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News & Perspective from the Center for Environmental Journalism

Water woes likely to continue

Posted on January 4th by Tom Yulsman. One Comment

As Colorado snowpack suffers, La Niña could persist into summer


According to the latest forecast from the Climate Prediction Center, issued yesterday, the La Niña conditions that have contributed to the continuing drought in Texas and other regions are likely to persist through at least the Northern Hemisphere winter. And one ensemble modeling forecast from the CPC predicts that the abnormally cool sea surface temperatures in the Pacific Ocean characteristic of La Niña could continue at least through summer.

La Niña favors weather patterns that tend to bring drier than normal conditions across a large swath of the southern United States (as the map on the right in the graphic above shows). And that’s more bad news for Texas and New Mexico.

In central Texas, record-setting heat and drought in 2011 contributed to outbreaks of severe wildfire, and reduced flows into reservoirs that supply water to millions of city dwellers and farmers. For example, from January through November of last year, water flows into the Highland Lakes in central Texas — including reservoirs that supply the state capitol of Austin — have been less than 10 percent of average.

As for New Mexico, John Fleck of the Albuquerque Journal summarized 2011′s grim events in a retrospective article published on New Years Eve:

The new year will dawn with a calm that belies the wild weather marking 2011 in New Mexico.

From a deep freeze unprecedented in nearly four decades to a drought unprecedented in the past century to a similarly unprecedented fire season, 2011 was a year for the record books.

At its worst, 2011 left 79 percent of New Mexico in extreme drought or worse.

But it was really the long warm period, the brief extreme cold spell and the dryness that told the year’s weather story.

At the start of 2012, there is one bright spot: In a story yesterday, John reported that the snowpack in New Mexico “is looking surprisingly healthy for the first week of January in a La Niña year.”

Unfortunately, the same can’t be said of the Colorado River Basin. As John pointed out in a Tweet yesterday: “New Year starting with 62% of average snowpack on the #ColoradoRiver above Lake Powell http://t.co/Hh3Jrzzp #westwater.” Here’s the graph that tells the tale:

Continue reading “Water woes likely to continue” →


Natural disasters were big news in 2011

Posted on December 22nd by Tom Yulsman. One Comment

But the environment generally barely registered in the news media and public mind

Attention by the U.S. news media to environmental topics dropped from almost nil to all but nil in 2011, according to a new survey out today from the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism.

Among general topics, international news of one sort or another topped Pew’s list, beating out the economy generally, which was in fifth position in terms of the percent of the “news hole” it garnered in 2011. As for the environment generally, its portion of the news hole dropped to just 1 percent this past year, down from 2 percent in 2010.

The Pew survey also looked at individual news stories that dominated mainstream news in 2011. And another survey, from the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, examined the particular stories Americans followed most closely. (More about the latter survey in a minute.)

In terms of specific stories, as opposed to general topic categories, see the chart above for the rankings of the top ten. I find it quite interesting that unrest in the Middle East came in second, beating out the election.

Among specific stories related in some way to the environment, the Joplin tornadoes garnered the most attention.

Continue reading “Natural disasters were big news in 2011″ →


Nothing new under the sun

Posted on December 22nd by Tom Yulsman. 5 Comments

The climate change wars have several historical precedents — right down to the nastiness and idiocy

Both Nicolaus Copernicus and Albert Einstein became the target of ridicule after they proposed theories that were considered absurd — and worse. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

A RealClimate post on Thursday drew my attention to a fascinating article documenting how the slow acceptance of anthropogenic climate change by the public — and the vituperative treatment often afforded climate scientists — really is nothing terribly new in science.

The article, by Steven Sherwood, co-director of the Climate Change Research Centre at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia, appeared back in October in Physics Today. But aside from a mention here and there by hyperventilating bloggers, I don’t believe it got much attention. That’s a shame, because the historical insights Sherwood offers can help us understand what’s going on today in the climate change wars.

An excerpt:

The ugly nature of the current climate debate, with its increasingly frequent characterization of scientists as opportunists, totalitarians, or downright criminals, is also, unfortunately, not new. Copernicus (posthumously) and his prominent followers through Isaac Newton were all accused of being heretics or atheists. Einstein was derided by his political opponents through the 1920s and 1930s as a Communist—despite his dim view of the Soviet Union—or simply as a fraud. When a group of American women tried to prevent him from entering the US because of his supposed Communism, he quipped, “Never before have I experienced from the fair sex such energetic rejection of all advances, or if I have, then certainly never from so many at once.” At one point Einstein stopped giving public lectures out of fear for his personal safety, also now a worry for some greenhouse warming proponents.

A graphic from the piece nicely illustrates timelines for acceptance of three paradigm-shifting ideas: the Copernican theory that the Sun, not the Earth is at the center of the solar system; Einstein’s theory of relativity; and the theory of greenhouse warming, which dates all the way back to 1864, when John Tyndall first proposed the idea. The patterns of resistance, organized backlash, and, in the case of the first two, eventual widespread acceptance, are remarkably similar. Click on the thumbnail at left for a larger version over at Physics Today.

Sherwood suggests that, as was the case with the other theories, anthropogenic warming will eventually become largely accepted throughout society. But will it come too late?

Lastly, for a critique of Sherwood’s piece, see this by Roger Pielke, Sr.


Who should be rocketed into space?

Posted on December 20th by Tom Yulsman. 6 Comments

Grist’s still uncorrected headline about sending climate change deniers into orbit raises questions about journalistic standards in the age of proliferating niche media

In this photo from the Seattle PI, California Gov. Jerry Brown discusses climate change with IPCC head Rajendra Pachauri and Virgin Galactic’s Richard Branson.

As anyone who used to read CEJournal probably knows, I went into semi-retirement from blogging last spring. The time commitment played a role. But so were doubts I harbored about what I was contributing to move conversations forward on issues like environment and energy. But as the year draws to a close, a breach of journalistic standards by Grist has gotten me out of the rocking chair.

In their eagerness to toss red meat to their readers, Grist and Mark Hertsgaard, author of its story about the “Extreme Climate Risks and California’s Future” conference, accepted uncritically the idea that Rajendra Pachauri jokingly advocated that climate change deniers should be rocketed into space. When it was shown that Pachauri, head of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, never said such a thing, Grist sort-of kind-of corrected its story — but not its screaming tabloid headline.

So forever more, Grist’s readers and countless other climate activists, will think of Pachauri and the IPCC as being on their ‘side.’ Climate change skeptics will be confirmed in their false suspicion that the IPCC is a hopelessly biased activist organization, rather than a policy-neutral scientific assessment body. Pachauri and by extension the IPCC have yet again had some of their credibility chipped away. And thus the cause of climate change mitigation Grist and Herstgaard so passionately advocate for has been undermined.

It all started with the post last Friday, in which Hertsgaard wrote about a panel discussion at the climate conference organized by California Gov. Jerry Brown. Participating on the panel were Gov. Brown, Pachauri, and Virgin Group Chair Sir Richard Branson. According to Hertstgaard’s original account, at one point:

Pachauri joked that [Richard] Branson could give climate deniers tickets on the aviation mogul’s planned flights into outer space. “Perhaps it could be a one-way ticket,” Pachauri said, smiling, “though I’m not sure space deserves them.”

Video of the episode shows that Pachauri did joke about sending other people into space — federal bureaucrats whom Gov. Brown had said were blocking state efforts to expand use of renewable energy.

That was reflective of what Andrew Revkin feels is Pachauri’s habit of wading too far into policy waters. And it prompted him to write this at DotEarth yesterday:

I believe it’s time for Rajendra K. Pachauri to take a new approach to discussing climate change or leave the chairmanship of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change after nearly a decade in that position. There is an unavoidable and counterproductive blurriness to the line between his personal advocacy for climate action — which is his right as an individual — and his stature as the leader of the panel, which was established in 1988 as “a policy relevant but policy neutral organization.”

Revkin did a good enough job dissecting this issue, so have a look at his post for more details. I’d like to tackle the journalism issue.

Grist’s eagerness to publish a headline that would make the New York Post proud is evidence of something I’ve been thinking a lot about lately: the impact of the democratization of communication on public discourse about controversial issues like climate change. By now it’s almost cliché to point out that everyone can have the equivalent of their own printing press and television station, thanks to WordPress, Youtube and the like. At the same time, journalists working at conventional media outlets have been thrown overboard by the thousands — and none more than science and environmental journalists.

As Revkin has pointed out, science and environmental journalism constitute a shrinking slice of a rapidly expanding pie of communication. Over the long run, that expansion — that democratization of mass communication — could be an amazingly good thing. But right now, the shrinkage of conventional journalistic reporting potentially creates significant problems.

