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Tracking the Changing Glaciers of the West

Yosemite's Dana Glacier, in 2008 and 1883 (photo: Gretchen Weber)

Yosemite's Dana Glacier in 2008, and a photo of it from 1883. Photo: Gretchen Weber

Years of exhaustive (and exhausting) field work out of Portland State University has produced some stunning visual images online.

Not quite two years ago, reporter Sasha Khokha and I joined geologist Hassan Basagic on a long trek to photograph the Dana Glacier, located just inside the eastern edge of Yosemite National Park.  Since 2003, Basagic has been documenting the changes in the glaciers of the Sierra using historic photographs, and we joined him in September of 2008 to see the shrinking glacier for ourselves. We documented the trip with a radio report, an audio slide show, and web videos.

That field work was part of a project called “Glacier Rephotography of the American West” which tracks the retreat of glaciers across the western United States over the last century.

Tom Knudson of the Sacramento Bee, who has closely followed the project, tells us that it has produced a new online resource. It includes a series of interactive time lines that showcase historic photos as well as more recent ones (including Basagic’s) that, when viewed side by side, offer some startling views of how glaciers in various regions have changed.

For more remarkable images of moving glaciers, explore the “Extreme Ice” episode of the PBS series Nova.

Icelandic Volcano Chills Travel Plans…But What About the Climate?

This post was contributed by Andrew Freedman of our content partners at Climate Central. Find out why scientists are using volcanoes as a possible model for global climate intervention, on the Climate Watch blog and on KQED’s Forum program.

Eruption of Eyjafjallajökull Volcano, Iceland  (Photo: NASA Earth Observatory)

Eruption of Eyjafjallajökull Volcano, Iceland (Photo: NASA Earth Observatory)


The ongoing eruption of Mt. Eyjafjallajokull in Iceland is disrupting flights across Europe, shutting down some of the busiest airports and aviation corridors in the world. But could it also disrupt the climate system, leading to a temporary cooling trend this summer?

Not likely, according to Rutgers University environmental sciences professor Alan Robock, an expert on how volcanoes alter the composition of the Earth’s atmosphere. According to Robock, the Icelandic eruption hasn’t contributed enough sulfur dioxide to the upper atmosphere to significantly alter the climate.

“From what I’ve seen from the observations so far, there hasn’t been enough put into the atmosphere to have a large climate effect,” he said in a telephone interview.

It is well known that volcanic eruptions can affect the climate. Just ask historians, who can tell you about the “year without a summer” that followed the enormous eruption of Mt. Tambora in Indonesia in 1816. More recently, the 1991 eruption of Mt. Pinatubo in the Philippines, which contributed about 20 megatons of volcanic material to the atmosphere, cooled global average surface temperatures by about one degree Fahrenheit in the year following the eruption.

By vaulting particles of sulfur dioxide and other reflective aerosols high into the stratosphere, volcanic eruptions can reduce the amount of solar radiation reaching the planet’s surface. However, this only results in temporary cooling, since chemical processes and air currents remove the particles over time.

NOAA plot showing a decrease in solar radiation reaching the Earth's surface after major volcanic eruptions

NOAA plot showing a decrease in solar radiation reaching the Earth's surface after major volcanic eruptions

In addition to causing short-term cooling, volcanoes also contribute carbon dioxide (CO2) to the atmosphere, which in the very long-term balances slow CO2 losses from other causes. The volcanic contribution of CO2 to the atmosphere is estimated to be well less than the recent human contribution, on average.

Robock noted that the ash cloud that is canceling flights would not alter the climate, since it will fall out of the air in a matter of days. “What’s dangerous for airplanes is not what causes climate to change,” he said.

The volcano’s climate impacts may also be limited by its high-latitude location, since the air circulation in the upper atmosphere in the high latitudes tends to be more efficient at getting rid of volcanic material, compared to lower latitudes where sulfur dioxide particles from volcanoes can linger for years.

Robock noted that Icelandic eruptions have disrupted climate in the past, such as a long duration event in 1783-4 that cooled temperatures in Europe, catching then US ambassador to France Benjamin Franklin’s attention. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Franklin was a pioneer in linking a volcanic eruption to climate change.

