Tag Archives: climate

Will the Great Salt Lake stay great?


If we can’t save one lake, how will we save the planet?

We all think we know why it’s so hard to motivate our fellow Americans to meet the threat of climate change:

  • The danger seems distant, as if we still had a lot of time to react.
  • The problem seems abstract: So what if statisticians claim the average day is a degree or two warmer than it would have been a few decades ago? Why is that such a big deal? Maybe the computer models are wrong and the projections of disaster are just scaremongering.
  • Such disasters as we’re already seeing — hurricanes, droughts, fires, heat waves — don’t come clearly marked “brought to you by climate change”. Similar things have happened in the past, so maybe these would have happened anyway.
  • Because climate change is global, it’s hard to connect our own actions to the outcome. If we make sacrifices, but the Chinese and Indians don’t, they’ll get an advantage on us and all the bad things will happen anyway. As Marco Rubio put it when he was running for president in 2015: “America is not a planet.

But what if we faced an environmental disaster where none of those factors came into play? Something entirely within our borders, where the changes were visible to the naked eye, and the looming catastrophe obvious. Something clearly connected to current policies, and addressable by changing those policies.

We’d be all over that, wouldn’t we?

Well, apparently not.

Not quite two weeks ago, the New York Times reported that a combination of climate change, over-population, and profligate water use is killing the Great Salt Lake.

Last summer, the water level in the Great Salt Lake reached its lowest point on record, and it’s likely to fall further this year. The lake’s surface area, which covered about 3,300 square miles in the late 1980s, has since shrunk to less than 1,000, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.

The salt content in the part of the lake closest to Salt Lake City used to fluctuate between 9-12%, according to Bonnie Baxter, a biology professor at Westminster College. But as the water in the lake drops, its salt content has increased. If it reaches 17% — something Baxter says will happen this summer — the algae in the water will struggle, threatening the brine shrimp that consume it.

Algae and brine shrimp are the bottom of a food chain. Migratory birds who rely on the lake as a resting spot in their otherwise perilous desert crossing would go next.

While the ecosystem hasn’t collapsed yet, Baxter said, “we’re at the precipice. It’s terrifying.”

Worse, the exposed former lake bed could soon endanger humans in nearby Salt Lake City:

The lake bed contains high levels of arsenic and as more of it becomes exposed, windstorms carry that arsenic into the lungs of nearby residents, who make up three-quarters of Utah’s population. …

The soil contains arsenic, antimony, copper, zirconium and other dangerous heavy metals, much of it residue from mining activity in the region. Most of the exposed soil is still protected by a hard crust. But as wind erodes the crust over time, those contaminants become airborne.

Part of the problem is climate change, with all the complicating factors I listed above. (More of the mountain snowpack is evaporating rather than melting to feed the rivers that feed the lake.) But another big part of it isn’t: Population growth is diverting water from the rivers before it can reach the lake.

So policy changes at the state and local levels could do a lot to mitigate the problem: Water rates could go up, and future development could be discouraged.

Of major U.S. cities, Salt Lake has among the lowest per-gallon water rates, according to a 2017 federal report. It also consumes more water for residential use than other desert cities — 96 gallons per person per day last year, compared with 78 in Tucson, Arizona, and 77 in Los Angeles. … Homes around Salt Lake boast lush, forest-green lawns, despite the drought. And not always by choice.

In the suburb of Bluffdale, when Elie El kessrwany stopped watering his lawn in response to the drought, his homeowners’ association threatened to fine him. “I was trying to do the right thing for my community,” he said.

State Rep. Robert Spendlove, a Republican, introduced a bill this year that would have blocked communities from requiring homeowners to maintain lawns. He said local governments lobbied against the bill, which failed.

In the state legislative session that ended in March, lawmakers approved other measures that start to address the crisis. They funded a study of water needs, made it easier to buy and sell water rights, and required cities and towns to include water in their long-term planning. But lawmakers rejected proposals that would have had an immediate impact, such as requiring water-efficient sinks and showers in new homes or increasing the price of water.

