April 16, 2013
The thought of climate change usually conjures up images of extreme droughts and shrinking polar ice caps. Rarely do we link these images to our daily lives or, more precisely, to our wallets. Climate change will alter weather patterns in unpredictable ways, yet scientists agree that within the next century there will be a sea level rise of up to two meters. While this may seem to only affect those living in coastal areas, that couldn’t be farther from the truth (Becker, 2012). A staggering eighty percent of today’s world trade is carried by sea, departing from one shipping port and arriving at another half a world away (UNCTAD, 2011).
The danger with the expected sea level rise lies in the ports themselves, and the problem is twofold. Many of them currently have outdated infrastructure which simply will be unable to handle the sea level rise. The infrastructure will also be unable to withstand more frequent and more intense tropical storms predicted to batter our coastlines. This past year Stanford sent out 342 surveys to ports around the world to better assess worldwide preparedness for climate change in this key economic sector. They discovered that the vast majority of the ports had never discussed adaptation to climate change once in their staff meetings. Additionally, ports overwhelmingly have unfounded and unrealistic expectations about sea level rise. Less than two-thirds of ports believe that a two-meter sea level rise would be problematic, yet their infrastructure will be incapable of handling such changes (Becker 2012). A collapse of this infrastructure would cripple the port and the economies it serves.
Along with these coastal ports, many inland ports will be affected by changing weather and rainfall patterns. Decreased rainfall will lower water levels in lakes and rivers that are key shipping routes. From December 2012 to February 2013 there was a total of $7 billion in goods being shipped along the Mississippi River that were at risk due to the extremely low water levels. (Geman, 2013) The decreased water levels in the Mississippi River, St. Lawrence River, and the Great Lakes will greatly affect the transportation of agricultural, petroleum, chemical products, and other bulk goods throughout heavily industrialized areas of North America. Annual transportation costs are expected to increase by 29% as shippers search for new ways to transport their valuable goods. Proposed ideas include dredging waterways to make them deeper, and finding new routes when rivers are simply too shallow to be navigable by large shipping freighters (Millerd, 2005). These actions will do more than just hurt us in our pocketbooks. Dredging waterways and shipping on previously-unused waterways will disturb and threaten ecosystems already made vulnerable due to climate change.
While the risks of climate change to national and international sea trade are clear, the steps to be taken by the shipping ports to address these legitimate concerns are largely absent. Yet, some ports have heeded the warnings of climate scientists and taken some action. The Port of San Diego has led its field by creating a climate plan in response to a study they conducted which predicted a sea level rise of twelve to eighteen inches by 2050. In the plan they outline an attempt to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, locate areas that are vulnerable to sea level rise and erosion, and create new infrastructure in these areas to be more resilient to possible future weather changes (Port of San Diego, 2013).
Coastal ports would be wise to learn from those located in the Gulf of Mexico, who experienced firsthand how disastrous these severe tropical storms and high sea levels can be after Hurricane Katrina. The hurricane crippled the Gulf Coast port for many weeks, and the entire U.S. economy felt the impact. Katrina opened the eyes of the ports in the Gulf Coast, and they are now some of the best-equipped shipping ports in the world to deal with these impending changes (Kafalenos, 2008).
The problem we face right now is a lack of preparation and action, despite the wealth of information available. While the Port of San Diego and those along the Gulf of Mexico have begun planning and preparing for these changes, most ports around the world have neglected the data that has been given to them. The few that have taken some steps are only looking 10 years down the line and are not preparing for what could happen in the coming decades (Becker, 2012). It is imperative that these shipping ports around the world begin taking the necessary steps to prepare for the sea level rise that will occur over the next century. If they do not, the global economy will be severely crippled, as the importation and exportation of goods will be destroyed along with the ports themselves.
By Alex Creem and Sydney Fishman
Becker, Austin, et al. “Climate change impacts on international seaports: knowledge, perceptions, and planning efforts among port administrators.” Climatic change 110.1-2 (2012): 5-29.
Geman, Ben. “Obama: Climate change threatens shipping routes.” The Hill, 12 March 2013. http://thehill.com/blogs/e2-wire/e2-wire/287577-obama-climate-fueled-drought-presents-export-risks
Kafalenos, R.S., Leonard, K.J. “What are the implications of climate change and variability for gulf coast transportation?” In: Savonis, M.J., Burkett, V.R., Potter, J.R. (Eds.), Impacts of Climate Change and Variability on Transportation Systems and Infrastructure: Gulf Coast Study, Phase I, Report by the US. Climate Change Science Program and the Subcommittee on Global Change Research, Department of Transportation, Washington, DC (2008).
