Category Archives: Climate change

World ocean researcher traces his interests back to Puget Sound

Marine geologist Peter Harris, a 1976 graduate of North Kitsap High School, has been awarded the prestigious Francis P. Shepard Medal for Sustained Excellence in Marine Geology.

Peter Harris

The annual award, from the Society for Sedimentary Geology, recognizes Peter’s 30 years of research accomplishments — “from the polar to the tropical,” as the judges described it — including his discovery of new coral reefs off Australia.

Also noteworthy is his work documenting the margins of the Antarctic continent; describing the prehistoric formation of the Fly River Delta in Papua New Guinea; and explaining changes in the “Antarctic bottom water,” a dense water mass surrounding Antarctica. Peter has published more than 100 research papers in scientific journals.

After an awards ceremony in Salt Lake City, Utah, Peter returned last week to Kitsap County, where he spoke to me about his current efforts on upcoming state-of-the-environment report for the United Nations. He is working on an oceans chapter for the “Sixth Global Environmental Outlook,” known as GEO-6, which will be used to advance environmental policies around the world.

“There are so many environmental issues in the ocean,” he told me, “but we were asked to identify three things that are the most urgent.”

The last time I spoke to Peter was in 2004 (Kitsap Sun, Jan 31,2004) when he was working for Geoscience Australia and presented his latest findings on coral reefs to audiences in Kingston and Poulsbo. His dad, Alfred Harris, still lives in Poulsbo, while his mom, Sydney Cotton, lives in Silverdale.

For the past four years, Peter has been working in Norway as managing director at GRID-Arendal, a nonprofit foundation that gathers and synthesizes scientific information to help decision-makers. He heads a staff of about 30 people, including experts from various countries.

By the way, GRID stands for Global Resource Information Database, and Arendal is a community about the size of Bremerton, where Peter has purchased a home and agreed to stay on with GRID another four years.

I asked him what his team concluded about the three biggest problems facing the world’s oceans. He said the group, after much consideration, decided that what rose to the top —above ocean acidification, chemical contamination, noise pollution and others — were coral reefs, plastics and overfishing.

“The world is past the tipping point for coral reefs,” he said. “We are past the point where the corals are under stress. They will keep dying off.”

Peter Harris at sea in 2011

Warm water causes the coral colonies to reject their symbiotic algae, leaving them white in a process called coral “bleaching.” They can recover if cooler water returns and there is enough time between bleaching events, he said. But it takes about 10 years for corals to recover, and the Great Barrier Reef has undergone bleaching for three years in a row. Vast areas may never recover.

Coral reefs provide habitats for huge numbers of marine species, and their loss will be an environmental catastrophe brought about by climate change. Even if humans eventually reduce their greenhouse gas emissions, the ecological diversity may be lost in many areas.

“The only solution is to try to preserve coral reefs in locations where they are less susceptible,” Peter said.

The second ocean problem Peter mentioned was plastic pollution.

“More and more people are using more and more plastic,” he said, and some of it eventually reaches the ocean. It can come from stormwater, litter, fishing activities, garbage picked up by the wind and outright dumping. Much of it comes from developing countries with inadequate waste-treatment systems.

“It seems like many people and countries see this as a problem that can be addressed, like the ozone problem,” he said. “It all comes down to how you deal with plastic in your own life.”

The third problem he mentioned was overfishing, which has the potential to drive some populations to the brink of extinction.

While some countries, such as the U.S. and Canada, are doing much better in managing their fisheries, many developing countries are stuck in a cycle of needing more fish to feed a hungry population while generating revenue from fisheries, he said. Taking more and more fish from the ocean will lead to population collapse.

Some of the greatest concerns are on the high seas, where there is little control over what anyone does, he said. Some fishermen are targeting seamounts, where large numbers of various fish species congregate.

“When fishermen find a good spot out in the ocean it is usually a spawning aggregation,” he said, adding that removing those fish can affect growth of entire populations.

“One solution is to put a moratorium on high seas fishing altogether,” he said, adding that it would take a major international effort, but people should recognize that the high seas is the least productive part of the ocean.

GEO-6, the U.N. report on the world environment, is scheduled for publication before the end of the year.

Through GRID-Arendal, Peter keeps in touch with many environmental issues, which can be reviewed on the foundation’s “Activities” page as well as its “Publications” and “Graphics” pages.

Peter’s world travels are as interesting as his research. After graduating from North Kitsap High School in 1976, he went on to receive an oceanography degree from the University of Washington in 1981.

“I think I have always had an interest in the ocean,” he said, noting that his father built sailboats as a hobby and raced them on Puget Sound.

