Saturday, January 31, 2015

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. Picture This: So Much Snow

    Snow, snow and more snow seems to be the story for the Northeast right now. After a major nor’easter dumped up to 2-3 feet of snow on parts of eastern Long Island and Massachusetts early in the week, another system came through on Friday to provide a fresh coating of white, while yet another storm is expected early next week. We featured a roundup of some of the best pictures of the nor’easter earlier in the week while the storm was still raging, so we thought we’d share more amazing views that emerged after the winds had settled.

    Feet of Snow in a Few Minutes

    While many of the still images taken of the nor’easter showed off its incredible power, nothing beats time-lapse photography for showing the buildup of the snow. Here’s one from Boston:


    Look at it pile up!

    Big Picture

    And there’s no better way to show the full extent of the snow than by satellite. In this image taken by the Suomi NPP satellite on Jan. 28, snow blankets a broad swath of the region, from the Appalachians to the tip of Long Island up to Maine: 

    Snow blankets the Northeast on Jan. 28, 2015, after a major nor'easter storm dumped several inches to 3 feet of snow across the region.
    Credit: NOAA

    Up to 3 feet of snow fell in the worst-affected areas of Massachusetts.

    Round Two

    And a second round of snow moved across some of the same areas on Friday, topping off the piles of dirty snow and sludge with fresh white flakes. The scene in New York was caught from above:

     

    Aerial view of the new #snow cover over NYC area. Another winter storm headed this way for late Sunday into Monday.

    A photo posted by Reed Timmer (@reedtimmer) on

     

    While the snow made for a picturesque winter day at the White House in Washington, D.C.:

    This is what a snow squall looks like! @wusa9 @WhiteHouse @Toppersweather @ericagrow @capitalweather @AllysonRaeWx pic.twitter.com/TwgFO8GaIM

    — Howard Bernstein (@hbwx) January 30, 2015

    Snow Pups!

    While many adults grumbled about messed up commutes and shoveling, kids broke out the sleds to enjoy a snow day. Dogs, too, got out to enjoy some frolicking:

    Canine capers: "Dogs romp in the blizzard" photo gallery http://t.co/Pw3xJzqqsQ pic.twitter.com/exTlS1AAdx

    — USA TODAY Weather (@usatodayweather) January 28, 2015

    King of the world! - Adorable dog on top of a big #snow pile in #Boston. #Juno #BLIZZARDof2015 (Pic: Paul Janosik) pic.twitter.com/mfL4Ydl00m

    — The Weather Channel (@weatherchannel) January 28, 2015

    PHOTOS: These pets are a dose of cuteness to the #blizzardof2015: http://t.co/5c5UWemfCx #Snowmageddon2015 pic.twitter.com/RlQdHJAzi2

    — LiveDoppler7HD (@LiveDoppler7HD) January 27, 2015

    Well, this one didn't seem too pleased:

    I am in love with this grumpy Boston dog. http://t.co/bisCwDPi50 pic.twitter.com/zcCR4YK2fy

    — Angela Fritz (@angelafritz) January 27, 2015


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  2. Climate Change Will Hit Australia the Hardest, Study Says

    By Oliver Milman, The Guardian

    Australia could be on track for a temperature rise of more than 5°C by the end of the century, outstripping the rate of warming experienced by the rest of the world, unless drastic action is taken to slash greenhouse gas emissions, according to the most comprehensive analysis ever produced of the country’s future climate.

    Australia may be on track for a temperature rise of more than 5°C by the end of the century, outstripping the rate of warming experienced by the rest of the world.
    Credit: Warren/Flickr

    The national science agency CSIRO and the Bureau of Meteorology have released the projections based on 40 global climate models, producing what they said was the most robust picture yet of how Australia’s climate would change.

    The report stated there was “very high confidence” that temperatures would rise across Australia throughout the century, with the average annual temperature set to be up to 1.3°C warmer in 2030 compared with the average experienced between 1986 and 2005.

    Temperature projections for the end of the century depend on how deeply, if at all, greenhouse gas emissions are cut. The world is tracking at the higher emissions scenario, meaning a temperature increase of between 2.8°C and 5.1°C in Australia by 2090.

    According to the report, this “business-as-usual” approach to burning fossil fuels is set to cook Australia more than the rest of the world, which will average a temperature increase of 2.6°C to 4.8°C by 2090.

    Australia’s surface air temperature has already increased 0.9°C since 1910, with the number of extreme heat records outnumbering extreme cool records nearly three to one since 2001.

    Australia experienced its third-warmest year on record in 2014, with 2013 its warmest year on record. The heat experienced in 2013 was “unlikely” to have been caused by natural variability alone, the report stated, with such temperatures now five times more likely due to humans releasing greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.

