Water For a Dry Southwest

For generations the Colorado River has supplied water to homes, farms, and industry in Arizona, California, Colorado, Utah, Nevada, New Mexico, and Texas. Now a 14-year drought, climate change, a growing population, and overuse are drying up the Colorado. The water levels in Lake Powell, the reservoir behind the Glen Canyon dam on the upper Colorado, and Lake Mead, the reservoir behind Hoover dam on the lower Colorado, have dropped to all time lows.

In California, the snowpack in the Sierra Nevada was 10% of normal in the winter of 2013-14. Water deliveries to farmers in the San Joaquin Valley, where 65% of the nation’s fruits and nuts are grown, were drastically reduced. Ground water supplies are also declining due to over-pumping. Water shortages are threatening to curtail the region’s $44 billion annual agricultural production.  

Water use restrictions have been imposed throughout the region, but even the strictest rationing can’t make up for the enormous loss of basic water supply. A number of ideas have been proposed for supplying additional water to the parched Southwest. Some appear less practical than others, but all are receiving new consideration.

Alaska to California Pipeline. In the 1990s, the then-governor of Alaska proposed construction of a 2,000 mile (3,218km) undersea pipeline from river sources in southern Alaska to the Shasta reservoir in Northern California. The congressional Office of Technical Assessment estimated the cost of construction at $150 billion in 1990 dollars. Most experts consider the plan unfeasible due to cost and engineering challenges.

Missouri River Pipeline. A proposal to run a 600 mile (965km) pipeline from the Missouri River to Denver has been considered by Interior’s Bureau of Reclamation. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar at the time of the proposal opposed the idea due to high construction cost, to keeping water levels on the Missouri and Mississippi high enough for navigation, and because of political opposition from environmental groups.

Converted Oil Tankers. Single-hulled oil tankers were mothballed when new laws mandated double-hulled vessels for transporting oil in 1993. A proposal to sanitize the tanks on the single-hulled tankers and use them for transporting water from Alaska to California has been floated, so to speak. The expense of bringing the ships out of mothballs, sandblasting the tanks; and fuel, crew, and maintenance costs would make it impractical to deliver fresh water by this method at an affordable price, according to those who have studied the idea.

Giant waterbags. A California company is building flexible fabric barges designed to carry more than a million US gallons of fresh water. Since fresh water is lighter than salt water, these huge waterbags will float when full, and a train of 4 or 5 of them can be towed by a vessel the size of a tug. They are built to withstand almost any weather. A train of such bags can deliver 4 to 5 million gallons of water at a cost lower than water delivered by pipeline or aqueduct, according to the builders. The bags have been used for delivering water successfully from Turkey to points in the Mediterranean, but have not yet been used on the US west coast.

Desalination. This process uses large amounts of fuel to pump seawater through filters to extract the salt. However, several of the US national labs have been researching ways to make desalination more efficient and cost effective. Fresh water supplied by the Israeli-designed plant under construction near San Diego will cost about twice as much as water from the California Aqueduct, but supplies of aqueduct water are being cut back.

The three most practical approaches at this time seem to be more efficient desalination, towing waterbags from surplus-water areas to places that need the water, or living with water rationing. People living in drought areas will have to decide.   

 

 

Crazy Weather & Global Warming

In the first 6 weeks of 2014, the world spawned some of the most severe weather in hundreds of years, including record snowfall in the Midwest and Great Lakes, record cold in the US northeast, ice storms in the southeast, record drought in the southwest, record flooding and windstorms in the UK, unseasonal warming in Scandinavia and Russia, record snowfall in the southern Alps, record flooding in Italy, and record heatwaves and wildfires in Australia, Argentina, and Brazil.

Despite the record snow, ice, and freezing temperatures in some areas, the world continued its long term upward warming trend. NOAA reported that 2013 was tied with 2003 as the warmest year on record. What’s going on?

According to a paper presented this month at a meeting of the American Assn. for the Advancement of Science in Chicago, a weakening jet stream caused by Arctic warming is a possible cause. The polar jet stream is a high-altitude air current with wind speeds of 100 to 120 mph (160 to 200kph) that acts as a weather conveyor belt. When Arctic temperatures stay cold, the jet stream blows stronger and tends to stay in place, bringing normal winter weather to North America, Europe, and Asia.

