Oceans

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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

Paddling the Coast for Climate Clues

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Lane Hartman, Ian Montgomery, and Michael Taylor. Photo courtesy of Ian Montgomery.

Three Stanford students are starting a summer trip down the California coast today. They’ll be enjoying the views and the ocean breeze, but not from a convertible cruising down Highway 1. They’re kayaking from Monterey to San Diego. It’s going to take 2 months.

“If we walked we could go faster,” says Ian Montgomery, a sophomore Earth Systems major. He’s making the 400-mile trip with Lane Hartman and Michael Taylor. The three are united by, as they explain on their blog, a “love for surfing and great bodies of water” (Montgomery is from Southern California, Hartman and Taylor are from Michigan and the Marshall Islands, respectively).

Montgomery expects the slow pace (about 10 miles a day) and the sheer novelty of the expedition will provide opportunities to talk to locals about changes they’ve seen along the coast. The students will stop along the way to talk to ecologists, representatives from environmental groups, fishermen, and coast residents.

The students did a test run earlier this week.

Photo: Lane Hartman.

The intertidal zone is an interesting place to study climate change, explains Montgomery, because there are so many variables: air temperature, water temperature, tidal action, and human impacts.

As the students travel they won’t just be collecting anecdotal evidence. They’ll take note of what animals they see in the water and also take pictures of the intertidal zone as they go along. By photographing a 25 centimeter by 25 centimeter square a day, they’ll create a series of snapshots of what lives where on the California coast.

They’ll be able to compare their findings with research from last century done by  marine biologist–and friend of John Steinbeck’s–Ed Ricketts. Montgomery unearthed Ricketts’s records of what species lived in the intertidal zone in Monterey in the ’20s and ’30s (some of the records are singed on the edges, survivors of a fire that tore through Ricketts’s lab in the 1930s). Montgomery suspects they’ll find that species have moved since then, pressed north by warmer temperatures. He already knows some have, like the tube snail (serpulorbis squamigerus), a species that was once limited to Southern California, but is now common in Monterey Bay.

You can follow their progress and see pictures from the trip on the students’ blog.

NASA Launches Arctic Sea Ice Expedition

Coast Guard Cutter Healy (Photo by Petty Officer Patrick Kelley, US Coast Guard)

Coast Guard Cutter Healy. Photo: Petty Officer Patrick Kelley, US Coast Guard

Next week, a NASA team of more than 40 scientists will take to the seas for a five-week expedition in the Arctic to study how changing conditions there are affecting ocean chemistry and ecosystems.  The voyage, NASA’s first dedicated oceanographic research mission, is named ICESCAPE, which stands for “Impacts of Climate on Ecosystems and Chemistry of the Arctic Pacific Environment.”  It will take place aboard the US Coast Guard Cutter Healy.

“We’re  trying to address what is the long term impact of climate variability and change, both natural and anthropogenic, on the biogeochemistry and ecology of the Arctic,” said Paula Bontempi, program manager for NASA’s ocean biology and biogeochemistry research program.

The expedition will give scientists a chance to make field observations about the ocean, sea ice, and the atmosphere in regions where researchers often must rely on remote sensing technology for their data.  One main focus of the research will be to observe how changes, such as a substantial decrease in sea ice, may be affecting the ocean’s ability to absorb CO2 from the atmosphere and the consequent effects on ecosystems.

“The Arctic is in the midst of some substantial changes,” said ICESCAPE Chief Scientist Kevin Arrigo of Stanford.  “In the last 10 years, the ice-free season in the Arctic Ocean has increased by about 45 days.  And this has a big impact on organisms in the Arctic that are keyed to these events.”

Arrigo says that the sea ice retreats about 28 days sooner than it did just a decade ago, and advances about 17 days later. He says this change has shifted the timing of food production.  Phytoplankton, the base of the food chain in the Arctic Ocean, are now growing a month earlier than they did in the 1990s, says Arrigo, which could spell a problem for organisms such as the California gray whales, which time their migrations around peak food production.

“Over the years satellite imagery has shown a significant decline in the Arctic ice cover,” said Don Perovich, a research geophysicist at the Cold Regions Research and Engineering Laboratory in Hanover, NH, who is part of the ICESCAPE expedition. “But there’s really more to it than just the ice.  It’s important to remember that sea ice isn’t just some isolated component. It’s part of larger system.”

Sea ice, he said, serves as a barrier between the atmosphere and the ocean, limiting the exchange of heat, moisture and gases; acts as a reflector of sunlight; and is a habitat for a rich marine ecosystem.

“It’s an ecosystem where sea ice and biology are intricately intertwined,” said Perovich. “You can think of the ice and the biology as executing this intricate dance, but it’s a dance where one of the partners has started changing its steps. And that partner is the sea ice cover.”

The 2010 ICESCAPE expedition starts in Dutch Harbor in the Aleutian Islands, will continue across the southern Chukchi Sea and into the Beaufort Sea along Alaska’s northern shelf.  A second expedition is planned for 2011.   NASA estimates the cost of the ICESCAPE project to be $10 million over four years.

The expedition blog has already launched, and will be updated daily once the expedition is underway, according to NASA spokesman Steve Cole.

I’ll be launching my own “Arctic expedition” next week.  Starting June 18th, I’ll be spending two weeks with climate scientists at the Toolik Field Station in northern Alaska, as part of the Logan Science Journalism Program, run by the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, MA.   Check back here for periodic dispatches about the science, the landscape, and the impacts of constant daylight on one journalist’s mental state.

