Climate Change Blog 20
Facts on the Ground:
A record-breaking, killing cold, air mass froze large parts of the US in late Jan/early Feb. But the bad news relates to why this Polar Vortex delivered Arctic temperatures over so much of the country. Scientists believe that due to climate change, numerous factors, including loss of reflective Arctic ice, increased absorption of heat by the exposed water, and altered oceanic currents, have changed the flow of the jet stream in effect releasing the constraints which had kept Arctic air-masses in the Arctic. The truly scary news is that this might be the new normal.
While the planet generally is getting warmer, this potentially greater threat of altered weather patterns also produces colder cold periods compared with historical averages during human evolution. But if the planet continues to warm, such severe winter low temperatures likely will become a rarity. A 2009 study found that in the US there were about as many record highs as record lows in the 1950s, but by the 2000s there were twice as many record highs as record lows.
The deaths of at least 21 people have been tied to the recent extreme cold and hundreds of thousands have been stranded, threatened and/or inconvenienced by frozen water pipes, over-taxed heaters, closed airports, icy roads and inability to reach safety. Normal life shut down due to closed businesses, schools and services. Among those who perished were four men found frozen near their homes in Illinois, Wisconsin and Michigan; six people died in traffic crashes in Iowa; a pedestrian hit with a snowplow in Libertyville, Ill.; and a woman found frozen to death inside a Milwaukee apartment after her thermostat malfunctioned. A Buffalo area resident died while using a snow-blower, and another died after shoveling. A married couple in their 20s died in Indiana in a car crash, a man in Milwaukee died after shoveling and a man died of hypothermia in Evanston, Ill. In Williamsville, NY, near Buffalo, a homeless man died inside a bus shelter.
Record low temperatures may have occurred in many locales including Illinois, Mount Carroll reached minus 38F, and Cedar Rapids, Iowa, minus 30F.
Two brutal storms recently passed through much of the country including NY. In one, the polar vortex covered the Midwest with the coldest weather in a generation prompting Wisconsin Governor Tony Evers to declare a state of emergency and to request the assistance of the National Guard.
In Milwaukee, St. Paul and Minneapolis, public schools were closed. Governor Gretchen Whitmer of Michigan sent most state workers home early. By midday, more than 1,400 flights across the country had been canceled. The Mayor of Lansing, Michigan, Andy Schor, declared a snow emergency.
The high temperature in both Chicago and Minneapolis was forecast to be minus 14F with wind chills of minus 50 in Chicago (which would be Chicago’s lowest daily high temperature on record) and minus 60 in Minneapolis.
The polar vortex was also leading to emergency preparations and school cancellations in the South which is not accustomed to cold weather. In Louisiana, where one to two inches of snow was expected, the Governor’s Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness activated its crisis action team. A similar forecast in Georgia prompted Governor Brian P. Kemp to close state offices in 35 counties.
Two weeks earlier, deadly storms knocked out power to about 200,000 people in parts of the Midwest contributing to the deaths of at least nine people. Central Missouri got up to 17 inches of snow. Heavier than usual snow also fell on Baltimore, Washington, D.C., Delaware, parts of New Jersey, the mountains in Virginia, and was expected to continue across southern New Jersey. Hundreds of flights were cancelled in Chicago, Washington DC and elsewhere during the holiday weekend.
Power failures affected more than 45,000 customers in Missouri, 24,000 in Kansas, 33,000 in Virginia, and more than 100,000 customers in North Carolina where Governor Roy Cooper declared a state of emergency.
There are always winners and losers and the winners in the east clearly were the skiers. North of Albany resorts boasted of nearly two feet of fresh powder. This was a welcome gift as ski resorts in general have enjoyed significantly less snow over the past years and more winter rain which used to be a rarity.
What is notable about these recent storms is precisely what climate change forecasters and models have predicted. More frequent storms of unusual intensity both in terms of rate of snowfall and extreme temperatures. These storms also are notable for affecting tens of millions of people over much of the US.
The National Weather Service, part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, was one of the agencies affected by the partial government shutdown. Some employees were furloughed, but many forecasters are considered essential and worked without pay no doubt issuing essential warnings which saved lives.
On the other side of the planet, Australia endured record-breaking heat and wildfires (Tasmania is experiencing one of its worst ever fire seasons). Power failures followed soaring air-conditioner use overloading electrical grids. The authorities slowed and canceled trams to save power. Labor leaders called for laws that would require businesses to close when temperatures reached hazardous levels such as almost 116F in Adelaide, the capital of South Australia.
No place is exempt from the extremes hitting the planet. Heat records were set from Norway to Algeria in 2018. In Australia, a drought has persisted so long that a child in kindergarten will hardly have seen rain in her lifetime. California had its most destructive wildfires ever in 2018, triggering the bankruptcy filing by the state’s largest utility, Pacific Gas and Electric.
Concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere are higher than they have been in 800,000 years which corresponds to rising average global temperatures. The last four years have been the hottest on record, and the 20 warmest years have all come in the past 22 years. Ocean temperatures have broken records several straight years.
Heat-related deaths are projected to increase five-fold in the US by 2080. But for less wealthy countries like the Philippines, the forecast is 12 times more deaths. Extreme heat is already devastating the health and livelihoods of tens of millions of people, especially in South Asia while reducing crop yield and water resources.
Two Key Indicators of Climate Change: Polar Ice (Blog 20) and Oceanic Health (next Blog, 21).
There is no dispute over the importance of the polar ice sheets. If they are set on an inevitable path to melting, the impacts to life on earth will be catastrophic.
Start with this: sea-ice minimums (the least coverage of sea ice during the year, post summer) have declined an average of 21,000 square miles annually over the last 39 years. All 12 of the lowest minimums have occurred in the past 12 years.
At the local level, a huge iceberg posed such a threat of calving and flooding the village of Innaaruit, NW Greenland, that police asked villagers close to the water to evacuate their homes this past summer. Immense 40’ piles of compacted sea ice broke off the coast of Greenland and floated to sea and melted.
It’s not just that the Arctic may no longer be surrounded by sea ice thereby opening the area to ship traffic and oil exploration. Although that is a danger that is happening. And it is not just that the disappearing sea ice is an existential threat to polar bears and walruses. Although that is occurring too.
The greater problem is that the dangers posed by a warming Arctic are happening and it is impacting us and we are not prepared physically or politically. For example, much of the extreme weather this summer, especially drought and wildfires in the US and in western Europe, are related to Arctic warming.
As long predicted, the Arctic has been heating up faster than any other place on earth for decades. One extreme follows another. In the winter of 2017, temperatures in the Arctic were 45F degrees above normal. It is increasingly clear that the warming Arctic is changing the weather dynamics for the entire planet. We are seeing five times more monthly heat records — such as “hottest July on record in California” — than we would in a stable climate. More heat means drier soils, causing more drought and wildfires. It also means more extreme rain, given that a warmer atmosphere can suck up and then release more moisture (a global increase in rainfall records is well-documented in weather station data). Recall that Stable Climate is a key foundational block supporting human civilization (see Blog #2).
As noted above, the change in global weather patterns is driven in part by the change in the jet stream. The jet stream has slowed down significantly in recent decades and now undulates more than it used to. The jet stream is driven by the temperature contrast between the tropics and the Arctic but because this temperature difference is decreasing, the jet stream is weakening and becoming less stable. The weaker summer circulation causes fewer weather changes resulting in more persistent weather.
The change has been sudden when compared to the relatively stable weather patterns that humans evolved with. Most everything we depend on also evolved within a fairly narrow, fairly consistent, weather pattern. More recent rapid changes and extreme weather is alarming scientists. Not only were such sudden changes predicted by climate models, but these models forecast additional increasingly rapid changes and more destructive events such as what we are already seeing: drought, wildfires, storms, floods, extreme temperatures and decreased agricultural productivity. In addition, the magnitude, danger and destructiveness of these events is greater and longer-lasting than what we are accustomed to and what other living flora and fauna and ecosystems can withstand. And upon which human civilization depends.
Another major concern is the thawing of permafrost, the vast realm of permanently (until now) frozen ground that lies beneath the snow and ice in the Arctic. Trapped in this frozen soil and vegetation is more than twice the carbon found in the atmosphere. As the permafrost thaws, microbes become active and start eating the buried organic matter which in turn releases CO2 and methane, a greenhouse gas that is 25 times as potent as CO2. A 2014 study estimated that thawing permafrost could release around 120 gigatons of carbon into the atmosphere by 2100, which alone would contribute at least another .3C degrees of warming.
It gets worse. The observed melting of the permafrost in northern Siberia is occurring at a much faster rate than anticipated. The ground is cratering as the soil thaws and methane is bubbling out of thermokarst lakes (melt-water lakes on the permafrost) at a rate that is double previous estimates. This is another development that is both a troubling positive feed-back loop (the more warming the more methane released, the more methane released the more warming), and one that may have surpassed its tipping point and will not stop no matter what we do to curtail GHG releases.
Yet another real but still-unquantifiable risk involves long-frozen bacteria and viruses like anthrax and smallpox which could emerge, triggering an epidemic like a climate change-driven Andromeda Strain sequel.