In January, 2014, the air temperature over the Arctic Ocean was 2 to 4˚C (4 to 7˚ F) higher than average, and 7 to 8˚C (13 to 14˚ F) higher than average over Greenland and Alaska. As the Arctic warms, the jet stream weakens and begins sinking south of its polar route. At the same time, Arctic sea ice is melting at a record rate, exposing more ocean to the rays of the sun. The warmer ocean water in turn accelerates Arctic warming. More rapid evaporation pumps extra moisture into the atmosphere.

A sinking jet stream carries the moisture-laden high-altitude cold Arctic air south into the Midwest and southeast, and across the Atlantic to Europe. While southern Europe is experiencing record rains and snowfall, northern Europe, normally very cold in January and February, is basking in abnormally warm temperatures. With the glaciers and polar ice caps melting at a record rate, sea ice contracting, and oceans warming, it seems obvious that global warming is here, and to some extent driving the world’s current radical weather patterns. The weather will become more radical and storms more intense as the earth gets warmer.

But what is driving global warming? The UN’s International Panel for Climate Change (IPCC) has concluded from all available scientific evidence that it is 95% likely that most of the rise in global temperature since the middle of the 20th Century is due to emissions of greenhouse gases, deforestation, and other human activities.

If greenhouse emissions continue at their present rate the IPCC computer models predict our planet will warm 5˚C (9˚ F) by 2100, and by 10˚C (18˚F) during the following century. The earth is now warmer than it has been since the end of the last ice age 11,300 years ago. If we don’t drastically reduce our carbon-based emissions and start relying more on alternative fuels, are we headed for another ice age? Or another age hot enough for dinosaurs?

 

 

 

 

 

 

Drought, Fire, & Flash Floods

In a 3-day period starting September 9, 2013, 18 inches (46cm) of rain drenched the Rocky Mountains Front Range, setting off flash floods that roared through Boulder, Lyons, Estes Park, and other Colorado foothill communities. A dozen dams overflowed and six blew out. Walls of water 20 ft. (500cm) high raced down canyons, sweeping away houses and stranding thousands of area residents. As of this writing, the flooding had taken 8 lives and destroyed 1,500 homes.

Average rainfall for the month of September in Boulder is 1.63 in. (3.45cm). So what were the conditions that caused 11 times that amount to fall in 3 days? Many scientists believe that climate change, forest fires, and the severe drought that has gripped the U.S. Southwest for 14 years all played a part.

To begin, a low-pressure center settled over the Great Basin and was held in place by a high-pressure ridge over the Pacific Northwest. The low pressure system tapped into a plume of monsoonal moisture coming up from the Pacific Ocean off Mexico. Since the low was stationary, it kept sucking in the monsoon moisture in a loop, like it was coming in on a conveyor belt. The storm dumped its deluge on the drought-dried Front Range with steep canyons running downhill from peaks exceeding 14,000 ft (4,300m).

Professor Brad Udall, director of University of Colorado’s Wilkinson Center for Natural Resources, said that while current science can’t pin any particular extreme weather event to climate change, this flooding is likely a reflection of global warming.  Scientists have warned that as the planet warms,  drought and flash flooding will become more prevalent.

According to Sandra Postel, National Geographic’s Freshwater Fellow and noted authority on water use, the drought that has parched the area and gripped the Colorado River Basin for the past 14 years may be partly to blame for the severity of the floods. She said that drought hardens the soil, and when rains do come, the ground absorbs less water and quickly runs off the land.

Postel added that fires lead to worse flooding because they remove vegetation that can slow and trap rainfall. Hundreds of acres of Front Range forest were scorched by the Fourmile Canyon fire in 2010 and the Flagstaff fire in 2012. The burn area from those fires lies directly above the communities hit by the flash floods in September, 2013.

As our climate continues to warm, this same scenario will most likely be repeated in coming years in areas all over the world. Lengthy droughts, severe wildfires, record flooding, and more intense tropical storms are all expected to be part of our future climate menu.  

Tornadoes, Asteroids, & Wildfires

Recent events keep reminding us that disasters, natural and manmade, constantly happen on our planet, and, where possible, our scientists are working on ways to better control outcomes.

32.4 million people were forced to abandon their homes in 2012 by disasters such as floods, storms, and earthquakes. The International Displacement Monitoring Centre reports that floods in India and Nigeria accounted for 41% of this total, but the United States also contributed a large percentage of displaced persons, mainly due to Superstorm Sandy that struck the U.S. East Coast in October.

