Climate Change Blogs

Carbon Dioxide Bidding Farewell to 400-ppm Benchmark

Published: November 20, 2015
On an otherwise unremarkable day last week--November 11, 2015 (noted mainly for being Veterans Day in the U.S.)--a crucial milestone in global climate was quietly transcended. The daily average concentration of carbon dioxide in the air that day at Hawaii’s Mauna Loa Observatory was 399.68 parts per million. On November 12 it rose to 401.64 ppm, and it’s quite possible that we’ll never see another day in our lives with the daily Mauna Loa CO2 reading below 400 ppm. Greenhouse gases have been building in our atmosphere for more than a century, so this news doesn’t come as a shock so much as a reminder of what our continued use of fossil fuels is doing to the atmosphere. The data also serve as a prelude to the upcoming United Nations climate talks in Paris, which face some unexpected obstacles (see below) as a result of the city’s terrorist attacks of November 13.

Figure 1. Hourly and daily averages of atmospheric carbon dioxide as measured at Mauna Loa Observatory for the week of November 12-18, 2015. Image credit: Scripps/The Keeling Curve.

If it seems like you heard the news about the atmosphere reaching 400 ppm quite a while ago, you can attribute your deja vu to the seasonal cycle. Figure 2 (below) shows what’s been going on. The 400-ppm mark was first reached in May 2013--but only for a few days, during the annual peak of atmospheric CO2. Along with the year-on-year rise due to fossil-fuel use, CO2 ebbs and flows in the atmosphere each year as vegetation grows and dies back in the Northern Hemisphere (where the majority of the world’s plant life is located). In 2014, the daily Mauna Loa readings stayed above 400 ppm for more than three months. This year they rose above 400 ppm even longer, again dipping below 400 ppm in August before climbing back above the benchmark this month.

Ordinarily, we might expect one more northern summer with CO2 values below 400 ppm, but El Niño could prevent that. A strong El Niño event, like the one now under way, tends to produce drought in some of the world’s most heavily forested areas, such as Indonesia. Averaged across the globe, this temporarily reduces the total amount of CO2 soaked up by Earth’s vegetation. In addition, the large fires common in drought-stricken areas pour even more CO2 into the air. Based on this prospect, Ralph Keeling, who directs the CO2 measurement program at Mauna Loa for the Scripps Institute of Oceanography, made a fairly bold prediction on October 21: “By sometime in the next month or two, CO2 will again rise above 400 ppm. Will daily values at Mauna Loa ever fall below 400 ppm again in our lifetimes? I’m prepared to project that they won’t, making the current values the last time the Mauna Loa record will produce numbers in the 300s.”

Figure 2. CO2 measurements from Mauna Loa Observatory for (top to bottom) the past six months, the past two years, and since the observatory was established in 1958. The final panel shows the Mauna Loa record juxtaposed with CO2 readings deduced from air trapped in ice cores. The ice-core evidence shows that carbon dioxide waxed and waned with a number of ice ages, but the current values near 400 ppm are far greater than any peaks observed in at least the last 800,000 years--and probably much further back than that. Image credit: Scripps/The Keeling Curve.

What next?
Figure 1 shows that the hourly readings at Mauna Loa can vary quite a bit. It’s possible we’ll see more days this month with hourly readings dipping below 400 ppm, as they did on November 18. However, even these hourly readings should remain firmly above 400 ppm within a few weeks. If Keeling’s prediction is accurate, daily readings may stay above 400 ppm in 2015 and for many years thereafter. It’s also still possible that a few hours or even several days might manage to dip just below 400 ppm in mid-2016.

There are other CO2 measurement facilities around the world, although the Mauna Loa record is the one most commonly cited, with its high quality, pristine location, and longevity (Keeling’s father, Charles David Keeling, began regular measurements there in 1958). Different measuring sites will see the 400-ppm mark in their rear-view mirrors at slightly different times, due to local atmospheric variations, but there is no doubt where the global atmosphere is headed. I asked Ralph Keeling on Wednesday for his latest thoughts.

“It's too early to be 100% certain, but I agree that it's starting to look like we are already over 400 ppm for this year, with the last daily and weekly values below 400 ppm occurring earlier this month,” Keeling said. “It also looks like the November monthly average will also be above 400 ppm.”

Climate-change deniers and contrarians typically look beyond CO2 measurements when crafting their talking points, but a few misunderstandings about the role of carbon dioxide still crop up--many of them skillfully rebutted by the website “A possible misconception about the Mauna Loa CO2 record is that the overall increase is influenced by emissions from the volcano,” Keeling told me. “In fact, the volcanic effects are very small and are easily filtered out, like static on a radio signal. Dozens of stations around the world show essentially identical long-term trends, including a record from the South Pole also going back to the 1950s.  The CO2 at these stations might be a little higher or lower than Mauna Loa in a particular season or averaged over the calendar year. But the upward trends are all pretty similar. The rise is therefore clearly a global phenomenon.”

