Sunday, September 30, 2012

a lesson or two from ecology for planting ahead

Ecosystems survive in various ways, not all of them known.  We have some clues.
A sustainable forest usually has genomic biodiversity and stable patterns of geochemical cycling.
Those adaptations fit a niche of particular climatic conditions. If the climate is disrupted, the webs of biodiversity and geochemical cycling are altered, and the forest can die.
In contrast, a deep cave has very stable geochemical cycling, even if its genomic biodiversity is limited and isolated.  Walk into one bearing the spores of an unfamiliar organism,  and it is changed.

I'm ruminating about this because I'd like to say something useful about strategies for confronting climate change. At some scales, climate change is moving towards the stage of weather extremes, or a form of climate chaos.
People are rightfully anxious about global, and local, food supply. 

Diversify food supply seems like a clue from the forest.
Retain essential geochemical nutrients seems like another clue from both forest and cave.
Be careful when moving species around, a lesson from the cave (and jokes about Noah keeping critters apart on the ark).

This needs updating, but I want to get it out.

Friday, September 28, 2012

Planting ahead - watch the weeds and think of others

In this hot drought of a summer, I watered a garden that responded by producing many tomatoes and zucchini. Nearby, without watering them, the weeds were flourishing.  Some of them are edible, real survival food. Lamb's quarters, pigweed, and a new acquaintance, velvetleaf (Abutilon theophrasti) an immigrant from Asia, all showed up and some of them in abundance.  To my amazement, mint emerged from tough clay soil.

So, why are we stubbornly planting food that was adapted to the old climate when we can see that the Times They are A'Changin?

As long as I have some dollars and access to a well-stocked grocery store, this is the kind of question I pick up and then lay aside, but what about other people, whose resources, and whose choices, are far more limited?

One of the slow-moving tragedies across the globe has been the displacement of locally-diverse agriculture with commodity crops that are vulnerable to both weather and international prices.

{ Favorite references: Patricia O'Brien-Place's masters on "Nutrition in policy and planning: the rural sector (1979)" showed a decline in local nutritional status where commodity crops like sorghum, peanuts or cotton had wiped out the practice of keeping family garden plots. Her dissertation, " Impact of inflation on least-cost diets in the United States (1982)" is technical economics but also instructive.}

Vegetable gardens are vulnerable, to be sure, but a diverse local food supply and hardy plant varieties improve the odds of having something to eat.  Where I live, garden watering is possible. Large-scale irrigation of fields is not. We need all the favorable odds we can get.

It is a race against time for the developers of commodity crop cultivars to generate varieties that can withstand the new extremes, but even so, most food crops are not evolved for the kind of climate chaos we can expect.

We need to pay more attention to weeds.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Careless cerium, and zinc-shrinking

A diesel fuel catalyst can inhibit soy plant growth. The catalyst, cerium oxide, inhibits nitrogen-fixing bacteria that live in the root nodules of soy plants. As farm tractors burn diesel fuel, the tractor exhaust containing cerium-oxide settles on the field and becomes part of the soil.

The zinc oxide used in sunscreens and antimicrobial agents makes soy leaves smaller. Zinc oxide can be conveyed to fields in treated sewage solids used as fertilizer.

For article:

"Nanosized pollutants pose crop risks 
Some harm crops or boost plants’ ability to pick up toxic materials through their roots"
By Janet Raloff    (Science News)

metastasis of consequences, Arctic ice melt

 We need to be alert to a metastasis of consequences to humankind and all else, as Arctic ice melt proceeds.

Cross-post of comment I put on Joe Romm's blog.

The multi-year loss of old ice through the Fram Strait should get LOTS more attention.
Research papers in the past twenty years on thermohaline circulation show the importance of a seasonal flow of freshwater from melting ice in maintaining global ocean currents.
The gradual exhaustion of multi-year ice has delayed a metastasis of consequences, of which disrupted ocean currents would be one of those to have a big effect on humans.
It is boggling to imagine what disrupted currents could do, in conjunction with the effects on Jet Stream and mid-latitude weather as already described by Dr. Jennifer Francis.

