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NASA & NOAA: April 2014 Warmest Globally On Record

According to data released by NASA and NOAA this month, April was the warmest April globally on record.  Here are the data for NASA’s analysis; here are NOAA data and report.  The two agencies have different analysis techniques, which in this case resulted in slightly different temperature anomaly values but the same overall rankings within their respective data sets.  The analyses result in different rankings in most months.  The two techniques do provide a check on one another and confidence for us that their results are robust.  At the beginning, I will remind readers that the month-to-month and year-to-year values and rankings matter less than the long-term climatic warming.  Weather is the dominant factor for monthly and yearly conditions, not climate.

The details:

April’s global average temperature was 0.73°C (1.314°F) above normal (14°C; 1951-1980), according to NASA, as the following graphic shows.  The past three months have a +0.63°C temperature anomaly.  And the latest 12-month period (May 2013 – Apr 2014) had a +0.62°C temperature anomaly.  The time series graph in the lower-right quadrant shows NASA’s 12-month running mean temperature index.  The 2010-2012 downturn was largely due to the last La Niña event (see below for more).  Since then, ENSO conditions returned to a neutral state (neither La Niña nor El Niño).  As previous anomalously cool months fell off the back of the running mean, the 12-month temperature trace tracked upward again throughout 2013 and 2014.

 photo NASA-Temp_Analysis_20140430_zps82150da6.gif

Figure 1. Global mean surface temperature anomaly maps and 12-month running mean time series through April 2014 from NASA.

According to NOAA, April’s global average temperatures were +0.77°C (1.386°F) above the 20th century average of 13.7°C (56.7°F).  NOAA’s global temperature anomaly map for April (duplicated below) shows where conditions were warmer and cooler than average during the month.

 photo NOAA-Temp_Analysis_201404_zps92d3f6cb.gif

Figure 2. Global temperature anomaly map for August 2013 from NOAA.

The two different analyses’ importance is also shown by the preceding two figures.  Despite differences in specific global temperature anomalies, both analyses picked up on the same spatial temperature patterns and their relative strength.

Influence of ENSO

 photo NinoSSTAnom20140501_zpsc925f282.gif

Figure 3. Time series of weekly SST data from NCEP (NOAA).  The highest interest region for El Niño/La Niña is `NINO 3.4` (2nd time series from top).

There has been neither El Niño nor La Niña in the past couple of years.  This ENSO-neutral phase is common.  As you can see in the NINO 3.4 time series (2nd from top in Figure 3), Pacific sea surface temperatures were relatively cool in January through March, then quickly warmed.  This switch occurred because normal easterly winds (blowing toward the west) across the equatorial Pacific relaxed and two significant westerly wind bursts occurred in the western Pacific.  These anomalous winds generated an eastward moving Kelvin wave, which causes downwelling and surface mass convergence.  Warm SSTs collect along the equator as a result.  These Kelvin waves eventually crossed the entire Pacific Ocean, as Figure 4 shows.

 photo PacifcOcEqTAnomaly20140523_zpsff7554f1.gif

Figure 4.  Sub-surface Pacific Ocean temperature anomalies from Jan-Apr 2014.  Anomalously cool eastern Pacific Ocean temperatures in January gave way to anomalously warm temperatures by April.  Temperatures between 80W and 100W warmed further since April 14.

The Climate Prediction Center announced an El Niño Watch earlier this year.  The most recent update says the chances of an El Niño during the rest of 2014 exceeds 65%.  There is no reliable prediction of the potential El Niño’s strength at this time.  Without another westerly wind burst, an El Niño will likely not be very strong.  Even moderate strength El Niños impact global weather patterns.

An important detail is whether the potential 2014 El Niño will be an Eastern or Central Pacific El Niño (see figure below).  Professor Jin-Yi Yu, along with colleagues, first proposed the difference in a 2009 Journal of Climate paper.  More recently, Yu’s work suggested a recent trend toward Central Pacific El Niños influenced the frequency and intensity of recent U.S. droughts.  This type of El Niño doesn’t cause global record temperatures, but still impacts atmospheric circulations and the jet stream, which impacts which areas receive more or less rain.  If the potential 2014 El Niño is an Eastern Pacific type, we can expect monthly global mean temperatures to spike and the usual precipitation anomalies commonly attributed to El Niño.

 photo EastvsCentralPacificENSOschematic_zps08856e81.jpg

Figure 5. Schematic of Central-Pacific ENSO versus Eastern-Pacific ENSO as envisioned by Dr. Jin-Yi Yu at the University of California – Irvine.

