Thursday, December 12, 2019

"Climate change" or "global warming" - is one more correct? Is one more useful?

I suddenly got busier and haven't had a chance to finish the series of posts I was preparing, commenting on the 2019 textbook Research Handbook on Climate Change Adaptation Policy.

Meanwhile, a friend on Facebook innocently asked about the best way to refer to what's happening to our planet: "climate change" or "global warming." It occurred to me that my reply to her might be useful or at least entertaining to others.

My friend's question, paraphrased:

I was speaking with a friend the other night about the terms, "global warming" and "climate change." I prefer global climate change, she prefers global warming. Is one of us correct, or are both terms equally useful?

My answer:

This is debated all the time among people in the climate change communication field. The academic term is global change or global environmental change (which is what is used for the government office that puts together the national climate assessment - the U.S. Global Change Research Program). I thought that was a bit oblique, but it's really the most correct term if you want to include (drumroll please) ocean acidification (cymbal crash). Because that's a process happening parallel to climate change--it isn't climate change, but it is caused by elevated CO2 levels in the atmosphere.

Now, the argument for "global warming" is that it does accurately describe the most consequential atmospheric process that is happening, while the argument against is that it is misleading, because the consequences of global warming include the wandering of the polar vortex, bringing Arctic weather to the Great Lakes, for example-- counterintuitive if you are focusing your language on "warming."

"Climate change" is currently the most popular phrase, and it's accurate, but on the down side it doesn't really convey the fact that this is going to end life on Earth as we know it. "Change" is just - weak tea, really.

"Climate chaos" has the virtue of being accurate and conveying the fact that this is highly consequential. The downside of that is that it can trigger people's sense of helplessness - if it's all chaos then there's nothing to be done, we should just enjoy life while we can and not change anything we're doing.

Perhaps a good medium-panicky term is "climate disruption" - giving the listener a nice, Latinate, sober-sounding term that doesn't inspire helplessness as much as Greek, drama-queeny "chaos."

I don't know that there is a term that is always best in all situations - you have to read your audience and choose accordingly. Does the person seem plucky and ready to F SH*T UP - "climate chaos" might be a good term to engage them. Does the person seem shell-shocked already from all the terrible news about climate and can't take One More Thing? "Climate change" or "climate disruption" might work best. Are you talking to an elder who stopped following the news in 1992? "Global warming" might make the most sense.

Thursday, August 8, 2019

Nuggets from the Research Handbook on Climate Change Adaptation Policy (2019) (1/4)

The following are some nuggets I gleaned from reading the Research Handbook on Climate Change Adaptation Policy, edited by E.C.H. Keskitalo and B.L. Preston (2019). I'm not attempting to summarize all the various findings, just noting things that resonate with me or inspire questions. It's a five-part book, so I will break this up into four posts: (1) parts one and two (intro; theory); (2) part three (policy at different levels/in different contexts); (3) part four (sector-specific/cross-cutting perspectives); (4) part five (conclusions).

I. Introduction

Introduction: understanding adaptation in the context of social theory (E.C.H. Keskitalo and B.L. Preston)

The authors say we need to take a step back and look at our underlying theoretical assumptions before analyzing or evaluating adaptation policy.

Social science/theory tells us:
  • Knowledge alone is not enough
  • "Learning cannot per se be assumed" (e.g., facts leading to action cannot be assumed)
  • Asking "Where can we go wrong?" can reveal underlying political limitations, competing priorities, and related trade-offs (p. 16)
Other things that resonated with me as very true/worth pondering:

If there's no dedicated adaptation funding, adaptation falls to the bottom of the political agenda.

Nobody has a good definition of "transformation" (resilience theory). Are criteria for transformation inevitably normative? (Favoring a certain kind of transformation, or favoring transformation over incremental change?)

How can a clearer definition of "transformation" help move us toward better adaptation policy? It doesn't tell us what triggers transformation (either transformation generally or the certain kind of transformation we want to see).

(1) The evolving interactions between adaptation research, international policy and development practice (I. Noble)

These are the author's descriptors of the stages in the evolution of adaptation policy (Table 1.1.) with the first item under each header in parentheses (the primary concept that arose in that stage):
  • 19th c. early scholarship (Identifying the greenhouse effect)
  • to 1965 (Can we model weather?)
  • 1966-1989 Humans can affect Earth systems (First voices for adaptation scholarship)
  • 1990s Mitigation is the priority (Focus on impact assessment)
  • 2000-2005 Proactive adaptation is needed (Frameworks for adaptation action)
  • 2006-2010 Who will pay? (Social vulnerability)
  • post-2010 Just get on with it (Underlying drivers of vulnerability)
The latter five categories are section headings in the chapter.

In the 2006-2010 section: at first there were few estimates of the financial needs for adaptation, it was just assumed they would be a lot cheaper than mitigation (GHG reduction). Then Nicholas Stern said in 2007 poor countries could sustain losses greater than 10% of their GDP because of climate change. Subsequent analyses produced higher projections. People stopped saying adaptation would be cheaper than mitigation.

Speaking of costs: someone at Brazil's Climate Change Research Group at the Ministry of Science and Technology posted the entire Stern report, or at least 662 pages of it (Amazon says it is 712 pages). The eBook is sold by the publisher for $84.

When people realized you couldn't pick a fixed end point for adaptation as a goal, they started zeroing in on the importance of assessing people's adaptive capacity, shifting from a focus on people's "end-point" to their "starting-point." This was a social vulnerability frame which clashed with the more prevalent risk-management frame, which was having trouble (still has trouble) monetizing and therefore largely ignored intangible gains and losses (life, human potential, like that) that are important in social vulnerability approaches.

In the post-2010 section: adaptation is not limited by lack of funding as much as "the social costs and consequences of changing livelihoods, of relocating homes and losing cultural assets." The author specifies that this is true in developing countries. I would say it is probably true everywhere.

The author points to different frameworks for avoiding maladaptation, recommending especially Stephane Hallegatte's 2009 framework for identifying robust adaptation options (Strategies to Adapt to an Uncertain Climate Change, in Global Environmental Change).

I've always referred to adaptation as the dinghy bobbling along behind the bigger, better-funded boat of mitigation, but the author sees them as twins, though adaptation is still lesser: "[a]daptation will likely remain the neglected twin within [international] negotiations." He sees it losing out to the "noisier mitigation sibling."

II. Theoretical frameworks and systems relevant to climate change adaptation policy research

(2) Challenges associated with implementing climate adaptation policy (M. Howlett, I. Mukherjee, S. Fritzen)

"Adaptive co-management (ACM)" is a new bit of jargon for me. Adaptive management + collaboration (presumably with groups outside your agency/organization). I don't know how I missed it, it's been around a while - in 2012 an article came out asking "is ACM a success?" (Adaptive Comanagement: a Systematic Review and Analysis - Plummer 2012). I have to wonder if anyone does non-collaborative adaptive management. If they do, it must be on a very small geographic scale, like, managing a turtle pond in your own back yard.

The chapter defines a "stakeholder"for a policy as "someone potentially concerned by, interested in, important to, or having any power over the policy being initiated." When I define stakeholder, I include those who are affected by the policy regardless of their level of awareness of, concern about, or interest in the policy. This definition points only to those already concerned about a thing, or potentially in a position to influence a thing. These are the people who may come to the table of their own accord, requiring no outreach. If that's all you've got at the table, you need to do better.