Late spring is tornado season for Midwestern and southeastern U.S. On May 15, 2013, humid air flowing in from the Gulf of Mexico combined with a layer of cooler air from the Mountain West and 100° temperatures to spawn 16 tornadoes that ripped through communities southwest of Dallas, Texas. 6 people died, 100 were injured, and more than 100 homes were badly damaged, some hit so hard that all that was left was the concrete slab they were built on. One tornado was judged an E4, with wind speed clocked at 200 mph (320 km/h). On May 19, new tornadoes and hailstorms struck in Oklahoma and Kansas, killing 2 people, and causing widespread property damage. More storms are expected.

Asteroid QE2 will miss Earth by 3.6 million miles (5.8 million kilometers) when it sails by on May 31, 2013, but serves as a reminder that Near Earth Objects (NEOs) zip by us all the time. Occasionally one slips through and hits home, as did the small meteor that exploded over Russia on Feb. 15, 2013. The concussion blew out windows and injured hundreds  If another NEO does hit earth, let’s hope it’s smaller than QE2, which is 1.7 miles (2.7km) in length, or 9 times the size of the ocean liner Queen Elizabeth 2. Such a collision could be catastrophic. The QE2 designation has no relation to the cruise ship. It came up independently in NASA’s NEO numbering system.

According to a May, 2013, JPL news release, NASA will launch a robotic probe in 2016 to study one of the most hazardous of the known NEOs. NASA is also developing a project to capture and relocate an asteroid for human exploration. The mission will draw on the innovation of the brightest scientists and engineers.

Scientists from Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena and Chapman University in Orange, California, have partnered in a project using satellites to measure vegetation moisture and soil moisture in the Southern California mountains and foothills. Such measurements are now made by manually taking brush and soil samples for lab analysis. But using India’s Oceansat-2 satellite to measure soil moisture, and NASA’s Aqua Satellite to measure vegetation moisture content, the project team is able to advise local and regional fire agencies of the degree of fire risk much sooner and over a much wider area than is possible with manual measuring. 2013 has seen sparse rainfall and high temperatures in Southern California and much of the U.S. southwest, making the start of the wildfire season 2 to 3 months earlier than in the past.

A recent survey shows that 98% of the world’s scientific studies on the subject agree that burning fossil fuels is greatly accelerating the pace of global warming and the climate changes that bring more violent storms, longer droughts, more flooding, more wildfires, faster ice sheet and glacial melting, and more water and air pollution. The faster that governments, corporations, and individuals can act to speed up the transition from oil- and coal-generated power to non-polluting wind, solar, thermal, and vegetation-based power, the sooner climate change can be moderated and the better off we’ll be.

Freaky Weather and Global Warming

Superstorm Sandy — the Midwestern drought of 2012 — the February 2013 Midwestern blizzards — record flooding in China, Brazil and the Philippines — Europe’s deepest cold snap in 25 years — record drought in Africa. Are these extreme weather events of the past year isolated occurrences, or is there a connection? Recent studies support the view that increasing CO2 levels, global warming, and extreme weather are closely linked.

A study conducted in Antarctica by a team of scientists from the National Research Center of France, published in the February 28 2013 issue of the journal Science, suggests that CO2 increases in the past have triggered global warming periods that melted glaciers. The French team examined ice cores drilled in Antarctica over the past 30 years. They focused on ice from 20,000 to 10,000 years ago, the last period when the planet warmed naturally and glaciers melted. By measuring the concentration of nitrogen-15 isotopes throughout the ice cores, they found that carbon dioxide increase and global warming happened at virtually the same time – between 18,000 and 11,000 years ago. This confirms the position of most climate scientists that rising temperatures and CO2 increase are locked in a feedback loop. CO2 brings higher temperatures, and higher temperatures lead to more CO2 being released from deep oceans and melting permafrost, further increasing temperatures.

According to a new study by scientists at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research in Germany, to be published in the journal National Academy of Sciences, and summarized in the February 28, 2013 issue of the journal Science, “Global weather is normally influenced by waves of air that oscillate between Earth’s tropical and Arctic regions, alternately pulling warm air up from the tropics to northern climes, then bringing cold air down from the Arctic.” As a result of global warming, however, these waves are now getting stuck in their tracks. Instead of bringing cool air after a warming period, the heat just stays, sometimes for weeks or months. Normal warm-cold oscillation depends on a stable difference in temperature between a cold Arctic and warm tropics. But the Arctic is warming much faster than the rest of the world, narrowing the temperature difference and reducing the airflow between the two areas. The study suggests that these stalled wave formations explain the increasing number of extreme weather events, such as the prolonged Midwestern drought of 2012.

