Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Alewives and People

Note: This program first aired on June 6, 2015. 

It’s not often you find your self in the presence of something overtly holy, and by holy I mean elm seedling sprouting out of cracks in stream side rocks. I mean young royal ferns unfurling in the rain. I mean flowing water crowded with the gray and silver bodies of fish, fat with fecundity and virility. If you go way way back the word holy derives from words in Old English meaning “uninjured, sound, healthy, entire, complete….things that must be preserved intact, that should not be transgressed or violated”. And that is what I felt when I went to the outlet of Patten Stream in Surry Maine and saw the pools and eddys fill with alewives as the tide came in.

If you haven’t yet been to the outlet of Patten Stream, it is a good place to see the alewives make their migration inland in the spring. It is also a good place to see community in action. You see, the alewives that have been breeding in Patten Pond hundreds, maybe even thousands of years haven’t had an easy time of it in the last few decades. The rebuild of a large road culvert over Patten stream changed the way the water flowes over a ledge, creating a steep high energy waterfall that makes it virtually impassable for all but a few alewives. Alewives are small sea run herring and while they can swim well, they don’t have the gymnastic jumping ability of some other sea run fish like salmon, so even small ledges can stop them. The Department of Marine Resources noticed a decline in the number of alewives in Patten Stream and Pond and tried to solve it by stocking the pond with hatchery raised baby alewives. A group of citizens took a different approach, understanding that the issue wasn’t population, but barriers to reproduction. And the barrier was the road culvert. So what do you do if you are a small group of concerned citizens that sees a problem that will take a huge amount of money and infrastructure and beurocracy to fix, money that will take years to secure, plans that will take years to develop? You purse all of that, but in the mean time you do what you can with your own two hands. At Patten Stream not only did I see the pools and eddys full of plump alewives, but I also watched as a group of volunteers stood in the stream on a cool rainy day and transfered fish up and over the offending ledge by hand. In a team of 4 to 5 people they would pass a long handled dip net containing 10 to 20 fish fire brigade style, over and over again, as the crowd of fish in the pool below thickened and waited patiently. It was inspiration and heart break in equal measure. The fish way that has been years in the making should be built later this summer, so hopefully next spring those volunteers will be out of a job.

What I learned that day, was that I am not the only one who sees those fish and that stream, as holy. The community members who saw the problem and put their hands to work solving it, the crowd of people like myself who came to watch, the loon swimming in the harbor just off shore, the seals lolling about patiently at the surface just behind her, the osprey and eagles that fly above the harbor and wait in the trees above the stream, the bears and raccoons and other forest animals that feed on the fat fish on their way up stream or the spent ones on the way back down, the cod and haddock that eat the young alewives at sea, we are all connected by something “that must be preserved intact, that should not be transgressed or violated”, something holy. Those fish are a unifying force, you can feel it when you stand there and watch them. It is a force that is feeling more and more unstoppable.

Margaret Mead said “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful committed citizens can change the world; indeed it’s the only thing that ever has.” Sometimes all that group of citizens has to do is give nature a little help, and she’ll do the rest. Those alewives know what do to. And if you’re not sure what to do, go watch them; they’ll tell you.

You can find a transcript of this program, as well as contact information and references on our website, look for the Show Notes link at weru.org, where you can also download the show as a podcast or listen to it on demand. Our music is from Stanley Watson’s Portrait of Don Potter, performed by MDI guitarist Kevin Morse. Thanks for listening, and as always, join us next week for another look at the world around us.


Here’s what the internet told me about the etymology of holy: http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/holy?s=t

From the Ellsworth American: http://www.ellsworthamerican.com/maine-news/waterfront/alewives-return-to-patten-pond-to-get-a-boost

Iceland Biology

Note: This program first aired on May 30, 2015. 
Today we hear more about Iceland, that mysterious high latitude island formed from volcanos, covered in sheep, and home to elves and other hardy folk. It takes a while to sink in while you are driving around, that you aren’t going to see any animals in the road, unless they are domestic sheep. Iceland has only one native terrestrial mammal, the arctic fox, and while the population is considered viable, they aren’t especially common.

So why no other native mammals? Reindeer were introduced on purpose, and mink accidentally, escaping from fur farms. Mice and rats accompany people wherever they migrate, but only the arctic fox, and humans, got to Iceland on their own. Why, for that matter, such low terrestrial biological diversity overall? Iceland has the distinction of having no amphibians or reptiles. Of the 1100 species of insect, the flies are the most numerous, followed by beetles and bees, while there are no ants or butterflies.

