Climate Change Blog 38
As noted in Blog 37, NYC’s Central Park had 16” wet inches of snow when I skied it Feb 1 and another 1.2” fell after that making it one of the heaviest snowfalls in the city’s history. Six of the 10 deepest snowstorms in the region since officials began recording them in 1869 have occurred since 2000. The City’s above ground rail lines were closed for the subway as well as the two essential commuter rail lines, the Long Island Railroad and Metro-North Railroad. The City’s airports were shut, and travel was disrupted for millions of people along the I-95 corridor. At least one person died because of the storm. The storm also caused the cancelation of vaccination appointments Feb 1 and 2 in the city.
Montague Township, NJ, got 33.2” and Gov. Murphy declared a state of emergency beginning at 7 p.m. Feb 1. New Jersey Transit’s bus and rail operations were suspended on Feb 2. Nazareth, Pa., got 36”. Connecticut and Massachusetts and Vermont were partly covered as was Maine (but not the Adirondacks in NY). The Boston Logan International Airport reported dozens of canceled flights, and two mass coronavirus vaccination sites in the Boston area closed.
A deadly winter storm then made its way across most of the US, over 4 million Texans remained without power, water or heat in freezing temperatures, many for over a week. Pipes froze and burst across the state, and warming centers that had opened lost power. Icicles hung from kitchen faucets in Houston, ambulances in San Antonio were unable to meet the surging demand and the county government in coastal Galveston called for refrigerated trucks to hold frozen bodies.
The power outages were national with more than 100 million Americans under some type of winter weather-related warning and tens of thousands without electricity in Kentucky, West Virginia and Louisiana. Around 160,000 people in Oregon lost power. Across the country, at least 31 people died. Some died in crashes on icy roads (there was a 100-car pile-up in Texas), others succumbed to the cold and others poisoned themselves during desperate attempts to generate heat using carbon monoxide. The temperature in Houston dipped to 13F. And Oklahoma’s capital experienced its coldest morning since 1899 (-14).
Nearly three-quarters of the continental US was blanketed in snow, the greatest extent on record. More snow then fell from New England, to the Southern Plains to the Mississippi Valley, as well as Virginia, Mississippi, Missouri, and Ohio. Tornedos caused widespread damage to coastal North Carolina, killed three people and injured at least 10 others, and hit an area near Damascus, Ga.
Record cold was felt in Austin, Texas (8F), –38F in Hibbing, Minn, and -31 in Norfolk, Neb. Houston hit a record low for a Feb. 15 breaking the previous record of 18 set in 1905. In Austin, it was just 8, breaking the previous record of 20 set in 1909. Records for the date also fell in San Antonio (9) and Dallas (7). In North Platte, Neb., it was -29, dipping below the previous record of -23 set more than a century ago, in 1881. The National Weather Service in Omaha warned of “painfully cold weather” and dangerous wind chills. Highs were expected to be -3 with morning wind chills as low as -40. In Lincoln, Neb., it was -31“making it the coldest temp recorded there in 46 years,” the Weather Service said. Residents in Norfolk, Neb., were dealing with a reading of -31 breaking a record there from 1924. And Omaha was reporting its coldest day since 1996 at -23.
Many cities and counties in Texas issued boil water notices stemming from concerns about contamination and low water pressure as frigid temperatures froze pipes, leaving some households with little to no running water and little to no power to boil the water.
Many grocery stores throughout the state moved to limited hours because of power outages or they closed due to lack of inventory as trucks couldn’t reach them.
Some of the key factors behind the grid failures in Texas included record-breaking cold which prompted residents to turn up their electric heaters which increased demand for electricity beyond the worst-case scenarios that grid operators had planned for.
Climate change disrupts such planning as weather patterns no longer follow expected norms. As I have written, the loss of Arctic sea ice and polar ice in general has disrupted atmospheric air flow including the Jet Stream, as well as oceanic currents, including the Gulf Stream, which during the entirety of human evolution has regulated the planet’s weather. That all seems to be changing.
Scientists are trying to explain how global warming affects the Jet Stream such that Arctic cold could penetrate down to the southern US. The Jet Stream had acted to constrain such polar vortex systems, but that’s part of the change related to a warmer Arctic, in particular. The warming stratosphere deforms the vortex allowing cold air to escape to the south.
Judah Cohen, the director of seasonal forecasting at Atmospheric and Environmental Research, a company that provides information to clients about weather and climate-related risk, said “Severe winter weather is much more frequent when the Arctic is warmest,” adding, “It’s not in spite of climate change, but related to climate change.”
Another deadly consequence of a warming planet concerns glaciers. A melting Himalayan glacier broke and caused sudden, massive flooding in the northern Indian state of Uttarakhand, smashing two dam projects and forcing the evacuation of villagers. Seven bodies were recovered and about 125 people, many of them workers at the two hydroelectric dam projects that were largely swept away, were missing.
This also raised fears of what is to come. Scientists said the breaking of a glacier in the middle of the winter suggests the impact of climate change and warned that rising temperatures are melting the Himalayan glaciers at an alarming pace. These glaciers supply water to tens of millions of people and could be mostly gone by the end of the century.
Warming in parts of the Himalayas, which stretches for 1,500 miles across Asia, from Pakistan to Bhutan, is revealing how climate change can disrupt a region’s water cycle. As these glaciers melt and retreat, even moderate projections expect declines of approximately 60% by the end of this century, with many glaciers totally disappearing.
The Indian Institute of Tropical Meteorology warned that continued warming in the Hindu Kush region “will further exacerbate the snowfall and glacier decline leading to profound hydrological and agricultural impacts.” The region has the largest area of permanent ice cover outside the North and South poles.
The consequences of melting glaciers are profound. Not only is there a loss of freshwater, but the dry season has become drier and the monsoon season has become more intense and destructive with heavier rainstorms and increasing flooding and landslides.
The loss of glaciers also reduces the flow of the great rivers of Asia that are the primary drinking and irrigation water source for over one billion people. The Hindu Kush region has experienced particular upheaval to the approximately 240 million residents there. Warming has reduced productivity in overgrazed rangelands which can no longer support the needs of livestock. Crop productivity for human consumption has declined as well due to heat and less reliable precipitation.
Further study is needed to determine how the decline of mountain glaciers may affect the flow of the jet stream and its impact on global weather systems including temperature and seasonal monsoons as well as food and water scarcity issues both in this precarious region and elsewhere.
The Texas Power Disaster
The Texas energy disaster points to a larger danger in the US and globally. Climate change has produced ‘global weirding’ where powerful storms are occurring more often and with greater impact and creating demand for more energy to combat more cold and more heat depending on the storm. With a stable climate, regulators can plan for expected energy demand. But as the Texas freeze demonstrated, such planning is increasingly outdated.
A recent study found that the US Southeast alone may demand 35% more electric capacity by 2050 to deal with expected hazards of climate change.
Texas has an electric grid which is largely independent from the rest of the country. It is designed to handle the state’s predictable, and increasingly high, summer heat and AC use. But in 2011 and again in 2018, Texans saw that they must plan for high energy demand in winter too. Texas deregulated its energy operators and there has thus far been insufficient pressure to get operators to spend the large amounts of money necessary to modify their grid.
“No one’s model of the power system envisioned that all 254 Texas counties would come under a winter storm warning at the same time,” said Joshua Rhodes, an expert on the state’s electric grid at the University of Texas, Austin.
“This is going to be a significant challenge,” said Emily Grubert, an expert in electricity systems at Georgia Tech. “We need to decarbonize our power systems so that climate change doesn’t keep getting worse, but we also need to adapt to changing conditions at the same time. And the latter alone is going to be very costly. We can already see that the systems we have today aren’t handling this very well.”
Unfortunately, climate change is being handled as a political issue more than a scientific one, especially in Texas. The governor, Greg Abbott, blamed the disaster on frozen wind turbines and the Green New Deal which had nothing to do with it. Texas derives about a quarter of its electricity from wind power, and in 1999 then governor George W. Bush deregulated the state’s power industry which spurred the growth of wind turbines. Texas is by far the biggest supplier of wind energy in the US and one of the largest globally.
But due to deregulation, these turbines did not have to be winterized and so they froze in the February storm. The major problem was that natural gas power plants which supply most of the winter energy also froze as no regulation required that they (or their boilers and turbines which are left outdoors) be insulated. Wind only supplies about 5% of Texas’ summer energy but received the lion’s share of the blame.
In February 2011 a heavy snowstorm caused statewide rolling blackouts and left millions of Texans without power. Federal authorities warned the state that its power infrastructure was inadequately winterized. But 10 years later, pipelines remain uninsulated and heaters and de-icing equipment were never installed because there was no regulatory requirement to do so. So, the Texas wind turbines froze as did gas plants, oil rigs and coal piles, and one of its nuclear reactors had to shut down because a water pump to the reactor malfunctioned in the cold.
Deregulation can appear to work for politicians such as Gov. Abbott. He enjoys contributions from persons saving money for equipment they don’t have to install, such as his fossil fuel-related donors who enjoy short-term profits, but climate change exposes the danger of such thinking: “privatize the gains and socialize the losses.” Last year, Donald Trump referred to oil, gas and coal as “our kind of energy.” Responsible government requires more sophisticated and long-term planning.
According to a recent report from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration: “The U.S. has sustained 285 weather and climate disasters since 1980 where costs equaled or exceeded $1 billion. The total cost of these 285 events exceeds $1.875 trillion. Given the February storms, this year could set yet another record.
Another casualty of the Texas storm included about 3,500 sea turtles that were rescued and brought to the relative safety of dry land. In such cold, turtles fall victim to “cold stun,” where their body temperature falls so low it loses its ability to swim, eat or hold its head above water.
The scale of the cold stun event for sea turtles was the largest in decades and could affect the health of the population of some turtles. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reported that five sea turtle species found in Texas are “endangered” or “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act.
More Troubling Findings In the Atlantic Ocean
Several recent studies further suggest that the Gulf Stream is weakening. This heat conveyor belt shapes the climate on four continents if not the planet. Warm currents flow west from Africa to South America, to North America and then circulate back toward Europe. It is possible that all of the cold, fresh water melting off Greenland is upsetting the delicate balance of warm and cold water that has regulated weather and water conditions for millennia
The studies were based on data derived from a string of sensor arrays across the northern Atlantic. The northern arm of the Gulf Stream is one arm of the system of currents called the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation, or AMOC.
Speaking of the observed changes in ocean currents, Peter de Menocal, a paleoceanographer and president and director of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, said “We’re all wishing it’s not true.” “Because if that happens, it’s just a monstrous change.”
Such changes could include faster sea level rise along parts of the Eastern US and parts of Europe, stronger hurricanes slamming the Southeastern US, and even reduced rainfall across the Sahel, already a semi-arid band running the width of Africa that is a geopolitical tinderbox.
Scientists have strong evidence from ice and sediment cores that AMOC has weakened and shut down within the past 13,000 years. That was followed by a mean temperature drop in parts of Europe of about 15C bringing Arctic conditions. Parts of northern Africa and northern South America and what is now China became much drier. These changes occurred rapidly, perhaps in decades, or less.
Thus, changes to AMOC are referred to as possible “tipping points,” an unforgiving threshold in Earth’s climate system that, once crossed, has rapid, enormously consequential global impacts. “It’s a switch,” said Dr. de Menocal, one that may be one-way for 1,000s of years.
Greenland is of particular concern and not just because it is discharging immense amounts of cold, fresh, water. Some scientists fear that this meltwater is inhibiting the Gulf Stream from reaching Europe. Southeast of Greenland there is a cold blob of water that appears to be inhibiting flow not just of water, but of air too.
Modeling of climate change and the prehistoric record suggests that cooling in the North Atlantic presages a shutdown of the Gulf Stream. “One of the hallmarks of a shutdown is this cold blob,” says Dr. de Menocal. “The cold blob is a big deal.”
Ice cores from the Greenland ice sheet reveal rapid changes have occurred in the earth’s temperature in relation to the flow of AMOC. The last ice age peaked about 22,000 years ago, the earth warmed and then rapidly cooled and glaciers covered much of North America and Europe. Evidence of such rapid change is found in pollen deposited at the bottom of European lakes and in changes in ocean sediments near Bermuda. Temperature swings of around 10C, or 18F, occurred in parts of Greenland and produced Arctic-like conditions in parts of Europe.
