Climate

Getting accustomed to moderate to exceptional drought in the US

“Climate change is real and really dangerous,” warned the Huffington Post.

The severe drought across much of the U.S. proved stubborn once again during the past week as nearly four-fifths of the country was in some form of drought. And the area of the lower 48 states affected by moderate to exceptional drought expanded slightly, hitting a high for the year, according to data released Thursday morning. [Climate Central]

… moderate to exceptional drought covered a new high of 64.16 percent of the lower 48 states as of September 11….

… just 21.47 percent of the lower 48 states was drought free, which is down from 56.53 percent at the same time in 2011.

The drought is the worst to strike the U.S. since the Dust Bowl era of the 1930s and lengthy droughts of the 1950s. It came on suddenly and largely without warning, and although the main trigger was most likely a La Niña event in the tropical Pacific Ocean, the drought was exacerbated by extremely hot temperatures during the spring and summer. July, for example, was the hottest month on record in the U.S., and the summer was the third-hottest on record, narrowly losing out to 2011 and 1936. Climate studies have shown that the odds of severe heat waves are increasing due to manmade climate change.

Severe weather hits capitals and villages around the world

In the last week, the world has experienced a series of calamitous weather events. News headlines have painted a grim picture: flooding, drought, landslides and record ice melt in the arctic. These events stretch to every corner of the globe, but their effects are all too heavily felt by the poorest people in the world.

While it is true that it is difficult to attribute any single weather event to climate change, it is agreed that climate change is likely to bring more extreme weather events with it.  Indeed, many of these recent events are consistent with what can be expected as global temperatures continue to rise. In very broad terms, this is because climate change is putting more energy (heat) into the world’s weather systems. It is probable that this will cause dry areas to get drier and wet areas to get wetter.

We need to ask ourselves: is this the world we want?

  • Arctic: June 18 – Satellite images of the Artic have shown the extent of floating ice that melts and refreezes was 824,000 square kilometres less than the same period in 2007 – the year of record low extent since records started in 1979. This follows last year’s second greatest sea ice melt on record.
  • Uganda: June 25 – A landslide devastated two villages, killing about 30 people and leaving more than 100 missing. A local official said it rained heavily in the area for two days and that the landslides in the area may be more severe than the ones that occurred there in 2010.
  • North and South Korea: 26 June – The most severe drought since record keeping began 105 years ago is gripping the Korean Peninsula. According to reports, 80% of South Korea is experiencing severe drought, with Seoul experiencing only seven percent of the rainfall it experienced during the same period last year.
  • Bangladesh: June 28 – The death toll from floods and landslides have been climbing. Unusually heavy monsoon rains have disrupted road, rail and air links, local officials said.
  • Nigeria: June 28 – Heavy rains and flooding have affected residents in the capital, Lagos. In some areas properties were swept away and major roads were blocked.
  • United Kingdom: June 28 – Torrential rain has caused flash floods in parts of the UK, while Northern England, the Midlands, Scotland and Northern Ireland were hit by storms that brought lightning, giant hailstones, squalls and tornadoes. At the same time, southern parts of Britain experienced dry weather and temperatures of up to 28C.
  • USA: June 28 – A wildfire has forced the evacuation of 35,000 people from Colorado’s second-largest city. One person has been killed and 346 homes incinerated, making it the most destructive blaze in the state’s history. Waldo Canyon was the site of one of over 40 large, uncontained wildfires being fought across the United States, the bulk of them in ten western states: Colorado, Montana, Wyoming, Utah, Idaho, South Dakota, Arizona, New Mexico, Nevada and even Hawaii.
  • India: June 29 – 900,000 people have been displaced and 27 people have died due to floods in the north-eastern state of Assam. Torrential rain has hit the region, inundating 21 of the 27 districts in the state, as the seasonal monsoon rolls across the subcontinent.
  • USA: 30 June – The Washington D.C region, Maryland, and Northern Virginia were lashed by a sudden and violent storm that killed at least 13 people. Even the Washington Post writes (June 30, 2012): “As the intensity of the heat wave, without reservation, was a key factor in the destructiveness of this “derecho” event it raises the question about the possible role of manmade climate warming (from elevated greenhouse concentrations).”
  • Costa Rica: 30 June – New research suggests that climate change could impede leatherback turtle population’s ability to recover, according to a study in the journal Nature Climate Change by a research team from Drexel University, Princeton University, other institutions and US government agencies. The report indicates that the eastern Pacific population of leatherback turtles will decline by 75 percent by the year 2100. Turtle eggs and hatchlings in nests buried at hotter, drier beaches are the main reason for this decline. Dr. James Spotila, the Betz Chair Professor of Environmental Science in the College of Arts and Sciences at Drexel told the Science Daily: “In 1990, there were 1,500 turtles nesting on the Playa Grande beach. Now, there are 30 to 40 nesting females per season.”
  • USA: June 29 – Stifling heat and dry conditions are persisting across the centre the Midwest. The drought conditions are hitting at the worst possible time for young corn and soybean plants already suffering from a lack of rain, according to agricultural meteorologists.

