Julia Whitty

Julia Whitty

Environmental Correspondent

Julia is an award-winning author of fiction and nonfiction (Deep Blue Home, The Fragile Edge, A Tortoise for the Queen of Tonga), and a former documentary filmmaker. She also blogs at Deep Blue Home.

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Julia is a writer and former documentary filmmaker and the author of The Fragile Edge: Diving & Other Adventures in the South Pacific, winner of a PEN USA Literary Award, the John Burroughs Medal, the Kiriyama Prize, the Northern California Books Awards, and finalist for the Dayton Literary Peace Prize, and Deep Blue Home: An Intimate Ecology of Our Wild Ocean. Her short story collection A Tortoise for the Queen of Tonga won an O. Henry and was a finalist for the PEN Hemingway Award. She also blogs at Deep Blue Home.

5 Crazy Ideas to Save Coral Reefs

| Thu Aug. 30, 2012 5:00 AM EDT

Coral reef image: Nick Hobgood via Wikimedia Commons; beach umbrella: Loren Sztajer via Flickr Coral reef image: Nick Hobgood via Wikimedia Commons. Beach umbrella image: Loren Sztajer via Flickr

How are we going to save coral reefs in a world where carbon dioxide is changing the temperature and chemistry of the ocean at a rate unprecedented in 300 million years?

"We urge that the marine science and management communities actively solicit and evaluate all potential marine management strategies, including unconventional ones."

Three marine ecologists have written a persuasive paper in Nature Climate Change arguing that the time has come to seriously consider rolling up our sleeves and doing something.

"It's unwise to assume we will be able to stabilize atmospheric CO2 at levels necessary to reduce or prevent ongoing damage to marine ecosystems," says coauthor Ove Hoegh-Guldberg. "In lieu of dealing with the core problem—increasing emissions of greenhouse gases—these techniques and approaches could ultimately represent the last resort. I hope we don't end up in the position but we must at least be prepared."

Here are a few suggestions worthy of exploration, suggest the authors, even if only on a small scale:

  1. Deploying buoyant shade cloth (it's been tried on the Great Barrier Reef) to protect corals from heat stress that leads to bleaching and death
  2. Using electrical current to stimulate coral growth and mitigate bleaching
  3. Trying selective breeding or genetic engineering to help species develop biological resistance and adaptation
  4. Maintaining or managing ocean chemistry by adding base minerals such as carbonates and silicates to neutralize acidity and help marine creatures make their shells/skeletons
  5. Convert CO2 from land-based waste into dissolved bicarbonates to add to the ocean for carbon sequestration and reduced ocean acidity 

 Coral image credit: Nick Hobgood via Wikimedia Commons. Lifesaver image credit: dharma communications via Flickr.Coral image credit: Nick Hobgood via Wikimedia Commons. Lifesaver image credit: dharma communications via Flickr.

Why the urgency?

Well, while some species may be able to adapt to change by migrating deeper into the ocean or further from the equator, it's not going to be easy. For instance, the Great Barrier Reef would have to migrate south at the rate of nearly 10 miles (15 kilometers) a year to keep pace with the predicted increases in ocean temperatures.

"The magnitude and rapidity of these changes is likely to surpass the ability of numerous marine species to adapt and survive," Hoegh-Guldberg says.

The open-access paper:

  • Greg H. Rau, Elizabeth L. McLeod & Ove Hoegh-Guldberg. The need for new ocean conservation strategies in a high-carbon dioxide world. Nature Climate Change. 2012. doi:10.1038/nclimate1555

 

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Arctic Ice Shatters Melt Record

| Mon Aug. 27, 2012 3:56 PM EDT

Arctic sea ice on Aug. 26, 2012, the day the sea ice dipped to its smallest extent ever recorded in more than three decades of satellite measurements: Scientific Visualization Studio, NASA Goddard Space Flight CenterArctic sea ice on August 26, the day the sea ice dipped to its smallest extent ever recorded in more than three decades of satellite measurements Scientific Visualization Studio, NASA Goddard Space Flight Center

The Arctic sea ice extent yesterday fell below its previous record low and is currently losing frozen sea at the rate of about 29,000 square miles (roughly 75,000 square kilometers) a day. That's equivalent to an area the size of South Carolina every 24 hours.

