Category Archives: Research

Climate Sense: Sea ice, economics, legal issues and the orca task force

The shift to “clean fuels,” such as solar and wind power, is tied up in economics, and it appears that change is coming — with or without a push from government. This week, I read three different and somewhat contradictory reports about this dynamic competition between fossil fuels and renewable energy.

I also took a look at the hard data surrounding Arctic sea ice and reviewed videos of the governor’s orca task force meeting on Monday.

Item 1: Sea ice has stopped growing for the year

Spring has come to the Arctic, as the extent of the sea ice appears to have stopped growing this year and has begun its annual decline.

Arctic sea ice extent for March 13. The orange line shows the average extent for that day from 1981 to 2010. Click twice to enlarge.
Graphic: National Snow and Ice Data Center

The maximum extent of sea ice was probably reached on March 13, when it reached 5.71 million square miles, according to the National Snow and Ice Data Center. That would tie it with the year 2007 for the seventh lowest extent in the 40-year record of satellite data. It is also the highest extent of ice since 2014, as one can see in the chart on the NSIDC News and Analysis page.

“While this is not a record-low year for the Arctic sea ice maximum extent, the last four years have been the lowest in our record, reflecting a downward trend in winter sea ice extent,” said NSIDC senior research scientist Walt Meier. “This is just another indicator of the rapid changes that are occurring in the Arctic due to climate change.”

NSIDC, supported by government agencies, says the analysis is preliminary, since it is possible that more ice could accumulate with shifts in the weather.

Item 2: Court blocks oil drilling for climate considerations

Oil-drilling projects in Wyoming have been blocked by a federal judge, who says the Bureau of Land Management needs to first consider the cumulative effects of climate change from those projects.

Map of recent oil and gas leases in three Western states. Click on map for zoom-in video.
Map: Western Environmental Law Center

“BLM summarized the potential on-the-ground impacts of climate change in the state, the region, and across the country,” said U.S. District Judge Rudolph Contreras in a written opinion (PDF 448 kb). “It failed, however, to provide the information necessary for the public and agency decision makers to understand the degree to which the leasing decisions at issue would contribute to those impacts. In short, BLM did not adequately quantify the climate change impacts of oil and gas leasing.”

The lawsuit, brought by WildEarth Guardians and Physicians for Social Responsibility, alleges that 473 oil and gas leases covering 460,000 acres in Wyoming, Utah and Colorado were in violation of the National Environmental Policy Act for failing to discuss the full impacts on climate change. The judge agreed, applying his specific ruling to 282 leases.

Samantha Ruscavage-Barz, managing attorney for WildEarth Guardians, said in a news release: “It’s high time the federal government was held accountable for the costs of sacrificing our public lands for dirty oil and gas. This win demonstrates the Trump administration can’t legally turn its back on climate change.”

Leasing of federal lands for oil development is the “irreversible and irretrievable commitments of resources” that triggers a review of the overall environmental impacts, the judge said. While the BLM could not predict the specific impacts of each drilling project at the leasing stage, “it could reasonably foresee and forecast the impacts of oil and gas drilling across the leased parcels as a whole.”

Reporter Nichola Groom covered the story for Reuters.

Item 3: Climate change at orca task force

Monday’s meeting of the Southern Resident Killer Whale Task Force included an afternoon session with presentations on the effects of climate change, with a special focus on the effects of salmon and orcas. It also includes a talk by Bill Dewey of Taylor Shellfish, who describes how shellfish growers are working to overcome the damaging effects of ocean acidification on their industry.

The presentations on climate change were followed by discussions by task force members about how they should address the issue of climate change. The climate change discussion can be heard in the video below.

For those interested, I blogged about the morning sessions yesterday in Water Ways, which involved legislative progress, also recorded by TVW.

Item 4: Economics to end fossil fuels, but when?

Author Bill McKibbon in The New York Review of Books uses two economic reports about fossil fuels and geopolitics as a springboard for writing an engaging piece that describes the dynamic competition between fossil fuels and clean energy.

“(Author Kingsmill) Bond writes that in the 2020s — probably the early 2020s — the demand for fossil fuels will stop growing,” says McKibbon. “The turning point in such transitions ‘is typically the moment when the impact is felt in financial markets’ — when stock prices tumble and never recover … Precisely how long it will take is impossible to predict, but the outcome seems clear….

“A far more important question, of course, is whether the changes now underway will happen fast enough to alter our grim climatic future,” he continues. “Here, the answers are less positive.

“Scientists, conservative by nature, have routinely underestimated the pace of planetary disruption: The enormous melt now observed at the poles was not supposed to happen until late in the century, for instance, and the galloping pace of ocean acidification wasn’t even recognized as a threat two decades ago.”

Item 5: Financial returns on fracking in doubt

While the federal government moves ahead with plans for extensive oil and gas leasing, a new analysis by Sightline Institute raises questions about whether the process of fracking is really paying off.

“By some measures,” the authors wrote, “America’s fracking industry had a banner year in 2018. Shale companies produced more oil and gas than ever, lifting total U.S. output to all-time highs … (But) a cross section of 29 publicly traded, fracking-focused oil and gas companies spent $6.7 billion more on drilling than they realized from selling oil and gas….

“These disappointing results come on the heels of a decade of bleak financial performance. Since its inception, the fracking sector has consistently failed to produce enough cash to satisfy its voracious appetite for capital. From 2010 through 2018, the companies in our sample had an aggregate negative cash flow of $181 billion.”

Authors of the report are Sightline’s Clark Williams-Derry, Kathy Hipple and Tom Sanzillo.

Item 6: U.S. banks pour money into fossil fuels

A new report funded by a coalition of environmental groups has found that 33 global banks have provided $1.9 trillion to companies expanding their development of oil, natural gas and coal since adoption of the 2015 Paris climate accord. Such financing has risen in each of the past two years, the report says.

The report, “Banking on Climate Change 2019” says the four largest bankers of fossil fuels are all U.S. banks — JPMorgan Chase, Wells Fargo, Citi and Bank of America.

