• WE ONLY KNOW WHAT WE CAN MEASURE

    by Erica Rex Last week, I wrote about how ethics comes into play in our thinking – or not thinking – about climate change. Even more importantly, though, we have to have facts – proven facts – to back up any claims we make about climate.  Dr. Marty Mlynczak, a senior research scientist based at NASA’s Langley, Virginia research centre is all about finding out the facts.  Technology he developed gives us even greater access to data about the atmosphere. When we think of climate change we tend to think only of near-earth phenomenon: changes in average temperature, diminishing polar ice, changes in weather patterns, variations in El Niño effects, and measurements of atmospheric C02.  Most of these data are collected either at the Earth’s surface or else they are viewed from afar, by satellites. After I spoke with Dr.

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  • INCONVENIENT TRUTHS – THE NEW “E” WORD

    No, it’s not “enterprise,” or “equality” or “economics.” The new E word is ETHICS. Al Gore, Nobel Prize winner and former Vice President, has a new book out today: Our Choice: A Plan to Solve the Climate Crisis.  Published by Rodale, Our Choice strides leagues beyond the fact-based message of his 2006 film, “An Inconvenient Truth“. It boldly asserts that saving the world is a moral imperative, one which religious leaders throughout the world should sign on to before it’s too late. In an pre-publication interview in Newsweek magazine, Gore cited a poll of CEOs’ and CFOs’ attitudes towards the impending climate cataclysm. Even now, he said, 80 percent of them indicated they would not spend money to make their factories more efficient and save money in the long run if it hurt their next-quarter bottom line. And where business goes,

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  • THE ROCKY ROAD TO COPENHAGEN

    The next UN Climate Change Conference,  COP15, in Copenhagen, Denmark is only six weeks away.  Around the world, delegates are jostling to establish which countries should be granted the greatest number of carbon offsets, and who is really at fault for the evolutionary pickle we find ourselves in. Tempting though it is to think we can barter our way out of it, climate will continue to plague us.  And unfortunately, in the US we’re still suffering from the diplomatic and greenhouse gas emission sequelae (a term I’m borrowing deliberately from medicine, meaning an after-effect of disease, condition, or injury) of our previous administration. We tend, as human beings, to be very forgetful.  To refresh my own memory, I revisited the Kyoto Protocol, ratified in 1997. Under the 1997 Kyoto pact, companies or governments expected to reduce greenhouse gas emissions can

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  • OBSERVING THE EARTH FROM NEAR AND FAR

    The  Earth Observing System (EOS), launched in 1999, uses a series of polar-orbiting satellites to study clouds, the oceans, atmospheric chemistry, as well as water and ecosystem processes and land masses.  Dr. Steve Running, of the University of Montana wrote about why NASA’s Earth Observing System (EOS) mission was so important at its inception on December 16, 1999.  He wrote:  “Dec 16, 1999, maybe fittingly at the end of this millennium, we will launch the first satellite designed to fulfill this vision. The one line summary of the purpose of EOS is to find out “Is the current human occupancy and activity of planet Earth sustainable?. In the ten years since the first EOS satellite was launched, things have changed a great deal.  In a recent essay, Dr. Running wrote:  “In the decade of EOS observations, fossil fuel emissions have

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  • THINK GLOBAL, ACT LOCAL – II

    by Erica Rex Earlier this week, The Hot Zone spoke with Dr. Rasmus Benestad of the Norwegian Meterological Institute about the need for precise local measurements of climate phenomena.  We need local measurement, he pointed out, in order to tell what the real impact of climate change is on humans – as well as on other species.  How are weather patterns changing, for instance?  What effect does this have on agriculture and fisheries at the local level? I asked Dr. Anastasia Romanou, Associate Research Scientist at NASA GISS, to address these questions.  In her own research and climate modeling, Dr. Romanou does what I’d describe as fitting in with “think global, act local.” She cited, as an example, a study she and her colleagues undertook recently to ascertain the amount of radiative energy that reaches the Earth’s surface. According to

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  • THINK GLOBAL, ACT LOCAL

    by Erica Rex Although mathematical modelling of climate trends and weather patterns tells us a great deal about climate change, it has an inherent flaw:  we tend to substitute the map for the territory.  Climate models are good at showing trends on a large scale, the same way a map of North America tell us about large-scale geographical features.  A map depicts mountain ranges, rivers, deserts, plains and estuaries, but it doesn’t tell us anything about rainfall variability in Toledo, Ohio, nor about the 106 degree temperatures in Tranquility, California.  A mathematical model, likewise, can calculate how severe an El Niño year might be.   It can predict the likelihood of certain catastrophic events occurring within a given time frame, such as the summertime disappearance of the Arctic ice sheet. But climate models do not give an accurate picture of

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  • FISH – IT’S WHAT’S FOR DINNER

    by Erica Rex Like it or not, ocean acidification will reverberate through our economy and food supply, in the form of lost habitat, and drastic changes in kinds and densities of certain species. Plankton, which are the the backbone of the marine food chain, have been severely affected.  As the bellweather species of the ocean ecosystem, the fate of plankton – there are thousands upon thousands of varieties – determines the fate of all sea-dwelling life. I stopped eating sushi a few years ago when I began learning about ocean acidification and the decline of the world’s fisheries. The NOAA Fisheries Office of Science and Technology reports that the United States is the third largest seafood consumer in the world. Americans ate a record of nearly 17 pounds of seafood per person in 2004, while total consumer spending for fish

