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.

Even Small Temperature Swings Bad If You're Old, Not White, or Poor

| Mon Apr. 9, 2012 5:37 PM EDT

Even small changes in summer temperatures—as little as 1.8°F (1°C) higher than usual—can be deadly to people over age 65 with chronic health problems like diabetes, heart failure, and chronic lung disease, as well as to those who've survived prior heart attacks.

Other studies have focused on the short-term lethal effects of heat waves. But new research from the Harvard School of Public Health suggests that small changes in temperature patterns over the long run shorten life expectancy and could result in thousands of additional deaths per year. 

Scientists now predict that climate change will not only increase overall world temperatures but will also increase summer temperature variability—particularly in mid-latitude regions like the mid-Atlantic US and in parts of France, Spain, and Italy. More volatile temperature swings could pose a major public health problem, the authors note in their paper in PNAS.

Mortality risk increased 4 percent for those with diabetes, 3.8 percent for those who'd had a previous heart attack.
  • The researchers used Medicare data from 1985 to 2006 to follow the long-term health of 3.7 million chronically ill people over age 65 living in 135 U.S. cities.
  • Years when summer temperature swings were larger had higher death rates than years with smaller swings.
  • Each 1.8°F increase in summer temperature variability increased the death rate for elderly with chronic conditions between 2.8-4 percent, depending on the condition.
  • Mortality risk was 1-2 percent higher among those living in poverty and for African Americans.
  • Mortality risk was 1-2 percent lower for people living in cities with more green space.

Based on these increases in mortality risk, the researchers estimate that greater summer temperature variability in the US could result in more than 10,000 added deaths per year.

I wrote earlier about the many ways climate change is disproportionately more deadly to women than men.

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Bye Bye Snow and Ice (and a Whole Lot More)

| Fri Apr. 6, 2012 4:37 PM EDT

 Credit: Alan Wilson via Wikimedia Commons.

Credit: Alan Wilson via Wikimedia Commons.

We've heard a lot about the  life-threatening challenges facing penguins and polar bears as snow and ice disappear. But what about all the other life of the cryosphere—the parts of Earth where water is in its solid state for at least one month of the year (map below)? From a new paper in Bioscience:

Global average air temperature has warmed by 1 Celsius (°C) over the past century, and in response, the cryosphere—the part of the Earth’s surface most influenced by ice and snow—is changing. Specifically, alpine glaciers are retreating, the expanse of Arctic sea ice has been shrinking, the thickness and duration of winter snowpacks are diminishing, permafrost has been melting, and the ice cover on lakes and rivers has been appearing later in the year and melting out earlier. Although these changes are relatively well documented, the ecological responses and long-term consequences that they initiate are not. 

Credit: Andrew G. Fountain, et al. BioSphere. doi:10.1525/bio.2012.62.4.11, from the NSIDC Atlas of the CryosphereCredit: Andrew G. Fountain, et al. BioScience. DOI:10.1525/bio.2012.62.4.11, from the NSIDC Atlas of the Cryosphere

The paper describes impacts identified through decades-long ecological studies. The authors found two ecosystem-level responses—that is, responses rippling across various species and trophic levels—as a result of the disappearing cryosphere:

  1. Changes in foodwebs resulting from the loss of habitat and from the loss of species or the replacement of species (a.k.a. the big stuff we tend to notice and take photos of).
  2. Changes in the rates and mechanisms of biogeochemical storage and cycling of carbon and nutrients, caused by changes in physical forcings or ecological community functioning (a.k.a. the little stuff that's hard to see but that underpins the big stuff in #1).

 

A firn field of old, recrystallized snow.: Doronenko via Wikimedia Commons.A firn field of old, recrystallized snow: Doronenko via Wikimedia Commons.

Here's some specifics of what the researchers found:

  • Decreasing snowfall threatens burrowing animals and makes plant roots more susceptible to injury because snow acts as an insulator.
  • Disappearing sea ice has led to declines in the abundance of diatoms (phytoplankton), primary producers of the marine foodweb that support krill, which support seabirds and mammals.
  • Disappearing sea ice also seems unexpectedly to be decreasing the sea's uptake of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.
  • On land, changing snowpacks can alter plant communities.
  • Melting permafrost affects the quantity of carbon dioxide that plants and microbes take out of the atmosphere, in ways that change over time.
  • Shrinking glaciers add pollutants and increased quantities of nutrients to freshwater bodies.
  • Melting river ice pushes more detritus downstream.
  • Disappearing ice on land and resulting sea-level rise will affect social systems, economies, and geopolitics. Many of these changes are already evident in the ski industry, in infrastructure and coastal planning, and in tourism.
  • Significant effects to water supplies and therefore agriculture are predicted. 

 

 

The video from the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center Scientific Visualization Studio shows dwindling perennial Arctic sea ice from 1980 to 2012. The gray disk at the North Pole shows where no satellite data was collected. The second half of the video (wait for it) plays the same animation but without the overlay graph.

The paper:

  • Andrew G. Fountain, et al. The Disappearing Cryosphere: Impacts and Ecosystem Responses to Rapid Cryosphere Loss. BioScience. 2012. DOI: 10.1525/bio.2012.62.4.11 

Tsunami Wreckage Crosses the Ocean

| Wed Apr. 4, 2012 5:27 PM EDT

 Tsunami debris track.: NASA Earth Observatory image by Jesse Allen, using model data courtesy of Jan Hafner, International Pacific Research Center.