“At a time when science tells us we need to rapidly transition to clean energy, major American banks are placing themselves on the wrong side of history by continuing to offer a blank check to the fossil fuel industry,” Ben Cushing of the Sierra Club said in a press release. “The global outcry for financial institutions to stop financing climate destruction will only grow louder and more powerful until these banks get the message and pull their support for dirty fossil fuels once and for all.”

Climate Sense: Sharing a little optimism about climate change

One of the most optimistic stories I’ve read — and listened to — about climate change comes from Dan Charles, National Public Radio’s food and agriculture reporter. In a three part-series, Dan takes us on a trip to the year 2050, imagining a time when the world has solved the climate change problem.

Also in my readings this week, I’ve stumbled on some stories about scare tactics in Congress and how to turn back the clock on climate emissions.

Item 1: Visiting the future with NPR

Forget the doom and gloom about climate change for awhile. I feel incredibly encouraged by a new three-part series by NPR’s Dan Charles.

Dan Charles
Photo: Maggie Starbard/NPR

Dan divides each of his three stories into two parts. The first part considers innovations taking place in the world today to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and move us closer to more stabilized climate. In the second part, he pretends to be in the year 2050, when the world has solved its climate problems and global warming is a thing of the past.

Themes of the three parts are 1) mass electrification and everyday living, 2) urbanization and transportation, and 3) agriculture and the food we eat.

Here’s the link to the written version: “It’s 2050 And This Is How We Stopped Climate Change.”

Here are the audio versions:

Item 2: Scary cost figures undermine Green New Deal

Zack Colman of Politico tracks down the origins of the $93-trillion estimate of what the Green New Deal might cost, a figure that has taken on a political life of its own. The cost has been tossed around to scare a lot of people. His story is headlined “The bogus number at the center of the GOP’s Green New Deal attacks.”

“There’s a race for think tankers, analysts and academia to be the first to come up with a number, and you can see why — look at how many people latched on to that $93 trillion number,” says Nick Loris, an economist at the conservative Heritage Foundation, who was quoted in the story.

Item 3: Turning back the clock on carbon

The headline from the news department at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology caught my attention: “Climate rewind: Scientists turn carbon dioxide back into coal.”

By using liquid metals as a catalyst, researchers at the university say they can convert carbon dioxide gas into a solid form at room temperature.

“While we can’t literally turn back time, turning carbon dioxide back into coal and burying it back in the ground is a bit like rewinding the emissions clock,” said Torben Daeneke, a RMIT researcher and fellow at the Australian Research Council.

Only time will tell if this basic research holds up to scrutiny and leads to practical applications to address climate problems.

Item 4: Taking carbon removal to new levels

Craig Welch of National Geographic looks at a variety of ways to capture and store carbon in his piece “To curb climate change, we have to suck carbon from the sky. But how?”

“You are a pessimist if you work on the science of climate impacts, because you see little action,” said Stephen Pacala, a Princeton professor who Craig quoted in the story. “”The people who know the most are the most freaked out. They’ve seen emissions go up and up and see a train wreck coming.”

But scientists studying negative emissions “have seen the most spectacular technological achievements in energy technology in the last 10 years,” Pacala continued. “We’ve gone from having no tools to do this, to just seeing this unrelenting progress.”

Pecala oversaw a National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine report titled “Negative Emissions Technologies and Reliable Sequestration.”

Amusing Monday: Orca researcher Jayda Guy finds success in music

Jayda Guy, aka Jayda G, a native of British Columbia, has embraced her dual passions for science and music like few other people in the world today. She has somehow been able to link her experiences as a killer whale researcher to a creative mindset as a musical DJ, singer, songwriter and producer, with a debut album coming out this month.

The new album, “Significant Changes,” was inspired in part by the orcas and the natural wonders of the Salish Sea, where she conducted her studies. The album came together last year, not long after she completed her master’s degree in resource management from Simon Fraser University. Her research focused on the effects of toxic chemicals on our southern resident killer whales.

“I’m trying to bring my two worlds together to bridge the communication gap (and) engage people in a new way,” she told Andy Malt, editor of Complete Music Update. “I don’t know if people in the electronic music world will want to talk about the environment, but I think I should try! I think it’s our duty to use a platform like this in a positive way; that’s our social responsibility.”

As Andy Malt points out, the album title, “Significant Changes,” was the most-used phrase in her 224-page master’s thesis titled “A Risk Analysis of Legacy Pollutants: PCBs, PBDEs and New Emerging Pollutants in Salish Sea Killer Whales” (PDF 65.1 mb).

One song on the new album, called “Orca’s Reprise,” includes the unmistakable calls of the killer whales. Another song, “Misty Knows What’s Up,” samples the voice of Misty MacDuffee of Raincoast Conservation Foundation, a key figure in a lawsuit to protect the whales from environmental damage. The album is available for preorder or streaming from alternative sources. Some of Jayda’s music can be heard on her Soundcloud station, including “Sound of Fuca” (below).

In a 2017 interview with Andrew Ryce of the music magazine Resident Advisor, Guy said she thought her work as a DJ was going to be a mere hobby as she prepared to become an environmental researcher or perhaps a college professor. But her life has taken a new turn.

Jayda grew up Grand Forks, B.C., about 2.5 hours north of Spokane. Her love of music led her to learn the art of being a DJ and playing others’ songs. Over the past few years, she has found increasing success, spending much of her time playing clubs and music festivals in Europe.

“That’s the thing about Guy’s sets,” according to Ryce. “They’re hard to dislike. She connects soulfulness and melody across genres, and she’s willing to play the classics that other DJs shy away from.”

Jayda expanded into producing; she created a new music label; and she started writing her own music. Yet nothing made her as nervous as presenting her research findings to a panel of other scientists, she told Max Mertens of Motherboard magazine for an article published in February.

“Everyone in my lab couldn’t believe it,” she was quoted as saying. “They were like, ‘You play in front of hundreds and thousands of people all the time; why would you be nervous to defend your thesis in front of a panel of a few people?’ I was so nervous.”

