The hurricane barrier that protects New Bedford Harbor has been cleared for federal recertification.
Earlier this week, the New Bedford Standard Times reported that the hurricane barrier that spans the mouth of New Bedford Harbor has passed a federal inspection and is ready for re-certification. Why is that news?
A few fun facts:
- The wall connects the cities of New Bedford and Fairhaven.
- At 3.5 miles in length, it is the largest stone structure on the East Coast and the largest hurricane barrier in the world.
- There is one navigational gate that spans a 150-foot-wide gap. The gate doors weigh 400 tons each and take about 12 minutes to close.
- The barrier was constructed by the Army Corps of Engineers in 1966 to prevent a repeat of the damage from big hurricanes in 1938, 1944 and 1954.
- It took four years to build and cost $18 million dollars. The rocks cost the government 5 cents per pound.
- Maintenance of the barrier costs the city of New Bedford about $50,000 to $60,000
- It’s not a solid rock wall: there’s a tunnel inside. Take a look:
The barrier protects about 1,400 acres of heavily developed industrial and commercial property – the Whaling City’s working waterfront – and the fishing fleet that consistently makes New Bedford the highest grossing fishing port in the country.
NOAA forecasters are calling for an active hurricane season, so the fact that the barrier is up to snuff is certainly good news. But the re-certification also means that the wall can be included in the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s revisions of flood maps; even as sea level rises, the flood vulnerability of the protected area behind it will remain unchanged.
NASA image by Norman Kuring, MODIS Ocean Color Team / NASA
Phytoplankton blooms large enough to be seen from space occur naturally, like this 2009 bloom near Hokkaido, Japan. Fertilizing even larger, longer-lasting blooms may be one way to counter rising carbon dioxide emissions.
We usually think of the oceans as blue. But, in fact, what’s out there is a sea of green. Microscopic plant-like organisms – phytoplankton – produce half the world’s oxygen. In the process, phytoplankton take in carbon dioxide, locking the carbon in their cells and carrying it to the depths of the ocean when they, or the animals that eat them, die and sink. This so-called biological pump is a life-support system for the entire planet. With a little encouragement – usually in the form of fertilization with iron – it may also be one way to combat rising carbon dioxide emissions.
THE BIG IDEA
On land, we’re used to fertilizing our lawns and gardens with nitrogen and phosphorus because those are the nutrients in shortest supply. The same is true in much of the ocean. But in the Southern Ocean that surrounds Antarctica and in portions of the Pacific Ocean, nitrogen and phosphorus are in ready supply; the nutrient that limits phytoplankton growth in these areas is often iron. Areas that are naturally iron-rich support more algal growth and draw down more carbon dioxide. So, the idea behind ocean iron fertilization, as the process is known, is simple: more iron = more phytoplankton = less carbon dioxide = less climate change.
WHAT WE KNOW and HOW WE KNOW IT
That simple equation has been put to the test in thirteen major open-ocean experiments over the past two decades, each lasting a few weeks and covering areas of a few hundred square kilometers (for perspective, Buzzards Bay is almost 600 square kilometers). These relatively small, short experiments have confirmed one thing – iron addition can stimulate algal blooms and temporarily reduce carbon dioxide levels near the ocean’s surface. The best-case scenario, according to a recent review by UNESCO and the Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission, is that ocean iron fertilization could pull out of the atmosphere a little less than an eighth of the carbon dioxide that human activity adds each year.
Mirrors and bubble bath. You might think it’s a recipe for some romantic jacuzzi-tub fun. You might be wrong.
Harvard physicist Russell Seitz has suggested injecting tiny bubbles into the ocean - not actually covering the surface with bubbles, as this image suggests - as a means to increase reflection of sunlight and reduce global warming.
In the world of geoengineering, sometimes called climate engineering, mirrors and white paint are high on the list of ways to limit global warming by increasing the amount of sunlight (and thus, heat) that’s reflected back to space rather than being absorbed by the Earth’s surface. Climate Central’s Alyson Kenward reports on a new idea for making Earth’s (or rather, Ocean’s) surface more reflective - covering the ocean’s surface with tiny bubbles injecting tiny bubbles into the ocean:
Harvard physicist Russell Seitz suggests that brightening the ocean is a good way to go, especially because two-thirds of the planet is covered by water, and that area counts for about 93 percent of radiation absorbed by Earth. By increasing the number of microscopic bubbles at the ocean’s surface, Seitz says, the water’s reflectivity will increase. More light will be scattered away and the planet will be kept cooler.
