14 December 2012

Dec 2012 List of Reports on Water and Related Issues

This is a regular, mid-month update to the never-ending list of released reports on water and related issues that I come across through e-mail, twitter, and any number of outlets. You can check out the previous list, posted in mid-November, as well as prior lists at irregular intervals for even more informative reading. If you know of a report that I have not listed, please e-mail me with a title and link!

From various sources:
From the Pacific Institute:
From the World Bank:
From the European Environment Agency:
From the US National Research Council:
From the US Congressional Research Service, via the Federation of American Scientists:

10 December 2012

Monday Infographics: Urban Impacts on Streams

The US Geological Survey conducts the National Water-Quality Assessment (NAWQA) Program with a project on the "Effects of Urbanization on Stream Ecosystems." Specifically, the project has examined "the response of a stream's biological communities, hydrology, habitat, and stream chemistry to urban development, and how these responses vary across the country." The study included ten urban metropolitan units across the continental United States, covering much of the range of climate and urban density in our largest cities. Scientists at USGS/NAWQA recently produced an interesting and detailed graphic product on "Stream Ecosystems Change With Urban Development." It is presented here in two parts to provide a readable resolution, but you can also download the full-size pdf version to see it pieced together.

USGS NAWQA General Information Product 143, "Stream Ecosystems Change With Urban Development," left side. Download the complete, full-size pdf here.
USGS NAWQA General Information Product 143, "Stream Ecosystems Change With Urban Development," right side. Download the complete, full-size pdf here.

08 December 2012

Dissertation Proposal Excerpt, part 2

A few more paragraphs excerpted from my Ph.D. Dissertation Proposal, currently in preparation. This is a continuation of the narrative that I began posting yesterday.
There is an ever-present call for greater accuracy and confidence and added value in weather forecasts and climate predictions to achieve applicability in decision-making for societal resilience and for economic and ecosystem sustainability. Climate modelers are being asked to provide predictions of future temperature and precipitation under climate change scenarios not just at continental scales, but for individual states and cities that may be at risk for overall warming, diminished water supply, and extreme events such as heat waves and floods. Weather forecasters issue timely warnings on severe weather using models that rely on a growing awareness of the interactions between the land surface and the atmosphere over short time scales, such as the growth of a thunderstorm, and over longer periods such as the development of a seasonal drought. Hydrologists apply knowledge of weather and the land surface to the understanding and forecasting of numerous events with similarly broad societal impacts, from urban flash floods to regional river floods, from rainfall deficits on local farms to seasonal droughts affecting entire countries, and from the effects of a forest fire on a city’s water supply to the long-term impacts of climate change on global water resources. Ecologists and numerous specialized communities are concerned about the potential impacts of climate change and extreme events on the health and spatial distributions of forests, animal species, agricultural lands, and the human-built environment.

From their individual perspectives, each of these communities of practice has developed sophisticated tools and methods, both for their own understanding of the system under study and to deliver their results for application and use by decision-makers and the public. In some cases additional value and accuracy may be achieved by re-evaluation of both overt and implicit assumptions that accompany these modeling and forecast efforts. In many areas of the modeling and forecast endeavor, those methods originally devised for the parameterization of observed phenomena can now be supplemented or replaced with more recent empirical and analytical datasets. With the growth of specialized understanding in many of these subjects, some parameterized forecast system components can now be abstracted entirely to employ physical representations of observed processes. The analyses to support that reformulation can now be provided by aligned communities such as remote sensing specialists, foresters, ecologists, etc. The development of a comprehensive and physically accurate understanding of the natural world based on both structure and function of the ecosystem requires contributions from numerous specialized fields. This multi-disciplinary approach is recognized as the most viable path to deeper understanding and greater accuracy when attempting to gauge impacts both of natural systems on human decision-making, and of humans on their natural environment.

