Friday, November 28, 2014

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  1. Robotic Floats Will Reveal Southern Ocean’s Mysteries

    This December, Hannah Zanowski, a graduate student at Princeton University, will travel to Cape Town, South Africa, bundle up in something warm, and board a German research icebreaker called the Polarstern. Over the next eight weeks, the ship will make its way from the southern tip of Africa to the bottom of South America via the Weddell Sea off the coast of Antarctica, stopping every so often along the way, so Zanowski and the scientists she’ll be working with can plop one of 12 yellow, oblong, instrument-laden, robotic floats into the sea.

    Researchers approach a robotic float.
    Credit: Oscar Schofield

    For the next five years, on roughly weeklong cycles, each float will dive deep, then surface to relay the data it will have gathered on the metabolism of this frigid and exotic stretch of ocean. That data will help scientists paint a better picture of what climate change means for that region and the world.

    Uncharted Waters

    Those 12 floats are the first of almost 200 that will be deployed over the next 5 years as part an ambitious project known as Southern Ocean Carbon and Climate Observations and Modeling or SOCCOM. The project’s goal is to understand the role that this harsh, remote and poorly studied area plays in regulating Earth’s climate system, as well as how human emissions of heat-trapping carbon dioxide gas are affecting that system.

    The idea that oceans influence climate and vice versa isn’t new. Scientists already know that the oceans absorb heat and carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, tempering the impact of the extra carbon dioxide humans have been generating since the Industrial Revolution began, about two centuries ago.

    Even though it makes up only about 30 percent of the Earth’s ocean surface by area, the Southern Ocean does far more than its share of the work. It’s responsible for about 75 percent of all the heat the world’s oceans absorb and about half of the carbon dioxide. Yet despite its outsize role in the global climate system, scientists probably know less about the Southern Ocean than they do about the surface of Mars.

    Those who have actually visited the Southern Ocean have no trouble understanding why that is. It’s hard to get to, and once you’re there, it’s not a very nice place.

    “I thought I knew what a blizzard felt like,” Joellen Russell, one of SOCCOM’s lead scientists from the University of Arizona, said. “But the Southern Ocean was a total other world.”

    Russell is no stranger to cold. She grew up in an indigenous Alaskan fishing village 31 miles north of the Arctic Circle.

    The winds south of the Antarctic Circle are some of the strongest in the world, whipping up equally outsize waves. Russell recalled a previous trip to the region, saying, “The mountains of water were so big that the petrels and the albatross would swoop around them like they were fighter jets going around a mountain side.”

    Google Hangout

    Join some of the world's leading experts on the Southern Ocean for a Google Hangout on Thursday, Dec. 4, 2 p.m. ET as SOCCOM deploys its first floats. You'll have the opportunity to hear from and ask questions of the following participants:

    Jorge Sarmiento (Princeton University)
    Joellen Russell (University of Arizona)
    Ken Johnson (MBARI)
    Lynne Talley (University of California - San Diego)
    Steve Riser (University of Washington)
    Heidi Cullen (Climate Central - moderator)

    Google Event Page:
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    Russell’s interest in this inhospitable sea is improving climate models using the data the floats will send back.

    Now it’s Zanowski’s turn to brave those waters. “This is something I’ve never done before,” she said. “I’ve never even spent 2 months away from my regular life, and my regular haunts in the U.S., so this is going to be a wildly different experience for me.”

    As an undergraduate at Arizona, Zanowski got her oceanography feet wet in Russell’s introductory course and became inspired. The two later conducted research on the impact of wind dynamics on Antarctic sea ice. Now she is a graduate student at Princeton, working with SOCCOM director, Jorge Sarmiento. Along with colleagues from the University of Arizona, Climate Central, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI) and Scripps Institute of Oceanography, she and Russell will try to understand the Southern Ocean’s role in climate and climate change in detail.

    Credit: Nick Huynh

    Using autonomous floats frees scientists from the difficulties of making measurements in the Southern Ocean themselves, but even the simple act of deploying the floats will be challenging. During winter, ice sheathes almost its entire expanse, with only a few patches of open water. Summer isn’t much better. Though the region is mostly ice-free, the temperature difference between the exposed water, and the ice that does remain helps create powerful cyclonic storms that race around the Antarctic continent.

    Why SOCCOM?

    SOCCOM’s floats are similar to thousands of floats already deployed through a program called Argo, but the Argo floats only measure temperature, pressure and salinity; the new floats will take data on nitrate, oxygen, and acidity, key measures to understand larger processes in the ocean.

    “The floats provide the data that really tell us about the vital signs of the Southern Ocean,” Kenneth Johnson, a senior scientist at MBARI, who designed new sensors on the SOCCOM floats, said.

    The data from the new sensors will be key to understanding how the climate is changing in different regions. Scientists know, for example, that when the ocean absorbs carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, it forms carbonic acid, which makes it more difficult for shellfish to form their shells. It’s not only shell-building organisms that are in danger. The ecological disruption will likely travel up the food chain, harming mammals and larger fish.