Seitz’s research, published in Climatic Change in December 2010, says that this approach to SRM has the advantage of being more localized than spraying aerosols into the atmosphere, so it is less risky to humans. He proposes that teeny tiny bubbles can be easily injected into the water, at low cost and without requiring much energy. Sounds great, you might think.
But, again, you might be wrong. In a official rebuttal also published in Climatic Change, Alan Robock, an atmospheric scientist at Rutgers University, points out that Seitz’s bubble cloud idea might not carry the same risks as atmospheric engineering but that doesn’t mean it’s risk-free.
Image courtesy of Climate Central
Options for deliberately engineering climate change fall into two broad categories - deflecting sunlight to reduce temperatures, and removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Responsible research on large-scale climate interventions was the subject of an international conference last spring.
Whether and how to engineer our climate – or even research the possibility – is at the center of a growing debate. Michael MacCracken, an atmospheric scientist who helped organize The International Conference on Climate Intervention Technologies last spring, summarized (via Andy Revkin) five principles of climate engineering research suggested in the (recently released) final report from the conference:
(1) Climate engineering research should be aimed at promoting the collective benefit of humankind and the environment;
(2) governments must clarify responsibilities for, and, when necessary, create new mechanisms for the governance and oversight of large-scale climate engineering research activities;
(3) climate-engineering research should be conducted openly and cooperatively, preferably within a framework that has broad international support;
(4) iterative, independent technical assessments of research progress will be required to inform the public and policymakers; and
(5) public participation and consultation in research planning and oversight, assessments, and development of decision-making mechanisms and processes must be provided.
The conferees also favored expanding and continuing the discussion with an even broader set of participants.
Fred Pearce says the geoengineering ban adopted by the Convention on Biological diversity leaves many questions unanswered:
Almost any activity may affect biodiversity: everything hangs on the degree, and the burden of proof. It might be also be argued that almost all geoengineering options – from putting parasols into space, to making clouds or seeding the air with sulphur to shade the Earth – would benefit biodiversity by stabilising the climate.
Many in the developing world see the whole idea of geoengineering as a ruse by industrialised nations to excuse them from making serious cuts in emissions of the gases causing climate change. On the other hand, advocates of geoengineering argue that they have a duty to prepare for the possibility of rapid warming that requires a quick fix.
In any event, huge questions remain about who would “press the geoengineering button” and on what authority. John Shepherd, who chaired a study on geoengineering by the UK’s Royal Society, argues that by raising the issue of geoengineering governance, last week’s meeting has done the world a good turn.
I’m about to wade into the geoengineering report released by the House science committee, and the U.N.’s new biodiversity pact. How are the two related? The U.N. agreement includes a moratorium on “climate-related geoengineering activities that may affect biodiversity” that has some scientists worried.
Cap-and-trade is dead. What's next?
With climate legislation (the so-called cap-and-trade bill) officially dead, the conversation – on the hill and on the web – has turned to what comes next. Here are a few possibilities:
- Geoengineering. It’s a classic example of the internet-based journalism food-chain. WaPo’s Dana Milbank called for more research on geoengineering. Keith Kloor riffed it, then asked Andy Revkin to comment … which he did in a post on his DotEarth blog. Even without the details, this conversation has a clear message to impart: geoengineering – the until-recently-spurned poor cousin of adaptation and mitigation – is on the table. But is millions of dollars in research funding for high-risk, last-ditch technologies likely to meet with any more support than basic climate research or climate legislation?
- Clear the air. A landmark 2007 Supreme Court decision (Massachusetts vs. EPA) gave the Environmental Protection Agency the right to regulate greenhouse gases under the Clean Air Act. Some experts contend that such court battles are becoming the new front line in the climate change battle. The Pew Center on Global Climate Change says EPA regulations could be a cost-effective way to combat the impacts of climate change, but Republicans (and some conservative Democrats) have launched an all-out attack on EPA regulations and 37 states have waded into the legal fray.
- Change the subject. By simply shifting attention away from the hot-button issue of climate change and instead focusing on “thrift, patriotism, spiritual conviction and economic prosperity” a ground-breaking program in Kansas is convincing residents “to take meaningful steps to conserve energy and consider renewable fuels.” Energy use has declined by as much as 5% in participating towns relative to other areas of the state. That’s nowhere close to the 25-40% cuts in carbon dioxide emissions called for by the IPCC, but it’s a good deal better than most conservation programs.
UPDATED 10:34pm: Jorge Salazar pointed out I’d missed something. Andy Revkin posted an update on the reception of the Post-Partisan Power plan released earlier this month. Ezra Klein calls it “an industrial policy approach” – subsidizing clean energy, funding (lots of) R&D, making sure clean energy is profitable.
Meanwhile, Marc Gunther sums up the political impediments to government spending for any of the above ideas.
Overfishing and climate change … two of the greatest threats facing the ocean today. Could the solution to both be as simple as saving the whales?
Probably not. But new research suggests that protecting whale populations could have broader ecological impacts than previously realized. It all comes back to algae – microscopic plants that form the foundation of the ocean food chain. As Joe Palca explained on NPR yesterday, whales poop at the surface of the ocean and their poo floats (excuse the toddler potty talk … would ‘defecate’ and ‘excrement’ be better?). So the nutrients stay in the sunlit surface waters, fertilizing algal growth. It’s something University of Vermont researcher Joe Roman calls “the whale pump.”
Palca and the University of Vermont press release make the connection between robust algal growth and healthy fish populations, but there’s another algae connection they neglect – ocean fertilization is a hot topic in the climate engineering world. That’s because, in addition to sunlight and nutrients, algae need carbon dioxide to grow. They breathe it in, if you will, trapping the carbon in the algal cells and sending it to the bottom of the ocean when the algae die or are eaten by fish (whose poop sinks).
No one knows yet just how big an effect whale poop has on the world’s algae budget. Andrew Pershing, a research scientist at the Gulf of Maine Research Institute and the University of Maine, compares it to a financial puzzle. “Are you just sort of trading money around within your local economy, or is there actually a net increase in the GDP?”
It’s too soon to know. Still, while cows are busy pumping out greenhouse gases with every burp and fart, it’s nice to know their marine cousins are doing their part (however small) to counterbalance them.
Lately, I’ve been doing a lot of reading about climate geo-engineering – large-scale technological or chemical manipulations aimed at reducing the impacts of climate change. The once-taboo subject is now a hot topic in Washington, with the House Science and Technology Committee set to release a report on the options later this month. Meanwhile, Slate.com recently featured an eight-part series on the topic, culminating in an interactive guide based largely on The Royal Society’s Geoengineering the Climate report. One thing I’ve noticed is that many of the most-talked-about options focus solely on temperature, leaving carbon dioxide completely out of the equation. That means that ocean acidification – global warming’s “equally evil twin,” the one born of a direct chemical interaction between sea water and atmospheric carbon dioxide – would continue unchecked, crippling coral reefs and shellfish, and ultimately threatening our food supply.
While all this was bouncing around in my head, I had a conversation with a local oyster farmer (I’m prep’ing for my presentation at the Wellfleet OysterFest next weekend). He said something that caught my attention – that he hoped he was doing his part to draw down carbon dioxide levels by locking up as much carbon as possible in oyster shells. Hmm … sounds reasonable. Could it work?
Unfortunately, NO. In fact, according to a fact sheet put together by scientists at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, the chemical process of building a shell – known as calcification – actually increases acidity and carbon dioxide.
From an ecosystems point of view, even well-intended aquaculture could cause unintentional harm by altering coastal landscapes, increasing pollution and disease, or releasing genetically altered or foreign species into the environment. Any activity aimed at reducing ocean acidification should be considered in a wider context to avoid replacing one environmental impact with another.
Oyster farming certainly has environmental benefits, particularly in areas where natural populations have been decimated. But as far as ocean acidification is concerned, it looks like we’re back to artificial trees.