At the age of 12, he took a course at the Poulsbo Marine Science Center (now SEA Discovery Center). After that, he took advantage of every opportunity to visit the marine animals in tanks at the center and to go out on tide-pool walks on Puget Sound.

“I was really captured by the image of how this place was formed,” he said. “I came to understand that there is a reason for everything you see. Puget Sound was once under an ice sheet. The gravel is glacial till. Suddenly it all starts to make sense.”

While other places, such as Chile and Norway, have waterways that look similar to Puget Sound, they often lie over rocky outcroppings rather than gravelly substrate. Puget Sound is truly unique, he added.

“When you travel the world, you realize how rare and precious it is,” he said. “There are no other places like it.”

At the UW, one of Peter’s professors, Dick Sternberg, convinced him to do his graduate work at the University of Wales in Great Britain, where he could work under the late Michael Collins, co-editor with Sternberg of the journal “Continental Shelf Research.”

While there, Peter met his future wife Ellen, an Australian native, and he decided to take a job at the University of Sydney, where he taught oceanography and conducted research on the Great Barrier Reef. When he joined the Australian government, he was required to become an Australian citizen, though he maintained his American citizenship. He worked for Geoscience Australia for 20 years, becoming head of the Antarctic marine and coastal programs, before moving to Norway in 2014.

He and his wife have three grown children, two still living in Australia. Eleri, the oldest, recently took a job with the online political cartoon magazine “The Nib” in Portland, Ore. With a grandchild now on the way, Peter says he has even more reasons to return to the Northwest.

Amusing Monday: Methane emissions from a moo-ving source

My wife Sue and I just returned from a two-week vacation that included a road trip through several western states. In addition to wildlife, we noticed thousands of little methane factories scattered across public and private lands.

I’m talking about cattle, of course, and their role in climate change. I have to admit that gaseous emissions from cows seems like a often-told joke. (Question: What do you call a cow fart? Answer: dairy-air.) But methane from cattle is a serious problem with worldwide effects. The millions of dollars in research being conducted to reduce bovine emissions is strong testimony to the level of concern.

Stories I have read on this topic often relate the amount of gases coming from a single cow to the effects of driving a car.

In fact, so much has been written about cow farts and climate change — mainly for the sake of humor — that I thought that the rear of the cow was the source of the biggest problems. It turns out that far more methane gets released from the other end, in the form of gaseous burps from the mouth.

A recent study, funded by NASA’s Carbon Monitoring System, concluded that the worldwide problem of methane from cattle is 11 percent worse than estimates reported in 2006 by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. The new study involved more precise estimates of methane production in a cow’s gut as well as that produced during manure management.

In the U.S. and Canada, methane production from total cattle operations was found to be 24 percent higher than previous estimates, largely because of open-air manure management. In Europe, more farmers are using methods that contain the methane, often using it for energy. The study was published in the journal “Carbon Balance and Management” and reviewed in “Popular Science.”

As greenhouse gases, methane is more potent than carbon dioxide, yet the amount released into the atmosphere is far less. The international goal is to reduce emissions of both gases to slow the average warming of the planet.

Researchers have found that feeding cattle different types of grains or silage can reduce the amount of methane produced by bacteria in the stomachs of cattle. Feedstocks effective in reducing methane include garlic and onions, but a major problem for dairy farmers is that those products can change the taste of the milk that cows produce.

One farm in Vermont began supplementing its cattle feed with cooked flax. The result was not only less methane coming from the cows, but the milk itself contained a higher level of beneficial omega 3 fatty acids.

Ongoing research is finding that a diet for cattle high in carbohydrates and/or fats can result in less methane production. Using ground or pellet forms of forage may reduce the time of passage through the cow, thus reducing methane production. See news release from the University of Nebraska – Lincoln.

A story published last week in the online “Feed Navigator” discusses the complexity of the issue. Changing feedstocks can affect cattle and their emissions in different ways. One must account for the effects of growing the feedstocks, handling the manure generated and the health for both the cattle eating the forage and the humans consuming the milk or meat, according to the article by Aerin Einstein-Curtis.

“We have it very tight where we follow the diets, and we know the diets produce a certain type of manure, with certain emissions, and this is what you get out of it,” said Michael Wattiaux, professor of dairy systems management at the University of Wisconsin, who was quoted in the article. “One thing that I could see in terms of practical recommendations is maybe you want to have the agronomist and soil scientist and nutritionist all in the same room at the same time.”

Rainfall pattern returns to normal across the Kitsap Peninsula

After two years of near-record rainfall across the Kitsap Peninsula, precipitation has returned to a more normal pattern.

Halfway through the water year, which begins in October, rainfall in Hansville, Silverdale and Holly are all within 10 percent of the average for this time of year, according to weather instruments managed by Kitsap Public Utility District.

This near-average total for the first half of the year comes about despite a very wet November, when Hansville broke the all-time record for precipitation for that month. Since then, the monthly rainfall numbers have been mostly below average, except for a wet January when Holly nearly broke the record for that month.

As we’ve seen time and again, the amount of rainfall decreases dramatically as one travels from south to north on the Kitsap Peninsula. That’s the general pattern for all times of the year, although the amount of precipitation can vary wildly.

Hansville received 25.5 inches for the six months ending April 1, compared to a 28-year average of 23.1 inches for that period. Last year, the six-month figure was 7 inches higher at 32.5 inches, and the first half of 2016 went down in the record books with a total of 37.0 inches.

Silverdale posted 35.1 inches of rain by April 1, compared to a 28-year average of 38.1 inches for this time of year. Last year, this Central Kitsap area received 51.7 inches by April, and in 2016 the number was 52.3 inches, second only to 1999 with 69.8 inches.

In rainswept Holly, residents experienced 68.7 inches by April 1, compared to a 27-year average of 65.0 inches. By April 1 last year, Holly was practically swimming with 95.9 inches, driven by 24.0 inches during the month of October 2016 and 21.8 inches the next month. But nothing compares to the first half of water year 1999, when Holly received 120 inches for the first half of the year. Following a fairly dry summer, water year 1999 in Holly ended with 127.5 inches of precipitation.

NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center has projected somewhat higher-than-average rainfall through the end of this month in the Pacific Northwest, followed by fairly average conditions going into summer. Forecasters rely heavily on observations about temperatures in the Pacific Ocean, which influence a natural cycle known as the El Niño Southern Oscillation, or ENSO. See video this page.

A very strong El Niño during 2015 and 2016 (associated with the much-discussed “blob”) shifted into a weak La Niña in 2017. Conditions have now reversed course again and seem to be headed toward neutral. La Niñas are generally associated with cooler and wetter weather for our region of the country, while El Niños suggest warmer and dryer conditions — although it does not always turn out that way.

Neutral conditions are expected to arrive by summer, and some forecasters predict that the warmer El Niño could arrive toward the end of the water year in September, according to information released today by the Climate Prediction Center.

“Some of the computer models are forecasting development of El Niño by next fall,” noted research scientist Emily Becker in a new post on the ENSO Blog, “but there are a number of reasons why we’re not completely taking the bait right now.

“First, forecasts made this time of year tend to be less successful,” she continued. “Another reason is that, while elevated subsurface heat content in the spring sometimes precedes the development of El Niño in the fall, some recent studies have found that this relationship has not been very reliable over the past two decades.”

Researchers observed a warming trend in March among subsurface waters in the Eastern Pacific. Those waters are expected to rise to the surface over the next few months to potentially neutralize any cool surface waters that remain. The outcome is likely to be the end of the current La Niña and possibly the beginning of a new El Niño, featuring warmer ocean conditions.

Amusing Monday: Film students find creativity in Eco-Comedy videos

Amateur filmmakers have focused their talents on environmental issues to produce some of the most creative short videos in the eight-year history of the Eco-Comedy Video Competition.

That’s just my opinion, but I’ve been watching this competition for years, and I know it is not easy to combine humor with a sharp message about protecting the environment. Usually, one or two videos stand out in the contest sponsored by The Nature Conservancy in Maryland/DC and the Center for Environmental Filmmaking at American University in Washington, D.C. But this year seemed to be different.

Although the number of entries was down from last year — 30 compared to 48 — I found something unique in all the finalists as well as the honorable mentions. I was also pleased to see an elevation in the production quality, as well as improved acting over what I’ve seen in the past. I could envision some of these short pieces going forth as public service announcements on television.

A panel of five judges selected the best videos based on the level of humor as well as the ability to deliver a clear message about the environment to a broad audience in three minutes or less. The winners were announced last week as the DC Environmental Film Festival on the American University campus.

The Grand Prize winners, Theodore Blossom and Robbie I’Anson Price, will receive $2,000 from the Center for Environmental Filmmaking. Their video, titled “@Humanity,” is the first on this page. Theo, based in London, is a science communicator who presents and produces stage shows, films and comedy. Robbie, a doctoral student and filmmaker from Lausanne, Switzerland, studies communication and learning in honeybees with the goal of determining how communication can improve fitness.

The Viewers Choice Award went to a video titled “Journey to the Future” by Stephanie Brown & Tim Allen, shown second on this page.