    A map depicting the median projected changes in temperatures in Australia.
    Credit: CSIRO

    Other findings of the wide-ranging analysis, the first such Australian climate projection made since 2007, included:

    • The interior of Australia is set to warm more rapidly than coastal areas. Alice Springs will experience an average of 83 days a year over 40°C in 2090, up from just 17 in 1995.
    • Melbourne will swelter through an average of 24 days above 35°C by 2090, up from 11 in 1995. Sydney will experience 11 days above 35°C by 2090, an increase from three days in 1995.
    • Australia is on course for a sea level rise of 45 cm to 82 cm by 2090, if emissions are not curbed. The report warned that if the Antarctic ice sheet was to collapse, sea levels would be a further “several tenths of a meter higher by late in the century”.
    • Extreme rainfall events will increase but overall rainfall is expected to drop in southern Australia, apart from Tasmania, during the winter and spring months – by as much as 69 percent by 2090.
    • There will be more extreme droughts, with the length of droughts increasing by between 5 percent and 20 percent, depending on how quickly greenhouse gases are cut.
    • Rising temperatures will result in a “greater number of days with severe fire danger”. Meanwhile, soil moisture will fall by up to 15 percent in southern Australia in the winter months by 2090.
    • Snow cover will decline, with the report stating there was “high confidence that as warming progresses there will be very substantial decreases in snowfall, increase in melt and thus reduced snow cover.”

    These changes are likely to produce some benefits, such as enhanced agriculture in Tasmania and fewer deaths from cold weather. But they will be overshadowed by the negatives, such as rising numbers of deaths from heat waves, water resource challenges, impacts upon agriculture and risks posed to coastal infrastructure by rising seas.

    Some of the most profound transformations are set to take place in the seas that surround Australia, which will warm by a further 2°C to 4°C unless emissions are cut.

    Excess carbon dioxide absorbed by the oceans causes the water’s pH level to drop. This acidification makes it more difficult for corals to form hard reef structures and other creatures such as oysters, clams, lobsters and crabs to develop their shells.

    This phenomenon poses a major risk to ecosystems such as the Great Barrier Reef and is, according to the report, “likely to impact the entire marine ecosystem from plankton at the base to fish at the top.”

    Kevin Hennessy, a principal research scientist at the CSIRO, said it and the Bureau of Meteorology now had a greater confidence than ever in their forecasts of Australia’s climate.

    “We expect land areas to warm faster than ocean areas, and polar regions faster than the tropics,” Hennessy told Guardian Australia.

    Given Australia’s geographical position, that would mean much of the country was expected to warm faster than the global average.

    “Australia will warm faster than the rest of the world,” Hennessy said. “Warming of 4°C to 5°C would have a very significant effect: there would be increases in extremely high temperatures, much less snow, more intense rainfall, more fires and rapid sea level rises.”

    Hennessy said even the internationally agreed limit of 2°C of warming on pre-industrial times would cause severe problems for Australia.

    “That intermediate emissions scenario would have significant effects for Australia,” he said. “Coral reefs are sensitive to even small changes in ocean temperature and a 1°C rise would have severe implications for the Great Barrier Reef and Ningaloo reef.

    “The situation is looking grim for the Great Barrier Reef unless we can significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions. A 2°C future would be very challenging.”

    Hennessy said Australia should prepare for this altered climate by ensuring hospitals, transport infrastructure, construction codes and fire planning all considered the rising temperatures.

    Cutting emissions would also help head off the worst of climate change, with nations set to convene in Paris later this year for crunch talks aimed at agreeing emissions reductions beyond 2020.

    “Achieving that intermediate, rather than higher, emissions path would require significant reductions in global greenhouse gases,” Hennessy said. “It’s difficult to say what will be achieved, there are a lot of negotiations to come in Paris. We hope there will be an agreement until 2050 at least, but who knows what will happen in the coming decades.”

    Reprinted with permission by The Guardian

  3. Obama Orders Rising Seas Built In to Building Standards

    Flood risk from sea level rise brought about by climate change will have to be factored into the building standards of any new and rebuilt federally funded construction project, including those built by local governments receiving federal money, according to an executive order President Obama issued Friday.

    The order requires projects funded by the government to adopt tighter construction standards so that scientific projections for how climate change could affect flooding in a given area can be factored into where and how the projects are built.

    Coastal flooding in Scituate, Mass., during the winter storm of Jan. 27, 2015. Credit: Dave Malkoff/flickr

    The executive order is a huge shift for the federal government, which has relied mostly on historical flooding data when determining the location of flood plains, not projections for how flooding may change in the future.

    Builders now have several options to reduce a project’s vulnerability to flooding: They can use the best available climate science to determine the best place in a flood plain to reduce exposure to future floods as sea level rises, or they can construct new buildings two feet above the 100-year flood mark and build new hospitals and other critical buildings three feet above the 100-year flood mark. Or, they can build all projects above the 500-year flood mark.

    The building standards are to be updated every five years using the latest flood risk projections based on available climate science.

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    The order follows a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers report released earlier in January assessing the flood risk climate change poses for communities along the East Coast following Hurricane Sandy.

    “Hurricane Sandy brought to light the reality that coastal storms are intensifying and that sea-level change and climate change will only heighten the vulnerability of coastal communities,” Brig. Gen. Kent D. Savre, commanding general of the Army Corps’ North Atlantic Division, said in a statement.

    In a statement, the White House singled out the flooding in Manhattan that occurred as Sandy came ashore in 2012 as a reason to rebuild infrastructure to a higher standard so it can withstand greater storm surges and other coastal flooding.

    More than $1 trillion of property are at risk from two feet of sea level rise in the U.S., a level that could be reached by 2050, the statement said.

    The Massachusetts National Guard responds to the unfolding winter flooding emergency during the winter storm of Jan. 27, 2015 in Hull, Mass.
    Credit: Massachusetts National Guard/flickr

    The rate of sea level rise on the Atlantic Coast is accelerating and has already risen at least 8 inches on both coasts since 1880. Because of the melting of glaciers and the expansion of the warming ocean, between 10 inches and several feet of global sea level rise is expected by 2100. Some projections show it leading to more than 10 feet of rise in the next two centuries, affecting more than 12 million people in the U.S. and nearly 29,000 square miles of land.

    Higher sea levels mean more devastating floods. Low-lying urban areas such as those along New York City’s coastline, many of which were devastated during Sandy, could have up to a 3-in-4 chance of historically unprecedented flooding by 2100 if greenhouse gas emissions are not dramatically reduced. About $100 billion in property sits within flood-vulnerable areas of New York City, and the homes of nearly 500,000 people are at risk of climate change-driven sea level rise there.

    Sea level rise is also causing less dramatic nuisance flooding, with some cities such as Washington, D.C., already seeing 30 days or more of flooding annually, according to a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration study released last year.

    Other cities such as Baltimore and Charleston, S.C., could see 30 days or more of nuisance  flooding because of sea level rise by 2020, followed by San Francisco and Philadelphia in 2030.

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  4. NASA’s $1 Billion Soil Moisture Mission Ready For Lift Off

    NASA is spending $916 million on a new satellite, scheduled to be blasted into space over the weekend, following nearly a decade of work and two launch delays, that will help scientists measure moisture levels in the top two inches of the world’s soils.

    Scientists clamoring to probe a couple inches of loam or humus might sound like much ado about nothing. But to the earthy folks who research agriculture, forestry, weather and climate, probing those two inches of dirty moisture could go a long way toward helping us understand the world in which we live.

    The SMAP being unpacked following delivery to Vandenberg Air Force Base late last year.
    Credit: NASA

    Here’s a rundown that will help to explain why NASA’s Soil Moisture Active Passive, or SMAP, mission, is causing so much buzz among scientists who spend so much of their time obsessing over dirt and water.

    Who Gives An Earthworm’s Casting About Soil Moisture?

    Water, carbon, nutrients and energy are the four main ingredients of life, and their life-sustaining roles and planetary cycles are intimately intertwined. That’s especially so in soil.

    Soils are home to some of the world’s most diverse, critical and underappreciated ecosystems, which are known as rhizospheres (“rhizo” comes from the Greek work for root). Fungi and other microbes in rhizospheres ferret out water supplies and nutrients from the soil and pass them to plants through their roots — in exchange for carbon that’s sucked out of the atmosphere through the plants’ leaf pores and photosynthesized. A lot of that carbon gets locked away by microbes into the top layer of the Earth, stabilizing the climate and enriching local ecosystems.

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    “As much as any climate variable, soil moisture is what ultimately matters to people, plants and animals,” Park Williams, a bioclimatologist at Columbia University’s Lamont Doherty Earth Observatory, said.

    “Soil moisture dictates streamflow, lake levels and how much water is available for irrigation. Evaporation from soil and transpiration from plants affects regional temperature, humidity and even precipitation,” Williams said. “It’s critical to know what the soil moisture is if we want to most accurately forecast drought, floods and weather.”

    How Is Soil Moisture Measured Now?

    The U.S. Department of Agriculture and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration both operate networks of devices that are planted in the soil in different parts of the U.S. These devices are highly accurate, but there’s not many of them, so the data they produce is geographically sparse. Some satellite-based devices are already circling the skies, but the data they provide is geographically limited, and they only describe conditions in the top half-inch or so of the soil.

    How Will SMAP Work?

    An artist's rendition of what the solar-powered SMAP will look like in space.
    Credit: NASA

    SMAP is a satellite observatory that will be launched into space aboard a rocket that will blast off from Vandenberg Air Force Base, which is north of Los Angeles. Plans to launch the mission on Thursday, and then on Friday, were postponed due to strong winds in the area and equipment problems detected during last-minute inspections. The latest plan is to launch at 6:20 a.m. Saturday, Pacific Time.

    Following nearly a year of calibration and testing as it loops around the planet, at an altitude of more than 400 miles, NASA will combine data from two devices aboard the 2,000-pound satellite — a radiometer and a radar — to produce new maps of soil moisture levels every few days. “What the scientists who worked on this have come up with is a way to use the best of both,” NASA project scientist Jared Entin said.

    A microwave radiometer, similar at a rudimentary level to a camera that can see a non-visible spectrum of light through clouds, will monitor radiation to produce accurate but geographically coarse measurements of soil moisture. A radar, more sophisticated than those used by traffic police, will bounce rays off the Earth and measure the backscatter to produce approximate but geographically specific measurements of soil moisture. The radar will also help scientists understand cycles of freezing and thawing in cooler climates.

    The SMAP data will be combined with existing observations, such as rain and snow measurements, to estimate soil moisture down to three feet, and to study the ways that carbon moves between the atmosphere and the land.

    What Does This Have To Do With Climate Change?

    Amid ongoing uncertainty over how climate change is influencing water cycles and drought, the data acquired by SMAP will “help shed light on how soil moisture varies over time, and can be used to test and improve climate models,” Justin Sheffield, a Princeton University researcher who studies how climate change is affecting hydrological cycles, said.

    Global warming could be drying out the soils in one-third of the world’s land, but climate change’s precise parching effects are not yet fully understood. To adapt to climate change, it helps to precisely understand the changes that are underway. Understanding whether mud is turning to dust, or vice-versa, and when, will help farmers and corporations decide which crops to plant, and when, in a warming world. Understanding how moisture levels are changing could help with firefighting efforts.

