Peter N. Spotts

Will Much of New Orleans Be Underwater by 2100?

Unless enormous amounts of soil are dumped onto the Mississippi River Delta, the region could lose up to 5,212 square miles of land to ocean and tidal marsh by 2100 -- a result of sea-level rise and the land sinking.

Keep reading... Show less

Will G-8 Countries Move Faster on Climate Change?

In the 18 months since work began in earnest on a new global climate treaty, the world has been waiting for industrial countries -- especially the US -- to signal that they know deep cuts in greenhouse-gas emissions must occur soon to avoid the worst effects of global warming. Hopes are running high that this week's meeting of leaders from the Group of Eight -- countries that represent the world's eight richest economies -- will provide that signal.

Keep reading... Show less

Will Midwest Floods Be as Toxic as New Orleans?

The oil, gasoline, fertilizers, and herbicides swept away by floodwaters in June pose an environmental challenge to the rain-soaked Midwest.

But some of the most serious pollution problems may not lie outdoors. Instead, they could well lurk indoors in waterlogged basements and first floors of homes and businesses, where everything from cleaning agents to toxic metals accumulate in silt and mold.

These concerns about indoor toxins, which sprang up in the aftermath of the New Orleans flood in 2005, have led researchers to begin working on tools that could give emergency crews and homeowners a better idea of the risks they face when they step through the front door once floodwaters recede.

Indoor muck following a flood is a common problem, says Nicholas Ashley, a researcher at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge involved in the work. But, he adds, "to the best of our knowledge no one had looked at the effect of interior sediment deposits" on pollution levels until he and his PhD adviser, Louis Thibodeaux, began to tackle the issue after hurricane Katrina flooded New Orleans.

The problem is that flood victims get an OK to return and begin the cleanup based on contaminant levels measured outdoors. But those measurements may significantly underestimate what awaits when people walk inside, he says.

After Katrina, pollution levels in floodwater looked a lot like typical storm water, according to measurements by another Louisiana State University team.

But the interiors of two homes Mr. Ashley and Dr. Thibodeaux sampled told a different story: Levels of arsenic, cadmium, vanadium, and lead in the homes were substantially higher than the maximum levels that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) considers safe. "Three of those metals exceeded the outdoor concentrations in some cases by even greater margins," Ashley says.

The metals, it turns out, cling to the fine silt particles that enter a home as floodwaters seep in through chinks and cracks. The silt then settles out in layers only a few millimeters deep.

Meanwhile, waterborne organic chemicals prone to evaporation also seep inside or get augmented by what's already in the house. Mold can absorb and retain the organics in the gas, then redistribute them when it releases its spores. A field study led by Ginger Chew, with the department of environmental health sciences at Columbia University in New York, found that spore concentrations in several once-flooded New Orleans homes reached levels that outstripped the ability of a popular respirator to deal with them.

Building interiors -- from warehouses to residential garages and basements -- face other, better-known threats.

Many already store gasoline, cleaning agents, or home heating oil. When floodwater fills a basement, it can float a 250-gallon heating oil tank. Once the tank breaks free of its fittings, the oil leaks and can eventually spread outdoors, notes Bill Simes, who heads a US EPA response team that has been working with Indiana to scope out the extent of pollution triggered by the floods. Submerged TVs and other electronic devices leach metals.

Depending on the location, add "biologicals" to the list, Mr. Simes says, recalling work he and his team did in New Orleans after Katrina. "The fishing industry stores large amounts of shrimp. When the refrigeration goes off for about 30 days, it's not really shrimp anymore." Floodwaters also bring with them a background level of pollutants. And they pick up more along the way.

In states such as Iowa, where farming is widespread, floodwaters pick up organic material such as fertilizers and herbicides from cropland.

