Stories tagged climate change


Much attention and debate is focused on the role of human releases of carbon dioxide (CO2) in global warming and climate change but there is another facet of CO2 that deserves much more attention. Increasing concentrations of CO2 in the atmosphere lead to more and more CO2 dissolving into the oceans where it turns into carbonic acid. A story in the June 18 issue of Science reports that there is no doubt whatsoever that human releases of CO2 are acidifying the oceans at a scale unprecedented in the geologic record.

The closest analogue to present day appears to be the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum (PETM) of 55.8 million years ago. Over the course of several thousand years, huge amounts of methane and CO2 entered the atmosphere (where the methane was quickly converted to CO2). Much of this CO2 dissolved into the oceans, causing a drop in ocean pH. The difference between the present and the PETM is that human releases of CO2 are occurring at a rate at least ten times faster. At takes about 1,000 years for CO2 dissolved in surface waters to reach the deep sea where sediments eventually neutralize the acid. Human releases of CO2 currently far exceed the rate at which the oceans are able to remove it and so the result is a rapid drop in the pH of surface waters.

Many ocean organisms make their shells from carbonate. Acidification changes carbonate into bicarbonate and hydrogen ions, making the mineral much less available to tropical corals, echinoderms, mollusks, and foraminifera. The danger if ocean acidification continues unabated is potentially dramatic and unpredictable changes in marine life everywhere.

Some policymakers and scientists increasingly are raising the idea of perhaps mitigating the effects of climate change through large-scale geoengineering projects intended to reduce the amount of solar energy reaching the Earth’s surface as a last ditch effort to counteract the effects of greenhouse gas warming. Such projects would do nothing to mitigate the growing problem of our acidifying oceans. The only way to reduce ocean acidification is to reduce globally the quantities of CO2 that humans release into the atmosphere.


Double Exposure: A new photo exhibit at SMM!
We often hear about global warming as an invisible chemical process, but rarely do we meet its direct impacts face-to-face. A new exhibit on Level 6 puts the evidence right before your eyes, and it might just give you a chill. Double Exposure: Aerial Photographs of Glaciers Then and Now opened in early June and runs through Labor Day (Mon. Sept. 6). It compares old and new photos of glaciers in Alaska and the Alps. The exhibit is a precursor to the upcoming exhibit Future Earth, opening Fall 2011, which will ask, "How do we survive and thrive on a human dominated planet?" (More on Future Earth coming soon!)

How to get to the exhibit:
Stop by on your way to dine at the Elements Cafe! Take the lobby elevators or musical stairs to Level 6 and turn right. You can't miss it!

More about Double Exposure
Global climate change is more obvious in glaciers and oceans than it is in the atmosphere because air reacts very quickly to changes in temperature. Ice and water, on the other hand, react very slowly due to thermal inertia--they only show changes in temperature that are slow and build up over time. So, by the time a change shows up in the oceans or glaciers, we can conclude that it's a long-term cumulative effect rather than a temporary fluctuation. This is why the Double Exposure project is so important.

Double Exposure follows the work of David Arnold, a freelance journalist and photographer who set out to duplicate the work of photographer Bradford Washburn. Washburn had photographed glaciers in Alaska and the Alps in the 1930s and 1960s. To create a visual record of climate change, Arnold worked from 2005-2007 to photograph some of the same sites as Washburn from the same vantage points. As you compare the old and new images, you can see that significant melting and changes in the flow of water took place in as little as 45 years.

As a visitor to Double Exposure, you'll learn how to read a glacier and interpret the photographs yourself with the exhibit to guide you. You'll learn how Arnold solved the challenge of duplicating Washburn's photos with physics. You'll also learn about current impacts, trends, and potential solutions to global warming.
So, please come check out these amazing photos!


Agriculture is widely understood to be one of the largest contributors of greenhouse gases in our atmosphere, which is unfortunate for two reasons: 1) greenhouse gases are a driving force of climate change, and 2) last time I checked, people still need to eat.