Please also check my earlier post at Planting Ahead about thermohaline circulation.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

"Climate change happens" vs. "is happening"

Have you not heard, "climate change is happening," spoken as a version of "duh?"

Now I know, and perhaps you know, that the Arctic sea ice summer extent declined sharply, glaciers melted back, mosquitoes live at higher altitude than in previous generations, animal and plant species have moved,  and global temperature measurement has revealed major changes, including accumulation of heat in the oceans.

Mouthful of examples there, yet only a bite.
So, yes, climate change is happening, all the time 24/7, or 365/24/7.

But can we assume that your listener already has seen the evidence, and agrees with your conclusion?   If your listener turns around in their air-conditioned office, orders lunch, and gazes at a pretty park across the street, in that moment does he or she see any sign that climate change, indeed, "is happening?"  Unlikely.

Does your listener understand that the price of ingredients in the lunch was affected by global supply, in turn affected by climate? Or the hours of use of air-conditioning? Or the plant species in the park? Or the odds of severe weather?  Also unlikely.

For many humans, "is happening" refers to a present moment of personal awareness; "It's happening, baby."

I'm leaning towards another phrase with the word "happens," and say,
Climate change happens.
Crop failure happens. Floods happen. Refugees happen.

We have moments when we notice.

In looking ahead, or planting ahead, let's be real about what has happened to date, and take into account both shifted conditions of heat, moisture, insects, etcetera and a shifted level of uncertainty.  

In short, planning for uncertainty, as well as new certainty.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

math while angry, and new vocabulary about the brain

Every now and then I have the embarrassing experience of making a public correction on an arithmetic calculation.
I'm relieved if I catch it before someone else does.

One such event today reminds me yet again that math while angry is often flawed.

It is no surprise that hormones that could make me kick butt get in the way of a tranquil double check of conversion factors and decimal places.  But when I am angry, it usurps other forms of decision making. Duh.

Time to take deep breaths, and oxygenate not only that darling frontal cortex, but also parietal cortex and particularly the intraparietal sulcus, thought to be essential to calculation.  And hope the supramarginal gyrus isn't subvocalizing something completely irrelevant, like, @#^*&!!

Fortunately neuroscientists are looking at these matters. It is encouraging to see the many abstracts that come up in a PubMed search.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

thermohaline circulation and Arctic ice, updated

Take a look at the diminished flow of multi-year sea ice through the Fram Strait as shown in the Yale video. The video portion on the multi-year ice loss is narrated by Dr. Jennifer Francis of Rutgers, yet I would like to have the original source of the data, most likely the NISDC. [This video is also imbedded in a blog by Joe Romm on the Arctic Ice Death Spiral.] The scientists in the video point to the "positive feedback" of an open water Arctic Ocean in summer,  the open water would absorb the sun's energy and accumulate heat during the days of nearly twenty-four hours of sunlight. The white ice cap that we are losing so abruptly had reflected light back into space; the dark open water does little of that.  That's an important point, within the scope of scientific inference.

We need to connect more, and the scientific "dots" already exist. 

What I want us to understand - in short - is that an ice-free Arctic could affect "the ability of the ocean’s thermohaline circulation to assume more than one mode of operation (Broecker)" and "The strength of the thermohaline cell will be shown to depend on the amount of sea ice transported from the Arctic to the Greenland Sea and further to the subpolar gyre (Mauritzen, C. and S. Häkkinen)."

The thermohaline circulation is the global movement of ocean currents.  
Arctic sea ice reaching the Greenland Sea has a major effect on thermohaline circulation.
Without sea ice, we are indeed in uncharted waters.

