Major Cuts to Environment Canada

From a promising young researcher at the University of Toronto. James emphasizes that he is speaking for himself here, independently of his supervisor and his department.

Canadians, especially, please take note.

Over the past several months we have seen major cuts to Environment Canada that have left it without any real scientific or research power. These cuts include the Environment Canada lab I presently do research at under Dr. Brad Bass of Environment Canada’s Adaptations and Impacts Research Section (AIRS). Almost the entire Section – which focuses on measuring impacts and responding to climate change across Canada – has been cut, alongside many other departments. Dr. Bass and many other Environment Canada scientists have had their jobs cut and we’ve seen in recent days rather strong political intervention from above in what EC scientists can and cannot mention to the public, whether it’s research critical of present policy or even just discussion of the cuts.

We have seen many prominent scientific jobs cut, research funding slashed, and our ability to effectively do environmental assessment and management largely neutralized (see here, here and here). Our scientists have been muzzled, and their ability to go to press has become tightly managed by a new “media relations office” put forth by the Harper Government. There is no more money to do research on Adaptations and Impacts as we do, projects on water quality have been halted (including those serving Aboriginal reserves and northern communities), and many of the tools and researchers necessary in order to adequately measure the consequences of the Athabasca Tar Sands are presently in a questionable state of limbo. This rearrangement of staff – preceding the 5-10% first round of budget cuts coming in February as part of Harper’s “balancing the books” will effectively leave Environment Canada powerless and effectively useless. They even went so far as to slate twenty-one out of twenty-four water quality monitoring stations in the Northwest Territories for shutdown – an act that managed to embarrass Harper (who was touring the region at the time) sufficiently for it to be reversed. But the cuts and targeting of research in the public interest continues.

Tony Clement perhaps put it best: Environment Canada is now “open for business” – you may now hire their award-winning scientists at will, privatize their research and keep them from working in the public interest.

One of the most prominent areas to be hit was climate change research and adaptations: exactly what our thirty-person lab has focused on and our broader Adaptations and Impacts Research Section has pioneered in for the past seventeen years since its formation. Dr. Bass is a co-recipient of the IPCC Nobel Prize, and the work many of our researchers do is critical to the advancement of science and the development of viable responses to climate change the world over. Because Environment Canada scientists cannot go to press over this, coverage (and response) has largely been muted – and the Canadian public, by and large, is unaware of the changes that are taking place. This is, to put it lightly, a major problem not just for Canadians but for the whole of the international community.

Our lab in particular, based at the University of Toronto, does cutting edge research on community energy systems, energy conservation, urban agriculture and food security, new methods of waste management, and urban sustainability through design and green infrastructure to address many of the problems we now face as Canadians. Our research is open, our results are available to the public, and we are presently slated to lose everything – much like many other prominent Canadian research institutions if nothing is done and no attention drawn to the changes we now see. Government research partnerships with universities are likewise slated to be terminated.

Myself and a number of students working with Dr. Bass have independently decided to attempt to address and draw attention to the cuts as we now see them. We have put together a list of very simple things even ordinary Canadians can do in order to fight the changes we now see. These include writing to your MP or school board trustee – just a short “I don’t want to see this laboratory gone” should do – and spreading the news about the cuts. The CBC recently drew attention to one aspect of our research , and our team is rushing to put up a website to draw attention to some of our projects to address the food crisis, do away with plastic waste, make desalination cheap and easy to do and much, much more.

I hope you can help with this matter. Please feel free to respond with questions, ideas or even just support, and I’ll answer you as best I can.

All the best,

James I. Birch

Student Researcher,

Adaptations and Impacts Research Section,

University of Toronto

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Is There a Swarm Solution?

Coalition Of The Willing from coalitionfilm on Vimeo.

It’s a stupid name; about grass roots environmentalism rather than about wars of invasion.

It starts off strong and then gets into some frantic handwaving and saccharine and not entirely well-grounded reassurance and encouragement.

I honestly don’t think the swarm they describe will be enough. And perhaps what swarming there will be doesn’t need this kind of cheerleading. The makers will make and the thinkers will think. It is perhaps a bit early to get the B Ark folks too interested. And not everyone will be too attracted by the piece’s 60’s utopianism, though I for one think the cultural history is presented about right. And the amount of oversimplification in this little pep talk is astronomical.

I really liked it anyway.
It is, at least, a start toward a vision of the future that isn’t a horror. And if the cloying narration starts to get to you, you can turn the sound down and enjoy the excellent and creative animations.

Nielsen-Gammon vs the New Normal

John Nielsen-Gammon, our Texas State climatologist came up with this scary image that most of you have seen, and that everyone in Texas ought to take a good long look at. I was one of the first to reproduce it, but I’ve seen in lots of places since, and with good reason.
Unfortunately, John has followed up on this contribution with what I consider a mistaken article, wherein he claims that

“Texas would probably have broken the all-time record for summer temperatures this year even without global warming.”

Before we get into his argument and its drawbacks, let’s note the obvious. We see that this years drought/heatwave is far outside the observed pattern distribution of events.

It’s hard not to take note of the tremendous similarity of the situation here to Australia’s a couple of years back, though Australia’s droughts are on the other end of the El Nino seesaw. (Australia has, in fact, been extraordinarily wet of late.)

So is it a “New Normal”? Is Texas in perpetual drought now? Will we swing back and forth out of unheard-of droughts and unheard-of floods? Will Australia do the same, along with other parts of the formerly semi-arid subtropics? Certainly this is the intuitive impression that many of us come away with. Barry Brooks is no amateur, and he was at least willing to quote a colleague saying

“Given that this was the hottest day on record on top of the driest start to a year on record on top of the longest driest drought on record on top of the hottest drought on record the implications are clear…

It is clear to me that climate change is now becoming such a strong contributor to these hitherto unimaginable events that the language starts to change from one of “climate change increased the chances of an event” to “without climate change this event could not have occured”.

Clearly, we can say similar things in Texas this year. But should we? Nielsen-Gammon says we shouldn’t.

Let me summarize his argument:

  • The temperature anomaly this summer is about 5.4 F
  • Global warming to date has led to a local warming of Texas summertime temperatures of 0.5 F, so the temperature anomaly can be divided into 0.5 F background warming + 4.9 F other warming.
  • There is a strong correlation between annual rainfall variation and annual temperature in the graph. N-G finds a second order curve that fits the data [about as well as the linear fit] (see comments), and figures that the low rainfall could account for most of the remaining 4.9 F
  • He sinks into the tea-leaf territory of the “AMO” and claims to pick up the balance
  • Leaving aside the odd idea of superposition of temperature anomalies and the very weak evidence for the AMO, clearly there is a plausible claim that the huge temperature anomaly is “mostly” “because of” the drought
  • There is no obvious trend in Texas toward drought, so climate change does not cause unheard-of droughts
  • Therefore this is a fluke and has nothing to do with climate, or that other fluke in Australia in ’09, or all the other flukes we have been seeing lately
I don’t buy this for a minute. I am, in fact, shocked by the seriousness with which this argument is being taken.
It is interesting that when I have run this by non-experts, they all think it is crazy. Are they right?
I’ve been struggling for an analogy, and have come up with nothing resembling a realistic real-world example that allows this fallacy, so allow me a parable instead.

There is a small, isolated urban country where the wild fauna have been eliminated, and the public is only familiar with pets: dogs, cats, hamsters, and a few horses used in ceremonial events. The entire population knows very little about other animals, and even the experts have acrimonious debates based on fossil records and old paintings, just as we are familiar with contemporary climate but have to extrapolate to ancient or future climates.

One day, there is an earthquake. Not only does a border fence fail, but that fence abuts on the neighboring country’s great zoo. Many animals escape into our urban country, and it happens that one of them is an elephant, which they will perceive only as a large, bizarre animal.
However, our experts have been observing the zoo from a distance. They believe they have a good idea of the number of animals at the zoo from the number of feeding stations (visible from an observation tower), and a good idea of the total mass of the animals (calculated from the size of the food deliveries). They conclude that the average zoo animal is the size of a large dog. Therefore, the elephant is not an escapee from the zoo! It must be an extremely unusual dog or cat.
That’s the best I can do. It makes no sense, does it? We have an invasion of phenomena which we have only weak characterization for. We have some idea of averages and trends because of physical constraints, but we know very little of the nature of outliers in the changing climate.
(This is to say nothing of anomalies due to transient climates for the present.)
Here is the thing. We are increasingly disturbing the climate. A truly bizarre season occurs in a particular place. Either these extraordinary events are connected, which is perhaps unlikely, or they are unconnected, which is extremely unlikely. That is, you are asking for a bizarre coincidence.
But now we add up the number of bizarre coincidences, for each of which John can make comparable arguments. The tornado outbreak this spring. The huge blocking event in Asia last summer which did so much damage in central Russia, Pakistan, and parts of China. The fires in Australia in 2009 and the floods this year. The floods in the midwest. Heat waves in Europe.
None of these are clearly part of local trends. None of these are particularly predicted in the literature, and as far as I know the GCMs don’t indicate these things happening.
But, here’s the thing. They are happening.
So when I look at John’s plot, I see that there are only two possibilities. First, a bizarre coincidence as John suggests: a gigantic grey housecat with big teeth, floppy ears, enormous legs, and a strange nose. Second, an unexpected consequence of climate forcing. An elephant.
That is, what we have is not because of a change in the mean but because of a spreading, an expansion of the cloud of possibilities. From a dynamics perspective, that’s not surprising in the least. We’re passing, year by year, from one climate configuration to another at a very rapid pace, and we are used to thousands of years of unusual stability.
Does anyone actually expect “global weirding”? Well, I am not sure how we should specify an a priori metric for it, and without one we can’t really formally detect it. And the models, well, we already know that the non-assimilating GCMs are very stingy with extreme events. Why? My theories on that are too vague for publication, but it’s widely known to be true.
But when I see a graph like that one, I don’t find myself saying, hmm, obviously not part of the trend, therefore natural.
Now my other analogy is emotionally fraught, and let me apologize if it offends anyone, but I have to say it. When I saw a couple of 100 story buildings falling down, I didn’t say, there’s no anthropogenic trend to date for buildings to fall down so they must have fallen down naturally.

I’m sorry, but I find that argument, ahem, less than compelling.
Let me offer a couple of simple propositions instead.
  • There’s a first time for everything.
  • If you push something hard enough it will fall over.
I for one think the fan is no longer pristine.
I am working on a longer version of this article. It also ties into the less obvious but very similarly wrong arguments about rainfall anomalies and also to a case that the egregious Pat Michaels has been flogging.
I think it’s time to take this bull by the horns. You can’t apply small-signal arguments to large signals in nonlinear systems. So please stop it.

Update: Via Google Plus, Jonathan Abbey summarizes my argument nicely:

Climate characterizes the statistics of weather and the statistical bounds of weather. If we start seeing weather patterns change, that can indicate a change in climate.

The question is all about how likely it is that this weather would occur if the statistical parameters of the climate were held fixed as it has been since instrumental records began, say.

If weather like this is sufficiently unlikely under our previous understanding of regional climate, it may be (a piece of) evidence that the climate is itself experiencing a dislocation.

Which is sort of interesting.

Daily Rainfall Record Exceeded By 60%


While we’re caught in futile waiting for our first raindrop in over a month and perhaps our fourth rain event of the year here in Austin, the northeast continues to be drastically, roll-a-13-ishly wet.

Jeff Masters, as usual, has the scoop:

An extreme rainfall event unprecedented in recorded history has hit the Binghamton, New York area, where 7.49″ fell yesterday. This is the second year in a row Binghamton has recorded a 1-in-100 year rain event; their previous all-time record was set last September, when 4.68″ fell on Sep 30 – Oct. 1, 2010. Records go back to 1890 in the city. The skies have now cleared in Binghamton, with this morning’s rain bringing the city’s total rainfall for the 40-hour event to 9.02″. However, another large region of rain lies just to the south in Pennsylvania, and all of the rivers in the surrounding region are in major or record flood. The Susquehanna River at Binghamton is at 25.18′, its highest level since records began in 1847, and is expected to overtop the flood walls protecting the city this afternoon. In Hershey, Pennsylvania, Swatara Creek is 18′ over flood stage, and more than 8′ above its record flood crest. Widespread flash flooding is occurring across the entire area, and over 125,000 people have been evacuated from their homes.

You don’t often see a major city break its all-time 24-hour precipitation record by a 60% margin, according to wunderground’s weather historian, Christopher C. Burt, and he can’t recall ever seeing it happen before. It’s worth noting that the Susquehanna River Binghamton stream gage, which has been in operation since 1847, is due to be shut off in 3 weeks due to budget cuts.

Have we been underestimating the extent to which climate change will drive extreme events?

How should we be thinking about such bizarre occurrences?
And how the hell is it possible that we cannot afford something we were able to achieve in 1847, after 164 years of sustained 3% growth compounded annually? Can someone explain that to me?
h/t Lou Grinzo

Bastrop Fires Subside

I think Ron was joking, but in fact some of the success in controlling the Bastrop fire was actually due to informal, volunteer contributions.

Firefighters are mopping up the remnants of a blaze that tore through Bastrop State Park this week. All but 100 acres of the park were blackened by wildfire, but crews managed to save many historic Depression-era buildings.

Firefighters worked 30 hours without rest to limit damage by the fire. They saved cabins and other structures by spraying them with water and carving fire lanes around them with bulldozers loaned to the agency by volunteers.

Here’s (hopefully) the final footprint of the Bastrop fire.


(NASA explains the ‘LEUCKE’, which is coincidentally used to calibrate their image resolution.)

We also made an empirical estimate of spatial resolution for lower contrast vegetation boundaries. By clearing forest so that a pattern would be visible to landing aircraft, a landowner outside Austin, Texas (see also aerial photo in Lisheron 2000), created a target that is also useful for evaluating spatial resolution of astronaut photographs. The forest was selectively cleared in order to spell the landowner’s name ‘LUECKE’ with the remaining trees (figure 10). According to local surveyors who planned the clearing, the plan was to create letters that were 3100 ´ 1700 ft (944.9 ´ 518.2 m).