Climate Change Blogs

Climate Change Problem Solving at Michigan

Published: September 20, 2014
Climate Change Problem Solving at Michigan

At the University of Michigan a group of graduate students founded and manage the Michigan Journal of Sustainability. The Journal aims to foster transdisciplinary communication by publishing timely, innovative, stimulating, and informative articles that translate scholarly research on systemic sustainability problems into useful formats for practitioners and policy makers. The Journal focuses on three areas: (1) sustainable freshwater systems, (2) livable communities, and (3) responses to climate variability and change. The Journal is sponsored by the Graham Sustainability Institute. In the current issue there are a number of articles on climate change including one on the efforts of Jamestown S’Klallam Tribe (Washington State, not Virginia) efforts at climate adaptation and planning for climate change in legacy cities (those that have lost jobs and population). I have links to all of the articles at the end of the blog.

I wrote the introduction to the issue. The blog below is extracted from that introduction. My entire piece can be accessed here.

Recently, I gave a talk on information systems and usable science. In the past decade, I have focused on accelerating the use of climate-change knowledge in planning and management. In the academic literature, the term “usable” science has emerged to describe information that is understandable, relevant, and capable of being used by decision makers (Dilling and Lemos 2011). Usable science stands in contrast to the data and knowledge that scientists and researchers proffer as useful, but which are created in isolation from decision makers and without knowledge of specific decision contexts. My talk was drawn from an article that Paul Edwards and I wrote following our experimental class on climate informatics (Rood and Edwards in Earthzine, 2014). In the article, we emphasize that there are many online data services and portals and that the data from these assets are often so hard to use that they are deemed unusable. This usability gap is not unique to the climate informatics field but is pervasive across the sciences. Simply put, access to data is not enough.

Access to knowledge can be framed as an extension of access to data. We naively expect that knowledge will be broadly used to address problems of climate change and sustainability, but, like access to data, access to knowledge is insufficient. It follows that simply generating knowledge is not adequate for problem solving. We need to provide information on what to do with that knowledge, as well as training on how to use that knowledge. We need to correct “[t]he erroneous assumption…that skills evolve naturally from knowledge” (Hines, Hungerford, and Tomera 1987).

The academic enterprise in the United States is magnificently successful at generating knowledge. Some say that the miracle of the Enlightenment and the advance of Western thought lay in the emergence of the reductionist scientific method. The reductionist approach breaks down problems into pieces, isolates them, and studies them in a controlled fashion (Wilson 1998). Reduction leads naturally to disciplinary study. Problem solving, on the other hand, requires the integration and translation of knowledge and the synthesis of that knowledge into actions. Though we talk about cross-disciplinary, multi-disciplinary or trans-disciplinary research, such broad-based research struggles to gain traction in our scientific enterprise. We do not adequately value the unification of science; we do not adequately value the integration of knowledge across fields. Therefore, problem solving is frustratingly slow.

Problem solving often requires reaching out of your area of expertise, out of your discipline, but academia awards funding and tenure for discipline-based production of knowledge. There are tensions and barriers between the rules of the game for successful academics and the elements of effective problem solving. This tension reaches deep, as the review process and funding practices support the successful academic more robustly than they support successful problem solving.

There is another role for the academic in the public and political discourse— education (Cuomo 2011). At the request of students who were not scientists, I started a course on climate change that attracted a mix of students. Some were deeply expert in how particles of dust in the atmosphere influence energy exchanges. Others were acutely aware of the disruptions that climate change will cause and wanted to know how to integrate this knowledge into finance. Early in the course, I was faced with the fact that the non-scientists often knew more about the climate as a whole than the science students. What was needed was a framework for critical thinking to allow students to use knowledge from many fields in problem solving. This example also illustrates that we need to learn how to solve problems earlier, rather than later, in our lives. Sustainability and climate change are problems of the here and now, and these problems require problem solvers ready to take action on these challenges.

A unique way that universities can influence the public and political discourse is to develop professional problem solvers, translators who are prepared to break down the barriers created by disciplines and competing interests. These professionals need to take their places in the workforce and in political entities and work to bridge divides. In keeping with the mission of the Michigan Journal of Sustainability, we need to bring scientists, practitioners, and policy makers together. As you read the articles in this issue, I encourage you to think about how topics outside of your own field may actually be connected to your work, and how you might serve as a translator across fields to contribute to the synthesis and development of strategies that will address the challenges of the future.