    “SMAP will provide a revolution in monitoring of soil moisture, and I foresee some exciting applications that will help reduce the impacts of floods and droughts,” Sheffield said.

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  5. Four Things to Know About Keystone XL

    The Obama administration is under pressure from Congress to decide on the fate of the Keystone XL Pipeline after the Senate approved a bill Thursday that would greenlight the pipeline’s construction. A final bill could land on President Obama’s desk sometime next week, but he is expected to veto the bill because he objects to Congress usurping his administration’s authority over the pipeline’s approval.

    With the political pressure on, the U.S. State Department, which is in charge of the Keystone’s federal review process, has given federal agencies until Feb. 2 to say whether they think building the pipeline is in the national interest. It’s an indication that the Obama administration may be preparing to make a final decision on the pipeline, which it postponed indefinitely last year.

    As these developments unfold, here are four things to know about the status of the Keystone XL Pipeline:

    A Suncor Energy oil sands development area in Alberta, Canada.
    Credit: Suncor Energy/flickr

    The Keystone XL Pipeline in 100 Words

    The energy company TransCanada plans to build the $8 billion Keystone XL pipeline, a 1,179-mile, 36-inch diameter pipe stretching from east-central Alberta, Canada, to the Texas Gulf Coast as a way to transport 830,000 barrels of crude oil per day from the Canadian tar sands to refineries near Houston. Proposed in 2008, parts of the Keystone XL between central Nebraska to Texas have already been built, but the 875-mile section between the Canadian border and Steele City, Neb., awaits final approval from the U.S. State Department, which is reviewing the pipeline because it is an international project.

    Keystone and Climate

    If it is built, the Keystone XL will likely facilitate the full development of the Canadian tar sands, a vast new source of greenhouse gas emissions. The production of tar sands oil releases 17 percent more CO2 into the atmosphere than the average barrel of crude oil produced elsewhere.

    In its analysis of the Keystone XL, the State Department estimates that the pipeline will lead to between 1 million and 27 million tons of CO2 emissions annually, but it won’t likely have a significant effect on climate change because if the Keystone isn’t built, Canadian energy companies will find more carbon-intensive ways to transport their crude to refiners.

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    A recent Stockholm Environmental Institute study suggests that the State Department’s estimates for the Keystone’s greenhouse gas emissions may be up to four times too low. The study assumes that consumer demand will increase as the market is flooded with additional tar sands crude oil, leading to up to 110 million tons of additional CO2 emissions annually.

    Proponents of the Keystone XL say the pipeline would lead to greater energy independence, be among the safest pipelines built and create 42,000 jobs. Opponents worry that ruptures in the pipeline will lead to oil spills and the contamination of the Ogallala Aquifer, that the jobs numbers are exaggerated and that the oil it will carry will be transported overseas. 

    The chief concern among opponents, including top climate scientists, is the pipeline’s possible impact on climate change. They say that fully developing the tar sands would open up a vast reservoir of carbon to be released into the atmosphere, making it difficult or impossible to meet the international goal of preventing the globe from warming more than 2°C, or 3.6°F. 

    Keystone’s Status Today

    Shortly before President Obama implored Congress to “set our sights higher than a single oil pipeline” during his State of the Union Address, the State Department ordered eight federal agencies to provide statements by Feb. 2 on whether officials there believe the Keystone XL serves the national interest, Reuters reported.

    Meanwhile, TransCanada is filing eminent domain claims against the last landowners along the pipeline’s route that have yet to provide the company right of way to build the pipeline across their property. And, opponents of the pipeline in Nebraska have filed two new lawsuits over the Keystone’s routing. A previous lawsuit about the routing was tossed out.

    Tumbling oil prices are another complicating factor. Tar sands oil is expensive to mine and process, and analyses have said oil prices need to be around $85 per barrel for tar sands extraction to be profitable. But TransCanada has countered that, saying oil producers want to reduce their costs by using the Keystone XL pipeline instead of more expensive modes of transport.

    Other Pipelines Will Carry Tar Sands Crude if Keystone Fails

    A tar sands mine near Fort McMurray, Alberta, Canada. The Keystone XL Pipeline would bring crude oil from the tar sands to refineries in Texas.
    Credit: Luc Forsyth/flickr

    The Canadian tar sands are much bigger than Keystone XL, so if the State Department does not approve the pipeline, energy companies mining the tar sands will have a range of options to get their crude to refineries on the Gulf Coast and elsewhere.

    TransCanada, the company behind the Keystone XL, is planning an even bigger pipeline project than Keystone XL starting where Keystone starts, Hardisty, Alberta. The Energy East Project would carry more than 1 million barrels of tar sands oil per day to refineries in New Brunswick, on Canada’s East Coast. That pipeline is slated to begin operating in 2018.

    Another proposed project is an expansion of an existing Enbridge Inc. pipeline in Wisconsin called the Line 61 Upgrade Project, which is being designed to carry 1.2 million barrels of crude oil per day from an oil terminal in northern Wisconsin to another terminal near Pontiac, Ill. Construction began in 2014, and the pipeline is expected to be operating at full capacity late this year. Enbridge just upgraded another pipeline called the Flanagan South Project that stretches from Pontiac to oil terminals in Cushing, Okla. There, Flanagan links to yet another new Enbridge pipeline expansion, called the Seaway Twin, which started carrying crude last fall from Cushing to refineries in Freeport, Texas.

