Plan to drill for oil is one step closer for Arctic National Wildlife Refuge

A 40-year tug of war between oil wells and caribou in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge could soon end with active drilling in one of the most fragile ecosystems in the world.

Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vermont, argues that the focus should be on climate change, not more oil.
Photo: Congressional video

The Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources endorsed legislation yesterday that would require the federal government to sell leases for at least 800,000 acres of land over the next decade. The measure, which divided Republicans and Democrats in the committee, could pass the full Senate with a 50-percent vote as part of a budget bill.

The committee discussion, shown in the video on this page, was quite revealing, as Democrats offered amendments to the Republican legislation. The hearing begins 24:05 minutes into the video.

The committee chairwoman, Sen. Lisa Murkowski, a Republican from Alaska, said developing oil wells in the northern part of ANWR was always the intent of the 1980 law that expanded the wildlife refuge. The drilling could generate more than $1 billion in federal revenues over the first 10 years, according to the Congressional Budget Office.

Murkowski said oil development will create thousands of good jobs, keep energy affordable, reduce foreign oil imports and ensure national security. Drilling is supported by Alaskans of all political persuasions, including most public officials, she said.

Murkowski insisted again and again that the environment would be protected during any future oil production. No environmental laws would be waived, she said, and new oil-drilling technology will allow a much smaller footprint of development than in previous drilling projects in Alaska.

Democrats, led by Washington Sen. Maria Cantwell, the ranking Democrat on the committee, voiced indignation over the language in the legislation as well as the idea of drilling in a wildlife refuge.

Even though the legislation leaves the door open for environmental reviews — including an assessment of harm to endangered species — it clearly mandates drilling, regardless of the damage to any species or their habitats, the Democrats maintained. Attorneys for the committee concurred in that assessment.

In fact, the new legislation would the alter the original law that created the wildlife refuge by adding a new purpose: oil production in the 1.5-million-acre northern region, known as the 1002 Area. Leased areas would essentially become a petroleum preserve, governed by the National Petroleum Reserve Act.

“The purpose of the refuge was to protect the wildlife that live there,” Cantwell said. “You are taking a wildlife refuge and turning it on its ear.”

If approved, the legislation would remove lands to be developed from the jurisdiction of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and put them under the Bureau of Land Management.

Cantwell mentioned a letter signed by 37 scientists familiar with ANWR who objected to oil exploration and development in the refuge. They raised concerns for the wildlife that occupy the coastal plain where drilling is proposed.

“Decades of biological study and scientific research within the Arctic Refuge have confirmed that the coastal plain specifically is vital to the biological diversity of the entire refuge,” the letter says. “In fact, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Arctic Refuge coastal plain contains the greatest wildlife diversity of any protected area above the Arctic Circle.”

Included in that diversity, the letter says, are “polar bears, grizzly bears, wolves, wolverines, caribou, muskoxen, Dolly Varden char, Arctic grayling, and many species of migratory birds.”

Cantwell also discussed a letter written by primate expert Jane Goodall that was sent to every U.S senator. The letter begs the senators to “demonstrate your commitment to the natural world and to future generations and stand with me to protect the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.”

Other Democratic and Independent senators on the committee also spoke out forcefully against the measure.

Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vermont, raised the issue of climate change and the hundreds of billions of dollars that the U.S. must spend because of more intense storms and hurricanes. In that context, the $1 billion to be raised from ANWR is insignificant, he said.

“I think that our children and our grandchildren are going to look back on meetings and markups like this, and they are really going to be shaking their heads and asking, ‘What world was the United States Senate living in when … responsible people were talking about more exploration for fossil fuels and not addressing the planetary crisis of climate change?’

“What this committee should be doing, working with people all over the world, is saying, ‘How do we transform our energy system away from fossil fuels, away from coal, oil and gas to sustainable energy?’” he added.

Sanders’ comments come at 2:02:38 in the video.

“This isn’t BLM land,” said Sen. Martin Heinrich, D-New Mexico, offering an amendment to protect wildlife. “This is a national wildlife refuge. … Does wildlife come first? You would think so from the name. But if we don’t make this change to the legislation, what we are saying is that oil and gas development comes first. That is a very, very dangerous precedent to make.”

Heinrich’s comments come at 2:17:30 in the video.

Information about the legislation can be found on the website of the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources.

Amusing Monday: Will new ‘Mythbusters’ be as amusing as the first?

The original “Mythbusters,” starring Adam Savage and Jamie Hyneman, included plenty of amusing water-related stunts, such as seeing if a person can learn to walk on water.

That series, one of the longest running shows on the Discovery Channel, ended its 13-year run in March of 2016. It wasn’t gone for long, however, as Discovery’s sister network, the Science Channel, ran a series of programs to identify new hosts for a revived series.

