The Climate in Emergency

A weekly blog on science, news, and ideas related to climate change


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Ursula K. LeGuin

I have just learned that the writer, Ursula K. LeGuin, died this past Monday.

What does she have to do with climate change? Plenty. I’ve written multiple posts with her name in them (I’ve just linked to all five, do you see the links?) in this very blog, either using her work as evidence that we did know about climate change by the early 1970’s (she mentioned it in at least two early novels), or attempting to find comfort and meaning by quoting passages of her writing. She is, in fact, the only fiction writer to appear regularly in this way.

When a great soul leaves, we should notice.

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BOEM, Again

Remember the BOEM scoping process from a few years ago?

Basically, every five years, the Federal government decides which Federal waters will be available for oil and gas exploration. The process is supervised by the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, or BOEM, and is somewhat drawn out. In the beginning, all areas that will be considered are included in a proposed map, and public and expert comment is sought. Based on those comments, some areas may be removed from consideration, before the creation of another map and another round of comments. At each stage, the area potentially available to oil and gas extraction can grow smaller, but never bigger. When the final plan comes out, energy companies can lease small areas within those regions made available under the plan, but not every square mile within those regions is ever offered for lease, and not every possible lease is ever exploited. Although BOEM explicitly allows and facilitates oil and gas exploitation, its job is to make sure that such exploitation happens in as safe, as environmentally responsible, and as fair a way as possible.

As possible given the scale of oil and gas exploitation demanded by the economic and political will of the American people.

That last is the key–although BOEM’s job is to say “yes” to people who really should not be said “yes” to, that approval has already been issued by many other entities, including the collective weight of all the American people who buy petroleum products. BOEM’s job is to say a negotiated “yes,” to minimize harm. The BOEM personnel I’ve spoken to have all seemed friendly, helpful, sincere, and genuinely interested in environmental values and fair due process. They depend on us to give them the political cover they need to do the right thing, and they want to help us provide that cover.

BOEM is not our enemy.

Two years ago, parts of the Atlantic were initially considered for exploration, a problem, both because even the safest practices do not reduce the risk of an oil spill to zero, and because the process of locating oil and gas deposits involves sonic testing that is so loud it can kill marine life that happens to be in the way. A lot of us organized and gave public comment, passed local resolutions, and even lobbied Congress. And it worked. Most of the areas originally under consideration, including the entire Atlantic, were removed from the plan. We won! Yay!

And then Present Trump decided to start the whole process over again.

Starting Over

A new presidential administration has the option to re-examine certain decisions of its predecessor, including which areas are available for oil and gas exploitation. Mr. Trump has exercised this option, so we have to go over all of it again.

The obvious motivation for the Trump Administration to re-start the process is a desire to open up more seabed to resource extraction, especially since now, for the first time, almost all American Federal waters are under consideration. But if the process goes as it should, the results should be close to the same as they were last time–most areas should again be excluded.

But even if we win this time, too, there is still a problem, because this process requires quite a lot of work on the part of BOEM personnel–and while they are working on collecting and analyzing comments and making recommendations, they are not doing other things. While discussing the matter with BOEM personnel at a public outreach meeting yesterday, I asked what these other duties are.

Turns out, when not wrangling public comments, many BOEM personnel are involved in conducting environmental impact assessments, identifying gaps in the scientific knowledge used for those assessments, and hiring scientists to fill those gaps. Right now, those duties are still being carried out, but by fewer people. To some extent, this temporary personnel reassignment slows research for some months. More seriously, few people doing the work means fewer minds available to figure out how to solve problems and how to ask research questions.

Do you suppose interfering with research in this way could be the point of this massive do-over?

What to Do?

This is a call to action. Although not directly related to climate change, there are a lot of indirect connection, as I’ve described in previous posts.

The action is fairly simple and user-friendly–make a comment.Obviously this especially addressed to you if you live in the US somewhere coastal, but if you simply care about these areas, please get involved. And remember, we’re talking about almost the entire US coastline and adjacent offshore waters and all the animals and human economic activity (tourism, seafood, etc.) that depend on them.

Feel free to read my earlier posts (like this one) for more information, the issue and the process haven’t changed. There are a number of organizations that have also agreed to provide talking points and links; I’ll update this post when they do so. You can also go to BOEM’s website for more information on the process, a virtual version of the public informational meetings BOEM is holding, as well as how to comment.

BOEM personnel suggest that your comment involve more than “please don’t drill off my beach.” If you have any detailed information on ecological vulnerabilities of specific oceanic areas and coastlines, give those details. If you or someone you know has a strong personal connection to a given area, or if your livelihood depends on the water in some way, say so, and provide details, numbers, data, stories.

Here’s the link to comment again–you have until March 9th.

 


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Dead Zones?

