Your planet is changing. We're on it.
“The moment the satellite separated from the rocket got me feeling emotional,” Dr. Josh Willis, lead project scientist for the Jason-3 mission, told me. I imagined the satellite emerging from the nosecone of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket and unfurling its solar panels 830 miles above where we were standing near the bar at the Jason-3 launch after-party. Seeing a NASA science dude with a crisp shirt, black suit jacket and—can you believe it—cufflinks was heartwarming. I recognized his dad, his wife, his in-laws nearby. My husband was there, too, along with most of our peers, all part of an odd little NASA ocean sciences extended family.
When Willis told me he “had affection” for the Jason-3 satellite, I felt relief; glad that I wasn’t the only one who’d been anthropomorphizing. He said that the French engineers from CNES, the French Space Agency, who were responsible for connecting the satellite to the rocket, had drawn a pair of eyes on the nitrogen storage bags used for sealing the satellite to prevent rust. “It looked like it was alive,” he said.
Unless you’re a total whack, your affection for flight hardware builds up over time. And Willis’ work with satellites that measure sea surface height goes back to TOPEX/Poseidon, the great granddaddy of ocean surface topography, which launched in 1992 when he was a graduate student. “Back then, the data was cool and interesting and was really accurate. It did what it was supposed to do, which was amazing to me.” TOPEX/Poseidon was originally designed as a 5-year mission to measure currents. “In the beginning, it wasn’t obvious that these satellites would measure climate change. It took years to ensure that the satellites were accurate enough to measure global sea level change, and, of course, now they’re the most important tool for measuring global warming.”
After 23 years of data, we’re continuing the series with the launch of Jason-3, the fourth member of the family. “That’s a huge triumph of science and engineering,” he explained. “NASA always wants to do new things, but for climate science, we really need to do the same thing over and over. That’s a different type of job.” I looked around at our spouses and thought about how I explain marriage to my single friends: You can get a lot of interesting things from a long-term commitment. Willis agreed. It’s a whole career, going the distance, not just one conquest after the other.
“It took years and years for the entire science team, which is a couple hundred people looking at this data year in and year out, to feel confident that we were measuring more than currents. Everything has to be perfect to measure global sea level rise.” And over that 23-year period, while the scientists’ abilities to use the data improved, global sea level rose an inch or two, which, sad but true, made it easier to measure.
Jason-3 launched just in time to observe the 2016 El Niño with its many extreme sea levels, storms and high winds in the ocean. The Jason-2 and Jason-3 satellites will fly right next to each other, separated by 60 seconds, and the calibration will happen over a wide range of different conditions. When I asked Willis if this year’s El Niño is bigger than the one in 1997-98, he said, “The water at its peak temperature in the Pacific this time is warmer than the peak temperature in 97-98. But what most people care about is rainfall, and by that measure, we’ll just have to wait and see. We’ve got a few more months before El Niño clobbers us here in the U.S. Plus, we’ve had another 18 years of global warming.”
“Let’s face it, the ocean dominates everything,” he continued. “Two-thirds of the planet’s surface is rising. That’s the story of global warming. You have to have a satellite to see that, and the Jasons do what nothing else can.”
As always, I welcome your comments.
TOPEX/Poseidon and Jason-1 were cooperative missions between NASA and the French space agency, CNES. Additional partners in the Jason-2 mission included NOAA and Eumetsat. Jason-3 continues the international cooperation, with NOAA and Eumetsat leading the efforts, along with partners NASA and CNES.
Think back to when you were a kid imagining what you were going to be when you grew up. You dreamt that someday, somehow, you would make a difference, a contribution, that your work would be meaningful in the world. If you accomplished this today, how pumped would you be?
"This is going to sound really cheesy and lame," NASA oceanographer Michelle Gierach told me over a Skype call from COP21 in Paris, "but I just get a sense of pride being from the U.S. and being a cool NASA representative and seeing people get excited about what we do. In my day-to-day job, I sometimes forget how much Americans and international people from everywhere love to know what we're doing. It reinvigorates a sense of pride in NASA's work."
