Sunday, December 30, 2012

Student Voices - #3

Future Weather Patterns and the
Disappearing Arctic Ice Cap 

Over the last four years, as a student in the Environmental Science and Studies Program of Moravian College, Bethlehem, PA., I have studied about the environment and particularly about global climate change. One aspect that I find particularly interesting is the increasing occurrences of “record breaking” weather events over the last several years. While some may call this “global climate change”, a “phenomenon”, or even just the “normal pattern of the earth’s climate”, one thing is sure: weather and climate change are indeed occurring.  Until recently, I was baffled when pondering the reasons why this way occurring in the Northeastern United States where I was raised. It was not until recently that I believe to have learned the explanation for these record breaking events, at least in the northern hemisphere.

Currently, there has been significant evidence to prove that indeed the Arctic ice sheet has been disappearing over the last half century. [1, 2] While currently, the overall surface area of summer arctic sea ice has disappeared by nearly 40% since the 1980’s resulting in a loss of nearly 1.3 million square miles of ice. [1]  In addition, it is even more important to examine the change of volume of ice over this time for this reveals a more accurate description of the actual ice loss. When arctic ice volume is measured, the results are even more dramatic. As Fen Montaigne, (senior editor of Yale360) reports, 

“University of Washington’s Pan Arctic Ice Ocean Model Assimilation System (PIOMAS) estimates that sea ice volumes fell in late August to roughly 3,500 cubic kilometers — a 72-percent drop from the 1979-2010 mean”. [2] 

As the scientists revealed, there has been a significant reduction in the amount of Arctic Sea ice over the last 3 decades. (It is important to note that I am not arguing as to the original cause of this melt but merely stating that this has happened and examining the effects of this ice loss). 

Correlated with this loss of ice has been increased record setting weather. While many claim these to be “global warming”, I prefer to look at these as “climate change” for not all of these effects are increased temperatures. For example, while Russia over the last several years has experienced drastic record setting heat waves, Alaska and Western Europe have both experienced the opposite with record setting winter cold temperatures. [1]  In addition, places such as the Midwestern United States have seen both record setting high and low temperatures. Also, apart from temperature changes, the Northeastern United States has seen recording breaking snowfall over the last year. Personally, I witnessed Bethlehem, PA receive a record breaking 6” of snowfall last year on October 29, 2011 as well as Smugglers Notch Ski Resort in Vermont receive over 70” of snow in January 2012 due to a Nor’easter. While as an avid snowboarder I thought this was amazing, it was equally as startling when examining from the perspective of an environmental scientist observing unusual weather patterns.

As a result, there is one theory proposed by Jennifer Francis (Institute of Marine and Coastal Sciences, Rutgers University Research Professor) whom explains the reasoning for all of the above record breaking circumstances [1]. Her theory is that as the arctic ice melts, northern arctic temperatures rise which results in an increased oscillation of the northern Jet Stream. This is called “arctic amplification.” [1] As the Jet Stream, which separates the cold arctic air from the warm mid-latitude air, increases in north-south oscillation, its eastward movement (due to the Coriolis Effect), is significantly slowed. This results in the elongation of weather patterns. This would explain the unusual +70” of snowfall last January I witnessed firsthand for the Nor’easter over Vermont had a longer duration period over the Northeastern United States. The second effect of the Jet Stream oscillation is the carrying of cold arctic air further southward as well as the warmer mid-latitude air further northward. [1] When combined with the slowed eastward movement of the Jet Stream, these relatively new weather patterns result in extreme high and low temperatures across different areas of the globe. As Jennifer Francis explains in her 2012 analysis Linking Weird Weather to Rapid Warming of the Arctic:

Deep troughs in the jet stream hung over the U.S. east coast and Western Europe during the winters of 2009/2010 and 2010/2011, bringing a seemingly endless string of snow storms and teeth-chattering cold. In the early winter of 2011/2012, in contrast, these same areas were under ridges, or northward bulges of the jet stream, which brought unusually warm and snowless conditions over much of North America. At the same time, however, a deep trough sat over Alaska, dumping record snows.

As it was explained above, the Jet Stream Oscillation was the result of the various record breaking weather patterns shown over the last few years across the Northern Hemisphere. In conclusion, the arctic ice cap has continued melting at alarming rates over the last 3 decades. While this is this leads to warmer temperatures in the arctic region, the effects which it places on lower latitudes has been debated. Scientific data such as record high temperatures in certain areas while record low temperatures in another could be scientifically used to debate opposing hypothesis as to the weather effects of the arctic ice melt, the true explanation for this potentially contradicting data is explained by Jet Stream oscillation from arctic amplification. This process effectively explains the large variance of weather patterns and record setting events seen across the northern hemisphere over the last decade, some of which I had witnessed personally.

