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Climate Change Education With New Card Game - Live Science

Featured News - Sun, 12/20/2015 - 12:00
Lamont-Doherty scientist Stephanie Pfirman helped to develop a game called EcoChains to teach children about our changing planet. She explains how it's played.

Alaska Landslide Was Among World's Biggest in Recent Years - Alaska Dispatch

Featured News - Fri, 12/18/2015 - 15:00
When 200 million metric tons of rock tumbled down a remote Southeast Alaska mountain in October, nobody was around to see it. Across the country, Lamont-Doherty seismologiests Colin Stark and Goran Ekstrom were able to pinpoint location, direction and size.

More Rain, Less Snow in Future El Niños - ABC

Featured News - Fri, 12/18/2015 - 12:00
Lamont-Doherty's Richard Seager says if this El Niño is similar to 1997-98, be prepared for dry conditions following. With warming temperatures, future El Niño will look much different, he says.

Setting Sail? Plan for the Unexpected

Sampling the Barren Sea - Fri, 12/18/2015 - 10:32
 Frankie Pavia

Stepping aboard. Photo: Frankie Pavia

By Frankie Pavia

Days -3 to 1, The delay: In the weeks before departing for my first scientific cruise, everyone I knew who had ever been to sea gave me some form of the same advice:
Nothing ever works the way you expect it to work at sea. Four days ago, their words lingered heavily in my head as I groggily walked to board my final connection to Antofagasta, Chile. I wondered to myself, “How can the unexpected happen when I have no idea what to expect in the first place?”

I am typing from my cabin aboard the FS Sonne, a German research vessel scheduled to depart on a scientific sampling cruise between Antofagasta, Chile, and Wellington, New Zealand, crossing the entire South Pacific, between Dec. 17 and Jan. 28. Fellow Lamont-Doherty graduate student Sebastian Vivancos and I will be measuring a variety of chemical tracers in the ocean for our Ph.D. theses on the cruise. The South Pacific is a bit of a unicorn for oceanographers—due to its remoteness, cruises rarely go there, making it hard to get samples. We were presented with the opportunity to collect seawater aboard the FS Sonne as part of the UltraPac program and jumped at the chance.

We arrived three days ago to load the ship, with the help our lab’s research technician and scientific cruise guru, Marty Fleisher. The expectation was that we would stay in a nearby hotel on the 14th and 15th, set up the ship, and on the 16th we would have everything ready to go, stay the night aboard the Sonne, and depart the next morning.

The answer to my first question was answered almost immediately. One of the bags filled with crucial last-minute additions to our sampling equipment was lost in transit by the airline company. After a massive series of calls emails, we had a tracking number, but no idea if the bag would arrive by the morning of the 17th when we would depart. Some of the things we could buy at a local hardware store, but some of it was likely too specialized. I, for one, have never seen a hardware store that sells pizza slicers made of ceramic.

 Frankie Pavia

Sitting by the dock of the bay: the FS Sonne. Photo: Frankie Pavia

Once again the unexpected struck. Upon meeting with the other scientists on the cruise, we quickly learned that everyone was missing their supplies. Everyone else’s supplies were scheduled to arrive on the 18th—the day after the cruise was scheduled to depart. Then the bombshell: spare parts for the ship were still at least four days away from arriving, and we couldn’t depart until we had them.

The presence of the unexpected was forcing me to realize what my expectations were in the first place. I had been incredibly anxious leading up to the cruise about leaving my life behind for two months while I went to sea with limited connection to the outside world. I was hoping that the solitude of the ocean and the engagement of constant scientific work would buffer that anxiety. The going is slow. There’s not much work to do until the parts get here and we depart. I’m living on the ship, but my journey hasn’t yet begun.

The best-case scenario is that we leave on Sunday. No one has said anything about the worst-case scenario yet, but there have been rumblings of a Christmas in Chile. That leaves somewhere between three more days and seven more days of the uncertain, and the unexpected grasping my life’s puppet strings, postponing the adventure.

Ice Rafts Traveling Farther, Faster across the Arctic Ocean - Science

Featured News - Thu, 12/17/2015 - 15:00
Climate change may be causing Arctic sea ice to travel farther and faster than it did 15 years ago, taking pollutants and other material along for the ride. Lamont-Doherty's Bob Newton described the changes at the American Geophysical Union 2015 meeting.

The Ominous Story of Syria's Climate Refugees - Scientific American

Featured News - Thu, 12/17/2015 - 11:39
Farmers who have escaped the battle-torn nation explain how drought and government abuse have driven social violence. Lamont-Doherty's Richard Seager discusses the climate connection.

Listen in: Sachs & Cohen on the Paris Agreement

The 2015 Paris Climate Summit - Wed, 12/16/2015 - 13:33
Jeffrey Sachs

Jeffrey Sachs

Earth Institute Director Jeffrey Sachs sat down with Brian Lehrer at WNYC on Tuesday to talk about what happens post-Paris. The climate talks are over, but the real work is just beginning. Sachs talks about the details of the agreement, what the implications are, and what obstacles we face moving forward on climate change.

Listen to the interview here.

Executive Director Steve Cohen was on WNYC on Monday talking with Soterios Johnson about the implications of the Paris accord on New York City. You can hear that interview here.

Restoring White Arctic Will Fall to Future Generations Who Never Knew It - AGU

Featured News - Wed, 12/16/2015 - 01:34
Scientists and policymakers have discussed for decades how to slow the rate of global warming and melting Arctic ice, but few have discussed how to restore the ice after it is lost. Cites a new analysis by Lamont's Robert Newton and Stephanie Pfirman.

Understanding the Paris Climate Accord and Its Implications

The 2015 Paris Climate Summit - Tue, 12/15/2015 - 17:14
The climate agreement is adopted.

The climate agreement is adopted.

On Saturday, Dec. 12, 2015, 195 countries reached a history-making agreement to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions in order to avert the direst effects of climate change. The groundbreaking pact requires that nearly every country, large and small, developed or developing, take action.

Here are some of the best and most reliable resources to help you understand the Paris accord and its implications.

The COP21 official site asserts that the rise in global temperature must be kept under 2˚C compared to pre-industrial levels to avoid the most catastrophic effects of climate change, and, establishes for the first time the aim to keep the temperature below 1.5˚ to protect island countries, which are most vulnerable to the risks of sea level rise.

The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change newsroom explained that the climate agreement encompasses mitigation, the effort to reduce emissions quickly enough to reach the temperature goal; a transparent and global stock-taking system to monitor progress; adaptation, to help countries deal with the impacts of climate change; loss and damage, to aid countries recovering from the impacts of climate change; and financial and technical support to help nations build sustainable resiliency.

To curb the temperature rise, countries submitted “nationally determined contributions” that indicate how much they will reduce their emissions and what actions they will take to do so, but these are not legally binding. The New York Times said that countries are legally bound by the agreement, however, to monitor and report on their emissions and progress, and ratchet up their efforts to reduce emissions in the future.

