End of 2012: Potpourri (Not a List of Extreme Events!)
End of 2012: Potpourri
Climate-wise in the U.S., it has been a year of heat and drought. This year will go down as the warmest in the continental U.S. There have been many extreme events, and it is quite fashionable this year to list extreme events. Here are a few:
Angela Fritz Wunderground Blog - worldly with good discussion
Jeff Masters Summary of the U.S. Fire Season
Climate Central - U.S. focused list.
Washington Post - A more global perspective, including the cold spell in Europe
Al Jazeera - A search of stories from around the globe
The Weather Channel - Top 20 weather stories
Enough: I have listed more at the end. What has struck me as most compelling is how quickly we are seeing the emergence and convergence of a global picture of a warming planet. The weather is evolving in this environment of generally increasing temperature and more moist air. This evolution is consistent with what is expected from theory and predicted by models. The warming that is observed in the Arctic, the reduction of sea ice, the melting of ice sheets, and the theory-based link between these changes in the Arctic and middle-latitude weather – this collection of observations and knowledge is one of the most obvious examples of a coherent picture of the growing accumulation of heat in the Earth’s environment.
In a radio interview last week, I told the reporter why I did not like “new normal” as a way to communicate climate change. That term suggests that we have shifted from an old “normal” situation to a “new” normal situation. It suggests some flavor of stability in a new environment, but we are only at the beginning of the warming that we will see from increasing carbon dioxide. In ten years we will have the next new normal, then another in twenty years. If we look at our emissions of carbon dioxide, which are the primary cause of warming, any progress we make on reducing emissions is in the spirit of they are not as high as they could be.
Carbon Visuals provides a set of interesting figures that help to convey the emissions of carbon dioxide. The figures also suggest the amount of carbon dioxide that we will release if we continue with the use of fossil fuels as the main fire for our economic well being. This image from Carbon Visuals shows the amount of fossil fuels already held in reserve by the oil companies and compares that to the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere prior to 1750 (pre-industrial) and what we have already released into the atmosphere.
Figure 1: Caption from Unburnable Carbon @ Carbon Visuals : “Summary of the current situation. The blue cube is the total volume of all the carbon dioxide gas in the air in 1750 (before the growth of fossil fuels). The light pink volume is the extra, man-made carbon dioxide in the air now. The dark pink volume is the amount of carbon dioxide that would enter the atmosphere if the declared fuel reserves of fossil fuel companies were ever used. The red line indicates the point at which the warming would be greater than 2 °C.”
The same graph is in the Washington Post, but with some numbers. One number is that we can still release about 565 billion tons of carbon dioxide and remain below the trillion tons that has been proposed as the emissions total that would limit average surface air warming to 2 degrees Celsius. (That's the little pink box with the "2 °C of Warming") The other number is that about 2.8 trillion tons of carbon dioxide are in the declared reserves of energy companies. (That's the big "Declared Reserves" box at the top.) (see Bill McKibben’s “Do the Math").
Readers of my blog know that I see no evidence that we will limit our emissions in a way that will keep average warming to 2 degrees Celsius. I teach that we need to be planning for 4 degrees Celsius. We are already seeing fundamental changes in our weather and climate, and we are just at the beginning. Here at the end of the year, I am not optimistic about either U.S. or global policy to curb carbon dioxide emissions on the short-term (4 year) political landscape. Where I anchor the most optimism is in the students I see coming from high schools and colleges who have environmental science and sustainability as core interests and core values. I also see their take on the continuing political arguments that dismiss scientific knowledge and create chaotic energy and environmental policy. It is a take of growing irrelevance and irresponsibility of our political system, which ultimately impacts on our economy and technological competitiveness. So my optimism lies in the growing presence of the emerging sustainability generation in education, business, and government. It is the season for youthful salvation.
I want to end this entry with a new website that I was made aware of by Clark Weaver. It is called Temperature Trends .org, and calculates historical trends in congressional districts. Check it out, and use the Contact Temperature Trends to help them make it better.
If you are here looking for Mahlman memory piece, it is here.
Glaciers and Global Warming by Jeremy Bassis. Give it some more hits!
More Year in Review Links
National Public Radio - Discussion of the Year.
ABC News - Photo Gallery of U.S.
Huffington Post - Extreme Weather and Climate Change (original story Seth Borenstein from AP)
Fox News - Actually same Seth Borenstein from AP as at Huffington Post.
Fox News In a Way - An interesting bundling of a Fox News story on You Tube
National Public Radio - More people seeing connection between extreme weather and climate change.
Updated: 10:17 PM GMT on January 04, 2013
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Things Going Fast
Things Going Fast
Some revisions here 25 Dec. 2012
If you are here looking for Mahlman memory piece, it is here.
An old Christmas Piece: Christmas at the Seven Eleven
This entry has been updated with a paragraph on the paper about West Antarctica released after the blog was first published.
In 2007 I started this blog with the release of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Fourth Assessment Report. At the time of that report, the evolving scientific understanding made it clear that the melting of sea ice and ice sheets had been underestimated in the papers that were used in the 2007 report. A major reason for that underestimation was due to the simplicity of the way the freezing and thawing of large masses of ice were represented in the climate models. Freezing and thawing of large masses of ice on Earth is not like an ice cube melting away on the kitchen counter at normal room temperature. Rather, it is a far more dynamic process, with, for example, water from the ice melt collecting on top of an ice sheet, then flowing through the ice in a way that accelerates melting. In the ocean, the seawater accelerates sea ice melting through essentially stirring the ice in warmer water. If you go back to the ice sitting on the kitchen counter, you can speed up its melting by fanning it with warm air or by placing it in a glass of water and stirring it. In all of these cases heat is being carried to the ice more effectively than in the case of the static cube sitting on the counter.
Of course this stirring process melts ice if the temperature of the environment is warmer than the freezing point of water. If it were getting colder, then stirring could cause accelerated freezing – ice growth. That could be thought of as removing heat from the water and allowing it to freeze. We are set up here with a situation that in a warming environment, ice melts, and if we stir it up, we bring more heat to the ice and it melts faster. This is an example of a positive feedback, it gets hot and causes melting, and the response of the Earth is such that it accelerates melting. The opposite of a positive feedback is a negative feedback, if it gets warmer, then the systems reacts by cooling faster to bring it back to its original temperature.
There was a paper by Gerard Roe and Marcia Baker in 2007 that made a convincing argument that when taken as whole, the current state of the Earth’s climate was that if it got warmer, then the response of the Earth would be to accelerate that warming. When I have been asked over the past five years about my opinion whether the models are right, then my answer has been that most of the evidence suggests to me that we have underestimated the rate of warming.
At the top of my list of observational evidence is what’s happening in the Arctic. There was a recent paper in Science Magazine by Andrew Shepherd and coauthors entitled A Reconciled Estimate of Ice-Sheet Mass Balance. They looked at the mass budget of Greenland ice sheets and concluded 1) there was a lot of consistency between different measurements, and 2) the rate of melt was speeding up. (NBC News and news summary by Kerr in Science) The 2012 Arctic Report Card documents numerous records in the melting of ice and snow as well as odd changes in ecosystems. This melting in the Arctic is a signal of accumulating heat. It is simply a fact of physics, that all of the heating of the Earth does not have to go into heating the surface air temperature. As we learn more, it goes more effectively into melting ice than we perhaps modeled 10 years ago. It goes into the ocean. These large changes in the Arctic are stunning evidence of a warming planet. (see this recent video, Glaciers and Global Warming by my faculty colleague Jeremy Bassis.)
There is increasing evidence of warming in the Antarctic as well. Because of the geography and the details of heat transported by the ocean, the Antarctic and the Arctic behave quite differently. However, we expect the southern polar regions, also, to have amplified warming compared with the tropics and middle latitudes. We do not have as many measurements in Antarctica as in the Arctic. Since this blog was first published, David Bromwich and colleagues published the paper, Central West Antarctica among the most rapidly warming regions on Earth, in Nature Geoscience. This paper is a complex study, which uses models to reconstruct and complete the temperature record in West Antarctica since the 1950s. They explain in detail their evaluation techniques and search for cause and effect of the regional warming that they find. Their ultimate conclusion is that West Antarctica is warming rapidly, especially in summer. They point to the summer of 2005, which saw significant surface ice melting, and warn that the temperature is getting to the point that melting might accelerate. This is especially significant in West Antarctica because the base of the ice sheets there are below sea level and especially vulnerable.
Feedbacks – it would be nice to hope that just as we underestimated the melting of ice in the period up to the 2007 IPCC Fourth Assessment Report – it would be nice to hope that we had somehow neglected or misrepresented some form of negative feedback in some fundamental way. The Roe and Baker paper referenced above, for example, suggests that such a misrepresentation of a negative feedback is unlikely.
Our most effective negative feedback mechanism is associated with cooling by clouds. At the risk of piling on, John Fasullo and Kevin Trenberth did an elegant analysis where they used present-day observation of clouds to determine that many climate models are biased in a way that would ultimately underestimate the warming as carbon dioxide doubles. (see Shell’s Perspective) The accumulation of evidence is, therefore, not only is the Earth warming, it is warming more rapidly that we expected in 2007.