    Due to the way currents circulate through the world’s oceans, water in the Southern Ocean is very ancient; some of it was last at the surface 1,000 years ago. The difference between carbon dioxide levels in that pre-industrial water and the levels in water elsewhere will give scientists a better handle on how acidity levels in the oceans are changing.

    To measure how the changing water affects biological activity, another sensor shines a small ultraviolet light through the water to detect nitrate, an important nutrient for ocean life. Nitrate ions in the water absorb the light at certain wavelengths, which the float can detect.

    Oxygen has a different kind of optical signature. When stimulated by light from an LED, a molecule embedded in the sensor, and similar to chlorophyll — the molecule that gives plants a green color — starts glowing. But in the presence of oxygen, that fluorescence is quenched. The more oxygen in the water, the less glow. The amount of oxygen in the water tells scientists how quickly plants are growing in the ocean.

    All of these measurements, taken together, will give scientists a far better idea of what’s going on with the biology, geology and chemistry of the Southern Ocean.

    Float On

    When stood vertically, the SOCCOM floats are taller than 5-foot-6-inch Zanowski. After a float enters the sea, it stays vertical, and a small piston deflates a coffee-cup sized bladder to about half-capacity, causing the float to sink immediately away from the ship, deep into the ocean. At a depth of 1 kilometer, or a little more than a half-mile, the float drifts freely with the current for about a week completely autonomous.

    After drifting for a week, the float plunges even deeper to a depth of nearly a mile, at which point it’s ready to take measurements. The sensors turn on, and the float begins its journey upward, reading the ocean as it ascends like an observatory in an elevator back to the surface to relay its data via satellite.

    Given how common ice is in the Southern Ocean, the float may encounter an ice ceiling. If it does, sensors at the top will detect the danger, triggering the bladder to stop inflating and prevent the float from crashing into the ice. The float will keep repeating profiles autonomously until the path is clear, at which point, it will surface, beam its data into space and then plunge to start the process over again. Data from the sensors will tell scientists about the ocean’s biogeochemistry while data about where the float surfaced will help map the oceans’ poorly understood currents.

    The floats have one more feature worth noting: they’re battery operated, and because they can operate and take measurements for up to 5 years, they have a vastly lower carbon footprint than doing the same amount of science by ship. To top it off, they can make observations 365 days a year rather than just during the summer in favorable weather.

    The Polarstern voyage is just the first of many that will follow over the next 5 years, but that makes it special, and Zanowski will excitedly bid goodbye to each float as it begins its mission. She’d love to sign them before they’re launched, but if that’s not possible, she’ll find some way to commemorate the events.

    “Maybe I’ll do a dance,” she said. 

    Editor's Note: Climate Central is leading the public outreach component of the federally funded Southern Ocean Carbon and Climate Observations and Modeling (SOCCOM) program. Climate Central Chief Scientist Heidi Cullen serves as SOCCOM's co-lead for Broader Impacts. Climate Central's editorial staff is independent of the organization's research and communications programs.

  2. What’s At Stake in Lima Climate Talks

    It’s nearly time for a reboot on global climate action.

    The Kyoto Protocol of 2008 through 2012 succeeded in introducing the world to the concept of coordinated climate action. Aside from creating a weak European carbon market, however, it did little to actually ratchet greenhouse gas levels. Nations that met their obligations under the protocol did so with the help of economic downturns. The U.S. never ratified the pact. Canada eventually withdrew, avoiding repercussions for the climate-changing carbon billowing from its tar sands mines and processing facilities. An extension to the protocol will govern just one out of every seven carbon dioxide molecules produced by humanity during the next five years.

    Seventeen years after that protocol was negotiated in Japan, the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change is preparing to take its second shot. Global climate pact 2.0, which will look nothing like its beta, is now little more than a year away.

    Credit: NASA

    Globetrotting efforts to negotiate a planet-saving accord will resume after Thanksgiving weekend in Lima, Peru. The coastal Andean nation is an apt host for what will be a high-profile prelude to landmark negotiations one year later in Paris, where a new climate pact is planned to be finalized. Peru is regarded as more vulnerable to climate change than all but a handful of other countries, and its leaders worry that climate impacts will undo efforts to reduce rampant poverty. The country straddles mountains, where freshwater-dispensing glaciers are wasting away, and the rising sea.

    If the Kyoto Protocol were printed in dot matrix, the next climate agreement would resemble data viz on an e-tablet. The new global climate treaty ought be an improvement on the old one — after all, it will have been two decades in the making. The Kyoto Protocol was agreed during the UNFCCC’s fifth year of existence.