In the plant kingdom things are similar, there is relatively low diversity in vascular plants and bryophytes. The only native trees are a birch, a willow and the rowan tree, a species in the same genus as mountain ash. Only 10 species of passerines, perching birds, nest in Iceland. Even if you know very little about birds you could probably name 10 passerines without much trouble. The freshwater systems on the island host only 5 species of fish.

The answer of course is that Iceland is very isolated, and only recently unglaciated. The same ice age that covered much of North America, including Maine, covered Iceland as well. The difference is that once the glaciers retreated from Maine, Maine was connected to an entire continent populated by organisms ready to move in as climate allowed. Iceland found itself in the middle of the high latitude North Atlantic Ocean, and while the ice that connected it to Greenland and northern Europe allowed the hardy little Arctic Fox to tip toe its way across the ocean, nothing else made the icy crossing.

Only things that can travel by air, water, or animal can get to Iceland. Spores and very light seeds can be blown there if they get carried very high into the atmosphere. Other seeds can float and survive the ocean crossing if they are tough enough. The only animals seen on land that are found in relative abundance in Iceland are birds, and mostly sea birds at that. Which should be no surprise, as these animals routinely migrate thousands of miles, and are not stopped by air or water. The very lack of a land bridge for terrestrial migration is the reason they fly to Iceland. Essentially no land mammals means no predators; Iceland is an excellent place to lay some eggs right on the ground and call it a nest.
What Iceland does have in spades is marine biodiversity, hundreds of species of fish are found on its continental shelf, and over 100 species of algae grace its coastline. 15 or more species of marine mammals are found in its waters. What makes Iceland such a hard place to colonize, its location and latitude, make it a perfect spot for marine productivity. It lies right on the boundary between the polar and subpolar ocean currents, warmer water from the Gulf Stream and North Atlantic current especially warm the southern coast, while colder arctic water cools the north east.
The interplay between these two, combined with the large continental shelf extending out away from Iceland, mix the ocean and distribute the nutrients that drive productivity.

Humans have been exploiting this productivity for over 1100 years, Iceland was first settled by Vikings in 870 AD. Humans have been impacting the landscape ever since. The most significant environmental impact during Iceland’s 1100 year history has been soil erosion, primarily due to changes in vegetation that result from grazing. The shrubby forests found on the island retreated, and currently the vast majority of the island is used as open range land for the thousands of sheep that are raised there. The erosion impedes recovery of native vegetation, and the mild climate and short growing season don’t help either.

All of this dawns on you as you drive around the island, seeing birds everywhere, sheep and fences, but nothing else. There are vast stretches of land inhabited only by moss. After several days of just grass and stone I felt an explosion of sweet relief when we drove through some trees. Iceland is surrounded by hundreds of kilometers of water, and just kisses the Arctic circle. Biology has cobbled together an entirely respectable community of organisms to live on this chunk of rock in the middle of nowhere. I encourage you to check it out.


The biological diversity of Iceland https://www.cbd.int/doc/world/is/is-nr-01-en.pdf

Iceland Travelogue

 Note: This program first aired May 23, 2015. 

This week, for you, a travelogue. Just two days ago I returned from a trip that people keep telling me is on their bucket list. My husband and I spent a week in Iceland, traveling around the countryside experiencing fjords, glaciers, lava rocks, birds and sheep. We soaked in thermal pools, saw mountainsides steaming, and smelled the overpoweringly rank sulfurous odor of boiling mud. Iceland holds a powerful spot in our imaginations, an isolated high latitude island, rife with volcanoes, short on humans, it’s a place we imagine magic can happen. I don’t know about magic, but the landscape is as weird and otherworldly as you think it is, with good reason.

Iceland sits right atop the mid Atlantic Ridge, a mountain chain that results from the Earth’s tectonic activity. 200 million years ago when the continents were bunched together in the super continent Pangea, North America and Europe began to move away from each other, a rift that would eventually form the Atlantic Ocean. As the continents part, new material rises from within the earth to fill in the seam between them. That seam is the mid Atlantic Ridge and as the continents continue to move apart, active volcanism along that seam continues to build sea floor and underwater mountains. Iceland however, isn’t an underwater mountain, it is above the surface and has been since about 15 million years ago. At that time the mid Atlantic ridge drifted over an existing hot spot, which is simply an anomalous plume of ultra hot material from the mantle that circulates up to the crust. Before the seam between Europe and North America drifted over it, this hot spot had been erupting and producing the huge volumes of basalt that make up much of Eastern Greenland, and the northern British Isles. This hot spot, in conjunction with the volcanism of the mid Atlantic Ridge has created enough volcanic material to produce an island, an island that is getting wider by centimeters each year as Europe and North America continue to move away from each other.