This conclusion of rapid warming in concert with The Carbon Projects statement, “These (2012) emissions (of carbon dioxide) were the highest in human history and 54% higher than in 1990 (the Kyoto Protocol reference year),” paints an Earth heading rapidly to twice the carbon dioxide of the mid 1800s. This is a warming Earth, and there is little evidence that we will meet that goal of limiting warming to a global average surface air temperature of two degrees Celsius. And … it’s pretty obvious with that melting ice and warming seas that that surface temperature goal might not be a complete enough goal.
Glaciers and Global Warming by Jeremy Bassis. Give it some hits!
Updated: 3:23 PM GMT on December 26, 2012
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Jerry Mahlman: Plants and Birds and Rocks and Things
Jerry Mahlman: Plants and Birds and Rocks and Things
I found out this week at the meeting of the American Geophysical Union that my friend Jerry Mahlman died in late November. Jerry was a climate scientist, and for many years, the Director of the Geophysical Fluids Dynamics Laboratory. Here is the announcement of his death, which includes a paragraph about his science life. Here is Rick Piltz's, Remembering Jerry Mahlman.
In 2003 Jerry and I hatched a plan to road trip to Big Bend National Park. Jerry liked to “bushwhack” across desolate places, and in the Lower 48, Big Bend National Park is about as remote and desolate as it gets. Big Bend is also home to a huge variety of wildlife. The wildlife is there not only because it is protected desolation, but also because its climate straddles the edge of the tropics. This means birds, and birds could be the noble goal of any Jerry adventure.
The retired Jerry set out to planning. Another flavor of road trip brought me to his house in Longmont, Colorado, and Jerry had collected a set of suitably obscure information about the places in the Larry McMurtry world through which we would venture. There would be counties where there might be 4 rooms for those passing through – identify such opportunity in advance. Jerry had descriptions that required us to pay attention to the juniper trees on the side of road at the curve 31 miles from the U.S. highway intersection. Beyond the juniper, there would be pull out and a path, and down that path, a gully, and in that gully, the footprint of a dinosaur.
The week before we were on our way, Jerry had his stroke. The rational, though perhaps without fully thinking it through – the rational Jerry called me to explain that despite the type and severity of a stroke that normally killed more than 99% of the time, he was certain that by the time I arrived in three days, he would be ready to go. He had tested his readiness, by standing and walking. Though he was dizzied and tired by more than a few steps, he was certain that by the time we arrived in Big Bend his recovery would be adequate. As a precaution we would limit our exposure to steep trails and sheer cliffs.
That trip never happened. After recovery and therapy Jerry and I did take a set of road trips into the easy hinterlands of Colorado, Wyoming, and New Mexico. We would frequently pass through Fort Collins, and he would talk about his time with Janet during graduate school. On one of the trips beyond Colorado’s Moose Viewing Capital, Walden, we happened upon a “nature” trail on, probably, Bureau of Land Management leased land. The nature trail was maintained by an oil interest, and had signs that talked about the natural warming caused by carbon dioxide, and how the oil industry removed carbon dioxide from the air, pumping it into to the ground to release, safely, more oil to be pumped. Recycling carbon dioxide.
In his backyard Jerry kept something of a rock garden, perhaps more in the style of corralled rocks than, say, the Japanese Tea Garden in San Francisco. In 2008 with Jerry’s short-term memory loss starting to become prominent, we set out to Capulin Volcano National Monument in New Mexico. The noble goal was large round rocks spewed from a volcano. We hiked in the National Monument, and collected large round rocks from a rancher’s field, and then set off through the dirt roads of northern New Mexico and southeastern Colorado. We drove the entire length of the Dry Cimarron River, wandering onto roadside rock crumbles and into easy gullies. We crossed the grasslands, through the windmills and settlements that are relics from the Dust Bowl. We visited dimly lit, small-town museums that were housed in repurposed general stores and gas stations. We tried to use, whenever possible, Colorado Highway 71, which ran north into Nebraska to his hometown of Crawford, and beyond to Janet’s hometown of Hot Springs, South Dakota.
Jerry Mahlman in a gully of the Dry Cimarron River, New Mexico, 2008
Our last trip was in 2009 - too early for a last trip, but lives get complicated. It was October. We started up over mountains in Wyoming, but the roads were closed to our demure vehicle. So we hiked Vedauwoo Rocks, and then we went down a barren Wyoming road that had remained solidly anchored in Jerry’s memory. We ate at a Chinese restaurant, in a town that met the required criterion of at least two Chinese restaurants – to assure some quality from competition. The hot and sour soup passed muster. The Scoville Scale was unchallenged.
From that common place where it was understood that is was OK to be Ricky, not Richard – to Jerry.
Jerry Mahlman at Vedawoo, Wyoming, 2009
Updated: 9:09 PM GMT on December 12, 2012
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