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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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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While COVID Rages….

Tall, puffy clouds against a dark blue sky. Sunlight from behind the clouds makes their edges very bright, although centers of the clouds are dark. The picture shows the literal meaning of the expression that dark clouds have silver linings.

Photo by Simone Viani on Unsplash

So, what exactly is the COVID-19 pandemic doing to the fight against climate change?

I’m hardly the only one asking, and this isn’t the first time I’ve asked–I’ve addressed the outbreak on this blog here and here and here. But as the pandemic proceeds, the conversation evolves. I see fewer posts on social media extolling the environmental benefits of an economic down-turn. While carbon emissions and other environmental problems are in fact lessening, they are caused by a situation that is obviously temporary. The real question is how will we be different when the pandemic passes? Will we collectively be better or worse?

Silver Linings, the Cases for and Against

I keep thinking, if we can shut down the economy and radically up-end our lives for a pandemic, surely we can do the same for climate change? There is no excuse, now, we’ve seen what fast action looks like, the bluff has been called. Quite true. But does that mean we’re going to collectively wake up, or are we seeing one more nail in our self-built coffin?

The Case for Optimism

There are writers who see cause for optimism in our current situation.

It’s true that we will need to rebuild society when the pandemic is over–what’s happening now is doing damage, like a cast that protects a healing bone but also forces muscles to atrophy–and there is no reason we have to rebuild things exactly as they used to be. We can use the opportunity to change. And there is reason to think that our collective experience now is making us better suited to make the right choices for climate in the near future.

Many of the mistakes we’ve made that are making the current outbreak worse (poor political leadership, distrust of science, poor assessment of risk) are also making the climate crisis worse–while the successes we’re seeing exercise skills that climate action needs also (cooperation, altruism, a focus on necessities rather than luxuries). It’s possible we will learn from our mistakes and our successes and apply the results to climate.

Big changes tend to happen suddenly, not gradually–it’s in the nature of complex systems, such as societies, to maintain the status quo against huge amounts of pressure and then to flip like a switch when a critical point is reached. Such critical points cannot be predicted from prior conditions alone. If the climate cause has seemed hopeless, it may be only that we can’t see the coming changes from our current vantage point; the shift we need may be right ahead.

Maybe the shift is going to be triggered by a novel coronavirus?

The Case for Pessimism

On the other hand, the American response to COVID-19 has been, by and large, terrible. Major population centers are starting to see their medical infrastructures over-run by the new disease, largely because of inadequate prior planning at the Federal level, and some states still have essentially no response policy. There are many individuals who don’t believe any emergency measures are called for and are resisting the measures now in place. People are dying who didn’t have to.

The fact that all this woe is caused by the same sort of political and psychological woes that have delayed climate action is no proof that such woes are going to evaporate any time soon. As some writers have pointed out, large-scale disaster is hard to deal with, and it’s likely to stay that way.

Indeed, environmental issues, including climate change, are usually seen as secondary, even by many environmentalists, fights that can and should be suspected in the face of real emergencies. And the pandemic has already derailed the process of climate-related diplomacy, since traveling and meeting together is not an option right now (why delegates can’t teleconference I don’t understand). The EPA has suspended enforcement of environmental regulations during the outbreak.

While You Were Busy….

A photo of a tornado in the distance above a flat, grassy prairie with fences but no buildings. The counds are mostly black but it appears to be daytime. The tornado is thin and vertical, not bending.

Photo by Nikolas Noonan on Unsplash

In the meantime, what is happening with climate change while the rest of us have our attention focused elsewhere?  Here’s a quick sampling:

