Climatically Speaking: The Best Stories on Climate, Food, Science and Culture, (8th ed.)
Last updated July 15, 2018
Reducing your carbon footprint; when the Arctic Ocean becomes the Atlantic; return of the Blob; video on the risks of climate uncertainty; dangerously hot weather by 2100; water news from California; GMOs on the move and more.
Welcome to the 8th edition of Climatically Speaking. Did you know I drive around my Northern California town in a gas-guzzling, used 2006 Ford Taurus? It's true. We paid cash for it a couple of years ago, and it was the most reliable car within our price range. Now, here's the rest of the story: I can go a month on a tank of gas, sometimes longer. At this point, my friends and family members are rolling on the floor laughing because they know I don't like to drive. So that gives me zero bragging rights.
The reason why I'm bringing up my car and how much gas I use is because, lately, I've been sharing a lot of alarming news about our planet. And some of you may be wondering what you as an individual can do. But instead of digressing into a tedious list, I recommend you read this piece by David Roberts at Vox—all the way to the addendum at the end.
One of the graphs in the article illustrates the fact that the wealthiest people on the planet have a much greater carbon footprint than the poor. You can't blame climate change on developing countries. And being an environmentally conscious consumer doesn't let you off the hook, either. But this will make a lot more sense after you read Roberts' piece. Perhaps, in the next edition of Climatically Speaking, I'll share some of the steps I've taken to reduce my carbon footprint, although our culture doesn't make it easy.
Climate, environment and energy
When part of the Arctic Ocean becomes the Atlantic
One of the most important climate stories in recent news is one by Chris Mooney at the Washington Post on the northern Barents Sea—part of the Arctic Ocean—becoming more like the Atlantic. The northern Barents is, in fact, one of the fastest-warming bodies of water on the planet. Because less sea ice is drifting into this area as the Arctic warms, there's less cold water entering the northern part of the Barents from ice melt. This results in less cold, fresh water in the top part of the water column, which acts as an insulator against heat escaping from warmer, saltier waters, below.
As the northern Barents warms, it could push cod fisheries farther northward, impacting Arctic ecosystems. Also, it could lead to prolonged cold fronts in East Asia. I know it seems counterintuitive that warmer water in the top part of the ocean could cause extreme cold weather elsewhere, but the warmer waters affect the atmosphere. In return, these changes can drive the polar jet stream farther southward, where it has the potential to linger for extended periods of time.
The return of the Blob
The Blob was an extreme warming event in the Pacific Ocean that occurred between 2013–2016. Because it resulted in declines of phytoplankton and zooplankton, large amounts of marine life, including birds, died. And according to a piece by Gloria Dickie, writing at Hakai Magazine, due to melting Arctic sea ice, scientists predict a repeat of the Blob. But this time it could last much longer.
Disappearing sea ice affects not only the Atlantic Ocean but also the Pacific through a process called teleconnection, which happens when "a change in one part of the ocean or atmosphere affects the conditions in a distant place days, months, or even years later." Even though water from the Arctic flows into the Atlantic, not the Pacific, as Arctic sea ice melts, it changes wind patterns, which can warm the Pacific from Alaska to Central America.
What we don't know about climate change could work against us
"Uncertainty is not our friend," says Dr. Michael Mann in this excellent interview from the Thom Hartmann Program. Listen as Mann discusses sea-level rise predictions, migrations and the possibility of retreat from places like New York City and Miami, if we fail to take action. This is well worth a watch:
Climate, environment and energy from around the world
As Stephen Leahy writes at National Geographic, parts of South Asia could become dangerously hot by 2100, based on our current greenhouse gas emissions. Since humans can only survive a few hours under extreme conditions of high heat and humidity, people living in these areas would need a way to cool down.
But the U.S. could also experience severe weather events. For example, the city of Portland, Oregon, is already planning for future migrations to the Pacific Northwest as the southwest and California become hotter. Though as Leahy points out, how we choose to respond to our carbon emissions could change the future for many, especially the poor.
Water news from California
At News Deeply, Mark Grossi writes about dry wells in rural California: namely, Madera County, California.
Also from New Deeply is an encouraging story by Alistair Bland about a group of farmers in Ventura County, California, who have started an experimental water trading program to help them comply with the state's Sustainable Groundwater Management Act.