It’s still possible that this volcano, which is continuing to erupt, may yet send more volcanic material into the upper atmosphere, thereby causing a cooler summer in the northern hemisphere.

(Some) Pika Persist at Low Elevations

Photo courtesy of the Forest Service.

Photo: US Forest Service

American Pika are living at lower elevations and surviving warmer temperatures than previously thought, according to a paper in the journal Arctic, Antarctic, and Alpine Research (available for download at the US Forest Service Pacific Southwest Research Station’s site).

One of the authors, Connie Millar, said she saw pika far more often and in a broader elevation range than she had expected she would. Millar, a Forest Service ecologist, found all those pika using a method she developed to quickly determine if pika are living in places where one would expect to find them.

Pika, cute little rabbit relatives that live in high elevations throughout the West, have been in the news lately. The Center for Biological Diversity (CBD) petitioned for the pika to be listed under the federal Endangered Species Act in 2007, citing climate change as a threat to survival of the cold-adapted species. Last month, under a new administration, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service decided not to protect the pika, explaining that though some populations do seem to be in trouble, most are doing fine so far. (Climate Watch has followed the pika story; see previous posts here, here, and here).

This newest study would seem to support the federal decision. But Shaye Wolf, staff biologist with the CBD, says that though the study “provides a snapshot of where pika are now, long-term in-depth studies have found that pika populations are declining.”

The majority of those declining populations are in Nevada’s Great Basin, at relatively low elevations for pika colonies. One paper Wolf cites was recently published in Ecological Applications. Authors Erik Beever and Chris Ray concluded that shrinking pika populations in the Great Basin could be partially attributed to climate change. Pika have an extremely narrow band of temperature tolerance and can suffer heat stroke in temperatures comfortable to humans.

Wolf and Millar are both members of the California Pika Consortium, a newly formed research group. Millar plans to distribute her pika survey to colleagues in the consortium in order to continue gathering data on locations of pika colonies.

Meanwhile, even though the Fish and Wildlife Service has denied federal protection to the pika, CBD is still working on gaining state-level protection in California. CBD biologists consider the pika to be a bellwether species for climate change.

Latest Snow Survey Offers Hope

Frank Gehrke, left, weighs snow near Echo Summit, to measure water content. Photo: Molly Samuel

Frank Gehrke, left, weighs snow near Echo Summit, to measure water content. Photo: Molly Samuel

His clipboard doesn’t have quite same gravitas as a pair of stone tablets. Nonetheless, Frank Gehrke is sort of the Moses of California water. Once a month he comes down from the mountaintop with a pronouncement on the state of the snowpack in the Sierra Nevada. Today’s message: Whew.

The Department of Water Resources announced today that on average, the water content of California’s Sierra snowpack stands at 107% of “normal” for this date. The figure is derived from a combination of electronic sensors and manual surveys, including Gehrke’s, taken at various points along Highway 50. It’s the first time this season that the statewide average has clocked in above normal.

In the monthly DWR news release, Director Mark Cowin expressed some relief, while warning that the state is still struggling to overcome three abnormally dry winters prior to this one. DWR reports that Lake Oroville, the primary reservoir for the State Water Project, still stands at just 55% of it’s long-term average level for this date. Shasta Lake, however, the biggest reservoir on the federal Central Valley Project, is now above its normal level.

Cowin says the latest readings offer hope that water managers will be able to increase projected allocations to state water customers, currently set at 15% of requested amounts. DWR estimates that final allocations will be “in the range of 35-45%.” Over the past ten years, customers have averaged about two thirds of requested water. Farms often make up for shortfalls by pumping costlier groundwater.

Our interactive map shows the current status of California’s key reservoirs. We also have a short video that takes you into the field with Frank Gehrke, to see how he does his manual surveys.

More Water Likely for Farms and Cities–With a Catch

Craig Miller

What is now looking like a "normal" wet winter may mean bigger water allocations for crops. Photo: Craig Miller

We’d like to think that weather and water supply is a straightforward proposition. If rain falls in the lowlands and snow blankets the Sierra Nevada the way we expect it to, then we ought to have enough water to get us through the dry months ahead. But of course, California water is never that simple. The latest example: today’s state and federal announcements of projected  deliveries from two massive Central Valley water systems.