  • The Trump administration is rolling back Obama-era auto-pollution rules.
  • The Great Barrier Reef suffered widespread bleaching this summer (remember, it’s in the southern hemisphere, where it is autumn right now). Coral organisms derive both their color and their food from symbiotic algae. Exposure to too much warm water for too long cause them to lose their algae and turn white–bleached coral is not dead, but it will die if it bleaches too severely or too often. This summer’s bleaching event is part of an ongoing trend of increasing bleaching that could soon become an annual occurrence.
  • 150 people have died in in Brazil in record-breaking severe weather events since New Years alone. While people die in floods in Brazil every year, this is excessive, and attributed to climate change by many experts.
  • An internet search on “tornadoes 2020” yields multiple stories from this past week about tornadoes in Georgia, Mississippi, Arkansas, and Alabama. While March tornadoes are not unprecedented, they are unusual; the normal peak for these storms is April and May. The Gulf of Mexico is currently about three degrees above normal, one of those small numbers that actually refers to a huge increase in the amount of energy in the water–and unusually warm water in the Gulf is associated with more severe storms, including tornadoes. If the anomaly persists into hurricane season, it could make Gulf hurricanes more severe as well. And the warmer the planet gets, the more likely warm pools of water in the Gulf become.
  • Florida is experiencing a record-breaking hot, dry spring, creating serious wildfire danger. Spring is usually Florida’s driest season, but this year is far beyond the usual.
  • A huge wildfire in China’s Sichuan Provence has just killed 19 people. 1,200 people have been evacuated and thousands of firefighters and rescue workers have pulled in to the region. I have not been able to find out whether large fires are common in Sichuan, but fires are more common in many parts of the world with climate change.

And on and on.

 


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A Family Expecting

I first posted “A Family Expecting” shortly after the birth of my nephew, several years ago. I have re-posted it occasionally since then, and rewritten it at least once under a new title. I’m re-posting again now for two reasons; one, today has been two busy to write, two, the piece is still a good way to remind people that what we’re doing really matters.  Although this story is a fantasy, it is based on the published results of climate models. Please check out the original for the research links posted at the bottom

Yesterday, my first nephew was born. He is small and wrinkled and has acne on his nose. He has wispy black hair and silvery-blue eyes. He knows the voices of his family and the scents and sounds of the hospital. He does not know about his home, going to school, or getting a job. He doesn’t know about casual friends, mean people, or birthday cake. He doesn’t know what the world will be like for him.

Neither do we, obviously, but if he lives to see his 89th birthday then his life will touch the end of the century, spanning the same period of time across which many climate models dare to predict. He comes from farming people in the Piedmont of the Mid-Atlantic. If he stays here and inherits his parents’ farm, as he might, then his life will also be the life of this landscape. What will he see?

This child will go home soon, and become the son of the land. He’ll rest in a cradle on the floor of a barn, his mother rocking him with one bare foot as she directs customers picking up vegetables in June. In two or three years, he’ll carry handfuls of squash guts as gifts for the chickens and a rooster as tall as he is will look him in the eye and decide he’s ok. He’ll listen to his parents worry about droughts. He’ll learn to hope the heavy rains don’t rot the tomatoes and that rising gas prices don’t break the bank. There will likely be more such worries as he gets older. Summers will be hotter. His mother will say it didn’t used to be like this, but grown-ups always say that.

According to the IPCC, by the time he’s a teenager, temperatures in the Mid-Atlantic will average maybe two degrees higher than they did during his mother’s childhood. That does not sound like much, but averages rarely do. One degree can turn a pretty snow into a destructive ice storm.

Warming, in and of itself, will be good for the crops; only a local rise of about five degrees Fahrenheit or more hurts productivity. That’s unlikely to happen here until my nephew is a very old man. But the Great Plains may warm faster, enough to cause a problem; he could study the shifting agricultural economics in college.

Our area could either get wetter or drier. Parts of northern and central Mexico will almost certainly get drier, maybe dramatically so. These areas are dry already, so I imagine a lot more people will start heading north. My nephew will discuss the refugee problem with his friends, lean on his shovel in the morning sun, and wonder if the United States has a responsibility to keep Mexicans from dying when Congress is already deadlocked over how to pay for the flooding in New England. Seems you can’t keep a bridge built in Vermont, anymore. He takes off his sun hat and scratches his thinning hair.

Years pass. My nephew thinks about his upcoming fiftieth birthday, and also about New York City, where three of his grandparents grew up. It’s turning into a ghetto. It’s not under water, exactly, though the highest tides creep slowly across abandoned parking lots in some neighborhoods, spilling over the older seawalls. The problem is this is the second time it’s been stricken by a hurricane, and now no one can get the insurance money to rebuild. The same thing has happened to New Orleans and Miami. Boston may be next. Those who can get out, do. Those who can’t, riot. They have a right to be angry. His daughter is pregnant with his first grandchild. My nephew cannot keep his family safe indefinitely, but he’s glad his parents taught him how to grow food.

