Tim McDonnell

Tim McDonnell

Climate Desk Associate Producer

Tim McDonnell joined the Climate Desk after stints at Mother Jones and Sierra magazine, where he nurtured his interest in environmental journalism. Originally from Tucson, Tim loves tortillas and epic walks.

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New Federal Report: Climate Change Is Really, Really Scary

| Fri Jan. 11, 2013 6:09 PM EST

Say what you want about the Obama administration's relative ignoring of climate issues: Many of his top scientists are paying rapt attention, and they think we're about to get our butts kicked—although dumping the news at 4 p.m. on a Friday gives some indication of where it sits in federal priorities.

The National Climate Assessment is produced by the US Global Change Research Program, which is tasked with collating climate research from a wide variety of federal agencies and, every few years, distilling it into one major report. The latest, a first draft, is the third such report (the last was in 2009), product of a 1990 law that requires the White House to produce semi-regular updates on climate science to Congress. Today's report echoes the themes of earlier editions, and paints a picture that is all the more grim for being an unsurprising confirmation of the dangers we've come to know all too well. Here's the top six things for you to worry about this weekend, according to the report:

  1. Climate change is definitely caused by human activities. Always nice to hear government officials acknowledge this essential fact. And the report concedes that our only hope of curbing warming is to kick our addiction to greenhouse-gas spewing fossil fuels.
  2. Extreme weather is increasing, and that's our fault, too.  In particular, searing temperatures, heavy rain, and prolonged drought.
  3. Weather isn't the only threat we have to worry about. The list sounds like the side-effect warnings at the end of a prescription drug commercial: decreased air quality, insect-borne diseases, and "threats to mental health" are all on the docket for the coming decades.
  4. Our infrastructure is getting hammered, and we're not spending enough to save it. Floods are destroying farmland; extreme heat is damaging roads, rail lines, and airports; and military installations are at risk.
  5. Food and water security will be up in the air. Especially in water-scarce regions like the Southwest, decreasing snowpack and shrinking groundwater supplies will spark competition for water between "agricultural, municipal, and environmental" uses. At the same time, heavy floods could put water quality at risk with sediment and chemical contaminates. And by mid-century, efforts to artificially protect agriculture (like expanded irrigation) could be over-ridden by temperature and precipitation extremes.
  6. Climate change is hitting plants and animals just as hard as us. Beaches, forests, wetlands, and other ecosystems could shrink or disappear, especially a problem when they play a role in mitigating the impact from extreme weather. And warming, acidifying seas could slam sea life.

The report is sure to get thoroughly dissected by reporters in the coming week; keep an eye out for more details to come.

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Bye-Bye Marshes, Hello Mud

| Thu Jan. 10, 2013 7:06 AM EST

Arrowhead Marsh near Oakland could turn to mud by 2080.

By now, we're used to hearing about the threats sea level rise poses to human society: It can wash away urban areas, give a boost to storms, and swallow island nations. But new research from a team at the US Geological Survey shows that rising seas can also devastate fragile ecosystems.

mouse
So long, Mr. Mouse! Wikimedia Commons

Using a custom-built sea level modeling tool, USGS's Western Ecological Research Center forecast the future for a dozen salt marshes in the San Francisco Bay Area, home to several species of federally protected birds and other animals. The predictions are grim: 95 percent of the marsh area could become mudflats by 2100, the effect of four feet of sea level rise (a level projected by previous studies). That's a problem for marsh-loving endangered species like the salt marsh harvest mouse (left) and the California black rail bird, both found only in the Bay Area, and for other beach-dwelling birds that count on solid ground to lay their nests.

Take a look at the video below, which shows the projection for a marsh in San Pablo Bay; yellow is land, light blue is average sea level, and dark blue is high water level: 

By the end, no more marsh (have a favorite Bay Area marsh? You can see projections for it here). Here's that same story, told a different way, as the marsh goes from a healthy green to muddy brown:

san pablo marsh
Courtest USGS

5 Ways to Prepare NYC for the Next Hurricane Sandy

| Wed Jan. 9, 2013 7:06 AM EST

As New York City and state dried out in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, Gov. Andrew Cuomo called together a special commission to draw up, in the face of climate change, a plan for how to prepare for the next Big One. Last month, Judith Rodin, the group's co-chair, said no idea would be too big or too small to take up. This week, after only a month of deliberations by the commission, the New York Times obtained a leaked early draft of its recommendations; an official release is expected today with the governor's State of the State address. Here's a look at a few of the big ideas guiding the commission's vision for a climate-adapted New York.