Some sources:
Mauritzen, C. and S. Häkkinen (1997), Influence of sea ice on the thermohaline circulation in the Arctic‐North Atlantic Ocean, Geophys. Res. Lett., 24(24), 3257–3260, doi:10.1029/97GL03192.
A fully prognostic coupled ocean‐ice model is used to study the sensitivity of the overturning cell of the Arctic‐North‐Atlantic system to sea ice forcing. The strength of the thermohaline cell will be shown to depend on the amount of sea ice transported from the Arctic to the Greenland Sea and further to the subpolar gyre. The model produces a 2–3 Sv increase of the meridional circulation cell at 25N (at the simulation year 15) corresponding to a decrease of 800 km³ in the sea ice export from the Arctic. Previous modeling studies suggest that interannual and decadal variability in sea ice export of this magnitude is realistic, implying that sea ice induced variability in the overturning cell can reach 5–6 Sv from peak to peak.

Science 28 November 1997:
Vol. 278 no. 5343 pp. 1582-1588
DOI: 10.1126/science.278.5343.1582
Thermohaline Circulation, the Achilles Heel of Our Climate System: Will Man-Made CO2 Upset the Current Balance?
Wallace S. Broecker
The author is at The Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory of Columbia University, Palisades, NY 10964, USA.
During the last glacial period, Earth’s climate underwent frequent large and abrupt global changes. This behavior appears to reflect the ability of the ocean’s thermohaline circulation to assume more than one mode of operation. The record in ancient sedimentary rocks suggests that similar abrupt changes plagued the Earth at other times. The trigger mechanism for these reorganizations may have been the antiphasing of polar insolation associated with orbital cycles. Were the ongoing increase in atmospheric CO2 levels to trigger another such reorganization, it would be bad news for a world striving to feed 11 to 16 billion people.

lost in moderation

The longer that one of my geekier posts stays "in moderation" on another blog, the more the term "in moderation" develops new facets.

Was my post immoderate in its sheer geekiness?  Yeah, probably way too geeky.
Also standard filters kick out posts over a certain length and hold them for review, as well.
And, of course, after the tedious process of finding and cleaning up the citations, did I forget to click on agreeing to the terms of the website? Could have happened.

I'll post the geek post on my blog..

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

2016 hot iced tea and reaping the whirlwind

On a humid summer's day, when the last sliver of ice melts in the glass of iced tea, it's time to ask for a new ice cube, or chug down the tea before it rapidly heats up. (See enthalpy of fusion). These are not options when it is an ocean that is about lose its last ice chips and heat up.

In the Arctic, the summer sea ice has kept the Arctic Ocean cool.  Recently Professor Peter Wadhams of Cambridge, expert on Arctic ice, has alerted the British newspaper, the Guardian, to a revised expectation that the summer Arctic sea ice is likely to be gone by 2016.

The summer sea ice area has shrunk from year to year, in what has been called a death spiral as vividly illustrated by Neven of the Arctic Sea Ice Blog. In September 2012 the sea ice has reached the lowest areal extent since records have been kept.

A correlation between declining Arctic sea ice and extreme weather has emerged. The altered Arctic weather loosens up the northern  Jet Stream which instead of streaking around the high latitudes upper mid-latitudes,  slows down and develops what look like the meanders of an old river. These loops in the Jet Stream act as blocking patterns that hold weather in place for longer periods of time, giving us heatwaves and super storms in the mid-latitudes, with the oddities of colder days further south and other new extremes.  Dr Jennifer A. Francis of Rutgers has been showing the data on the relationship, of which a 16 minute video is a good introduction, hang in there with it and look at the diagrams, even if you tend to glaze over on words like isopleth (a contour line of pressure).

Where does the meltwater go in Greenland?

Greenland ice melt turns out to be more complicated, and better studied, so this is a revision of what I posted on September 18, 2012.

The top surface melt may either move slowly downwards, re-freezing and consolidating in firn, the form of old snow that is compressing into ice, or it may move as meltwater, or perhaps some other fate, for which I have yet to find a study. Sublimation?