On the ground in Iceland what you see relating to all this volcanism is igneous basaltic rock, cooled lava, and ash. Driving along the southern coast you cross wide expanses of what is called sandhur, bleak and desolate outwash plains that result from floods that occur when a volcano and a glacier get together. All the material on this plane is volcanic gravel and sand, which is dark gray or black. Looking in one direction the featureless flatness stretches all the way to the uninviting North Atlantic, in the other direction are steep cliffs or glaciers. Other stretches of road run through lava fields, expanses of rock formed from liquid lava pouring over the landscape and cooled in place. These rounded bubbly formations host a thin skin of green moss, and the effect is a lumpy velvet covered wonderland.

The rock in Iceland is mostly volcanic, and much of that is basalt, a rock type that makes up most of the sea floor. When basalt cools from a liquid to a solid in the right circumstances, it will form columns, usually hexagonal but sometimes other shapes as well. Those columns are embedded in bed rock, so they don’t mean much to us until erosion happens and they are exposed. Iceland has lots of exposed basalt columns, columns with waterfalls going over them, columns in beachside cliffs, columns visible virtually anywhere rock is exposed.

All this volcanic activity and thin crust means that there is a lot of heat around, heat from inside the Earth. Iceland also has a lot of water, both in the form of precipitation and held in glaciers. And heat coming out of cracks in the earth, plus ample water equals one of my favorite things, hot springs. The island is criss crossed with pipes carrying hot water for municipal purposes, home heating and domestic use, electricity generation and most importantly for this traveler, geothermal pools.

Lava fields, desolate black sand beaches, columnar basalt, geothermal pools-it’s a landscape very different from my normal one but that is what traveling is for-to take us out of our normal experience and engage us in what is novel. The best travel stimulates reflection and forces you to rectify what you know with what you are seeing. I’ll share more of what I was seeing in Iceland next week.

General reference on Icelandic geology, from the University of Rhode Island http://www.gso.uri.edu/lava/Iceland/Iceland.html

Icelandic Institute of Natural History http://en.ni.is/

Great well kept up blog of current events in Iceland geology: http://www.jonfr.com/volcano/

A student project on the geology of Iceland, nice images and references: http://academic.emporia.edu/aberjame/student/brown3/iceland.htm

Nice overview of Icelandic geologic history, including funky translation: https://www.extremeiceland.is/en/information/about-iceland/history-of-iceland

On columnar jointing in basalt http://volcano.oregonstate.edu/columnar-jointing

Spring Bird Migration

Note: This program first aired on May 16, 2015.
Spring in Maine is such a delight. Every day brings a new sound, a new smell, a new sensation to be experienced. As I write this, yesterday I heard my first Black and White Warbler of the season, and today my first Black Throated Green Warbler. Each one of these little birds migrates to Maine from geographies further south. Black and Whites winter from Florida, through Mexico and Central America to Columbia and Ecuador. The Black Throated Greens winter in Cuba and the island of Hispanola, along the Yucataan peninsula and Honduran highlands,  and in the northern most part of South America. Both of these birds, like so many others, make their way from their warm wintering grounds to mid and high latitude forests, for the express purpose of breeding. The mid and high latitude forests, just awakening from winter’s dormancy, offer a bonanza of resources to these migrants, from an explosion of nutritious insects, to nesting sites and lowered nest predation pressure. So these little birds arrive as ready for spring as you or I.  

The difficulties of migration are many. These birds oxidize their body fat, muscles and internal organs for energy, and breathe so rapidly that they easily dehydrate, something that can become the limiting factor in length of migratory flight. The means by which birds navigate are complex, numerous and not entirely understood. What we know for certain is that human infrastructure confuses some migrating birds; bright lights and tall buildings have killed thousands of them.  Migration is hard and dangerous and birds can suffer high mortality if they are in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Which brings me to my main point. When I am roused from sleep by the sound of a new bird song coming in my window on a spring morning I have to remember not just the excitement of hearing a new bird, but also deep humility in the face of that bird’s accomplishment. That new warbler I hear flew all night to get here. All of these song birds are nocturnal migrants, so not only did they fly all the way from Florida or further, they did so at night, while I was sleeping. During the day they rest and forage, and follow environmental cues as to whether it is warm enough to keep going (the cold gray period of a couple of weeks ago surely slowed down the East coast migration into New England, now that the sun is out and the weather warm, the birds have started showing up again). They fly at night for a number of good physical reasons; they get all day to eat before they have to fly again which can shorten their overall migration time. There is less wind and turbulence at night, so the flying is easier. The air is cooler so the birds lose less water, and because it is cooler, the relative humidity is higher which leads to higher density air. The higher the air density the easier it is to generate lift, a key component of flight. Night flight has many benefits going for it.