Here’s why: Whether you’re an opinion journalist or a news reporter, you must be guided by the single, overarching principle of verification. And our job as journalists, whether we’re advancing an opinion on a blog or telling a good story, is to be skeptical, open to the truth, and to go wherever our reporting leads. But that’s not necessarily true of activist bloggers who see their job as winning the argument.

Both approaches are essential in a democratic society. But I see a growing imbalance between activist argumentation and journalistic verification, with the former winning out more and more. And with the fragmentation of media into hyperpartisan niches, people can gravitate to activist messagers with whom they resonate, such as Grist, while never having to consider the often more nuanced, more complex — and sometimes more uncomfortable — factual truths.

I first got a heads up about the Grist story when Andy emailed me about it, along with a copy of his Tweet about it on Friday:

@MarkHertsgaard Waiting for Pachauri input before I say he should step down from IPCC chair over his Calif. comments: grist.org/climate-skepti…

When I clicked on the link, I came to the story, which had this headline:

New approach to climate deniers: Launch them into space!

According to the first version of the story, published on Friday, Dec. 16, it was Pachauri who made that provocative statement during the panel discussion with Gov. Brown and Branson. And based on Revkin’s Tweet, it was apparent that he was getting ready to write a column suggesting that Pachauri should step down.

The head of the IPCC saying climate change deniers should be launched into space? It doesn’t get any more provocative — or troubling — than that.

Revkin told me that over the ensuing weekend he had been in touch with Hertsgaard and Pachauri (as well as Felicity Barringer of The Times, who moderated the panel), to figure out what had happened. Pachauri denied making the statement attributed to him. And by late Sunday night, Grist issued a weak correction, clarifying in the text that Pachauri did not, in fact, say that climate change deniers should be blasted into space.

But as I write this, the original headline still remains. It has not been changed. And that is outrageous.

What actually happened at the conference?

The video posted on Gov. Brown’s official website shows what was said and by whom. At about 50 minutes in, Gov. Brown talks about federal housing regulators who, he said, were preventing states from implementing certain policies to encourage homeowners to install renewable energy technologies. Pachauri responds by pointing out that the “building sector is the largest sector for reduction in emissions.” Branson chimes in, saying of the regulator at Fannie Mae that “somebody needs to shake him.”

At that point, Pachauri makes this unfortunate joke: “Put him on an aircraft and take him to a turbulent place.” The audience laughs, Branson pats Pachauri on the arm and replies: “A one-way ticket to space. I’d be happy to oblige.” He was referring, of course, to his Virgin Galactic endeavor, which is eventually supposed to take paying customers on flights into space. And the person who should be blasted into space? A federal regulator standing in the way of renewables, not climate change deniers.

About five minutes later, the topic of sending people to space comes up again when Pachauri says, “Those who are becoming obstacles in implementing what is rational should be made the responsibility of Sir Richard to give this one-way ticket to outer space. Of course space would be unfortunate to get some of these guys.”

In its correction to Hertsgaard’s original story, Grist says “it is not absolutely clear to whom Pachauri is referring.” That’s arguable. To me, the context makes it clear who Pachauri was talking about: those federal regulators, not climate change deniers.

Especially since Grist will not fully own up to its mistake and change the headline, what may well be remembered from this affair is that the head of the IPCC said climate change deniers should be blasted into space. And to my mind, this borders on defamation. Pachauri would be well within bounds if he took Hertsgaard and Grist to court. This sure seems to me like reckless disregard for the truth.

How could it happen? All of us sometimes hear what we want to hear rather than what was actually said. During a panel discussion with a lot of quick back and forth banter, a journalist looking for a provocative story might well hear that the head of the IPCC joke that climate change deniers should be sent into orbit. What a great headline that would make. But every journalist worth his salt knows you can’t run something as potentially explosive as that without checking it out. Aside from just getting it wrong, you could wind up libeling someone.

But skepticism and verification are the fundamental default settings in journalism not just to help reporters avoid libel. They are what establishes our credibility as truth tellers, even when we are offering an opinion in a blog or on the op ed page. For activist journalists like Hertsgaard, and their editors at publications like Grist, however, the need to win the argument and advance the agenda sometimes trumps the skeptical impulse and the drive to verify.  The results sometimes are pretty ugly.


Pictures tell the story

Posted on March 16th by Tom Yulsman. 2 Comments

A picture is worth a thousand words — never more true than with these disturbing images.

