Category Archives: Climate change

We know pollen helps seed the trees — but what about clouds?

It was the clever headline that caught my attention: “April flowers bring May showers?”

But it was the latest research about pollen from the University of Michigan and Texas A&M that got me digging a little deeper and eventually arriving at the subject of clouds and climate change.

The bottom line is a possibility that pollen from trees and flowers can break apart during a rainstorm. The broken pieces can then float up into the air and seed the clouds for the next rainstorm.

Allison Steiner, associate professor of atmospheric, oceanic and space sciences at U-M, began exploring how pollen might seed the clouds after sweeping a layer of pollen off her front porch one morning and wondering what happens after the pollen drifts into the air.

Atmospheric scientists have never paid much attention to pollen. It is generally believed that pollen grains are too large to seed the clouds. Instead, most attention has been focused on man-made aerosols, such as particles from a coal-fired power plant. High in the atmosphere, the particles can encourage moisture in the air to condense, the initial step in the formation of rain.

But people with allergies may recognize that their symptoms grow worse after a rainstorm when the air begins to dry out. As Steiner explains in an M-I news release:

“When we were looking in the allergy literature we discovered that it’s pretty well known that pollen can break up into these tiny pieces and trigger an allergic response. What we found is when pollen gets wet, it can rupture very easily in seconds or minutes and make lots of smaller particles that can act as cloud condensation nuclei, or collectors for water.”

In a laboratory at Texas A&M, Sarah Brooks, a professor in atmospheric sciences, soaked six different kinds of pollen in water, then sprayed the moist fragments into a cloud-making chamber. Brooks and her colleagues found that three fragment sizes — 50, 100 and 200 nanometers — quickly collected water vapor to form cloud droplets, which are 10 times bigger than the particles. (It takes about 6 million nanometers to equal a quarter of an inch, so we’re talking about very small particles.) Brooks noted in a Texas A&M news release:

“Scientists are just beginning to identify the types of biological aerosols which are important for cloud formation. Our results identify pollen as a major contributor to cloud formation. Specifically, our results suggest that increased pollen could lead to the formation of thicker clouds and longer cloud lifetimes.”

The effect of cloud formation on global warming may be the most important mystery in climate science today, according to Jasper Kirby, a particle physicist who is leading a team of atmospheric scientists from 15 European and U.S. institutions. Consequently, the effect of aerosols on cloud formation must be equally important.

Clouds are known to cool the planet by reflecting sunlight back out to space, but they can also contain heat at night, so cloud formation plays a critical role in determining the rate of global warming. To better predict global warming, one has to better understand when and how clouds are formed at a “very fundamental level,” Kirby told reporter Rae Ellen Bichell in “Yale Environment 360.” Kirby added:

“By fundamental, I mean we have to understand what the gases are, the vapors, that are responsible for forming these little particles. And secondly, we have to understand exactly how quickly they react with each other and how they form the aerosol particles which … constitute the seeds for cloud droplets. And this process is responsible for half the cloud droplets in the atmosphere. It’s a very, very important process, but it’s very poorly understood.”

In the upper atmosphere, aerosols can directly reflect sunlight back into space. These include man-made aerosols from industrial pollution as well as natural aerosols, such as volcanic eruptions and desert dust and now possibly pollen. Check out NASA’s webpage on “Atmospheric Aerosols.”

Steiner, who is doing the pollen experiments, said understanding natural aerosols is critical to understanding climate change:

“What happens in clouds is one of the big uncertainties in climate models right now. One of the things we’re trying to understand is how do natural aerosols influence cloud cover and precipitation under present day and future climate.

“It’s possible that when trees emit pollen, that makes clouds, which in turn makes rain and that feeds back into the trees and can influence the whole growth cycle of the plant.”

For people more interested in the allergy aspects of this story, I found a website called pollen.com, which identifies a variety of ways that weather can affect pollen and thus allergies:

  1. A mild winter can lead to early plant growth and an early allergy season,
  2. A late freeze can delay pollen production in trees, reducing the risk of an allergic reaction,
  3. Dry, windy weather increases the spread of pollen and worsens allergy symptoms,
  4. Rain can wash pollen out of the air, reducing the risk of exposure to pollen, but
  5. Rain can also increase the growth of plants, especially grasses, increasing the pollen levels.

For a research report about how rain can break up pollen into smaller particles to trigger allergies, check out “Thunderstorm-associated asthma in Atlanta, Georgia” by Andrew Grundstein et al.

