Climate Central is a nonprofit science and media organization created to provide clear and objective information about climate change and its potential solutions.
Florida Reefs Are Dissolving Much Sooner Than Expected
It wasn’t supposed to happen this fast.
Some of the reefs around the Florida Keys are dissolving. They may have crossed a tipping point due to increasing ocean acidification, raising the alarm that climate change impacts in the ocean are continuing to happen at a much quicker pace than scientists previously suspected.
Extensive thickets of staghorn corals at Carysfort Reef, approximately 6 nautical miles east of Key Largo, Fla., are gone today and replaced by a structure-less bottom littered with the decaying skeletons of staghorn coral.
Credit: Chris Langdon
Rising carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere are making seas more acidic. That makes it harder for coral to build up their skeletons.
Scientists expected that the rising tide of acidic waters would cross a tipping point and start dissolving reefs by mid-century. But some of Florida’s reefs appear to be getting a head start, according to research published in Global Biogeochemical Cycles on Monday.
Scientists sampled seven sites across the 300-mile stretch of reefs stretching from Miami south to Key West. The findings show that the northern stretches of the reefs and their limestone bases are already dissolving.
“Those reefs are starting to waste away,” Chris Landon, a researcher at the University of Miami who helped lead research, said. “Each year there will be a little less limestone than the year before.”
Many of the other reefs in the study are dissolving in fall and winter when ocean waters tend to be more acidic due to natural processes like seagrass dying off. Only the two southernmost reefs that he sampled are still building up mass year-round.
The loss of these reefs is a very real concern for people living the region. According to the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, the reefs there provide an estimated $2 billion in income and 70,400 jobs. They are home a variety of fish and provide protection against storm surge to the millions of residents in southeast Florida.
“This is a really important study for understanding when net dissolution will start occurring on a coral reef,” Emily Shaw, a reef researcher at California State, Northridge, said. She noted that the localized analysis provided a clearer view than more typical global analyses of ocean acidification.
Derek Manzello, a scientist at the Atlantic Oceanographic and Atmospheric Marine Laboratory, said the results were in line with his findings from a 2012 study. He said the main driver of the decline, however, was more likely “that much of the live coral has been lost in the Florida Keys since the early 1980s owing to disease and bleaching.” That weakened the reef’s limestone base enough so that they could dissolve more readily.
Bleaching poses another stress to reefs, not just in Florida, but around the globe. This year was the longest global coral bleaching event on record including a vast swath of the Great Barrier Reef. Recent research showed that bleaching in the Great Barrier Reef was 175 more likely because of climate change. Some of the most pristine reefs on the planet were also decimated by this winter’s bleaching event.
Scientists have started looking at what coral beat the heat in hopes of creating super corals that can survive in our warming oceans. But Langdon’s research shows that their efforts could be for naught because ocean acidification could eat away at the building blocks those corals will need to flourish (or at least survive).
“We need to get serious about reducing carbon dioxide levels,” he said. “That’s what’s making the oceans acidic and making the reefs dissolve. If the actual framework of the reef is dissolving, none of these other actions are going to be very successful in the long term.”
Paris Pact Could Benefit From Halt of Fossil Fuel Leases
Phasing out federal coal, oil and gas leasing on public lands in the U.S. could make a small but significant contribution toward the international goal of keeping global warming to 2°C (3.6°F), according to a paper published Tuesday by the Stockholm Environment Institute.
Shutting down all federal oil, gas and coal leasing would lead to a long-term decline in fossil fuels production nationwide, resulting in annual global carbon dioxide emissions reductions of 100 million metric tons by 2030, roughly equivalent to Virginia’s annual carbon emissions from energy consumption, according to the paper.
A drilling rig exploring for natural gas in Colorado's Piceance Basin in 2013.
Credit: Bobby Magill/Climate Central
“That’s a substantial climate benefit, on a par with the emissions reductions from other Obama administration climate policies, such as medium-heavy duty vehicle efficiency standards or regulations on methane from oil and gas,” said paper co-author Michael Lazarus, senior scientist at the Stockholm Environment Institute, a nonprofit sustainability research organization affiliated with Tufts University.
Fossil fuel leasing — the process that allows energy companies to drill and mine for oil, gas and coal on land and waters controlled by the federal government — has become a significant climate policy issue as scientists and activists urge the government to “keep it in the ground” to stop fossil fuel development from worsening climate change.
