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CA Power Plants Must Find New Cooling Methods

California’s electrical power generators will be scrambling for new ways to cool their turbines, now that state regulators have ordered a phase-out of  “once-through cooling.” The practice, which has been under study by regulators since at least 2005, requires sucking in billions of gallons of cold ocean or river water and then returning it at higher temperatures. Nineteen major power plants across the state, including California’s only two commercial nuclear plants, are currently using once-through cooling.

Sea water used for cooling at Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant. Photo: Craig Miller

Sea water spews from an outlet after being used for cooling at PG&E's Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant. Photo: Craig Miller

Prior to Tuesday’s vote by the Water Resources Control Board, the head of that body’s ocean unit testified that once-through cooling systems kill 2.6 million fish, 19 billion fish larvae and 57 seals, sea lions and sea turtles each year, Dow Jones reported.

According to the Board’s summary:

“The proposed policy establishes technology-based standards to implement federal Clean Water Act section 316(b) and reduce the harmful effects associated with cooling water intake structures on marine and estuarine life.”

The rules require that companies phase out the practice and install equipment that reduces impact on marine ecosystems within the next several years.  Some generators have warned that the high cost of complying with the regulations could force them to shut some plants down.

For more on the practice of “once through cooling” and its effects on marine life, listen to Amy Standen’s Quest radio report from Monday.

East Coast Leads Offshore Wind Derby

The Nysted wind farm off Denmark. Image: Cape Wind Assoc.

The Nysted wind farm off Denmark. Image: Cape Wind Assoc.

The nation’s first offshore utility-scale wind farm has won federal approval but it was no slam dunk. The Dept. of Interior has approved the 130-turbine Cape Wind project, off Nantucket.

The plan launched such an epic debate that at least one book has been written about it. Today’s nod comes just weeks after a federal advisory panel recommended against approval and doesn’t necessarily mean the project will go forward. Opposition groups have already vowed to go to court.

Cape Wind is just one of numerous offshore wind projects under consideration for the East Coast and Great Lakes region.

Permitting for most wind projects in California comes under local jurisdiction but a spokeswoman at the California Energy Commission told me that to her knowledge, no offshore wind projects are currently under review for California. An obstacle often cited is the extreme ocean depths off California, which make construction difficult. Various wave power projects have been proposed for the coastline.

A (PDQ) PDO Primer

The term “PDO” is coming up more often in climate discussions. What it is and why it’s being bandied about are explained in this post from our content partners, Climate Central.

Surf along California's Mendocino Coast. Photo: Craig Miller

Surf along California's Mendocino Coast. Photo: Craig Miller

Did Someone Say “PDO”?

By Heidi Cullen, Phil Duffy and Claudia Tebaldi

Earlier this month, The New York Times ran a page-one story looking into why climatologists and TV meteorologists are at odds over global warming.

The article, which quoted one of the authors of this post, pointed out that while climate scientists almost universally agree that human activities, such as the burning of fossil fuels, are warming up the planet, a significant percentage of TV meteorologists do not. In fact, a recent study from George Mason University and the University of Texas at Austin showed that out of 571 TV meteorologists surveyed, only about half believed that global warming was happening and fewer than a third accepted the proposition that climate change was “caused mostly by human activities.” The survey also suggested that TV meteorologists view climate change as mostly a natural phenomenon.

Joe Bastardi, a senior meteorologist at AccuWeather, stands squarely in the natural causes camp, and he offered up his own explanation recently on Comedy Central’s The Colbert Report. On the comedy show, Bastardi said the global warming trend is just temporary and caused by a mix of volcanic activity, solar cycles, warmer ocean temperatures and specifically a natural climate pattern known as the “PDO” or Pacific Decadal Oscillation.

Bastardi has provided a great opportunity to educate the public about climate change. And as climate scientists, we’d like to take a moment to talk about natural climate variability specifically.

The solar cycle and volcano arguments Bastardi gravitates toward are fascinating. But when it comes to climate change, these natural sources of climate variability are incapable of doing the heavy lifting. In fact, they’ve been raised, tested, and solidly laid to rest by the climate science community. Variations in solar output are too weak, and in any case repeat every 11 years, and so cannot explain a steady warming trend over 40+ years. As for the volcano argument, eruptions are also too puny. Globally,volcanoes, like Iceland’s Eyjafjallajokull volcano as well as those under the sea release a total of about 200 million tonnes (metric tons) of CO2 annually.

