The Climate in Emergency

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

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Dead Zones?

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

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

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

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

Dead Zone

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ok, Where Does Climate Change Come In?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What’s the Story?

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

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

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

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




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Making Landscapes

This is an essay I wrote for college many years ago–it was winter, hence the references to wearing gloves for warmth. I’m posting it here for three reasons. First, I’m pleased with it as a piece of writing and wanted to share. Second, I’m going through one of my periodic spots of depression and finding it very difficult to work. For those of you who either don’t understand how a bad mood can make writing difficult, or don’t know how to explain this fact to your friends and relatives, please check out Boggle the Owl. The author is wonderfully compassionate. Anyway, the third reason I’m posting this today is that yesterday was Earth Day and this article talks about the connections between the outer environment and the one between the ears. While the piece doesn’t mention climate change specifically, this interconnection is very relevant to how and why we care as we do.


This morning I was depressed when I woke up. I know, I know, you didn’t pick this up to hear about the black fog inside my skull, you want to hear about something in the world you can relate to, but this is where the story starts, and anyway, I know sometimes you wake up with the black fog, too. It curls up on your chest in exactly the way warm cats don’t and nothing seems worth getting up for, but you know this is an illusion. You knew there was something worth getting up for last night because you wrote a to-do list, and if you can just get out of bed long enough to start in on it everything will be alright.

To-do lists; I am not talking about the long mental list of anxieties, the things undone that keep me up in the dark pretending they’re the real issue. No, I’m talking about a well-crafted to-do list that will help me sort out exactly what I got out of bed to do. It’s picking the first thing that’s rough. After that, the others all go one right after the other like penguins from an ice floe. First on the list today, after prayer, mediation, and breakfast, is landscaping.

I do free-lance landscaping, trimming my neighbors’ hedges and related labors for about 15 dollars an hour. Today’s client is a woman I’ve never met, since she lives most of the year at her other house, but a mutual friend ferries money and instructions between us and through her, this woman has requested that I cut her hedges “way down, and if they die it’s ok.” Reasoning that death is not actually the aim of the mission, I grab my clippers, a handsaw and a soda bottle full of water and head out to have some serious discussions with the growth patterns of shrubs.

The day is clear and blue, with white, streaky clouds, not too cold, but I’m glad I’ve got my gloves. It isn’t too far of a walk, and it’s not entirely possible to be depressed when outside in the sunshine; there’s a relationship between the interior landscape and the exterior one, a kind of feedback or bleeding of experience. If I felt better as a psychological baseline today, I might better connect with the real sky, but since the sky is real, the day can be happy, and I, embedded in the day, can partake.

I have decided to begin at the back, with a pair of hollies—the kind with small blue berries and pinkie-nail-sized leaves, not the spiky American holly that grows wild here—and I remember that last year she wanted them lower than the windows. Unfortunately there is an absolute limit to how small I can cut something because the visual solidity of a hedge-type shrub is created by a shell of tightly packed tiny leaves, and that shell is only a few inches deep. Cut lower than that and the whole thing turns out skeletal and twisted. Death my client can deal with, but I’m guessing she’d rather not have to deal with ugly. I had the same problem last year, of course, and compromised by cutting windows in the shell so the few interior leaves could reach some sun. I see now my strategy worked, and the old, muscular armature of the bush is covered by little green shoots. Another year and they’ll be up nicely and I can cut the older branches back. The plant is still not going to get lower than that window, and the life of this plant and a small corner of my reputation may be riding on my ability to pull off a suitable degree of “way back.” Hmmmmm. Something large, a fox, say, crashes through the underbrush on the other side of the house. If I were myself more wild I’d find out what it is, make sure it isn’t a dangerous predator, but let’s pretend can only be carried so far and there are no bears or wolves here. I cut the top off the bush, make it into a bowl shape, open at the top but perfectly civilized from the side view. We’ll hope that flies. I move on to the other holly and there do the same thing.

Hours have passed. The moon, waxed almost exactly to the half, stands high in the noon sky the color and visual texture of cloud. Midday is bright and silent, and I have the street to myself as I work around from one shrub to the next. A folk song called “What are you at?” burbles its way cheerfully through my mind. I’m not thinking about anything in particular. I’m not depressed anymore.

