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Bridging climate science, citizens, and policy

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Climate-Related News 5/29/09

I’m going to talk about two news articles I saw this week.  The first is about Arctic methane concentration levels rising.  After 10 years of no change in concentration values, methane concentrations rose in 2007 and 2008 by 0.6% each year.  While that doesn’t sound like a lot, it is important to remember that methane is 25 times as effective a greenhouse gas as is carbon dioxide.  It therefore takes much less of a rise in concentration to effect the climate in the same way.  The biggest problem is that nobody knows for certain what the source of the new methane is.  Finding that out would give scientists a better idea of how much of an impact on the climate it is likely to have.

Carbon pollution is expected to rise by at least 40% worldwide by 2030 if emissions aren’t cut.  Most of the forecasted rise comes from the BRIC developing countries: Brazil, Russia, India and China.  Ways must be found to bring these countries into the 21st century, technologically and economically speaking, without endangering the planet.  It’s a fact that is acknowledged by climate scientists who are trying to bring increased focus to societal impacts due to climate change as part of the IPCC’s 5th Assessment Report, due to be issued in 2013.

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Early Thoughts on Sonia Sotomayor

Before this chance passes me by, I wanted to put down my early thoughts on Judge Sonia Sotomayor, the judge President Obama has nominated to replace Justice Souter on the U.S. Supreme Court.  At this point, I’m not thrilled with the choice.  Now, that’s not to say I don’t like her as the nominee.  What I am concerned about is her track record.  I don’t care too much that she is a woman, nor that she is a Hispanic.  I do believe the Supreme Court could use a little more diversity, as long as it’s not diversity for diversity’s sake.

Back to her track record: what little I’ve seen so far doesn’t encourage me.  I’m unsure whether she’ll stand up for actual people.  In contrast, I knew quickly after their nominations that Samuel Alito and John Roberts definitely would not stand up for actual people.  They had track records establishing that mindset.  What I’ve read about Sotomayor indicates at best a mixed message.  Will she be as strong an advocate for American citizens as Alito and Roberts are for corporations and the elite?  If not, that’s not change; that’s not progress, both of which this country is in desperate need.

Indeed, reading this article raises plenty of questions I’d like answered.  This paragraph in particular caught my attention:

Yet Sotomayor did not live her entire childhood in a housing project in the South Bronx — she spent most of her teenage years in a middle-class neighborhood, attending private school and winning scholarships to Princeton and then Yale.

That’s not the story President Obama wanted highlighted, which means his introduction of Sotomayor comes across as disingenuous.  If she rose up out of the projects into a middle-class neighborhood and attended a private school, say so.  Let the American people ascertain the true Sotomayor, not the version the White House wants spun.

Judge Sotomayor has a track record of voting with conservative judges in District Court, not liberal judges.  That’s worrisome to me.  President Obama was elected by the largest margin in 20 years.  Democrats control the House and Senate by a large margin.  If liberals can’t get a proud, strong liberal nominated to the Supreme Court at this point in time, it won’t happen for the next couple generations.

The corporate media did a very poor job of accurately describing Bush’s nominees’ character and voting tendencies.  They are the most radical judges nominated in years.  They aren’t strict constitutionalists – they vote to overturn law more than the other Supreme Court judges.  What happened was the extremist right-wing set the frame for Democrats to have a hard time getting the truth out about ultra-conservatives nominated to the bench.  By claiming liberal judges were the activists, supposedly “legislating from the bench”, they prevented the same kind of criticism from being leveled at their nominees, even though the records clearly show which judges are activists and which aren’t.  Bush forced the Supreme Court so far to the right that President Obama should have nearly been forced to nominate someone to try to balance the tilt back toward the center.  By nominating Sotomayor using language like “moderate”, the balance will not likely shift back.  Replacing Justice Souter with someone who is more conservative than he is pushes the Court that much further out of balance.

I sincererly hope my initial read on Judge Sotomayor is incorrect.  I hope she stands up for Americans’ rights and works to limit corporations’ rights.  I hope she will prove to be a strong counterbalance to the extremists Bush appointed.  Some of this might come out in confirmation hearings this summer.  It will unfortunately take many decisions on the Court before a clear picture emerges.  I hope it won’t be too late once that happens.

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Atlantic Tropical Weather Update 5/29/09

The 1st storm of 2009 in the Atlantic basin formed yesterday: Tropical Depression 1.  Today’s forecast discussion can be found here.

TD1 is currently centered at 39.6N, 64.0W; maximum sustained winds of 34mph; moving east-northeast @ 18mph; minimum central pressure of 1006mb.