Before the turn of the 20th century, scientists had accepted that abrupt transitions, tipping points, had occurred. In the 1980s, Wallace Broecker, a geochemist at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, famously warned that “The climate system is an angry beast and we are poking it with sticks.”
Or, if not sticks, heat. As freshwater runs off the retreating glaciers into the ocean, it is lighter than saltwater and impedes the sinking of the denser, saltier water which prevents the critical “overturning” of the AMOC which moves warm water north toward Europe from North America. The Greenland ice sheet is melting about six times faster than it had been in the 1990s. The subpolar North Atlantic is less salty than at any time in the past 120 years and some scientists posit that AMOC has weakened by 15% in recent decades, an unprecedented slowdown in the past 1,000 years. It began with the Industrial Revolution in the 19th century and accelerated after 1950.
Stefan Rahmstorf, a physical oceanographer with the University of Potsdam in Germany said “We still don’t know how far away this threshold is where it could break down altogether.” If we limit warming to 1.5C above preindustrial times — a goal of the Paris agreement among nations to fight climate change — a shutdown is unlikely, he thinks. “But for unmitigated warming,” which is the world’s current trajectory, “I think there’s increasing risk where we make AMOC so weak it goes over the edge and collapses.”
“There will be a lot of surprises if we disturb climate that much,” he said. “It’s not at all predictable how bad things will be.”
A weakened AMOC could also shift rainfall patterns making parts of Europe and Northern Africa drier, and areas in the Southern hemisphere wetter. Changing ocean currents likely would affect marine ecosystems that people rely on for food and livelihoods. It could accelerate sea-level rise along parts of the Atlantic coast of the US. In 2009 and 2010, when AMOC inexplicably weakened by 30%, sea levels rose in the Northeast at a rate unprecedented in the entire roughly 100-year record of tide gauges.
And if AMOC weakens and moves less warm water north, then water in the tropical and subtropical Atlantic will become warmer and produce stronger hurricanes, as has been happening with the warming water there now.
As is so often the case, positive feedback loops exacerbate global warming. If AMOC weakens and the overturning, the sinking of the dense, salty water, also slows, then the absorption of CO2 also lessens and more CO2 accumulates in the atmosphere adding to global warming. The oceans have been absorbing nearly one-third of global CO2 emissions but the warmer oceans may no longer be as absorbant.
Scientists at the U.K.’s National Oceanography Centre suspect that the cold blob in the North Atlantic is linked with summer heat waves in Europe. In 2015 and 2018, the jet stream made an unusual detour around the cold blob which brought hotter-than-usual air into Europe breaking temperature records.
Transportation accounts for about one-third of the US GHG emissions. The Transportation Department regulates trains, planes and automobiles and can advance Biden’s climate change agenda.
The department gives out about $1 billion each year in competitive grants that likely will prompt states and cities to develop transportation projects that reduce emissions. Such projects might offer alternatives to driving such as mass transit and/or bikes.
Individual states, not the federal government, typically have final say over how they spend billions of federal dollars each year to build or repair roads and public transit. But the department could require states to start tracking the GHG emissions produced by their transportation systems and set targets for reducing those emissions. Emissions reductions would not be required, but strings could be attached to available grants and many states are looking for funds to do just that.
The department and EPA work together to set federal fuel economy standards which require new cars, SUVs and pickup trucks sold in the US to use less gasoline. When Biden was part of the Obama administration, they required automakers to improve the efficiency of their fleets by 5% annually, on average, for model years 2021 to 2026. Trump weakened that to 1.5% per year. Biden has directed the two agencies to propose new, more ambitious rules by July.
The department likely will have considerable input into those rules, and may push automakers to speed the production of, and complete conversion to, electric vehicles. The problem is that more Americans are buying SUVs, which eat all the gains in efficiency from smaller cars.
Biden set a goal of installing 500,000 new charging stations for EVs in the next decade and the department likely will play a significant role in that effort.