Global cooling debate was never what some climate skeptics claim

Climate-change skeptics frequently bring up a 40-year-old story about climate change — a fleeting notion that the Earth was cooling.

Talking about that story, which was picked up by Newsweek and other publications, serves as a roundabout way for skeptics to ridicule the science of global warming, suggesting that scientists have never been able to get their story straight.

But the idea of global cooling failed to stand up to scientific scrutiny, and the whole idea of global cooling soon disappeared.

Now is the time to put that old story to rest, writes Peter Dykstra, publisher of the nonprofit Environmental Health Sciences, in a guest blog published on the Scientific American website.

“Rush Limbaugh is a frequent flyer on the Newsweek story, making the common error of promoting it to a ‘cover story.’” Peter writes, noting that it was a single-page, nine-paragraph piece on page 64.

“Lawrence Solomon, a kingpin of Canadian climate denial, added a new twist two years ago, claiming that the global cooling theory was growing to ‘scientific consensus,’” Peter said. “Yet the American Meteorological Society published a 2008 paper, which reported that even in the theory’s heyday, published papers suggesting a warming trend dominated by about six to one.”

Peter goes on to describe how various people have used the story to sew seeds of doubt about today’s leading climate-change findings.

“Science, in particular, moves on as it becomes more sophisticated,” he said. “The scientific community stopped talking about global cooling three decades ago. It’s time to retire this long-dismissed theory as an anti-science talking point.”

Peter’s blog includes a photograph of the old Newsweek story from April 28,1975, so I enlarged it and read what it actually said. Some excepts:

  • “In England, farmers have seen their growing season decline by about two weeks since 1950, with a resultant overall loss in grain production… During the same time, the average temperature around the equator has risen by a fraction of a degree – a fraction that in some areas can mean drought and desolation.”
  • “Last April, in the most devastating outbreak of tornadoes ever recorded, 145 twisters killed more than 300 people and caused half a billion dollars worth of damage in thirteen U.S. states.”
  • “To scientists, these seemingly disparate incidents represent the advance signs of fundamental changes in the world’s weather.”
  • “’Our knowledge of the mechanisms of climatic change is at least as fragmentary as our data,’ concedes the National Academy of Sciences report. ‘Not only are the basic scientific questions largely unanswered, but in many cases we do not yet know enough to pose the key questions.’”
  • “Climatologists are pessimistic that political leaders will take any positive action to compensate for the climatic change or even to allay its effects. They concede that some of the more spectacular solutions proposed, such as melting the polar ice cap by covering it with black soot or diverting arctic rivers, might create problems far greater than those they solve.”

Ironically, current research predicts that we will see increasing weather anomalies as a result of climate change. Studies also show that soot is unintentionally landing on the polar ice caps, melting them even faster. On the other hand, thousands of studies have now documented the warming trends in correlation with an increase in greenhouse gases.

If anyone doubts the level of climate-change research taking place, take a look at “Science Daily,” a website that compiles reports on all kinds of studies. The category “Climate” includes just a portion of the climate research underway throughout the world.

In a related development on climate change, a group of 28 Washington scientists wrote a letter to the Legislature (PDF 110 kb), saying our state is already feeling the effects of climate change:

“We must adapt to the inevitable impacts of a changing climate by investing in communities to make them more prepared for the current impacts and future risks of climate change. At the same time, Washington must also take appropriate steps to reduce heat-trapping emissions that would cause much more devastating consequences in the decades to come…

“We ask that you implement a policy that establishes a price on greenhouse gas emissions to encourage a shift to clean energy solutions and drive low-carbon innovation that will foster the clean industries of the future…

“The emissions choices we make today — in Washington and throughout the world — will shape the planet our children and grandchildren inherit. Please help create a cleaner, safer, and healthier future for Washington. Let this be our legacy.”

Amusing Monday: Film students find creativity in eco-comedy videos

The Center for Environmental Filmmaking at American University in Washington, D.C., holds an annual “Eco-Comedy Video Competition,” based on a different environmental theme each year. This year’s theme to challenge student creativity was “Clean water, clean air.”

The winner of the Grand Prize and Viewers’ Choice awards this year was a video called “Dude, or the Blissful Ignorance of Progress” (shown in video player).

Other finalists:

More than 60 videos were entered in the contest. I was able to find only about a dozen or so on the web, but I found a couple other amusing entries worthy of note:

The Center for Environmental Filmmaking was founded on the belief that films are vitally important educational and political tools in the struggle to protect the environment, according to Professor Chris Palmer, who started the center. The goal is to train filmmakers to create films and new media that promote conservation in ways that are ethically sound, entertaining and educational.

