The Climate in Emergency

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


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Current Events

I had a plan for this week’s post, I really did, but then Siberia had to hit triple digits, and Africa had to have a giant dust storm, and there is really no way I can fail to acknowledge either story.

A photo showing a close-up of an outdoor thermometer with both Celcius and Farenheit scales. The temperature reads about 110 F., or 40 C.

Photo by Jarosław Kwoczała on Unsplash

 Hot Time in the Old Town Tonight

The situation in Siberia is, briefly, that the region has been unusually warm for months, now, producing a string of unusual and worrying events, such as melting permafrost (a tank resting on what used to be stable permafrost tipped over, causing a major diesel spill) and a big jump in wildfire activity. That the small town of Verkhoyansk hit 100.4° F. on Saturday is just the latest of the weird news.

Why?

High north heat-waves are, all by themselves, not that unusual. 100.3° set a record, but 90° is not unheard-of for the region, especially inland–the interior of continents tend to have extreme temperature swings, and when the sun shines 20 hours a day or more in the summer, things can occasionally heat up. Although “Siberia hits 100°!” makes an attention-getting headline, the real story is not one hot day but an entire pattern of unusually warm weather, where heat waves not only get hotter but last longer and come more frequently.

It’s easy–and more or less accurate–to say “it’s because of anthropogenic climate change,” but I like to dig a little deeper, look at how the general trend of a warming planet connects to, say, one hot day in Siberia in June. I should be clear that since I am not a climatologist or a meteorologist, my digging is necessarily provisional. You should definitely read the sources I cite for yourself before you quote me. But I do sometimes notice things. For example, as much as we are told that specific weather events can’t be tied definitively to climate change, I often see what looks, to my layman’s eye, like just such a tie.

There are several reasons why the air might get hot in Siberia, and they can layer on top of each other.

  • The average temperature, the baseline around which weather varies, is slightly but definitely warmer than it used to be.
  • Polar regions are, in general, warming faster than the rest of the planet in a process called “polar amplification.” Basically, a region that’s covered in snow most of the time is going to be cooler than an otherwise similar region that isn’t, because snow reflects light that would otherwise warm the area. So the high north (and Antarctica) is not just gaining a more insulating atmosphere, like the rest of the planet, it’s also losing its reflective snow blanket.
  • This particular spring was very warm, so the snow and ice melted unusually early. Summer got a head start, as it were.
  • A high pressure system parked itself over Siberia and refused to move. Atmospheric systems that don’t move cause problems because their effects tend to be cumulative–a long-lasting heat wave has time to get very severe.

All four happened to occur at the same time this year, producing record-breaking heat. There is definitely an element of chance, there, but of this recipe for a hot day, the first two ingredients are obviously anthropogenic climate change. The fourth ingredient, slower-moving weather systems, appear to be caused by changes in the jet stream which are, in turn, caused by the melting of polar ice–also climate change, in other words. Apparently, experts are debating whether heat waves in the high north are increasing, and whether climate change is the cause. Perhaps I am missing something, here, but I can’t see why there is any debate.

Maybe I’ll have to do a post on that very question.

Dusty-Old Dust-Storm Is A-Gettin Me Down

Meanwhile, a plume of dust is blowing from Africa all the way across the Atlantic, causing serious air pollution in the Caribbean–and it’s

A photo of a dry, gray-brown landscape with mountains. The view appears to extend for many miles, and the camera is evidently high up, either on a high mountain or in an aircraft. The sky is bmostly blue with some high, thin clouds. Except that the air is filled with a thick, brown dust so that everything appears vague and blurry.

Photo by veeterzy on Unsplash

predicted to blow into parts of the mainland United States next weekend. Dust plumes from Africa are not all that unusual (there is even an African dust plume season, and we are in it), but this one is unusually big.

So is this a climate change story?

At first, it looks like it should be. Dust plumes capable of crossing the Atlantic depend on dry soil in parts of Africa (to provide the dust), dry air (so that the dust doesn’t wash out of the air), and, of course, strong winds moving in the right direction. An unusual event caused, at least in part, by drought sounds like it ought to be a sign of climate change.

Except that (some, not all) climate modeling predicts that the wind patterns that carry the dust west might change as the climate does, putting less African dust in Caribbean lungs in the future, not more.

Before anyone starts celebrating, though, it turns out that dust plumes interfere with hurricane formation, or at least that they might be interfering–I’m a little unclear as to weather the association has been observed or only predicted–through a variety of mechanisms including cooling the sea (dust blocks sunlight) and creating a strong temperature inversion that keeps storm clouds from building very high. So, interference with the dust plume could be just another way that climate change worsens Atlantic hurricanes.

Now, here is a thought–I remember hearing a…call it a rumor, a bit of tid I can’t at present substantiate, that Atlantic hurricanes were getting more frequent but similar storms in other basins were not, a disparity taken to eliminate global climate change as a possible cause. Now, since then, more information has come in, and the hurricane/climate connection appears much stronger. But if climate change really is reducing the African dust plume and in turn exacerbating the Atlantic hurricane season, that would be a mechanism whereby climate change could influence hurricane behavior in one storm basin more than others….

But in the meantime, what caused this year’s big dust plume? Apparently, western Africa hasn’t been that dry of late.


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High Tides Higher

Dorchester County, Maryland, sits on the eastern edge of the Chesapeake Bay. It’s the fourth-largest of the 23 counties in the state. By century’s end, it could drop down to the 14th-largest, thanks to some of the fastest sea-level rise in the world.

High Tide in Dorchester is a lovely and frightening documentary on the impacts, current and potential, of sea-level rise in this salty, marshy, and deeply historic part of my state. Except where otherwise noted, the information in this post comes from that documentary, which I heartily recommend.

The What and the How of Local Sea-Level Rise

A human, possibly a white man, stands facing away from the camera looking over the water to the horizon. He is wearing a red baseball cap and mostly dark, casual clothing. The water is very calm, barely a ripple, and the sea and sky are both lovely shades of blue and pink. It is apparently either sunset or sunrise. The man stands on what appears to be a wet, concrete platform, possibly a dock or a jetty. The end of the platform is underwater, suggesting sea-level rise.

Photo by Nicholas Barbaros on Unsplash

 Most of us know the sea is rising, and we know the basics of why, but of course there is more to the story than the basics. I’ve discussed some of this in other posts (for example, here and here and here), but Dorchester is a good place to see all of it come together in a worst-case scenario already well underway.

Besides glacial melting and thermal expansion, which are more or less global in their impact, there are several other, more local or regional causes of sea-level change, and by a weird coincidence they all come together in Maryland. These are:

  • A redistribution of water formerly held near the poles by gravitational attraction to the masses of ice on Antarctica and Greenland. As the glaciers lighten, this water sloshes back away from the poles, raising sea levels in other places. Maryland is one of those places.

  • The Gulf Stream runs along the surface of the ocean, like a river in the sea, until it gets near northern Europe. By then it has gotten a lot salter through evaporation, and so it sinks and continues on as a deep-water current, part of a global cycle of moving water. But the fresh water melting off of Greenland’s glaciers is diluting that salty water, making it slower to sink, causing the entire Gulf Stream to back up a bit—and that backed-up water also raises the sea-level in Maryland and parts nearby.

  • At the same time that the water rises, the land in the Mid-Atlantic region is sinking. This one, for once, isn’t caused by humans. Instead, it’s North America slowly readjusting itself to the melting of our glaciers some 12,000 years ago. The weight of the glaciers pushed the northern part of the continent down, creating a bulge just to the south. So with that weight off, northern areas are gradually rebounding (partially offsetting sea-level rise) while we just as gradually subside (adding to sea-level rise).

  • Erosion isn’t sea-level rise, but the faster the sea rises, the more quickly the lands erode.

It all adds up. Near the beginning of the documentary, the host—a white-haired, though still spry, gentleman—stands on what was the baseball diamond where he played as a boy. He’s standing in three feet of water.

Three feet of water on what was dry land within living memory—and the average rise globally is only about eight or nine inches so far.

The speed of sea-level rise is increasing. Global average rise is likely to hit two feet within the next 30 years. Depending on how much greenhouse gas ends up being pumped into the sky, it could top five feet by century’s end. What is that going to mean for Dorchester?

And Dorchester County is so flat that every one foot of vertical rise translates into five horizontal miles of land lost to the sea.

The Human Side of Things

A human (gender is unclear) with long dirty-blond hair is walking a medium-sized dog along a footpath through a vast yellow and gray grassland, possibly a big saltmarsh. The human is wearing a red sweater and long, dark pants and is carring a camera on a shoulder strap. The dog is on a short leash, is all black, and appears to be either a Lab puppy or a Lab/terrier mix. The color palatte of the photo is drab but restful, and the human appears casual and candid, not posed.

