Tuesday, August 28, 2012

"Whatever You Call it, Water is Rising in Norfolk"

By Jennifer Weeks, The Daily Climate
NORFOLK, Va. — Water is inescapable in Virginia's second-largest city, home to the world's biggest naval base, three major port facilities and public and private shipyards. Norfolk is nearly surrounded by water: it sits at the mouth of the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay and the junction of the Elizabeth and James Rivers. Canals and creeks penetrate into many neighborhoods, and home sale listings highlight water access — "Within 50 feet of H2O — You can canoe and kayak!"
Yet as much as water is a resource in Norfolk and the surrounding area, known as Hampton Roads, it also represents a threat.
City and county leaders, already burdened with typical tasks of local governance — zoning, construction permits, liquor licenses, school board appointments — are also weighing multi-million-dollar flood control projects to keep the ocean at a livable distance. 
While they struggle to pull together know-how and funding, those with the broader view and resources — state agencies — are absent from the discussions: In a study released earlier this year, the Natural Resources Defense Council ranked Virginia as one of 29 states that were "largely unprepared and lagging behind" on planning for climate change at the state level.
In many ways the problem is already upon Norfolk. The Atlantic Ocean off Virginia's coast is rising a quarter of an inch annually, equivalent to two feet in 100 years — faster than anywhere else in the United States except for coastal Louisiana. The ocean at Sewells Point, site of the Norfolk Naval Station, rose 14.5 inches between 1930 and 2010. And that's likely to accelerate. Last month the U.S. Geological Survey reported that sea levels are rising more quickly along the Atlantic coast from North Carolina to Massachusetts than globally, possibly as a result of slowing Atlantic Ocean circulation patterns.
Planning for climate change is not a winning political platform in Virginia. Republican Governor Bob McDonnell said in 2010 that "to what degree [climate change] is attributable to manmade causes is a matter I will leave up to the experts," and shelved a climate change action plan proposed by a commission under his Democratic predecessor. Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli made headlines in 2010 for investigating University of Virginia climate scientist Michael Mann, and again this year for trying unsuccessfully to block the Environmental Protection Agency from regulating greenhouse gases. 
But whatever state leaders think of climate change, local officials find they can't ignore increasingly apparent street-level impacts
Rain and a storm surge associated with Hurricane Isabel floods a parking lot at the Norfolk Naval Station parking lot.

Most of Norfolk is less than 15 feet above sea level, and low-lying neighborhoods already flood regularly when heavy rains combine with high tides, swamping storm-water systems. The worst flooding in memory happened in 1933, when a hurricane and five-foot storm surge left residents wading thigh-deep on downtown streets. If sea levels rise between two and five feet in the area by 2100, as recent studies predict, that could become routine. Even now, city maps show that the surge from a Category Three hurricane would inundate nearly the entire city. 
In the wettest zones, streets are studded with "for sale" signs. "I know people who can't find buyers for their houses," said Skip Stiles, executive director of Wetlands Watch, a statewide advocacy group, on a drive through a historic neighborhood called The Hague. The area fronts on a canal and floods regularly. Telltale signs are easy to spot. Evaporating salt water leaves rusty stains on street curbs. Repeated overflows have killed grass in waterfront parks, leaving stretches of bare ground. Spartina, a salt-tolerant marsh grass, is sprouting on slopes above canals and marinas.
At the entrance to the Chrysler Museum of Art, which faces the estuary, Stiles paused. "There are usually ducks swimming around the front steps here after storms." 

'Recurrent Flooding'

Last spring delegates from the Hampton Roads area sought money from the General Assembly to study how sea-level rise could affect coastal Virginia. After Tea Party activists objected to spending money on climate science, the topic was changed to "recurrent flooding" and passed. Local officials hope the report will convince lawmakers to help communities pay for flood control projects. That won't happen until next year at the earliest, after state legislators review scientists' projections.
The long-term average rate of sea-level rise in Hampton Roads is about one foot per century, but that pace has accelerated sharply recently, which makes it challenging to gauge future rates of change. 
This question has become a political issue in other coastal states — notably North Carolina, where the state's Coastal Resources Commission issued a report, based on the latest computer models, advising coastal communities to plan for up to 39 inches of sea-level rise by 2100, well beyond historic norms. North Carolina's Republican-majority legislature, backed by developers, initially barred the commission from planning on anything beyond historic rates of change, then compromised by telling commissioners to study the issue for four more years before developing a new model for sea-level rise.

