The Climate in Emergency

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


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What Matters

A photo of a casually-dressed young adult or adolescent with long hair kicking straight out at the camera so that much of the image is taken up by the sole of her sneaked foot. Her face looks angry. In the background is a low, peach-colored cement wall and blue sky. She may be on the roof of a city building.

Photo by Luz Fuertes on Unsplash

Why aren’t we out in the streets demanding climate action right now?

Yes, this is the Era of Covid, but there are ways to do masked, socially-distanced public demonstrations.

Yes, the push against racism, and particularly against police brutality, needs a lot of energy and attention right now, but these things need not be either/or. They can be both/and. And, in fact, they must be.

For years I’ve been frustrated by the environmental movement’s collective complicity in the pigeon-holing of our cause. We allow “environment” and “climate change,” and other such labels to be listed on public opinion polls and what-not alongside “the economy” and “public health” and “national security,” as though it were possible to care about one and not the other.

As though it were possible to have a vibrant economy without functional ecosystems from which to derive resources.

As though it were possible to have a healthy populace without clean air, clean water, good food, and natural beauty.

As though it were possible to protect national security as rising seas flood our military bases, heat waves kill our service members, and climate change-fueled droughts and other disasters pump out angry and desperate people looking for somebody to blame.

Why do we position environmental issues as competition against the health and welfare of people’s kids? Of course we’re going to lose. We’ve been losing. A majority of Americans care about environmental issues and want climate action, but it doesn’t happen because there’s always some issue more important on people’s minds.

When are we going to admit that the “more important issue” is also climate change? Public health is climate change, education is climate change, the economy is climate change, criminal justice is climate change, the full realization—at long last!—of the best American ideals is climate change! Without meaningful climate action, we lose all the other fights, too.

Yes, of course, turn up at Black Lives Matter events. If you’re white (as I am), educate yourself, follow instructions, do some soul-searching, and speak up when your friends and family say or do racist crap. There is a moment we need to rise to. Part of that rising does, indeed, require a certain selective focus.

But to say that a focus on racial justice requires not working on climate at all is both morally and factually untrue.

Because there is a climate dimension of racial justice, too.

We know that industrial facilities are disproportionately sited in non-white communities, exposing people of color to a far greater share of toxins. It’s not a big leap to suppose that this hiding of industry away from white communities might be one of the things that keeps our whole unsustainable system profitable.

We know that worldwide, heat waves kill more people in low-income urban communities, and that in the US these communities are overwhelmingly black (other non-white groups are also at substantially elevated risk, but not to the same extent).

We know that rising temperatures are also associated with increased rates of both interpersonal and group violence—and since cops are human, we can assume that will extend to increased rates of police brutality, too.

We know that climate change is raising global food prices through a variety of mechanisms. The US isn’t seeing the change directly yet, but when we do, it will it low-income families hardest, families who are, again, disproportionately not white.

We know that natural disasters–which are increasingly common because of climate change, consistently increase race-related income gaps among survivors. In general, the greatest impacts of disasters consistently fall on the least-privileged, who are least likely to be able to rebuild and least likely to be able to evacuate in the first place

We know that racism has been and is being used as a tool to keep climate deniers in power where they can prevent meaningful climate action.

Now is not the time for environmentalists to sit down, shut up, and wait our turn. To suppose that it is perpetuates the idea that environmental issues are separate from everything else, an idea that guarantees we will lose. No, now is the time to put our expertise and connections and interests in service to the moment. Nothing less will do.

In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, there were white folks who hunted black people through the ruined, lawless streets for sport. Those murders were ignored for years, and some may never be solved. Does anybody think that can’t happen again? The waters are rising. Storms are getting more severe.

Why does climate change matter? Because black lives do.


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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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A Carbon Emission Walks Into a Bar….

Today includes the International Moment of Laughter, according to my calendar. It doesn’t say when the Moment is supposed to be, so we’ll just have to be more or less giggly all day, won’t we?

A brownish-skinned woman with long, blonde hair is wearing a white fedora and a sleaveless black dress and laughing or giggling. She appears relaxed, unselfconscious, and spontaneous.

Photo by Vanessa Serpas on Unsplash

 Laughing at Climate Change?

