Tag Archives: climate change

A Global and Imperiled Treasure

Trail Ridge Road RMNP 2

About 25 miles from where I write lies Colorado’s Rocky Mountain National Park (RMNP). It’s a gorgeous part of the world — pristine forests, blue alpine lakes, frigid streams and ragged peaks. Luckily thanks to the persistent work of Enos Mills and President Woodrow Wilson’s signature RMNP has been protected from development and destruction since 1915. So too are its 411 sister regions and monuments that now make up the US National Park System.

The nationwide park system was officially founded 100 years ago today, August 25, 1916. It is a precious and priceless jewel — truly one of America’s best ideas.

On this centenary we should be reminded that each one of our parks and monuments requires our constant and vigilant protection. We must do all that we can to ensure that our children and their children can experience for themselves — over the next 100 years (and beyond) — some of nature’s true wonders.

Though keep in mind that while our parks may be protected from direct human exploitation they’re not immune to the ravages of climate change.

From the Guardian:

After a century of shooing away hunters, tending to trails and helping visitors enjoy the wonder of the natural world, the guardians of America’s most treasured places have been handed an almost unimaginable new job – slowing the all-out assault climate change is waging against national parks across the nation.

As the National Parks Service (NPS) has charted the loss of glaciers, sea level rise and increase in wildfires spurred by rising temperatures in recent years, the scale of the threat to US heritage across the 412 national parks and monuments has become starkly apparent.

As the National Parks Service turns 100 this week, their efforts to chart and stem the threat to the country’s history faces a daunting task. America’s grand symbols and painstakingly preserved archaeological sites are at risk of being winnowed away by the crashing waves, wildfires and erosion triggered by warming temperatures.

The Statue of Liberty is at “high exposure” risk from increasingly punishing storms. A national monument dedicated to abolitionist Harriet Tubman, who will be enshrined on a new $20 note, could be eaten away by rising tides in Maryland. The land once walked by Pocahontas and Captain John Smith in Jamestown, the first English settlement in the US, is surrounded by waters rising at twice the global average and may be beyond rescue.

These threats are the latest in a pile of identified calamities to befall national parks and monuments due to climate change. Receding ice, extreme heat and acidifying oceans are morphing America’s landscapes and coasts at a faster pace than at any time in human history.

“Yosemite’s famous glacier, once a mile wide, is almost gone,” fretted Barack Obama during a visit to the vast park in June.

“Rising temperatures could mean no more glaciers in Glacier national park, no more Joshua trees in Joshua Tree national park.

“Rising seas can destroy vital ecosystems in the Everglades and at some point could even threaten icons like the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island. That’s not the America I want to pass on to the next generation.”

Change, however, is inevitable no matter how quickly greenhouse gas emissions are cut. An NPS study from 2014 found four in five of America’s national parks are now at the “extreme end” of temperature variables charted since 1901.

“We are starting to see things spiral away now,” said Gregor Schuurman, an ecologist at the NPS climate change response program. “We are going to look back at this time and actually think it was a calm period. And then people will start asking questions about what we were doing about the situation.”

Read the entire story here.

Image: Above the clouds, near the famed Trail Ridge Road, Rocky Mountain National Park, Summer 2016. Courtesy: the author.

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Climate Change Equals Less Weather Predictability

NASA-Icemelt1

Severe weather often leads to human tragedy, and of course our crops, pets and property suffer too, as well as untold damage to numerous ecosystems. But whenever I see or read about a weather-induced catastrophe — local flooding or a super-typhoon halfway around the world — one thought always comes to mind: what kind of weather will my children face as long-term climate change takes hold.

Climate science offers continued predictions of doom and gloom: rising ocean levels, disappearing glaciers, stronger storms, longer droughts, more extreme weather.

But climate science also tells us that long-term climate change will make for generally less predictable weather. Our present day meteorologists armed with powerful computational climate models have become rather good at forecasting weather on local and global levels. Generally, we have a reasonably good idea of what our local weather will be tomorrow or next week or next month.

But a warming and changing climate adds much more uncertainty. William B. Gail, founder of the Global Weather Corporation and past president of the American Meteorological Society, cautions: there is a growing likelihood of increased unpredictability of our weather systems. Indeed, he predicts a new dark age, where climate change destroys our current understanding of weather patterns and undermines all our current, predictive weather models and forecasts. This is a huge problem for those of us who depend on accurate weather analytics for our livelihoods, especially farmers, fishing industries, aviation, ground transportation, and construction.

From NYT:

Imagine a future in which humanity’s accumulated wisdom about Earth — our vast experience with weather trends, fish spawning and migration patterns, plant pollination and much more — turns increasingly obsolete. As each decade passes, knowledge of Earth’s past becomes progressively less effective as a guide to the future. Civilization enters a dark age in its practical understanding of our planet.

To comprehend how this could occur, picture yourself in our grandchildren’s time, a century hence. Significant global warming has occurred, as scientists predicted. Nature’s longstanding, repeatable patterns — relied on for millenniums by humanity to plan everything from infrastructure to agriculture — are no longer so reliable. Cycles that have been largely unwavering during modern human history are disrupted by substantial changes in temperature and precipitation.

As Earth’s warming stabilizes, new patterns begin to appear. At first, they are confusing and hard to identify. Scientists note similarities to Earth’s emergence from the last ice age. These new patterns need many years — sometimes decades or more — to reveal themselves fully, even when monitored with our sophisticated observing systems. Until then, farmers will struggle to reliably predict new seasonal patterns and regularly plant the wrong crops. Early signs of major drought will go unrecognized, so costly irrigation will be built in the wrong places. Disruptive societal impacts will be widespread.

Such a dark age is a growing possibility. In a recent report, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine concluded that human-caused global warming was already altering patterns of some extreme weather events. But the report did not address the broader implication — that disrupting nature’s patterns could extend well beyond extreme weather, with far more pervasive impacts.

Our foundation of Earth knowledge, largely derived from historically observed patterns, has been central to society’s progress. Early cultures kept track of nature’s ebb and flow, passing improved knowledge about hunting and agriculture to each new generation. Science has accelerated this learning process through advanced observation methods and pattern discovery techniques. These allow us to anticipate the future with a consistency unimaginable to our ancestors.

But as Earth warms, our historical understanding will turn obsolete faster than we can replace it with new knowledge. Some patterns will change significantly; others will be largely unaffected, though it will be difficult to say what will change, by how much, and when.

The list of possible disruptions is long and alarming. We could see changes to the prevalence of crop and human pests, like locust plagues set off by drought conditions; forest fire frequency; the dynamics of the predator-prey food chain; the identification and productivity of reliably arable land, and the predictability of agriculture output.

Read the entire article here.

Image: Image pair of Muir Glacier and melt, Alaska. Left photo taken in 1882, by G.D. Hazard; Right photo taken in 2005 by Bruce F. Molnia. Courtesy: Glacier Photograph Collection, National Snow and Ice Data Center/World Data Center for Glaciology. NASA.

 

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Climate Change Threat Grows

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Eventually science and reason does prevail. But, in the case of climate change, our global response is fast becoming irrelevant. New research shows accelerating polar ice melt, accelerating global warming and an acceleration in mean sea-level rise. James Hansen and colleagues paint a much more dire picture than previously expected.

From the Guardian:

The current rate of global warming could raise sea levels by “several meters” over the coming century, rendering most of the world’s coastal cities uninhabitable and helping unleash devastating storms, according to a paper published by James Hansen, the former Nasa scientist who is considered the father of modern climate change awareness.

The research, published in Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics, references past climatic conditions, recent observations and future models to warn the melting of the Antarctic and Greenland ice sheets will contribute to a far worse sea level increase than previously thought.

Without a sharp reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, the global sea level is likely to increase “several meters over a timescale of 50 to 150 years”, the paper states, warning that the Earth’s oceans were six to nine meters higher during the Eemian period – an interglacial phase about 120,000 years ago that was less than 1C warmer than it is today.

Global warming of 2C above pre-industrial times – the world is already halfway to this mark – would be “dangerous” and risk submerging cities, the paper said. A separate study, released in February, warned that New York, London, Rio de Janeiro and Shanghai will be among the cities at risk from flooding by 2100.

Hansen’s research, written with 18 international colleagues, warns that humanity would not be able to properly adapt to such changes, although the paper concedes its conclusions “differ fundamentally from existing climate change assessments”.

The IPCC has predicted a sea level rise of up to one meter by 2100, if emissions are not constrained. Hansen, and other scientists, have argued the UN body’s assessment is too conservative as it doesn’t factor in the potential disintegration of the polar ice sheets.

Hansen’s latest work has proved controversial because it was initially published in draft form last July without undergoing a peer review process. Some scientists have questioned the assumptions made by Hansen and the soaring rate of sea level rise envisioned by his research, which has now been peer-reviewed and published.

Michael Mann, a prominent climate scientist at Pennsylvania State University, said the revised paper still has the same issues that initially “caused me concern”.

“Namely, the projected amounts of meltwater seem … large, and the ocean component of their model doesn’t resolve key wind-driven current systems (e.g. the Gulf Stream) which help transport heat poleward,” Mann said in an email to the Guardian.

“I’m always hesitant to ignore the findings and warnings of James Hansen; he has proven to be so very prescient when it comes to his early prediction about global warming. That having been said, I’m unconvinced that we could see melting rates over the next few decades anywhere near his exponential predictions, and everything else is contingent upon those melting rates being reasonable.”

Read the entire story here.

Image: A Flood on Java (c.1865-1876) by Raden Saleh, lithograph. Courtesy: Royal Netherlands Institute of Southeast Asian and the Caribbean Studies. Public Domain.

Video: Ice Melt, Sea Level Rise and Superstorms Video Abstract. Courtesy: Climate Science, Awareness and Solutions.

 

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Earth Day 2016: Silicon Swamp Edition

NOAA-Silicon-Valley-seal-level-rise-map

How better to mark this year’s Earth Day than to remind ourselves of the existential perils of climate change. As the Earth warms, polar ice melts, sea-levels rise. As sea-levels rise, low lying coastal lands submerge. Much of coastal Florida would disappear under a sea-level rise of a mere 6 feet.

Our tech innovation hub in Silicon Valley wouldn’t fare well either. Many of our tech giants, including Google, Facebook, Oracle, Cisco and Salesforce, have planted their roots on the bay-side of Silicon Valley. Much of this area is only a handful of feet above sea-level. Oh, and kiss goodbye to San Francisco International Airport as well — though perhaps the local VCs could re-purpose it into a sea-plane terminal.

The map above, courtesy of National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), highlights the flood prone areas in shades of blue.

From the Guardian:

Technology giants including Facebook and Google face the prospect of their prestigious Silicon Valley headquarters becoming swamped by water as rising sea levels threaten to submerge much of the property development boom gripping San Francisco and the Bay Area.

Sea level forecasts by a coalition of scientists show that the Silicon Valley bases for Facebook, Google and Cisco are at risk of being cut off or even flooded, even under optimistic scenarios where rapid cuts in greenhouse gas emissions avoid the most severe sea level increases.

Without significant adaptation, Facebook’s new campus appears most at risk. The 430,000 sq ft complex – topped with a nine-acre garden rooftop – is an extension of its Menlo Park base and was crafted by architect Frank Gehry. Located near the San Francisco Bay shoreline, the offices are designed to house 2,800 staff.

“Facebook is very vulnerable,” said Lindy Lowe, a senior planner at California’s Bay Conservation and Development Commission. “They built on a very low site – I don’t know why they chose to build there. Facebook thinks they can pay enough to protect themselves.

“The temporary flooding within the campus can probably be addressed, but the temporary flooding onto the roadway can’t be addressed by them. I think they realize that is the weakest link for them. We’ll see how dedicated they are to that facility.”

Facebook has elevated its office to spare it from flooding, but even with a 1.6ft rise in sea levels by the end of the century – which is towards the lower end of projections – the area around it will be inundated. Much sooner, within the coming decades, the roads leading into the complex will flood so regularly that major adaptions will be required to keep the site viable. Facebook didn’t respond to repeated requests to comment on the issue.

The situation is a little better for Google, located in Mountain View and also unwilling to discuss sea level rise, and Cisco, headquartered in San Jose. But should the Antarctic ice sheet disintegrate, as outlined in a recent scientific paper, seas will be pushed up beyond 6ft and swamp both businesses.

The situation is similarly stark for Salesforce, which would see its San Francisco base submerged under the worst sea level rise scenario. Meanwhile, Airbnb, located near the vulnerable Mission Bay area, will have its headquarters gain a much closer bayside view simply by staying put.

Read the entire store here.

Image: Sea-level rise and coastal flooding impacts, San Francisco / Bay Area map. Courtesy of NOAA.