Works Cited

[1]        Francis, Jennifer. "Linking Weird Weather to Rapid Warming of the Arctic." Yale Environment 360. Yale Environment 360, 05 May 2012. Web. 29 Nov. 2012. 

[2]        Montagine, Fen. "Arctic Tipping Point: A North Pole Without Ice." Yale Environment 360. Yale Environment 360, 30 Aug. 2012. Web. 29 Nov. 2012. 

Friday, December 28, 2012

Student Voices - #2

Subsidizing Climate Change

On December 4th, The New York Times published a piece that has quickly risen to the top of the “Most E-Mailed” list. Written by Justin Gillis, "To Stop Climate Change, Students Aim at College Portfolios," outlines the cross-country tour of Bill McKibben and his organization,  McKibben is a seasoned environmental activist whose new project just might take the environmental movement to the next level.  He just wrapped up his "Do the Math" tour which stopped in over 20 cities across the nation. It mobilized activists, especially students, for this next chapter of the environmental movement.

Environmentalists were feeling pretty discouraged by the end of the presidential elections in November. Throughout all three debates, climate change went unmentioned despite the extreme weather events that perhaps should have prompted a different response from our elected officials. McKibben urges us to “connect the dots,” and observe the correspondence between each year breaking new heat records and hurricanes causing an increasing amount of damage. Further, he urges us to reflect on the cause of that warming. He said, “We should not have called it Hurricane Sandy, we should have called it Hurricane Exxon.” Only the tiniest fraction of climate scientists denies the connection between our consumption of carbon emitting energy resources like coal, oil, and gas.

McKibben and his new campaign aim to not only connect these dots, but to hold the energy companies accountable. Many universities have invested their endowment in the stocks of energy companies, but McKibben and the student activists that he is working with are campaigning to change that. McKibben gave students the information, the tactics, and the pep talk at each of his 21 stops across the country. Now, students are taking this momentum back to campus to continue the fight. Already, Swarthmore College is well into their campaign. They are finding that the administration on campus largely supports the ideas they are working towards, it is just an issue of getting the College to divest from the stocks. Admittedly, this will be challenging. Energy stocks are safe and profitable investments; they are littered throughout mutual funds and endowments. Despite the recovery our economy has made, it is still volatile, and the prospect of re-allocating investments can be daunting.

There are risks, however, that are not being accounted for in the market. Our energy companies may be profitable stocks, but they pose a considerable threat to our nation. We have already pushed our climate past the point of where we might have been able to undo some of the damage we have done. We are already enduring some of the consequences of our fossil-fuel consumption, as we saw with Hurricane Sandy. There were over 100 casualties internationally, entire regions were without power, and many people lost their homes. How much more damage will we do, and how much more damage will we endure, before we realize we must stop subsidizing the fossil fuel industry?

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Student Voices - #1

For the fall 2012 semester, I taught 3 environmentally-themed courses.  Towards the end of the semester, students in these courses had assignments on topics that were relevant to this blog.  I have selected some of the best works and messages to share as a series of posts for the readers until I sort through the outcomes of COP18 and write up a summary.  Enjoy.  dwh

Will We See Sandy Again?
Caitlin Campbell
 December 2012

On a sandy beach, the high tide line is a ribbon of shells and seaweed. It marks reliable swells of the ocean as it inhales and exhales with the tides. On the front door of a home, it is a ruler of salt and grime. It marks the feet of water that inundated a home or the inches that spared it from ruin. One glance at that line, and you know which it was.

After the devastation of Superstorm Sandy, east coasters are pulling together with the kind of grit we’re known for. Drive into Atlantic City and the billboards will tell you, “Nice try Sandy, but we’re Jersey Strong.”  

But Sandy didn’t just cross the line. She redrew it.    

The assertion that our shifting climate will bring erratic, extreme weather isn’t new. But Superstorm Sandy has forced us to consider the impacts of climate change on weather with new urgency. I should add that according to NOAA’s “State of the Climate Report,” released Thursday, this year will end as the warmest on record for the United States.[i]

 U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon addressed this growing concern at this year’s United Nation’s climate change conference. Rising sea-levels and increasingly frequent super storms, he said, are signs of a climate crisis.[ii] To his audience of over 200 nations he said, “Abnormal is the new normal.”