A new climate model developed by scientists at NOAA’s Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory and Princeton University predicts that rising CO2 levels over the next century will bring a dramatic decline in snowfall for the continental United States. Carbon dioxide content in the air has increased 40% since the mid-19th century and could double by the end of the century. The model suggests that as CO2 levels rise and global temperatures increase, less snow will fall in temperate regions. This spells trouble for areas such as the western U.S. that depend on snowmelt for fresh water. In North America, the greatest snowfall reductions will occur in the northeast, the mountains of the west, and coastal regions from Virginia to Maine. These areas are projected to get less than half the snow they currently receive. In very cold regions of the globe, however, snowfall will rise. As Arctic air warms, it holds more moisture, leading to increased precipitation in the form of snow. The Arctic, Antarctic, and the high peaks of the Himalayas, the Andes, and the Yukon will get much more snow. In other words, the unpopulated remote areas of the world will get more rain and snow, while the heavily populated regions will see less precipitation and more drought.

With the world facing this kind of climate future, it appears more urgent than ever to try forestalling it by cutting way back on CO2 emissions. That means replacing fossil fuel energy with solar, wind, and other alternative energy sources as quickly as possible. But if we shrug our shoulders and keep on burning fossil fuels, there’s every reason to believe the conditions predicted by this research will come to pass: a world with higher temperatures, less rain, less snow, more air pollution, more drought, and the occasional violent weather event thrown in. It seems worth the effort to do everything we can to hold it off.

 

2012 Natural Disaster Review

Natural disasters resulting in death and damage in 2012 included earthquakes in Iran, floods in Romania, typhoons in the Philippines, avalanches in Afghanistan, flash floods in India, earthquakes and landslides in China, and drought and hurricanes in the United States.

2012 was the warmest year on record In the continental U.S. according to a January 8, 2013, report issued by NOAA’s National Climatic Data Center. Average nationwide temperature in 2012 was 55.3°F (13°C), 3.2°F above the 20th Century average. The average U.S. temperature in July was the hottest ever recorded in a single month.  61% of the U.S. experienced drought conditions in 2012. Wildfires in Western U.S. charred 9.2 million acres.

In a report released by Munich Re, the world’s largest reinsurer, 9.500 people died in natural disasters in 2012, slightly below the 10-year average of 106,000. Natural disasters caused estimated overall losses of $160 billion, and $65 billion in insured losses. However Munich Re’s overall loss figure may be too low. Based on a December 21, 2012, article in The Guardian, loss estimates for Hurricane Sandy alone approach $100 billion, and Midwestern drought losses could be as much or more.

Figures released by NOAA on December 20, 2012, report that in 2012 there were 11 weather and climate events in the U.S. that reached the billion-dollar threshold in losses. Total losses could exceed $200 billion.

Weather and climate related insurance losses have doubled every decade since the 1980s. The insurance industry believes it will save money in the future by investing today in global warming education and ways to reduce the impact of natural disasters. A study published in the December 13, 2012, issue of the journal Science states that the insurance industry is investing $23 billion in emissions-related technologies and climate change mitigation. 129 insurance firms from 29 countries are supporting a program of climate research, reducing greenhouse gas emissions, raising public awareness of the emissions threat, and incorporating climate change into investment decisions.

A draft of the 2013 Climate Assessment Report compiled by a panel of 240 scientists for a federal advisory committee has been released for peer review. The report says the evidence tells an unambiguous story: the planet is warming. It predicts the impact of global warming on the nation’s health and infrastructure will be severe. Among the panel’s findings: U.S. average temperature has increased 1.5°F since 1895, 1.2° of that increase occurring since 1980; the next few decades are projected to see another 2 to 4° temperature rise; global sea level has risen 8 inches (20.32cm) in the past 100 years and is projected to rise another 2 to 4 ft this century; ocean surface waters have become 30% more acidic as they absorb large amounts of CO2 from the atmosphere, threatening the survival of coral and shellfish.

