Monday, August 30, 2010

Climate Storytellers

Our government and scientists all over the world have been gathering data and information about the changes that our planet is going through. The format is satellite photos, digital surface scans, site testing and earth bores, and field surveys. Science is the tool by which we can measure what's happening and quantify the changes that are taking place. At some point, this information has the potential to change our behavior, as social media and broadcast/internet media have done.

But this has not always been effective in dialogue about important global public policy. When there's too many megaphones and not enough real content, the dialogue gets lost in the information haze. Debate degenerates into political babble, and the information is not clear or viable any more.

Then what happens when an international photographer and activist becomes alarmed with the destructiveness of climate change that he sees for himself? Subhankar Banerjee has been giving voice to the dying forests and diminishing oceans he sees; he acts as witness to this as the world governments fail to curb the destructive acts of carbon generating energy acquisition. His leadership is emerging in a powerful new climate movement that will no longer allow businesses and corporations to ignore the environmental consequences of their actions. He is calling for a new, engaged climate movement that will act in time to save what remains of the living ecosystems on this planet. He is driving it by sharing his photodocumentation of changes that he is seeing over the decade, and using it as a personal call to action.

He is collecting stories to tell, and this is one of the first to be told.

The urgency increases as the ecological situation deteriorates. An alarm raised by Jim Garrison tells us to prepare for frequent climate catastrophes now that the tipping point has passed.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

The Control Knob

A very interesting writeup about the 2009 American Geophysical (AGU) meeting in San Francisco, featuring Dr. Richard Alley as keynote, summarizes the climate history studied to date. His presentation is comprehensive - a link to it is in the article on Jeff Masters' WunderBlog. The conclusion? Carbon dioxide - CO2 - is the key controller for Earth's climate, and once it's out of the ground, it's very hard to take back out of the atmosphere or the ocean.

In talking about the sensitivity of earth's climate to increasing CO2, the indicators are that the resulting temperature change is significant:

The IPCC report talks extensively about computer climate models' calculations of "climate sensitivity"--how much Earth's climate would warm if CO2 doubled from pre-industrial levels of 280 ppm, to 560 ppm (we're currently at 390 ppm). A mid-range number from the 2007 IPCC report often used by climatologists is that the climate sensitivity is 3°C for a doubling of CO2. Dr. Alley takes a look at what paleoclimate has to say about the climate sensitivity to CO2. "The models actually do pretty well when you compare them to the past. The best fit is 2.8°C.

This roughly correlates with the temperature increases that we've been seeing over the last 200 years, and a peak shows up in prehistoric fossil records indicating a planetary die-off at the end of the Paleocene due to extreme global warming. The full video of Dr. Alley's presentation is fascinating and it can be accessed here.

The analogy used by Dr. Alley to show how the CO2 correlation follows the temperature changes is that of interest on debt. CO2 feeds more warming in much the way that interest on debt feeds more debt. Considering the economic devastation that these heated-up fiscal bubbles have created in our global society is a direct analogy to that which is occurring with the debt created by CO2 being dumped into the atmosphere. Thomas Friedman has also drawn the analogy between global fiscal mismanagement and the ecological issues created by carbon, and hence the need for a carbon tax.

Friedman's take on the lack of consensus at Copenhagen in December 2009 is that it is vital to use the markets in human society to rapidly cut down on carbon, and to use these market mechanisms basically from the ground up - ironically, "grassroots". Waiting for government to respond to this global problem while under the direct influence of corporate lobbyists will be an exercise in futility. The corporate influence in climate change denial is a prime example of this strategy.

Meantime, the deterioration of the food chain in the oceans and on land will be difficult, if not impossible, to stop.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Even Warmer

In 2007, Science Daily noted that geographers have projected temperature increases due to greenhouse gas emissions to reach a not-so-chilling conclusion: climate zones will shift and some climates will disappear completely by 2100. Tropical highlands and polar regions may be the first to disappear, and large swaths of the tropics and subtropics will reach even hotter temperatures. The study anticipates large climate changes worldwide.

Now, in 2010, we're seeing the global impact of this temperature and humidity increase. Science Daily notes that not only are the bioclimes shifting, but the impact of regional drought is significant on global plant productivity. Global plant productivity that once was on the rise with warming temperatures and a lengthened growing season is now on the decline because of regional drought, according to a new study of NASA satellite data.

The obvious issue here is the ability to grow crops and food, as well as feed livestock if agricultural productivity goes down because of drought and plant diseases fostered by new bacterium and insect vectors. One example of a serious problem here in California is Xylella fastidiosa, otherwise known as scorch, which is spread by the glassy-winged sharpshooter and affects grapes, citrus and many ornamental plants and trees, such as magnolias and oak trees. It could potentially devastate the Napa grape region.

This means that climate change is creating kind of a perfect storm of plant destruction, which is the source of oxygen and a means of tempering the local biozones. The various fungal and spore agents that are responsible for the decimation of the forests in the southwest, such as sudden oak death that appeared in 1995, are part of a growing decline in the ability of natural ecosystems to survive the temperature increases and drought that are also impacting these ecosystems.

We're facing a significant challenge on all fronts to maintaining a functional ecosphere, and one can only hope that immediate and effective measures can be implemented to prevent catastrophic change, but unfortunately the will does not seem to be there. The United States Congress, which is responsible for making decisions to protect our resources and population, has failed to make the hard decisions necessary to avert the runaway effects that are coming with climate change. It's too inconvenient. It's just more profitable to boycott world dialogue on this issue and keep burning carbon, and implement the cap-and-trade shell game as cover.

Unfortunately for all of us, it will take a climate shock to jolt us into belated, and possibly futile, action.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Green is Process, Not Object

From the CNN report: Green buildings won't save the planet.

The United States has the third largest ecological footprint per capita, behind only the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia. We face an extraordinary challenge in overcoming our environmental deficit.

Here's an outstanding video and report via TED in a special report from CNN about how the entire process has to change, and how the focus must move off of buildings as static objects. The Dee and Charles Wyly Theatre in Dallas is shown as an example of how the process ends up in an unexpected place after exploring all dimensions of the problem, especially the existing footprint of the old building. It ends up being kind of a hypercube floating in space, a tesseract, that unfolds internally to meet the various demands of the space.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Going Down Dry

Cat's out of the bag. Lake Mead's water levels on the Colorado River have dropped to levels below that of the 1930's, threatening water supplies throughout the southwest. The New York Times covers this in an article that lays out the issues with the water supply for the entire region as a La NiƱa condition develops in the Pacific Ocean, meaning a long, dry spell.

Lake Mead, behind Hoover Dam, is downstream from Lake Powell, which is a reservoir built to back up Mead, and Diamond Valley Lake was also completed recently for emergency water storage. All of these are being drawn down, with Mead being the foremost indicator of the systemic loss of capacity.

The southwest has suffered the sharpest temperature increase in North America over the last decade, with a rapidly diminishing snow pack, loss of vegetation, expansion of forest pests, and rampant wildfires. And yet the demands for regional growth continue unabated.

The extreme climate events of this summer, known as "Global Wierding" is being reported widely throughout the press. The impact of this on food and water supplies all over the world are going to be devastating, particularly since populations are already stressing their resources. Many people sense a real danger point approaching, as these events wipe out entire regional sources of food and water. The environmental equation is tipping to a severe imbalance of natural resources and processes that provided the habitability that humanity has always taken for granted.

Partly, it's because we've treated everything as a problem in mechanics instead of systems that require replenishment and limitations on the extractions that our civilization makes from the land and the ocean. A good example of this systemic process is here in the Chance of Rain blog, with a link to the USGS database.

The best place to intimately understand this is right in our Grand Canyon, where fragile life survives in the great caverns carved by the river over the eons. What happens when the flow finally stops?

