Posts Tagged ‘global warming’

Bonn Climate Change Summit Has Its Own Storm Clouds

Monday, June 4th, 2012

Disagreement emerged early during the latest round of international climate change talks in Bonn, with the European Union (EU) and developing countries clashing over the future of the Kyoto protocol.  Under the terms of last year’s Durban Platform, the EU had agreed to sign an extension of the Kyoto protocol before it lapses at the end of this year in return for an agreement from all nations that a new binding treaty will be completed by 2015 and enacted by 2020.

Climate negotiators want to build on the progress achieved in Durban last year, like the agreement on a second commitment period for the Kyoto Protocol, a treaty which limits the emissions of most developed countries but which expires at the end of this year.  The length of the second commitment period is one of the issues under discussion in Bonn.  Unfortunately, Kyoto plays an progressively more marginal role in the climate-change issue because it doesn’t include the biggest emitters of carbon dioxide and other gases that contribute to global warming.  The United States exited Kyoto, claiming it was unfair because it didn’t impose any emissions reductions on fast-growing developing nations such as China and India.  Canada also said it would withdraw from the treaty last year.

Last year’s United Nations (U.N.) climate talks in Durban supported a package of measures which would ultimately force the world’s polluters to take legally binding action to slow the pace of global warming.  Delegates agreed on the “Durban Platform for Enhanced Action” – a process that would apply to all parties under the U.N.’s climate convention.  A clear timetable and targets have not yet been set.  “Parties need to think between now and Doha how they want to organize their work between now and 2015 and how they will move towards that legal agreement,” Christiana Figueres, executive secretary of the U.N.’s Framework Convention on Climate Change, said.  “My hope is they will establish milestones along the way so they are able to measure their progress.”

Figueres cited new research that predicts that the Earth’s temperature could rise by as much as five degrees Celsius (41 degrees Fahrenheit) from pre-industrial levels on current pledges.  “We still have a gap remaining between intent and effort,” Figueres said.

Additional issues discussed in Bonn and at a larger climate change conference in Qatar later this year include implementing an extension to the Kyoto Protocol; how long that will last; how to raise ambition on emissions cut pledges, as well as raising long-term financing to help vulnerable countries adapt to the harmful effects of climate change.

The treaty currently being negotiated would require all nations to curb warming.  Identifying those requirements is the primary challenge, which is why negotiators are focusing on solving incremental, less contentious issues before moving on.  “First and foremost we have to ensure that there is no backtracking on what was agreed in Durban,” said Christian Pilgaard Zinglersen, a Danish official representing the European Union.  Climate activists warned that potentially disastrous consequences of global warming, including floods and droughts and rising sea levels, will be impossible to prevent unless the pace of negotiations accelerates.  “If you look at the science, we’re spending time we don’t have,” said Tove Ryding, Greenpeace’s climate policy coordinator.

We have all the means at our disposal to close the gap, and the long-term objectives of governments remain attainable,” Figueres said.  “But this depends on stronger emissions reduction efforts, led by industrialized countries.  A sufficient level of ambition to support developing country action, concrete and transparent implementation, today, tomorrow and into the foreseeable future, is the answer.  Progress here in Bonn can give countries the confidence they need to push ahead with national climate policies.  In turn, many countries are beginning to adopt ambitious climate change legislation, which is sending good signals to the international negotiations.  All of this can give society and businesses confidence to act faster themselves.”

Antarctic Ice Melting Faster Than Thought

Wednesday, May 16th, 2012

In a sign that global warming is a reality, a new study reveals that ice shelves in western Antarctica are melting at a faster pace than previously known. Data collected by a NASA ice-watching satellite show that the ice shelves are being eaten away from below by ocean currents, which have been growing warmer even faster than the air above.  Launched in January of 2003, NASA’s ICESat (Ice, Cloud and Land Elevation Satellite) studied the changing mass and thickness of Antarctica’s ice from polar orbit.  An international research team used more than 4.5 million surface height measurements collected by ICESat’s GLAS (Geoscience Laser Altimeter System) instrument between October of 2005 and 2008.  The conclusion was that 20 of the 54 shelves studied — nearly half — were losing thickness.

Melting of ice by ocean currents can take place when air temperature remains cold, maintaining a steady process of ice loss — and ultimately a rise in the sea level.  “We can lose an awful lot of ice to the sea without ever having summers warm enough to make the snow on top of the glaciers melt,” said Hamish Pritchard of the British Antarctic Survey and the study’s lead author.  “The oceans can do all the work from below.”  The study also found a shift in Antarctica’s winds as a result of climate change.  “This has affected the strength and direction of ocean currents,” Pritchard said.  “As a result warm water is funneled beneath the floating ice.  These studies and our new results suggest Antarctica’s glaciers are responding rapidly to a changing climate.  We’ve looked all around the Antarctic coast and we see a clear pattern: in all the cases where ice shelves are being melted by the ocean, the inland glaciers are speeding up.  It’s this glacier acceleration that’s responsible for most of the increase in ice loss from the continent and this is contributing to sea-level rise.”

Antarctica contains adequate ice to raise sea levels by approximately 187 feet, although it’s unlikely to melt for thousands of years, according to the United Nations.  Some ice shelves are thinning by a few meters a year, and glaciers in response are draining billions of tons of ice into the sea, Pritchard said.  “Most profound contemporary changes to the ice sheets and their contribution to sea level rise can be attributed to ocean thermal forcing that is sustained over decades and may already have triggered a period of unstable glacier retreat.”

Some ice shelves are thinning just a few feet a year, and glaciers drain billions of tons of ice into the sea as a result.  “This supports the idea that ice shelves are important in slowing down the glaciers that feed them, controlling the loss of ice from the Antarctic ice sheet,” Pritchard said.

While conducting the study, the researchers measured how ice shelf height changed, using computer models to check changes in ice thickness due to natural snow accumulation.  Additionally, they used a tide model that eliminated height changes due to rising tides.  “This study shows very clearly why the Antarctic ice sheet is currently losing ice, which is a major advance,” said Professor David Vaughan, the leader of ice2sea.  The study is significant because it shows the key to predicting how an ice sheet might change in the future.  “Perhaps we should not only be looking to the skies above Antarctica, but also into the surrounding oceans,” Vaughan added.

Tom Wagner, cryosphere program scientist at NASA, said that the study demonstrates how “space-based, laser altimetry” can expand scientists understand of the earth.  “Coupled with NASA’s portfolio of other ice sheet research using data from our GRACE mission, satellite radars and aircraft, we get a comprehensive view of ice sheet change that improves estimates of sea level rise.”

“When ice shelves completely collapse — and we’ve seen that before — the grounded glaciers behind them will speed up; we know that,” said co-author Helen Amanda Fricker of Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California San Diego.  “But what this study is showing, which is very new, is that you don’t need to lose the shelf entirely for this to happen; just a reduction in the thickness of the ice shelf is enough to allow more of the grounded ice behind it to flow off the continent.”

EPA Putting the Lid on Coal-Fired Power Plants

Monday, April 16th, 2012

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced new greenhouse-gas standards for power plants, following through with the authority conferred by a 2007 Supreme Court ruling declaring carbon dioxide a pollutant under the Clean Air Act.  The new regulation effectively bans new coal-fired power plants unless they capture and sequester carbon dioxide.  Advanced natural-gas plants would meet the standard without mitigation, while existing power plants would be grandfathered in.  The regulation would require new power plants to emit no more than 1,000 pounds of CO2 per megawatt‐hour of electricity generated.

What are the implications?  It is clear that the short-term impact will be minimal: cheap natural gas derived from plentiful shale deposits is already overtaking coal as a source of power.

An average coal-fired plant generates more than 1,700 pounds of carbon dioxide per megawatt. The majority of natural-gas fired plants – and the bulk of power plants currently under construction – emit less than the new standard, approximately 800 pounds per megawatt.

Environmentalists praised the proposed restrictions, while the coal industry warned that the change would lead to higher electricity prices.  “Today we’re taking a common-sense step to reduce pollution in our air, protect the planet for our children, and move us into a new era of American energy,” said EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson.  “We’re putting in place a standard that relies on the use of clean, American-made technology to tackle a challenge that we can’t leave to our kids and grandkids.”  Currently, there is no consistent national limit on the amount of carbon emissions that new power plants can release.  According to an EPA fact sheet, the agency was obliged by the landmark 2007 Supreme Court ruling “to determine if (the emissions) threaten public health and welfare.”  In December of 2009, the EPA formally confirmed that greenhouse gases “endanger the public health and welfare of current and future generations.”

Older coal plants have already been going offline, thanks to low natural gas prices and weaker demand for electricity. Nevertheless, some accused the Obama administration of clamping down on low-priced, domestic energy sources and said the regulation raises questions about the seriousness of the president’s pledge for an “all-of-the-above” energy policy.  “This rule is part of the Obama administration’s aggressive plan to change America’s energy portfolio and eliminate coal as a source of affordable, reliable electricity generation,” said Representative Fred Upton, (R-MI), chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee.  “EPA continues to overstep its authority and ram through a series of overreaching regulations in its attacks on America’s power sector.”

“There are areas where they could have made it a lot worse,” said Scott Segal, director of the Electric Reliability Coordinating Council, a coalition of power companies.  Nevertheless, “the numerical limit allows progress for natural gas and places compliance out of reach for coal-fired plants” not planning to capture carbon dioxide.  Steve Miller, CEO and President of the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity, a group of coal-burning electricity producers, was more negative about the proposal.  “The latest rule will make it impossible to build any new coal-fueled power plants and could cause the premature closure of many more coal-fueled power plants operating today,” Miller said.

Writing for Reuters, John Kemp, Senior Market Analyst, Commodities and Energy notes that “Because natural gas is currently so much cheaper than coal, the agency projects gas-fired units will be the facilities of choice until at least 2020.  ‘Energy industry model ling forecasts uniformly predict that few, if any, new coal-fired power plants will be built in the foreseeable future,’ according to the proposed rule.  The key word is ‘foreseeable’.  No one can predict the economics of natural gas as far ahead as 2020, let alone 2030.  Recent development of abundant gas reserves through fracking may have caused prices to plunge, leading to a ‘golden age of gas’, but just seven years ago the industry was gripped by panic about gas production peaking and thought America stood on the brink of needing to import increasing quantities of expensive gas.”

Jeff Goodell of Rolling Stone writes “So this new rule is, at best, a baby step in the right direction.  As always with the climate crisis, physics is moving much faster than politics.  Just yesterday top scientists warned that global warming is close to irreversible now. In the biggest sense, we’re still doing next to nothing to confront this crisis.  Global carbon pollution is rising faster than ever, and the weather – to say nothing of future our future climate – is getting wilder.  The urgency of our situation just underscores the need for an economy-wide price on carbon, or cap-and-trade system, which would impact all major emissions sources and actually limit the amount of carbon we dump into the atmosphere, rather than just speeding the shift from coal to gas.  Still, this is an important moment, a small sign of progress.  Goodbye, Mr. Coal.  Don’t let the door hit you on the way out.”

Experts Agree (Sort of): 2011 Was One of the Warmest Years on Record

Monday, January 30th, 2012

Depending on who you listen to, 2011 was either the 11th warmest on record — that’s according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) or the 9th — according to the National Aeronautic and Space Administration — NASA.

According to scientists at NOAA, 2011 broke records for climate extremes, as much of the United States faced historic levels of heat, precipitation, flooding and severe weather.  This was driven in part by La Niña events at both ends of the year that impacted weather patterns in the United States and around the world.  NOAA’s annual analysis of U.S. and global conditions, conducted by scientists at NOAA’s National Climatic Data Center, reports that the average temperature for the contiguous 48 states was 53.8 degrees F, 1.0 degree F above the 20th century average, making it the 23rd warmest year on record.  Rain from coast to coast averaged near normal, despite record-breaking extremes in both drought and precipitation.

Kathryn Sullivan, assistant secretary of commerce for environmental observation and prediction and deputy NOAA administrator, described 2011 as an “extraordinary year.”  “It was extraordinary regarding major weather and climate disasters in particular in our country, from tornadoes to droughts to floods and extreme storms,” she said.  “America endured an unusually large number of extreme events causing damages totaling more than $55 billion dollars.”

By contrast, NASA research counters that 2011 was the 9th warmest year since records were first taken in 1880.  In fact, since that year, nine of the 10 warmest years on record have been in the decade since 2000, a rise in global temperature is evident. The only of the 10 warmest years that was not during the past decade was in 1998. Meanwhile, 2010 is still the warmest year on record overall.  The data was gathered from more than 1,000 meteorological stations across the globe.  NASA estimates that over the next few years we’ll see a year that will top 2010’s record breaking temperatures.  “It’s always dangerous to make predictions about El Niño, but it’s safe to say we’ll see one in the next three years,” James E. Hansen, director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, said. “It won’t take a very strong El Niño to push temperatures above 2010.”

According to NASA scientists, 2011 demonstrated a continuing strong trend linked to greenhouse gases.  NASA noted that the current warmer temperatures are primarily sustained by increased concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, especially carbon dioxide. Carbon dioxide is created by a variety of human activities, such as coal-fired power plants to fossil-fueled vehicles to human breath.  At present, levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere exceed 390 parts per million (ppm), compared with 285 ppm in 1880 and 315 by 1960, according to NASA.

Writing in The Atlantic, Rebecca J. Rosen says that “In 1880, when the study’s temperature record-keeping begins, the concentration of carbon dioxide was 285 parts per million. Today it is more than 390 parts per million and rapidly rising. Many top climate scientists, including NASA’s James Hansen, have argued that a level not exceeding 350 parts per million is necessary ‘if humanity wishes to preserve a planet similar to that on which civilization developed and to which life on Earth is adapted.’”

Grape Expectations

Wednesday, December 28th, 2011

The English wine industry – once something of a national joke – is coming into its own as climate change has raised temperatures in southern Britain an average of three degrees Fahrenheit between 1961 and 2006.  Today, Britain has approximately 400 commercial vineyards.  Sparkling wines are beating their French rivals in international competitions.  “We’ve noticed the climate has improved consistently. The weather has improved, the ripening period has become longer, and year after year we’re getting quality fruit,” said Chris White, the general manager of the Denbies Wine Estate in Dorking, England’s largest vineyard at 265 acres.  Denbies anticipates an even warmer future and last year planted seven acres of Sauvignon Blanc vines, a grape originating from France’s significantly warmer Bordeaux region.

Scientists have been analyzing the effects of climate and weather on wine since before global warming became an issue.  Over the past 20 years, studies have analyzed the emerging impacts of warming temperatures on vineyards in Europe, the Americas, Australia and elsewhere, and modeled the possible effects over the next century.  They see accelerating change that the earth has previously not experienced.  “If we look at the best data we have — there’s some data that goes back 500 or so years, and some paleoclimate stuff going back much further — on balance, changes underway today are as big or bigger than anything in those records,” said Gregory V. Jones, a climatologist at the University of Southern Oregon who specializes in climate’s impact on wine.

To date, rising temperatures have had a mostly favorable impact on wine.  Jones led a study that found the average growing-season temperature in 27 prime wine-producing regions had risen 2.3 degrees Fahrenheit in the previous 50 years.  In the vineyards of Spain, Portugal, southern France, and parts of California and Washington state, it rose 4.5 degrees.  Jones also found that wine quality ratings rose with the temperature.

According to an article on the Environmental Research website, the world’s vineyards need to alter some of their practices to cope with climate change.  “The diversity of wine production depends on subtle differences in microclimate and is therefore especially sensitive to climate change.  A warmer climate will impact directly on wine-grapes through over-ripening, drying out, rising acidity levels, and greater vulnerability to pests and disease, resulting in changes in wine quality (e.g. complexity, balance and structure) or potentially the style of wine that can be produced.  The growing scientific evidence for significant climate change in the coming decades means that adaptation will be of critical importance to the multi-billion dollar global wine-industry in general, and to quality wine producers in particular.  Adaptation is understood as an adjustment in natural or human systems in response to actual or expected environmental change, which moderates harm or exploits beneficial opportunities.”

There is also the potential for a critical decline in grape production in the United States. “If current trends continue, the (premium-wine-grape production area (in the United States)…could decline by up to 81 percent by the late 21st century,” a team of scientists wrote in a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The culprit was not so much the rise in average temperatures but an increased frequency of extremely hot days, defined as above 35 degrees Celsius (95 degrees Fahrenheit).  If no adaptation measures were taken, these increased heat spikes would “eliminate wine-grape production in many areas of the United States,” the scientists wrote.

Winemakers in California’s celebrated Napa Valley naturally worry that their reason for being might become untenable.  Napa growers will adapt to climate change and continue making fine wines, Steve Matthiasson of Premiere Viticulture and Matthiasson Wines, said.  He does not anticipate extreme changes anytime soon.  “I don’t doubt any of their data or modeling, and I appreciate them tackling the important issue of climate change,” he said.  “But I think we are much more resilient here in Napa, and we’ll be able to adapt to the changing climate and continue to make world-class wine without losing land to production.”

Rising Greenhouse Gases in the Air to Bring Stormy Weather

Monday, November 28th, 2011

The three gases that contribute the most to global warming rose to their highest levels ever, according to the United Nations (UN). Carbon dioxide, the most significant heat-trapping gas, rose 0.59 percent to 389 parts per million molecules of air, the UN’s World Meteorological Organization (WMO) said.  Methane rose 0.28 percent to 1,808 parts per billion; and nitrous oxide gained 0.25 percent to 323.2 parts per billion.  Rising greenhouse gas emissions threaten to “close the door” on limiting global temperature rises to two degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) during this century, according to the International Energy Agency (IEA).

“Even if we managed to halt our greenhouse-gas emissions today, and this is far from the case, they would continue to linger in the atmosphere for decades to come and so continue to affect the delicate balance of our living planet and our climate,” WMO Secretary-General Michel Jarraud said.

Even worse, greenhouse gases rose faster in 2010 than the average over the past 10 years, according to the annual Greenhouse Gas Bulletin.

Unfortunately, the report is bad news for the earth. Climate change will make droughts and floods like those that have battered the United States and other countries in 2011 more frequent, according to a new report, the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.  The report, that follows a two-year process, suggests that researchers are far more confident about the prospect of more hot weather and heavy rains than they are about how global warming is impacting hurricanes and tornadoes.  The new analysis highlights a broader trend: The world is facing a new reality of more extreme weather, as policymakers and business are beginning to adjust.

Gerald Meehl, a senior scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research and one of the report’s reviewers, said it highlights why climate change is more than just a gradual rise in the global temperature reading.  “The fact is, a small change in average temperature can have a big impact on extremes,” Meehl said.  “It’s pretty straightforward. As average temperatures go up, it’s fairly obvious that heat extremes go up and (the number of) low extremes go down.”

“The time is now for this report,” said University of Illinois climate scientist Don Wuebbles, citing recent studies linking climate change to extreme weather.  “Scientific studies such as a report in the journal Nature have linked the deadly 2003 heat wave in Europe to climate change.”

CO2 levels are currently 389 parts per million, an increase from approximately 280 parts per million 250 years ago. According to WMO Deputy Secretary-General Jeremiah Lengoasa, CO2 emissions are to blame for about 80 percent of the rise.  But he noted the delay between what is emitted into the atmosphere and its impact on climate.  “With this picture in mind, even if emissions were stopped overnight globally, the atmospheric concentrations would continue for decades because of the long lifetime of these greenhouse gases in the atmosphere,” he said.

Representatives from a majority of the world’s nations are gathering to try to agree on how to avoid the worst of the climate disruptions that experts say will result if concentrations hit 450 parts per million.  At the present rate, that could happen within several decades, although some climate activists and at-risk nations say the world has already passed the danger point of 350 parts per million and must be undone.  According to the WMO, the 2.3 parts per million increase of CO2 in the atmosphere between 2009 and 2010 shows a speeding up when compared with the average 1.5 parts per million increase during the 1990s.  Since 1750, the WMO says, atmospheric concentrations of CO2 have jumped 39 percent; nitrous oxide has gone up 20 percent; and methane concentrations soared 158 percent.  Fossil fuel-burning, loss of forests that absorb CO2 and fertilizer use are the primary culprits.

Earlier this year, BP released data showing that global carbon dioxide emissions grew at their fastest rate since 1969 in 2010, as nations recovered from economic recession.  According to the WMO, greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere rose by 1.4 percent last year from 2009 and 29 percent since 1990.  The WMO measured the global amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, gathered from monitors in more than 50 nations, including natural emissions and absorption processes – known as sources and sinks – as well as human activity.

The WMO noted that methane is increasing following a brief period of “relative stabilization” between 1999 and 2006.  “Scientists are conducting research into the reasons for this, including the potential role of the thawing of the methane-rich Northern permafrost and increased emissions from tropical wetlands.”

As Weather Warms, Some Animals and Plants Get Smaller

Wednesday, November 2nd, 2011

Whether it’s the polar bear or the petite house sparrow, many of Earth’s species seem to be shrinking in size, a new study reports; its authors believe that is likely a result of global warming.  Other experts disagree, noting that the conclusion goes too far, and that global warming should not be blamed for what could be natural changes.  The research was published in the journal Nature Climate Change. 

The study found that 38 of 85 animal and plant species showed a definite reduction in size over decades, including a type of Scottish sheep that is now five percent smaller than a quarter century ago.  Those studies examined species over different time periods and in diverse numbers.  According to the study, species that are getting smaller include cotton, corn, strawberries, bay scallops, shrimp, crayfish, carp, Atlantic salmon, herring, frogs, toads, iguanas, hooded robins, red-billed gulls, California squirrels, lynx and wood rats.  The study notes that the house sparrow’s weight has dropped by one-seventh between 1950 and 1990.  A bird known as the graceful warbler showed a 26 percent weight loss during the same timeframe.

“There is a trend in a number of organisms across the board from plants to big vertebrates getting smaller,” said study co-author Jennifer Sheridan, a biology researcher at the University of Alabama.  “The theory is as things get warmer they don’t need to grow as large.”  The majority of these animals are cold-blooded, so the warmer the weather the faster their metabolism and the more calories they burn, according to Sheridan.  A biological law, called Bergmann’s rule, says that as the weather gets colder, animals get bigger.  This is the unwritten flip side of it, Sheridan said.

Yoram Yom-Tov, a zoologist at Tel Aviv University whose studies Sheridan used in her research, agreed that many species are shrinking, and noted that global warming isn’t the only reason.  “Changes in body size are a normal phenomenon,” Yom-Tov said.  “When conditions are favorable, they increase in size or reproduce at higher rates, and when conditions are deteriorating, they do the opposite.  I think that most species will adapt to climate change and survive.  No need for alarm.”

Many scientists believe that the study confirms that climate change is shrinking many plant and animal species and is likely to have a negative impact on human nutrition in the future.  Warmer temperatures and increasing variability in rainfall are affecting the size of all species in the ecosystem from microscopic sea organisms to land-based predators.  “Our study suggests that ectotherms (cold-blooded animals like toads, turtles, and snakes that rely on environmental heat sources) are already changing a lot,” said David Bickford from the National University of Singapore and the study’s co-author.  “What was most surprising to me was that it was such a uniform signal across all these different organisms,” Bickford said.

Sheridan and Bickford examined fossil records, which they found to be clear-cut: past eras of rising temperatures saw both marine and land organisms becoming progressively smaller.  During a time of warming 55 million years ago — often viewed as an analogue for current climate change — beetles, bees, spiders, wasps and ants shrank by 50 to 75 percent over a period of several thousand years.  Mammals such as squirrels and wood rats also shrank by about 40 percent.

Because warming is occurring at unprecedented rates, “Many organisms may not respond or adapt quickly enough”, especially those with long generation times, according to Sheridan and Bickford.  “We do not yet know the exact mechanisms involved, or why some organisms are getting smaller while others are unaffected.  Until we understand more, we could be risking negative consequences that we can’t yet quantify.”

Stanford biologist Terry Root, an expert in climate change, said the study’s conclusions “seem kind of far-fetched.”

Writing for the Nature.com news blog,  Susan Young says that “Temperature-linked changes in precipitation also affect the size of organisms.  Higher temperatures lead to drier environments, and Sheridan and Bickford suggest that reductions in size will be most pronounced in areas where global warming causes reduced precipitation as well.  Tropical trees, toads and mammals are known to grow slower during drought years and under experimental drying conditions.  Other environmental changes will also affect life on earth.  As the atmosphere loads up with carbon dioxide, so do the planet’s oceans, which raises the acidity of the water.  Higher acidity reduces the rate at which organisms like corals and oysters can form their shells.  The result, the authors say, is that these ocean creatures shrink.  The growth of red algae and phytoplankton are also hampered by the lower pH.  The authors note that the warming-shrinking trend does not apply to every organism, such as those with longer generation times or some at higher latitudes.  This variation exacerbates the problem.  If all organisms in a given ecosystem shrank on scale with one another, smaller predators could eat smaller prey that eat smaller plants, and all would be fed.  But that is not what ecologists are observing.  Organisms change with variable intensity depending on their lineage, size and location, and ecosystems are likely to be thrown off balance.”

Is the Minnesota Forest Fire a Symptom of Climate Change?

Monday, September 19th, 2011

An August 18 lightning strike in a northern Minnesota forest after an unusually hot summer started a month-long fire that brought a pall of smoke to Chicago nearly a month after the blaze started.  Driven by northwest winds, the fire in the 1.1 million acre Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness that straddles the Canadian border grew from about 11,000 acres to more than 100,000, said Doug Anderson, a spokesman for the firefighting effort.

The Pagami Creek fire jumped about 16 miles east in a single day, “unprecedented for northern Minnesota,” said Lisa Radosevich-Craig, a firefighting spokeswoman.  The conflagration is in an area popular with canoeists and campers deep within the three million-acre Superior National Forest, approximately 80 miles north of Duluth.  According to Radosevich-Craig, the fire was spread by near-drought conditions that had already prompted the Forest Service to close some parts of the reserve and limit campfires in others.  “Typically more than an inch of rain would have fallen in this area during this time but didn’t,” Radosevich-Craig said.  “Where the winds are coming from and the strength of the winds is unprecedented.”  The fire has burned at least 160 square miles at the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, making it one of Minnesota’s largest on record.

The smoke was heavy enough in the Chicago area – which is 600 miles to the south — that some people complained about burning eyes and breathing problems, the National Weather Service said.  No one has been injured by the fire and no buildings have been destroyed.  “Nobody would have guessed it would be doubling and quadrupling in size,” said Jean Bergerson, a spokeswoman for the Minnesota Interagency Fire Center.

“Sometimes it’s like snow falling, there’s so much ash coming down.  And the smoke is so thick it hurts your eyes and throat.  But other times the wind switches and you can’t tell there’s a fire at all. It’s kind of odd,” said Sue Butler, owner of the Trestle Inn saloon on Crooked Lake.  The forest fire is the largest in Minnesota since 1918, surpassing 2007’s Ham Lake fire, which burned about 38,000 acres in Minnesota and another 38,000 in Ontario while also burning 163 buildings. 

“But the colder temperatures should really help.  It’s a lot harder for fire to spread when it’s in the 50s than when it’s in the 80s,” said Doug Anderson, a spokesman for the inter-agency team battling the blaze.  “People (fire officials) were pretty surprised when they saw that 100,000-acre number go up on the board.  But I think there’s some optimism out there now.”  Fires in wilderness areas typically are allowed to run their course because they renew the forest naturally.  That was the initial policy with this fire as well, but Superior National Forest officials began an all-out assault to prevent the fire from spreading.  Those efforts came too late, and officials say they didn’t have enough firefighters or aircraft to stop the fire from growing significantly.

In terms of the haze that has blanketed the Chicago area, “The smoke is a big problem, added to the impact that mold count is higher, highest number we’ve had all year. The mold makes the smoke worse, and the smoke makes the mold worse,” said Dr. Joseph Leija, of Gottlieb Memorial Hospital in Melrose Park, IL.

The fact that Minnesota is having its biggest forest fire in nearly a century naturally leads to the subject of global warming’s role in the blaze.  Wausau, WI-based WAOW.com’s “Weather You Like It or Not” column notes that “According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the National Climatic Data Center, the meteorological summer 2011 (June – August) was the second warmest in recorded history.  The average temperature across the U.S was 74.5 degrees which is 2.4 degrees above normal.  The hottest summer ever was that of 1936 with an average temperature of 74.6 degrees.  However the states of New Mexico, Oklahoma, Texas, and Louisiana did have their hottest summer on record in 2011.  Of course they also had exceptional drought.  Their number of days with 100 degrees or higher was off the charts.  Some areas had over 70 days of such heat.”

