Thursday, August 28, 2014

Climate Central - News

Climate Central is a nonprofit science and media organization created to provide clear and objective information about climate change and its potential solutions.
  1. ‘Urgency of Climate Change’ to Debut as Legal Defense

    As protests go, Ken Ward’s and Jay O’Hara’s daylong blockade of a coal delivery was low-key. There were no kerfuffles involving authorities and nobody was arrested — the men learned of criminal charges later by mail. But the duo’s trial, scheduled to begin Sept. 8 in a Massachusetts district court, is shaping up as a high-profile affair, featuring an unusual defense and planned testimony by some of the biggest names in climate science.

    The men’s attorneys are planning to deploy a novel strategy. It’s called the necessity defense. They will argue that the urgency of climate change and greenhouse gas pollution was so great that their clients’ actions were legally justifiable.

    A white lobster boat, right, blocking the coal-hauling Energy Enterprise.
    Credit: Lindsay Metivier

    The trial’s outcome could have far-reaching implications, with fossil fuel blockades growing in popularity around the world as a form of climate-related protest. And the trial could grab national headlines. Former NASA climate scientist Jim Hansen and prolific climate writer Bill McKibben told Climate Central that they plan to testify in Ward’s and O’Hara’s defense.

    The legal brouhaha was set in motion in the spring of 2013. Following an early-morning waterfront prayer in Newport, R.I., Ward and O’Hara navigated a lobster boat into a shipping channel, pulled close enough to shore to shout to supporters on land, and dropped an anchor weighing more than 200 pounds — one that was chained and locked to their vessel. They called local police. Coast Guard officers boarded their boat, inspected it, and remained on board as the hours ticked by and the sunny day became overcast and windy. The 690-foot Energy Enterprise idled along the shoreline, unable to deliver its payload of coal to a power plant in Somerset, Mass. Before dusk, threatened with tens of thousands of dollars worth of daily fines, Ward and O’Hara commissioned a salvage company to use a crane aboard a barge to lift the oversized anchor, then they motored to a marina in Fall River, Mass., and went home.

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    They are being charged with disturbing the peace, conspiracy, and boating offenses. They could face a few thousand dollars worth of fines and up to 5 years in prison if convicted. Their legal team, comprising a local defense attorney and a seasoned environmental lawyer, have come up with a plan to use threats that fossil fuels, and coal in particular, pose to the planet’s climate in their defense. The legal team says it will argue that the men acted out of necessity. (Prosecutors declined to comment because the case is pending.)

    In attempting to use the necessity defense, the lawyers are veering from tradition. America is home to a long history of acts of civil disobedience — acts that that can help draw attention to a cause or an injustice. But such protestors normally admit that they committed crimes. Retired federal judge and Harvard Law School lecturer Nancy Gertner defended anti-nuclear protesters charged with trespass during the 24 years that she worked as a lawyer. They copped to their crimes, which they felt were justified. The difference here, she says, is that attorneys defending the lobster boat blockaders will argue that the necessity of the situation means that no crime was committed.

    “The necessity defense is a defense that justifies a particular criminal act,” Gertner said. “You’re saying the harm created by the criminal act is outweighed by the harm to be avoided. It’s saying it isn’t a crime.”

    Ken Ward, left, and Jay O'Hara before sailing to block a coal shipment. 
    Credit: Ben Thompson

    Somebody who breaks into a cabin to find food while lost and starving in the woods is a classic hypothetical example of an accused criminal who could use the necessity defense. A motorist who speeds to rush their wife to hospital before she gives birth might do the same.

    Judges rarely allow the defense to be used in court, Gertner said. “It’s a defense that’s unusual — it’s not impossible, but certainly unusual.”

    If the men’s attorneys do win in court using the necessity defense, “it would create a precedent,” Gertner said. “That’s probably something that would be in the judge’s mind. Would this enable people, or encourage people, to do other acts — to block coal shipments, or nat gas?”

    One of the pair’s attorneys, Matthew Pawa, a litigator and trial attorney with extensive experience in environmental cases, agreed that victory for his clients could mean a “nice side benefit” for other activists charged with similar crimes.

    “What they did was the right thing to do under the circumstances,” Pawa said. “If there is a threat that’s looming to property or life, to yourself or a loved one, or, in this case, to all of our loved ones, you can act in ways that would otherwise be considered criminally illegal.”

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  2. Coal Plants Lock in 300 Billion Tons of CO2 Emissions

    It seems straightforward to say that when you buy a new car by taking out a loan, you’re committing to spending a certain amount of your income per month on that car for a specific period of time.

    Of course, by buying that car, you’re also committing to polluting the atmosphere with some amount of carbon dioxide. But how often do car buyers make that calculation?

    A coal-fired power plant in Wyoming. Credit: Greg Goebel/flickr

    The same can be said for coal-fired power plants, which spew billions of tons of climate-changing CO2 into the atmosphere each year, and continue to be built across the globe.

    Coal-fired power plants are the largest contributors to the atmospheric CO2 concentrations,  which last year reached 400 parts per million (ppm) for the first time in human history — up from 280 ppm in pre-industrial times.

    While utilities account for operating costs, few ever calculate how much CO2 those power plants will emit into the atmosphere during their lifespans, according to a new study conducted by Princeton University and University of California-Irvine.

    That’s a huge problem for the climate because more new coal-fired power plants have been built worldwide in the past decade than in any previous decade, with no sign of slowing down, the study says.

