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Bridging climate science, citizens, and policy

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“Arctic Sea Ice More Resilient Than Previously Thought”

Welcome back to me.  I took a break due to heavy class load and studying for qualifying exams.  I’m looking forward to a good 2015.  I tagged plenty of material while I was short on writing time, so stay tuned for lots of climate and energy science and policy discussions.

File this in the “who’da thunk?” category: research presented at the 2014 American Geophysical Union’s annual meeting showed recent summers over the Arctic were cooler than normal and as a result, Arctic sea ice melt wasn’t as extensive as previous record low years.

I remember all too many climate scientists tripping over one another in their mad rush to a microphone to declare that the Arctic would be ice-free in just a few short years – a claim I thought was silly and dangerous.

Why silly?  Because these same scientists, preaching objectivism and claiming science has an impenetrable hold on truth over all other comers, no more understood the cryosphere then than they do now.  This most result lays bare that type of truth: we don’t know enough about the cryosphere system to accurately or precisely project conditions in the near to medium future.  While it is very likely that summer Arctic sea ice will be missing at some point in the future, the timing of that event is very much in question.  I think it will be sooner than the IPCC AR4 model projections (see quoted statement below), which read: “In some projections, arctic late-summer sea ice disappears almost entirely by the latter part of the 21st century.”  Papers written prior to the 2014 AR5 report projected ice-free conditions between 2037 and 2050.  But there is still 35 years in the meantime.  What will Arctic sea ice be like during those 35 years?  Like good scientists, we should collect data as well as run and test models during that time to more fully understand the system.  But good scientists do not claim knowledge they do not have.

The 2007 IPCC report made clear the level of uncertainty that exists:

A systematic analysis of future projections for the Arctic Ocean circulation is still lacking. Coarse resolution in global models prevents the proper representation of local processes that are of global importance (such as the convection in the Greenland Sea that affects the deep waters in the Arctic Ocean and the intermediate waters that form overflow waters).

Which leads to the dangerous part of scientists’ misguided efforts to “educate” the public at every turn, a strategy motivated by perceived successes by fossil fuel corporations and their backers.  Moreover, the perceived extreme position of those corporations elicited a corresponding response from scientist-activists.  One problem with this is the potential to appear foolish to the very people scientists are trying to convince of real climate risks when dire projections end up wrong.  Scientists historically and currently enjoy wide-spread and deep respect by the public.  I can’t believe that will continue if, for instance, grandiose claims of significant events end up wrong.  How often do you and your friends make fun of the local weatherman after a busted forecast?  I think scientists should instead tap into that deep reservoir of trust and leverage it intelligently.  If the best science indicates an ice-free Arctic by 2035-2050, then say that.  If conditions change radically, there will of course be a ready explanation that the public will gladly receive.


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Changes In The Arctic

I’ve written about Arctic sea ice conditions for a couple of years now. As I’ve written new posts, I’ve tried to include information regarding the science behind the conditions being written.  2010 was a particularly bad year for Arctic ice, as conditions were recorded to be well below average conditions for months at a time.  Arctic ice in September 2010 challenged the record low minimum extent observed in the modern era in 2007.  My summary conclusion after paying attention to Arctic sea ice is this: the Arctic has entered into a new climatic regime.  Conditions are now regularly quite different than those observed in the past couple hundred years.  I’m going to provide a broader look at this topic in this post.

