Opponents of the project claim that the four dams would severely alter water flows in the main Colorado River in parts that run through Grand Canyon National Park and it would affect the fishery there, according to a press release from the advocacy group National Parks Traveler.
Phoenix-based Pumped Hydro Storage asked the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission for preliminary permits to study the feasibility of damming the Little Colorado River, just east of Grand Canyon National Park. All four dams are squarely within the Navajo Nation's land. The company's manager, Steve Irwin, said the projects offer economic benefits to the area, including paved roads, tourism and jobs, as the AP reported.
However, the project cannot move forward without the Navajo Nation's approval, which seems reluctant to greenlight the project. The Navajo Nation said the dams could negatively impact its land, water, wildlife and cultural resources, as the AP reported.
The Hopi, Hualapai and Havasupai tribes echoed concerns about the project's impact. The Hopi people make pilgrimages and deliver offerings to the Grand Canyon area to reinforce their connection with the land.
"Any development within the area of the confluence will forever compromise the spiritual integrity of this sacred place," said Hopi Chairman Timothy Nuvangyaoma, as the Arizona Daily Sun reported.
Haulapai Chairman, Damon Clarke, questioned why the Navajo Nation was the only one acknowledged in the permit application when the proposal affects several others.
They also worry that construction of the dams would harm sacred and historical sites.
"A project such as this would forever disturb a traditional cultural landscape that maintains historic and sacred value and that is part of the cultural identity of the Hualapai people and other neighboring tribes," said Clarke and Peter Bungart, the tribe's historic preservation officer, as the AP reported.
"As the Little Colorado River is an integral part of this greater ecosystem, the adverse effects likely to result from the construction and operation of a dam upstream from the confluence will upend the fragile and delicate balance that has taken so much work to achieve," Clarke said in the Hualapai filing, as the Arizona Daily Sun reported.
Besides the affront to sacred Native American land and water, environmental groups see a devastating impact from Pumped Hydro Storage's proposal. Save the Colorado, the Grand Canyon Trust, Sierra Club and others filed a motion last week that asked the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to reject the permit application, according to NPR-affiliate KNAU.
The environmental groups claim that the dams will decimate the primary spawning grounds of the endangered humpback chub. The Interior Department contributed to the public comments period, saying that building the proposed dams and reservoirs could destroy two-thirds of the humpback chub's habitat, as the AP reported.
The environmental activists also say that damming the Little Colorado River would destroy the turquoise waters that flow near where the tributary meets the Colorado River.
"It's hard to imagine a worse possible place to build new dams and reservoirs than what we've seen proposed in these projects. These new dams and reservoirs would be located about a half-mile outside Grand Canyon National Park," said Michael Hiatt, an attorney with Earthjustice, which is representing the groups, as KNAU reported.The National Parks Conservation Association also filed a motion to stop the project, citing impacts on the banks of the Colorado River, which serve not only as a critical habitat for plants, insects and other animals along the river, but the sediment also forms beaches, which are crucial to the success of the river trips industry, according to the Arizona Daily Sun.
- For Native Americans, a River Is Sacred - EcoWatch ›
- Navajo Nation Has Highest Covid-19 Infection Rate in the U.S. - EcoWatch ›
When I stepped onto the tarmac in Durango, I was hit with a dry wall of air. The 4 p.m. sun felt like it was dialed up – brighter, hotter, and harsher. I blinked enough dust out of my eyes to scan the parking lot for the red Dodge pickup truck that had come to collect me.
That morning, I'd left my Brooklyn apartment, and a city recovering from 14 months of a pandemic. I'd flown to a two-gate airport in a state I'd never been to, to get picked up by a stranger who would drive me to his rural farm with no cell phone service to live in a trailer and work for free. The significance of the situation – and everything that could go wrong – didn't hit me until that gust of hot, dry air did.
I didn't know it would be one of the most important things I'd do with my life, or that I would begin advising everyone I met who found themselves in the situation I did – unemployed, unsure – to do the same.
~ ~ ~
It's hard to pinpoint when WWOOF first came to my attention; it seems like the kind of thing you always hear about in circles of young, unattached people – an opportunity for college kids looking to fill their summers or gap years, or a backburner activity for a hypothetical future when you have the time. When I, like many Americans, lost my job in early 2020, I started relying on short-term, freelance, and gig work; without a true full-time position, I found myself with rare, exhilarating, and daunting amount of freedom. It (finally) felt like the right time.
WWOOF – Worldwide Opportunities (formerly Willing Workers) on Organic Farms – is essentially a network of national organizations that each facilitate homestays on farms. One-hundred and thirty countries have their own, separate branches of WWOOF, all with the goal of supporting sustainable, ecological farming through an educational work exchange.
The arrangement – at least for WWOOF-USA – is rather straightforward: WWOOFers (as participants are informally called) seek unpaid work on one of nearly 1,700 participating farms across the country in exchange for housing and meals. Beyond that, the details vary wildly. Some farms grow vegetables, while others produce herbs, fruit, flowers, mushrooms, or hemp. Some raise cows, chickens, and other livestock for milk, eggs, or meat. Many focus on value-added products like soap, medicinals, wine, maple syrup, and cheese. Some sites are large, established farms; some are community gardens or homesteads. Some seek WWOOFers for a few weeks of work; others for an entire growing season.
Anyone can search the website for host sites, but to see the names of the farms and contact them about a visit, users need to create an account for a $40 yearly fee. Potential volunteers then set up their profile, answering questions about their capabilities, interests, qualifications, etc.; hosts set up a similar profile, detailing all sorts of information about the farm and their expectations for workers.
Visitors are able to filter for hosts by all sorts of qualities: location, languages spoken by the farmers, farming methodologies, types of animals raised, type of housing offered, whether WWOOFers may bring children or pets, diets that can be accommodated, and preferred length of stay. Visitors can filter for only BIPOC or LGBTQ+-owned farms, or the maximum number of workers allowed at the site. During the pandemic, new filters were added, such as whether a host could accommodate folks working or schooling remotely.
Farmers can be contacted through the website, and, if it seems like a good match, the rest of the details – specific dates, transportation, etc. – are decided from there.
On the website's map of hosts, I zoomed in on Colorado. I found a farm that grew vegetables and raised chickens, sent a message showing my interest, and heard back from the farmer within a few days. We set up a time to chat, and he called me while driving home to Mancos from Durango, describing the scenery around him and what they were looking forward to on the farm this season. I packed two bags and took the cheapest flight out of Newark.
~ ~ ~
From my discussions with other folks who have WWOOFed, I've learned that it's futile to compare experiences; no two will share many similarities besides your purpose there being to farm. WWOOF as an organization has very little to do with the ordeal beyond facilitating that initial conversation between WWOOFer and farmer (although they can provide resources for emergent situations). Once you're on the farm, it's your relationship with the host that matters; your experience is entirely in your hands.
For the months of June and July, I lived and worked on a small market farm in Southwest Colorado. We grew vegetables on a few acres of land and in some small greenhouses, raised a couple hundred chickens and a handful of goats and pigs, and then sold the produce, eggs, and sausage at two weekly farmer's markets. Three Great Pyrenees theoretically kept the animals in check, but would often trot up to you in the fields with a smile on their face after, yet again, escaping from a rogue hole in the fence.
I lived in a trailer along the edge of a creek, downhill from the main house, accompanied by an old blue school bus, a few other stationary trailers, and a green VW van, all home to other farm folks and a few surprisingly friendly cats. We shared a firepit, some indoor-turned-outdoor furniture, and an open-air kitchen with a propane stove that would singe your eyebrows clean off if you weren't paying attention.
We started working after 7 a.m. – before the sun got too strong – and ended the day between 2 p.m. and 3 p.m., or whenever the task at hand got done. During the early part of the season, we did a first pass at weeding all the beds that had already been planted, the greens and turnips in full swing and the onions and squashes just beginning to grow in earnest. There were raised beds and a new greenhouse to be built, eggs to collect and wash, compost to be spread, and crops to be harvested and cleaned and weighed for market on Thursdays and Fridays. As the summer carried on, harvest days became longer, and late-season crops were transplanted – and, of course, there was more weeding to be done.
While I retreated mid-afternoon to hike, or read, or cool off in the river, the farmer continued working; when we finished dinner in the evening, he went back into the fields with a headlamp. Work on a farm was never finished, I soon learned; it didn't happen between set hours, but all the time, until the work was done – which, of course, it never is.
When you search for a host on the WWOOF website, the farm profiles display photos of lush pasture, wicker baskets of cherry-red tomatoes, smiling goats and bins of freshly-harvested produce. It's true that the buckets of kale and lettuce looked almost suspiciously lush, and watching the sunset from the hill overlooking the farm and valley felt practically ethereal, but to live and work on a farm is to dispel a bit of that pure idealism – to learn the reality of a place that grows things without industrial machinery or pesticides that allow for such neat, uniform rows of crops.
You learn the reality of weeding the same acre for three months for two short weeks of harvesting; of black widows crawling from the piles of pulled bindweed and wild amaranth that you kneel on between the beds, and no-see-ums biting the tips of your ears until they swell. You learn how dry dirt gets into the crevices of your overalls and never seems to come out, and on the first day of monsoon season, you learn that your trailer isn't as watertight as you'd expected. Your body learns to wake up when the sun does, and go a little longer between showers than you'd prefer.
If you're lucky enough to WWOOF in Southwest Colorado – and if you're an east-coaster, like me – you'll learn for the first time what drought really feels like. The cracks in the ground were wide enough to drop quarters into. The creek running through the farm was hardly more than a trickle, the crawdads dragging themselves towards the last crevices of water, which became mere patches of mud as the weeks went on. Most of the Southwest has been in a chronic drought since 2000, and climate change is the unmistakable culprit; farmers in Colorado and the rest of the region have been forced to make painful changes, including major cutbacks on crops for lack of water.