What it means for the Paris climate talks
The 400-ppm news comes just as Earth is experiencing a heat wave fueled by the long-term rise in greenhouse gases and goosed by El Niño. NOAA announced on Wednesday that global temperatures in October 2015 showed the largest departure from the long-term average for any month going back to 1880. The UK Met Office now predicts that global temperature in 2015 will likely end up at least 1°C warmer than the preindustrial average. This would put our planet halfway to the 2°C warming that’s long been viewed by many scientists and policy experts as a level that significantly raises the odds of major climate disruption (although there is nothing magic about 2°C; a smaller rise could still have serious consequences). A brief video from the journal Nature, released on Thursday, serves as a quick guide to the origin and significance of the 2°C goal.

All of these happenings underscore the importance of the two-week-long meeting in Paris that begins on November 30. This is COP21, the 21st annual Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, which was signed in 1992 and ratified by the United States and all other UN members. There has been an unprecedented level of cooperation among the world’s leading carbon-emitting nations in the lead-up to COP21, which raises the odds that a workable agreement for carbon reduction just might be achievable. In contrast to the Kyoto Protocol, which failed to gain support from the world’s two largest carbon emitters--the United States and China--it’s expected that any deal arising from Paris will hinge on voluntary commitments (dubbed “intended nationally determined contributions”, or INDCs) that have already been submitted by more than 160 nations representing more than 90% of global emissions. In an upcoming post, we’ll take a closer look at what to expect and what to watch for as COP21 unfolds. WU climate blogger Dr. Ricky Rood has already filed a series of posts that lay out important context ahead of the Paris meeting. I attended the ill-fated Copenhagen meeting in 2009 (COP15) and came away profoundly discouraged at the lack of progress there. This time around, I am cautiously optimistic that a truly global deal will be struck, although I’m not confident that it will be enough to prevent 2°C of warming.

Figure 3. One of the major protest marches held during the Copenhagen climate summit in December 2009. Image credit: Bob Henson.

In wake of attacks, a global climate march gets new attention
Several experts involved with the upcoming UN meeting have speculated that global leaders now have even more incentive to make the talks a success in the wake of the deadly November 13 attacks in Paris. At the same time, the French government announced on Wednesday that massive climate marches planned for Paris on November 29 and December 12 would not be allowed, due to the heightened state of alert following the deadly attacks of November 13. Organizers led by and have responded by intensifying their efforts toward a Global Climate March, scheduled for the weekend of November 28-29. More than 2000 events are on tap in towns and cities around the world. You can see what’s happening near you by using the interactive tool at this Guardian article.

Bob Henson

Climate Change and Extreme Weather: 32 Takes on 28 Events from 2014

Published: November 6, 2015
The science of deciphering how much long-term climate change influences shorter-term weather and climate events continues to blossom. On Thursday, the American Meteorological Society (AMS) released its fourth annual special issue of the Bulletin of the AMS devoted to these attribution studies. Launched in 2012 as an experiment, the project hit a nerve: researchers and the public were both intensely interested in the connection between human-produced greenhouse gases and high-profile, high-impact weather. This year’s batch of studies, which focuses on events from 2014, is the largest yet: a total of 32, including more than 100 researchers from 20 countries looking at 28 extreme weather and climate events from all seven continents. New topics this year include tropical cyclones, forest fires, and anomalies in sea surface temperature and sea level pressure. For about half of the events studied in this year’s AMS report, scientists found that human-induced climate change played a measurable role in making the event stronger and/or more likely.

Figure 1. Icons denoting the locations and nature of the 28 events examined in the 2015 special issue of BAMS devoted to climate change attribution for extreme events from the year 2014. ETS = extratropical storms; SST = sea surface temperature; MSLP = mean sea level pressure. Image credit: NOAA/NCEI.

Each year the project editors invite researchers from around the world to choose a particular event and examine it through the lens of climate change and its potential influence. Because the report is an open digest of sorts, it includes a variety of techniques in which particular events are put in a larger context using models and observations. Attribution science remains a young field, and there’s still room for experimentation.

A couple of U.S. highlights
There is far too much interesting science in this BAMS report to cover in a short blog post. For those most interested in U.S. weather, the report has plenty to chew on, including coverage of 2014’s burst of hurricane activity near Hawaii; the year’s drought-stoked wildfire season in California; the active winter storm track across much of North America in 2013-14; that winter’s Midwestern cold; and the chilly conditions that prevailed over much of the East. Strikingly, each of these events recurred to at least some extent in 2015. This is itself a fascinating phenomenon, one that goes unaddressed in the report--but that’s understandable, given that the report’s mandate is to focus on one year at a time. Below is some more detail on a couple of the U.S. events that I found particularly interesting.

