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.
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.
Yellowstone National Park, Venice, Jordan’s Wadi Rum, and Easter Island’s Rapa Nui National Park are some of the 31 natural and cultural World Heritage sites in 29 countries that are threatened by climate change according to a new report released by UNESCO, the United Nations Environment Program and the Union of Concerned Scientists. Melting glaciers, rising seas, increasing wildfires and harsher droughts could severely diminish the value of protected sites, making them unsuitable for a World Heritage designation, the report says. Climate change could eventually cause some of the sites to lose their status.
Also at risk, according to the report, is local economic development in the areas near world heritage sites. Specifically, the tourism sector is vulnerable to loss and damage to assets and attractions as well as to increasing insurance costs and safety concerns.
“The fastest growing risk to World Heritage, and one of the most under-reported by the countries that are parties to the World Heritage convention, is from climate change,” said Adam Markham, deputy director of the Climate and Energy Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists. He pointed out that climate change brings not only direct impacts but “acts as a ‘risk multiplier,’” compounding local stresses such as urbanization, agricultural expansion and pollution.
In the Galapagos Islands, threats to wildlife from tourism, invasive species and illegal fishing are exacerbated by rising seas and warming and more acidic oceans. At Stonehenge, warmer winters will likely increase numbers of burrowing animals that could undermine archaeological deposits and destabilize stonework.
“Globally, we need to better understand, monitor and address climate change threats to World Heritage sites,” said Mechtild Rössler, director of UNESCO’s World Heritage Centre. “As the report’s findings underscore, achieving the Paris Agreement’s goal of limiting global temperature rise to a level well below 2 degrees Celsius is vitally important to protecting our World Heritage for current and future generations.”
Ocean Current Affecting Temperatures in Antarctica
A new study in the journal Nature Geoscience suggests that ocean currents are slowing the warming effects on Antarctica as Arctic ice melts on the other side of the world. Warm waters in Gulf Stream cool as they flow into the North Atlantic, then sink for centuries before surfacing off the coast of Antarctica.
“With rising carbon dioxide you would expect more warming at both poles, but we only see it at one of the poles, so something else must be going on,” said Kyle Armour, lead author and University of Washington assistant professor. “We show that it’s for really simple reasons, and the ocean currents are the hero here.”
Old, deep water that’s coming up to the surface all around Antarctica—water that hasn’t come into contact with the atmosphere or experienced climate change in hundreds of years—is behind the drastic differences in the continent’s water temperature.
Using drifting floats—known as the Argo array—and climate models, the study authors tracked heat. They found that nearly 68 percent of the heat taken up by the southernmost parts of the Southern Ocean was carried north.
A separate study in the journal Remote Sensing of the Environment also attributes ocean currents, in part, to increasing Antarctica temperatures and sea ice growth. It suggests that the Southern Ocean Circumpolar current prevents warmer water from reaching the continent and that icy winds help the formation of sea ice persist.
Record Renewable Investment by Developing Countries in 2015
For the first time, emerging economies spent more on renewable energy than developed economies, according to the Renewables Global Status report prepared by the Renewable Energy Policy Network for the 21st Century (REN21). In 2015, developing countries invested $156 billion in renewables—a 19 percent increase from the previous year.
“What is truly remarkable about these results is that they were achieved at a time when fossil fuel prices were at historic lows, and renewables remained at a significant disadvantage in terms of government subsidies,” said Christine Lins, REN21’s executive secretary.
By the end of 2015, countries around the world had installed a record annual total of 147 gigawatts of renewable generating capacity—enough to meet 23.7 percent of global electricity demand. China was the leader in renewables investment, followed by the United States, Japan, the United Kingdom and India.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
Four months after it was finalized by delegates to the Paris Climate Change Conference, the Paris Agreement will be signed by more than 100 nations on Friday. While the agreement is facially insufficient to meet its overall emissions objectives, the signing of the Paris agreement nevertheless is significant. It brings into effect the approach and policy infrastructure needed to tackle the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change’s ambitious goal to minimize human-caused climate change. The agreement does not solve the problem on its own, but it is a structured revisitation of the science and national commitments that provide the adaptive approach necessary to reach a solution. It is now on researchers and entrepreneurs to invent solutions; for governments, development banks and the private sector to deploy them; and for nations to hold each other accountable as this agreement goes into effect.
