Why Earth Day Matters

Every day is Earth Day, as the saying goes. But, today marks the official celebration.

The first Earth Day – spearheaded by Senator Gaylord Nelson of Wisconsin – was held on April 22, 1970.  An estimated 20 million people attended rallies across the US to protest against rampant industrial pollution and the deterioration of the nation’s natural environment. Raising public awareness and shifting the political tide, these events helped put environmental issues on the national agenda. They led to the creation of the EPA and the passage of the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, and the Endangered Species Act.

This year, with the rise of “alternative facts” and the Trump Administration’s rollback of US climate change policies, the date is more significant than ever.  In the spirit of the original event, concerned citizens across the US are gathering for marches in support of science and fact-based environmental policies.

Blue Marble 2012. Credit: NASA

 

March 2017: Earth’s Second Warmest on Record

Our global temperature continued its upward trend last month with March 2017 marking the second warmest March ever recorded on this planet. Only March 2016 was warmer.

According to the state of the climate report by NOAA’s National Centers for Environmental Information, Earth’s combined average temperature for the month – over both land and sea surfaces – was 56.79°F. That is a whopping 1.89°F above the 20th-century average. March was also the 387th consecutive month with a global temperature above its long-term norm. That means the last time any month posted a below average reading was December 1984.

While heat dominated most of the planet in March, some places were particularly warm, including the United States, Europe, and Russia. For the contiguous US, despite the cool conditions in the northeast, it was the 9th warmest March on NOAA’s books.

These soaring temperatures are largely attributed to the long-term trend of human-caused climate change. In fact, March 2017 marked the first time a monthly temperature departure from average surpassed 1.8°F (1.0°C) in the absence of an El Niño event.

Year to date, the first quarter of 2017 was the second warmest such period of any year on record. Global temperature records date back to 1880.

Credit: NOAA

April Marches

April is famous for its showers, but this year it will be known for marches. After the rise of “alternative facts” and the Trump Administration’s rollback of US climate change policies, many concerned citizens will be making their voices heard at rallies this month in support of science and climate action.

The March for Science will be held on Earth Day, April 22, and the Peoples Climate March will take place the following week on April 29. The main events for both will be in Washington, DC, but satellite marches will be held in many cities across the US and around the world.

For more information, look at the links below:

Credit: March for Science and Peoples Climate Movement

Talking Climate Change with Artist Carolyn Monastra

Talking Climate Change is an interview series focused on the variety of people addressing the issue of our changing climate. Participants run the gamut of professions, from scientists to artists, and together we discuss the subject from a multitude of perspectives. For this installment, I spoke with Carolyn Monastra, a New York City-based artist.

Melissa Fleming: As an artist, how did you get involved with climate change? What motivated you?

Carolyn Monastra: I’ve been a practicing artist as well as an activist and environmentalist for a couple decades, but I never married the three until recently. In 2009, I was on a residency in Iceland and was both mesmerized and haunted by the beauty of the melting glaciers and calving icebergs that I was photographing. I was already aware of the basic concerns about climate change but in 2010, when I heard activist Bill McKibben interviewed on the radio, a light bulb switched on and I realized I needed to use my photography to document this critical issue.

MF: You have a project called The Witness Tree. Tell us about that.

CM: Without knowing it, those photos in Iceland were really the beginning of The Witness Tree. I knew it would be ambitious, but I felt compelled to tell the global story of climate change. In the United States, many do not experience the effects firsthand nor recognize the way that others, especially those in more developing nations, are being impacted. I wanted to use this project to connect the climate dots around the world.

At first, I had planned to document just the impacts on the land but then realized that the lives of people (and wildlife too) are inextricably linked to the land. I used a 2011-12 sabbatical from teaching (at Nassau Community College) to travel continuously for nine months around the world targeting people and places affected by climate change. Most of the work was made during that year, but I have continued to photograph in the Northeast and whenever I travel to someplace new. On the project website, I have over 200 pictures broken up into nine portfolios or “chapters” with each one focusing on a different issue or aspect of climate change.

MF: As you said, images from this project were taken all over the world. How did you choose your locations and the stories you tell? What role did science play?

CM: I spent a full year doing research by reading books by McKibben, James Hansen, Elizabeth Kolbert, and others in the field. I also created a “Google alert” for climate change articles and attended presentations and meetings. Based on my findings, I kept a running list of climate issues and the places I hoped to visit. At some point, I put up a world map in my kitchen and started marking it with color-coded post-its. I knew I wanted to photograph on every continent and that traveling to Antarctica would be the most difficult and expensive to visit. But since it is warming faster at the poles than anywhere else, I felt committed to including it in the project. When I bought my around-the-world ticket, I had to create an itinerary; so some of the locations came down to where the airlines I was flying could take me. For example, I had wanted to photograph the effects of sea level rise in Bangladesh, but it was going to take some extra flights to get me there. Instead, I ended up photographing in a small village in Thailand that is also being inundated by rising seas.

The Viedma Glacier in the Southern Patagonian Ice Fields of Argentina has retreated more than 1 km since the 1930’s. At its current rate of retreat, scientists predict it could disappear within sixty years. ©Carolyn Monastra

It is important to me to understand the science of climate change as best as I can as a layperson. I hate when people (especially politicians) say, “Well, I’m not a scientist,” as an excuse for not acknowledging that climate change is real or in admitting our role in it. I am not a scientist either, but I know how to read and ask questions and make informed decisions about topics that concern me. I like Senator Al Franken’s retort to this cop-out: “I’m not a doctor, but I have to make health care decisions.” When extreme storms and floods start decimating people’s homes, it won’t matter whether or not we are scientists.

MF: What did you learn from this project? Did anything surprise you?

CM: I have learned a lot about the measurable impacts and the not-so-visible impacts of climate change, but what surprised me most, or rather what I was pleased to discover, is that one really can rely on the kindness of strangers. I mostly traveled alone, and nearly everywhere I went, when people learned what I was doing, they had a personal anecdote to tell, or a suggestion of a place to visit, or someone to meet. I could not have done this project without the help of so many “strangers” – many of whom I now consider friends. That said, one thing I suspected that sadly has been confirmed, is that we do indeed have more climate denial in the U.S. than anywhere else, especially now with the current administration. I had a recent experience where a NASA scientist canceled our intended interview after being told by his “current employer” that he was not allowed to discuss his work. I fear that without an active public discourse and climate-change curbing policies, the U.S. carbon footprint will balloon and lead to disastrous results down the road.

MF: How is talking about climate change via art different than talking about it via data and statistics?

CM: In 2012, I was selected by the Climate Reality Project to become one of their “Climate Leaders” and was trained to give slideshows based on Al Gore’s Inconvenient Truth model. I used their “deck” of slides (a blend of news photos and charts and graphs) for my first few presentations. As time went on, I transitioned to using my Witness Tree photos and kept a few of the more eye-opening statistical slides. I found my audiences, especially students, responded more to the personal nature of my artistic images and stories.

Stairs and burial vault displaced by Hurricane Isaac floodwaters, Braithwaite, Louisiana, USA, 2012. ©Carolyn Monastra

A musician friend once told me that he thought my pictures were too beautiful to tell the story of something so horrible. I asked him if he would purposely create a piece of atonal music that might appeal to a small audience but push away the general public. I don’t want to gloss over the negative impacts of climate change, but I believe it is possible to use beauty to address the fact that we might lose so much of what is beautiful and necessary in our world.

MF: Tell us more about how you turn your audience from passive viewers into active participants.

CM: After a year or so of giving Witness Tree slideshow presentations where the audience sat in chairs and I stood behind a podium, I wanted to create an audience-engagement activity. I came up with the idea of making a live “Witness Tree” for the Human Impacts Institute’s Creative Climate Awards in 2014. From a tree in a city park, I hung several dozen small Witness Tree prints. On the back of each was a map showing the location where the image was taken, a detailed caption, and some tips on how to reduce one’s carbon footprint. Attendees made postcards for politicians addressing environmental concerns and then were invited to take home one of my photos in exchange for hanging their postcard on the tree. At the end of the event, I mailed the postcards off to the politicians. I believe events like this give people a sense of agency and encourage them to use their own creative skills to address issues that matter to them.

