Weatherdem's Weblog

Bridging climate science, citizens, and policy


State of the Poles – Mid-September 2012: Record Low Arctic Ice Extent; Antarctic Ice Above Climatological Normal

Judging by recent search terms used to get to this blog and the relative recent peak in traffic, readers have been searching for this post.  I wanted to wait a little longer into the month so that I could capture the expected Arctic minimum, which officially occurred on the 16th of September.  The NSIDC announced this date, after which I started gathering the plots that are found below.  This post will be longer than it usually is because this year’s minimum shattered the record minimum set in 2007, which shattered the previous record set in 2005.  Most of the post is made up of figures, so I encourage readers to at least view them to get a good picture of today’s conditions.  I’m purposefully framing things this way to relay the truly stunning situation the Arctic is in today.  2012 is additional proof the Arctic cryosphere is searching for a new stable point, but hasn’t found it yet.  That does not bode well for the rest of the globe.  With that, let’s begin.

The state of global polar sea ice area in mid-September 2012 remains significantly below climatological normal conditions (1979-2009).  Arctic sea ice loss is solely responsible for this condition.  In fact, if Antarctic sea ice were closer to its normal value, the global area would be much lower than it is today.  Arctic sea ice melted quickly in August and the first half of September because it was thinner than usual and winds helped push ice out of the Arctic where it could melt at lower latitudes; Antarctic sea ice has refrozen at a faster than normal rate during the austral winter.  Polar sea ice recovered from an extensive deficit of -2 million sq. km. area late last year to a +750,000 sq. km. anomaly in March 2012 before falling back to a -2.2 million sq. km. deficit earlier this month.

After starting the year at a deficit from normal conditions, sea ice area spent an unprecedented length of time near the -2 million sq. km. deficit in the modern era in 2011 (i.e., almost the entire calendary year).  Generally poor environmental conditions (warm surface temperatures and certain wind patterns) established and maintained this condition, predominantly across the Arctic last year.  The last time global sea ice area remained near 19 million sq. km. during May was in 2007, when the Arctic extent hit its modern day record minimum.  The maximum in the boreal spring the past two years was ~19.5 million sq. km.

Conditions were prime for another modern-day record sea ice extent minimum to occur in September.  Specific weather conditions helped to determine how 2012′s extent minimum ranks compared to the last 33 years, but it was the overall poor condition of Arctic sea ice that contributed to this year’s record low values.

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Why Design of Carbon Markets Is So Important

Various interested parties have written about the efficacy (or lack thereof) with regard to carbon-related market schemes of all sizes and types.  Probably one of the more visible programs is the global emissions offset scheme enacted in the wake of the Kyoto Protocol.  This is the case for good reason: Kyoto represented the largest effort to date to deal with carbon emissions and related activities at the international level.  The short story can be summarized by two competing viewpoints.  On the one hand are people who think the Kyoto-scheme was real progress because it did something for the first time.  On the other hand, critics claim that the scheme is a failure for any number of reasons, most not actually dealing with real-world facts.

Who’s right?  Well, as usual, there are valid points made on both sides.  It is true that a global market was created where none before it existed.  In and of itself, that is probably a good thing.  It allows us to monitor how such a program works and make modifications with time if something needs to be tweaked or overhauled.  To that point, the critics make a good argument.  The scheme very likely isn’t working.  But critics will leave it at that without examining it in further detail.

I’m going to look at one part of the scheme in a little more detail and explain why the scheme isn’t working as efficiently as it should.

Quickly: there are too many credits in the market.  In economic terms, there is a drastic oversupply of offset credits.  By definition, the market will operate inefficiently.  How inefficient is the market?  After all, if we are talking about just a little oversupply, we are also talking about small inefficiency.  How does 1,000X oversupply grab you?  Yes, that number is correct and it is wildly inefficient.  This scheme is laughable (or would be if part of a comedy routine).  Unfortunately, it is what passes for real-world policy today.

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73 90°F+ days (so far) in Denver CO in 2012

I fully expect this to be the last update of this statistic in 2012.  Hopefully, Mother Nature doesn’t prove me wrong.

As of September 11, 2012, with a high temperature of 90°F, there have been 73 90°F+ days – far and away the record number for one calendar year.  That is 12 more than the previous record of 61 set in 2000!!

