March 15 2023

massive snowfall challenging California, moving towards electric trucks, electric grid not ready for the renewable-energy revolution, atmospheric scientists adapt as volcano erupts, North Dakota may sue Minnesota over renewable-energy law

It is a physical fact that warm air holds more moisture. This is a key reason our warming world is facing more extreme precipitation events. While we tend to think of these events as rainfall and subsequent flooding, massive snowfall can also be dangerous and damaging. The New York Times describes the impacts of massive snowfall in southern California’s San Bernardino Mountains, which are proving to be far-reaching (update). People cannot get to their homes, people cannot leave their homes, medicine, groceries and other supplies are not available, fire hydrants are encased in ice, grocery stores with already limited supplies have to close as their roofs collapse — the list goes on. We all must recognize that this is our new climate, and that we’ll have to live in this climate even if we engineer a fast and thorough transition away from fossil fuels.

Salon notes that, despite a snowpack that is almost twice the average, California is not out of the drought. Analysts say that it would take three or four winters like this one in a row to alleviate the drought, including rebuilding groundwater supplies and returning soil- and vegetation-moisture content to pre-drought conditions. Meanwhile, the San Francisco Chronicle describes a major risk that the state now faces because of the large snowpack: warm rainstorms that result in a fast and extensive snowmelt, generating major flooding. Warm rainstorms were at the heart of major floods in California, including the 2017 Feather River flood that damaged the Oroville reservoir, the 1997 flood on the San Joaquin River and the Great Flood of 1862. The New York Times quotes U.C. Davis Professor Jeffrey Mount, who notes that we are in “uncharted territory,” as the water content of the snowpack in the southern Sierra is the largest ever recorded. “It is worth remembering that almost all of our flood management infrastructure is more than a half-century old and designed around the climate of the past.”

Mother Nature decided to prove the point as a relatively warm atmospheric river struck California on March 9-10, with warnings that conditions “could get ugly.” The area around Fresno was expecting particularly heavy rain that would melt snow (flood warnings were issued on March 10). The Guardian quoted a representative of the National Weather Service (NWS): “We want everyone to be prepared for conditions we’ve never experienced before.” I think that should be considered as a NWS motto going forward. While it will take more than one warm rainfall to melt the deep snow pack higher in the mountains, as the rainfall freezes in this deep snow it adds weight. The New York Times describes the increasing stress on Sierra residents’ roofs as the snow depth grows, and how levees are failing in the lowlands as rivers flood…

February 28 2023

cracks under the Thwaites Glacier, “a mass exodus on a biblical scale”, climate change drives real-estate bubble, a growing demand for lithium and other minerals, new solar cheaper than operating existing coal plants

Last year, a scientific expedition reached the ice shelf of the Thwaites Glacier in Antarctica, one of the most remote locations in the world. In a masterpiece of logistics, the members of the expedition drilled a hole 2,000 feet into the ice, through which a remote probe was lowered to study the water under the ice and the underside of the ice shelf. The results of this work was recently published, and The Washington Post reports that scientists found that the warming ocean is cutting into the underside of the ice. This will leave the ice shelf more prone to fracturing, heightening the risk for major sea level rise. The Thwaites Glacier is about 80 miles across, with an area larger than Florida, and it’s nicknamed “the doomsday glacier” because of its singular capacity to contribute to sea level rise. Since 1979, the glacier has lost a little less than 20 billion tons of ice per year, but that has increased to more than 40 billion tons since 2010.

The Guardian reports on a recent call by the Secretary-General of the United Nations António Guterres to address sea level rise. He said, “low-lying communities and entire countries could disappear forever. We would witness a mass exodus of entire populations on a biblical scale. And we would see ever fiercer competition for fresh water, land and other resources.” He added: “People’s human rights do not disappear because their homes do… this means international refugee law.” Inside Climate News reviewed the speech as well, noting that “Guterres said the danger is most acute for about 900 million living in low-lying coastal zones. That’s one out of 10 people on earth.” The key reality Guterres focuses on is that, even if the world somehow meets the goal of limiting the rise of global average temperature to 1.5°C, there still will be a lot of sea level rise over the coming centuries. And we’re currently nowhere near meeting that goal.

