Author Archives: Tom Banse

Some Glaciers Buck the Trend


Crater Glacier on Mount St. Helens

We’re entering the best time of year for fans of glaciers.  The high-country rivers of ice are getting their annual nourishment from winter’s snows–probably not enough, as Yosemite National Park geologist Greg Stock tells us: “Glaciers are getting about the same amount of snowfall each winter but they’re seeing a lot more melt in summertime because of those warmer temperatures.”

A database called Glaciers of the American West posits that, “Perhaps glaciers are the clearest expression of climate change.”  But within that National Science Foundation-funded database can be found a few growing glaciers–curious exceptions that buck the general melting trend.  Cherry-picking those exceptions allows some global warming skeptics to suggest we should be preparing for the next ice age (see here and here for examples of this). However, a closer examination of the anomalous glaciers suggests that unique circumstances are more likely at work.


USGS hydrologist Joe Walder

Crater Glacier on Mount St. Helens in southwest Washington State is a dramatic example of a growing glacier.  The glacier formed in the shaded recesses of the high elevation crater left by the catastrophic 1980 eruption of the volcano.  USGS research hydrologist Joe Walder told us the mass of ice and rock is advancing some 300 feet per year.  This time lapse video (file will download) provided by the U.S. Geological Survey shows why glaciers are also known as “rivers of ice.”

Another view from above shows how Crater Glacier got squeezed and pushed around when Mount St. Helens reawakened in 2006 and extruded a new lava dome.  That the young glacier survived the renewed eruption is remarkable by itself.  The fact that the horseshoe-shaped glacier is gaining mass indicates just what a perfect setting Mother Nature created at the volcano.  The north-facing crater acts like a catcher’s mitt reaching toward the moist jet stream.

Mount Rainier, also in Washington State, is the most heavily glaciated peak in the Lower 48 states.  On Rainier’s east flank, Emmons Glacier is advancing. The National Park Service offers this myth-busting explanation:

“The Emmons Glacier experienced a rock avalanche in 1963, which covered part of the glacier with a layer of rock debris. This debris now insulates the ablation (melting) zone of the glacier from sunlight and warm air temperatures and the melting of the glacier is smaller than from an otherwise clean glacier. Because melting is reduced, but the ice flow is the same, the glacier is advancing. This response has nothing to do with climate change.”

Mount Shasta

Mount Shasta

Something yet again different appears to be happening at northern California’s Mount Shasta. A research team from UC Santa Cruz documented 50 years of nearly continuous expansion of the two largest glaciers on Mount Shasta.  The researchers theorize in the journal Climate Dynamics that Shasta’s glaciers are benefiting from a warming Pacific Ocean. A warmer ocean means more evaporation, and hence more moisture blows over the high peaks near the coast.  Because of Shasta’s height, the enhanced precipitation mostly falls as snow, adding to the mass of the glaciers.

Portland State University glaciologist Andrew Fountain says no one has yet explained to his satisfaction why glaciers on peaks immediately to the north and south of Mount Shasta are not likewise growing.  It is as if a “snow gun” is aimed directly at Shasta’s 14,162-foot summit.  But he doesn’t lose sleep over that issue because Fountain and the other glaciologists who have studied Shasta do not expect the glacial advance to last.  Their climate models call for the snow level (elevation) to rise.0915tb_glaciers5

“We do expect it to be a temporary phenomenon,” Fountain said.  “The modeling done down on Mount Shasta expects the glaciers to retreat within the next decade or so, if they’re not already.”

Tom Banse’s radio feature on the West’s growing glaciers airs Monday morning on The California Report.

California Not Catching the Wave…Yet

Tom Banse’s radio report on West Coast wave energy aired Thursday morning on The California Report. It’s also posted to the Climate Watch Radio section on this site.

A Crib Sheet for West Coast Ocean Energy

Every now and then when the government gets something right, it’s only fair to give credit.  So today we give props to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission for making public records easily accessible.  Combined with our handy-dandy crib sheet, you can be the reporter and dig up all sorts of newsworthy nuggets.  We’ll get to some examples, but first the overview:

Wave energy buoys proposed for Reedsport, OR (artist's conception). Photo by Tom Banse.