The massive surface melt in the summer of 2012 was remarkable because nearly every surface experienced some melting, at least in place.  The scientists monitoring Greenland melt had earlier classified Greenland ice as dry-snow facies, the combined percolation and wet-snow facies, ice facies, transient melt areas and moraine.  Dry snow facies are surfaces where if snow falls, it accumulates, never melting. Percolation facies are surfaces that melt and refreeze, forming pipes and lenses.  The

As a recent abstract by McGrath et al (2013) clarifies, "Extrapolation of this observed trend now suggests, with 95% confidence intervals, that the dry snow facies of the Greenland Ice Sheet will inevitably transition to percolation facies. There is a 50% probability of this transition occurring by 2025."

In the percolation facies is were the lakes and moulins form.
As the Greenland ice sheet melts around the edges and off its top surface, transient meltwater lakes form on the top of the ice at some locations. Sometimes the transient lakes discharge in transient mighty rivers that cut across the ice sheet surface and may join with more permanent rivers or perhaps better-termed seasonally recurrent rivers.  In the summer of 2012 an engorged ice melt river destroyed a bridge in Kangerlussuaq.  How many months of the year do the  ice melt rivers flow? I don't know. How much melt water stays on the ice sheet surface all the way to ground surface and from there to the ocean,  and how much melt water diverts through the moulins to under-ice channels before it reaches the ocean? I don't know those answers, either, and it would be great if someone was gathering real data on those questions.

In other instances, the meltwater lakes accumulate for only a few days or weeks in summer,  then flush themselves down the inverse-chimneys, the moulins, that develop under the lakes and deep into the ice, as the melt water opens up cracks in the ice.  In a moulin, the melt water creates a deep vertical shaft that extends to the base of the ice sheet. The moulin water is thought to travel through under-ice channels to the ocean. How well established is that fate? Does all the water go to the ocean?

Tracking ice melt comes with some tools, as ice melt is fresh water, low in salts and conductivity, and as it is from snow fall, it has a lighter oxygen isotope signature than does seawater.

Is it part of the freshwater runoff accumulation found in the seas near shore? Apparently yes.
The East Greenland Current  and in consequence, the West Greenland Current, are affected by plumes of glacial melt water that can be detected far into the current by oxygen isotope studies.

Is the meltwater also pooling in the great central lowland of Greenland that is hidden under the ice? The data from the 1990s did not suggest that it was. The  Greenland  ice core samples from GISP, GSIP2, GRIP, NGRIP, and NEEM did not hit a lake of any sort before approaching bedrock. 

However the times are a-changing. In the summer of 2012, the entire top ice surface of Greenland had a melt layer, unlike previous years' observations in which center of the continental sheet did not lose a layer. This years' loss of annual ice record is as startling as if a geologist could watch the loss of a geologic stratum.

Also in this past year, researchers at the other pole were able to drill down in Antarctica, to the ancient Lake Vostock, deep under the ice sheet.  Is there another lake like Vostock forming under Greenland's melting ice sheet?
Like Antarctica, Greenland has a low bedrock area in mid-sub-continent as much as 500 meters below current sea level.

Researchers suggest that the Greenland meltwater from surface lakes may be lubricating the icesheet's bottom surface. With the slopes of that mid-continent depression, not all the ice sheet would slide towards the sea.
Two to five areas of Greenland bedrock have channel patterns linking the mid-continent depression to the sea.
These channels could unplug at some point in the mix of sea level rise and ice melt.

For now, the Greenland ice cores suggest, but don't prove, an absence of a preexisting mid-continental lake.

Perhaps it's one of those answers that is all of the above or some of the above.

In breaking news on November 30, 2012, a report published in Science, A reconciled estimate of Ice-Sheet mass balance,  shows that Greenland's ice sheet is melting five times faster than the models had predicted.

Most recent update May 22, 2013. Joan Savage

Spencer Michels, the bald tire of PBS climate change coverage

Who does not know some person who re-treads his or her outdated information base, trying to move around on bald tires, and worse yet, without admitting to the dangerous limitation?  