As I suspected, TD1 is unlikely to strengthen during the remainder of its life.  Westerly wind shear has pushed the convection away from the central low.  Sometime tomorrow, it should dissipate as it is absorbed into a frontal zone crossing the Atlantic.
Elsewhere, a tropical wave is moving westward across the Atlantic near 8N.  It isn’t expected to develop into a more organized system over the next couple of days.  As it continues to draw nearer to South America, SSTs warm up another degree C or so.  Upper level winds south of 10N are fairly weak right now.  North of 10N, upper level wind speeds are high, which would shear apart any system trying to organize itself.  It’s still early in the season.

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Atlantic Tropical Weather Update 5/28/09: 1st Storm of 2009

Well, it’s obviously not June 1st, which is the official start date for the National Hurricane Center’s Atlantic Tropical Season.  As usual, nature doesn’t contort itself around people’s arbitrary dates and definitions.  The 1st storm in the Atlantic basin has formed today: Tropical Depression 1.  Unlike last year, it doesn’t look like nearly every storm will strengthen to Tropical Storm strength.  TD1 moved offshore from North Carolina a couple of days ago as a midlatitude cyclone.

TD1 is currently centered at 37.7N, 69.4W; maximum sustained winds of 34mph; moving northeast @ 16mph; minimum central pressure of 1006mb.

TD1 could potentially strengthen to a Tropical Storm in the next 24-48 hours since it is sitting on top of the Gulf Stream current in the western Atlantic.  Sea surface temperatures are marginal for that to happen; of greater concern is the shear in the area.  TD1 has okay, but not great features on satellite imagery.  Convection remains disconnected from the central low on the southeast portion of the storm.

I didn’t think this system would organize as it crossed into the Atlantic.  I thought an MCS moving southeast from Texas to the Gulf of Mexico would have a better chance at development due to the better water conditions inthe Gulf.  It hasn’t developed, of course, and it isn’t likely to any time soon.  It just goes to show how suitable conditions can develop where you least expect them to.

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Some Thoughts On the Carbon 9

As the American Clean Energy and Security Act (ACES) of 2009 continues its way through the House now that it has been voted out of the Energy and Commerce Committee, a number of groups are examining who the potential supporters and opponents of the bill might be.  An obvious (perhaps too obvious) choice are the folks “in the middle” – folks who might vote either way on the bill.  Or the way I view things – folks who are going to hold critical legislation hostage until their special interest masters get what they want out of bill negotiations and amendments.  The real issue is who will have their operations restricted the most?  Again, an obvious answer is available: those who pollute the most.  As devilstower wrote 10 or so days ago, the U.S. isn’t carbon flat.  What that means is that there are some locations in this country that overwhelmingly contribute to greenhouse gas pollution.  Those locations will, of course, face the most necessary action to come into line with future pollution limits.  A recently published paper examines the distribution of carbon emissions across the U.S.  Here is one of their findings:

The variation in intensity of carbon emissions is extreme. Across 1,559 counties with at least 25,000 residents in 2002, the average carbon emissions per capita was 7.66 tons but with a median of 3.28 tons and a standard deviation of 16.9 tons.

For those not intimately familiar with statistical measurements, the standard deviation of a variable isn’t supposed to be five times as large as the median value.  One standard deviation away from the median yields a range of -13.62 to 20.18 tons.  That tells us that while there are plenty of low emitters, there are also a large number of very large emitters.  There are very, very large carbon emitters if you consider the 2nd deviation value of 37.08 tons.  That’s about five times the average – which in the large picture isn’t good news.  Those emitters need to reduce those emission rates.  Which is where we get to the ‘Carbon 9′ – a group of 9 Representatives in the House whose votes on ACES might or might not affect its ultimate passage in the House.

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NASA’s Lunar Reconnaisance Orbiter and Opportunity Rover Update – 5/26/09

With NASA’s ambitious Hubble repair mission behind us, it is time to take note of the next major mission to launch and mark an important milestone.  NASA’s Lunar Reconnaisance Orbiter remains on track for its June 17th launch.  The LRO will substantially add to NASA’s knowledge of lunar polar conditions. notes the following mission goals:

Using a suite of seven instruments, LRO will help identify safe landing sites for future human explorers, locate potential resources, characterize the radiation environment and test new technology.  The probe’s instruments will also allow scientists to explore the moon’s deepest craters, look beneath its surface for clues to the location of water ice, and identify and explore both permanently lit and permanently shadowed regions.

Joining the LRO in June will be the Lunar Crater Observation and Sensing Satellite. Its mission is to impact the moon in a crater. The resulting plume of lunar material will be studied by the LRO, Earth-based instruments and possibly the Hubble Space Telescope for possible water ice, as well as other chemical compounds.

I’m looking forward to the successful launch of LRO and LCROSS.

The Opportunity Rover on Mars passed a phenomenal milestone recently: it has traveled more than 10 miles to date over 5 years of operations!  That’s not bad for a rover that was designed to travel 1km over 1 year of operation.  I’ll say this for NASA: they like things to be spectacular.  Either spectacular successes or spectacular failures seem to be the result of missions – manned and unmanned.

