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.

Navy Says Biofuels a Priority During Sequester

| Fri Mar. 8, 2013 7:20 AM EST

I reported in the current issue of Mother Jones on the US Navy's aggressive goals to reduce dependence on foreign oil and fossil fuels (My Heart-Stopping Ride Aboard the Navy's Great Green Fleet). These targets include testing and scaling up of biofuels and conserving whatever energy the Navy does procure by using new technologies and good-old common sense—plus training a new generation of officers as "energy warriors."

So what's the sequester going to do to those initiatives, which former Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta described as among his most important? I spoke with Tom Hicks, Deputy Assistant Director of the Navy for Energy. He told me that at this point all Department of Navy and Department of Defense programs are subject to cuts and civilian furloughs. But some programs weigh more importantly than others:

At this time of declining budgets, investments in the efficiency of our ships and airplanes and in developing alternative fuels becomes more important than ever. In many ways those investments provide savings to the Navy's fleet and to the Navy ashore. The way we budget, we've already accounted for the savings that were expected to be made in fiscal year 2013. If those investments don't happen we'll experience additional costs that we'll have to find a way to pay for in future years. So in a very real way we're going to be facing some bigger budgetary issues if we can't find ways to make those investments.

I know that energy remains one of the top priorities with the Secretary [of the Navy, Ray Mabus]. Certainly shipbuilding is probably foremost among his priorities. But energy is up there as well, in part because of what it provides us. For the fleet it provides additional combat capability and mission effectiveness, and it reduces our vulnerability to increasingly volatile petroleum markets. We had the [amphibious assault ship] USS Makin Island that just recently completed its maiden nine-month deployment. It went out with $32 million fuel budget and it returned back with $15 million saved over its planned fuel usage. That's because it has a hybrid electric drive [part gas-turbine-electric and part diesel-electric] and many other efficiency measures on board that allows it to reduce the amount of energy it needs to conduct its missions. To us, to the Secretary of the Navy, it's now more important than ever to maintain our level of investment in energy.

According to the Washington Guardian, the Navy is forecasting an $8.6 billion budget shortfall by the end of 2013, with plans to shut down four air wings, cancel or delay deployments of up to  six ships, dock two destroyers, and defer a planned humanitarian mission by the hospital ship USNS Comfort to Central and Latin America, plus furloughs among its civilian workforce. So far, no mention of axing energy programs.

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We're Scarily Close to the Permafrost Tipping Point

| Tue Mar. 5, 2013 7:15 AM EST
Permafrost, Sweden:

Permafrost—the ground that stays frozen for two or more consecutive years—is a ticking time bomb of climate change. Some 24 percent of Northern Hemisphere land is permafrost. That's 9 million square miles (23 million square kilometers) found mostly in Siberia, the Tibetan Plateau, Alaska, the Canadian Arctic, and other higher mountain regions.

Unfortunately, thawing permafrost releases massive amounts of methane and/or carbon dioxide. The question is whether that would happen over the course of decades or over a century or more. This short video from the Yale Climate Forum explains the current scientific thinking on just how close we might be to the lethal tipping point.

Meanwhile this 90-second permafrost primer from the Climate Desk explains exactly we want this northern freezer to remain frozen. 

The map below shows land-based permafrost in the Northern Hemisphere. It also shows the subsea permafrost that underlies the continental shelves of the Arctic Ocean. 

Map of Northern Hemipshere permafrost on land and under the Arctic Ocean:
Map of Northern Hemisphere permafrost on the land and under the Arctic Ocean: Credit: Tingjun Zhang via the National Snow & Ice Data Center

We really really don't want permafrost to melt since its emissions have the potential to dwarf our own. As the Yale Climate Forum video says, we have the theoretical ability to control our carbon emissions but none whatsoever to stop a permafrost tipping point once it's reached.

Yikes! Without Top Predators, CO2 Emissions Skyrocket

| Tue Feb. 19, 2013 4:43 PM EST
The three-spined stickleback is a regulator of carbon dioxide emissions in its ecosystem:

Top predators do more than regulate prey populations (think wolves and deer). They also regulate carbon dioxide emissions. At least they do in freshwater ecosystems—where if you take away the top predators CO2 emissions rise a staggering 93 percent. 

