According to NOAA, “The January–October combined global land and ocean average surface temperature was the warmest such period on record, surpassing the previous record set in 1998 and 2010.”
This visualization shows how global temperatures have risen from 1950 through the end of 2013. Source: NASA/GSFC, GISS
Over the last half century, global average temperatures have continued to climb. Here are some astounding statistics:
This means if you are a young person in your 30s you have never experienced an average year, but have spent your whole life in a warmer world.
However, 2014 is different from other recent record-breaking years. So far, it is happening without the influence of an El Niño event, which usually brings warmer weather. The warming of the tropical central and eastern Pacific Ocean during an El Niño affects weather in many parts of the world, and was present during the scorching years of 1998, 2005, and 2010 – the top three in the list. This year El Niño has not made its presence felt yet, and NOAA has lowered the odds of it happening, but temperatures still remain high – a harbinger that the paradigm may be shifting. It seems that regardless of what happens with the natural ocean variations, human-caused warming is now clearly dominating the climate system.
2014 will likely add another peak in the global temperature curve, largely as a result of warming due to heat-trapping emissions from human activity over the last half century. As the headline statement from the IPCC 5th Assessment Report made clear several weeks ago, human activity is “extremely likely to have been the dominant cause of the observed warming since the mid 20thcentury.”
To avoid a future where we continue to relentlessly break temperature records, we need to deeply and swiftly reduce our heat-trapping emissions. The historic climate agreement last week between the U.S. and China could start us on that road.]]>
During that week, there was a perigean spring tide – an extra-high tide when the sun, moon, and Earth are aligned and the moon is closest to Earth in its monthly orbit. This alignment happens three or four times a year. In many locations along the U.S. east coast, these extra-high tides – colloquially known as “king tides” – brought flooding last week to places like the Florida Keys, Charleston, Annapolis, and Washington DC. These events give us a glimpse into the future, as I outlined in an earlier blog on king tides.
Our analysis shows that this kind of tidal flooding could become the new normal in many places in the next 15 years under a global sea level rise of about 5 inches by 2030 and 11 inches above today’s levels by 2045. (You can find the technical background study outlining the mid-range scenario we used here. For news coverage of our report, see articles here, here, and here.)
NOAA studies have shown that in several communities, nuisance flooding now happens four times more often than it did just 40 years ago. In the next 15 years, two-thirds of the communities we analyzed could see a tripling or more in the number of high tide flood events each year.
We know that many places are already on the front line of tidal flooding – places like Jamaica Bay, New York, which we profile in the report. Over the last century, the water level in Jamaica Bay (as measured at the nearby Battery tide gauge) has risen nearly a foot, owing to both global sea level rise and local changes. Minor flooding events in the Broad Channel area now occur once or twice a month, or more. And our analysis shows that continued sea level rise means that the frequency of flooding events in Jamaica Bay will triple by 2030, and increase nearly 10-fold by 2045, compared with today.
Dan Mundy, Sr., former president of the Broad Channel Civic Association and a retired captain in the New York City Fire Department, knows that flooding is becoming worse. “Every home in Broad Channel has a calendar with the lunar cycle and tide predictions clearly marked for each day of the year,” he says. “We live by the tidal cycles here: flooding is becoming more common, and much more of an inconvenience than ever before.” Volunteer firefighters at the Broad Channel Fire Department know which streets might need evacuation by inflatable boats.
The Broad Channel community is a proactive one. After more than a decade of lobbying by the Broad Channel Civic Association, the City of New York has funded and begun work on a $23 million project to enable West 11th, 12th, and 13th Streets to withstand and avoid flooding. Measures to make critical services more resilient, including the power supply, wastewater treatment, health care, and transportation, are also under development. The communities of Jamaica Bay—with partner agencies and organizations—are charting a path to urban coastal resilience that others around the country can build on.
In the long run, we will need more concerted action to avoid the worst impacts of sea level rise by ultimately reducing our heat-trapping emissions. But in the short term, the many other communities that will join the front line of tidal flooding will need to learn from the experience of Jamaica Bay and be able to adapt and response to the rising tides.
In less than 24 hours, the city was drenched by almost 4 inches (100 mm) of rain – a quarter of the monthly average rainfall in a single day. Downpours that lasted for three days also affected the opening match in Natal less than two weeks ago. The World Cup coverage has been accompanied by a multitude of posts on “biblical” flooding (see here, here and here).
