El Niño is here. What will it mean for Great Lakes ice cover?

lake erie ice

Over the weekend, temperatures finally climbed over 40ºF in Cleveland. Given the fact that the average temperature in February was all of 14.3ºF – by far the coldest February in our history – the mid-40s felt like a heat wave.

My fiancée and I decided to venture outside and headed down to Edgewater Park on Cleveland’s West Side. Edgewater, as the name suggests, sits along Lake Erie. We wanted to take an opportunity to see the lake before the ice really began to melt. Due to the frigid winter, the Great Lakes were once again covered in a thick layer of ice this year. Though we will likely remain just shy of last year’s mark, ice cover reached a peak of 88.8% on February 28. As set to continue running at or above normal, this number should continue dropping until the lakes are ice free sometime in late Spring. It has already fallen by more than 20% in the past 10 days.

We were far from the only people with this idea. While neither of us planned to actually head out onto the ice, we eventually decided to follow the pack. Someone had even decided to set up a tent on the ice a few hundred feet off shore to serve soup and coffee to passersby. At the time, I had no idea what the actual thickness of the ice we were walking on was. I flippantly estimated that it was several feet thick – a testament to my ignorance. I have since discovered, from the map below, that we were likely standing on a sheet of ice roughly 40 centimeters thick. Fortunately, that is thick enough to support a car.

lake erie ice thickness march 9, 2015

Courtesy of NOAA’s Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory

El Niño arrives – finally

Just as the forecast was beginning to take a turn for the better last week, NOAA made headlines by announcing that El Niño had finally arrived. Forecasters had been warning about its impending onset for more than a year, so the announcement wasn’t exactly a surprise. As I stood on the ice last weekend, I couldn’t help but wondering how this phenomenon might affect ice cover next winter.

El Niño is the warm phase of the El Niño Southern Oscillation (ENSO), during which a band of water water forms in the mid-tropic Pacific Ocean. The phenomenon is characterized by high air pressure in the western Pacific and low air pressure in the eastern reaches of the ocean. As Eric Holthaus notes at Slate,

Technically, for an official El Niño episode, NOAA requires five consecutive three-month periods of abnormal warming of the so-called Nino3.4 region of the mid-tropical Pacific, about halfway between Indonesia and Peru. It usually takes a self-reinforcing link-up between the ocean and the atmosphere to achieve this, and it finally appears the atmosphere is playing its part.

Generally speaking, El Niño brings above average temperatures to the Great Lakes region. Moreover, because the oceans have been storing vast amounts of heat over the past decade-plus, helping to limit the rate of global warming, a particularly strong El Niño could lead to a dramatic transfer of stored heat from the oceans to the surface. As a result, many observers are predicting that 2015 will be the warmest year on record.

El Niño and Great Lakes ice cover

It would be logical to assume that the onset of El Niño will limit the amount of ice that forms on the lakes. According to a 2010 NOAA study, from 1963-2008, 11 out of 16 El Niño winters saw below average ice cover. During these 16 winters, ice covered an average of 47.8% of the Great Lakes, considerably lower than the long-term annual average of 54.7%. As Raymond Assel, a scientist with NOAA’s Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory (GLERL) wrote in 1998 (emphasis from original):

On average, the average annual regional temperature is likely to be higher (approximately 1.2ºC and the annual regional maximum ice cover is likely to be less extensive (approximately 15%) during the winter following the onset year of a strong warm ENSO event.

But the connection between El Niño and ice cover is not quite so straightforward. In fact, three winters – 1970, 1977, and 1978 – saw above average ice cover, despite occurring during El Niño events. Ice cover during the latter two years exceeded 80%.

So what else is at play? Well, according to the literature, three factors must combine to produce a particularly mild winter for the Great Lakes region and, by extension, lead to extremely low ice cover like we saw in 1998, 2002, and 2012: the strength of the El Niño event and the modes of the Arctic and Pacific Decadal Oscillations. Let’s take a look at three these indicators to get a sense of what might be in store.

El Niño strength

Multiple studies have found that the relationship between these two factor is highly nonlinear. As this chart from Bai et al. (2010) shows, the scatter plot for ice cover and El Niño strength follows a parabolic curve. Accordingly, El Niño does tend to limit ice formation, but its effect is only significant during strong events.

Relationship between El Niño strength and Great Lakes ice cover (from Bai et al. 2010).

Relationship between El Niño strength and Great Lakes ice cover (from Bai et al. 2010).

But the current signs do not point to a strong event. As Brad Plumer explained for Vox,

Back in the spring of 2014, it really did look like a strong El Niño would emerge later in the year…

But then… things got messy. Atmospheric conditions over the Pacific Ocean didn’t shift as expected. Specifically, scientists weren’t seeing the change in atmospheric pressure over both the eastern and western Pacific that you’d expect during an El Niño.

As a result, NOAA appears to be tempering expectations about the strength and duration of this event. It is likely to be relatively weak and last through the summer, potentially limiting its impacts on the Great Lakes.

Arctic Oscillation

The Arctic Oscillation (AO) is among the most important factors that determines the severity of winter in the Great Lakes. The AO is “a climate pattern characterized by winds circulating counterclockwise around the Arctic at around 55°N latitude.” During its positive phase, strong winds around the North Pole effectively lock Arctic air in the polar region, helping to moderate winters. But in its negative phases, these westerly winds weaken, allowing Arctic air to travel further South; this is the phenomenon that caused the polar vortexes we have seen in the past two winters.

Accordingly, during the positive phase of the AO, less ice cover forms on the Great Lakes. From 1963-2008, positive AO winters have been 0.9-1.8ºC warmer than normal and seen a mean ice cover of 49.2%. The combination of an El Niño and a positive AO produced the five lowest ice cover totals during this period.

