global warming

New Maps of Rising Seas

From the public domain source, the US EPA (2014): “This figure shows average absolute sea level change, which refers to the height of the ocean surface, regardless of whether nearby land is rising or falling. Satellite data are based solely on measured sea level, while the long-term tide gauge data include a small correction factor because the size and shape of the oceans are changing slowly over time.
[…]The shaded band shows the likely range of values, based on the number of measurements collected and the precision of the methods used.
. By US EPA [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Of all the changes that are impacting the globe with climate change, few will be as overwhelming as sea level rise. Some cities, such as New York, are trying to address the problem head on. As Orrin Pilkey has described, North Carolina is taking a different approach; in that state business lobbyists have fought hard to create doubt about global warming. But regardless of what people say, the level of CO2 in the atmosphere continues to rise, the average global temperature increases year after year, and the mean sea level will be increasing over the coming decades.

Denise Lu and Christopher Flavelle’s have a wonderful (October 29, 2019) article in the New York Times titled Rising Seas Will Erase More Cities by 2050. The piece describes how new research shows that the sea level rises by 2050 will have a much greater impact than previously estimated. What is most powerful about their work are the maps. As the authors’ describe, most of Southern Vietnam will vanish by 2050. It is one thing to read those words. It’s another to see the map, and to imagine what that will truly mean. Similarly, most of Bangkok, Thailand will go beneath the waves. While much of Shanghai will survive, many nearby cities will disappear. …

Exodus: Climate Migration

“Global temperature anomalies for 2015 compared to the 1951–1980 baseline. 2015 was the warmest year in the NASA/NOAA temperature record, which starts in 1880. It has since been superseded by 2016 (NASA/NOAA; 20 January 2016).” By NASA Scientific Visualization Studio – https://svs.gsfc.nasa.gov / Goddard Space Flight Center – https://www.nasa.gov/centers/goddard [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
The Weather Channel has an online reporting series called Exodus: the Climate Migration Crisis, which examines how climate change is impacting diverse communities globally. This is an ongoing series, which will be updated throughout the year. Each article combines well-written text with beautiful photography, for topics as diverse as water shortages in Jordan, to the situation in Scituate, Massachusetts.

I now live in Cambridge, Massachusetts, but still work at PSU, since I teach entirely online and do the advising for the online track. While Scituate is only a half-hour’s drive from Boston, this city itself will face it’s own challenges with sea level rise, as Orren Pilkey has discussed in his wonderful book Retreat from a Rising Sea. So Scituate’s story seems very close to home. …

The future of Global Warming

I’ve talked before on this blog about the danger of teaching a Global Studies course as an introduction to global problems. Why would anyone want to study a field that consists of a long-list of overwhelming challenges? For this reason, I’m always careful to provide examples of people making a difference, alternative pathways, and positive information, even when discussing difficult topics. This approach, however, is increasingly infeasible for me when it comes to the question of climate change.

Crawford Kilian is a Canadian author who writes frequently for the left-wing online newspaper, The Tyee, which is located in British Columbia, Canada. Most of his posts address science or policy questions. On August 15, 2018 he had an article, “If we can’t stop hothouse Earth, we’d better learn to live on it.” In the piece, Kilian examined two recent science articles, which both depict a catastrophic future for the planet, in which vast areas of heavily populated land become uninhabitable, while the coasts face astounding degrees of sea level rise. Of course, two articles do not on their own provide a definitive view of the future. But I do think that Kilian’s piece bears reading. the question is, if this information is accurate, how should this change our teaching in the field? How do have students think critically about these issues in our classes, without shutting down emotionally, or retreating into denial? Given the primacy of this issue in our children’s futures, how should this reshape our courses?