Photo by Patrick Hendry on Unsplash

Holland Island was once a well-to-do community, but is now just marsh with scattered dead trees. Its last house washed away in 2010. On Hooper’s Island, graves are falling into the water—the eroding shoreline is scattered with pieces of coffins and human bone. Farm Creek Marsh, as the name implies, was once farmland and still has the visible remnants of a settlement. The families of people who owned businesses there still live nearby. These are radical changes happening quickly enough that worlds change noticeably in a generation—or less.

Islands that once supported thriving communities have been reduced to marsh dotted with ruins and old graves. Towns shrink. Farmland reverts to swamp. Schools open late or close early as high tides creep across roads, obstructing buses. Snowplows are called into service any month of the year to sweep flood debris off low-lying roads.

If you live in Dorchester County, especially if your family if from the area, you already know all of this. You cope with the tidal flooding, the salt-water intrusion, the public events rescheduled in deference to the tide. You, or someone you know, has lost land, lost familiar landmarks, lost property value, lost a community, to the incoming salt water.

You may or may not attribute all of the above to climate change.

Many people living in the area attribute the losses to erosion, which is indeed part of the problem. And it’s true that there would be erosion in at least in parts of Chesapeake Bay even if sea level were stable (I have just confirmed this with my mother, a retired geologist). And while sea-level rise unquestionably makes erosion worse, it’s difficult to say which erosion is climate-related and which is not.

But as the documentary points out, the flooding and the salt-water intrusion (which is basically flooding that comes up inside the soil, rather than flowing along on top of it) are distinct from erosion and are wholly climate-related.

In some contexts, such as the conversion of marsh to open water, it can indeed be difficult to disambiguate erosion from rising seas. Did the water come up, or did the land go away? But where the land has not gone away, where it has just become wetter or saltier or both, that is not erosion.

“Nuisance flooding,” or “sunny day flooding” refers to saltwater flooding not associated with storms—no rain, no storm surge, just water coming up where it shouldn’t. Tides naturally vary, both over the month and over the course of a year. Winds can push water towards or away from shore even in good weather, too, adding a few inches to tidal extremes on occasion. Even were sea level not changing, we might expect to see an abnormally high tide wet a waterfront property now and then.

But, ask yourself, is such flooding getting more common?

When the abnormal high tide that once happened every year or so becomes a monthly or a twice-monthly occurrence, that’s not erosion. Something is changing.

Dorchester County is not the only sea-level rise hot-spot in the region. To a lesser extent, it’s happening all through the Mid-Atlantic. I’ve seen water creeping up into the streets in St. Michaels. I’ve seen fishing piers entirely underwater near Berlin. Nobody builds roads or fishing piers where they’re likely to flood semi-regularly—these structures are older than the current sea level is. Sunny-day flooding is becoming common in parts of Virginia, due to rapid land subsidence caused by unsustainable groundwater removal, plus the regionally-intensified effects of climate change.

There are other regions with their own hot spots. For example, though much of coastal Florida, sea-level rise is complicated by the porous limestone bedrock; build a sea wall to keep the rising tide out, and the water just flows through the bedrock and rises up on the other side to the exact same level as that of the sea. Lots of places have their own issues. Lots of people are facing much faster sea-level rise than the global average.

The future is not going to look like the past.

Looking Ahead

Sea-level rise, and the other symptoms of climate change, are not politics. Politicians may argue and disagree about how to respond to climate change, but the water itself doesn’t care whom you vote for, it just flows across your lawn.

The question is, what to do about it?

The people in Dorchester, and in Delmarva more generally, have a long tradition of connection to place, of attachment to the waters, marshes and forests that make up their home, and to the people, the human communities rooted in these places. These are inter-generational connections, and they don’t just wash away. Nor do they need to.

If emissions can be lowered, sea-level rise can be slowed, perhaps enough to allow the communities of low-lying areas to adapt. Buildings can be raised. Shorelines can be stabilized against erosion. Infrastructure can be moved back away from the water so that marshland can expand inland even as its outer edges are drowned by rising water. We need marshes to protect us from hurricanes and nor’easters and to provide breeding grounds for marine life, including the animals that go into the region’s famous seafood. We have a lot of options.

But to save communities in sea-level rise hot-spots will require partnerships between these communities and the wider world. Climate change is a problem no one can solve alone.

But we can solve it together.


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But It’s May!

A satellite image of a tropical cyclone making lanfall on a large gray-brown landmass. This is not Tropical Storm Arthur specifically.

Photo by NASA on Unsplash

So, there’s a tropical storm out in the Atlantic.

Or, at least there was one recently; the storm named Arthur (not to be confused with other storms named Arthur in recent years). Although Arthur itself was not especially destructive and never achieved hurricane status, it’s remarkable in that hurricane season won’t actually start for another week and a half. It’s May, a time of year when the Atlantic Ocean is supposedly too cold still to feed this kind of storm.

So, this here is a slam-dunk bit of evidence of climate change, right?

Well, it is and it isn’t.

Trying to Reason with Hurricane Season

(Yes, I titled this section with the name of a Jimmy Buffet song. You can go hear the song here)

Six years ago, I wrote a post on hurricanes and climate change that did a good job of explaining certain basics. Otherwise unattributed quotes come from that post.

Defining Terms

“Hurricane” technically refers to only one subset of a whole category of storms that share the same structure.

Tropical cyclone” is the generic term that covers tropical storms, hurricanes, typhoons, and cyclones. All these storms have a distinct eye and draw their energy from the evaporation of water, rather than from temperature differences between adjacent air masses as extra-tropical cyclones do.

“Tropical storm” refers to a tropical cyclone with sustained winds of anywhere from 39 MPH to 74 MPH. Once a storm intensifies to 75 MPH or beyond, it is called a typhoon in the Northwest Pacific, a cyclone in the South Pacific or the Indian Ocean, and a hurricane everywhere else. I have not found any explanation for this diversity of names for the same kind of storm. Perhaps it is a relic from a time before we knew they were all the same.

So what we normally call the hurricane season should be called the tropical cyclone season–after all, Arthur wasn’t a hurricane, but its formation outside of the season still attracts attention.

Each storm basin has its own season. In the North Atlantic, the season officially runs from June 1st to November 30th, but tropical cyclones outside of those dates in other parts of the world aren’t necessarily remarkable.

Introducing Arthur

A person with long hair and a striped black-and-white shirt stands facing away from the camera and looking at dramatic, dark, roiling stormclouds. In the distance is an odd, pinkish area that might be a curtain of rain.

Photo by Shashank Sahay on Unsplash

On May 16th, 2020, a large, multi-day rainstorm in the Florida Strait was recognized as a tropical depression, meaning it had an eye and drew its energy  from the evaporation of water. It was thus the first tropical cyclone of the 2020 North Atlantic season. A few hours later, its sustained winds topped 39 MPH, making it a tropical storm. It was given the name Arthur–every tropical storm found in the North Atlantic gets a name from an alphabetized list of alternating male and female names, so the first storm of this year would have been named Arthur no matter when it occurred. Each list gets re-used every six years (indeed, I remember being rained on by the last Arthur), although the names of particularly notable storms are retired. There will never be another Katrina, for example.

This year’s Arthur moved north as its winds intensified to around 50 mph. It did not make landfall but brushed the Outer Banks before heading further out to sea and then, oddly, turning south towards Bermuda. On May 19th, the storm’s designation was changed to “post-tropical cyclone,” as it was no longer gaining strength from evaporating water. However, a storm does not need to be tropical or dangerous, and Arthur’s story is not necessarily over yet, as of this writing.

Unseasonable Storms

Arthur is not the first North Atlantic tropical cyclone to occur in May. In fact, tropical cyclones can form in the Atlantic any month of the year–and have. Hurricane season is not a law of physics but rather a rule of them; meteorologists, government officials, tourist agents, and anyone else who needs to think about the likelihood of hurricanes know it’s best to keep an eye out from June through the end of November. The occasional unseasonal storm doesn’t change the pattern, especially since out-of-season storms are usually weak and rarely make landfall.

But this is the sixth year in a row that the first named storm has occurred before June 1st.

2016 was particularly odd, as it ha two pre-season named storms, the first an actual January hurricane. But over the past 17 years, nine have had at least one pre-season North Atlantic tropical cyclone.

We’re at the point where meteorologists are starting to talk seriously about extending the season, though the change hasn’t been formally proposed, yet. The arguments for and against are interesting in several different ways.

The argument for is fairly clear; if tropical cyclones often form in May, then shouldn’t the season start in May?

