Greenlaurel: Baltimore-Based Scientists Answer Common Climate Change Questions

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Screenshot from @realDonaldTrump’s Twitter account

Climate change was a confusing topic long before President Trump began weighing in online, so we used our phone-a-friend lifeline to ask Baltimore’s scientists to get some answers to common questions about global warming.

Baltimore’s universities boast talented scientists who spend their days researching how our planet’s changing climate will affect us here at home. For this Q&A, we tapped Professor Darryn Waugh and Ph.D candidate Gaige Kerr at Johns Hopkins University’s Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences, as well as Elizabeth E. Dahl, an associate professor in atmospheric chemistry at Loyola University Maryland and the founder of the Baltimore Environmental Film Series.

Here are some real questions Greenlaurel has received in emails from readers over the last eight months:

Question: I read the Huffington Post’s article, “Trump Boasts The Ice Caps Are ‘Setting Records.’ But It’s For Melting.” I know I should be freaked out the ice caps really are melting, but how is this is going to affect me in Baltimore?

Elizabeth Dahl, Ph.D: The interesting thing about the Arctic in particular is that global warming is impacting the Arctic probably more than any other place on Earth. In 2017, the Arctic had record low sea ice and the second-warmest winter. The Arctic is warming faster than any other place on the planet. That doesn’t seem like a big deal when you live in Baltimore, but it actually is important to us.

As the Arctic warms, the jet stream that helps to separate our moderate climate from the cold climate of the north is getting weaker, and it’s starting to take bigger swings north and south. This really can impact our weather. This year, while Baltimore was getting record cold temperatures, other parts of the country were getting record warm temperatures.

Most of the rest of the world was warmer than normal.  While it may make sense that some places have record warmth while some have record cold, for every record low, there were 2.4 high temperature records. In the 1950s, that ratio was 1 to 1.

Baltimore’s average temperature has already increased 1.5 degrees Fahrenheit since 1900. Scientists predict temperatures here will increase 8 to 13 degrees by 2100. Source: National Climate Assessment.

Dahl (continued): Then there is the issue of sea level rise. As glaciers melt, the oceans are warming up and sea levels are rising.

In Maryland we also have land subsidence, which means the land is sinking. Sea level has risen about 1 foot in the last 100 years in Maryland and it could rise another foot by 2050, three feet by 2100.  That’s a lot of sea level rise, and it may not seem that important if you aren’t near the coast, but higher seas mean more damage from storm surge, as well as more erosion. I didn’t live here when tropical storm Isabel hit and put the Inner Harbor underwater, but imagine if that happened again coupled with higher sea levels.

Question: Is it really that bad if Baltimore is a bit warmer?

Dahl: It’s nice, especially during winter to think about warmer days and fewer frigid days.  Unfortunately, climate change isn’t just more warm days. Maryland is a state that is pretty vulnerable to climate change. There’s, of course, how sea level rise can affect our coasts and our ports, but also the potential for increased drought and less cooling days which can greatly impact agriculture. There’s the impact of more severe downpours and other severe weather leading to flooding and other damages.

My least favorite is probably the diseases like Lyme, dengue fever and Zika, which are spreading rapidly, especially in places where the winter is no longer long enough, and cold enough, to kill off a good population of the ticks and mosquitos. Lyme disease is currently the main concern in Maryland, but it may be only a matter of time before the mosquito-borne diseases are here for good.

Gaige Kerr, Ph.D candidate at Hopkins: The problem is that it’s not just Baltimore that’s expected to be warmer, it’s much of the globe. This poses a variety of dire issues such as more intense heat waves, bigger and more frequent wildfires, droughts and changes in precipitation. These problems might seem a bit abstract and far-flung to Baltimoreans, but even industries and livelihoods in Baltimore are sensitive to increasing temperatures. For example, hot days will increase demand for cooling, thereby increasing demand on the electric grid and potentially causing unhealthy levels of air pollution. Local fisheries on the Chesapeake are sensitive to even small changes in temperature.

Baltimore is projected to have more 70 days each year above 90 degrees Fahrenheit by 2070 (it’s around 8 days now). According to Laura Stevens, a North Carolina State University research scientist working on the National Climate Assessment, here’s why Baltimore is in a climate change hot spot: “Maryland experiences warm summers relative to other states in the northeastern U.S. due to its coastal location. The state is susceptible to warm continental air masses from the west, as well as relatively warm and moist air from the Atlantic ocean, often resulting in hot and humid summer days.”

Question: I’ve read we have little time left to cut our greenhouse gas emissions. Is it really only about 10 years, and why?

Dahl: Ten years ago we were saying we have 10 years. Now you’ll still hear 10 years. The only reason it’s always a number of years is because if I said tomorrow, that would feel impossible, and if I said yesterday, that’s really impossible.

There are many difference scenarios, but in order to prevent us from going over 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit), we have to be to zero carbon emissions ASAP, but definitely before 2040. The amount of warming that is considered “safe”–and it is a very difficult goal–is 1.5 degrees Celsius. This amount was chosen primarily because of the oceans, which we rely heavily on in Maryland.

The honest answer is this: the longer we wait to actually reduce our emissions by a lot, the harder it is to prevent us from warming a lot more than 1.5 degrees Celsius.

Kerr: The problem is that if we were to shut off our factories and power plants today, go vegetarian and stop driving cars, the greenhouse gases we’ve already emitted wouldn’t cease to exist. Depending on the greenhouse gas, they can remain in the atmosphere for up to 100 years! This means that temperatures will continue to rise long after we stop emitting greenhouse gases.

While some scientists think we only have until 2020 to cut our greenhouse gas emissions and others disagree and think we have more time, one thing is clear: we should focus on reducing emissions as soon as possible to stave off some of the worse effects of climate change.

Question: Is there is enough solar and wind to power our world?

Dahl: Yes, we just have to capture it.

Question: Were the crazy storms and hurricanes from 2017 part of the climate change story?

Dahl: Yes. Everything right now with regard to weird or severe weather is part of the climate change story. Even daily weather is becoming part of the story since it will contribute to the overall assessment of temperature, precipitation and rainfall patterns.  I’ve lived through many hurricanes. What I saw this year was really wet and intense storms. Even relatively weak storms like Isabel and Sandy have the potential for catastrophic damage.

Climate change is likely making storms wetter and increasing the number of storms. As it gets warmer, there’s more water vapor, and if there’s more water vapor, there’s more rain (or snow). Unfortunately that rain tends to come in torrential downpours these days, rather than light showers.

When it rains, it rains 50 percent more this past decade than previous. Source: National Climate Assessment

Kerr: Climate change can impact extreme events, but it’s difficult to attribute a specific hurricane to climate change. What we can say is that Hurricanes Harvey and Irma, for example, occurred with altered background conditions: the Caribbean [Sea] was one to two degrees Fahrenheit warmer than average, and the tropical atmosphere is moister than during the past (a warmer atmosphere can “hold” more water). Thus, these hurricanes had more available energy to fuel their growths.

Question: I read that Hurricane Harvey dumped an unprecedented 60 inches of rain in Houston. Will Baltimore see more that much rain?

Dahl: That is what the climate models are predicting for Maryland. We’ve actually already seen an increase in precipitation in the northeast over the last century. This is because as it gets warmer, more water evaporates. If you have more evaporation, you get more precipitation. That precipitation is tending to come in big events rather than small gradual events. How much precipitation changes depends on whether we reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Current climate models suggest if we keep increasing [greenhouse gas] emissions, we’ll increase precipitation by 20 to 30 percent, and increase consecutive dry days by 0 to 10 percent.

Kerr: The recently released Fourth National Climate Assessment states that rainfall is increasing in the U.S., particularly in the Northeast. However, rainfall isn’t increasing uniformly, rather we’re seeing preferential increases in the frequency and intensity of heavy rainfall events. In Baltimore, this poses issues with flash flooding — similar to the tragic flooding that occurred in summer 2016 in Ellicott City — due to the amounts of impervious pavement surfaces in urban areas, as well the potential for pollutant-laden runoff into the harbor and Bay.

