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.

Walrus Without Ice

| Thu Nov. 15, 2012 4:18 AM PST

Polar Cruises via FlickrPolar Cruises via Flickr

During my trip through the Arctic Ocean last month (Arctic Ocean Diaries) we saw a few walrus streaming south through the Chukchi Sea towards the Bering Strait. Winter was on their tails. Or at least soon would be.

There's a lot of urgency just now to figure out exactly where Pacific walruses are feeding and traveling off Alaska. That's because their world is changing so unbelievably fast. 

Sea ice extent in the Chukchi Sea as of 12-16 Nov 2012: National / Naval Ice CenterSea ice extent in the Chukchi Sea as of 12-16 Nov 2012: National / Naval Ice Center

Sea ice—the mobile platforms where walruses haul-out to rest and give birth—is in rapid decline throughout the Arctic. This summer broke the record for lowest ice extent ever seen. There was little to none in the US Arctic—the Chukchi and Beaufort seas—for most of the summer and fall.

The map above shows how little ice is in the Chukchi even now, midway through November. Red, orange, and yellow mark sea ice extents of between four-tenths coverage and ten-tenths coverage. As you can see from the amount of white in the map, there's still a whole lot of open water up there.

Tracks of 40 tagged walrus in the Chukchi Sea during summer 2012: USGS Alaska Science CenterTracks of 40 tagged walrus in the Chukchi Sea during summer 2012. Star marks approximate position of Shell oil well: USGS Alaska Science Center

As part of an ongoing effort towards an Endangered Species listing for Pacific walrus, researchers with the United States Geological Survey have been tagging walruses to see where they're traveling and how they're managing in the presence or absence of sea ice. From this will come a designation of critical habitat.

The map above shows the tracks of 40 walruses tagged this summer. You can start to see which areas are important to them. (For an animated track map that includes the dwindling sea ice margin go here.)

I added the black star on the map to show the approximate position of Shell's well in the virgin seafloor of the Chukchi Sea, Burger Oil Field. (See my earlier post on Shell's drilling efforts and errors.)  Sadly, there look to be a lot of walruses using the dangerous waters around that well.

 

The video explains the USGS research efforts underway, with some gorgeous footage of walruses on ice and off.

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October Was Looking Kinda Normal Until Sandy Broke the Record Books

| Tue Nov. 13, 2012 4:00 PM PST

 Precipitation associated with Sandy, 23-31 Oct 2012 (preliminary): NOAA National Climatic Data Center

Precipitation associated with Sandy, 23-31 Oct 2012 (preliminary): NOAA National Climatic Data Center

According to NOAA's National Climatic Data Center State of the Climate Report, post-tropical cyclone Sandy made landfall with a central minimum pressure of 946 millibars—potentially a record low for the Northeast coast, pending further assessment. The storm also rated as the largest hurricane to form in the North Atlantic  in terms of wind spread, with a gale diameter of 945 miles.

This month's report focuses on Sandy as the monster rampaging through October. Here are a few other noteworthy  stats associated with that storm:

  • The observed water level at The Battery in New York City of 13.8 feet set an all-time record there, topping Hurricane Donna's 1960 record by more than three feet.
  • The Delaware River in Philadelphia set a new record high water level of 10.6 feet, beating out the previous high of 10.5 feet set in April 2011. 
  • Sandy's blizzard dropped more than a foot of snow in six states from North Carolina to Pennsylvania, shattering October monthly and single storm snowfall records. Snowfall totals in the highest elevations approached three feet.

 

NOAA National Climatic Data Center

NOAA National Climatic Data Center 

Aside from Sandy's mayhem, October was shaping up to be a relatively benign month by 21st century standards. The average temperature in the lower 48 was 53.9°F—0.3°F below the long-term average. That ended a 16-month streak of above-average temperatures starting in June 2011.

But even October couldn't mitigate the bigger picture for the year. The period between January and October 2012 saw the warmest first ten months of any year on record for the contiguous US dating back to 1895.

