Saturday, November 22, 2008

Santa Swimming: The Science of North Pole Ice

This week’s multiple days of frigid weather and snow flurries were quite the counterpoint to last week’s posting about Obama wrestling with global warming on his short list of big concerns. That’s the bummer about climate change—it makes weather patterns increasingly erratic, not predictably balmier.

And the fact that the weather may be changing doesn’t change the fact that we’ll still have snow.

But with snow falling and Thanksgiving arriving, thoughts do naturally turn to colder places, like the North Pole, habitat for reindeer, polar bears, and, of course, Santa and his elves. And the story there is interesting.
Classroom globes show a static amount of ice covering the Arctic Ocean above Canada and Russia. The truth is very different: the polar ice cap is a dynamic system that contracts and expands, thickens and thins with the seasons. During our summer, the ocean melts; in the winter, snow cover increases substantially. For millennia, permanent ice—ice that survives the summer thaw—outlasts the summer season and builds up, thick and massive deep-blue plateaus decades, even centuries old.

That was then.

For the last 30 years, polar scientists have been noting a decline is polar sea ice. In 2007, Arctic sea ice hit a record low, covering only 1.6 million square miles of ocean. The previous record? 2005. With the ice cap now rapidly cooling again, the
National Snow and Ice Data Center says the ice covered 1.7 million square miles at its lowest point on September 12. To put this in perspective, 30 years ago there would be about 2.5 million square miles of ice left at the end of an Arctic summer—roughly the size of the lower 48 states. That's now dropped by almost 40 percent.

"We've essentially lost sea ice equivalent to land east of the Mississippi River and even beyond. So that's a significant amount of area," Walt Meier, a scientist at the snow center,
recently told the BBC.

And here’s the kicker: both last summer and this one, for the first time in quite a while, the ice pulled far enough back from adjoining land masses that at high summer, a boat could circumnavigate the North Pole, using the northwest passage above Canada and the northeast passage above Siberia, to circle the globe in the north, in the Arctic Ocean.

So I’m happy to report that this summer's ice cover did not set a record. No. It was only was the second lowest since satellite records began 30 years ago, which Mier says emphasizes the “strong negative trend,” as the three years of the least amount of ice ever recorded all occurred within the last four years.

And the ice is younger: less of it is surviving the winter as permaice. And it is thinner—19% thinner last winter than the average of the previous five years. That’s a big change in one winter.

The best known consequence of disappearing sea ice has been the loss of polar bear habitat, and the polar bear is quickly emerging as the poster child of global climate change. Dependent on sea ice for so much of its behavior, including standing on it to hunt for seals, its most important source of food, reports are emerging of bears starving, drowning, even eating each other. One scientist monitored 9 polar bears swimming in the Chukchi Sea north of the Bering Strait, not in itself unusual—bears are powerful swimmers capable of covering 100 miles in the water. The group was only 40 miles from land—but heading in the wrong direction, where the closest land was 400 miles away, well out of range.

In May, the polar bear was listed as threatened—one step away from endangered.

The scariest part of the data is the quickening pace of the change. Only a few years ago, many scientists were noticing a warning trend, and began predicting a totally ice-free Arctic Ocean at its summer peak within 50 or 80 years. Then they began saying it would likely happen within 30 years.

Some are now predicting only five years from now. Within five years, an ice-free pole in the summer.

For ice is a giant mirror reflecting sunlight back into space, protecting the ocean water below from sunlight energy. When sea ice melts, the sunlight strikes the dark ocean water, which then warms. As it warms, it melts more snow, which uncovers more water, which warms—and you have a positive feedback loop exacerbating the trend.

Now some nations, most notably Russia, are salivating over the notion of an ice-free Arctic, as there are huge possible pockets of oil trapped beneath the waters, oil much easier to reach without permanent ice. Talk about a positive feedback loop: the burning of fossil fuels releases carbon dioxide, which warms the climate, which melts the ice, which opens up new oil fields, which releases carbon dioxide—and ripples throughout both economy and ecology.