In contrast,  I have a good friend who went through hard economic times with a worn-out pair of shoes and worn tires on his car, but gosh, he knew! No kidding. 

I'm calling for the retirement of a journalist who doesn't seem to know he's become the bald tire himself, slipping up on news stories. It's too late for him to put the brakes himself.

As an aging person myself, I am on the alert for "What am I missing" pieces, and I hope someone diplomatically pulls me aside if my data base is worn out, before an accident could happen. 

 P.S. Reminder to self: El Niño is coming in, so I expect a slushy winter ahead and it is literally time to shop for snow tires!

Posted to Climate Progress:

Spencer Michels is a journalist's version of bald tire, running on old information, slipping up, and apparently unwilling to brake himself. 

PBS didn't persuade him to retire (pun intended) before he slid off the road and brought embarrassment to PBS. 

Posted to the PBS Ombudsman, Michael Getler:

I protest the openly biased Spencer Michels' piece on climate change shown 9-17-2012 on The News Hour.
Spencer Michels himself used the term, “climate change believers,” not one of his interviewees. Given the common meaning of the word believer, as faith-based rather than fact-based, Michels has revealed a bias of his own. He stepped beyond the ‘balance’ convention of counterpoint interviews.

Michels gave a lot of airtime to a blogger, Watts, whose assertions have been disproved, without Michels bringing forward the facts that discredit Watts.

Michels routinely reports from San Francisco, and claims to “hooked on California’s water” (“California Water: Old Song, New Lyrics” PBS News Hour, August 2, 2012). He neglected and still neglects to mention that the California Department of Water Resources predicts that the snow pack that supplies San Francisco is expected to decline by 25% by 2050.

He is failing to keep up with the information base on the most influential news story of our time. Climate change affects food and water, affects economies, and affects governments.  The Pentagon has already identified climate change as a security threat.

It is overdue for Michels to retire from PBS. 

Also, for your own sakes, get a better researcher on climate change on the News Hour staff, one who can understand scientific abstracts as well as policy statements.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Climate Change Tree Atlas may offer some clues for gardens

The US Forest Service has developed an interactive Climate Change Tree Atlas that meshes climate-change models with the needs of tree species.

Because foresters and arborists wait multiple years for a harvest (oh the lovely thoughts of fruit and nuts, and maple syrup, as well as wood products)  the USFS model has a longer time frame than  USDA Plant Hardiness Zone Map.

It seems boggling to imagine doing for garden vegetables what the USFS did for trees, but I can dream.

Saturday, September 15, 2012


I take asphalt for granted, most of the time.

Summer is the season for road work, when asphalt gets ripped up and replaced. Following the detours prompts a slight awareness that roads in upstate New York are not at all like stone Roman roads. Roman roads were and are obviously bumpy, but capable of function for centuries with little maintenance.  New York asphalt roads have the winter disease of pothole-making as well as the unnamed summer disease where the asphalt softens up and ripples downhill in slow motion. The New York asphalt roads don't live as long as as a stone Roman road. But I hardly think of that factor in the usual course of errands in a car.

What gives a yet greater pause for awareness are parking lots, vast parking lots. Each has been created from those molecules of crude oil that are too branched or long-chain to be convenient for combustion or making plastics. The sheer volume of parking lots is a piece of evidence of how much petroleum has been drawn from the earth.  The roads I see only a bit at a time, but the dimensions of a big-box store parking lot gets to me.  I have to wonder how many people are like me, casting a fleeting glimpse at the vastness of the parking lot before ducking into the more manageable almost cosy dimensions of a car interior.

As the world consumes more difficult deposits of petroleum, the cost of new asphalt mix has jumped. This is somewhat counter-intuitive, as the bitumen from tar sands is dense like asphalt.

I hope to update this post over time as I find more statistics about asphalt, and explore the consequences to earth covered by asphalt.  How do street trees get enough air and water to their roots when only a little neck of open soil is left around their trunks?  The rest of their root system is largely under concrete or asphalt.