Our days were almost entirely dictated by weather. A heatwave rolled through during my first week as we were erecting a new greenhouse; the temperature dial on the side of the tool shed had crept to nearly 100ºF before noon, and we retreated into the shade until the sun began to set and the temperature to drop before returning to the task. The irrigation water was shut off towards the middle of the summer, and all we could do was wait for monsoon season. Evidence has suggested that, even when the rains do come to offer some relief, climate change has made them less helpful. They came in late June, and I learned that the smell of it is different – stronger, and more metallic – and that the ground sucks it up within seconds, the dirt as dry as if rain had never come.
But you also learn about a different way of life.
WWOOFing – or any experience that takes you out of your own world, and what you view as the norm – opens a window into the everyday lives of other people; it allows you to see a world that exists outside of your own. I learned when it feels like to live in a town of 1,000 people and know the majority of those you pass on the street by name. I learned how jobs like farming aren't just careers, but an all-encompassing way of life. I learned about the culture and attitudes of people in a different part of the country. I learned how it feels to live in nature, away from the city that moves a million miles a minute, even during a global pandemic.
There are a lot of different lives to live, which we can't truly understand until we see them.
While every WWOOF experience will be different, they will all have this in common.
~ ~ ~
Like most life-changing, view-altering experiences, WWOOFing really is a giant leap of faith. You read the reviews, look at the pictures, zoom in on the closest town on Google Maps, talk to the farmer and ask all your questions – but you'll never know exactly what will happen. It could be a disaster, or it could be wonderful. It does take a great deal of courage, and a willingness to live in less-than-glamorous circumstances. It requires meeting entirely new people, doing physically and intellectually demanding work, and launching yourself into an entirely unknown situation.
I didn't really know what the next few months of my life would look like when I got off that plane and into that red pickup truck. I didn't know what people I would meet on the farm and in Mancos, or that they'd become such staples and joys in my everyday life. I didn't know that I'd go to a wedding of ex-WWOOFers on this very farm where they met, or learn (the hard way) that I'm a terrible mountain biker, or climb up to 13,500 feet on a mountainside of scree. I didn't know that I would learn how to properly throw a dart, or form unexpectedly meaningful relationships. I certainly didn't know that I would fall in love with farming, but that happened too.
You build a new life from the ground up – especially when you're planning to stay for a significant amount of time – that you eventually have to leave, which is far harder than all the rest.
Many WWOOFers – as I learned from other transient types in Colorado, and from the farmers who had a slow-moving, revolving door of WWOOFers come work for them – will set up a schedule for themselves, booking short, back-to-back visits on farms as they travel across the country. While taking advantage of this unique opportunity for housing and companionship is great, I advocate for the way I did it: staying in one place long enough to become a part of the community, and form some real, lasting relationships with the people there.
Another major consideration for many when choosing a host site is the number of WWOOFers housed at a given time; the difficulty of moving to a strange, faraway place is eased knowing that there will be others there to share it with. I had the experience of being both a lone WWOOFer and one of a group, my time split in half. Working alone with the farmer for my first month, I was able to get a lot of individual mentorship, learn about the things I was interested in, and form a closer relationship with him and others on the farm than I might have if I shared the time with lots of other workers.
As my second month rolled around, two other WWOOFers joined me, and besides the benefit of having more hands as the harvests got bigger, we formed a special kind of friendship: we shared a life experience together – one that no one could ever really understand besides each other. I have no doubt that they will remain a part of my life, even after going our separate ways.
In the end, togetherness was the crucial piece to the puzzle. We all worked together, cooked together, ate together, took weekend hikes and swims and played Tuesday night bar trivia together. Of all the wonderful benefits of WWOOFing – working outdoors, exploring the mountains, traveling – the community you form is the most important part.
For many, WWOOFing is a way to support yourself on a shoestring budget, with your food and living expenses paid for. But it's also clear why the majority of participants are young, unattached people: without an income, making student loan, rent, or mortgage payments is extremely difficult, and only possible if you've been able to save money for some time beforehand. Most people can't just step away from their lives and dependents to move away and work for free. It's yet another example of how privilege factors into our ability to have certain experiences.
Our lives have changed a lot in the past year and a half – in ways that, hopefully, might make experiences like this possible for more people: student loans payments are on hold, remote work and school are prevalent phenomena, and for some – myself included – stimulus payments and enhanced unemployment benefits have granted more financial freedom to pursue different kinds of work.
After losing my own job in 2020, I shuttled between temporary and part-time gigs, trying to find something that would stick. As COVID dragged on, I'd started to give up on finding passion and joy in anything. The days and months blurred together, and it felt like the "most important" years of my life were quietly slipping away. I lost all sense of what I wanted from my life, and found myself looking around, wondering how I got here.
During that time, when I needed something to hold on to – some hope for a pre-pandemic future – I pictured a different kind of life: working away from a screen, somewhere in nature, doing something with my hands. I didn't know what kind of life I wanted to live, but I needed to find out – and WWOOFing gave me the chance to.
Linnea graduated from Skidmore College in 2019 with a Bachelor's degree in English and Environmental Studies, and now lives in Brooklyn, New York. Most recently, Linnea worked at Hunger Free America, and has interned with WHYY in Philadelphia, Saratoga Living Magazine, and the Sierra Club in Washington, DC.
Linnea enjoys hiking and spending time outdoors, reading, practicing her German, and volunteering on farms and gardens and for environmental justice efforts in her community. Along with journalism, she is also an essayist and writer of creative nonfiction.
For nearly as long as solar panels have been gracing rooftops and barren land, creative people have been searching out additional surfaces that can be tiled with energy-generating photovoltaic (PV) panels. The idea has been pretty straightforward: if solar panels generate energy simply by facing the sun, then humans could collectively reduce our reliance on coal, oil, gas and other polluting fuels by maximizing our aggregate solar surface area.
So, what kind of unobstructed surfaces are built in every community and in between every major city across the globe? Highways and streets. With this in mind, the futuristic vision of laying thousands, or even millions, of solar panels on top of the asphalt of interstates and main streets was born.
While the concept art looked like a still from a sci-fi film, many inventors, businesses and investors saw these panels as a golden path toward clean energy and profit. Ultimately, though, the technology and economics ended up letting down those working behind each solar roadway project — from initial concepts in the early 2000s to the first solar roadway actually opened in France in 2016, they all flopped.
In the years since the concept of solar roadways went viral, solar PV has continued to improve in technology and drop in price. So, with a 2021 lens, is it time to re-run the numbers and see if a solar roadway could potentially deliver on that early promise? We dig in to find out.
Solar Roadways: The Original Concept
Solar roadways are complex in execution, but in concept, they're as simple as they sound. They're roads "paved" with extremely strong solar panels that are covered in glass that can withstand environmental stressors and the weight of vehicles driving over them on a consistent basis.
The idea was something that got people really excited when the initial Solar Roadways, Inc. project (which is still seeking funding) burst onto the scene in 2014:
More advanced designs included solar roadways outfitted with LED lights that could be used to illuminate lane lines, communicate to drivers and more. Other iterations included weight sensors that would detect when obstructions were on the road or could alert homeowners if unexpected vehicles were approaching their driveway. Embedding these kinds of technology into the solar roadways renderings only added to their appeal and the initial hype around the concept.
Key Selling Points of Solar Roadways
Early innovators of solar roadways touted the numerous benefits of their ideas. These included:
- Sunlight shines down on roads at no cost, making the energy not only readily available, but also free (aside from installation and maintenance).
- The ability to power street lights with solar roadways eliminated the need to pull extra energy from the grid.
- Having electronics embedded into the roadway opened up a world of possibilities for communicating with drivers in ways that didn't require painting and repainting of roads.
- The ingenuity to attach weight sensors on the solar panels could be used to alert drivers about potential obstructions, such as animals, disabled vehicles or rocks on the road.
- In a future of electric vehicles, the possibilities were seen as even more beneficial, as solar roadways could be used to power electric vehicle charging stations or to charge the cars while they're driving.
While some early thinkers may also have envisioned these roadways sending solar energy to the local power grid, the most impactful way solar roadways could utilize the energy they generated is right around the road itself: lighting street lights, heating mechanisms to melt snow on the roadway, or powering small emergency equipment on road shoulders.
Using the energy for on-road applications would mean that the power didn't have to be sent long distances before being used, which results in energy loss. However, in more rural or remote locations, having the solar roadway energy available for nearby homes and businesses could be a huge benefit, especially if there's an outage in the overall grid.
Why Solar Roadway Tests Have Failed
To much of the general public — and especially to people who weren't well versed in the intricacies of solar panels or road structures — solar roadways seemed like a slam-dunk solution that both looked futuristic and had benefits that went far beyond electricity generation. It was the kind of innovation that had people exclaiming: "How has no one done this yet?!" But in reality, the execution of solar roadways was much more complex than the idea.
Here are a few reasons solar roadway tests have failed:
Cost of Manufacturing and Maintenance
The cost of the energy from the sun may be free, but the investment to install and maintain the solar roadways was undeniably prohibitive. The reason asphalt is used by default to pave roadways is because it is immensely affordable and low-maintenance, which is especially critical on vast, expansive roadways and interstates.
In 2010, Scott Brusaw, co-founder of Solar Roadways, Inc., estimated a square foot of solar roadway would cost about $70. However, when the first solar roadway was built in France by a company called Colas, it measured 1 kilometer and cost $5.2 million to build — or about $1,585 per foot of roadway. Of course, this was a small iteration and bulk manufacturing would cost less, but either way, it's hard to believe the cost of a solar roadway would ever be competitive with the price of asphalt, which is about $3 to $15 per square foot.
