January 15 2021

January 15 2021

the changing Arctic, parts of the U.S. will become uninhabitable, the world’s largest wind turbine, major climate action by Congress, Trump fails to damage the National Climate Assessment

The New York Times reports on a new assessment of the Arctic climate that finds extraordinary rates of change across the region. As predicted decades ago, the Arctic is heating faster than the rest of the planet, and this is reducing the extent of snow and ice, melting permafrost and promoting fires. One author notes, “Nearly everything in the Arctic… is changing so quickly that there is no reason to think that in 30 years much of anything will be as it is today.”

As the Earth’s climate changes, there will be a region of “the frozen north” that becomes more temperate, resulting in the possibility of greater agricultural production. The New York Times (in conjunction with ProPublica) reports that Russia, which has the largest landmass by far of any northern nation, hopes that warming temperatures and longer growing seasons will make it one of the world’s largest food producers. The article notes that Canada, Scandinavia, Iceland and Russia could see as much as five-fold bursts in their per capita gross domestic products by the end of the century. Of course, these changes will happen gradually, and will be accompanied by challenges as thawing soils lead to damage to roads, bridges and buildings. Winter wheat and canola seed productivity in southern Siberia is already rising as predicted, although at a much faster rate. Russia’s agricultural exports have jumped by a factor of 16 since 2000.

A video from ProPublica describes the imminent changes to the climate in the U.S., focusing on the impacts of heat and drought in the South. These changes will make this part of the country less habitable in the coming decades, yet Americans are still moving to these areas. An accompanying article concludes that our country is on the cusp of a transformation as people begin to migrate (if they can) to avoid climate impacts. “Once you accept that climate change is fast making large parts of the United States nearly uninhabitable, the future looks like this: With time, the bottom half of the country grows inhospitable, dangerous and hot. Something like a tenth of the people who live in the South and the Southwest — from South Carolina to Alabama to Texas to Southern California — decide to move north in search of a better economy and a more temperate environment.” Such a migration will accelerate rapid, perhaps chaotic, urbanization of cities, while “dealing repeated economic blows to coastal, rural and Southern regions, which could in turn push entire communities to the brink of collapse.”

The New York Times describes the COVID disaster relief bill, one of the single biggest climate actions taken by the U.S. Congress. The bill sets in motion the phase-out of the use of hydrofluorocarbon refrigerants, which are powerful greenhouse gases, by 2035. This brings the U.S. into compliance with the 2016 Kigali Amendment to the Montreal Protocol. The bill also includes the provisions of a bi-partisan energy bill developed by Senators Murkowski (R-AK) and Manchin (D-WVA). These provisions provide $35 billion in research and development money for solar, nuclear, carbon capture and battery technologies.

A photo-essay in the New York Times describes the impact of this year’s fires in California on redwoods, sequoias and Joshua trees. These iconic trees were destroyed in large numbers, despite (for the redwoods and sequoias) their renowned resistance to fire. The article notes that, “These losses, and the losses likely to come, are not something to be measured in mere acres. These are not mere numbers, not mere trees. To those who come from around the globe to bear witness, and especially to those in California, they represent something both bigger and more personal.”

Forestry experts are noting the importance of prescribed burns to protect forests, and that these burns must be more aggressive and larger than previously applied. An op-ed in the Guardian notes that fires in the U.S. — 8.6 million acres this year — were small compared to those in Australia (46 million acres) and Siberia (47 million). The author examines the role of land use (especially by livestock) in deforestation and fire damage, and suggests that economic drivers must be addressed if forests are to be preserved for carbon sequestration and for fire damage to be minimized.

An article in Grist reviews the promise and challenges of tidal and wave energy, and another examines waste-heat-to-power technology. The Guardian looks at the latest fusion reactor design, which has some promise but has yet to even advance to the pilot phase. The New York Times reports on General Electric’s 13 MW Haliade-X, the largest commercial wind turbine every constructed. This device, with a rotor diameter longer than two football fields, is upending the economics of the offshore wind industry.

The New York Times reports that, despite the Trump Administration’s machinations to keep climate change from becoming a top priority, it’s been unsuccessful in its attempts to influence the National Climate Assessment. Produced every four years by the collective efforts of scientists at multiple federal agencies, the Assessment is the premier presentation of climate science and its implications. That Trump was unable to seriously derail this important endeavor is a credit to the commitment and courage of the federal scientists working on the project.

An article at InsideClimate News quotes Harvard Professor Geoffrey Supran about the Trump Administration: “No previous administration in the modern era has so willfully, brazenly, and comprehensively based its decision-making on ignorance.” As detailed in the article, many government scientists and science-based nonprofits leveraged their knowledge of science and government to work as part of “the resistance” to limit damage on many fronts.

This edition of In Brief Climate News is a little shorter than usual, as there has been much other news to keep up on in the last two weeks. Fortunately this is my last edition during the Trump Administration and, with Biden elevating his science team to the cabinet level, things are looking up.