That may sound like a lot, but it’s trivial when compared to human activity. According to the U.S. Department of Energy’s Carbon Dioxide Information Analysis Center (CDIAC), global fossil fuel CO2 emissions for 2003 tipped the scales at 26.8 billion tonnes—over 100 times more. Let’s just say human activity can bench press a whole lot more warming than the sun’s variations and volcanoes combined.

Before we move on to the role of the Pacific, we want to first thank Bastardi for daring to mention the phrase P-D-O on television. While geeks like us find the Pacific Decadal Oscillation fascinating, alphabet soup has a tendency to make the public’s eyes glaze over.

The PDO is just one of many natural oscillations in the climate system. It is characterized by a positive or “warm”  phase, and a negative or “cool” phase, which refer to the pattern of anomalies in sea surface temperatures and air pressure between the north central Pacific Ocean and the northeastern Pacific. The El Niño/La Nina cycle, for example, is another natural oscillation. Its period, about three-to-seven years, is shorter than the PDO’s, but in fact, the PDO is often thought of a slower version of El Niño, as some of the manifestations are similar.

Image: NOAA

For example, in the warm phase of the PDO, temperatures in the northwest region of North America tend to be warmer than average, while the southeastern U.S. tends to be cooler than average. Bastardi believes the warming trend (shown below) is only temporary because the phase in which the PDO has predominantly been at the same time, with its warmer than average tropical Pacific Ocean temperatures, is temporarily juicing the system. He forecasts the global temperature trend will dip back down once the PDO shifts back.

blog_monthlyPDOHere’s the problem. First and foremost, while the PDO is important in driving regional climate variations, it has no clear effect on global temperatures. And although the PDO was in its warm phase during the majority of the time from the mid 1970s to the present, it also shifted sharply in multiple instances (see chart), which is inconsistent with the steady global warming trend during the same period. For example, the decade from 2000 to 2009 was the warmest on record globally, but the PDO was not positive throughout that period.

It has been said that the truth is stubborn. This idea gives climate scientists a small sense of relief in that eventually, the stubborn truth will be recognized; that the recent global warming trend is real and caused mostly by human activities.

References for this article are shown in the original post at Climate Central.

Planning Questions Persist Over Sea Level Rise

Heavy surf along the Monterey Peninsula. Photo: Craig Miller

Heavy surf along the Monterey Peninsula. Photo: Craig Miller

Speakers at this week’s sea level planning conference in Oakland cited everybody from H. L. Mencken to Yogi Berra (“You can observe a lot just by watching”). But the primary insight from the event may have been courtesy of Robert Frost: “…miles to go before (we) sleep.”

About 225 representatives from industry, government and academia gathered at the behest of the non-profit Bay Planning Coalition.  The effort was to push forward a planning agenda to help prepare the Bay Area and coastal California for rising sea levels due to the changing climate. There is considerable uncertainty surrounding how much sea level rise we should expect in the decades to come. There were indications at the conference that planners were starting to coalesce around predictions of 16 inches by 2050, and 55 inches by 2100, projections embraced by the state’s formal climate adaptation plan.

Greater still is the uncertainty surrounding how governments, businesses and public agencies will respond to the challenge. Estimates are that rising seas threaten $100 billion of “economic assets” statewide, half of which are in the Bay Area. While most speakers seemed to agree on the urgency of mobilizing a coordinated planning effort, few seemed certain where to start.

The palpable frustration in the room was voiced  by, among others, Calla Rose Ostrander, Climate Action Coordinator with the City and County of San Francisco. “I think we’ve set ourselves up to need certainty, to make decisions,” she told me, saying that public agencies in charge of roads and development feel paralyzed. “When we apply for funding for these things,” explained Ostrander, they (potential funders) say ‘How are you planning for it?’ And we haven’t been advised yet on how to plan for it.” That dilemma was echoed by Paul Thayer of the California State Lands Commission: “You can’t engineer for a range of sea level rise,” he said. And yet that would appear to be the task.

Oakland Int'l Airport, like much of the Bay Area's critical infrustructure, lies barely above sea level. Photo: Craig Miller

Oakland Int'l Airport, like much of the Bay Area's critical infrastructure, lies barely above sea level. Photo: Craig Miller

Funding is another area that remains fuzzy, amid all the inter-agency discussions, and one that was not substantively addressed at the conference. It is expected that rising seas will require billions of dollars in infrastructure upgrades. The Port of Oakland, for example, is awaiting the outcome of a study to determine what “perimeter defenses” will be needed to keep runways at Oakland International Airport above water.