Coaltopia – Coal Industry Revival Backfires On Climate

Writing for High County News, Ray Ring reports on unusual opposition, from Wyoming to India, that coal-export schemes have ignited:

The opponents want thorough evaluations that weigh all the impacts, with public hearings around the Northwest that would give time to speakers like Kimberly Larson, a staffer for Climate Solutions, a Washington group that advocates for wind and solar power.

“The coal companies need a new market for their drug,” she says, “just like we saw with tobacco companies,” which emphasized overseas sales when health warnings and taxes eroded their U.S. customer base.

Industry, however, prefers narrow evaluations — a local hearing that only weighs the construction of a new dock, for instance. And industry is optimistic: In the last few weeks, a couple of companies leased additional Powder River Basin deposits — with their eyes fixed on Asia.

Writing for the Daily Kos, Matt Wuerker falls for coal industry deception (much deception comes from a difference in perception) and encourage readers, at least in the Pacific Northwest, to think likewise. There are two grievous errors in the thinking he promotes.

While criticizing the coal industry for using a local focus, the Daily Kos article, “Our Happy Future as a Coal Corridor,” also emphasizes a local focus that lessens the focus on the total impact upon life on the planet as we know it. A quick view of current economics, and the average reader would see the need to export coal to Asia.

The second grievous error relates to the first. Wuerker wants the Daily Kos reader to see such harm in being a coal industry “corridor.” This provides coal industry representatives an opportunity to respond that this worry is wrong because the coal is going elsewhere for burning — some place other than the Great Pacific Northwest — some place in Asia, where electric power plants suffer less harassment by the government about producing CO2 emissions than the coal industry has to worry about in our country. (Sarcastically italicized.)

Meanwhile, the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere will rise again next month as it has since reporting started. Not just in the atmosphere in the Pacific Northwest, or wherever you are as you read this. The concentration reported in a frame on the right hand of this weblog front page is a global average. While it is a possible problem to transport the product through where you live to make money, it is not the major problem. The major problem is encouraging greater use of a product that, in the future, is leading to the end of life on this planet as we know it. Yes, one planet — this Kos critical post is avoiding a focus on Big China, other than repeating the cartoon. Instead, it attempts to ask readers to think critically about life on our planet.

Spring 2010 Flood Risk

AP Photo: Julie Jacobson

Scientific American relays a warning from NOAA. JCWinnie readers will be familiar with such warnings since the editor can recall watching local television coverage of devastating flooding and thinking: “Gee, that’s terrible. Hey, wait a minute, that is where I live. Wholly inflatable dinghys, Batman. That is where I am now!”
“A sign outside the Iowa Welcome Center is partially submerged by flood water on June 15, 2010.

O.K., so I really didn’t think inflatable watercraft until later. That was for comedic relief. And, speaking of relief and the cost of damage due to “historic flooding”, Jane Lubchenco, head of the U.S. National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration, told reporters yesterday, “We are looking at potentially historic flooding in some parts of the country this spring.” The Red River Valley in Minnesota and Iowa is at risk of floods. Areas in the Southeast could flood, too.

Climate Progress headline: Red River braces for fourth “ten-year flood” in a row! Even Big Boss Barry warned about the flooding that’s going on right now in North Dakota. “I actually think the science around climate change is real. It is potentially devastating.”