1. Protect the old stuff:

downed tree
circulating/Flickr

Coral Fights Back Against Warming Seas

| Tue Jan. 8, 2013 7:01 AM EST

Different colonies of Acropora hyacinthus, one species examined by the Stanford team, showed different levels of heat tolerance depending on which pool they were in.

In the world of coral reefs, most of the news is pretty gloomy. Rising ocean temperatures have led to massive die-offs from Indonesia to Florida; emissions-driven acidity could dissolve corals' structure-building ability in 20 years; rising sea levels threaten to block sunlight even from healthy reefs; and in November NOAA called on Congress to afford endangered species status to over 60 species. A blunt, unsparing editorial in the Times this summer slathered on the melodrama: Coral reefs are being pushed "into oblivion... there is no hope."

Coral are not exactly the most dynamic animals in the ocean: They take decades to grow and are then rooted at the mercy of their environment, so they don't inspire much confidence when it comes to adapting to climate change. But a study out Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science from a group of Stanford geneticists suggests that coral might have more of a fighting spirit than we gave them credit for.

In 2000, ecologist Dan Barshis was with a research group in American Samoa, wading through tide pools, when he noticed that coral in some pools seemed healthy, despite being bathed in water much warmer than corals can normally survive, and despite the fact that individuals of the very same species were on their deathbeds in pools just down the beach. Corals get stressed when water temperatures rise, especially when it happens quickly; under enough stress, they'll boot out the symbiotic algae that photosynthesize sunlight for the coral's food and give the coral its signature color palette, leaving the coral pale—hence the term "bleaching"—and starving.

underwater lab
An experimental transplant setup where Steve Palumbi, Dan Barshis, and coauthor Francois Seneca moved corals from the moderate pool into the more extreme pool and vice versa to investigate whether all corals can acquire increased stress tolerance in the more extreme pool. Photo by Dan Griffin-GG Films

But the coral Barshis saw looked inexplicably happy, and over the next several years he found that the reason why is all about training. Barshis compared the genes of the heat-resistant corals and their more fragile bretheren under a range of water temperatures. He found that, in both groups, heat changed the way hundreds of genes were expressed. But in the heat-resistant group, 60 of these genes were flipped on all the time, and helping to crank out heat-resilient proteins and antioxidants. Using records of the pools' temperatures, Barshis found that the strongest corals came from pools that were consistently but briefly exposed to high temperatures during low tides over time. He thinks the repeated exposure helped condition the corals to build up their tolerance, like an athlete building endurance through weight training, only on the level of DNA.

"It kinda comes down to what doesn't kill you makes you stronger," he says.

On Sea Level Rise, More Experts Lean Toward High End

| Mon Jan. 7, 2013 3:47 PM EST
Flooding on the Virginia coast.

If you want to imagine what the future, climate-changed world will look like, one of the biggest questions is by how much, exactly, the sea levels will increase. Rising tides have already become one of the most prominent climate change impacts, threatening coastal communities from Virginia to Palau and amplifying the damage of storms like Sandy. Estimates vary: 2007's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report pegged the figure at somewhere around a foot by 2100, while a December study from NOAA went as high as 6.6 feet. But a swath of recent studies put the estimate at around three feet, including a report out Sunday in Nature Climate Change. From NBC:

Melting glaciers in Antarctica and Greenland may push up global sea levels more than 3 feet by the end of this century, according to a scientific poll of experts that brings a degree of clarity to a murky and controversial slice of climate science. 

Such a rise in the seas would displace millions of people from low-lying countries such as Bangladesh, swamp atolls in the Pacific Ocean, cause dikes in Holland to fail, and cost coastal mega-cities from New York to Tokyo billions of dollars for construction of sea walls and other infrastructure to combat the tides.

"The consequences are horrible," Jonathan Bamber, a glaciologist at the University of Bristol and a co-author of the study, [said].

While efforts to stem the rising sea, like reducing greenhouse gas emissions from burning fossil fuels, are always worth pursuing, in light of the mounting evidence for large-scale changes it seems prudent for more coastal cities to take a lead from places like New York and start preparing for a closer coastline.

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