But the plight of California's water crisis is especially evident in this piece by Jeremy P. Jacobs at E&E News: Scientists warn that overpumping groundwater from aquifers in California's San Joaquin Valley could have grave consequences for the world's food supplies. In fact, as Jacobs points out, "Swaths of the San Joaquin Valley have sunk 28 feet—nearly three stories—since the 1920s, and some areas have dropped almost 3 feet in the past two years."
Food and farming
GMO food labeling
Our food labels are changing. So I thought you might want to know more about the proposed USDA food labeling bill, as reported by Rebecca Spector at Civil Eats: it uses the term bioengineered (BE) instead of genetically engineered (GM or GMO); it recommends using digital QR codes instead of printing ingredient information on food labels; and it proposes to exclude candy, oils and other refined foods from GMO labeling requirements. It's confusing. Also, if you have time, click on the link to the article and take a look at the bioengineered symbol. What does it tell you? Unless you're a savvy shopper, not much.
Changing you mind about GMOs
But to be honest, I don't know what I think about the safety of GMOs, or, at least, all GMOs, because I haven't truly studied the science. For now, I've been reflexively avoiding them. But what I've learned from scanning my news feed is that it's complicated.
So when I came across a story by Nathanael Johnson at Grist on a new book, "Seeds of Science: Why We Got it So Wrong on GMOs," I took notice. The author, Mark Lynas, was an active participant in the anti-GMO movement for many years—until he did some research and changed his mind.
Now, don't be hating on me. I buy almost all my produce at a local food co-op that sells organic produce from farms that are less than 30 miles from my apartment. But if I'm going to avoid purchasing foods that contain GMOs, I want to understand the science behind my decision; I want to make up my own mind. And this book looks like a good place to start but not end.
GMO grass on the move
What happens when creeping bentgrass, genetically engineered for golf courses, escapes seed fields that are no longer in use? In Malheur County Oregon, it took root in irrigation ditches and slowed water flow. And since it's resistant to the herbicide Roundup, farmers and ranchers are having a hard time getting rid of it. You can learn more about this story—by Julia Rosen at High Country News—and whether the USDA and the Farm Bureau sided with growers or industry, here. It's a riveting story and adds another dimension to the debate on GMOs.
Science, health and technology
I know I've shared articles about this before, so I'll keep it brief: According to recent studies, cited in a piece by Taylor Lorenz at The Atlantic, neuroscience confirms that male and female brains are biologically the same. I believe it, but I'm also left with a lot of questions.
Learn about the downsides of lawns and climate friendly alternatives from Ian Graber-Siehl at Earther. But if you live outside the U.S., you might not be familiar with our quirky cultural norms: Lawns are an iconic symbol of the ideal American life. Yet, they are expensive and time consuming to maintain, a strain on municipal water supplies and responsible for copious amounts of pesticide and fertilizer runoff. Not only that, but because traditional lawns don't produce any seeds, flowers or nectar, they have nothing to offer birds, butterflies and native pollinators.
Though surely they must at least sequester carbon? Sorry. As noted by Mark Hostetler, a conservation and ecology professor at the University of Florida, lawns are net contributors to climate change because of their shallow root systems, emissions from gas-powered mowers and the nitrous oxide released from fertilizers and pesticides. But it doesn't have to be that way. Learn how you can have beautiful landscaping while benefiting native species and sequestering carbon. Happy Gardening!
As per Sammy Roth's Climate Point newsletter and the NOAA website, here, CO₂ levels beginning the week of June 24, 2018, were 410.57 ppm. You can catch up on more climate and energy news—including the latest stories on Tesla, heat records, Justice Kennedy and Scott Pruitt (there's a link to a video of a woman giving him a lecture!)—by signing up for Climate Point, here (USATODAY.com).
Although I'm hesitant to introduce politics into my posts, I read a piece by Peter Beinart at The Atlantic on U.S. immigration policy and the situation at the border that struck a cord. Beyond providing statistics and data I was unfamiliar with, this story offers so much more: It's a reminder to look beyond the either-or fallacy when solving complex problems. In my opinion, either-or constructs are reft of imagination and have the potential to harm both people and the planet. What do you think? —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!