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.

Who Drives Climate Change?

| Mon Jun. 11, 2012 2:23 PM PDT

People or consumption? Hamedog via Wikimedia CommonsPeople v. consumption: Hamedog via Wikimedia CommonsA new paper in the  journal Nature Climate Change assesses which human factors are the most important drivers of greenhouse gas emissions.

The authors note know that for every 1 percent increase in human population, greenhouse gas emissions go up by slightly more than 1 percent. But which aspects of human life contribute most—more people, more consumption, or both—and how might that play out in a world racing towards 10 billion people this century? (I wrote at length about this concern in Mother Jones' The Last Taboo.)

The biggest question is whether or not affluence will ever mitigate its own consumption. The authors write:

Ultimately, most releases of greenhouse gases are driven by consumption of goods and services by individuals, households and organizations, and the manufacturing, transport and waste disposal that underpins that consumption... It is possible that the composition of consumption might shift from current patterns to more benign ones, as might the technologies supporting manufacturing, transport and waste disposal. Indeed, many policies seek to encourage such changes.

 

Population by nation. WikipediaPopulation by nation: WikipediaFrom the paper, important factors affecting greenhouse gas emissions:

  • The number of households seems to be more important than numbers of people.
  • The age structure of a population may be more important than its overall size—particularly the fraction of the population in the age groups most generally considered economically active, typically ages 15 to 65.
  • Rapid population growth may be worse than overall population growth, since it's likely to strain the institutions that might make population growth more environmentally benign.

 

Hypothetical Kuznets curve.  Princess Tiswas via Wikimedia CommonsHypothetical Kuznets curve: Princess Tiswas via Wikimedia Commons

More in the numbers-versus-consumption debate:

  • Affluence can both increase and decease emissions—increase through overall consumption, decrease by policies that seek to mitigate environmental damage to the environment—though it's not clear if decreases ever outweighs increases.
  • The argument by some scholars that affluence beyond a certain threshold—known as the environmental Kuznets curve (above)—leads to declining stress on the environment does not appear to hold true for greenhouse-gas emissions.
  • Cities generate substantial demand for goods and services that induce emissions in distant places—a process called "metabolic rift"—which therefore may not truly reduce their emissions, as some studies suggest.
  • The effects of global trade on greenhouse-gas emissions are nuanced—some environmental policies may be imported alongside transnational business, yet emissions are transferred from the rich world to the poor too.
  • Forms of governance (democratic versus non-democratic) are not significant predictors of greenhouse-gas emissions.

 Prevailing world religions Wikimedia CommonsPrevailing world religions: Wikimedia Commons

Interesting assumptions that lack adequate data to either confirm or dispute, including:

  • Women's political empowerment leads to amelioration of greenhouse-gas emissions (not clear from data).
  • High levels of militarization are antithetical to environmental protection (some data suggest yes).
  • Different world religions differ in their regard for the environment, which influences greenhouse gas emissions (unsure).
  • Nations with strong environmental movements adopt public policies and private practices that actually reduce emissions (uncertain).

 The authors conclude:

Concern with the magnitude of population and economic growth has led to renewed calls to slow population growth as well as to questions about the relationship between affluence and societal health and well-being. However, in a time of global recession with intensified demands for economic growth, and with waxing concern about how elderly populations can be supported in low-fertility nations that have a high dependency ratio, such reconceptualizations of basic societal goals face a struggle. Nonetheless, it is clear that reducing emissions of greenhouse gases in the face of scale growth will not occur in the context of the institutional, political and cultural forces that have prevailed so far.

The paper:

  • Eugene A. Rosa & Thomas Dietz. Human drivers of national greenhouse-gas emissions. Nature Climate Change. doi:10.1038/nclimate1506

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Dramatic Decline in Microscopic Life on BP's Oiled Beaches

| Wed Jun. 6, 2012 2:00 PM PDT

Oile beach, Lousiana, 2010: © Julia WhittyOiled beach, Grand Isle, Louisiana, 2010: © Julia Whitty The damage may be invisible to the naked eye but researchers report dramatic changes to the community of microbes living in the sands along shorelines oiled by BP's Deepwater Horizon catastrophe.

These communities of the very small—comprised of microscopic worms, fungi, protists, algae, and the larval stages of larger species less than a millimeter in size—underpin vital ecosystem functions in the ocean. They provide food and nutrients for other species, churn the sediments, and contribute to the cycling of carbon, nitrogen, and sulfur within marine ecosystems. From the paper in PLoS ONE:

Microbial eukaryotes inherently underpin all higher trophic levels, and thus, understanding the biological impact and subsequent recovery of these communities is critical for interpreting the long-term effects of the D[eepwater] H[orizon] oil spill.
 

Micorbial communities in different beach communities pre and post BP's Deepwater Horizon catastrophe: Holly M. Bik, et al. PLoS ONE. doi:Microbial communities in Gulf beach communities before and after BP's Deepwater Horizon catastrophe: Holly M. Bik, et al. PLoS ONE. DOI:

"In addition to the inherent toxicity of hydrocarbon compounds, the unprecedented spill response effort likely had significant implications for microbial eukaryote communities. At the time of sample collection the (closed) beach at Grand Isle, Louisiana, was undergoing persistent, heavy oiling and a large-scale mechanical cleanup response."

Before oil ravaged the coast, Gulf beaches teemed with a diverse mix of microbes living in the sand.

Four months later the population was radically changed: no longer diverse, instead largely dominated by only a few species of fungi and nematode worms.

"It went from a very diverse mix of species to being dominated by a few predators and opportunists," says lead author Holly Bik, a postdoc at the University of California Davis.

In the graphs above you can see the proportions of taxa and how they changed at five beaches around Dauphin Island and Mobile Bay, Alabama, with an additional post-spill site along a persistently oiled beach in Grand Isle, Louisiana.

The researchers determined the makeup of these invisible communities by extracting DNA and sequencing millions of genetic "barcodes."

By September 2010, four months after the wellhead blowout, the deceptively clean appearance of Gulf beaches barely hinted at the true biological story underway.

"What struck me," says Bik, "was that you wouldn't have known there was an oil spill—most of our sample sites looked like normal beaches. But when we analyzed the genomic data, there seemed to be all these biological repercussions going on."

The team continues to collect and analyze samples from these same beaches. Expect more publications.

Oil cleaning equipment, Grand Isle, Louisiana, May 2010: © Julia WhittyOil cleaning equipment on scoured beach, Grand Isle, Louisiana, June 2010: © Julia Whitty

From the paper:

[W]hile pre-spill samples exhibit high richness and evenness of genera, post-spill communities contain mainly predatory and scavenger taxa alongside an abundance of juveniles. Based on this community analysis, our data suggest considerable (hidden) initial impacts across Gulf beaches may be ongoing, despite the disappearance of visible surface oil in the region.

As I've reported before (here, here, and here), we're just now beginning to get a sense of the deadly aftereffects of BP's disaster on dolphins, fish, seabirds, and other wildlife of the Gulf and beyond. Oh, and it's not that great for human life either.

The paper:

  • Holly M. Bik, Kenneth M. Halanych, Jyotsna Sharma, and W. Kelley Thomas. Dramatic shifts in benthic microbial eukaryote communities following the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. PLoS ONE. doi:

MAP: The Best Spots to See Venus Crossing the Sun

| Tue Jun. 5, 2012 12:38 PM PDT

 2004 Transit of Venus de:Benutzer:Klingon via Wikimedia Commons2004 Transit of Venus: de:Benutzer:Klingon via Wikimedia Commons

The transit of Venus begins today, June 5. The next one is not for 105 years, in 2117. You can check where and when today's transit will be visible in the map below. Plus a live webcast of the transit at NASA tv.