Energy innovation is just one of the benefits of the signing, according to White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest.
“This will open up a market for energy innovation that U.S. companies have pioneered,” Earnest said. “This is going to open up a global market for the kind of renewable energy technology that U.S. companies are at the cutting edge of.”
Other shifts have occurred since the Paris Agreement was finalized, GreenBiz reports. Big companies have backed the Clean Power Plan, there’s a rise in “sub-national” climate action at the state and city level and President Obama has proposed $10-a-barrel-tax on oil, they say.
EPA Finds Benefits Outweigh Cost of Mercury Rule
Benefits of the Mercury and Air Toxics Standard (MATS) rule outweigh cost, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) said in findings released in defense of its issuance of the first-ever federal regulations requiring power plants to cut mercury emissions and other toxics.
The Supreme Court found, last year, that the EPA should have considered compliance costs when determining whether it was “appropriate and necessary” to regulate mercury emissions from the power sector. In a June ruling, it did not strike down the regulation; rather, it required the EPA to take costs into consideration.
In its final 167-page report on the matter, now awaiting publication in the Federal Register, the EPA details how it considered cost in evaluating whether to regulate coal-and oil-fired power plants under the Clean Air Act (subscription).
“Based on this analysis, EPA has determined that the cost of complying with MATS, whether assessed as a percentage of total capital expenditures, percentage of power sector sales, or predicted impact on the retail price of electricity, is reasonable and that the electric power industry can comply with MATS and maintain its ability to provide reliable electric power to consumers at a reasonable cost,” the EPA wrote.
The annual cost of complying with MATS, the EPA found, amounts to between 2.7 and 3.5 percent of electricity sales, and the capital costs between 3 and 5.9 percent of annual power sector capital expenditures over 10 years.
Methane Emissions Greater Than Thought
In its newly released annual greenhouse gas emissions inventory, the EPA raised its estimate of total U.S. methane emissions in 2013 by 13 percent—an increase of more than 3.4 million metric tons and a long-term global warming impact of a year’s worth of emissions from some 20 million cars, Science News reported. The agency’s first estimate of methane emissions for 2014 is even higher, although only slightly so—29.233 million metric tons compared with 28.859 million metric tons.
Although there was a roughly 1 percent increase in total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions between 2013 and 2014, the inventory shows 2014 levels were 8.6 percent lower than 2005 levels, taking into account carbon sinks (subscription).
According to the EPA, the biggest methane emitter is the oil and natural gas industry—not animals like cattle and other livestock, as had been suggested by last year’s inventory. The data in this latest inventory are based on new techniques for estimating methane leaking from valves, compressors, vents, and other oil and gas equipment.
Scientists have warned that severe drought and precipitation are among the risks of greenhouse-gas-induced climate change, but a study published in the journal Nature finds that extremely warm temperatures do not always translate into record wet and dry extremes. Highlighting the complexities in predicting the effects of planetary warming on precipitation, lead author Fredrik Ljungqvist of Stockholm University said that more dramatic wet-dry weather extremes had occurred in centuries cooler than the 20th century.
“Several other centuries show stronger and more widespread extremes,” he said. “We can’t say it’s more extreme now.”
In this first hemispheric-scale, centuries-long water availability assessment, the researchers statistically analyzed evidence for changes in precipitation and drought, compiling hundreds of precipitation records across the Northern Hemisphere from historical accounts as well as archives on such things as tree-rings and lake sediments.
They detected a pattern of alternating moisture regimes throughout the last 12 centuries, suggesting that “the instrumental period is too short to capture the full range of natural hydroclimate variability.”
Their finding that the last century’s temperature rise may not have affected the hydroclimate as much as previously thought challenges the conclusions of the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
In a News and Views article published in Nature, Matthew Kirby of California State University at Fullerton suggested that current climate models should not be discarded because their results, which indicate that “dry gets dryer and wet gets wetter,” do not match the Ljungqvist team’s proxy results, which indicate no difference in the water dynamics of the 20th century and those of the pre-industrial era.
“Do their results invalidate current predictive models?” Kirby asked. “Certainly not. But they do highlight a big challenge for climate modellers, and present major research opportunities both for modellers and for climate scientists who work with proxy data.”
