Sunday, February 17, 2019

Lost in the Chaos

With all the chaos that passes for headline news these days, including the deadly cold snap which defined the last week of January, there were several news items over just the last month which probably escaped your notice, but to me, are far more consequential in the long run than the current scandal de jour.

President Trump scoffed at the lately departed cold snap and tweeted that we sure could use “a little of that good old-fashioned Global Warming”.

Actually, no, we don’t.

Let’s talk about that “polar vortex” cold snap. What news outlets did not tell you is that while the US dealt with record cold temperatures, vast areas of the planet recorded temperatures up to 18 degrees ABOVE normal, including Northern Alaska, Spitsbergen (at 78 degrees north latitude), Northern China, AND Antarctica. Wildfires are currently rampant in Australia, where temperatures are routinely over 110 degrees right now.

A paper in the journal Science found that the world’s oceans are heating up 40 percent faster than they thought just 5 years ago, based on a new evaluation of data collected over the last few decades. Shallower waters show an acceleration of warming, when comparing trends from before and after the turn of the 20th century.

A study just released by NASA revealed that a huge cavity, 1000 feet thick and one third the area of Manhattan, has developed under the Thwaites Glacier, which itself is about the size of Florida. This glacier is already melting at an accelerated rate, so the existence of this cavity, which held about 14 billion tons of ice, is of great concern.

Newly published reports in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that Antarctica’s ice loss has risen from 40 billion tons per year in the 1980s to 250 billion tons per year now. The rate of loss has tripled just since 2007.

On the other side of the planet, the ice sheet that covers Greenland is losing ice at a rate of 400 billion tons per year, four times more than in 2003. Scientists are beginning to wonder if the melting of the Greenland ice cap is at a “tipping point.”

What is a tipping point?

A tipping point is when any system changes from one stable state to another. A good analogy is a glass half full of water. It is stable even if you push it around on the table. However, if you start to lift up one side of the bottom of the glass, it will eventually get to the point where it tips over completely. It enters a new stable state, on its side with the water probably running of the edge of the table. Maybe the glass rolls of the edge of the table and smashes to pieces on the floor. That’s what we call an irreversible change of state.

What is a climate tipping point? It is a point where the process Earth’s changing climate becomes irreversible. The Earth enters a new state. Tipping points include unstoppable melting of the Greenland Ice Cap, permanent ice-free summers in the Arctic ocean, or collapse of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet to name but a few. Scientists used to think this process would take centuries. Not anymore.

The other take away from these articles is that researchers are no longer talking about taking action to reverse climate change, only slow it. What some of the authors are cautiously saying is that we might have already passed the point of no return.

When will we know for certain that the Earth has arrived at climate tipping point? When we get there.

Published in the Westborough News, February 15, 2019

From Storm Surge to Fire Storm

The other day, I was looking at an aerial photo of an entire neighborhood razed to the ground. My wife looked over my shoulder and asked if the picture was from the fires in California and I told her no, this was Mexico Beach, Florida, where Hurricane Michael came ashore last October.
It seems the disasters are occurring so frequently that it’s hard to tell the aftermath of one from another at first glance.
Part of allure of living on the coastline or in forested areas such as the foothills and mountains outside of major cities is the feeling that you are closer to nature and the wilderness. Being closer to nature can have a price though, especially when nature can exact that price quickly and without mercy.
Just ask the people of Mexico Beach, Florida or Paradise, California.
Hurricanes and forest fires have always been a fact of life on the Gulf of Mexico or the canyons and hills along the California coast. However, it is not your imagination if you think that the frequency and ferocity of these events are increasing. They are.
The number of Category 4 and 5 hurricanes occurring in the North Atlantic has gone from 2 per decade in the 1900s to over 20 per decade in the 2000s. Climate scientists say that the evidence indicates that warming oceans are contributing to stronger hurricanes.
2005’s Hurricane Katrina rapidly grew to a Category 5 once it entered the Gulf of Mexico and this year’s Michael was almost a Cat 5 before it came ashore in the Florida Panhandle.
What will happen to Mexico Beach, Florida is anyone’s guess at this point. It was not a rich community to start with.
Last year’s Cat 4 Hurricane Harvey destroyed a major portion of Port Aransas, Texas and 18 months later, they are still figuring out how to rebuild.  The local government admits it may never be the same. Recovery won’t be easy.
Moving from storm surge to fire storms, the frequency and duration of western US wildfires has increased substantially since in the 1980s. 
Average annual temperatures in southern California have gone up by about 2.4 degrees F over the last 60 years alone. Like the rest of the southwest, the state is getting drier. Winter rains that end the fire season in early autumn are now not coming at all or coming so late that the fire “season” is pretty much year round. Currently, 75% of California is routinely in severe to extreme drought.
Combine this with people moving further into fire-prone regions and horrific disasters are now inevitable. This year’s fires spared no one, neither the very rich in the canyons above LA nor the middle class and retirees in towns like Paradise.
Can they rebuild?
The experience of Fort McMurray, Alberta is telling. 98% of it was destroyed by a wildfire that rapidly swept through the town in 2016, forcing the evacuation of 88,000 residents. As of last spring, only 20% of destroyed homes had been rebuilt.
Recovery won’t be easy.
California estimates that the frequency of extreme wildfires could increase 50% by the end of the century if temperatures continue to increase. The area burned will increase by 77%.
To be more resilient to such disasters means building to standards which would make homes and businesses more sound in the face of fire or flood, which means greater expense. Getting homeowners insurance for reconstruction will probably depend on how resilient new structures will be.
One of the only homes right on the water in Mexico Beach to survive Hurricane Michael was constructed by wealthy people would could afford such sturdy home. Similarly, I speculate that building a home that can survive a wind-driven wildfire will only be affordable by the wealthy.
California firefighters are right now battling to save homes at a cost of almost $700 million so far this year. You can’t even fight a hurricane, let alone one with sustained winds that rival an F-3 tornado.
Given the trends and recent experience, perhaps the better question is whether Mexico Beach or Paradise should be rebuilt at all. 
Maybe it’s time to rethink the allure of living close to nature’s wildlands and waters.

Published in the Westborough News, December, 2018

Fish Stories

The US is in the midst of a mass migration and it’s not hordes of Latinos storming the Texas border. Rather, it’s sea life – fish and shellfish along our eastern and western coasts.

Why? Because the oceans are getting warmer. As their habitats change, free swimming critters can move. The North Atlantic Ocean has warmed about a quarter of a degree C every decade since the early 1980s. The Gulf of Maine has warmed 3 to 5 times faster and is now 5 degree C warmer than in 1985, according to NASA.

We are witnessing this phenomenon right off the coast of New England. Shrimp have all but disappeared from the Gulf of Maine whereas lobsters are now flourishing there. Conversely, lobsters are rapidly disappearing from southern New England. Warmer waters have increased lobster disease and decreased fertility.

Cod are also moving north from the Gulf of Maine and by 2100, they will be making their home off Newfoundland and Labrador.

Warmer water species are also moving north. Striped and black sea bass are now moving in. They also like to munch on lobsters, furthering the latter’s decline.

A similar story is being told on the West Coast. Mackerel, rockfish, and pollock, are disappearing from the Pacific Northwest. By 2100, predictions are that they will live exclusively in the Aleutians or further north in Bristol Bay.

Why do fish migrate as the waters get warmer? According to an article I read in the New York Times, the reason is oxygen. Warmer waters hold less dissolved gases, including oxygen.

Think about it, when you engage in aerobic exercise, you start breathing harder and faster. Why? Because your body needs more oxygen. It’s also why if you go from sea level to Denver, you may feel dizzy. Your body is not getting as much oxygen in the thinner air.

It’s no different if you are a fish. Some fish, especially fast moving predator species like cod which are higher up the food chain, have naturally higher metabolism. The literally go where the oxygen is.

You may then ask why predator species in the tropics, like tarpon and barracuda exist there at all. Basically, they evolved in the tropics so they are used to it. In addition, at this time, the relative temperature increase in the tropics is currently not as great as it is in higher latitudes.

Warmer ocean temperatures off New England have been implicated as the reason cod populations did not recover even after commercial fishing practices were changed, according to a 2015 study published in the journal Science.

Now here is the interesting, or maybe frightening, thing about the NY Times article. It wasn’t about migrating fish populations.

It was about one of the most devastating mass extinction events of the last 500 million years, called the Great Dying. The geologic record shows that 252 million years ago, 96% of all marine species, and 70% of all terrestrial species died out over a span of a few thousand years, a blink of the eye in geologic terms.

Recent research also published in Science concludes that greenhouse-gas driven global warming during that extinction raised temperatures in the atmosphere and ocean by more than 10 degrees C and depleted global marine oxygen levels by almost 80%. Terrestrial life baked and ocean life suffocated.

Jump forward 252 million years to the 21st century. Worldwide ocean temperatures are increasing. We are already seeing a decrease in ocean oxygen levels. Average air temperatures have increased by 1 degree C and because we are doing just about nothing, they will go up by about 4 degrees by 2100.

The authors of the Science article concluded that current trends in ocean oxygen loss suggest we may already be at the beginning of another oceanic extinction event.

The story of the Earth’s history is found in its rocks. With a lot of hard work scientists have been reading that story for centuries. Today, the fish migrating north along our coasts are telling us a new story. We need to start listening.

Published in the Westborough News, January, 2019