Study Eyes Climate Impacts on Ocean Ecosystems

Farallone Islands (Photo: Jan Roletto, NOAA)

Farallon Islands. Photo: Jan Roletto, NOAA

The north-central California coast is likely to experience rising seas, more extreme weather events and coastal erosion, increased ocean acidity, and shifting marine habitats as a result of climate change, according to a new report released today from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

The report, “Climate Change Impacts: Gulf of the Farallones and Cordell Bank National Marine Sanctuaries,” was developed in collaboration with 16 agencies and organizations and was released today at the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco.

“This report provides insight into how climate change will play out in our region, how the ocean environment in the Gulf of the Farallones and over Cordell Bank will change and how the organisms that live there will be impacted by it,” said the report’s lead author, oceanographer John Largier of the Bodega Marine Laboratory and UC Davis.

Largier was careful to explain that the report does not make predictions about the future, nor is it a complete assessment of current conditions.

“It’s a group of scientists getting together and making their best judgment of how things are changing, how things will change, and what are we most concerned about,” said Largier.

Topping the list of concerns, he said, are rising sea levels of approximately 1.5 meters by 2100, warming oceans, an increase in the variability of precipitation (drier dry years and wetter wet ones), and ocean acidification, which he called, “the other CO2 problem,” and stressed as both a global and regional concern.

“There are a lot of things we know that are happening.  The real question we have to figure out now is how much this could all this change the ecosystem,” said Largier.  “The system is so complex, it’s not totally clear how it’s going to evolve.  Some populations might do a lot better with climate change, and others are going to be hammered. ”

NOAA

Image: NOAA

The report makes some recommendations for the sanctuaries, including a greater focus on public education, implementing policies that allow for flexibility and adaptation to change, and mitigating other factors that impact the ecosystem such as pollution, invasive species, fishing, and infrastructure development.

“We are just now getting to the state where we say what does climate change mean for us, for my community?” said Largier.  “It’s warming, sure, but what does it mean for ‘here’?  How is it going to play out? And what are the things that are going to happen that really matter at a regional and local level?  This is a huge scientific challenge that we are struggling with, but it’s an essential management and policy challenge.”

Bill Douros, the West Coast Regional Director of NOAA’s Marine Sanctuary program expressed the same sentiment in his opening remarks at the Cal Academy today.

“As we all know, the ocean is going to warm, it’s going to get more acidic, sea levels are going to rise, and those concepts are important, but what’s really important to someone who might be managing those marine protected areas is “How much?” and “By when are the sea levels going to rise and temp going to increase?”  And that’s what this report today provides to us.”

Key Issues highlighted in the report:
⇒ Observed increase in sea level (100-year record at mouth of San Francisco Bay)

⇒ Expected increase in coastal erosion associated with changes in sea level and storm waves

⇒ Observed decrease in spring runoff of freshwater through San Francisco Bay (decreased Sierra snowpack)

⇒ Observed increase in precipitation variability (drier dry years, wetter wet years)

⇒ Observed increase in surface ocean temperature off the continental shelf
(50 year record)

⇒ Observed increase in winds driving coastal upwelling of nutrient-rich waters and
associated observed decrease in surface ocean temperature over the continental
shelf (30 year record)

⇒ Observed increase in extreme weather events (winds, waves, storms)

⇒ Expected decrease in seawater pH, due to uptake of CO2 by the ocean

⇒ Observed northward shift of key species (including Humboldt squid, volcano
barnacle, gray whales, bottlenose dolphins)

⇒ Possible shift in dominant phytoplankton (from diatom to dinoflagellate blooms)

⇒ Potential for effects of climate change to be compounded by parallel
environmental changes associated with local human activities

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.

NASA Looking More Earthward

Rachel Cohen is a Bay Area freelance writer, presently serving an internship with Climate Watch.

NASA's GRACE satellite is equipped to gather ice and water data on the Earth's surface. Image: NASA

NASA's GRACE satellite is equipped to gather ice and water data on the Earth's surface. Image: NASA

To boldly go–where we already live

By Rachel Cohen

NASA will likely be focusing more attention on the “pale blue dot” in coming years, with a reinvigorated Earth Science Program. California’s freshwater supply and sea level change are among the features that will be studied by replacing an aging satellite.

The proposed White House budget for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration includes billions of dollars for satellites and other tech tools to help scientists investigate Earth-bound problems, especially climate change. Part of the program will be steered from Pasadena’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, which will manage two key missions connected with the program. JPL spokesman Alan Buis says the White House support may provide stability for gathering the kind of long-term data sets needed to study gradual changes in earth systems.

As Jon Hamilton reports in his  story for NPR’s Morning Edition, the centerpiece of the program will be the GRACE satellite which will collect data critical for a variety of models and applications, including:

· The changing mass of polar ice caps
· Changes in water resources on land
· Shallow and deep ocean current transport mechanisms
· Sea level change resulting from ocean temperature and water mass changes
· Exchanges between the oceans and atmosphere
· Forces that generate Earth’s geomagnetic field, and
· Internal Earth forces that move tectonic plates and result in earthquakes and volcanic eruptions

GRACE has been in orbit since 2002 and is due to be replaced. NASA suffered a severe setback when its Orbiting Carbon Observatory (OCO) satellite crashed after its launch early last year. The White House budget includes funding to rebuild the vehicle and relaunch in February of 2013. The OCO2 satellite is designed to measure carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, specifically comparing sources of CO2 to “sinks,” where it is stored.