Figure 1. Hurricane Iselle, with 90 mph winds, and Hurricane Julio, with 75 mph winds, steam west-northwest towards the Hawaiian Islands in this GOES-West image taken at 8 pm EDT Wednesday, August 6, 2014. Image credit: NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center.

Hawaiian hurricanes
Three tropical cyclones passed within 500 kilometers (300 miles) of the Hawaiian Islands in 2014: Iselle, Julio, and Ana. A research team led by Hiroyuki Murakami (NOAA Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory) used GFDL’s Forecast-oriented Low Ocean Resolution model (FLOR) to simulate hundreds of hurricane seasons with and without the influence of human-produced greenhouse gases. Even the amount of greenhouse gas already present by 1990 was enough to boost the odds threefold of getting at least one tropical storm or hurricane within 500 kilometers (300 miles) of the Hawaii coastline, compared to the simulations with preindustrial (year-1860) levels of greenhouse gas. One would not necessarily have expected a big year for tropical cyclones near Hawaii in 2014, given the unfavorable values of Pacific and Atlantic oscillations (IPO, AMO, and PDO) combined with a moderately favorable El Niño state. However, the years in which this blend of factors showed up in the greenhouse-boosted simulations produced a 340% greater chance of activity near Hawaii. “It is possible that global warming increased the odds of the extremely large number of Hawaiian TCs in 2014, in combination with the moderately favorable condition of El Niño,” write the authors. They add: “The ensemble experiments with FLOR indicate a continued increasing probability of active seasons around Hawaii over the next few decades...although there will be substantial modulation on interannual and decadal time scales from internal variability.”

Figure 3. The Las Pulgas Fire lights the night on May 16, 2014 at Camp Pendleton, California. The fire was one of three large wildfires in San Diego County that scorched more than 26,000 acres. Image credit: David McNew/Getty Images.

California fire risk
A group led by Jin-Ho Yoon (Pacific Northwest National Laboratory) studied 2014’s highly destructive Western US. fire season. Their results pointed in the same direction as several recent studies emphasizing the role of long-term warming in boosting drought impact and fire risk.The group drew on satellite analyses of burned area together with the Keetch-Byram Drought Index (KBDI), which incorporates both temperature and precipitation. It’s well known that decades of forest preservation coupled with population growth have helped bump up fire risk throughout the West. This study looks directly at how a warming climate affects fire risk by using the Community Earth System Model (CESM1) to directly calculate the KBDI and the probabilities of wildfire during preindustrial, recent, and future climates. Natural climate variation will make some years more fire-friendly than others, but this study found that climate change will push the overall threat beyond the range of natural variability over the next decade or so, as measured in three ways: the annual average KBDI, the amount of land under extreme fire risk, and the number of extreme fire-danger days per year. Interestingly, this is all despite the fact that the CESM1 produces a somewhat wetter California climate later this century (in line with several other recent climate projections). There’s no telling whether any given high-risk year will actually produce catastrophic fire: that depends on day-to-day weather, as well as factors such as the aggressiveness of firefighting, the presence or absence of arsonists, and sheer luck. The authors weren’t able to rule out natural variability as a factor in 2014’s highly destructive fire season. However, they did conclude that “man-made global warming is likely one of the causes that will exacerbate the areal extent and frequency of extreme fire risk.”

Cold in the Midwest and East
A pair of studies looked at the frigid winter of 2013-14 and found no evidence that human-produced climate change was responsible. Both studies concluded that, if anything, there seems to be less rather than more variability in winter temperatures as time goes by. The Midwest team, led by Klaus Wolter (CIRES/University of Colorado Boulder), focused on a broad area they call the “greater Upper Midwest,” or GUM, that extends from the eastern Dakotas to New York and Pennsylvania. Using a variety of simulations from 30 climate models, the group focused on the odds of getting a winter as cold as 2013-14 in today’s climate vs. the colder climate that was in place in the late 1800s, when human-produced greenhouse gases were far less prevalent. A winter like 2013-14 would have been expected about once per decade in the late 19th century, but in today’s climate, such a winter is now “extraordinarily unlikely,” as the authors put it--perhaps only once in every few hundred years. I asked Wolter about the recurrence of intense cold and snow over the eastern GUM region in 2014-15, which seems to fly in the face of the long odds found in his study. Wolter noted that snow cover is a big factor, since early snowfall helps set the stage for a cold winter. “The models are telling us that snow cover should be declining so rapidly that this kind of cold winter is on its way out. But the observations are giving us either no trend or even an upward trend in early winter snow cover.”

Figure 4. Snowfall plasters the streets of New York on February 13, 2014, part of a winter storm that knocked out power to more than a million homes and business across the eastern U.S. Image credit: Spencer Platt/Getty Images.