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April Fool!

NASA-Thwaites Glacier

The media loves to prank us with a good April Fools’ joke each year. This one is a gem — human-driven climate change will melt our glaciers and polar ice at an increasingly faster pace than previously calculated. Result: faster rising oceans leading to higher ocean levels. What a great joke!

And, to quote the Republican front-runner for the presidential nomination, “I think our biggest form of climate change we should worry about is nuclear weapons.” Or, was it “a hoax created by the Chinese“?

Care to follow more of this global joke? Check out this peer reviewed paper.

Image: Icebergs that have broken from the calving side of Thwaites Glacier in Antarctica, November 2014. Courtesy Jim Yungel/NASA.

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Going, Going, Gone

Our planet continues to warm as climate change relentlessly marches on. These two images of Lake Poopó in the high Bolivian Andes over a period of three years shows the stark reality. The first image was taken in 2013 the second a mere three years later, in 2016.

The images are courtesy of the NASA Earth Observatory acquired by the Operational Land Imager (OLI) on the Landsat 8 satellite.

Most climatologists suggest that the lake will not return.

Lake Poopó, 2013

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Lake Poopó, 2016

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Read more about the causes and environmental and human consequences here.

Images: NASA Earth Observatory images by Jesse Allen, using Landsat data from the U.S. Geological Survey. Caption by Kathryn Hansen.

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Congressional Climate Science Twilight Zone

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By its own actions (or lack thereof) and admissions the US Congress is a place where nothing gets done, and that nothing is done by non-experts who know nothing — other than politics, of course. So, when climate science skeptics in the US Senate held their most recent, “scientific” hearing, titled: “Data or Dogma: Promoting Open Inquiry in the Debate over the Magnitude of Human Impact on Earth’s Climate”, you can imagine what ensued.

Without an ironic nod to the name of their own hearing, Senators proceeded to inquire only from scientists who support the idea that human created climate change is a myth. Our Senators decried the climate change lobby for persecuting this minority, suggesting that their science should carry as much weight as that from the other camp. Yet this sham of an “open inquiry” fails to recognize that 99 percent of peer-reviewed climate science is unequivocal in pointing the finger at humans. Our so-called leaders, yet again, continue to do us all — the whole planet — a thorough disservice.

By the way, the Senate Subcommittee on Science, Technology and Competitiveness is chaired by Senator Ted Cruz. He believes that his posse of climate change deniers are latter-day Galileo Galileis — a persecuted minority. But he fails to recognize that they are in the minority because the real science shows the minority to be wrong; Galileo was in the minority, but he was backed by science, not dogmatic opinion. I think Senator Cruz would make a great president, in the time of Galileo Galilei, since that is where his understanding of “science” and the scientific method still seems to reside.

From Wired:

You are entering the world of another dimension—a dimension of sight (look at the people who don’t like scientists), of sound (people talking a lot), and of mind (well, maybe not so much). There’s the signpost for the Dirksen Senate Office Building up ahead. Your next stop: Senator Ted Cruz’s hearing on climate change earlier this week, which felt very much like something from the Twilight Zone.

Cruz himself is an intense guy in a dark suit—but that’s where the evident similarities between the senator and Twilight Zone creator Rod Serling end. Serling was an abject, romantic humanist. Cruz’s hearing was more like one of the side-shifted worlds Twilight Zone stories always seemed to happen in, at the crossroads of science and superstition, fear and knowledge.

Stranger than the choreography and theatrics (police tossed a protester, Cruz spent plenty of time denouncing a witness who either didn’t show up or wasn’t invited, and a Canadian blogger barely contained his anger during a back-and-forth with Democratic Senator Ed Markey) was the topsy-turvy line of questioning pursued by Cruz, a Texas Republican and chairman of the Senate Subcommittee on Science, Technology and Competitiveness.

He opened the hearing—“Data or Dogma: Promoting Open Inquiry in the Debate over the Magnitude of Human Impact on Earth’s Climate”—with a tale of a 2013 expedition by New Zealand scientists. They were investigating Antarctic sea ice—”ice that the climate-industrial complex had assured us was vanishing,” Cruz said. “It was there to document how the ice was vanishing in the Antarctic, but the ship became stuck. It had run into an inconvenient truth, as Al Gore might put it. Facts matter, science matters, data matters.”

So OK. To bolster that us-versus-them narrative, Cruz invited scientists who believe they are being persecuted (or denied government funding)—just like Galileo was by the Catholic Church, they kept saying.

The other side of the aisle responded that these scientists aren’t being funded because their research and ideas don’t measure up to peer-review standards—or are just plain wrong.

Read the entire article here.

Image: The Demon Town cemetery in Majuro has lost many graves during a decade of constant inundations. The local people have moved their relatives’ remains and graves further inland, 2008. Courtesy of The Marshall Island Journal / Guardian Newspapers.

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It’s Time for a Cat 6 Hurricane

Patricia_2015-10-23_1730Z

Amateur meteorologist that I am I wonder when my professional colleagues will extend the Saffir–Simpson hurricane wind scale (SSHWS). Currently the scale classifies hurricanes — western hemisphere tropical cyclones — on a scale of 1 to 5. Category 1 hurricanes encompass winds between 74-95 miles per hour; category 5 storms gyrate in excess of 157 miles per hour. As our global climate becomes increasingly warmer — which it is — our weather is becoming increasingly more volatile and extreme — longer hotter droughts, greater torrential rainfall, higher floods.

Category 5 will soon need to be supplemented. After all, the recent storm to hit the Pacific coast of Mexico — hurricane Patricia — reached sustained winds of 201 miles per hour; Typhoon Haiyan had a top wind spend of only 195 mph when it slammed the Phillippines in 2013 killing over 7,000 residents.

From the NYT:

Hurricane Patricia was a surprise. The eastern Pacific hurricane strengthened explosively before hitting the coast of Mexico, far exceeding projections of scientists who study such storms.

And while the storm’s strength dissipated quickly when it struck land, a question remained. What made it such a monster?

Explanations were all over the map, with theories that included climate change (or not), and El Niño.

But the answer is more complicated. The interplay of all the different kinds of warming going on in the Pacific at the moment can be difficult to sort out and, as with the recent hurricane, attributing a weather event to a single cause is unrealistic.

Gabriel Vecchi, head of the climate variations and predictability group at the geophysical fluid dynamics laboratory of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in Princeton, N.J., likened the challenge to the board game Clue.

“There’s all these suspects, and we have them all in the room right now,” he said. “The key is to go and systematically figure out who was where and when, so we can exclude people or phenomena.” Extending the metaphor, he noted that criminal suspects could work together as accomplices, and there could be a character not yet known. And, as in all mysteries, “You can have a twist ending.”

At the moment, the world’s largest ocean is a troublesome place, creating storms and causing problems for people and marine life across the Pacific Rim and beyond. A partial list includes the strong El Niño system that has formed along the Equator, and another unusually persistent zone of warm water that has been sitting off the North American coast, wryly called “the Blob.”

And a longer-term cycle of heating and cooling known as the Pacific Decadal Oscillation may be switching from a cooling phase to a warming phase. On top of all that is the grinding progress of climate change, caused by accumulation of greenhouse gases generated by human activity.

Each of these phenomena operates on a different time scale, but for now they appear to be synchronized, a little like the way the second hand, minute hand and hour hand line up at the stroke of midnight. And the collective effects could be very powerful.

Read the entire story here.

Image: Hurricane Patricia at peak intensity and approaching the Western Mexico on October 23, 2015. Courtesy: MODIS image, NASA’s Terra satellite. Public Domain.

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Science, Politics and Experts

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Nowhere is the prickly relationship between science and politics more evident than in the climate change debate. The skeptics, many of whom seem to reside right of center in Congress, disbelieve any and all causal links between human activity and global warming. The fossil-fuel burning truckloads of data continue to show upward trends in all measures from mean sea-level and average temperature, to more frequent severe weather and longer droughts. Yet, the self-proclaimed, non-expert policy-makers in Congress continue to disbelieve the science, the data, the analysis and the experts.

But, could the tide be turning? The Republican Chair of the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology, Texas Congressman Lamar Smith, wants to see the detail behind the ongoing analysis that shows an ever-warming planet; he’s actually interested in seeing the raw climate data. Joy, at last! Representative Smith has decided to become an expert, right? Wrong. He’s trawling around for evidence that might show tampering of data and biased peer-reviewed analysis — science, after all, is just one great, elitist conspiracy theory.

One has to admire the Congressman’s tenacity. He and his herd of climate-skeptic apologists will continue to fiddle while Rome ignites and burns. But I suppose the warming of our planet is a good thing for Congressman Smith and his disbelieving (in science) followers, for it may well portend the End of Days that they believe (in biblical prophecy) and desire so passionately.

Oh, and the fact that Congressman Lamar Smith is Chair of  the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology?! Well, that will have to remain the subject of another post. What next, Donald Trump as head of the ACLU?

From ars technica:

In his position as Chair of the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology, Texas Congressman Lamar Smith has spent much of the last few years pressuring the National Science Foundation to ensure that it only funds science he thinks is worthwhile and “in the national interest.” His views on what’s in the national interest may not include the earth sciences, as Smith rejects the conclusions of climate science—as we saw first hand when we saw him speak at the Heartland Institute’s climate “skeptic” conference earlier this year.

So when National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) scientists published an update to the agency’s global surface temperature dataset that slightly increased the short-term warming trend since 1998, Rep. Smith was suspicious. The armada of contrarian blog posts that quickly alleged fraud may have stoked these suspicions. But since, again, he’s the chair of the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology, Rep. Smith was able to take action. He’s sent a series of requests to NOAA, which Ars obtained from Committee staff.

The requests started on July 14 when Smith wrote to the NOAA about the paper published in Science by Thomas Karl and his NOAA colleagues. The letter read, in part, “When corrections to scientific data are made, the quality of the analysis and decision-making is brought into question. The conclusions brought forth in this new study have lasting impacts and provide the basis for further action through regulations. With such broad implications, it is imperative that the underlying data and the analysis are made publicly available to ensure that the conclusions found and methods used are of the highest quality.”

Rep. Smith requested that the NOAA provide his office with “[a]ll data related to this study and the updated global datasets” along with the details of the analysis and “all documents and communications” related to part of that analysis.

In the publication at issue, the NOAA researchers had pulled in a new, larger database of weather station measurements and updated to the latest version of an ocean surface measurement dataset. The ocean data had new corrections for the different methods ships have used over the years to make temperature measurements. Most significantly, they estimated the difference between modern buoy stations and older thermometer-in-a-bucket measurements.

All the major temperature datasets go through revisions like these, as researchers are able to pull in more data and standardize disparate methods more effectively. Since the NOAA’s update, for example, NASA has pulled the same ocean temperature database into its dataset and updated its weather station database. The changes are always quite small, but they can sometimes alter estimates of some very short-term trends.

The NOAA responded to Rep. Smith’s request by pointing him to the relevant data and methods, all of which had already been publicly available. But on September 10, Smith sent another letter. “After review, I have additional questions related to the datasets used to adjust historical temperature records, as well as NOAA’s practices surrounding its use of climate data,” he wrote. The available data wasn’t enough, and he requested various subsets of the data—buoy readings separated out, for example, with both the raw and corrected data provided.

Read the entire story here.

Image: NOAA temperature record. Courtesy of NOAA.

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H2O and IQ

There is great irony in NASA’s recent discovery of water flowing on Mars.

First, that the gift of our intelligence allows us to make such amazing findings on other worlds while we use the same brain cells to enable the rape and pillage of our own.

CADrought-LakeOroville

Second, the meager seasonal trickles of liquid on the martian surface show us a dire possible future for our own planet.

Mars-Recurring-Slope-Lineae

From the Guardian:

Evidence for flowing water on Mars: this opens up the possibility of life, of wonders we cannot begin to imagine. Its discovery is an astonishing achievement. Meanwhile, Martian scientists continue their search for intelligent life on Earth.

We may be captivated by the thought of organisms on another planet, but we seem to have lost interest in our own. The Oxford Junior Dictionary has been excising the waymarks of the living world. Adders, blackberries, bluebells, conkers, holly, magpies, minnows, otters, primroses, thrushes, weasels and wrens are now surplus to requirements.

In the past four decades, the world has lost 50% of its vertebrate wildlife. But across the latter half of this period, there has been a steep decline in media coverage. In 2014, according to a study at Cardiff University, there were as many news stories broadcast by the BBC and ITV about Madeleine McCann (who went missing in 2007) as there were about the entire range of environmental issues.