When I have written about climatic changes, especially in the context of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s 4th Assessment Report Physical Science Basis (IPCC 4AR WG1), I have increasingly mentioned the disturbing fact that the IPCC’s projections were far too conservative to be of real use to policy makers.  The reason is both simple and complex.  Simply put, the IPCC focused on moderate greenhouse pollution scenarios that were better researched.  The biggest problem with that is the globe’s actual emissions path is following the worst-case scenario (A1FI) considered by the IPCC 4AR (courtesy of Hansen and Sato; data through 2010):

Of greater complexity is the “better researched” part of my statement.  Critical feedbacks were largely kept out of climate model runs leading up to the 4AR.  There is nothing intrinsically wrong or manipulative about this.  Those feedbacks remain less researched and therefore less understood than other processes included in state-of-the-art model efforts.  That situation is improving, as feedbacks are coming under increasing scrutiny.  This is where politics intrudes: somebody has to fund that research.  There was a strong effort during most of the past 10 years to slow down or stop this kind of climate research.  Budgetary pressures moving forward will cause potential future research to be shelved when it’s needed most.

Back to the IPCC 4AR.  One of the problems with relying on scenarios that don’t accurately reflect the true state of the climate system is projections are starting to look overly cheerful.  Take Arctic sea ice extent as an example.  From the 2009 Copenhagen Diagnosis, we can see that not only does the mean of the IPCC models over-project the extent of September Arctic sea ice only a few short years after making the projections, but the worst-case scenario wasn’t able to capture how low sea ice extent would get prior to 2010 (data through 2008); [h/t msobel for reminding me this graph existed].

September 2009’s extent was similar to 2008’s.  2010’s looked more like 2007’s, which is represented by the lowest point of the red line in the above graph.  In other words, the observations time series continues to record values substantially lower than the bottom of the IPCC models’ range.  Scientists (and others) love to ask, “Why?”  So, the question should be, “Why were the IPCC models so far off on this projection?”  A quick note: a growing number of other kinds of projections are showing similar signs of being worse than projected much sooner than was thought to be the case.  I will discuss some, but not all, of the factors involved in this phenomenon.

I’ve already shown the annual growth of CO2 emissions over the past 50 years.  That, of course, is only part of the story.  Since CO2 isn’t scrubbed from the atmosphere very quickly, CO2 concentrations have risen with that growth of CO2 emissions.  Here is the state of atmospheric CO2 concentrations measured at Mauna Loa, Hawai’i as of early February 2011:

(Courtesy Tans et al., NOAA/ESRL web site)

Up and up it goes.  2010’s average CO2 concentration was 389.69ppm.  That will be the last time in a long time that the concentration will be below 390ppm.  Today’s concentration is higher than at any point during the past few hundreds of thousands of years.  Oh yeah, I almost forgot, the last time concentrations were above 400ppm for an extended period of time (somewhere between 400 and 560ppm), the Greenland ice sheets collapsed.  That’s because there is a melting ice/warmer air feedback that occurs around Greenland.  The problem?  Nobody knows exactly where the tipping point leading to collapsing ice sheet exists.  Since we’re only 10ppm  and 5 years away form 400ppm, does anybody seriously want to continue gambling?  After all, it’s going to take quite some time to get that concentration back below 400ppm; more time will be required the longer we wait.

CO2 is being emitted into the atmosphere faster than it is being removed.  The concentration of CO2 is therefore increasing.  As a result of very basic physical laws, more and more solar energy is accumulating in Earth’s climate system.  Part of this energy is manifesting as increased surface temperatures:

This graph shows 5-year and 11-year running averages of global temperatures as analyzed by NASA’s James Hansen.  Within this data, something interesting is occurring.  And it didn’t become obvious until Hansen published a different kind of temperature anomaly graph.  Instead of averaging the entire globe’s temperatures together, Hansen averaged temperatures over different latitude bands together:

If it’s too hard to make out all the little details, check out this web page, where you can click on a PDF which shows a much larger version.  I’m going to concentrate on the top two boxes in this graph, which show temperature anomalies for five zones (upper-left) and for the two polar zones (upper-right).

