Friday, December 28, 2007

Australia's Department of Climate Change

Yes, you read that right. Under the new leadership of a liberal government, Australia has jumped well ahead of the U.S. in establishing a government entity focused on climate change. Perhaps not surprising, given the exceptional drought that has afflicted a large area of the continent, but leaving me wondering, "What about the Southeastern U.S.? What about the Southwest? Don't we deserve such a department at the federal level, too?"

Using the domain "" the Department of Climate Change provides, through its Web site, consideration of agriculture, business and industry, community and household, emissions monitoring, energy, impacts and adaptation, national resources and science.

Under Impacts and Adaptation, the site includes Projections - Future Climate Changes, which includes a section on how projections are currently done, regional projections for Australia, and an "online projections tool" called, which allows the user to "generate your own climate change projections using different emissions scenarios and the outputs of various global climate models (GCMs)."

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Atlanta - Pray for NO rain?

An article in USA Today: Thirsting for answers in dry Georgia makes an interesting comparison between the ways drought has been dealt with by authorities in Georgia and in San Diego. Begin with the fact that Georgia is normally a rainy place, while San Diego is a coastal desert. If San Diego can weather a long dry spell, why can't Atlanta?

The story provides some good lessons for adaptation. Atlanta did some stuff wrong:

...a drought that gripped this state from 1998-2002 seemed to sound the clarion call.

The Legislature, worried that fast-growing Atlanta was consuming water at the expense of the rest of the state, created a regional authority to chart a plan to manage the resource.

When a relentless drought hit last year, however, the agency's water-saving recommendations mostly had not been implemented.

...while San Diego did some stuff right:

Drought had ravaged San Diego, too, but its legacy was far different.

A six-year drought that ended in 1992 prompted conservation measures and other steps that enabled the metropolitan area to add a half-million people without substantially increasing water usage.

San Diego - being a chronically dry location - has developed what the article calls "a drought ethic" and has been innovating water-saving practices for years. Its residents are accustomed to conservation. But for Georgia to adapt to a drier future, it will take more than just hoping that the residents change their habits.
Strong, consistent leadership is necessary to create a conservation ethic, and that's been missing here, says environmentalist Sally Bethea, executive director of the Upper Chattahoochee Riverkeeper, a group that seeks to protect Atlanta's prime watershed. "There's been a lot of nice talk, education programs and studies on water conservation," she says. "But I have not seen leaders providing real incentives and regulatory programs that would yield measurable reductions in our use of water."
Atlanta's making progress and San Diego is certainly not out of the woods, but one Georgia wag pointed out the reason Georgia hasn't learned from close drought calls in the past.
"Usually about the time everybody is screaming bloody murder, there will come a huge rain," he says. "Ironically, the worst thing that can happen now is to get a heavy rain."

Monday, December 17, 2007

A visit to Arizona

I just returned from four days visiting family in Scottsdale, the sprawling suburb of Phoenix. They'd recently been blessed with 5 inches of rain, coming down in unusually strong torrents, according to my relatives. This provided some reassuring relief from the growing apprehension in the Valley of the Sun that there was a major problem with their water supply. Some reservoirs had been replenished from this single storm. And adding to the sense of relief was the news that a "landmark agreement" had been signed by the seven states in the American Southwest that share water from the Colorado River.

Senator Harry Reid of Nevada put it into perspective:

""I want to applaud the negotiators from the seven Colorado River Basin states and the Secretary of the Interior for successfully completing this important agreement which will govern how the states share water shortages. Unfortunately, it appears that this nine year drought may be the new norm and this agreement will ensure future cooperation among the states that rely upon the river to meet all our water needs."
"Share water shortages," indeed. I wouldn't describe the mood in Scottsdale - after rain and resolution - as euphoric. After 8 years of below average rainfall and a record-setting summer of temperatures over 110 degrees, Arizonans have gotten the warning. And yet, you'd hardly know that any limits had been recognized if you judge just by the amount of construction still going on, the amount of water shooting out of decorative fountains, and the number of gas guzzlers crowding the roads.