On Wednesday of this week, the new version of “Mythbusters” will air for the first time with new hosts Brian Louden, 32, and Jon Lung, 28. As always, the show will use experiments to test the truth of myths, rumors and wild ideas, including fake stories that have caught people’s attention on the Internet.

Jon is the builder/designer with skills in wood, metal, foam, plastics, fabric, paper, silicone and clay. His career includes graphic design.

Brian worked as a paramedic and received a degree in biology, teaching science at schools and science fairs.

“I can build the things that need to work,” Jon said in an interview with Parade magazine. “I can test things scientifically, and there’s also the aesthetic appeal and the creative process of thinking of insane, crazy ways to build things, or how to test things. And so Mythbusters is the perfect home for me.

“I bring more of the redneck builder with a really strong science background,” Brian said in the same interview. “Together, these things create an insightful look at the myth and the process from a different direction of the old version of the show.”

The first video on this page is a preview of the new show.

I cannot say whether the new guys will provide as much material for Amusing Monday as the old guys did, but I thought this might be a good time to revisit some of the best water-related stunts from the first series.

The second video shows what it takes to get out of a sinking car. It is a tense moment, but the tension is relieved somewhat when you know that divers are standing by to provide air and even rescue, if needed. Adam performed that stunt fairly smoothly and in the controlled confines of a swimming pool.

Adam says the most terrifying moment on the show came when he did the stunt again in a lake to see if he could survive an accident in which the car flips upside down. During the filming, the car flips over again unexpectedly, changing the air pockets inside the vehicle. Watch this video: “Turn Turtle Car.”

This second car-in-the-water show is credited with helping to save the life of a mother and her young child. Their terrifying moment occurred when their car slipped on ice and crashed into a river in Minnesota. Thanks to the show, the mom realized that she would not be able to open the car doors until enough water rushed inside to nearly equalize the pressure of the water pushing from the outside. That story was retold in a Mythbusters video segment.

The difficulty of walking on water made for some amusing moments. And I would not be doing justice to the show if I didn’t offer videos of the two guys blowing stuff up.

The final video on this page features Bremerton’s own Nathan Adrian, a five-time Olympic gold medalist whose swimming skills are tested in a strange way. Nathan participates in an experiment to determine whether it is easier to swim through water than syrup.

Although Nathan’s time was very consistent in water, the syrup appeared to mess up his swimming technique — so much that the Mythbusters could not use the times of his syrup swims. Instead, they went with Adam’s less refined swimming style and concluded that syrup, if not too thick, does not slow down an average swimmer much, if at all.

Puget Sound freshens up with a little help from winter snowpack

In the latest “Eyes Over Puget Sound” report, one little note caught my attention: “Puget Sound is fresher than it’s ever been the past 17 years.”

Jellyfish are largely missing this fall from Puget Sound. Some patches of red-brown algae, such as this one in Sinclair Inlet, have been observed.
Photo: Washington Department of Ecology

At least temporarily, something has changed in the waters of Puget Sound over the past few months. It may not last, but it appears to be a good thing.

The monthly EOPS report, compiled by a team of state environmental experts, lays out recent water-quality data for the Department of Ecology. The report also includes personal observations, aerial photographs and scientific interpretations that keep readers abreast of recent conditions while putting things in historical context.

The “fresh” conditions called out in the report refers to the salinity of Puget Sound, which is driven largely by the freshwater streams flowing into the waterway. The reference to 17 years is a recognition that the overall salinity hasn’t been this low since the current program started 17 years ago.

Dissolved oxygen, essential to animals throughout the food web, was higher this fall than we’ve seen in some time. Hood Canal, which I’ve watched closely for years, didn’t come close to the conditions that have led to massive fish kills in the past. The only problem areas for low oxygen were in South Puget Sound.

Water temperatures in the Sound, which had been warmer than normal through 2015 and 2016, returned to more average conditions in 2017. Those temperatures were related, in part, to the warm ocean conditions off the coast, often referred to as “the blob.” In South Puget Sound, waters remained warm into October.

Why is the water fresher this fall than it has been in a long time? The reason can be attributed to the massive snowpack accumulated last winter, according to oceanographer Christopher Krembs, who leads the EOPS analysis. That snowpack provided freshwater this past spring, although rivers slowed significantly during the dry summer and continued into September.

“We had a really good snowpack with much more freshwater flowing in,” Christopher told me, adding that the Fraser River in southern British Columbia was well above average in July before the flows dropped off rapidly. The Fraser River feeds a lot of freshwater into northern Puget Sound.

Freshwater, which is less dense than seawater, creates a surface layer as it comes into Puget Sound and floats on top of the older, saltier water. The freshwater input fuels the circulation by generally pushing out toward the ocean, while the heavier saltwater generally moves farther into Puget Sound.

