The last few years have been unusual and challenging and I have not been posting to this blog. I have decided it is time to change that. The pandemic seemed to confirm that we are detrimental to the environment, but also that we can change that. For example, air quality change is possible if we can figure out a way to commute less. It is as important as ever to be aware of how we impact the environment and how we might be able to do better. But that is not what I want to talk about today. I have something specific on my mind.
I just got back from a conference on the Great Salt Lake in Utah. I received my Master of Science and started a new job during the pandemic. I am now a laboratory technician at the University of Notre Dame, spending most of my time researching the Great Salt Lake (GSL). I had the opportunity to go to a conference put on by Friends of Great Salt Lake, where my boss was one of the keynote speakers. It was unlike any conference I had been to. There were talks on ecology (what I study), birds, salinity, but also talks about bills that had recently been passed in the Utah legislature. Water rights in the western U.S. are complicated, and I don’t completely understand them, but they affect the amount of water that flows into GSL. There has been a decrease in snowpack in the mountains that feed the rivers that flow into the lake. And most of the water in those rivers is diverted for city or agricultural use.
GSL is a hypersaline, terminal lake, meaning it is significantly saltier than the ocean and no water flows out of it. Its ecology is relatively simple because only a few species can survive at its salt levels. It is important to migratory birds and to the economy of Salt Lake City. Last year it reached a historic low water level and it is expected to reach an even lower mark this year. The salinity is consequently increasing. The brine shrimp and brine flies, and the algae they depend on, are in danger of decreasing such that the birds won’t have enough food. The politicians are very excited about the bills that have passed, but so far no increase in water flowing into the lake has actually happened. I am concerned that it will take some sort of obvious calamity (i.e. massive bird die-off) before enough change will happen. As several scientists said at the conference, if we can’t get more water into the lake, nothing else will matter and it will disappear.
I think everyone has heard about China’s problem with smog. There are days when people don’t go outside because it is so bad. This is one of the problems caused by the rapid industrialization and the amount of coal plants in China. It is not their only problem. They have water pollution as well and the contaminants are often very harmful to humans. LiveScience has an excellent, succinct article here: China’s Top 6 Environmental Concerns. China, of course, doesn’t want to talk about its environmental problems with outsiders and it doesn’t really like to admit problems to its own people. However, many of these problems affect the economy and that may move the government to act. Unfortunately public health problems have not.
China’s rapid industrialization has also led to an increasing deforestation and overwhelming use of all land resources including water. Having 1.3 billion people isn’t making the situation better. It is the largest emitter of greenhouse gas emissions. However, it is also now investing in renewable energies and has agreed to up their use of them and cut their reliance on coal. The Council on Foreign Relations has an excellent article on China’s relationship with environmental issues: CFR Backgrounders.
I recently attended a wonderful event at the New England Aquarium. It was co-hosted by Women Working for Oceans, W2O, a group I recently discovered and am excited about. The event started with a display in the lobby showing the finalists’ designs for how Boston can build its waterfront to be resilient to sea level rise and storms. Some of the designs were really creative – things I never would have thought of. Then we went into the IMAX. The speaker who was the most interesting to me was Ellen Douglas. She talked about Hurricane Sandy. I didn’t realize that things could have been so much worse if it had just hit at high tide instead of low tide. Here is a map of the difference the tide can make.
Ellen Douglas is the main author on a a report called “Preparing for the Rising Tide.” After talking about the past, she moved on to the future. She talked about the projections of what will happen with sea level rise in Boston. She showed maps of what areas will flood and how often. These maps are similar to the one above that shows the flood depths. Then she showed ideas of flood walls – some that are benches until needed, berms, things that would help in the next storm. I’ve read a bunch about sea level rise but it somehow seemed even more real when looking at pictures and maps of a place I know. The second speaker was Robbin Peach from Massport. It was good to hear how much has been going into protecting the transportation infrastructure in Boston. Do you know if your city is prepared for the next big storm and sea level rise?
Before I had heard much about the drought in California, I started reading a book on glaciers. I didn’t know very much about glaciers or what they might have to do with a drought in California. Christopher White wrote a book about his trips to Glacier National Park in Montana and his conversations with people at the U.S. Geological Survey there. It’s called The Melting World: A Journey Across America’s Vanishing Glaciers. What I learned was disturbing and kind of depressing.
The snowpack on glaciers in mountains around the world supply a lot of the world’s fresh water. (According to Live Science, 30% of California’s water is supplied by the snowpack in the Sierra Nevada.) And glaciers are receding. The Sierra Nevada snowpack is the lowest in recorded history. Glacier National Park is on pace to have no glaciers anymore within decades. The lack of water for all the places that rely on snowpack are not the only concerns when studying glaciers and their recession. There are a wide variety of species that rely on glaciers and the tree line on mountains. The tree line is continuously moving up the mountain. The species that live on the coldest top of the mountain are getting crowded out. Glaciers recede and any animals who rely on white as camouflage are losing their ability to hide from predators.
The USGS has some amazing photos that show the difference between the size of the glaciers early in the 20th century and today (such as the one above). They have some wonderful information on their website: Retreat of Glaciers. They also have a link to a better succinct explanation of everything than I could do: Crownscience.org. I found a YouTube video that shows photo evidence of glacier retreat as part of the Extreme Ice Project: Chasing Ice. Glaciers are amazing evidence of global warming. And the retreat of glaciers is a global phenomenon, so it is not a matter of weather (local) but rather climate (global). Glaciers are measurable and thus are a barometer for the effects of climate change.
This is another example of all the information being out there, but not enough people paying attention.
I would like to encourage everyone to read the cover article on sea level rise in National Geographic. I particularly enjoyed all the graphics and pictures. There are links across the top and down the side which I would highly recommend clicking on.
I read this book based on a recommendation of another blogger and I am so glad I did. One of the best things about it is the amount of charts, graphs and pictures that are used. It is particularly helpful when he shows graphs of long periods of times and then blows up the more recent past to show the effects that recent greenhouse gas emissions have had. I realize that I was already a believer, but it does seem to prove that humans are changing the atmosphere and sea level.
This book has a lot of science in it, but it was still incredibly readable. I am not someone who enjoys reading science textbooks, or even scientific studies. John Englander has made the science understandable and easy to digest. There were plenty of things I wasn’t aware of – like the cycle of ice ages and how we are actually due to start the cooling phase heading toward another ice age. The sea level is at the high point with less water trapped in ice sheets. It looks like this started to happen in the past centuries but something (humans) changed the course of history. (Not to sound too dramatic.)
Did you know? Sharps Island off Maryland sunk into the Chesapeake Bay in 1962? Apparently due to sea level rise, erosion and sinking land. Holland Island, also in the Chesapeake, disappeared in 2010. Or how about this? “At our current rate of carbon emissions, we will increase carbon dioxide levels… roughly 20,000 times faster than at any time in the last 540 million years. Temperatures… are now rising about 55 times faster than they did even during the most recent cycle of glacial melting.”
Englander also talks about the impacts of sea level rise. Here is a website that models sea level rise on the coastline of the U.S.: Climate Central. The NOAA also has one. He goes through various cities and talks about what they would face and how much of their population would be effected. It is worth noting that along with changes in shoreline, the water table will rise with sea level and so many inland areas will also be affected.
Here are a couple more links from the book that I thought were interesting:
The Center for Alternative Technology in Britain released a report that says Britain could reduce their carbon emissions to net zero by 2030. It means we don’t need to rely on technology that hasn’t been developed. I hope it gets good publicity and maybe the U.S. can see what options are really available.