    The stakes are tropospheric, and far clearer now than when Kyoto was negotiated. High tide floods are becoming common across the coastal U.S. Greenhouse gases are making seas hotter and more acidic. Climate change is clearly amping heat waves, which are fueling wildfires. Global temperatures have risen 1.5°F since the Industrial Revolution, pushing sea levels and storm surges up an average of 8 inches. Greenhouse gas levels are rising now faster than ever, largely because India, China and other developing countries, which were never obliged under Kyoto to take climate action, are burning fuels at hastening paces to catch up on living standards. In the West, climate pollution levels are largely plateauing or dropping slightly. That’s because of energy efficiency improvements and because, in a growing number of cases, wind and solar energy are becoming as cheap as fossil fuel alternatives. Some say fracking and natural gas are helping by displacing coal. Others say methane leaks and natural gas’s low prices, which can hold back renewable energy investments, are making the problem worse. Either way, the planet is on a dangerous pollution trajectory.

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    The U.N. Environmental Program says climate pollution levels must drop to zero during the third quarter of this century if a U.N. goal of limiting warming to 2°C, or roughly 3.6°F, is to be met. At the rate we’re going, scientists say we will have dumped enough carbon dioxide into the atmosphere in just a few decades from now to warm the planet by far more than that.

    Carbon dioxide equivalent emissions trends.
    Click image to enlarge. Credit: UNEP.

    A New Era

    Based on decisions reached during previous climate negotiations, the pact that is finalized in Paris next year will call for climate action by all nations, not just the rich ones, and provide funding to help developing countries curb climate change and adapt to it. Aspects of the next climate pact could eventually touch on everything from forest protection and agriculture to subsidies to support carbon capture and sequestration technology at coal power plants. Perhaps most importantly, at least from a wonky policy perspective, it will balance out the heavy-handed top-down approach of Kyoto, which tried to imposed uniform emissions reductions on groups of countries, with the flexibility of a bottom-up approach, in which nations decide for themselves how they will contribute in a measurable way to a global climate solution. Climate negotiators call these commitments INDCs, because it’s less of a mouthful than saying “intended nationally determined contributions.”

    Credit: Andrew Howson/flickr

    The national contributions are due to be announced early next year. Rules governing how they are laid out and what they will cover, and when, are planned to be decided during the two weeks of Lima talks.

    Sketches of what the world’s most polluting countries plan to contribute have emerged in recent months. China has said it will stabilize or reduce the amount of greenhouse pollution it releases every year after 2030. It will do that in part by capping its annual use of coal at 4.2 billion metric tons by 2020, which would be 16 percent more coal than it burned last year. In a joint announcement with China’s president this month, President Obama said the U.S. would produce less than three quarters as much carbon pollution in 2025 than was the case in 2005. European Union leaders have committed to reducing the amount of climate pollution the bloc releases in 2030 by 40 percent compared with 1990.

    Putting the world on track to avoid a 2°C temperature rise would still require a global energy industry revolution that’s well beyond the ambition of current negotiations. Nonetheless, the announcements have been widely lauded as important starting points in spurring meaningful global climate action.

    Harvard University environmental economics professor Rob Stavins, who as director of the Harvard Project on Climate Agreements has been closely involved with the climate talks, described the recent joint China-U.S. announcement as “potentially the most important development in international climate negotiations in the past 5 to 10 years.” But he cautioned against expecting an agreement in Paris next year that would outright solve the problem of climate change. Instead, he said the Paris agreement could provide a post-Kyoto framework that finally gets the world on track for an eventual climate fix. “The way to judge the negotiations coming out of Paris is whether or not the structure is a sound foundation for meaningful long-term reductions,” he said.

    Tying A Bow

    Once the national contributions have been declared, a major challenge will be trying to tie them all together, fusing them like the electronic components on a motherboard, so that climate-protection efforts can flow among countries as an intrinsic element of the global economy. That might be achieved through international carbon markets.

    “Allowing for carbon markets and their international linkage is a very important topic for Lima and Paris,” Stavins said. “Some brief text will likely be included in the Paris agreement, and then this will be elaborated in subsequent talks.”

    Stavins and other economists say that pricing carbon – whether through a cap-and-trade system or through a carbon tax – is the best way for nations and regions to achieve pollution reduction goals. Revenues from carbon fees can be put toward environmental projects or used to reduce income and corporate tax rates. The idea is growing in popularity, even outside of circles of markets-infatuated academics. More than 70 nations, which are together responsible for more than half the greenhouse gas pollution produced every year, have joined Royal Dutch Shell, British Airways, China Steel Corporation and more than 1,000 other companies in voicing their support for carbon pricing. Meanwhile, 39 carbon pricing programs are now up and running in Europe, China, North America and elsewhere. The Sightline Institute calculated that they collectively put a price on 12 percent of the planet’s greenhouse gas emissions.

    The growth of carbon pricing schemes.
    Credit: Sightline Institute

    To help meet America’s climate commitments, for example, a global carbon market might make it cheaper for some future natural gas power plant in Kentucky to fund the planting of carbon dioxide-absorbing trees in Venezuela, instead of planting them in the Appalachia, or instead of spending on carbon capture equipment. It might also be cheaper to plant those Venezuelan trees than to shut down the polluting plant entirely, ceding its hitherto market share on the local energy grid to nearby wind turbines that can operate without paying fees for carbon pollution.

    “It’s much cheaper to meet these goals as linked targets, rather than individually,” Gernot Wagner, an Environmental Defense Fund economist, said. “It’s much more expensive for certain countries to abate — to remove CO2 from the smokestacks — than it is for others.”

    Building a global carbon-trading market could mean creating new trading links between markets that are already being established. It would also mean overcoming a number of hurdles. Some of those hurdles are political and social, such as resistance to the idea from Latin America’s Alba group of countries, which are wary of transnational trade and capitalism. Other obstacles, the most significant of which were detailed in a Nature Climate Change essay published Wednesday, coauthored by Wagner, are more technical.

    As smaller carbon markets are linked, the paper points out that it would be difficult to link the regulatory systems that governed each of them. Challenges would also be presented by attempting to compare and trade carbon allowances that originated in a developed country with a developing one. In a global carbon market, how many carbon allowances would the U.S. be granted to trade, for example? And how many carbon allowances would go to India, where nearly four times as many people collectively produce less carbon pollution than the U.S., but where pollution levels are expected to continue to rise instead of fall?

    Credit: Moyan Brenn/flickr

    “A lot of this is, of course, a matter of politics,” said Jessica Green, an assistant professor of political science at Case Western Reserve University, another coauthor of Wednesday’s Nature Climate Change essay. “But it’s also a matter of policy.”

    Smiles And Frowns

    In the end, it may be difficult to assess the success of the Lima talks. Breakthroughs are expected to be few and far between, and focused largely on settling on bureaucratic rules regarding the formulation of pending INDCs. Because the meeting will serve as a critical curtain-raiser in the attempted formulation of an agreement in Paris during the next major UNFCCC negotiating session, one measure of its success could be the negotiators’ spirits.

    “Probably the most direct way of assessing [success at Lima] is what parties have to say at the end in their closing statements,” Elliot Diringer, executive vice president of the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions, said. “Is there lots of grousing about the process? Or, do people seem comfortable with it?”

    Widespread disgruntlement among negotiators could be a harbinger that the slog ahead will be even harder than anticipated, and perhaps less fruitful than hoped. So keep an eye out for haggard smiles, which can be in short supply during climate negotiations, when you’re following the news out of Lima. They could be like bright yellow emojis on a climate app.

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  3. Big Welcome Storm Headed California’s Way

    While a Nor’easter is currently causing misery from Washington, D.C., to Boston, in the form of rain and snow on the busiest travel day of the year, another, perhaps more welcome, storm is set to hit the West Coast later this holiday weekend.

    Expected precipitation in California from a storm set to hit Nov. 30-Dec.1.
    Credit: NWS

    That storm is expected to bring desperately needed rain and snow to parts of California. The state has been mired in a 3-year-long drought that has seen its driest year on record and what is almost certain to be its warmest year on record. Of course, one storm won’t erase such a deep moisture deficit, which has left some communities on the brink of waterlessness. But it’s at least a small step in the right direction, local forecasters and climate scientists say.

    “We are looking at this being one of our heaviest storms in quite some time,” David Spector, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service office in Hanford, Calif., said The storm could be the strongest since one in March 2012.

    A deep low pressure system is set to move over the West Coast starting on Sunday and lasting through Monday, according to NWS forecasters. The system will bring with it rain at lower elevations, and, more importantly, snow to the Sierra Nevada mountain range.

    The Sierra snowpack is a critical part of California’s water system: The snow that falls during the winter wet season melts gradually in the spring, filling the state’s extensive networks of reservoirs.

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    The past few winters have been disastrously dry, with meager snowpacks and record-low statewide precipitation levels; 2013 was the driest year on record for the state. Record-warm temperatures this year meant that what snow there was melted quickly, instead of trickling into reservoirs into the summer months.

    “We have no snow at all below basically 8,000 feet” in the Sierras, Spector said, and very little above it.

    With this storm, the mountains should see at least a few inches of snow, and  “it’s very much possible that the higher elevations of Yosemite park will see 2 to 3 feet,” he said.

    Such snowfall totals would be extremely welcome to a state that has more than half its area mired in “exceptional” drought, the worst category recognized by the U.S. Drought Monitor. Nearly the entire state is in some level of drought conditions, as has been the case for much of the year. Recently, the northwestern-most corner of the state saw some improvement thanks to recent rains, and this storm should likely lead to some small improvements on the map, Spector said.

    But it’s going to take more storms like this to really put the state on the road to recovery with statewide precipitation levels still below normal.

    “We need above-average conditions sustained through the winter to alleviate the drought. We hope to see that transition as we get into winter,” California state climatologist Michael Anderson said in an email.

    The current state of drought in California.
    Click image to enlarge. Credit: U.S. Drought Monitor

    Storms like the one forecast aren’t unusual for this time of year in California, but have been lacking over the past few years, as a ridge of high pressure camped over the West and sent storms on a more northerly track than they would typically take, meaning California missed out on all the moisture. (Some of this storm’s heaviest precipitation is still falling further north, in Oregon and Washington.)