From the state: The Department of Water Resources said it’s increasing promised State Water Project deliveries from five percent–the amount projected last December 1–to 15%.

In a conference call with reporters, newly-appointed DWR Director Mark Cowin called the 15% figure “very conservative.” He said that if the wet season continues on its current “average” path, the department could deliver between 35-and-45% of the contracted amount.  Cowin said where final allocations would land in that range depends on pumping restrictions currently in place to protect endangered salmon and smelt.  “That spread between 35 and 45 percent is based on how the fisheries agencies ultimately apply the existing rules to protect fish–and how much resulting flexibility we have to pump water from the Delta,” Cowin said.

The bottom line from the DWR announcement: Three years of drought have taken a toll on water supplies that will take more than one good year of rain and snow to reverse. Cowin says runoff from the healthy Sierra snowpack will be lower than normal, as more water is absorbed by relatively dry soil.

At the same time, the State Water Project’s biggest reservoir, Lake Oroville, stands at 54% of its normal level for this time of year. The other linchpin for SWP supply, San Luis Reservoir, is at 80 percent of normal overall. But most of that water is already spoken for and is unavailable for meeting this year’s state water contract commitments.

As the state was adjusting its projections, officials also weighed in on 2010 deliveries from the federal Central Valley Project.

Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar announced that the initial allocation from the CVP to San Joaquin Valley farmers and other users is 5%. That’s better than nothing–which was the early allocation last year. But it was only part of the news.

Salazar disclosed that negotiations involving Senator Dianne Feinstein, other members of the California congressional delegation, water contractors, and environmental groups have hammered out a plan that could deliver nearly 40% of contracted supplies to CVP customers. But there’s a big “if” in the picture: Those expanded deliveries only happen if the wet season continues to be wet.

Weeks of controversy preceded Salazar’s announcement. Areas of the San Joaquin Valley that have gone thirsty during the three-year drought–notably the Westlands Water District–have been agitating for more federal water even if it means overriding Endangered Species Act protections for fish.

Feinstein went to bat for Westlands and other federal water customers, proposing an amendment to a jobs bill that would set aside Delta pumping limits in order to guarantee deliveries to Valley water users. That sparked outrage from those working to save the Delta fisheries and a sharply critical letter from a dozen House members. But it also apparently prompted the talks that led to Salazar’s announcement. In a statement, Feinstein said she was pleased with the projected allocations announced today and praised the “creative thinking” that went into it. But she added that she’s watching how water shipments play out. Although she has shelved her water amendment for now, she said, “I reserve the right to bring it back should it become necessary.”

Here’s our updated KQED California Reservoir Watch, which gives a pretty good picture of the state’s water storage:

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View KQED: California Reservoir Watch in a larger map

No Protection for American Pika

American Pika, Photo: Doug Van Gausig

American Pika, Photo: Doug Von Gausig

The high-alpine rabbit relative, the American pika, does not warrant protection under the Endangered Species Act, according to a ruling Thursday by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The decision was required by a court order stemming from a lawsuit brought by the San Francisco-based Center for Biological Diversity against the agency, for failing to respond to a petition submitted by the Center in 2007.

The CBD petition cited climate change as the cause for population decline in pika populations in the mountains of Nevada’s Great Basin. Because the creatures can die from overheating at temperatures as low as 78 degrees, and research suggests that a warming climate has led to major losses in lower-elevation populations, pushing pika to migrate to higher elevations. Some biologists are concerned that if temperatures rise high enough, they may reach the mountain-tops and run out of hospitable habitat.

“By not listing the pika, the decision is not respecting the best available science,” said Shaye Wolf, a staff biologist at the CBD. “The science is very clear. Scientists in the Great Basin will tell you that their research is showing that pika are disappearing and that the losses are linked to climate change: heat stress in the summer and loss of snowpack in the winter.”

Wolf said that the federal agency is required to use the “best available science” in making its ruling. She said that the CBD may challenge the decision on this basis.

“The (government’s) interpretation of the studies is that even though pika are disappearing and will continue to disappear, they will be able to cope,” said Wolf. “That’s not consistent with what we’re seeing. It’s a bizarre argument that pika will adapt. There’s no basis for that claim.

