Tag Archives: climate change

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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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?

10584_2014_1192_Fig1_HTML

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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Why Do We Run Hot and Cold on Climate Change?

Credit: Climate Central

Credit: Climate Central

(First posted on State of the Planet Jan. 12, 2014.)

How cold was it last Tuesday? Cold enough to convince a lot of people global warming isn’t happening. Or at least confirm their belief that it isn’t.

But wait a minute: When the temperature hit 71 degrees in New York City on Dec, 22, that got a lot of people thinking that global warming IS happening.

Studies have shown that today’s temperature—our direct sensory experience—can affect our beliefs about climate. Poll numbers of those who believe in manmade global warming tend to shift upward when it gets hot, and downward when it gets cold.  Climate really is all about long-term trends—lots of data, some of it pretty messy. Neither the individual extremely warm day, nor the extremely cold day, are especially significant.

Nonetheless, people’s views on climate seem easily swayed, or in some cases manipulated, by daily weather. The onslaught of snarky, “I told you so” comments in the media and the blogosphere after last week’s deep freeze—from Rush Limbaugh ranting about a “polar vortex” conspiracy to Donald Trump calling climate change a hoax on the Fox News Channel—seem to confirm this.

In a study out today in Nature Climate Change, researchers from the Earth Institute’s Center for Research on Environmental Decisions drilled into what goes on in people’s minds when they respond to these smaller-scale stimuli. In a series of surveys, they found that people tend to latch onto the most accessible and immediate information—temperature or otherwise—that they are presented with, and this often trumps deeper knowledge.

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Crossing 400ppm: Welcome to the Pliocene

(Post first published on State of the Planet April 22, 2014.)

“Right now, we’re living in a world of a Pliocene atmosphere,” scientist Maureen Raymo of the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory tells the Yale Forum on Climate Change and the Media. “But the whole rest of the climate system — the oceans are trying to catch-up, the ice sheets are waning, and everything is trying to catch up to this Pliocene atmosphere.”

CO2 levels in the atmosphere hit the 400 parts per million mark last spring, and scientists expect we will hit that level for all of the month of April and possibly into July this year. The last time CO2 levels were that high was about 3 million years ago – in the Pliocene.

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Join the Earth Institute for Climate Week NYC 2014

STATUE IN WATER SIMPLIFIED(First posted on State of the Planet Sept. 15, 2014.)

From heads of state to ordinary citizens, thousands of people will gather for more than 100 events during Climate Week NYC. They’ll be talking and debating the rights of nature, corporate leadership, the threat from rising seas, innovations for social good and innumerable other topics. The activities in and around Climate Week — officially Sept. 22-28 — are meant to engage people in tackling the problems posed by worldwide climate change, and to encourage leaders to take concrete steps toward finding solutions.

Two major events will punctuate all the days of panel discussions, screenings, art exhibits and educational activities: a “People’s Climate March” on Sunday, Sept. 21, and the United Nations Summit on Climate on Sept. 23 (more on these below).

The Earth Institute and its centers will be engaged in several events:

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Water Supply, Drought and Climate Change at Mono Lake

This post was first published on Dec. 6, 2013, on the Earth Institute’s State of the Planet blog. It was updated on Oct. 14, 2014 (see below).

Guleed Ali pauses to study his notebook, standing on a steep slope covered in gray volcanic ash and desert brush, high above the present-day shore of Mono Lake in eastern California. He looks across the slope to where, a few hundred yards away, a gash of lighter gray sediment cuts across the hill, then disappears. The exposed sediment is history: A record of deposits left by Mono Lake when it stood far higher than today.

Ali picks a spot, hefts his shovel and begins clawing into the slope, raising puffs of dust, searching for a missing page in that sediment history: something higher upslope, evidence of the stream that would have fed the prehistoric lake: a layer of gravel. He finds only sand – perhaps an ancient beach. He moves across the slope, lifts and plunges his shovel back into the soft hillside.

Mono Lake, Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, Guleed Ali

By studying stream bed sediments, Guleed Ali tries to build a history of how water levels have changed at Mono Lake. Photo: D. Funkhouser

He is digging for dates, looking back tens of thousands of years into the last ice age: When was the lake higher? When did it shrink, and grow again? How does that chronology correspond with the advance and retreat of the massive ice sheets that covered much of North America? And how did the lake’s levels respond to changing climate?

Understanding that past will help scientists like Ali, a PhD student at Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, project what might happen in the future as the world warms up. This is no esoteric question for Los Angeles, whose nearly 4 million people depend in part on Mono Lake’s watershed for drinking water, green lawns, agriculture and industry.

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