Monday, February 26, 2018

Preventing the worst consequences of Climate Change ahead means action now

Climate action cannot be just any action. It must be on a scale and time frame that will make a difference. Effective action depends not only on sound science, but sometimes also requires pre-emptive action on issues not yet completely understood, such as permafrost melting. Our infrastructures must be maintained and updated according to projected Climate Change findings. If actions are thought to be too expensive, that cost must be measure against inaction. Finances should be made to fit the crisis, not the other way around, as many free-market fundamentalists would like. You can have life on this planet without our present economic system, but you cannot have our present economic system without life on this planet. We need to get our priorities straight.

The following transcript by climate scientist Professor Richard Alley explains in plain words the costs of inaction on Climate Change:

“Alley: Climate change in the short term is expensive but not hugely so, and as the climate change gets bigger, as we look farther into the future, the price goes up. The damages go up. Very crudely, each degree of warming costs more than the previous degree. The first degree was almost in the noise of what we're used to. It's not very expensive, but we've used that one. And the second degree will cost a little more. It's moving outside of your experience that's starting to stress things and we've committed to that one very broadly. The third degree costs more than the second and by the fourth and the fifth now sea level rise is going to get huge. We have real problems with crops, which may be bumping up against biochemical limits and the ability to feed ourselves gets a little worrisome. By the time you start running to the third, the fourth, the fifth degree the costs of damages and dangers go way up. What we're arguing now about the third degree because we've basically warmed up almost all of the first one and we really have committed to the second one.” (Professor Richard Alley, UQx DENIAL101x From the experts: Impacts on society)

Tipping points

Added to the costs of delaying climate actions are the increasing possibility of tipping points. When thinking about possible Climate Change tipping points (and we should be thinking about them), we should gain more certainty—not wallow in uncertainty. To do this we need more scientific equipment, more scientists, and more research funding. Dismissing climate science and not funding our collective need to monitor our climate makes it more likely we’ll pass critical thresholds, or tipping points, without even knowing we’ve passed the point of no return.

Are we reaching our climate change tipping points? Imagine cutting down a tree. Initially, you chop and chop … but not much seems to change. Then suddenly, one stroke of the hatchet frees the trunk from its base and the once distant leaves come crashing down. It’s an apt metaphor for one of the most alarming aspects of climate change – the existence of “tipping elements.” These elements are components of the climate that may pass a critical threshold, or “tipping point,” after which a tiny change can completely alter the state of the system. Moving past tipping points may incite catastrophes ranging from widespread drought to overwhelming sea level rise. Which elements’ critical thresholds should we worry about passing thanks to human-induced climate change? (November 8, 2018) World Economic Forum [more on Climate Change in our area] 

We need to understand the list of potential tipping points referenced above and how we can avoid them. Or if we cannot avoid them, then when to expect them and what we can do about them. Many people tend to understand that tipping points are possible in our environment, but don’t think they’ll be around when tipping points come--or their kids will deal with them somehow. But with a tipping point, it isn’t always like pulling a trigger where past a certain point a bullet shoots out. It can be like pulling a trigger on a gun now and a bomb going off in a hundred years. 

A while ago the West Antarctic ice sheet was said to have reached a tipping point; this big (really big) glacier has become unstable and will melt and make the seas rise by 4 feet (1.2 meters), but not for a number of centuries. [See: “The "Unstable" West Antarctic Ice Sheet: A Primer” (May 12, 2014 NASA)] ‘Unstable’ means all the kings men and all the kings horses will not put that water back on Antarctica again in our children’s children’s children’s children’s lifetimes.  

Tipping points are not just theoretical threats, they are possible (some very probable) scenarios that we need to better understand. Instead of sitting around debating their significance, we should be funding major scientific research to gain as much information as possible to find out what we are up against. Some tipping points can be averted, adapted to, or may be solved with new-and-yet-to-be-conceived technology. But all that will take time, in which case we’d need a good idea of how much time we have. The remaining uncertainty (for example, experts know the Arctic will be ice-free in summer at some point relatively soon, they’re just uncertain as to the exact time) in climate science at this point is a reason to double-down on experts finding the answers. Not trying to profit from and leverage present climate uncertainly, which only wastes our precious time. The time to act in a system that is slow to respond to our inputs is running out.