If an El Niño does occur later in 2014, it will mask some of the deep ocean heat absorption by releasing energy back to the atmosphere.  If that happens, the second half of 2014 and the first half of 2015 will likely set global surface temperature records.  2014, 2015, or both could set the all-time global mean temperature record (currently held by 2010).  Some scientists recently postulated that an El Niño could also trigger a shift from the current negative phase of the Interdecadal Pacific Oscillation (IPO; or PDO for just the northern hemisphere) to a new positive phase.  This would be similar in nature, though different in detail, as the shift from La Niña or neutral conditions to El Niño.  If this happens, the likelihood of record hot years would increase.  I personally do not believe this El Niño will shift the IPO phase.  I don’t think this El Niño will be strong enough and I don’t think the IPO is in a conducive state for a switch to occur.

The “Hiatus”

Skeptics have pointed out that warming has “stopped” or “slowed considerably” in recent years, which they hope will introduce confusion to the public on this topic.  What is likely going on is quite different: since an energy imbalance exists (less energy is leaving the Earth than the Earth is receiving; this is due to atmospheric greenhouse gases) and the surface temperature rise has seemingly stalled, the excess energy is going somewhere.  The heat has to go somewhere – energy doesn’t just disappear.  That somewhere is likely the oceans, and specifically the deep ocean (see figure below).  Before we all cheer about this (since few people want surface temperatures to continue to rise quickly), consider the implications.  If you add heat to a material, it expands.  The ocean is no different; sea-levels are rising in part because of heat added to it in the past.  The heat that has entered in recent years won’t manifest as sea-level rise for some time, but it will happen.  Moreover, when the heated ocean comes back up to the surface, that heat will then be released to the atmosphere, which will raise surface temperatures as well as introduce additional water vapor due to the warmer atmosphere.  Thus, the immediate warming rate might have slowed down, but we have locked in future warming (higher future warming rate).

 photo Ocean_heat_content_balmaseda_et_al_zps23184297.jpg

Figure 6. Recent research shows anomalous ocean heat energy locations since the late 1950s.  The purple lines in the graph show how the heat content of the whole ocean has changed over the past five decades. The blue lines represent only the top 700 m and the grey lines are just the top 300 m.  Source: Balmaseda et al., (2013)

You can see in Figure 6 that the upper 300m of the world’s oceans accumulated less heat during the 2000s (5*10^22 J) than during the 1990s.  In contrast, accumulated heat greatly increased in ocean waters between 300m and 700m during the 2000s (>10*10^22 J).  We cannot and do not observe the deep ocean with great frequency.  We do know from frequent and reliable observations that the sea surface and relatively shallow ocean did not absorb most of the heat in the past decade.  We also know how much energy came to and left the Earth from satellite observations.  If we know how much energy came in, how much left, and how much the land surface and shallow ocean absorbed, it is a relatively straightforward computation to determine how much energy likely remains in the deep ocean.

Discussion

The fact that April 2014 was the warmest on record despite a negative IPO and a neutral ENSO is eye-opening.  I think it highlights the fact that there is an even lower frequency signal underlying the IPO, ENSO, and April weather: anthropogenic warming.  That signal is not oscillatory, it is increasing at an increasing rate and will continue to do so for decades to centuries.  The length of time that occurs and its eventual magnitude is dependent on our policies and activities.  We continue to emit GHGs at or above the high-end of the range simulated by climate models.  Growth in fossil fuel use at the global scale continues.  This growth dwarfs any effect of a switch to energy sources with lower GHG emissions.  I don’t think that will change during the next 15 years, which would lock us into the warmer climate projections through most of the rest of the 21st century.  The primary reason for this is the scale of humankind’s energy infrastructure.  Switching from fossil fuels to renewable energy will take decades.  Acknowledging this isn’t defeatist or pessimistic; it is I think critical in order to identify appropriate opportunities and implement the type and scale of policy responses to encourage that switch.


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NASA & NOAA: August 2013 4th Warmest Globally On Record

According to data released by NASA and NOAA this month, August was the 4th warmest August globally on record.  Here are the data for NASA’s analysis; here are NOAA data and report.  The two agencies have different analysis techniques, which in this case resulted in different temperature anomaly values but the same overall rankings within their respective data sets.  The analyses result in different rankings in most months.  The two techniques do provide a check on one another and confidence for us that their results are robust.  At the beginning, I will remind readers that the month-to-month and year-to-year values and rankings matter less than the long-term climatic warming.  Monthly and yearly conditions changes primarily by the weather, which is not climate.