The first thing I want to point out is the period between 1940 and 1980.  This period has been cited recently by climate zombies as one reason not to listen to climate scientists.  According to the zombies, predictions were made in the 1970s about global cooling.  Nothing exists in the scientific literature supporting this claim, of course.  What scientists did say in the 1970s was the recent warming trend was no longer evidenced and they wondered what could be causing it.  Without getting further into the minutiae, the top two time series show where the global signal originated from: the Arctic.  It was the zone that showed the strongest signal that looks similar to the signal seen in the global temperature anomaly time series.  Since the 1970s, the Arctic’s surface temperatures have warmed more than any other zone.  You can see that in 2010, the Arctic temperature anomaly was greater than 3.6F (2C).  The northern mid-latitudes (23.6°N to 64.2°N, or the zone in which most of us live) has “only” warmed by just under 1.8F.  The northern mid-latitudes showed a slight cooling from the mid-1960s to the mid-1970s, but if you look at the time series on the bottom-left, the scale is much smaller than the Arctic graph in the upper-right.

So that’s what’s happened in the lowest part of the atmosphere above the Arctic: the greatest warming of any zonal area on Earth since the 1880s.  Arctic sea ice, of course, rests on water – the Arctic Ocean, to be precise.  Something has been occurring to the Arctic Ocean at the same time that the atmosphere above the ice has been steadily warming.  Unfortunately, it’s the same phenomenon: water entering the Arctic from the Atlantic is warmer than it has been at any point in at least the past 2,000 years.  This water is 3.5F warmer today than it was one century ago.  It is 2.5F warmer today than it was during a favorite time period for climate zombies, the Medieval Warm Period, during which Europe warmed while most of the rest of the globe didn’t see much change.  But even if the effect was global, as they wish it was, conditions are warmer today by a substantial margin.  Not only that, but the volume of water entering the Arctic from the Atlantic has also increased over the past century.  If the same volume of water that was warmer was the situation, that would be bad enough.  But significantly more water that is significantly warmer than similar water was 100 years ago is a double whammy.  What this mean is Arctic ice has a harder time forming along the edge of the ice pack on a year-to-year and decade-to-decade basis.  This is evident in the following graphic:

(courtesy Robert F. Spielhagen, Science)

The red arrows represent flow direction of Atlantic water entering the Arctic Ocean at depth.  The white arrows represent flow direction of ice exiting the Arctic Ocean at the surface.  The solid white line represents the average sea ice coverage for April from 1989 to 1995.  The broken white line represents the average sea ice coverage for April from 1963 to 1969.

Why are the time series and study results relevant to the comparison of ice extent observations against IPCC model projections?  Because they represent only a small number of examples of how increasing understanding of the Arctic has occurred in recent years and that’s problematic when interpreting the IPCC’s results.  I haven’t covered how the warming observed in the Arctic so far is thawing permafrost both on land and underwater, which is projected to release 1 Billion tons of carbon into the atmosphere yearly by the 2030s – and how such a process likely won’t be included in the IPCC 5AR.  Additionally, most of that carbon will be released as methane, which is 72 times as efficient a greenhouse gas over a 25 year period than CO2.  I haven’t covered how the retreat of Arctic sea ice is causing additional solar energy to be collected by dark sea water instead of being reflected back into space by white ice – and how such a process also isn’t included in today’s climate models.  I haven’t covered how over 80% of the solar energy absorbed in the past couple hundred years is currently stored in the world’s oceans, mostly at depth.  When that warmer water rises to the surface, it will interact with a warmer atmosphere in ways that are not completely understood.  Of course, warmer waters means Arctic sea ice will have even less of a chance of existing year-round in tomorrow’s world.

To some extent, I have talked about the dangers involved with spending most of our research time on moderate emission/warming scenarios, when our actual emission scenario is closer to the worst-case considered in the 2007 report.  But all of the feedbacks I’ve discussed so far are lacking from all of the emission scenarios.  What will happen when those feedbacks are included?  Instead of “5.0 °F with a likely range of 3.1 to 7.9 °F” for the A1B scenario or “7.2 °F with a likely range of 4.3 to 11.5 °F” for the A1FI scenario from the 4AR by 2100, the globe could experience 10-13°F warming by 2100.  Long before then, the Arctic will likely have attained a new stable climate; one that is quite different from the climate present during most of our species’ existence.