Guy expresses a passion for discovery — the goal of science — as well as a passion for nature and the mysterious interactions among living things, which is something everyone can appreciate if they take the time.

“Academia can be so daunting and intimidating,” she said in the Motherboard interview. “I want to take that knottiness and intimidation out, so that people can really feel like they understand something, and that they can ask the questions they want to ask, without feeling judged or silly for asking those questions.”

Guy recently launched a London-based series of discussions she calls “JMG Talks,” in which she converses with young researchers about their lives as well as their scientific investigations. The first two talks were held last month, one with Lily Zeng, a young scientist who blends anthropology and ecology in Southwest China, and the other with Lindsay Veazey, an oceanographic modeler studying the impact of human development on the Hawaiian Coast.

Jayda was recently invited to join BBC’s Radio 1 Residency program. Her hour-long musical show was released today for listening over the next month.

Jayda’s schedule into next fall is so full of appearances and other activities that I suspect she will come to look forward to some extra time in the natural world, perhaps closer to home.

Besides the interesting articles mentioned in this blog, one can read about Jayda on her Facebook page.

Climate Sense: The road to clean energy – politics, technology and culture

Experts say it is possible, in the not-too-distant future, for the United States to generate nearly all its electrical energy from sources that do not produce climate-changing greenhouse gases. But first some political and technical hurdles must be crossed.

In this week’s “Climate Sense,” I share some news articles that I found noteworthy, as well as an interesting description of five movies about climate change — including the one in the video player here. Films can help bring about cultural change, as mentioned in a review of five films about climate change (Item 6 at the bottom).

Item 1: Battle over clean power in the Washington Legislature

Legislation to move Washington state residents toward forms of electrical power that do not result in greenhouse-gas emissions has been advancing through the state House and Senate, as described in a comprehensive story by Brad Shannon and Robert McClure of Investigate West.

“Both Senate Bill 5116 and House Bill 1211 seek to end the use of coal-fired electricity by 2025 and set a firm January 2030 deadline to hit clean energy targets,” they write.

“Utilities that fail to hit those targets could stand to pay a considerable price,” according to their story. “The Senate legislation would impose a $60 per megawatt-hour penalty for any natural gas or other carbon-emitting sources of power after 2030. The House version would levy $100 per megawatt hour. It’s not clear if or how those costs could be passed on to Washington households, which, on average, use about 12 megawatt hours per year.”

The concern raised by Republican lawmakers and utilities involves the stability of the integrated power grid in the Northwest and how to keep electricity flowing steadily without a backup source of coal or natural gas, which clean-power advocates wish to eliminate.

“No one wants to be reckless,” Sen. Reuven Carlyle, D-Seattle, was quoted as saying. “No one wants to drive too fast outside of the lanes. But we also know we have the ability inside the state to embrace 100 percent clean and move forward.”

Carlyle, sponsor of the Senate bill, added that “there are technical and legitimate operational issues where we need flexibility for these utilities.”

Read the full story to understand the political lay of the land. By the way, in case you missed it, Gov. Jay Inslee announced yesterday that he is running for president and will focus on efforts to reduce climate change as the centerpiece of his campaign.

Item 2: A total clean energy grid would need lots of storage

January’s bone-chilling weather in the Eastern and Central United States, triggered by an anomaly in the polar vortex, has provided a test of what it could take to keep the electricity flowing in those regions if solar and wind were the only sources of power, according to Dan Gearino of Inside Climate News, who reviewed a new report by the analytical firm Wood Mackenzie Power & Renewables.

Batteries could be the answer to maintaining the grid when the sun doesn’t shine and the wind doesn’t blow, according to the analysis, but Gearino raises questions of feasibility, technology and politics in his interview with Wade Schauer, co-author of the report.

Storage would need to increase from the current 11 gigawatts to 277.9 gigawatts for portions of the grid that supply New England, New York, the Mid-Atlantic, the Midwest and parts of the South. That’s roughly double Wood Mackenzie’s current forecast for energy storage nationwide in 2040, Gearino says.

Item 3: New national grid design could be part of the answer

The challenge of going green is putting the electricity sector through the “most profound operating changes in the U.S. electric power sector since the era of Thomas Edison,” writes reporter Peter Behr in E&E News.

The issue is not just power generation from wind and solar farms but the complication of rooftop “distributed” solar energy and “smart appliances” designed to operate only during periods of low demand.

An upgrade of the country’s entire transmission system would be a major step forward, according to experts interviewed for Behr’s wide-ranging article. One scenario involves three ultra-high-voltage direct-current lines spanning the Rocky Mountains to the Mississippi River, with other new lines moving power from west to east.

Surplus afternoon solar power from the Southwest could stream into Southeastern states at dusk, Behr writes. Other lines could ship unused wind energy from the Great Plains into major cities in the Great Lakes and East Coast regions, or the other way into California.

Computers would need to be designed to respond rapidly to load changes on the grid, far faster than humanly possible. The days of people watching dials and flipping switches to balance the loads could soon be over.

Item 4: More certainty about human causes of climate change

“Evidence for man-made global warming has reached a ‘gold standard’ level of certainty,” writes reporter Alister Doyle of Reuters, who quotes scientists regarding this statistical threshold.

Researchers in the United States, Canada and Scotland say evidence for the cause of global warming reached the “five sigma” level by 2005 in two of three sets of satellite data and in 2016 in the third, according to the report.

The “five-sigma” level is a statistical benchmark used in particle physics that means the chance of reaching current conditions through natural factors alone are one in a million. Others commenting in Doyle’s article but not involved in the study said they preferred to raise the certainty to somewhat above 99 percent.

Here’s the statement by Benjamin Santer and colleagues in the journal Nature Climate Change (Feb. 25):

“An anthropogenic fingerprint of tropospheric warming is identifiable with high statistical confidence in all currently available satellite datasets. In two out of three datasets, fingerprint detection at a 5σ threshold — the gold standard for discoveries in particle physics — occurs no later than 2005, only 27 years after the 1979 start of the satellite measurements. Humanity cannot afford to ignore such clear signals.”