The climate pledges that have been made thus far will not cut emissions enough to keep below the 2˚ target, so beginning in 2018, countries must submit new plans every five years that increase their emissions reductions, reported CNN. There is, however, no mechanism to punish any country that violates its commitment.

The New York Times examined some salient points of the agreement. The aspiration to stay below 1.5˚ C as part of the 2˚ limit makes this temperature increase target more ambitious than those in the past. Forests must be preserved with incentives continued to reduce deforestation and forest degradation that increase emissions. A transparent system will be established to evaluate implementation of the countries’ nationally determined contributions; and countries must come up with increasingly ambitious reduction targets every five years. The parties are encouraged to reach a peak of greenhouse gas emissions as soon as possible. The agreement also recognizes loss and damage resulting from climate change impacts. And while the agreement does not set forth a specific dollar amount, the developed countries are encouraged to provide and marshal financing from various sources to help developing countries.

Developed countries agreed to continue their commitment to provide $100 billion a year from 2020 until 2025, after which financing will increase. However the $100 billion figure does not appear in the legally binding part of the agreement .

National Geographic took a look at some of the surprises, as well as the winners and losers of the climate agreement.

The International Energy Agency estimated that fulfilling all the climate pledges would entail investments of $13.5 trillion in energy efficiency and low-carbon technologies between 2015 and 2030. If $3 trillion more were invested, the temperature increase could be held to 2˚ C. While $16.5 trillion sounds like a huge sum, the world is projected to spend $68 trillion anyway by 2040 on energy systems. The climate agreement ensures that the investments will go towards low-carbon technologies.

Each country will decide how best to fulfill its climate pledge. The Deep Decarbonization Pathways Project, an initiative of the Sustainable Development Solutions Network, has put together research teams from the world’s biggest greenhouse gas emitting countries that are developing concrete and detailed strategies for reducing emissions in their countries.

The World Resources Institute’s analysis of the accord said that it presents a new model of international cooperation where developed and developing countries are united and engaged in a common goal. The agreement also signals the recognition that acting to stem climate change can provide tremendous opportunities and benefits.

The accord will be open for signature at the United Nations headquarters in New York City from April 22, 2016 to April 21, 2017, with a high-level signature ceremony on April 22, 2016. It will be in force once it has been ratified by 55 countries, representing at least 55 percent of emissions.

Secretary of State Kerry addresses the country delegates after adoption of the agreement

Secretary of State John Kerry addresses the country delegates after adoption of the agreement

REACTIONS TO THE CLIMATE AGREEMENT

Around the world, countries hailed the accord, while most newspaper editorial boards cheered the historic agreement and praised their own countries’ negotiators.

The Los Angeles Times questioned whether the countries of the world could truly work together to stay within the 2˚ target and if even the aspirational 1.5˚ goal was low enough to save us from catastrophic impacts, but called it a “good moment for the planet.”

The Washington Post said that the agreement will challenge climate deniers to “explain not only why they reject science but also why they would harm the U.S. standing in the world by seeking to slow the progress so many countries are making.”

The Wall Street Journal asserted that the accord would make the world poorer and slow technological progress. It is betting that the agreement will not make an impact on global temperatures because the commitments to reduce emissions are not legally binding.

Many businesses, such as Coca-Cola, DuPont, General Mills, HP and Unilever are supportive of the agreement, recognizing that the policies developed in accord with the Paris agreement would bring more certainty to investors and generate business opportunities, reported The New York Times. The climate agreement sends a strong signal to businesses and investors that the fossil fuel era is on its way out.

Over 100 corporations pledged to reduce their carbon emissions in the effort to support the climate agreement’s 2˚ target. InsideClimate News reported that companies like Wal-Mart, IKEA, Honda, Unilever and Xerox are participating in the new initiative organized by the World Resources Institute, World Wildlife Fund, Carbon Disclosure Project and the UN Global Compact.

Reuters provided a sampling of reactions by prominent political and business leaders around the world.

Paul Krugman, Nobel Prize-winning economist and New York Times op-ed columnist, said that despite the challenges that still exist, there is reason to believe the agreement can change the world’s trajectory because the costs of renewable energy have fallen so dramatically. This means reducing emissions will cost much less than was previously assumed.

Michael Mann, climatologist, geophysicist and Distinguished Professor of Meteorology at Pennsylvania State University, said, “One cannot understate the importance of the agreement arrived at in Paris. For the first time, world leaders have faced up to the stark warnings that climate scientists have been issuing for years instead of shrinking away with denial and delay.”

Bill McKibben, the founder of 350.org, the global climate campaign, called the climate pledges “modest.” While they might have kept the planet at 1.5˚ back in 1995 when the first climate conference occurred, he said, now we need to proceed at breakneck speed, leaving most of the remaining fossil fuels in the ground and transitioning to renewable energy as soon as possible.

James Hansen, former NASA scientist and leading climate scientist, called the agreement a “fraud” and “a fake.” Without a mechanism, such as a carbon tax, to drive up the cost of fossil fuels, he said, they will continue to be the cheapest fuels available and continue to be burned.

Representative Lamar Smith, R-Texas, chairman of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee, contended the Paris climate accord will slow economic growth in the U.S., raise electricity bills and have little impact on the environment. He believes the answer lies in relying on technological advances.

According to a 2014 report, climate denialism is more prevalent in the United States than in any other country in the world.

Many Republicans have vowed to fight President Obama’s climate agenda, The Wall Street Journal reported. Moreover, most of the Republican presidential candidates if elected, would work to undo Obama’s executive actions to deal with climate change. Because of the way the climate agreement is structured, however, it does not need to be approved by Congress.

Meanwhile, Bill Gates and other tech leaders such as Mark Zuckerberg, Richard Branson, Jeff Bezos and Jack Ma have established the Breakthrough Energy Coalition, committing billions of dollars to invest in early stage, high-risk, breakthrough energy companies because the world needs reliable, affordable, clean energy. They will also invest in Mission Innovation, a consortium of 20 countries, including the U.S., that have pledged to double their investment in clean energy over the next five years.

Eiffel_markDixon

The Paris climate agreement is momentous and historic because the countries of the world have been struggling to deal with climate change for over 20 years. In 1992, numerous countries first joined an international treaty, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, to figure out how they could limit global temperature increases and cope with the impacts of climate change. Here is the history of earlier attempts to negotiate an effective agreement to deal with climate change.

 

VIDEOS

A standing ovation for the acceptance of the Paris accord 

President Obama announces the historic climate agreement

The World Bank Group’s president, Jim Yong Kim, on the climate agreement and its implications for business and investment:

Felipe Calderon, former president of Mexico, discusses the difference between the 2009 climate conference and COP21 with Tom Friedman, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist

Secretary of State John Kerry talks to Tom Friedman about China’s climate progress

The meetings of COP21

A message from the world’s astronauts to COP21

New App Explores Ice & Sea Level Change through Time

American Geophysical Union Fall Meeting - Tue, 12/15/2015 - 15:39
 Sea Level

Sea level trends, 1955-2012, from the app Polar Explorer: Sea Level

Why does sea level change at different rates? How has it changed in the past? Who will be at risk from more extreme weather and sea level rise in the future? Our scientists often hear questions like these from students, government officials and the media.

