UCS Blog - The Equation (text only)

The Soil Solution: One Reason to be Optimistic About the Environment is Right Beneath Our Feet

As a young geologist, it took me a while to appreciate the importance of soil and the opportunity soil restoration presents for addressing key challenges humanity now faces. Over time, studying how erosion moves rock, sediment and soil to shape landscapes, I became familiar with how soil both influences and reflects the evolution of topography. We’re all familiar with the topographic displays of bare rock in the Grand Canyon, sharp-angled mountain peaks, and the smooth, rounded profiles of soil-mantled slopes in the rolling hills of California. But I also came to notice that prosperous regions tended to have rich, fertile soil. Impoverished ones did not.

The state of the soil was not just of scientific interest. It was of fundamental importance to human societies.

The oldest problem

My 2007 book, Dirt: The Erosion of Civilizations, grew out of an interest in how our treatment of the land influenced the longevity of civilizations. I found that soil erosion and degradation played a far larger role in human history than I was ever taught. Societies that degrade their land do not stand the test of time.

What lies at the root of the problem? The plow. Consider the state of a freshly plowed field. That bare soil translates into vulnerability to erosion by wind or rain. While it takes nature centuries to build an inch of fertile topsoil, an afternoon thunderstorm can strip as much off a freshly plowed field. Society after society in regions around the world gradually plowed their way into poverty, from Classical Greece to the American Dust Bowl.

Yet the problem of soil degradation is not just ancient history. It is still with us and one of the least recognized, and most serious, facets of the environmental crisis facing humanity today. In 2015, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization reported that under conventional practices the world loses another third of a percent of its agricultural production capacity to soil degradation each year. And while the soil on about a third of the world’s cropland is already seriously degraded, U.S. soils have lost about half their soil organic matter. These trends seriously undermine efforts to feed the world’s growing population.

Soil cores with differences in soil quality resulting from differing farming practices. Photo credit: D. Montgomery

Nature’s hidden half

Fortunately, soil degradation is also one of the most solvable challenges we face. I didn’t learn this from studying history. I learned it in my yard, as my wife turned our Seattle lot into a verdant garden—and changed the way we saw soil.

When we bought our house, the yard hosted a scraggly lawn with wretched soil, hard khaki-colored dirt with about 1% organic matter and nary a worm to be found. Anne set out on an organic matter crusade, layering compost and mulch on garden beds to reintroduce organic matter to the soil. In just a few years time, we found our soil turning darker brown and our plants thriving.  Now, a decade later, the carbon content of our soil is up to almost 10%. We explored this transformation in The Hidden Half of Nature and came to realize the foundational role that microbial community ecology plays in soil fertility as well as plant and human health.

Growing solutions

Restoring the soil in our yard to build a garden happened far faster than nature could have made soil. And this led me to look at the question of whether we can rapidly reverse the historical trend of soil degradation—and whether solutions can scale from small subsistence farms in the developing world to large commodity crop operations in the developed world. To investigate, I visited farms around the world that had restored fertility to the soil and life to the land. In Growing A Revolution, I describe how adopting conservation agriculture practices—combining minimal ground disturbance, cover cropping, and complex crop rotations—can restore fertility to agricultural soils and help address critical issues humanity faces today: feeding the world, mitigating climate change, conserving biodiversity, and reducing pollution.

The author’s backyard garden. Photo credit: D. Montgomery

Naturally, specific practices to adapt these general principles will vary across regions with different soils, climates, crops, economies and cultures. The lack of a simple recipe presents a tremendous challenge.  But it also provides opportunities for scientists to work in conjunction with farmers to rethink conventional agriculture and evaluate the effects of regenerative practices on soil health. Basically, we need to put soil ecology back on par with soil chemistry and physics in our philosophy of farming—and invest in the science behind the transition to conservation agriculture.

I never thought I’d write an optimistic book about the environment. But the farmers I visited who had adopted regenerative practices were using far fewer chemical inputs and far less diesel, and were much more profitable than their conventional neighbors. Their stories offer hope for wider adoption of farming practices that are not only good for farmers and rural communities but also protect our environment and can help secure a sustainable agricultural foundation for humanity’s future.

WEBINAR: Turning Soils Into Sponges

Learn about the soil-building practices that reduce drought and flood frequency with Dr. Andrea Basche, author of the new UCS report Turning Soils Into Sponges, USDA scientist Dr. Gabrielle Roesch-McNally, and UCS senior Washington representative Mike Lavender.

Register for the webinar >

David R. Montgomery is a MacArthur Fellow and professor of geomorphology at the University of Washington. He is an internationally recognized geologist who studies landscape evolution and the effects of geological processes on ecological systems and human societies. He has authored more than 200 scientific papers and 5 popular-science books, and has been featured in documentary films, network and cable news, and on a wide variety of TV and radio programs. When not writing or doing geology, he plays in the band Big Dirt. Connect with him at www.dig2grow.com or follow him on Twitter (@dig2grow).

Science Network Voices gives Equation readers access to the depth of expertise and broad perspective on current issues that our Science Network members bring to UCS. The views expressed in Science Network posts are those of the author alone.

Is Sam Clovis a Scientist? A Racist? 9 Questions the Senate Should Ask

Sam Clovis speaks at a Rushmore Political Action Committee luncheon while campaigning for US Senate, Sioux City, Iowa, March 24, 2014. Credit: Jerry Mennenga/ZUMA Wire/ZUMAPRESS.com/Alamy Live News

Things are not going so well for President Trump’s nominee for the position of under secretary for research, education, and economics (REE) at the US Department of Agriculture. This job has responsibility for scientific integrity at the USDA, as well as oversight of the department’s various research arms and multi-billion dollar annual investments in agricultural research and education that are essential to farmers and eaters alike. The job also encompasses the role of USDA chief scientist, leading Congress in 2008 to emphasize that the person who fills it should actually be a scientist. But Sam Clovis is not one. And that’s not the half of it.

Clovis is a climate denier. He has espoused racist and homophobic views and embraced wild conspiracy theories. He may even be caught up in the Trump campaign’s Russia mess, having reportedly recruited a key Russia-connected foreign policy advisor to the campaign. But while opposition to Clovis is growing, the White House, Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue, and other boosters insist that he is just the guy for this job. I disagree, strongly. And I have a lot of questions.

Not a scientist…or an economist

Let’s start with Clovis’s scientific qualifications, which are non-existent despite the clear requirement embedded in federal law. Supporters have recently attempted to obscure his lack of training by describing him alternately as an economist or an academician. Let’s take those in turn:

Economist? No. Perhaps Clovis taught an economics class to undergraduates at Morningside College (or perhaps not), but even if he did that hardly makes him an economist. He has no economics degree and no published work in the field. If he really were a trained economist, especially an agricultural economist, that would seem to meet the legal requirement. But he’s not.

And what of the “academician” label? Well, sure, he has a PhD in public administration and taught college courses, so he has some academic cred. But as an ally from farm country quipped in an email last week, “so does an Oxford-educated Shakespeare expert but you wouldn’t have that person running USDA’s science office.”

Enough said.

An increasingly troubling nominee

Since news of his nomination initially leaked back in May, Clovis has been silent in public. But his racially explosive, offensive, homophobic, and just-plain-ignorant past statements continue to haunt him.

Transcripts and audio recordings recently uncovered by CNN show that he used his radio talk show in Iowa during 2011-2013 to hurl racially-charged insults at a variety of political leaders and to traffic in baseless fringe theories on topics ranging from then-President Obama’s birthplace and his reaction to the attack on the US embassy in Libya to the intentions of climate scientists and advocates. And just this week, new CNN reporting revealed that between 2012 and 2014, Clovis argued that homosexuality is a choice and that the sanctioning of same-sex marriage could lead to the legalization of pedophilia.

This is all deeply troubling.

What the Senate—and the public—need to hear from Clovis

When Congress returns from its summer recess in September, the Senate Agriculture Committee is expected to convene a public hearing, at which its 21 members will have the opportunity to hear directly from the nominee and evaluate his suitability for the job. Based on this hearing, the committee members will vote to advance Clovis’s nomination to the full Senate for consideration…or not.

With that in mind, here are nine questions the committee members should ask the wannabe chief scientist:

1. Are we missing something? A science degree you’ve been keeping quiet about? In nutrition (like the last scientist to hold this position) or weed science (like the one before that)? Or soil science? Food science? Agronomy? Entomology? Any relevant scientific discipline at all??

2. Academic credentials aside, how do you explain your role in advancing unsubstantiated conspiracy theories and making racially offensive and homophobic statements while a radio host in Iowa just a few years ago? We’ve read the transcripts and heard the audio of your racist comments about former President Obama and other black and Latino government officials and your theories about “LGBT behavior.” They are unscientific and deeply troubling, particularly in the aftermath of the recent racist violence in Charlottesville, Virginia. Explain yourself. Why should anyone take you seriously as a proponent (much less a practitioner) of fact-based decision-making? And how can we be confident you won’t throw science overboard in favor of special interest politics and pandering to the lowest common denominator of conspiracy theorists, racists, and homophobes?

3. Do you accept the science of climate change, and would you increase support for the evidence-based tools farmers need to build resilience to a warmer, more volatile climate? You’ve made past comments that climate science is “junk science,” a view that is at odds with the overwhelming scientific consensus. And inaction on climate change is contraindicated by what agricultural researchers and farmers on the ground are seeing across this country every day—witness, for example, the “flash drought” that has wreaked havoc on wheat farms and cattle ranches in the Dakotas and Montana. Looking ahead, this recent study predicted that future harvests of wheat, soybeans, and corn could drop by 22 to 49 percent, mostly due to water stress. Are you aware that farmers are becoming more vulnerable to floods, droughts, heat, and pests triggered by climate change? What are your thoughts on the contribution of soil health to climate resilience and productivity? As chief scientist, would you seek to maintain and increase USDA’s investments in research, education, and extension, and particularly the department’s network of regional Climate Hubs, to help farmers and ranchers better cope with our changing climate?

4. Okay, so you’re an “economist” (wink). What is your economic theory for improving conditions for everyday farmers and their communities, and what research would you prioritize to help get there? The Trump campaign, which you advised as a national co-chair in 2016, promised to help farmers and bring economic activity back to rural communities. What economic approach would best enable US agriculture to provide long-term benefits to farmers, American taxpayers, and eaters? What would be the most strategic investment we can make in research to prepare us now for a future that provides a plentiful, environmentally responsible, affordable and healthy food supply, buffered from destructive boom and bust cycles?

5. As chief scientist, would you seek to boost USDA funding for research, particularly in agroecology? Robust agricultural research programs provide critical tools for farmers as they seek ways to profitably manage their operations and protect their soil and water resources. Congress boosted funding for the USDA’s Agriculture and Food Research Initiative (AFRI) by $25 million for fiscal year 2017. Such increased investments in research are key to helping farmers, though the appropriation is still well below the full amount authorized for AFRI. Agroecology, in particular, offers innovative solutions to farming’s environmental and other challenges, but this science is underfunded and understudied, as UCS has shown. Nearly 500 scientists have called for more public funding for agroecological research. Would you support such investments in farmers and our food system?

6. How would you employ the research and education functions of the USDA to help farmers and communities curb water pollution? Agricultural water pollution is a serious and growing problem, as illustrated by this year’s biggest ever dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico and the repeated drinking water problems experienced by Midwestern cities such as Des Moines and Toledo in recent years. Are you familiar with long-term studies from Corn Belt land grant universities showing that farming practices such as perennial prairie strips and innovative crop rotations can dramatically decrease erosion and nitrogen runoff? How would you seek to use USDA research, education, and extension to help farmers adopt these methods and reduce downstream pollution?

7. What scientific and economic research would help policymakers better understand and improve the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP)? In 2014, this program (formerly food stamps) lifted an estimated 4.7 million people out of poverty, including 2.1 million children, and abundant data show that SNAP is a smart investment in the nation’s health and well-being. The program is also a lifeline for many small towns and rural communities. As chief scientist, what research would you prioritize to improve understanding of the program’s benefits and how it could be improved to better serve public health and Americans still struggling economically?

