Skeptical Science examines the science and arguments of global warming skepticism. Common objections like 'global warming is caused by the sun', 'temperature has changed naturally in the past' or 'other planets are warming too' are examined to see what the science really says.
5 reasons the Arctic’s extremely warm winter should alarm you
You can see dramatic climate change impacts even in the dead of Arctic winter.
This polar bear is alarmed. LightRocket via Getty Images
Cape Morris Jesup in Greenland is just about the northernmost piece of land on planet Earth. It’s located just 400 miles south of the North Pole, on Greenland’s craggy, desolate north shore. This is a place so far north that the sun doesn’t rise for most of the winter months.
In February, in the dark of winter, Cape Morris Jesup’s weather station recorded nearly 60 hours of temperatures above freezing — a new record. On February 24, the temperature reached a high of 43 degrees Fahrenheit.
Think of it like this: On February 24, you could be standing on the northernmost bit of land in the entire world, in darkness, in shorts and a T-shirt. That you wouldn’t quickly die is astounding because the cape’s temperatures are usually closer to minus 30 degrees in February.
It’s often said that on this warming planet, nowhere is changing faster than the Arctic. But this winter is providing stunning new evidence of a region in extraordinary, worrying flux. It’s also a hint of the future to come: an Arctic Ocean that’s not permanently frozen and all the disastrous consequences that come with that.
Here are five of the most alarming observations of the Arctic from the beginning of this year.
The arduous journey that king penguins must make in order to hunt fish to bring back to their young could become even longer as the climate warms, research suggests.
The study finds that future ocean warming in Antarctica could drive the penguins’ primary hunting grounds further poleward – away from their favoured breeding spots.
If little is done to tackle climate change, up to 70% of king penguins could be forced to find new places to breed by 2100, the lead authors tell Carbon Brief.
However, if these animals cannot find anywhere suitable to move to, they could be at risk of “disappearing” by the end of the century, the authors add.
King penguins are well attuned to life in harsh Antarctic conditions. Breeding pairs raise their chicks on sub-Antarctic islands, including the Falklands and the Crozet Islands. In these spots, temperatures stay above freezing and predators, such as leopard seals, are kept at bay.
However, to find food for their chicks, adult penguins must venture to an ocean boundary known as the Antarctic Polar Front, where cold Antarctic waters meet and sink beneath warmer waters from mid-latitude regions. In these less frigid waters, a number of Antarctic fish species gather in large numbers.
A typical journey to this ocean boundary, which is currently situated in between the penguins’ most northern and southern breeding islands, takes seven to ten days and stretches over 300-500km.
If climate change continues unabated, the journey to find food could become impossible from some breeding islands, they tell Carbon Brief in a joint interview:
“The Antarctic Polar Front is moving poleward as temperatures increase due to climate change.”
Adult king penguin (Aptenodytes patagonicus) and chick Salisbury Plain South Georgia. Credit: Renato Granieri/Alamy Stock Photo.
For the study, the researchers used a set of global climate models to simulate changes to future sea temperatures and, therefore, the potential foraging distance from each penguin breeding island.
The models used three different future scenarios of greenhouse gas emissions, ranging from a scenario where global warming is limited to 2C above pre-industrial levels (RCP2.6) to a “business as usual” scenario where future climate change continues to rise unchecked (RCP8.5).
Based on their research, the scientists determined that 700km was the maximum distance that penguins could travel to hunt fish.
The maps below show the location of the penguins’ breeding islands (numbered) and the foraging area (dashed red line) during 1981-2005 (left) and under a future high emissions scenario in 2100 (right). The shaded blue areas show the extent of Antarctic sea ice.
For each island, orange shows the presence of a breeding colony; grey indicates that the island is too far away from a foraging site; white shows that the island that has never been occupied by penguins and blue shows that the island is covered in ice and, therefore, too cold for penguins to establish a breeding colony.
The islands on the charts are: (1) Tierra del Fuego, (2) Falklands, (3) South Georgia, (4) South Sandwich, (5) Gough, (6) Bouvet, (7) Marion and Prince Edward, (8) Crozet, (9) Kerguelen, (10) Heard and McDonald, (11) Amsterdam, (12) Macquarie, (13) Auckland, (14) Campbell and (15) Chatham.