To help share the answers more widely, we created a new app that lets users explore a series of maps of the planet, from the deepest trenches in the oceans to the ice at the poles. You can see how ice, the oceans, precipitation and temperatures have changed over time and listen as scientists explain what you’re seeing and why.

“We wanted to make climate data accessible and engaging to the public, for everyone from students to interested adults. The data is displayed in interactive maps with just enough guidance to support independent exploration,” said Margie Turrin, education coordinator at Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, who designed the free app called “Polar Explorer: Sea Level” with Bill Ryan, Robin Bell, Dave Porter and Andrew Goodwillie. She is presenting the just-released app this week at the American Geophysical Union meeting in San Francisco.

 Sea Level app

Map and explanation of Antarctica’s elevation.

Turrin leads science education programs with schools across the New York and hands-on public projects, including monitoring the health of the Hudson River Estuary. She and Ryan created the app with broad-based education in mind and have found a welcome reception from middle and high school teachers, undergraduate science instructors, and the inquisitive public. The app pulls global information from databases created by internationally respected scientific organizations, including the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, the U.S. Geological Survey and the Center for Earth Science Information Network (CIESEN) at Lamont.

The app starts with the basics: How and why we study the remnants of old shore lines, what the sea floor looks like, and why the ocean is not actually flat.

It then looks more closely at how the oceans differ from region to region and how they have changed over time in temperature, salinity and sea level. It explores the role of the atmosphere and changes in temperature, radiation and rainfall over time. Flip quickly through the rainfall map month to month over the past three years, and you’ll clearly see the rain band across the tropics and time-lapse of how areas of rain change over time.

In exploring the contribution of glaciers and ice sheets to sea level rise, you can find the largest glaciers in the world and see how the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets changed over a decade. If the Greenland Ice Sheet, which sits on land, were to completely melt, it would raise sea level by 6 to 7 meters. The app explains why and then looks at the impact.

 Sea Level

Economic risk from flooding.

Data from CIESIN and other organizations takes these scientific explanations the next step: it explores the impact of sea level rise, flooding and extreme weather on communities around the world. The app answers questions about who is vulnerable by looking at population density, low-lying coastlines and islands, and historic hurricane and cyclone tracks, and storm surges over the past 135 years. The data also maps areas of the U.S., China, and other parts of Asia that will be most vulnerable to economic losses as extreme weather increases and sea levels rise.

Sea level change is a topic that brings together complex science with both societal and economic impacts. Tying together the range of physical science interactions and matching them to the implications for human populations is important, and yet not always easy to do. The app was designed to pull together the data and putting it straight into peoples’ hands to explore and interact with.

While the dynamic data is primarily from recent decades, the app also draws in historical data to help tell the story of climate change through past centuries. It lets you compare three periods – 1700, before the Industrial Revolution; 5,000 years ago, during the mid-Holocene; and an interglacial period 125,000 years ago when temperatures were warmer than today. You can see air temperatures, sea surface temperatures, salinity, precipitation, evaporation, ice thickness and ice concentration at each point in time. You can also explore how large ice sheets in North America and Europe receded over the time span from 20,000 years ago to 5,000 years ago.

“Polar Explorer: Sea Level” works well in formal and informal education settings, but it holds lessons for everyone interested in understanding more about our planet, the climate and how and why sea level is rising, Turrin said.

The app is currently available for the ipad and an iphone version is due out in a few days. A browser version is also available for classrooms and seminars. You can download the app at http://www.polarexplorer.org.

Testing the Speed of Lava: What It Says about Escape Times & Mars

American Geophysical Union Fall Meeting - Mon, 12/14/2015 - 18:45

Understanding how lava flows is critical when homes and roads are in a lava flow’s path. A community may have a day to evacuate, or its residents may have a week or more, with enough time to move what they can to safer ground.

At Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, post-doctoral research scientist Elise Rumpf has been developing experiments to test how quickly and in what patterns lava flows over different types of material, such as sand, gravel or larger rocks. (Watch the videos below to see some of the differences.)

The experiments show that there are clear differences in velocity, which many lava flow models overlook, Rumpf explained in a talk today at the American Geophysical Union meeting in San Francisco. In the short audio clip above she describes those differences, how she and colleagues are able to simulate lava flows, and what their findings mean for communities near volcanoes.

Rumpf’s work on lava also has wider applications beyond the Earth’s surface.

By understanding how lava moves over different materials on this planet, scientists can study images and data of other planets and have a better idea of those planets’ volcanic evolution and the surfaces hidden beneath their lava flows. In the second audio clip, Rumpf explains how a behavior sometimes seen when lava flows over melting permafrost in Iceland is helping scientists understand features spotted on Mars.

 

 

Learn more about Elise Rumpf’s work with Lava in Iceland and about other work underway at Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory.

Catch Up on the Latest in Earth Science with AGU Sessions Live Online

American Geophysical Union Fall Meeting - Mon, 12/14/2015 - 01:30

Peter Kelemen in Oman

The American Geophysical Union’s Fall Meeting opens this morning in San Francisco, where for the next week, more than 20,000 scientists will be giving presentations, joining discussions and, perhaps most importantly, meeting with collaborators to develop new research ideas and form future research teams during the largest Earth and space sciences meeting in the world.

You don’t have to be in the room to catch up on the research being presented. Several sessions, including those listed by date and time below, will be live-streamed through AGU On-Demand. We also will be tweeting from @LamontEarth, using #AGU15, and posting on Facebook to share details and related links from presentations, posters and awards throughout the week.

The presentations during the meetings will include the work of more than 100 scientists from Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory. Among them, Park Williams will be discussing his latest research on the connections between rising temperatures and the California drought; the ROSETTA-Ice and IcePod team will be sharing findings from their just-completed mapping flights over Antarctica’s Ross Ice Shelf; and Robin Bell will be convening a session on the future of Antarctic and Southern Ocean research. Marine geologist Suzanne Carbotte also will be honored as a 2015 AGU Fellow.