Further, the cost and complexity to send a crew to repair individual panels that fail would far outweigh those to maintain asphalt. So, while one of the presumed benefits of solar roadways is the cost savings associated with self-generated energy, even back-of-the-envelope math highlights how the numbers would simply not add up to be more cost-effective in the long run.
Energy Required to Produce the Panels
Another limiting factor appears when considering the energy it takes to make asphalt versus high-durability glass and solar panels. Most asphalt used on roads today is a byproduct of distilling petroleum crude oil for products such as gasoline, which means it makes use of a substance that would otherwise be discarded as waste.
The solar roadway panels, although intended to save energy in the long run, take much more to produce. Typical rooftop solar panels can easily make up for the extra energy used in production because the glass doesn't need to withstand the weight of vehicles driving over them, but solar roadways have that added complexity.
Power Output of the Panels
When estimating power output, early optimists seemed to perform calculations based on the raw surface area they could cover — and not much else. However, beyond the stunted energy generation that any solar panels face on cloudy days or at night, solar roadways presented unique new performance challenges.
For example, vehicles constantly driving over solar roadways would interrupt sun exposure. Plus, they'd leave behind trails of fluid, dirt and dust that can dramatically reduce the efficiency of solar panels. Being installed on the ground is a challenge in itself because of how readily shade would find the roads; that's the reason you find most solar panels on rooftops or elevated off the ground and angled toward the sun.
Issues With Glass Roadways
Lastly, driving on glass surfaces is simply not what modern cars are designed to do. Asphalt and tires grip each other well, being particularly resilient in wet conditions. If the asphalt is replaced with glass — even the textured glass that's used for solar roadways — tire traction could be reduced dramatically. Wet or icy conditions could lead to catastrophic situations on solar roadways.
Could Recent Advances in Solar Technology Bring Solar Roadways Closer to Reality?
For all of these challenges and even more roadblocks that early solar roadway projects have run into in the past, the reality is that solar technology continues to improve. In the seven years since the first Solar Roadways, Inc. video went viral, solar panels have developed to be more durable, more cost-effective and more efficient at converting sunlight to electricity. To put some numbers behind these trends:
- The average solar PV panel cost has dropped about 70% since 2014.
- In 2015, FirstSolar made news with panels that were 18.2% efficient. Today, the most advanced prototypes are able to exceed 45% efficiency.
- Total solar energy capacity in 2021 is nearly six times greater than in 2014, and with that explosion has come advances to flatten the learning curve and increase the general public's acceptance of the benefits of solar.
- Solar jobs have increased 167% in the last decade, giving the industry more capable workers able to take the reins of a solar roadway project and more professionals who know how to affordably install solar.
The question to ask is whether these advances are enough to bring solar roadways from failure to success.
Despite the improvements, many of the original challenges with solar roadways remain, and the scale of execution is immense. Even with decreasing solar PV costs, outfitting long stretches of roadway with such complex technologies will require tremendous capital.
Rather than a future where solar roadways cover the country from coast to coast, a more likely outcome is that these advances will bring solar roadways to viability in narrow, niche applications.
Just like tidal energy is a great opportunity for small coastal communities but can't be scaled to solve the energy crisis across the world, it's conceivable that limited-scope solar roadways could be constructed around the world. However, large-scale solar roadways may never be more than a pipe dream.
By Brett Wilkins
Researchers warned of the need for urgent climate action as a study published Wednesday revealed that the world's mountain glaciers are melting at an unprecedented pace, with glacial thinning rates outside Antarctica and Greenland doubling this century.
For the first time ever, researchers analyzed three-dimensional satellite measurements of the world's approximately 220,000 glaciers, except for those on the Antarctic and Greenland ice sheets. The results, published in Nature, show that the planet's glaciers lost 267 billion tonnes of ice each year from 2000 to 2019, the equivalent of 21% of sea level rise. The study's authors said that is enough water to flood all of Switzerland under six feet of water every year.
The paper notes that "thinning rates of glaciers outside ice sheet peripheries doubled over the past two decades."
The study's authors found that, on average, glaciers lost 4% of their volume during the two decades studied. They determined that the fastest-melting glaciers are in Alaska and the Alps. Alaska alone accounted for one-quarter of the world's glacial melt, with the Columbia Glacier in Prince William Sound retreating by around 115 feet annually.
"A doubling of the thinning rates in 20 years for glaciers outside Greenland and Antarctica tells us we need to change the way we live," Romain Hugonnet of the University of Toulouse in France, the study's lead author, told The Guardian.
"It can be difficult to get the public to understand why glaciers are important because they seem so remote," he added, "but they affect many things in the global water cycle including regional hydrology, and by changing too rapidly, can lead to the alteration or collapse of downstream ecosystems."
Today, the Guardian is launching a new series on global glacier loss. First up: A new study finds glacial melt is d… https://t.co/ixwp8HAzGw— Niko Kommenda (@Niko Kommenda)1619623553.0
Hugonnet said he was particularly concerned about glacier loss in high Asian mountain ranges, which are the sources of rivers upon which more than 1.5 billion people rely for water.
"India and China are depleting underground sources and relying on river water, which substantially originates from glaciers during times of drought," he told The Guardian.
"This will be fine for a few decades because glaciers will keep melting and provide more river runoff, which acts as a buffer to protect populations from water stress," said Hugonnet. "But after these decades, the situation could go downhill. If we do not plan ahead, there could be a crisis for water and food, affecting the most vulnerable."
Mark Serreze, director of the Colorado-based National Snow and Ice Data Center, told The Associated Press that sea level rise — which is exacerbated by glacier melt — "is going to be a bigger and bigger problem as we move through the 21st century." Serreze did not contribute to the new paper.
The new study's authors implore policymakers to devise adaptive measures for the estimated billion people threatened with water and food insecurity before 2050.
"We need to act now," stressed Hugonnet.
Samuel Nussbaumer of the World Glacier Monitoring Service, which did not take part in the study, said that "the new paper will have a big impact."
"This is the most global, complete study. The gain in new information is huge," Nussbaumer told The Guardian. "The rapid change we see now is really interesting from a scientific point of view. Never before in history has change happened this fast."
The new study follows research published last week showing shifts in Earth's rotational axis — which have accelerated over the past three decades — are caused by melting glaciers.
Reposted with permission from Common Dreams.
- Climate Crisis Likely Behind Deadly Glacier Collapse in India ... ›
- Melting Glacier Study Could Hold Climate Polluters Accountable ... ›
- Greenland and Antarctica Already Melting at 'Worst-Case-Scenario ... ›
- 92 Percent of Greenland's Residents Believe Climate Change Is ... ›
By Jessie Creamean and Thomas Hill
The Research Brief is a short take about interesting academic work.
The Big Idea
Permafrost – frozen soil in the far north – is thawing, releasing greenhouse gases and long-lost microbes. But one thing that scientists have not studied extensively is whether permafrost contains certain kinds of particles that could affect clouds and weather.
As atmospheric scientists, we found in a recent study that thawing permafrost contains lots of microscopic ice-nucleating particles. These particles make it easier for water droplets to freeze; and if the ones in permafrost get airborne, they could affect Arctic clouds.
In the summer of 2018, one of us, Jessie Creamean, went to Fairbanks, Alaska, and collected samples of permafrost from a research tunnel deep underground. These samples ranged from 18,000 to 30,000 years old, and our team tested them to see how many ice-nucleating particles are hiding in permafrost.
It turns out permafrost contains a ton of them – up to 100 million highly active individual particles per gram of mostly dead microbes and pieces of plants. This density is on par with what is found in fertile soils, which are some of the most concentrated sources of ice-nucleating particles on Earth. Everywhere in the world, ice-nucleating particles typically play a major role in cloud behavior, and the strength of that effect is still being studied.
This 18,000-year-old permafrost sample contains millions of ice-nucleating particles per gram. Thomas Hill / CC BY-ND
Why It Matters
No one yet knows whether ice-nucleating particles from permafrost are getting into the atmosphere and affecting clouds. But the theory of how ice-nucleating particles change clouds is understood.
Clouds are made up of billions of tiny water droplets or ice crystals, often a mix of both. A cloud is like a forest of trees: All water droplets of the cloud require a seed – a tiny aerosol particle – to form and grow on. Almost any little speck of material from the land or the ocean can be the seed of a liquid cloud droplet. Because of their unique ability to line up water molecules into an icelike grid, they help supercooled liquid in a cloud to freeze at warmer temperatures.
Ice-nucleating particles are extremely good at forming small ice crystals – a rare skill found in less than 1 in a million of all the particles floating around in the air. Ice-nucleating particles can be mineral dust from deserts, specks of soil from farm fields or – like what we found in the permafrost – bacteria and bits of biological material from oceans or plants.
The ability to easily form ice has big consequences for clouds and weather.
Most of the time, airborne water droplets need to freeze before they can fall to the ground as snow or rain. Ice-nucleating particles allow cloud ice to form at warmer air temperatures than normal, up to around 28 degrees Fahrenheit. Without these particles, a water droplet can supercool to about negative 36 F before freezing. When ice-nucleating particles are in a cloud, water droplets freeze more easily. This can cause the cloud to rain or snow and disappear earlier, and reflect less sunlight.
As permafrost thaws, ice-nucleating particles are getting into rivers, lakes and eventually the ocean. National Park Service / C.Ciancibelli / Wikimedia Commons
What Still Isn’t Known
Our work found there are a lot of these ice-nucleating particles in thawing permafrost, which is important because permafrost covers 24% of the exposed land surface in the Northern Hemisphere. The question now is whether these particles are getting into the atmosphere or not. No other researchers that we're aware of have looked at permafrost's effect on cloud formation, or the mechanisms by which ice-nucleating particles from permafrost become airborne.
We hypothesize that ice-nucleating particles from thawing permafrost could get into lakes and rivers, make their way to coastal Arctic Ocean waters and spread over large areas. Then, winds could eject these ice-nucleating particles into the air, where they could enhance the freezing of clouds and affect weather.
