must.

Cultural Cognition

Monday, February 17th, 2014

It doesn’t seem to matter which topic we choose – climate change, evolution, gun control, gm organisms, nanotechnology, vaccine use, incarceration methods and sentences, tobacco smoking – all have resulted in angry and polarized confrontations.

Why does this occur over and over again?

Dan Kahan at Yale has done a number of quite extensive studies, both experimental and survey based, looking at a variety of topics, trying to address this question.

Our wet, blue planet: how great are the risks? (nasa.gov)

Our wet, blue planet: how great are the risks? (nasa.gov)

In one study he asked his subjects how much risk climate change poses for human health, safety or prosperity. As in all his studies, the sample size was large enough that he could test for age, gender, race, class, education, political party, and cultural world view.

What did he find? For gender, race, class or age, no correlations.

What about degree of science literacy and numeracy? Not only not correlated, but in fact an increase in science literacy and numeracy magnified the polarization of views, perhaps quite the opposite of what you might have expected.

Surely political affiliation was correlated? Only barely: the typical political orientation of a person dismissing the risks of climate change was an Independent just right of center, while that of one who considered the risks to be great was an Independent just left of center.

Only one’s cultural world view strongly predicted the sense of environmental risk. People whose world views were simultaneously more hierarchical (authority respected) and individualistic (individual initiative prized) tended to dismiss the evidence of environmental risk, while those whose values were more egalitarian and communitarian considered the risks to be unacceptable.

Senator Inhofe is the ranking Republican on the Senate's Environment and Public works Committee. His book should embarrass him, but doesn't (demunderground.com)

Senator Inhofe is the ranking Republican on the Senate’s Environment and Public works Committee. His book should embarrass him, but doesn’t (demunderground.com)

Sandy Poster: this doesn't help either: it just polarizes us further (blogs.cbn.com)

Sandy Poster: this doesn’t help either: it just polarizes us further (blogs.cbn.com)

Kahan concludes that no matter what the evidence may be, we actually make our own decisions based on what he calls ‘cultural cognition’.

For example, each of us knows that as an individual there is little that we can do to alleviate the effects of climate change, yet at the same time we know that if we take a position on the question that is in conflict with that of our peers, we face the real repercussions of their anger, abuse, disapproval, dismissal, even shunning. Weighing the comparative risks, most of us accept the peer pressure, reject arguments we might otherwise accept, and survive intact in our social communities.

Kahan’s other studies have very similar results. Is all of this surprising? Maybe not. But it does mean that in many situations evidence-based arguments will not prevail.

Kahan proposes that the real challenge then is how to communicate good science in ways that reduce the polarization. For instance in the case of the climate change debate, focusing on alternative energy sources and possible geo-engineering solutions might be helpful. Involving diverse ‘communicators’ apparently may also make a difference.

Of course this isn’t saying that all extremists can be induced to moderate their views. And Kahan’s suggested solutions still look weak. But the problem before us now is clearer: we make some of our important decisions based on our ideologies, not on evidence. More evidence, more clearly presented, may not be the solution.

Congressmen John Boehmer, John Shimkus, Paul Rand (treehugger.org)

Congressmen John Boehmer, John Shimkus, Paul Rand (treehugger.org)


Canadian Minister of Natural Resources Joe Oliver and Prime Minister Stephen Harper (ipolitics.ca) These are all political leaders in North America. All dismiss the risks of climate change. According to Kahan, white men, especially entitled ones, are more likely to dismiss the risks of climate change than women or people of other races.

Canadian Minister of Natural Resources Joe Oliver and Prime Minister Stephen Harper (ipolitics.ca)
These are all political leaders in North America. All dismiss the risks of climate change. According to Kahan, white men, especially entitled ones, are more likely to dismiss the risks than women or people of other races.

Kahan’s conclusions are at least based on evidence-based arguments. Now we need unusual ways to communicate them or we probably won’t accept them anyway.

What if we’re just not smart enough to find ways to moderate our polarized positions? That really is too bleak to contemplate. Kahan’s ‘truth’ may be partial, but surely it is worth pursuing.