The arguments against are several:

  • We don’t know yet that May storms are actually typical. We could have a few unusual years in a row by chance, in which case we could A close-up of lots of people wading through calf-deep water. Only their legs are visible. They're wearing brightly-colored waterproof leg coverings.next have a decade or so of late first storms. In that case, an earlier start to the official season will be both silly and confusing.
  • It’s possible that May storms are typical, and have always been typical, we just didn’t notice most of them until we started tracking storms using satellites. The early storms we see these days tend to be weak and of short duration, and they don’t often make landfall, meaning that there could have been lots of similar May and even April storms in the past that nobody knew about.  The point of having a hurricane season has never been to include all months when tropical cyclones can happen–nobody is proposing extending the season to include January and December. The point is to include the months when these storms are likely to become problems. Maybe May storms aren’t usually problems.
  • If we changed the hurricane season, someone might think climate change is real.

More on that last point shortly.

Climate Politics?

In an article about Tropical Storm Arthur and other early storms, the Florida Sun Sentinel recently quoted a meteorologist as saying he could understand not wanting to change the season “because you’d suddenly get all these existential political arguments about oh they’re just doing that because of climate change or something.”

A Closer Look at Cons

At first glance, that quote about not changing hurricane season dates really does sound climate-denial-ish, and in fact I don’t know that it isn’t meant that way. I can believe there are those who don’t want to change the season because they don’t want to appear to believe in climate change. But I don’t know that this meteorologist meant it that way–and that’s why I’m not including his name here. You can find his name in two seconds by clicking on the link to the article, but it’s possible the article takes his words out of context.

Climate change is real, but it’s difficult to demonstrate that fact using hurricane data alone.

Tropical cyclone records are being studied, but the problem is the data are “noisy.” That is, there are so many variations that are not related to the greenhouse effect that it’s hard to spot the variations that are….Some of the noise in tropical cyclone data is the natural variability in storminess from year to year. Normally scientists can tune out such noise by looking at a large enough dataset. The basic procedure is to let random variations cancel themselves out–years with a lot of hurricanes are balanced by years with very few, if you look at enough years. What variation doesn’t get cancelled out is actually the climate changing.

But with tropical cyclones that standard procedure doesn’t work very well because there are problems with the data:

  • We don’t have good records of tropical cyclones before the Industrial Revolution. Scientists only started realizing that some large storms are spirals around 1820. Modern weather forecasting based on networks of weather stations didn’t begin until the 1860’s and most of the technology used to monitor hurricanes was only invented in the 20th century.  It’s hard to do a before-and-after comparison if you have no “before” shot.
  • The United States has been conducting aerial reconnaissance on hurricanes for decades, but since similar flights into typhoons have stopped, the data on storms in different parts of the world are not directly comparable.  That makes it hard to really get a global picture.
  • A lot of research on tropical cyclones is done by satellite, especially in the Pacific, but satellites are a relatively new technology so, again, we don’t have a good picture of how storms change over time.
  • Which information we get about which storm is a little random. For example, getting a measurement of a storm’s highest winds at landfall depends on getting the right instrumentation into the right part of the storm at the right time. For obvious reasons, that doesn’t always happen.
  • The conventions on how researchers analyze data and how they make estimates can change, subtly but definitely changing the numbers they record.

Scientists can and do work around these limitations, but they can’t make the limitations vanish.

And while it seems like a no-brainer that a warmer world will have more tropical cyclones, hot water is not the only requirement for storm formation; certain atmospheric conditions are also necessary, and some models show the frequency of these conditions–and thus the frequency of tropical cyclones–holding steady or even decreasing.

So while climate change is real, it’s far from clear that increased pre-season storm activity is related–or even happening at all. Whatever’s happening with early tropical storms might have nothing to do with climate change and much more to do with figuring out which rules-of-thumb are useful for disaster preparedness. And it’s easy to imagine even scientists who fully support climate action being irritated by having their work misinterpreted by climate activists.

But….

A photo of a hurricane taken from low Earth orbit, probably from the International Space Station. The image looks as though it were upside-down, because the Earth occupies the upper part of the image while the blackness of space is visible at the bottom. Most of the image is dominated by the Earth, and the storm covers all of the visible part of the Earth, a large enough view that the curve of the Earth is noticeable. The eye is very large and well-defined. The storm must be enormous and very powerful. This is not Tropical Storm Arthur, either, it's just an impressive picture of a tropical cyclone.

Photo by NASA on Unsplash

But regardless of what that one un-named meteorologist meant when quoted by the Sun-Sentinel, some of the articles I’ve been finding on early tropical cyclones seem a bit disingenuous, being focused on the idea that the links between climate change and tropical cyclones is unclear and anyway these storms are usually quite weak and barely tropical in structure at all.

“Weak” and “barely tropical” don’t actually mean much, for one thing.

Weak, in a tropical cyclone, generally means it doesn’t have very high maximum sustained wind speeds. Arthur’s winds, for example, never exceeded 74 MPH, so it never counted as a hurricane. But wind speed is not as important as we might assume; most of the death and destruction in these storms is caused by flooding, not by wind. So the fact that pre-season storms rarely develop windspeeds over 74 MPH doesn’t tell us much. I want to know how big they are, how much rain they carry, and how slowly they move–all information not provided by most reports. Even tropical characteristics are not necessary for a storm to be dangerous. Nor’easters, which are non-tropical cyclones, can be as destructive as hurricanes because they can cause as much flooding, and their more moderate winds can cover a very large area. So I don’t know what “barely tropical” means, but it’s not comforting.

Finally, the connection between tropical cyclones and climate change is no longer as mysterious as it seemed when I wrote my posts on the subject back in 2014. Yes, the data of the past are still noisy, but new research methods are starting to give us a much clearer picture, and the picture isn’t pretty. No, we still don’t know whether early-season storms are, in general, a sign of climate change, Arthur particularly developed in unusually warm water. That is, the storm didn’t occur in typical-May conditions that we just didn’t know could produce tropical cyclones, nor was it the result of unusual atmospheric conditions that might have occurred irrespective of water temperatures. We had a tropical storm in May because ocean temperatures more closely resembled those of June.

It behooves us to think carefully, to not jump to conclusions, to not assume that a storm in May is a sign of the Apocalypse. But it also behooves us not to ignore the fact that climate change is making the ocean warmer–and it seems that whenever an unusual tropical cyclone occurs, unusual water is below it.

 


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Sowing with Salt

A large area of marsh grasses with a creek of open water meandering through it. The bare twigs of a shrub are in the foreground. In the distance is a partially bare forest. The sky has thick clouds but some blue sky visible.

Photo by Michael Denning on Unsplash

There is the story and then there are the facts supporting the story. The story is how you know that climate change is happening here and now and is impacting people like you. The facts are how you know how those impacts happen and what they mean for the future.

We need both.

Saltwater Intrusion

My husband’s best friend is a farmer in Talbot County, Maryland, on the edge of the Tred Avon River. I’ve written about him before (here, for example), but I leave out his name because I haven’t asked his permission to use it. He’d probably say yes if I did ask, I’m not going to reveal anything private or embarrassing about him. The thing is that there’s a marshy tidal gut running through his land, and a row of trees grows along the edge of that gut, but up away from the marsh, where lawn grass grows. You pass these trees on your way in to his house.

Those trees are dying.

They’re not dying all at once, more like one or two at a time, starting with the ones closest to the water. He knows why. It’s the salt from the river, which is quite brackish there. The tides are getting higher. It’s probably getting saltier, too, though I haven’t been able to confirm that. And even though the tides don’t rise high enough to wet the trees (except perhaps in storm floods), the salt is moving underground.

That is salt intrusion. And it’s only good luck that it’s only threatening the trees along the driveway, not our friend’s crops–or his well. Not all farmers in the Chesapeake region are as lucky, and nobody can be lucky forever.

This is what climate change looks like, or one of the things it looks like, anyway. It’s not always sudden catastrophe, an it’s not always far away or in the future. Its effects are usually mixed up with the effects of other issues, such as land use practices, state or national policy, or unrelated geological processes. What’s important to know is that climate change is part of the problem, and stopping climate change must be part of the solution.

Let’s talk about salt. Let’s talk about the rising seas

The Ins and Outs of Sea-level Rise

The short version that lots of people know by now is that as the global climate warms, ice in Greenland and Antarctica melts, adding more water to the ocean and making sea level rise globally. That part is true, but it’s not the whole picture, and it doesn’t explain all the sea level rise we see here in the Mid-Atlantic, including in the Chesapeake Bay region.

How the Water Rises

Melting glaciers put more water into the ocean, but thermal expansion (most things expand as they warm up) means even the water already in the ocean is growing. In fact, thermal expansion is responsible for a greater proportion of sea level rise so far than glacial meltwater is.