There are still many unknowns and a lot of work to do.
This summer, we are teaming up with colleagues from the Cold Regions Research and Engineering Laboratory in Fairbanks and the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado, to set out for a six-week expedition to the Alaskan Arctic tundra. We will collect hundreds of samples of permafrost, lake water, river water, coastal ocean water and air samples to see whether ice-nucleating particles from permafrost are present, and in what amounts. Our goal is to use these findings in models to predict how thawing permafrost could alter the region's clouds.
Disclosure statement: Jessie Creamean receives funding for this work from the National Science Foundation (Award OPP-1946657). Thomas Hill receives funding for this work from the National Science Foundation (Award OPP-1946657).
Reposted with permission from The Conversation.
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The U.S. is beginning the new year with a new national park.
The nation's 63rd national park is also the first to be designated as such in the state of West Virginia, Veranda reported. New River Gorge, in Fayetteville, was officially changed from a national river to a national park as part of the COVID-19 relief bill that passed on Dec. 27, Condé Nast Traveler reported.
"Redesignation of the National River to a National Park and Preserve will shine a brighter light on West Virginia and all that it has to offer, and provide another catalyst for our tourism industry and local businesses," Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-WV) said in a statement reported by 12 WBOY.
The New River Gorge is already a beloved destination for outdoor enthusiasts. It sees almost one million visitors every year and boasts activities like hiking, fishing, rafting, rock climbing and camping, according to Veranda.
Despite its name, the river is actually believed to be one of the oldest in North America. It has been important for West Virginians throughout the state's history, serving both Indigenous Americans and railway and coal-mining communities.
It has been managed by the National Park Service as a national river since 1978, but West Virginia's Congressional delegation hopes its new status will attract more visitors.
Capito, U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) and U.S. Rep. Carol Miller (R-WV) originally proposed the status upgrade in a 2019 bill, WV Public Broadcasting reported. Capito noted that outdoor recreation is a $9 billion industry for West Virginia, and making the gorge a national park could boost visits by 21 percent.
Condé Nast Traveler also noted that the efforts to redesignate the river represents a signal that West Virginia is shifting its economy from coal mining to conservation and recreation. The Congress people met with small business owners and outdoor enthusiasts in the state to build support for the new park, and emphasized its economic benefits.
Rafters enjoy a scenic stretch of the New River Gorge National River. National Park Service
"This designation will increase the international recognition by highlighting West Virginia's world-class beauty and resources. Over the last two years we have met with outdoorsmen, businesses and local leaders and other interested groups to ensure this designation will promote the beauty and rich history of the New River Gorge, while ensuring that the longstanding traditions of hunting and fishing are protected for generations to come," Manchin said in a statement reported by 12 WBOY.
To accommodate hunting and fishing, the new park will also double as a National Preserve, according to Condé Nast Traveler. It will feature 7,021 acres of protected riverfront and a 65,165 acre preserve where hunting and fishing can take place.
"The New River Gorge is home to all West Virginia has to offer – our beauty, small businesses, and adventurous tourism opportunities. This legislation will preserve and protect the New River Gorge for generations to come and make our state an even better place to live, work, and raise a family," Miller said in a statement reported by 12 WBOY.
An earlier version of this article said that New River Gorge was the first dual national park and preserve outside of Alaska. However, Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve in Colorado also has dual status.
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By Tara Lohan
The Santa Fe River starts high in the forests of New Mexico's Sangre de Cristo mountains and flows 46 miles to the Rio Grande. Along the way it plays important roles for wildlife, irrigation, recreation and other cultural uses, and provides 40 percent of the water supply for the city of Santa Fe's 85,000 residents.
But some stretches of the river don't flow year-round, and that means parts of this vitally important water system could lose federal protections under changes to clean-water rules just passed by the Trump administration.
The administration's new Navigable Waters Protection Rule replaces the Obama-era Waters of the U.S. (or WOTUS) rule that defined which waterways were protected under the Clean Water Act. The Obama administration broadened and clarified which waters were safe, but the new rule takes a much narrower view. Under the changes many waterways lose federal protection. That includes ephemeral streams and rivers that depend on seasonal precipitation — like parts of the Santa Fe — as well as waters that cross state boundaries and wetlands that aren't adjacent to major water bodies.
This loss of protections means pesticides, mining waste, and other pollutants can be dumped into these streams and unconnected wetlands can be filled for development without running afoul of federal authorities.
"This puts drinking water for millions of Americans at risk of contamination from unregulated pollution," Blan Holman, a senior attorney at the Southern Environmental Law Center, told The New York Times. "This is not just undoing the Obama rule. This is stripping away protections that were put in place in the '70s and '80s that Americans have relied on for their health."
The rule flies in the face of basic science about river ecology and groundwater, according to the Environmental Protection Agency's own scientists. Even if streams don't flow all the time or wetlands don't touch major bodies of water, dumping pollutants into them can still harm the watershed — and by extension drinking water and wildlife.
The Trump administration promised these changes would offer more control to states, but many state officials say they find the new rules problematic, confusing and potentially dangerous.
"One of our biggest concerns with the final rule is that it's not rooted in sound science," said Rebecca Roose, water protection division director of the New Mexico Environment Department. "And there was really no attempt by the agency to reconcile the final rule with the scientific basis for the 2015 WOTUS rule and advice from the scientific community."
While these changes will be felt in every state, they won't be felt equally.
Some states may not be equipped to deal with what's coming, said Jen Pelz, an attorney and biologist at the nonprofit group WildEarth Guardians.
To understand these changes, it helps to look to the East Coast, where the 64,000 square-mile Chesapeake Bay watershed touches six states and the District of Columbia. Decades of concerted effort and millions of dollars have helped clean up and protect its network of creeks, streams, rivers and wetlands that flow into the tidal bay.
Experts fear the new rule could undo some of that effort.
Chesapeake Bay wetlands in Maryland. Timothy Pohlhaus / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
The most damage could come from Delaware, West Virginia and the District of Columbia, which lack strong state laws to protect waters. In Delaware alone, 200,000 acres of wetlands could now be susceptible to pollution or drained and filled for development, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation reported.
Wetlands like those in the Chesapeake serve as a critical safeguard for filtering water pollution, according to the EPA. Coastal wetlands can also help prevent floods and storm surges, with are both likely to increase with climate change and sea-level rise.
And this weakening of protections in some states in the region could harm the entire multistate watershed because of the interconnected nature of waterways.
"Wetlands that are not connected on the surface with rivers are vital parts of a river network and significantly influence water quality, the rate of flow and the biological communities in larger rivers," Ellen Wohl, a professor of geosciences at Colorado State University and an expert in river systems, told The Revelator last year, when the rule change was proposed. Even when there's no surface connectivity, wetlands "can still be connected below the ground with other portions of the drainage basin," she explained.
That's an issue not just in the Chesapeake. Holman expressed concern about how it will affect states across the South. The rollback of protections is likely to affect drinking-water quality — and the states with the least resources to handle more pollution will be hit hardest.
"Who loses when that protection is removed? The people living downstream," Holman wrote recently in The Guardian. "They will have dirtier drinking water and more flooding. This is especially true in the South, where state environmental agency staff are routinely underfunded, understaffed and overwhelmed by pro-polluting politics and industries." The Clean Water Act previously leveled the playing field for these communities across the country, but now that's gone.
Those states with stronger state-level environmental laws, however, will be less vulnerable.
California, for example, has enacted state laws that protect all its wetlands and ephemeral streams. That means the clean water rollbacks would be less damaging — but it doesn't mean that California is entirely unaffected.
Federal funding that helps support water-quality protections in the state would be lost and — just like in the Chesapeake watershed — there's concern about waterways that cross into California from other states like Oregon, Arizona and even Colorado.
"Ephemeral streams across the Colorado River Basin states and Oregon contribute significant volumes of water to rivers flowing adjacent to and into California," said George Kostyrko, director of the Office of Communications for California's State Water Resources Control Board. "Millions of Californians and hundreds of thousands of acres of farmland in the Imperial and Coachella valleys depend on Colorado River water that will no longer have minimal federal protections."
Will the feds step in if one state's waters start to cause pollution in another? California officials aren't so sure.
Today’s announcement is an unlawful assault on the Clean Water Act and we’re prepared to take action. California… https://t.co/Oi8LyH52sB— Xavier Becerra (@Xavier Becerra)1579813291.0
"Generally, the Clean Water Act will still require federal agencies to follow state water laws," Kostyrko said. "We have grave concerns about how the federal administration could push boundaries here, though."
Costly Burden, Bigger Picture
The rule was sold to states as a way to boost their authority and give them more control over how waters within their boundaries are designated.
"All states have their own protections for waters within their borders and many already regulate more broadly than the federal government," EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler said in a statement announcing the rule.
Unfortunately, that's not true for states like New Mexico.
"The premise that all states are capable of addressing water quality issues in their state is false," officials from the New Mexico Environment Department wrote in their public comments on the rule last year. "Not all states can implement a robust and successful water quality program without significant federal assistance."
Roose said they originally estimated that around 96% of New Mexico's waterways would lose federal protections. Since the final rule has been released, they're re-evaluating it and believe it may be slightly less, but the vast majority of the state's waterways would still fall outside the scope of federal jurisdiction under the new rule.
For a state with the second-worst economy in the United States, that poses some big problems.
New Mexico is already more reliant than most states on the federal government's help implementing Clean Water Act regulations. Under the Act certain programs, like the National Pollution Discharge Elimination System, which issues permits to regulate pollution discharges from large sources like mining operations, municipal sewage-treatment plants and big construction operations, can be relegated to states. But New Mexico is one of just three states where the federal government administers and enforces the program.
