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Environmental reporter Christopher Dunagan discusses the challenges of protecting Puget Sound and all things water-related.
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Posts Tagged ‘Climate change’

Congress throwing away the keys to problem-solving

Friday, October 25th, 2013

I have been waiting for a prominent person to step forward and compare the politics surrounding climate change to what Congress just went through with the government shutdown and debt limit. Just in time, out of the woodwork, comes former Vice President Al Gore with his droll approach to the subject.

“Congress is pathetic right now, Gore said during an interview on “Take Part Live.” He continued:

“There are some awful good people in Congress trapped in a bad system. The truth is our democracy has been hacked; big money now calls the shots. That may sound like a radical statement, but less and less to people who have been paying attention to what’s been going on there.

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Amusing Monday: Celebrating polar bears

Monday, February 25th, 2013

Wednesday is International Polar Bear Day, an unofficial holiday that is gaining increasing attention as more and more people become worried about the future of this unique species.

Nobody seems to know how Polar Bear Day got started, but it has strong connections to the Alaska Zoo in Anchorage and to Polar Bears International, which is leading an enthusiastic campaign to curb global warming and reduce the loss of sea ice, which may be the greatest threat to polar bears.

The campaign goes by the name Save Our Sea Ice! or just SOS!. Check out this bulletin board created by first and second graders at Carpathia School in Winnipeg.

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Amusing Monday: Colbert reacts to climate change

Monday, February 4th, 2013

Last week, Stephen Colbert went on an eight-minute rant about climate change, talking about how humans should or should not respond to the upheaval in the environment. It is a speech that only Colbert with his unique persona could pull off in grand style.

Listen for the part where commentator Erick Erickson asks, “What does it matter?” Even if everyone were to shut down production of greenhouse gases, he says, it would take about 100 years to see the effect.

And Colbert responds: “Yeah, what’s the point of going to all that trouble if me and Erick Erickson won’t be around to enjoy it? Sure, our grandkids will. But I don’t want to be one of those grandpas who spoils the grandkids with a habitable planet.”


Be alert for tidal flooding and King Tide photos

Sunday, December 16th, 2012

Some of the highest tides of the year, combined with a strong low-pressure system, could provide “King Tide” observers with ideal conditions tomorrow (Monday) for taking pictures of near-flood conditions or even flooding in some places.

This is the third year the Washington Department of Ecology has put out a call for photos of high-tide conditions.

Photo of Poulsbo waterfront taken during “King Tides” Dec. 28, 2011.
Photo by James Groh, Poulsbo

“Documenting how very high tides affect the natural environment and our coastal infrastructure will help us visualize what sea level rise might look like in the future,” states Ecology’s “Climate Change” blog.

The King Tide photo initiative began in Australia in January 2009. Washington and British Columbia joined in 2010, followed by Oregon and California in 2011.

Tide tables predict that tides in Bremerton and Port Orchard will reach 13.4 feet at 8:28 a.m. tomorrow. Check on other locations and other days in Washington state at Saltwater Tides.

The National Weather Service has issued a coastal flood advisory for Western Washington because of low-pressure conditions, which could add 1.5 feet to the tide table prediction. That would put the Bremerton area at 14.9 feet. Check out the Weather Service advisory and the Kitsap Sun story.

While it looks like we’ll have a very high tide, it probably won’t be a record. I was unable to find historical data for Bremerton, but the record high tide for Seattle is 22.4 feet on Jan. 27, 1983. The tide tables predict that Seattle will reach 12.5 feet tomorrow, or 14 feet with the added 1.5 feet because of the low pressure.

Historical data can be found on NOAA’s “Tides and Currents” webpage after selecting a station.

Shortly after I posted this, Jeff Adams of Washington Sea Grant sent me an email to point out that NOAA’s numbers need to be corrected by subtracting 7.94, because NOAA uses a different baseline than we commonly use in this area. That would place the record in Seattle at 14.5 feet, much closer to what we may see tomorrow. I should have known that something was amiss with that data. For more on this point, check out Jeff’s blog, Sea Life. 

King Tides will continue through this week, declining slightly each day, then will return on Jan. 14.