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  • CONSEQUENCES FOR MARINE ECOSYSTEMS

    by Erica Rex For finfish, direct impacts of ocean acidification may be limited. On the other hand, there are many unknowns: for balance and orientation finfish use calcareous structures in the inner ear (otoliths). How will otolith formation be affected or how will ocean acidification impair, directly or indirectly, the fertilisation success or developmental stages, particularly for indirect developers and broadcast spawners? For instance, salmon yearlings prey mainly on pteropods, which may be among the first organisms to be affected by ocean acidification. Hence, ocean acidification may influence the structure and productivity of primary and secondary benthic and planktonic production, which in turn may affect the productivity of fish communities and higher trophic levels. In addition, the interaction of ocean acidification with thermal tolerance may change the temperature-dependent biogeography for many fish species.* *Source: “The Impacts of Ocean Acidification,” in

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  • THE COMING SEA CHANGE

    by Erica Rex A few facts:* • The ocean has absorbed fully half of the fossil carbon released to the atmosphere since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. • Measurements carried out by scientists from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution and NOAA demonstrated that the upper few hundred meters of the South Atlantic have higher carbon concentrations now than in 1993. • Ken Caldeira, an oceanographer at the Carnegie Institution of Washington has done studies suggesting that within a few centuries, ocean pH will be lower than it’s been any time in the last 300 million years. • Lower oceanic pH is deleteriously affecting marine organisms that have hard parts made of calcium carbonate. • Studies have suggested that a tiny variety of polar snail, the Pteropod (Licacina helicana) will disappear altogether. They’re a key link in the food chain in

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  • OCEAN ACIDIFICATION, CLIMATE’S STEP SISTER

    —by Erica Rex Until recently, ocean acidification was the quiet step-child lurking in the corner of the climate crisis. Earlier this month, the Expert Panel on Ocean Acidification, organized by the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs, the UN Division for Ocean Affairs and the Law of the Sea, and the UN Foundation, met at UN Headquarters, to bring to light some of the affects of ocean acidification on marine life and ecosystems. But now that it’s out of the shadows, scientists see the situation as more dire than they once thought. Ocean acidification – the lowering of the pH of the world’s oceans – has been taking place for decades. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) reports that the oceans have absorbed about 50% of the CO2 released from the burning of fossil fuels. The excess CO2

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  • A CONVERSATION WITH PHILIP RASCH, PhD, CHIEF SCIENTIST FOR CLIMATE AT THE PACIFIC NORTHWEST NATIONAL LABORATORY

    by Erica Rex Dr. Philip Rasch focuses on understanding the connections between clouds, chemistry, and the climate. He co-chairs the Atmospheric Model Working Group of the Community Climate System Model project. Dr. Rasch and his team create mathematical models of what the Earth’s climate might look like in the future by varying their assumptions about conditions such as carbon dioxide concentration and temperature. Each of the scenarios created using these models provides insights into what we can do to ameliorate climate change. Among other things, Dr. Rasch has explored the possibilities of geoengineering with aerosols in the stratosphere. This week, The Hot Zone spoke with Dr. Rasch about his work. THZ: How viable or realistic is it to imagine using aerosols to reduce the effects of climate change? Dr. Rasch: It is a philosophical issue, among other things. We know

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  • GEOENGINEERING THE CLIMATE II:  THE DOWN SIDE

    by Erica Rex Despite its great potential for remedying the climate crisis, once put into practice, geoengineering may turn out the way of many panaceas. A great idea in theory, and an expensive disaster in practice. In the 21 August 2009 issue of the journal Science, scientists Gabriele C. Hegerl of the Grant Institute in Edinburgh, Scotland, and Susan Solomon of the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration in Boulder, Colorado, point out some of the downsides. They write: “ [By] focusing on limiting warming, the debate creates a false sense of certainty and downplays the impacts of geoengineering solutions. Discussions of “dangerous” levels of interference with the climate system often use warming as a proxy for the seriousness of greenhouse gas–induced climate change. However, climate change impacts are driven not only by temperature changes, but also by change in other

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  • ALBEDO YACHTS AND ALGAE BLOOMS: CURES FOR THE EARTH’S MAN-MADE FEVER?

    by Erica Rex Question: since we’re the ones responsible for breaking the climate, shouldn’t we be the ones to fix it? This is exactly the question posed by climate scientists at the The Royal Society, a hallowed UK institution whose past members include such luminaries as Sir Isaac Newton and Charles Darwin. Last week, the society issued a study called “Geoengineering the Climate: science, governance and uncertainty.” The study points out that it is likely the Earth will warm two degrees this century, unless global greenhouse gas emissions are reduced to 50% of 1990 levels by 2050. A carbon-reducing diet of this magnitude would put us around the 175 parts per million (ppm) range. Today’s levels are around 388 ppm. The absolute peak – the concentration at which global warming will become irreversible, even if we stop emitting greenhouse gases

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  • THE HOT ZONE

    Welcome to The Hot Zone, a climate change and global warming blog sponsored by the Goddard Institute for Space Studies and Astrobiology Magazine. Last year, James Hansen, director of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration Goddard Institute for Space Studies and Adjunct Professor of Earth and Environmental Sciences at Columbia University’s Earth Institute, wrote these words: “Our home planet is dangerously near a tipping point at which human-made greenhouse gases reach a level where major climate changes can proceed mostly under their own momentum.” What does this mean? If the climate is a car we’re driving on a mountain road, we’ve arrived at its highest pass. We’re beginning our descent. But we’ve neglected the brakes. The highway department never installed any guard rails alongside the sheer granite cliffs. And on top of this, we forgot to check the power steering

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