The Washington Post reports on a recent study that describes a growing real-estate bubble in the U.S. as properties eventually lose value due to climate change. Driving the current over-valuation is federal flood maps that don’t reflect the true scope of risk, government insurance policies that subsidize development in flood-prone areas and buyers who haven’t accepted the dangers posed by climate change. The study estimates that properties in vulnerable areas of the U.S. are overvalued by $121-$237 billion. If those risks are brought into the market by changed policies or increased understanding, low-income homeowners in particular stand to lose significant amounts of equity. In addition, many municipal governments that rely heavily on property taxes could face huge budget shortfalls as assessed values drop. The researchers concluded that properties in Florida are overvalued by $50 billion based on their actual flood exposure (as I noted in Observations from Another Planet, the physics are going to crash the party in Florida eventually). Grist examines the vulnerability of Stockton, California, to a major flood event on the San Joaquin River. The article describes the challenges a poorer city like Stockton has in obtaining funding for flood protection…

February 15 2023

the return of El Niño, offshore-oil lease sale flops in Alaska, Colorado River challenges mount as states squabble, value of offsets questioned, turns out climate models are quite accurate

The Guardian reports that, after three years of La Niña conditions in the Pacific Ocean, climate scientists are warning of the likely return of El Niño conditions later this year. As El Niño brings warm ocean water to the surface, which heats the atmosphere, it is expected to cause global average temperatures to rise significantly in 2024. The hottest year on record, 2016, was driven by an El Niño, and The Conversation notes that during this next one a new record for global average temperature is likely. Other expected impacts include major wildfires, particularly in Asia and Australia, extreme cold in northern Europe and a drying Amazon rainforest.

An op-ed in Bloomberg notes that El Niño warming will generate short-term emergencies that could help “focus minds and dollars” on the importance of curbing carbon emissions and transitioning to green energy. Of course, “Foresight hasn’t exactly been humanity’s strong suit when it comes to climate, but it’s not too late to give it a try.”

One of Senator Joe Manchin’s demands in exchange for his vote on the Inflation Reduction Act was that the Department of Interior re-open Lease Sale 258 for oil and gas resources in Cook Inlet, Alaska. The lease sale had originally been put off for lack of interest by the oil and gas industry, but Manchin was insistent. Lawsuits to stop the lease sale were unsuccessful, and Gizmodo reports that it went ahead in late 2022 — and was a total flop. Only one bid was submitted for one of the 193 blocks available for lease…

January 31 2023

greenhouse-gas emissions and global temperatures continue to rise, EV sales and battery manufacturing booming, California still facing drought despite record rainfall, Oregon faces “firmageddon” as trees die

The Washington Post reports that the last eight years have been the hottest in human history. Unfortunately, despite this news underscoring the urgency to halt the emission of greenhouse gases, the New York Times reports that U.S. carbon emissions increased 1.3% in 2022 as compared to 2021. The increase in emissions was driven by the transportation and industrial sectors, while emissions from the electric-power sector declined as electricity production from renewables surpassed coal for the first time. The Post notes: “Researchers found that atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide are at the highest levels in more than 2 million years. Levels of methane, a short-lived but powerful greenhouse gas, have also continued to increase and are at the highest levels in 800,000 years.”

Over 90% of the energy captured by greenhouse gases goes into the ocean. The Guardian notes that ocean temperatures in 2022 were the hottest ever recorded. Salon observes that 2022 ocean temperatures broke the previous record… set in 2021. The warming ocean will bring more heat and moisture to the atmosphere, driving up air temperatures and flood risks, and also accelerating sea level rise. It is hard to grasp how much energy this represents: the article notes that in 2022 the ocean absorbed about 14 zettajoules of heat, or 14,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 joules (a zettajoule is 1021 joules). This is equivalent to releasing 400,000 Hiroshima-sized atomic bombs of energy into the ocean every day (for those interested in this calculation please see my previous post The Unseen Atom Bombs).

An interesting article in the Washington Post describes how a tagged elephant seal that swam to Antarctica helped scientists understand that warming ocean water is reaching the massive Denman Glacier. Due to the physical configuration of this glacier, it is likely prone to rapid melting if warm ocean water reaches it for an extended period of time. Such melting would result in a noticeable increase in global sea level this century. Another article in the Post reports on a recent study of ice cores concluding that the average temperature from 2001-2011 in northern Greenland was higher than at any time in the last thousand years. This is consistent with observations of surface melt and glacial retreat…

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…”