Monday, May 27, 2013

Global Warming

Global Warming Did It! Well, Maybe Not.
(By Joel Achenbach, Washington Post, August 2008)

We're heading into the heart of hurricane season, and any day now, a storm will barrel toward the United States, inspiring all the TV weather reporters to find a beach where they can lash themselves to a palm tree. We can be certain of two things: First, we'll be told that the wind is blowing very hard and the surf is up. Second, some expert will tell us that this storm might be a harbinger of global warming.

Somewhere along the line, global warming became the explanation for everything. Right-thinking people are not supposed to discuss any meteorological or geophysical event -- a hurricane, a wildfire, a heat wave, a drought, a flood, a blizzard, a tornado, a lightning strike, an unfamiliar breeze, a strange tingling on the neck -- without immediately invoking the climate crisis. It causes earthquakes, plagues and backyard gardening disappointments. Weird fungus on your tomato plants? Classic sign of global warming.  You are permitted to note, as a parenthetical, that no single weather calamity can be ascribed with absolute certainty (roll your eyes here to signal the exasperating fussiness of scientists) to what humans are doing to the atmosphere. But your tone will make it clear that this is just legalese, like the fine-print warnings on the flip side of a Lipitor ad.

Some people are impatient with even a token amount of equivocation. A science writer for Newsweek recently flat-out declared that this year's floods in the Midwest were the result of climate change, and in the process, she derided the wishy-washy climatologists who couldn't quite bring themselves to reach that conclusion (they "trip over themselves to absolve global warming").  Well, gosh, I dunno. Equivocation isn't a sign of cognitive weakness. Uncertainty is intrinsic to the scientific process, and sometimes you have to have the courage to stand up and say, "Maybe."  Seems to me that it's inherently impossible to prove a causal connection between climate and weather -- they're just two different things. Moreover, the evidence for man-made climate change is solid enough that it doesn't need to be bolstered by iffy claims. Rigorous science is the best weapon for persuading the public that this is a real problem that requires bold action. "Weather alarmism" gives ammunition to global-warming deniers. They're happy to fight on that turf, since they can say that a year with relatively few hurricanes (or a cold snap when you don't expect it) proves that global warming is a myth.  There's an ancillary issue here: Global warming threatens to suck all the oxygen out of any discussion of the environment. We wind up giving too little attention to habitat destruction, overfishing, invasive species tagging along with global trade and so on. You don't need a climate model to detect that big oil spill in the Mississippi. That "dead zone" in the Gulf of Mexico -- an oxygen-starved region the size of Massachusetts -- isn't caused by global warming, but by all that fertilizer spread on Midwest cornfields.

Some folks may actually get the notion that the planet will be safe if we all just start driving Priuses. But even if we cured ourselves of our addiction to fossil fuels and stabilized the planet's climate, we'd still have an environmental crisis on our hands. Our fundamental problem is that -- now it's my chance to sound hysterical -- humans are a species out of control. We've been hellbent on wrecking our environment pretty much since the day we figured out how to make fire.  This caused that: It would be nice if climate and weather were that simple.  But "one can only speak rationally about odds," Kerry Emanuel, a climatologist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who has studied hurricanes and climate change, told me last week. "Global warming increases the probabilities of floods and strong hurricanes, and that is all that you can say."  Emanuel's research shows that in the past 25 years, there's been an uptick in the number of strong storms, though not necessarily in the number of hurricanes overall. Climate models show that a 1-degree Celsius rise in sea-surface temperatures should intensify top winds by about 5 percent, which corresponds to a 15 percent increase in destructive power. The tropical Atlantic sea surface has warmed by 0.6 degrees Celsius in the past half-century.  At my request, Emanuel ran a computer program to see how much extra energy Hurricane Katrina had because of increases in sea-surface temperature. His conclusion: Katrina's winds were about 2 percent stronger in the Gulf, and not significantly stronger at landfall. Maybe climate change was a factor in generating such a storm, or in the amount of moisture it carried, but the catastrophe that Katrina caused in New Orleans can more plausibly be attributed to civil engineers who built inadequate levees, city planning that let neighborhoods materialize below sea level and Bush administration officials who didn't do such a heckuva job.