More years pass, and my nephew turns sixty-five. He proud of his skill as a farmer, especially with the way the rules keep changing. The farm seems to be in Zone 8, these days. He’s got new crops and new weeds. He has friends in southern Maryland who haven’t had a hard frost in two years. Maybe this year they will; Farmer’s Almanac says it’ll be cold. Last year, he and his wife took a trip through New England and let his kids take care of the harvest for once. They stayed at romantic little bed-and-breakfasts and took long walks in the woods, holding hands. There was white, papery birch-bark on the ground, here and there, the stuff takes a long time to rot, but he knew he’d have to go to Canada if he wanted to see one alive. The American white birches are all dead, killed by a changing climate. It’s sad.

Eventually, my nephew becomes a very old man, a spry but somewhat stooped 89-year-old, mostly bald, with great cottony billows of hair spilling out of his ears, his breathing deep and slow and marred by occasional coughs and rumbles. He has lived long enough to see more change than any prior human generation has, and that’s saying something. A lot of the change is environmental, but not all of it. Major technological shifts have reworked the country yet again, and the entire political and economic center of gravity has pulled away from the coasts. He is aware of this upheaval intellectually, but viscerally he is used to the world he lives in. He lives well. He is loved and he is useful. No dramatic disasters have befallen him–the worst-case scenarios have not played out, but mostly he’s just been lucky. Plenty of disasters have happened to other people. My nephew is sympathetic. He writes his Congress-people and gives generously through his church whenever he can. But a lot of good that could have been done decades ago wasn’t.

I saw my nephew tonight. He’s at home now, wrapped in a blue blanket like an animate dumpling, slowly fretting against the swaddling. His wrists and ankles are as thin as my thumbs. He’s too young for baby fat. He doesn’t know what his future holds. And neither, really, do we.

——————–

I wrote the above several years ago and many of my predictions have already come true. My little nephew has indeed learned about birthday cake (I hope he does not yet know about mean people) and has carried treats to the chickens, though he prefers the company of the goats and can imitate their voices. More darkly, Manhattan was hit by a major storm-surge (Superstorm Sandy) and Miami Beach now floods regularly due to sea-level rise. I don’t think my nephew knows it, but the years of his  life thus far have seen consecutive global heat records broken, two successive record-breaking tropical cyclones (Haiyan and Patricia), rumors of “jellyfish seas,” a major climate-related refugee crisis, the possible California Megadrought, and dramatic, unprecedented fires in Canada, the United States, and Indonesia. Among other deeply worrying, and now more recent. developments.

Come on, people, put your backs into it, whatever we make of the future, my nephew will have to live there.


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Drought?

A week or so ago, we visited the St. Michaels area in Maryland. And the corn was bad.

I mean the corn in the fields,not all of which had been harvested yet. Have you seen corn growing? Are you familiar with it? When corn plants are stressed, the leaves, which usually have wavy edges and an arched, downward-pointing shape, instead become straight and point upward, like green swords. I’ve seen them like that often, but it’s usually temporary; eventually, rains come, and the plants relax. What I saw last week was different. The corn plants had  stayed stressed right through to the end of their season, and the stood, dry and ready for harvest, leaves still pointing at the sky, the stems abnormally thin. The harvest was starting to come in, and we heard that in some places, the yield was a third of normal.

Watching Drought

I see drought in Maryland often–usually mild, sometimes moderate, but it is often. And it’s part of climate change.

It’s not that climate change is making Maryland drier overall; in fact, Maryland’s annual precipitation is increasing slightly. But the increase is coming in the winter and the spring. Summer and Fall have about the same precipitation that they always have, but higher air temperatures have increased evaporation and transportation, leaving the soil drier during the growing season. And of course, as in other areas, more of the precipitation we do get is in large storms, leaving longer, drier, periods of no rain in between.

But, as I said, I’ve never seen the corn look so bad–which is why it surprised me to see that the area is not under a severe drought.