So where does the AO stand? Currently, it is in a positive phase. Unfortunately, it is difficult to determine whether this phase will persist, as the AO can fluctuate widely. But if this oscillation does remain in a positive phase next winter, it would amplify the effect of the weak El Niño.

Pacific Decadal Oscillation

Winter weather is also influenced by the Pacific Decadal Oscillation (PDO), “a long-lived El Niño-like pattern of Pacific climate variability” that helps determine sea surface temperatures in the North Pacific. Rodionov and Assel (2003) concluded that the PDO helps to modulate the impact of ENSO on the Great Lakes. Warm phases of the PDO tend to amplify the impact of El Niño and reduce ice cover.

Last year, the PDO emerged from its prolonged weak phase to reach record high levels. If it continues to remain strong, it will likely lead to warmer temperatures not just next winter, but potentially for the next 5-10 years. This would seem to suggest that the PDO will enhance the impact of the El Niño event next winter.

Conclusion

Overall, the picture is still a bit murky. It does not appear that the El Niño will be strong enough to produce the type of least ice cover event that we saw in 2012. Yet, at the same time, the combined effects of El Niño, a positive AO (should it remain that way), and a warm PDO (if the trend continues) will likely ensure that the Great Lakes region avoids another brutal winter, like the ones we’ve seen two years running. If this is the case, lake ice cover should regress closer to the long-term mean of approximately 50%.

But if the indicators strengthen in the next several months, the winter weather could moderate even more; this would have clear impacts for lake levels, lake-effect snow, harmful algal blooms, and local temperatures during the Spring and Summer months.

If you care about water, you need to worry about energy production

lakeshore power plant
lakeshore power plant

FirstEnergy’s Lake Shore power plant, which is slated to close this fall, sits along the shore of Lake Erie on Cleveland’s east side. Thermal pollution from the plant has historically prevented the waters near the site from freezing over in winter (courtesy of WKSU.org).

This article is cross-posted from Drink Local. Drink Tap., Inc.

Saturday was World Water Day 2014. This year’s theme centered on the water-energy nexus, a topic which has become increasingly important in recent years.

According to the United Nations, energy production currently accounts for 15% of global water use, a number which is projected to grow to 20% within the next two decades. In the US, this number is significantly higher; the US Geological Survey estimates that electricity production alone makes up 49% of all water use.

Unfortunately, people tend too often to overlook the water-energy nexus until a catastrophic event happens. Water plays a vital role in the entire lifecycle of energy production, and it remains extremely vulnerable to the deleterious consequences that may arise from each step in the process – from extraction to refining to generation to distribution and beyond.

We know, for instance, than at least 20% of streams in West Virginia are heavily degraded due to mountaintop removal mining, an incredibly destructive form of coal extraction. In addition, we have seen several recent mishaps at other stages the process, whether it was the massive Freedom Industries chemical spill on the Elk River (refining), Saturday’s oil tanker spill outside of Houston (distribution), or the major coal ash spill on the Dan River.

Thermal pollution and water quality

But there exists another, less understood impact of energy production on freshwater resources – thermal pollution. The US gets 91% of its electricity from thermoelectric power plants; this category largely includes nuclear power plants and plants that run on fossil fuels. Thermoelectric plants generate massive amounts of heat during electricity generation process. This heat builds up within the plant and forces plant operators to draw in huge amounts of freshwater to cool the generators.

water withdrawals for power production

Daily water withdrawals for power production by state. As the map shows, water use is particularly high in the Great Lakes region (courtesy of the US Geological Survey).

Once-through cooling systems, which take in water once for cooling and then discharge it back into waterways, make up 31% of the US’s power plant fleet. These systems require 20,000-60,000 gallons of freshwater for cooling per megawatt hour (MWh) of energy produced. As a result, the Sierra Club estimates that power plants suck up more than 135 trillion gallons of water (PDF) each year for cooling alone.

This staggering total exacts a serious toll upon aquatic environments. Dicharged water temperatures are, on average, 8-12ºC warmer than the intake temperatures. As Madden, Lewis, and Davis noted in a 2013 study,

Aquatic organisms are highly dependent on specific thermal conditions in aquatic environments; water temperatures above or below optimal thermal regimes can cause stress or even death.

Such thermal pollution can negatively alter aquatic ecosystems in a number of ways. It can reduce the solubility of oxygen, stymie animal growth rates, change nutrient cycling processes, and increase the toxicity of chemicals like heavy metals and pesticides. Accordingly to Madden, Lewis, and Davis, increasing water temperatures by 7ºC has been shown to halve key biological processes, such as growth and reproduction. It’s no surprise, then, that power plants are responsible for the deaths of trillions of fish each year.

How water quality affects energy production

Interestingly enough, however, elevated water temperatures can also harm the efficiency of thermoelectric power plants. As water temperatures increase and stream levels drop, both the suitability and availability of cooling water decreases. During the severe heat wave that struck Western Europe in the summer of 2003, France saw its nuclear energy capacity fall by 7-15% for five consecutive weeks. This event marks a harbinger for our future in a warming world.

Climate change will reduce thermoelectric power production

According to a 2013 article in the journal Global Environmental Change (paywall), climate change will ensure that river temperatures increase significantly for a large swathe of the planet, while low river flows (lowest 10th percentile) will decrease for one-quarter of the global land surface area. Throughout much of the US, mean river temperatures are projected to increase by at least 2ºC, while high water temperatures will climb by 2.6-2.8ºC.

This spike in high water temperatures will be particularly critical for power plants, as they will occur during the period at which both water temperatures and energy demand are highest – the peak of summer. The Clean Water Act sets restrictions on the maximum temperature of water withdrawn and discharged by power plants; while the specific thresholds may vary by state, the temperature is commonly set between 27ºC and 32ºC. Research shows that more than half of all power plants with once-through cooling systems already exceed these numbers, demonstrating the vulnerability of the electricity system to global warming.