With the federal government now relinquishing regulatory authority to huge amounts of New Mexico's waterways, the state will need to find a way to fill those gaping holes to protect water quality — a process that won't be easy, cheap or fast.
"If we already had a built-in program for permitting discharges to our surface waters, then we might be able to pick up that regulatory permitting slack with existing state and rules, like some other states are planning to do," said Roose.
She says the state will do all it can to leverage its groundwater program and other regulations as it begins to work with the legislature to find funding and build capacity for a new regulatory program. It's a process that would take a minimum of three to four years at best, she estimates.
Barring legal challenges that result in an injunction, the rule would be implemented in just a few months.
That means that for years some drinking-water sources will be more at risk, and so will wildlife. In New Mexico this includes imperiled species such as the Gila trout, Chiricahua leopard frog, Jemez salamander, Rio Grande silvery minnow and yellow-billed cuckoo.
A yellow-billed cuckoo in the Gila National Forest, N.M. Bettina Arrigoni / CC BY 2.0
"We think of it not just in terms of water-quality protection for healthy rivers and streams for healthy aquatic ecosystems," said Roose. "We think about it as also tied to our economic viability for recreation and also a cultural resource for many individuals and communities and native communities throughout the state. So this cuts to the heart of who we are as New Mexicans."
She says the state is exploring all legal options to block the rule from taking effect, including possible multistate litigation. California has already declared that it will fight the rule change, and numerous other states and environmental groups are expected to work to block the measure, too.
The rule's fate may rest in the hands of the court, perhaps even the Supreme Court, but could also hinge on who wins the next presidential election. And there's a lot that could be litigated.
"The administration certainly didn't conduct an analysis of what waterways would be impacted," said Pelz. It will come down to how various definitions in the regulation are interpreted, which could lead to other legal challenges. "For example, 'typical year' is a term used to help determine what waterways are covered. What does that mean?" she asked. "Is it the 30-year average streamflow? Does it take into account a warming climate?"
She anticipates the rule will face a lot of scrutiny in the courts, but it's also only one part of a bigger picture.
Pelz said it's important to think about this rule in the context of the past three years and the litany of environmental rollbacks set in motion by the Trump administration. Bedrock environmental laws across the board have come under assault from the administration, ranging from the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918 to the Endangered Species Act and National Environmental Policy Act.
"I think that the cumulative impact of all of these proposals is something that people aren't really talking about," she says. "We're talking about the environmental safety net that has been in place since I was born. These fundamental environmental protections that we've all come to know as just a baseline are going to no longer exist."
Editor's Note: The Center for Biological Diversity, which publishes The Revelator, filed an intent sue the Trump administration on February 18 over the rule change. This story was in development before the announcement, and all content from The Revelator is editorially independent from the Center's work.
Reposted with permission from The Revelator.
By Zachary Lawrence and Amy Butler
At the start of February 2021, a major snowstorm hit the northeast United States, with some areas receiving well over two feet of snow. Just a few weeks earlier, Spain experienced a historic and deadly snowstorm and dangerously low temperatures. Northern Siberia is no stranger to cold, but in mid-January 2021, some Siberian cities reported temperatures below minus 70 F. Media headlines hint that the polar vortex has arrived, as if it were some sort of ice tornado that wreaks wintry havoc wherever it strikes.
As atmospheric scientists, we cringe when the term polar vortex is used to loosely refer to blasts of cold weather. The actual polar vortex can't put snow in your backyard, but changes in the polar vortex can load the dice for wintry weather – and this year, the dice rolled Yahtzee.
The Winds of Winter
The polar vortex is an enormous, three-dimensional ring of winds that surrounds the North and South poles during each hemisphere's winter. These winds are located about 10 to 30 miles above Earth's surface, in the layer of the atmosphere known as the stratosphere. They blow from west to east with sustained speeds easily exceeding 100 mph. In the darkness of the winter polar night, temperatures within the polar vortex can easily get lower than minus 110 F.
Fortunately for everyone, the stratospheric polar vortex itself won't appear outside your front door. The polar vortex does influence winter weather, but it is more like a domino – when it is knocked over, it can start a chain of events that later result in wild weather.
The strength of the polar vortex can vary widely during winter, and these variations can lead to shifts in the strength and position of the jet stream, the fast-flowing river of air in the troposphere beneath the polar vortex. When the jet stream changes, it affects the movement of weather systems, causing different parts of the world to see much warmer or colder, or much wetter or drier conditions.
The Domino Effect
Since the Earth's atmosphere is one giant shell of air that moves like a fluid, the polar vortex is interconnected with the weather that moves around the Earth at lower altitudes. Normal variations in the jet stream and weather can disturb the structure of the vortex in the stratosphere. Like an elastic band, the vortex usually rebounds back to its normal shape and size, maintaining its strong winds and low temperatures.
Between December (left) and January (right), the polar vortex moved entirely off the North Pole and lost much of its structural integrity. Zachary Lawrence/CIRES/NOAA
But sometimes, these weather and jet stream variations can knock the polar vortex off balance, causing significant wobbles in its shape, location, temperatures and winds. When this happens, the structural integrity of the polar vortex begins to break down. If this happens often enough over a period of time, everything can go haywire with the polar vortex as the winds break down and the vortex warms up.
As the polar vortex deforms between December and January, the jet stream became much wavier and brought cold storms farther south. Zachary Lawrence/CIRES/NOAA
This is precisely what has unfolded this year: On Jan. 5, the polar vortex was completely thrown out of whack by an event called a sudden stratospheric warming. Sudden stratospheric warming is the technical name for these violent disturbances that severely distort and weaken the vortex, knocking it off of the pole or even ripping it apart. When this happens, temperatures in the normally cold polar stratosphere explosively rise by as much as 90 F over the span of a few days – hence the name of these events.
Here is my "official" 3D animation of this year's stratospheric #PolarVortex split. Another beautiful event! https://t.co/ml59N1cDoh— Zac Lawrence (@Zac Lawrence)1547503640.0
At this point, the domino has tipped over: Eventually the jet stream feels the effects of the weakened polar vortex above, and it can begin to undulate. When the jet stream gets wavy, it can dip farther south, bringing cold air and winter storms with it.
The January 2021 event pushed the polar vortex from its normal position over the North Pole all the way over to Europe and Siberia, nearly pulling it apart multiple times in the process. It can take weeks or months for the polar vortex to recover from something like this. While the vortex pieces itself back together, the undulating, curvy jet stream can bring frigid Arctic air and winter storms to the U.S. and Europe while allowing unusually warm weather to get into the far north.
A Strong Polar Vortex Means Warmer, Not Colder, Weather
In some winters, weather systems barely affect the polar vortex at all, allowing the vortex to grow colder with faster winds. This can have the opposite effect on the jet stream, causing it to keep cold Arctic air from the polar regions locked up north. This is what happened during the Northern Hemisphere winter of 2020, when the polar vortex was extraordinarily strong and many regions experienced an exceptionally warm and mild winter.
Calling any blast of cold air a polar vortex is wrong. The behavior of the polar vortex doesn't just portend colder weather – it can also foreshadow much warmer weather. Most of the time the polar vortex has little influence on winter weather as it flows like normal, miles above the surface. But forecasting and monitoring huge disturbances to the polar vortex allows us to anticipate the chain of events that may leave feet of snow and frigid weather at your doorstep.
Zachary Lawrence is a Research Scientist, University of Colorado Boulder.
Amy Butler is a Chemistry & Climate Processes Research Scientist, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Disclosure statement: Zachary Lawrence has received funding from NOAA. Amy Butler has received funding from NOAA and NSF.
Reposted with permission from The Conversation.
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By Daisy Simmons
Nevada City, California. Amidst a historic pandemic and social unrest, watching the accelerating impacts of climate change on the silver screen could create a sense of helplessness – or deepen the resolve to act. Emphasizing the latter, "Resilient by Nature" was the official theme of the recent Wild & Scenic Film Festival, an entirely virtual affair this year as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.
More than a tagline, a sense of resilience was palpable throughout the online event, from the festival's stirring poster art, through the 100-plus documentaries that emphasized solutions, and even into the Zoom-based lobby, where attendees could drop in for a trivia game, casual conversation about the films, or even a BYOB beer tasting.
Held by the South Yuba River Conservation League (SYRCL), the 19th annual festival also played up opportunities to act on climate and other environmental issues, from participating in virtual activism workshops to simply getting outside: Self-guided excursions included the memorable "It's All Newt to Me," a guide to local amphibians.
Despite the creative ways to come together virtually, however, there was also disappointment that the event could not be held in person. Yet even this regret seemed unifying, at least in the virtual media lounge, where several filmmakers expressed an appreciation for being able to sit in on each other's video-conference interviews – pleasantly intimate conversations that any attendee could also enjoy from the comfort of their own couch, live or after the fact.
Flexibility was indeed a silver lining of the virtual festival experience, as audiences could view most of the films at any time, from any WiFi-enabled device, during the 11-day festival.
Five Documentaries to Add to Your Climate Watchlist
Resilience doesn't mean being Pollyannaish. The festival's standout climate documentaries tackled some of today's most sobering subjects, from the devastating Camp Fire that leveled Paradise, Calif. in 2018, to existential threats faced by indigenous Arctic communities experiencing intensifying oil and gas development.
Yet even these darkest of explorations reveal stories of fierce hope and determination, a reminder that heroic action on climate isn't just possible – it's happening now.
A glance at five documentaries* that may inspire your own conviction that worthy ways forward exist:
2040 (92 min. documentary, see trailer below)
How will 2040 look for the youth of today? Australian director and narrator Damon Gameau imagines a hopeful future for his four-year-old daughter, Ella – a vision that is profoundly realistic as it is based on solutions that are already available. Yet despite the film's optimism, there is no sugarcoating here. Gameau opens with a frank description of the climate crisis, albeit in terms a young child can grasp, demonstrating greenhouse gases with a steamy shower, for one example, and the danger of melting "glaciers" spilling out of the freezer, for another.
