Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Ocean Trash & Climate Change: California takes some small steps in research and adaptation

A couple of interesting items coming out of my home state of California:

You may have heard of the Great Pacific Ocean Garbage Patch, this floating mat of various plastic and trash items that has accumulated due to a convergence of several ocean currents. The "patch" is no small area, estimated to be almost twice the size of the state of Texas and posing an obvious health hazard to sea animals, like sea birds (who mistakenly feed on the debris), or land animals (as fragments of the patch float ashore).

Researchers and students from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in San Diego, CA are planning a 20-day expedition to better map out this growing reminder of our non-biodegradable product dependence. They will investigate to determine it's size, depth, and make-up. And they will examine its contents in detail to determine whether it is harboring additional pollutants or any invasive species.

What's to be done about the garbage patch in the future remains unclear. Formed by oceanic forces out of our control and residing in open international waters, addressing its removal has been an international and diplomatic challenge. Certainly we know what to do to not add anymore waste to it, but how do we deal with the current situation? Hopefully, an international solution will be reached but it will require considerable technological and logistical resources.

California has often taken stronger environmental positions than those emanating from the federal government, but that is because California lawmakers recognize that the state, both, has a lot to lose if nothing substantial is done, and that the state has been a major contributor over the years to environmental problems ranging from CO2 emissions to overfishing.

In Yosemite National Park, research has been taking place to compare the growth of large-diameter trees. Comparing records dating back to the early 30's, it has been determined that there has been a marked reduction in the density of these trees by as much as 24%.

"Climate change is a likely contributor to these events and should be taken into consideration," said Jan van Wagtendonk, a U.S. Geological Survey scientist. "Warmer conditions increase the length of the summer dry season and decrease the snowpack that provides much of the water for the growing season. A longer summer dry season can also reduce tree growth and vigor, and can reduce trees' ability to resist insects and pathogens."

In addition to the reduced growth, the current condition of the trees exposes them to greater wildfire danger, as there has been a marked shift in some areas from ponderosa pines, a more fire-retardant species, to less fire-retardant white fir and incense cedar.

While California attempts to push some of the boundaries of environmental policy, it apparently recognizes the bureaucratic logjam that impedes new direction in national and international energy and environmental strategies. The California Natural Resource Agency has issued a preliminary report for public review on the subject of climate adaptation - a strategy wherein it is recognized that there will be inevitable climate-related changes and proposes changes in policies and regulations to deal with them. This means preparing for the worst: heat-waves, rising sea levels, flooding, wildlife die-offs, and more.

It is somewhat reassuring to know that a government agency truly recognizes the implications of climate change. But it is unfortunate that this realization comes at a time when, apparently, prevention is not an option regarding some of its impact. This is not to say that we should throw up our hands in defeat. On the contrary, it is reason for us to double our efforts so as to minimize these effects and perhaps even reverse them in the future.

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