Because of the nine-hour time difference, I was barely awake for our call, and through my morning mental blur I wondered for a moment if the glee in her voice had something to do with the fact that I'm a fantastic person and she was thrilled to be speaking with me, or perhaps she was hopped up on chocolate. "They give you chocolate bars every day!" she squealed. "I'm not lying, and it's really good chocolate."
But it was the conference, COP21, the 21st Conference of the Parties of the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change, that had her all giddy. You see, after so many years of stagnation, resistance and even moving backwards, finally, finally there seems to be movement toward global action against climate change. Yes, it's baby steps, and yes, there's more work to do, "but some movement is significant," she stressed. "I'll take it."
All of us are hungry for something positive. Always. Especially now, since most of the news lately has been such a total bummer. A positive message around climate could be that bump in optimism that we all need right now.
The U.N. COP21 meeting in Paris began on Nov. 30, and by this Friday, Dec. 11, 195 member nations hope to reach a unanimous agreement to cut greenhouse gas emissions, hold global warming to 2 degrees Celsius or even lower and provide financial support to developing nations so they can bypass fossil fuels.
It's hard not to feel optimistic. Part of you wants to get your hopes up, but you also don't want to be disappointed, because for so many years there's been so much disappointment. Then there's that part of you that says, This time is different. This time we can do it. Gierach told me that she felt an energy about reaching an outcome at COP21. The overall vibe is "completely optimistic, everybody wants to do something, everybody knows we have to do something. There's a 'let's do it' kind of attitude."
Hyper about the Hyperwall
Last week, we'd spoken about her upcoming trip. She had conflicted feelings due to the recent events in Paris and was concerned about a heightened state of worry and icky vibes. "As a NASA representative," she explained, "my role is to show what NASA is doing with regards to climate change, even though I'm not a delegate or a policy maker. I was so excited to go, and now I'm just not so excited about it anymore." But what a difference one week and a few thousand miles made. From the conference her voice sounded triumphant: "Everybody here wants to show that it's not going to stop what they're trying to do here. It hasn't stopped it at all."
Gierach also told me she was, "super excited that this time around it finally seems people are listening. People see that the oceans are part of a massive system and actually are a significant reason we haven't had a more extreme temperature rise. That message seems to be getting out there." She's been talking about the oceans every day on NASA's hyperwall, an ultra-high resolution visualization that combines nine computer monitors into a giant screen that plays animations in tandem.
On Dec. 3, she joined a panel called "Oceans under pressure" to discuss the following main points of consensus that we can see from satellites:
- The sea surface temperature record shows that the ocean is warming, which clearly impacts Arctic sea ice reduction, the different types of sea ice, and ice sheet reduction.
- Sea level rise is not equal around the globe; for example, the western tropical Pacific has much higher sea level rise than the eastern equatorial Pacific.
And because a significant portion of the conference is dedicated to carbon emissions, she's also talking about the interaction between the ocean and the atmosphere and how carbon dioxide transfers between the two.
Just before we hung up, she added, with power in her voice like a chant or rally call, "Yeah, we're here and we're going to do something. We're not just speaking; we're actually acting and showing that we're acting."
Watch the live stream from the U.S. Center at COP21 in Paris here.
Watch the "Oceans Under Pressure" panel with panelists Jean-Pierre Gattuso, IDDRI/CNRS; Jean-Pierre Gattuso, IDDRI/CNRS; Alexander MacDonald, NOAA; Michelle Gierach, NASA; Cassandra deYoung, FAO here.
Thank you so much for reading,
P.S. Michelle was totally inspired by President Obama's speech and said, "Regardless of what people may think, he is trying to make the world a better place. It made me extremely proud to be part of the United States and have him as our president." Watch the speech here.
NASA’s Global Climate Change website gets a lot of user feedback. Aside from typical random Internet trolls and students posing thinly veiled attempts at getting us to write their term papers, one of the most commonly asked questions goes something like this:
“Hey, NASA, are you really sure people are causing climate change? Have you double-checked?” or “Hey, NASA, I have an idea. Maybe climate change is caused by x, y, z and it’s not really caused by humans. You should look into this.”
The short answer to this type of question is “Yes, we’ve double-, triple-, quadruple-checked. It’s science! We check and recheck a gazillion times. We’ve looked into everything you could possibly imagine and more. Before we commit to what we say, we have a strong desire to make sure it’s actually true.”
