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.
One of the biggest question marks hanging over climate studies right now is about the role of clouds and the aerosols, or tiny airborne particles, that shape them. The problem is clouds move fast, making them hard to model, and depending on their concentration at different altitudes, clouds can cool or heat the planet. Scientists agree that before they can build the best models to predict climate change, they first have to understand clouds.
This summer, NASA has been working to crack this problem, at 30,000 feet, aboard a custom-equipped flying laboratory. Climate Desk was invited onboard for an eight-hour mission to suck the secrets out of clouds.
Pine beetles like this aren't the only pests driven north by climate change.
In 1996 Colorado received a very unwelcome—and hungry—house guest, the mountain pine beetle, whose voracious appetite for pine has since killed off millions of acres of trees there. A few years later, the beetles came knocking in British Columbia and have now knocked out over half the province's pine timber. The full-bore invasion of these critters, each no bigger than a grain of rice, is now one of the most pressing ecological disasters in the West, and their spread, scientists believe, is driven by climate change.
The beetles aren't alone: Rising equatorial temperatures have pushed a menagerie of pests north at an alarming rate of nearly 10,000 feet every year since 1960, according to a new survey out today in Nature. Researchers led by biologist Dan Bebber at the UK's University of Exeter combed through databases hosted by the non-profit CABI, which aggregates scientific and trade literature on agriculture, for the first documented appearance of over 600 kinds of pests (including insects, fungi, viruses, and bacteria), over a 50-year period in the Northern Hemisphere. They found, averaged across 14 taxonomic groups, a distinctive northward migration, wherein species first noticed at southern latitudes were, at a later date, discovered anew at northern latitudes.
The chart below, from the paper, shows the distribution range of the different pest groups Bebber examined, with the vertical axis indicating distance from the equator (positive distances indicate north; negative distances indicate south) and the horizontal axis indicating time, from 1960 to the present. Overall, the groups show a gradual northward migration over time (up and to the right):
Species like the endangered least tern could find their lives disrupted by Keystone XL.
In its deliberations over the Keystone XL pipeline, the State Department is taking flak not just from picket-sign-wielding environmentalists, but also from within the ranks of the Obama administration. This spring the EPA slammed an environmental review as "insufficient" and called for major revisions. And yesterday, ThinkProgressuncovereda letter from the Interior Department, dated from April, that outlines the many and varied ways in which the pipeline could wreak havoc to plants and animals (not to mention dinosaurs) along its proposed route.
The letter calls particular attention to a line in the State Department's most recent environmental impact assessment that claims "the majority of the potential effects to wildlife resources are indirect, short term or negligible, limited in geographic extent, and associated with the construction phase of the proposed Project only."
"This statement is inaccurate and should be revised," states the letter, which is signed by Interior's Director of Environmental Policy and Compliance Willie Taylor. "Given that the project includes not only constructing a pipeline but also related infrastructure…impacts to wildlife are not just related to project construction. Impacts to wildlife from this infrastructure will occur throughout the life of the project."
Which wildlife? The letter raises concerns that potential oil spills, drained water supplies, and bustling construction workers could cause a general disturbance, but identifies the critters below, some of which are endangered, for special attention:
The Ross' goose depends on Nebraska's Rainwater basin, which the pipeline would pass through, as a key migratory stopover. A spill in the basin could "severely impact critical habitat," the letter says.
Although the letter praises State Department plans to protect these endangered ferrets, it nonetheless raises concerns about the potential for infectious diseases from domestic pets at construction camps and worksites in Montana and South Dakota to spread to this population of 1,000 or less left in the wild.
Already endangered, least terns depend for nesting on plot of protected federal land just 40 miles downstream from where the pipeline will cross Nebraska's Niobrara River. Nests could fail, the letter warns, if construction activities cause fluctuations in the river's water level.
In 2010 the Fish & Wildlife Service found the tiny Sprague's pipit qualified for endangered status, but hasn't yet been able to officially list it because of higher-priority species. But the pipit breeds in Montana's North Valley Grassland, which the pipeline would pass through, raising concerns about impact from a spill.
While not exactly the cutest on this list, pallid sturgeons are also endangered; the letter raises concern that as water is withdrawn from the Platte River during the construction process, the fish and their eggs could suffocate. An assertion by the State Department that no plan is needed to mitigate damage to sturgeons, the letter says, "seems unsupported and requires further documentation."
As climate change intensifies, one of the most surefire threats we're bound to face is increased flooding of coastal cities brought on by sea level rise. Taxpayers worldwide will be faced with more whopping bills—like the estimated $60 billion cost of Superstorm Sandy—to clean up damage in the wake of these events. But just how much money are we talking about here? According to a study out today in Nature, it's a freakishly large number: A dangerous combination of rising seas, sinking land, and growing coastal development could push global flood damages to well over $1 trillion every year by 2050.
Stephane Hallegatte, an economist at the World Bank, and his coauthors tallied up estimated flood damage losses for the world's 136 largest coastal cities, on the basis of local population and real estate and infrastructure values crunched with data on each location's elevation, exposure to extreme weather like hurricanes, and existing coastal protection infrastructure. Then he extrapolated these costs into the future using UN population and urbanization models, economic models from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, and climate models of future sea level rise. The results were staggering: The $1 trillion figure, Hallegatte says, is just the bare minimum.
Without action to better protect these vulnerable metropolises, he says, "even in cities that are very well-protected today, losses will reach levels that are completely impossible to imagine." The map above shows the 20 cities with the highest estimated losses in the absence of any proactive measures.
Sounds grim, but there's a silver lining: Installing robust protective infrastructure that accounts not just for sea level rise but also population growth and future shoreline development could reduce annual losses to $52 billion. As is so often the case with climate change preparation, investment up front can save big bucks down the road. After all, Hallegatte says, even the cost of massive sea walls, natural barriers, and other coastal protection will seem like chump change compared to a scenario where "we have cities destroyed and we have to rebuild them again and again."
Climatologist Dorothy Peteet is combing through New York-area marshes for clues to future drought.
Piermont Marsh seems an unlikely place to learn about drought. This warren of narrow streams and muddy, reed-choked embankments clinging to the edge of the Hudson River twenty miles north of Times Square is the domain of crabs, worms, herons, and other water-loving creatures. But as Columbia University climatologist Dorothy Peteet paddles a narrow aluminum canoe deep into the marsh, she insists that buried deep in this black, sulphur-stinking muck are clues that could reveal when, and how badly, the nation's largest city will next be struck by crippling drought.
Here, she says, "we can get these climate records that we can't get anywhere else."
Some climate researchers tap ancient air bubbles trapped in Arctic ice to read long-lost atmospheres; some slice open stalagmites in tropical caves to measure 100,000-year-old rainfall. Peteet is on the hunt for pollen. She dredges up mud from as deep as 45 feet underground and hauls it back to her lab at the nearby Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory. There she boils, bakes, and filters it to sift out pollen, not much thicker than a human hair, from plants several thousand years old. The relative abundance and variety of different species indicate climate conditions at the time the pollen was dropped: An uptick of dry-weather species like hickory and pine points to drought.
Pollen, and seeds like these, could shed light on how future droughts will impact New York City. Tim McDonnell/Climate Desk