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2007 Annual Lecture Series

Lecture Summaries
June 11-15, 2007

June 11
Ocean Circulation and Climate Change: A Chilling Combination?
Ruth Curry, Research Specialist, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution

There is no longer a question about whether the Earth is warming, said Ruth Curry, research specialist at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. “It is a fact.”

In Curry’s public lecture, “Ocean Circulation and Climate Change: A Chilling Combination?” on Monday, June 11, 2007, she noted that scientists have reliable measurements of the Earth’s climate from 140 years of direct temperature readings; tree rings that chronicle climatic changes over the last thousand years; and ice cores that reveal the climate of hundreds of thousands of years ago.

The lecture was the first in Metcalf Institute’s annual public lecture series at the URI Graduate School of Oceanography.

Curry explained that these climate records show that climate changes have occurred in the past on about a 100,000 cycle, due to wobbles in the Earth’s orbit around the Sun and a resulting increase in solar radiation reaching the Earth. In contrast, instruments in space have not recorded an increase in solar radiation that could account for the current warming. Instead, greenhouse gases, especially carbon dioxide, have caused the Earth to retain more of the energy delivered by solar radiation.

The ocean “conveyer belt,” which pushes warm water poleward along the ocean’s surface and pushes cold water toward the Equator along the ocean floor, regulates the world’s climate to a great degree. For instance, Western Europe’s warm winters relative to its latitude are due to air absorbing heat from the warm currents flowing northward in the area. However, because of warming temperatures – one degree Celsius in the last century – ice at the poles has been shrinking and thinning.

Ice reflects solar radiation back to outer space, while land absorbs and is warmed by solar radiation; therefore, the melting of ice actually accelerates global warming. This feedback cycle, in which one change triggers another change that amplifies the overall trend, has occurred before. Curry noted that scientists are especially concerned about climate change because they have not observed natural systems “putting on the brakes,” or developing a moderating response that neutralizes global warming.

The rate of sea level rise is poorly understood and not really predictable, Curry said. Conservative estimates put sea level rise at about 3 feet within the next century. However, scientists have observed floating ice shelves, like those around Greenland, disintegrating and becoming unstable. It is not known whether these ice sheets and shelves will melt incrementally or in dramatic events, and Curry believes that ice response could be the most likely candidate to cause rapid climate change. The Greenland Ice Sheet, Curry said, is so vast that its complete melting could cause sea level in the entire world to rise by 7 meters – and the Antarctic Ice Sheet is even larger than that.

Species that depend on ice, like the polar bear, are not able to adapt to their changing environment. In the oceans – which absorb more solar radiation than the land and therefore are even more than 1 degree Celsius warmer – ecosystems are also unable to keep pace with the changing temperature. Corals are unable to support the symbiotic organism zooxanthellae in warm temperatures, and die without their presence. Even where zooxanthellae are still able to survive, the changing chemistry of the oceans – with more carbon dioxide absorbed and increasing acidity – dissolves the calcium carbonate with which corals build themselves. When thinking of this reaction, Curry suggested, think about the interaction of baking soda, or sodium bicarbonate, and vinegar, an acid.

Freshwater resources will become scarcer, hurricanes will become more intense, and the sea level will rise quickly as a result of climate change, Curry said. Changing our sources of energy from carbon-burning ones to alternative energies is necessary to stem climate change, and even small commitments are important. “We might not be able to get a 20-percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2010,” she said, “but a five percent reduction still helps.” She said she had noticed both examples of clear, un-hyped reporting and exaggerated, sensational writing, but felt that when scientists and journalists “team up,” the public experiences an epiphany about climate change.

Curry took questions from the more-than-full house, including one from Chelsea Wald, a fellow in the Annual Workshop for Journalists program, run by the Metcalf Institute for Marine and Environmental Reporting. Wald noted that she experiences people localizing the climate change phenomenon to a great degree, saying, for instance, “It sure was a warm winter! Global warming must be here.” Wald wondered whether this localizing or small-scaling of climate change could send the wrong message; for instance, an especially cold winter could cause people to believe that warming is no longer a problem. Curry responded that “weather is not climate,” and that it is important to remind people of the larger picture, both geographically and historically. Scientists look for climate change not in local weather events, but in long-term, geographically-broad data sets.