Eemian Evidence

Sunday, December 8th, 2013

So what do we really know?

We’re deep in an Ice Age, the third that has occurred in the past half billion years. In between Ice Ages, the Earth has been very warm, in its ‘hot-house’ phase, with high sea levels and free of glaciers and ice caps.

The Ice Ages that preceded ours occurred 290 and 440 million years ago. Note that the time scale is more compressed on the left(acer-acre.ca)

The Ice Ages that preceded ours occurred 290 and 440 million years ago. Note that the time scale is more compressed on the left(acer-acre.ca)

Our Ice Age began 2.6 million years ago, caused at least in part by the drift of Antarctica to cover the southern polar region, and the northern continents closing off much of the Arctic Ocean. Without cold polar water easily mixing with warm tropical water, polar ice caps and glaciers formed and grew, and the global average temperature dropped from about 22 degrees C to about 12 degrees C.

plate_history_lge classroomatsea.net

The continents drift endlessly, slowly, on 12 plates driven by convection currents in the magma below the Earth’s crust (classroomatsea.net)

During our Ice Age glacial and interglacial periods have cycled regularly. We’re in an interglacial period now, but even the interglacial periods are cool – the ice caps just retreat, they don’t completely melt, for cold polar water is still trapped in the Arctic and around Antarctica.

In our current Ice Age, glacial and interglacial periods cycle with remarkable regularity (atala.fr)

In our current Ice Age, glacial and interglacial periods cycle with remarkable regularity (atala.fr)

Our interglacial period, which we’ve named the Holocene Interglacial, started about 12,000 years ago. Probably not merely coincidentally, while we as a species have evolved over the whole time of this Ice Age, our explosion into whatever it is we are now began with the onset of the Holocene Interglacial.

Antarctic temperatures and atmospheric CO2 and Methane levels over the past four cylces of glacial and interglacial periods (eoearth.org)

Antarctic temperatures and atmospheric CO2 and Methane levels over the past four cylces of glacial and interglacial periods (eoearth.org)

We have also learned much from the analysis the last interglacial, the Eemian Interglacial, which began 130,000 years ago and lasted for about 20 thousand years. An ice core drilled into the northern Greenland ice sheet reached down to bedrock through 2.5km of ice, and back 250,000 years. The drilling took three years, the analysis another year, and the results were published in Nature last January.

The NEEM ice core was taken from the northeern part of the ice sheet where the deepest ice is 250,000 years old (neem.dk)

The NEEM ice core was taken from the northeern part of the ice sheet where the deepest ice is 250,000 years old (neem.dk)

In the Eemian Interglacial, global average temperatures were about 4 degrees C warmer than our current global average; CO2 levels rose to about 320 parts per million, sea levels rose about 6-8 meters higher than present, and the Greenland ice sheet melted from about 200m higher than present to about 130 lower than it is now. Since the Greenland ice sheet didn’t all melt during the Eemian Interglacial, the rest of the sea level increase must have come from the melting of the West Antarctic ice sheet.

Knowing all this, what can we truly predict about our future? We have clear models from the recent and from the more distant past of what the possible outcomes actually would be.

With atmospheric CO2 levels as high as they are at present, 393 ppm as of October, we can expect the global average temperature to become at least a few degrees warmer, and sea levels to rise at least a few more meters.

Average global temperature tracks CO2 levels over the past 400,000 years. Our Holocene Interglacial is on the extreme right, and our CO2 levels are striking (icecore_records-sympatico.ca)

Average global temperature tracks CO2 levels over the past 400,000 years. Our Holocene Interglacial is on the extreme right, and our CO2 levels are striking (icecore_records-sympatico.ca)

If CO2 levels continue to rise, as they are likely to do, we may force the Earth prematurely out of this Ice Age and back to its hothouse phase, over-riding the impact of continental drift in keeping the poles cold.

Obviously this is an ever changing planet, whether or not we are here to ride it out, and any sense we have that it is stable, benign or in any kind of equilibrium is shear delusion on our part.

But we have increased the pace of change, and this is going to be quite a trip. There are an awful lot of us on the planet, and if the changes happen as quickly as all the graphs from the past indicate they will, the human cost of the upheaval is going to be huge.

