Category Archives: Climate change

In climate change, heat extremes tell a bigger story than average temps

News reports about climate change often focus on how the average global temperature is rising, but perhaps more attention should be paid to some alarming trends in extreme temperatures — the conditions that are more likely to kill people and push species toward extinction.

From 1986 to 2015, hottest-day-of-the-year readings climbed by 0.25 degrees Celsius per decade, the UCI study found. Some megacities saw a rise of 0.60 degrees Celsius per decade.
Map: Simon Michael Papalexiou, UCI

A new study published last week revealed that temperatures across the Earth’s surface went up an average of 0.19 degrees C (.34° F) each decade over the past 30 years, whereas the highest temperature recorded each year has gone up even more — an average of 0.25 degrees C (0.45° F) per decade.

The study, led by Simon Papalexiou of the University of California at Irvine, calls out even greater changes in the extreme temperatures in specific locations. Average change per decade of 0.33 degrees C (0.59° F) were measured in some parts of Europe, Asia, Australia and Africa. Download PowerPoint map (PPT 1.4 mb) from the report in the journal Earth’s Future.

Meanwhile, hottest temperatures recorded throughout the world grew even faster in some of the largest cities, according to the study. Of the cities for which reliable data are available, the increased temperature in the “megacities” rose an average of 0.33 degrees C (.59° F) per decade, and numerous cities exceeded 0.6 degrees C (1.08° F).

Over a 50-year time period, Paris had the fastest change, with the hottest temperature of the year growing by 0.96 degrees C (1.73° F) per decade. Over the past 30 years, Houston’s hottest temperatures grew even faster, rising 0.99 degrees C (1.8° F) per decade.

The urban heat island effect, which is caused by solar heat absorption in concrete, steel and glass structures, is “likely to have contributed to the observed alarming changes,” the report says, adding that a better understanding of the causes could help reduce the risks for people living in cities.

“More than just temperature readings on a map, these events have taken a severe human toll,” states a UCI news release on the paper. “A heat wave in Europe in 2003 caused roughly 70,000 deaths, and another in Russia in 2010 killed nearly 55,000 people. In the United States, an average of 658 deaths due to excessive heat were reported per year between 1999 and 2009.”

Amir AghaKouchak, a co-author of the study, said government officials will need to pay more attention in the megacities, where the risks are greatest.

“In France after that massive heatwave (in 2003), now all nursing homes or places where there are a lot of vulnerable people have to have at least a common room with air conditioning,” said AghaKouchak, quoted in a Reuters story by reporter Laurie Goering.

“That can be done and it’s already happening in some places,” he said. “But some countries don’t have the resources to do that.”

Architectural styles and green areas with trees and plants may help reduce the everyday risks to those who don’t have the resources to protect themselves.

The greatest problems surrounding climate change won’t be seen in the averages but in the new extremes — the temperatures, sea levels and rainy downpours never before experienced at a given location.

The website WX shift (pronounced “weather shift”) was designed to tell people about changing climate trends, including “The 10 hottest years.” For example, of the 10 hottest years on record, only two occurred before 1998 (1934 and 1990). The five hottest years on record have all occurred in the past 11 years.

WX shift also contains predictions for the number of days a given location will reach a high temperature. See “Future days above 95° F. This interactive graphic is said to be based on historical records and climate change models, as explained at the bottom of the page.

Another graphic on Climate Central’s website helps explain how a small change in average temperature can lead to an increasing number of record-breaking temperatures and more extreme conditions.

A further search for truth among stories about climate change

When it comes to reports of climate change, I cannot escape “fake news,” which I define as wholly made up with little basis in fact. More often than not, however, what I observe are news stories in which the reporters exaggerate or simply misunderstand the results of scientific studies.

In a confusing landscape of climate news, it is not easy to know what to believe. That’s why we need news reporters who work hard to get things right by understanding the science and conveying information in a meaningful way.

Key to the effort is figuring out which studies are even worthy of mention. A huge red flag for me is when I read a report from a so-called scientist who gathers no original data of his or her own, but instead grabs information from someone else’s peer-reviewed report and totally changes the conclusions of the original author.

Credibility of top climate stories (click to enlarge)
Source: Climate Feedback

“Climate Feedback,” a website in which climate scientists review the accuracy and tone of news stories, can help us understand the complexities of climate and identify reporters who tend to get things right. One drawback of the website is its focus on a national audience, which leaves out stories by numerous reporters working at mid-sized and smaller newspapers and magazines.

Still, I was delighted to see a new article on the website that looked at the top 25 climate stories that went viral during 2017. Many of these stories were new to me, and the analysis helped me to get a feeling for the inflammatory and untrue nature of some stories floating around the Internet.

Out of the 25 stories most viewed and commented upon, climate scientists considered only about half of them to be highly credible, containing no major errors or misleading descriptions. Because of its widespread readership, seven of the most-read articles were from the New York Times, which was rated highly for scientific accuracy.