8. How would you help ensure that the next update of federal dietary guidelines is based on the best science? The USDA partners with the Department of Health and Human Services to regularly update the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. These recommendations must be based on the best available nutrition science, and the process typically involves convening an advisory committee comprised of nationally recognized nutrition and medical researchers, academics, and other experts to review that body of science. The next update will happen under the Trump administration’s watch in 2020. As chief scientist, what USDA research would you prioritize between now and then to ensure that this process is based on sound science in the interest of public health, and not unduly influenced by food industry interests?

9. What would you do to ensure scientific integrity at the USDA? The Trump administration’s record on respecting science in federal decision-making is abysmal. Actions and decisions at the USDA—and all federal agencies—must be strongly grounded in science to improve the lives of Americans. What will you do to swim against this administration’s tide and achieve a high standard of scientific integrity at the USDA? Will you commit to uphold the department’s existing scientific integrity policy? And how will you ensure that there are adequate resources and leadership to enable the USDA’s thousands of staff scientists to do their vitally important jobs?

The bottom line

The breadth of the under secretary and chief scientist position is vast and the challenges faced by our food and agricultural system are growing. We need a serious and highly qualified person in charge of the nation’s agricultural science office. That person must be thoroughly grounded in the scientific process and prepared to rely on evidence to help solve these challenges for all Americans.

I believe Sam Clovis falls far short on multiple counts. And I’ll be watching closely in the coming weeks to see how the Senate evaluates him, and if they come to the same conclusion.

Historic Communities Face New Challenges as Sea Levels Rise along the South Carolina Coast

Charleston City Marina, 2015. Photo: www.jaredbramblett.com

A case study part of the report When Rising Seas Hit Home

The effects of sea level rise are appearing so fast in Charleston, South Carolina, that the city’s sustainability project manager, Carolee Williams, says most people have no time to holler from one side of the climate change political divide to the other:

There might be a big debate elsewhere, but we don’t talk much about why it’s happening. Because it’s happening right now and everyone recognizes that it’s far more important to deal with what is happening than why. What is happening has stripped away the politics.

Watching the sea rise before their very eyes

Residents of Charleston have no time to argue about climate change; they are too busy dealing with the negative effects, including increases in tidal flooding—also known as “nuisance,” flooding events that occur on sunny days with no wind.

The city saw a record 50 high-tide floods last year, a sharp rise from the prior record of 38 in 2015, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. A half century ago, the city saw only two sunny-day floods a year.

By 2045, given a moderate scenario for sea level rise, Charleston faces sea level rise of up to two and a half feet and up to 180 days of nuisance flooding—more than half the year. By mid century, a typical nuisance flooding event will affect at least 15 percent of the city.

When Rising Seas Hit Home, 2017

Awareness of sea level rise in a most stark way

Tidal flooding has for years now affected individual lives and livelihoods in Charleston, not discriminating by class or race. Fouché Sheppard is a well-known resident of the city, a local Gullah poet and storyteller with a long history of activism against addiction and violence and advocacy for youth and seniors.

Her awareness of sea level rise came in a most stark way, she says, when she was fired from her downtown job as an administrative assistant at a medical office.

The reason? She could not drive around a nuisance flood.

“The supervisor was sitting downtown telling me over the telephone, ‘Well, I got to work, why can’t you?’” Sheppard said. “I said, ‘You’re firing me because you’re lucky enough to live in one part of town and I’m unlucky to live in another?’ She said she didn’t care. I’m worried that if this keeps up, it’s going to affect a lot of people just trying to get by. How many people are going to lose their jobs when you can’t get to work because your car has been destroyed by flooding?”

Charleston resident Fouché Sheppard lost her job as an administrative assistant when she could not drive around a sunny-day flood.

Lyft rideshare driver Tim McAlpin said he has lost rides to the nuisance-flooded streets. “It gets frustrating on bad days,” he said. “You get a ride, but then you have to go all around many blocks in flooded areas. By the time you figure it out, they cancel.”

Another rideshare driver for Uber dreads nuisance-flooding days, saying, “When you see the dew in the morning, you worry it’ll turn into a flood that rusts out the bottom of your car.”

The hard choices have already arrived

Charleston is a city where the hard choices that sea level rise can force have already arrived. And, for now, the city is responding with major investments in defensive measures. For years, it has been planning ahead. It has spent more than a quarter of a million dollars on modernizing its drainage and sewage systems and pumping stations and working on bolstering its seawall.

But defensive measures have their limitations, especially under pressure from rising seas. They can be overtopped or undermined by water that pushes up through the ground. They can hasten erosion and exacerbate flooding in neighboring areas. And they have an expiration date. Longer term, the city will need to bring creative solutions on line.

All hands on deck

The city has been thinking creatively since 2015 when, in an initiative launched by former mayor Joe Riley, the city announced its Sea Level Rise Strategy Plan. It includes scores of possibilities for future initiatives, including green infrastructure and bolstering wetlands, shorelines, and other natural absorbers of storm surge. It also calls for commonsense measures such as evaluating the environmental consequences of future coastal development.

“We’re just at the start, but we’re hoping for an ‘all-hands-on-deck’ approach,” Williams said.

Efforts to generate as many hands on deck as possible were evident this spring, in grassroots work by a leading community group representing diverse parts of Charleston. The group, Enough Pie (as in, “there is enough pie for everyone in this community”), staged a month-long series of events, from sea level rise presentations by scientists to massive public art displays, discussions by faith leaders, and performances by poets and rappers.

Local events, such as this Enough Pie presentation in April 2017, are making the connection between climate change, melting land ice, and local flooding and arguing for equitable solutions for residents of all income levels.

One evening, Enough Pie sponsored a talk by nationally known sea level researcher Rob Young of Western Carolina University. Speaking in a warehouse renovated into an art gallery, he made it clear that the situation is so serious he would give no city high praise for preparing for the floods to come.

“At least in Charleston, they’re having an open discussion,” he said. “But the reality is that cities and states have to first adopt the physician’s pledge of ‘do no harm.’ But harm is still going on all around us. We’re still building high rises on the oceanfront in coastal communities.

“Really, until all this talk filters down to zoning permits, then it doesn’t get at the heart of what needs to be done.”

On the second floor of the gallery, people went from Young’s talk to take in a huge installation, in which large-screen photos of inundated cars and homes in the streets of Charleston played in a loop next to a stream of images of melting glaciers and ocean wildlife.

“We’re trying to use all the creative resources we have to empower our community, not just to be aware of sea level rise, but also to make sure their voice is part of any solution,” said Enough Pie Executive Director Cathryn Zommer. One of those community voices, Fouché Sheppard, who greeted visitors to the art installation, wanted it to be clear that equity must be part of any solution.

“You can’t have some neighborhoods getting where they need to get, and rich people being able to afford to build homes 14 feet off the ground, while others literally wade in the water,” she said.

Mayor Billy Keyserling of Beaufort says that small towns such as his cannot battle rising seas on their own: “My job is to jump out in front of the traffic to get people at the state and federal level to screech to a halt.”

“We can’t postpone it”

An hour and a half down the South Carolina coast, Beaufort Mayor Billy Keyserling talked about how creative he has to be to raise awareness of sea level rise. Two years ago, in his living room, he put together a sea level rise task force for Beaufort and neighboring Port Royal, with a wide range of members from business leaders to scientists and community residents.

Keyserling said, “The biggest challenge has been getting people’s attention. You can’t get them talking about glaciers, ozone layers. But you might be able to get them talking by pointing out how high the water is coming up on the dock. Many people still don’t see sea level rise like a dire threat. They treat it more like diabetes, with denial, as if it is something we can postpone. As we know from diabetes, there is only so much we can do to ignore it, but we can’t postpone it.”

In May of this year, the task force released a report Keyserling hopes cuts into the denial.

The report said chronic inundation from a three-foot rise in sea level would cause “great harm to the Beaufort economy” in its historic downtown, often called one of the prettiest in the United States. A two-foot rise would begin to inundate the county airport, and a three-foot rise would likely cut off access to the runway. UCS analysis shows that by 2060, a two-foot rise would cause parts of downtown Beaufort to flood, on average, every other week. And by 2080, a three-foot rise would entirely flood the county’s airport with that same frequency.

The threats to other key roads, parks, and waterfront neighborhoods are so severe that the report recommended a whole host of solutions, including raising roads and relocating utilities. It also placed emphasis on working with the land and water to “employ native plantings, support the marsh habitat, and encourage a healthy buffer that would protect against rising waters and absorb any storm energy.”

The task force did not shy away from a classic political fault line for tourist destinations and resort towns: development. “Additionally, further development of the marsh and critical area—due to docks, yards, and other waterfront development—should be limited or prevented to the extent it impacts the healthy marsh buffer surrounding this area.”

But even if he wins the battle of denial among residents, Keyserling is faced with the big question of where he is going to get the money. “This little city cannot do what we need to do on its own,” he said. As he sees it, with the prospect of worsening flooding ahead for his community, “My job is to jump out in front of the traffic to get people at the state and federal level to screech to a halt.”



Morgan Stanley Is Wrong About Tesla’s Electric Cars

Last week, investment bank Morgan Stanley was quoted as claiming electric vehicles are responsible for more global warming emissions than gasoline cars. The firm’s report says Tesla isn’t a ‘green’ company because of this (incorrect) conclusion. There are likely plenty of reasons to invest in the electric car and solar panel maker, and certainly many reasons not to bet on Tesla, but the false claim of dirty cars isn’t one of them.

Why did Morgan Stanley get the wrong answer? It’s hard to say because no underlying data is shown to back up Morgan Stanley’s assertions, so I can’t check their calculations. However, you are welcome to inspect ours; we wrote a report in 2015 comparing the emissions of electric cars and gasoline vehicles, and recently updated it with new electricity generation data.

What are the global warming emissions from electric cars?

The emissions that result from using an electric vehicle (EV) depend on part on where the vehicle is recharged, as electricity generation varies significantly across the United States. Based on where EVs have been sold so far, the average electric car generates global warming emissions equal to a 73 MPG gasoline car. Overall, over two-thirds (70 percent) of Americans live where driving an electric car would result in lower global warming emissions than even a 50 MPG gasoline car.


Manufacturing emissions are small compared to savings during use


Even when considering the emissions from the manufacture of the EV’s battery, EVs over their lifespan result in significant global warming emissions savings. Over the lifetime of a car the size of the Tesla Model S, the emissions savings are about 53 percent, when compared to a similar gasoline car.

Electricity is getting cleaner, making EVs better over time

Very few details are given in the article about Morgan Stanley’s analysis, however one of the few statistics given (regarding the fraction of electricity from fossil fuel in the U.S.) is wrong.

Nationally, we currently derive about 65 percent of electricity from fossil fuel and only about 31 percent from coal, down from 50 percent in 2006.

Both fossil-fueled electricity and coal generation have declined substantially over the last decade, making driving EVs cleaner. And as we increase the amount of renewable electricity in the U.S., driving on electricity can be even cleaner.


Going in the Wrong Direction: We Need More Advice on the Impacts of Climate Change

As of Sunday, the federal Advisory Panel for the Sustained National Climate Assessment is no more.  The charter for the panel was not renewed. That makes little sense from any perspective I can imagine. This panel was advising the federal government on how to best improve the scientific information for state and local governments, businesses and the public on the ongoing impacts of climate change.

What is the best way to help inform local planning processes, for example in places experiencing chronic tidal flooding due to rising seas? What information do architects and engineers need and in what form? According to the website, the panel was due to report in 2018.  I guess the Trump Administration couldn’t wait to cut off that flow of science to the public.

I served on the advisory panel for the Third National Climate Assessment (the Fourth is in process) mandated by Congress in the Global Change Research Act of 1990. The Third Assessment advisory panel was responsible for crafting the assessment itself. In addition, we recommended that the government engage in a sustained assessment process which would provide ongoing information on the impacts of climate change on a continuing basis, rather than just every four years as in the full assessments. The reason is that a lot of changes are happening quickly from severe weather, like recent heat waves in the west,  to changes affecting fisheries in New England.

