Category Archives: Climate change

Understanding disease as a major ecological force

Working as an environmental reporter for more than 30 years, I’ve covered hundreds of topics — from sewage-treatment plants to killer whales. I’ve learned a great deal through the years, but I’m always striving to learn more about the environment, and I enjoy sharing new information with others.

Mist from the breath of killer whales is collected at the end of a long pole then tested for dozens of different types of bacteria. Photo: Pete Schroeder
Mist from the breath of killer whales is collected at the end of a long pole then tested for dozens of different types of bacteria. // Photo: Pete Schroeder

Recently, I found myself immersed in a fascinating subject that I knew almost nothing about, at least from a scientific perspective. What I learned in my reporting was enough to alter my thinking about the ecological forces that shape our world.

I’m talking about the role of disease, a force that can decimate populations, affect predator-prey relationships and disrupt social communities. So many animal diseases overlap with human diseases that we can no longer consider ourselves separate.

As Joe Gaydos of SeaDoc Society told me, “The crazy thing about disease is that it isn’t really on people’s radar. It is a smoldering factor in our environment, but one that can break out at any time.”

My recent stories featured potential diseases in killer whales, herring and salmon, animals that are related to each other through the food web. I wrote the stories for the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound, which is managed by the Puget Sound Institute, where I work part-time. The stories were reprinted in the Kitsap Sun, where I spent most of my career as an environmental reporter.

I owe a debt to Joe Gaydos and the other folks mentioned in my stories for helping me grasp the significance of disease in all animals, including humans. Scientists who understand the complexities of disease are now coordinating with the Puget Sound Partnership to increase awareness among other scientists and among people who live in the region.

It was only a couple years ago that sea star wasting disease burst into the news with unappealing pictures of melting sea stars that were losing their limbs and turning to mush. Review entries in Water Ways, Jan. 20, 2015, Nov. 22, 2014, and June 17, 2014. It is amazing how quickly the disease decimated the sea star population and altered tidal and subtidal ecosystems in many areas along the West Coast.

Disease does not need to cause death directly to affect individual animals. In my stories, I showed how diseases in herring and steelhead might make them more susceptible to predation, which can have the same end result.

Pollution may be affecting the immune systems of many marine animals and making them more susceptible to disease. Changing water temperatures, influenced by climate change, can have a similar effect.

The field of disease ecology is far from new, but I believe we will be hearing more about it, as growing evidence suggests that disease could be playing a major role in shaping populations. It is a fascinating subject when you learn about how disease organisms spread from one animal to another or cross over into other species.

For example, disease pathogens can be divided into two modes of transmission. “Density-dependent” pathogens tend to spread when the host population gets too crowded. If a threshold density is not reached, the disease tends to die out. “Frequency-dependent” pathogens tend to spread when the percentage of infected animals is high, regardless of density.

When germs are spread by coughing or sneezing, disease will spread more quickly when the individuals are close together (density-dependent). Sexually transmitted diseases are more likely to spread when more individuals are infected (frequency-dependent). Many diseases are a combination of the two, depending on conditions.

Interestingly, pathogens that are the most dangerous to a population are mostly the ones with intermediate virulence. That’s because highly virulent pathogens are likely to kill the host before the disease can spread to others. Low virulence will result in almost 100 percent survival.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention now recognizes that the health of humans is connected to the health of animals and the environment. The CDC program is called One Health. Research is rapidly expanding into zoonotic diseases, which are those than can pass from animals to humans.

By thinking of connections between humans and animals, new diseases can sometimes be identified before they create a major outbreak in humans. In other cases, protection of humans can involve treatment in animals.

One example is Rift Valley fever in East Africa, as reported by the CDC. The viral disease, spread by mosquitoes, can kill livestock — including sheep, goats and cattle. It can also cause serious problems in humans, including blindness and brain swelling.

While there is no vaccine against RVF for humans, researchers were able to develop a vaccine for livestock. Treating livestock prevented transmission to mosquitoes and thus reduced disease in humans.

Amusing Monday: Fighting climate change with a silly school play

A school play about climate change, featuring a worried mother polar bear and evil villains named “Mr. Carbon” and “Mr. Methane,” have captured the imaginations of elementary and junior-high-school students across the country.

