Melissa Ross: What I Learned About Climate Change At The Metcalf Institute

Jun 20, 2018

This month, First Coast Connect host Melissa Ross traveled to Rhode Island for a fellowship for journalists to learn about the science of climate change. 

The University of Rhode Island's Metcalf Institute selected 10 fellows this year for its competitive Science Immersion Workshop. WJCT News Director Jessica Palombo nominated Melissa Ross for the fellowship. 

"While Melissa deftly covers most topics under the sun, her personal passion for covering climate change especially shines," Palombo wrote in her nomination letter. "As we hear time and time again from our listeners, Melissa’s is a trusted voice of reason that rises above the din of today’s media landscape." 

Here's are some of Melissa Ross's reflections on the weeklong workshop: 

"The tribal spirit is strong around Rhode Island's Narragansett Bay, New England's largest estuary and the sparkling waterfront playground for America's elite since the Gilded Age.  The Bay, which is dotted with more than 40 islands, is actually a ria, a drowned river valley that opens to the sea. Its cerulean waters swelled into their present shape after periods of repeated glacier formation and withdrawal during the Pleistocene epoch — in other words, melting glaciers and rising seas.

The Narragansett tribes tell the story of Cautantowwit, a deity who remakes the mud-soaked earth after evil spirits unleash a terrible flood. A creator god, he fashions a man and woman from stone, then clay. The flood's survivors are given immortal souls. The Noah story, kind of, but without the two-by-two.

Narragansett Bay, Rhode Island.
Credit Melissa Ross

Formed by the waxing and waning of the ice, the beauty of this bay was both soothing and unsettling to contemplate as I ventured into a deeper understanding of the changes coming to our coasts. As the 2018 Metcalf Institute for Marine and Environmental Reporting Workshop taught me, not even Cautantowwit will be able to stop the floods of the future.

****

'See that big house right up there? That's Jackie Kennedy's childhood summer home, Hammersmith Farm,' said the boat captain as a fish trawler took nine other journalists and me out onto the bay. We're here  to learn how climate change and warming oceans are changing coastal fisheries. I glance across the waves, slightly seasick, and take in the massive Newport summer "cottage," with the prerequisite rolling lawn sloping down to the sea. I remember the iconic wedding reception photos of Jackie and JFK from 1953 and realize that this is the lawn where they were taken.

The mansion's upper-crust stateliness contrasts with the salty, blue-collar New England accents of the men on the boat taking in a big net full of scup, squid, sea robins and flounder. This coastal trawl survey of the fish population is designed to measure changes to the fish population over time. 

Squid are among the fish species hauled in on a fish trawler in Narragansett Bay.
Credit Melissa Ross

More species are heading farther north as the oceans warm, we learn, disrupting the fishing industry.

'Like these guys,' says Chris Parkins of the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management, as he holds up a black sea bass, then tosses it into a bucket to be measured down to the inch, counted, and eventually dumped back into the bay.

The warming of the earth, caused by greenhouse gas emissions and the burning of fossil fuels, is not only swelling the oceans and causing their rapid acidification. It's also killing fish, eroding the salt marshes that protect our homes and businesses from floods and storms, and causing deadly heat waves

***

'We now live in places that probably should not be lived in,' said Lesley-Ann Dupigny-Giroux, professor and chair of the Department of Geography at the University of Vermont, and a Vermont state climatologist. Her talk, on extreme weather and our changing climate, was one of many we attended during the five-day fellowship on the University of Rhode Island campus. It was an intense week of study. 

A few topics:

  • The slow-moving environmental peril caused by climate change and rising seas.
  • The concept of "managed retreat" from coastlines that will eventually be subsumed by rising waters.
  • The billions in economic damages expected as a byproduct of climate change, which will produce winners - those who can afford to insulate themselves- and losers. (Midwest farmers and vacation homeowners on the Atlantic Seaboard, I'm looking at you.)
  • The AMOC, a system of currents in the Atlantic that could actually produce pockets of cold in some Northern regions in future decades, as other regions grow unbearably hot.
  • The planet's "albedo," or actual whiteness, that reflectivity of energy that bounces off snowpacks (which are shrinking dramatically). 