Now, Ashley and Thibodeaux are working on a model that could give first responders and homeowners a clearer idea of the pollution levels they are likely to face once the water recedes -- particularly in farm country, where organics can form the dominant class of pollutants. A key part of the puzzle still to be incorporated involves how airtight the home is and how long it remains buttoned up before restoration or demolition begins. The duo acknowledges they are operating on sparse data -- two houses. It's crucial, they say, to develop simple water and sediment sampling kits that rescuers and other first responders can use. Such data would allow them to expand their sample of structures and provide information needed to run the model.

Southwest Could Lose Major Water and Energy Sources by 2021

Lake Mead and Lake Powell, which supply water and power to millions in the American Southwest, stand a 50 percent chance of running dry by 2021 unless dramatic changes take place in how the region uses water, according to a new study.

Causes include growing population, rising demand for Colorado River water, which feeds both lakes, and global warming, according to scientists at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla, Calif., who conducted the study.

The results underscore the importance of water-conservation measures that many communities throughout the region are putting into place. Other studies, some dating back nearly 20 years, have projected that Lake Mead could fall to virtually useless levels as climate warmed, but they lacked a sense of the timing. The new results, the Scripps scientists say, represent a first attempt to answer when lakes Mead and Powell would run dry, squeezing water supplies in Arizona, California, Nevada, and New Mexico.

"We were stunned at the magnitude of the problem and how fast it is coming at us," notes Tim Barnett, a research physicist at Scripps who led the effort. By "dry," the team means that water levels fall so low behind the Hoover and Glenn Canyon Dams that the water fails to reach the gravity-fed intakes that guide it through turbines or out through spillways. In addition, the report estimates that the lakes stand a 50 percent chance of falling to the lowest levels required to generate electricity by 2017.

Last week, Dr. Barnett published additional work in the journal Science attributing 60 percent of the reduction in snowpack, rising temperatures, and reduced river flows over the past 50 years to global warming.

The latest work "not only shows that climate change is a real problem. It also shows it has direct implications for humans -- and not just in the third world," says Peter Gleick, president of the Pacific Institute in Oakland, Calif. The institute focuses on links between sustainable development and global security issues. "Even without climate change, we're taking too much water from the Colorado. So it's no surprise that if we continue to take too much, the reservoirs will go dry."

The message is not lost on water planners, adds Sharon Megdal, director of the Water Resources Research Center at the University of Arizona in Tucson. After years when discussions of climate change and water sat on the back burner, regional water managers are "beginning to get on the same page" regarding adaptation to global warming, she says. "At least they're asking the questions that need to be asked."

To Barnett, whose results have been accepted for publication in the journal Water Resources Research, time is of the essence. It takes so long for the planning process -- and what some see as the inevitable legal challenges -- to play out that he dubs the water-supply issue an "immediate" problem.

Given the effects of projected population growth on water resources, it might seem that the best solution would be to post "Keep Out" signs at state borders. But Dr. Gleick points out that changes in water use could go a long way toward easing the crunch. Such changes could include boosting the price of water to more closely reflect its value, requiring xeriscaping for homes and commercial centers, and on the farm, growing less water-intensive crops and using more miserly irrigation techniques. "Grow alfalfa in Minnesota or Iowa, not here," he says. "These are all plausible; they are not difficult decisions."

Carbon Emissions Exceed Highest Assumptions Used in Climate Change Studies

Global emissions of carbon dioxide are growing at a faster clip than the highest rates used in recent key UN reports.

CO2 emissions from cars, factories, and power plants grew at an annual rate of 1.1 percent during the 1990s, according to the Global Carbon Project, which is a data clearinghouse set up in 2001 as a cooperative effort among UN-related groups and other scientific organizations. But from 2000 to 2004, CO2 emissions rates almost tripled to 3 percent a year - higher than any rate used in emissions scenarios for the reports by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

If the higher rate represents more than a blip, stabilizing emissions by 2100 will be more difficult than the latest UN reports indicate, some analysts say. And to avoid the most serious effects of global warming, significant cuts in CO2 emissions must begin sooner than the IPCC reports suggest. At the moment, no region of the world is "decarbonizing its energy supply," the analysis says.