But all this discussion of polar bears and petro-exploitation misses the biggest issue raised by the possible melting of the Arctic’s ice cap:

Just where will Santa put his workshop as the sea ice vanishes beneath the North Pole?

Something to think about as you place your child atop Santa’s lap in the holiday season. And shop for presents that release no greenhouse gases.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Obama in the Green House

As the Obama presidency begins to take shape, those of us in the environmental movement—leaders of green nonprofits across the country—are eagerly awaiting the new administration. And while everyone is breathlessly second guessing everything from who might join his cabinet to which puppy his girls should adopt, let’s make one incredibly safe assumption. When all is said and done, Barack Obama will go down as the greenest president ever.

And not because he wants to. Because he has to.

Consider this: name the single most important president in the history of the environment. No, not Teddy Roosevelt, even though he named the first national park, started the National Park Service, and founded 51 wildlife refuges (he's pictured here with Sierra Club founder John Muir in Yosemite in 1903). Not Jimmy Carter, who set aside 130 million acres of Alaska and put solar panels on the White House (which Ronald Reagan famously removed).

Surprise, the most effective environmental president of all time—by far—is still Richard Nixon. In his six years in office, Nixon presided over a startling number of eco-accomplishments: the creation of the EPA and the White House Council on Environmental Quality, bans on DDT and lead in gasoline, and the passage of an unprecedented raft of legislation including the Endangered Species Act, Clean Air and Clean Water acts, the National Environmental Policy Act (which begat environmental impact statements), and more.

And Nixon did all this not because he wanted to. Because he had to. Nixon took office in January 1969 at the height of the nascent environmental movement’s powers. Cleveland’s Cuyahoga River had caught fire (twice, actually), Lake Erie was declared biologically dead, smokestacks in cities nationwide were spewing everything, and bald eagles, peregrine falcons, and brown pelicans were vanishing from egg-shell thinning courtesy of DDT. Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring and Paul Ehrlich’s Population Bomb were clarion calls to action, and 1970’s first Earth Day was then the largest demonstration in American history.

Nixon saw where this was all heading, and to ensure his political future, became Chief Environmentalist.

Obama is coming to the presidency precisely at another watershed moment for the environment. The earth is warming as atmospheric dioxide concentrations continue to climb with devastating consequences: sea levels are rising, storms increasing, species disappearing at record levels,
forest fires raging (like this week's California , a photo of which is here) deserts and diseases spreading, coral reefs bleaching and dying. Just this week, the island nation of Maldives, only three feet above sea level, announced it is shopping for real estate in Sri Lanka or India just in case it drowns under a warming ocean. Global CO2 concentrations, historically at 280 parts per million, are fast approaching 400 ppm, while the emerging scientific consensus recommends hauling concentrations back to 350 or below.

And there’s one key difference between 1970 and today: Nixon’s problems were seen as local. Restore Lake Erie. Clean that smokestack. Today’s problems are hugely, unforgivably global.

But global climate change is just the first of the ecological twin towers confronting us and Obama. The emerging freshwater crisis, exacerbated by climate change, is only starting to get the attention it deserves, and will soon burst onto Page One as weather patterns continue drying key bodies of water. Many of the world’s largest rivers—the Colorado, Nile, Ganges, Yellow—barely reach the sea in dry seasons, and water scarcity is playing a significant role in the unfolding Darfur crisis. Want peace in the Middle East? You’ll have to solve Palestinian access to water first.

To his credit, Obama sees the writing on the wall. In his Grant Park victory speech, he recognized the short list of issues confronting his presidency. “For even as we celebrate tonight,” he intoned last Tuesday night, “we know the challenges that tomorrow will bring are the greatest of our lifetime—two wars, a planet in peril, the worst financial crisis in a century.” And during the debates, when moderators asked which programs he’d give up as the economy collapsed, Obama adamantly reasserted his belief that green collar jobs like building wind turbines, weatherizing houses and installing solar panels were a centerpiece of his emerging economic agenda, and would NOT be cut. Let’s see.