The location of the penguins’ breeding islands (numbered and coloured; see text above) and foraging area (dashed-red line) in a historical period from 1981-2005 to a future high emissions scenario in 2100. Shaded blue shows the extent of Antarctic sea ice. Source: Cristofari et al. (2018)
The right-hand map shows that the foraging area is expected to move out of reach of some islands by 2100, including Tierra del Fuego, the Falklands, Marion and Prince Edward and Crozet.
Together, these islands are home to roughly 70% of the total breeding population of king penguins, the research finds.
However, some southern islands are expected to become closer to the foraging boundary as it moves polewards. These include South Sandwich and Bouvet.
Changes in foraging distance on each island are shown in more detail on the charts below, which highlight results for the low emissions scenario (RCP2.6; green), the intermediate emissions scenario (RCP4.5; orange) and the high emissions scenario (RCP8.5; red).
On the charts, the red-dashed line shows the upper limit for foraging distance, beyond which penguins cannot successfully rear their chicks.
Changes in foraging distance expected on each breeding colony under a low emissions scenario (RCP2.6; green), a moderate emissions scenario (RCP4.5; orange) and a high emissions scenario (RCP8.5; red). Red line shows the upper limit for foraging distance. Source: Cristofari et al. (2018)
Under the high emissions scenario, 49% of the total population are expected to lose their breeding grounds completely by 2100, while a further 21% could “see their habitat strongly altered,” the researchers say.
The results also show that, even under low and intermediate scenarios, the Crozet and Falkland Islands are likely to become unworkable breeding grounds, the researchers say:
“The largest colonies on Crozet will still be in trouble under RCP4.5 and RCP2.6, which corresponds to around 1m breeding pairs.”
The results show that a large proportion of king penguins could be forced to leave their breeding islands as the climate warms. However, it is not yet clear whether these animals will be able to successfully relocate to more southerly islands, which could become closer to the foraging grounds, the researchers say:
“King penguins move a lot among islands and, if a new suitable island becomes available, they will likely colonise it. The problem is that the new islands have to become available before the old one is not suitable anymore.”
Although the southern islands are expected to become closer to the Arctic Polar Front, the islands may be covered by sea ice and, therefore, be too cold for penguins to rear their chicks successfully, the researchers say:
“Southern islands may be still too cold for the king penguin to breed when northern islands get too far from the food.”
If no suitable breeding spots emerge in time, a large proportion of king penguins could “disappear” by the end of the century, the researchers say. In their paper, they conclude:
“Under the ‘business-as-usual RCP8.5 scenario, 70% of the present-day 1.6m king penguin breeding pairs are expected to abruptly relocate or disappear before the end of the century.”
Cutting global emissions
The new study provides an “interesting and well executed” first look at how climate change could threaten king penguins, says Dr Norman Ratcliffe, a seabird ecologist from the British Antarctic Survey (BAS), who was not involved in the research. He tells Carbon Brief:
“It’s quite a crude habitat model, I’m sure there’s a lot more to it – what king penguins need from life – than these two variables [breeding spaces and foraging distance].”
The research shows that some breeding colonies could be protected if the world were to limit the amount of future climate change, he adds:
“It’s a matter of cutting global emissions. There’s not very much compensatory habitat management you could do, you can’t create islands in the ocean.”
"Within these uncertainty ranges the increase in GMST due to temperature lag for future forcings held constant is slight (0.09–0.19 K over 20 years; 0.12–0.26 K over 100 years). However the incremental increase in GMST that would result from a hypothetical abrupt cessation of sources of aerosols could be quite large, but is highly uncertain, 0.1–1.3 K over 20 years."
"Although mean temperature experienced warming hiatus after 1998, the continued warming of hot extremes and reverse from warming to weak cooling of cold extremes imply an increase of temperature variability in China simultaneously."
"The overall depth bias was positive, further supporting the hypothesis of a regional dependence of the XBT fall-rate on water temperature, which leads to a general overestimation of Ocean Heat Content in the upper layer (~4.79 x 109J/ or ~10%)."
"Global warming will persist in the 21st century, even if the solar activity undergoes an unusually strong and long decline. Decreased ozone production caused by reduction of solar activity and change of atmospheric dynamics due to the global warming might result in further thinning of the tropical ozone layer. Globally, total ozone would not recover to the pre-ozone hole values as long as the decline of solar activity lasts. This may let more ultra-violet radiation reach the Earth's surface."
