Idaho: safe from Sea Level Rise but not from Drought and Fire

Crown fire in mixed conifer forest, southern Idaho, 2016
Crown fire in a mixed conifer forest, southern Idaho, 2016. Photo by Karl Greer, U.S. Forest Service

Idaho, an inland State, most of which lies above 2,000 feet in elevation, is safe from Sea Level Rise, but not from the warming atmosphere that’s causing it. Average summer temperature across the Pacific Northwest are predicted to rise by several degrees in the coming years. That will translate into serious trouble for the regions forests.  The Seattle Times of Sept. 11, 2017, quotes Amy Snover, director of the Climate Impacts Group at the University of Washington: “We expect to see more fires and bigger fires. People are just beginning to wake up to this, but public lands managers do think about this and the potential risks.”

The 2018 fire season validated that prediction. The  image below shows a satellite snapshot (as an overlay on a map of the U.S.) of dense smoke across the West Coast on the morning of August 20, 2018.  The smoke cover extends north into Canada, south to Texas, and east to the Great Lakes. Idaho is hidden.

Satellite snapshot of wildfire smoke across the U.S. Aug. 20, 2018
Satellite snapshot of wildfire smoke across the U.S. Aug. 20, 2018. Image: NOAA

According to the U.S. Forest Service budget report for 2015, climate change has extended the wildfire season by an average of 78 days per year since 1970. Funding for fire fighting has remained flat for years, and rising costs have repeatedly broken the Service’s annual budget. Last year, Congress passed a ‘fire funding fix’. The bill, which will become effective in 2020, provides $2.25 billion to cover fire fighting costs that exceed regular appropriations. In addition, the bill contained half a billion in emergency fire fighting funds for 2018.

Mike Crapo, U.S. Senator from Idaho, was the principal backer of the ‘fire funding fix’. Speaking about the new funding regime at the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho, on May 3, 2018, he had this to say:

“It’s taken us . . . thirty years to get here in terms of what was not the adequate management we needed to be putting into place on the ground. We are not going to solve it all in one fire season. So it’s true, we’re still going to be dealing with some of the things that have been building up over time and are giving us the problems that we have now. That being said, we are now going to start managing properly, and, as Vickie Christiansen, the Acting Chief of the [U.S.] Forest Service said, we are now going to move toward that point — which will take us some years to achieve — but to that point where fire is the servant not the manager of our forests.”

Mike Crapo, U.S. Senator from Idaho
Mike Crapo, U.S. Senator from Idaho. Image: McClatchy Videos

Senator Crapo doesn’t believe (or refuses to admit) that Global Warming is real, or that it’s an unfolding catastrophe caused by the burning of fossil fuels. That’s why he doesn’t mention the impact of climate change. As far as Crapo is concerned, the increasing number of wildfire disasters are due to the cumulative effect over thirty years of improper forest management practices, and that the problems will be solved because now, the Forest Service will have enough money to do a better job. You’ll recall how the Service has already received tips from President Trump on ways to improve their forest management practices.

Will increased funding enable the Forest Service to put a stop to the uncontrollable burning up of the western forests? It can help. It can delay. It can mitigate. But It can’t succeed until the root cause of the problem — the increasing temperature of our planet’s atmosphere — is brought under control.

On June 3, 2017, President Trump announced his intention to pull the United States out of the Paris Climate Accord. A month earlier, 22 Republican Senators jointly sent a letter to the President urging him to dump the deal. Mike Crapo and his fellow Idaho Senator, Jim Risch, were among the signatories. According to The Guardian of June I, 2017, the 22 Senators had collectively received $10.7 million in campaign donations from fossil fuel industries, over the previous three election cycles (2012, 2014, 2016). Mike Crapo’s share was $110,250. Jim Risch received $123,850.

America currently remains a party to the Paris Accord. Three years must elapse before its withdrawal becomes official. Is there any possibility that Idaho will support efforts to reverse President Trump’s decision to withdraw? Considering Idaho’s current standing as a solid red State, and the apparent fealty of its Republican politicians to the fossil fuel industry, that seems unlikely. Every stick of Idaho’s forests will burn before some minds are changed.