A crowd of people, seen from the legs down wading through thigh-deep dirty-looking water, mostly wearing waterproof leg coverings or boots.

Photo by Jonathan Ford on Unsplash

Expansion and melting together raise sea levels globally (by about nine inches since the late 1800s, or almost six inches since 1950), while regional or even local factors either raise sea level even more or counteract the global rising. For example, during the last ice age, the North American continental glacier was so heavy that it pushed the land beneath it down, bulging the land to the south up to compensate. That glacier melted away over ten thousand years ago, but land moves slowly, so the area that was under the ice (the northern half of the US, plus Canada) is still slowly rebounding, while the area just to the south slowly settles. That’s why the New England coast is slower-than-average sea level rise, while the Mid-Atlantic is seeing the sea rise faster.

Other mechanisms influence sea level, too, locally or regionally, including ocean currents, wind patterns, and even gravity; the glaciers on Greenland and Antarctica are so big, their gravity pulls the ocean water closer, raising sea level along their coasts. As those glaciers shrink, their pull weakens, and the water drops slowly away, sloshing backward into other regions–such as mine.

The Delmarva Peninsula has some of the fastest sea level rise in the world–double the global average–because so many different mechanisms come together right here. Many areas also have a lot of local erosion, meaning we lose land to the water even faster. While some might be tempted to say our loss of land is due only to erosion, the fact is sea level rise makes erosion worse.

Why a Few Inches Matter

All these mechanisms of sea level rise together add up to ten inches of rise at Annapolis, Maryland just since 1950, almost double the global average, and the rate is speeding up. I haven’t found figures going back to the 1800s, but based on the global figures the water must be at least 13 inches higher now than it was when a lot of the basic regional infrastructure was planned out.

Ten inches doesn’t sound like a lot–but context matters. Consider that these inches are added on to each coastal flood event, meaning each flood is ten inches higher than it would have been, and that during a flood the difference between being OK and having saltwater in your living room could well be only a matter of inches.

It’s not the average water level that matters so much as where the water is on the highest tides or during storms. When the wind blows onshore and the full moon pulls the tide high, docks go under water. I’ve seen this–it doesn’t have to be a storm, just a blustery day. Saltwater puddles on low-lying roads, pushes up through storm drains…. A road or a yard or a parking lot doesn’t have to be underwater all the time to become unusable, it only has to get wet once too often. There are places in the Mid-Atlantic where that is already starting to happen. There are other places where it is about to happen.

And then there is the salt in the ground and what it does to forests and farm fields.

How Saltwater Intrusion Happens

The picture shows the legs of a person wearing dark pants and brown work shoes with blue laces standing in a large field of bare ground with a little dead plant stubble. In the distance a few trees are visible.

Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash

There are a couple of different ways salt can intrude where it didn’t used to go.

During coastal flooding events, salt soaks into the ground. The salt persists long after the flood drains away. Eventually rainwater will wash the salt out, but not if the floods come too frequently. After repeated flooding, the ground can actually get saltier than the sea.

Alternatively, salt can come up from beneath. Fresh water floats on top of salt water, so rivers flowing into the sea are sometimes salty near the bottom and fresh at the surface. Similarly, groundwater is often salty near the coast or along the shoreline of an estuary, especially deeper down–a layer of fresh groundwater may lay on top. As the sea rises, not only does saltwater move farther inland along streams and rivers, but it also moves up vertically, an invisible sea level under the water or under ground. That’s how wells can turn salty. It’s also how trees and crops can die of salt even if they haven’t been flooded–the freshwater layer on top of the salt in the ground is shrinking as the salt rises.

A related problem is that as the salty water table rises, drainage in the land above starts to get poor–there’s nowhere for rainwater to go. At that point, if there’s salt in the ground from flooding, it can’t easily be washed away by rain. The moisture stays put into it evaporates, leaving the salt still there.

Drainage ditches often make the problem worse because they make it easier for salty water to flow in on high tides, and from there the salt soaks into the ground.

The sea is not the only source of salt–road salt washing off into rivers is a significant problem in some areas, too–but in coastal areas, especially flat coastal areas like Delmarva, sea level rise is the primary source of the problem.

How Saltwater Hurts

Salt can act directly, almost like a poison, or it can act indirectly–salt chemically strips nitrogen and phosphorus out of the soil, leaving it infertile. And because those nutrients then wash into waterways, it’s possible saltwater intrusion could ultimately increase algal blooms and related problems. Rising salt levels in drinking water not only makes the water itself less drinkable, it also damages pipes–the Flint Michigan water crisis was caused by slightly salty river corroding old pipes, releasing lead.

The issue isn’t black and white. It’s not that one year a crop field is fine, the next year it’s a giant salt shaker. What happens is the salt concentration in the soil slowly starts to rise–it’s often worse in one part of a field than another–and yields start to drop. Some crops have trouble sooner than others; corn, for example, has a very low salt tolerance, while soybeans can handle much more salt. Some less popular crops, such as barley, are even better. Eventually, farmers need to either switch to a crop with a higher salt tolerance or stop planting the effected area. A complication is that it’s not usually possible to know when an area has become too salty without planting it and losing the crop, and expensive kind of test.

Somerset County alone (the only part of Maryland for which I have found figures), about 100 acres of farmland have been lost every year for the past decade.

Farmers do have some options. Some grow switchgrass or saltmarsh hay in salted fields, highly salt-tolerant alternative crops for which there is a small market. Others plant the land in salt-tolerant wildflowers for bees and then go into business selling honey. Or a salted field can be allowed to become marsh and then hunted. Putting conservation easements on land that can no longer be farmed can bring real tax benefits, too. But it’s not a good situation. There are families who have farmed the same land for generations for whom that tradition is simply over now.

Saltwater intrusion doesn’t just hurt farmers. There may be indirect economic effects coming down the road, from widespread loss of farmland, and as coastal forests are lost and aquatic species shift to more salt-tolerant communities, familiar landscapes will become less so. These are real losses. They matter.

Saltwater intrusion isn’t the only problem climate change causes on Delmarva–there’s still extreme weather of various kinds to contend with, for example, but saltwater is our particular problem. We simply have more of it than almost anywhere else.

Context, Story, and Hope

A narrow ditch filled with water that is starting to freeze. The banks of the ditch are covered with short, dense, dead vegetation.

Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

Climate communications experts often explain the failure of the climate action message by saying it’s difficult for people to engage with information that is too negative and too far removed from their lives. Well, increasingly climate change is not far away. It’s trees dying. It’s farm yields dropping. It’s the woods where you went hunting with your dad converting to marshland. It’s my in-laws’ river-front house, where there used to be a wide private beach–I’ve seen the old home movies of young people in old-fashioned bathing suits playing there–and now the lawn ends abruptly in a stone bulkhead. Probably everyone on Delmarva, or at least everyone near even brackish water, has such a story, either their own or one told by a friend or neighbor. I’d like to see more of those stories being told. I’d like to see more people realizing what they’re seeing is climate change.

As far as negativity goes, my feeling is it’s not overly negative to scream “fire!” if your building is, in fact, burning. On the contrary, hope begins with action, and action begins with awareness of why one needs to act.

But if the only thing one hears is a warning scream, it can be difficult to know how to act–it can be hard to even be sure action will do any good.

My feeling is that although sea level rise–and hence saltwater intrusion–is unlikely to go away quickly no matter what we do, there is nothing so bad that it can’t get worse–and that means there is nothing so bad we can’t keep it from getting worse. And there are steps we can take, even as ordinary individuals (I’ve written about some of those steps in previous posts) to make the future better.

Speaking from experience, that hopeless, overwhelmed feeling goes away once we pick a course of action and jump on it.


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Hot Little Number

A lot of people—perhaps most—are functionally innumerate.

Innumeracy sounds like it ought to be the mathematical equivalent of illiteracy, and it is something like that, and yet it is also different. And yes, this has to do with climate change.

Illiteracy is primarily a problem of knowledge—an illiterate person doesn’t know enough about the written language to understand it. It’s possible to be innumerate in that sense, and that kind of numeracy can lag far behind literacy for some. For example, I am so fully literate that I make my living as a writer and an editor, and yet I don’t actually know how big a million is. I could count to ten thousand, if I wanted to, but I couldn’t count to a million. I don’t know how.

But there is another form of innumeracy that has less to do with knowledge and more to do with the ability to use mathematical logic. For example, if I say “300 people died of food poisoning this year,” that doesn’t tell you anything. Am I talking about an outbreak in a small town, or am I talking about the entire United States? How many people die of food poisoning in a typical year—is 300 more or fewer than usual? Only with context does this number, 300, tell a meaningful story.

