Tag Archives: Climate Change

Water, water everywhere, but not a drop to drink

I moved to San Francisco six months ago and my umbrella hasn’t left its dusty sleeve yet. Scientists and politicians, everyone agrees. California is in deep trouble. We enter the fourth year of drought and the soil has never been drier. Some look at the sky with hope that El Niño will bring much needed rain. But most are starting to wonder if  this is just the beginning. Are we entering a mega-drought that could last for more than a decade?

Map of California Drought

California Drought Monitor

Agriculture, one of California’s strongest pillars has taken the biggest hit. The Drought will cost at least $2.2 billion in agricultural losses this year. Fields of dead almond trees and dried-out crops are a common sight in central California these days. Central Valley towns are also growing desperate. Many have been forced to install porta-potties in their backyards or even steal water from fire hydrants.

Dead Almond Trees

Dead Almond Trees near Ripon, CA

But even if everyone knows about how dangerous a drought can be, and despite the tremendous efforts for saving water, most Californians are still not aware of the magnitude of the problem.

Many believe that the drought can’t be that bad if water still comes out of everyone’s tap, right?

San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park enjoys a vast sprinkler system necessary to keep it alive. But the park’s green grass is nothing more than a mirage.

Golden Gate Park, San Francisco

Sprinkler system in Golden Gate Park

We are borrowing most of this water; either from neighboring states or depleting ground water reservoirs. This will come back to get us. Mark Cowin, director of the California Department of Water Resources, told the Time that our current ground water withdrawal levels are so dangerous that “We are essentially borrowing on tomorrow’s future. We’ll pay that price over time”.

A recent study headed by climate scientist Noah Diffenbaugh of Stanford University linked the drought with human-made global warming and climate change. The paper concludes that “extreme atmospheric high pressure in this region-which is strongly linked to unusually low precipitation in California-is much more likely to occur today than prior to the emission of greenhouse gases that began during the Industrial Revolution in the 1800s”.

Diffenbaugh and his colleagues used computer simulations and statistical analysis to show that “a persistent region of high atmospheric pressure over the Pacific Ocean–one that diverted storms away from California–was much more likely to form in the presence of modern greenhouse gas concentrations”.

Mega-droughts are what Cornell University scientist Toby Ault calls the “great white sharks of climate: powerful, dangerous and hard to detect before it’s too late. Ault call mega-droughts “a threat to civilization”.

University of Arizona climate scientist Gregg Garfin said that “If California suffered something like a multi-decade drought, the best-case scenario would be some combination of conservation, technological improvements (such as desalinization plants), multi-state cooperation on the drought, economic-based water transfers from agriculture to urban areas and other things like that to get humans through the drought”.

Ault said that “For the Southwestern U.S., I’m not optimistic about avoiding real mega-droughts. As we add greenhouse gases into the atmosphere -and we haven’t put the brakes on stopping this – we are weighting the dice for mega-drought conditions”.

Ault said that mega-droughts could possibly be the worst threat to a civilization, even worse than anything experienced by any humans who have lived in that part of the world for the last few thousand years.

If we continue on this path, California might be headed for a drought-induced collapse.

California Central Valley

California Central Valley

What can the state of California do to prepare?

First, we must reduce our carbon emissions and try to reverse climate change. And while water conservation is important, it won’t be enough. We must invest in new technologies like water desalinization plants. It’s the only way to prepare for what’s likely to come.

The county’s largest water desalination plant is being built in San Diego. It’s expected to provide clean water to its residents by 2016. Some argue that the plant’s $1 billion price tag is to high, and that its technology is not advanced enough to be cost efficient.

But there are many companies out there perfecting water desalination technologies, and one that stands out is WaterFX.

WaterFX states in their website that “Unlike conventional desalination, which uses a high-pressure reverse osmosis  that forces salt and other solids through a membrane, WaterFX cleans water with a special Concentrated Solar Still. Solar thermal energy is used to evaporate and distill water at 30 times the efficiency of natural evaporation”.

 WaterFX’s test facility is successfully producing up to 14,000 gallons of fresh water a day. Plans are now under way to expand the demonstration project, which will push up its capacity to 65,000 gallons a day over the same 6,500 sq ft area.