Global warming and years of outdated fire-prevention strategies are setting the stage for massive “mega-fires” that scar communities’ homes and pocketbooks.  Early findings from the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) trace the circumstances around eight mega-fires across the world in an effort to find clues on how best to avoid them and minimize potential damage.  These fires are defined more by their impact on people and the environment than by their specific size.  “Mega-fire is more of a concept than a construct,” said Robert Keane, a research ecologist at the U.S. Forest Service’s Missoula Fire Sciences Laboratory who was not involved with the report.  “What I interpret (mega-fire) to mean is not only is it large, but it affects a lot of people,” he said.  In the United States, just one or two percent of all wildfires become large incidents, but they engulf about 85 percent of total suppression-related costs and total more than 95 percent of the total acres burned, the report notes, citing earlier work.  “Among all wildfires, mega-fires are the most costly, the most destructive and the most damaging. Against the backdrop of global warming, their onset may be signaling that many conventional wildfire protection strategies are ‘running out of road.'” 

“The growing number of large wildfires and the increasing incidence of mega-fires — along with climate change projections for hotter and drier fire seasons — lend urgency to this issue,” according to the report.

Goodnight, Irene, Goodnight

Wednesday, September 7th, 2011

As Hurricane Irene literally tore up the nation’s East Coast, leaving 42 people dead in 12 states in its wake, the question naturally arises about global warming’s role in the disaster.  In a year when spring tornadoes wreaked havoc on towns like Tuscaloosa, AL and Joplin, MO, and with the Federal Emergency Management Administration’s (FEMA) budget stretched to its limit, the clean-up after Irene is almost impossible to imagine.

Estimates of the financial damage vary widely, but Peter Morici, an economist at the Smith School of Business at the University of Maryland, says that the direct costs are likely to be $20 billion, primarily in the Northeast.  Lost economic activity caused by closed restaurants and shops could add an additional $20 billion to the losses, he said. 

 Irene’s effects were particularly savage in parts of New England, as flooding and widespread power failures continued to impact thousands of people.  “I think this is going to end up being a bigger event than people think it is,” according to Connecticut Governor Dan Malloy.  “All of this is massive in scope. What the final dollar amount is, I don’t know.”  

 In southern Vermont, which was especially hard hit, the National Guard airlifted food, water and other supplies to people stranded in 13 communities cut off by floods.  “I think it’s probably a very scary thing to not know when you can get out of town and to have a water system that’s not working and a general store that has run out of bottled water,” Mark Bosma, a spokesman for the Vermont Office of Emergency Management, said.  “People are extremely nervous about being isolated.”  

Although Irene’s floodwaters were gradually receding in parts of Vermont, the governor warned that further flooding and loss of life are likely ahead for the small, rural state.  “It’s just devastating,” Governor Peter Shumlin said.  “Whole communities under water, businesses, homes, obviously roads and bridges, rail transportation infrastructure.  We’ve lost farmers’ crops,” he said.  “We’re tough folks up here but Irene…really hit us hard.” 

 Irene could prove to be one of the 10 costliest calamities in United States’ history; analysts believe that a significant amount of the damage might not be covered by insurance because it was caused by flooding and not by winds, which typically is excluded from many standard policies.  

 While insurers have typically covered roughly 50 percent of the total losses in past storms, they might end up covering less than 40 percent of the costs associated with Hurricane Irene, according to an analysis by the Kinetic Analysis Corporation.  That is in part because of the sheer amount of damage caused by flooding, and it is not known how many owners of damaged homes have flood insurance.  Another reason is the fact that deductibles have risen precipitously in coastal areas recently, requiring some homeowners to cover $4,000 worth of damages or more before insurers pick up the loss.  

 “This could make it harder for many stricken homeowners to rebuild, and could dampen any short-term boost to the construction industry that typically accompanies major storms, Jan Vermeiren, the chief executive of Kinetic Analysis, said.  Especially now that the economy is tight, and people don’t have money sitting around, local governments are broke, and maybe people can’t even get loans from the banks.”  

 Writing for Democracy Now, environmental activist Bill McKibben of 350.org,  says that “Hurricane Irene received a massive amount media coverage, but television reports made little or no reference to the role global warming played in the storm.  We’ve had not only this extraordinary flooding, but on the same day that Hurricane Irene was coming down, Houston set its all-time temperature record, 109 degrees.  We’re in a new situation.” 

In an opinion piece for the Daily Illini, Jason Febrey, writes that “Of course, climate change did not ‘cause’ Hurricane Irene in the strictest sense.  Hurricanes have been ravaging coastal areas since the dawn of time, mostly due to moist tropical air, the spin of the Earth and differential pressure fronts.  But there is no denying that climate change was a contributing factor to Irene’s severity.  Hurricanes normally lose their strength long before they approach Virginia, where ocean temperatures are not warm enough to sustain hurricane-force winds.  This year, however, has been one of the warmest on record with ocean surface temperatures of 2.6 degrees Fahrenheit above historical averages — enough to sustain a hurricane all the way up to the New England states.  Record temperatures, coupled with rising sea levels and growing amounts of moisture and energy trapped in our atmosphere, are all adding fuel to the destructive potential of natural disasters like Hurricane Irene.  Now that the worst of Irene has passed, we all ought to be grateful that damage wasn’t as terrible as some models predicted.  But we can’t rely on luck or the whims of nature forever.  How long will it be before the hurricanes of tomorrow, strengthened by warmer waters, begin to batter their way even further up the East Coast?  How long before New York turns into New Venice?  Contemplating these possibilities is a sobering exercise.”

