February 15 2022

damage from melting permafrost, Senator Manchin a global climate villain, nuclear power gets more expensive, fossil-fuel lease decisions must consider climate impact

An article in the New Yorker describes the remarkable changes occurring in Siberia as permafrost thaws due to global warming. All the buildings and other infrastructure designed and built for the frozen ground are facing serious structural challenges (or failing entirely) as the ground thaws. The article notes that, as of 2016, 60% of the buildings in the city of Norilsk were compromised due to permafrost thaw.

Unfortunately, damage to infrastructure is not the most serious problem posed by thawing permafrost. The frozen ground releases carbon dioxide and methane as it thaws and frozen organic matter in the soil decomposes. This represents an accumulation of so much heat that it won’t be possible to refreeze the ground. The expansion of shrubs and trees across the tundra will take up some of the carbon (see below), but there is a limit to how large this vegetation can be, and the decomposition season is longer than the growth season. An experiment is underway to reintroduce large herbivores, as their grazing activity can reduce snow cover, which exposes the ground to cold winter air and reduces thawing.

Measurements of carbon release make it clear that these ecosystems are now emitting much more greenhouse gas than they used to before extensive thawing commenced. In 2016, an anthrax outbreak was detected, triggered by the activation of “old” infection sites after very high air temperatures led to the thawing of the sites to a depth not previously seen…

January 31 2022

temperatures and carbon emissions at high levels, the rich are the world’s major emitters, automakers make major push with EVs, solar projects keep growing in size, American concern about climate change at all-time high

Recent studies summarized by the Washington Post conclude that the past seven years have been the hottest in recorded history, with 25 countries that are home to about 1.8 billion people setting new annual records in 2021. July was the hottest month humanity has ever recorded, and the heat dome that seared the Pacific Northwest this past summer was “the most anomalous extreme heat event ever observed on Earth." Although 2021 was a bit cooler than 2020, it shows that natural variation, like the cooling influence of La Niña in 2021, can barely put a dent in the relentless man-made warming trend. For seven years in a row, global average temperature was more than 1°C above the preindustrial average. It’s unlikely that anyone alive today will see the world’s temperature drop below that one-degree benchmark again. “There is no going back,” said Gavin Schmidt, director of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies.

Most of the heat from global warming is going into the ocean, and the Washington Post notes that the evidence for record warmth is clear in the most recent analysis of heat energy in the ocean. An article by John Abraham, one of the study’s authors, concludes "we took the Earth’s temperature – and the Earth’s fever is getting worse." He notes that the heat going into the ocean in 2021 was equivalent "to seven Hiroshima atomic bombs detonating each second, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year." In my 2018 post, The Unseen Atomic Bombs, I explain how the the average increase in ocean heat over the last 50 years is equivalent to about 4.5 bombs per second. As expected, ocean heating has accelerated in recent years. In The Conversation, climate scientist Kevin Trenberth reviews the impact of ocean warming on the climate system…

January 15 2022

lithium’s role in Chile’s constitutional convention, the big thaw, climate and historical human crises, whales as a climate solution, Don’t Look Up

In Chile, the worldwide demand for lithium (which Chile has in abundance) has initiated a series of controversies and precipitated a constitutional convention. The New York Times reports that the convention will consider many things: "How should mining be regulated, and what voice should local communities have over mining? Should Chile retain a presidential system? Should nature have rights? How about future generations?" Facing a crippling drought supercharged by climate change, the convention also will decide who owns Chile’s water. The previous constitution, written in 1980 by Pinochet’s people, has produced an economy where mineral-rich areas became known as “sacrifice zones” of environmental degradation. The incoming president finds lithium mining a major issue he must consider.

The New York Times takes a detailed look at the Goro nickel mine in New Caledonia, with which Tesla has recently signed an agreement to purchase a major proportion of the nickel for its car batteries. The company seeks to brand this source as "green nickel", citing major changes in the mining operation that will reduce pollution (including greenhouse-gas emissions). Given the socio-political history of the mine, achieving this admirable and valuable goal will be a great challenge. The article notes that the carbon footprint of electric vehicles is relatively large because of the energy used to mine the metals contained in car batteries…

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…

December 15 2021

sea level continues to challenge low-lying areas of Atlantic coast, fire and then floods in British Columbia and Australia, largest-ever order for solar panels in U.S., parking lots and landfills as solar-energy producers, federal government starts decarbonization push

An article in Grist revisits Tangier Island, in Chesapeake Bay. The island is slowly disappearing because of sea level rise and coastal erosion. These processes appear to be accelerating, and the latest study suggests that the island will be uninhabitable by 2051. The mayor of the island, James “Ooker” Eskridge, had a famous interaction with Al Gore during a CNN town hall when the mayor insisted that sea level rise was not a thing. Eskridge, a supporter of Donald Trump, said that Trump told him "not to worry about sea-level rise. Your island has been there for hundreds of years, and I believe your island will be there for hundreds more.” AP reports that Charleston, South Carolina, experienced the fourth-highest tide in 85 years of recording. What’s remarkable is that the other three highest levels happened during tropical storms or hurricanes. Another AP story describes the results of a recent election in Virginia Beach, where voters approved a new tax to support adaptation to rising sea level and intense flooding. This is evidence of the growing understanding that the problems of climate change are real.

A storm dropped a month’s worth of rain in two days across parts of British Columbia as described in an article in the Guardian. Said one resident, “Things that we just thought would always be there — like highway bridges that were built 30 years ago that were part of our life — were absolutely destroyed. Mountainsides just collapsed onto roads. The level of destruction is really difficult to comprehend.” This storm was one of several atmospheric rivers to strike the region recently. This type of precipitation event, which is replicated weekly across the planet now (i.e., Australia), is becoming more and more likely due the physical fact that a warmer atmosphere can hold more moisture. It is particularly dramatic to have these storms happening in southern British Columbia and Australia, areas also recently hammered by major heat and wildfire events.

November 30 2021

U.N. climate meeting has its ups and downs, climate misinformation on Facebook, climate challenges for California agriculture, the dehydration of Arizona

The 26th Conference of the Parties (COP) to the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) has concluded in Glasgow with an agreement that makes at best modest progress addressing the problem. The New York Times notes that many issues remain unresolved (Yale Climate Connections calls these shortfalls "yawning gaps" and other "crevasses"). Under the Paris Accord, the parties were to arrive in Glasgow with updated pledges for reducing carbon emissions. While they did so, an investigation by the Washington Post documented that many countries are under-reporting their actual emissions, possibly as much as 23% in total. This suggests that efforts to reduce emissions have not been as successful as described—and we already know that, even if original targets had been met, they were not ambitious enough to avoid the worst impacts of climate change. In the Atlantic, Robinson Meyer notes that the nations’ actual policies lag even further behind their pledges. While the new pledges might keep global average temperature increases by 2100 to 2.4°C, policies are still at a level closer to 2.7°C, well beyond the more protective 1.5°C.

This has made many claim that the COP is just a waste of time. Greta Thunberg called the meetings "blah, blah, blah," and indigenous leaders were disappointed (although the concept of a "just transition" for less developed nations was an important part of the meeting). There is not, however, an alternative to COP to achieve the global transition, and as Meyer states, there’s more to COP than the math: