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by Bob Schober
A scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.
Max Planck, physicist
“I’m not a big believer in man-made climate change.” Donald Trump, 3/3/2016
“Global warming is a total, and very expensive, hoax.” Donald Trump, 12/6/2013
In 1958, Charles David Keeling began collecting data on carbon dioxide (CO2) concentrations in the atmosphere from atop the Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii. Keeling, of the Scripps Institute of Oceanography, became the leading authority in establishing the global atmospheric record of CO2.
What he found over decades of measurements shed new light on the carbon cycle and the effects of human exploitation of fossil fuels.
Scientists in prior decades had theorized that increasing CO2 emissions from coal, oil and gas combustion might lead to global temperature rises based on the greenhouse effect. Keeling’s data, comparing the amount of carbon dioxide accumulating in the atmosphere against the estimated amounts released by the burning of fossil fuels, revealed that about 55 percent remained in the atmosphere, with the remainder dissolved in oceans, absorbed by trees and plants or stored in soil.
He translated his measurements into a graphic that became known as the “Keeling Curve,” which plots ongoing changes in carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere over time. The curve arcs sharply upward to the present.
NASA’s website includes a section on worldwide climate change with concentrations of carbon dioxide determined by ice cores plotted over 400,000 years and three glacial periods (climate.nasa.gov). The graph of CO2 hops up and down between 180 parts per million (ppm) to 300 ppm. What is most striking is the trend line from 1950: then about 280 ppm, it shoots straight up like a rocket to the most recent measurement of 405.61 ppm in February 2017. In 2006, the measurement was 381 ppm.
The United States has made progress in slowing its CO2 growth, largely due to President Obama’s climate initiatives, initiated often by executive order due to Republican intransigence and denial of the problem. In 2015, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, overall greenhouse gas emissions in the United States were 11.5 percent below 2005 levels. Carbon emissions decreased by 2.3 percent from 2014 to 2015, driven largely by the power sector converting to natural gas from coal and warmer winter temperatures reducing power demand, according to its “Inventory of U.S. Greenhouse Gas Emissions and Sink, 2017 Complete Report.”
Trump seems willing to sacrifice that trend with phantom notions to resurrect coal jobs and deregulate the energy sector. In March, he signed an executive order requiring the EPA to review the Obama-era Clean Power Plan, intended to lower carbon emissions in the nation’s power sector; rescinding the moratorium on coal mining on federal public lands; and urging all federal agencies to identify rules and policies that impede American energy independence.
EPA’s new director, Scott Pruitt, has said the Paris Climate Agreement is “a bad deal.”
Pacific Northwest Impacts
So, despite Trump administration denials of a problem, what does climate change mean for all of us here in Whatcom County? No studies are specific to this county, and the University of Washington’s College of the Environment published its Climate Impacts Group Report “State of Knowledge: Climate Change in Puget Sound” in November 2015 that focuses on the entire region. The Skagit Climate Science Consortium is compiling data for that area.
Here are some regional projections from the U.W. report:
1. Winter precipitation will fall more as rain due to shorter winters causing less snowpack — 23 percent less than the average for 1970-1999 — and earlier spring stream flows and drier summers. Rising temperature is the culprit — winter freezing levels have risen 650 feet between 1959 and 2012 in Skagit County, according to the Skagit Climate Science Consortium. Freezing level changes in Whatcom County can be found on the North American Freezing Level Tracker website. The site shows graphed data, but the trend is clear: freezing levels at rising altitude over time.
2. Heavier rain storms will increase in frequency by 22 per cent and intensity, leading to increased flooding in all regional watersheds, including in winter. Skagit County is particularly vulnerable.
3. Puget Sound ocean acidification will increase due to rising accumulation of CO2 in the atmosphere causing stress to crustaceans and other marine life.
4. Seattle’s sea level has risen more than 6 inches in the last century, and Seattle Public Utilities projects that rate of rise will accelerate to about 7 inches by 2050 and 24 inches by 2100, based on certain climate change model assumptions.
Bellingham will witness similar sea level rises. Climate Central (climatecentral.org) provides map projections for coastal cities across the country, Bellingham included. Its projections are based on two temperature increase scenarios of 2 degrees and 4 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit and 7.2 degrees Fahrenheit, respectively). If the greater of the two, the entire waterfront including Roeder Avenue and the railroad tracks will see white caps, and in downtown, Holly Street to Dupont Avenue along the Padden Creek waterway will go under water as well as will blocks along Squalicum Creek to Squalicum Creek Park.
5. Warming temperatures will lengthen the growing season, and increased carbon dioxide could increase certain crop production. But the lengthened season may bring more pests and pathogens requiring more pesticide use, which could pollute groundwater and streams.
6. Warming temperatures will reduce the “chilling period,” defined as winter periods with lower temperatures necessary for fruiting and flowering. “Extended periods between 32 degrees F. and 45 degrees F. are ideal for raspberry chilling,” according to the report.
7. That said, agriculture in west of the Cascades will likely be less vulnerable than in central and eastern Washington, although some local farms may need to switch crops, which can cost money: Grapes and apple trees take years to mature.
8. Some coastal regions including San Juan and Island counties have already experienced saltwater intrusion into groundwater as the result of rising sea levels. This issue will affect the Swinomish Reservation in Skagit County, over which sea level rise could inundate more than 1,100 acres of reservation land, and could slow drainage of cropland elsewhere in the county.