The details:

August’s global average temperature was 0.62°C (1.12°F) above normal (1951-1980), according to NASA, as the following graphic shows.  The past three months have a +0.58°C temperature anomaly.  And the latest 12-month period (Aug 2012 – Jul 2013) had a +0.59°C temperature anomaly.  The time series graph in the lower-right quadrant shows NASA’s 12-month running mean temperature index.  The 2010-2012 downturn was largely due to the latest La Niña event (see below for more) that ended early last summer.  Since then, ENSO conditions returned to a neutral state (neither La Niña nor El Niño).  Therefore, as previous anomalously cool months fall off the back of the running mean, and barring another La Niña, the 12-month temperature trace should track upward again throughout 2013.

 photo NASA-Temp_Analysis_20130831_zps3ff2a250.gif

Figure 1. Global mean surface temperature anomaly maps and 12-month running mean time series through August 2013 from NASA.

According to NOAA, April’s global average temperatures were 0.62°C (1.12°F) above the 20th century average of 15.6°C (60.1°F).  NOAA’s global temperature anomaly map for August (duplicated below) shows where conditions were warmer and cooler than average during the month.

 photo NOAA-Temp_Analysis_201308_zpsf2f24a41.gif

Figure 2. Global temperature anomaly map for August 2013 from NOAA.

The two different analyses’ importance is also shown by the preceding two figures.  Despite differences in specific global temperature anomalies, both analyses picked up on the same temperature patterns and their relative strength.

 photo NinoSSTAnom20130924_zps74ba969c.gif

Figure 3. Time series of weekly SST data from NCEP (NOAA).  The highest interest region for El Niño/La Niña is NINO 3.4 (2nd time series from top).

The last La Niña event hit its highest (most negative) magnitude more than once between November 2011 and February 2012.  Since then, tropical Pacific sea-surface temperatures peaked at +0.8 (y-axis) in September 2012.  You can see the effect on global temperatures that the last La Niña had via this NASA time series.  Both the sea surface temperature and land surface temperature time series decreased from 2010 (when the globe reached record warmth) to 2012.  Recent ENSO events occurred at the same time that the Interdecadal Pacific Oscillation entered its most recent negative phase.  This phase acts like a La Niña, but its influence is smaller than La Niña.  So natural, low-frequency climate oscillations affect the globe’s temperatures.  Underlying these oscillations is the background warming caused by humans, which we detect by looking at long-term anomalies.  Despite these recent cooling influences, temperatures were still top-10 warmest for a calendar year (2012) and during individual months, including August 2013.

Skeptics have pointed out that warming has “stopped” or “slowed considerably” in recent years, which they hope will introduce confusion to the public on this topic.  What is likely going on is quite different: since an energy imbalance exists (less energy is leaving the Earth than the Earth is receiving; this is due to atmospheric greenhouse gases) and the surface temperature rise has seemingly stalled, the excess energy is going somewhere.  The heat has to be going somewhere – energy doesn’t just disappear.  That somewhere is likely the oceans, and specifically the deep ocean (see figure below).  Before we all cheer about this (since few people want surface temperatures to continue to rise quickly), consider the implications.  If you add heat to a material, it expands.  The ocean is no different; sea-levels are rising in part because of heat added to it in the past.  The heat that has entered in recent years won’t manifest as sea-level rise for some time, but it will happen.  Moreover, when the heated ocean comes back up to the surface, that heat will then be released to the atmosphere, which will raise surface temperatures as well as introduce additional water vapor due to the warmer atmosphere.  Thus, the immediate warming rate might have slowed down, but we have locked in future warming (higher future warming rate).

 photo Ocean_heat_content_balmaseda_et_al_zps23184297.jpg

Figure 4. New research that shows anomalous ocean heat energy locations since the late 1950s.  The purple lines in the graph show how the heat content of the whole ocean has changed over the past five decades. The blue lines represent only the top 700 m and the grey lines are just the top 300 m.  Source: Balmaseda et al., (2013)

Paying for recovery from seemingly localized severe weather and climate events is and always will be more expensive than paying to increase resilience from those events.  As drought continues to impact the US, as Arctic ice continues its long-term melt, as storms come ashore and impacts communities that are not prepared for today’s high-risk events (due mostly to poor zoning and destruction of natural protections), economic costs will accumulate in this and in future decades.  It is up to us how many costs we subject ourselves to.  As President Obama begins his second term with climate change “a priority”, he tosses aside the most effective tool available and most recommended by economists: a carbon tax.  Every other policy tool will be less effective than a Pigouvian tax at minimizing the actions that cause future economic harm.  It is up to the citizens of this country, and others, to take the lead on this topic.  We have to demand common sense actions that will actually make a difference.

But be forewarned: even if we take action today, we will still see more warmest-ever La Niña years, more warmest-ever El Niño years, more drought, higher sea levels, increased ocean acidification, more plant stress, and more ecosystem stress.  The biggest difference between efforts in the 1980s and 1990s to scrub sulfur and CFC emissions and future efforts to reduce CO2 emissions is this: the first two yielded an almost immediate result.  It will take decades to centuries before CO2 emission reductions produce tangible results humans can see.  That is part of what makes climate change such a wicked problem.


