Tim McDonnell joined Climate Desk after stints at Mother Jones and Sierra magazine. He remains a cheerful guy despite covering climate change all the time. Originally from Tucson, Tim loves tortillas and epic walks.
Protesters in Seattle have taken to kayaks as Shell's Arctic drilling fleet approaches the city.
Royal Dutch Shell cleared a major hurdle this afternoon when the Obama administration announced conditional approval for the company's application to drill for oil in the Chukchi Sea off Alaska's North Slope. The decision came after a few months of public comment on Shell's exploration plan, which was roundly condemned by environmental groups and several North Slope communities.
Shell's plan involves drilling for oil in a patch of ocean called the Burger Prospect. The drilling is slated to take place this summer when sea ice is at its lowest. In anticipation of this decision, two massive oil drilling ships owned by Shell are en route to a temporary dock in Seattle; from there, they are scheduled to press on to the Arctic.
If the ships make it to the planned site, it will be the first attempt Shell has made to drill in the Arctic (an area believed to hold massive subterranean reserves of oil and gas) since its disastrous effort in 2012. Back then, Shell faced a yearlong series of mishaps as it tried to navigate the icy waters, culminating in a wreck of the Kulluk, one of its main drilling ships. For many environmentalists, that botched project was a sign that Shell is ill-equipped to handle Arctic waters.
Moreover, today's decision underscored what many describe as an inconsistency in President Barack Obama's climate change policy: Despite his aggressive rhetoric on the dangers of global warming, and a suite of policies to curb the nation's carbon footprint, Obama has also pushed to expand offshore oil and gas drilling. Earlier this year, he announced a plan to limit drilling permits in some parts of the Arctic while simultaneously opening a vast new swath of the Atlantic ocean to drilling.
Allowing Shell to forge ahead with its Arctic ambitions flies in the face of the president's own climate agenda, said Franz Matzner, associate director of government affairs at the Natural Resources Defense Council.
"It's a total mystery why the Obama administration and [Interior] Secretary [Sally] Jewell are continuing down this path that is enormously risky, contradicts climate science, and is completely unnecessary to meet our energy goals," Matzner said. "It's a dangerous folly to think that this can be done."
Before Shell can start drilling, it still needs to secure a few final federal and state permits, including one that requires Shell to demonstrate how it plans to protect ocean life during drilling and in the case of a spill. Those decisions are expected within the next month or so.
A spokesperson for Shell told the New York Times: "Before operations can begin this summer, it's imperative that the remainder of our permits be practical, and delivered in a timely manner. In the meantime, we will continue to test and prepare our contractors, assets and contingency plans against the high bar stakeholders and regulators expect of an Arctic operator."
Early last month, veteran polar explorers and scientists Marc Cornelissen and Philip de Roo set out on skis from Resolute Bay, a remote outpost in the patchwork of islands between Canada and Greenland. Their destination was Bathurst Island, a treacherous 70-mile trek to the northwest across the frozen sea, where they planned to document thinning Arctic sea ice just a few months after NASA reported that the winter ice cover was the lowest on record.
It wasn't hard to find what they were looking for, according to a dispatch Cornelissen uploaded to Soundcloud on April 28.
"We're nearing into the coast of Bathurst," he said. "We think we see thin ice in front of us…Within 15 minutes of skiing it became really warm. In the end it was me skiing in my underwear…I don't think it looked very nice, and it didn't feel sexy either, but it was the only way to deal with the heat."
His next message, a day later, was an emergency distress signal picked up by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. According to the Guardian, a pilot flying over the spot reported seeing open water, scattered equipment, and a lone sled dog sitting on the broken ice. By last Friday, rescuers had called off the search. The pair are presumed to have drowned, victims of the same thin ice they had come to study. Cornelissen was 46; de Roo had just turned 30.
Yesterday, Cold Facts, the nonprofit with whom the pair was working at the time, dispatched a snowmobile expedition to attempt to recover their belongings. You can follow their progress on Twitter here. The dog, Kimnik, was found a few days ago and is doing fine, the group said.
In a blog post on the website of the European Space Agency, Cornelissen was remembered by former colleagues as "an inspirational character, an explorer and a romantic. He had fallen in love with the spellbinding beauty of the poles and had made it a personal mission to highlight the magnitude of the human fingerprint on this last wilderness."
It's not clear whether the ice conditions the pair encountered were directly attributable to climate change, according to E&E News:
That the region had thin ice is evident. Perhaps the ice had been thinned by ocean currents that deliver warm water from below, or by the wind, which could generate open water areas. It is difficult to know. Climate change may have played a role, or it may not have…the impacts of the warming on ice thickness regionally can be unpredictable, [ESA scientist Mark] Drinkwater said.
Still, the Arctic is warming twice as fast as anywhere else on Earth. We rely on the work of scientists like these to know exactly what is happening there and how it will affect those of us who choose to stay safe in warmer, drier places. Their deaths are a testament to the dedication and fearlessness required to stand on the front lines of climate change.