"Tens of thousands join Japan protests"

Broad dissatisfaction with govt's handling of Fukushima and restart of nuclear reactors
TOKYO - This is Japan's summer of discontent. Tens of thousands of protesters descend on Tokyo every Friday evening to shout anti-nuclear slogans at the Prime Minister's office.

"I used to complain about this to my family but I realised that doesn't do any good," said a protester. "So I came here to say this to his office. I don't know if we can make a difference but I had to do something, and at least it's a start."

The government's much-criticised handling of the Fukushima nuclear crisis has spawned a new breed of protesters in Japan, especially after the government decided to restart two nuclear reactors in June.

Drawn from the ranks of ordinary citizens rather than activists, they are a manifestation of a broader dissatisfaction with government and could create pressure for change in a political system that has long resisted it.

"All these years, lawmakers have only cared about vested interests, and that was good enough to run this country," said Mr Kiyomi Tsujimoto, an activist-turned-lawmaker.

"The government is still seen doing the same politics, and that's what people are angry about," he added.

Distrust of politics runs deep in Japan. Many think politicians are corrupt and only care about big business.

Some were angered about the recent sales tax hike and many are unhappy that the government has done little to reduce the American military presence on the southern island of Okinawa.

Still, there are signs of change. Many lawmakers have converted to supporting a nuclear-free future amid speculation that an election may be called soon and that nuclear policy will be a key campaign issue.

The government was also forced to step up transparency during town meetings to better reflect public views on energy policy in deciding to phase out nuclear power by 2030. AP

Unprecedented snow melt and heat in the European Alps

The recent heat wave in Europe has especially been anomalous at higher altitudes resulting in some of the highest Alpine peaks in Europe being snow-free for the first time on record including the iconic peak Matterhorn.

Early snow melt and record temps at mountain-top stations in the Alps

On August 19th the temperature at Jungfraujoch, Switzerland (the highest railway station in Europe) reached 12.8°C (55.0°F) the warmest temperature ever measured at this site where records began in 1937. This observatory is located at an elevation of 3580m (11,745’) just above the famous railway station. 

The significance of this is that this site has been studied by European climatologists for 75 years and is considered a 'bell-weather' location because of its long POR and isolation from surrounding possible human-induced influence. 

The Jungfraujoch Observatory of Switzerland  (not a recent photo)

The Jungfraujoch Observatory has the longest (since  1937) temperature time series of any high-altitude (3000m+) weather station in Europe. Graphic and caption from Meteo Swiss.

Another site on the border of Switzerland and Italy near the summit of Mt. Rosa (2nd highest mountain in the Alps after Mt. Blanc) named Capanna Regina Margherita (also known as Mt. Signalkuppe) and located at an elevation of 4554m (14,940’) registered a record temperature of 8.3°C (47.0°F) on August 20th. This surpassed its previous record high of 7.2°C (45.0°F) although records have only been kept here for about 15 years. The minimum temperature at the site that day was -0.1°C (31.8°F), also a record. This is the highest weather station in Europe. The Plateau Rosa near here is snow-free for the first time on record.

Aguille du Midi, a mountain in the Mt. Blanc massif in the French Alps, with an elevation of 3842m (12,605’) registered a high of 13.4°C (56.1°F) and low of 4.7°C (40.5°F) on August 19th, both records for the site since it was built in 1955. The peak is accessible by a cable car from the ski resort of Chamonix, France. Chamonix (elevation 1035m/3,396’) also recorded its all-time record warmest temperature on August 20th with a 34.4°C (93.9°F) reading. For the first time on record the peak of Aguille du Midi is now snow-free.

(not a recent photo)

For the first time in memory many of the highest Alpine peaks, including the iconic Matterhorn, have lost their entire snow cover (aside from glaciers). Sonnblick Observatory in Austria (located at 3030 m/9,940’) had its earliest snow melt on record this summer when the last of the winter snow disappeared by July 31st. The previous earliest snow melt (since records began here in 1886) was August 12th, 2003, the year of the famous European heat wave.

Alpine Glacier Melt

The Pasterze Glacier in Austria as photographed in 1875 (top) and then again in 2004 (bottom). Bottom photo by Gary Braasch.

It has been widely recognized (and researched) that most of Europe’s Alpine glaciers have been in retreat for the past 60 years or so. How much of this is due to solar radiation and how much to Global Climate Change remains a center of debate although it would seem that the two are related. An article in Geophysical Research Letters (Vol. 36, 2009) by M. Huss et al studied a 94-year time series of annual glacier melt at four high elevation sites in the Alps and found that the first massive melt off occurred in the late 1940s when “global shortwave radiation over the summer months was 8% above the long-term average and significantly higher than today”. Dimming of solar radiation from the 1950s until the 1980s reduced glacial melt rates. In the 1990s to the current time solar radiation has increased again but this time (since 2000) has also been accompanied by warmer summertime surface temperatures. Thus the glacial melt rates have exponentially increased in the past decade.

