Thursday, April 24, 2014

Climate Central - News

Climate Central is a nonprofit science and media organization created to provide clear and objective information about climate change and its potential solutions.
  1. Storm Surge Could Flood NYC 1 in Every 4 Years

    When a storm, such as Hurricane Sandy, sets waters in New York Harbor rising, those sloshing seas are now 20 times more likely to overtop the Manhattan seawall than 170 years ago, a new study finds.

    Hurricane Sandy's tremendous storm surge flooded the South Ferry subway station in Manhattan.
    Credit: MTA New York City Transit / Leonard Wiggins

    The increased risk comes from a combination of sea level rise — which has raised water levels near New York City by nearly 1.5 feet since the mid-1800s — and storm tide, or the amount that local seas rise during a storm. Storm tide is itself a combination of storm surge (the water that a hurricane pushes ahead of it) and the astronomical tide.

    The rise in sea level and storm tide combined puts the odds of storm waters overtopping Manhattan’s defenses at one in every 4 to 5 years, compared to only once in every 100 to 400 years in the 19th century, the study found. (Put another way, the annual chance of a storm overtopping the seawall has gone from about 1 percent to 20-25 percent.)

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    The storm tide at Battery Park, at the tip of Manhattan, during Hurricane Sandy reached a record 14.06 feet according to the National Hurricane Center’s report on Sandy. That high storm tide — more than 4 feet higher than the previous record set in December 1992 and the largest since 1821 — was created by a 9.4-foot storm surge and the evening high tide during a full moon, when tides are higher than normal (though the evening high tide was not as large as the morning one).

    The extreme rise in water level sent the Harbor flooding into the streets of the Financial District and other parts of Manhattan, as well as other city boroughs at depths between 2 to 9 feet above ground level. An estimated 305,000 houses in New York were destroyed, mostly by storm surge, according to the NHC. Total damage to the city was estimated at $19 billion, including $5 billion in damage to the city’s subway systems caused by flooding. At least 21 people were killed by the storm surge on Staten Island.

    The Portland State University researchers behind the new study, accepted for publication in the journal Geophysical Research Letters, noticed that three of the nine highest recorded water levels in New York Harbor had occurred since 2010 and that eight of the largest 20 had occurred since 1990. While sea level rise plays a large part in this trend, the researchers wanted to see whether increased storm tides might also be contributing, so they looked at hourly and daily tide gauge data going back to 1844, and found that storm tides have increased by 1 foot since that time.

    This graphic shows factors that contributed to the top 10 high-water events measured at New York’s Battery Park from 1900 to present. The water height for each event is shown here against the benchmark of mean lower low water averaged between 1983 and 2001. Sea level rise (about a foot since 1900) is depicted as a component of storm surge. Although Sandy’s surge peaked close to high tide, other events had even higher tide levels.
    Click image to enlarge. Credit: Carlye Calvin and Bob Henson, UCAR; data courtesy Chris Zervas, NOAA National Ocean Service.

    While the rise in sea level is attributable to the expansion of warming ocean waters and ice melt, the cause of the rise in storm tide is not yet clear, nor is the possibility that the rise will continue into the future.

    “You can see that trend; it’s there. But the question is, is it related to greenhouse gases or something else?” climate scientist Radley Horton of the Northeast Climate Science Center and NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, told Climate Central.

    The researchers suggest that the trend in rising storm tide could be partly due to decades-long changes in a climate pattern called the North Atlantic Oscillation, as well as longer-term trends driven by climate change. More local effects, like the dredging of ship channels, could also play a role.

    While other studies have looked at increasing storm tides, this study goes back further in time, study co-author Stefan Talke, an assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering at Portland State University in Oregon, said in a statement.

    The study makes an important contribution to the understanding of coastal flood hazards in terms of extending the historical record tide gauge data, Horton, who was not involved in the study, said.

    He added that the study “highlights the fact that rising sea levels have already stoked an increase in the frequency and intensity of coastal flooding” and that it “also suggests that storms themselves may have grown stronger.”

    But Horton cautioned: “The verdict isn’t in yet about how coastal storms are going to change with climate change.”

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  2. New Ways to Visualize Increasingly Hot Weather in U.S.

    The portion of days with warm weather in the U.S. have increased by 25 percent over the past 50 years according to a new data analysis. The analysis draws on publicly available data and represents the tip of the iceberg for how publicly available climate and weather data can be accessed and used.

    The yearly portion of warm to cold anomalies since 1964.
    Credit: Enigma

    New York-based open data firm Enigma undertook the analysis. To do it, they dealt with the unenviable task of sorting through more than 860 million rows of data from 90,000 weather stations across the country. Weeding out inconsistent or poor quality data yielded a dataset with about 3 million records from 2,716 stations, which is still enough data to fill 25 gigabytes on a hard drive.

