Ecosystems

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Report: California a “Conservation Hotspot”

A report pinpoints critical areas in California for protecting critters

The North American pika like the protection and cool refuge of high-elevation talus slopes. (Photo: US Forest Service)

California is one of five places on earth with a Mediterranean climate. It has enough endemic plant species to be its own “floristic province.” It’s also what biologists refer to as a biodiversity hotspot. So it’s not surprising that a report by the Endangered Species Coalition includes three places either completely or partially within California in its list of ten of the most important locations to protect endangered species.

The report highlights areas across the U.S. that are most threatened, such as the Everglades, and places that provide home to the greatest number of endangered species, like Hawaii. Continue reading

Federal Gov’t Eyes CA for Solar Projects

The federal government is recommending 24 areas in six Southwestern US states it says are “best-suited” for large-scale solar projects, both economically and environmentally.   Four of these “Solar Energy Zones” are in California: two in San Bernadino County and one each in Imperial and Riverside Counties, and together they account for nearly half of the nearly 700,000 acres recommended by the Obama Adminstration.

“These are areas in those states which have been determined to have the highest solar potential and the fewest amount of environmental and resource conflicts,” said Interior Secretary Ken Salazar on a conference call with reporters Thursday.

He said that because the recommended areas are likely to have fewer delays related to environmental issues, projects sited there are likely to have a faster permitting process.   The report and its recommendations, he said, will help speed up the implementation of renewable energy projects around the Southwest. (!–more–>

“It presents a common sense and flexible framework from which to grow our nation’s renewable energy economy,” he said.

While representatives from environmental groups such as the Wilderness Society, the Nature Conservancy, and the Center for Biological Diversity applauded the federal government for planning ahead for efforts to make the siting of solar projects more efficient, some voiced concerns about the specific sites named as Solar Energy Zones.

Ilene Anderson of the Center for Biological Diversity expressed concern that one of the areas designated in California, a swath of more than 200,000 acres called Riverside East, contains habitat of the endangered desert tortoise. Another zone she finds problematic is the Iron Mountain Zone, which Anderson says is too far from population centers, meaning that projects there could require the construction of additional transmission infrastructure.

Beyond the specific areas, however, Anderson said what concerns her to most is that the federal strategy leaves open the possibility for solar projects in sites outside the designated zones.

“My concern is that they’re still going to be entertaining applications anywhere on public lands, and that gets us back to the problem that we’re currently seeing which is these renewable energy projects spread willy-nilly across the desert,” she said.

You can see what the recommended sites actually look like with this interactive map that identifies the Solar Energy Zones and provides on-the-ground panoramic views of the sites.

Chu Tones it Down for Cancun

Energy Secretary takes the cautious route in Cancun; just part of the sideshow at COP16.

US Secretary of Energy Steven Chu appeared to pull some punches while speaking at the US Center in Cancun on Monday. (Photo: Gretchen Weber)

The UN climate negotiations in Cancun may be the official attraction, but in many ways, there’s just as much happening at the “side events” here at COP16.  There are dozens everyday — last week there were more than 150, and that number is increasing this week as more people arrive for the final days of the talks.  While the negotiations are limited to representatives from national governments, the side events provide a stage for non-governmental organizations (NGOs), scientists, business leaders, and local and regional government officials, many of them, it turns out, from California. Continue reading

National Parks Wrestle with Warming

As the world warms, officials at the National Park Service are starting to sweat: No glaciers at Glacier, no Joshua trees at Joshua Tree. These are part of the long-range forecast for the national parks.

A misty Lake McDonald in Glacier National Park; metaphor for the park's murky future? (Photo: Craig Miller)

Last month, in a post from Glacier National Park, I noted that Park Service director Jon Jarvis was not in a mood to mince words, calling climate change “the greatest threat to the integrity of the national park system that we’ve ever faced.”

That assertion was underscored last week in a new report on potential impacts to the parks from climate change. The collaboration by the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Rocky Mountain Climate Organization, attempted to zoom in on specific parks and projected changes ahead for ten national parks in California, as well as impacts on the state’s economy.

Death Valley is already the hottest spot in North America. The highest recorded temperature there is 136 dF. (Photo: Craig Miller)

Some conclusions under a “medium-to-high” emissions scenario, toward the end of this century: Higher temperatures in Joshua Tree National Park would mean the end of, well, Joshua trees in the park. Muir Woods could be as warm, on average, as San Diego has been historically, making it less hospitable to the park’s legendary coast redwoods. Death Valley, already the hottest spot on the continent, could become virtually uninhabitable during the summer, as average temperatures rise by more than eight degrees, Fahrenheit, over average readings from 1961 to 1990. Continue reading

Center to Study Climate Impacts on Ocean

Federal officials this week launched a new climate change research center, designed to be a hub for studies on the impacts of climate change on the San Francisco Bay and coastline.

The tidal gauge off of San Francisco's Fort Point is the oldest in North America.

The Ocean Climate Center is housed in a collection of century-old military buildings on the edge of the Bay at Crissy Field. It couldn’t be a more picturesque — and critical — location. Adjacent to the oldest tidal gauge in North America, the center will allow cash-strapped federal agencies to pool resources into climate change research and work with natural resource managers to combat negative impacts on the marine ecosystem and communities along the coastline. Continue reading

California: The “Solar Saudi Arabia”

At solar-thermal plants, mirrors concentrate solar energy on a central tower, where steam is generated to run turbines. (Image: BrightSource Energy)

Prepare for a solar building boom in the deserts of Southern California. After spending years in the environmental review process and clearing other bureaucratic hurdles, approvals for clean energy producers are picking up steam.