Knowing where to look for that context and how to interpret that context is the beginning of statistical literacy, a related but different issue, but if you don’t know some kind of context is necessary, then you might as well not know the number 300, either.

That’s functional innumeracy.

The reason this matters for climate change is that again and again in the course of researching for this blog I find numbers presented to the public without their context, or with inadequate context.

  • Product A. requires more energy to produce than Product B.–does that include manufacture only, or does it also include the energy required for acquiring raw materials?
  • A certain university boasts that it has reduced its carbon emissions by a certain number of tons per year—but what is the new carbon footprint, and is it bigger or smaller than typical for similar schools?
  • Nationally, a certain substance is responsible for a certain number of tons of carbon dioxide equivalent—but is that number big or small compared to the footprint of the country as a whole?

I realize it’s a little difficult to make sense of hypothetical examples, but I’m trying to keep this post quick and to the point, without getting bogged down with real-life detail.

When I see numbers presented without context, I wonder whether the people presenting those numbers don’t realize the context is necessary, or if they simply aren’t as interested in climate action as they appear to be? Indeed, careful attention to which context is missing often reveals something that could be to the advantage of the entity releasing the numbers—but whether the oversight was actually deliberate, I’m not in a position to say.

I can confidently assert, though, that the fact context is not given means that the public doesn’t demand it. And that means there are important questions, questions that could make a great deal of difference to how we attack climate change, that we’re not asking. It also means that we’re leaving ourselves vulnerable to people who sound good but don’t have the facts on their side.

Innumeracy is unlike illiteracy in that the latter can really only be fixed by education. You can’t will yourself to read if you don’t know how. But if you understand numbers in a general way—and most of us do—you can will yourself to think more carefully about them, and on the basis of careful thought you can ask more questions.

Sometimes that’s all that needs to happen, to begin with—ask a couple of good questions.

And then seek answers.


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Climate Change and Food: Fake Meat

A cheeseburger sitting on a wooden surface against a dark blue background. The burger is seen from the side, up-close. It's in-your-face meat. The burger has two patties, lettuce, tomato, onion, and pickle, thin slices of yellow, semi-melted cheese, and a sort-of pinkish sauce. The bun is attractively brown and shiny and has a few white seeds on its surface.

Photo by amirali mirhashemian on Unsplash

Some time ago, I wrote a post on climate change and meat. I did some reading, and learned that, yes, animal-based foods do have categorically larger carbon footprints than plant-based foods. Worse, processing and transportation have very little to do with it–eating local, organic, minimally-processed etc. may be a good idea for many reasons, but climate change is not one of those reasons. The vast majority of the carbon footprint of an edible animal is simply due to the fact that it is an animal.

I couldn’t find a detailed explanation as to why, but a likely explanation has to do with the flow of energy. Simply put, every time energy changes form, a portion of it is lost (as per the Second Law of Thermodynamics) and the higher on the food chain you eat, the more energy has been lost along the way–and the more energy is involved, the more carbon emissions (I’m summarizing the post on meat, here, which I linked to above).

Lamb and beef, in that order, are by far the worst for the climate, at least in part because both are ruminants and therefor have digestive processes that produce huge amounts of methane, a powerful greenhouse gas.

So while I’m not going to say everyone necessarily should become vegan (only the Sith deal in absolutes!), it is clear that meat cannot remain a major staple for large numbers of people.

But many of today’s vegetarians and vegans eat diets that look and taste as much like omnivorism as possible, thanks to the wonders of food science. The prevalence of fake meat and dairy is only likely to grow as the fakes get more and more appealing.

So, what’s the carbon footprint of fake meat?

Carbon Foot-printing Fake Meat

Several dishes of food sit on a wooden table. The dish nearest the camera consists of cubes of tofu in a red sauce garnished with what looks like ground black pepper and chopped green onion. The other dishes are harder to see, but may be a large bowl of white rice, a dish of sauted green beans, and a dish of sliced eggplant in a brown sauce.

Photo by Alana Harris on Unsplash

What I’m calling “fake meat” here includes anything that can stand in for meat on the table but was never part of a living animal. In some cases the phrase is a misnomer. A portobello burger, for example, doesn’t resemble meat and isn’t meant to, it’s just a vegetarian dish that is good in some of the same ways hamburgers are. And ground beef made from cloned cells in a lab (which can be done, it’s just too expensive to market yet) is real meat by any reasonable definition, it just wasn’t taken from a dead animal. But “fake meat” is a reasonable shorthand for the entire dietary genre.

Clearly, with such a wide variety of possible foods, we’re not after just one carbon footprint. On the other hand, tracking down individual footprints for anything that could possibly be used as a meat substitute would be time consuming and, in some cases, fruitless (I have tried; there is a reason I’m posting one day late this week!).

What we’re really after is a generality; is shifting to fake meat really a good idea for the climate? The short answer is a very cautious yes.

Making the Sausage

Fake meat, by definition, isn’t what it looks like or tastes like, so the trick is to pay attention to what it is, not what it seems to be.

A meatless hot dog made of seitan, for example, has much more in common with a hot dog bun than a hot dog, from either a nutritional or environmental perspective. Seitan is essentially wheat protein. It’s made by rinsing all the starch out of whole wheat dough. Carbon-footprinting a seitan product therefore involves analyzing the emissions involved in wheat production, plus those involved with processing. A meatless hot dog made of soy might have a very different footprint, and lab-grown cells would be different yet again.

One of the most exciting fake meats at the moment is the Impossible Burger, which has been through multiple iterations and is currently made mostly out of soy protein flavored with heme, a molecule found in blood that is partially responsible for the distinctive taste of red meat. It is largely thanks to heme that the Impossible Burger is almost indistinguishable in taste tests from ground beef. Fortunately, heme is not found only in blood. In this case it’s produced by genetically-engineered yeast.

Carbon-footprinting the Sausage

The Impossible Burger has been the subject of formal footprint analysis; its global warming potential (including that involved in processing) is 89% smaller than that of beef. There are a lot of details I have not been able to gather about that analysis (the footprint of beef can vary slightly, depending on how it’s raised and processed and so forth, so did they use average beef, or one particular kind for the comparison?), but I have a hard time imagining that the unknowns could make more than a few percentage points of difference either way.

Some back-of-the-envelope calculations (using figures from this article) therefore suggest that an Impossible Burger patty has a carbon footprint somewhere between that of an equivalent weight of rice and beans and an equivalent weight of egg. From a climate change perspective, it is a vegetable.

Most other processed fake meats are likely in the same range, for the simple reason that they, too, are vegetables, and processing them is unlikely to involve substantially more emissions than processing the Impossible Burger does.

Lab-grown meat could be an exception, simply because it is so different from other products–it deserves its own analysis–but since commercially viable production methods have not yet been developed, it’s too soon to say what the emissions of those methods might be.

Complications

As I wrote in my post on meat, carbon-footprinting animal products may be a little less straight-forward than it seems. For example, milk has a much smaller footprint than beef does, presumably since the footprint of the cow is spread out over her lifetime production of milk, rather than the smaller bulk of her meat alone. So the more meals an animal produces, the smaller her associated per-meal carbon footprint is? If that’s the case, then beef made from a cow previously used for milk should have a smaller per-pound footprint than dairy does, since eating the meat spreads the animal’s emissions out even farther. But is that true, or is there a piece of the puzzle missing?

 

More troubling yet is the issue that cattle and sheep are hardly new, so how can their emissions be causing a new problem? The obvious answer is that there are far more cattle and sheep and other domestic animals than ever before–much of the zoological part of the biosphere is currently either humans or animals being raised to be eaten by humans–but before we created what I like to call the modern massive mountain of moo, there were lots more wild animals. How can domestic animals have more emissions than the wild animals they replaced?

The reality is that climate change is best understood by looking at the biosphere as a whole, not by adding up the carbon footprints of various individual activities. Prior to the Industrial Revolution, the levels of greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere were, roughly speaking, stable, because the energy flow through the biosphere was stable, inputs balanced by outflow, like a savings account kept roughly stable through careful budgeting. Lately, though, we’ve been spending down the account, an activity that produces the short-term illusion of riches but always results in poverty at the end,

There are two forms of spending down the account: we can take energy out of long-term storage, by burning fossil fuels, or we can take energy out of short-term storage through unsustainable use of natural resources, such as excessive logging. Although there are greenhouse gasses, such as CFCs, that are a bit of a different story, the bulk of the problem of climate change is a shift in the energy flow of the biosphere caused by one form or another of spending down the account.

