July 15 2021

our hot "megadrought," outlawing nonfunctional grass, the prophets of doom (were right), recognizing coal communities as energy "veterans"

The Guardian interviews three leading scientists about the "megadrought" in the western U.S., which has now reached a length and intensity that is matching the worst droughts in the region in a thousand years. Scientist Jonathan Overpeck notes in the Hill that this is a "hot drought," where low precipitation is combined with high temperatures, a situation which will become more common as the world warms. As described in the Washington Post, Lake Mead (the reservoir behind Hoover Dam, the largest in the country), is now at the lowest level since it was filled in the 1930s (this site tracks Lake Mead’s level in real time). The governor of Utah, one of the hardest hit states, has resorted to praying for rain, and California agriculture is facing some difficult questions in the short and longer term due to reduced water availability. California is also facing the need to generate more gas-fired electricity due to the loss of hydroelectric generating capability.

To underscore the reality that this is indeed a "hot drought," a meteorologically stable dome of high pressure developed over the Pacific Northwest, sending temperatures skyrocketing to new records in Portland, Seattle and British Columbia, where the highest temperature ever recorded in Canada was measured in Lytton, B.C. (115°F on June 27). The heat literally cooked one billion intertidal marine organisms at low tide, and fruit on trees. The stable high-pressure system may be linked directly to climate change. This was not “just another heat wave,” said extreme-weather expert Christopher Burt in the Washington Post, but rather “the most anomalous extreme heat event ever observed on Earth since records began two centuries ago.” A heat wave of this magnitude is virtually impossible without human-caused climate change (said one scientist, “Global warming is not our grandchildren’s problem; it is ours, here and now”). While such an extreme episode used to be considered a one-in-a-thousand-year event (based on frequency of occurrence in the past), scientists predict it will happen every 5 to 10 years in 2050 on our current emissions path. Lost in the news of heat in the Northwest was the fact that Phoenix set a record with six days in a row at 115°F, and that nighttime temperatures are setting records across the continent. This is a predicted impact of climate change, and is a major threat to human lives as it makes cooling down at night impossible.

June 30 2021

Exxon Mobil management loses Board seats, fires burn in high-elevation forests, coal-mine cleanup a "house of cards", linking home batteries to create virtual power plants, expanding EV charging infrastructure

NOAA has a great animation that shows how global temperatures have changed over the last 70 years. The New York Times notes that, under President Biden, the U.S. EPA has updated its website to feature and track indicators of climate change, something that the Trump Administration refused to do. Another climate-change indicator from the political realm: a growing number of elected Republicans are speaking out about the reality of climate change (a small but necessary step).

Exxon Mobil’s stock value has dropped nearly 30% in five years, with the company taking on debt to buoy its stock price and pay dividends after posting a $22 billion loss in 2020. The New York Times has a detailed look at how a small investment firm organized shareholders to win two seats on Exxon Mobil’s Board of Directors. The firm argued that the company needs to change its business model to be successful as the world transitions away from fossil fuels. These investors believe that the effect a company has on society, in addition to its bottom line, will determine its long-term success…

June 15 2021

climate tipping points underlie emergency declaration, recycled wastewater’s growing importance, the popemobile goes electric, buildings as batteries

An article in Grist examines the key rationale for the scientific conclusion that we are facing a climate emergency: the planet is approaching "climate tipping points," where small changes in global temperature can kick off reinforcing loops that ‘tip’ the climate into a profoundly different state – accelerating heat waves, permafrost thaw and coastal flooding. These effects can themselves then produce more warming. Examples include the slowing of the great Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation (of which the Gulf Stream is a part), and the melting of ice in Greenland that lowers the elevation of the ice sheet, exposing it to warmer air that then accelerates melting even more. Another area of significant concern is the warming of permafrost and northern (or boreal) forest ecosystems, where higher temperatures allow for decay in soils that were perennially frozen, turning these ecosystems into producers of carbon dioxide and methane. Warmer temperatures also fuel fires in the boreal forests that produce carbon dioxide and soot that further heat the planet.