Using these numbers, van Vliet et al projected the impact that climate change will have on thermoelectric power plants (paywall) due to the combination of higher water temperatures and decreased river flows. They found that summer capacity for these plants will fall by 4.4-16% from 2031-2060. Moreover, these plants appear extremely sensitive to major reductions (greater than a 90% drop) in output as a result of global warming; the same study concludes that these events will increase nearly three-fold.

The Great Lakes region appears particularly vulnerable to falling electric output in a greenhouse world due to its heavy reliance on an aging fleet of coal-fired power plants. The National Climate Assessment notes that 95% of the Midwest’s electricity generating infrastructure (PDF) will likely see declines in output due to higher temperatures. As climate change increases stress simultaneously on aquatic ecosystems, drinking water supplies, and electricity production, potential conflicts over water uses will almost certainly increase among stakeholders.

Those of us who wish to protect our vital freshwater resources, like the Great Lakes, cannot afford to focus solely upon this sector, given its inextricable links to other areas. We need to worry as well about the stability of our climate and the makeup of our energy system. Renewable energy technologies use substantially less water than fossil fuel plants and will help shift us away from carbon-intensive energy sources. A 2012 study shows that if the US invests heavily in energy efficiency and renewable energy production, by 2050, water withdrawals and water consumption for energy production would fall by 97% and 85.2%, respectively. This shift would save 39.8 trillion gallons of water.

If we want to truly be stewards of our freshwater resources, we need to act as stewards for our climate.

How global warming will cause more lake-effect snow

lake erie ice
lake erie ice

Ice engulfs most of the surface of Lake Erie on January 10, following the severe polar vortex event a few days prior (courtesy of Discover Magazine).

Today may be the first day of spring, but winter’s icy grip continues to linger for most of us in the Midwest. But as we move – we hope – into warmer weather, NOAA has provided an overview of the winter from which we have emerged. It released its latest monthly state of the climate data last week, which also included the data for this year’s meteorological winter (December-January).

Unsurprisingly, the report reveals that this winter was cold, but far from historically so. It was just the 34th coldest on record, and no state recorded its coldest winter ever. In contrast, California had its warmest winter ever, and Arizona had its fourth warmest. As the AP’s Seth Borenstein put it, this winter demonstrated a “bi-polar winter vortex.”

One climatological variable that did reach near-record levels was the extent of lake ice on the Great Lakes. Due to the spate of below-freezing temperatures in the Great Lakes region, ice cover reached a maximum of 91% this winter, far higher than the long-term average of 51.4%. Lake Erie, which typically has the highest level of ice cover of the five lakes, jumped from just 5% ice cover on New Year’s day to more than 80% ten days later as a result of the polar vortex on January 6-7.

One year does not make a trend, though. According to the National Climate Assessment (PDF), surface water temperatures have increased dramatically in the Great lakes since the mid-20th century. From 1973-2010, annual Great Lakes ice cover fell by 71%, a startling downward trend despite the noisy year-to-year variation. Additionally, the IPCC has noted the duration of lake ice throughout the entire Northern Hemisphere has decreased by approximately two weeks since the middle of the 20th century.

great lakes ice cover trend

The average percentage of the Great Lakes covered with ice decreased dramatically from 1973-2010 (courtesy of the National Climate Assessment).

Cleveland’s winter was largely in line with the overall regional trend. January-February temperatures were 7.1ºF below the historical average, making it the sixth coldest such span in the past 75 years. Cleveland also recorded 65″ of snow this winter, 36% higher than average. That number would likely have been higher, however, had the brutal temperatures not iced over the lakes, effectively shutting down the lake-effect snow conveyor belt.

That got me thinking – as global warming continues to warm the lakes, could the Great lakes region actually see more lake-effect snow?

Lake-effect snow

As Kunkel et al note (paywall), the presence of the Great Lakes provides the necessary heat and moisture to generate precipitation where none would otherwise exist. Lake-effect snow constitutes a major part of winter in the Great Lakes region, where it can account for up to 50% of winter precipitation (PDF).

Because lake-effect occurs (paywall), as a result of “the destabilization of relatively cold, dry air mass by heat and moisture heat fluxes from a comparatively warm lake surfaces,” ice cover can significantly influence the amount of lake-effect snow that falls in a typical winter. The existence of open water in the winter allows the development of a “significant surface-atmosphere temperature gradient,” which facilitates the development of lake-effect events. Accordingly, because we know that global warming has and will continue to reduce lake ice extent, it should also generate more lake-effect snow in the Great Lakes region.

The evidence

So what does the evidence say? Do we have research to backup this seemingly counterintuitive outcome? In a word, yes.

In a 2003 study, Burnett et al examined long-term changes in lake-effect snowfall (paywall) and compared them with October-April snowfall totals and air temperatures from 1931-2001. According to the authors, lake-effect snowfall totals increased significantly at 11 of 15 sites studied. Their research also demonstrated that lake surface temperatures increased significantly at the majority of sites examined. Consequently, they concluded that

[I]ncreased lake-effect snowfall is the result of changes in Great lakes whole-lake thermal characteristics that involve warmer lake surface waters and a decrease in lake ice cover.

While the Burnett et al piece is now more than a decade old, several additional studies have largely supported its findings. Vavrus, Notaro, and Zarrin examined how ice cover affected a subset of 10 heavy lake-effect snow (HLES) events in order to quantify the impact of the ice. They found that “the suppression of open water [i.e. expansion of ice cover] on the individual lakes causes over an 80% decline in downstream” HLES. Ice cover on Lake Erie lowered snowfall by 73%, while Lake Michigan saw a reduction of nearly 100%.