Of course we can adapt, but we need more time to do so without excessive misery.
We still do have the potential to limit both the extent and the pace of global warming.

Celebrating the last piece of ice core, extracted from 2.5 km below the surface of the Greenland ice sheet (neem.dk)

Celebrating the last piece of ice core, extracted from 2.5 km below the surface of the Greenland ice sheet (neem.dk)

Warming the Deep Cold Ocean

Wednesday, November 27th, 2013

The global mean surface temperature has been increasing very slowly, if at all, for the past 10-15 years, even though levels of CO2 emissions continue to rise, sea levels continue to rise, Arctic ice continues to thin, and ocean acidification continues to increase.

Sea level measurements have become increasingly detailed and reliable (epa.gov)

Sea level measurements have become increasingly detailed and reliable (epa.gov)

Since global mean surface temperatures aren’t rising as expected, where has the heat gone?

We have known for a while that about 90% of the extra heat energy absorbed by the Earth goes into warming the seas, which then contribute in complex ways to increasing the global mean surface temperatures. So the missing heat has got to be somewhere in the oceans.

Dense, saline, cold water sinks in the North Atlantic and near the West Antarctic Peninsula, driving the global exchange of water and its heat (wikipedia.org)

Dense, saline, cold water sinks in the North Atlantic and near the West Antarctic Peninsula, driving the global exchange of water and its heat (wikipedia.org)

The slow global circulation of ocean water, known as the Global Conveyor but also as Thermohaline Circulation and more recently as the Meridional Overturning Circulation, plays a huge role in keeping the planet climate relatively stable and in general equilibrium.

What drives this global circulation? Sea water gets denser as it gets colder, reaching its maximum density not at 4 degrees C like freshwater, but at its coldest unfrozen state at -1.8 degrees C. Only in the very highest latitudes, in the North Atlantic and in the Southern Ocean near the West Antarctic Peninsula, does it remain saline enough and get cold and dense enough to sink into abyssal depths in the deep ocean basins 4km or more below the surface.

View from the South Pole of the Global Conveyor or Meridional Overturning Circulation (wikipedia.org)

View from the South Pole of the Global Conveyor or Meridional Overturning Circulation (wikipedia.org)

The sinking of this very cold and saline water drives the global circulation. The deep cold water flows slowly toward lower latitudes, rises or upwells for a variety of reasons and becomes the warmer surface waters, driven into familiar currents by winds and tides.

Very cold saline water (blue) sinks, flows along the basin bottom, is forced toward the surface (green) and then becomes the warm surface current (red) (nature.com)

Very cold saline water (blue) sinks, flows along the basin bottom, is forced toward the surface (green) and then becomes the warm surface current (red)(nature.com)

A great deal of data has now been gathered about the temperatures and salinity levels of ocean waters from all depths around the planet, including from the Southern Ocean that rings the Antarctic. They tell us that the deep ocean water mass around Antarctica, particularly near the West Antarctic Peninsula, is getting warmer and it is freshening. This warming and freshening of the deep cold water has now also been tracked north in all directions to around 30 degrees South latitude.

Deep cold water flows north toward the equator in all the oceans (nature.com)

Deep cold water flows north toward the equator in all the oceans (nature.com)

So that is what has changed. Much of the missing heat, along with West Antarctic glacial melt water, has gone into the deepest, densest, coldest basins of the oceans, rather that into its surface waters.

It will not stay there for long. Further data indicate the mass of the cold dense bottom water is shrinking, and its rate of flow is slowing. These are not reassuring changes.

Still, we have learned that the increasing heat on planet Earth is not only absorbed by surface waters, resulting in a relatively rapid warming of global mean surface temperatures, but that it can also be absorbed first in the high latitudes by very cold water and transported into deeper layers of the ocean. Surface temperatures may then not rise as soon or quickly, but the planet continues to warm anyway, and the long-term impact will be profound.

Ships and satellites are collecting ever more data. If nothing else, the development of this dramatic change in global climate will be incredibly well documented. Perhaps at some point the weight of evidence will be sufficient to push us into effective response.