    Energy companies are also using rail to transport crude from Alberta, and the Canadian government has approved other major Enbridge oil pipeline projects. Those include the Northern Gateway Project, which is slated to transport crude oil from Alberta to a port on Canada’s west coast, and the Line 9 expansion, which would pipe tar sands oil east to Montreal.

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  6. Climate Calculator Lets You Create a New World

    Have you always wanted to wield the power of a world leader but been unable find a suitable in? Well, your search may finally be over.

    The U.K. government has released its Global Calculator, a climate model hitherto only available to world governments to understand how their actions work in concert to reduce global warming. Now the public can crunch the numbers to see how to keep the planet from warming more than 2°C (3.6°F), a politically agreed upon climate target.

    A specific look at how energy supply and demand change under the different IPCC pathways.
    Credit: Global Calculator

    The key drivers of climate change are all available for the tweaking from energy sources, investment in carbon capture and storage, land-use change, transportation and even lifestyle choices like the amount of meat consumed globally. You can adjust each slider on your own to try to reach 2°C.

    But if the paradox of choice leaves you too stunned to do anything, there are a number of pre-loaded pathways from a variety of sources. Some of those sources are ones you'd expect, such as one from the International Energy Agency and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, both at the forefront of climate and energy modeling. Others might be more surprising, such as the Vegan Society, which is exactly what it sounds like, and Shell, the world’s second-largest oil company.

    What the different IPCC scenarios mean for energy use, greenhouse gas emissions and meeting the 2°C climate goal.
    Credit: Global Calculator

    Shell’s contribution is particularly timely as a portion of its shareholders and the company itself are planning to see if its business plan is compatible with the 2°C climate goal.

    Meat consumption is a major driver of climate change. The graphic shows minimal meat consumption and raising fewer ruminants vs. heavy meat consumption and raising more ruminants.
    Credit: Global Calculator

    Adjusting the different sliders reveals just how much certain activities weigh on the climate. Diet, specifically how much meat the world consumes, is among the starkest choices. Not only how much meat but the type matter since raising ruminant animals such as cows, sheep and goats is one of the most greenhouse gas-intensive activities humans currently undertake. Reducing meat consumption would make a huge impact on global greenhouse gas emissions and increase the feasibility of reaching climate goals.

    Land management is another area where huge gains (or losses) can be made. More efficiently managing croplands and forest can send greenhouse emissions plummeting.

    What the scenarios all show is that the current pathway the world is on is not sustainable, nor are we close to meeting the climate goals. But there are pathways forward. It’s just a choice of which one and when the world decides to start walking down it. Or moving the sliders.

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  7. Nuclear Power Needs to Double to Meet Warming Goal

    Since the 2011 Fukushima Daiichi nuclear accident in Japan chilled global attitudes toward nuclear power, the world has been slowly reconciling its discomfort with nuclear and the idea that it may have a role to play in reducing greenhouse gas emissions to tackle climate change.

    The International Energy Agency and the Nuclear Energy Agency suggest in a report released Thursday that nuclear will have such a significant role to play in climate strategy that nuclear power generation capacity will have to double by 2050 in order for the world to meet the international 2°C (3.6°F) warming goal.

    A nuclear power plant in Moscow. Credit: IAEA Imagebank/flickr

    With fossil fuels growing as sources of electricity across the globe, the IEA sees nuclear power as a stable source of low-carbon power helping to take polluting coal-fired plants offline.

    To accomplish the needed CO2 emissions cuts to keep warming no greater than 2°C, the IEA says global nuclear power generation capacity needs to increase to 930 gigawatts from 396 gigawatts by 2050. With nearly 100 nuclear reactors, the U.S. has more nuclear power plants than any other country, representing 105 gigawatts of production. France, Japan, Russia and China round out the top five countries using nuclear power.

    Globally, nuclear energy is already making a comeback with 72 nuclear reactors now under construction worldwide, mainly in Asia.

    “This marked the greatest number of reactors being built in 25 years,” IEA Executive Director Maria van der Hoeven said in a statement. “Nuclear energy also remains the second-largest source of low-carbon electricity worldwide. And, indeed, if we are to meet our collective climate goals, nuclear energy is critical.”

    All forms of low-carbon energy must be employed to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions, she said.

    That conclusion is consistent with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s findings last year that global carbon dioxide emissions need to be capped at 450 parts per million in order to prevent warming greater than 2°C, Robert N. Stavins, director of the Project on Climate Agreements at Harvard University and a drafting author of the IPCC’s Working Group III Report, said.

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    “It is virtually inconceivable that the 2 degree or 450 parts per million target as a cap can be achieved in this century without a variety of factors, among which are substantially greater reliance on nuclear power than current trajectories would suggest,” Stavins, who is unaffiliated with the IEA’s report, said.

    Charles Kolstad, professor of economic policy research at Stanford University, suggested the IEA’s conclusions may be too strident.

    “Nuclear is not necessary to meet any target except the most stringent,” he said. “The IPCC relies heavily on CCS (carbon capture and storage). Nuclear would certainly help, though.”

    That’s because global power demand is growing and nuclear is a good alternative to coal, the main source of power in parts of the world where cheap natural gas is unavailable to replace coal, he said.

    The IEA said nuclear reactor safety issues raised by Fukushima can be addressed by strong regulations, independent regulators, a culture of safety surrounding nuclear plants and the development of new safety technology, the report says.

    China is leading the globe in nuclear energy expansion with plans to grow its nuclear power generation capacity to 59 gigawatts in 2020 from 17 gigawatts in 2014. Nuclear represents only about 2 percent of China’s total power production, but it has 29 nuclear reactors under construction.

    A nuclear power plant in Arkansas. Credit: Wil C. Fry/flickr

    The status of nuclear power is more mixed in Europe, where it is about 25 percent of total electricity production. Four new reactors are under construction in Europe. While Germany, Belgium and Switzerland are phasing out nuclear power altogether, Poland, Turkey and the United Kingdom are planning to expand the use of nuclear power.

    The U.S., produces about 19 percent of its electric power with its 100 nuclear reactors. But most of its existing nuclear reactors are more than 30 years old. Only five new ones are under construction today and five others have been decommissioned since 2013.

    Nuclear power expansion overall in the U.S. is expected to be flat in the coming years because of high costs of new nuclear development and the low cost of natural gas from shale, a formidable and quickly growing competitor to nuclear and coal for electric power generation. The report says that makes it unlikely nuclear will play a significant role in U.S. climate strategy anytime soon.

    “It’s obviously not going to happen in this country,” Christine Todd Whitman, co-chair of the nuclear power advocacy group Clean and Safe Energy Coalition and former New Jersey Governor and former U.S. Environmental Protection Agency chief, said.

    Nuclear reactors currently operating in the U.S. need to remain running in order to meet the Obama administration’s greenhouse gas reduction goals, but the nuclear industry needs to drive home the message that natural gas and renewables may be insufficient for the U.S. to slash emissions adequately to tackle climate change, Whitman said.

    Today’s political climate in the U.S., with Congress generally hostile to the EPA’s strategy to cut greenhouse gas emissions, is not lending itself to quick expansion of nuclear here, she said.

    “I hope it will change to the degree it makes it easier for nuclear power to continue to develop in this country,” Whitman said.

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  8. A Country Divided by Seasons and Warming

    The U.S. is no stranger to differences among its sometimes bickering states, so perhaps it’s no surprise that even global warming finds itself with some regional rivalries.

    A Climate Central analysis of regional and seasonal temperature differences in the contiguous U.S. since 1970 reveals a country divided along temperature lines, just as it is in so many other ways. Sure, that includes politics. And whether a certain bubbly drink should be called soda, pop or Coke (even though we all know the answer is “soda”).

    NOTE: The graphic displays a linear temperature trend for each season fitted to monthly average temperatures from 1970-2014. While the trend is shown as a straight line, the overall warming we experience does not always follow a consistent path upward. It undergoes yearly variability – on top of the seasonal and regional variability.

    To embed this interactive, click the preferred size for code: 700px wide | 600px | 500px | 400px

    While winter is the fastest-warming season in most states, spring and fall are making strides in this dubious race, particularly in the western part of the country. And then there’s the Lone Star state, which stands alone as the only state where summer is warming the fastest. Don’t mess with Texas.

    The one thing that unites the country is that each and every season has been warming since 1970 nationally and that the rate of warming has accelerated compared to the past. In summer, the Lower 48 has warmed by 0.4°F per decade. In the winter, the U.S. average temperature has risen by about 0.6°F per decade.

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    Across all seasons and most areas of the globe, 1970 marks a key shift to more rapid warming compared to earlier decades. Some research has linked this to the decline of human aerosol emissions — fine particles that cool the planet — in the wake of clean air laws passed in the U.S. and Europe in the 1970s. That has helped in unmasking the warming impact of greenhouse gases, which have continued to rise at an ever-increasing rate.

    What exactly is behind the varying seasonal warming rates in different regions? It basically boils down to how a region’s topography, snow cover and climate oscillations can influence those trends.

    In the Northeast, snow cover — or more specifically its dwindling nature — could be playing a large role.

    “The air is affected a lot by snow cover. What we’ve seen over recent years is a decline in persistence of snowpack to our north and west,” Art Degaetano, director of the Northeast Regional Climate Center, said.

    Because the ground is darker than snow, it absorbs more heat, and could ultimately be moderating cold weather a bit. Degaetano also said ocean temperatures from the Gulf of Maine down through New Jersey have seen some of the strongest warming trends compared to the rest of the world’s oceans. Those warmer oceans could help keep temperatures more temperate along the coast.

    For the Upper Midwest, which also shows strong winter warming, a similar pattern may be to blame. Other research cites changes in wind speeds and argues that those changes may be due to the effects greenhouse gases are having on the temperature differences between the stratosphere and the troposphere. So if you’re stuck dealing with the cold wind setting up to blow across much of the eastern U.S. this weekend, you can at least try to warm yourself with that knowledge.

    The rapid rise of Southwest spring warming could also be a symptom of dwindling snowpack. Gregg Garfin, a climatologist at the University of Arizona, said a jet stream shift has conspired to dry out winter and spring in the region. That means snowpack dissipates fasters in spring, which can amplify spring warming. The poleward shift of the jet stream is driven by natural changes but climate change is also playing a role.

    The poleward shift of the jetstream.

    Still other factors are at play in the Pacific Northwest (plus Wyoming), where fall is the fastest-warming season.

    John Abatzoglou, a climate researcher at the University of Idaho, said that hasn’t always been the case. Records going back to 1900 show fall temperatures remained relatively unchanged for the first three-quarters of the 20th century with a sudden uptick after 1970. Abatzoglou said natural circulations patterns effectively dampened any climate change signal in fall before flipping in 1970 to suddenly give it a boost.

    The regional differences also have diverse impacts, even some that are positive. In the Northeast, for example, warmer winters could mean saving money on home heating and fewer greenhouse gas emissions. Warmer falls could help lengthen the growing season in the Northwest.

    But there are also clear downsides. All seasonal swings can disrupt ecosystems and natural processes that have occurred for millennia. Warm winters are bad news for winter recreation while warm falls lengthen the wildfire season and bump the freezing line higher up mountains, reducing early season snowpack in the Cascades and water availability the following melt season.

    The water year officially starts on October 1. How much precipitation falls, particularly as snow, is a key measure for western water managers who have to keep cities from Phoenix to Seattle sated along with countless farmers that produce everything from berries to wheat. This water year is off to a concerning start due to a warm fall and early winter in the Northwest and California.

    “This water year to date in the Cascades has seen a miserable ratio of precipitation falling at temperatures cold enough to support snow,” Abatzaglou said.

    Whether these seasonal warming trends will continue on the same pace is being researched. Natural climate shifts such as the Pacific Decadal Oscillation (PDO), which as its name implies changes phases on timescales of a decade or longer, could have a big influence on the Pacific Northwest and the West Coast. Right now the PDO is in a cold phase, but it could flip to the warm phase, which tends to have a warming impact on the region, particularly in winter.

    Dwindling snow cover in the Northeast and elsewhere, a direct facet of climate change, could eventually mean that winter will no longer be the fastest warming season. Snow cover could eventually bottom out to the point where winter warming would continue, but not at as high a rate as it has over the past 40 years. That would give other seasons an opportunity to “catch up” and warm even faster than winter, something climate models project.

    But regardless of these seasonal differences, temperatures around the U.S. — and the globe — will only keep rising if greenhouse gas emissions continue unabated.

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  9. Feds Opening Waters to Largest U.S. Offshore Wind Farm

    The Atlantic’s powerful bluster twirls thousands of wind turbines off the coast of Europe, sending gigawatts of renewable energy coursing into the power grid there.

    Currently, there is not a single wind turbine generating even a watt of electricity in American waters as oil platforms represent the only offshore energy development in the U.S. But the race is on to change that, beginning with a landmark wind rights auction on Thursday, which aims to open a vast swath in the Atlantic off the Massachusetts coast for what could be the the first and largest offshore wind power project in the U.S.

    The Sheringham Shoal Offshore Wind Farm in the United Kingdom. No such offshore wind farms exist in the U.S.
    Credit: Statkraft/Flickr

    Twelve wind energy companies will be vying Thursday to bid on the right to develop dense wind farms within 742,000 acres of federally controlled open ocean beginning about 12 nautical miles off the coast of Martha’s Vineyard — the largest area off the Atlantic coast open to wind development. The U.S. Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, which also administers oil and gas leasing off the nation’s coastlines, expects that if those waters are fully developed with wind turbines, they could produce up to 5 gigawatts of electricity, enough to power 1.4 million homes.

    The auction is a part of President Obama’s Climate Action Plan, which calls for 20,000 megawatts of renewable energy to be produced on public lands and federal waters by 2020 as the country tries to reduce its carbon footprint to combat climate change.

    The U.S. is far behind other parts of the world in developing offshore wind power. In Europe, for example, there are more than 2,300 wind turbines spread across 73 wind farms operating in the waters off of 11 European countries, according to the European Wind Energy Association.

    The auction is especially important in Massachusetts, where the future of the Bay State’s most famous and controversial wind power proposal, Cape Wind, has recently been cast into doubt. That proposed project was for a 100-turbine wind farm off the coast of Cape Cod.

    Cape Wind faces a murky future, however, because its developer has terminated contracts to purchase land for support facilities without explanation and was suspended from taking part in the region’s wholesale power market.

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    But Thursday’s federal auction signals that offshore wind power on the East Coast and in New England is a lot bigger than Cape Wind.

    Other smaller offshore wind auctions have been held in Maryland, Delaware and Virginia, totalling more than 350,000 acres on which much smaller projects are slated for construction. The proposed wind farm off Maryland’s coast, for example, would generate enough power for 300,000 homes. The federal government has also designated a 307,000-acre offshore wind energy development area in North Carolina, but no leases have been held there yet.

    Given Cape Wind’s troubles, “it’s really important that people understand that offshore (wind) is moving forward in the U.S. and needs to move forward in the U.S.,” Union of Concerned Scientists senior energy analyst John Rogers said.

    The Atlantic’s consistently strong breezes provide the potential for offshore wind turbines to generate a lot of electricity in U.S. waters.

    The U.S. Department of Energy estimates that the U.S. has at least 54 gigawatts of offshore wind power capacity. Today, the U.S. has a total wind power generation capacity of about 61 gigawatts nationwide, all of it onshore, representing about 4 percent of total U.S. electric power generation according to the American Wind Energy Association, or enough to power 15 million homes. Total U.S. electricity generating capacity is more than 1,000 gigawatts, according to DOE data.

    “The important thing about offshore wind is that it’s powerful, very consistent and much closer to where we live,” Rogers said. “That just makes it a potentially really attractive option for us to at least explore.”

    The green area on the map is the wind development area off the coast of Martha's Vineyard in Massachusetts that the federal government is auctioning this week. More than 740,000 acres of water will be opened to wind farm development.
    Credit: Bureau of Ocean Energy Management

    But considering the troubles and controversy facing offshore wind farms whether these new wind farms will actually get built anytime soon is another matter.

    Opponents of wind farms off the Massachusetts coast are concerned about how turbines will affect birds and other wildlife, the possible environmental effects of oil spills during turbine construction, and possible noise disturbances. Despite those concerns, the Massachusetts Audubon Society threw its support behind Cape Wind after its studies concluded that turbines off the Massachusetts coast would not have a significant effect on wildlife.

    Jeremy Firestone, director of the Center for Carbon-Free Power Integration at the University of Delaware, said he believes the wind areas off the Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard coasts, will be built out eventually.

    “I don’t think any of us can predict the timeframe, but it will be built out,” he said. “Really, for offshore wind to take off, you really need something large to make a market, vs. one-off projects.”

    The new project has many advantages over other projects farther down the East Coast because state policies are more favorable to renewables than in other states, and the wind blows harder in New England than off the Southeast Coast, Firestone said.

    It’s important for people to see that offshore wind can work to help reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and the U.S. needs to get an offshore wind farm built soon, Rogers said.

    “Massachusetts has been a pioneer in exploring the potential for offshore wind,” he said. “This is sort of a re-boot and another chance for Massachusetts to realize the vision and tap into a resource that’s so close to the population of New England.” 

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  10. Thunderstorms Helping Bring Ozone Down to Earth

    Ozone is a bit of a shape-shifting chemical. High in the stratosphere, ozone acts as an ultraviolet-blocking shield around Earth (which is why the ozone hole is such a problem). At ground level, it’s a pollutant that can cause serious respiratory problems. And if it finds its way into the troposphere — the lowest level of the atmosphere — ozone serves as a potent greenhouse gas that warms the planet.

    A supercell thunderstorm over Great Bend, Kan.
    Credit: Lane Pearman/Flickr

    It ends up in the troposphere through a variety of processes including human pollution. It also finds its way there by trickling down from the stratosphere. In the past, scientists have attributed the trickle between the atmosphere’s different layers to large-scale patterns, such as shifts in the jet stream or air moving from the tropics toward the poles.

    But for the first time, research has definitively shown that it’s not just these large-scale movements that lure ozone down from the stratosphere, it’s also smaller-scale events like thunderstorms.  

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    “The convective-scale events like thunderstorms are smaller. They’re not explained well in global climate models but we know they’re important,” scientist Laura Pan, the lead author of the new research published in Geophysical Research Letters, said.

    Pan’s findings could be important to climate modelers looking to get a better handle on just how greenhouse gases end up in the troposphere and where they go once they get there.

    Some research has projected that severe storms — or at least the conditions favorable for their formation — could increase by 40 percent over the U.S. by 2100 during the height of severe storm season if our carbon dioxide emissions continue unabated. The new research could be a warning about a potentially unexplored feedback loop that could futher warm the planet, with more storms bringing more warming ozone to the lower levels of the atmosphere.

    Pan, who works on atmospheric chemistry at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colo., found that as thunderheads rise to heights up to 50,000 feet above the Earth’s surface, they cause ripples in the boundary between the troposphere — the lowest layer of the atmosphere — and the stratosphere — the next layer above it. Those ripples can actually tear a gap in the boundary layer on the front of the storm, allowing ozone-rich stratospheric air to pour down to the troposphere.

    Understanding this new process has implications for our understanding of the current climate as well as future ramifications.

    “If you have a weather pattern change, say your storms get more intense and bigger storms happen more often, our models need to reflect the chemical changes (such as ozone) as well,” Pan said.

    Those changes could in turn lead to feedbacks, generating larger storms that drive more ozone into the atmosphere.

    Current weather models have an easier time capturing thunderstorm dynamics than climate models, which have a fuzzier view of these small-scale processes.

    Michael Prather, an atmospheric chemist at University of California-Irvine who has modeled this process, said the new study is a “nice piece of work that clearly shows the process” of how thunderstorms can facilitate the movement of ozone between the stratosphere and the troposphere.

    The Gulfstream V research aircraft operated by NCAR and the National Science Foundation.
    Credit: NASA

    The reason Pan’s work has such a clear view of the process is because she got up close and personal with thunderstorms. Pan flew in and around storms aboard the National Science Foudnation's Gulfstream V research aircraft outfitted with special equipment to monitor ozone and other chemicals in the atmosphere in a number of field studies. She considers airborne studies to be the key to many of the new findings, particularly their outer workings.

    “People who study storms have focused mostly on the inside of the storms. There is not much information on the flow pattern around the cloud,” Pan said.

    Measurements taken during the flight show that ozone concentrations on the front of the storm were more than double that of the surrounding air, dropping to 5 miles above the Earth’s surface and spreading more than 60 miles ahead of the storm.

    Pan said further research needs to be done to ensure the information is useable in climate models. She suggested moving forward by both monitoring other storms to understand the process and working closely with weather modelers to quantify exactly how much ozone is leaking down from the stratosphere and where it goes afterward.

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