Current Conditions

I took a look at the US Drought Monitor, a website that doesn’t archive its pages, meaning that the link won’t show the same information next week. My area is not listed as in drought at all; that’s correct, though we are borderline. It’s raining now, and we were starting to need it badly. About half the rest of the state is listed as “abnormally dry,” which, according to the key at the bottom of the page, is enough to stunt crops and increase fire danger. And the area immediately around the Chesapeake Bay, which includes St. Michaels, is in “moderate drought,” which is enough to reduce grain yields–and, curiously, honey production.

However, the actual conditions on the ground seem rather worse than that. Eyeballing drought severity is a pretty unreliable activity at best, but the Drought Monitor site does include a note that it “focuses on broad-scale conditions. Local conditions may vary.” Just as a picture made of pixels obscures detail smaller than a pixel, the scale Drought Monitor uses must reduce areas below a certain size to a kind of average. There may be patches of severe drought that are smaller than that.

Conditions Elsewhere

In California, electricity is being shut off during periods of high fire danger because of the possibility of sparks from electrical cables causing wildfires. That certainly sounds dramatic, as though California’s drought must have entered new, unprecedented territory–but California’s famous megadrought is over. The US Drought Monitor shows only a few areas of “abnormally dry” on the edges of the state. But parts of California are fire-prone even when conditions are normal, and while this has been a very quiet year for fire (my husband is a fire fighter and keeps me informed) the terrible consequences of sparking power lines last year may have inspired an abundance of caution.

Conditions Vary

The reason I’ve brought all this up is to highlight the difficulty of assessing climate stories. Based on widely-available information, there is no extreme-weather emergency in Maryland at present, but since we know actual farmers, we know one is, indeed, in progress–and that there was one last year as well. Conversely, the stories about the electricity shut-offs in California suggest an unprecedented degree of fire risk, yet at least some evidence suggests that what we’re seeing is an unprecedented (but possibly quite correct) responses to typical fire risk. But what truth would someone on the ground reveal?

Climate change is real, and it is serious, and it is an emergency. And its symptoms can easily be different, or much worse, than the stories we hear on the news suggest.

 


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Considering 9/11

So, tomorrow is 9/11, a date that has become synonymous with an event. It’s been a long time, now. People born since those attacks are about to start turning 18; they’ll vote next year.

We don’t hear a lot about terrorism these days, not in the US–it’s no longer the dominant issue it was a decade ago, let alone nearly two decades ago, at least partly because violence tends not to be labeled terrorism if it’s perpetrated by white Americans who are not Muslim.

But it’s worth noting that attacks on civilians (not all of which ought to be called “terrorism,” but that’s another topic) are still very much an issue, and that climate change is making the issue worse.

Simply put, we know climate change makes terrorism more likely because it increases the frequency and severity of natural disasters to the point of putting large numbers of people in desperate circumstances–and desperate people do desperate things. Also, climate change makes certain kinds of attack easier to accomplish; during severe droughts, public drinking water is much cheaper to poison, since there is less water in reservoirs to dilute poison and wildfires are easier to start.

I’ve discussed before the way that political problems world-wide often have a climate-related component.

So it’s weird that we still tend to take terrorism (at least terrorism perpetrated by certain types of people) more seriously than climate change, given that climate change causes terrorism.

If you want to do something about the one, you must do something about the other.


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What’s Hot, These Days

Over the last month or so, while I’ve been preoccupied with disasters closer to home, a series of alarming articles have wafted across my social media feeds–articles with titles like:

  • The Arctic Is Burning!
  • The Arctic Is Melting!
  • This Was the Hottest July on Record!

Alarmism? No, not at all. We live in alarming times, is all. But it’s high time I got caught up. I’ll catch you up in the process, just in case I’m not the only one who was more or less unavailable for a month or so. Then we can get on with talking about ideas, issues, and events in more detail.

News

Let me catch us up.

Fire in a Cold Place

The earliest article on the arctic fires I could find dates from July 13th and includes satellite images of smoke and fire taken that day. The article is a little vague as to exactly when the fires had started burning and whether the story was actually about a few large, long-burning fires or many brief, small fires operating, as it were, as a team. But the article did note that the burning has been extreme and is linked to climate change.

For more on the connection between fire and climate, please see my earlier post.

