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.

Big Waves Rising Faster than Sea Level

| Mon Jan. 25, 2010 7:52 PM EST

The biggest waves in the Pacific Northwest are getting bigger. So are the smaller waves.

A new assessment of offshore data from Oregon and Washington finds the annual average heights of deep-water waves have increased since the mid-1970s—with both the low waves of summer and the highest storms waves of winter growing yearly.

Consequently the 100 year wave for this region just grew form a 33-foot wave to a 46-foot wave: a 40 percent rise. Furthermore, the really highest waves possible in the 100-year-event cycle are likely to rise above 55 feet, according to research published in Coastal Engineering.

Worse, the impacts of these storm waves will dwarf the impacts expected from sea level rise in coming decades.

I wrote about this phenomenon in MoJo's All the Disappearing Islands in regards to the people of the Pacific islands nation of Tuvalu. Long before they're actually drowned, low-lying islands and coastlines will become uninhabitable from periodic inundation by storm waves.

In the Pacific Northwest, increasing wave heights have already wrought three times more havoc from erosion, flooding, and coastal damage than is expected from sea level rise in the next few decades.

Add sea level rise to growing wave heights you get a seriously accelerated impact on coastlines.

The most likely cause? Global climate change, say the researchers—who note similarly rising wave heights in the North Atlantic, plus a rising in the total power generated by hurricanes yearly.

So for those who think a 1.5-degree F global temperature rise is inconsequential, here are a few of the deadly inconsequences.
 

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Last Decade Warmest on Record

| Thu Jan. 21, 2010 10:07 PM EST

The Noughties were hotter than anything ever measured. Plus, according to NASA's latest analysis of global surface temperatures, 2009 was tied for the second warmest since 1880. In the Southern Hemisphere, it was the warmest year on record.

Apparently 2008 confused a lot of people. It was the coolest year of the decade because a strong La Nina was cooling the tropical Pacific Ocean. Via NASA:

"There's always interest in the annual temperature numbers and a given year's ranking, but the ranking often misses the point," says James Hansen, director of NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies. "There's substantial year-to-year variability of global temperature caused by the tropical El Nino-La Nina cycle. When we average temperature over five or ten years to minimize that variability, we find global warming is continuing unabated."

Modern monitoring began in 1880. A clear warming trend has been present ever since, although temps leveled off briefly between the 1940s and 1970s.

In the last three decades, the surface temps have increased ~0.36 degrees F (0.2 degrees C) per decade. In total, average global temperatures have increased by about 1.5 degrees F (0.8 degrees C) since 1880.

The year 2009 nearly busted the hottest-year-on-record record—despite an unusually cold December in much of North America. The conditions that made North America so cold however warmed the Arctic above normal. James Hansen explains via NASA:

"The contiguous 48 states cover only 1.5 percent of the world area, so the United States' temperature does not affect the global temperature much."

Too bad the United States' political temperature does affect global temperature so much. Between the Republican Senate win in Massachusetts, and today's Supreme Court ruling on corporate campaign funding, expect the Teens to get even hotter.
 

Mud, the New Plastic

| Wed Jan. 20, 2010 9:21 PM EST

Seems like we may have a means of weaning ourselves off oil. At least plastics made from oil.

The research from the University of Tokyo, published in Nature, describes a new and better "plastic" brewed from clay, water, a thickening agent (sodium polyacrylate) and an organic "molecular glue."

The end result is a super strong, self-healing, transparent and elastic hydrogel composed of 98 percent water and bound by supramolecular forces, otherwise known as "smart molecules."

Better yet, the gel takes just 3 minutes to form, and making it requires no understanding of the chemical process involved, reports New Scientist:

"Toughness, self-healing and robustness are just some of the initial physical properties that will be found for this new class of materials," Craig Hawker [of UCSB, not involved in the study] says. "I predict that this approach will lead to the design of even more impressive materials in the near future."

This is big. Big enough to score an ultra-prestigious Nature publication. Maybe big enough to significantly change the future. Good old mud.
 

Why Lawns Suck

| Tue Jan. 19, 2010 9:27 PM EST

The turfgrass in lawns may be hard-working photosynthesizing plants that store our harmful CO2 emissions in the form of organic carbon in the soil. But the way we tend lawns actually creates four times more emissions than the grasses sequester.

This according to a new study (pdf) of southern California lawns in Geophysical Research Letters. The problems stem from using fertilizers, gasoline-powered lawn mowers, leaf blowers, and all the other living hells of modern lawn management.

Lawn emissions also includes nitrous oxide released from soil after fertilization. Nitrous oxide is 300 times more potent a greenhouse gas than CO2.

Worse, partly as a result of the unexamined rush to "green" urban spaces, we've now covered 1.9 percent of all the land in the contiguous US with lawns.

Worst, lawns are the most common irrigated crop in our irrigated country.

The researchers analyzed grass in four parks near Irvine, California, each with two types of turf: ornamental lawns (picnic areas), left largely undisturbed; athletic fields (soccer and baseball), trampled, replanted, and aerated frequently. Findings:

  • Ornamental lawns offset only 10 to 30 percent of the nitrous oxide emissions from fertilization offset, plus fossil fuel consumption from mowers and whatnot released four times more CO2 than the plots could take up.
  • Athletic fields performed even worse, since wear and tear continually disrupted the grasses' efforts, and because they needed constant tilling and resodding, therefore trapping way less CO2 than ornamental lawns yet requiring the same emissions-producing care.

I've always hated lawns. Talk about a time-and-energy suck. Now a climate suck too.
 

Whaling Loses Another Flimsy Rationale

| Fri Jan. 15, 2010 10:00 PM EST

A genetic analysis of Antarctic minke whales reveals these small baleen whales are not more populous now as a result of the intensive hunting of larger whales last century. The findings run counter to the belief of commercial whalers that the world is overrun with minke whales who need culling.

Cull (kul) v.t. A lame excuse to go hunting.

Miraculously, Antarctic minkes weren't decimated along with the other baleen and toothed whales in the 20th century. Blue whales were reduced to  1-2 percent of their previous numbers. Fin whales to 2-3 percent. Humpbacks to less than 5 percent.

Consequently, the "Krill Surplus Hypothesis" postulates that the two million whales who were killed in the Southern Ocean left behind a surplus of krill and a shortfall of predators. This supposedly paved the way for minke numbers to explode.

Except they didn't. The researchers analyzed genomic DNA from 52 samples of minke whale meat purchased in Japanese markets. The whales were killed during commercial whaling thinly disguised as "scientific whaling." The findings in Molecular Ecology:

  • Historical population of Antarctic minkes stood at roughly 670,000 individuals
  • Current population of Antarctic minkes stands at roughly the same number

Scott Baker, a whale geneticist at Oregon State University told OSU:

"Some scientists involved in the International Whaling Commission have suggested that Antarctic minke whales have increased three-fold to eight-fold over the last century because of the lack of competition for krill. But until now, there has been little evidence to help judge what historic populations of minke whales actually were. Our study clearly shows that minke whales today have a great deal of genetic diversity, which reflects a long history of large and relatively stable population size. This genomic approach is a significant advance over most previous studies, which have examined diversity using only a handful of genetic markers."

No one eats whale meat anymore. The Japanese feed it to their dogs. No excuses left.
 

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