Item 5: Trump becoming isolated on climate change

“New efforts by President Trump and his staff to question or undermine the established science of climate change have created a widening rift between the White House on one side, and scientific facts, government agencies, and some leading figures in the president’s own party on the other,” writes New York Times reporter Coral Devenport.

It is one thing to argue about an issue on the basis of policy, such as cost or priority, but no president has ever tried to systematically undermine the findings of the National Academies of Science or other respected scientific groups, experts said.

“It creates a huge divide with our European and Asian allies, and it allows China to claim the mantle of climate leadership,” Sherri Goodman, a former deputy undersecretary of defense, was quoted as saying. “China shows up at climate conferences when the U.S. doesn’t, and they offer to engage on the science.”

White House officials seem to be in the process of setting up a panel to question basic scientific findings related to climate change.

Comedian Stephen Colbert of The Late Show joked last week about the man chosen by President Trump to head the new climate panel. I featured Colbert’s monologue and related information in my “Amusing Monday” blog post this week along with other humorous jabs by Colbert.

Item 6: Climate-change films can be empowering

Daisy Simmons of Yale Climate Connections reports on the Wild and Scenic Film Festival in Nevada City, Calif., where climate change emerged as a major topic in some notable films.

“Climate change is happening before our very eyes – including on the big screen. Watching a well-informed high-quality documentary can help bring the issues to life in a way that feels personal, enlightening and, yes, empowering,” she writes in a review that includes trailers and potential access to five notable films.

“Climate Sense” is my attempt to share some of the important research, political developments, fascinating viewpoints or inspiring opinions that I come across during my reading. For a further explanation, read my first Water Ways post of 2019: “Climate Sense: I would like to share what I learn during this coming year.”

Climate Sense: Concerns rise over methane and auto-emission rules

Methane is a powerful greenhouse gas, capable of trapping far more heat than the same amount carbon dioxide, at least in the short term. This week, I point you to some new studies regarding the release of methane and news about a potential showdown between state and federal governments over fuel-economy standards.

Methane, the primary component of natural gas, is not well understood by many people. Methane can absorb more than 100 times as much energy as an equal weight of carbon dioxide, experts say, but methane breaks down in the atmosphere over time, so the effect of releasing a ton of methane actually decreases as time goes on.

Graphic: Environmental Protection Agency

Methane’s “global warming potential,” or GWP, is said to be 28-36 times higher than CO2 when considering the effects over 100 years — so methane is regarded as a major contributor to climate change. Check out the explanation of GWP by the Environmental Protection Agency.

Sources of methane are widespread — from vegetation naturally decomposing in wetlands to incidental releases during natural gas production and transport. Figuring out the amount of methane coming from various sources has been a puzzle for climate scientists.

Item 1: Oil and natural gas production increases GHG emissions

A new study led by NASA researchers and published in Nature Communications has come to the unwelcome conclusion that a dramatic increase in atmospheric methane can be linked to the increased production of petroleum in the U.S. Writer Sharon Kelly explains in EcoWatch how the study helps to solve the mystery of the “missing methane.”

“The sharp increase in methane emissions correlates closely with the U.S. fracking boom,” Jim Warren, executive director of the climate watchdog group NC WARN, was quoted as saying. “Leaking and venting of unburned gas — which is mostly methane — makes natural gas even worse for the climate than coal.”

The video, shown here, is produced by the Environmental Defense Fund, an advocacy group, but it provides a good representation of where methane leaks may occur.

Item 2: Methane leaks not easily identified in some regions

Methane leaks from oil and natural gas production are not only bad for climate change but they are a loss of potential revenue for petroleum producers, so nobody wants leaks. Since 2008, the industry in the United States has been required to use optical gas imaging technology to detect methane leaks, as described by Sabrina Shankman of Inside Climate News.

But the current technology for detecting such leaks does not function reliably when the temperature gets well below zero, as it often does in the oil fields around Prudhoe Bay, she says, adding another example where methane leaks may go undetected and unreported.

Meanwhile, the EPA under the Trump administration has been moving to reduce leak-detection requirements for oil and gas fields, although they are facing challenges in court, Sabrina reports.

Item 3: Arctic bogs could produce spiraling methane releases

Increasing rains in the Arctic could hasten the pace of spring thawing, releasing more and more methane from the permafrost, according to a new study in Geophysical Research Letters.

“At a thawing wetland complex in Interior Alaska, we found that interactions between rain and deep soil temperatures controlled methane emissions,” the authors reported. “In rainy years, recharge from the watershed rapidly altered wetland soil temperatures, warming the top ~80 centimeters (31 inches) of soil in spring and summer and cooling it in autumn. When soils were warmed by spring rainfall, methane emissions increased by ~30 percent.”

“The findings are cause for concern,” writes Phil McKenna of Inside Climate News, “because spring rains are anticipated to occur more frequently as the region warms. The release of methane, a short-lived climate pollutant more potent than carbon dioxide over the short term, could induce further warming in a vicious cycle that would be difficult if not impossible to stop.”

Item 4: Sightline series examines methane issues

Sightline Institute, a Northwest organization that promotes sustainability by offering “practical vision and innovative thinking,” has produced a three-part series on the methane issue written by Tarika Powell:

  1. Calling natural gas a ‘bridge fuel’ is alarmingly deceptive
  2. Methane’s 20- and 100-year climate effect is like ‘CO2 on steroids’
  3. Studying full methane life cycle critical to Pacific Northwest policy

The discussion about methane is part of an ongoing series (now 46 articles) called “Fracked fuel and petrochemical projects in the Pacific Northwest,” in which Sightline profiles the risks of projects that would produce or transport methanol, zylene, liquefied natural gas, liquefied petroleum gas and other products in the region.