The Arctic has entered into a new regime.  Even climate scientists are playing catch-up right now, which means the American public is way behind in understanding what changes in the Arctic mean to them.

Cross-posted at SquareState.


2010 Warmest Year On Record, Says NASA & NOAA

The news is in and it isn’t good.  Despite a strong La Nina during the second half of the year and cold air able to escape the Arctic and affect Europe and the eastern U.S., 2010 was the warmest year since 1880.

The top-10 warmest years in the NASA record are now:

2010, 2005 (actually 0.018°F less than 2010), 1998, 2002, 2003, 2006, 2007, 2009, 2004 and 2001.

9 out of the 10 warmest years on record have now all occurred since 2002.  The 12 warmest years on record have occurred since 1997.  Global warming has not stopped.  Global warming will not stop unless and until we stop polluting the climate system with greenhouse gas emissions at a tiny fraction of our current pace.

NOAA has put together their annual global report, which acts as confirmation of the NASA result: 2010 is statistically tied with 2005 as the warmest year in their dataset.

To the climate zombies that infest the discussion over what to do about global warming, consider the following: 2010 was “only” 1.12°F (0.62°C) above the 20th century average of 59.0°F.  Our current emissions trajectory is closest to the A1FI emissions scenario in the IPCC’s SRES family.  Results of running that scenario through climate models produced the following results: best estimate temperature rise of 7.2°F with a likely range of 4.3 to 11.5°F (4.0 °C with a likely range of 2.4 to 6.4 °C).

Multiple extreme weather events also characterized 2010 and continue to do so in early 2011.  From a heat wave worse than any seen in the past few thousand years across eastern Europe and Russia that claimed many lives and spawned massive wildfires to related Pakistani floods that affected tens of millions of people to floods in Australia that cover more area than several countries in Europe, loaded die are starting to land.  The costs of these disasters already reach into the tens to hundreds of billions of dollars.  If these kinds of horrific events are already occurring with only 1.12°F warming, what will happen when the globe warms by an average of 4.3°F, 7.2°F, or even 11.5°F?  It can be summed up simply: stress will move beyond impacting disparate societies; our civilizations will be stressed to breaking points, to say nothing of ecosystems across the planet.

Cross-posted at SquareState.


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America Post-2050 With Climate Change

The good news is slightly more attention is being paid to the issue of climate change in the media. The bad news is the dates being used don’t reflect the latest research to the degree they should. Since we have to take the bad with the good, I’m going to take a quick look at how the issue was handled recently. This Lifestyle article at MSN was about America post-2100. But since the overwhelming majority of climate change metrics are currently worse (as measured by observations) than they were forecasted to be for the 2007 IPCC Report, and since additional research since the Report was issued has moved up timelines for climate change effects, the article should relay to readers that the conditions within more accurately reflect post-2050 America than post-2100 America. But without further ado, let’s look at exactly what effects were discussed.

Pacific Northwest: Washington, Oregon, Idaho and Alaska
What we could see in 2100 post-2050: Heavier rains, dramatic warming over higher latitudes and sea-level rise.  According to recent research, Alaska has already experienced a 3.6 degree Fahrenheit increase since 1951, much more than the rest of America. The Northwest will also be affected by the forecasted two to three feet (or as much as 3-7 feet, according to more recent research) of sea level rise.

Rocky Mountains: Colorado, Utah, Wyoming and Montana
What we could see in 2100 post-2050: Shorter snow season, early snow-melt, longer and more intense drought, wildfire and water issues.

