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…

November 30 2022

27th COP focuses on loss and damage in poorer nations, Arctic wildfires, local midterm-election results bolster climate resilience, home insurance market teeters in Florida, generating electricity from the tides

As the nations of the world gathered in Egypt for the 27th Conference of the Parties (COP), the danger posed by climate change is unassailable. The New York Times notes that the draft National Climate Assessment, released by the U.S. Government for public comment, concludes that “climate changes make it harder to maintain safe homes and healthy families, reliable public services, a sustainable economy, thriving ecosystems and strong communities.” While the report outlines many actions and policies to adapt to our new climate, these are being adopted too slowly. The report also notes that current efforts to reduce emissions are “not sufficient” to meet the Biden Administration’s 2050 target of net-zero emissions. Meanwhile, a recent analysis concludes that global emissions of carbon dioxide will reach an all-time high in 2022, as described by the study’s authors in The Conversation.

The global effort to reduce emissions appears inadequate to limit temperature rise to 1.5°C. The Washington Post reports that new natural-gas projects, many initiated in response to the war in Ukraine, will have to be closed before the end of their useful life if the world is to meet its emissions goals. This is unlikely. The Post also describes a new study from the World Meteorological Organization reporting that global emissions of methane, a powerful greenhouse gas and the primary component of natural gas, are rising faster than ever. Initial analysis has concluded that the methane increase is not from fossil fuels, but rather from natural sources such as wetlands or agriculture, suggesting that this is a response to climate change. The executive director of the U.N. Environment Program stated, “It’s a dismal, horrendous, incomprehensible picture.”

The Washington Post reports that only 24 countries have submitted new emissions-reduction pledges in the past 12 months. At present, the combined 193 climate pledges made since the Paris Agreement would actually increase emissions 10.6% by 2030, compared with 2010 levels. To reach the 1.5°C target, it is estimated that nations must reduce their emissions to about 45% of their 2010 levels, and an op-ed in the Los Angeles Times describes how far we have to go. An op-ed in the Guardian concludes that anybody who thinks the 1.5°C target is still achievable is delusional. The author argues that acknowledging this reality is essential for increasing action by corporations and governments. An editorial in the Washington Post argues that we should not lose hope…

November 15 2022

sea level rise getting real in many places, climate misinformation continues to circulate, drought causes more focus on recycling wastewater, a rare toad slows geothermal development, France requires solar over parking lots

The New York Times reports that the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) provides $2.6 billion in grants over five years for coastal communities to prepare and respond to hazardous climate-related events. While less than 1% of the total funding provided by the IRA, this is the latest sign of a shift by the federal government toward funding nature-based climate solutions. These funds will be enormously valuable as the threats from sea level rise and coastal erosion mount.

The rate that sea level rises in any given community is a function of the vertical movement of both water and land. In places where land is subsiding, the relative rate of sea level rise is faster. Because of this phenomenon, the Humboldt Bay in northern California has the highest relative sea level rise in the state. The San Francisco Chronicle examines how this region is approaching its vulnerability to sea level rise.

The Washington Post visits Socastee, South Carolina, a community that is similar to many on the eastern seaboard impacted by rising sea level and storm surges. In this area of South Carolina, sea level is rising as fast as anywhere in the nation. The article chronicles the agonizing decision facing residents who don’t want to leave, yet are beginning to recognize that their communities will become more and more unlivable. The Washington Post also examines plans to protect Norfolk, VA, another community extremely vulnerable to sea level rise. This article points out that the method used by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for assessing benefits and costs of flood-protection projects fails to account for ecological, cultural and historic values. This can lead to controversy about the relative worth of proposed projects. The New York Times reports on the Corps of Engineers’ $52 billion proposal for flood protection in New York harbor…

October 31 2022

tipping points may have already been crossed, climate-related disasters costing $200 million per day, offshore leases for wind more valuable than for oil, Greece powered entirely by renewables for 5 hours, a fast transition to renewables is cheapest

Grist reports on a new study warning that the 1.1°C (1.9°F) of warming that has already occurred may have pushed the planet past tipping points. These include the beginning of the collapse of the Greenland and West Antarctic ice sheets, tropical coral reef die-offs and the abrupt thawing of permafrost. As the planet warms further, these outcomes are more and more likely if they have not already occurred. In The Guardian, one of the authors of the study notes: “We’re not saying that, because we’re probably going to hit some tipping points, everything is lost and it’s game over. Every fraction of a degree that we stop beyond 1.5°C reduces the likelihood of hitting more tipping points.”

Greta Thunberg is a bit more forceful, writing in The Guardian that it is a very limited “we” who have caused climate disruption. “The fact that 3 billion people use less energy, on an annual per capita basis, than a standard American refrigerator gives you an idea of how far away from global equity and climate justice we currently are.” She criticizes the global carbon-reduction targets as incomplete and inadequate, noting that she takes “no pleasure whatsoever to keep calling out the bullshit of our so-called leaders.” She concludes that we are approaching a precipice of disruption that requires activists to “stand our ground. Do not let them drag us another inch closer to the edge. Not one inch. Right here, right now, is where we draw the line.”

Supporting Greta’s stance is the recent report from the World Meteorological Association (WMO). CNBC reports that, according to the WMO, climate-related disasters have increased fivefold over the past five decades and are now costing $200 million a day. UN Secretary General Guterres notes that “There is nothing natural about the new scale of these disasters.” He added that the report shows “climate impacts heading into uncharted territories of destruction … Yet each year we double-down on this fossil fuel addiction, even as the symptoms get rapidly worse.”…