Articles from Current Issue of Michigan Journal of Sustainability

Welcome from the Editorial Board

Introduction to Volume 2

Climate Change and the Jamestown S’Klallam Tribe: A Customized Approach to Climate Vulnerability and Adaptation Planning

Planning for Climate Change in Legacy Cities: The Case of Detroit, Michigan

The Ecology Center: Organizational Structure, Leadership, and the Environmental Movement

Internet-Based Heat Evaluation and Assessment Tool (I-HEAT): Feasibility Analysis of a Visualization and Decision-support Tool for Extreme Heat Preparedness in Detroit, Michigan

Internet-Based Heat Evaluation and Assessment Tool (I-HEAT): Development of a Novel Visualization and Decision-support Tool for Extreme Heat Preparedness in Detroit, Michigan

Participatory Landscape Design Detroit: A Tool for Environmental Education and Action

The Sustainable Urban Alternatives House in Flint, Michigan

The Forgotten Americans: A Visual Exploration of Lower Rio Grande Valley Colonias
Categories:Climate Change

Futuristic 3-D Weather Graphics Grace the Weather Forecast for 2050

Published: September 10, 2014
Futuristic and creative 3-D weather graphics like you've never seen before light up the screen in today's impressive forecast for September 23, 2050 released by the Weather Channel. The video was made in response to an appeal by the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) to television weather presenters world-wide to imagine a “weather report from the year 2050,” based on the best science we have as summarized in the 2014 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report. If humanity’s current "business as usual" approach to emissions of heat-trapping gases like carbon dioxide continues, the average temperature of the Earth’s lower atmosphere could rise more than 4°C (7.2°F) by the end of the 21st century. But what does a global average temperature rise really mean? How would we experience it on a daily basis? Each day between now and the convening of the key 2014 climate summit in New York City the week of September 21, 2014--when the leaders of the world will assemble to lay out the road map to the crucial December 2015 climate negotiations in Paris--the WMO will release a new "Weather Report From 2050" on their website. Today's video from the Weather Channel imagines a future when it wouldn't take a landfalling hurricane to push water levels two feet above normal in Miami Beach--the onshore winds of a hurricane passing 400 miles offshore could cause that level of flooding, due to sea level rise. The report also envisions that the current 15-year drought affecting the Southwest U.S. will continue into 2050, becoming a decades-long "megadrought". On the lighter side, we hear about a new baseball team called the "Alberta Clippers" (named after a type of fast-moving snowstorm that originates in Alberta), and see Jim Cantore calling up hurricane tracking charts on his outstretched hand. It's a unique and impressive effort well-worth checking out, and will air on The Weather Channel's cable station throughout the day today (Wednesday.) I'll be featured in a separate behind-the-scences look at how we came up with the weather stories featured in the video.

Video 1. The daily weather forecast for September 23, 2050, as imagined by The Weather Channel.

Jeff Masters
Categories:Climate Change

Climate Case Study: California Drought (2)

Published: September 2, 2014
Climate Case Study: California Drought (2)

In my last blog I explored the current California drought as a climate case study. In my climate case studies I focus on interconnections, for example, how weather and climate influence jobs and behavior. This helps us expose the connections, the management strategies and the policies that are effective or absent. The stresses of climate change will generally amplify the threats due to these events with the expectation, that over the next 3 decades, the climate stresses will increase relative to other stresses. I also made a reaching metaphor to the extinction of large mammals at Agate Fossil Beds National Monument in western Nebraska. The point of the metaphor was to expose the risks of short-term pumping of ground water on longer-term sustainability. In this blog I want to analyze some of the media coverage and a recent paper about the drought.

I would be a deficient blogger if I did not write about the 63 trillion gallons. If you do a search on “63 trillion gallons California,” there will be many hits (LATimes, Mashable). There are pictures of what 63 trillion gallons look like, though not really. This number is drawn from a paper by Adrian Borsa et al. entitled Ongoing drought-induced uplift in the western United States. (Also, though not really!)

This is a nicely written paper, which is, at least currently, not behind a pay wall. The paper examines several hundred ground-based Geographical Positioning Systems (GPS) sensors. These sensors have been placed in the ground over the past couple of decades, primarily to help measure how the surface of the Earth is moving. Back when I was at NASA in the late 1990s, these were being placed in the ground of Southern California. It was part of an investigation to inform, ultimately, earthquake prediction. Now there is a network of more than 800 sensors in the western part of the U.S., west of a line running, north-south, from western New Mexico and Colorado, central Wyoming and east-central Montana (longitude 109W). This line is west of the Continental Divide, in Colorado and New Mexico, which is relevant because it captures most of the Colorado River Basin, an important part of the California’s water picture.

The first point of the paper is, in my opinion, that this data system is of sufficient precision and adequate coverage that the rise and fall of the Earth’s crust due to the changing surface and ground water can be measured. The second point is that they can distinguish between wet and dry years, and in 2014, a time of exceptional drought, the crust of the Earth has risen in some places up to 15 millimeters, which is a little more than a half an inch. That’s a pretty cool measurement. The cause of this rise is loss of water, and of course, a loss of the water’s mass, which effectively changes the local gravity field.

The authors talk about the rise of the land being equivalent, at its maximum, to a decrease of about 50 cm of water. 50 cm is about 20 inches. When they calculate this water loss, they state it is consistent with changes in stream flow and precipitation. By consistent, they mean that they calculate the budget of water mass and, within their levels of uncertainty, the numbers match. The authors state that the total mass loss is equivalent to 10 cm of water (about 4 inches), spread over the entirety of the study area. To my knowledge the number of gallons of water were not mentioned in the paper, but I did not check the online supplemental information. It’s an easy enough calculation.

This relation between the measurement of rise and fall of the Earth’s surface and precipitation, evaporation and stream flow is what leads the authors of the paper to conclude, “Our analysis shows that the existing network of continuous GPS stations in the western USA measures vertical crustal motion at sufficient precision and sampling density to allow the estimation of interannual changes in water loads, providing a new view of the ongoing drought in much of the WUSA (Western United States of America).” The authors do not pose this measurement, their number, as a measure of exceptionalism or extremes. (There is another interesting number in the paper. The authors calculate that the change in stress along the San Andreas fault is equal to about a week’s worth of the normal strain due to the motion along the fault.)

One of the problems I have with the press coverage is that this 63 trillion gallons and the change in the Earth’s crust is out of context of any other numbers. It is the first time the measurement has been made, not the first time there has been the change in the water sufficient enough to change the Earth’s elevation. There are also many pictures showing depleted reservoirs, again out of context. If one were so inclined, then one could find many inconsistencies and allusions, which would be open, potentially, to criticism of exaggeration. All of this is generated by the reportage on the paper on points that, to the best of my reading, were not made in the paper. Looking around with my favorite search engines, I can find a number of stories and pictures that, often with the best of intentions, are adding more extreme, more emotional adjectives to describe the drought. (Oh, Rood, are you going down the alarmist path? Ye, of the Beardogs?)

In my wandering around on the California drought, I came across the prolific writing and videos of Jay Famiglietti. Jay and I have mingled in the same worlds for much of our careers and were co-authors on a National Strategy for Advancing Climate Modeling. In Op-Ed’s, blogs and his scientific writings, Famiglietti is laying out the essential need for California, and by extension for the U.S., to develop rational, sustainable water policy. Looking at supply and demand, if the current drought continues as current conditions suggest, California will soon be down to a water supply of months. Even if there is an exceptional period of rain that ends this particular drought, the stresses of residential demand, agricultural demand and climate change will soon, again, converge to crises that erode community, productivity and economy.

Jay Famiglietti: How Much Water Does California Have Left? An nice piece on how water management and keeping the population centers hydrated place the problem out of sight out of mind.

Jay Famiglietti: Can We End the Global Water Crisis?