Yes, yes, the Big Boss moniker is semi-snarky since the previous senator from Illinois and now president of these United States has to contend with corrupt “representatives” that continue to deny that a rise in global temperatures over the past 50 years is due primarily to human-induced emissions of heat-trapping gases. These emissions come mainly from the burning of fossil fuels (coal, oil, and gas), with other contributions from the clearing of forests and agricultural activities. The rise in emissions will have far-reaching consequences, both spatially and temporarily. There is particular irony that denial of this clear and present danger is so prevalent among representatives from states most at risk.

NASA Finds ‘Amazing’ Levels Of Arctic Methane And CO2, Asks ‘Is a Sleeping Climate Giant Stirring in the Arctic?’

A NASA science team has observed “amazing and potentially troubling” levels of methane and CO2 from the rapidly warming Arctic. Given the staggering amount of carbon trapped in the permafrost — and the fact that methane is a very potent heat-trapping gas — the space agency is now asking: “Is a Sleeping Climate Giant Stirring in the Arctic?

“Permafrost zones occupy nearly a quarter of the exposed land area of the Northern Hemisphere. NASA’s Carbon in Arctic Reservoirs Vulnerability Experiment (CARVE) is probing deep into the frozen lands above the Arctic Circle in Alaska to measure emissions of the greenhouse gases carbon dioxide and methane from thawing permafrost — signals that may hold a key to Earth’s climate future.” Credit: UNEP

We’ve known for a while that “permafrost” was a misnomer (see “Thawing permafrost feedback will turn Arctic from carbon sink to source in the 2020s“). The defrosting permamelt will likely add up to 1.5°F to total global warming by 2100.

Two studies from February provide more evidence the process may happen even faster than we thought:

Now we are getting some of the first detailed observations of carbon emissions from the thawing permafrost thanks to the Carbon in Arctic Reservoirs Vulnerability Experiment (CARVE), “a five-year NASA-led field campaign studying how climate change is affecting the Arctic’s carbon cycle.”

Flying in a specially instrumented C-23 Sherpa aircraft only 500 feet above the ground, CARVE scientists “measure interesting exchanges of carbon taking place between Earth’s surface and atmosphere,” something most other airborne permafrost measurement missions can’t do. The goal:

Ultimately, the scientists hope their observations will indicate whether an irreversible permafrost tipping point may be near at hand. While scientists don’t yet believe the Arctic has reached that tipping point, no one knows for sure.

NASA’s news release is one of the best I’ve ever seen from any source. I’ll quote it at length since its factoids and findings are so citable.

Let’s start with just how fast the permafrost has been heating up. CARVE principal investigator Charles Miller of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory explains:

Permafrost soils are warming even faster than Arctic air temperatures — as much as 2.7 to 4.5 degrees Fahrenheit (1.5 to 2.5 degrees Celsius) in just the past 30 years,” Miller said. “As heat from Earth’s surface penetrates into permafrost, it threatens to mobilize these organic carbon reservoirs and release them into the atmosphere as carbon dioxide and methane, upsetting the Arctic’s carbon balance and greatly exacerbating global warming.”

Recall that NOAA has reported, “In 2012, new record high temperatures at 20 [meters, 65 feet] depth were measured at most permafrost observatories on the North Slope of Alaska and in the Brooks Range, where measurements began in the late 1970s.”

This warming is troubling for two reasons. First, the permafrost contains a staggering amount of carbon:

Permafrost (perennially frozen) soils underlie much of the Arctic. Each summer, the top layers of these soils thaw. The thawed layer varies in depth from about 4 inches (10 centimeters) in the coldest tundra regions to several yards, or meters, in the southern boreal forests. This active soil layer at the surface provides the precarious foothold on which Arctic vegetation survives. The Arctic’s extremely cold, wet conditions prevent dead plants and animals from decomposing, so each year another layer gets added to the reservoirs of organic carbon sequestered just beneath the topsoil.