This NWS link has the  list of the years with most 90°F+ days in a year.  50 90°F+ days used to signal a very warm summer.  60 and 61 days in one year were previous anomalous records – amazing counts all considered.  2012 blows all of those away.  I cannot emphasize strongly enough how unreal the heat wave was this year for Denver and hundreds of other cities and towns across the US in 2012.  Additionally, the chance that so many 90°F+ days have occurred in six years since 2000 is not and cannot be random.

Here is the breakdown of 90°F+ days per month in 2012 (to date):

2 in May

17 in June (6 of those were 100°F+ days; 2 of those tying Denver’s all-time maximum temperature of 105°F)

27 in July (7 of those were 100°F+ days)

20 in August (thankfully none of them 100°F+ days, although 4 of them were 98°F and another 3 were 97°F)

7 so far in September

There have been two nice breaks to the 90s already this month.  A few days ago, the high temperature was only 70°F.  One month ago, that was slightly warmer than our nightly low temperature.  Moreover, the low temperatures dipped all the way down to 47°F for two nights in a row – what a relief!  There was a brief and light amount of rain associated with a cold front that passed through the region in my neck of the woods. Another cold front passed through the area in the early evening today.  Temperatures are already down in the low 60s and it has rained a little more tonight again.

We’re not totally out of the woods for 90°F+ days.  It’s still the first third of the month of September.  If another ridge builds over the area, the temperature could climb back above 90°F, but each day it gets a little less likely.  This area saw no relief from Hurricane Isaac in terms of precipitation either.  Areas in the Mississippi and Ohio River Valleys saw significant drought relief after Isaac’s landfall near New Orleans, but the West and High Plains remain quite dry.

I can say unequivocally I would rather not challenge the top-10 90°F+ day list again any time soon.  Given the state of our climate system, I may not get what I want however.  The probability that we will witness more summers like 2012 are increasing with time.


Call for Climate Change-Policy Paradigm Shift

Nature Climate Change‘s most recent issue included a paper by Kevin Anderson and Alice Bows entitled, “A new paradigm for climate change” [subs. req’d].   Kevin works at the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, School of Mechanical Civil and Aerospace Engineering and Alice works at the Sustainable Consumption Institute, School of Mechanical Civil and Aerospace Engineering, University of Manchester.  The discussion and arguments in the paper aren’t exactly novel if you’ve paid attention to the policy side of the climate change topic but bears examination as much as other works on the climate-policy interface, in which I am very interested.

I think the paper has some serious flaws in its assumptions, which detracts from the policy prescriptions offered.  Prime among the flaws is this:

We urgently need to acknowledge that the development needs of many countries leave the rich western nations with little choice but to immediately and severely curb their greenhouse gas emissions

The latter part of this statement simply will not happen, barring additional severe economic distress.  The first part represents progress from the scientific community: developing nations want and deserve higher living standards, of which energy is a primary input.  But developed nations cannot and will not “immediately and severely curb their greenhouse gas emissions”.  There is a choice that these nations make every day: their own economies will grow and they will do so with the cheapest energy possible.

The U.S. recently achieved something through price signals that scientists and environmentalists have failed to achieve via policy for a generation: a significant reduction in overall CO2 emissions: 7.7% since 2006, the largest reduction of all countries or regions.  This is after Congress failed to get a climate-energy bill passed in 2010.  Why did the decrease occur?  Because old coal-fired plants (the most polluting type) grew much more uneconomical to operate in the past few years compared to natural gas-fired plants.  There is a problem moving forward and that is there is nothing substantially cheaper than natural gas on the scale necessary to further reduce U.S. emissions.  Effectively, there is a new baseline from which the U.S. will operate for the next generation.  But natural gas, as most readers are familiar, still pollutes far more than renewable energy sources.  So U.S. emissions will continue to be quite high and more CO2 will accumulate in the atmosphere.

Despite the early flawed assumption, the papers’ authors quite correctly state the following:

[…]any contextual interpretation of the science demonstrates that the threshold of 2°C [increase in average global temperatures] is no longer viable, at least within orthodox political and economic constraints.  Against this backdrop, unsubstantiated hope leaves such constraints unquestioned, while at the same time legitimizing a focus on increasingly improbable low-carbon futures and underplaying high-emission scenarios.