From there an expedition in "fact-based dreaming" takes off, as the film crisscrosses the world to explore some of the most promising current "solutions," including renewable energy, driverless cars, regenerative agriculture, marine permaculture, and empowering girls. For each category, we see resourceful and dedicated people in action today, followed by a fanciful, often humorous, dramatization of Ella's future, 20-something self, living in a world rich with these solutions. Will there be a giant world party in 2040 to celebrate the success of these efforts? There's no way to know whether Gameau's hopeful vision will or won't pan-out, but he points out that "we have everything we need to make it happen."
The Last Ice (83 min. documentary, see trailer below)
A new race is afoot in the waters between Canada and Greenland, where steadily melting sea ice is opening up the potential for faster shipping, increased oil extraction, and other commercial pursuits. As industries vie for space in the newly open waters, indigenous communities are rallying to protect the Arctic as they long have known it.
Taking home the Wild and Scenic "Best of the Fest" award, The Last Ice follows the personal journeys of several Inuit people whose lives are fundamentally tied to the land and wildlife, including a young man with dreams of being a hunter, who is deeply devoted to his sled dogs, and a woman working to keep her culture's ancient traditions alive, one text at a time. Mixing in archival footage and current science and political news, the film traces the threads of globalization that led to this moment over the past century, from the first forced resettlements of Inuit communities, to container ships cutting ever-more swiftly through the ice.
Through it all, there's stunning landscapes bedazzled with Northern lights; threatened, majestic animals like polar bears and narwhals; and a fervor for preserving Inuit ways of life. They combine to make the case that it's in our shared best interest to keep the Arctic from becoming a Wild West of extraction.
Public Trust | The Fight for America's Public Lands (96 min. documentary, see trailer below)
Spanning around 640 million acres and 28% of the United States' land, the nation's public lands are a uniquely American birthright – and the center of a fight over what to do with them. Do we exploit natural resources to further economic activity? Or do we preserve them from extractive industry use, to keep ecosystems and their beauty intact for future generations? Are those poles-apart choices the only two options?
This film documents both sides of what has become a cultural war over "the last large-scale public asset on the planet," from the deserts of Utah, the storied Boundary Waters of Minnesota, and the pristine Arctic National Wildlife Refuge – all threatened by oil and gas development and/or mining. But at its core, it's also a love letter to these places, and the people across the country working to protect diverse lands.
Winner of one the festival's pair of Jury Awards, Public Trust features a refreshing mix of personalities, including a hunter and investigative reporter from north Alabama. Feeling a deeply personal stake in the future of the public lands he grew up on, he is working to "follow the money" to help Americans see who's behind the destruction of our public lands.
During production, the Trump administration opened up large areas of public land to oil and gas development. Now, viewed from the fresh reality of a new administration, it may comfort some viewers to know that a Biden administration executive order has already begun halting oil and gas leasing on federal lands.
Rebuilding Paradise (91 min. documentary, see trailer below)
The deadliest fire in California history captured international attention when it decimated Paradise in 2018. But the town's story didn't end there.
It takes grit not to fast-forward through the first harrowing 10 minutes of this Ron Howard-directed documentary. Raw dashcam footage and emergency call audio blend into a nightmarish sequence of escape from the smoke-blackened town. As the flames leap higher, a police officer, alone in his cruiser, slows down to pass his own home, stiffly reports that it is engulfed in flames, then plunges back into the darkness.
From there, though, the film shifts from disaster to what comes next for locals who choose to stay and rebuild, like the former mayor who can't wait to rebuild, and the school counselor whose own home was spared but feels crushing guilt when she runs through her now-empty neighborhood.
As the year goes on, the pain doesn't subside – it somehow gets harder, for the counselor at least. There are water contamination issues to confront, the lingering trauma that strains the police officer's marriage, and an angry town meeting with PG&E, the utility whose faulty equipment started the fire.
But life has indeed gone on in Paradise. Somehow the high school remained standing, and six months after the Camp Fire, graduating seniors light up the field with exquisite joy.
Some people argue against rebuilding because the risk of another fire is too high. The former mayor, however, is defiant in his decision to stay. "A lot of people think it's wrong to rebuild. I'm 74, I don't give a damn. Is it right to build a house in a hurricane zone in Miami on the beach? This is where I want to be."
Wild Climate (27 min. documentary, see trailer below)
Got wanderlust? Enjoy a classic cross-country road from your living room with Virginia and Peter Sargent, as they cruise through rural America to get to know people whose livelihoods are threatened by climate change. Together with their dogs, Trout and Salmon, the Sargents camp out in public lands along their way to meet folks like farmers, hunters, fishermen, and even pro snowboarders, all seeing the increasing effects of climate change in their daily lives from intensified drought thwarting the Colorado farmer, to the impacts of wildfire on a hunting outfitting company in Idaho.
Interspersed with these stories is data confirming the science behind their experiences. For example, the pro snowboarder is already seeing his work threatened by diminishing snowpack; that makes sense given that western U.S. snowpack declined by 10-20% between the 1980s and 2000s, with another 60% loss anticipated in the next 30 years.
But more than a series of interviews and scenic views, the Sargents themselves give the film heart. These aren't just big city slickers swooping in and out of little towns to get the scoop and high-tail it to the next location. There's respect and even, at times, reverence for the people they meet along the way. Of the family farmers in Idaho, Peter says, "I think Purple Sage represents the best that family farms have to offer in this country. And there are so many more like them. And it's also an aspiration. It's the kind of family I want to create with Virginia."
Note: Some of the above films may not yet be available yet for general audience streaming. Keep an eye out for a local edition of the Wild and Scenic On Tour program, coming soon to roughly 250 local events across the U.S.
Reposted with permission from Yale Climate Connections.
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By Jim Palardy
As 2021 dawns, people, ecosystems, and wildlife worldwide are facing a panoply of environmental issues. In an effort to help experts and policymakers determine where they might focus research, a panel of 25 scientists and practitioners — including me — from around the globe held discussions in the fall to identify emerging issues that deserve increased attention.
The panel, coordinated by the UK-based Cambridge Conservation Initiative, conducted a horizon scan — an effort to spot early signs of significant phenomena — of global biological conservation issues. For the resulting study, which was funded by the UK's Natural Environment Research Council and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, the panel winnowed down an initial list of 97 topics, settling on the following 15 because of their novelty or their potential to move the conservation needle in either a positive or negative direction over the coming decade.
1. Seabirds Could Help Spot Illegal Fishing
Seabirds often follow fishing vessels to score easy meals. Now, scientists are hoping to exploit this behavior to help spot illegal, unregulated, and unreported fishing, which accounts for up to $23.5 billion worth of seafood every year, or 1 in 5 fish sold. Researchers have had some success attaching transmitters to seabirds to locate fishing vessels in the Indian Ocean, but more study is needed to validate the use of this tactic.
2. Marine Vessels and GPS Spoofing
Vessels plying the ocean navigate and transmit their locations and identities mainly through the global navigation satellite system (GNSS) and automatic identification system (AIS). The panel points out that a recent rise in GNSS spoofing and AIS cloning incidents could facilitate the trade of illegal goods and hamper authorities' efforts to identify vessels engaged in illicit resource extraction activities such as fishing and dredging.
3. More Corals May Suffer From Lack of Oxygen
Several factors — including climate-driven marine heat waves and nutrient runoff from land — can lower oxygen levels in the ocean. Corals in the Atlantic, Indian, and Pacific oceans have died from this hypoxia, and, although those events weren't widespread, some scientists fear that the threat may grow significantly as climate change further warms the ocean. Research is needed to better understand the extent and impact of low oxygen conditions on coral reefs.
4. Understanding the Impacts of Increased Dissolved Iron on Coastal Polar Ecosystems
Coastal zones in polar latitudes are among Earth's most productive — that is, they create and support large numbers of organisms ranging from tiny marine plants to animals such as polar bears and seals — a characteristic driven by the availability of dissolved iron from glaciers and ice. Increased melting in the polar regions will result in higher iron concentrations, which in turn will probably fuel more intense phytoplankton blooms and enable organisms on the seafloor to capture more carbon and other nutrients. Such changes could have wide-ranging effects — including impacts on the structure of the region's marine ecosystems and on carbon sequestration — and warrants investigation.
5. What to Do With a Growing Number of Decommissioned Offshore Energy Platforms
It is estimated that 3,000 offshore oil and gas platforms will be decommissioned in the coming decades and that the number of offshore wind farms will continue to grow. Currently, decommissioning practices vary by country and include full removal, conversion of platforms to artificial reefs, and abandonment. As new offshore energy infrastructure is built and old platforms are phased out, nations will need to evaluate the immediate and long-term impacts of their decommissioning strategies on the marine environment.
6. A Drug Problem in the Water
When some chemicals used in pharmaceuticals and in garden and farm products are introduced into waterways — usually through runoff or via sewage systems directly or in human waste — they can cause changes in fish and other organisms, including altering the number of female to males in a population, lower fertility, and deformities. There is emerging evidence that the effects of exposure can be multigenerational, affecting organisms that were never directly exposed.
7. Changes in Low Cloud Cover
Low clouds shade sizable portions of the planet in subtropical regions. It is predicted that these clouds will become increasingly unstable if atmospheric carbon dioxide continues to rise at current rates. The resulting changes could have negative effects on wildlife and human communities.
8. Tree Planting as a Simple Carbon Sequestration Solution
Pledges to plant large areas of trees to help tackle climate change are often perceived as a win for conservation. However, tree planting must be planned and implemented with a clear understanding of regional ecosystems to avoid negative effects on biological diversity.
9. Logging to Reduce Fire Risk
As nations around the world contend with more extreme wildfires, some policymakers suggest that tree removal may be part of the solution. However, the effectiveness of such policies is uncertain, and any short-term gains from removing trees are often offset by the growth of non-native grasses and flowering plants, which may themselves be highly flammable.
10. Large-Scale Adoption of Sustainable Farming Techniques Across India
Driven by government policies and local innovations, sustainable farming practices are becoming more prevalent in India. The state government of Sikkim has adopted organic farming as policy, and the state of Andhra Pradesh, with 6 million farmers, plans to adopt natural farming practices by 2025. Other states across the country plan to follow suit. Early evaluations indicate that these large-scale transitions boost crop yields and incomes, improve the health of farmers, and increase women's access to microfinance. With such results, there is the potential for similar large-scale shifts in other parts of the world.
11. Low Earth-Orbiting Satellites May Mislead Animals Responding to Celestial Cues
More than 2,600 artificial satellites currently orbit the earth, a number that is rapidly increasing. Many species of mammals, insects, and birds use celestial cues to migrate long distances and to orient themselves in local habitats and could be affected by the proliferation of satellites.
12. Bitcoin Mining With Stranded Energy
An emerging use for stranded energy sources, such as low-value methane byproducts vented from oil wells and excess energy produced by wind turbines and solar panels, is to power computers used for Bitcoin mining — the process of creating new Bitcoin by solving complex algorithms. Monetizing stranded energy in this way is a mixed bag that decision-makers will probably have to evaluate. The practice could increase carbon emissions from marginal fossil fuel sources but also could incentivize the deployment of renewable energy by guaranteeing a minimum selling price.
13. Open-Source Investigations of Environmental Threats
Scientists demonstrated some success with using online videos, social media posts, and other open-source data to document the effects of the locust swarms in East Africa in 2020. As faster internet connections and access to smartphones continue to grow globally, the use of open-source data may become an effective tool for researchers.
14. Self-Healing Building Materials
The potential to engineer building materials made of chemicals, polymers, and bacteria that can fix themselves when damaged could reduce the need for repairs and shrink the environmental footprints of construction projects. Recently, scientists at the University of Colorado at Boulder used a type of cyanobacteria found in the ocean, along with other materials, to engineer a living building material that can regenerate when fractured.
15. A Waterway to Connect the Baltic and Black Seas
A planned 1,200-mile inland navigable waterway connecting the Baltic and Black seas would alter the flow of cargo and trade in the region. However, the waterway, which would pass through Poland, Belarus, and Ukraine, could alter habitat in 70 wildlife areas and numerous international conservation areas, introduce non-native species, and change the region's rivers and wetlands. Additionally, dredging in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone could disrupt radioactive sediment.
Jim Palardy is a project director with The Pew Charitable Trusts' conservation science program. He served on this year's horizon scan panel and is a co-author on the resulting study.
Reposted with permission from The Pew Charitable Trust.
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By Andrew Smith
Climate change is harming many special places and iconic species around our planet, from Glacier National Park's disappearing glaciers to California redwoods scorched by wildfires. But for the animal I study, the American pika (Ochotona princeps), there's actually some good news: It's not as threatened by climate change as many studies have warned.
I have studied pikas, small cousins of rabbits, for over 50 years and never tire of watching them. These tailless, egg-shaped balls of fluff live primarily in cool mountainous environments in piles of broken rock, called talus.
During summer, observers can see pikas industriously gathering caches of grass and leaves into haypiles that will serve as their food supply through the winter. Their light brown coats blend well with their surroundings, so they are easiest to spot when they perch on prominent rocks and call to alert other pikas of their presence.
When fellow hikers see me observing pikas in California's Sierra Nevada, they often tell me they have read that these animals are going extinct. I have collected a stack of press releases that say exactly that. But based on my recent research and a comprehensive review of over 100 peer-reviewed studies, I believe that this interpretation is misleading.
Constrained by Climate
As I showed in my early research, pikas' biology suggests that they are likely to be affected by a warming climate. Most important, their normal body temperature is high, and this puts them at risk of overheating when active in warm environments. When temperatures are warm, pikas retreat into the much cooler depths of their talus habitat.
Temperature also plays a role in pikas' ability to move from place to place. Warm weather inhibits their movements, while cooler temperatures allow them to more freely colonize new habitats.
A little ancient history is instructive here. Pikas originally came to North America from Asia and spread across the continent some five million years ago, during colder times. Their remains have been found in caves in the Appalachian Mountains and in the Mojave Desert – sites where pikas no longer live.
American pikas live mainly in alpine and subalpine mountain areas extending south from central British Columbia and Alberta into the Rocky Mountains of New Mexico and the Sierra Nevada of California. Andrew Smith, CC BY-ND
As the world's climate warmed, pika populations retreated to the high mountains of the western U.S. and Canada. Today they occupy most of the available talus habitat in these areas – evidence that challenges the pikas-on-the-brink narrative.
For example, in recent surveys, pikas were found at 98% of 109 suitable sites in Colorado, and at 98% of 329 sites in the central Sierra Nevada. One study of historic pika sites across California's Lassen, Yosemite, Kings Canyon and Sequoia National Parks found no evidence that pikas were moving to new sites or higher altitudes due to climate change.
Pikas in Warm Environments
In contrast, most sites where researchers believe that pikas have disappeared are small, isolated and often compromised by human activities, such as grazing by livestock. These sites generally are lower and warmer than sites in pikas' core range.
Many of these areas are in the Great Basin – a large desert region spanning most of Nevada and parts of Utah, Idaho, Wyoming, Oregon and California. A series of studies on a small number of marginal Great Basin sites formerly occupied by pikas has disproportionately contributed to the narrative that pikas are likely to become endangered.
To investigate the big picture across this region, I worked with state and federal officials on a 2017 study that identified 3,250 site records of pika habitat. Pikas were present at 2,378 sites, not found at 89 sites where they had been seen as recently as 2005, and absent from 774 sites that contained only old signs of pika occupancy.
The extirpated and old sites had the same temperature and precipitation ranges as sites where pikas still were present. This suggests that non-climatic factors may have caused pikas' disappearance from the vacant sites.
Pikas are still present in other remarkably hot places, such as the ghost town of Bodie, California, the nearby Mono Craters and Idaho's Craters of the Moon National Monument. At these sites, pikas retreat into the cool nooks of their talus habitat during the warmest part of the day and often forage at night.
In my research, I also found that pikas were much less active and uttered far fewer calls at these low-altitude sites compared with high-elevation pika populations. At low-elevation sites, pikas consumed a diverse diet of Great Basin plants, such as big sagebrush and bitterbrush, that was markedly different from the plants they ate at high-elevation sites. Some even failed to construct their characteristic large haypiles.
Another atypical pika population lives near sea level in Oregon's Columbia River Gorge. Here, too, they have adapted well to a very different habitat, surviving year-round on a diet that consists mainly of moss. They defend the smallest territories of any pika, and when it gets hot, they simply move off the talus and hang out in the shade of the nearby forest.
A Future for Pikas
Based on my review of dozens of studies, pika populations appear to be secure in their core range – the mountains of western North America that have large and fairly well-connected talus habitat. In these areas they can move from one habitat patch to another without having to pass through areas that are dangerously warm for them.
The fact that pikas have also adapted to a number of marginal, hot environments suggests to me that they are more resilient to climate change than many past studies have concluded. Most species exhibit losses near the edges of their geographical ranges, simply because individual animals in those zones are living in conditions that are less than ideal for them. This does not mean that they are going extinct.
Climate change is the most critical issue facing the world today, so it is particularly important that scientists communicate accurately about it to the public. In my view, the fact that pikas are coping and altering their behaviors in response to changing conditions is encouraging news for future naturalists setting out to observe one of nature's most charismatic mammals.
Andrew Smith is a professor emeritus of life sciences at Arizona State University.
Disclosure statement: Andrew Smith does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond his academic appointment.
Reposted with permission from The Conversation.
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Hurricane Eta, the record-tying 28th named storm in an extremely active 2020 Atlantic hurricane season, is now menacing Nicaragua as a Category 4 storm.
The storm is expected to make landfall Tuesday along Nicaragua's northeast coast, according to a 4 a.m. EST update from the National Hurricane Center (NHC). The NHC has dubbed it an "extremely dangerous" storm that could produce "catastrophic wind damage" as it makes landfall and dump as much as 35 inches of rain in some parts of Nicaragua and Honduras.
"This rainfall will lead to catastrophic, life-threatening flash flooding and river flooding, along with landslides in areas of higher terrain of Central America," the NHC warned.
Eta is expected to move across northern Nicaragua by Wednesday morning and central Honduras by Thursday morning. It could also bring rain and flooding to parts of Central America, Mexico, Jamaica, Haiti and the Cayman Islands as it moves over the area through Friday.
4pm EST Monday, 2 November Key Messages for Hurricane #Eta: Eta is now a Category 4 Hurricane. It is forecast to s… https://t.co/M4olggLW6V— National Hurricane Center (@National Hurricane Center)1604353780.0
The storm recalls 1998's Hurricane Mitch in strength and path, The New York Times pointed out. That storm killed more than 11,000 people, mostly in Nicaragua and Honduras.
In advance of Eta, the Nicaraguan government has already evacuated more than 3,000 families from low-lying coastal areas. It has also sent 88 tons of food to the port town of Puerto Cabezas and prepared and sent four trailers with supplies including hygiene kits.
"In this way, the government of Nicaragua will be able to provide quick and effective humanitarian aid to families," Dr. Guillermo González, the director of Nicaragua's National System for Disaster Prevention, Mitigation and Attention, told The New York Times.
Hurricane Eta is the 28th named storm of an extremely active season. The only other season to reach 28 storms strong enough for names was 2005. However, the Greek letter Eta was not used that year because the 28th storm was discovered after the fact.