(3) The role of law and legal systems in climate change adaptation policy (J. Wenta, J. McDonald)

The South African Constitution from 1996, a visionary document by many standards, includes a right to a healthy environment. Adaptation measures can be predicated on this constitutional right. For reference/inspiration, here is the text of that part of the SA Constitution (Ch. 2, Bill of Rights: Section 24, Environment):

Everyone has the right: ­
a. to an environment that is not harmful to their health or well-being; and
b. to have the environment protected, for the benefit of present and future generations, through reasonable legislative and other measures that ­ i. prevent pollution and ecological degradation; ii. promote conservation; and iii. secure ecologically sustainable development and use of natural resources while promoting justifiable economic and social development.

According to this 2016 Harvard Environmental Law Review article, the constitution also gives broad standing to "[a]nyone acting in the public interest" -- anyone can seek remedy in the courts on behalf of the public if they feel this right has been infringed. A beautiful thing, if it can be made meaningful in practice.

A note on the hazards of bottom-up decision making: "There is [...] a risk that devolving adaptation measures to the local level fails to account for externalities, particularly relating to public environmental values." -- This is important to remember if you are prone to saying "mitigation is global but adaptation is local." It might BE local but SHOULD it be, only and always?

(4) Moving from incremental to transformational change in climate adaptation policy? An institutionalist perspective (J. Munck af Rosenschöld, J. G. Rozema)

The "new institutionalist" descriptor is new to me. "New institutionalism" considers the influence of institutional settings when considering human behavior. Wikipedia's "New Institutionalism" article says it's a school of thought focusing on how institutions interact with and affect society.

The authors want to discuss how institutions slow down adaptation ("[o]ur goal here is [...] to explore the role of institutions, both formal and informal, in slowing down changes in adaptation"). Formal institutions are rule systems; informal institutions are "the context in which adaptation occurs and new strategies emerge," such as societal norms and cognitive scripts.

This chapter repeatedly advances the presumption that transformational adaptation is better than incremental adaptation. Big changes = better. "Move fast and break things," I guess.
I'm hoping this book at some point deals with the question of defining effective adaptation and criteria for measuring effectiveness. Is any intentional adaptation by definition successful because it was attempted? So far that seems to be the working definition.
(5) Enabling conditions for the mainstreaming of adaptation policy and practice (D. Russel)

This chapter introduced me to the idea of integration (of policies, administrative bodies, etc.) being either positive or negative. Negative integration is where the goal is avoiding conflict, where the parties just "rub along together," whereas positive integration is focused on achieving collective goals, perhaps entailing compromises on the part of the parties involved, either on their own goals or their ways of working. The latter is the more difficult kind of integration, and probably more effective, but the former ("rubbing along") is more common. And, better than no integration at all.

Here's an interesting question: can mainstreaming be transformational? Or is it by definition an incremental approach? (The author points to one study on this question, "Is mainstreaming transformative? Theorizing mainstreaming in the context of diversity and deliberation" - J. Squires 2005).

Oooh, another new word for me: "problematique." Wikipedia says it refers to a "meta system of problems" inherent in global problems, and it's another way of saying "wicked problem" (or "mess").

"While society-based approaches [to mainstreaming] have yet to be discussed in relation to climate change adaptation, their focus on the behaviour of actors in wider society fits the adaptation problematique well because [...] it requires coordinated action among a myriad of stakeholders across the public and private spheres of society." 

(6) Unpacking the potential role of social learning in adaptation policy (G. Cundill, B. Harvey)

This chapter defines social learning as: "a change in understanding that goes beyond the individual to become situated within wider social units or communities of practice through social interactions between actors within social networks" (citing Reed et al. 2010, "What is social learning").

Adaptive management used social learning to address uncertainty by treating policies as large-scale, multi-decadal experiments.

Collaborative management used social learning to resolve issues between stakeholders and build consensus for collective action.

Adaptive co-management brings together adaptive management's "learning-by-doing" emphasis and collaborative management's collective/inclusive decision-making emphasis.

A participatory process is not necessarily an example of social learning.

Power dynamics between actors may be at the root of a less-powerful person adopting the position of someone with power, and that factor is not sufficiently studied in social learning theory. Some forms of deliberation might be better than others at addressing power differences between participants.

(7) The Promise and limits of participation in adaptation governance: moving beyond participation towards disruption (A. Oels)

The author asserts that stakeholder-driven processes reproduce the status quo.

To her, disruption > participation, if social transformation is the goal. She defines transformational adaptation as (a) desirable, (b) addressing the roots of vulnerability by changing "the system."

She contrasts the theories of Jürgen Habermas, who has an optimistic view of public participation (that it leads to a rational outcome), and Michel Foucault, who has a pessimistic view of public participation (the status quo wins, the roots of vulnerability go unaddressed).

Habermas' public participation that results in a rational outcome takes place in an "ideal speech situation" where both fairness and competence are evident. In the presence of these things, the "better argument" wins. The roots of vulnerability are addressed, and the most vulnerable are protected.

Turning to Foucault, we see how the fairness criterion cannot be met because speech is coded with power - it is gendered, learned, exclusive. Cultural norms are reproduced in the deliberative process just as in everyday interactions. There is always a power struggle in a deliberative process. One particularly convincing truth or set of truths wins. The vulnerable who are convinced they are not vulnerable (or, maybe more often, are convinced they can't do anything to reduce their vulnerability) decide not to go with the business-as-usual path.

Better outcomes can be achieved, perhaps, if the "vulnerable" are brought in as co-leaders at the beginning of the deliberative process so that they aren't cast as the less-powerful being brought in only as participants in the process designed by the more-powerful. (This is stakeholder engagement 101, and should be obvious, in my humble opinion.)

Unless there is a "systemic shift in dominant constellations of power and knowledge," the status quo is upheld by public participation in a deliberative process. There might be incremental change, but nothing more. That systemic shift is what the author refers to by "disruption." One form this disruption might take is in the performance of new realities ("performatively enact[ing] new realities"), such as when undocumented immigrants assert rights they don't officially have in their adopted home country.

Fantasy, theatre, and role-play can help bring about these systemic shifts. Therefore, our public processes around adaptation should incorporate these elements. (This sounds like the participatory scenario planning process, where two critical deep uncertainties are interplayed and resulting near/mid/distant future "headlines" and response actions are brainstormed. It helps participants explore multiple plausible futures-of-concern.)

The author makes an interesting pitch for resisting instead of adapting. She supports the idea of residents of low-lying island nations not just migrating away, but asserting that they will not be moved -- performing a new reality wherein the loss of their land is not inevitable -- and so potentially fueling a stronger push for greenhouse gas mitigation.

(8) Research methodology for adaptation policy analysis: embracing the eclectic messy centre (M. Purdon, P. Thornton)

This chapter is written in extremely dense jargon interspersed with sentences like "When you are hungry, it seems reasonable to assume that you are thinking about food." One take-away I gleaned: stand-alone case studies alone are not enough to draw conclusions about how/why adaptation policies are developed: comparative methods are needed. Another: informal institutions matter, especially in the developing world.

Next: Part III: Understanding Adaptation Policy Development and Implementation at Different Levels and Country Contexts

Wednesday, August 7, 2019

10 Things I've Learned...and an 11th Thing

I was solicited by Impakter Magazine (focused on sustainable development) to write about being a woman in the climate and energy fields. I asked if I could write about being a queer woman in the climate/energy fields, and they said yes. The resulting article was published Monday (Aug. 5, 2019):

10 Things I’ve Learned as a Queer Woman in the Climate and Energy Fields
The 11th Thing I Learned: What Millennials Want to Know More About

Impakter's mission goes beyond talking about the sustainable development goals-- it also has an express focus on connecting Boomers and Millennials. Well, I'm Gen X, so this isn't exactly my bailiwick, but it gave me an excuse to identify who among my friends are Millennials and ask them what they would like to learn more about on the sustainable development front. (This was before Impakter clarified that it wanted a personal reflection piece from me about my journey in the climate and energy fields.)