Here's what happened:

  • On August 26 sea ice extent fell to 1.58 million square miles (4.10 million square kilometers).
  • That's 27,000 square miles (70,000 square kilometers) below the previous record set on September 18, 2007.
  • The 2007 record low ice extent was 1.61 million square miles (4.17 million square kilometers).

Note that this year's record low was set more than three weeks earlier than the 2007 record. And summer isn't over yet. There's more melting to come.

 

Arctic sea ice extent as of August 26, 2012, along with daily ice extent data for 2007, the previous record low year, and 1980, the record high year: National Snow and Ice Data Center courtesy Rutgers University Snow Lab.Arctic sea ice extent as of August 26, along with daily ice extent data for 2007, the previous record low year, and 1980, the record high year: National Snow and Ice Data Center courtesy Rutgers University Snow Lab.

What's alarming is that the 2007 record was set during a year of near-perfect conditions for melting. This year didn't have anything like perfect conditions. But even that couldn't stop the freight train running down those Arctic tracks.

According to National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC) Director Mark Serreze: "The ice is so thin and weak now, it doesn't matter how the winds blow."

The six lowest ice extents in the satellite record have occurred in the last six years, from 2007 to 2012.

This trend is an indication that the Arctic sea ice cover is fundamentally changing, said NSIDC scientist Walt Meier. "The Arctic used to be dominated by multiyear ice, or ice that stayed around for several years. Now it's becoming more of a seasonal ice cover and large areas are now prone to melting out in summer."

 

Scattered ice floes are seen from the bridge of the RV Healy on August 20, 2012 northwest of Barrow, Alaska: US Coast GuardScattered ice floes seen from the bridge of US Coast Guard icebreaker Healy on August 20, northwest of Barrow, Alaska: US Coast GuardThe photo above shows the view from the US Coast Guard icebreaker Healy, a science research ship that runs north looking for ice. They've been having problems finding it the last few summers.

BTW, I'm headed out aboard Healy for their last Arctic run of the year in October. I'll let you know what I see up there. And what that might mean for the people and wildlife of the Arctic. Not to mention all the rest of us who've kind of gotten used to the effects of its frozenness on the planet.

America Hit With Record Devastation From Wildfires

| Tue Aug. 21, 2012 5:00 AM EDT

Wildfire smoke Dan Pearce via FlickrWildfire smoke: Dan Pearce via FlickrThe National Interagency Fire Center reports that 2012 just broke the record for most acreage burned by wildfires as of this date (see chart below). The previous record was set in 2006, another mega-drought year.

Year-to-date statitstics for acreage bruned by wildfires, with more lands having burned in 2012 than any previous year: National Interagency Fire CenterYear-to-date statistics for acreage burned by wildfires National Interagency Fire Center

That's nearly 7 million acres—or 10,893 square miles—that have burned so far this record hot and dry year. Currently 39 large fires and fire complexes are actively burning 1,401,968 acres.

Night view of western wildfires, 17 Aug 2012: NASA image by Jesse Allen, using Suomi NPP VIIRS dataNight view of western wildfires, August 17 NASA image by Jesse Allen, using Suomi NPP VIIRS dataIn Northern California, where I live, fire bloomed with August's dry lightning strikes. Since even the biggest lightning-sparked fire starts out as something small, maybe just a single smoldering tree, sometimes someone finds that tree in time.

Jeremy Couso at SusanvilleStuff.com—listening in on the late night fire scanner—learned how one such fire was thwarted by a lone man in the dark last weekend:

Then came the report of a lightning fire burning in rugged terrain southeast of Eagle Lake. The fire had been spotted from the summit, but at night no aircraft could be used for reconnaissance and there were no direct roads into the forested area. So in the dark, with a flashlight and a radio, this one guy went off hiking into the woods to find a fire. We all sat listening to the radio and wondered out loud—what do they call him? Is there actually a name for this job? Is he a 'smoke-hiker' or 'fire-walker'?

All we knew for sure is that in the dark of the night this guy had set off on his own through some of the most intimidating wilderness in the county searching for a fire, walking through woods that aren't easy-going in the daytime, in conditions where smoke filled the air, and made visibility almost zero... [A]fter two hours of hiking in the dark smoky night through road-less forest, our hero found it… a single pine tree burning in heavy undergrowth which in itself was on fire in every direction for 50 to 100 yards... Our 'smoke-walker' then began the almost 1-hour trek back out from the fire to meet the crew, turned around and guided them back to the fire as quickly as possible.