I hear honking and look up in time to see a flock of geese break formation, turn, and reassemble briefly into a V, then into a line heading southwest. They’re flying low, a local commute, but I can’t tell whether they’re Canada geese or snowies. I’m not good with geese at a distance yet. All I can tell is that their bodies reflect the sunlight, a bright, coppery color, but their wings are dark. Also, their honking ceased as soon as they completed their turn. Was it an auditory turn signal? I think about the last time I saw geese up close, this past summer, when I worked at a landscaping company. We did some properties out along the Chesapeake Bay, where the geese, the ducks, the herons are as common as squirrels and, in some cases, about as well received. That’s where I learned to prune a hedge properly; set your clippers at an angle and work around, shaving off the past year’s growth. You can use power shears also but I never got trained for that and, anyway, don’t like the noise.

Pruned properly, an artificial landscape might remain consistent in appearance for a generation, I suppose, and that must be part of the appeal. Similarly, people find it appealing to plant non-native species in artificial-looking groupings marooned in the middle of generous ovals of bare mulch. Real landscapes grow and change and die, real places include diseases and parasites and little nibbled edges, but last summer we seemed to be in the lucrative business of forcing real plants to do a credible imitation of plastic. I wonder how and when real life became unfashionable. What is going on in these people’s interior landscapes, cause and result of their living in plastic?

Landscaping, as a commercial art, exists to stimulate thoughts and feelings on the part of the homeowner, their neighbors, and their guests. Since I never was in on the design component of the business last summer, I don’t know precisely what our clients wanted to stimulate, but I can make an educated guess based on the work we did. Certainly prettiness was part of it; most of the plants we cared for flowered, and many had interesting textures and shapes. Even I, by no means an ardent fan of the genre, could appreciate many of the beds in full bloom. Part of what we did was justifiably a concentration of that simple prettiness, for the plants were arranged in such a way that, at any given season, attractive plant parts were well spaced along the beds, the bygone heads and foliage of yestermonth pruned and trimmed out the way of possible distraction. Yet most of the beds were not really designed to be seen much by their owners. With a few notable exceptions, they faced out on the roads and front walks, at a height and spacing that made them almost invisible from the windows. The lawns generally had no picnic tables, no patio chairs, no swings, no jungle gyms, no charcoal grills, and no trampolines. There were no facilities that might give the family any comfortable or interesting context from which to enjoy their absurdly expensive gardens. By their orientation, these beds indicated that their target audience was in fact the general public, who would be informed, in no uncertain horticultural terms, that here lives the rich and fashionable.

This is the same principle that drives the development, in some cultures, of completely impractical clothing and body modification; a person obviously incapable of seeing to her own upkeep must equally obviously be rich enough and powerful enough to be cared for by servants. Just so, a manicured garden is as freakishly un-natural as levitation; things want to grow, to change, and to hold a place in stasis, permitting no growth and admitting no decay (which is also a kind of growth), requires an enormous amount of work. I suppose these people, who do not even want to touch their own soil or water their own plants (a hesitancy I cannot relate to), get a light feeling in their step knowing that their power is in evidence to passersby.

I suppose there are those who would call me a kind of middle-class elitist at this point; these people got rich by their own no doubt mighty efforts; they are pillars of the economy, and they can do with their money as they like. To this I reply that no person’s influence stops at his or her property line, and all that fertilizer and pesticide and mulch washes right into the Chesapeake Bay, where even on a good day visibility is less than ten feet, an estuarine smog that smothers the shellfish and the water plants. The carbon footprint of these kinds of activities is such that many of these properties will likely be underwater before the century is out, and they’ll be uninhabitable with storm-surges and floods long before that. I don’t understand how anyone could be anything other than depressed in this kind of situation, and indeed depression rates are skyrocketing in this country; I bet most of our clients are in therapy, and that some of them take antidepressant medication. The landscapes they make bleed back into their minds, and they bleed into mine, too, plastic, static, and lonely.