The bottom line: Sea level rise is a certainty —  several feet or more in the coming decades — and the oceans will keep warming and rising, even if we cut all emissions tomorrow. This is baked into the climate cake, so to speak. 

There's also the specter of ever-stronger hurricanes expected to batter Florida and other coastal states. As warming oceans feed more intense storms, at the same time, a 7 percent increase in water vapor in the atmosphere will bring with it heavier rains. It's a double climate whammy that the survivors of Irma, Harvey, and the record-breaking Atlantic storm season of 2017 do not anticipate with pleasure.

'We need to go from forecasting hurricanes to forecasting the impact of hurricanes,' said Isaac Ginis, Professor of Oceanography at URI. 'We cannot rely on historical data. We are putting people in more and more vulnerable positions in terms of losing life and property. So a really emerging need for all of us as a society is to better understand hurricane risk.'

Understanding the risks posed by climate change, extreme weather and sea level rise is challenging for many, given that the scientific method is based on uncertainty. Theories evolve over time as new information emerges. No scientist will ever state that a theory is infallible. This opens the window to climate denialism. 

That's a mistake, given that scientists are as certain about the link between CO2 and rising seas as they are about the link between smoking and lung cancer. 

And here in Florida, statewide incentives are not generally in place to factor in the down-the-road risk of building or buying property on the sand — although South Florida is moving at a brisker pace on climate mitigation. So are a few other communities around the Sunshine State. 

'The social costs of carbon should be added into insurance risk,' said Amir Jina, assistant professor at the University of Chicago's Harris School of Public Policy Studies. 'Eventually, people will be priced away from the coasts.'

That change is decades away. But as the Metcalf fellows and I learned, the time horizon is the key. Will the world meet — or more realistically, even come close — to the mandate of the landmark 2015 Paris climate agreement? 

If nations can successfully hold the increase in global average temperature to below 2 degrees celsius by the end of the century, scientist believe impacts may be extremely disruptive, but manageable. 

The 'business-as-usual' scenario — as many Metcalf lecturers put it — means no long-term effort to reduce emissions, and with it, unsustainable warming, flooding, and weather extremes.

***

'When I was a kid, we'd play tackle football in the salt marsh,' said Tom Kutcher of the Rhode Island Natural History Survey. Kutcher was part of a team who showed my fellowship group how coastal marshes are eroding. They do it by measuring changes to the high- and low-marsh vegetation, and chart what is called 'marsh migration' upland as the water eats away at the vital barriers.

Measuring changes to marsh vegetation helps scientists with the Rhode Island Coastal Resources Management Council track marsh erosion.
Credit Melissa Ross

'It was fairly level, and firm enough to play football. In my lifetime, I've seen salt marshes go from firm to, just spotty and bunched up. I've seen it happen, and it's sad,' he said. 

It's all been depressing to hear. But we also learned about cities like Bellingham, Washington, a city that's purposefully building upland, factoring in sea level rise at the municipal level. Increasingly, cities are leading on meeting the climate challenge.

'What's normal is changing,' said Amy Snover, director of the Climate Impacts Group and assistant dean of applied research with the College of the Environment at the University of Washington. Her message: We must challenge deeply held assumptions about the stability of the global climate that are embedded in our laws and institutions. Communities must anticipate, and get ahead of, uncertainty.

What's encouraging is human beings have an endless capacity for innovation and adaptation. Of course, we tend to adapt and innovate only as a response to crisis. What the opportunity of being a 2018 fellow at the Metcalf Institute taught me is our world will eventually be completely reshaped by climate change.

The question is, will we respond proactively, or only when facing crisis? 

As author Jeff Goddell notes in his groundbreaking book The Water Will Come, every time the floodwaters recede, there are 'lots of incentives to rebuild but few incentives to rebuild differently, much less to rethink the long-term future of cities and towns along the coast.'

***

The folklore of Cautantowwit holds that he did not intervene in the worldly affairs of the humans he created. So the people he watched over fashioned their own totems to keep themselves safe from disaster.

When it comes to the economic risks associated with rising waters, devastating storms and more, the 'totem' of business-as-usual is no longer acceptable when it comes to climate change. That is the message of Narragansett Bay."  

Hear Melissa Ross and Jessica Palombo discuss the Metcalf Fellowship experience on First Coast Connect Thursday, June 21.