Human excreta may help secure future food security

Human excreta may help secure future food security | Reuters.

LONDON | Mon Nov 29, 2010 5:23pm EST

LONDON (Reuters) – Human excreta could have a key role in securing future food security, helping prevent a sharp drop in yields of crops such as wheat due to a shortage of phosphorus inputs, a UK organic body said on Monday.

“It is estimated that only 10 percent of the three million metric tons of phosphorus excreted by the global human population each year are returned to agricultural soils,” Britain’s largest organic certification body, the Soil Association, said.

An adequate supply of phosphorous is essential for seed formation, root development and maturing of crops.

The supply of phosphorus from mined phosphate rock could peak as soon as 2033 after which it will become increasingly scarce and expensive, the report said.

“We are completely unprepared to deal with the shortage of phosphorus inputs, the drop in production and the hike in food prices that will follow,” the Soil Association said.

Historically in Europe, phosphorus was returned to agricultural land through the application of animal manure and human excreta but from the mid nineteenth century it was replaced by phosphate mined in distant places.

HEAVY METALS

The report called for a change in European Union regulations to permit the use of treated sewage sludge, known as biosolids, on organic certified land, subject to appropriate restrictions on issues such as concentrations of heavy metals.

EU regulations prohibit the use of biosolids on organic land due to concerns about the toxic effects of heavy metals cause by combining human excreta with other waste products such as industrial effluent.

“Heavy metal levels have declined in recent years and are now low enough for the organic movement to re-consider allowing treated sewage sludge to be used where it meets strict standards,” the report said.

The report also called for a reduction of the amount of meat in human diets to reduce demand for mined phosphorus.

“This is because the efficiency with which phosphorus inputs are converted into dietary phosphorus is much higher in vegetable-based products than livestock products,” it said.

(Reporting by Nigel Hunt)

ForeclosureGate Could Force Bank Nationalization

t r u t h o u t | ForeclosureGate Could Force Bank Nationalization.

by: Ellen Brown, t r u t h o u t | News Analysis

photo
(Photo: Joey Parsons / Flickr)

For two years, politicians have danced around the nationalization issue, but ForeclosureGate may be the last straw. The megabanks are too big to fail, but they aren’t too big to reorganize as federal institutions serving the public interest.

In January 2009, only a week into Obama’s presidency, David Sanger reported in The New York Times that nationalizing the banks was being discussed. Privately, the Obama economic team was conceding that more taxpayer money was going to be needed to shore up the banks. When asked whether nationalization was a good idea, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi replied:

“Well, whatever you want to call it…. If we are strengthening them, then the American people should get some of the upside of that strengthening. Some people call that nationalization.

“I’m not talking about total ownership,” she quickly cautioned – stopping herself by posing a question: “Would we have ever thought we would see the day when we’d be using that terminology? ‘Nationalization of the banks?'”

Noted Matthew Rothschild in a March 2009 editorial:

[T]hat’s the problem today. The word “nationalization” shuts off the debate. Never mind that Britain, facing the same crisis we are, just nationalized the Bank of Scotland. Never mind that Ronald Reagan himself considered such an option during a global banking crisis in the early 1980s.

Although nationalization sounds like socialism, it is actually what is supposed to happen under our capitalist system when a major bank goes bankrupt. The bank is put into receivership under the FDIC, which takes it over.

What fits the socialist label more, in fact, is the TARP bank bailout, sometimes called “welfare for the rich.” The banks’ losses and risks have been socialized, but the profits have not. The bankers have been feasting on our dime without sharing the spread.

And that was before ForeclosureGate – the uncovering of massive fraud in the foreclosure process. Investors are now suing to put defective loans back on bank balance sheets. If they win, the banks will be hopelessly under water.

“The unraveling of the ‘foreclosure-gate‘ could mean banking crisis 2.0,” warned economist Dian Chu on October 21, 2010.

Banking Crisis 2.0 Means TARP II

The significance of ForeclosureGate is being downplayed in the media, but independent analysts warn that it could be the tsunami that takes the big players down.

John Lekas, senior portfolio manager of the Leader Short Term Bond Fund, said on “The Street” on November 2, 2010, that the banks will prevail in the lawsuits brought by investors. The paperwork issues, he said, are just “technical mumbo jumbo”; there is no way to unwind years of complex paperwork and securitizations.

But Yves Smith, writing in The New York Times on October 30, says it’s not that easy:

“The banks and other players in the securitization industry now seem to be looking to Congress to snap its fingers to make the whole problem go away, preferably with a law that relieves them of liability for their bad behavior. But any such legislative fiat would bulldoze regions of state laws on real estate and trusts, not to mention the Uniform Commercial Code. A challenge on constitutional grounds would be inevitable.

“Asking for Congress’s help would also require the banks to tacitly admit that they routinely broke their own contracts and made misrepresentations to investors in their Securities and Exchange Commission filings. Would Congress dare shield them from well-deserved litigation when the banks themselves use every minor customer deviation from incomprehensible contracts as an excuse to charge a fee?”

Chris Whalen of Institutional Risk Analytics told Fox Business News on October 1 that the government needs to restructure the largest banks. “Restructuring” in this context means bankruptcy receivership. “You can’t prevent it,” said Whalen. “We’ve wasted two years, and haven’t restructured the top banks, but for Citi. Bank of America will need to be restructured; this isn’t about the documentation problem, this is because [of the high] cost of servicing the property.”

Profs. William Black and Randall Wray are calling for receivership for another reason – the industry has engaged in flagrant, widespread fraud. “There was fraud at every step in the home finance food chain,” they wrote in The Huffington Post on October 25:

“[T]he appraisers were paid to overvalue real estate; mortgage brokers were paid to induce borrowers to accept loan terms they could not possibly afford; loan applications overstated the borrowers’ incomes; speculators lied when they claimed that six different homes were their principal dwelling; mortgage securitizers made false reps and warranties about the quality of the packaged loans; credit ratings agencies were overpaid to overrate the securities sold on to investors; and investment banks stuffed collateralized debt obligations with toxic securities that were handpicked by hedge fund managers to ensure they would self destruct.”

Players all down the line were able to game the system, suggesting there is something radically wrong not just with the players, but with the system itself. Would it be sufficient just to throw the culprits in jail? And which culprits? One reason there have been so few arrests to date is that “everyone was doing it.” Virtually the whole securitized mortgage industry might have to be put behind bars.

The Need for Permanent Reform

The Kanjorski amendment to the Banking Reform Bill passed in July allows federal regulators to preemptively break up large financial institutions that pose a threat to US financial or economic stability. In the financial crises of the 1930s and 1980s, the banks were purged of their toxic miscreations and delivered back to private owners, who proceeded to engage in the same sorts of chicanery all over again. It could be time to take the next logical step and nationalize not just the losses, but the banks themselves, and not just temporarily, but permanently.

The logic of that sort of reform was addressed by Willem Buiter, chief economist of Citigroup and formerly a member of the Bank of England’s Monetary Policy Committee, in The Financial Times following the bailout of AIG in September 2008. He wrote:

If financial behemoths like AIG are too large and/or too interconnected to fail but not too smart to get themselves into situations where they need to be bailed out, then what is the case for letting private firms engage in such kinds of activities in the first place?

Is the reality of the modern, transactions-oriented model of financial capitalism indeed that large private firms make enormous private profits when the going is good and get bailed out and taken into temporary public ownership when the going gets bad, with the tax payer taking the risk and the losses?

If so, then why not keep these activities in permanent public ownership? There is a long-standing argument that there is no real case for private ownership of deposit-taking banking institutions, because these cannot exist safely without a deposit guarantee and/or lender of last resort facilities, that are ultimately underwritten by the taxpayer.

Even where private deposit insurance exists, this is only sufficient to handle bank runs on a subset of the banks in the system. Private banks collectively cannot self-insure against a generalised run on the banks. Once the state underwrites the deposits or makes alternative funding available as lender of last resort, deposit-based banking is a license to print money. [Emphasis added.]

All money today except coins originates as a debt to a bank, and debts are just legal agreements to pay in the future. Legal agreements are properly overseen by the judiciary, a branch of government. Perhaps it is time to make banking a fourth branch of government.

That probably won’t happen any time soon, but in the meantime we can try a few experiments in public banking, beginning with the Bank of America, predicted to be the first of the behemoths to be put into receivership.

Leo Panitch, Canada Research Chair in comparative political economy at York University, wrote in The Globe and Mail in December 2009 that “there has long been a strong case for turning the banks into a public utility, given that they can’t exist in complex modern society without states guaranteeing their deposits and central banks constantly acting as lenders of last resort.”

Nationalization Is Looking Better

David Sanger wrote in The New York Times in January 2009:

Mr. Obama’s advisers say they are acutely aware that if the government is perceived as running the banks, the administration would come under enormous political pressure to halt foreclosures or lend money to ailing projects in cities or states with powerful constituencies, which could imperil the effort to steer the banks away from the cliff. “The nightmare scenarios are endless,” one of the administration’s senior officials said.

Today, that scenario is looking less like a nightmare and more like relief. Calls have been made for a national moratorium on foreclosures. If the banks were nationalized, the government could move to restructure the mortgages, perhaps at subsidized rates.

Lending money to ailing projects in cities and states is also sounding rather promising. Despite massive bailouts by the taxpayers and the Fed, the banks are still not lending to local governments, local businesses or consumers. Matthew Rothschild, writing in March 2009, quoted Robert Pollin, professor of economics at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst:

“Relative to a year ago, lending in the US economy is down an astonishing 90 percent. The government needs to take over the banks now, and force them to start lending.”

When the private sector fails, the public sector needs to step in. Under public ownership, wrote Nobel Prize winner Joseph Stiglitz in January 2009, “the incentives of the banks can be aligned better with those of the country. And it is in the national interest that prudent lending be restarted.”

For a model, Congress can look to the nation’s only state-owned bank, the Bank of North Dakota (BND). The 91-year-old BND has served its community well. As of March 2010, North Dakota was the only state boasting a budget surplus; it had the lowest default rate in the country; it had the lowest unemployment rate in the country; and it had received a 2009 dividend from the BND of $58.1 million, quite a large sum for a sparsely populated state.

For our newly-elected Congress, the only alternative may be to start budgeting for TARP II.

A Devilish Grass Invades the West

A Devilish Grass Invades the West – ScienceNOW.

Armed with pointed tips so sharp that neither cows nor deer will eat it, medusahead (Taeniatherum caput-medusae) is an invasive grass species that seems to have stepped right out of the Little Shop of Horrors. With no enemies, it is spreading rapidly throughout the western United States, outcompeting native grasses and even other grass invaders. Unless steps are found to control its spread, medusahead is likely to turn millions of hectares of grazing land into worthless fields, say researchers in a study that determined why this grass is so successful.

“It is a devilish species because it is absolutely not of any worth,” says Seema Mangla, a plant ecologist at Oregon State University, Corvallis, who led the study. “Every animal avoids it.”

That’s because the medusahead’s long, twisting, snakelike seed stems (which give the grass its name) are stiff and pointed like needles. Any animal that leans in for a snack gets jabbed in the eyes and mouth. The grass is loaded with inedible silica, too, providing few nutrients to would-be grazers. As a result, the grass steadily accumulates, forming mounds of thatch, Mangla says. “It’s part of a huge change in vegetation structure,” as native grasses are overwhelmed by invaders. Other studies have shown that medusahead is spreading at a rate of 12% per year in 17 western states. Although it invaded the United States from the Mediterranean in 1880 and is now found only on more than 1 million hectares, Mangla and others worry that it is picking up steam and may be outcompeting not only native grasses, but even cheatgrass (Bromus tectorum), a more nutritious invader.

Measures to control medusahead’s spread—mowing or spraying with herbicides—aren’t effective, because they only treat the top of the plants, not the thatch beneath, which protects their seeds, Mangla says. “We need to understand its growth dynamics, what makes it such a successful invader, then we can figure out better ways to disrupt it.”

Invasive plants are thought to have especially high relative growth rates, enabling them to rapidly capture water and nutrients. To determine if the medusahead’s growth rate figures in its success, in 2008 and 2009 Mangla and her team randomly scattered the plant’s seeds on five 1-m2 test plots at the Eastern Oregon Agricultural Research Center in Burns. At regular intervals throughout the growing season, she and her team weighed harvested seedlings. She then compared the medusahead’s weight to that of two other grasses growing separately in similar plots: the native perennial bluebunch wheatgrass (Pseudoroegneria spicata), which the medusahead is rapidly replacing, and cheatgrass.

When she averaged the grasses’ weights across the two seasons, medusahead came up the winner. Only during 2008, which had below-average rainfall, did the native grass do slightly better. But after the more normal rainfall of 2009, the medusahead raced ahead, growing longer shoots for a longer period of time, the team reported in the 28 October Journal of Arid Environments.

sn-medusahead.jpg

Lush but prickly. Spiky and inedible medusahead is invading the western United States. Researchers plant a test plot with medusahead seeds (inset).

“It’s a good study, and shows why medusahead can be so competitive,” says Joseph Ditomaso, an invasive plant ecologist at the University of California, Davis. “Since animals won’t eat it, medusahead essentially creates its own thatch layer, which is a great tactic for preventing seeds from sprouting, as every gardener knows.” The only seeds that can make it past the medusahead’s thatch barrier are its own sharp, pointy, inedible ones. “It gives itself every advantage,” says Ditomaso, who says the best control right now is simply burning the thatch. Meanwhile, Mangla and her team expect that the medusahead will continue to spread, since climate conditions favoring native grasses are sporadic and rare.

The International Space Weather Initiative

The International Space Weather Initiative – NASA Science.

A key problem organizers hope to solve is a gap–many gaps, actually—in storm coverage around our planet. When a big storm is underway, waves of ionization ripple through Earth’s upper atmosphere, electric currents flow through the topsoil, and the whole planet’s magnetic field begins to shake.

“These are global phenomena,” says Davila, “so we need to be able to monitor them all around the world.”

Industrialized countries tend to have an abundance of monitoring stations.  They can keep track of local magnetism, ground currents, and ionization, and provide the data to researchers.  Developing countries are where the gaps are, particularly at low latitudes around Earth’s magnetic equator.

Although space weather is usually associated with Earth’s polar regions–think, “Northern Lights”–the equator can be just as interesting. For example, there is a phenomenon in Earth’s upper atmosphere called the “equatorial anomaly.”  It is, essentially, a fountain of ionization that circles the globe once a day, always keeping its spout toward the sun. During solar storms, the equatorial anomaly can intensify and shape-shift, bending GPS signals in unexpected ways and making normal radio communications impossible.

“International cooperation is essential for keeping track of the equatorial anomaly,” he adds.  “No single country can do it alone.”

It’s no coincidence that the inaugural meeting of the ISWI is being held in Egypt, an equatorial country.  Of 30 nations sending representatives to the ISWI, more than two-thirds are clustered around the magnetic equator.  This could lead to a revolution in studies of low-latitude space weather.

ISWI (project map, 550px)

A map of ISWI-brokered space weather monitoring stations. Prospective participants should visit the ISWI home page to learn more about available projects and how to become involved.

There is much to do beyond the equator, too. During the meeting, researchers and students will learn how they can set up monitoring stations for cosmic rays, ground currents, magnetic storms, and auroras.  There’s a phenomenon for every latitude and level of expertise.

“We are offering a whole buffet of research opportunities,” says Davila.

Researchers who miss the first meeting will get many more chances.  The International Space Weather Initiative is an ongoing program with get-togethers planned on an annual basis at different spots around the world.  The next meeting will be held in Nigeria in November 2011.

No country is too remote, too small, or too poor to participate.  Indeed, notes Davila, “the smallest most out of the way places are often where data are needed most.  Everyone is invited.”

Interested? Details and contact information may be found at the ISWI home page: http://iswi-secretariat.org/

Scientists Decide on Top 5 Issues for Sustainability: Scientific American Podcast

Scientists Decide on Top 5 Issues for Sustainability: Scientific American Podcast.

It’s the environmental question of our time: what sustainable practices can keep our planet optimally habitable? Now a group of international scientists has published a report outlining five key areas of concentration necessary to protect the environment, as well as human societies and economies. The report was published by the International Council for Science (ICSU) and the International Social Science Council.

And the winners are…

Forecasting —we need to have pertinent & accurate forecasts of future environmental conditions and their consequences for people.

The second is observing. We need to develop better observation systems to record global and regional environmental change.

Three is something they call confining—anticipating and recognizing disruptive environmental change to quickly manage it.

Four: Responding—Determine those institutional, economic and behavioral responses that will make global sustainability possible.

Lastly, five is a big one: encourage innovation in technology and policy to achieve sustainability.

Clearly, these bullet points represent an overarching, general strategy. The next step, already underway, is to create an organized and focused international structure that can make these five recommendations a reality—and soon: the ICSU hopes for significant progress in all five areas within the next decade.

—Christie Nicholson

Can Regions Rather than Nations Lead on Climate Change?

Can Regions Rather than Nations Lead on Climate Change?: Scientific American.

what’s with the nobody quoted at bottom?

DAVIS, Calif. — California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) and three international regional leaders signed a memorandum of understanding today in a bid to assert regional authority on climate change policy.