Study: Climate Change Causing Earth to Shift
A study published in the journal Science Advances reveals that climate change affects how Earth tilts on its axis. Although scientists have known that Earth’s spin axis has been drifting due to ice cap melt in Greenland and Antarctica, the new research suggests that changes in terrestrial water storage also play a role in the planet’s decadal axis swings. The finding is based on data collected from NASA’s Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment (GRACE) satellite, which can detect changes in the mass of Earth’s ice sheets and oceans.
Before 2000, Earth’s spin axis was moving westward toward Canada, but since then, climate-change-driven ice loss has pulled the direction of drift eastward approximately seven inches a year—a shift that lead researcher Surendra Adhikari of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory described as “very dramatic” and that scientists say is meaningful.
“This is the first time we have solid evidence that changes in land water distribution on a global scale also shift which direction the axis moves to,” said Adhikari.
Although the study data doesn’t indicate whether the most recent shift in the pole is the result of human activities, the study authors think they will be able to use them to tease out man-made climate change later this year. Because polar motion and climate variability appear to be linked, scientists can examine historical records of the pole’s motion in relation to changes in Earth’s climate. If those changes are less dramatic than the ones evidenced today, scientists could assert that global warming has a controlling influence on Earth’s poles.
U.N. Climate Agreement Terms Studied, Launch Pegged Early
Next week on Earth Day (April 22), 130 countries are expected to sign the Paris Climate Agreement, which has a goal of limiting average surface temperatures to “well below” 2 degrees Celsius. But already the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is looking into the feasibility of what U.N. Climate Chief Christiana Figueres describes as “a moonshot”: limiting global emissions to 1.5 degrees Celsius.
Figueres believes the Paris agreement will take effect in 2018—two years sooner than currently slated.
The agreement will come into force once 55 parties representing 55 percent of the world’s total emissions have both signed and ratified it.
Data released last week by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) shows that the string of monthly global heat records extended through February, when the average worldwide temperature was 2.18 degrees Fahrenheit above the 20th century average. The tenth straight record breaking month, February was the most above-normal month since meteorologists began tracking temperatures in 1880.
The nearly six-tenths of a degree margin by which it beat the old February record, set last year, had federal scientists describing temperatures as “staggering.” That margin was confirmed by the National Aeronautical and Space Administration, which uses statistical techniques different than NOAA’s, as well as a University of Alabama Huntsville team and the private Remote Sensing System team, which relies on measurements from satellites.
“Yes, of course El Niño has a hand in the February and other monthly temperatures records we’ve been observing, but not the only hand, not even the winning hand,” Jessica Blunden of NOAA’s National Center for Environmental Information told Mashable. “During the last big El Niño event of 97/98, temperatures departures from average were much lower compared with what we’re seeing now with this comparable event, which shows us that general warming is occurring over time.”
Many scientists say climate change is contributing to the recent high temperatures.
“We know that atmospheric CO2 (carbon dioxide) and other greenhouse gases are continuing to increase, so that’s contributing to climate change and rising temperatures overall,” said Heather Graven, a climate scientists at the Imperial College of London.
Another clue that rising greenhouse gases are contributing to the recent high temperatures is the location of the warmest-compared-to-average temperatures—the far northern latitudes, which are relatively unaffected by El Niño and where Arctic sea ice set a new lowest-extent record for a February. In those latitudes, including Alaska, recorded temperatures were at least 9 degrees Fahrenheit higher than average—“above the upper bounds” of NOAA’s February Global Land and Ocean Temperature Anomalies map.
Study: Carbon Dioxide Release Occurring Faster Than At Any Other Time
A new study in the journal Nature Geoscience, which comes on the heels of NOAA’s record temperature announcement, finds that humans are releasing climate-change-causing carbon dioxide 10 times faster than at any other time in the last 66 million years.
“I think to me it’s completely clear we have entered a completely new era in terms of what humans can do on this planet,” said Richard Zeebe, study co-author with the University of Hawaii at Manoa. “… If you look at the past and if you study the geologic record, every time when there was massive carbon release there were major changes on the planet and there were significant, large changes in the climate.”