We know heavy rainfall events are becoming more common globally and projected to increase in frequency in the future.
In fact, right now back here in the U.S., we are encountering ongoing flooding in the upper Midwest after days of rain. St Paul has declared a state of emergency; levees in Newport, a small town in Minnesota that lies along the Mississippi, are in “terrible condition” and only feet from being breached; Sioux City, Iowa, is experiencing its wettest month ever; and more than a fifth of Wisconsin’s corn crop is in poor or fair condition after drenching rain.
The U.S. National Climate Assessment clearly states that heavy downpours are increasing across the country, especially over the last three to five decades: “The heaviest rainfall events have become heavier and more frequent, and the amount of rain falling on the heaviest rain days has also increased.”
In a future of more rain and increased flooding, emergency response and disaster preparedness will be forefront on our radars. The challenge is for the U.S. to show leadership and be emergency responders for the global issue that is here with us now — most importantly by reducing our emissions and providing adequate resources to the task at hand. That’s why the president’s proposed resilience fund – that would help communities prepare for climate change and could reduce the need for costly bailouts in the future – is so important.
Henry Paulson, former Secretary of the U.S. Treasury, agrees. This week in the New York Times, Paulson wrote some wise words about the climate crisis: “There is a time for weighing evidence and a time for acting. And if there’s one thing I’ve learned throughout my work in finance, government and conservation, it is to act before problems become too big to manage.” Hear, hear.]]>
Sea ice – the frozen crust of the ocean that grows to about 3 feet thick in a season – begins to grow in the autumn and peaks in early spring. Now, I’ve written earlier blogs about why summer sea ice decline should be front page news and the role of the Arctic in climate. So what’s up with winter? The peak this year was low again, despite a late season surge of growth in March. In fact, winter sea ice extent in the Arctic has been below average every winter for at least the last decade, as you can see on this interactive graph.
Sea ice decline is shown dramatically in an animation screened recently at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) meeting in Chicago.
The amount of multi-year sea ice in the Arctic has declined over the last 25 years. The bright white ice is the oldest thickest sea ice. Source: NOAA/Climate.gov and Mark Tschudi, CCAR, University of Colorado.
Winter sea ice decline should also be front page news. Of more significance than the areal extent is the fact that the Artic is losing old and thick sea ice. Old sea ice is generally much thicker than young sea ice, and thus contributes more overall to the total volume of the Arctic ice pack. Think of it like ice cubes in your drink. If you have a glass with deep ice cubes floating at the top, your drink will stay cooler longer and the ice will take longer to melt. If you have very shallow ice cubes floating on the top that nevertheless cover the same area, they will melt quicker simply because there is less ice volume.
Younger and thinner sea ice is far less likely to survive the warmer summers, just like slim ice cubes in your drink melt out quickly. For thousands of years, Arctic sea ice has built up in the winter and decayed in the summer, but not all of it melted out each year.
The ice that survives the summer is added to during the next winter, forming what is known as “multi-year” sea ice, which can reach more than 12 feet thick and can be over five years in age. But the dramatic decline of summer sea ice in the Arctic over the last decade has led to a decrease in multi-year thick ice.
In the 1980s, about 25 percent of the Arctic sea ice was estimated to be older than four years in age. But for every year since 2008, less than 10 percent of the sea ice in the Arctic is older than 4 years.
The Arctic is now an ocean of rapidly melting thin ice cubes.]]>
The excess carbon that you and I have been dumping into the atmosphere for the last half century — from deforestation and from burning coal, oil, and natural gas — has pushed CO2 levels more than 25% higher than when measurements of air began at Mauna Loa in the late 1950s. These critical measurements by the Scripps Institution of Oceanography represent the longest continuous monitoring of CO2 in air. However, facing a funding crisis, Scripps has astoundingly had to resort to crowdsourcing to make up the shortfall in federal funding. They are one of only two agencies that carries out measurements at Mauna Loa (the other one being NOAA, that began monitoring about a decade later than Scripps).
As I’ve described in an earlier blog, my scientific career began in a 350ppm world. And, now in our 400ppm world, we need a world-changing view to tackle the challenge that we face. We must reduce global emissions of carbon, by transforming both how we produce energy and how we choose to live going forward. What is required of us is enormous but I believe we are up to the task — after all, the 450ppm world is fast approaching.