There's a nifty citizen science effort underway via Astronomers Without Borders if you care to download the free app and contribute the data from your own sighting. Here's what they say about the history of the event:

Only six Venus transits have occurred since the invention of the telescope in the early 17th century. There were no observers of the first one in 1631 that we know of, and only two who we know saw the transit in 1639. In the 18th century, Sir Edmond Halley described a method for measuring the distance from the Earth to the Sun through observations of Venus transits from widely separated sites. The same had been attempted with transits of Mercury but Venus transits allow for much more precise measurements.Halley's publication led to expeditions sent around the world by many nations to view the pair of Venus transits later in the 17th century. The same took place with the 19th century pair of Venus transits. No Venus transits occurred in the 20th century. While 20th century methods eventually supplanted the Venus transit method in measuring distances in the solar system, the history of the event is an important link to our past. 

Fred Espenak, NASAFred Espenak, NASA

 As for what scientists are looking to learn from the 2012 transit, LiveScience notes a few interesting research questions, including:

  • Those bizarre blue stripes in Venus' upper clouds called "blue absorbers" or "UV absorbers" that absorb nearly half the total solar energy hitting the planet, keeping it superhot with surface temperatures greater than 860° F (460° C). What are they made of? Maybe elemental sulfur?
  • What's making the Venusian lightning, since we don't think there's any rainfall there?
  • What's behind Venus' super-rotating atmosphere driven by storms circling the planet at speeds greater than 220 mph (360 kph), 60 times faster than the planet itself rotates.
  • Most of all, what happened to Venus' oceans, were they destroyed by a runaway greenhouse effect? If so, how long did it take?

 

Venus in true color: NASA/Ricardo NunesVenus in true color: NASA/Ricardo Nunes

 

The video below summarizes our modern understanding of the transit, including a brief history of its science and what we hope to learn today.

 

 ScienceCasts: The 2012 Transit of Venus from Science@NASA on Vimeo.

 

The next video recreates a high-tech presentation of the transit from 1769. The tools have changed but not the fascination.

 

Artificial Transit of Venus Model from Transit of Venus on Vimeo.

 

Electricity Supply Vulnerable to Climate Change

| Mon Jun. 4, 2012 11:45 AM PDT

Nucleay power plant, France: Stefan Kühn via Wikimedia CommonsNuclear power plant, France: Stefan Kühn via Wikimedia Commons

A new paper* in the prestigious journal Nature Climate Change assesses the vulnerability of electrical supplies in the US and Europe to climate-change. Specifically to rising water temperatures and reduced river flows needed to cool thermoelectric plants—coal, gas, and nuclear powered.

Both the US and Europe rely heavily on thermoelectricity. Currently:

  • 91 percent of total electricity in the US is produced by thermoelectric plants
  • 78 percent of total electricity in Europe is thermoelectric
  • Together these plants represent ~86 percent of total thermoelectric water withdrawals globally

Annual temperature departures for the years 2006 NOAA Earth System Research LaboratoryAnnual temperature departures for the year 2006: NOAA Earth System Research Laboratory The problem is that during recent warm dry summers (2003, 2006, 2009) some thermoelectric power plants in Europe and the southeastern US were forced to produce less electricity when water temperatures rose too high to keep the plants adequately cooled or to meet environmental requirements. From the paper:

In both Europe and the US, power plants are highly regulated (European Fish Directive, Water Framework Directive and US Clean Water Act) with restrictions on the amount of water withdrawn and temperatures of the water discharged. It is especially during warm periods with low river flows that conflicts arise between environmental standards of receiving waters and economic consequences of reduced electricity production.

Increases in river water temperatures (click for larger version) Michelle TH van Vliet, et al, Nature Climate Change, doi:10.1038/nclimate1546Increases in river water temperatures (click for larger version) for the 2040s (2031-2060) and the 2080s (2071-2100) relative to the control period (1971-2000): Michelle TH van Vliet, et al, Nature Climate Change, doi:10.1038/nclimate1546

The authors combined water flow and temperature models with electricity production models. The results suggest big changes in the summers ahead. Specifically, in the years between 2031 and 2060:

"In the US, the largest water temperature increases are projected for the southern part of the Mississippi Basin and along the east coast. In Europe, projected water temperature increases are highest in the southwestern and southeastern parts."
  • An average decrease in capacity of power plants of between 6.3 and 19 percent (depending on cooling system type) in Europe
  • An average decrease in capacity of between 4.4 and 16 percent in the US 
  • Probabilities of extreme (>90 percent) reductions in thermoelectric power production will increase on average by a factor of three

The paper* concludes:

[C]limate change will impact thermoelectric power production in Europe and the US through a combination of increased water temperatures and reduced river flow, especially during summer... Dry cooling systems or non-freshwater sources for cooling are possible alternatives but may be limited by locally available resources and have costs and performance disadvantages. A switch to new gas-fired power plants with higher efficiencies (~ 58%) could also reduce the vulnerability because of smaller water demands when compared with coal- and nuclear-fuelled stations (with mean efficiencies of ~ 46% and ~ 34%). Considering the projected decreases in cooling-water availability during summer in combination with the long design life of power plant infrastructure, adaptation options should be included in today's planning and strategies to meet the growing electricity demand in the twenty-first century. In this respect, the electricity sector is on the receiving (impacts) as well as producing (emissions) side of the climate change equation.

 

*The paper:

  • Michelle T. H. van Vliet, John R. Yearsley, Fulco Ludwig, Stefan Vögele, Dennis P. Lettenmaier, and Pavel Kabat. Vulnerability of US and European electricity supply to climate change. Nature Climate Change. doi:10.1038/nclimate1546

A Bigger Hurricane Year for the East Coast?

| Fri Jun. 1, 2012 12:51 PM PDT

Tropical Storm Beryl, 27 May 2012. NASATropical Storm Beryl, 27 May 2012: NASA

Tropical Storms Alberto and Beryl have been born, lived, and died well before today's official start of the Atlantic hurricane season. Only twice before (1887 and 1908) since reliable record-keeping began in 1850 have two named storms form so early in the year. So why was this season an exception, and what might that bode for the upcoming season? According to Jeff Masters at Wunderblog:

Between the subtropical jet [stream] to the south and the polar jet to the north, a "hole" in the wind shear pattern formed during May off the Southeast US coast, and this is where both Alberto and Beryl were able to form. Their formation was aided by the fact ocean temperatures off the U.S. East coast are quite warm—about 1-2°C [1.8-3.6°F] above average. A wind shear "hole" is predicted to periodically open up during the next two weeks off the Southeast US coast, making that region the most likely area of formation for any first-half-of-June tropical storms.

Many Atlantic storms are fueled by sea surface temperatures (SSTs) in the Atlantic between Africa and Central America, between 10-20°N latitude. So far this year that region has seen SSTs only 0.35°C [0.7°F] above average in May—roughly the third coolest since the hurricane period got active again in 1995. This may mean a later start to the formation of storms in that region.

But there's a hotspot in SSTs off the East Coast. Jeff Masters writes:

An interesting feature of this month's SST departure from average image is the large area of record-warm ocean temperatures off the mid-Atlantic and New England coasts, from North Carolina to Massachusetts. Ocean temperatures are 3-5°C (5-9°F) above average in this region. This makes waters of much above-average warmth likely to be present during the peak part of hurricane season, increasing the chances for a strong hurricane to affect the mid-Atlantic and New England coast.

 

Sea surface temperatures on 1 June 2012, in degrees C. NOAASea surface temperatures on 1 June 2012, in degrees C: NOAA Here's what various forecast models are predicting for the 2012 Atlantic season (you can read more about the differences in these models at Wunderblog):

  • Colorado State University's Tropical Meteorology Project just revised their forecast upward to 13 named storms, 5 hurricanes, and 2 intense hurricanes, a slightly-below-average season.
  • Florida State University's Center for Ocean-Atmospheric Prediction Studies predicts 10 to 16 named storms and 5 to 9 hurricanes, with a mid-range forecast of 13 named storms and 7 hurricanes (they've been the most accurate forecasters in the past three years).
  • Penn State forecasts a near-average hurricane season of 11 named storms, plus or minus 3.3 storms.
  • The UK Met Office forecasts a slightly below-average hurricane season with 10 named storms.
  • The British forecasting firm Tropical Storm Risk calls for 12.7 named storms, 5.7 hurricanes, and 2.7 intense hurricanes.
  • NOAA predicts an average hurricane season of 12 named storms, 6 hurricanes, and 2 major hurricanes.
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