The sustained assessment effort is intended  to help government, business and the public have better information for decision-making. That’s exactly what many state and local officials have been asking for from the federal government according to the Washington Post report. Of course, the government can provide information without external advisors, but why would it want to? The advisors are not compensated and they bring substantial expertise in various fields as well as new perspectives. The government only stands to gain from their service.

Unfortunately this isn’t the first time the Trump administration has gutted an advisory panel, nor is it the first time, unfortunately, that they have taken steps to sideline science. These actions are deeper than just a different perspective or approach to policy related to climate change or public health, safety and environmental protections. Terminating this advisory panel hinders efforts to get better information for the public. Is that the Trump Administration’s intent? Providing less public information doesn’t reduce or even hide the impacts of global warming, it just makes us all that much less prepared for those impacts.

Trump’s Executive Order Will Make America Flood Again (and Again and Again)

Floods in Missouri, 2015.

On August 15, Trump signed an executive order, repealing an Obama-era executive order that updated the Federal Flood Risk Management Standard for the first time in 37 years to require consideration of future flood risk when building or rebuilding with federal funds. With ample evidence that climate change puts federal (and other) infrastructure at risk, it is ultimately American taxpayers who will pay the price for building without regard to sea level rise and the impacts of increasing extreme weather.

What is the Federal Flood Risk Management Standard?

In 1977, the Floodplain Management executive order by President Carter required federal agencies to evaluate whether actions–such as building–would take place within or affect the local floodplain. This order was in place through two Democratic and three Republican administrations.

In 2015, President Obama signed an executive order establishing the Federal Flood Risk Management Standard (FFRMS), aimed at reducing current and future flood risk by incorporating future conditions, climate science, and other factors that affect flood risks into floodplain definitions. The FFRMS gave agencies leeway to define the floodplain in a few different ways.

It is important to note that the FFRMS has no impact on private development. It does not affect insurance rates through the National Flood Insurance Program. And it does not affect local or state standards where those standards are higher than those outlined by the federal standard.

Building for the Future

Taking some time today to plan for future conditions is something we do in many facets of life today. We try to have college savings accounts for our children, for example, because we know the day will come when they are ready for college, and we know that we need to have those savings in place in order to pay for it. Saving for college requires envisioning a future that’s different from the present, one that seems far off when you’re changing diapers.

Envisioning how flood risks will change over time in response to climate change is more challenging–but with over 170 communities facing chronic inundation in just 18 years’ time, it’s no further off than your baby’s high school graduation.

We need to stop building for today and start building for the future that decades of scientific studies have been outlining. And a strong majority of Americans agree: A recent survey by the Pew Charitable Trusts found that 82% of registered voters support flood-ready infrastructure. Repealing a common sense measure that major infrastructure agencies such as USACE and DOT have been working thoughtfully to implement is irresponsible to current and future taxpayers and jeopardizes the safety and well-being of communities that depend on federally funded infrastructure.

Sea level rise allowed high tides to expose electrical equipment on the underside of the piers at Naval Station Norfolk to sea water. Some of the piers are being raised at a cost of $60 million each.

What not to do

Here in the Bay Area, we have a prime example of what not to do. Californians recently spent $6.4 billion on the new Bay Bridge, which connects San Francisco to Oakland. The bridge opened in September of 2013. Fourteen months later, the state’s Metropolitan Transportation Commission released a report funded, in part, by the US Department of Transportation finding that with 3 ft of sea level rise, the eastern approach to the bridge would be permanently inundated.

UCS’s most recent sea level rise analysis shows that with roughly 2 feet of sea level rise by 2060, parts of the approach would be chronically inundated–flooding, on average, every other week.

The new eastern span of the Bay Bridge opened in 2013. Just 14 months later, the Metropolitan Transportation Commission reported that the eastern approach would be permanently inundated by 3 feet of sea level rise.

So my tax dollars went toward the construction of the bridge. And my childrens’ tax dollars, should they stay in California, will likely go toward altering it as sea level rise makes the eastern approach unreliable. The financial and political burden of making the Bay Bridge flood resilient could hang over Californians’ heads for decades to come.

California has since updated its guidance on incorporating sea level rise into planning decisions. Likewise, measures such as the FFRMS are a way of safeguarding our investments rather than investing in infrastructure that will fail and need to be rebuilt, again with taxpayer money.

What to do

On the other hand, as of 2015, nearly 600 communities–big cities and small towns alike–already had common sense measures in place that are ensuring that structures are built above the 100-year flood level. These “freeboard” requirements range from 1 to 3 feet above the 100-year flood level, and are common sense measures that are aimed to reduce future flood risk.

This executive order will not affect those local requirements, even if projects are receiving federal funding. It may be, as is the case with global warming emissions reductions, that cities and counties will lead the way when it comes to making infrastructure resilient.

At the federal level, major infrastructure-oriented agencies such as DOD, DOT, and USACE have conducted extensive  sea level rise assessments and developed sea level rise planning tools in recent years. And in response to the recently updated federal flood risk management standard, such agencies have been drafting new building guidelines to ensure that their assets are climate-resilient.

In the course of our work on the exposure of US military installations to sea level rise, we spoke with environmental planners at many installations. While our research showed that there is still room for improvement, most of the planners we spoke with were acutely aware of the risk sea level rise posed to their installation. And many had already implemented common sense measures to reduce that risk.

In short, the federal agencies responsible for the reliability and safety of America’s coastal and inland infrastructure know that climate change poses problems for our nation, and they have already begun to take steps to reduce their risk.

The FFRMS is just a drop in the bucket of what our nation needs to do to plan for sea level rise and increasingly extreme events.

The American Society of Civil Engineers has given America’s infrastructure a D+ and states that “it is not clear that [Trump’s executive order] will protect the environment and improve public safety.” Now more than ever, our nation needs coordination and leadership on climate change at the federal level. In the absence of that, cities and counties need to continue to evaluate and enforce their flood standards so that residents stay safe in the face of our changing climate.

defense.gov Wikimedia Commons

How Quickly Have US Solar and Wind Grown?

Here at the Union of Concerned Scientists, we spend a lot of time focusing on the future—where we need to get to (on climate change, for example), how we do that (clean energy, clean transportation, carbon pricing,…), what happens when we delay (sea-level rise, anyone?). For clean energy in particular, though, it’s great to remember how far we’ve come and how fast we’re moving. A look at how states’ use of wind and solar has grown does that pretty nicely.

My colleague Shannon Wojcik and I have been digging into some of the numbers from the US Energy Information Administration, a great resource for historical data on America’s energy evolution. Specifically, we’ve focused in on two renewable energy technologies that have made particularly impressive progress in recent years: wind turbines and solar panels.

And here’s what the data show: From tough-to-spot levels in 2001 to impossible-to-ignore ones in 2016, those two technologies alone have made quite a splash.

Here are a few notable tick marks on the wind+solar timeline of progress in the states:

2001 – Not a whole lot o’ color. Only 10 states even show up as having non-zero figures for generation from solar plus wind. And only three of those—California, Minnesota, and Iowa—register above 1%.

2008 – The first green shoots are visible. No state has passed the 10% mark, but four have hit at least 5%.

2009 – Here comes the wind boom. Minnesota is just shy of 10%; Iowa soars past that mark.

2012 – The wind+solar 10% Club is nine members strong, and Iowa and South Dakota have become founding members of the 20% Club. Large-scale solar starts making its presence known.

2014 – EIA figures out that small-scale solar, too, is too important a piece to ignore and starts including those data in its reporting.

2016 – The wind and solar numbers—nationally, at 5.5% for wind and 1.4% for solar—add up to some pretty impressive levels in leading states:

  • 16 states are at or above 10% of generation, 6 states are above 20%, and Iowa and South Dakota have passed 30% (with Kansas just inches from that goal line).
  • For Iowa, in fact, wind adds up to 37% of generation. To put that in plainer (maybe) language: More than one out of every three electrons generated in the Hawkeye State is (almost magically) conjured out of thin air (sort of).
  • For California and Hawaii, sunbeams do even more of the work than wind in 2016. The Aloha State gets 6% of its generation from wind and 8% from solar, while the Golden State’s generation is 7% wind- and 13% sun-fueled.
  • Of the 16 members of the 2016 10% Club, half have doubled their solar/wind percentage in just the previous five years.
2017 and beyond

This is the part where it gets even more exciting. Wind finished 2016 with its second strongest quarter ever for new installations, and solar had a big push throughout 2016. Those numbers will show up in the generation percentages for 2017 as a whole.

Installations during 2017 itself are unlikely to be record-setting overall, but they should add solid additional chunks of solar panels and wind turbines that’ll show up in the data next year.

And then? We keep going.

We push to make the dark states darker and to get the pale ones finally in the game. (I’m pretty sure the Sunshine State and its Southeastern brethren could be doing more with solar… or wind.) We make solar, wind, and other renewables count even more by shrinking the denominator with energy efficiency. We make sure we’ve got the right policies for removing barriers to clean energy, letting American businesses create 21st century jobs, and driving energy innovation that’ll take us through the coming decades.

If you need inspiration, just look at the GIF one more time. And imagine what it could look like in 2020 and beyond. Then join us in making your vision a reality.

Big thanks to Shannon Wojcik, a Steven Schneider Sustainable Energy Fellow from Stanford University, for her help in analyzing and presenting this neat data.

Galveston County, Texas, Faces Sea Level Rise and Storms

Neighborhood on stilts. Bolivar Peninsula, Galveston, TX. In 2008, Hurricane Ike erased this neighborhood, except for the yellow house. Residents now are raising their houses even higher to cope with future flooding.

A case study part of the report When Rising Seas Hit Home

“Mother Nature has a way of evening things out”

With the measured voice of a scientist, Galveston County engineer Michael Shannon mused about the seemingly eternal struggle between the irresistible draw human beings have to water and the knowledge that the water, especially in these parts, bites hard.

“People can decide to do what they want, and if you have enough money, you can build what you want if it complies with the regulations,” Shannon said in his office, surrounded by maps that remind one precisely how much water from the Gulf of Mexico and Galveston Bay wraps around Galveston Island, the Bolivar Peninsula, and several local cities and towns.

“I will say, I am surprised at the level of investment and the level of risk people choose to take, but they have the right to do so. It’s human nature to do your own thing and improve your property and live the way you want. I don’t have an opinion whether they should or shouldn’t. But Mother Nature has a way of evening things out.”

Analysis points to a rapid escalation from today’s flooding conditions

This region’s traditional worry is hurricanes. The 1900 hurricane that killed between 6,000 and 12,000 people is still the United States’ deadliest natural disaster. In 2008, Hurricane Ike literally wiped huge swaths of the Bolivar Peninsula off the map. Only 17 people died in the entire state of Texas, but property damage amounting to $50 billion was likely the largest loss in state history, according to the New York Times.

But now, even as the human march back to the shore has resulted in fresh walls of homes and rental units on stilts nearly 20 feet high fronting the Gulf of Mexico, and even as local and state entities have spent tens of millions of federal and state dollars to “renourish” the beaches with hundreds of thousands of cubic yards of sand, the seas are snaking slowly in the opposite direction: over the sand, underneath the pilings, upward onto the land and, when the tide is running particularly high, over the roads and into neighborhoods.

Roadway on the Bolivar Peninsula

According to a study published this year by Climate Central, a non-partisan organization of scientists and journalists who focus on climate change, nearly half of Galveston’s homes face a yearly risk of flooding by the end of the century if heat-trapping emissions continue to be spewed at the current rate.

On the Bolivar Peninsula, accessible at the western end by ferry from Galveston and connected at the eastern end to the mainland by a lone state highway running just above the water line, nuisance tidal flooding has become more than a nuisance.