Historically, many such modeling systems have augmented a detailed treatment of the central problem with coarser representations of “external” processes, those aspects of the physical system that are essentially outside the modelers’ focus. However, an examination across multiple fields of inquiry into these various processes shows that one model’s “externalities” have been addressed as another’s central focus, and vice versa. The long-term development of climate and weather forecast models is one example of the improvement in accuracy that may be obtained, not just in forecast skill but also in the accessibility of physical representation and process understanding, by the combination of process models from different communities and approaches. In that development, atmospheric models were originally developed with a coarse representation of surface conditions, while land surface models originally treated the atmosphere as an external source of “forcing” conditions. The coupled land–atmosphere model is now a staple of forecast centers around the world, demonstrating accuracy in the representation of the natural system, and predictive skill, that far exceed earlier separate and uncoupled modeling efforts. Coupled atmosphere–ocean general circulation models (AOGCMs) are employed for the prediction of climate change and its impacts, and are expected to become more accurate and even more useful to decision-makers with improvements to the component representation of land surface processes.

It is a persistent challenge for modelers to reduce a problem to a tractable scope and scale, while also allowing for the emergence of detailed response patterns, using present computational methods for fully nonlinear systems. Earth’s atmosphere and land surface are tied in dynamic mutual feedback processes over multiple spatial and temporal scales, the full scope and detail of which remain difficult for us to formulate. Land–atmosphere models typically represent only a fraction of the complexity that is observed in the real system. Modeling methods attempt to address this issue from a conceptual and computational viewpoint with simplifying assumptions and parameterizations. The spatiotemporal scales of interest remain important in helping to shape the model dynamics: climate models are oriented on long-term simulations of conditions, while surface-based models must consider the rapid changes that come with the persistent fine-scale redistribution of water and the actions of humans on their environment. Some of the highest-resolution global climate models employ simulation grid cells at a scale of 10-100 kilometers; the entire domain of a land surface process model, formulated for an area that might be of interest to natural resource planners and policy-makers, could fit into a single climate model grid cell several times over. These spatial and temporal scales of interest overlap at the domain size and scope of weather modeling over land areas for both forecasting and system understanding.

Accordingly, the development of such coupled process models is ongoing. Among the goals of continued work in this area is the application of land–atmosphere models to predictions of extreme hydrologic events such as droughts and floods. At the same time, advances in ecological process modeling and remote sensing can provide valuable additional information to these efforts where knowledge gaps exist. Data assimilation efforts in weather forecasting already employ remote sensing and other observational products at various levels of processing and accuracy, demonstrating one way for models to maintain fidelity with natural systems. Another avenue for continued improvement, especially by the incorporation of methods from different specializations, is found in the way the land surface is represented in these climate- and weather-oriented modeling systems. Decades of remote sensing technology and datasets now support landscape-scale ecological models that describe the states and dynamics of land cover and human land use, as well as disturbances to those from both natural and anthropogenic sources. All of these aspects of the land surface provide feedback to the atmosphere through various parameters and processes, with a range of impacts on the surface radiative balance, land–atmosphere heat exchange, and the local and regional hydrologic cycle.
Again, feedback is welcome!

07 December 2012

Dissertation Proposal Excerpt

The paragraphs below are excerpted from my Ph.D. Dissertation Proposal, currently in preparation. I'll be using parts of the dissertation proposal for some upcoming fellowship proposals too...
Disturbance of forest areas, much of which has been cleared by human means around the world, has become one of the more challenging and pertinent aspects of global environmental change. The condition of a forested watershed has a direct impact in the quantity and quality of water that is available for human and ecosystem uses. Various aspects of the forest ecosystem affect the surface energy balance and the partitioning of precipitation to runoff, stream flow and groundwater recharge. The operating hypothesis of this work considers that the wide variety of forest disturbances (e.g. drought, defoliation, windthrow, fire, thinning or partial harvest, and clear-cutting) produces a spectrum of such impacts on the land-based hydrologic cycle. Each of these disturbances types is tied closely, by numerous and complex pathways, to climate and weather conditions and anthropogenic influences. The overall hydrologic impacts of these disturbances arise from similarly varied signatures in the feedback of the land surface to the atmosphere, responses that may initially be observed as subtle changes in the local energy balance and the exchange of heat and moisture within the disturbed forest area. The goal of this work is to provide, using existing and new tools in novel combinations, some physical explanation for the observed spectrum of impacts on the local and regional hydrologic cycle due to various observed forest disturbances.

Scientists, researchers, and natural resource managers seek to understand the hydro-ecological impacts of anthropogenic disturbance and climate variability while the economic needs of the community, the spread of invasive species, and the threat of catastrophic forest fires persist. Significant attention has been given to the loss of tropical forest cover in the past several decades, but concern is also rising for the health and fate of temperate and boreal forests. Expanding urban areas, agricultural land use, resource extraction, land and timber management, natural ecological cycles, and climate change have all shaped forest health for far longer than we have given our attention to the issues and problems of such influences. Valuable previous work has considered these problems from varied and often disjoint aspects, but we now have the tools and the methods that can provide a successful approach to such issues in combination. Specifically, I propose to demonstrate the hydrologic impacts of forest disturbances by the combination of several tools that are now available: remote sensing products and analytical methods for the estimation of forest disturbance severity and vegetation health, ecological models of forest disturbance and succession, and coupled land–atmosphere models.

We can witness these changes as they occur using many methods, from local hydrological and climatological observations to space-based remote sensing platforms, but we often wonder about the ultimate source and mechanism of the change that has been found. We are similarly curious about the ways that projected future climate conditions will become apparent at the local scale, but we must recognize in our approach to this problem that the states and processes of the atmosphere and the land surface are necessarily and closely intertwined. Changes at the land surface, broadly as land cover and use and in such narrow categories as the treatment of a fire-scarred hillside above a drinking water reservoir, are finally being recognized as significant management decisions. These are efforts that require the consideration of detailed and far-reaching impacts on both the natural and built environments, the resilience of ecological and human systems, and the sustainability of biodiversity, ecosystem services, and human health. It is vital that we incorporate the best available science in decision-making efforts in order to ensure progress on these goals.
Feedback welcome, and there's more to come!

03 December 2012

Monday Infographics: World Bank Climate Report

This weekend marked the middle of the current gathering of delegates to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) which is being held this year in Doha, Qatar. This is the 18th Conference of Parties to the UNFCCC (COP-18) and the 8th Meeting of Parties to the Kyoto Protocols (MOP-8), along with several other key meetings in the same place. Existing cooperation under the Kyoto Protocols will expire at the end of this year unless some extension, or an unlikely new agreement, is negotiated. This may be the last chance for both developed and developing nations to come to some agreement on emissions abatements, cost-sharing and funds transfers and "carbon taxes," and any effort to curb our destruction of the very Earth systems (oceans, forests, rivers) that may save our own and innumerable other species.

I've posted previously on the UNFCCC COP process:
My goodness, was it really that long ago that I posted those? Time flies...

While much of the UNFCCC negotiation remains focused on the notion that we want to avoid 2°C of warming (actually, I suppose the meetings remain focused on even more fundamentally political issues, such as responsibility), the World Bank recently published a report "Turn Down the Heat" indicating that we are actually on a path to 4°C warming by 2100. They produced an infographic to accompany the report's release:

Companion infographic to the World Bank report "Turn Down the Heat."

The science of climate change tells us that setting our time horizon at 2100 is actually a highly arbitrary choice. We could set a goal at 2100, work to meet that (and I mean actual actions, not just more negotiating over who and what and where and how much $$$), and still see additional warming beyond that date. There is a certain amount of thermal inertia in the Earth system that ensures we are not seeing all of the potential warming immediately, and that even if we stopped all carbon emissions right now, the climate will still warm for centuries to come. A large part of that inertial effect comes from storage of heat and gases in the oceans, something that climate scientists know well and are still working to get the models to represent as accurately as possible. Another large part of the effect comes from feedback effects in the Earth - atmosphere system that many scientists, far more than those who focus specifically on climate dynamics (such as myself), are still working to understand and quantify for addition to those models. Some feedback effects have been under study for some time, such as aerosols in the atmosphere and the thawing of permafrost in high latitudes, but there are many others on which we are just beginning to gather data and make hypotheses for testing and modeling.