August 15 2023

August 15 2023

ocean temperatures at all-time high, Antarctic sea ice at all-time low, farm bill may contain important climate provisions, the insurance crisis continues to mount, heat pumps a big success in Maine

The Guardian reports that ocean temperatures around the Florida Keys reached 101.19°F, which could be a global record. The frequency of marine heat waves, such as this one, has tripled in recent years. These temperatures will put great stress on fish, sea grasses and coral reefs in the region. The Washington Post notes that, in July, ocean temperatures were extreme in many places around the globe, including Florida, the North Atlantic, the Mediterranean and the eastern and northern Pacific. These extremes were so anomalous that many scientists were surprised. While the extremes likely express natural variability in addition to human-caused warming, it is not clear what is creating the conditions we are observing (for the technically-minded, climate scientist Zack Labe reviews the factors involved).

Of particular concern to scientists are the extreme temperatures in the North Atlantic, as these have implications for global ocean circulation. The Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation (AMOC) is a vital ocean current that moves heat around the planet and thus drives climate and weather. A slowing of the AMOC would have profound implications for the climate of northern Europe (it will get colder) and the temperature and height of the sea along North America (these will go up). It could possibly also lead to stronger Atlantic hurricanes and less precipitation in already water-stressed parts of Africa. Previous research examining a variety of indicators has suggested the AMOC is slowing although, given the large natural variability in measurements of the current, it is difficult to detect the slowing directly. Grist reports that a new study applying statistical techniques to historical records from the last 150 years concludes that the weakening of the AMOC is accelerating. This grave finding is being debated among scientists, as some consider it very uncertain until it is validated with direct measurements. But, as one oceanographer noted, “by the time any of this is settled science, it’s way too late to act.”

In The New York Times, David Wallace-Wells describes another ocean circulation threat, this one in the Southern Ocean. The formation of sea ice around Antarctica is a fundamental component of creating circulation on a large scale, which brings nutrient-rich waters from the Southern Ocean to other parts of the world. This year, the formation of sea ice in Antarctica is at an all-time low — well outside the range of previous measurements. Wallace-Wells describes recent research concluding that this circulation is also slowing, just as for the AMOC. The BBC points out that warmer water can hold less carbon dioxide, so a warming ocean removes less and less carbon from the atmosphere.

The scale of these oceanographic changes is very unsettling to the scientific community. There has been good news with regards to projected temperature changes, as previous predictions of a 4-5°F increase by 2100 are no longer being made due to a slowing of the emissions of greenhouse gases. What is unsettling scientists and other observers is the extent to which existing observations (such as sea ice extent, heat wave severity or magnitude of wildfires) are worse that predicted. In The New York Times, Wallace-Wells notes “a queasy intuition that we may be entering a new climatic regime — and perhaps inching closer to some quite concerning tipping points.” The Atlantic describes these in a short but chilling article. The New Yorker examines the emotions we feel as we face our changing climate, and how we can deal with them in a constructive manner.

Grist reports on the drafting of the farm bill, which happens in Congress every five years. Environmental groups, with some farmer advocacy organizations as allies, are working to include provisions that will encourage regenerative agriculture techniques that draw carbon out of the atmosphere and into farm soils. Agriculture accounts for more than a 10th of the country’s emissions. Regenerative agriculture and pasturing methods could offset 10% of these emissions, and existing programs are unable to provide enough support to the farmers that seek it (funding from the Inflation Reduction Act will help address some of this problem for the next few years). The article notes that support from members of Congress grows if these programs are reframed as assistance to farmers for soil health rather than being described as “climate-smart” agriculture. The Union of Concerned Scientists has a good background piece on the threat to agriculture from climate change and what we should do about it, and describes a remarkable array of benefits (to the climate and beyond) that could be provided by rethinking the “Farm Bill” to be the “Food and Farm Bill.”

Keys to creating and sustaining healthy agricultural soils include minimizing soil disturbance, maximizing biodiversity, maintaining living roots year-round, keeping the soil covered and integrating livestock. The South Dakota Searchlight visits a farmer who is applying these techniques to great benefit, one of a growing number of farmers who are working in coalition with environmentalists to make the farm bill better for the climate.