Think of what would change if we valued terrestrial water as much as we value the possibility of water on Mars. Only 3% of the water on this planet is fresh; and of that, two-thirds is frozen. Yet we lay waste to the accessible portion. Sixty per cent of the water used in farming is needlessly piddled away by careless irrigation. Rivers, lakes and aquifers are sucked dry, while what remains is often so contaminated that it threatens the lives of those who drink it. In the UK, domestic demand is such that the upper reaches of many rivers disappear during the summer. Yet still we install clunky old toilets and showers that gush like waterfalls.

As for salty water, of the kind that so enthrals us when apparently detected on Mars, on Earth we express our appreciation with a frenzy of destruction. A new report suggests fish numbers have halved since 1970. Pacific bluefin tuna, which once roamed the seas in untold millions, have been reduced to an estimated 40,000, yet still they are pursued. Coral reefs are under such pressure that most could be gone by 2050. And in our own deep space, our desire for exotic fish rips through a world scarcely better known to us than the red planet’s surface. Trawlers are now working at depths of 2,000 metres. We can only guess at what they could be destroying.

A few hours before the Martian discovery was announced, Shell terminated its Arctic oil prospecting in the Chukchi Sea. For the company’s shareholders, it’s a minor disaster: the loss of $4bn; for those who love the planet and the life it sustains, it is a stroke of great fortune. It happened only because the company failed to find sufficient reserves. Had Shell succeeded, it would have exposed one of the most vulnerable places on Earth to spills, which are almost inevitable where containment is almost impossible. Are we to leave such matters to chance?

At the beginning of September, two weeks after he granted Shell permission to drill in the Chukchi Sea, Barack Obama travelled to Alaska to warn Americans about the devastating effects that climate change caused by the burning of fossil fuels could catalyse in the Arctic. “It’s not enough just to talk the talk”, he told them. “We’ve got to walk the walk.” We should “embrace the human ingenuity that can do something about it”. Human ingenuity is on abundant display at Nasa, which released those astounding images. But not when it comes to policy.

Let the market decide: this is the way in which governments seek to resolve planetary destruction. Leave it to the conscience of consumers, while that conscience is muted and confused by advertising and corporate lies. In a near-vacuum of information, we are each left to decide what we should take from other species and other people, what we should allocate to ourselves or leave to succeeding generations. Surely there are some resources and some places – such as the Arctic and the deep sea – whose exploitation should simply stop?

Read the entire article here.

Images: Lake Oroville, California, Earth, courtesy of U.S. Drought Portal. Recurring slope lineae, Mars, courtesy of NASA/JPL.

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PhotoMash: Climate Skeptic and Climate Science

Aptly, today’s juxtaposition of stories comes from the Washington Post. One day into the COP21 UN climate change conference in Paris, France, US House of Representatives’ science committee chair Lamar Smith is still at it. He’s a leading climate change skeptic, an avid opponent of the NOAA (National Atmospheric and Oceanic Administration) and self-styled overlord of the National Science Foundation (NSF). While Representative Smith seeks to politicize and skewer science, intimidate scientists and trample on funding for climate science research (and other types of basic science funding), our planet continues to warm.

Photomash-Climate-Skeptic-Climate-Facts

If you’re an open-minded scientist or just concerned about our planet this is not good.

So, it’s rather refreshing to see Representative Smith alongside a story showing that the month of December could be another temperature record breaker — the warmest on record for the northern tier of the continental US.

Images courtesy of the Washington Post, November 30, 2015.

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One Spinach Leaf = 1 Gallon of Water

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As I leafed through this article from the New York Times my jaw progressively dropped. The story and the underlying analysis brings the terrible Californian drought in to a very clear focus. The increasing lack of water in the state is causing policy makers to enact ever-tougher water restrictions and forcing farmers and consumers to use less and less of the precious liquid.

While the problem in California pales in comparison to the human cost of past global droughts in Africa and Asia, the situation nonetheless is becoming increasingly dire, especially for farmers and those who depend on their produce (most of us). I’ve been following developments in California for sometime, but I must admit until now I had never pondered the actual cost, in terms of water, of some of the foods I eat. Soul-searching required.

So, here’s a quick snapshot from some of the mountains of data:

The average American consumes over 300 gallons of California water each week by eating food that was produced there.

One spinach leaf — yes, one — requires just under 1 gallon of water to grow until ripe for eating.

It takes 4.1 gallons of water to produce a slice of California avocado each week, which is what an average American eats each week.

It takes over 1 gallon of water to produce ONE California almond.

It takes 42.5 gallons of water to produce 3 mandarin oranges.

Four glasses of milk require almost 144 gallons of water (most of this goes to growing the feed for the cattle that produce our milk and beef).

A handful of strawberries needs 1 gallon of water.

Check out the detailed research here.

Image: Spinach leaves. Public domain.

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Heads in the Rising Tide

King-Knut

Officials from the state of Florida seem to have their heads in the sand (and other places); sand that is likely to be swept from their very own Florida shores as sea levels rise. However, surely climate change could be an eventual positive for Florida: think warmer climate and huge urban swathes underwater — a great new Floridian theme park! But, remember, don’t talk about it. I suppose officials will soon be looking for a contemporary version of King Canute to help them out of this watery pickle.

From Wired:

The oceans are slowly overtaking Florida. Ancient reefs of mollusk and coral off the present-day coasts are dying. Annual extremes in hot and cold, wet and dry, are becoming more pronounced. Women and men of science have investigated, and a great majority agree upon a culprit. In the outside world, this culprit has a name, but within the borders of Florida, it does not. According to a  Miami Herald investigation, the state Department of Environmental Protection has since 2010 had an unwritten policy prohibiting the use of some well-understood phrases for the meteorological phenomena slowly drowning America’s weirdest-shaped state. It’s … that thing where burning too much fossil fuel puts certain molecules into a certain atmosphere, disrupting a certain planetary ecosystem. You know what we’re talking about. We know you know. They know we know you know. But are we allowed to talk about … you know? No. Not in Florida. It must not be spoken of. Ever.

Unless … you could, maybe, type around it? It’s worth a shot.

The cyclone slowdown

It has been nine years since Florida was hit by a proper hurricane. Could that be a coincidence? Sure. Or it could be because of … something. A nameless, voiceless something. A feeling, like a pricking-of-thumbs, this confluence-of-chemistry-and-atmospheric-energy-over-time. If so, this anonymous dreadfulness would, scientists say, lead to a drier middle layer of atmosphere over the ocean. Because water vapor stores energy, this dry air will suffocate all but the most energetic baby storms. “So the general thinking, is that that as [redacted] levels increase, it ultimately won’t have an effect on the number of storms,” says Jim Kossin, a scientist who studies, oh, how about “things-that-happen-in-the-atmosphere-over-long-time-periods” at the National Centers for Environmental Information. “However, there is a lot of evidence that if a storm does form, it has a chance of getting very strong.”

Storms darken the sky

Hurricanes are powered by energy in the sea. And as cold and warm currents thread around the globe, storms go through natural, decades-long cycles of high-to-low intensity. “There is a natural 40-to-60-year oscillation in what sea surface temperatures are doing, and this is driven by ocean-wide currents that move on very slow time scales,” says Kossin, who has authored reports for the Intergovernmental Panel on, well, let’s just call it Chemical-and-Thermodynamic-Alterations-to-Long-Term-Atmospheric-Conditions. But in recent years, storms have become stronger than that natural cycle would otherwise predict. Kossin says that many in his field agree that while the natural churning of the ocean is behind this increasing intensity, other forces are at work. Darker, more sinister forces, like thermodynamics. Possibly even chemistry. No one knows for sure. Anyway, storms are getting less frequent, but stronger. It’s an eldritch tale of unspeakable horror, maybe.

 Read the entire article here.

Image: King Knut (or Cnut or Canute) the Great, illustrated in a medieval manuscript. Courtesy of Der Spiegel Geschichte.

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Nuisance Flooding = Sea-Level Rise

hurricane_andrewGovernment officials in Florida are barred from using the terms “climate change”, “global warming”, “sustainable” and other related terms. Apparently, they’ll have to use the euphemism “nuisance flooding” in place of “sea-level rise”. One wonders what literary trick they’ll conjure up next time the state gets hit by a hurricane — “Oh, that? Just a ‘mischievous little breeze’, I’m not a scientist you know.”

From the Guardian:

Officials with the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), the agency in charge of setting conservation policy and enforcing environmental laws in the state, issued directives in 2011 barring thousands of employees from using the phrases “climate change” and “global warming”, according to a bombshell report by the Florida Center for Investigative Reporting (FCIR).

The report ties the alleged policy, which is described as “unwritten”, to the election of Republican governor Rick Scott and his appointment of a new department director that year. Scott, who was re-elected last November, has declined to say whether he believes in climate change caused by human activity.

“I’m not a scientist,” he said in one appearance last May.

Scott’s office did not return a call Sunday from the Guardian, seeking comment. A spokesperson for the governor told the FCIR team: “There’s no policy on this.”

The FCIR report was based on statements by multiple named former employees who worked in different DEP offices around Florida. The instruction not to refer to “climate change” came from agency supervisors as well as lawyers, according to the report.

“We were told not to use the terms ‘climate change’, ‘global warming’ or ‘sustainability’,” the report quotes Christopher Byrd, who was an attorney with the DEP’s Office of General Counsel in Tallahassee from 2008 to 2013, as saying. “That message was communicated to me and my colleagues by our superiors in the Office of General Counsel.”

“We were instructed by our regional administrator that we were no longer allowed to use the terms ‘global warming’ or ‘climate change’ or even ‘sea-level rise’,” said a second former DEP employee, Kristina Trotta. “Sea-level rise was to be referred to as ‘nuisance flooding’.”

According to the employees’ accounts, the ban left damaging holes in everything from educational material published by the agency to training programs to annual reports on the environment that could be used to set energy and business policy.

The 2014 national climate assessment for the US found an “imminent threat of increased inland flooding” in Florida due to climate change and called the state “uniquely vulnerable to sea level rise”.

Read the entire story here.

Image: Hurricane Floyd 1999, a “mischievous little breeze”. Courtesy of NASA.

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The US Senator From Oklahoma and the Snowball

By their own admission Republicans in the US Congress are not scientists, and clearly most, if not all, have no grasp of science, the scientific method, or the meaning of scientific theory or broad scientific consensus. The Senator from Oklahoma, James Inhofe, is the perfect embodiment of this extraordinary condition — perhaps a psychosis even — whereby a human living in the 21st century has no clue. Senator Inhofe recently gave us his infantile analysis of climate change on the Senate floor, accompanied by a snowball. This will make you then laugh, then cry.

From Scientific American:

“In case we have forgotten, because we keep hearing that 2014 has been the warmest year on record, I ask the chair, you know what this is? It’s a snowball. And that’s just from outside here. So it’s very, very cold out.”

Oklahoma Senator James Inhofe, the biggest and loudest climate change denier in Congress, last week on the floor of the senate. But his facile argument, that it’s cold enough for snow to exist in Washington, D.C., therefore climate change is a hoax, was rebutted in the same venue by Rhode Island Senator Sheldon Whitehouse:

“You can believe NASA and you can believe what their satellites measure on the planet, or you can believe the Senator with the snowball. The United States Navy takes this very seriously, to the point where Admiral Locklear, who is the head of the Pacific Command, has said that climate change is the biggest threat that we face in the Pacific…you can either believe the United States Navy or you can believe the Senator with the snowball…every major American scientific society has put itself on record, many of them a decade ago, that climate change is deadly real. They measure it, they see it, they know why it happens. The predictions correlate with what we see as they increasingly come true. And the fundamental principles, that it is derived from carbon pollution, which comes from burning fossil fuels, are beyond legitimate dispute…so you can believe every single major American scientific society, or you can believe the Senator with the snowball.”

Read the entire story here.

Video: Senator Inhofe with Snowball. Courtesy of C-Span.

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US Politicians Are Not Scientists, They’re…

A recent popular refrain from politicians in the US is “I am not a scientist”. This is code, mostly from the mouths of Republicans, for a train of thought that goes something like this:

1. Facts discovered through the scientific method are nothing more than opinion.

2. However, my beliefs are fact.

3. Hence, anything that is explained through science is wrong.

4. Thus, case closed.

Those who would have us believe that climate change is an illusion now take cover behind this quaint “I am not a scientist” phrase, and in so doing are able to shirk from questions of any consequence. So, it’s good to hear potential Republican presidential candidate, Scott Walker, tow the party line recently by telling us that he’s no scientist and “punting” (aka ignoring) on questions of climate change. This on the same day that NASA, Cornell and Columbia warn that global warming is likely to bring severe, multi-decade long megadroughts — the worst in a thousand years — to the central and southwestern US in our children’s lifetimes.

The optimist in me hopes that when my children come of age they will elect politicians who are scientists or leaders who accept the scientific method. Please. It’s time to ditch Flat Earthers, creationists and “believers”. It’s time to shun those who shun critical thinking, reason and evidence. It’s time to move beyond those who merely say anything or nothing to get elected.

From ars technica:

Given that February 12 would be Charles Darwin’s 206th birthday, having people spare some thought for the theory of evolution doesn’t seem outrageously out of place this week. But, for a US politician visiting London, a question on the matter was clearly unwelcome.

Scott Walker, governor of Wisconsin and possible presidential candidate, was obviously hoping for a chance to have a few experiences that would make him seem more credible on the foreign policy scene. But the host of a British TV show asked some questions that, for many in the US, touch on matters of personal belief and the ability to think critically: “Are you comfortable with the idea of evolution? Do you believe in it? Do you accept it?” (A video that includes these questions along with extensive commentary is available here.)

Walker, rather than oblige his host, literally answered that he was going to dodge the question, saying, “For me, I’m going to punt on that one as well. That’s a question a politician shouldn’t be involved in one way or another.”

“Punting,” for those not up on their sports metaphors, is a means of tactically giving up. When a football team punts, it gives the other team control of the ball but prevents a variety of many worse situations from developing.

In some ways, this is an improvement for a politician. When it comes to climate change, many politicians perform a dodge by saying “I’m not a scientist” and then proceed to make stupid pronouncements about the state of science. Here, Walker didn’t make any statements whatsoever.

So, that’s a step up from excusing stupidity. But is this really a question that should be punted? To begin with, Walker may not feel it’s a question a politician should be involved with, but plenty of other politicians clearly do. At a minimum, punting meant Walker passed on an opportunity to explain why he feels those efforts to interfere in science education are misguided and why his stand is more principled.

But, much more realistically, Walker is punting not because he feels the question shouldn’t be answered by politicians, but because he sees lots of political downsides to answering. Politicians had been getting hit with the evolution question since at least 2007, and our initial analysis of it still stands. If you agree with over a century of scientific exploration, you run the risk of alienating a community that has established itself as a reliable contributor of votes to Republican politicians such as Walker. We could see why he would want to avoid that.

Saying you refuse to accept evolution raises valid questions about your willingness to analyze evidence rationally and accept the opinions of people with expertise in a topic. Either that, or it suggests you’re willing to say anything in order to improve your chances of being elected. But punting is effectively the same thing—it suggests you’ll avoid saying anything in order to improve your chances of being elected.

Read the entire article here.

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MondayMap: Drought Mapping

US-droughtThe NYT has an fascinating and detailed article bursting with charts and statistics that shows the pervasive grip of the drought in the United States. The desert Southwest and West continue to be parched and scorching. This is not a pretty picture for farmers and increasingly for those (sub-)urban dwellers who rely upon a fragile and dwindling water supply.

From the NYT:

Droughts appear to be intensifying over much of the West and Southwest as a result of global warming. Over the past decade, droughts in some regions have rivaled the epic dry spells of the 1930s and 1950s. About 34 percent of the contiguous United States was in at least a moderate drought as of July 22.
Things have been particularly bad in California, where state officials have approved drastic measures to reduce water consumption. California farmers, without water from reservoirs in the Central Valley, are left to choose which of their crops to water. Parts of Texas, Oklahoma and surrounding states are also suffering from drought conditions.
The relationship between the climate and droughts is complicated. Parts of the country are becoming wetter: East of the Mississippi, rainfall has been rising. But global warming also appears to be causing moisture to evaporate faster in places that were already dry. Researchers believe drought conditions in these places are likely to intensify in coming years.
There has been little relief for some places since the summer of 2012. At the recent peak this May, about 40 percent of the country was abnormally dry or in at least a moderate drought.

Read the entire story and see the statistics for yourself here.

Image courtesy of Drought Monitor / NYT.

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Climate Change Denial: English Only

It’s official. Native English-speakers are more likely to be in denial over climate change than non-English speakers. In fact, many who do not see a human hand in our planet’s environmental and climatic troubles are located in the United States, Britain,  Australia and Canada. Enough said, in English.

Sacre bleu!

Now, the Guardian would have you believe that media monopolist — Rupert Murdoch — is behind the climate change skeptics and deniers. After all, he is well known for his views on climate and his empire controls large swathes of the media that most English-speaking people consume.  However, it’s probably a little more complicated.

From the Guardian:

Here in the United States, we fret a lot about global warming denial. Not only is it a dangerous delusion, it’s an incredibly prevalent one. Depending on your survey instrument of choice, we regularly learn that substantial minorities of Americans deny, or are sceptical of, the science of climate change.

The global picture, however, is quite different. For instance, recently the UK-based market research firm Ipsos MORI released its “Global Trends 2014” report, which included a number of survey questions on the environment asked across 20 countries. (h/t Leo Hickman). And when it came to climate change, the result was very telling.

Note that these results are not perfectly comparable across countries, because the data were gathered online, and Ipsos MORI cautions that for developing countries like India and China, “the results should be viewed as representative of a more affluent and ‘connected’ population.”

Nonetheless, some pretty significant patterns are apparent. Perhaps most notably: Not only is the United States clearly the worst in its climate denial, but Great Britain and Australia are second and third worst, respectively. Canada, meanwhile, is the seventh worst.

What do these four nations have in common? They all speak the language of Shakespeare.

Why would that be? After all, presumably there is nothing about English, in and of itself, that predisposes you to climate change denial. Words and phrases like “doubt,” “natural causes,” “climate models,” and other sceptic mots are readily available in other languages. So what’s the real cause?

One possible answer is that it’s all about the political ideologies prevalent in these four countries.

The US climate change counter movement is comprised of 91 separate organizations, with annual funding, collectively, of “just over $900 million.” And they all speak English.

“I do not find these results surprising,” says Riley Dunlap, a sociologist at Oklahoma State University who has extensively studied the climate denial movement. “It’s the countries where neo-liberalism is most hegemonic and with strong neo-liberal regimes (both in power and lurking on the sidelines to retake power) that have bred the most active denial campaigns—US, UK, Australia and now Canada. And the messages employed by these campaigns filter via the media and political elites to the public, especially the ideologically receptive portions.” (Neoliberalism is an economic philosophy centered on the importance of free markets and broadly opposed to big government interventions.)

Indeed, the English language media in three of these four countries are linked together by a single individual: Rupert Murdoch. An apparent climate sceptic or lukewarmer, Murdoch is the chairman of News Corp and 21st Century Fox. (You can watch him express his climate views here.) Some of the media outlets subsumed by the two conglomerates that he heads are responsible for quite a lot of English language climate scepticism and denial.

In the US, Fox News and the Wall Street Journal lead the way; research shows that Fox watching increases distrust of climate scientists. (You can also catch Fox News in Canada.) In Australia, a recent study found that slightly under a third of climate-related articles in 10 top Australian newspapers “did not accept” the scientific consensus on climate change, and that News Corp papers — the Australian, the Herald Sun, and the Daily Telegraph — were particular hotbeds of scepticism. “TheAustralian represents climate science as matter of opinion or debate rather than as a field for inquiry and investigation like all scientific fields,” noted the study.

And then there’s the UK. A 2010 academic study found that while News Corp outlets in this country from 1997 to 2007 did not produce as much strident climate scepticism as did their counterparts in the US and Australia, “the Sun newspaper offered a place for scornful sceptics on its opinion pages as did The Times and Sunday Times to a lesser extent.” (There are also other outlets in the UK, such as the Daily Mail, that feature plenty of scepticism but aren’t owned by News Corp.)

Thus, while there may not be anything inherent to the English language that impels climate denial, the fact that English language media are such a major source of that denial may in effect create a language barrier.

And media aren’t the only reason that denialist arguments are more readily available in the English language. There’s also the Anglophone nations’ concentration of climate “sceptic” think tanks, which provide the arguments and rationalisations necessary to feed this anti-science position.

According to a study in the journal Climatic Change earlier this year, the US is home to 91 different organisations (think tanks, advocacy groups, and trade associations) that collectively comprise a “climate change counter-movement.” The annual funding of these organisations, collectively, is “just over $900 million.” That is a truly massive amount of English-speaking climate “sceptic” activity, and while the study was limited to the US, it is hard to imagine that anything comparable exists in non-English speaking countries.

Read the entire article here.

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Thwaites

thwaits_icebridge_2012

Over the coming years the words “Thwaites Glacier” will become known to many people, especially those who make their home near the world’s oceans. The thawing of Antarctic ice and the accelerating melting of its glaciers — of which Thwaites is a prime example — pose an increasing threat to our coasts, but imperil us all.

Thwaites is one of size mega-glaciers that drain into the West Antarctic’s Amundsen Sea. If all were to melt completely, as they are continuing to do, global sea-level would be projected to rise an average of 4½ feet. Astonishingly, this catastrophe in the making has passed a tipping-point — climatologists and glaciologists now tend to agree that the melting is irreversible and accelerating.

From ars technica:

Today, researchers at UC Irvine and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory have announced results indicating that glaciers across a large area of West Antarctica have been destabilized and that there is little that will stop their continuing retreat. These glaciers are all that stand between the ocean and a massive basin of ice that sits below sea level. Should the sea invade this basin, we’d be committed to several meters of sea level rise.

Even in the short term, the new findings should increase our estimates for sea level rise by the end of the century, the scientists suggest. But the ongoing process of retreat and destabilization will mean that the area will contribute to rising oceans for centuries.

The press conference announcing these results is ongoing. We will have a significant update on this story later today.

UPDATE (2:05pm CDT):

The glaciers in question are in West Antarctica, and drain into the Amundsen Sea. On the coastal side, the ends of the glacier are actually floating on ocean water. Closer to the coast, there’s what’s called a “grounding line,” where the weight of the ice above sea level pushes the bottom of the glacier down against the sea bed. From there on, back to the interior of Antarctica, all of the ice is directly in contact with the Earth.

That’s a rather significant fact, given that, just behind a range of coastal hills, all of the ice is sitting in a huge basin that’s significantly below sea level. In total, the basin contains enough ice to raise sea levels approximately four meters, largely because the ice piled in there rises significantly above sea level.

Because of this configuration, the grounding line of the glaciers that drain this basin act as a protective barrier, keeping the sea back from the base of the deeper basin. Once ocean waters start infiltrating the base of a glacier, the glacier melts, flows faster, and thins. This lessens the weight holding the glacier down, ultimately causing it to float, which hastens its break up. Since the entire basin is below sea level (in some areas by over a kilometer), water entering the basin via any of the glaciers could destabilize the entire thing.

Thus, understanding the dynamics of the grounding lines is critical. Today’s announcements have been driven by two publications. One of them models the behavior of one of these glaciers, and shows that it has likely reached a point where it will be prone to a sudden retreat sometime in the next few centuries. The second examines every glacier draining this basin, and shows that all but one of them are currently losing contact with their grounding lines.

Ungrounded

The data come from two decades worth of data from the ESA’s Earth Remote Sensing satellites. These include radar that performs two key functions: peers through the ice to get a sense of the terrain that lies buried under the ice near the grounding line. And, through interferometry, it tracks the dynamics of the ice sheet’s flow in the area, as well as its thinning and the location of the grounding line itself. The study tracks a number of glaciers that all drain into the region: Pine Island, Thwaites, Haynes, and Smith/Kohler.

As we’ve covered previously, the Pine Island Glacier came ungrounded in the second half of the past decade, retreating up to 31km in the process. Although this was the one that made headlines, all the glaciers in the area are in retreat. Thwaites saw areas retreat up to 14km over the course of the study, Haynes retracted by 10km, and the Smith/Kohler glaciers retreated by 35km.

The retreating was accompanied by thinning of the glaciers, as ice that had been held back above sea levels in the interior spread forward and thinned out. This contributed to sea level rise, and the speakers at the press conference agreed that the new data shows that the recently released IPCC estimates for sea level rise are out of date; even by the end of this century, the continuation of this process will significantly increase the rate of sea level rise we can expect.

The real problem, however, comes later. Glaciers can establish new grounding lines if there’s a feature in the terrain, such as a hill that rises above sea level, that provides a new anchoring point. The authors see none: “Upstream of the 2011 grounding line positions, we find no major bed obstacle that would prevent the glaciers from further retreat and draw down the entire basin.” In fact, several of the existing grounding lines are close to points where the terrain begins to slope downward into the basin.

For some of the glaciers, the problems are already starting. At Pine Island, the bottom of the glacier is now sitting on terrain that’s 400 meters deeper than where the end rested in 1992, and there are no major hills between there and the basin. As far as the Smith/Kohler glaciers, the grounding line is 800 meters deeper and “its ice shelf pinning points are vanishing.”

What’s next?

As a result, the authors concluded that these glaciers are essentially destabilized—unless something changes radically, they’re destined for retreat into the indefinite future. But what will the trajectory of that retreat look like? In this case, the data doesn’t directly help. It needs to be fed into a model that projects the current melting into the future. Conveniently, a different set of scientists has already done this modeling.

The work focuses on the Thwaites glacier, which appears to be the most stable: there are 60-80km before between the existing terminus and the deep basin, and two or three ridges within that distance that will allow the formation of new grounding lines.

The authors simulated the behavior of Thwaites using a number of different melting rates. These ranged from a low that approximated the behavior typical in the early 90s, to a high rate of melt that is similar to what was observed in recent years. Every single one of these situations saw the Thwaites retreat into the deep basin within the next 1,000 years. In the higher melt scenarios—the ones most reflective of current conditions—this typically took only a few centuries.

The other worrisome behavior is that there appeared to be a tipping point. In every simulation that saw an extensive retreat, rates of melting shifted from under 80 gigatonnes of ice per year to 150 gigatonnes or more, all within the span of a couple of decades. In the later conditions, this glacier alone contributed half a centimeter to sea level rise—every year.

Read the entire article here.

Image: Thwaites Glacier, Antarctica, 2012. Courtesy of NASA Earth Observatory.

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It’s Happening Now

Greenland-ice

There is one thing wrong with the dystopian future painted by climate change science — it’s not in our future; it’s happening now.

From the New York Times:

Climate change is already having sweeping effects on every continent and throughout the world’s oceans, scientists reported on Monday, and they warned that the problem was likely to grow substantially worse unless greenhouse emissions are brought under control.

The report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a United Nations group that periodically summarizes climate science, concluded that ice caps are melting, sea ice in the Arctic is collapsing, water supplies are coming under stress, heat waves and heavy rains are intensifying, coral reefs are dying, and fish and many other creatures are migrating toward the poles or in some cases going extinct.

The oceans are rising at a pace that threatens coastal communities and are becoming more acidic as they absorb some of the carbon dioxide given off by cars and power plants, which is killing some creatures or stunting their growth, the report found.

Organic matter frozen in Arctic soils since before civilization began is now melting, allowing it to decay into greenhouse gases that will cause further warming, the scientists said. And the worst is yet to come, the scientists said in the second of three reports that are expected to carry considerable weight next year as nations try to agree on a new global climate treaty.

In particular, the report emphasized that the world’s food supply is at considerable risk — a threat that could have serious consequences for the poorest nations.

“Nobody on this planet is going to be untouched by the impacts of climate change,” Rajendra K. Pachauri, chairman of the intergovernmental panel, said at a news conference here on Monday presenting the report.

The report was among the most sobering yet issued by the scientific panel. The group, along with Al Gore, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2007 for its efforts to clarify the risks of climate change. The report is the final work of several hundred authors; details from the drafts of this and of the last report in the series, which will be released in Berlin in April, leaked in the last few months.

The report attempts to project how the effects will alter human society in coming decades. While the impact of global warming may actually be moderated by factors like economic or technological change, the report found, the disruptions are nonetheless likely to be profound. That will be especially so if emissions are allowed to continue at a runaway pace, the report said.

It cited the risk of death or injury on a wide scale, probable damage to public health, displacement of people and potential mass migrations.

“Throughout the 21st century, climate-change impacts are projected to slow down economic growth, make poverty reduction more difficult, further erode food security, and prolong existing and create new poverty traps, the latter particularly in urban areas and emerging hot spots of hunger,” the report declared.

The report also cited the possibility of violent conflict over land, water or other resources, to which climate change might contribute indirectly “by exacerbating well-established drivers of these conflicts such as poverty and economic shocks.”

The scientists emphasized that climate change is not just a problem of the distant future, but is happening now.

Studies have found that parts of the Mediterranean region are drying out because of climate change, and some experts believe that droughts there have contributed to political destabilization in the Middle East and North Africa.

In much of the American West, mountain snowpack is declining, threatening water supplies for the region, the scientists said in the report. And the snow that does fall is melting earlier in the year, which means there is less melt water to ease the parched summers. In Alaska, the collapse of sea ice is allowing huge waves to strike the coast, causing erosion so rapid that it is already forcing entire communities to relocate.

“Now we are at the point where there is so much information, so much evidence, that we can no longer plead ignorance,” Michel Jarraud, secretary general of the World Meteorological Organization, said at the news conference.

The report was quickly welcomed in Washington, where President Obama is trying to use his executive power under the Clean Air Act and other laws to impose significant new limits on the country’s greenhouse emissions. He faces determined opposition in Congress.

“There are those who say we can’t afford to act,” Secretary of State John Kerry said in a statement. “But waiting is truly unaffordable. The costs of inaction are catastrophic.”

Amid all the risks the experts cited, they did find a bright spot. Since the intergovernmental panel issued its last big report in 2007, it has found growing evidence that governments and businesses around the world are making extensive plans to adapt to climate disruptions, even as some conservatives in the United States and a small number of scientists continue to deny that a problem exists.

“I think that dealing effectively with climate change is just going to be something that great nations do,” said Christopher B. Field, co-chairman of the working group that wrote the report and an earth scientist at the Carnegie Institution for Science in Stanford, Calif. Talk of adaptation to global warming was once avoided in some quarters, on the ground that it would distract from the need to cut emissions. But the past few years have seen a shift in thinking, including research from scientists and economists who argue that both strategies must be pursued at once.

Read the entire article here.

Image: Greenland ice melt. Courtesy of Christine Zenino / Smithsonian.

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Daddy, What Is Snow?

No-snow-on-slopes

Adults living at higher latitudes will remember snow falling during the cold seasons, but most will recall having seen more snow when they were younger. As climate change continues to shift our global weather patterns, and increase global temperatures, our children and grand-children may have to make do with artificially made snow or watch a historical documentary of the real thing when they reach adulthood.

Our glaciers are retreating and snowcaps are melting. The snow is disappearing. This may be a boon to local governments that can save precious dollars from discontinuing snow and ice removal activities. But for those of us who love to ski and snowboard and skate, or just throw snowballs, build snowmen with our kids or gasp in awe at an icy panorama — snow, you’ll be sorely missed.

From the NYT:

OVER the next two weeks, hundreds of millions of people will watch Americans like Ted Ligety and Mikaela Shiffrin ski for gold on the downhill alpine course. Television crews will pan across epic vistas of the rugged Caucasus Mountains, draped with brilliant white ski slopes. What viewers might not see is the 16 million cubic feet of snow that was stored under insulated blankets last year to make sure those slopes remained white, or the hundreds of snow-making guns that have been running around the clock to keep them that way.

Officials canceled two Olympic test events last February in Sochi after several days of temperatures above 60 degrees Fahrenheit and a lack of snowfall had left ski trails bare and brown in spots. That situation led the climatologist Daniel Scott, a professor of global change and tourism at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, to analyze potential venues for future Winter Games. His thought was that with a rise in the average global temperature of more than 7 degrees Fahrenheit possible by 2100, there might not be that many snowy regions left in which to hold the Games. He concluded that of the 19 cities that have hosted the Winter Olympics, as few as 10 might be cold enough by midcentury to host them again. By 2100, that number shrinks to 6.

The planet has warmed 1.4 degrees Fahrenheit since the 1800s, and as a result, snow is melting. In the last 47 years, a million square miles of spring snow cover has disappeared from the Northern Hemisphere. Europe has lost half of its Alpine glacial ice since the 1850s, and if climate change is not reined in, two-thirds of European ski resorts will be likely to close by 2100.

The same could happen in the United States, where in the Northeast, more than half of the 103 ski resorts may no longer be viable in 30 years because of warmer winters. As far for the Western part of the country, it will lose an estimated 25 to 100 percent of its snowpack by 2100 if greenhouse gas emissions are not curtailed — reducing the snowpack in Park City, Utah, to zero and relegating skiing to the top quarter of Ajax Mountain in Aspen.

The facts are straightforward: The planet is getting hotter. Snow melts above 32 degrees Fahrenheit. The Alps are warming two to three times faster than the worldwide average, possibly because of global circulation patterns. Since 1970, the rate of winter warming per decade in the United States has been triple the rate of the previous 75 years, with the strongest trends in the Northern regions of the country. Nine of the 10 hottest years on record have occurred since 2000, and this winter is already looking to be one of the driest on record — with California at just 12 percent of its average snowpack in January, and the Pacific Northwest at around 50 percent.

To a skier, snowboarder or anyone who has spent time in the mountains, the idea of brown peaks in midwinter is surreal. Poets write of the grace and beauty by which snowflakes descend and transform a landscape. Powder hounds follow the 100-odd storms that track across the United States every winter, then drive for hours to float down a mountainside in the waist-deep “cold smoke” that the storms leave behind.

The snow I learned to ski on in northern Maine was more blue than white, and usually spewed from snow-making guns instead of the sky. I didn’t like skiing at first. It was cold. And uncomfortable.

Then, when I was 12, the mystical confluence of vectors that constitute a ski turn aligned, and I was hooked. I scrubbed toilets at my father’s boatyard on Mount Desert Island in high school so I could afford a ski pass and sold season passes in college at Mad River Glen in Vermont to get a free pass for myself. After graduating, I moved to Jackson Hole, Wyo., for the skiing. Four years later, Powder magazine hired me, and I’ve been an editor there ever since.

My bosses were generous enough to send me to five continents over the last 15 years, with skis in tow. I’ve skied the lightest snow on earth on the northern Japanese island of Hokkaido, where icy fronts spin off the Siberian plains and dump 10 feet of powder in a matter of days. In the high peaks of Bulgaria and Morocco, I slid through snow stained pink by grains of Saharan sand that the crystals formed around.

In Baja, Mexico, I skied a sliver of hardpack snow at 10,000 feet on Picacho del Diablo, sandwiched between the Sea of Cortez and the Pacific Ocean. A few years later, a crew of skiers and I journeyed to the whipsaw Taurus Mountains in southern Turkey to ski steep couloirs alongside caves where troglodytes lived thousands of years ago.

At every range I traveled to, I noticed a brotherhood among mountain folk: Say you’re headed into the hills, and the doors open. So it has been a surprise to see the winter sports community, as one of the first populations to witness effects of climate change in its own backyard, not reacting more vigorously and swiftly to reverse the fate we are writing for ourselves.

It’s easy to blame the big oil companies and the billions of dollars they spend on influencing the media and popular opinion. But the real reason is a lack of knowledge. I know, because I, too, was ignorant until I began researching the issue for a book on the future of snow.

I was floored by how much snow had already disappeared from the planet, not to mention how much was predicted to melt in my lifetime. The ski season in parts of British Columbia is four to five weeks shorter than it was 50 years ago, and in eastern Canada, the season is predicted to drop to less than two months by midcentury. At Lake Tahoe, spring now arrives two and a half weeks earlier, and some computer models predict that the Pacific Northwest will receive 40 to 70 percent less snow by 2050. If greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise — they grew 41 percent between 1990 and 2008 — then snowfall, winter and skiing will no longer exist as we know them by the end of the century.

The effect on the ski industry has already been significant. Between 1999 and 2010, low snowfall years cost the industry $1 billion and up to 27,000 jobs. Oregon took the biggest hit out West, with 31 percent fewer skier visits during low snow years. Next was Washington at 28 percent, Utah at 14 percent and Colorado at 7.7 percent.

Read the entire story here.

Image courtesy of USA Today.

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The Persistent Threat to California

california-drought

Historians dispute the etymology of the name California. One possible origin comes from the Spanish Catalan phrase which roughly translates as “hot as a lime oven”. But while this may be pure myth there is no doubting the unfolding ecological (and human) disaster caused by incessant heat and lack of water. The severe drought in many parts of the state is now in its third year, and while it is still ongoing it is already recorded as the worst in the last 500 years. The drought is forcing farmers and rural communities to rethink and in some cases resettle, and increasingly it also threatens suburban and urban neighborhoods.

From the NYT:

The punishing drought that has swept California is now threatening the state’s drinking water supply.

With no sign of rain, 17 rural communities providing water to 40,000 people are in danger of running out within 60 to 120 days. State officials said that the number was likely to rise in the months ahead after the State Water Project, the main municipal water distribution system, announced on Friday that it did not have enough water to supplement the dwindling supplies of local agencies that provide water to an additional 25 million people. It is first time the project has turned off its spigot in its 54-year history.

