Lakes in New England and the Adirondack Mountains are recovering from the effects of acid rain more rapidly now than they did in the 1980s and 1990s, according to a study led by a former University of Maine researcher.
Acid rain — which contains higher than normal amounts of nitric and sulfuric acid and is harmful to lakes, streams, fish, plants and trees — occurs when sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide in the atmosphere mix with water and oxygen.
In the United States, about two-thirds of sulfur dioxide and one-quarter of nitrogen oxide result from burning fossil fuels, including coal, says the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
Sulfate concentration in rain and snow dropped 40 percent in the 2000s and sulfate concentration in lakes in the Northeast declined at a greater rate from 2002 to 2010 than during the 1980s or 1990s, says Kristin Strock, a former doctoral student at UMaine, now an assistant professor at Dickinson College in Pennsylvania.
Also during the 2000s, nitrate concentration in rain and snow declined by more than 50 percent and its concentration in lakes also declined, Strock found.
The Clean Air Act enacted in the U.S. in 1970 has been modified several times, including amendments implemented in 1994 that regulated emissions, especially from coal-burning power plants. The Clean Air Interstate Rule issued in 2005 by the EPA sought to reduce sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides by 70 percent. Total emissions of sulfur and nitrogen in the U.S decreased by 51 and 43 percent, respectively, between 2000 and 2010, Strock says, which was twice the rate of decline for both in the 1990s.
Strock and the research team analyzed data collected since 1991 at 31 sites in Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and southern New York and 43 sites in the Adirondack Mountains of New York.
The research team included Sarah Nelson, assistant research professor with the Senator George J. Mitchell Center and cooperating assistant research professor in Watershed Biogeochemistry in the UMaine School of Forest Resources; Jasmine Saros, associate director of the Climate Change Institute at UMaine and professor in UMaine’s School of Biology & Ecology; Jeffrey Kahl, then-director of environmental and energy strategies at James Sewall Company; and William McDowell of the Department of Natural Resources and the Environment at the University of New Hampshire.
“Data collection for over two decades in this study is part of the EPA-LTM network, which also includes over 30 years of research and monitoring at 16 remote lakes in Maine, and over 25 years at the Bear Brook Watershed in Maine,” Nelson says.
“These long-term monitoring data allow us to observe patterns like changes related to climate, as well as to evaluate the effectiveness of environmental regulations like the Clean Air Act. The new findings reported here underscore the importance of such long-term monitoring, which can often be difficult to keep funded.”
While results reveal a recent acceleration in recovery, the researchers say continued observation is necessary due to variability of results. In New England, Strock says variability might be due to the effect of human development, including road salt, on lakes.
A number of other factors can affect watersheds and interact with acid rain, say the researchers, including depletion of calcium in forest soils, long-term increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide, long-term changes in air temperature, and changes in the frequency and intensity of extreme wet and dry seasons.
The study, “Decadal Trends Reveal Recent Acceleration in the Rate of Recovery from Acidification in the Northeastern U.S.” was published online in March on the Environmental Science & Technology website.
Contact: Beth Staples, 207.581.3777
It’s Showtime for Paul Mayewski. Check out the preview of the season finale of Years of Living Dangerously that airs at 8 p.m. Monday, June 9. The episode also features President Obama, Thomas Friedman and Michael C. Hall.
University of Maine professor Paul Mayewski is featured in the Showtime series Years of Living Dangerously starring Harrison Ford, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Matt Damon.
It’s a thriller with an ending that hasn’t been written yet.
Executive producer James Cameron, who has also directed the blockbusters Avatar, The Terminator and Aliens, describes Years of Living Dangerously as the biggest survival story of this time.
The documentary, developed by David Gelber and Joel Bach of 60 Minutes, depicts real-life events and comes with an “adult content, viewer discretion advised” disclaimer.
The nine-part series that premiered April 13 shares life-and-death stories about impacts of climate change on people and the planet.
Correspondents, including actors Ford and Damon, as well as journalists Lesley Stahl and Thomas Friedman and scientist M. Sanjayan, travel the Earth to cover the chaos.
They examine death and devastation caused by Superstorm Sandy; drought and lost jobs in Plainview, Texas; worsening wildfires in the U.S.; and civil unrest heightened by water shortage in the Middle East. The correspondents also interview politicians, some of whom refute the science or are reluctant to enact legislation.