The next five years will shape sea level rise for the next 300, study says The world is far off course from its goals in cutting greenhouse gas emissions — and research published Tuesday illustrates one of the most striking implications of this. Namely, it finds that for every five years in the present that we continue to put off strong action on climate change, the ocean could rise an additional eight inches by the year 2300 — a dramatic illustration of just how much decisions in the present will affect distant future generations. “One important point was to reveal that sea level [rise] is not in the far future, it’s now, and because the system is so slow, we just can’t see it at the moment,” said Matthias Mengel of Germany’s Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, the lead author of the study, which was published in Nature Communications. “But we cause it now.” (February 20, 2018) The Washington Post)

Time passes. 

Monday, February 19, 2018

Climate Change stresses the stressors that stress wildlife

Climate Change can quickly undo many of the long, hard-won adaptations wildlife have accomplished to survive in a specific climate. Presently, our very quickly warming climate is changing too fast for some species to adapt: “…warmer temperatures equals spoiled food equals Gray Jay nests failing en masse.” (from article below)

Spoiler Alert: Can Gray Jays Survive Warmer Weather? They’re the warm-blooded creature that goes to great lengths to survive boreal cold blasts of minus 40 degrees, yet their future in Algonquin Park is threatened because the weather is getting mellow. It’s that last irony—the climate change connection—that Norris, an ecology professor at Ontario’s University of Guelph, is studying. He’s the third generation of principal investigators on a research project that stretches back over a half-century in Algonquin Park. For the past 40 years, the project has documented a stark downward trend: a 50 percent decline in the study’s Gray Jay population since 1977.. (January 8, 2018) The Cornel Lab of Ornithology (More on Wildlife and Climate Change in our area]

We need wildlife to keep our ecosystems healthy, but most wildlife cannot adapt quickly enough to Climate Change. We need to include wildlife into our Climate Change action plans.

To Survive, These Animals Must Lose Their Camouflage How can the snowshoe hare and Arctic fox thrive in a climate-changed world, where there’s less snow to blend in with? On December 4, 1920, a 14-year-old boy saw something extraordinary while walking in the central Wisconsin woods. Snowshoe hares, all of them with vibrant white fur, “were hopping about on fallen leaves that had no snow covering,” he wrote. “The month was unusually mild, with practically no snow until the middle of the period.” It was like a vision: The animals almost glowed against the sullen, early-winter soil. The sight so stuck with him that he described it in a scientific paper 13 years later. By that time, Wallace Byron Grange had demonstrated an intelligence, a precociousness, and a flair for prose style that matched his middle name. At 22, he had been appointed Wisconsin’s first-ever game commissioner; now, at 27, he was a publishing zoologist as well. He was particularly fascinated by snowshoe hares—and their mysterious annual change of costume. (February 15, 2018) The Atlantic [more on Wildlife and Climate Change in our area]

Many wildlife in our New York region are going to find adapting to Climate Change a serious challenge. Some, like amphibians, reptiles, and mammals, will need to move to cooler places but will find our myriad transportation infrastructures hindering them. (In fact, they already are, think roadkill.) Fish in our region, which have adapted to frigid waters, are going to need to swim to warmer parts of our streams and rivers without being impeded by our built obstructions. Think dams. Even birds, who you’d think would just fly where they need to go, have adapted to migrating to precise places where their meals synced with their arrival. [See “Migratory birds bumped off schedule as climate change shifts spring” (May 15, 201, Science News)] Adapted behavior in wildlife don’t turn on a dime; they take many generations to change.

Whether you like wildlife, like to hunt or fish them or just watch them, we need our wildlife. Their existence was instrumental in designing our environment. Herbivores ate the plants, carnivores ate the herbivores, and they all dispersed seeds, which helped determined which plants and wildlife thrived. And even though we have radically changed our environment, including developing land for cities and agriculture, drying up wetlands, killing off predators, and polluting our waters, we still need the creatures that make our environment work.

So, along with ourselves, we are going to have to help our wildlife adapt to Climate Change. How do we do that? Is there a comprehensive (for that is what it will take) state program for that? Kinda.