In short, the legislature did nothing that might ask for sacrifices from individual citizens. If Utahans are still asleep to the problem — even though they can go look at the shrinking lake for themselves — the state’s political leaders are afraid to wake them up.


But they’re bound to notice eventually. The NYT article compares the Great Salt Lake to the cautionary tale of Owens Lake in California, which dried up when water feeding it was diverted to Los Angeles early in the 20th century.

On what used to be the shore of what used to be Owens Lake is what’s left of the town of Keeler. When the lake still existed, Keeler was a boom town. Today it consists of an abandoned school, an abandoned train station, a long-closed general store, a post office that’s open from 10 a.m. to noon, and about 50 remaining residents who value their space, and have lots of it.

Like Paul Krugman, I was surprised the NYT article didn’t mention a much bigger disaster: the Aral Sea in Central Asia, which was once the fourth-largest inland body of water in the world. In the 1960s, the Soviet Union irrigated much of the surrounding area in an attempt to become a major cotton exporter. With so much water evaporating in fields rather than flowing into the sea, the Aral’s ecosystem collapsed.

The Aral Sea has seen the surface area decline by 90%, and had its volume decrease by 85%, an amount equal to Lake Erie and Lake Ontario combined. The sea level has dropped by over 30 m in many places, leaving fishing boats stranded 100 kilometers from any shore. What was once the bottom of the lake has become a new desert, abandoned fishing boats listing in the sand, scoured by toxic dust storms. Ramshackle towns perch on vanished shorelines, while the population languishes in poverty and high rates of cancer, tuberculosis, digestive disorders and anemia. It’s like a scene from a post-apocalyptic movie, yet it is all too depressingly real.

Krugman makes a even more depressing point about the Great Salt Lake:

what I found really scary about the report is what the lack of an effective response to the lake’s crisis says about our ability to respond to the larger, indeed existential, threat of climate change.

The factors that make it hard to marshal the will to fight climate change globally don’t apply here. The retreat of the Great Salt Lake is a visible local problem that could spiral into disaster in the very near future. Action to prevent that disaster could be taken locally, by restricting water usage and new development.

So this should be easy: A threatened region should be accepting modest sacrifices, some barely more than inconveniences, to avert a disaster just around the corner. But it doesn’t seem to be happening.

And if we can’t save the Great Salt Lake, what chance do we have of saving the planet?

A similar pattern is replicating across the West in the face of a multi-year drought.

Lake Mead, which was created in the 1930s when the Hoover Dam was built across the Colorado River, is currently lower than at any time in its history. Lake Powell, also on the Colorado, is currently so low that the Glen Canyon Dam’s electrical generation has been cut back.

A former marina on Lake Mead. https://www.cbsnews.com/pictures/drought-dries-up-lake-mead/24/

Again, climate change combined with rapid population growth is the problem, perhaps exacerbated by the illusion created by the 20th century, which was wetter than normal in most of the American West.

The West is where the rubber meets the road in terms of America confronting climate change. The environmental problems are local, visible, and immediate, and local solutions to those problems are available. If it’s not politically feasible to restrict water usage and curb development, the whole region is, as Grant Piper puts it, sleepwalking towards disaster.

Climate Change is Here


When it’s 116 in Portland and 108 in Seattle, something is wrong.

For a long time, you could only see global warming if you knew what you were looking for. It wasn’t something that announced itself in your everyday experience.

Wherever you might live, it continued to be warmer in the day and cooler at night, hotter in summer and colder in winter — the same as it ever was. Whether summers had been hotter or winters colder years ago was a topic for old people’s boring stories about the Blizzard of ’78 or the Drought of ’54.