The most important reason for birds to migrate at night though, at least in my mind, is because they are trying to avoid predation. And what preys on little birds flying thousands of feet up in the sky you might ask? Other birds. Yes, the dirty secret of the avian world is that big birds eat small birds, and not just occasionally. The Accipiters, a group of hawks that includes Copper’s Hawks, Sharp Shinned hawks and Goshawks, and the Falcons a group that includes Merlins, Kestrels and peregrine falcons, are all birds that prey primarily on other birds. This predation pressure was strong enough, that when combined with the all the other positive attributes of night migration, yielded enough selective pressure to cause songbirds to evolve to migrate in the dark. Perhaps this impresses me because I can’t imagine running the Appalachian Trail twice a year, only at night, trying to avoid a man eating Bigfoot. If we all had to do that every year, it would quickly sort out the wheat from the chaff, if you know what I mean. And that means that the birds you hear at sunrise, the new voices that join the chorus each day, those aren’t just any birds, those are the survivors. So yes, winter was hard for us, I won’t deny it, but with each new warbler that arrives on a spring wind, take a moment to appreciate just how arduous and therefore amazing their journey to this season of plenty is. 


About Migration from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology http://www.birds.cornell.edu/AllAboutBirds/studying/migration/

From the Eastern Kentucky University, a marvelously in depth and referenced website about birds: http://people.eku.edu/ritchisong/avian_biology.htm


Paleobrain and spring bird song

Note: This program first aired May 9, 2015. 
Spring, such a sweet word here on the 44th parallel. All winter long we ache for it, and then suddenly it’s here, and it is a revelation each and every year. And the revelations are for all of the senses. Visually things reappear as the snow pack melts, dog toys, garden tools, the tiny green shoots of the chives and the daffodils. When the air warms and moistens, smells return-rotting leaves, broken balsam branches, open water. Your skin knows it is spring by the warmth of the sun on your face, the softness of the humid air on your body, and the rare and joyful days when you can walk outside without a jacket. For me though, the sense that is most enlivened by the start of spring is the auditory one; as much as I love the warm air and sunlight, the increasingly complicated soundtrack of spring is the sign I love best.

Winter is a season of silence, punctuated by gusty wind, the breaking of snow laden branches and the twittering of the same familiar avian cast at the bird feeder: chickadees, nuthatches, juncos, gold finches, purple finches, redpolls, tit mice, blue jays, and downy and hairy woodpeckers. During the right kind of storm, if you are patient, you can hear the snowflakes hitting the ground. Go for a walk on a bright cold morning and the snow creaks under your boot steps. Sparse is winter’s soundscape.

Spring by contrast is an every growing cacophony. This winter was cold enough that our precipitation was all snow, and the sound of the spring’s first rainstorm on my metal roof was a delightful surprise. More so than weather, the sounds of animals coming back to life are what most of us think of as the sound track to spring. Chickadees may have been singing since January or February, but the woodcock is the first bird I hear that tells me that winter’s back has indeed been broken. Next comes the phoebes, and the wood frogs, then hermit thrushes, then the peepers. I heard a familiar whistle and looked up to see a broad winged hawk pass overhead. Soon sunrise will bring with it the restless tuning of a symphony of little warblers. Our current cold gray weather has slowed the progression of spring migration, but when the sun comes back out and the air starts warming in earnest, each day will bring a new voice to the outdoor audio mix.

As this happens, I would encourage you not to worry about identifying the bird you are hearing, at least, not at first. Just let your brain do what it does best, let it tune into the sounds around you out side. Like an old fashioned radio, you just need to spin the dial to the background bird frequency and your brain will do the rest. Suddenly without realizing you heard anything, an awareness will bubble up into your consciousness that you just heard something you don’t recognize, or do recognize but haven’t heard yet this season. Many a spring morning I have been draw into consciousness, pushed out of that light early morning sleep by that just below the conscious part of my brain, as it got excited by hearing a new bird song, and had to wake me up to share the excitement. We are evolved to do this, to pay close attention to the goings on in the world around us. All of our senses, dulled as they are by modern life, have hundreds of thousands of years of accumulated  evolutionary honing for just this purpose. A couple hundred years of being industrialized doesn’t make that go away.

There’s good genetic evidence for this too, scientists have shown that humans and birds use the same genes to fire up the same parts of their respective brains used in communication. I don’t know if birds’ brains are stimulated when I talk to them as I walk through the woods, but I am sure that my human brain responds to bird song, even when I am not consciously listening to birds, and it is a remarkable experience. So this spring let yourself just hear the birds, let your brain recognize and sort out the different songs, get familiar with the patterns and then you will notice when they change. This is the brain’s true work.


Genetic evidence for birds and humans sharing communication genes: https://today.duke.edu/2014/12/vocalbird

If nothing else, listening to the birds will make you feel better: http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0272494413000650

Frost Heaves

 Note: This program first aired April 25, 2015. 

It seems this year that spring has come with an abruptness that has startled even the most optimistic among us. Day after day of warm sunlight, no fire in the wood stove, and a snowpack that gets smaller with every hour. Each day brings with it a new sign of spring, first the turkey vultures appeared, now the alders are shedding pollen, the skunk cabbage are in bloom, the phoebes have returned, the chipmunks are out, the osprey are back. Every winter we forget it is possible, and every spring is such sweet relief and wonderment.

One sign of spring that I think we could all do with out, save those kids sitting in the back seats of the school bus, is the return of frost heaves to the back roads so many of us drive every day. I happen to live within a mile of the official “Worst Road in Maine 2014”, Rt. 15 in Blue Hill, so I know of what I speak. A year later, the roads aren’t as bad, but still require vigilance and restraint if you hope to come through the season with axels and wheels intact.

Frost heaves are a function of the interplay of water and the road bed, liquid water, frozen water and soil that has just the right amount of capillarity. When winter sets in the ground freezes from the top down, a frost front moves down into the soil, freezing the water in the soil in to a solid mass. In the spring that frozen water starts to melt, especially during the day, only to freeze again at night. We end up with a layer of ice sandwiched between a thawed surface layer and an unfrozen deep layer below the frost line. The interplay between the frozen layer and the unfrozen soil below it results in the bumpy driving this time of year, and the pot holes we contend with the rest of the time.  

People used to think that a frost heave was simply a function of solid water taking up move volume than liquid water, a phenomenon I have experienced more than once when I left a full water bottle in my car over night in sub freezing temperatures. Liquid water expands when it freezes, and as a result, those water bottles don’t work any more. With frost heaves, we have learned that the increase in ice volume isn’t enough to account for the destruction that occurs. The ice volume is part of it, but so is the ready supply of liquid water that happens most commonly in the spring. As more and more snow and ice melts, there is more and more liquid water around to feed the sub surface ice. As long as it stays cold enough for the ice to keep freezing at least some of the time, the liquid water running beneath it feeds those ice crystals, and they grow upward. Most of us have seen these crystals bursting out of bare soil or gravel. The asphalt on the road surface is essentially impermeable though, so the ice crystals can’t thrust up through it, and they cause the road surface to bulge up. And there is our frost heave. If the road heaves up enough, the asphalt cracks, and those cracks become the starting points for pot holes that will form later, after the ice has melted away.

On the road surface the unevenness of the frost heaves are an indicator that the fill used in the road bed is inconsistent, or that ground water is interacting with the road bed in some places but not others. That’s why simply repaving doesn’t solve the problem for more than a few months. To address the underlying issue the entire road has to be dug up and rebuilt, which takes time and money and can cause a huge inconvenience.

To me though, the frost heaves, though annoying, represent an opportunity. They remind me to slow down as the pace of life speeds up as we head into the long days of summer. And they show me that the transition from winter to summer can be rough, not just for me, but for the earth under my feet as well. And just like my life, once summer arrives the roads smooth back out, perhaps a little worse for wear, but no longer bucking me off every journey I attempt.


Climate Change Part 21: Adaptation

Note: This program first aired April 11, 2015.
We’ve done it, we’ve reached the last episode in the Climate Change series. Over the past several months we’ve looked at the mechanics of the climate system, how the various components are changing, the sources of the carbon, the current and possible future impacts, and what to do about it.

