Atmospheric rivers are meteorological phenomenon that we humans only discovered in 1998 and which supply about 30-to-50 percent of California's annual precipitation. In the NOAA satellite image above, the atmospheric river is visible as a thin yellow arm, reaching out from the Pacific to touch California. Or, more evocatively, reaching out to slap California silly with a gushing downpour.
An atmospheric river is a narrow conveyor belt of vapor about a mile high that extends thousands of miles from out at sea and can carry as much water as 15 Mississippi Rivers. It strikes as a series of storms that arrive for days or weeks on end. Each storm can dump inches of rain or feet of snow.
The real scare, however, is that truly massive atmospheric rivers that cause catastrophic flooding seem to hit the state about once every 200 years, according to evidence recently pieced together (and described in the article noted above). The last megaflood was in 1861; rains arrived for 43 days, obliterating Sacramento and bankrupting the state.
As you might guess, climate change is also involved. Evidence suggests that warming global temperatures could increase the frequency of atmospheric rivers. That, combined with the 200-year event expected soon and the fact we're learning so much much more about these storms, means that you should expect to hear the phrase "atmospheric river" more often.
A documentary about Occupy Sandy was screened at a secret location in NYC last night; it made the connection between Sandy and climate change. People wanting to see the movie were directed to a building whose wall was used as a screen for the premiere.
Now, in what may be the quickest turnaround for a movie in recent memory, the group, Occupy Sandy, will show a documentary Wednesday about its efforts and the contention that the storm was tied to climate change and the fossil fuel industry. In classic Occupy fashion, the screening will not be in a traditional theater, but rather on the side of a yet-to-be-disclosed building in the East Village.
The screening of the film, “Occupy Sandy: A Human Response to the New Realities of Climate Change” (see trailer above or click here), will be at 6:30 p.m.
Yesterday, I got to have a great conversation on Minnesota Public Radio's The Daily Circuit. Host Tom Webber and I spent a good 45 minutes talking about Hurricane Sandy, climate change, and why it's so hard to talk about the connections between the two in an easily digestible, sound-bite format. In the meantime, he might have gotten some good sound bites out of me.
Recently, news broke that a scientist had unilaterally launched a geo-engineering experiment — dumping iron sulfate and iron oxide into the Pacific Ocean. There were two goals to the project: First, grow a massive plankton bloom which would store atmospheric carbon the same way that trees take in and store atmospheric carbon; second, use that plankton as a food source to restore salmon populations in the northern Pacific. If it sounds like those two goals are kind of fundamentally contradictory — if the salmon eat the plankton, then the stored carbon is going to end up back in the atmosphere, not indefinitely stored — well, you're right.
But the project showed that it's relatively easy for a small group of people to experiment on Earth's ecosystem without any oversight or approval from the global community at large. That's why the story made headlines. And it's why Scientific American's David Biello did a two-part feature on the experiment, writing about the background and interviewing Russ George, the scientist who launched the project.
George's ideas do have a basis in science. In essence, he's trying to replicate the effects of a volcanic eruption, which are associated with plankton blooms. George believes that the blooms are caused by large depositions of the nutrient iron. And, although other scientists think his goal of feeding salmon would defeat his goal of storing carbon, George thinks their findings are wrong. And he thinks this study will prove it. As a bonus, he's also hoping that the effect on salmon will reinvigorate the economy of a nearby Haida fishing village.
As for the legality of the project, here's what George told Scientific American:
This is Canada so it's British law, not American law. In British law, if you want to do something and you're not sure whether it's legal or not, you commission officers of the court to do an analysis and produce an official document, a legal opinion as to whether it breaks the law or not. This was done. The opinion was that with comparative studies and international laws we were absolutely in the clear. The claim that this is illegal is the design of the people who want to burn the books. This is the life of the village that they're trying to kill.
