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Climate Change Blog 23 - Facts on the Ground; Big News From NY; Good News; Washington

By Carl Howard posted 07-18-2019 11:36 AM


Climate Change Blog 23.

Facts on the Ground:

Hurricane Barry, the first of the season, had sustained winds of 75mph on July 13 and flooded coastal Louisiana. Its immense scope reached much of the midwest, southeast, the Gulf Coast, Arkansas, Oklahoma, the Great Lakes region, the northeast and southern Ontario. Over 23” of rain fell in LA., the French Quarter was flooded, a flash-flood emergency was declared in New Orleans and a tornado struck the Gentilly neighborhood there. Governor John Bel Edwards declared a state of emergency, deployed search and rescue teams and requested a federal disaster declaration for the entire state on July 11 which was granted. Over 150,000 electrical customers lost power in LA.

July in Alaska set numerous records for warmth. Beginning July 4 and lasting several days, temperatures across Alaska were 20 to 30 degrees above average in some locations.  On July 4, all-time high temperature records were set in Kenai, Palmer, King Salmon, and Anchorage International Airport.  The airport reached an astounding, for Alaska, 90°F, breaking the previous all-time record by 5°F! The average temperature in Anchorage during summer is normally in the mid-sixties.  Anchorage, Talkeetna (which saw a July record daily high of 93°F), and King Salmon also observed their warmest week on record. Through July 10, Juneau saw the high temperature reach at least 70°F for a record 17 consecutive days. In Anchorage, the highs reached 80°F for a record six consecutive days, doubling the previous record. And three of those days broke or tied the previous all-time record! The average high temperature from June 27 through July 8 was nearly 81°F, 5.5°F higher than the previous 12-day record. These are staggering numbers and genuine cause for concern.

Here is a brief global tour of record-setting weather for the first half of 2019 featuring extreme, high-impact weather including record heat, wildfires and rainfall in South America and Australasia, dangerous and extreme cold in North America, and heavy snowfall in the Alps and Himalayas.

Globally, temperatures in January were a little over 0.4°C warmer than average from 1981-2010, according to the EU's Copernicus Climate Change Service. Australia experienced its warmest January on record, Adelaide set a record at 46.6C, and had a series of heatwaves unprecedented in scale and duration.  Exceptionally warm weather covered much of the Middle East, eastern Siberia, Mongolia and northeastern China. Australia faced additional extremes including record rainfall in Queensland (Townsville received one year's rainfall in nine days). But Tasmania had its driest January on record.

Warming trends are not limited to land. Sea surface temperatures (SSTs) have warmed in the Tasman Sea with anomalies of +2.0˚C to 4.0˚C. Given that SSTs were significantly warmer than average for weeks on end, marine heatwave conditions likely occurred in parts of the Tasman Sea and New Zealand coastal waters.

In South America, extreme weather in the form of heat, drought and precipitation affected large parts of the continent in January and February. Intense rainfall caused damage and casualties in Bolivia, Peru and northern Chile in early February, while heat records were set in southern part of the continent (Patagonia exceeded 30C in February leading to wildfires in Tierra del Fuego).

Northeast Argentina, and adjacent parts of Uruguay and Brazil were hit with extensive flooding from heavy rainfall. On January 8, the Argentine city of Resistencia recorded 224mm rainfall, a new 24-hour rainfall record.

In Brazil, January 2019 continued the trend of rising heat in 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017 and 2018, with heatwaves setting regular historical record highs (São Paulo reached 37.4C, the second hottest since 1961). Brasilia experienced the third driest January in 57 years of measurements, with a cumulative of 70.9mm of rainfall.

Weather extremes were measured throughout Chile. Rain in the Andes led to damaging flooding in the Atacama desert, normally one of the driest places on Earth, and caused a 60 meter waterfall that had been dry for 10 years to be reactivated by the flooding. In the south, record temperatures led to more than 600 forest fires burning nearly 10,000 hectares of land and the declaration of disaster areas.