You had to be a statistician — or trust statisticians whose work you couldn’t check — to get any coherent view of the trends in global temperature. Think of the millions of measurements, and thousands of adjustments to those measurements, necessary to produce a graph like the one below. Who made those measurements? Who compiled those statistics? Why should you trust them? If you had the resources and the will, you could find your own way to parse the data so that it said something different. Why shouldn’t you do that, or decide to trust somebody who did, rather than trust NASA or NOAA or some international consortium of scientists?

The situation was even worse if you tried to look to the future, because then you were dealing with computer models. What were they assuming? Who did the programming? Again, the graphs looked very impressive and scary. But if you didn’t want to believe them — and who did, really? — nobody could make you.

And without predictions decades into the future, climate change was no big deal. Maybe it was already a degree or two hotter than in your grandparents’ day, but so what? Life went on, people adjusted. The climate was always changing.

What it came down to, for a lot of Americans, was one more example of people with advanced degrees telling them what to do. And that might be fine if they were telling you to do something you want to do — like get a good night’s sleep, or spend more time in the sunlight. And it’s even OK if their advice is unpleasant, but matches your common sense — compound interest means you should start saving for retirement when you’re young, smoking isn’t good for you. But here the eggheads were telling you to stop driving and flying and running the air conditioner, or even to close down the mines your town depended on, the one that had employed your family for generations. And the evidence was all stuff you couldn’t touch: Look at this graph and don’t ask too many questions about how I made it, or else the world will be a hellscape after we’re all dead.

Americans already had religions based on things they couldn’t see that made threats and promises after death. They didn’t need another one.

And then visible things started to happen, maybe, sort of.

Right around the time Hurricane Katrina mauled New Orleans in 2005, you might think you were starting to see climate change in anomalous weather events. But what is “anomalous”, really? When Superstorm Sandy hit New York City in 2012, we all had a gut feeling that hurricanes aren’t supposed to go that far north. But weird weather events have been happening forever. What about the Great New England Hurricane of 1938?

The Midwestern floods of 2019 were so intense, and so close to previous major floods, that they drove the phrase “hundred-year flood” out of our vocabulary. Nobody knows what a hundred-year flood is any more. And sure, that’s strange, but is it proof? Maybe we’re just in some kind of weird flood cycle.

We got used to these kinds of arguments, to the point that they became almost ritualized: The weather would do something incredible — a big wildfire, an intense hurricane season, or a heat wave in Siberia — and somebody would immediately say: “See? Climate change.” But then somebody else would say, “You can’t really say that about one event. It could just be bad luck.” Then either people would start yelling at each other, or the conversation would bog down in the technicalities of probability — neither of which accomplished anything. Everybody continued to believe whatever they had started out believing.

The series of weird weather events should have chipped away at climate-change-deniers’ skepticism, but in fact it did the opposite. Once you’ve explained away Katrina and Sandy, it gets easier, not harder, to shrug off Harvey and Irma and Maria all happening the same year. The weather gets weird sometimes; that doesn’t mean the world is ending.

Even so, last year’s western wildfires were a little hard to account for. Not only were they record-breaking in terms of acreage and cost, but Portland suburbs had to be evacuated, Seattle had an air-quality emergency, and the smoke gave me colorful sunsets all the way out here in Massachusetts. And only a few months before, Australia had record-breaking fires of its own.

For decades, climate-change deniers have derided activists as “scare mongers” who made “apocalyptic” predictions. But you know what? Those fires in Australia looked pretty apocalyptic.

Smoke-choked Sydney in December, 2019

Still, people pointed to multiple possible causes for wildfires: over-development, say, or power lines. President Trump blamed bad forest management, echoing absurd suggestions he had made about raking in 2018.

Wade Crowfoot, California’s secretary for natural resources, pressed Mr. Trump more bluntly. “If we ignore that science and sort of put our head in the sand and think it’s all about vegetation management, we’re not going to succeed together protecting Californians,” he told the president.