Central Arizona still appears to be a classic case of human denial and hubris. The agreement among the seven states does not provide Arizona with a guarantee of more water; it's more an update of an old agreement that became obsolete in light of the current drought in the Colorado River basin and the extensive development that has taken place in Arizona, Las Vegas and Southern California. It removed some uncertainty, but did not create new water.

There are some signs of sanity in Tucson, where the local government declared that it would no longer extend its municipal water lines into new housing developments outside of city limits.
City Manager Mike Hein revealed at Tuesday's City Council meeting that he had ordered a stop to expansion of Tucson Water's delivery system beyond city limits to instead focus on areas where it is legally obligated to deliver water.
The potentially risky move already is bringing other local government officials to the table for what Hein called a pressing need for joint discussions of growth and water.
"It just seems to me that we have to be able to set the table and have some rational dialogues that aren't built on turf, aren't built on egos and aren't built on political control," he said Wednesday. "When I talk about regional growth, we should as a region understand each other's intentions. I find more typically than not (that) all of our goals are aligned. They're just not communicated real well."

Monday, December 10, 2007

Time-lapse drought map

Watercrunch provides this neat 53-second animation of the U.S. Drought Monitor's maps from March of this year to the present.

Improving drought forecasting

Drought is called "the creeping disaster" because most people are unaware that their local water supplies are shrinking until the alarm goes off, announcing conservation measures and high-level concern with the impending crisis. With the prospect that more areas around the world may be subject to drought conditions - long range or short - we need better forecasting techniques for earlier detection of approaching drought. Such early detection will allow preparations to be made well in advance of the actual water shortage.

This article from Sign of the Times describes a focus on streamflow measurement and cloud reflectivity as a means of discovering higher risk for drought. One interviewee was Dr. Ashutosh Limaye, a hydrologist at the National Space Science and Technology Center (NSSTC) in Huntsville, Alabama. He described the stream flow part.

Streamflow is a term used by water management specialists to mean, very simply, the amount of water in streams and rivers. Areas of drought have reduced streamflow, and experts believe they can better forecast droughts by studying this key indicator of dry conditions.

"Streamflow is always changing, from day to day and even minute to minute, for a wide variety of reasons: evaporation from the soil and from bodies of water, runoff from rainfall and snowmelt, transpiration by plants and trees, and other natural and human influences," [Limaye] explains. National Weather Service River Forecast Centers have to consider all of these factors when they forecast streamflow.

"If we can help forecasters estimate any of these elements more accurately, they can better predict drought conditions months in advance," says Dr. Limaye. "These predictions are critical because they influence important decisions about measures like withholding water in reservoirs and restricting water use."

The reflectivity part? Dr. Mike Smith of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) suggests that satellite measurement of cloud cover could provide closer estimates of evaporation rates that directly affect stream flow.

Why clouds? "Because most of the water that falls on the ground goes up in evaporation, evaporation is a huge component of the total surface water," explains Limaye. "So it's important to get those numbers right. Clouds affect radiation, which has a big influence on evaporation."

National Weather Service cloud cover estimates from the 1960s to the 1990s went like this: A trained technician literally walked outside, tilted his or her head back, eyeballed the sky like an old farmer, and rated the cloud cover on a 1-8 scale.

In the 90s, these manual observations were replaced by a device called a "ceilometer," part of the Automated Surface Observing System (ASOS), which has a laser beam that aims at the sky. Returns from this beam are used to detect clouds.

Thursday, December 6, 2007

The Adaptation "Aha" Moment?

At the Framework Convention on Climate Change, taking place on Bali, there have been calls for having the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) - which recently released its latest report and has normally convened to update its report every 5 or 6 years - convene to update its current report next year...and pretty much to continue operating continuously from now on.

As reported by Andy Revkin on DotEarth:

The discussions in Bali about more frequent climate assessments echo a growing call within the scientific community for the climate panel and other big climate-research institutions to shift more from basic science to real-world forecasting, helping communities exploit or withstand changes for the better or worse.

Such forecasts need to be improved because significant warming is unavoidable for decades to come even if countries begin to trim greenhouse-gas emissions, according to the climate panel’s latest studies.