Deforestation caused by wildfires, development, and agriculture could be a major source of carbon emissions in California.
Last week California Gov. Jerry Brown made headlines when he announced that his state would pursue the most aggressive greenhouse gas emissions cuts in the nation. The new goal—to reduce emissions 40 percent below 1990 levels by 2030—is an interim step meant to help achieve a final goal set by Brown's predecessor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, of an 80 percent reduction by 2050.
Exact details on how the new target will be achieved haven't yet been released, but it will likely include a combination of new clean-energy mandates and pollution reduction rules for power companies, as well as incentives for electric vehicles. That's a good place to start: Transportation and the energy sector are the two biggest portions of the state's carbon footprint, accounting for roughly 36 percent and 21 percent of emissions, respectively. Those sectors are also the two biggest in the nationwide carbon footprint, which is why President Barack Obama's climate rules have likewise focused on cars and power plants.
"There's no way to meet the ambitious targets without dealing with deforestation," the Nature Conservancy's Louis Blumberg says.
But there's another slice of the carbon pie that gets very little airtime, and on which California and the United States as a whole fare very differently: land use. Trees and soil store a lot of carbon, and any time they get destroyed (logged for timber, burned in a fire, plowed for agriculture, paved over for urban development), there are associated carbon emissions. On the national level, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, land use is actually a carbon sink, meaning that the carbon stored by forests and other vegetation outweighs emissions from messing with them. It's no small piece; land use offsets up to 13 percent of the total US carbon footprint, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (through policies such as minimizing soil erosion and limiting the conversion of forests into cropland).
New research indicates the trend may be very different in California, contrary to conventional wisdom in the state. Since the passage of the state's first global warming legislation, AB 32 in 2006, California's carbon targets have been set with the assumption that there would be no net increase in land use emissions. The greenhouse gas inventory published by the California Air Resources Board, the state's air pollution regulatory agency, makes no mention of forestry or land use emissions. But a peer-reviewed study commissioned by CARB and published last month by the National Park Service's top climate change scientist, Patrick Gonzalez, in conjunction with the University of California-Berkeley, found that over the last decade land use in California has been a source, not a sink, of carbon emissions.
Gonzalez's research aggregated, for the first time, a vast collection of satellite data and on-the-ground measurements to estimate how much carbon is stored in vegetation in the state. It's a pretty staggering amount: The state's 26 national parks store the rough equivalent of the average annual carbon emissions of 7 million Americans. But even more revealing was how that number has shrunk over the last decade, as wildfires, development, and agriculture chip away at forests and other "natural" landscapes. Every year, the disappearance of these carbon stocks emits about as much carbon dioxide as the city of Dallas, says Gonzalez—that's roughly 5 to 7 percent of California's total carbon footprint.
In other words, Gonzalez says, if California wants to meet its climate targets, the state has a hole that needs to be filled with better land management. Unfortunately, climate change itself is likely to make this situation even worse. Two-thirds of the land use emissions Gonzalez identified were the result of wildfires, meaning that better managing fires—and thereby keeping carbon locked away inside forests—is a key step for reducing the state's overall emissions. Climate change makes wildfires worse by increasing the severity and frequency of droughts, and as the state's unprecedented drought enters its fifth year, experts say the wildfire season there is already shaping up to be a "disaster."
Overall, deforestation needs to take on a much more prominent role in the statewide climate conversation, says Louis Blumberg, director of the Nature Conservancy's climate program in California. "There's no way to meet the ambitious targets without dealing with deforestation," he says.
A spokesperson for CARB said that the agency is still skeptical that land use is as much of a problem as the Gonzalez study indicates, and that the study likely underestimates the amount of carbon still stored in forests due to uncertainties in the satellite data. Meanwhile, bureaucratic complications have so far precluded CARB from including forests in its carbon accounting (most of the forests are managed by federal, rather than state, agencies). Still, state officials appear to be increasingly aware of the significance of land use in its climate planning. In his inaugural address in January, Brown discussed the need to "manage farm and rangelands, forests and wetlands so they can store carbon." Both the Nature Conservancy and National Park Service are now working with state regulators to track the climate impact of deforestation and to develop policies to keep more carbon safely stored away in trees.
Deforestation "is a new part of the puzzle," Blumberg said. "But it's essential."
A wood frog lays eggs on a pond surface. Many frogs like this are breeding earlier in the spring because of climate change.
Plants and animals around the world are already suffering from the negative impacts of manmade global warming—including shrinking habitats and the spread of disease. A great number are also facing the ultimate demise—outright extinction—among them the iconic polar bear, some fish species, coral, trees... the list goes on.
While most of the research on this topic so far has been piecemeal, one species at a time, a new study out today in Science offers the most comprehensive view to date of the future of extinction. The outlook is pretty grim.
The research, conducted by evolutionary biologist Mark Urban of the University of Connecticut, analyzes 131 other scientific papers for clues about how climate change is affecting the overall rate of species extinction. The result is alarming: One out of every six species could face extinction if global warming continues on its current path. The picture is less dire if we manage to curb climate change, dropping to only 5.2 percent of species if warming is kept within the internationally-agreed upon target of 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels.
