Posts Tagged ‘Climate’

Trump’s Would-Be Coal Comeback Faces Long Odds

Thursday, December 15th, 2016 - posted by molly

By Brian Sewell

Author’s Note, December 19:

In the weeks since this piece was published in the Dec./Jan. issue of The Appalachian Voice, President-elect Trump has chosen climate change deniers, coal and oil executives, and close friends of the fossil fuel industry for top positions in his administration.

For the administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Trump selected Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt. A frequent foe of the agency’s rulemakings and federal court’s interpretation of the Clean Air Act, Pruitt describes himself as having “led the charge” against the EPA’s “activist agenda.” Trump’s Secretary of Commerce-Designate, Wilbur Ross, is a billionaire investor with strong ties to the Central Appalachian coal industry and a history of disregard for regulations that protect miners, communities and the environment. The president-elect’s choice for Energy Secretary, former Texas Governor Rick Perry, will be tasked with leading an agency with budget of $30 billion that Perry once advocated for eliminating altogether—despite famously blanking on the department’s name during a presidential primary debate in 2011.

Beyond the president-elect’s appointments, his transitions team’s actions on energy and the environment are causing serious concern among environmentalists and the scientific community. In early December, Trump’s transition team sent a questionnaire to officials at the U.S. Department of Energy requesting, among other things, a list of individuals involved in international climate negotiations and the programs associated with President Obama’s Climate Action Plan. Agency officials refused to respond to the controversial questionnaire and Trump’s team has since said it “was not authorized.”

With a month until the inauguration, Americans concerned about climate change and other environmental threats have little reason to believe that Trump will moderate his anti-scientific positions. He has instead surrounded himself with individuals that share those views. In response, environmental, economic and social justice advocates have amplified their calls to resist and defend against the regulatory rollbacks that Trump and soon-to-be members of his cabinet support.

— Brian Sewell

———-

Aside from his promises to "save the coal industry," Donald Trump has yet to address the need for investments to stimulate economic activity and job opportunities in Appalachia. Photo by Gage Skidmore, licensed under Creative Commons.

Aside from his promises to “save the coal industry,” Donald Trump has yet to address the need for investments to stimulate economic activity and job opportunities in Appalachia. Photo by Gage Skidmore, licensed under Creative Commons.

Ten days after winning the White House, Donald Trump called Jim Justice, the billionaire coal company owner and governor-elect of West Virginia, and asked him to pass along a message to residents of the Mountain State: “We are going to get those coal miners back to work.”

As he vetted candidates for cabinet-level positions, the president-elect made clear that the concern he showed for the coal industry during the campaign continues. Less clear is how exactly he will attempt to revive the struggling sector — or how he will confront the collateral damage to human health, the environment and the climate that could result.

Trump made bold promises throughout a campaign that often put feelings before facts. He has since waffled on a variety of stances, clouding expectations and adding to the speculation about his plans for the country.

Appalachia’s Choice

It’s impossible to fully parse the factors that led to Trump’s win. Having never served in public office or in the military, he was described as less qualified than a “speck of dirt” by Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, who later supported Trump. Other members of Congress claimed that Trump disqualified himself many times over during the course of the campaign.

Cast in a gold-plated veneer of populism, his speeches dredged up enmity toward Hillary Clinton and immigrants, expressed loudly by crowds chanting “lock her up” and “build the wall.” Among other popular targets were President Obama and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which Trump has called “an absolute disgrace” and accused of killing America’s energy companies.

In Appalachia, the electorate’s anxieties — whether stemming from economic, demographic or social change — were often viewed through the lens of coal and manufacturing job losses and economic stagnation. Clinton, already facing an uphill battle in the region, hurt herself even more when she told a town hall audience, “We’re going to put a lot of coal miners and coal companies out of business,” referring to the transition to cleaner energy sources already underway.

The gaffe became a sound bite used to validate Trump’s foreboding about coal’s future should Clinton become president. Inheriting the Republican Party’s mantle of ending a perceived regulatory “war on coal,” Trump assured mining communities of his allegiance to the industry. When the dust settled on the day after the election, Appalachia’s deep red complexion appeared again.

Kentucky was the first state called on election night, and it was quickly called for Trump. In Perry, Pike and Harlan, the state’s top three coal-producing counties, he won an average of more than 80 percent of the votes. Elliott County saw the largest swing toward Republicans in the country — 23 points more than in 2012 — and for the first time in its history voted against the Democratic presidential candidate. West Virginia, Tennessee and North Carolina also went red.

U.S. election map

Click to enlarge.
Central Appalachian coal mining counties have shifted more Republican since 2004. Sources: 2016 election data from Dave Leip’s Atlas of U.S. Presidential Elections; 2004-2012 election results from the National Atlas; Mine data from MSHA, Part 50 Address/Employment files, 2004-2016.

Clinton narrowly took Virginia, as Obama did in 2012, but every county in the far southwestern corner of the state voted for Trump by larger margins than they did for Mitt Romney four years ago. Most importantly for the election’s outcome was the fact that Trump’s strident take on energy, manufacturing and international trade resonated beyond the coalfields and throughout the Rust Belt.

After voting for Obama twice, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin all flipped Republican this year. In those four states, Trump won 47 counties that Obama carried in 2012, and he outperformed Mitt Romney in dozens of Appalachian counties by 10 points or greater.

Clinton’s lead in the national popular vote exceeded two million, and the counties she carried represent nearly two-thirds of the country’s economic output — 64 percent compared to Trump’s 36, based on county-level data compiled by the Brookings Institution. But Appalachia’s choice was clear.

Implausible Promises

coal train

Trains loaded with coal for transport. ©iStockphoto/bsauter

Trump has, at various times, vowed to “encourage the use of natural gas” and “save the coal industry,” apparently unaware that competition from cheap gas is the primary driver behind coal’s domestic decline. He claims that rescinding regulations on fossil fuel production and use will allow wealth to “pour into our communities.” But even a casual survey of Appalachia’s history of resource extraction reveals how the region’s wealth has been concentrated by absentee landowners and corporations.

In recent decades, the trend has been toward the industry’s long-term and irreversible decline, and the pain felt in Appalachia has been especially acute. Appalachian states have lost more than 35,000 mining jobs in just five years, a decline of nearly 60 percent since the end of 2011. Over that period, job losses in the region accounted for more than 80 percent of coal job losses nationwide.

But long before the proliferation of fracking and the growing role of natural gas in the nation’s energy mix, the mechanization of underground and surface mining led to lower employment even as coal production climbed.

Underneath all of the rhetoric there is widespread recognition among coal and utility executives, energy analysts and some in mining communities that it is not within Trump’s power to save the industry.

After meeting with Trump in May, Murray Energy CEO Robert Murray described him as “sobered” when told the coal industry cannot bounce back. A vehement critic of the Obama administration’s environmental policies, Murray suggested that Trump moderate his message to avoid creating “expectations that aren’t real.”

Even Kentucky Sen. Mitch McConnell, one of the primary instigators of the “war on coal” narrative during Obama’s presidency, lowered the bar. “We are going to be presenting to the new president a variety of options that could end this assault,” McConnell said at the University of Louisville a few days after the election. “Whether that immediately brings business back is hard to tell because it’s a private sector activity.”

Still, by rolling back environmental regulations and reducing the federal government’s role in their enforcement, Trump may be able to slow the bleeding — but not without potentially opening new wounds.

Local (And Global) Implications

Environmentalists who have cheered falling carbon emissions and coal consumption worry the Trump administration’s policies could lead to long-term environmental and climate consequences that far outweigh any near-term economic gain. Under his watch, federal agencies are likely to take a more shortsighted approach to evaluating and permitting fossil fuel projects, including mountaintop removal coal mines and interstate oil and gas pipelines.

Trump says his administration will focus on “real environmental challenges, not phony ones.” But in his first 100 days as president he has pledged to lift the moratorium on federal coal leases in western states and rescind regulations including the U.S. Department of the Interior’s Stream Protection Rule and EPA rules limiting methane emissions from oil and gas operations. Trump also promises to kill the EPA’s Clean Power Plan, which instructs states to limit power plant carbon emissions, and withdraw the United States from the 2015 Paris climate agreement, which went into effect in November.

These, and many other of the incoming administration’s priorities, closely align with those of coal’s proponents in Congress. Where congressional action is needed to weaken environmental rules, President Trump will likely have many allies. His administration can take other steps — including walking away from the Paris deal — largely through executive action. Even before taking office, Trump’s anti-scientific stance on climate change has begun alienating key international partners like China and the European Union.

Based on recent statements, Trump’s grasp on the reality of climate change remains tenuous. When asked by The New York Times in a Nov. 22 meeting if he believes human activity contributes to global warming, he said that it “depends on how much it’s going to cost our companies.” America is sure to continue producing examples of climate leadership, whether in the private sector or at the state level, but there is no indication Trump’s administration will do anything but harm.

“The very thought of a Trump administration overseeing national energy policy will inevitably shift more of the action to the states,” David Victor, a professor at the University of California-San Diego’s School of Global Policy and Strategy, wrote in a post-election essay for Yale Environment 360.

On one hand, that could lead to a greater emphasis on efforts to reduce emissions in states like Virginia, where Gov. Terry McAuliffe has established a working group to recommend carbon-cutting strategies. But it could also embolden politically powerful industries in states where regulators lack the resources or willpower to adequately enforce environmental laws.

An Urgent Task

For all the attention paid to distressed Appalachian communities during the campaign, Trump has yet to address the growing need for targeted federal investments to stimulate economic activity and job opportunities in the region. Yet, when compared to Trump’s promises to save the industry, neither Hillary Clinton’s $30 billion plan for revitalizing coal communities nor existing White House initiatives received much national attention during the campaign. That’s not to say these ideas aren’t catching on in the coalfields.