Of course we cannot say with absolutely certainty that severity of Sandy can be attributed to climate change. Extreme weather events themselves are single data points; they can’t show us what comes next. But when we factor in other extreme events, like droughts and flooding, we see that Sandy is on trend.  

As Elizabeth Kolbert put it in her recent piece for the New Yorker, “As with any particular “weather-related loss event,” it’s impossible to attribute Sandy to climate change. However, it is possible to say that the storm fits the general pattern in North America, and indeed around the world, toward more extreme weather, a pattern that, increasingly, can be attributed to climate change.”[iii]

We can say that the symptoms of climate change certainly work to make extreme weather more destructive. Consider that hurricanes are fueled by warm water. Our oceans are over a degree Celsius warmer than they were a century ago[iv]. Sea level has risen a foot, on average, in the same time. In places on the east coast where land is simultaneously sinking, sea level is 18 inches higher than sixty years ago.[v]

In a post for the American Geophysical Union, Meteorologist Dan Satterfield wrote, “Ask someone in New Jersey, who had a foot of water in their house, if they wish it were 18 inches lower.”[vi]

This assertion that our changing climate is brewing a world of more frequent, more destructive storms is not easy to stomach. And it will resurrect our hackneyed debate over climate change. It’s hard. It’s hard to look at a planet so immense and imagine that we are turning up its thermostat. It’s hard to face the science that tells us what kind of planet we are going to leave our kids. So is rebuilding the infrastructure, lives, and confidence of an entire coast.

Rather than waste ink resurrecting the points of that debate, let it come down to this. Imagine your loved one is sick. You take her one to a doctor, who diagnoses her with a serious illness. You go for another opinion. Then another, until 97 of those doctors agree, she needs help. Would you side with the other three because their diagnoses is the one you want to hear? When would you begin treatment?

According to a study by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 97% of climate scientists agree that we are experiencing human accelerated climate change.[vii]

We can never know if the severity of Sandy destruction was truly a symptom of climate change. But will we wait for more extreme storms, floods, and droughts before we can agree that we have a serious problem?

Sandy hurt. But we know we cannot redraw the high tide line that flooded the homes and crushed the spirits of millions. We can only rebuild. But deciding when we have wasted enough time in addressing climate change, that is a line that we can draw.

[i] Chris Dolce. “Record Warmest Year a "Virtual Certainty.” The Weather Channel. < >
[ii] Barbara Lewis & Alister Doyle. “Extreme Weather is New Normal, U.N.’s Ban Tells Climate Change Talks.” Insurance Journal. <>
[iii] Elizabeth Kolbert. “Watching Sandy, Ignoring Climate Change.” The New Yorker. <>
[iv] Dan Satterfield. “What Those Who Understand Atmospheric Physics Are Talking About After Sandy.” American Geophysical Union. <>
[v] ibid
[vi] ibid
[vii] William R. L. Anderegg, James W. Prall, Jacob Harold, and Stephen H. Schneider. “Expert credibility in climate change.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States. <>

Saturday, December 8, 2012

A Question to the Campus Community: Why Should We Care?

I write now both as a member of the college delegation that just returned from the U.N. climate conference (COP18) in Qatar and as co-chair of this year’s In Focus theme on sustainability.  The global phenomenon of climate change is likely the biggest challenge to a sustainable future.

The U.N. negotiations in Doha ran over into Saturday, and thus far, no significant outcomes or agreements have been reported.  Instead, what you get from groups like RTCC (Responding to Climate Change) are tweets (and linked news stories) such as:

- Protests: Doubts grow over Qatari leadership at UN climate talks
- Blackmail: Venezuela accuses rich states of holding developing world to ransom
- NGO anger: Climate talks “sleepwalking towards disaster
- Brazil: Absence of acceptable Kyoto deal threatens UN climate process.

Many of you might ask, "Why should we care?"  For one answer, I suggest that you read my most recent blog post entitled "The Cost of Inaction" at and read the news report below about the “Loss and Damage” negotiations.

The US response to proposed new financial compensation for nations worst hit by climate change threatens to define the UN summit’s finale.[1]

As negotiations ran into the early hours of the morning [Saturday] the US clashed with the Alliance of Island Small Island States (AOSIS) on the issue of Loss and Damage. This is the proposed mechanism to compensate countries worst affected by climate change.

The dispute spilled into a separate meeting room last night where protesters gathered to back AOSIS.

A small island state negotiator was seen leaving in tears. The BBC’s Roger Harrabin reports that before the text was agreed Todd Stern, the US chief negotiator, was heard saying: “I will block this. I will shut this down.”

