Climate Change Publication - The Hill

Just had a climate change article published in The Hill over the weekend. The article discusses the connection between climate change and the recent hurricane activity we've experienced here in the U.S. As for the title, there is already a new Hurricane (Maria) tearing through the eastern Caribbean as I share this. According to the U.S. National Hurricane Center, it just made landfall on the island of Dominica as a Category 5. Let's hope for the best for our island neighbors.

Hurricanes and the climate – is the worst yet to come?

"A few weeks ago we witnessed the dramatic saga unfold in Houston as Hurricane Harvey slammed the Texas coast. Lives were lost and entire neighborhoods vanished. According to scientists, Harvey dumped more rain than any previously recorded storm in the contiguous U.S. This week the nation braced again as Hurricane Irma swept through Florida. Are these storms just a fluke, or a sign of things to come? As a scientist who studies climate change, this question concerns me."

For the full article, visit The Hill

Don't forget to follow my blog here for future updates and articles on your favorite environment/health topics!

Shahir Masri
Doctor of Science
Environmental Health Science


Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, & the Climate Connection

Recently, the world witnessed tragedy in Houston as Hurricane Harvey battered the Texas coast. Lives were lost, pets vanished, and entire neighborhoods were wiped out. It was just last summer that I visited Houston, staying at my friend’s gorgeous house. Through video last week I saw that house underwater. The very room I stayed in was a lake. My jaw dropped at the site. According to scientists, Harvey broke records, dropping more rain than any storm in contiguous U.S. history. To locals it was a nightmare. But did the storm arise by chance, or was there more to it?

As I watched T.V. coverage of Harvey, I couldn’t help but notice an elephant in the room. Reporters were making no mention of climate change. For years climate scientists have been warning of increased hurricane intensity with climate change. Just a month ago Al Gore was even featured on CNN saying the same thing. Yet here we were after Harvey, and it was quiet. No mention of climate change. As a scientist who follows this issue, I’ll therefore do my duty to report and help fill the gap in media coverage. 

The International Panel on Climate Change, or IPCC, is the international authority on assessing the science of climate change. Assembled by the United Nations and World Meteorological Organization, the IPCC has been warning of increased storm severity for years. In its most recent report, it cautions that rain events will become heavier and more frequent in various places. Though hesitant on strong conclusions, the report goes on to express its confidence that severe North Atlantic cyclone activity has increased over the last half century. Other studies less hesitantly implicate human-induced climate change for these trends.

So, why are hurricanes predicted to intensify under a warmer climate? It's actually rather simple. Hurricanes are fueled by heat. That is, they get their energy from the warm ocean surface. As the climate warms and ocean temps follow, a hurricane that would normally be mild, can instead become severe. More extreme ocean temps mean more extreme storms. 

That extreme rain and hurricane events will intensify with climate change has been such a consistent warning by climate scientists that it is all but mind blowing that mainstream T.V. has left it out of discussion.

So where does this leave us? At the moment, one of the largest hurricanes ever recorded is making its way to Florida. With nearly 200 mph sustained winds, Hurricane Irma already ripped through numerous small islands, leaving death and massive damage in its wake. There’s no telling what’s in store for Florida, but most signs point to destruction. According to a European prediction model updated this morning, Irma’s path is following the “worst case scenario” in terms of where it’ll make landfall in Florida. An American model predicted a slight deflection out to sea, which would mean a bit less for Florida, but a dead shot for the Carolina’s as it banks left up north. In short, the U.S. will be slammed, it’s just a matter of where.

Please, share this post. We must trust our climate scientists and listen to mother nature. We must become informed, empowered, and mobilized, and vote for policies that will transition us away from dirty fossil fuels. If policies are not on the table, we must vote for politicians who put them there. To learn one way you can get involved in climate action in your own community, look up your local Citizens’ Climate Lobby chapter!

To follow this blog, simply click "Follow" at the top right of this page, log into your account, and click "follow publicly."

Shahir Masri
Doctor of Science
Environmental Health Science


A Conversation with a Climate Denier

I was at the Tustin Chili Cook-Off over the weekend and noticed a Republican registration booth, brandishing a large Trump sign. I decided to walk over and inquire about Trump's recent announcement to withdraw from the Paris Climate Accord. What were the views of these representatives, I wondered. Upon inquiring, a middle-aged lady rep responded, "It's too expensive. We've already given $1 billion to other countries." She proceeded to explain to me that volcanoes are responsible for warming the planet, not greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. I thought I'd share our conversation and my reply, since this otherwise nice woman is probably not alone in her views.

First, ensuring a stable climate for future generations and the survival of our species is "too expensive?" Besides the ridiculous sound of this comment, please, note that the $1 billion we've pledged to other countries is a mere rounding error in the U.S. annual budget of over $3 trillion.

Second, volcanoes are heating the planet? It is accurate that volcanoes influence the climate. But the influence she noted is completely backwards. That is, volcanoes do not heat the planet, they actually cool the planet. Much like burning fossil fuels doesn't heat the planet due to the hot flames created, but rather because of GHGs emissions that tram solar radiation, volcanoes do not heat the planet due to their hot lava. Instead, volcanoes cool the planet because they emit particles called sulfate aerosols into the atmosphere, which actually reflect solar radiation.

Whether you are Republican or Democrat, it is important to understand climate change, and seek facts from credible sources. If you are hosting a political booth, it is even more important to get the facts straight. Otherwise you run the risk of propagating misinformation and doing a disservice to your community. Climate change is a critically important issue. In a previous blog, I have discussed the issue of misinformation in some detail and listed credible websites for basic science and climate change information. Be sure to check it out!

To follow this blog, simply click "Follow" at the top right of this page, log into your account, and click "follow publicly."

                                                    Shahir Masri
                                                    Doctor of Science
                                                    Environmental Health Science


Climate Change #4 – The Tipping Point

If you’ve heard of climate change, you’ve probably heard of the “tipping point.” But what does this mean? To understand, you must first understand earth’s “positive feedback” systems. Let me explain. 

Major Positive Feedbacks

You’re all familiar with positive feedback mechanisms whether you know it or not. Positive feedback is when a change in A leads to a change in B. And the change in B leads to a further change in A, which further changes B. This goes back and forth as both A and B continuously reinforce each other—a sort of snowball effect. Besides snowballs, earth has some positive feedback systems with tremendous implications to the climate. Let’s take a look at a few and discuss how initial small changes can rapidly get out of control and send things down an undesirable path.
  • Snow Cover – As sun hits earth, some light is absorbed and some is reflected. The pleasant climate we enjoy on earth is the result of a delicate balance between this incoming and outgoing energy. Snow and ice on earth play an important role in this energy balance, serving as the “mirrors” that reflect much of the sun’s energy. As greenhouse gases (GHGs) from human activity continue to warm the planet, however, these mirrors are decreasing in size. That is, snow and ice are melting. And these reflective white surfaces are being replaced with land and ocean, which absorb rather than reflect energy. This is where the dangerous positive feedback process kicks in. Replacing a reflective snowy surface with a heat-absorbing surface leads to more warming. With more warming, even more snow melts, leading to even more warming.  The process goes on and on, the end result being higher and higher temperatures. It is a frightening path, yet one we’re already pushing forward.
  • Water Vapor – The oceans have done us an enormous favor over the centuries by absorbing much of the GHG we’ve emitted to the air. As physics would have it, however, warm water isn’t as good a gas absorber as cold water. Therefore, as we warm the oceans, we reduce the capability of the oceans to help us. On a global scale, warmer oceans absorbing less GHG has quite an impact. The oceans play another important role. Warmer temperatures lead to the evaporation of more ocean water. Water vapor is even a more powerful GHG than carbon dioxide. So as we warm the oceans, we increase the heat trapping capacity of the atmosphere, and in turn warm the oceans further. Another self-perpetuating feedback loop in motion.
  • Dying Forests – The rain forests represent an enormous source of stored carbon on earth. As warming temperatures lead to dying forests, however, dead plant matter decomposes and releasing this stored carbon to the air. Active deforestation is also contributing to this. Unfortunately, less forest means less carbon storage. This means more atmospheric carbon and higher temperatures. Higher temperatures lead to even greater forest death, and so on. The cycle continues, again racing us to the precious of a runaway effect.
  • Methane & Permafrost – This is potentially the most alarming feedback of them all. Within the soils of the frozen tundra is an enormous quantity of organic matter—partially decomposed plants and other organisms. While frozen, these organics pose no threat to our climate. Were the tundra to melt, however, decomposition of this matter would release vast quantities of methane and carbon dioxide into the air. Methane is even a better heat trapper than carbon dioxide; twenty-one times better! It is estimated that enough carbon is stored in permafrost to more than triple the current level of carbon in the atmosphere. I hate to report that global warming has already caused permafrost in Alaska and elsewhere to begin thawing as many regions that were previously frozen year round now experience above freezing temperatures. Carbon in the tundra represents a dangerously large source of GHG that is best left in the ground. 