    The resulting analysis and beautiful maps and graphs shows that the portion of hot weather days has steadily increased to 67 percent up from 42 percent in the U.S. According to Enigma’s website, that upward trend “is highly significant with a p-value approaching 0.0.” In plain English, that means the odds of the increase in warm and very warm days in the U.S. is extremely unlikely to have happened by chance. Though the exercise doesn't offer any hard predictions, Enigma does note that the if the the trend continues, the U.S. could see that "the yearly proportion of warm anomalies will regularly fall above 70 percent in the 2030s."

    Other research has also shown that the daily record highs vs. daily record lows in the U.S. have been following a similar pattern. In the past decade, daily record highs outpaced lows by 2-to-1, something that’s due in part to rising average temperatures associated with climate change.

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    Extreme heat is also growing globally due to climate change. Over the past 15 years, extreme heat events are increasing both in how often they occur and how severe they are.

    Of course explaining the analysis isn’t nearly as interesting as seeing it visualized. Enigma’s graphic helps take the reams of data and findings and make it relatable. The effort is in line with a recent push by the federal government to make climate data more accessible.

    A map showing warm temperature anomalies.
    Credit: Enigma

    Last month, climate.data.gov was rolled out as a central piece of the President’s Climate Action Plan. The goal of the site is to house public climate data for app and computer developers, decision makers, and the public. Though Enigma isn’t associated with the plan or climate.data.gov, their analysis of U.S. temperature trends is indicative of the growing effort to liberate data from its sometimes stodgy confines. 

    Visualizations like theirs are only one vehicle. Connecting climate data with data on agriculture, infrastructure, and energy has the potential to help policymakers see the impacts climate change is having on these and other variables and make more sound decisions.

    And if you want all the nuts and bolts behind how Enigma built the map and graphics, you’re in luck. Brian Ableson, the lead data scientist behind them, has a detailed piece explaining the whole process from conception to execution.

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  3. Carbon Capture Faces Hurdles of Will, Not Technology

    If human-caused climate change is to be slowed enough to avert the worst consequences of global warming, carbon dioxide emissions from coal-fired power plants and other pollutants will have to be captured and injected deep into the ground to prevent them from being released into the atmosphere.

    Such is the scenario the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change paints in its recent report outlining ways climate change can be mitigated as civilizations across the globe continue to burn fossil fuels with little sign they’ll stop anytime soon.

    A carbon capture and storage plant in Germany.
    Credit: Vattenfall/flickr

    But that scenario hinges on a huge question: How realistic and feasible is it for carbon sequestration, also known as carbon capture and storage, or CCS, to be implemented globally in the coming decades and on such a wide scale that it helps to vastly reduce greenhouse gas emissions?

    Scientists say that if the will and incentives exist, CCS can be one of the biggest of many solutions to reducing greenhouse gas emissions in the atmosphere. 

    And there's no mistaking how critical the IPCC thinks carbon capture is to saving mankind from the ravages of climate change.

    In order to keep the global average temperature from warming no more than 2°C by the year 2100 relative to the global temperature prior to 1900, the concentration of carbon dioxide must be capped at 450 parts per million. (Global CO2 concentrations hit 400 ppm for the first time last year.) To do that, global greenhouse gas emissions in 2050 must be between 40 and 70 percent lower than they were in in 2010.

    That would be a huge feat, and would require vast “decarbonization,” according to the IPCC. That means a major rollout of renewable energy technology that emits no carbon at all, a global emphasis on energy efficiency and, among other things, capturing emissions from the burning of fossil fuels and burying them deep underground or storing them elsewhere — forever. In fact, all fossil fuel power generation without CCS would need to be totally phased out.

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    The total amount of carbon that would need to be diverted from being emitted into the atmosphere is stunning: Current global atmospheric CO2 emissions total roughly 30 gigatons, or 30 billion metric tons per year. That's about the equivalent of 1 billion barrels of compressed CO2 per day, or more than 10 times the amount of oil transported around the globe on a daily basis, Ruben Juanes, associate professor in energy studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and an expert in CCS, said. 

    "Of course, we don't expect to take our current emissions to zero, or that one single technology will do it, but this does give a sense for the scale of the problem," he said. 

    A viable technology to deal with such a large amount of CO2 should need to divert 1 gigaton of CO2 per year from the atmosphere, and there's only one technology capable of doing that — CCS, he said. 

    "If one wants to dismiss CCS because of the scale at which it should be implemented, the same (or worse) can be said about all other mitigtation technologies," Juanes said. "It is a curse of the scale of the problem."

    The IPCC report says the technology needed to implement carbon capture and storage operations exists today, but outside of fossil fuel extraction and refining, CCS has never been applied on a wide scale, or at any major electric power plant burning fossil fuels.

    Carbon sequestration works basically like this: CO2 is captured from a coal-fired power plant, compressed, and then injected into an air-tight rock formation thousands of feet underground, isolated from the atmosphere forever. Five of these kinds of carbon storage operations exist today worldwide.