Item 5: Showdown coming on California emissions standards

This week, Reuters and other news organizations reported that the Trump administration has formally stopped negotiating with California officials about federal plans to roll back national fuel-efficiency standards for automobiles.

For years, California maintained standards stricter than those of the federal government to reduce pollution and cut back on greenhouse gas emissions. At least 12 other states have adopted California’s standards, allowed under a special exemption from the EPA. Now that an exemption could be revoked, setting up a court fight.

Standards proposed under the Obama administration would require automakers to roughly double average fuel efficiency by 2025, but the Trump administration wants to freeze those standards at 2020 levels, saying further changes would raise the cost of vehicles to an unacceptable level.

“Climate Sense” is my attempt to share some of the important research, political developments, fascinating viewpoints or inspiring opinions that I come across during my reading. For a further explanation, read my first Water Ways post of 2019: “Climate Sense: I would like to share what I learn during this coming year.”

Amusing Monday: NOAA’s top photos, videos and stories

A photograph of a tiny orange octopus was the most popular image last year among all the photographs posted to Instagram by NOAA Fisheries, the agency formally called the National Marine Fisheries Service. More than 2,000 people “liked” the picture and many more viewed it from among more than 150 top photographs posted last year by NOAA Fisheries’ Communications shop on its Instagram page.

A baby octopus found on an autonomous reef monitoring structure. (Click to enlarge.)
Photo: James Morioka/NOAA

The octopus photo was taken during a NOAA expedition to assess the health of coral reefs in the Pacific Remote Islands, which had undergone a massive die-off in 2016 and 2017 caused by excessive warm water. The tiny octopus was discovered on an “autonomous reef monitoring structure” used to measure the recovery of ocean ecosystems. For details about the voyage, see NOAA’s story “Research Expedition to Assess Coral Reef Conditions and Recovery from Mass Bleaching.”

Another popular NOAA photo from last year was a picture of a large number of green sea turtles basking along the French Frigate Shoals in the Northwest Hawaiian Islands.

Green sea turtles bask on a beach in the Northwest Hawaiian Islands. (Click to enlarge.)
Photo: Marylou Staman/NOAA

Starting in 1973, NOAA biologists have traveled to these remote islands to monitor nesting activity among the turtles. They work day and night, counting and marking turtles with unique numbers for identity. Citizens who spot numbered turtles are asked to report them. For more details, check out the story “Honu Count 2018: Help us find numbered sea turtles in Hawaii.”

A video that tells a story of sea turtles also came out among the most popular videos produced by NOAA last year. The story of how their populations are changing is fascinating, and turtles always get attention from readers and viewers, according to NOAA officials.

“One of the really interesting things about sea turtles is their sex is determined by the incubation temperature of the eggs, with cooler temperatures producing more males and warmer temperatures producing more females,” says Michael Jensen, a marine biologist with Ocean Associates.

Jensen, working on a turtle study with NOAA’s Southwest Fisheries Science Center, is the primary voice on the video, in which he talks about how warmer waters in portions of Australia’s Great Barrier Reef are producing about 99 percent female turtles. These findings are based on new genetic studies that track where the turtles are born.

“It’s important to remember that they’ve been around for a hundred million years,” Jensen said. “They’ve outlasted the dinosaurs. They’ve adapted to a changing climate through that whole time. However, the climate is changing faster now than it has ever. The question we are all asking now is: Will they be able to adapt, and will they be able to adapt fast enough. We certainly hope so.”

Humpback whale // Photo: NOAA

One of NOAA’s top stories of last year, as always, was a focus on whales. Communication folks put together some interesting facts for Whale Week, including this one: “Male humpback whales found in U.S. waters sing complex songs in winter breeding areas … that can last up to 20 minutes and be heard miles away.” OK, maybe most of us already knew that, but for each of the 10 whales mentioned, you will find links to a lot more details, such as with humpbacks.

If you are interested in Puget Sound, I would point you toward the “marine mammal” section of the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound.

Blue shark // Photo: Mark Conlin/NOAA

NOAA’s number-one story of 2018 was one put together for Shark Week: “12 shark facts that may surprise you.” Here’s a fact that may not be as obvious as it seems:

“Blue sharks are really blue. The blue shark displays a brilliant blue color on the upper portion of its body and is normally snowy white beneath. The mako and porbeagle sharks also exhibit a blue coloration, but it is not nearly as brilliant as that of a blue shark. In life, most sharks are brown, olive, or grayish.”

Another popular “story,” which is actually listed as 16 separate stories, involves issues of sustainable seafood, with mention of National Seafood Month in October. Stories address sustainable labeling, consumer preferences, cuts of fish, fishermen perspectives, species recovery, aquaculture, economics, climate change and descriptions of a variety of individual fish species.

The list of NOAA Fisheries’ top stories, photos and videos can be found on the agency’s news website.

Sharing info and solving mysteries: International Year of the Salmon

Nearly a decade in the planning phase, it appears that the International Year of the Salmon couldn’t come at a better time for Northwest residents.

More and more people are beginning to recognize the importance of chinook salmon to the long-term survival of our Southern Resident killer whales. Legislation designed to improve the populations of salmon and orcas has gained increased urgency as these iconic creatures continue to decline.

Many countries throughout the Northern Hemisphere have joined together in a campaign to raise public awareness about salmon this year and to increase the support for scientific research and restoration projects that might save endangered salmon from extinction.

One exciting aspect of the International Year of the Salmon, or IYS, is a scientific expedition involving 21 researchers from five countries. This international dream team will depart Sunday from Vancouver, British Columbia, to engage in a month of research into the secrets of salmon survival. I described this long-anticipated endeavor in an article published today in the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound.

I’m hoping that communication with the Russian research vessel carrying these scientists will be adequate to learn about how they are faring along the way, as they traverse 6,000 miles of ocean in a back-and-forth pattern.

“Nothing like this has ever been done before, considering the breadth of work we will be doing in the Gulf of Alaska in the winter,” said Dick Beamish, a longtime Canadian salmon researcher who organized the expedition.