All the contest entries can be found in the comments section of the YouTube webpage about the contest.

I found another video on the center’s website that was not involved in this particular contest but was both educational and amusing. It was a public service announcement called “Tap Water.”

Rainfall and aquifers keep drought away from the Kitsap Peninsula

UPDATE: April 24, 2015
Cliff Mass, professor of atmospheric sciences at the University of Washington, says in his blog that it is too early to be predicting severe drought in Western Washington this summer because of possible late-spring rains:

“I believe the media and some local politicians have gotten a bit too worried about our ‘drought.’ We have NOT had a precipitation drought at all….we are in a snow drought due to warm temperatures. The situation is unique and I suspect we will weather this summer far better than expected.”

—–

The word seems to be getting around about the record-low snowpack in the mountains, which could create a shortage of drinking water and even lead to problems for salmon swimming upstream. Read about Gov. Jay Inslee’s expanded drought emergency, issued today, as well as the last update from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

CK

Kitsap Peninsula and the islands of Puget Sound are in their own worlds, fairly insulated from what is happening in the higher elevations. In these lower elevations, the key to water supplies is rainfall, not snow, and the outlook for the year is normal so far.

As you can see from the charts on this page (click to enlarge), this year’s rainfall has been tracking closely the long-term average. If the rains are light and steady, much of the water will soak into the ground and recharge the aquifers where most area residents get their water. The aquifer levels tend to rise and fall over multiple years, depending on the rainfall.

Hansville

Casad Dam on the Union River, which supplies a majority of Bremerton’s water, filled in January, well ahead of schedule, said Kathleen Cahall, water resources manager for the city. The dam is scheduled for a normal drawdown, and Kathleen said she does not expect any water shortage.

“We filled the reservoir fairly early this year,” she said. “We are looking pretty good for the summer.”

Holly

October, the first month of the water year, was unusually wet, Kathleen said. December precipitation also was high. The other months were fairly normal for precipitation.

Precipitation in the Puget Sound region is expected to be below average for June, July and August, according to models by the NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center. Interestingly, large portions of the Central and Southwest U.S., Alaska and Florida can expect above-average precipitation. See U.S. map.

precip

Streams on the Kitsap Peninsula are fed by surface water flows and shallow aquifers. At the moment, most of the streamflows are near their historical average. That’s not the case for the larger rivers in the Northwest, which rush out of the mountains. Most are well below their normal flows, as shown by the map with the dots.

Low streamflows usually mean higher temperatures and stress for salmon. Low flows also can affect fish passage in some stretches of the rivers while also reducing spawning areas.

Streamflows

While things look fairly good on the Kitsap Peninsula now, things can change quickly. We have different vulnerabilities than elsewhere. Climate-change models predict that rains will grow more intense in the future without changing annual precipitation very much. That means more of the water will run off the land and less will soak in, potentially reducing aquifer levels over time. Managing those underground water supplies will become more and more critical.

Climate change disrupts steady streamflows, adds problems for chinook

Climate change appears to be altering the flow characteristics of Puget Sound salmon streams, and the outcome could be an increased risk of extinction for chinook salmon, according to a new study.

I’ve long been interested in how new housing and commercial development brings more impervious surfaces, such as roads, driveways and roofs. The effect is to decrease the amount of water that infiltrates into the ground and to increase surface flows into streams.

Chinook salmon Photo: Bureau of Land Management
Chinook salmon
Photo: Bureau of Land Management

Stormwater experts talk about how streams become “flashy,” as flows rise quickly when it rains then drop back to low levels, because less groundwater is available to filter into the streams.

The new study, reported in the journal “Global Change Biology,” suggests that something similar may be happening with climate change but for somewhat different reasons.

Climate models predict that rains in the Puget Sound region will become more intense, thus causing streams to rise rapidly even in areas where stormwater is not an issue. That seems to be among the recent findings by researchers with NOAA’s Northwest Fisheries Science Center and Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife:

“Over the last half century, river flows included in our analysis have become more variable — particularly in winter — and these changes are a stronger predictor of chinook population growth than changes in average winter flows or climate signals in the marine environment.

“While other impacts to this ecosystem, such as habitat degradation, may be hypothesized as responsible for these trends in flow variation, we found support for increasing flow variation in high-altitude rivers with relatively low human impacts.”