One example of how careful we have to be is when we’re analyzing the carbon dioxide in Earth’s atmosphere from space.
OCO-2 is the NASA mission designed to be sensitive enough to detect a single part of carbon dioxide per million parts of atmosphere (ppm). The way it works is super complicated. And because carbon dioxide is the most important human contribution to climate change (the biggest issue of our time) and expectations of science results were set very high, we have to be super-duper certain our measurements are correct.
The sensitivity makes it very challenging.
The instruments on OCO-2 not only measure the absolute amount of carbon dioxide at a location, but they also look for very small gradients in the distribution of CO2, the difference in the distribution of carbon dioxide between one location and another as a function of time. For example, “a gradient on and off a city is like 2 parts per million,” explained Mike Gunson, project scientist for the mission. "You see 2 parts per million from any city of modest size on up. You’re looking at the difference between 399.5 and 401.5 parts per million. So you have to be careful. Nobody’s done this over New York City, Mumbai, Beijing or Shanghai, where it could be wildly different.”
Scientists spend their lives working to get reliable data. Science is hard; it’s not a walk in the park. Everything doesn't just land in your lap. Sometimes it’s a miracle to get any data at all. People don’t often talk about the challenges of doing science, but if you could uncover the history of any project, you would probably find loads of problems, issues and challenges that come up.
After most NASA satellite launches, the instruments typically go through a validation phase, a two- or three-month period when engineers and project managers check, double-check and recheck the data coming in from the satellite to assess its quality and make sure it’s absolutely accurate before it’s released to the scientific community. But with OCO-2, “there is no validation phase,” Gunson told me, “because the measurements have such sensitivity. You’re always validating. Constant validation is an integral part of ensuring the integrity of the dataset.”
For OCO-2 to make an observation, the sky has to be clear, without clouds. Too much wind will move the carbon dioxide, so you also need quiet meteorological conditions. Then, before we can make an inference, we must assess the quality of data, which involves exceptionally large computing capacity.” Because there is so much data coming in, you end up using all sorts of analysis techniques, including machine learning, to analyze the quality of the data. OCO-2 launched in July 2014, and since this past September the data have been released to the broader science community to sink their teeth into. This means, Gunson said, “after a year of alligator-wrestling, all of a sudden we can walk it on a leash.”
Learn more about NASA’s efforts to better understand the carbon and climate challenge.
I look forward to your comments.
It would be so easy to sit around all day complaining about climate change and global warming. I mean, hey, we've got so many storms that my colleague who updates "Latest Events" on our Eyes on the Earth web app rolls her eyes as if to say "I can't even." Global warming, drought, El Niño, big hurricanes: Planet Earth is like, "You want a piece of me?" And even as the challenge of climate change and global warming hits us in the face like wave after wave of storm surge, I ask myself: Are they challenges or are they opportunities? Or both?
Some thrive on transforming things that appear negative. And perhaps nothing appears more negative than our garbage. It's ... garbage, refuse, trash, rubbish, junk – the waste products of our lives, the stuff we determine useless. Wouldn't it be amazing if it were possible to take that discarded dreck and turn it into something that we really, really want and need?
Well, there is.
And the Solid Waste Authority of Palm Beach County, Florida has taken the lead. They have the most advanced and cleanest waste-to-energy power plant in North America. They take trash directly from garbage trucks and load it into "the Pit,"" which is designed to handle up to seven days of waste. Grapples that look like giant claws feed the waste into one of three boilers. There, it's burned to generate steam, which drives a turbine generator to produce electricity. A suite of pollution control technologies ensures extremely low air emissions.
The plant can process 3,000 tons of trash every day and convert it into enough electricity to power more than 40,000 homes and businesses. Yeah.
There are a bunch of reasons why waste-to-energy power plants benefit the environment:- First, the Renewable Energy Facilities at the Solid Waste Authority reduce greenhouse gas emissions by producing electricity that otherwise would have been generated by burning fossil fuels.
- The system also decreases the volume of waste that goes to the landfill, thereby limiting methane generation, which is 21 times more potent than carbon dioxide as a greenhouse gas.