Of the top five articles getting the most public attention, all contained some credibility problems. Among them, an article in New York Magazine titled “The Uninhabitable Earth,” was found to be overly sensational by Climate Feedback reviewers. Author David Wallace-Wells intentionally looked for the most extreme conditions imaginable under climate change scenarios, though he accurately described several scientific studies. After the criticism, Wallace-Wells followed up with detailed notes in annotated format to support his approach.

Another top-five article, called “Ship of Fools — Global Warming Study Cancelled Because of ‘Unprecedented’ Ice,” was criticized by Climate Feedback reviewers for its sarcastic tone and omission of basic facts. Author James Delingpole of Breitbart News seemed to ignore the idea that sea ice could be pushing south out of the Arctic as a result of — or irrespective of — climate change. Was the article intended as a joke? Stories like this, which discount global warming on flimsy circumstances, frequently get passed around on Facebook, and they drive scientists crazy. University of Manitoba professor David Barber explained what happened in a note, and a UM news release called the Breitbart piece “stunningly ill-informed.”

The remaining three of the top five stories — from National Geographic, BBC and The Atlantic — were described as “neutral” with only a few problematic issues. The main criticism of the National Geographic story, which described the effects of climate change on polar bears, was the apparent suggestion that a specific polar bear (shown in a photograph) was starving because of climate change, whereas nobody knows what had happened to that particular bear.

Seeing all the researchers’ comments on these stories is very revealing. I hope to go through all of them, learning more about climate change, both from the articles and the reviews. See “Most popular climate change stories of 2017 reviewed by scientists.”

While on the topic of scientific information, I’d like to again share a source to which I am somewhat addicted. Science Daily is really nothing more than a collection of news releases from universities and other institutions where research is being conducted.

These news items, usually approved by the researchers themselves, are written for nonscientists. They are often the first glimpse that we can get into new findings. As such, one must be cautious, because new findings do not always pan out. The website links directly to the original scientific papers and news sources, and it sorts by topic, such as “Climate News.” One can also sign up for email notifications.

Offshore drilling plan moves quickly into the political arena

UPDATE: Jan 12

News was breaking yesterday as I completed this blog on offshore oil drilling. I doubt that anyone was surprised by the reaction of outrage that followed Secretary Ryan Zinke’s apparently offhanded and arbitrary decision to exempt Florida from an otherwise all-coast leasing plan.

All U.S. senators from New England states, Democrats and Republicans, signed onto legislation to exempt their states from the drilling plan, while U.S. Rep. David Cicilline, D-RI, says he has unanimous bipartisan support for a similar bill in the House. Now, if they move to include the rest of the East Coast and the West Coast in the bill, they might have enough votes to pass it. (See statement from Rep. David Cicilline.)

Meanwhile, Washington’s Sen. Maria Cantwell, the ranking member of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, set the stage yesterday for the inevitable lawsuits that will follow if Zinke maintains his present course of action. Cantwell said in a statement that Zinke may have violated the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act. Others have said that he may have violated the Administrative Procedures Act as well (Washington Examiner).

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The Trump administration’s announcement of an open season on offshore oil drilling all around the edges of the United States has put some congressional Republicans on the hot seat during a tough election year.

Opposition to the proposed oil leases along the East Coast is reflected in the negative comments from Republican governors Larry Hogan of Maine, Charlie Baker of Massachusetts, Chris Sununu of New Hampshire, Henry McMaster of South Carolina and Rick Scott of Florida. None want to see drilling anywhere off their shorelines.

“Of course I oppose drilling off of New Hampshire’s coastline,” Gov. Sununu said in a statement made to New Hampshire Public Radio.

Just days after Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke announced his plan to issue leases for oil and gas exploration and development nearly everywhere, he decided to let Florida off the hook — to the relief of Gov. Scott, who is said to be a close friend of the Trump administration.

Zinke’s exemption for Florida was announced in a tweet posted on Twitter, in which he called Scott “a straightforward leader that can be trusted.”

“President Trump has directed me to rebuild our offshore oil and gas program in a manner that supports our national energy policy and also takes into consideration the local and state voice,” Zinke tweeted. “I support the governor’s position that Florida is unique and its coasts are heavily reliant on tourism as an economic driver. As a result of discussion with Governor Scott’s (sic) and his leadership, I am removing Florida from consideration of any new oil and gas platforms.”

It appears that Zinke is admitting that oil and gas development can harm the local tourism industry. Needless to say, the other Republican governors also would like a piece of that “support” from Zinke, as reported in a story by Dan Merica of CNN News.

Meanwhile, on the West Coast, Democratic governors and many members of Congress also oppose the drilling plan — with the exception of Alaska, where Gov. Bill Walker supports expanded drilling anywhere he can get it — even into the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. I discussed the ANWR drilling proposal in Water Ways on Nov. 16, before approval of the Republican tax bill.

Democrats in Washington state’s congressional delegation are unified in their opposition to offshore drilling, and most of them support legislation that would take the entire matter off the table for good. They are joined in their opposition by Rep. Dave Reichert, a Republican from the Eighth District.

“This moves America in the wrong direction and has the potential to have a negative lasting effect on our oceans as well as the shorelines of states on these coasts,” Reichert said in a statement. “Our country is at the forefront of developing efficient and cost effective alternative energy technologies and we should continue to support innovation in this area.”