I have written many times on the false hope that low- and moderate-emission pathways represent (given the unfortunate reality that our actual emissions are on a substantially different orientation) and lamented that even climate scientists misdirected their energies by rarely analyzing high-emission scenarios, thereby depriving policymakers with the required scope of potential futures from which we choose.

The authors do present this somewhat accurate portrayal:

At the same time as climate change analyses are being subverted to reconcile them with the orthodoxy of economic growth, neoclassical economics has evidently failed to keep even its own house in order. This failure is not peripheral. It is prolonged, deep-rooted and disregards national boundaries, raising profound issues about the structures, values and framing of contemporary society.

Rather than demonizing neoclassical economics, the authors should look for opportunities within such a framework that would actually result in emissions reductions.  But the authors’ do identify issues that really do lie at the heart of climate policy: the values of contemporary society.  If those values were more robustly analyzed and respected for what they were as a foundation to climate policy, we would have made meaningful progress on the issue.

The lack of such effort is evident in one of the authors’ concluding paragraphs:

It is in this rapidly evolving context that the science underpinning climate change is being conducted and its findings communicated. This is an opportunity that should and must be grasped. Liberate the science from the economics, finance and astrology, stand by the conclusions however uncomfortable. But this is still not enough. In an increasingly interconnected world where the whole — the system — is often far removed from the sum of its parts, we need to be less afraid of making academic judgements. Not unsubstantiated opinions and prejudice, but applying a mix of academic rigour, courage and humility to bring new and interdisciplinary insights into the emerging era. Leave the market economists to fight among themselves over the right price of carbon — let them relive their groundhog day if they wish. The world is moving on and we need to have the audacity to think differently and conceive of alternative futures.

This thrown gauntlet is full of high-minded rhetoric but short on grasping the realities of the world.  I don’t know of any climate scientist who is afraid of making academic judgements.  But it is folly to accuse skeptics of unsubstantiated opinions and prejudice when advocates for climate activism also display their own set of opinions and prejudice – those opinion and prejudices arise through psychological lenses which themselves are rooted in biological constructs.  Insulting one another has done and will continue to not to anything to solve this problem.  Nobody has the “truth” market cornered.  The “new” paradigm championed by the authors bears remarkable resemblance to other recommendations from legions of climate activists before them.  What has such a stance accomplished?  Emissions continue to grow, concentrations continue to accumulate, temperatures continue to rise, etc.

Many of the same people who rail against unsubstantiated opinions and prejudice also vehemently dismiss new articulated paradigms.  I see nothing in this paper, or many others like it, that advocate for the rapid growth of developing economies based on 21st century technologies and innovations, even though such an effort is clearly needed while developed nations work at finding ways to decarbonize their own economies.  Quite simply, this is the least expensive path forward – it leverages opportunity within the economic framework in which we operate.  It strikes me as senseless to continue the same fight that has not achieved meaningful decarbonization in the last two generations.


67 90°F+ days (so far) in Denver CO in 2012

As of the September 1, 2012, there have been 67 90°F+ days – far and away the record number for one calendar year.  That is 6 more than the previous record of 61 set in 2000!

The list of the number of 90°F+ days in a year can be found at this NWS link.

Here is the breakdown of 90°F+ days per month in 2012 (to date):

2 in May

17 in June (6 of those were 100°F+ days; 2 of those tying Denver’s all-time maximum temperature of 105°F)

27 in July (7 of those were 100°F+ days)

20 in August (thankfully none of them 100°F+ days, although 4 of them were 98°F and another 3 were 97°F)

1 so far in September

August 2012 went down in Denver history as the 5th warmest and 4th driest on record.  The average temperature for the entire month was 75.0°F, 2°F cooler than August 2011.  The total rainfall for the month occurred during one storm – 0.11″.  That monthly total is 1.58″ below the monthly average and 0.09″ more than the driest August on record in 1924.

Today and the next two days are forecasted to be 90°F+, followed by two days of mid-80s.  It would be incredibly significant if 2012 recorded 1/6 more 90°F+ days as the previous record.  This week might not see all of the 90°F+ days (although I certainly hope they end on Tuesday!) as short heat waves can set up in mid-September.  Many folks along the Front Range are looking forward to autumn.