A somewhat later article from The Guardian provides more detail, confirming that the intense fire activity began in June and continued into July. Areas of Alaska, Siberia, and Greenland are involved. All told, it is the worst fire season the region has had in 16 years–which is as far as the satellite record goes back. Before then, it’s hard to know how many wildfires there really were, as the arctic is sparsely settled. The Guardian also confirms that in some areas the peat is burning. Peat, as you may recall, is organic material that doesn’t rot because it is normally waterlogged and highly acidic. The material builds up over thousands of years and represents a major carbon sink. That this stuff is burning is very bad news.

Other articles have covered similar territory over the past few weeks. More recently, NASA has explained why it is using its resources to study arctic fires; among other consequences for ecological function and public health, burning tundra has the potential to dramatically increase climate change. There are two main, and interrelated, mechanisms.

First, and most obviously, burning that peat releases a lot of sequestered carbon. But the other problem is that burning away vegetation and soil exposes the underlying permafrost to warmth, and it starts to melt. Without that ice, the ground can slump badly, and, of more global consequence, the organic matter previously trapped in ice can rot, releasing methane–a very powerful greenhouse gas.

So, on to the next bit of recent bad news.

Melting Records

This summer has broken global heat records, so it’s not surprising that the Arctic sea melted back to its second-smallest extent on record. Now, it’s important to be clear that sea ice is different from land ice. When glaciers melt (and that’s happening, too, of course), the water runs into the ocean and raises sea level. Melting sea ice does not raise sea levels because it was in the sea already. Put some ice in a glass, pour in enough water so the ice can float, and mark the level of the water. Let the ice melt, and you’ll see the water level stays the same. The sea works the same way.

Melting sea ice causes other problems, of course. Most obviously, polar bears depend on sea ice for hunting, but there are other issues. What makes the Arctic ocean distinct from the Atlantic is not geographic separation, but rather the ice, which both provides unique habitat and alters water chemistry and circulation. Without the ice, the Arctic ecosystem will collapse and merge with that of the Atlantic.

For example, the ice forms a substrate on which micro-algae can grow, sequestering carbon. Various animals eat that algae, notably copepods–an important food source for marine mammals. Copepods who don’t get eaten eventually die and sink to the ocean floor, taking their carbon with them. The Altantic has its own micro-algae and its own copepods, of course, but Altantic copepods are smaller and don’t carry as much carbon down to the sea floor.

The important thing to remember is that without sea ice, we’ll have one less ocean than we’re used to. The impact of that will be far-ranging.

This year has not been decisive. We knew the ice was melting before, and a significant amount of ice remains. This year’s heat is simply a reminder of what’s coming.

Heat

July was the hottest July on record–and the hottest of any month on record–worldwide. Before that, June was the hottest June on record, globally. The hot weather is the direct cause of the aforementioned melting and the indirect cause of the extensive fires. The heat itself is not caused by climate change; it is climate change.

Implications

I’m not saying everything is awful or hopeless–I wrote about hope last week, and Spock is still right. This is simply the world we live in, the context of everything we do. This is why it’s important for us to vote, to advocate, to educate ourselves and each other, and to protest.

Because climate change is real, and it’s not going away until we make it go away.

 

 

 

 


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Catching Up

There’s this thing that happens when I do several weeks of re-posts and excerpts for whatever reason–so many things happen that I could be writing about that it all builds up and then when I come back to writing new posts, I don’t know which topic to pick up. I can’t decide.

So to clear the decks, here’s what we’ve missed.

Severe Weather

January and February brought record-breaking temperatures to parts of South America and Australia (Australia’s heat waves were so bad that infrastructure was damaged and wild fruit bats fell dead out of the trees) as well as floods in some areas and severe droughts in others. The Northern Hemisphere, meanwhile, had bitter cold in some areas and record-breaking warmth in others, due to a destabilized polar vortex, possibly climate change-related–and some areas had massive snowfalls, which is not generally a sign of unusual cold (it doesn’t have to be very cold for snow) but simply a wintery version of a flood.

The American Midwest flooded severely through March, largely as a result of huge snowfalls, causing major damage to stored crops and to farm lands and equipment–much of which isn’t covered by any existing disaster relief program because this particular kind of disaster has never happened before.