Mandell insists that the technology promises to become more price-competitive as production increases. “If 70% of your cost is fuel production for traditional desalination and you want to scale up, the cost goes up significantly, unlike solar desalination,” he says.

With no rain, depleted reservoirs and dried up ground water wells, the only place left for California to look for water is the ocean.

 

Sources:

http://www.nsf.gov/news/news_summ.jsp?cntn_id=132709&WT.mc_id=USNSF_52&WT.mc_ev=click

http://online.wsj.com/articles/drought-will-cost-california-2-2-billion-in-losses-costs-this-year-1405452120

http://www.weather.com/news/drought/california-wells-dry-drought-20140922

http://www.usatoday.com/story/weather/2014/09/02/california-megadrought/14446195/

http://carlsbaddesal.com/

http://www.mercurynews.com/science/ci_25859513/nations-largest-ocean-desalination-plant-goes-up-near

http://www.sfgate.com/science/article/California-drought-Solar-desalination-plant-5326024.php

http://waterfx.co/

Al Gore: “Our Democracy has been hacked”.

algoreAl Gore gave an inspiring talk last night at Harvard University titled “Healthy Planet, Healthy People” in honor of the late Dr. Paul R. Epstein, the brilliant scientist who shared the Nobel Peace prize with him in 2007.

Gore started the night by acknowledging Dr. Epstein’s work in connecting the dots between climate change and its impact on global human health.

Warming temperatures will allow disease carrying mosquitoes to spread out of the tropics, bringing malaria, dengue fever, and other currently tropical diseases to higher latitudes. “Global warming will also prolong mosquitoes reproductive and life cycles, and enable deadly viruses to survive in places that were too hostile for them before” Gore explained.

Gore also mentioned the connection between the uprising of diseases like cholera and global warming. “Communities have learned to deal with cholera by investing in infrastructure and building better sewer systems. The last thing they would have done is turn their streets into an open sewer. But that is exactly what we are doing to our atmosphere. We are using it as an open dumping ground, dumping over 35 billion metric tones of carbon per year”.

Gore quoted James Hansen, head of the NASA Goddard Institute to illustrate the severity of the situation “the amount of extra heat being trapped in our atmosphere is like exploding 400,000 Hiroshima atomic bombs per day 365 days per year, that is insane”.

He continued by explaining how the weather patterns are also being severely disrupted by global warming. “We will have more floods, stronger hurricanes, and more intense droughts in the upcoming years. Communities all around the world are experiencing one in a hundred, one in a thousand events every two or three years. Extreme weather will become the new normal.”

The audience broke into laughter when Gore mentioned that “When Inconvenient truth came out I repeatedly heard from my detractors that I was exaggerating when I talked about water flooding the World Trade Center memorial site. After Sandy, I don’t get that anymore”.

Gore explained how democracy and capitalism, the two pillars supporting the weight of our society have been degraded over time and turned into a corrupted and intertwined mess.

“Our democracy has been hacked, our operating system has been turned into something very different our founders intended. What our founders gave us was amazing, and I’ve watched it degrade over time.” Gore said.

Gore also said that “our elected representatives today are not worried about their constituents, they spend their time begging for money, it’s a race of who can put more ads on TV. This deeply affects the way they think and make decisions.”

Even if corruption is evident, Gore remains optimistic in our democratic system. “I am hopeful because of the internet. Not today, not tomorrow but soon the internet will replace TV and people will have an open space for debate and conversation, internet is the public square for democracy”.

Gore also explained that our economic system needs to be redefined. One of the main problems our current system faces is our definition of growth. “The definition we are using for growth is literally insane” Gore said.

Gore argued that GDP, the main tool for measuring a country’s economy is terribly flawed.

Simon Kuznets, the economist who first developed GDP in 1934 warned that it should not be used to measure a country’s wealth. But of course, nobody listened.

Since GDP was implemented in 1937, almost 95% of the US income goes to the top 1% of the country.

Gore, like Kuznets and many others believe that GDP fails to take into account major aspects of a country’s economy, such as externalities, depreciation of resources, positive externalities or distribution of income.

Costs related to pollution or environmental degradation are not accounted for (externalities), and contributions to science, mental health or arts (positive externalities) are also ignored in this economic model.

