The Adaptors Earth Day Special

Earth Day Radio Special

This hour-long radio edition of The Adaptors is being broadcast this spring on hundreds of public radio stations from one coast to another and in between. Flora Lichtman and Alex Chadwick introduce us to people with outside-the-box solutions for addressing climate change. Like an inventor in Canada who believes we can power the world with tornado machines, and a chemist who is building a better battery. Plus, a philosopher’s radical idea of engineering the human body to adapt to a changing climate.



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Video from The Adaptors

What if you had an idea that you thought could solve the world’s energy problems? What if your idea was a tornado machine?

Engineer Louis Michaud is be part of our Earth Day radio special.

Here’s a video taste of his story.



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From Rice to Shrimp

By Christopher Johnson

It’s the rainy season here in Tran De. About a dozen field workers have squished out into a green paddy that goes on for more than two and a half football fields.

They chatter in Khmer as they bend low and pull young rice plants from their monsoon-soaked beds, and toss them into piles for replanting.

“I was born in this area, I’m from this area,” says a 64-year-old farmer named Minh. “I learned from my father and my grandfather, from the time I was a kid, how to grow rice.”

Minh is renting the land to grow his crop. “Rice is good,” he says, “you can always eat it. It’s reliable.”

At least right now it is.

Some of Hai Thach’s usually green fields are starting to yellow. He says that's a sign of saline intrusion. (Photo: Christopher Johnson)

Some of Hai Thach’s usually green fields are starting to yellow. He says that’s a sign of saline intrusion. (Photo: Christopher Johnson)

Things will change when the dry season starts in January. That’s when farmers here usually start raising a rice crop, typically relying on fresh water they pump or channel in from some branch of the Mekong River.

But the dry season has been getting dryer. And the South China Sea – less than a mile away – is rising and pushing up into empty river and stream beds.

What little fresh water there is goes salty. So does the soil.

Once that happens, rice farmers like Minh know their crops are history.

“This village is affected by saline intrusion,” he explains. “During the dry season, people here can’t do anything with the land. They just leave it, go somewhere else and work, or try to find some work locally.”

If Minh risked planting a dry season crop, he could earn more than $2,000.

But he won’t take that chance. Instead of fighting saline intrusion, he’s found a way to hedge his bets and make some money off climate change.

Many rice farmers are switching to saltwater shrimp as a crop, to eliminate risk from salinization. Paddles aerate a shrimp pond, adding oxygen to the water. (Photo: Christopher Johnson)

Many rice farmers are switching to saltwater shrimp as a crop, to eliminate risk from salinization. Paddles aerate a shrimp pond, adding oxygen to the water. (Photo: Christopher Johnson)

He’s gone and bought himself a shrimp farm.

So has another farmer, named Sung. Standing beside two shrimp ponds out behind his house, Sung fires up what looks like a system of small spinning steamboat paddles.

They’re adding oxygen to an opaque brown pool.

This salty water is killing off the region’s rice, while the shrimp, somewhere down at the bottom, are loving it.

They can earn Sung in a year more than four times what an average rice farmer brings home.

“In a good year,” Sung says, “I do two crops. If it hits, I get $4,720 from these two ponds. This is the only thing I can do. Growing rice is not very profitable.”

With very few choices, explains Tim Gorman, a Cornell grad student researching how peoples’ lives in the Mekong Delta are being changed by global warming, some farmers are turning away from rice.

“The biggest option to people here in these areas affected by saline intrusion,” Gorman explains, “is to abandon rice altogether and switch to saltwater shrimp.”

This has been a “winning strategy” for many people in the area, Gorman observes. “Just driving around here you can see that there are big new houses, you see some nice new cars. And so you have some people who really have made a lot of money from growing shrimp, which is primarily exported to markets in Europe, Asia, and the US.”

A shrimp farmer named Sung pulls a basket loaded with shrimp from the bottom of one of his ponds. (Photo: Christopher Johnson)

A shrimp farmer named Sung pulls a basket loaded with shrimp from the bottom of one of his ponds. (Photo: Christopher Johnson)

Shrimp farmer Sung isn’t doing quite that well. He’s helping his daughter pay for college, but there’s no fat new Mercedes in the driveway.

That kind of money goes mostly to big-time farmers. Some people earn tens of thousands of dollars a year in the shrimp trade. With the lure of five and six-figure profits, plus faltering rice crops killed off by rising seas, Gorman says some folks are even taking hammers to the very gates and dykes set up to protect the area from the ocean.

“People are actively manipulating the infrastructure,” he says, “sabotaging the infrastructure, to allow salt water to come in. Not just during the dry season, but all year, so they can switch from freshwater rice farming to saltwater shrimp farming.”

Shrimp is no sure bet, either. Seeds, antibiotics, aeration systems, start-up costs – kilo for kilo, it’s way more expensive to raise than rice. A few sick ones can take out a whole pond.

Sung says he’s gone bust before. “In a bad year, all I have left are the whites of my hands!”

That’s the risk for most farmers here – rice, shrimp, or anything else.

But more and more, those who can afford it are moving away from rice and putting their money down on a changing climate.

Christopher Johnson is a freelance journalist who has worked in public radio as a producer, reporter, editor, commentator, and manager.

This story appeared on Marketplace.

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Eric Rignot and the Ice of Antarctica — The Adaptors

A big chunk of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet is collapsing. Scientists announced in May that it’s now inevitable — though it will take decades or even centuries to happen. But the collapse will cause a big rise in sea level. Eric Rignot is the lead author of one of the studies that reached that conclusion, and he’s a glaciologist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and at UC-Irvine. He talked with Alex Chadwick.

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The New New Amsterdam

by Dean Olsher

Tom Abdallah, chief engineer of the New York City subway system, in the South Ferry station. (photo: Donna Ferrato)

Tom Abdallah, chief engineer of the New York City subway system, in the South Ferry station. (photo: Donna Ferrato)

In a part of New York City called Battery Park, on the lower end of Manhattan, lies the South Ferry subway station. It’s the newest one in the city, and when Superstorm Sandy hit in 2012, it was completely inundated.

Tom Abdallah is the chief environmental engineer for the New York City subway system. It’s his job to make sure that never happens again.

“Your heart sank to the middle of your stomach when we saw the devastation, and that all that hard work would go down the drain,” Abdallah says. “But we’re at it again and we’ll put it back together better than it was before.”

Abdallah walks behind a temporary wall of the new station to a feature he helped to design. It’s a mosaic map of the old city, back in the mid-1600s when it was still called New Amsterdam. The map is at the top of a stairway leading up from the subway track about 65 feet below.

The stairs in the South Ferry station during Sandy (above) and today (below)

Stairs in the South Ferry station during   Sandy (above) and today (below)
photos: Donna Ferrato (bottom), courtesy of Tom Abdallah (top)

After Sandy, the floodwaters came as high as the bottom of that very map, covering the lower tip of Manhattan. It was a spooky parallel to what was going on in real life aboveground, since water from the ocean completely covered the southernmost end of Manhattan.

After studying the map, Abdallah leads the way down to the platform to see the current state of the cleanup. They’ve made a lot of progress.

“It’s kind of eerie to be on a station platform that’s not inundated with a lot of people,” Abdallah says.

As he walks, he passes large ventilation fans that his crew installed.

He says suction caused by trains moving through tunnels naturally ventilates most of the subway, but here in the South Ferry station there was an HVAC system.

“That was completely destroyed” by Sandy, he says. “That’s why we have these fans running. We want to keep it as moisture-free as we can so that mold doesn’t develop.”

Back above the South Ferry station is Battery Park. There is no place that better tells the story of New York City’s relationship to the sea.

It was there that just over 400 years ago Henry Hudson sailed his ship, the Half Moon, into the natural harbor. That meant calm waters for shipping, and a perfect place to locate a settlement.

Battery Park lies at the southern tip of Manhattan. (photo: Donna Ferrato)

Battery Park lies at the southern tip of Manhattan. (photo: Donna Ferrato)

Now, the very factors that made this place safe are the source of the trouble New York has been experiencing as a result of Sandy.

It was in Battery Park a year ago that the floodwaters caused by Hurricane Sandy overwhelmed the entire lower tip of Manhattan.

Malcolm Bowman is an oceanographer who runs the storm surge group at SUNY Stony Brook. In Bowman’s vision of the future, New York will, in a way, be New Amsterdam once again.

In 2008, Mayor Bloomberg appointed Bowman to the New York City Panel on Climate Change. But Bowman is frustrated by New York City’s response to Sandy.

“The buzzword around town, the mantra, is ‘resilience,’” Bowman says. “And what does resilience mean? In this context it means ‘Look, it’s inevitable. It’s going to happen again, but let’s just hope that next time around we’re better prepared.’ That’s resilience.”

Bowman says that sounds like admitting defeat.

“It’s a statement that we cannot protect the city so that this never happens again,” he says.

Perhaps New York has been a little complacent because of the natural features. Lots of bedrock below all of those skyscrapers makes it well positioned to withstand rising sea levels.

“There was a feeling of invincibility, really,” Bowman says. “That although New York City is obviously a city built on the water’s edge, that we were safe, we were protected between the coastlines of Long Island and New Jersey and no hurricane could possibly hit here.”

Hurricanes are not the only threat. Other storms, just as dangerous, are now a part of life.

“The quality that made this spot so attractive to Henry Hudson—the fact that it is a protected harbor—is the same quality that leaves it so vulnerable to storms,” says Roland Lewis, the president of the Metropolitan Waterfront Alliance.

Lewis says the same natural features that keep storms out can also keep water in.

“If you look at a map, you see the shore of New Jersey, you see Long Island, and they point toward the New York Harbor,” he says. “And when the cards line up as they did for a storm even like Sandy, that attribute of being a protected harbor, having a small opening, becomes a liability, and water is forced in.”

In the case of Sandy, that water was forced into basements and ground floors of buildings. In some parts of lower Manhattan, the floodwaters were 6 feet and higher.

Because of Sandy, New York has to once again renegotiate its lease with the sea.

The city is getting high marks around the country for its leadership on dealing with rising sea levels. In June, the Bloomberg administration responded to Sandy with a 438-page plan called “A Stronger, More Resilient New York.”

The Bloomberg Plan calls for sealing up tunnels and strategically positioning a series of levees and dikes at vulnerable points around the city. Roland Lewis describes this as “dry-proofing.”

“And then there’s wet-proofing,” Lewis says, walking through Battery Park. “The idea that you can let water in; let water out. And parks are wonderful places for that. The harm will be minimal, or expected, if there’s flooding.”

It is a sunny fall day in the park. Suddenly, Lewis finds himself standing in front of something he did not expect. A wild turkey has taken up residence in Battery Park, and park workers have adopted it.

“Zelda!” One of the workers calls out. “Zelda, come here!”

The turkey continues walking right at Lewis. She thinks he has food, maybe.

“Zelda!” yells the park worker.

The scene provokes the feeling that nature is trying to take back the city. That’s certainly how it has felt in Breezy Point in the year since Sandy.

Breezy Point is a beach community in the Rockaways. With the Manhattan skyline about 20 miles off in the distance, it looks as if it’s in another state. But in fact, the point is still within New York’s city limits.