Had the federal agency ruled the other way, the pika would have been the first animal to make the endangered list as a direct result of climate change.  Last year, the Obama Administration denied a similar petition for the Alaskan spotted seal, Wolf said.

The scientific community itself is split about whether the pika warrants a federal listing. While research shows that some populations of pika are declining, such as in the Great Basin, not everyone agrees that the entire species is facing extinction.

The CBD also has a pika case still pending at the state level.  The California Fish and Game Commission has twice denied CBD requests for a status review of the American pika. The organization is currently challenging the state’s second denial.

For more background on the CBD’s efforts to list the pika, see Craig Miller’s blog posts from May 2009.

Storms Offer Big Boost to Sierra Snowpack

For a more expansive analysis of California’s current water picture, and an interactive map of current reservoir conditions, see Dan Brekke’s drought update, posted earlier this week.

State water officials expressed “cautious optimism” after the season’s second survey of the Sierra snowpack.

After a series of Pacific storms dumped several feet of fresh snow on the mountains, today’s (officially the “February”) survey reveals that the snow’s average water content is 115 percent of “normal” for this date (compared to 61% of normal at this time last year).

Water managers say even so, there’s more catching up to do and they still can’t rule out a fourth consecutive year of relatively dry conditions. Nor have they re-evaluated earlier tight allocations planned for agricultural water this year. With a lot of the recent precipitation still locked up in the state’s “frozen reservoir,” Shasta Lake and Lake Oroville are both still hovering around half of their normal levels for this date.

According to today’s release from the Dept. of Water Resources:

“DWR’s early allocation estimate was that the agency would only be able to deliver 5 percent of requested SWP (State Water Project) water this year, reflecting low storage levels, ongoing drought conditions, and environmental restrictions on water deliveries to protect fish species.  The agency will recalculate the allocation after current snow survey results and other conditions are evaluated.”

By the way, if you’ve never had the chance to see how the “manual” component of the monthly snow surveys are done, take about four minutes and watch this video from 2008, when I joined surveyor Frank Gehrke at the Tamarack Flat survey site, off of Highway 50. This is not the site you usually see on the local news. That’s Phillips Station, chosen for media photo ops because it’s right off the highway. Getting to this site takes a little more doing, as you’ll see.

California Storms: A Dent in the Drought

Spillway at Alpine Lake on Mt. Tamalpais. File photo: Marin Municipal Water District

Spillway at Alpine Lake on Mt. Tamalpais. File photo: Marin Municipal Water District

A version of this post also appears on Dan Brekke’s personal blog, Infospigot. Also see our updated map of reservoir conditions at the end of this post.

By Dan Brekke

Is California’s drought over? OK, let’s take a step back. Yes, I realize one could debate whether the last three years in California actually constitute a drought. But that’s a discussion for another time. For now, I think everyone can agree that we’ve had lower-than-average precipitation for the past three years.

The only reason to ask the question is that, after the first half of the wet season delivered only spotty rain, we’ve had a pretty solid week of downpours. Water is sluicing into our reservoirs, and the hills are greening up. Some counties, like Marin, have water tumbling down the spillways. All of that is a sign of what we think winter should be here.

My favorite water statistic from last week: when the storms were at their heaviest around Lake Shasta, California’s biggest reservoir, water was flowing into the lake at about 500,000 gallons per second. That’s 1.5 acre feet, or about enough for two-to-three “average” households for a year, every second.*

Amazing numbers like that aside, the people who get paid to think about whether the drought is over say “not yet.” Last week, Quest managing editor Paul Rogers wrote a good summary of the situation, for The San Jose Mercury News.

Rogers’ story does contain one bit of quirky California thinking about rain and water, though. He quotes a well established local meteorologist, Jan Null, about where we stand in terms of normal rainfall, saying: “This is a great start, but we need to keep it going.”

Of course, Null recognizes better than most that the amount of rain we get and when we get it is out of anyone’s control. But once you understand the importance of water in California, once you get how crucial the winter rains are, there’s a score-keeping aspect to weather-watching here. It becomes second nature to study the rain gauge and the seasonal precipitation table as an index of performance, a reflection on whether a great collective goal is being attained. Lots of rain means we’re doing well (and that we can put the complexities of water supply out of our minds). A dry spell means we’re failing (and the prospect of hell to pay, or at least the strong possibility of stringent conservation measures).