The question is, how can the replacement of wild ruminants by domestic cattle and sheep change the energy budget of the planet? Isn’t a bovine fart a bovine fart whether the bovine in question is a steer or a bison?

I haven’t seen this issue addressed by any other authors, but in some way or other, the way we raise meat animals must either require fossil fuels or it must constitute an unsustainable use of a living system. If meat did neither, it could not alter the energy budget of the biosphere.

A Vision for Moo

There are certainly those who believe we must all go vegan, or at least nearly vegan, for the good of the planet. The statement is controversial, in large part because there are considerations other than climate in play. Eating animals is the subject of legitimate ethical debate, an important consideration, albeit an unrelated one (it is possible for two equally important issues to have no direct bearing on each other). Eating animals is also an intrinsic part of various cultural and economic systems (another important but different issue). And there are environmental issues associated with meat other than climate–for example, grazing animals have been used in ecological restoration (for examples and discussion, please read this book and that book). So how all these various considerations might pull and tug real life into the actual future is far from clear.

But I’m still stuck on how the mountain of moo changes the biosphere.

Meat animals can’t possibly be contributing to climate change simply because they are eaten by humans as opposed to by wolves or carrion beetles. Since we have it on good authority that they are part of the problem, they must be so either because fossil fuel is used on their behalf, or because they are themselves consuming resources at an unsustainable rate.

Vegetables could also be produced with fossil fuels and at an unsustainable rate, and they eventually would be if humans all went vegan but did not otherwise change our habits.

The solution is therefore to make meat (and everything else) fossil fuel free and sustainable.

Now, there would be much less meat in such a scenario, so diets would have to change, but that would be an effect, not a cause. It’s the energy budget we have to fix first and centrally, otherwise we’re just rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic.

Does that make switching to the Impossible Burger pointless?

Hardly.

We won’t build a new food production system if we continue to demand food that requires the old one. We have to create the tools we’ll need to build the future, and arguably that includes fake meat that meat enthusiasts want to eat. We need to develop the production systems, the distribution systems, and the cultural preferences that the future demands, and we need to do it today.

But let’s not forget that the one thing we really must stop eating is oil.

Image appears to show the instant after a drop has dripped into a liquid; there is a crater in the liquid surface, surrounded by rings of ripples. The liquid is black with a dull, pale sheen. It could be water seen at night, or black ink, or it could possibly be black petroleum.

Photo by Julian Böck on Unsplash


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The Carbon Footprint of College?

Image shows a green, leafy college campus, looking down a concrete walkway--a second walkway branches off to the left. In the angle between the two walkways is a group of bike racks on a mulched surface. Otherwise the ground is grassy. There is only one bike in the rack. To the left of the walkway is a lawn, some small trees, and a very long, ivy, covered three-story building. To the right is lawn and a row of trees. The sky is partly cloudy. There are no people visible.

Photo by Ryan Jacobson on Unsplash

Some weeks ago, I wrote a post on the carbon footprint of medicine, but I could not find all the information I wanted. While I found estimates of the total footprint of medicine in various countries and on certain specific aspects of medicine (emergency transport, surgery, pharmaceuticals), there were some big gaps I could not fill. I speculated that since hospitals and residential colleges have certain things in common, it might be interesting and informative to look up the carbon footprint of college campuses.

Well, guess what?

There are lots of articles out there on how colleges are reducing their footprints, but virtually nothing on what those footprints actually are. A typical piece might boast that such-and-such a school has reduced their emissions by 73% since 2010, but without saying 73% of what, and without giving a breakdown of where those savings had been found or what aspects of the school were responsible for those emissions. I doubt the information is being hidden, it’s just that I’m asking questions few other people are asking, and that always makes information hard to find online.

When I can’t find answers to write about, I write about the questions.

Questioning College Emissions

How one asks a question dictates the sort of answer one gets–and what can be done with that information. For example, consider the difference between the following two questions:

  • Which American colleges have reduced their carbon footprint the most in the past ten years?
  • Which American colleges have the lowest carbon footprints currently?

Either list seems like a reasonable answer to a vague question, like “which colleges are greenest?” and yet the two lists are likely to be completely different. And neither one offers any clue as to how small a college footprint could actually get and still offer an excellent education.

So what questions do I want answers for?

The Breakdown

I want to know where the emissions in a given school come from. A pie chart would be nice. Schools could be compared not only by their totals but also by their scores in several subcategories–one school might have very high emissions associated with heating and cooling, for example, while another has a big transportation score. Now since I’ve only ever been a student, not a staff member or an administrator, there are things I don’t know about how schools operate. The following is my current best guess for how the greenhouse gas emissions of a school might be broken down.

On-campus Housing

This category can be further broken down into electricity, fuel use, coolant (from air conditioning and refrigeration), waste disposal, and possibly some other categories. The figure will be zero for non-residential schools, that doesn’t mean non-residential schools are automatically better; if dorm-living has a lower footprint than off-campus living, residential schools might be better for the planet despite having a bigger institutional footprint.

On-campus Food-service

Again, a category that will vary in ways that really must be put in context. For example, my undergraduate school did not have classes. Instead, it had residencies several times per year. During residencies, we all ate in the dining hall, so the school definitely had food service, but only for about 12 weeks per year, and only for about a third of the student body, plus faculty, at any given time. It’s per-student food-service figure must have been extremely low, relative to traditional residential schools, for reasons that had nothing to do with energy efficiency in the kitchen. And, as with housing, a school’s food-service emissions must be compared not just to those of other schools but also to those of students who don’t eat on campus.

Grounds-keeping

While most emissions categories need to be expressed as per-student figures, with grounds-keeping the important context is probably not the size of the student body but the size of the outdoor portion of the campus. Again, I’m thinking of my undergrad program, which held its residencies on a campus that had been built for a student body much larger than ours. A tricky situation arises for schools that rent space–does maintenance of the grounds go on the school’s tally sheet or not?

Academic Facilities

By “academic facilities” I mean buildings other than dorm rooms and dining halls, the sort of buildings that both residential and non-residential schools have in common and by which they can be directly compared. I am not sure whether sports facilities ought to be included here or not. And do, for example, the pastures of an agricultural college or the forests of a forestry school count as academic facilities or grounds?

Classes

Shows a classroom with about ten or twelve adult students sitting in chairs watching a man deliver a PowerPoint lecture. The man, presumably the professor is standing behind a lecturn and is dressed casually. The students are also dressed casually. The professor is on the other side of the room from the camera and is hard to see. The classroom is well-lit and has large windows with curved tops and a ceiling with a large raised area in the middle with what look like noise-dampening panels in it. The room as a whole has a somewhat fancy look.

Photo by NeONBRAND on Unsplash

I have taken college classes that likely had carbon emissions of zero, but I’ve also had classes that involved driving hundreds of miles to field study sites, and the school offered some that required air travel. Courses that involve chemistry experiments or animal care might have significant footprints, too. Some classes use much more electricity than others–should that be counted as part of the footprint of the class, or simply subsumed into “academic facilities”?

Non-academic Travel

“Academic travel” is that undertaken as part of a class, such as driving on a field trip, or when a professor visits a site in order to prepare for an upcoming field trip. Such trips count under “classes.” Non-academic travel is students and professors and other staff going to and from school. It’s a tricky category, because it’s not directly under the control of the school. If a student wants to commute to class from the other side of the country by private jet, there’s not much the school can do about it.

And yet schools can take steps to minimize the necessity of travel, such as by providing on-campus housing. Schools can also make lower-impact forms of travel more practical, such as by installing bike racks and having bikes students may borrow for free, or, for large schools, by creating a local transit system that runs on biodiesel. A school could also have EV charging stations on campus (providing the school has a sustainable source of electricity) or it could produce and sell biodiesel. There are lots of options, and schools should be held accountable for taking those options. Perhaps a school’s non-academic travel figure could be an estimation of the travel emissions of an average student based on survey data and how far from campus students live.

Construction and Renovation

Building stuff has a carbon footprint, particularly if cement is involved. There can be some tricky judgment calls, though, since a college that builds a new LEEDS-certified lecture hall will have more emissions that year than one that doesn’t, even though the hall may be an effective investment in the school’s sustainability long-term. Also, some building materials either release greenhouse gasses over time or absorb them. Finally, building-related emissions have to be seen in context. Some years ago, my grad school put up a bike shelter on campus in order to encourage students to bike rather than drive. The bike shelter sits on a poured concrete pad, and although much of the assembly was manual, heavy machinery was also involved. So that shelter was definitely responsible for some greenhouse gas emissions. However, if it accomplished its mission, it’s also responsible for reducing emissions from the non-academic transportation category, a possibility that must be accounted for when judging its construction.

