May 15 2024

heat records continue to be broken, a global coral bleaching event underway, more EV charging stations needed, too much solar electricity in California sometimes, battery costs continue to drop

April 2024 continued 11 months of record-setting heat across the globe. The Washington Post describes heat waves in Africa and Asia as climate change and El Niño combine to push temperatures into uncharted territory. Axios notes that this heat wave is affecting hundreds of millions of people, with temperature records being set in some of the world’s largest cities. The New York Times reports that, based on an analysis of tree rings, the summer of 2023 was the hottest in 2,000 years. As El Niño wanes, it is expected that temperatures will fall below record levels in the latter half of 2024.

Grist reports that, for the second time this decade, a global coral bleaching event is underway, with over half of the world’s reef areas affected. Bleaching, caused by elevated ocean temperatures, is when the coral polyp ejects its photosynthetic partner, resulting in a white or “bleached” appearance. If temperatures stay elevated for too long, the corals will die, imperiling the ecosystems of which they are a foundation, including $11 trillion of human economic activity around the world. This may represent coral reefs going through a “tipping point” where their continued survival becomes impossible. Already, “the Great Barrier Reef, for example, has gone through five mass bleaching events in the last eight years, leaving little chance for recovery. Florida has already lost more than 90 percent of its coral reefs.”

Global warming is reducing the mass of ice sheets and glaciers globally, and most glaciers are expected to continue retreating at an accelerated pace. ZME Science reports that Venezuela has officially lost its last glacier, as the La Corona (or Humboldt) glacier is now “a piece of ice that is 0.4 percent of its original size.” Many other countries will follow, and this will impact drinking water availability, agriculture and river ecology around the world. My post, the The Breath of a Dying Glacier, includes a photo from my trip to one of California’s last glaciers…

April 30 2024

the challenges of geo-engineering, “zombie fires” portend another bad Canadian fire season, coastal land subsidence increases sea level rise impacts, new nuclear-power plants operational in Georgia, peak use of fossil fuels in electricity sector

As it becomes clear that we are making little headway in reducing fossil-fuel burning, more attention is being paid to climate- or geo-engineering to reduce the impact of greenhouse-gas emissions. These efforts fall into two groups: reducing incoming solar radiation and removing greenhouse gases from the atmosphere. Inside Climate News describes the serious technical, political and moral challenges associated with “solar radiation management,” where particles are injected in the atmosphere to reflect sunlight (major volcanic eruptions like Mount Pinatubo in 1991 act on the Earth’s climate in this manner). An op-ed in The New York Times argues for the need for transparent experimentation as this technology is investigated. The Times also reports on marine cloud brightening, a technology that attempts to reflect sunlight on a more local scale (rather than injecting particles into the stratosphere). By purposely altering the energy balance of the earth, these technologies will undoubtedly lead to unanticipated changes in the weather in different places. Critics argue that we should be focusing all of our efforts on reducing greenhouse-gas emissions, not further manipulating the planet’s climate.

The New York Times examines the largest projects that are attempting direct air capture, where renewable energy (geothermal or solar) is used to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. These efforts are highly criticized as too expensive to be meaningful, and imply that it is possible to keep burning fossil fuels. The large plants under construction, when complete, will still only capture 1% of global emissions.

Inside Climate News reviews another way to remove carbon from the atmosphere, creating biochar from plants and other organic materials and returning it to the soil. Biochar, created by burning materials in the absence of oxygen, not only ties up carbon in a very stable chemical structure, but also is a valuable soil amendment for farmers (although right now it is much more expensive than fertilizer). “The process of making biochar has other byproducts, like oil that can easily be made into asphalt, sugar and liquid fuel that can be used for shipping and aviation…”

April 15 2024

greenhouse-gas concentrations continue to climb, the oceans are the hottest we’ve ever seen, methane-detecting satellite is launched, misinformation is rampant about offshore wind, power-cable upgrades can enhance the grid without new construction

In the last In Brief, it was reported that carbon-dioxide concentrations continue to increase in the atmosphere, according to the International Energy Agency. The Guardian notes that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has announced that methane and nitrous oxide, both greenhouse gases, also reached record levels in 2023 (along with carbon dioxide). The increases were not as great as in previous years, which could possibly indicate that the relentless rise is slowing, but it nonetheless underscores that we are continuing to make the hole we are in deeper rather than getting ourselves out of it.

The Guardian describes a call for expanding the classification of hurricanes to include a new Category 6 for the most extreme storms. If that category existed over the last 10 years, there would have been five storms in the new category. The intensity of major storms has notably increased during the four-decade satellite record of hurricanes. Another article in The Guardian describes how the rapid intensification of Hurricane Ian as it approached Florida led to much more serious damage and loss of life. Redlining and other historic discriminatory practices has also resulted in families of color being forced to buy homes in areas more prone to flooding, leading to these families being disproportionately impacted by storm events. Meanwhile, The Washington Post notes that the first forecasts for 2024 indicate a very active Atlantic hurricane season, with the combination of warm oceans (called “alarming” and “unprecedented”) and an emerging La Niña weather pattern leading to powerful storms.