For future reference, here is my draft topic list based on my Millennial friends' suggestions.

Gender and Disaster
- Environmental disaster response policy creates exposure to risk when it doesn't account for gender differences
- Women versus men, cis versus transgender, non-binary people's rights in a disaster situation
- The role of official state-sponsored forms of identification in brokering benefits in disaster zone
- Gate-keeping by gender, immigration status

Personal versus Community Resilience
- What are the goals for resilience?
- How do they address structural gaps in resources?
- How far can a resilient mindset minus structural support get you?
- Tips for resilient mindset
- Tips for a more resilient community

Pros and Cons of Community Gardens
- Can they improve food security in a meaningful way in vulnerable communities?
- What cities provide land and funding for community gardens? Are they already relatively resilient cities?
- The apocalyptic view of future food security and possible role of community gardens, practically speaking
- What about just plain green space to address air quality and heat island effects?
- Are green spaces more sustainable/realistic than community gardens for addressing the more pressing climate impacts (more pressing than food insecurity)?
- Community cohesion and returns to community - is that the best role for community gardens?
- Can community gardens combat food deserts and offset gentrification impacts?

Sustainability/Resilience/Public Safety & Microgrids
- Local government and state utility initiatives worth watching
- Private initiatives worth watching

Green Buildings
- LEED certifications  - the sustainable and artistic aspects of these designs.

Interesting Innovations
- Waste water electricity generator?
- Researchers figured out how to grow coral at rapid rates?

Composting Burials
-In Washington State soon you’ll be able to turn a loved one's ashes into compost (more environmentally friendly than cremation) - an initiative led by the Urban Death Project/Recompose

Sustainable Farming
- Agroforestry, hugelkultur
- Other types of sustainable, cool farming systems

In case Impakter comes back to me for more content, I've got a running start.

Friday, July 12, 2019

Ice on Fire: The Cliff's Notes to Proposed Solutions

I was multitasking while watching Leonardo DiCaprio's new climate change documentary Ice on Fire on HBO (directed by Leila Conners). I was expecting it to be all same old same old, "it's almost too late ...but if we all take the bus and eat less meat we'll save the planet!" But after half-listening through it I realized--wait, there were some interesting bits in there. I went back for a re-watch.

Just in case you were also half-listening the first time through, here are the main solutions proposed (between minutes 0:33 - 0:57 and 1:18 - 1:30). Marine snow and the bionic leaf were totally new solutions for me. The six other solutions mentioned were relatively familiar, but I hadn't heard about most of the specific projects the film highlighted as exemplars.

Ice on Fire promo image, 2019 (IMDB)

"Climate change can be reversed if we act now," intones DiCaprio. Then Paul Hawken introduces the Drawdown solutions list (2017). Hawken points to the need to scale up solutions faster.

The two main categories of solutions presented are clean energy and sequestration (i.e., pulling carbon dioxide - CO2 - out of the atmosphere and storing or transforming it).

1. Forests (sequestration) (35:54)

The featured project for this solution is a 50,000 private redwood and Douglas fir forest in Mendocino, California, owned by the nonprofit Redwood Forest Foundation, Inc. (RFFI) and managed by the the Usal ("YOU-sall") Redwood Forest Company. They interview the chief forester, Linwood Gill. He explains how the coast redwood (Sequoia sempervirens) is particularly good at sequestering CO2.

They also interview RFFI's North Coast Biochar Project Manager, Raymond Baltar, who talks about how they are taking dead trees (of which California has an overabundance) and turning them into biochar (pyrolyzed wood, essentially charcoal) to amend soil to increase its ability to sequester CO2 and retain water. He points to the potential usefulness of biochar on ag lands that struggle with drought.

My understanding is biochar's usefulness for ag lands is not well understood. How the biochar is made (the degree of heat used), the source wood, how it is applied, the soil it is amending, and the ag product being grown in the amended soil all play roles in its relative effectiveness at improving soil performance. A farmer can't go to the store, buy any bag of biochar, mix it into whatever soil, and expect improved outcomes. At least this is what I heard from researchers from UC Davis speaking at the 2016 Natural Areas Conference. Biochar is also not without its environmental drawbacks, such as toxic dust (Li and Parikh, 2018). It's not a magic bullet. Based on current research, it looks like it could be useful for some farmers, and soil chemists are eagerly studying it.

2. Soil (sequestration) (40:43)

This segment features Kate Scow, a soil microbial ecologist at UC Davis (Land, Air, Water Resources), talking about healthy soil's role in sequestering carbon. She talks about how organic farming using cover crops and compost sequesters as much as eight times more carbon than conventional farming. Read more about research going on at UC Davis exploring soil amendments and grazing treatments for carbon sequestration.

Ron Finely's Urban Farm in Los Angeles is also featured, with Ietef Vita (urban farmer and vegan chef, AKA DJ Cavem) talking about "culinary climate action" with organic community gardens. (Note they misspell his name as "Vida.") Ron Finely doesn't appear in the film, but you can see his 2013 TED Talk "A guerrilla gardener in South Central LA" on Youtube.

3. Kelp and oysters (sequestration) (45:13)

Bren Smith of Thimble Island Ocean Farm in Long Island Sound, a "restorative ocean farming" enterprise, talks about how he watched overfishing destroy the cod fishery. In response he became an oysterman, a more sustainable livelihood. Oysters filter nitrogen out of the water. He also farms kelp, which reduces the acidity of the water through a "halo effect," helping the oysters grow thicker shells. In addition to reducing water acidity, kelp sequesters up to five times more carbon than terrestrial plants. Kelp can also be made into "kelp noodles," fertilizer, and animal feed.

Smith mentions that cattle methane emissions can be cut by 90% if they are fed seaweed. That seems a little high to me. One experiment at UC Davis showed a seaweed additive (Asparagopsis) reducing cattle methane emissions by 58% (per a 2018 article). A type of Asparagopsis, taxiformis, is credited in a June 2019 article with reducing cattle methane emissions by 80% in a study at Penn State. Suffice it to say it bears further study, as do all of these solutions.

4. Marine snow (sequestration) (50:34)

Staša Puškarić, from the Rochester Institute of Technology, Croatia, talks about his proposed plan to speed up the process of the formation of marine snow, or tiny shells and other particles that travel from the ocean surface to the sea floor, removing CO2 from the atmosphere and producing oxygen. He proposes seeding the ocean with minute amounts of iron (6 kg per 100,000 square kilometers of ocean, targeting the southern oceans). This would trigger the formation of marine snow by attracting cyanobacteria and heterotrophic bacteria. His pilot project, named GEA@275, is currently looking for investors.

In a  2016 Forbes article, atmospheric scientist Marshall Shepherd calls marine snow "biological debris" that falls to the sea floor. "Some oceanic carbon dioxide can make it back to the atmosphere, but much of it can reside in the ocean for hundreds to thousands of years. If it makes it to the ocean floor it may reside for millions of years." Given how much CO2 has been absorbed by the oceans, "[a]t this point it is worth exploring the broader role that marine snow plays in the carbon cycle." He stops short of recommending artificially creating marine snow.

5. Onshore wind and solar + storage (clean energy) (53:50)

Hawken chimes in here noting that he was surprised that onshore wind was ranked #2 in the Drawdown list, while solar farms was #8. It is more scale-up-able than solar.

Next, Martin Hermann is shown talking about the Mount Signal Solar Farm in Imperial County, California, and the plans for scaling up solar in southern California. He points to future deployment of photovoltaics at greater scale, and using technology that allows solar to produce energy at night.