Millerd, Frank. “The Economic Impact of Climate Change on Canadian Commercial Navigation on the Great Lake.” Canadian Water Resources Journal 30.4 (2005): 269-280.
Port of San Diego. Climate Mitigation and Adaptation Plan. 2013. http://www.portofsandiego.org/climate-mitigation-and-adaptation-plan.html
United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD). “Climate change impacts on ports and trade: The need to adapt.” 21 September 2011. http://unctad.org/en/pages/newsarchive.aspx?ReferencePageId=6091&Sitemap_x0020_Taxonomy=Climate%20Change
February 13, 2013
The Sierra Nevada Mountains, a spectacular mountain range located in California and Nevada, is not only a major source of California’s water supply, but is also home to hundreds of endemic species. During the fall and winter, a snowpack accumulates on the mountaintops and naturally melts during the spring, providing plants, animals, and people with a fresh source of water. In the past, the annual snowpack was enough to support these species as well as California’s water supply, however due to climate change and anthropogenic causes, precipitation has decreased and the snowpack is not able to accumulate the proper amount of snow like it has in past years. While the Sierra snowpack provides the majority of California’s water supply, it also is vital to the survival of the plants and animals in the Sierras. The snowmelt that supports these now endangered and at risk species are suffering. Higher temperatures, invasive species, and human influence are some of the causes that pose major threats to this ecosystem.
Some of these species include the bighorn sheep, yellow-legged frog, American pika, and Delta smelt. The bighorn sheep are one species who are severely impacted from the loss of snowpack because their natural habitat is being depleted. The bighorn, who has already had to recover from the brink of extinction in the 20th century, is an animal that utilizes the elevation to escape from predators. The warming temperatures has allowed the tree lines to move to higher elevations which encroaches on the bighorn’s living space and makes it more difficult for the bighorns to evade predators. The yellow-legged frog is also affected by the lack of snow because it depends on the snowpack to melt during certain times of the year to assure proper living conditions (doesn’t freeze in the winter, but has enough water in the summer to lay eggs). Additionally, they are at risk because of the numerous invasive species that are preying on the frogs during their tadpole stages. Another species that has been severely impacted by the decline of snowpack is the American pika. The pika is a small hamster-like creature that has a minuscule temperature window and relies on the snowpack for insulation in the winter and moderate temperatures in the summer. In response to the unbearable temperatures, the pika have been forced to move upslope, an unsafe habitat for the vulnerable animal, which has already become extinct in some low-lying areas. Lastly, the Delta smelt, like salmon, is an upstream swimming species of fish that is reliant on the cold downstream that the snowmelt usually provides. “As the headwaters decrease and temperatures rise, endangered fish species such as the Delta smelt will suffer.” (Merry) Not only are animals suffering as a result of decreased snowpack and higher temperatures, but plants are also feeling the effects.
Conifer trees are surprising less resistant to the hotter temperatures and decrease in precipitation. The trees are dying much more often than in previous years because of warmer temperatures and evaporated moisture in the soil. In addition, the conifers are also being infested by fungi and insects that thrive in the warmer climates. Both drier conditions and increased temperatures have led to an increase in wildfires. A positive feedback loop is created when trees that catch fire release carbon dioxide stored in their trunks, which is in turn absorbed into the atmosphere, further advancing global climate change.
The Sierra snowpack is a crucial part of this environment that requires mitigation in order to protect the vulnerable species that rely on its abundance. The Sierra Club proposes a great strategy as to how to protect these animals and is a decent step towards finding a solution that solves the issue at hand. They propose that a core area and a buffer zone are necessary so that species are able to withstand the changes that are occurring within their habitats. Although some steps that will help alleviate the issue are in action, state legislature would be a strong supplement that may drastically increase the revitalization of species in the Sierra Nevada ecosystem.
This post was authored by Dana Handy, a sophomore majoring in Environmental Studies, and Angel Marquez, a sophomore double majoring in Economics/ Mathematics, and Business Administration.