The authors note that ice cover reduces heat fluxes over the lakes, lowers atmospheric moisture, stymies cloud formation, and depresses near-surface air temperatures. All of these changes can suppress lake-effect. For all five lakes, complete ice cover reduces downstream snowfall by 85%. As a result,

The results of the current study suggest that this change toward more open water should favor significantly greater lake-effect snowfall.

Wright, Posselt, and Steiner conducted a similar study, examining the relative amount and distribution of snowfall under four different models: a control (observed lake ice in mid-January 2009), complete ice cover, no ice cover, and warmer lake surface temperatures. The authors also show that moving from complete ice cover to no ice cover dramatically increases lake-effect totals. The total area seeing small (≤2mm) and large (≥10mm) lake-effect events increase by 28% and 93%, respectively. In contrast, while elevated lake surface temperatures do not increase the area affected by lake-effect, they do tend to increase the amount of heavy snowfall; areas that already experienced HLES saw 63% more snowfall.

It remains important to note that, while higher lake surface temperatures and reduced ice cover should lead to more lake-effect snow during the coming decades, a decrease in the number of cold-air outbreaks could work to counter this effect. But if lake-effect increases, as the preponderance of evidence suggests it will, it could carry major additional economic costs for Great Lakes states. According to a study of 16 states and two Canadian provinces from IHS Global Insight, snowstorms can costs states $66-700 million in direct and indirect losses per day if they render roads impassable. Great Lakes states had among the most significant losses, with Ohio forfeiting $300 million per day and New York leading the pack at $700 million.

Additional major lake-effect events will only serve to drive up this price tag even more, further constraining limited state and municipal budgets well into the future.

Climate hawks should focus more on the persuadable, less on the trolls

tea party global warming sign
tea party global warming sign

One of the more brilliant signs I saw at the fall 2010 Tea Party Rally at the Cuyahoga County Fairgrounds.

For years, climate hawks have devoted considerable time and energy to refuting arguments proffered by those who deny the basic tenets of climate change. This focus on countering climate deniers is evinced by the prevalence of handy lists of counter-arguments, including those from Skeptical Science, Grist, and Scientific American.

But, as I emphasized in a recent post, outright denial of the science is no longer the most potent weapon that “skeptics” have at their disposal. Instead, many of these actors have turned to denier 2.0 arguments, which frequently center on what Young and Coutinho term (paywall) the “acceptance-rejection approach.” This rhetorical acceptance that climate change is occurring opens up new pathways to forestall action on the issue by lulling the average observer into a false sense of security.

And, according to a recent article in the journal Global Environmental Change, this form of climate “skepticism” is exactly where we should be focusing our energies.

In the article, Drs. Stuart Capstick and Nick Pidgeon from the University of Cardiff develop a new taxonomy of climate change skepticism (or, as they British-ly spell it, “scepticism”). Using a mixture of quantitative and qualitative methods, the researchers define two basic types of climate skepticism – epistemic and response skepticism.

Epistemic skeptics turn their attention to the physical and scientific aspects of climate change. They challenge the fundamental nature of climate science, question whether whether it is man-made, and/or emphasize scientific uncertainty to cast doubt upon the topic. Epistemic skeptics seek to “construct climate change as an objectively uncertain phenomenon.”

Response skeptics, in contrast, don’t explicitly reject the science of anthropogenic climate change; in fact, many of them accept it. Despite this acceptance, however, response skeptics:

employ this type of skepticism to justify or explain lack of personal action on climate change, or as a way of distancing themselves from the need or requirement to do so.

Theses skeptics routinely question the effectiveness of potential responses to climate change, doubt that politicians can work together to address the issue, believe that the media exaggerates the risk, and are prone to fatalistic worldviews. Response skeptics are fare more likely to demonstrate a lack of concern over climate change as an issue than epistemic skeptics, perhaps due to the fact that many from the latter group may define themselves in opposition to climate “alarmists” and scientists engaged in the “greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people,” as Senator Inhofe has claimed.

As the research from Young and Coutinho demonstrated, smart climate deniers have begun to play more to such response skeptics by utilizing the acceptance-rejection approach. Accordingly, Capstick and Pidgeon argue that climate hawks should focus more directly on this audience as well. As they note:

whilst there are clear arguments that can be made concerning the level of scientific consensus and degree of confidence in an anthropogenic component to climate change, doubts concerning personal and societal responses to climate change are in essence more disputable.

Though it has become increasingly difficult to sway epistemic skeptics (who fall into either the “Doubtful” or “Dismissive” categories in the Yale “Six Americas” construction), response skeptics (the “Concerned,” “Cautious,” and “Disengaged”) are still persuadable. Moreover, these three groups accounted for 55% of Americans as of November 2013, far more than the 27% who identify as “Doubtful” or “Dismissive.”

six americas november 2013

Global Warming’s Six Americas breakdown, as of November 2013.

Most response skeptics view climate change as an issue that will largely affect people who are distant in both space and time. They fail to see it as an immediate, concrete issue that will affect them or the people they know and love. Accordingly, emphasizing the dire impacts that climate change is likely to have or is currently having in Bangladesh, the Philippines, or small Pacific island states will not only fail to motivate them to act, it may actually make them feel less engaged and more hopeless (PDF) about the issue, leading to greater inaction and division.

Accordingly, Capstick and Pidgeon discuss the need to focus on ways to localize climate change, as previous research has emphasized. As Lorenzoni et al noted (PDF) in a 2010 study,

Local environmental issues are not only more visible to the individual, but present more opportunities for effective individual action than climate change.

Rather than devoting so much of our time, resources, and energy to convincing people about whether Antarctic sea ice is waxing or waning, climate hawks should look to connect the issue to local environmental concerns. And one of the most effective ways of achieving this goal is to frame climate as a public health issue. According to research published in 2012, framing climate change as a human health issue “was the most likely [way] to generate feelings of hope.”