A fair footprinting method would have to average construction-related emissions over the projected life of the building (demolition-related emissions would also have to be included), and the impact of the building on other aspects of the school’s footprint would also have to be considered somehow.

Legacies and influences

What emissions occur on campus are not the only issue for colleges. A school could score a nice, big zero in all of the above categories, but if it is training students specifically to work in the fossil fuel industry (certain branches of geology, for example, are most applicable to fossil fuel prospecting), then its carbon footprint can’t really be zero. Likewise, a school that has invested its endowment in fossil fuels has a big footprint no matter what else it does. How such indirect emissions might be calculated, I’m not sure, but they would have to be included somehow.

What Are These Questions For?

All of the above categories would, ideally, show where a school might improve. The school itself could use the information in its planning, and outside entities (prospective students, for example) could assess how serious the school really is about climate change.

For example, a school might put up a new bike shelter and put out a press release about how “green” it is. OK, but if the school’s non-academic transport score is actually pretty good already and its academic buildings score is excessive, then the bike shelter begins to look like green-washing.

Of course, to make such an assessment, we’d have to know what all these scores should be. At the very least, we need to be able to compare the scores of each school to some kind of relevant average.

Defining such averages, never mind collecting enough data to calculate them, would be difficult.

A Modest Proposal

It’s not that nobody is comparing colleges based on environmental considerations. A search for “the greenest colleges” actually yields a lot of information, including carefully-compiled rankings. But if listings of carbon footprints broken down by category exist, I haven’t found them, yet.

Considering the matter carefully, I begin to suspect they don’t exist. There are too many places in the above list where a simple question (“What is a given school’s greenhouse gas emissions for academic buildings?”) shatters into dozens of sub-questions about definitions and methods and fairness. And to be truly useful, the assessment I’m envisioning would have to be done for a fair portion of all the schools in the US (or whatever country one was curious about), and then all those data would have to be compiled into several different categories so schools could be compared fairly.

That’s not a blog post. That’s not even a master’s thesis (calculating the footprint of a single school and making recommendations would be a master’s thesis). It’s a PhD dissertation.

A white mug full of coffee sits in the foreground on a plain wooden table lit by defuse sunlight. At least two wooden chairs are next to the table, but they are out of focus. At the far end of the table is a very out-of-focus object that might be a person sitting at the table facing the camera. The rest of the room is too out-of-focus to make out. On the cop, in small, black print, is written the word "begin."

Photo by Danielle MacInnes on Unsplash

And it’s quite likely no one’s gotten around to doing it yet.

Fortunately, there are people out there looking for dissertation topics, so if you’re one of them, or if you know someone who is, may I humbly suggest this one? Send me the results when you’re done.


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Dead Biome Walking?

A photo of a man apparently reading a newspaper that is on fire. The man is dressed in dark, simple clothing and is seated on a stool with his legs crossed. The background is plain, gray, and somewhat dark and dingy looking. The view of the man is from the front and he is holding the paper at an angle that obscures his face and upper body. The newsprint is too small for the viewer to read it and its content does not appear to be important for the image.

Photo by Elijah O’Donnell on Unsplash

So, about those Australian fires….

It’s high time I wrote a post about them, as the disaster constitutes one of the most dramatic climate-related catastrophes today, and it’s likely to keep getting worse for a while, yet. While some people have complained that climate change didn’t start the fires, that’s a bit like saying that jumping off a sky-scraper wouldn’t kill you–technically true, but more deeply false (with the sky-scraper, it’s the sudden stop at the end that gets you). Climate change helped create the circumstance where hitherto-unheard-of fires are possible.

I’ve written before about the links between climate change and fire with respect to California. The situation in Australia is broadly similar.

I’m not going to rewrite those articles  with an Australian focus–other people are covering the topic already. What I want to know is how bad are these fires, other than “really bad”? How big are they, really? It’s easy enough to look up the numbers of acres burned, number of people killed, and so forth, but it’s hard to really put that information in context. How much of Australia burns in a typical year? How well will Australia be able to recover, ecologically or economically? Is anything being lost that can’t be regained?

Putting the Australian Fires in Context

There are several questions I want answers to:

  • How much of Australia is burning or has burned?
  • How much damage has been done to the specific biomes involved?
  • How do the 2019/2020 fires compare to historical fires in Australia, both in extent and in intensity?
  • In what ways besides climate change have human activities made the fires worse?
  • How well can Australia recover, either ecologically or economically?
  • Will Australia have more fires like this in the future?
  • Could other countries see similar disasters in the near future?

Some of those questions are easy to find answers for, others would require a major research project if they could be answered at all. For now, let’s just explore some of these issues.

How Bad Are the Fires?

Several questions involve the severity of the current disaster. As I said, it’s easy to look up the acreage burned, and it is just as easy to look up maps that show the extent of the fires relative to Australia’s land mass overall. These are pretty arresting images, but they don’t tell the whole story.

The issue is that the part of Australia that is not on fire is mostly uninhabited–both flammable vegetation and humans cluster in the well-watered coastal regions. If we could calculate the proportion of Australia’s inhabited area that has burned over the past year, the resulting fraction would be even more arresting and give outsiders a much more accurate picture of what Australians are going through right now.

Unfortunately, I have not been able to find a figure for the size of Australia’s inhabited area. In fairness, it is difficult to define such an area, because there is no black-and-white distinction between “inhabited” and “uninhabited.” Rather, the population just gets thinner and thinner.

A steep slope with long, dry grass in the foreground and a forest of tall, dead conifer trees in the background. In the very far distance, mountains and a hazy blue sky are visible.

Photo by Meritt Thomas on Unsplash (stock photo, not necessarily recent or Australian)

At the moment, the best I can do is eyeball a comparison between a map of Australia’s population distribution and the various maps of the fires (here’s one; an image of the cumulative light of a month of fires)

Those well-watered coastal areas are also ecologically distinct from the arid interior. A map of Australia’s major biomes (a biome is an ecologically defined region) shows that the region where many of the fires have been clustered are also within a relatively small biome, the Temperate Broadleaf and Mixed Forest. Another cluster of fires overlaps with much of an even smaller biome, the Tropical and Subtropical Moist Broadleaf Forests. As you’ll see if you click on the links, I have not actually found a map that shows biomes and fires, I’m doing more eyeball comparisons. To my eyeball, it looks like a significant chunk of both biomes must have gone up in smoke this year.

Wildfire is usually not the disaster it appears to be, since the burned-over areas are re-colonized with vegetation and animals from unburned areas–and while the burn zone is recovering, it provides habitat to various species that specialize in the different stages of recovery. However, if an entire biome were to burn completely, recovery would not be possible because the organisms able to live in that biome would all be dead–and most of them would be extinct, since it is unusual for a species to occupy multiple, radically different habitats. Real wildfires seldom burn completely (there are usually un-burned pockets, and the less-intense fires spare the roots of plants, burrowing animals, and even some trees) but disaster need not be complete to be decisive–and Australia has already suffered widespread deforestation and habitat fragmentation. There’s not a lot left to burn.

Could we be witnessing the loss of two biomes right now?

Are the Fires a Cause or an Effect?

A forest of black tree trunks on blackened ground. Smoke drifts eerily through the forest, partially obscuring the orange flames coming up from the ground.

Photo by Joanne Francis on Unsplash (A stock photo, not necessarily depicting a recent Australian fire)

Can Australia recover? I have found several articles on economic and cultural recovery, and while everyone seems to acknowledge that recovery will be difficult, no one seems to doubt it will happen. There is some worry that there may indeed be permanent ecological change.

What I wonder is whether the permanent change has already happened. In other words, is fire (exacerbated by climate change) the agent of an ecological shift, or merely a symptom of a shift that has already occurred?

To choose an example of what I mean that is closer to my home, the Southwest of the United States is famous for its deserts, but actually much of the region is dry forest dominated by several species of pines. There are those who think much of that forest will be lost with climate change–and in fact, some parts of it have been lost already. One might be tempted to think the loss will be gradual, since climate change, while very fast, is gradual (that is, it is more like a gradient than a step), but that’s unlikely.

Living systems, whether individual organisms or whole ecosystems, resist change the same way a spinning top is harder to push over than it looks like it should be. Dying people can sometimes hold their own far into grave illnesses, looking and sounding almost normal until very close to the end. Unfortunately, I’ve seen this recently, as those who know me are aware. Dying forests work much the same way, the trees hanging on in the face of heat and drought that isn’t really drought but rather a new regional normal. Then there is a fire or an infestation of bark beetles or both. The beetles are not new, but in the past the trees could fight the beetles off with sticky sap. In a bad drought, the trees can’t make enough sap. There are more beetles, too, after warm winters. I’ve seen this–almost twenty years ago, I watched almost every pinyon pine in one forested area die from beetles in just a few months. That year I saw pictures of places where similar beetles had killed whole hillsides of ponderosa pines, turning them a pretty red-brown that looked like autumn. Sooner or later, those dead and dying forests will burn. When they do, I doubt trees will grow in their place.

