I used to not pay as much attention to extreme heat until one dangerous day in July. A medical practitioner was collecting a small blood sample for a portable testing device and asked me: do you have ringing in your ears? With sweat pouring into my eyes—and a pounding headache slowing my thinking—I wearily answered yes.
The results of the tests were sobering. I drank too much water without consuming enough potassium and other electrolytes. I was water-logged, my potassium levels were too low, my core temperature was raised to unhealthy levels, and we were told to recover by sitting in a cool pool of water siphoned off a tributary to the Colorado River.
The medical practitioner had asked a group of us who had hiked down to the bottom of the Grand Canyon in July to participate in a survey about heat and health risk. The study was a follow-on to a similar study of marathon runners. At the time, the medical researcher reported finding that female marathon runners lost their potassium during exercise at far higher rates than men. She said women were not being adequately supplied because most common drinks with electrolytes don’t have enough potassium for woman athletes.
The advice given was to eat bananas and raisins to make up for this deficit. Since then I have learned even more about extreme heat while working on projects with Jalonne White-Newsome and other scientists who research the public health implications of extreme heat in a warming world.
Here is my top 10 list for ways to protect yourself, family, pets, and neighbors from extreme heat:
I have a souvenir from that day in July—a photograph we took near the place where we gave samples to participate in that heat stress study at the bottom of the Grand Canyon. It is of a large outdoor thermometer (not shaded) that was pegged at the maximum level (140 degrees Fahrenheit).
We decided to hike out of the Canyon starting at night. That was another step in changing my behavior to better adapt to the extreme heat that day and the many hot days since. The moonlit trail was beautiful during that night hike, helping keep my mind distracted from aching calf muscles.]]>
More #extremeweather: Storms and flooding in Germany, France expected to worsen over weekend https://t.co/e899RSDyHQ pic.twitter.com/leyey3LseL
— DW – Environment (@dw_eco) June 3, 2016
In order to better protect lives and avoid economic disruptions during future events, we need to be vigilant and keep asking questions about what factors contribute to current and past disasters.
Science keeps improving the understanding of factors changing the weather and climate risks. Science keeps chipping away at the social and economic dimensions of historic decisions combined with current forces that contribute to exposure. Science keeps exploring the changing health risks and other vulnerabilities associated with some to a greater degree than others within the same exposed community. When these factors combine ferociously in a negative way, a disaster occurs.
Today my thoughts turn to one important sliver of scientific understanding among the multiple factors contributing to the flooding these past days. This emerging science relates to the amplified change in the Arctic.
This change is so strong that it is what I refer to as the “Arctic tail that wags the global climate.”
It is quite clear how the shrinking Arctic glaciers contribute directly to global sea level rise. Yet the jury is still out on the evolving science of a wavier jet stream and potential links with mid-latitude extreme weather. For example, the conditions set up these past few days are what many refer to as an “omega block” pattern in the jet stream with the dots connected below:
Europe is not the only region suffering from an unusually persistent low pressure system. An upper-level low has been “parked” over west Texas with catastrophic rains fed in part from the warm tropical air from the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean.
The evolving science of a wavier jet stream and potential links with mid-latitude extreme weather is worthy of support for further research. The potential links with arctic amplification are worthy of further investigation as well. May 2016 shattered records for lowest Arctic sea ice extent.]]>
The autumn conditions (October to November) rank as the third largest El Niño since 1950. (Between June and September, El Niño logged the second strongest conditions since 1950.)
Other news released during the AGU meeting was just as remarkable. The latest Arctic Report Card monitoring year (October 2014 to September 2015) broke the hottest Arctic land temperature annual average since 1900.
Will El Niño stay strong and bring drought relief for California? Will cold outbreaks penetrate into the continental U.S.?
To help answer these and other questions, scientists are paying close attention to five key indicators—and to how these powerful forces interact, evolve, and help shape this winter’s weather.
Will the El Niño precipitation patterns be typical for the winter in the U.S?
How do the temperatures north of 60 degrees latitude influence the sea ice during the summer and the stratospheric polar vortex in the following winter?
