Monday, November 24, 2014

Climate Central - News

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  1. 6 Degrees: 2014 Records, Snowvember, CO2 and More
  2. 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: pic.twitter.com/DHu0ZTNa1Q

    — Jim Cantore (@JimCantore) November 19, 2014

     

    And even busted in windows:

    Yeesh. RT @Davdar22D: #WGRZsnow little help here ..... pic.twitter.com/RYI1Qinrh7

    — 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. http://t.co/ZoTKyeBgiK pic.twitter.com/fhSIrLcak2

    — 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. https://t.co/3kwujl5Vop

    — 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 http://t.co/fP81az0ctt (@DerekGeePhoto) pic.twitter.com/Nx8ISivJnf

    — NWS Boston (@NWSBoston) November 20, 2014

    Cars in the lot at a dealership in Orchard Park #snowvember pic.twitter.com/koKRwOxBEX

    — 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 pic.twitter.com/l5gLDAeT7b

    — Ari Sarsalari (@AriWeather) November 19, 2014

     

    Thundersnow!

    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 pic.twitter.com/m0w71kvb2M

    — 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! pic.twitter.com/862yxW3zT0

    — Jim Cantore (@JimCantore) November 20, 2014

     

    Hope he was able to thaw out!

  3. 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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  4. 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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  5. Report Maps Out Decarbonization Plan for U.S.

    America’s fossil fuels addiction will be hard to kick, and it’s likely that the U.S. will still be plenty hooked in 2050, even with climate change being self evident nearly everywhere.

    Breaking the addiction may be hard, but it’s not impossible according to an expansive new United Nations study published Thursday.

    There’s no technological or economic barrier preventing the U.S. from almost completely eliminating fossil fuels and basically kicking it’s carbon habit by mid-century, according to the report issued by the Deep Decarbonization Pathways Project.

    Emissions from an oil refinery.
    Credit: MikeMorris/Flickr

    The U.S. is fully technologically able to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions 80 percent below 1990 levels by 2050, and the report provides a roadmap to make that “80 by 50” goal a reality.

    The report, which focuses only on the U.S., is part of a global effort to show how the world can cap its greenhouse gas emissions to prevent more than 2°C (3.6°F) of global warming above pre-industrial levels, and may provide the basis for negotiations at global climate talks in Paris in 2015, Jeffrey Sachs, director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University, said during a news conference.

    “This is the first analysis of its kind to look at how the U.S. might meet such a deep greenhouse gas reduction goal all the way to 2050,” Margaret Torn, report co-author and senior scientist and co-head of the Climate and Carbon Sciences Program at Berkeley Lab, said. “Can we do it? The answer is yes.”

    The roadmap shows that such drastic decarbonization may be possible if all political barriers are absent.

    The U.S. can reach the “80 by 50” goal in many different ways, the net costs of which would be roughly 1 percent of U.S. gross domestic product per year.

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    Whatever the cost, making it happen would change a lot of things about daily life in the U.S. Namely, it would probably put the oil and gas industry nearly out of business, as the U.S. would have to reduce the amount of petroleum it burns by up to 91 percent.

    “One kind of asset that does need to be stranded is the fossil fuel assets themselves,” Sachs said. “There are more proved reserves of coal, oil and gas than there is space (in the atmosphere) for the CO2 they would emit.”

    Making the U.S. nearly free of CO2 emissions over 35 years requires three major changes: a rapid rise in energy efficiency; electric power generation would have to become zero-carbon and people would have to completely stop using oil and natural gas for cooking, heating and other uses.

    That means trading in gas stoves for electric ranges, and swapping SUVs for electric cars. Cars and trucks would have to use low-carbon fuel with gas mileage exceeding 100 mpg. That would require about 300 million of those vehicles to be built and sold over the next 35 years.

    The entire U.S. energy system would also have to be completely transformed as fossil fuel-fired power plants are decommissioned, requiring wind and solar power generation to increase 30 times over today’s production levels.

    If the U.S. were to eschew a high level of renewables development, it could achieve the same low-carbon goal by quadrupling nuclear power production or using carbon capture and storage technology to bury all the emissions from nearly all the coal and natural gas-fired power plants existing today.

    If it seems impossible for any of that to happen over the next 35 years, the report’s authors say there’s still time.

    All the power plants, cars and other energy-inefficient equipment will likely wear out and be replaced in that time, meaning there’s ample opportunity for old technology to replaced with with highly efficient technology by 2050. 