The program, called “Cool the Earth,” includes follow-up activities that encourage the young students to bring climate-saving ideas home with them.

The first video on this page shows a play performed by teachers at Spring Valley Science School in San Francisco. I love the laughter of the children in the background. The second video shows an NBC News story from 2011.

The “Cool the Earth” program was developed in 2007 by Carleen and Jeff Cullen, parents in Marin County, Calif., who became inspired to take action on climate change after viewing Al Gore’s documentary “An Inconvenient Truth.” Showing the film to others failed to gain the action they desired, so they expanded their horizons by developing an easy-to-understand message that could be shared with kids and their parents.

The program was launched at Bacich Elementary School in Kentfield, Calif., and has grown to involve more than 200 schools across the country, though most are in California. See the list at “Participating Schools and Troops.”

An article on the Green Schools Initiative website quotes Heather Dobbs, a parent coordinator at Alexander Hamilton School in Morristown, N.J., who says “Cool the Earth” explains climate change in a meaningful way:

“The kids love the play because the teachers playing the parts are big hams. It tugs at the kids’ heart strings when they hear about polar bears in danger. Kids can take in that story more easily than just hearing about carbon emissions.”

Students then take home coupon books offering 20 ideas for no- or low-cost actions that they can do on their own or with their parents to earn points and sometimes prizes, such as earth-friendly trading cards.

Carleen Cullen explains the program in the video below.

Rains in North Kitsap falling at record levels, but a shift is coming

Rainfall in much of North Kitsap has been falling at record rates since the beginning of the so-called water year, which begins in October. If you live in Kingston, January’s rainfall is running well above records kept since 1993 by the Kitsap Public Utility District.

Kingston

For the month of January, 9.4 inches has fallen in Kingston so far. That is more rainfall this January than during any January in the 23-year record. The previous high in Kingston for the month of January was 8.3 inches in 2006.

As you can see from the chart, this year’s rainfall in Kingston (blue line) was tracking slightly above the record until early December, when it took off at a higher rate. January burst forth at an even higher rate.

Hansville

The pattern was similar for Hansville to the north, where rains have been falling hard. Extremely high rainfall in November of 2010 established a record for that year that will be difficult to beat in our northernmost community.

So far this year, Poulsbo (KPUD office) has been tracking the maximum water year fairly closely since October. January 2016 is the wettest recorded at this site. So far in January, it has recorded 11.6 inches. The previous high, 11.2 inches, was recorded in 1998. Thanks to Mark Morgan at the PUD for this analysis.

Poulsbo

Central Kitsap near Bremerton caught up with the maximum water year this past week. And Holly lags behind the maximum water year of 1999 but well above the 26-year average.

If you haven’t noticed, the Kitsap Peninsula is a rather strange place for measuring the rain. Historically the northern tip gets about half the annual rainfall as the southwest part.

Central Kitsap

For the Pacific region as a whole. the well-publicized El Niño effect has grown stronger, becoming one of the strongest El Niño years since at least the 1950s. But that is about to change. Based on sea surface temperatures, we have just passed the peak of the El Niño, and most models suggest that ocean conditions will transition to a neutral pattern by summer. See El Niño forecast graph and the narrative by the Climate Prediction Center (PDF 707 kb).

Holly

According to the CPC report, “El Niño has already produced significant global impacts and is expected to affect temperature and precipitation patterns across the United States during the upcoming months.”

According to predictions, temperatures should remain above average for at least the next three months. Meanwhile, precipitation is expected to continue above average for the next week or so, decline to average in about a month, then remain below average until at least the first part of May. For a quick look at this graphically, check out the interactive display.

Meanwhile, as the Northwest and Great Lakes regions experience drier than average conditions over the next few months, California and the Southwest states, along with Florida and the Gulf states, will see above-average rainfall.

As observed by the Climate Prediction Center:

“Since we are now past the peak of the El Niño event in terms of SST anomalies, the relevant questions relate to how quickly the event decays and whether we see a transition to La Niña, which frequently follows on the heels of El Niño event, the CPC SST consolidation forecasts a return to neutral conditions by May-June-July and a 79 percent chance of La Niña by next winter.”