Last fall, two dozen local governments in Central Appalachia passed unanimous resolutions in support of the Obama administration’s POWER+ Plan, a set of budgetary earmarks and policy proposals to bolster economic diversification in communities that have historically relied on coal. Through the related POWER Initiative, the Appalachian Regional Commission has awarded a total of nearly $47 million to more than 70 economic development projects across nine Appalachian states.

Appalachian lawmakers in the House and Senate have also introduced bipartisan legislation to invest in the region’s economic future. One bill, the RECLAIM Act, would direct $1 billion of existing money from the federal Abandoned Mine Reclamation Fund to clean up polluted post-mine sites and repurpose them for an economically beneficial use.

A September poll conducted by Public Opinion Strategies, a Republican polling firm, found that 89 percent of registered voters in Kentucky, Virginia, West Virginia, Tennessee, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Indiana support the RECLAIM Act. By a two-to-one margin, those polled believe that elected officials should prioritize attracting new employers and transitioning the region’s economy rather than fighting regulations.

If Trump plans to refocus the federal government’s role in response to the frustrations of rural communities that overwhelmingly endorsed him, he will need a clear-eyed approach to the challenges facing the region. “Nobody knows the system better than me,” Trump told the country upon accepting his party’s nomination, “which is why I alone can fix it.” Facing enormous odds, he now has a chance to try.

What we do now — a note from Executive Director Tom Cormons

Wednesday, November 23rd, 2016 - posted by tom

Each month, Appalachian Voices Executive Director Tom Cormons reflects on issues of importance to our supporters and to the region.

Tom's children on a recent hike to the family's favorite mountain stream near Charlottesville, Va.

Tom’s children on a recent hike to the family’s favorite mountain stream near Charlottesville, Va.

Last weekend, I was hiking with my three young kids. I witnessed their joy, watching them skitter up a rock above our favorite mountain creek, honing their balance. I admired their presence in the moment, seeing them examine trees, mushrooms and tiny creatures along the trail, chewing on birch twigs.

But it was difficult to share in that joy or presence. It’s been hard to look at my kids or Appalachia’s natural beauty without thinking about the presidential election and its implications for the future.

The most important question is how to respond on behalf of what we love.

I believe deeply in Appalachian Voices’ longstanding mission to bring people together for the well-being of Appalachian communities, for environmental justice and for our children’s futures. And we’re not alone: commitment to the common good unites engaged citizens across America, including our allies and partners from many walks of life who bring a variety of experiences and worldviews.

The first reason we stand together is practical: it works. It’s how we protect our mountains, air and water. It’s how we create clean energy jobs and new economies. It’s the way communities and societies have always accomplished great things. It’s what gives justice a fighting chance.

And there’s something deeper, too: we inspire each other when we work in common cause, transcending our inevitable differences and connecting with others. It affirms our brotherhood and sisterhood, we feel the boost to our energy and the depth of our power to make a difference.

In stark contrast, the presidential election has underscored and exaggerated our differences, overshadowing the many fundamental values we share. It’s left many with a feeling that our country is tragically divided. To make matters worse, so much of what we have in common — including our desire for healthy families, clean air and water, and economies that support healthy communities — is in extreme jeopardy, judging by nearly every signal the president-elect has sent.

But I look at my kids and know being discouraged is not an option.

Instead, we must join together like never before. We’ll need our collective strength to stand up for our communities’ health, our democratic values and the future of the planet. And we cannot be relegated to a strictly defensive posture: we need to work hard together for clean energy and sustainable economies. We need to build on what we all have in common, bridging differences with others, including how they may have voted.

We know that it works. And it’s never been more important to show what we can accomplish together. The world we leave our kids — and the example we set for them — both depend on what we do now.

Pope’s message on climate brings hope for change

Thursday, June 18th, 2015 - posted by cat

Encyclical-PF-10As news of Pope Francis’ pronouncement of our collective moral obligation to act on climate change whipped around the world, the planet just might have yawed and shook for a split second. The leader of more than 1 billion Catholics worldwide is a spiritual guide for many more, and his encyclical on ecology — the Vatican’s first — was anticipated to be a game-changer in the ongoing struggle to shed the world’s economies of fossil fuels and abate global warming.

Whether that happens remains to be seen, but in the meantime, leaders from all corners of the globe and all walks of life hopped on the papal bandwagon to sound their own calls-to-action, including decisive action at the upcoming international climate summit in Paris. Below is a sampling of some of these comments, and a few excerpts from the “Laudato Si’” Encyclical. (What’s an encyclical? This article has a good summary of these papal documents.)

Quotes and excerpts are drawn from The Tree: Content for Climate and Energy Communicators website.)