The analysis makes clear that the climate change threat isn't necessarily a separate issue from things like habitat loss and disease; indeed, it's often climate change that is the driving force behind those impacts. The risk appears to be spread evenly across all types of plants and animals (i.e., trees, amphibians, mammals, etc.), but is more severe in geographic ares where there are more unique species and exposure to climate impacts.
South America takes the lead, with up to 23 percent of its species threatened. One classic case study there is the golden toad, a native of mountaintop rain forests that was last seen in 1989. The toad was driven to extinction in part due to an epidemic of chytrid fungus (which is wiping out amphibians worldwide), and because climate change-related drought is destroying the forests they called home. Australia and New Zealand also ranked highly at risk, with up to 14 percent:
Urban, Science 2015
Urban's paper offers perhaps the most comprehensive scientific companion to a terrifying narrative made popular last year in the Pulitzer Prize-winning book "The Sixth Extinction," by Elizabeth Kolbert. The New Yorker journalist argued that when you look at the combined toll that pollution, habitat destruction, and climate change is taking on the planet's biodiversity, humans are driving extinction on a scale only preceded in the geologic record by cataclysmic natural disasters (like the meteor that likely brought about the demise of the dinosaurs). Never before has one species been responsible for the demise of so many others. (Check out our interview with Kolbert here).
Still, Urban's study makes clear that many species that avoid extinction still face grave threats from climate change:
"Extinction risks are likely much smaller than the total number of species influenced by climate change," Urban writes. "Even species not threatened directly by extinction could experience substantial changes in abundances, distributions, and species interactions, which in turn could affect ecosystems and their services to humans."
Firefighters battled a pair of brush fires in Granada Hills, Calif., on Monday.
On Monday, 200 firefighters evacuated an upscale residential neighborhood in Los Angeles as they responded to a wildfire that had just broken out in the nearby hills. Ninety minutes later, the fire was out, with no damage done. But if that battle was a relatively easy win, it belied a much more difficult war ahead for a state devastated by drought.
California is in the midst of one of its worst droughts on record, so bad that earlier this month Gov. Jerry Brown took the unprecedented step of ordering mandatory water restrictions. Snowpack in the Sierra Nevada is currently the lowest on record for this time of year. And the outlook for the rest of the year is bleak: The latest federal projections suggest the drought could get even worse this summer across the entire state (as well as many of its neighbors):
That's a very bad sign for California's wildfire season. After several years of super-dry conditions, the state is literally a tinderbox. "The outlook in California is pretty dire," said Wally Covington, a leading fire ecologist at Northern Arizona University. "It's pretty much a recipe for disaster."
To date this year, the overall national tally of wildfires has actually been below average: 14,213 fires across 309,369 acres, compared to the 10-year average of 20,166 fires across 691,776 acres, according to federal data. After a peak in 2006, early year wildfire activity in the last few years has been somewhat stable:
But in California, the trend looks very different. The tally of fires so far this year is 967—that's 38 percent higher than the average for this date since 2005. The number of acres burned is up to 4,083, nearly double the count at this time last year and 81 percent above the average since 2005:
And here again, the outlook for the rest of the summer is grim. Just look at the overlap between the map above and the map below, which shows that most of California is at above-average risk for fires this summer:
This is all costing California taxpayers a lot of money. According to Climate Central, California typically spends more money fighting wildfires than the other 10 Western states combined, totaling roughly $4 billion over the last decade. That's partly due to the state's size and vulnerability to big wildfires, and also to the close proximity of high-value urban development to easily ignited forests and grasslands. (Wildfires in the Alaskan wilderness, by comparison, can grow much bigger but cost much less, because without homes or towns nearby, they're often allowed to simply burn out.)
California burned through its $209 million firefighting budget in just a few months of this fiscal year; back in September, Brown had to pull an additional $70 million from a state emergency fund. A spokesperson for the state's department of finance said the wildfire budget has since been increased to $423 million. (Running way over budget on wildfires isn't unique to California; the federal government routinely underestimates how much wildfires will cost and ends up having to fight fires with funds that are meant to be spent preventing them.)
Scientists have long predicted that an increase in both the frequency and severity of wildfires is a likely outcome of global warming. The Obama administration's National Climate Assessment last year cited wildfires as one of the key threats posed to the United States by climate change. Longer periods of drought mean wildfire "fuels" like grass and trees will be drier and easier to burn; at the same time, increased carbon dioxide in the atmosphere means these same fuels will accumulate more quickly. And there's a feedback loop at play: Deforestation caused by wildfires contributes to greenhouse gas emissions, meaning that the increasing threat of wildfires will make climate change worse.
When it comes to wildfires, Covington said, "with increased climate change, there's a train wreck coming our way."
For a more detailed explanation of the link between climate change and wildfires, watch the original Climate Desk video below: