Climate Letter #1114

The heatwave on the East Coast is a sign of climate change, and likely to happen more often.  This post has all the numbers, including a chart near the end showing an anomaly of around 20F over a large area on February 21.  Note that large chunks of the air over the frozen Arctic Ocean had anomalies twice that high on the same chart.
–Where did all that heat come from?  The chart in this link shows that sea surface temperatures off this coast and the Gulf of Mexico were also well above normal, enough to make a significant difference on land.  The same is true for the northern parts of both the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, adjacent to the Arctic.
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Steps are being taken toward electrifying the world’s shipping fleets.  Shipping is one of the most intractable sources of carbon emissions, but apparently there are solutions, and efforts to promote those solutions can be found in northern Europe.  Otherwise there is a great deal of obstruction and stonewalling.  “The technology is there,” says Tønnessen-Krokan of Norway’s Forum for Development and Environment. “Incentives have worked to make it happen, but there have to be sticks as well as carrots. Shipping should have been subject to emissions targets years ago.”
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A commentary on the problem of plastics pollution.  The problem gets less attention than climate change but is thought by many to be just as threatening to the natural world, which happens to be a critical support base for humanity.  The article points out that there have been treaties in place for a long time which, like the Paris Agreement, were supposed to prevent this from happening, but were ignored.
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Climate science:  New research finds a significant role for dust as a cooling agent during major glaciation episodes, especially in the deepest stages.  There is evidence that about three times as much dust was in the atmosphere during glacial maxima as during interglacial periods, and that would be enough to account for about one degree of the total temperature decline by adding to the reflection of solar radiation.  In addition the dust would have a fertilizing effect on oceanic plankton which would result in an extra drawdown of the CO2 level in the atmosphere for still more cooling.  The direct albedo effect of the dust is important because it means the combination of reduced greenhouse gas and ice sheet albedo can no longer be given total accountability for the entire temperature drop of about 5C at the very bottom.  The authors of the study find that ordinary climate sensitivity estimates may need to be reduced as much as a half degree for that reason.
–The full study is available at this link, with open access, not terribly technical at first glance:
Carl
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Climate Letter #1113

Three charts that show how the Arctic is warming.  Note that the temperature gain inside the Arctic Circle (4C or 7F) since the late 1970s is equal to about four times the global average.
–Today’s average at the North Pole is the same as averages in north Texas, and much warmer than North Dakota.  Just follow the long color tracks.  The Wind Speed link on this website will show you how surface winds that have been warmed by open ocean waters are moving into the frozen Arctic Ocean region from both sides.
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Let’s not forget Antarctica.  It’s not warming up like Arctic, because the fast winds that endlessly circle the continent mostly stay off the high-rising land features.  The ocean waters that are getting warmer can still attack the edges of the ice shelves around the perimeter and weaken their hold on the massive glaciers above and beyond.  This post contains a marvelous map of the continent’s glaciers, their outlets, and speed of movement.  They keep adding snow on top, but whenever movement speeds up there is likely to be a net loss of mass to the oceans.  Totten (TOT) is one often mentioned for how it has been gaining speed.  You might want to save this map in a link by itself, and store it in a handy place of reference.
–Another of today’s stories makes it clear that scientists are rapidly increasing their ability to follow all of this movement, leading to more definitive forecasts.
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An update and review of the world’s largest solar energy project in Morocco.  “When it’s finished later this year, Noor will provide electricity to over two million people.”  The sponsors have ambitions that go far beyond.
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Facilities are now being built that produce hydrogen by electrolysis. The hydrogen can be cheaply produced with the help of solar or wind energy, then turned around and used as a source of renewable energy with many applications.  This activity is still in its infancy, and not well-publicized, but is actually happening and many people are convinced there is much more to come.  “As Giles Parkinson noted earlier this month, hydrogen has often been dismissed as a viable technology because of the recent gains of electric vehicles and battery storage, but its proponents believe that it can create export industries to rival that of natural gas, and its added value chain can make it extremely valuable in the domestic market.”
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A new floating wind farm has exceeded expectations in its first three months of operation.  It even handled severe wind conditions without incident. This is the first such project of large size that has been deployed so far, showing results that “were encouraging for the industry as a whole.”
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An update on the current status of the Paris Agreement.  Members are setting goals and making rules even without any input from the Trump government.  A bigger US role is wanted for a number of reasons, but not at the price of weakening the agreement, which needs further strengthening.
Carl
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Climate Letter #1112

How should we go about protecting wildlife?  The Guardian provides a well thought-out discussion of this important subject, centered on the idea that half of the Earth’s land surface should be protected for wildlife, plus other angles.
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A new study explains why it is so important that loss of biodiversity be minimized.  The disappearance of any one species from an ecosystem tends to weaken that ecosystem; the weakening effect is greatest in communities that have a simple food web.  The researchers performed actual tests that led to this conclusion–“Our results demonstrate that biodiversity loss can increase the vulnerability of ecosystems to secondary extinctions which, when they occur, can then lead to further simplification causing run-away extinction cascades.”
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Many of the world’s biggest lakes are drying up.  This is a story from National Geographic, featuring superb photography along with some very bad news about what has been happening over just a few recent decades.  One big part of the problem is that lake water collects heat efficiently and proceeds to warm up more rapidly than ocean water, the atmosphere, or any kind of land surface.
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A new study promotes the benefits of adding pulverized rock to agricultural soils.  Carbon Brief provides an extensive explanation of how their proposal might work, and what some of the complicating factors are like.  It would be of benefit to crops, draw down CO2 from the atmosphere and more, and thus deserves serious consideration.  Operational costs, currently estimated in a range of $52-480 per tonne of CO2 sequestered, are of a type that is low-tech and would be difficult to reduce.
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Rainfall variability due to climate change is increasing globally over land used for grazing.  A new study sees this effect on 49% of the world’s grazing lands, which support the nutritional needs of hundreds of millions of people.  “In a good season, grasses and other plants flourish, supporting robust herds. In a bad season, the system suffers – as do the people who rely on it. The difference between a good and bad year? One significant and increasingly volatile factor is precipitation.”
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Fred Pearce writes about the many different ways that air travel is being disrupted by effects of climate change.  Along with all the problems that affect flights, one assessment has found that thirteen major airports in the US alone are vulnerable to sea level rise.
Carl
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Climate Letter #1111

The fragmentation of tropical forests is reaching a critical tipping point.  Fragmentation is now being measured with extremely high resolution, and the results are disturbing on all three continents that have these forests.  When certain laws of physics are applied the outlook indicates a rapid acceleration of further fragmentation that would be nearly impossible to mitigate, with unwanted consequences for both biodiversity and carbon storage.  Reference is made to a different study which has shown “that fragmentation of once connected tropical forest areas could increase carbon emissions worldwide by another third.”  (That would have a direct impact on the already shrunken carbon budget allotted to humans.)
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The current status and future prospects of offshore floating windfarms (Carbon Brief).  They offer impressive advantages but there are some technical challenges and costs, while falling, are not yet competitive.
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An update on the rapid decline of Arctic sea ice extent.  One chart shows how the maximum extent has declined in just a few decades compared with its previous 1500-year history, which was irregular but essentially flat.  Another chart shows the trend of averages for just the month of January since 1979, setting a new low record in 2018.  The trend is unmistakable, and there is no end in sight.
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Why is the Arctic warming so much?  The heat doesn’t appear by some kind of magic, and there is no sunlight in mid-winter, but something is bringing it in.  The Weather Maps make it clear that warm ocean waters are the source, transporting heat that originated in low latitudes toward the poles by movements at the surface.  Winds finish the job by collecting heat from the northern reaches of both the Atlantic and Pacific and blowing it over the Arctic.  The Atlantic is especially important because so much of its open water is so close to the pole itself.  Note that average air temperatures at the pole today are comparable to those as far south as Nebraska, which is simply ridiculous.
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A company based in Richmond, Washington, has big ideas about the things that hydrogen can accomplish.  It has some products in tow that are worth paying attention to.  “The first will use hydrogen to clean up existing diesel engines, increasing their fuel efficiency by a third and eliminating over half their air pollution, with an average nine-month payback, the company says.”  The potential world market for such a product, assuming it to be real, is “unfathomably large.”  There is much more information in this coverage from Vox.
Carl
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Climate Letter #1110

Tim Radford writes about the recent study on what it would take to have a fully-populated planet where everyone could lead a reasonably good life, doing so in a way that is completely sustainable.  That of course is a far cry from what is actually going on today, and only a supreme optimist would think that such a transition is even possible, but it doesn’t hurt to spend a few minutes giving thought to the idea and hearing from those who have already given it a lot of thought.  There are earlier reviews of the study in CL#1102 and 1104, which Tim here expands upon in his usual astute way.
–In addition, the underlying report published by a science journal on February 5 originally appeared with a paywall.  Tim’s post provides a link that somehow lifted that paywall, as shown here.  The study for the most part is sans jargon and an interesting read.
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What is the true outlook for the “carbon capture and storage” (CCS) proposals that we often hear about?  This appraisal by a senior energy adviser is not too encouraging.  His conclusion:  “One way to reduce coal’s impact is to capture, compress and bury its emissions – but it’s much simpler, cheaper and safer to simply leave the coal in the ground.”
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Is there a more practical way to capture carbon by pulling it directly out of the atmosphere via agriculture?  This rather lengthy article advances that approach and in particular argues that we should not give up on the idea of BECCS, short for “bioenergy with carbon capture and storage,” which probably has more detractors than advocates.  The need for negative emissions is real enough, but how to accomplish the deed is truly confounding.
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Offshore solar farms appear to have a promising future and will be tested.  A consortium in the Netherlands has taken a close look at the idea and sees a number of advantages that are quite interesting.  “The panels will be moored between existing wind turbines and connected to the same cables, transporting energy efficiently to end users…. Van Hoeken said he expects offshore solar energy to eventually be cheaper than offshore wind and mainland power sources, due mainly to a lack of land costs.”
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Prices for renewable energy fell sharply in 2017, setting record lows again and again.  “Among the good news for consumers is that the lowest bids for solar dropped a remarkable 50% from records set in 2014 and 2015.”  There is no longer any doubt about where this is going, and more and more countries are waking up to the benefits.
Carl
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Climate Letter #1109

The outlook for extreme weather events is definitely troublesome (LA Times).  That is the understanding gained from a new study that has looked at eight different types of extreme weather events in many parts of the world.  The basic conclusion is that any increase in temperature will add to the total number of extreme events, just not of the same kind, or in the same way, in all different places.  We have seen it like that with one degree so far of global warming, we can expect much more on the way to the Paris limit of two degrees, and then still more if and when that is breached.
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So does Earth have an ideal temperature?  Here is a story that digs into that question with the views of several scientists.  Their main thought is that if you give all species and ecosystems enough time to evolve and adjust they will end up adapting in a way that makes them happy even after big changes in overall climate.  Unfortunately that is not true for beings living today who have already adapted.  Who wants to go all the way back to the Ice Ages, and who is looking forward to the coming rise in extreme weather events, or rising sea level, or intensified drought cycles, etc?
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A new global temperature update from James Hansen.  This one has a neat way of showing how the El Nino and La Nina effects in Pacific water temperatures have influenced the pattern of air temperatures for the last five years.  The La Nina now in place is quite moderate so far, with no clear sign of what comes next.  Note that the month of January would show an increase of 1.05C if charted on top of a pre-industrial baseline, not the one Hansen uses..
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Researchers have learned something new about Earth’s carbon cycle.  Part of that cycle has long been known to go deep underground, moving very slowly on a geological timetable.  It can fluctuate enough to cause major shifts in atmospheric CO2 levels over eons.  Scientists have learned some interesting new things about the way changes in the ocean floor have an effect on carbon storage that produces cycles with a regular periodicity of 26 million years.  This may help to explain why “Several geological phenomena including extinctions, volcanism, salt deposits and atmospheric carbon dioxide fluctuations reconstructed independently from the geological record all display 26 million-year cycles.”
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There is also new information pertaining to a different part of the carbon cycle, involving the behavior of tiny organisms at the surface.  They multiply and pull extra amounts of CO2 from the atmosphere when unusually heavy loads of dust drift into ocean waters.  Scientists have learned more about the origin of that dust, information which was highly unexpected. They show how an example of that process helped to drop the planet out of the Pliocene and into the Ice Ages, or Pleistocene, which humans have managed to completely reverse over the last two hundred years.  “The future climate could look like the Pliocene Epoch, which was 5.3 million to 2.5 million years ago, said Pullen, who is a geologist.”  (That’s if we hurry our effort to stop adding still more.)
Carl
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Climate Letter #1108