June 12
A Sea Change for Ecosystems in the North Atlantic

Charles H. Greene, PhD, Ocean Resources and Ecosystems Program, Cornell University

A research project conducted at a fortuitous time can reveal larger processes driving fluctuations in the oceans, Charles Greene said in his lecture, “A Sea Change for Ecosystems in the North Atlantic” on June 12, 2007, at the URI Graduate School of Oceanography. Greene is a professor in the Ocean Resources and Ecosystems Program at Cornell University.

His 1997-1999 study of the copepod Calanus finchmarchicus, a zooplankton that dominates in the North Atlantic, contained an unexpected result: the 1998 count of Calanus was roughly 90 percent smaller than that of the year before or after, and such a huge drop in population of the copepod had never before been documented.

His ensuing research into the causes of this dramatic change suggested that pressure systems as far away as Iceland and the Azores could affect North Atlantic aquatic communities, from the tiny zooplankton to the enormous right whale.

According to Greene, Calanus in the deep basins of the Gulf of Maine are the key to understanding Calanus in the North Atlantic region. These copepods, mere millimeters in size, descend in a resting state to the deep waters during winter months and rise to be dispersed by currents in the warmer months. The Gulf of Maine basins are transition zones, with the warm, salty Atlantic Temperate Slopewater meeting the cold, relatively fresh Labrador Subarctic Slopewater.

The currents are driven by a naturally fluctuating climate regime known as the North Atlantic Oscillation (NAO). Positive NAO systems occur when there is a large pressure difference between the high-pressure system near the Azores and the low-pressure system near Iceland; negative systems are caused under the opposite conditions. Greene pointed out that during the early part of the 20th Century, positive NAO systems dominated, while during the 1950s and 1960s, negative systems were more common. Although scientists can detect these changes, they are unable to define what causes the differences between pressure systems.

Greene has also explored a potential link between Calanus and its predator, the right whale. Because a drop in right whale calving was observed following a Calanus drop, he suggested that low Calanus availability could be linked to a reduced chance for successful pregnancy in right whales.

Time-lags between NAO systems, regional slopewater temperatures, Calanus abundance, and right whale calving rates all suggest complicated connections that, while not always direct, were potential links nonetheless.

Greene also noted that another team of scientists had suggested a trophic cascade was really at work. They hypothesized that herring populations increased because of Calanus population declines. That, they said, could be due to increased predation by herring, when cod, which prey on herring, were largely removed from the region, releasing herring populations from predation pressure.

Greene explained that his hypothesis is a regional climate-driven, bottom-up model, while theirs was a predator-driven, top-down view, and suggested that both could be true to varying degrees. “I know this is complicated,” he said, “but that’s the way the world is.”

As Greene emphasized to the nearly-full auditorium, his lecture was about the effects of a regional climatic system on the biological community, and the potential impact of global climate change on the North Atlantic Oscillation is not predictable at this point. Pointing to a continuous plankton recorder brought over from the National Marine Fisheries Service Lab, also at the URI Narragansett Bay Campus, Greene applauded the long-term monitoring the Lab carries out, explaining that long-term studies are essential to our understanding of climate change.

June 13
Reporting on Water Supply: New Stories of Scarcity
Cynthia Barnett, Author and Associate Editor, Florida Trend

When it comes to water use, the eastern half of the U.S. has not learned from the experience of westerners, said Cynthia Barnett, author and associate editor of Florida Trend. Instead, the east is only now coming to grips with its thirst for water, and groundwater sources are being drained unsustainably, Barnett explained in her public presentation, “Reporting on Water Supply: New Stories of Scarcity,” on June 13, 2007 at the URI Graduate School of Oceanography for the Metcalf Institute’s annual public lecture series.

Spring 2007 was the driest spring ever recorded in the southeastern U.S., leading some to call it the worst drought in history.

Barnett noted that draining wetlands could lead to declining precipitation, as the sources of evapotranspiration, the sum of evaporation and plant transpiration, are removed. Florida citrus farmers also found that the freeze was following them as they moved south; in fact, their cultivation removed the moderating effects of wetlands on temperature, allowing more severe freezes.