Public transport must play a key role in reducing transportation emissions, but America’s public transit agencies are in dire financial shape because the pandemic has drastically reduced ridership. Major federal aid is essential to prevent the collapse of bus and subway systems which would force people into their cars and SUVs.
Congress approved $14 billion in transit aid last December, and Biden has proposed another $20 billion. That’s a substantial amount of money and its distribution entails political deal-making. The current round of federal highway spending will expire later this year so lawmakers in both the House and the Senate have begun angling for projects and funding in their states. Those that entail emissions reductions likely will be rewarded. Certainly, mass transit and EV infrastructure, encouraging biking and walking, and new climate conditions on the existing formulas for highway spending will be in play.
And we can expect this to be contentious. “When you start shifting funds around, some states start gaining and some states start losing,” said Paul Lewis, of the Eno Center for Transportation. “That means huge reforms can face a prolonged political fight.”
VP Kamala Harris met with White House and cabinet secretaries and the acting heads of 21 federal agencies in mid-February to begin fulfilling Biden’s promise to mobilize the entire federal government to address climate change. The National Climate Task Force focused on job creation and reducing GHG emissions.
Gina McCarthy, who heads the White House office of climate policy, said Biden wants to announce emissions goals on Earth Day, April 22. “Over the past four years we have not earned a lot of credibility on climate,” Ms. McCarthy, who led the meeting, said. “It’s time we turn that around.”
The Task Force will meet regularly to chart progress on the administration’s goals including eliminating GHG emissions from the electricity sector by 2035; reaching net-zero carbon emissions across the economy before 2050; transitioning federal, state and local government fleets to zero-emissions vehicles; and increasing conservation while also increasing renewable energy production on public land and waters.
Biden has said that tackling climate change by building clean energy infrastructure will promote economic recovery and create “millions” of new jobs. The Task Force created a working group to focus on creating energy storage at a fraction of the current cost and developing sustainable fuels for aircraft and ships. The administration announced $280 million in combined Energy and Transportation Department grant opportunities for technology development.
Ali A. Zaidi, the White House deputy national climate adviser, said the goal was a “redefinition of the way government can operate in the face of great crises,” like climate change.
Former Secretary of State John Kerry, Biden’s global envoy for climate change, spoke to the task force about the upcoming international negotiations in which the US, which once again is part of the Paris Agreement, will participate.
The Interior Department spent much of the past four years opening vast swaths of land to commercial exploitation. It has reversed course. It has suspended lease sales in the Gulf of Mexico and imposed a temporary freeze on new drilling leases on all public lands and waters and is reviewing the leasing program. It has stopped drilling activity in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, delayed Trump-era rollbacks on protections of migratory birds and the northern spotted owl, and taken the first steps in restoring two national monuments in Utah and one off the Atlantic coast that Trump largely dismantled.
Perhaps the most significant driver of the agency’s most aggressive early action, has been David Hayes, who served in both the Obama and Clinton administrations as deputy secretary of Interior. Mr. Hayes worked on Biden’s transition and ahead of Inauguration Day was appointed special adviser to the president on climate change policy.
The day after Biden named a new offshore energy regulator at the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, the office revived the review of an offshore wind farm near Martha’s Vineyard that the Trump administration had moved to cancel.
The Interior Department manages about 500 million acres of public lands and vast coastal waters. Its agencies can lease many of those acres for oil and gas drilling (or not), or it can lease the land for wind and solar farms. It oversees the country’s national parks and wildlife refuges, protects threatened and endangered species, reclaims abandoned mine sites and provides scientific data about the effects of climate change. The expected revision of the Endangered Species Act, which the Trump administration curtailed through regulation — had to wait for the Senate to confirm its secretary.
Biden’s Interior Department likely will be defined by its reversals on fossil fuels after four years in which Trump aggressively pursued energy production on public lands.
During confirmation, Ms. Haaland sought to reassure Republicans that she would adhere to Biden’s intention to pause future fracking, not ban it. He promised only to “ban new oil and gas permitting on public lands and waters.” It remains to be seen if he will move toward a permanent moratorium.
The views expressed above are my own.
Carl Howard, Co-chair
Global Climate Change Committee, NYSBA EELS
Follow me on Twitter: @Howard.Carl