Making the link between health and local environmental challenges in a greenhouse world may represent the single most effective strategy for getting people from response skeptic to climate hawk. I have tried to do this by focusing on heat-related mortality in Cleveland, Great Lakes levels, and issues of microplastic pollution and algal blooms in Lake Erie. Fortunately, there now exist a number of excellent tools that allow people to bring climate models down to the local level, from these new interactive Google Maps from Berkeley Earth to “Your Warming World” from New Scientist.

Hearing and reading nonsensical rants from climate deniers gets my blood boiling just as much as any other climate hawk. But, given the amount of research available on this issue, perhaps we should all try to take a step back, realize the deniers are trolling us, and focus on more constructive efforts instead.

Recent court case could help address toxic algae issues in Lake Erie, around the country

dead fish algae bloom
satellite image algae lake erie

Satellite image of algal blooms on Lake Erie from October 30, 2013 (courtesy of NOAA).

Cross posted from Drink Local. Drink Tap., Inc.:

The federal district court for the Eastern District of Louisiana issued a decision (PDF) on Friday, September 20 that could have wide-reaching implications for waterways all across the United States. The case, which pitted the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) against a coalition of environmental groups, may change the way that surface runoff and nutrient pollution are regulated.

In effect, the district court ruled that EPA had acted improperly in 2011, when it refused to formally determine whether or not federal action was necessary to regulate the types of nutrient runoff and surface pollution that contribute to the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico. Accordingly, the court gave EPA 180 days – until Wednesday, March 19 – to determine whether or not the federal government should intervene to address the increasing threat that the algae blooms behind such dead zones pose to the health and well-being of humans, ecosystems, and coastal economies.

While the decision did not require EPA to begin regulating the sources of algal blooms – particularly nitrogen and phosphorus from agricultural runoff and municipal wastewater – it does mandate the agency to determine whether the threat posed by these blooms necessitates action under the Clean Water Act. Accordingly, the ruling could force the agency’s hand, much like the US Supreme Court’s endangerment finding in Massachusetts v. EPA (2007) has led to recent regulations on greenhouse gas emissions.

It remains unclear whether or not EPA will decide to intervene to control nutrient pollution discharges. As I noted earlier, the agency balked on the same issue in 2011, due perhaps to aggressive lobbying from various industry groups. However, the substantial increase in the number and scale of algal blooms throughout the US in recent years could motivate the agency to act.

At least 21 states battled blooms of the toxic, blue-green algae this summer (though this number likely understates the impact of the phenomenon). According to reports collected by Resource Media, there were at least 156 different reports of algal blooms around the country from May 5-September 15. Of these, 10 occurred in Ohio, while 5 affected the Lake Erie watershed.

dead fish algae bloom

Algae blooms create anoxic environments in bodies of water, reducing the available oxygen for other aquatic life (courtesy of Tom Archer, University of Michigan).

Lake Erie is perhaps the most significant waterway in the country facing such an ongoing, acute threat from toxic algae. It is both the shallowest and most densely populated of the Great Lakes, helping to concentrate the levels of harmful nutrients. The western edge of the Lake Erie watershed is also home to a large number of industrial-scale corn farms, which rely heavily upon phosphate fertilizers. Because Lake Erie is a phosphorus-limited environment, when the rain washes over the surface of these fields, it delivers large loads of phosphate runoff into the Lake. These phosphates overcome the naturally-occurring phosphorus deficit in the Lake and provide the fuel needed for algae growth.

Communities in the Maumee River watershed, the largest tributary in the Western portion of Lake Erie, have suffered the effects. This summer, the 2,000 residents of Carroll Township were told not to drink their tap water when dangerous levels of microcystin, a liver toxin produced by the algae, was found in municipal water supplies. The city of Toledo, which is located in the Maumee watershed, has been forced to spend an additional $1 million to battle toxins in its water supply.

Drink Local. Drink Tap., Inc.™ is committed to protecting and enhancing the well-being of our Great Lakes, particularly Lake Erie. While it is too early to tell how this court case will play out in the coming weeks and months, let alone to forecast its implications for waterways around the country, DLDT continues to encourage government agencies, non-profit organizations, businesses, and individuals to take proactive measures to ensure the health of our most precious natural resource.

DLDT supports measures to tackle the growing algae problem, including recent steps by the Ohio EPA to actively monitor nutrient pollution levels and work with farmers to develop comprehensive nutrient management plans. The organization also continues to work to address the myriad challenges facing Lake Erie, including minimizing both plastic and nutrient pollution through its beach cleanups.

Tap water & the key issues the Drink Up campaign misses

young girl we love lake erie sign

I wrote another guest post for Drink Local. Drink Tap., Inc.™ on the Drink Up campaign and the issues it misses. Check it out at their site. Here’s a snippet:

As other contributors have noted on this blog, bottled water carries a host of negative consequences – one of the most important of these involves issues of inequity. Bottled water tends to cost roughly 240 to 10,000 times per gallon than tap water. This occurs despite the fact that roughly one-third of bottled water is simply packaged municipal tap water.

African-American and Hispanic parents are three times more likely to give their children exclusively bottled water, despite this high cost. They report doing this because they perceive it as being cleaner and safer than tap water (the evidence suggests otherwise). The industry has also sought to position its product as a status symbol. Nestle recently introduced “Resource,” a bottled water for women who are “trendy” and “higher-income.”

young girl we love lake erie sign

A participant in DLDT’s WaveMaker program holds a sign celebrating Lake Erie as part of the World Water Day 2012 celebration (courtesy of Drink Local. Drink Tap., Inc.)

Additionally, the piece got picked up by EcoWatch, a leading grassroots environmental news organization that is based in Cleveland. Thanks to Stefanie Spear from EcoWatch for helping to spread the piece around.

Celebrating World Water Week & supporting Drink Local. Drink Tap., Inc.

Ugandan child collecting water
Ugandan child collecting water

A child at the Family Spirit AIDS orphanage collects water from a gravity-fed system installed by Drink Local. Drink Tap., Inc.

I’ve been doing some work with Drink Local. Drink Tap., Inc., a Cleveland-based NGO that focuses on promoting clean water both locally and in the Great Lakes region of Africa. The organization focuses on inspiring “individuals to recognize and solve our water issues through creative education, events, and providing safe water access for people in need” through education & awareness raising, advocacy, and service.

In order to commemorate World Water Week and 2013, which is the International Year for Water Cooperation, I wrote a guest blog post for DLDT on how water can be a tool for peacebuilding, cooperation, and cross-cultural understanding.

I would encourage you to check it out and support their work. If you are based in Cleveland, they are hosting a beach clean-up at Edgewater Park tomorrow from 10am-12pm, with a party hosted by Barefoot Wine & Bubbly afterwards. Otherwise, you can make a financial contribution to support their work in Northeast Ohio or in Uganda.

Beginning in December, DLDT’s founder and Executive Director Erin Huber will travel to Uganda to help provide clean water to children living in an home for orphans of the HIV/AIDS epidemic. To figure out how you can support DLDT’s work, visit their site.

Welcome to tropical Cleveland, Part 1: Climate change & future heat waves

Snowball is ready for when Cleveland's climate becomes more tropical.

Snowball is ready for when Cleveland’s climate becomes more tropical.

For the most part, it would appear that Cleveland is poised to cope relatively well with the effects of climate change. When The Nature Conservancy developed a list of the cities which will be best positioned to adapt to climate change; Cleveland ranked first. Grist did a similar piece back in May, and it placed Cleveland 6th on a list of the 10 “best cities to ride out hot times.”

Without question, Cleveland has a lot of assets that will help it deal with climate change. First, Lake Erie. Unlike other water-stressed cities which will suffer from the crippling effects of drought and water shortages, Cleveland has ample water resources thanks to Lake Erie and our various rivers. And as a result of the Great Lakes Compact, we can be relatively sure that our freshwater resources cannot be diverted to other areas.

Secondly, Cleveland is (largely) immune to many types of disasters. Sure, we get a lot of snow (not as much as, say, Syracuse), and our skies are as gray as our steel 6 months per year, but we don’t have to fear hurricanes, wildfires, earthquakes (unless you live near Youngstown), or tornadoes (for the most part). Trulia lists Cleveland as the 2nd best place to live if you want to avoid disasters; our sister city to the south, Akron, came in at 4th.

All of this good news can lead some people in the region to get cocky (see cartoon below) and assume that Clevelanders will be sitting pretty in a greenhouse world. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves – climate change will still suck for Cleveland; it will just suck less, relative to other locations.

This cartoon appeared on Cleveland.com on July 8. While it's certainly true that Baby Boomers have fled Cleveland in droves for cities that only exist due to the air conditioning & Manhattan financiers have screwed our city over, it won't be they who suffer the most from climate change. It will be the poor, elderly, disabled, and persons of color (courtesy of Cleveland.com).

This cartoon appeared on Cleveland.com on July 8. While it’s certainly true that Baby Boomers have fled Cleveland in droves for cities that only exist due to the air conditioning & Manhattan financiers have screwed our city over, it won’t be they who suffer the most from climate change. It will be the poor, elderly, disabled, and persons of color (courtesy of Cleveland.com).

I’ve already explored how changing temperature and precipitation patters will likely affect the levels of the Great Lakes and algal blooms in Lake Erie. But I also want to hone in on one risk that a lot of people in the region appear to overlook – the risk of increasing heat-related mortality in Greater Cleveland.

Now, I know what you’re thinking – heat-related mortality in Cleveland?! Winter lasts 6 months per year! Our average annual temperature is a whopping 49.6 degrees, and the thermometer dips below the freezing point 122 days a year. All that’s true, and that’s actually part of the issue. Heat-related mortality risk is a combination of two sets of factors – environmental and socioeconomic (which I explore in my next post).

Recently, Environmental Research Letters published a peer-reviewed article that explored how climate change will drastically increase extreme heatwaves globally. According to the authors, severe heat waves, those which fall at least 3 standard deviations above the mean (so-called 3-sigma events), will quadruple from affecting roughly 5% of the world’s land area to around 20% by 2040. More disturbingly, the models project that 5-sigma events, which are “now essentially absent” could cover 60% of land area by 2100 (under a high emissions scenario). In other words, we risk entering an entirely new climate reality, in which ever-increasing parts of the Earth may become uninhabitable.

Now, some people in Cleveland other northern climates may brush this off, believing that shorter, milder winters are somehow a blessing for the region (“Now we can swim any day in November,” as The Postal Service put it).

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. According to the Union of Concerned Scientists (PDF), the number of days with temperatures at or above 90°F in Cleveland will likely climb from an historical average of just 9 to 61 by the end of the century, under a high emissions scenario. More disturbingly, the city is projected to endure 21 days in excess of 100°F by 2100, a situation which could be catastrophic for public health in the city.

The number of days above 90F and 100F in Cleveland under a low and high emissions scenario (courtesy of the Union of Concerned Scientists).

The number of days above 90°F and 100°F in Cleveland under low and high emissions scenarios (courtesy of the Union of Concerned Scientists).