For a time it seemed like all the talk was about mitigation, how do we stop climate change? How can we prevent this from happening? And that conversation is still happening the world over. Along with this a second conversation has emerged, one that acknowledges that some degree of change is now virtually certain, and that much of the disrupted weather the world has recently experienced is in fact the leading edge of this climate change trend. This conversation is not about giving up and giving in, or throwing up our hands and joyriding in the SUV because we’re already screwed, its about getting real about the fact that things in the climate system are in motion and changes are already happening, even if we stop emitting fossil carbon tomorrow.  The question then isn’t, how can we stop it, because there is a certain amount of change already embodied in the climate system that we can’t, the question is how do we prepare for what will happen along side our efforts to prevent additional change? Preventing further change is called mitigation and preparing for the inevitable embodied changes is called adaptation.

Adaptation can be a hard sell in the climate change movement, because it implies a bit of defeat and acceptance, and because there is nothing sexy about counting culverts and storm drains. Assessing and improving infrastructure is a big part of the adaptation movement. We already know that changes to precipitation patterns (either not enough or too much all at once) are among the first wave of climate related impacts we are experiencing. Droughts get all the attention, because they are devastating in their own right, and because much of our food supply stands to be disrupted by water shortages. But look at what happened to Boston this winter, snow literally disabled a major US city. Look at what happened to lower Manhattan during the storm surge from Hurricane Sandy. And of course, New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. Between extreme precipitation events and sea level rise exacerbated storm surge, the threat that flooding disables critical infrastructure is painfully real. Here in rural Maine, there are lots of roads, and sometimes only one road to a place. If that road gets washed out, all the people on the other side are cut off from services they may need. Infrastructure doesn’t just mean keeping track of the New York City subway system, it also means the roads that supply our food and fuel systems and are the conduits for emergency services. Over the past couple of years here in Maine we have become well aquainted with extended periods with out electricity; now picture that week without power being totally cut off from town by an impassible washed out road. No way to get fuel for your generator, no way to get help if you need it. Suddenly making sure the culverts are clear and of sufficient size doesn’t seem like a crazy idea after all.

Adaptation planning draws heavily from the disaster preparedness community, and if we have learned anything from the natural disasters of the past decade, it is that we are never really prepared. This has to happen at the community level; which roads are the most likely to flood? What areas will be inundated by a storm surge? Where do the elderly people live who will need transportation to a cooling center during a heat wave? What location do we have in town to set up said cooling center? How do we get the word out about where to go? These conversations require all of us, and if anything good comes out of climate change, it is this.

In closing, I leave you with a quote from Russell Libby, the late director of the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association, and accomplished poet. This is from his poem A Pledge. It sums up the adaptation sentiment perfectly, and as the world around us changes and perhaps grows unrecognizable, keep it in your heart to help you stay focused when things get overwhelming. It goes like this, “if the world we know is to crumble, the world we rebuild can only start where we are”. Isn’t that perfect? It is only in our own communities where our real work starts. So start it now.

Thanks for bearing with this for 21 long weeks. It’s an important topic, perhaps the most important topic of our time, and I hope it was as helpful to you to hear it as it was for me to write it. 


Still haven’t heard enough? Check out UMaine Climate Change Institute Director Paul Mayewski’s take on why Mainers should care about a warming Arctic: http://climatechange.umaine.edu/news/article/2015/04/06/5_reasons_maine_should_care_about_warming_arctic_waters__p_mayewski

Climate Adaptation Knowledge Exchange: http://www.cakex.org/

Climate Change Part 20: Mitigation

--> Note: This program first aired March 28, 2015.

We’re reaching the end of our story about climate change, and the question that remains is: What do we do about it? Last week we looked at various proposals for geoengineering, methods of mimicking and manipulating natural processes in order to accelerate the removal of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Next we review the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s 2014 report on climate change mitigation efforts. The IPCC defines mitigation as anything that reduces the sources or enhances the sinks for green house gasses. Geoengineering is all about enhancing the sinks, so today we focus on reducing the sources.

To read an IPCC report is to realize there is not just one model or one set of predictions out there. You have to sift through 8 or more different alphanumeric codes, each one representing a different climate mitigation scenario, from good to bad to the worst; business as usual. Policy makers and scientists have recently coalesced around one scenario in particular as the one we should be aiming for as we move into the future. Unless there is some kind of zombie apocalypse, the best case scenario is to reach a stabilized carbon dioxide level of 450 ppm by the year 2100. The thought is that this carbon dioxide level would keep the world at a 2 degree Celsius or less average temperature increase, an increase that would change things, but hopefully not catastrophically. You may have heard the figure 350 ppm floating around out there, it’s also the name of a significant climate action coalition who’s goal is to promote fossil fuel divestment and get the Earth back to an atmospheric carbon dioxide level of 350 ppm—the last level thought to be “safe” for sustaining life as we knew it on the planet. We’ve blown past 350, hitting a historic 400 this past year. At this rate, 450 sounds pretty optimistic to me.