Colorado State University scientist Philip Klotzbach said it was likely that 2020 would ultimately break 2005's record.
"The odds certainly favor another storm or two forming in November," he told The New York Times. "The large-scale environment, especially in the Caribbean, is forecast to remain more conducive than normal for this late in the hurricane season."
Even in an active season, Eta stands out. It intensified rapidly between 7 p.m. Sunday and 7 p.m. Monday, CNN reported, moving from a tropical storm to a Category 4 hurricane and nearly doubling its wind speed. It has the lowest pressure of any storm so far this year, which is a marker of strength, CNN meteorologist Tyler Mauldin explained.
It is also unusually strong for a November hurricane, Klotzbach noted on Twitter. Only two other storms have reached 150 miles per hour in that month: the Cuba hurricane of 1932 and Hurricane Lenny in 1999.
#Eta continues to rapidly intensify and now has max winds of 150 mph. Only two other Atlantic #hurricanes in Novemb… https://t.co/Ms6Q1M6aYr— Philip Klotzbach (@Philip Klotzbach)1604361222.0
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By Sharon Guynup
At this time of year, in Russia's far north Laptev Sea, the sun hovers near the horizon during the day, generating little warmth, as the region heads towards months of polar night. By late September or early October, the sea's shallow waters should be a vast, frozen expanse.
But not this year. For the first time since records have been kept, open water still laps this coastline in late October though snow is already falling there.
"In one sense, it's shocking, but on the other hand, it's not surprising," said Walt Meier, a research scientist at the University of Colorado Boulder's National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC). Over the past 40 years, unprecedented climate change-driven events such as this have become the new normal in the Arctic — which is heating up far faster than the rest of the planet.
While weather patterns at the top of the world vary, the overall changes are dramatic and occurring so rapidly that the region may be entering a "new Arctic" climate regime, says Laura Landrum, an oceanographer with Colorado's National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR). The Arctic is transitioning from a mostly frozen state into an entirely new climate — and impacting the entire planet, she said.
Meier calls the Arctic the "bellweather of climate change" because it's a place where a small bump in temperature has real impact: a change from -.5°C to .5°C (31°F to 33°F) is the difference between ice skating and swimming, he said, while a couple of degrees warmer in Florida may not even be noticed.
Comparison of autumn sea ice formation for the first half of October 2012 (the record year for Arctic sea ice extent loss) and in 2020 (second place for sea ice extent loss). The satellite record goes back to 1979. @Icy_Samuel, data provided by NSIDC
An Extreme Year in a Region Known for Extremes
It's been quite a year in Siberia — on land, and off the Arctic coast. The first six months were extraordinarily warm and the sea ice began melting early. By May, fires burned in permafrost zones that are usually frozen year-round. In June, temperatures hit a record-breaking 38°C (100°F), and by September, blazes incinerated about 14 million hectares (54,000 square miles) of tundra — an area the size of Greece.
A combination of changing climate and quirky weather are now preventing this fall's freeze-up. Siberian sea temperatures are higher than usual because of this year's extreme climate events. The heat wave warmed the many rivers that feed into the Arctic Ocean and also triggered an early melt-out. Without ice and snow that acts like a mirror — reflecting the sun's heat back into the atmosphere — the dark ocean absorbed extra warmth over the summer. Much of the remaining ice disintegrated. Then in September, unusually strong, warm winds blew in from the south, pushing any newly formed ice out to sea.
In the past, a shift in the winds wouldn't have mattered much. Back in the 1980s, Igor Polyakov, a climate scientist at the University of Alaska, remembers being part of expeditions that landed small seaplanes on sea ice to study the Siberian Arctic. He described the Laptev Sea as a solid, glaring white landscape punctuated by pastel-tinged ice: rose-colored, light blue and green. Since the regions' deeply cut gulfs and bays are located in shallow continental shelf waters, they mostly stayed frozen.
But by summer 2002, sea ice was less stable, and today, ice breakers can travel the region through open water. "The changes are dramatic," he said. "It happened in front of our eyes. Now, in the summer, there's no ice at all for thousands of kilometers, sometimes as far north as the 85th parallel." That's five degrees from the North Pole.
In the 1980s, about 80% of the Arctic Ocean and its surrounding seas were frozen in thick, "old ice" that mostly survived the summer melt, said James Overland, an oceanographer with the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) who has studied the Arctic for decades. "Now much of that has to refreeze each winter. We did not expect to see this so soon."
Arctic sea ice extent on Oct. 25, 2020 was at a record low 5.613 million square kilometers for this date, surpassing the record set in 2019 of 6.174 million square kilometers. ChArctic NSIDC
A Dangerous Cycle
Across the Arctic, ice is now thawing earlier, freezing later, thinning and — in many places — disappearing altogether.
Thinner ice is less resilient. Picture ice cubes in a glass. Thick chunks last longer and melt slower than ice chips and slivers. All disintegrate faster in warmer liquid. This is a huge problem in the Arctic, where vast stretches of open blue water absorb the sun's heat during summer, when the sun never really sets. Those warm waters flow beneath the ice to melt it from below.
This year, the overall health of the sea ice was bleak: the end-of-summer minimum was tracking at the second-lowest amount of sea ice in 42 years, Landrum said. Measurements by NASA and the NSIDC found it was about 2.6 million square kilometers (1 million square miles) lower than the average from 1981 to 2000. NASA satellite data shows an overall downward trend in Arctic ice is averaging 12.9% a year.
This year's average global temperature will be among the warmest on record, researchers say. Current models predict the Arctic will be ice-free in summertime by 2040 – 2050. Overland thinks this so-called Blue Ocean Event (BOE) might come even sooner.
Many factors are colliding that could speed massive melt. New feedback loops continue to emerge, compounding and accelerating changes. For example, early climate models didn't factor in methane — a potent greenhouse gas — that's pouring into the atmosphere from melting permafrost. The tundra is now thought to be emitting 300-600 million tons of carbon yearly, the equivalent of driving between 65 and 129 million cars for a year.
The Arctic appears to be changing into an entirely new climate state due to rapid warming. The extent of sea ice in the late summer, when it reaches its minimum each year, has already entered a statistically different climate, with surface air temperatures and the number of days with rain instead of snow also beginning to transition. Simmi Sinha, ©UCAR
Likewise, thick ice that withstood high winds and storms decades ago, now is thin and can be severely damaged by such storms — amplifying one-off extreme weather events. Then there's "Atlantification," the increasing intrusion of salty, temperate Atlantic Ocean waters into chillier Arctic seas.
The changes in the Laptev Sea, long known as an Arctic "ice factory," add another concerning factor. In the past, sea ice created there typically moved with wind and ocean currents, traveling over the North Pole towards Greenland. Depending on changing conditions, that ice then spent years trapped in a slowly spinning gyre in the Beaufort Sea; ended up off the Greenland coast; or piled up on the north shore of the Canadian Archipelago, building ice ridges that towered 3 to 9 meters (12 to 30 feet) high — multi-year ice that resisted melting.
That system no longer works as before, with the Laptev Sea now turning to blue water every summer, the "ice factory" largely shut down, and multi-year Arctic sea ice at a record low — and still dropping.
A polar bear prowls the Arctic shoreline. VisualHunt.com
An Interconnected Planet
The polar bear has become the poster child for climate change impacts on wildlife. But Ursus maritimus isn't the only victim; cascading affects throughout the Arctic food chain are impacting everything from plankton to seals, globally important fisheries species like pollock, on up to whales, musk ox and other cold climate mammals.
In Siberia, reindeer are starving in wintertime. "Weather whiplash" is bringing rain, in what should be the frigid dead of polar night. The falling rain freezes atop the snowpack, forming a layer of thick ice that makes it impossible for reindeer to dig down to grass and plants below; many now die of hunger. These once-rare Arctic warm spells are now commonplace.
Indigenous people are also suffering. Without proper ice platforms, it's growing harder for them to hunt for the walrus and whales that sustain them. Coastlines are eroding as sediments held together by permafrost become unglued. And rising seas are inundating coastal villages.
Worse, rapidly escalating climate change in the Far North is being exported to the rest of the world: The Earth's biomes are interconnected. "You can't alter one system without affecting others," explained Mark Serreze, a research scientist for the NSIDC. "What happens in the Arctic doesn't stay in the Arctic, and the changes are unfolding faster than our ability to keep up with them." Serreze, in his 2018 book framing the problem, dubbed the north polar region as, "The Brave New Arctic."
Serreze notes that the Arctic covers a massive area; it's the size of the lower 48 U.S. states combined. Amplified Arctic warming alters global weather, and impacts the rest of the planet, changing weather, ocean patterns and the jet stream.
Intense storms, droughts and heat waves — once every 100- or 500-year extreme weather events — are now occurring regularly around the globe, with devastating impacts on people, economies, and ecosystems. This year alone, for example, saw massive record wildfires in California, Colorado, Siberia, and Brazil, and no one yet knows how this autumn's delayed Arctic re-freeze might impact the planet's upcoming weather.
A fire burning through northern forest in Krasnoyarsk, Siberia, in July 2020. Greenpeace International
Julienne Stroeve, who specializes in sea ice research at NSIDC, adds another potential serious impact to the list: threats to our food supply. "What's predicted to happen in agricultural sectors is not good news ... We're going to be living on a very different planet if we keep adding greenhouse gases to the atmosphere," she said. "We're conducting this blind experiment, and we don't yet know the real implications.
Stroeve is desperate to inform people of the urgency: "How do you sell climate change to be as much of an emergency as COVID-19? Except that it will kill a lot more people."
She believes we can rally. If we can produce a COVID-19 vaccine in record time, and heal the ozone layer through the Montreal Protocol, Stroeve thinks "we have the ability to change the course of this train."
Reposted with permission from Mongabay.
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