August 31 2021

August 31 2021

heat in Arctic ecosystems, slowing ocean currents, water shortage in Colorado River basin, drought shuts down Lake Oroville hydroelectric plant, U.S. budgets for more climate action than ever before

Unfortunately, this edition of In Brief Climate News includes a lot from the Department of Overwhelming Evidence. As you read, let these new findings reinforce your understanding that we are now in a climate emergency, but don’t despair. Instead, this news should enhance your resolve and commitment to become part of the transition away from fossil fuels, both personally and politically. Remember, the climate we get in the future will be the climate we choose, starting today.

Extraordinary heat is altering northern ecosystems. An article in the New York Times describes the major forest fires burning in Siberia, which has been warming faster than just about any other part of the world. Last year, wildfires scorched more than 60,000 square miles of forest and tundra, an area more than four times the area that burned in the United States during its devastating 2020 fire season. The fires are disrupting life in the regional capital, Yakutsk, the coldest city in the world. Vladimir Putin, who has historically questioned the negative impacts of climate change on his northern country, said “Global warming is happening in our country even faster than in many other regions of the world.” It rained at the top of Greenland (10,551 ft), the first time that has ever happened. This warmth also resulted in melting across 50% of the surface of the Greenland ice sheet (the National Snow & Ice Data Center has a more detailed analysis).

The New York Times notes that NOAA reported July 2021 as the hottest month since modern record keeping began 142 years ago. In a blog post, climate scientist James Hansen calls this unexpected, because the planet is still under the influence of a fairly strong La Niña cooling cycle. He suggests that a reduction of aerosol concentrations in the atmosphere — also mainly a product of human activity — is forcing the warming. Human-caused aerosol emissions make a similar annual impact on climate as CO2, but in the opposite direction, and have therefore been masking the full impact of CO2.

Aerial sampling suggests that the eastern Amazon rainforest is releasing more carbon than it stores. Inside Climate News describes the results of this new study, which concludes that this part of the rainforest has transitioned from a carbon sink to a carbon source. Unlike previous analyses based on models, this study was based on bi-monthly air sampling over nine years. That this ecosystem has passed through a tipping point is sobering news, particularly in combination with research suggesting that heat in Arctic regions is releasing methane from terrestrial reservoirs.

The Washington Post reports on a recent study concluding that the strength of the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation (AMOC) is weakening based on several indicators. Researchers who study ancient climate change have also uncovered evidence that the AMOC can turn off abruptly, causing wild temperature swings and other dramatic shifts in global weather systems. The consequences of the AMOC slowing may already be in evidence as a persistent cold zone in the ocean south of Greenland is thought to result from less warm water reaching that region. The slowing Gulf Stream current (part of AMOC) has caused exceptionally high sea levels along the U.S. east coast. Key fisheries have also been upended by the rapid temperature swings.

The Guardian reports that the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation has made its first-ever declaration of a Tier 1 shortage according to the Colorado River Compact of 1922. This step acknowledges that, after a 20-year drought, Lake Mead (the reservoir formed by the Hoover Dam) has receded to its lowest levels since it was created in the 1930s. The past 16 years have been the driest period the basin has seen in 1,200 years, and Yale Climate Connections has an excellent video about this megadrought. The AP has published an explainer about reductions in water deliveries due to the shortage, which will hit Arizona hardest, as it will lose nearly a fifth of the water it receives from the Colorado River. In Pinal county, farmers and ranchers will see the amount of water they get from the river drop by half next year, and disappear altogether by 2023.

A post at RealClimate reviews the recent projections for global sea level rise contained in the latest report from the IPCC. The sea level projections for the year 2100 have been adjusted upwards again, with higher-emissions scenarios producing one meter (1 m) of rise by 2100 and committing us to several more meters by 2300. The IPCC has introduced a new high-end risk scenario, stating that a global rise “approaching 2 m by 2100 and 5 m by 2150 under a very high greenhouse gas emissions scenario cannot be ruled out due to deep uncertainty in ice sheet processes.” Again, a key story here is that the world we get will be the world we choose, as low-emissions scenarios generate much slower rise.

An op-ed in the Washington Post by Senator Chris van Hollen (D-MD) describes the Polluters Pay Climate Fund Act. His proposal is to tax fossil-fuel companies to create a fund that supports transitioning from fossil fuels and building resilience to the unavoidable impacts of climate change. Co-sponsored by several other Senators, the bill is modeled after the Superfund, created by taxing chemical companies and others to fund the clean-up of polluted sites.

An article in the Los Angeles Times notes that the hydroelectric power plant at Lake Oroville in Northern California has been shut down due to the low water level at the reservoir. Water levels are now at the lowest ever recorded, and have fallen below the intakes for the hydroelectric plant. This will complicate efforts to prevent rolling blackouts this summer, and replacement power will be much more expensive than the hydroelectric power it replaces. And, yes, this is the same reservoir that in 2017 filled to capacity, resulting in damage to its spillway and the evacuation of 200,000 people downstream.

Scientific American summarizes the results of a study examining the impact of building sea walls in San Francisco Bay as sea level rises. The study concludes that sea walls built in one part of an estuary may cause worse flooding and economic damage in nearby unprotected communities. While on an open coastline a sea wall deflects water into a very large area, in an enclosed bay or estuary the water will move to a nearby shore. The results of the study showed that building a sea wall in San Jose will raise the water level of the bay 60 miles away in Napa.

The Philadelphia Inquirer reports on a proposal by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to build a large series of flood gates in an effort to control flooding in New Jersey’s back bays. This area includes 3,400 miles of coastal area at the mouths of several rivers. The estimated cost of the project is $16 billion, in addition to unspecified costs to raise roads and buildings, construct levees and restore wetlands. The source of the funding is not specified, but New Jersey is projected to incur costs of $1.8 billion annually due to flooding without the project. The New York Times offers a detailed look at how higher sea levels are impacting New Jersey, a state which has built homes in flood-risk zones faster than any other (including Florida). This article notes that the Army Corps study included the observation: "in some cases, just as ecosystems migrate and change functions, human systems may have to relocate in a responsible manner.”

In the New York Times, Representative Kathy Castor (D-FL) has an op-ed noting the importance of focusing climate-mitigation efforts on methane in addition to carbon dioxide. "Over 20 years, methane has more than 80 times the heat-trapping power of carbon dioxide," although it does not last as long in the atmosphere. "Reducing its emissions by 45 percent this decade could help us avoid nearly 0.3°C of warming globally as early as the 2040s." The European Union has adopted an aggressive blueprint for reducing carbon emissions that includes increasing the cost of using fossil fuels, a border tax on products from countries that are not aggressively reducing emissions, a requirement that 38.5% of all energy be from renewables by 2030 and eliminating new gasoline- and diesel-powered vehicles by 2035. The hard work of legislating the specifics of this blueprint lie ahead, but the EU action raises the pressure on the U.S. and China as the next U.N. climate meeting (in Glasgow) approaches.

Greta Thunberg and colleagues write in the New York Times about the threat to children around the world as recently documented by UNICEF. "The fundamental goal of the adults in any society is to protect their young and do everything they can to leave a better world than the one they inherited. The current generation of adults, and those that came before, are failing at a global scale."

The Good News Network reports on the development of solar and battery systems for refrigerated trailers. Idling diesel tractors burn about a gallon of fuel every hour to keep refrigerated loads cold, and this system will run the cooling systems using solar power. Delivery of the first units is expected in the first half of 2022. The Guardian reports that the need for metals such as cobalt, manganese and copper to build EVs and other electric devices is generating a major push for mining deposits on the deep sea floor. This has many marine scientists worried about the impacts to these ecosystems that are very sensitive to disturbance.

An article in Anthropocene Magazine describes the recent discovery of a new thermoelectric substance (one that can convert heat into electricity). About two-thirds of the energy we generate is lost as waste heat (think exhaust pipes, smokestacks and hot engines). Being able to recover some of this energy efficiently — a process called co-generation — would be important to reducing carbon emissions. The research demonstrated that a form of tin selenide has 20+% thermoelectric efficiency, the highest of any substance ever tested, and physical properties that would allow it to be manufactured into co-generation devices.

In the Guardian, Senator Bernie Sanders (D-VT) describes the major provisions of the proposed budget that will take steps to address climate change. As he notes, it is not enough, but if it is enacted it will be the largest step every taken by the United States to address the crisis.