The Science

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Climate Watch Joins New KQED Science Unit

Move forms California’s largest science & environmental unit for electronic media

Keven Guillory

Climate Watch Sr. Editor Craig Miller with Producer Molly Samuel in the KQED studios.

After four years, numerous awards, and something just shy of 900 blog posts, the multimedia reporting effort that’s been known as Climate Watch is turning a significant page. KQED is combining our efforts with Quest, the station’s more broadly-based science and environmental news and programming effort.

We’ll continue to cover climate-related issues, as evidenced by the recent rollout of Heat and Harvest, a major multimedia project with the combined resources of Climate Watch, Quest and the Center for Investigative Reporting. Through a documentary now airing on public television stations throughout California, radio features on The California Report and an extensive lineup of online features, Heat and Harvest examines some of the ways in which climate change is already challenging farmers in the Golden State. Continue reading

Oysters May Foreshadow Acidic Oceans’ Effects

Research on local oysters sheds light on how animals will adapt to ocean acidification

Bodega Marine Lab / UC Davis

Scientists from UC Davis are studying oysters and mussels to figure out if organisms will be able to adapt to climate change.

This week, scientists from around the world are meeting in Monterey to discuss what they call the “other” climate change problem: the oceans are becoming more acidic. It happens as oceans absorb the carbon dioxide we add to the air through burning fossil fuels. It can be bad news for oysters, mussels and the marine food web. How bad? Scientists are hoping that ocean conditions off the California coast will help them find out.

At the Hog Island Oyster Company, near Point Reyes, Terry Sawyer orders oysters from hatcheries in Oregon and Washington when they’re small. They grow up in big mesh bags that sit out in Tomales Bay, where they get plump in the cold waters of the Pacific.

But a few years ago, Sawyer started getting calls from those suppliers. They couldn’t fill his orders. Continue reading

Heat and Harvest: Calif. Farms on a Climate Collision Course

The Midwestern corn belt isn’t the only place threatened by climate change

New pests, a shrinking water supply and rising temperatures will alter agriculture in California.

Craig Miller

Tightening water supplies, encroaching pests and dwindling winter "chill hours," vital to many crops, are just some of the climate challenges facing California farmers.

Heat and Harvest, a new series from KQED Science and the Center for Investigative Reporting looks at the multiple climate challenges confronting California farmers. It’s no trivial matter. California’s Central Valley is widely known as “the nation’s salad bowl,” and there’s more than bragging rights at stake. Ag contributes more than $30 billion a year to the state’s economy.

Previously, Climate Watch has focused on efforts in the ag sector to conserve water or lower the carbon footprint. Some farmers are trying new technologies, others are experimenting with renewable energy. But meeting climate challenges on multiple fronts will, for some farmers and ranchers, be a matter of survival.

Here are links to some previous reporting from Climate Watch, from ag’s potential role in California’s emerging cap-and-trade program for carbon emissions, to innovation on the renewable energy front and new conflicts over land use. Continue reading

New Atmospheric Compound Impacts Climate, Human Health

Role in aerosol formation could aid modeling of Central Valley temps, air quality

NASA Earth Observatory

Aerosols—and clouds seeded by them—reflect about a quarter of the Sun’s energy back to space.

For all we know about climate change and the Earth’s atmosphere, it’s amazing how much more there is to learn. Earlier this month, a team of researchers led by University of Colorado’s Roy “Lee” Mauldin III announced the discovery of a brand new atmospheric compound tied to both climate change and human health.

Above certain parts of the earth, they found, the new compound is at least as prevalent as OH, also called the hydroxyl radical, long thought to be the primary oxidant responsible for turning sulfur dioxide, an industrial pollutant, into sulfuric acid. The new compound, it turns out, can play an equally important role. Sulfuric acid contributes to acid rain and results in the formation of aerosols, airborne particulates associated with a variety of respiratory illnesses in humans and known to seed the formation of clouds. Continue reading

The New Age of Western Wildfires May Be Here

A review of national fire data suggests that the “typical” wildfire season may need redefining

This post is based on a report produced by Climate Central, a non-profit climate education group.

Climate Central

Screenshot from Climate Central's Interactive Wildfire Tracker. Click on the image to see where wildfires are currently burning.

The 2012 wildfire season isn’t over yet, but already this year is shaping up to be the one of the worst on record in the American West. According to the National Interagency Fire Center, with nearly two months still to go in the fire season, the total area already burned this year is 30% more than in an average year, and fires have consumed more than 8.6 million acres, an area larger than the state of Maryland.