I suppose there are some who might point out that my job at the landscaping company, and hence the fashions for land-use on the part of the rich, paid a good many of my bills. Before you yourself say that, I would like to explain that I quit last August and don’t intend to go back. I’m grateful for the money, yes, and the experience in pruning even more, but I don’t like making plastic places. No one there did, I think, although I doubt any of them could have articulated the problem; I’ve never worked anywhere that had more collective misery.

The difference between me and my former coworkers, if there is one, is that they were content to be miserable if it permitted them to be personally secure. I am not. That is why I quit, and why I am making ends meet with small dribbles of money like this until I get a worthwhile job instead of signing up for a different job where everyone is miserable and contentedly so. And it is also why, when I wake up miserable, I have my list, my prayers, my something to do.

The inner and outer landscapes bleed into each other, after all, and while I truly believe that the outer world has enough intrinsic value to render my personal depression and its remedies entirely boring by comparison, I expect I’ll make better outer landscapes if I take some care for the inner one—and the inner landscape is absolutely dependent on having a living place outdoors to go.


BOEM Scoping Part 1: Comments Needed

Last week, I attended a protest and an informational event in Annapolis, Maryland. The objective was to keep oil and gas exploration away from our shores.

It is a seldom-discussed fact, but for people who live on the Eastern Seaboard of the United States, large-scale oceanic oil spills are a disaster that happens somewhere else, to someone else. Tragic, and we’re glad to donate money and outrage to the cause, but not really our problem. I don’t mean to sound smug, it’s not like we’re above disaster (we do seem to be developing a problem with hurricanes), it just usually happens elsewhere and we don’t really think about why.

Turns out, the reason we don’t have oceanic oil spills it quite simple; we don’t have off-shore oil and gas exploration, as per US energy policy. And that is about to change. Hence the protest.

The Situation

Where and how energy development takes place in America’s oceans is the purview of the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, or BOEM. According to one of the handouts I picked up at the meeting,

BOEM promotes energy independence, environmental protection, and economic development through responsible, science-based management of offshore conventional and renewable energy and marine mineral resources. BOEM is responsible for resource management, including leasing, economic analysis, resource evaluation, and environmental analysis.

BOEM is engaging a wide range of stakeholders to gather as much input as possible for consideration of potential new leases in Alaska, the Gulf of Mexico, and the Mid- and South Atlantic.

By “South Atlantic” they mean the sea off the coast of Georgia and South Carolina.

While it may sound odd for a single agency to simultaneously promote both fossil fuel exploitation and environmental protection, it’s worth noting that the alternative–what existed prior to BOEM’s creation–was a piecemeal permit process without any formal means of large-scale planning or public input. As long as fossil fuel exploitation is allowed to exist, there must be agencies capable of limited and shaping the process in accordance with the public and environmental good.

BOEM operates according to the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act (OCSLA), which states (again, according to the handout) that

The Secretary of the Interior must prepare an oil and gas leasing program every five years showing the size, timing,  and location of potential leasing activity and precisely as possible. The process beings with a Request for Information and culminates with a final program, with drafts and comment periods in between.

The OCSLA process receives input, not just of from the public, but also from an environmental impact assessment, as required by the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). In essence, each program defines the areas within which oil and gas leasing can even be considered. The area is divided into small plots and only a small number of those plots are actually made available for lease. Then, before a company actually does anything to the plots it leases, it must do another environmental impact assessment. Oil and gas exploration involves sonic testing, which is harmful to marine life and therefore requires a permit–and the permitting process is again separate from the OCSLA process.  BOEM does not enforce any of the conditions of its various leases and permits, but the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement, or BSEE, can and does. The BSEE can, if necessary, shut an extraction operation down completely if it violates the law. At least on paper, then, there are a lot of safeguards in place to ensure that the oil and gas industry operates without inflicting undue harm on anybody or anything.

The proposed 2017-2022 Gas and Oil Leasing Program includes parts of the Gulf of Mexico, some of the waters off the coast of Alaska, and areas off the coast of Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, and  Virginia. Maryland’s waters are not included, but we’re uncomfortably close to areas that are. BOEM is currently conducting a “scoping process” preparatory to the first environmental impact assessment. That means they are accepting public comment to find out what our concerns are–what we’re worried might happen if drilling in these areas goes ahead. Then, they can address those concerns when they do the assessment. BOEM called the meeting in Annapolis, along with meetings in other affected regions, in order to let the public know how to use the comment process. The comments themselves must be made online or by mail.