    On a small scale, CCS technology is part of proposed U.S. Environmental Protection Agency standards for emissions at new coal-fired power plants in the U.S., but those standards are not yet finalized and are expected to be challenged in court. A coal-fired power plant in Mississippi is expected to begin operations later this year with the ability to capture and store its carbon emissions. 

    Though the technology exists, there are still many questions about whether carbon dioxide can be stored underground permanently and safely. Carbon sequestration projects are suspected to have caused earthquakes in some places, and there is concern about whether the underground storage sites could leak CO2 into the atmosphere, or be somehow breached with catastrophic consequences.

    Scientists have divergent views on how and when carbon sequestration projects can do the job the IPCC suggests may be necessary for them to do in order to keep climate change in check.

    “Capture technology is probably sufficient to provide CO2 for an increased number of large-scale pilot projects, but is many years from providing gigatons of CO2, and thus having a significant impact on mitigating emissions,” Peter Kelemen, earth and environmental sciences professor at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory in Palisades, N.Y., said.

    Carbon sequestration technology is primed for expansion, and pilot projects have shown that the technology works, but funding and permitting for the projects move slowly, he said.

    “In the absence of carbon tax or caps — except for EPA limits on power plant emissions that, practically speaking, have no impact except to discourage construction of any new coal-fired power plants in the U.S. — there is no way that large-scale CCS will be commercially viable in the U.S.; at the same time, there is little or no political momentum behind expansion of government funding for expanded CCS,” Kelemen said.

    Carbon capture should be seen as a "bridge" technology, Juanes said. 

    "A bridge between our current energy systems and some future, yet-to-be-determined, low-carbon energy system," he said. "So the question becomes, how long is that bridge?" The conclusion Juanes came to by analyzing models of geologic formations in the U.S. is that CCS could contribute effectively to mitigating CO2 emissions in the U.S. for the next 100 years or more.

    Worldwide, there are ample underground rock formations in which carbon dioxide emissions could be stored, Juanes said. 

    The lack of progress on developing CCS projects so far has more to do with politics than technology, said integrated modeling and energy engineer Jim Dooley of Pacific Northwest National Laboratory. Dooley is CCS research lead for the Joint Global Change Research Institute and the Global Energy Technology Strategy Project, and a lead author of the IPCC’s special report on carbon capture and storage.

    The Wallula Carbon Capture Storage Basalt Project in Washington State.
    Credit: Pacific Northwest National Laboratory

    “I think the answer is less about the underlying technology than it is a statement about mankind’s inability to decide if we’re really going to address climate change in a significant fashion,” Dooley said. “CCS can really only be used at a large scale for one thing, and that’s really to reduce atmospheric concentrations of CO2. If we don’t have agreement on that, there’s really no economic driver to deploy it.

    “I can’t give you a technological answer of when I expect to see large-scale commercial deployment,” he said. “Fundamentally, what we need is the policy driver that would make it economic. No matter how advanced capture technologies are going to be, it’s always going to be cheaper to vent the CO2 into the atmosphere rather than compressing it.”

    Very few advancements need to be made in CCS technology to prove it is safe, so long as carbon sequestration projects are built someplace offshore or in very remote onshore locations where they pose a much lower safety and terrorism risk than near populated areas, Kelemen said.

    “There will be some leaks, probably even some that release Mt (megatons) of CO2 in minutes to days, and these will have legal and financial ramifications, but they probably will not present a serious safety hazard from my point of view, particularly when compared, for example, with the existing safety record of the fossil fuel industry — that is, not perfect, but de facto acceptable to most of society,” he said.

    Until society considers carbon storage a necessity, any risk it poses will be viewed as an unacceptable risk, he said.

    Leakage and earthquakes resulting from storing carbon dioxide underground are concerns that need to be addressed with more research, proper site selection for CCS projects and adequate field monitoring of those sites, Juanes said. 

    Until those questions are answered, addressing climate change should begin by reducing consumption and increasing energy efficiency, he said. 

    Making carbon capture happen is really about will, Dooley said.

    “How fast the interstate highway system grew and how fast natural gas pipelines grew in this country — you know we put men on the moon,” he said. “I think that if we decided this is what we wanted to do, and this being address climate change, not necessarily CCS, I think it can be ramped up quickly.”

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  4. Okla. Utilities Hit Homes Using Solar With Extra Fee

    Anyone living in Oklahoma planning to power their home using a rooftop solar panel will soon be charged a fee for the right to do that while still being connected to the local power grid.

    Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin signed the “solar surcharge” bill into law on Monday, permitting utilities to charge an extra fee to any customer using distributed power generation, such as rooftop solar or a small wind turbine.

