California Heats Up

A chilly summer suddenly switches to record-breaking heat in much of California.  Is this climate change?

Photo: Craig Miller

It reached 113 degrees in Los Angeles on Monday, a record. And while a string of hot days in California doesn’t signify climate change any more than do record snowstorms in Washington D.C., the summer of 2010 did set quite a few records for high temperatures and heat waves. Although for us here in California, this week notwithstanding, we’ve had a pretty cool summer.

But this week’s heat — especially in Southern California — is a reminder of the ripple effects that could become commonplace if predictions of more frequent and severe heat waves come to pass, with a changing climate. Utilities pleaded with customers to conserve power as temperatures triggered record spikes in the electricity load and subsequent strain on the electrical grid. Continue reading

A Climate of Quietude

This week conservationists issued their annual list of the “most endangered” national parks, including two in California (Joshua Tree and Yosemite). There are many ways to measure the health of a park; the air, the water. This week on Quest radio, I examine an often overlooked vital sign: the sound. Thanks to Climate Watch contributor Sasha Khokha, Bob Roney, Bernie Krause and the staff at NPS Ft. Collins for many of the sounds you hear in that segment, nicely mixed by Ceil Muller.

Sand dune near Stovepipe Wells, Death Valley. Photo: Craig Miller

Sand dune near Stovepipe Wells, Death Valley. Photo: Craig Miller

The quietest place I’ve ever been was in a national park and I don’t think I’ll ever forget what it was like.

Okay, “quiet” is a somewhat subjective thing. When I lived on the upper (way upper) west side of Manhattan in the 1980s, any interval without hearing a car alarm seemed like blessed relief. Quiet can be measured, of course, with sound pressure meters. Anything below about 40 decibels is pretty darn quiet for most people’s purposes (a state that I doubt was ever attained in my apartment on West 119th St.).

The National Park Service (NPS) says the quietest place it has yet measured is a spot in Great Sand Dunes National Park, where Vicki McCusker, who helps oversee the natural sounds program for the Park Service, says it was “bottoming out” their meters.

I’ve never been there but it’s hard to imagine greater quietude than an afternoon I spent in Death Valley. Coincidentally this was also on a sand dune, near Stovepipe Wells. It was also Christmas Day, which kept the tourist traffic to a minimum. It was at a point in my life when I was in desperate need of some deep introspection, so I parked my car along Highway 190 and trekked into the dunes, found an accommodating slope and sat down. Occasionally a fly (or something) would buzz by. Other than that, the loudest thing was the buzzing in my own head, which I can only hope would’ve been inaudible to anyone with me.

Looking across the dunes in Death Valley. Photo: Craig Miller

Looking across the dunes in Death Valley. Photo: Craig Miller

It’s interesting how, when things get really quiet, our bodies try to make up for it with ringing ears and internal chaos. The noted bioacoustician Bernie Krause talks about the time he and his wife, Kat were hosting guests from New York, who literally had to leave the Krause’s semi-secluded Glen Ellen “sanctuary” because the night-time quiet was creeping them out.

I asked Krause what he could draw from that. “Well, it tells me that we’re more insane than I ever thought in the first place,” he mused. “I mean, we’re definitely verging on pathological.  Because it’s exactly those kinds of sounds–the urban acoustic envelope in which we enfold ourselves–that kind of urban noise that’s driving up the numbers of prescriptions for Prozac.”

Surveys of national park visitors would seem to bear that out.  In the early 1990s, NPS surveyed 15,000 visitors in 39 parks, about noise issues (NPS manages 391 “units” nationwide, 58 of which are designated as “parks”). More than nine out of ten visitors surveyed cited “enjoyment of natural quiet” as a reason for visiting. This survey provided some juice for the ongoing natural sounds program in the parks.

An open question is: where does it go from here? Much of the current effort in the parks appears to be geared toward developing “air tour management plans,” a response to concerns that first arose over the increasingly crowded skies above the Grand Canyon. McCusker told me that while aircraft overflights are the most pervasive noise issue across the parks, the most common complaint is probably over loud motorcycles (note to “straight-pipe” Harley owners).

Krause, who conducted a year-long project documenting soundscapes in Sequoia-Kings Canyon National Park, hopes the research will also be used to develop new rules governing on-the-ground noise pollution. “If the parks can set aside places where people can go and hear the natural world as it is, at any season of the year, then that will be a really big benefit for visitors coming to the parks,” he says. “Otherwise, you’re seeing the parks with the wrong soundtrack. It’s like watching Star Wars without a soundtrack.”

Leave a comment with your own “quietest place.”

In 2003, Bernie Krause & I co-produced a short film for the National Park Service, which takes you on a 4-and-a-half-minute journey from the “urban sound envelope” to a restful spot in Sequoia National park.

Tune in to PBS this week for the premiere of Ken Burns’ new series: The National Parks: America’s Best Idea. Also Quest television explores the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, an urban national park. This program is now available for viewing at the Quest site (see previous link).

Unlocking the Grid

Sarah Kass was the program producer for Unlocking the Grid, a collaboration between Climate Watch and KQED’s Quest program, which airs tonight at 7:30 on KQED Channel 9.

Wind Power: A Personal Perspective

By Sarah Kass

Last summer I visited the Netherlands, the original home of the windmill. Surprisingly, I saw hardly any of the quaint structures we associate with Dutch wind power. One hundred years ago Holland had about 10,000 wooden windmills dotting its landscape. Today, barely 10% remain. What I saw instead were high-tech wind turbines, white and spare and gracefully generating electricity with wind from the North Sea.

Many view these modern-day towers as an eyesore, but I see them as a sign of hope. Like giant flowers across a landscape, they symbolize for me a clean energy future. But wind power–and solar–have a handicap that fuels doubts that renewables will ever be more than a small percentage of U.S. power. These energy sources can’t be counted on when night falls or the wind subsides. Their inconsistent nature poses a problem for a world with an enormous appetite for electricity. If only excess power could be stored on a grand scale, it might solve many of our energy problems.

It isn’t that electrical energy isn’t currently storable, but as Andrew Tang, Senior Director of PG&E’s Smart Meter program points out, the current generation of batteries can’t store electricity at a price that’s cost-effective. But both he and Steve Berberich from California System Operators were optimistic about future storage possibilities. Tang described an experimental project that uses a sodium sulfur battery the size of an 18-wheeler trailer. The battery would be located next to a substation or somewhere in the network, and its stored power would be used during times of peak demand. He also talked about the future of plug-in electric cars, whose batteries could both store energy and in theory, put it back onto the grid when the car’s not in use.

Berberich envisioned several possibilities for storing excess power. He proposed converting it to hydrogen, which could be burned in a gas plant or could be used in a fuel cell. And he suggested using power to compress air, which could be injected into the ground and called upon when the wind’s not blowing and the sun’s not shining.

Whatever the final solution to storage, you can guarantee it will be a game changer in the renewable power industry. No longer will wind and solar be looked upon as unreliable. Hopefully this missing puzzle piece will go a long way toward helping us detach from our dependence on fossil fuels. But we’ll still be left with the challenge of getting all that clean, green energy onto the power grid. And you can be sure that environmental concerns, zoning, aesthetics, and cost will undoubtedly be cantankerous issues for years to come.

Watch the TV show online, and view exclusive web-only videos on energy-saving technologies for the home on Climate Watch’s Smart Grid special series page.

Do We Need Nuclear?

This is an updated re-post from August 24th, when my radio feature first aired on KQED’s Quest series. That report repeats on this week’s magazine edition of The California Report.

More people appear to be saying “yes” these days, even if grudgingly. The question is: Is it too late?

The Public Policy Institute of California has been tracking public support for expanded nuclear power over the past several years. Survey participants are offered a menu of four potential energy options, one at a time.

The question posed is: “Thinking about the country as a whole, to address the country’s energy needs and reduce dependence on foreign oil sources, do you favor or oppose the following proposals?” Then the four options are offered, including: “How about building more nuclear power plants at this time”

As recently as 2002, adults surveyed in California opposed the idea by a margin of 59% to 33%. But that gap has been closing steadily in the years since and by this July, Californians were split just about down the middle on the question, with 46% in favor and 48% opposed. The poll has a margin of error of about 2%, making it a virtual tie.

When you dig into the numbers a little deeper, some demographic preferences emerge. Support increases with both age and education. Californians 55 and older support more nuclear by a wide margin (58% to 36%) as do college graduates (50%-43%).

Many people use cost as an argument against nuclear but just as the PPIC was phoning around for opinions on the matter, the Palo Alto-based Electric Power Research Institute was finishing up its own report, concluding that trying to reach greenhouse gas reduction goals without baseload technologies like nuclear power, could end up costing much more.

Dan Kammen, who runs an energy lab at U.C. Berkeley, would appear to agree. He said in a recent interview for Climate Watch that “Without knowing exactly where things will come down on nuclear, I think that it absolutely has to be part of the equation in a way that it has not been in the past. Energy costs from fossil fuels are rising at almost 5% a year now, and the damage we are doing and are going to do more of, if we don’t stop our fossil fuel expansion, in terms of greenhouse warming, is so large an issue that these technologies have to be back on the table.

Is the road back to nuclear a dead end? Cooling towers at the decommissioned Rancho Seco nuclear power plant.

Is the road back to nuclear a dead end? Cooling towers at the decommissioned Rancho Seco nuclear power plant.

But there are serious doubts whether the nation–let alone the state–is in a position to embrace nuclear as it did in the 1960s. Kammen is also a professor of nuclear engineering, and noted with some alarm the rate at which the industry is “graying.” Now in his mid-forties, he told me that when he attends technical meetings for nuclear engineers, he’s often “the youngest guy in the room–by 20 years.” Since the U.S. more or less abandoned its nuclear hopes following the Three Mile Island debacle, the nation has ceded most of its nuclear industrial capacity to other nations, and few young people have chosen to enter the field.