“Our GDP tells us, hey we are doing great, the US is just fine, but in reality we are not. Only the top 1% is doing well. We must be more accurate, or this economic model will drive us over the edge of the cliff.” Gore said.

But despite all this, Al Gore remains hopeful. “I am optimistic because President Obama in his acceptance speech addressed Global warming in an urgent manner, more than any other president before him. Obama now has no choice but to address global warming and act. And I know he welcomes this challenge”.

Al Gore is hopeful that renewable energies will pick up soon as the cost reduction and increased implementation will make them more accessible. He also recommends putting a price on carbon and regulating CO2 emissions from power plants.

Gore ended his talk praising young people’s passion and desire for change. “Young people that don’t succumb to the temptation of being cynical, and are passionate about what they do is what gives me hope for the future”.

Lessons from Sandy: extreme weather will be the new normal

In a recent forum held at the Harvard School of Public Health four expert panelists discussed the most important lessons learned from Hurricane Sandy.

Daniel Schrag, climate scientist and Director of the Harvard Center for the Environment said that “Hurricane Sandy has been connected by the public to climate change in a way that other storms have not.”

This storm has brought the conversation of our vulnerability and need for adaptation to climate change back to the table.

Schrag explained that even if Sandy was thought to be an unusual event, storms like this one will become more frequent due to global warming and climate change. “Sandy got stronger as it moved from the Carolinas up to New Jersey, when it should have been the opposite”. Normally storms weaken when they move north. Water at that time of year is usually pretty cold and storms should disperse when coming into contact with the chilly waters. But the water temperature off the coast of New Jersey on October 29th was 4C warmer than normal. This pool of warm water gave the storm and extra kick bringing it from 75 mph to 90mph.

Hurricane Sandy's Path

Hurricane Sandy’s Path

The panel also explained that super storms like Sandy might hit the Northeastern US more frequently that before due to increased melting of the Greenland ice caps.

The hurricane took a left turn at the Jersey shore, which is quite rare. Less than 10% of storms move from east to west, normally they would head north and move eastwardly out to the sea. The hypothesis is that the retreat of Arctic sea ice and melting of Greenland are in fact steering storms towards the Northeastern coast of the US.

“If this proves to be the case, if  we really are starting to steer storms towards the East coast, that’s a much bigger deal than any kind of intensification. We have a lot of storms per year, so this could be really bad.”  Schrag said.

Jerold Hayden, professor of Urban Planning at Harvard University agreed with Schrag that after natural disasters “we rebuild, but we don’t necessarily rebuild better”. We need to start spending money today if we want to prepare for the next storms and sea level rise of the future, and we need to tell people not to develop where they where developing before.

The panel agreed that “immediate post Sandy is an incredible opportunity in terms of thinking of what kind of investments to make in order to make our systems more robust.”  Many of these measures can be simple and localized. Rising power supplies to higher floors, or adding pumps in place so that we can pump out water from flooded areas in a day or two after a storm are local ways to achieve more resilience.

Schrag warned to those relying too much on technology and predictions that “however good our models are in predicting storms, I promise there will be surprises. No matter how well prepare, there are going to be brakes”.

Sandy is just the beginning of a new climate era. Extreme weather is going to be the new normal, and we must adapt to this new reality if we don’t want to end up with water up our necks.

Sea Level Rise will be worse than anticipated

Sea level rise is one of the most feared consequences of global warming.

Polar ice caps and mountain glaciers are melting at such an alarming rate, that scientists don’t seem to agree how many meters the sea level will rise and how fast it will happen.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change worst case scenario predictions were of less than 1 m of sea level rise by the end of the century, but apparently they were way too optimistic. Recent studies suggest that the IPCC global sea level rise predictions were seriously underestimated.

The two major ice sheets that will most likely cause sea level rise (when melted) are Greenland and the West Antarctic Ice Sheet. But the amount of ice that will melt and the time it will take it’s still unknown.

Greenland is the world’s largest island, with an area of over 2 million square kilometers. Most of the island is covered by an ice cap that can reach thicknesses of 3 kilometers

Data from a NASA satellite shows that the melting rate has dramatically accelerated since 2000.

If the ice cap were to completely disappear, global sea levels would rise by 6.5m.