"We show that heat extremes typically increased mainly respiration whereas drought decreased both fluxes. Combined heat and drought extremes had opposing effects offsetting each other for respiration, but there were also strong reductions in GPP and hence the strongest reductions in the ecosystems carbon sink capacity."
"Observed population collapse and environmental changes in the Gulf suggest that A. downingi is heading towards at least functional extinction mainly due to increasingly frequent temperature-induced mortality events, clearly linked to climate change."
"The worms were able to grow tubes even at CO2 levels favouring shell dissolution but did not survive at mean temperatures over 24° C. This indicates that Spirorbisworms will suffer from future excessive ocean warming and from ocean acidification fostering corrosion of their protective tubes."
"For example, tiger sharks are mostly caught at Australia's popular New South Wales beaches (i.e. near Sydney) in the warmest months, but our data suggest similar abundances will occur in winter and summer if annual sea surface temperatures increase by a further 1–2°C."
"Furthermore, it provides independent evidence that the relatively large (several 10 000 years) time lags documented in the benthic foraminiferal isotope records relative to orbital eccentricity constitute a real feature of the Oligocene–Miocene climate system and carbon cycle. The age constraints from Site U1334 thus indicate that the delayed responses of the Oligocene–Miocene climate–cryosphere system and (marine) carbon cycle resulted from highly non-linear feedbacks to astronomical forcing."
Facing the reality of human-caused warming, we now look for ways to reduce the problem so that future generations will not inherit a disaster. So, what can we do now to help the future?
The easiest answer is to use energy more wisely and quit wasting our precious resources. Second, we can increase our use of clean energy, particularly wind and solar power. These are great starts but we will still need some liquid fuels and for those, we can make decisions about the best fuels for the environment. There has been extensive conversation recently about biofuels and how they may help solve the climate problem.
The term “biofuels” has many meanings, but basically they are grown fuels (like corn ethanol) that we can use instead of fossil fuels (like petroleum). While biofuels can be any fuel produced from plant material, historically they have been produced from food crops such as corn and soy. But, new technologies are enabling biofuel production from non-edible gases, wood, and other plant waste material.
The beauty of biofuels is that they suck carbon dioxide out of the air as they grow. When we burn them in our automobiles, we release carbon dioxide, but it is the same carbon that the plants absorbed while growing. Just on that basis, biofuels appear to be zero net emitters.
But this view is too simplistic. It takes energy to grow biofuels; it takes fertilizer, tractors, transportation, and energy to convert the plants to liquid fuels. Planting and growing these crops can also change how much carbon is stored in the soil. And using existing food crops or arable land for biofuel production might lead to deforestation if farms are expanded elsewhere to make up for lost food production.
So, if you want to accurately assess the impact of biofuels, you need to look at what’s called a “life cycle analysis,” which basically means the effort it takes to grow the crops, harvest them, convert them to fuel, transport them to distribution sites, and combust them.
I have done some research in this area. Back in 2009, I did a study with my former student Fushcia-Ann Hoover, and we compared different feedstocks for ethanol. You can have corn, soybeans, sugarcane, switchgrass, poplar trees, and others. What is the best crop? Which is easiest to grow? Which is best for the environment?
What we found, way back in 2009, is that if non-commercial crops were grown, you could actually end up with fuel that was significantly cleaner than petroleum. The trick was finding clean crops that don’t need a lot of fertilizer, water, and other inputs. Corn ethanol for instance is not the best choice. You need so much water, fertilizer, and other costs, that it almost doesn’t make it worthwhile. But other crops such as switchgrass, grown on marginal lands, have real a potential. Marginal lands are farmlands that are not optimal for growing crops.
Our conclusion in 2009 was straightforward. Don’t use good cropland for biofuels. Rather, use marginal croplands, with minimal water and fertilizer, to create plants that can be converted to biofuels.
But our conclusion wasn’t the end of the story. There are other details that researchers should consider. For instance, how far from the croplands to the refinery? How much energy is needed to transport the fuels? All these issues matter and they were the focus of a recent research paper just published in Nature Energy. This study used an actual biofuel refinery located in Kansas for the basis of the study. And the authors counted all the emissions that occur during the lifecycle analysis of these biofuels. They realized that marginal croplands give lower yields, so there are competing issues of productivity and greenhouse gas reduction.