  • “We are part of Nature. We don’t have two separate crises, one environmental and the other social, but rather a single complex socio-environmental crisis. This is the frame within which we need to put some of the themes in the Encyclical” – Cardinal Peter Turkson
  • “The Church should now introduce the sin against the environment, the ecological sin. It is a sin not only against God but also against our neighbour and also, and this is very serious, against future generations” – Metropolitan of Pergamo, John Zizioulas
  • “As responsible citizens of the world – sisters and brothers of one family, the human family, God’s family – we have a duty to persuade our leaders to lead us in a new direction: to help us abandon our collective addiction to fossil fuels.” – Archbishop Desmond Tutu
  • “Business is a human enterprise and therefore must be by people for the people, whereas with business as usual not many of us will be around to enjoy the benefits” – Dr. Carolyn Woo, President & CEO of Catholic Relief Services
  • “The ones politicising the matter are those like Cruz who coddle their fossil fuel funders by denying the science of climate change and smearing those who attempt to point out the very real and damaging impacts climate change is already having. It is shameful and history will judge it as such.” – Director of the Earth System Science Center at Pennsylvania State University, Michael Mann
  • “Climate science is a tool for making decisions, not a political football. I wish journalists and citizens would ask politicians how they are using climate science to do their jobs — including protecting us from changes in some types of extreme weather — not for their personal opinions about scientific evidence.” – The Union of Concerned Scientists’ Aaron Huertas
  • “Today, it’s clearer than ever that the end of the fossil fuel era is upon us — and so too, we hope, the end of the era of rising poverty and inequality. The Pope’s call only hastens our transition to a clean energy future, adding even more momentum to the fast-growing movement to divest from fossil fuels.” – 350.org Executive Director, May Boeve

Some gems from “Laudato Si’”

  • Page 4 Section 8 – Protecting nature, quoting Patriarch Bartholomew

    “For human beings… to destroy the biological diversity of God’s creation; for human beings to degrade the integrity of the earth by causing changes in its climate, by stripping the earth of its natural forests or destroying its wetlands; for human beings to contaminate the earth’s waters, its land, its air, and its life – these are sins”.

  • Page 28 Section 67 The Church has made mistakes, but that’s no reason not to do the right thing

    Although it is true that we Christians have at times incorrectly interpreted the Scriptures, nowadays we must forcefully reject the notion that our being created in God’s image and given dominion over the earth justifies absolute domination over other creatures. The biblical texts are to be read in their context, with an appropriate hermeneutic, recognizing that they tell us to “till and keep” the garden of the world (cf. Gen 2:15).

  • Page 49 Section 114 Directing technology does not mean a return to the stone age

    All of this shows the urgent need for us to move forward in a bold cultural revolution. Science and technology are not neutral; from the beginning to the end of a process, various intentions and possibilities are in play and can take on distinct shapes. Nobody is suggesting a return to the Stone Age, but we do need to slow down and look at reality in a different way, to appropriate the positive and sustainable progress which has been made, but also to recover the values and the great goals swept away by our unrestrained delusions of grandeur.

  • Page 70 Section 165 Shifting away from fossil fuels

    We know that technology based on the use of highly polluting fossil fuels – especially coal, but also oil and, to a lesser degree, gas – needs to be progressively replaced without delay.

  • Page 82 Section 198 Politicians need to look beyond themselves

    While some are concerned only with financial gain, and others with holding on to or increasing their power, what we are left with are conflicts or spurious agreements where the last thing either party is concerned about is caring for the environment and protecting those who are most vulnerable. Here too, we see how true it is that “unity is greater than conflict.”

Resilient Landscapes for a Shifting Environment

Monday, June 15th, 2015 - posted by Cody Burchett

By Kimber Ray

Since 2008, Mark Anderson, a field ecologist with The Nature Conservancy, has been probing the ecosystems of the eastern United States for a better strategy to protect species seeking refuge from the impacts of climate change.

When he described the conclusions of his team’s groundbreaking research — a sophisticated map analysis of landscape and species diversity — to The Nature Conservancy Magazine in 2014, he compared it to a baseball field.

“As much as we like the players, we know they won’t stay the same forever,” he says. “They are going to move on.”

Protecting land based on its importance to endangered or uncommon species is a popular strategy — one that Anderson helped develop during his early work with The Nature Conservancy in the 1990s. Yet according to his ongoing mapping project, this strategy often amounts to blind guesswork when it comes to identifying potential future hotspots for biodiversity.

Anderson and his team’s first study, published in 2012, revealed that geology is the strongest predictor of which undeveloped environments can support the greatest diversity of plants and wildlife. Variations in features such as slope, elevation and soil profiles create a wide range of distinct habitats known as microclimates. These pockets of different temperatures and moisture levels offer options for migrating creatures to cope with climate change.

Dubbed a “resilient landscape,” Appalachia is noted as a particularly remarkable example of these microclimates. In the Blue Ridge Mountains of South Carolina, for example, Anderson’s report cites a case where the 104 degree heat of a sunny slope was in stark contrast to a nearby ravine, which was 25 degrees cooler.

The Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, which supported Anderson’s mapping projects, has since created a $12 million fund to promote conservation of the resilient landscapes identified using Anderson’s research.

Known as the Resilient Landscape Initiative and managed by the nonprofit Open Space Institute, the project invites public agencies and land trusts to apply for matching grant funds to help protect targeted areas. For land trusts, this involves creating conservation easements with private landowners; the property is protected from development and the owner retains possession of the land.

The Northeast-focused portion of the project has so far protected more than 3,000 acres of climate-resilient land in northern Appalachia. The coverage region, which includes four eligible focus areas, extends from Maine to as far south as the Potomac Headwaters of Virginia and West Virginia — an important home of the increasingly threatened native eastern brook trout.

Meanwhile the Southeast-focused part of the project, which began at the end of 2014 with the Southern Cumberlands area in Georgia, Alabama and Tennessee, recently expanded to include the southern Blue Ridge and the Greater Pee Dee River regions. The project is accepting applications for grant funds; deadline is July 21 and awards will be announced in September.

Fracking and pipelines threaten Appalachia

Wednesday, January 14th, 2015 - posted by cat
Photo courtesy of Terry Wild Stock Photography.

Photo courtesy of Terry Wild Stock Photography.

Appalachian Voices is launching new web pages today about efforts to open North Carolina to natural gas fracking and proposals to build massive natural gas pipelines through several Appalachian states. These proposals threaten public health, local communities, and the environment, and also could dramatically impede the growing efforts to shift to cleaner energy across the region.

Over the last decade, the natural gas industry has overwhelmed scores of communities across the country, building miles of new pipelines and erecting huge drilling rigs, sucking up fresh water from creeks and aquifers, and overrunning backroads and town streets with tanker trucks hauling chemicals and waste. Local and state regulations are either nonexistent, or insufficient to cope with the impacts.

As a result, the breakneck growth in the industry poses tremendous risk to public health and the environment. And a growing reliance on natural gas, a fossil fuel, could drastically delay America’s U.S. shift to cleaner, more sustainable energy sources.

Yes, burning natural gas for electricity has lower smokestack emissions of carbon dioxide than burning coal, but it should not be forgotten that the drilling process releases huge amounts of methane, a greenhouse gas that is more than 20 times more potent than carbon dioxide. Experts say the rise of natural gas as utilities’ fuel of choice runs counter to the carbon reductions we must make to keep climate change in check.

We can’t afford to invest in new natural gas drilling operations, power plants, pipelines or other infrastructure that would lock us into decades of relying on this fossil fuel, while shortchanging cleaner energy. The thing is, every dollar – public or private – invested in expanding natural gas production is one less dollar invested in truly clean, less carbon-intensive sources such as energy efficiency, and wind and solar power. Not only do these energy solutions translate to cleaner air and more protections for our water resources, they create new jobs and tremendous economic opportunity.

Last year, several massive pipelines were proposed generally running from West Virginia through Virginia, and one would go on through North Carolina. Citizens are taking action to oppose the projects out of concern about the impacts to private property, water resources, and some of Virginia’s most treasured historic and natural heritage sites.

And North Carolina recently lifted its long-standing state moratorium on fracking; Under the sway of the industry and its allies, the state has developed regulations that are wholly inadequate to protect communities and the environment. In response, a grassroots movement has sprung up to protect the state’s natural resources and push lawmakers to reinstate the moratorium.

The Forest’s Bread and Butter

Monday, December 9th, 2013 - posted by Kimber

By Chris Samoray

Bring down the mast. But hold on seafarers, leave the sails flying. In the forests of Appalachia, this lingo doesn’t refer to sailing. Instead, it’s used by outdoor folk to describe the fruits of plants and trees, with blackberries, strawberries, blueberries, hickory nuts, walnuts and beechnuts constituting just a few. Although these mast types are important forest resources, forgetful squirrels, scurrying mice and gobbling turkeys are among those responsible for spreading the forest’s most potent protein bundle, the gift of oak trees: acorns.

While some acorns bud into the world lean and slender, others are more round and plump, yet they all sport a similar toupee-like casing. If you’ve been popped on the head by some nut that then goes skipping down the street, you’re familiar with acorns, or maybe you recall skating along the sidewalk as acorns rolled under your shoes. But acorns do more than cause pedestrian anxiety.

A net beneath an oak tree in North Carolina lets researchers study the season's acorn yield and how it affects the forest. Photo by Julia Kirschman, USDA Forest Service

A net beneath an oak tree in North Carolina lets researchers study the season’s acorn yield and how it affects the forest. Photo by Julia Kirschman. USDA Forest Service

Acorns are often referred to as “a keystone species of the forest” because of the critical role they play in ecosystem dynamics. Rodents feed heavily on acorns and, in turn, predators such as foxes and hawks prey on rodent populations plump from acorn feasting.