“There are a few days when we are actually an island,” said Matt Summers, a firefighter in Crystal Beach on Bolivar Peninsula. “The engineers threw down some concrete barriers alongside the road to keep the water out. The water has knocked them sideways. It’s a false sense of hope.”

UCS analysis points to a rapid escalation from today’s flooding conditions. By 2035, given a moderate scenario for sea level rise, nearly a quarter of the Bolivar Peninsula is expected to flood 26 times or more per year, or every other week, on average.

When Rising Seas Hit Home, 2017.

But not enough has changed to keep up. According to a May article in the Houston Business Journal, one realtor has “rarely seen the Galveston home market so hot in her nearly 40 years in real estate.”

“I’m not an insurance expert, but I just wonder if everything is being done to ensure compliance with insurance requirements in flood hazard zones,” Shannon says.

Last year, the state approved $14 million to repair and raise the highway to an elevation of seven and a half feet. In Galveston, civic and government leaders and environmentalists have spent years debating whether to build a $15 billion storm barrier system featuring dikes and floodgates. This spring, many Texas mayors; port directors; chemical, oil, and gas executives; and recreation and hospitality representatives—as well asTexas Land Commissioner George P. Bush—wrote President Trump to ask the federal government to fund the barrier.

Shannon thinks the general notion of a barrier, or “coastal spine,” as the locals call it, is “a great project,” given the national importance of local industries.

 “You pick your poison”

On Bolivar, there is hardly a discouraging word about living in flood zones. Summers said, “I’m sure flooding and hurricanes are in the back of everyone’s head, but the fishing is great and the weather’s warm. You pick your poison. You can live somewhere cold or you can live here and take your chances.”

Local photographer Joe Winston comes from a family that lost a home to Hurricane Ike. They elected not to rebuild. Now living several miles away, he remarked on the new homes on high stilts, “Whether you’re 12 feet off the ground or 18 feet, I don’t know if that’s going to save your home when water flattens it like a pancake.

“You’d think the water was telling us something when we’ve lost hundreds of feet of shoreline over the years to erosion. I heard it once said that a wise man builds his home on a rock while a foolish man builds one on the sand. That is an unpopular thing to discuss in a place people come for vacation. The land may be sinking, the water may be rising, but for most people, they come here to get away from work and the world’s troubles. It’s about living in the here and now. Sea level rise just doesn’t rise to such a critical level that it catches the attention of people.”

Three Myths About Solar Energy and the Eclipse

NASA's guide to where the shadow will be from the Aug. 21 eclipse. Source: NASA

Has anyone told you that the solar eclipse is a sign of trouble, or will cause the power to go out? Fear not. Despite what you might see with your own eyes, the experience is never as bad as the scary stories make it seem. This is as true today as it has been for thousands of years.

There is a long tradition of belief that solar eclipses are a disruption in the established order of things, even a theft. But advocates of renewable energy need not be afraid: a momentary break from the sun—and solar power generation—is not a sign that we need to rely on coal plants for a reliable energy supply. In fact, all people who prefer cleaner air and water should greet the solar eclipse without superstition or fear.

In the modern world, we have science to explain what is happening: our use of solar energy is not the downfall of civilization. Both the National Earth Science Teachers Association and the North American Electricity Reliability Corporation (NERC) provide calm and rational discussions of what will happen when the shadow of the moon passes across the United States.

While it is true that more of our electricity comes from solar energy now than in the past, NERC has thought this through and has found that there is no need to fear.

Here are three myth-busters to keep in mind.

Truth: Electricity supplies will not be disrupted by the eclipse

In April, the guardians of electric grid reliability, NERC, issued a report with the summary: A total solar eclipse is a predictable event that impacts solar generation over a short time period. The study showed no reliability impacts to bulk power system operations.

Actual disruptions of the electric power system are typically NOT those where the disturbance is predicted to the precise day and hour, and are most often caused by trouble with the wires, not one fraction of the generator supply.

Truth: We have experience with high levels of solar energy and an eclipse

In March 2015, a solar eclipse shadowed Germany and all of Europe, reducing sunlight 65-80%. (The eclipse was total in the North Sea.) With the advanced notice provided by astronomers, the changes needed in the electricity supply were planned and managed by the same grid operators that routinely make daily schedules and minute-by-minute adjustments for the power supply.

German operators took a detailed approach, using a range of flexible resources to respond to the expected fluctuation in sunshine and solar energy produced. Italian operators took a simpler approach, and directed 30% of solar producers to take an extended morning break from producing. In the UK, the weather was grey and cloudy, making for low levels of solar production in the hours around the eclipse.

Truth: Solar eclipses are not as rare as people think

Aztec calendar with sun god Tonatuih at center.
Credit: Anthony Stanley

It may seem this is a rare event when considering only one’s own point of view, or the history of a single place. That is, in my lifetime where I live, Boston, there has never been a total eclipse. (The last one seen in Boston was in 1959.)  The last total eclipse seen in Los Angeles was in 1724. But there is a total solar eclipse on earth roughly every 2 years. Check out this website for the 2015 and 2016 total eclipses you missed, as well as the next ones (July 2, 2019 and December 14, 2020), both of which will reach southern Argentina and Chile.

People pay attention to the sun for good reason. Among the natural systems that provide clean air, fresh water and a livable climate, the sun is critically important. It is no coincidence that religions describe over 100 gods connected with the sun, and that at the dawn of the modern era, astronomers describing the solar system were killed as heretics by defenders of church orthodoxy.

Today, we can resist the fear that “the sun won’t shine” used to attack renewable energy. When the old guard points to the sun overhead and tells you the eclipse means there will punishment for those who dare to think new thoughts, be confident. The comings and goings of the sun are now predictable. The power supply is always prepared for swings of more sudden losses than this—those that come from man-made, not natural, plant failures.


Massachusetts Leads on Clean Electricity—Let’s Take On Clean Transportation

Massachusetts today finalized new regulations under the state’s Global Warming Solutions Act that will establish limits on pollution from in-state power plants. Now we need to tackle transportation head on.

The Baker administration support for power plant regulations shows that in Massachusetts, climate change and clean energy remain a bipartisan issue, with both parties and all branches of government working together to achieve our climate limits.

In particular, today’s regulations show the state is continuing to lead on the production of clean electricity. Since 1990, Massachusetts has cut pollution from its electricity use almost in half, from 28 MMT in 1990 to 16 MMT in 2013. These additional regulations, together with last year’s clean energy bill and the recent shutdown of the last coal plants in the state will reduce emissions from electricity even farther, to 8.6 MMT by 2020.

Where the state has struggled is in reducing emission from other sectors, especially transportation. Transportation emissions are actually higher today than they were in 1990.

That’s why it was good to hear that Department of Environmental Protection Secretary Matt Beaton promised new action to address emissions from transportation:

The whole world right now is wrestling with the transportation sector and the challenges around dealing with it relative to climate mitigation. We’ve been in a number of conversations about identifying solutions for transportation, whether it’s done on a regional basis. It is a big challenge. We recognize that challenge, we see it as a challenge as well. But we are confident that in the very near future some of the efforts and the conversations we are having with our colleagues in other states and other provinces in Canada that there will be great strides to better understand what our options are for transportation solutions.

We think that a regional approach to addressing transportation pollution is a great idea.

Massachusetts has a long history of working with other states in the Northeast region to craft successful climate policies such as the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (aka RGGI).  Under RGGI, the Northeast region has established a regional limit on emissions from power plants, required polluters to purchase emission allowances under that cap, and invested funds in efficiency and renewable energy programs that reduce pollution and save consumers money. RGGI has helped the Northeast region cut emissions while creating jobs and reducing electricity expenses.

Two of our neighbors in Canada, Quebec and Ontario, have recently joined California in implementing a “cap and invest” policy similar to RGGI, but also covering transportation emissions.  This policy has allowed Quebec and Ontario to dramatically scale up their investments in clean transportation projects, such as electric cars and buses and public transportation. Analysis shows that a similar policy in the Northeast region, together with additional policies to clean up transportation, could reduce emissions by 40%, save consumers up to $72 billion and create over 90,000 jobs in the region by 2030.

If Massachusetts leads the Northeast region towards a regional “cap and invest” policy, we could create a clean, modern transportation system for our region. Funds from such a program could finance much needed investments in expanded and more reliable mass transit, a regional network of fast-charging stations for electric vehicles to ease driver “range anxiety”; van pools for rural employees who need a cost effective way to get to work; incentives to ensure that automated vehicles and ridesharing services go electric; and new programs that will take polluting gas guzzlers off the road and make highly efficient and electric vehicles affordable for all drivers.

Such a program would not only improve our environment and our public health, but it would improve our economy, create jobs, and ensure Charlie Baker a strong legacy on climate change.

We look forward to working with Secretary Beaton, Secretary Pollack, and the rest of the Baker administration as they take on the challenge of transportation pollution.

¿Listos para el eclipse solar? Nuestro sistema eléctrico sí lo está.

Crédito: NASA (https://www.nasa.gov/sites/default/files/thumbnails/image/sun_earth_eclipse.jpg)

Este 21 de agosto cientos de millones de personas en el continente americano tendrán la oportunidad de ser testigos de un evento de gran escala: un eclipse solar, y un eclipse total para muchos. Es importante alistarnos para poder disfrutar bien del espectáculo. Y también es importante que nuestro sistema eléctrico esté listo para funcionar un tiempo sin sol. El sistema eléctrico, por lo menos, ya está listo para recibir este evento. (¡Y haré lo posible por alistarme con tiempo yo también!)

¿Por qué tanta emoción?

Un eclipse ocurre cuando la luna pasa entre la Tierra y el sol dejando parte de la Tierra en sombra. Un eclipse total quiere decir que, en ciertas partes, el sol desaparece por completo. La “Zona de Totalidad” es el área donde la sombra de la luna cubre todo el sol desde el punto donde se esté mirando.

Crédito: NASA

En el caso del eclipse que tendremos este mes de agosto, por primera vez en 99 años el eclipse será total en una línea de costa a costa en los Estados Unidos, desde Oregón hasta Carolina del Sur.  

Los que estén fuera de la Zona de Totalidad pero todavía en un rango de cercanía podrán ver un eclipse parcial, con el sol parcialmente cubierto por la luna. Para quienes estén en la Zona de Totalidad, el sol desaparecerá por completo por un par de minutos.

Crédito: NASA

La NASA dice que un eclipse solar es “uno de los espectáculos más grandiosos de la naturaleza”. Y este eclipse va a ser especialmente impresionante para el continente ya que será visible desde Brasil y Perú en el sur hasta casi el Polo Norte.

¿Cómo alistarse?

Prepararse para ver el eclipse sí requiere atención. Lo más importante, si uno quiere ver directamente al sobrepaso lunar, es conseguir gafas especiales certificadas. Es muy importante no mirar al sol directamente sin protección durante el eclipse.

La única excepción es para los que se encuentren en la Zona de Totalidad, y aún en ese caso solamente podrán mirarlo sin protección durante los dos minutos de cobertura completa. Aún con el 99 por ciento del sol cubierto por la luna, lo que resta basta para dañar los ojos con facilidad.

Afortunadamente, las gafas especiales se consiguen a bajo costo. No sirven gafas de sol tradicionales debido al brillo que tendrá el sol, pero unas gafas baratas de papel ($2) con filtros especiales para el eclipse sirven. Solo hay que asegurarse que cumplan con las especificaciones para protección adecuada. Según la NASA:

…La única forma segura de mirar al Sol directamente durante un eclipse parcial es usando filtros de propósito especial, como “lentes de eclipse”… o con un visor solar de mano.

Las cámaras sin filtros especiales tampoco deben usarse para ver el eclipse. Dice la NASA que no se debe mirar al sol “aunque esté parcialmente cubierto, a través de una cámara, telescopio, binoculares, u otro dispositivo óptico sin filtro.”

Y si uno realmente quiere gozar del eclipse sin ningún costo, por suerte existe la opción de usar una caja de zapatos.

¿Y cómo se mantendrán las luces prendidas?