This time, Mr. Trump rejected the premise. “It’ll start getting cooler,” he insisted. “You just watch.”

“I wish science agreed with you,” Mr. Crowfoot replied.

“Well, I don’t think science knows, actually,” Mr. Trump retorted, maintaining a tense grin.

Well, it’s a year later now, and guess what? It’s not getting cooler.

Monday, it was 116 in Portland, Oregon, beating the previous all-time record (set in 1965 and 1981) by nine degrees. The heat wave covered the entire Northwest: 108 in Seattle, 109 in Spokane, 116 in Walla Walla, and 117 in Pendleton. Strangest of all was the small town of Lytton, British Columbia, where the heat wave peaked at 121 degrees, an all-time record for the nation of Canada.

121 in Canada. That’s not right.

Heat and drought have set the stage for another bad wildfire season, and it’s already starting in Canada and Washington and Oregon and Idaho and California. On the other side of the country, the Atlantic is already up to its fifth named storm of the season, Elsa. We’ve never gotten to E this fast before, and the previous record was set last year.

It’s happening. Global warming is here. It’s not just statistics and computer models any more. You can see it. You have to work not to see it.

That doesn’t mean things go straight to hell from here. The western heat wave finally broke. Today’s predicted high in Portland is 86. Next winter, it will get cold in lots of places, and if some oil-financed politician wants to bring a snowball to the floor of the Senate, he’ll be able to find one. “Damn,” one cold person will say to another, “we could use a little of that global warming about now.”

And while the quantity of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere will continue to go up every single year, not every year will be hotter than the previous one. 2016 and 2020 were the hottest years on record, but so far 2021 isn’t quite so bad, at least not globally. Fossil fuel spokesmen, including the politicians the oil companies pay for, will tell you that means it’s all over. Global warming ended in 2020, they’ll say, just like they said it ended in 1998.


Don’t believe them. Believe what you can see.

For a long time, believing what the scientists said about the climate required trusting in the invisible, and the future horrors they predicted seemed too far away to take seriously.

Not any more. Global warming is here. It’s visible. It was 116 in Portland Monday.

That’s not right.

Blowing Smoke About Clouds

Last week an International Business Times article stopped me short: “Alarmists Got it Wrong, Humans Not Responsible for Climate Change: CERN“.

“Wow,” I thought. “CERN. Not some Exxon/Koch-funded stooge. CERN, where the real scientists are. There’s the CERN logo right in the article. I’d better read this and rethink my opinion on climate change.”

I read the article and I learned a lot. But not about science, about propaganda.

Occasionally you need to know some science to spot the BS in a newspaper science article, but most of the time you just need some common sense. Start with: Does the content of the article justify the headline?

Not this time. The article discusses new research about cloud formation that CERN scientists recently published in Nature (another one of the biggest names in science). But nobody at CERN is quoted saying, “Humans aren’t responsible for climate change.”

In fact, the article doesn’t quote anybody from CERN (or Nature). Who are their sources, then? Lawrence Solomon, David Whitehouse, and Nigel Calder. If you’re just skimming, you might assume at least one of them represents CERN, but they don’t.

Who are they? In the Age of Google, that’s an easy question.

So a more accurate headline would be: “Global-Warming Skeptics Claim New CERN Research Vindicates Them”.

Well, of course they claim that. But then any real journalist would have to ask: Does it?

Journalism — even journalism about rocket science — is not rocket science: Punch “CERN cloud experiment results” into Google, and in seconds you’ll be looking at the CERN press release and its supporting press briefing. Spend a few minutes chasing links, and you’ll see the lead author of the Nature article (Jasper Kirkby) quoted in Scientific ComputingLive Science, and — oh, look at this! — Nature News, which is put out by the same people who publish Nature.

So it isn’t hard to find sources closer to the action than Solomon, Whitehouse, and Calder. Do any of them say “Humans are not responsible for climate change”?