Fernando Lessa, who photographed a person releasing chinook salmon, was named the winner in a photo contest kicking off the International Year of the Salmon.
Photo: Fernando Lessa

The IYS is also fairly unique, involving numerous salmon-rearing countries. This year, 2019, is the “focal year,” but outreach, research and analysis will continue through 2022.

“The extraordinary life histories of salmon in the Northern Hemisphere exposes them to many environmental and human-caused factors influencing their health and abundance,” states the webpage for the campaign. “We want to bring people together, share and develop knowledge, raise awareness and take action.”

Goals of the IYS include:

  • Developing a greater understanding of what drives salmon abundance,
  • Encouraging scientists, decision-makers and the public to identify and start solving the problems that salmon face,
  • Working to implement conservation and restoration strategies for salmon,
  • Inspiring a new generation of people committed to saving salmon on an international scale, and
  • Improving awareness of the ecological, social, cultural and economic importance of salmon.

To kick off the Year of the Salmon, the North Pacific Anadromous Fish Commission held a photo contest last fall. The theme of “Salmon and people in a changing world” matched the theme of the IYS. The winning photo, shown on this page, is titled “Releasing some chinook fry in Surrey!” by photographer Fernando Lessa, a resident of North Vancouver, B.C.

Events scheduled this year include:

Salmon Recovery Conference: April 8-9, Greater Tacoma Convention Center. The conference brings together those involved in salmon recovery in Washington state with the idea of sharing best practices and improving local recovery plans.

The Second North Pacific Anadromous Fish Commission IYS Workshop: May 18-20, Portland, Ore. The workshop will focus on the latest information on salmon, including their migration, distribution, growth and survival.

World Salmon Forum: Aug. 21-23, Seattle. The forum aims to bring together scientists, advocates and foundations with an interest in understanding the science and improving the management of wild salmon in both the Pacific and Atlantic regions.

Coho Festival, 2019: Sept. 8, West Vancouver, B.C. The festival, put on by the Coho Society, is a celebration of returning salmon and a fund-raiser for salmon-restoration projects.

To recognize that salmon are cherished on both sides of the Atlantic and Pacific, I’ve included a video featuring George Eustice, Great Britain’s Minister of State at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

Many organizations have proposed specific projects this year, including some mentioned on the IYS website.

Documents and websites related to IYS:

Climate Sense: Congressional hearings and the Green New Deal

Congress is becoming active on climate change — at least with respect to hearings and proposed legislation. Progressive Democrats, including newly elected members of the House, are expressing hope that climate change will be taken off the back burner and brought to a simmering boil. I would also like to point you to some new findings about the impacts of climate change on the Himalayan region of Asia.

Item 1: Climate change hearings

In taking control of the U.S. House of Representatives, House leaders wasted no time this week in turning their attention to climate change. Three separate hearings were held on the issue, two at the same time on Wednesday and the third on Thursday.

The Democrats’ strategy seems to be for members to spell out the science of climate change, describe the environmental dangers and balance the economic risks and benefits of possible solutions. But, as described by National Public Radio reporter Rebecca Hersher, Democrats must unify their own approaches to the problem while trying to bring Republicans into the discussion.

“You know, I don’t think there’s going to be universal agreement on a high bipartisan level to do anything about climate change,” said Rep. Raul Grijalva, chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, in the interview with Hersher (above).

The hearing in Grijalva’s committee (first video) opens with two governors, Gov. Roy Cooper of North Carolina, a Democrat, and Gov. Charlie Baker of Massachusetts, a Republican.

“In Massachusetts, climate change is not a partisan issue,” says Republican Baker in his testimony (PDF 249 kb). “While there may sometimes be disagreement on specific policies, we understand the science and we know the impacts are real.

“We know through experience that mitigation to clean up our energy supply and transportation system, paired with adaptation strategies to reduce risk and build resilience can foster strong communities, protect residents and natural resources, and contribute to strong economic growth and innovation throughout the state.”

Check out the committee’s website for a list of speakers and links to their prepared testimony.

The title of the concurrent hearing on Wednesday was “Time for Action: Addressing the Environmental and Economic Effects of Climate Change.” It was before the Subcommittee on Environment and Climate Change under the Energy and Commerce Committee. Despite the word “climate” in the formal name of the committee, there have been no climate-change hearings before the committee for six years while Democrats were in the wilderness.

Watch the hearing in the second video on this page. For a list of witnesses and their prepared testimony, go to the subcommittee’s webpage on the hearing.

The following day, Thursday, the Water, Oceans and Wildlife Subcommittee of the Natural Resources Committee held a hearing focused largely on the effects of climate change on the ocean. Watch the third video for details.

Chairman Jared Huffman, a Democratic representative from California, said at the outset that he wanted to change the tone and approach of the discussions about climate change. He said he intends to allow Republican members to call witnesses of their choosing and he hoped that both parties could even agree to some “joint” witnesses.

It didn’t take long, however, for Huffman to express disappointment, after Republicans called witnesses who downplayed the urgency of climate change. Huffman even pushed back against Kevin Dayaratna, a statistician with the Heritage Foundation, who claimed that reducing greenhouse gases could have devastating impacts on the economy.

“I’m a little disappointed that instead of focusing on the health of our oceans and some of the seemingly obvious things we need to acknowledge and work on together, that we got this thick denialism,” Huffman told Eos reporter Randy Showstack after the hearing. “It’s sort of the last gasp of a certain type of politics that is starting to give way to reality and to science. But we’ll continue to see it from time to time…

“It is cold comfort to the lobstermen that a statistician from the Heritage Foundation hypothesizes that there may be beneficial aspects to CO2 concentrations,” he continued. “They’re losing their industry because of ocean acidification, and I don’t think they’re interested in these intellectual games that right-wing institutes want to play on this issue.”

The hearing is shown in the third video on this page. A witness list and links to prepared testimony can be found on the committee’s webpage.