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48.2% of US in Moderate or Worse Drought – 17 Sep 2013 (Thank You, Monsoon!)

According to the Drought Monitor, drought conditions worsened slightly across the entire US compared to three weeks ago. As of September 17, 2013, 48.2% of the contiguous US is experiencing moderate or worse drought (D1-D4), as the early 2010s drought continues month after month.  This value is about 11 percentage points lower than it was in the early spring. The percentage area experiencing extreme to exceptional drought decreased from 14.8% last month to 6.9% last week!  This is more than 10% lower than it was six months ago. The eastern third of the US was wetter than normal during August, which helped keep drought at bay.  The east coast in particular was much wetter than normal and the summer monsoon was much more active this summer compared to 2012, assisted by a persistent upper level blocking pattern.  Instead of Exceptional drought in the West like there was earlier this summer, record rains and flash flooding was the story in September.  While this record-breaking series of events broke the drought in some areas of the West, long-term drought continues to exert its hold over the region.  Compared to earlier this summer, drought increased in area and intensity across the Midwest.

 photo USDrought20130917_zps29a0436a.gif

Figure 1US Drought Monitor map of drought conditions as of September 17th.

If we compare this week’s maps with previous dates (here and here, for example), we can see recent shifts in drought categories.  Compared to mid-August and early September, and despite recent rain events, drought expanded or worsened in the Midwest (Iowa, Missouri, Illinois, Minnesota, and the Dakotas) as well as Louisiana, Arkansas, and Mississippi.  On the other hand, alleviation is evident in small places in the West, as the following map shows.

 photo west_drought_monitor_20130917_zpsd2784c0e.png

Figure 2 – US Drought Monitor map of drought conditions in Western US as of September 17th.

After worsening during late winter into spring 2013, drought conditions steadied in late summer.  The differences between this map and early September’s is the reduction in area and severity of drought, especially in the southern half of the West.  The area experiencing Exceptional drought decreased significantly over the West and the percent area with no drought increased.  Figure 2 also shows that the percent area with no drought is still lower since the start of the calendar year (24% to 18%).

Here are the current conditions for Colorado:

 photo co_drought_monitor_20130917_zps9d17a4ef.png

Figure 3 – US Drought Monitor map of drought conditions in Colorado as of September 17th.

There is evidence of substantial improvement in Colorado since just a few weeks ago and certainly compared to earlier this year, when drought conditions were their worst.  Compared to the start of the calendar year or even three months ago, the percent area of every drought category decreased significantly.  Only 1.5% of the state currently has Exceptional drought.  Only 84% of the state is even experiencing any drought condition today, a far cry from the 100% that lasted for well over one year.  The links in the first paragraph dealing with last week’s rains combine with this graphic to demonstrate that places that receive one year’s worth of precipitation in one week’s time bust their drought!  Many communities would trade those record rains for a little bit of drought, given the extensive damage to infrastructure and the eight people who, as of this morning, perished in the severe weather event.

Let’s compare Figure 3 to similar Colorado maps from earlier in the year.  First, this is what conditions looked like just two weeks ago:

 photo CO_drought_monitor_201309033_zps07464c14.png

Figure 4 – US Drought Monitor map of drought conditions in Colorado as of September 3rd.

The over-active monsoon season helped reduce drought severity from Denver northwest toward the Wyoming border.  I said at the time I hoped that trend continued, but I could never imagine what would happen in the interim.

Here is a look at some of the worst drought conditions Colorado experienced in the past year, from late April 2013:

 photo CO_drought_monitor_20130425_zpsbf9ccb2d.png

Figure 5 – US Drought Monitor map of drought conditions in Colorado as of April 25th.

Conditions were horrible earlier this year.  Reservoir levels declined and crops failed as a result of the higher than normal temperatures and much lower than normal precipitation.  I certainly don’t want to see additional flooding, but I would like to see normal precipitation return to the state and the region.

 photo midwest_drought_monitor_20130917_zpsf91b6be4.png

Figure 6 – US Drought Monitor map of drought conditions in the Midwest as of September 17th.

Drought expanded in the Midwest in the past two weeks: the percent area with no drought decreased significantly from 48% to 43%.  Three months ago, the value was 93%.  This region collected rainfall this month, but the amounts continued to track below average.

 photo south_drought_monitor_20130917_zps76d5a2cf.png

Figure 7 – US Drought Monitor map of drought conditions in the South as of September 17th.

Compared to early summer, drought as a whole expanded across the South in 2013.  Instead of 44% area with no drought three months ago, there is only 16% today.