“The big gorilla is the upwelling system,” Christopher noted, referring to the rate at which deep, nutrient-rich and low-oxygen waters are churned up along the coast and distributed into the Puget Sound via the Strait of Juan de Fuca. Lately, that system has been turned down to low as a result of larger forces in the ocean.

In an advisory issued today (PDF 803 kb), NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center says a weak La Niña is likely to continue through the winter. For the northern states across the country, that usually means below-average temperatures and above-average precipitation. (It’s just the opposite for the southern states.)

With a favorable snowpack already accumulating in the mountains, experts can’t help but wonder if we might repeat this year’s conditions in Puget Sound over the next year.

Christopher told me that during aerial flights this fall, he has observed fewer jellyfish and blooms of Noctiluca (a plankton known to turn the waters orange) than during the past two years. Most people think this is a good thing, since these organisms prevail in poor conditions. Such species also have a reputation as a “dead end” in the food web, since they are eaten by very few animals.

Christopher said he noticed a lot of “bait balls,” which are large schools of small fish that can feed salmon, birds and a variety of creatures. “I assume most of them are anchovies,” he said of the schooling fish.

I would trade a jellyfish to get an anchovy on any day of the year.

Amusing Monday: Falling, flailing and fooling around in water

Compilation videos showing dozens of mishaps in and around the water seem to be a big hit this year. I’ve lost count of the number of videos that claim to be the “best water fails of 2017.”

It is amusing what people will try to do around water. One tried and true idea is to climb into a boat at the edge of a steep bank. Ask someone to slowly lower the boat into the water. Let the bow get submerged while the stern remains on shore. Then do your best to balance the unstable boat before it tips over.

Another thing I’ve observed on these videos is that people seem to lose their sense of balance around the water. It must be an aquatic gravitational force that makes people unstable. I enjoy the water videos, because when people fall, they generally do not get hurt like they do on land.

Soft-sided swimming pools provide lots of fun. I’ve learned that if you slice open the side of a large swimming pool with an ax or a chain saw, you can surf upon the resulting waterfall.

Something eventful is likely to happen anytime a person glides down an ill-crafted water slide or bounces up and down on a diving board that is beyond its useful life.

Another lesson I’ve learned from these videos is that using a rope to swing from the shore out over the water can be a lot of fun — assuming the rope is strong enough to hold you. It would seem like a good idea to make sure that the dangling rope has not rotted away since someone installed it 17 years before.

I’ve selected four videos that I think are actually the best of the “best water fails” of 2017. They just happen to be associated with established compilers of funny videos: America’s Funniest Home Videos, Funny Vines and Fail Army. Each one is a little longer than the videos I usually post on this blog, so you might choose to watch them at different times.

The last video is different, because it combines the antics of animals with the wetness of water. Animals are pretty unpredictable around water, except for cats. If you see a cat next to a bathtub or swimming pool, you can pretty much anticipate that it will fall in, then flail around wildly to get away from the wet fingers of death.

Report reveals struggles and strategies to recover Puget Sound ecosystem

Floodplains in natural condition – Click to enlarge
Source: State of the Sound, Puget Sound Partnership

As always, the biennial State of the Sound report (PDF 60.2 mb), issued this week by the Puget Sound Partnership, reveals mixed results for efforts to protect and restore Puget Sound.

It’s been 10 years since the Washington Legislature created the Partnership with an urgent mission to restore Puget Sound to a healthy condition by the year 2020.

That 2020 deadline, which was the idea of then-Governor Chris Gregoire, has always been a double-edged sword. The clear time frame has created a sense of urgency — which was Gregoire’s goal. But now, with 2020 looming just three years away, the second edge of the sword threatens to create a sense of failure.

Everyone who has followed the issue has known from the beginning that Puget Sound would not be restored to health by 2020, so I don’t intend to belabor that point. But I’ve been asking for several years how the Puget Sound Partnership plans to finesse the “failure” into an ongoing recovery effort, without which Puget Sound could become a lifeless body of water.

“Thousands of projects have been successfully completed, and more are taking place every day,” writes PSP Executive Director Sheida Sahandy in a forward to the latest State of the Sound report. “However, investment in recovery has been a fraction of that needed to reach targets, and it is clear at this point that the work of recovering Puget Sound cannot be completed by 2020.”

Click to download the new report

Sheida repeated in her statement the same thing she has told me several times: “The work of maintaining ecosystem health, much like maintaining human health, is never ‘done,’” she writes. “This is particularly true in light of increasing systemic pressures, like population growth, water acidification and temperatures changes.”

I understand that Partnership staffers are working on a transition strategy to handle the looming 2020 deadline, but I have not heard what they plan to do. One idea is a major overhaul of all the ecosystem indicators, making them better markers for ecosystem health. It’s something many of the scientists have wanted to do, given improved awareness of ecological function.