Rebuilding in Breezy Point still had a long way to go in the fall of 2013. (photo: Dean Olsher)

Rebuilding in Breezy Point still had a long way to go in the fall of 2013.  (photo: Dean Olsher)

It was at Breezy Point that water from Sandy came into contact with electrical wires and caused a fire that burned 126 homes to the ground. A year later, all that is visible is one bare foundation after the next. The rebuilding is only beginning.

It is from Breezy Point that Malcolm Bowman’s vision for New York’s future begins, modeled after projects undertaken in Europe.

“Go to London and see the Thames River barrier,” Bowman says. “Go to the Netherlands and see the Delta project.”

The Delta project resulted from a storm surge in the North Sea in 1953, causing widespread flooding in the Netherlands, Belgium and the U.K., and leaving about 1,800 people dead. The Dutch response included building storm surge barriers—huge walls in the sea that keep out the ocean.

Malcolm Bowman envisions two similar barriers for New York City. One of them would stretch from Breezy Point about five miles across the harbor, over to Sandy Hook in New Jersey. It would do triple duty: as a bridge for cars, and also for rail tracks, and as a gate that would open and close as necessary to keep the ocean away from New York and northern New Jersey. It would cost about the same as the Bloomberg plan, which Bowman says is necessary but not sufficient.

One argument against storm surge barriers is that they may be too ambitious, and not everyone is convinced they would work. Roland Lewis says he thinks they should be tested.

Bowman, though, is disappointed that the Bloomberg plan specifically excludes them.

“That surprises me,” he says. “Because Bloomberg, his first degree is in engineering.”

For years, long before Sandy, Bowman has pushed for these barriers. As a result, he has been called a prophet: Noah, in particular.

When it comes to his idea of walling out the ocean to protect New York City from future storms, he does seem like a lone voice in the wilderness.

“Some of my colleagues say, ‘Look, Malcolm, the city is eventually doomed. Let’s start planning a retreat. Let’s start heading for the hills,’” Bowman recalls. “And I say, ‘Look, that’s never going to happen. That’s not realistic.’”

Bowman looks to the Netherlands for inspiration.

“You can’t tell the Dutch to run for the hills,” he says. “There are no hills. The whole country is flat as a pancake. And Germany and France and Belgium don’t want 20 million refugees.”

So, Bowman says, the Dutch have decided to “stand and fight.”

“They’ve decided, ‘That’s in our genes, that’s in our history,’” Bowman says. “’So we’re going to strengthen our coastal resources, we’re going to do what’s necessary, we’re going to train our engineers to be the best in the world, and if we get 150, 200 years more, then we’ve done well.’”

And New York should do the same, Bowman says. To retreat is to betray the trust of New York City’s children.


Dean Olsher is a writer, broadcaster and composer based in New York City. 

Emily Haavik edited this story for the web.

Listen to an audio version of this story

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From Gretel Ehrlich’s Greenland notebook

I first traveled to Greenland in 1993 when the seasonal sea ice was 10 to 14 feet thick and the Greenland ice sheet hadn’t “thought” of melting. Arriving in Ummannaaq in the summer, I returned the next winter in the dark time, then returned again almost every year thereafter.

Soon I was traveling by dogsled on seasonal sea ice with subsistence hunters in the two northernmost villages in the world. We never imagined that sea level might rise of 70 feet, having grown up in a stable inter-glacial period; we had forgotten that Earth and its waters had undergone violent and extreme upheavals, periods of volcanism, ice, drought and flooding in the past, enough to cause mass extinctions and enormous changes not only to the planet, but to the “nations” of animals and humans who have resided here.


Twenty years after my first visit to Greenland, I returned to Greenland with my partner, Neal Conan, who recorded and narrated the sounds of the Jacobshavn Glacier melting and calving, and to contemplate the demise of ice which is the natural air conditioner of the world.

The following are some of my notes from this adventure.

Greenland mapIlulissat — August 9, 2013
Two days ago, Neal and I left the burning forehead of the Wind River Mountains in front of our Wyoming cabin as we made our way to the west central coast of Greenland, to its singular mountain of ice, 11,000 feet high.

Once I thought of the ice sheet as a jewel, diamond-like and hard. Now, according to climatologist, Jason Box, who we met in Copenhagen, the Greenland ice sheet is melting at an accelerated pace.

“It’s not just surface melt,” he says, “but the deformation of inner ice. I’m tracking multiple feedbacks and connecting the dots. Beyond surface ice melt and the natural drainpipes called moulins, there’s a drawdown of the inner ice caused by impurities like soot and ash that darken the snow and ice, and thus reduce the albedo effect, and cause melting everywhere, inside and out. I call it my ‘Dark Snow Project.’ The whole fabric of the ice sheet is coming apart. Three hundred billion tons of ice is lost each year.”

August 10
Flying to Ilulissat from Kangerlusuuaq: green valleys, bare swipes of granite. Polished slabs pocked with the blue eyes of kettle ponds. Ice-blue meltwater. Green milk. Water from between the toes of hundreds of glaciers oozing down from the ice sheet that covers most of Greenland.

Melt ponds

Jakobshavn melt ponds

Glacial flour thickens. Meltwater is cerulean, then a blue so pale it seems like vanishing smoke. Just before landing we fly over a thick white ribbon of rough ice, studded with broken icebergs as if an entire city had collapsed and its rubble was being push toward the sea.

This is the Jacobshavn Glacier, whose collapse and accelerated calving rate has made it a World Heritage Site, as if to celebrate the death of this ice-island and the 5,000 year old Inuit culture that, against all odds, has thrived here.

Welcome to Ilulissat.