The “R20 Charter” establishes “regions of climate action” that will share best practices and technologies and form public-private partnerships to execute clean energy pilot projects. Along with Schwarzenegger, signatories included Île-de-France President Jean Paul Huchon of France; Nigerian Delta State Gov. Emmanuel Uduaghan; and Association of Regions of Europe President Michele Sabban.

Officials said they had already received interest from more than 20 regions in Brazil, China, Canada, Germany, Indonesia, Senegal and Spain. Current actions in the vein of the “R20” concept include a workshop in Nigeria’s Delta State on green business, put on by the International Chamber of Commerce. Another one has the International Energy Agency working with General Electric Co., Veolia Environment and others on a small-scale renewable energy plant in Morocco.

“We can’t afford to wait for national and international movement,” Schwarzenegger said, speaking at the close of his third Governors’ Climate Action Summit. “The role of subnational governments is more important than ever, and California has shown that state and regional governments can institute policies that will grow the green economy, create jobs and clean our environment.”

Schwarzenegger also signed an agreement to work with state governments in Brazil and Mexico on linking California’s cap-and-trade program to the United Nations’ nascent Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation program (REDD), which provides incentives to rainforest owners to preserve their trees. Govs. Binho Marques of Acre, Brazil, and Juan Sabines Guerrero of Chiapas, Mexico, were co-signers.

‘Remove the blinkers’
The REDD agreement builds off another pact Schwarzenegger brokered at his first climate conference, in 2008. That year saw the creation of the Governor’s Climate and Forests Task Force, consisting of 14 states and provinces in the United States, Brazil, Indonesia, Mexico and Nigeria.

Rajendra Pachauri, chairman of the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and director-general of the Energy and Resources Institute, encouraged the agreements, saying that governments should think bigger. “I think worldwide what we really need to do is somehow remove the blinkers that have constrained the initiatives that businesses and governments have taken in recent decades,” he said.

“We have become too preoccupied with short-term gains, mergers and acquisitions. The U.S. has the ability to innovate, looking at market possibilities 25 years down the road; we need to somehow restore that kind of vision,” he added

But some attendees were wary of an overreaching government and skeptical of Schwarzenegger’s motives.

“I think he wants a legacy; he wants to be remembered,” said Marcia Battershell, a health care consultant from Placerville, Calif. She cited the effect of air pollution control laws on independent truckers and small farmers. “I’m not sure whether it’s good for the people and businesses of California. I don’t think that was a priority for him.”

Battershell said she voted for Proposition 23, which would have postponed California’s global warming law, A.B. 32, until unemployment fell to 5.5 percent for four consecutive quarters. “I think timing is everything, and possibly the government and all the regulations should be less involved,” she said. “If you allow businesses to find their way, people will be behind it.”

Reprinted from Climatewire with permission from Environment & Energy Publishing, LLC. www.eenews.net, 202-628-6500

Months of geologic unrest signaled reawakening of Icelandic volcano

Months of geologic unrest signaled reawakening of Icelandic volcano.

ScienceDaily (Nov. 18, 2010) — Months of volcanic restlessness preceded the eruptions this spring of Icelandic volcano Eyjafjallajökull, providing insight into what roused it from centuries of slumber.

An international team of researchers analyzed geophysical changes in the long-dormant volcano leading up to its eruptions in March and April 2010 that suggest that magma flowing beneath the volcano may have triggered its reawakening. Their study is published in the Nov. 18 issue of the journal Nature.

“Several months of unrest preceded the eruptions, with magma moving around downstairs in the plumbing and making noise in the form of earthquakes,” says study co-author Kurt Feigl, a professor of geosciences at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “By monitoring volcanoes, we can understand the processes that drive them to erupt.”

With funding from a RAPID grant from the U.S. National Science Foundation, Feigl and collaborators from Iceland, Sweden, and the Netherlands used a combination of satellite imaging and GPS surveying to watch the volcano’s edifice as it deformed. They found that the volcano swelled for 11 weeks before it began to erupt in March 2010 from one flank.

“If you watch a volcano for decades, you can tell when it’s getting restless,” Feigl says.

In late summer 2009, a subtle shift at a GPS station on Eyjafjallajökull’s flank prompted the study’s lead author, Freysteinn Sigmundsson, and his colleagues to begin monitoring the mountain more closely. Then, in early January 2010, the rate of deformation and the number of earthquakes began to increase. As the deformation and seismic unrest continued, the researchers installed more GPS stations near the mountain. Just a few weeks later, the instruments detected more rapid inflation, indicating that magma was moving upwards through the “plumbing” inside the volcano.