But if the original indicators were abandoned, we would lose the sense of continuity gained over the past decade. Besides, that would disrupt the latest effort to develop and effectuate “implementation strategies,” which are aimed directly at improving the existing indicators. (Check out the stories in the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound.)

The simplest idea would be to change the date of 2020 to one or more dates in the future, perhaps with greater thought given to the costs and practicality of meeting the deadline. The original goals were somewhat arbitrary, often referred to as “aspirational” rather than practical. Perhaps the Partnership will adopt an approach somewhere between — with some new indicators, some revised indicators and new dates for those that seem to be good indicators as they are.

While the problem with the year 2020 can be managed, the more serious matter is funding the restoration so that real progress can be made in areas where the ecosystem is in decline. Protecting areas that are still functioning well is widely accepted as the top priority, but protection strategies have been somewhat hit and miss. Improving the monitoring effort to measure the changes is more important than ever.

“We must be willing to conduct an honest, clear-eyed review of where we are and where we are headed,” states a letter from the Puget Sound Leadership Council, the governing body of the Partnership. “Course corrections must be identified and implemented soon to get Puget Sound on an acceptable recovery trajectory. The Puget Sound Partnership is ready to work with all of our partners to improve our own efforts in the recovery endeavor.”

The Leadership Council identifies four overriding problems:

  1. “We are not investing at a level necessary to achieve recovery. We simply have not prioritized Puget Sound recovery at a level that results in adequate spending on restoration and protection projects.”
  2. “Too few people understand that Puget Sound is in trouble. We must do a better job of providing credible, hard-hitting information to our citizenry, whom we are confident cares deeply about Puget Sound and will demand a recovery effort that is successful.”
  3. “While we have appropriately focused much on restoration projects, we have not focused enough on programs designed to protect what we have. We must support our local governments and state and federal agencies as they go about the extraordinarily difficult task of preventing projects and activities that will harm the Sound.”
  4. “We have to ramp up our effort to keep pace with our booming economy. It has been reported that 1,000 people a week are moving into the Puget Sound basin. That means housing, roads, and other supportive infrastructure, which all have the potential to destroy habitat, degrade water quality, reduce stream flows, and lower groundwater tables.”

As I reported this week for the Puget Sound Institute, the Leadership Council is working with Gov. Jay Inslee to instill a greater sense of urgency for the recovery of Puget Sound’s killer whales, which remain on a dangerous path to extinction. That will surely involve efforts to increase the number of chinook salmon, which are not faring well, according to the latest State of the Sound report.

The population of killer whales is one of four indicators that are going the wrong direction, getting worse instead of better. The others are:

  • The amount of forestland being converted for development in ecologically sensitive regions;
  • The quality of marine waters, as measured by dissolved oxygen and related factors; and
  • The total biomass of Pacific herring, considered an important food supply for salmon and other species.

I have to say that the Puget Sound Partnership has gotten better at presenting information about the Puget Sound ecosystem. The 2017 State of the Sound report is fairly understandable to the average reader without sacrificing the technical details necessary to understand the problems and solutions. I also like the graphics, particularly those that represent contrasting views of natural features, namely shorelines, shellfish, floodplains and stormwater runoff. I’ve copied the two floodplain graphics to the top and bottom of this page.

Funding problems are given increased attention in the latest report. Understanding what it will take to expand the protection and restoration effort is critical, especially during the era of President Trump, whose budget proposed eliminating the most important federal funding sources for Puget Sound.

The report also includes recommendations from the Puget Sound Science Panel, established by the Legislature to advise the Leadership Council on science issues. In the latest report, the Science Panel recommends moving from a focus on restoration alone to one of involving increased resilience of natural systems.

As stated by the Science Panel in the report: “The successful restoration of ecosystem functions is an important means to maintain resilience, but is not the end in itself. Resilience also relies on human capacity and ability to respond and adapt.

“Resilience focuses less on conditions as they once existed and more on managing ecosystem processes, patterns, and change to provide the ecosystem benefits we care about into the future.”

Floodplains in degraded condition – Click to enlarge
Source: State of the Sound, Puget Sound Partnership

Green crabs go wild near Sequim, but experts say control is still possible

Nearly 100 invasive European green crabs were trapped along Dungeness Spit near Sequim this past spring and summer — far more than anywhere else in Puget Sound since the dangerous invaders first showed up last year.

European green crabs started showing up in traps on Dungeness Spit in April.
Photo: Allen Pleus, WDFW

Despite the large number of crabs found in this one location, green crab experts remain undeterred in their effort to trap as many of the crabs as they can. And they still believe it is possible to keep the invasion under control.