Policy Context

US drought conditions are more influenced by Pacific and Atlantic sea surface temperature conditions than the global warming observed to date.  Different natural oscillation phases preferentially condition environments for drought.  Droughts in the West tend to occur during the cool phases of the Interdecadal Pacific Oscillation and the El Niño-Southern Oscillation, for instance.  Beyond that, drought controls remain a significant unknown.  Population growth in the West in the 21st century means scientists and policymakers need to better understand what conditions are likeliest to generate multidecadal droughts, as have occurred in the past.  Without comprehensive planning, dwindling fresh water supplies will threaten millions of people.  That very circumstance is already occurring in western Texas where town wells are going dry.  An important factor in those cases is energy companies’ use of well water for natural gas drilling.  This presents a dilemma more of us will face in the future: do we want cheap energy or cheap water?  In the 21st century, we will not have both options available at the same time as happened in the 20th century.  This presents a radical departure from the past.

As drought affects regions differentially, our policy responses vary.  A growing number of water utilities recognize the need for a proactive mindset with respect to drought impacts.  The last thing they want is their reliability to suffer.  Americans are privileged in that clean, fresh water flows every time they turn on their tap.  Crops continue to show up at their local stores despite terrible conditions in many areas of their own nation (albeit at a higher price, as found this year).  Power utilities continue to provide hydroelectric-generated energy.

That last point will change in a warming and drying future.  Regulations that limit the temperature of water discharged by power plants exist.  Generally warmer climate conditions include warmer river and lake water today than what existed 30 years ago.  Warmer water going into a plant either means warmer water out or a longer time spent in the plant, which reduces the amount of energy the plant can produce.  Alternatively, we can continue to generate the same amount of power if we are willing to sacrifice ecosystems which depend on a very narrow range of water temperatures.  As with other facets of climate change, technological innovation can help increase plant efficiency.  I think innovation remains our best hope to minimize the number and magnitude of climate change impacts on human and ecological systems.


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50.1% of the Contiguous United States in Moderate or Worse Drought – 3 Sep 2013

According to the Drought Monitor, drought conditions worsened slightly across the entire US compared to three weeks ago. As of September 3, 2013, 50.1% of the contiguous US is experiencing moderate or worse drought (D1-D4), as the early 2010s drought continues month after month.  This value is about 9 percentage points lower than it was in the early spring. The percentage area experiencing extreme to exceptional drought decreased from 14.8% three weeks ago to 9.9% last week; this is approximately 10% lower than it was six months ago. The eastern third of the US was wetter than normal during August, which helped keep drought at bay.  The east coast in particular was much wetter than normal and the summer monsoon was much more active this summer compared to 2012.  Instead of Exceptional drought in Georgia and Extreme drought in Florida two years ago, there is flash flooding and rare dam water releases in the southeast.  Four eastern states experienced their top-four wettest Julys on record.  The West presents a different story.  Long-term drought continues to exert its hold over the region, as it remained warmer than normal but six southwestern states received top-20 July precipitation this year.  Meanwhile, Oregon recorded its driest July on record.  Compared to three weeks ago, drought area increased in the Midwest.

 photo USDrought20130903_zpsf4845451.gif

Figure 1US Drought Monitor map of drought conditions as of September 3rd.

If we compare this week’s maps with previous dates (here and here, for example), we can see recent shifts in drought categories.  Compared to early July and mid-August, and despite recent rain events, drought expanded or worsened in the Midwest (Iowa, Missouri, Illinois, Minnesota, and the Dakotas) as well as Louisiana, Arkansas, and Mississippi.

 photo west_drought_monitor_20130903_zps6a3a6205.png

Figure 2 – US Drought Monitor map of drought conditions in Western US as of September 3rd.

After worsening during late winter into spring 2013, drought conditions steadied during the past month.  The differences between this map and mid-August’s is the spatial shift of conditions; the total percent area values are about the same.  The area experiencing Exceptional drought decreased slightly over the West and the percent area with no drought increased slightly, but remains at low levels.  Figure 2 also shows that the percent area with no drought decreased since the start of the year (24% to 14%).

Here are the current conditions for Colorado:

 photo CO_drought_monitor_201309033_zps07464c14.png

Figure 3 – US Drought Monitor map of drought conditions in Colorado as of September 3rd.