Acorns, however, serve a bigger purpose than being a hot menu item for rodents such as the white-footed mouse. It also has an appetite also for the larvae of gypsy moths, an introduced pest of European and Asian descent, which, because of the larva’s fondness for oak and aspen leaves, decreases tree growth, survival and mast production. But with more acorns come more mice. And more mice leads to fewer gypsy moths and fewer gypsy moths equates to more oaks. In essence, large acorn crops support large mice populations and shield mature oak trees from the troubles brought by destructive gypsy moth outbreaks. The moth is omnipresent in the northeastern United States and in parts of North Carolina, Virginia and West Virginia, and could expand farther south and west, which would put more trees at risk of defoliation.

Deer and black bears depend on acorns too. In fact, if a pregnant black bear doesn’t consume enough acorns in the fall, her embryo is less likely to fully develop, and even if her cubs are born, she won’t be able to make enough milk to feed them. And don’t forget the oaks themselves. “Of course, acorns are the seeds to future oaks,” says USDA Forest Service Southern Research Station’s Dr. Katie Greenberg. This year, however, her meanderings in the mountains of western North Carolina have less of a crunch than in years past.

“Around here, [acorn] production seems to be low,” says Greenberg, who adds that, for oak species, “this year appears to be a pretty bad year for everything.” According to biologist Gary Norman of Virginia’s Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, “[Virginia is also] experiencing a significant mast failure” and West Virginia “reported their mast index was the lowest they’ve recorded in the survey history.”

Similar to the West Virginia surveys, Norman’s research at Virginia study sites shows that this year’s acorn production in both white and red oak species is the lowest it has been in the last six years. This fall, acorns covered only 5 percent of white oak tree tops, while red oaks boasted a slightly higher count at 8 percent. In 2012, the same surveys showed 58 percent tree top coverage in white oaks and 65 percent in red oaks, dwarfing this fall’s numbers.

So what’s the deal with these oaks? Were their heads in a cloud during reproductive season? Not exactly, though clouds might have held some influence. “This year [the acorn shortage] could be because we’ve had so much rain in the spring and in the summer,” says Greenberg.

The problem with too much rain is that it makes pollen soppy, and wet pollen stubbornly resists being blown by the wind — a step necessary to pollinate other oaks. Drought conditions and late spring freezes can kill oak flowers and inhibit acorn production as well. But in the end, “there’s a mystery element with oak trees,” says Greenberg. Though the weather is likely a player in this year’s low acorn crop, Greenberg notes that acorn production tends to be erratic. Norman’s surveys bear witness to this notion. Virginia’s white oak species produced low acorn mast in 2007-2009 and 2011, but had significantly better masts in 2010 and 2012.

So like some days of sailing, some mast seasons are good, some bad, and some just plain nutty.

Last Stand for the Southern Spruce-Fir?

Monday, June 11th, 2012 - posted by interns

Ancient Mountaintop Species Are Most Vulnerable As Appalachia Warms

By Molly Moore

As temperature rises, it could change everything from fog frequency to soil properties. The resiliency of red spruce and Fraser fir, such as these on Clingmans Dome in Sevier County, Tenn., will affect the forest’s rare inhabitants. Photo by Brian Stansberry

At the nonprofit park atop northwestern North Carolina’s Grandfather Mountain, Director of Education Jesse Pope surveys the park’s cold-loving plants, keeping an eye out for the brassy Weller’s salamander and small Saw-whet owl, two of the many creatures that depend on the mountain’s cool climate. Pope is monitoring how Southern Appalachia’s high elevation red spruce and Fraser fir respond to rising temperatures. These high-elevation forests — remnants of the last ice age that require a similar climate to forests much farther north —are essentially islands in the sky. If temperatures continue to climb, residents of these habitat islands have nowhere to go.

Though this year’s balmy winter alone doesn’t signify climate change — the term “climate” refers to weather patterns over long periods of time — the fact that April 2012 marked the end of the warmest 12-month period since 1895 means that recent weather can help people imagine what a new climate norm in Appalachia might look like. Nine of the ten warmest years since 1880 have occurred since 2000, and 2012 is on track to set a new record.

These measurements are consistent with a consensus of three key facts by international climate scientists: the Earth’s surface temperature is rising; widespread climate-related impacts are occurring now and are likely to increase; and it’s more than 90 percent likely that humans are responsible.

Scientists agree that Southern Appalachian forests will be warmer in the future, but detailed projections future climate are fuzzy because rates of greenhouse gas emissions are uncertain.

Ironically, some forms of pollution might be sheltering Appalachia from experiencing the climate impacts that are already visible in some other parts of the country. Dr. Steve McNulty, an ecologist with the Eastern Forest Environmental Threat Assessment Center, says that the airborne sulfate aerosols that were coming into the Southern Appalachians from power plants in the Midwest kept sunlight from coming in and warming the South in the same way that a leafy tree canopy provides cool shade on a hot day. Unlike carbon dioxide, which traps heat in the atmosphere, sulfur aerosols reflect sunlight back toward space.