With no limits or controls imposed by the international community on CO2 emissions from the burning of fossil fuels, there is little doubt that the rapid pace of global warming will continue, bringing with it hotter weather, longer droughts, heavier storms, accelerated polar ice melt, rising sea levels, coastal flooding, acidic oceans, compromised fisheries, unhealthy air, and erratic rainfall. That appears to be our future unless there is a major worldwide effort to reduce CO2 emissions by replacing a big part of carbon-based energy with green energy.

Landsat: Mapping a Changing Earth

Orbiting NASA satellites Landsat 5 and Landsat 7 record images of earth’s surface 24 hours a day, every day of the year. The collected data is sent to a ground station where it is processed and reorganized into color maps and released to the public on the internet. Landsat 5 was launched 29 years ago, and is finally being retired and returned to earth due to a failing gyroscope. Landsat 7 placed in orbit in 1999 is still flying and still sending back earth surface image data. It will be joined by state-of-the-art Landsat 8 to be launched in February, 2013.

How high and how fast? The Landsat satellites orbit at an altitude of 440 miles (705km). They make one complete orbit every 99 minutes, flying north-south around earth’s two poles. They record images in strips 115 miles (185km) wide as the earth rotates beneath it. The satellites make a complete coverage of the earth every 16 days. Five passes cover the entire United States, from Maine to California, and Alaska to Hawaii.

How does Landsat see? The Landsats use digital scanning  devices that map the earth in amazing detail. To quote NASA, “Landsat sensors record reflected and emitted energy from earth in various wavelengths and electromagnetic spectrum.” The sensors record earth’s energy in blue, green, and red in the visible spectrum.  For example, Landsat 5 recorded a picture of Arizona’s Wallow fire in 2011, showing burn scars in red, active fire in bright red, smoke in blue, vegetation in green, bare ground in tan, and water in dark blue. This real-time information can help fire crews identify hot spots and more efficiently deploy resources.

What does Landsat see? According to NASA, Landsat data have been used to monitor water quality, glacier and ice sheet recession, sea ice movement, invasive species encroachment, coral reef health, land use change, deforestation rates, and population growth.  Landsat has also been used to track the progress of hurricanes, and helped to assess damage from storms, fires, floods, and tsunamis. Since Landsat 1 was launched in 1972, the Landsat program has given us a 40-year record of the effects of a changing climate, tracking the progress of melting ice caps, rising sea levels, disappearing islands, eroding coastlines, and high-altitude forest changes.

Who uses Landsat mapping? Farmers use Landsat to project crop yields. Landsat data was used to assess the total yield of the Soviet wheat crop in 1979 before the harvest. The forecast came within 90% of the official figures released months later. World bodies such as the UN, and national and local governments, use Landsat data to forecast future change, and plan mitigation measures against natural disasters. Businesses use Landsat to plan future production and distribution based on population growth and relocation. Universities and national labs use Landsat data in research projects. Ecological groups use Landsat to monitor CO2 emissions, harmful chemicals in the air and water, plant and animal survival and migration, and deforestation.

Between 2003 and 2009, Landsat recorded an amazing amount of rainforest destruction in Peru. 12,500 acres (5,058 hectares) of forest were destroyed during that period. When officials investigated, they found that unlicensed miners were rushing into this area to mine for gold. They were not only clearing and defacing the land, but bringing mercury to the mining sites to extract gold from the rocks. The mercury was seeping into the water table, and dangerous amounts of mercury vapors were filling the air. International groups have been working with the Peruvian government to correct the problem.

The Landsat program is a joint venture between NASA and the U.S. Geological Survey. NASA flies the satellites, and USGS processes the data and releases it to the public in mapping form.   

 

 

Are We Slowing Global Warming?

Are measures such as making cars more fuel efficient, recycling waste, producing wind and solar energy, and other green practices helping in the fight against global warming? It’s probably too early to tell for sure, but there are some encouraging developments, and some not so encouraging.

On the plus side, a study published in the August 23, 2012, issue of the journal Nature indicates that the amount of atmospheric methane, a greenhouse gas far more potent than CO2, has leveled off after climbing for the first 80 years of the 20th Century. It is believed that the main reason for this is the recapture of escaping natural gas that occurs during oil production.

Up until the 1980s, the petroleum industry vented or flared the natural gas that comes out of the ground with the oil during drilling. Natural gas is composed of 90% methane, and millions of tons of it were pouring directly into the atmosphere. By trapping the natural gas and using it to speed up well production and run machinery, the oil industry is reducing air pollution and operating more efficiently in the bargain.

Improved agricultural practices such as producing high-yield crops, and setting aside unused acreage for grassland and forest, have also served to reduce methane release into the air.