There is clear evidence of relief evident over the past three months here.  Severe drought area dropped from 72% to 60% (this was 100% about last year!).  Extreme drought area dropped from 27% to 22% (also down from 50%+ six months ago).  Exceptional drought decreased significantly from three and six months ago.  Instead of 16% of Colorado (and as much as 17% earlier this year), Exceptional drought now covers only 3% of the state.  The good news for southeastern Colorado was the recent delivery of substantial precipitation.  I didn’t think it would be enough to completely alleviate the worst conditions, but they received enough precipitation that drought conditions improved from Exceptional to Extreme.  Their drought is not over yet, but they are finally trending in a good direction.  And for the first time in over one year, some small percentage (2%; up from 1% three weeks ago) of Colorado does not currently have any drought.  This is great news – hopefully this area expands throughout the rest of the year.

 photo midwest_drought_monitor_20130903_zpseafbaad1.png

Figure 4 – US Drought Monitor map of drought conditions in the Midwest as of September 3rd.

Drought expanded and worsened slightly in the Midwest in the past few months: the percent area with no drought decreased significantly from 91% to 52%.  The percent area with Moderate drought increased significantly from 3% to 29% this week.  Severe drought now impacts most of Iowa and small portions of Missouri, Wisconsin and Minnesota.

US drought conditions are more influenced by Pacific and Atlantic sea surface temperature conditions than the global warming observed to date.  Different natural oscillation phases preferentially condition environments for drought.  Droughts in the West tend to occur during the cool phases of the Interdecadal Pacific Oscillation and the El Niño-Southern Oscillation, for instance.  Beyond that, drought controls remain a significant unknown.  Population growth in the West in the 21st century means scientists and policymakers need to better understand what conditions are likeliest to generate multidecadal droughts, as have occurred in the past.  Without comprehensive planning, dwindling fresh water supplies will threaten millions of people.  That very circumstance is already occurring in western Texas where town wells are going dry.  An important factor in those cases is energy companies’ use of well water for natural gas drilling.  This presents a dilemma more of us will face in the future: do we want cheap energy or cheap water?  In the 21st century, we will not have both options available at the same time as happened in the 20th century.  This presents a radical departure from the past.

As drought affects regions differentially, our policy responses vary.  A growing number of water utilities recognize the need for a proactive mindset with respect to drought impacts.  The last thing they want is their reliability to suffer.  Americans are privileged in that clean, fresh water flows every time they turn on their tap.  Crops continue to show up at their local stores despite terrible conditions in many areas of their own nation (albeit at a higher price, as found this year).  Power utilities continue to provide hydroelectric-generated energy.

That last point will change in a warming and drying future.  Regulations that limit the temperature of water discharged by power plants exist.  Generally warmer climate conditions include warmer river and lake water today than what existed 30 years ago.  Warmer water going into a plant either means warmer water out or a longer time spent in the plant, which reduces the amount of energy the plant can produce.  Alternatively, we can continue to generate the same amount of power if we are willing to sacrifice ecosystems which depend on a very narrow range of water temperatures.  As with other facets of climate change, technological innovation can help increase plant efficiency.  I think innovation remains our best hope to minimize the number and magnitude of climate change impacts on human and ecological systems.


6 Comments

45.3% of the Contiguous United States in Moderate or Worse Drought – 15 Aug 2013

According to the Drought Monitor, drought conditions improved recently across some of the US. As of Aug 15, 2013, 45.3% of the contiguous US is experiencing moderate or worse drought (D1-D4), as the early 2010s drought continues month after month.  This value is about 10 percentage points lower than it was in the early spring. The percentage area experiencing extreme to exceptional drought increased from 14.6% to 14.8%; this is approximately 4% lower than it was six months ago. The eastern third of the US was wetter than normal during July into August, which helped keep drought at bay.  The east coast in particular was much wetter than normal and the summer monsoon was much more active this summer compared to 2012.  Instead of Exceptional drought in Georgia and Extreme drought in Florida two years ago, there is flash flooding and rare dam water releases in the southeast.  Four eastern states experienced their top-four wettest Julys on record.  The West presents a different story.  Long-term drought continues to exert its hold over the region, as it remained warmer than normal but six southwestern states received top-20 July precipitation this year.  Meanwhile, Oregon recorded its driest July on record.

 photo USDrought20130815_zpse8a61c7f.gif

Figure 1US Drought Monitor map of drought conditions as of August 13th.

If we compare this week’s maps with previous dates (here and here, for example), we can see recent shifts in drought categories.  Compared to early July, and despite recent rain events, drought expanded in the Midwest (into Iowa, Missouri, Illinois, and Minnesota) as well as Louisiana, Arkansas, and Mississippi.

Here is the Western US drought map this week:

 photo west_drought_monitor_20130815_zpsb980edee.png

Figure 2 – US Drought Monitor map of drought conditions in Western US as of August 15th.

After worsening during late winter into spring 2013, drought conditions steadied during the past month.  The differences between this map and early July’s is the spatial shift of conditions; the total percent area values are about the same.

Temporary drought relief occurred over parts of Arizona and Colorado as the summer monsoon brought moisture northward and interacted with cooler air masses than normal from Canada.

