January 15 2023

the California deluge, floating offshore-wind turbines, fossil fuels driving higher electricity prices, Hurricane Ian damages beehives needed for agriculture, ozone hole is slowly healing

In late December, the jet stream set up to bring a series of strong and wet storms across the Pacific Ocean to California. These storms, in which a flow of moisture can be seen moving from the tropical Pacific toward North America, are known as atmospheric rivers (The New York Times has a first-hand account of flying Atmospheric River Reconnaissance. Data collected by aircraft is essential to learn about these major storms). They are not uncommon, and such storms make up a significant fraction of California’s annual precipitation. However, when they occur consecutively, the flooding can be intense. The Washington Post notes that, in 13 days since late December, San Francisco recorded 11.16 inches of rainfall, the wettest stretch for the city since 1871. Another article in The Washington Post describes the ongoing flooding and damage in the state. As of this writing, the Salinas River is rising, and could cut off road access to the Monterey Peninsula.

Atmospheric rivers have been a component of the climate of western North America as far back as scientists have looked, and they can be enormous. For those interested in knowing more about these major storms, I highly recommend The Coming MegaFloods in Scientific American. (The California water blog offers a good overview of the role the storms play in California’s freshwater ecosystems.) The historic scale of the precipitation in the last few weeks is being compared to the winter of 1861-62, when the rains started early in November and continued nearly uninterrupted for four months (66 inches of rain fell in Los Angeles). You could sail a boat from Fresno to Sacramento. The state capitol had to be relocated and California was almost forced into bankruptcy. The San Francisco Chronicle describes the Great Flood of 1862, using local newspaper accounts as the Chronicle itself would not be founded for several years after the flood.

According to a recent study, climate change has already doubled the chance of California having a winter like 1861-62. A key risk from atmospheric rivers, as The Washington Post notes, is that they can be relatively warm and bring heavy rainfall onto accumulated snow. This accelerates melt. It was just such a storm event on January 9, 1862, that greatly exacerbated the flooding. In February 2017, rain from atmospheric rivers fell atop snow in the Feather River watershed, leading to the massive runoff event that damaged the main and emergency spillways of the Oroville Dam. In The Washington Post, Peter Gleick provides a great summary of the Great Flood of 1862, and describes the steps we need to take to make ourselves more resilient in the face of our new climate…

December 31 2022

a scientific achievement on the road to fusion, delays connecting to the grid hamper renewable-energy projects, conflicts about solar and wind in rural America, climate disinformation is alive and well in the U.S., EVs do have a lower carbon footprint than gasoline-powered cars

In mid-December, the Department of Energy announced what has been called a “major breakthrough” for fusion energy at the National Ignition Facility of the Lawrence Livermore National Lab (LLNL), where massive lasers are used to initiate nuclear fusion. The New York Times describes the experiment in which, after decades of effort, a brief fusion reaction was triggered that produced more energy than was delivered by the lasers. This is a remarkable scientific achievement, on par with some of the greatest scientific advances in recent memory. A friend of mine who worked at LLNL reminded me that at several points in the last few decades it appeared this outcome would never be realized.

This achievement has some analysts tantalized by the possibilities. The Washington Post notes that fusion reactions leave almost no toxic byproducts, pose no meltdown risk and — if successfully commercialized — could produce electricity at a regular and predictable rate (unlike wind and solar). Senate Majority leader Charles Schumer stated, “this astonishing scientific advance puts us on the precipice of a future no longer reliant on fossil fuels but instead powered by new clean fusion energy.”

Unfortunately, Senator Schumer is getting ahead of reality. Despite the enormity of this scientific result, which suggests it may be possible some day to generate electricity using fusion, there are still immense engineering challenges that must first be solved. Because of the inefficiency of the lasers, much more energy overall was actually used to create the fusion reaction than was produced by the reaction itself. If a fusion power plant is to be commercially viable, energy output would have to be many times greater than energy input, and this will have to occur regularly through time. While fusion does not generate the same type of radioactive nuclear waste as fission, using radioactive tritium fuel does create radioactive waste, and there are still the problems of induced radioactivity in the materials exposed to neutrons from the reaction (nonradioactive deuterium could instead be used as fuel but that fusion reaction produces six times less energy). Right now, the fusion targets are thin diamond containers suspended in the center of a gold cylinder that is precisely constructed, and this and other factors suggests that the cost of future fusion power plants would still likely be very high. Ian Hutchinson, a professor of nuclear science and engineering at MIT, notes in The Washington Post, “Useful energy production from miniature fusion explosions still faces enormous engineering challenges, and we don’t know if those challenges can be overcome…”

December 15 2022

celebrating climate success (but acknowledging the long road ahead), 1.5°C target getting harder to meet, the perils of solar geoengineering, drought hits home in the Colorado River basin, Mauna Loa eruption interrupts collection of famous CO2 dataset

One of the best short-hand assessments of the changes in our projected climate future over the last five years goes like this: the worst-case scenario has gotten better, but the best-case scenario has gotten worse. David Wallace-Wells notes in the New York Times Magazine that, over the last five years, “the window of possible climate futures is narrowing, and as a result, we are getting a clearer sense of what’s to come: a new world, full of disruption but also billions of people, well past climate normal and yet mercifully short of true climate apocalypse.” Even moderate levels of warming, if we can achieve them, appear harsher than previously thought. Floods that used to hit once a century could come every single year, wildfire risk will grow (including smoke exposure far from a fire’s location) and extreme heat events will be more likely.

Grist describes a new study that concludes: “Ninety percent of all counties in the United States have experienced a weather disaster over the past decade, and these climate-fueled events have caused more than $740 billion in damages.” These include floods, fires, windstorms or other disasters that merited federal emergency assistance between 2011 and 2021. These estimates did not include the impact of heatwaves or crop losses, which do not trigger federal disaster declarations. The New York Times takes a close look at the impact of heat in two places: Basra, Iraq and Kuwait City. What’s happening in these cities will become more common around the world in the coming decades.

An op-ed in the Washington Post notes that buildings consume around 40% of U.S. energy. To make this energy carbon-free will require enormous amounts of renewable power, much of which will have to be delivered in the winter to satisfy heating requirements. Transitioning off of fossil fuels must therefore require a focus on energy efficiency in buildings, as this can reduce requirements for renewable electricity by a factor of 10. The article describes some key methods for achieving this efficiency…