Question: Trump often talks about clean coal. Is clean coal a reality?

Kerr: The term “clean coal” was coined by the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity (ACCCE) lobbying group in the 1980s and has been used since. While CCUS (carbon capture utilization and storage) and other technologies are available, they have not been deployed on a large-scale in the U.S. due to financial constraints. Thus, Trump’s talk of “clean coal” is misleading.

Question: Trump seemed to have a good point when he said we needed some “good old global warming” when it was frigid in Baltimore in December and January. But I never hear global warming described as good. Is Trump wrong?

Dahl: It was cold. It was not fun. Winter is supposed to happen and it has been that cold in Baltimore before. At the same time, it was really hot in Australia and the southwest U.S.

What I think most people miss is the seriousness of the situation and how little time we actually have to enact solutions. Ten years ago, I really thought we’d be further along, but progress is really slow on this issue. People are really smart and innovative, if we apply ourselves to the right problems.

As a professor and parent, I can communicate why it’s important that we act and suggest solutions, but we need individual, community and political will to start making those big changes. My biggest worry is that in 15 years, my kids will ask me why we left this problem for them to solve and that we won’t have coral reefs, and that more cities will be out of water. Not having coral reefs, that’s a sad world to live in. Not having water – that’s a potentially dangerous world to live in.

Question: What can I do today as an individual that will make a difference?

Greenlaurel: If geothermal or solar isn’t an option for your home…

  1. Switch your home’s electricity source to clean energy the smart way (25 percent carbon footprint). Read up on Maryland’s community solar program–it’s a game changer.
  2. Drive an electric vehicle powered by renewable energy, or consider fuel efficiency when choosing your next car (50 percent carbon footprint, assuming two autos).
  3. Recycle everything (4 percent carbon footprint). Baltimore City and Baltimore County homeowners only recycle 18 precent of household trash, but at least 50 percent can be recycled.
  4. Eliminate plastic single-use anything, and buy sustainable everything.
  5. Invest in making your home air-tight to reduce the expensive, energy-intensive heated and cooled air from escaping your home. Here are seven amazing — and some free — energy efficiency programs in Maryland.
  6. Dial-up your green know-how. Join an environmental group’s newsletter. Here are a few ideas: EcoWatch, Chesapeake Climate Action Network, Washington Post’s Energy & Environment newsletter.
  7. If your elected official is a climate denier, contact them and voice your concern.
  8. Don’t do nothing.
  9. Thank you to Nancy P. (and others) who noted that I had omitted an important step in reducing your carbon emissions — choose a pant-based diet that includes as little beef as possible. She shared excellent resources below in the comments section.

Laurel Peltier
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Laurel Peltier

Laurel writes the environmental GreenLaurel column every other Thursday in the Baltimore Fishbowl. A graduate of UVA's MBA program, she spends her time with her family and making "all things green" interesting.
Laurel Peltier
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1 COMMENT

  1. Thank you for this very informative and interesting article. I’ve been following environmental issues much more closely over the last 3 1/2 years, after going vegan. Vegetarian is briefly mentioned in a paragraph, but excluded from the list of things we can do now to help avert worse disasters than are already in the making. The documentary, Cowspiracy, is streaming on Netflix. Their website has tons of facts with resources cited: http://www.Cowspiracy.com. This science-based film provides current information on how the livestock (cows, fowl, and fish) industries are destroying the environment – land, air, and sea. This page provides numerous facts and a couple of short videos worth watching: http://www.harpforanimals.com/environment.html. And this is from Georgetown University: https://gelr.org/2015/10/23/a-leading-cause-of-everything-one-industry-that-is-destroying-our-planet-and-our-ability-to-thrive-on-it-georgetown-environmental-law-review/. And here’s another of many: https://www.cnn.com/2017/04/08/opinions/go-vegan-save-the-planet-wang/index.html

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