“In a lot of ways, this program is functioning much as we had hoped,” said Emily Grason of Washington Sea Grant, who is coordinating volunteers who placed hundreds of traps in more than 50 locations throughout Puget Sound. “We look in places where we think the crabs are most detectable and try to keep the populations from getting too large, so that they are still possible to control.”

After the first green crabs were found on Dungeness Spit in April, the numbers appeared to be tapering off by June, as I described using a graph in Water Ways on June 24. The numbers stayed relatively low, with three caught in July, two in August, three in September and two in October. But they never stopped coming.

The total so far at Dungeness Spit is 96 crabs, and more can be expected when trapping resumes next spring. The good news is that all the crabs caught so far appear to be just one or two years old — suggesting that they likely arrived as free-floating larvae. That doesn’t mean the crabs aren’t mating at Dungeness Spit, but the trapping effort has reduced the population to the point that males and females are probably having a tough time finding each other.

Officials with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which has taken charge of trapping at Dungeness Spit, will need to decide whether to attempt a complete eradication of the local green crab population, according to Allen Pleus, coordinator of Washington State’s Aquatic Invasive Species Program. That would involve managing a large number of traps until no more crabs are seen. The alternative, he said, would be to manage the crab population with fewer traps and make further decisions down the line.

During one three-day stretch last year, 126 traps were deployed in areas on and near Dungeness Spit, part of the Dungeness National Wildlife Refuge managed by the Fish and Wildlife Service.

Even with the most exhaustive trapping program, there is no guarantee that green crabs won’t be found again, Allen said. The likely source of the crab larvae is an established population of green crabs in Sooke Inlet on Vancouver Island, just across the Strait of Juan de Fuca from Dungeness Spit.

Allen said he is disappointed that crabs continued to be caught on or near Dungeness Spit — mainly in one small area near the connected Graveyard Spit. “But I am very impressed with the dedication of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which continued to trap throughout the summer,” he said.

While there is no evidence so far that the invading crabs have reproduced at Dungeness Spit, it is possible that mating took place. If so, everyone involved in the green crab effort could face a whole new group of young crabs next year.

I have to admit that I was worried last spring that funding for the essential volunteer effort would run out as officials scrambled to finance the start of trapping season. But the Environmental Protection Agency agreed to fund the project through next year under the Marine and Nearshore Grant Program.

Meanwhile, Allen said he is working with Canadian officials to see what can be done about reducing the population of green crabs in Sooke Inlet, which is likely to remain a source of the invasive crabs coming into Washington state. The Canadians have their own concerns about green crabs, which can severely damage commercial shellfish operations and disrupt critical eelgrass habitats.

“Sooke Inlet is the only known population established in the Salish Sea,” Allen said. “We are working with Canada and setting up meetings this winter to continue our discussions.”

Canadian officials are monitoring for green crabs on their side of the border, but the effort is much less than in Puget Sound. It appears that only limited efforts have been made so far to control the Sooke Inlet population and reduce the amount of invasive crab larvae heading to other areas in the Salish Sea.

Researchers are still investigating the conditions that allow green crab larvae to survive long enough to grow into adult crabs. It appears that larvae move up the coast from California during warm years and particularly during El Niño periods, Emily told me. That may explain why the Puget Sound traps began catching so many crabs the past two summers.

“The signal we are seeing does point to 2015 and ‘16 as being the first arrivals,” she said. “Our working hypothesis is that warm years are spreading larvae.”

That could offer renewed hope for the immediate future, since El Niño is over and we may be going into cooler La Niña conditions next year.

No new crabs have shown up in the San Juan Islands, where Puget Sound’s first green crab was discovered last year. But two more were found about 30 miles away in Padilla Bay, where four crabs were caught last fall.

New areas with green crabs this year are Lagoon Point on Whidbey Island, where two crabs were caught, and Sequim Bay, not far from Dungeness Spit, where one crab was caught.

The latest concern over green crabs is Makah Bay on the outer coast of Washington near the northwest tip of the Olympic Peninsula. In August, a beach walker spotted a single green crab on the Makah Tribe’s reservation and sent a picture to the Puget Sound Crab Team, which confirmed the finding. Tribal officials launched a three-day trapping effort last month and caught 34 crabs — 22 males and 12 females — in 79 traps.

An aggressive trapping effort is being planned by tribal officials for the coming spring. Interested volunteers should contact Adrianne Akmajian, marine ecologist for the Makah Tribe, at marine.ecologist@makah.com

The Makah effort is separate from the Puget Sound Crab Team, which encourages beach goers to learn to identify green crabs by looking at photos on its website. Anyone who believes he or she has found a green crab should leave it in place but send photographs to the crab team at crabteam@uw.edu

Emily said she is most proud of all the people and organizations that have come together as partners to quickly locate the invasive crabs and advance the science around the issue. Such cooperation, she said, makes the impact of the program much greater than it would be otherwise.