    Wind power production may have to increase dramatically if the U.S. aims to reduce greenhouse gases 80 percent below 1990 levels.
    Credit: John Weiss/flickr

    “One of the useful things about this report is that it shows what we need to be doing in the near term,” Taryn Fransen, senior associate for climate policy at the World Resources Institute, said. “That closer time frame is what negotiations are focused on right now.” 

    Ken Caldeira, a climate scientist at the Carnegie Institution for Science in Stanford, Calif., and unaffiliated with the study, said the U.S. is positioned to be one of the best countries for such drastic changes to occur.

    “Many strategies that look at deep decarbonization over the next half century or so make use of the fact that we have an already-existing fossil fuel infrastructure,” he said. “We can put a whole lot of intermittent renewables online and use our existing fossil fuel infrastructure as backup when the wind is not blowing or the sun is not shining.”

    What may be technologically feasible isn’t necessarily politically feasible or even something the public will accept.

    “You really have to do away with almost our entire fossil fuel-based power generation and the entire oil industry,” Drew Shindell, professor of climate sciences at Duke University and former NASA researcher who is unaffiliated with the study, said.

    Large energy companies spending billions of dollars on oil and gas projects today would not benefit from a decarbonized economy and are likely to make it politically challenging for decarbonization to occur in the next 35 years, he said.

    The report shows clearly that technology is no barrier to removing greenhouse gases from the U.S. economy, which is useful to know when negotiating political and economic ways to make decarbonization happen, Shindell said.

    “It’s useful for setting the stage, but it sets the stage for this much, much more difficult debate on how we can get such a thing done,” he said.

  6. Climate Investments ‘Falling Short’ of 2°C Goal

    Staving off the worst impacts of climate change by investing in clean energy and smart climate adaptations makes economic sense, but a new report shows that investments are still lagging globally. At the same time, the dropping costs of clean energy, particularly solar, mean that companies are doing more with less.

    The annual Global Landscape of Climate Finance report, released on Thursday by the Climate Policy Initiative (CPI), shows that global climate investments reached $331 billion in 2013. That’s a big chunk of change, but it represents a decrease of about $28 billion compared to 2012 and $33 billion compared to 2011, the high-water mark for climate investments.

    Private and public climate finance investments in 2012 and 2013 in billions of dollars.
    Credit: CPI

    All those numbers are far below International Energy Agency estimates, which indicate that more than $1 trillion a year needs to be invested in clean energy annually if the globe is stay below the “safe” warming threshold of 2°C (3.6°F) identified by scientists and policymakers.

    Private investments fell further than public ones, though private firms still account for 58 percent of all climate financing, the report showed. All $191 billion of those dollars are going to renewable energy. In general, renewables, energy efficiency and transportation received more than 90 percent of all climate dollars, Euros, yen and Swiss francs, with the rest going to adaptation efforts. In part, that split reflects the financial return on investment that energy projects offer to investors along with what can happen when clear governmental policies such as carbon markets favor clean energy investment.

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    “Our work shows that when public policies and resources balance risks and returns, private money follows. The private sector accounts for the majority of climate finance and there is clearly appetite from the private sector to invest if it makes economic sense to do so,” Barbara Buchner, the economist who leads CPI’s climate finance program, said.

    The economics have created a bit of a perverse incentive that partially explains the drop in climate finance. Cheaper technology, particularly the falling cost of solar panels, means that investors (and companies) are able to do more with less. In the case of solar panels, 2013 saw a 30 percent uptick in their installation despite private investments shrinking by about 14 percent compared to 2012, Buchner said. Cheaper technology accounts for 80 percent of the drop in private sector cash flows to clean energy.

    Investments in clean technology and climate mitigation versus adaptation projects in 2012 and 2013 in billions of dollars.
    Credit: CPI

    Investments have been fairly evenly split between developed and developing countries, reflecting a global push for clean energy and not one driven wholly by one country or region, according to the report. Most money is also staying in their respective countries, with foreign aid making up only a small portion of climate finance.

    “The biggest message for policy makers here is, ‘get your domestic policy frameworks in order, and private investors will follow,’ ” Buchner said.

    That doesn’t mean the global state of climate finance doesn’t matter. As the world prepares for international climate talks in Lima, Peru, next month, Buchner said the report is also a reminder that “the world is falling short of even conservative projections of investment levels needed to limit a change in temperature to below 2°C.”

    That shortage includes a current gap in funding for the United Nations-run Green Climate Fund, which is billed as a pot of money pledged by developed countries to help developing countries reduce their emissions and adapt to climate change. The U.S. pledged up to $3 billion to the Fund last week but the fund is still short of its $10 billion goal for this year and its long-term goal of $100 billion.

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  7. 2014 Set for Record Hot; Record Cold Thing of the Past

    A surge of Arctic air has left much of the continental U.S. shivering in unusually bitter November cold. But this early foray into winter weather is just a small blip in the overall global picture, which is of a warming world that is still on track to see 2014 set the mark for hottest year on record, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said Thursday.

    That warming — fueled largely by the manmade rise of greenhouse gases in Earth’s atmosphere — is so relentless, in fact, that the odds of seeing a record coldest year in the future are vanishingly small. As the animation below shows, the last time the world experienced a record-coldest year was in 1909, more than 100 years ago. But in that period, 18 records for warmest year have been set, with 2014 likely to be the 19th.

    Much of the central and eastern parts of the contiguous U.S. have been relatively cool all year, with a few states even possibly set to see a top 10 coldest year. But the year as a whole has actually been close to average for the country, and California is set to see its warmest year on record by a large margin.

    The bigger picture is markedly different. The globe is bathed in warm spots, with the small cold spot centered over the Great Lakes area being just one of a handful of blue spots on the world map.

    August, September and October of 2014 have all been the warmest such months on record, as shown by data from NASA, the Japan Meteorological Agency and NOAA, which released its October global numbers Thursday.

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    This single-year snapshot of the planet’s warmth fits with the pattern of ever-warmer temperatures that has been in place over the past century, particularly since the early 1980s as the warming fueled by an accumulation of greenhouse gases clearly emerged. The animation shows just how much warmth has dominated the temperature records since they began in 1880.

    Record cold years are plentiful in the early decades, but they stop in 1909. From there, it’s a  steady march upward, with the expected year-to-year ups and downs that come from natural variation. Warm records are set through the 1930s and 40s, with a long stretch of no records until the 1980s, when the global warming signal firmly emerges from the noise of natural variation.

    After that, a string of record hot years follows. And though many of the years in between weren’t records, they still ranked among the warmest. In fact, all but one of the 10 warmest years on record have occurred in the 21st century (1998, when there was a very strong El Niño, is the exception).

    How temperatures across the globe ranked from January through October 2014.
    Click image to enlarge. Credit: NOAA

    “The globe continues to warm just as climate models have long-predicted,” climate scientist Michael Mann, of Penn State, said in an email.

    The steady uptick in warming, even with a relative slowdown in recent decades, means that the likelihood of seeing a record cold year in the future is, according to a quick calculation by Mann, “astronomically small.”

    The final year in the animation, 2014, is of course not yet over. But with the October numbers now in, the year-to-date is the warmest on record, measuring 1.22°F above the 20th century average of 57.4°F, according to NOAA data. The chances of 2014 becoming the warmest year are now quite high. Even if November and December only rank in the top 10 warmest, which is likely, 2014 will take the title of warmest year.

    “It’s becoming pretty clear that 2014 will end up as the warmest year on record,” Deke Arndt, chief of climate monitoring for NOAA's National Climatic Data Center, said during a press conference.

    And as the animation shows, it's a long-term trend that is likely to continue until the emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases are significantly curtailed.

    Mann said of the possible record, “hopefully it will also drive home the urgency of reducing carbon emissions if we are to avoid dangerous interference with our climate.”

    Editor's note: Two years that tied records were not represented in the animation: 1911 tied 1909 for coldest year and 1930 tied 1926 for warmest at that time.

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  8. China Pledges to Slash Coal Use

    Coal has long been king in China, the world leader in greenhouse gas emissions and use of energy. Just last year, for example, Chinese officials approved the construction of 15 new large coal mines that would fuel its briskly multiplying coal-fired power plants and would surpass India in total coal production by next year, according to Reuters.

    That’s why it’s such a big deal that China announced late Wednesday that it’s planning to limit how much coal it uses, a move that follows its climate pact with the U.S. in which both countries agreed to cap their greenhouse gas emissions, slash energy consumption and bolster their use of renewables.

    Chinese coal workers in Shizuishan.
    Credit: Bert van Dijk/flickr

    Extremely rapid industrialization in China led to a 45 percent increase in its overall energy consumption between 2008 and 2013, most of it fueled with coal, according to Bloomberg.

    The Associated Press said China now plans to cap its use of coal to 4.2 billion metric tons each year by 2020 — a 16 percent increase over 2013 levels of coal use, or roughly 3.6 billion tons.

    The goal is for coal to provide 62 percent of China’s electricity by 2020, down from about 66 percent today, helping the country reach a CO2 emissions peak by 2030, the New York Times reports.

    China plans to use more renewables and nuclear power to reduce its need for coal, aiming to produce 20 percent of its energy from zero-emission sources by 2030, the Shanghai Daily said.

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    Nuclear power capacity in China is expected to quadruple to 58 gigawatts by 2020, with an additional 30 gigawatts under construction.

    All of this is good news for the climate, but questions remain whether it’s enough for China to achieve its greenhouse gas emissions reductions goals.

    The answer is maybe not.

    The capital city of Beijing would need to almost completely eliminate coal consumption by 2030, and many of China’s east coast cities would have to slash coal use by 85 percent in order to meet CO2 reductions goals, researcher Su Ming of China’s Energy Research Institute told Reuters.

    As the U.S. struggles to reduce its own greenhouse gas emissions, the world will be closely watching both countries to see which one can prove to be the best model for slashing CO2 the fastest. 

  9. ‘Green Revolution’ Brings Greater CO2 Swings

    Agriculture has undergone a “green revolution” over the past 50 years, with more and more crops being produced from an acre of land than ever before.

    That agricultural revolution could be changing concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, and possibly having a small effect on climate change, according to two separate and unrelated studies published Wednesday in the journal Nature.

    A cornfield in Europe.
    Credit: H. Raab/flickr

    Just as forests are often said to be the lungs of the Earth, the same is true for crops.

    During the growing season, forests absorb CO2 from the atmosphere and release it when leaves fall to the ground and decompose in the fall. Likewise, when corn sprouts and grows into mature cob-laden stalk, it absorbs carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, and releases it — exhaling — when it withers, dies and decomposes.

    Such agricultural inhaling and exhaling of CO2 contributes to seasonal changes in the global carbon cycle.

    The new studies suggest that more efficient, high-yield agriculture is making those seasonal changes in the global carbon cycle swing to greater extremes, but the long-term implications for climate change may be small.

    Researchers have seen a 15 percent increase in the amount of CO2 being inhaled and exhaled over the past 50 years over the Northern Hemisphere. At the same time, land planted with crops there grew by 20 percent as total crop production tripled.

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    The first study, led by University of Maryland atmospheric science professor Ning Zeng, shows that forests in the Northern Hemisphere have been increasing the amount of CO2 they absorb and release into the atmosphere each year, and the study ties those increases to greater agricultural productivity in recent years.

    Higher concentrations of CO2 in the atmosphere because of human-caused emissions are thought to allow trees and plants to absorb more carbon, stimulating plant growth, but the study says that phenomenon is insufficient to account for greater swings in seasonal CO2 concentrations.

    Rarely has crop production been considered a major factor in these concentrations, Zeng said.

    Greater, more intense agricultural production is tied to land management — better irrigation and fertilizer, and new strains of crops designed to increase yields, which affect the amount of CO2 the crops absorb and release seasonally.

    An Iowa cornfield.
    Credit: Don Graham/flickr

    The more those crops grow, the more CO2 they absorb, and the more they decay, releasing a greater amount of CO2 than in the early 20th century, before farming became more intense.

    “Changes in the way we manage the land can literally alter the breathing of the biosphere,” he said.

    The second study, led by Boston University assistant professor Josh Gray, showed that more intense crop production in the Northern Hemisphere may explain as much as a quarter of the changes in the seasonal CO2 cycle.

    Between 1961 and 2008, there was a 240 percent increase in maize, wheat, rice and soybean production in the Northern Hemisphere at the same time CO2 concentrations were increasing in those areas during the winter.

    “We did the math and it turns out — surprising to me — they actually account for a lot of that increase,” Gray said. “This is a direct consequence of intensive management of these ecosystems.”

    These agriculture-driven changes in the global carbon cycle may not mean a lot in the context of climate change because they are driving atmospheric CO2 concentrations only slightly lower in the summer and slightly higher in the winter, he said.

    “The still dominant effect with relation to climate change is related to this long-term increase in emissions,” Gray said.

    Agriculture remaining relatively carbon-neutral is part of why these changes will have little effect on the climate compared to human-caused CO2 emissions from burning fossil fuels, he said.

    Whereas trees in forests live for decades or centuries, storing the CO2 they absorb from the atmosphere for long periods of time, crops live for a single growing season, absorbing and releasing all the the carbon they store in that same year.

    “Almost everything is returned to the atmosphere,” Gray said.

    Zeng said both studies, which he said were conducted by researchers who had no knowledge of the other study, basically say the same thing but arrive at their conclusions using two different methods.

    “Basically, we rely on, to a large degree, a model and atmospheric CO2 observations, and their study (Gray’s) analyzed in more detail the specific agricultural change down to specific crop species,” Zeng said. “Underlying our analysis, we did the same thing. It’s very encouraging.”

    In the end, the studies make clear that knowing more about how growing food affects the atmosphere can lead to better climate science and a better understanding of how managing the land affects climate change. 

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  10. World Needs to Mind the Carbon Emissions Gap

    A new report suggests that policymakers better mind the gap if they want to meet the 2°C global warming threshold. But in spite of the warning, that chasm is growing as the world’s carbon dioxide emissions continue to rise.

    Carbon dioxide equivalent emissions trends from 1990-2012.
    Click image to enlarge. Credit: UNEP

    To bridge the gap, the world will have to reduce emissions to reach net carbon dioxide (CO2) neutrality sometime between 2055-2070,  according to the fifth annual Emissions Gap Report released on Wednesday by the U.N. Environmental Program (UNEP).

    “This is not a policy conclusion, this is just doing the math,” Joseph Alcamo, chief scientist of the report, said. “By 2030 we will have to turn the corner on global emissions so that we should have global emissions roughly 20-30 percent lower than they are (projected) now. That’s a telling message from the science community that business-as-usual is not an option.”

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    Alcamo is one of 38 scientists from 14 countries who authored the report, which highlights when different emissions cuts would be needed to avoid warming over 2°C (3.6°F). It’s a tall task, given that global carbon emissions have risen more than 45 percent since 1990. If emissions stay on their current track, the planet is projected to blow through the carbon budget needed to keep the planet from warming more than 2°C in the next 30 years. Business-as-usual emissions could warm the planet by as much as 4.8°C (8.6°F) with catastrophic effects.

    The report shows that while the world may be putting on its running shoes and considering taking the leap, it’s not there yet based on the current pledged carbon emission cuts over the next few decades. The report examines emissions cuts projected through 2020 that were pledged at international climate talks in Copenhagen, along with current emissions trends, and then extrapolates their impact out through 2030.

    Worldwide, human activities accounted for about 50 gigatons of carbon dioxide equivalent emissions (Gt CO2e) in 2012, the last year for which data is available. They would have to be shrink to 42 Gt CO2e by 2030 according to estimates based on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) carbon budget. But global carbon emissions are expected to reach 56-59 Gt CO2e range, as much as 40 percent over budget.

    Business-as-usual, projected and "safe" levels of carbon dioxide equivalent emissions in 2025 and 2030.
    Click image to enlarge. Credit: UNEP

    Big cuts still remain to reach neutral CO2 emissions by 2070, though Alcamo noted that neutrality means that there could still be some form of emissions, but they would have to be offset by reforestation or carbon capture technology.

    It’s not all doom and gloom. The report shows how the gap could be narrowed through a mix of renewable and carbon capture investments, improving energy efficiency, and reforestation. This September, a group of leading economists and global leaders laid out a specific investment pathway for how to get there. Of course, as those economists noted, any serious delay in investments would only raise the costs later.

    The new U.N. report also doesn’t fully factor in the cuts pledged by the European Union or the recent pact between the U.S. and China to reduce and slow emissions.

    Achim Steiner, UNEP’s executive director, said the agreement announced last week was a “welcome surprise to all of us” and that the report’s next iteration would take those reductions into account.

    Alcamo said the agreement was also “a strong signal that top emitters in the world are willing to step up to plate and take some action” that would have enormous consequences for clean technology development as well as international climate negotiations next month in Lima and next year in Paris.

    Those talks are expected to generate a major global climate pact that could bring the world closer to reducing CO2 emissions and remaining within the IPCC’s carbon budget, and avoiding the worst impacts of climate change. Of course, how, when and if those emissions targets are met remains to be seen. But the end goal is clear.

    “We’re in much, much better shape than we were going into Copenhagen,” Andrew Steer, president of the World Resources Institute, said. “(This report) should be compulsory reading for all those that will be negotiating in the coming years.”