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State of the Arctic – 5/26/09

In what’s becoming a monthly write-up of Arctic sea ice conditions, here is May 2009’s State of the Arctic.

April was kind to Arctic sea ice – very little areal extent was lost during April, as I covered in my last post on the subject, contrary to recent or climatological standards.  Monthly variation doesn’t have to follow climatology, of course, as May’s sea ice conditions continued to demonstrate.  Also contrary to recent or climatological standards, Arctic sea ice areal extent decreased at a faster rate.  Conditions are now closer to the record-low year of 2007, at this point in the year, than they are to climatology, a reversal of April conditions.  However, conditions in April were closer to climatology than conditions now are to the 2007 season.  One important factor in May’s areal extent decrease is the low ice volume.  Due to multiple years in a row of declining sea ice in the midst of warming ocean temperatures, there is less ice this season that can withstand another melt season than in previous years.  Indeed, this phenomenon is expected to create summer-time ice-free conditions in the near future.

To update my last post, here are the corresponding graphs showing the state of the arctic ice sheet as of yesterday, starting with a graphical look at ice extent:

The questions I asked at the end of my last post still apply: now that La Nina conditions have transitioned to a neutral state, how will atmospheric and oceanic currents affect the remaining ice extent?  What happens when the next El Nino begins and matures?  What kind of weather patterns will exist over the Arctic this summer and fall?  These all have direct implications on the final ice extent value for 2009.  Case in point: the rapid drop-off in extent seen in the 2007 season during June.  Will we see something similar this year?  Are we already starting to?

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Climate Change News – 5/22/09: Sea Level Rise Estimates, Oil & Military, Emissions in a Recession

Here are some of the climate-related news stories that I’ve seen this week:

A new study proposes that if the West Antarctic ice sheets melted, global sea level rise would only be 10 feet, not 20 as previously estimated by other studies.  The new study’s author claims that enough of the ice sheet would remain grounded on the Antarctic continent so that only some of the melting ice would find its way directly to the world’s oceans.  If true, this would be at least some good news in the sea level rise arena. One take-away message is that we still don’t know nearly enough about ice sheet and glacier dynamics to reliably forecast their future conditions.  These are interesting results – since they challenge previous findings, they need to be explored further.

Though not my chief concern over fossil fuel usage, a group of retired military officers argue in a recently released report that energy security and efforts to reduce the risks of climate change should be included in the nation’s national security and military planning.  From the article:

The concerns extend beyond America’s dependence on foreign oil, the report says, because no matter what the source, America’s dependence on oil “undermines economic stability, which is critical to national security.”

Also, the report called for modernizing the nation’s electric power system. The country’s “fragile domestic electricity grid makes our domestic military installations and their critical infrastructure unnecessarily vulnerable to incident, whether deliberate or accidental,” said the report.

The report raised alarm about three converging concerns: A future global oil market shaped by limited supplies and increasing demand, rising fossil fuel prices caused by regulating climate-changing emissions, and the impacts of climate change on global insecurity.

Another casualty of the 2008-09 recession?  CO2 emissions.  Many people were curious how the worst recession since the Great Depression would impact emission trends. Energy-related carbon dioxide emissions declined by 2.8 percent last year compared to 2007.  The Energy Information Administration attributed the decline to a 2.2 percent drop in energy consumption, largely because of high gasoline and diesel prices last summer and the sharp economic decline in the last half of the year.  It’s not the way anybody wanted emissions to be reduced – millions of Americans are unemployed and our economy is in tatters.  Meanwhile, Cons and ConservaDems watered the Waxman-Markey cap-and-trade legislation down significantly, as I’ll cover later.

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Corporate Media Covers Disappearing Maldives; Still Misses Important Parts

I read this article about the Maldives the other day and wasn’t sure if I detected two contradictory themes that the author presented (knowingly, unknowingly?) in it.  I checked with a couple other friends and we all came away with the same interpretation.  I’m going to go through it here and discuss what I think of it.

The undisputed theme of the article is adaptation to climate change.  As usual, the devil is in the details.  The Maldives are a collection of islands (atolls, really) in the Indian Ocean.  Their average height above sea level is 4′ 11″.  That means they’re in particular danger from melting ice sheets and glaciers, which is expected to happen as one result of our climate forcing. The Maldives’ President, Mohamed Nasheed, has proposed relocating all 350,000 inhabitants to other countries due to this threat.  Much more was written about Nasheed and the Maldives in this Praer post by Wade Norris.

From the article:

But some recent data challenge the widespread belief that the islands are destined to disappear — and a few mainstream scientists are even cautiously optimistic about their chances for surviving relatively intact beyond the next century.

First off, I’m going to challenge the word ‘belief’.  It has religious undertones, and that isn’t what scientists do.  Without action, the polar ice sheets are forecasted to melt at increasing rates.  Sea level rise could very well reach multiple feet by 2100, which would put the Malidives, among other locations, at risk of being submerged.  Without action, the top of today’s islands will be under water.  Those statements are based on our current understanding of physical processes.  Scientists don’t have to believe in them in order for them to be true – they will be just as true if scientists don’t believe in them.  So just who are the “mainstream scientists” who are optimistic for the islands’ chances for survival?

Paul Kench of the University of Auckland in New Zealand, who has published studies in recent years in journals including Geology and the Journal of Geophysical Research. Andrew Cooper, a professor of coastal studies at the University of Ulster in Northern Ireland, added his support [emphasis mine]:

“They have detailed geological evidence that this kind of growth has happened before in the past. … I think the question of the Maldives being completely wiped out may be overstated.”

Oh.  Detailed geological evidence.  Which means the Maldives have transformed themselves in geologic time-frames.  What do the 21st century residents of the Maldives do?  They can’t wait on a geologic time-scale for the atolls to change.  The article makes mention of scientists’ assumptions of Maldive damage following the 2004 Asian tsunami event.  Sometimes I don’t know why the corporate stenographers even try.  Is it so hard to stretch one’s mind around the fact that a tsunami event is very different than polar ice sheet collapse?  The effective time-scales for each are far, far apart.  Tsunamis immediate impact last hours to days, with longer term impacts lasting years.  Polar ice sheet collapse begin operating on yearly time-scales, with “immediate” impacts lasting decades to centuries and longer term impacts lasting centuries to millenia.  The key here is polar ice sheet collapse is the kind of catastrophe that our race has never faced before.  Comparing it to the 2004 tsunami, which was a catastrophe in its own right, doesn’t do it justice.

Which is where the article contradicts itself.  The very next paragraph reads:

Kench warned, however, that while only a small number of Maldivian islands may not be able to adapt to rising sea levels, those are unfortunately the ones where many people live: Male, the nation’s capital, and Hulule. Residents of those islands will probably need to relocate to another country or move to other Maldivian islands that won’t disappear so quickly, he said.

Oops.  The devil really is in the details, isn’t it?  As geologic formations, all of the atolls will be affected in one way or another by climate change.  As geopolitical formations, the most critical portions of the Maldives are facing the gravest threat.  How then is the question of the Maldives being completely wiped out be overstated, as Andrew Cooper said?  As usual, the corporate stenographers do a grand disservice to their readers.

I do want to point out the following:

While much global warming work aims to limit emissions, adaptation advocates argue for the need to combat the inevitable effects of climate change through forward planning and construction. That includes moving people, building sea walls, and new construction techniques.

This is actually a reasonable statement.  Unfortunately, it is undermined by the lack of a reasonable question: why not discuss both solutions?  Indeed, in an increasingly forced climate, resulting in widespread, intense heating and desertification over 1/3 of the planet, why should adaptation be the only viable solution discussed?  If we take aggressive, attainable measures to reduce our emissions, it has been demonstrated that we can avoid the worst climate change effects in the next 100, 1,000 and 10,000 years.  Realistically, some measure of adaptation will have to be enacted, that much is obvious and agreed upon.  But we can limit the amount of adaptation required if we simultaneously reduce our forcing.  The corporate stenographers missed another opportunity to discuss that fact.

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New Automobile Emissions Rule

President Obama yesterday announced a new federal plan toto cut new vehicle carbon emissions and raise mileage by 30 percent. The new requirement is estimated to cost consumers an extra $1,300 per vehicle starting in 2016, or $700 on top of the expected $600 from previous standards’ increases.  Fuel savings, using today’s dollars per gallon, would make up that increased cost in just a few years.  If gas prices increase in the next 7 years (a virtual certainty), the increased cost will be offset that much quicker (which unsurprisingly was not in any media reports that I’ve seen or read).

What do the more aggressive targets really mean?  It’s being estimated that 900 million tons of CO2 won’t be emitted.  That would help (if even only a little) keep our total CO2 emissions under 1 Trillion tons, as several researchers are now saying we need to stay under to prevent catastrophic climate change.  Every billion tons not emitted is a little more buffer we give ourselves, which is important because the 1Trillion ton metric is relatively new and not very robust.  It could be significantly lower.

Cars will be required to get an average of 39mpg starting in 2016, up from today’s 27.5mpg standard.  The good news is the current operational average is 32.6mpg.  I think an addional 6.4mpg in seven years is easily doable.  Kudos to the Obama administration for orchestrating this rule.  A lot of disparate interests were brought together to make this work.  That couldn’t have been done with the previous administration.


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