Several speakers raised concern about rallying public support to confront a threat that is so diffuse. Will Travis, who heads the San Francisco-based Bay Conservation & Development Commission, predicted that “bringing it home” to households with more immediate worries will be the biggest challenge. And yet we can’t wait, warned Travis. “The longer we wait, the worse the problem becomes.”

Scientists as well as policymakers are pondering how to respond to rising sea levels. Nicole Heller of our content partner Climate Central recently attended a conference aimed at that end of the issue, and wrote about it in the Climate Central blog.

Sea Otters May Lose Taxpayer Buoy

This is the second in a series of posts on recent developments at the Monterey Bay Aquarium and its sister research institute.

A snoozing sea otter at Moss Landing. Photo: Craig Miller

A snoozing sea otter at Moss Landing. Photo: Craig Miller

An important source of funding for California Sea Otter research may be in jeopardy.

Since 2007, the California Sea Otter Fund has been one of several options for which state taxpayers could earmark money on their returns. That option may disappear. In order to maintain its slot on state tax forms, annual contributions need to attain a threshold set by the Franchise Tax Board. Lately, those donations have fallen about 25% short of the mark, currently set at more than $258,000. “It’s got to be the economy,” said Jim Curland, when I asked him if he could account for the lag. Curland works on marine programs for the non-profit Defenders of Wildlife, an organization that works closely with scientists investigating recent declines in the number of sea otters along the California coast. The otter fund competes with about a dozen other programs seeking donations on state tax forms.

Two California sea otters doze in the yacht basin at Moss Landing. Photo: Craig Miller

Water mummies: Two California sea otters doze in regal repose in the yacht basin at Moss Landing. Photo: Craig Miller

The Monterey Bay Aquarium spends about a million dollars per year on sea otter research, according to spokesman Ken Peterson, who notes that female otters in particular, have been in decline. Scientists are trying to fund tagging and tracking programs to better understand changes in sea otter populations. “Any money out there that helps get answers is critical to their survival,” he told me. The California sea otter is listed as “threatened” under the federal Endangered Species Act and has “fully protected” status under the California Fish & Game Code.

Curland says proceeds from the tax form donations are split between the state’s Department of Fish & Game and the Coastal Conservancy, which has helped fund a key study off of Big Sur.

If you’re looking for the climate connection here, don’t strain for it. I’ll confess to just being a sucker for the cause. But there may be one. Wildlife biologists at the US Geological Survey (USGS) and UC Santa Cruz, have postulated that as custodians of giant kelp forests, the otters may help optimize carbon sequestration.

Curland says the next three months will be crucial for the fund, as donations trickle in from late filers.

Research Vessel Docked for Lack of Funds

The research vessel Point Lobos, docked at Moss Landing. Photo: Craig Miller

The research vessel Point Lobos, docked at Moss Landing. Photo: Craig Miller

Update: Since this original post, the status of the Point Lobos was updated by Paul Rogers in the San Jose Mercury News. The article also adds detail on the finances of MBARI and its primary funder.

The Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI) has been forced to dock the workhorse of its research fleet, the R/V Point Lobos.

For years the vessel has ventured out three-to-five times a week, to conduct short-term experiments in the deep canyons of Monterey Bay. The ship serves as a platform for the Institute’s remote-control submarine, ROV Ventana. The Point Lobos and its robo-sub have played critical roles in recent experiments to study the effects of ocean acidification, among other endeavors.

In the late 1980s, MBARI converted the 110-foot vessel from its original duty as an oilfield service boat in the Gulf of Mexico. Since then it’s completed more than 3,500 missions, with its seven-person crew and various teams of scientists.

The remotely operated sub Ventana, perched on the afterdeck of the Point Lobos. Photo: Craig Miller

The remotely operated sub Ventana, perched on the afterdeck of the Point Lobos. Photo: Craig Miller

Institute spokesman Kim Fulton-Bennett says that as of April 1, the Lobos is “mothballed” for the time being, its future uncertain. “It means we won’t have as frequent access to the ocean as we did,” Fulton-Bennett told me, as we stood on the dock at Moss Landing.

“By going out several times a week, we’ve got a database of observations that goes back 20 years.”