August 11
Ice is time. We’ve turned the clock forward, then back as we traveled from Wyoming to Copenhagen, then halfway back across the Atlantic Ocean to Greenland. The ice sheet used to be smooth, with large crevasses, and plains of snow-covered ice. Now it looks as if it had been shattered by a huge sledge hammer. The chaotic fracturing of an ice sheet and its glaciers is the signature of fast movement, of time squeezed, hastened, and released. To move glacially no longer implies “slowness,” but rather, the skidding forward of an ice sheet whose ravaged face keeps giving itself away.

View from plane

View from the plane

We board a small plane, piloted by Matthias, to fly over the ice sheet and see the face of the Jacobshavn Glacier. Below are icy cathedrals, shaped pieces of glass, fresh blue walls, strangled icebergs with rounded corners and meltwater dropping from their sun-ravaged wings like pieces of turquoise. For half an hour we traverse a wilderness of deeply sliced ice with dirty crevasses, blue slits, then on a slab of granite, a halved iceberg lying on its side as if thrown there and abandoned.

Finally we can see the face of the glacier itself, so far back it seems to have been torn from an unworldly landscape, all irregular blue teeth. There is no single line of ice, but a cubist face, roughly torn, and too wide to take it all in at one glance….

“From here on we’ll follow the fjord out to the sea,” Matthias says. Ahead is 103 miles of ice rubble, a carcass glinting with narrow stripes of turquoise. Down we go in a river of ice, a river that seems not to move at all, but does. Fingers of granite look liquid compared to the clotted ice-way.

Now there’s ocean ahead—-Disko Bay. Soon the strangled icebergs will be able to break off and drift freely. I see an iceberg crack open, its blue interior revealed. Displaced sea water glints in late afternoon sun. Water streams flow from many directions in a mesmerizing chaos. Chips of light dissolve: here we are at the end of time.

August 12
The people of Greenland, the Inuit, originally came from northeastern Siberia over 20,000 years ago. They walked and boated across the Bering Land Bridge and the seas that surrounded it with their spears and harpoons, their pack-dogs and skin boats. Slowly they moved across the polar north, from Point Hope, Alaska over frozen tundra to the MacKenzie Delta, across the entire Canadian Archipelago, now known as Nunavut, finally to Greenland.

A single culture; a single language with many dialects; the same legends and taboos; the same material culture with local variations and improvements, as dynamic as the ice, yet singular.

Greenland was the last Arctic nation to have come into the 21st century with much of its traditional hunting culture in tact. “We had everything,” Jens Danielsen said. “We speak only Greenlandic, we’ve kept our traditional hunting practices. We banned snowmobiles and travel only by Greenland-style dogsleds, hunt narwhal in the summer from kayaks with harpoons, wear polar bear pants and foxfur anoraks and sealskin kamiks. We make almost everything ourselves. All that we know is passed on to our children. Now it is being lost because of this new unstable climate. We are sending our children who were raised to be great hunters to the south of Greenland, below the Arctic Circle to learn a trade.

“We were taught to be modest in front of the weather. But this weather is not ours. Nine months of ice is now two or three. Eight years ago I said that it would be a disaster if we lost our ice. Now we have. Without ice we are nothing at all.”

Icebergs and water

Photos by Gretel Ehrlich

August 13
In the afternoon Neal and I walk from town up to the edge of the fjord. It’s here that we first understand the scale of the calved ice. Think warehouse, a city-block of ice, carved and port-holed, its broken sides polished and scratched as if silver threads had been sewn through it.

Under the arm of one berg, a row of candle ice tinkles. We’ve come here to listen to the way ice moves. Its cries and salutations. The sun roars around its elliptical route, now headed north. We sit on the granite cliff. In front of us, an enormous iceberg shines. Its base is smooth but it is topped with jagged ice, pointed slabs thrown together. Two thumping roars jolt us. The tide is going out. Ice-elbows slide and collapse.

Slack tide
A breeze comes up. Accordioned waves slap the cliff and are sent backwards. Ice streams pour out. A distant seagull cries and cries. Water moves in two directions simultaneously. Another tympanic sound. Like something hollow. Ice moves in a seeming motionless drift in tidal pulses we can only begin to detect. Muffled booms. We see nothing. Thunder emanates from deep inside the ice as if to verify all that Jason Box told us. We are all dying from the internal combustion of age and sunlight. Grinding and sloshing, turquoise ice returns to its liquid form.

End of day
An island of ice slides through the shadow of a bigger iceberg into the silvered evening light like a sword. Something snaps. Thunderous roar. Shhhhh….we are listening to glacier-talk: its howls and pops, its detonations and sonic death-throes.

August 14
By tourist boat north. A whale breaches. Gulls fly over, checking to see if we have halibut on board. Flocks of Arctic terns gather over coastal valleys and soar toward the Eqi Glacier. Here, we come very close to is calving face.

Boat and icebergsThe Captain turns off the engines. We listen: there’s the sound of rustling skirts. To our left an iceberg turns over. Displaced water rolls under us. Slabs of pale sapphire shoot up out of the water. Then it’s quiet. The boat jostles. A sound begins. A sound so loud it is almost white noise. We look. Where is it coming from?

To starboard a 300 ft. wall of ice begins to collapse..…shushhhhhhshushhhhhhshushhhhhhhh….. Now another one to port…. Two enormous walls as if two sides of a building was being demolished. Ice slides straight down into the sea….. shushhhshhshshshhshshhhhhhhhh. Two huge waves come at the boat. Big rolling humps….

I yell—“We should move back…this is dangerous.” But the captain only smiles. The boat heaves up, slaps down into the deep trough, and heaves up again. Bits of ice teeter on top and hit the steel hull. The water goes pale with glacial flour. Ice streams pour out and move icebergs toward and away from us. The deck does not flatten…we rock and roll as glacial till keeps slapping us. Sun fades behind a roll of mist. Glitter and chalk as bits of ice crumble from the new glacial face. We move away. Then we’re encased by a dull shroud.