Featured image courtesy of Flickr user Sharloch.]]>
1. Young people are simply not living in the same climate their parents grew up in: The year 2013 was the 37th year in a row that global average temperature was above the 20th century average. Each of the last three decades has been warmer than the one before. Across the US, warm temperature records are being broken twice as often as cool temperature records.
2. Over nine tenths of the excess heat from global warming is going into the ocean: The increase in the amount of heat stored in the ocean over the last 30 years is enormous – it is equivalent to the amount of energy from a bomb the size of the one dropped on Hiroshima being released every second for thirty years. A warmer ocean expands and results in sea level rise. This heat will eventually be released from storage over decades and centuries to further warm the atmosphere.
3. Ocean acidification is occurring, transforming marine ecosystems: Carbon dioxide emissions are not only leading to warmer oceans and other climate disruptions, but our oceans are absorbing a quarter of this excess carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, leading to a more acidic ocean (lower pH levels). Ocean acidification not only affects sea creatures, but everything else that depends on them in some way, from food and habitat to tourism and local fisheries.
4. The amount of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere is unprecedented in human history: Last year, levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere reached 400ppm (parts per million) for the first time since humans walked the planet. Over the last decade, this rate of change is faster than at any time in the recent geological record. This faster pace makes it more challenging for species and natural systems to adapt.
Tonight’s Senate action is a reminder to all of us why this is an extremely important conversation not only for the United States but for the world. Together, we urgently need to reduce our global carbon emissions.]]>
The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) states its objective is to stabilize emissions “to prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system.” This oft-quoted phrase takes on a new dimension as we see the aftermath of one of human history’s most powerful storms, with sustained winds of almost 200 miles per hour and waves up to 30 feet high wreaking havoc on hundreds of local communities.
It is clear that human influence has been the dominant cause of our warming climate over the last half century. If the global ocean and atmosphere continue to warm from unchecked emissions, our future will likely be marked by more intense typhoons and hurricanes equal to the strength of Haiyan and Sandy. It’s also clear that if we are to stay within the carbon budget necessary to keep climate impacts from becoming unmanageable, we will need to decarbonize and leave fossil fuels in the ground.
The global carbon budget is the estimated amount of total carbon we can dump into the atmosphere and still have a reasonable chance of avoiding “dangerous” climate change. The “dangerous” temperature level has been pegged at a warming of 2°C (3.6°F) above the pre-industrial global average temperature. However, many would argue this temperature limit should be lowered in light of the impacts we are already seeing, as discussed in a recent UCS blog here and in the latest UNEP report on the Emissions Gap. As a benchmark, the difference in global average temperature between an ice age and an interglacial (a warm period) is only about 5°C, so a 2°C temperature increase is significant.
The total amount of carbon that would take us to this level of warming has been estimated at 1000 billion tonnes of total carbon starting from the Industrial Revolution. We’ve already spent half of that budget – see the University of Cambridge’s full infographic here.
Of course, the impact of spending our entire carbon budget depends to some degree on the assumptions made about how the earth’s system responds, but most estimates using the 2°C threshold agree that we are about halfway through our allowance.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) explains that we may blow our entire carbon budget in the next 30 years or so at the rate we are going. But if you read the fine print, the carbon budget proposed by the IPCC doesn’t even give us a sure guarantee of staying below the 2°C threshold – it only gives us a 2 in 3 chance of doing so. Not great odds.
Another way of visualizing the carbon budget is to show an estimate of the remaining reserves that we need to leave in the ground. The amount in the ground is truly massive compared to what we have already used. The design website “Information is Beautiful” has an infographic that uses data from the International Energy Agency, NASA, NOAA, and the World Bank to show the current overall balance. It’s sobering. By their estimates, if carbon emissions continue to increase at 3 percent a year – as they have been – the point where we break our 2°C carbon budget limit is a mere dozen years away. (See the full version here.)
Carbon dioxide may be colorless and odorless and seemingly benign, but it is long-lived and the most powerful heat-trapping emission from human activity. Two-thirds of the carbon dioxide you and I produce today from burning oil and gas in our cars and for our electricity will still be around in the atmosphere in a hundred years – it takes that long to be naturally removed. It is past time to give up our fossil fuel addiction and instead focus on balancing the ecological budget. Whether we exceed our “safe” carbon level in ten years or forty years really is up to us.
