July 15 2021

July 15 2021

our hot "megadrought," outlawing nonfunctional grass, the prophets of doom (were right), recognizing coal communities as energy "veterans"

The Guardian interviews three leading scientists about the "megadrought" in the western U.S., which has now reached a length and intensity that is matching the worst droughts in the region in a thousand years. Scientist Jonathan Overpeck notes in the Hill that this is a "hot drought," where low precipitation is combined with high temperatures, a situation which will become more common as the world warms. As described in the Washington Post, Lake Mead (the reservoir behind Hoover Dam, the largest in the country), is now at the lowest level since it was filled in the 1930s (this site tracks Lake Mead’s level in real time). The governor of Utah, one of the hardest hit states, has resorted to praying for rain, and California agriculture is facing some difficult questions in the short and longer term due to reduced water availability. California is also facing the need to generate more gas-fired electricity due to the loss of hydroelectric generating capability.

To underscore the reality that this is indeed a "hot drought," a meteorologically stable dome of high pressure developed over the Pacific Northwest, sending temperatures skyrocketing to new records in Portland, Seattle and British Columbia, where the highest temperature ever recorded in Canada was measured in Lytton, B.C. (115°F on June 27). The heat literally cooked one billion intertidal marine organisms at low tide, and fruit on trees. The stable high-pressure system may be linked directly to climate change. This was not “just another heat wave,” said extreme-weather expert Christopher Burt in the Washington Post, but rather “the most anomalous extreme heat event ever observed on Earth since records began two centuries ago.” A heat wave of this magnitude is virtually impossible without human-caused climate change (said one scientist, “Global warming is not our grandchildren’s problem; it is ours, here and now”). While such an extreme episode used to be considered a one-in-a-thousand-year event (based on frequency of occurrence in the past), scientists predict it will happen every 5 to 10 years in 2050 on our current emissions path. Lost in the news of heat in the Northwest was the fact that Phoenix set a record with six days in a row at 115°F, and that nighttime temperatures are setting records across the continent. This is a predicted impact of climate change, and is a major threat to human lives as it makes cooling down at night impossible.

The Guardian has a great graphical story that uses images of tree rings to drive home how extraordinary the current western megadrought has become. The authors of the tree-ring study estimate that 46% of the current drought (as estimated by soil moisture) is due to climate change. "Hotter temperatures lead to greater direct evaporation and evapotranspiration, or evaporation from plants. That saps the ground and vegetation of water more effectively, drying out the landscape and leaving it a powder keg for rampant wildfire growth during the autumn." CBS News reviews the recent extreme heat around the globe, where temperatures peaked in northwestern Siberia above 100°F for the first time on record. The New York Times reports that doctors are warning that people can get third-degree burns from hot asphalt.

AP reports that Nevada has outlawed "nonfunctional" grass, which is the grass that virtually no one uses at office parks, in street medians and at entrances to housing developments. The law excludes single-family homes, parks and golf courses, yet is still estimated to cover 31% of the grass in Las Vegas. An article in the Guardian describes the activities of one of 50 water-waste investigators now employed by the Southern Nevada Water Authority (Las Vegas) to enforce water-conservation measures. In drought-stricken Arizona, AZCentral reports that golf courses have organized to "push back" against a proposed 3.1% reduction in their water use. The article is a great look at how one water-intensive sector is only starting to grapple with the the growing aridity of its region. The San Francisco Chronicle notes that the July 1, 2020 – June 30, 2021 "water year" was one of the ten driest ever recorded in California, and that the two-year period starting July 1, 2019 was the second driest ever.

Inside Climate News reports on a new study that has examined the potential for capturing floodwaters in California to recharge groundwater aquifers. In the state, water has historically been stored in snowpack, reservoirs and groundwater, but the recent drought years have resulted in less snowpack and an overdraft of groundwater. While drought is high on our minds at present, it is important to remember that our future is also projected to have very wet years as well. A sustainable future will require that we capture floodwaters, and reduce water use, to help us meet demand during drought years. The study concludes that our current water systems are inadequate to meet this challenge, but many political, environmental, technical and socioeconomic issues face those who are developing new policy. The political challenges are on display in the Upper Klamath watershed, where the Guardian notes that there is just not enough water to go around this year (a condition that will become more frequent in the coming decades). All stakeholders are suffering, and the potential for violent conflict is building.

Bay Nature examines how in the Bay Area, we need to learn to live with fire – but we’re still trying to figure it out. Prescribed burning will certainly be a part, but this is in the context of a much longer relationship over time with these lands.

The New York Times takes a trip to the Svalbard Satellite Station, the world’s northernmost such outpost and a key link in the system that allows us to study the climate using satellites. Inside Climate News reports on climate-change resilience projects in the Department of Defense, where preparing for climate change is seen as mission critical. This work, which is getting much more focus after Biden’s election, continued without any fanfare during the Trump Administration because our Armed Forces have recognized the threat that climate change poses.

An article at Inside Climate News describes the Electrification Futures Study, a four-year effort recently completed by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory. The study concludes that electrification can be completed reliably and with existing technologies, but will require 81% more electricity by 2050 than was generated in 2018. A key feature of successful electrification will be to make electrical demand more flexible by encouraging owners of electric vehicles to recharge them at times of low demand and by offering incentives for households and businesses to reduce their power use whenever demand gets uncomfortably close to outstripping supply. The report envisions that much of this flexibility can be run by software in ways that are barely noticeable to consumers.

While it is possible to address climate change using existing technology, it is very likely that new discoveries will contribute to transition more. Physics World reports on a new photovoltaic device that uses seawater to cool the solar cells, making them more efficient, while using the remaining waste heat from the cells to desalinate the sea water. The device produces electricity, freshwater and solid salt as its outputs – all usable products. The inventors are now working to produce a commercial-scale version of the device.

The Guardian has a long article (excerpted from a new book) about the scientific and political history of climate change in the U.S. since 1970. It is interesting reading, but quite painful as one reads the warnings presented by climate scientists and the motivations of those who called these scientists "prophets of doom." One is reminded of Jimmy Carter installing solar panels on the White House in 1978 and calling for the U.S. to get 20% of its energy from renewable sources by 2000. If only the country had listened and taken action…

In the 1970s and 1980s, scientists at Exxon and other oil companies were conducting research concluding that carbon-dioxide emissions would heat the planet. The Guardian interviews three of them, providing an interesting window into their experience. Physicist Martin Hoffert says, "We made a prediction in 1980 of what the atmospheric warming would be from fossil fuel burning in 2020. We predicted that it would be about one degree celsius. And it is about one degree celsius."

Anthropocene reports on sustainable aviation fuels (SAF), which could reduce carbon emissions of aviation considerably if widely adopted (currently, only 0.01% of aviation fuels are SAF). In addition to reducing carbon emissions, SAF will also reduce soot and water-vapor emissions, which will further reduce the global-warming impact of aviation.

A post in The Equation notes that new legislation in the U.S. Senate addresses head-on the challenge that the transition away from coal presents to workers and communities that depend on coal for jobs and economic livelihoods. The Save Our Future Act recognizes that many workers and their families have sacrificed for generations in order to help keep the lights on — referring to them as "energy veterans" to emphasize that we should collectively respect them for their service to the nation.

In Brief Climate News is going to take July 31 off while I visit the Alaskan wilderness (returning to the field site of my doctoral research, Katmai National Park). Back again in mid-August.