Let's go back to those Iowa floods. Humans surely contributed to the calamity: Farmland in the Midwest has been plumbed with drainage pipes; streams have been straightened; most of the state's wetlands have been engineered out of existence; land set aside for conservation is being put back into corn production to meet the demands of the ethanol boom. This is a landscape that's practically begging to have 500-year floods every decade.  Was climate change a factor in the floods? Maybe. A recent report from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said that heavier downpours are more likely in a warming world. Thomas Karl, a NOAA scientist, says that there has been a measurable increase in water vapor over parts of the United States and more precipitation in the Midwest.  But tree-ring data indicate that the state has gone through a cycle of increasing and decreasing rainfall for hundreds of years. The downpours this year weren't that unusual, according to Harry J. Hillaker Jr., the Iowa state meteorologist. "The intensity has not really been excessive on a short-term scale," he said. "We're not seeing three-inch-an-hour rainfall amounts."  This will be a wet year (as was last year), but Iowa may not set a rainfall record. The wettest year on record was 1993. The second wettest: 1881. The third wettest: 1902.

Iowa is an awkward place to talk about global warming, because the state has actually been a bit cooler in the summer than it was in the first half of the 20th century. Hillaker says the widespread shift to annual plants (corn and soybeans) and away from perennial grasses has altered the climate. The 10 hottest summers in Iowa have been, in order, 1936, 1934, 1901, 1988, 1983, 1931, 1921, 1955, 1933 and 1913. Talk about extreme weather: One day in 1936, Iowa set a state record with a high temperature of 117 degrees. And no one blamed it on global warming.  Rest assured, we may find ways to ruin the planet even before the worst effects of global warming kick in. The thing that gets you in the end is rarely the thing you're paying attention to.  The basic problem is that there are so many of us now. Four centuries ago, there were about 500 million people on Earth. Today there are that many, plus 6 billion. We're rapidly heading toward 9 billion. Conservatives say that we just need to focus on maintaining free markets and let everything sort itself out through the miracle of the invisible hand. But the political tide is turning against unfettered free markets and toward greater regulation. Climate-change policy is part of that: Somehow we've got to embed environmental effects into the cost of energy sources, consumer goods and so on. The market approach by itself has let us down.  Viewed broadly, it appears that humans are environment-destroying creatures by nature. The notion of the prelapsarian era in which we lived in perfect harmony with nature has been effectively shattered by such scientists as Jared Diamond, the author of "Collapse," and Tim Flannery, who wrote "The Future Eaters." If everything gets simplified and reduced to a global-warming narrative, we'll be unable to see the trees for the forest.   Last week, we saw reports of more wildfires in California. Sure as night follows day, people will lay some of the blame on climate change. But there's also the minor matter of people building homes in wildfire-susceptible forests, overgrown with vegetation due to decades of fire suppression. That's like pitching a tent on the railroad tracks.  The message that needs to be communicated to these people is: "Your problem is not global warming. Your problem is that you're nuts."  You should definitely worry about global warming. But you don't need to worry about global warming when your house is on fire.

Global Warming

(By Elizabeth Weise, USA TODAY)

 To the untrained eye, Bonanza Creek forest in Fairbanks, Alaska is breathtaking, a vibrant place alive with butterflies and birds, with evidence of moose and bear at every turn.  But look through forest ecologyist Glenn Juday's eyes, and you see a dying landscape.  Since the 1970s, climate change has doubled the growing season in some places and raised state temperatures 6 degrees in the winter and 3.5 on average annually since 1950, says Juday, a professor at the University of Alaska. Drought is killing spruce, aspen and birch trees.  Alaska has emerged as the poster state for global warming, the climate effect attributed to higher concentrations of "greenhouse" gases- mostly carbon dioxide created by burning fossil fuels- that capture the sun's heat in the atmosphere.  Global warming is a hot topic, especially now. Hurricane season begins soon, and climate researchers warn that rising ocean temperatures may bring more intense storms.  Ex- vice president Al Gore is back in the news with his acclaimed documentary on warming, An Inconvenient Truth.  President Bush, who has been criticized by environmental groups that say he has been slow to acknowledge the dangers posed by warming, said last week that "people in our country are rightly concerned about greenhouse gases and the environment."

