Category Archives: Climate

Big Melt in Frontierland: Alaska’s Lessons in Global Warming

Seward, Alaska

Sailing out from Seward.

Note: The following story was reported and written in 2007, for The Hartford Courant. Editors there declined to run it. I like the story anyway, and pretty much everything it says has been repeatedly validated by subsequent scientific research. It’s still going on – even in Connecticut. I’ve added a couple of notes in brackets in the text where updates seemed appropriate. — DF

SEWARD, Alaska — The Glacier Express chugged out of Resurrection Bay, and the blowing rain turned to sleet that lashed across the upper deck. White clouds shrouded the dark gray mountains that drop steeply into the sea.

This had been one of Alaska’s coldest and wettest summers. As they headed toward Kenai Fjords National Park, passengers aboard the sightseeing boat, some wrapped in fleece and rain gear in mid-August, had good reason to wonder what had happened to global warming.

But Alaska, frontierland of huge landscapes and volatile weather, is indeed warming. In the past 50 years, the state’s annual average temperature is up as much as 5.5 degrees. Overall, the Arctic region has warmed almost twice as fast as the rest of the world.

The greenhouse gas problem fueled by our crowded and busy civilization affects this remote region now, directly and in many ways — including fading sea ice, melting glaciers, thawing permafrost and changes in habitats that have been the same for thousands of years.

But this is not Alaska’s problem alone. The effects of warming in Alaska and the rest of the Arctic will reverberate all over the globe.

Even in Connecticut.

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Creating a ‘Safe Space’ for Iconic Ecosystems

While the Brazilian government has dramatically curtailed deforestation, further efforts to slow the damage from logging would make the forest more resilient to another threat: climate change. Photo: David Funkhouser

While the Brazilian government has dramatically curtailed deforestation, further efforts to slow the damage from logging would make the forest more resilient to another threat: climate change. Photo: David Funkhouser

Important global ecosystems like the Amazon rainforest and Great Barrier Reef are in danger of breaking down because of a combination of local pressures and climate change, but better local management could help make these areas more resilient, say the authors of a paper published by Science.

Ecosystems may show only a slight response to changing climate until they hit a tipping point, when even small changes could bring about a collapse. The paper’s authors contend that improving local conditions could forestall the impacts of climate change, perhaps more effectively than global efforts to curb the greenhouse gas emissions driving the warming.

While local governments have made some progress in protecting important ecosystems, the areas are still under increasing threats from development, land-clearing, overfishing and fertilizer pollution. The authors say that local stewardship of the areas “is at risk of failing.”

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Study Finds Genetic Clues to How Plants Adapt to Climate

Arabidopsis thaliana, a flowering plant frequently studied by biologists, has climate-sensitive genes whose expression was found to evolve. Photo: Penn State

Arabidopsis thaliana, a flowering plant frequently studied by biologists, has climate-sensitive genes whose expression was found to evolve. Photo: Penn State

Using supercomputers to analyze hundreds of thousands of genetic markers in a thousand plant samples, scientists say they have found how a common weed uses its genetic code to adapt to changes in its environment such as cold temperatures and drought.

The findings add to our knowledge of how plant life evolves, and could be used to help breed crops that are more adaptable to climate change, the researchers say.

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Ice Loss in West Antarctic is Speeding Up

Glaciers seen during NASA’s Operation IceBridge research flight to West Antarctica on Oct. 29, 2014. Photo: NASA/Michael Studinger

Glaciers seen during NASA’s Operation IceBridge research flight to West Antarctica on Oct. 29, 2014. Photo: NASA/Michael Studinger

Glaciers in one part of West Antarctica are melting at triple the rate of a decade ago and have become the most significant contributor to sea level rise in that region, a new study says.

The study found that the glaciers in the Amundsen Sea Embayment of West Antarctica have shrunk by an average of 83 gigatons a year for two decades—the equivalent of the weight of Mount Everest every two years. And the loss rate is accelerating: The scientists estimate ice loss at 102 gigatons per year for 2003-2011.

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Study: NASA Sites Vulnerable to Climate Change

Launch Complex 39 at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Photo: NASA

Launch Complex 39 at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Photo: NASA

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration has been at the forefront of climate science, launching satellites that take the pulse of Earth’s land, oceans and atmospheric systems, gathering data on climate, weather and natural hazards. But the agency is increasingly vulnerable itself to the effects of a changing climate.

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Climate Change or Public Health: Which Matters More?

(First posted on Aug. 1, 2014, on State of the Planet.)

Political leanings unquestionably influence how many people hear the conversation over climate change. The political polarization of the discussion has made it difficult to reach agreement on changes in environmental policy.

Might more people be persuaded to act if the issue was framed in terms of public health?

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This chart shows the effect of political orientation on selecting health vs. climate as a compelling reason for fossil fuel reduction. Source: N. Petrovic et al., Climatic Change, July 2014

A new study by Earth Institute researchers suggests that talking about the human health impacts of air pollution related to burning fossil fuels might make a more convincing argument for action among conservatives, who are generally more skeptical of the scientific evidence for climate change.

In a series of surveys, the researchers asked people in the United States a series of questions about their beliefs and level of concern about the burning of fossil fuels, as well as air pollution more generally, and their willingness to take action to mitigate the effects. They tried to assess how political orientation – from very liberal to very conservative – affected the outcome.

The researchers found that people who identified themselves as conservative find public health to be a more compelling reason for supporting fossil fuel reduction compared to climate change.

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Clock is Ticking in West Antarctic

The leading edge of the floating ice tongue of the Pine Island Glacier, Antarctica. Photo: M. Wolovick

The leading edge of the floating ice tongue of the Pine Island Glacier, Antarctica. Photo: M. Wolovick

(First posted May 23, 2014 on State of the Planet.)

Reports that a portion of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet has begun to irretrievably collapse, threatening a 4-foot rise in sea levels over the next couple of centuries, surged through the news media last week. But many are asking if even this dramatic news will alter the policy conversation over what to do about climate change.

Glaciers like the ones that were the focus of two new studies move at, well, a glacial pace. Researchers are used to contemplating changes that happen over many thousands of years.

This time, however, we’re talking hundreds of years, perhaps — something that can be understood in comparison to recent history, a timescale of several human generations. In that time, the papers’ authors suggest, melting ice could raise sea levels enough to inundate or at least threaten the shorelines where tens of millions of people live.

“The high-resolution records that we’re getting and the high-resolution models we’re able to make now are sort of moving the questions a little bit closer into human, understandable time frames,” said Kirsty Tinto, a researcher from Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory who has spent a decade studying the Antarctic.

“We’re still not saying things are going to happen this year or next year. But it’s easier to grasp [a couple of hundred years] than the time scales we’re used to looking at.”

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