  • The national temperature of 58.4°F was 3.4°F above the 20th-century average and 1.1°F above the previous record warm between January and October 2000.
  • The first 10 months of 2012 racked up as record warm in 21 states.
  • The first 10 months of 2012 racked up among the 10 warmest in 25 states.
  • Only Washington state saw temperatures near average for the period. 

 

NOAA National Climatic Data Center

NOAA National Climatic Data Center 

As you can see from this graph, previous record hot years dating back to 1895 were wiped out by 2012's heat so far (click graph for larger image). That heat led to a few other costly complications in terms of drought and crop failures:

  • January-October 2012 was the 16th driest period on record for the lower 48: precip totals 1.9 inches below the average of 24.78 inches.
  • Drier-than-average conditions were present from the Southwest, through the Rockies, across the Plains and into the Midwest.
  • Nebraska and Wyoming were record dry for the period. Nebraska's statewide precipitation total of 11.92 inches was 9.4 inches below average, while Wyoming's precipitation of 6.57 inches was 5.2 inches below average.
  • The Gulf Coast, parts of the Northeast, and the Pacific Northwest were wetter than average during January-October.
  • Washington's year-to-date precipitation total was 33.23 inches, 7.36 inches above average, and the fourth wettest January-October on record.

From the report:

The U.S. Climate Extremes Index (USCEI), an index that tracks the highest and lowest 10 percent of extremes in temperature, precipitation, drought and tropical cyclones across the contiguous U.S., was nearly twice the average value during the January-October period, and marked the second highest USCEI value for the period. Extremes in warm daytime temperatures, warm nighttime temperatures, and the spatial extent of drought conditions contributed to the record high USCEI value.


Forecast: Hotter Climate Models Likely Right

| Fri Nov. 9, 2012 4:03 AM PST

 Thunderstorms over Brazil: NASA astronaut photos via Wikimedia Commons

Thunderstorms over Brazil: NASA astronaut photos via Wikimedia Commons

More than two dozen major climate models are being used to forecast global warming from rising greenhouse gas emissions—notably how much warming will occur when atmospheric carbon dioxide doubles from preindustrial times. At current rates that unhappy milestone will be reached well before 2100. So which models are more accurate?

"Because we have more reliable observations for humidity than for clouds, we can use the humidity patterns that change seasonally to evaluate climate models," says co-author Kevin Trenberth.

For decades the leading models have predicted an average rise of 5 degrees Fahrenheit (2.7 degrees Celsius), with models on the low end predicting a rise of 3 degrees F (~1.6 degrees C) and those on the high end predicting 8 degrees F (5.3 degrees C). Now a new analysis in the leading journal Science suggests that the higher end forecasts are more accurate.

Why? Moisture has a lot to do with it. Clouds, well, they cloud the picture. Satellites observe clouds. But satellite failures, observing errors, and other inconsistencies make it difficult to build a global cloud census consistent over many years. A better measure is water vapor. Satellite estimates of the global distribution of humidity have become more reliable than their estimates of clouds.

Relative humidity is incorporated in climate models to generate and dissipate clouds. So the authors checked the distribution of relative humidity in 16 leading climate models to see how accurately they portray the present climate. They focused on the subtropics, the places where sinking air from the tropics make dry zones, home to most of the world's major deserts.

  

 

What they found was that estimates based on observations show relative humidity in the dry zones between about 15 and 25 percent. Whereas many models inaccurately depict humidities of 30 percent or higher. Less humidity equals fewer clouds equals less albedo to reflect sunlight back into space, hence more warming.

The models that best captured the actual dryness currently seen in the subtropics were those with the highest temperature forecasts. Specifically those projecting a global temperature rise of more than 7 degrees F (3.8 degrees C) by the time of doubled C02 levels. The three models with the lowest temperature forecasts were also the least accurate in depicting relative humidity in these zones.