I’m certainly not hoping for high water levels, but where they occur it would be great to have some photos. Feel free to send them to me at cdunagan, as well as uploading to the Flickr page called “Washington King Tide Photo Initiative.”


Washington leading on ocean acidification

Thursday, November 29th, 2012

Ocean acidification is hitting Washington’s shellfish industry even before we begin to experience the full effects of climate change, and Gov. Chris Gregoire placed this state in the forefront of action Tuesday when she signed an executive order on the issue.

The order supports the findings of the governor’s Blue Ribbon Panel on Ocean Acidification. Check out the story I wrote for yesterday’s Kitsap Sun.

The panel released the report during an hour-long presentation of the findings. If you have time, I recommend watching the informative presentation, provided by TVW in the player at right.

The executive summary of the report, as well as the full report, its appendices and the governor’s order, can be downloaded from panel’s webpage on the Washington Department of Ecology website.

Gregoire’s order is considered the first state-level action on ocean acidification — and that has attracted attention from across the country. For example, stories were written by environmental reporter Juliet Eilperin of the Washington Post and by Virginia Gewin of Nature magazine.

Ocean acidification has been called the “evil twin” of global warming, because the effects can be more swift and more severe than gradual warming of the Earth. That’s not to discount other serious effects of climate change, including increased frequency of severe storms, sea level rise with increasing flooding, and heat waves with crippling effects on agriculture. But acidification affects organisms at the base of the entire food web.

The effects of ocean acidification will not be reversed for a long, long time, even if greenhouse gas emissions are brought under control. The upwelling of old water along the coast brings this problem right to our doorstep now and for the foreseeable future.

The shift from coal to natural gas, along with the downturn in the economy, has significantly reduced emissions of carbon dioxide in this country the past couple years, but the levels of atmospheric greenhouse gases continue to go up.

“Climate change is taking place before our eyes and will continue to do so as a result of the concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, which have risen constantly and again reached new records,” said Michel Jarraud, secretary-general for the World Meteorological Association, in a press release issued yesterday.

The WMA reported that the years 2001–2011 were all among the warmest on record, and it appears that 2012 will continue the trend, despite a cooling influence from La Niña early this year.

“Naturally occurring climate variability due to phenomena such as El Niño and La Niña impact on temperatures and precipitation on a seasonal to annual scale,” Jarraud said. “But they do not alter the underlying long-term trend of rising temperatures due to climate change as a result of human activities.

“The extent of Arctic sea ice reached a new record low. The alarming rate of its melt this year highlighted the far-reaching changes taking place on Earth’s oceans and biosphere,” he added.

Environmental correspondent Alister Doyle reported today for Reuters that the United Nations Panel on Climate Change now believes that it is more certain than ever that humans are the primary cause of global warming.

In its 2007 report, the panel pegged the certainty at more than 90 percent. Now, it appears likely that the scientists will increase that certainty in the next report in 2013, said Rajendra Pachauri, head of the panel who spoke with Doyle at a climate conference in Qatar.

“We certainly have a substantial amount of information available by which I hope we can narrow the gaps, increase the level of certainty of our findings,” he said, adding that analyses also will increase the predicted rate of sea-level rise.

Meanwhile, the “Draft National Ocean Policy and Implementation Plan” is still undergoing review by the National Ocean Council. The report contains a chapter called “Resiliency and Adaptation to Climate Change and Ocean Acidification” (PDF 732 kb). That chapter contains some of the same recommendations offered by Washington state’s Blue Ribbon Panel, but the state plan is more specific and comes with a recommended $3.3 million budget to begin work on the problem.

U.S. Rep. Doc Hastings of Washington, chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, is attempting to derail the plan, saying it creates an unnecessary bureaucracy and asserts federal controls not approved by Congress. Read the news release about House action against the plan.

I have not talked to anyone on the council lately, but it appears that President Obama’s election campaign over the past year effectively derailed any movement on this issue. In his first press conference after the election, he pledged to jump-start the climate-change effort, but no mention was made of the ocean policy. Review the video below at 42:20.


Report examines sea-level rise along the West Coast

Saturday, June 30th, 2012

I’ve been on vacation this week, but I wanted to offer some brief notes on issues that have grabbed my attention.