Since the passage of the Clean Air Acts in the ‘90s, sulfate aerosols have decreased, so most of the South is beginning to warm up like the rest of the country. But according to Dr. Howard Neufeld, a biology professor at Appalachian State University, the Southern Appalachians haven’t seen this temperature increase yet, possibly because aerosols naturally emitted by trees are reflecting radiation out of the atmosphere the same way sulfate aerosols did in the past.

A (Not-so) Foggy Forecast?

A Saw-Whet owl peers out of a nesting box on Grandfather Mountain, N.C. Photo by Jesse Pope

While the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change accepts higher average temperatures as inevitable, some research models for Appalachia predict an increase in precipitation and others tell of impending drought. Much of this uncertainty centers around clouds. How temperature affects cloud height and cloud type, and whether clouds form more or less frequently, could influence everything from stream flow to plant health.

Clouds have added significance for Appalachia’s most vulnerable ecosystem, the high elevation red spruce and Fraser fir forests that cling to the coolest locations in the southern mountains. According to Dr. Neufeld, the spruce and fir trees that anchor these ecosystems have a harder time drawing water up their trunk than hardwoods do. The moisture in fog gathers on the conifers’ needles, forming droplets that run down the trunk to provide about a third of the tree’s hydration. If climate change causes clouds to rise, these trees risk losing a key water source while suffering increased exposure to the sun’s drying rays.

Southern Appalachia’s spruce and fir forests are home to numerous rare and endangered species dependent on these old growth sites. The extremely endangered spruce-fir moss spider, one of the world’s tiniest tarantulas, lives only in moss mats found in a few of these high-elevation coniferous forests. A subspecies of northern flying squirrel that dines on a truffle from red spruce roots has been genetically isolated in the region since the glaciers receded about 10,000 years ago.

As the continent warmed after the last ice age, the South’s spruce and fir migrated upward in elevation. A journey to the summit of Grandfather Mountain in North Carolina follows the conifers’ path. The forest changes from leafy hardwoods lower down to a mix of hardwoods and spruce. Above 5,000 feet, spruce and fir take over; if Grandfather were as tall as nearby Mt. Mitchell, Fraser fir alone would dominate above 5,800 feet. According to Pope, regional researchers estimate that a two-degree increase in temperature could shift forest zones upward by 1,000 feet. Depending on the degree of warming, firs, and maybe even spruce, could be pushed off the top of the mountain.

The endangered Weller’s salamander lives at few high elevations in Virginia, North Carolina and Tennessee.Photo by Jacob Fields

Careful observation of how spruce at the southern limit of their habitat respond to warming will be helpful for land managers in the Central and Northern Appalachians, Pope says. The climate change prognosis is better for spruce in Central Appalachia because the trees have access to northward migration corridors.

Conservationists with the Central Appalachian Spruce Restoration Initiative, a partnership between public and private organizations, are trying to restore the vitality and connectedness of these crucial forests, says Dave Saville, program coordinator for the West Virginia Highland Conservancy’s spruce efforts. Red spruce once covered 500,000 acres of West Virginia, but logging, surface mining and development have reduced the forest to just 10 percent of its former range. Focusing on spruce habitat preserves the refrigerator-like microclimate that so many species depend on and protects spruce forest soils, which sequester a staggering amount of carbon that is released into the atmosphere when the soil is disturbed.

The ancient spreading avens lives on sheer cliffs; it’s most common known cause of death is being crushed by falling ice sheets. Researchers don’t know whether the plant is still reproducing. Photo by Molly Moore

Keeping Tabs on Climate

It’s not just conifers that depend on cool mountain environments. Back in North Carolina, Grandfather Mountain is home to several heath balds that support federally threatened wildflowers such as Heller’s blazing star and Blue Ridge goldenrod. The mountain’s sheer cliffs are one of just 11 sites in the world that support an ancient endangered plant called spreading avens, a nondescript member of the rose family that lights up with yellow blossoms in mid-summer. Pope observes the plant’s colonies on Grandfather attentively, but in five years he has not seen any new sprouts on the mountain.

In addition to species monitoring, Pope contributes to an international climate database through an Appalachian State University program. Special equipment, provided by a NASA grant, enables Pope, and park visitors, to measure data such as incoming solar radiation, density of particulate matter in the atmosphere, temperature and precipitation.

Making measurements and observations to generate strong baseline data is critical, says ASU’s Dr. Neufeld. He cites ecologist R.H. Whittaker’s work to delineate and document sections of forest in the Smokies in the 1950s. Whittaker’s careful notes on the forest flora allow today’s researchers to see how these parcels of forest have changed over the past half century.