The Tipping Point

This brings us to the so called tipping point, or what is often thought of as the point of no return. That is, the point beyond which humans will have any real control over continued climate change. Right now, the main driver of global warming is human activity. However, once we reach a certain point and unlock the carbon in the tundra, as well as propel many of these other positive feedback systems, humans will have little say in how much our climate warms. Our efforts will be of negligible importance. Releases of permafrost methane, a shrinking of earth’s “mirrors,” and a more humid atmosphere are just a few of the many processes that will secure the fate of our climate. 

Triggering the permafrost to melt is probably the most frightening scenario given the enormous reservoir of carbon waiting to enter the sky. A true tipping point will have been reached. We'll have unleashed the giant. Melting of the snow would then accelerate. Dying of the forests would increase. The atmosphere would gain humidity only humidity. And all these processes would only accelerate each other, as positive feedbacks do. It’s a frightening prospect to say the least, but a very real one. And only underscores the importance of current climate action efforts.

So when is the tipping point? It’s any scientist’s best guest. But evidence suggests it’s sometime soon, if we haven’t already reached it. We are playing with fire, as they say. We are quite literally conducting a global experiment. 

To follow this blog, simply click “Follow” at the top right of this page, log into your account, and click “follow publicly.”

Shahir Masri, Sc.D.

Environmental Health Scientist


How a Citizens’ Lobby Will Empower You to Fight Climate Change - My Latest News Publication!

Hey blog world,

Last week I had my first publication in Thrive Global! This is Arianna Huffington's latest news website, which I'll now be a contributing author to. The title (and link) of the article  is:

The article is about climate change and the work a very important non-profit organization called Citizens' Climate Lobby is doing. Give it a read and check out the organization! =)

Join my blog site by clicking “Follow” at the top right of this page, logging into your account, and clicking “follow publicly.”  Thanks!

                                                                -Shahir Masri, Sc.D.


This Morning I Gave Trump a Chance

I recently heard that Trump removed the “climate change” tab from the new White House website. Now to be perfectly honest, I don’t know anything about the old tab because I happen to get my climate science from other sources. Having said that, I was nonetheless interested to read what Trump’s new White House page had to say on the matter. I decided to give Trump a chance on this!

Rest assured, climate news wasn’t plastered on the homepage, but who would expect that anyways? With a quick scan I located the “Issues” tab. With climate change a number one issue, this sounded like a reasonable place to harbor the topic. Among the six topics listed, none actually read “climate change.” Fine, he called it a hoax in his campaign, so perhaps he’s being a bit soft or indirect on his website. There is at least an “America First Energy Plan” tab. He probably buried the issue there.

Let’s take a look at the Energy Plan. A quick word search for “climate” yields one result. Uh oh… But at least it’s mentioned! Let’s hear what the site has to say about it. I scroll to the word “climate.” It’s actually capitalized and followed by the words “Action Plan.” Wow, a Climate Action Plan!?  I’m admittedly surprised. Maybe Trump will impress! Let’s read this Action Plan. Following the words to the start of the sentence, my excitement is short and any confidence gone. The full sentence reads as follows:

“President Trump is committed to eliminating harmful and unnecessary policies such as the Climate Action Plan and the Waters of the U.S. rule.”

Yes, the only reference to climate change on Trump’s White House website is in reference to dismantling climate policy. Wow. To be sure, I subsequently query the entire White House website. Not a single result for “climate change.” Simplifying my search to “climate” still only returns two new results. Neither of which have to do with climate change.

Reading the Energy Plan page in its entirety, we can gain some further insight about Trump’s interest in acting on climate change.  After advocating for the increased production of natural gas and oil, it states:

“The Trump Administration is also committed to clean coal technology, and to reviving America’s coal industry, which has been hurting for too long.”

Renewable energy technologies are not mentioned once on this entire webpage. The America First Energy Plan sounds more like the Fossil Fuel Industry First, America Last Energy Plan to me. America, the global leader, has decided to take a back seat on clean energy innovation and adoption. This is hardly the position of a leading nation. This combined with an absence of climate policy spells a very foreboding future for the United States and world. This morning I gave Trump a chance. By noon I was disappointed.

To follow my blog, simply click “join this site” at the top right of this page, log into your account, and click “follow publicly.”

Shahir Masri, Sc.D.
Environmental Health Scientist


Climate Change #3 – Carbon, Temperature & Geologic History

Over my last two blogs, we discussed climate variation driven by natural phenomena such as the physics of the earth and sun, as well as greenhouse gases (GHGs). While both play key roles in climate change, it has hopefully become clear that on the time scale of present day climate change, it's GHGs and not natural phenomena that are steering the ship. This is the science. Not the politics.

In this blog, let’s look at the relationship of temperature and GHGs from past to present. First, let me remind you that GHGs aren’t new to the air. It’s in fact the presence of GHGs that have enabled a habitable temperature on earth by trapping solar energy. But don’t let this throw you off. It doesn’t take much GHG to have a warming effect. Throughout human history, GHGs have in fact made up only about a meager 0.03% of the atmosphere. Compared to the 21% oxygen we breathe, that’s basically a drop in the bucket! So what we’re talking about with present day climate change is a change in this very modest 0.03%. Over the last 200 years, the burning of fossil fuels have added enough GHG into the atmosphere to increase this to 0.04%. Yes, we’ve always been talking about small fractions. But the percent change from the old small fraction to the new small fraction is enormous—an increase of 33%! Actually, I’ve been rounding numbers; the true increase is over 40%.

If you added 40% more salt to your dinner, ate 40% more calories, or exercised 40% more often, there’s little doubt the change would be noticed. Change of course wouldn’t be instantaneous, but rather over the coming weeks or months. With earth, a 40% increase in GHGs is similarly a tremendous shift from the norm—a shift that will also bring no subtle change. Except, rather than noticing change over weeks or months, we’re talking years to decades. And as the years pass, we’re indeed observing this change. How much change will occur still depends on how quickly we adopt more modern energy technologies are reduce GHG emissions. But the sky is the limit (no pun intended!). Remember, an atmosphere with 0% compared to 0.03% GHGs has been the difference between a frozen earth and the comfortable earth on which our ancestors roamed. Moving then from 0.03% to 0.04%, as we’ve done over the past couple hundred years …well you can only imagine the possibilities! And 0.04% isn’t where it stops. Given the current rate of carbon emissions, this percentage will only continue to grow.

So you know that GHGs trap sunlight and thus warm the planet, and you know GHGs have been skyrocketing since the industrial revolution. But sometimes a picture (or graph) is worth a thousand words!

In the above graph, notice two key things. First, temperature and carbon dioxide (the major GHG) are indeed highly correlated through geological history. This isn’t a shocker given what we know about the warming effects of GHGs, but it’s nonetheless powerful to see the data. Second, modern day carbon dioxide is literally off the charts (top right of graph). If we extend the graph further to the left, as shown below, you’ll notice carbon dioxide concentrations are actually higher now than at any point in the last 800,000 years.

In short, we’re in completely uncharted territory in terms of climate—a planetary experiment if you will. Both graphs are worth a moment of pause and thought. The million dollar question being, how will the red line in the first graph ultimately respond to the blue line? There are many scientists whose careers are dedicated to answering this question. But I’ll save discussion of long term implications and temperature projections for a later post.

If you’ve taken the time to read this, congratulations! You now understand the climate change issue better than most. Now it's your turn to educate others. Please share!   

If you like this post, join the discussion! Simply click “join this site” at the top right of this page, log into your account, and click “follow publicly.”  Thanks!

Shahir Masri
Doctor of Science
Environmental Health Science