    Those existing coal-fired power plants emit billions of tons of CO2 each year and account for about 26 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions — double that of the transportation sector. In the U.S. alone, burning coal emitted 1.87 billion tons of CO2 in 2011, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. Worldwide, coal-burning released 14.4 billion tons of CO2 in 2011.

    But the study extends those emissions out to the full lifespan of each of the existing power plants — 40 years per plant — and estimates that together they will spew out 300 billion tons of CO2 before they are retired, up from 200 billion tons of CO2 emissions that were committed from the power plants that existed in 2000, the study says.

    In other words, the power plants operating today are committed to emitting 300 billion tons of CO2 in the future, enough to contribute an additional 20 ppm of CO2 to the atmosphere globally, Princeton University professor emeritus of mechanical and aerospace engineering and study co-author Robert Socolow told Climate Central.

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    Estimating future emissions is called “commitment accounting,” according to the study.

    When those existing coal-fired power plants are shut down, current trends in China and other developing nations suggest that new ones will replace them, committing the globe to even more CO2 emissions at a time when the climate can least tolerate it, Socolow said.

    Calculating CO2 emissions commitments from power plants is almost never done because CO2 emissions are reported to the United Nations based on emissions in a single year rather than those expected in future years, the study says.

    “Bringing down carbon emissions means retiring more fossil fuel facilities than we build,” study lead author Steven Davis, assistant professor of earth system science at UC-Irvine, said in a statement. “But worldwide, we’ve built more coal-burning power plants in the past decade than in any previous decade, and closures of old plants aren’t keeping pace with this expansion.”

    In the U.S., the Obama administration has set a goal under the Clean Power Plan to slash CO2 emissions from existing coal-fired power plants 30 percent below 2005 levels by 2030.

    The study says that despite international efforts to reduce CO2 emissions, the global power sector’s CO2 commitments are growing 4 percent each year, and have not declined at all since 1950.

    As developing nations like China and India and other countries become more industrialized and build more and more coal-fired power plants -- China and India account for more than half of all the coal used on the planet -- the world is being committed to more and more CO2 emissions in the coming years.

    “Remaining commitments have gotten bigger and bigger every year without exception,” Davis said. “We’re not at the point where power plants alone will emit 30 billion tons if they run 40 years.”

    Damon Matthews, Concordia University chair in climate science and sustainability who reviewed the study prior to publication, said the study is a new way of thinking about power plant emissions.

    “If we can account for committed emissions over a lifetime of a plant at the time it is built, this may change the equation about what type of power plants it makes sense to invest in,” Matthews said.

    A coal-fired power plant in Europe. Credit: Guy Gorek/flickr

    Stephane Hallegatte, senior economist in the Climate Change Group at the World Bank and a reviewer of the study prior to publication, said the study is crucial because it creates an indicator to help policymakers understand the long-term consequences of their decisions.

    “Indeed, the problem is that we have invested and continue to invest in infrastructure and equipment — including power plants — that emit and will emit for a long time,” Hallegatte said. “Because of the long lifetime of these investments, reducing emissions in 2030 requires an action that starts as soon as possible.”

    Accounting for future CO2 pollution commitment is critical for policymakers and the power sector to better understand their role in a changing climate and what can be done to reduce CO2 emissions globally, the study says.

    It’s possible some of power plants may not be used for their life expectancy, but that’s a rare occurrence, Socolow said.

    “Of course, we can retire plants before the end of their natural lifetime or retrofit them with new technology,” Matthews said. “But this is expensive to do, so we can’t assume that will happen.”

    Socolow said one of the things he hopes the paper will do is prod the UN reporting system to account for future emissions. The electric power industry has no good data on emissions, and emission estimates reported to governments are usually based on the amount of coal bought and sold rather than measurements of actual emissions at power plants, he said.

    “The result of this paper’s analysis — namely the rapid increase in committed emissions — shows that actions to direct new investments toward cleaner technologies are even more urgent than what emissions alone suggest,” Hallegatte said.

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  3. What Global Warming Might Mean for Extreme Snowfalls

    So if the world is warming, that means winters should be less snowy, right? Well, it’s a bit more complicated than that. OK, it’s a lot more complicated.

    Boston's North End neighborhood amid the snow drifts after a February 2013 blizzard.
    Credit: Twitter via Matt Meister.

    While the average annual snowfall in most parts of the world is indeed expected to decline, the extreme snowfalls — those that hit a place once every 10 or 20 years and can cause major headaches and economic impacts — may decline at a slower rate, and could even increase in particularly cold places, a new study detailed in the Aug. 28 issue of the journal Nature finds.

    Essentially, in a warming world, there are “more muted changes in [the intensity of] snowfall extremes than in average snowfall,” said study author Paul O’Gorman, a climate researcher at MIT.

    The definition of extreme snowfall of course depends on where you are: For Boston, where O’Gorman lives and works, an extreme snow event might dump a couple feet of snow on the city, but “what’s extreme for Atlanta would be quite different,” he told Climate Central. “It really depends on where you are.”

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    Because the amount of feet in an extreme snowfall would be so dependent on the place, O’Gorman defined extremes by return times, so storms that happen only once every decade or two, which takes subjective snow depths out of the equation.

    O’Gorman was curious about what climate models would say about the future of extreme snowfall, as few studies have looked at it, unlike average snowfalls. He took advantage of simulations that had been run on 20 different climate models (under a scenario where greenhouse gas emissions increase throughout the 21st century) from centers around the world and did a statistical analysis to see what they projected for changes in average and extreme snowfall in the Northern Hemisphere by the end of the century.

