"I'm convinced that this planet is warming and that this is part of the result of that," says Colorado wildfire victim Hani Ahmad while looking at the ruins of his house. "The West is a tinderbox ... I'm terrified for everybody in the West."
Our national parks have been called "America's best idea," and Americans are proud of the special places we have protected for the inspiration and enjoyment of current and future generations. But protected areas from Florida to Alaska face new challenges on a warming planet, and melting sea ice means that a newly vulnerable area -- the Arctic -- is increasingly threatened by offshore oil drilling and industrial fishing. Protecting the Arctic is emerging as one of the great environmental challenges of our age -- so what lessons can we learn from earlier generations who came together and won protection for the parks, sanctuaries, and wildlife refuges that we enjoy today?
As we were making final preparations for our Save the Arctic tour in Alaska, some of the crew from the Greenpeace ship Esperanza had a chance to visit Kenai Fjords National Park, a wild and protected area in southern Alaska where the coastline is punctuated by extraordinary glaciers that empty into a sea dominated by humpback whales, seabirds, orcas, and seals.
The effects of climate change are impossible to ignore here, as these enormous glaciers melt and retreat back to the coast. Researchers here in 1909 observed and photographed Northwestern Glacier extending 10 miles into the sea. A century later, we find this glacier has retreated back so far that today it barely reaches the sea. Alaska has warmed twice as quickly as the rest of the United States, and this melting has accelerated in recent years.
While the impacts of climate change are particularly dramatic here in Alaska, there's trouble for national parks and other protected areas across the United States. In many Western parks like Rocky Mountain National Park, pine forests are being decimated by the mountain pine beetle that thrives in warmer winters. In Florida, coral reefs in Biscayne Bay and the Dry Tortugas are being destroyed by warming and acidifying oceans, while sea level rise threatens low-lying areas like the Everglades. Glacier National Park may not have any glaciers left at all by 2030. The list goes on -- for more, see the National Parks Conservation Association's report, "Unnatural Disaster: Global Warming and Our National Parks."
In the last few years, we’ve seen an increase in extreme weather events and environmental disasters -- costing us money, and far more importantly, human lives.
Some have been natural (or indirectly caused by humans due to climate change), and others, like BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, have been directly caused by us.
With scientists warning that the frequency of wildfires, floods, drought, and other catastrophes will only increase as the planet warms, engineers are now focusing on how to use robots and other mechanical gadgets to aid in disaster response. Some of these bots vacuum up oil, some sort rubble and rescue earthquake survivors, and some help battle wildfires. Here’s a look at three of the coolest robotic defenders, both in use and on the horizon.
Obviously the priority is containing the fires and protecting people. But inevitably the question is going to come up: Did climate change "cause" the fires? Regular readers know that this question drives me a little nuts. Pardon the long post, but I want to try to tackle this causation question once and for all.
We humans are warming our climate -- mostly by burning up fossil fuels. And we’re seeing a range of serious impacts in our own backyards and across the globe, including the increased frequency and magnitude of some types of extreme weather.
This morning, a federal appeals court in Washington, D.C., upheld the Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) first-of-its-kind greenhouse gas regulations, dismissing out of hand a variety of challenges from industry and states. The findings uphold the agency's rules defining limits to the emission of greenhouse gas pollution under the Clean Air Act. Specifically, the court ruled: Yes, the agency acted properly in determining that CO2 is a danger to public health; yes, it was right to use that determination to regulate vehicles; and yes, it was within its authority to determine the timing (Timing Rule) and scope (Tailoring Rule) of the regulations.
Here's how the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit decided. (At the bottom of this post, you can read the decision itself, via FuelFix.)
1. The Court determined that the EPA absolutely has authority to regulate greenhouse gases as a pollutant.
The genesis of this litigation came in 2007, when the Supreme Court held in Massachusetts v. EPA that greenhouse gases “unambiguous[ly]” may be regulated as an “air pollutant” under the Clean Air Act (“CAA”). Squarely rejecting the contention -- then advanced by EPA -- that “greenhouse gases cannot be ‘air pollutants’ within the meaning of the Act,” the Court held that the CAA’s definition of “air pollutant” "embraces all airborne compounds of whatever stripe.”
In other words, when the Bush administration EPA was sued by the state of Massachusetts in 2007 for not regulating greenhouse gases, the Supreme Court determined that it unquestionably had the authority to do so. A pollutant is a pollutant, after all, regardless of impact.
The seas will rise! That is one of the easiest climate-change impacts to convey to the lay public and one of the most controversial. Part of why it's so hotly contested is that it's easy to visualize sea-levels rising. It's easy to imagine, to portray in striking visual images. Its power as metaphor, as symbolism, gives it a cultural charge.
But there's also a more prosaic reason there's been so much fighting about sea levels. It goes like this: In its most recent report, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) made projections of sea-level rise based solely on the thermal expansion of the oceans. (As water warms, it expands.) That got them up to around a meter (3.3 feet) by 2300, which is not nothing, but not apocalypse either.
What the IPCC didn't integrate is the effect of land-based ice sheets in, e.g., Greenland and West Antarctica, melting and collapsing into the ocean. At the time, the science around temperature and ice sheets was too tentative and speculative.
Here's the thing, though: they really are melting, whether or not they're plugged into the spreadsheet. All the dangerous scenarios around sea levels are based on those melting ice sheets. It's a potentially far larger effect that thermal expansion. When Al Gore shows a slide of the seas swamping Manhattan, that's what he's talking about. The "official" sea-level numbers, from the IPCC, don't support those kind of high-end sea-level scenarios, so Gore and many others have long come in for all sorts of sh*t from Very Serious People for exaggerating. For years, some people have tried to raise alarm about sea levels, others have accused them of "alarmism," and the public has tuned out.
As it happens, ice sheet research has come a long way since 2005 (the effective cutoff for the 2007 IPCC report) and so more comprehensive projections are possible. A new paper in Nature Climate Change will, I hope, help drag this debate into the scientific present. Lead author Michiel Schaeffer and his colleagues developed a model that combines paleoclimate data -- how temperatures and sea levels correlated in past centuries -- with more recent satellite data to project sea-level rise for various climate scenarios.
Some days, there's just too much news about the weather to warrant 45,000 individual posts. So, primarily out of laziness, we've compiled this handy overview of all of the (mostly but not entirely awful) weather-related things happening across the country. Did we forget/omit some? Probably! Tell us about them in the comments.
There has been at least one death related to Debby: A young mother was killed when a tornado spawned by the storm upended her house. A man in Alabama was swept out to into the Gulf and has not been found. Oy.
The Senate is expected to vote on a bill this week that would refine federal flood insurance rules to include global-warming-related flooding projections. From a report at E&E News:
The legislation instructs the 44-year-old program with 5.6 million policyholders to incorporate science's best estimates about future flooding changes into the map-making process that identifies floodplains across the country. …
The legislation instructs the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which runs the program, to plan for potential "future inundation" by using the latest research on climate change when updating the flood maps that weave through most counties in the country. It pinpoints possible threats from sea-level rise, increased precipitation and intensifying hurricanes.
On the other hand, any admission that sea level increase is occurring in any capacity is an attempt to subjugate the United States to the United Nations-USSR-Weimar Republic's plan to create one world government in which Thanksgiving is comprised solely of soy products and sale items at Whole Foods. Which sounds awesome, but some people are against it for some reason.