The water smoothes out. Ahead, sun marks the way forward as we motor toward home. Behind us a fogbow marks the passageway through which we have journeyed, with its collapsing walls of ice and sounds of melting, but the arch of fog, the gateless gate, follows us all the way down the coast as if being towed.

–Gretel Ehrlich
August, 2013

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Future Sea Level

A break with the past

In the late 1990s, a dramatic event surprised and disturbed glaciologists around the world, increasing concern that global warming could cause Earth’s great ice sheets at the north and south poles to disintegrate rapidly and catastrophically. A frozen stream of ice in the Jakobshavn Glacier on Greenland’s west coast suddenly accelerated seaward. Already one of the world’s fastest moving glaciers, Jakobshavn doubled its speed.


Jakobshavn glacier in 2013
Photo: Gretel Ehrlich

Mountainous blocks of ice broke off Greenland’s perimeter at a furious rate, clogging a 35-mile long fjord with icebergs bigger than aircraft carriers. Fortunately, Jakobshavn settled down several years later. But before it did, the glacier had expelled tens of billions of tons of ice into the Atlantic.

Scientists aren’t sure why Jakobshavn sped up, or tapered off later. They haven’t  been able to calculate the top speed that an ice stream like Jakobshavn could achieve. Nor can they specify the limit of how much mass such streams of ice in Greenland or Antarctica could cast into the sea. They’d dearly like to know, as many researchers believe the accelerated flow of solid ice in ice streams could dramatically increase the rate of sea level rise.  Until these questions are resolved, some researchers consider it possible that sea level rise later this century could be many feet.

Global warming basics

Earth is getting hotter. The planet has heated up by around 1.5 degrees Fahrenheit (0.8 degree Celsius) since the 1880s. When the oceans heat up, their water expands and creeps up shorelines. Higher temperatures also threaten mountain glaciers and the huge ice sheets at Earth’s north and south poles. Since extra heat also cranks up evaporation and precipitation, sometimes in the form of snow that compensates for melting, higher temperatures don’t necessarily always make glaciers shrink.

CO2 graphIn practice, though, scientists have discovered that all the world’s major glaciated mountain ranges including the Andes, the Himalayas, the Swiss Alps and the mountains of Alaska are losing ice. The continental-size ice sheets of the poles are shedding massive amounts of mass into the sea. As a result, sea level has gone up by about 4.5 inches (11 centimeters) since 1950. The rate at which sea level is increasing appears to be going up, though researchers can’t be sure until more time has passed.

About 40 percent of the world’s inhabitants work and farm and sleep within about 50 miles of a coastline. The sea laps the land of eight of the world’s top ten cities. As the sea rises, many of these people are threatened with increased flooding, storm damage and salt intrusion into groundwater. Billions of dollars of property and millions of lives are at risk.

How fast and how high might sea level grow in the future? Government planners and residents of coastal regions are among the many people who could plan better if they knew the answer. Scientists have made estimates of future sea level. But their results are uncertain because the task is complicated by the numerous factors that influence sea level rise.

Earth’s ice

Ice occurs naturally in various forms in many parts of the world. Each kind has its own particular relationship to global warming and sea level. When viewed from space, Earth’s most obvious feature, after the oceans, is, a vast white wintertime band of snow covering northern Asia, Europe and North America. Global warming will reduce the amount of land covered in snow. But that melted snow will have virtually no impact on sea level. That’s because the layer of snow is thin, and the volume of water in snow is dwarfed by the vastness of oceans.


Icebergs near Greenland
Photo: Gretel Ehrlich

The second most noticeable form of frozen water on Earth is sea ice. Sea ice, as the name suggests, is water frozen on the ocean’s surface, generally near the poles. The amount of sea ice varies with the seasons. At its maximum extent, such ice covers about 10 million square miles of water, an area about the size of ten Australias. The amount of sea ice in the Arctic has been declining steadily for at least as long as systematic satellite monitoring began in the late 1970s. Many researchers predict that the Arctic will be virtually free of sea ice in summers before the middle of this century; perhaps much sooner.

The disappearance of sea ice will not alter sea level. That’s because sea ice floats, just like ice cubes in a drink. When a soda on the rocks warms up, the level of the surface remains fixed. (However, the loss of sea ice will have numerous other detrimental effects. Sea ice reflects sunlight back into space, whereas ocean water absorbs most sunlight that hits it. Less sea ice means a warmer Arctic. The temperature differential between the Arctic and equatorial regions, a major force behind Earth’s weather patterns, will be muted.

Moreover, sea ice performs important roles in polar ecosystems. Marine mammals such as some seals and polar bears depend on it as a platform for hunting and resting.  Many of the marine plants that form the foundation for the polar food chain, known as phytoplankton, also depend on sea ice for part of their life cycle.)

Unlike sea ice, the huge ice sheets of Antarctica and Greenland rest on land (or, in some cases, the seafloor). Sea level does rise when they melt. The ice sheets occupy less area than sea ice or snow, but they’re radically thicker (more than a mile, or about 1.6 kilometers, from top to bottom in places). All together, the polar ice sheets hold enough water to lift sea level by about 250 feet (76 meters). Mountain glaciers also raise sea level as they recede, which they’re doing, at a spectacular rate. But mountain glaciers hold only a small fraction of the water stored in polar ice sheets: only enough to raise sea level by about 2 feet (0.6 meters).