Antarctic krill, a vital part of the marine food chain, are in a serious state of decline.  Overfishing and climate change have both been responsible.  Climate change has caused a reduction in the ice structure needed for habitat; in addition, rising water temperatures are involved in causing a reduction of krill size by up to 40% in some areas.
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Reducing carbon emissions from Amazon forests has become more complicated because of drought and wildfires.  Even when efforts to curb deforestation are successful the problem of wildfires has continued in ways that were never before experienced.  Carbon Brief has the whole story.
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There is new knowledge about the heat-trapping power of airborne methane, the second most important greenhouse gas.  New research has found an increase of 23% in the direct way it blocks radiation, creating a net gain of about 3% in the actual combined global warming impact of all greenhouse gases.  The importance of methane is often downplayed because individual molecules have a relatively short life in the atmosphere.  However, the regular replacement rate is such that you rarely see its measured atmospheric level decline when the CO2 level is rising.  Methane will generally rise just as rapidly as CO2 and quite often even more rapidly as old sources held on Earth’s surface are commonly released under the influence of rising temperatures.  Permafrost thawing provides an example.
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An improvement in the construction of redox flow batteries has been reported.  Researchers at two New York universities have discovered novel improvements in the chemistry “that could transform the energy storage landscape.”  Redox flow batteries are a type that would have application in large-scale storage systems needed by power grids.  Stability over lengthy periods of time is a requirement that has been difficult to achieve with other chemical formulations.
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A different type of breakthrough in battery design has been reported that is said to “double the storage capacity, lower the cost and extend the life of lithium-ion batteries.”  (While this is certainly interesting, the company behind the report is relatively small and untested.  There is a link to its website.)

Carl

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Climate Letter #1107

Ethiopia is facing its fourth consecutive year of drought.  In a part of the country next to Somalia a large population of nomadic herders are now being relocated and must learn how to pursue a new lifestyle.  Fortunately, they are getting assistance.  Africa has millions of people in this type of situation, facing an uncertain future.  For these people climate change is already catastrophic.
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A number of studies report some indicators showing that the rate of global warming has accelerated.  These have become apparent even when the effect of El Nino is neutralized.  Tim Radford has short reviews and comparisons of several of the studies, with links to sources.
–There is also a new study showing how sea level rise has in fact been accelerating, reviewed here by Inside Climate News.  Forecasts of any future rate of acceleration are still open to much debate and uncertainty, leaving a total of two feet of rise as a bare minimum for this century.
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Gavin Schmidt (NASA head) says we should expect more complete surprises from climate change.  In this interview conducted in Australia he lists examples from the past and some things he is wary of in the future, with special emphasis on Antarctica.  In his view more “unknown unknowns” are inevitable.
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Another reason not to overlook fuel cells as a potentially viable source of alternative energy.  Researchers at Northwestern University have created a cell having exceptional density and stability at an optimal temperature.  “With this research, we can now envision a path to making cost-effective fuel cells and transforming the energy landscape.”  With design now proven, the remaining challenge will be to develop scalable manufacturing routes that are most cost-effective.
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A draft of the UN report on holding to the 1.5C target is now available.  This post has a summary of the main points, which include the fact that negative emissions are an essential component.  Eating less meat is also mentioned, and what to do about the expected “overshoot” problem.  There is a link to the full report, but the whole thing looks to me like nothing more than a waste of time, with even 2C looking pretty shaky.
Carl
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Climate Letter #1106

“In Defense of Biodiversity:  Why Protecting Species from Extinction Matters.”  This is by Carl Safina, the prize-winning author of seven books about life in the animal world.  Safina makes one eloquent argument after another in opposition to those who are indifferent or ambivalent about the mass extinction that is now underway.  A mass extinction is defined as one where the entire planet becomes inhospitable to life, not just one region.
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Two Australians offer opinions on the subject, “Do we have the capability to reverse global warming within a meaningful timeframe?”  David Spratt and Ian Dunlop, both well-known in their home country, show how tight the line is, how great the risks have become, and how the absence of strong leadership impedes the accomplishment of doing the things we are capable of doing.  I commend the realistic nature of their analysis.
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Amy Harder, writing for Axios, describes tensions in the Democratic Party over what approach the party should take in addressing climate change.  There is an opportunity here for someone who has a fresh face and strong leadership ability to step up and make a case powerful enough to attract a large following, especially including young people.  I have no idea who that person would be.
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Geothermal heat pumps have practical application for saving energy in some locations (Inside Climate News).  This story explains how they work and their advantages for space and water heating and air-conditioning purposes.  One company has plans for a community-wide project that would help to lower costs.
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An update on the opportunities for hydrogen as a replacement for both natural gas.  It is clearly going to have a role, but the size and extent of that role are hard to predict.  The level of activity and successful development work is greater than the level of publicity it generates.
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An unfavorable review of the way humans have added outer space to their list of things to spoil (the Guardian).  A full assessment by the UN will be forthcoming.  “The 2018 assessment is really the first one to have a substantial section on rocket emissions, not just a passing thought… we now understand that the climate and ozone impacts of rocket exhaust are completely intertwined.”
Carl
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Climate Letter #1105

An update on the permafrost problem–
Thanks to Brian Resnick at Vox for putting together all this information, much of it new, with countless links to sources of high credibility.  We learn that practically all permafrost soils are getting warmer and thus getting closer to the time when they will melt, which of course has already begun in some places.  He also gives us an extensive survey of all the different kinds of things we should be expecting as a consequence, which now includes the extensive release of mercury.  Please take your time studying his report, and maybe open a few links as well.

https://www.vox.com/2017/9/6/16062174/permafrost-melting

–One link in particular should not be missed, picking up a special report from the NY Times that was created last August.  It has features, photos and background information that nicely round out the story.
–Another link refers to a 2014 study published in the journal Environmental Research Letters which provides  reasonable and fairly conservative estimate of how much carbon will be added to the atmosphere by the year 2100 as a result of permafrost thawing.  Their central estimate, admittedly rough, is 120 billion tons, which is equal to twelve years worth of all the carbon human activity is now emitting.  That by itself would add another 25 ppm of CO2 to the Keeling curve, on top of whatever humans add in a direct way, which is supposed to stop before hitting 450 ppm—which now seems a bit optimistic.  Altogether then we are looking at an atmosphere with 475 ppm by 2100, with more gases to be released by permafrost in the century following.  That is a good benchmark figure to keep in mind when other studies come up, like those dealing with climate sensitivity or with comparisons that take us back to the Pliocene era (see below).
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A new study provides some lessons about the late Pliocene.  We learn, first of all, that current climate science is acceptive to the idea that the CO2 level at that time was around 400 ppm, just like it is today, and that temperatures were considerably higher than they are today.  (“Three million years ago the Earth’s climate  was warm enough to permit a forested High Arctic inhabited by large mammals.”)  Also there were variations in sea level, indicating the presence of glacial ice sheets, which came and went in response to the peaks in orbital cycles, which seesaw in their impact between the northern and southern polar regions.  The formation of those glacial sheets would imply that there were “glacial maximum” times when CO2 would fall well below 400 and temperatures get a few degrees cooler.
–There is a link at the end to a 2015 study that has interesting things to say about temperatures, CO2 levels and climate sensitivity in the late Pliocene era, consistent with the latest IPCC estimates, as described in this story:
–That study itself has a paywall, but if you open it and click the Figures button you can see charts that reconstruct the CO2 level between 2.3 and 3.3 million years ago, along with some others.  There are at least five or six different kinds of sources behind these estimates, which are then coordinated into a tighter series.  That would be the one with high points near 450 and lows near 250 plus a wavy median line that hangs around the middle.   Maybe we will need to start looking back farther yet for climate comparisons, to the early Pliocene or even the Miocene??
Carl
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