The Obama administration has already halted coal leasing on federal lands — the source of about 40 percent of all U.S. coal — while it brings the federal coal program in line with government climate policy. Oil and gas leasing continues on federal land and waters, mainly in the Gulf of Mexico.
Most fossil fuels development occurs on private land across the U.S. Federal leases are the source of about 21 percent of U.S. crude oil production and 11 percent of U.S. natural gas. U.S. fossil fuel production is expected to increase by 11 percent by 2040.
“The Department of the Interior is committed to safely and responsibly managing the development of oil and gas on public lands in a way that continues to meet our nation's energy needs while advancing renewable forms of energy,” Interior Dept. spokeswoman Amanda Degroff said Tuesday.
The Obama administration’s vehicle efficiency standards aim to cut carbon dioxide emissions by 60 million metric tons annually, and methane regulations are expected to cut emissions by 13 million tons. By contrast, the Clean Power Plan, the administration’s strategy to slash emissions from coal-fired power plants, would cut annual carbon emissions by 730 million metric tons, the same as about 150 million cars.
Lazarus said the most effective emissions reduction strategy will likely involve reductions in both fossil fuel supply and demand.
Equipment on a federal oil and gas lease in San Miguel County, Colo.
Credit: Bobby Magill/Climate Central
“By taking actions to curb investment in future fossil fuel supply infrastructure, federal policymakers could limit carbon lock-in, limit the potential for asset stranding and complement the policies needed to reduce fossil fuel use such as the Clean Power Plan,” the paper says.
Lazarus said his team’s research shows that the case for phasing out natural gas leasing isn’t nearly as strong as the case for phasing out oil and coal leasing because natural gas helps displace coal in many places.
Natural gas, which emits roughly half the carbon dioxide as coal when used to generate electricity, has been steadily replacing coal as the nation’s primary source of fuel for electric power production.
Scientists unaffiliated with the paper commended the research, but said other steps should be taken to curb emissions stemming from fossil fuels development on public lands.
Jayni Hein, policy director for the Institute for Policy Integrity at NYU. said the government should evaluate many ways of reforming fossil fuel leasing in addition to assessing the environmental impact of its coal program.
“The government could set a ‘carbon budget’ for federal lands based on what is needed to meet Paris commitments and adjust the fiscal terms or leasing policies for federal fossil fuels in order to meet that budget,” Hein said.
Rob Jackson, a Stanford University earth systems science professor, cautioned that the federal government is unlikely to halt oil and gas leasing anytime soon.
“Still, it’s useful to think about what the federal government can do independent of the states, which control the most oil and gas production,” he said.
Stunning Cloud Maps Tell the Story of Life on Earth
Clouds might seem like a nuisance if you’re headed on a Sunday afternoon picnic. But put aside your personal biases for a second and consider this: clouds can also tell the story of life on earth.
That story has become a lot clearer thanks to new maps created by scientists that document a global year in the clouds in more intimate detail than ever before. The maps — a cloud atlas if you will — provide a fine-grained view of how clouds move around in our atmosphere and represent an important link between climate and ecological research. They’re also pretty easy on the eyes.
Seasonal cloud concentration by month. Darker colors indicate less of a seasonal trend in cloudiness.
It turns out, England is indeed cloudy for most of the year while most of the Bay Area’s clouds show up in February. Adam Wilson, a researcher at the University of Buffalo who helped create the cloud atlas, joked that you could use the maps to settle bets between friends on who lives in the cloudiest place.
But beyond bets and bragging rights, Wilson said the maps also provide a tool for tracking life around the planet. It turns out that the different biomes of the world from deserts to mountains to cloud forests all have their own special patterns of clouds, patterns that can be instrumental to studying the patterns of life itself.
"I wasn’t expecting the signal of the biomes would stand out so stark globally," Wilson said. "The Mediterranean, southwest Africa, Australia, they all pop out as a totally different. That’s not scientifically amazing but seeing it for the first time in a map was just striking."
Spatial variation in cloud frequency.
There have been other efforts to get fine-grained cloud data in the past, but they’ve been marred by being limited to the tropics or getting false positives of clouds in snowy areas. Wilson and colleagues at Yale created a new analysis of satellite data captured at a 1-kilometer resolution by NASA everyday for the past 15 years to shine a light on the cloudy skies.
