Category Archives: Climate Change

Melting Arctic Ice Will Make Way for More Ships–and More Species Invasions

Mar 6, 2013 |By Lisa Palmer

The rare ships that have ventured through the harsh, icebound Arctic Ocean require reinforced hulls and ice-breaking bows that allow them to plow through dense ice as much as two meters deep, and face hazardous conditions in remote locations for long periods of time. Arctic sea ice now is melting so rapidly each summer due to global warming, however, that ships without ice-breaking hulls will be able to cross previously inaccessible parts of the Arctic Ocean by 2050. And light-weight ships equipped to cut through one meter of ice will be able to travel over the North Pole regularly in late summer, according to a new study published March 4 in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences Plus.

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Behavior Frontiers: Can Social Science Combat Climate Change?

Roughly 44 percent of Californians smoked tobacco in 1965. By 2010, 9.3 percent did—a shift that might have seemed impossible before it happened. Understanding exactly how such a social transformation occurred in the past may prove key to understanding how individuals might alter their behavior to help combat climate change in the future.
By studying past instances of social transformation, scientists at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBNL) hope to predict future change in response to global warming as part of California’s Carbon Challenge—a study commissioned by the California Energy Commission to help the state cut greenhouse gas emissions by 80 percent below 1990 levels. LBNL energy technology scientist Jeffery Greenblatt and his colleagues are analyzing  technology options as well as data records from 10 historical behavior changes—smoking cessation, seat belt use, vegetarianism, drunk driving, recycling and yoga, among others.
For starters, Greenblatt is examining the full mix of technical advances in both the supply and demand of energy that could possibly help meet the target, including more efficient electric motors, better insulation, intelligent controls for energy, as well as fluorescent and LED lighting. But even all of these technological advances may not get California to its mid-century mandate alone.
Individual choices could close the gap, according to historical data. Because smoking cessation data and seat belt—use statistics have around for decades, scientists have a good grasp on so-called adoption rates, or how much behavior change is ultimately possible. Historical data also explains how long it takes for change to stick. For example, tobacco smoking has been in a steady decline since the 1960s with all sorts of factors driving this trend—improved science and epidemiology, education through labeling and advertising campaigns, and greater public awareness of risks—all of which could be applied to behaviors that contribute to climate change. “Watershed events and labeling can play important roles in transforming change. The 1964 Surgeon General report is an example [of a watershed event] and subsequent labeling for cigarettes was a big factor,” says energy researcher Max Wei of LBNL, adding that he imagines far more carbon or environmental labeling to inform the public.
By identifying the hurdles, policies and incentives used to, say, dissuade smokers from lighting up, the LBNL team says they can better pinpoint corresponding elements related to persuading individuals to alter their energy use. “We’re eliminating the squish from what has often been known as the squishy science,” Greenblatt says. In total, the team is looking at 23 different energy behavior areas—from telecommuting and public transit to wasting less food—and projecting these well into the future. 
Consider, for example, some of the obstacles in switching to a vegetarian diet, which can save more than three metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions per year. Changing one’s diet can be difficult because it requires new food habits and learning about alternative sources of protein and iron. Cultural barriers  such as gender, race, ethnicity, education and where you live are also involved: white men in the Midwest eat considerably more beef than their compatriots on the coasts, and education is inversely proportional to beef and meat consumption. There’s also a perceived lack of pleasure associated with going meatless because many carnivores perceive vegetarian diets as boring. In addition, historical data on rates of people adopting a vegetarian diet have risen from 0.9 percent in 1991 to about 3 percent in the U.S. now, suggesting that actions perceived as involving sacrifices of comfort or pleasure are not adopted widely. The LBNL scientists have identified several energy-saving behaviors that share the obstacles of forgoing comfort and pleasure. Line-drying clothing, for instance, results in stiff fabric that can be scratchy on the skin; shorter showers can feel cold and rushed; and setting the thermostat higher in summer can make a person feel too warm.

Parallels exist, too, between what drove the increase in seat belt use to what might encourage people to turn off lights and computers. In the 1980s, seat belts were not widely used, just as turning off lights and computers when not in use are behaviors that few Americans commit to now. But a public information campaign for seat belt laws ultimately convinced motorists to use seat belts; so too turning off lights and computers could benefit from similar campaigns. “Not wearing seat belts can [also] carry the threat of fines,” notes Wei, a tactic that could be considered to encourage energy efficiency.

Realistic expectations
Unlike private organizations that target short-term consumer electricity savings, such as OPOWER, Greenblatt and Wei are using their behavior analogs to determine the full potential rates of adoption for energy saving measures. “We are assuming that if a campaign is designed as well as possible based on past experience, we would achieve a certain percent of participation,” Greenblatt says.

Such “realistic adoption rates” grounded in past data can help quantify household actions. “We expect the behavior change savings to be higher than the two percent OPOWER observes, and probably higher than some other previous studies,” Greenblatt says, adding that it’s too early to tell how  significant the household savings could be.

Such savings are key as U.S. households are responsible for 626 million metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions per year, nearly 40 percent of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions and 8 percent of global emissions. That amount is larger than the emissions of any other country except China and larger than the emissions of any U.S. industry.

Still, ecologist and sociologist Thomas Dietz of Michigan State University remains optimistic. “I often hear energy experts who have never studied behavior say that behavior doesn’t change,” says Dietz, who is not involved in the LBNL project. “But if we learn anything from the last 50 years, it’s that behavior changes in huge ways.” Dietz led a study of household energy consumption, published online August 31, 2010, in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA, that looked at the effects of programs trying to influence energy use, many of which were very effective. “We also looked to programs that have tried to change other kinds of behavior for analogies. I’m glad to hear that others are following this line of work,” he says. “It’s one of the best tools we have for getting a realistic estimate of what behavioral change can accomplish.”

Dietz explains that even very conservative estimates suggest a change in energy use behavior by households could lead to over a 7 percent reduction in total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, or more than 1.5 percent of global emissions. To put this into perspective, that reduction is 44 percent of the goal that President Obama set for the nation, roughly equal to the total emissions of France.

This story originally appeared in Scientific American

Artificial Islands Mimic Nature’s Way of Cleansing Water

Keeping lakes and rivers healthy is a challenge for cities around the world as runoff adds nutrients, development eats up habitat, landfills pollute and wastewater stagnates. Wetlands and marshlands along waterways cleanse water, protect biodiversity and reduce erosion. But wetlands and marshes take a long time to develop naturally. So, how can humans help? Inventors are finding solutions by looking to the natural world.

Anne and Bruce Kania of Montana-based Floating Island International are working to bring a concentrated wetland effect to any body of water through biomimicry. Their water management work is inspired by the kind of floating peat bogs found in waters across northern latitudes.

Municipalities, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, private organizations and many others from California to New Zealand have commissioned the floating islands for lakes and waterways because the islands clean polluted water, provide nutrients for fish, contribute to species habitat and sequester carbon. More than 5,000 islands have been built from a nonwoven matt of filter material made of recycled plastic (think loofah sponge made from recycled soda bottles) that is seeded with native plants. In the company’s early days, it created mostly small, backyard-pond-sized swaths. More recently, though, FII has focused on larger islands, like the one in Lake Rotorua, New Zealand, which spans roughly 55,000 square feet.

This story originally appeared in Ensia

Vineyards take action as climate change threatens wines and livelihoods

October 3, 2013 — by Lisa Palmer

The French know a thing or two about wine. But in the not too distant future, some French wines might not come from their namesake regions.

That’s because climate change is altering growing conditions in wine-producing regions, and grape production long associated with regions further south is beginning to shift to new areas.

“Climate change will produce winners and losers among wine-growing regions, and for every region it will result in changes to the alcohol, acid, sugar, tannins and colour in wine,” says climate scientist and wine expert Antonio Busalacchi of the University of Maryland.

Vineyards are now taking action. The wine sector of France is buying up land in places like southern England as it confronts the need simultaneously to reduce risks of yield losses and continue to produce the world’s leading wines.

“Given that most grapevines produce fruit for 25 to 50 years, grape-growers and wine-makers must consider the long term when determining what to plant, where to plant, and how to manage their vineyards,” says Busalacchi, who directs Maryland’s Earth System Science Interdisciplinary Center.

While the effects of climate change are being felt, Busalacchi says it is misleading to take a snapshot of any one year or season. “One needs to take a long-term time horizon view of this,” he adds.

Over the past four years, England has experienced a boom in the number of hectares that are producing the main grapes that are grown in the Champagne region of France – Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier. These three varieties now account for more than 50% of England’s total varietal plantings.

“Several Champagne houses already are looking at land in Sussex and Kent in southern England as potential sites for new vineyards because as climate warms the region is becoming more hospitable to quality grape growing,” says Busalacchi. The soil in the white cliffs of Dover is similar to the chalky substrate of Champagne, and the cost of land is 30 times less than in France.

“Climate is undoubtedly playing a part as, coupled with the international competition successes, it has led to the general growth in confidence in what we are capable of producing over here,” says Julia Trustram Eve, spokeswoman for the English Wine Producers. Acreage under vine has nearly doubled in England in the past nine years, and much of that is for the production of sparkling wine.

Warming temperatures have been noticed, she adds. “Those that planted vineyards some 25 to 30 years ago have seen a change, such as picking dates by and large starting earlier, for example,” says Eve.

The grape vine is particularly sensitive to climate variability and change, like many agricultural crops. But wine producers place much more importance on quality since temperature and precipitation affects alcohol, acidity and colour. Bordeaux and other regions in France will have a compressed growing season, and extreme events such as heat waves, which shut down photosynthesis, and hail storms, which can ruin production in a matter of minutes, will be more common, says Busalacchi. South Africa and southern Australia will see declines in wine production due to severe droughts. While South African wine producers can’t move poleward, Australian growers are looking to favourable growing conditions expected in Tasmania in the coming decades.

Some vineyards will be less affected by climate change. For instance, vineyards at higher altitudes and near the ocean will benefit from more consistent growing seasons and growing days. These include Oregon and Washington State in the US, the Mendoza Province of Argentina, and the Rhine in Germany.

So what are the options for the future? Where possible vineyards can change their orientation to a more northern-facing direction. As well, canopy management can further shade the bunches and trellis modifications can cool the canopy. Some growers can use screening to shade the vines, as some areas do, to protect grapes from birds, but this is expensive. Grapes that are genetically modified can withstand temperature and drought stress expected as the climate warms. Local appellation laws can also be changed to permit irrigation as well as warmer climate varietals, says Busalacchi.

In much of Europe, grape-growing is on small farms. The wine-growers are farmers who are at the mercy of climate and market forces. “They will always be likely to be able to grow grapes,” says Busalacchi. “The question is of what quality and what varietal.” In southwest France, overproduction is a bigger issue. Busalacchi says that in regions like Minervois and Corbières, the government is encouraging quality over quantity, “grubbing up” vines by pulling them up by the roots and replacing them with other agricultural crops, and limiting new acreage.

Are most wine producers consulting climate services for their planning? Not exactly. Despite 30 years of research on climate science, businesses are just now beginning to apply climate research to their investment decisions.

By engaging climate research to inform long-term planning, industries and communities are starting to put a value on climate services to reduce business risk.

This story originally appeared in The Guardian