February 27, 2012
Desertification is defined as the deterioration of land in typically arid areas due to changes in climate and human activities. In the United States, desertification is typically caused by poor farming practices and the conversion of grazing areas to cropland. Climate change intensifies desertification in arid areas because not only are global temperatures rising and natural disasters becoming more extreme, but also the global water cycle and precipitation patterns are such that rainfall is decreasing in most areas and concentrating in a few others. Furthermore, because California is in a climactic region that can be defined as dry subtropical, the effects of climate change and agriculture has led to increased desertification. The short-term and long-term effects of this desertification are numerous and will have many repercussions for both humans and the environment.
The environmental costs of desertification are quite serious and can eventually destroy natural ecosystems. Topsoils lose their fertility and the growth and support of organic life in the pedosphere becomes much more difficult. As topsoil drys out it becomes susceptible to movement from winds, creating new natural disasters such as the Dust Bowl of the 1930’s. Furthermore, this dust can be blown out into the ocean and can affect weather patterns. In order to salvage lands affected by desertification, farmers begin to invest more in irrigation, which in turn diminishes groundwater resources and is the beginning of long-term impacts such as drought and famine. Additionally, as the topsoil becomes less nutrient rich from desertification plants become less productive and many of the ecosystem services they were providing are diminished.
Unfortunately, California becomes more susceptible to desertification there is a tendency to focus only on the immediate effects. Important long-term impacts on the environment also need to be addressed, such as the effects on the carbon cycle, biodiversity, and freshwater supply. Vegetation in arid areas stores a substantial amount of carbon (about 30 tons per hectare) and when desertification causes drought and the vegetation dies, that storage is lost. In addition, desertification dries out soil, the organic matter of which is the largest known carbon sink, resulting in increased greenhouse gas effects as that carbon is released into the atmosphere. As soils and vegetation are affected by desertification, ecosystems lose key resources that result in a loss of biodiversity. Desertification also poses a threat to freshwater resources. River flow rates decrease, leading to silt build up in estuaries, which incites saltwater intrusion into the water tables. As the demand for water increases there is a tendency to over-pump aquifers, which can result in water depletion and land compaction. For example, the San Joaquin Valley of California experienced subsidence at a maximum of 28 feet between 1925-1970 from overdrawn aquifers. Because California relies so much on agriculture, farmers exploit aquifer water for irrigation without considering these long-term issues. However, if the agricultural industry were to collapse from drought, we’d be facing the threat of famine and a huge economy crash.
Clearly there are many negative effects from the process of desertification that need to be addressed. Some of the most popular decisions to combat the effects of the land drying out include sustainable farming practices, such as drip irrigation, integrated crops, or no-till farming, and drought prevention. As stated in the 2010 California Drought Contingency Plan, “California’s water resources have been stressed by periodic drought cycles and unprecedented restrictions in water diversions from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta in recent years. Climate change is expected to increase extreme weather. It is not known if the current drought will abate soon or if it will persist for many years. However, it is certain that this is not the last drought that California will face.” The DCP has moved towards enhancing monitoring and early warning capabilities, assessing water shortage impacts, and creating preparedness, response, and recovery programs, which should help California to conserve water and slow down the desertification process.
Harriet Arnold and Divya Rao are undergraduates in the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences.
February 14, 2012
Climate change may leave California, as we know it, facing drastic reforms. As a result of heat-trapping emissions, not only will the state’s average temperature rise, but precipitation is also more likely to fall as rain rather than snow, and the snow that does fall in the Sierra Nevada’s is likely to melt earlier and more quickly. This will directly impact California residents because the snowpack formed during fall and winter provides the state with a third of its surface water, essential in the Golden State for human consumption and agriculture. The snowpack forms in the Sierra Nevada Mountains in the upper regions of the state, but all Californians depend on it as a water source come spring and summer when the demand is at its peak. Although the California drought was declared over in 2011, the relatively dry 2011-2012 winter season has done little to restore confidence in California’s water security.
A severe reduction in snowpack, nature’s generous water storage, could likely result in inevitable major developmental changes across California. Among the most important, California’s current water reservoirs are not equipped to capture or handle larger influxes of rainwater in shorter periods of time. However, the current proposals for the expansion or addition of surface storage facilities would be minimal compared to the already existing capacity, and additional water storage facilities may be both economically and environmentally unsound. Consequently, new technologies such as large-scale rainwater capture or water-recycling plants may eventually need to be developed and implemented to ensure Californians have enough water. Additionally, California may become more reliant on alternate sources of water, increasing costs of transportation.