The Global Carbon Project's calculations should be viewed with caution, says Michael Oppenheimer, a climate-policy specialist at Princeton University in New Jersey. Economies have been recovering from a recession at the turn of the millennium. And a spike in natural-gas prices - of uncertain duration - has given coal a second wind in developed countries. These short-term factors have probably contributed to the growth in emissions rates, he says.

Yet longer-term forces may be at play to sustain the high emissions rates. For instance, "There is concern among many experts that factors such as China's continued, very rapid coal-based growth may not be a blip that would turn around," he says.

The analysis is the Global Carbon Project's first cut at an annual effort to report on trends in CO2 emissions and the factors contributing to them, says Christopher Field, a scientist with the Carnegie Institution of Washington.

"We're trying to figure out a small set of numbers that give people a clear picture" of what's happening, says Dr. Field, a member of the Global Carbon Project's science steering committee and a co-author of the analysis, which appears in Monday's edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The analysis comes at a time when negotiators for the G-8 group of leading industrial countries have been trying to work out the wording of a section on climate change, proposed for the final declaration at the group's meeting in Germany next month. Last week, US negotiators red-penciled key portions, severely weakening the statement.

The analysis also comes as countries prepare for a new round of UN-sponsored climate talks, scheduled for December in Bali. Negotiators are trying to establish a track for talks that would provide a seamless transition between the 1997 Kyoto Protocol's first reporting period, which runs from 2008 to 2012, and a new international regime to combat global warming that would follow - one in which developing countries would start taking an active role.

So far, developing countries account for only about 23 percent of emissions accumulated since the start of the Industrial Revolution. But they also account for 73 percent of the global emissions growth in 2004. This has been largely driven by China's explosive growth.

In trying to figure out how emissions-reductions burdens are apportioned, which number should dominate?

"There are very difficult discussions at the international level that must be dealt with," acknowledges Andrew Weaver, a climate scientist at the University of Victoria in British Columbia and chief editor of the Journal of Climate.

In broad terms, growing population and rising per capita economic growth have fueled the increase in emissions rates, Field explains. In addition, he says, two trends appear to be taking hold. Globally, the amount of energy used per unit of gross domestic product is leveling or increasing after years of decline. This could mean that gains in energy efficiency are slowing. It could also mean that the growth of heavy industry in developing countries is offsetting the shift to less energy-intensive activities in develped countries.

Second, the energy sources that countries are using are more carbon-intensive than in the past.

The Global Carbon Project study held two surprises for everyone involved, Field says. "The first was how big the change in emissions rates is between the 1990s and after 2000." The other: "The number on carbon intensity of the world economy is going up."

Meanwhile, scientists are noting that some of the natural "sinks" for the CO2 that humans are pumping into the atmosphere are becoming less efficient at absorbing emissions. Natural sinks – the oceans and plants on land – have been absorbing about half the emissions that humans produce. But the Southern Ocean, which serves as a moat around Antarctica, is losing its ability to take up additional CO2, reports an international team of researchers in the journal Science this week. The team attributes the change to patterns of higher winds, traceable to ozone depletion high above Antarctica, and to global warming.

"There's been a lot of discussion about whether the scenarios that climate modelers have used to characterize possible futures are biased toward the high end or the low end," Field adds. "I was surprised to see that the trajectory of emissions since 2000 now looks like it's running higher than the highest scenarios climate modelers are using."

If so, it wouldn't be the first time. Recently published research has shown that Arctic ice is disappearing faster than models have suggested.

Despite the relatively short period showing an increase in emissions growth rates, the Global Carbon Project's report "is very disturbing," Dr. Weaver says. "As a global society, we need to get down to a level of 90 percent reductions by 2050" to have a decent chance of warding off the strongest effects of global warming.

If this study is correct, "to get there we have to turn this corner much faster than it looks like we're doing," he says.

