Climatically Speaking: The Best Stories on Climate, Food, Science and Culture, (1st ed.)

Icebergs, Photo by Ghost Presenter from  Pexels

Icebergs, Photo by Ghost Presenter from Pexels

A weakening AMOC; northward drift of the world's crops; a climate boundary on the move; increase in emissions from electronic devices; climate change in Norfolk, UK; maple trees, stress and climate; persistent PFASs; the Cape Town water crisis; and an interactive map.


Welcome to the first edition of Climatically Speaking, a newsletter on climate, food, science and culture. I retired Surferbird News-links because the name was clunky. What's a surferbird, and how does he or she relate to the environment? And since I already rank for "climatically" in search engines, I thought I'd capitalize on that. So my hope is that when people search for "climatically"—and it is a word—they'll end up here. That would be nice. The more the merrier! But I'll miss the old surferbird.

What has the owl been up to? I've been pitching to outlets and editing older posts. Though I did squeeze in time to publish a haiku about cockroaches and coffee. Unfortunately, it's a true story. I'm also working on the look of my homepage. So, if you have time, I would appreciate a click on my logo to check it out. I owe the support team at Squarespace my thanks for the free consultation. Yet, having a website is like running a household or a business: There's always more work to be done. And I look forward to doing that work and sharing it with you. But a lot has happened in the world since we last met, so let's get started!


The amoc (Atlantic meridional overturning circulation)

I never dreamed when I first learned about climate change that I would become familiar with Earth's climate systems. And the AMOC is one of those. A good way to understand the AMOC is to think of it as part of the ocean's circulatory system. It moves warm, salty waters in the upper layers of the Atlantic northward while driving cooler, deep waters to the south. Here's a short animation on how it works:

But Last week in The Washington Post, Chris Mooney wrote that some scientists are concerned the AMOC is slowing down due to climate change. This is important because the AMOC keeps Europe's climate stable and affects fisheries in New England. In fact, its slowdown could be why U.S. East Coast cod fisheries have recently declined. 

Part of the AMOC's weakening may be due to the fact that Greenland's ice sheet is melting. Yet, some scientists don't think we can prove that global warming started this process because scientists didn't begin measuring the circulation until just over ten years ago. Instead, they think the slowing trend began in the mid-nineteenth century and that human-caused climate change created conditions favoring this pattern.

So, what does the future hold? Stefan Rahmstorf, a scientist with the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research in Germany predicts the AMOC will continue weakening and that it could do so at a steady rate or much faster. As Rahmstorf notes in The Washington Post article, referenced above: 

I think in the long run ... Greenland will start melting even faster, so I think the long-term prospect for that ocean circulation system is that it will weaken further, and I think that’s going to affect all of us, basically, in a negative way.
— Stefan Rahmstorf, The Washington Post (authored by Chris Mooney, April 11, 2018)

Digging deeper: Would you like to know more? Rebecca Boyle reports in Hakai Magazine that "the AMOC has a 44 percent chance of collapsing" by 2300—according to one study—if we continue emitting carbon at our current rate into the next century. But it's not only about what would happen in Europe and the U.S., the AMOC affects rain patterns in Africa and Central America, too. Though Eric Holthaus, writing for Grist, assures us that it's not likely to happen tomorrow. And some scientists think a sluggish AMOC might have contributed to the 2015 heat wave in Europe, as reported at DW. 

more climate stories

Yale Environment 360 has a fascinating piece about a climate boundary—the 100th meridian west—that runs from Canada through Mexico. This imaginary line marks the division between drier, western regions and humid areas. But recent studies note the boundary has shifted 140 miles east. And it's expected to shift farther east as the planet warms. If you prefer to cut to the chase, Sammy Roth, a reporter for USA Today, has a nice summary of the 100th meridian in his most recent edition of Climate Point. While you're there, check out his other stories on climate change, the environment and energy. 

Also, at Anthropocene, Prachi Patel writes about a study published in the Journal for Cleaner Production that predicts a sharp increase in carbon emissions from smartphones and data centers by 2040. The hefty carbon footprint of smartphones is due to their production costs and our habit of purchasing a new phone every two years. We're also not good at recycling them. But data centers and telecom networks need to take responsiblility, too, by using renewable energy.

And if you're up for an adventure, follow Matt Reynolds, at Wired, to the Norfolk region of the UK, where he catalogs the changes in flora and fauna that would occur if global temperatures rise 3.2 degrees Celsius. For the record, we're currently on that track (University of Washington). "The bumblebees will be the first to go," notes Reynolds. As you can imagine, without the bumblebees, many wildflowers and other species will also disappear. This is a sad read, especially for those who live in, and visit, Norfolk, UK. But it's also a reminder that similar shifts will take place across the globe, if we don't limit our greenhouse gas emissions. The names of the plants and animals will be different, but the story will be much the same. As the article suggests, we need to prepare for this shift by preserving habitats. Yet, in the end, we'll have to accept that the landscapes we've grown accustomed to may look unfamiliar in the future. 

climate stories in brief

Antarctica's ice sheets are melting from underneath and less stable than scientists previously thought (The Guardian); London could face water shortages by 2040 (Circle of Blue); water supplies look grim for this expanding U.S. city (The Guardian); and what's causing extreme fires in Oklahoma? (Weather Underground).

food and farming

How will shifting weather patterns in New England impact maple syrup production? Learn about the challenges that scientists and maple syrup producers face, moving forward, in this short piece at New Hampshire Public Radio. Maple trees are already under stress from erratic storms, droughts, road salt, pests and acid rain. But will climate change cause these stressors to impact maple syrup production even more? And what will happen to the timing and duration of maple trees' fall foliage? It's interesting to note that farmers have seen a 25 percent drop in sap yields over the last 40 to 50 years while the sugar season is arriving earlier. As the saying goes, time will tell. But I sure hope my beloved maple syrup sticks around!

Also, did you know that our food is on the move? Bloomberg reports that due to climate change, many crops and fish are moving farther north to escape rising temperatures. This has huge implications for consumers who've grown accustom to eating locally produced foods—think peaches in Georgia and apricots and walnuts in California. Yet, the fishermen and farmers who rely on local economies for their incomes are especially vulnerable. And shifts in where our food is grown can cause big swings in financial markets, too, due to a glut or shortage of high-demand crops, such as corn and wheat. Also, on top of that, studies show that increased carbon dioxide levels make plants less nutritious by decreasing their protein, zinc and iron content. It is true, however, that some regions will benefit from climate change. But on the whole, the article predicts that the overall trend will be negative, especially for the tropics. 

science, technology and health

Ah, pancakes and Teflon—I remember them well. But Teflon is one of many substances that contains PFASs (per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances), which manufacturers began adding to industrial products and consumer goods in the 1950s because of their ability to "repel oil, water, stains and heat." Microwave popcorn bags, firefighting foam and fabric are just a few examples of products that contain these environmentally persistent chemicals.  But human and animal studies point to potential health problems from exposure to two types of PFASs in particular, PFOS and PFOA—not only from using products that contain them but also from exposure to these chemicals after they enter the environment. And even though manufacturers are now substituting new chemicals for PFASs, many scientists worry that the new "safer" versions are just as bad. Learn about PFASs, their short-chain cousins and how the industry has contaminated waterways, in this excellent piece by Liza Gross at Ensia.


How would you manage on a water ration of 13 gallons per day? The February 2018 issue of Sierra Magazine contains a compelling essay on the Cape Town drought. The author, Adam Welz, wrote this firsthand account while convalescing in bed from a back injury caused by lugging 55-pound containers of graywater that he used to flush toilets. What stands out in this piece, though, are the conspiracy theories spread by Cape Town citizens and the blame that's cast about like toddlers throwing sand. The rich blame the poor; the poor blame the rich. And Cape Town's city government blames the national government and vice versa. But, sadly, racial prejudice also creeps in. What happens to societal norms when communities battle over basic needs?

This essay carries particular weight as Earth's citizens enter uncharted territory. Unlike war-torn places afflicted with extreme poverty and nonexistent governments, Cape Town is a modern city with beautiful beaches, top rated restaurants, investment properties and adorable penguins. Yet, based on climate change models, scientists began predicting a much drier Cape Town years ago. The world is watching to see how this plays out. But the question is: How will the rest of the world respond if faced with similar conditions? Will we prepare, or throw sand?

If you're interested, I found an update on the water crisis in Cape Town at DW. Fortunately, for now, at least, Cape Town has avoided a worst-case scenario by implementing effective conservation measures. This is an opportunity for other communities around the world to take notice because I don't think anyone wants to experience a "Day Zero."

closing thoughts

That's all for this week's edition of Climatically Speaking. Though before I sign off, there's one more thing I'd like to share: an interactive world map that shows the progression of climate change over time. I started playing around with this map weeks ago but didn't have time to fully explore it. I hope you'll take a look to see how things will fare in your neck of the woods as the planet heats up. Which places on Earth most closely resemble the future climate of your city or town?  —Laura

Please note: My editor took off for the hills and hasn't been seen for years. If you're a journalist or scientist and find mistakes in these summaries, please reach out through the contact form in the menu at the bottom of this page. I don't mind being corrected at all. Thanks!