Amusing Monday: Climate change is scary enough for Halloween

Samantha Bee’s Halloween show last week is making a big splash on the Internet. The underlying theme was climate change, and the program cleverly makes a connection with this particular time of year, when many people relish the experience of getting scared.

In one segment of the show, which is called “Full Frontal,” singer-songwriter Ingrid Michaelson wears a picture of the Earth while singing an altered version of her big hit “Be OK” (original version). The revised song, called “Not OK,” addresses the horrors of climate change.

As Michaelson sweetly sings about the dangers of an altered climate, members of the “Full Frontal” cast dance around the stage, representing hurricanes, storms, floods, burning trees and finally an angry sun, as you can see in the first video.

Michaelson sings, “I am clearly not OK, not OK, not OK. Earth is clearly not OK today. I’m getting warmer every day, every day, every day. Climate change is Fu__ing me, oy vey!”

It’s tough to combine humor with a serious message, but Michaelson’s new words on a tragic theme are made palatable by the upbeat tune and the silly dancers.

One viewer commented on Michaelson’s Facebook page that she had ruined a perfectly good song, but the vast majority of her fans were delighted that she had found an amusing way to weigh in on an important topic.

I guess something similar could be said for the entire show, which I decided to go ahead and share on this blog post. Except for the Michaelson segment, the videos are posted in the order they appeared on the show. If you’re not familiar with this show, you should be warned that the language can be coarse at times.

In another segment, more edgy than funny, Samantha Bee goes after Scott Pruitt, administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, who has begun to reverse direction on President Obama’s plans to move the United States away from coal and toward renewable energy. She points out that before Pruitt became the head of the EPA, he was one of the agency’s biggest enemies. As Oklahoma attorney general, he sued the EPA 14 times, largely on behalf of the oil and gas industry. While she can’t stop Pruitt’s anti-regulatory approach, she thinks she can poke him in the eye by demanding a public hearing.

In Act 3, called “(Hot as) Hell House,” Bee takes climate deniers through a Halloween-style haunted house to see if she can scare them into caring about climate change. The setting is 50 years from now, when the Earth is ruined, cockroaches are the only food supply and people cannot escape the droning recitation of Al Gore’s Ted Talk by a creepy John Hodgman. One climate skeptic said the experience had changed her mind, but her reasoning — revealed at the end — was quite amusing.

The haunted house scenes were filmed within the abandoned Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia, the site of Terror Behind the Walls. It is said to be America’s largest haunted house, listed as number 1 in the country by Forbes magazine.

It was a wet water year; it was a dry water year

Water Year 2017 was a crazy year for rainfall, with a precipitation pattern unlikely to repeat anytime soon, although forecasters say the coming year is somewhat likely to be wetter than normal.

Hansville (click to enlarge)
Chart: Kitsap Public Utility District

If you recall, Water Year 2017 (which began last October) started off soggy with well above average rainfall until December. Last year’s rainfall, represented by the orange lines in the accompanying charts, was not only above average in October and November, but it exceeded the rainfall observed during the wettest year recorded since 1982.

If you follow the chart for Hansville, you can see that last year’s total precipitation stayed above the record year until late January. From there, last year’s total rainfall tracked with the record year until this past May, when the rains practically stopped.

Talk about a dry summer. We got practically no rain until September, with minimal precipitation through the end of the water year on Sept. 30, as shown in these charts provided by the Kitsap Public Utility District.

Silverdale (click to enlarge)
Chart: Kitsap Public Utility District

Hansville’s annual rainfall last year totaled 39.5 inches, about 4 inches off the record of 43.8 inches in 1999. The record would have been broken if the rainfall this past spring and summer would have been normal. The year before — Water Year 2016 — was also a wet one with precipitation totaling 42.5 inches in Hansville.

In Silverdale, which gets a good deal more rainfall than Hansville, the pattern was similar except that last year’s total stayed ahead of the record until early December. The pattern was similar for Holly, one of the wettest areas of the county.

Silverdale’s total for Water Year 2017 was 61.8 inches, well off the record of 76.9 inches set in 1999. Still, the record books show only two wetter years: 1996 with 67.7 inches and 1997 with 64.8 inches.

Holly (click to enlarge)
Chart: Kitsap Public Utility District

Holly’s total for Water Year 2017 was 112.7 inches, second only to 1999, when Holly received 127.5 inches of precipitation. Other wet years were 1995 with 101.1 inches and 1997 with 100.1 inches.

The new water year, starting with the beginning of this month, showed little precipitation at first, then the rains came in mid-October, putting most areas near average, as shown by the blue line in the charts.