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

The New Climate

Armillaria root disease, also known as “oak root fungus,” is caused by Armillaria mellea. This fungus is native to forest trees in California. Its range includes the Central Valley, the San Gabriel Valley, the Coastal Mountains, and elevations up to 6,000 ft. of the Sierra Nevada. The pathogen known as Phythophora Root and Crown rot is a type of spore that lives in the soil, and is prevalent throughout the US.

Both of these are devastating gardens all over Southern California, including mine. I've spent the better part of the last two days dealing with identification through soil samples with LA County Agriculture and discussing this with knowledgeable nurseries and gardeners. It's quite a project to deal with these spores and fungi that are attacking the woody plants (azaleas, camellias, some of the roses) because of the humidity that's been so prevalent over the last few years, and the very cool summer we've had this year that keeps moisture in the ground. So the plants are losing the battle, and I'm looking at some ways to balance the humidity with plants that can tolerate them, as well as shifting the soil acidity. This changing humidity and increasing heat are creating the conditions that make it difficult to keep a garden healthy and "breathing". There's also the aspect that gardens are small, isolated fragments of nature and don't work together except as a possible urban tree canopy, which might just point the way towards re-establishing some healthy biospheres in suburban areas.

There's some interesting maps that show how land use change and forest fragmentation upsets the natural balance of the original ecosystems.

Loss of open space is a very real threat to the ability of ecosystems to repair themselves and remain in reasonably good health.A number of recent assessments cite the loss of open space as a top threat to the health and sustainability of ecosystems. This loss also reduces the ability of forests and grasslands to provide a multitude of public benefits, services, and products, including clean water and air, wildlife habitat, scenic beauty, and recreational opportunities.

Loss of open space has three aspects:

1. conversion – the replacement of natural areas with buildings, lawns, and pavement,
2. fragmentation – the division of open space into smaller isolated areas, and
3. parcellation – the subdivision of large acreages into smaller ownership parcels.

These processes must be stopped in the wilderness areas of Southern California because they're so destructive to the ecosystem. This urban fringe needs to pull back, and tracts of wilderness re-introduced so that the system can balance itself over time. Mountainous ridges, valleys, canyons and creeks must be protected and restored, not developed. There are also tremendous possibilities in urban fringe areas and properly managed suburban areas for re-establishing functional ecosystems by changing the kind of development that's allowed there.

It will involve a complete change in the thinking about what constitutes acceptable building practices, as well as a large reduction in paved areas. Which means that the automobile and its resulting sprawl will have to reverse its expansionary course. This produces completely different planning and building models, based upon passive principles and the blending of structure directly into nature and enhancing its processes. This is known as biomimicry, and has started to emerge as a design and planning principle that goes way beyond "green" into a rather radical regenerative strategy.

This is necessarily the way of the future, to live within nature rather than to obliterate it.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Eyes of the Architect

Architectural Record ran a contest on cocktail napkins to capture the ideation process that we indulge in as part of our work. Creative juices start here...

Very in-joke. Check out the detailed nuances on the round black spectacles here. Further embellishments and accessories are discussed by a professional here.

Napkin sketches can convey some very simple, strong ideas in all kinds of businesses, best for those over-lunch brainstorming sessions that occasionally break out. Some more great napkins here. There's napkin sketches about our changing relationship with nature as well.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010


In a much-commented and quoted article by Norman Garrick, a trend is noted in automobile use and purchase. To quote:

What these cities may not realize is that they could be riding the crest of a wave of change in our culture. The tentative signs of the end to the dominance of cars in American culture are showing up in a number of ways. For example, the number of vehicles per person in America peaked in 2001. In fact, this decade is the first since the automobile era began in 1900 that the number of vehicles per person was smaller at the end than at the beginning of the decade. Likewise, the number of miles driven in America for each man, woman and child peaked in 2004 – both of these peaks occurred long before we even dreamed of the current economic downturn which seems to have just accelerated the trends.