There is, however, an indication that light has begun to penetrate Idaho’s Republican darkness.  Brad Little, a Republican, was sworn in as Idaho’s 33rd Governor on January 4th. According to High Country News, the Governor, while addressing the Idaho Environmental Forum on January 16th, told the crowd that “Climate Change is real.” His statement reportedly reduced the crowd to stunned silence. Responding to questions later, he said, “Climate is changing, there’s no question about it. We’ve just gotta figure out how to cope with it and we gotta slow it down. Now, reversing it is going to be a big darn job.” (quote from Idaho Press)

Map of the United States showing location of Idaho
The red State of Idaho. Image: Wikipedia

The 1,000-year Tennessee flood of 2010 — what are the odds?

It started raining on Saturday, May 1, 2010. By the time the rain stopped 36 hours later, large areas of middle and western Tennessee were under water. Fiftytwo of the state’s nintyfive counties would later qualify for disaster assistance. The amount of water that bucketed down that weekend was epic. The meteorologists called it ‘a thousand-year flood.’ What’s remarkable about the weather system that caused so much damage is that it showed up unannounced. No named storm was involved.

Map of Tennessee showing rainfall distribution May 1 & 2, 2010

The rains that inundated Houston, Texas, in 2017, were carried in from the Gulf by hurricane Harvey. The rains that dumped on the Carolinas in 2018, were transported from the Atlantic by hurricane Florence. People knew those tropical storms were coming, days in advance. We could watch the approaching cyclones on our TV screens. The deluge that swamped Tennessee in 2010 arrived without any warning at all. Here’s what the Memphis Office of the National Weather Service had to say:

“A significant weather system brought very heavy rain and severe thunderstorms from Saturday, May 1 through Sunday morning, May 2. A stalled frontal boundary coupled with very moist air streaming northward from the Gulf set the stage for repeated rounds of heavy rainfall. Many locations along the I-40 corridor across western and middle Tennessee reported in excess of 10 to 15 inches, with some locations receiving up to 20 inches according to Doppler radar estimates.”

It was an ordinary weather system — except for the “very moist air.” Apparently that’s what made the difference between a typical Tennessee rain storm and a thousand-year flood.  What is a thousand-year flood, anyway? The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration website (climate.gov) contains an engaging article titled, “How can we call something a thousand-year storm if we don’t have a thousand years of climate observation?”  Here’s my interpretation of the statistics it covers:

Records gathered over the past 100+ years showing the correlation between rainfall amount and flooding are available for most parts of the country. Flood predictions are derived from the statistical analysis of these records. The term ‘thousand-year flood’ means that the chance for a flood of a certain magnitude to occur at a particular place, in any given year, is one in a thousand or 0.1%. For Tennessee, it means that the chance for a 2010-sized flood to re-occure this year (2019) or in any following year, is one in a thousand.

But wait a minute. If the meteorologists are doing their job, they are constantly updating the available records with the most recent data. And if (as news reports from around the world suggest) the existing records are being broken with increasing frequency, statistical predictions will eventually reflect that trend. Floods that were once labeled 1,000-year floods, may now more properly by labeled 500-year or 100-year floods. For Tennessee, it means that the chance for a 2010-sized flood to re-occure this year, could be one in a hundred rather than one in a thousand.

How should politicians, concerned about the safety of the people they represent, respond to an increasingly dangerous climate? Since the problem is global, the response must be global. Hence The Paris Agreement. The Paris Agreement aims to strengthen the international effort to halt the rise in temperature of the world’s atmosphere and thereby limit its destabilizing effect on climate.

The U.S. Climate Alliance is a coalition of 16 (and counting) U.S. States committed to upholding the objectives of the Paris Agreement. What are the chances that the State of Tennessee will join the Climate Alliance? Considering Tennessee’s current political leadership, about one in a million. The following YouTube video, published December 2009, records the position of GOP House Rep. Marsha Blackburn, on the question of Climate Change — she says: it’s cyclical; the science is not settled; humans are not responsible. Blackburn is now a U.S. Senator representing Tennessee.

