Friday, March 15, 2013

crisis creep

The North Coast of California typically has very stable weather and a stable weather pattern.  We are used to foggy summers and bright autumns, and rainy winters.  Lately we'd had sunnier summers, which is a little weird but hard to argue with.  And in recent years our winter rains have been starting later and later.  Until this winter when, so far, they haven't come at all.

Even our big December storm--with winds so unusually ferocious that they destroyed my basketball hoop stand which had survived many previous winters--brought very little rain to Arcata.  So far this calendar year it has been unusually warm and sunny, with clearer and colder than usual nights.  It felt more than weird.  It became oddly nerve-wracking.  It doesn't feel natural.

The National Weather Service stats bear out this impression.  Though compiled for nearby Eureka, they generally pertain.  January and February--usually the heart of the rainy season--were together almost 8 inches below normal rainfall (as figured since 1981.)  The deficit since July is 4 inches.  The February average rainfall is 5.63 inches.  We got 1.78.

The stats for Arcata in March aren't promising.  We're an inch of rain in deficit already.  It's possible that we'll have a rainy six weeks through the end of April. (Winter was late last year, too, but I'd need to see some good stats to convince me this hasn't been even drier.)  This change in our cycle is undoubtedly already having effects, and will continue to change things large and small.

Compared to the huge effects elsewhere: the sweltering summer heatwaves and fires, hurricanes and perfect storms, floods and huge snowstorms, this is small potatoes.  But small changes can lead to big ones.

It's easy to see the linear effects: less rain, less groundwater.  Less snowpack in the mountains, less runoff into the rivers for summer.  Less moisture in the forests, more potential for fires and firestorms in the ordinarily dry season.

But the nonlinear effects are harder to see, like the change in the lifecycles of animals and plants, right down to insects and fungi.  There's no particular documentation right now on what has pet owners hereabouts talking, which is the sudden influx of fleas and flea allergies in pets, and the resistant nature of those fleas.  Not earthshaking, unless your cat is important to you and you are spending unusual amounts of money on its health.

But elsewhere the effects are clearer, if not the causes just yet.  Scientific American recently ran a story (picked up by other outlets) about a "mysterious" fungus that's killing bats in 21 U.S. states and five Canadian provinces.  Killing some populations at the rate of 70% to  100%.   So who cares about bats?  Insects do, which means that all kinds of agriculture does. "Bats have an important role in regulating insect populations, a function that is vital to successful agriculture. A recent study found that the loss of North American bats could lead to agricultural losses of more than $3.7 billion per year. "  And really that's just for starters.  Insect-borne diseases may seem like ancient history but they very quickly could be very bad news.

The SA story makes no connection to climate change.  But there are other documented disasters that do.  The northern pine beetle has been devastating forests in the northern U.S. and Canada, killing trees at ten times the rate of any previous epidemic.  These beetles are highly evolved to be tree killing machines--they communicate and work together to do it.  But they were previously limited by cold temperatures in these northern mountains.  Now they aren't.  A 2012 New York Times story (when it still had environmental reporters) put it this way:

Because of warming in the West, the voracious mountain pine beetles have moved to higher elevations over the last 25 years. In the 1970’s they did not live at altitudes above 9,000 feet, but they are now found at 11,000 feet and even higher because winter temperatures there are not cold enough to kill them. It is a serious problem because trees above 9,000 feet have not evolved to deal with the bugs and therefore have few defenses. “

This was a story a year ago because it was about to get worse.  Some beetles were breeding twice in a summer instead of once.  Just this week forestry officials in South Dakota are meeting to make dealing with these beetles their top priority.

These kinds of effects of climate change can be the butterfly wings of the climate crisis: seemingly small perturbations that eventually make huge waves.

Thursday, March 14, 2013


I no longer am a Catholic.  As a Catholic or not, I've respected only one Pope as a spiritual leader, and that was Pope John XXIII.  (My favorite Vatican correspondent, Father Guido Sarducci, doesn't count.)  So I'm looking at the ongoing pope puffery with a jaundiced but experienced eye.

Blow away the smoke (white or otherwise) and Pope Francis looks a lot like Pope Benedict Lite: a reactionary on human rights issues who writes ineffective encyclicals on treating the poor better.  He's being promoted as an outsider, which (if I recall correctly) Benedict from Germany was when he was elected.  Yet the Vatican mess is worse than ever.

Of course he could be a surprise.  John XXIII was (or he wouldn't have been elected.)  But with a track record of silence (at best) and collaboration (at worse) during the horrors in Argentina when thousands were simply Disappeared, and an aggressive and high profile attempt to prevent equality for homosexuals in Argentina (he was unsuccessful), it would be a big surprise.  He may turn out to be inspired by Francis of Assisi.  Or he may turn out to be Francis the talking pope.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Political Climate

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If I did this right, this is a 9 minute plus clip from Rachel Maddow--a succinct big picture on climate crisis politics featuring a neat couple of minutes with Rep. Rush Holt, a nuclear physicist who is also a Member of Congress from New Jersey.  Talking about how we can't afford NOT to confront climate change, he says: "We're not a poor impoverished country--we just act like one.  We should be investing as though we believe there will be a future for us."

Sunday, March 10, 2013

More Gray, No Green

Over at A Plain Blog About Politics Jonathan Bernstein every Saturday asks the question, what mattered this week?  I was otherwise engaged for the weekend, so I'll make my answer here, especially since it's a strange one.  Of all the mostly idiotic things that happened last week, what may have mattered the most is the New York Times shutting down its climate information site, the Green Blog.  This follows the Times' shutting down its environmental news desk in January.

As Revkin points out in his note, the Times still maintains nine fashion blogs and eight sports blogs. But they couldn't be bothered with one on the most important elements in the fate of the planet.  (And I wonder, can Revkin's Dot Earth be far behind?)  What ever happened to that great gray lady responsibility?  She just couldn't think green.

This is a terrible time to be lacking in trustworthy places to find climate reporting.  There were so few sources to begin with, and now the newspaper site with the greatest clout has given up on that.  If the Times had continued, other newspapers with like ambitions would have to as well.  This is a setback.

We need a range, and we need some commitment.  Even while touting its Blue Marble enviro blog,  Mother Jones speculated that the Times action was because environmental news is inherently boring.  What I find inherently boring is progressive as well as regressive trendy cynicism, or the reflexive inflated coverage of every inconsequential stupid thing GOPers and other deniers say plus Joe Romm's ego trip at Climate Progress.  

Real Climate is really for climate scientists,  Grist can be good and also weightless, etc. Elizabeth Kolbert at the New Yorker is consistently solid and eloquent, but she alone is not enough. They all deserve a place in the mix, but where's the mix?  At least enough newspapers and other sites are covering the stories and studies they all believe are big stories that you can compare their reporting and analysis.  But how about a site that does its own reporting, or that can quickly evaluate what's really new in a particular research finding?

As for environmental news being boring, ask folks on Staten Island and on the Jersey shore how bored they are. Frightened certainly--and climate news can be frightening.  That's probably more to the point than "boring."  Less stress to read those nine blogs on fashion, and forget.