Joseph Anderson of WDFW, an author of the report, told me that chinook salmon, listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act, may be particularly vulnerable to dramatic changes in streamflows. That’s because spawning chinook tend to show up before winter storms arrive — when the rivers at their lowest levels. The fish are forced to lay their eggs in a portion of the river that will undergo the most forceful flows once the rains begin to fall.

High flows can scour eggs out of the gravel and create serious problems for emerging fry, Joe said. Other factors may come into play, but the researchers found a strong correlation between the sudden variation in streamflows and salmon survival.

In the lower elevations, where development is focused, flow variability could result from both impervious surfaces on the land and more intense rainstorms. Efforts to infiltrate stormwater into the ground will become even more important as changes in climate bring more intense storms.

Stormwater management is an issue I’ve written about for years, including parts of last year’s series called “Taking the Pulse of Puget Sound.” See Kitsap Sun, July 16, 2014. Rain gardens, pervious pavement and infiltration ponds are all part of a growing strategy to increase groundwater while reducing the “flashiness” of streams.

Other strategies involve restoring rivers to a more natural condition by rebuilding side channels and flood plains to divert excess water when streams are running high.

According to the report’s findings, the variability of winter flows has increased for 16 of the 20 rivers studied, using data from the U.S. Geological Survey. The only rivers showing less variability were the Cedar, Duwamish, Upper Skagit and Nisqually.

The effect of this streamflow variability was shown to be a more critical factor for chinook survival and growth than peak, total or average streamflow. Also less of a factor were ocean conditions, such as the Pacific Decadal Oscillation and related ocean temperature.

Eric Ward, of Northwest Fisheries Science Center and lead author on the study, said many researchers have focused attention on how higher water temperatures will affect salmon as climate change progresses. High-temperature and drought conditions in California, for example, could damage the organs of salmon, such as their hearts.

Salmon swimming up the Columbia River and its tributaries could encounter dangerously warm waters as they move east into areas growing more arid. Some salmon species are more vulnerable to temperature, while streamflow may be more important for others. Coho salmon, for example, spend their first summer in freshwater, which makes extreme low levels a critical factor.

Eric told me that further studies are looking into how various conditions can affect each stage of a salmon’s life, conditions that vary by species. One goal is to build complex life-cycle models for threatened species, such as chinook and steelhead, to determine their needs under the more extreme conditions we can expect in the future.

Earth gets hot in 2014, breaks record for average temperature

UPDATE, Jan. 20, 2015
Some people apparently are skeptical about whether 2014 was actually the warmest on record. They cite probabilities provided by government researchers to support their skepticism. But at least some skeptics seem confused about the meaning of this statistical uncertainty.

Andrew Freedman of Mashable tackles the subject in a straightforward way. But the best point in his piece comes in the final paragraph:

At the end of the day, the discussion about a single calendar year obscures the more important long-term trend of warming air temperatures, warming and acidifying oceans along with melting ice sheets, all of which are hallmarks of manmade global warming. Including 2014, 13 of the top 15 warmest years have all occurred since 2000.

—–

Last year turns out to be the hottest year on record for the Earth’s surface, according to climate researchers who analyzed average temperatures across the globe.

The year 2014 adds yet another dramatic page to the record book, which now shows that the 10 warmest years since 1880 have occurred since the year 2000 — with the exception of the record year of 1998, which now stands as the fourth warmest on record.

The data were released this morning, with additional information provided in a telephone conference call with scientists from NOAA — the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration — and NASA — the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. The two agencies conducted independent analyses of their data, coming to the same conclusion about the record year of 2014.

Across the Earth, the average temperature in 2014 was 1.24 degrees Fahrenheit above the annual average of 57.0 degrees F, with records going back to 1880. That breaks the previous records of 2005 and 2010 by 0.07 degrees F. It’s also the 38th consecutive year that the annual global temperature was above average.

Since 1880, the Earth’s average surface temperature has warmed by about 1.4 degrees Fahrenheit, mostly driven by an increase in carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases released into the atmosphere, the researchers said. Most of the warming has come since the 1980s.

Gavin Schmidt, director of NASA’s Goddard Institute of Space Studies, made this comment in a prepared statement:

“This is the latest in a series of warm years, in a series of warm decades. While the ranking of individual years can be affected by chaotic weather patterns, the long-term trends are attributable to drivers of climate change that right now are dominated by human emissions of greenhouse gases.”