By the time the volcano began to erupt on March 20, the volcano’s flanks had expanded by more than six inches as magma flowed from deep within the Earth into shallow chambers underneath the mountain.

Surprisingly, the rapid deformation stopped as soon as the eruption began. In many cases, volcanoes deflate as magma flows out of shallow chambers during an eruption. Eyjafjallajökull, however, maintained basically the same inflated shape through mid-April, when the first eruption ended.

Artist’s conception illustrating the three-dimensional geometry of the plumbing (left) and timing of events (right column) at Eyjafjallajökull volcano in Iceland. The complicated plumbing inside the volcano consists of inter–connected conduits, sills, and dikes that allow magma to rise from deep within the Earth. The first three panels in the time series show distinct episodes of magmatic intrusions that caused measurable deformation and seismic events in 1994, 1999, and in the first several months of 2010. No eruptive activity occurred during this period of unrest. Each intrusive episode inflated a different section of the plumbing, drawn and modeled as sills at approximately 5 km depth. The fourth panel illustrates the first eruption, between 20 March and 12 April 2010, when basaltic magma (orange) erupted onto the Earth’s surface on the flank of the mountain. The fifth panel shows the second eruption, between 14 April and 22 May, when a different type of magma (trachyandesite, shown in red), erupted explosively at the ice-capped summit (1600 m elevation). The interaction of magma and ice initially increased the explosive activity, generating a plume of particles that rose as high as the 30,000-foot flight level and disrupted air traffic across Europe for weeks. (Credit: Illustration by Zina Deretsky, U.S. National Science Foundation)

After a two-day pause, the volcano began to erupt again on April 22. This time, the lava broke out through a new conduit under the ice on the summit of the mountain, causing an explosive reaction as water flashed to steam and gas escaped from bubbles in the magma. The resulting “ash” plume rose high into the atmosphere, disrupting air traffic over Europe for weeks and stranding millions of travelers.

Why did Eyjafjallajökull erupt when it did? The geologic processes that trigger an actual eruption are not yet well understood, says Feigl. “We’re still trying to figure out what wakes up a volcano.”

To begin to answer this question, the scientists suggest that a magmatic intrusion deep within the volcano may have triggered the eruption, but this hypothesis remains to be tested at other volcanoes.

They are also studying the structures inside the volcano, such as magma chambers and intrusive conduits, by extracting information from the sensors installed around Eyjafjallajökull.

“The explosiveness of the eruption depends on the type of magma, and the type of magma depends on the depth of its source,” Feigl says. “We’re a long way from being able to predict eruptions, but if we can visualize the magma as it moves upward inside the volcano, then we’ll improve our understanding of the processes driving volcanic activity.”

Satellite radar images were obtained from TerraSAR-X, a satellite operated by the German Space Agency (DLR). Funding was provided by the National Science Foundation, Icelandic Research Fund, University of Iceland, and the Icelandic government.

New York State Begins Planning for Sea Level Rise

New York State Begins Planning for Sea Level Rise: Scientific American.

NEW YORK — New York state is beginning to take the threat of sea level rise attributed to climate change seriously as a new government prepares to settle in next year.

Starting Monday, state officials in Albany will gather with members of the public to discuss a recently released 93-page report that recommends major changes to development planning and conservation along coastlines from the tip of Long Island all way up the Hudson River Valley.

Any reforms to come from the process, starting next week, would affect about 62 percent of New York state’s population, the proportion estimated to reside now in areas that could be hard hit as rising land and ocean temperatures raise average sea levels around the globe.

“We’ve had an enormous variety of partners involved in this project,” said Kristen Marcell, special projects coordinator at the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation. “We do have to take leadership from the new government, but I think there’s a lot of support in the state agencies for these recommendations and making sure that we’re heading in the right direction.”

Among other changes, report authors say some rural infrastructure should be relocated away from coastlines, while new and existing buildings in the densely packed New York City metropolitan region should be reconfigured to allow for periodic flooding and sea intrusion. Planners also need to quickly come up with solutions to guard underground infrastructure, especially the flood-prone New York City subway and underground utility cables and pipes.