The following video describes the current El Niño conditions.

Washington state breaks heat record during 2015

Last year was the warmest year on record for Washington state, as well as Oregon, Montana and Florida, according to climatologists with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Temps

For the entire contiguous United States, 2015 was the second-warmest in 121 years of temperature records going back to 1895. The average temperature last year was 54.4 degrees, some 2.4 degrees above the long-term average, according to NOAA. Only the year 2012 was hotter.

Those extreme U.S. temperatures will contribute to what is expected to be the highest worldwide temperature average on record. Findings are to be completed later this month.

If 2.4 degrees above average does not seem like much, think about raising your home’s thermostat by 2.4 degrees and leaving it there for the entire year, said Deke Arndt, chief of the NOAA’s Climate Monitoring Branch.

“You would feel the difference,” Arndt said during a telephone briefing this morning, when scientists reported an increasing number of extreme weather events across the United States — from severe winter storms on the East Coast last February to wildfires in the West during the summer to tornadoes across Texas and the Midwest in December.

Changes in temperatures and precipitation are changing ecosystems for plants and animals across the United States and throughout the world.

For the year 2015, every state in the nation was warmer than the long-term average, although various regions of the country acted quite differently. In the West, the year started out warm but ended up cool. In the East, residents began the year with record cold temperatures but ended with unseasonable warm conditions.

In terms of precipitation, 2015 was the third-wettest year on record in the contiguous United States, with a total average of 34.47 inches. That’s 4.5 inches above the long-term average. It was the wettest year on record for Texas and Oklahoma, but Washington was close to average for annual rainfall.

Precip

Washington state and the entire West returned to normal temperatures for the month of December, but 29 states across the East, Midwest and South recorded all-time-record highs for the month.

Twenty-three states — including Washington, Oregon and Idaho — were much wetter than average in December, which ranked as not only the warmest December on record across the U.S. but also the wettest.

Record flooding was reported along the Mississippi River and its tributaries, with floods coming several months earlier than normal.

“Record crests and overtopped levees were observed along parts of the Mississippi River and its tributaries; deadly tornadoes ripped through the Southern Plains and Mid-South; and heavy snow/ice was observed from the Southern Rockies to Midwest and New England,” state’s a summary report released by NOAA. “This storm system resulted in at least 50 fatalities across the country — the deadliest weather event of 2015 — and caused over $1 billion in losses, according to preliminary estimates.”

Across the country last year, 10 separate weather-related events caused more than $1 billion each in damages — specifically, a major drought, two major floods, five severe storms, a series of wildfires and a major winter storm, each defined by NOAA based on their timing and location.

Across the West, more than 10 million acres of forestland burned, the greatest extent of fire since record keeping began in 1960.

“We live in a warming world, bringing more big heat events and more big rain events,” Arndt said, adding that the pattern is expected to continue in the coming years.

The extremes seen in the U.S. are being experienced across the globe, he added. The U.S., which takes up 2 percent of the Earth’s surface, experienced its second-warmest year on record. Worldwide, however, it appears that 2015 will go down as the warmest year so far. Global findings are due out in about two weeks.

Could this really be another newborn orca
in Puget Sound?

The newborn calf J-54 swims near its mother J-22 today near San Juan Island. Photo: Dave Ellifrit, Center for Whale Research
Newborn calf J-54 swims near its mother J-28 today near San Juan Island. The baby appears to be about three weeks old.
Photo: Dave Ellifrit, Center for Whale Research

Break out the champagne! Amazingly, another new baby has been born to the Southern Resident killer whales that frequent Puget Sound. This makes eight newborns arriving since December of last year.

In the 40 years that the Center for Whale Research has maintained a census of these killer whales, only once before have more orcas calves been born, according to Ken Balcomb, who directs the studies for the CWR. The year was 1977, when nine babies were born.

The new calf has been designated J-54, the next available number for the J pod whales. The mom is J-28, a 22-year-old female named Polaris who has one other offspring, a 6-year-old female named Star.

The new baby was first seen on Dec. 1 by whale watchers near San Juan Island and photographed by Ivan Reiff, a member of the Pacific Whale Watch Association. But the photos did not reveal any distinct features — such as the shape of the white eye patch or saddle patch — to help experts determine if this was a new baby or one of the other recent additions to J pod.