You can watch the following sessions involving Lamont scientists live online at AGU On-Demand (all times are Pacific Standard Time):

Monday, Dec. 14

8 a.m. – 8:45 a.m. PST – Causes of the California Drought
Richard Seager, starting at 8 a.m., and Park Williams, starting at 8:30, present their latest research on the causes of the 2011-2015 California drought and the role of anthropogenic warming. Their paper earlier this year suggested that rising global temperatures had worsened the drought by as much as 27 percent.
AGU On-Demand Channel: Extreme Events and Hazards

8 a.m. – 10 a.m. PST – Ice Sheets and Sea Level Rise During Past Warm Periods
Alessio Rovere convenes a session with a series of presentations on research into historic sea level rise and ice sheet changes in the past and what those findings tell us about the future. Maureen Raymo is a co-author of a paper being discussed about how dynamic topography could have influenced the stability of the Antarctic Ice Sheet during the Mid-Pliocene Warm period.
AGU On-Demand Channel: Earth Discovery

2:55 p.m. – 3:10 p.m. PST – Strain on the Lesser Antilles Megathrust
Belle Philibosian, in a session on tectonic evolution and earthquake risks, will be presenting her work using coral microatolls to model the underlying strain accumulation on the Lesser Antilles megathrust. Her findings contrast with recent models suggesting that little or no strain has been accumulating along the subduction zone near the Caribbean island group that includes Dominica, St. Lucia and Martinique.
AGU On-Demand Channel: Extreme Events and Hazards

Tuesday, Dec. 15

1:40 p.m. – 3:40 p.m. PST – Future-Proofing 20th Century Science Records
Kerstin Lehnert convenes a two-hour session of presentations on data management as technology changes. She also is a coauthor of a paper being presented on preserving the science legacy of the Apollo missions to the moon.
AGU On-Demand Channel: Union

Wednesday, Dec. 16

1:40 p.m. – 3:40 p.m. PST – Extreme Weather and the Changing Polar Climate
Xiaojun Yuan convenes a session on extratropical and high-latitude storms, teleconnections, extreme weather, and the changing polar climate. Karen Smith is the coauthor of paper being presented on the impact Arctic amplification could have on weather and climate in the mid-latitudes of the Northern Hemisphere.
AGU On-Demand Channel: Climate

4 p.m. – 6 p.m. PST – The Impact of Fracking on Water Quality
Beizhan Yan, with coauthors Martin Stute, Steve Chillrud and James Ross, have been analyzing ions found in water samples from gas wells in Pennsylvania, possibly related to hydraulic fracturing. Starting at 4:45 p.m., Yan presents their latest results during a session exploring environmental impacts of hydraulic fracturing.
AGU On-Demand Channel: Natural Resources

Thursday, Dec. 17

2:40 p.m. – 2:55 p.m. PST – Friction in Subduction Zones
Hannah Rabinowitz, working with Heather Savage, discusses how carbonate-rich layers of sediment can impact the frictional behavior of subduction zones.
AGU On-Demand Channel: Extreme Events and Hazards

Learn more about the work underway at Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory.

Making sense of megafauna: The canyon hypothesis

Chasing Microbes in Antarctica - Sun, 12/13/2015 - 08:16

Earlier in the week we had our orca show, yesterday this was the view of the top of our boat ramp:

A group of elephant seals lounges at the top of the Palmer Station boat ramp.

In fact that view hasn’t changed.  From the science office I can just make out the penguin colony on Torgersen Island, and there are plenty of their flying relatives around.  Does every bay on the Antarctic Peninsula look like this?  Or is there something special about the location of Palmer Station?

The answer is a little of both.  Certainly the West Antarctic Peninsula has more marine megafauna than just about anywhere else on Earth.  My experience from the Palmer LTER cruise two years ago was that seals and penguins are fairly ubiquitous along the coast.  That is not to say that they are equally distributed however, and the site for Palmer Station was selected in part for the high concentration of animals here – perhaps most visibly the Torgersen Island penguin colony.

The bathymetery of the canyon leading into Montery Bay.

The bathymetery of Monterey Canyon, terminating at the Salinas River at the head of the bay.  Image from the website of the Naval Postgraduate School at https://savage.nps.edu/Savage/Locations/MontereyBayCalifornia/_pages/page03.html.

A lot of work has gone into understanding how and why marine fauna is distributed along the West Antarctic Peninsula, and this has given rise to what is called the canyon hypothesis.  Anyone who’s ever been to Monterey Bay, California or read John Steinbeck’s famous novel Cannery Row is already familiar with the role that submarine canyons can play in marine ecology.  In the case of Monterey Bay dense schools of sardines congregate (or rather congregated, before they were all fished out) at the head of a deep marine canyon that cuts across the continental shelf.  Sardines, much like krill in the Antarctic, are a critical intermediate in the food web, being small enough to feed on nearly-microscopic plankton and large enough to serve as a practical food source for big predatory fish, seals, and whales.

Sardines concentrate at the head of Monterey Canyon because their food source concentrates there.  If we follow that logic further down the food web we reach a point where abundant nutrients, namely phosphorous, nitrogen, and silicate, support the growth of phytoplankton.  These are fed on by small zooplankton, which in turn are fed on by sardines, and the biomass is slowly channeled up the foodweb.  So the distribution of megafauna is dependent on the distribution of nutrients, but what do canyons have to do with all this?

Throughout the world’s oceans deep water is generally more nutrient rich than surface water.  In the photic zone, the portion of the water column that has enough light to support photosynthesis, nutrients are quickly used up by phytoplankton.  By contrast in the deep, dark ocean there is no photosynthesis, and the bacterial degradation of organic matter sinking out of the photic-zone releases a considerable fraction of these nutrients back into the water column.  Generally the deeper the water the older it is, and the longer it has had to accumulate nutrients.  Places in the ocean where this deep, nutrient-rich water reaches the surface are highly productive and are often famous for their fisheries.

Coastal upwelling site, where nutrient-rich deep water is returned to the photic zone.  Figure taken from

Coastal upwelling sites, where nutrient-rich deep water is returned to the photic zone. Figure taken from Capon and Hutchins, 2013.  Notable upwelling sites are circled in white and include the (clockwise from top-left) California current, Canary, Benguela, and Peruvian upwelling systems.

Much of this upwelling of deep nutrient-rich water is caused by a geophysical phenomenon called Ekman transport.  Locally however, marine canyons can provide an additional opportunity for upwelling by channeling deep water onto and across the continental shelf.  Returning to Palmer Station, let’s take a look at the bathymetery of Arthur Harbor:

The Bathymetry of Arthur Harbor, reconstructed from data collected by Philippe Tortell.

The Bathymetry of Arthur Harbor, reconstructed from data collected by Philippe Tortell.  Station B, one of the regular LTER sampling sites, is shown by an open circle (Station E, our other regular sampling site, is off the map along a trajectory 160 degrees from Station B).  The green area that terminates at Station B is the head of a network of marine canyons.

We have nothing like the detailed bathymetery of Monterey Canyon, probably one of the best-studied submarine canyons in the world, but you don’t need ultra-high resolution to make out the network of submarine canyons snaking into Arthur Harbor.  These canyons don’t cut to the phenomenal depth of Monterey Canyon, but due to the unique setting of the coastal Antarctic they don’t need to.  Away from the immediate coastal area surface waters around Antarctica are iron limited.  This is the result of limited dust deposition and a lack of rivers.  Because of this iron limitation nitrogen, silicate, and phosphate are less likely to be drawn down.  Submarine canyons along the West Antarctic Peninsula are able to channel intermediate-depth nutrient-rich water from offshore areas right into coastal bays and fjords.  The result is a convergence of iron-rich nearshore water and macronutrient-rich offshore water and high biological productivity.