Congressional districts in Western Washington.
Graphic: govtrack

Jaime Herrera Beutler, a Republican who represents the Third District — including coastal areas in Southwest Washington — was a little more low-key.

“I don’t support offshore oil and gas exploration in states that don’t want it, and Washington’s citizens have never indicated any desire to have oil and gas activity off their coast,” she said in a Facebook post. “I’m not aware of any active plan to drill off Washington or Oregon, but I will act to protect our citizens and our coast if any such effort does arise.”

Other comments on the plan:

  • Letter in opposition (PDF 974 kb) from 109 U.S. representatives, including Washington’s Suzan DelBene, 1st District; Derek Kilmer, 6th District; Pramila Jayapal, 7th District; Dave Reichert, 8th District; Adam Smith, 9th District; and Denny Heck, 10th District.
  • Letter in opposition (PDF 997 kb) from 37 of the 50 U.S. senators, including Washington’s Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell.
  • Rep. Derek Kilmer, Sixth District: “For decades, Democrats and Republicans have agreed that opening our waters up to drilling would be shortsighted and wrong. Doing so could threaten our fisheries, shellfish growers, tourism, and jobs in other key sectors of our economy.”
  • Sens. Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell: “This draft proposal is an ill-advised effort to circumvent public and scientific input, and we object to sacrificing public trust, community safety, and economic security for the interests of the oil industry.”

With substantial opposition from all sides, the looming question is whether Congress will allow the leasing program to move forward before expiration of the existing five-year plan for offshore drilling (PDF 34 mb), which ends in 2022 and focuses mostly on offshore drilling in the Gulf of Mexico.

While the California Coast remains a key target for oil companies, it is unlikely that we will ever see oil rigs off the Washington Coast, no matter what happens with the leasing program. Oil and gas resources simply aren’t known to be there, according to all published data.

During the 1960s, 10 exploratory wells were drilled with no significant finds off the coast of Washington and Oregon, according to a 1977 report by the U.S. Geological Survey (PDF 10.2 mb). Some 14 other wells were drilled without result offshore near Vancouver Island in Canada. Many more onshore wells have been drilled without major success throughout the region.

In 2008, I explored the idea of offshore drilling in Washington state when the George W. Bush administration attempted to lift the offshore-drilling moratorium.

“We would probably be last, or next to last,” state geologist Ray Lasmanis told me in a story for the Kitsap Sun. “The geology is too broken up, and it does not have the kind of sedimentary basins they have off the coast of California.”

Officials told me at the time that even if oil companies were given free rein, they would not line up to drill off our coast.

“It is important to note that, at least here on the West Coast, that it will take more than lifting the congressional moratorium,” said Tupper Hull, spokesman for the Western States Petroleum Association. “In addition to state and local constraints, a number of marine sanctuaries would restrict development.”

Gov. Jay Inslee, who was a U.S. representative at the time, said offshore drilling was a diversion, because much better alternatives exist on land. Because of climate change, Inslee was pushing Congress to encourage renewable energy sources, as he continues to do today as governor.

“Drilling offshore,” he told me, “is doomed to failure. I’m not opposed to drilling. We accept massive drilling on federal land. But the danger is we’ll get wrapped around the minutia of the drilling issue … and we’re still going to be addicted to oil.”

The latest proposal by the Department of Interior is subject to public hearings, including one scheduled in Tacoma on Feb. 5. Check out the full schedule of 23 hearings.

Other related documents:

Become a witness for ‘king tides’ in Puget Sound now and later

Witnessing Puget Sound’s “king tides” could return as a more popular outdoor activity this year, as Washington Sea Grant takes the lead in promoting the event.

Locations where people have posted king tide photos on the Witness King Tides website

“King tides,” which are recognized in coastal areas across the country, is the name given to the highest tides of the year. These are times when people can observe what average tides might look like in the future, as sea levels continue to rise.

The highest tide of 2018 is forecast for this Friday around 8 a.m., although the exact time depends on the location in Puget Sound.

Activities include taking pictures of shoreline structures during these high-tide events and then sharing the photos with others. One can try to imagine what the landscape would look like in a given location if the water was a foot or more higher. King tide activities can be fun while adding a dose of reality to the uncertainty of climate change.

King tides by themselves have nothing to do with climate change, but these extremes will be seen more often in the future as new extremes are reached. As things are going now, experts say there is a 50 percent chance that sea levels in Puget Sound will rise by at least 7 inches in the next 22 years and keep going from there. They say there is a 99 percent chance that sea levels will be at least 2.4 inches higher by then. Check out the story I wrote in October for the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound.

Washington Department of Ecology, which had been promoting king tides each year, has backed away from the event in recent years. In the beginning, I thought the idea of king tides seemed kind of silly, because high tides are affected by weather conditions on a given day. But I came to embrace the idea that watching these high-tide events will help shoreline residents and others understand the challenges we are facing in the Puget Sound region.

Addressing sea level rise may not be easy, but some waterfront property owners are beginning to face the problem, as I described in another story in the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound.

