Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Expect climate change to whipsaw Hawai`i between El Nino and La Nina

El Nino and La Nina events could be more frequent and much stronger with climate change.

That’s according to a new analysis published this week by an international team that includes Hawai`i researcher Axel Timmermann, of the International Pacific Research Center at the University of Hawai`i.

It’s important to Hawai`i residents because those climate variances have significant impacts on rainfall patterns, storm, water temperature and other things. One issue: more drought during El Nino events and more heavy rain events during La Nina—essentially, Hawai`i during the coming decades can expect to be whipsawed between more extreme weather events.

"Our previous research showed a doubling in frequency of extreme El Niño events, and this new study shows a similar fate for the cold phase of the cycle. It shows again how we are just beginning to understand the consequences of global warming,” said Mat Collins, a University of Exeterprofessor and co-author of the new paper.

Increased frequency of extreme La Niña events under greenhouse warming was published in the journal Nature Climate Change. Its authors, besides Collins and Timmermann, are  Wenju Cai,    Guojian Wang,           Agus Santoso,           Michael J. McPhaden, Lixin Wu, Fei-Fei Jin, Axel Timmermann, Gabriel Vecchi, Matthieu Lengaigne, Matthew H. England, Dietmar Dommenget, Ken Takahashi & Eric Guilyardi 

Timmermann echoed Collins’ comments.

“Our recent study in Nature Climate Change demonstrates that extreme La Nina events are likely to become more frequent over the next 100 years. Many of these events will follow stronger El Nino events. 

“This means for Hawaii that the transitions between El Nino and La Nina are likely to result in larger year-to-year rainfall extremes - extra drought during El Nino and extreme winter rain for La Nina,” Timmermann said.

He said the study is based on an analysis of 21 existing climate models.

The paper’s summary says:

“Here we present climate modelling evidence… for a near doubling in the frequency of future extreme La Niña events, from one in every 23 years to one in every 13 years. 

“This occurs because projected faster mean warming of the Maritime continent than the central Pacific, enhanced upper ocean vertical temperature gradients, and increased frequency of extreme El Niño events are conducive to development of the extreme La Niña events. 

“Approximately 75% of the increase occurs in years following extreme El Niño events, thus projecting more frequent swings between opposite extremes from one year to the next.”

© Jan TenBruggencate 2015

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Everything that can, does get into groundwater, but it's not always a crisis.

Some folks express shock that agricultural chemicals can sometimes be found in groundwater, but nearly everything we use on the surface has the potential to get the wider environment, including into groundwater.
(Image: Tapwater. Credit: EPA.)
This isn't a big scare story. Most Hawaiian water is perfectly safe. Levels of all kinds of contaminants can be detected in the tiniest amounts, but almost all are far below levels of concern.

Man made materials get into the water. And lots of natural materials do, too. Like bacteria, which is a reason for chlorination.

Volcanic activity can contaminate groundwater with sulfur and other compounds. 

“Some volcanic gases such as sulfur dioxide dissolve in groundwater, making the water acidic,” writes the US Geological Survey

Arsenic is an odorless, tasteless and toxic element that can occur in groundwater. It can sometimes be the result of human activities, like insect treatment of wood, but in many parts of the world, arsenic is a natural contaminant, and a dangerous one. 

Specific areas on every continent have natural arsenic contamination problems. And irrigating with arsenic-contaminated groundwater can transfer the toxicity to farmland, and then to crops. Arsenic-contaminated rice is a particular issue. Here’s an FDA report on arsenic in rice. Here’s an EPA resource on arsenic in groundwater. 

Agricultural chemicals are a focus of concern, but they’re far from alone. 

“Pesticides and fertilizers can find their way into groundwater supplies over time. Road salt, toxic substances from mining sites, and used motor oil also may seep into groundwater. In addition, it is possible for untreated waste from septic tanks and toxic chemicals from underground storage tanks and leaky landfills to contaminate groundwater,” says The Groundwater Foundation

Pesticide contamination of groundwater has been a worrisome issue in Hawai`i, and there are specific areas of concern, but the Department of Health and the island water boards say almost all ground water in the Islands is safe to drink.