Then there’s the complicating factor of economics. The price of biofuels and the price of greenhouse gases matter. If society is willing to pay a small pollution charge like a carbon tax, it supports the producers of clean energy. But if society doesn’t put a premium on clean energy, it’s harder for clean industry companies to thrive.
In the new study, the authors discovered something fascinating. The found that the choices a farmer may make regarding what land to use for biofuels and how much fertilizer to use depend strongly on the price of clean fuels and the cost of greenhouse gases. Simply put, it we put a reasonable price on carbon pollution, farmers will be able to grow switchgrass, poplars, and other species, reduce greenhouse gases, and make money.
But, if there is no cost to carbon pollution, farmers will be motivated to spend more money on fertilizer and that, in the end, will lead to more emissions. While all the scenarios resulted in large emissions reductions compared to gasoline, the reductions were especially large for the scenarios that included a carbon price.
So, there is a delicate balance. The balance is made more clear when we realize that farming location matters. If biofuels are grown close to refineries, less pollution is created in transporting the fuels to the refinery. However, this limits cropland choices to those nearer to refineries.
With this balance of competing factors, the authors find room for improvement; currently we are not optimizing the performance in terms of both economic and environmental factors. In order to do this right, we have to balance all these mentioned issues. We can’t just focus on transportation costs, fertilizer costs, and land quality costs; we have to consider these costs all together as a system.
I spoke to the lead author of the paper, Dr. John Field, from Colorado State University and asked him about the significance of this work.
Climate change threatens ability of insurers to manage risk
Extreme weather is driving up uninsured losses and insurers must use investments to fund global warming resilience, says study
Severe flooding in Carlisle, north-west England, December 2015. Photograph: Andrew Yates/Reuters
The ability of the global insurance industry to manage society’s risks is being threatened by climate change, according to a new report.
The report finds that more frequent extreme weather events are driving up uninsured losses and making some assets uninsurable.
The analysis, by a coalition of the world’s biggest insurers, concluded that the “protection gap” – the difference between the costs of natural disasters and the amount insured – has quadrupled to $100bn (£79bn) a year since the 1980s.
Mark Carney, the governor of the Bank of England, warns in the new report that: “Over time, the adverse effects of climate change could threaten economic resilience and financial stability [and] insurers are currently at the forefront.”
The ClimateWise coalition of 29 insurers, including Allianz, Aon, Aviva, Lloyd’s, Prudential, Swiss Re and Zurich, conclude that the industry must use more of its $30tn of investments to help fund increased resilience of society to floods, storms and heatwaves.
"While we find that some women reported a positive experience, others felt women were poorly represented and heard and encountered barriers beyond their gender including race, nationality, command of English, and discipline."
"In both studies, we find the odds of taking action are reduced by over 90% when participants are asked to make a phone call and leave a voicemail message, versus signing an online petition. Among the parents already engaged in advocacy, we observe a ceiling effect regarding attitudes towards clean energy and find the cost campaign produces unintended consequences. Among our public sample, we find that participants who believe the campaign to be credible and comprehendible are more likely to take action than those who discredit the campaign or do not understand its message. Additionally, we find parents who have children under the age of 18 negatively adjust their attitudes towards fossil fuels after being presented with health information. Ultimately, we find that campaign messages can influence energy attitudes and parents are willing to take action on the topic if the advocacy action seems like an effective approach."
"Projection of urban land surface temperature shows urban regions get warmer by up to 13 °C at the end of 21st century under RCP85 scenario and the urban heat island intensity also increases by from 1 to 1.5 °C."
"Results show a tripling in the frequency, and greater than a sixfold increase in the mean duration of heatwaves over Florida when the current standard of heatwaves was used. The intensity of heatwaves also increased by 4–6 °C due to the combined effects of rising mean temperatures and a 1–2 °C increase attributed to the flattening of the temperature distribution."
"Our data show that the total US population exposed to serious flooding is 2.6–3.1 times higher than previous estimates, and that nearly 41 million Americans live within the 1% annual exceedance probability floodplain (compared to only 13 million when calculated using FEMA flood maps). We find that population and GDP growth alone are expected to lead to significant future increases in exposure, and this change may be exacerbated in the future by climate change."
