June 30 2022

June 30 2022

the Arctic is warming quickly, early-season heat waves abound, flooding in Yellowstone, green aluminum, is creating fossil-fuel PR immoral?

Recent measurements have documented that a region of the Arctic is warming faster than any place on Earth. The Guardian reports on these temperature increases on the islands of Svalbard and Franz Josef Land in the Barents Sea. That the Arctic would warm more rapidly relative to the rest of the planet has been predicted since the 1970s, due mainly to ice (that reflects solar radiation) being replaced by water (that absorbs solar radiation). However, the heating appears to be happening faster than previously estimated. This will likely have significant impacts on weather outside of the Arctic as the historical temperature gradient between the tropics and the Arctic gets smaller.

Water availability is declining in the western U.S. through a combination of drought, population growth and lack of conservation (John Oliver has a nice primer on the problem). This reduction can be seen in Utah as the Great Salt Lake dwindles in size. The New York Times examines the implications of this change, which extends far beyond the loss of water itself. In particular, the exposed lake bed is becoming an air-quality hazard for the region, and there is no indication yet that the growth in water use that’s driving this problem is being addressed. A similar problem has already played out at Owens Lake east of the Sierra Nevada mountains in California, which has resulted in the town of Keeler essentially being abandoned. An article in the Washington Post describes the potential for taps to go dry in the South African city of Gqeberha, due to climate change and inadequate water-system maintenance.

The Washington Post reports that the “immediate crises — among them war, spiking gas prices and an open-ended pandemic — are hindering the ability of leaders to take necessary action on the longer-term threats posed by climate change.” At our present rate of emissions, we will fly past the 1.5°C target by 2030. One leading climate scientist noted, “we know what we need to do, but we are not doing it yet.” An article in the New York Times describes the growing challenges facing countries in Asia due to climate change and extreme weather.

The Guardian describes the mid-June heatwave in Phoenix, where the temperature did not fall below 80°F for a week, breaking several night-time records (the overnight low temperature on June 10 was 90°F — exceeding the previous overnight record for this day by a full 5°F). A resident recorded a TikTok video of cooking hamburgers on the dashboard of his car. The lack of cooling at night is a key factor in heat stress (and subsequent mortality). As the heat wave expanded east, the New York Times noted that over 60 million Americans were under extreme-heat warnings as temperature records fell across the country. The heat increases the chance of power outages, pest control problems and wildfires. Early season heat was also present in Europe, northern and central China and India. The New York Times describes a recent study’s conclusions that “the average number of days between May and September with at least one large heat wave in the Northern Hemisphere doubled between the 1980s and the 2010s.” Heat waves are projected to get worse: as a Vox headline notes, “This could be the coolest summer of the rest of your life.”

The New York Times reports that Yellowstone National Park was hit by a “one in 1,000 year rainfall event” that has closed the northern part of the park until the fall. The Guardian notes that three months of rain fell in just a few days. Flooding was particularly intense as the rain quickly melted snow on the ground (a similar phenomenon in California’s Feather River watershed drove the flooding that overtopped Oroville Dam in 2017). New York Magazine states that the Yellowstone River was flowing at 51,000 cubic feet per second (CFS), 64% above the previously recorded maximum of 31,000 CFS (this article contains some remarkable videos documenting the power of the flooding). Extreme weather events such as this are threatening all of our national parks, from Florida to Alaska.

The flooding in Yellowstone, combined with the fires in New Mexico and the heat wave baking the southern and eastern U.S., is contributing to a growing sense of dread (an op-ed in the New York Times describes a newfound sense of relief when migrating swallows return as usual in the spring). The Guardian describes the impact of “compound extremes,” where multiple extreme events can interact to drive even more dangerous conditions (Grist reports that the Union of Concerned Scientists suggests we now call May-October the “Danger Season” in the U.S.). The Guardian quotes the head of FEMA: “The field of emergency management is at a pivotal moment in its history,” as climate change makes “natural” disasters more destructive. CNN notes that severe rainfall also caused flooding that shut down a baby-formula plant in Sturgis, MI, that had only just resumed production amid a nationwide shortage — another example of climate change having unexpected negative outcomes.

An op-ed in the New York Times describes the shortcomings of tree-planting as a climate solution. Given that 20% of our carbon emissions will still be in the atmosphere centuries from now, it is vital that our carbon-removal strategies are permanent. Trees don’t qualify. “There is a real risk that, in a warming world with more wildfires, with pests preying on trees and with drying soil, carbon in tree plantations could end up back in the atmosphere sooner rather than later.” In The Conversation, an article notes a key finding of a major new study — trees and forests will likely store less carbon than we thought due to climate stresses that exacerbate forest damage. In particular, in a future scenario with medium emissions, wildfire risk is projected to increase by a factor of four, while drought and insect risks increase by about 50% to 80%.