This satellite image, courtesy of DigitalGlobe, was captured Wednesday morning. It clearly shows devastating damage to containment buildings at the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power station. (Click on the image for a larger version.) The containment building for Unit 1 is at the extreme right. The first explosion to strike the complex occurred there.

Next in the line of buildings is Unit 2, where an explosion on Monday was thought to have caused damage to the reactor’s suppression pool. (Part of the cooling system, the pool is a large torus-shaped structure at the base of the reactor.) Steam or smoke is seen rising from a hole punched into the side of that building. Steam is also escaping from the very heavily damaged unit #3. Radioactivity from that plume forced evacuation of workers from the plant on Wednesday morning, local time. They have since returned to the plant. And last in the line is Unit 4, also heavily damaged. A second fire broke out there on Wednesday, but it is said to be controlled now. Authorities are particularly worried about the spent fuel pool at this unit. The water in the pool must be replenished to prevent a potentially massive release of radiation.

Damage at the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power complex

This is the first image I’ve seen from inside the Fukushima Dai-ichi complex. It shows nightmarish damage to units 3 and 4. The picture was released by the Tokyo Electric Power Co. (Source: AFP via The Australian)


Nuclear power and the decarbonization challenge

Posted on March 14th by Tom Yulsman. 14 Comments

Damned if we do, and damned if we don’t?

Severe damage caused by hydrogen explosions at two containment buildings housing nuclear reactors at the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear station in Japan is clearly visible in this high-resolution DigitalGlobe satellite image collected on March 14, 2011.


As I write this, a third explosion has occurred at the  stricken Fukushima Dai-ichi complex in Japan, and radiation levels are climbing to the highest levels recorded since the crisis began. Associated Press is reporting that authorities are working frantically to prevent a catastrophic release of radiation. And the story quotes a “top Japanese official” as saying that fuel rods in three reactors at the facility appear to be melting.

Meanwhile, in an interview with National Public Radio, Dale Klein, the former chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and an associate director of the Energy Institute at the University of Texas sketched out a scenario by which there could be a large release of radioactivity: If enough molten uranium and other material collected at the bottom of the reactor’s containment vessel, it could manage to burn through the thick steel.

If that should happen, nukes could be off the table for quite some time. But nuclear experts quoted by NPR say the odds of a total meltdown and breach of containment are low. So if the containment vessels really do what the name suggests — contain whatever molten mess of radioactive material accumulates inside — then we can eventually expect renewed calls for a nuclear renaissance.

Already, some in government are saying that the events in Japan should not put a long-term crimp in plans to expand nuclear energy. And Deputy Secretary of Energy Daniel B. Poneman is saying the Obama administration is still committed to nukes. In an interview with NPR, he said, “We view nuclear energy as a very important component to the overall portfolio we’re trying to build for a clean energy future.”

Let’s hope and pray that the containment vessels at Fukushima do their job. Assuming that they do, and nuclear power is not so thoroughly discredited as to remove it from consideration, just how much of a contribution could it make — and SHOULD it make — toward reducing our carbon emissions? Nuclear proponents are sure to offer a very rosy assessment, while opponents will argue that it should be taken off the table.

Continue reading “Nuclear power and the decarbonization challenge” →


“Today’s tsunami: This is what climate change looks like”

Posted on March 11th by Tom Yulsman. 45 Comments

And the story in Grist with that headline is what yellow journalism looks like

Explosions at industrial facilities like the one pictured above in Ichihara, Japan; a destroyed village inundated by water; cars and boats swept by a rampaging wave into buildings and bridges — all of this, the editors of Grist would have you believe, “is what climate change looks like.”

That headline is for a story by Christopher Mims. The theory he sketches out is that shifts in the Earth’s crust triggered by melting ice sheets and glaciers “could already be causing more earthquakes, tsunamis, and volcanic activity.”

This may well be scientifically plausible. But using the threat of earthquakes and tsunamis as a way to bludgeon people into believing that they’d better do something about climate change strikes me as terribly wrong-headed. There are plenty of sensible reasons for tackling climate change. This is not one of them. And making this particular connection simply invites disbelief, disdain — and worse.

Moreover, the magnitude 8.9 temblor that struck Japan was a subduction zone earthquake. It was caused by the inexorable movement of the Pacific tectonic plate as it thrusts underneath Japan at the Japan Trench. (Check out Joel Achenbach’s explanation at the Washington Post.) The Pacific plate is moving at a rate of about four inches per year, but in some places it gets stuck. When it comes unglued, a massive earthquake like the one Japan suffered through is the result.