This according to a new paper in the latest Nature Geoscience that holds ramifications for a lot more than marshes. "Predators are disappearing from our ecosystems at alarming rates because of hunting and fishing pressure and because of human induced changes to their habitats," said lead author Trisha Atwood, at the University of British Columbia.

I wrote in an earlier post here on research showing how the loss of biodiversity (itself often a function of the loss of top predators) likely alters CO2 dynamics and other issues of global change as much as greenhouse gases.

The stonefly (Hesperoperla pacifica) whose presence helps keep CO2 emissions in check: Lynette S. / Lynette Schimming via Flickr

Food web theory posits that predators influence the exchange of CO2 between ecosystems and the atmosphere by altering processes like decomposition and primary production (a function of the numbers and diversity of plants).

To test that theory, the researchers experimented on three-tier food chains in experimental ponds, streams, and bromeliads in Canada and Costa Rica by removing or adding predators. Specifically by adding or removing three-spined stickleback fish (Gasterosteus aculeatus) and the invertebrate predators stoneflies (Hesperoperla pacifica) and damselflies (Mecistogaster modesta). When all the predators were removed the ecosystems emitted a whopping 93 percent more carbon dioxide to the atmosphere.

"We knew that predators shaped ecosystems by affecting the abundance of other plants and animals," says Atwood, "but now we know their impact extends all the way down to the biogeochemical     level."

From the paper:

We monitored carbon dioxide fluxes along with prey and primary producer biomass. We found substantially reduced carbon dioxide emissions in the presence of predators in all systems, despite differences in predator type, hydrology, climatic region, ecological zone and level of in situ primary production. We also observed lower amounts of prey biomass and higher amounts of algal and detrital biomass in the presence of predators. We conclude that predators have the potential to markedly influence carbon dioxide dynamics in freshwater systems.

The paper:

  • Trisha B. Atwood, Edd Hammill, Hamish S. Greig, Pavel Kratina, Jonathan B. Shurin, Diane S. Srivastava, John S. Richardson. Predator-induced reduction of freshwater carbon dioxide emissions. Nature Geoscience (2013). DOI:10.1038/ngeo1734

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Polar Bears Need Love…and a Plan

| Mon Feb. 11, 2013 7:02 AM EST

United States Fish and Wildlife Service via Wikimedia Commons

A team of leading polar bear ecologists called for nations to make plans now for dealing with ongoing—and soon to be critical—threats to the survival of polar bears. The biggest problem for this iconic Arctic species is the mindblowingly fast disappearance of sea ice. Their paper appears in Conservation Letters.

For instance, last month (January 2013) the average coverage of sea ice in the Arctic Ocean was 409,000 square miles (1.06 million square kilometers) below the 1979 to 2000 January average. That's the sixth-lowest January extent in the satellite record, says the National Snow & Ice Data Center. Plus 2012 saw the lowest ever summer coverage of sea ice in the Arctic. 

The 19 polar bear populations identified by the IUCN: Andrew E. Derocher, et al, Conservation Letters (2013). DOI: 10.1111/conl.12009

It's not going to be easy to mitigate these challenges, the authors warn. There are 19 populations of polar bears worldwide. Some—like the Western Hudson Bay (WH, in the map above) bears and the Davis Strait (DS) bears—experience complete sea ice melt in summer that forces them onto land where they've got nothing to eat and can only burn through their own fat until the ocean refreezes.

For other populations—the Chukchi Sea (CS), Laptev Sea (LS), and Barents Sea (BS)—many bears remain on drifting pack ice and multiyear ice year round. The problem is that a lot of that pack ice is now retreating far beyond the continental shelf where ocean productivity is higher and polar bear prey more numerous. Meanwhile multiyear ice is disappearing rapidly throughout almost all the Arctic. 

Ansgar Walk via Wikimedia Commons

Here's what we know happens to bears forced ashore for too long in summer, or kept far offshore on multiyear ice:

  • declines in body condition
  • declines in body size
  • declines in reproductive rates
  • declines in survival rates
  • declines in population size
  • declines in sea ice denning habitat
  • altered movements and distribution

How bad will it get? In an earlier paper one author predicted the extinction of polar bears in two thirds of their range by 2050. That's because low ice years will increase as long as greenhouse-gas-induced warming continues—until almost all years will be bad for polar bears. For example:

  • Adult male mortality from starvation is predicted to increase to 28-48 percent in any year when the fasting period is 30 days longer than in recent years.
  • The possible effects on other age and sex classes have not been modeled but are predicted to be more severe.
  • Some years will continue to be better for polar bears and others poorer, even as the frequency of poor years increases until all are poor years.
  • The first occurrences of exceptionally poor years are likely to present a near-term critical challenge to polar bear conservation.