Monday, September 10, 2012


Part of the journalist’s challenge is getting to know her or his readership to develop the sense of “we,” as we face a crisis together.
One of the best pieces of advice that came out of Y2K was to make peace with our neighbors, because not a one of us has all the tools of survival.
We can face this.
Fear preys on those who feel they are alone.

I also posted this at Climate Progess.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Don't get your hopes up for a Heinrich event

In Heinrich events, glacier-bergs carried sediment and fresh water out to sea. In melting, the bergs left detritus on the ocean floor and the fresh water altered the thermohaline circulation for thousands of years, knocking down global temperature by as much as 2C on average.  The two most recent Heinrich events were 14,000 ybp and 8,200 ybp.  As global warming proceeds, people watch Greenland and Antarctica and wonder if it could happen again.

NOAA Paleoclimatology Program page on Heinrich and Dansgaard-Oeschger events:

 The 2C estimate is from Elsa Cortijo et al (1997)  "Changes in sea surface hydrology associated with Heinrich event 4 in the North Atlantic Ocean between 40° and 60°N"

A blog post from Spike this weekend at Climate Progress quotes a sciencedaily on ice saddle melt that is associated with abrupt shifts in thermohaline circulation. Backtracking to the original Grigoire et al. abstract, the authors estimated saddle-melt between domes of continental glaciers was in the order of "nine metres of sea level rise over 500 years."

From the abstract we might infer that the authors only estimated added ocean volume due to continental surface melt, without further addition of volume to include ocean thermal expansion due to the natural warming at that time. But they might have.  In our present circumstances, the ice saddles of both Antarctica and Greenland should be of interest.

In my observation, increased climate instability is knocking down agriculture long before a Heinrich event could be expected to kick the earth's temperature back down a few degrees.

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Stitch in Time before Solar Flares Zap Nine?

The solar cycle is due to peak in 2013, and with it brings the greater likelihood of electromagnetic pulses (EMP) from the sun, and their geomagnetic consequences.

Given the great dependence on electricity for communications and control systems, I'm wondering what the odds are of a multi-month blackout.
Suppose North America was brought to a halt, electrically speaking, while Asia went unscathed. Or vice versa.
Nearly everything depends on something electric. 

In the UK a government adviser is urging a 'hardening' of electrical systems, particularly the UK's National Grid.  Seems like a good Stitch in Time, Saves Nine.  Wonder who is listening. 

National Grid in the UK is also running the grid in upstate New York and parts of Massachusetts and Rhode Island, so this is of more than passing personal interest to some in the US.

The challenge of subterranean fires

Russian subterranean fires have been burning at roughly the same latitude as Poland, UK and southern Canada; they are mid-latitude organic soil fires, not Arctic.
Further south, in US this year the Duck Lake fire in Michigan and the Muskego muck fire near Bucyrus, Ohio have both been partly subterranean fires.
In the Muskego fire, "The fire was most likely caused by spontaneous combustion. As peat moss decomposes, it heats up. It was so hot and dry that it caught fire, Canterbury said." (Bucyrus Telegram Forum)

Drying out organic soils is a fire hazard.

More from Bucyrus:
"Two other options for extinguishing the fire -- flooding the field or digging the fire up -- are not feasible because of the conditions of the ground and the lack of water sources available.
There isn't a big enough water source close to the area to flood the field, and because the ground is unstable, almost quicksand-like, trucks would be in danger of getting stuck. With ground temperatures anywhere from 200 to 400 degrees, digging up the fire is out of the question as well."

From Newberry, Michigan:
"When underground organic mass such as swamp peat (a heavy turf of decayed vegetation and moss) catches fire, said Chingwa, "it doesn't even look like it's burning. It just looks like dry leaves, but it's extremely hot. And it can move across large areas without you even knowing it.”  Benjamin Reeves, IBT