A positive Arctic Oscillation (AO) number indicates a pattern with strong winds that tend to circulate counterclockwise around the pole at 55 degrees North latitude. These strong winds tend to keep the cold air in the Arctic. A negative AO number indicates weaker winds that are more likely to become distorted and allow colder air to penetrate into lower latitudes.
Weather tends to follow the direction of winds around 5.5 km above sea level, or at the 500 hPa geopotential height. This indicates the upper level pattern, such as discussed in this synoptic weather discussion. Temperature at 850 hPa, around 1.5 km above sea level, indicates frontal zones. These charts can be used to see how much of the cold air is contained near the North Pole or if the pattern leads to cold outbreaks to lower latitudes.
Unseasonably warm December conditions are dashing records and creating fun antics and some unnerving impacts on inhabitants across the Eastern U.S., as reported by my colleague Erika Spanger-Siegfried. All signs point to the El Niño pattern continuing to dominate the end of December with the potential for delivering some rain or snow to drought-stricken California and a high probability of a warmer than normal Christmas in the U.S. northeast.
However, there may be a need to keep those winter coats in the front of the closet. Some scientific indicators suggest a January 2016 weakening of the stratospheric polar vortex, increasing the chance for severe late winter weather over the continents. For a recent history and updated overview of how the stratospheric polar vortex and tropospheric polar jet stream can influence winter extremes check out this update by my colleagues Astrid Caldas and Matt Heid.]]>
Before we jump to the top three widely accepted climate science developments below, let’s quickly cover how we got to these. The operative phrase in sign number one above is that the topic has “stood the test of time.” Many studies are conducted after a finding is presented in order to test if it can be disproved. During this process some studies may temporarily look like they have disproven the original concept. Upon closer inspection, flaws in the approach, human error, or other factors may emerge that, once discovered, return the scientific community back to the fundamental explanation.
We have seen this with climate science. For example, at one point a study of satellite measurements of the atmosphere suggested it was not warming at the expected rate, which was soon overturned. The original study had flaws mainly due to factors not accounted for such as the decay in the satellite orbit over time. Once these were properly accounted for, it was shown the satellite data did measure warming of Earth’s atmosphere in the expected way from excess heat-trapping gases. Politicians may continue to mention overturned studies, but fact checkers in the media and the scientific community are here to set the record straight.
The second point includes global average surface temperature which increased over the first 15 years of this century at a rate of warming at least as great as the rate over the last half of the 20th century. With regard to the third point, my favorite piece of evidence is the fingerprint of fossil fuel carbon atoms representing more and more of the CO2 molecules of the atmosphere over time since isotopic measurements began around 1980. Take a look at the second box within this IPCC figure from the fifth climate assessment report where more negative values equal a higher proportion of fossil fuel carbon in the atmospheric CO2 molecules (see figure 1).
With these three widely accepted scientific understandings, we have the basic points to confidently tell friends, relatives and colleagues, “Climate change is occurring now, we are the primary cause, and scientists agree.” This has sparked many conversations about what to do in light of this knowledge. Personally, with these three scientific understandings, I do not use the word “belief.”
The date is important as this topic is evolving and new findings are appearing with each successive research publication. Major gains have occurred in our understanding of how climate change is influencing global scale changes on average. Significant advances on the scale of what matters most to people (e.g. my local river floodplain, my farm field, the town where my children live, the coastal road along my commute to work) are still evolving. This is especially true when it comes to our understanding of the pace and magnitude of change, which involves the interplay of energy choices we make around the world and the current state of scientific research.
For most scientists, it’s not enough to just say that the science is settled; to be more precise, we know that the science is settled to the point of knowing that we do have a choice about the future we can inherit. We know human energy choices and land use decisions influence the climate and thereby the world within which we live and work. With every choice we make we will continue to have a need to monitor, measure, and calculate the likely consequences, measure the economic decisions with various thresholds crossed, and evaluate the successful and unsuccessful adaptation decisions. The reaction to scientific uncertainty is not to throw our hands up and walk away from the risks scientists have identified; the answer is to do what we can now, based on what we know, and to keep learning together.