During a king tide event in December 2012, the Kitsap Sun and other newspapers covered the resulting flooding by running photographs of high water in many places throughout Puget Sound. A low-pressure weather system that year made extreme high tides even more extreme. In fact, officials reported that the high tide came within 0.01 feet of breaking the all-time tidal record set for Seattle on Jan. 27, 1983. See Water Ways, Dec. 18, 2012.

Washington Sea Grant, associated with the University of Washington, has now taken over promotion of king tides, and we should soon see an improved website, according to Bridget Trosin, coastal policy specialist for Sea Grant. Bridget told me that she hopes to promote more local events, such as getting people together to share information during extreme high tides.

Sea Grant is sponsoring a King Tide Viewing Party this Friday at Washington Park boat launch in Anacortes, where Bridget will spell out what high tides may look like in the future. Warming refreshments will be provided, according to a news release about the event.

Wherever you live around Puget Sound, you can go down to the water to document the high tide, perhaps starting a new photo gallery to show how high tides change at one location during king tides in the future, as some folks are doing in Port Townsend.

For tips on preparing and posting photos, visit the “Witness King Tides — Washington State” website, then check out the page “Share Your Photos.” To see the locations where photographs have been taken, go to the map page. One can click on locations on the map to see the photographs taken from that spot.

King tides occur when the moon and sun are on the same side of the Earth at a time when the moon comes closest to the Earth. Their combined pull of gravity raises the sea level. The presence of a low-pressure system can raise the tides even higher than predictions published by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Friday’s high tide is predicted to be 13.2 feet in Seattle at 7:55 a.m. We won’t have a tide that high again until January of 2019, according to NOAA. Still, Feb. 2 will see a 13.1-foot tide in Seattle, and tides exceeding 12 feet are predicted for June 16, Nov. 27, Dec. 1, Dec. 10, and daily high tides from Dec. 26 through the end of this year.

Carbon emissions and nitrogen releases alter Puget Sound’s chemistry

Understanding the chemistry of Puget Sound may be as important as understanding the biology. Let me put that another way: Biology as we know it in Puget Sound wouldn’t exist without the right chemistry.

Tiny krill, one of many organisms affected by ocean acidification, demonstrate how water chemistry can affect the entire Puget Sound food web. For example, krill are eaten by herring, which are eaten by Chinook salmon, which are eaten by killer whales.
Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Ocean acidification is altering the chemistry of the oceans on a worldwide scale, but the Pacific Northwest and Puget Sound are being hit with some of the most severe problems, as experts point out in a new report by the Washington State Marine Resources Advisory Council.

For years, I have written about the low-oxygen problems in Hood Canal and other areas of Puget Sound. Of course, oxygen is essential to life as we know it. Major fish kills, in which dead fish float to the surface, have generated a lot of attention. At the same time, it has been harder to report on the animals dying from lack of oxygen when their carcasses are at rest in deep water. And it has been nearly impossible to keep track of the “dead zones” that come and go as conditions change.

It wasn’t until more research was conducted on the effects of ocean acidification that researchers realized that low-oxygen conditions — which were bad enough — had a dangerous companion called low pH — the increased acidity that we are talking about. Low pH can affect the growth and even the survival of organisms that build shells of calcium, including a variety of tiny organisms that play key roles in the food web.

As the oceans absorb carbon dioxide from the air, we see an increase in carbonic acid in the water, which has an effect on the ability of organisms to take up calcium carbonate. For a more complete explanation, check out “What is aragonite saturation?” on page 17 of the report.

Increased acidification is a special problem for Washington and the West Coast of North America, where deep acidified water in the Pacific Ocean hits the coast and rises to the surface.

“By accident of geography, we have this upwelling that … forces us into dealing with ocean acidification before almost anywhere else on the planet,” said Jay Manning, chairman of the Puget Sound Leadership Council. “I don’t believe I’m exaggerating when I say that Washington is leading the world in terms of science and monitoring…”

Jay, who serves on the Marine Resources Advisory Council, was quoted in a story I wrote for the Puget Sound Institute, later republished by the Kitsap Sun. The story describes some of the problems resulting from ocean acidification in Puget Sound, where an entirely different mechanism connects ocean acidification closely to low-oxygen conditions.

Researchers have concluded that an excessive growth of plankton in Puget Sound can be triggered, in part, by the release of nutrients from sewage treatment plants, septic systems and the heavy use of fertilizers. When plankton die and decay, bacteria use up oxygen while releasing carbon dioxide, thus increasing acidification.

Although the details still need to be sorted out, it is clear that some creatures are more sensitive than others to low oxygen, while low pH also affects animals in different ways. This “double whammy” of low oxygen and low pH increases the risks to the entire food web, without even considering the added threats of higher temperatures and toxic pollution.

Ongoing actions emphasized in the new report fall into six categories:

  • Reduce carbon emissions
  • Cut back on nutrient releases into the water
  • Improve adaptation strategies to reduce the harmful effects of ocean acidification
  • Invest in monitoring and scientific investigations
  • Inform, educate and engage Washington residents and key decision makers
  • Maintain a coordinated focus on all aspects of ocean acidification

“The updated report reinforces our federal, state and tribal partnership to combat ocean acidification by working together, modifying and expanding on approaches we have developed through ongoing research,” said Libby Jewett, director of NOAA’s Ocean Acidification Program in a news release (PDF 166 kb).