There are those who blame our lack of progress on the issue on the negativity of activists, educators, and scientists. Apparently, one should never yell “FIRE!” in a burning building, as it will not impel the people to escape or to call the Fire Department. One should instead call, in a polite, upbeat way, “It’s pleasantly cool outside right now!”

As should be evident, I reject that premise, but I also believe in the value of humor.

As I’ve discussed before, climate denial is largely the deliberate creation of certain financially-motivated elites who have played on pre-existing cultural faultlines for their own gain. We’re not dealing with some intrinsic psychological phenomenon here, nor does the fault lie with overly negative activists. Rather, we are contending with a powerful and deliberate countervailing force.

But it’s also true that to counter that force, as we must, we need to avail ourselves of whatever tools psychology can give us, and if positive, solution-oriented messaging will help our cause, then so be it. And if goofing around will keep our own spirits up, then let’s get goofy.

The Case for Laughter

Seriousness and humorlessness are not the same thing. In fact, such serious topics as cancer and crucifixion have seen their treatments in comedy (for the latter, see the final scene of Monty Python’s Life of Brian). And while some jokes are clearly inappropriate when issues are real and raw, others help the raw places heal, or at least let us know where to put the Band-Aide. There’s even an article out there using scientific research to explain exactly how to use humor specifically for climate communication. Climate humor is A Thing.

(Just while we’re on the subject, though; humor can be used to say anything, including things that should not be said–mean jokes are still mean)

Ha-Ha

I wanted to have a whole, long list of climate change jokes, but it turns out I can’t think of any. Neither can anyone else, apparently, because when I looked up “climate change jokes” online I found three different sites purporting to contain said jokes, but the best they could do between them was “why does the climate need privacy? Because it’s changing.”

Really. That was the best one.

The poster for the movie, "Erik the Viking." The background is a yellow sunset into the sea with a Viking ship in the distance. The movie title is in big, blocky lettering that looks like chunks of stone. Four men with various facial expressions cluster at the bottom of the image, presumably main characters. In small letters at the bottom is a quote from a reviewer: "Invigorating, upside-down Python sensibility!" But the kind of jokes you can put on a bullet-point list aren’t usually that funny anyway. They are, at best, abbreviated notes for lines that might be funny if told with the right delivery, by the right person, or on the right day. If you want to laugh at climate change, or at least at the people who deny the existence of climate change, you really ought to see “Erik the Viking,” a wonderful movie occupying the penumbra of Monte Python (most of the Pythons are in it). There’s an island in the movie whose people love to sing but literally can’t (their attempts consist of atonally shouting “tee tee tah” in unison) and which is cursed to sink into the sea if blood is ever spilled there. Of course, blood is soon spilled, and the island begins to sink, but the locals won’t believe it. Erik and his ship-mates run around trying to convince them of the obvious to no avail. The Council takes a vote on the matter and concludes that the island is definitely not sinking. By this point Eric and the others have left and there’s barely enough land for the town council to sit on. The water’s rising fast.

“Uh, what shall we do while the island is not sinking?” someone asks.

“I know, let’s SING!” someone else suggests. And so the Hy-Brazilians sit around calmly shouting “tee! tee! tah! tah!” while they all disappear under the waves.

And then there’s XKCD.

It's a multi-panel internet comic that's really text-heavy. Here is a website that includes a transcript of the comic: https://www.explainxkcd.com/wiki/index.php/1321:_Cold

From XKCD 1321 “Cold”
http://xkcd.com/1321/

The “mouse-over text” reads “‘You see the same pattern all over. Take Detroit–‘ ‘Hold on. How do you know all these statistics offhand?’ ‘Oh, um, no idea. I definitely spend my evenings hanging out with friends, and not curating a REALLY NEAT database of temperature statistics. Because, pshh, who would want to do that, right? Also snowfall records.'”

The future doesn’t belong to one-liners, it belongs to sketch comedy, long-form comedic monologues, and internet comics.


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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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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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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 Weary World Rejoices?

A lit candle in the darkness. Only the flame and the tip of the candle are visible, everything else is darkness. The candle appears to be a beeswax taper, from its color and shape. The flame is very long and thin.

Photo by Marc Ignacio on Unsplash

 I have just come back from a Christmas Eve service—one of only two church services I attend in most years, though this year I have unfortunately had two funerals to attend also. I find these things interesting, and occasionally inspiring.