    Whether that stubborn ridge, and therefore California’s drought, can be linked to climate change has been a major question that has seen only murky answers. A trio of studies in an annual extreme-weather edition of the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society published in September came to mixed conclusions. Two of the studies couldn’t find a clear connection, but one found that in climate models, the ridge was more likely to be stuck in place as it was in today’s warmer climate than in the past.

    Still, how that likelihood translates into increased chances of drought isn’t clear, the study authors said. However, climate models have suggested that the U.S. Southwest may become increasingly dry in a warming world.

    The ridge has also spiked temperatures over California; it's a virtual certainty that this will be the state’s warmest year on record, and by a significant margin.

    There are indications that this storm could be the start of some wetter weather for California. The December outlook from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration called for better chances of above-normal precipitation for the whole state, in part because of the El Niño struggling to fully develop in the Pacific Ocean.

    “They seem to think that this will continue at least for a little while,” Tom Dang, a meteorologist in the Sacramento NWS office, said. And if nothing else, it’s unlikely California will see a repeat of last winter: “It’s very difficult for it to reach the levels that we reached last winter,” Dang said. “We’re certainly on much better footing” this year than last year.

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  4. Packing on the Pounds (of CO2) for Thanksgiving

    By Climate Central

    Thanksgiving is so close, you can almost smell the turkey roasting in the oven, even if you're trapped in an airport waiting to get to the snow-clogged East Coast. Over Thanksgiving alone, some 46 million Americans will be taking trips of 50 miles or longer to visit friends and family, according to AAA. A whopping 89.1 percent of them will be driving, with another 7.7 percent taking to the air. The rest will travel largely by bus or train (if you're biking in the Northeast this year, best of luck).

    Here's something to chew on in addition to turkey, mashed potatoes and cranberry sauce (or ponder as you're stuck in traffic): transportation accounts for 28 percent of Americans’ overall greenhouse gas emissions. Since this is the primary cause of global warming, many might wonder how their travel choices will affect the climate. For many of us, of course, there’s not a lot of choice in how we get from here to there since planes, trains and automobiles don’t go everywhere. Still, it’s useful to know how different modes of transportation stack up.

    Driving is the most carbon-intensive way to go in terms of carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions — that is, if you assume just the driver and no passengers. That’s unlikely to be the situation for many holiday travelers, however. If you add just one passenger it cuts each person’s carbon footprint in half. In that situation, going by car is actually better than flying. But non-holiday travel often does involve just one person per car, which comes out to .802 lbs. of CO2 emissions per mile of travel. For other modes of travel, based on an average capacity, the CO2 impact per person is .505 lbs. per mile for medium-haul plane flights, .408 bs. for trains and .236 lbs. for busses.

    While the holidays themselves will be joyful time catching up with family and friends, getting to your Thanksgiving dinner will not necessarily be half the fun. Holiday traffic can be a nightmare even when the weather is good. Inclement weather is responsible for 30 percent of all flight cancellations in November, a number likely to rise this year with the nor'easter bearing down on the Eastern Seaboard. You can bet this storm will also stretch the number of hours motorists spend on the road.

    But November's far from the worst time to fly if you want avoid flight-related cancellations. The winter months of December, January and February see the highest percentage of flights cancelled due to weather — no surprise, since that’s when major airline hubs are most likely to see snow and ice. You can take heart (sort of) in the fact that no matter what time of year, weather is responsible for less than half of all delayed flights.

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  5. This Is How the U.S. Power Grid Works

    The U.S. electric grid is on the brink of a major change, with rooftops all over the country poised to become adorned with solar panels and the other accoutrements of locally-generated renewable energy, pushing electricity onto the grid while also serving homes.

    Right now, the electric grid only works as a one-way street, sending out electricity, but unable to receive it. The big change will be in turning it into a two-way system.

    But how does today’s power grid work?

    As part of what it called Grid Week in mid-November, the U.S. Department of Energy published a cool new infographic showing how the power grid operates.

    The DOE’s graphic and facts about the grid and how it works are especially helpful now that new regulations may soon demand that electric power be generated with fewer fossil fuels and be used more efficiently in an effort to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions that are driving climate change.

    The power grids in the U.S. — there are actually three of them — are enormously complex, but they’re traditionally based on a simple idea: Electricity moves in one direction, from a power plant to homes along high voltage transmission lines and lower voltage power lines that distribute electricity to individual homes and neighborhoods.

    So, in a nutshell, electricity is generated at a power plant usually far away from the load — the people who are using that power at any given moment. A transformer near the power plant steps up the voltage of the electricity, which is then sent long distances along transmission lines.

    Once the transmission lines reach the area they’re serving, the voltage is reduced at another transformer and the electricity follows smaller distribution lines to homes and businesses.

    Changes are on the way, however.

    There are efforts to build a smart grid in many places, a computerized grid that allows for two-way communication between a utility and customers, allowing power to be used and produced more efficiently.