"The results reveal a 700-m deep fjord that abruptly ends on a 100-300 m deep sill along the calving fronts. The shallow sills explain the presence of stranded icebergs, the resilience of the glaciers to ocean-induced undercutting by warm Atlantic water, and their remarkable stability over the past century."
"In fact, results of the land surface model experiments show that the projected increase of variability of meteorological variables leads to cooler permafrost soil in contrast to an otherwise soil warming in response to climate change."
"Together these results suggest that some of the physical processes responsible for setting the magnitude of global temperature change in the twenty-first century and climate sensitivity also help set the magnitude of the natural decadal variability. Furthermore, a statistically significant correlation exists between climate sensitivity and decadal variability in the tropics across CMIP5 models, although this is not apparent in the earlier generation of CMIP3 models. Thus although the link to sensitivity is not conclusive, this opens up potential paths to improve our understanding of climate feedbacks, climate sensitivity and decadal climate variability, and has the potential to reduce the associated uncertainty."
"The total ozone RF grows rapidly until the 1970s, slows towards the 2000s, and shows a renewed growth thereafter. Since the 1990s the shortwave RF exceeds the longwave RF. Global stratospheric ozone RF is positive between 1930 and 1970 and then turns negative, but remains positive in the Northern Hemisphere throughout. Derived stratospheric temperature changes show a localized cooling in the sub-tropical lower stratosphere due to tropospheric ozone increases, and cooling in the upper stratosphere due to ozone depletion by more than 1K already prior to the satellite era (1980), and by more than 2K out to the present day (2014)."
"For 4 of the 19 constraints, the originally-proposed explanation for correlation is borne out by our analysis. These 4 constraints all predict relatively high climate sensitivity. The credibility of 6 other constraints is called into question due to correlation with ECS coming mainly from unexpected sources and/or lack of robustness to changes in ensembles. Another 6 constraints lack a testable explanation and hence cannot be confirmed. The fact that this study casts doubt upon more constraints than it confirms highlights the need for caution when identifying emergent constraints from small ensembles."
"Carcass deposition followed an effective reduction in the energy content of mesozooplankton, coincident with the loss of cold-water foraging habitat caused by the intrusion of the NE Pacific MHW [Marine HeatWave] into the nearshore environment. Models examining interannual variability in effort-controlled carcass abundance (2001-2014) identified the biomass of lipid-poor zooplankton as the dominant predictor of increased carcass abundance. In 2014, Cassin's Auklets dispersing from colonies in British Columbia likely congregated into a nearshore band of cooler upwelled water, and ultimately died from starvation following the shift in zooplankton composition associated with onshore transport of the NE Pacific MHW."
"Parental pairs in the simulated ocean acidification conditions exhibited increased reproductive output, with 50% more clutches and 44% more eggs per clutch than pairs under control conditions. However, there was an apparent trade-off between offspring number and size, as larvae of parental pairs under high pCO2 levels hatched significantly smaller, suggesting differences in parental provisioning, which could be related to the fact that these females produce more eggs. Moreover, results support the hypothesis of different energy allocation strategies used by females under high pCO2 conditions. These changes might, ultimately, affect individual fitness and population replenishment."
Airlines are under pressure to reduce their carbon emissions, and are highly vulnerable to global oil price fluctuations. These challenges have spurred strong interest in biomass-derived jet fuels. Bio-jet fuel can be produced from various plant materials, including oil crops, sugar crops, starchy plants and lignocellulosic biomass, through various chemical and biological routes. However, the technologies to convert oil to jet fuel are at a more advanced stage of development and yield higher energy efficiency than other sources.
We are engineering sugarcane, the most productive plant in the world, to produce oil that can be turned into bio-jet fuel. In a recent study, we found that use of this engineered sugarcane could yield more than 2,500 liters of bio-jet fuel per acre of land. In simple terms, this means that a Boeing 747 could fly for 10 hours on bio-jet fuel produced on just 54 acres of land. Compared to two competing plant sources, soybeans and jatropha, lipidcane would produce about 15 and 13 times as much jet fuel per unit of land, respectively.