Wave energy buoys proposed for Reedsport, OR (artist's conception). Image provided by: Ocean Power Technologies

Starting in 2006, there was a “gold rush” on the ocean to stake claims for wave energy sites.  Now the spray is settling and an industry shakeout is occurring.  Energy developers have given up on about a third of the wave power projects they proposed along the West Coast.  Some tidal power proposals are ebbing away as well.  When things go sideways, we rarely get a press release about it.  Often the news pops up first in a filing to FERC.

FERC is the agency that oversees wave and tidal power projects in state waters (up to 3 miles offshore).  The agency’s webmasters set up an “eLibrary” to archive project applications and correspondence.

You can see on the crib sheet that FERC dismissed three ocean energy projects in California waters last month.  The simple explanation is that the three projects ended up on the wrong side of a bureaucratic turf battle.  The Department of Interior’s Minerals Management Service (MMS) won jurisdiction over all energy development on the outer continental shelf, defined in this case as more than three miles offshore.  Grays Harbor Ocean Energy Company president Burt Hamner explained in an e-mail:

FERC has cancelled its entire preliminary permit process for projects located on Federal ocean waters, and thus dismissed our seven pending applications for preliminary permits (as well as those of a few others).  The new MMS framework says that applicants for wave projects must first get a MMS lease for space, then apply to FERC for a commercial hydropower license.  But, MMS is prohibited from issuing leases in national marine sanctuaries.  Two of our projects, San Francisco and Hawaii, are in sanctuaries.  Therefore these are terminated because there is no way to get a lease or permits there.

At the City of San Francisco, utility specialist Randall Smith said the FERC dismissal of the city’s preliminary permit for the Oceanside project “doesn’t put us back to square one, but does force a step back.”  Smith elaborated, “The difference with MMS is getting a lease.  That’s a little more protracted.”

One wave power project was proposed for waters off San Francisco's Ocean Beach (upper right).

A wave power project proposed for waters off San Francisco's Ocean Beach (upper right) is in limbo.

The voluminous dockets for PG&E’s WaveConnect projects off Humboldt and Mendocino Counties, and the Green Wave Mendocino Wave Park suggest those are the ones moving ahead the fastest.  PG&E recently secured $6 million to pay for environmental studies, design work, and permitting.  The utility started its community outreach by scheduling two town meetings–in Eureka on May 19 and Ft. Bragg on May 21–both scheduled for 6 pm.

And now, the secret code: An easy way to keep tabs on a marine energy project is to make note of the applicant’s docket number (the one that starts with P-xxxxx) and then periodically plug that number into a “Docket search.”  (Click on “Submit” rather than the more prominent “Search Consolidated Dockets” button.)Here are all of the West Coast wave energy projects proposed to FERC, listed from north to south, as of this week:

P-12751 Makah Bay (Finavera)  license surrendered  4/09

P-13058 Grays Harbor Ocean Energy (Grays Harbor Ocean Energy Company)  11/2007

P-13047 Oregon Coastal Wave Energy (Tillamook Intergovernmental Dev. Entity) 10/2007

P-12750 Newport OPT Wave Park (Ocean Power Technologies)  permit surrendered 3/09

P-12793 Florence Oregon Ocean Wave Project (Oceanlinx)  4/2007, withdrawn 4/08

P-12713 Reedsport OPT Wave Park (Ocean Power Technologies)  3/2006

P-12743 Douglas County Wave Energy (Douglas County, OR)  9/2006  (oscillating column device on Umpqua River jetty)

P-12749 Coos Bay OPT Wave Park (Ocean Power Technologies)  3/2006

P-12752 Coos County Offshore (Bandon, Oregon) (Finavera) permit cancelled w/o objection 6/08

P-12779 Humboldt County WaveConnect (PG&E)  2/07

P-12753 Humboldt County Wave Energy (Finavera) permit surrendered 2/09

P-13075 Centerville OPT Wave Park (Ocean Power Technologies)  11/2007

P-12781 Mendocino County WaveConnect (PG&E)  2/07

P-13053 Green Wave Mendocino Wave Park (Green Wave Energy Solutions, LLC)  10/07

P-13377 and P-13378 Fort Ross Project- N & S (Sonoma County Water Agency)  2/09 pending