    Microgrids, small grids connecting buildings with a local power source separate from the main grid, are being considered as tools to keep the lights on during disasters.

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    On its website, the DOE also highlights a few things not commonly known about power grids in the U.S.

    For example, the first commercial power grid was built in Lower Manhattan in New York City in 1882.

    Today, the three main power grids — one for the eastern U.S., one for the West and one serving most of Texas — include more than 450,000 miles of high-voltage transmission lines. That’s enough to wrap around the Earth’s equator 18 times.

    Those are the basics of the power grid today, helpful information to know when tackling climate change demands more discussion of smart grids, microgrids and other innovations in where electricity comes from and how it gets to homes across the country.

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  6. Clues Show How Green Electricity May Be in 2050

    Clues to the United States’ energy future are everywhere, if you know where to look.

    By 2050, the technology will likely be available to provide 80 percent of the country’s electricity from wind, solar and other renewable sources.

    Transmission lines are part of the U.S. electric power grid, which is entering an era of rapid change as more renewables and rooftop solar installations come online.
    Credit: Tau Zero/flickr

    But even if the nation doesn’t adapt to that degree, it is clear that the way Americans get their electricity and how it’s generated will be vastly different than today, toppling the current model of power flowing in one direction, from major power plants into American homes.

    In the era to come, much of the power generated in the U.S. will come from renewables, and much of it will be generated on rooftops and in backyards, and the buildings using that electricity are likely to be much more energy efficient than they are today. That means many people will feed power back into the grid, a two-way system that changes the energy landscape dramatically.

    In many ways, the country is already squarely on that path. Renewables now generate 20 percent of California’s electricity, a percentage expected to grow as new solar power generators come online and Los Angeles connects itself to a new wind farm proposed for eastern Wyoming, potentially generating power for 1.2 million homes in the Los Angeles area.

    Texas also broke a record for wind power production this year. Wind turbines have been built atop buildings in New York City.

    After Hurricane Sandy knocked out power for tens of thousands of people for weeks, it inspired a widespread interest in microgrids, another way to lessen reliance on power plants.

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    Among the longer-term trends, according to Doug Arent, executive director of the Joint Institute for Strategic Energy Analysis, or JISEA, at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden, Colo., is a clear push toward low-carbon energy.

    The lab published a 2012 study showing that the U.S. could obtain 80 percent of its electricity from renewables by 2050 in part because every corner of the U.S. would be able to generate power from renewables, not just the sunniest, windiest places.

    By 2050, he said, the U.S. is likely to see a lot of more distributed generation from solar panels, small wind turbines and other small power generators supplying electricity to individual buildings or groups of buildings.

    While nuclear power generation is likely to remain flat because it’s too expensive to develop new reactors, the percentage of power in the U.S. generated by renewables is likely to double each decade as federal climate-related regulations force utilities to retire their coal-fired power plants, Arent said.

    “The pace of change is being driven by the remarkable changes in technology cost, especially solar, which is dropping in price quickly,” Warren Lasher, director for system planning for the operator of Texas’ main power grid, the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, said.

    The cost of electricity generated from utility-scale solar power installations has dropped by more than 70 percent since 2008, according to research from the U.S. Department of Energy’s Berkeley Lab, allowing some heavily coal-dependent utilities such as Georgia Power to explore solar.

    Rooftop solar is becoming more and more common, signaling a major change in how people produce and get their electricity.
    Credit: Bernd/flickr

    “That’s an indication even in areas where solar isn’t world class, solar is becoming a cost-effective option,” Lasher said.

    Within the next five years or so, big box stores and other commercial building owners are likely to adopt rooftop solar on a large scale as solar panel prices drop, helping to usher in the new era of distributed power generation, he said.

    “If commercial facilities facilities see this as a cost-effective investment, then we might see development that’s only limited by how many people are licensed to install solar on rooftops,” Lasher said.

    The trend toward distributed power generation reverses the usual one-way flow of power from a major plant to consumers, but it also requires a power grid that can effectively manage this two-way street.

    So, the federal government is pushing for utilities to build a “smarter” power grid, one that can adjust power production and flow based on how much electricity homes and businesses are using at any moment and forecasting how much energy can be expected from renewables.

    Looking to 2050, all the country’s most populous regions will generate their power differently, but the trend is toward a much greater reliance on energy efficiency and renewable power produced both at major wind and solar installations and on rooftops.

    “For Los Angeles and Chicago, maybe that means more wind from America’s heartland,” Mark Brownstein chief counsel for the Environmental Defense Fund’s U.S. Climate and Energy Program, said.  “For New York, maybe it’s some combination of distributed solar plus wind and even some hydro imported from Canada.”

    And for everywhere else, it’ll be more of the same: Greater efficiency, locally produced energy, more renewables, more wind turbines and solar panels big box stores.