    A rooftop solar installation.
    Credit: U.S. Dept. of Energy

    Distributed generation is seen in many parts of the country as a way for cities and homeowners to modernize their power system and become more resilient in the face of extreme weather, brought about in part by climate change. Rooftop solar and wind turbines generate clean energy to help to keep homes’ lights on when the power grid fails.

    Oklahoma’s new law states that it is aiming to prevent the majority of utility customers from “subsidizing” those with solar panels on their homes who offset the cost of electricity and grid maintenance costs by generating their own power and feeding it onto the grid and receiving credit for the power they generate.

    The practice of utility customers providing home-generated power to the grid and receiving credits for the power they produce is called “net metering,” and is legal in most states. But, it is something the electric power industry considers a threat to traditional utilities, which use centralized power sources that distribute electricity to customers via the power grid.

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    “Right now, a distributed generation customer is really paying less for the maintenance of the infrastructure than our other customers,” despite the up-front costs of installing solar panels on a roof, said Kathleen O’Shea, spokeswoman for Oklahoma Gas and Electric, or OGE, one of the state’s largest utilities.

    Of OGE’s 800,000 customers, between 200 and 400 of them use rooftop solar or wind, she said.

    “As solar prices come down and this becomes more popular, we want to make sure everybody who’s using the grid is paying their fair share,” she said, adding that it’s unfair for the utility’s traditional customers — roughly 799,600 of them — to foot the bill for grid maintenance when several hundred people end up saving money by using their own solar panels to provide power to the utility while not paying the grid maintenance surcharge. 

    “It’s kind of like, let’s get this done now before we are suddenly having 20,000 customers,” O’Shea said.

    While OGE and other utilities say it's unfair that wind and solar owners aren't being charged for grid maintenance, those owners aren't getting compensated for the excess clean power they put into the grid for everyone else to use. And it doesn't take into account the upfront costs of installing solar panels or wind turbines themselves. 

    Here's how it works if you're an Oklahoma OGE customer today, according to OGE's net energy billing schedule: If you own a wind turbine in your yard, the power you produce is metered and feeds into the grid. OGE will give you a power credit on your next monthly bill based on the kilowatt hours of wind power you've supplied to the grid. If your home uses fewer kilowatt hours of electricity than the amount of electricity produced by your wind turbine, OGE bills you for the electricity it provides to you. If your turbine generates more kilowatt hours than your home consumes, OGE will only give you credit for the power you consume and provide no compensation for the excess electricity you've provided to OGE free of charge. 

    Oklahoma regulators will eventually create a separate utility customer class for people using rooftop solar or small wind turbines so they can be charged separately from traditional customers. Anyone using solar or wind at home before the new law takes effect this fall will be grandfathered in and won’t be charged the new fee. 

    Clean energy advocates see the new law as an attack on renewable energy in an era when climate change adaptation demands modernizing the country’s electric power systems.

    Homes with rooftop solar installations.
    Credit: U.S. Dept. of Energy

    “This legislation is discounting the value of distributed power,” said Whitney Pearson, associate field organizer for the Oklahoma chapter of the Sierra Club. “In peak periods like summer months, solar helps reduce demand on the grid when utilities worry most about meeting customer needs.”

    She said she believes large utility companies are afraid that solar and wind power threaten their business model, so they’ve turned to the state Legislature to discourage property owners from installing their own power generation.

    O’Shea said she is unsure what role distributed generation should play in providing electricity to Oklahoma residents in the future, but she said she’s sure rooftop solar and wind will be a “big thing for all the electric industry.”

    “At this point, we’re all still trying to figure out how and when,” O’Shea said. “I do know that it’s out there, it’s coming. It’s not something we even want to try and stop.”

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  5. Climate Models, Globe’s Oceans Put Stamp on Earth Day

    For the stamp collector in search of an accurate portrayal of the globe’s oceans, look no further than the new U.S. Postal Service international Forever stamp. Released to commemorate Earth Day, the stamp features a snapshot of how high-tech climate models depict oceans.

    The new Forever stamp from the U.S. Postal Service featuring a modeled view of sea surface temperatures.
    Credit: U.S. Postal Service

    The Postal Service has a citizen advisory committee (who knew?) that looks for stamp subjects that reflect key moments, people, and innovations in American history according to Joshua Colin, Eastern Area vice president for the Postal Service.

    "This year's Earth Day stamp celebrates the important role that science is playing in our understanding of the Earth, the oceans and our climate," Colin said in a press release.

    In particular, climate models served as the inspiration for this stamp. Postal Service representatives reached out to scientists at the Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory after seeing an animation of the Earth’s ocean surface temperatures based on models they created.

    The original animation spanned 4 years and was designed for Science on a Sphere, a room-sized 3-D display of globe’s climate and oceans. The Postal Service chose a typical July day from the animation, flattened it out and shrank it. The result is this year’s Earth Day stamp.

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    Climate change isn’t necessarily new to the world of philatelists. The United Nations issued climate change stamps in 2008. Tuvalu, which generates enough of its income from stamps to warrant a mention in the CIA Factbook, and other island nations have also created climate-themed stamps with occasionally dire imagery. Climate graphs have even made an appearance, with the British Antarctica Territory issuing stamps that show both the change in mean summer air temperature since 1950 and temperature reconstructions based on ice core data going back 800,000 years.

    But this is likely the first stamp to depict the results of climate models. Given that the oceans are drivers of the world’s climate and also highly sensitive to climate change, it’s fitting that this year’s Earth Day stamp is an international Forever stamp that can be used to mail letters anywhere in the world.

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  6. March of Global Warming: Month 4th Warmest on Record

    Though cool temperatures prevailed across the eastern U.S. and Canada through March, the month was the fourth warmest March on record globally, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration announced Tuesday. It was the 38th March in a row with warmer-than-average temperatures.

    This graphic shows how much temperatures around the world departed from the average March temperature in March 2014.
    Click image to enlarge. Credit: NOAA

    The ranking matches that from NASA data released earlier this month, and marks a jump from February, which was the 21st warmest on record globally.

    “The change was primarily due to warmer-than-average temperatures over central Asia in March, compared with cooler-than-average temperatures in February,” said Jessica Blunden, a NOAA climate scientist and author of the monthly reports the agency releases.

    Globally, the average temperature for March was 56.18°F, or 1.28°F above the 20th century average of 54.9°F, NOAA said. While much of North America (except the western U.S.) saw cool temperatures — this March was the coolest in the U.S. since 2002 — plenty of other places saw warmer-than-normal temperatures, including northern South America, most of Europe and much of Asia.

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    In Europe, Slovakia saw its warmest March since 1871; Austria matched its second warmest since records began in 1767; and Norway saw its third warmest March since 1900, according to NOAA.

    If April is also warmer-than-average — as every month since February 1985 has been — it will be the 350th warmer-than-normal month in a row. April is also expected to be the first month in human history where the monthly average of atmospheric carbon dioxide exceeds 400 parts per million, a sign of how much the greenhouse gas has increased since the 280 ppm that marked pre-industrial levels.

    The warm March came on the heels of the eighth-warmest winter on record, globally. The entire period from January to March was the seventh warmest on record, NOAA said, at 1.08°F above the 20th century average of 54.1°F.

    Where 2014 ultimately falls in the rankings may depend on whether an El Niño develops later this year, something NOAA scientists have said has a better than 50 percent chance of happening by this summer or fall. An El Niño event is marked by warmer-than-normal sea surface temperatures in the eastern tropical Pacific Ocean, and is accompanied by shifts in atmospheric wind patterns. El Niño years are typically warmer than normal globally.

    The global average temperature wasn’t the only sign of warming in March. The maximum extent of Arctic sea ice, reached on March 21, was the fifth smallest on record, and snow cover across the Northern Hemisphere was the sixth smallest extent in the 48-year record.

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  7. ‘Oldest Living Things in the World’ Tell a Tale of Climate

    The spindly trunk of a Norway spruce reaches above the lichen-covered rocks. Nothing about the tree is remarkable aside from it being the only thing to reach more than a few feet off the ground on a windswept plateau. Yet Rachel Sussman traveled the roughly 3,500 miles from her Brooklyn studio to western Sweden to photograph it.

    Its age is what drew Sussman to it. At 9,550 years old, this Norway spruce is the single oldest known tree on the planet. But it’s not just the age of the tree that matters, it’s what the image reveals.

    “This 9,550-year-old tree is like a portrait of climate change,” she said.

    A 9,950-year-old Norway spruce.The mass of branches near the ground grew the same way for roughly 9,500 years, but the new, spindly trunk in the center is only 50 or so years old, caused by warming at the top of this mountain plateau in Western Sweden. 
    Click image to enlarge. Credit: Rachel Sussman

    The image Sussman took graces the cover of her new book, “The Oldest Living Things in the World,” which hit bookstores today on Earth Day. The project has taken her across the globe over the past 10 years in an effort to capture images of the oldest species in the natural world. Her work shows both how they have developed and persevered over thousands of years while shedding light on how present human activities are changing those rhythms and endangering their very existence.

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    Sussman defined “old” as 2,000 years. The Declaration of Independence, the Mona Lisa, and the Magna Carta are all in their infancy compared to some of Sussman’s subjects. Many of them have been around for much longer, including a yucca plant in the Mojave desert in California that’s 12,000 years old and a sea grass meadow near Ibiza, Spain, that has been around for an incredible 100,000 years.

    Longevity is about the only trait they have in common. Sussman’s subjects are spread over all corners of the planet, from California to Greenland to the Antarctic to the Atacama Desert in Chile. They include giant baobab trees and diminutive lichens and mosses. The 30 subjects in her book took her across thousands of miles covered by plane, taxi, helicopter, foot, Zodiac boat, and scuba diving. What kept her going through long layovers, missed contacts, and arduous treks was a belief in the power of the project to inspire people to ponder the deep issues the images raise.