The capital, Santiago, set a record of 38.3°C on 26 January.  In central Chile, temperatures exceeded 40°C. In Patagonia in February, for the first time ever, Porvenir and Puerto Natalaes in the southern tip of the country exceeded 30°C.

As you will recall, large parts of North America experienced an influx of Arctic air late January. In southern Minnesota, the wind chill factor reached minus 65°F (-53.9°C) on January 30.  The national low temperature record was measured at minus 56 °F (-48.9°C). While this Polar Vortex is not a new phenomenon, there is increasing research suggesting that it is being impacted by climate change.

The first week of February set a record temperature swing in the US. Several record high temperatures were broken or tied across parts of the Eastern US on 4 February, included 59°F (15°C) in Buffalo, New York, and 61°F (16°C) in Syracuse, New Jersey. Miami set a heat record on June 23 (95F) and June 24 (98F) tied a record.

 “In general, and at global level, there has been a decline in new cold temperature records as a result of global warming.  But frigid temperatures and snow will continue to be part of our typical weather patterns in the northern hemisphere winter. We need to distinguish between short-term daily weather and long-term climate,“ said World Meteorological Organization’s Secretary-General Petteri Taalas. (As I write, a friend in Teluride, CO, informs me that skiing there is currently insane with snow levels 3700% of average. And snow is forecast for Banff, Canada.)

“Arctic has faced warming, which is twice the global average. A large fraction of the snow and ice in the region has melted. Those changes are affecting weather patterns outside the Arctic in the Northern Hemisphere. A part of the cold anomalies at lower latitudes could be linked to the dramatic changes in the Arctic. What happens at the poles does not stay at the poles but influences weather and climate conditions in lower latitudes where hundreds of millions of people live,” he said.

The eastern USA and parts of Canada saw record-breaking cold temperatures, but Alaska and large parts of the Arctic have been warmer than average.

The Ottawa airport received a record 97 cm of snow on 29 January, beating the 1999 record of 93 cm. Winter snowstorms and heavy snowfall are not inconsistent with weather patterns under a changing climate.

Parts of the European Alps saw record snowfalls in January. In Hochfilzen in the Tirol region of Austria, more than 451 centimeters (cm) of snow fell in the first 15 days of January, an event statistically expected once a century. Other resorts in Tirol also received once-in-a-century snowfalls. Eastern Switzerland received twice as much snow as the long-term average.

The German weather service or Deutscher Wetterdienst, DWD, issued several of its highest snow and winter weather warnings. Climate projections anticipate that winter precipitation in Germany will intensify, necessitating adaptation measures including new regulations for buildings to withstand the weight of additional snow.

Also in January, severe winter storms struck the eastern Mediterranean and parts of the Middle East, with particularly severe impacts on vulnerable populations including refugees.

A cold front in the third week of January that swept south through the Arabian Peninsula, brought a huge dust storm from Egypt to Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Qatar, Iran and the United Arab Emirates, and heavy rain and precipitation to Pakistan and northwest India.

The Indian Meteorological Department issued warnings on January 21 of heavy or very heavy rain and snow for Jammu and Kashmir and Himachal Pradesh, prompting warnings of avalanches amid an intense cold wave.

And continuing my focus on melting ice sheets, soaring temperatures are speeding the Spring thaw of Greenland’s glaciers. In early June, the temperature was 40F above normal. That, coupled with cloudless conditions, led to rapid melting across much of the ice sheet surface (across 275,000 square miles, or about 45% of the surface to be exact). That represents a record early date for such extensive melting, which has been measured by satellites since 1979.

The early melt is in keeping with the overall trend in the Arctic, where the warming effects of climate change are amplified. Overall, the region is warming about twice as fast as the global average.

In 2012 high-pressure air returned in July and August, leading to record ice-sheet melting for the year — in all, Greenland had a net loss of about 200 billion tons of ice that year. (If you want to see dramatic footage of what such massive melting looks like, see Gore’s film, Inconvenient Sequel.)

Greenland’s ice sheet is more than a mile thick. If the entire ice sheet melted it would raise sea levels by about 20 feet. Melting since the early 1970s has raised sea levels by about a half inch. But the pace of melting is accelerating as is the rate of seal level rise.

Sea ice loss contributes to the amplification of Arctic warming, as the darker water of open ocean absorbs more sunlight than ice.

Climate change is also melting the glaciers of the Himalayas, posing a grave threat to hundreds of millions of people who live downstream, a study based on 40 years of satellite data has shown.

The study concluded that the glaciers have lost a foot and a half of ice every year since 2000, melting at a far faster pace than in the previous 25-year period. In recent years, the glaciers have lost about eight billion tons of water a year.

The study adds to a growing and grim body of work that points to the dangers of global warming for the Himalayas, which are considered the water towers of Asia and an insurance policy against drought.

In February, a report produced by the International Center for Integrated Mountain Development warned that the Himalayas could lose up to a third of their ice by the end of the century, even if the world community can fulfill its most ambitious goal of keeping global average temperatures from rising only 1.5C degrees above preindustrial levels.

That goal, which scientists have identified as vital to avert catastrophic heat waves and other extreme weather events, is nowhere close to being met. Average global temperatures have already risen 1C in the last 150 years. Greenhouse gas emissions continue to climb. And scientists estimate that we likely will raise the average global temperature between 3 to 5 degrees Celsius by the end of this century.

Another study, published in May in Nature, found that Himalayan glaciers are melting faster in summer than they are being replenished by snow in winter. In the warm seasons, meltwater from the mountains feeds rivers that provide drinking water and irrigation for crops. Water scarcity may create millions of environmental refugees from this area by the end of the century. (Recent reporting from India informs that one of its larger cities, Chennai, with 4.6 million people, is virtually without water.)

The latest study, led by researchers at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory at Columbia University, relied on the analysis of satellite images of 650 glaciers across more than 1,200 miles of the Himalayas, including recently declassified United States spy satellite data.

From 1975 to 2000, glaciers across the region lost 10 inches of ice each year. Starting in 2000, the rate of loss doubled, to about 20 inches of ice each year. The study also concluded that while soot from fossil fuel burning is likely to have contributed to the ice melt, the main driver was rising temperatures. On average the temperature rose faster between 2000 and 2016 compared with earlier years. Data from more recent years will continue this dangerous trend.


Big News From NY:

Governor Cuomo has stated that he intends to sign legislation committing NY to ambitious climate goals. In one of the world’s most far-reaching climate plans, the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act requires the state to reduce its carbon emissions 85% below 1990 levels by 2050, and offset the remaining 15%, perhaps via removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. By 2030 the state must get 70% of its electricity from renewable sources and, by 2040, achieve zero carbon emissions from electricity use (a “net-zero economy” essential to slow the pace of global warming).

Details are yet to be established, but certain big-picture goals are clear including the phase out of gasoline-powered cars via pushing automakers to accelerate the production of electric vehicles (transportation makes up one-third of the state’s emissions); the replacement of oil and gas-burning heaters and boilers with electric-powered boilers (about one-quarter of New York’s emissions come from heating and cooling homes and commercial buildings); and a major push on solar and wind (mostly off-shore).

The plan is for industries to bear most of the associated costs, with grants and incentives to assist low-income residents. The measure is intended to boost the state economy via the creation of green jobs for solar and wind-power generation on buildings and off-shore. The City’s 24 power plants will be converted or dismantled, many of which are in low-income areas and contribute to elevated asthma rates which should be reduced under the new legislation. The bill requires that the plan direct more than a third of its financial and community benefits to low-income communities of color that have suffered disproportionate environmental harm.

NY currently produces about 60% of its electricity from carbon-free sources, mostly from hydroelectric dams and nuclear power plants, with small amounts of wind and solar power. To achieve its new goals, the state plans to erect huge off-shore wind turbines, expand rooftop solar programs and utilize large new batteries to handle and store the renewable power.