State officials said they were moving to put emergency plans in place. In the worst case, they said drinking water would have to be brought by truck into parched communities and additional wells would have to be drilled to draw on groundwater. The deteriorating situation would likely mean imposing mandatory water conservation measures on homeowners and businesses, who have already been asked to voluntarily reduce their water use by 20 percent.

“Every day this drought goes on we are going to have to tighten the screws on what people are doing” said Gov. Jerry Brown, who was governor during the last major drought here, in 1976-77.

This latest development has underscored the urgency of a drought that has already produced parched fields, starving livestock, and pockets of smog.

“We are on track for having the worst drought in 500 years,” said B. Lynn Ingram, a professor of earth and planetary sciences at the University of California, Berkeley.

Already the drought, technically in its third year, is forcing big shifts in behavior. Farmers in Nevada said they had given up on even planting, while ranchers in Northern California and New Mexico said they were being forced to sell off cattle as fields that should be four feet high with grass are a blanket of brown and stunted stalks.

Fishing and camping in much of California has been outlawed, to protect endangered salmon and guard against fires. Many people said they had already begun to cut back drastically on taking showers, washing their car and watering their lawns.

Rain and snow showers brought relief in parts of the state at the week’s end — people emerging from a movie theater in West Hollywood on Thursday evening broke into applause upon seeing rain splattering on the sidewalk — but they were nowhere near enough to make up for record-long dry stretches, officials said.

“I have experienced a really long career in this area, and my worry meter has never been this high,” said Tim Quinn, executive director of the Association of California Water Agencies, a statewide coalition. “We are talking historical drought conditions, no supplies of water in many parts of the state. My industry’s job is to try to make sure that these kind of things never happen. And they are happening.”

Officials are girding for the kind of geographical, cultural and economic battles that have long plagued a part of the country that is defined by a lack of water: between farmers and environmentalists, urban and rural users, and the northern and southern regions of this state.

“We do have a politics of finger-pointing and blame whenever there is a problem,” said Mr. Brown. “And we have a problem, so there is going to be a tendency to blame people.” President Obama called him last week to check on the drought situation and express his concern.

Tom Vilsack, secretary of the federal Agriculture Department, said in an interview that his agency’s ability to help farmers absorb the shock, with subsidies to buy food for cattle, had been undercut by the long deadlock in Congress over extending the farm bill, which finally seemed to be resolved last week.

Mr. Vilsack called the drought in California a “deep concern,” and a warning sign of trouble ahead for much of the West.

“That’s why it’s important for us to take climate change seriously,” he said. “If we don’t do the research, if we don’t have the financial assistance, if we don’t have the conservation resources, there’s very little we can do to help these farmers.”

The crisis is unfolding in ways expected and unexpected. Near Sacramento, the low level of streams has brought out prospectors, sifting for flecks of gold in slow-running waters. To the west, the heavy water demand of growers of medical marijuana — six gallons per plant per day during a 150-day period — is drawing down streams where salmon and other endangered fish species spawn.

“Every pickup truck has a water tank in the back,” said Scott Bauer, a coho salmon recovery coordinator with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife. “There is a potential to lose whole runs of fish.”

Without rain to scrub the air, pollution in the Los Angeles basin, which has declined over the past decade, has returned to dangerous levels, as evident from the brown-tinged air. Homeowners have been instructed to stop burning wood in their fireplaces.

In the San Joaquin Valley, federal limits for particulate matter were breached for most of December and January. Schools used flags to signal when children should play indoors.

“One of the concerns is that as concentrations get higher, it affects not only the people who are most susceptible, but healthy people as well,” said Karen Magliano, assistant chief of the air quality planning division of the state’s Air Resources Board.

The impact has been particularly severe on farmers and ranchers. “I have friends with the ground torn out, all ready to go,” said Darrell Pursel, who farms just south of Yerington, Nev. “But what are you going to plant? At this moment, it looks like we’re not going to have any water. Unless we get a lot of rain, I know I won’t be planting anything.”

The University of California Cooperative Extension held a drought survival session last week in Browns Valley, about 60 miles north of Sacramento, drawing hundreds of ranchers in person and online. “We have people coming from six or seven hours away,” said Jeffrey James, who ran the session.

Dan Macon, 46, a rancher in Auburn, Calif., said the situation was “as bad as I have ever experienced. Most of our range lands are essentially out of feed.”

With each parched sunrise, a sense of alarm is rising amid signs that this is a drought that comes along only every few centuries. Sacramento had gone 52 days without water, and Albuquerque had gone 42 days without rain or snow as of Saturday.

The snowpack in the Sierra Nevada, which supplies much of California with water during the dry season, was at just 12 percent of normal last week, reflecting the lack of rain or snow in December and January.

Read the entire article here.

Image: Dry riverbed, Kern River in Bakersfield, California. Courtesy of David McNew/Getty Images / New York Times.

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Sea Levels Just Keep Rising, Really

house-on-holland-island

The rise in the global sea level is not a disputable fact, as some would still have you believe. The sea level is rising and it is rising faster. It is a fact backed by evidence. Period. This fact has been established through continuous, independent and corroborated scientific studies in many nations across all continents by thousands of scientists.

And, as the oceans rise communities that touch the water face increasing threats. A growing number of areas now have to plan and prepare for more frequent and more prolonged tidal erosion and storm surges. Worse still, some communities, in increasing numbers, have to confront the prospect of complete resettlement caused by the real danger of prolonged and irreversible flooding. Today it may be some of the low lying areas of Norfolk, Virginia or a remote Pacific Island; tomorrow it may be all of downtown Miami and much of the Eastern Seaboard of the US.

From the New York Times:

The little white shack at the water’s edge in Lower Manhattan is unobtrusive — so much so that the tourists strolling the promenade at Battery Park the other day did not give it a second glance.

Up close, though, the roof of the shed behind a Coast Guard building bristled with antennas and other gear. Though not much bigger than a closet, this facility is helping scientists confront one of the great environmental mysteries of the age.

The equipment inside is linked to probes in the water that keep track of the ebb and flow of the tides in New York Harbor, its readings beamed up to a satellite every six minutes.

While the gear today is of the latest type, some kind of tide gauge has been operating at the Battery since the 1850s, by a government office originally founded by Thomas Jefferson. That long data record has become invaluable to scientists grappling with this question: How much has the ocean already risen, and how much more will it go up?

Scientists have spent decades examining all the factors that can influence the rise of the seas, and their research is finally leading to answers. And the more the scientists learn, the more they perceive an enormous risk for the United States.

Much of the population and economy of the country is concentrated on the East Coast., which the accumulating scientific evidence suggests will be a global hot spot for a rising sea level over the coming century.

The detective work has required scientists to grapple with the influence of ancient ice sheets, the meaning of islands that are sinking in Chesapeake Bay, and even the effect of a giant meteor that slammed into the earth.

The work starts with the tides. Because of their importance to navigation, they have been measured for the better part of two centuries. While the record is not perfect, scientists say it leaves no doubt that the world’s oceans are rising. The best calculation suggests that from 1880 to 2009, the global average sea level rose a little over eight inches.

That may not sound like much, but scientists say even the smallest increase causes the seawater to eat away more aggressively at the shoreline in calm weather, and leads to higher tidal surges during storms. The sea-level rise of decades past thus explains why coastal towns nearly everywhere are having to spend billions of dollars fighting erosion.

The evidence suggests that the sea-level rise has probably accelerated, to about a foot a century, and scientists think it will accelerate still more with the continued emission of large amounts of greenhouse gases into the air. The gases heat the planet and cause land ice to melt into the sea.

The official stance of the world’s climate scientists is that the global sea level could rise as much as three feet by the end of this century, if emissions continue at a rapid pace. But some scientific evidence supports even higher numbers, five feet and beyond in the worst case.

Scientists say the East Coast will be hit harder for many reasons, but among the most important is that even as the seawater rises, the land in this part of the world is sinking. And that goes back to the last ice age, which peaked some 20,000 years ago.

As a massive ice sheet, more than a mile thick, grew over what are now Canada and the northern reaches of the United States, the weight of it depressed the crust of the earth. Areas away from the ice sheet bulged upward in response, as though somebody had stepped on one edge of a balloon, causing the other side to pop up. Now that the ice sheet has melted, the ground that was directly beneath it is rising, and the peripheral bulge is falling.

Some degree of sinking is going on all the way from southern Maine to northern Florida, and it manifests itself as an apparent rising of the sea.

The sinking is fastest in the Chesapeake Bay region. Whole island communities that contained hundreds of residents in the 19th century have already disappeared. Holland Island, where the population peaked at nearly 400 people around 1910, had stores, a school, a baseball team and scores of homes. But as the water rose and the island eroded, the community had to be abandoned.

Eventually just a single, sturdy Victorian house, built in 1888, stood on a remaining spit of land, seeming at high tide to rise from the waters of the bay itself. A few years ago, a Washington Post reporter, David A. Fahrenthold, chronicled its collapse.

Aside from this general sinking of land up and down the East Coast, some places sit on soft sediments that tend to compress over time, so the localized land subsidence can be even worse than the regional trend. Much of the New Jersey coast is like that. The sea-level record from the Battery has been particularly valuable in sorting out this factor, because the tide gauge there is attached to bedrock and the record is thus immune to sediment compression.

Read the entire article here.

Image: The last house on Holland Island in Chesapeake Bay, which once had a population of almost 400, finally toppled in October 2010. Courtesy of Astrid Riecken for The Washington Post.

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Two-Thirds From a Mere Ninety

Two-thirds is the overall proportion of man-made carbon emissions released into the atmosphere, since the dawn of the industrial age. Ninety is the number of companies responsible for the two-thirds.

The leader in global fossil fuel emissions is Chevron Texaco, which accounts for a staggering 3.5 percent (since 1750). Other leading emitters include Exxon Mobil, BP, Royal Dutch Shell, Saudi Aramco, and Gazprom. See an interactive graphic of the top polluters — companies and nations — here.

From the Guardian:

The climate crisis of the 21st century has been caused largely by just 90 companies, which between them produced nearly two-thirds of the greenhouse gas emissions generated since the dawning of the industrial age, new research suggests.

The companies range from investor-owned firms – household names such as Chevron, Exxon and BP – to state-owned and government-run firms.

The analysis, which was welcomed by the former vice-president Al Gore as a “crucial step forward” found that the vast majority of the firms were in the business of producing oil, gas or coal, found the analysis, which has been published in the journal Climatic Change.

“There are thousands of oil, gas and coal producers in the world,” climate researcher and author Richard Heede at the Climate Accountability Institute in Colorado said. “But the decision makers, the CEOs, or the ministers of coal and oil if you narrow it down to just one person, they could all fit on a Greyhound bus or two.”

Half of the estimated emissions were produced just in the past 25 years – well past the date when governments and corporations became aware that rising greenhouse gas emissions from the burning of coal and oil were causing dangerous climate change.

Many of the same companies are also sitting on substantial reserves of fossil fuel which – if they are burned – puts the world at even greater risk of dangerous climate change.

Climate change experts said the data set was the most ambitious effort so far to hold individual carbon producers, rather than governments, to account.

The United Nations climate change panel, the IPCC, warned in September that at current rates the world stood within 30 years of exhausting its “carbon budget” – the amount of carbon dioxide it could emit without going into the danger zone above 2C warming. The former US vice-president and environmental champion, Al Gore, said the new carbon accounting could re-set the debate about allocating blame for the climate crisis.

Leaders meeting in Warsaw for the UN climate talks this week clashed repeatedly over which countries bore the burden for solving the climate crisis – historic emitters such as America or Europe or the rising economies of India and China.

Gore in his comments said the analysis underlined that it should not fall to governments alone to act on climate change.

“This study is a crucial step forward in our understanding of the evolution of the climate crisis. The public and private sectors alike must do what is necessary to stop global warming,” Gore told the Guardian. “Those who are historically responsible for polluting our atmosphere have a clear obligation to be part of the solution.”

Between them, the 90 companies on the list of top emitters produced 63% of the cumulative global emissions of industrial carbon dioxide and methane between 1751 to 2010, amounting to about 914 gigatonne CO2 emissions, according to the research. All but seven of the 90 were energy companies producing oil, gas and coal. The remaining seven were cement manufacturers.

The list of 90 companies included 50 investor-owned firms – mainly oil companies with widely recognised names such as Chevron, Exxon, BP , and Royal Dutch Shell and coal producers such as British Coal Corp, Peabody Energy and BHP Billiton.

Some 31 of the companies that made the list were state-owned companies such as Saudi Arabia’s Saudi Aramco, Russia’s Gazprom and Norway’s Statoil.

Nine were government run industries, producing mainly coal in countries such as China, the former Soviet Union, North Korea and Poland, the host of this week’s talks.