Northeast: Virginia to Maine
What we could see in 2100 post-2050: More severe storms in the winter and summer, extreme sea level rise and flooding. Indeed, a couple of recent journal articles I’ve read point out that if the land-based West Antarctica ice sheets melt this century, sea levels won’t rise by the same amount all over the globe. Sea levels off the U.S. Northeast coast will rise a couple of meters more than other places. Unfortunately, that region is also one of the most densely populated by people.

Southeast: The Gulf Coast states, up to Carolina
What we could see in 2100 post-2050: Hurricanes, wind damage, storm surges, flooding, extra sea level rise. Lots of people, lots of infrastructure. That means lots of money to either protect everything and everybody or move them inland.

The Northern Plains, Midwest and Great Lakes
What we could see in 2100 post-2050: Stronger storms (i.e. tornadoes, heavy rain events) occurring throughout the year as well as warmer winters. More intense storm systems mean increased chances of flash flooding across the region.

Southwest: Arizona, New Mexico, California and Nevada
What we could see in 2100 post-2050: Drought and water shortages, heat waves and wildfire.

By not choosing to pay to address these potential effects now, we choose to pay more for them later. Protection along the coasts, more flood defense systems, dropping water tables higher rates of disease associated with warmer conditions, among others, will all have an adverse financial effect. Larger clean-up and rescue efforts will cost more. Building insurance rates will skyrocket – forcing more and more people to go without or move inland whether the coasts are protected or not. What will loss of part of population centers mean for businesses and urban cores?

These changes will more likely occur sooner rather than later.  More people in the U.S. need to understand that potential so that more realistic policies can be set.


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Climate Change: IPCC Update and Effects on the U.S.

In response to the 2007 IPCC Report, scientists saw a need to update policy makers about the current and future states of our climate system prior to the next IPCC Report.  One factor pushing the research is the expectation of an updated climate change response agreement to the Kyoto Protocol.  Such an update could ocur in Copenhagen, Denmark, later this year.  Leading up to that meeting, climate news continues to be issued.  I’m going to take a look at three such news pieces in this post.

Tying the other two articles together in a more large-scale sense is this article: climate experts warn of irreversible shifts.  As I’ve written about in the past few months as I’ve read some of the ongoing research, the bottom line is this:

“The worst-case IPCC scenario trajectories (or even worse) are being realized,” a team of scientists wrote in a concluding statement. “There is a significant risk that many of the trends will accelerate, leading to an increasing risk of abrupt or irreversible climatic shifts.”

Among those scenarios were rising sea levels of 7 to 23 inches – nothing to ignore, certainly – but the causal factors going into that sea level rise have been increasing at a faster rate than the IPCC Report indicated.  Today’s best-cast scenarios encompass 7-23″ sea level rise.  Today’s worst-case scenarios have the rise pegged in feet to meters.  Such a rise would simply be catastrophic to world societies and ecosystems.  Wise economists recognize that the current economic slowdown is the perfect place-setting for a change in business to a more energy-efficient future.  Such a switch could power 21st century economic growth.

Working our way down from global to national effects comes this piece of news: Northeast warned of new source of rising seas.  This new source is a result of how ice and sea water mass is currently distributed and how melting ice would be distributed in a future, overall warmer climate.  The mid-Atlantic to New England states of the U.S. could see up to an additional 8″ of sea level to whatever the rest of the country might experience.  So instead of 24″-36″, New York, Boston and other cities could see 32″-44″ of sea level rise.  I think that might have an effect on whatever climate change response plans policy makers come up with.  To add to the problem already presented, imagine how these cities would be affected if a nor’easter or a hurricane moves through the area with 32″-44″ more water.  Such storms would add additional inches to feet of accumulated sea water to the coastal areas.  Elected officials must be prepared to contend with these kinds of scenarios moving forward.  This kind of work needs to be expanded to additional areas and more details needs to become available.