Fiscal and physical drawbacks of the automobile dominance of the landscape are the cost of maintaining the highway infrastructure, and the environmental impact of immense tracts of street and highway structures capturing and re-radiating heat in the urban landscape. Other costs are the massive amounts of space to store vehicles for the 80% of the time that they're unused.

A social trend, possibly influenced by economics, appears to be that people are keeping their cars longer and are not as mesmerized by new vehicles. Thus cars are seeing reduced numbers of sales, but ironically more miles traveled.

The rationale for reducing vehicle miles traveled is based upon the manifesto by Congress for a New Urbanism, which bases its planning principles on a walkable, compact urban fabric with smaller traffic grids and cars demoted to second-class status. Lots of people walking and biking to destinations, or using public transit. It's an anti-sprawl methodology that tries to counteract the roof farms that have spread out over the United States. This organization also notes that highways are coming down and being replaced with urban places, otherwise known as freeway rollbacks.

However, there's always a pushback. In a reaction to what are considered anti-auto policies, The Reason Foundation's publication, Mobility First, takes issue with the idea that the auto should be de-emphasized and that auto use drives economic growth, but without mentioning public transit. Or the many cities that are taking cars out of their urban centers and turning them over to pedestrian use.

California is at an interesting crossroads with its intent to force development into communities using the Transit Oriented Development model (TOD), known as SB 375. This is ostensibly to cut down on GHG emissions by reducing vehicle miles traveled (VMT), but analysis is beginning to show that form-based development will not change this much. The local regional government agency, SCAG, continues to insist that this model will achieve the GHG reductions necessary, but in fact the VMT numbers are offset by the growth in construction square footage that this legislation forces into communities. This square footage is responsible for the bulk of energy use and GHG's produced to build all of this new development, hence is not sustainable.

What also has to be considered are the resources consumed - water and energy - and the reduction of urban open space needed for human habitation and interaction with the natural world.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Running Our River

There's been a lot of interest lately in the LA River and its watersheds due to public activism around the success of getting the river designated as a navigable waterway. It's a legal change but also an attitude change, which comes out of an emerging movement around the restoration of the LA River, and is grounded in the worldwide regenerative strategy of restoring rivers and their watershed areas and streams.

On July 7 of this year, the EPA issued a press release:

U.S. EPA Administrator Lisa P. Jackson today announced the Agency’s decision that will ensure more effective protection under the Clean Water Act (CWA) for the Los Angeles River and for those who use the River for boating, fishing, and other recreational and commercial opportunities. The announcement strengthens future environmental protection for the entire 51-mile river and for small streams and wetlands throughout the L.A. River Basin, affirming the Agency’s commitment to urban communities and natural resources. The decision reflects years of work by EPA, in coordination with Federal, State, and local partners and the public, to strengthen future protection for the River and surrounding watershed.
Friends of the LA River - FOLAR - has been very active in bringing attention to the status of the river recently by kayaking through an area known as the Glendale Narrows. They have also produced a video, which has been publishing many articles about the restoration of the river and the community efforts behind reclaiming the natural waterways as part of the living fabric of the city. The Glendale Narrows is a prime area for restoration, and North East Trees is part of the effort, with a project underway. It's called The Riverwalk Project, and will be done in several phases.

These projects are being done as small, piecemeal efforts. The big vision for the river and all of its contributing watersheds have yet to be knitted together, although the Los Angeles River Revitalization Master Plan has an overall planning and schematic concept in place. This involves waterway restoration, integration of parkways and access ways, green streets that return rainwater to the aquifers, native plantings and public parks. In this way, the city no longer turns its back on the river, but rather opens up to it and creates a focus for public spaces in a more natural terrain. In a similar way, Quebec City has succeeded in transforming old industrial riverfront into recaptured "greened" public space that is becoming a global trend in urban river restoration. The city of Seoul has also uncovered an urban stream and restored its path through the city.