     Alaska is important in measuring the effect of global warming on the USA because what happens here soon will be felt in the Lower 48 states, say experts such as Robert Corell, a senior fellow at the American Meteorological Society.  The spruce budworm, aspen leaf miner and the spruce bark beetle, pests once kept in check by winter cold, are flourishing here. Statewide, insect outbreaks have killed more than 4 million acres of forest in a decade and a half, says John Morton, a biologist at the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge in Soldotna.  Fires, long an integral part of the forest ecology here, are burning millions of acres as summers get longer and hotter, says Scott Rupp, a University of Alaska professor of forestry.  With each wave of fires, trees have a harder time coming back in the increasingly warm and dry landscape.  This great northern forest may end up a grassland. "Soon, people will be coming to the great plains of Alaska," Juday says.  Alaska is ahead of the climate-change curve because polar regions warm the fastest. They had long been kept frigid by vast regions of snow and ice that reflect 70% of the sun's energy back out to space.  But higher temperatures are shrinking that snow and ice cover. In the Arctic, summer sea ice has shrunk 15% to 20% in the past 30 years, according to 2005's Arctic Climate Impact Assessment report.

     As the snow and ice recede, the sun's rays are hitting more dark ground and water, which absorb most of the heat, reflecting just 20% of the energy away, says Matthew Sturm, a research scientist with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' Cold Regions Research Laboratory in Fairbanks.  Lakes and ponds are disappearing as the permafrost, permanently frozen ground that underlies much of Alaska north of Fairbanks, melts.  "It's like pulling the plug in a bathtub," says Peter Schweitzer, an anthropologist who works with the Arctic peoples in Alaska and Russia.  In some areas, as much as 40% of surface water has disappeared, taking with it vital habitat for ducks and other waterfowl, says Juday.  The permafrost that underlies much of the central and north of the state is a relic of the last Ice Age. Some of the frozen ground under Fairbanks is 100,000 years old, says Vladimir Romanovsky, a permafrost expert at Fairbanks. And it's now starting to get "slushy."  For Ruth Macchione, that meant a more expensive design to her new home after the cabin her husband built in the 1950s sank into the ground. The permafrost under the cabin thawed because the structure wasn't built to keep the ground cold- a key trick in building in cold regions.  Her new home incorporates piers to allow cold air to circulate underneath it.  "Local engineers are getting worried about higher ground temperatures, so they're specifying more pilings to combat that," says Billy Connor, director of the Alaska University Transportation Center. That will mean higher construction costs across the state, Sturm says.

     More heat means longer summers. The growing season in Fairbanks has gone from 80 to 120 days since records were first kept in the 1900s, says John Walsh, director of the Arctic System Research at the University of Alaska-Fairbanks.  But those summer days haven't come with any more rain, so plants and trees adapted to short, cool summers grow quickly but then dry out while it's still warm. That's one reason forest fires have become such a problem, he says.  In the Midwest and East, a few extra degrees can bring on higher milk prices. That's because cows don't like it hot. When the mercury gets over 80°F, milk production drops.  "Last year, we had herds that were down 5 to 15 pounds of milk per cow, and they'll usually be making 65 to 75 pounds" a day, says Larry Chase, a professor of animal science at Cornell.  In the Midwest, the corn belt is shrinking, says S. Elwynn Taylor, a professor of agricultural meteorology at Iowa State University in Ames. Especially at the western edges in Nebraska and the Dakotas, areas that were marginal for corn and soybeans are now unable to economically grow them.  David Lobell, an environmental scientist at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in Calif., says that for every 2°F increase in growing-season temperature, farmers can expect a 17% decline in yield for corn and soybeans.