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  7. 6 Degrees: 2014 Records, Snowvember, CO2 and More
  8. Picture This: A Year’s Worth of Snow in One Week

    If you’ve been on social media at all this week, you’ve seen the crazy pictures of the massive snowfall in the Buffalo area. The snow, which reached a staggering 7 feet in the worst-hit areas, came thanks to two bouts of lake effect snow set off when frigid Arctic air swept over still-warm Lake Erie. The air sopped up moisture from the lake and dumped it for hours on end as snow on the lake’s eastern shore.

    As we did last week when the sudden influx of unseasonably cold temperatures swept across the nation, we’re devoting all of this week’s Picture This column to Buffalo’s sensational snowfall.

    Snowed In

    While Buffalo is no stranger to lake effect snow and the significant totals it can rack up, this event was a lot even for Buffalonians.

    The mind-boggling snowfalls — the largest of which was 88 inches, in Cowlesville, N.Y. — were the result of something of a perfect storm of conditions: The air moving over the lakes was unusually cold, and the lake water was still warm — a temperature contrast that set up a vigorous snow-making situation. The air was also blowing in from the southwest, traveling over the full length of the lake, leading to maximum moisture uptake. And the swath of snow refused to budge, blasting the same area with 3-5 inches of snow an hour.

    The ensuing pileup had draw-dropping results, as the snow got so high that it fully blocked off many a doorway:

    OOOOF! MT @EdRussoWSBT: This is what snowed in really means. Pic:Jessica Marie in West Senaca NY via @GregPollak:

    — Jim Cantore (@JimCantore) November 19, 2014


    And even busted in windows:

    Yeesh. RT @Davdar22D: #WGRZsnow little help here .....

    — Tim Ballisty (@IrishEagle) November 19, 2014


    Because some folks were still traveling before the full force of the event became clear, roads became hazardous car traps, with hundreds of vehicles stuck fast:

    RT @TheBuffaloNews: On the way to work, stuck 30 hours on Thruway... and counting.

    — The Weather Channel (@weatherchannel) November 19, 2014


    When the snows finally stopped (briefly, before another round started up a day later), folks ventured outside and wondered at the new landscape. Take these kids playing in the snow in front of a house. That thing they’re walking around? That’s the mailbox.

    Here's how much it snowed in Alden. That's a mailbox.

    — WGRZ (@WGRZ) November 19, 2014


    Amazing Arials

    Some of the photos that best showed the full scope of the event where the ones taken from above:

    MT @TheBuffaloNews: In Depew, they start to dig themselves out with dustpans (@DerekGeePhoto)

    — NWS Boston (@NWSBoston) November 20, 2014

    Cars in the lot at a dealership in Orchard Park #snowvember

    — Derek Gee (@DerekGeePhoto) November 19, 2014


    One man in West Seneca, NY, decided to see the impact on his town using his drone, yielding some amazing footage:



    Another photo, taken by someone landing at Buffalo’s airport at night showed the power of the first snowstorm, as well as its sharp cutoff. Only a few miles away from some of the hardest hit areas, there was just a dusting.

    Amazing nighttime view of #LakeEffect #Snow band near Buffalo- RT @JamesAFry: Landing in #Buffalo at 11pm

    — Ari Sarsalari (@AriWeather) November 19, 2014



    The vigor of the storms — thanks to that stark temperature contrast between air and water ­— was also clear from the thundersnow it produced:


    Snow Pups

    And we couldn’t end this collection of images without including a few of man’s best friend. Dogs in the area had some amusing reactions to the sudden appearance of mounds of snow.

    This one looks confused (presumably about how he or she is supposed to get outside to do their business):

    I don't think that shovel is going to cut it. RT @spann: East Lancaster, NY… Photo from Tara Schwab #nywx

    — Mike Favetta (@TweetsTheWx) November 18, 2014


    Another was rocking some goggles and having a blast:

    One little pooch enjoying running around in the snow that was dumped on Buffalo (complete with ski goggles!).
    Credit: WIVB-TV News 4 Buffalo, NY

    Of course, not all dogs were happy about the situation: 

    Not happy MT @Sarai_AZ: @HazelPennicott @JimCantore I thought the humans are having trouble! Stop the snow machine!

    — Jim Cantore (@JimCantore) November 20, 2014


    Hope he was able to thaw out!

  9. Earth, Now Available in Ultra High Definition

    A year in weather in high definition from space was pretty amazing and so was a similar sharp take on the spring equinox. But a five day view of the planet from space in ultra high definition is a whole other level of awesome.



    The imagery from mid-May 2011 comes courtesy of Russia’s high flying Elektro-L weather satellite, which sits in high Earth orbit more than 26,000 miles above the planet’s surface. This type of satellite actually moves in concert with the Earth, staying above the same location. It sees one sunrise and one sunset a day over that location, just like the folks on the ground, but different than, say, the International Space Station, which sees about 15 sunrises and sunsets in a given 24-hour period.