NASA released this statement at the annual AGU (American Geophysical Union) meeting in San Francisco last December (2011):

“Dec. 12, 2011: A new glacier inventory of the French Alps produced by Marie Gardent and colleagues at the University of Savoie has found that 100 square kilometers of glacier area has been lost between the early 1970s and today—a 26 percent loss. Using Landsat data together with historical aerial photography and maps, Gardent was able to evaluate and compare historic and contemporary glacier surface area.”

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Mississippi River suffering from drought - and Fracking?

- Common Dreams

Climate change induced drought wreaks havoc on water highway

Continued drought conditions have brought the Mississippi River to its lowest level since 1988 and have lead the U.S. Coast Guard to close an 11-mile stretch of the river, backing up traffic on the heavily used waterway. In New Orleans, the levels mean salt water is creeping into the drinking supply.
Members of the Mississippi River Commission, which advises the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers on managing the river, met one of it stops in Caruthersville, Mo. on Monday during its annual low water inspection tour.  "The unofficial 28 day forecast is for no rain and if that happens, we will be approaching the water levels, the historic water levels of 1988 which means problems up and down the river system," said R.D. James with the Mississippi River Commission. "If we go below the water stages of 1988, I don't think there'll be enough dredges available even if we had the money to maintain the harbors and the channel from Cairo to the Gulf. It'd be tragic."
To keep the water at levels usable for cargo, the Army Corps of Engineers has set out a dozen dredging vessels to suck up sediment from the bottom of the river and spit it out to banks.
In The Lede blog in the New York Times discusssing the Mississippi River Commission's tour, John Schwartz subtley points out how factors beyond drought may be affecting river levels:  "Brig. Gen. Margaret W. Burcham, a member of the commission, said that on this year’s trip, gas drillers in North Dakota have expressed their need to use enormous quantities of water from the upper Mississippi for fracking [emphasis ours], but farmers farther downstream want that water for irrigation; while others want the water in the river so they can get their good to market on barges."
The low water levels in the river are bringing a drinking water crisis to the New Orleans area.  The low level coupled with the higher density of salt water is allowing water from the Gulf to travel upward affecting water supplies. To stop this, a $5.8 million underwater sill is being created by making a dam from sediment from further up the river.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

"Rare wildfires threaten Canadian polar bear habitat"

Chicago Tribune/Reuters

Wildfires sparked by lightning near Canada's Hudson Bay are threatening the habitat of polar bears, encroaching on the old tree roots and frozen soil where females make their dens, a conservation expert on the big, white bears said on Thursday.
Polar bears are more typically threatened by the melting of sea ice, which they use as platforms for hunting seals, their main prey. But those who live near Hudson Bay spend their summers resting up on shore when the bay thaws, living in dens dug in the frozen soil among the roots of stunted spruce trees.
Fires in this area are rare, said Steven Amstrup, a former polar bear specialist with the U.S. Geological Survey and now chief scientist at the nonprofit conservation organization, Polar Bears International.
"It's a cool, wet environment that doesn't burn very often," Amstrup said by telephone from Washington state. "It's not an environment where the forest is adapted to fires very much."
Unusually hot, dry weather in Manitoba, Canada, and lightning strikes caused several fires through Wapusk National Park across known polar bear dens in July, said Manitoba Conservation Officer Daryll Hedman.
Female polar bears in the western Hudson Bay population use dens under the root crowns of small, slow-growing spruce trees that grow in permafrost soils along the banks of rivers and lakes. Some dens have been used for over 100 years.
"Not only is the permafrost no longer permanent, tree roots needed to stabilize the den structure are disappearing," Amstrup said. "The kinds of habitats where mother polar bears in this area give birth to their cubs are simply disappearing as the world warms."
Historically, the soil in most areas around Hudson Bay is frozen solid below a surface layer about one foot thick that thaws and re-freezes seasonally, Amstrup said.
In recent years, that top layer of soil has gotten increasingly thicker, so the thawing goes deep enough to defrost the soil around the tree roots, making the openings that the bears dig collapse, Amstrup said.
When the trees burn, as some may this summer, their roots die out and further damage the polar bear dens, he said.
Unlike other polar bear populations, where pregnant females use dens dug in snow, Hudson Bay females come ashore to these tree-root dens to rest and give birth, remaining in the dens until the following spring.
"They're essentially food-deprived in the summertime. They come ashore and basically just rest and try to save energy. They crawl into these dens, it's cool in there, they're not harassed by insects and they basically just rest until the snow comes and until they give birth," Amstrup said.
Without these earthen dens, he said, females would not be able to conserve their energy as well. And if snow does not come early enough, cubs could be born out in the open, where they would be exceedingly vulnerable.
"Cubs are born at about a pound and a half (680 grams), blind, nearly hairless, essentially immobile and totally helpless," he said in a follow-up email. "Their survival depends upon the shelter of the den to protect them from the elements."
Polar bears have government protection in Canada and the United States. The U.S. polar bear population in Alaska is listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act because of increasing damage to their icy habitat by climate change.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Fukushima Nuclear Disaster Caused Mutant Butterflies

