October 18, 2005

Sound the Alarm

Puget Sound's health is jeopardized by climate change, according to a new report from researchers at the University of Washington. Find the (surprisingly good) media coverage here, here, and here.

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October 10, 2005

Climate Consensus

Ice_sheetThe Seattle Times ran a front-page Sunday article on the scientific consensus behind manmade climate change -- probably one of the better summaries of the central issues written for lay readers. Here's my favorite paragraph:

As one study after another has pointed to carbon dioxide and other man-made emissions as the most plausible explanation, the cautious community of science has embraced an idea initially dismissed as far-fetched. The result is a convergence of opinion rarely seen in a profession where attacking each other's work is part of the process. Every major scientific body to examine the evidence has come to the same conclusion: The planet is getting hotter; man is to blame; and it's going to get worse.

Plus, four short corollary articles clarify the debates about those prickly rejoinders you may have heard skeptics employ: the sun's effect, the "hocky stick" graph, the urban heat-island effect, and complicated satellite readings.

Read the articles here.

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October 07, 2005

Good Air Day

This is pretty cool. Real-time air quality measurements for 17 locations around Puget Sound. At the moment, every monitoring station is showing good air quality. It'll be interesting to check back periodically as wintertime inversions trap pollution in the basin.

Anyone know of other web-based measurements like this one for other places in the Northwest?

UPDATE: Here's a clickable map of county-by-county air quality for Washington state. (Hat tip to the ever-vigilant Alan Durning.)

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September 22, 2005

Graph Theory

If anyone tries to tell you that there's no real evidence that humans are having much effect on the atmosphere, just show them this:


The graph represents carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere, and the red line at the end -- part of which is enlarged in the upper left of the graph -- respresents the increase since the industrial revolution began.  So right now, CO2 levels are the highest they've been in, oh, nearly half a million years.

Hat tip to WorldChanging.

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August 15, 2005

Seawall, See Wail

From today's Seattle P-I, here's yet another concrete way that global warming may affect the Northwest: rising sea levels may force the city of Seattle to reengineer its downtown seawall

Without a seawall, the businesses and roads along the Seattle waterfront simply wash away into Elliot bay. (Bummer.) The existing seawall is structurally unsound--it's partially made of wood, which is being eaten by marine invertebrates known as "gribbles"--and the city has already done a fair bit of the design work for rebuilding it. 

But a University of Washington climate science group now say that the proposed design, which assumes a .9 foot rise in sea levels over 75 years, may be too conservative.  The group predicts that sea levels may rise somewhere in the range of 1 to 2.8 feet.

To me, this story underscores two points that are worth keeping in mind.  First, there's a huge range of uncertainty in climate predictions; nobody, not even the most well-respected scientists, really knows what's going to happen.  And that makes planning really tough, and probably more expensive than you might otherwise think, or hope.  And second, there are lots of little ways in which rising global temperatures could affect our lives and our pocketbooks. Doomsday scenarios range from the unlikely to the comical (think "The Day After Tomorrow"), but that doesn't mean that the costs and consequences of global warming aren't very real.

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July 13, 2005

A Sea of Troubles

Plankton_1 Rather alarming signs of ecosystem stress on the Northwest's coasts, reported in today's Seattle Times. Temperatures are 2 to 5 degrees higher than normal, probably the result of the lack of "upwelling" that usually occurs in the spring and summer. (Those temperatures are normal readings for an El Nino year, but there's no El Nino this year.) In normal years, cold water from the ocean's depths rises to the surface carrying algae, krill, and other bottom-of-the-food-chain sustenance for small fish that in turn feed salmon and seabirds. This year: nothing.

The result is not pretty:

This spring, scientists reported a record number of dead seabirds washed up on beaches along the Pacific Coast, from central California to British Columbia... "This is somewhere between five and 10 times the highest number of bird deaths we've seen before," said Julia Parrish, an associate professor in the School of Aquatic Fisheries and Sciences at the University of Washington.

Some seabirds, like murres, are breeding very late or giving up. The dearth of food sources may also be partly responsible for the anemic salmon returns this year. But what's causing the problem?

Upwelling is caused by cold winds from the north. But this spring was warm and wet and the winds came from the southwest.

"In 50 years, this has never happened," said Bill Peterson, an oceanographer with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) in Newport, Ore. "If this continues, we will have a food chain that is basically impoverished from the very lowest levels."

It may be tempting to blame global climate change for the disturbance--and, indeed, some scientists suspect that it is in play here. But ocean cycles and seasonal weather variations are so complex and variable that it is difficult to be certain that the alarming events on the coast are the fault of global warming. (And it is even tougher to say that they result from human-induced global warming.)

It seems to me, we're in a frustrating dilemma. There's little doubt that climate change will have a serious impact on ecosystems, yet we can never say for certain that any particular impact is the result of climate change.

In a similar vein, E magazine and CNN report on scientific research from the UK's Royal Society that carbon-dioxide emissions are not only warming the atmosphere, they are also increasing the acidity of the world's oceans. Greater acidity makes life tough for coral, shellfish, and squid.

"The rising acidity of our oceans is yet another reason for us to be concerned about the carbon dioxide we are pumping into the atmosphere," said Professor John Raven, chair of the Royal Society working group on ocean acidification. "Failure to [cut emissions] may mean that there is no place in the oceans of the future for many of the species and ecosystems that we know today."

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July 05, 2005

Coming Climate Consensus

At the G8 summit in Scotland, President Bush again rejected mandatory limits on greenhouse gas emissions. But according to an article in the Seattle Times, he may have made a small step in the right direction...

Asked in the interview whether climate change is "manmade," Bush replied, "To a certain extent it is, obviously."

On the other hand, it's unclear how much weight to give his understanding of the science behind global warming, because:

"I believe we'll be able to burn coal without emitting any greenhouse gases," he said

It is a basic law of physics that burning coal produces carbon-dioxide, the principal greenhouse gas. No amount of pollution control can change the basic physical reaction (though coal can be burned more efficiently).

Although Bush continues to insist that forcing limits on greenhouse gas emissions would "wreck" the US economy, he is increasingly in the minority. Writing in Britain's Independent today, California governor and fellow Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger insists that the contrary is true:

Many people have falsely assumed that you have to choose between protecting the environment and protecting the economy. Nothing could be further from the truth... Pollution reduction has long been a money saver for businesses. It lowers operating costs, raises profits and creates new and expanded markets for environmental technology.

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June 22, 2005

City Salmon

Sockeye Perhaps the best-known salmon runs in the world happen every summer in Seattle at the tourist- and locals-thronged Ballard Locks. Right now, sockeye salmon are climbing the concrete ladders that separate Puget Sound's saltwater from the fresh water of the ship canal that leads to Lake Washington and the spawning streams beyond. 657 fish made it through yesterday.

The Lake Washington sockeye must be the most urbane tech-savvy salmon anywhere. Departing young fish are jettisoned into the Sound through high-tech smolt slides. Upon their return, years later, some are tagged with sensors to measure water temperature. Others carry receivers that allow researchers to count how many make it out of the ship canal. And still others get receivers to measure the number that make it to spawning grounds. You can even watch a 30-second movie of them passing through the Locks. No doubt by next year, biologists will be giving them salmon-friendly i-pods.

But while researchers are predicting that 400,000 sockeye will swim through Seattle's urban heart this summer, they are increasingly worried about another major die-off, like the one that happened last year when roughly 200,000 salmon mysteriously died between the Locks and the spawning beds. The best available explanation is unseasonably warm water temperatures that resulted from warmer-than-average weather.

The route from the locks to the lake is thick with urban perils. But most problematic for the cold-water loving fish: the way is often shallow, narrow, and warm; and that warmth can weaken immune their systems and even kill the salmon outright. In fact, new research finds that Lake Washington surface-water temps have risen by about 4 degrees in the last 35 years; and most of that increase is attributed to hotter air. It's not surprising then that three of the four biggest salmon die-offs between the locks and the spawning grounds have occurred since 2000.

Sockeye_pairThe sockeye, which may be suffering the effects of global warming, are Seattle's canaries in the coal mine of climate change. (If by canaries you mean fish, and by coal mine you mean waterways. But whatever.)

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June 15, 2005

Capturing Carbon

In the midst of the recent climate pledging lovefest, it's easy to lose sight of the unhappy truth that atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases have already reached levels that effectively guarantee us at least several decades of global warming. While the Kyoto Protocol is worthwhile--to reduce global emissions by 5.2 percent below 1990 levels--it is only a small first step toward putting brakes on climate change. To do that, scientists estimate that worldwide emissions must be reduced by at least 60 to 70 percent.   

Needless to say, achieving those levels of reductions will be a something of a challenge. We'll need to consume less, become more efficient, and develop alternative energy sources. We'll also need to figure out ways to capture greenhouse gas emissions--principally carbon--and prevent it from concentrating in the atmosphere and contributing to warming. The most talked-about way to do this is using carbon "sinks" such as forests and grasslands, which essentially soak up carbon that becomes trapped in the living biological material.

Another possibility--one that is thick with possibility and contradiction--is sequestering carbon manually. The BBC reports on pioneering technology that the United Kingdom is exploring that will capture up to 85 percent of power-plant emissions and then trap them under the North Sea in geologic formations that were once occupied by petroleum or natural gas. Sounds good, right?

But in a rather strange twist, industry is fairly revved up about the technology because, as it turns out, injecting CO-2 into the seabed can make it possible to extract remnant fossil fuels more quickly and cheaply. So storing hydrocarbons makes it easier to burn hydrocarbons, which means we need to store more hydrocarbons, which...

Okay, that's a little unfair. Once the technology is perfected (and cheap enough to be practicable) there's probably more potential for storing carbon than is offset by the ease of extracting more of it. My biggest worry is about the consequences of pumping the seabed full of CO-2. I worry that technological fixes like this quite often become the technological monsters of tomorrow. (If we can just split this atom, we'll have power that's too cheap to meter... Oops.)

The truth is, I don't know of any specific objections to the sequestration technology. (I'd love to find out if there are any.) But something smells fishy to me.

Postscript: Also courtesy of the BBC, an interesting gallery of paired images from around the world that documents the effects of warming.

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June 14, 2005

It's Unanimous

Seattle mayor Nickels' challenge to get US cities to meet Kyoto Protocol standards was unanimously supported at the US Conference of Mayors meeting in Chicago.

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