The climate that made the forests possible will have moved.

There are thus at least two scenarios by which Australia’s forests might be permanently changing as we speak. One is that so much of the already-fragmented forests are burning that there won’t be enough left for effective recovery. Species could be extinguished through habitat loss, or through the loss of ecological partners, or simply by too many individuals, plant or animal, burning to death. Relict populations might be too small and too scattered to be self-sustaining. I don’t actually know, there is a lot of information I don’t have, but it seems at least possible that fires exacerbated by climate change are radically altering the ecological map of a country.

But the other scenario is that the alteration has already happened, that these forests were dead ecosystems walking even before the fires started, that the climate has changed and the fires are simply a form of belated adjustment to a new normal that began years ago.

Time for Hope?

As I said, I don’t know that the situation is as dire as it seems–it may not be. Real-life worst-case scenarios are rare.

Perhaps more to the point, even if the worst case is upon us, things are never so bad that they can’t get even worse, and that also means things are never so bad that we can’t avoid them getting worse.

Even if part of Australia’s forest is now doomed, it’s likely part of it still retains a climate conducive to forests. If conservationists scramble, and if they get the public and private help they need, it may be possible to create relicts that are large enough and interconnected enough to be self-sustaining.

And perhaps more to the point, if we all do something about climate change, maybe it won’t get much worse.

No situation is ever so bad that there is no reason to help.

 


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The Fog of…Fog

The other day, I went on a walk with my friend and teacher, Tom Wessels, whose name has appeared many times in this blog because he is an actual expert whose authority I can legitimately cite, and because he so consistently tells me things worth citing.

This walk was no exception.

We chatted about all sorts of things, scientific and otherwise, and generally had a good time. Other than the walk itself—we were trying to get to a particular place and explore it—we had no agenda. I’m not going to tell you all about that conversation, though much of it would interest you. I am going to tell you what he said about climate change.

Question: What Is About to Change?

In the course of our walk I asked “What is likely to change here [on Mount Dessert Island] over the next few decades, other than trees getting bigger and so forth?”

He’d already told me about the impending loss of paper birch, so he mentioned that again only in passing. He also discussed the problems of spruces, another previously discussed topic, elaborating this time that the island isn’t about to lose its spruces, but their life expectancy is being cut from 400 years to less than 100, for reasons he does not entirely understand, but climate change is likely involved as contributing stress, since they are cold-climate trees. Something is causing them to rot.

Then he told me something I did not know at all, but should have: that Mount Dessert Island is on track to lose its fogs. Not all its foggy days, perhaps, but many of them. The island will no longer be characterized by frequent fogs.

I should have known it because I knew both pieces of information that he cited as evidence. I knew that we get so much fog here because the Gulf of Maine is very cold, and I also knew that the Gulf of Maine is getting rapidly warmer. Therefore….

The Problem with the Loss of Fog

I like fog. It’s spooky and mysterious and lovely. I don’t want there to be less of it around here. But aesthetics are not the primary reason why the loss of fog would be a problem, and I didn’t need Tom to tell me what the real problem was—or, rather, I didn’t need him to tell me just then. I already knew about the ecological importance of fog around here, and I knew because he told me the better part of a decade ago.

The thing is, Mt. Dessert Island owes much of its identity to fog. A large number of natural history questions around here can be answered the same way; “because it’s so foggy.”

Most dramatically, frequent fogs allow the lichens on trees to grow much faster than they otherwise would—lichens can only grow when they’re wet, and those on bark, as opposed to soil, dry out quickly. Fog keeps them wet. And so here lichen growth is responsible for 40% of the forest’s overall nutrient balance. Less fog = less lichen = an impoverished forest.

Northern white cedar, one of the lovelier trees on the island, is also here because of fog. It requires calcium-rich soil, which our mostly granite bedrock would normally preclude, but fog motes each contain a speck of dust, and a cloud of fog contains a lot of motes and therefore a lot of dust. All that dust enriches the soil with calcium. Northern white cedar is, in fact, especially good at catching fog. I asked Tom if the cedars would be hurt by the loss of fog, and he said they might well be.

He said the fog problem will be apparent within the next fifty years, which is not a lot of time as such things go.

The Problem with Foggy Losses

As I said, I had overlooked the possibility that fog frequency could be altered as part of climate change. I’m not sure why. I’ve never before heard anyone else raise the issue, but I don’t know why I didn’t draw the conclusion myself.

What I’m wondering now is what else does climate change hold in store that nobody is talking about and that I don’t guess?

Even worse, is fog frequency already changing—without anyone talking about it?

I didn’t ask Tom. I could, but he doesn’t actually know everything, and it’s possible no one has yet crunched the relevant numbers. He is familiar with the island and its fogginess, but human beings are notoriously bad at assessing these types of trends, that’s why we invented statistics. It’s just not the sort of change we can reliably eyeball.

He said the change would be apparent within fifty years, but what does “apparent” mean? Is that when fog lessens enough to make a difference, or is that when the forests’ response to the loss becomes evident to casual human observation? If the latter, the fog might already be changing—both lichens and northern white cedars grow very slowly. Were their growth to slow even more, the difference would take a long time to add up.

How long? I don’t know. Maybe close to fifty years?

Question: What’s Changing Now?

One of the more disconcerting discoveries I made when I became an adult was that there were important topics where I was dangerously ignorant but had thought myself well-educated. I had heard simplified descriptions created for teens or as public talking points, and they had given me a clear picture of the situation with no apparent holes or gaps. So I had thought there were no gaps. I thought I knew all I needed to.

There were holes and gaps, of course, I had just been unintentionally misled by the skill with which the introductory talking points were constructed.

Simplified explanations are not bad. If well-constructed, they cover most of the important points of the subject in question while being accessible enough to reach beginners whose attention may be elsewhere. The important thing is to recognize them as simplifications. As I wrote last week, much of what most of us know about climate change is correct, but it’s simplified.

There are important things happening that we don’t always see.


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Cold

I’ve been cold all week. In fact, I’ve been cold and dirty, because I’ve been wearing all the warm clothes I have constantly and can’t bear to take them off long enough to wash them. I plan to buy a set of long underwear tomorrow and then do the laundry.

Of course–and I’m paraphrasing Stephen Colbert, here–me being cold doesn’t invalidate climate change any more than me being well-fed invalidates world hunger. It’s hard to even be sure this isn’t a normal, or even an abnormally warm, spring in coastal Maine, as I wrote last week.

But I talked to my friend (and go-to authority on most subjects), Tom Wessels, and he said this area IS running about a week late, and was running at least two weeks late back in April. Further, he says that late springs are the new normal around here, not in spite of climate change, but because of it.

A Cold Kind of Warming

Most of us are probably familiar by now with the idea that global warming is a trend and that individual cold snaps can still happen. Further, “climate change” is a more accurate name for the phenomenon, because warming isn’t the only thing happening. Some areas get wetter, others drier, and perhaps some areas get colder, although the global average temperature is still going up.

But all that is still an oversimplification.

Coastal Maine is not a local spot of paradoxical cooling, nor is this year anomalously chilly. Talking to locals, I learn that winter weather came late, and never got very cold, often warming up enough to rain. Then the rain and slush would freeze, adding another layer of ice to sheets already slick, thick, and vast. It’s just that the spring got a late start. In fact, since we seem to be catching up to normal, spring must be proceeding a little faster than it used to. I don’t know whether this later, faster spring is really a facet of climate change as Tom says–I trust his expertise, but I don’t know whether he really knows or is simply making an educated guess. But it’s certainly possible.

Because this is a big planet with a complex climate, and any simple explanation is likely to be more or less wrong. The world is getting warmer, but that doesn’t tell us what’s happening with storm tracks and front movements and different facets of the system that can vary with respect to each other, decoupling phenomena we thought were inextricably linked.

It’s not that nobody knows what’s going on, it’s that what’s going on is subtle, intricate, and pervasive.

The Moral of the Story?

While most of us have to simplify things to wrap our heads around them, such simplifications introduce error and make some things that are actually true, like coastal Maine’s new spring, seem bizarre and counter-intuitive. The moral of the story, if there is one, is not to put too much faith in the fables we tell ourselves to get through the day.

There are people who spend their entire lives studying climate change for a reason–it’s a difficult puzzle that takes a lot of work. When they tell us what they know, based on those hours and years spent tackling a puzzle most of us don’t have time for, we should believe them.