From Common Dreams

Radioactive fallout from the Fukushima nuclear disaster caused mutations to butterflies, researchers show in a new study.
The study, published Thursday in the journal Scientific Reports, documented physiological and genetic damage to the pale grass blue Zizeeria maha, which was overwintering as larvae when the nuclear disaster began.
The researchers write that "the Zizeeria maha population in the Fukushima area is deteriorating physiologically and genetically. Most likely, this deterioration is due to artificial radionuclides from the Fukushima Dai-ichi NPP, as suggested by our field work and laboratory experiments."
"It has been believed that insects are very resistant to radiation," lead researcher Joji Otaki from the University of the Ryukyus, Okinawa, told BBC news.
"In that sense, our results were unexpected," said Otaki.
As ABC News explains the experiment,
Scientists first began tracking common butterflies around the nuclear plant two months after the disaster. They collected 121 insects, and found 12 percent of them had unusually small wings. That number jumped more than 5 percent when butterflies collected from the plant site had offspring of their own.
In another group of butterflies collected six months after the disaster, scientists found 28 percent had “abnormal” traits. That number nearly doubled among the second generation born.
Researchers noted other abnormalities including malformed antennae and appendages.

Thursday, August 09, 2012

"July Sizzles, Records Fall: Warmest Month on Record"

From ClimateCentral.org

July 2012 was officially not only the warmest July on record, but also the warmest month ever recorded for the lower 48 states, according to a report released Wednesday by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration'sNational Climatic Data Center. The average temperature for the month came in at 77.6°F overall, which is 3.3°F higher than the 20th-century average, and 0.2°F warmer than the previous hottest month on record, set in July 1936 back in the Dust Bowl era.

It wasn’t just that July was a single-record month: the 12 months ending with July was the warmest such period since modern recordkeeping began in 1895, and the January-July 2012 period was also the warmest on record. The top 13 warmest 12-month periods since 1895 have all occurred since 1999.
The National Climatic Data Center also looked at precipitation: the average for July was 2.57 inches, which was 0.19 inches below average. That may not sound like much of a shortfall, but the nation’s midsection experienced near-record dryness.
The warmest 12-month periods for the lower 48 states. Click on the image for a larger version. Credit: NOAA/NCDC.

Overall, the so-called drought footprint for the states, excluding Alaska and Hawaii, covered nearly 63 percent of the total land area, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor. The drought is the most widespread and intense drought since at least 1956, and is expected to cost billions in damage to agricultural interests, as what was expected to be a bumper corn crop withered under unrelenting heat and dry conditions.
Extreme weather continued to plague the nation as well. The U.S. Climate Extremes Index, which keeps track of the highest and lowest extremes in temperatures, precipitation, and other events, stood at a record 46 percent for the period January-July, 2012, which is twice the average. That means that nearly half the country was affected by extreme weather conditions during the period. The record (42 percent) was last set in 1934 — again, during the Dust Bowl.
Much of the explanation for the currently high index is due to very warm daytime temperatures and warm overnight temperatures across a record-large area of the nation. The overnight warmth is what distinguishes July, 2012 from July, 1936. "In 1936," said NOAA scientist Jake Crouch in an interview, "the record was driven primarily by high daytime temperatures." In both cases, the daytime highs were driven in part by drought. When the soil is wet, Crouch said, "solar energy goes into evaporating moisture." When it's dry, the same energy goes into raising the thermometer.
Warm nights, however, don't have much to do with soil moisture, so they're a more robust signal that the planet is warming overall in response to increasing concentrations of greenhouse gases. They're also more dangerous than daytime heat. "Cooler temperatures at night let our bodies recover," Crouch said. 
As Climate Central reported yesterday, record daily high temperatures through August 5 of this year have already eclipsed the number of record daily highs set during all of 2011, a remarkable feat. For the year so far, record daily highs have been outpacing record daily lows by a ratio of nearly 10-to-1, which reflects the trend identified in a 2009 study on how temperature records are changing as the climate warms.