Estimated monthly changes in the mass of Greenland’s ice sheet suggest it is melting at a rate of about 239 cubic kilometres per year. Most scientists agree that the melting won’t be gradual, there will be a tipping point when the melting will abruptly accelerate. When will this happen is still unknown.

greenland_melting

National Snow and Ice Data Centre

 

We have known about Greenland’s dangerous warming for a while, but we recently learned that Antarctica is no longer immune to global warming.

A very recent study (Mann, et. al) published in Nature magazine, shows the increased and abrupt warming of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet. Mann explains that “a larger part of West Antarctica is melting than previously thought”.

In stark contrast, a large part of the continent — the East Antarctic Ice Sheet — was found to be getting colder. The cooling was linked to another anthropogenic (human-caused) effect: ozone depletion.

The West Antarctic Ice Sheet (WAIS) is 1,800 meters above sea level and holds approximately 2.2 million cubic kilometers of ice, about the same amount of ice contained in the Greenland Ice Sheet.

 

NASA

NASA

Jerry Mitrovica, co-author of a new and groundbreaking study (published in Science) explains that “The West Antarctic is fringed by ice shelves, which act to stabilize the ice sheet — these shelves are sensitive to global warming, and if they break up, the ice sheet will have a lot less impediment to collapse”.

Whether or when this ice sheet might collapse and melt is still very uncertain, but even a partial melt would have a bigger impact on some coastal areas than others.

Sea level rise will not happen uniformly around the globe. When physical and gravitational factors are applied to projections of sea level rise, the impact on coastal areas is dramatically worse in some parts of the world than predicted so far.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) estimates that a full collapse of the WAIS would raise sea levels by 5 meters globally.
Mitrovica explains that this is an oversimplification, and that sea level rise will be higher than expected, and greater in some places than in others (such as North America).

This study shows three important factors that the IPCC overlooked:

  • Gravity: Huge ice sheets exert a gravitational pull on the nearby ocean, drawing water toward it. If an ice sheet melted, that pull would be gone, and water would move away. In the case of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet, the water would move away from the south towards northern latitudes.

  • Rebound: The WAIS is called a marine-based ice sheet because the weight of all that ice has depressed the bedrock underneath to the point that most of it sits below sea level. If all, or even some, of that ice melts, the bedrock will rebound, pushing some of the water on top of it out into the ocean, further contributing to sea level rise.

  • Earth’s rotation: A collapse of the WAIS would also shift the South Pole location of the earth’s rotation axis from its present location. This would shift water from the southern Atlantic and Pacific oceans northward toward North America and the southern Indian Ocean.

Mitrovica explains that “The net effect of all of these processes is that if the West Antarctic Ice Sheet collapses, the rise in sea levels around many coastal regions will be as much as 25 % more than expected, for a total of between 6 and 7 meters if the whole ice sheet melts,”. That’s a lot of additional water, particularly around such highly populated areas as Washington, D.C., New York City, and the California coastline.

“We aren’t suggesting that a collapse of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet is imminent,” said study co-author Peter Clark of Oregon State University. “But these findings do suggest that if you are planning for sea level rise, you had better plan a little higher.”

 

Click here for a great interview with the researchers of this amazing study.

If you want to see different scenarios of sea level rise in your area go to Google Flood Maps, select 5-7 m and zoom in your home town to see if in the next 100 years your home will be under water!

 

 

Global Warming: Faster than Predicted

Our current CO2 emissions are already above the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change  (IPCC) projections. (IPCC report)

We are headed towards a future which is even more dangerous than the report’s most pessimistic scenarios.

This figure shows the past and current global warming,  showing clear evidence of the man caused temperature increase.

Different surface warming scenarios are also shown, red representing the worst case scenario:

IPCC

IPCC

The following figure from a recent study shows that we are currently above the worst case scenario projections (A1FI-red line).

A1FI (high) projections were of +2.7% increase of Co2 emissions per year, but the actual growth is at +3.5% per year (from 2000-2007).

coemissions

Raupach et al., PNAS, 2007

This means that our temperature will increase more than 5 °C   by the end of the century. How many degrees and how fast our temperatures will rise is still uncertain, but we will see the impacts of global warming in our lifetime, that’s almost guaranteed.

Following is a summary of some of the consequences of climate change:

impactsclimatechange

Stern review on the economics of climate change, 2006