Thursday, February 20, 2014

Sea ice atlas to aid Arctic planning - and is really cool

Back in the dark ages of the 1960s, the science of ice forecasting – predicting how much ice will be choking Arctic seas in a given month – was based more on intuition than science. Forecasters relied largely on memory and anecdotal observations, with results about as fallible as you’d expect. Sometimes, the dearth of information caused trouble for forecasters, like the time they sent barges laden with Alaska pipeline materials into the Bering Sea and accidentally trapped them in the ice for days.

Thanks to satellite technology, today’s Arctic-going vessels have a better chance of avoiding such mishaps. But without a solid historical record to contextualize the data, there are still a lot of unknowns. A digital Sea Ice Atlas is out to change that, bringing 160 years' worth of observation together with modern GIS mapping to take forecasting into the 21st century.

With temperatures at record highs and Alaskan sea ice at record lows, activity above the Arctic circle has spiked. Oil, fishing, tourism, military and shipping officials have each expressed the need for a reliable resource to help them navigate not only the ever-shifting northern seas, but also the future of the Arctic itself. Dael Devenport, a National Park Service archeologist, plans to use the atlas to predict coastal erosion and preserve archeological sites at the Bering Land Bridge National Preserve.
Though the atlas was mostly created for people who work in the Arctic, the interactive maps and historical record are free for anyone with an internet connection, and are just plain cool to play around with – especially if you’re in the midst of a mid-winter heat wave and dreaming of snow and ice, as we are at the HCN headquarters in Paonia, Colo.

From your desk, you can create a number of customized maps and charts, including an animated map that shows how the Alaskan ice pack has changed over time. You can set the map to an exact date and time period – say, every February from 1850 to 2012 – and watch the ice morph, growing and shrinking before your eyes. Or you can set it to watch the ice pack change every week over a given year. You can also create a graph showing when waters became ice-free at specific locations each year.

Nothing like this has existed before. The information in the Sea Ice Atlas was painstakingly compiled over two years from ten different sources, including old whaling logs, the Danish Meteorological Institute and the U.S. Naval Oceanographic Office. Data from the past few decades was relatively easy to archive, thanks to satellite images, but deciphering hand-drawn charts and logs from the 1800s and consolidating them into a single format proved a bigger challenge.

Read the rest here:

sea ice atlas
sea ice map 2

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Policies and pollinators: the feds, the farm bill and the pricipitous decline of monarchs

The numbers are in from Mexico, and they ain’t pretty. Every fall, monarch butterflies fly thousands of miles from the Great Plains to their winter grounds in central Mexico, where they're scrupulously counted by the World Wildlife Fund. In 1996, the overwintering monarchs blanketed 45 acres of forest. This year, they cover only about 1.6 acres, and the population – already at its lowest ever recorded – has dropped by half again since just last year. Scientists fear that one of North America’s greatest migrations is in its death throes.

The stats were announced Jan. 29 by the Mexican government and the World Wildlife Fund. Blame has been sure and swift. It’s Monsanto’s fault, it’s climate change, it’s shrinking winter habitat. Yet while those are indeed factors, the biggest – and perhaps the easiest to change, relatively speaking – are U.S. government policies like the farm bill signed into law by President Obama last Friday.

Not that you can call anything about the farm bill “easy.” The $956 billion, 949-page behemoth took three years to craft and covers a veritable Swiss army knife of programs, including agriculture, conservation, rural development, energy, forestry and food stamps. That it passed Congress at all is impressive; that it did so with the support of conservation groups like the World Wildlife Fund and Ducks Unlimited is even more so. Julie Sibbing, senior director of agriculture and forestry programs for the National Wildlife Federation, called the bill “worth the wait.” One provision in particular discourages farmers from plowing up virgin grasslands in Montana, the Dakotas and three other states, with the hope that limiting crop insurance on such fields will discourage sodbusting, thereby preserving native prairie and improving the chances of monarchs. Monarchs only lay their eggs on milkweed plants, which are rapidly disappearing under heavy machinery and herbicides.

Yet though the farm bill offers some protection for grasslands, it also maintains incentives for farmers to plant ever more corn and soybeans – a policy that’s led to a rate of grassland destruction on the northern plains greater than that of Amazonian deforestation. The new bill cuts back on the direct subsidies of the past and replaces them with crop insurance and price guarantees, but critics counter that the end result is essentially the same.

Plus, the bill cuts $6 billion in conservation programs ...

... You can read the rest of my story right here:


Wednesday, February 5, 2014

More pictures of snow.

I walked home late one night, the streets muffled, the plows not yet out. I stood in the middle of the road and looked toward town, watching the snow fall in the yellow globe of streetlight. It was like a movie; too soft and slow to be real. Turning ahead toward home, toward the darkness where the streetlights end, the tree branches that normally block the starlight were catching snow instead -- elder giants holding armloads of it above my head, protecting me, it felt like, but also threatening to dump a shower of frozen crystals down my back should I displease them. The sidewalk was bulged and distorted from the tree roots, the houses dark. The air was so fresh it hurt. 

It snowed all night, and the next day too, and the world became like a dream.

The road home last weekend through Curecanti National Recreation Area, near Gunnison, Colo.

Blue Mesa all dreamy and Arctic-looking

The lacy branches across the street, as seen from my bedroom window

Snow crystals clinging to a fence while I shovel the walk

Snow-encased sentinels at 11,000 feet

Snowboarding at Crested Butte on Sunday

geeking out on public lands and politics.

It’s been an exciting year for public lands geeks. After nearly five years in which Congress failed to designate a single acre of wilderness (the first Congress since 1966 to earn that dubious distinction), the House this week is taking action on a slew of wilderness, public lands and recreation bills. But while it’s tempting to applaud lawmakers for making headway on conservation measures, the bills aren’t all rosy, and they may illustrate the environmental compromises necessary to pass legislation in today’s hyper-partisan climate.

Three packages of bills are making their way through Congress. Here’s a rundown of what we’re paying attention to at HCN, with gratitude to E&E News for much of the information:

PACKAGE 1 - Wilderness bills:
  • On Jan. 28, the House Natural Resources Committee approved bills that would designate 75,000 acres of new wilderness in Nevada. But though environmental advocates praised the Pine Forest and Wovoka wilderness proposals, last-minute amendments tacked on by Rob Bishop, R-Utah, weakened the measures, The Wilderness Society says. Bishop’s amendments would prevent federal agencies from closing roads in or near wilderness areas without opening an equivalent road nearby, allow logging for fire management, and prevent land adjacent to Pine Forest from being considered for future wilderness designation. Bishop claims the trade-offs are standard. But Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., called them unprecedented. “You only want (them) to be standard because you hate the Land and Water Conservation Fund,” he retorted.

    Yet while conservation-minded Democrats like DeFazio begrudged the compromise, industry backers like Bishop weren’t satisfied either. It pained him, he said, that “we are creating more wilderness than we are actually adding to economic development.” In exchange for the 75,000 acres of wilderness, restrictions will be eased on about 25,000 acres of Nevada public lands to encourage economic development, including a copper mine in Lyon County.

    ... You can find the rest of my story here:
Organ Mountains2
Photo courtesy BLM
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