The Honolulu Board of Water Supply has issued statements about two chemicals, the herbicide bromacil and the termite killer dieldrin, which is no longer used. Both are found as contaminants in some O`ahu wells, but in levels below EPA levels of concern.

On the island of Kaua`i, most of the contaminants found in water are natural, the result of natural weathering of volcanic rocks. And in most Hawaiian water, they’re at lower levels than EPA established levels of concern.

Lead, copper and cadmium show up in Hawaiian water, apparently associated with corrosion of household plumbing. Each of those could cause significant threats to human health in high doses, but again, mostly, it’s found at low levels compared to the established “maximum contaminant level” or MCL.

You'd think that big things like plastics would be a threat to marine life, but pretty safe from being a groundwater contaminant. Maybe, but the sealants, linings and solvents associated with a lot of plastic products can end up in groundwater, too.

And in areas that have been extensively used for agriculture, some agricultural chemicals show up, also generally at levels significantly below the MCL concern level.

Several sites show levels of trichloropropane, a soil fumigant, and DCPA, an herbicide with the unpronounceable name dimethyl tetrachloroterephthalate. 

On Kaua`i, you can check out the Water Department’s report on the results of testing for contaminants in water for the island’s various communities at this site. Here's Maui County. Here's Hawai`i County. And Honolulu County.

Some Hawaiian wells are contaminated with an industrial solvent and a contaminant in fumigation chemicals called 1,2,3-trichloropropane or TCP. It is denser than water and readily travels down to the groundwater. It is extremely persistent, having been banned in agricultural uses three decades ago. Most tests show that when present, its concentrations are within the guidelines.

The agricultural chemical atrazine, an herbicide, is also occasionally found in low levels in well water near current or former agricultural areas. While it is still used, its use has dropped significantly since the days of the sugar industry, from 400,000 pounds in 1964 to 77,000 pounds in 2012. 

Unlike TCP, atrazine does not readily travel into groundwater, and more than 90 percent of community water systems in the Islands had no detectable levels, with the remaining systems having levels below the established levels of concern. 

All that said, if you’re worried about contaminants in your drinking water, there is whole range of options for home filtration, from activated charcoal filters, to distillation, reverse osmosis and others. Here’s an Environmental Protection Agency handbook on home water treatment.

© Jan TenBruggencate 2015

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Pasturing easier on the animal and makes a healthier roast.

Increasingly, Hawai`i restaurants are serving home grown, pasture fed beef and lamb, and new evidence suggests that’s healthier for you than feedlot meat.

It goes without saying that pasturing is easier on the animals, too.

(Image: St. Croix sheep. Credit, USDA Agricultural Research Service.)

A new study suggests lamb that comes from pasture-raised sheep has higher levels of healthier fat than other sheep. It goes on to say that changing the mix of plants in the pasture can further increase the benefit.

The report, Opportunities and Implications of Pasture-Based Lamb Fattening to Enhance the Long-Chain Fatty Acid Composition in Meat is in the journal, Comprehensive Reviews in Food Science and Food Safety.

“Pasture naturally enhances the proportion of long-chain fatty acids in meat and often enriches the meat with antioxidants,” they write.

It’s a complex paper, but the upshot is that the fats in pasture-raised animals are healthier for humans than grain-fed, and also that the fat from animals that grazed in pastures with diverse food sources instead of just grass were also preferable.

Pasturing, the study says, increases the polyunsaturated fatty acids in meat. 

The Centers for Disease Control says that’s a preferable kind of fat to eat. “Most of the fat that you eat should come from unsaturated sources: polyunsaturated fats and monounsaturated fats.”

“Recent studies have investigated the influences of grazing animals on botanically diverse pastures on the fatty acid composition of meat. ‘Botanically diverse’ typically refers to mixed pastures of native origin and can include a range of grass, legume, and herb species. Differences in composition are especially apparent when animals graze on diverse pastures in mountainous areas, compared with those grazed in monoculture lowlands,” the lamb report authors write.

Although that paper is brand new, published this month, the concept that diet makes a difference in meat and milk isn’t new, of course.

