By Elena Bruess – May 2020

For the past few weeks I have been taking photographs of changing food habits, cooking, areas of trash and places that remind me of all three. I wanted to capture food through a colder city setting and kinder home settings – food seen through windows, shuttered restaurants, urban gardens and alley dumpsters. The images found right near my doorstep seemed to highlight either distance or fantasy.

The only image that was taken inside shows CLOROX wipes, which now gives me the feeling of fear and of waste. The rest I took while walking through my neighborhood, especially during quieter times and dimmer days. Montrose Avenue, the main street closest to my apartment, is often alarmingly empty of people now.

These photos both comfort me and leave me feeling closed off. It’s like when I smell my neighbor’s cooking. I am consistently reminded that we are all very near to each other. But, in reality, we are far away, behind brick walls and mirrored windows.

Dollop Café sits empty on Montrose Avenue.
Cooking from the outside in.
Ordered bulk packaging in the recycling.
Cara Larson holds up her bread starter. She’s been baking homemade bread recently.
Free cans.
CLOROX wipes.
Burger trash.
Pick-up order.
Community garden.

Photo at top: Cara Larson holds up her bread starter. She’s been baking homemade bread. We yelled conversation at each other from opposite sides of her window. (Elena Breuss/Medill)



By Elena Bruess, Oct. 20, 2019
Near the peaks of Mount Everest – towering some 5.6 miles above sea level – the ancient Khumbu Glacier is melting.

Never before in the last 70 years has the massive ice rock melted more quickly than it is retreating now. It is losing thickness at an unprecedented rate – about 131 feet in the last 10 to 15 years, to be exact. And the Nepali communities surrounding the Khumbu are feeling the consequences.

The impact of the depleted glacier could eventually reduce access to freshwater for these areas and could hinder Nepali guides who are dependent on the tourism from Mount Everest.

Rapidly melting glaciers result in floods or, as geoscientist Jeff Severinghaus calls it “a glacial lake outburst flood” – a gradual accumulation of meltwater from a receding glacier which often forms a lake in the space previously occupied by the glacier.

Severinghaus is a professor of geosciences at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at University of California, San Diego. He has worked extensively with the ice sheet in both Greenland and Antarctica, focusing in ancient climate to better predict where man-made global warming is taking us now. He spent a year and a half in Nepal on a rural development project and continues to understand many of the climate implications experienced in the region.

“The problem is that those lakes are dammed up by ice or mud or a mixture of both. Neither which is very solid,” Severinghaus said, while participating in the Comer Climate Conference in southwestern Wisconsin this fall. “All of sudden the dam bursts after years following the glacial retreat and you get a massive amount of water roaring down these steep mountain valleys at very high speeds. They are extremely violent. People get killed and houses are destroyed.”

Lobuche is a small settlement near the base of Mount Everest that many travelers stop on their way up to the mountain. Dingboche is a small Sherpa village. Both are in Khumbu Glacier region. (Courtesy of Laura Mattas)

Nepali towns near the base of the Mount Everest have long depended on the meltwater from the Khumbu Glacier. Both it and the annual monsoon season give communities in the area the freshwater supply that they need to survive. Now that the glacier is receding, the real question going forward is how much and how fast will the melt occur. Depending on the accelerating pace, the glacial recession can have even more serious implications for the area.

Laura Mattas, a climate science and geochemistry masters candidate at University of Maine, climbed seemingly into the clouds to study the Khumbu Glacier this last summer. She researched the movement of the glacier historically and presented her findings at the Comer Conference. According to Mattas, mountain guides are one of the best jobs in the region. Yet the impact the damage could incur a big economic shakeup for those who depend on the area for this kind of work.

“A lot of the economy of Nepal is based around tourism and what they do there is extremely different than what we know in the US,” Mattas said. ”The porters [mountain guides] are what a lot of the people become and that is an extremely taxing job. So they respond to climate change in knowing how it will impact tourism.”

In adapting to the changing glacier, Nepal might not be centered on climate change mitigation strategies in very rural areas, but there has been some progress in installing flood warning systems. A sensor placed up the mountain will send a signal down a few miles telling communities a flood is on the way and to get to higher ground. According to Severinghaus, this has saved a lot of lives.

Yet, the impact of the Khumbu Glacier melt might be harder to mitigate in the future. It is somewhat unclear how the area will change as the glacier loses more and more volume.

“It’s a little hard to say. It’s true that globe will be getting warmer and warmer so that means there will be more melting,” Severinghaus said. “But eventually, the glaciers are so reduced in volume they won’t even make much in the way of melt.”

Either way, the foremost question for these communities still remains, Mattas said.

“If the glacier is retreating more than it ever has, what does this mean for the area and more importantly, will it be able to rebuild?”