Here are the YouTube links to all the videos recognized by the judges;

Grand Prize Winner: “@Humanity” by Theodore Blossom and Robbie Price

Viewer’s Choice Winner: “Journey to the Future” by Stephanie Brown & Tim Allen

Finalists:

Honorable Mentions:

Amusing Monday: Using musical notes to describe salmon migration

Researchers working on innumerable scientific investigations throughout the world continue to present their findings in new and interesting ways, often apart from the usual charts and graphs. Some have turned to animation, others to interactive graphics and some to the medium of sound — a process called sonification.

Jens Hegg of the University of Idaho has collaborated with several musical composers to turn the migration of young chinook salmon into a musical score — although it doesn’t exactly have a beat you want to dance to.

In the first video on this page, you can close your eyes and imagine that you are standing at the mouth of the Snake River facing upstream, Jens advises in an email. To get the full effect, you need to listen with headphones. Fish moving on the Upper Snake River are represented by notes that sound the farthest away, the Clearwater River somewhat closer and the Lower Snake River closer still.

“The ocean is at your back, so as they enter the ocean, the washy sound sounds as if it is either behind you or directly between your ears,” Jens told me.

“Each river has it’s own set of tones that build a chord,” he continued. “The YouTube video uses the same WAV recording every time, but the actual sonification program randomly assigns fish to a new tone each time it is played, so that the music actually changes and is slightly different each time it is played while maintaining the same meaning.”

I have to confess that I’ve listened to this recording more than a dozen times and I’m still trying to visualize the movement in my mind. The map on the video actually helps with the understanding, but that’s not the movement of fish on the river that I’m trying to visualize. Jens said the program was set up so that fish in the Upper Snake are heard in the right ear; fish in the Lower Snake are heard in the left ear; and fish in the Clearwater are heard in the center.

Some sonification efforts result in music that is quite enjoyable to listen to. See Water Ways, Jan. 1, 2016. But if the point is to convey information, then the underlying music can sometimes be a distraction.

Jens told me that his experiments with sound originated in a roundabout way, somewhat out of desperation, as he tried to design his doctoral dissertation to meet the cross-disciplinary requirements for the program in Water Resources Science and Management.

“I had been told that the geology/ecology combination I had used for my master’s in the same program was not quite interdisciplinary enough, so I was in search of other possibilities,” he said.

Jens had read a newspaper profile about Jonathan Middleton of Eastern Washington University, who was creating music from protein data. He was finding that the people could discern variations in complex protein structure more easily with sonic rather than visual clues.

Jens always enjoyed music. He even writes his own songs. (See second video on this page.) Combining music and scientific data provided a fascinating challenge. “Nobody could say this wouldn’t be interdisciplinary,” he noted, “and it incorporates something I enjoy already, so it seemed like something worth pursuing.”

The data needed to create the sonic composition comes from Jens’ extensive study of salmon migration based on the ear bones of fish, called otoliths. Otoliths are composed of chemicals that build up over time as a fish grows. Rivers have their own chemical signatures, which are captured in the otoliths, so the movement of salmon can be determined by the chemical record stored in their ear bones.

Understanding the timing of salmon migration can help researchers figure out why some populations are more successful than others, especially as climate change shifts the timing of streamflows and alters the temperature and dissolved oxygen levels.

Mounds of otolith data were converted to notes with the help of Middleton at Eastern and Ben Luca Robertson at the University of Virginia. Middleton had developed a software program to help researchers turn their data into sound. Courtney Flatt of Northwest Public Broadcasting separated out some of the individual sounds in a piece she produced for Earthfix. Listen below.

      1. Tracking Salmon With Musical Notes

Part of Jens’ research was to see if people could tell when the sound pattern changed, thus discerning the movement of fish from one place to another. The complexity of the sound reduced the ability of listeners to distinguish transitions, according to a new report by Jens and his collaborators in the journal Heliyon. Check out the additional sounds and animations in the “supplementary content” at the end.

It also turned out that people were able to describe the changes more accurately if they were not watching a related animation. One reason could be that the visual clues caused people to divide their attention, focusing less on the sound.

“We have a long way to go before a sonification of a large number of fish can clearly indicate movement,” Jens told me in his email. “Our paper shows that people can accurately distinguish movement of individuals played alone, two at a time, or three at a time. But we haven’t spent as much time optimizing the sonification for a large number of fish.

“Knowing how it is set up helps in interpreting it,” he said. “On repeated listenings, you can hear times where larger numbers of fish are all moving at once from one place to another. These are the kinds of trends we want to highlight in terms of understanding salmon migration timing.”

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).

—–

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.”