A note on Mr. Hermann and the Mount Signal Solar Farm: he is credited in the film as CEO of BrightNight, a small firm which he founded after he left as CEO/co-founder of 8minutenergy, the developer of the Mount Signal Solar Farm, in Dec. 2018, a day after the solar farm was completed. 8minutenergy is currently the largest independent photovoltaic developer in the U.S.

Mr. Hermann doesn't refer to any specific innovation that would allow photovoltaics to produce energy at night. However, an article from July 11, 2019, points to a promising thermal battery being developed at Curtin University that would allow solar to produce energy "overnight."

6. "Direct air capture" (sequestration) (1:18:05)

Christoph Gebald of Climeworks in Switzerland explains his company's CO2-capturing machine that pipes the harvested CO2 to a greenhouse. (Note that they misspell his name as "Christof.") He co-founded the company with Jan Wurzbacher, beginning their work on CO2 direct air capture in 2010.

Mr. Gebald talks about making jet fuel out of the captured CO2, or sequestering it underground and turning it into stone using geothermal heat. The latter approach, the CarbFix Project, is being piloted in Iceland where geothermal is plentiful.

An April 2019 article points out that it costs Climeworks $500-$600 to remove a metric ton of CO2 from the air. One expert quoted in that article says they need to be able to do it for $100/metric ton to be commercially viable. Like a lot of the projects featured in the film, they need investors.

7. The "artificial leaf" and the "bionic leaf" (sequestration? clean energy? both?)

Daniel Nocera, from Harvard University, talks about his artificial leaf and bionic leaf, which work together to turn CO2 and sunlight into possibly marketable products.

He says the artificial leaf improves on natural photosynthesis: it removes CO2 from atmosphere and splits water to hydrogen and oxygen. Then the bionic leaf takes hydrogen from bacteria and makes fuel. Depending on the genetics of the bacteria used, it could make "materials," e.g., drugs or fertilizer. It can use any water including sea water.

He didn't actually talk a lot about the fuel application, but this article from 2016 explains it a little. The Wikipedia page for the bionic leaf lists its possible useful products as fertilizer, bioplastics, removal of CO2 from the atmosphere, and "other" uses (including "fuel cell").

Nocera's first big published result from 2016 was, essentially, achieving 10 percent efficiency in converting sunlight into alcohol fuels. Then, in 2017 his lab found a way to use a hybrid "catalyst-plus-bacteria" approach to fix nitrogen and make ammonia. According to this 2018 article on the race to invent the artificial leaf: "That is a tantalizing discovery because over 1 percent of global energy is used today in the production of ammonia to fertilize crops and feed the world."

The hope is that it might make a different in the developing world. Nocera's project is being funded by the "First 100 Watts" Program at Harvard, per this 2016 article from Harvard. According to this Jan. 2018 Harvard Gazette article it looks like they are aiming to use the technology to produce fertilizer in India. Nothing more recent is posted on the Nocera Lab's site.

I didn't get the time stamp for this and the last solution because HBO withdrew free access to the film a few days earlier than the posted date.

8. Ocean energy (clean energy)

James Murray and Chris Milne of Orbital Marine Power, in Scotland's Orkney Islands, describe how their floating tidal turbine works. Note that Orbital was called Scotrenewables from its launch in 2010 until October 2018. This CNBC article from Aug. 2018 reports on the results of the first year of testing: "[the] turbine had supplied the equivalent annual electricity demand of roughly 830 U.K. households and, at times, more than 25 percent of the Orkney Islands’ electricity demand." The next step is commercial production.

The film then spends a few minutes with Neil Kermode, Managing Director of the European Marine Energy Center (EMEC), also based in the Orkneys. He talks about the enormous potential for "making electricity out of seawater" (specifically the motion of seawater). We get to see footage of "the Penguin," made by Finnish company Wello Oy, a turbine that generates power from the motion of a pendulum within a vessel bobbing on the waves. You can see other video of the vessel at the Penguin's page on the EMEC site. Another vessel like the Penguin is being built as part of the European Commission's "Clean Energy from Ocean Waves (CEFOW)" initiative. "CEFOW is aiming to be the first project to grid connect an array of wave devices in the UK and to create an efficient supply chain to support larger wave power projects in the future," per EMEC. CEFOW is funded by EU Horizon 2020, the "biggest EU Research and Innovation programme ever," focused on promoting sustainable growth through innovation.

The rest of the movie is mostly about detecting and measuring climate change and emissions of CO2 and methane. It also touches on the problem of fossil fuel industry-driven disinformation campaigns.

There's a special focus between at the one-hour mark (about 15 minutes' worth) on the uncertainty posed by different kinds of new methane sources, including emissions from oil and gas extraction sites, methane hydrates, and microbial methane (from melting permafrost).

The microbial methane piece (from about 1:15:30 - 1:16:50) is where you see the literal ice on fire referenced in the title and pictured in the promotional graphics. Biogeochemist Katey Walter Anthony ignites methane seeping out of a frozen lake in Alaska against a darkening sky, foomph. She says she is doing "a positive flame test" or "quick gas chromatograph" above the ice of a frozen "methane lake." The visuals are stunning. There's a 2-minute Youtube video posted in 2010 about her work that shows her producing a tremendous methane foomph on a frozen lake at around 1:20.

Note that it was supposed to be streaming free through July 16, 2019, but as of July 12 HBO is asking you to subscribe to see anything beyond the trailer, so boo for that.

Also boo for no Native/First Nations perspectives in the film, but lots of footage of the usual famous old white guys working on climate. I appreciate what they had to say but does it really have to be them saying it on camera? Representation matters.

Friday, May 3, 2019

Ask Me Anything

This week on Facebook I asked my friends to ask my anything about climate change. I was pleased to get some really interesting questions! One friend told me I should share the product of this exercise somehow. So here it is.

My post:
I don't know why but it suddenly occurred to me that some of you might have questions about climate change that you are afraid to ask. I don't have all the answers, but I've been working or lurking in this field for 9 yrs* and might be able to dig up answers where I don't have them. So-- please -- ask me anything about climate change! What do you want to know?
(* I later realized it's been 10 years and spare change, but who's counting.)

Photo by cogdogblog © CC BY 2.0

Q1. Have we really reached the “can’t turn back now” stage?
And another related question: How close is earth to the tipping point?

Q2. What is one small item I should stock in my emergency kit that I may have forgotten? (A question from a friend in the SF Bay Area.)

Q3. Is it bad that I’m rooting for a little sea level rise to wash away the ugly condos between our house and the Hudson River?

Q4. What is one concrete activist goal we could get involved to help make happen, right now?

Q5. Is massive reforestation a viable means of stopping global warming? I've seen these projects that plant millions of trees in a day...

Q6. Regarding the dairy (not meat) side of things: what are the differing effects of grass-fed vs. conventional dairy and what effect will the increased farming of cashews and almonds (as dairy alternatives) have on the environment? (Note: I'm parsing this as a pasture versus feedlot versus nut tree question.)

Q7. What are your thoughts on Project Drawdown's effort to comprehensively quantify greenhouse gas mitigation measures?

Q8. How much of a difference does individual water consumption for showers (not stuff like lawn watering) make in California? I've heard lots of people fretting about how we need to take shorter showers due to droughts, but I'm personally not sure how much difference my few gallons of shower water make, compared to people are still growing almonds and rice in climates that cannot support it...

Q9. What's a scientific answer to whether veganism & vegetarianism are better for the planet?

