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Degrees Of Change: Sea Level Rise, Coal-Use Decline. May 17, 2019, Part 1

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As the frequency of tropical storms and droughts increase and sea levels rise with climate change, forested wetlands along the Atlantic coast are slowly filling with dead and dying trees. The accelerating spread of these “ghost forests” over the past decade has ecologists alarmed and eager to understand how they are formed and what effect they will have regionally and globally.  One interdisciplinary group of researchers from North Carolina State University and Duke University are examining the causes and effects of repeated saltwater exposure to the coastal wetlands of North Carolina. Using soil and sediment sampling, remote hydrological monitoring, vegetation plotting, as well as spatial maps, the research team is determining the tipping point for when a struggling forest will become a ghost forest. According to ecologist Emily Bernhardt, their preliminary findings suggest that climate change is not the only culprit in the region. Agricultural irrigation and wastewater ditches that criss-cross much of the Albemarle-Pamlico Peninsula facilitate the flow of saltwater intrusion deep into the landscape, wreaking ecological and economic havoc. Working with Brian Boutin, director of the Nature Conservancy’s Albemarle-Pamlico Program, Dr. Bernhardt and colleagues hope to provide valuable scientific insights to local farmers, wetlands managers, and regional decision-makers to plan for the further intrusions and hopefully mitigate the effects. Meanwhile, less than 100 miles up the coast from the Albemarle-Pamlico peninsula, the cities of Hampton Roads, Virginia along the Chesapeake Bay are facing some of the worst flooding due to sea level rise in the country. In Norfolk, home of the United States Navy, tides have increased as much as eight inches since the 1970s, and roads that lead from the community directly to naval installations are particularly vulnerable to flooding. But in the last 10 years, Hampton Roads has begun to adapt. “When we first started having these discussions, there was a lot of concern about, should we be having discussions like this in public. What would be the potential impacts on economic development or on the population growth here?” said Ben McFarlane, senior regional planner with the Hampton Roads Planning District Commission. “Now it’s recognized and people know it’s happening. I think the strategy has changed to being more of a ‘Let’s stop talking about how bad it is and how bad it’s going to get. And let’s start talking about solutions.’” The Planning District Commission supports the use of living shorelines and ordinance changes that discourage developing in flood prone areas. Norfolk has even been named one of the Rockefeller Foundation’s 100 Resilient Cities in part for its efforts promoting coastal resiliency in the face of sea level rise. Plus, the latest investment report from the International Energy Agency was released this week, and shows that in 2018, final investment decisions were made to support bringing an additional 22GW of coal-fired electric generation online—but in the same year, around 30 GW of coal-burning generating capacity were closed. Of course, coal plants are still under construction, and there are thousands of terawatts of coal-generating capacity worldwide, so the end of coal is nowhere in sight yet—but the investment report may indicate a tipping point in the global energy budget. Kendra Pierre-Louis, a reporter on the climate desk at the New York Times, joins Ira to talk about that and other climate news—including the President’s energy policy remarks at a natural gas plant, the discovery of another ocean garbage patch of plastic, and the rise of “climate refuge cities.”

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