In previous years I have written New Years’ retrospectives, recapping notable climate-related news stories from over the past twelve months.

This year, a retrospective of the past few weeks might be in order.

While I’ve been occupied writing holiday posts–for Yule, for Christmas, for New Years’ Day–and generally being distracted by family obligations, we’ve seen California’s worst wildfire ever (followed by a deadly mudslide just today, which is not unrelated), a rather startling case of Extreme Winter, and a new and really frightening report on marine dead zones. And there have been various political issues. Let’s pick one of these stories and catch ourselves up, shall we?

Please note that where I make statements of fact without linking to a source, it’s because I’m using a source I already linked to.

Dead Zone

The term, “dead zone” is, unfortunately, not a metaphor. These are areas, usually along the coast, but sometimes out at sea, where there is so little oxygen in the water that animals can’t live. It’s a horrifying idea. Imagine minding your own business, living as you usually do, and all of a sudden breathing does no good. Dead zones aren’t spontaneous. They are caused when flushes of nutrients (usually runoff from over-fertilized farm fields or lawns, or from sewage treatment plants) trigger massive algae blooms in the water. Although algae itself make oxygen, when the supply of fertilizer is exhausted, the algae die off and decompose and bacteria go through a population explosion. While not all bacteria breathe oxygen, these do, and there are so many of them that they use up the local supply, causing a dead zone.

In some circumstances, a dead zone can also be caused by algae directly, since algae, too, must breathe (I mean “breathe” loosely here, since all this happens under water)–it is a misconception that plant breathing is the reverse of animal breathing, that plants breathe in carbon dioxide and breathe out oxygen. Instead, plants breathe in oxygen just as we do, and for the same reason–to “burn” sugars for energy. The difference is that we get our sugars by eating, whereas plants make sugars by photosynthesis. Free oxygen is a byproduct of photosynthesis, and fortunately for us, plants make more of it than they need. But in warm, shallow water, a super-abundance of algae can sometimes run short of oxygen at night, when of course photosynthesis stops but breathing doesn’t. In Mobile Bay, in the summer, if the wind and tide are just right, this type of dead zone can move towards the shore, driving anything capable of fleeing before it. Long about dawn, anyone on the right stretch of shoreline can scoop up as much seafood as they want. Before the reason for this influx was discovered, it seemed like magic, an unearned gift from the sea. It’s called the jubilee.

Jubilees occur, less predictably, in other areas, too, such as the Chesapeake Bay, anywhere a dead zone can develop and then move towards shore. The size, shape, and duration of a dead zone depends on many factors, including, temperature, salinity, and wind direction. Dead zones are often low-down in the water column, leaving oxygenated water near the surface, which is why jubilees involve bottom-dwelling species, such as flounder or crab.

Dead zones occur in certain areas every summer, but their shape and size vary from year to year. Evidence of dead zones has been found in sediments going back at least to the late 1800’s, but the same study shows a worsening of the problem since 1950. It may be possible for a dead zone to form without human help, but humans unquestionably cause most of them.

In any case, the problem is less that individual animals die in the short-term, and more an issue of habitat loss. Because of dead zones, the places where marine life can exist are now smaller.

It’s worth noting that there are parts of the ocean where very little lives, and very little has ever lived because there is not much in the way of nutrients for various reasons. These are not dead zones. By definition, a dead zone is a place where life would occur if something had not used up so much of the oxygen.

Ok, Where Does Climate Change Come In?

Dead zones are mostly a story about pollution and land use–the factors that send excess nutrients downstream and into the sea. As such, the problem is sort of a cousin to climate change; the two have causes in common. But climate change also has a direct influence, most obviously because the warmer the water is, the less oxygen it can carry–and the less oxygen must be used up before a dead zone occurs. Also, warmer water raises the metabolisms of the animals that live in it, meaning that they need more oxygen, using the precious stuff up faster–and possibly also making dead zones occur at higher oxygen saturation levels.

Also, remember that salinity and wind direction are also factors in dead zones–and climate change can alter both.

The mechanisms here are a little complex, and I’m not going to describe all of them. Fresher water is lighter than saltier water, which means the two tend to resist mixing. River water flowing into the Chesapeake Bay, for example, or raining onto it, tends to float on top of saltwater flowing inĀ  from the ocean. This resistance to mixing is not absolute–the surface waters of the Bay get brackish pretty quickly–but it is enough that the water on the bottom has trouble getting oxygen from the air. If the algae and sea grass in the water can’t produce enough of their own oxygen, a dead zone develops. The salty water is effectively under an air-tight lid, unless wind blows and stirs the layers.

Well, as sea level rises, more saltwater flows into the Bay. As the deeper waters get saltier, the resistance to mixing gets stronger, and dead zones get more likely.