Ashley and Chelsea take one of the Schoefield group's gliders for a test swim in advance of deployments later this month.

Ashley and Chelsea take one of the Schofield group’s gliders for a test swim in advance of deployments later this month.

Of course the penguins and seals know all this, but it’s taken us a while to figure it out.  Oscar Schofield‘s group in the Palmer LTER project has done some really amazing work with gliders to validate the canyon hypothesis; tagging penguins from Torgesen Island and programming gliders equipped with bio-optical sensors to follow the penguins to their feeding grounds.  Not surprisingly the penguins feed on krill that congregate at the head of the submarine canyon, just as sardines congregate in Monterey Bay.  We are still data-limited for much of the West Antarctic Peninsula, but there seems to be a remarkable correlation between the locations of penguin colonies and major submarine canyons, suggesting that the canyon hypothesis is not limited to Arthur Harbor.

As I’m writing this Nicole, Ashley, and Chelsea are back at Station B in an attempt to return to our bi-weekly sampling program.  Boating was shut down for most of the week from ice and/or high winds, and winds and warmer temperatures have finally succeeded in breaking up much of the fast ice in Arthur Harbor.  After six weeks our ice station is finally gone, and in less than two weeks Jamie and I will be gone as well!

What is the U.S. Commitment in Paris?

The 2015 Paris Climate Summit - Fri, 12/11/2015 - 08:55

US emissions chartThe United States has joined 185 countries in promising to curb carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas emissions, develop other ways to mitigate the impacts and to make communities more resilient to climate change. These proposals, called the “Intended Nationally Determined Contributions,” have been submitted to the United Nations prior to 12 days of negotiations going on now in Paris.

At the opening of the talks Monday, President Obama told the gathering, “I’ve come here personally as the leader of the world’s largest economy and the second largest emitter [of greenhouse gases] to say that the United States not only recognizes its role in creating this problem, we embrace our responsibility to do something about it.”

So what exactly is the United States proposing to do?

The United States has committed to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 26-28 percent below the 2005 level in 2025, and to make “best efforts” to reduce emissions by 28 percent. That would include curbs on carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, perfluorocarbons, sulfur hexafluoride and nitrogen trifluoride, all of which contribute to global warming.

How will we do that? The United States already is taking measures that will help reduce emissions. The nation can continue that effort by becoming more efficient in how we use energy in everything from buildings and cars to washing machines and cell phones; using a greater portion of alternative energies like solar and wind over fossil fuels; and developing better technologies for energy storage, and for the capture, storage and recycling of carbon.

All of that could take place through a combination of laws, regulations and incentives—Congress and the courts willing. That includes regulations under the Clean Air Act that would force electric power plants to reduce their carbon emissions; and grants and tax incentives to propel the development of more alternative energy sources like wind and solar power.

The power sector now accounts for 31 percent of U.S. emissions. Efforts to upgrade the electricity grid to better accommodate intermittent sources like solar and wind would help, as would development of better energy storage technologies.

The efforts to date have put the U.S. on a path to reduce emissions 17 percent below the 2005 level by 2020. To reach the new 2025 goal, the nation will have to double the pace.

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U.S. greenhouse gas emissions by economic sector. Source: EPA

Here’s a look at key ways we’re cutting emissions:

Fuel economy standards: Transportation accounts for about 27 percent of U.S. emissions. The government has been setting “corporate average fuel economy” standards since 1975—requiring automakers to meet an average miles-per-gallon standard for their products (with exceptions), or pay a penalty. The U.S. has adopted new standards for light-duty vehicles produced between 2012 and 2025, and for heavy duty vehicles for 2014-2018. The U.S. Department of Transportation and the Environmental Protection Agency are preparing to set new standards for heavy-duty vehicles post 2018.

Buildings and appliances: The Department of Energy is preparing measures to curb emissions by setting energy conservation standards for appliances and other types of equipment, and building code standards for commercial and residential buildings. Many of these standards already exist; they are likely to become stronger.

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U.S. greenhouse gas emissions by type. Source: EPA

Power plants: 31 percent of greenhouse gas emissions come from the production of electricity, most of which relies on fossil fuels, mostly natural gas and coal. The Clean Power Plan established by the EPA under the Clean Air Act sets goals for each state to cut carbon pollution, and allows states to come up with their own plans to meet those goals. The plan is likely to greatly reduce reliance on coal, which is the most polluting fuel. The plan has been challenged in Congress and the courts.

Other greenhouse gases: The EPA has pushed for other ways to reduce emissions of other greenhouse gases, such as methane, nitrous oxide, perfluorocarbons, sulfur hexafluoride, and nitrogen trifluoride. The EPA is developing standards to address methane emissions from landfills and the oil and gas sector.

Financial and aid commitments: The U.S. already has pledged $3 billion to the Green Climate Fund, an international pool of funding intended to help countries adopt less-polluting energy sources and cut emissions. This week, Secretary of State John Kerry told the climate gathering that the United States also will double its commitment to $861 million in grant-based investments to help developing nations find ways to adapt to climate change. To what extent the U.S. Congress will go along with that remains to be seen.

To see the U.S. commitment, visit this site; and for an analysis, take a look at this blog post at the World Resources Institute site.

For a good overview of what different nations are saying they will do, try this site. http://cait.wri.org/indc/.

And what about other countries? Here are examples from key players:

The European Union: Similar to the United States, the EU has pledged to reduce emissions. They have committed to a target of at least 40 percent domestic emissions reductions below 1990 by 2030. The EU emphasizes the importance of transparency of accounting and reporting of emissions in quantitative assessments. The EU proposal does not specifically mention how the member countries plan to accomplish the goal.

There are challenges unique to each country in the EU. France is heavily dependent on nuclear energy, which should give them a boost. Germany on the other hand has been moving away from nuclear energy, and is committed to broadening its renewable energy portfolio, but has been hampered by higher energy prices.

China: China is the leading emitter of greenhouse gases. And, the country’s proposal includes measure aimed at climate change mitigation, adaptation, finance, technology development and transfer, capacity building and transparency of action and support. The country says it will reduce CO2 emissions per unit of GDP—known as carbon intensity—by 60 to 65 percent below 2005 levels by 2030. That means its energy consumption will continue to grow, but they plan to use it more efficiently, before they hope to peak energy use in 2030. China also plans to increase forest carbon stock volume by around 4.5 billion cubic meters from 2005 levels by 2030. In other words, they will plant a lot of trees that can soak up carbon from the atmosphere, mitigating some of the added energy they will be using.