Droughts may also increase in the mid-latitudes as a result of climate change, according to the National Drought Mitigation Center, Barnett said.

Some droughts may be “demand-driven.” These are when developments are built during a high-precipitation periods and use patterns cannot be sustained during even normal precipitation years.

Mega-infrastructure projects may also have dramatic impacts on water supply and use, Barnett said. The Kissimmee Dam in Florida, built to contain the river, is now being demolished to restore habitat for 10 times the cost of building it. Florida is also working on larger desalination plants, though they have struggled to come online and have been much more expensive than expected.

Because of elected officials’ machinations in Congress, Barnett said, all Americans are paying for these projects, not just those in the areas that use them. “You can’t help but ask,” Barnett said, “which multi-million dollar infrastructure projects today will be torn down in the future as their unintended consequences are revealed?”

The privatization of water may be inevitable, with North America the greatest water user. The march toward privatization stirs up a debate about whether water is a human right that should be free or nearly free, or if it is a resource that should be priced according to scarcity. Barnett argued that the Eastern U.S. has not made a serious attempt at conservation, and many measures–including allowing non-potable water for toilet and garden water and encouraging green building–would make huge impacts on water use.

Droughts, Barnett pointed out, may have a silver lining: they can force people to re-value and re-assess their use of water, leading to more sustainable water use.

June 14
The Potential Health Impacts of Climate Change
Joel D. Scheraga, National Program Director, Global Change Research Program and Mercury Research Program, US Environmental Protection Agency

“We have the ability to identify what the risks to public health are due to a changing climate,” said Joel Scheraga, national program director for the Global Change Research Program and the Mercury Research Program at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. “We have the technological know-how in this country, as well as in other countries, to deal with those risks and take advantage of the opportunities. But we’ve got to figure out how to adapt effectively.”

Scheraga addressed a crowded auditorium at the University of Rhode Island’s Graduate School of Oceanography on June 12, 2007, on the potential health impacts of climate change. Scheraga’s discussion was part of the Metcalf Institute’s annual public lecture series, “Scientists and Journalists: Getting the Point Across.”

“Climate change affects human health through a variety of different pathways, some of which are more direct and more easily understood than others,” Scheraga said. One of the more direct ways is through heat waves, and their frequency and intensity. We already know that heat stress kills, so an increase in that intensity imposes an increased danger for vulnerable populations, such as the elderly and the poor.

One of the more indirect pathways, according to Scheraga, is malnutrition. As climate changes, there will be changes in agricultural production and crop yields. That, along with economic activity, can impact the extent to which there is malnutrition in certain areas of the world.

Air and water quality are also concerns. Air quality is sensitive to weather conditions, such as precipitation, temperature and wind speed. Poor air quality has obvious health effects – including increased respiratory and cardiopulmonary illnesses – but also economic impacts, like lost workdays, decreased worker productivity and crop yield loss. Sea level rise raises questions about the impact on the world’s drinking water.

Even more indirect are the affects on human health through changes in ecosystems. “We know that as the climate changes, ecosystems change,” Scheraga explained. “Forest cover will changed, vegetation cover will change. We’re already seeing some of those changes beginning to occur. As ecosystems change, habitats change.”

“That is probably the least understood of all the different impact categories. We know that as the climate changes, our ecosystem changes, and that can lead to the spread of infectious diseases.”

Certain diseases are known to be sensitive to climate, including Malaria, Yellow Fever and Dengue Fever. Already an issue in many third world countries, the spread of infectious disease is also something that should be of concern to more developed nations.

Even considering all of these impacts and changes, it is vital to keep in mind that they are manageable problems, Scheraga said. Anticipation and preparation is key to combating and dealing with the impacts of climate change, according to Scheraga.

“We as humans have the ability to anticipate the future, unlike wildlife that can only react. We have the ability to think about what the future might hold and to plan for it,” he said. “Anticipatory adaptation is an important mechanism for us to protect public health as the climate changes.”