Although some skeptics have raised questions about whether global warming has been occurring in recent years, Schmidt said any short-term pause does not change the overall trend. In fact, the temperature rise seen for the past year fits perfectly onto a graph of the decades-long trend line for temperature rise.

temp graph

Ocean conditions such as El Nino or La Nina can affect temperatures year-to-year, Schmidt said. Since these phenomena can cool or warm the tropical Pacific, they probably played a role in temporarily “flattening” the long-term warming trend over the past 15 years, he added, but last year’s record-breaking temperatures occurred during a “neutral” El Nino year.

This past year was the first time since 1990 that the global heat record was broken in the absence of El Nino conditions during the year. If El Nino conditions are present at the end of 2015, the researchers said the chances are high that the record will be broken again this year.

As I mentioned in yesterday’s post in Water Ways, strong regional differences were seen last year in the contiguous United States, with several western states experiencing record highs while the Midwest suffered through an abnormally cold winter. Other cold spots can be seen on the global map, but the hot spots more than balanced them out to break the heat record.

global temps

Much of the record warmth of the Earth can be attributed to record heat accumulated across the oceans. The average ocean temperature in 2014 was 1.03 degrees higher than the longterm average of 60.9 degrees, breaking previous records set in 1998 and 2003.

Record months for ocean temperatures were seen from May through November, with January through April each among the all-time top seven, while December was the third warmest December on record. The all-time monthly record was broken in June of last year, then broken again in August and again in September. Such sustained warmth in the ocean has not been seen since 1997-98 — during a strong El Nino.

On the land surface, the average temperature was 1.8 degrees higher than the long-term average of 47.3 degrees F, or the fourth highest average land temperature on record.

Europe is expected to report that 2014 was the warmest year in at least 500 years, according to information from the World Meteorological Organization. Last year surpasses the previous record set in 2007. Much of that warmth can be attributed to the second-warmest winter on record, followed by a record-warm spring.

According to the WMO report, 19 European countries have reported or are expected to report that last year was their hottest year on record. They Austria, Belgium, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Denmark, France, Germany, Hungary, Iceland, Italy, Luxembourg, The Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Serbia, Slovakia, Slovenia, Sweden, and the United Kingdom.

Around the world, precipitation was near average for 2014, the third year that near-average precipitation was measured for land-based stations.

The 10 warmest years on record, in order:

1. 2014, 1.24 degrees above average
2 (tie). 2010, 1.17 degrees above average
2 (tie). 2005, 1.17 degrees above average
4. 1998, 1.13 degrees above average
5 (tie). 2013, 1.12 degrees above average
5 (tie). 2003, 1.12 degrees above average
7. 2002, 1.10 degrees above average
8. 2006, 1.08 degrees above average
9 (tie). 2009, 1.06 degrees above average
9 (tie). 2007, 1.06 degrees above average

For further information, check out:

Global Analysis — Annual 2014 from NOAA, and

GISS Surface Temperature Analysis from NASA.

Overall, last year was very warm in Washington state

Last year, Washington state experienced its fifth-hottest year in 120 years of records maintained by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Meanwhile, records for average temperatures were broken in California, Arizona and Nevada, which lived through the highest averages in 120 years. Oregon had just one hotter year on record, while Idaho had three years with higher averages.

Temps

In Washington, the average temperature for the year was 48.4 degrees Fahrenheit, or 2.3 degrees above the long-term average. Hotter years were 1934 with 49.1 degrees; 1958, 49.0 degrees; 1992, 48.7 degrees; and 1998, 48.6 degrees. In 2004, the average temperature was 48.4, the same as this year.

California’s record high was based on an average temperature of 61.5 degrees, with Arizona at 62.3 and Nevada at 53.1. Oregon’s average of 49.5 degrees was exceeded only in 1934, when the annual average was 49.9 degrees.

For the nation as a whole, the average temperature in 2014 was tempered by some fairly extreme low temperatures in the Midwest, stretching into the Mississippi Valley. For the contiguous United States, the average temperature was 52.6 degrees — 0.5 degrees higher than the long-term average and tied with 1977 as the 34th warmest year on record, according to information from NOAA’s National Climatic Data Center.

Despite several months of record and near-record lows across the middle of the country, no state had an annual average that set a record for cold or even ranked among their five coolest years.

For the contiguous U.S. as a whole, last year was the 18th year in a row with an average temperature above the 120-year average. The last year with a below-average temperature was 1996. Since 1895, the temperature has risen an average of 0.13 degrees F per decade.

Precipitation across the contiguous U.S. was 30.76 inches last year, or 0.82 inch above the 120-year average. That makes it the 40th wettest year on record. On average, precipitation has increased by 0.14 inch per decade.