    The Posidonia sea grass meadow is 100,000 years old, predating all of written human history and then some. It lives in the UNESCO-protected waterway between the islands of Ibiza and Formentera.
    Click image to enlarge. Credit: Rachel Sussman

    “There are only so many times you can talk about facts and figures,” she said in an interview at her Greenpoint studio. “This project is about climate change, art, science, and philosophy. It’s about allowing people to connect with things. And part of it is also just about being wowed.”

    There’s certainly something wow-worthy about a 9,550-year-old spruce growing on a chilly plateau in Sweden. But the deeper climate change message can be seen in its trunk, which only shot up in the past 50 years. For the millennia prior to that, its branches grew slowly outward and crept close to the ground, an adaptation to the cold harsh winds that sweep across the mountain.

    Biologists at Umea University in Umea, Sweden, who have studied this tree, which they nicknamed Old Tjikko after one of their dogs, believe that warming temperatures are one of the main reasons for the sudden upward growth. In this light, Sussman’s photo captures what climate change looks like in the early 21st century. The tree's future growth is still uncertain, though, as researchers expect regional differences in increased warming and precipitation changes will have different effects on Norway spruce across Scandinavia.

    Bristlecone pines are also featured in Sussman’s book and like the spruce, they have an obvious climate change connection.

    Bristlecone pines are the oldest non-clonal organisms in the world. Climate change is increasing their growth rate and threatening their habitat.
    Click image to enlarge. Credit: Rachel Sussman

    The pines grow in pockets in high mountains of the western U.S. and the oldest ones are around 5,000 years old. Bristlecones grow very slowly and take on a gnarled and knotty appearance that seemingly befits their age. Even their needles can last up to 40 years.

    Like many of Sussman’s subjects, theirs is a story of survival by taking the slow road. Scientists have been using tree ring samples taken from these trees for years to gain a better understanding of past climates. The samples reveal that in the past 50 years, bristlecones have been growing about 30 percent faster than at any other time in the past 3,700 years. According to a 2009 study of the tree rings, the growth is "unmatched in millennia and is suggestive of dramatic environmental changes, most likely linked to increases in temperature.” It’s possible that the increased rate of growth could have unintended consequences and could weaken the tree's natural defenses that aid in its longevity.

    Warmer temperatures are also disrupting other parts of the pines’ ecosystem. The most notable impact is the spread of mountain bark beetles into the high elevation zone the pines inhabit. The bitter cold acted as a barrier that protected the pines from beetles, but as temperatures have warmed, bark beetles have been spreading to the pines’ habitat.

    For some of Sussman’s subjects, local human actions can be a more present danger. A 3,500-year-old cypress Sussman had photographed for the project met a sudden end in January 2012 when a group of people inadvertently set it on fire. Habitat loss due to deforestation, local air and water pollution, and the introduction of invasive species can all snuff out the long strands of time these species represent.

    A 5,500-year-old moss bank lives on a cliff face right around the corner from where the Shackleton Expedition was marooned 100 years ago on Elephant Island, Antarctica. The last known visitors reached the moss in 1987. 
    Click image to enlarge. Credit: Rachel Sussman

    The reality is climate change is likely to affect many of the species in Sussman’s book, but it’s not always clear exactly how. A patch of 5,500-year-old moss was discovered in Antarctica in 1987 and was so off the beaten path that nobody had likely visited it since. Its location is just around the corner from the landing spot of a more famous Elephant Island visitor, Ernerst Shackleton who was marooned there in 1915

    Yet Sussman wanted to find the moss and photograph it for her collection. Located somewhere on Elephant Island, Sussman said her odds of landing on the island and finding it were in the "single digits" in a New York Times blog post. Yet in February 2012, she found herself dropping from the decks of the sleek National Geographic Explorer into a Zodiac then skimming white knuckle over the frigid Southern Ocean waters toward the island. She became the first person to visit the moss in a quarter century yet could only spend 25 minutes photographing it before returning to ship. It's unlikely anyone will visit the moss again in the near future so understanding the impacts of climate change on it are likely to remain vague at best. 

    What we can say is that current greenhouse gas emissions have the planet on a trajectory to warm by as much as 9°F over the next century. The last time the Earth saw such rapid warming was around 55 million years ago, long before Sussman’s subjects laid down their roots. This century is likely to represent a break with the dozens of centuries of adaptations they’ve accumulated unless greenhouse gas emissions are slowed.

    In that light, it might be easy to view Sussman’s work as an elegy, but that’s not her goal.

    “It lets people see these as global symbols, as symbolic of the planet we live on,” she said. “(This is an) act of environmental conscience, but it’s not prescriptive.”

    The prescriptive part is up to viewers and how they interpret and react to these symbols.