According to an analysis by the World Resources Institute, “increasing forest carbon stocks by 4.5 billion cubic meters implies an increase in forest cover of 50-100 million hectares (124-247 million acres) of forest, or about two to four times the size of the United Kingdom. This amount of forest would create a roughly 1-gigaton carbon sink, equivalent to stopping tropical deforestation for almost a full year, or taking 770 million cars off the road.”

India: India is particularly interesting to look at because of its growing population. As a developing nation, India is concerned with how it can develop while lowering the emissions intensity—the amount of emissions per capital or per unit of production. They hope to accomplish decreased emissions with financial help from developed nations, who have been responsible for the bulk of greenhouse gas emissions over the past 150 years.

India hopes to reduce emissions intensity of its GDP by 33-35 percent by 2030, and achieve 40 percent cumulative electric power installed capacity from non-fossil fuel based energy resources by 2030 with the help of transfer technology and low-cost international financing from the Green Climate Fund. That fund was set up by the UN to help developing countries mitigate and adapt to climate change.

Jennifer Sweeney, an intern at The Earth Institute, contributed research and writing for this post.

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Optimism, But Also a Hard Bottom Line for Island States

The 2015 Paris Climate Summit - Thu, 12/10/2015 - 13:23
 Kadra Rayale, Rija Rasul, Tong, Vidya Nair and Laura Maxwell.

Students from the University of Waterloo in Canada had a breakfast meeting with the Kiribati delegation and met the island nation’s president, Anote Tong, on Dec. 6. From left: Kadra Rayale, Rija Rasul, Tong, Vidya Nair and Laura Maxwell.

Four students in the Masters in Public Administration in Development Practice program at the University of Waterloo in Canada are in Paris for the UN climate summit to represent the Republic of Kiribati. The small island nation is one of several threatened by sea level rise.

This week they have been sitting in on various thematic discussions. Rija Rasul reports she has attended climate finance discussions. Her colleagues Laura Maxwell and Kadra Rayale have been in sessions on adaptation to, and loss and damage from climate change. Vidya Nair has been in discussions about technology and capacity building.

“We are looking at [these topics] from the perspective of small island developing states, including Kiribati,” Rajul said. “Collectively, small island developing states have brought forward a strong voice at the table in regards to the above four thematic areas, because for them, it is an issue of survival.”

The talks are meant to wind up Friday, and the students are hopeful.

“Reaching an agreement would firstly mean an increase in awareness for the particular situation faced by small island developing states,” Rajul said. “States such as Kiribati are on the front line of climate change since they are already experiencing its effects, and an agreement would enhance recognition of [their] vulnerability.”

 Eskinder Debebe/UN

Kiribati faces the prospect of eventual inundation from sea level rise. Photo: Eskinder Debebe/UN

Many nations, particularly some of those most vulnerable to climate impacts, are calling for the agreement to recognize the need to keep global warming to 1.5 degrees C. Going into negotiations, the target was 2˚C over the pre-industrial-era average, which many feel is an upper limit needed to avoid the worst effects of climate change. Many feel 2˚C is not ambitious enough.

According to The Guardian news website, “Trinidad and Tobago’s delegate warned the Paris agreement would be ‘seriously flawed’ if it did not stick to an ambitious 1.5˚C target to limiting warming. Barbados offered even stronger language, warning: ‘We will not sign off any agreement that represents a certain extinction of our people.’ “

Rising sea levels have already engulfed large areas of Kiribati, and nearly a quarter of the country’s population has had to move, according to reporting by IRIN, an independent news website that focuses on humanitarian issues.

“What we need is a boost from the international community to lift us out of the water,” Tong told delegates in Paris, according to a story on the IRIN site. Tong and other leaders of similar states are pushing for the final Paris agreement to include measures that would facilitate migration as an adaptation to climate change threats and build capacity to cope with natural disasters and displacement. That will require significant financial support from the international community, IRIN reports.

According to The Guardian, Tong remained upbeat: “I’ve always said we need to come away from Paris with a deal that would ensure the survival of people. Nobody left behind—that’s the mission all along. This is quite a long way from where we started. It’s coming together.”

COP21_ad1Another contentious point is to what degree wealthier nations will contribute money to help poorer nations adapt. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has said the United States would double its commitment to help countries already under threat.

“There are countries … for which climate change is an existential threat today,” Kerry told the Paris gathering on Dec. 9. “For them, this isn’t a matter of annexes or peak years—it’s a matter of life and death. …

“One of the hard realities that we’re facing is that our collective delay now means that some of the impacts of climate change can’t be reversed,” Kerry said. “We have a moral responsibility to adapt and prepare for those impacts and enable the most vulnerable among us to be able to do the same.”

“We have definitely seen an increase in optimism as the days progress,” Rajul said. “And although negotiations are ongoing, we are hopeful for an ambitious agreement, which in turn would hopefully lead to increased resilience and capacity building.”

The Earth Institute’s Masters in Public Administration in Development Practice at Columbia University is part of a global association of related programs, including the one at the University of Waterloo. To find out more about the global association, go here.

Sea Level Rise: How Much, How Fast?

The 2015 Paris Climate Summit - Thu, 12/10/2015 - 11:33
 NOAA

Iceberg off Antarctica. Photo: NOAA

The Science, Revisited

In a past State of the Planet article, we looked at a paper written by James Hansen, director of the Program on Climate Science, Awareness and Solutions, and 16 other researchers warning of potentially dire affects of global warming. In the paper, Hansen argues that unless carbon emissions are drastically reduced, sea level rise caused by melting glaciers in Antarctica and Greenland could have catastrophic effects on coastal regions. Although the claim Hansen is making is one that scientists have long been arguing for, the evidence that he and his team put together in a paper published this summer suggests that things may be worse that we think.

By studying modeled climate evidence from the Eemian period (the last interglacial period, when temperatures were warmer than today) the team concluded that the warming going on today risks setting off “feedbacks” in the climate system. These feedbacks include changes in ocean circulation and the speed at which ice sheets may collapse. Just how much will this affect us, and how fast? The paper argues that sea levels could rise 10 feet within the next 50 to 100 years.

Visit the full scientific paper here to learn more about the research. Hansen is the former head of the NASA-Goddard Institute for Space Studies.

COP21_ad1This post is part of an ongoing series devoted to re-addressing important science stories in order to better inform our readership of the science and its consequences as the UN climate negotiations in Paris continue.

What Is Ocean Acidification & Why Does It Matter?

The 2015 Paris Climate Summit - Wed, 12/09/2015 - 19:14

As excess carbon dioxide is absorbed into the oceans, it is starting to have profound effects on marine life, from oysters to tiny snails at the base of the food chain.

Oysters raised on the mud flats of the U.S. Pacific Northwest are prized by restaurants around the country, but starting around 2007, the Pacific oyster population went into crisis. The oysters were hatching, but they weren’t secreting shells quickly enough to protect themselves. Without shells, the young oysters were vulnerable, and large numbers didn’t survive.

