Reposted: How EPA Research Supports Taking Action on Climate Change

Reposted from EPA’s Connect blog, the official blog of EPA’s leadership.

By Lek Kadeli

As my EPA colleagues and I prepare to join millions of people from across the nation and around the globe to celebrate the environment on April 22, it’s a good time to remember how much we’ve accomplished together since the first Earth Day in 1970.

Forty-four years ago, it wasn’t hard to find direct evidence that our environment was in trouble. Examples of air pollution could be seen at the end of every tailpipe, and in the thick, soot-laden plumes of black smoke flowing from industrial smokestacks and local incinerators. Litter and pollution-choked streams were the norm, and disposing of raw sewage and effluent directly into waterways was standard practice. A major mid-western river famously ignited, sparking both awareness and action. The central theme of EPA’s Earth Day activities this year is Taking Action on Climate Change, echoing our commitment to meeting today’s greatest environmental challenge. And just like our predecessors did decades ago, we are supporting those actions with the best available science.

Dr. Chris Weaver, an EPA scientist currently on leave to serve as the Deputy Executive Director of U.S. Global Climate Change Research Program, explains: “EPA has a major role to play in preparing the nation for change, through its critical responsibilities for ensuring clean air, clean water, and healthy communities and ecosystems. And EPA researchers, working in partnership with their colleagues in other Federal agencies and in the broader scientific community, are at the forefront of advancing understanding of the impacts of—and responses to—climate and related global change.”

Examples of that work include:

I invite you to read more about these and other examples in the 2014 Earth Day edition of our EPA Science Matters newsletter. It features stories on how EPA researchers and their partners are supporting Agency strategies and President Obama’s Climate Action Plan.

Our amazing scientists and engineers are providing the science that decision makers, communities, and individuals need for developing strategies to protect public human health and the environment in the face of a changing climate. Thanks to them, I am confident that future Earth Day events will celebrate how we were able to take action and meet the challenges of a changing climate.

Editor's Note: The views expressed here are intended to explain EPA policy. They do not change anyone's rights or obligations. You may share this post. However, please do not change the title or the content, or remove EPA’s identity as the author. If you do make substantive changes, please do not attribute the edited title or content to EPA or the author.

EPA's official web site is www.epa.gov. Some links on this page may redirect users from the EPA website to specific content on a non-EPA, third-party site. In doing so, EPA is directing you only to the specific content referenced at the time of publication, not to any other content that may appear on the same webpage or elsewhere on the third-party site, or be added at a later date.

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Act On Climate: Become a Climate Citizen Scientist for Earth Day 2014

By Rebecca French

Image credit: U.S. Global Change Research Program (www.globalchange.gov).

Image credit: U.S. Global Change Research Program (www.globalchange.gov)

Did you know that everyone can participate in climate change research? Public participation in scientific research—“citizen science”—has a long and proven track record. And you and your family can join in on the fun!

Using data from a 114-year-old citizen science project, the Christmas Bird Count, EPA scientists have identified an important indicator of the impacts of climate change: on average, North American bird species have moved northward and away from coasts during the winter—some species some 200 to 400 miles north since the 1960s. I grew up in Connecticut, so that would be like my family moving our house to Canada.

Collecting information on this climate change impact would not be possible without the thousands of volunteers who count birds every year. But this is just one of many climate citizen science projects.

One type of citizen science – volunteer environmental monitoring – can be an integral part of understanding the impacts of climate change. The EPA’s National Estuaries Program (NEP) is a network of voluntary, community-based programs that safeguards the health of important coastal ecosystems across the country. Estuaries are particularly vulnerable to climate change, so getting involved with your local NEP can make a real difference.

EPA also supports many citizen science programs through the Volunteer Water Monitoring Program, and EPA’s Region 2 office has launched a citizen science website with resources to support community-based citizen science projects for water, air, and soil.

The projects above can get you involved on a local scale, but there are also climate citizen science projects that go national and even global using a type of citizen science called “crowdsourcing.” Below are some of my favorite crowdsourcing citizen science projects that combine volunteers and the internet to build national data sets for climate change research:

  • Project Budburst, Nature’s Notebook and NestWatch all require you to get outdoors and record your observations of the natural world, such as when plants are flowering or birds are laying eggs. Kids will love these, so bring your family with you.
  • Participating in Old Weather or Cyclone Center can be done from your couch with a computer and an internet connection. The scientists behind these projects need human eyes to analyze images of ship’s logs or storms. When it comes to image analysis, the human eye is still the best technology out there.