So how does the IPCC propose we do this? By reducing carbon dioxide, and other green house gas emissions. When quantified, it means, by the year 2050, green house gas emissions 40-70% lower than emissions from 2010. That sounds like a big drop doesn’t it? Where are we going to cut all these green house gas emissions? If you look at the 2010 spectrum of green house gas emissions, you will see different economic categories of sources: the energy supply sector, agriculture/forestry, industry, transportation, and buildings. The largest source of these is easily the energy supply sector, basically where heat and electricity are generated, electricity that then goes to various places, including industry, buildings and a little bit of transportation to get used. Fossil fuels are used to generate this energy. Energy is what fuels the modern economy, it was easy access to energy that allowed the industrial revolution, and it is continued easy access to energy that enables our extremely comfortable standard of living in the industrialized 21rst century. Economic and population growth are the “most important” drivers of increases of carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuels. When we look to the energy supply sector to decrease its emissions, we need to remember that economic growth is what raises people out of crushing poverty, and with populations increasing, more people than ever need that lift. This is why developing nations balk at strict emissions agreements. They don’t see a viable path to economic development without an energy supply driven by fossil fuels, and thus by turning away from a fossil fuel economy, they doom their citizens to continued poverty. What is clear at this point is that “peak oil” or “peak any fossil fuel” is not going to be the limiting factor in the fossil fuel economy in any time frame relevant to the current climate situation, so decarbonizing the economy in a way that can still allow for economic development, especially in the developing world, will have to be done consciously, by choice. The IPCC estimates that we need 3 to 4 times the amount of zero or low carbon energy (from sources including renewables, nuclear power and fossil or biofuels that utilize carbon capture and sequestration technology), and to do that significant investment is needed, particularly in the next two decades.

In other words, there is no time to waste. The IPCC report says it best, and I quote it here: “Delaying mitigation efforts beyond those in place today through 2030 is estimated to substantially increase the difficulty of the transition to low longer-term emissions levels and narrow the range of options consistent with maintaining temperature change below 2 °C relative to pre-industrial levels.”  Clearly now is the time. Right now.

Even with this imperative, it was heartening to read the Summary for Policy Makers version of this report, in that the work is clear, what needs to be done is clear, and it some how miraculously, while an enormous task, doesn’t seem impossible. When you see the weird volatility in oil prices, and the industry’s response to low oil prices, investment in renewables makes a lot more sense. The divestment movement seems a little less out in left field when viewed from standing on a $40 barrel of crude oil. What this report does is help triage our mitigation efforts, after reading it I can see that we need to focus our big efforts on the energy sector. In terms of global mitigation that needs to be our focus in the next twenty years if we are to have any hope of holding off the changes that could diminish the quality of life for all of us living on this planet. Reduce, reuse, recycle, yes, but also and perhaps more importantly, support zero carbon power initiatives too.


IPCC “Climate Change 2014L Mitigation of Climate Change http://mitigation2014.org/

Science Daily digest of the slowing of the Gulf Stream (includes link to original study): http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2015/03/150323132746.htm

About the “Pause” in global warming from the Pacific oscillation http://www.decodedscience.com/global-warming-ocean-heat-sink/49728

The Skeptical Scientist take on the Pacific oscillation: http://www.skepticalscience.com/print.php?n=2647

A really different take on climate mitigation, and our individual responsibility for it: https://orionmagazine.org/article/forget-shorter-showers/

Climate Change Part 19: Geoengineering

Note: This program first aired on March 21, 2015.
The last thing to think about as we wind down our climate change series is the big question: What do we do now? We’re in quite a pickle, but the good news is we have lots of options, the bad news is not all of them are easy, or likely to occur.

We are a technology obsessed society, and there is a faction out there who, while fully accepting climate change as a reality, believes that we should be able to engineer our way out it, an option known as geoengineering. And most climate scientists concur that at least some attempt at geoengineering needs to be part of immediate climate change mitigation.  Broadly defined, geoengineering specifically pursues mechanisms to mitigate climate change and as climate change is a planetary phenomenon, the scale of most of these geoengineering projects must also be planetary.