The New York State Environmental Conservation agency understands the perils of Climate Change. Check out New York Tackles Climate Change. But it’s not clear that this awareness extends to wildlife management. For example, when you check the DEC’s Wildlife Management Areas (WMA), you won’t find a whole lot of information on wildlife and Climate Change. Mostly, you see a vast compilation of information, regulations, and data on how to keep our hunters and anglers supplied with game.

But wait. When you check out the Wildlife Health section of the DEC website and scroll down a bit you’ll find this:

WILDLIFE HEALTH PROGRAM STRATEGIC PLAN 2011 – 2015 “Wildlife are integral to a healthy, diverse ecosystem and the health of wildlife is closely intertwined with that of human and domestic animals. While disease and death are part of the normal life cycle that maintains a balanced ecosystem, factors such as the introduction of an invasive species or new and emerging disease, climate change, habitat destruction and human development can alter the equilibrium so that the health and long term well‐being of a species is threatened. The goal of the Wildlife Health Program is to    identify and monitor both infectious and non‐infectious diseases in wildlife populations, put that information to use in making sound management decisions, and to be prepared to intervene where necessary to ensure that New York has sustainable, robust and diverse wildlife populations for the future. (NEW YORK STATE DEPARTMENT OF ENVIRONMENTAL CONSERVATION)

Ah hah, ‘climate change’! Though buried as one of the things that could potentially upset a ‘balanced ecosystem’, addressing Climate Change is clearly an aspect of wildlife management that the DEC understands. Wildlife that keeps our ecosystems viable or ‘balanced’ describes the environmental hegemony that makes Earth’s environment tick. 

This is an interesting point from the report: “The relationship between wildlife, domestic animals and humans in a shared environment is complex and interdependent.” The idea is that we now have a shared environment, which is to say, we didn’t used to. Although wildlife in no way were dependent on humanity to thrive before humanity came along, they are now especially dependent on us to keep them healthy. No aspect of wildlife life is unaffected by humanity and our infrastructures. 

Understanding that if our wildlife isn’t healthy, we aren’t likely to be either is a crucial aspect of adapting to Climate Change. When the engineers of our life-support system die, we won’t be around much longer either.

Climate change stresses the stressors (warmer climate, invasive species, droughts, floods, diseases, health, food availability, and habitat destruction) that stress wildlife

We and our wildlife friends are deeply connected. When contemplating the connection with Wildlife and Climate Change, we must not see Climate Change simply as one of the ‘stressors’ for Wildlife. 

Our management of wildlife needs to be viewed through the lens of Climate Change because the great warming will not only stress wildlife, it’s going to stress every being on this planet—just as past climate changes were a primary cause in Earth’s mass extinction events.

Alarming new study makes today’s climate change more comparable to Earth’s worst mass extinction “All in all, the parallels between the many mass extinction events in the geological record and today’s climate change offer no comfort about the legacy we’re leaving for our children and our grandchildren. Rather they stand as signposts for an increasingly scary future.” (April 2, 2014 Skeptical Science)

Time passes.

My articles on Climate Change and wildlife: Speak up for wildlife as they try to adapt to Climate Change (June 21, 2015)

Monday, February 12, 2018

The inconvenience of connecting harmful algae outbreaks (HABs) and Climate Change

Though Climate Change is moving quickly through New York and other regions, it’s still difficult for scientists to evaluate the precise consequences because changes in climate still take decades to play out. We know that our heavy rainfall events have increased 71% since 1958, for example, but we still don’t know the exact relationship between the recent outbreaks of harmless algae, harmful algae outbreaks (HABs), and Climate Change.

HABs are a danger to our drinking water, our pets, our shoreline properties, swimming beaches, and much more. [Check out Harmful Algal Blooms (HABs), by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation)

We know that there has been a dramatic increase in HABs in our Finger Lakes region.

“Unseasonably warm days in early and mid September have fueled a surge in harmful algal blooms, or HABs, in New York’s Finger Lakes, firmly establishing 2017 as the region’s worst year on record. Last year, the often toxic green scum was reported on the surface of six of the 11 Finger Lakes — then the most ever. This year, its been spotted on all 11.” (Posted on September 20, 2017 Water Front)

We know there’s been an increase in algae blooms in the Great Lakes, especially in Lake Erie. Though most algae outbreaks aren’t harmful (although the 2014 HABs outbreak in Toledo, Ohio certainly was), NYS’s environmental agency points to phosphorus, nutrient enrichment, aquatic invasive species—and Climate Change as the culprits.

