December 15 2022

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.

The Washington Post examines whether it’s possible to meet the global 1.5°C target. The authors studied hundreds of future scenarios combining various factors, such as energy demand and our capacity to remove carbon from the atmosphere. They conclude that it will be very difficult to prevent an overshoot of the 1.5°C goal by the middle of this century without drastic action that governments are not presently taking. There will continue to be challenges in the second half of the century to bring global average temperature back to 1.5°C by 2100.

Given the likelihood of exceeding the 1.5°C target, many scientists argue that some form of “solar geoengineering” will be required. Using technology to limit temperature rise in the Arctic is seen as particularly important, as this can slow sea level rise by limiting the melting of the Greenland Ice Sheet and can reduce emissions of methane from thawing permafrost. The Guardian examines two concepts to reflect incoming solar radiation: aerosol injection into the stratosphere and injecting small water particles into the air to “brighten” clouds.

Bill McKibben writes in the New Yorker that even considering solar geoengineering is evidence of our desperation, as “everyone studying solar geoengineering seems to agree that it’s a terrible thing.” This is because of two questions we cannot yet answer: what would happen if we put particles into the stratosphere, and who decides if we should do it? Solar geoengineering would affect global weather patterns, producing different and hard-to-predict outcomes in various places. Possible scenarios include weather shifts that cause war to erupt as nations blame extreme weather on solar geoengineering by other nations. Indeed, it appears to be an ungovernable activity, except by agreeing not to do it.

The Los Angeles Times describes the long-term effort to restore marshlands from old salt ponds in South San Francisco Bay. One of the largest projects of its type in the world, it began in the late 1970s as a wildlife-conservation project, but in the face of sea level rise will be seen as one of the most visionary flood-protection projects in history. The Washington Post reports on the challenge of maintaining beaches in Florida as coastal erosion increases. Half the beaches in the state are critically eroded, and Hurricanes Ian and Nicole took massive amounts of sand off the coasts resulting in major damage to structures.

The New York Times describes the initial efforts by the federal government to assist local tribes in relocating to avoid the impacts of sea level rise. While retreat from rising seas makes sense, retreat to where and how to fund it are critical problems for such plans. The Washington Post has an excellent multi-media presentation about sea level rise on the Virginia coast, focusing on the town of Oyster. Oyster was a place many residents of nearby Hog Island retreated to as erosion and sea level rise made staying on the island impossible. Now residents of Oyster are raising their houses and wondering what is next for them.

NBC News describes how the drought along the Colorado River basin is hitting home in Arizona, as the community of Rio Verde Foothills is losing its source of water. The town has been dependent upon private companies trucking water from nearby Scottsdale, but the municipal utility in Scottsdale has informed residents of Rio Verde Foothills that this practice will end on January 1, 2023. This outcome has been evident for years, but it has suddenly gotten very real, and residents are scrambling to figure out where to get water.

Meanwhile, federal officials are for the first time grappling with the implications of Lake Powell reaching such low water levels that electricity production will cease. The Washington Post describes the remarkable web of impacts from this eventuality, something that was never considered a possibility until now. These include less power available to avoid blackouts in California, or to restart the Palo Verde nuclear power plant if it shuts down. Arizona communities will also be required to purchase much more expensive power on the open market. Water temperatures are already rising downstream — leading to ecological changes — and the important tourism industry of the region is threatened. The New York Times notes that if water levels keep falling, not only will there be no hydroelectric power, but water will not even be able to pass the dams to flow downstream.

Salon looks at the water requirements for the dairy industry in California. California produces more milk and cheese than any other state of the union, and it is in the middle of a 20-year mega-drought. The production of feed for dairy cows represents the largest water use for the industry. In California, a significant share of water use is devoted to irrigating alfalfa fields (20% of this crop is exported). The author notes that water limitations may result in a the dairy industry becoming less centralized in California, Wisconsin and a few other states. The California WaterBlog examines the impacts from the last few years of drought and the forecast for 2023.

The Nevada Independent considers lithium production at the Silver Peak mine, one of the largest lithium producers in the U.S. The operation pumps brine from underground aquifers to the surface, where it enters evaporation ponds that concentrate the minerals. As the company seeks to expand its operation, and other firms seek to enter the market, a key issue facing all parties are the rights to the underground water.

The New York Times notes that the recent eruption of the Mauna Loa volcano in Hawaii has interrupted the work at the Mauna Loa observatory. This facility is responsible for the longest continuous record of carbon-dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere, which I believe ranks as one of the most important environmental datasets in human history. The article describes the history of the site, the data collected and the plans to restore operations.

The Guardian presents “the 20 climate photographs that changed the world.”