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…

February 29 2024

global heat continues in 2024, ice loss from Greenland is larger than previously estimated, climate-change denialists continue to confuse the public, Florida legislature considers bill to remove mention of climate change from state statutes, EV sales growth slows

The New York Times reports that January 2024 was the hottest January ever recorded. Given the ongoing strong El Niño, higher temperatures are expected, although scientists are surprised by the intensity of the heating being observed in both the atmosphere and the oceans. The Guardian notes: “Humanity is on a trajectory to experience the hottest February in recorded history, after a record January, December, November, October, September, August, July, June and May.”

While we tend to be focused on the impacts of El Niño in the Northern Hemisphere, The Washington Post reminds us that this oceanic feature impacts weather globally. In South America, the impacts of El Niño this winter have been significant. These impacts include major outbreaks of dengue fever, deaths of dolphins and other wildlife in the Amazon, drought in the normally wet Columbian highlands and devastating fires in Chile.

People are working around the world on methods to capture carbon dioxide from power plants, and directly from the air, to reduce the impact of greenhouse gases. These methods are expensive, and so efforts are being made to harness natural carbon-capture processes that could be cheaper. Anthropocene Magazine reports that “researchers have developed a biosynthetic pathway that efficiently captures carbon dioxide from air and converts it into an industrially useful chemical.” The article describes this remarkable feat of bioengineering, in which the genes for the biosynthetic pathway was placed into E. coli cells, allowing them to act as “carbon-sequestration factories.” “The work paves the way towards harnessing bacterial cells to produce biofuels in a sustainable way from carbon dioxide…”

February 15 2024

global process for handling life’s risks is breaking down, time to “buckle up” for hotter droughts in the western U.S., a foot of rain falls on Los Angeles in one day, U.S. world’s largest exporter of natural gas, solar farm replaces coal plant in Minnesota

2023 was the hottest year ever recorded, and The Washington Post notes that some leading scientists are concerned that a feared acceleration of global warming is underway. James Hansen notes: “The proximate cause of the acceleration is an increase of Earth’s energy imbalance, specifically a substantial darkening of the planet (decreased albedo) equivalent to a CO2 increase of more than 100 ppm, although it is difficult to apportion the albedo change between aerosol forcing and cloud feedbacks because of limited global measurements.”

Several agencies that compute global average temperature have reported that, in 2023, the Earth reached 1.5°C above preindustrial levels, and The New York Times reminds us this is a milestone to note. While the global climate goal of keeping average temperatures to 1.5°C or below is a multi-year average, not just a single year, clearly the Earth will be at this temperature level soon. “Based on the current pace of carbon emissions, it will only be a few more years before we have altered the atmosphere’s chemistry so much that even drastic cuts to emissions wouldn’t be enough to stop warming from eventually creeping above 1.5 degrees.”

As Earth’s average temperature approaches 1.5°C above preindustrial levels, Inside Climate News describes the results of social-science research concluding that “the increasing climate shocks could trigger more social unrest and authoritarian, nationalist backlashes.” The article notes that the large number of social crises currently underway are crowding out people’s attention to climate change. This is exacerbated by a new flood of disinformation that seeks to further confound efforts to reduce fossil-fuel use. Some of the resistance arises from those who think they are losing privileged access to resources, funding and subsidies. Climate scientist Peter Kalmus notes that stopping global heating is “a life-or-death task for humanity and the planet, just most people haven’t realized it yet…”

January 31 2024

fires both a product and source of global warming, a large battery under construction in Utah, getting “grid services” from renewables, drought affects operation of Panama Canal, the unintended impacts of sea walls

The Guardian reports that the massive fires in Canada in 2023 tripled that country’s annual greenhouse-gas emissions. This is an example of a possible tipping point related to forests, where ecosystems that traditionally have been carbon sinks turn into sources of carbon (a New York Times article notes that recent satellite measurements confirm the importance of undisturbed lands as carbon sinks). As emissions from major fires further heat the planet, it becomes more likely that forests will continue to burn, resulting in more emissions. The loss of wetlands (including bogs) in the boreal forest, a result of hotter and drier conditions caused by climate change, has also made massive fires more likely.

While fire is a natural part of forest ecosystems, the scale of the fires we are seeing now is unprecedented, driven by climate change and historical forestry practices. The New York Times describes how megafires, such as those last year in Canada, are transforming the landscape. Some are referring to the age in which we now live as the Pyrocene, given the size and frequency of these megafires. The World Resources Institute concludes that, annually, fires now burn twice as much tree cover as they did 20 years ago.

Yale e360 notes that “the boreal forests and unglaciated polar lowlands are Earth’s most lake-rich biome, hosting nearly half of the planet’s lakes by surface area.” Like the forests, the lakes have been a carbon sink as sediments accumulate in their cold waters where there is little decomposition. However, as these regions warm, researchers are finding that decomposition is increasing. The author accompanies researchers to visit several lakes in Greenland where the scientists expected their measurements to reveal the lakes to be sinks, but the field measurements determined all the lakes to be sources during the record heat of 2023…