First, a new report on sea-level rise along the West Coast is a must-read for anyone interested in climate change. The report, written by a committee of the National Research Council, is well organized to serve all levels of interest. Download the report on the National Academies website.

An initial summary at the beginning of the report provides an intriguing overview of the many factors that went into predicting future sea-level changes. Each chapter summary delves a level deeper. If you read the full report, you’ll gain an understanding of the uncertainty of every assumption that goes into calculating a range of possible scenarios.

According to the report, most of California is expected to experience a sea-level rise of a meter over the next century — greater than the worldwide average.

On the other hand, the change for Washington, Oregon and Northern California is likely to be about 60 centimeters over that same period. That is because tectonic forces are pushing up land masses north of Cape Mendocino in California — possibly faster than the sea is rising.

Over time, ocean levels in the Northwest will rise increasingly faster than uplift of the land, the report predicts. Eventually, a subduction earthquake could drop the land masses by a meter or more, suddenly raising the sea level dramatically in coastal areas.

Robert Dalrymple, who chaired the study committee, said in a news release:

“As the average sea level rises, the number and duration of extreme storm surges and high waves are expected to escalate, and this increases the risk of flooding, coastal erosion, and wetland loss.”

The report discusses effects on nearshore areas along the coast and in various estuaries. Some land areas in Puget Sound are rising while others are falling, which adds to localized variations beyond those caused by the shape and depth of the bays and tidal marshes.


Amusing Monday: Climate and strange politics

Monday, June 18th, 2012

The North Carolina Legislature is taking action to address climate change. But a bill passed last week has generated humor and ridicule, including a segment by Stephen Colbert on “The Colbert Report.”

As Colbert describes it, the bill would address the coming crisis predicted by climate models by “outlawing the climate models.” The bill, which has since passed the Senate, abandons the idea of using actual predictions of sea level rise in the effort to protect homes from flooding.

The North Carolina Legislature seems to be saying that it is too inconvenient to believe that sea level may rise up to three feet, so we’ll just set the maximum at 8 inches.

Colbert loves this approach:

“This is a brilliant solution. If your science gives you a result you don’t like, pass a law saying that the result is illegal. Problem solved.

“I think we should start applying this method to even more things that we don’t want to happen. For example, I don’t want to die…. If we consider only historical data, I have been alive my entire life. Therefore, I always will be. And if you extrapolate my life from the critical period of age 8 to 18, I will grow to be over 20 feet tall. So I say, bravo, North Carolina.”

Straight-news reporter John Murawski describes the actual effects of the bill in the Winston-Salem Journal:

“The practical result of the legislation would be that for the purposes of coastal development, local governments could only assume that the sea level will rise 8 inches by 2100, as opposed to the 39 inches predicted by a science panel….

“The legislation gives the state Coastal Resources Commission sole responsibility for predicting the rate of sea-level rise to be used as a basis for state and local regulations. The commission’s 15 members are appointed by the governor.

“But the legislation also defines how the Coastal Resources Commission is to decide sea-level rates. Specifically, the law says forecasts can be based on historical data only and can’t take into account non-historical factors. The key factor that’s disqualified is the belief that greenhouse gases are causing climate change and speeding up glacier melts.”

Scott Huler, a blogger with Scientific American, says the legislation is “exactly like saying, do not predict tomorrow’s weather based on radar images of a hurricane swirling offshore, moving west towards us with 60-mph winds and ten inches of rain. Predict the weather based on the last two weeks of fair weather with gentle breezes towards the east.”

Huler says he wants North Carolina to pass a law declaring him a billionaire and winner of the Pulitzer Prize with the good looks of George Clooney. He continues:

“You think I’m kidding, but listen to me: I’m from North Carolina, and that’s how we roll. We take what we want to be reality, and we just make it law. So I’m having my state senator introduce legislation writing into law all the stuff I mentioned above. This is North Carolina, state motto: ‘Because that’s how I WANT it to be.’”

Michael Yudell of the Philadephia Inquirer says maybe the NC Legislature was inspired by Superman’s Nemesis Lex Luther, who bought up thousands of acres of land east of the San Andreas fault. Luther’s goal was to trigger an earthquake to submerge coastal cities and leave him with valuable waterfront property.