Offshoring the Aquaculture Industry

Fish farming has long been viewed as a way to help fill dinner bowls worldwide while easing the pressure on declining populations of wild ocean fish. Now the U.S. aquaculture industry is poised to shed its coastal cloak to farm deeper waters. Tuesday, the Bush administration sent a bill to Capitol Hill that would open 3.4 million square miles of ocean -- roughly the land area of the lower 48 states -- to fish farms.

The bill would allow the U.S. secretary of Commerce to issue permits for fish farms in federal waters, up to 200 miles offshore.

The proposed legislation represents the latest effort to implement recommendations from the U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy, which last fall sent the White House its blueprint for overhauling the approach the country takes to managing its vast offshore resources. It also represents the start of a process that will give various "stakeholders" -- including the aquaculture industry, environmental groups, state and local officials -- an opportunity to help shape the rules, federal officials say.

"Our goal is to develop a sustainable aquaculture program that balances the needs of fishermen, coastal residents and visitors, seafood consumers, the environment, and the aquaculture industry," said Conrad Lautenbacher Jr., administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), in a prepared statement.

The measure comes at a time of rising global demand for fish as a source of dietary protein, declining fisheries, and rising aquaculture efforts overseas. By 2030, less than half of the fish humans consume will come from wild stocks, according to United Nations estimates. Aquaculture will dominate. Global consumption is expected to reach 110 million metric tons of fish within the next five years.

In the US, "nutritionists are asking us to eat twice as much seafood as we do," says Michael Rubino, manager of NOAA's aquaculture program. "At the moment we import 70 percent of our seafood, and wild fisheries won't be able to meet future market demand. So any increase in supplies is coming from aquaculture. The question is, do we keep importing it, or do we produce some domestically?"

Currently, the U.S. consumes 6 million metric tons of fish a year. By 2025, US consumption is expected to grow by another 2 million metric tons.

"If we could produce that here, that would create 500,000 direct jobs, and 100,000 or more indirect jobs, and contribute about $5 billion in revenue," Dr. Rubino says.

The bill would allow NOAA to issue two permits -- a site permit and an operating permit -- for 10 years. Operators could renew their permits in five-year increments. To receive the permits, fish farmers would have to meet a number of requirements that deal with issues such as environmental monitoring and quality, and business practices. "Those details would be worked out in the regulatory-design process," Rubino says.

And it's designed to push the state of the art in technologies that allow for more environmentally sustainable aquaculture in the open ocean. Indeed, he says, it contains strong language regarding environmental stewardship and public input.

The move to open oceans to fish farming is attractive for several reasons, some analysts say. It moves fish farms away from the coast, where plumes of pollution from urban runoff can endanger the "herd." And it can make siting a farm somewhat easier, since it would draw less opposition from local residents uneasy about the potential for aquaculture pollution -- in the form of waste from the fish -- to foul beaches.

Some environmentalists and marine researchers view open-ocean fish farming with a wary eye. They are concerned that because open-ocean farming is out of sight, it may slowly fall out of mind. Many of the species to be kept down on the aquafarm are top-of-the-food-chain meat eaters, which have the highest market value. But they also are voracious, requiring anywhere from three to 25 pounds of feed -- read smaller fish or fish meal -- for every pound of meat in the farmed species. Concerns also have been growing over the spread of parasites, such as sea lice, from farmed fish to wild schools that pass by, as well as over the results of genetic mixing between wild fish and their escaped farmed cousins.

Sustainable aquaculture is possible if the right species and techniques are used, says William Mott, outgoing president of SeaWeb, a nongovernmental organization that supports sustainable aquaculture. If the motive truly is to meet demand for food, he says, more can be done with fresh-water species grown in urban areas close to their markets, rather than developing large marine feedlots offshore.

Citing unease at what he sees as a bill crafted with input dominated by the aquaculture industry, Mr. Mott adds that it's important to get the measure right. "This legislation will set precedents for generations."


Don't Sit on the Sidelines of History. Join Alternet All Access and Go Ad-Free. Support Honest Journalism.