A to Z in the environment in 2012

A is for ARCTIC, once ice-bound year round, but no longer, as ice and snow coverage this summer in the Arctic this year plunged to an all-time low. This will amplify warming over time, but in the short-term, forecasters say warming summers in the far north tends to bring cold winters to Europe and the East Coast, due to the breakdown of the polar vortex.


B is for BIODIVERSITY, imperiled by global warming. According to Sir Robert Watson, who once helmed the IPCC, the international body that catalogues global warming, a 1 degree rise means about a 10% reduction in species diversity. If this conservationist rule of thumb proves to be true, he said, up to half of all species on earth face extinction this century.

C is for CLIMATE CHANGE, which — with greenhouse gas emissions — is accelerating. Previous IPCC estimates have been shown to be understatements. Scientists at the National Center for Atmopheric Research looked at sixteen overall temperature projections issued in recent years, and found the most pessimistic to be the most accurate — pointing towards an 8-degree temperature rise this century, 4x the rise since 1870.

D is for DROUGHT. At the beginning of December this year, 60% of the nation remained in a crippling drought that has challenged the heat waves of the l930’s for seriousness. Drought and heat has been projected to substantially worsen in the Southwest this century,  but was not forecast for the Midwest on this scale at this time.  

E is for greenhouse gas EMISSIONS, which are soaring in China and India, but flattening out in the U.S. and other industrial nations. This modest good news is undercut by the fact that most of those Chinese emissions are going to the production of goods sold to advanced nations such as the U.S., thus making us responsible indirectly, a concept known as “embedded emissions.”

F is for FRACKING, or hydraulic fracturing, the injection of water and other unidentified chemicals at high pressure far below the surface to break up rock formations to release natural gas. The resulting energy boom and price decline has reduced the cost of natural gas, and in turn discouraged construction of more costly coal plants in the U.S., which will in time help reduce greenhouse gas emissions, but will also discourage efforts to turn towards renewable (non-fossil fuel).

In Ventura County, last week Supervisors Steve Bennett and John Zaragoza won passage of a measure authorizing county management to lock into fracking in the county. They asked the county’s executive director and counsel to work together on a report, to assess the risks of fracking,  to learn more about the disposal of wastewater from fracking operations, and to understand the county’s legal rights in relation to the practice.

G is for GLOBAL WARMING, based on the greenhouse effect, by which addition of a trace gas — carbon dioxide — to a closed atmospheric system steadily raises temperatures, a discovery first scientifically shown in 1899, and since then firmly established in both physics and on earth.  

H is for HEAT WAVES, which this March broke over 15,000 all-time records in the Midwest, and led to the hottest March on record. Another heat wave in July devastated Midwestern wheat. To date 2012 has been the hottest year in the history of instrumental record-keeping in the United states, about 1 degree Fahrenheit hotter than the previous high year.   

I is for ICE EXTENT in the Arctic and Greenland, which plummeted to lows never before seen in the instrumental record, including one stretch in July, when — according to satellite records — 97% of the top of the Greenland ice sheet melted in a span of five days.


J is for the J STREET DRAIN PROJECT near Ormond Beach, a controversy with roots in Oxnard’s industrial past. This drain, which was little more than a ditch in the l950’s, was concreted by the county in the l960’s, and intended to route floodwater directly to the ocean. But when an endangered species, the tidewater goby, was discovered living in a lagoon at the drain exit in 1992, the county allowed waters to gather behind an ad hoc earthen dam to give the species a chance to survive.

That ended after a huge flood in 2010, in which the lagoon expanded vastly and flooded the Halaco toxic waste site, the International Paper Plant, and the Oxnard wastewater treatment plant. To prevent a spill of untreated sewage, a public safety risk, the county asked for (and was granted) emergency permission to breech the dam and allow the floodwaters to dissipate.

This past April the Board of Supervisors voted for construction intended to protect the community from floodwaters and allow the expansion of the lagoon. Although the plans were unanimously approved by the Board of Supervisors, reviews from the environmental community have been mixed. Wishtoyo and the Ventura Coastkeeper group urged the Board to bury the outfall, to make the concrete ditch into a “vegetated trail” to the ocean, while a coalition of birders and nature lovers in Oxnard urged opposition to the project entirely.

Also this year in the Ormond Beach area, the local chapter of the Sierra Club filed suit against a new development of 1500 homes in the area, called Southshore, winning a delaying ruling this summer from a Superior Court judge.

K is for the KEYSTONE XL pipeline, which if built will transport up to 800,000 barrels of tar sands slurry a day from pits near Alberta, Canada, to refineries in the Gulf Coast. The State Department, which under law must approve all international pipelines into the U.S., rejected the  Canadian pipeline firm’s TransCanada’s first application in late 2011, but President Obama has spoken favorably about the project, and a decision is expected in early 2013. James Hansen, the best-known of climatologists, has said that the development of Keystone would be “game over” for the climate if allowed to proceed, because production and refinement of tar sands slurries is vastly more carbon polluting than traditional fossil fuels.

L is for climate LEGISLATION, which has fallen by the wayside since the Tea Party helped power the GOP to control of the House. President Obama could empower the EPA to take on the utility industry under existing law by holding coal plants to high standards, and is under pressure to do so from environmentalists, including his former cabinet official Van Jones.