Over hundreds of millennia, Arctic permafrost soils have accumulated vast stores of organic carbon – an estimated 1,400 to 1,850 petagrams of it (a petagram is 2.2 trillion pounds, or 1 billion metric tons). That’s about half of all the estimated organic carbon stored in Earth’s soils. In comparison, about 350 petagrams of carbon have been emitted from all fossil-fuel combustion and human activities since 1850. Most of this carbon is located in thaw-vulnerable topsoils within 10 feet (3 meters) of the surface.

Second, methane is a very, very potent heat-trapping gas. Whether the permamelt releases CO2 or CH4 depends critically on the soils and state of the land surfaces, which CARVE aims to characterize:

There’s a strong correlation between soil characteristics and release of carbon dioxide and methane. Historically, the cold, wet soils of Arctic ecosystems have stored more carbon than they have released. If climate change causes the Arctic to get warmer and drier, scientists expect most of the carbon to be released as carbon dioxide. If it gets warmer and wetter, most will be in the form of methane.

The distinction is critical. Molecule per molecule, methane is 22 times more potent as a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide on a 100-year timescale, and 105 times more potent on a 20-year timescale. If just one percent of the permafrost carbon released over a short time period is methane, it will have the same greenhouse impact as the 99 percent that is released as carbon dioxide. Characterizing this methane to carbon dioxide ratio is a major CARVE objective

After its first full year of science flights, CARVE is analyzing data. Here’s what is “both amazing and potentially troubling.”

“Some of the methane and carbon dioxide concentrations we’ve measured have been large, and we’re seeing very different patterns from what models suggest,” Miller said. “We saw large, regional-scale episodic bursts of higher-than-normal carbon dioxide and methane in interior Alaska and across the North Slope during the spring thaw, and they lasted until after the fall refreeze. To cite another example, in July 2012 we saw methane levels over swamps in the Innoko Wilderness that were 650 parts per billion higher than normal background levels. That’s similar to what you might find in a large city.

The time to slash carbon pollution was a long time ago, but now is still incalculably better than later.

Scientists say united on global warming, at odds with public view

Image source: phys.org

(Reuters) – Ninety-seven percent of scientists say global warming is mainly man-made but a wide public belief that experts are divided is making it harder to gain support for policies to curb climate change, an international study showed on Thursday.

The report found an overwhelming view among scientists that human activity, led by the use of fossil fuels, was the main cause of rising temperatures in recent decades.

“There is a strong scientific agreement about the cause of climate change, despite public perceptions to the contrary,” said John Cook of the University of Queensland in Australia, who led the study in the journal Environmental Research Letters.

“There is a gaping chasm between the actual consensus and the public perception,” he said in a statement. “When people understand that scientists agree on global warming, they’re more likely to support policies that take action on it.”

Global average surface temperatures have risen by 0.8 degree Celsius (1.4F) since the Industrial Revolution.

Experts in Australia, the United States, Britain and Canada studied 4,000 summaries of peer-reviewed papers in journals giving a view about climate change since the early 1990s and found that 97 percent said it was mainly caused by humans.

They also asked authors for their views and found a 97 percent conviction from replies covering 2,000 papers. The data will be released at (www.skepticalscience.com).

The report said it was the biggest review so far of scientific opinion on climate change.

“If people disagree with what we’ve found we want to know,” said Mark Richardson of the University of Reading in England, one of the authors of the study that looked at English-language studies by authors in more than 90 nations.

Another co-author, Dana Nuccitelli of Skeptical Science, said she was encouraging scientists to stress the consensus “at every opportunity, particularly in media interviews”.

Opinion polls in some countries show widespread belief that scientists disagree about whether climate change is caused by human activities or is part of natural swings such as in the sun’s output.

A survey by the U.S. Pew Research Center published in October last year found 45 percent of Americans said “Yes” when asked: “Do scientists agree Earth is getting warmer because of human activity?” Forty-three percent said “No”.

Rising concentrations of carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas, hit 400 parts per million in the atmosphere last week, the highest in perhaps 3 million years.

Governments have agreed to work out, by the end of 2015, a deal to slow climate change that a U.N. panel of experts says will cause more floods, droughts and rising sea levels.

(Reporting By Alister Doyle; Editing by Janet Lawrence)