Meanwhile, last month 140 boats sailed together from San Francisco to the tip of Baja and back. One of the boats first sailed over from Sweden, taking the Northwest Passage to get to the Pacific.

Jellyfished

Monday, September 30th, 2013
Moon jellyfish (Aurelia aurita) form huge blooms in many of our oceans (guardian.co_.uk).

Moon jellyfish (Aurelia aurita) form huge blooms in many of our oceans (guardian.co_.uk).

Increasing jellyfish blooms are a symptom of the challenged health of our oceans. Where fish have been fished down or out, jellyfish thrive. Where oxygen levels drop too low for many organisms, jellyfish thrive. Where a community then flips from fish-dominated to jellyfish dominated, recovery is difficult to achieve.

Jellyfish blooms clog fishing nets, intake pipes of desalination and nuclear plants, cause mass mortality of salmon in coastal farms, decimate fisheries already in steep decline, and sting swimmers out of the water at beaches everywhere.

Nomura's Jellyfish are giants, up to 200 kg and 2 meters in diameter, and do much damage to fishermen's nets in the Sea of Japan (fastcompany.com).

Nomura’s Jellyfish are giants, up to 200 kg and 2 meters in diameter, and do much damage to fishermen’s nets in the Sea of Japan (fastcompany.com).

In a new book Stung!: On Jellyfish Blooms and the Future of the Ocean, Lisha-ann Gershwin documents the ravages of jellyfish blooms and the deterioration of marine ecosystems, and her final conclusion is a very cold bath: we have permanently wrecked the oceans, we can’t fix what we have done, and all we can do now is adapt to the inevitable lousy changes that have already begun.

Box jellyfish (Cubomedusae) have powerful stings, and drive swimmers out of the water, as they did in the northern Mediterranean this past summer (Selby, flickr.com)

Box jellyfish (Cubomedusae) have powerful stings, and drive swimmers out of the water, as they did in the northern Mediterranean this past summer (Selby, flickr.com)

What do we do with that? Ignore it, I think, and continue to try to mitigate the extent of the changes. The new IPCC report clearly illustrates the different outcomes of different levels of atmospheric CO2, and the long-term advantages of stabilizing those levels soon are extraordinarily clear.

But Gershwin also writes about some of the remarkable biology of jellyfish, for they are more than just graceful but dangerous animals. Perhaps the most intriguing is one of a group of small species of the genus Turritopsis, which grow to about half a centimeter in diameter and are now common in most tropical and temperate oceans.

Turritopsis dohrnii medusa, about 1/2 cm in diameter, with a bright red stomach and a ring of tentacles (turritins.com)

Turritopsis dohrnii medusa, about 1/2 cm in diameter, with a bright red stomach and a ring of tentacles (turritins.com)

Like most jelly fish, it has a two part life cycle. When jellyfish (medusae) are sexually mature, they shed eggs and sperm into the water, and then die. A fertilized egg develops into a tiny creeping planula larva that settles onto some hard substrate and then grows into a colonial hydroid or polyp that feeds on microplankton in the surrounding water. Eventually other buds on the hydroid develop into very small medusae which then escape and swim off.

Typical life cycle of a hydrozoan jellyfish (devbiol.com)

Typical life cycle of a hydrozoan jellyfish (devbiol.com)

All Turritopsis do this, and because they are all small as adult jellyfish, less than 1cm in bell diameter, they are also very small when they first break free of their hydroid source, less than 1mm in diam.

At least one species of Turritopsis though has remarkable further capabilities.

When starved or physically damaged, where other jellyfish would just die, the medusae of this species instead can undergo an amazing transformation. The mouth and tentacles are resorbed, and the bell shrinks into a blob-like cyst that falls to the bottom, attaches to the substrate, and grows into a hydroid or polyp colony once again, reversing the usual life cycle. And there large numbers of new medusae develop, all clones of the original damaged medusa.

Reversing the usual life cycle, Turritopsis medusa 'transdifferentiates' back into a hydroid (newtimes.pl)

Reversing the usual life cycle, Turritopsis medusa ‘transdifferentiates’ back into a hydroid (newtimes.pl)

This is truly an extraordinary event, about as close to immortality as one can get.

Not surprisingly, as our medical use of stem cells grows ever greater, we are very interested in how cells that had been specialized for one function in the medusa ‘transdifferentiate’ into quite different cells in the hydroid.

Meanwhile, Turritopsis has spread around the world’s oceans, from Spain to Japan to South Africa, probably assisted by the ballast water of transport ships. It is wonderfully adapted to survive in this changing world, and may in turn play a role in the changes.

And it is also a reminder of how extraordinary it is to be a living being on Planet Earth, whether as a jellyfish or as a curious human.

Crossota alba is another small hydrozoan medusa, one that lives in deep water and drifts around in the dark, tentacles extended, preying on the plankton that it drifts into (whoi.edu)

Crossota alba is another small hydrozoan medusa, one that lives in deep water and drifts around in the dark, tentacles extended, preying on the plankton that it drifts into (whoi.edu)

The Revolution Movie

Monday, April 29th, 2013

Rob Stewart has now made another movie, Revolution. He started out intending it to be about save the oceans, but realized the issues were greater than that, and shifted his intent to saving the planet.

Revolution, the new movie by Rob Stewart, (therevolutionmovie.com)

Revolution, the new movie by Rob Stewart, (therevolutionmovie.com)

He describes the death of coral reefs, the threat of ocean acidification, the endless use of carbon fuels, the destruction caused by the Alberta Tar Sands, the impact of deforestation, the increase in coastal dead zones, and the occurrence of ‘death by climate change’. He joins and films the growing recognition by people, particularly young people, that action is needed now.

Rob Stewart, film maker and now activist (therevolutionmovie.com)

Rob Stewart, film maker and now activist (therevolutionmovie.com)

If you are new to some of this, then Revolution is worth seeing. It certainly has heart. It has won best documentary and audience favorite documentary at film festivals, and it is attempting to have a life in commercial theaters now.

Scattered through the film are some truly unusual and beautiful sequences – a spectacular and poisonous cuttlefish, delicate seahorses clicking their way around a branch of coral, Madagascar lemurs running in their bizarre sideways gallop, reminders of all that we stand to lose.

But a film about saving the planet is the hardest of all to make. The topic is huge, the possibilities for enticing narrative are very limited, the target audience difficult to identify, and the opportunities for depth and insight are limited. Even Al Gore’s famous film Inconvenient Truth struggled with the same problems.

Sharkwater, Stewart's first movie (sharkwater.com)

Sharkwater, Stewart’s first movie (sharkwater.com)

Better to focus, I think, on an issue that perhaps represents the whole, but makes story telling possible, and allows time to dig into the issue. Stewart’s first film, Sharkwater, was like that, showing us the beauty of sharks and the ugly practice and devastating impact of shark-finning. It helped, and continues to help, in the efforts to regulate and ban shark-finning, even though the harvest goes on, and sharks remain under threat of extinction. Limited in scope, it is an effective film.

At the end of Revolution Stewart films some of the young people protesting the formal, closed meetings of the climate change conference, COP 16, held at Cancun in 2010. Their concerns were real, justified, and ignored, and emotions ran high.

COP 16 had many thousands of delegates, and no impact (cop16.com)

COP 16 had many thousands of delegates, and no impact (cop16.com)

This was just another protest, however, and not the beginning of any bottom-up revolution. The world continues with business-as-usual, unconvinced that catastrophe lies ahead, irritated with unpragmatic environmentalists.

Except that the predicted human upheaval and global insecurity associated with climate change are now worrying military and intelligence communities, as well as The World Bank. They are considering the probable yet somehow unthinkable consequences of the global temperature rising by 4 degrees, which is where we are headed unless major reductions are made in our CO2 emissions. This is an odd kind of hope – top-down ‘revolution’ is hardly an attractive prospect.

Placard at COP16 - frustration with inertia

Placard at COP16 – frustration with inertia

The best advice remains, as Will Rogers once said, and Bill McKibbon quotes concerning our current carbon-fueled rush toward a 4 degree increase: If you find yourself in a hole, stop digging.