Most geoengineering proposals follow one of two paths, to either remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere using enhanced biological or abiotic processes, or to increase the reflectivity of the Earth or its atmosphere, thereby decreasing the amount of energy entering the climate system. There are many variations on the first theme, removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. They start with strategies as simple as reforestation. Strategically replanting deforested areas can result in large amounts of carbon being taken out of the atmosphere and fixed away in the biomass (aka wood) of the trees as they grow. For this to be considered truly long term carbon sequestration however, the trees that grow can’t be then burned or even allowed to rot. Healthy forests do tend to be net carbon sinks, or places where carbon accumulates, but at the same time, they will slowly release carbon dioxide as organic matter breaks down. “Normally” this is a good thing, carbon dioxide is a critical nutrient for photosynthetic plants, so the carbon in/carbon out cycling in forests supports that. At this point though there is enough excess carbon in the atmosphere that we need strong measures, we need carbon to come out of the atmosphere and stay out. That has lead to various schemes in which natural processes are enhanced. For example, land plants are often limited by a lack of available nitrogen. One carbon sequestration  plan is to fertilize trees with nitrogen—if they aren’t limited by nitrogen, they can grow even faster! Another scheme that has gotten some press in the last few years is that of ocean fertilization. The idea with this is that in many parts of the ocean, iron is the limiting nutrient for phytoplankton, the base of the oceanic food web. If low productivity areas of the ocean are seeded with iron, primary productivity would increase, drawing large amounts of carbon out of the atmosphere. And unlike the forest systems, when the plankton die (if they die without being eaten by zooplankton or fish), they sink to the bottom of the ocean, taking that carbon with them. The bottom of the ocean then becomes a pretty good carbon sink (and this is in fact the mechanism by which some fossil fuels are created, which got us into this mess in the first place). Dumping a bunch of iron sulfate into the ocean violates a couple of different UN conventions, but that didn’t stop some folks from trying it in the Pacific northwest a few years ago. The research on whether or not a significant amount of carbon was sequestered has been mixed, but what is clear is that the experiment resulted in an increase is salmon runs two to three years later. Increased primary productivity means a burst of extra energy into the ecosystem; these results show that least some of the carbon didn’t in fact sink to the bottom of the Pacific, but instead was metabolized in the oceanic food web.

Other carbon sequestration plans are more industrial, and involve installing mechanical “scrubbers” on the smoke stacks of power plants, pulling the carbon dioxide out of the exhaust and piping it away to be sequestered under ground into rock formations. Lastly related to this is the plan to create what are essentially artificial plants, machines that can pull carbon dioxide directly from the atmosphere, and put it into the same system of underground sequestration as used for power plants.

The other and far more controversial strategy is to inject sulfates into the upper atmosphere in an attempt to increase the reflectivity of the atmosphere. If more light is reflected, less comes to Earth, and it is light that gets absorbed by the atmosphere and Earth surface that turns into the heat that gets trapped by green house gasses. Less light equals less heat in this scenario. This is exactly what happens with certain types of large volcanic eruptions, which have resulted in things like the infamous year “1800 and froze to death” other wise known as 1816 when world wide temperatures dropped as a result of the explosion of Mount Tambora in Indonesia. Cloud generating technology goes for a similar effect. Increasing reflectivity doesn’t do anything to mitigate the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere or more significantly the oceans however.

Google geoengineering and you will find a plethora of information, advocates and critics. A recent National Academy of Sciences report went so far as to strongly endorse carbon capture efforts, and while at the same time raise significant concerns about reflectivity schemes. I think what is clear is that carbon capture programs may at this point in the game need to play a part in climate change mitigation, but we should not, and can not rely on them entirely. Other mitigation efforts are needed as well, we’ll talk about those next week.


 New York Times article about a recent National Academy of Sciences report on geoengineering: http://www.nytimes.com/2015/02/11/science/panel-urges-more-research-on-geoengineering-as-a-tool-against-climate-change.html

Where do we put all this captured carbon? http://www.epa.gov/climatechange/ccs/

Wikipedia, actually a good overview of the different carbon sequestration ideas: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Carbon_sequestration

DIY Geoengineering:

Here’s a guy in Peru trying to keep alpine glaciers from melting by increasing the albedo of the Andes: http://www.popsci.com/science/article/2010-06/peruvian-inventor-whitewashes-andes-hoping-slow-glacier-melt