The new data analysis helps bridge an big divide between the climate and ecology communities. Ecologists track plants and animals across the planet at very fine scale, sometimes looking at a few square feet of soil, but climate science often provides data at a much larger spatial scale. With the new dataset, ecologists' understanding of the climate factors that affect life has vastly expanded.
And because it’s satellite data, the majority of the globe is covered including places that might be lacking on-the-ground measurements like rainforests and deserts in developing countries. Those areas are also home to a number of threatened and endangered species that will face growing pressure from climate change.
“Having the best possible environmental data will lead to best species model distribution approach,” he said, noting that that modeling could in turn help inform management decisions.
Species distribution modeling incorporates a whole host of environmental data from climate to the type of soil on the ground to get a better view of where individual plants and animals live. Wilson and his colleagues recently authored a study that plugged the new cloud data into a model for two species and found it helped improved their range estimates.
“One thing that’s been a disconnect between the climate community and the ecological community is this gap in spatial resolution,” he said. “Using remote sensing like we’ve done that’s capable of directly observing cloud cover is how we can get down to fine spatial resolution.”
Climate change is expected to put more stress on plants and animals. That means decisions on how to manage them, what areas to conserve and whether and where to relocate threatened species will take on ever greater importance. The new data could help answer some of those pressing questions.
Because the data is publicly available, users beyond the ecological realm can also play around with it. Wilson told Vox there could be a whole host of applications in the solar industry, which perhaps not surprisingly has a lot invested in the sunny side equation.
Global Warming Is Starving West Coast Waters of Oxygen
Just west of Los Angeles, decimated populations of spiny rockfish rummage for prey among bush-like corals. Cold currents from deep valleys wash nutrients between the Channel Islands, fertilizing plants that are eaten by fish. The fish are eaten by dolphins and pelicans and served with fries to diners watching ocean sunsets from Venice Beach.
Rockfish populations that crashed off the southern Californian coast in the 1990s have been protected by fishing rules and marine parks. But climate change is making a natural threat to the fish even worse.
As atmospheric pollution warms the planet and its seas, oxygen levels are declining in the oceans, making it harder for the bottom-dwelling fish to breathe.
Swells roll past the Channel Islands into Venice Beach, where they break.
Credit: Chris Goldberg/Flickr
Ocean warming is projected to continue reducing oxygen levels in some hotspots that are naturally low in oxygen, such as the eastern Pacific Ocean. The oxygen declines in coastal waters like California’s threaten to create invisible chemical barriers, boxing vulnerable wildlife into smaller territories.
“The importance of oxygen loss has been underestimated or overlooked by ocean scientists,” said Lisa Levin, a Scripps Institution of Oceanography professor who is helping to pioneer research into the problem.
Levin’s lab published a study last week revealing the heavy influence of oxygen levels on the biodiversity of worms, molluscs and other creatures that live in West Coast mud, which are eaten by rockfish and other marine predators.
As oceans warm, fish and other sea animals need more oxygen, yet the sea water they breathe holds less of it. Ocean circulation changes caused by global warming can also reduce oxygen levels below the ocean’s surface, where it’s absorbed from the atmosphere.
That’s jeopardizing fisheries already afflicted by overfishing, wetland losses, water pollution, ocean warming and ocean acidification.
“For some things that can’t move, it’s going to kill them,” Levin said. “For things that can swim away, it’s going to shrink their habitat.”
Oxygen levels can be highly variable, and scientists are still trying to untangle the role climate change may have played in declining West Coast oxygen levels since the 1980s, some of which coincided with local ocean cooling.
Scripps and federal government scientists calculated in 2010 that the oxygen declines could reduce cowcod habitat in protected Southern California Bight areas by 18 percent by the 2020s, if trends continued.
“Ocean warming and ocean acidification have had much more attention,” Levin said. “The people who have been studying changes in oxygen didn’t raise the issue about global declines until probably eight years ago, and haven’t focused on communicating to the media, to the public, everywhere it needs to go.”
Levin led a three-person Scripps research team that analyzed data from biological surveys of ocean mud using advanced statistical techniques. They reported last week in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B that oxygen levels appear to have more influence than temperature or a measure of acidity over the number of small mud-dwelling species found on West Coast coastlines.
The results were very different when the researchers examined samples from a different region. In the Arabian sea, the scientists discovered that the measure of ocean acidity was more closely tied to biodiversity levels than oxygen concentrations.
Cowcod are recovering from overfishing off the southern California coast, but oxygen declines threaten their revival.