P-13376 Del Mar Landing Project (Sonoma County Water Agency)  2/09 pending

P-13308 San Francisco Ocean Energy Project (Grays Harbor Ocean Energy Company, LLC)  10/08 Dismissed 4/09

P-13379 San Francisco Oceanside Wave Energy Project (City and County of SF)  filed 02/09 Dismissed 4/09

P-13052 Green Wave San Luis Obispo Wave Park (Green Wave Energy Solutions, LLC) filed 10/07 pending

P-13309 Ventura Ocean Energy Project (Grays Harbor Ocean Energy Company)  10/08 Dismissed 4/09

Total proposed wave energy projects since 2006: 21

Total projects scrubbed by developer: 5

Total projects rejected by FERC: 3

For extra credit – Noteworthy tidal energy projects:

P-12585 San Francisco Bay Tidal Energy Project (Oceana Energy)  10/08

P-12672 Columbia River Tidal Energy Project (Oceana Energy) Permit surrendered 3/08


California’s Climate Partners Get Cold Feet

On Wednesday’s edition of The California Report, correspondent Tom Banse takes the pulse of a vital organ in California’s climate strategy; the regional carbon trading market. The upshot: Reports of its well-being may be greatly exaggerated.

Are they with us?  It’s hard to tell looking at some of California’s supposed partners in the Western Climate Initiative.

WCI includes six states besides California and four Canadian provinces.  Last year the group agreed on a regional “cap-and-trade” plan to reduce greenhouse gas emissions (and not coincidentally to show the federal government how it’s done).  Governors and environmental agencies in the participating states continue to voice support for moving ahead with a regional initiative.  The rub is that the executive branch cannot just snap its fingers and will the plan into being.  A major policy change like this requires state legislatures to adopt the cap-and-trade rules.  And some of those lawmakers definitely have other ideas.

Utah offers the most dramatic example.  Before adjourning for the year, the state House of Representatives voted 52-19 in favor of a non-binding resolution directed at Utah Governor Jon Huntsman:

    “…WHEREAS, experts, including the Congressional Budget Office, warn against cap and trade policies, especially regional programs like the seven-member WCI;WHEREAS, experts also point out that the costs of such programming will be borne by consumers, placing a disproportionately high burden on poorer households; andWHEREAS, no state or nation has enhanced economic opportunities for its citizens or increased real GDP through cap and trade or other carbon reduction policies:NOW, THEREFORE, BE IT RESOLVED that the House of Representatives urges the Governor to withdraw Utah from the Western Climate Initiative.”

Huntsman, a Republican, is apparently ignoring the legislative shot across his bow.

Skepticism is also alive and well in the Arizona Legislature, where this preemptive strike skips the whereases and gets right to the job of handcuffing the executive branch.

    “The [Arizona Department of Environmental Quality] shall not participate in the Western climate initiative that is organized and operated by an affiliation of state governors and one or more provinces of Canada.”

The succinct bill has passed out of state House committee and awaits a floor vote.

Meanwhile in New Mexico, the legislature is done for the year.  Legislation to authorize a greenhouse gas emissions cap was not even broached.  Montana’s legislature is still in session, but all lawmakers in Helena have the stomach to tackle is preparatory measures.  They would set up the regulatory framework for underground carbon storage (aka, sequestration) and require large companies to track and report their carbon emissions.

At his glassmaking plant in southwestern Washington, Steve Smith worries that a regional cap on carbon emissions will render his business unable to compete with suppliers outside the region. Photo by Tom Banse.

At his glass making plant in southwestern Washington, Steve Smith worries that a regional cap on carbon emissions will render his business unable to compete with suppliers outside the region. Photo by Tom Banse.

The governors of Oregon and Washington State served up the full climate enchilada to their legislatures this January only to see it picked apart.

That leaves California as the sole state in the Western Climate Initiative that has so far adopted cap-and-trade as the law of the land.  California’s partners have consistently told us that a national program is the preferable way to regulate greenhouse gases.  Now the “preferable” way is starting to look like the only way.