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Rising Tides on The Golden Shore

Californians may soon have more sea to love than they can handle

I believe it’s Californians’ sense of entitlement to the coast and ocean, their understanding that it belongs to all of them—surfers, sailors, fishermen, the maritime industry, the tourist industry, the navy, the tribes, and every single beachgoer —that makes protecting California’s seas both so contentious and so effective. Because of their wide range of users, California’s ocean and shoreline can never be dominated by a single industry or interest.

San Francsico skylinePhoto by Albert de BruijnThe changing climate is transforming California’s coast and ocean in unprecedented ways.

In Massachusetts there’s a feeling the ocean belongs to the fishermen, and as a result New England’s waters have long been overfished and depleted. In Louisiana they know it belongs to the oil companies, and things like the BP oil blowout of 2010, the loss of their coastal wetlands, and the “cancer alley” that’s grown up along the lower Mississippi where the refineries are located is the price they’ve had to pay. In Florida the real-estate industry so dominates ocean and coastal uses that when you encounter bits of undeveloped “old Florida” it’s like finding a piece of paradise lost. In California, however, it’s the people who continue to fight over and protect their golden shore and deep blue sea.

According to the California Ocean Protection Act of 2004: California’s coastal and ocean resources are critical to the state’s environmental and economic security and integral to the state’s high quality of life and culture. A healthy ocean is part of the state’s legacy, and is necessary to support the state’s human and wildlife populations. Each generation of Californians has an obligation to be good stewards of the ocean, to pass the legacy on to their children.

South to north or river to sea, SeaWorld, Big Sur, the Golden Gate, the Beach Boys or, Beach Blanket Babylon, California’s ocean waters are historic, cultural, legal, and literary phenomena bonded to the very DNA of the state. Its passionate love affair with the ocean is ongoing, its pop-cultural references to it too vast to fully enumerate. The Endless Summer starts and ends in California. The original Treasure Island was filmed on Catalina, and Sea Hunt, in which Lloyd Bridges played underwater investigator Mike Nelson—inspiration for generations of divers and marine scientists—was largely shot in the waters off Catalina where actress Natalie Wood also drowned and a criminal investigation into her death was reopened forty-five years later. SpongeBob SquarePants was created by California marine biologist Stephen Hillenburg, …more

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UK Communities Are Standing Up to the Country’s Nascent Shale Gas Industry

Activists hold strong amid recent wins by fracking interests

The Ryedale region of Northern England is one of immense natural beauty. Its rolling hills and sublime moors are dotted with picturesque villages that are laced with thousands of years of proud, rich history that is palpably felt to this day. However, the region’s tranquillity has been rocked in recent months by a grave threat. The area is one of two in the UK that has been given the green light in the last year for hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, despite local opposition. Fortunately, the decision is not yet final, and in the face of corporate behemoths, a number of grassroots campaigns are capturing the UK public’s imagination and support.  

photo of anti-fracking demonstration UKphoto by Victoria Buchan-Dyer Organizers protest fracking in Lancashire. Public support for fracking in the UK is declining.

Public interest in fracking intensified massively in the United Kingdom in 2007 when Cuadrilla Resources, a UK energy company, was granted a license for shale gas explorations. Cuadrilla’s first and only fracking job took place in March, 2011 near the town of Blackpool, but the operation was quickly halted due to seismic activity felt in the area after the drilling. Two small earthquakes — which have since been confirmed to have been directly caused by the fracking by a study commissioned by Cuadrilla itself — were detected in the region around the drilling site.

The earthquakes put a damper on the budding industry, one that members of the UK government seem keen to overcome. Former Prime Minister David Cameron said that the country would go “all out” for shale gas. George Osborne, a longtime member of parliament, urged politicians to fast-track fracking measures in an internal letter last year, which was leaked in January. In December 2015, the UK government awarded rights to energy companies to explore potential fracking sites in 159 onshore blocks across England with the aim to begin the drilling process in many areas by the end of 2016. And just last month, the UK government overturned a local decision by the Lancashire county council to reject a proposal for four fracking wells in the region. Drilling may begin next year.

In the face of the politicians’ obstinate stance on the issue, huge numbers of British people are standing together in defiance of the proposed drillings. In October, the Department of Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy reported that public support for fracking had fallen to 17 percent from …more

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‘Extraordinarily Hot’ Arctic Temperatures Alarm Scientists

Researchers say warmer air and sea surface could lead to record lows of sea ice at north pole next year

The Arctic is experiencing extraordinarily hot sea surface and air temperatures, which are stopping ice forming and could lead to record lows of sea ice at the north pole next year, according to scientists.

photo of a arctic sea icephoto by Mike Beauregard Arctic sea-ice, Nunavut, Canada. Temperatures in the Arctic have been peaking 20 degrees Celsius higher than normal for this time of year.

Danish and US researchers monitoring satellites and Arctic weather stations are surprised and alarmed by air temperatures peaking at what they say is an unheard-of 20 Celsius higher than normal for the time of year. In addition, sea temperatures averaging nearly 4 Celsius higher than usual in October and November.