We already know that such extreme heat waves can be deadly. The 2003 European heat wave was ultimately connected to the deaths of as many as 70,000 people. Such extreme heat waves are becoming more common and will continue to increase in frequency. According to the World Meteorological Organization, heat-related mortality jumped by more than 2000% during the last decade. Moreover, a 2011 study from Vorhees and colleagues, published in 2011, projected that, as a whole, there will be an additional 21,000-27,000 heat-related deaths (paywalled) per year in the US by 2050 due to climate change.

heat wave

Acclimatization in action. Suck it, heat wave (courtesy of Creative Commons).

Many of these deaths will likely occur in cities like Cleveland, Chicago, and Cincinnati, which are not currently equipped to handle extreme heat. Because they do not have to deal with such high temperatures on a regular basis, most people in Cleveland and other related cities have not become acclimatized to deal with significant heat waves. Air conditioning use is not nearly as prevalent as it is in Sun Belt cities, and municipal governments are unlikely to have sophisticated systems in place to help residents cope.

Scott Sheridan, a geographer at Kent State University (and, coincidentally, the program director of my semester in Geneva, Switzerland) published a study in 2011 that looked at the role of acclimatization and heat-related mortality in California. While the study predicts that morality rates will spike in most of California’s cities, Sheridan notes that acclimatization can help reduce these rates by 37-56%.

Such reductions are likely to occur in cities that are used to extreme heat, like Los Angeles, but not necessarily in places like Cleveland with much milder climates. Accordingly, while Cleveland’s relatively cool climate and mild summers will provide a buffer against the punishing heat that’s likely headed for the Southwest and Plains states, it may, ironically, leave the city more vulnerable to extreme heat waves. Such radical changes will almost certainly undermine people’s coping strategies, which they’ve developed over decades of living in a fairly stable climatic regime.

But, as I noted, the climate is just one of two factors that determine the impact of heat waves on mortality rates; the other is socioeconomic (and political). I will explore those issues in my next post.

On the shores of Lake Erie, where the children are above average & the sand is made of plastic

Over the weekend, I participated in a beach cleanup along Lake Erie at Perkins Beach in Edgewater State Park. The event was organized by Drink Local. Drink Tap., a local non-profit organization focusing on water issues in Northeast Ohio and globally.

Councilman Matt Zone (far right) and two volunteers flank me from the cleanup effort at Perkins Beach on Saturday, July 6 (courtesy of Drink Local. Drink Tap.).

Councilman Matt Zone (far right) and two volunteers flank me from the cleanup effort at Perkins Beach on Saturday, July 6 (courtesy of Drink Local. Drink Tap.).

Unsurprisingly – particularly given that the event took place just two days after the 4th of July – the beach was strewn with a variety of litter and debris. I lost count on the number of cigarette butts and cigar tips that I picked up after I reached triple digits. Overall, the organizers reported that the other volunteers and I cleaned up 357.9 pounds of trash and 134.9 pounds of recyclable materials. Unfortunately, this effort did not even begin to make a dent in the problem; by the end, it had begun to feel like a Sisyphean task.

But while most of the other volunteers focused on the large and unusual items we found – including two discarded tires – I was particularly discouraged by the prevalence of small pieces of plastic and styrofoam. These tiny particles of plastic pollution, known as microplastic, are the real threat to the health of Lake Erie’s ecosystem.

Last fall, the 5 Gyres Institute and the State University of New York released a study on the problem of plastic pollution in the Great Lakes. The research provided the first comprehensive plastic pollution survey of the lakes, and it represents an important baseline against which we can measure progress or, God forbid, further regression.

According to the survey, the researchers primarily found high concentrations of this microplastic, which is a piece of plastic debris less than 5 millimeters in diameter. According to the researchers,

One sample drawn near the border of Lake Erie’s central and eastern basins yielded 600,000 pieces of plastic per square kilometer — twice the number found in the most contaminated oceanic sample on record, Mason said.

A second sample in Lake Erie yielded 450,000 plastic pieces, while the average sample across the three lakes studied yielded about 8,000 plastic pieces.

Microplastic litter comes from a variety of sources, including the breaking down of larger pieces of plastic by the elements; this was the primary source of the plastic and styrofoam pieces that I found littering Perkins Beach. I’m only slightly exaggerating when I say that, in some areas, these pieces of plastic had become almost as numerous as the grains of sand. They are clearly an integral part of the beach at this point.

Concentrations of plastic pollution in the Great Lakes. As the map illustrates, concentrations are highest in Lake Erie, which is the shallowest of the five lakes (courtesy of 5 Gyres Institute).

Concentrations of plastic pollution in the Great Lakes. As the map illustrates, concentrations are highest in Lake Erie, which is the shallowest of the five lakes (courtesy of 5 Gyres Institute).

However, another key source of microplastic are conventional cosmetics and personal cleaning supplies, many of which contain small, abrasive plastic pellets. These pellets serve as exfoliates, and they have become increasingly popular in recent years. Because these plastic pieces are frequently used in the presence of water, i.e. in the shower, they readily enter our watercourses and end up in the lake.

Microplastic pollution littering the shores of Lake Erie on Wendy Island on July 20, 2013.

Microplastic pollution littering the shores of Lake Erie on Wendy Island on July 20, 2013.

Because it is so small and can be easily ingested by aquatic life and waterfowl, microplastic poses a major threat to the health of aquatic ecosystems like Lake Erie. It can leach chemicals into the bodies of these aquatic organisms and clearly bioaccumulates overtime. Furthermore, some evidence suggests that, if and when people consume animals that have ingested microplastic, the chemicals contained in the particles can leach into our systems as well (Thank God I’m a vegetarian…).

It’s important to note that, because the plastic pollution in Lake Erie and the other Great Lakes is far smaller than that in ocean garbage patches, like the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, and is therefore nowhere no as big of an issue by volume. Yet, the concentration of this plastic debris is, in many instances, far greater than the average concentration of plastic in ocean gyres.