 

Amtrak’s Vision for High Speed Rail scuppered by its own report on Climate Change

Photo: Concept Rendering of Amtrak’s NextGen High Speed Rail at Existing Wilmington Station
Concept Rendering of NextGen High Speed Rail at Existing Wilmington Station, Delaware. Source: AMTRAK

The only civilized and environmentally sound way to travel long distances is by rail. The roads are either clogged or dangerous. The airline operators treat their customers as self-loading freight. Cars and planes are wasteful emitters of global warming CO2. Amtrak wants to provide its customers with an enhanced high-speed service along its busiest route, the Northeast Corridor, which connects Boston, New York, and Washington. It’s a great idea, and the company has been promoting it for the past ten years — so far without success.

The Amtrak Vision for the Northeast Corridor – 2012 Update Report, outlines the company’s dream for the high speed rail service. It calls for a 25-30 year investment program to cut travel times by half, using ‘next generation’ trains capable of 220 mph speeds. Estimated capital cost: $150 Billion ( 2011 dollars).

Map of Northeast Corridor, high-speed rail alignment
Proposed Northeast Corridor, high-speed rail alignment. Source: Amtrak

So what’s holding things up? Amtrak is a quasi-public corporation. Although it operates as a for-profit company, it remains dependent on federal subsidies. Getting politicians to commit funds for necessary upgrades, let alone for ‘next generation’ infrastructure, is not easy. There are priorities, like debt-ballooning tax cuts, military hardware, boarder walls, etc.

The project now faces a more serious problem. It concerns a multi-year study undertaken by Amtrak on the likely impact of climate change on the company’s operations along the Northeast Corridor. The study concludes that by mid century, rising seas and flooding associated with climate change will subject rail assets including portions of track to “continual inundation” thus rendering them unusable. Reportedly Amtrak completed the study by April 2017, but kept quiet about it until November 2018 when Bloomberg News obtained a redacted copy following a Freedom of Information request. Why the secrecy? Well, that’s easy to understand. Amtrak had said it could provide a finished product for $150 Billion. How can it now explain the need for many more billions to move its stuff out of harms way? It’s embarrassing.

According to Bloomberg, while the study provides details about the parts of the corridor at risk, it focuses on a ten mile stretch running through Wilmington, Delaware. Wilmington is located close to where the Christian River joins the Delaware River (actually a tidal estuary), and much of the city is low lying. It is home to a training center for Amtrak engineers, a maintenance yard for the repair of electric locomotives, and a rail traffic control center, all of them situated in flood-prone parts of the city, as is the track itself.  For example, a three mile stretch of the track northeast of the city, lies within feet of the Delaware River shore line (see map below).

Map of Wilmington DE ans area showing section of Northeast Corridor Rail Line beside the DelawRe River
Map showing section of the Northeast Corridor lying closest to the Delaware River. Source: openstreetmap

You can see the problem for yourself next time you travel between New York and Washington by train. Take a window seat looking east, and watch for the Delaware River between Philadelphia and Wilmington. If the tide is in as you pass the three mile section, you may be shocked at how close the water is to the base of the tracks.

Alternatively, watch the following YouTube video (credit: Jersey Mike’s Rail Videos) showing the view from the back of an Amtrak train on route from Wilmington to Philadelphia. If you start the video at the 4.50 mark, you’ll see a substation to your left and the I-495 to your right. The track leaves the shore line at about the 7.15 mark.

Amtrak management knew about the potential for climate change to impact its rail assets when it released its ‘Vision for High Speed Rail’ in 2012, but made no mention of it in the proposal. A report for Amtrak dated September 2014 by Booz/Allen/Hamilton on the vulnerability of the Northeast Corridor to climate change, says (section 3.3.3) “Climate Change will directly and indirectly affect rail service in several different ways.”  Sea level rise causing long-term/permanent track flooding, is one of the ways listed in the report. Amtrak could have updated its ‘Vision’ proposal at that time, but did not do so. Now, more than four years later, the climate cat is out of the bag and as far as High-Speed Rail is concerned, Amtrak has no place to go but back to square one. Pity.