To determine how carbon dioxide levels have influenced temperatures, researchers examined warming millions of years ago in the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum (PETM) by comparing carbon and oxygen tracers, called isotopes, deep in the New Jersey sea floor. PETM is thought to be a possible stand in for the potential impacts of carbon pollutions, as it refers to a period in history when the concentration of atmospheric carbon dioxide spiked. They found that 40.8 billion tons of carbon dioxide was released into the atmosphere in 2014 but that no more than 4.4 billion tons was released in the peak year during PETM.
“Because our carbon release rate is unprecedented over such a long time period in Earth’s history, it also means that we have effectively entered a ‘no-analogue’ state,” said Zeebe. “This represents a big challenge for projecting future climate changes because we have no good comparison from the past. Our results suggest that future ocean acidification and possible effects on marine calcifying organisms will be more severe than during PETM.”
Climate Change Could Be Abrupt, Trigger Dire Consequences
Burning fossil fuels at the current pace will trigger an abrupt climate shift, according to a study published in the journal Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics. Authored by retired NASA climate scientist James Hansen and 18 others, the study uses global climate modeling, paleoclimate data and modern observation of interactions between the ocean and ice sheets (specifically the Greenland and Antarctic ice shelves) to determine impacts associated with melt.
“We conclude that light freshwater added to upper layers of the ocean is already beginning to shut down North Atlantic Deep Water formation and Antarctic Bottom Water formation,” said Hansen. “This will have enormous consequences in future decades, if full shutdown is allowed to occur.”
The study, which stirred debate when it came out in draft form this summer, suggests that the impacts of global warming will not only happen more quickly than thought, but be more dire than envisioned. Holding temperatures to the 2 degrees Celsius of warming above pre-industrial levels would not be enough to save the planet from experiencing collapsing ice sheets and megastorms.
The paper concludes that “if the ocean continues to accumulate heat and increase melting of marine-terminating ice shelves of Antarctica and Greenland, a point will be reached at which it is impossible to avoid large-scale ice sheet disintegration with sea level rise of at least several meters. The economic and social cost of losing functionality of all coastal cities is practically incalculable.”
Supreme Court Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. denied a request for a stay or injunction of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Mercury and Air Toxic Standards (MATS) rule—a rule that 20 states have claimed is “unlawful and beyond EPA’s statutory authority.” The ruling means MATS, which requires coal-burning power plants to install technologies to reduce emissions of toxic pollutants, remains in effect while the EPA continues its study of compliance costs.
The stay denial, issued solely by Chief Justice Roberts and without comment, follows a June Supreme Court decision in which five justices found that the EPA should have considered compliance costs when determining whether it was “appropriate and necessary” to regulate mercury emissions from the power sector. The June ruling did not strike down the regulation; rather, it required the EPA to take costs into consideration.
In a supplemental finding proposed in November, the EPA indicated that the costs of implementing MATS were reasonable. The EPA is expected to finalize its cost accounting, which seeks to address court concerns, in April.
“These practical and achievable standards cut harmful pollution from power plants, saving thousands of lives each year and preventing heart and asthma attacks,” said Melissa Harrison, EPA spokeswoman.
Melting of Greenland’s Ice Sheet Accelerating with Loss of Reflectivity
A study in European Geosciences Union journal The Cryosphere finds that the reflectivity, or “albedo,” of Greenland’s ice sheet could decrease by as much as 10 percent by the end of the century, potentially leading to significant sea-level rise (subscription). The study links the diminishing capacity of Greenland’s ice sheet to reflect solar radiation—so-called “darkening”—to positive feedback loops that quicken ice melt, allowing it to feed on itself.
Scientists have been aware of the feedback loops, lead author Marco Tedesco, a professor at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, told the Christian Science Monitor. “What’s new,” he said, “is the acceleration of the darkening, which started in 1996.”
The research used satellite photos dating back to 1981 plus a model to examine the impact of increases of both impurities in the ice, often visible to the human eye, and the size of grains in the snowpack, which is often invisible to the human eye and which makes snow “‘darker’—not dirtier, but more absorbent of energy from the sun,” said Tedesco. As snowpack melts and refreezes, meltwater binds grains together. The larger the grains, the less reflective the surface of the ice sheet and the faster the melting, which keeps speeding up as the remaining impurities become concentrated at the surface.