As the Philippines lead negotiator Naderev “Yeb” Saño so poignantly requested on the opening day, let’s hope the talks in Warsaw do reach a “meaningful outcome.” Saño’s hunger strike, in solidarity with the millions affected in the Philippines, has now spread to some participants at the Warsaw COP19 meeting and to wider civil society around the world. With the Philippines now faced with thousands of people dead and millions homeless, Saño implores us to act. Collectively, we must step up to the challenge of tackling this immense global crisis.]]>
Right now there are more than 60 fires blazing in the state of New South Wales, where one in three Australians lives. Temperatures are forecast to reach almost 100 degrees F with wind gusts over 60 miles per hour. A fire front almost 200 miles wide is threatening western Sydney.
The authorities have declared a state of emergency, with the situation into its sixth day with little sign of abatement. The Bureau of Meteorology has issued warnings this week that are typical of mid-summer, not spring. And for my parents, they just don’t recall spring conditions like this before. It’s like watching the weather on steroids.
This is the second time this year that the Australian wild fire rating system has risen to “catastrophic,” a designation that was used for the first time during the 2009 Australian fire season. The country has just had its warmest 12-month period on record, its warmest September on record, and has just come out of an exceptionally dry and warm winter.
Similar to conditions the U.S. Forest Service and other emergency responders were facing in the northern hemisphere this spring, Australia is facing a tumultuous start to the southern hemisphere fire season.
Fire seasons, of course, have great variability from year to year, but both in the U.S. and in Australia experts are saying the fire behaviors they are seeing are unprecedented.
In the western U.S., fire season is now two months longer than it was 40 years ago. According to the U.S. Forest Service, wildfires are increasing in frequency, intensity, and complexity. Wildfires are twice as large and three times more expensive as they were a decade ago. This past summer saw extreme and unprecedented behavior of fires in Colorado and California. The science is clear that humans have influenced global temperatures over the past half century. And the latest IPCC report states “future warming of extreme temperatures is virtually certain.”
The costs of fighting wildfires across the U.S. have averaged more than $3 billion per year, and home protection contributes substantially to this amount. Nearly one-third of what the Forest Service spends each year to fight forest fires goes to resources and manpower to protect homes and structures, equating to more than $1 billion per year. The U.S. Forest Service is increasingly being strapped for funds as the wildfire seasons now lasts longer than it previously did and more people are building homes near forests.
A recent forest study in Oregon showed when the average summertime temperature is just one degree Fahrenheit warmer, the cost of defending these homes doubles. Over the last several years, the Forest Service has used money meant for recreation and land management programs to fight fires. Decades ago, about 20 percent of the forestry budget was devoted to fire. But this last fiscal year, more than half of the U.S. Forest Service budget was spent on fighting wildfires.
With climate change now part of our daily lives, we are witnessing the beginnings of a very challenging problem for emergency managers. It is playing out for us in Australia today.]]>
While this is shocking and part of a several-decade decline in Arctic sea ice, what’s also alarming is the lack of substantive media coverage. The decline in Arctic sea ice should concern all of us in the same way that a collapse of the economic system does. It deserves front page billing. A recent Nature commentary stated that “the costs of a melting Arctic will be huge, because the region is pivotal to the functioning of Earth systems such as oceans and the climate.” They don’t mince their words.
Not only has the extent of sea ice been declining since satellite measurements began in the 1970s, but the volume has also decreased dramatically. The volume of Arctic sea ice in August 2013 was less than a third the volume it was in August 1979. Source: Andy Lee Robinson
Here are five reasons why the decline of the Arctic sea ice matters:
When bright, reflective sea ice melts, it gives way to a darker ocean. More heat is absorbed by a darker surface, leading to more warming. This is known as the ice-albedo feedback effect. Largely due to the recent dramatic loss of sea ice and this feedback, the Arctic is now warming at twice the global rate.
Sea ice covers the ocean for much of the year, impeding the transfer of heat and moisture from the ocean to the atmosphere. With less sea ice extent and thinner sea ice becoming common, there is a greater transfer of both moisture and heat to the atmosphere in the Arctic. Combined with the ice-albedo feedback, this amplifies the region’s warming, and may affect circulation patterns like the jet stream, that can affect weather patterns in the lower 48 states and elsewhere.
As sea ice forms in the Arctic and Antarctic, dense salty water sinks to the bottom of the ocean starting the “global ocean conveyor belt” that pumps heat and salt around the world’s oceans. The flow of this water helps regulate temperature and distributes nutrients throughout the oceans. It is crucial to the oceanic food chain and takes hundreds of years to complete a full circuit. The “conveyor belt” helps keep places like London temperate even though they are further north than much colder cities like Boston.
For many indigenous communities sea ice affords protection from waves and coastal erosion, provides a surface for distant travel, a habitat for birds and animals they hunt, and forms a central part of spiritual beliefs. The ecosystem services from sea ice that indigenous communities depend on are diminishing. Along with that, the world is losing the expert knowledge and the physical locations of cultures with an intimate connection to the Arctic.
The ecological consequences of changes in Arctic sea ice are outlined in a recent paper in Science here. Sea ice determines the interaction between marine and terrestrial species, influences ocean productivity, and affects local weather. From phytoplankton at the base of extensive food chains to potent heat-trapping methane release from permafrost, changes to natural systems will come at great financial and ecological cost.
Loss of Arctic summer sea ice – not “if” but “when”
As the relentless decay of sea ice continues, an ice-free summer in the Arctic is a given – it’s now a matter of “when,” not “if”. Nine of the lowest years on the satellite record for Arctic sea ice minimum extent have been in the last decade. But we do have a choice – we must act swiftly to reduce emissions and ensure we avoid the very worst impacts to the fragile Arctic ecosystem. We can and must try to delay the disappearance of summer sea ice and time is of the essence.
Front page image courtesy of Richard Petry.
In the last IPCC report in 2007, the sea level rise projections listed in the summary document did not include the full estimated contributions from changes in ice flow and melting of the two great ice sheets on the planet, Greenland and Antarctica. This led to erroneous speculation in media coverage that the projected sea level estimates were lower than previous reports. Hopefully the forthcoming report will be more explicit about all of the contributions to sea level rise – the fact is, snow and ice are rapidly melting and raising sea levels.
In the last two decades I’ve seen with my own eyes the rapid disappearance of many of the planet’s snow fields and the retreat of alpine glaciers. Unfortunately, my anecdotal observations are backed up by data and are clearly linked to global warming.
Over the last century, in the Sierra Nevada the surface area of glaciers has been decreasing and spring river runoff is lower. In Montana’s Glacier National Park over the same period the number of sizable glaciers has dropped from 150 to less than 25. In Wyoming, the 44 extant glaciers in the Wind River Range have decreased in area by almost half in the last four decades. And it’s not just confined to North America. Glaciers are in retreat worldwide – in Switzerland, in Peru, in New Zealand. If snow doesn’t endure through the summer, glaciers simply cannot grow. Snow needs to remain for multiple seasons for it to form into ice and become a moving glacier.
What happens to our snow fields, our alpine glaciers, and our ice sheets truly matters. The melting and retreat of northern hemisphere snow and ice due to global warming is a concern for two major reasons. The first is that when land-based ice melts, sea level rises. The second is that removing snow and ice cover on land leaves behind a darker surface which increases the amount of sunlight that is absorbed at earth’s surface – a feedback that increases the original warming.
For most of the last century, thermal expansion from simply heating up the ocean was the main contributor to the global rise in sea level. But that’s changed in the last two decades.
A recent study shows melting of land-based ice and the resulting runoff into the sea now accounts for twice as much sea level rise as thermal expansion does. More than half of the contribution from land-based ice is from melting of alpine glaciers and ice caps, while Greenland and Antarctica (both ice sheets) account for the rest.
Greenland – the inappropriately-named island that is one of only two major ice sheets on the planet (Antarctica being the other) – is also experiencing major melt events annually. In the years 2007, 2010, and 2012 surface melt area was extensive and record-breaking. This year Greenland is experiencing a melt season closer to the long-term average. Don’t be fooled by 2013, though – the Arctic is still warming at twice the pace of the rest of the globe, as noted in the recent State of the Climate in 2012 report by the American Meteorological Society.
The contribution to sea level rise from melting of land-based snow and ice will continue to increase while emissions and temperatures rise. Our current challenge is to reduce our emissions swiftly and deeply to avoid the worst impacts of climate change. The forthcoming IPCC report will be a stark reminder that it is time to heed the science and act. The snow-speckled meadows and the majestic peaks surrounded by glaciers are surely worth saving not only for the services they provide like water supply and habitat, but also for the sake of future generations.]]>