Credit: John Butler, NOAA
The finding helped to illuminate the local and regional nature of the low-oxygen threat, and the complex relationships between warming, acidification and oxygen depletion that are being caused by climate change.
“If more data were available from another area, such as the East African coast, I suspect that may be different as well,” said Nancy Rabalais, a Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium professor who was not involved with the research.
Rabalais said the new Scripps study could help scientists predict how the three major ocean changes caused by global warming — warming, acidification and deoxygenation — could affect biodiversity in key marine habitats.
Each of the trifecta of global warming impacts tends to harm wildlife. Each of those impacts could be slowed if a United Nations climate treaty, which was negotiated in Paris in December, succeeds in sharply curbing fossil fuel use and deforestation.
Scientists point out that battered marine ecosystems would have greater chances of surviving impacts from warming if overfishing, plastic pollution and habitat destruction are also curbed. Marine parks can also help.
Extreme oxygen shortfalls already occur in seasonal dead zones, such as in the Gulf of Mexico, which is caused by farming and sewage pollution. By warming seawater, climate change can make dead zones bigger.
In areas where oxygen levels are naturally low, including off the West Coast and in the eastern Atlantic and southern Indian oceans, recent modeling showed climate change is already worsening the problem — which can fuel severe oxygen shortfalls that scientists call hypoxia.
Those impacts were projected by computer models to spread to additional regions during future years and decades. Some high-oxygen parts of oceans, by contrast, might not experience any impacts from the declines this century, the research showed.
“It’s hard to attribute a single year of hypoxia to warming,” said Curtis Deutsch, a professor at the University of Washington who contributed to the modeling analysis, which was published this year in the journal Global Biogeochemical Cycles. “And yet, at the same time, we expect it to become more frequent.”
The recent modeling study projected when current high rates of climate pollution would cause oxygen declines to become evident.
Credit: Long et al., "Finding forced trends in oceanic oxygen," Global Biogeochemical Cycles, 2016.
Scientists like Deutsch are turning to models to try to understand how climate change may be influencing oxygen levels in oceans. Those concentrations are influenced by a confounding array of natural and human factors, and they haven’t been well measured.
“There are parts of the ocean where models predict that we can be detecting real, long-term changes in the ocean that are distinct from natural fluctuations right now,” Deutsch said. “For fisheries, it hasn’t been detected in data, but all of the indicators point toward this being an important concern for the future.”
The modeling study honed in on oxygen impacts in the open ocean, but it didn’t reveal or project more complicated changes in coastal regions, such as in the colorful coral and sponge habitats of the Southern California Bight.
The findings from the modeling runs corroborated those from similar studies that have been published in recent years.
“These are very expected results,” said John Dunne, a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration biogeochemist and climate modeler who has researched the topic.
Dunne said impacts from projected oxygen declines will matter most in parts of the ocean where levels are naturally low to begin with, such as along the West Coast, including the waters off Los Angeles.
Changes in southern California may already be squeezing decimated populations of fish that are popular with fishermen and diners, such as cowcod and other rockfish, into dangerously small territories, further threatening their survival.
“At high levels of oxygen, it doesn’t matter,” Dunne said. “At low levels of oxygen, it matters a great deal.”
Indigenous Stories Are Filling Gaps in Climate Data
By Sebastien Malo, Thompson Reuters Foundation
Canadian scientists have collected stories from more than 90,000 people whose traditional ways of life rely on nature, in an effort to capture signs of climate change where weather stations are absent.
Their findings, published in the journal Nature Climate Change, fill a knowledge gap in climate change science, which is dominated by data and computer models, said the six researchers from Simon Fraser University.
Indigenous leaders from all over the world pray as they sail on the Seine during a gathering demanding true climate solutions in Paris during the COP21 climate change conference.
Credit: REUTERS/Gonzolo Fuentes
Western climate data tends to be absent from places like Central Africa, Central America and the Himalayas, Dana Lepofsky, co-author of the paper, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. "But we have some people data."
In all, the researchers gathered observations covering 137 countries that were contained in more than 1,000 published studies.
Their approach to studying climate change reflects an emerging trend among Western researchers to tap into climate knowledge recorded by people who have subsisted off the land and oceans, often for lifetimes or generations, noted Lepofsky.
"You can't look at indigenous people, who are so in tune with their specific places, without hearing about changes in the environment today," said Lepofsky.