The paper:

A Creepy October in the Arctic

| Tue Nov. 6, 2012 4:13 AM PST

View from the 05 Deck on USCG icebreaker Healy on 15 October 2012: Julia WhittyView from the 05 Deck on USCG icebreaker Healy on 15 October 2012: Julia WhittyThis was the view at sunrise from the 05 deck five levels above the main deck of the Coast Guard icebreaker Healy three weeks ago. (For more about this science cruise check out my Arctic Ocean Diaries.) It was a balmy 27°F (-2°C). On the same cruise last year temperatures fell to -20°F (-29°C). Last month the ocean was relatively calm. There wasn't much of anything to indicate we were actually in the Arctic. It looked a lot like South Pacific sunrises I've watched from open boats in a shorty wetsuit. Frankly it was creepy.

Arctic sea ice extent for October 2012 was 2.7 million square miles (7 million square kilometers). Magenta line shows 1979 to 2000 median extent for that month. Black cross indicates geographic North Pole. Yellows shows seas within the Arctic Ocean: National Snow and Ice Data CenterArctic sea ice extent for October 2012 was 2.7 million square miles (7 million square kilometers). Magenta line shows 1979 to 2000 median extent for October. Black cross marks geographic North Pole. Yellow names mark the seas of the Arctic Ocean: National Snow and Ice Data Center

Yesterday the National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC) released their monthly overview of Arctic sea ice for October 2012, which explains a lot of what I saw. The map above shows October 2012 ice in white, compared to the median sea ice extent from 1979 to 2000 (pink line). Here's what the NSIDC report says:

Average ice extent for October was 7.00 million square miles (2.70 million square miles). This is the second lowest in the satellite record, 230,000 square kilometers (88,800 square miles) above the 2007 record for the month. However, it is 2.29 million square kilometers (884,000 square miles) below the 1979 to 2000 average. The East Siberian, Chukchi, and Laptev seas have substantially frozen up. Large areas of the southern Beaufort, Barents, and Kara seas remain ice free.

That's less ice in the Arctic this October than an area of Alaska and Texas combined.

My cruise covered the entire eastern extent of the Chukchi Sea and the entire southern extent of the Beaufort Sea. These are the Alaskan parts (and some Canadian parts) of the Arctic Ocean. The fact that they remain largely ice free even now could bode poorly for ecosystems accustomed to a cap of sea ice most of the year.

a snapshot of how ocean depth in the Arctic influences sea ice extent. Sea ice cover for August 28, 2012 is shown in semi-transparent white; ocean depths are indicated in blues, with deeper blues indicating greater depth: National Snow and Ice Data Center courtesy Jamie Morison/Applied Physics Laboratory, University of WashingtonA snapshot of how ocean depth in the Arctic influences sea ice extent. Sea ice cover for 28 August 2012 is shown in semi-transparent white, ocean depths in blues, deeper blues indicating greater depth: National Snow and Ice Data Center courtesy Jamie Morison/Applied Physics Laboratory, University of Washington

Really interesting in the NSIDC report is an analysis of what forces may affect sea ice formation:

Research by our colleagues Jamie Morison at the University of Washington Seattle and NASA scientist Son Nghiem suggests that bathymetry (sea floor topography) plays an important role in Arctic sea ice formation and extent by controlling the distribution and mixing of warm and cold waters. At its seasonal minimum extent, the ice edge mainly corresponds to the deep-water/shallow-water boundary (approximately 500-meter depth), suggesting that the ocean floor exerts a dominant control on the ice edge position.

They note that in some some cases sea ice survives even in shallower continental shelves because of water circulation patterns. The shelf of the Greenland Sea is nearly always ice covered because of southward-flowing Arctic currents that keep it cold. Meanwhile other shallow areas like the Barents and Chukchi seas lose their ice cover due to warm ocean waters and freshwater runoff from rivers—two forces that are increasing in strength as the land warms too.

Riding the Storm: Messenger on a Bike From the Entrails of Hurricane Sandy

| Fri Nov. 2, 2012 11:30 AM PDT

 

 Hurricane Sandy on Bikes in NYC from Casey Neistat on Vimeo.

"No city authorized filming will take place," announced New York Mayor Bloomberg as Hurricane Sandy approached. But that didn't stop filmmaker Casey Neistat from getting out on his bike and shooting this crazy awesome scary footage during the storm.

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