You and your family can volunteer for these climate citizen science projects for Earth Day this year to act on climate. Your contributions will be used by scientists to understand climate change impacts on weather, plants and even birds’ nesting habits.

Take some time for Earth Day this year to contribute to climate change research and learn how these projects have partnered with the public to advance climate science. Maybe you will be inspired to create your own citizen science project. Oh yeah, and have fun too!

Happy Earth Day!

About the author: Rebecca French is an American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) Science & Technology Policy Fellow in the EPA Office of Research and Development.

Editor's Note: The views expressed here are intended to explain EPA policy. They do not change anyone's rights or obligations. You may share this post. However, please do not change the title or the content, or remove EPA’s identity as the author. If you do make substantive changes, please do not attribute the edited title or content to EPA or the author.

EPA's official web site is www.epa.gov. Some links on this page may redirect users from the EPA website to specific content on a non-EPA, third-party site. In doing so, EPA is directing you only to the specific content referenced at the time of publication, not to any other content that may appear on the same webpage or elsewhere on the third-party site, or be added at a later date.

EPA is providing this link for informational purposes only. EPA cannot attest to the accuracy of non-EPA information provided by any third-party sites or any other linked site. EPA does not endorse any non-government websites, companies, internet applications or any policies or information expressed therein.

Green Roofs Keep Urban Climates Cooler

By Thomas Landreth

Image of a green roof

Green roof

From conversations I’ve had with friends in construction: roofing is tough work. Steep angles make for dangerous conditions, metal roofing is remarkably sharp, and whatever material you work with, it’s guaranteed to be heavy.

During the summer, heat adds an almost unbearable element. This can be especially bad in metropolitan areas, where ambient temperatures combine with heat coming off numerous nearby roofs, pavement, and other elements to create an “urban heat island.”

EPA researchers and partners recently published findings in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences showing how three types of roofing can help: “cool” (coated in a reflective material to eliminate heat buildup), green (vegetated), and hybrid (vegetated with reflective plants).  Hybrid roofs, which are a new concept and not yet available, would be constructed with light-colored plants that have higher reflectivity similar to cool roofs and also the advantages of green roofs, like water retention.

The authors found that any of these roofing options can have benefits by cooling urban heat islands. Thus, this helps to reduce the impacts of global climate change by cooling metropolitan regions.

Lead author Matei Georgescu, a sustainability scientist at Arizona State University, explains, “What we found for cool, green, and hybrid roofs is that they don’t just offset urban expansion—they can offset additional warming.”

Georgescu partnered with EPA scientists Philip E. Morefield, Britta G. Bierwagen, and Christopher P. Weaver, his co-authors on the study.

Through EPA’s Integrated Climate and Land Use Scenarios (ICLUS) project, researchers  had access to a wealth of modeled data focused on impacts from projected urban growth. Using these data, they explored the three methods of roofing designed to absorb less heat to compare and contrast benefits and trade-offs. What they discovered is that while all three  have positive environmental implications, green roofs have less heat-mitigating power than cool roofs (hybrid roofs cool at least as well as cool roofs alone), but cool roofs may mean that additional heating is needed during the winter in some areas.

Though roofing is a single component among major factors such as urban sprawl and carbon pollution, this study shows it can have an impact on reducing heat in large urban areas.

New roofing alternatives may offer an added component to innovative urban designs, new building styles and grid layouts created to offset urban heat islands. “Green cities” may not be a reality yet, but facets to such future cities are currently being considered and implemented. Interest in cooling down urban heat islands is growing and recently caught the attention of over 40 news outlets, including Popular Mechanics, Scientific American, Christian Science Monitor, USA Today, the LA Times, and several international newspapers.    

Although roof installation may not get any easier, green and cool roofs may soon make American’s urban hotspots cooler.

About the author: Until last week, Thomas Landreth was a student services contractor working with EPA’s Office of Research and Development. He recently accepted a new position with the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS).

Editor's Note: The views expressed here are intended to explain EPA policy. They do not change anyone's rights or obligations. You may share this post. However, please do not change the title or the content, or remove EPA’s identity as the author. If you do make substantive changes, please do not attribute the edited title or content to EPA or the author.

EPA's official web site is www.epa.gov. Some links on this page may redirect users from the EPA website to specific content on a non-EPA, third-party site. In doing so, EPA is directing you only to the specific content referenced at the time of publication, not to any other content that may appear on the same webpage or elsewhere on the third-party site, or be added at a later date.

EPA is providing this link for informational purposes only. EPA cannot attest to the accuracy of non-EPA information provided by any third-party sites or any other linked site. EPA does not endorse any non-government websites, companies, internet applications or any policies or information expressed therein.

Climate Change, Nitrogen and Biological Diversity

By Chris Clark, Ph.D.

When I visit our national parks, hike in the woods or backpack in the mountains, one of the things I enjoy most is the natural beauty that surrounds me—especially the plants. I’m a plant person, which is hard for some people to understand. (“They don’t do anything” many of my friends quip.) But, to me, that couldn’t be further from the truth.

Prairie scene

Three of the most prevalent dangers to plant biodiversity are habitat loss, climate change and nitrogen deposition.

Plants form the foundation for all robust ecosystems, supporting healthy biogeochemical cycles (how materials—for example, fallen leaves—move through systems and are chemically altered by both biological and geological forces), clean air and water, and all higher life forms. To me, this gives plants a quiet kind of majesty that is beautiful to witness.

All the different types of plant species in an ecosystem, from the largest trees to the tiniest wildflowers, play a role in the healthy functioning of that system. In the systems that I studied as a graduate student, the grasslands of Minnesota, it blew me away how many different species co-existed in one square meter of space. What once was just “green grass” became a teeming system of life to me.

Three of the most prevalent dangers to plant biodiversity nationwide are habitat loss, climate change and nitrogen deposition. These stressors can lead to changes that may reduce plant biodiversity, which can cascade through systems and affect other processes and services.

The work I do at EPA is important because it can help preserve ecosystems. I look at different stressors, like climate change and nitrogen deposition, and their impacts on ecosystems. I identify the types of changes that occur and the rate at which the changes are happening. If we understand this, we will be better poised to support and inform policy decisions that enhance the sustainability of our natural resources and avoid irrevocable damages.

For a recent project, I looked at how nitrogen deposition impacts plant biodiversity on land nationwide.  My collaborators and I examined “critical loads” (the upper limit of nitrogen an ecosystem can handle) from different regions of the U.S.  We then used computer modeling to estimate when deposition was too high and what the effect might be.

The results showed that many regions had nitrogen deposition amounts that may be too high, with losses of species ranging from one to 30 percent using a “worst-case scenario” approach.  When we used a “best-case scenario” approach, we estimated minimal losses. We had to use both of these scenarios because scientists don’t know exactly where in this range the critical loads are, and for which systems.

Before our study, no one knew what the ramifications could be of such a range. Refining these estimates of critical load thus is a very important area of future research.

Our results were recently published in the journal Ecology. Future work will build on this project to look at different aspects of the climate change-nitrogen relationship.  As a whole, the research will help promote a better understanding of how climate change and nitrogen deposition may impact our natural environment; this, in turn, will help policy makers mitigate these impacts. That’s important to me, and probably to anyone, who enjoys walking in the woods, backpacking or any other outdoor activity.

About the Author: EPA research scientist Chris Clark, Ph.D., works on a diversity of issues related to climate change, including biodiversity, biofuels, and urban resilience.

Editor's Note: The views expressed here are intended to explain EPA policy. They do not change anyone's rights or obligations. You may share this post. However, please do not change the title or the content, or remove EPA’s identity as the author. If you do make substantive changes, please do not attribute the edited title or content to EPA or the author.

EPA's official web site is www.epa.gov. Some links on this page may redirect users from the EPA website to specific content on a non-EPA, third-party site. In doing so, EPA is directing you only to the specific content referenced at the time of publication, not to any other content that may appear on the same webpage or elsewhere on the third-party site, or be added at a later date.

EPA is providing this link for informational purposes only. EPA cannot attest to the accuracy of non-EPA information provided by any third-party sites or any other linked site. EPA does not endorse any non-government websites, companies, internet applications or any policies or information expressed therein.

Temperature and Violent Crime: Implications of Climate Change?

Exploring the link between outdoor temperature and violent crime in American cities.

By Janet L. Gamble, Ph.D.

Skyline of Dallas, Texas

Dallas, Texas

Has a hot and humid day ever made you cranky?  If so, you might ask this question: can hotter days lead to more human conflict?  Scientists at the U.S. EPA and the Emory University School of Medicine are investigating whether hotter temperatures affect violent crimes, such as assault, robbery, rape, and murder.

According to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, many factors influence violent crime, including weather, age, population density, family cohesiveness and divorce rates, effectiveness of law enforcement, and others. Weather is of particular interest due to an observed association between crime and temperature. This relationship raises the question of whether the hotter temperatures that are expected to accompany climate change may contribute to increased rates of violent crime.