Literally Green Skyscrapers: In a near-future world with 9 billion people, land will be even more valuable than it is today.  Researchers have been asking themselves how we are going to feed all those new people...  What if we built high rise greenhouses?
Literally Green Skyscrapers: In a near-future world with 9 billion people, land will be even more valuable than it is today. Researchers have been asking themselves how we are going to feed all those new people... What if we built high rise greenhouses?Courtesy Curbed SF

Specifically, farming is one of the largest contributors of carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide – all greenhouse gases – in our atmosphere. The four major sources of these emissions include fossil fuel consumption, fertilizer usage, animal farts and poop (no kidding!), as well as land use change (mainly, deforestation). As serious a problem as climate change is, one of the most important truths for environmentalists to remember is that people have needs that necessarily affect the health of the environment. For example, the world’s population is currently well over six billion people who need roughly 2,000 calories from food each day. That’s a lot of food that we depend upon farmers to raise and grow for us every day! And with predictions of nine billion people occupying the Earth in a mere forty years, our global population’s appetite is growing.

However, a June 2010 study published in Scientific American says that farming’s bad rap is undeserved, and actually modern high-yield crop farming has a net reduction of greenhouse gas emissions. Say what??

Here’s how it works: What sustainability-minded scientists from many disciplines strive to do is find ways to limit (better!) or eliminate (best!!) peoples’ negative impact on the environment.

In the 1960s, farmers and researchers began to develop new methods of farming to feed the rapidly expanding population. This has been called the “Green Revolution.” The results of their studies produced modern high-yield farming, which has allowed farmers to produce more food in less space. According to the Stanford researchers, though high-yield farming is possible largely because of fertilizer use – one of the four major sources of greenhouse gas emissions on farms – it prevents land use change in the form of deforestation – another one of the four major sources of greenhouse gas emissions on farms. The key point is that the greenhouse gas emissions caused by fertilizer use is less than the greenhouse gas emissions caused by deforestation, which yields a net reduction. That is, if we had continued with pre-Green Revolution farming techniques, in order to feed today’s population, we’d be using less fertilizer, deforesting more land, and emitting considerably more greenhouse gases than we currently are.

Today, at the Institute on the Environment, the Global Landscapes Initiative continues to focus on seeking ways to secure a healthy land use future for both people and the environment. This includes researching innovative agricultural practices.

Hydroponics: Hydoponics is a method of growing plants without soil.  Weird, but true!  Instead, plants are raised in a mineral water bath.  Could this be the future of farming?
Hydroponics: Hydoponics is a method of growing plants without soil. Weird, but true! Instead, plants are raised in a mineral water bath. Could this be the future of farming?Courtesy pchic

Another Scientific American article has it’s own ideas about how to provide food to our growing population: build vertical farms. These futuristic, skyscraping greenhouses are based upon existing hydroponic greenhouses and could reduce fossil-fuel use while simultaneously recycling city wastewater. Hydroponic greenhouses grow plants without soil! Instead, they use mineral nutrients dissolved in water, allowing plants to be grown just about anywhere… including on the 34th floor. According to the article,

“A one-square-block farm 30 stories high could yield as much food as 2,400 outdoor acres…”

That’s a lot of food. A lot. Really? Is it possible? The paper’s author claims it is and that architects, engineers, designers, and “mainstream organizations” are taking note of his vertical farm concept.

It's Friday, so it's time for another Science Friday video. Science Friday
Science Friday
Courtesy Science Friday
"Engineer James Bird estimates that he watched thousands of bubbles pop while he was getting his Ph.D. at Harvard University. With the help of high-speed cameras, Bird and his colleagues discovered that when interfacial bubbles--bubbles resting on water or a solid--pop, they give birth to a ring of baby bubbles. The discovery, published in Nature, has implications for soda drinkers and global climate estimates."

I see the American Museum of Natural History in NY is going to have an exhibit on the Scott and Amundsen 'race' to the South Pole. (See NYTimes Art section: ). I look forward to seeing that exhibit.

Being a weather guy.... Dr. Susan Solomon, a senior scientist at the NOAA and an IPCC author, has a book (The Coldest March: Scott`s Fatal Antarctic Expedition) that indicates that an unusually cold Antarctic autumn contributed to the death of Captain Robert F. Scott and his four comrades on their 1500-kilometer (900-mile) trek back from the South Pole in March 1912. Temperatures were 10° to 20° colder than expected during the race to the South Pole. The cold weather cut in half the distance the explorers could travel in a day. A blizzard trapped them in a tent, where they froze to death 18 kilometers (11 miles) from a supply depot.

Another fact I find interesting, is that the Scott expedition revealed that Antarctica once basked in warmth. Among the 16 kilograms (35 pounds) of rocks the expedition collected were fossils of Glossopteris, a seed fern. This fossil is scientific evidence that the current ice-covered continent was once fertile.