Yet, what defines a “typical” wildfire year in the West is changing. In the past 40 years, rising spring and summer temperatures, along with a shrinking mountain snowpack, have increased the risk of wildfires in most parts of the West.

Studies show that continued climate change is going to make wildfires much more common in the coming decades. Continue reading

Animation: The Arctic’s Record-Breaking Ice Melt

Arctic sea area covered by ice sets new low

Nat'l Snow & Ice Data Center

NOAA has created a startling animation of this year’s record shrinkage of ice in the Arctic Ocean. The 34-second clip zooms in from a western hemisphere view and presents as a time-lapse, tracking the ice from January 1 to September 14. This is the first time since NOAA started using satellites to monitor the Arctic in 1979, that sea ice area has shrunk to less than 4,000,000 square kilometers. What happens in the polar regions has a profound effect on the world’s climate.

Studies: Offshore Wind Potential is Huge

Harnessing wind offshore and at higher altitude could meet all electricity needs — theoretically

NC State University

The U.S. has lagged behind other developed countries in capturing offshore wind for electricity..

The U.S. has lagged behind European countries in capturing offshore wind for electricity, but a spate of recent studies suggest that a bigger push might be in order.

The latest, from Stanford civil & environmental engineer Mark Jacobson concludes that off the East Coast alone is enough moving air to meet a third of the entire nation’s energy needs.

Running out the string quite a bit further, studies from Stanford and Lawrence Livermore National Lab point to a breezy bounty offshore and at higher altitudes that could theoretically power the planet, perhaps as soon as 2030.

Of course, that would take four million powerful turbines. Continue reading

West Nile Virus and the Future of Once-Tropical Diseases

Midwest outbreak is the worst in U.S. history — and may be a sign of things to come

Molly Samuel/KQED

Mosquitoes under a microscope at the Sacramento-Yolo Mosquito and Vector Control District.

William Reisen began studying tropical diseases when he was drafted in the Vietnam War. He’d studied insects in school, so he worked as an entomologist for the Air Force. Eventually, his career led him to California, where he now heads UC Davis’s Center for Vectorborne Diseases. But even with his professional experience with mosquito-borne diseases, he says he never expected to see West Nile virus in the United States.

“Everybody was surprised,” he says. “If you were a betting person, and you wanted to guess the next virus that would cause trouble from abroad in North America, I think few of us would have expected West Nile.”

West Nile, a disease carried by birds and spread by mosquitoes, first made inroads in the U.S. in 1999, in New York. By 2003, it had reached California. In 2004 and 2005, there were hundreds of human cases; in those two years combined, 48 people in California died. Continue reading

NAS Study Calls for ‘Next Generation’ of Climate Models

Report reflects shift in climate research toward news you can use

National Center for Atmospheric Research

A new study from the National Academy of Sciences advocates for more detailed and interconnected climate models.

In the effort to better understand the dynamics of the Earth’s changing climate, a recent report from the National Academy of Sciences calls for scientists to collaborate on a “new generation” of highly detailed and integrated climate change models.

According to the NAS release:

With changes in climate and weather . . . past weather data are no longer adequate predictors of future extremes. Advanced modeling capabilities could potentially provide useful predictions and projections of extreme environments.

Those “useful predictions and projections,” according to the report, could come in various forms — supplying farmers with better information about what to plant, year-to-year, say, or giving local officials greater insights into future flood risk, or providing climatologists with better information about specific parts of the country most susceptible to extreme heat. Continue reading

California Examines the Health Effects of Extreme Heat

A new report looks at how to prepare for — and adapt to — a warmer world

State agencies are bracing for the public health threat from extreme heat. Heatwaves can have devastating effects on public health; in a 2006 heatwave in California, hundreds of people died [PDF]. And scientists predict in the future, heat waves will be longer, hotter and more frequent.

In the future, heat waves will be longer, hotter and more frequent.

To try to keep the health costs to a minimum, the California Climate Action Team, led by the California Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Public Health, is developing a plan to prepare for extreme heat[PDF].

The state’s plan addresses building codes and urban planning, state and local emergency response plans, health care system preparedness and worker safety. The recommendations include making sure the most vulnerable people can be protected from high temperatures, protecting key parts of the power grid from air-conditioner overload and planting more trees in cities. Continue reading