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    The models suggested that the intensity of extreme snowfalls would decline less than the average annual snowfall in many regions. The exact numbers play out differently depending on the region, but, as an example: At low elevations (below about 3,330 feet) with monthly temperatures just below freezing, the average snowfall declines by 65 percent, but the intensity of extreme snowfall declines only 8 percent.

    To picture what that means, let’s go back to those snow depths and return times (the numbers here are not from O’Gorman’s study and are an arbitrary example): If a 1-in-20 year snowfall event in Boston now would bury the city in, say, 3 feet of snow, that same event might dump only 2.5 feet of snow in a warmer late-century climate. But the average annual snowfall Boston might see would drop even more. To put that in terms of return times, a 3-foot snow there might become a 1-in-25 year event by century’s end.

    While the return times hint at the frequency of such extreme snowfalls, and the intensity of snows are related to frequency, O’Gorman cautions that his study didn’t actually look at how often different regions might expect intense snows, just the amount of snow in, say, a 20-year storm.

    The reason the change in intensity of extreme snowfalls seems to behave differently than the overall snowfall picture has to do with the physics that govern the formation of extreme snows. It seems that intense snows develop in a very narrow band of temperatures — it has to be cold enough that the precipitation won’t fall as rain, but can’t be so cold that the air doesn’t have enough moisture in it to fuel a blizzard.

    In contrast, the snow that combines to give the annual total encompasses a much broader range of snow types that form under a wider swath of temperatures and so are more affected by warming. Essentially, in some places, less warming is needed to eat away at the temperature range that produces all snow than just the small range that accounts for extreme snows.

    “It does make sense that when the overall climate is warming that your baseline snowfalls are going to decrease,” but you can still “pop a big snowstorm,” said David Robinson, the New Jersey state climatologist and the director of the Global Snow Lab at Rutgers University.

    One caveat is that in particularly mild regions that already don’t see much snowfall, a sufficient amount of warming could knock out both the extremes and the average, O’Gorman said. (On the opposite end, places that are cold enough could actually see an increase in extreme snowfalls.)

    Robinson, whose own research into snowfall trends hasn’t shown anything clear one way or the other, said that the study essentially investigates the amount of water content in snows (or what you’d get if you melted all the snow into water) and doesn’t address the issue of water content vs. snow depth. A very dense 2 feet of snow could be just as damaging as a greater depth of less dense snow, he said.

    O’Gorman’s study is a starting point, and he said that future work needs to look into what the observations of snowfall show and investigate when different regions might start seeing this expected climate signal in extreme snowfalls.

    “I think it’s important that people are looking at these individual variables,” Robinson said, because they help scientists get a sense of where to look for change and where not to expect as much. “It’s telling you where to go look.”

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  4. Crowdsourced Photos Provide Drought Snapshots

    On May 24, a roiling dust cloud enveloped a desolate stretch of road in Prowers County, a rural county in southeast Colorado. The county and surrounding area had been deeply mired in drought for more than 2 years and the photo bore proof of just what drought looked like to its residents.

    The short note accompanying the photo added more context: “Photo taken on 5/24/13, but any given week in the last 3 months we've had these dust storms.”

    Dust cloud rolling over a field in southeast Colorado.
    Credit: EOMF

    The image is one of thousands that scientists are collecting in a crowdsourced database. And it,  and others like it, are providing valuable clues about what drought actually looks like on the ground. This weekend, anyone can go out and take a photo and contribute to the growing body of knowledge.

    “We do a lot of work with the Drought Monitor and there’s always a lot of discussion about impacts (of drought) vs. what the indicators are showing,” said Mark Shafer, a researcher who runs the Southern Climate Impacts Planning Program.

    The Drought Monitor, which is released like clockwork throughout the year each Thursday for the past 15 years, provides a snapshot of drought in the U.S. Scientists rank drought in five categories, from the worst — exceptional drought — to the least severe — abnormally dry. They base those rankings on analytical measures, such as soil moisture or recent temperatures as well as anecdotal evidence, and occasional visits to the field. However, to classify a drought is one thing, to really understand how people experience it is another.

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    That’s why Shafer got the idea to start Field Photo Weekend over Labor Day weekend in 2012. The initial effort tapped volunteers of the Community Collaborative Rain, Hail and Snow Network (the awkwardly acronymed but fun to say CoCoRaHS) to take photos near their homes of fields, trees, ponds or any other non-paved landscape.

    Rather than seeking out the saddest-looking patch of grass in an otherwise green field or a vibrant tree in the middle of a dessicated forest, Shafer and his team are looking for scenes that capture the average state of things. Users can then upload them with a short note using an iPhone or Android app. All the photos are publicly available so anyone can access and use them how they like.

    Since the first iteration, Shafer’s group has added Memorial Day and Presidents Day weekends and enlisted the public to participate. That not only means more geographical coverage, but also the chance for a series of images to emerge showing the ebb and flow of drought in places with multiple photos over longer periods of time.

    While the results are images that won’t garner too many likes on Instagram, they provide rich data for scientists to scour. Shafer said the photos have been useful in a handful of cases for improving the accuracy of the Drought Monitor. He said the southeast Colorado picture and note is the most striking example.

    Shafer compared the photos to the Dust Bowl of the 1930s, saying, “It looked like a colored version of those old pictures. That highlighted the severity in southeast Colorado. There’s still a spot in southeast Colorado (of extreme drought) and it’s really from those pictures. It’s a good check on telling us that, well, we have a long ways to go to recover.”

    Photos taken this weekend in California could provide simlarly valuable clues about the withering drought currently plaguing the state.

    Using the photos as spot checks for the Drought Monitor also point to much bigger usages. As the database grows and contributors add photos season after season, a clearer snapshot of what drought and recovery look like should begin to emerge. And that will help researchers further refine their understanding of the complex topic.

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  5. Can Birds Be Protected From Huge Solar Plants?

    You might never have seen an Yuma clapper rail. Fewer than 1,000 are thought to still be sloshing about in cattail-thick marshes from Mexico up to Utah and across to California. But if you were lucky enough to spot one, you might chuckle at its oversized toes.

    When officials with the National Fish and Wildlife Forensics Laboratory saw one of these endangered birds last year, it was no laughing matter. It was dead. It was one of 233 birds recovered from the sites of three Californian desert solar power plants as part of a federal investigation. The laboratory’s wildlife equivalents of CSI stars concluded that many of the birds had been fatally singed, broken, or otherwise fatally crippled by the facilities.

    Yuma clapper rail. Credit: Fish & Wildlife Services

    Last week, that long-dead clapper rail stoked a legal action that challenges at least a half dozen additional solar plants planned in California and Arizona.

    Conservationists say they’re also worried about yellow-billed cuckoos, which might be added to the federal government’s list of threatened species, and endangered southwestern willow flycatchers, though none of those birds have been found dead at any of the solar sites.

    The effects of wind turbines on birds, which research suggests kill far fewer birds per megawatt hour than do fossil fuel plants, have long been a source of consternation for many environmentalists. Their bird-killing effects have been serious enough to kill and hamper some planned projects. Now, as concentrated solar farms start to sweep the globe, solar energy developers are facing similar outcries and opposition for the harm that their clean energy facilities can cause to wildlife.

    The construction of solar panel farms and concentrated solar power are both booming businesses. In California, industrial-scale facilities like these are helping utilities meet a state mandate that 20 percent of electricity sold by 2017 is renewable. But if the problem of wildlife impacts festers, the growth of concentrated solar, which by one recent estimate could grow to a $9 billion worldwide industry in 2020, up from $1 billion in 2013, could be crimped by lawsuits and opposition from conservationists.

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    Much of the problem appears to lie in the “lake effect,” in which birds and their insect prey can mistake a reflective solar facility for a water body, or spot water ponds at the site, then hone in on it. Because of the power of the lake effect, the federal investigators described such solar farms as “mega-traps” in their report.

    “I strongly believe there’s a way to show the birds that the PV panels are solid surfaces, not water,” said Ileene Anderson, a scientist at the Center for Biological Diversity, which is preparing to sue over Yuma clapper rail mortality at solar power plants.

    The Associated Press reported last week on “streamers” at BrightSource Energy’s concentrated solar plant -- a futuristic-looking facility that gamers pass as they drive through the desert between Las Vegas and Los Angeles. That’s the name given to birds as their feathers ignite, mid-air, after flying through a concentrated beam of sunlight. Such hapless birds can be burned to death, killed by brute force when they crash to the ground, or eaten a predator swoops in to claim their maimed body. These are just some of the ways that large solar plants can kill birds. It’s not known how many birds are being felled by the groundswell of such facilities, but the numbers are high enough to concern bird and conservation groups -- regardless of the environmental benefits of solar power.

    “We can safeguard our irreplaceable wildlife, like the Yuma clapper rail, through thoughtful implementation of renewable energy projects,” Anderson said.

    Aerial view of solar panels in Arizona.
    Credit: Daniel Lobo/flickr

    Within days of the AP report, Anderson’s group, which had obtained the federal report through a public records request, dispatched a notice of intent to sue. In the letter, an attorney for the group threatened to take the U.S. Department of the Interior, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, and U.S. Bureau of Land Management to court in 60 days unless the agencies agreed to more thoroughly review the potential bird impacts of other large solar power plants proposed within the Yuma clapper rail’s range. The notice alleges violations of the Endangered Species Act.

    The attorney cites findings from the federal investigation report, which showed that the Yuma clapper rail had been killed at First Solar’s 4,400-acre Desert Sun Solar Farm in California’s Riverside County. The facility uses a 550-megawatt photovoltaic array that produces clean electricity for Californian utility customers. (The group also cited a media report of another Yuma clapper rail death at a similar facility.) Birds can be killed when they smash into the facility’s solar panels, the investigation concluded.

    The other solar farms analyzed by the investigators were of the newfangled trough and solar power tower varieties. They included the Genesis Solar Energy Project, also in Riverside County, which uses a trough system in which parabolic mirrors focus sunrays into a tube where water boils into steam that spins a turbine to produce electricity. The mirrors pose similar threats to birds as solar panels. The third facility studied was the Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System in Bernardino County, Calif., where birds can be burned as they pass through concentrated sunrays that are reflected off thousands of mirrors toward a solar power tower, where water is boiled to produce electricity-generating steam.

    The problem of bird deaths at solar power farms is a complex one. Some solar developers have been powering down bright lights that had attracted insects at night, or switching to LEDs, and using nets to keep birds at bay. But that apparently is not enough. “The diversity of birds dying at these solar facilities, and the differences among sites, suggest that there is no simple ‘fix’ to reduce avian mortality,” the federal report states.

    The report recommends improving bird- and bat-death monitoring through the use of sniffer dogs, video cameras, and daily surveys. It also lists recommendations for directly reducing avian mortality. Those recommendations include clearing vegetation around solar towers to make the area less attractive to birds, retrofitting panels and mirrors with designs that help birds realize the solar arrays are not water, suspending operations at key migration times, and preventing birds and bats from roosting and perching at the facilities. The recommendations are being considered by regulators.

    The Center for Biological Diversity supports those proposed measures. It also suggests restoring bird habitat elsewhere to draw birds away from the solar facilities, which could help the rails and other species recover. And it wants the government to undertake new scientific research -- research that could offer clues for better protecting birds from solar power farms.

    “We’d like the FWS to start looking at the potential problem that the Yuma clapper rail may be being attracted onto the sites,” Anderson said. “These large-scale solar projects in the desert are giant experiments, and we should be learning something from them in order to avoid and minimize impacts. We’re so low on the learning curve that there’s a lot of unanswered questions.”

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  6. Visualize It: Old Weather Data Feeds New Climate Models

    In the 1930s, there were no computers to run climate models or record weather observations. Instead, weather reports were written or typed on typewriters and forecast maps were drawn by hand.

    Those observations from the past contain valuable data that can help scientists better understand what the climate may look like in the future. But gathering that data and making it usable is a tall task involving scanning millions of sheets of paper and transcribing them into formats that scientists can use.

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    Yet that’s exactly what the International Environmental Data Rescue Organization (IEDRO) is doing by scanning old documents and then crowdsourcing the effort to decode an estimated 200 million old weather observations according to a piece by Rose Eveleth in The Atlantic.

    The data IEDRO is uncovering, as well as what national meteorology services have already digitized, can be fed into climate models. That not only helps scientists understand how weather patterns fit within a larger climate context, but creates some stunning visuals as well.

    Philip Brohan, a climate scientist at the UK Met Office Hadley Center, has used old weather data to show what a year of weather looked like in, say, 1936. The Dust Bowl was at its peak and a heat wave baked the Southern Plains in July. A total of 17 tropical storms formed in the Atlantic,  including 7 hurricanes, one of which made landfall in mid-September in the Carolinas. Aside from notable events, the animation also shows regular patterns that occur annually, such as the Indian Monsoon, which kicks into gear each summer.

    Another animation serves as a reminder that even if the polar vortex rose to fame in 2014, it was alive and well in 1914.

    The animations show the movement of winds and precipitation across the planet similar to the views we get from satellites today. However, they also show the limits of observations: the gray “fog” on the maps show areas lacking observations or where there’s uncertainty about what was happening. That gray fog underscores the value of efforts like IEDRO in enhancing our understanding of the past, as well as the present and future.

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  7. Antarctic Riddle: How Much Will the South Pole Melt?

    One of the biggest question marks surrounding the fate of the planet’s coastlines is dangling from its underbelly. 

    The melting of the Antarctic ice sheet has long been a relatively minor factor in the steady ascent of high-water marks, responsible for about an eighth of the 3 millimeters of annual sea-level rise. But when it comes to climate change, Antarctica is the elephantine ice sculpture in the boiler room. The ice sheet is so massive that its decline is, according to the recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change assessment, “the largest potential source” of future sea level rise. Accurately forecasting how much of it will be unleashed as seawater, and when that will happen, could help coastal communities plan for surging flood risks.

    Credit: Peter Doran/National Science Foundation

    A study published Aug. 14 in Earth System Dynamics — one that took more than 2 years and 50,000 computer simulations to complete, combining information from 26 atmospheric, oceanic, and ice sheet models from four polar regions — has helped scientists hone their forecasts for this century’s Antarctic thaw. And the results of the global research effort were more sobering than the findings of most of the more limited studies that came before it.

    The world’s seas could rise anywhere from less than half an inch up to more than a foot by the end of this century solely because of the effects of balmier waters fanning Antarctica’s underside, causing ice to melt, icebergs to calve, and ice and snowpack to slough into the sea, the scientists calculated. The upper limit of that projection is more than double earlier estimates, with scientists attributing the change to advances in models.

    “The largest uncertainty that we have with regards to Antarctica is, how much of the warming reaches the continent through the ocean, and how much melting does it cause?” said Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research’s Anders Levermann, who led the study. Levermann was also a lead author of the sea level rise chapter in the most recent IPCC assessment.

    Those figures do not include additional sea level rise caused by melting glaciers, by the melting of the Greenland ice sheet, by the expansion of warming water, or from the effects of groundwater pumping, which shifts water from aquifers to the seas. If the most recent IPCC projections for those sources of rising seas were combined with the new Antarctic figures, the U.N. group’s upper limit for overall sea level rise by century’s end would increase to 119 cm, or nearly 4 feet. That’s up by more than a fifth compared with the figure included in last year’s assessment.

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    That’s a lot of water. For comparison, seas have risen about 8 inches since the turn of the 20th Century, as temperatures have risen by 1.5°F, due primarily to the burning of fossil fuels. That has increased rates of flooding across coastal U.S. and driven some Pacific Islanders to seek asylum in foreign lands. The hastening pace of sea level rise threatens to reshape the lives of more than a billion coastal dwellers and imperils potentially tens of trillions of dollars worth of infrastructure.

    Of course, upper limits are just that — they represent the highest levels of sea-level rise for which science currently says coastal planning departments should brace. “It’s this upper limit that’s important for coastal planners,” said Levermann.

    But rising upper limits come with rising median projections, which, by definition, have a 50 percent likelihood of being surpassed. Median projections produced through the new study suggest a rise of several inches is likely due to Antarctic melt alone.

    The vast range of lower and upper limits for sea level rise caused by Antarctic ice-sheet melting that were included in the new paper — more than a foot — were partly the result of uncertainty over how much greenhouse gas pollution the world will churn out during the coming decades. The upper limit assumes that annual greenhouse gas emissions continue to increase. But it also reflects the vast uncertainty in ice sheet and other models that were combined to simulate Antarctic melting.

    Credit: wikipedia

    “A reason for our higher SLR [sea level rise], and for the range in SLR, is that the present study also includes the uncertainty in the climate and ocean forcing driving the ice sheet models of Antarctica,” said Sophie Nowicki, a NASA Goddard scientist who coauthored the new paper. “In other words, more potential climatic futures are considered.”

    The melting of the other great ice sheet, which blankets Greenland, is driven largely by rising air temperatures. Those processes can be difficult to understand. But the processes that melt the Antarctic ice sheet are even more convoluted. Antarctica is further from the equator than is Greenland, which keeps the air frigid even in summer, shielding most surface ice from melting. Unlike in Greenland, much of the Antarctic ice sheet is submerged below sea level, causing it to melt from beneath and crumple into the sea as oceans absorb heat that’s accumulating the atmosphere.

    Antarctica’s ice sheet is more than a mile deep on average, holding enough water to raise sea levels 200 feet should it all melt. That means the southern ice sheet has more potential to flood the world than does its boreal counterpart — although the Antarctic melt is taking longer to kick into gear.

    The melting of the two ice sheets was responsible for a third of sea level rise from 2002 to 2011, according to numbers in the recent IPCC report. The Antarctic ice-sheet melt caused about 40 percent of that; Greenland’s ice-sheet caused 60 percent. The melting of the ice sheets are playing growing roles in coastal floods.

    It seems that the more we learn about the forces that cause ice sheets to melt, the more vulnerable we realize they are to wither. The IPCC cited “improved modeling” when it raised its forecasts for sea level rise in its recent report, compared with the projections it published in 2007.

    Natalya Gomez, a post-doctoral fellow at the Courant Institute of Mathematical Science at New York University who researches ice sheet and sea level interactions, says the numbers published in the new paper are “not the final answer.” Gomez says they will continue to be refined in the coming years as ice-sheet models and other models continue to improve. She warns that the sea level rise projections could increase even further as models evolve.

    The beauty of the new work, says Gomez, who was not involved in the research, lies in the fact that the scientists behind it have developed a tool that will propel a nascent and challenging field.

    “What they’re assessing — the range of possible responses of the Antarctic ice sheet to future warming — is really challenging,” Gomez said.

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  8. The Jargonaut: What’s a Rossby Wave?

    By Brian Palmer, OnEarth

    If you follow environmental science and policy (or just dip a toe in every once in a while), you’re bound to encounter obscure terms and wonky jargon. OnEarth is here to explain them to you, in this new feature we call The Jargonaut. We’ll tell you why the term comes up (the chatter), what it means (the gist), and when you should break it out in casual conversation (the payoff).

    A recent paper published suggests that stalled atmospheric currents related to Rossby waves could have been behind recent droughts and flooding.
    Credit: Dept. of Energy

    This is the year of obscure atmospheric phenomenon. The polar vortex chilled everyone’s winter. Methane releases might be carving mysterious craters in the Arctic ice. And blocking patterns got the blame for Colorado’s so-called thousand-year flood.

    So if you want to impress friends and relatives with your meteorological knowledge, you’re going to have to dig deep. Consider wowing them with a chat about Rossby waves.

    Rossby waves (n.): Large horizontal atmospheric undulations associated with polar-front jet stream.

    The Chatter

    In a paper published this week in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Dim Coumou of Germany’s Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research suggests that stalled atmospheric currents related to Rossby waves could have been behind recent droughts and flooding. Jennifer Francis of Rutgers University’s Institute of Marine and Coastal Sciences has proposed a similar connection between the waves and an increase in extreme weather events (although she points to a slightly different mechanism). So what are these waves?

    The Gist

    The mathematics behind Swedish-American meteorologist Carl-Gustaf Rossby’s theory are complicated, but the concept is not. You have to begin with the idea of generating and restoring forces, which apply to all wave-like movements.

    The mathematics behind Swedish-American meteorologist Carl-Gustaf Rossby’s theory are complicated, but the concept is not.
    Credit: NASA

    “Think of a spring,” Francis explains. You apply a generating force to pull the spring out of its stable position, and the spring’s elasticity—the restoring force—pulls it back. However, the elasticity pulls the spring beyond its stable point in the other direction. As a result, your spring bounces up and down.

    With that idea in mind, imagine a particle of air swooshing along in the jet stream, which crosses North America roughly west to east.

    If this particle of air encounters an obstacle, it can be deflected from its eastbound path. A mountain range, for example, could push the particle southward. At that point, in the absence of an additional intervening force, the particle would simply continue traveling southbound. There is, however, a restoring force present. Meet the Coriolis effect.


    As the Earth spins on its north-south axis, all of the particles on or near the planet’s surface spin along with it. They do not, however, spin at the same speed—particles on the Equator spin slower than objects near the North or South Poles.

    As a result, when our air particle is pushed southward, its spin speed doesn’t match the spin of the Earth at that latitude—the particle is spinning too quickly. This mismatch pushes the particle to the north, toward the position where its spin would match that of the Earth. That’s the restoring force at work.

    Just like with the spring, though, the restoring force overcorrects the particle’s position, pushing it north of its original latitude. Now it is spinning too slowly for its latitude, and this forces the particle south again. As a result, the particle bounces up and down as it continues its overall easterly movement. This north-south deflection affects not just a single particle, but every particle of air in the jet stream, which is why the jet stream often looks wavy. This meandering path is the essence of Rossby wave theory.

    The Payoff

    Prolonged periods of unchanging summer weather—whether it’s oppressive heat, unending drought, or near-biblical rainstorms—represent a cocktail party opportunity to showcase your Rossby wave literacy. Explain to your no-doubt-rapt audience that a wavy jet stream can hold weather systems in place for weeks, and that global warming could intensify this effect (though that’s an active area of debate among scientists—the role of Rossby waves, that is, not global warming itself).

    Here’s how it works. The strength of the jet stream depends on the temperature difference between the Arctic and the mid-latitudes. That differential, however, is lessening, because climate change is warming the Arctic twice as fast as the rest of the planet. Climatologists call this effect “Arctic amplification,” and it may be weakening the jet stream.

    The strength of the jet stream depends on the temperature difference between the Arctic and the mid-latitudes. That differential, however, is lessening, because climate change is warming the Arctic twice as fast as the rest of the planet.
    Credit: NASA

    A weak jet stream is a wavy, meandering jet stream. Think of rivers. When they are young and fast moving, they plow straight for the sea. As they age and slow down, their path begins to meander.

    A slow, meandering jet stream could lead to more extreme weather events, Rutgers’ Jennifer Francis and her colleagues posit. That’s because when the jet stream stalls, current weather patterns do, too. Rather than a few dry days, for example, the western United States could experience weeks or months of drought (like it is now). Rather than a few days of rain in the East, significant flooding could occur. And as Francis explains in this video, it could all be tied back to Rossby waves.


    This article is provided by NRDC's OnEarth magazine, a Climate Central content partner, and appears online at

  9. Depths of Atlantic May Hold Key to Global Warming Hiatus

    By Adam Vaughan, The Guardian

    The key to the slowdown in global warming in recent years could lie in the depths of the Atlantic and Southern oceans where excess heat is being stored – not the Pacific Ocean as has previously been suggested, according to new research.

    The Atlantic Ocean may hold the key to the warming hiatus, says a new study, and not the Pacific as previously thought. 
    Credit: Hans Petter Fosseng/flickr

    But the finding suggests that a naturally occurring ocean cycle burying the heat will flip in around 15 years’ time, causing global temperature rises to accelerate again.

    The slowdown of average surface temperature rises in the last 15 years after decades of rapid warming has been seized on by climate change skeptics and has puzzled scientists, who have hypothesized that everything from volcanic eruptions and sulphur from Chinese power stations to heat being trapped deep in the oceans could be the cause. Several studies have focused on the Pacific as potentially playing a major role.

    The new study, published in the journal Science on Thursday, concludes that the Pacific alone cannot explain the warming “hiatus” and that much of the heat being trapped by greenhouse gases at record levels in the atmosphere is being sunk hundreds of meters down in the Atlantic and Southern oceans.

    Ka-Kit Tung, author of the paper and University of Washington professor, said: “The finding is a surprise, since the current theories had pointed to the Pacific Ocean as the culprit for hiding heat. But the data are quite convincing and they show otherwise.”

    “We are not downplaying the role of the Pacific. They are both going on [the oceans having an effect on temperatures]; one is short term [the Pacific], one is long term [the Atlantic],” he told the Guardian.

    A shift in the salinity of the north Atlantic triggered the effect around the turn of the century, the study says, as surface water there became saltier and more dense, sinking and taking surface heat down to depths of more than 300 meters.

    Using temperature data from floats across the world, Tung found the Atlantic and Southern Oceans “each account for just under half the global energy storage change since 1999 at below 300m”. The study’s result, he says, does not support the “Pacific-centric” view of earlier work on whether heat is being stored. 

    Global temperature rise and CO2.
    Credit: The Guardian

    “We were surprised to see the evidence presented so clearly. When you go with the energy, you cannot argue with that,” said Tung.

    Jon Robson, a climate scientist at the University of Reading and who is unconnected to the study, said the new work did not disprove evidence of the Pacific’s role in the warming slowdown. 

    “The hiatus really is a patchwork problem of lots of different things, volcanoes, the Pacific, the Atlantic. This paper does elevate the Atlantic’s role, which has been largely ignored before. This does suggest a role for the Atlantic but there’s a lot more to it than that,” he told the Guardian.

    “It doesn’t dispel the key role for the Pacific in the hiatus. There is evidence that the hiatus is a northern hemisphere winter phenomenon, which does point the finger quite strongly to the Pacific.”

    Piers Forster, professor of climate change at the University of Leeds, said: “This paper suggests that heat disappearing into the depths of the Atlantic and Southern Oceans are the dominant cause. Their ideas seem fine but I’m also convinced there is more going on: the El Niño and relative cooler European and Asian winters remain important aspects to understand.”

    The study, Varying Planetary Heat Sink Led to Global-Warming Slowdown and Acceleration, gives little room for complacency that the oceans can safely store heat caused by human activities because the cycle that buries the heat deep in the Atlantic will “inevitably” switch back. Heat would then no longer be removed deep underwater, leading to “another episode of accelerated warming” at the surface.

    Forster added: “Most importantly, this paper is another a nail in the coffin of the idea that the hiatus is evidence that our projections of long-term climate change need revising down. Variability in the ocean will not affect long-term climate trends but may mean we have a period of accelerated warming to look forward to.”

    This February, the national science academies of the U.S. and UK said the global warming slowdown did not “invalidate” the long-term trend of rising temperatures caused by man-made climate change.

     Reprinted with permission by The Guardian

  10. What Iceland’s Volcanoes Can Teach Us about Climate

    By Brian Palmer, OnEarth

    It’s not quite a sharknado, but the possible impending eruption of a mile-high volcano under Iceland’s largest glacier represents a fascinating example of a real-life natural disaster combo—quite literally fire and ice. Seismologists have detected some 3,000 tremors in the vicinity of Bárðarbunga since Saturday, a sign that the mountain might just be ready to blow.

    Four years ago, the eruption of Eyjafjallajokull, another ice-covered Icelandic volcano, disrupted air travel, caused billions of dollars in economic losses, damaged air quality across Europe, and may have cost soccer giants FC Barcelona the Champions League title. But aside from being a threat to airplanes and sporting dynasties, sub-glacial volcanoes can actually teach scientists some important things about the history of life on earth (and perhaps beyond)—and even climate change.

    First, let’s start with what happens when a sub-glacial volcano goes up. The combination of lava and ice can be explosive, as this video demonstrates: 

    “If you pour lava onto a sheet of ice, it sometimes effervesces,” says Ben Edwards, a glacial volcanologist at Dickinson College. This is similar to what happens when you drop a Mentos candy into a Diet Coke. “It’s not quite as vigorous as a Mentos-type eruption, but it’s pretty impressive,” Edwards says. That Mentos effect is what made the Eyjafjallajokull eruption so spectacular. Hot magma vaporized ice immediately, and the steam explosion sent an ash cloud billowing high into the atmosphere.

    So what can everyone expect if Bárðarbunga erupts?

    In Iceland:

    It would be disruptive to agriculture and some other economic sectors, but they’re kind of used to it. Sub-glacial eruptions happen all the time on the island. Historians have found references to volcano-induced darkness in Icelandic writings dating back to the 13th century. During seismically busy periods—which scientists say we could be entering now—Bárðarbunga and its associates erupt approximately once every six years.

    Still, local flooding could be particularly severe in this case, if an eruption were to melt significant chunks of the Vatnajokull glacier, one of the biggest in Europe.

    In the Rest of Europe:

    It’s harder to say. The size of the cloud generated by a sub-glacial eruption depends on the thickness of the ice and the composition of the gases, and volcanologists can’t predict those interactions in advance. Wind also plays a big role; other Icelandic volcanoes erupted in 1996 and 2011, but you probably didn’t hear about them because, unlike with Eyjafjallajokull, the wind blew the fallout away from the rest of Europe. Since we don’t know exactly if and when the eruption will come, no one knows for sure which way the winds will be blowing.

    In the Natural World:

    From an environmental perspective, the eruption of Bárðarbunga would likely be a relatively minor event. Four years after the Eyjafjallajokull eruption, you can barely see any signs of the incident. Snow has covered the crater, and new ice has largely filled the cracks in the glacier. And not much wildlife lives nearby, anyway (the Arctic fox is Iceland’s only native land mammal). Massive volcanic eruptions like the one from the Phillipines’ Mount Pinatubo in 1991 can alter global climate, but Iceland’s eruptions haven’t been that big—at least in recent history.

    In Scientific Circles:

    Local flooding could be particularly severe in the case of an eruption, which would melt significant chunks of the Vatnajokull glacier.
    Credit: Gunnlaugur bor Briem/flickr

    Glaciovolcanologists (yep, it’s a thing) have developed interesting theories from studying specimens like Bárðarbunga. For example, recent genetics research suggests that terrestrial animal life has existed on Antarctica for millions of years—findings that puzzled many scientists, who had assumed that every once in a while, Antarctica’s historic glacial periods would have wiped out all animal life (mostly tiny invertebrates) on the continent. Sub-glacial volcanoes may be a key to this mystery.

    “Where heat from a volcano’s magma chamber reaches the surface, it melts cavities in the ice,” says John Smellie, a professor of volcanology at the University of Leicester in the United Kingdom. “There you have warmth and moisture and possibly light. Sub-glacial volcanoes may have created safe havens where life could survive.”

    Glacial volcano research also helps improve climate change modeling by preserving a record of ice sheets that melted long ago. Think of the ice as a sort of cast for a lava sculpture. “When a volcano erupts, it copies the ice in a sense,” says Smellie. “The ice tells the volcano how to erupt, when it can erupt, and what kind of lava forms.”

    Smellie’s volcano research shows, for example, that the East Antarctic ice sheet is not the solid, unchanging block of ice we once thought it was. It is a fluid patchwork of subterranean rivers, rock, and shifting ice layers. How this moving mass of ice behaves is important information for climate change forecasts. The East Antarctic ice sheet is the largest in the world. If it collapses, it could raise global sea levels by more than 100 feet. Smellie’s research contributes to our understanding of how and when that might happen.

    Now let’s talk Mars for a moment. In the 1980s, long before we landed a single rover on the Red Planet, volcanologists recognized the remnants of sub-glacial volcanic activity in satellite images. Not only did the evidence help prove the existence of water there (which provides at least a glimmer of hope for life), but the photos also suggested that ice covered the Martian equator during some periods (think thousands of years), and the poles at other times.

    We now understand that the extreme tilting of Mars’s axis toward and away from the sun drastically affects the planet’s hydrological cycle. We know about these icy “seasons” 140 million miles away because of what’s rumbling beneath our own ice. Cool.

    This article is provided by NRDC's OnEarth magazine, a Climate Central content partner, and appears online at