In another positive development, the U.S. Dept. of Energy released a report showing that in the first 4 months of 2012, CO2 emissions in the United States fell back to 1992 levels, a 20-year low. Conversion of hundreds of power plants from coal to natural gas was given as the primary reason.

On the minus side, although CO2 and methane emissions are going down in the U.S., they keep climbing in China and other developing countries, where coal is still used almost exclusively for producing power and running factories. China, the world’s top CO2 emitter, now sends 30% more CO2 into the atmosphere than the U.S.

Despite the progress in the U.S. in reducing greenhouse gasses, the parts per million of CO2 in the planet’s atmosphere keeps climbing. The latest 2012 reading from the Mauna Loa Observatory is 392 ppm, a historic high, and moving us closer to the 400 ppm mark that some scientists believe will be the tipping point toward an ice-free and much hotter world. Will the green efforts in the developed world prove to be too little, too late, or will the developing countries follow suit soon enough to help slow down the impact of global warming? Time will tell.

 

 

An Ice-Free Arctic Ocean?

Arctic sea ice is melting at a record rate, according to figures released by the National Snow & Ice Data Center in Colorado Springs. On August 13, 2012, the extent of sea ice in the Arctic Ocean had fallen 2.69 square kilometers (1.97 million square miles) below the 1979-2000 average for the same date, and 483,000 sq. km (186,000 sq. mi) below the same date in 2007, the previous record low year. The data was supplied by the European Space Agency’s radar-equipped satellite Cryoset, launched in 2010 to monitor changes in the thickness of arctic sea ice.  Measurements from overflying aircraft and sonar buoys confirm the Cryoset figures.

With two weeks still to go in the arctic melt season, NASA scientists believe that arctic sea ice will drop to its lowest point ever recorded. Computer models developed by scientists at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center project an ice-free Arctic Ocean during the summer months by 2035. According to the model, Arctic ice will become seasonal, allowing ships to sail the fabled Northwest Passage “over the top of the world” for a good part of the year. Some Chinese container ships have already started using the shortened route to ship goods directly to Europe and U.S. East Coast ports.

Not only are the boundaries of the Arctic ice cap shrinking, but the ice is thinning in some areas. In the past decade alone, sea ice thickness north of Greenland has fallen 65%, from 5 to 6 meters (16 to 20 ft) to 2 meters (6.6 feet).

As the Arctic ice melts faster, and the fall freeze continues to start later, there will be less ice to reflect the sun’s rays back into space, which allows the sun to heat the Arctic Ocean water. A warmer Arctic Ocean will contribute to sea level rise and warmer oceans worldwide, and overall global warming. Aquatic  wildlife species that depend on sea ice and colder water will disappear. Humans will have to adjust to rising ocean levels around the world, plus a warmer climate  with longer, hotter droughts and more destructive floods and storms.

Earlier Spring Threatens Species’ Survival

The warming of the planet has advanced the date when plants leaf and flower in the spring by up to 6 days in some locations, creating a potential mismatch between the hatching of butterflies, bees, and other animals, and the availability of the food sources they depend on. If  these conditions prevail in the future, some species could suffer great population loss, or even disappear altogether.

An example is a species of Rocky Mountain butterfly, which has been studied by biologist Carol Boggs of Stanford for the last 40 years. The earlier flowering of a variety of alpine wildflower that the butterfly depends on puts the plant at greater risk of frost damage, which can leave the butterfly without the food it needs to sustain it, endangering the species’ population.

Most of us think of the first day of spring as March 20, the vernal equinox, the day when daylight and darkness are equal in length. But to phenologists — scientists who study the life cycle of plants and animals — the first day of spring is the first day that leaves appear on plants.

According to studies conducted by Dr. Mark D. Schwartz of the University of Wisconsin, “first leaf” spring in the contiguous 48 U.S. states is now appearing an average of 3 days earlier than in the recent past: going from March 20 (1950-1980 average) to March 17 (1981-2000 average).

The difference ranges from 5-6 days early in northern states where winters are colder, to 1-2 days early in California, Texas, and some southeastern states where winter weather is more moderate.

