December 31 2021

December 31 2021

the threat from Thwaites, tornadoes and climate change, hacking the ocean, Build Back Better vital for climate goals, offshore-wind turbines get larger

A worrisome set of cracks has appeared in the surface of the ice shelf that is holding back part of the Thwaites glacier in Antarctica, notes the Washington Post. Scientists studying the ice shelf liken the cracks to those that can appear in a windshield, which can quickly spider-web across the entire surface and generate instability. This suggests the shelf could collapse in the next 3-5 years, which would accelerate the flow of the glacier into the ocean and consequently increase the rate of sea level rise. The Thwaites glacier already contributes 4% of global sea level rise annually.

As described by the New York Times, this is just one of several indicators of rapid shifts in Antarctica — changes that could complicate adapting to our new climate in the future. The article includes excellent animations and a history of scientific exploration of the Southern Ocean. This ocean, long a relative mystery because of its inhospitable conditions, is better-studied now due to the availability of remote instruments (including satellites). Scientists are documenting changes in wind patterns, ocean currents and water temperatures. These changes could result in the release of more carbon dioxide from the ocean as carbon-rich deep-ocean water is brought to the surface. In addition, this water is getting warmer, which increases the melting of ice shelves like the one in front of the Thwaites glacier.

The Washington Post notes that changes in the ice of Greenland are redefining the concept of "glacial pace." At the end of the last melt season, Greenland lost more ice than it gained for the 25th year in a row, and it rained at Greenland’s highest elevations. Rain on the ice sheet (instead of snow) also reduces the amount of solar energy reflected, which further accelerates melting. Another article in the Post states that the expected shift from snow to rain in Arctic regions, long predicted by climate scientists as the world warms, may arrive sooner than previously thought. This will have some significant consequences worldwide due to impact on sea levels, and the release of more greenhouse gases from soils and Arctic fires. An article at CNBC describes the ice loss being documented in the Himalayas, which threatens agriculture and water supplies for millions of people in South Asia.

Inside Climate News describes "debris lobes" that are threatening both the Trans-Alaska Pipeline and the Dalton Highway that runs alongside it. These mixtures of sand, rock, soil and trees used to be frozen solid, but are now on the move because of warmer temperatures. This is a new threat to the pipeline infrastructure, which is already under siege from riverbank erosion and thawing soils. While the impact from the debris lobes is several years away, experts note that there is no way to protect the highway and pipeline from this powerful movement of earth.

The changes in the Arctic and Antarctic should be a warning to the world, as the Washington Post notes in an editorial. Anything less than a complete commitment to decarbonization is a gamble not worth taking. In the face of this reality, Senator Manchin’s decision to vote against the Build Back Better legislation, which represents the single most important step by the U.S. to fight climate change, is a dangerous disappointment (although not a surprise given Manchin’s voting history on climate and his personal stake in the coal industry — an op-ed in the Post examines his motivations). The United Mine Workers has called on Manchin to support the bill. As Kate Aronoff points out in the Guardian, if the Republicans (and Manchin) prevent the U.S. from taking meaningful action to address our huge role in climate change, "the rest of the world needs to start treating the U.S. as what it is: a dangerous country that needs to be reined in." The New York Times presents projections showing the importance of the climate provisions of Build Back Better for achieving the goal of halving U.S. carbon emissions by 2030.

The New York Times explains why climate change is going to increase the probability of more severe storms, and the Washington Post describes the expansion of extreme weather around the world. Many have wondered if the rare and powerful December tornadoes that struck six states are a product of climate change. Grist reports that tornadoes are very complex and relatively small-scale atmospheric events, and this makes them hard to link to global climate change. There doesn’t appear to be clear evidence that tornadoes have changed in frequency or intensity over the past 40 to 60 years. In addition, analysts note that the damage from tornadoes is often due to inadequate preparation on the ground as opposed to the strength of the storm. You can read more on this topic at Inside Climate News.

The Guardian reports that Australia’s coal-fired power plants are likely to be shut down at almost triple the pace currently announced. The transformation of Australia’s grid is accelerating, with five times the amount of large-scale renewables being installed in 2019 on a per capita basis than the European Union. Scotland has demolished its last coal-fired power plant (video). St. Louis Today reports that the utility company, Ameren, will close its Rush Island coal-fired power plant by 2024 — 15 years early — rather than install expensive pollution controls. The company stated that retiring the plant is in the public interest "as it will reduce emissions of all pollutants, including carbon emissions, and reduce (sulfur dioxide) emissions to a much greater extent and sooner than would (pollution control) installation and continued operations.”

Meanwhile, the Biden Administration has approved two (and soon three) major solar projects in California’s Mojave desert. The New York Times reports that these three projects, when completed, will have the capacity to produce 1,000 MW of electricity, which is about the output of a nuclear power plant. The facilities will also have 400 MW of battery storage.

A key to decarbonizing our society is storing electricity from solar and wind installations so that it can be dispatched when needed. This is driving remarkable cost reductions and innovations in battery technology. One type of battery for large-scale applications is a flow battery, which stores chemical energy in a liquid held in large tanks. These devices can store energy for months at a time, but key to their widespread use is cost. Anthropocene Magazine describes research that has developed a low-cost material that could be used in flow batteries.

The Washington Post describes a recent report from the National Academy of Sciences that argues that the United States should at least investigate whether ocean-based carbon-removal strategies are worthwhile. Sometimes referred to as "hacking the ocean," the concept is to enhance existing processes (such as the growth of phytoplankton) that take up carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. The ocean already absorbs 25% of human-caused carbon emissions. Some argue that "it is the height of hubris for humans to think we can safely interfere with a system that has been evolving for more than 4 billion years." Of course, by altering the atmosphere to the extent we have, I don’t see how we meet our climate goals without actively removing the excess carbon dioxide already in the atmosphere. The Guardian interviews science fiction author, Kim Stanley Robinson, as part of reviewing his recent novel Ministry of the Future. The book examines possible scenarios involving geo-engineering efforts.

California’s snowpack has been slowly declining for decades, with the snow season in the Sierra Nevada already a month shorter. A new study summarized in the San Francisco Chronicle suggests that this trend is accelerating, and that in as little as 25 years there could be little to no snow in the Sierras (the incredibly snowy weather in the last two weeks is a reminder that weather [short-term] and climate [long-term] are different). This has enormous implications for California’s water supplies, as the snowpack is the key water reservoir around which our water system was designed. The article describes the need to store more winter runoff by recharging groundwater basins.

Inside Climate News reports on how offshore wind gets more cost-competitive as the turbines get larger and larger. GE has started testing a 14 MW turbine (three times the height of the Statue of Liberty), and recent modeling shows how costs will decrease with increased efficiency that derives from economies of scale. The decrease in costs is a big deal, to the point that it makes offshore wind competitive with the costs of electricity from natural-gas power plants.

The Biden Administration submitted for Senate approval a treaty amendment aimed at curbing a set of climate super-pollutants, as described by the Washington Post. The Kigali Amendment to the Montreal Protocol would compel countries to phase down hydrofluorocarbons — human-made chemicals hundreds to thousands of times as powerful as carbon dioxide — by more than 80% by the middle of the century. The Trump Administration had declined to transmit this treaty amendment to the Senate, which is supported by the rest of the world, despite bi-partisan support.

In the Guardian, Rebecca Solnit describes reasons to be hopeful and inspired about addressing the climate crisis, despite our fears and doubts. In the New York Times, Margaret Renkl makes the case that donating to conservation nonprofits is every bit as important as voting for conservation candidates as a way to take collective action on climate.

I hope we all have a happy and healthy 2022!