But the Wall Street woes of the past couple of years have taken their toll on the investment portfolios of many foundations, including MBARI’s primary funder, the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, which Fulton-Bennett says has reduced it’s funding for MBARI.

H-P co-founder David Packard launched MBARI in 1987 with the goal of applying advanced technology to marine research. The Institute relies on the Packard Foundation for 80% of its funding, typically $30-to-40 million per year, according to the MBARI annual report.

The Institute has two other vessels in its research fleet, a converted pilot boat called the Zephyr and the 117-foot Western Flyer, a twin-hulled, ultra-stable vessel that resembles a catamaran-style ferry. The Flyer is deployed on longer-duration missions in open sea, usually with project-specific funding.

The Point Lobos is featured in Lauren Sommer’s radio report/audio slide show for KQED’s Quest series.

Author: Polar Bears Doomed No Matter What We Do

US Fish & Wildlife Service

Photo: US Fish & Wildlife Service

Because our charter at Climate Watch is to examine climate change from the California perspective, you don’t see a lot here about melting ice caps and imperiled polar bears. But Michael Krasny’s interview with Richard Ellis on KQED’s Forum program is well worth an hour of your time.

Ellis is the author of On Thin Ice: The Changing World of the Polar Bear (Random House, 2009) and it’s fair to say that he managed to stun Krasny with a declaration that the species is “doomed,” no matter what we might try to do to save it at this point. Ellis says there is already too much warming in the pipeline (what scientists call “committed” warming) to reverse the disintegration of the bears’ arctic habitat.

Polar bear populations have been a topic of persistent confusion, recently amplified in an op-ed piece written by former Alaska governor Sarah Palin for The Washington Post.

According to the advocacy group Polar Bears International, there is little room for doubt about the animal’s decline. The organization’s website breaks down the numbers, which point to a “scientifically documented decline in the best-studied population, Western Hudson Bay, and predictions of decline in the second best-studied population, the Southern Beaufort Sea.”

The PBI analysis goes on to explain that:

The Western Hudson Bay population has dropped by 22% since 1987. The Southern Beaufort Sea bears are showing the same signs of stress the Western Hudson Bay bears did before they crashed, including smaller adults and fewer yearling bears.

At the most recent meeting of the IUCN Polar Bear Specialist Group (Copenhagen, 2009), scientists reported that of the 19 sub-populations of polar bears, eight are declining, three are stable, one is increasing, and seven have insufficient data on which to base a decision. (The number of declining populations has increased from five at the group’s 2005 meeting.)

Regardless of whether you share the conclusions of Ellis and PBI about the future of the “poster child for global warming,” the Forum interview is a fascinating hour.

A Sea Change in Ocean Policy Promised

Reed Galin

Photo: Reed Galin

A phalanx of high-level federal officials marched into San Francisco today to announce a major shift in the way the federal government oversees the oceans.

The top-level administrators from the White House and several agencies held a public meeting to launch efforts toward a first-ever National Ocean Policy, in which they say restoring a healthy ecosystem will be a top priority.

The newly formed Interagency Ocean Policy Task Force is led by Nancy Sutley, chair of the White House Council on Environmental Quality and one of President Obama’s top advisors on the environment. She arrived surrounded by representatives from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), EPA, Navy, Coast Guard and Dept. of Interior (which, odd as it sounds, is responsible for vast tracts on the outer continental shelf).

Asked why we’re just getting around to a unified national ocean policy, Sutley said that “Too often the federal government sits in its stovepipes,” with each agency taking a narrow view. This effort is an attempt to break through traditional parochialism in favor of a more holistic approach to the challenges.

Task force member Jane Lubchenco, who heads NOAA, said that for the first time, policy makers are saying loudly that “healthy oceans matter.” And right now, she says, they’re not real healthy.

“At a global scale, I would say that oceans are in critical condition,” said Lubchenco. ” Most people are unaware of how much disruption and depletion has occurred within the oceans. We’re seeing the symptoms of much of that. It’s time to get on with the solutions.”

The task force will address a growing array of concerns, from shrinking fisheries to higher acid levels in the ocean—many of which are likely related to climate change.

Lubchenco, who is also an Undersecretary of Commerce, told me that “Climate change is exacerbating many of the existing challenges for ocean uses. There’s very good evidence that climate change is already having very significant impacts on oceans.” Lubchenco also cited “the related problem of ocean acidification,” and reeled off a laundry list of  climate impacts, including “loss of biological diversity, increasing transport of invasive species, nutrient pollution, habitat loss, and over-fishing.”