     Taylor isn't convinced that the warming isn't simply part of a larger climate pattern that has been seen in the Midwest since about 1850. He is not alone. Other scientists see warming as part of a cyclical climate change, but they are outnumbered by colleagues who say the planet is warming steadily because human activity is adding to the greenhouse gases.  A landmark 2001 report by the United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change forecast that the average global surface temperature will increase 2.5 to 10°F above 1990 levels by 2100.  In White Mountain, a village of 200 on the western coast of Alaska near Nome, stocking up the larder is harder now for Rita Buck, a native Alaska Inupiaq.  Buck's year used to be a steady flow of work. First came salmon fishing, then harvesting berries. Salmonberries, a type of raspberry, would arrive first, then blueberries, blackberries and finally cranberries. Berries make up an important part of the subsistence diet.  But now, she says, the berries are blooming too early, when frost is still a danger. "It freezes all the berry blossoms and stops them growing," she says.  Cherry growers in Michigan, the nation's primary grower of tart cherries for pies, are having much the same problem. Spring now arrives seven to 10 days earlier there than in the 1970s, but cold snaps still come when they always have.  The commonly grown cherry variety isn't cold-hardy, so once it comes out of dormancy, it has no resistance to freezing, says Jeffrey Andresen, an agricultural meteorologist with Michigan State University.  "In 2002, early warming brought the tart cherry crop out of dormancy, and then a two-day freeze in April resulted in an almost complete loss for the year," he says.  Growers may have to plant new, more cold-hardy varieties, which won't be cheap, Andresen says. "You can't just pick up the trees and move them somewhere else."

     In Alaska, the sea ice that armors the coastline against winter storms is forming a week later than it used to, says David Atkinson, a Fairbanks professor of atmospheric science.  The state accounting office estimates that more than 100 coastal villages potentially face danger as winter storms erode their once-protected shorelines. The open water makes for stronger storms. Some areas have lost 30 feet of beach in a single storm, Atkinson says.  Warmer winters also are creating problems for California farmers of high-value crops such as peaches, plums, nectarines, almonds, pistachios and walnuts, which need a period of cold in the winter to bloom properly.  A series of warm winters has played havoc with fruit production, says Theodore DeJong, a professor of plant science. Farmers may have to switch out their current trees with low-chill varieties, expensive but at least a solution.  But for the trees that grow plums for prunes, that's simply not an option. It would take 10 to 20 years to develop low-chill varieties of these trees, DeJong says.  Packers already are moving some production to Chile. There could soon come a day when California, grower of 95% to 98% of all plums in the USA, is out of the business entirely.

     The huge fires that have hit Alaska in the past few summers filled the air with so much smoke and ash that people in Fairbanks at times wore dust masks and doctors told asthmatic patients to leave town until the fires were out.  U.S. asthma and allergy rates are increasing in part because more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is supercharging the production of pollen that can trigger them. When carbon dioxide is doubled, ragweed stems grow 10% more but pollen increases by 60%.  "Pollen counts of 120 used to be cause for alert. We're seeing counts like 6,000 now," Epstein says.  Warmer winters also mean insects can survive and thrive in places where the cold used to keep them in check. Lyme disease is spreading beyond the former winter confines of the tick that carries it. And West Nile virus is spreading farther because spring drought amplifies the bird-biting mosquito cycle, Epstein says.  Ten years of change in the Arctic region is a preview of 25 years of change in the rest of the world, says Corell.  "This country is at its best when it has a grand challenge, whether it's World War II or going to the moon," says U. of New Hampshire professor Cameron Wake. "This is the next grand challenge."