Overall, October so far has been a fairly wet month, up to twice the average rainfall in the Puget Sound region. For the nation as a whole, October has been mixed. We’ve seen extremely dry conditions in the Southwest, while up to four times the normal precipitation has been recorded for a swath from the Great Lakes down to the Central states, including the Oklahoma and Texas panhandles. Check out the map from the PRISM Climate Group at Oregon State University.

The outlook for the next three months from NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center shows the likelihood for wetter-than-normal conditions across the northern part of the U.S., although Western Washington should be about normal. Meanwhile, the southern tier states are likely to have drier conditions.

A La Niña watch remains in effect. If conditions in the Pacific Ocean continue to develop, we could see cooler- and wetter-then-normal conditions early next year. So far, there is no indication what the annual precipitation for our area might be. But after last year’s turn of events we should not be surprised by any weather pattern.

Waterfront property owners face options in response to sea-level rise

Rising sea levels and isolated floods will be an increasing challenge for waterfront property owners, according to experts I interviewed for a story published this week in the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound.

The Vechey home and bulkhead before the big move. // Photo: John Vechey

Changing conditions call for property owners to consider their options with regard to their shoreline — not just for today but for the long run. What I learned while researching this story is that every waterfront site will respond differently as the highest tides go higher and higher.

Before I started my inquiry, I thought the obvious answer would be for people to build taller and stronger bulkheads — despite well-known environmental damage. And that may be the only answer for some. But for others, that approach could be a waste of money, as bigger walls degrade the owners’ enjoyment of the beach as well disrupting natural systems. Alternatives include moving or raising a house or even replacing a bulkhead with “soft shore” protections.

After the home was moved back from shore and the bulkhead removed. // Photo: John Vechey

Sea levels in Puget Sound are rising slowly at this time, with the actual rate dependent on location. We live in a tectonically active area, with major movements along continental plates. As a result, the ground is sinking in most areas around Puget Sound, adding to the relative rise in sea level.

In Seattle, the sea level has risen about 9 inches since 1900 and is expected to rise an additional 4 to 56 inches (4.75 feet) by 2100. The uncertainty reflected in that range relates to whether greenhouse gases continue to increase, thus accelerating the rate of melting of land-based ice in the polar regions.

Some changes can be expected regardless of the human response over the next 80 years. For example, one analysis looking at Whidbey Island suggests that there is a 99 percent chance that by 2040 — just 13 23 years from now — sea level will be at least 2.4 inches higher than today with a 50 percent chance that it will be 7.2 inches higher. After 2040, the tides will keep rising even faster. Take a look at the related story “Average high tides are creeping higher in Puget Sound.”

John Vechey of Orcas Island, who I featured in my story, took sea level into account when deciding whether to remove his bulkhead while seeking to improve the beach for family activities and for the environment. His solution was to move his house and give the beach more room to function naturally.

Moving a house will not be the answer for everyone, but I can safely say that everyone should consider their long-term picture before making any investments that will last a lifetime — and that includes changes to the shoreline.

I believe it is generally possible, certainly with professional help, to calculate elevations for the house and any low spots on the property, add one to four feet above the current high-tide mark, and then consider tidal surge, which is the wave height caused by weather conditions. In some counties, professional help is available if you are considering whether to remove a bulkhead. Check out the “Shore Friendly” website and “Resources in Your Area.”

At this time, future sea levels do not enter into regulatory considerations about where a person can build a house. One problem is the uncertainty surrounding the amount that sea levels will actually rise. But some environmental advocates say it is time to require additional setbacks, not only to protect the environment as tides push back the natural beach but also to protect homeowners from future losses.

For some people, sea-level rise is a distant worry, but for others the threat is just around the corner. I was reading this morning about how high tides are already affecting Naval Station Norfolk. Check out “Rising Seas Are Flooding Virginia’s Naval Base, and There’s No Plan to Fix It” by Nicholas Kusnetz of Inside Climate News.

A new Government Accountability Office report, released yesterday, cites estimates of future property damage totaling between $4 billion and $6 billion per year in the U.S. as a result of sea-level rise and more frequent and intense storms. The report outlines the need for a coordinated federal response.

Sen. Maria Cantwell discusses the new GAO report and calls for better planning in the video below.

Amusing Monday: Calling all citizen scientists to help with online research

Just about anyone with a computer can become part of a scientific research project through Zooniverse, which focuses the intelligence of thousands of people on tasks that are not well suited for computers.

The research projects are real, and prospective citizen scientists can choose from dozens of topics in various fields, including climate, biology, medicine, history, language, literature and the arts. More than 100 published papers have come from the work.

They key is observation, and participants make judgments about images they are given, such as photographs, drawings, hand-written pages and other visuals. Together, the large number of observations help professional researchers find things that they could not easily find alone. In most cases, computers don’t have the observational capabilities of humans, although some of the projects are trying to teach computers to do a better job.