In fact, although the dead zones of the Chesapeake Bay are now shrinking (thanks to concerted efforts in the Chesapeake watershed to limit nutrient run off), the amount of excess nutrient in the Bay water is shrinking faster. That is, the Bay has been dying more easily now than it used to, and the problem is getting worse. No one is exactly sure why, and various feedback loops and long-term ecological changesĀ  (water dies easier if it’s been sick for a while?) could be in play, but sea level rise could be part of the answer, as could rising temperatures. Changes in wind direction may also play a role, as winds from the south have become less common since the early 1980’s, in favor of winds from the west. Since the Chesapeake is large, north to south, and skinny east to west, the change in wind direction has meant less wave action, and thus less mixing in Bay waters. I don’t know that the change in wind direction has anything to do with climate change–but I don’t know that it doesn’t, either.

As often happens, there are other factors that could be involved, some of which could actually mean climate change reduces the size of dead zones, long term. No one knows for sure.

But so far, as climate change progresses, dead zones have been getting worse. I suppose that could be a coincidence….

What’s the Story?

The reason I’m bringing all of this up now is that a study has just come out showing that although the Chesapeake dead zones are shrinking, dead zones elsewhere are getting much worse–and dead zones are even occurring and worsening in the open ocean, which is generally much more resilient.

Each area’s dead zone has its own history and its own context. How long has the zone been occurring, which industries cause it, who gets hurt by it, what is the relative political power of each, what details of local geography and ecology make the situation worse or better, what stresses other than low oxygen levels might be bothering marine life…. I’m reluctant to make generalized statements without first looking into the rabbit hole of information on each zone. Climate change may be a factor in some zones but not others.

But these zones are worth watching. Is there one near you? Does something you do, or don’t do, help cause a dead zone down stream? Are your state, local, and Federal representatives aware of the problem and concerned about it?

There are zones in the water that kill fish and many of them are growing.

 

 


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New Year, New Normal

It’s cold.

What I mean is that the weather is colder than its been recently in the part of the world where I happen to be. The simple answer to those who insist the world can’t be warming while they personally shiver is that climate change involves increased extremes, including the occasional extreme cold snap. But it’s also possible for one area to have record-breaking cold even as the world on average is unusually warm, as has happened in recent years. And it’s possible for conditions to seem unusually cold even while still above the 20th century average, because we’ve grown used to warmer conditions still.

I haven’t checked to see which of these concepts applied to New Years’ Day in Eastern Maryland, 2018.

What I know is that I turned up on Assateague Island for the annual New Years’ Day Beachwalk, which my husband usually leads, and conditions were brilliant, bright, and beautiful. Clear, blue sky, a stiff breeze whipping the waves to photogenic whitecaps, and a windchill of seven degrees.

I want to emphasize that this event is not supposed to be masochistic. It’s not like the Polar Bear Plunge, in nearby Ocean City, where people actually jump in the water on the first of January, no, it’s an educational walk where you get to stroll along with a naturalist, learning about the island’s history, its sand, and its sea shells. Some years over three hundred people show up.

This year, we had 34 people, almost half of them organizers, volunteers, and hangers-on. My husband did his best, under the circumstances, but there was no shelter from the wind anywhere, and people were having trouble concentrating because it was just too cold. He cut the walk in half and brought everyone back to the starting point early for hot chocolate. Then he and I went home and had Chinese take-out.

Everything everybody says about cold snaps in a warming world is true–climate change involves extremes in all directions, it can be cold here but warm elsewhere, and these temps only seem as cold as they do because everything has been so warm of late.

But what happens when we get used to warm weather?

It’s not like I’ve never experienced single-digit temps before–I used to live in New Hampshire, where I regularly biked to and from school in the winter. Cold was normal, and seldom bothered me. I dressed for the cold as a matter of routine. But now…do I need a hat, or is a hood good enough? How thick do my socks need to be? How many layers do I need? I can’t quite remember. I’m out of practice. Give me another week or two of this and it will all come back to me, but Monday morning I wasn’t there yet.

Whether a given temperature is historically normal or globally notable is less important for most people than whether it’s been typical lately. A surprising cold snap in Maryland might involve temperatures that are perfectly normal for Vermont or New Hampshire, but that doesn’t mean the Marylanders have adequate coats, hats, and gloves, nor do they necessarily have lifestyles and habits that make sense in such temperatures. Where a New Englander might have recreational activities that require cold temps (like ice fishing), on the Lower Eastern Shore, this kind of weather disrupts everybody’s plans. Sometimes the surprising cold is dangerous.

The way changing climate works, cold weather doesn’t go away, it just gets less likely. While I haven’t seen any figures on the matter, I’m wondering if rising average temperatures are resulting in more disruption–and more danger–when cold snaps do occur.