MF: Thank you, Carolyn!  For more images and information about Carolyn’s work, go to thewitnesstree.org. To see a video of her interactive Witness Tree event, go to https://vimeo.com/119784247.

Portrait of Carolyn Monastra in a region of eastern Inner Mongolia that used to be pastureland but has turned into a desert due to the effects of deforestation, overgrazing and climate change. Photo Credit: Jiehao Su.

President Trump’s Executive Order Rolls Back US Climate Policies

With the stroke of a pen at a signing ceremony inside EPA headquarters on Tuesday, President Trump issued an executive order that rolls back his predecessor’s efforts to protect the environment and combat climate change.

The main target of this sweeping directive is the Clean Power Plan (CPP). Developed under the umbrella of the Clean Air Act by an executive order from President Obama, this set of EPA regulations aimed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from coal-fired power plants. More specifically, its goal was to cut emissions 32% below 2005 levels by 2030.  It also sought to replace the coal-fired plants with a mix of natural gas, solar, wind, and hydroelectric power. Now, with this new Trump order in place, the EPA will have to begin the process of re-writing and withdrawing these policies.

Other key points of this omnibus executive order include: nullifying rules on methane emissions from oil and gas operations, lifting the moratorium on coal leases on federal lands, and scrapping the requirement for government agencies to consider the climate impact of policy decisions – the so-called “social cost of carbon”.

Just before signing the document, President Trump, who has called climate change a hoax, said, “My administration is putting an end to the war on coal.” According to Federal Reserve Economic Data, however, coal mining jobs have been declining for decades largely because of automation and the availability of cheap natural gas.  Moreover, the US Department of Energy reports that the number of coal jobs in the US is less than 75,000 while there are nearly 650,000 people employed in renewable energy.

Given the variety of items included in this presidential order, its full implementation is expected to play out over two very different time scales. Policies about coal leases and the social cost of carbon, for example, are expected to go into effect straight away. However, it will likely take years for the EPA to fully revise or withdraw all the Obama-era climate regulations. There will also certainly be a plethora of legal challenges from environmental groups and states, which will slow the process. New York and California have already declared their intentions to fight any effort to lift greenhouse gas regulations.

On the international front, the order did not say whether the US will remain a formal party to the Paris Agreement – the global pact signed in 2015 to combat climate change.  But in gutting the CPP, the Trump Administration has sent a clear message that it has no intention of following through on the greenhouse gas reduction pledges made by the US as part of the non-binding accord.

Executive orders give presidents the opportunity to promote their policy priorities in lieu of Congressional action. However, as seen on Tuesday, they are fragile things that can be easily undone by the next occupant of the Oval Office. In the end, this type of waffling back and forth on environmental policy generates a number of problems, both domestically and internationally. It creates an atmosphere of uncertainty that makes planning for long-term projects, like energy infrastructure and global agreements, extremely difficult.

Smoke billows from a coal-fired power plant near Farmington, NM. Credit: DOE/Los Alamos National Laboratory

Earth Posts Second Warmest February and Winter on Record

Our global temperature continued its upward trend last month with February 2017 marking not only the second warmest February on record but also closing out the planet’s second warmest meteorological winter.

According to the State of the Climate report by NOAA’s National Centers for Environmental Information, Earth’s combined average temperature for February – over both land and sea surfaces – was 55.66°F, which is 1.76°F above the 20th-century average. Only February 2016 was warmer.

This February also marked the 386th consecutive month with a global temperature above its long-term norm. That means the last time any month posted a below average reading was December 1984.

The three-month period of December, January, and February – meteorological winter in the northern hemisphere – was also unusually warm. NOAA reports that Earth’s average temperature for the season was 1.60°F above the 20th century average of 53.8°F. That makes it the second warmest winter on record, trailing only the 2015-16 season.