The study attributes the acceleration of darkening in 1996 to a change in atmospheric circulation. The North Atlantic Oscillation, a natural weather cycle, went into a phase that favored incoming solar radiation and warm, moist air from the south. Although those conditions shifted in 2013 to favor less melting, the sensitivity of the ice sheet to atmospheric air temperatures had already increased, and in 2015, melting spiked again, affecting more than half of the Greenland ice sheet.
The study rejected one prominent theory of Greenland’s darkening—namely, that worsening wildfires are releasing soot that is increasingly falling on Greenland. It finds “no statistically significant increase” in black carbon from fires in northern regions and an increase that is likely too small to matter from wildfires in temperate North America.
“Overall, what matters, it is the total amount of solar energy that the surface absorbs,” said Tedesco. “This is the real driver of melting.”
U.S. Makes First Green Climate Fund Payment
The United States has made the first payment to the United Nation’s Green Climate Fund (GCF). The $500 million payment is part of a broader $3 billion pledge to the GCF, which helps poor countries fight climate change and adopt clean energy technologies.
“With this announcement, which comes less than three months after the historic Paris climate agreement, the United States continues to demonstrate leadership in the international climate arena,” a State Department official told The Hill. “This grant is the first step toward meeting the president’s commitment of $3 billion to the GCF and shows that the United States stands squarely behind our international climate commitments.”
For the first time, the World Economic Forum (WEF) has ranked an environmental risk—climate change—as the most severe economic risk facing the world. Global Risks Report 2016 says climate change is compounding and intensifying other social, economic, and humanitarian stresses such as mass migration, which it ranked as the threat most likely to materialize in the next 18 months.
“Climate change is exacerbating more risks than ever before in terms of water crises, food shortages, constrained economic growth, weaker societal cohesion and increased security risks,” said Cecilia Reyes, chief risk officer of Zurich Insurance Groups, one of the report collaborators.
Along with interaction with other risks, Margareta Drzeniek-Hanouz, head of global competitiveness and risks at the WEF, pointed to recent weather events and the frequency of natural disasters as justification for climate change’s top ranking this year. “We do see more severe and more likely weather events,” she said. “There are more droughts and floods. We have a higher and higher assessment of climate change.”
Among the priority actions outlined in the report: modifying financial systems to “unleash climate-resilient, low-carbon investments.” The authors found that incentives for such investments have yet to be incorporated into financial decision making despite increasing recognition of climate-change-related economic risks.
The report is based on a survey of 750 experts from economic, environmental, geopolitical, societal, and tech sectors about the perceived impact and likelihood of 29 prevalent global risks over a 10-year period.
Study: Rate of Man-Made Heat Energy Absorbed by Oceans Has Doubled
A new study in the journal Nature Climate Change finds that since 1997 heat uptake by the world’s oceans has nearly doubled by comparison with that uptake in the previous industrial era and that heat is mixing into deeper ocean layers, rather than remaining near the surface.
The study tracked how much man-made heat energy has been buried in the oceans in the past 150 years using ocean-observing data dating as far back as the 1870s. It included readings from high-tech underwater monitors and results of computer models.
Oceans absorb more than 90 percent of man-made heat energy. Since the industrial revolution, deepwater heat content has increased by “several tenths of a degree” when averaged out across the globe, according to Peter Gleckler, the study’s lead author. Although that energy is equivalent to less than 0.5 Celsius of warming averaged across the upper reaches of the ocean, Gleckler said it is still a “huge increase,” adding that “if we want to really understand how much heat is being trapped, we can’t just look at the upper ocean anymore, we need to look deeper.”
The study found that a third of the recent ocean heat buildup occurred at depths of 700 meters or greater, possibly explaining a pause in warming at the sea surface since the end of the 20th century. Why deeper waters may be absorbing greater amounts of heat is not fully understood, according to the study.
The University of California reported that the Nature Climate Change study “found that estimates of ocean warming over a range of times and depths are consistent with results from the latest generation of climate models, building confidence that the climate models are providing useful information.”
Official Numbers: 2015 Was the Hottest Year
Independent analyses by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the Goddard Institute for Space Studies at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), and the U.K. Met Office found that Earth’s surface temperatures were the warmest they have been since record-keeping began.
NASA calculated the rise at 0.23 degree Fahrenheit above 2014 and suggested that 1998 was the only year that a new record was greater than the old record by such a large margin. NOAA put the increase at 0.29 degree Fahrenheit. The U.K. Met Office expects 2016 to set another record.