    Looking at the same spot all the time makes the satellite an invaluable tool for tracking weather patterns and issuing accurate weather forecasts. The U.S., European Union, Japan and a whole host of countries have satellites circling at that altitude for just that purpose, as well as for broadcasting TV shows and supporting telecommunications. And of course there’s the added bonus of providing a spectacular view of the planet.

    To get the user-friendly view, YouTube science video editor extraordinaire James Tyrwhitt-Drake processed a series of 121-megapixel images sent back to Earth every 30 minutes from May 15-19 including some in the infrared range. The ones coming from the infrared range tend to see green vegetation as orange so a little post-processing magic was required to turn those oranges to the green most of us are more familiar with. Finally, to create a smooth animation rather than just a series of snapshots, a few little tweaks were added to stitch the images together into a movie in ultra high definition, known in audio-visual geek speak as 4K. The result speaks for itself.

    Well, actually it doesn’t since the video is silent so feel free to take a Friday work break, crank the resolution to the aforementioned 4K and jam out to some mellow tunes from Aphex Twin’s latest release.

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  10. What Warming Means for Lake Effect Snow

    The plight of Buffalo, socked in under feet upon feet of snow, has entranced the country. Social media lit up with mind-boggling pictures of the snow-buried landscape, from hundreds of cars trapped on the highway to doorways blocked by walls of snow.



    While Buffalonians are no strangers to large amounts of snow that the lake effect (so called because the lake provides the moisture that fuels the snow) can bring, but even this was a little much for them.

    “This is definitely one of the strongest lake bands that we’ve experienced,” Judy Levan, the warning coordination meteorologist with the National Weather Service office in Buffalo, said. “It’s definitely in the top five.”

    And it’s something Buffalo could face more often in a warming world. Rising global temperatures are also warming the Great Lakes and keeping them ice-free longer during the cold season.

    Snowy Surplus

    Snow was still falling in the Buffalo area on Friday morning, the tail end of the second bout of lake effect snow for the area in a week. The first storm on Tuesday left the worst-hit areas, all just south of the city proper, with up to 65 inches of snow.

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    After a brief reprieve in which emergency workers were able to dig out those stranded in cars, a second band of snow swept in late Wednesday night and hit some of the same areas already literally up to their necks — or higher — in snow. As of Friday morning, a small area around the town of Hamburg had 70 inches or more. Even in a snowy place like Buffalo, that’s a full year’s snowfall in a matter of days.

    Lake effect snow is notorious for being able to dump large snow totals in a short amount of time. The phenomenon is a product of temperature differences, specifically between the cold air and the relatively warm lake waters over which that air blows. As winds blow over the lake, the water evaporates into the cold air, warming it in the layer above the lake. The warm air rises, cooling as it does so, and if it cools enough, the water freezes and falls as snow.

    Part of the reason some places got so much this week was because the temperature difference during this event was so strong, with unusually bitter temperatures for November, and water in Lake Erie that still retained much of summer’s warmth.

    The trend in lake effect snow across the Great Lakes.
    Click image to enlarge.

    Another reason for the surplus of snow? The swath of snow stayed in the same place pretty much all day, continuously dumping 4-5 inches an hour on the worst-hit places. Also, the winds were optimally (depending on how you look at it) oriented, blowing in from the southwest and traveling the entire length of the lake, Levan said. This enabled the air to soak up more moisture.

    Warming Lakes

    In general, this is the time of year that Buffalo sees its major snows. That’s because this is the time of year when the air-lake water temperature contrast is likely to be highest, before winter gradually cools the lakes and eventually causes them to freeze over, cutting off the moisture supply.

    But as the world warms, the period where cold late fall and early winter air overlaps with warm waters could grow longer because waters in Erie and the other Great Lakes are warming. That’s keeping them ice-free for longer in the season, which means the air has more opportunity to blow over and create lake effect snow.

    “We’re looking at a lot more of it to fall in the wintertime,” Levan said.

    Adam Burnett, of Colgate University, has looked at the issue of how warming might impact lake effect snow around the Great Lakes. In a 2003 study, he and his co-authors found that there should be an increase in such events. But in the decade since, “things have changed a little bit,” he said.

    The trend in ice cover across the Great Lakes.
    Click image to enlarge.

    While the warming of the lakes could indeed mean more potential for lake effect snow, it all depends on how and where the winds blow. For example, the wind direction in this event meant that the areas to the south of Buffalo bore the brunt of the storm, but in other events where the wind is blowing differently, the city of Syracuse can be the one seeing all the snow, Burnett said. Predicting how the circulation of the atmosphere might change with warming has been a much-debated topic, and one that hasn’t produced any clear signals for the future.

    Looking at records going back to 1950, “there are places where lake effect snow has increased and other” places where it hasn’t, Burnett said. But the potential for more is still there.

    Another complication is that climate models show that the trend for more snow may not last long. Those models show that eventually “the atmosphere gets too warm to support the snow,” Burnett said. The Upper Midwest, in fact, is the fastest warming region of the U.S. in the winter months.

    But, “in the short run, we could potentially be getting things like this,” Burnett said, referring to snowbound Buffalo.

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