Plastic packaging overwhelms humanity — industry looks to increase the supply

Image of plastic water bottles on production line
A few of the 50 Billion plastic water bottles used and discarded in the U.S. in one year

Since its invention in the early 20th century, plastic has been put to a multitude of valuable uses. Plastic packaging is not one of them. It’s a scourge. The stuff keeps piling up in landfills and garbage tips. It accumulates along beaches and floats in the oceans as micro particles. It slowly degrades in sunlight, releasing methane and ethylene, potent greenhouse gases. When burned with trash in the open air (as happens routinely in poor countries) it releases a range of deadly fumes, including dioxin. When burned in an incinerator as a source of energy (plastic is made from fossil fuels) it releases its carbon content into the atmosphere, thus increasing global warming.

Image of discarded flexible packaging
Discarded flexible packaging. Image: RecycleBC

Plastic trash is a highly visible form of pollution. That’s a problem for the plastics industry.  Stung by public criticism, manufacturers and users of plastic packaging have begun to react. Amcor, a leading manufacturer of plastic packaging, together with some of the big users (including, Coca-Cola, Danone, MARS, Novamont, L’Oréal, Pepsi, Unilever, and Veolia), say they have committed themselves to the New Plastics Economy, an initiative by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation. This is what the organization’s website says it wants to achieve:

In a new plastics economy, plastic never becomes waste or pollution. Three actions are required to achieve this vision and create a circular economy for plastic. Eliminate all problematic and unnecessary plastic items. Innovate to ensure that the plastics we do need are reusable, recyclable, or compostable. Circulate all the plastic items we use to keep them in the economy and out of the environment.

If those statements sound to you like the kind of New Year resolutions a weak-willed glutton might make, you’re right. Plastic products are cheap, most of the public accepts them, and the industry wants to continue feeding the market with as much of the stuff as it will swallow. According to the industry newsletter Plastics Today, the plastic packaging market is expected to grow in value from about $200 billion in 2017 to $270 billion in 2025, a 35% increase.

Of course the industry wants something to be done about the trash. It’s an embarrassment. Look at the last statement in the committments they made about circulating all the plastic items we use. The question is, who do they think will execute that part of their commitment? Right now, municipalities handle garbage collection and recycling, provided they have a tax base to support it. Municipalities in poor countries don’t have that luxury. Does the plastics industry intend to fund the collection and recycling of plastic trash in all those places in the world where that work falls short of 100% efficiency? Of course not. What the industry is angling for is a commitment, by others — governments, municipalities, you and I — to pay for it.

Suppose, as is likely, no one wants to pay the cost of dealing with plastic pollution on a global scale, what then? In the case of plastic packaging, the obvious solution would be to switch back to non-polluting materials such as paper and glass. People lived without plastic before. We can do so again.
Industry representatives opposed to the idea raise the usual objections: impractical; ill informed; too expensive; jobs would be lost, etc. Or they imply that there is no alternative. For example, Amcor CEO Ron Delia, quoted in his company’s website, says: “Plastic packaging is vital for products used by billions of consumers around the globe. It’s highly effective and easy to adapt, so that those products are safe, nutritious and effective.”  So . . . Plastic packaging is not just useful, it is vital. Foodstuffs that are not packed in plastic are unsafe, ineffective, lack nutrition. Use plastic or billions will suffer. Those are the messages Mr. Delia’s statement implies.

We humans have a tendency to eat until we burst. Our excessive consumption of plastic is just one example.  Fortunately it’s a habit we can easily break. But to succeed, the break will have to be made despite the New Plastic Economy crowd.

The following YouTube video by Ravi Bajoria shows a primative garbage sorting line in operation. Poor countries cannot afford to buy and operate the automated, high-tech systems that are available. If we stop using plastic packaging, they won’t need them.