Reports from new projects around the world have not been encouraging of late. Finland is struggling mightily to get its newest reactor up and running. This goes directly to doubts expressed by Kammen and others, that the industry can cowboy up fast enough for nuclear to play a meaningful role in meeting CO2 reduction targets.

The effective ban on new nuclear plants that California has had in place since 1976 could be reconsidered. But ultimately electric utilities will have to want it and I sense a certain “nuclear fatigue” in that arena.

Managers at the Sacramento Municipal Utility District (SMUD) shut down its only reactor in 1989, after a thumbs-down referendum. When I called to ask for an interview on the prospects for a nuclear revival, they declined. They didn’t even want to talk about it. Managers at PG&E, whose twin reactors at Diablo Canyon produce nearly a quarter of the utility’s output, still claim an interest in nuclear. But when I asked CEO Peter Darbee about it recently, he said he had the sense that most people in California would prefer to look elsewhere for energy solutions.

Of course, that was before the latest PPIC poll.

Former Climate Watch intern Amanda Dyer prepared an interactive “atomic timeline,” marking off some of the milestones in nuclear power history in the U.S. Use your cursor to move around the timeline.

Girding Against the Fire Season

Firefighters at the Martin Fire in the Santa Cruz mountains near Bonny Doon, CA in June, 2008. Photos by Tim Walton.

Firefighters at the Martin Fire in the Santa Cruz mountains near Bonny Doon, CA in June, 2008. Photos by Tim Walton.

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Tonight, on KQED Public Television, Quest: California at the Tipping Point explores some of the ways in which climate change will likely affect our state, including an increased risk of wildfire.

Last year, California’s fire season got off to an early and catastrophic start–and this year, generous spring rains could not cover the shortfall from two previous years of scarce precipitation. The late rains might forestall fire conditions for a while but more fires are inevitable.

Last June, more than 1,000 wildfires started in one weekend.  Throughout the course of the season, thousands more fires burned and hundreds of homes were damaged.  But if you’re among those who live in the “urban-wildland interface,” there are steps you can take to lower your home’s vulnerability to wildfire.

In the video clip below, a CalFire official tells Vicki Liviakis, who lost her home in the 1991 Oakland Hills firestorm, how vegetation around the house can feed a wildfire, and explains how Californians can create landscapes that reduce fire risk.  (You can watch the full 28-minute video, co-hosted by Liviakis and Climate Watch Sr. Editor Craig Miller, on YouTube.)

CalFire maintains this map, which tracks current fire incidents in California.  You can check this throughout the fire season for an overview of the state’s burns.

On tonight’s Quest program, Climate Watch Sr. Editor Craig Miller talks with CalFire’s Chief Deputy Director Crawford Tuttle about the increasing fire risk California faces due to rising temperatures and changing precipitation patterns.

Below are the latest maps from CalFire depicting California’s regions and communities most at risk.

CalFire's map of statewide fire threat

CalFire's map of statewide fire threat

CalFire's map of California communities at risk

CalFire's map of California communities at risk

Some Surprises in Fire-Climate Connection

Tonight, San Francisco’s KQED Public Television (HD 9) will air the first collaboration between Climate Watch and Quest, its weekly series on science & environmental topics. “California at the Tipping Point” is a half-hour special that explores the likely affects of climate change on the state. One of those anticipated effects is greater risk of wildfire. This post expands on the program with some of the recent science in that arena.

The conventional wisdom is that a warming planet means more wildfires–and in many cases the conventional wisdom is right. But globally it’s a more complex question.

Just last week, Max Moritz and his team at UC Berkeley’s Center for Fire Research & Outreach published a study that shows widely varied fire response to climate changes around the world. Post-doctoral fellow Meg Krawchuk was the lead data cruncher in the effort, with contributions from researchers at Texas Tech University.

What they found were suggestions of rapid changes in fire regimes, and not all in the same direction. Some places (like most of California) will likely see a spike in the fire hazard, while other regions (like the Pacific Northwest) could see a retreat of wildfire frequency and intensity:

“In contrast to any expectation that global warming should necessarily result in more fire, we find that regional increases in fire probabilities may be counter-balanced by decreases at other locations, due to the interplay of temperature and precipitation variables. Despite this net balance, our models predict substantial invasion and retreat of fire across large portions of the globe.”

Moritz has been stumping for new approaches to fire-climate analysis. He says rather than treat fire strictly as the product of other climate change variables, we should think of it also as a climate driver.

Map shows areas of potential fire advance (orange) and reatreat (blue) by 2010-2039 (medium-high emissions scenario)

Map shows areas of potential fire advance (orange) and retreat (blue) by 2010-2039 (medium-high emissions scenario)

You can use the player below to hear an excerpt from my interview with Moritz, in which he explains the new perspective that he thinks his team’s study brings to the fire-climate connection.

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