A new study in the journal Scientific Reports suggests that the evidence to pinpoint expected acceleration of sea-level rise due to climate change was hiding behind the effects of a 1991 eruption of Mount Pinatubo. This eruption sent tens of millions of tons of sulphur dioxide into the stratosphere and may have masked the effects of industrial pollution on global sea levels during the two decades since.
“What we’ve shown is that sea level acceleration is real, and it continues to be going on, it’s ongoing, and we understand why you don’t see it in the short satellite record,” said John Fasullo, who conducted the research along with scientists from the University of Colorado in Boulder and Old Dominion University. The data from satellite observations that scientists have used to track sea-level rise began in 1993, two years after the eruption, which temporarily cooled the planet. These data indicated that the rate of sea-level rise was holding fairly steady at about 3 millimeters per year.
“When we used climate model runs designed to remove the effect of the Pinatubo eruption, we saw the rate of sea level rise accelerating in our simulations,” Fasullo said. “Now that the impacts of Pinatubo have faded, this acceleration should become evident in the satellite measurements in the coming decade, barring another major volcanic eruption.”
Climate Change Extending Mosquito Season, Raising Zika Risk
A portion of last week’s opening Olympic ceremonies in Rio de Janeiro focused squarely on climate change. A video offered a glimpse of climate change effects and an accompanying graphic showing the incursion of sea-level rise on cities around the world if the average global temperature were to increase 3–4 degrees. Fitting perhaps, suggested The Washington Post, given warming could help accelerate outbreaks of mosquito-borne illnesses such as Zika, which has spread from Brazil to Florida, leading to serious birth defects.
Although data confirming a formal link between climate change and the rise and spread of the virus are lacking, Climate Central reports that the initial Brazilian outbreak of Zika was “aided by a drought driven by El Niño, and by higher temperatures caused by longer-term weather cycles and by rising levels of greenhouse gas pollution.” Climate Central’s own research recently showed that in three quarters of major U.S. cities warming temperatures have lengthened the mosquito season—the number of days hot and humid enough for mosquitoes to be biting. According to that research, the ten cities with the biggest increase in the length of the mosquito season over the last 30 years were Baltimore, Maryland; Durham, North Carolina; Minneapolis, Minnesota; Myrtle Beach, South Carolina; Raleigh, North Carolina; Portland, Maine; St. Louis, Missouri; Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; Worcester, Massachusetts; and Albany, New York.
For Rio, Zika is not the only health risk potentially increased by longer, rainy summers.
Ratifying the Paris Agreement
In Paris last year, more than 190 countries pledged to hold the global average temperature increase to “well below” 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels and to pursue efforts to limit that increase to 1.5 degrees Celsius. But keeping within that 1.5 degree Celsius target, The Guardian reports, will be extremely difficult.
An analysis by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of the Marshall Islands—the third country to ratify the Paris Agreement—suggests that the agreement is nearing a critical threshold of pledges and is likely to enter into force this year or in early 2017. The agreement takes effect 30 days after at least 55 countries representing at least 55 percent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions ratify it. The Marshall Islands analysis indicates 58 countries together representing nearly 54 percent of global emissions have either ratified or pledged to work toward ratification of the Paris Agreement by the end of the year.
So far, 22 nations accounting for 1.08 percent of emissions have formally ratified the deal, according to the United Nations.
The Climate Post offers a rundown of the week in climate and energy news. It is produced each Thursday by Duke University’s Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions.
By 2030, half of the energy produced in the state of New York will come from renewables, according to a new policy adopted Monday by the state’s public service commission. The move is expected to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 40 percent from 1990 levels (80 percent by 2050) and to attract billions in clean energy investment.
“New York has taken bold action to become a national leader in the clean energy economy and is taking concrete, cost-effective steps today to safeguard this state’s environment for decades to come,” said New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo. “This Clean Energy Standard shows you can generate the power necessary for supporting the modern economy while combatting climate change. Make no mistake, this is a very real threat that continues to grow by the day and I urge all other states to join us in this fight for our very future.”
The plan calls for New York to retain its nuclear reactors—though The Washington Post reports that those facilities don’t count as part of the 50 percent renewables target. According to New York regulators, doing so might cost $965 million over two years but could lead to net benefits of $4 billion due to avoided carbon dioxide emissions and air pollution. While supporters of this provision applaud New York’s effort to retain its emissions-free nuclear generation, opponents are likely to challenge the nuclear subsidies on the grounds they are discriminatory, hurt markets, and intrude on federal authority.
New York is not the first state to announce an ambitious greenhouse gas reduction target. In April 2015, California announced it planned to cut those emissions by 40 percent below 1990 levels in the same time frame with renewables increases. Like California, New York plans to phase in its renewables increase; 31 percent of its energy is to come from renewables by 2021 and 50 percent by 2030. Those targets are meant to give utilities and clean energy companies time to develop their business models.
White House to Federal Agencies: Consider Climate Change Impacts
In an action with broad implications for thousands of projects, including energy and mineral development on public lands, natural gas import and export facilities, and transportation projects, the Obama administration issued final guidance on how federal agencies should consider greenhouse gas emissions and climate change impacts when conducting reviews under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) (subscription).
“Focused and effective consideration of climate change in NEPA reviews will allow agencies to improve the quality of their decisions,” the guidance states. “Identifying important interactions between a changing climate and the environmental impacts from a proposed action can help Federal agencies and other decision makers identify practicable opportunities to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, improve environmental outcomes, and contribute to safeguarding communities and their infrastructure against the effects of extreme weather events and other climate-related impacts.”
The guidance, the product of a six-year effort by the White House Council on Environmental Quality, advises agencies to quantify projected greenhouse gas emissions of proposed federal actions whenever the necessary methodologies and data are available. It also encourages them to draw on their experience and expertise to determine the appropriate level and extent of quantitative or qualitative analysis required to comply with NEPA and to consider alternatives that would increase the climate-change resilience of the action and affected communities.
“From the public standpoint, we are now going to know what all of our decisions add up to in terms of impacting climate change,” said Christy Goldfuss, managing director of the Council on Environmental Quality. “You can think of all the different federal decisions, and how they all add up. We have numbers where we can actually say, ‘this is a huge decision, given the amount of greenhouse gases coming out of it.’ And that gives the public a chance to really weigh in on decision-making.”
Several media outlets pointed out that because the White House guidance is not a regulation, agencies are not legally bound to follow it.
Clean Power Plan Analysis: National Costs Low, State Costs Varied
Wednesday marked one year since the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency formally rolled out the Clean Power Plan, which aims to reduce carbon emissions from power plants. Even with the February stay by the U.S. Supreme Court, which halted implementation of the plan pending resolution of legal challenges, some say the plan is having an impact while others are finding more reason to explore the legality of the rule (subscription).
Should the rule survive judicial review, a new paper by the Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions uses the Nicholas Institute’s Dynamic Integrated Economy/Energy/Emissions Model to evaluate Clean Power Plan impacts on the U.S. generation mix, emissions, and industry costs. It indicates that industry trends are likely to make Clean Power Plan compliance relatively inexpensive, with cost increases of 0.1 to 1.0 percent. But policy costs can vary across states, which might lead to a patchwork of policies that, although in their own best interests, could impose additional costs nationally.
“The answer is not the same for everyone in terms of what’s going to be the least-cost way for a particular state to approach this policy,” said lead author and Nicholas Institute Senior Economist Martin Ross. “Nationally, it would make the most sense to have a broadly coordinated policy where you can take advantage of the usual economic [tools] to spread the cost reductions around and pick up the most cost-effective sources for reducing emissions.”
Similar findings were presented at a conference of the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners. Because of lower-than-expected natural gas prices, renewable power, and extended federal tax credits for that power, the country as a whole is set to meet the Clean Power Plan’s early goals, reports ClimateWire.
The Climate Post offers a rundown of the week in climate and energy news. It is produced each Thursday by Duke University’s Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions.
In March, the Guardian issued an election-related call-out to online readers in the United States, asking them to identify the “one issue that affects your life you wish the presidential candidates were discussing more.” The results are in. Of the 1,385 respondents from all 50 states, one in five expressed discontent about lack of discussion of climate change, an issue described in vivid terms, such as “cataclysmic” and “slow-motion apocalypse.” Respondents expressed greatest concern about sea-level rise and decreasing food and water security.
“Climate change is the common denominator for us all regardless of gender, creed or political affiliation,” said Sarah Owen in a video response to the survey.
Between parties, there’s divide on the topic of climate change. Eleven House Republicans who are trying to change their party’s attitude about climate change and four of five Republican senators with a record of supporting action on it skipped this week’s GOP convention, where delegates approved a party platform that rejected the Paris Agreement, a carbon tax, and other action on climate change and that downplayed use of renewable energy.
“Climate change is far from this nation’s most pressing national security issue. This is the triumph of extremism over common sense, and Congress must stop it,” reads the platform.
Just how ambitious the Democratic Party will be in attempting to reduce carbon emissions—particularly, its stance on a carbon tax—remains to be seen. The full platform committee will hammer out details in Orlando on Friday and Saturday.
In an interview with ClimateWire, U.S. Special Envoy for Climate Change Jonathan Pershing suggested that the U.S. presidential election will have less impact on American efforts to combat climate change than a host of other factors ranging from new technologies and appliance standards to political support for renewable energy tax credits.
“To me, there’s more likely to be continuity no matter who’s in office,” Pershing said.
Projecting Clean Power Plan Costs, Impacts
The Clean Power Plan aims to reduce carbon emissions from existing power plants. Assuming the rule survives judicial review and is implemented, the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) projects a reduction of power sector emissions of about 35 percent by 2030.
Assuming the Clean Power plan is upheld, EIA projects emissions outcome and electricity generation mix for multiple state implementation strategies—that is, pursuit of mass-based emissions targets or rate-based emissions targets. EIA projects higher prices if emissions allocations under a mass-based regime are given to generators rather than load-serving entities, but “price effects are similar in the [mass] and CPP rate cases where the average electricity price from 2022 through 2030 in both cases is 2 percent higher than in the No CPP case, and 3 percent higher on average from 2030 through 2040,” analysts wrote.
As the EIA data suggests, utilities and other power producers are likely to be in different positions if the rule moves forward—some will benefit from the rule, and others will face costs to comply, which can lead to monetary transfers among different producers and consumers of electricity. A new policy brief by Duke University’s Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions builds on this understanding by exploring the distributional impacts of choosing rate-based and mass-based approaches to comply with the Clean Power Plan. It finds that states adopting a mass-based compliance approach can use allowance allocation to largely control monetary transfers within a state. States adopting a rate-based compliance approach lack this direct control mechanism.
Each state’s system of electricity regulation and any changes in wholesale prices for electricity due to the policy in regional electricity markets will play a major role in determining how cost distribution and potential transfers play out, the authors said.
Study: Warm Water, Not Air, Accelerating Glacier Retreat on Western Antarctic Peninsula
A study published in the journal Science found that ocean warming, rather than atmospheric warming, is the primary cause of retreat of 90 percent of the 674 glaciers on the western Antarctic Peninsula. Because the peninsula’s glaciers are among the main contributors to sea-level rise, the study suggests that better understanding of how and why they’re changing will increase the accuracy of ice-loss predictions.
“Scientists know that ocean warming is affecting large glaciers elsewhere on the continent, but thought that atmospheric temperatures were the primary cause of all glacier changes on the Peninsula,” said lead author Alison Cook of Swansea University. “We now know that’s not the case.”
The scientists came to that conclusion after linking a distinct pattern of melt from north to south on the peninsula with a pattern of temperatures at mid-ocean depths that mirrored the melt. At the southern end of the western side of the peninsula, they found that a welling up of warm Circumpolar Deep Water wears away the fronts of glaciers. At the northern end of the peninsula, the fronts of glaciers are more stable because they terminate at colder waters that come from a different source.
“Our results are key for making predictions of ice loss in response to ocean warming in this region,” Cook said. “The Antarctic Peninsula is one of the largest current contributors to sea-level rise, and the glaciers here are highly sensitive, so [they] are key indicators of how the ice will respond to future changes.”
The Climate Post offers a rundown of the week in climate and energy news. It is produced each Thursday by Duke University’s Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions.
“We are now able to put a number on the deaths caused by climate change in a heat wave,” said lead author Daniel Mitchell of the University of Oxford. “This has never been done before. Previous studies have attributed changes in heat waves to climate change, or related increased heat stress to human deaths, but none have combined the two.”
The study’s U.S. and U.K researchers calculated that, during a Europe-wide heat wave in summer 2003, 506 of 735 deaths in Paris and 64 of 315 deaths in London were due to a heat wave worsened by anthropogenic climate change. They reached that conclusion after putting the results of several thousand runs of two climate model simulations of the 2003 heat wave into a health impact assessment of death rates.
By comparing two scenarios—one reflecting the climate of 2003 without human influences and one reflecting all known climatic forces contributing to the 2003 heat wave—the researchers determined how climate change had affected that summer’s temperatures.
The study, reports Carbon Brief, analyzes a direct impact measure—mortality—rather than an indirect one—temperature. It links mortalities to climate and introduces another level of uncertainty, especially when long and reliable health datasets are not available for use in analyses.
Nevertheless, reports ClimateWire, the study demonstrates that losses can be directly linked to climate change and thus its framework can be used to assign costs of “loss and damage” and to improve planning and adaptation (subscription).
“It is often difficult to understand the implications of a planet that is one degree warmer than preindustrial levels in the global average, but we are now at the stage where we can identify the cost to our health of man-made global warming,” Mitchell said. “This research reveals that in two cities alone hundreds of deaths can be attributed to much higher temperatures resulting from human-induced climate change.”
Last week at a meeting held by the French government to study Paris Agreement-related actions to reduce health risks linked to climate change, the World Health Organization said that change is likely to kill 250,000 additional people each year by 2030—primarily through malaria, diarrhea, heat stress, and malnutrition. Children, women, older people, and the poor will be most affected.
Climate Change and Cloud Cover
A new study in the journal Nature suggests there’s evidence of climate change in satellite cloud records. By comparing satellite data from 1983 to 2009 to climate models, the authors found that the clouds forming most often are not low-lying reflective ones that cool the planet. Instead, cloud patterns were in line with what scientists would expect to see in climate models—an increase in greenhouse gases associated with human activity over the study period.
“Cloud changes most consistently predicted by global climate models are currently occurring in nature,” the authors write. “As cloud tops rise, their greenhouse effect becomes stronger.”
Clouds have both an Earth-cooling effect by reflecting solar radiation back to space and an Earth-warming effect by restricting the planet’s thermal infrared radiation.
“Even if there is no change in the overall coverage of clouds on the earth, clouds closer to the pole reflect less solar radiation because there is less solar radiation coming in closer to the pole,” said lead author Joel Norris of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography.
In Science magazine, Norris noted one caveat: during the study period, two major volcanic eruptions cooled and then warmed the climate, producing cloud patterns similar to those produced by greenhouse gas-related warming.
Draft Proposes Extension of California Cap-and-Trade Program
The California Air Resources Board released a draft plan to extend the state’s cap-and-trade program beyond 2020, when it is set to expire. The program—one of the first economy-wide programs put in place—aims to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by creating a fixed number of permits, called allowances, to emit a single ton; compliance entities and other market participants can buy and sell allowances, thereby enabling the market to determine the lowest-cost compliance path.
The draft plan calls to extend the program another decade and to reach emissions levels 40 percent below 1990 levels. It would include preliminary caps through 2050 “to signal the long-term trajectory of the program to inform investment decisions.”
No board vote is scheduled on the proposal until March 2017. A state appeals court is considering a challenge from the California Chamber of Commerce, which contends that the pollution-credit program is an illegal tax, not a fee.
Coral in every major reef region across the world has already experienced bleaching, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) forecasts that temperatures in much of the Pacific, Atlantic and Indian oceans could reach a point at which significant bleaching of corals is present this summer. NOAA’s Coral Reef Watch suggests that the greatest threat is to reefs in Palau and the Federated States of Micronesia. All Northern Hemisphere U.S.-coral reefs are on alert for bleaching.
In a statement, NOAA said that “This third global bleaching event began in mid-2014” and is ongoing. “Global warming, coupled with intense El Nino, continues to make this the longest and most widespread coral bleaching event on record.”
Coral bleaches when it becomes damaged or diseased by rising water temperatures. Some recent studies have suggested other factors—beyond just warming water—also play a role. Over the past century, climate change has already caused global sea surface temperatures to rise by about 1 degree Celsius, pushing corals closer to their bleaching threshold.
Although the bleaching event was already the longest in recorded history and was predicted to run past the middle of the year, NOAA’s latest climate model-based forecasts suggest it will run at least through the end of 2016.
“It’s time to shift this conversation to what can be done to conserve these amazing organisms in the face of this unprecedented global bleaching event,” said Jennifer Koss, NOAA’s Coral Reef Conservation Program director. “We have boots on the ground and fins in the water to reduce local stressors. Local conservation buys us time, but it isn’t enough. Globally, we need to better understand what actions we all can take to combat the effects of climate change.”
This month, NASA launched a new, three-year project—Coral Reef Airborne Laboratory (CORAL)— to study the Pacific Oceans coral reefs by aircraft from 23,000 feet above the ocean. NASA scientists plan to map large swaths of coral in hopes of better understanding how environmental changes—including climate change, acidification, and pollution—are affecting these delicate ecosystems.
“CORAL will provide the most extensive picture to date of the condition of a large portion of the world’s coral reefs from a uniform data set,” NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab penned in a press release. “The data will reveal trends between coral reef condition and biogeophysical forcings, both natural and those arising from human activities. With this new understanding of reef condition, we can better predict the future of this global ecosystem.”
White House Announces Energy Storage Projects
At a summit of regulators, power companies, municipalities, and energy developers on Monday, the Obama administration announced new executive actions and 33 state and private sector commitments to “accelerate the grid integration of renewable energy and storage.” Collectively, the commitments—aimed at reducing carbon emissions and increasing the resilience of the electricity grid—are expected to result in at least 1.3 gigawatts of additional storage procurement or deployment over five years and could lead to approximately $1 billion in energy storage investments.
Among the actions, are funding for microgrids in rural communities, a U.S. Department of Energy push for standardization of and increased access to energy data, and release of White House Council of Economic Advisers report on the “technical and economic considerations and opportunities” relating to the grid integration of renewables. On the private sector side, 16 developers and power companies set new storage procurement and deployment targets. Some are committing to smart water heaters, smart meters and demand response programs.
Federal programs to boost storage and microgrid capacity at federal installations and military bases may be a game changer, according to one electricity market analyst. In a research note on the commitments, reported PV Magazine, GTM Research highlighted storage deployment by the U.S. Navy for its “potential to genuinely grow the market beyond business-as-usual.”
Obama Says Climate Change a Threat to National Parks
“One of the things that binds us together is we only have one planet and climate change is probably the biggest threat—not only to natural wonders like this—but to the well-being of billions of people, coastal cities, agricultural communities that can be displaced in the span of a few decades by changes in temperatures that mean more drought, more wildfires,” Obama said during an interview with National Geographic that will air in later this summer to commemorate the National Park Service’s 100th anniversary. “Part of why it’s so important for us to raise awareness (about climate change) with the general public is: This is a solvable problem.”
He added: “Rising temperatures could mean no more glaciers at Glacier National Park. No more Joshua trees at Joshua Tree National Park.” Our changing climate, he said, could destroy vital ecosystems in the Everglades and threaten such landmarks as Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty.
According to the National Parks Service, the park system’s many fragile ecosystems are “a testament to the reality of climate change.” They said glaciers could be completely gone from Glacier National Park by 2020, park facilities in Alaska are sinking due to thawing permafrost and archaeological sites are under threat from sea-level rise.
A new report that provides a long-term view of the evolution of the world’s power markets suggests that by 2027 building new wind and solar will become cheaper than running existing coal and gas generators in many parts of the world. Between 2016 and 2040, Bloomberg New Energy Finance’s New Energy Outlook projects that $7.8 trillion will be invested in renewables globally.
“One conclusion that may surprise is that our forecast shows no golden age for gas, except in North America,” said report co-author Elana Giannakopoulou. “As a global generation source, gas will be overtaken by renewables in 2027. It will be 2037 before renewables overtake coal.”
The energy sector, which accounts for two-thirds of greenhouse gas emissions, will not change quickly enough to meet the Paris Agreement’s target for limiting global temperatures to “well below” 2 degrees Celsius below pre-industrial levels. According to the report, to meet this target, leaders must invest $13.1 trillion—$5.3 trillion more than the $7.8 trillion expected to be invested in renewables by 2040. This will presumably require further changes in technology and policy to increase the uptake of new low carbon investment to meet that target.
What happens with fossil fuel emissions, it says, will largely depend on choices made by the Asia-Pacific region that’s forecast to see major growth in wind, solar and coal.
By 2040, the study suggests energy storage market will be valued at $250 billion or more as battery costs are projected to fall and storage deployment rises. Utility-scale batteries are projected to become widespread in little more than a decade.
Greenland Ice Melt Points to Warming Feedback Loop
As news emerged that Arctic sea ice extent hit a record low in May, a study published in Nature Communications provided evidence that links melting ice in Greenland to so-called Arctic amplification or faster warming of the Arctic than the rest of the Northern Hemisphere as sea ice disappears. The study revealed that changing temperatures at the poles driven by global warming have the potential to affect the jet stream, causing it to bend further north than usual.
“If loss of sea ice is driving changes in the jet stream, the jet stream is changing Greenland, and this, in turn, has an impact on the Arctic system as well as the climate,” said lead author Marco Tedesco, a research professor at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory. “It’s a system, it is strongly interconnected and we have to approach it as such.”
During July 2015, according to the study, a “cutoff high”—a relatively immobile region of high pressure—allowed sunny conditions to be sustained for many days over northwest Greenland, producing record melting there. The study suggests that the high was linked with a record-breaking northward departure of the mid-latitude jet stream, which is thought to result from the jet stream’s slowing due to a reduction in the temperature difference between polar latitudes and more temperate regions.
According to study co-author Edward Hanna, an earth scientist at the University of Sheffield in the United Kingdom, these cut-off highs are becoming more prevalent in the Arctic, and they may be here to stay because of climate change.
Record Temps Continue in May
Analysis by NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies showed that Earth experienced its hottest May on record—1.67 degrees Fahrenheit above the 1951–1980 average. The data, according to the Daily Mail, showed 370 straight months of warm or warmer-than-average temperatures worldwide.
David Carlson, director of the U.N.’s World Climate Research Program, expressed concern about the records: “We are in uncharted territory. Exceptionally high temperatures. Ice melt rates in March and May that we don’t normally see until July. Once-in-a-generation rainfall events. The super El Nino is only partly to blame. Abnormal is the new normal.”
A new study published in the journal Nature is drawing attention to the effect of warming water on the world’s largest ice mass, Totten Glacier in East Antarctica. Melting of the glacier, which has an ice catchment area bigger than California, could lift oceans at least two meters (6.56 feet). According to researchers who mapped the shape of the ice sheet as well as the thickness of rocks and sediments beneath it to examine the historical characteristic of erosion of Totten’s advances and retreats, unabated climate change could cause the glacier to enter an irreversible and rapid retreat within the next century.
“While traditional models haven’t suggested this glacier can collapse, more recent models have,” said study co-author Alan Aitken of the University of Western Australia. “We confirm that collapse has happened in the past, and is likely to happen again if we pass a tipping point, which would occur if we had between 3 and 6 degrees of warming above present.”
Aitken said that the Totten Glacier could ultimately account for nearly 15 percent of Antarctica’s total contribution to sea-level rise.
Satellite measurements from a previous study show that the glacier is thinning at a rate of about half a meter per year—a thinning that is most likely due to warm ocean water moving under and melting the glacier’s floating front. A retreat of another 100–150 kilometers (62–93 miles) may cause that front to sit on an unstable bed, triggering the Antarctic ice to shrink by 300 kilometers (186 miles).
“The evidence coming together is painting a picture of East Antarctica being much more vulnerable to a warming environment than we thought,” said study co-author Martin Siegert of Imperial College London. “This is something we should worry about.”
Index Suggests Increase, Acceleration of Carbon Dioxide Levels
The latest Annual Greenhouse Gas Index released by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) shows that carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere are not just rising but accelerating and that the level of methane, another potent greenhouse gas, rose sharply last year. The index, which compares global greenhouse gas emissions to pre-industrial revolution levels, suggests that warming capacity has increased 37 percent since 1990.
“We’re dialing up Earth’s thermostat in a way that will lock more heat into the ocean and atmosphere for thousands of years,” said Jim Butler, director of NOAA’s Global Monitoring Division.
According to the latest index, the global average carbon dioxide concentration for 2015 reached 399 parts per million (ppm), far above the 278 ppm just prior to the Industrial Revolution and a record increase of 3 ppm compared to the year previous.
Following on the heels of that news, NOAA and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) reported that last month was the hottest April on record. According to the World Meteorological Organization, April marked the 12th consecutive month of global temperature records, the longest such streak since global record-taking began in 1880.
EPA Proposes Rise in Biofuel Targets
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) proposed an increase in the amount of corn-based ethanol and biofuels that must be blended into the nation’s fuel supply in 2017. The new targets call for 18.8 billion gallons of biofuels, up 4 percent from 2016 but far less than the 24 billion-gallon biofuel target that lawmakers established in a 2007 statute.
The reason for the lower-than-mandated target, EPA says, is lack of infrastructure to blend ethanol into gasoline as well as the cellulosic biofuel industry’s slow development and marketplace constraints, such as lower gasoline and diesel demand than Congress envisioned in 2007.
Nevertheless, acting assistant administrator for EPA’s Office of Air and Radiation Janet McCabe said that the Obama administration is “committed to keeping the [biofuels mandate] on track, spurring continued growth in biofuel production and use, and achieving the climate and energy independence benefits that Congress envisioned from this program.”
Under the renewable fuel standard (RFS), the proposed rule sets the 2017 renewable volume obligations (RVOs) for cellulosic biofuel at 312 million gallons and the advanced biofuel RVO at 4 billion, and it sets the 2018 RVO for biomass-based diesel at 2.1 billion gallons.
The proposed volumes would represent growth over historic levels. Between 2016 and 2017, total renewable fuel volumes are expected to increase by nearly 700 million gallons and advanced renewable fuels, which require 50 percent reductions in life-cycle carbon emission, by nearly 400 million gallons.
The proposed volumes are subject to public comment through July 11, and a public hearing is scheduled June 9. The EPA has until Nov. 30 to finalize the 2017 quotas.
A study published in the journal Environmental Research Letters finds that five of the uninhabitated Solomon Islands have submerged underwater and six more have experienced dramatic shoreline reductions due to man-made climate change. The study by a team of Australian researchers offers scientific evidence confirming anecdotal accounts of climate change impacts on Pacific islands. That evidence consists in part of radiocarbon tree dating and of aerial and satellite images of 33 islands dating back to 1947.
According to the study authors, the Western Pacific, where residents in many remote communities must constantly climb to higher elevations, is a hotspot for tracking sea-level rise.
The Solomon Islands have experienced nearly three times the global average of sea-level rise, 7–10 millimeters per year since 1993—rates consistent with those that can be expected across much of the Pacific in the second half of this century, reported Scientific American.
Previous research had attributed Pacific island shoreline changes to a mix of extreme events, seawalls, and inappropriate coastal development as well as sea-level rise. But the new study directly links island loss to climate-related phenomena.
Human disturbances, plate tectonics, hurricanes, and waves can mask the effects of climate change. So to hone in on those effects, the researchers studied islands with no human habitation—Nuatambu Island being the one notable exception.
“Rates of shoreline recession are substantially higher in areas exposed to high wave energy, indicating a synergistic interaction between sea-level rise and waves,” the study authors said. “Understanding these local factors that increase the susceptibility of islands to coastal erosion is critical to guide adaptation responses for these remote Pacific communities.”
U.S. Energy-Related Carbon Dioxide Emissions Fall But Global CO2 Concentrations Rise
The Energy Information Administration (EIA), which released the data, attributed the decline largely to “decreased use of coal and the increased use of natural gas for electricity generation.” Such fuel use changes, the EIA reports, accounted for 68 percent of total energy-related carbon dioxide reductions from 2005 to 2015.
Meanwhile, carbon dioxide concentrations at a remote Australia monitoring station—Cape Grim—are poised to hit a new high of 400 parts per million (ppm) of carbon dioxide for the first time in a few weeks. Though that mark is largely symbolic, the United Nations suggests that concentrations of all greenhouse gases should not be allowed to peak higher than 450 ppm this century to maximize chances of limiting global temperature rise.
“We wouldn’t have expected to reach the 400 ppm mark so early,” said David Etheridge, an atmospheric scientist with Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO), which runs the station. “With El Nino, the ocean essentially caps off its ability to take up heat so the concentrations are growing fast as warmer land areas release carbon. So we would have otherwise expected it to happen later in the year.”
The first 400 ppm milestone was hit in 2013 by a monitoring station in Mauna Loa. Cape Grim and Mauna Loa are among the stations that measure baseline carbon dioxide across the world. Their readings are unaffected by regional pollutions sources that would contaminate air quality.
Companies Relinquish Arctic Drilling Leases
The region is estimated to hold 27 billion barrels of oil and 132 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, but tapping these resources has come at great risk for companies.
“Given the current environment, our prospects in the Chukchi Sea are not competitive within our portfolio,” said ConocoPhillips spokeswoman Natalie Lowman. “This will effectively eliminate any near-term plans for Chukchi exploration for the company.”
Marketplace reports that data secured through a Freedom of Information Act request revealed that Shell, ConocoPhillips, Eni and Iona Energy have renounced all but one of their leases in the Chukchi Sea—meaning 80 percent of all area in the American Arctic leased in a 2008 sale has or will be abandoned.
Shell Spokesman Curtis Smith said “After extensive consideration and evaluation, Shell will relinquish all but one of its federal offshore leases in Alaska’s Chukchi Sea. Separate evaluations are underway for our federal offshore leases in the Beaufort Sea. This action is consistent with our earlier decision not to explore offshore Alaska for the foreseeable future.”
Limiting global average temperature increase to “well below” 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels and to pursue efforts to limit that increase to 1.5 degrees Celsius—as agreed at the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris last year—will do little to stop portions of the world from becoming uninhabitable.
That’s according to a new study published in the journal Climatic Change, which compares data from 1986 to 2005 with predictions from 26 climate models over the same period to project climate conditions for two future periods—2046 to 2065 and 2081 to 2100. In both cases, the highest temperature rise is predicted in summer in the Middle East and North Africa. By 2050, both study projections find the global temperature will be close to or have exceeded the 2 degree Celsius target.
“We have been investigating environmental issues, especially airborne dust, air quality and climate change, in the Middle East for many years,” said Jos Lelieveld of the Max Planck Institute for Chemistry and study co-author. “Recently, we ‘expanded’ our interest to include North Africa, and discovered the important role of desert warming amplification in summer. It is evident that this can affect human habitability in the entire region. Since the Middle East and North Africa are troubled by many unfortunate developments, exceedingly hot summers can be expected to exacerbate problems.”
A separate study by the World Bank suggests that the Middle East, North Africa, and central and South Asia could suffer large economic hits due to water scarcity associated with climate change. These regions could see their growth rates decline by as much as 6 percent of GDP by 2050 due to water-related impacts on agriculture, health and incomes.
“When we look at any of the major impacts of climate change, they one way or another come through water,” said Richard Damania, lead author of the report. “So it will be no exaggeration to claim that climate change is really in fact about hydrological change.”
To mitigate the impact of climate change on water supplies, the report suggests better planning for water resource allocation, adoption of incentives to increase water efficiency and investments in infrastructure for more secure water supplies and availability.
As Ocean Temps Rise, Ocean Oxygen Decreases
According to a new study in the journal Global Biogeochemical Cycles, ocean oxygen levels are decreasing due to climate change—with grave consequences for oxygen-reliant sea life such as crabs, squids, and many kinds of fish. The authors say the deoxygenation effect is already detectable in the southern Indian Ocean and parts of the eastern tropical Pacific and the Atlantic.
“Loss of oxygen in the ocean is one of the serious side effects of a warming atmosphere, and a major threat to marine life,” said lead author Matthew Long, a researcher at the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR).
The study uses a climate change model to attempt to determine precisely when ocean “deoxygenation” can be attributed to human-induced climate change, suggesting that differentiating between climate change-related losses and natural fluctuations will become increasingly less difficult. It predicts that by the 2030s, climate-change-related oxygen losses will be pervasive and obvious if greenhouse gas emissions continue unchecked. By the year 2100, it says, a significant fraction of the world’s oceans will experience some deoxygenation due to human activity.
“Since oxygen concentrations in the ocean naturally vary depending on variations in winds and temperature at the surface, it’s been challenging to attribute any deoxygenation to climate change,” Long said. “This new study tells us when we can expect the effect from climate change to overwhelm the natural variability.”
As seas warm, their capacity to absorb oxygen at the surface decreases, along with water turnover, which in turn decreases the chances that oxygen at the surface will move under the surface. That’s because as water heats, it expands and becomes lighter than the water beneath it and therefore less likely to sink. The low oxygen levels can create dead zones.
Florida Keys Coral Reefs Reach Climate-Related ‘Tipping Point’
Two weeks after the world learned that 93 percent of Australia’s Great Barrier Reef has been bleached comes word of damage to reefs around South Florida and the Keys as a result of ocean acidification linked to warming waters. According to research in the journal Global Biogeochemical Cycles, reefs in the upper Florida Keys may be losing more limestone than they create each year—a “tipping point” that was projected for 2050 (subscription).