Could melting ice cause crustal shifts that would help a plate get unglued at a subduction zone? Who knows? Grist’s story doesn’t come even remotely close to providing the evidence to back up such an astonishing claim. As a result, this is terrible, irresponsible journalism.

In fact, I would even go as far as to say that it is yellow journalism.

I’ve emailed Roger Bilham, one of the world’s most renown earthquake experts, to ask him for his perspective on this. I’ll update this post with what he says.

UDPATE: No sooner had I hit the return key to post this piece than Roger Bilham responded. In an email message, I had asked him this question: “Is there any possible way that a subduction zone earthquake like the one in Japan could be connected to such crustal shifts?” (Caused by melting ice.)

Roger is no doubt very busy right now, so he sent me just a two word response, from his iPhone: “Not possible.”

Perhaps there are other scientists who disagree. I don’t know because I haven’t done the reporting. But the point is that Christopher Mims has not done the reporting either.

Before publishing this story, a responsible journalist would have solicited a variety of scientific perspectives on the subject and provided a balanced view of expert scientific opinion. (Actually, given Bilham’s response, I would have simply spiked it.) And responsible editors would not have exploited the misery of others with such a sensational headline and pictures — and all on the basis of such flimsy reporting.


The Coven

Posted on March 9th by Tom Yulsman. 40 Comments

The unmasking of our little secret — the Environmental Journalism Coven — began with Randy Olson’s comments at DotEarth:

The media were irrelevant and largely blameless in Climategate. The whole incident was a case study in the absence of effective leadership in both the science and environmental communities.

Next, Michael Tobis sprang into action:

Like it or not, honest scientists are constrained to tell the truth and the whole truth and nothing but the truth. The truth is plenty scary enough. Not only that, but most of the uncertainties just add to the ominousness of the present landscape.

(Constrained? Never mind…)

With artful misdirection, Keith Kloor asked:

So Randy, for the benefit of the activists and bloggers who want to communicate a clear and consise climate change message with just enough wiggle room to remain true to the various uncertainties of climate change, how about some examples of how it’s done?

(I know the chronology is confused here, but witches are comfortable in a universe of fragmented time)

Never missing an opportunity to rise to a challenge, Randy came back with:

I don’t think you quite get my comment about scientists being “mumblers.”  That’s what they are, in essence, when it comes to broad communication.  They are the guy at the party over in the corner mumbling the truth as the loudmouthed fools in the middle blabber on and on about topics they know nothing about but have read of on blogs.

The self-styled Bunny then used the F-word in a post:

Continue reading “The Coven” →


Sobering news from Greenland and Antarctica

Posted on March 8th by Tom Yulsman. 9 Comments

The Greenland Ice Sheet meets the sea in this picture by Eric Rignot of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

Melting of ice sheets in Antarctica and Greenland is accelerating, according to a new study to be published this month in Geophysical Research Letters. According to the research, this acceleration is three times faster than what is being observed for mountain glaciers and ice caps.

From the study:

The magnitude of the acceleration suggests that ice sheets will be the dominant contributors to sea level rise in forthcoming decades, and will likely exceed the IPCC projections for the contribution of ice sheets to sea level rise in the 21st century.

According to the new research, if melting of ice sheets continues at the current rate for the next 40 years, sea level rise from that source alone would equal 15 centimeters, or 5.9 inches by the year 2050. With ice loss from glaciers, ice caps and thermal expansion of the oceans also factored in, sea level could come up by a total of 32 centimeters, or 12.6 inches, by mid-century, according to the new research.

There is a caveat:

Continue reading “Sobering news from Greenland and Antarctica” →


No serious energy policy in sight

Posted on March 7th by Tom Yulsman. 2 Comments

Global warming debate in Congress almost seems like a sex addiction

As oil prices rise, Rep. Ed Whitfield will hold hearings on global warming

Here we go again . . .

The price for benchmark West Texas crude crested just shy of $107 a barrel in electronic trading today, the highest in more than two years.

By the close of trading, the price had pulled back somewhat. But analysts suggest we could easily be heading to $120 or more — and it could stay there for awhile.

The immediate trigger, of course, is instability in the Middle East. But oil prices were already trending upward, and even before the uprisings, the U.S. Energy Information Administration was forecasting an average price of $93 per barrel this year, and $98 next.