Unlike ice cubes

Because polar ice sheets are so massive, the rate at which they might melt has received concerted scientific attention. Still, many questions remain. If ice sheets behaved like an ice cube dropped out of a freezer tray on a summer day, predicting how fast they’d waste away—and how fast sea level would rise—would be relatively easy.

pullquote_coastIce cubes melt from the outside inward. As the exterior dribbles off, inner ice appears in an orderly fashion, like layers peeled off an onion. To predict the fate of ice melting this way requires taking into account factors like air temperature and the movement of air currents. Scientists know how to perform such calculations for ice cubes as well as for ice sheets. Researchers have estimated, roughly, that if all the world’s glaciers melted this way, sea level rise by about 15 inches (0.4 meters) by the end of the century. Sea level rise of this magnitude can’t be ignored, but it’s relatively small, and it would occur over many decades.

But, while behaving in part like ice cubes, ice sheets also waste away in a manner unlike any ice cube: from the inside out. Frozen ice streams convey an ice sheet’s bulk from the interior to the perimeter at the sea, sometimes hundreds of miles away.  At the edge of the ice sheet, great blocks shear off and fall into the water. An ice sheet flowing this way could lose volume much faster than one that suffers surface melting alone.

Alternate Approaches

There are two primary means of forecasting future sea level. In one, scientists create a mathematical model of sea level that takes into account how much water will expand and how much glaciers will grow or shrink. This method requires a detailed understanding of factors like how heat penetrates into the ocean’s depths, how changes in air temperature influences precipitation and, of course, the behavior of warming glaciers.  Researchers have created such models. But they suffer from uncertainty about how Earth’s complex parts work and relate to each other.

Blowing Rocks, Florida

Blowing Rocks Preserve, Florida

The other major way that scientists try to predict future ocean inundation is by studying sea level in Earth’s past, when the planet was as warm or warmer than today. For the last two million years or so, Earth has cycled more than a dozen times between ice ages and warm periods. The last ice age ended about 12,000 years ago. Scientists think these temperature swings are controlled in part by changes in Earth’s orbit around the sun. During an ice age, billions of tons of water freezes on mountaintops and at the poles.  Sea level falls hundreds of feet. During a warm period, in contrast, this ice melts, ocean basins swell with the extra liquid, and the seas rise.

Climate researchers are especially interested in how high the sea rose during previous warm periods, prior to the most recent ice ages. Several such epochs have been hotter than today, making them possible analogs to our warmer future. The most recent warm period, about 100,000 years ago, was 2 to 4 degrees Fahrenheit (1 to 2 degrees Celsius) warmer than today. Many scientists believe that sea level was 15 to 20 feet higher then.

Choosing whether to act

Earth’s temperature will rise sharply unless steps are taken to reduce significantly the amount of fossil fuel burned to make electricity, power vehicles and to heat homes. We’ll have to make heroic efforts to prevent global temperature from reaching or surpassing that of the last warm period.

If Earth does get that hot, many scientists believe that sea level will rise to the level it reached during that earlier spell. They readily admit, however, that they can’t predict how quickly the sea would go up.

They’ve uncovered evidence that within the past 20,000 years sea level has gone up at a rate as fast as 12 feet (4 meters) per century. However they can’t say if global warming could cause sea level to rise that quickly in the future.


Dan Grossman is print journalist and radio and web producer. You can see more of his work on the extensive Sea Change website.


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Alex Chadwick looks at the IPCC’s new report

Alex Chadwick, BURN Host

You’ll see a lot of climate news in the next few days. And maybe hear some climate shouting.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has released its latest report. Founded 25 years ago by the UN, the IPCC is the principle world science organization reviewing data and studies on climate. This new report is the fifth since 1990. Each one concludes with increasing certainty that human influence is causing the world to warm, and that the effects of human activity will accumulate for decades and centuries, altering the planet in ways we have never seen.

A summary paper again shows increased confidence that greenhouse gases – mainly CO2 from burring carbon-based fuels – account for most of the warming that scientists have observed since the industrial age began 200 years ago. The last report said the IPCC was 90 percent sure of this conclusion – it is now said to be 95 percent sure. But a lot  more attention is probably going to explanations of something earlier reports did not completely foresee – what the IPCC calls “a pause” in the rise of average global surface temperatures over the last dozen or so years. The fundamental science of global warming is based on the earth retaining more energy and heat from the sun, much of which should reflect off the planet and back into space. If greenhouse gases are trapping that heat – and basic physics says they are – where is it?

A series of recent papers cited by the IPCC answers that – the heat is sinking into the ocean, especially the deep Pacific Ocean. There’s a pretty clear and accessible explanation for it at the site RealClimate, in an article by a German oceanographer, Stefan Rahmstorf. But climate skeptics are unlikely to be persuaded – the Pulitzer Prize winning site Inside Climate News reports they mean to seize on the reports findings to try to create more doubt. The data can look contradictory, especially for non-scientists: which set of facts do you believe?

Here’s some help from BURN contributor Richard Muller, a UC Berkeley physicist and noted former climate skeptic who changed his mind after an extensive three-year review of data. Writing in the New York Times this week, he compares climate trends to a staircase – that is, a series of risers and treads. Just because you reach a landing, he says, doesn’t mean the stairs stop going up.

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The science-policy disconnect on carbon offsets

Caroline Alden, BURN Contributor

Carbon credits are a hot commodity these days, but reliance on this system as a permanent offset of fossil fuel emissions may be dangerous. By nature, the land carbon stock is vulnerable and volatile, and policy makers and offset traders might need to reign in their expectations a bit. 

A recent article in Nature Climate Change clears up some common misconceptions about the land carbon sink, with the goal of making clear to those involved in climate policy and carbon offset markets that reducing emissions – not trading emissions credits – is the only way to stop global warming.

Land management is key to carbon markets, because protecting and rebuilding forests facilitates sequestration – the capturing of a tradeable commodity. But land management – and the offsets it achieves – while good for the environment (and, at least temporarily, for climate), can not stop climate change.