The authors write:

When superimposed over the long-term declining trend, annual variability in sea ice makes it increasingly likely that we will soon see a year where sea ice availability for some polar bear populations is below thresholds for vital-rates. Malnutrition at previously unobserved scales may result in catastrophic population declines and numerous management challenges.

If you have the stomach for it, there's a desperately tragic video of a polar bear mother and her two cubs dying of starvation here. Be forewarned: this is graphic and ghastly. But it's also a sign of what's happening now and what's to come for many many more bears in the future. Knowledge of these kinds of events was one of the reasons this paper was written, lead author, and author of Polar Bears: A Complete Guide to their Biology and Behavior, Andrew Derocher told me.

Orphaned polar bear cubs being sent to a zoo: NOAA via Wikimedia Commons

It's not just about bears either. Starving bears forced ashore are already a threat to local communities and that's only likely to get worse in the near future. The authors write:

The most intensive program for dealing with human-bear interactions, the Polar Bear Alert program in Churchill, Manitoba, Canada, includes extensive hazing, relocation, and temporary housing of bears to mitigate conflict during the ice-free period. That program is expensive and may not be easily applied in small northern communities with limited resources. Nonetheless, we encourage alternatives to killing problem bears, which is a common outcome in northern communities. The Churchill program was established before the effects of climate change were recognized and it is unclear whether it will remain adequate as warming continues. Bears temporarily held in captivity are not currently fed so the cost of temporary holding will increase when the ice-free period extends beyond the fasting capacity of captive bears. Less-expensive options such as reducing attractants and securing storage of food should be included along with plans for increased deterrent capabilities. Training and equipping community polar bear monitors, along with extensive public education and inter-jurisdictional agreements, should be planned to help assure human safety.

Projections of cumulative months per decade where optimal polar bear habitat will be either lost (red) or gained (blue) from 2001–2010 to 2041–2050. Insets show average annual cumulative area of optimal habitat (right y-axis, line plot) for four 10-year periods in the 21st century (x-axis midpoints), and their associated percent. Larger version hereUSGS

Derocher also pointed me towards this successful World Wildlife Fund Canada project to protect villagers from hungry, shore-bound bears in the Hamlet of Arviat, Nunavut.

Among the authors' other concerns:

  • Polar bears are still hunted throughout the Arctic except in Norway and Russia. "Existing harvest management methods are inadequate for declining populations that, by definition, have no sustainable harvest."
  • Feeding some bears might become necessary to keep people safe. "Diversionary feeding could be a viable short-term tool to draw bears away from settlements or industrial facilities." But possible negatives include: "the potential for disease and parasite transmission as well as human-wildlife conflicts may increase as other species such as Arctic fox, wolves, and grizzly bears are drawn into diversionary feeding locations​."
  • Feeding might also be needed to keep bears alive in areas where they might not otherwise survive. [How sad is that?]
  • Some bears might need to be sent to high-quality zoos for captive breeding.
  • Some bears might need to be euthanized if they've starved beyond rehabilitation.

The authors conclude:

Considering the global attention paid to polar bears, managers will be forced to respond to sudden changes in environmental conditions that negatively affect polar bears. We believe that managers and policy makers who have anticipated the effects, consulted with stakeholders, defined conservation objectives, created enabling legislation, and considered possible management actions will be most able to effectively respond to large-scale negative changes.

Andrew Derocher told me: "One thing we try to make clear is that we don't necessarily recommend any of these options but lay them out for consideration and discussion. Further, we don't view these desperate measures as a replacement for dealing with greenhouse gasses.  If we don't deal with climate change we won't have any polar bear habitat left."

The paper:

  • Andrew E. Derocher, Jon Aars, Steven C. Amstrup, Amy Cutting, Nick J. Lunn, Péter K. Molnár, Martyn E. Obbard, Ian Stirling, Gregory W. Thiemann, Dag Vongraven, Øystein Wiig, Geoffrey York. Rapid ecosystem change and polar bear conservation. Conservation Letters (2013). DOI:10.1111/conl.12009
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