Participants become part of an exclusive research community, as each Zooniverse project includes chat forums for discussion. Citizen scientists can talk among themselves or pose questions to the researchers in charge. I’ve tried out a few of the projects, and I can see how this could become an interesting, amusing and ongoing pastime for some people.

One of the projects that I find interesting is called “Old Weather,” which involves perusing ships’ logs from the 1800s and early 1900s to see what the weather was like on particular dates in various parts of the world. The focus at the moment is on 24 whaling voyages as well as expeditions to the Arctic by the U.S. Navy and Coast Guard. The information is going into a database to help reveal how climate is changing.

The online work involves identifying what the log books have to say about weather, ice and sea conditions. One task involves reading through the books and marking such observations along with time and place. Another task is to transcribe the observations and link them together. Of particular interest is locating sea ice, a primary indicator of climate change.

Other projects:

The Plastic Tide involves looking at photographs of beaches taken from a drone to identify pieces of plastic in the sand and gravel. Researchers in England are using the observations to develop a computer program that can recognize bits of plastic and estimate the amount of plastic on a beach. If successful, global estimates of plastic distribution can be created with the use of unmanned aircraft. Volunteer observations are being used to “train” the computer to identify plastics.

Snapshots At Sea uses pictures of sea creatures taken by professional and amateur photographers to extract information about whales and other marine mammals. Citizen scientists are asked questions about each photograph to classify the images and determine whether a whale expert should take a look. So far, citizen scientists were able to locate an extremely rare killer whale, known as Type D. Meanwhile, they have also helped to locate and identify known and unknown humpback whales and plot their movements with unprecedented resolution off the California coast. By the way, Cascadia Research Collective in Olympia is one of the collaborators on the project.

Notes from Nature digs into the records of natural history museums throughout the world, where handwritten observations are tagged onto all sorts of plant and animal specimens. Volunteers transcribe the notes from photographs of the specimens to help to fill in gaps about biodiversity and the natural heritage of a given region. At the first level, museum staff and others are photographing what are estimated to be 10 billion specimens, including birds, bugs, butterflies and microscopic fossils. At higher levels, researchers are compiling the data to tell a story of ecological change.

Wildwatch Kenya, which started this past summer, asks volunteers to review photos taken with trail cameras placed in two nature preserves in Kenya. Information about wildlife seen in the photos is used to track animal movements, determine what they are doing and help with their conservation. In the first three months, more than 5,000 volunteers were able to retire a backlog of more than 160,000 photographs — about two years’ worth of images. For information, see the news release from the San Diego Zoo, which manages the project.

Steller sea lion ~ 100 is the “sea lion of the month” for October. // Photo: Steller Watch

Steller Watch, like Wildwatch Kenya, uses remote cameras to capture hundreds of pictures of Steller sea lions — an endangered species whose population has declined by 94 percent in the Aleutian Islands. Volunteers help classify — but not identify — animals seen in the photos so that experts can complete the identifications and track the movements of the animals. One feature is the Sea Lion of the Month, who this month is ~100, a sea lion with a somewhat unusual story.

Cyclone Center includes 300,000 images taken from infrared sensors on weather satellites. The colored images reveal temperatures, which are closely related to whether the clouds produce wind, rain and thunderstorms. Volunteers are given a pair of clouds and asked to determine which one is stronger based on the colors. The human eye is better at this job than a computer, experts say. The information is compiled with other data to form a record of storms and to help predict future events.

Shells from Quarterly Journal of the Geological Society of London, 1866

Science Gossip relies on millions of pages of printed text produced in scientific journals, notebooks and other publications from the 1400s to today. Researchers and artists, both professional and amateur, produced the documents during their investigations of science. Cataloging and describing old drawings are helping historians understand who was studying what down through the years. In my first leap into this project, I was presented with the drawing of a scale from an extinct fish. I found myself reading the associated article to learn about a dispute over how to classify the animal, and then I went to other sources to learn about the notable scientist and his work. After that, I completed the questions about the drawing. (I guess this was beyond the call of duty, but I just wanted to know more.)

The Milky Way Project endeavors to locate celestial objects of interest to astronomers by searching through tens of thousands of images from the Spitzer Space Telescope and the WISE satellite observatory. Training is provided to identify bubble nebulae, bow shocks and other notable features.

Solar Stormwatch II involves working with images of solar flares from NASA’s STEREO spacecraft. Volunteers help to classify and describe the intensity of flares by defining their outer edges with the use of a computer mouse. The original project, Solar Stormwatch, contributed to seven scientific publications. The new project will examine images from 2010 to 2016, during which time the sun went through a period of peak activity.