June 15
The Business of Climate Change: Alternative Energy Realities
Chris Powell, Energy Manager, Department of Facilities Management, Brown University, Moderator
Cutler Cleveland, Professor, Department of Geography and Environment, Center for Energy and Environmental Studies, Boston University
Jeff Deyette, Senior Energy Analyst, Union of Concerned Scientists
 Dennis Duffy, Vice President, Cape Wind Associates and Vice President of Regulatory Affairs, Energy Management, Inc.
Dan Valianti, Manager, Northeast Energy and Climate Program, Ceres

“We know there are a lot of policies out there for renewables. We also know there’s greenhouse gas initiatives … then there’s the voluntary efforts like ourselves. All of this is going to create quite a bit of momentum to getting alternative energy. Now it is, how do we actually make that happen?”

Chris Powell, energy manager for the Department of Facilities Management at Brown University, posed this question to a panel of environmental experts on Friday, June 15, 2007 when he moderated Metcalf Institute’s fifth and final public lecture in a series on “Scientists and Journalists: Getting the Point Across” at the URI Graduate School of Oceanography. The panel discussion, entitled “The Business of Climate Change: Alternative Energy Realities,” brought together the voices and opinions of three climate control experts as they discussed some of the economic realities of alternative energy.

One of the realities that all panel members agreed on was the need for a national federal policy on climate and carbon.

“Voluntary efforts and renewable portfolio standards are good and important, but they’re not going to produce this massive shift that we think we now need in the energy system,” said panelist Cutler Cleveland, professor in the department of geography and environment and Center for Energy and Environmental Studies at Boston University. “So without direct government intervention and imposing some kind of tax on fuels based on their carbon content, we’re probably not going to get where we need to be.”

According to panelist Jeff Deyette, a senior energy analyst with the Union of Concerned Scientists, the United States has a large untapped reserve of clean energy resources that can be deployed today. “These technologies can get us quite a far distance along the road in terms of reducing our greenhouse gas emissions,” he said. But, “a long-term existing policy of support is critical to making this transition to a more sustainable energy system.”

In the absence of such a national federal policy, a number of businesses have taken it upon themselves to blaze the trail, according to Dan Valianti, manager of the Northeast Energy and Climate Program with Ceres, a “national network of investors, environmental organizations and other public interest groups working with companies and investors to address sustainability challenges such as global climate change.”

“Diversity is strength,” Valianti said. “Multiple perspectives can create more innovative and longer-lasting solutions.”

According to Valianti, there are now 28 states with clean energy funds, renewable portfolio standards, fuel cells and hydrogen funds, and/or carbon trading.

Hydro power, wind power, solar energy, geothermal energy–all of these topics were discussed as energy options that we already have, and which need to be explored soon.

“There is so much untapped clean energy available from the Earth, I would dare say we are way behind where we should be right now,” Valianti said.

And energy efficiency cannot be the only change. It must be done in combination with other renewable energy options, said Deyette.

But as with most things, cost is a factor.

“In theory, wind energy could supply several times over our current electricity needs,” Deyette said. “The costs for producing wind power has dropped 80- to 90-percent over the past two decades, to the point where at the best sites, it is cost competitive with building a new coal power plant or natural gas facility.”

Solar energy, Deyette continued, is possibly the best long-term clean energy solution available to us. “Solar PV (photovoltaic) alone could supply the entire United States’ electrical power needs with just 0.3 percent of the land area in the U.S. if you covered it flat,” he explained. “That’s about the size of New Hampshire.” And that amount of space, if spread out in bits across the country, is not only possible, it’s probable. “It’s still more expensive than most technologies, though it’s dropped about 90-percent over the past two decades, and it’s continuing to drop.”

According to Deyette, industrialized nations like the United States need to begin today to reduce our carbon emissions by 60- to 80-percent of year 2000 levels by the year 2050. By the year 2030, he said, the existing technology that we have today can provide most of the 80-percent reductions in carbon emissions that we need.

“We know we have the resources and technology available to us. The question is, how do we get there?” he asked.

Some means of anticipating and preparing include improved monitoring and surveillance control programs, disaster preparedness and response capability, public education and early warning systems, including the improved use of climate forecasts.

“Once again, a lot of these are manageable problems if, in fact, we anticipate them, make sure we understand them. We need to understand what the risks are and prepare for the future,” Scheraga said.