In the Italian Alps, dairy farmers know that they get different cheeses from milk from cattle pastured in high mountain versus lower fields. A 2012 study on this is in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry. It’s entitled, Characterization of two Agrostis-Festuca Alpine pastures and their influence on cheese composition.

A 2014 Denmark study found that fatty acid composition changes with diet. It’s in the Journal of Agriculture and Food Chemistry: Biohydrogenation of Fatty Acids Is Dependent on Plant Species and Feeding Regimen of Dairy Cows
It suggests that the old saying, you are what you eat, applies to all of us.

(On a side note, many of us may recall that being and eating phrase from the back-to-the-land movements of the last few decades, but it’s much older. 

(In 1826, Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin wrote—in French—“Tell me what you eat and I’ll tell you what you are.” By all accounts, Brillat-Savarin liked to eat, and ate a lot. He was a French lawyer and politician, but he mostly wrote about food.

(His term got to English, as best I can determine, in the 1940s, when Victor Lindlahr wrote a book, You Are What You Eat.”)

© Jan TenBruggencate 2015

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Sea level rise accelerating, ice melting at record rates north and south.

Increasing evidence suggests that the sea level chickens are coming home to roost.

A Rutgers and Harvard study published in the journal Nature says a recalculation of sea level numbers indicates that the rate of sea level rise is accelerating. 

And other studies suggest massive melting in both Greenland and West Antarctica are partly at fault.  

(Image: Petermann Glacier, Greenland. Credit: NASA)

The Rutgers-Harvard study says sea level was rising at 1.2 millimeters a year from 1901-1990—less than previously estimated. That works out to about an inch every 20 years. But in the past two decades, 1993 to 2010, the authors say, it has speeded to 3 millimeters per year, or more than an inch a decade.

With classic scientific understatement, they say “The increase in rate relative to the 1901–90 trend is accordingly larger than previously thought; this revision may affect some projections of future sea-level rise.”

The paper, by Carling Hay, Eric Morrow, Robert Kopp and Jerry Mitrovica, is entitled, “Probabilistic reanalysis of twentieth-century sea-level rise.”

That paper confirms earlier work by other researchers that suggests sea level rise is speeding up dramatically. One of those papers was a 2012 report in the journal Environmental Research Letters, which suggested sea level rise was 60 percent higher than the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change was projecting, at 3.2 millimeters per year.

Perhaps one reason for the increase is found in another study just released, which suggests that increased warming results in much increased melting on the Greenland ice sheet. 

Why is that an issue? Because there is enough ice on Greenland to raise ocean levels 24 feet. Think virtually every coastal city flooded yards deep. Just one yard would displace a billion people. This study is in the journal Climate Dynamics. The authors are Pennsylvania State University’s Patrick J. Applegate, and Byron R. Parizek, Robert E. Nicholas, Richard B. Alley and Klaus Keller.

“Satellite observations and paleo-data suggest that the Greenland Ice Sheet loses mass in response to increased temperatures, and may thus contribute substantially to sea level rise as anthropogenic climate change progresses,” they write.

Another source of sea level rise is the collapse of the West Antarctic ice sheet. Papers in Science and Geophysical Research Letters in mid-2014  suggested that sections of the West Antarctica ice sheet have been collapsing.

One of those studies concluded “the average rate of ice thinning in West Antarctica has...continued to rise, and mass losses from this sector are now 31% greater than over the period 2005–2010.” 

The Jet Propulsion Laboratory of the California Institute of Technology has a release on another paper on the issue here.

Glaciologist Eric Rignot, of JPL and UC Irvine, said the Antarctic ice sheet collapse may now be unstoppable. There’s about 4 feet of sea level rise represented in the ice sheet.

"This sector will be a major contributor to sea level rise in the decades and centuries to come," Rignot said

A common theme in some of the papers cited above is that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change may be too conservative in its estimates of how bad sea level rise could be. In fact, the evidence suggests it may be rising lots faster than earlier estimates suggested.

© Jan TenBruggencate 2015

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Genetically engineered wheat and gluten issues? Wait just a minute.

A close friend wrote to poke me a little on the GMO issue after the previous Raising Islands post, and ended up betraying yet another of the genetic engineering issue’s misconceptions.

