April 15 2021

April 15 2021

carbon-dioxide concentrations continue to climb in the atmosphere, drought in the U.S. grows more severe, new EPA Administrator brings in the scientists, 1,200 years of cherry blossoms, seeking a just transition for coal-mining communities

The Guardian reports that atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide have reached record levels. This is not a surprise given the rate of emissions, and even the drop in economic activity during the pandemic did not prevent the rise. The speed of this change (“like a human meteorite hitting the earth” according to one scientist quoted in the article), is sometimes hard to grasp.

In an outstanding article in the Atlantic, science writer Peter Brannen gives a wonderful but sobering description of our climate at different periods in the Earth’s past, providing a perspective on how large a change we have initiated. His compelling descriptions help one understand the meaning of our altered atmosphere, and how the Earth’s ecosystems are only slowly responding to the heat that the carbon-rich atmosphere is now capturing on the planet. As things accelerate, the world will change drastically, as the record of past climates documents. The urgency of stopping this change by immediately reducing the carbon-dioxide concentration in the atmosphere is viscerally apparent throughout this excellent piece.

An article in the Guardian reports that, as U.S. Forests recover from recent fires, new trees are not always growing back. In many cases, this occurs because the climate is now different than when the forest grew originally, and the new climate will not support regrowth of the trees. A hotter climate, more insects and other factors have resulted in a doubling of the tree mortality rate in some temperate and tropical forests. The author notes that “the changes being observed today — in which slow-growing trees that have survived for hundreds of years are dying in a drought or wildfire — cannot be undone in our lifetimes,” and this is “prompting a broad and looming sense of disquiet” among those aware of the magnitude of this change. An op-ed at CNN notes that saving intact forests (not cutting them down nor replanting with monocultures) is the way to make sure that forest uptake of carbon from the atmosphere remains significant.

An article in Forbes examines a recently commercialized effort in Iceland for capturing carbon from the atmosphere. Carbon dioxide is combined with water, and pumped into basalt formations underground where it forms solid carbonates. This process is promising, but still expensive. Such technologies will be essential to develop at scale if we are to reach “negative emissions” in the second half of this century, which will be necessary to stop global temperatures from rising. MSN.com reports on a recent study that concludes sea-bed disturbance by fishing trawlers results in annual carbon emissions larger than those from all but five countries, suggesting that this fishing practice must be changed in the effort to control greenhouse-gas emissions.

An article at Vox describes the severity of the current drought in the Western U.S., now clearly a mega-drought of historic scale that is being exacerbated by climate change. Climate Central notes that, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor, the problem is not just in the West. 44% of the contiguous states are in moderate drought or worse conditions, signaling potential trouble to water supplies for municipalities, agriculture and recreation. Inside Climate News describes a recent study in Colorado that documents rises in winter rain and snow melt, which will have a variety of impacts on ecosystems and the built environment. The AP summarizes a study showing that the average dry period between rainstorms grew from 30 to about 45 days in the Southwest between the 1970s and today. These extended and more intense dry periods increase fire danger and challenge agricultural and ranch productivity.

Science is back at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency! The Washington Post reports that EPA Administrator Michael Regan will be dismissing 40 members of the agency’s two major scientific advisory boards that were appointed by Trump (the Guardian examines the challenges facing Regan). These individuals have ties to the industries that the EPA regulates, generating an enormous conflict of interest that is inappropriate and unnecessary (the Union of Concerned Scientists provides some of the background). An article in the New York Times notes that the Biden Administration is bringing science back across the government, with Dr. Gavin Schmidt being named senior climate advisor at NASA. Schmidt, a well-respected climate modeler and founder of the blog, RealClimate, has been part of NASA for many years. Neil deGrasse Tyson noted that this appointment was long overdue, but hoped that Schmidt will have regular access to the President and the White House as “NASA is not the one that needs advice about climate change.”

The Guardian has a great article that examines the nature of the transformation if the U.S. Is to reach its goal of net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. The authors help us understand the scale of this transformation by examining the changes in power production, vehicles and associated infrastructure, the grid, employment and public health. Based on the Princeton University study, Net-Zero America, and using an excellent set of illustrations, the authors document the magnitude of the transition proposed and the commitment required to achieve it. Among these unprecedented changes are enough new transmission lines to wrap around the Earth 19 times, and hundreds of gigawatts of wind and solar involving thousands of square miles of land. Researchers note that the current power grid took 150 years to build, and to get to net-zero emissions by 2050, we have to “build that amount of transmission again in the next 15 years and then build that much more again in the 15 years after that.” Of course, hundreds of thousands of people who would otherwise prematurely die due to the air pollution from fossil-fuel emissions will still be alive due to this undertaking.

The Biden Administration’s American Jobs Plan (the “infrastructure” bill), as Bill McKibben notes, is the first time the United States has a proposal to direct trillions of dollars toward climate action. While exciting, Al Jazeera quotes environmental leaders who point out that this would still be only a downpayment on what needs to be done. Meanwhile, McKibben argues that we continue to make the problem worse by financing and constructing fossil-fuel facilities.

Long-term datasets are fundamental to understanding trends in the natural world, and are key to observing the projected impacts of climate change. As we’ve only had enough thermometers around the planet to measure global average temperature since the 1880s, scientists utilize proxy datasets to examine longer-term trends in temperature. These proxies are things that vary with temperature, but for which we have a much longer time record. The Washington post reports on a remarkable proxy from Japan, the peak of the cherry blossoms. Data from 812 to the present day shows that the peak of the blossoms was relatively constant for 1,000 years, but now is trending earlier as the planet warms. This trend is also apparent in the timing of the cherry blossoms in Washington, D.C. Don’t miss Elizabeth Kolbert’s cherry blossom reflection in the New Yorker. An article in the Washington Post describes the discovery of ancient ice as a proxy, and the cultural history that is captured in these “libraries of ice.”

The New York Times reports that, despite the global economic downturn caused by the pandemic, “more than 10 million acres of primary tropical forest were lost in 2020, an area roughly the size of Switzerland. The institute’s analysis said loss of that much forest added more than two and a half billion metric tons of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere, or about twice as much as is spewed into the air by cars in the United States every year.” Losses continued to mount in Brazil, while Indonesia and Malaysia were rare bright spots, with forest loss declining from 2019. Losses have been driven by clearing for agriculture, but also by the forests themselves burning due to droughts made worse by climate change.

Popular Science reports on a new analysis from UC Santa Cruz that suggests covering California’s 4,000 miles of publicly-owned water canals with solar panels. This could reduce evaporative losses equivalent to the residential water use of two million homes, generate 13 GW of electricity and reduce the growth of aquatic weeds that require expensive maintenance. This plan would also not require converting any more land to solar farms. Wired also reports on the study, and notes that this is just a feasibility assessment that would require further engineering and pilot studies to understand construction costs and maintenance requirements among other factors.

Solar can provide more renewable electricity to the world in two ways: manufacturing and installing more solar cells, and developing solar cells that are more efficient at turning incident sunlight into electricity. Yale Climate Connections has a short article about a new solar-cell design that increases efficiency, noting that another key is to keep costs down so that commercialization is feasible. Reuters reports that the Biden Administration has set a goal to reduce the cost of solar energy by 60% over the next decade to accelerate the decarbonization of the U.S. Electricity sector. Solar costs have dropped by 80% in the last decade, during which the Department of Energy achieved its previous goal to reduce the cost of solar three years early.

As we transition from fossil fuels, certain regions are going to face a negative economic impact with the loss of coal mining, oil drilling and related industries. This has led to calls for a “Just Transition,” in which we as a society assist these hard-hit regions and sectors. An op-ed in the Washington Post notes that concepts for a Just Transition are included in President Biden’s infrastructure proposal, and are based on existing plans such as the Reimagine Appalachia Blueprint.

Marine scientists have been studying ways to utilize fast-growing kelp for sustainable products, including alternative plastics, fertilizer and biofuel. Anthropocene reports on the results of a recent study by scientists at USC, who discovered that running kelp on an “elevator” over the course of 24 hours increases growth by a factor of four. This could be important for the economics of kelp-based products.