Those and other recommendations put forth to the governor and state Legislature are the work of the New York State Sea Level Rise Task Force, a body established by the Legislature in 2007 and charged with assessing the overall threat climate change poses to New York coasts and what to do about it. The task force, led mostly by the state’s Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) put forth 14 specific recommended changes, mostly calling for revisions to state statutes and executive orders that would tighten environmental review and also make coastal development more costly in an effort to discourage building in sensitive areas.

Making coastal development less attractive
“Governments can make development in coastal areas less attractive by requiring development projects to internalize the risks of sea level rise and storms in coastal development planning and decision making,” the task force argues.

It suggests making coastal development more burdensome through more stringent building codes, siting requirements, and forcing real estate title holders to fully disclose insurance risks associated with storm surges or damage from seawater intrusion.

The task force also recommends that city, county and state governments seriously consider abandoning whole areas of the coast altogether, to allow vegetation to gradually migrate away from the shoreline and give nature a chance to build more natural barriers to rising seas, hurricanes and severe storms known to hit the Northeast frequently.

Decreasing the vulnerability of coastlines could be achieved by expanding the size of state parks or protected areas. Officials should also consider relocating some coastal infrastructure to higher ground while converting currently inhabited areas into nature zones, the task force says. The report cautions, however, that building relocations should probably be confined to more rural areas, and that doing so in New York City and Long Island suburbs would be too expensive or virtually impossible.

To start off, the task force recommends that the state take a full inventory of all schools, hospitals, police and fire stations, and key transportation links that could become threatened if sea level rise forecasts bear out. Regulators should then get a sense of what it would cost to relocate these structures and how best to do so.

A host of laws need rewriting
New structures that must be built along the coast should be elevated, they say, to allow periodic floodwaters to sweep in without causing damage to a building itself.

The draft report to be discussed over the coming months “is an important first step in developing a statewide framework to address the risks posed by sea level rise and coastal storms,” said Adam Freed, who serves as New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s deputy sustainability director.

City and state records show that the level of New York Harbor has risen by approximately 15 inches in the past 150 years. Gauges in the harbor have recorded the high tide mark rising by about 4 to 6 inches since 1960.

Citing international scientific estimates, the task force says the region can expect a further 2- to 5-inch rise in average sea level by as early as 2020. With the most pessimistic observers predicting the sea rising by a few feet by the end of the century, state officials and environmentalists are worried that some sensitive habitats and islands lining the region could be lost entirely, exposing the city and state to the full brunt of strong storms.

Among its 14 recommendations, the panel suggests specific changes to a host of laws now on the books, including state legislation governing wetlands protections, hazardous waste handling and shoreline erosion prevention.

Emphasis on ‘soft engineering’
For instance, the task force suggests adding specific text to the state’s Tidal Wetlands Act stating: “It is declared to be the public policy of the state to preserve and protect tidal wetlands and to prevent their despoliation and destruction, giving due consideration to the occurrence of sea level rise that will result in wetlands loss and migration, and to the reasonable economic and social development of the state.”

And taking a cue from recent initiatives in New York City, the task force is calling on the state to undertake a complete review of zoning laws and building codes, including even fire and health codes, directing the development of New York’s waterfront for decades out. Such changes would ideally “require consideration of sea level rise impacts in comprehensive plans for coastal communities,” the 17-member task force says.

The group also calls for so-called “soft engineering” solutions to trump hard infrastructure projects like sea walls or tide gates. Worried that such major projects would be too expensive or that they may become overwhelmed by storms and the encroaching sea, they instead call for investments in expanding the size of salt marshes and barrier islands that may offer greater, longer-lasting protection at a much lower cost.

It is unknown how the incoming Legislature and Gov.-elect Andrew Cuomo (D) plan to move forward with the findings and recommendations. The meeting to be held Monday at DEC headquarters in Albany is meant primarily as an opportunity to explain the particulars of the plan in greater detail and give the public a chance to offer their comments and suggestions. Comments will be gathered until Dec. 12 in time for officials to revise the report and submit a final draft to state lawmakers on Jan. 1.

“This also folds into the larger climate action planning process,” said Marcell. “This is kind of going into more detail on what sort of impacts are going to have the largest potential costs to New York state. That process is a much longer process.”

Real change is unlikely to come soon. A similar New York City team assigned to review building codes in order to enhance the city’s energy efficiency and cut greenhouse gas pollution took over a year to complete its work, and implementation of its plan is expected to occur gradually over the next decade.

Reprinted from Climatewire with permission from Environment & Energy Publishing, LLC. www.eenews.net, 202-628-6500