Alistándonos… para cuando regrese el sol. (Crédito: John Rogers)

Con las anteriores indicaciones podemos alistarnos para ver el eclipse. Pero, ¿qué pasará con nuestro sistema eléctrico a nivel regional y nacional, es decir, con las redes que cruzan todo el país conectando fuentes de electricidad con nosotros los consumidores (nuestras casas, instituciones y empresas)? ¿Estaremos listos?

El asunto es que ahora, como nunca antes, contamos con energía solar para generar electricidad. La electricidad generada con energía solar viene principalmente de paneles fotovoltaicos instalados en los techos de nuestros hogares y oficinas, o en campos y desiertos.

La última vez que ocurrió un eclipse total en partes del área continental de los EEUU, en 1979, la energía solar había escasamente penetrado. Desde entonces, esa fuente de electricidad ha llegado a ser un componente importante de la mezcla eléctrica en diferentes partes de nuestro país. Los últimos años han sido tremendos para el crecimiento de la energía solar, tanto en los Estados Unidos como en muchas otras partes del continente americano y globalmente.

Ese crecimiento, junto con los avances que hemos logrado en varias formas de energía limpia, ha ayudado a reducir la contaminación proveniente de plantas termoeléctricas a carbón y otros combustibles fósiles. También ha servido la energía limpia para crear empleos en muchas partes del país.

Sin embargo, el avance de la energía solar podría presentar un desafío para los encargados de mantener las luces prendidas a toda hora. Sin sol, no hay energía solar. Y ese hecho podría tener a algunos preocupados.

Pero la realidad es mucho más… pues, luminosa.

El caso de California

California es un buen ejemplo. Como explica mi compañera Laura Wisland, con sede en ese estado, California es líder en el uso de energía solar:

California actualmente recibe más de 8% de su electricidad de plantas fotovoltaicas a gran escala y de plantas térmicas solares. El estado también tiene más de 5 gigavatios en sistemas fotovoltaicos pequeños instalados en techos, suministrando aproximadamente 2% de la demanda eléctrica, y ese número está creciendo rápidamente.

Debido a esos niveles de uso de energía solar, los encargados de la red eléctrica de California, el CAISO, sí han estado prestando atención al eclipse.

¿Se preocupan, entonces? Nop!

Como explica Laura:

Los operadores de redes rutinariamente planifican para eventos en que las fuentes principales de energía o líneas de transmisión se pierden inesperadamente debido a una tormenta o un fallo del equipo. El eclipse es una reducción rara y significativa en la producción de energía solar, pero porque es predecible no es como un fallo o apagón inesperado.

Los operadores de la red tendrán un rango de opciones a la mano mientras que el sol toma unas vacaciones breves…

[Puede ver aquí para más información sobre cómo funciona la red eléctrica.]

En el caso de California, esas opciones incluyen energía hidroeléctrica, gracias a un invierno bastante lluvioso, y gas natural.

Mejor que tener que prender las plantas de gas, sin embargo, es reducir el uso de electricidad. El CAISO ha lanzado una campaña pidiendo que los californianos bajen su consumo de energía durante las pocas horas del eclipse:

Mientras nuestras compañías de luz y el operador de la red tienen todas las herramientas necesarias para matener la red funcionando durante el eclipse, ¿qué pasaría si millones de californianos se unieran para permitir que nuestro sol, que trabaja tan arduamente, tome un descanso, en lugar de tener que depender de caras e ineficientes plantas de gas natural de reserva …

La campaña “Aporta tu contribución por el sol” (Do your thing for the sun) es un esfuerzo para involucrar a los californianos y demostrar que cuando nos unimos para hacer algo pequeño para reducir el consumo de energía, podemos tener un gran impacto en nuestro medio ambiente.

Pues los operadores de la red de California están listos, así como operadores en otras regiones del país.

Próximos pasos

Si no se encuentra directamente en el camino de eclipse, en la Zona de Totalidad, o en un buen rango de cercanía a esta, al llegar la hora del eclipse el 21 de agosto, no se preocupe. La NASA estará transmitiendo en vivo los acontecimientos por internet.

Y si sí logra estar en un buen lugar a la hora indicada, tome las debidas precauciones y aproveche de este tremendo evento. Como dice la NASA:

Al seguir estas simples reglas, usted puede disfrutar con seguridad y ser recompensado con memorias que le durarán [toda la] vida.

Por mi parte, voy a ir a comprar las gafas para el eclipse para mí y para mi familia.

Y mientras tanto, no nos preocupemos por las luces: ¡Todo está bajo control!

¿Listos? https://eclipse2017.nasa.gov/

Gracias a mi compañera Paula García, con quien compartimos un amor por la energía solar, por su ayuda con este post.


Floods, Droughts, and Soil: The Movie (or, Why I Destroyed a Small City for Page Views)

Photo credit: Rich Hayes

Our new report, Turning Soils into Sponges: How Farmers Can Fight Floods and Droughts, is a serious scientific analysis that documents how soil-covering farm practices can help farmers and communities better withstand rainfall variability. It took me the better part of two years to complete. But—lucky you!—we also made a quirky little movie about it that you can watch in less than three minutes:

Okay, yes, the video has an element of silliness, but as I said, this is a serious topic with a lot of research behind it. So I thought I’d use the blog as an opportunity to write more about the science and science communication behind our masterpiece.

An aerial view of the research site in Iowa where our soil came from. Agronomy field experiments feature side by side plots with different treatments to test effects on similar soils. Long-term research sites like this one allow for important trends to be studied over time.

The star of the show—the soil—comes from a real live research site

The soil used in the side-by-side demonstration comes from a long-term research site maintained by US Department of Agriculture (USDA) scientists in Ames, Iowa, where I collected the primary data for my dissertation research. It’s a site that grows corn one year and soybeans the next, varying practices like tillage (plowing), use of cover crops between crops, and addition of nitrogen fertilizer to measure their impacts on soil and water quality.

In the video, we call them “healthy soil” and “unhealthy soil,” and these descriptors are quite accurate in relative terms: the healthier soil came from some of the first plots established at this site back in 2000, the first year a winter rye cover crop was planted, and there has been no plowing on that plot since 2002. The unhealthy soil in the video comes from a nearby plot that does not include a cover crop (so the soil is bare from roughly October until April or May), and it has been plowed repeatedly within the last six years. Although soil properties can vary from one spot on a field to the next, these two samples were taken from very close to each other (just about 40 feet away); so we can assume that they are not very different, beyond the plowing and cover crop practices.

In the video, you can see how differently the two soil samples respond to a heavy “rain.”

Our film crew: myself, Rich Hayes (UCS Deputy Communications Director), Karen Perry Stillerman (Senior Communication Strategist), Audrey Eyring (the filmmaker extraordinaire and UCS producer) AND Godzilla, who makes a guest appearance in the video. I’m grateful to work alongside communication gurus and those with artistic and film expertise who helped me bring this soil science lesson to a wider audience.

How do soils on real farms measure up?

In the video, I say that “much of the nation’s farmland” is treated like our unhealthy soil sample. That’s because data from the USDA tells us that very little farmland across the country uses practices that protect it with living plants year-round.

Let’s start with the data on cover crops. The 2012 agricultural census estimated that approximately 2% of the major corn-producing states in the country were using a cover crop, although that number could be as high as 3% across the United States (approximately 10 million acres of the 300 million cropped acres).

Cover crops are not the only way to avoid bare soil on farmland. Perennial crops (crops that have deep living roots in the soil all year long), agroforestry (integrating trees into croplands) and even double cropping (growing two crops during one year) are other options. However, these things are also not the norm.

I was sad after flooding our faux farmland and city. This demo was meant to capture imagination and be a bit humorous, but reducing storm water is an idea that many municipalities are taking seriously.

It isn’t easy to get a solid number on the total land planted to perennial crops in the US, but the value for hay grasses is one indicator. These perennial grasses, which include crops such as alfalfa, comprised less than 18% of total harvested cropland in the United States last year.

Estimates from the Economic Research Service from 1999-2012 find that just 2% of farms are double cropping. Limited numbers for agroforestry acres exist, although USDA has estimates for the acres its programs support, and while those numbers are incomplete, they would equal well less than 1% of harvested crop acres. It’s good news that some researchers and non-profits are working to quantify and map agroforestry and other perennial practices.

If we add those numbers up, we’re talking about less than one-quarter of all agricultural land in the United States, so it seems fair to say that much of the nation’s farmland is farmed “naked” for extended periods of time during the year.

Our data show soil can be a solution

If you’re curious about the numbers from the new report that we included in the video, here is the Cliff Notes version.

In 70% of the 150 field experiments we examined, the soil’s “spongy” properties were improved by farming methods such as no-till practices, crop rotations, cover crops, perennial crops, and better grazing management. The properties we analyzed included infiltration rates, pore space and water available to plants. In our examples of how to get healthier soils on farms, we focused on those practices that we found to offer the largest and most consistent improvements: cover crops, perennials and improved grazing management.

This little demo became a regular trick of mine because it works so well – every time! Here I demonstrated infiltration with the same soils for a class of 7th graders that I taught from 2014-2015 in Des Moines public schools. I found that the infiltration rate test serves as a powerful visual and communication piece for how human management affects the soil.

The flood frequency number was calculated from the number of months reaching flood stage with current land use, and how many fewer months amounted when there was a shift to more ground covering crops and healthier soils. The 1/5 value came from our calculation for one specific watershed in Eastern Iowa impacted by flooding during the last several decades.

We also found there to be a 20% reduction in runoff when we evaluated specific areas impacted by historic flood events, and this number comes from a watershed in western Iowa hit by heavy flooding in 2011.

These are not insignificant numbers when you think about how much damage these events can do (on the order of billions of dollars, as we detail in the report), and the human impact they have. In fact, Iowa state senator Rob Hogg, an ardent champion for climate change solutions, whose Cedar Rapids region was devastated by flooding in 2008, reminded us that “Floods not only cause preventable damage—they create long-lasting trauma and heartbreak.”

The science communication behind the scenes

The mini-demo I tried in my office with soils from a USDA research site in Maryland, with a corn-soybean-wheat/soybean crop rotation and you can see that the soil on the left which was conventionally tilled drained less water through it and “ponded” more at the soil surface, relative to the no-till soil.

This infiltration rate demonstration is something I first gathered supplies for and worked up when I was a student just starting my Ph.D. program at Iowa State University. In fact the whole thing started with a test run with soda bottle “beakers” in a friend’s backyard. The idea came from Ray Archuleta of the USDA, who is known for performing this demonstration. At the time, I was curious if the soil from Iowa would produce such a strong contrast. It did then, and it has every time I’ve tried it since.

And in case you think this is only the case with Iowa soil, it’s not. We were also fortunate to have additional soil from a long-term research site maintained by USDA scientists in Maryland that included a comparison of no-till soil to conventional tillage. I did an informal test in my office and found that this soil indeed worked the same way.

In the end, we only needed to use the soil from our Iowa experiment for the demo, but I share this in part because experts who study soil health suggest infiltration tests as an important indicator. So, do try this at home with your own soil, if you are so inclined!

Our two mini demos in the video appear simple, but it took a lot of people power to get all the supplies, which left my office looking like much like a warehouse for the weeks leading up to our shoot. My colleague and accomplice in all of this was Karen Perry Stillerman who also found great enjoyment in searching the wide reaches of the internet for assorted supplies (including mini people—but note that no one was harmed in the making of our video!).

Are you more curious about soil? We hope so!

I’m super proud of the finished product. We aimed to be accurate in our descriptions and there is research and evidence to back up everything. I am thinking all the time about how to make some of these agricultural concepts more broadly applicable, and I hope the video does just that.

AND, because making a video never goes 100% perfectly, we thought you might enjoy two of our favorite outtakes.

http://blog.ucsusa.org/wp-content/uploads/umbrella.mp4 http://blog.ucsusa.org/wp-content/uploads/godzilla.mp4

The Solar Eclipse and Our Electricity Supply: Why We’ve Got This Covered

Photo: Takeshi Kuboki/CC BY (Flickr)

The Great American Eclipse, as many are calling it, is a big deal for both committed and casual star watchers alike. On August 21, starting at approximately 10:15 a.m. Pacific time, the moon will move in front of the sun to completely block its rays, leaving a swath of people across the United States in eerie and fantastic darkness for about two minutes. Totality!