Here are the main points made in the article:

  • NEWSFLASH: Carbon offset policies and markets typically rely on the promise of carbon storage in land reservoirs of 100 years as sufficient for issuing a carbon credit. However, the lifetime of CO2 in the atmosphere is far, far longer than 100 years. Many think that lifetime is 100 years, and for good reason; even the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change botched this one in its first assessment report. This misunderstanding is literally an issue of semantics: an individual CO2 molecule will move from the atmosphere into another reservoir in about 100 years. But that’s not the point for global warming. What matters is how long high CO2 conditions (due to fossil fuel burning) will last, and that CO2 lifetime is many thousands of years.
  • PUT IT IN PERSPECTIVE: Reforestation offers some, but not a lot of leverage on the climate system compared with what we’re about to add to the atmosphere by burning fossil fuels, not to mention what more could be added if deforestation continues or if climate change degrades existing forests. Say humans managed to put back all of the carbon that we’ve released through deforestation and land use over the years… how much fossil fuel emissions would that ‘offset’? Such a colossal task would account for only a 40-70 ppm reduction in the 2100 CO2 concentration. Consider that conservative emission scenarios predict an increase in atmospheric CO2 of 170-600 ppm by 2100 (over 2000 levels), and that total global deforestation would increase CO2 levels by 130-290 ppm.
  • PUT IT IN GIGABYTES: “The land carbon stock can be described as a ‘buffer,'” the authors write, “by analogy with the term used in computer science to describe a device which temporarily stores data.” The image is excellent: we can fill the land carbon hard drive with a little extra carbon by planting trees, or release some to the atmosphere through deforestation, degradation, or burning. At the end of the day, though, a 500 gigabyte drive maxes out at 500 gigabytes of data. As for potential carbon storage in plants, scientists don’t know exactly what this maxing out point is. But they do know that there isn’t nearly enough storage on Earth to provide any real silver bullet place to put climate-warming excess CO2.
  • HARD DRIVES CRASH: Land carbon stocks are also not particularly reliable places to permanently store carbon. Fires and droughts can release massive amounts carbon back to the atmosphere within a season. Furthermore, climate change is shifting the landscapes for growth: some areas will increase biomass thanks to more rainfall and decreased evaporation. But other places will lose biomass due to increased drought and heat stress. A compilation of results from 13 climate-carbon cycle models shows that the net effect of climate change is likely to be destabilization and weakening of land carbon stocks, and a resultant boost in atmospheric CO2 concentrations. 
  •  EXTRA CREDIT: In the words of the authors, it must be recognized that forest conservation can avoid or reduce future carbon emissions, but does not in any meaningful sense offset continuing emissions from other sources. It must also be recognized that the capacity of the land buffer to remove and store CO2 from the atmosphere is strictly limited. However vigorous the measures taken to increase land carbon stocks, their total potential for carbon storage is minuscule compared with the stock of fossil fuels that could yet be burnt.

This is not to say that protecting forests is not vitally important for the health of the planet for many reasons, including climate change. But the language and metrics in carbon markets and policy forums should be both scientifically sound and self-consistent. Again, the authors:

As long as the right kinds of land management responses are implemented, the land carbon buffer can provide a valuable, cost-effective, short-term service in helping to reduce atmCO2, and slow the rate of anthropogenic climate change, bringing co-benefits for biodiversity and sustainable livelihoods, and giving us some time to develop a low carbon economy….

Consistent with our understanding of the lifetime of the airborne fraction of a pulse of CO2, the most effective form of climate change mitigation is to avoid carbon emissions from all sources.


Caroline Alden is a graduate student at the Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research in the Department of Geology at the University of Colorado at Boulder.

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Carbon Cycle 101

Caroline Alden, BURN Contributor

Americans burn fossil fuels doing most of what we do every day – using electricity, driving to work, and buying food and goods. You probably know that the burning of fossil fuels results in the release of greenhouse gases, such as carbon dioxide (CO2), to the atmosphere. Maybe you’ve even calculated your carbon footprint.

But what about the big picture of carbon dioxide on Earth? How much CO2 is in the atmosphere already? Does it stay there forever? Leak out into outer space? (No.) Fall out of the sky as rain? (Also no.)

Carbon is everywhere, and the planet’s dynamic natural forces are continuously moving it from place to place. There are four major reservoirs, or stocks, of carbon on Earth: 1) in rocks (this includes fossil fuels), 2) dissolved in ocean water, 3) as plants, sticks, animals, and soil (which can be lumped together and called the land biosphere), and 4) as a climate-warming gas in the atmosphere.  (Check out the diagram below. Everyone loves dioramas, so it will henceforth be referred to as a diorama. You can do your best to envision it in 3D.)

carbonn cycle graphic

The Carbon Cycle (adapted from “Earth’s Climate: Past and Future,” by William F. Ruddiman)


In the carbon cycle diorama, the size of each reservoir  is expressed in GtC, and the transfer of carbon between reservoirs are written as GtC/yr. GtC stands for “Gigatons of Carbon”, which is the same as one billion tons of carbon.

One GtC/yr means one billion metric tons of carbon moved between reservoirs in one year. 

You can think of the carbon in each reservoir as a tiny building block – carbon is, after all, an atom. Under foot, carbon is a building block that helps create the structure of rocks and minerals. All around us, organic carbon forms the building blocks of life. In oceans and rivers, carbon is a building block of various molecules that exist together with H2O in all but the purest water. In the atmosphere, carbon is the central building block of several greenhouse gases, including carbon dioxide (CO2) and methane (CH4).


The biggest carbon reservoir on earth is in rocks, weighing in at some 66 billion metric tons of carbon. In very rare instances (as in roughly .004%), carbon in rock is in the form of coal, oil or natural gas. Most of the time it occurs as a chemical component of plain old granite, sandstone or limestone.