“Granted,” Yudell writes, “it may take 100 or more years for their own diabolical plan to pay off, but if ice sheets keep falling into the ocean, sea levels may rise faster than predicted just a few years back… In other words, to hell with the science. Let’s have an underwater beach party!”

With these moves, the North Carolina Legislature has formally moved into the camp of those who cannot accept what climatologists are telling them.

Among those who write about climate change, there’s an ongoing debate about what to call these folks. Are they climate skeptics? Climate denialists? Climate contrarians? Climate agnostics? Check out Leo Hickman of “The Guardian” for a discussion about these names.

It probably isn’t fair to lump everyone together. The one thing these folks have in common is swimming upstream against mainstream climatology. But their views are varied, and their members include:

  • those who flat-out deny that our climate is changing,
  • those who believe that our climate is changing but don’t believe humans are to blame,
  • those who believe that climate is changing and humans are to blame, but it’s too late and too expensive to do anything about it, and
  • those who believe that all mainstream scientists are liars, so we should believe only the fringe scientists.

To end on a serious note, our society must find better ways of reaching agreement on actions to address climate change. People are not turning away from the findings of climatologists because they are ignorant or fail to understand the methods of science. Rather it is more of a problem of group thinking, as described by a study reported in Nature magazine. You can read the report, but here’s the final conclusion:

“As citizens understandably tend to conform their beliefs about societal risk to beliefs that predominate among their peers, communicators should endeavor to create a deliberative climate in which accepting the best available science does not threaten any group’s values. Effective strategies include use of culturally diverse communicators, whose affinity with different communities enhances their credibility, and information-framing techniques that invest policy solutions with resonances congenial to diverse groups.”


Earth Hour connecting people through social media

Thursday, March 29th, 2012

Earth Hour is this Saturday beginning at 8:30 p.m. The annual event is a chance for everyone on Earth to connect with everyone else by turning off their lights for an hour.

As I’ve mentioned before, I’ve found the symbolic event to be an enjoyable time for sitting quietly in the dark with a few candles and discussing with my family what we can do as individuals, joining with others, to make this a better world.

As others have said, all important movements start with small actions. I like Earth Hour, because one is joining something both big and small. It’s big because it is taking place throughout the world. It’s small because it is such a simple thing.

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When nobody was around to hear the rain …

Thursday, March 29th, 2012

The atmosphere that existed on Earth some 2.7 billion years ago can be understood a little better by examining the fossil record created when raindrops fell into volcanic ash so very long ago.

A South African meerkat sits on a volcanic rock where raindrops left an impression 2.7 billion years ago.
Photo courtesy of Wlady Altermann, University of Pretoria

Using impressions left by falling raindrops, University of Washington researchers have deduced that the atmospheric pressure back then was not so different from today but that greenhouse gases were probably causing the Earth to heat up considerably.

It was a time in the Earth’s geologic history when plants and animals did not yet exist but microbes were common.

The findings, published yesterday in “Nature,” provides new information in the search for life on other planets.

I was awakened early this morning by the sound of gusty winds blowing millions of raindrops against the side of my house. As I lay in the dark, for once I was not thinking about how much I yearn for spring weather to replace our ongoing gloom. Instead, I was thinking about how the rains have endured, realizing that it was raining on Earth long before the most primitive plants and animals could benefit from the falling water.

Our mystery of the ancient raindrops begins with a long-held understanding that during those early days on Earth, the sun was burning about 30 percent dimmer than today, according to information provided by Vince Stricherz of the UW’s Office of News and Information. Other things being equal, the Earth would have been encrusted in ice. But geologic evidence shows that rivers were flowing across the surface.

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A few answers regarding sea level rise

Wednesday, January 4th, 2012

Because of the holidays, I did not get an immediate response from several climate experts I contacted following Nels Sultan’s comments about sea level rise in a blog post regarding “king tides.”

Earth at the winter solstice, Dec. 22, 2011 / NOAA photo

If you recall, Nels was making the point that the sea level in Seattle has been rising at a steady rate of .68 feet, or about 8 inches, per century since 1898, as reported by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

His post included this statement:

“There is no real basis for the claims that sea levels will rise by 2.6 feet or 7 feet, or more. Globally, sea level rise has NOT accelerated. As found and reported by many researchers who specialize in this, including the eminent professor Bob Dean and other coastal experts.”