This time the preacher focused on the song, “O Holy Night,” and even read what he said was a direct translation from the original French. Later, a flutist performed it with piano accompaniment. It’s an extraordinary song, musically, containing as it does the single most beautiful note of any song anywhere (not that all singers hit it!). The lyrics have never moved me, but they and the music together do an interesting job of evoking an entire world, human and otherwise, straining and yearning towards the divine Answer.

What was the question?

It is not the place of this blog to comment on the content of any religion. We can say that whatever the question was, it was answered.

What question is the whole world asking now?

We know what question the world is asking, and we know that the answer must include a spiritual (if not necessarily religious) component. Something must transform us from a species who collectively does not care about our planet or our future into a species that does care and can act mightily on that caring. We know the solution, in a general way, and we know we can develop the specifics if we only apply ourselves. A critical mass of us must simply become willing to enact that solution.

Sounds impossible? Yeah, sometimes it does to me, too. But we know big things can sometimes change overnight. We know change can begin with one person.

The foreground is dominated by a soap bubble that is in the process of freezing; part of its surface is clear and slightly reflective, while the rest is smooth, white ice crystals. The bubble rests on branches of what might be asparagus fern. The background is out of focus and is blue and pink, possibly a snowy landscape at sunset.

Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash

What if that one person is you?


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Little Drummer Kids

This has become a traditional post of mine–I do some version of it sometime in December about every year. Reading over this version from some years ago, I am struck by how timely it is.

I know it’s not Christmas yet, and that a lot of us don’t even celebrate Christmas…I guess this is more of a Winter Solstice post, though we’re not quite there yet, either.

The thing is, this has been a hard season for those of us who care about the climate. It’s hard to keep hoping, and it’s hard to keep believing that anything any of us do will really help. I’ve been drawing a lot of comfort lately from Solstice imagery, from the idea that when the world looks darkest is sometimes literally the moment when light and life return.

I’ve also been drawing comfort from The Little Drummer Boy.

Yes, I’m aware that some people harbor a special hatred of this over-played song, but I kind of like it.

Actually, I really like it. That song has been known to make me cry whenever I really pay attention to the lyrics. Minus the rum-pa-pum-pums  and traditional lyrical line-breaks, here they are:

“Come,” they told me, “a new born King to see. Our finest gifts we bring to lay before the King, so, to honor Him when we come.”
“Little baby, I am a poor boy too. I have no gift to bring that’s fit to give our King. Shall I play for you on my drum?”
Mary nodded. The ox and lamb kept time. I played my drum for Him. I played my best for Him.
Then He smiled at me, me and my drum.

I mean, seriously, picture this. There’s this little boy who has this fantastic experience–mysterious grown-ups appear from some exotic place and tell him of this amazing baby–this King whose birth was announced by angels and by a new, very bright star, the subject of prophesies about the redemption of the whole world. The drummer boy probably doesn’t understand most of it, but he understands this is a Big Deal, and when the grown-ups urge him to come with them to worship and honor the newborn King, he eagerly agrees.

Except what can he give? He has no money, no expensive gifts. He’s poor and he’s just a child–compared to all these Wise Men and other important people, what can he do? He doesn’t know how to do anything except play his drum and maybe he can’t even do that very well, yet. Poor little drummer boys just don’t get to go visit kings. It isn’t done.

But then the child gets to see the baby, and he sees this King is actually a poor little boy just like him. They aren’t that different. And the baby is looking up at him, expectant. The drummer boy just has to give something. So he does the one thing he can do, knowing it can’t possibly be enough. He plays his drum and he plays it just as well as he can.

And it makes the baby smile.

We’re all like that, in one way or another. Most of us probably feel inadequate most of the time–I certainly do–and, frankly, in the face of global warming, we are each inadequate, at least by any reasonable definition. We don’t have enough money; we don’t have the right skills; we don’t have the cooperation of friends and family (or Congress); or we have other, competing responsibilities; or grave problems of our own to cope with. These are entirely valid excuses, real stumbling blocks, and arrayed against us is the full power and might of some extremely rich people who do not want us to get off fossil fuel at all, ever. We’re running out of time.

And yet, sometimes the universe isn’t reasonable. Sometimes one person can change the world. Sometimes one’s best turns out to be good enough after all.

May it be so for you.