But in reality, there’s no performance going on. The rain is the rain, and the climate is the climate. California’s rainfall is famously variable. Dry spells can be counted on and the current run of dry years is the third we’ve had since I arrived in Berkeley in the 1970s.

My first California winter, 1976-’77, was bone-dry and was in fact the second year of the driest two-year period ever recorded here. A decade later, from roughly 1986 through 1992, we had another run of dry years. And if our winter rains were to stop now, we’d be in the fourth year of drier-than-normal years. In between these periods we’ve had average years and very wet years and years that didn’t quite hit the average. That might not be too different from anywhere else. The reason it’s a bigger deal here than it might be in, say, Wisconsin, is that we have a six-month dry season. We need to store water to get through that. We have 37 million people and millions and millions acres of farmland that need water, whether it’s falling from the sky or not. Thus the need to believe we can wish the rain to keep going during the wet season and the tendency to feel disappointment when the winter turns into a string of dry, sunny days.

*500,000 gallons per second. Here’s the arithmetic: California Department of Water Resources figures show that in the hour between noon and 1 p.m. on Tuesday, January 19, net inflow into the lake was 66,288 cubic feet per second. That’s the highest inflow figure for any single hour that week. One cubic foot equals 7.48 gallons. 66,288*7.48 = 495,834.24 gallons. One acre-foot = 325,851 gallons. And 495,834.24/325,851 = 1.52 acre-feet. Per second. For the entire 24 hours of the 19th, Lake Shasta’s inflow averaged just over 1 acre-foot a second.


View KQED: California Reservoir Watch in a larger map

Santer: “Loss of Innocence” for Climate Scientists

The Dana Glacier, outside Yosemite, CA.  Photo: Gretchen Weber

The Dana Glacier, outside Yosemite, CA, September 2008. Photo: Gretchen Weber

Yet another climate controversy has revived what have become increasingly common attacks on scientists’ credibility.  The latest flap arose when  the IPCC admitted on Wednesday, that its 2007 prediction that Himalayan glaciers could melt away by 2035 was unfounded.

Attacks on the integrity of scientists have brought about a “loss of innocence” in the climate science field, said Ben Santer, a Research Scientist for Climate Model Diagnosis and Intercomparison at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.

On a conference call with reporters Wednesday, Santer lamented that “Fourteen or fifteen years ago, it was possible to do science and not be too worried about being the subject of Congressional investigations, Freedom of Information Act requests, and very personal and very public attacks. Those innocent days are over now.”

Santer, who’s been a key author of some IPCC reports, said the science that goes into those reports is the most rigorous that he’s seen in his career.”If your research suggests that humans are having a pronounced effect on climate,” he continued,  “I think the expectation is that you will be subjected to tremendous scrutiny.  And some of that is appropriate, certainly in terms of the science and the integrity and credibility of the science, but unfortunately, that scrutiny is moving to very unwelcome areas, and it’s also focusing on individuals and motives, and all of this stuff is very distasteful,” he said.

Santer was joined on the call by Lonnie Thompson, a glaciologist at Ohio State University’s Byrd Polar Research Center , who raised concern that the intense and personal nature of much of the criticism climate scientists have been facing (most recently in response to the East Anglia hacked email incident, now widely known as “Climategate”) may be keeping promising young scientists out of the field at a time when they are most needed.  In the wake of the East Anglia emails, a blizzard of accusations of data manipulation blew through the blogosphere and in certain corners of the Senate.

“It does make it difficult to bring young scientists into the field,” Santer agreed.  They look at what has gone on and there is genuine concern there. They must be asking themselves, ‘Do I really want to get involved in critical but possibly contentious issues if there is the possibility that I will spend months or even  longer dealing with questions not about the science that I have done, but about my own personal integrity?'” said Santer.

Thompson affirmed that while it’s difficult to put a specific timetable on the disappearance of glaciers, the scientific evidence documenting glacier recession is overwhelming.  Research indicates that more than 90% of the world’s glaciers are receding, he said, including approximately 95% of the glaciers in the Himalayas.