Correction: The original version of this post contained an error in the paragraph beginning “The second point includes global average surface temperature”: “the last half of the 20th century” was misstated as “the first half of the 20th century”.]]>
Soaked region just fresh off a ‘King Tide’ prepared for more water from multiple sources
The weekend before Joaquin started to move northeastward in the Atlantic, the U.S. East Coast had a ‘king tide’ weekend from the pull of a rare supermoon lunar eclipse. Such higher-than-normal high tides, combined with sea level rise, can create local coastal flooding. At the same time weather patterns brought a soggy end to the month between September 23 and 30, with high rainfall totals for Woolwine, VA (>16 inches), Beaufort, NC (>13 inches), and Destin, FL (>12 inches), and broke daily rainfall records for the last day of the month in Portland, ME, Boston, MA, and Providence, RI. Moisture from several parts of the tropics, including Joaquin, contributed to these extreme rainfall totals.
A deep jet stream dipping down to Florida plus tropical moisture sources combined to dump historic rain of a gargantuan scale for the Carolinas (Figure 1). This creates an increased risk for landslide or debris flows in the inland parts of the Carolinas.
Charleston, SC was caught between the extreme precipitation and the coastal storm surge, which made preparation to protect the cherished historic districts challenging. Not only were the huge precipitation rates over a 24-hour period on October 4 enough to deal with, the runoff may not flow as quickly to the lowest endpoint—the sea. This is because the tide gauge at Charleston, SC had two feet higher than the projected tide. The onshore winds are piling up water and creating storm surges that are likely to continue over several tidal cycles. The tide gauge at Charleston, South Carolina was over 2 feet above predicted tide level during high tide for October 4, 2015 (Figure 2).
The situation is not quite over with these complex weather patterns, and it warrants paying close attention to evolving forecasts, planning accordingly, and avoiding flood-prone or landslide-prone areas.]]>
The U.S. took over the Chairmanship of the Arctic Council in April 2015. This council promotes cooperation, coordination, and interaction among Arctic states, indigenous communities, and interested parties to achieve sustainable development and environmental protection in the Arctic. The Chairmanship rotates every two years among eight Arctic Council Member States. The council also includes Permanent Participants that represent the more than half a million indigenous people’s living in the Arctic. Twelve non-arctic countries, including the UK, Germany, China and India, are official Observers. The top three priorities the U.S. has set for its Chairmanship period are Improving Economic & Living Conditions for Arctic Communities; Arctic Ocean Safety, Security & Stewardship; and Addressing the Impacts of Climate Change.
There are many reasons why the Arctic is the focus of attention by U.S. leaders, ministers, and policy experts from 20 nations at this time. I’ll focus on just two of them here. First, self-reinforcing cycles also known as feedback loops. Some cycles lead to enhanced ice shrinkage. Other cycles lead even more heat-trapping greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. Many combine together to significantly amplify environmental change in the Arctic over the past several decades. Second, what happens in the Arctic does not stay in the Arctic: impacts in the high North have major knock-on effects in the rest of rest of the world, and that matters for all of us.
There is no doubt that the Arctic is responding to the overload of carbon in the atmosphere in a big way. To see why, I’ll examine one example of the many self-reinforcing cycles that are occurring in the Arctic. Let’s start with the iconic change in Arctic sea ice, which has logged declining trends in volume and summer sea ice extent. Between the 1870s and 1960s Arctic sea ice extent remained relatively similar until a precipitous decline began and continued over the period of carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping gas buildup in the atmosphere.
During the season when the sun appears above the horizon, the bright white, snow-covered, sea-ice reflects most of the sunlight back out to space. This helps keep the Arctic Ocean region cold. However, when the snow melts and meltwater ponds appear on the ice, the sea-ice can melt even faster. Ultimately the ice retreats back to expose dark open ocean water that absorbs most of the sun’s energy and heats up. The warmer ocean in turn melts more sea ice and so on, leading to amplified warming in the Arctic Ocean. Many Arctic summer sea ice extent records have been repeatedly broken over the last decade.
Periods of rapid Arctic sea ice loss accelerate land warming and places permafrost at further risk of degradation. Much of this ground has been permanently frozen storing carbon for thousands of years. Not all of this stored carbon would be released right away with unabated climate change. Depending on the presence or absence of oxygen and how much water exists, some of it is released as methane and some is released as carbon dioxide. To use an analogy, it is not boiling, but the surface portion is percolating and that is a major concern. Keeping a lid on this frozen carbon is important. The northern permafrost region is about half the global estimate for the belowground organic carbon. There is around twice as much carbon in the Arctic Permafrost as the current carbon in Earth’s atmosphere. Permafrost degradation can mean more of the old carbon goes out into the atmosphere than goes into the vegetation and soils of the tundra regions each year. This means more overload of heat-trapping carbon in the atmosphere leading to a plethora of consequences around the world. For example, more heat-trapping in the atmosphere leads to even more shrinking of land ice. And when ice or meltwater from land ice such as glaciers and ice caps reaches the ocean it directly contributes to sea level rise.
What I’ve described above is only one example of the many self-reinforcing cycles in the Arctic. The question is, how do these add up and are the magnitudes significant enough to matter? The answer in short is yes: ‘what happens in the Arctic doesn’t stay in the Arctic,’ but in fact leads to cascading consequences for the rest of world.
Let’s take the case of historic sea level rise. Between 1972 and 2008, shrinking land ice was more than half the contribution to global sea level rise. Glaciers and ice caps (i.e. land ice not including the major ice sheets) comprised 60% of the total land ice contribution. Greenland and Antarctica Ice sheets made up the rest of the balance. For near-term sea level rise potential, the glaciers are likely to continue to contribute as warming continues. The Arctic dominates the total area of glaciers monitored around the world. Going forward all eyes are on the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheet contributions to sea level. There are over 7.3 meters (24 feet) sea level equivalent stored in the Greenland ice sheet. Around a third of the U.S. population lives in coastal counties and many live less than 1 meter (3.3 feet) above mean high water. By 2045, the timespan of home mortgages purchased today, many communities can expect a 10-fold increase in the frequency of tidal floods, according to a 2014 UCS analysis, Encroaching Tides. The fate of the Arctic land ice is in large part the fate of coastlines this century.
To learn more about other aspects of how amplification of Arctic change matters, check out the UCS Science Network webinar for August 25, 2015. Jennifer Francis (Rutgers University) explains the latest research into how a wavier jet stream can influence extreme weather events. Here is the quick overview. Recent data indicate the jet stream is weakening and becoming wavier in response to rapid Arctic warming. This can set up patterns of persistent colder regions and persistent warmer regions than normal. Such persistence can contribute to the severity of mid-latitude weather patterns.
The upcoming State Department conference (GLACIER) in Alaska will bring ministers and experts together to tackle the challenges the Arctic presents and to seek collaborative opportunities. These are likely to align with what the Secretary of State, John Kerry, has already expressed as some of the priorities of the U.S. Chairmanship:
“So we have to implement the framework that we have developed to reduce emissions of black carbon and methane in the Arctic, and at the same time we have to foster economic development that will raise living standards and help make renewable energy sources the choice for everybody.”
Black carbon deposition on snow or ice can lead to substantially accelerated ice melt when the sun is above the horizon. This was dramatically demonstrated in July 2012 when the combination of warm temperatures and forest fire deposition of black carbon led to the largest surface melt on Greenland in over a century. The top sources for global black carbon emissions globally are domestic burning, including heating and cooking (40%) and natural sources including wildfires and wetlands (28%). The Arctic Council Member States are accountable for 30% of the black carbon induced warming in the Arctic.