- The facility has recycled nearly 2 million tons of paper, plastic, aluminum and glass and recovers metals, such as iron and aluminum, from materials discarded by the residents and businesses. Manufacturing new products from recycled materials consumes less energy and significantly reduces greenhouse gas generation compared to mining and metal production from raw materials.
- The Solid Waste Authority also collects gases generated by the landfill to effectively prevent emissions into the atmosphere. These gases are harnessed to produce energy, which helps reduce fossil fuel reliance.
Tom Henderson, project manager at Arcadis, managed the development of this 7- to 8-year project, because he knew how to put the team of talented people together and understood the political and engineering aspects of getting the plant built. During our phone conversation, he told me "the primary purpose of these facilities is to eliminate the need for a landfill."
Landfills are forever
I told him I didn't think most of this blog's readers had ever been to a landfill, so I asked him to describe what it's like to stand next to one.
"The first thing you notice is that these facilities are huge," he told me. "It's not like there's a couple of bags of trash brought there every day. There's tens of thousands of tons, hundreds and hundreds of truckloads, so the first thing you're impressed with is how much trash there is. It's just this huge volume of material." Throwing so much stuff away is one of the major greenhouse gas and climate change contributors.
Yikes. I wondered if you could identify individual things or if it looked more like a mush pit. "You see food waste, a lot of paper and plastic, mattresses. The smell is pretty bad," he told me. "Just about anything you could imagine in your home or office today is going to end up at a place like that in most places in this country."
I looked around my room at my night table with a lamp on it, a moisturizer, a phone cable, some papers. I thought about all the Halloween decorations I'd walked past this morning.
All of it, all of it, all of it, ends up in a landfill
We went on to discuss how, as a society, we've become very selfish. People don't want to think about this big mound of trash. We want what we want and we don't care what happens to it after the trash truck drives off. Yup, that is us.
Well, some people care; you might even be one of them. But judging by the way our society disposes its trash, its waste products, it's obvious we don't care enough to stop what we've been doing.
"Landfills are very inexpensive to build," said Henderson, "but you have to maintain them forever." (He emphasized the word "ever" as if to extend the timeline with the tone of his voice.) "A hundred years from now, the liner system will have failed and we have to go back and spend money to clean it." As he spoke, I thought about the parallel to climate change: The maintenance cost is not included in the initial cost of the landfill, just as the cost of adaptation is not included in the price of burning fossil fuels.
Henderson explained how easy it is to "build landfills if nobody is there to complain about it." But in Palm Beach County, Florida, the County Commission decided to deal with their own problem, rather than exporting it like a lot of other large cities. When people are involved in their community, they have more control over what happens. "We're creating this problem. We should deal with it ourselves." Waste-to-energy plants are usually right inside the community. They decided that it was not okay to put the garbage in a truck and drive it hundreds and hundreds of miles "away." And in fact, at their waste-to-energy facility, they have a sign that says, "This is where 'away' is."
On Planet Earth, there is no "away." "Away" is here.
And thank you so much for reading.
There are days when you just want to crawl under your desk and hide in the fetal position. I felt like that this morning. And indeed, I may feel this way for the rest of the week – or longer. Everywhere I turn, some giant challenge smacks me in the gut (ahem, global warming) and I'm supposed to bounce with glee like "NASA, NASA, rah rah roo!" all day long.
I'm sure you know what I mean. This weekend I walked past a busy café and saw single-use plastic trash spilling everywhere. You can see this in café after café, day after day, everywhere. It's a symptom of people paying lip service to caring for the environment, but being absolutely paralyzed. If the most we ask of ourselves is to buy more and more stuff and carry it a whole 2 feet to a trash bin, then how in the world are we going to tackle the big things?
The energy it takes to make honest, interesting and informative content for this climate website, the energy it takes to not let the daily deluge of Internet trolls and nasty comments get to me, all while facing the reality of GLOBAL WARMING, is exhausting.
I try to make a difference, to keep encouraging myself, to lift myself out of despair. We're supposed to keep our noses to the do-something-meaningful-with-your-life grindstone and keep chugging endlessly uphill, just like The Little Engine That Could, while repeating some mindless positive slogans of encouragement to keep our heads up.