There is an example of such work from California.  Estimates are being compiled for the California’s interagency Climate Action Team, as California counts costs from projected warming details.  There are plenty of numbers in this article.  How about $100 billion in property damage alone if seas rise 5 feet?  How about costs ranging from $2.5 billion to $15 billion per year by 2050 (not including that $100 bilion).  The important summary paragraph puts it this way:

If nothing is done globally to reduce emissions, the studies warn, hotter temperatures will lead to rising sea levels that will flood property in the San Francisco Bay area, lead to lower crop yields and water shortages, produce more intense wildfires and cause more demand for electricity to cool homes.

More numbers and findings:

The study by the Pacific Institute estimates that a 5-foot rise in sea levels by 2100 would effect 480,000 people who live in areas at risk, causing $100 billion in property damage.

“An overwhelming two thirds of that property is concentrated on San Francisco Bay,” the institute stated, adding that a 5-foot rise is possible if greenhouse gases increase at a pace regarded as a “medium-high” scenario. San Francisco and Oakland international airports are at risk of being under water, as are 3,500 miles of roads, 30 power plants and 29 wastewater treatment plants.

What to do about it?  The Institute provided two possible solutions:

“Coastal armoring is one potential adaptation strategy,” the institute said. “Approximately 1,100 miles of new or modified coastal protection structures — such as dikes and dunes, seawalls, and bulkheads — are needed on the Pacific Coast and San Francisco Bay” to protect against flooding from a 5 foot sea level rise. “The cost of building new or upgrading existing structures is estimated to be at least $14 billion, with an additional $1.4 billion per year in maintenance costs.”

The institute added that an “alternative to costly engineering projects” would be “non-structural” responses that “allow natural processes to work, and include a retreat from the most at-risk areas, or deciding not to rebuild flood-damaged properties.”

Those cost estimates are characterized as “conservative” by a Californian economist.  Without looking at detailed information, my gut reaction is to agree with that assessment.  I simply can’t see building or upgrading 1,100 miles of coastal protection structures costing only $14 billion.  That being said, the cost of doing nothing is obviously far greater.  Oh – small business costs weren’t included in the studies yet either.  That line about a retreat from high at-risk areas needs particular attention by policy makers.  How would such a thing occur?  Where would you move people and infrastrcture?  What process would be employed to do such a thing?

The science is settled.  The policy debate is just beginning.



Climate Change Occurring Faster Than Predicted & Other Climate-Related News

Additional examples of how out-of-date the 2007 IPCC’s Fourth Assessment Report was at the time of release continue to be issued.  The latest: a World Wildlife Fund report which acts as a summary of recent scientific papers and reports.  The summary: climate change is occurring faster than was presented by the IPCC last year.  Indeed, NOAA recently released an arctic report that identifies stronger effects of warming on Greenland and permafrost.  The next IPCC Report will be released in 2013, meaning most of the work towards it will be done during the next President’s term.  Actions taken during the next four years will have ramifications on the future state of the climate.  Recognizing that the 2007 Report has already underestimated the impacts of human-forced climate change should harden the next administration’s actions.

On a related note, a slowing economy won’t help the climate.  Emissions don’t just have to dip for a short while.  They have to stop.  Then the GHGs that we have already emitted have to be put into a emission-sink.  The oceans are nearly at capacity for carbon, so large challenges remain.

Obama is set to declare CO2 a dangerous pollutant.  Good.  The action could stop plans to build dozones of coal plant.  Obama’s energy adviser, Jason Grumet, said that if Congress didn’t act within 18 months, Obama would take action by himself.  My question: why wait 18 months?  We simply don’t have the time.  I understand that Obama is making clear his respect for the legislature’s role, but 18 months is a ridiculous amount of time when the Bush administration has spent the past 8 years making sure we took no action.  At the same, I realize how important it is to have a Presidential candidate with a serious energy adviser.

Europe toughens GHG goals, not allowing economic slowdown to delay their activities.  Good for them.  Plenty of CONServatives in the U.S. are already saying the recession precludes any action on GHG emission goals, or any other climate change action.  Will America follow Europe’s lead?