Photo at top: Climate scientist Laura Mattas is tracking past retreat of the Khumbu Glacier in Nepal, which is melting faster now than at any previous time. For many Nepali communities, the increasingly melting glacier has negative consequences. (Courtesy of Laura Mattas)
4,000 floating robots take on climate change

4,000 floating robots take on climate change

By Elena Bruess, Oct. 16, 2019 –
I ziplined recently with a scientist who told me that her work involved almost 4,000 floating robots and a massive global computer database that could help her predict the future of our world’s climate.

This was during a break in the Comer Climate Conference and the woods behind conference headquarters held many mysteries, including a zipline and now – for me – the world’s most interesting researcher. I quickly scribbled “should probably catch up with her” in a notebook.

I did. She gave a presentation on her work the next day to climate scientists from across the nation gathered at the annual science meetup in southwestern Wisconsin.

My fellow zipliner is Becki Beadling, a Ph.D. Candidate in geosciences at the University of Arizona at Tuscon. Her work involves climate model simulations and in-field observations specifically focusing on climate change in relation to carbon uptake in the Southern Ocean.

A climate model replicates interactions between important factors that drive the climate, such as temperature, salinity, pressure as well as carbon cycling. The climate model database is called the Coupled Model Intercomparison Project – CMIP for short. The project goes hand-in-hand with the U.N.’s recent climate change reports, generating data from modeling centers all over the world. All the centers are running the exact same experiments and all the data is available through this database for anyone involved.

It’s a big system.

Unfortunately the models can be off the mark.

“The only way we can trust these models is by verifying them against past observations, historical observations and what’s happening now. I want to know how well these models represent these properties,” Beadling said, during another conference break. “And then looking into the future, how well the circulations and properties in this region are projected to change.”

According to Beadling, the models give us a range of possible scenarios of what might happen as the planet warms, glaciers melt, sea levels swamp coastlines and drought threatens millions. The comparison between what the computer analyzes and the actual observations can offer climate researchers a better idea of what to expect in the future. The closer the current observation is to the model, the more accurate the model can be to predict the pace and range of future change.

Geoscientist Becki Beadling, 29, abroad a US GO-SHIP on course from Syndey, Australia, to Papeete, Tahiti, in 2017. During her trip, the team released a number of SOCCOM “robot” floats to observe elements in the water. (Courtesy of Rebecca Beadling)

Observing the elements in the oceans can be a time-consuming and expensive task, though. A couple of years ago, Beadling went on a cruise. This was not your average trip to the Bahamas, but rather a research ship that is meant to measure the properties in the ocean. The same as the models: temperature, salinity, dissolved oxygen, nitrate, etc. The researchers release robot floaters called SOCCOM Floats at the same transects of the ocean decade after decade.

Each floater spends 10 days dipping down and back up, beaming data to the researchers on the land and then the cycle continues again.

The chart above depicts how a “robot” float works. SOCCOM floats work in the same way, but check for more than just temperature, salinity and pressure (Courtesy of Argo)
CAD drawing of a SOCCOM biogeochemical robot float. (Rick Rupan, University of Washington)

“It’s very new. Humans could not look at the great abyss of the global ocean, 71% of the Earth’s surface, because we could only go where we go in a ship,” said Joellen Russell, a biogeochemical dynamics professor at the University of Arizona and the chair of Integrative Science. Similar to Beadling, she works with the global database. She also attended the conference. “Now the robots do our work for us, and they keep working day-in and day-out, it doesn’t matter.”

According to Russell, there are just under 4,000 robots floating around right now, as Beadling mentioned.

Every dot on the map represents a “robot” float in the ocean as of October 11. (Courtesy of Becki Beadling)

When consulting the mix of the robot data and the current CMIP simulations, Beadling, Russell and other climate researchers can attempt to predict what our oceans will look like in the next century. Specifically they look to the Southern Ocean.

“When we think about modern climate, roughly 90% of the excess heat that’s trapped on our planet from greenhouse gas emissions has gone into our oceans. And the Southern Ocean is taking up the most,” Beadling said. “Heat and carbon are the most important components when thinking of the past, present and future of climate.”

The additional heat is in large part generated by human-driven emissions from fossil fuels, emissions that create the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide. CO2 holds heat in the atmosphere and is considered the thermostat of climate change. Even with ocean uptake, CO2 levels in the atmosphere have increased by more than 35 percent to more than 400 parts per million since the beginning of the Industrial Age.

According to Beadling, if we can better understand what those climate changes are going to be and how our oceans are going to react to all this warming, then we can have better projections of what we are facing from climate change and how to better prepare. Right now, the ocean is doing us a favor taking in all this carbon. But the question is for how long will it be able to do so and how fast might the Earth warm once ocean uptake of carbon slows or halts all together?

Looking ahead, a lot is uncertain for climate researchers such as Beadling. But, considering the work being done here, a big global database with a few thousand floating robots could eventually do the trick.

Photo at top: Beadling and colleagues prepare to toss the SOCCOM “robot” float in the ocean. The float will be collecting information for around 7 years. (Courtesy of Becki Beadling)

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