A total solar eclipse happens about every 18 months, but most of the time the moon’s shadow appears in remote places where very few are around to witness the spectacle. The coming August eclipse will be the first in the nation’s history to completely occur over the continental United States.

Source: LA Times

Given that the US, and especially states like California, are using more and more solar power to meet electricity needs, the prospect of a temporary moon shadow has caught the attention of electricity grid operators as well.

California currently receives more than 8% of its electricity from large-scale photovoltaic (PV) and solar thermal plants. The state also has more than 5 GW of small-scale PV (rooftop solar) installed—meeting approximately 2% of electricity demand—and that number is growing rapidly. So, it’s not surprising that the California Independent System Operator (CAISO) is looking into the effects the eclipse will have on generation that day.

CAISO expects generation from large-scale solar plants to start dropping around 9 a.m. and be reduced by about 64% at the height of the eclipse (assuming it’s a clear morning and potential solar generation is not already reduced by cloud cover). Output from rooftop solar systems will also drop appreciably. Once the eclipse is over, it will take about 90 minutes for solar generation to return to its pre-eclipse level.

Source: CAISO

Why the eclipse is not a problem for the grid

So, is losing all that solar energy during the eclipse a big deal for the grid? Turns out, no. Grid operators routinely plan for events where major power sources or transmission lines are lost unexpectedly because of a storm or equipment failure. The eclipse is a rare, significant reduction in solar power, but because it is predictable it is not like an unexpected failure or shut down.

Grid operators will have a range of options at hand while the sun takes a brief vacation. Since California had a wet winter, we can ramp hydropower up and down as needed. CAISO can also use natural gas generation to provide additional grid flexibility, though that fossil power would emit greenhouse gas emissions.

However, many clean energy nerds, including me, are hoping that we can back-fill the lost solar power by harnessing the power of our own energy flexibility and using less power during the 2-hour eclipse window. The California Public Utilities Commission is asking all Californians to pledge to use slightly less electricity during the eclipse to reduce the need to rely more on fossil fuels like natural gas.

From the caleclipse.org website:

While our utilities and grid operator have all the tools necessary to manage the grid during the eclipse, what if millions of Californians stepped in to allow our hard working sun to take a break, rather than relying on expensive and inefficient natural gas peaking power plants.

The ‘Do Your Thing for the Sun’ campaign is an effort to engage Californians and demonstrate that when we come together to do one small thing to reduce energy usage, we can have a major impact on our environment.”

Take the pledge here.

CAISO and other grid operators around the country have been planning for the eclipse for months, so rest easy and enjoy the totality. (That is, of course, unless you happen to be on a solar-powered train with no brakes, in which case you should plan accordingly.)

Photo: Takeshi Kuboki/CC BY (Flickr) LA Times

How Healthier Soils Help Farms and Communities Downstream Deal with Floods and Droughts

Soil scientist Natalie Lounsbury and farmer Jack Gurley inspect a tillage radish cover crop as part of a project funded by the Sustainable Agriculture Research & Education Program. This plant’s roots penetrate soil deeply, reducing compaction, and increasing water infiltration, making it an excellent cover crop to improve soil structure. Image: USDA-SARE/Edwin Remsberg.

A scan of recent news reveals the wide-ranging impacts of too much or too little rain: intensifying drought in the Great Plains; the largest dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico ever recorded, driven in large part by a wet spring that flooded parts of the Midwestern Corn Belt; and historic summertime rain in the mid-Atlantic. Climate change promises to bring more of this rainfall variability, with devastating effects on farmers and communities. But a new report we released today contains good news: healthier soil on farms can help combat the impact of floods and droughts.

A major take-home from our report is that the soil – yes, the “dirt” under our feet – can help buffer farmers and downstream communities from these events, particularly when farmers use practices that keep their soil covered with living plants year-round. And this is good for rural and urban residents, taxpayers, and farmer’s bottom lines.

Practices that keep farmland covered year-round retain more water in soil and can increase resilience to
floods and drought. Image: USDA-SARE/Edwin Remsberg.

Farmers have the power to make their soils “spongier”

Farmers want water to stay in the soil for their crops to use, rather than running off downstream. To understand how farming practices can help with this, we asked a series of scientific questions. The first was: how does soil’s ability to absorb and hold water change in any given place if land is managed using different practices? And by that, I mean different from the norm in the Corn Belt today, which is dominated by one or two annual crops grown on millions of acres, often with soil left bare for months in between.

Practices we wanted to know more about included no-till cropping (in which soil is not plowed); planting of cover crops between cash crop seasons (when soil would otherwise be bare); use of ecological livestock grazing systems (which intentionally manage animal numbers and rotation through pastures); integration of crops and livestock; and use of perennial crops (crops such as alfalfa that have living roots in the soil year-round).

To answer the question, we performed a rigorous review of prior field studies (150 experiments in total on six continents) that used any of these practices and focused on properties of the soil that make it more sponge-like, including the infiltration rate (the rate that water enters the soil), its pore space (or porosity), and the water in the soil available to plants.

We found that:

  • 70% of all the experiments we analyzed led to increases in these sponge-like soil properties, compared to more conventional practices.
  • The largest and most consistent improvements came from those practices that keep roots in the soil throughout the year. So-called “continuous living cover” practices included cover crops, perennial crops, and improvements to grasslands through grazing management.
  • Heavy rainfall events – more than one inch of rain per hour – could be significantly offset with some of these practices, particularly perennials. In more than half (53%) of the experiments that compared perennial crops to annual crops, water entering the soil not only increased, but did so at a rate higher than a one-inch per hour rain event. This is so critical as downpours grow more frequent across the U.S.
  • Continuous living cover practices change the structure of soil, by a measurable amount. We found an 8-9% improvement in both pore space and plant available water.

The value of continuous roots in the soil is depicted in this diagram: roots can make the soil more porous to store more water, and crop cover helps reduce water losses from runoff and evaporation. When managed properly this can lead to more water available to crops.

Spongy soil can be a solution on farms…and in cities downstream

This was all very encouraging. But we also wanted understand how these farming practices could reduce runoff in flood events and increase water in the soil during drought events if they were adopted on a large scale, and how these benefits might increase or decrease given likely future climate scenarios.

Here, we also found quite encouraging results when we used a model to represent such a shift in a representative farming region, the state of Iowa. Our model predicted that shifting the most erodible or least profitable croplands in Iowa to include more cover crops and perennial crops resulted in:

  • Up to 20% less runoff in historic flood events
  • Flood frequency (the number of months reaching flood stage) reduced by approximately one-fifth in some regions
  • Up to 16% more crop water use during droughts as severe as those experienced in 1988 and 2012
  • In a hotter, wetter climate that is projected for Iowa, we found a similar magnitude of benefits: 7 or 11% more crop water use and runoff reductions of 11 or 15%
Farmers and cities know they need to adapt to a changing climate

Soil quality can affect city dwellers as well as farmers. Excess runoff from farms with bare soil can contribute to flooding in towns and cities downstream, with resulting damage to homes, businesses, and critical infrastructure. Cedar Rapids, IA, was inundated by flooding in June 2008. Image: USGS/Don Becker.

There are many approaches proposed for climate adaptation, from improved seed varieties to more efficient irrigation technologies to insurance for disasters. What our report looks at specifically is the multiple benefits of healthier soil, because we know that the solutions we describe have multiple benefits: for reducing water pollution, for cities downstream, and importantly for improving farmer’s bottom lines.

The importance of managing water in heavy rain events is also something I’ve heard farmers and researchers repeatedly address. Farmer Tom Frantzen describes for Practical Farmers of Iowa in a podcast interview (listen here at ~10 mins) the tremendous benefit of his hybrid rye crop. Because he planted the crop the prior fall and it was fully protecting his soil the following spring, he had no soil erosion at all during a damaging three-inch rain event, when many surrounding fields were bare.

A Nebraska farmer made news by sharing a video of himself wakeboarding on flooded fields this spring. Interestingly, heavy rains in April and May haven’t been enough to keep the Plains out of a lingering dry spell.

The media outlet No-Till Farmer reported in June that a soil scientist stuck in a heavy downpour watched water infiltrate down to eight feet into the soil profile while waiting out the storm, serving as a light-bulb moment for illustrating to him the true water value of soil health. That scientist now reports that on his own ranch, he and his wife are working to restore perennial cover for livestock grazing.

And we know that cities benefit as well.

“Healthy, spongier soils are a win-win for farmers and water utilities and benefit rural and urban communities alike,” said Tariq Baloch, Cedar Rapids water utility plant manager and participant in the Middle Cedar Partnership Project, which receives funding from a USDA grant program called the Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP), which brings together landowners, utilities and farmers to reduce nutrient runoff into drinking water sources. “Investing in soil health means investing in soil productivity and reduced soil loss. Doing so will improve source water quality, reduce runoff that contributes to flooding and, ultimately, enhance the sustainability and prosperity of our communities.”

There is growing interest in the contribution of soils, and we hope that our analysis helps to quantify the benefits of this approach. Our report also addresses the ways that policy can help farmers make changes to protect their soil, and further posts will address this.

US Abandons Global Science Leadership, Zeroes Out IPCC Funding

In stark contrast to the leadership role the US has historically contributed to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the enacted 2017 U.S. Budget zeroes out funding for the institution. 

U.S. Contribution to the IPCC (2005-2017). Data Source: IPCC http://bit.ly/2uAmEm3; Rachel Licker converted to US dollars based on June 1 exchange rate each year from xe.com.


The IPCC also appears as zero request for the fiscal year 2018 in both the State Department’s Congressional Budget Justification, as well as the House’s State and Foreign Operations Bill (whose summary includes the IPCC on a list that “does not include funding for controversial or unnecessary programs”).

A remarkable departure from the well-regarded IPCC that was awarded the 2007 Nobel Peace Prizefor their efforts to build up and disseminate greater knowledge about  man-made climate change, and to lay the foundations for the measures that are needed to counteract such change.”

The longest serving science advisor to a U.S. President since World War II, John Holdren, recently opined about the critical role of the IPCC:

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change itself, which works under the auspices of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, can be regarded as a “red team-blue team” operation, in which every conclusion must pass muster with a huge team of expert authors and reviewers from a wide variety of disciplines and nations (including from Saudi Arabia and other major oil producers inclined to be skeptical).”

Military leaders find national security implications in IPCC projections

I remember distinctly Vice Admiral Walter E Carter, Jr., USN, Superintendent of the United States Naval Academy testifying before a U.S. Congress field hearing in July 2015.

He told of seawater inlet temperature for the aircraft carrier that approached almost 100 degrees Fahrenheit, far above normal temperature for that time of year in the region they were operating (listen 1:19:19 into to this video).  “That is a very difficult place for anybody to operate regardless of what type of equipment you are working with,” declared Vice Admiral Carter.

Confronting these and other climate trends, the Department of Defense (DOD) and security organizations cite the IPCC findings and incorporate these into national security risk assessments. For example, the National Intelligence Council uses IPCC climate projections as the basis for their assessment of the risk of extreme weather events for national security.

IPCC sea level rise projections also formed part of the basis of the Department of Defense’s 2016 assessment of the risk of sea level rise for DOD coastal installations.  Take a look at examples of U.S. military bases confronting rising seas.

IPCC budget is small change compared to combined cost of communities preparing for climate risks

The information generated by the IPCC (e.g. special reports and comprehensive climate assessments) is incorporated into the U.S. National Climate Assessment and similar activities in nations around the world.

The US has historically contributed around $2 million a year to the IPCC Secretariat to facilitate gatherings of hundreds of world experts to assess the latest developments in climate science published in peer-reviewed journals. Through these assessments, IPCC scientists produce highly vetted climate projections for governments, and identify key risks and sources of exposure and vulnerability to climate change.