I try to find a way to cope with these enormous problems without turning away, without downing a pint of ice cream, without watching the stupidest reality TV show I can find. For to be so disconnected from the world as to be capable of polluting it, is to be disconnected from life. And connection is the one thing I refuse to let go of.
True, maybe you really should crawl under your desk and your little engine should pull over to the side of the road for a break. But you're here, just like I am, pushing through because it's somehow better to stay connected even if it hurts.
I've sat in countless meetings here at NASA, where scientists and engineers fight to create complex flying machines that observe particles as tiny as a molecule from miles away, or hand build a one-of-a-kind experimental instrument from scratch, out of nothing but innovation and dreams. We thrive on the incomprehensibly difficult. We welcome problems, challenges, roadblocks, obstacles that are impossibly, mind-bogglingly large. That's why I'm here: To feed on frustration, difficulty and hindrance until I grow stronger and more ferocious.
I look forward to your comments.
Those of you who follow this blog know that, on top of launching satellites into space, NASA has a suite of Earth-observing instruments, a robust airborne program of instruments mounted on planes, and science ships.
Final frontier? I don't think so. Our catch phrase should be more like "Frontiers are us." We're all over the place.
Recently, Chris Mertens, a NASA scientist interested in galactic cosmic rays, shepherded a NASA balloon all the way to the top of Earth's atmosphere. The balloon, which stood a couple hundred feet tall and held 11 million cubic feet of helium, had a flight train attached to it with a payload of four science instruments and a parachute. He watched it lift off from NASA's Columbia Scientific Balloon Facility in Fort Sumner, New Mexico, and float away on a 24-hour research journey. "It was pretty surreal seeing it drift vertically away," he told me. "The apparatus looked big in the flight facility but looked so small as it was going up. It floated so gracefully, effortlessly."
Up, up and away
As the balloon lifted off, chief engineer Amanda Cutright could hear two sets of cheers, one at the location and a second over the delay at NASA's Langley Research Center where members of the team were watching a broadcast of the event. But she was "still holding her breath," waiting for the data to come in.
Mertens and Cutright, along with project manager Kevin Daugherty and the rest of the Radiation Dosimetry Experiment (RaD-X) team, had spent the past few weeks prepping the balloon and payload in the deserts of New Mexico and had been anxiously awaiting its launch. (Dosimetry is the science of determining radiation dosages received by the human body.) Daugherty told me they'd been waiting for the winds to stagnate in the upper atmosphere so they could fly over the southeastern U.S. for 24 hours without going into the populated areas of Mexico or Los Angeles.
Up in the air
The project actually began years ago when Mertens heard a pilot say, "I'm exposed to radiation and I don't know how much." See, someone on a one-way plane trip from Chicago to Germany on a normal day is exposed to approximately one chest X-ray's worth of radiation. Because commercial airline pilots and aircrew fly so frequently, they are actually radiation workers. So, with his background in cosmic radiation and space weather physics, Mertens knew he could develop a model to predict the radiation levels in Earth's upper atmosphere and answer that question. With this balloon flight, the RaD-X team expects to learn more about the amount of radiation flight crews receive on a daily, monthly or yearly basis and throughout their careers.
Up, up, up, up
About two hours after launch, the balloon reached the middle of the stratosphere, about 110-120 thousand feet up, right on the edge of space. That's about three times as high as commercial airplanes normally fly. From on-board cameras, "we could see the curvature of the Earth and watch the clouds recede," said Cutright. The team wanted to look at the incoming galactic cosmic rays and radiation from the sun above the region where the particles interact with the atmosphere and break up into smaller particles. "Earth's radiation environment is complex," Mertens explained. "Our magnetic field has a dynamic response to the solar wind and varies with latitude. At the polar regions, radiation exposure is maximum because the magnetic field lines are vertical. This means that during a solar storm, the incoming charged particles at the polar cap are parallel to the magnetic field lines, so there's no deflection by the magnetic field."
Yes, Earth's magnetic field is seriously rad.
Just past sunset, they purposely let enough helium out of the balloon to lower it to the 70-89 thousand foot range and have it float there overnight. All four dosimetry instruments collected data at both altitudes to feed into NAIRAS, an analytical model that simulates tissue and how radiation impacts it.
For the rest of the flight, the RaD-X team watched visuals from the onboard cameras, gathered near real-time data on their computers and tracked the balloon flight path from the control room.
"At one point late at night," said Cutright, "we were watching the Earth and we could see the moon. We could see a lightning storm over Oklahoma, all the way from the edge of Texas and New Mexico."
After sunrise, the team watched the parachute deploy so the payload could descend safely; from the camera view, they watched the Earth getting bigger and bigger. The payload was cut from the balloon and a large hole ripped on the side of the balloon so it could fall on its own off to the side. The balloon landed in a rancher's field and the Columbia Scientific Balloon Facility out of NASA Wallops recovered it.
Thank you for reading and for your comments.
P.S. 100 low-cost Cubes in Space experiments from 100 classrooms across the country were also on the flight. Some of their experiments included kernels of popcorn to see if they pop at altitude and seeds and electronics to find out how radiation affects them. Now that you know NASA helped students send kernels of popcorn to the edge of space, aren't you dying to find out if they popped or not? I am. I'll try my best to find out and post it here.
This morning when I told someone I’d interviewed NASA oceanographer Josh Willis for this blog, they replied, “Isn’t Josh Willis a climatologist?”
“Aha!” I said. “That’s a problem. Not knowing that Earth’s ocean is responsible for controlling the climate is major. Oceanographers are climatologists.”
I mean, look, the ocean covers 71 percent of the planet’s surface, and 71 percent is like, duh, a lot. The ocean, in fact, is so important that a better name for our planet would have been “Ocean” rather than “Earth” — even though our species spends most of its time on boring old land. #sorrynotsorry, geologists.
And you might not realize this because it’s so familiar, but water is crazy. It has this unusual property, called “high heat capacity,” that gives it the ability to hold a stable temperature. It resists heating and cooling. Water will absorb a lot of energy before it changes temperature even a little bit.
And this property of water, this high heat capacity, is what makes life on our planet possible. It’s also what controls and moderates our climate, which is why our ocean, more than our atmosphere, is responsible for creating a stable climate on Earth.
So this is the reason oceanographers are climatologists. It’s also part of the reason Willis chose to name his new science project Oceans Melting Greenland (OMG). He hopes that people everywhere will recognize the role Earth’s ocean plays in controlling the climate and to say to the world, “Hey! The ocean is eating away at the ice sheet! The ocean is playing a huge role in melting the glaciers; it's melting Greenland!”
Remember I just told you water absorbs a lot of energy before it heats up? Well, humans have added so much energy to the Earth system by burning fossil fuels that we have heated the ocean. And now that we’ve warmed it up, you guessed it: The water is in no hurry to change back, so we’re going to be stuck with this warmer water for a very long time. And, says Willis, “Since Greenland is one of the last two remaining ice sheets on the planet, its fate is intertwined with how much destruction we’re going to have with climate change.” If you just said “OMG,” you would be right.
But if you think scientists know everything there is to know about the ocean, you would be very wrong. Willis and his team want to find out more about the complicated geometry (the shape and depth of the seafloor) around Greenland to understand the interaction between the water and ice so that we can find out how fast the glaciers are melting.
This summer OMG used a ship, M/V Cape Race, to sail right up the narrow fjords on the continental shelf surrounding Greenland to the places where the 4- to 5-degree Atlantic Ocean water meets the bottoms of the frozen zero degree glaciers. The Cape Race used a multibeam echo sounder to map undersea canyons where the warm seawater comes in contact with and melts the glaciers. Willis followed the ship’s path via smartphone, sitting up in his PJs at two o’clock in the morning and uttering a variety of exclamations, including “OMG, turn left, left!”
Next year, the Cape Race will continue to make its way around Greenland, mapping the depth of the seafloor near the fjords, while Willis joins his team in the field flying on NASA’s G-III plane.
“OMG is a big picture project,” he told me. ”We want to see what’s happening in the ocean on the large scale and what’s happening to the ice sheet on the largest scales.”
In the spring, the NASA aircraft, with Willis aboard, will measure how much Greenland glaciers are thinning using the Glacier and Ice Surface Topography Interferometer (GLISTIN-A) instrument. They plan to deploy temperature and salinity probes in the summer. “In most of these places, there’s been no temperature and salinity data collected,” Willis said pausing, “ever.” Over the next five years, they will continue to monitor the ice sheet, asking, “When the water is this warm, how much ice melts?”
Willis knows “OMG” is a campy name for a NASA mission that makes light of a serious subject. “It’s easier to accept something as a reality when you can laugh at it, and accepting reality is a step towards making a change,” he said, explaining that if he was bummed out about climate change all the time, he would be stuck. “Humor makes it tolerable.”
Hopefully, when you find out about Oceans Melting Greenland, you’ll respond in the only way that’s appropriate: “OMG!”
Thank you for reading, sharing and commenting.
“The water is soooo warm!”
That sentence keeps popping out of Angelenos' mouths. It’s practically impossible to stick a toe into the California Pacific Ocean without making some sort of immediate involuntary exclamation regarding the water temperature. And the water has been unbelievably warm lately. The surf zone is full of swimmers frolicking in the waves. And even my cold-water averse puppy is now joyously prancing on his skinny little legs through the surf.
But along with the in-and-out, back-and-forth of the waves, my own moments of beach-ly delight also have an up-and-down quality. See, every time I stroll across the sand, I notice trash. Some pieces of trash are large items that people have obviously left on purpose, too neglectful to carry them away. Other pieces are small bits of plastic: a torn shred of wrapper, a crumb of rubber band that accidentally got away. I can’t help myself from noticing it. And I can’t help myself from picking it up, every piece I see, walking it over to a trash can, and throwing it in. When I see a piece of beach trash, nothing in me will allow me to walk past it. I can’t not pick it up.
A few days ago, as the sun was setting and most of the people had gone, I saw a seagull with a water bottle in its mouth. It reminded me of my puppy, who loves to chew a water bottle. He’ll grab it and run gleefully in circles until he drops and gets busy on the cap. If I don’t take it off him, he will start to swallow the chewed pieces. The gull was doing the same thing, playing with the bottle near the edge of the water, pecking instead of chewing, but otherwise in the same bouncy mood. I chased him down, took the water bottle off him and recycled it.
So I left the beach with mixed feelings. I’m just one person on one beach for one day. What about the rest of the beaches? What about the other days? Who will pick up the plastic there?
I come to this blog with similar mixed feelings. The warm waves feel wonderful, but I know it’s warm because of El Niño, the global climate event that starts on the eastern side of the Pacific Ocean all the way from California down to Peru. El Niño is complicated. *Will it bring much-needed rain to the parched southwestern region of the United States and relieve us from this ongoing drought? Will it be too much rain all at one time? Will it cause flooding and landslides?
Even now, the warmer waters on our side of the Pacific are causing many species that thrive in cooler waters to struggle while warmer water species are temporarily moving in. Sure, it’s interesting to SCUBA dive and see tropical fish, but the sea lions who depend on cooler waters are hating it big time.
Up-and-down, back-and-forth, in-and-out.
I figured you wouldn’t want to read yet another depressing piece about how much we’re trashing our planet. So, in searching for something less dismal, I went to talk with Bill Patzert and Josh Willis, unarguably the world’s leading experts on El Niño, to see what they had to say about our current El Niño conditions (other than the fact that they’re making a swim more pleasant and bringing lots of pink clouds to our Southern California sunsets).
As I walked in, the two NASA oceanographers were in the middle of a discussion about the impact of El Niño rains on the amount of ocean trash. “Oh perfect,” I thought. “So I’m going with a trash-themed blog. Game on, Oscar the Grouch, game on.”
When I told them about my inability to walk past trash at the beach, Patzert said, “Our beaches have been exceptionally clean for over a decade now because we haven’t had a strong El Niño. As soon as those rains come, any trash hibernating in our storm sewers or on our streets will get flushed into the L.A. River and onto SoCal beaches.”
Woohoo, trash!! Too bad Oscar isn’t a sea monster. He’d be elated.
Thank you for your comments.