A few weeks ago, I assumed that some of our readers were bored with the same ol’ climate change arguments. I know you know what I’m talking about: the Cuddly-Animals-are-Dying and the Catastrophic-Disasters-Will-End-the-Human-Race arguments come to mind first. Now, I’m not saying there isn’t some merit to these frames, but c’mon! Can’t we get a little variety?

Stephen Polasky: This UofM professor and IonE fellow has some BIG ideas about $, the earth, and climate change.
Stephen Polasky: This UofM professor and IonE fellow has some BIG ideas about $, the earth, and climate change.Courtesy University of Minnesota

Lucky for you, University of Minnesota professor and Institute on the Environment fellow Stephen Polasky thinks creatively. In April, he gave a presentation on how adopting inclusive wealth could ultimately reduce climate change and its effects. And since virtually everybody likes money, I’m going to go out on a limb and bet you want to know more about the ca-ching!$

Here’s the skinny:

Economists say that just about everything has a monetary value, and how much something is worth plays largely into the decisions politicians make. Scientists like Polasky are increasingly saying that these traditional accounting methods do a poor job assessing value to natural resources, and these mistakes are leading us to make irrational choices. As an alternative, Polasky suggests adopting inclusive wealth theory.

This is not going to cut it.: Inclusive wealth is a really complicated theory for both scientists and economists.
This is not going to cut it.: Inclusive wealth is a really complicated theory for both scientists and economists.Courtesy happyeclaire (Flickr)

Ready for the good stuff??

Economists and scientists both agree that the environment has worth, called natural capital, but they disagree on how much. In fact, not only do economists and scientists disagree with each other, but they disagree amongst themselves! To be fair, determining something’s worth can be extremely difficult. Because there are already economic markets for some natural resources like trees (i.e. lumber) and metals (i.e. gold), it’s easier to assess their value. Most ecosystem services, however, like the flood control provided by wetlands, are more difficult to put a dollar value on.

Inclusive wealth theory says that our decisions should be made on economic assessments that include true representations of the value of natural resources (difficult as that may be).

Politicians make important decisions regarding environmental policies, including actions that affect climate change. When politicians are choosing between multiple policy options, they are conducting policy analysis. One criterion that politicians pretty much always use is a cost-benefit ratio, or cost efficiency. In order to do that, politicians must determine the value of each policy option and weight the outcome against the rest. (It might sound complicated, but you do this same process informally everyday when you make decisions regarding what to eat for breakfast and whether to walk or ride your bike to school/work.)

Timber!: Land use changes, like logging, release greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, ultimately contributing to climate change.
Timber!: Land use changes, like logging, release greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, ultimately contributing to climate change.Courtesy Ben Cody

Polasky and other like-minded individuals argue that under traditional accounting methods, politicians’ cost-benefit ratios are distorted – they are not accurately representing the true worth of the environment. Furthermore, as a result, we’re making some pretty big, bad decisions. According to Polasky, the solution is simple in theory, but difficult in practice: adopt inclusive wealth theory to more accurately measure environmental worth. If we increase the value of the environment in our analysis, the cost-benefit ratios will change and perhaps favor decisions that are more environmentally friendly. That is, under inclusive wealth, we might finally see how important it is to take climate change-reducing actions such as reducing our fossil fuel consumption, protecting forests from logging, and stopping eating so much meat… or not.

What do you think?

How much $$ is the environment worth to you? What about individual ecosystem services like pollination by bees or decomposition of waste by microbes?

Are politicians doing an accurate job of assessing the value of natural capital?

Post your comments below!


By Our Hands: Cities are perhaps the most impressive mark humankind has left upon the face of planet Earth.
By Our Hands: Cities are perhaps the most impressive mark humankind has left upon the face of planet Earth.Courtesy anaxila

Throughout the ongoing debate about exactly how, to what extent, and the ethical implications, the indisputable fact remains that humankind has altered the planet. Back when the human population was only a few thousand strong and agriculture and cooked food were the latest inventions, it was easy for the Joneses to pick up and move camp when the water ran dry, the soil stopped producing tasty wheat, or the garbage piled too high in the backyard. The same can’t be said for the populations of world cities today.

Advances in public health, industry, and agriculture have blown the human population out of the brush. There will soon be 9 billion people on the face of planet Earth! Coupled with rising affluence, our ballooning population’s resource consumption and waste outputs are wrecking havoc on natural systems. New research (see several links below for more info) suggests that within a fixed amount of space, humankind is in danger of causing our own extinction and the only way out is to discard traditional ideas of industrialization and embrace sustainability.