Carbon can leave rocks and enter the atmosphere. And, it can leave the atmosphere and go back into rocks.

Here’s how the first part works: rock-bound carbon enters the atmosphere via volcanoes, as shown by the yellow arrow in the diorama. (Apologies for not having drawn in a volcano; every good diorama should have one.)

For the second part: as wind and rain break down rocks over eons, CO2 is taken out of the atmosphere and put back into “rock” form as sediment (brown arrow).

The amount of carbon that enters and exits the atmosphere from volcanoes and into sediment each year is tiny compared to the amount that we emit by fossil fuel burning. Tiny, as in volcanoes typically emit less than 1/100th the amount of CO2 that humans emit every year.

For the record, human fossil fuel emissions may have  hit 9.7 billion metric tons of carbon in 2012 (emissions are still being tallied).

When fossil fuels are burned, the CO2 released enters far less stable reservoirs: first the atmosphere, and from there the trees and plants around us, and the ocean. Let’s look at how those reservoirs function, and what happens when they can’t handle any more carbon.


The next-biggest reservoir for carbon on Earth is the ocean. Scientists tend to split the ocean into two ‘pools,’ like a two-layer cake. The top layer goes from the surface to 100 meters down. Wind sloshes the water around, allowing CO2 gas to exchange with the atmosphere.

The bottom layer – or deep ocean – is bigger and less exposed to the atmosphere, and is therefore a good long-term storage place for large quantities of carbon.

Carbon moves between the ocean and atmosphere by diffusion. When the level of CO2 in the atmosphere increases, some of it dissolves into ocean water.

Now, back to our diorama. Notice that the value of the white “into-the-ocean” arrow is slightly bigger than that of the blue “out-of-the-ocean” arrow. This indicates that the ocean is sucking up excess carbon from the atmosphere.

It is fabulously useful that the ocean absorbs some of the excess CO2 in the atmosphere. Due to this imbalance, the oceans have been offering us a major (25%) global warming discount every year. In other words, 25% of fossil fuel carbon we emit gets drawn into the ocean for good. If the ocean weren’t such a sink for CO2, more would remain in the atmosphere, and more global warming would be happening.

There is a very bad downside to this discount, however. When ocean water absorbs carbon, it becomes more acidic. Hence the current degradation of the world’s coral reefs.

Furthermore, this discount won’t last for too much longer. The ocean’s chemistry will soon hit a threshold where it will stop absorbing CO2. When that day comes, we’ll have to reckon with much more global warming impact from each coal reserve and tank of gas that we burn.


The final reservoirs for carbon are the atmosphere and the terrestrial biosphere. As you can see in the diorama, they hold roughly equal amounts of carbon – a quantity close to that of the surface ocean.

Plants draw CO2 out of the atmosphere during photosynthesis. CO2 is plant food. During the night, some of that CO2 is returned to the atmosphere. When plants die and decompose, all of the rest of that CO2 is either returned to the atmosphere or turns to organic matter in soil.

Before the industrial revolution, the atmosphere contained roughly 600 GtC. As of March 2013, that number had risen to 843 GtC: a 40% increase. If the world’s oceans and plants hadn’t been sucking excess CO2 out of the atmosphere all these years, the increased burden of CO2 in the atmosphere could be something closer to 60 or 70%.

You’re rereading that sentence, aren’t you? Yes, that’s right. It’s not just the oceans; land plants are also sucking more CO2 out of the atmosphere than they are emitting back to the atmosphere. In fact, plants and the sea combined provide a 50% discount on emissions… as in, if these natural systems weren’t absorbing CO2, global warming would be twice as bad. This is an unbelievable stroke of good fortune for humans today.

The plant half of the discount is occurring because plants like a little bit of extra CO2 in the air – they use CO2 like we use food.

Sadly, though, we are close to reaching a level of atmospheric CO2 where plants will stop absorbing excess carbon from the atmosphere. Like a kid in a candy store, even plants hit the wall at some point and can eat no more.

As you can see, once carbon is unlocked from long-term storage as fossil fuels, that carbon goes into the atmosphere, land plants, and the surface ocean. One small forest fire, and all of the carbon stored in land plants returns to the atmosphere again to increase global warming. One Gigaton too many into the oceans and their waters will stop absorbing CO2.

The carbon cycle represents a vast and delicate balance. It seems clear that the safest option is for fossil fuels to stay deep underground where nature stored them millions of years ago.

Caroline Alden is a graduate student at the Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research in the Department of Geology at the University of Colorado at Boulder.

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More on last week’s invite-only rising seas meeting

Alex Chadwick, BURN Host

After my last post on the Union of Concerned Scientists and the meeting in New York last week about sea level rise, I got a note back from UCS. I was very critical of their closing this meeting to the public and press. The meeting was attended by local officials from New York, New Jersey, Virginia, North Carolina and Florida. Emergency responders, natural resource managers – the people who are going to try to manage the climate changes that are beginning now, and which are certain to grow.

A press person at UCS wrote to say she was disappointed in the blog. Among the things she pointed out: I never said in my blog that UCS had a press conference in the middle of the day, and that they put up a panel of a half-dozen participants and took questions.

UCS is correct. I should have noted that. In fact, I was in New York, and went to the press conference, and found it very useful. I’m taking information and contacts from it for a story that I hope might break through a general numbness to climate reporting – I don’t think it gets the public attention it deserves.

It’s a transformative story in many ways, and the climatic changes are going to make for very difficult times. Those changes are directly tied to our energy use, but not something we take into account in the energy choices we make. Or not seriously. More open discussion of what is coming is better, I think.

So, I have disappointed the Union of Concerned Scientists, and they have disappointed me. We exchanged another series of notes today and agreed to go on talking.

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