At the GLACIER conference the Arctic will get the attention it deserves at the highest levels. This is a great relief to many of us who have seen first-hand the dramatic changes happening above the Arctic Circle.]]>
The NAS committee, chaired by Marcia McNutt, recommended avoiding the terms “geoengineering” or “climate engineering,” which imply an engineering precision that is not warranted. Plus “geological engineering” has a different meaning in the context of mining. The committee preferred to define the term “climate intervention” as “purposeful actions intended to produce a targeted change in some aspect of the climate.”
The first report assesses ways to strike at the core of the problem by intentional carbon dioxide removal and reliable sequestration. These have the potential to reduce the risks of most consequences that stem from overloading the atmosphere with carbon dioxide, including ocean acidification. The second report, assesses ways of reflecting sunlight to cool Earth. (To learn more about this report check out the blog by my colleague Peter Frumhoff.)
Both reports also point out that intentional experiments such as these raise profound issues regarding governance that are at present not well developed in most countries or international organizations.
Appropriately, given the role of the NAS to advise the federal government on matters of science or of a technical nature, the reports recognize that other disciplines need to weigh in on improving governance before deployment should be considered in many cases. For example, the Bipartisan Policy Center and the Oxford Principles in the UK represent early explorations of governance.
One of the issues raised is that those who may experience the consequences of intentional experiments would ideally be brought into the review of proposals, and prior approval would be sought before conducting experiments in the field. Another idea is to have an independent team of experts study potential consequences of any experiment proposed.
Among the key findings from the report on carbon dioxide removal and reliable sequestration is that the costs of many current proposals are likely to exceed that of reducing heat-trapping emissions through wide deployment of renewable energy sources and significant reductions in fossil fuel combustion.
For example, current cost estimates for scrubbing the parts per million carbon dioxide concentrations from the atmosphere are exceedingly high. Though less costly then direct air capture, costs are still high for capturing carbon dioxide directly at a concentrated point source such as a bioenergy source. As far as the reliable sequestration portion of the entire enterprise, saline aquifers seem the most promising of the geologic reservoirs examined in the United States.
The report noted that some carbon dioxide removal and reliable sequestration projects have already been explored with unequal results. For example, reforestation can sequester carbon for at least the lifetime of the trees. Far riskier is intentional acceleration of carbon dioxide removal by enhancing the biological uptake in the ocean through iron fertilization. According to the report, “deploying ocean iron fertilization at climatically relevant levels poses risks that outweigh potential benefits.”
Most proposals would likely take a decade or longer to achieve modest climate effects. What if the funding stopped for a carbon dioxide removal experiment? The report assesses this as well. The committee determined that any sudden stoppage of a carbon dioxide removal and sequestration experiment is considered a low-risk action. Given the time delay of most proposals, this gives time to conduct thorough research into potential consequences (e.g. earthquakes associated with injecting carbon deep into geologic reservoirs). Most of the carbon removal and sequestration research experiments examined were considered in the report to be relatively regional with regard to governance aspects.
The bottom line is that this report is a call for further research into safe ways for carbon dioxide removal and reliable sequestration. In particular, ramping up research into land use and reforestation approaches seem the least risky of those covered in the report. The National Science Foundation and U.S. federal agencies could spur innovation with investments in transparent research programs on carbon dioxide removal and reliable sequestration.
My colleague Aaron Huertas suggested we compare this staggering temperature fact with census data for the world. When we compared December 2013 global census data by age, we found around 65 percent of people worldwide have never experienced an average global temperature below the 20th century average. This is likely a conservative estimate, given the yet to be fully accounted for number of births during 2014.
The 2014 hottest record occurred despite a fickle El Niño, the Pacific Ocean pattern that has marked previous record hot years. Is this a first taste of global warming pulling away from the ups and downs of natural cycles? Or are we going to have the to and fro for the next couple of decades? A clue may exist in the recent hourly carbon dioxide data from Mauna Loa. The earliest hourly and daily appearance for surging past the symbolic 400 ppm mark already occurred on the first day of 2015. The first time that threshold was passed at Mauna Loa in 2014 was in March and in 2013 it happened in May.]]>
The amount of carbon in the atmosphere will largely determine how much climate change we’ll face. If we stay on our current path, we can forget about meeting the internationally agreed-upon goal of avoiding 2°C (3.6°F) of warming. It’s worth pointing out that the announcement comes just before the UN Climate Summit in New York City where many leaders will gather to figure out how to grapple with solutions.
