Friday, June 27, 2014

In the News: Maps Show a Sweltering Future for U.S.

My BFF during the summertime...
Nearly five years ago, I was laying on my couch recovering from major knee surgery and feeling utterly miserable. My misery wasn't due to the pain of recovering from surgery (thank goodness for prescription pain meds!) but rather because of the sweltering, unbearable, oppressive, and completely-inexplicable-to-a-western-Washingtonian heat that was smothering the region.  I'm sure that all of us remember the heat wave in late July 2009, where for a week straight the temperatures were over 100 degrees by noon, and didn't drop a degree below eighty overnight.

There I was, in my tiny dark cottage with blanket-covered windows to keep out the sunlight, leaving a sweat-stained outline of my body on the couch, misting my arms and legs with a spray bottle and desperately wishing for air conditioning, because the three fans pointed at me were doing little more than pushing around ninety-degree air.  Might as well have been using a hairdryer to try to cool off.  Like I said: miserable.  And forget trying to go outdoors... the heat seemed to suck the air right from your lungs, leaving you sweaty and winded in seconds. Even the shade offered no respite from the hot, still air.

Those days were unarguably unpleasant.  Now just imagine having an extra MONTH of extreme temperatures each year like those we experienced in 2009.  According to the Risky Business report released earlier this week, that is the reality we'll be facing if we do not take immediate action on climate change.

The Risky Business report was prepared by the Rhodium Group, an economics research firm, and was commissioned by former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg; former Treasury Secretary (under George W. Bush) Henry Paulson; and Tom Steyer, a prominent entrepreneur and environmental activist.

The report examined the potential economic effects of climate change in the United States (bottom line: we can't afford NOT to act on climate), but what really grabbed the attention of the media were the following two images from the report, depicting projected increases in days of extreme heat across the US.

This first chart shows the average days per year with temperatures over 95 degrees.  The interesting part about this chart is that it generally follows the lifespan of those of us in the "millennial" generation.  So I can see exactly how hot and awful things could be here in western Washington when I'm old and gray... 20 days per year with temperatures over 95 degrees? No thanks.

Source: Risky Business

This second chart shows the number of days per year wherein the combined heat and humidity will make it unsafe for people to be outdoors, under three different scenarios: business as usual (no reduction in emissions of greenhouse gases), medium emissions reductions, and large emissions reductions.

Source: Risky Business

Take a look at that chart for the business as usual scenario for the year 2200: this shows that in the Puget Sound region, there could be 15-20 days every year where it is unsafe for people to be outdoors due to risk of heatstroke.  That's nearly three weeks of being confined to the indoors. This means that future generations--our great- great- great-... grandchildren-- won't have the same opportunities to enjoy our beautiful Pacific Northwest nature that we've had.  So many of the summertime memories of fun and adventure in the outdoors will be unavailable to them.  How completely tragic.

But there is hope here.  Take a look at the "large emissions reductions" scenario.  If we can pull our act together and force our government, businesses, and economy to embrace clean, renewable energy and decrease CO2 emissions, then we can still avoid some of the worst effects of climate change. We can pass down a more livable planet to future generations. If that isn't a compelling reason to act on climate, then I don't know what is.  The EPA's recently announced Clean Power Plan to cut carbon emissions from power plants 30% by the year 2030 is a great start, but there is much more work to be done.

Although we will feel some effects of climate change regardless of any drastic actions taken in the near future, it is so important to remember that we can still avoid the worst effects by taking those drastic actions.  We can still avoid the potential for that infamous 2009 western Washington heat wave becoming a regular and prolonged occurrence.  Think of the misery, the sweating, the lethargy, being confined to the indoors and glued to the weather report on your television, searching for some glimmer of hope that Steve Pool will tell you that the temperatures will cool off soon... only to be left in despair with a ten-day forecast of blazing sunshine and 100-degree temperatures. That's enough motivation for me!

If you're one of those business-minded types who enjoys economics, check out the Risky Business report to view the climate change issue from a whole new angle!

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Nature Nerd Wednesdays

Welcome to Nature Nerd Wednesdays, your mid-week nature break to reconnect with the calming, refreshing, and inspiring effects of nature. Take a deep breath and enjoy...

Lainey Piland Photo
Summertime has officially arrived.  Although this might have been my favorite time of year in my younger days (summer break!), now that this season carries only the promise of hotter, drier weather instead of two blissful months of freedom,  I find myself longing for the autumn to come, or the spring we just left behind.  I want a rainy day. Or temperatures in the sixties instead of the eighties. Or lush green scenery instead of dusty brown and gold.

Despite the rising temperatures, summertime offers great opportunities for getting outdoors and enjoying our beautiful Pacific Northwest nature.  And for someone like myself who is not too fond of the hot sunshine, there is no feeling more beautiful and refreshing on a scorching summer's day than to step into the cool shade of the forest. Fresh air, chattering birds, blessedly cooler temperatures, and just a whisper of a breeze... perfect conditions for a summertime hike in the forest.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Nature Nerd Wednesdays

Welcome to Nature Nerd Wednesdays, your mid-week nature break to reconnect with the calming, refreshing, and inspiring effects of nature. Take a deep breath and enjoy...

Screenshot: Earth Science and Remote Sensing Unit, NASA-Johnson Space Center. "The Gateway to Astronaut Photography of Earth." <

Perspective.  This lens through which we experience the world will occasionally be shaken up like an Etch-A-Sketch and its lines re-drawn; re-framing the way we see the world as a result of a particular experience.  A conversation, a thought-provoking book, a life-changing event, a stunning view from the top of a mountain... whether large or small, these experiences all have the ability to adjust our perspective to some degree.