Precip

For Washington state, 2014 was the 16th wettest year on record. The average across the state was 48.73 inches, some 6.7 inches above the 120-year average.

Above-average precipitation occurred across the northern states last year, while the Southern Plains and Central Appalachians experienced below-average conditions.

Drought conditions continue in California, despite near-average annual precipitation. Exacerbating the problem is a three-year rainfall deficit combined with record-high temperatures this past year.

Meanwhile, drought conditions improved across the Midwest and Central Plains, though both improvements and declines were observed in various parts of the Southern Plains, Southwest and Southeast.

Washington state had its fourth-wettest spring on record, while Kansas had its third-driest spring. Other seasonal conditions can be found on the NCDC’s “National Overview” for 2014. The “Climate at a Glance” page can help you break down the data by state and time period.

Global data and analyses from NCDC are scheduled to be released tomorrow.

Puget Sound: Hopeful signs shine through complex cleanup effort

While putting the final touches on a two-year, 10-part series about the Puget Sound ecosystem, I couldn’t help but wonder about the true character of Washington state and its citizens.

Kitsap Sun photo by Meegan M. Reid
Kitsap Sun photo by Meegan M. Reid

How much do people really care about salmon and rockfish, eagles and herons, killer whales, cougars, and many lesser-known species in and around Puget Sound? Do we have a political system capable of supporting the needed efforts — financially and legally — to correct the problems?

After interviewing hundreds of people over the past few years, I have a pretty good feeling about this state, especially when considering other parts of the country. There is hope that we can save some of the remaining gems of the Puget Sound ecosystem while restoring functioning conditions in other places.

Puget Sound Partnership, which is overseeing the restoration efforts, still has the support of many people and organizations — including many conservatives and business-oriented folks. That support comes despite ongoing struggles by the partnership to find a proper place within the state’s political system. Review my latest story in the Kitsap Sun (subscription).

“Let science lead the way” remains the refrain of both critics and supporters of the partnership. But that is easier said than done — even if you could take politics out of the equation.

Scientists in almost any field of research don’t always agree on the fundamental problems, and there is a competition among scientific disciplines for limited research dollars. Are endangered fish more important than endangered birds or endangered whales, or should we be studying the plankton, sediments and eelgrass that form the base of the food web?

Really, where should we focus our attention and tax dollars? That’s a key question. The correct answer is, and always has been, “All of the above.”

When it comes to funding, the decision-making becomes widely disbursed, and I’m not sure whether that is good or bad. At the local level, we have Lead Entities and Local Integrating Organizations. At the state level, we have the Salmon Recovery Funding Board, the Recreation and Conservation Funding Board and agencies themselves.

Then there is the Puget Sound Partnership, with its seven-member Leadership Council and 28-member Ecosystem Coordination Board, along with its science advisory panel. The partnership establishes an Action Agenda to guide funding decisions by the others.

One would never want an individual man or woman deciding where the money should go. But do the various groups help identify important problems, or do they diffuse attention from what could be a focused strategy? I believe this will always be somewhat a philosophical question.

One thing I confirmed in the final installment of the 10-part series “Taking the Pulse of Puget Sound” is that nobody was ever serious about a deadline established in the law creating the Puget Sound Partnership. Restoring Puget Sound by the year 2020 remains on the books as a goal that needs to be changed.

If officials acknowledge that the goal cannot be met, will the Legislature and the public continue their support for the current level of funding or perhaps increase support?

That gets back to my wondering about the true character of Washington state and its citizens. Based on past legislation, this state is clearly a leader in ecosystem protection. We have the Shoreline Management Act, the Growth Management Act (with its urban-concentration and critical-areas protections), Municipal Stormwater Permits, Forest Practices Act and more.

Are we ready to go all the way, by setting interim goals for 2020 and looking to the long term? We will need to better track progress, which means gathering more data in the field — monitoring, if you will.

Monitoring is not as inspiring as restoring an important estuary. But think of all the time and money spent on forecasting the weather, which relies entirely on monitoring with costly investments in satellites and equipment, all needing continual improvements.

Envision a significant role for experts who can describe changes in the ecosystem and help us decide if our money is being well spent. If weather reporters can hold a central role on the evening news, why shouldn’t we have ecosystem reporters discussing environmental conditions.

I wouldn’t mind hearing a report on the news something like this: “We are seeing improved conditions in southern Hood Canal, with scattered salmon spawning at upper elevations, and a 90 percent chance that oyster beds will be opened in Belfair.” (Just kidding, of course.)