Among a trove of observations — whose origins ranged from Crow tribe hunters in Montana to farmers in Iran — the researchers found some 70 percent of those interviewed had witnessed changes in seasons, rainfall patterns and temperature.
In those places, farmers and others with close ties to the land and sea witnessed climatic changes because these had disrupted ancestral farming, food-gathering or cultural practices.
Sweden's Sami herders, for instance, said they were abandoning traditional ways due to changes in ice formation and weather.
In Bangladesh, an upsurge of punishing windy and stormy days was forcing some fishermen to moor their boats rather than set out to sea, the study said.
And in Canada's remote Nunavut, an Inuit community suspected the grizzly habitat was changing when they noticed the bears roaming in areas where they had not been seen before.
The observations, mostly collected from indigenous people, generally align with data and models developed to predict changes in the climate.
But the researchers hope they add layers of nuance that could guide policy on how to adjust to climate shifts going forward.
"It's not just observations of climate change but people's adaptations (to climate change) too that were compiled," Lepofsky said. "Ways that people are diversifying crops — all kinds of things people are doing that are working."
Reporting by Sebastien Malo, Editing by Megan Rowling
Warming to Bring ‘Epidemic’ of Heat-Related Injuries
By Arthur Nelsen, The Guardian
Workers in fields and factories face an epidemic of heat-related injuries that will devastate their health, income and productivity as climate change takes hold, a major U.N. report has warned.
Productivity losses alone could rise above $2 trillion by 2030, as outdoor employees in many regions slow their pace, take longer breaks and shift their work to cooler dusk and dawn hours.
The effects of heat stress brought on by a warming world are already evident among the 4 billion people who live in the tropics and subtropics, says the report, Climate Change and Labour, which was jointly produced by the International Labor Organization (ILO), UN Development Programme and the World Health Organization.
In west Africa, the number of very hot days each year has already doubled since the 1960s, with an increase of around 10 sultry days each decade.
Matthew McKinnon, the manager of the U.N.’s climate vulnerable support forum, told the Guardian that increased incidence of heat stroke was only the most dramatic evidence of the problem he encountered on a recent trip to Ghana.
He said: “Teachers were complaining that it was too hot to teach children in schoolrooms which had no air conditioning. The children were also exhausted. We had truck drivers who were complaining that the rates of tyre bursts was increasing a lot because of the heat. Farmers too were worried that they had to spend too much time in open fields in the hot season.”
Around 2 percent of daylight hours are predicted to be shaved off the working day in west Africa, south Asia, and 10 regions in Asia, Africa and Latin America by 2030, potentially creating an epidemic of heat-related injuries.
“If temperatures climb beyond 2°C, it would really be a problem on that scale in the tropics and sub-tropics,” McKinnon said.
More than half of the workforce in many middle- and low-income countries is already exposed to heat hazards, which also affect workers in factories that have inadequate air conditioning and ventilation systems. This is in turn can make normal work impossible.
“When heat is at a maximum threshold and it continues to get hotter, there are limitations to what people can do,” McKinnon said.
If ambient temperatures rise above the body’s median 98.6°F (37°C), a person can only continue working by expelling heat through sweat evaporation. Where high humidity or clothing requirements prevent this, the only way to avoid dehydration and ultimately, clinical heatstroke is through reducing the work rate, resting and drinking as much water as possible.
Citizens of Lahore, Pakistan cool off in a city canal during a heat wave.
Credit: Usman Ahmed/flickr
Heat-related health breakdowns would have a gender dimension, hitting men who traditionally slog through heavy-lifting jobs, and pregnant women who are forced to work for economic reasons, especially in rural areas.
Even if the Paris agreement succeeds in limiting global warming to 2°C, 10-15 percent of daylight work hours will be lost in vulnerable countries by the century’s end, says the study which bases its estimates on the U.N. climate science panel’s latest findings.
“Limiting warming to 1.5°C as enshrined in the UNFCCC Paris agreement would still result in a substantial escalation of risks but increases the viability of adaptation measures and contains the worst impacts in health, economic and social terms,” the report says.
The paper calls for low-cost measures such as guaranteed access to drinking water in workplaces, frequent rest breaks, management of output targets, and a protection of employee’s incomes and conditions.
However, more labour disputes to protect vulnerable workers - and apply the ILO’s guidelines on climate change – are all but inevitable as the century advances, according to the ILO.
Moustapha Kamal Gueye, an ILO spokesman, said “Climate change is going to be a major issue for unions in the years ahead. It is a significant problem already and workers and unions are far ahead of governments and employers when it comes to putting on pressure about the urgency to take action.”
Reprinted from The Guardian with permission.
Satellite Shows U.S. Has the Most Gas Flares in the World
Drive through many oil and gas fields in the U.S. and one thing stands out above the pumpjacks and storage tanks, especially at night — steadily flickering flames.
Those flames are known as gas flares, which burn off excess natural gas from crude oil and natural gas wells across the globe. Scientists at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration are using satellites to learn more about those flares — how much gas is being burned, how many flares exist and where they are.
This interactive graphic shows the extent of oil and gas well flares across the world.
The imagery is stunning, showing large swaths of rural areas lit up like small cities at night.
“The most surprising thing I found was the large number of flaring sites there are in the USA,” said Chris Elvidge, lead scientist on the project at NOAA’s Earth Observation Group in Boulder, Colo. “The flares in the USA are small and highly intermittent, but gosh, there are a lot of them, far exceeding any other country.”
Energy companies flare about a third of the gas they produce, and much of the gas being burned off is methane, a greenhouse gas about 86 times as potent as carbon dioxide over a 20 year period. Methane’s potency declines in the long run, but contributes more to global warming than carbon dioxide over a span of decades.
Energy companies voluntarily report how much gas they flare. But a lack of independent data has resulted in uncertainty about how much gas is actually being lost.
NASA and NOAA are trying to fill in the data gap with satellite imagery from an instrument called the Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite.
A gas flare in an oil field in North Dakota.
Credit: Tim Evanson/flickr
“The system identifies gas flaring sites and estimates flared gas volumes and carbon dioxide emissions in annual increments,” Elvidge said.
So far, the scientists have found 6,292 flares in the U.S., burning off 10.65 billion cubic meters of natural gas. They found only 1,738 flares in Russia, but those burned much more gas — nearly 20 billion cubic meters.
To reduce greenhouse gas emissions from flaring, the World Bank has launched a program that aims to stop routine flaring globally by 2030. Elvidge said NOAA’s satellite-based verification system supports the World’s Bank’s initiative and helps keep track of the carbon dioxide emissions in each country that committed to reducing them as part of the Paris Climate Agreement.
NOAA’s interactive flare map shows how concentrated hydraulically-fractured oil and gas wells are in some places, especially in the Marcellus shale gas fields of Pennsylvania. In that region, the flares spread to the New York state line, where fracking has been banned.
A NOAA map showing flaring sites in the Marcellus shale region of northeast Pennsylvania.
Another area of concentrated flaring is in the Bakken shale oil fields in North Dakota. Flaring occurs there and in many other regions because there are few pipelines or infrastructure there that can bring that natural gas to market.
Flaring in North Dakota produced 4.5 million metric tons of CO2 in 2012 alone, roughly the equivalent of adding 1 million new cars to U.S. highways, according to the non-profit sustainability group Ceres.
Climate Change is ‘Devastating’ The Great Barrier Reef
Warm ocean waters that sucked the color and vigor from sweeping stretches of the world’s greatest expanse of corals last month were driven by climate change, according to a new analysis by scientists, who are warning of worse impacts ahead.
Climate change made it 175 times more likely that the surface waters of the Coral Sea, which off the Queensland coastline is home to Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, would reach the record-breaking temperatures last month that bleached reefs, modeling analysis showed.
The scientists found March Coral Sea temperatures are likely to be 1.8°F (1°C) warmer now than before humans polluted the atmosphere. Temperatures recorded by the Australian government last month were slightly higher than that, in part because of a fierce El Niño.
“We’ve had evidence before” that “human-induced climate change is behind the increase in severity and frequency of bleaching events,” said David Kline, a Scripps Institution of Oceanography coral reef scientist who wasn’t involved with the new analysis. “But this is the smoking gun.”
The new findings suggest similar temperatures will become commonplace by the 2030s, potentially destroying the reef and the tourism and fishing industries that rely on it. The reef’s tourism sector employs 64,000 people.
“There may still be corals, but it’ll look like a very sad reef,” Kline said. “There will probably be a few weedy species that can handle these nasty conditions, but we’ll lose a lot of the biodiversity.”
The warm Coral Sea waters have fueled the worst mass coral bleaching ever recorded on the World Heritage-listed reefs, which are withering from warming and acidifying waters, coral-eating pests and agricultural pollution.