State regulators have now given the green light to four major solar power projects in as many weeks. The most recent was on Wednesday, when the California Energy Commission gave the nod to a 370-megawatt solar-thermal array known as the Ivanpah project (the CEC does not have authority over photovoltaic or “PV” solar arrays). Developed by Oakland-based BrightSource Energy and built by Bechtel Corp., it will consume more than 3,500 acres near the California-Nevada border, in the northern Mojave Desert. Continue reading

US EPA Official Says “No on 23″

US EPA Regional 9 Administrator Jared Blumenfeld, at Crissy Field in San Francisco on August 25th. (Photo: Gretchen Weber)

The ranks of officials publicly opposing Proposition 23 seem to be growing.  Earlier this month we reported that Energy Secretary Steven Chu said passing the measure would be a “terrible setback” for California’s clean energy leadership and that the state’s Air Resources Board Chairman Mary Nichols called Prop 23 a “very serious threat” to the core programs of AB 32 and related regulatory programs.

Today, at a meeting of the California Air Pollution Control Officers Association in San Francisco, federal EPA Administrator Jared Blumenfeld urged attendees to vote against the measure.

Doing so, he said, “is certainly what you should do.”
Continue reading

Climate News Roundup

A few items in the climate news that caught our eyes this week…

1. CEC approves 250-megawatt solar thermal project in Kern County
The California Energy Commission approved the Beacon Solar Energy project on Wednesday. It’s the first time in 20 years that state energy regulators have approved construction on a solar thermal farm, the Los Angeles Times reports.

2. Geoengineering won’t curb sea-level rise, study finds
A new report from the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences finds that geoengineering strategies to combat global warming by blocking the sun’s radiation would not have much of an impact on rising sea levels, unless the efforts are extremely aggressive. (Read more at Nature.com)

3. Earth’s plant growth fell due to climate change, says NASA
After 20 years of increasing growth under warming temperatures, the Earth’s vegetation   saw a slight decrease over the last decade, according to a new NASA analysis.  Scientists reported they were surprised to find that the negative effects of regional droughts outweighed the positive influence of a longer growing season.

4. Another hurdle cleared for the world’s largest solar farm
Federal regulators are one step closer to approving plans for the 1,000 megawatt plant proposed by Oakland-based company Solar Millennium LLC.  The project would be located across more than 7,000 acres in Riverside County. (Read more at The New York Times.)

Rebuilding a Buffer Against Climate Impacts

Hear our radio feature on wetlands restoration in San Francisco Bay, to be aired Friday afternoon on The California Report.

As my colleague Paul Rogers reported this week, earth has begun to move in the biggest wetlands restoration ever undertaken on the West Coast. This week I took a brief tour of the Eden Landing Ecological Reserve, near Hayward.

What is and what will be: Hundreds of acres of salt evaporation ponds, in the background, are being restored to tidal wetlands, as seen in the foreground of this scene from Eden Landing in Hayward. (All photos: Craig Miller)

Scanning much of the scene, “Eden” wasn’t exactly what came to mind. Vast, white expanses of salt and gypsum deposits are more reminiscent of Utah than a bay estuary. These are the remnants of a once booming salt harvesting industry.

But fueled partially by federal stimulus funding, bulldozers and backhoes are now reshaping levees there as part of the larger South Bay Salt Pond Restoration Project, which will eventually return 630 acres of abandoned salt flats into tidal wetlands at Eden Landing, and thousands more in an arc around the south end of San Francisco Bay. Continue reading

Humans and Climate, Past and Future

Arctic cottongrass, a tundra plant that may increasingly be replaced by birch as temperatures warm, studies show. (Photo: Gretchen Weber)

Two new studies out of Stanford’s Carnegie Institution for Science raise interesting questions about human influence on the future of the world’s climate and about our role in global warming thousands of years ago.

The first study, authored by Ken Caldeira and Long Cao, used models to examine the climatic effects of actively removing CO2 from the atmosphere.  What they found is that even if all CO2 emissions were magically halted, and CO2 levels in the atmosphere were instantly reduced to pre-industrial levels, the resulting drop in temperatures would offset less that half of the CO2-induced warming.

This discrepancy, the scientists say, is due to complexities in the carbon cycle.  First, as CO2 in the atmosphere drops, the ocean, which acts as a carbon sink by absorbing CO2 from the air, will release more of its stored carbon.  Second, the carbon balance on land will change, too.  As temperature and CO2 concentrations change, soils will begin to release more carbon than plants take in.

Therefore, in order for CO2 scrubbing to be effective, said Caldeira in an email, we may have to commit to it for a long time.  “To maintain atmospheric CO2 at low levels would require removing CO2 from the atmosphere as it degassed from the oceans and land surface. This process takes many decades, even centuries,” he wrote.

That revelation, “has obvious implications for the public and for policy makers as we weigh the costs and benefits of different ways of mitigating climate change,” according to Caldeira.

The second study, which has been the target of some skepticism in the blogosphere, suggests that humans may have been influencing the climate thousands of years ago, long before was previously believed.  In the paper, authors Chris Doughty, Chris Field, and Adam Wolf, all of the Carnegie Institute, propose that the extinction of mammoths 15,000 years ago, caused in part by human hunters, may have contributed to global warming by causing a change in the albedo of the land surface in the far north.  Mammoths ate birch, which kept the dark green plant in check across the grasslands of North America and present-day Russia. As the population of the large mammals declined, the authors assert, the birch spread and dominated the lighter-colored grasslands, which effectively changed the color of the landscape.  A darker land surface absorbs more heat than a light one. This in turn heats up the air, creating a positive feedback loop that encourages the spread of more birch.

The authors estimate that the mammoth extinction could account for approximately one-quarter of the spread of birch at that time, and that the increased birch cover could have warmed the planet .18 degrees F over several centuries.