Not surprisingly, environmental leaders, starved for action, are quickly pushing and pulling at Obama. Al Gore and his “
We” campaign advocate weaning us completely off fossil fuels in 10 years. Author Bill McKibben, leader of the new, a reference to CO2 concentrations, has lobbied the president-elect to head to Poland in December for upcoming climate talks. And the entire green community is salivating over the possibility of the US revisiting the Kyoto protocol.

What will Obama do? The likely short list includes a radically new energy policy, a reinvigorated EPA and Interior, new protections for old growth forests and endangered ecosystems, an international climate treaty of some kind, a revived and greener Detroit, a continued greening of architecture, schools, businesses, and the marketplace, new wilderness areas, enhanced recycling, and a stronger endangered species act.

For like Nixon in 1969, one sees the unfolding arc of the environmental story. On the campaign, Obama frequently cited Martin Luther King’s “fierce urgency of now,” referring to his own candidacy as much as anything else. And without question there is a fierce urgency to economic realties—in fact, many will urge Obama to derail a green agenda for the sake of the economy.

But there is a fierce urgency to the planet’s situation—and the data will continue to unrelentingly point in even gloomier directions. The planet is ecologically unraveling, and a tsunami of public support will demand critical action.

And Obama will respond. Not because he wants to, even though he might. Because he has to. And if McCain had win last week, I'd be writing the same words.

“We’ve only got four minutes to save the world,” sings Madonna. We might have a little longer than that. Four years—his first term—sounds about right.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

The Power of Green

Obama and McCain talked about it for months, as did Hillary.

T. Boone Pickens never stops talking about it, in TV commercials and web sites.

Everyone’s talking about green collar jobs, one of the very few glimmers on an increasingly gloomy economic scene. And after a week when the Dow sheds points like the
maple outside my window drops leaves, we need good news.

In fact, when pressed in the last two debates about what he’d cut from his ambitious platform of middle class tax cuts, health care reform, and more, now president-elect Obama went out of his way to say he would make sure he did NOT cut spending on new energy sources like wind and solar, because that’s where the jobs are.

And the UN agrees.
A report earlier this fall revealed that there are millions of jobs to be had in the emerging green economy. Among the report’s findings:

The global market for environmental products and services is projected to double from $1.37 trillion per year at present to $2.74 trillion by 2020.

Half of this market is in energy efficiency and the balance in sustainable transport, water supply, sanitation and waste management.

Clean technologies are already the third largest sector for venture capital after information and biotechnology in the United States, while green venture capital in China more than doubled to 19% of total investment in recent years.

2.3 million people have in recent years found new jobs in the renewable energy sector alone, and the potential for job growth in the sector is huge. Employment in alternative energies may rise to 2.1 million in wind and 6.3 million in solar power by 2030.

And this is key: Renewable energy generates more jobs than employment in fossil fuels.

Projected investments of $630 billion by 2030 would translate into at least 20 million additional jobs in the renewable energy sector.

That’s the ticket, putting people back to work installing solar panels, building wind turbines, planting green roofs, insulating and re-wiring houses, and more.

The power of green: the greening of the economy will be led by a, well, greening of the economy.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Obama on the Environment: Amen!

“For even as we celebrate tonight,” president-elect Barack Obama noted as he presented his valedictory in Chicago early this morning, “we know the challenges that tomorrow will bring are the greatest of our lifetime—two wars, a planet in peril, the worst financial crisis in a century.”

There: he said it. “A planet in peril.” At long last, an American president stated the obvious, and it’s tucked into the top of a very short to-do list.

As a naturalist and environmental educator, you can’t believe what this means to me.

The race is on, to cool the climate, save species, preserve forests and fields, green the economy, find the sustainable, softer path on water, energy, business.

But can we win this race?

By now, you know the answer: yes we can. We have no choice.

Savor the moment—but tomorrow, let’s roll up our sleeves.