Pictures taken today confirm that this is a new calf, estimated to be about three weeks old. The mother and calf continued swimming north through Haro Strait, accompanied by the calf’s sister, grandmother, aunt, uncles, cousin and other members of J pod.

This eighth birth within a year’s time is certainly cause for celebration, Ken told me, but the health of the population is highly dependent on the availability of food, primarily chinook salmon.

“I want to count back 17 months (gestation period) for each of them to see what was going on with those whales at that time,” Ken said, noting that fisheries managers have been reporting pretty good runs of hatchery chinook in the Columbia River the past couple years.

With 27 females in the breeding population and roughly three years between births, one might anticipate about nine pregnancies per year, he said. But recent history shows that an average of about three births per year are counted. That suggests that many of these potential babies never make it to full term, possibly because of the toxic chemicals the mothers have accumulated in their blubber.

When food is scarce, the mothers rely on their stores of fat for energy, which could release their toxic chemicals to their fetuses and to their newborns during nursing, Ken said. Fetal or newborn deaths may simply go unreported. When food is adequate, the babies get better nutrition — both in the womb and in their mothers’ milk.

“The biggest clue is the fact that they do well when they have sufficient food available and not so well when there is not sufficient food,” he said. “It should be a no brainer to feed them.”

By feeding them he means managing the fisheries and the ecosystem to make more fish available to the orcas. Removing dams where possible could boost the natural production of salmon, he said. Climate change, which tends to increase water temperatures and reduce streamflows, could be working against the effort to restore salmon runs.

The population of the Southern Residents now stands at 84 — or 85 if you count Lolita, who remains in captivity in Miami Seaquarium. That total consists of 29 whales in J pod, 19 in K pod and 36 in L pod, according to statistics reported by Orca Network from census data collected by the Center for Whale Research.

Ken said he is thankful for grants from the Milgard Family Foundation and the Annenberg Foundation, which have kept his operation going this winter, and to the Pacific Whale Watch Association, which provides additional eyes on the water. Years ago, without observers around, the news of new births usually waited until spring.

Michael Harris, executive director of Pacific Whale Watch Association, said celebration of the new birth should be accompanied by determination to keep salmon available for the whales.

“Just as we settled our brains for a long winter’s nap, we get another gift for whale watchers, just in time for the holidays,” Michael said in an email. “We thought seven was pretty lucky, but having eight calves in this population is exciting.

“None of us expected a year like the one we just had,” he added, “but we can expect tough times ahead for these whales. We had a good year last year for salmon and we had a good year for orcas. Now we’re coming off drought conditions and all sorts of problems, and we’re looking at lean times the next few years. Let’s celebrate this baby right now and this resilient village of orcas, but let’s keep working to make sure we get fish in the water and whales forever.”

Amusing Monday: ‘Don’t fret,’ says new celebrity video for climate deniers

A new celebrity-filled music video, billed as the “Climate Change Deniers’ Anthem,” assures us that “the Earth’s not getting warmer; these temperatures are normal.”

The satire, posted on the website “Funny or Die,” is reminiscent of the 1985 video of “We Are the World,” which involved many voices in the effort to raise money for African famine relief.

The new video opens with David and Charles Koch , both played by Beau Bridges, explaining that the real problem plaguing society is “idiots who claim that climate change is real.”

“Folks, climate change is pure fiction.”

Performers include about a dozen stars, including Emily Osment, Darren Criss, Ben Feldman, Jennette McCurdy, Estelle and Ed Weeks. At the end of the inspiring song, actress January Jones has a lively conversation with the Koch brothers, explaining why she is not interested in performing in their video.

Involved in the production of the satirical video was ClimateTruth.org, which was formed to combat disinformation about climate change and discuss solutions to the problem.

“Funny or Die” is the Emmy-winning comedy website created in 2007 by Will Ferrell, Adam McKay and Chris Henchy. The website has taken aim at many humorous issues, including climate change and the so-called “climate deniers.”