Despite warnings from scientists, numerous countries are rushing to take economic advantage of the melting Arctic. Container ships will motor through new shipping routes in the ice-free Arctic emitting huge amounts of carbon while shortening travel times from Asia to Europe. In Greenland, new mining operations for rare metals likely will open as the ice retreats. Russia’s Vladimir Putin plans to treat the Arctic as a new military frontier. And Trump has pushed Congress to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge for drilling and has proposed both rolling back vehicle emissions standards and allowing increased methane emissions and rewriting the Clean Power Plan to loosen limits on carbon pollution from power plants. All of this contributes to melting Arctic ice and thawing permafrost.
As the recent Special Report of the IPCC urged (see Blog 17), if there is an answer to these dire developments, it involves a massive global effort to commit to a carbon-free future. What it most certainly does not include is geoengineering (various artificial strategies to deflect sunlight with atmospheric emissions or deposits in the oceans). The fact of the matter is, that even after experiencing devastating, deadly storms, as predicted by climate models, and after decades of international meetings to act on these threats, we have made negligible progress (see Blog 19 on recent meeting in Poland). It is hard to imagine what, if anything, will finally convince the holdouts and deniers that without immediate and drastic action, there is little hope in preserving the world we are totally dependent on for our food, water and livelihood.
The Arctic is a warning system, a screaming alarm alerting us to the fact that the planet we live on is rapidly changing in ways we are not prepared to accept. As the Arctic heats up, it raises sea levels in Miami and NY and Bangladesh and every other coastal city in the world, and it makes drought and wildfires in California and the west likely. The trickle of refugees that is fueling the rise of the protectionist right-wing parties in the US, Europe, Brazil and elsewhere will increase exponentially. The immense numbers of environmental refugees will cause every country that has resources to protect, to build a wall. This has begun. The rapid changes occurring in the Arctic are remaking the weather in America and northern Europe with profound implications for human health and the environment. In our rapidly changing world, no place is too distant or too far away to be immune. All humanity, all ecosystems, are affected. When ice melts in the Arctic, the west burns, Miami floods, and humanity, sitting precariously atop the pyramid of life, wobbles.
Melting Polar Ice:
A recent study on Greenland’s ice states that it is melting so fast that it could become a major factor in sea-level rise around the world within two decades. Even worse, the enormous ice sheet is melting at such an accelerated rate that it may have reached a “tipping point” suggesting that it might be irreversible.
New research shows that the ice loss in Greenland is speeding up as global warming increases. The authors found that ice loss in 2012, more than 400 billion tons per year, was nearly four times the rate in 2003. The rate of ice loss in Greenland is faster than it has been for 350 years.
The study supports a growing consensus that prior estimates of the effects of a warming planet have been too conservative. Another recent study of ice loss in Antarctica found that the continent is contributing more to rising sea levels than previously thought.
New analysis suggests that the oceans are warming far faster than earlier estimates. Warming oceans are currently the leading cause of sea-level rise since water expands as it warms.
Rising sea levels are one of the clearest consequences of global warming; they are caused both by thermal expansion of the oceans and by the melting of ice sheets on land. Current projections say that if the planet warms by 2C (3.6F) over pre-industrial times (which it almost certainly will), average sea levels will rise by more than two feet, and 32 million to 80 million people will be exposed to coastal flooding.
Much of the previous research on Greenland’s ice has dealt with the southeast and northeast parts of the island, where large chunks of glacial ice calve into the sea. The new study focuses on the ice-covered stretches of southwest Greenland, which has few large glaciers and was not generally considered as important a source of ice loss.
But recent findings show that the vast plains of southwestern ice will increasingly melt, with the melt-water flowing to the ocean. Within two decades, the region will become a major contributor to sea level rise.
But the more scary part is the increased talk among scientists of the possibility that a threshold, or tipping point, may have been reached. There are warm and cool cycles which produce melting and freezing, respectively. But increasingly the cool/freezing cycle is only pausing the greater, longer-lasting warm/melting cycle which suggests a threshold has been reached. If so, one degree of future warming will be much more significant than one degree of past warming.
Most estimates of a tipping point for Greenland ice loss cite 1.5 or 2C above pre-industrial levels. Global average temperatures have already increased by about 1C (1.8F) but we are projected to exceed 1.5C and may well go beyond 2C absent major reductions in GHG emissions.
Similarly, in Antarctica, the speed of ice loss is faster in some regions than scientists had previously estimated. For example, considerable losses of glacial ice in East Antarctica has been found in an area previously considered to be relatively stable. As a whole, Antarctica lost about 40 billion tons of ice per year in the 1980s, but it has been losing roughly 250 billion tons per year in the past decade.
More troubling, it may be that the rate of Antarctica’s ice loss is accelerating. One study found that the rate of ice loss had tripled since 2007. Scientists estimate the Antarctic melting will contribute six inches to sea-level rise by 2100.