Captivity Could Help Polar Bears Survive Global Warming Assault
(By Juliet Eilperin, Washington Post, March 25, 2012)

Polar bears are ideally suited to life in the Arctic: Their hair is without pigment, blending in with the snow; their heavy, strongly curved claws allow them to clamber over blocks of ice and snow and grip their prey securely; and their rough pads keep them from slipping.  The one thing they cannot survive is the disintegration of the ice. They range across the sea ice far from shore to hunt fatty seals, whose blubber sustains them.  Heat-trapping greenhouse gas emissions caused by burning fossil fuel are making the Arctic warm twice as fast as lower latitudes, and Arctic summer sea ice could disappear by 2030, according to climate models.  So a group of activists, zoo officials, lawmakers and scientists have a radical proposal: Increase the number of polar bears in U.S. zoos to help maintain the species’ genetic diversity if the wild population plummets.  In a worst-case scenario, a remnant group of bears would survive in captivity.

That should be good news for the St. Louis Zoo, which designed a $20 million polar bear exhibit with a cooled saltwater pool and concrete cliffs covered in simulated ice and snow for three to five bears. Its goal was to have them there by 2017. But it doesn’t have a bear lined up, because it’s illegal to import them, captive cubs are rare and finding orphaned bears in Alaska is difficult.  The Fish and Wildlife Service could allow the importation of polar bears for public display through future legislative or regulatory changes but has shown no inclination to pursue those options.  Evolved from brown bears tens of thousands of years ago, polar bears have become an iconic species for their majestic size and ability to thrive in the harsh Arctic. Today the image of a mammoth bear clinging to a piece of ice embodies an environment under siege.

Polar bears would prefer to hunt for seals year-round, but the disappearance of sea ice has forced them onto land or far offshore where the ice remains only over deep unproductive water. “Either way, they’re food deprived,” said Steven C. Amstrup, chief scientist for the advocacy group Polar Bears International and an emeritus researcher with the U.S. Geological Survey.  Advocates of the plan to bring more into captivity, including St. Louis Zoo president and chief executive Jeffrey Bonner, say that saving a species whose habitat is disappearing is an immense challenge.  “Polar bears are simply the first species where we have to get it right,” Bonner said. When it comes to research on how to sustain an exotic species through breeding techniques, “that research is only research that can be done in zoos,” he added.

Based on current projections, federal scientists say two-thirds of the world’s polar bears could be extinct by mid-century, though a significant cut in greenhouse gas emissions could help halt that decline. There are roughly 20,000 to 25,000 polar bears worldwide, 3,500 of which live in Alaska and spend part of the year in Canada and Russia.  There are 19 sub-populations of polar bears living in Canada, the United States, Russia, Denmark and Norway, and since scientists fear ice melt could cause some of these to disappear from their historic ranges, the idea would be to preserve enough genetic diversity in captivity to allow them to be repopulated through artificial insemination of wild bears or other methods. Supporters of the plan say researchers are just beginning to experiment with assisted reproduction techniques for polar bears.

Zoological institutions have helped save imperiled species before such as the California condor and the Mexican wolf, which were bred in captivity and reintroduced into the wild.  The American bison’s numbers dropped from the tens of millions to fewer than 1,000 after the 1880s, kept in small private herds in places like the Bronx Zoo. While there are roughly half a million bison now roaming the Great Plains, the International Union for Conservation of Nature estimates at most 7,000 are genetically pure. The Bronx Zoo shipped 15 head to Wichita in 1907, and the herd has grown to 650; this month 71 bison calves were released on the American Prairie Reserve, reintroduced from a herd a member of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai tribes was forced to sell the Canadian government in 1907 when the Flathead Reservation was opened to homesteaders.  “If you don’t build these insurance populations when you have the animals, then it’s too late,” said the Toledo Zoo’s mammals curator Randi Meyerson, chairman of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums’ polar bear species survival program. “We’re planning for something we hope we don’t need.”

The number of captive polar bears in the United States has declined since 1995, when there were about 200. Today 64 bears reside in accredited institutions such as the Maryland Zoo in Baltimore, which houses three. A total of 13 different polar bears lived at different times at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo between 1959 and 1980, but it no longer has one in captivity and has no plans to acquire one because creating the proper habitat would be, in the words of spokeswoman Pamela Baker-Masson, “cost-prohibitive.”  While polar bears have lived for decades in zoos, Ronald Sandler, an associate professor of philosophy at Northeastern University and director of the university’s Ethics Institute, called them “one of the worst candidates for captivity” because they are large carnivores that can roam for thousands of miles in the wild.  “It’s really hard to replicate the conditions in which they live,” he said. “It doesn’t mean they’re miserable. But there’s no sense in which they’d be able to live out the life they’d have in the wild.”