And they speak with scientists who go to great lengths, and heights, to do climate research. Mayewski, director of UMaine’s Climate Change Institute (CCI), is one of those scientists. He is scheduled to appear in the series finale at 8 p.m. Monday, June 9.
Climate change, he says, is causing and will continue to cause destruction. And he says how scientists and media inform people about the subject is important.
“There are going to be some scary things that happen but they won’t be everywhere and it won’t be all at the same time,” he says. “You want people to think about it but not to terrify them so they turn it off completely. You want them to understand that with understanding comes opportunity.”
In February 2013, Sanjayan and a film crew joined Mayewski and his team of CCI graduate students for the nearly 20,000-foot ascent of a glacier on Tupungato, an active Andean volcano in Chile, to collect ice cores.
Sanjayan calls Mayewski “the Indiana Jones of climate research” for his penchant to go to the extremes of the Earth under challenging conditions to retrieve ice cores to study past climate in order to better predict future climate.
Sanjayan, a senior scientist with Conservation International, wrote in a recent blog on the Conservation International website that while people may distrust data, they believe people they like.
He thought it would be beneficial to show the scientific process at work and to introduce the scientists’ personalities to viewers. “He’s the sort of guy you’d want to call up on a Wednesday afternoon to leave work early for a beer on an outdoor patio,” Sanjayan writes of Mayewski.
So for the documentary, Mayewski was filmed in the field — gathering ice cores at an oxygen-deprived altitude of 20,000 feet atop a glacier with sulfur spewing from nearby volcanic ponds. “It’s a strange place to work,” Mayewski says, “but it’s where we can find amazing, productive data.”
He was also interviewed at home, where he enjoys his family, dogs and sailing.
Mayewski likes the series’ story-telling approach. Scientists, he says, need to explain material in a way that is relatable, relevant and empowering.
Take for instance Joseph Romm’s baseball analogy. Romm, a Fellow at American Progress and founding editor of Climate Progress, earned his doctorate in physics from MIT.
On the Years of Living Dangerously website, Romm writes, “Like a baseball player on steroids, our climate system is breaking records at an unnatural pace. And like a baseball player on steroids, it’s the wrong question to ask whether a given home run is ‘caused’ by steroids. Home runs become longer and more common. Similarly climate change makes a variety of extreme weather events more intense and more likely.”
Mayewski says it’s also imperative to provide tools that enable people to take action to mitigate climate change as well as adapt to it.
“When we have a crystal ball, even if the future is bad, we can create a better situation,” he says. “We have no choice but to adapt.”
Maine is in a good position to take action, he says, especially with regard to developing offshore wind technology. “Who wouldn’t want a cleaner world, to spend less money on energy and have better jobs? We will run out of oil at some point but the wind won’t stop,” he says.
Wind is up Mayewski’s research alley. He has recently been studying ice cores from the melting glacier that serves as the drinking water supply for 4 million residents of Santiago. Temperature in the region is rising, greenhouse gases are increasing and winds from the west that have traditionally brought moisture to the glacier have shifted, he says.
And the glacier is losing ice.
“Our biggest contribution is understanding how quickly wind can change,” Mayewski says. “Wind transports heat, moisture, pollutants and other dusts.”
By understanding trends, Mayewski says it’s possible to better predict where climate events will occur so plans can be made. Those plans, he says, could include determining where it’s best for crops to be planted and where seawalls and sewer systems should be built.
Harold Wanless, chair of the University of Miami geological sciences department, says sea levels have been forecast to be as much as 3 to 6 feet higher by the end of this century. On the Years of Living Dangerously website he says, “I cannot envision southeastern Florida having many people at the end of this century.”
In Maine, Mayewski says climate change is evidenced by the powerful 2013–2014 winter, the lengthening of summers, increased lobster catches and northward spread of ticks.
While climate change has become a political topic, Mayewski says it’s a scientific and security issue. He says it’s notable that previous civilizations have collapsed in the face of abrupt, extreme changes. And climate change, he says, is far from linear in the way it evolves.
For decades, Mayewski has been interested in exploring and making discoveries in remote regions of the planet. “When you go all over the world, you get a global view,” he says. “By nature, I’m an optimist. That is tempered with this problem. I do believe there will be a groundswell of people, or governments, or some combination so that there will be a better future in store.”
To watch clips from previous episodes of Years of Living Dangerously, as well as the entire first episode, visit yearsoflivingdangerously.com.