Bleaching occurs when warm waters cause the colorful algae that provide food for corals to release chemicals that are toxic to their hosts, and they are spat out. Corals, which are rigid animals that shelter rich ecosystems, can recover from bleaching. But persistent high temperatures, overfishing and other environmental stresses make it more likely they will starve and die.
“As the seas warm because of our effect on the climate, bleaching events in the Great Barrier Reef and other areas within the Coral Sea are likely to become more frequent and more devastating,” the team of Australian university scientists wrote Thursday in The Conversation, announcing the results of the analysis.
Following global average temperature records set in 2014, 2015, January, February and March, coral reefs from Florida to India have been devastated by the third mass global bleaching event recorded. The first occurred in the late 1990s, leaving one out of six of the world’s corals dead.
Recent surveys showed 93 percent of the Great Barrier Reef afflicted by bleaching, with the impacts worst in the reef’s more pristine northern reaches.
Although the surface temperatures in March were unprecedented, they could become normal within 20 years, the scientists discovered.
The researchers ran earth model simulations in which greenhouse gases were kept at natural levels. They compared those simulated Coral Sea temperatures with those in modeling runs where climate-changing pollution increased at current rapid rates.
“The human effect on the region through climate change is clear and it is strengthening,” the scientists wrote. “Surface temperatures like those in March 2016 would be extremely unlikely to occur in a world without humans.”
The analysis was produced using established modeling techniques but it wasn’t peer-reviewed before the results were announced Thursday on The Conversation, which is a nonprofit news site founded in Australia that frequently publishes articles written by scientists.
“Because this is happening now, we wanted to do this quickly and get it in the public sphere,” said Andrew King, one of two University of Melbourne researchers who worked on the analysis. University of Queensland and University of New South Wales researchers also contributed. “We will write up a paper after this.”
By the 2030s, the modeling showed this year’s coral bleaching temperatures could become average and after that they may start to seem cool.
“These kinds of temperatures in the future will become normal,” King said. “They’re high for the current period, but by the 2030s it’s going to be about average.”
Strong El Niño Helped Lower U.S. Heating Costs
Was your heating bill a bit friendlier to your wallet this winter? If so, there’s a good chance you can thank El Niño.
The exceptionally strong El Niño in the Pacific has been driving chaotic weather across the globe for months, but it also contributed to a mild winter in the U.S., which was about 15 percent warmer than the winter of 2014-2015.
Trees are festively lit in Manhattan, but no snow is to be found on an unseasonably warm winter night in January.
Credit: Deb Nystrom/flickr
The milder temperatures led people to use less energy to heat their homes compared to the previous winter, a new U.S. Department of Energy report shows. Above normal temperatures contributed to a 16 percent drop in demand for propane used for heating, a 45 percent drop in heating oil consumption and a 6 percent decrease in electricity consumption compared to the winter of 2014-2015.
Heating demand nationwide declined as much as 27 percent in December compared to the average of the previous 10 winters as measured in heating degree days, a measure of how much utility bills increase as a result of the weather, according to the report.
Though heating demand in January matched the 10-year average, February demand was 17 percent below normal and March was 26 percent below normal.
Slade Johnson, an analyst for the U.S. Energy Information Administration, said it’s too early to know if such a dramatic fall in energy demand for home heating has been seen before until at least late spring when the nation’s heating season has passed.
“The El Niño event is still occurring, although it is expected to dissipate by late spring or early summer,” Johnson said.
The energy used for home heating is a contributor to climate change because of its use of natural gas, oil and electricity. Home heating accounts for about 63 percent of residential natural gas consumption, for example.
Heating oil is often used in place of natural gas and electricity in the northeast. Heating oil is a highly-polluting crude oil product that emits about the same amount of carbon dioxide as diesel fuel — less than coal but more than gasoline.
About half of all households in the U.S. heat their homes with natural gas, the cleanest fossil fuel used for home heating, which emits roughly half the carbon dioxide as coal.
It won’t be possible to know the exact effect that El Niño had on U.S. greenhouse gas emissions from energy use this winter until the final numbers are tallied later this year, but emissions from U.S. energy consumption were down by 2.5 percent in 2015 compared to the previous year, EIA analyst Perry Lindstrom said.
“Some of that was because of the warmer heating season — especially at the end of the year,” he said. “The other emissions effect is that, as a result of the above, natural gas prices were low and natural gas pushed out coal in electricity generation”
Carbon Fee Debate Goes Mainstream in Washington State
As governments worldwide begin imposing fees on pollution to try to protect the climate, a debate over dueling approaches — one that has long been restricted to conferences and academia — is becoming prominent in Washington state.
Washington voters will decide in November whether to introduce a carbon tax on fossil fuels and electricity from coal and natural gas, with the goal of slowing global warming while reducing taxes on sales and manufacturing and keeping total tax revenue flat overall.
If Initiative 732 passes, the Evergreen State would buck a national trend in which other states have been adopting a different system for carbon pricing — that of cap-and-trade, in which pollution levels are capped and allowances to release pollution are sold and traded.
“Some folks on our executive committee and in our grassroots base have a strong preference for a carbon tax,” said Yoram Bauman, an economist and comic involved with Carbon Washington, a group that drafted the initiative and gathered signatures.
Carbon pricing is popular among economists and climate experts because it can account for some of the hidden costs of climate change by taxing fossil fuels, which raises prices and reduces demand. That helps solar, wind and other climate-protecting alternatives compete on price.
Worldwide, carbon pricing is being adopted rapidly as countries and states work to slow global warming. China plans to roll out a nationwide program next year, joining the European Union, Kazakhstan, California and other governments in putting a price on carbon.
The World Bank and International Monetary Fund were campaigning in support of carbon pricing ahead of the signing last week of the United Nations’ climate treaty, which was finalized in Paris in December.
Some experts prefer a carbon tax over cap-and-trade, arguing that it’s more efficient and less complicated. Others prefer cap-and-trade, arguing that the approach provides governments with greater control over the amount of pollution that’s released each year.
Bauman said a carbon tax is “simple and transparent,” and he pointed out that neighboring British Columbia already has a carbon tax in place. “The choice of a carbon tax for I-732 came from some issues that are pretty specific to Washington State.”
Carbon pricing programs worldwide in 2015.
Credit: World Resources Institute, "Putting a Price on Carbon: A Handbook for U.S. Policymakers."
The debate has spilled into the Democratic primary race, with Bernie Sanders pushing for a carbon tax. During a 2007 race, Hillary Clinton said she opposed a carbon tax — but only because she favored cap-and-trade.
The ballot initiative is the latest effort to establish a system in Washington that prices carbon pollution. Cap-and-trade legislation by Gov. Jay Inslee was rejected last year by lawmakers, and his administration is now trying to cap carbon pollution using regulatory powers.
“The differences between carbon taxes and cap-and-trade programs are dwarfed by the similarities between them,” said Noah Kaufman, a climate economist at the nonprofit World Resources Institute. “A lot of the differences that you hear talked about are not really fundamental differences between the policies, but what to do with the revenue.”
The Washington ballot measure was crafted to be revenue neutral for the state, helping to curb pollution while reducing other taxes. A government analysis indicated those cuts could substantially reduce state revenue overall, though backers of the proposal disagree with the finding. Major winners would be low-income families, which would receive $1,500 tax rebates.
The Centralia Power Plant in Washington burns coal, which is a major cause of global warming.
Credit: Kid Clutch/Flickr
Carbon Washington is facing opposition to its ballot initiatives from corporations that use and produce energy.
“We don’t think a price on carbon is necessary,” said Brandon Houskeeper, who oversees government affairs at the Association of Washington Businesses. “We think it’s the wrong approach.”
The planned revenue neutrality of the measure has also sparked opposition from groups that are fighting for a system that sets aside funds for environmental initiatives.
California, European nations and some other governments earmark large chunks of revenues from cap-and-trade programs to be spent on efforts to promote clean energy and reduce pollution impacts in poor communities.
Washington’s carbon tax ballot initiative “doesn’t have a huge united coalition behind it,” said Kristin Eberhard, a researcher who tracks carbon pricing for the Sightline Institute, a think tank based in Seattle.
Climate Solutions, a nonprofit in the Pacific Northwest, says it can't support but won't oppose I-732, preferring to continue to push for adoption of an alternative carbon pricing program — one that would provide funding for environmental initiatives in Washington.
“We need a more comprehensive solution,” said Vlad Gutman, director of Climate Solutions’ Washington office. “We need to drive investments to clean energy.”
Correction: This article originally stated that Climate Solutions opposes the measure. In fact, it does not support or oppose it.