“For instance,” she continued, “in the new plan, scientists in the state of Washington will be asked not only to test hands-on remediation options which involve cultivating kelp as a way to remove carbon dioxide from local waters but also to explore how to move this seaweed into land agriculture as a way of recycling it.”

I thought Martha Kongsgaard, chairwoman of the MRAC, said it well in an introduction to the report (PDF 39 kb):

“Global and local carbon dioxide emissions, as well as local nutrient sources beyond natural levels, are significantly altering seawater chemistry. We are the cause for the rapid accumulation of 30 to 50 percent of the enriched CO2 in surface waters in Puget Sound and 20 percent of enriched CO2 in deep waters off our shores. Washingtonians understand what is so dramatically at stake. We are not standing by waiting for someone else to inform or rescue us.”

Weather extremes now surpassing the realm of natural possibilities

A new report from the American Meteorological Society makes a rather stunning statement about climate change. For the first time, researchers have concluded that specific weather-related events could not have happened without the influence of climate change caused by human activity.

Three events studied in 2016 were so extreme that they did not fit into the context of natural climate conditions, according to researchers working on separate projects. One involved the global heat record for 2016; another was focused on warmth across Asia; and the third was the “blob” of warm ocean water familiar to folks who follow weather in the Pacific Northwest.

A “blob” of warm water off the Northwest coast from 2013 to the end of 2016 could not have occurred without human-induced climate change, experts say.
Map: NOAA’s Earth System Research Laboratory

“This report marks a fundamental change,” said Jeff Rosenfeld, editor-in-chief of the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society, in a news release. “For years scientists have known humans are changing the risk of some extremes. But finding multiple extreme events that weren’t even possible without human influence makes clear that we’re experiencing new weather, because we’ve made a new climate.”

Personally, I did not expect to see this sort of demonstrable statement about man-made climate change anytime soon. In classes and seminars on the subject of climate change, I’ve often seen lecturers present frequency curves that show the number of times that certain weather-related phenomena — such as temperatures or rainfall — are observed over a given time.

We’re told by climatologists that many of these curves are steadily shifting, so that fairly extreme conditions occur more often and truly extreme conditions emerge for the very first time in certain locations.

Researchers are loathe to say that a given storm, drought or hurricane is the result of climate change. They would rather say climate change affects the likelihood of extreme weather events, plotted at the end of the frequency curve. In the realm of statistics, there is a tendency to hold onto the idea that almost any kind of weather could occur almost anytime, provided that a perfect storm of conditions line up together.

Against that backdrop, comes the new report titled “Explaining extreme events of 2016 from a climate perspective,” which examines extreme weather events throughout the world.

“First, it is important to note that climate scientists have been predicting that … the influence of human-caused climate change would at some point become sufficiently strong and emergent to push an extreme event beyond the bounds of natural variability alone,” state the six editors in an introduction to the report.

“It was also anticipated that we would likely first see this result for heat events where the human-caused influences are most strongly observed,” they continue. “It is striking how quickly we are now starting to see such results, though their dependence on model-based estimates of natural variability … will require ongoing validation …”

In other words, the conclusion comes from computer models that can analyze the probability of an extreme event taking place when greenhouse gases are found at different concentrations. Results using today’s observed conditions are compared with results using conditions before the industrial release of greenhouse gases.

In the three highlighted papers, the researchers calculated the “fraction of attributable risk,” or FAR, for the extreme event they were studying. FAR is a statistical approach used in epidemiology to measure the likelihood of an event under various conditions. For explanations, see Boston University School of Public Health and the 2007 IPCC report.

“All three papers concluded that the FAR was 1, meaning that the event was not possible in the ‘control’ planet and only possible in a world with human-emitted greenhouse gases,” the editors say.

Although this is the first time that researchers have concluded that extreme events could not have happened without human-induced climate change, the editors are quick to point out that the same phenomenon may have occurred unnoticed in the past on a smaller geographic scale.

These findings do not mean that the climate has reached any kind of tipping point. It simply adds to the evidence that mounting weather extremes are not the result of natural processes.

Reporters Brad Plumer and Nadja Popovich of the New York Times do a nice job of delving into the concept of attribution science while mentioning five of the extreme events covered in the new report. They quoted Heidi Cullen, chief scientist at Climate Central, which produces news stories about climate issues.

“In 2011, people were still of the mind-set that you couldn’t attribute any individual event to climate change,” Cullen said. “But with each subsequent issue (of the BAMS report), people are able to say that climate change really is increasing the risk” that extremes will occur.

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Amusing Monday: Amazing images through the magic of LIDAR

Spectacular images produced with the latest LIDAR technology ought to be considered works of art, at least in my humble opinion.

LIDAR software reveals current and historical stream channels for the Sauk River, a tributary of the Skagit.
Image: Washington State Geological Survey

The images on this page, which show geologic features in Washington state, were produced as part of a large-scale project to study the state’s geology. Funded by the Legislature in 2015, the project is largely designed to identify landslide hazards, but the LIDAR data has many wide-ranging uses for scientists, educators and political leaders.