A recent editorial written before Irene hit the East Coast in the Newark Star-Ledger  raises some interesting points about climate change.  “We can now add Hurricane Irene among the symptoms that scientists warned we’d experience as global warming occurs.  Wind of up to 100 mph, predicted to lash the East Coast.  Ocean waves as high as 12 feet.  That’s in line with what scientists have said, that hurricanes would become more severe as ocean temperatures rise.  Yet there’s another growing trend on climate change, and that’s denial.  Polls show that while most Americans believe climate change is occurring, most Republicans do not.  Climate complacency is at an all-time high, thanks to those political winds.  How big a disaster will it take to push our leaders back to scientific fact?”

It’s HOT Out There!

Tuesday, July 26th, 2011

A severe heat wave that has kept a tight grip on the Midwest and Eastern United States that has resulted in the deaths of at least 20 people  is perceived by many as a sign of the impact of global warming.  Excessive heat watches, warnings and heat advisories were in effect in more than 30 states, in what the weather service described as “a large portion of the central U.S. and Ohio River Valley, as well as portions of the mid-Atlantic and northeastern states.  Temperatures will feel like 100 to 110 degrees or higher during the afternoon hours.”

The heat wave has brought heat index values — which measure how hot it feels — to as high as 131.  Heat indices reached 129 in Newton, IA; 121 in Taylorville, IL; 122 in Gwinner, ND, and 123 in Hutchinson, MN.  Minneapolis recorded its highest dew point ever, 82 degrees.  The dew point measures atmospheric moisture.

“This is completely out of whack for the Upper Midwest,” said Chris Vaccaro, a spokesman for the National Weather Service.  The heat wave toppled existing peak records for electricity usage.  Xcel Energy, which serves 1.64 million customers in North Dakota, South Dakota, Wisconsin and Minnesota, broke a demand record on Monday with 9,504 megawatts of power used, according to Tom Hoen, a company spokesman.  The old record set in August 2010 was 9,100 megawatts.  Utility companies in Iowa reported record usage.

In Chicago, the National Weather Service is warning that the heat wave could be the most intense since July 1999, with highs flirting with the record of 101 degrees set 31 years ago.  In the downtown area, which the weather service characterizes as an “urban heat island,” the index is likely to remain above 100 degrees late into the evening and probably will not fall below 90 all night.  More than a dozen heat-related deaths have been reported in the Midwest.

A “combination of very hot temperatures and high humidity will create dangerous heat indices over the central US”, said the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) The National Weather Service said a stagnant air mass on the central plains is the cause of the extended heat wave.  NOAA data affirm that temperatures have risen across the United States by roughly 1.5° F over the past 30 years.

This naturally leads to the subject of global warming.  According to Public Radio International’s “The Takeaway”,  Chicago’s 50-year forecast: lethal and extreme weather, a termite invasion and a 1 ½ foot drop in Lake Michigan’s depth.”

According to Aaron Durnbaugh, the deputy commissioner of Chicago’s Department of Environment, the forecast is based on fact, not fiction.  “We worked closely with the best scientists we could find to put forward our forecast, both in a best-cast and worst-case scenario — looking towards the middle of the century and 2100, the end of the century — and identifying different impacts related to precipitation and temperature, and then a follow on impact from those changes.”

Chicago’s city planners have a plan to redesign the city to accommodate the 50-year forecast.  The plan, according to an article in the New York Times, includes everything from what types of trees to plant, to more permeable roads and water-storage tanks.  The city is preparing for “sun” days: “We’re expecting many more days above 90 or 95 degrees, with heat spiking potentially to 117 degrees in the summer,” Durnbaugh said.  “And we have a history, unfortunately, of heat-related disasters in Chicago.  Cities adapt or they go away.  Climate change is happening in both real and dramatic ways, but also in slow, pervasive ways.  We can handle it, but we do need to acknowledge it. We are on a 50-year cycle, but we need to get going.”

According to a study published in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives, global climate change could, by 2081 to 2100, drive that average number of yearly heat wave-related deaths to between 166 and 2,217.  “Our study looks to quantify the impact of increased heat waves on human mortality,” said lead author Roger Peng, associate professor of biostatistics at Johns Hopkins University. “For a major U.S. city like Chicago, the impact will likely be profound and potentially devastating.  It’s very difficult to make predictions, but given what we know now — absent any form of adaptation or mitigation — our study shows that climate change will exacerbate the health impact of heat waves across a range of plausible future scenarios,” Peng concluded.