Biologists traced the problem to changing chemistry in the ocean – the water was becoming more acidic and currents were bringing in water that contained less of a calcium carbonate mineral called aragonite that oysters need to build their shells.

“Ocean acidification has been called the evil twin of global warming. It is the other carbon dioxide problem. As we increase the acidity of sea water, it has an effect on organisms,” said Bärbel Hönisch, a biologist and oceanographer at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory. She explains ocean acidification and its effects in more detail in the video above, and discusses how scientists use ancient shells from the sea floor to understand how ocean chemistry has changed over time and could change in the future in the second video, below.

Ocean acidification itself is a fairly simple chemical process. As carbon dioxide (CO2) dissolves in water (H2O), it creates carbonic acid (H2CO3), which is a weak acid. Carbonic acid dissociates into hydrogen ions (H+) and bicarbonate ions (HCO3-1), and the hydrogen ions bond with carbonate ions (CO3-2) in the water. In the oceans, many sea creatures with calcium carbonate skeletons and shells also rely on those carbonate ions for aragonite and calcite to build their skeletons and shells.

Studies show that as carbon dioxide levels have increased in the atmosphere over the past two centuries, seawater has become less saturated with aragonite and calcite. The average pH of seawater has fallen from about 8.2 to 8.1, about a 30 percent increase in acidity on pH’s logarithmic scale.

In the Pacific Northwest, once biologists discovered the source of the oysters’ troubles, they were able to work with oyster growers to develop workarounds to help the oysters grow. Some timed spawning to afternoons, when photosynthetic activity would be higher and more carbon dioxide would be taken up in the water around the hatcheries. By carefully monitoring the acidity of the water brought into the oyster pools, they could also add carbonate to the water as needed and then move the growing oysters to the mud flats after their shells started to form.

For other marine life, however, there is no escape from ocean acidification.

“Ocean acidification has effects, in the end, for our food chain. We see it in pteropods – tiny marine snails are an important source of food for juvenile Pacific salmon. They are growing thinner shells, and the shells malform under acidified conditions. We see it in sea urchins; in crabs. We see it in a number of organisms that secrete calcium carbon shells; they are having a hard time making their shells,” Hönisch said.

Those changes play out in different ways in different parts of the oceans.

The climatological mean distribution of pH in the global ocean surface water in February 2005. The “+” symbol indicates areas affected by El Niño events. (Takahashi et al., 2014)

The climatological mean distribution of pH in the global ocean surface water in February 2005. On the pH scale, 7 is neutral. (Takahashi et al., 2014)

A global study in 2014 led by Lamont’s Taro Takahashi mapped acidification changes around the world and found the lowest pH levels in the cold waters off Siberia and Alaska, the Pacific Northwest and Antarctica. The scientists found that over extensive ocean areas, excluding the polar regions, pH had been declining by a mean rate of about 0.02 pH units per decade. The concentration of CO2 had been increasing at a rate of about 19 μatm per decade, consistent with the mean increase of 19 ppm per decade in atmospheric CO2 concentration over the past 20 years.

“This suggests that the global oceans are being acidified primarily in response to the atmospheric CO2 increase,” Takahashi and his co-authors write.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration found similar results in 2015, looking specifically at aragonite concentrations. Cold water holds more carbon dioxide, and the scientists found that the Arctic Ocean, northern Pacific and Antarctic waters were acidifying faster than other areas. All of the world’s oceans, from the surface down to 50 meters, are still considered supersaturated with aragonite, but the levels have declined globally, the NOAA study found. At depths down to 100 meters, NOAA found that aragonite saturation had fallen by an average rate of about 0.4 percent per year since 1989.

Scientists know from studying deep ocean sediment cores that acidification has wreaked havoc on marine life before. Watch the video below to learn more.

About 56 million years ago, during the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum, temperatures rose and there is evidence that coral reefs collapsed and many deep-sea benthic foraminifers, which produce shells of calcium carbonate, disappeared. “There is indication that sea water acidified at the time,” Hönisch said. “What we’ve realized is that the acidification at that time was about as large as what we’re predicting for the end of this century.”

Jeffrey Sachs Talks About the Talks in Paris

The 2015 Paris Climate Summit - Wed, 12/09/2015 - 15:55

At Le Bourget outside Paris, the site of the UN climate talks, Earth Institute Director Jeffrey Sachs talks to FRANCE 24 English TV about what’s likely to happen at the climate negotiations in Paris.

What kind of agreement will we get? Will it be too vague to be effective? What are the sticky issues, and will the developed world be willing to pony up billions of dollars to help out the developing nations? Sacks says the U.S. Congress “doesn’t want to give a penny” and accuses the Republicans of being stuck in denial and in the pockets of the fossil fuel industry.

Watch the video…

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World Wildlife Fund, Earth Institute Form New Partnership

The 2015 Paris Climate Summit - Wed, 12/09/2015 - 13:14
 © naturepl.com / Lynn M. Stone / WWF-Canon

One of the world’s largest tiger populations is found in the Sundarbans—a large mangrove forest area shared by India and Bangladesh on the northern coast of the Indian Ocean. Rising sea levels caused by climate change threaten to wipe out these forests and the last remaining habitat of this tiger population. Photo: © naturepl.com / Lynn M. Stone / WWF-Canon

Conservation efforts have long been focused on preserving species and natural environments around the world, exemplified by campaigns to save iconic creatures such as whales, elephants and tigers, and preserve majestic areas such as Yellowstone, Yosemite and the Great Barrier Reef. But for many species, the changing climate is altering the equation for how best to do this. Plants and animals evolve, move away or die in the face of an altered habitat.

Now the World Wildlife Fund will collaborate with the Earth Institute’s Center for Climate Systems Research to incorporate climate change information into conservation efforts.

 WWF

Carter Roberts of the World Wildlife Fund, left, and Jeffrey Sachs of The Earth Institute signed an agreement this week to set up a partnership between the two organizations to incorporate climate research into conservation efforts. Photo: WWF

World Wildlife Fund President and CEO Carter Roberts, and Jeffrey Sachs, director of The Earth Institute at Columbia University, signed a memorandum of understanding today for a new partnership to advance resilience to climate change named “ADVANCE”—Adaptation for Development and Conservation. The signing took place in Paris, where hundreds of world leaders have come together at the global climate change negotiations.

The goal of this new collaboration is to advance adaptation to the impacts of climate change around the globe. The partners will create new ways of generating climate risk information and embedding it into the World Wildlife Fund’s conservation and development planning, policies and practice.

ADVANCE envisions a future where the world is using co-generated climate risk information based on the best available science to guide conservation, development and disaster risk reduction in order to benefit both people and nature.

The Center for Climate Systems Research scientists and World Wildlife Fund experts are working together with local stakeholders to create and test a new approach to “co-generate” climate information for initiatives in Africa, Asia and Latin America. ADVANCE has already begun work in Myanmar, and upcoming pilot projects have been identified in Colombia, Bhutan and Tanzania. Learning from these early projects will catalyze future work and help inform policy guidance for partner institutions.

