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Battling Climate Change

by Andrew Sirrochi
Tri-City Herald, May 20, 2007

The largest basalt floods in the United States were spread like sheets during millennia of volcanic eruptions, the molten rock covering Eastern Washington and much of Oregon and Idaho.

Today, these ancient formations underneath our feet offer one of the more promising solutions to minimize global warming.

A team led by Pacific Northwest National Laboratory scientist Pete McGrail in Richland has found that trapping carbon dioxide in basalt will quickly neutralize the gas responsible for global warming by safely turning it into limestone.

It's called carbon sequestration, and it offers a cutting-edge opportunity for the Northwest.

"We're pretty excited about it," McGrail said. "The basalts are unique."

Basalt formations 2,000 feet below the Earth's surface could retain up to 100 gigatons of CO2 -- the equivalent of all emissions from all U.S. coal-fired power plants for up to 20 years.

To make the technology work, CO2 has to be injected into the ground, where it displaces water trapped in underground rock and infuses itself into the liquid. The carbonated water quickly reacts with elements in the porous and permeable basalt. Ultimately, 100 percent of the carbonated mixture turns safely into a semi-solid mixture of lime.

"We were astounded by how quick the mineralization process takes place," McGrail said, explaining that the key transformation process takes place in less than a month.

What makes the Northwest unique is that deep layers of the hard rock can trap the gas inside the Earth, preventing it from entering the atmosphere and allowing the mixture time to react and solidify.

McGrail's research creates exciting new opportunities for the region that could help mitigate the impacts of climate change, create a new economy and allow traditional energy production methods to flourish cleanly.

Yet while his work suggests some intriguing solutions for global warming, it's only one of the innovative research solutions being worked on in the Mid-Columbia to address climate change.

Region leads studies

Climate change has become a recent buzz word for policy makers, but scientists at PNNL and around the region have been helping shape the discussion for more than two decades.

"This basin has been tremendously visionary," said Lance Vail, a senior research engineer at PNNL. "I've been at the lab since 1981 and in one aspect or another all my work has tied in with climate change. It has been a theme we've been looking at."

Columbia River tribes also have worked on global warming issues for years.

Kyle Dittmer, a hydrologist and meteorologist working for the Columbia River Intertribal Fish Commission, has brought a uniquely tribal view to his studies since beginning the research in 2000. The tribes he represents -- the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation, the Confederated Tribes of the Warm Springs Reservation, the Confederated Tribes and Bands of the Yakama Nation and the Nez Perce Tribe -- all have a vested interest in ensuring the Northwest maintains healthy runs of salmon.

Anything that affects water levels in the Columbia River ultimately will hurt the struggling fish, but Dittmer has taken his research a step further. He has focused his studies on the impacts of climate change below 4,000 feet -- the elevations that may feel the brunt of the impacts.

"I've been trying to quantify which reservations are more at risk," Dittmer said. "There's this assumption that climate change will impact everyone equally and that's not true."

Environmental damage

Still, everyone in the Northwest has a vested interest in the health of the environment, and research suggests there's plenty of reason for concern. A Northwest Power and Conservation Council study targeted at the Columbia Basin found that by 2090 climate change could cause the loss of up to 22 percent of salmon habitat in Washington and up to 40 percent of salmon habitat in Oregon and Idaho.

And it won't take that long to feel the effects of climate change. Average temperature in the Columbia Basin is expected to increase by 2 to 4 degrees by 2050, which scientists believe will provoke more serious forest fires that are more expensive to attack. Those in agriculture, particularly junior water rights holders, will be particularly affected by potentially longer and more severe droughts.

While average precipitation in the region isn't expected to change significantly, PNNL's Vail said when it falls and how it falls will differ. If precipitation that came down as snow in years past increasingly falls as rain, it would leave less snowpack to melt and provide water during the dry summer months. That alone could have far-reaching implications for the Northwest.

Changes in the timing of snowpack melting also could mean higher risk of flooding, and scientists such as Dittmer already are suggesting the federal government change its schedule of filling and emptying dams to anticipate those changes. But leaving less water behind the dams to deal with possible floods would reduce power generation capacity.

"Seventy to 80 percent of the water in the Columbia River started out as snow," Vail said. "Let's say we reduce that snowpack by 50 percent over the basin. That's more than five Grand Coulee dams (hold)."

The Northwest Power and Conservation Council concluded it will take efforts by everyone to help mitigate the impacts of climate change.

"Only global strategies for reducing the emission of greenhouse gases will completely address climate change impacts on all habitats in the Columbia Basin, and even if effective measures were put in place today, changes in the climate would still occur over the next several decades due to previous emissions of greenhouse gases," the council's report says.

WSU-Tri-Cities' efforts

Washington State University-Tri-Cities already is working to reduce the school's "carbon footprint," which is a measurement of the impact human activities have on the environment in terms of the amount of greenhouse gases produced. The university is buying hybrid vehicles for employee use but Chancellor Vicki Carwein said there's more that can be done.

"Universities should be leading by example," she said.

Carwein has had a long interest in the science of global warming and was eager to join the state's Climate Advisory Team when she was appointed by Gov. Chris Gregoire. The group is working toward establishing a series of recommendations to help Washington reduce the state's carbon footprint by the end of the year.

While Carwein said it's too early for a progress report, she said it's also time for individuals, businesses and even universities to look at what they can do to help mitigate climate change impacts.

PNNL expects to transfer some of its climate change research to WSU's new Bioproducts, Sciences and Engineering Laboratory once the facility is opened for classes in January. But for now scientists are using resources at the federal laboratory to develop the data that is being used worldwide to understand climate change.

PNNL scientists have worked on the issues so long that when they began their research the models and formulas used to assess and predict climate change didn't yet exist. They did the next-best thing -- they created the formulas.

"As a result of this, a whole new generation of tools have been developed at the lab," Vail said. Those tools are being implemented internationally to understand climate change and predict its impacts.

Predicting those impacts is rife with uncertainty, so scientists have focused on gauging best and worst-case scenarios. But whichever model is used, the results show the impacts of climate change in the Northwest will be profound.

But scientists believe the Northwest also is uniquely positioned to deal with the consequences of climate change. And that gives those such as Vail hope that the region can address the more severe impacts.

"We have an extensive reservoir system, we have adaptive capacity," he said. "Where you have control, you have an opportunity to adapt. We have an opportunity to change the way we do things."

Andrew Sirrochi
Battling Climate Change
Tri-City Herald, May 20, 2007

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