Creating dual-purpose sugarcane
Bio-jet fuels derived from oil-rich feedstocks, such as camelina and algae, have been successfully tested in proof of concept flights. ASTM International, a global standards development organization, has approved a 50:50 blend of petroleum-based jet fuel and hydroprocessed renewable jet fuel for commercial and military flights.
However, even after significant research and commercialization efforts, current production volumes of bio-jet fuel are very small. Making these products on a larger scale will require further technology improvements and abundant low-cost feedstocks (crops used to make the fuel).
Sugarcane is a well-known biofuel source: Brazil has been fermenting sugarcane juice to make alcohol-based fuel for decades. Ethanol from sugarcane yields 25 percent more energy than the amount used during the production process, and reduces greenhouse gas emissions by 12 percent compared to fossil fuels.
We wondered whether we could increase the plant’s natural oil production and use the oil to produce biodiesel, which provides even greater environmental benefits. Biodiesel yields 93 percent more energy than is required to make it and reduces emissions by 41 percent compared to fossil fuels. Ethanol and biodiesel can both be used in bio-jet fuel, but the technologies to convert plant-derived oil to jet fuel are at an advanced stage of development, yield high energy efficiency and are ready for large-scale deployment.
When we first proposed engineering sugarcane to produce more oil, some of our colleagues thought we were crazy. Sugarcane plants contain just 0.05 percent oil, which is far too little to convert to biodiesel. Many plant scientists theorized that increasing the amount of oil to 1 percent would be toxic to the plant, but our computer models predicted that we could increase oil production to 20 percent.
A bottle of oil produced from PETROSS lipidcane. Claire Benjamin/University of Illinois, CC BY-ND
Now we are working to achieve 20 percent oil – the theoretical limit, according to our computer models – and targeting this oil accumulation to the stem of the plant, where it is more accessible than in the leaves. Our preliminary research has shown that even as the engineered plants produce more oil, they . We call these engineered plants lipidcane.
Multiple products from lipidcane
Lipidcane offers many advantages for farmers and the environment. We calculate that growing lipidcane containing 20 percent oil would be five times more profitable per acre than soybeans, the main feedstock currently used to make biodiesel in the United States, and twice as profitable per acre as corn.
To be sustainable, bio-jet fuel must also be economical to process and have high production yields that minimize use of arable land. We estimate that compared to soybeans, lipidcane containing 5 percent oil could produce four times more jet fuel per acre of land. Lipidcane with 20 percent oil could produce more than 15 times more jet fuel per acre.
And lipidcane offers other energy benefits. The plant parts left over after juice extraction, known as bagasse, can be burned to produce steam and electricity. According to our analysis, this would generate more than enough electricity to power the biorefinery, so surplus power could be sold back to the grid, displacing electricity produced from fossil fuels – a practice already used in some plants in Brazil to produce ethanol from sugarcane.
A potential US bioenergy crop
Sugarcane thrives on marginal land that is not suited to many food crops. Currently it is grown mainly in Brazil, India and China. We are also engineering lipidcane to be more cold-tolerant so that it can be raised more widely, particularly in the southeastern United States on underutilized land.
A map of the growing region of cold-tolerant lipidcane. PETROSS
If we devoted 23 million acres in the southeastern United States to lipidcane with 20 percent oil, we estimate that this crop could produce 65 percent of the U.S. jet fuel supply. Presently, in current dollars, that fuel would cost airlines US$5.31 per gallon, which is less than bio-jet fuel produced from algae or other oil crops such as soybeans, canola or palm oil.
Lipidcane could also be grown in Brazil and other tropical areas. As we recently reported in Nature Climate Change, significantly expanding sugarcane or lipidcane production in Brazil could reduce current global carbon dioxide emissions by up to 5.6 percent. This could be accomplished without impinging on areas that the Brazilian government has designated as environmentally sensitive, such as rainforest.
In pursuit of ‘energycane’
Our lipidcane research also includes genetically engineering the plant to make it photosynthesize more efficiently, which translates into more growth. In a 2016 article in Science, one of us (Stephen Long) and colleagues at other institutions demonstrated that improving the efficiency of photosynthesis in tobacco increased its growth by 20 percent. Currently, preliminary research and side-by-side field trials suggest that we have improved the photosynthetic efficiency of sugarcane by 20 percent, and by nearly 70 percent in cool conditions.