Item 2: Green New Deal

Liberal Democrats, led by freshman Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York and Sen. Edward Markey of Massachusetts, rolled out a plan this week to battle climate change under the title Green New Deal.

“The resolution has more breadth than detail and is so ambitious that Republicans greeted it with derision,” noted reporters Lisa Friedman and Glenn Thrush of the New York Times. “Its legislative prospects are bleak in the foreseeable future; Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California has no plan to bring the resolution in its current form to the floor for a vote, according to a Democratic leadership aide with direct knowledge of her plans.”

I was going to share a fact sheet to help explain what the program would entail, but there’s been some controversy about various drafts of the fact sheets floating around, and some versions have even been called “a hoax” by advisers to the Green New Deal campaign. See today’s story by Tal Axelrod in “The Hill.”

Anyway, Ocasio-Cortez is pointing people to the actual resolution submitted to Congress. Perhaps some reliable fact sheets will be written from the resolution, with opposing viewpoints considered.

Item 3: Melting Himalayan glaciers

High-altitude glaciers, such as those in the Himalayan Mountains, are melting faster than ice packs at lower elevations, placing huge populations at risk of social upheaval before many other places around the world, according to a comprehensive new report.

River flows in the Indus, Ganges and Brahmaputra are expected to increase until about 2050 as the glaciers melt away, and then decrease to catastrophic flows as the ice disappears.

Half the children in Himalayan villages are already undernourished, placing them at greater risk from climate change, as reported in the Nepali Times, which addresses the report.

“Nepal’s national poverty rate is 23 percent, but 42 percent of the country’s mountain dwellers are poor,” says the story by Kunda Dixit, who quotes from the report. “Because they have fewer choices, the poorest are already beginning to suffer from erratic weather and other impacts of climate change, adding to the push-factors in outmigration.

“The report also lays out policy options for countries in the Himalaya, which include increased cross-border cooperation among them to battle common threats. One concrete step would be China, Nepal and India cooperating on disaster early warning on future Glacial Lake Outburst Floods. The report also calls for added investment in meeting the UN’s Sustainable Development Goal targets which would build resilience among mountain peoples by giving them more options to adapt.”

The 627-page report, called “The Hindu Kush Himalaya Assessment,” can be reviewed through the Springer link. The last video on this page is a discussion by David Molden, head of the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development, which produced the report.

“Climate Sense” is my attempt to share some of the important research, political developments, fascinating viewpoints or inspiring opinions that I come across during my reading. For a further explanation, read my first Water Ways post of 2019: “Climate Sense: I would like to share what I learn during this coming year.”

Learning the fate of Springer’s stick, a key to an orca rescue

When is a medical intervention appropriate for a sick or ailing killer whale?

It’s a complicated question, as I learned by interviewing a variety of experts in a two-part series just published in the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound.

One aspect of the story that I found interesting was how a simple tree branch helped to make a connection between humans and a lonely orca named Springer. If you have read my story, you might be interested in how the stick played an ongoing role after the rescue.

The question of medical intervention with wild killer whales has become more urgent with an ongoing drop in the population of the critically endangered southern resident orcas of Puget Sound.

Last summer, the world watched as 4-year-old Scarlet, a female orca designated J50, became emaciated and eventually died. Medical experts tried unsuccessfully to help her, and they are still debating whether they did too much or too little.

In contrast, we have the story of Springer, or A73, an orphan killer whale who was successfully rescued from Puget Sound, nursed back to health and returned to her family in Northern British Columbia.

Differences between the two cases are stark. No doubt the biggest difference is that Springer was all alone, whereas Scarlet stayed with her close-knit family. Anything done to Scarlet, helpful or not, had effects on all the orcas around her.

As I learned while talking to folks about Springer, the lonely whale found an attachment to humans through a stick, which served as both a back scratcher and a toy. The stick became the key to getting a blood sample from a moving whale, and the blood sample was essential to moving ahead with the rescue, as I explained in the story.

What happened to the stick after Springer was captured and taken to a net pen for rehab?

Dr. Pete Schroeder, a veterinarian who helped get the blood sample, told me the stick stayed with the whale in the net pen. Sometimes people working with her would bring out the stick after she ate her meal of fish. It was a type of reward, Pete said. He calls the stick a “transitional object,” a term from psychology for an item that brings comfort.

“She loved that stick,” Pete said. “She swam up to it, recognized it and did 360s around it.”

The stick also went with Springer to Dong Chong Bay on Hanson Island, where she was released to her family calling to her through the water.

A First Nations dance group, called the Le-La-La Dancers, is known for performing traditional Kwakwaka’wakw (pronounced kwa kwa key wok) dances, representing the First Nations culture of the North Vancouver Island region. One dance is enhanced with a unique five-foot-long mask of a killer whale. The dancer’s moves — up and down, and side to side — represent the diving, breaching and swimming of a killer whale. Check out the video on this page.

As Pete recalled, “They used that special orca mask in a ceremony as we handed the stick over to the First Nations band. We hoped that they could use it to somehow influence Springer’s homecoming to her pod.”

After Springer was released from the net pen on Hanson Island, she swam out to her pod, but she did not stay with the whales. Slow to integrate with her own kind, she approached fishing boats and other vessels, even as the whale researchers asked boaters not to interact with her.

“We knew we had a problem,” Pete said, “and we were asked by the First Nations people to attend a meeting.”

The researchers were told about the history and culture of the native people and the spiritual relationships with the animals of the region, especially the killer whales.

George Taylor, who leads the Le-La-La Dancers, said a special ceremony was held for Springer using the killer whale mask and the stick. The dance with the mask has been performed many times, George told me. It represents the transformation of a killer whale into a man.

The “sacred stick,” as George calls it, was brought into the ceremonial dance to revisit the connection between Springer and the people who knew her. George has long felt a spiritual connection to killer whales, a connection that started years ago when he was approached by orcas during a fishing trip.

“The killer whales came and swam around me,” he said. “It seemed like they knew who I was.”