As a species, we have been smart about figuring out how things work, but slow to figure out how to solve this particular problem. Evidence of the heat-trapping role of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere was established in 1859 and by the end of that century the discovery emerged that fossil fuel emissions could cause a shift in Earth’s climate. The first confirmation that these emissions were already changing Earth’s temperature emerged during the 1930s.
The accelerating pace of emissions after these discoveries is alarming, with over half emitted since 1970 of the total human CO2 emissions between 1750 and 2010. Accelerating emissions has occurred despite the worldwide trend, since 1850, in the mix of primary energy supply shifting away from less carbon-intensive fuels from primarily biomass to primarily coal to more oil and gas in the mix. The latest tracking for each country’s share of CO2 emissions ranks China (27%) and the U.S. (17%) as the top two in 2011. The bulk of 2012 U.S. heat-trapping emissions was in the form of CO2 (82%) with nearly a third of all U.S. emissions that year coming from electricity generation (32%). Additionally, if we look at emissions from the perspective of extracting carbon from the Earth, just 90 companies and other institutions are accountable for two-thirds of all emissions traced to their production since the Industrial Revolution.
Hence the new proposed carbon standards aimed at reducing emissions from existing U.S. power plants tackle one of the largest current sources of global CO2 emissions in the world. The EPA is currently accepting comments on the proposed rule. If you want to weigh in before the October 16 comment deadline, you may want to check out the analysis by my UCS colleagues on practical steps for making the power plant carbon standards stronger.
First let’s look at what many have been asking about the power plant rule – how much will it change the pace of global warming? Second, let’s compare the EPA proposed goal trend to the trend in recent years from bottom-up initiatives by states and leaders in communities across America to stem power plant carbon dioxide emissions (you may be surprised). Finally, let’s check the contrasts and parallels in history to see if this comparison between McCarthy and Jefferson is justified.
An assessment of pledges that many countries have made to reduce heat-trapping emissions allows for a comparison of this new proposal from the EPA with commitments around the world.
As you can see from the historic and projected goals set forth, the new EPA proposal would take a step toward international pledges (see charts in terms of CO2 equivalent emissions per year and in terms of carbon intensity for U.S. energy). You will notice the proposed rule is a much less ambitious trend than the recent boost by local and state initiatives.
Recent UCS analysis suggests the historic carbon standard could cut power plant emissions in half. To help out, the advances in fuel economy standards should add another step. Still looking at the charts, one can see why administration official, John Podesta, has acknowledged that the U.S. has proposed a path that is perhaps closer to an increase of 3 degrees Celsius than 2 degrees Celsius for global average temperature.
The good news is that this new rule tackles the the electricity sector, the largest source of U.S. emissions (see chart of emissions by sector). More importantly, the carbon emissions are increasingly decoupled from the growing U.S. economy (see U.S. Emissions per GDP trends).
These encouraging trends are all prior to the new EPA proposed power plant standards. History suggests that when America sets about achieving a goal, Americans have achieved goals that were unthinkable upon first utterance while others goals were delivered faster and beyond initial ambitions.
Thomas Jefferson, was a citizen scientist and a grand thinker about individual rights, freedom, and equality even as he and his peers partook in and lived in a time of great inequalities, including slavery.
Textbooks and current news cycles are full of laws and acts around the world that are making these ambitious goals part and parcel of many lands where people govern and struggle for broader application of the U.S. Declaration of Independence goals.
Similarly, initial proposals to limit “acid rain” or chemicals that create the so-called “ozone hole” set achievable goals that were far surpassed by ingenuity and trial and error in policymaking. This week is a historic game changer that has the wind of historic precedence to inspire the framework so the U.S. can once again far surpass these EPA goals.
You can help strengthen the goals by submitting comments on the new proposed EPA rule during the upcoming public comment period. Stay tuned!]]>