No, silly...: Not THAT kind of tipping point!
No, silly...: Not THAT kind of tipping point!Courtesy Go Gratitude

The first step to bailing out humankind is to investigate how close to failure the world actually is. This was the point of a recent international collaboration: to calculate safe limits for pivotal environmental processes. The key idea here is that of “tipping points,” which can be thought of as thresholds or breaking points. Think about being pestered by your brother or sister: aren’t you able to put up with the annoyance for even a little while before you get so upset you retaliate? That’s your tipping point – the last straw that put you over the edge.

Led by Stockholm Resilience Center’s Johan Rockstrom, a group of European, Australian, and American scientists – including the University of Minnesota’s Institute on the Environment’s director, Jonathan Foley – identified nine processes reaching their tipping points. Three (climate change, nutrient cycles, and biodiversity loss) have already been pushed past their tipping points, four (ocean acidification, ozone depletion, freshwater use, and land use) are approaching their tipping points, and two (aerosol loading and chemical pollution) do not yet have identified tipping points because they require more research. The Institute on the Environment recently released a YouTube video addressing the conclusion of this new research:

Blissfully, there are things we can do to stop hurting the planet and begin patching its wounds. According to Foley’s article, we can’t let ourselves get any closer to the tipping points and piecemeal solutions won’t cut it because of the interconnectedness of the issues. Instead, we should focus on switching to low- or no-carbon fuel sources, stopping deforestation, and rethinking our approaches to agriculture.

There's No Place Like Home: It's worth keeping healthy.
There's No Place Like Home: It's worth keeping healthy.Courtesy NASA

The conclusions of this research have been well-accepted, but there has been some criticisms for 1) attempting to establish tipping points at all, and 2) for the appropriateness of the establish tipping points. If you would like more information, including commentaries, please check out the following sources:

Article in Nature: A safe operating space for humanity

Commentaries: Planetary Boundaries

Article in Scientific American: Boundaries for a Health Planet

Article in Ecology and Society: Planetary Boundaries: Exploring the Safe Operating Space for Humanity

Two questions to consider as you watch the YouTube video and take a look through the links and articles referenced above are:

1) What are the consequences of being past our tipping points?

2) How do the solutions discussed prevent us from reaching tipping points?

You are encouraged to post your thoughtful answers below!

Last year, the entire Las Vegas Strip did it. More than 30 governor's mansions across the U.S. are planning to do it this year. Are you on board? What I'm talking about is Earth Hour 2010. For one hour Saturday night (8:30 p.m. local time), participants will shut off all non-essential electricity use for one hour in recognition of energy conservation efforts. This year, the faces on Mount Rushmore will go dark and will only be lit for one hour a night through the rest of the tourist season, reducing energy consumption there by 60 percent. What do you plan to do to reduce your energy use Saturday night and beyond?

The current cold snap may be more than just a blip. Two leading climate researchers have found evidence that the Earth may be heading into a cooling period which could last 20 to 30 years. Better keep those snowshoes handy!


A satellite image of the East Siberian Sea from USGS
A satellite image of the East Siberian Sea from USGSCourtesy United States Geological Survey
When I read this story the other day, I thought to myself: why didn't I think of that? Or maybe I did think of it, but as usual no one was listening when I pitched the idea for an action-packed spy movie about climate change. Or were they?

The Central Intelligence Agency does have a bunch of high-powered satellites and other "classified" instruments, so it's possible they've been using them to eavesdrop on my conversations with friends about possible sci-fi movie plots.

What's more likely: they figured out on their own that intelligence-gathering instruments could be really helpful to scientists, who can read detailed pictures of melting sea ice, growing desserts and other phenomena to better understand how climate is changing the planet.

The C.I.A. recently confirmed that it had revived this controversial data-sharing program known as Madea, which stands for Measurements of Earth Data for Environmental Analysis. If you decode that C.I.A. code name, it means that government spies are working with climate scientists to gather images and data about environmental change, as well as its impact on human populations.

Not everyone is convinced that climate change is a real threat to national security, and so some complainers are complaining that this collaboration between scientists and the C.I.A. is a misuse of resources, but what do they know?

Really? What do they know? So much of what happens over at C.I.A. headquarters is top-secret.

Maybe the whole thing doesn't sound that action packed, but I'm telling you, if you had the right actors playing the scientists, it could be a blockbuster. And if you have the right scientists analyzing the data, it might provide really valuable insights into global environmental change.