Aside from LIDAR’s practical uses, I cannot get over how beautiful the images are, a feeling enhanced by the knowledge that the fine details reflect actual structures on the ground. All these images and 14 others are available as screensavers on the state’s LIDAR website.

At the Great Bend in Hood Canal, moving glaciers once carved out small hills, known as drumlins.
Image: Washington State Geological Survey

I asked Dan Coe, a GIS cartographer responsible for many of the final images, how much of an artist’s touch he uses when producing such amazing depictions of the landscape. Dan works for the Washington Geological Survey, a division of the Department of Natural Resources.

“There is definitely an artistic touch that is added to these images when they are produced,” he wrote in an email. “While each one is a bit different, depending on the landform featured, most follow a general process.”

LIDAR reveals changing stream channels where the Black and Chehalis rivers merge in Grays Harbor County. // Image: Washington State Geological Survey

LIDAR stands for light detection and ranging. When used from an airplane, LIDAR equipment shoots a laser beam along the ground. Sophisticated equipment and a computer interpret the reflected light as precise differences in elevation.

Dan blends the elevation data with other GIS layers provided by the software, including the outlines of landforms, shaded relief and water bodies.

“I then bring these layers into graphics software (usually Adobe Photoshop or Illustrator), where they are merged together,” Dan said. “This allows me to emphasize the features that are important to the viewer, usually with colorization and blending techniques.”

LIDAR reveals details of Devil’s Slide on Lummi Island in Whatcom County that cannot be seen otherwise.
Image: Washington State Geological Survey

The primary purpose of the images is to translate the science for a nontechnical audience, he said. That’s not to say that scientists don’t appreciate the effort, but the colorful images are somewhat simplified from the more detailed LIDAR data, he added.

“If done well, they are a good example of the ‘a picture is worth a thousand words’ adage,” he said, “and can go a long way to bridging the gap between science and public understanding.”

When it comes to his choice of colors, he acknowledges that he strives for a bit of a “wow!” factor, while enhancing the contrast “to draw the viewers eye and to emphasize the features more clearly.”

The video at right offers a good description of how LIDAR works. Early uses involved examining the topography and geology of an area with the trees stripped away. The surprising images revealed unknown features on the ground — including a piece of the Seattle fault at the south end of Bainbridge Island, where an earthquake raised Restoration Point about 20 feet some 1,100 years ago.

Since then, LIDAR has been refined for greater image resolution, and the improved software is providing new ways to interpret the data. For example, relative elevation models, or REMs, help to better visualize changes in river flows over time. The baseline elevation (0 feet) is defined as the surface of the river, so old river channels emerge as slight changes in elevation. Dan explains the REM process (PDF 16.5 mb) in a poster on the LIDAR website.

The mysterious Mima Mounds southwest of Olympia, as shown with LIDAR
Image: Washington State Geological Survey

The early use of LIDAR for revealing unseen geology has gradually given way to much broader applications. At first, the returning light that reflected off trees and vegetation was considered useless “noise” to be filtered out by computer. Later, scientists discovered that valuable information could be found within that noise — such as the size and type of trees and other vegetation growing in specific areas. These uses are explained in a video called “Introduction to Light Detection and Ranging.” Both videos mentioned in this blog post were produced by the National Ecological Observatory Network, or NEON, which is researching conditions and changes in ecosystems across the country.

A little-known lava flow, called West Crater, can be seen easily with LIDAR. The site is between Mount St. Helens and Mount Hood in Gifford Pinchot National Forest in Skamania County.
Image:Washington State Geological Survey

As Coe and his colleagues find new uses for LIDAR, they are also looking for new ways to encourage the public to understand the process and results. A nice two-page summary about the LIDAR program (PDF 2.6) can be found on the state’s LIDAR website. The website also includes descriptions of how LIDAR can be used in geology, forestry, graphics, navigation, meteorology and fire management, land-use planning, archeology and agriculture.

The page also includes an interactive story map called “The Bare Earth,” which takes you through various geological features. Interesting comparisons between LIDAR images and aerial photos of the same areas are shown in the story map.

Puget Sound report tells the environmental story that took place in 2016

The year 2016 may be regarded as a transition year for Puget Sound, coming between the extreme warm-water conditions of 2014 and 2015 and the more normal conditions observed over the past year, according to the latest Puget Sound Marine Waters report.

Click on image to view report
Photo: Todd Sandell, WDFW

The report on the 2016 conditions was released this past week by the Marine Waters Workgroup, which oversees the Puget Sound Ecosystem Monitoring Program (PSEMP). The report includes data collected in 2016 and analyzed over the past year.