Shawn Smallman, 2018

A book review: A Great Aridness

Colorado River Basin Map. By Shannon1 (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY-SA 4.0-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
DeBuys’ book, A great aridness: climate change and the future of the American southwest, examines how the West will adapt to drying and warming in an era of climate change. Despite the complexity of the issues involved, deBuys is able to convey his key ideas in poetic language, while never oversimplifying his topic. This is a book written by someone with a deep knowledge and love of the southwest. He begins his work by discussing the earlier peoples of the Southwest -such as the Ancestral Puebloans/Anasazi and Hohokam- and their own experience of drought and water management. He then moves on to discuss the central issues of water distribution in the modern era. Why are Arizona’s water rights junior to those of California, so that that in a crisis California will receive its allocation of water, while Arizona’s will be cut? The answers are as fascinating as they are strange.

The central theme of denial runs throughout this work. People don’t want to know the details of how they receive water, or how vulnerable Lake Meade may be. Real estate developers in particular do not want an informed community discussion of this topic. Meanwhile, pragmatic water managers are working to build a water intake drain at the very bottom of Lake Meade. While the book focuses on the American southwest, its central issue is that of climate change, which is why I am reviewing it in a course on global studies. The American southwest is a case study for the future, with applicability from Portugal to Iraq.

The U.S. southwest faces sustained warming and drying, even as more people move into the sunbelt in coming decades. The environment that these people enter will change drastically within their lifetimes. In Chapter 2 “Oracle: Global Change Type Drought,” deBuys examines the impact that climate change will have upon entire ecosystems. On page 46, deBuys has a map of Western forests that are being decimated by the spruce beetle, the mountain pine beetle, and the Piñon Ips beetle. The damage extends as far north as the Yukon. My own family lives in British Columbia, where entire swathes of the north have turned red with the needles of dying trees. De Buys describes what may lay in store for the north: …

Book Review: Retreat from a Rising Sea

Citation: From the public domain source, the US EPA (2014): “This figure shows average absolute sea level change, which refers to the height of the ocean surface, regardless of whether nearby land is rising or falling. Satellite data are based solely on measured sea level, while the long-term tide gauge data include a small correction factor because the size and shape of the oceans are changing slowly over time. […]The shaded band shows the likely range of values, based on the number of measurements collected and the precision of the methods used.
By US EPA [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Pilkey, Orrin H., et al. Retreat from a Rising Sea : Hard Decisions in an Age of Climate Change. Columbia University Press, 2016.

As I’ve worked on the previous editions of our textbook with Kim Brown, I’ve become increasingly convinced that it’s important for educators to recognize that our task is not only to teach about how humanity can prevent global warming, but also how humanity will need to adapt to climate change. There is now so much additional CO2 in the atmosphere that we are committed to global warming for generations to come. Perhaps no environmental impact will affect people as much rising sea levels, which is the central theme of Retreat from a Rising Sea. …

Sea level rise in Asia

Casinos in Macau, China.
中国澳门的赌场 Photo by Shawn Smallman

I think that we have reached the point with global warming where we can no longer pretend that we’re going to meet our goals. That doesn’t mean that citizens globally can stop the effort to limit climate change. There is a vast difference between the worst scenarios and the best. There are also reasons for hope, from the plunging cost of solar power, to the rapid development of offshore wind power. At the same time, in the end it’s not enough. Given the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, the changing albedo of the Arctic due to declining ice cover, and the warming of our oceans, global warming will be continuing for centuries. At this point, human societies will be adapting to climate change far into the future, especially coastal communities. …

Hope, Fusion and the Future

“This image shows the Sun as viewed by the Soft X-Ray Telescope (SXT) onboard the orbiting Yohkoh satellite.” By NASA Goddard Laboratory for Atmospheres and Yohkoh Legacy data Archive [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
As a kid growing up in Southern Ontario in the early 80s, I enjoyed listening to a science program called “Quirks and Quarks,” on CBC radio. Imagine my surprise to find that -thanks to the wonders of podcasts- I could still listen to this program, which is as good as it ever was. One recent episode, “Let there be Light,” compares two different approaches to fusion. In France, ITER is a $20 billion project which has entailed 35 years of cooperation amongst multiple nations. The reason why this investment makes sense is that fusion would create a virtually limitless supply of energy, without the danger of either nuclear meltdowns or the long-term storage of nuclear waste. In contrast, a Canadian start-up has a radically different and smaller plan. What’s most interesting to me about this brief podcast (14:08 minutes) is the scientists discussion of the level of resources required to develop fusion. They contrast this amount with the $200 billion that Qatar may spend to host the World Cup. There is hope for a radically different energy system, if we as a civilization are prepared to make the required investments.

Shawn Smallman, 2017

The costs of drugs

A Cannabis plant. By Cannabis Training University (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Marijuana is being legalized in the United States and globally far more quickly than almost any observer could have anticipated. Canada will legalize marijuana nationally in 2018. Given the horrific violence associated with the drug war in Mexico, such steps will reduce the power of organized crime. As early as 2014 the price for Mexican marijuana was falling sharply, and this trend will continue. Still, all change comes with a cost, and Oliver Milman’s recent Guardian article points out one. In his piece,“Not so green: how the weed industry is a glutton for fossil fuels,” Milman argues that marijuana production in greenhouses uses a shocking amount of electricity, which is often produced with fossil fuels. I don’t doubt that the global discussion about drug legalization, at least for marijuana, will continue. As it does, countries will have to wrestle with many complex policy issues, including the environmental impact of this crop, as large corporations produce it at scale.

Ben Grenrock also has a recent article, “Colombia’s New Drug Problem” in Slate, which talks about the growing movement towards drug tourism in Medellin, Colombia. On the one hand, drug violence has plummeted in the city. Colombia, which endured horrific violence in the early 1990s, has recently signed a peace agreement with the FARC guerrillas. Medellin is a beautiful city, which has enjoyed spectacular growth. But tourists have also begun to come to Medellin in large numbers, partly because they view it as a place to experiment with cocaine consumption. Of course, cocaine has always been available in Colombia. But now the scale of drug tourism has increased substantially, which has strengthened the drug gangs that control its distribution in the city. According to Grenrock, many people in Medellin look with disdain on these tourists. In the case of Medellin, cocaine is illegal, but readily accessible because there is little effective enforcement. As both articles describe, a commodity chain links drug consumers to real environmental and social problems.

Shawn Smallman, 2017

Sea level, hurricanes and Tampa

“Hurricane Isabel from ISS,” Image courtesy of Mike Trenchard, Earth Sciences & Image Analysis Laboratory , Johnson Space Center. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
My parents lived in Florida for six months a year over nearly twenty-five years, and other family members have lived there for longer, so it’s a state that I love. I think that the West Coast is a particularly beautiful place, where you can kayak through a river with alligators in the morning, before finishing the day on the beach looking for the green flash.  As I’ve talked about before, though, I don’t think Florida as a state has sufficiently acted upon the reality of sea level rise. Florida is not unique, as cities like Jakarta and Shanghai wrestle with the same issue. Still, Florida has to deal with a double threat, because it has to worry not only about the rising waters but also the implications this has for hurricanes. The 1935 Hurricane devastated Key West. While people are aware of how vulnerable South Florida is to a hurricane, though, perhaps the greatest threat is in the Tampa Bay area. Darryl Fears has a new article titled, “Tampa Bay’s Coming Storm,” in the Washington Post. As Fears points out, the sea level may rise “between six inches and more than two feet by the middle of the century, and up to seven feet when it ends. On top of that, natural settling is causing the land to slowly sink.” …

Antarctica and Ice Loss

I love storyboards, which combine audio, video photos and maps to cover a topic in an interactive manner. The New York Times has an outstanding storyboard on Antarctica, which would be a great resource for an introductory class. I particularly liked the beautiful maps which showed the direction of ice flow by flowing colored lines, which became animated when clicked upon. In part two, another map reveals how much of Antarctica is actually ice, through a map that allows the viewer to strip away the ice cover to reveals the mountains and bedrock underneath. What had seemed to be a unitary continent is revealed to be a world of islands and peninsulas. The second immersive video, in which they fly past a six mile long iceberg, is also striking. Through the window you can see dramatic imagery, but when you swivel the camera back to the pilots they seem quite bored. The three part series ends with four videos, which are narrated. The first is covers a dive underneath the ice, which has spectacular images of an otherworldly environment, and will allow you to briefly escape your workaday world.

Shawn Smallman, 2017

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