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  8. Since 1st Earth Day, U.S. Temps Marching Upward

    Research Report by Climate Central

    To embed this interactive, click the preferred size for the code: 725 x 620 | 600 x 513 | 500 x 428

    It’s been 44 years since the first Earth Day was celebrated in 1970, and since that time, average temperatures have been rising across the U.S. This Climate Central interactive graphic shows a state-by-state analysis of those temperature trends.

    Average temperatures across most of the continental U.S. have been rising gradually for more than a century, at a rate of about 0.127°F per decade between 1910-2012. That trend parallels an overall increase in average global temperatures, which is largely the result of human greenhouse gas emissions. While global warming isn’t uniform, and some regions are warming faster than others, since the 1970s, warming across the U.S. has accelerated, previously shown in our report The Heat is On. Since then, every state’s annual average temperature has risen accordingly. On average, temperatures in the contiguous 48 states have been warming at a rate of 0.48°F per decade since 1970, nearly twice the global average. 

    Delaware and Wisconsin are tied as the fastest-warming states since 1970, warming at a rate of 0.67°F per decade. Average annual temperatures in the two states are about 3°F warmer than they were 44 years ago. Vermont, New Jersey, and Michigan are warming nearly as fast, and all are warming about twice as fast as the global average. The slowest-warming states are Washington, Georgia, Florida, and Oregon – warming just more than 0.3°F per decade since 1970 — and are on pace with average global temperatures.

    For detailed information on individual states, click on any state in the interactive graphic above.

    On a regional scale, the fastest-warming areas are the Northeast, Midwest and Southwest, while the Pacific Northwest and Southeast are warming more slowly. Of the lower 48 states, 26 have warmed more than 2°F since 1970, and 16 have warmed more than 2.5°F.

    This analysis draws on temperature data collected from the National Climatic Data Center’s Climate at a Glance database, offering an improved technique for regional temperature trend analysis over our earlier report The Heat is On.

  9. April Will Be First Month With CO2 Levels Above 400 PPM

    April will be the first time in human history where levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide were higher than 400 parts per million for an entire month, one scientist who monitors the levels said. And they could stay above that mark into July.

    Hourly, daily and monthly averages of carbon dioxide concentrations at Mauna Loa, Hawaii.
    Credit: Scripps Institution of Oceanography

    Carbon dioxide concentrations, as measured at a site atop Hawaii’s Mauna Loa volcano since 1958, surpassed the 400 ppm mark for the first time in recorded history on May 9, 2013. While the particular mark is symbolic, it serves to show how far concentrations have risen from their pre-industrial levels of 280 ppm as fossil fuels such as coal and oil have continued to be burned.

    “On some level, watching these milestones be passed is a lot like watching paint dry,” Jason Smerdon, a climate researcher at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, told Climate Central in an email. “The upward march is neither surprising nor unexpected as a direct consequence of human activities; it is only alarming in the sense that it keeps happening unabated.”

    Scientists expected the 400 ppm mark to be surpassed at an earlier date this year — and, indeed, that point came a full two months earlier than last year — and for this year to see the first monthly carbon dioxide average above 400 ppm.

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    So far, April has already seen daily and weekly average carbon dioxide levels above 400 ppm, the Mauna Loa data show, and that will assuredly continue for the rest of the month, Tans told Climate Central. Levels will continue to rise in May, the typical peak of carbon dioxide levels in the Northern Hemisphere.

    “The expectation is pretty firm that May will be higher than April,” said Pieter Tans, a climate scientist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

    The Keeling Curve, showing CO2 concentrations increasing to near 400 ppm in 2013.
    Credit: NOAA

    May is the peak of the yearly CO2 cycle because it is the point at which plants across the hemisphere have woken up from their winter slumber and begin to suck up the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. The ups and downs of the cycle are seen as smaller wiggles in the overall rise of carbon dioxide over the past half-century as measured at Mauna Loa — the iconic Keeling Curve.

    While other greenhouse gases are more potent warmers on a molecule-by-molecule basis, carbon dioxide is considered the most important such gas because it is much more prevalent in the atmosphere and more long-lived than many other chemicals.

    How long CO2 levels stay above 400 ppm this year, before a hemisphere’s worth of photosynthesis begins to draw them down, depends on how high they get in May. Tans expects them to peak somewhere between 402 and 403 ppm. If they do reach 403 ppm, levels could stay above 400 ppm into July, he said. (Carbon dioxide levels are even higher in the Arctic, Tans said, running close to 405 ppm right now, as the carbon cycle there has a higher amplitude.)

    CO2 levels are far higher now than they have been for anytime during the past 800,000 years.
    Click image to enlarge. Credit: Scripps Institution of Oceanography.

    That higher peak this year means that the 400 ppm level will be passed even sooner next year, Tans said, possibly as early as February. The earlier benchmark happens because the biosphere draws down only a certain amount of carbon dioxide each growing season, leaving behind excess CO2 that hangs around into next year.

    In another year or so, CO2 levels could still be at 400 ppm come fall, then eventually will stay above that level for the entire year, “and it will never go below 400 again,” Tans said. Or at least it won’t for many centuries, as the long-lived nature of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere means that its effects will be felt for many human generations, absent efforts to curb emissions or use carbon capture technologies to pull CO2 out of the atmosphere, a controversial prospect.

    “This is a very long-term commitment,” Tans said.

    The last time atmospheric carbon dioxide levels were this high consistently was anywhere from 800,000 to 15 million years ago, various studies have estimated. And at that time, global temperatures were much warmer and sea levels were up to 100 feet higher.

    “Personally, I am alarmed,” Tans said.

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  10. Hot West, Cold East May be the Norm as World Warms

    The split personality of this winter’s weather in the U.S. appears to have been thousands of years in the making. The big driver behind the frigid-East and warm-West divide was a kinky jet stream, a pattern that arose 4,000 years ago. While natural variations have controlled its wanderings to date, climate change could make the duality we saw this winter more the norm.

    This winter, the Northeast and South were treated to regular blasts of cold air thanks to a big dip in the jet stream, a high-speed expressway that brought icy Arctic air into the regions. Meanwhile, a ridge set up over the West Coast, leaving residents of California and other parts of the West, including Alaska, baking for much of the winter. The hot weather exacerbated the drought currently affecting California.

    An illustration of the wavy jet stream that set up on January 6, 2014.
    Credit: Earth

    Some have referred to this weather pattern as “drunk,” but climatologists have a different name for it: the curvy phase of the Pacific North American pattern. And it’s been in a curvier phase for the past 4,000 years.

    Natural shifts have dictated what happens to the jet stream for millennia according to a new study in Nature Communications. Ultimately, climate change may also play a larger role, though. Since the start of the 20th century, the Arctic has been warming at twice the rate as the middle latitudes of the globe. That means the temperature difference between the planet’s head and mid-section is shrinking.

    Though the new study didn’t specifically examine the role of greenhouse gases in affecting the phenomenon, Gabe Bowen, a geochemist at the University of Utah, said the effect they’re currently having on the globe’s temperature gradients is similar to the big change that happened 4,000 years ago.

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    “There was a reduction in that (pole-to-equator temperature) gradient due to natural changes in the earth’s orbit. Today, the same thing is happening but with different forcers: greenhouse gases are warming the climate, especially at the poles,” Bowen said. “If this trend continues, it could contribute to more extreme winter weather events in North America, as experienced this year with warm conditions in California and Alaska and intrusion of cold Arctic air across the eastern U.S."

    Unraveling how climate change may affect the jet stream and the potential for more extreme weather along its path is an active area of climate research. Some researchers have found that the jet stream is becoming wavier while others have said that observations don’t support that hypothesis. One area of research that scientists have agreed on is it’s likely the jet stream has been shifting poleward since the 1970s.

    A wavier jet stream and its impact on precipitation, in particular, could have profound implications for water in the western U.S. The jet stream affects U.S. weather most in the winter, which is when the West receives most of its precipitation as mountain snow. Shifts in the amount of snow could have big implications for reservoir levels and farmers, city dwellers and others living downstream.

    “Snowpack is our water source and any variability that would change storm tracks would change availability,” said Lesleigh Anderson, a paleoclimate researcher at the U.S. Geological Survey who was not associated with the study. “Global temperatures are interesting, but people want to know what will happen where they are. That means you have to understand how large-scale changes affect regional climate systems.”

    An illustration showing how the jet stream has shifted since the 1970s.
    Click image to enlarge.

    The new study looks at past shifts in the jet stream using ancient oxygen isotopes at four sites across the U.S. and Canada. The records go back 8,000 years and, in essence, show whether the climate was warm and dry or cool and wet.

    Bowen discovered that 4,000 years ago there was a major shift in rainfall patterns across the continent.

    “The shift 4,000 years ago was part of a widespread shift in the climate system. It’s pretty well understood that changes in solar forcing — subtle changes in the earth’s orbit — changed the earth’s climate,” Bowen said.

    In addition to the big shift, the jet stream pattern over North America has been affected by other shifts in the sun's energy that have lasted centuries. And there are many other factors that produce year-to-year variability.

    “It’s interactive with other parts of the climate system,” Bowen said. “It varies weekly and is driven by internal forcings and redistribution of heat in the atmosphere itself. It also varies over longer timescales in part due to changes in sea surface temperatures associated with El Niño and La Niña (that) propagate into the atmosphere.”

    Anderson sees the new findings as a way to start to better understand these connections as well as what the jet stream will do into the 21st century if greenhouse gas emissions continue to arise.

    “It’s an important component to consider if you want to forecast the future,” she said.

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