This is a truly brilliant example of short-form advocacy filmmaking, created for Rainforest Alliance's "Follow the Frog" retail campaign. Written and directed by Max Joseph (whom my personal video-making idol Joe Sabia describes as his personal video making idol). Produced by Aaron Weber from Wander.
A Yale survey found that 3/4 of Americans believe anthropogenic climate change is really happening. Of course, this comes after an exceptionally hot and drought-y summer and we already know that opinions on climate change oscillate with the weather. To really get a good picture of whether acceptance of climate change is on the rise, we'd have to look at a variety of polls, conducted in different ways by different organizations. And we'd have to look for changes in the trend line over long periods of time, so we know we're looking at an actual, long-term shift. Which all sounds oddly familiar, now that I think about it.
Barring a seriously crazy shift that plunges us quickly into an especially cold winter, 2012 will likely go down as the hottest year on record in the United States. More importantly, this broken record is part of a larger pattern that affects the whole world—record-breaking high temperatures are becoming, themselves, a bit of a broken record. On a global scale, counting average land and water temperatures, 2012 is (so far) the 11th warmest year on record—almost a full degree hotter than the 20th century average. Of the 12 warmest years on record, all of them have happened since 1998 (and the top 20 is made up of years since 1987).
Over time, that kind of long-term trend takes a toll. But for those of us who are lucky enough to live with relatively high levels of wealth, air conditioning, supermarkets, and all the luxuries of modern life, that toll is not always obvious. Sometimes, you have to look a little deeper to see how climate change is already affecting the American way of life.
So, what's climate change ruining today? How about electricity generation? Juliet Eilperin at The Washington Post has a story about how a consistent trend of high temperatures and drought has affected water reserves, and how those diminished reserves affect our ability to produce electricity.
The other day, a reader asked why I call climate change "climate change", instead of "global warming". The short answer is that, from my perspective, climate change does a much better job of giving people an accurate mental picture of what is going on. Global warming sounds like the world is just going to get hotter, and while that's technically true on a global-average-temperature-basis, it doesn't really reflect what's happening locally.
And, frankly, what most people care about is the stuff that happens locally.
Today, Treehugger posted this NOAA video, which does a really good job of explaining one reason why a rising global average temperature can end up creating different climate change outcomes in different places. It's a great 4-minute primer on why "global warming" is more than just warming.
Science Debate is a group that's working to get political candidates in the United States actually talking publicly about issues of science and technology policy. In 2008, they tried (and failed) to get Barak Obama and John McCain to agree to a live, televised science debate. But they did get both candidates to send in written answers to 14 key questions.
This election cycle, Science Debate sent out a new set of 14 questions—all chosen from a crowdsourced list. Today, they announced that they'd gotten answers back from both Obama and Mitt Romney. You can compare the candidates side-by-side at the Science Debate website. I have to say that, while I disagree with a lot of Romney's conclusions, I was pleasantly surprised by the amount of thought and time his staff clearly put into writing some very long and detailed responses.
Perhaps most surprising was his response to a question about climate change. Instead of attempting to flatly deny the evidence, Mitt Romney has apparently moved on to acknowledging that climate change is happening—while simultaneously overplaying the uncertainty surrounding specific risks, and claiming that even if climate change is a big problem there's nothing we can really do about it anyway ... because China.
Personally, I think that's pretty interesting. Climate scientists, and the journalists who write about them, have been talking, anecdotally, about seeing this exact rhetorical shift happening in conservative circles. It seems that the Republican presidential nominee is now one of the people who acknowledge climate change exists, but would still rather not take any decisive steps to deal with it.
I happen to think that's a dumb position. After all, even if the United States can't stop climate change alone, the kinds of policies that would reduce our dependence on fossil fuels would also help us adapt and thrive despite climate shifts and fossil fuel depletion. But this is still a step in the right direction. As several climate scientists I've spoken with have said, we can disagree on the policy. But it's high time we stop pretending that we can't see the changes happening all around us.