Castle et al.: Groundwater depletion during drought threatens future water security of the Colorado River Basin (open access, a more important paper about California water than the paper discussed in this blog)

Figure 1: Figure from Randall Munroe of This graph shows a time series from 2000 to 2014 of the extent of the graph. Details are provided at this link on (Yes, I would be science happier if "ludicrous" was not used, but it is a good graph, and it has the dates. Many of the images appear in other graphs but with no dates.)

Here is a nice Infographic from the LA Times: 191 drought maps, with dates.

Note: The changes in the land associated with removal and addition of water have many of the same causes and effects as the effects of sea level rise on land. There have been large amounts of sinking in parts of California’s Central Valley due to pumping of ground water. Some of the basic concepts are in my blog Sea-level Variability: A Primer.

Understanding California’s Groundwater / Water in the West

Climate Case Study: California Drought (1)

Published: August 22, 2014
Climate Case Study: California Drought (1)


Avoiding Beardogs

Thank you for the responses about online courses from the last blog. In addition to the blog comments, I got some emails. I welcome more comments and emails.

Some years ago I went to Agate Fossil Beds National Monument in Western Nebraska. There are amazing fossil sites all over the Great Plains, from dinosaurs to mammoths. Though we never see the two together. Wonder why?

Sticking to the subject, as in many of the National Park Service’s (NPS) facilities, there is educational material. Large mammals dominate the fossils at Agate Fossil Beds. There is a stunning heap of bones collected in a steep-sided pit that was once water, then mud and then large bones. I am personally a fan of the beardog. The evidence is that persistent drought led to drying of the surface sources of water. Eventually, all that was left were the deeper pools of water. The migrating animals collected at the pools. The large carnivores found easy hunting and were, surely, in carnivore euphoria for a while. All kept chasing the water, getting stuck in the mud, falling and piling on top of each other. This all happened about 20 million years ago. (Some NPS links: One, Two)

In July of 2012, I wrote one of my more widely distributed blogs, Belief and Knowledge and Humans and Nature. In that blog, I argued that humans were part of nature; however, because of our ability to remember, to reason, to develop and to accumulate knowledge, we have the ability to make decisions that influence the future of our environment. Therefore, our role in nature, in the natural world, is unique. That uniqueness is not in our ability to change the environment, but in our ability to understand the consequences of those changes and the ability to anticipate and influence the future.

So California. There are millions of people and highly productive farms. California has a large enough economy that is often heralded as important on national and world stages. The precipitation in California occurs mostly in different parts of the state than where the people live. The rain and snow that occurs in the Sierra Nevada are of special importance. This water feeds the rivers and fills the reservoir. The seasonal melting of the water stored in snowpack and small glaciers provides water for the rivers and reservoirs during summer, when the normal amount of rainfall is very small. California is especially fortunate that the water in the Sierra Nevada is mostly in the state, which eliminates the need to negotiate with other states over water.

In addition to the water that falls in the state, California has claim to a large fraction of the water in the Colorado River watershed. The Colorado River starts in north central Colorado, runs through several states, and as far as geography goes, it is the eastern border of California in its most southern part. All of the other states in the Colorado River Basin rely on their fractions of the Colorado River water. (Colorado River Basin Water Supply and Demand Study)

There are two points that I want to make here. First, water in California is strongly influenced by agreements that are codified in policy, law and regulations. Second, water availability is dependent on water management, which relies on engineered systems of dams, ditches, canals and aqueducts. For the people and the farms in California, the weather and climate that matter are at a distance.

I, also, want to make a little summary here, California has it all. There is high population; there is economic success; there is need for energy. These are three elements of our existence that are entangled with climate, and therefore, climate change. Then, on a more concrete level, California’s relationship with climate relies on human agreements and human engineering.

As all readers of this blog know, the entire state of California is in the midst of some measure of dryness. The majority of the area and vast majority of the people are in exceptional drought. Exceptional drought is the most extreme category of drought in the classification used by the U.S. Drought Monitor. Exceptional drought is defined as, “Exceptional and widespread crop/pasture losses; shortages of water in reservoirs, streams and wells creating water emergencies.”

Figure 1: Screen shot of U.S. Drought Monitor, California. This is the August 19, 2014 release.