Kevin Trenberth, a longtime contributor to the U.N. panel’s reports and senior scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colo., put it this way early this year:

“For me the issue is that the climate is changing and we cannot stop it. We can slow it down, and should, but realistically I don’t believe that we will ever get to level emissions, let alone reduced ones. So climate change will continue and we must adapt. But adapt to what?”

Adapt to what, indeed? Getting more specific local forecasts would help localities set proper directions for preparations for climate change. But such forecasts are not simple to make. As the Pew Center for Global Climate Change says in its paper, "Coping With Global Climate Change: The Role of Adaptation in the United States,"
The processes of adaptation to climate change in both human and natural systems are highly complex and dynamic, often entailing many feedbacks and dependencies on existing local and temporal conditions. The uncertainties introduced by the complexity, scale and limited experience with respect to anthropogenic climate change explains the limited level of applied research conducted thus far on adaptation, the reliance on mechanistic assumptions, and widespread use of scenarios and historical analogues.
But it's not too early to begin improving the local communications infrastructure and habits that communities will need when their forecasts become more concrete and reliable. Some places are already thick into adaptation - to what may become annual flooding, chronic drought, frequent storms, more extreme temperatures and all of the indirect consequences of these weather effects.

The Flooded Northwest

There have been more than a few incidents of flooding on Route 101, running through my home county of Marin. These have always been the result of torrential rains - which raised the level of Larkspur Creek - and high tides combined with some storm surge. It's been deep enough in the northbound lanes to shut them down on a few occasions. Whenever I consider the prospect of sea level rise, I know that this entire stretch of highway will have to be rebuilt.

Interstate Route 5, between Seattle and Portland has been shut down since Monday. Railways have been buried in mud. The closures could last into the weekend and the business impact is considerable.

About 54,000 vehicles traverse that portion of the highway daily, and 10,000 of those are trucks. The I-5 delays alone are expected to cost businesses $4 million a day, the Transportation Department estimates.

The effect on commuters could be the least of the problems; road closures are making it difficult to deliver emergency supplies and groceries to the flooded areas, said department spokesman Stan Suchan.

The department also is concerned about the effect on business.

"We know that a lot of companies are using just-in-time delivery so that they don't have a huge stock sitting in the back of their store," he said. "They rely on the trucks on the freeway to keep them in business."

Just another data point in understanding the potential impacts of climate change. The effects tend to cascade.

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Pew Center Paper on Adaptation Planning

Reinforcing my focus on local adaptation, the Pew Center released this new report: Adaptation Planning – What U.S. States and Localities are Doing. First, the report reinforces the need for adaptation, beyond mere mitigation.

While governments act to mitigate future climate change, they must also plan and act to address the impacts. This preparation includes risk assessments, prioritization of projects, funding and allocation of both financial and human resources, solution development and implementation, and rapid deployment of information sharing and decision support tools. Corresponding to the size of the challenge, impacts span entire communities and regions. As such, adaptation is dependent on numerous stakeholders from federal, state and local government, science and academia, the private sector, and community residents to develop solutions to complex problems for which prior solutions may not exist. Adaptation will require creativity, compromise, and collaboration across agencies, sectors and traditional geographic
It then emphasizes the importance of more localized approaches to adaptation, at the state and local levels, and reveals how little has been done at these levels to put adaptation planning into action.
This paper focuses on adaptation plans and actions in progress by state and local
governments. Many of these efforts are in their earliest stages. Some states are including adaptation planning within the scope of their state Climate Action Plans to address GHG emissions. A few others have recognized the need for separate and comprehensive adaptation commissions to parallel their mitigation efforts. Many are simply responding to climate impacts
as they occur, without necessarily attributing the impact to climate change.
And validating another of my beliefs - that local entities need to be networked to learn from one another, the reporting team writes:
Regardless of the basis for the adaptive response, states have much they can learn from each other, and from localities where adaptation is already occurring. While comprehensive and proactive adaptation planning is still in the early stages, as states complete their GHG mitigation plans, adaptation planning is gaining greater attention and resources from states and localities.

Cities - far more than counties - are beginning to adopt the adaptive approach to planning, but there are few examples cited in the report. King County, Washington, is one great exception that has been blogged here.

