Tag Archives: climate change

Sea Level Rise Impacts Infrastructure Today

Unfortunately I didn’t have my phone with me earlier today when I ran past the crew working on the main train line from the Bay Area to Sacramento and then on to the rest of the United States.  But I wasn’t surprised to see them. Why?

The tracks run right along the shore of the Bay through Pinole. I’ve always loved this stretch of the train ride to Sacramento, but until recently I hadn’t fully comprehended just how close to shore they run.

One recent weekend we took the boys along the beach, past the salt marsh, and to a point where the track ballast is literally falling into the Bay.  The rack line that marks high tide was the give away — a recent tide had deposited debris on to the ballast.  That was the mark from a 6.9 foot tide on January 9th.

A 6.9 foot high tide deposits debris on the mainline to Sacramento

Ten days later, the King Tide on January 21st hit +7.2 feet.  That’s another 4 inches above the line we saw. It’s no wonder then that Union Pacific crews were working diligently at that spot to repair the damage from repeated inundations.  It’s certain that they’ll be back with increasing frequency in the coming years and decades.

It had me thinking about the engineers who laid these tracks. They weren’t stupid. They understood where sea level was and would certainly have accounted for high tides. The sheltered location means they didn’t have to concern themselves about storm surges. But they didn’t have sea level rise in their engineering guides. Over the 100 years since these tracks were laid, sea level at the Golden Gate Bridge has increased by 8 inches.  It’s clear to me that this modest 6 inch rise explains Union Pacific’s conundrum today.

Looking ahead, it’s projected that sea level in the Bay may rise by as much as 55 inches.  I don’t think any amount of maintenance will save this section of track against that sort of change.  Short of raising it up on trestles, I don’t see where else they can thread the line through the crowded Bay Area. But at least raising it would enable the low lying open space that lies behind the line to be returned to wetlands to protect the adjacent communities.

And speaking of wetlands, my friends and colleagues at Save the Bay, have led a consortium that is seeking to pass a region-wide parcel tax to raise funds for Bay land restoration. One of the key arguments for passing the $12 parcel tax, which will raise $500 million over 20 years, is that restoration is desperately needed to protect the infrastructure that rings the bay.  In the coming weeks I’ll be looking more closely at the measure, and in particular exploring how it can help my local community prepare for sea level rise.

Trains are fun: but sticks are way cooler.

How will climate change affect California’s park visitation?

This year’s warm and dry winter is expected to become the norm in the future. Over the past few weeks, I’ve spent time up at Tahoe and most recently among the north coast redwoods. My anecdotal observation is the weather this year is already affecting tourism and our public agencies have yet to catch up.

The lack of snow in the mountains drove people down to the lake shore where the visitor facilities remained closed for the season. At the Emerald Bay overlook, the parking lot was closed and cars were double-parked along the road causing a traffic jam in both directions. While the parking lot for Vikingsholm was open it was as busy as I have seen it during the summer. The house itself was closed and there were no park staff to be seen to greet the hundreds of visitors.

Up on the north coast, the Prairie Creek campground was partially open — and already full by late afternoon. The camp hosts told me they’d be turning people away rather than opening up the second loop as the maintenance crews hadn’t got in yet to open up the additional campsites.

If this year is repeated and becomes the new normal, our public agencies are going to have to change the way they manage the parks. We’ll have to be nimble enough to open them up earlier in the season as the weather, and visitors, demand. More park visitation is perhaps one bright spot in an otherwise bleak future.

Emerald Bay State Park - one of the gems of the State Park System
Emerald Bay State Park – one of the gems of the State Park System

Let’s stick to old-style geoengineering

A couple of news articles recently caught my eye as once again they show that nature is far ahead of our technology.  Or to put it another way, the new thing over the horizon gives us an excuse to continue polluting today.

First came a study from Oxford University scientists that determined that trees really are the best way to suck carbon dioxide from the atmosphere — both when alive, and when cooked as biochar.  Second, the esteemed US National Academy of Sciences released a report that says geoengineering — basically a technical fix to our screwing up the atmosphere — wasn’t quite ready for prime time but that more research is needed.

How much more research do we need to convince people that we should save existing forests and plant more where we can? I know it’s not as sexy as exotic proposals to modify the albedo of the planet by injecting sulphur into the atmosphere, or hanging mirrors in space. But it does have immediate benefits.  Forests don’t just store carbon dioxide, they clean our water, provide habitat for plants and animals, are an untapped reservoir of future medicines, and oh they are beautiful too.

And then there’s biochar. An ancient technology that is poised to make a comeback. Biochar is carbonized plant material. When added to soil it locks carbon away for an age. It also increases soil productivity, helps soil retain water, and in doing so can increase crop yields and enhance food security.  It’s been known for centuries in the Amazon as “terra pretta.” Perhaps its hard to patent it and make a buck, but it’s ready to deploy and can help solve several of the world’s problems right now.

So what are we waiting for? Perhaps geoengeering is ready for prime time after all – just old school.

Massive old trees, such as they coast redwoods, store carbon for centuries.
Massive old trees, such as they coast redwoods, store carbon for centuries.

Keystone XL as symbol of much that is wrong in the Country

Although its rarely been out of the news for the past few years, the proposed Keystone XL pipeline is front-page news again today with the new Republican controlled Senate taking it up as its first order of business. For me, the pipeline has become a potent symbol of much that is wrong in the Country.