Some findings from the report:

  • Water temperatures were well above normal, though not as extreme as in 2015.
  • A warm spring in 2016 caused rapid melting of mountain snowpack and lower streamflows in late spring and summer.
  • Dissolved oxygen levels were lower than average in South Puget Sound, Central Puget Sound and Hood Canal, with the most intense oxygen problems in southern Hood Canal, although no fish kills were reported.
  • It was a year for the growth of Vibrio parahaemolyticus, a bacteria responsible for 46 laboratory-confirmed illnesses, including intestinal upset, among people who ate oysters in Washington during 2016.
  • Paralytic shellfish poisoning (PSP), diarrhetic shellfish poisoning (DSP) and domoic acid (DA) resulted in shellfish closures in 18 commercial and 38 recreational growing areas. But no illness were reported in 2016.
  • DSP was detected at 250 micrograms per 100 grams in blue mussel tissues sampled from Budd Inlet near Olympia last year. That is the highest level of DSP ever detected in Washington state.
  • Overall, zooplankton populations were high in 2016 compared to 2014, but generally not as high as in 2015.

Conditions, known or unknown, were responsible for various effects on fish and wildlife in 2016:

  • It was the worst year on record for the Cherry Point herring stock, which has been decline for years along with more recent declines in South and Central Puget Sound. Five local stocks had no spawn that could be found in 2016. Herring were smaller than average in size.
  • The overall abundance and diversity of marine bird species in 2015-16 were similar to 2014-15.
  • Rhinoceros auklets, however, were reported to have serious problems, which experts speculated could be related to a low abundance and size of herring. On Protection Island, breeding season started out normal, but fledgling success was only 49 percent, compared to 71 percent in 2015. Auklet parents were seen to feed their chicks fewer and smaller fish than usual.
  • Including the Washington Coast, more than 1,000 carcasses of rhinocerous auklets were found by volunteers. The primary cause of death was identified as severe bacterial infections.

If you are an average person concerned about environmental conditions in and around Puget Sound, the two-page summary and four-page highlights section near the beginning of the report will leave you better informed. To dig deeper, peruse the pages that follow.

The report is designed to be easily compared with previous years:

Could we ever reverse the trend of shrinking Chinook salmon?

Much has been said about the decline of Puget Sound Chinook salmon. Often the discussion focuses on how to increase the salmon population, but I believe a good case can be made for increasing the size of these once-mighty “kings.”

Chinook salmon // Photo: NOAA Fisheries

There are plenty of reasons why we should strive for larger Chinook, not the least of which is the pure joy of seeing — and perhaps catching — a giant salmon. But I’m also thinking about our endangered Southern Resident killer whales, which don’t seem to find Puget Sound very hospitable anymore. As we know, the whales favor Chinook over any other food.

While it might take more energy for a killer whale to chase down a large Chinook versus a smaller one, the payoff in nutrition and energy far outweighs the expenditure, according to Jacques White of Long Live the Kings, who has been thinking about the size issue for some time.

In terms of competition, a giant returning Chinook might be difficult for a harbor seal to handle, and that could give the orcas a special advantage. Still, we are learning that harbor seals create problems for the Chinook population by eating millions of tiny smolts migrating to the ocean before they get a chance to grow up.

Perhaps the major reason that Chinook have declined in size is the troll fishing fleet off the coast of Alaska and Northern Canada, Jacques told me. It is almost simple math. It takes six, seven or eight years to grow the really large Chinook in the ocean. Today’s fishing fleet goes out into the middle of the Chinook-rearing areas up north. The longer the fishing boats stay there, the more likely it is that they will catch a fish that could have grown into a really big one.

Years ago, the fishing boats did not travel so far out to sea, Jacques said. There was no need to travel far when plentiful runs of salmon came right into the shore and swam up the rivers.

“In the old days,” he said, “you didn’t have people risking their necks off Alaska trying to catch fish in all kinds of weather and seas.”

In additional to the trollers, plenty of sport fishermen have taken the opportunity to catch and take home nice trophy fish, putting extra pressure on the biggest members of the fish population. Fishing derbies, past and present, challenged people to catch the biggest Chinook.

Long Live the Kings, a conservation group, once held fishing derbies, Jacques noted. But, after giving it some thought, everyone realized that the effort was counterproductive. “Long Live the Kings is now out of the derby business,” he said.

Gillnets, once common in Puget Sound, entrap fish by snagging their gills. Gillnets tend not to catch the truly giant salmon, because of the mesh size, but they do catch the larger salmon. Often only the smaller ones make it through to spawn — and that breeds another generation of small fish.

Fishing is not the only factor that tends to favor the survival of small fish, but it tends to be a big factor, according to Tom Quinn, a University of Washington professor of aquatic and fishery sciences. The issue is complicated, and every salmon run has its own characteristics, he said.

Hatcheries, dams and habitat alterations all tend to favor fish that can compete and survive under new conditions, and often those conditions work better for smaller fish. Changes in the food web may create a nutritional deficit for some salmon stocks, and competition at sea with large numbers of hatchery fish may be a factor. Check out the study in the journal Plos One by researchers for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.

With the removal of two dams on the Elwha River, I’m hoping that experts can make sure that the conditions will be right for larger fish — if they can survive to make it home.

Quinn, along with doctoral student Michael Tillotson, recently published a paper showing how fishing seasons alone can alter the genetic makeup of a population along with the behavior of individual fish.