Tsunami debris track: NASA Earth Observatory image by Jesse Allen, using model data courtesy of Jan Hafner, International Pacific Research Center.

Where's the  5 million tons of debris from Japan's Tohoku earthquake and tsunami headed? The government of Japan estimates that 70 percent of it sank to the seafloor while 1.5 million tons kept floating. The map above and video below show track predictions of the Surface Currents from Diagnostic (SCUD) model. From NASA's Earth Observatory:

Orange and red shaded areas represent parcels of water with a high probably of containing floating debris. The deeper the red color, the higher the likely concentration. The debris field stretches roughly 5,000 kilometers by 2,000 kilometers [3,100 by 1,242 miles] across the North Pacific. The model begins with more than 678,000 "tracers" being released from various points along the northeastern coast of Japan on March 11, 2011...The still image above shows the predicted distribution of debris by April 3, 2012.

Debris was initially carried by the powerful Kuroshio Current towards the North Pacific Current. Some should reach western North America within a year or two, while much is likely destined for eternal capture in the North Pacific Gyre's garbage patch.

 

 

Update: North Sea Gas Leak

| Mon Apr. 2, 2012 5:58 PM EDT

 Credit: © Julia Whitty

Credit: © Julia Whitty

Recent developments at the Elgin Well head platform—the Well-from-Hell—in the North Sea, where a massive gas leak has been underway since 25 March:

  • The operator of the platform, supermajor oil giant Total SA, says it's losing $2.5 million a day on the leak—$1 million daily on efforts to stanch the leak and $1.5 million in daily revenue,reports AFP.
  •  Greenpeace members aboard the German research vessel Koenigin Juliana sailed to the edge of the exclusion zone within three nautical miles of the platform and reported seeing oil on the water in the form of a multicolored sheen, plus a faint smell of gas in the air. Total claims what they saw was a gas condensate sheen and that it poses no threat to marine life, reports The Maritime Executive.
  • The flare on the platform that had been burning when the rig was evacuated extinguished itself Saturday.
  • Total has outlined plans to stop the gas leak by 1) boarding the platform to control the well, while also 2) drilling a relief well and 3) drilling a backup relief well. The operations are being planned as follows, reports the Oil & Gas Journal:
Total already mobilized two rigs to drill the relief well and backup relief well. Both rigs will move to Elgin after final suspension of their current operations. Both rigs already are working for Total. The Sedco 714 semisubmersible currently is drilling on Fettercairn field north of Elgin. Transocean Ltd. owns and operates Sedco 714. The second rig is a jack up owned by Rowan Cos. Inc. The Gorilla V currently is drilling on West Franklin field. Total said it also is considering additional drilling rigs to maintain the widest possible options available for the response. Two support vessels also are standing by. One is a vessel to deploy remote-operated vehicles for underwater inspections in the vicinity of the Elgin platform. A second vessel is on standby to conduct seabed surveys of possible sites for relief wells.

Well-From-Hell Cynicism

| Thu Mar. 29, 2012 4:07 PM EDT

Credit: Stig Nygaard via Flick.Credit: Stig Nygaard via Flick.

The five-day-and-counting mega-engineering challenge continues at Total's Well-from-Hell in the North Sea. That name was coined by Frederic Hauge of Bellona, a Norwegian group that monitors the oil industry:

"We estimate the total greenhouse gas potential of the reservoir is roughly 0,56 Gigatonnes CO2 equivalent," said... Hauge. "This is based on recoverable resources of 15 billion cubic meters of gas at the West Franklin Field. The pressure in the well is 200-300 bars higher than Macondo [the Deepwater Horizon field]. If no plugging is achieved, this leak is likely to continue for 10-12 years. This is truly the well from hell," he said.

The best-case scenario, Hauge notes, is if the leak is in a small gas pocket, not an enormous reservoir in the Elgin-Franklin gas field. From Bellona:

Should the gas be flowing from the reservoir, Hauge said, staunching the flow could be a long time operation. If, however it is coming from a gas pocket, it could well bleed itself out. 

I described Elgin yesterday as the North Sea's looming Deepwater Horizon—if for no other reason that it also lies at the farthest reaches of our technological abilities to drill and has already clearly exceeded our technological abilities to drill safely. And then there's the matter of our abilities to repair. Or know how to repair. 

The video provides a good explanation of the situation, particularly the explosive aspects of it. 

 

 

But the really pressing issue is the fact that the gas in the field is under extreme high pressure and high temperature. These crappy working conditions are some of the only options left to the UK, reports the Wall Street Journal:

These types of fields are thought to contain a significant proportion of the UK's remaining oil and gas, making them important enough to have been targeted with a specific tax break to encourage development. Yet documents show that the French oil-and-gas producer's Elgin and Franklin fields off the coast of Scotland—at the extreme end of the spectrum of high-pressure and high-temperature fields—have faced major technical challenges, from their discovery right up until the incident that triggered the gas leak.

And while Total claims there's no extremely toxic hydrogen sulfide (aka "Agent Orange" in the ocean) leaking from its Well-from-Hell... well, exactly how do they—or we—know that at this point?  

 Made with the help of LucidChart.

Made with the help of LucidChart. 

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