We’re hoping that, based on our comments, BOEM will remove the Atlantic from the 2017-2022 program.

The Problem

The problem is that, no matter how safe a drilling operation is, an accident sooner or later is close to inevitable. The Mid- and South-Atlantic sections don’t begin until 50 miles off-shore, which might offer some protection to the coast, but also means that most of the lease areas will be in deep water–just like the Deepwater Horizon, in the Gulf of Mexico. Part of why that disaster was as bad as it was had to do with how far the damaged wellhead was under water. We’re looking at running exactly the same risk in the Atlantic.

Let’s say there is an accident.

We’re looking at a major economic and cultural hit, since a lot of communities in this region depend on the seafood industry, tourism, or both. We’re also looking at a major ecological hit, since both the Delaware and Chesapeake Bays are vulnerable. Just as an example of what’s at stake, the Delaware Bay is a critical stop for the Red Knot on its migration route. The birds “refuel” there by eating horseshoe crab eggs on quiet beaches. Red Knots already have Threatened status under the Endangered Species Act, in part due to the over-harvesting of horseshoe crabs. Now, if those beaches were oiled, as could happen if an oil well in the northern part of the proposed program area leaks badly, what will happen to those horseshoe crabs and those birds?

And even if everything goes perfectly, sonic testing is a routine part of marine oil and gas exploration. This involves blasting EXTREMELY LOUD noises at the sea floor, killing, maiming, or disorienting any marine life that happens to be in the way.

The Event

I went to the scoping meeting with Assateague Coastal Trust, and advocacy organization that stands up for the coastal bays of Maryland, Delaware, and Virginia. Although we knew the meeting would not include any formal opportunity to register our comments, we thought it would do some good for BOEM’s representatives to see and hear us. We arrived early so we and a group from Oceana, another organization, could have a rally out on the sidewalk. There were perhaps thirty of us, waving signs and toy windmills and waving at passing cars. Four people wore fish costumes (two striped bass, one weakfish, and one Atlantic sturgeon) and one wore a hazmat suit. Various reported spoke to us. Cars honked as they drove by. One of the Oceana people said our turn-out was much better than for some of the other scoping meetings that have already happened.

One of the BOEM people came out and told us it was fine for us to rally, but please don’t block the sidewalk or stand in front of the restaurant. We all scooted over cooperatively.

When we went in, the helpful, respectful treatment continued. They asked us to leave our signs behind the front desk, but we were allowed to carry our windmills in and wear our costumes. We got a lot of compliments on the fish. Everyone from BOEM was friendly and welcoming.

There were several information statements and we could wander around and ask questions at each station. We did so, and they answered our questions. They often asked whether their answers were helpful and clear. A few times some of them answered slightly different questions than what we had asked, a common evasive technique, but maybe they were simply trying to be clear when we asked questions that weren’t. Certainly, BOEM representatives frankly admitted to paying a lot of attention to the needs of the energy industry, something they surely would not have done if they were trying to greenwash themselves.

We didn’t see any members of “the public” at the meeting besides ourselves.

The Takeaway

I was heartened by how friendly and helpful the BOEM people seemed. I believe them to be genuine. At the same time, it seemed abundantly clear the BOEM will not say no to the fossil fuel industry as a whole. If the industry wants to extract fuel from the Atlantic, BOAM will use its authority to direct that activity into the least destructive channels possible. It will not say that “least destructive” isn’t good enough.

The truth is that fossil fuel extraction is a given in our society.

But the other truth is that if BOEM hears mostly silence from the public on conservation and a deafening roar from the industry, they will have little choice but to side with industry. They live and work in a political and economic reality that won’t go away by wishing. It’s possible that the BOEM people were so friendly precisely because they welcome the intervention of environmentalists. Many of them are probably environmentalists themselves, fighting a war on the defensive, with very few tools. They need reinforcements badly. We can provide reinforcement by commenting.

They’ll accept comments until the end of the month. Go to for information or to comment online.