For the proponents it’s the solution to our economic woes and will single-handedly free us from the specter of “foreign oil.” Although last I checked Canada was not the 51st State, and many of the jobs would be temporary construction jobs. To the opponents it will be responsible for completing our slide into a warmer planet bathed in carbon dioxide.  They argue that stopping the pipeline will mean the oil stays in the ground. I am no expert on the economics of oil, but I think it is safe to assume the oil will get to market if the price is right, pipeline or no pipeline. As an aside, I am curious if the recent crash in oil price makes the project uneconomic.

And now the Senate is going to weigh in on a project that is both the subject of law suits and extensive review by the Administration. When the Republicans get a bill out of the Congress’s and to the Presidents desk, I hope he vetoes it to send a strong message.  Congress meanwhile needs to stop wasting everyone’s time and tackle the harder policy question of how American can lead the world in producing clean, plentiful and affordable energy that does not pollute the planet.  It’s a much harder ask but solving that will actually lead to sustained economic growth and a cleaner environment.  Of course,  while we make that transition it would be smart to keep our climate options open and leave the dirtiest forms of energy where they are — buried safe in the ground.

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Precious water: what price waste?

On Wednesday I joined Mayor Garcetti, Governor Brown and members of the President’s Task Force on Climate Preparedness and Resilience at a reception to kick off day-long talks about how the federal government can help communities confront climate change. And today in Fresno, President Obama is unveiling an aid package for communities hit hardest by the drought.

Even as we address immediate needs of drought-stricken communities, we must also be moving beyond short-term aid, to investing in a water system for California’s future. And that presents historic opportunities for our work at Heal the Bay. Since 1985, we have been focused on cleaning up pollution in California’s waterways and ocean.  We have had some remarkable successes.  However, many of the state’s rivers and streams still fail to meet clean water standards and much of our ground water is polluted.

Just some of the 250 million gallons of water that is discharged to the bay each and every day

There’s much discussion at the moment about how we “waste” water by dumping it into the ocean. Every time I hear that I cringe. While it is not a waste to let water flow to the ocean (it’s an essential part of the natural system that keeps us alive), it is a waste is to dump highly treated water in the ocean that could be reused to off-set dwindling imported supplies.   And we do this every day from countless wastewater treatment plants. One plant alone, Hyperion out by LAX,  flushes 250 million gallons a day of treated waste water into Santa Monica Bay – equivalent to the water needs of 2 ½ million people. That’s unconscionable waste!

And then there’s storm water. When it does rain, millions of gallons of water flush through our cities via engineered culverts and channels, picking up pollutants in its rush to the ocean. In a naturally functioning system, much of this would infiltrate into the ground and replenishing our aquifers.  Instead we are left with polluted beaches and depleted aquifers. Crazy!

We cannot make it rain. But we can make much better use of the precious water we have. Today, Heal the Bay is advocating for solutions and investments that make better use of our local water resources – from groundwater clean-up, to storm water capture and recharge, to increased recycling. Taken as a package, they will go a long way to cleaning up our rivers, streams, and ocean. And that will make for a healthier bay. I’ll drink to that!

The water of life

Ever wondered why whisky is called the water of life?  After spending a week on Islay and Jura touring seven of the nine distilleries on offer I have a new found appreciation for why. In a very real sense, the dram you drink is the essence of the island – its smokey peat and salty sea airs. But water is by far the most important ingredient.  And not just the 50% of the glass that is water, it’s the many thousands of gallons that is used and discarded along the way. Gallons we never see or think about.

Barrels waiting to be filled at Bunnahabhain
Barrels waiting to be filled at Bunnahabhain

StillsMaking whisky is basically simple: sprout barley; grind it up to a coarse flour; add water and ferment to make a strong tangy beer; distill and then leave to mature for years in oak barrels. Almost every stage of the process uses water to wet, to heat, to cool, or to wash. Millions of gallons that come from the rivers and lochs of the islands. So much water that when they have a dry spell the distilleries shut right down.  It’s called the “dark season” and gives the workers a chance to take a well-earned break. But it’s driven by the ebb and flow of rain on the island. Fortunately for us whisky lovers, its a wet place. But I for one will be hoping that changing climate doesn’t lengthen the dry season and the dark season for the stills.

What does climate change taste and smell like?

What does the rain taste like?
What does the rain taste like?

Does climate change have a taste and a smell? Will it create memories in years to come? While working at the Save the Redwoods League I worked on a number of projects with collaborators looking at both how climate has changed over the past 30 years and projections of how it might change in the future. One change that is already underway is we’re getting more late spring rains. Ask any forester in the north coast of California and they’ll tell you that late rains are reducing the logging season as roads stay wet longer.

This came back to me this past sunday morning. Saturday had been hot with a muggy tinge in the air. Sunday dawned overcast and muggy with a foreshadow of rain to come. Quite unlike what I am used to in the Bay Area — more like a humid muggy summer day in England when I was growing up. The clouds even looked the same. And there it was. Rain coming down, gently at first and then harder. Soaking the deck. I opened the door and encouraged my two older boys to step outside and smell the air – the unmistakable smell of rain after a hot spell. They then got the idea of trying to catch the raindrops in their mouths, curious what they tasted like. And as quickly as it had started, the rain stopped.

It wasn’t much. And I am under no illusion that it was climate change. But it was a late spring rain, just like the models forecast. If so, perhaps over time it will create new memories for my boys. The memory of the smell and taste of rain coming down out of a warm humid sky. The memory of a changing climate.