Volcanic vs. Man-made Climate Change


01-MtStHelens-eruptionThere are two key questions we need to answer before we can judge how man-made CO2 generation compares to well-observed effects of big volcanoes. “The Little Ice Age” was the first well-studied and documented rapid climate change, and it lasted about 300 years. It decimated Europe, and almost became an extinction event for struggling pioneer New England colonists.

The Tambora volcanic event seems to have been involved.

  • (1) How much of the Little Ice Age might have been caused by human activity, and how much by volcano?
  • (2) If volcanic activity can change the weather, then at what point can we say for sure human activity may serve as a man-made replacement for extraordinary volcanism?

In this article, we’ll compare the outputs of each phenomenon, and look into other components which have been fingered as contributing to climate change. Illustrated and referenced.

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Mercury in Our Drinking Water?

I was reading our 2011 Annual Water Quality Report. Trust me, this is one of the driest technical reports to the general public that you are ever likely to read. It’s mailed each year by our East Bay Municipal Utility District (EMBUD). By a sheer coincidence so random I deserve no credit for my discovery, the TV was tuned to a PBS Quest special, “Mercury in San Francisco Bay.”

There’s a hidden danger in San Francisco Bay: mercury. A potent neurotoxin that can cause serious illness, mercury has been flowing into the bay since the mining days of the Gold Rush Era. It has settled in the bay’s mud and made its way up the food chain, endangering wildlife and making many fish unsafe to eat. Now a multi-billion-dollar plan aims to clean it up. But will it work?

So, our San Francisco Bay annually flushes some 3,100 pounds of mercury out through the Golden Gate. Its principal source dates to the early days of the Mother Lode. Several rivers carry those compounds down into the Sacramento River. Mercury is not water soluble, but Methylmercury is. It’s a bacteria-generated trace compound of mercury found in all those waters. Although not normally considered present in hazardous concentrations, methylmercury is accumulated in the tissues of small aquatic animals and fish. Like other heavy metals, it is not metabolized. Smaller fish in turn are eaten by larger fish, and so on and so on, all the way up the predator chain. Sharks and largemouth bass are often too toxic to eat.

So what did I ever find in the EMBUD water quality report about mercury? Nothing! I checked more carefully. The report even cites trace levels of uranium (not mined in our area): the EPA target concentration is 20 pico-curies per liter, or less. All our water sources are less than 1 PCi/L. If EBMUD even lists uranium, why, then, no mercury statistics?

So, I went to EMBUD’s website. Plenty about water quality; a little bit about mercury in fish; nothing about mercury in drinking water.

Yet it’s plainly there. Now, we don’t get our drinking water from the Sacramento. Depending on the city we live in, we get it from the Hetch Hetchy, the Mokelumne, or regional reservoirs. In my area, we get it from the Upper San Leandro and Chabot Reservoirs. I haven’t fished Lake Chabot in years, but many people do.

I found a PDF from the California EPA listing CHEMICALS IN FISH FROM TEN RESERVOIRS IN ALAMEDA, CONTRA COSTA, SANTA CLARA, AND MARIN COUNTIES – INTERIM COUNTY HEALTH ADVISORIES.The report is on “elevated levels of mercury and PCBs” in those reservoirs.

“If you eat the recommended maximum amount of fish from one reservoir, do not eat any other fish during the same month.” For women of childbearing age, and children:

Lake Chabot: Carp (0) OR Largemouth bass (1) OR Channel catfish (4) OR Redear sunfish (4)

How does mercury get in the reservoirs, and what does it mean to we who drink it? The Upper San Leandro reservoir was not listed. Since we get drinking water from the Upper San Leandro and Chabot Reservoirs, I conclude there is a problem in both reservoirs since I have fished and hiked in both recreation areas. They are part of the same drainage.

Humans may not be in the fish foodchain, but we’re at the top of the predator food chain, AND we ingest and cook in a lot of drinking water. I caution the reader again, drinking a glass of water is NOT the same as eating a fish. The fish act as pollutant concentrators (think: toxin storage containers), from small snails to mosquito larvae to minnows and all the way up the chain.

Question of the day: Why is a water-drinking human not like a fish in water, even if we’re vegetarians? And why would EBMUD report on minuscule uranium concentrations, but not on the locally much more serious mercury pollution?


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Obama Says Texas Wildfires Linked to Climate Change

PolitiFact analyzed President Obama’s September 26 comment at a fundraising event, in which he said, “I mean, has anybody been watching the debates lately? You’ve got a governor whose state is on fire denying climate change.”

If you’re not familiar with PolitiFact, you can check out political claims at PolitiFact.com the same way and for the same reason we check out viral online rumors at Snopes.com. If you have an interest in the subject matter you should read the full PolitiFact article. It’s a good read and not that dense.

I found PolitiFact did a good job on their in-depth analysis of the President’s remark, which some White House aides dismissed as a tongue in cheek wise crack. After all, Perry is on record of being a climate-change denier, even as his state was ravaged by some of the worst fires on record – 3.8 million acres, to be exact.

PolitiFact rated the Obama statement “Half-True.” Cutting to the chase, scientists do not think it is good science to attribute a single event to a long-range phenomenon:

However, climate-change experts have also long urged caution in assuming that particular weather events are caused or influenced by climate change.

Consider a June 2011 paper published by the Pew Center on Global Climate Change, an independent research organization. In the paper — titled “Extreme Weather and Climate Change Understanding the Link, Managing the Risk” — co-authors Daniel G. Huber and Jay Gulledge write that “when we ask whether climate change ‘caused’ a particular event, we pose a fundamentally unanswerable question.” In fact, they say it is “nonsense” to debate a direct climatological link between a single event and the long-term rise in the global average surface temperature.

The reason, Huber and Gulledge write, is the distinction between “climate” — a long-term pattern that averages many weather events over the years — and a particular weather event.

So we cannot say that any one specific forest fire, wildfire or hurricane is directly caused by climate change. What we CAN do is observe the long-range pattern of those events, and compare that to regional historical data. We can even say that increasing average temperatures may be expected to increase the incidence and severity of the events.

What no one can prove is that any one specific Texas fire was caused by global warming. Anyone can claim that it could have occurred anyway.

What they cannot say is that a long-range increasing trend in such events cannot be related to climate change. As long-range temperatures rise, average humidity goes down, long-range rainfall decreases, and any firefighter or forest ranger can guarantee us there will be more fires. Do the math.

Fine, but is there any evidence this incendiary uptrend is already occurring? The Pew study cited by PolitiFact addresses a fact of life already well known to residents of Texas, California, Arizona and New Mexico, for example:

“There is a well-documented link between the earlier start of spring, higher summer temperatures, and drier conditions during summer and fall — that is, climate change — and a dramatic increase in wildfire activity in the western U.S. since the late 1980s,” he said. “These observations reveal an increase in fire risk due to climate change.”

So climate-change deniers aren’t off the hook. Are there are other phenomenon which ARE directly related to climate change? Yes. Rising sea levels, for example, are already the cumulative global result of many individual events as snowpack, glaciers and icecaps melt in the mountains, on the fjords, and at Earth’s poles.

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