The study of Eastern cold, led by Laurie Trenary (George Mason University/COLA), focused on whether increased variability from 1950 to 2014 could explain the winter chill of 2013-14 in three regions: north-Atlantic (Pennsylvania northward), mid-Atlantic (from the Mason-Dixon line to North Carolina), and south Atlantic (Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina, and Florida). The team used several diverse measures in each region, including the coldest single January-to-March reading in each year, the variability of daily temperature within each winter, and the number of days per winter that fall into the coldest 10% in the long-term climatology. The winter of 2013-14 stands out dramatically in that final measure, ranking above any other year on record in all three regions. Otherwise, though, the findings are consistent: “the variability of winter daily temperature, and therefore of the range of realized temperature, has been decreasing for the past six decades.” Another wrinkle is that no significant change in the variability showed up when the period 1950-2014 was simulated by 12 leading global climate models as part of the Climate Model Intercomparison Project (CMIP). However, the observed drop in variability is still within the confidence interval of all models for the north and mid-Atlantic and about half the models for the south Atlantic.

The authors present their findings as an alternative to the “Francis hypothesis”--the concept put forth by Jennifer Francis (Rutgers University) and colleagues that a weaker, more meandering jet stream attributed to polar warming and reduced Arctic sea ice is leading to greater extremes and more “stuck” weather patterns. If anything, these authors suggest, high-latitude effects might be tamping down extremes rather than goosing them. “The decrease in variance is a plausible consequence of polar amplification of global warming, since a decrease in the pole-to-equator temperature gradient reduces the strength of fluid dynamical instabilities,” they write. As with the Midwestern study, this one does not address the recurrence of severe cold during the winter of 2014-15, but Trenary told me that NOAA/NCEP reanalysis data into 2015 maintains the decreasing long-term trend in winter temperature variability over the study area. “There are a number of open research questions,” she added. “For example, it would be interesting to look at the spatial changes in wintertime temperature variability across the US and see if there is any relation between the jet-stream variability and spatial characteristics of wintertime temperature variability. Fundamentally, it’s important to understand why these observed changes in wintertime temperature variability are occurring.”

Commentary: A work in progress
Climate change is a sprawling, long-term phenomenon that doesn’t always fit neatly into 365-day boxes. Its influence is obvious when you’re looking at slow-burn phenomena, such as the year-over-year rise in global sea levels or the gradual shift poleward in planting zones. The closer you get to a single weather/climate extreme, the more challenging it can be to connect the dots--and sometimes the dots lead you to preliminary, less-than-dramatic answers. Most of the temperature-related extremes in this year’s BAMS report were found to have a climate-change link of some type, while the connections with rain and snow extremes were less consistent and harder to ferret out. Drought, in particular, is a tough nut to crack, largely because it includes so many natural and human cofactors and because it can be defined in multiple ways.

In a press packet released on Thursday, lead editor Stephanie Herring (NOAA National Centers for Environmental Information) emphasized one crucial caveat: the absence of a clear climate-change influence in any particular study doesn’t prove that no influence exists. “Any of the following could explain the absence of a signal: there was no human influence on the event; the particular factors investigated were not influenced by human-caused climate change; [or] the human influence could not be identified with the scientific tools available today.”

Lurking in the background of any attribution study is the natural variation inherent in our weather and climate system. Researchers go to great lengths to separate any influence of climate change from the kinds of ups and downs one would expect in a climate that didn’t have ever-increasing greenhouse gases. This year, the states of New York and Vermont had their coldest January-to-March period since records began in 1895, with all of the Northeast in their top-ten coldest. Surely, the odds of getting such widespread, persistent, intense cold over this large an area in a warming climate must be phenomenally low--but sometimes, even very unlikely things happen. This paradoxical, high-impact event gets my vote for inclusion in next year’s BAMS attribution report. Stay tuned!

We’ll be keeping an eye on Cyclone Megh and on the potential for tropical development in the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic. See Jeff Masters’ post from earlier today for more on these systems.

Wunderblogger Steve Gregory has a new Friday afternoon post, Stormy Pattern As Arctic Cold Develops - Hints of Pattern Change.

Bob Henson
Categories:Climate Change

Chapala Slams Yemen: First Hurricane-Strength Cyclone on Record

Published: November 3, 2015
Residents of southern Yemen are assessing the damage after Cyclone Chapala brought dramatic flooding to the region on Monday night into Tuesday. According to the Indian Meteorological Department (IMD), Chapala made landfall near 14.1°N, 48.65°E between 01Z and 02Z Wednesday (4:00 - 5:00 am local time, or 8:00 – 9:00 pm Tuesday EST). This location is about 40 miles southwest of the coastal city of Mukalla (Al Mukalla), which was slammed by Chapala’s right-hand eyewall and some of its heaviest rains. Infrared satellite imagery shows a pronounced burst of convection (showers and thunderstorms) near and just west of Mukalla as Chapala made landfall.

Figure 1. A MODIS satellite view of Chapala as it approached the Gulf of Aden on Tuesday, November 2, 2015. Image credit: NASA EarthData.

Figure 2. Although Chapala’s eye was indistinct at landfall, thunderstorms intensified near its center as it came ashore, as shown in the pink and grey in this infrared satellite image taken near landfall (0100Z Wednesday, November 3, 2015). Image credit: Scott Bachmeier, CIMMS/SSEC/University of Wisconsin.

Yemen’s first hurricane-strength cyclone on record
IMD estimates Chapala’s peak winds at landfall as 65-70 knots (75-80 mph). India uses 3-minute sustained wind speeds, as opposed to the 1-minute average used by the National Hurricane Center. Guidance from NHC suggests that Chapala’s peak 1-minute winds would likely be several percent higher. Supporting the idea that Chapala made landfall at hurricane strength, the weather station at the Riyan airport, located about 20 miles northeast of Mukalla (Al Mukalla), recorded top sustained winds of 73 mph, gusting to 89 mph, before the sensor stopped reporting. Winds at Riyan were still increasing at the time, suggesting that hurricane-force winds probably occurred at some point in Chapala’s path during landfall. The nation experienced a destructive tropical depression in 2008 and a tropical storm-strength cyclone in 1960, but there are no hurricane-strength landfalls on record. Satellite records extend back to 1990, while a separate IMD database goes back to 1891.

Chapala moved mainly toward the west after landfall, hugging the Yemeni coastline, but the center is now making its way inland. At 15Z Wednesday (10:00 am EDT), the Joint Typhoon Warning Center placed Chapala’s center near 14.1°N, 47.5°E, or about 100 miles west of Mukalla. Based on the limited data available, JTWC estimated that Chapala still had sustained winds of 55 knots (62 mph).

Figure 3. An infrared view of Cyclone Chapala at 1530Z (10:30 am EST) Wednesday, November 3, 2015. Image credit: CIMMS/SSEC/University of Wisconsin.

As expected, the dry air and high terrain of southern Yemen has taken its toll on Chapala. Satellite imagery shows that the cyclone has become highly disorganized, with showers and thunderstorms decreasing and weakening around its ill-defined center. A pocket of more intense thunderstorms has popped up along the high terrain of Yemen’s west coast, well away from Chapala’s core circulation. Strong thunderstorms have also persisted in northeast Somalia, across the Gulf of Aden from Chapala. Villages along the Somalian coast have been affected by heavy rain and coastal flooding, according to Garowe Online. Prior to Chapala’s landfall in Yemen, the remote island of Socotra was hard-hit by the cyclone’s left-hand flank, with at least three fatalities reported by Reuters via a local official.

Figure 4. Waves ahead of Cyclone Chapala batter the coast of Yemen near Mukalla on Monday, November 2, 2015. Image credit: AP Photo/Mohammed Bazahier.

With Yemen plagued by civil war, it is difficult to know how extensive the damage from Chapala has been. Photos and video emerging on social media from Mukalla show major flooding, with several feet of water cascading through streets and out of the banks of a canal that runs through the heart of the city. Independent Yemen-based journalist Iona Craig reported a preliminary total of 25 injuries and 21 people missing. No fatalities have been reported thus far--an encouraging sign, although it is still very early in the process of damage assessment. “The damage is enormous,” Fahd Kafain, Yemen’s minister of fisheries, told AFP. The mountain valleys of the Hadramout region have experienced dramatic runoff from Chapala’s rains (see embedded YouTube clip below). Hadramout suffered more than 200 fatalities related to the 2008 Yemen cyclone. The impact of Chapala will undoubtedly hamper the already-difficult tasks facing humanitarian relief agencies in Yemen. Storm surge expert Hal Needham has a blog post this morning on Chapala’s landfall, including background on how topography helped tamp down the potential storm surge along the Yemen coastline.

Recent runs of the ECWMF, GFS, and UKMET models suggest that a disturbance now off the southwest coast of India could undergo tropical development in the Arabian Sea later this week, again heading toward the Arabian Peninsula. If a new cyclone were to pass directly over the same region as Chapala, it would be unlikely to attain the same strength, given the cooler waters that were stirred up by Chapala’s passage.

Figure 5. Cyclone Chapala (left) and a disturbance off the southwest coast of India, as captured by satellite at 18Z (1:00 pm EST) Wednesday, November 3, 2015. Image credit: EUMETSAT/JTWC/SATOPS.

Did climate change have anything to do with Chapala?
There is no doubt that Chapala was an extremely unusual cyclone--although we don’t know exactly how unusual, given the sketchy nature of tropical cyclone records for the Arabian Sea prior to 1990. Assuming that other factors line up favorably, then warm sea-surface temperatures boost the odds of cyclone development. In this case, Chapala formed and traveled over waters that were at record-warm levels for this time of year (see Figure 6 below). Chapala was not only the second-strongest cyclone on record for the Arabian Sea, but it was also the longest-lived at Category 3 strength. According to WU contributor Phil Klotzbach, Chapala was a major cyclone for 3.75 days, breaking the old record of 3.25 days set in 2007 by Cyclone Sidr. Due to its longevity and strength, Chapala has also generated more accumulated cyclone energy than any other Arabian Sea cyclone on record.

Figure 4. Tropical Cyclone Chapala performed its remarkable rapid intensification cycle over the warmest waters ever observed for this time of year over the Arabian Sea, as depicted in the September 2015 global climate summary from NOAA/NCEI.

Tropical cyclones are most common in the Arabian Sea in spring and autumn, during the transition periods between the strong southwest flow of the summer monsoon and the strong northeast flow that predominates in winter. A 2011 paper in Nature led by Amato Evan (University of Virginia) found that during the pre-monsoon period (spring), vertical wind shear decreased and Arabian Sea cyclones became considerably stronger in 1997-2010 as compared to 1979-1996. The authors attribute the reduced shear to a regional increase in sun-blocking air pollution, mainly black carbon and sulfates). A much more subtle decrease in strength was found for post-monsoon (autumn) cyclones in the Arabian Sea. However, the authors speculated that if emissions continued to grow, “it is plausible that very intense tropical cyclones, which have so far been limited to the pre-monsoon period, could begin to emerge in the post-monsoon season as well."

Bob Henson

The World Tomorrow

Published: October 24, 2015
The World Tomorrow

This is a continuation of a series preparing for The Conference of the Parties - 21 (COP21) in Paris. COP21 is the next of the annual meetings that are part of the governing body of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.

Since 2007, I have included, albeit at a low level, the role of the religious community in my climate change class. One reason, of course, is the importance of religion in both personal and societal identification. A second reason was the notion that religion is an aspect of our species that spreads across all of us. This naïve universality notion, surely, does not suggest religious harmony. Going into the 21st Conference of the Parties in Paris (COP21), one of the big differences from earlier COPs is the public exposure of faith-community leaders and organizations that have taken on climate-change and its mitigation as a priority issue.

In the U.S., the public presence of religion seems dominated by Evangelicalism, which is often closely associated with political conservatism. In fact, it is my opinion that the political activities of Protestant Evangelicals have been one of the most significant events of my lifetime – and I even suggested using Pat Robertson’s model of influence in a 2013 blog, The Role of Short Timers. As part of U.S. political conservatism, the doctrine was to discredit the scientific investigation and evidence that concludes that humans are shaping the Earth’s climate and environment in ways that are, potentially, existential. Personally, for me, my framing of U.S. Evangelicalism and the environment came from President Reagan’s Secretary of Interior, James Watt. Watt wore his born-again Christianity in a very public way, and advocated that we were commanded by scripture to have dominion over the Earth, and that we were to use its resources until The Rapture. At least, that’s how I remember it. If you thought the rapture was tomorrow, well then party on at the bonfire.

Let’s say, I have a difficult relation with religion and the environment. In 2006 and 2007, again working from my flawed memory, new voices started to emerge in the U.S. Evangelical community. One of the first I heard, was from Richard Cizik. Cizik started talking about creation stewardship and creation care, along with a number of other social issues (2005 Grist Interview). He got a lot of attention, and he was ousted from his leadership role in The National Association of Evangelicals. Subsequently he started new movements and organizations, such as, the New Evangelical Partnership for the Common Good. In 2008 and 2009, I attended a number of meetings concerned with climate change and Evangelicals. Within the community of climate scientists, Tom Ackerman and Katharine Hayhoe have emerged as voices from the Evangelical point of view. Here is a 2014 interview with Katharine Hayhoe.

Pope Francis’s encyclical brought a focus to religion and climate change. During the Pope’s visit to the U.S. in September 2015, climate change was on the news cycle every day, and even on the floor of Congress. It even seemed to me, and my biases are revealed, that Representative Paul Gosar’s papal boycott did more to solidify the Pope’s message than to discredit it. Ramona Tucker in USA Today provides a nice analysis prior to the Pope’s visit.

The release of Pope Francis’s encyclical was in June, and there was a burst of organization associated with the release. As reported at Climate Progress a large number of prominent religious leaders in the U.S. took out an advertisement urging political action on climate change. I have attended a webinar Connecting to Multi-Faith Communities with the Pope’s Encyclical (playback requires safe registration), and there is another event next week at the Georgetown Climate Center.

A number of resources have emerged that serve as clearing houses for religion and climate change. The Evangelical Environmental Network started to advocate the “tend the garden” point on view on creation care (they landed the domain name) in the early 1990s. Climate change has become part of their portfolio of issues, and they have interviews and videos from around the world. The Evangelical Environmental Network is part of the National Religious Partnership for the Environment, which is an alliance of several organizations. Interfaith Power and Light has a page that lists religious statements on climate change from many different religions. Earlier in 2015, Interfaith Power and Light sponsored a Preach-In, and the website has video clips from many sermons on global warming. Climate Voices, a speakers network to which I belong, maintains a large array of resources, including videos and recorded webinars.

Finally, my anecdotal experience is that the public face of faith-based organizations and climate is far different than 5 years ago. For a science-based, survey of U.S. Evangelicals, more than 2 years ago, see Smith and Leiserowitz, American evangelicals and global warming. Even at that time, a majority of evangelicals were concerned about climate change and support climate and energy policy.

And, that’s The Plain Truth about Today’s World News.


Deadly Worldwide Coral Bleaching Episode Underway--Earth's 3rd on Record

Published: October 9, 2015
Earth is entering its third worldwide coral bleaching event of the last 20 years--a disturbing example of how a warming planet can harm vital ecosystems--NOAA announced on Thursday. NOAA also released an eight-month outlook that projects even more bleaching to come in 2016. The only other global-scale bleachings in the modern era of observations happened in 1998 and 2010. Global bleaching is defined as an event that causes bleaching in each of the planet’s major coral-reef areas. "We may be looking at losing somewhere in the range of 10 to 20 percent of the coral reefs this year," NOAA coral reef watch coordinator Mark Eakin said, in an interview with Associated Press. Florida started getting hit in August. The middle Florida Keys aren't too bad, but in southeast Florida, bleaching has combined with disease to kill corals, Eakin said. It has also hit Cuba, Haiti and the Dominican Republic and is about to hit Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands, he said, adding, "you kill coral, you destroy reefs, you don't have a place for the fish to live."

The current global bleaching is the culmination of regional problems that began in mid-2014, when very warm conditions emerged in several parts of the tropics. Hawaii is one of those areas: as Jeff Masters reported in July, Hawaii experienced its worst bleaching on record in 2014 when record-warm ocean temperatures caused 50 - 70% of the corals sampled in Northeast Oahu's Kāneʻohe Bay to bleach. Another hard-hit area was the coral-rich Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument, which extends hundred of miles northwest of the main Hawaiian Islands. “Last year’s bleaching at Lisianski Atoll was the worst our scientists have seen,” said Randy Kosaki, NOAA’s deputy superintendent for the monument. “Almost one and a half square miles of reef bleached last year and are now completely dead.” This year, the same warm waters that have fed record numbers of tropical storms and hurricanes have laid the foundation for additional bleaching in and near Hawaii. "Hawaii is getting hit with the worst coral bleaching they have ever seen, right now," Eakin said. "It's severe. It's extensive. And it's on all the islands." In one part of northwestern Hawaii, "the reef just completely bleached and all of the coral is dead and covered with scuzzy algae."

Figure 1. NOAA's four-month bleaching outlook (top) shows a threat of bleaching continuing in the Caribbean, Hawaii and Kiribati, and potentially expanding into the Republic of the Marshall Islands. An extended bleaching outlook (bottom) showing the threat of bleaching expected in Kiribati, Galapagos Islands, the South Pacific, especially east of the dateline. The bleaching may affect Polynesia and most coral reef regions in the Indian Ocean by May 2016. Corals experiencing "Alert Level 2" conditions (dark red colors) can expect widespread mortality due to severe bleaching. Image credit: NOAA.

Figure 2. Healthy corals play host to microscopic algae (zooxanethellae) that live in their tissues (panel 1). The coral reef helps protect the algae and provides the plants with carbon dioxide and key nutrients. At the same time, the algae serve as food for the coral and are the source of coral reefs’ often-spectacular colors. During stressful conditions (panel 2), algae leave the coral tissue. If the stress continues for weeks to months, the food-deprived corals experience bleaching: they lose their color and become more susceptible to disease or death (panel 3). Image credit: NOAA.

El Niño isn’t helping
Rising global temperatures are increasing the likelihood of bleaching, but it is often El Niño that pulls the trigger for the most widespread events. A strong El Niño can suppress upwelling and raise sea-surface temperatures across much of the central and eastern tropical Pacific and other low-latitude areas. Because the algae embedded in coral depend on photosynthesis to survive, coral reefs are limited to the uppermost reaches of the ocean, where sunlight can filter through. When the sea surface temperature is 1°C warmer than the highest monthly mean temperature corals usually experience, coral polyps will expel the symbiotic algae that live in their tissues, exposing the white skeleton underneath and resulting in a "bleached" appearance. Death can result if the stress is high and long-lived--for instance, if unusually warm ocean temperatures persist for months.

Figure 3. Divers laid out transect lines to guide surveys that took place in the coral reef habitats of American Samoa and the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument from January to May 2015. Image credit: NOAA.

We may see major areas of bleaching in 2016 well beyond the period covered in the latest NOAA announcement. It is looking increasingly possible that a significant La Niña event will occur later in 2016 in the wake of the current El Niño event (see below). A recent study led by Joanie Klepyas (National Center for Atmospheric Research) examined heat stress in the Coral Triangle of the tropical Northwest Pacific. This is one of the world’s most expansive regions of coral reefs with nearly 600 varieties of coral and more than 2000 species of reef fish. Thanks to El Niño, much of the Coral Triangle is now experiencing sea-surface temperatures a bit below average, but the SSTs could rise quickly if El Niño segues into a moderate to strong La Niña. In 1998, this sequence of events led to the region’s worst bleaching event on record.

“I'm very concerned about the probability of intense bleaching in the Coral Triangle into 2016. NOAA's projections look a lot like what happened in the 1997-98 El Niño,” Kleypas told me in an email. “It is quite possible that the Coral Triangle region will experience warming later into 2016, even into the fall.”

When bleaching occurs year after year
Coral reef experts have warned that multi-year bleaching events could become increasingly common as our climate continues to warm in the 21st century. The possibility of two or more consecutive years of bleaching in Hawaii may be a harbinger of this future. Bleaching occurred from 2010 to 2013 in the Arabian/Persian Gulf, following widespread coral disease unrelated to bleaching in 2009. This was the first time four consecutive years of mass mortality have been observed in any coral reef on Earth. In a study published this spring, Bernhard Riegl and Sam Purkis (National Coral Reef Institute) took a close look at this four-year disaster and found what they call a “degradation cascade.” About two-thirds of the coral cover in the area studied was lost during the four-year event. Disease outbreaks often followed bleaching, and the corals that survived tended to shrink. “Certain coral species are more vulnerable to warming and disease than others, and as conditions degrade, one can expect to see big shifts in the coral communities,” noted Kleypas.

Disease fostered by warmer temperatures is a major threat to coral reefs in its own right, as explored in a 2015 study led by Jeffrey Maynard (Cornell University). “There is great spatial variation in the projected timing of the disease-favoring conditions, which is in keeping with much new research highlighting that the impacts of climate change will not be spatially uniform,” said Maynard and colleagues in the paper.

NOAA’s El Niño report for October
The well-publicized El Niño event of late 2015 continues to unfold pretty much as expected, according to the latest NOAA monthly diagnostic discussion. The latest probabilistic forecast issued by NOAA in conjunction with the International Research Institute for Climate and Society shows a greater than 95% chance of El Niño conditions persisting through the period Dec-Feb 2015-16, with a greater than 70% chance through March-May 2016. By the end of the period (May-July 2016), neutral conditions are the most likely outcome (just over 50%), although the odds of La Niña are beginning to rise quickly by that point. Major El Niño events are often but not always followed by a significant La Niña during the subsequent northern fall and winter.

Figure 4. Maximum temperatures for the week ending on October 6, 2015, soared above 36°C (96.8°F) across roughly half of Australia, with the heat especially intense for this time of year across southern parts of the continent. Image credit: Australia Bureau of Meteorology.

We can expect an increasing onslaught of El Niño signs and symptoms to emerge in the coming months. Across parts of Australia, vicious summer heat has arrived prematurely. Dozens of stations across southern Australia notched records over the last few days for their hottest day so early in the warm season. On October 5, the nation’s capital, Canberra, hit 31.8°C (89.2°F), the city’s earliest 30°C reading on record. Melbourne scored its earliest 35°C day ever recorded when it hit 35.8°C (96.4°F) on October 6. This hot spell follows the third-driest September in 106 years of Australian record-keeping. Extreme heat is a common byproduct of El Niño in the populous southeast part of Australia, as noted by the Bureau of Meteorology in a special statement on the October heat wave.

On a quirkier note, tuna crabs (pleuroncodes planipes) were reported on the beaches of Monterey Bay this week, far from their usual domain around Baja California. Their last sighting in Monterey was during the super-strong El Niño of 1982-83.

Have a great weekend, everyone! We'll be back with a new post on Monday at the latest.

Bob Henson
Categories:Heat Climate Change
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These blogs are a compilation of Dr. Jeff Masters,
Dr. Ricky Rood, and Angela Fritz on the topic of climate change, including science, events, politics and policy, and opinion.