Fire and smoke map for 20 Aug 2012. Red dots = active fires. White = smoke. (Click for larger version.): NOAA | OSDPDFire and smoke map for August 20. Red dots = active fires. White = smoke. (Click for larger live version.) NOAA | OSDPD

Wildfires have big costs. So far in Utah this year there have been more than 1,000 wildfires that have cost over $50 million to fight. The Chips Fire in Northern California—at just shy of than 50,000 acres—has a running tab of over $17 million as of six days ago and it's still going strong.

Wildfires also have intimate costs. Like the "fire-walker's" solo journey into the night. And tragic costs. Like the 20-year-old firefighter on the Steep Corner Fire in Idaho who died when a tree fell on her on August 12. Or the inmate-firefighter who died fighting the Buck Fire in Southern California on Sunday.

Plus the global costs. As Jeff Masters writes, a recent study suggests that while 8 percent of Earth should see decreases in fire activity over the next 30 years of global warming, 38 percent should see increases.

And then there are the personal costs. In my case, newly diagnosed with asthma, that means learning to live with canaries—I mean, bronchi—in my chest, letting me know with crazy sensitivity just how much particulate is in my little portion of the atmosphere. Suddenly fire and smoke maps like the one above are interactive in a whole new way.

This article has been updated.

My Night Aboard an Aircraft Carrier

| Mon Aug. 20, 2012 3:09 PM EDT

This certificate from USS Nimitz just made it on the short list of what to save from my house in the event of fire. It commemorates my landing aboard the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier at sea off Hawaii last month—part of the Navy's Great Green Fleet Demonstration whereby a carrier strike group and all its aircraft were fueled by alternatives: nuclear and biofuel blends. I'm writing more about my night aboard Nimitz and the US Navy's rad new initiatives regarding energy and climate change for a forthcoming piece in Mother Jones.

Great Green Fleet demonstrates biofuels during RIMPAC 2012. Official US Navy Imagery via FlickrGreat Green Fleet demonstrates biofuels during RIMPAC 2012. In foreground, USNS Henry J Kaiser delivering biofuel blend to cruiser USS Princeton. Back left, USS Nimitz with 71 biofueled aircraft aboard. Back right, destroyer USS Chaffee: Official US Navy Imagery via Flickr

Climate Change and the Fate of a Million Kids

| Tue Aug. 14, 2012 5:00 AM EDT

 Sahel landscape: Center for International Forestry Research via FlickrSahel landscape in a good year: Center for International Forestry Research via Flickr

If you had to pick ground zero for climate change, you might pick the Sahel, the grasslands between the Sahara in the north and African tropical rainforests in the south. The region is immensely fertile—when it isn't being slammed by recurrent droughts and floods. Many human lives are suspended in a fragile balance with the volatile climate of this region.

During the epic drought of the 1970s and 1980s, 30 percent less rain fell in the Sahel compared to the 1950s and more than 100,000 people died. Basically it was the biggest drought over the largest land area of the 20th century, according to the Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Lab at Princeton (GFDL).

At that time most believed the cause of drought was human overuse of the land—grazing, deforestation, poor farming practices—on a local scale. Nowadays the data suggest recurring Sahelian droughts are driven by a more complex constellation of factors, some related to global climate change, including:

  • Warming sea surface temperatures in the Indian Ocean (see this paper in Science)
  • Increase in greenhouse gases combined with increase in atmospheric aerosols (see GFDL)
  • Changes in the Atlantic multidecadal oscillation, which may or may not be manmade (see this paper in International Journal of Climatology)

Sadly 2012 has produced another drought in the Sahel, only two years after the 2010 drought. Water shortages, failed crops, insect plagues, high food prices, human displacement, conflict, and chronic poverty now threaten the lives of 18 million people in the region, including at least a million children, says UNICEF.

The global warming casualty list already includes 150,000 additional people killed every year, mostly from disease and malnutrition. That number is projected to grow. According to the Natural Resources Defense Council, heat waves could kill 150,000 Americans alone by 2099 (scary map of that here.)

 

 

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