To put this annual historic contribution of around $2 million to the IPCC in perspective, New York City, in 2013 embarked upon a $20 billion climate resiliency plan.

In one year, the climate resiliency portion of the New York 2017 Executive Budget included $170 million in City funds for storm water management infrastructure to complement the East Side Coastal Resiliency Project from Montgomery Street to East 23rd Street and $27.5 million in City funds for the Two Bridges section of Lower Manhattan Protect and Connect flood protection.  The design for these investments must incorporate the latest climate projections.    New York City and other communities around the US benefit from a sustained IPCC that continually draws upon experts worldwide, including many from the U.S.

Without the U.S.’ contribution in FY 2017, the IPCC was short in contributions. As a result, the institution was forced to draw from its financial reserves.

This may not be sustainable in the long run and risks the institution’s ability to provide governments with the best available information on changes ahead. Accordingly, in June 2017, the Netherlands announced it would double its IPCC contribution in light of U.S. actions and is urging other nations to increase their contributions.

There is a large return on investment in the IPCC for the United States.  Annual U.S. contributions to the IPCC trust fund could help ensure the IPCC Secretariat can sustain convening functions that leverages largely voluntary contributions of experts that produce robust IPCC assessments. Highly vetted information from the IPCC is key for our nation’s risk assessments.

IPCC; USD conversion R. Licker

Got Climate Questions, Administrator Pruitt? Ask the US National Academy of Sciences

Scott Pruitt, the Administrator of the US Environmental Protection Agency, appears to need some help in understanding the scientific evidence of human-caused climate change.

Back in March, for example, he expressed doubt that carbon dioxide (CO2) from burning fossil fuels is a primary driver of climate change, stating “I would not agree that it’s a primary contributor to the global warming that we see.”

Apparently, he hadn’t yet taken the time to read the EPA’s own website, which very clearly stated that “carbon dioxide is the primary greenhouse gas that is contributing to recent climate change.” (Well, perhaps he had:  EPA political officials subsequently removed this and other climate science content from  the EPA website).

He also seems to have not read the multiple assessments of the US National Academy of Sciences and other scientific organizations that have come to the same conclusion. Or asked for advice from the scientific community to help him understand the rigorous, painstakingly documented, peer-reviewed basis for this robust conclusion.

Reading scientific assessments takes time. They can be a real slog. Scott Pruitt is a busy man. And asking for advice can be hard.

I get it.

But it is important that the EPA Administrator have access to the best available scientific advice, including on climate change, to help inform and guide his leadership of the agency.

In June, Administrator Pruitt called for a review of the findings of climate science, “a true legitimate, peer-reviewed, objective, transparent discussion about CO2.” He intends to set up a “red-team, blue-team” exercise, in which a team of climate “skeptics” would be the ‘red team’ seeking to poke holes in the current body of climate research defended by a ‘blue team’ group of climate scientists. Administrator Pruitt has expressed interest in having this be televised. Reportedly, political appointees at the EPA are consulting with the Heartland Institute (yep – they are the ones that likened people who accept climate science to the Unabomber) to assemble names of red-team candidates.

Few details have emerged for how this might be structured and into the current void, leading scientists and scientific societies have stepped in: to point out that rigorous peer-review at the core of the scientific enterprise is built on healthy skepticism—that, as scientists, we are always seeking to poke holes in one another’s work and that our current understanding of climate change is based on decades of rigorous challenges to and questioning of core assumptions and findings; to ask Administrator Pruitt to clarify, specifically, what policy-relevant testable hypothesis about climate science he has that he believes peer-reviewed science and scientific assessments have not yet addressed; and to call into question his motives for such an exercise: political theater, intended to sow doubt and perhaps, motivated to undermine the EPA’s authority to regulate carbon emissions.

If Administrator Pruitt, or any other federal official, has questions about climate science – or, for that matter, any other area of policy-relevant science – they already at their disposal have a body to whom they can and should turn for legitimate, peer-reviewed, objective scientific advice.  In 1863, the US National Academy of Sciences (NAS) was established by President Abraham Lincoln. The Academy’s charter commits it to provide scientific advice to the federal government “whenever called upon” by any government agency. Time and again, our nation’s leaders have turned to the NAS for timely, policy-relevant scientific advice.

On climate change, the National Academy of Sciences has produced multiple, rigorous independent assessments of the state of the science, and on the implications of scientific understanding for our nation’s climate and energy choices. And it has produced excellent accessible web-content to address “frequently-asked” questions about climate science.

Administrator Pruitt’s call for a review of the findings of climate science echoes in many respects the climate science review that President George W. Bush sought sixteen years ago. In May 2001, shortly after President Bush pulled the US out of the Kyoto Protocol, he asked the NAS for “assistance in identifying the areas in the science of climate change where there are the greatest certainties and uncertainties” and to do so on a rapid timeline.

In consultation with the Bush Administration, the NAS identified fourteen specific policy-relevant questions about climate science to address. It convened through the National Research Council (NRC, the research arm of the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine) a panel of eleven scientists with legitimate and diverse expertise and perspective. Notably, the panel included prominent climate skeptic Richard Lindzen of MIT.

Their report, produced in one month, affirmed that that the Earth was warming due to human activities and that further warming posed significant risks:

“Greenhouse gases are accumulating in Earth’s atmosphere as a result of human activities, causing surface air temperatures and subsurface ocean temperatures to rise. Temperatures are, in fact, rising. The changes observed over the last several decades are likely mostly due to human activities, but we cannot rule out that some significant part of these changes is also a reflection of natural variability. Human-induced warming and associated sea level rises are expected to continue through the 21st century.”

“Global warming could well have serious adverse societal and ecological impacts by the end of this century, especially if globally-averaged temperature increases approach the upper end of the [Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change] IPCC projections.”

The NRC’s panel’s findings succinctly reflected the state of scientific understanding in 2001. Of course, the science of climate change has advanced considerably in the past sixteen years.

It can be hard to keep up.

Administrator Pruitt, and other federal officials, certainly have a right to have any questions they may have about the science answered. But if they are serious about doing so through legitimate, objective, peer-reviewed process, they must turn to the US National Academy of Sciences.

Anything less will be rightly seen as an illegitimate, politicized effort to undermine the process by which scientific knowledge informs decision-making.

Coal-Fired Power Producers Announce a New Game Plan: Wind, Wind, Wind

Photo: DOE

Quick quiz: What does the nation’s top emitter of power sector carbon dioxide have in common with the largest-ever wind project in the US?

More than just superlatives, if American Electric Power (AEP) gets its way.

Last week, AEP—one of the largest power producers in the US, serving 5.4 million customers across 11 states with a generation portfolio that has long been heavily reliant on coal—announced plans to purchase Wind Catcher, a 2,000 megawatt (MW) wind farm under construction in the Oklahoma panhandle.

But as incredible as the AEP news was—2,000 MW! 800 turbines! Enough electricity to power nearly a million homes each year!—it was also incredibly just one of several recent blockbuster announcements by major power producers.

This clean energy momentum thing? It’s happening.

Out with the coal, in with the new

For a company with a power portfolio still dominated by coal, AEP’s record-breaking wind announcement made for quite a splash. But the biggest headline of all in this $4.5 billion pivot to a cleaner energy profile? The project isn’t expected to raise customer rates at all. In fact, it’s projected to save customers $7 billion over the course of 25 years.

Hard to argue with that.

Nor did Wall Street try to argue: In the aftermath of the announcement, AEP’s shares went up, up, up.

And this isn’t the first sign of a shift in AEP-land. Just a few months earlier, Appalachian Power, an AEP subsidiary serving 1 million customers in Virginia, West Virginia, and Tennessee, signaled similar future changes to its generation mix: hot on clean, cold on coal.

In an interview with the West Virginia Gazette, the company’s president, Chris Beam, reiterated his response to West Virginia Governor Jim Justice’s desire to see the utility burn more coal: “We’re not going to build any more coal plants. That’s not going to happen.”

But clean energy? That’s where he sees Appalachian Power’s future. Beam explained that major potential electricity customers (like an Amazon or a Google sitinf a new data center) increasingly have requirements for being able to source clean energy to power their operations. Beam thus reasoned:

“At the end of the day, West Virginia may not require us to be clean, but our customers are. So if we want to bring in those jobs, […] they have requirements now, and we have to be mindful of what our customers want.”

This July, Appalachian Power followed through, announcing plans to acquire two new wind projects in Ohio and West Virginia.

The customer is always right, and corporate entities are increasingly interested in clean energy to power their business operations. Credit: Renewable Energy Choice.

And AEP is not alone.

Xcel Energy, another of the country’s largest coal-fired power producers, has also been making the leap from coal to wind. Even after the Trump administration’s handcuffing of the Clean Power Plan, Xcel CEO Benjamin Fowke declared, “I’m not going to build new coal plants in today’s environment. And if I’m not going to build new ones, eventually there won’t be any.”

Xcel’s appetite for wind, on the other hand? It’s starting to seem insatiable.

Already sourcing nearly 20 percent of its power from wind, in March the company proposed a sprawling 7-state, 11-wind farm initiative to bring 3,380 MW of new generation onto its system by 2021—upping its share of wind to nearly 35 percent of its energy portfolio. Said Fowke:

“We’re investing big in wind because of the tremendous economic value it brings to our customers. With wind energy at historic low prices, we can secure savings that will benefit customers now and for decades to come.”

And indeed, savings is what they expect to see. For the 1,230 MW proposed in Texas and New Mexico, Xcel projects savings of $2.8 billion over 30 years; for the 1,550 MW in the Upper Midwest, savings of more than $4 billion; and for the 600 MW in Colorado, savings of $1.1 billion.

Across the board: real wind, real savings, real progress.

Wind for today, wind for the future

Here’s a critical point about the above efforts. For climate change, when we look to the future, to the near-term, to now, it’s painfully clear that utilities cannot simply supplement their portfolios with wind and other renewable resources—they need to be simultaneously dialing back their use of fossil fuels, and fast.

That’s why it is such a big deal to see moves like those by AEP and Xcel, which highlight that the calculus for utilities is changing; renewable energy is not an add-on, but an increasingly central, critical, and non-negotiable part of the story. And thus we expect that this is just the start of utilities standing up to make the leap from coal to a new goal: wind, wind, wind.

Department of Energy Credit: Renewable Choice Energy

Conferences and Condors: UCS Unveils a New Toolkit for Scientists Engaging on the Endangered Species Act

Photo: Gary Peeples/USFWS

Hundreds of ecologists will flock to the west coast next week as the Ecological Society of America’s annual meeting convenes in Portland, Oregon. I will be speaking there, armed with our newly released guide, Advancing Science in the Endangered Species Act: A Toolkit for Scientists.

The toolkit provides a concise but thorough rundown of the Act, the threats to it, and the most effective ways scientists can leverage their expertise to help inform endangered species decisions, advocate for science-based decision making, and collaborate with other endangered species advocates. As the barrage of attacks on the law show no signs of slowing, there are ample opportunities for scientists to act.

Despite its overall success, we have already seen several attempts to weaken the Endangered Species Act this year alone, with calls to undermine the science-based process by allowing for economic considerations in the listing process, blocking gray wolf protections in the Midwest, and prioritizing information provided by states, tribes, and counties as “best available science”—regardless of the actual merit of the information given (see our letter of opposition here). We will likely see more, if the fervor of overall political attacks on science under the current administration to date is any indication.

A California condor flies over the Bitter Creek National Wildlife Refuge (USFWS). Condor recovery efforts have helped increase the population of California condors from 23 in 1982 to 435 as of 2015.

What’s in the toolkit

The toolkit comprises four sections:

  • Understanding the Endangered Species Act
  • Threats to science-based endangered species policy
  • Leveraging your voice as a scientist
  • Additional resources

You will get a concise but thorough rundown that details the Act’s provisions and explains how the law works in practice. You’ll learn about the core components of the Act, the criteria for listing, the listing process, and who plays a role in species protection, as well as the risks to the Act from political interference, suggestions for ways to push back, and a variety of ways scientists can help protect species at risk. And of course, you will have an arsenal of resources to guide you, because no toolkit is complete without a good list of information sources and potential partner organizations.