There are many news stories about the ongoing drought in California and the impacts on farms, cities and forests. One that caught my eye was in the LA Times, entitled Drought Yields Only Desperation. The article is by Diana Marcum, and she has many articles reported from the ground in the Central Valley. This well-written article is a narrative about field workers on the west side of the San Joaquin Valley. From a climate perspective, the narrative shows the vulnerability of people at many economic levels, through many businesses and professions. This part of the Central Valley, which includes Fresno and Stockton, was badly hit by the recession in the past five years. This demonstrates the connection between climate and economy, with climate stress and economic stress becoming amplifiers of each other. The human cost increases.

There is another place from which California gets water in significant amounts – under the ground. The number of reports on ground water pumping is growing. In the News section of National there have been ongoing articles. If You Think the Water Crisis Can't Get Worse, Wait Until the Aquifers Are Drained, posted on August 19, 2014, maintains that many aquifers are being depleted in an unsustainable way. The drought in California and the West, more generally, has accelerated the pumping. From a Californian point of view, the aquifers in California and in the Colorado River Basin are both being depleted. The numbers being reported are that, in the drought, 60% of California’s water comes from the ground, which is up from about 30% during less stressed times. This is more or less a doubling of pumping of water, depending on whether or not total water use is increasing or decreasing. Many of the cities in the Central Valley rely completely on ground water. Water levels in the aquifers are dropping 100s of feet. There is a queue waiting to drill new wells.

The point of the National Geographic News article and the more complete Understanding California’s Groundwater from Stanford’s Water in the West Project is that ground water is out of sight and out of mind. Even worse, ground water is unregulated and quantitative information about drilling is private. This brings a problem that is related to climate and climate change back to policy, law and regulation- human agreements that are in conflict with coping with weather and climate stress.

I will conclude this entry by connecting some points I introduced at the beginning. First, the distribution of people and precipitation assures that for many in California the surface water from rivers and lakes is, like the ground water, out of sight and out of mind. When we commoditize a resource or anonymize people, we lose contact and context. This is perilous, and increases the barriers to taking substantive actions.

Second, the price of water in California is, presently, high. Those who have functioning wells are motivated by price to pump more. I can’t help but think of the carnivores finding the easy pickings of the herds collected around the drying water holes at what would become the Agate Fossil Beds. Then, from that, we humans are unique because of our ability to remember, to reason, to develop and to accumulate knowledge; we have the ability to make decisions that influence the future of our environment. We don’t have to be beardogs.

In the next entry, I will synthesize some of the recent scientific papers that have gotten a lot of attention.


Figure 2: Beardog from Prehistoric Animals Blogspot

Climate Change, Engineering, Stationarity and Applied Climate

Published: August 14, 2014
Climate Change, Engineering, Stationarity and Applied Climate


Something New, Something Fantastic

Some years ago there was a Brevity comic strip with a man, John, standing at the supermarket checkout. The caption was, “Suddenly John realized he didn't want paper or plastic. He wanted something new… something fantastic.” You can see it here.

I try in my WU blog to find a niche that is different from other climate and climate-change blogs. I imagine that I synthesize information, and I introduce how climate change fits into the proverbial big picture. The blog started after I had been teaching for a while, and both the blog and my class on climate-change problem solving have evolved over the past 8 years. My research has evolved as well, focusing more and more on the usability of climate knowledge in planning and management – whatever that means. All together, what I do has evolved, and this semester at University of Michigan I am taking on a new role to grow a Masters of Engineering in Applied Climate. This notion has been in a slow yeasty ferment for a few years. It is something new. Hope it will turn into something fantastic.

I have the intention of putting more material online, or in many cases better organizing the material that I have online. My experience, so far, is that massively open online courses (MOOCs) are not so effective in the sort of material and context that I want to teach. I have noticed in the blog comments that some of you have flirted with or taken online courses. I’d be very interested in learning about your experience, and perhaps, even, something of a review.

For the past few weeks I have been preparing for the applied climate venture. One of my goals is to connect our knowledge of climate change with engineering design. Our response to climate change will often be expressed in engineering. Some engineering projects will be direct interventions, perhaps in the spirit of the Thames River Barrier. Other examples of engineering will be in energy systems, water management, roads and seaports. Then there will be pervasive changes in construction materials, codes, standards and practices.