One county in particular, King County, Washington is a leader in the United States for adaptation planning. In 2006, King County formed an inter-departmental climate change adaptation team, building scientific expertise within their county departments to ensure climate change factors were considered in policy, planning and capital investment decisions. Partnering with the Climate Impacts Group,1 the county has already begun many adaptation efforts, including the development of water quality and quantity models and monitoring programs. The 2007 King County Climate Plan lays out detailed goals and actions for six (6) “Strategic Focus Areas” for adaptation efforts going forward.

Leading adaptive planning is clearly one of the reasons we have local government. That is the closest we citizens get to the people we elect to represent us and to work for our interests. It is also the most practicable level on which we citizens can converse with our government. We can show up at our local civic centers and speak directly to our planners and supervisors. We should also be able to communicate through the Web much more than we do. If there was ever a need for an effective Web-based interface between government and citizen, it is right here in the present, around local climate adaptation.

Monday, December 3, 2007

Living on the flood plain

Can we all at least agree that living (much less building) on a floodplain - especially one that has recently flooded severely - and in light of the warnings of more similar or otherwise crazy weather in a very likely future - is not an adaptive activity.

Apparently, the submersion of much of England last spring and summer has not served to halt the building of new homes on many of those recently submerged sites. This sounds nuts to me, but it's an indication of how far we are from having everyone on board for adaptation.

This from a Press Association article, released by the Guardian:

New research has identified the top 20 places in Britain most at risk from flooding, with more than half of homeowners facing the threat in the worst affected area.

Analysis of official data by Channel 4's Dispatches revealed Boston in Lincolnshire - where 57% of homeowners are at "significant risk" - to be the most susceptible to flood waters.

In the programme, the chief executive of the Environment Agency, Baroness Young, calls on insurers to refuse insurance to houses built on floodplains against advice.

Dispatches: Britain Under Water reports that an increasing number of new homes are being built on Britain's floodplains.

This has led to a surge in the number of homes at "significant risk" of flooding - described as having a one in 75 chance of flooding in any given year.

What kind of numbers are we talking about? Big numbers. And it's not just homes and businesses.

In Boston, a market town with a population of around 65,000, 15,906 homes are placed in this category.

In Windsor and Maidenhead - second on the list - one in five homeowners face the same level of danger.

The programme reports that in addition to the potential threat to homes, more than 2,000 energy installations are at significant risk of flooding. It raises concern over whether the authorities are setting aside adequate resources to battle the threat.

Sunday, December 2, 2007

Power or Water? TVA's dilemma

With extreme drought affecting southern Tennessee and northern Georgia and Alabama, the 9 trillion gallons of water that still flow through Chattanooga and feed hydroelectric plants at TVA's reservoirs are being tapped. Hydro provides the cheapest 10 percent of the total power distributed by TVA, but in this past fiscal year, hydro production was down 33%.

The trend is continuing in fiscal 2008 amid an anticipated 1.9 percent growth in power demand.

"We still have hope," TVA President and CEO Tom Kilgore said. "We have had a fair amount of rainfall lately. But until the ground gets saturated it is not going to get any better (in the lakes)."

In other business, the TVA board approved a decrease in the quarterly fuel cost adjustment charge beginning Jan. 1. Consumers should see a savings of $1.40 to $2.70 on their monthly power bill, reflecting about a 3 percent savings in wholesale power.

Oregon gets FEMA flood warning

It's encouraging to see FEMA out ahead of the game for the La Nina-influenced rainy season in Oregon. The risk of flooding is also raised due to the 600,000 acres burned by wildfires in the state this past year. According to the FEMA press release:

This year, predictions for La Nina call for an even wetter-than-average 2007-2008 winter season in parts of the Northwestern United States, including Oregon. The time to prepare for this year's rainy season and possible flooding is now.

"Recovering after a flood can be overwhelming. With flood insurance, you have the financial support to get back on your feet as quickly as possible," said David Maurstad, Assistant Administrator of Mitigation and Federal Insurance Administrator for FEMA. "Too often, people mistakenly think flood damage is covered by a homeowners policy. Flood coverage must be purchased separately, and there is typically a 30-day waiting period before a new flood insurance policy becomes effective."