In our recent paper published in the Western Journal of Emergency Medicine, “Temperature and Violent Crime in Dallas, Texas: Relationships and Implications of Climate Change,” we examined the relationship between daily temperature and daily incidence of violent crime in Dallas from 1993 to 1999.

We determined that the relationship in Dallas is not simply a linear function. Rather, while we found that daily rates of violent crime increase as temperatures rise in the low to moderate range, they begin to level off at temperatures above 80°F, and actually decrease above 90°F. In other words, we observe that as it gets very hot there are fewer violent crimes (see Figure 1).

Figure 1.  According to analyses of violent crime and temperature in Dallas TX, we found that aggravated assaults and other violent crimes decrease at high ambient temperatures.

Figure 1. According to analyses of violent crime and temperature in Dallas TX, we found that aggravated assaults and other violent crimes decrease at high ambient temperatures.

We were a bit surprised by our results, because prior studies have found linear and increasing crime rates even at very high temperatures. To explain our findings, we hypothesize that when it gets very hot people stay indoors where it is cooler. As a result, street crime and other crimes of opportunity are decreased. If this is correct, the higher temperatures expected to accompany climate change are unlikely to result in an increased rate of violent crime.

Yet, this is just one city and one study.  Would we get the same results in different cities with different ranges of daily temperatures? To answer this question, we are conducting analyses of multiple U.S. cities: Atlanta, Denver, Houston, and Chicago and re-doing the analysis for Dallas using more recent data. Stay tuned for more information as our climate change research continues.

About the Author: Dr. Gamble is a research scientist in the National Center for Environmental Assessment in the Office of Research and Development at the U.S. EPA.

Editor's Note: The views expressed here are intended to explain EPA policy. They do not change anyone's rights or obligations. You may share this post. However, please do not change the title or the content, or remove EPA’s identity as the author. If you do make substantive changes, please do not attribute the edited title or content to EPA or the author.

EPA's official web site is www.epa.gov. Some links on this page may redirect users from the EPA website to specific content on a non-EPA, third-party site. In doing so, EPA is directing you only to the specific content referenced at the time of publication, not to any other content that may appear on the same webpage or elsewhere on the third-party site, or be added at a later date.

EPA is providing this link for informational purposes only. EPA cannot attest to the accuracy of non-EPA information provided by any third-party sites or any other linked site. EPA does not endorse any non-government websites, companies, internet applications or any policies or information expressed therein.

Air Pollutants and the “Warming Hole” of America

By Katie Lubinsky

Warming hole area shown on U.S. map

The “warming hole.” Image courtesy NASA’s Earth Observatory (click on image for more information).

“I want to be a tornado chaser when I grow up,” was probably the last thing my parents expected to hear from their 12-year-old daughter. Yet that was my goal after being born and raised smack-dab in the middle of hurricane alley. Insane weather and a “lively climate” were commonplace on Oak Island, N.C., and I was fixated by such dynamics. I planned on being the next crazy person chasing F4 tornadoes in Kansas. (I chose the safer route of journalism in the end!)

Studying weather and climate made me not only appreciate nature, but also made me realize that such lively forces play such huge roles in influencing the environment around us.

I’ve read many EPA studies about how weather and air pollutants influence climate change, and one sparked my interest: Imagine certain air pollutants (called aerosols) affecting clouds and, in turn, influencing temperatures in the continental U.S. to rapidly rise. But there seems to be a “hole” in this warming process. The continental U.S. is warming except for the middle part (central and south central) where a pocket of cooling air resides—a “hole” inside the warming, thus a “warming hole.”

EPA researchers, along with partners in China and Japan, are trying to better understand this cooling phenomenon and are using different methods to study this so-called “warming hole” including temperature data and global climate models.

Preliminary research shows that daily summertime maximum temperatures over the region have cooled over the past century. The reason? Researchers estimate that it is the air pollutant sulfate, a derivative of sulfur dioxide. Between 1950 and about 1990, sulfate increased over most of the U.S., and especially over the “hole” area. Scientists found when sulfate particles were at their highest levels in the “warming hole” area, average temperatures were a couple of degrees cooler.

The presence of sulfate has led to an increase in cloud cover during the summertime. Clouds reflect and scatter solar radiation, called the “whitehouse” effect. When sulfate particles combine with water vapor to form clouds, however, even more solar radiation is reflected back into space, which is believed to cause the cooling.

Other air pollutants, such as carbon dioxide, absorb and trap solar radiation and cause warming, called the “greenhouse” effect, and this has a greater impact in the areas that are not affected as much by sulfates.