“A lot of times, you actually look at these numbers, when you break a record, you break it by a few hundredths of a degree,” said Thomas Karl, director of NOAA’s National Centers for Environmental Information. “But this record, we literally smashed. It was over a quarter of a degree Fahrenheit, and that’s a lot for the global temperature.”
Although 2015 temperatures were assisted by an ongoing El Nino weather pattern—which brings heat from the Pacific Ocean into the atmosphere, Gavin Schmidt, director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies said “it is the cumulative effect of the long-term trend that has resulted in the record warming that we are seeing.”
NASA used surface temperature measurements from more than 6,000 weather and research stations as well as ship- and buoy-based observations of sea surface temperatures for its analysis. NOAA uses similar temperature data, but it also uses different baseline periods and methods.
President Obama laid out four big questions the United States has to answer in his nearly hour-long final State of the Union address Tuesday night. One of those four points: How do we make technology work for us, and not against us, especially when it comes to solving urgent issues like climate change?
In discussing the role American needs to take in combating this issue, Obama highlighted America’s past willingness to rely on science.
“Sixty years ago, when the Russians beat us into space, we didn’t deny Sputnik was up there,” Obama said. “We didn’t argue about the science, or shrink our research and development budget. We built a space program almost overnight, and twelve years later, we were walking on the moon … Look, if anybody still wants to dispute the science around climate change, have at it. You’ll be pretty lonely, because you’ll be debating our military, most of America’s business leaders, the majority of the American people, almost the entire scientific community, and 200 nations around the world who agree it’s a problem and intend to solve it.”
Obama also presented a vision for our energy future.
“Now we’ve got to accelerate the transition away from dirty energy,” he said. “Rather than subsidize the past, we should invest in the future—especially in communities that rely on fossil fuels. That’s why I’m going to push to change the way we manage our oil and coal resources, so that they better reflect the costs they impose on taxpayers and our planet. That way, we put money back into those communities and put tens of thousands of Americans to work building a 21st century transportation system.”
“None of this will happen overnight, and yes, there are plenty of entrenched interests who want to protect the status quo,” he added. “But the jobs we’ll create, the money we’ll save, and the planet we’ll preserve—that’s the kind of future our kids and grandkids deserve. And it’s within our grasp.”
McCarthy Talks Environmental Priorities in 2016
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Gina McCarthy told the Washington Post that the Obama administration is preparing an ambitious agenda on climate change in 2016, citing new efforts to lower air pollution and a predication that the administration’s Clean Power Plan would survive legal challenges.
“We’re not just going to stay with what we’ve already done,” she said. “We’re going to look for other opportunities.”
McCarthy echoed these comments on the EPA Connect blog, writing “Heading into 2016, EPA is building on a monumental year for climate action—and we’re not slowing down in the year ahead.” In reviewing 2015, she highlighted announcement of the final Clean Power Plan—a regulation meant to reduce carbon dioxide emissions from power plants—and the global climate deal reached last month in Paris. She said her office will provide technical leadership to ensure consistent, transparent greenhouse gas reporting and inventory requirements under the global deal and would work to ensure the deal “is cast in stone.”
McCarthy is reportedly touring Ohio this week, touting President Obama’s energy and climate agenda (subscription).
Manmade Climate Change Evidence for Anthropocene Epoch
A group of geoscientists suggest that human activities, including those contributing to climate change, have altered the planet so much that their consequences are already detectable in the geological record and are reason to consider that sometime in the mid-twentieth century Earth moved into a new geologic epoch: the “Anthropocene.” As evidence that the planet has left the Holocene epoch, which began about 11,700 years ago, a new paper published in the journal Science points to mass extinction, reshaping of the planet’s surface, and anthropogenic deposits, including black carbon produced from fossil fuel combustion—all human impacts that the authors say should be acknowledged in the nomenclature.
The scale and rate of change in measures such as carbon dioxide and methane concentrations in the atmosphere, said Colin Waters, principal geologist at the British Geological Survey and one of the study authors, are larger and faster than the changes that defined the onset of the Holocene.
“What this paper does is to say the changes are as big as those that happened at the end of the last ice age,” Waters said. “That is a big deal.”
The case to approve the Anthropocene as a new epoch will be presented to the International Commission on Stratigraphy later this year.