Although these characteristics are not necessarily related to the size of fish, it directly affects the fitness of the population. When people are fishing on wild stocks during open season, a fish has the best chance of survival if it shows up before the fishing season begins or after the fishing season is over. But that is not nature’s way.

Through evolution, the greatest number of fish tend to come back when environmental conditions are optimal for migration, spawning and smolt survival. If fishing seasons are timed for the peak of the run, that will reduce the percentage of fish taking advantage of the best conditions. Over time, the population gets skewed, as more fish come back during times when conditions are less than optimal.

The result is likely a lower survival rate for the overall population. The real crunch could come in the future as a result of climate change. If temperatures or streamflows become more severe, the fish may be in a no-win situation: If they show up at the most optimal time, they are more likely to get caught. if they come early or late, the environment could kill them or ruin their chances of successful spawning.

“We are reducing the ability of fish to find good environmental conditions,” said Michael Tillotson in a UW news release about the new paper. “We’re perhaps also reducing the ability of fish to adapt to climate change.”

Certain behaviors are bred into wild fish over many generations, and some traits are connected to their timing. Whether they feed aggressively or passively can affect their survival. Some salmon will wait for rain; others will wait for the right streamflow or temperature. Some smolts will stay in freshwater for extended periods; others will move quickly to saltwater. It’s not a great idea when fishing seasons, rather than environmental conditions, dictate fish behavior.

The move to mark-selective fishing — which involves removing the adipose fin of all hatchery fish before they are released — can help solve some problems for wild fish, Tom told me. Under selective fishing rules, fishers are allowed to keep the hatchery fish with a missing fin, but they must release the wild ones that still have all their fins. Some of the wild fish die from injury, but most of them survive, he said.

The key to the problem is a better understanding of the genetic makeup of the individual stocks while increasing the effort to maintain a high-level of genetic diversity. That’s an insurance policy that allows the fish to survive changing conditions.

The genes for giant Chinook have not been lost entirely, as I pointed out in Water Ways on Nov. 25. If we want to have larger Chinook, we must protect the individual Chinook that are larger. That could mean reduced ocean fishing, selective fishing for hatchery populations, and requirements to release fish larger than a certain size. Perhaps it would even be possible to selectively breed larger Chinook in a hatchery for a limited time to increase the size of the fish.

It won’t be easy, because these notions involve messing with billions of dollars in the fishing industry, not to mention complicated international relations. I will save discussions about the Pacific Salmon Treaty for another day. I will just say that this treaty is supposed to be between the U.S. and Canada. But negotiations involve tradeoffs among Washington, Canada and Alaska. Even the Endangered Species Act can’t always protect wild Puget Sound Chinook from being caught in Alaska, with the ultimate outcome that fewer fish make it home to spawn.

Hansville sees record rains coming down during November

Hansville is the driest area in Kitsap County, but in November the skies opened up with more rain than we’ve seen there in the past 27 years. In November, enough rain fell in Hansville — 8.7 inches — to break the record for that location.

Hansville // Graphic: Kitsap PUD

Longtime residents of our region realize that the amount of precipitation goes up dramatically as one travels south out of Hansville. For Silverdale, November 2017 was the sixth wettest November in 26 years, with a total of 11.0 inches. Holly experienced its fourth wettest November, with 22.9 inches, all based on rainfall data compiled by Kitsap Public Utility District.

The one glitch for Hansville is that three years of rainfall data are missing — specifically 2007, 2008 and 2009 — and 2007 was a particularly wet year in some parts of the county. In fact, record November rains were seen in 2007 in Holly but not in Silverdale. We may never know where 2007 would have fit into the records for Hansville, but November 2007 was only average in Port Gamble — the closest station. It’s very likely that Hansville really did break the record for November this year.

Silverdale // Graphic: Kitsap PUD

Consistent with those geographic differences, in Holly it rained 27 out of 30 days in November, compared to Silverdale with 22 out of 30 days and Hansville with 20 out of 30 days. This came after a fairly average October.

As you can see from the charts on this page, November rains pushed the lines up to begin tracking the wettest years in the record books from one end of the county to the other. But, as I discussed last month, anything can happen during the coming winter and summer. Last year started out well ahead of the wettest years on record. But, starting in mid-December, the rains did not keep pace with the record years, and then came a very dry summer. See Water Ways, Oct. 27.

Holly // Graphic: Kitsap PUD

Let me take a moment to further emphasize the difference in rainfall from north to south on the Kitsap Peninsula. Holly’s nonrecord precipitation of 22.9 inches in November is more than half of Hansville’s rainfall for the entire record year of 1999, when a total of 43.8 inches came down. Holly’s annual record is 127.5 inches set in 1999.

The average annual rainfall for Hansville is 30.7 inches, compared to Silverdale with a 42.8-inch average and Holly with 79.2 inches.

Looking forward, the rains are likely to continue, according to NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center (PDF 5.3 mb). La Nina conditions emerged in October and are predicted to continue through the winter in the Northern Hemisphere. The likely result will be below-average temperatures and above-average precipitation across the northern part of the contiguous U.S. — and the opposite across the southern tier of states, as shown in the map below.

Green shows above average precipitation; brown is below average.
Graphic: National Climate Prediction Center