 

Climate Change threatens America; the U.S. Military responds; Trump feints

Cartoon. Trump with his finger in the climate dike
THE COMMANDER-IN-CHIEF STICKS HIS FINGER IN THE CLIMATE DIKE

The 2018 Federal Assessment for the U.S., was released on November 23rd. The report highlights likely impacts and risks from the changing climate.
An introductory statement says: “A team of more than 300 experts guided by a 60-member Federal Advisory Committee produced the report, which was extensively reviewed by the public and experts, including federal agencies and a panel of the National Academy of Sciences.” The report concludes that Climate Change threatens the “natural, built and social systems we rely on.” Disruptions expected to accompany Climate Change include: rising temperatures; extreme heat; drought; wildfire on rangelands; heavy downpours; transformed coastal regions; higher costs and lower property values from sea level rise; extreme weather events; changes to air quality; changes to the availability of food and water; and the spread of new diseases.

Here is President Trump’s initial response to the report:

During an interview with the Washington Post on November 27, the President was asked to explain his negative response to the climate report.
This is his verbatim response:

“One of the problems that a lot of people like myself — we have very high levels of intelligence, but we’re not necessarily such believers. You look at our air and our water, and it’s right now at a record clean. But when you look at China and you look at parts of Asia and when you look at South America, and when you look at many other places in this world, including Russia, including — just many other places — the air is incredibly dirty. And when you’re talking about an atmosphere, oceans are very small. And it blows over and it sails over. I mean, we take thousands of tons of garbage off our beaches all the time that comes over from Asia. It just flows right down the Pacific, it flows, and we say where does this come from. And it takes many people to start off with.”

“Number two, if you go back and if you look at articles, they talked about global freezing, they talked about at some point the planets could have freeze to death, then it’s going to die of heat exhaustion. There is movement in the atmosphere. There’s no question. As to whether or not it’s man-made and whether or not the effects that you’re talking about are there, I don’t see it — not nearly like it is.”

Despite Trump’s attempts to bury climate change, and his all-out support for fossil fuels, the U.S. Military is marching to a different tune. According to the Center for Climate & Security, since Trump assumed office in January 2017, eighteen senior officials at the U.S. Defense Department have recommended actions to address the security implications of climate change. These officials include: Secretary of Defense, James Mattis; Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Paul J. Selva; and Secretary of the Navy, Richard Spenser.

James Mattis, a former United States Marine Corps general, has a history of supporting efforts to reduce troop dependence on petroleum. In 2003, he urged the military to develop ways to “Unleash us from the tether of fuel.” At his confirmation hearings in 2017, he said, “Climate Change can be a driver of instability and the Department of Defense must pay attention to potential adverse impacts generated by this phenomenon.” He also said, “I agree that the effects of a changing climate — such as increased maritime access to the Arctic, rising sea levels, desertification, among others — impact our security situation.”

Military War Room
Military War Room

The world is facing an existential threat. It appears the U.S. Military is ready and willing to engage the enemy. But to be truly effective, it needs a Commander-in-Chief willing or able to acknowledge the threat. The sooner it gets one, the better for all of us.

Sea Level Rise and how you can track it in real time

Washington DC
On checking the weather, we see a day-old Coastal Flood Warning issued for the District of Columbia which says: “more than a third of Roosevelt Island will be covered by water and back water flooding of Rock Creek in Georgetown will begin.” An unusual occurrence? Not any more. Most low-lying coastal cities, including Washington DC, have begun to experience a new phenomena: High Tide Flooding during quiet weather days, the result of a gradual increase in sea level over the past one hundred and forty year.
Climate experts say that the the rate of sea level rise is speeding up and that the long-term effects could be dire. It’s a challenging subject and we’ve decided to find out more about it, starting today.

Our first stop is Washington DC’s tide-gauge station on Pier 5 near the south end of Water Street, one of the many tide-gauge stations operated by NOAA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Map of Washington DC showing location of NOAA Tide Guage
Washington DC showing location of NOAA Tide Guage

It’s a cloudy, not-too-hot September day. From Independence Avenue we walk ten blocks south on 4th Street to where it ends at P Street, then eaby a short footpath to the Washington Channel shoreline. The Titanic Memorial (a large granite statue of a man with arms outstretched as if in flight) stands at that point. Pier 5 lies a few hundred yards to the north. We approach it by the waterfront footpath. We can see the tide gauge from the shore but cannot inspect it closely. The DC Police Harbor Patrol have their headquarters on the pier and they refuse to allow unauthorized access. No matter; we’ll look into how tide gauges work later.