M is for MIGRATION, which researchers increasingly believe will be a consequence of climate change, including the possibility that the relatively stable and benign California coast, moderated by the Pacific Ocean, may prove attractive to domestic migration from other regions.

N is for NEWHALL RANCH near Magic Mountain. A project to eventually house up to 50,000 residents on 12,000 acres was set aside by state Superior Court judge Ann Jones. This means further delays for the slow-moving project, and the possibility that it will not be permitted. Jones dinged the developers and California Fish and Game for an inadequate assessment of the projects risks to two endangered species, and as well raised questions about the need for a huge project in the economically depressed area. The project already has been through a bankruptcy proceeding, after costing the nation’s largest pension fund, the California Employees Retirement System, $1 bllion in 2009.

In response, citing an alleged tie to a local Sierra club activist, the developers have asked the Judge to recuse herself from the case. The Judge has refused.

O is for OCEAN ACIDIFICATION, the process by which about a quarter of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is taken up and absorbed by seawater. Over time this changes the chemistry of the water, which is already 30% more acidic than it was a hundred years ago, threatening coral reefs and crustaceans.

P is for a new kind of water POLLUTION, known as “emerging contaminants.” These are compounds from urban sources, not agricultural, including pharmaceutical byproducts, birth control medication, perfumes, and cosmetics, some of which are known to influence hormone levels in wildlife and people. The city of Ventura is working on an innovative study of these compounds, putting money from a settlement with a local scrapyard in Saticoy, Standard Industries, into funding for research into these contaminants in the Santa Clara River estuary.

Q is for QUERCUS AGRIFOLIA, the Coast Live Oak tree. This iconic species has to date been spared the scourge of Sudden Oak Death in Ventura County. though the disease is devastating oaks of coastal Northern California. Speculation is that its success linked to foggy climes and vector species tan oak and bay laurel, all of which are more common in coastal Northern California than the hotter Southern California.


R is for the RECESSION, which although devastating for millions of Americans, perversely helped reduce energy demand and emissions, making it possible — theoretically — for a nation powered increasingly by natural gas to reduce emissions by 17% by 2020, a promise the U.S. made in climate talks in Copenhagen in 2009.

S is for SANDY, the superstorm routed into New York City and New Jersey by freakish meteorological conditions. The clean-up and rebuild will cost taxpayers at least $60 billion, part of the most expensive year ever for natural disasters in American history. In the week after the storm, Bloomberg Businessweek ran a cover that read: “It’s Global Warming, Stupid.”


T is for a carbon TAX, which a prominent liberal think tank — Brookings — and several oil companies — including ExxonMobil — have endorsed as a way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

U is for the environmentalism of the UNITED NATIONS, which is greatly feared by Republicans. The GOP labeled AGENDA 21, a vague gesture at sustainability endorsed in  l992 by President Bush, as a threat to the American way of life, despite its obscurity and lack of any sort of enforcement mechanism.

V is for the VENTURA RIVER CLEAN-UP, which at considerable effort and expense removed the homeless and their belongs from the Ventura River bed…but may have simply relocated the problem to the Santa Clara River Bed.

W is for WATER. Ventura County made headlines with an ambitious “drought-proofing” scheme to recycle water, while on the state level, Governor Jerry Brown promised to revive the long-dead Peripheral Canal, intended to earthquake-proof the State Water Project.

X is for XERISCAPING, or dry gardening. For a decade, xeriscaping has been mandated in Las Vegas to reduce lawn acreage. After a recent drought, Florida too began offering incentives for lawn removal, which some water purveyors offer in Ventura County, to reduce consumption. .  

Y is for GENERATION Y, which support clean energy and environmental regulations to a far greater extent than other generations, according to Pew polling research.

Z is for ZOOS, which a recent study found are growing more popular in the U.S. and the UK, and may prove to be a harbor for endangered species.

[from my story in the Ventura County Reporter]

Add yours ↓
  1. sfmike

    My lord, what a depressing alphabet, including Z, since I hate animals in cages at zoos.

    December 30, 2012
  2. sfmike

    I really should use emoticons. My comment on your “depressing” lexicon was meant to be a heartfelt compliment, but I’m afraid it didn’t read that way. Thanks again for being so calm and persuasive in the face of suicidal indifference.

    December 31, 2012
  3. Dexter

    R should be for Rain-forest since deforestation is a far more aggravating factor than greenhouse gas emissions. Hiding that fact makes the whole point business-oriented rather than science oriented. It also makes it look more like problem-oriented than solution-oriented.

    January 1, 2013
  4. Kit Stolz

    It’s a fair point. We cannot forget that the environment, including forests and oceans, does take up most of the greenhouse gases emitted, and it’s possible that the rate of deforestation could be as significant as the rate of emissions increases in terms of atmospheric concentrations of CO2. Though it does seem to me that we have more control over emissions than the Brazilian rainforest.

    January 1, 2013
  5. Denver Xeriscape

    Nice choice for X, well xeriscaping is proven to be useful and good for our environment.

    May 21, 2013