Puget Sound Partnership’s proposed budget, as submitted by the governor, contains more than $1 million for assessing Puget Sound recovery. That could be an important step to providing information about how the ecosystem is responding to the hundreds of millions of dollars spent on protection and restoration so far.

In writing about the future for the final part of the “Pulse” series, I described a 2008 report from the University of Washington’s Urban Ecology Research Lab. The report identified the primary “drivers” of change that would determine the future of the Puget Sound region.

It was interesting to learn that if we are lucky about climate change — or even if we’re not so lucky — the future is largely in our hands. How will we react to economic ups and downs? How will we address land use with millions of new people coming in? Will we embrace technology as the final solution or look to nature for answers?

The report describes six remarkably different scenarios, though others could be constructed. Perhaps the worst one is called “Collapse,” in which warning signs of ecological problems are ignored and economic challenges are met by relaxing environmental regulations and allowing residential sprawl. In the end, the ecosystem cannot withstand the assault. Shellfish beds are forced to close, and hundreds of species — including salmon and orcas — disappear.

Two scenarios hold more hopeful outcomes. One, called “Forward,” includes public investments to purchase sensitive areas, including shorelines. Growth becomes concentrated in cities, and people learn to fit into the ecosystem. The other, called “Adaptation,” includes grassroots efforts to save water and resources and improve people’s ecological behavior. Protecting shorelines, floodplains and wildlife corridors help reduce flooding and protect species that could have been wiped out. Check out “Scenarios offer glimpses of a possible future for Puget Sound,” Kitsap Sun (subscription).

Joel Baker, director of Puget Sound Institute, capped off my “futures” story with a sense of optimism, which I find contagious. I don’t know if Joel was thinking of the Frank Sinatra song, “New York, New York” which contains the line, “If I can make it there, I’ll make it anywhere.” But Joel told me something like, “If we can’t make it here, we can’t make it anywhere.”

Here are his exact words:

“As an environmental scientist, I find it interesting that things are starting to come together. We continue to grow economically, so we have the money.

“Energy is lining up with the environment, and we’re forcing the restoration program to think holistically. It’s as much about transportation as it is about sewage-treatment plants.

“The Pacific Northwest is technologically savvy; we have smart people here; and we have the collective will to get things done. So I’m optimistic about cleaning up Puget Sound. If we can’t do it here, God help the rest of the country.”

Virus connected to sea star wasting syndrome, but questions remain

I’ll never forget my visit this past summer to the Lofall dock and nearby beach on Hood Canal in North Kitsap. It was a scene of devastation, in which starfish of all sizes were losing their limbs and decomposing into gooey masses.

Barb Erickson and Linda Martin examine young sea stars for signs of wasting disease at Lofall pier last summer.
Barb Erickson and Linda Martin examine young sea stars for wasting disease at Lofall pier last summer.
Kitsap Sun photo by Meegan M. Reid.

My guides on the excursion were three women who had been watching for changes in sea stars as part of a volunteer monitoring program being conducted up and down the West Coast. The three were shocked at what they saw on the trip, as I described in a story for the Kitsap Sun as well as in a blog post in Water Ways.

Now, researchers are reporting that a virus, known as densovirus, appears to be playing a central role in the devastation of millions of sea stars from Alaska to Mexico. Their findings were reported in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PDF 1.1 mb).

Many questions remain about the mysterious affliction known as “sea star wasting syndrome.” For one, why were the sea stars affected over such a wide area, all at about the same time?

As described in the report, the researchers went to museums with sea stars preserved in alcohol and found that the virus was present in specimens collected as long ago as 1942 at various West Coast sites. Minor outbreaks of the wasting syndrome have been reported through the years, but obviously something much bigger is taking place now.

Sea star near Lofall
Sea star near Lofall

A change in the environment, such as ocean acidification, has been suggested as one possibility. A change in the virus, such as we see for the flu virus in humans, is another idea. It could also be related to an over-population among the sea stars themselves.

Jeff Adams of Washington Sea Grant, who is leading the local monitoring program in Kitsap County, said it is good that researchers have found something to go on, but other causative factors are yet to be discovered.

“Why and where; those are two of the things still on the table,” Jeff told me. “What are the environmental factors that drove this much larger die-off? Was it something that made the virus more prevalent or something that made the sea stars weaker?”