“It's a fact,” she said, “that gluten-intolerant folks in America can eat wheat products in Europe without  trouble. (I) have anecdotal evidence from too many of my traveling friends. European wheat is non-gmo.”

(Image: Grains of common wheat, Triticum aestivum L. Credit: USDA NRCS.)

 Something may be happening to her peripatetic friends, but it likely has little to do with the flour in that baguette. Two things leap out.

One is that if you suffer from any of the forms of gluten intolerance, including the serious celiac disease, you’d be intolerant of any gluten-containing product—genetic modification shouldn’t be an issue.

Second, the U.S.-grown wheat crop isn’t genetically modified at all. There is no genetically modified wheat being sold commercially anywhere in the world. Not in Europe, but not in the United States, either.

Says the U.S. Department of Agriculture: “APHIS has not deregulated any GE wheat varieties to date, and thus, there are no GE wheat varieties for sale or in commercial production in the United States.” (APHIS is the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service of the USDA.)

Which is not to say that genetic engineering hasn’t been done on wheat—just that it has not been approved for commercial use and has not moved into the market.

There have been two famous cases in which genetic material from experimental wheat was found in an Oregon field in 2013 and in a Montana field in 2014. The USDA is investigating. That experimental wheat was experimental Monsanto Roundup-resistant wheat that is not commercially available.

Here is the USDA’s September 2014 release on its investigations on those cases. The upshot is that the USDA says they are isolated and unrelated, and it is suspicious and not entirely clear how experimental seed ended up where it did:

One of the ironies of the cases—particularly for those whose goal is to use their anti GMO activism to stop the use of the herbicide Roundup—is that both cases were discovered by non-GMO farmers using Roundup.

In reference to my friend’s note, she is certainly not alone in her claim that gluten intolerance is less of an issue in Europe. There are lots of online references to that. But on review of the data, it’s difficult to make sense of it.

There is lots of reference to the disease in Europe—indeed, celiac disease until the middle of the last century was considered largely a European disease, as this National Institutes of Health report says. 

“Until the mid-20th century, celiac disease was known as Gee-Herter disease. About two decade(s) ago, celiac disease was considered rare outside Europe and, therefore, was almost completely ignored by health care professionals in rest of the world,” it says.

That was before there was genetic engineering in crops on either side of the Atlantic.

The article also makes the point that if you’ve got the disease, there’s only one sure way to stop its symptoms. It’s to eat no gluten whatsoever: “All foods and drugs that contain gluten and its derivatives must be eliminated from the diet because even 50 mg of gluten is sufficient to cause a significant increase in the intestinal mucosal damage,” says the NIH report.

We'd be remiss not to mention that with reference to gluten, if you have the disease, avoiding wheat isn’t all you need to do. Gluten is also found, according to the Mayo Clinic, in barley, bulgur, durum, farina, graham flour, malt, rye, semolina, spelt and triticale.

But it is clear that there's now far more celiac and other gluten-related illness--maybe four times more in North America than there was half a century ago. Also in other parts of the world.

The range of suspects is truly vast. Aside from the large number of gluten-containing food products and processed foods, people have linked the disease to weakened immune systems from poor diets, overprescribed antibiotics, Roundup and other pesticides, GMO crops, genetic predisposition, even living in cities as opposed to farms.

The New York Times (paywall) in 2013 carried a piece linking celiac to breastfeeding. It was better, the researchers in the story said, to have been breastfed than not, but also better to have been introduced to gluten earlier than later. Furthermore it mattered whether the breastfeeding mother was thin or heavy (better thin), whether she lived in a city or on a farm (better farm).

A Mayo Clinic article cites Mayo gastroenterologist Dr. Joseph Murray: "Whatever has happened with celiac disease has happened since 1950. This increase has affected young and old people. It suggests something has happened in a pervasive fashion from the environmental perspective."
So what happened 50 o 60 years ago as the celiac rate was rising? Yeah, we moved off the farms, became more overweight, started eating processed foods, started abusing antibiotics, used more pesticides, launched genetic engineering. 

Might want to throw air pollution, climate change, television, air conditioning, plastics, computers and a whole lot of other stuff in there.
© Jan TenBruggencate 2015