A recent study found that 141,000 jobs could be created to meet the city’s requirements to reduce skyscraper emissions alone. The state law could create hundreds of thousands of jobs in fields like retrofitting and renewable energy. The wind power plans alone should create many jobs in construction, ports and supply-chain work.

While the deadlines for major emissions reductions are a decade away, the state has two years to produce specific recommendations on how to meet the goals. Needless to say, the challenges of reaching such goals are daunting. New York has so far only managed to reduce its emissions 8% between 1990 and 2015.

NYC is particularly vulnerable to flooding from storm surges and sea level rise, especially lower Manhattan. In March, Mayor Bill de Blasio proposed a $10 billion project to protect Lower Manhattan from flooding, and he asked the federal government to pay for it.

Elsewhere, in April, the Army Corps of Engineers said the levee system around New Orleans, upgraded after Hurricane Katrina at a cost of $14 billion, is sinking, and could fail in as little as four years. In May, officials in Charleston, SC, held a public meeting on where to find the estimated $2 billion necessary to upgrade its infrastructure for climate change. In Florida, Resilient Analytics and the Center for Climate Integrity, estimated that Florida may have to build $76 billion worth of sea walls by 2040.

The cities that are pro-active adapting to climate risks “are going to attract the jobs and the factories of the future,” said Eric Smith, president and chief executive officer for the Americas at Swiss Re, one of the world’s largest reinsurance companies. “There’s going to be communities that I think will be left way, way behind.”

Recent research identifies 241 cities of 25,000 people or more that will require at least $10 million worth of sea walls by 2040 just to protect against a typical annual storm.

For NYC, under the mayor’s new $10 billion plan, the waterfront of the Financial District will be extended up to 500 feet into the East River to protect against flooding.

Six years ago, Hurricane Sandy flooded 51 square miles of the city. Seventeen thousand homes were damaged or destroyed. Forty-four New Yorkers lost their lives.

The Mayor noted that across the US cities are grappling with the same existential threat. But nowhere in the $4.75 trillion budget Trump proposed is there anything approaching a plan to protect coastal cities from rising seas.

The pattern has been that major federal funding only follows ‘natural’ disasters. Such investments have helped protect the Rockaway peninsula with new, reinforced sand dunes nearly 20 feet above sea level. A new $615 million sea wall will protect the east shore of Staten Island — another vulnerable area flooded by Sandy.

Approximately a half-billion dollars will be needed to fortify Lower Manhattan with grassy berms in parks and removable barriers than can be anchored in place as storms approach. But the South Street Seaport and the Financial District are just eight feet above sea level and are so crowded with utilities, sewers, and subway lines that flood protection cannot be built on the land there. The larger plan is to build more land itself, from the Brooklyn Bridge to the Battery. The new land will be higher than the current coast, protecting the neighborhoods from future storms and the higher tides that will threaten its survival in the decades to come (but only through 2100).

The mayor called this infrastructure just as vital as roads, rails, and bridges. “It’s national security, just as critical to keeping people safe as any military hardware. Preparing for climate change has to be a national priority, backed by tens of billions in federal investment. Lives are on the line.”

Tom De Napoli, NYC’s Comptroller, spoke at a NYSBA EEL NYC annual meeting luncheon. I asked him why the City had not divested its pension funds from fossil-fuel companies and he said he thought it best to have a seat at the table. Now, finally, the mayor said the City is divesting.

The mayor said that NYC, like Miami, Houston, Charleston and all coastal cities, face an existential threat and must respond. And we need federal assistance. We’ll see what happens.

(For more, see my co-chair Michael Gerrard’s recent op-ed piece in the NY Daily News:


Good News:

Judge Brian Morris of the United States District Court of the District of Montana delivered yet another significant setback to the Trump administration’s policy of promoting coal, ruling that the Interior Department action was “arbitrary and capricious” when it sought to lift an Obama-era moratorium on coal mining on public lands.