Meanwhile, Southern Africa also saw catastrophic flooding in March, the result of a cyclone (the same kind of storm is called a hurricane in the Atlantic) that made landfall just days after unrelated rainstorms caused regional flooding. Cyclone Idai was an odd storm. Though only a Class 2, which seems minor by American or Asian standards, it was the most powerful cyclone ever recorded in the Southern Hemisphere, and it developed mostly between Madagascar and Africa–apparently storms in that area don’t usually become powerful, but this one had an unusually warm pool of water beneath it, a story we should find familiar. The fact that the area between Madagascar and Africa is not large also suggests to me that Idai underwent rapid intensification, another familiar sign of the new normal.

Migrants continue to head north from Honduras, partly because worsening droughts and rising temperatures are destroying their farms back home. Even if the US were better prepared to handle the crisis well, the flood of refugees would be a challenge.

Then there was the night in April when the entire US Eastern Seaboard was under a tornado watch and some tornadoes dropped down–I’m not bothering to link to a source on that one because I spent part of that night huddled in the guest bathroom with my dogs listening to weird noises on the roof. I am my source.

Of course, it’s still difficult to be sure that a rash of weird weather is actually as abnormal as it seems. Ours is a big world, and there’s lots of room for bad luck in it, while good luck occurs in other places–and I still have not found any figures addressing changes in the number of extreme events over time. But not only is extreme weather symptomatic of climate change in general, but many of these events involve types of extreme weather specifically linked to climate change, such as rapidly intensifying tropical cyclones, heat waves, and a destabilized polar vortex.

Climate Protests

I talked about the recent series of climate protests in Europe, mostly led by teens and children, last month. Well, there’s been another one, this time in London, and it was huge, involving the arrest of 1000 protestors (mostly for protesting in places they didn’t have permits for), and organized by a group called Extinction Rebellion that is less than a year old. They are deliberately disruptive, with an aim towards calling attention to the emergency we are in. Greta Thunberg participated, and addressed Parliament (I’m unclear as to whether she literally spoke within the halls of power or if she delivered her speech elsewhere, trusting they would learn of it).

The action was part of a planned world-wide week of protests, but I have been unable to find any confirmation of events outside of London. Either they didn’t happen or they have been hushed up. Somehow. Coverage of the London events have been quite minimal.

Politics

The Green New Deal continues to percolate through the national conversation–there are articles about it published this week, and various alternatives are being proposed and debated. Great!

Meanwhile, approximately 187 people are now running for president, and more may soon declare, and I’m going to have to write about all of them with respect to climate sooner or later.

So, What’s the Story?

Obviously, there is plenty to talk about. And I’m going to talk about a lot of it. You should, too. We need to keep climate change in the public eye.


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What Walls Between Us

So, about this wall.

In case you don’t know (I do have overseas readers, and I assume American politics are not front and center of your daily lives), the United States currently lacks a functional Federal government. For reasons beyond me, if one Federal budget expires before the next one is approved, the US government suddenly becomes unable to spend any money. Most of its functions shut down, those few workers considered absolutely necessary work without pay, and chaos gradually descends on the country until Congress and the President quit playing chicken and pass a new budget.

Seriously, I don’t understand–why doesn’t Congress pass a new law saying that if the new budget is not approved on time, the old one stays in force until replaced? It’s not like government shut-downs save anybody any money. Nobody really wins, except (maybe) at chicken.

Anyway.

The issue this time is the wall that Mr. Trump promised his followers and now can’t admit was only a rhetorical device. Democrats–and some Republicans–do not want to approve money for the wall, arguing that it will do nothing to stop illegal immigration (most of what Mr. Trump says about border security is factually incorrect) and that the money is better spent on other issues.

While I’m personally concerned about many aspects of the situation, the one I’m most qualified to talk about is the one I see getting little attention in the news.

Basically, voices are being raised to the effect that Democrats ought to compromise and fund the wall in order to get the government back on–the assumption being that while there is strong evidence that the wall would be a pointless waste of money, the wall itself would only be useless. And that’s not true.

Long border walls are environmental disasters.

What’s Wrong with a Wall?

A continuous wall along the US/Mexico border would cause a whole series of environmental problems. Here is a brief review of a few of them.

Construction

Building a long wall would be an enormous construction project, especially in remote areas that lack roads, storage facilities, and other necessary infrastructure, all of which will have to be built. That’s a lot of disruption in the wilderness–cutting of plants, compaction of soils, increased erosion, dead wildlife–which will be all the worse because the Department of Homeland Security is exempt from environmental laws. That means if the wall is routed through the last breeding ground of some endangered species, so what.