“These bleaching events are an acute problem caused by hot weather spells,” said study co-author Chris Langdon, a professor at the University of Miami’s Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science. “Acidification is chronic; it lasts 365 days out of the year. This is one reason we have to reduce carbon dioxide emissions sooner than later.”
Typically, conditions in the ocean, such as water temperature and light, are favorable for the growth of coral limestone in spring and summer and are less favorable in fall and winter. As oceans absorb atmospheric carbon dioxide and ocean pH decreases, the natural summer growth cycle of coral decreases such that the effects of coral dissolution from ocean acidification cannot be offset.
The study findings are based on water samples taken along the 124-mile stretch of the Florida Reef Tract north of Biscayne National Park to the Looe Key National Marine Sanctuary. Because the data were collected in 2009 and 2010, the researchers suggest that another analysis should be conducted.
“The worst bleaching years on record in the Florida Keys were 2014–2015, so there’s a chance the reefs could be worse now,” said Langdon.
Last week more than 150 nations signed the Paris Agreement, pledging to hold the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5 degrees Celsius. Now, the first comprehensive analysis of the impacts of that half centigrade difference has been published in the journal Earth System Dynamics. The scientists found the additional 0.5 degrees Celsius would lead to longer heatwaves—“the difference between events at the upper limit of present-day natural variability and a new climate regime”—as well as more severe droughts and, in the tropics, decreased crop yield and the potential demise of all coral reefs. The extra 0.5 degrees Celsius could also mean that global sea levels rise 10 centimeters more by 2100.
“We found significant differences for all the impacts we considered,” says the study’s lead author Carl Schleussner, a scientific advisor at Climate Analytics in Germany.
The researchers analyzed climate models used in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Fifth Assessment Report, which focused on the projected regional impacts of 1.5 degrees Celsius and 2 degrees Celsius of warming, and considered 11 indicators, including extreme weather events, water availability, crop yields, coral reef degradation and sea-level rise.
They found that projected climate impacts at a 2 degrees Celsius increase are significantly more severe than at a 1.5 degrees Celsius increase in some regions. In the Mediterranean, for example, fresh-water availability by 2100 would be some 10 percent lower in a 1.5 degrees Celsius world and 17 percent lower in a 2 degrees Celsius world. In Central America and West Africa, the half-degree difference could reduce maize and wheat yields by twice as much. Tropical regions would bear the brunt of the impacts of an additional half degree of warming, experiencing heat waves at about twice the global rate. Those events could last up to three months at 2 degrees Celsius, compared with two months at 1.5 degrees Celsius, the researchers say.
Tropical coral reefs are particularly sensitive to the half degree increase. By 2100, some reefs might adapt to 1.5 degrees Celsius of warming, but the larger increase would put nearly all of them at risk of severe degradation from coral bleaching.
EPA Moves Forward with Clean Energy Incentives Program
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has sent a proposal on the Clean Energy Incentive Program (CEIP), an optional program included in the Clean Power Plan that rewards states for early investment in certain renewable energy or energy efficiency projects in 2020 and 2021, to the Office of Management and Budget for review. The move is the final step before the CEIP can be formally proposed to the public (subscription).
The EPA released details on the draft CEIP as part of the final Clean Power Plan—the Obama administration’s rule to limit greenhouse gas emissions from the existing fleet of fossil fuel-fired power plants—in August. But, earlier this year, the Supreme Court issued a stay of the Clean Power Plan.
“Many states and tribes have indicated that they plan to move forward voluntarily to work to cut carbon pollution from power plants and have asked the agency to continue providing support and developing tools that may support those efforts, including the CEIP,” the EPA said. “Sending this proposal to OMB for review is a routine step and it is consistent with the Supreme Court stay of the Clean Power Plan.”
Pleasant Weather Affecting Americans’ View of Climate Change
A new study in the journal Nature finds that 80 percent of Americans live in counties where the weather is more pleasant than four decades ago. This mild temperature trend, the study says, is increasingly preferred, lessening many Americans’ concern about climate change.
“Rising temperatures are ominous symptoms of global climate change, but Americans are experiencing them at times of the year when warmer days are welcomed,” said study co-author Patrick J. Egan, an associate professor at New York University’s Wilf Family Department of Politics. He adds that “whereas weather patterns in recent decades have served as a poor source of motivation for Americans to demand a policy response to climate change, public concern may rise once people’s everyday experiences of climate change effects start to become less pleasant.”
Conducted by New York and Duke universities, the study examined each county in every U.S. state from 1974 to 2013—assessing the mildness of winters, rainfall averages, and humidity and heat intensity during summer months. It found that 99 percent of Americans live in places where the average January temperature increased.
“Here in the U.S., when we’re experiencing ice storms, the idea of a 1.5 or 2 degree rise might sound like good news,” said Megan Mullin, associate professor of environmental politics at Duke University. As a result, she said, scientists need to reconsider their messages.