Experts familiar with Heede’s research and the politics of climate change said they hoped the analysis could help break the deadlock in international climate talks.

“It seemed like maybe this could break the logjam,” said Naomi Oreskes, professor of the history of science at Harvard. “There are all kinds of countries that have produced a tremendous amount of historical emissions that we do not normally talk about. We do not normally talk about Mexico or Poland or Venezuela. So then it’s not just rich v poor, it is also producers v consumers, and resource rich v resource poor.”

Michael Mann, the climate scientist, said he hoped the list would bring greater scrutiny to oil and coal companies’ deployment of their remaining reserves. “What I think could be a game changer here is the potential for clearly fingerprinting the sources of those future emissions,” he said. “It increases the accountability for fossil fuel burning. You can’t burn fossil fuels without the rest of the world knowing about it.”

Others were less optimistic that a more comprehensive accounting of the sources of greenhouse gas emissions would make it easier to achieve the emissions reductions needed to avoid catastrophic climate change.

John Ashton, who served as UK’s chief climate change negotiator for six years, suggested that the findings reaffirmed the central role of fossil fuel producing entities in the economy.

“The challenge we face is to move in the space of not much more than a generation from a carbon-intensive energy system to a carbonneutral energy system. If we don’t do that we stand no chance of keeping climate change within the 2C threshold,” Ashton said.

“By highlighting the way in which a relatively small number of large companies are at the heart of the current carbon-intensive growth model, this report highlights that fundamental challenge.”

Meanwhile, Oreskes, who has written extensively about corporate-funded climate denial, noted that several of the top companies on the list had funded the climate denial movement.

“For me one of the most interesting things to think about was the overlap of large scale producers and the funding of disinformation campaigns, and how that has delayed action,” she said.

The data represents eight years of exhaustive research into carbon emissions over time, as well as the ownership history of the major emitters.

The companies’ operations spanned the globe, with company headquarters in 43 different countries. “These entities extract resources from every oil, natural gas and coal province in the world, and process the fuels into marketable products that are sold to consumers on every nation on Earth,” Heede writes in the paper.

The largest of the investor-owned companies were responsible for an outsized share of emissions. Nearly 30% of emissions were produced just by the top 20 companies, the research found.

Read the entire article here.

Image: Strip coal mine. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

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The Coming Energy Crash

By some accounts the financial crash that began in 2008 is a mere economic hiccup compared with the next big economic (and environmental) disaster — the fossil fuel crisis accompanied by risk denial syndrome.

From the New Scientist:

FIVE years ago the world was in the grip of a financial crisis that is still reverberating around the globe. Much of the blame for that can be attributed to weaknesses in human psychology: we have a collective tendency to be blind to the kind of risks that can crash economies and imperil civilisations.

Today, our risk blindness is threatening an even bigger crisis. In my book The Energy of Nations, I argue that the energy industry’s leaders are guilty of a risk blindness that, unless action is taken, will lead to a global crash – and not just because of the climate change they fuel.

Let me begin by explaining where I come from. I used to be a creature of the oil and gas industry. As a geologist on the faculty at Imperial College London, I was funded by BP, Shell and others, and worked on oil and gas in shale deposits, among other things. But I became worried about society’s overdependency on fossil fuels, and acted on my concerns.

In 1989, I quit Imperial College to become a climate campaigner. A decade later I set up a solar energy business. In 2000 I co-founded a private equity fund investing in renewables.

In these capacities, I have watched captains of the energy and financial industries at work – frequently close to, often behind closed doors – as the financial crisis has played out and the oil price continued its inexorable rise. I have concluded that too many people across the top levels of business and government have found ways to close their eyes and ears to systemic risk-taking. Denial, I believe, has become institutionalised.

As a result of their complacency we face four great risks. The first and biggest is no surprise: climate change. We have way more unburned conventional fossil fuel than is needed to wreck the climate. Yet much of the energy industry is discovering and developing unconventional deposits – shale gas and tar sands, for example – to pile onto the fire, while simultaneously abandoning solar power just as it begins to look promising. It has been vaguely terrifying to watch how CEOs of the big energy companies square that circle.

Second, we risk creating a carbon bubble in the capital markets. If policymakers are to achieve their goal of limiting global warming to 2 °C, 60 to 80 per cent of proved reserves of fossil fuels will have to remain in the ground unburned. If so, the value of oil and gas companies would crash and a lot of people would lose a lot of money.

I am chairman of Carbon Tracker, a financial think tank that aims to draw attention to that risk. Encouragingly, some financial institutions have begun withdrawing investment in fossil fuels after reading our warnings. The latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) should spread appreciation of how crazy it is to have energy markets that are allowed to account for assets as though climate policymaking doesn’t exist.

Third, we risk being surprised by the boom in shale gas production. That, too, may prove to be a bubble, maybe even a Ponzi scheme. Production from individual shale wells declines rapidly, and large amounts of capital have to be borrowed to drill replacements. This will surprise many people who make judgement calls based on the received wisdom that limits to shale drilling are few. But I am not alone in these concerns.

Even if the US shale gas drilling isn’t a bubble, it remains unprofitable overall and environmental downsides are emerging seemingly by the week. According to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, whole towns in Texas are now running out of water, having sold their aquifers for fracking. I doubt that this is a boom that is going to appeal to the rest of the world; many others agree.

Fourth, we court disaster with assumptions about oil depletion. Most of us believe the industry mantra that there will be adequate flows of just-about-affordable oil for decades to come. I am in a minority who don’t. Crude oil production peaked in 2005, and oil fields are depleting at more than 6 per cent per year, according to the International Energy Agency. The much-hyped 2 million barrels a day of new US production capacity from shale needs to be put in context: we live in a world that consumes 90 million barrels a day.

It is because of the sheer prevalence of risk blindness, overlain with the pervasiveness of oil dependency in modern economies, that I conclude system collapse is probably inevitable within a few years.

Mine is a minority position, but it would be wise to remember how few whistleblowers there were in the run-up to the financial crash, and how they were vilified in the same way “peakists” – believers in premature peak oil – are today.

Read the entire article here.

Image: power plant. Courtesy of Think Progress.

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Mid-21st Century Climate

Call it what you may, but regardless of labels most climate scientists agree that our future weather systems are much more likely to be more extreme: more prolonged and more violent.

From ars technica:

If there was one overarching point that the fifth Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report took pains to stress, it was that the degree of change in the global climate system since the mid-1950s is unusual in scope. Depending on what exactly you measure, the planet hasn’t seen conditions like these for decades to millennia. But that conclusion leaves us with a question: when exactly can we expect the climate to look radically new, with features that have no historical precedent?

The answer, according to a modeling study published in this week’s issue of Nature, is “very soon”—as soon as 2047 under a “business-as-usual” emission scenario and only 22 years later under a reduced emissions scenario. Tropical countries will likely be the first to enter this new age of climatic erraticness and could experience extreme temperatures monthly after 2050. This, the authors argue, underscores the need for robust efforts targeted not only at protecting those vulnerable countries but also the rich biodiversity that they harbor.

Developing an index, one model at a time

Before attempting to peer into the future, the authors, led by the University of Hawaii’s Camilo Mora, first had to ensure that they could accurately replicate the recent past. To do so, they pooled together the predictive capabilities of 39 different models, using near-surface air temperature as their indicator of choice.

For each model, they established the bounds of natural climate variability as the minimum and maximum values attained between 1860 and 2005. Simultaneously crunching the outputs from all of these models proved to be the right decision, as Mora and his colleagues consistently found that a multi-model average best fit the real data.

Next, they turned to two widely used emission scenarios, or Representative Concentration Pathways (RCP) as they’re known in modeling vernacular, to predict the arrival of different climates over a period extending from 2006 to 2100. The first scenario, RCP45, assumes a concerted mitigation initiative and anticipates CO2 concentrations of up to 538 ppm by 2100 (up from the current 393 ppm). The second, RCP85, is the trusty “business-as-usual” scenario that anticipates concentrations of up to 936 ppm by the same year.

Timing the new normals

While testing the sensitivity of their index, Mora and his colleagues concluded that the length of the reference period—the number of years between 1860 and 2005 used as a basis for establishing the limits of historical climate variability—had no effect on the ultimate outcome. A longer period would include more instances of temperature extremes, both low and high, so you would expect that it would yield a broader range of limits. That would mean that any projections of extreme future events might not seem so extreme by comparison.

In practice, it didn’t matter whether the authors used 20 years or 140 years as the length of their reference period. What did matter, they found, was the number of consecutive years where the climate was out of historical bounds. This makes intuitive sense: if you consider fewer consecutive years, the departure from “normal” will come sooner.

Rather than pick one arbitrary number of consecutive years versus another, the authors simply used all of the possible values from each of the 39 models. That accounts for the relatively large standard deviations in the estimated starting dates of exceptional climates—18 years for the RCP45 scenario and 14 years for the RCP85 scenario. That means that the first clear climate shift could occur as early as 2033 or as late as 2087.

Though temperature served as the main proxy for climate in their study, the authors also analyzed four other variables for the atmosphere and two for the ocean. These included evaporation, transpiration, sensible heat flux (the conductive transfer of heat from the planet’s surface to the atmosphere) and precipitation, as well as sea surface temperature and surface pH in the ocean.

Replacing temperature with, or considering it alongside, any of the other four variables for atmosphere did not change the timing of climate departures. This is because temperature is the most sensitive variable and therefore also the earliest to exceed the normal bounds of historical variability.

When examining the ocean through the prism of sea surface temperature, the researchers determined that it would reach its tipping point by 2051 or 2072 under the RCP85 and RCP45 scenarios, respectively. However, when they considered both sea surface temperature and surface pH together, the estimated tipping point was moved all the way up to this decade.

Seawater pH has an extremely narrow range of historical variability, and it moved out of this range 5 years ago, which caused the year of the climate departure to jump forward several decades. This may be an extreme case, but it serves as a stark reminder that the ocean is already on the edge of uncharted territory.

Read the entire article here.

Image courtesy of Salon.

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Only Three Feet

Three feet. Three feet is nothing you say. Three feet is less than the difference between the shallow and deep ends of most swimming pools. Well, when the three feet is the mean ocean level rise it becomes a little more significant. And, when that three feet is the rise predicted to happen within the next 87 years, by 2100, it’s, well, how do you say, catastrophic.

A rise like that and you can kiss goodbye to your retirement home in Miami, and for that matter, kiss goodbye to much of southern Florida, and many coastal communities around the world.

From the New York Times:

An international team of scientists has found with near certainty that human activity is the cause of most of the temperature increases of recent decades, and warns that sea levels could rise by more than three feet by the end of the century if emissions continue at a runaway pace.

The scientists, whose findings are reported in a summary of the next big United Nations climate report, largely dismiss a recent slowdown in the pace of warming, which is often cited by climate change contrarians, as probably related to short-term factors. The report emphasizes that the basic facts giving rise to global alarm about future climate change are more established than ever, and it reiterates that the consequences of runaway emissions are likely to be profound.

“It is extremely likely that human influence on climate caused more than half of the observed increase in global average surface temperature from 1951 to 2010,” the draft report says. “There is high confidence that this has warmed the ocean, melted snow and ice, raised global mean sea level, and changed some climate extremes in the second half of the 20th century.”

The “extremely likely” language is stronger than in the last major United Nations report, published in 2007, and it means the authors of the draft document are now 95 percent to 100 percent confident that human activity is the primary influence on planetary warming. In the 2007 report, they said they were 90 percent to 100 percent certain on that issue.

On another closely watched issue, however, the authors retreated slightly from their 2007 position.

On the question of how much the planet could warm if carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere doubled, the previous report had largely ruled out any number below 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit. The new draft says the rise could be as low as 2.7 degrees, essentially restoring a scientific consensus that prevailed from 1979 to 2007.

Most scientists see only an outside chance that the warming will be as low as either of those numbers, with the published evidence suggesting that an increase above 5 degrees Fahrenheit is likely if carbon dioxide doubles.

The new document is not final and will not become so until an intensive, closed-door negotiating session among scientists and government leaders in Stockholm in late September. But if the past is any guide, most of the core findings of the document will survive that final review.

The document was leaked over the weekend after it was sent to a large group of people who had signed up to review it. It was first reported on in detail by the Reuters news agency, and The New York Times obtained a copy independently to verify its contents.

It was prepared by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a large, international group of scientists appointed by the United Nations. The group does no original research, but instead periodically assesses and summarizes the published scientific literature on climate change.

“The text is likely to change in response to comments from governments received in recent weeks and will also be considered by governments and scientists at a four-day approval session at the end of September,” the panel’s spokesman, Jonathan Lynn, said in a statement Monday. “It is therefore premature and could be misleading to attempt to draw conclusions from it.”