The long-term problem is one of simple supply and demand. As The Economist notes:

With the world economy growing strongly, oil demand is far outpacing increases in readily available supply. So any jitters from the Middle East will accelerate and exaggerate a price rise that was already on the way.

The situation is now stoking fears that the world economy could be oil-shocked back into recession, and perhaps inflation too. The Economist points out that we’ve been here before:

Continue reading “No serious energy policy in sight” →


Confusion on global-warming link to snowstorms

Posted on March 4th by Tom Yulsman. 3 Comments

Do we really need psychologists to explain it?

The “Groundhog Day Blizzard” swirls across a large expanse of the United States on Feb. 1, 2011, as seen in this satellite image. The storm stretched more than 2,500 miles long and 700 miles wide. (Image: CIMSS Satellite Blog.)

The other day, Chris Mooney wrote an excellent post about climate change and blizzards that’s well worth reading. In it, he attributed the public’s confusion over possible connections between huge snowstorms and global warming to a few factors.

First, he wrote, “people confuse climate and weather endlessly.” True enough.

And also this:

Psychologists studying climate communication make two additional (and related) points about why the warming-snow link is going to be exceedingly difficult for much of the public to accept: 1) people’s confirmation biases lead them to pay skewed attention to weather events, in such a way as to confirm their preexisting beliefs about climate change (see p. 4 of this report); 2) people have mental models of “global warming” that tend to rule out wintry impacts.

“Perceptions of the implications of lots of snow for the existence of climate change are like the results from a Rorschach test,” writes Janet Swim, a psychologist at Penn State who headed up an American Psychological Association task force report on psychology and climate change.

All of this sounds perfectly reasonable.

But might there be an equally important reason for confusion and doubt among the public?: Despite the certitude shown by some activists in attributing all manner of weird weather to global warming, the climate system simply IS incredibly complex and difficult to pin down scientifically — and therefore naturally confusing to non-scientists.

As NASA’s Gavin Schmidt pointed out in a recent post at Real Climate:

Continue reading “Confusion on global-warming link to snowstorms” →


In the curve

Posted on March 1st by Tom Yulsman. 6 Comments

How we know CO2 in the atmosphere is increasing — and it’s our bad

Duane Kitzis, a NOAA scientist, hauls a load of empty cylinders up Niwot Ridge in Colorado’s Front Range. From a site at an elevation of almost 10,000 feet up, he’ll collect air samples as part of a global program for monitoring carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. (Photo: Tom Yulsman)

Note: This is a cross-post of a story I wrote on assignment for Climate Central. You can read the piece there and see additional graphics by clicking here.

In winter, snowshoes are one good way to negotiate the steep, snow-covered road up Niwot Ridge in Colorado’s Front Range. But if you’re Duane Kitzis, and the job for the day is to haul metal cylinders up the mountain, what you really need is a snowcat.

On a blustery morning last December, I joined Kitzis for the climb up the ridge, sharing the snowcat’s flatbed with the cylinders, which he was taking up to a scientific station at 9,973 feet on the mountain, and his trusted assistant, a 95-pound Airedale terrier named “Little Bear.”

With the clanking tank treads of the cat, and smelly exhaust spewing from the back, a passing snowshoer could be forgiven for not guessing that this is one of the most important environmental jobs on the planet. The air samples Kitzis collects in cylinders like these help scientists around the world determine how much carbon dioxide is accumulating in the atmosphere — and thus how the climate might change as a result.

Kitzis, a scientist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Earth System Research Laboratory in Boulder, makes a crucial contribution to this effort.

“My personal stake in this is to create the best data possible,” he says.

Creating that data may seem straightforward. Capture samples of the atmosphere from an unpolluted site, measure their chemical makeup, and presto: you’ve figured out the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere, right? And if you do it over time, you’ve got the trend.

Not so simple. There are more than 140 sites worldwide — from the South Pole to the Arctic, and many places in between — where atmospheric monitoring is done. Sampling is also done by aircraft in more than 30 locations. So how can we be confident that the job is being done accurately and to the same exacting standards everywhere?

Helping to insure that accuracy is what Kitzis does for a living. He creates “standards” — samples of the atmosphere whose chemical makeup he determines with great accuracy. These are then sent to monitoring sites worldwide so everyone can make sure they are producing results to the same exacting standard.