Monday, August 06, 2012

"Thousands of fish die as Midwest streams heat up"

From Yahoo:

LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) — Thousands of fish are dying in the Midwest as the hot, dry summer dries up rivers and causes water temperatures to climb in some spots to nearly 100 degrees.
About 40,000 shovelnose sturgeon were killed in Iowa last week as water temperatures reached 97 degrees. Nebraska fishery officials said they've seen thousands of dead sturgeon, catfish, carp, and other species in the Lower Platte River, including the endangered pallid sturgeon. And biologists in Illinois said the hot weather has killed tens of thousands of large- and smallmouth bass and channel catfish and is threatening the population of the greater redhorse fish, a state-endangered species.
So many fish died in one Illinois lake that the carcasses clogged an intake screen near a power plant, lowering water levels to the point that the station had to shut down one of its generators.
"It's something I've never seen in my career, and I've been here for more than 17 years," said Mark Flammang, a fisheries biologist with the Iowa Department of Natural Resources. "I think what we're mainly dealing with here are the extremely low flows and this unparalleled heat."
The fish are victims of one of the driest and warmest summers in history. The federal U.S. Drought Monitor shows nearly two-thirds of the lower 48 states are experiencing some form of drought, and the Department of Agriculture has declared more than half of the nation's counties — nearly 1,600 in 32 states — as natural disaster areas. More than 3,000 heat records were broken over the last month....
Anther article:

This summer’s unusually high temperatures and continuing drought are killing fish across the Great Lakes region.
“There’s nothing wrong water quality-wise,” said Randy Schumacher, fisheries supervisor for the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. “The species simply can’t tolerate that hot of water for this extended period of time.”
There were multiple reports of fish kills in early July across Michigan, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Indiana and Illinois, according to state fisheries supervisors. There have been at least 60 separate incidents in Illinois. About a dozen have been reported in Indiana....

Saturday, August 04, 2012

"Historic heat wave in Oklahoma"

From Jeff Master's Wunderground Blog:
A historic heat wave and drought fueled raging fires on Friday in Oklahoma. The fires destroyed at least 65 homes, forced multiple evacuations, and closed major roads. Oklahoma City had its hottest day in history, hitting 113°, tying the city's all-time heat record set on August 11, 1936. The low bottomed out at 84°, the warmest low temperature ever recorded in the city (previous record: a low of 83° on August 13, 1936.) Oklahoma City has now had three consecutive days with a high of 112° or higher, which has never occurred since record keeping began in 1891. With today's high expected to reach 113° again, the streak may extend to four straight days. Yesterday was the third consecutive day with more than a third of Oklahoma experiencing temperatures of 110° or higher, according to readings from the Oklahoma Mesonet. NOAA's Storm Prediction Center (SPC) declared a "Critical" fire weather day over most of Oklahoma yesterday, due to extreme heat and drought, low humidities, and strong winds. Between 4 - 5 pm CDT Friday, Oklahoma City had a temperature of 113°, a humidity of 12%, and winds of 14 mph gusting to 25 mph. Another "Critical" fire weather day has been declared for Saturday. A cold front approaching from the northwest will bring winds even stronger than Friday's winds, and Oklahoma will likely endure another hellish day of extreme heat, dryness, and fires.

The Geary, Oklahoma fire, looking north, on August, 3, 2012. Image credit: Oklahoma City Fire Department. The Geary fire spawned a gustnado

Only comparable heat wave: August 1936
The only heat wave in Oklahoma history that compares to this week's occurred in the great Dust Bowl summer of 1936, the hottest summer in U.S. history. Oklahoma City experienced three days at 110° that summer, and a record streak of 22 straight days with a temperature of 100° or hotter. Those numbers are comparable to 2012's: three days at 110° or hotter, and a string of 17 consecutive days with temperatures of 100° or hotter. It's worth noting that Oklahoma City has experienced only 11 days since 1890 with a high of 110° or greater. Three of those days were in 2011, three were in 2012, and three were in the great Dust Bowl summer of 1936. Clouds moved in over Tulsa, Oklahoma yesterday, holding down the high temperature to just 107°, ending that city's 3-day streak of 110°+ days. The only longer streak was 5 consecutive days on August 9 - 13, 1936.