The second video on this page features Kristen Wiig, who has a solution to climate change, her “Global Breathing Initiative.” Since everyone exhales carbon dioxide, she notes, think how much we could reduce greenhouse gas emissions if everyone would hold their breath for a minute a day.

What appears to be largely a monologue is actually part of a longer video called the “Clinton Foundation: Celebrity Division.” Actor Ben Stiller leads a focus group of celebrities trying to come up with ideas to help the Clinton Foundation do more good for society.

Another “Funny or Die” video focused on climate change is called “Climate Change Denial Disorder,” featuring Ed Begley Jr. playing the role of a senator with some sort of brain disorder.

Climate change to alter habitats in Puget Sound

In 50 years, Puget Sound residents will see mostly the same plants and animals they see today, but some changes can be expected. Our favorite species may disappear from places where they are now common.

Climate change is expected to bring higher temperatures, shifts in precipitation patterns, rising sea levels and ocean acidification. Some species will no doubt cope where they are. Some will not. Some could move to more hospitable locales, perhaps farther north or to higher elevations in the mountains.

“There are going to be some winners and some losers,” research biologist Correigh Greene told me. His comment seemed to sum up the situation nicely, and I used this quote in the final installment of a three-part series I wrote for the Puget Sound Institute and the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound.

All three climate stories are largely based on a new report from the Climate Impacts Group at the University of Washington called “State of Knowledge: Climate Change in Puget Sound.”

What stands out in my mind is how Puget Sound’s food web could be disrupted in unexpected ways. For example, tiny shelled organisms — key prey for many fish species — are already dying because they cannot form healthy shells. And that’s just one effect of ocean acidification.

The observations mentioned in my story and in the report itself come from a variety of experts who understand the needs of various species — from those that live in the water to those dependent on snow in the mountains. What will actually happen on the ground depends on many variables — from the buildup of greenhouse gases to changing trends such as El Nino.

As things are going, it appears that this year will be the warmest on record. The global average surface temperature is expected to reach the symbolic milestone of 1 degree Celsius above the pre-industrial era, according to the World Meteorological Organization. The years 2011 through 2015 have been the warmest five-year period on record, with many extreme weather events influenced by climate change, according to a five-year analysis by WMO.

The new report from the Climate Impacts Group discusses various scenarios based on total emissions of greenhouse gases. High scenarios presume that emissions will continue as they are now. Low scenarios presume that people will dramatically reduce emissions. What will actually happen is unpredictable at this time.

Greenhouse gas emissions are used to predict carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere, ultimately pushing up the average global temperature. The first graph below shows the range of annual emissions (in gigatons of carbon) depicted by the various scenarios. The next graph shows how the emissions translate into atmospheric concentration. One can take any of the scenarios and see how the levels translate into temperatures at the end of the century. For a more complete explanation, go to page 19 of the report, where these graphs can be found.

Emissions

CO2

Temps

Puget Sound farmers expected to change as climate changes

I’ve been going through the new report about climate change in the Puget Sound region, and I can tell you that the most optimistic chapter is the one on farming. Check out the story I wrote for the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound.

To be sure, farmers will have plenty of problems to contend with. Rising sea levels and more intense rainstorms will probably causing flooding and seawater intrusion where it has never been seen before. Some of today’s farmland could become unsuitable for agriculture, and drier summers will force much better management of limited water supplies.

Temperatures are rising in the Puget Sound lowlands. Graphic: Climate Impacts Group
Temperatures are rising in the Puget Sound lowlands. // Graphic: Climate Impacts Group

But as the climate undergoes change, farmers can change with the climate, growing crops suitable for the conditions they face, said Kelly McLain, senior natural resources scientist with the Washington Department of Agriculture.

“Farmers are extremely adaptable,” Kelly told me. “I think water is going to be the limiting factor for almost all decisions.”

It’s hard to find that kind of optimism anywhere else when it comes to climate change in the Puget Sound region. The story I wrote to accompany last week’s release of the new report discusses the likelihood that landslides will increase because of more intense rainfall patterns. See “Shifting ground: Climate change may increase the risk of landslides” and the Water Ways post on Nov. 19.

