Archive for September, 2011

Lessons from Irene: Future Weather

Thursday, September 8th, 2011

Climatologist Heidi Cullen includes seven major examples in her fine book The Weather of the Future: The Sahel in Africa, coral reefs, California’s Central Valley, Nunavut in Canada’s Arctic, Greenland, Bangladesh – and New York city. She uses the examples to explore the changes in weather that lie ahead, and the opportunities and the catastrophes that will occur.

The Weather of the Future, by Dr. Heidi Cullen

With her focus on New York City, she looks at the damage a large Level 3 hurricane will have on the City as we know it now. Irene could easily have been that storm, had it not weakened and then dumped most of its remaining rain on the New England states. NYC prepared responsibly for a more direct hit with evacuations and highway and transit closures – but of course was not able to protect itself from the immense damage serious flooding would have wrought.

More intense storms, like Irene, are predicted by the many models of climate change. Cullen imagines that NYC, hit and flooded by a Level 3 hurricane, responds by building dikes and walls and protecting itself not just from rising sea levels but from the full impact of future similar storms.

Hurricane Irene sweeps into the US East Coast (NASA)

Will NYC actually now do this? The cost of doing so is considerable. The cost of not doing so is immense. Irene was a warning, and NYC was very lucky – despite Anderson Cooper’s plaintive ‘where’s the beef’ attitude when he wasn’t blown off the streets.

Cullen also presents a clear summary of the evidence for global warming and climate change, and her reference list is impressively up-to-date and peer reviewed, for anyone looking for the details. As she emphasizes, even if carbon emissions were now suddenly reduced to the levels of a few decades ago, we still have a long time to wait for atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide global and global temperatures to begin to drop again. The best case scenario will still us challenge us to adapt, and then adapt some more..

The current scenario, though, is ‘business-as-usual’, essentially taking no action even though we know more or less what lies ahead over the next century. Cullen has written her book with that attitude in mind, asking what does it take to get us to act to mitigate what we can, and prepare for the rest. As she and others have pointed out, if we wait until there really in nothing left to do but act, it will be too late: the planet will be irreversibly on the way to a ‘hot-house’.

Road Warrior: Challenging outcomes to 'business-as-usual' have been imagined for decades (

And so she imagines what lies ahead, looking as far as 2050, if CO2 emissions remain at current levels. That’s not long from now. In some places, survival through planning and adaptation is possible – NYC, the Arctic, the Sahel. In others there will just be loss, with environmental refugees fleeing Bangladesh and all low lying cities that are not rich and prepared, and vulnerable ecosystems like coral reefs dissolving and bleaching to oblivion.

One of my daughters lives in Connecticut, and felt the recent earthquake and coped with the stress of Irene, while some of her cousins live in Texas where endless hot days and drought have now morphed into a state of fires. And her comment is: so this is what it is now going to be like.

It doesn’t need to be. Let’s once again raise the question of reducing carbon emissions. The ‘business-as-usual’ scenario is what we would expect from an ignorant and foolish species, and surely we are not that.

State of the Oceans

Thursday, September 8th, 2011

Well, this is grim reading.

The International Program on the State of the Ocean – IPSO – has published a summary report of a meeting of late June. Twenty seven fisheries and ocean scientists and other experts from 8 organizations and 6 countries assessed the current state of the oceans. A lot of global expertize resides in this group of people. The ‘long’ summary includes a list of 100 references published in peer reviewed journals, a lot of them from 2010 and 2011 – the report is evidence based, to say the least.

And the evidence indicates that the oceans are well along the way of the worst case scenarios published in the IPCC report of 2007. Ice is melting faster in the Arctic Ocean, Greenland, and Antarctica; ocean surface temperatures are rising; sea levels are rising; increase in ocean acidification is measurable; methane trapped in sediments is beginning to be released; changes are occurring in the distribution and diversity of marine species, in primary production and in harmful algal blooms; and food webs continue to simplify, with jellyfish too often becoming the top predator in the ecosystem.

Sea surface temperatures, measured globally by satellite, are rising. (

The lead-off statement of the summary is clear enough: The biggest threat to our ocean’s health is climate change, with its rising sea temperatures and acidification. Because this has become so difficult to resolve, we must at least reduce the other main stressors on the ocean to give it the best chance of dealing with climate change.

What are the other stresses whose impact we could reduce? They are too familiar: overfishing, habitat destruction, extraction pollution, and alien species introductions.

Negative synergy of these stresses will certainly drive any resilience to climate change ever lower. For example, global coral reefs, coping with rising temperatures and acidification, along with the other stresses, have little chance of surviving this century.

Those parts of the Great Barrier Reef that are most protected appear to be the healthiest, the most resilient (

The IPSO report does have some strong recommendations.
– Reduce CO2 emissions immediately.
– Restore the structure and function of marine ecosystems.
– Reduce and close fisheries, and develop a holistic approach to sustainable fisheries management.
– Establish far more marine protected areas.
– Reduce pollution from agricultural runoff and from resource extraction.
– Apply the precautionary principle that everyone seems to agree with and then ignores.
– Promote effective governance of the high seas through the UN.

And then some stark conclusions:
– Current consumer values coupled with current rates of population increase are not sustainable.
– Timelines are shrinking rapidly – and the longer we wait to act, the greater the cost.
– Core values of human society and its relation to the natural world and the resources on which we all rely must be re-evaluated.

What do you think? In the face of the world’s growing economic and social problems, are we capable of changing our core values? Are we capable of finding the global resolve to meet any of the recommendations before we run out of time, and extreme and irreversible change is upon us?

Opportunities still exist. The IPSO report should be read as an opening salvo, leading up to the next UN Conference on Sustainable Development in Rio in June, 2012. Rio+20, as it also calls itself, apparently without any intended irony.

All the right things get said leading up to Earth Summits.