The International Energy Agency published its annual World Energy Outlook, a 661-page report that forecasts global energy trends to 2040. It forecasts that over the next two decades the world’s energy system will undergo a huge transformation. Wind and solar power may become dominant sources of electricity. China’s once-relentless consumption of coal may slacken. The amount of oil we use to fuel our cars could peak and decline.
But the none of this is happening fast enough to avoid the dangers of global warming. Governments must advance forceful new policy measures to reduce GHG emissions.
Globally, the electricity sector “is experiencing its most dramatic transformation since its creation more than a century ago,” the report said. Over the past five years the average cost of solar power has declined 65% and the cost of onshore wind has fallen 15%. Those prices should decline further as technology improves. Solar plants likely will out-compete new coal plants almost everywhere. The agency sees renewable power supplying 40% of the world’s electricity by 2040, up from 25% today. That forecast could prove conservative as the agency tends to underestimate the speed at which wind and solar power proliferate.
The report warns, however, that many countries will need to retool their grids to manage the intermittent output from wind and solar plants. That will mean re-writing rules for how electricity markets operate, relying on batteries and gas plants for grid flexibility and exploring new tools like hydrogen storage.
Regarding coal, for decades developing countries like China and India used coal as the cheapest, easiest way to power their economies and lift themselves out of poverty. As a result, CO2 emissions skyrocketed. But that’s quickly changing. China, which burns half the world’s coal, has been forced by its incensed citizenry to clean up its polluted air. In response, it is investing heavily in wind, solar, nuclear and natural gas. The agency now projects that China’s coal consumption will plateau around 2025, with renewables overtaking coal as the country’s biggest source of electricity by 2040.
And, while countries in Southeast Asia and elsewhere are still planning to build new coal plants, the agency expects such construction to slow sharply after 2020. But while the era of rapid coal growth is slowing, the agency projects that global coal consumption could stay flat for decades as the average coal plant in Asia is less than 15 years old (compared to about 41 years in the US). Those plants will keep polluting for decades unless countries decide to retire them early or develop technology to capture and bury their emissions.
Transportation remains a major contributor of GHG emissions. The report projects that global oil use for cars will peak by the mid-2020s as countries increase their fuel-economy standards (which Trump has attempted to roll back) and deploy more electric vehicles. But only about one-quarter of the world’s oil is used to fuel passenger cars. The rest is used to fuel freight trucks, ships, and airplanes; for heating; and to make plastics and other petrochemicals. So global oil use will remain high and may keep rising through 2040, led by developing countries.
The unsatisfactory bottom line is that even with impressive gains in renewable energy, the world is still far from solving global warming. Global CO2 emissions rose 1.6% last year and are on track to climb again this year. The report projects that emissions will keep rising slowly until 2040.
What is needed, according to the report, is for nations to enact sweeping new policies, like investing in energy efficiency, curbing methane leaks from oil and gas operations, and developing carbon capture technology for existing fossil fuel power plants and cement factories.
Governments will play a key role: The report notes that the world invests $2 trillion annually in energy infrastructure, and 70% of that is directed by state-owned companies or regulators. Our energy destiny will rely heavily on government decisions in the next two decades.
Andrew Wheeler is Trump’s nominee to lead the EPA. He testified, over the shouts of protesters, before the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works and defended his efforts to roll back Obama-era regulations, including the replacement of a plan to reduce emissions from coal-fired power plants, known as the Clean Power Plan, with weaker rules.
When asked about climate change, Mr. Wheeler said he believed that it is occurring, and that humans have an effect. But he said: “I would not call it the greatest crisis, no sir. I would call it a huge issue that has to be addressed globally.” He later said that on a scale of one to 10, his concern about climate change is at a level of “eight or nine.” He argued that EPA is addressing the challenge of rising carbon emissions. He repeated the Trump administration’s finding that its plan to revise the Clean Power Plan would still reduce planet-warming emissions by 34% below 2005 levels by 2030.
Wheeler’s remarks were undercut by a Harvard University study finding that Trump’s plan would be worse for the planet than doing nothing at all. The study found that GHG emissions would “rebound” under the new policy by delaying the retirement of coal-fired power plants. Carbon emissions could rise in 18 states by around 8.7% by 2030, compared to having no carbon policy at all, the study found. Wheeler disputed those numbers.
Regarding recent findings that CO2 emissions rose 3.4% in 2018 in the US, the largest increase in eight years, Wheeler argued that GHG emissions decreased by 2.7% between 2016 and 2017 as proof that the Trump administration is protecting the environment while deregulating. However, that dip occurred before Trump officially took office and was due to market forces favorable to natural gas and not coal.
-Carl Howard, Co-chair
Global Climate Change Committee
The above views are entirely my own
Follow me on Twitter: @howard.carl