NOAA Tide Gauge, Washington DC
NOAA Tide Gauge, Washington DC. Image: NOAA

Knowledge about sea level is based on information generated by a global network of about 2000 tide-level stations. A British organization called the Permanent Service for Mean Sea Level (PSMSL) is responsible for the collection and publication of the data produced by the network.

43B9A02A-0A8A-40E7-870A-44B9CB8BB9D5
From: PSMSL website (psmsl.org > data coverage)

There are two trends that give climateologists nightmares: global warming and sea level rise, the second the result of the first. The trend line for the rise in sea level is based on the data generated by the global tide gauge network since 1880. Here’s an example, one of many available on the web.

From: EPA website published 2016

The graph shows that since 1880, sea level has risen by about 9 inches, an average of about 1/16th of an inch per year. However, since 1993, the rate of rise has speeded up to about 1/8th of an inch per year, twice the rate of the long term average. What do the experts say will happen next? Many suggest 1.5 to 3 feet higher by the year 2100. Others, pointing to increasing global warming and the potential for rapid melting of the polar ice sheets, talk about six feet and up by the year 2100, enough to put southern Florida under water and swamp most of the world’s major cities.

Predictions that imply 2100 is the year the rubber hits the road, are not useful. Why? Two reasons: (1) predictions that are safe from being proved wrong within the lifetime of the predictors, are not impressive and easily ignored; (2) the year 2100 is eighty years in the future, much too long a time frame to be of practical use to most people. We need predictions that focus on the near term. We also need a way to keep track of the situation in real time and without having to depend directly on experts for information on which to base personal decisions, such as where to live, for example.
Help is at hand in the form of a paper titled ‘Sea level rise drives increased tidal flooding frequency . . . ‘ published Feb. 3, 2017 in the ‘open access’ journal PLOS ONE. Here’s an excerpt:

“. . . because the general public often perceives climate change as a temporally distant threat, we have chosen to focus on two time frames (15 and 30 years into the future) that are easily comprehensible within a human lifetime.”

In the paper, the authors have predicted the severity of tidal flooding at 52 locations along the U.S. east and gulf coasts by the years 2030 and 2045. They did this by first establishing a correlation between tide-gauge measurements and Coastal Flood Advisories (CFAs) issued by the U.S. National Weather Service. They then show that the number and frequency of CFAs for any  given location can substitute for tide-gauge measurnts as a predictor of future flooding severity.

This is great. We, or anyone else with access to the web, can easily keep track of the number and frequency of CFAs affecting coastal property. A daily check on the Coastal Flood Advisory section of the National Weather Service takes little effort. After two or three years we can crunch our numbers and decide for ourselves whether or not sea level rise is a threat to take seriously. We won’t have to depend on media reports about climate change to be in the know.

Here’s an example from the PLOS ONE paper. By 2015, the number of tidal flood events affecting the shore area of Annapolis, Maryland, had risen to about 35 per year. Based on the CFA record for Annapolis, the authors predict that that number will rise to 145 by the year 2030 (only 11 years from now) and to 180 by the year 2045. If those predictions become fact, who is going to put up with streets and shop fronts that get swamped by sea water every second or third day of the year? The report paints a similar near-term future for the waterfront areas of Washington DC and other cities.

Since we intend to keep track of the Coastal Flood Advisories issued for Annapolis, we decide to visit the city to see for ourselves how tidal flooding has affected it so far. Annapolis lies about 30 miles from DC on a different branch of Chesapeake Bay. We retrieve our car from its parking spot and head east out of Washington, aiming to connect with Route 50.

Map of Annapolis MD waterfront area
Annapolis MD waterfront showing area affected by intermittent tidal flooding
Map showing Washington DC and Annapolis MD in relation to Chesapeake Bay
Washington DC and Annapolis MD in relation to Chesapeake Bay