Here on my climate adaptation tumblr, I try (my best) to post about environmental issues that are roughly related to the impacts from shifts in the climate. Sea-level rise is the most obvious impact. Melting glaciers and Arctic ice are raising the levels of the ocean. And cities around the world are scrambling to deal with the impacts, which are mind-blowingly huge, incredibly expensive, and often politically vexing.
I have masters degrees in environmental law and city planning. The focus of my research was/is how land-use laws were able (or, rather, unable) to accommodate climate science. So, naturally, I’m interested in how climate will affect infrastructure, economies, demographics, ecosystems, etc.
For example, I’m quite interested how can coastal communities deal with a rising sea. Especially big cities like New York City or San Fransisco, which have thousands of buildings, roads, ports, and pipelines literally built inches from the ocean.
Cities are prepared for certain levels of disasters. There are sea walls and evacuation plans, flood pump stations and hurricane barriers. And buildings and infrastructure are generally built to high standards. But, cites are not prepared for higher oceans (why would they be?). Climate change changes the equations and calculations of managing disasters in cities. They’re forced to adapt, regardless of how many solar panels are slapped onto rooftops.
It’s a complicated issue. Greenhouse gasses trap in more heat in the atmosphere, causing a bunch of crazy environmental things to happen. So the obvious response is to stop pumping carbon into the air. That’s Al Gore’s primary message.
The problem with this is that storms and fires and diseases are increasing as a result from rising temperatures. Climate change is occurring regardless of mitigation. Thus, the impacts have to be dealt with. In fact, our troubles are only going to increase. I choose to be on the impacts side of this conundrum (eg, adaptation).
So, what’s my deal with oil leaks and spills? The short answer is that oil and gas infrastructure, such as pipelines and oil rigs, are very vulnerable to climate impacts. Oil - like it or not - makes the world go round. It’s in nearly everything we use - from plastics to medicine to soap. There is no stopping oil.
I wrote about this last year for GOOD Magazine. IBM and a climate consulting firm called Acclimatise did a study on the oil and gas industry’s vulnerability to climate change. I showed that oil pipelines in Alaska are more likely to break and leak oil than ever before, and that the oil industry is way under-prepared to deal with these new types of leaks:
In one of most ironic flip-flops in environmental history, the oil and gas industry is beginning to adapt to climate change. And it’s no wonder. The majority of industry’s infrastructure is located in some of the most climate vulnerable regions on the planet. Nearly 75 percent of the Alaskan pipeline, for example, is built over increasingly unstable permafrost, which is now thawing under warmer temperatures. The Mackenzie Valley in Canada alone has recorded over 2,000 sink holes, rock slides, and large depressions from thawing permafrost.
The pipeline’s famous elevated design was the result of a 20 year study (PDF) on the stability of climate and permafrost from 1950 to 1970. Based on the historic record, engineers designed the supports for the pipeline to withstand some fluctuation in permafrost, but not for the extensive melts now predicted. Indeed, that 20 year study was the one of the coldest periods in Alaskan history. Whoops.
The study I referred to, Global Oil & Gas - The Adaptation Challenge, showed that infrastructure was dangerously unprepared for climate impacts. Thousands of miles of oil pipelines are perched on permafrost in Canada, Russia, and Alaska.
Permafrost is permanently frozen soil - essentially the land is mixture of ice, rocks, and soil. Permafrost does move around a bit and any infrastructure built on it is (usually) engineered to handle a certain level of flex (the EPA has a decent primer on permafrost).
But, when the ice melts in substantial volumes, the soil shrinks and contracts. As a result, anything built on permafrost is in big trouble. Oil and gas pipelines could rupture, causing tremendous environmental damage, as well as incredible costs to economies in terms of clean up costs (who pays?), damage to fisheries and tourism, and lowered property values (and tax revenues). Not to mention health troubles for workers and residents.
So, that’s pretty much why I post so much on oil - infrastructure vulnerability. Oil spills are nasty, nasty creatures. Their economic and environmental impacts are super gnarly to deal with. And they’re expected, as IBM showed, to increase unless the infrastructure adapts to the “new normal”.
Last September, Method announced plans to develop bottles made from collected ocean plastic. In the company of EPA administrator Lisa Jackson, Method co-founder Adam Lowry described our work to collect plastic from the beaches of California and Hawaii and convert them into new, recyclable bottles for method soap.
So, what have we been up to since then? Mostly cleaning beaches.