Meanwhile, “weather whiplash” is taking its toll on agricultural productivity, as farmers deal with highly variable conditions. The New York Times reports that “farmers in Kansas are bringing in the state’s smallest wheat crop in more than half a century,” as early-season drought damaged the crop. While rainfall then rebounded later in the season, supporting luxuriant growth, the ground remained too wet to allow harvesters to operate in the fields. Climate projections suggest “temperatures are expected to rise while rainfall decreases. Both of these changes are detrimental to wheat crops.”

The Washington Post reports that Republican leaders (among others) have suggested that planting a trillion trees is “a comprehensive, practical solution to the climate issues we’re facing today.” Unfortunately, given the long lead time for the trees to grow, even if they all survive (which they won’t), this effort would reduce global average temperature in 2100 by less than 0.2°C. (A previous study concluded in 2019 that tree-planting could remove two-thirds of all carbon emissions from human activities that remained in the atmosphere, but this conclusion was later scaled back by the authors.) While tree-planting has many other benefits as well, particularly restoring habitat and providing shade, the authors of these analyses still conclude that the reduction of fossil-fuel burning is essential for stabilizing the climate.

The New York Times describes the insurance problems hitting California and Florida. Major insurers are not offering new policies or not renewing existing policies and, in Florida, smaller insurance companies have gone bankrupt. While the number of claims due to extreme weather have risen, there are other factors driving this as well, including the the cost of reinsurance (which has increased significantly in the last several years) and regulatory environments (especially in California) that limit how quickly companies can raise rates. It is estimated that about 15% of Florida homeowners have no property insurance, the highest share of any state. The Guardian talks to some Florida residents who think they may have to move because they can no longer afford property insurance. One person who lives in Vero Beach (on the Atlantic coast) tells his story about losing his state-sponsored insurance: “we had to take insurance with a private company — for 20% more. That company then increased prices by 40% and then last September, in the middle of the hurricane season, went bankrupt and we lost all coverage. I panicked and called every insurance broker I knew. They all said getting coverage was impossible now.” The Washington Post describes how one major Florida insurance company essentially abandoned its customers after Hurricane Ian, making only partial payments before going bankrupt.

The New York Times reports that the record number of days with heat over 110°F in Phoenix, AZ, has ended at 31 (the temperature dropped to “only 108°F” on July 31). The city has also had the most 115°F days ever this year, and temperatures are going to climb again in coming weeks. This has resulted in extraordinary hardship in the city, especially affecting unhoused people and the elderly, although everybody is feeling “fatigued and tired” while realizing there is more of the summer still to come. As of August 1st, 25 deaths have been tied to the heat, but hundreds of others are under investigation. The medical examiner is deploying trailer-sized coolers to store bodies. The Washington Post notes that July 2023 in Phoenix was the hottest month ever in an American city. The New York Times profiles the challenges facing older people who are retiring to sun-belt cities as an economizing measure, only to face life-threatening heat waves.

Canary Media reports on a recent analysis examining the promising concept of producing biodiesel using algae. It is possible to grow algae in a variety of conditions in which they produce fat (via photosynthesis) that can then be refined into diesel fuel. Unfortunately, the process of growing and refining biodiesel from algae appears to emit more carbon during production and use than petroleum-based diesel. This means more research is needed on production methods, such as growing outdoors instead of indoors in climate-controlled (and energy intensive) conditions, to make this biodiesel an economic reality.

As huge swaths of the planet bake in extreme heat, communities face “unprecedented” downpours, ocean temperatures reach all-time highs while sea ice reaches all-time lows, the need for action becomes painfully apparent. An op-ed in The Guardian asks why we could bail out the banks but not the planet, identifying that politicians are struggling with climate policies that transfer cost and inconvenience from the future to today’s voters. This pain can be eased by asking the rich to pay more but, as they are major donors to political campaigns and can fund political challengers, this is problematic for political leaders who have worked hard to attain positions they want to keep.

Canary Media reports on the success of a program in Maine supporting the installation of electric heat pumps to replace the direct use of fossil fuels for home heating. In 2019, Maine set a target for 2025 to install 100,000 heat pumps in the state, but they have already achieved that goal and are now shooting for 175,000 by 2027. This program is proving that these units perform well in cold climates to keep homes warm.