While heat dominated most of the planet this winter, some places were particularly warm, including much of North America and Asia. Here in the contiguous US, it was our sixth warmest winter on record.

Coming on the heels of a five-month long La Niña event, which had a modest cooling effect, these soaring temperatures are largely attributed to the long-term trend of human-caused climate change.

Global temperature records date back to 1880.

Winter 2016-17 was Earth’s 2nd warmest winter season on record. Credit: NOAA

February 2017: Second Warmest February on Record for US

February 2017 was the second-warmest February ever recorded in the continental US.

The average temperature of the lower 48 states, according to NOAA’s National Centers of Environmental Information, was 41.2°F. That is a whopping 7.3°F above the 20th-century average and only 0.2°F shy of the record that was set in 1954.

From the Rocky Mountains to the East Coast, thirty-nine states were warmer than normal and sixteen were record warm. Cooler conditions prevailed in the west, but no state in the region was record cold.

Across the country, a substantial number of local temperature records were challenged during the month. In all, 11,743 daily warm records were tied or broken compared to only 418 cold records. Experts say if the weather pattern was “normal”, records events would be unlikely. If it were volatile but balanced, a similar number of record highs and lows would be expected. However, February’s pattern was extremely lopsided.

On a day-to-day basis, these remarkable conditions were driven by a persistent ridge in the jet stream over the eastern US and a trough in the west. That said, the bigger picture of global warming cannot be discounted. According to World Weather Attribution, a partnership of international scientists, “the chances of seeing a February as warm as the one experienced across the Lower 48 has increased more than threefold because of human-caused climate change.”

February also closed out the country’s sixth warmest meteorological winter. Weather records for the contiguous United States date back to 1895.

February 2017 was the second warmest February on record for the US. Credit: NOAA

January 2017: Earth’s Third Warmest January on Record

Our global temperature continued its upward trend last month with January 2017 marking the third warmest January ever recorded on this planet. Only the Januarys of 2016 and 2007 were warmer.

According to a report by NOAA’s National Centers for Environmental Information, Earth’s combined average temperature for the month – over both land and sea surfaces – was 55.18°F. That is 1.58°F above the 20th-century average.

January was also the 385th consecutive month with a global temperature above its long-term norm. That means the last time any month posted a below average reading was December 1984.

While heat dominated most of the planet this January, some places were particularly warm, including the eastern half of the United States and most of Canada. For the contiguous US as a whole, it was our 18th warmest January on NOAA’s books.

Coming on the heels of 2016 – Earth’s third consecutive warmest year on record – these soaring temperatures are largely attributed to the long-term trend of human-caused climate change. Whereas El Niño gave global temperatures a boost in the early part of last year, it dissipated in the spring. ENSO-neutral conditions prevailed in January.

Global temperature records date back to 1880.

January 2017 was Earth’s 3rd warmest January on record. Credit: NOAA

Survey Says… Art Can Help Broaden the Public Conversation on Climate Change

Art and science are two different disciplines, but it is exciting when they work together. This week, I will be presenting a poster titled “Art Can Help Broaden the Public Conversation on Climate Change” at the 105th Annual Conference of the College Art Association in New York City. This is the same presentation that I made at the Annual Meeting of the American Meteorological Society last month, where it received a positive response and sparked a number of interesting conversations.

Building on the qualitative aspect of my talk, “The Art and Science of Climate Change”, this poster project quantified the influence climate-art has on people’s opinions. As Lord Kelvin said, “When you can measure what you are speaking about, and express it in numbers, you know something about it…”

Using Survey Monkey, I conducted a national poll where participants were asked comparison questions about the influence of traditional graphs vs. artistic interpretations of climate change. The graphs were sourced from the IPCC’s fifth assessment report and the artwork came from both photojournalists and conceptual artists.

When compared to a graph, the different styles of art received different reactions. On average, however, a significant number of the participants (34%) related more to the issues of climate change via art than through traditional charts and graphs. Overall, 64% of participants said art had changed the way they thought about a subject in the past.