“It’s been about 20 Celsius warmer than normal over most of the Arctic Ocean, along with cold anomalies of about the same magnitude over north-central Asia. This is unprecedented for November,” said research professor Jennifer Francis of Rutgers university.

Temperatures have been only a few degrees above freezing when -25 Celsius should be expected, according to Francis. “These temperatures are literally off the charts for where they should be at this time of year. It is pretty shocking. The Arctic has been breaking records all year. It is exciting but also scary,” she said.

Francis said the near-record low sea ice extent this summer had led to a warmer than usual autumn. That in turn had reduced the temperature difference between the Arctic and mid-latitudes. 

“This helped make the jet stream wavier and allowed more heat and moisture to be driven into Arctic latitudes and perpetuate the warmth. It’s a vicious circle,” she added. 

Sea ice, which forms and melts each year, has declined more than 30 percent in the past 25 years. This week it has been at the lowest extent ever recorded for late November. According to the US government’s National Snow and Ice Data Centre (NSIDC), around 2 million square kilometers less ice has formed since September than average. The level is far below the same period in 2012, when sea ice went on to record its lowest ever annual level.

Francis said she was convinced that the cause of the high temperatures and ice loss was climate change. “It’s all expected. There is nothing but climate change that can cause these trends. This is all headed in the same direction and picking up speed.”

Rasmus Tonboe, a sea ice remote sensing expert at the Danish Meteorological Institute in Copenhagen, said: …more

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Wolverines Face Recovery Roadblocks

Rebounding populations in Pacific Northwest contend with reduced habitat connectivity, climate change

Aja Woodrow plods alongside the road toward a road-killed deer near the town of Cle Elum in central Washington. He’s carrying a Pulaski — a combination axe/grub hoe commonly used for wildland firefighting. Today, however, Woodrow intends to put it to a more macabre use: severing the deer’s head.

This may sound like a scene from horror movie, but Woodrow has wildlife conservation on his mind. He’s a US Forest Service biologist working in partnership with the Washington Department of Transportation on a study of wolverine movement in the North Cascades. Road-killed deer and elk just happen to be effective, cheap, and plentiful wolverine bait.

photo of a wolverinephoto by Jarkko Järvinen Wildlife biologists are studying the impact Interstate 90, which bisects the Cascade mountain range, on wolverine recovery in the Pacific Northwest.

Long absent from Washington’s Cascade mountain range, wolverines are staging a comeback. Biologists began documenting wolverines in more remote parts of the Cascades in the 1990s, and in 2006, the Forest Service began tracking wolverines to monitor the depth of the recovery. A decade later, wolverines are flourishing in the area. They’re nearly everywhere we would expect to see them in the North Cascades, and biologists discover new individuals each year. However, a huge barrier lies in the way of the wolverine’s continued recovery and expansion into the rest of the Cascades: Interstate 90, which bisects the mountain range.

Reduced habitat connectivity brought about by infrastructure projects is a growing problem around the world. As humans continue to build infrastructure to make our lives easier, that infrastructure becomes a barrier to movement of wildlife between patches of suitable habitat. This can be particularly problematic for small critters with low mobility like turtles, lizards, and salamanders, but it’s a problem for larger, more mobile animals like deer, wolves, and wolverines as well.

Adam Ford, an assistant professor of biology at the University of British Columbia-Okanogan, has studied the impact of roads on everything from leopard frogs to mountain lions. With some notable exceptions (e.g. the proverbial deer in the headlights), animals tend to shy away from roads, he says.

“Animals can hear cars, they can smell the effluents from cars, and of course they see them moving,” Ford says, all of which can cause animals to be averse to crossing roads. “Generally speaking, the wider the road, the more traffic on it and the larger the zone of influence the road has on the surrounding …more

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The Hidden Magnolias

Deep in Mexico’s Sierra Madre Oriental, two new magnolias were waiting for a conservationist turned photographer and a botanist to find them

In Mexico’s rugged Sierra Gorda Biosphere Reserve, new species from a variety of plant families have recently been discovered. Located in the northern third of the state of Querétaro, this section of the Sierra Madre Oriental has been particularly blessed with biological diversity by evolution. Its high peaks cause rain shadows and its latitude allows it to host both neo-arctic and neo-tropical flora and fauna.

I had the privilege of growing up in this region and, perhaps not surprisingly, developed a strong affinity for nature from an early age.

Roberto Pedraza Ruiz Ridge after ridge, the Sierra Gorda always offer endless opportunities to explore and document endangered and unknown species to science. For me, it’s my backyard, where I can freely roam and document its landscapes and biodiversity.

Roberto Pedraza Ruiz Sweetgums dominate in some local cloud forests, giving a definite Appalachian taste in central Mexico.

Thus, in 1987 when my parents started a grassroots movement aimed at conserving the area’s incredible biodiversity which led to the founding of Grupo Ecológico Sierra Gorda (GESG), I enthusiastically became involved with the project. I can proudly claim to have been a conservationist since my childhood. So it was natural for me to pick up photography as a tool for shedding light on the Sierra Gorda’s biological wealth and documenting its diversity of ecosystems. In 1996, I was carrying out point counts for a bird monitoring project, which led me to revisit a very special cloud forest, one where grand old oaks and ancient cypresses reach heights of 40 meters with their limbs draped in dense mats of moss, ferns, orchids, and bromeliads, a place where I have managed to photograph jaguars, pumas, and margays.

Roberto Pedraza Ruiz These old-growth oaks were going to be logged and turned into charcoal. We arrived just in time to protect them.

Roberto Pedraza Ruiz Tree frogs and salamanders are some of the amphibians that inhabit cloud forests. They are on the verge of extinction, and will disappear if we don’t properly protect them and the forests they depend on.

Roberto Pedraza Ruiz Also endangered, this fragile orchid calls home a few cloud forests in the Sierra Gorda.

To my dismay, I found this precious cloud forest in the …more

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Climate Action in the Post-Truth Era

A path forward under the incoming Trump administration

If President-elect Donald Trump actually believes all the warnings he issued during the election about the threats of immigration, he should be talking about ways to slow global warming as well. Rising sea level, caused by the melting of the Antarctic and Greenland ice caps, will probably displace tens of millions of people in the decades ahead, and many may come to North America as refugees.

artwork depicting the statue of liberty drowningCover Illustration by Serene Lusano

Climate change will cause a suite of other problems for future generations to tackle, and it’s arguably the most pressing issue of our time. A year ago December, world leaders gathered in Paris to discuss strategies for curbing greenhouse gas emissions, and scientists at every corner of the globe confirm that humans are facing a crisis. However, climate change is being nearly ignored by American politicians and lawmakers. It was not discussed in depth at all during this past election cycle’s televised presidential debates. And, when climate change does break the surface of public discussion, it polarizes Americans like almost no other political issue. Some conservatives, including Trump, still deny there’s even a problem.

“We are in this bizarre political state in which most of the Republican Party still thinks it has to pretend that climate change is not real,” said Jonathan F.P. Rose, a New York City developer and author of The Well-Tempered City, which explores in part how low-cost green development can mitigate the impacts of rising global temperatures and changing weather patterns.

Rose says progress cannot be made in drafting effective climate strategies until national leaders agree there’s an issue.

“We have such strong scientific evidence,” he said. “We can disagree on how we’re going to solve the problems, but I would hope we could move toward an agreement on the basic facts.”

That such a serious planetwide crisis has become a divide across the American political battlefield “is a tragedy” to Peter Kalmus, an earth scientist with the Jet Propulsion Laboratory at Caltech in Pasadena, who agreed to be interviewed for this story on his own behalf (not on behalf of NASA, JPL, or Caltech).

Kalmus warns that climate change is happening whether politicians want to talk about it or not.

“CO2 molecules and infrared photons don’t give a crap about politics, whether you’re liberal or conservative, Republican or Democrat or anything else,” Kalmus said.

Slowing climate change will be essential, since adapting to all its impacts may be impossible. Governments …more

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California’s Disappearing Dream

How the drought, hotter temperatures, and a booming population continue to shape the Golden State’s environmental future

The highest mountains in the West run north-to-south through the Mediterranean latitudes and just 150 miles from the Pacific Ocean – a remarkable stroke of geologic luck that has made California one of the richest ecological and agricultural regions on the continent. These mountains accumulate deep snow in the winter, which in turn feeds cold rivers that flow through the hot, dry months.

photo of an arid landscapephoto by Gordon / FlickrCalifornia is entering its sixth year of drought. Research indicates that the drought has been made worse by climate change.

But the unique conditions that California’s native fish, its farms and its cities depend on are acutely threatened by climate change. In 2015, virtually no snow fell in the Sierra Nevada.

Droughts occur naturally, but research indicates the current drought in the American West has been made worse by climate change and that future droughts will be exacerbated by the warming planet. A 2015 paper published in the journal Geophysical Research Letters calculated that climate change has made California’s current drought as much as 27 percent worse than it would otherwise have been. In 2015, Stanford researchers, led by associate professor of earth sciences Noah Diffenbaugh, predicted that extremely hot years in California will increasingly overlap with dry spells in the future. Greenhouse gases, the scientists reported, are pushing this trend. Diffenbaugh explained to The New York Times that, even if precipitation remains ample, warmer winters in the future will mean less water stored away as snow – historically the most important reservoir in the state.

As water supplies shrink, the human population is booming. By 2050, the agencies that manage and distribute California’s water will be answering to the needs of roughly 50 million people as well as the state’s enormous agriculture industry. Current squabbles over California’s water will escalate into blistering fights, and native salmon – once the main protein source for the West Coast’s indigenous people – will probably vanish in the fray as the Sacramento and San Joaquin river system is tapped to the max for human needs. Other native fishes, too, like green sturgeon, will almost certainly dwindle or disappear. 

The atmospheric buildup of greenhouse gases will manifest in other ways, too. Disruption of ocean currents could reduce the upwelling of cold bottom water so critical for California’s coastal ecosystem. California’s shoreline will erode as sea level rises, threatening coastal real estate, roads, and public space. In 2009, the Pacific Institute released a report predicting …more

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