“Glaciers do not have any political agenda,” said Thompson.  “They just sum up what’s happening in the environment and they retreat or react to that en masse.”

The conference call was organized by the activist Union of Concerned Scientists.

UPDATE 1/25/10
The London tabloid, the Daily Mail, reported yesterday that a lead author of the Asia chapter of the IPCC’s 2007 assessment admitted that he knew the 2035 claim was unsubstantiated, but he approved including it in the report anyway.  Murari Lal reportedly said in an interview with the Daily Mail that he knew the 2035 number came from a report that was not peer-reviewed, but that the claim of imminently disappearing glaciers would, “impact policy-makers and politicians and encourage them to take some concrete action.”

Michael Schlesinger, a professor of Atmospheric Sciences and director of the Climate Research Group at the the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign responded to the Daily Mail report with dismay.

“I am greatly saddened and deeply offended by this person’s behavior,” he wrote in an email. “A scientist does not lie nor change the facts to suit an agenda.  Rather s/he tells it as it is, as best as it is known to her/him.”

Joe Romm at Climate Progress has a spirited response to the Daily Mail story.  According to Romm (who reached Lal by phone):
[Lal] He said these were “the most vilest allegations” and denied that he ever made such assertions.  He said “I didn’t put it [the 2035 claim] in to impress policymakers….  We reported the facts about science as we knew them and as was available in the literature.”

Western Lakes Warming Up Rapidly

Craig Miller

Lake Tahoe from above Emerald Bay. Photo: Craig Miller

Some lakes in Northern California and Nevada are warming twice as fast as the surrounding air temperature, raising concerns that climate change may be affecting aquatic ecosystems more rapidly than terrestrial ones, according to a recently published study.

Researchers from the Tahoe Environmental Research Center, UC Davis and NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, studied Lake Tahoe, Lake Almanor, Clear Lake, and Mono Lake in California, and Nevada’s Pyramid and Walker Lakes, by analyzing 18 years of temperature data from satellite sensors.

Long-established instrument buoys provided a flow of temperature data for Tahoe, dating back to 1968, which allowed the team to calibrate satellite readings, raising confidence in data gathered from the other lakes. Previous studies have documented the warming of Lake Tahoe but John Reuter, associate director of the Tahoe Environmental Research Center (TERC), says the new study takes that information one step further.

“This study really shows that this phenomenon is happening on a much larger scale than just Lake Tahoe,” said Reuter.

All of the lakes studied showed a strong warming trend among summer nighttime temperatures between 1992 and 2008.  The two lakes that warmed the most during that time, Almanor and Mono, warmed 4.3 degrees (F).  During that time Lake Tahoe’s surface waters warmed 3.7 degrees, averaging .23 degrees annually.  In contrast, Tahoe City’s air temperature increased just .1 degree each year.

TERC director Geoffrey Schladow, who co-authored the study, said there is no doubt in his mind that rising lake temperatures are related to climate change, and he expects that it’s happening across the world, not just in Northern California and Nevada.

“The significance of this study is that across the western United States these very different lakes are displaying signs of warming.  It’s not just a Tahoe issue, it’s a regional issue.  And in all likelihood, it’s a global issue,”said Schladow.

Over the next six months, researchers will be using the remote sensors to extend the study to 50 lakes across the world to evaluate whether or not large lakes everywhere are warming at similar rates.

Warmer temperatures can affect water circulation, which influences the amount of oxygen and nutrients available throughout the lake.  A 2008 study from TERC predicts that warming due to climate change could dramatically affect the amount of mixing in Lake Tahoe, which would deplete the bottom water of oxygen and drastically disrupt the food web.

“Temperature is one of the conditions that dictates who lives in the lakes,” said Schladow. “Warmer temperatures may make the lakes more hospitable to invasive species and put native species under stress.  I’m not saying this is happening yet, but it could.”

In his article about the study, Matt Weiser of the Sacramento Bee has some examples of how warmer temperatures can affect lake ecosystems. And KQED news editor Dan Brekke has assembled an interactive map (below), showing the locations and some temperature data for lakes in the study.


View California’s Warming Lakes in a larger map