Method has participated in, alongside partners Sustainable Coastlines Hawaii and Kahuku Hawai’i Foundation, several beach cleanup days that resulted in collecting several thousand pounds of beach debris. The primary challenge encountered in these cleanups, aside from hauling hundreds of pounds of plastic from remote beach locations, has been retrieving the plastics before they degrade to tiny particles that are effectively impossible to collect in large quantities.
The range and quantity of plastic in the oceans is astounding. The debris collected from these beaches has varied from fishing baskets made of polypropylene to Russian shampoo bottles and Japanese bleach bottles made from HDPE, to car bumpers, ropes, water bottles, and buoys.
Although these cleanups have allowed us to gather plenty of plastic, they face real challenges of scale in creating a lasting supply chain. Fortunately, we’ve found some great potential partners. One is United by Blue, a Philadelphia-based fellow B Corp that designs and sells apparel to support its beach and waterways cleanup activities. United by Blue have been cleaning beaches at an impressive rate (over 1 pound of debris removed per shirt sold), and we hope to source from them the plastics we can use for our Ocean Plastic bottles (resins number 2, 4, and 5). And our partner organizations in Hawaii continue to be instrumental in diverting the immense amount of plastic that washes up on their beaches from the landfill and into our bottles.
These images show a stretch of the Mississippi River just south of Memphis, Tennessee. The top one was taken by a NASA satellite on August 8, 2012, and the bottom one by a different NASA satellite on August 14, 2011. See how there are huge patches of light tan along the river in the image from 2012? Those are newly exposed sand bars, the result of record low water levels.
This summer’s record-setting temperatures (July was literally the hottest month on record) and dry weather conditions have created historic droughts. We can now see how those conditions have affected our waterways. On August 17 of this year, water levels in the Mississippi were 2.4 to 8.3 feet below their normal "river stage" levels.
Pearl farming is emerging as one of the most sustainable ocean-based economies, and a good way for small island nations to protect their oceans while also increasing revenue.
For developing countries, industry has often equated to exploitation. For centuries, minerals, timber, oil and and other industries have left little behind except wealthy elites, enriched foreign companies, and a mess for future generations.
Perhaps pearl farming will be different, argue two researchers from the University of Vermont, Laurent Cartier and Saleem Ali. The multi-billion market for pearls promises a sustainable economic model for some coastal and island nations. By demanding pristine waters, attentive labor, and consistent oversight, pearl farms incentivize a clean environment and strong labor demand in places with little of either. “Pearl farming can be one of the most profitable forms of aquaculture” in isolated islands with “very limited economic opportunities,” write the pair in the journal Solutions.
During busy summer weekends, the Brandywine Creek is packed with sunbathers, swimmers, hikers, bikers, and people floating down the creek in canoes, tubes, or kayaks.
United By Blue, Trail Creek Outfitters, and 32 volunteers picked up nearly 600 pounds of trash left along the Brandywine Creek by summertime visitors. Our weird trash haul included lots and lots of beer bottles and cans, a lot for sale sign, a pool float, shoes, bathing suits, a kitchen knife, and a mystery pump (we think it came from a paintball gun).
For the past 29 years, Trail Creek Outfitters has provided Delaware and Southeastern, PA residents with the best outdoor products and latest fashions around. This is the not the first cleanup that United By Blue and Trail Creek Outfitters have held together; UBB, TCO and 50 of their closest friends, family, and customers picked up 1,651 pounds of trash from along the Brandywine in August 2010.
UBB would like to thank: Trail Creek Outfitters, Glen Mills Whole Foods, Wilderness Canoes, Delaware Greenways, Wilmington Trail Club, and Opdenaker Trash Removal.
By KELLY SLIVKA
In a potential milestone for ocean management, a team of collaborators has produced the first Ocean Health Index, a tool for appraising the state of the world’s oceans. The index takes into account the major factors that influence the quality of regional marine ecosystems like fisheries, biodiversity, tourism and carbon storage and then assigns a score from zero to 100 for each place.
Globally, the oceans received an ocean health score of 60. The lowest score was 36 (Sierra Leone’s waters) and the highest was 86 (waters surrounding uninhabited Jarvis Island, near Hawaii).
Dozens of scientists, policymakers and conservationists in the United States and Canada came together over the last two years to create the index, which is described in detail in a paper published online in the journal Nature. Their goal was to find a way to compare different parts of the ocean that are heavily used by humans and determine whether this activity is sustainable or in need of better management.