The EU is understood to be trying to persuade AOSIS to weaken its stance in Doha and carry the debate into later round of talks. Whether the US accepts any mention of a future mechanism remains to be seen.

As we break for the holidays, many of you may go to see the new movie release Les Misérables.  The book on which the film is based, first published in 1862, has been called "one of the half-dozen greatest novels of the world".  In Upton Sinclair’s 1915 book The Cry for Justice: An Anthology of the Literature of Social Protest, he references Hugo’s remarks in the Preface of Les Misérables”:

So long as there shall exist, by reason of law and custom, a social condemnation, which, in the face of civilization, artificially creates hells on earth, and complicates a destiny that is divine, with human fatality; so long as the three problems of the age—the degradation of man by poverty, the ruin of women by starvation, and the dwarfing of childhood by physical and spiritual night—are not solved; so long as, in certain regions, social asphyxia shall be possible; in other words, and from a yet more extended point of view, so long as ignorance and misery remain on earth, books like this cannot be useless.
Where are the books, the authors like Hugo and Sinclair, calling attention to the social injustices resulting from climate change?  Although more of a journalist report than an enduring literary piece, Christian Parenti’s Tropic of Chaos:  Climate Change and the New Geography of Violence describes how climate change will exacerbate violence in areas already prone to conflict.[2]  Poverty and lack of access to water are common themes in the book.  Countless research studies and NGO reports have been published that show how the poor are already experiencing the impacts of climate change, despite contributing little to the causes.  Areas that are prone to drought are predicted to become even drier.  Both the Pentagon and the State Department have included climate change and its impact on national security in their strategic plans (making Todd Stern’s comments above even more puzzling).  One of my current students who plans to enlist in the military after graduation this spring told me how, while in basic training, they were told about the expectations for growing conflict due to both climate change and water scarcity.  His seminar on water scarcity this semester was riveting.  (All of this reminds me of the French Revolution and other such historical events when there were large disparities between the “haves” and the “have nots”.)

We don't have campus-wide discussions about climate change.  I don’t know how many from the campus community follow our blog.  I hope that the responses from the students in my three environmentally-themed courses this semester (who were strongly encouraged to read our reports from Qatar) aren’t indicative of the rest of campus.  Marla, the student who was part of the Moravian delegation this year, commented several times about the different level of engagement between the U.S. youth compared to those from other countries.  This is a sentiment we have heard each year when students join us at the U.N. meetings.  Today, Nikki DeLuca, a student from York College in PA who is still in Qatar representing the American Chemical Society, writes about an “action” by U.S. Youth at COP18:

I have decided that this disappointing action shows a lot about the U.S. We seem to be unmotivated and uninvolved internationally, and do not possess the spirit that the other countries here obviously have.  I was just at a talk by the Costa Rican delegates, who have announced (and whole heartedly believe) that their country will be "carbon-neutral" in 9 years' time. Where is that ambition in the U.S.? Are we capable of being that ambitious and optimistic about anything? I am personally sick of the negativity, doubt, and lack of commitment I have been seeing.[3]

This week, two op-eds related to COP18 appeared in the Huffington Post that included quotes from Marla and mentioned Moravian College (see and ).  International coverage about the activities of a student from Moravian!  I was hoping that this would generate some buzz on campus about our involvement in the U.N. conferences and about climate change.  Instead, I received an email yesterday: “Must See T.V.:  Moravian College Alumnus Noah Rachels '00 in Winner’s Circle on Jeopardy!” 

There is hope, however.  I was encouraged to see the movement on some college campuses, including Swarthmore (also in Pennsylvania) that was described in a New York Times piece this week.[4]  A number of faculty members sent me the link to this article.  I was also contacted this week by an alumna, Rebecca V. Zoellner ’78, to see if Moravian is committed to this movement:

I’ve been receiving information about’s “Do the Math” tours and their push to get colleges and universities to divest themselves of holdings in fossil fuel companies. I found your name by searching for information about Moravian and sustainability initiatives. I’m proud to see that Moravian has such a commitment to this issue. What I’m wondering is whether there is significant investment in fossil fuel industries in the Moravian endowment and, if so, whether there is any effort on campus to change that. I don’t know if you have all that information, but perhaps you can point me in the right direction.

I would love to hold a campus dialog next semester to see how we should respond to Ms. Zoellner’s inquiry.  It seems quite appropriate to discuss a challenge like this during the “Year of Sustainability”.