 “What is causing the algae problems in Lake Erie? Lake Erie is the shallowest of the Great Lakes, the warmest, and the most susceptible to eutrophication (nutrient enrichment) and the effects of climate change. Lake-wide changes have occurred in Lake Erie due to phosphorus enrichment from both rural and urban sources, compounded by the influence of climate change and aquatic invasive species.” (Overview of HABs and Drinking Water in NYS, 2014, New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC))

What we don’t know is the exact cause-and-effect relationship between any specific lake’s HABs outbreak and Climate Change. This 2013 factsheet from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) gives some insight into this HABs/Climate Change relationship, but hasn’t nailed it down:

Impacts of Climate Change on the Occurrence of Harmful Algal Blooms Climate change is predicted to change many environmental conditions that could affect the natural properties of fresh and marine waters both in the US and worldwide. Changes in these factors could favor the growth of harmful algal blooms and habitat changes such that marine HABs can invade and occur in freshwater. An increase in the occurrence and intensity of harmful algal blooms may negatively impact the environment, human health, and the economy for communities across the US and around the world. The purpose of this fact sheet is to provide climate change researchers and decision–makers a summary of the potential impacts of climate change on harmful algal blooms in freshwater and marine ecosystems. Although much of the evidence presented in this fact sheet suggests that the problem of harmful algal blooms may worsen under future climate scenarios, further research is needed to better understand the association between climate change and harmful algae. May 2013 US Environmental Protection Agency Office of Water EPA 820-S-13-001 MC 4304T

There are many reports* besides the above one that suggest that warmer waters and/or Climate Change have and will play a role in more HABs in our lakes, endangering our health and environment. But most local media reports don’t reflect the possibility that the worldwide warming crisis could be affecting our region in this ominous way--now.

There are and should be a concerted effort to reduce phosphorus, nutrient enrichment, aquatic invasive species coming into our lakes. But it appears quite likely that HABs won’t get under control until we factor in, however inconvenient, Climate Change.

Shouldn’t we at least try and rule out Climate Change? Seems prudent. Avoiding the possible Climate Change connection in the rise in HABs would be like getting up in the morning and finding your backdoor wide open and just assuming it was the wind. Maybe it was the wind, someone could have forgotten to close the door. Or, it could have been a burglar. In which case, if there was only a slight chance someone broke into your house and was still prowling about, wouldn’t you want to check that out? Same kind of need to discover (if any) the connections with Climate Change and environmental anomalies.

Despite much certainty about Climate Change—our planet is warming, it’s us—there is also a lot of uncertainty about how the extra energy captured by our greenhouse gas emission radiates through our natural systems. Glaciers are melting, but how fast? And, how much does more water entering our warmer lakes affect the increase in algae outbreaks—let alone harmful algae outbreaks? In other words, does Climate Change amplify the known causes that lead to HABs? Not to mention, what else besides Climate Change could account for all the Finger Lakes getting hit by HABs recently?

The media, craving certainty and not upsetting their subscribers with what they perceive as speculations, are not likely to press Climate Change in an interview about HABs unless the interviewee makes a point of it. And the public isn’t going to demand that their media connect the dots between local indicators of climate Change and HABS until the public is comfortable with such discussions.

If Climate Change is warming our lakes (it is), can we address the HABs situation if we don’t also address Climate Change?

Time passes.