The decision does not reinstate President Obama’s 2016 freeze on new coal mining leases on public lands. A second opinion will address whether to do so.

The court did say that the 2017 Trump administration policy, enacted by former Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, to overturn Mr. Obama’s coal mining ban did not include adequate studies of the environmental effects of the mining, as required by the National Environmental Policy Act of 1970.

More than 40% of the coal produced in the US comes from federal land, and most of the planet-warming GHG comes from burning coal.

Efforts by Trump to deliver on his campaign promise to help the coal industry and roll back Obama’s environmental policies have repeatedly been blocked by the courts, often for reasons similar to those given by Judge Morris.

This is the latest in about 40 such courtroom losses for efforts by Trump to undo Obama’s environmental rules.

The Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit gave EPA 90 days to decide whether it will ban chlorpyrifos, a pesticide linked to brain damage. While the Obama administration had recommended banning the chemical, based on the recommendations of EPA scientists, Trump has sought to allow the agriculture industry to continue to use the chemical.

A federal judge in Alaska recently found unlawful an executive order by Trump that lifted an Obama-era ban on oil and gas drilling in the Arctic Ocean and parts of the North Atlantic coast.


The Trump administration replaced former President Obama’s Clean Power Plan to reduce planet-warming pollution from coal plants with a new rule that would allow plants to stay open longer and slow progress on cutting carbon emissions.

The Obama plan was to set national emissions limits and mandate the reconstruction of power grids to move utilities away from coal.  The new measure gives states broad authority to decide how far, if at all, to reduce emissions.

“The Affordable Clean Energy rule gives states the regulatory certainty they need to continue to reduce emissions and provide affordable energy to all Americans,” said Andrew Wheeler, the EPA administrator.

Mr. Wheeler said that the Obama administration overreached its authority with its Plan which was suspended by the Supreme Court after challenges from 28 states and hundreds of companies.

The new rule likely will prompt legal challenges, this time from environmental groups, that could have far-reaching implications for global warming. If the Supreme Court ultimately upholds the administration’s approach to pollution regulation, it could close a key avenue that future presidents could use to address climate change.

At issue is whether the EPA has authority to set national restrictions on carbon emissions and force states to move away from coal, as assumed under Mr. Obama’s rule. Under the Trump administration’s interpretation, the agency only has authority over environmental infractions at individual plants, like chemical spills and improper handling of hazardous materials.

The new rule, which is expected to come into effect within 30 days of issuance, assumes that market forces will guide the country toward cleaner energy by naturally phasing out coal over time. It imposes only modest requirements on coal plants.

While it instructs states to reduce emissions, the new measure sets no targets. Instead, it gives states broad latitude to decide how much carbon reduction they consider reasonable and suggests ways to improve efficiency at individual power plants.

Mr. Wheeler maintained that his plan will reduce carbon emissions in the power sector by 34% below 2005 levels, roughly equal to the goals of the Clean Power Plan.

Mr. Wheeler noted that from 2005 to 2017, the US reduced its energy-related carbon emissions by 14%. He did not mention that they rose in 2018 and are on track to continue growing this year.

“We’re on the right side of history,” he said. “It’s Congress’ role to draft statutes, not the regulatory agencies.”

According to a joint study produced last year by Harvard University, Syracuse University and Resources for the Future, a research organization, 18 states and the District of Columbia would experience higher GHG emissions from the Trump rule. In 19 states, pollutants like sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide emissions would increase.

An early Trump administration analysis of its own plan also found that it would lead to hundreds more premature deaths and hospitalizations due to increased air pollution.

The Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental group, issued an analysis that estimated, based on established EPA methods of calculating the harm from pollution and industry trends, that the new plan could lead to as many as 5,200 premature deaths annually by 2030.

The views expressed above are my own.

Carl Howard, Co-chair, Global Climate Change Committee
Follow me on Twitter: @Howard.Carl​