Scientists: You can make a difference

More than 800 scientists have now signed on to a letter asking Congress to reject efforts to gut the science-based law, building on a long tradition of scientists standing up to attacks on the Endangered Species Act (sign on to current letter here, read past letters here).

And this mobilization of the science community is crucial right now. This stuff matters. Restricting the use of science in the Endangered Species Act or making the law vulnerable to political interference, as has been the case with some recent legislative proposals, would lead to otherwise preventable species extinctions and the destruction of habitat that is essential to environmental health.

It is important to remember that, although the Endangered Species Act was politically contentious even under the Obama administration, the greatest, most salient difference is: we are now living in a post-truth America, where decisions are being made without the support of credible scientific evidence.  The entire process is under attack.

But this time, we are prepared to stand up for science and biodiversity—toolkits in hand.

To my fellow ESA attendees—if you are ready to jump in feet first and put the toolkit to use, sign up for our lunchtime Endangered Species Act Advocacy Workshop on August 9 (lunch included!), where we will walk participants through developing an action plan for advocating for independent science informing the law. If you’re a little shy or just need a bit more convincing, come to our Monday afternoon session “The Endangered Species Act Under Attack: Opportunities for Independent Science”. I’ll be debuting the toolkit in my talk there. See you next week!


USFWS Pacific Southwest

7 Fun Facts for National Farmers Market Week

Customers shop at the Crossroads Farmers Market in Takoma Park, Maryland, July 2014. Photo by Union of Concerned Scientists

And now, something we can feel good about. This Sunday marks the start of National Farmers Market Week, an annual celebration of local food systems. To get us in the mood, here are six facts that illustrate the benefits of farmers markets and local food systems.

FACT #1: There are 8,690 farmers markets nationwide. This may actually be a low-ball count, but it’s the number of markets currently listed in the US Department of Agriculture’s (USDA’s) National Farmers Market Directory. Washington, DC, where I live, is particularly fertile ground for farmers markets—the interactive database lists more than 60 markets within five miles of my home (try it for your state or ZIP code). But farmers markets have become commonplace across most of the country, as illustrated by this rather crowded national map generated from the USDA’s data:

FACT #2: In 2015, more than 167,000 US farms sold $8.7 billion worth of food directly to consumers, retailers, institutions (such as hospitals and schools), and local distributors. This was the finding of a farmer survey published by the USDA last year. The survey further found that more than one-third of those sales ($3 billion) were made directly to consumers via farmers markets, CSAs, farm stands, and the like.

FACT #3: Participants in the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) redeemed more than $20 million in benefits buying food from local farmers in FY 2016. That’s up a staggering 638 percent from 2008. The data from the USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service, which tracks purchases made with SNAP benefits (formerly known as food stamps), shows that nearly 7,000 farmers markets and individual farmers across the country are authorized to accept these benefits. And the USDA’s Food Insecurity Nutrition Incentive (FINI) grant program, established by Congress in the 2014 farm bill, is helping to increase purchases of fruits and vegetables among SNAP participants by subsidizing these purchases at farmers markets and other outlets.

FACT #4: Three out of four farmers who sell at farmers markets use practices that meet or exceed organic standards. That was the finding of a 2015 survey by the non-profit Farmers Market Coalition and American Farmland Trust. More details from the survey: Nearly half of farmers used integrated pest management, information on the life cycle of pests, and their interaction with the environment to manage and prevent crop damage. And the overwhelming majority (81 percent) incorporated cover crops, reduced tillage, on-site composting, and other soil health practices into their operations. (Read more about the importance of soil health here.)

FACT #5: Farms selling fruits and vegetables locally employ 13 full-time workers per $1 million in revenue earned, for a total of 61,000 jobs in 2008. A report by the USDA’s Economic Research Service compared these farms with fruit and vegetable growers not engaged in local food sales, and found the latter employed just three full-time workers per $1 million in revenue.

FACT #6: Farmers themselves benefit economically from farmers markets, pocketing upwards of 90 cents for each dollar of sales there. So says the Farmers Market Coalition. And how does that compare to the return for US farmers overall? The National Farmers Union estimates that farmers’ share of every dollar Americans spend on food in 2017 is a paltry 15.6 cents.

FACT #7: Sales increased by more than one-quarter at farmers markets participating in the USDA’s Farmers Market Promotion Program (FMPP) between 2006 and 2011. Established by Congress in the 2002 farm bill, the FMPP is a competitive grant program designed to increase access to locally and regionally produced foods and develop new market opportunities for farmers. To measure this program’s impacts, researchers in 2012 surveyed organizations awarded grants during the previous six years. In addition to a 27 percent sales increase, the survey also showed that customer counts increased by 47 percent at markets that received FMPP grants, and the number of first-time customers increased at nearly all (94 percent) of these markets.

BONUS “FACT”: Everyone loves a farmers market. Everyone. Even this guy (who is normally not a big fan of facts), proving that farmers markets really do bring people together.

But seriously, the benefits of local food systems—for farmers, consumers, and communities—are worth investing in. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue recognized those benefits with his official proclamation of the week. But now it’s up to all of us to ensure that the secretary and Congress make those investments. That’s why UCS is advocating for USDA programs (including SNAP, FMPP, and FINI, among others) that are helping to ensure that farmers markets and local food systems thrive.

Happy National Farmers Market Week!

On Healing Sick Ecosystems

Part of the Lehigh Gap Nature Center site before remediation, October 2002. Photo credits: lgnc.org/conservation

I am a person who is fascinated by organisms of all kinds. I like the cute fuzzy ones that most people like, but also the scaly, leafy, prickly, stinky, or slimy ones, as well as the ones we can’t see without a microscope but that have outsized effects on the world around them. I am amazed by how many different ways there are to be alive on this planet, and moved by the intricate connections living things have with each other and their environments.

As I began to study the diversity of life, I noticed a pattern: many creatures are in danger because we humans are unintentionally destroying their homes. Whether by pollution, climate change, or clearing habitats to build things of our own, we have made much of the world less habitable for the living things with which we share it. We have already driven some species extinct, and many others are perilously close.

I believe there is a compelling moral case for preserving healthy, diverse ecosystems. There is also a strong practical case: we depend on intact ecosystems for services like clean water, fresh air, and pollinators that help our crop plants reproduce. Living near green spaces also improves our health and society as a whole. Thus, I chose a career studying how to help ecosystems best recover from our more destructive impacts. In my PhD research in Prof. Brenda Casper’s lab at the University of Pennsylvania, I studied how interactions between plants, soil-dwelling microbes, and heavy metals can affect the long-term development of ecosystems on metal contaminated soils.

One of the two zinc smelters responsible for heavy metal pollution in the Palmerton Zinc Superfund Site. Photo credit: Lee Dietterich

Pollution and remediation: one site’s story

I conducted my studies in the portion of the Palmerton Zinc Superfund Site owned and managed by the Lehigh Gap Nature Center. The site consists of over 2000 acres on the side of a mountain in upstate Pennsylvania that was devastated by heavy metal pollution from two zinc smelters operating for much of the 20th century. When the site was at its worst, local residents and passersby on the Appalachian Trail, which traverses the site, frequently compared it to the surface of the moon, or the aftermath of a bomb explosion.

The site badly needed some kind of remediation to remove or contain the pollutants and mitigate their threat to human and environmental health. It was (and still is) crucial that remediation be guided by our best scientific understanding of site histories and the effects of heavy metals on humans and the environment. Interference in the form of censoring data about such sites, or letting corporate or political priorities dominate discussions about environmental stewardship, can only make remediation longer and more difficult.

Part of the Lehigh Gap Nature Center site before and after initial remediation (left, October 2002; right, August 2006). Photos: lgnc.org/conservation

Today, after over a decade of intensive remediation work involving scientists, community members, and numerous federal, state, and private organizations, the mountainside would be unrecognizable from the moonscape described above. Grass species with low metal uptake were planted to build healthy soil while keeping the metals sequestered underground. These grasses, now taller than most people, tower and sway in the breeze. In many places shrubs and small trees are coming in, and in the patches of forest that survived the pollution, dense canopies create cool shade over lush carpets of ferns. Birds, grasshoppers, and butterflies are diverse and abundant, and it is not uncommon to encounter deer at dawn or dusk. Hundreds of hikers and thousands of schoolchildren visit the area each year, largely thanks to land management and educational offerings by the Lehigh Gap Nature Center, which now owns about a third of the site.

Sustained collaboration between scientists, land managers, and community members has been essential to this remediation effort. Early in the process, researchers made valuable contributions by documenting effects of the polluted soils on the site’s plants, animals, and microbes and by testing numerous revegetation strategies. Remediation of a polluted site had not been attempted on such a large scale before, and this early testing was key to the successful establishment of large-scale plantings.

Wildlife returning to the Lehigh Gap Nature Center site. Photo credit: Lee Dietterich

Continuing challenges

Remediation of disturbed landscapes is an ongoing task, and both basic and applied scientific research are crucial to understanding how to do this task well.  Many fundamental questions remained when I began working in the site. For instance, we knew that a group of soil dwelling fungi called arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi (AMF; soil dwelling fungi that trade plants nutrients for sugars) were important for the growth of many plants there, but we had little idea how AMF might affect plant metal uptake or metal tolerance under field conditions. After a couple years of work at the site, in the lab, and on the computer, I found that mycorrhizal fungi have little effect plant metal uptake, but that there is a remarkably close relationship between a plant’s species identity and the chemistry of the soil underneath it. This suggests that once plants are growing in an area, adding AMF will have little effect on their metal uptake. However, knowing what plants are growing in a certain patch of soil can tell us a lot about that soil’s chemistry.

The researchers and managers of the Palmerton site also feared that an uninvited tree species, gray birch, accumulated such high leaf metal concentrations that its leaf litter would elevate metals at the soil surface and poison neighboring plants, including the grasses they had worked so hard to establish. This pollution of soil via leaf litter has been hypothesized to occur but it has not yet been thoroughly tested, and the Palmerton site seemed like an ideal setting for such a test. Again, I investigated, and after a couple years of study, including planting, monitoring, harvesting, and analyzing nearly 500 oak and maple seedlings in the site, my colleagues and I found that metal-contaminated birch leaf litter does not increase surface soil contamination or poison other plants, but that soils under the birches and grasses differ in their concentrations of metals and organic matter in ways that could shape the continued trajectory of plant community development in the site.

Science-based decision making helps us reclaim and remediate ecosystems. Photo credit: Lee Dietterich

How lessons learned from remediation help us rebuild ecosystems better

These findings are already shaping the course of continued remediation and broadening our more general understanding of how metal polluted ecosystems work. We now know that efforts to control plant metal uptake may be better served by altering soils or plant communities directly than by manipulating AMF. We also know that gray birch does not threaten remediation as was feared, though concerns remain that it may shade out the desired grasses or introduce metals into the food chain via its leaves. Furthermore, thanks to the work of dozens of other scientists in this and other contaminated sites, we are learning important information about the continued legacies of pollution, such as how metals do and do not move in groundwater, and the effects of contaminated sites on migrating birds that rest and feed there.

It is clear that conserving healthy, intact ecosystems remains preferable to disturbing them and then trying to rebuild them. As with most diseases, prevention remains far easier and cheaper than cure. However, for those landscapes we have already damaged, science is providing local residents and land managers with tools to improve their lives – and those of their invaluable fuzzy, leafy, or slimy neighbors—by reclaiming and restoring healthy ecosystems.


Lee Dietterich is an ecologist studying how interactions between plants and soils affect the movement of elements such as carbon, nutrients, and heavy metals in and through ecosystems.  He is currently a postdoctoral scholar in Prof. Daniela Cusack’s lab at UCLA.  When not doing science or exploring nature, he likes to play the piano and clarinet. 

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