Lubchenco added “That sum total of stresses on ocean ecosystems means that we need to be taking new approaches.” The most sweeping of those “new approaches” will be “ecosystem-based management,” a term used repeatedly in the Interim Report issued by the task force this month.

According to the report:

“The implementation of ecosystem-based management embodies a fundamental shift in how the United States manages these resources, and provides a foundation for how the remaining objectives would be implemented…It would provide the opportunity to ensure proactive and holistic approaches to balance the use and conservation of these valuable resources. This broad-based application of ecosystem-based management would provide a framework for the management of our resources, and allow for such benefits as helping to restore fish populations, control invasive species, support healthy coastal communities and ecosystems, restore sensitive species and habitats, protect human health, and rationally allow for emerging uses of the ocean, including new energy production.”

The task force will also be taking its own stab at some long-term solutions for the troubled Sacramento River Delta. The interim report is open for public comment until October 10.

Plan Moves Climate Adaptation to Front Burner

A one-fifth reduction in per capita water use by 2020 is among the goals outlined in a new state report on adapting to climate change.

Released by the California Natural Resources Agency (CNRA) as a “discussion draft,”  the 2009 California Climate Adaptation Strategy is being billed as the nation’s first comprehensive game plan for adaptation to climate change.

Reed Galin

Photo: Reed Galin

Most of the state’s high-profile climate initiatives (and battles) have been about mitigation; how to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to slow down warming. This report swings the spotlight over to adaptation; what needs to be done to accommodate the climate change effects that are already “in the pipeline.”

While the California’s centerpiece climate law was passed three years ago, this week’s CNRA report concedes that “adaptation is a relatively new concept in California policy.” The 161-page white paper comes in response to an executive order from the Governor last fall, calling for a statewide adaptation strategy.

The draft divides the strategy into seven “sectors:” Public health, biodiversity and habitat, ocean and coastal resources, water, agriculture, and forestry.

Tony Brunello, Deputy Secretary for Climate Change and Energy at CNRA, says “This is the first report that really looks at how climate change is going to impact the state and what we need to do about it.”

But Brunello stopped short of conceding that mitigation is a lost cause. “You only have half a deck if you’re only focused on mitigation,” he said. “You need to focus on both mitigation and adaptation to truly be prepared.”

Some strategies attack both. Brunello points to water conservation measures, which save both water and energy (20% of the energy used in the state is deployed moving water around).

The plan is designed to work in consort with the California Air Resources Board’s implementation plan for AB-32, the state’s multifaceted attack on greenhouse gas emissions. CNRA says one of its goals is to “enhance” existing efforts, rather than create new programs and offices that need funding.

CNRA also promises to use the “best available science in identifying climate change risks and adaptation strategies.” Andrew Revkin has a useful overview of the mounting challenges to climate scientists, published this week in the New York Times.

One planned product from the adaptation plan is an interactive website devoted to climate adaptation, with maps and data to assist local planners. CNRA hopes to have that in place by early next year. The draft plan now enters a 45-day period for public comment.

NOAA Confirms El Nino

Image from NASA

Warm water patterns in the Pacific during normal (upper) and El Nino (lower) years. The lower image is from 1995-96. Image from NASA

Scientists with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration today confirmed what many had pretty much surmised: El Nino is back.

Officially the El Nino Southern Oscillation (ENSO), the cyclical pattern of ocean conditions has broad implications for weather and the Pacific food chain.

According to the NOAA news release:

“NOAA expects this El Niño to continue developing during the next several months, with further strengthening possible. The event is expected to last through winter 2009-10.”

NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center suggested about a month ago that conditions were right for the return of El Nino.

More recently, the high incidence of underweight sea lion pups turning up along the California coast was taken by some as a harbinger of ENSO. During El Nino cycles, normal upwelling of deep, cold water slows down, essentially shutting down the “food elevator” for many species.

Of course, there can be an upside. According to NOAA:

“El Niño’s impacts depend on a variety of factors, such as intensity and extent of ocean warming, and the time of year. Contrary to popular belief, not all effects are negative. On the positive side, El Niño can help to suppress Atlantic hurricane activity. In the United States, it typically brings beneficial winter precipitation to the arid Southwest, less wintry weather across the North, and a reduced risk of Florida wildfires.”

Links to climate change are less clear. Some scientists have suggested that warming air and sea temperatures might bring about more and longer El Nino events.