The effects of climate change on the Nooksack Indian Tribe located near Deming, studied and published in 2013 as part of “Climate Change and Indigenous Peoples in the United States,” are considerable. The headwaters of the Nooksack River originate in glaciers on Mt. Baker, and glacial melt is key to nurturing spring Chinook salmonids and maintaining adequate summer stream flows.
“Climate change has caused and will continue to cause [in the Nooksack River] an increase in winter flows, earlier snowmelt, decrease in summer baseflows, and an increase in water temperatures that exceed the tolerance levels, and in some cases lethal levels, of several Pacific salmonid species,” the report stated. It went on to estimate, despite no direct counts being available, that “native salmonid are less than 8 percent of the runs in the late 1800s” and all nine species “will be adversely affected.”
Science Answers Skeptics
The following issues are often raised by those who question human impact of global warming and are answered by the science (thanks to skepticalscience.com):
1. There is no true consensus on the issue. The Oregon Institute of Science and Medicine (OSIM) Petition Project, conducted in 1998 urging the government not to participate in the Kyoto Accords, and in 2007, features 31,000 scientists stating there is no convincing scientific evidence of human causation or that burning fossil fuels will cause catastrophic global warming.
You’ve heard it before – there is a 97 percent agreement in the scientific community that human-caused activity is causing global warming. That figure is based on several studies of more than 900 peer-reviewed articles by climate scientists, and their conclusions: skeptics often include general scientists in their mix and consider non-response to surveys as nos. The greater the expertise on climate science, the higher the percentage, i.e. 97 percent.
2. Scientists can’t even predict the weather next week, so how can they predict the climate years from now?
First, weather and climate are not the same. Weather is local and unpredictable, and climate is the sum of weather averages and trend lines. Multiple scientific articles agree that climate models are not exact – for example, the pace of Arctic ice melting far surpasses original modeling. But the models make predictions which observation confirms. For example, ground temperatures have been recorded from the 1800s, and no model currently exists that can answer recent warming without factoring in rising carbon dioxide levels. The year 2016 was the hottest on record, exceeding 2015 and 2014 which, respectively, were the previous hottest years.
A lower estimate rise of 2 degrees C. in this century will raise the global mean temperature not seen in 3 million years. A more than 4 degree C. increase will push the planet back to its ice-free past of about 35 million years ago. Again, the NASA climate graph tells the tale.
3. It’s the sun – over the past 100 years, sunspots have increased as the earth and warmed, thus solar activity is what’s causing it.
Solar studies show, however, that the sun’s energy fluctuates on an 11-year cycle by about 0.1 percent, and the sun has been in a cooling trend for about 35 years. If the sun were the culprit, average worldwide temperatures would have dropped over that period. But measurements taken by NASA show average global temperatures have steadily increased.
4. “Animals, corals trees, birds, mammals and butterflies are adapting well to the routine reality of changing climate,” according to a September 2007 report by Global Research of the Hudson Institute.
Due to human population growth and activity, 60 percent of the world’s ecosystems are now degraded, and the extinction rate is 100 to 1,000 times higher than the “background” rate of long spans of geologic time, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Assessment Reports. Global warming will further impact remaining populations, as it has throughout geologic time. There are some estimates that climate change will bring 18-35 percent of plant and animal species to near extinction by 2050.
Today’s climate change compares with the Earth’s greatest mass extinction, according to a 2014 study by the Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, in partnership with the Chinese Academy of Sciences. The Permian Mass Extinction occurred 251.9 million years ago when 90 percent of species died out — worse than the meteorite event that wiped out the dinosaurs.
The key issue is to note that carbon dioxide and climate have danced together through geologic time but the rhythm of change was slow enough — tens or hundreds of thousands of years — for animals and plants to adapt and oceans and land to absorb the excess. But rapid carbon emission, from the massive volcanic activity in Siberia linked to the Permian extinction or the current expansion of burning of fossil fuels, overwhelms these systems. Thus, oceans, huge sponges of carbon, are warming and becoming acidified and threatening sea life, especially crustaceans. It was recently reported that two-thirds of the Great Barrier Reef is experiencing bleaching, and 900 miles of the reef has been devastated. Coral reefs, the nurseries of about one-quarter of all marine species, are under threat worldwide, according to the United Nation’s Coral Reef Unit.
There is some research showing that some species can adapt, even evolve genetically, much more quickly to accommodate the warming. The National Geographic reported in May 2014 that quino checkerspot butterflies shifted to higher altitude ranges to avoid the Los Angeles area. Trees are marching northward in this country and Europe, and armadillos invaded North Carolina from the south. A Science article of April 24, 2014, stated research that some corals seem able to adapt quickly to much warmer sea water. Pink salmon in Auke Creek, Alaska, are now migrating earlier to the ocean because of rising stream water temperatures, and the change has become genetic.
In face of this onslaught of research and fact, what do our political leaders recommend? Clare Fogelsong, Natural Resources policy manager for Bellingham Public Works, sent this vague email in response to my question about the city’s plans around these issues:
“The city of Bellingham’s response has been to identify potential impacts that would result from a changing climate, and to consider those impacts in areas such as waterfront redevelopment and utility planning.”
Trump and Pruitt’s policies are out there for all to see, and the rest of us who worry about an existential threat to most life, and ours too, simply must support the climate scientists and their research, talk the facts not make believe, and push back hard. It’s our children’s and grandchildren’s quality of life at stake.