So what is this experiment and what does it really show?

CERN made a cloud chamber that simulates Earth’s atmosphere, and tried to figure out where atmospheric aerosols — tiny particles that cloud droplets form around — come from. They discovered that previous theories only accounted for a small fraction of the aerosols observed in the atmosphere. They could account for more when they added cosmic rays to their simulation, but they still couldn’t form a complete theory.

The CERN press release quotes Kirkby:

It was a big surprise to find that aerosol formation in the lower atmosphere isn’t due to sulphuric acid, water and ammonia alone. Now it’s vitally important to discover which additional vapours are involved, whether they are largely natural or of human origin, and how they influence clouds.

The press briefing concludes:

that cosmic
the additional 
been confirmed.

Nothing in the press release quantifies this possibility. Kirkby told Nature News: “At the moment, [our research] actually says nothing about a possible cosmic-ray effect on clouds and climate, but it’s a very important first step.”

Live Science also talked to Kirkby:

The research doesn’t call into question the basic science of greenhouse gas warming, Kirkby emphasized, but rather refines one facet of the research. … “It’s part of the jigsaw puzzle, and you could say it adds to the understanding of the big picture,” he said. “But it in no way disproves the other pieces.”

None of that stops Solomon from claiming (in the Financial Post — again published with no comment from the actual researchers) that

The science is now all-but-settled on global warming, convincing new evidence demonstrates, but Al Gore, the IPCC and other global warming doomsayers won’t be celebrating. The new findings point to cosmic rays and the sun — not human activities — as the dominant controller of climate on Earth.

Discover’s Bad Astronomy blog responds:

There’s only one problem: that’s completely wrong. In reality the study shows nothing of the sort.

BA goes on to explain why you shouldn’t expect any future research to support Solomon either:

The problem here is two fold: there doesn’t appear to be a large variation in Earth’s temperatures with solar activity, and also that temperatures are rising extremely rapidly in the past 100 years, when solar activity has been relatively normal.

So, who do you think the conservative media outlets go with: science publications that have done the legwork and talked to the CERN researchers, or a long-time global-warming denier who makes unsupported claims in an opinion piece in a financial newspaper?

Do you have to ask?

Fox Business Channel’s Tobin Smith:

We can report tonight the science of climate change is now all but settled. Yes friends and neighbors, and the global warming alarmists have been dealt a wee bit of a blow, right? CERN, C-E-R-N, one of the world’s largest and most prestigious centers for scientific research, has concluded that it’s the sun’s rays, not human activity, which controls the earth’s climate. Now, that, of course, is horrible news for the greenies who’ve used, you know, for years questionable science to justify more and more regulations against fossil fuels like coal and oil, all the while arguing for more and more for the renewable energy sources they just love so dearly. So are the greens prepared to back down now that the science has proved them wrong?

Media Matters collects similar statements from CBN, the Washington Times, and Investor’s Business Daily — all clearly repeating Solomon’s interpretation rather than CERN’s.

So this is what you need to hijack the well-deserved prestige of a research organization like CERN and a journal like Nature:

  • three zero-credibility cranks to “interpret” the research by making stuff up,
  • two newspapers willing to ignore anybody connected to the research, and instead source their articles to the cranks,
  • an echo chamber of news outlets willing to accept the first two papers as reliable sources, do no independent checking, and instead let false claims grow in the telling,
  • opinion leaders in the echo chamber who shift the onus away from the cranks onto their opponents: What’s wrong with those greenies, that they still hold out now that they’ve been proven wrong?

Result? Rank-and-file conservatives hear the same message from multiple directions. When they confidently tell their friends and  co-workers that CERN has proved Al Gore wrong, people who get their news from the New York Times know nothing about it — because an accurate assessment of these tentative results was not deemed sufficiently newsworthy.

And the conservative nods knowingly: It’s that liberal media, constantly suppressing anything that doesn’t fit its biased worldview.