2012-10-18 / News

Seminar held for environmental reporting

Group of notable panelists speak about climate change

Peter Lord was the environmental reporter for the Providence Journal for more than 30 years. In recent years he also served as journalism co-director for the Metcalf Institute for Marine & Environmental Reporting. When Lord passed away earlier this year, the Metcalf Institute decided to honor him with a series of seminars for Rhode Island reporters who write about the environment.

“We were sad to lose Peter Lord,” said Sunshine Menezes, executive director of the Metcalf Institute. “His death was a loss not only to the Metcalf Institute, but for the entire state because he had done so much to cover science and environmental stories in Rhode Island. We wanted to do something that would celebrate his contributions to environmental journalism.”

According to Menezes, the institute was established in 1997 at the University of Rhode Island Graduate School of Oceanography. The original intent of the organization was to honor the late Michael Metcalf, publisher of the Providence Journal, and his interest in environmental journalism. It also wanted to highlight work done at the graduate school. However, in recent years the emphasis has shifted slightly in an attempt to improve environmental news coverage.

Menezes said in the wake of Lord’s death a program was developed that would help reporters gain more knowledge of the state’s environmental issues. The goal was to encourage writers to do more reporting on the issues.

The first of six seminars was held Friday at URI’s Coastal Institute at the bay campus. The daylong event was titled “Climate Change Impacts in Southern New England.” It featured presentations by scientists, public officials and doctors on the effects of climate change.

The day began with a presentation by John Merrill, a professor at the graduate school. Merrill’s topic was an overview of ocean and atmospheric interactions with regard to climate. The professor spoke about sea-level rise and the rising temperature of the ocean. He predicted more frequent and destructive tropical storms in the coming years.

“Am I trying to preach doom?” Merrill asked. “No. I’m trying to preach concern.”

Pam Rubin of the R.I. Sea Grant provided a summary of the major initiatives in the state to address regional climate change. She pointed out that the sea level has risen 10 inches since 1930. She was also one of several speakers to forecast a 3-to-5-inch rise in the local sea level by the 2100.

To address this and other issues, Rubin said that the Rhode Island Climate Commission was established in 2010, but noted that the panel has only had two meetings since that time. She also cited efforts to encourage coastal homeowners to elevate their houses.

Geologist Janet Freedman of the Coastal Resources Management Council addressed the ongoing beach erosion disaster in Matunuck. She enhanced her presentation with before-and-after photos of areas where erosion has occurred over the years.

John King of the graduate school pointed out that 97 percent of climate-change science is real. He also cited the major factors that have contributed to sea-level rise, including the warming of sea water and the melting of glaciers and ice caps. King was one of several scientists who said that despite popular opinion, the melting of sea ice does not contribute to sea-level rise.

Diane Williamson, director of community development for the town of Bristol, was part of a panel that discussed the effects of sealevel rise and what municipalities can do to combat it.

Candace Oviatt of URI spoke about the rise in air temperature that has occurred. She said that in general, the local weather has become warmer, wetter, cloudier and less windy. Oviatt cited changes to the Narragansett Bay fishery, which has seen the once-prominent winter flounder nearly disappear. She said it’s now replaced by lobsters and crabs.

A biologist at Boston University, Richard Primack said that he began noticing signs of climate change in New England in 2003. Primack based his findings on the observation of plant and tree life in the Concord, Mass. He said changes to phenology have resulted in some plants blooming weeks earlier than they used to.

The day’s final panel dealt with the effects of climate change on human health. Dr. Perry Sheffield of Mt. Sinai Medical Center in New York said that heat waves in recent years have resulted in the deaths of people in Chicago and Europe. Robert Vanderslice of the state Department of Health called for the immediate funding of the R.I. Health and Climate Change Project.

The message heard over and over throughout the day was that climate change is not something on the horizon – it is something that is here right now. Sea-level rise, as an example, is an established fact here in Rhode Island, the panelists said. While it may not be time to panic, each speaker made it clear that steps must be taken immediately, not only to slow the pace of climate change, but to prepare for the effects that it is already bringing to the area.

“I thought it was fantastic,” Menezes said of the first event. “I was very happy with the turnout. We hope to have many more reporters come to these programs over the next year. We do a lot of training programs that bring reporters from all over the country, and even the world, but we really wanted to do something that would make a difference right here in our own backyard.”

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