 WWF

Cynthia Rosenzweig of the Center for Climate Systems Research joined World Wildlife Fund President and CEO Carter Roberts at the announcement in Paris this week of a new collaboration on climate science and conservation. Photo: WWF

No region on Earth has been untouched by climate change and its cascading impacts. Even with a successful climate agreement in Paris, the climate will continue to change for centuries. The impacts will continue to affect people and their livelihoods, sensitive ecosystems and endangered species across the globe. This is why climate scientists and conservationists need to urgently work together to provide solutions to enhance resilience.

“The world needs big ideas that can move at the speed and scale necessary to make a difference. I love this partnership; it brings together extraordinary institutions to help the world adopt, adapt, implement and learn,” said Roberts. “ADVANCE aims to incubate, and identify, models that matter.”

“The ADVANCE partnership with the World Wildlife Fund is a wonderful program to help communities around the world to adapt to climate change with best practices based on rigorous science and active collaboration of scientists and affected communities,” said Sachs. “The climate scientists at the Center for Climate Systems Research have a vast experience in working with stakeholders to provide them with the very best climate risk information. From Asia’s high mountains to Myanmar and upcoming pilot projects in Colombia, Bhutan and Tanzania, the World Wildlife Fund and Columbia’s Earth Institute are already working to advance conservation and development.”

To learn more about the partnership, contact Shaun Martin at shaun.martin@wwfus.org or Cynthia Rosenzweig at crr2@columbia.edu.

For more information about the World Wildlife fund, visit www.worldwildlife.org and follow the organization’s news conversations on Twitter @WWFnews.

For more information on the Center for Climate Systems Research, visit www.ccsr.columbia.edu.

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The Changing Climate of Security

The 2015 Paris Climate Summit - Wed, 12/09/2015 - 08:44
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Drought in the Fertile Crescent region of Iraq and Syria. Photo: NASA Earth Observatory.

By Dylan Adler

In the Democratic presidential primary debate on Nov. 14, CBS’s John Dickerson asked U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, “In the previous debate you said the greatest threat to national security was climate change. Do you still believe that?” Senator Sanders quickly replied “Absolutely. In fact, climate change is directly related to the growth of terrorism…you’re going to see countries all over the world…struggling over limited amounts of water, limited amounts of land to grow their crops…you’re going to see all kinds of international conflict.”

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Democratic Presidential Candidate Bernie Sanders speaks at a campaign event in Iowa. Photo: Phil Roeder, Flickr.

The senator’s answer was met with a wide range of responses. Environmentalists praised his response and the attention he gave to climate change. Some Republicans called his statement absurd, and claimed Sanders was combining two unrelated issues. While Sanders’ response has brought this into the national spotlight, the idea of climate change posing a national security threat is nothing new.

Officials at different levels of the United States Government have already been incorporating climate change into their analysis of national security threats. In 2014, Secretary of State John Kerry, in a speech in Indonesia, stated that climate change was a global threat of the same magnitude as terrorism, epidemics and weapons of mass destruction.

“The reality is that climate change ranks right up there with every single one of them,” Kerry said.

A 2014 Department of Defense report used the term “threat multiplier” to describe climate change. The report explained climate change has “the potential to exacerbate many of the challenges we are dealing with today—from infectious disease to terrorism. We are already beginning to see some of these impacts.”

In February of this year, the White House acknowledged the link between climate change and national security. “Climate change is an urgent and growing threat to our national security, contributing to increased natural disasters, refugee flows, and conflicts over basic resources like food and water,” says a statement released from the White House.

This followed President Obama’s release of his 2015 national security strategy. In the strategy, the president ranked climate change among the top threats to the United States’ security. In a speech at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy in May, Obama stated, “Climate change will impact every country on the planet. No nation is immune. So I’m here today to say that climate change constitutes a serious threat to global security, an immediate risk to our national security.”

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President Barack Obama gives a commencement speech to the Coast Guard Academy. Image: Youtube.

In May, the White House released a report titled “The National Security Implications of a Changing Climate.” The report summarized positions from a variety of reports from the Department of Defense and the Department of Homeland Security. The White House report explains that climate change increases the frequency and/or intensity of extreme weather events. These weather events can aggravate existing stressors in a region by uprooting people’s lives, increasing poverty and causing environmental degradation. These can lead to economic and political instability, which have dangerous national security implications.

These government organizations base their ideas on research that has been done on the relationship between climate change and regional instability. Criminology studies have shown that weather patterns can influence the amount of criminal activity, and this relationship has been explored in computer models. It is well established that climate change will lead to higher temperatures, extreme weather events and changing levels of rainfall. These have been modeled to show an increase in personal strain, societal unrest and opportunities for conflict, all of which increase crime levels.

In fact, research has been conducted into how drought contributed to the Syrian civil war. The severe drought lasted for five years, devastated Syrian farming, and drove an estimated one million people off their land and into urban slums. It is projected to have pushed 800,000 Syrians into extreme poverty. This income gap is one of the main drivers of the Syrian revolt. A 2015 paper examined the relationship between drought and instability in Syria. It explained that the drought, combined with unsustainable farming practices and the inability of the government to address the displaced population, was a significant factor leading to the conflict.

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Syrian refugees in Kawrgosk refugee camp, Irbil, Iraq, set up by the IHH Humanitarian Relief Foundation. Image: IHH Humanitarian Relief Foundation, Flickr.

While climate change cannot be proven to have caused the Syrian drought, it is well established that climate change leads to an increase in frequency and severity of extreme weather events. The same 2015 paper concluded that, although multiyear droughts occur periodically in Syria, recent trends of low precipitation in the region are likely due to warming global temperatures. The nonprofit policy research organization the Center for Climate and Security came to the same conclusion. Co-founder Francesco Femia explains, “We can’t say climate change caused the civil war. But we can say that there were some very harsh climatic conditions that led to instability.”

Finally, reconsider Sander’s answer that climate change is the greatest threat to national security. Climate change is clearly linked to the severity of the Syrian drought, which contributed to the civil war, which created a national security threat. However, declaring climate change the largest national security threat is misleading because it, by itself, does not instigate violence. Climate change is a “threat multiplier,” and worsens the greatest national security threats.

COP21_ad1After the Paris attacks, Gina McCarthy, administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, said, “There are a variety of impacts that we’re feeling from a changing climate, and we need to stop those impacts from escalating … one of those is instability. … So it is a national security issue for us.”

Climate change’s indirect effects make it a security issue. Sanders’ answer highlights the broad range of impacts climate change has on the world. While the most severe effects of climate change will certainly be caused by rising sea levels and extreme weather, the exaggeration of pre-existing threats cannot be overlooked.

Dylan Adler is a student in the Masters of Public Administration-Environmental Science and Policy program and an intern at the Columbia Climate Center.

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