*Some scientific info about El Niño: Most of the time, under normal ocean conditions, trade winds blow from the east side of the Pacific to the west side. These winds push surface water towards the Western Pacific near Asia and Australia where the warm water piles up. This Western Pacific Warm Pool contains some of the warmest ocean waters on the planet. Every decade or so, the trade winds soften and all that warm water that normally stays on the western side of the Pacific, sloshes back towards the east and we get a phenomenon known as El Niño. Since the Pacific Ocean takes up about half of planet Earth, it has the potential to affect global weather patterns. A strong El Niño can bring warm moist conditions to the West Coasts of the Americas, while leaving Australia and Southeast Asia unusually dry. So far, the 2015-2016 El Niño is shaping up to be an exceptionally strong one.
“How difficult is it going to be to switch from a fossil fuel economy to a renewable energy economy?” asked a gentleman from the audience. I paused and took a deep breath.
I was giving a lecture about climate change at a retirement community, and I’d been thinking about my own parents ever since I’d stepped through the front door earlier. Situated a couple hours north of Los Angeles, the “retirement village,” as they called it, was immaculate. It resembled a glamorous apartment hotel with Spanish architecture, wide foyers and grounds that were landscaped with drought-tolerant plants for the California climate. As I was escorted to the lecture hall, I noticed a few residents peacefully walking dogs.
I took a second breath and began my answer. “My parents would love it here.” A hundred puzzled faces looked up at me, wondering what this comment about my parents had to do with the global energy economy. “When I talk with them about moving out of their burdensome three-bedroom home, they tell me that if they could just snap their fingers and be here right now,” I said, waving my arm high while making a grand snapping gesture, “they’d simply do it immediately. But, they find the idea of the transition utterly unbearable. So they’re stuck. Heels dug in, entrenched, immobile, paralyzed.”
While I was talking, an image popped, unwelcome, into my mind’s eye. I saw my parents’ fine china, stacked in a dusty credenza, untouched for 47-plus years. “They don’t want to go through their belongings and make choices,” I said. “They’re afraid of the amount of hard work.”
At this point I needed to pull away from my own emotions and check in with the people sitting in front of me. “Does any of this make sense to you? Does it seem familiar?” I saw a hundred white-haired heads nod simultaneously. I heard a hundred mumbled “Uh huhs.” In all my years of public speaking, this was the first time I’d experienced an entire room of people in agreement.
One gentleman near the front said, “That was me before I came here.” Another said, “I have some friends exactly like that right now.”
It’s easy for me to imagine a time off into the future, eventually, someday, where people will look back on all the credenzas and all the coal-fired power plants and regard them with the same quaint fondness that we have for Dick Van Dyke’s chimney sweep character from “Mary Poppins”: charming relics of a bygone era.
What I worry about, on both personal and global levels, is that it might take a catastrophic upheaval before the transition to better, cleaner, more comfortable conditions occurs. And those kinds of catastrophic events could be painful, personally and globally. I said as much to the group of seniors at the retirement village, and this time I didn’t need to ask them if they understood me. I could see it in their eyes. And the same guy in the front said quietly, “Yeah, that was me before I came here.”
Thank you for reading, and thank you for your comments.
We say we throw our trash away. But, where is 'away'?
Yesterday I was meeting with a few scientists down at the University of California, Irvine. Like any other campus, there were plenty of trash cans. Except they weren’t called trash cans. Some were labeled “recycling” and others were named “landfill.” It struck me how a simple shift in what we name something can make such a difference in how our mind sees it. Trash is a vague concept whereas landfill is a specific location with a concrete meaning and has an extremely different connotation from the word “trash.” If it’s trash, then we can say we’re “throwing it away.” Trash goes to that invisible place called “away.” If it’s landfill, then it goes in the, you know, landfill, the most unglamorous place of all.
Over the weekend a Mylar balloon landed in my yard. It reminded me of the idea of away. People like to release balloons into the sky as a celebration. The balloons are carried “away.” But the balloons don’t really go away. They don’t go anywhere; they stay here on Earth, sometimes in people’s yards, but most often balloons released into the sky end up in the ocean. This is why I’ve always hated balloons. To me, they represent society’s collective decision to not see how much we waste; to pay as little attention as possible to that place we’ve decided to label “away.”
Carbon pollution is one more of our “aways.”
Because there is no such thing as “away.” The only thing that’s real is here.
I look forward to your comments.
Thank you, Laura