Cloud Spelunking

Back when global exploration meant finding a place, discovery was fairly straightforward. A given group of people could send some intrepid souls in a direction where none of them had ever been before, be it a valley, a sea, an island or a continent, and then that new place was ‘discovered’. There were gaps between the discovered places, but after a while, most of the gaps were closed and we now have a pretty good idea of where most places are on the surface of our planet.

Exploration has gotten a bit more slippery since then, and filling the gaps can be an elusive undertaking.

Alps in morning cloud, New Year's Day 2014 Photo: PK Read

Alps in morning cloud, New Year’s Day 2014
Photo: PK Read

In the investigation of ongoing climate change, unexplored territory remains. At the American Geophysical Union (AGU) annual fall meeting in December, three scientists who contributed to the most recent International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Working Group I report (released in September 2013) outlined three areas that need more intrepid spelunking if the climate change process and its impacts are to be understood.

One misty area is the full functionality of the carbon cycle, or how carbon makes its way between the soils, the plants, water bodies and the air.

Another is how the oceans themselves work at deeper levels. Specifically, how they absorb the increasing heat of the atmosphere.

But, as a card-carrying member of the Cloud Appreciation Society, I am particularly keen to follow the research on the role played by clouds when it comes to climate change. How do airborne particles affect clouds? Also, apparently low level cloud cover is migrating to the north and south. What overall effect this will have is currently a foggy area on the map of knowledge.

Mont Blanc, New Year's Day 2014. Photo: PK REad

Mont Blanc, New Year’s Day 2014.
The Jet d’Eau in Lake Geneva is visible in the lower right corner.
Photo: PK Read

In my corner of the planet, ephemeral clouds and solid mountains share the skyline. Just because the clouds obscure parts of the jagged outline on some days doesn’t mean the mountain has moved or shifted shape. And, contrary to what climate change deniers might insist, just because we can’t see all the gears and workings of climate change yet doesn’t mean we never will.

It’s commendable that these scientists are exposing gaps in knowledge so that we can send forth more explorers, and reveal the general location of the obscured territories in our understanding of climate change.


Air Absurdum

I read today about an intriguing legal exercise in definitions.

Briefly, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) won a lawsuit that had been filed against it demanding that the commission take steps to reduce greenhouse gases. Travis County District Court decision essentially supported the commission’s view that it could use its own discretion in the implementation of greenhouse gas regulations.

But the commission was not satisfied with the language of the district court’s decision in its favor. Specifically, it claimed that the Judge Gisela Triana had made an “improper declaratory judgment” by including in her decision the comment that the state of Texas responsible for protecting “all natural resources of the state including the air and atmosphere.” qualite_air__093507200_1658_06072010

According to a Texas Tribune article, “Judge Triana agreed with the plaintiffs that a tenet of United States common law known as the public trust doctrine required the government to protect the atmosphere as a resource for public use.

“The commission had disagreed, saying Texas’ duty to protect resources under public trust were “limited to the waters of the state.””

The original lawsuit, the one that unsuccessfully demanded that the TCEQ take action to limit greenhouse gas emissions, was one of many filed across the United States in an attempt to gain legal acknowledgement and rulings that the atmosphere and clean air are public trust assets that must be protected.

Travis County District Judge Gisela Triana was the first judge to do so, and in the hope of heading off a precedent, the TCEQ is seeking to have her ‘public trust’ comments vacated.clean-air

It’s an interesting argument on the part of the Commission, since the Mission Statement on the TCEQ site states:

The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality strives to protect our state’s public health and natural resources consistent with sustainable economic development. Our goal is clean air, clean water, and the safe management of waste.

Definitions have a curious way of becoming slippery when you try to catch them, to hold them up to the light and examine them from all sides.

“Natural resource” would seem an obvious enough term to define – a resource that occurs in nature, and one might add the notion that natural resources are shared by all, as no one ‘made’ them.

But this lumps the natural resources we all need to exist – breathable air, drinkable water – with the resources which are nice to have for a variety of reasons, many of them economic. Oil, timber, land, fish, wildlife, minerals.

So the apparent inextricability in the TCEQ’s mission statement of natural resource protection in one sentence and setting clean air as a goal in another might not be all that difficult to separate, after all – but only if the ‘natural resources’ under protection are of a different kind than the ‘natural resource’ of clean air.

I note in passing that, according to this The Daily Texan article, “If Texas was its own country, its emission levels would rank 21st in the world.”

Texas sky Photo: Mike Robinson

Texas textured sky
Photo: Mike Robinson