I recently attended a family member's high school graduation.  Talk about perspective!  It's hard to believe that exactly ten years ago, I was the giddy graduate carefully making my way across the polished gym floor to the proud and thunderous cheers of a full auditorium, with the tidily-played strains of Pomp and Circumstance faintly rising and falling in the background. As I listened to the commencement speeches at this recent graduation, there was a very clear difference in perspectives between the student and the adult speakers.  The student speakers urged one another to go out there, experience life, and find yourselves.  The adult speaker had one message: consider what your legacy will be. Be kind.  The students were coming from a perspective of standing at the edge of the familiar and staring into the unknown.  The adult speaker was coming from a perspective of standing "out there" in the former unknown, looking backward at where he came from; at the events and experiences that brought him to the place where he now stood.

Well, that's all fine and good and interesting, but what does it have to do with Nature Nerd Wednesdays?  This Wednesday, I wanted to share with you something really interesting. Like the photo of Earth from one of my first Nature Nerd Wednesday posts, this week's gem can really put our home planet into stark perspective.  This is the International Space Station's HD Earth Viewing Experiment. Click on the link and you'll be transported to a live video feed of Earth, as seen by cameras mounted on the Space Station itself.

We are so used to looking at our planet from the same perspective as a newly-graduated high school student: standing with our feet planted firmly on the familiar ground of planet Earth, staring out into the infinite dark of the star-speckled heavens.  This video feed from the ISS allows us to take the perspective of the adult speaker, standing in the former unknown and looking back at where he came from. 

Our world seems infinitely large when we're standing upon it.  Viewed from above, it is brought clearly to light that our planet is limited. The ISS video feed shows the curving line of the horizon, the thin blue haze of atmosphere that is the only thing protecting us from being fried by solar radiation. Beneath cottony white clouds, the vast blue seas appear empty, but we well know they're teeming with life.  We see land comprised of muted green and dusty brown, dotted with cities here and there.  Rivers can be seen snaking across the landscape, dragging silty brown plumes into the oceans. Every single person we know is on that blue-green-white orb.  Everything we know, every experience we've ever had, is on that planet suspended in the close blackness of space. Even viewed from above, Earth looks familiar. Compact. Finite.

Screenshot: Earth Science and Remote Sensing Unit, NASA-Johnson Space Center. "The Gateway to Astronaut Photography of Earth." <

This is a video of our home planet in real time. You are down there somewhere. Right now. If you time it just right, you can even wave to yourself as the Space Station passes overhead... it is almost mind-boggling.  These new and unfamiliar perspectives allow us to experience a sense of wonderment and gratitude as we look back on the familiar from an entirely different viewpoint.

Thursday, June 5, 2014

World Environment Day 2014

We're all in this together.  This is an underlying message of World Environment Day, which is being recognized in hundreds of countries around the globe today. The United Nations created World Environment Day to call attention to environmental issues and to inspire action.  This year, the event is focusing on Small Island Developing States (SIDS), calling for people around the world to join in solidarity with these small countries as climate change and rising sea levels threaten their homelands.

Irene Olson photo

Climate change is becoming an ever more present reality in our daily lives, especially for those living on island nations who are slowly watching the seas reclaim more and more territory, and who are facing the reality of their entire nation being displaced by rising sea levels. Such a situation is already being played out in the Maldives, an island nation in the Indian Ocean which nearly 400,000 people call home. The highest point in the entire nation is less than 10 feet above sea level, and the average elevation is about 3 feet above sea level. The IPCC's most recent assessment report estimated that in the worst-case scenario, sea levels may rise by nearly 3 feet by the end of the century (many scientists comment that even this estimate may be conservative).  You can see what a problem that would create for low-lying island nations such as the Maldives.

Citizens of island nations not only face concerns about their country being subsumed beneath rising seas, but climate change has created other problems in the form of water scarcity and increased disease outbreaks as well.  As sea levels rise, they can infiltrate underground freshwater supplies, rendering them undrinkable.  Some islands in the Maldives have already been forced to bring in drinking water from outside sources.  Additionally, the warmer temperatures associated with climate change create the perfect habitat for disease-carrying vectors such as mosquitoes to flourish, endangering the human population with the risk of increased disease outbreaks.

Clearly, island nations are seriously threatened by climate change.  But here is the sad part: these countries have contributed very little--if anything--to cause climate change, and yet, here they are faced with some of the most dire consequences. Climate change has been caused by the wanton burning of fossil fuels by industrialized nations such as the United States and China, among others.  Although the nations that caused the problem will indeed eventually feel the effects of the climate change they've set in motion, these are not as immediately devastating as the consequences faced by smaller developing nations who lack the resources--or in the case of island nations, the mere possibility-- to adapt.

This is where we can circle back to that theme of  "we're all in this together".  The earth is a closed system. The actions of one entity will eventually be felt by all.  We have a responsibility to our fellow human beings to be conscious of the effects of our actions, and to reach out a helping hand to those who have been endangered by said actions.  Thus, World Environment Day 2014 is a great illustration of the fact that climate change is not just an "environmental" issue.  It's not just about polar bears.  Climate change is a human welfare issue; one which we have the responsibility to care deeply about and to address with urgency. 

This World Environment Day, "Raise your voice, not the sea level".  Check out the website to find out how to get involved, and also take a look at the Going Green page on A Day Without Rain for tips on reducing your ecological footprint.