Some things are too mysterious to explain with science, Pete said. For whatever reason, the timing of the ceremony involving the stick coincided with Springer’s permanent break with the humans and a return to more natural ways.

“After the ceremony,” Pete recalled, “she stayed with her pod and never approached humans again.”

George says he does not know what happened to the stick after that.

Springer stories: Read “Pod reunion: Waters of home welcome Springer,” July 14th, 2002

Orca health assessment, legal rights, and two upcoming presentations

The ongoing shutdown of the federal government has kept federal marine mammal biologists and administrators from paying close attention to the critically endangered Southern Resident killer whales. The folks I know at NOAA’s Northwest Fisheries Science Center must be going crazy over their inability to do their jobs, which have always been central to the survival of our beloved orcas.

To take a breath sample, mist from an orca’s blow is collected at the end of a long pole then tested for pathogens. // Photo: Pete Schroeder

But now a coalition of non-government orca experts plans to step in to at least conduct an initial health assessment of two orcas showing signs of “peanut head,” an indicator of malnutrition that frequently leads to death. Initial plans for taking minimally invasive fecal and breath samples were developed during a meeting of the minds on a conference call yesterday. Further efforts, such as medical treatment, would need special authorization from federal officials.

I won’t go into further details here, since you can read the story published this morning by the Puget Sound Institute.

Treaty rights related to orcas

After all my years of covering killer whale issues, it is interesting to see the emergence of the Lummi Nation as a major participant in the orca discussions. Kurt Russo, senior policy analyst for the Lummi Sovereignty and Treaty Protection Office, told me that tribal members have a spiritual connection with the orcas that goes back thousands of years. The inherent right to commune with the “blackfish” or “qwe i/to! Mechtcn” was never superseded by treaties signed between the tribe and the U.S. government, so these rights still stand, he said.

A letter from Lawrence Solomon, secretary of the Lummi Nation, outlines the tribal position.

Based on moral concerns, the tribe supports strong actions to save the Southern Resident orcas from extinction. That should involve a health assessment for the two orcas that seem to be in declining health, Kurt said. Feeding the two whales and providing medicine to help them recover could be part of the plan, he added. Whether the tribe could support capturing the whales to nurse them back to health is a controversial question that has not yet been resolved among tribal members, he said.

“How does the moral obligation define that scenario?” Kurt wondered. “It would be traumatic to take a whale away from its family. There is not a firm decision yet about that solution.”

Finding a way to feed the entire population of 75 Southern Residents could be critical to their survival, Kurt said, and it might require setting up feeding stations where the whales could come for food.

“The killer whales are sending a message,” Kurt said. “It’s now or never. We will soon know if the Salish Sea is going to remain an ecosystem that can be repaired. It’s not an issue of more science. We have to act on what we know.”

Legal rights for orcas themselves

A coalition of various groups today unveiled a declaration proclaiming the inherent rights of the Southern Resident orcas to exist. The recognition comes with some urgency, according to the group, because a new calf was recently born — the first birth in three years.

“We’d be having very different conversations if we approached recovery with the orca’s best interests in mind,” said Elizabeth M. Dunne in a news release.

“The orca shows us how our current laws are not remedying the severe decline of entire ecosystems – from the Salish Sea to the Columbia River basin and Snake River watershed,” said Dunne, who helped draft the declaration. “We must adopt a framework recognizing that ecosystems have the rights — to exist, flourish, evolve, to sustain life, and to be restored to a healthy state — if we truly want to save the orca, and ultimately ourselves, from extinction.”

Among its provisions, the Declaration of the Rights of the Southern Resident Orcas calls for the immediate creation of a stewardship board for the Salish Sea based on a rights-of-nature framework. It should include a guardian representation for the Southern Resident Orcas, according to the petition.

Movie: “The Whale” to play in Port Orchard

The true story of Luna, a young killer whale separated from his Southern Resident community, will be shown tomorrow (Thursday) at 6:30 p.m. at Dragonfly Cinema in downtown Port Orchard. Kitsap County Commissioner Charlotte Garrido invited me to be on hand after the movie to answer questions and talk about orcas.

Luna, or L-98, made his appearance suddenly in 2001 in Nootka Sound along the West Coast of Vancouver Island, where he became lonely and developed a habit of seeking out human companionship. An effort to capture the orca and return him to the Salish Sea failed amidst a conflict between the Canadian government and the local band of First Nations people.

In a move review I wrote for Water Ways in September 2011, I called “The Whale” a beautiful film for its photography and careful portrayal of characters and situations. It was not easy to balance the varying viewpoints, but I thought filmmakers Suzanne Chisholm and Michael Parfit pulled it off accurately.

I happen to know something about this story, because I was in Nootka Sound for two weeks leading up to the attempted capture of Luna and for a short time after the project was abandoned. I was the so-called “pool reporter” representing U.S. media, and I became acquainted with Mike and Suzanne.

Ways of Whales Workshop

On Saturday, the annual Ways of Whales Workshop, including speakers and presentations on a variety of marine mammal topics, will be held from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. at Coupeville Middle School, 501 S. Main St, on Whidbey Island.

Speakers and their topics include:

  • Howard Garrett of Orca Network on Lolita/Tokitae;
  • Cindy Elliser of Pacific Mammal Research on harbor porpoise status and identification;
  • Stephanie Norman of Marine-Med and Central Puget Sound Marine Mammal Stranding Network on harbor porpoise health and diseases;
  • Sandra O’Neill of Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife on contamination in herring, salmon and orcas;
  • Amy Carey of Sound Action on nearshore habitat protection and regulatory reform; and
  • Deborah Giles on Southern Resident killer whale research.

Singer/songwriter Dana Lyons will perform his song “The Great Salish Sea.”

The event is sponsored by Orca Network. Cost for the workshop is $35, or $25 for students and seniors. Lunch is available for an additional $10. Advance registration is highly recommended because of limited seating. Visit, email or call either 360-331-3543 or 1-866-ORCANET.

A no-host social will follow at Ciao Restaurant in Coupeville for everyone attending the workshop.