Carbon

Exactly what the carbon footprint of Trump’s wall might be depends on the final design and it’s actual length (there is a lot of wall on the border already), but it’s sure to be huge. That’s because the wall would likely be made out of either concrete and steel or steel alone, and both are very carbon-intensive materials. I’ve seen estimates as high as 7.6 million metric tons of CO2.

And that’s not counting the carbon cost of construction, or of changes in infrastructure necessitated by the presence of the wall, like re-routing traffic.

That’s a big climate impact, for a wall that won’t even accomplish its intended purpose.

Location

The wall is scheduled to go through multiple wildlife sanctuaries, environmentally sensitive areas, a famous butterfly sanctuary, and other places that shouldn’t be destroyed. And destroyed they would be–remember, we’re not just talking about the wall itself, but also the construction zone around it, a literal swath of death.

While construction zones do generally re-wild afterwards, there are places that are unusually sensitive or unusually important that either require special damage mitigation or shouldn’t be constructed in at all. The wall will not respect such places. It will simply follow the border.

Flooding

Border walls, and even fences, cause flooding. We know that because there is a lot of border wall up already, and it has caused floods. Even if the wall has an open design that allows water to pass, floating debris will soon clog up the openings and block water.

Divisions

Walls are very bad for wildlife. Not only do walls cause problems for individual animals, who may have food on one side of the wall and water on the other, for example, but walls divide breeding populations. Not only might a small population go extinct because of inbreeding, but if it does, the area can’t be re-colonized if the remaining populations are on the other side of the wall.

There is a whole area of ecology concerned with the size, shape, and location of animal habitat, and the message is clear; two small places (with a wall between) simply aren’t as good as the one big place was before the division happens. When boundaries go up, the number of species goes down.

There are 93 endangered species threatened by the planned border wall. There may be others that are doing fine now, but will be endangered by the wall.

Extinction can take a long time, sometimes decades. While some might hope Trump’s wall will be taken down again fairly soon, before it can do much damage, walls can divide wildlife even after they no longer exist.

During the Cold War, the border between East Germany and West Germany was heavily fortified, and animals avoided the border–not only could they not cross it, but the border must have been very noisy and frightening. That wall doesn’t exist anymore. The border doesn’t exist anymore, hasn’t for thirty years.

But at least one species of deer still acts as though it’s there.

Roe deer learn ranging patterns from their mothers and only rarely depart from traditional patterns as adults. They evidently don’t question why the traditions are what they are, they just do as they’ve been taught, and they teach their young to do the same. So even though no roe deer is left alive who actually saw or heard the fortification, the deer keep acting as though the boundary is still real. If that division damaged the deer in any way, the damage is still being done.

Sometimes when you cut something, you can’t put it back together.

The Wall and the Climate

It’s also worth noting that while the wall itself would cause environmental disaster, it is also ostensibly intended to solve a problem caused by environmental disaster.

Today’s immigrant crisis is new, not because more people are coming north (actually, fewer people are), but because these aren’t young men seeking better-paying jobs. These are families with children trying to stay alive. Many of them are not even illegal immigrants–they’re asylum seekers. They’re running from various forms of crisis, from the personal (domestic abuse) to the societal (gang violence), but a major part of the problem is agricultural and economic collapse caused by drought and other extreme weather in Honduras and its neighbors.

What’s causing the bad weather? Climate change, of course.

No one willing to take their children  from Honduras to the United States on foot is going to be stopped by a wall. The level of desperation implied by such an act cannot be underestimated. Probably, nothing can stop them, not unless the United States becomes not worth living in, either. Until and unless that happens, there will be more of them. And more. If we were in their shoes, we’d do anything to survive, too.

If this country is serious about not being over-run by climate migrants, we have only three options:

  1. Prepare ourselves to accept large numbers of migrants without disruption
  2. Help Honduras (and any other country in trouble) so that it can keep its own people healthy and safe
  3. Stop anthropogenic climate change.

President Trump  wants $5 billion for the wall. How far would that money go towards programs to shift our country off of fossil fuel?

Call your Congresspeople.