Shrinking ice has put some polar bears into closer contact with humans, especially in Canada, and, in some cases, communities encounter orphaned cubs. Manitoba’s Assiniboine Park Zoo has created an International Polar Bear Conservation Centre, aimed at helping transition cubs into captivity in some instances. The question remains whether these cubs should be available for import into the United States for public display, because as a federally listed threatened species, polar bears are classified as “depleted” under the Marine Mammal Protection Act and can be brought in only for bona fide scientific research or if it enhances the species’ recovery.  The proposal, which would require an interpretation from the Fish and Wildlife Service that polar bear imports comply with federal law, has sparked a fierce debate among scientists, ethicists, policymakers and conservationists.  “If the world cares about polar bears, reducing carbon concentrations in the atmosphere is the only way to preserve polar bears’ habitat,” said Lily Peacock, a research biologist in the U.S. Geological Survey’s polar bear program.

Even the proponents of the zoo plan identify reducing carbon emissions as the top priority for conserving polar bears. Robert Buchanan, president of the advocacy group Polar Bears International, said displaying them in zoos could represent the best way to convince the public to make such cuts.  “The only way at this time to save bears is to have people change their habits, and the way to do that is through zoos and aquariums,” he said. “Polar bears are just ambassadors for their friends in the Arctic.”  The Fish and Wildlife Service allows orphaned cubs from Alaska to be shipped to the lower 48 states for display, like it did with the Louisville Zoo last year. It let in a captive-bred polar bear from Australia in 2006 for Anchorage’s Alaska Zoo, but hasn’t let in any other polar bears since the late 1990s.  Four House Democrats led by Rep. William Lacy Clay (Mo.) — all representing zoos hoping to obtain polar bears — urged Interior Secretary Ken Salazar in a Oct. 27 letter to issue permits for “live rescued polar bears” to be put on display. Eighteen U.S. zoos have either recently renovated polar bear exhibits or built new ones, are in the process of construction, or planning to do so in the future.

Robert Gabel, with the Fish and Wildlife Service’s International Affairs program, said the agency has advised zoo officials “it’s going to be difficult for us to authorize.”  “We’d have to show that an import would either stabilize or increase the wild population of polar bears. It’s difficult to show how an import would accomplish that,” he said, adding that while the law has an exemption for scientific research, “We’ve never allowed that breeding in and of itself is research.”  Dale Jamieson, a New York University professor of environmental studies and philosophy, noted that if you’re facing the prospect of taking an animal out of its natural environment for generations, “we might as well simply be storing genetic material in gene banks.” Zoos, he said “have a huge conflict of interest. This is how they make money.”

But Center for Biological Diversity senior counsel Brendan Cummings, who helped lead the legal fight to list polar bears, said federal officials need to realize they may have to pursue this course if the population closest to humans, in Canada’s southern Hudson Bay, begins to crash: “The most visible and unstable polar bear population in the planet will be in crisis mode caused by our action, greenhouse gas emissions, and there will be pressure to do something about it.”  Fish and Wildlife already has identified 187,000 square miles in Alaska as critical habitat for polar bears and is working on a plan to protect the species through such possible actions as limiting bear hunting and human activity along the coast in polar bear denning areas.  The agency’s Alaska spokesman, Larry Bell, said when it comes to captive breeding, “Right now, it’s not something we’re considering.”

Meanwhile, the World Wildlife Fund and Coca-Cola Co. have launched a campaign to preserve what they call the “Last Ice Area,” 500,000 square miles of polar bear habitat in northern Canada and Greenland, which is likely to remain frozen year-round the longest.  As Meyerson observed, all the genomic banking and artificial insemination techniques in the world have their limits. “This is all given that we have ice to return the animals to,” she said.



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