Jeff noted that the cause of death may not be the virus itself but rather opportunistic pathogens that attack the sea stars after their immune systems are weakened by the virus.

“Density may have played a factor,” he said. “Sea star populations have been thick and strong over the past 12 years. When you get a lot of individuals in close proximity, you can get sudden changes. Marine populations fluctuate quite a bit naturally.”

Jeff hopes to maintain the volunteer monitoring program for years to come, not just to track the disease but to understand more about the cycles of marine life. Of course, he would like to be able to report on an ongoing recovery of sea star populations from their current state of devastation. Will the recovery occur in patches or uniformly at all monitored sites?

“Ideally, this will run its course, and we will start seeing juveniles showing up over the course of the summer,” he said. “How many of them will disappear?

“Ideally, we will be able to maintain some sites for much longer. For me, as a naturalist, there are lots of questions about natural historical cycles that have not been addressed. A lot of critters are facing challenges (to their survival).”

In Puget Sound, these challenges range from loss of habitat to pollution to climate change, and the predator-prey balance will determine whether any population —and ultimately entire species — can survive.

Linda Martin, one of the volunteers who gave me a tour of the Lofall beach, said she was glad that researchers have identified a viral cause of the sea-star devastation, but it remains unclear how that is going to help the population recover.

Because of the timing of low tide, the three women have not been to Lofall since early October, when the population was “completely depleted,” according to Linda. But they are planning to go back next weekend.

“We are anxious to go out and see if there is anything there,” she said. “We have not seen any juveniles for a long time. Originally, when we started out, we were seeing uncountable numbers of juveniles.”

As for the new findings, I thought it was interesting how the researchers removed tissues from diseased sea stars then filtered out everything down to the size of viruses. After that, they exposed one group of healthy sea stars to a raw sample of the fluid and another group to a heat-treated sample. The raw sample caused disease, but the heat-treated sample did not.

They then used DNA techniques to identify the virus, which was found in larger and larger concentrations as the disease progressed. Check out the research report in the Proceedings of the NAS (PDF 1.1 mb).

Jeff Barnard of the Associated Press interviewed researchers involved in the study and others familiar with the problem.

Computer model shows colorful swirls as winds blow carbon dioxide

An ultra-high-resolution computer model ties weather into greenhouse gas emissions, and the resulting animation shows whirling and shifting plumes of carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide.

Ultimately, the greenhouse gases disperse into the atmosphere, increasing concentrations across the globe and contributing to global warming. It’s almost too complex to comprehend, but it is a fascinating process.

As you can see from the video, carbon dioxide levels are more significant in the Northern Hemisphere, where the emissions are out of phase with the Southern Hemisphere. That’s because the seasons are opposite, with the maximum growth of vegetation taking place at different times.

The reds and purples are the highest concentrations of carbon dioxide. The dark grays denote the highest levels of carbon monoxide, caused mainly by large forest fires.

Bill Putman, of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, said it a prepared statement:

“While the presence of carbon dioxide has dramatic global consequences, it’s fascinating to see how local emission sources and weather systems produce gradients of its concentration on a very regional scale. Simulations like this, combined with data from observations, will help improve our understanding of both human emissions of carbon dioxide and natural fluxes across the globe.”

The animation was produced with data from measurements of atmospheric conditions plus the emission of greenhouse gases, both natural and man-made. The simulation, called “Nature Run,” covers a period May 2005 to June 2007. Engineers can use the model, called GEOS-5, to test satellite observations.

In July, NASA launched the Orbiting Carbon Observatory-2 (OCO-2) satellite to make global, space-based carbon observations. The additional data will add to Earth-based measurements. See also OCO-2 Mission Overview.

According to studies, last spring was the first time in modern history that carbon dioxide levels reached 400 parts per million across most of the Northern Hemisphere. Concentrations are continuing to rise, mainly from the burning of fossil fuels. Levels were about 270 ppm before the Industrial Revolution.

The GEOS-5 computer model is being used in tests known as Observing System Simulation Experiments (OSSE), which can help satellite observations tie into weather and climate forecasts.

Said Putnam:

“While researchers working on OSSEs have had to rely on regional models to provide such high-resolution Nature Run simulations in the past, this global simulation now provides a new source of experimentation in a comprehensive global context. This will provide critical value for the design of Earth-orbiting satellite instruments.”

For more detailed views involving various parts of the world, see “A Closer Look at Carbon Dioxide” on NASA’s website for “Orbiting Carbon Observatory 2.” For information about modeling, visit the website of the Global Modeling and Assimilation Office.