A water crisis could mean serious economic consequences for California. According to Frank Mittlebach, professor of Economics at UCLA Anderson School of Management, winter tourism in California, “contributed over $3.2 billion in spending in 2000.” Tourism in the mountain resort regions such as Mammoth Mountain, which is dependent on snow to attract visitors for recreational activities, has already decreased markedly this year.
More importantly, however, major water shortages would devastate California’s thriving agricultural industry, the largest in the nation, “which generated $39 billion in revenue in 2007, and which is responsible for more than half of all domestic fruits and vegetables.” One out of six jobs in California is linked to agriculture, and the state is one of the largest producers of milk, grapes, and cotton. According to UC San Diego’s Climate Research Division, the California agriculture industry could lose as much as 25% of the water it needs. Not only would this affect California residents regarding food availability and jobs, but also other states and countries due to California’s large number of exports of agricultural goods.
Overall, water as a commodity will dramatically increase in price due to higher demand and less supply. For a state already in debt, this could lead to devastating consequences unless major preventative changes are made. If California is unable to equip its water infrastructure for the climate changes to come, stricter conservation efforts will need to be put into effect–even if it means the Southern Californians have to sacrifice their evergreen lawns.
Sydney MacEwen and Danielle Tellez are undergraduates in the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences.
February 8, 2012
In 2009, concerns over the lack of water availability in California dramatically escalated—the issue was named by Arnold Schwarzenegger, the governor at the time, as a statewide emergency. Some even believed that following two “critically dry years,” the year 2009 became the most “severe drought year in California history” (water.ca.gov). However, a winter of persistent snowstorms brought close to 61 feet of snow to the Sierra Nevada’s, 143% of normal levels and the second highest levels the state has ever seen (Huffington Post); the drought was over. Today, it is apparent that we need not focus our immediate concern on the California drought, as California remains in the clear and consistently is a victim of this repetitive drought cycle–our history proves that drought in California is nothing new. Instead of focusing on the dry conditions, it is important that we realize our anxiety is a result of water crisis issues that need our attention: California’s aging water infrastructure, its immensely growing population, and the new prospect of climate change. These issues make up the true water emergency faced daily by Californians.
Looking back at California’s drought history proves several points about the state and droughts. First, California is no stranger to droughts. Over the past 35 years, the state has experienced 3 major droughts, one being the most severe ever recorded. Second, the state has been able to respond strongly to survive a drought through statewide policy and conservation efforts. California’s government has taken the necessary steps and measurements to sustain itself and prepare for future droughts. Third, droughts are a normal phenomenon that should be expected in California. The reason droughts have occurred is due to the climate of the region that tends to fluctuate between wet and dry cycles, meaning droughts are inevitable. Thus, if droughts are to be expected they should not be the biggest concern in California, but rather other issues that influence the water crisis in the state, like its aging water infrastructure.
California’s water infrastructure is critical for supplying water for agriculture, the population, and environmental protection throughout the whole state. Lately, these variables have caused a rise in water demand that the current infrastructure cannot support, mainly because it is aging. The major component of the infrastructure is the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta which has weak, aging levees that, if broken, can drastically jeopardize the state’s water distribution for vital use. If major investments aren’t made to upgrade the aging infrastructure in the future, California won’t be able to sustain itself through drought at a time when climate change and population growth in the state exacerbate the growing water crisis.
California is relentless when it comes to growing population numbers. In 1900, California housed about 1.4 million people, and today, according to the 2010 Census, has close to 38 million people. This immense jump has placed much strain on the infrastructure of the state and contributes to the environmental issues–such as climate change–now plaguing the surrounding ecosystems. The main contributors to climate change are exacerbated by human activities, such as burning fossil fuels to produce carbon dioxide. Climate Change is creating a huge problem for California’s water sources, as seen through changes in sea level, snowpack, and river flows. According to the California Department of Water Resources, scientists predict our Sierra Nevada snowpack, which provides one-third of our water resources, to lose approximately 20 percent of its volume. This, along with the increasing population, will soon become a huge contributing factor to the California drought pattern, and needs to be addressed immediately.
Caroline Smith and Sergio Avelar are undergraduates in the USC Dana and David Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences.