Christian Jakob, Monash University and Michael Reeder, Monash UniversityEight days ago, it rained over the western Pacific Ocean near Japan. There was nothing especially remarkable about this rain event, yet it made big waves twice.
First, it disturbed the atmosphere in just the right way to set off an undulation in the jet stream – a river of very strong winds in the upper atmosphere – that atmospheric scientists call a Rossby wave (or a planetary wave). Then the wave was guided eastwards by the jet stream towards North America.
Along the way the wave amplified, until it broke just like an ocean wave does when it approaches the shore. When the wave broke it created a region of high pressure that has remained stationary over the North American northwest for the past week.
This is where our innocuous rain event made waves again: the locked region of high pressure air set off one of the most extraordinary heatwaves we have ever seen, smashing temperature records in the Pacific Northwest of the United States and in Western Canada as far north as the Arctic. Lytton in British Columbia hit 49.6℃ this week before suffering a devastating wildfire.
What makes a heatwave?
While this heatwave has been extraordinary in many ways, its birth and evolution followed a well-known sequence of events that generate heatwaves.
Heatwaves occur when there is high air pressure at ground level. The high pressure is a result of air sinking through the atmosphere. As the air descends, the pressure increases, compressing the air and heating it up, just like in a bike pump.
Sinking air has a big warming effect: the temperature increases by 1 degree for every 100 metres the air is pushed downwards.
High-pressure systems are an intrinsic part of an atmospheric Rossby wave, and they travel along with the wave. Heatwaves occur when the high-pressure systems stop moving and affect a particular region for a considerable time.
When this happens, the warming of the air by sinking alone can be further intensified by the ground heating the air – which is especially powerful if the ground was already dry. In the northwestern US and western Canada, heatwaves are compounded by the warming produced by air sinking after it crosses the Rocky Mountains.
How Rossby waves drive weather
This leaves two questions: what makes a high-pressure system, and why does it stop moving?
As we mentioned above, a high-pressure system is usually part of a specific type of wave in the atmosphere – a Rossby wave. These waves are very common, and they form when air is displaced north or south by mountains, other weather systems or large areas of rain.
Rossby waves are the main drivers of weather outside the tropics, including the changeable weather in the southern half of Australia. Occasionally, the waves grow so large that they overturn on themselves and break. The breaking of the waves is intimately involved in making them stationary.
Importantly, just as for the recent event, the seeds for the Rossby waves that trigger heatwaves are located several thousands of kilometres to the west of their location. So for northwestern America, that’s the western Pacific. Australian heatwaves are typically triggered by events in the Atlantic to the west of Africa.
Another important feature of heatwaves is that they are often accompanied by high rainfall closer to the Equator. When southeast Australia experiences heatwaves, northern Australia often experiences rain. These rain events are not just side effects, but they actively enhance and prolong heatwaves.
What will climate change mean for heatwaves?
Understanding the mechanics of what causes heatwaves is very important if we want to know how they might change as the planet gets hotter.
We know increased carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is increasing Earth’s average surface temperature. However, while this average warming is the background for heatwaves, the extremely high temperatures are produced by the movements of the atmosphere we talked about earlier.
So to know how heatwaves will change as our planet warms, we need to know how the changing climate affects the weather events that produce them. This is a much more difficult question than knowing the change in global average temperature.
How will events that seed Rossby waves change? How will the jet streams change? Will more waves get big enough to break? Will high-pressure systems stay in one place for longer? Will the associated rainfall become more intense, and how might that affect the heatwaves themselves?
Explainer: climate modelling
Our answers to these questions are so far somewhat rudimentary. This is largely because some of the key processes involved are too detailed to be explicitly included in current large-scale climate models.
Climate models agree that global warming will change the position and strength of the jet streams. However, the models disagree about what will happen to Rossby waves.
From climate change to weather change
There is one thing we do know for sure: we need to up our game in understanding how the weather is changing as our planet warms, because weather is what has the biggest impact on humans and natural systems.
To do this, we will need to build computer models of the world’s climate that explicitly include some of the fine detail of weather. (By fine detail, we mean anything about a kilometre in size.) This in turn will require investment in huge amounts of computing power for tools such as our national climate model, the Australian Community Climate and Earth System Simulator (ACCESS), and the computing and modelling infrastructure projects of the National Collaborative Research Infrastructure Strategy (NCRIS) that support it.
We will also need to break down the artificial boundaries between weather and climate which exist in our research, our education and our public conversation.
One of nature’s epic events is underway: Monarch butterflies’ fall migration. Departing from all across the United States and Canada, the butterflies travel up to 2,500 miles to cluster at the same locations in Mexico or along the Pacific Coast where their great-grandparents spent the previous winter.
Human activities have an outsized impact on monarchs’ ability to migrate yearly to these specific sites. Development, agriculture and logging have reduced monarch habitat. Climate change, drought and pesticide use also reduce the number of butterflies that complete the journey.
Since 1993, the area of forest covered by monarchs at their overwintering sites in Mexico has fallen from a peak of 45 acres in 1996-1997 to as low as 1.66 acres in the winter of 2013-2014. A 2016 study warned that monarchs were dangerously close to a predicted “point of no return.” The 2019 count of monarchs in California was the lowest ever recorded for that group.
What was largely a bottom-up, citizen-powered effort to save the struggling monarch butterfly migration has shifted toward a top-down conversation between the federal government, private industry and large-tract landowners. As a biologist studying monarchs to understand the molecular and genetic aspects of migration, I believe this experiment has high stakes for monarchs and other imperiled species.
Millions of people care about monarchs
I will never forget the sights and sounds the first time I visited monarchs’ overwintering sites in Mexico. Our guide pointed in the distance to what looked like hanging branches covered with dead leaves. But then I saw the leaves flash orange every so often, revealing what were actually thousands of tightly packed butterflies. The monarchs made their most striking sounds in the Sun, when they burst from the trees in massive fluttering plumes or landed on the ground in the tussle of mating.
Decades of educational outreach by teachers, researchers and hobbyists has cultivated a generation of monarch admirers who want to help preserve this phenomenon. This global network has helped restore not only monarchs’ summer breeding habitat by planting milkweed, but also general pollinator habitat by planting nectaring flowers across North America.
Scientists have calculated that restoring the monarch population to a stable level of about 120 million butterflies will require planting 1.6 billion new milkweed stems. And they need them fast. This is too large a target to achieve through grassroots efforts alone. A new plan, announced in the spring of 2020, is designed to help fill the gap.
Pros and cons of regulation
The top-down strategy for saving monarchs gained energy in 2014, when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service proposed listing them as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. A decision is expected in December 2020.
Listing a species as endangered or threatened triggers restrictions on “taking” (hunting, collecting or killing), transporting or selling it, and on activities that negatively affect its habitat. Listing monarchs would impose restrictions on landowners in areas where monarchs are found, over vast swaths of land in the U.S.
In my opinion, this is not a reason to avoid a listing. However, a “threatened” listing might inadvertently threaten one of the best conservation tools that we have: public education.
It would severely restrict common practices, such as rearing monarchs in classrooms and back yards, as well as scientific research. Anyone who wants to take monarchs and milkweed for these purposes would have to apply for special permits. But these efforts have had a multigenerational educational impact, and they should be protected. Few public campaigns have been more successful at raising awareness of conservation issues.
The rescue attempt
To preempt the need for this kind of regulation, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service approved a Nationwide Candidate Conservation Agreement for Monarch Butterflies. Under this plan, “rights-of-way” landowners – energy and transportation companies and private owners – commit to restoring and creating millions of acres of pollinator habitat that have been decimated by land development and herbicide use in the past half-century.
The agreement was spearheaded by the Rights-of-Way Habitat Working Group, a collaboration between the University of Illinois Chicago’s Energy Resources Center, the Fish and Wildlife Service and over 40 organizations from the energy and transportation sectors. These sectors control “rights-of-way” corridors such as lands near power lines, oil pipelines, railroad tracks and interstates, all valuable to monarch habitat restoration.
Under the plan, partners voluntarily agree to commit a percentage of their land to host protected monarch habitat. In exchange, general operations on their land that might directly harm monarchs or destroy milkweed will not be subject to the enhanced regulation of the Endangered Species Act – protection that would last for 25 years if monarchs are listed as threatened. The agreement is expected to create up to 2.3 million acres of new protected habitat, which ideally would avoid the need for a “threatened” listing.
Many questions remain. Scientists are still learning about factors that cause monarch population decline, so it is likely that land management goals will need to change over the course of the agreement, and partner organizations will have to adjust to those changes.
Oversight of the plan will fall primarily to the University of Illinois, and ultimately to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. But it’s not clear whether they will have the resources they need. And without effective oversight, the plan could allow parties to carry out destructive land management practices that would otherwise be barred under an Endangered Species Act listing.
A model for collaboration
This agreement could be one of the few specific interventions that is big enough to allow researchers to quantify its impact on the size of the monarch population. Even if the agreement produces only 20% of its 2.3 million acre goal, this would still yield nearly half a million acres of new protected habitat. This would provide a powerful test of the role of declining breeding and nectaring habitat compared to other challenges to monarchs, such as climate change or pollution.
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Scientists hope that data from this agreement will be made publicly available, like projects in the Monarch Conservation Database, which has tracked smaller on-the-ground conservation efforts since 2014. With this information we can continue to develop powerful new models with better accuracy for determining how different habitat factors, such as the number of milkweed stems or nectaring flowers on a landscape scale, affect the monarch population.
North America’s monarch butterfly migration is one of the most awe-inspiring feats in the natural world. If this rescue plan succeeds, it could become a model for bridging different interests to achieve a common conservation goal.
Awareness is rising worldwide about the scourge of ocean plastic pollution, from Earth Day 2018 events to the cover of National Geographic magazine. But few people realize that similar concentrations of plastic pollution are accumulating in lakes and rivers. One recent study found microplastic particles – fragments measuring less then five millimeters – in globally sourced tap water and beer brewed with water from the Great Lakes.
According to recent estimates, over 8 million tons of plastic enter the oceans every year. Using that study’s calculations of how much plastic pollution per person enters the water in coastal regions, one of us (Matthew Hoffman) has estimated that around 10,000 tons of plastic enter the Great Lakes annually. Now we are analyzing where it accumulates and how it may affect aquatic life.
No garbage patches, but lots of scrap on beaches
Plastic enters the Great Lakes in many ways. People on the shore and on boats throw litter in the water. Microplastic pollution also comes from wastewater treatment plants, stormwater and agricultural runoff. Some plastic fibers become airborne – possibly from clothing or building materials weathering outdoors – and are probably deposited into the lakes directly from the air.
Sampling natural water bodies for plastic particles is time-consuming and can be done on only a small fraction of any given river or lake. To augment actual sampling, researchers can use computational models to map how plastic pollution will move once it enters the water. In the ocean, these models show how plastic accumulates in particular locations around the globe, including the Arctic.
When plastic pollution was initially found in the Great Lakes, many observers feared that it could accumulate in large floating garbage patches, like those created by ocean currents. However, when we used our computational models to predict how plastic pollution would move around in the surface waters of Lake Erie, we found that temporary accumulation regions formed but did not persist as they do in the ocean. In Lake Erie and the other Great Lakes, strong winds break up the accumulation regions.
Subsequent simulations have also found no evidence for a Great Lakes garbage patch. Initially this seems like good news. But we know that a lot of plastic is entering the lakes. If it is not accumulating at their centers, where is it?
Using our models, we created maps that predict the average surface distribution of Great Lakes plastic pollution. They show that most of it ends up closer to shore. This helps to explain why so much plastic is found on Great Lakes beaches: In 2017 alone, volunteers with the Alliance for the Great Lakes collected more than 16 tons of plastic at beach cleanups. If more plastic is ending up near shore, where more wildlife is located and where we obtain our drinking water, is that really a better outcome than a garbage patch?
Searching for missing plastic
We estimate that over four tons of microplastic are floating in Lake Erie. This figure is only a small fraction of the approximately 2,500 tons of plastic that we estimate enter the Lake each year. Similarly, researchers have found that their estimates of how much plastic is floating at the ocean’s surface account for only around 1 percent of estimated input. Plastic pollution has adverse effects on many organisms, and to predict which ecosystems and organisms are most affected, it is essential to understand where it is going.
We have begun using more advanced computer models to map the three-dimensional distribution of plastic pollution in the Great Lakes. Assuming that plastic simply moves with currents, we see that a large proportion of it is predicted to sink to lake bottoms. Mapping plastic pollution this way begins to shed light on exposure risks for different species, based on where in the lake they live.
According to our initial simulations, much of the plastic is expected to sink. This prediction is supported by sediment samples collected from the bottom of the Great Lakes, which can contain high concentrations of plastic.
In a real lake, plastic does not just move with the current. It also can float or sink, based on its size and density. As a particle floats and is “weathered” by sun and waves, breaks into smaller particles, and becomes colonized by bacteria and other microorganisms, its ability to sink will change.
Better understanding of the processes that affect plastic transport will enable us to generate more accurate models of how it moves through the water. In addition, we know little so far about how plastic is removed from the water as it lands on the bottom or the beach, or is ingested by organisms.
Prediction informs prevention
Developing a complete picture of how plastic pollution travels through waterways, and which habitats are most at risk, is crucial for conceiving and testing possible solutions. If we can accurately track different types of plastic pollution after they enter the water, we can focus on the types that end up in sensitive habitats and predict their ultimate fate.
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Of course, preventing plastic from entering our waterways in the first place is the best way to eliminate the problem. But by determining which plastics are more toxic and also more likely to come into contact with sensitive organisms, or end up in our water supply, we can target the “worst of the worst.” With this information, government agencies and conservation groups can develop specific community education programs, target cleanup efforts and work with industries to develop alternatives to products that contain these materials.