Normal sugarcane (left) growing beside engineered PETROSS sugarcane, which is visibly taller and bushier, in field trials at the University of Florida. Fredy Altpeter/University of Florida, CC BY-ND
Now our team is beginning work to engineer a higher-yielding variety of sugarcane that we call “energycane” to achieve more oil production per acre. We have more ground to cover before it can be commercialized, but developing a viable plant with enough oil to economically produce biodiesel and bio-jet fuel is a major first step.
We’ve radically underestimated how vulnerable Americans are to flooding
New research claims that official estimates lowballed the risk by, uh, about a factor of three.
A giant nor’easter — incongruously named Winter Storm Riley, like some Brooklyn kid’s play date — is expected slam into New England coast today, bringing snow, rain, high tides, and damaging winds.
The Boston Globe reports that the National Weather Service has “high confidence” that the eastern coast of Massachusetts is going to experience “moderate to major flooding.” It has “moderate confidence” that heavy rains of two to three inches could cause urban and street flooding throughout southeastern Massachusetts, including Boston.
[HAZARDS] Updated. Coastal flood warning E MA, advisory S MA & RI; hurricane / storm force wind warnings for the waters; high wind warning & advisory across the interior; flood watch for E MA, RI & CT; winter storm warning for the high terrain ... Mainly Friday through Saturday
So it is somewhat ironic (if that’s the word) that this week also features the publication of a new paper in Environmental Research Letters showing that Americans are at far greater risk from flooding than official estimates reveal — as in, three times the risk.
"Our results showed that for similar preseason (i.e. after dormancy break) temperatures, warmer winters significantly delayed budburst and flowering along the elevation gradient (+0.9 to +5.6 days °C−1) except for flowering of Corylus and budburst of Picea. For similar cold winter temperatures, warmer preseasons significantly advanced budburst and flowering along the elevation gradient (−5.3 to −8.4 days °C−1). On average, the effect of winter warming was 2.3 times lower than the effect of spring warming. We also showed that warmer winter temperature conditions have a significantly larger effect at lower elevations. As a consequence, the observed delaying effect of winter warming might be beneficial to trees by reducing the risk of exposure to late spring frost on a short term. This could further lead to partial dormancy break at lower elevations before the end of the 21st century, which, in turn, may alter bud development and flowering and so tree fitness."
"Warm temperatures in early 2012 caused leaf-out to occur two weeks earlier than in cooler years and led to higher seasonal carbon uptake. However, these warmer temperatures also drove higher winter ecosystem respiration, offsetting much of the springtime carbon gain. Interannual variability in net carbon uptake was high (147 to 364 g C m−2 y−1), but unrelated to growing season length. Instead, years with warmer growing seasons had 10% higher respiration and sequestered ∼40% less carbon than cooler years."
"We tested the hypothesis that this warming has been significant enough to allow photosynthesis during sunny warm days in winter. Using thermal imagery, we found that foliage in winter was sometimes near the temperature optimum for photosynthesis, but no net carbon gain occurred for most of the cold season."
"Our results show a wide disparity in the emissions intensity of recommended healthy diets, ranging from 687 kg of carbon dioxide equivalents (CO2e) capita−1 yr−1 for the guideline Indian diet to the 1579 kg CO2e capita−1 yr−1 in the USA. Most of this variability is introduced in recommended dairy intake."
"Most of the observed warming of 1.7 °C increase in annual mean temperature during 1948–2012 [90% confidence interval (1.1°, 2.2 °C)] can only be explained by external forcing on the climate system, with anthropogenic influence being the dominant factor. It is estimated that anthropogenic forcing has contributed 1.0 °C (0.6°, 1.5 °C) and natural external forcing has contributed 0.2 °C (0.1°, 0.3 °C) to the observed warming. Up to 0.5 °C of the observed warming trend may be associated with low frequency variability of the climate such as that represented by the Pacific decadal oscillation (PDO) and North Atlantic oscillation (NAO)."
"Because of ICV, local and regional P trends may remain statistically insignificant and differ greatly among individual model simulations over most of the globe until the later part of the twenty-first century even under a high emissions scenario, while local Tas trends since 1979 are already statistically significant over many low-latitude regions and are projected to become significant over most of the globe by the 2030s."
"Since 1985 a total frontal retreat of 238 km2 and since 1992 regional mean changes in ice flow by up to 58 % are observed. The trends in ice dynamics are correlated with geometric parameters of the glacier catchments and regional climatic settings."
"Approximately 88 % of the permafrost area in the 1960s has been thermally degraded in the past half century over the Qinghai–Tibetan Plateau. The mean elevations of the very cold, cold, cool, warm, very warm, and likely thawing permafrost areas increased by 88 m, 97 m, 155 m, 185 m, 161 m, and 250 m, respectively. This degradation may lead to increases in risks to infrastructure, flood, reductions in ecosystem resilience, and positive climate feedback."
"We find that HW days increase across all cities, but especially in southern Europe, whilst the greatest HW temperature increases are expected in central European cities. For the low impact scenario, drought conditions intensify in southern European cities while river flooding worsens in northern European cities. However, the high impact scenario projects that most European cities will see increases in both drought and river flood risks. Over 100 cities are particularly vulnerable to two or more climate impacts. Moreover, the magnitude of impacts exceeds those previously reported highlighting the substantial challenge cities face to manage future climate risks."
"Temperature and snow accumulation records from the annually dated Roosevelt Island Climate Evolution (RICE) ice core show that for the past 2 700 years, the eastern Ross Sea warmed, while the western Ross Sea showed no trend and West Antarctica cooled. From the 17th century onwards, this dipole relationship changed. Now all three regions show concurrent warming, with snow accumulation declining in West Antarctica and the eastern Ross Sea."
"In the Eocene (~ 55 million years ago), the Earth had high levels of atmospheric CO2, so studies of the Eocene can provide insights into the likely effects of present-day fossil fuel burning. We ran a low-resolution but very fast climate model with 50 combinations of CO2 and orbital parameters, and an Eocene layout of the oceans and continents. Climatic effects of CO2 are dominant but precession and obliquity strongly influence monsoon rainfall and ocean–land temperature contrasts, respectively."
A new study published in Nature looks at how much global sea level will continue to rise even if we manage to meet the Paris climate target of staying below 2°C hotter than pre-industrial temperatures. The issue is that sea levels keep rising for several hundred years after we stabilize temperatures, largely due to the continued melting of ice sheets in Antarctica and Greenland from the heat already in the climate system.
The study considered two scenarios. In the first, human carbon pollution peaks somewhere between 2020 and 2035 and falls quickly thereafter, reaching zero between 2035 and 2055 and staying there. Global temperatures in the first scenario peak at and remain steady below 2°C. In the second scenario, we capture and sequester carbon to reach net negative emissions (more captured than emitted) between 2040 and 2060, resulting in falling global temperatures in the second half of the century.
The authors found that global average sea level will most likely rise by about 1.3 meters by 2300 in the first scenario, and by 1 meter in the second. However, there is large uncertainty due to how little we understand about the stability of the large ice sheets in Greenland and especially Antarctica. At the high end of possible ice sheet loss, we could see as much as 4.5 meters of sea level rise by 2300 in the first scenario, and close to 3 meters in the second scenario.
Carbon emissions (top frames), global temperatures (middle frames), and sea level rise (left frames) in the study’s two scenarios (left and right frames). Illustration: Mengel et al. (2018), Nature Communications
The study also shows that it’s critical that our carbon pollution peaks soon. Each 5-year delay – a peak in 2025 instead of 2020, for example – most likely adds 20 cm of sea level rise by 2300, and could potentially add a full meter due to the uncertainty associated with the large ice sheets:
we find that a delay of global peak emissions by 5 years in scenarios compatible with the Paris Agreement results in around 20 cm of additional median sea-level rise in 2300 … we estimate that each 5 years of delay bear the risk of an additional 1 m of sea-level rise by 2300 … Delayed near-term mitigation action in the next decades will leave a substantial legacy for long-term sea-level rise.
And remember, this is all for scenarios in which we meet the Paris climate targets, which we’re currently not on pace to achieve. If we miss the Paris targets, sea levels will rise higher yet.
Another new study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, found that sea level rise has been accelerating. If the rate of acceleration continues – which the lead author notes is a conservative estimate – we would see an additional 65 cm (close to a meter above pre-industrial sea level) of sea level rise by 2100.