These results show art to be a powerful tool of communication that helps to broaden the public conversation on climate change. They also highlight the fact that a variety of visual outreach methods are needed to reach the entire population on this critical issue that affects us all in one way or another.

The survey shows art can help broaden the public conversation on climate change. Credit: The Weather Gamut.

Climate Science is Not New

As someone who both writes and gives talks on climate change, I often meet people with doubts about the subject who ask: “Climate science is so new, how can we trust it?” The answer is simple. It is not new. In fact, the fundamentals of climate science have been understood for close to 200 years.

One of the first scientists to look into the planet’s energy balance was Joseph Fourier, a French physicist, in the 1820s. Given the Earth’s distance from the Sun, he was curious to know why its temperature was not cooler. Fourier felt that something other than incoming solar radiation was keeping the planet warm and hypothesized that the atmosphere was somehow acting like an insulating blanket. Working with the limited technology of the day, however, he was unable to make the detailed measurements needed to carry his idea further.

Decades later, in the 1860s, an Irish scientist named John Tyndall picked up Fourier’s theory. An alpine adventurer, he was interested in glaciers and the then controversial idea of ice ages. Wanting to know more about how they formed, he devised an experiment to see if the Earth’s atmosphere was acting like a thermostat. For this, he built a spectrophotometer – an instrument that measures the amount of heat that gases can absorb. His experiments showed that water vapor, carbon dioxide (CO2), and methane were all very efficient at trapping heat. This essentially proved Fourier’s idea of a greenhouse effect.

In the 1890s, Svante Arrhenius, a Swedish physicist, followed up on Tyndall’s idea of an atmospheric thermostat and ran with it. Ruling out water vapor as too transitory, he focused on carbon dioxide, which tends to linger in the atmosphere for a long time. His calculations showed that doubling the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere would raise the average global temperature by 5°C (9°F).

To understand if such a large-scale change in atmospheric CO2 was possible, he turned to Arvid Hogbom, a colleague studying the global carbon cycle. This is the natural geochemical process where volcanic eruptions and the chemical weathering of rocks release CO2, while plants and oceans absorb it. Hogbom confirmed that CO2 levels could change dramatically over long periods of time. However, he also noted that industrial processes were releasing a significant amount of CO2 relatively quickly. Using this information, Arrhenius calculated that human activities, such as burning fossil fuels, could alter the composition of the atmosphere and increase global temperatures. In the 1890’s, however, fossil fuel use was only a fraction of what it is today and he believed it would take more than 1,000 years for the level of atmospheric CO2 to double.

Jumping ahead to the 1950s, Charles David Keeling, a researcher at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in California, found a way to directly monitor levels of CO2 in the atmosphere. He created an instrument called a gas chromatograph and installed it on top of Mauna Loa in Hawaii. At an elevation of more than 11,000 feet in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, it is removed from both direct CO2 sources like factories and sinks such as forests that could skew the data. Still in operation today, the information recorded at this station is known as the Keeling Curve. It shows the steady increase in CO2 levels in the atmosphere from 1958 to present.

Keeling’s measurements provided solid evidence that CO2 levels were rising and validated the theories of Tyndall and Arrhenius. More recently, scientists were able to extend his curve back in time by analyzing ancient air bubbles trapped in ice-cores from Greenland and Antarctica. This lengthy record shows that pre-industrial CO2 levels in the atmosphere were about 280 ppm. Today, they are over 400ppm – the highest they have been in more than 800,000 years.

Seeing this dramatic rise in CO2 and realizing the impact that a warming climate could have on society, the UN formed the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in 1988. They assess the peer-reviewed research of thousands of scientists from around the world and publish a synthesized view of the current science. The latest IPCC report (AR5 published in sections in 2013/2014) unconditionally states that human activities are the main drivers of modern climate change.

Therefore, while it is the nature of all science to evolve with time and research, it is safe to say that climate science is not a new subject. It is only relatively new to those in the political sphere.

Giants in the history of climate science.