Contact: Beth Staples, 207.581.3777
Science magazine and Past Horizons: Adventures in Archaeology reported on research by University of Maine researchers Daniel Belknap, a professor of Earth sciences, and Daniel Sandweiss, a professor of anthropology and Quaternary and climate studies. The researchers studied how demographic and economic effects of the Spanish conquest of the Inca Empire altered landscape development on the Chira beach-ridge plain in northern coastal Peru. They found human activity resulting from the conquest had a profound effect on coastal change in the region. Archaeologist Torben Rick of the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C., told Science the study is an important reminder “of the very blurry divide between the natural world and the cultural world.” Huffington Post also carried the Science article.
WABI (Channel 5) and the Bangor Daily News reported on a conference co-hosted by the University of Maine School of Policy and International Affairs (SPIA) and the Maine Army National Guard that brought together military, political, economic and academic leaders to discuss challenges and opportunities presented by the diminishment of sea ice in the Arctic. George Markowsky, a professor of computer science and cooperating professor for SPIA, spoke with WABI about the possibility of opening new trade routes between Maine, Greenland and Europe. “One of the things that might happen is the shipping routes through the North Pole would start opening up and Maine would be kind of the last stop on the East Coast in the United States for any ships that want to use this polar route,” Markowsky said.
The Associated Press previewed a conference co-hosted by the University of Maine School of Policy and International Affairs and the Maine Army National Guard that aims to explore challenges and emerging opportunities in the Arctic. “Leadership in the High North: A Political, Military, Economic and Environmental Symposium of the Arctic Opening,” will be held May 20–21 at the Maine Army National Guard Regional Training Institute in Bangor. Paul Mayewski, a UMaine professor and director of the Climate Change Institute, is one of several scheduled speakers that will address global, national and Maine issues related to the environment, trade, politics and policy. The Portland Press Herald, WABI (Channel 5) and WLBZ (Channel 2) carried the AP report.
Human activity resulting from the Spanish conquest had a profound effect on coastal change in northwestern Peru, according to researchers at the University of Maine’s Climate Change Institute.
Daniel Belknap, a professor of Earth sciences, and Daniel Sandweiss, a professor of anthropology and Quaternary and climate studies, researched how demographic and economic effects of the Spanish conquest of the Inca Empire altered landscape development on the Chira beach-ridge plain in northern coastal Peru.
The findings were documented in an article, “Effect of the Spanish Conquest on coastal change in Northwestern Peru,” which was published the week of May 19 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).
The researchers determined that human activity, specifically the disposal of mollusk shells, was essential to preserving the sandy beach ridges along the Chira River in Peru.
“This type of interdisciplinary research is a hallmark of the Climate Change Institute at UMaine and contributes to better understanding of the impacts of humans on coastal systems,” Belknap says.
The study illustrates the value of comparing historic, archaeological, climatic and geological data and demonstrates that human activity alters landscapes, as well as cultures. The research also provides evidence of a previously unrecognized consequence of the Spanish conquest, according to the article.
“We show that humans had a clear effect on a coastal system that now appears to be an uninhabited, natural landscape, yet is the product of millennia of anthropogenic modification of the environment,” the report states.
The Chira River carries primarily sand at its inlet. The ridges, or narrow dunes that run for miles parallel to the shoreline, are built entirely of sand. Most ridges with sharp crests are covered by shells that are associated with fire-cracked rocks, fire pits and other artifacts that suggest the shells were deposited by humans. The shells act as armor, protecting the ridges from erosion caused by onshore winds, according to the researchers.
For more than 30 years, archaeologists and geologists have been studying beach ridges in northern Peru to better understand maritime economies, the influence of El Nino cycles and the effects of sea-level change and sediment supply on coastal systems, the article states.
Previous research has shown disposed shells are instrumental in holding sand ridges in place in the face of persistent winds. Belknap and Sandweiss, who conducted a field examination of the ridges in 1997, hypothesized that only the shell-armored ridges are stabilized and would maintain their shape and prevent winds from blowing sand inland.
The studied region was the first area in Peru to experience the direct effect of European presence, according to the researchers. In 1532, Francisco Pizarro and his conquistadors moved to the Chira Valley, where they founded the first Spanish settlement in what is now Peru.
The Spanish conquest caused extreme depopulation of the Chira coast within a century, which drastically changed the economy and devastated traditional coastal shellfish harvesting. North of the Chira River, the changes affected the evolution of beach ridges, the article states.