As a reporter, I’m not inclined to shoot back a response. I’d rather discuss the issue with experts in the field. That is what I did, and I think I have a better handle on the issue.

What I’m hearing is that the original estimates by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change — a rise of between 7 inches and 2 feet by the end of the century — remain reasonable, but conservative given that they did not account for increased melting of the Greenland ice sheet. See this explanation by Stefan Rahmstorf soon after the release of the 2007 IPCC report. By the way, the range above accounts for the minimum and maximum across six climate-change scenarios.

Ever since, researchers have been trying to find ways to account for the melting of the Greenland ice sheet, but the uncertainties remain high. A widely cited paper by W.T. Pfeffer, J.T. Harper and S. O’Neel suggests that “most likely” starting point for further refinement is .8 meter, or 31 inches, of sea level rise by 2100.

In some ways, the authors of the Pfeffer paper were trying to limit some of the extremes being reported by others, so they concluded that sea level rise could not be more than 6 feet by 2100. Some folks have reported 6 feet as the top of the range, as unlikely as that extreme may be. Check out this explanation posed by Real Climate and this response by Pfeffer and his collaborators.

As for the Houston-Dean paper that Nels Sultan mentioned, those authors created “various problems” in their assumptions, according to Eric Steig, professor of Earth and Space Sciences at the University of Washington. One major problem was the starting date of 1930, as explained by Stefan Rahmstorf in Real Climate:

“Other start dates either before or after this minimum show positive acceleration. Picking 1930 for this analysis is thus a classic cherry-pick, and according to the authors that is no accident. They write in the paper: ‘Since the worldwide data of Church and White (2006)…appear to have a linear rise since around 1930, we analyzed the period 1930 to 2010.’ The interval was thus hand-picked to show a linear rise rather than acceleration.

“Houston & Dean use their result to question the future acceleration of sea level rise predicted by Vermeer & Rahmstorf (2009) for the 21st Century as a consequence of global warming. They argue that the 1930s acceleration minimum calls into question the semi-empirical link between global temperature and global sea level proposed by us in that paper. However, it is clear they never bothered to check this, because quite the opposite is the case: our semi-empirical formula predicts this acceleration minimum, as the graph above shows. As it turns out, this is an expected outcome of the mid-20th-Century plateau in global temperature.”

I also discussed this issue of sea level rise with Lara Whitely Binder, outreach specialist for the UW’s Climate Impacts Group. While sea level rise means one thing on the world scale, she told me, the local impacts can be quite different.

If you live in Neah Bay on the Olympic Peninsula, for example, you are not likely to see any sea level rise until at least 2080. That’s because the entire land mass is uplifting as a result of movement along the tectonic plates, and the uplift is predicted to be faster than sea level rise until late in the century.

On the other hand, Central and South Puget Sound may not be uplifting at all and could be sinking, which would intensify the effects of sea level rise. Areas built on fill, including portions of Olympia, also could be sinking as the fill settles, Lara said.

In addition to global rise in sea level and local tectonic shifts, factors affecting regional sea level rise include thermal expansion of ocean waters and changes in onshore and offshore wind patterns.

During El Niño events, sea level can rise as much as 12 inches for several months at a time. The Climate Impacts Group analyzed more than 30 scenarios from global climate models and concluded that the change in wind patterns as a result of climate change could decrease sea level by as much as 1 inch or possibly increase it by as much as 6 inches. Review the white paper “Sea Level Rise in the Coastal Waters of Washington State” (PDF 2.4 mb) for more details.

How much an individual property is affected by sea level rise depends on the slope of the beach. Given the same rate of rise, water will affect a house sooner when it is built on a gradually sloping beach as opposed to a steep slope. In any case, tides and weather will always play a major role in water levels.

Lara told me that a group of West Coast researchers is working on a new report about sea level for publication later this year by the National Academy of Sciences. I’ll try to review that paper when it comes out.

I wish to thank Eric Steig, Lara Whitely Binder, Cliff Mass, David Montgomery and Nate Mantua for responding to my inquiry.


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"In the end, we will conserve only what we love, we will love only what we understand, and we will understand only what we are taught."Baba Dioum, Senegalese conservationist

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