* Besides the EPA information fact sheet above, there are other sources out there on the relationship between Climate Change and HABs:

  •  Harmful algal blooms and climate change: Learning from the past and present to forecast the future (2015 US National Library of Medicine Nation Institutes of Health)
  •  Factors that Promote Growth of Harmful Algal Blooms “Changes in water temperature, particularly increases in temperature” (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC))
  • “Rising air temperatures can also lead to declines in water quality through a different set of processes. Some large lakes, including the Great Lakes, are warming rapidly.30 Warmer surface waters can stimulate blooms of harmful algae in both lakes and coastal oceans,9  which may include toxic cyanobacteria that are favored at higher temperatures.31”(“ Climate Change Impacts in the United States” (Page 198, National climate Assessment 3rd report)
  •  “Over the course of the 20th century, regional seasurface temperatures have risen more than 1.0ºF. Water temperature changes can result in shifts in faunal assemblages (groupings of organisms) that affect marine ecosystems and economic activities in unknown ways. Every species has a thermally suitable range for habitat that, when compromised, induces a forced migration to seek another location suitable to its life cycle. Water temperatures influence organism survival and growth, 126 ClimAID egg and larvae development, and spawning and feeding behavior. When water temperatures rise, ecosystems become vulnerable to shellfish diseases, harmful algae blooms, and exotic species that force indigenous species to compete for resources, including dissolved oxygen (DO). Oxygen solubility will decrease as water temperatures increase, further stressing marine organisms.” (pages 125, 126 Responding to Climate Change in New York State (ClimAID(, full report)
  •  Massive Toxic Algae Blooms May Prove a Sign of Climate Change to Come The blooms off the U.S. West Coast may become more frequent (2015 Scientific American)

  •  “Climate models project decreases of renewable water resources in some regions and increases in others, albeit with large uncertainty in many places. Broadly, water resources are projected to decrease in many mid-latitude and dry subtropical regions, and to increase at high latitudes and in many humid mid-latitude regions (high agreement, robust evidence). Even where increases are projected, there can be short-term shortages due to more variable streamflow (because of greater variability of precipitation) and seasonal reductions of water supply due to reduced snow and ice storage. Availability of clean water can also be reduced by negative impacts of climate change on water quality; for instance, the quality of lakes used for water supply could be impaired by the presence of algae producing toxins.” (page 251 Part A Scholarly articles for IPCC Climate Change 2014: Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability)

Monday, February 05, 2018

Designing Rochester’s transportation for a Climate Change world

We should place a top priority on enhancing City development that encourages more public transit and active transportation (walking and bicycling) to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions. Transportation in the US accounts for 27% of greenhouse gas emissions according to the EPA. Rochester, in their Climate Action Plan, finds that figure to be 24% for our community. That’s a big chunk of our carbon footprint.

If Rochester’s new comprehensive plan, Rochester 2034, can design for transit corridors that are attractive, where development builds on the communities already thriving in our neighborhoods, that makes it more likely that the public will achieve a lower carbon footprint. A robust public transit system is key to making our future livable by encouraging human growth—not parking lot sprawl.

Transit supportive development encourages a mix of complementary activities and destinations (e.g., housing, work, shopping, services, and entertainment) along major streets and centers. Transit supportive development helps create compact, vibrant communities where it’s easier for people to walk, bike, and use public transit to get around. (ROCHESTER MOBILITY ENHANCEMENT STUDY)

Everyone needs to get around for the necessities of life, comradeship, goods and service, and much more. With humanity’s numbers now passing seven billion, our transportation infrastructures are now critical for our existence. All of us, even pedestrians and bicyclists, use this infrastructure of roads and bridges.

Those with disabilities can have their ability to get around stymied at any point between their friends, groceries, health services, and bus stops. A sidewalk or a bus stop not cleared of ice can determine whether someone using a wheelchair gets to have access to the opportunities most of us have. So, designing our future to address Climate Change includes Environmental Justice.

Those wanting a community more walkable, friendlier, and inexpensive to live will love some of the ideas for a future Rochester.

Take a moment to help Rochester plan for its future with Climate Change in mind. Addressing Climate Change when planning for our future isn’t simply another tick-off point. It’s a decision to approach our children’s future sustainably. 

Rochester needs your input on a transit supportive corroborators study.  Please take this survey: (it will go on until mid-March).  As part of its Comprehensive Plan, Rochester 2034, the City is studying which major streets have the best potential for “transit supportive development.”

Also, the City is conducting public outreach to get input the morning of Saturday, February 10th from 9am-noon at the public market (see flyer).

In 2034 Rochester will be two hundred years old. Let’s give our children and grandchildren something to celebrate.

Time passes.