There are indications, however, that at least some of these cycles could be interrupted. For example, as boreal forests burn they are being replaced by a forest composed of different species that grow quickly and may eventually store more carbon than the original forest. Most importantly, we may reach a "social tipping point," where people conclude that fossil-fuel use is immoral and human society transitions more quickly than expected. In this context, Al Gore’s formulation of Dornbusch’s law is worth remembering: "Things take longer to happen than you think they will, but then they happen much faster than you thought they could…"

May 31 2021

multi-year drought in the West, longer fire and hurricane season, importance of electric F-150 pickup, lithium mining, growth of offshore-wind industry

An article in the New York Times discusses the deep, multi-year drought in the Southwestern U.S. and the concomitant severe fire season that is threatening the region. In the first four months of 2021, the area burned in Arizona already equaled that burned in 2020. The author notes that climate change has altered precipitation patterns across the Southwest, drying out soil and vegetation. The Los Angeles Times argues that this is not a drought, but rather our new climate, stating "the years of steady and predictable water flow are over, and there is no sign of them coming back in our lifetimes. This is it. We have to build, and grow, and legislate, and consume for the world as it is, not as we may remember it." An op-ed in the New York Times compares the construction and filling of Lake Mead with its subsequent drying out, suggesting that the limits of human engineering are forcing their way into the consciousness of our society.

Inside Climate News describes the impact of the drought in California’s Central Valley. Particularly hard hit are poor communities in the Tulare and San Joaquin basins, where groundwater pumping to maintain agricultural production has lowered the water table, resulting in shallower drinking-water wells going dry. There is also more reliance on groundwater that is contaminated by nitrates and other pollutants.

California must adjust to the fire season beginning in May, given the Palisades Fire that erupted on May 14 in Southern California (possibly the result of arson). The New York Times notes that Californians should be bracing for a serious fire season. Last month was the driest April in Sacramento since official record keeping began in 1877, and the snowpack in the Sierras currently contains just 5% of historical norms. The AP reports that a giant sequoia in the path of last year’s Castle Fire continues to smolder this spring, another indicator of how dry the winter has been…

May 15 2021

EV sales climbing, but still small, expanding wind energy, a climate-change real-estate bubble, the uncertainty in sea level rise, a case for cautious optimism

Axios reports that EV sales in February 2021 were 138% above sales from the same month in 2020. While this is exciting news, there is still a long way to go: EV sales represented only 2.3% of total U.S. car sales in that month. Volvo announced a partnership with a steelmaker to produce vehicles with “fossil-fuel-free” steel — small-scale production will begin in 2022. BBC reports on efforts in Europe to recycle EV batteries, which will be vitally important given the projected rise in EV sales. An article in The Hill calls for an ambitious mix of investment and U.S. regulatory policies to advance EV adoption, because it will take decades to replace the 289 million registered motor vehicles in the country with internal-combustion engines.

As wind energy expands, local opposition is beginning to surface. Despite the economic benefits derived from wind-energy development, there are many areas where residents are concerned about the proliferation of wind turbines. Inside Climate News looks at the situation in Indiana, where the tradition of local control is colliding with statewide forces supporting expansion of the wind industry. Drilled News reports on how the experience and expertise of companies and workers from the offshore-oil industry is being used in the growing field of offshore wind. An article in the Washington Post announces the Biden Administration’s approval of the Vineyard Wind offshore-wind project. As with all articles about U.S. offshore wind, it is accompanied by a photo of the Block Island offshore-wind project in Rhode Island, now the largest of the two operating projects. That is about to change, as several massive offshore-wind arrays are in the works that will place up to 3,000 wind turbines in the Atlantic from Maine to North Carolina…

April 30 2021

methane concentration in the atmosphere reaches record high, Biden holds climate summit, threat of coal-fired power in China, solar becoming “insanely cheap” energy

An article in Gizmodo notes NOAA’s announcement that methane concentrations in the atmosphere reached an all-time high last year, with the rise from 2019 to 2020 being the largest year-over-year increase since record keeping began (carbon-dioxide concentrations are also demonstrating a major rebound with increased economic activity as the pandemic recedes). Initial chemical analysis suggests that a significant amount of this methane is from natural sources, such as bogs or thawing permafrost. This is not good news. Methane is a very powerful greenhouse gas and, while its lifetime in the atmosphere is much shorter than carbon dioxide, it absorbs much more heat while present. Natural increases in methane emissions may be a response to the change in earth’s average temperature, and this would be evidence that a feedback loop has been activated that may not be controllable.

An important strategy for slowing climate change is to eliminate the emissions of powerful, short-lived greenhouse gases as fast as possible. Energy Monitor examines the various sources of methane emissions, and highlights an initiative by the European Union to launch a global effort to reduce these emissions. Inside Climate News reports on efforts to convince President Biden to commit the U.S. to immediate reductions in methane emissions, particularly by focusing on emissions from fossil-fuel facilities…