Getting everyday people involved in climate monitoring is one way to gather this baseline data. Dr. Rico Gazal, a professor at West Virginia’s Glenville State College and a master trainer with an international citizen science program, is tracking the budding dates of yellow poplar trees in West Virginia with the assistance of his students and local volunteers. Gazal has also trained over 100 teachers to engage their classrooms in the project. He notes that because this type of research doesn’t require any special equipment, it is easier to involve the public.

Gazal’s study is inspired by collaboration with scientists in Japan who have 60 years of data detailing when the leaves of Japanese ginkgo trees bud and fall. Seven years into his yellow poplar project, Gazal’s findings are consistent with those of the USDA — the growing season is getting longer. This extended growing cycle, he says, affects factors like the amount of water forests need and the timing of soil nutrient cycles that rely on leaf fall. Naturally, as the growing season lengthens for yellow poplar, it also lengthens for invasive plants and pests such as multi-flora rose and the balsam wooly adelgid. Citizen observation and satellite imagery provide scientists with valuable data that helps forest managers prepare for greater climate change.

Planning for the Unknown

Heller’s blazing star is one of the endangered wildflowers found in high-elevation heath balds. Scientists speculate that these ecosystems depend on occasional fires to keep invading plants at bay. Photo courtesy of Grandfather Mountain Stewardship Foundation

Integrating research from different forestry disciplines helps researchers understand how seemingly separate factors, such as invasive pests and air pollution, can interact. Between 1998 and 2000, a severe drought led to a spate of spruce deaths in the high elevations around North Carolina’s Mt. Mitchell. Dr. McNulty led a crew to investigate.

The group discovered that southern pine beetles, which usually live at lower elevations, were killing some of the spruce. The trees in trouble were some of the largest, healthiest-looking specimens. Research revealed that acid rain was depositing high levels of nitrogen in the soil. Nitrogen acts as a fertilizer, allowing plants to grow more vigorously aboveground while expending less energy developing deep roots. When drought struck, the trees with more needles and shallower roots struggled more than the scraggly trees and couldn’t produce a healthy amount of resin due to lack of water. The same drought also made the spruce-fir environment hot and dry enough for the southern pine beetle to make its way to the mountains and attack the spruce. Because the scraggly trees with poorer soils had deeper roots and were more resilient to drought, they were able to repel the beetle with resin. The healthier-looking trees that weren’t producing enough resin succumbed to the combination of drought and insect attack.

To McNulty, scenarios like this are the most troubling to climate scientists because they combine multiple factors in unexpected ways, making it difficult to plan. As he explains, there are some “knowns” that forest managers can plan for. “If it gets hot and dry we know there are going to be more wildfires so we can sort of plan for that. There are species we can plant that are better adapted to wildfires,” he says. “Then there are unknowns that we may not understand but at least we can ask the question. For example, would increased atmospheric CO2 actually make plants grow faster?” There is research that points both ways, he explains.

“What we can’t quite do yet and what we’re working on are these ‘unknown unknowns,’ these surprises associated with climate change that might actually have the biggest impact because we’re least prepared to handle them,” McNulty says, citing the red spruce deaths on Mt. Mitchell as an example.

McNulty likens decisions by forest managers about whether to spend limited resources protecting threatened spruce and fir ecosystems to decisions that people make about their own health care. Medical bills are often highest at the end of someone’s life, and spruce-fir ecosystems have been shrinking since the last ice age. Climate change will hasten the pace of warming, he says, but “eventually, with or without climate change, these ecosystems will likely disappear in the Southern Appalachians.”

Neufeld agrees that some changes are inevitable. “I think people just have to get used to the idea that [natural] communities are dynamic,” he says. “There won’t be bare slopes with nothing on them. Something will come in and colonize them.”

Hampton Roads Vs the Coal Plant

Tuesday, April 17th, 2012 - posted by mike

The effort to keep Hampton Roads air from suffering from a major new source of air and water pollution for next sixty years is picking up and your help is needed. On Tuesday Norfolk is going to vote whether to join the Consortium for Infant and Child Health (CINCH), The American Lung Association, Isle of Wight County, Southampton County, the Town of Surry and many others in opposing what could be Virginia’s largest coal-fired power plant built upwind of Hampton Roads.

If you live in Norfolk you can help steer the City Council in the right direction by sending a brief note or letter their way. You can do this easily by clicking here: http://wiseenergyforvirginia.org/norfolk/

The Norfolk City Council was originally going to vote last week but an apparent misunderstanding has led to a delay that is now allowing Norfolk Southern, which would benefit financially from the coal plant, to weigh in and offer their comments on the draft resolution of opposition. Please consider coming to their next meeting on Tuesday, April 24th. Get there by 6:45 to sign up to speak against the coal plant. You can read more about this unfortunate delay here: http://appvoices.org/2012/04/12/strange-happenings-in-norfolk/?

There are also efforts in Virginia Beach and Hampton City to pass resolutions of opposition to this massive polluting coal plant.
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