Here are the current conditions for Colorado:

 photo CO_drought_monitor_20130815_zps0644308d.png

Figure 3 – US Drought Monitor map of drought conditions in Colorado as of July 9th.

There is clear evidence of relief evident over the past three months here.  Severe drought area dropped from 72% to 69% (this was 100% about six months ago!).  Extreme drought area dropped slightly from 27% to 26% (also down from 50%+ six months ago).  Exceptional drought is down significantly from three and six months ago.  Instead of 17% of Colorado, Exceptional drought now covers only 3% of the state.  The good news for southeastern Colorado was the recent delivery of substantial precipitation.  I didn’t think it would be enough to alleviate the worst conditions, but they received enough precipitation that drought conditions improved from Exceptional to Extreme.  Their drought is not over yet, but they are finally trending in a good direction.  And for the first time in over one year, some small percentage (1%) of Colorado does not currently have any drought condition.  This is great news – hopefully this area expands throughout the rest of the year.

US drought conditions are more influenced by Pacific and Atlantic sea surface temperature conditions than the global warming observed to date.  Different natural oscillation phases preferentially condition environments for drought.  Droughts in the West tend to occur during the cool phases of the Interdecadal Pacific Oscillation and the El Niño-Southern Oscillation, for instance.  Beyond that, drought controls remain a significant unknown.  Population growth in the West in the 21st century means scientists and policymakers need to better understand what conditions are likeliest to generate multidecadal droughts, as have occurred in the past.  Without comprehensive planning, millions of people dwindling fresh water supplies will threaten millions of people.  That very circumstance is already occurring in western Texas where town wells are going dry.  An important factor in those cases is energy companies’ use of well water for natural gas drilling.  This presents a dilemma more of us will face in the future: do we want cheap energy or cheap water?  In the 21st century, both options will not be available at the same time as they were in the 20th century.  This presents a radical departure from the past.

As drought affects regions differentially, our policy responses vary.  A growing number of water utilities recognize the need for a proactive mindset with respect to drought impacts.  The last thing they want is their reliability to suffer.  Americans are privileged in that clean, fresh water flows every time they turn on their tap.  Crops continue to show up at their local stores despite terrible conditions in many areas of their own nation (albeit at a higher price, as found this year).  Power utilities continue to provide hydroelectric-generated energy.

That last point will change in a warming and drying future.  Regulations that limit the temperature of water discharged by power plants exist.  Generally warmer climate conditions include warmer river and lake water today than what existed 30 years ago.  Warmer water going into a plant either means warmer water out or a longer time spent in the plant, which reduces the amount of energy the plant can produce.  Alternatively, we can continue to generate the same amount of power if we are willing to sacrifice ecosystems which depend on a very narrow range of water temperatures.  As with other facets of climate change, technological innovation can help increase plant efficiency.  I think innovation remains our best hope to minimize the number and magnitude of climate change impacts on human and ecological systems.


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Australia Giving Up On Relatively Successful Carbon Market

Australia voted last week to scrap their carbon tax and replace it with a much less economically efficient cap-and-trade scheme.  The pro-business Reuters article acknowledges the only “positive” that results from this decision: businesses will save money.  Well, hallelujah.  I’m sure today’s children will be immensely grateful when they’re adults with all the resultant climate change effects that Australian businesses were able to avoid paying for their actions and saved a few billion dollars in the 2010s.  That’s one way to look at this news.  Let’s flesh the landscape out before throwing Australia under the bus too quickly.

To be fair, Australia simply moved up the date when they joined … the European carbon “market”.  You remember, that’s the market that severely over-supplied carbon credits at its outset and refused earlier this year to remove some of those excess credits for a mere two years.  In essence, the European carbon market doesn’t work.  How can you tell?  Carbon costs €4.2/tCO2 today.  When the European market started, the cost was €31/tCO2.  At one-tenth the original price, the market signal is clear: there are far too many allowances in the European market.  Have greenhouse gas emissions (note: CO2 isn’t the only GHG!) fallen in the EU since the market’s inception?  Yes, but this is a result of the continued economic malaise the Europeans inflict on themselves, as described by the European Environment Agency’s most recent report.

The temporary benefit to the earlier Australian move to the EU’s ETS is this: the flow of carbon credits is one way: from Europe to Australia.  Australia can’t export credits until July 2018.  So in the short-term, Australia could help relieve the over-supply of EU carbon credits.  This might help in raising the carbon price back to more realistic levels, but this won’t happen until 2016 at the earliest because of lower emissions and demand for permits in Australia.

There are two big negative effects of moving from a fixed tax to a floating market.  The first is that carbon will become much cheaper in Australia: from A$25.40 per tonne to A$6 per tonne.  Is carbon really only worth A$6?  In an over-supplied market, perhaps it is.  The fact that not all industries are involved in the carbon market means that we manipulate the true carbon price.  Of course, as much as folks like to talk about “free markets”, most markets are heavily manipulated by vested interests.  The second negative effect remains local: the move removes A$3.8 billion from the Australian federal budget over four years.  Australia’s Prime Minister Kevin Rudd proposed to make up this budget shortfall by “removing a tax concession on the personal use of salary-sacrificed or employer-provided cars.”  Good luck with that, Mr. Rudd.  Everybody is loath to give up a financial benefit once they receive it.  Look – more market manipulation!

Australian coal companies were more than happy to propagate misinformation to Australian energy consumers: electricity price increases were due exclusively to the carbon tax!  This highlights a common problem with any carbon-pricing scheme: special interests can more easily spread misinformation and disinformation (and are often happy to do so!) than market proponents can spread true information.  The reason is often quite simple: the truth is complex and consumers don’t want to invest the time to understand why they pay the prices they pay.  How many consumers demanded energy utilities stop raising prices before carbon market inception?  Then who was responsible for price increases?  “Market forces” is the lame excuse dished out to the masses.  How about the relentless, unquenchable hunger for ever-rising profits?  Somehow, that’s alright, but accurately pricing a commodity is heresy.

An additional piece of context: Australia suffered from record heat waves, droughts, and floods in the past ten years.  The Australian public’s acceptance of climate change related to these disasters is widespread, as is their desire to “take action”.  Well, the government took action and that same public cried uncle with slightly higher utility bills.  This proves the common refrain: people support climate policies … so long as they are absolutely free.  That smacks into reality awfully quick.  It also demonstrates that there is no such thing as a “Climate Pearl Harbor” that leads to unequivocal support for a given climate policy.  The slow-acting nature of climate works strongly against widespread, effective climate policy.


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Current & Future U.S. Heat Waves

A substantial portion of the U.S. population experienced a heat wave during the past week.  Due to the number of people affected, the media spent some time on the topic.  As opposed to places like Las Vegas or Phoenix, where the “heat is supposed to happen”, folks normally accustomed to rather pleasant summer conditions experienced real heat again.  Heat waves of various intensity happen every year.  This  heat wave is rather intense – it is breaking some heat records.  Some interesting factoids:

Temperatures at Newark Liberty Airport in New Jersey were recorded at 98 degrees at 1 p.m. local time on Friday, as the mercury hit 93 in Central Park. John F. Kennedy Airport in Queens, New York, recorded temperatures of 100 degrees on Thursday, beating out the previous record set for that date a year ago, and on Friday the heat index there reached 108.

Electricity usage soared to an all-time high in New York City as the work week closed out, provider Con Edison announced, as service hit a peak of 13,214 megawatts around 2 p.m. local time. The previous record was 13,189 megawatts on July 22, 2011, according to the company.

So, some serious heat and serious energy consumption.  The latter proves interesting to look at in more detail: if warming trends continue, power plants will be unable to operate like we expect them to due to water and infrastructure cooling requirements.  That spells trouble for people: the worst heat waves of the future might be accompanied by temporary brownouts and blackouts.  How manageable will heat waves be with no A/C?

What about the warming trend?  If we stay on our current greenhouse gas emissions pathway (the highest considered by climate models), look at the potential number of weeks with 100°F+ temperatures in 2090-2099:

 photo A1FI-warming.gif

Figure 1. Projection of A1FI emissions pathway-derived number of weeks (2090-2099) per with daily maximum temperatures exceeding 100°F.

With this heat wave fresh in mind, imagine what it will be like later this century when there is more than one excessive heat wave per year in the Midwest and along the east coast.  Instead of five days of misery, what will 25 days be like?  How about 50 days of 100°F heat in Virginia, North Carolina, Kentucky, Illinois, Iowa, and Nebraska?  When 100°F daytime heat dominates one, two, or even three months every year and high nighttime temperatures accompany it, this week’s heat wave will seem refreshing by contrast.

That’s how we feel in Denver, CO this year.  Instead of 73 total 90°F+ days – 13 of those days at 100°F+ – in 2012 (with June 2012 7.6°F warmer than normal), summer 2013 has been closer to average.  Yes, it’s been warm and only one 100°F day occurred so far this year, but it feels almost pleasant in comparison to last summer when the heat was relentless for months on end.

Three days of excessive heat is difficult to experience.  Three months is currently unimaginable.  How much worse future heat waves get is mostly within our control.  The sooner we significantly cut greenhouse gas emissions, the better things will end up for all of us.  But as the above graph demonstrates, the future could be quite hot if we continue along our current emissions pathway too much longer.

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