Q10. The San Francisco MTC is planning for a 3 foot sea level rise by 2050: how likely is 3 feet to come sooner? (I'm reading this as "how likely is San Francisco to have higher than three feet sea level rise by 2050?")

Q11. What do you think poses the greatest existential threat, climate change or the singularity?

Q12. How long till thermohaline circulation stops?

Q13. What's the best estimate for how much methane is held as hydrates that are at risk of melting?

Q1. Have we really reached the “can’t turn back now” stage? 

And: How close is earth to the tipping point?

First question:

Yes and no. Yes, in that there is no "stopping" climate change, that train has left the station. We didn't realize how much heat was being absorbed by the oceans, nor how long it looks like it might take the oceans to return to the temperature we are used to. The trajectory in which Earth returns to pre-industrial temperature ranges is measured in many hundreds of years, maybe a thousand years, taking into account the slow way the ocean warms and cools. So, there is no "turning back" in the sense of we have departed from the historical norms for the foreseeable future. However, the Earth might return to balance someday if we do everything we can to SLOW climate change. If we don't do anything, Earth will become Venus. My understanding is that the point at which Earth will inevitably become Venus has not been reached yet.

Awesome short (7 minute) video by expert climate communicator Katharine Hayhoe on this question "It's too late to do anything about climate change.... right?" -

Second question: 

Good question! See my answer to a similar question above. We don't know how close we are to making it inevitable that Earth becomes Venus, but all the tipping points in nature that scientists have pointed to as signals of doom are happening faster than expected.

Also, the tipping point that is rarely talked about that you might want to learn about is ocean acidification. We can't fight it, and when the oceans acidify to a certain threshold -- that's it. As one scientist put it (privately) to me: "game over."

A 12 minute video by the Cal Academy on biodiversity and ocean acidification that might help give you a grasp on the problem:

Q2What is one small item I should stock in my emergency kit that I may have forgotten?

For Bay Area people something I did for my emergency kit was get a geological map showing me where the nearest bedrock area is to my home. I think the Bay Area is more at risk of catastrophic earthquake than catastrophic extreme events from climate change. Things will happen, but it will take the shape of Highway 37 being rendered inaccessible for long periods of time, downtown SF being kayak-able during a King Tide, maybe an extra super hot day here and there, but not hurricanes and storm surge or wildfire that takes out all of Oakland or something like that.

Follow-up question from another Bay Area friend: How does one use bedrock location information in an emergency? Is it where to go to avoid aftershocks?


Also it's not prone to subduction or liquefaction. So much of the Bay Area is built on fill, you really should know if you are living on fill or bedrock. Check it out.

I can't remember how I dug up the map I put in my emergency kit - it's been a few years - but this looks promising:

Q3Is it bad that I’m rooting for a little sea level rise to wash away the ugly condos between our house and the Hudson River?

You are entitled to your fantasies! I like the idea of people kayaking around downtown San Francisco. Highway 1 between SF and the airport will be a kayak park someday, in one engineering firm's vision in a design competition held by BCDC in 2009.

Q4. What is one concrete activist goal we could get involved to help make happen, right now? 

Something that surprised me that I learned last week in a presentation on voter behavior at the National Adaptation Forum was that voters who care about the environment tend to NOT VOTE. So right now my answer for you is -- make sure you are registered and tell your friends to get registered or update their registration to vote, and educate yourself on how things on the ballot might affect climate change and how people on the ballot talk about climate change. Fight for access to the vote for disenfranchised people, fight to make voting day a holiday, fight attempts to roll back access to the vote. Teach your kids basic civics (I expect you do). Make voting a part of your core values and tell your friends why you care about it. I'm also hearing from climate scientists that VOTE is their #1 recommended action for people to take if they are scared about climate change.

This friend wanted to know what else she could do...

My other suggestions are along the same lines of civic activism -- let your elected officials know that you support climate action, send them thank you notes when they take unpopular stands on climate change, and if you know anybody living in places dominated by politicians who claim to be climate skeptics tell them to do the same. If the people lead the leaders will follow, etc.

Also, in my humble opinion, fighting income inequality and trying to establish a universal basic income will do a f*-load more for vulnerable populations in terms of giving them options to make good choices for themselves than any new-fangled technology (or old-fangled technology). Yes we need to upgrade and decarbonize our infrastructure but people need to be empowered to get out of harm's way.

She added: I wasn't thinking about technology so much as about policies like the carbon fee proposed in this book: Being the Change by Peter Kalmus

I follow Peter Kalmus on Twitter, but I haven't read his book. What does he propose in terms of a carbon fee? I know that many smart people talk about the need for a carbon fee or tax, some say it's inevitable. If we "internalized the externalities," or baked into the price of things their actual cost including the cost to the environment, it would give the right price signals for a less climate-changey future. It's just not at all politically viable in the U.S. right now. So companies need to impose this fee on themselves to give the right signals to the consumer. And if companies did bake the cost to the environment into their prices, the shock to low-income people would be terrible. So even if companies were inclined to do this, it would need to be done with some public entity providing relief to the worst off, or it would effectively be a regressive tax. If we had decent, affordable public transit in the U.S. it wouldn't be so bad, but imagine if all the non-rich people suddenly couldn't put gas in their cars.

She replied: I'll have to go back and read his proposal but I thought it made sense. He proposed a carbon fee which would be redistributed to citizens as a dividend, so that it would not function as a regressive tax.

It's a funny thing what working in government does to your ability to have faith in government to do something that complicated without screwing over poor people & immigrants somehow. But yeah, in theory, it sounds like a good plan.

Q5Is massive reforestation a viable means of stopping global warming? I've seen these projects that plant millions of trees in a day...

Good question. (1) "Stopping" global warming isn't an option anymore, sadly. (2) Planting trees can help, depending on where they are planted, what kind of tree, and what kind of maintenance support there is. It's an expensive fix but it is the only geoengineering measure that removes CO2 without creating new uncertainties and disruption. (3) For most of the Earth the superior option is restoring rangeland/prairie and encouraging kelp farming. Resources on that topic linked here:

Q6. Regarding the dairy (not meat) side of things: what are the differing effects of grass-fed vs. conventional dairy and what effect will the increased farming of cashews and almonds (as dairy alternatives) have on the environment? (Note: I'm parsing this as a pasture versus feedlot versus nut tree question.)

You are listening to the sound of my head silently imploding and exploding with ideas of how to respond to your question. My main question when it comes to ag is how is the farmer using water, not what is the carbon footprint of the product. That is my California bias. So you've got the water question and the carbon footprint question. Your farmer might do great managing water and replenishing the groundwater and keeping the water footprint low, and then manage the cattle waste poorly so the farm is a big methane emitter. "Permanent" crops like nut trees have their water impact and their carbon footprint, more the former than the latter (in my bystander understanding), but if lucrative nut trees replace open rangeland (cattle pastures, for example), that has a carbon footprint. Then you've got the question of what happens if we regulate dairy farmers out of existence in the U.S. and thereby offshore the water and carbon impacts by buying dairy from less-regulated places. And you probably know that most of California's almonds are sold to China for almond milk, so that's how those natural resources come back into California, as cash, not a replacement for dairy (yet). OVERALL my thoughts on both dairy and nut tree farming boil down to the importance of getting farmers good climate info in a timely manner. There's nothing we can do about the hunger for almond milk in China but we can incent good water management practices (remote sensor-driven irrigation and the like) and help decarbonize farm infrastructure (which the CA Air Resources Board is working on in the San Joaquin Valley). I have other thoughts but I'll leave these thoughts here and see if my brain spits out anything more cogent.

Grazing can be done really well, in a way that fosters land restoration and native plant growth, and it can be done very destructively. Feedlot farming can do great on the greenhouse gas mitigation front and do horrible things to the land and water around it. There are good reasons to do both grazing and feedlot approaches, it's not a simple equation. My go-to orgs for these questions are CalCAN ( and...

...CAFF (

Also the problem is cow burps not farts, as you may know. People are looking at this seaweed Asparagopsis taxiformis as a possible solution.

Q7. What are your thoughts on Project Drawdown's effort to comprehensively quantify greenhouse gas mitigation measures?

Yes, Project Drawdown has a good list. The organization was created by people from the "Green MBA" program in the Presidio. They favor innovation and market solutions, so that's a bias to be aware of. But I really like Jon Foley, who left the Cal Academy to head up Project Drawdown. He might make it a real organization that does more than publish one book.

Q8. How much of a difference does individual water consumption for showers (not stuff like lawn watering) make in California? I've heard lots of people fretting about how we need to take shorter showers due to droughts, but I'm personally not sure how much difference my few gallons of shower water make, compared to people are still growing almonds and rice in climates that cannot support it...

It's a question of return on investment. When irrigating crops, that water comes back to ground water directly, has benefits for birds & other wildlife, and also translates to $$ for the California economy. So it's a relatively good investment of water compared to lawns (if only grass cuttings could be sold) and extra long showers (the water from which has to be treated, which is an additional cost). There is only so much fresh water, as I'm sure you know, so we need to invest every drop as wisely as possible. The WORST is the way we use treated drinking water to flush toilets. Toilets should be flushed with grey water & at low flow/high efficiency. In the future that is going to have to be mandated. 

Confession: I have a 5 min shower timer and I have never used it. I shower every other day so I say I get a few minutes extra. I also can't deal with the smell & etc. from letting urine sit in my toilet, so I flush every time. I'm no poster child. We should all take shorter/fewer showers and "if it's yellow let it mellow." Also whoever can should collect rainwater in barrels to use in their home and if you have land keep as much of it permeable (not paved) as possible.

Another friend responded: My understanding is it's much less wasteful, gallon for gallon, to use water if it eventually goes down the drain, because that will end up at the water treatment plant for more uses before out to sea. So it's good to cut down on car-washing and lawn-watering, but baths/showers, less so.

Car washing and lawn watering THEORETICALLY recharges ground water, so it isn't wasted water. However because we have such impermeable surfaces around our living areas in cities that car/lawn water tends not to spread and sink but go into drainage pipes that take it right to the sea, untreated. So it is more polluting of the sea than water that goes down the drain. But if you had a nice place with bioswales and other features that slowed, spread, and sunk the car/lawn water, then you are doing the local groundwater a favor, returning tap water to the land.

A really interesting project is trying to capture water that goes down storm drains (like car/lawn water), treating it, and returning it to the tap rather than letting it run to the sea. Los Angeles could supply all of its water needs from storm water if it could capture the water in storm drains (from rain in the mountains) -- so I believe LA is trying out some "internet of water" sensors to capture and store storm drain runoff during and after storms. Someday all the storm drain water might need to be captured and at least turned into grey water for use in toilets and other appropriate grey water uses.

Q9. What's a scientific answer to whether veganism & vegetarianism are better for the planet?

Any food can be healthy or not-- for you and the planet-- including meat. I'm just talking about environmental/physical health here (not ethical health, which is between you and your gods and ancestors, not a matter of public policy). Science doesn't say "go vegetarian" or "go vegan" - what it does say is it's good to reduce the meat in your diet, for lots of reasons. I just learned that among marine animals farmed mussels have the lowest carbon footprint/g protein, which surprised me. I would have guessed wild salmon. Poultry is the lowest of land animals (link attached to where I got that). Now, if you are more concerned about pollution from farming, that goes to the farming practice/ size of enterprise more than the type of meat, I think. Another surprising thing I heard from an ag researcher recently is that small family farms that get big are the WORST for bad environmental practices. Big farms that started out big are prepared for and responsive to regulations. Small farms that get big are not. Anyway, the impact of our food choices on the planet is a very important, complex question. Source for GHG per gram of protein by food type -

More on that, if you can get institutional access to a behind-a-paywall article -

And the source for the farmed mussels being lowest in carbon footprint/g protein -

Specifically this graph:

This relevant article just came out yesterday [April 30, 2019]. It has a lot of the same info I linked to above but put in a very stylish and user-friendly layout (if you have access to the NYT) -

Q10. The San Francisco MTC is planning for a 3 foot sea level rise by 2050: how likely is 3 feet to come sooner? (I'm reading this as "how much sea level rise is San Francisco going to see by 2050?")

MTC is using a controversial projection that uses a probabilistic model (if they are using the California state guidance). They are hedging on the side of caution, using a high estimate for the worst case scenario. Personally, I think it's a good idea. The head of climate change for SF PUC is not so sure it's a good idea to overengineer at this point. The high estimate came from a paper on a particular ice shelf melting in Antarctica (DeConto and Pollard 2016). That ice shelf paper used ONE model of climate change projections and ONE model of ice behavior. Since that paper came out the scientists have done more work and gotten peer feedback and moderated their estimates. I'm attaching the guidance that I believe MTC is basing their planning on:

Here's the DeConto and Pollard (2016) paper that put everyone's neck hairs on end:

Here's an article on how DeConto and Pollard stepped back their alarming prediction:

And on the other hand, this article just came out -

The long and the short is that of all the climate change-driven models out there the ones modeling ice behavior are the newest and least tested. We are building blind at this point, hoping we don't under-engineer.

My friend replied: 16 feet!! That would be bad for countries with large coastal populations and major port cities ... and maybe advantageous to those that don't. Is there anything unclassified that deals with the geopolitical scenarios that might result?

Low-lying island nations have been pointing out the existential threat posed to them by sea level rise for over a decade now. I believe the Maldives has purchased land and is beginning the move process. Indonesia is in the news lately because they are starting the process of moving their capital from Java, which is sinking.There is lots of open discussion about climate refugees from future sea level rise. Bangladesh is a particular concern. All the major populated river deltas in Southeast Asia are particular concerns. The U.S. Naval Atlantic Fleet is run out of Norfolk, VA, that has been preparing for sea level rise for a long time now (though it isn't discussed very clearly/openly as a climate change problem). Turns out sea level rise isn't like filling a bathtub, sea levels rise differently in different places, and Virginia is like ground zero for the fastest sea level rise on any U.S. coast. So our military has had it on its radar for a long time. Pick a location and Google it plus "sea level rise" and you'll find lots out there written about geopolitical implications.

Q11. What do you think poses the greatest existential threat, climate change or the singularity?

I'm guessing you are joking but in case you aren't I don't know, since I don't really believe in the singularity, but just cuz I don't believe in it doesn't mean it won't end the world

My friend conceded: I've been reading about the singularity and becoming convinced it will happen in some form or another, though I don't think we really know how it will happen or when. Climate change is a lot more predictable.

Q12. How long till thermohaline circulation stops?

Oh god I hope not soon, jeez. The impact of climate change on ocean dynamics is almost as little understood as the melting of land ice at the poles (compared to impact on temperature and land processes associated with it). For sure people are studying it but I haven't run across anything that projects a timeline on the thermohaline.

This is a nice juicy link-rich article on the topic from last year, which should give you some idea of how much we know about this problem

Q13. What's the best estimate for how much methane is held as hydrates that are at risk of melting? (Note: hydrates = ice crystals containing another element or compound. Methane hydrates = ice crystals containing methane molecules. See the U.S. Department of Energy methane hydrate explainer, it has a good graphic.)