My third and final story in the series, which will be published next week, talks about coming changes in habitats — and thus species — expected in Puget Sound as air temperatures increase, sea levels rise, rainstorms grow more intense and oceans undergo acidification.

Total annual precipitation does not appear to be changing in the Puget Sound region. Graphic: Climate Impacts Group
Total annual precipitation does not appear to be changing in the Puget Sound region.
Graphic: Climate Impacts Group

I took on this writing project as part of my work for the Puget Sound Institute, which publishes the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound. PSI commissioned the climate report with funding from federal and state governments. The Climate Impacts Group at the University of Washington compiled the best scientific knowledge into a very readable report, which can be found on the encyclopedia’s website or on the website of the Climate Impacts Group.

One interesting chapter of the report, called “How is Puget Sound’s Climate Changing?” (3 mb) supports the understanding that climate change is not something we need to wait for. It’s something that scientists can measure now, although climatologists expect the changes to come faster as atmospheric carbon dioxide levels increase.

Here are a few of the changes that can be measured, along with a bit of explanation about the uncertainty:

  • Average air temperatures have been increasing in the Puget Sound lowlands and are currently about 1.3 degrees higher than in 1895. Higher temperatures have been found to be statistically significant for all seasons except spring, with the overall increase shown in a range between 0.7 to 1.9 degrees F.
  • Nighttime air temperatures have been rising faster than daytime temperatures. Nighttime lows have been increasing by about 1.8 degrees since 1895, while daytime highs have been increasing by about 0.8 degrees.
  • The frost-free season has lengthened by about 30 days (range 18-41 days) since 1920.
  • As in other areas, short-term trends can differ substantially from long-term trends. Cooling observed from 2000-2011, for example, has not altered the long-term temperature increase.
  • An ongoing debate questions how much, if any, of the long-term warming trend is a result of natural climate variability. One study says up to 80 percent may be natural, caused by atmospheric circulation, not by greenhouse gas buildup. Other researchers have been unable to replicate the findings for other data sets.
  • Total annual precipitation does not appear to be increasing or decreasing over a long time scale. Spring precipitation has increased at a statistically valid 27 percent for the months March through May.
  • Most studies are finding modest increases in the frequency and intensity of heavy precipitation compared to historical levels, but results depend on the time period and methods of analysis.
  • Ongoing variability in weather patterns related to El Nino and the Pacific decadal oscillation will continue to strongly influence temperature and precipitation for relatively short periods. It is not clear how long-term climate change will interact with these more variable climate patterns.

Climate report describes changes coming to the Puget Sound region

How climate change could alter life in the Puget Sound region is the focus of a new report from the University of Washington’s Climate Impacts Group.

A 1997 landslide on Bainbridge Island killed a family of four and resulted in five homes being condemned for safety reasons. Landslides can be expected to increase in the future because of changes in precipitation patterns. Kitsap Sun file photo
A 1997 landslide on Bainbridge Island killed a family of four and resulted in five homes being condemned. Landslides can be expected to increase in the future because of changes in precipitation patterns.
Kitsap Sun file photo

In concert with the report’s release, I’m writing three stories for the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound, all focusing on specific aspects of the report, beginning with landslide risks. See “Shifting ground: climate change may increase the risk of landslides” on the Puget Sound Institute’s blog.

As the new report describes, increased flooding, more frequent landslides and decreased salmon runs are likely, along with declines in some native species and increases in others. We are likely to see more successful invasions by nonnative species, while summer drought could cause more insect damage to forests and more forest fires.

The report, “State of the Knowledge: Climate Change in Puget Sound,” pulls together the best predictions from existing studies, while updating and expanding the range of topics last reported for Puget Sound in 2005.

“When you look at the projected changes, it’s dramatic,” said lead author Guillaume Mauger in a news release. “This report provides a single resource for people to look at what’s coming and think about how to adapt.”

The report includes examples of communities taking actions to prepare for climate change, such as merging flood-management districts to prepare for increased flooding in King County and designing infrastructure to contend with rising sea levels in other areas.

“In the same way that the science is very different from the last report in 2005, I think the capacity and willingness to work on climate change is in a completely different place,” Mauger said.

Sheida Sahandy, executive director of the Puget Sound Partnership, said the people of Puget Sound must be prepared for changes that have already begun.

“To protect Puget Sound, we need to plan for the ever-increasing impacts of climate change,” she said in a news release. “This report helps us better understand the very real pressures we will face over the coming decades. The effects of climate change impact every part of what we consider necessary for a healthy Puget Sound: clean water, abundant water quantity, human wellbeing, and a Puget Sound habitat that can support our native species.”

Work to compile the report was funded by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency via the Puget Sound Institute at UW Tacoma, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the state of Washington.

The report will become part of the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound, where my climate-change stories will reside after publication over the next three weeks. I’m currently working part-time for the Puget Sound Institute, which publishes the encyclopedia and is affiliated with the University of Washington — Tacoma.

For other news stories about the report, check out:

Olympic Mountains deliver huge rainstorm on cue for researchers

Atmospheric scientists with NASA and the University of Washington chose a doozy of a week on the Olympic Peninsula to launch their four-month effort to measure precipitation and calibrate the super-sophisticated Global Precipitation Measurement (GPM) system.

The heart of the GPM system is an advanced satellite called the GPM Core Observatory, designed to measure rainfall and snowfall from space. If the system can be perfected, meteorologists and climatologists will have a fantastic tool for measuring precipitation where no ground-based instruments are located.

When the Doppler-on-wheels radar system arrived at Lake Quinault, skies were clear and the ground was dry.
When the Doppler-on-wheels radar system arrived at Lake Quinault, skies were clear and the ground was dry. // Photo: UW Atmospheric Sciences

To improve the satellite system, ground-based radar and other equipment were moved to remote areas of the Olympic Peninsula to take measurements (see video below). Meanwhile, aircraft flying above, below and inside the clouds were taking their own readings.

The program, called Olympex for Olympic Mountains Experiment, is impressive. Researchers chose the west side of the Olympics because that’s where storms arrive from the Pacific Ocean, laying down between 100 and 180 inches of rainfall each year. Sure, these folks were looking for rain, but did they really know what they were getting into?

Heavy rains arrived, raising the waters of Lake Quinault and nearly flooding the equipment.
Heavy rains arrived, raising the waters of Lake Quinault and nearly flooding the equipment on Friday. // Photo: UW Atmospheric Sciences

On Friday, a Doppler-on-wheels radar system was nearly flooded when between 4 and 14 inches of rain fell in various portions of the Quinault Valley, raising Lake Quinault by about six inches per hour over a period of several hours. For details, check out science summary for the day, which describes some of the measurements that were taken.

“We’re not just checking the satellite’s observations, the way you might double-check a simple distance measurement,” said project manager Lynn McMurdie in a news release from the University of Washington.

“We’re checking the connection between what the satellite sees from space, what’s happening in the middle of the storm system and what reaches the ground, which is what most people ultimately want to know,” McMurdle said. “So we’re not just improving the satellite’s performance — we’re learning how storm systems work.”

NASA’s “Precipitation Education” website explains how weather systems from the Pacific Ocean are experienced on land and how Olympex will sort things out:

“Large weather systems arrive in the Pacific Northwest from the ocean, and not all parts of the system are equal. The leading edge, called the pre-frontal sector, tends to be warmer and have steady rainfall. Next, the frontal sector marks the transition from the warmer air to the colder air and processes that produce rainfall are often most intense in this region. Finally the post-frontal sector, characterized by colder temperatures, will often bring showery rain and snow, and can produce large snowfall accumulations at higher elevations.

“The (Olympex) field campaign will be looking inside these storm clouds with ground radar and aircraft instruments to determine the accuracy of the GPM satellite constellation in detecting the unique precipitation characteristics in these different storm sectors.

“One of the aircraft will be flying through the clouds to make detailed measurements of raindrops, ice particles, and snowflakes as they are falling to Earth’s surface. Combined with data from the ground radars and the total amounts caught by the rain gauges and other instruments on the ground, scientists will be able to improve the computer models of precipitating clouds – the same types of computer models used to forecast the weather and project future climate.”

If you’d like to learn more about Olympex, check out these sources:

Global Precipitation Measurement Core Observatory NASA graphic
Global Precipitation Measurement Core Observatory // NASA graphic