During 2011 and 2012, I was the member of the External Advisory Board of The Partnership for Education on Climate Change, Engineered Systems and Society. This was a research effort of the US National Academy of Engineering. The goal of this effort was to transform engineering education to prepare current and future engineers, policymakers and the public to meet the challenges of climate change. Deliberations of the Advisory Board included the need to better frame climate-change science so that it could be integrated into design and engineering and specifically, how to incorporate changing weather patterns into engineering. In a number of other meetings of engineers, I have carried the banner of climate change. A repeated theme is how to use the knowledge of climate change in, for example, designing water and transportation infrastructure. (By coincidence … National Academy of Engineering just sent out an email on August 15 with two videos from this effort: Climate Change and Infrastructure I: Why does it matter? and Climate Change and Infrastructure II: Who Should Address it?)

A major challenge is how to include non-stationarity into design. I have written a couple of blogs about non-stationarity. In this case, non-stationarity really means that the weather in the future will not have the same characteristics as the weather of the past. I wrote about this from the point of view of farming in this entry and, more recently, with a sea level rise perspective. This week, the weather has offered us an excellent case study in stationarity. Flooding.

As documented in the 2014 National Climate Assessment, in the US Midwest, including the Great Lakes, since 1958 the amount of precipitation occurring in very heavy events (top 1%) has increased by 37%. In the Northeast, the increase has been more than 70%. Even in the drought-stricken Southwest, there has been a 5% increase in extremely heavy rain events. This is an observed trend. Such changes are consistent with the guidance provided by climate models, as well as with the foundational principles from thermodynamics. This convergence of observations, theory and projections provide confidence that we have usable information.

In Southeast Michigan on August 11-12, 2014 a storm surprised Detroit with more than 4 inches of rain and regional flooding. I say surprised because the storm caused far more rain than forecast. On August 13, 2014, the Northeast Regional Climate Center reported a more than 13 inch rainfall total on Long Island, a greater that a 200-year event – a rainfall amount normally associated with tropical storms and hurricanes.

I have referred to the 2012 flood in Duluth, Minnesota a number of times. The magnitude of that flood defied historical precedence, and was classified as greater than a 500-year event. Researching this blog, I am reminded of floods, again, in Minnesota in 2014. In many parts of Minnesota, 2014 is tracking to be the wettest year on record.

These floods have overwhelmed drainage systems, leading to destruction of many roads, structural damage and loss of life. In rural areas, the floods are challenging planting. They have become so regular that new farm machinery is being purchased to accommodate spring floods. The damage caused by these weather events reveals existing vulnerabilities. They compel the need to plan for events that have, previously, occurred less frequently than once a century occurring on the order of decades.

Marshall Shepherd is hosting a new Weather Channel show called WXGeeks. He has a WU blog on recent urban floods. He writes a simple equation

Urban Flooding =
Increase in intensity of top 1% rain events
+ expanding urban impervious land cover
+ storm water management engineered for rainstorms of "last century"

This equation shows both the role of climate change and how humans change the surface. What becomes obvious is the role of engineering both in solving the problem as well as potentially exacerbating the problem. (Rood’s old blog on Balancing the Budget, Water Resource Foundation on Infrastructure)

I close with a blog from the American Society of Civil Engineers, entitled, Bridging the Gap between Climate Change Science and Civil Engineering Practice. In the piece Richard Wright states that the Society is writing a white paper on climate change with the purpose of

Foster understanding and transparency of analytical methods necessary to update and describe climate, weather and extreme events for planning and engineering design of the built and natural environments.

Identify (and evaluate) methods to assess impacts and vulnerabilities caused by changing climate conditions on the built and natural environments.

Promote development and communication of best practices for addressing uncertainties associated with changing conditions, including climate, weather, extreme environments and the nature and extent of the built and natural environments, in civil engineering practice.

Will be working to make those things happen sooner rather than later,

Categories:Climate Change
About the Blogs
These blogs are a compilation of Dr. Jeff Masters,
Dr. Ricky Rood, and Angela Fritz on the topic of climate change, including science, events, politics and policy, and opinion.