First, I'm not an oceanographer or permafrost specialist, so I wouldn't know if there was new hot research on this topic emerging. I follow a lot of ocean and cryosphere/polar scientists on Twitter (it's a special interest of mine, the loss of ice-based animals and cultures), but I don't know if anyone I follow is researching under-ocean/permafrost-trapped methane at risk of release through melting. I'm sure I've seen something about the estimated amount of methane in play here (and it's a lot, like a lot a lot) but the real question is what is the real probability of it being released, which nobody knows. What I *do* know is the ocean science course I took (Intro to the Marine Environment at Laney College, taught by a guy who cared a lot about students understanding climate change impacts on the ocean) thought that the hype about the methane at the bottom of the ocean being released and causing catastrophic sudden climate change was waaaaay overblown. He believed it was NOT the thing we should be worrying about. Now, the methane being released from permafrost is another thing, and I just saw a new report show up on my radar yesterday about this. Let me go dig it out of the internet. -- BY THE WAY FOR THE UNINITIATED -- Methane is a super-charged greenhouse gas. Although it dissipates much faster than CO2, it is far more dangerous in terms of its heat-trapping potential. It's roughly 30 times more dangerous than CO2.

OK here it is, an opinion piece that came out in Nature on Tuesday [April 30, 2019] about what research is needed on the question of greenhouse gases/permafrost. It includes an estimate of how much carbon is held in permafrost as compared to the atmosphere (twice as much in permafrost).

And here is a Twitter thread recommended by my favorite paleoecologist on permafrost - doesn't say much on the question of methane but it explains the melting process we are seeing in the tundra -
I haven't read this yet but it looks competently written - the source has been cited by people I deem credible -

MORE ON METHANE - I didn't remember that it is much more potent initially - 80+ times more potent than CO2 after release -

Thursday, May 2, 2019

Head in the Clouds: The Dream of Harvesting Water from Fog (the re-post)

The following was published June 8, 2017, on the WWF ClimatePrep blog ( -- which now appears to have gone defunct. You can still see the original on See my blog post about the writing of this article here.

FogQuest volunteer Chris Fogliatti, San Francisco, California, 2016.
Photo: Hangar 1 Vodka.

The fog comes/ on little cat feet, wrote Carl Sandburg. We here in the San Francisco Bay Area follow it on Twitter under the name Karl the Fog. It seems like a sentient being that winters on the water and summers on the land.It contributes a gentle touch to the atmosphere, keeping coastal plants and animals living within their narrow comfort zone. It is the natural air conditioning for coast-siders. It is the preferred summer water source for Sequoia sempervirens—coast redwood—the world’s tallest
tree (Limm et al. 2009). Throughout history fog has also been tapped to generate drinking water, such as the harvesting of fog-drip from trees using cisterns in the Canary Islands.

There are also many varied modern efforts at tapping fog water for human use. One example with mixed results began in 1985 in Canada. An atmospheric physicist at Environment Canada named Dr. Robert Schemenauer was approached by an international aid agency with this question: can fog be used for water supply in the desert in Chile? His “proof of technology” project resulted in the world's first large operational fog collection project being built at El Tofo, Chile. It served the nearby coastal community of Chungungo from 1992 until 2003. The project delivered 15,000 liters of fog water per day on average, some days delivering over 100,000 liters. The size of the community doubled as a result. After 10 years of successful water production, the community leaders abandoned the fog collectors, eventually building their own desalination plant. The caretaker for their 100 large fog collectors was let go, and the collectors decayed. In an article about this shift away from fog collection, a representative of the aid agency that began this project, the International Development Research Centre, reflected: “people have certain visions of what it means to be developed, and one of them is that water should be brought to you by the state, and you should never have to think about it.”

Although the Chungungo project did not continue, Dr. Schemenauer, one of the founders of modern fog collection, persists in his work helping establish fog-water systems for isolated high-country communities in the developing world through FogQuest, the NGO he co-founded in 2000. He makes community engagement a priority in his projects.

Access to drinkable water is a growing problem for communities across the world. When the right conditions exist, fog collectors in Guatemala allow villagers access to cheap water that is available immediately. Photo: Girl and baby donkey, Tojquia, Guatemala, 2008. FogQuest/Melissa Rosato. Used with permission. (Source.)
FogQuest’s 1 m2 “standard fog catcher” uses a special polyethylene mesh (called Raschel mesh) that is both effective at capturing fog droplets and is wind-resistant. One of the longest-running (since 2006) and successful FogQuest collection arrays is located in Tojquia, Guatemala, where 35 large (40 m2) collectors trap 7,000 liters (1,849 gallons) of water a day during the winter dry season (FogQuest 2017). Dr. Schemenauer points to that project as having a “bright future” in part because of its robust maintenance regime. Other current projects include other sites in the highlands of Chile (the Atacama Desert Center and Falda Verde), Ethiopia, Nepal, Eritrea, and Morocco (read a 2016 update about this project: Fog harvesting brings water to Morocco’s rural communities, which combines FogQuest collectors and a newer German design created for high wind environments).

Fog collection pilot projects have also been undertaken by many other institutions around the world, including through the University of South Africa. The South African collectors were adapted for local weather conditions: “instead of having one flat vertical panel, we now put three panels (30 meach) in the form of a triangle […] provid[ing] stability to the system during storms,” per a 2013 report.

What is fog and how will climate change affect it?

For most purposes, fog is a cloud that touches the ground. There are different types of fog. One way some types form when warm, moist air passes over a cool surface, causing water vapor to condense on tiny particles (called condensation nuclei). But historically the presence of fog has been measured at airports with regards to navigation (officially, “fog” is present when visibility is less than 1 km), so fog scientists trying to understand how climate change and other factors are affecting fog in, for example, coast redwood habitat have to interpolate trends from airport data which aren’t tailored to their purposes. Fog also doesn’t collect as water in uniform ways: wind and the composition of droplets change how it gathers on collectors. The science of determining the optimal places for fog collection and the optimal collector construction is still being developed through modeling and trial and error.

The question of how climate change is affecting fog is highly unresolved, and probably will be for some time. Some researchers speculate it is declining (see the Johnstone and Dawson 2010 study that shows a 33% decline in summertime fog hours off the coast of California), some that it is intensifying. In any case, the atmospheric, oceanic, and terrestrial systems that produce fog are highly variable and undergoing changes: their future interactions can’t be projected with much certainty.

Ideal conditions for a bumper crop of fog

For the best water production, fog collectors should be constructed perpendicular to the prevailing wind. Drops will form on the mesh and then fall into a trough that is angled to fill a tank. On average, a fog collector of the sort built by FogQuest will produce 3-15 liters (about 1-4 gallons) per day per m2. If the fog event is especially productive, the collector may yield 50 liters (about 13 gallons) per m2 in one day. (Source.)

Fog water harvesting schematic.
Adapted from article by
"Captation d’eau de brouillard"/FogQuest.

You can’t get these results by hoisting up a fog collector in any back yard. Fog collectors are most productive in high mountains very close to the ocean. One report from South Africa specifies the following requirements for a viable fog collection project in local conditions:
  • It must be in an area where fog events are frequent year-round and last several hours.
  • It must be at least 1,000 m above sea level and receive at least 90 days of fog precipitation per year.
  • The water content of the fog must be high.
  • There must be wind with the fog to ensure a minimum volume of air blown through collectors.
The fog collector mesh has a 10 year life span. For a large collector of 40 m2 the cost of the standard fog collector mesh and the poles and cables that comprise the frame is between $1,000-1,500 USD. The structure on which it is suspended is flexible in wind storms and earthquakes, so it is relatively easy to put back into place after a natural disturbance. There is no permanent infrastructure required (e.g., no concrete slabs necessary, no electrical cables for pumps): maintenance is relatively cheap, consisting of replacing worn out mesh or damaged pipes, cables, troughs, or water containers. Although it is relatively cheap, a commitment must be made to maintenance, as Chungungo exemplified.