Thanks to his efforts, scientists can say with great confidence that so much carbon dioxide has accumulated in the atmosphere that its concentration is now above 390 parts per million — and that this is our bad. They’ve also been able to chart with increasing precision the specific sources: for example, how much from fossil-fuel burning versus deforestation? (The answer might surprise you. Read on…)

Continue reading “In the curve” →


I’m back

Posted on March 1st by Tom Yulsman. 8 Comments

If you’ve been a regular reader of CEJournal, you’ve probably noticed that I’ve been gone for awhile. I should have hung a ‘gone fishin’ sign here to let people know where I was at . . .

Well, actually, I am on sabbatical from teaching at the University of Colorado. This has given me a fabulous opportunity to work on a number of projects that are bigger and more time-consuming than the blog, including a series of features for Climate Central (one of which I will be cross-posting here later today). I’m also working on a major Web site project. (More about that when there is something substantive to report.) And to be honest, I’ve been trying to unplug just a little from the reactive, Twitter mind-set and think about issues in a more deliberative way.

Oh, there’s also running. The spring racing season is just around the corner…

But as the headline says, I’m back. I may not post something every single day, but it’s my intention to get back into a regular rhythm here at CEJournal. I hope to see you here!

– Tom


Graphics tell the story of record melting in Greenland

Posted on January 22nd by Tom Yulsman. 6 Comments

This movie, produced by the Cryospheric Processes Laboratory, consists of stills and video collected during 2009 and 2010. Meltwater is the theme. The vocal is a Shaman Inuit Chant.

Greenland experienced a record amount of melting in 2010.

New records were set during the year for surface melting, runoff of water, the number of days when bare ice was exposed due to melting snow, and the decrease in the total mass of Greenland’s ice sheets, according to a paper published Friday in Environment Research Letters.

NOAA is also out with its annual Arctic report card for 2010, which among other things summarizes what was observed in Greenland this past year:

Greenland climate in 2010 is marked by record-setting high air temperatures, ice loss by melting, and marine-terminating glacier area loss. Summer seasonal average (June-August) air temperatures around Greenland were 0.6 to 2.4°C above the 1971-2000 baseline and were highest in the west. A combination of a warm and dry 2009-2010 winter and the very warm summer resulted in the highest melt rate since at least 1958 and an area and duration of ice sheet melting that was above any previous year on record since at least 1978. The largest recorded glacier area loss observed in Greenland occurred this summer at Petermann Glacier, where 290 km2 of ice broke away. The rate of area loss in marine-terminating glaciers this year (419 km2) was 3.4 times that of the previous 8 years, when regular observations are available. There is now clear evidence that the ice area loss rate of the past decade (averaging 120 km2/year) is greater than loss rates pre-2000.

Juliete Elperin of the Washington Post has a good article about the new findings, with quotes from Marco Tedesco, the ERL paper’s lead author and the director of the Cryosphere Processes Laboratory at the City College of New York.

The events in Greenland are illustrated very clearly in the following graphics. The first one is a modified version of a graphic published in the ERL paper. (I removed one of the graphs and inserted the explanatory text.) The others are from the Arctic Report Card.

Duration of melting of standardized melting index:

Continue reading “Graphics tell the story of record melting in Greenland” →


The great water heist

Posted on January 20th by Tom Yulsman. 3 Comments

The Colorado River near Moab, Utah. New research suggests that dust falling on snow in the mountains where the river is born is robbing it of enough water to serve Los Angeles for 18 months. (Copyright Tom Yulsman)

By Brendon Bosworth

This article is part of Climate Central’s series on Western water resources. Read Part One and Part Two of that series.

Picture two snowmen standing side by side beneath a spring sun. One is pristine white, the other has been coated with rusty brown dust. As the day wears on, a pool of water collects beneath the dusty snowman. He will dissolve long before the untarnished snowman loses his head.

The dusty snowman’s rapid demise occurs because the dark color decreases snow’s ability to reflect sunlight. The particles absorb it and conduct heat to the snowman’s body.

The same process appears to have been playing out on a larger scale for 150 years in the mountains of the Upper Colorado River Basin, the birthplace of the Colorado River.

Rust colored desert dust, blowing in from the desert and falling on the snowpack, has been causing snow to melt on average three weeks earlier than it did before human activities in the West disturbed its pristine ecosystem, around the middle of the 19th century, according to a study by researchers from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and the University of Colorado’s Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences (CIRES). (For a CIRES press release on the research, go here.)

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