A study by Elizabeth Wolkovich of UC San Diego and Benjamin Cook of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center arrives at a similar conclusion. They compared an archive of worldwide long-term observations of 1,158 species of wild plants on four continents with results of their plant warming experiment. They varied the temperature around small plots of plants to gauge how these plants responded to higher temperatures. However, an analysis of historical records showed that leafing and flowering advanced even more than indicated by their laboratory experiments. The archives show an average of 5-6 days per degree of Celsius increase in temperature, which corresponds with the approximate average global surface temperature increase since 1900.

As planet earth gets warmer, more and more plant and animal populations will be under increased stress. Some will adapt, some will collapse and disappear. Whatever we can do to slow the progress of global warming will give these threatened species more time to adapt to the new conditions, and prevent their vanishing completely.

Climate Change Speeding Up

Three recent studies indicate that climate change is here to stay, it is accelerating, and it will bring major ecological changes to our world.

Global emissions of carbon dioxide rose 5.9% in 2010, the largest year-to-year jump since the industrial revolution began more than 200 years ago. This information is based on a study released in December, 2011, by the Global Carbon Project, an international collaboration of scientists tracking trends in this field. The burning of coal represented more than half of the annual emissions. In 2010, the combustion of fossil fuels (coal and oil) sent 9 billion tons of carbon into earth’s atmosphere.

The United States, which for years produced more CO2 than any other country, now falls into second place behind China, although the U.S. still leads in per capita emissions. In 2010, total carbon emissions in the U.S. were 1.5 billion tons, while China pumped 2.2 billion tons into the air. Developing countries including China and India now account for 57% of all carbon emissions. The study concludes that this trend of ever-rising carbon emissions will make it difficult if not impossible to hold back severe climate change in coming decades.

What are some of the immediate and long-term effects of this trend?

 A December,2011, report based on a climate change computer model developed by researchers at NASA’s JPL and Caltech in Pasadena indicates that by the end of the 21st Century, “… global climate change will modify plant communities covering almost half the earth’s surface.” As earth’s climate warms, animal and plant species in temperate zones will migrate toward the polar regions or to higher elevations. These migrations will pit the migrating species against the species already inhabiting the cooler zones for survival.  Many presently existing species will disappear.

As the report states, “The model projections paint a portrait of increasing ecological change and stress in earth’s biosphere, with many plant and animal species facing increasing competition for survival … Most of earth’s land that is not covered by ice or desert is expected to undergo at least a 30% change in plant cover – changes that will require humans and animals to adapt and often relocate.”

Some areas of the world will change more than others. Among the areas projected to undergo the greatest degree of change are regions of the Himalayas and Tibetan Plateau, equatorial east Africa, Madagascar, the Mediterranean, southern South America, and the Great Lakes and Great Plains areas of North America. To quote the report, “The largest areas of ecological sensitivity and biome changes are found in areas with the most dramatic climate change.” This will be particularly true in North America high altitudes and along the borders of northern forests.

The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Fourth Assessment Report, which was used in the NASA simulation, projects greenhouse gas levels will double, and global temperature will increase 3.6 to 7.2°F (2 to 4°C) by 2100, the same temperature range of warming that occurred following the last Glacial Maximum nearly 20,000 years ago, but 100 times faster. The report paints a picture of a much warmer planet with wet areas being much wetter, and dry areas being much drier.

One sign of things to come is the amazing amount of ice melt being experienced in Greenland, most of which lies within the Arctic Circle. A team of scientists from Ohio State University reported that a network of 50 GPS stations shows that Greenland is rising as the ice sheets that covered this land mass for thousands of years continue to melt at a surprisingly rapid rate. It is estimated that in the year 2010 alone, Greenland lost 100 billion tons of ice through rapid melting. Some areas of southern Greenland rose more than 2 inches (6cm) as the weight of the ice decreased. The rapid ice melt water flows into the ocean, contributing to the rise in sea levels and posing a growing threat to coastal communities and low-lying islands around the world.

There seems to be agreement among leading scientists that human activity is speeding up the natural global warming cycle. To quote the NASA report, “The 2010 emissions increase solidified a trend of ever-rising emissions that scientists fear will make it difficult, if not impossible, to forestall severe climate change in coming decades.” The United Nations Conference on Climate Change in Durban, South Africa, in early December, 2011, attended by representatives of 190 nations, produced a ray of light in the battle to slow the pace of carbon emissions. For the first time, China, India, and the United States agreed to abide by a new emissions reduction treaty to be worked out and signed by 2015, and to go into effect by 2020. Let’s hope the amount of emissions cutback eventually agreed on will be enough to make a difference. Time will tell.