Understanding how our climate changes means that we need to understand more than the greenhouse effect—we also need to understand how air pollution affects the atmosphere more generally. That includes not just warming trends, but all sorts of changes, including cooling trends. EPA researchers are making discoveries about how air pollutants, such as sulfate, influence our changing climate. Discoveries such as these will help to address both air quality and climate change.

I am fascinated by EPA’s atmospheric research, and the researchers’ efforts to understand the interactions between air pollution and climate change. It is a way for me to live my childhood dream without worrying about getting too close to a tornado or flying into a hurricane!

About the AuthorKatie Lubinsky is a student contractor working with EPA’s Office of Research and Development in communications and still daydreams about being a storm chaser from time-to-time.

Editor's Note: The views expressed here are intended to explain EPA policy. They do not change anyone's rights or obligations. You may share this post. However, please do not change the title or the content, or remove EPA’s identity as the author. If you do make substantive changes, please do not attribute the edited title or content to EPA or the author.

EPA's official web site is www.epa.gov. Some links on this page may redirect users from the EPA website to specific content on a non-EPA, third-party site. In doing so, EPA is directing you only to the specific content referenced at the time of publication, not to any other content that may appear on the same webpage or elsewhere on the third-party site, or be added at a later date.

EPA is providing this link for informational purposes only. EPA cannot attest to the accuracy of non-EPA information provided by any third-party sites or any other linked site. EPA does not endorse any non-government websites, companies, internet applications or any policies or information expressed therein.

Climate Change and Wildfires: What’s the Connection?

By Krystnell A. Storr

Forest fire and rising smoke

Forest fire

For me, fire comes from the end of a match or the flick of a lighter—a controllable little ball of fury the size of a fingertip. For others, it is the transformation of the towering pine trees that surround homes and roadways into a horde of fiery giants. Its march, dangerous and unruly, has made one thing very clear: the rise of wildfire activity in the U.S. is an important scientific and environmental issue—one that that is being amplified by the effects of climate change.

To determine an amount of wildfire activity in a given year, scientists measure the area burned.  The National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC) reports that in 2012 alone, 67,774 wildland fires burned through more than nine million acres of U.S. land, three times more than the five-year averages from a few decades ago.

Wildfires are unpredictable and containing them can be challenging and dangerous. According to the NIFC, last year the total direct costs of fire suppression exceeded 1.9 billion dollars nationwide. But that’s not all: wildfires are a major source of airborne pollutants such as fine particulate matter that can lead to serious health issues.

In a study funded by EPA, scientists are modeling projections of wildfire activity fifty years from now. The study takes into account the possible effects of global warming—changing vegetation and less precipitation—in areas already prone to wildfire activity, to determine how future fires may affect air quality.

Using past data, the team built models that link wildfire activity to meteorological conditions. The scientists estimate that by the year 2050, wildfire activity is expected to double in the Southwest, Pacific Northwest, Rocky Mountains Forest, and the Eastern Rockies/Great Plains regions.

The team showed that we may experience shorter springs and warmer summers that in turn would mean prolonged periods of wildfire activity. According to the study, the combination of a longer fire season and an increase in the acreage burned could have impacts far beyond the immediate fire zone, negatively affecting visibility in national parks and wilderness areas and worsening the air quality.

Results of the study have been published online in the scientific journal Atmospheric Environment.

Although a number of wildfire smoke forecasting methods are available, there is no systematic program aimed to lessen the public health burden in nearby communities. In another study, EPA scientists are evaluating the possibility of using smoke forecasts to help societies cope with and recover from wildfires. Understanding how climate change impacts the frequency and severity of wildfires, and in turn our environment and health, is one of the Agency’s priorities and an issue we should all be concerned about.

About the Author: Krystnell A. Storr is a student services contractor working on the Science Communications Team in EPA’s Office of Research and Development.

Editor's Note: The views expressed here are intended to explain EPA policy. They do not change anyone's rights or obligations. You may share this post. However, please do not change the title or the content, or remove EPA’s identity as the author. If you do make substantive changes, please do not attribute the edited title or content to EPA or the author.

EPA's official web site is www.epa.gov. Some links on this page may redirect users from the EPA website to specific content on a non-EPA, third-party site. In doing so, EPA is directing you only to the specific content referenced at the time of publication, not to any other content that may appear on the same webpage or elsewhere on the third-party site, or be added at a later date.

EPA is providing this link for informational purposes only. EPA cannot attest to the accuracy of non-EPA information provided by any third-party sites or any other linked site. EPA does not endorse any non-government websites, companies, internet applications or any policies or information expressed therein.