The researchers found the last well-preserved ridge corresponds in age with the Spanish conquest of the region, and they correlate the devastation of the coastal population after European contact with a distinctly different geomorphology.
Population growth into the 19th and 20th centuries no longer resulted in shell waste on the coastal ridges because of mollusk exportation to interior markets. For the past 500 years, demographic decline and economic change have eliminated shell heaps on the coast, causing the newly formed dune ridges to dry up and eventually blow inland.
The researchers suggest there may have been more ridges than the nine documented dunes in the Chira beach-ridge plain, but for cultural and climatic reasons, there was no shell waste to stabilize them and some of the ridges may be composites of several events.
Contact: Elyse Kahl, 207.581.3747
The Bangor Daily News advanced a May 20–21 conference co-hosted by the University of Maine School of Policy and International Affairs and the Maine Army National Guard to explore challenges and emerging opportunities in the Arctic. The free conference, titled “Leadership in the High North: A Political, Military, Economic and Environmental Symposium of the Arctic Opening,” will be held at the Maine Army National Guard Regional Training Institute in Bangor. Speakers, including UMaine professor and Climate Change Institute director Paul Mayewski, will address global, national and state issues and implications related to diminished sea ice in the Arctic, including the changing environment, trade, geopolitics and policy.
Research being conducted through the University of Maine’s Sustainability Solutions Initiative (SSI) was highlighted in the the National Climate Assessment report recently released by President Barack Obama, which found global warming is directly affecting life in Maine and other New England states.
The research by the SSI team is focused on the effects of increasingly intense and frequent storms striking Maine and New England, causing millions of dollars in damage and threatening fragile ecosystems. Shaleen Jain, an assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering, and Esperanza Stancioff, an extension associate professor, are leading the team that is helping Maine communities better understand and prepare for the potential local impacts of climate change.
The report explains how the research team “mapped decisions by town managers in Maine to sources of climate information, engineering design, mandated requirements, and calendars that identified the complex, multi-jurisdictional challenges of widespread adaptation for even such seemingly simple actions as using larger culverts to carry water from major storms.”
Research by the UMaine team is highlighted in the Northeast section of the report under “Key Message: Planning and Adaptation.”
The National Climate Assessment summarizes the impacts of climate change on the United States. More than 300 experts guided by a 60-member Federal Advisory Committee produced the report, which was reviewed by the public and experts, including federal agencies and a panel of the National Academy of Sciences, according to the report.
The UMaine research project is funded by the Sustainability Solutions Initiative, a program of the Senator George J. Mitchell Center, which is supported by National Science Foundation award EPS-0904155 to Maine EPSCoR at the University of Maine and a grant from NOAA’s National Sea Grant Coastal Communities Climate Adaptation Initiative (CCCAI).
More about the SSI project is online.
The groundbreaking research of Kurt Rademaker, a University of Maine visiting assistant professor in anthropology and alumnus (Ph.D. 2012), is highlighted in the News & Analysis section of the May 9 journal Science. The story, “New Sites Bring the Earliest Americans Out of the Shadows,” focuses on the archaeologist’s new evidence that Paleoindians “spread throughout North and South America earlier than long believed — and even camped high in the Andes Mountains.” Rademaker, who recently received the Tubingen Ice Age Research Prize, presented his findings on the earliest high-altitude human occupation in the New World at the Society for American Archaeology. “What we have is these ancient people emerging everywhere,” Rademaker said in Science.
Rademaker’s research also was the focus of a poem written by Katherine Allen, a researcher in geochemistry and paleoclimate at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory. The poem and Science article were featured in a post on Allen’s blog, which is hosted on the website “State of the Planet: Blogs from the Earth Institute.”
Robert Kates, Presidential Professor of Sustainability Science at the University of Maine’s Climate Change Institute, was interviewed for a Portland Press Herald article about the newly released National Climate Assessment report, which found global warming is already affecting life in Maine and other New England states. Kates, who is a coauthor of the report’s northeastern states section, told the Press Herald many people see beach erosion as the most pressing threat for Maine’s coastal communities, while officials are often more concerned about aging or inadequate culverts to deal with the increasing number of severe storms. “The culvert problem is real,” said Kates, who has worked with UMaine’s Sustainability Solutions Initiative to help communities develop long-term culvert plans.