Microplastic pollution is yet another major environmental challenge we have created that threatens the health of Northeast Ohio’s most important natural resource. All in the name of vanity. As Solomon said in the Book of Ecclesiastes,

Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher, vanity of vanities; all is vanity. What profit hath a man of all his labor which he taketh under the sun? One generation passeth away, and another generation cometh: but the earth abideth for ever.

Surely the Earth will abide and last far longer than humanity. But we are consciously and unconsciously altering it in countless ways, mostly for the worse.

Cleveland’s Climate Action Plan marks a good first step, but it can get better

Downtown Cleveland, as seen from the Ohio City Farm (courtesy of the Sustainable City Network).

Downtown Cleveland, as seen from the Ohio City Farm (courtesy of the Sustainable City Network).

On Wednesday and just in time for the Independence Day long weekend, the City of Cleveland Office of Sustainability released its long-awaited (by me, anyways) draft Climate Action Plan. As one would expect with a draft report, the city is welcoming public comments, so I went through the document with a fine-toothed comb yesterday. Here are my major takeaways/comments:

  • Methodology: The report really calls out for a detailed methodology section. Part of sustainability is transparency, and failing to provide a clear picture of how you have reached your conclusions undercuts this goal. This methodology could take many forms, such as a complete section at the start of the report or a shorter section at the beginning with a detailed technical appendix at the end. However it is done, this piece is an essential component. It’s important for people reading and tracking the Climate Action Plan to know what emissions scenario was used, where the temperature and precipitation projections are coming from, and whether a sensitivity analysis was completed. I understand the desire to make this easily approachable to the general public, and I laud that. Perhaps the technical annex would be the better alternative.
  • Methodology Part 2: On page 12 of the draft, the report discusses the costs and benefits of the proposed action plan. However, once again, it demands a methodology for how this cost-benefit analysis was completed (provided one actually was). What were the assumptions and parameters that went into this calculation? What was the discount rate (for a good primer on discount rates, read David Roberts’ piece) used? Did it include a sensitivity analysis?
  • Business As Usual Projections: On page 20, the report describes future projections and how its authors put together the Business As Usual (BAU) baseline that was used. Clearly, as with all medium- to long-term climate plans, these projections carry a high level of uncertainty. The report discusses this issue by saying:

Due to the high level of uncertainty associated with this type of forecasting exercise, a flat line BAU forecast was assumed for now. However, this assumption of no growth or decline in emissions can be adjusted in the future to account for changing conditions.

I have to question the decision to approach uncertainty in this manner, however. It seems to me that the best practice for approaching uncertainty is to internalize that uncertainty and attempt to manage the associated risk. Accordingly, I would prefer to see the flat line forecast used as just one of a few different BAU models. It could constitute a mid-range analysis to be supplemented by low-range (conditions improve significantly in the region) and high-range (conditions significantly deteriorate in the region) analyses.

  • Parking Minimums: In Focus Area 3, Sustainable Mobility, the report notes the City’s desire to “reduce single occupancy vehicle mode share from 69% to 62% by 2020, 55% by 2030.” Logically, one action step noted to address this goal is to “review parking space requirements and prioritize advanced parking strategies.” Unfortunately, the report never directly mentions the issue of minimum parking standards. As Matt Yglesias from Slate has discussed on many occasions, minimum parking standards are a major urban planning boondoggle that waste valuable public space, lower economic production, and reduce tax revenues. Cleveland is considerably overbuilt currently, and our abundance of parking is not something we should be proud of. The city was recently included as one of 16 cities in Streetsblog’s “Parking Madness” competition. We should be lamenting the fact that the Warehouse District has undergone this transformation since the 1970s:
Animated GIF showing the transformation of Cleveland's Warehouse District from a vibrant downtown are in the 1970s to a black hole of surface parking lots currently (courtesy of Streetsblog and Rust Wire).

Animated GIF showing the transformation of Cleveland’s Warehouse District from a vibrant downtown area in the 1970s to a black hole of surface parking lots currently (courtesy of Streetsblog and Rust Wire).

  • Plastic Bags: Page 55 of the Climate Action Plan (part of Focus Area 4: Waste Reduction & Resource Conservation) alludes to the challenge of properly managing plastic bag waste:

An organized and coordinated approach to waste reduction and diversion across the Cleveland community, starting with policies that restrict certain materials, such as plastic bags, or divert others, such as organic waste, are important tools in encouraging waste reduction both at the residential and commercial level.

Interestingly, despite noting the issue, the plan never goes so far as to propose implementing a plastic bag tax. It stops short of this approach, calling instead for implementing an “approach that significantly reduces the use of disposable plastic bags, including a public education campaign.”

While I understand that you don’t want to promote a specific approach without studying alternatives, the Climate Action Plan could have at least suggested conducting a study of the extent of plastic bag waste in our watercourses and landfills. This was the first step Washington, DC took prior to implementing its bag tax. The District’s study found that plastic bags accounted for 21% and more than 40% of total waste in the Anacostia River and its tributaries, respectively. Within just the first five months of its program, which applies a $0.05 tax on bags, DC saw plastic bag waste fall by 60% and raised $2.5 million in revenues. Surely a similar program could help reduce Cleveland’s waste stream and improve its paltry 9.25% recycling rate.

Plastic bag pollution has formed an artificial dam in the Anacostia River.

Plastic bag pollution had formed an artificial dam in the Anacostia River in this 2001 photograph.

Overall, I’m pleased with the draft Climate Action Plan, and I think it represents a good first step in the right direction. The City assembled an impressive working group of diverse stakeholders and fielded input throughout the process. That said, I definitely think it can be better, and I hope they will consider my comments. I have also submitted a copy of marked-up version of the plan directly to the Office of Sustainability for their review.

To read the report yourself and submit your comments, visit the Climate Action Plan page at SustainableCleveland.org.