One idea for sequestering carbon from the atmosphere is to grow kelp and then allow this biomass to sink to the bottom of the ocean. Kelp grows very fast, allowing some impressive estimates of carbon removal with large-scale cultivation. An article in Anthropocene Magazine examines the pros and cons of this concept. Grist reports that Flagstaff, Arizona, and Boulder County, Colorado, are considering carbon removal in their plans for carbon neutrality. Anthropocene Magazine notes that, while regenerative-agriculture techniques can accelerate carbon sequestration at farms and ranches, there are some questions about the ultimate effectiveness of such efforts. Recent research is suggesting that carbon may be cycled back to the atmosphere faster than previously thought, it is hard to prove long-term carbon storage in working lands and there are challenges to scaling up regenerative agriculture. There is less disagreement about the value of restoring and conserving wildlands for carbon storage benefits.

While carbon-offset projects based on forest conservation are often criticized, Yale e360 looks at an offset project in northern Tanzania based on forest conservation that is considered a major success. This project has collaborated with the local population, and has become very popular with these communities and more widely in Tanzania. A key aspect of the project is recognizing the need to protect the local way of life, which conserves the forest, and manage the interactions with pastoralists and farmers, whose activities can degrade local ecosystems.

An article in Protocol describes how misinformation about “energy independence” is used in posts on Facebook that seek to delay climate action. Based on a report by Media Matters, the article notes that even posts labeled as containing misinformation are shared widely. E&E News interviews Texas A&M climate scientist Andrew Dessler, who has been trying to talk about climate change with right-wing audiences. He recently spent two hours on Joe Rogan’s podcast, which has an audience of 11 million.

There is an interesting article in the Guardian about how employees in public-relations firms that support the fossil-fuel industry are deciding not to be involved in this work. There have been sign-on letters demanding that the work stops, and many resignations as people decide such work is immoral. The article includes interviews with three people, highlighting the challenges they face in making these decisions. Meanwhile, an op-ed in the New York Times warns that the Supreme Court is about to take aggressive action to limit the EPA’s ability to regulate greenhouse gases and other environmental stressors (the decision was handed down just as this In Brief was being distributed — more on this decision in the next edition).

In the New York Times, Thomas Friedman wrote about the possibility that the war in Ukraine could accelerate the transition from fossil fuels, as high fuel prices stimulate investment in renewables. A recent analysis concluded that 19 out of the 27 E.U. members “have significantly stepped up their ambition in terms of renewable energy deployment since 2019, while decreasing planned 2030 fossil fuel generation to shield themselves from geopolitical threats.” Salon describes the remarkable growth of the wind-energy industry around the world, and particularly in the U.S.

An article in the Washington Post describes the efforts to restart a closed aluminum smelter in Washington as a “green” plant powered by renewable energy. Despite there being widespread support for the project, it is a challenge to find enough power to operate the plant (electricity costs are one of the factors that have driven most aluminum manufacturing out of the U.S.). While the northwest has abundant hydropower, the federal Bonneville Power Administration has been reluctant to alter operations to direct renewable hydropower to the smelter.

As the climate changes, animals will migrate, increasing the chance of spreading viruses from these creatures to humans. Inside Climate News summarizes a recent study concluding that, over the next 50 years, about 4,000 new viruses will spread between species, which increases the risk of global pandemics among humans. The lead scientist noted, “We can’t put this one back in the bottle.” In the Atlantic, Ed Yong suggests that we have entered a new era the Pandemicene.

E&E News has an article about the need for more transmission if we are going to expand the use of renewable energy, and the challenges we face building this infrastructure. “80,000 megawatts of new wind farms could be built on open lands in Montana, Wyoming and the Dakotas… but today, there’s only enough existing high-voltage transmission to export one-tenth of that amount.” There are a variety of obstacles to getting new transmission constructed, including “disagreements among state officials over how costs of long-distance lines should be shared, governors’ preferences for in-state renewable development, not-in-my-backyard citizen opposition, and pushback from energy companies that don’t welcome the additional competition from low-cost wind and solar farms that new power lines deliver.”

Meanwhile, The Next Web notes that North Carolina legislators have proposed that businesses offering free EV charging to attract customers must remove these chargers unless they also offer free gasoline (no, this is not a joke). And Marjorie Taylor Greene thinks global warming is good for us. At least Texas is stepping up with an effort to install EV charging stations around the state (using federal money from the Infrastructure and Jobs Act).

When I speak about climate change, I tell my audience that — no matter where you live and what you do for work — you can be part of the solution to the climate crisis. As an example, Inside Climate News describes what hairdressers are doing in Australia.