Indeed, The New York Times reports that “the ocean has now broken temperature records every day for more than a year. And so far, 2024 has continued 2023’s trend of beating previous records by wide margins.” In The New Yorker, Elizabeth Kolbert visits with a number of climate scientists to ponder the extraordinary temperature of the oceans. Some scientists are wondering whether there has been a fundamental change in the climate system that is leading to these temperatures, which were not expected to be observed for many decades. Others posit that this might be, in large part, natural variability. Critical to an understanding will be what happens as El Niño conditions begin to wane later this year…

March 31 2024

carbon emissions continue to climb, U.S. world’s largest oil and gas producer, EPA moves to reduce emissions from transportation, heat fuels record Texas wildfire, the challenge of fossil-fuel subsidies

Reuters reports that, according to the International Energy Agency, global carbon-dioxide emissions increased 1.1% in 2023, to 37.4 billion metric tons. So, instead of slowing future global warming by reducing emissions, we are continuing to emit even more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Analysts projected that there would have been a small decrease last year, but drought in many places reduced the ability to generate hydropower, and fossil-fuel burning was substituted. Emissions were lower in the U.S. (4.1%) and Europe (9%), but rose 5.2% in China. Part of the decline in U.S. emissions is due to reduced burning of coal, as reviewed by Inside Climate News, and The Guardian notes that U.S. emissions are down 17.2% from 2005. Meanwhile, Salon cites measurements showing that the winter of 2023-24 was the warmest ever recorded.

Despite the reality that we need to stop developing fossil-fuel projects if we are going to keep global temperatures from rising quickly, The Guardian reports that oil and gas development is continuing unabated around the world. In particular, the United States “has produced more crude oil than any country has ever done in history for the past six years in a row, and led the way in new oil and gas projects in 2022 and 2023.”

U.S. demand for electricity is soaring due primarily to demand from data centers (to power AI among other applications) and new manufacturing facilities (plans to build or expand more than 155 U.S. factories were announced from 2021-23). The Washington Post notes that, “In Georgia, demand for industrial power is surging to record highs, with the projection of electricity use for the next decade now 17 times what it was only recently,” while Northern Virginia and Texas both need the equivalent of several large nuclear-power plants to serve all the new data centers planned and under construction. The demand for power is driving up land prices, as companies are bidding for land in places where there is ample electricity supply. Data-center developers are also looking to create the power themselves by using fuel cells (Oregon) or geothermal energy (Texas)…

March 15 2024

evidence that a major climate tipping point approaches, new nuclear plants generate electricity and higher costs, high ocean temperatures astonish scientists, gubernatorial candidate in North Carolina denies climate science, first large U.S. offshore-wind farm completed

The Guardian reports on a recent study suggesting that the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation (AMOC), which includes the Gulf Stream and other powerful currents, “is already on track towards an abrupt shift, which has not happened for more than 10,000 years and would have dire implications for large parts of the world.” The AMOC is a key mechanism that distributes energy around the planet, and moderates the impact of global warming. A fundamental physical driver of the AMOC is the relative salinity of different ocean waters, but this is being disrupted by the extreme melting of ice in Greenland and the Arctic. A major shift in the AMOC would have vast global impacts, including more sea level rise in the Atlantic, flipping the wet and dry seasons in the Amazon, a colder and drier Europe and more erratic temperatures worldwide. The paper’s lead author, René van Westen, of Utrecht University, noted that we don’t know when these changes will occur, but they will be irreversible on human timescales. “We are moving towards it. That is kind of scary,” van Westen said. “We need to take climate change much more seriously.”

Inside Climate News has an excellent visualization of the AMOC, and one scientist notes that a large shift in the AMOC “is a going-out-of-business scenario for European agriculture.” The New York Times notes that this shift in the AMOC is one of many “tipping points” that the Earth’s climate system can reach, after which the climate continues to change irrespective of greenhouse-gas emissions from human activities. (I explored this issue, and how we can respond, in a 2021 blog post CODE RED: Time to Tip the Climate Odds in Our Favor).

For the more technically inclined, RealClimate also analyzes the recent study. While it used a model requiring enormous computing power to simulate ocean circulation (it took 6 months to run on 1,024 cores at the Dutch national supercomputing facility), it is based on key observations in the southern ocean that suggest the AMOC is slowing. RealClimate notes that the study (1) confirms the AMOC has a tipping point beyond which it breaks down, (2) the AMOC is on course toward tipping, although how fast is unknown, and (3) confirms past concerns that climate models systematically overestimate the stability of the AMOC. The analysis concludes that we “continue to ignore this risk at our peril.” This appears to be another situation in which we consider the unprecedented to be improbable, and we need to stop doing this…