The intergovernmental panel won the Nobel Peace Prize along with Al Gore in 2007 for seeking to educate the world’s citizens about the risks of global warming. But it has also become a political target for climate contrarians, who helped identify several minor errors in the last big report from 2007. This time, the group adopted rigorous procedures in hopes of preventing such mistakes.

On sea level, one of the biggest single worries about climate change, the new report goes well beyond the one from 2007, which largely sidestepped the question of how much the ocean could rise this century.

The new report lays out several scenarios. In the most optimistic, the world’s governments would prove far more successful at getting emissions under control than they have been in the recent past, helping to limit the total warming.

In that circumstance, sea level could be expected to rise as little as 10 inches by the end of the century, the report found. That is a bit more than the eight-inch rise in the 20th century, which proved manageable even though it caused severe erosion along the world’s shorelines.

Read the entire article here.

Image courtesy of the Telegraph.

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Earth as the New Venus

New research models show just how precarious our planet’s climate really is. Runaway greenhouse warming would make a predicted 2-6 feet rise in average sea levels over the next 50-100 years seem like a puddle at the local splash pool.

From ars technica:

With the explosion of exoplanet discoveries, researchers have begun to seriously revisit what it takes to make a planet habitable, defined as being able to support liquid water. At a basic level, the amount of light a planet receives sets its temperature. But real worlds aren’t actually basic—they have atmospheres, reflect some of that light back into space, and experience various feedbacks that affect the temperature.

Attempts to incorporate all those complexities into models of other planets have produced some unexpected results. Some even suggest that Earth teeters on the edge of experiencing a runaway greenhouse, one that would see its oceans boil off. The fact that large areas of the planet are covered in ice may make that conclusion seem a bit absurd, but a second paper looks at the problem from a somewhat different angle—and comes to the same conclusion. If it weren’t for clouds and our nitrogen-rich atmosphere, the Earth might be an uninhabitable hell right now.

The new work focuses on a very simple model of an atmosphere: a linear column of nothing but water vapor. This clearly doesn’t capture the complex dynamics of weather and the different amounts of light to reach the poles, but it does include things like the amount of light scattered back out into space and the greenhouse impact of the water vapor. These sorts of calculations are simple enough that they were first done decades ago, but the authors note that this particular problem hadn’t been revisited in 25 years. Our knowledge of how water vapor absorbs both visible and infrared light has improved over that time.

Water vapor, like other greenhouse gasses, allows visible light to reach the surface of a planet, but it absorbs most of the infrared light that gets emitted back toward space. Only a narrow window, centered around 10 micrometer wavelengths, makes it back out to space. Once the incoming energy gets larger than the amount that can escape, the end result is a runaway greenhouse: heat evaporates more surface water, which absorbs more infrared, trapping even more heat. At some point, the atmosphere gets so filled with water vapor that light no longer even reaches the surface, instead getting absorbed by the atmosphere itself.

The model shows that, once temperatures reach 1,800K, a second window through the water vapor opens up at about four microns, which allows additional energy to escape into space. The authors suggest that this could be used when examining exoplanets, as high emissions in this region could be taken as an indication that the planet was undergoing a runaway greenhouse.

The authors also used the model to look at what Earth would be like if it had a cloud-free, water atmosphere. The surprise was that the updated model indicated that this alternate-Earth atmosphere would absorb 30 percent more energy than previous estimates suggested. That’s enough to make a runaway greenhouse atmosphere stable at the Earth’s distance from the Sun.

So, why is the Earth so relatively temperate? The authors added a few additional factors to their model to find out. Additional greenhouse gasses like carbon dioxide and methane made runaway heating more likely, while nitrogen scattered enough light to make it less likely. The net result is that, under an Earth-like atmosphere composition, our planet should experience a runaway greenhouse. (In fact, greenhouse gasses can lower the barrier between a temperate climate and a runaway greenhouse, although only at concentrations much higher than we’ll reach even if we burn all the fossil fuels available.) But we know it hasn’t. “A runaway greenhouse has manifestly not occurred on post-Hadean Earth,” the authors note. “It would have sterilized Earth (there is observer bias).”

So, what’s keeping us cool? The authors suggest two things. The first is that our atmosphere isn’t uniformly saturated with water; some areas are less humid and allow more heat to radiate out into space. The other factor is the existence of clouds. Depending on their properties, clouds can either insulate or reflect sunlight back into space. On balance, however, it appears they are key to keeping our planet’s climate moderate.

But clouds won’t help us out indefinitely. Long before the Sun expands and swallows the Earth, the amount of light it emits will rise enough to make a runaway greenhouse more likely. The authors estimate that, with an all-water atmosphere, we’ve got about 1.5 billion years until the Earth is sterilized by skyrocketing temperatures. If other greenhouse gasses are present, then that day will come even sooner.

The authors don’t expect that this will be the last word on exoplanet conditions—in fact, they revisited waterlogged atmospheres in the hopes of stimulating greater discussion of them. But the key to understanding exoplanets will ultimately involve adapting the planetary atmospheric models we’ve built to understand the Earth’s climate. With full, three-dimensional circulation of the atmosphere, these models can provide a far more complete picture of the conditions that could prevail under a variety of circumstances. Right now, they’re specialized to model the Earth, but work is underway to change that.

Read the entire article here.

Image: Venus shrouded in perennial clouds of carbon dioxide, sulfur dioxide and sulfuric acid, as seen by the Messenger probe, 2004. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

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Sci-Fi Begets Cli-Fi

The world of fiction is populated with hundreds of different genres — most of which were invented by clever marketeers anxious to ensure vampire novels (teen / horror) don’t live next to classic works (literary) on real or imagined (think Amazon) book shelves. So, it should come as no surprise to see a new category recently emerge: cli-fi.

Short for climate fiction, cli-fi novels explore the dangers of environmental degradation and apocalyptic climate change. Not light reading for your summer break at the beach. But, then again, more books in this category may get us to think often and carefully about preserving our beaches — and the rest of the planet — for our kids.

From the Guardian:

A couple of days ago Dan Bloom, a freelance news reporter based in Taiwan, wrote on the Teleread blog that his word had been stolen from him. In 2012 Bloom had “produced and packaged” a novella called Polar City Red, about climate refugees in a post-apocalyptic Alaska in the year 2075. Bloom labelled the book “cli-fi” in the press release and says he coined that term in 2007, cli-fi being short for “climate fiction”, described as a sub-genre of sci-fi. Polar City Red bombed, selling precisely 271 copies, until National Public Radio (NPR) and the Christian Science Monitor picked up on the term cli-fi last month, writing Bloom out of the story. So Bloom has blogged his reply on Teleread, saying he’s simply pleased the term is now out there – it has gone viral since the NPR piece by Scott Simon. It’s not quite as neat as that – in recent months the term has been used increasingly in literary and environmental circles – but there’s no doubt it has broken out more widely. You can search for cli-fi on Amazon, instantly bringing up a plethora of books with titles such as 2042: The Great Cataclysm, or Welcome to the Greenhouse. Twitter has been abuzz.

Whereas 10 or 20 years ago it would have been difficult to identify even a handful of books that fell under this banner, there is now a growing corpus of novels setting out to warn readers of possible environmental nightmares to come. Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behaviour, the story of a forest valley filled with an apparent lake of fire, is shortlisted for the 2013 Women’s prize for fiction. Meanwhile, there’s Nathaniel Rich’s Odds Against Tomorrow, set in a future New York, about a mathematician who deals in worst-case scenarios. In Liz Jensen’s 2009 eco-thriller The Rapture, summer temperatures are asphyxiating and Armageddon is near; her most recent book, The Uninvited, features uncanny warnings from a desperate future. Perhaps the most high-profile cli-fi author is Margaret Atwood, whose 2009 The Year of the Flood features survivors of a biological catastrophe also central to her 2003 novel Oryx and Crake, a book Atwood sometimes preferred to call “speculative fiction”.

Engaging with this subject in fiction increases debate about the issue; finely constructed, intricate narratives help us broaden our understanding and explore imagined futures, encouraging us to think about the kind of world we want to live in. This can often seem difficult in our 24?hour news-on-loop society where the consequences of climate change may appear to be everywhere, but intelligent discussion of it often seems to be nowhere. Also, as the crime genre can provide the dirty thrill of, say, reading about a gruesome fictional murder set on a street the reader recognises, the best cli-fi novels allow us to be briefly but intensely frightened: climate chaos is closer, more immediate, hovering over our shoulder like that murderer wielding his knife. Outside of the narrative of a novel the issue can seem fractured, incoherent, even distant. As Gregory Norminton puts it in his introduction to an anthology on the subject, Beacons: Stories for Our Not-So-Distant Future: “Global warming is a predicament, not a story. Narrative only comes in our response to that predicament.” Which is as good an argument as any for engaging with those stories.

All terms are reductive, all labels simplistic – clearly, the likes of Kingsolver, Jensen and Atwood have a much broader canvas than this one issue. And there’s an argument for saying this is simply rebranding: sci-fi writers have been engaging with the climate-change debate for longer than literary novelists – Snow by Adam Roberts comes to mind – and I do wonder whether this is a term designed for squeamish writers and critics who dislike the box labelled “science fiction”. So the term is certainly imperfect, but it’s also valuable. Unlike sci-fi, cli-fi writing comes primarily from a place of warning rather than discovery. There are no spaceships hovering in the sky; no clocks striking 13. On the contrary, many of the horrors described seem oddly familiar.

Read the entire article after the jump.

Image: Aftermath of Superstorm Sandy. Courtesy of the Independent.

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MondayMap: The Double Edge of Climate Change

So the changing global climate will imperil our coasts, flood low-lying lands, fuel more droughts, increase weather extremes, and generally make the planet more toasty. But, a new study — for the first time — links increasing levels of CO2 to an increase in global vegetation. Perhaps this portends our eventual fate — ceding the Earth back to the plants — unless humans make some drastic behavioral changes.

From the New Scientist:

The planet is getting lusher, and we are responsible. Carbon dioxide generated by human activity is stimulating photosynthesis and causing a beneficial greening of the Earth’s surface.

For the first time, researchers claim to have shown that the increase in plant cover is due to this “CO2 fertilisation effect” rather than other causes. However, it remains unclear whether the effect can counter any negative consequences of global warming, such as the spread of deserts.

Recent satellite studies have shown that the planet is harbouring more vegetation overall, but pinning down the cause has been difficult. Factors such as higher temperatures, extra rainfall, and an increase in atmospheric CO2 – which helps plants use water more efficiently – could all be boosting vegetation.

To home in on the effect of CO2, Randall Donohue of Australia’s national research institute, the CSIRO in Canberra, monitored vegetation at the edges of deserts in Australia, southern Africa, the US Southwest, North Africa, the Middle East and central Asia. These are regions where there is ample warmth and sunlight, but only just enough rainfall for vegetation to grow, so any change in plant cover must be the result of a change in rainfall patterns or CO2 levels, or both.

If CO2 levels were constant, then the amount of vegetation per unit of rainfall ought to be constant, too. However, the team found that this figure rose by 11 per cent in these areas between 1982 and 2010, mirroring the rise in CO2 (Geophysical Research Letters, doi.org/mqx). Donohue says this lends “strong support” to the idea that CO2 fertilisation drove the greening.

Climate change studies have predicted that many dry areas will get drier and that some deserts will expand. Donohue’s findings make this less certain.

However, the greening effect may not apply to the world’s driest regions. Beth Newingham of the University of Idaho, Moscow, recently published the result of a 10-year experiment involving a greenhouse set up in the Mojave desert of Nevada. She found “no sustained increase in biomass” when extra CO2 was pumped into the greenhouse. “You cannot assume that all these deserts respond the same,” she says. “Enough water needs to be present for the plants to respond at all.”

The extra plant growth could have knock-on effects on climate, Donohue says, by increasing rainfall, affecting river flows and changing the likelihood of wildfires. It will also absorb more CO2 from the air, potentially damping down global warming but also limiting the CO2 fertilisation effect itself.

Read the entire article here.

Image: Global vegetation mapped: Normalized Difference Vegetation Index (NDVI) from Nov. 1, 2007, to Dec. 1, 2007, during autumn in the Northern Hemisphere. This monthly average is based on observations from the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) on NASA’s Terra satellite. The greenness values depict vegetation density; higher values (dark greens) show land areas with plenty of leafy green vegetation, such as the Amazon Rainforest. Lower values (beige to white) show areas with little or no vegetation, including sand seas and Arctic areas. Areas with moderate amounts of vegetation are pale green. Land areas with no data appear gray, and water appears blue. Courtesy of NASA.

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