To get ahead of that obstacle, Dr. Schemenauer recommends prioritizing connecting the local people to the project:  “The success of projects depends on having people in the community involved right from the beginning, before you put a fog collector up.”

Dr. Schemenauer emphasizes the importance of involving women and children—the whole community, showing them the concept and starting with a test structure (a 1x1m Standard Fog Collector, for example) as a demonstration. If materials are scarce, a simple mosquito net can work for a proof-of-concept demonstration. The initial construction of fog collectors is relatively easy compared to long-term maintenance, so the sustainability of a fog collector project hinges on local buy-in.

Your new California coastal utility: CalFog?

As romantic as it would be, fog is not likely to ever be a viable source of new water for human consumption in cities, especially not in the developed world with its high-demand user habits. Ultimately fog water requires too much effort and expense for the quantity of water needed. The lifestyle of urban water users would have to change and the cost of fresh water from inland sources would have to skyrocket (and/or quality would have to plummet) to make a utility-scale fog collection project make sense for a city.

In isolated coastal areas where the two main alternative water sources are fog collection and desalination (as in Chungungo), the people who run the desalination plants are unlikely to be equipped to operate a hybrid system integrating both sources: it will be one or the other. If commitment to local maintenance is already a problem, the relative unreliability of fog water compared to desalination might be a deciding factor. Also, if a community has never tried fog harvesting, it will face the problem of any new public infrastructure project (e.g., the questions associated with building water storage basins, how to support collection and maintenance, etc.).

The optimal place for fog water collection for human water needs is a high mountain/ coastal community with a small, isolated population with low water demand, as in the examples above.

The next most cost-effective use might be for agriculture such is in Falda Verde near Chañaral, Chile, where fog water supports a commercial aloe vera plantation through drip irrigation (Carter et al. 2007). The project there is aiming at integrating a fog-fed fish farm, the water from which would add fertilizer to the plantation (aquaponics), according to Dr. Daniel Fernandez, who visited the site in March 2017. Majada Blanca, Chile, has an experimental olive farm fed exclusively with fog water (with a goal of selling fog-fed olive oil to advertise the technique). Its first harvest took place in May 2017.

FogQuest volunteer Chris Fogliatti suggested another drip irrigation system might take the form of fog-collecting mesh installed around an individual native tree sapling. He suggests this might be a useful approach to watering landscaping at high altitudes along the coast; fog water could also be used to feed hydroponic operations producing California’s newly legalized cash crop, marijuana.

Is it safe to drink fog water?

Fog water tends to be of high quality, although it should be subjected to regular testing and filtration if it is being consumed by humans.

There is a concern about bioaccumulation of mercury in coastal animals due to fog exposure. According to Peter Weiss-Penzias at UC Santa Cruz, it appears that mercury levels, on average, are ten times higher in coastal mountain lion whiskers than those found inland. The fog these animals live in can be 20 times more polluted with mercury than rain. This is not a concern for humans, since the amounts are too small to affect humans and we don’t consume anything that consumes fog, but it might be a concern for the long-term health of animals in coastal habitats.

“Fodka” and other adventures with fog

In 2016 the San Francisco Bay Area distiller Hangar 1 debuted Fog Point, a new vodka using local fog water—or fodka (see a 30-second 2016 Time video about it). All proceeds are committed to the charitable mission of FogQuest and fog science. Chile has a “Fog Catcher” (Atrapaniebla) beer, made with only fog water, brewed in one of the driest places in the world, the Atacama Desert (read a 2015 BBC story about the brewery and the research project associated with it).

Projects bringing together art and fog collection are proliferating around the world, such as the Fog Garden (“Jardin de Niebla”) project by Pilar Cereceda and Rodrigo Perez de Arce, piloted in 2008 in Alto Patache in Chile’s Atacama Desert. It was unfortunately abandoned due to lack of funding after the Santiago earthquake in 2010.

The future of fog

Johnstone and Dawson’s 2010 study illustrating a decline in California’s coastal fog has been widely discussed and questioned. Meanwhile, over the past ten years Dr. Daniel Fernandez says coastal fog in Chile has been in decline, with a more pronounced drop than what has been observed in California, but the long-term trends aren’t clear. It might be connected to the Pacific Decadal Oscillation, or a regional effect. Presuming the fog stays with us, our understanding of how best to utilize it as a natural resource will continue to expand, thanks to the many thoughtful people who keep their heads in the clouds.

Standard Fog Collector (1 m x 1 m, mounted 2 m above the ground),
Glen Deven Ranch, California.
Used by permission. Photo: Dan Fernandez
Many thanks to those who contributed to this research for this article: Dr. Daniel Fernandez (Cal State Monterey Bay), Bill Fox (Center for Art and Environment, Nevada Museum of Art), Dr. Robert Schemenauer (FogQuest), and Chris Fogliatti (FogQuest).  

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FogQuest – The modern pioneer in fog collection for water supply in isolated communities in the developing world, an all-volunteer NGO where 90% of funds received from donors and foundations is spent directly on fog-water projects.

The CloudFisher by Aqualonis – A newer design of fog collector designed for high winds. It is more expensive at the outset but intended to be cheaper to maintain than the Raschel mesh fog collectors. Its comparative efficiency in producing water is still being tested. A study in 2014-2015 (Mount Boutmezguida, Morocco) showed the CloudFisher mesh to be more productive (see results table on p. 20-21).

Warka with photovoltaic illumination (2017).
Photo: Warka Water.
Warka Water – A project by designer Arturo Vittori (see the most recent updates on Facebook). This fog collector, still in the pilot stage, is cylindrical, designed to resemble a tree (the warka fig tree), and made at least in part using locally sourced natural materials (bamboo, hemp, and bio-plastic). It is being piloted in Italy, with the target destination of villages in the NE Ethiopian high plateau. The current model (3.7) includes photovoltaic illumination.

Device pulls water from dry air, powered only by the sun (April 2017) – Scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and UC Berkeley have built a device that can “pull liters of water out of the air each day in conditions as low as 20 percent humidity.”

The California fog collection story in a 25-minute video by Al-Jazeera’s “TechKnow” (April 2017), featuring an interview with fog scientist Dr. Daniel Fernandez, California State University Monterey Bay.

Want to make your own fog collector?

Bayside Fog Collectors will be the small-purchaser distributor for the company that produces Raschel mesh– Marienberg– starting in late 2017, along with other products for people who want to make their own or buy a custom-built backyard fog collector.

Fog research resources

The International Fog and Dew Association – founded at the 7th International Conference on Fog, Fog Collection and Dew held in Poland in 2016. The next conference is expected to be in Taiwan in 2019 and in the U.S. in 2022.

Fog Research: Network and Sites – a new fog StoryMap designed to be a repository for photographs and data from an international network of fog researchers, managed by USGS fog scientist Dr. Alicia Torregrosa, currently featuring research projects in the U.S. (California), Namibia, and Chile. Dr. Torregrosa is also the convener of a weekly webinar series for fog researchers, hosted by the Coastal Fog Online Group, part of the Pacific Coastal Fog Project.

The Summen Project – a $1.75 million, three-year study underway on the U.S. West Coast to study the relationships between fog, climate change, redwoods, and human activities. Read about the project’s launch: Researchers Eye Foggy Link Between Redwoods, Climate Change (2016).