Climate Central News

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22 May 2017. Long Budget Process Could Impact Climate Science

President Trump’s long-awaited budget request for the 2018 fiscal year is expected to be released Tuesday and it is likely to include steep cuts to agencies and programs that deal with climate science.

The cuts, sketched out in the administration’s budget outline in March, are part of an effort to reduce non-defense spending in order to beef up the military and finance a wall along the border with Mexico.

Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney and Government Publishing Office Director Davita Vance-Cooks inspect the Fiscal Year 2018 budget production run in Washington on May 19, 2017.
Click image to enlarge. Credit: REUTERS/Yuri Gripas

But Tuesday’s budget will just be one more point along a long and winding road. Congress, in particular the powerful appropriations committees in both houses, actually has the final say on federal spending.

Many senators and representatives, including from the president’s own party, have already balked at some of the proposed cuts, particularly to popular programs that share bipartisan support, like the Sea Grant program that aims to improve the resilience of coastal communities.

Committee hearings and negotiations will begin this week as Congress faces a compressed timeline to agree on full spending bills before the fiscal year begins on Oct. 1. Scientists, the professional organizations that support them, and science advocacy groups will be working hard to make their voices heard during the budget process in an effort to preserve science funding.

‘Draconian’ Cuts Proposed

The budget to be released on Tuesday will flesh out what were previously only vaguely outlined cuts across the federal government. The administration’s initial budget sketch didn’t even include a proposed budget for the National Science Foundation, one of the main funders of basic science research.

That outline did include, among other things, a stunning 30 percent reduction to the budget of the Environmental Protection Agency, the elimination of the Department of Energy’s Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy program, and the cancellation of several key NASA climate science missions. Other cuts, for example to NASA science more broadly, were not as dire as many had feared.

Still, Yogin Kothari, who has been working on federal budget matters for the Union of Concerned Scientists for many years said, “I’ve never seen really anything as draconian” as the Trump budget.

The budget has fueled worry among many scientists, both in the government and academia, that climate science funding could take a major hit and that research could be significantly set back, particularly given the hostile views that many members of the administration and Congress have expressed regarding climate science.

"We’re not spending money on that anymore. We consider that to be a waste of your money," Office of Management and Budget director Mick Mulvaney said of climate science funding during a March press briefing.

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Science funding accounts for only 1 percent of overall federal spending and has actually declined since 2010, according to the American Geophysical Union, which counts some 60,000 scientists as members.

What happens to science funding next year is ultimately up to Congress, though, particularly those who sit on the 12 appropriations subcommittees in each house.

“Ultimately the Constitution gives Congress the ability to make an independent judgment” on the federal budget, Kothari said.

And historically Congress has “been supportive of science and technology investments, and they’ll likely continue to be so,” Matt Hourihan, director of the R&D budget and policy program for the American Association for the Advancement of Science, said in an email. “Presidents’ science budgets only matter as much as Congress allows them to, and this doesn’t seem like a Congress that’s chomping at the bit to target science and innovation with cuts, especially the historically large cuts proposed in the ‘skinny budget.’ ”

So while there may be cuts to various agencies, experts think they are unlikely to be anywhere near as severe as originally proposed in the president’s budget.

Budget Negotiations Begin

Congress will begin hearings on the 2018 budget this week, with Mulvaney scheduled to speak before both the House and Senate budget committees on Wednesday and Thursday, respectively. Other administration officials will also begin to speak to the various appropriations committees to make the case for the president’s priorities.

The budget committees of both houses draw up caps on spending, while appropriations committees set the actual funding amounts for various programs and agencies. The whole House and Senate votes on each bill and committees work to reconcile the bills from both houses.

The U.S. Capitol in early May. Congress will ultimately set funding levels for federal agencies.
Click image to enlarge. Credit: REUTERS/Yuri Gripas

If Congress can’t complete the process before the end of September, lawmakers can pass continuing resolutions that would maintain funding at current levels until the fiscal year 2018 bill can be ironed out. That happened with the 2017 budget, which was only fully passed in early May. Hourihan thinks this will likely happen again this year, given that the process is starting later than usual and “it has been over 20 years since Congress got appropriations done on time and this is not the year they’ll break the streak.”

If neither a budget nor continuing resolutions materialize, the government can shut down, as it did in 2013, though Kothari thinks there is little appetite for that in this Congress.

Interest in Advocacy Up

Scientists, as well as professional groups like the AGU and advocacy groups, are likely to reach out to members of Congress to argue to keep or raise science funding.

Last week, the AGU sent a letter to the Republican and Democratic leaders of the appropriations committees arguing for increases in science funding at NASA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, NSF, the U.S. Geological Survey, and the Department of Energy.

“Sustained and robust funding is imperative to ensure that our nation’s federal science agencies can continue their important work of advancing American innovation, which stimulates jobs and the economy, safeguards America’s national security, and promotes public health and wellness in our communities,” the letter, signed by AGU CEO and executive director Christine McEntee, said.

Those connections between science and tangible benefits to Americans are likely to be one of the main messages science advocates use to argue for funding.

The AGU has urged members to visit their elected officials when they are in their home districts during recesses and to contact staff members who deal with relevant policy issues.

EPA Headquarters in Washington, D.C.
Credit: EPA/flickr

Both McEntee and Kothari said they have been hearing concerns from members since the election and Kothari has noted a sharp rise in interest in engagement with elected officials.

“I think the election really lit a fire under the scientific community at large,” Kothari said. “It’s been a huge shift. It’s nothing like we’ve ever seen before.”

Funding is of such concern because cuts in one year can have long tails as budgets are often set using the previous year as a guide. Sustained cuts can hamper the ability of climate scientists to develop better computer models, launch satellites that will make more detailed observations, and train the next generation of scientists. Those setbacks can take years to recover from and hamper the ability of climate scientists to improve our understanding of how and how quickly Earth’s climate is changing.

A continuing resolution can also stymie research, leaving both agency and academic scientists operating under a cloud of uncertainty, not knowing, for example, whether certain research funding will be available in the following years, whether missions might be cut, or whether the graduate program they want to pursue will be able to support them.

Once the full budget is released, outfits like the UCS and AGU will be diving into the details and deciding where to focus their efforts, hoping that they can thwart major cuts to the science enterprise. But the process is likely to be a long and arduous one, with climate science funding only one small piece of a much larger budget puzzle.

“There’s a lot out there and we really want to make sure that we don’t see severe cuts,” Kothari said.

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22 May 2017. Swiss Voters Embrace Shift to Renewable Energy

By Michael Shields and John Miller, Reuters

Swiss voters backed the government's plan to provide billions of dollars in subsidies for renewable energy, ban new nuclear plants and help bail out struggling utilities in a binding referendum on Sunday. 

Provisional final figures showed support at 58.2 percent under the Swiss system of direct democracy, which gives voters final say on major policy issues.

A Swiss flag in front of the Federal Palace (Bundeshaus) is pictured in Bern, Switzerland, Jan. 16, 2017.
Credit: REUTERS/Denis Balibouse

The Swiss initiative mirrors efforts elsewhere in Europe to reduce dependence on nuclear power, partly sparked by Japan's Fukushima disaster in 2011. Germany aims to phase out nuclear power by 2022, while Austria banned it decades ago. 

"The results shows the population wants a new energy policy and does not want any new nuclear plants," Energy Minister Doris Leuthard said, adding the law would boost domestic renewable energy, cut fossil fuel use and reduce reliance on foreign supplies.

"The law leads our country into a modern energy future," she told a news conference, adding some parts of the law would take effect in early 2018.    

Debate on the "Energy Strategy 2050" law had focused on what customers and taxpayers will pay for the measures and whether a four-fold rise in solar and wind power by 2035, as envisaged in the law, can deliver reliable supplies.

Leuthard has said the package would cost the average family 40 francs more a year, based on a higher grid surcharge to fund renewable subsidies.

Critics said a family of four would pay 3,200 Swiss francs ($3,290) in extra annual costs, while more intermittent wind and solar energy would mean a greater reliance on imported electricity. Switzerland was a net power importer in 2016.

Green Future

Most parties and environmentalists hailed the result.

"The voting public has ... paved the way for a future that builds on sustainability, renewable energies and energy efficiency. Today's decision is good for the climate, the environment, our jobs, the Swiss economy and the whole population," the Social Democrats said.

The electrical and mechanical engineering sector, which opposed the law, said it was important to see how it is implemented. 

"The problem of long-term security of electricity supplies must be resolved. It is also important for companies that the costs and the regulatory burden not swell," it said. 

Under the law, 480 million francs will be raised annually from electricity users to fund investment in wind, solar and hydro power. An additional 450 million francs will be set aside from an existing fossil fuels tax to help cut energy use in buildings by 43 percent by 2035 compared with 2000 levels.

Solar and wind now account for less than 5 percent of Switzerland's energy output, compared with 60 percent for hydro and 35 percent for nuclear. Under the new law, power from solar, wind, biomass and geothermal sources would rise to at least 11,400 gigawatt hours (GWh) by 2035 from 2,831 GWh now.

The law will ban building new nuclear plants. Switzerland has five plants, with the first slated to close in 2019. Voters have not set a firm deadline for the rest, allowing them to run as long as they meet safety standards.

The law also helps utilities that now rely on hydropower, and whose costs exceed Europe's wholesale prices.

Alpiq, BKW, AXPO [AXPOH.UL] and other utilities would share a 120 million franc annual subsidy to help close the gap between production costs and market prices. Other funds would help build new dams or refurbish old ones.

Reporting by Michael Shields; Editing by Tom Heneghan

21 May 2017. Climate Change Could Slash Staple Crops

By Brian Bienkowski, The Daily Climate

Climate change, and its impacts on extreme weather and temperature swings, is projected to reduce global production of corn, wheat, rice and soybeans by 23 percent in the 2050s, according to a new analysis.

Corn fields.
Credit: Andrew Seaman/flickr

The study, which examined price and production of those four major crops from 1961 to 2013, also warns that by the 2030s output could be cut by 9 percent. 

The findings come as researchers and world leaders continue to warn that food security will become an increasingly difficult problem to tackle in the face of rising temperatures and weather extremes, combining with increasing populations, and volatile food prices. 

The negative impacts of climate change to farming were pretty much across the board in the new analysis. There were small production gains projected for Russia, Turkey and Ukraine in the 2030s, but by the 2050s, the models “are negative and more pronounced for all countries,” the researchers wrote in the study published this month in the journal Economics of Disasters and Climate Change

Lead author, Mekbib Haile, a senior researcher at the Center for Development Research, University of Bonn, said that an increase in average temperatures during the growing season isn’t projected to have much impact on the staple crops. But this is only true until that increase hits a certain “tipping point”, he said, which is about 89 degree Fahrenheit for these crops.

“Rising temperature at the two extremes — minimum temperature in the case of rice and maximum temperature in the case of corn — are detrimental to production of these crops,” he said.

In addition to temperature, extreme weather — including droughts and excessive rainfall — was predicted to slow production.

Haile’s study is one of two major studies this month reporting big impacts to major crops in the future. Just this week UC Davis researchers released a study in the Environmental Research Letters journal reporting that by the end of the century climate change is likely to cause France’s winter wheat yields to decrease 21 percent, winter barley yields to decrease by 17 percent and spring barley to decrease by about to 33 percent.

The reports are concerning as wheat and rice are two of the top calorie sources in the world, and decreases in such staple crops could add to the current total of 795 million people suffering from hunger and more than 2 billion people with nutrient deficiencies.

And there will be more mouths to feed as the world population is projected to grow by more than 2 billion, reaching about 9.7 billion people, by 2050.

Haile said some farming changes — such as improved irrigation or genetically modified crops, or more sustainable practices like increased organic production or tilling less — could help offset some climate-induced losses.

Agricultural crop production more than tripled between 1960 and 2015, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations’ new report on the future of food and agriculture.

But farms will have to produce about 50 percent more food in 2050, and in some areas such as Sub-Saharan Africa, output will have to more than double to meet increased demand from growing populations.

“Despite overall improvements in agricultural efficiency, yield increases are slowing due to climate change and so maintaining the historic pace of production increases may be difficult,” according to the FAO report.

Reprinted with permission from The Daily Climate.

20 May 2017. The Race to Understand Black Carbon’s Climate Impact

By Madeline Ostrander, Ensia

On a morning in September 2015, sterile, gray Arctic light filtered through a blanket of woolly clouds as Matt Gunsch and Tate Barrett parked their rented pickup truck on a dirt road and clomped in rubber boots down a long, icy boardwalk to their air-monitoring laboratory on the tundra.

From the outside, the lab looked unglamorous — a dingy, white shack perched on a metal frame in a meadow speckled with snow and grass stubble. It felt distinctly like the middle of nowhere — though it was just a couple of miles beyond the main streets of Utqiaġvik, Alaska, the northernmost town in America. Inside the shack, a cracked window was patched with red tape. There was a shelf stacked with steel-toed and military-style “bunny” boots designed for extreme cold, tables scattered with miscellaneous lab supplies, a toaster oven — and hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of air-monitoring equipment whose internal motors filled the room with a constant high-pitched hum. Partially isolated from the dirt and exhaust of town, this turned out to be a good place to try to sniff out small intruders in the delicate Arctic atmosphere.

Black carbon glacier in British Columbia.
Credit: Dru!/flickr

That summer and fall, Royal Dutch Shell was wrapping up the last of its offshore exploratory drilling in the Arctic (and would shortly announce its decision not to return). Environmentalists protested all summer and decried the potential for an oil spill — envisioning a catastrophe like the infamous Deepwater Horizon blowup of 2010, but on ice. Gunsch and Barrett, then Ph.D. students in atmospheric chemistry and environmental science respectively, were tracking a less dramatic but still insidious problem. They were searching the air for signs of black carbon, a type of air pollution also known as soot.

Black carbon is a product of incomplete combustion from forest fires and the burning of both wood and fossil fuels, and its influence on the Arctic is like the proverbial death by a thousand cuts. At the top of the world, black carbon can land on snow and ice, darkening them, which makes them soak up more heat from the sun and melt faster. It can also absorb and radiate heat from sunlight as it floats through the atmosphere.Black carbon may be worsening the extreme warming felt all over the Arctic, record temperatures that are making permafrost disintegrate and sea ice melt. And if the Arctic gets too much warmer, it is, in the long term, like setting off a giant Rube Goldberg machine — once Arctic ice melts, seas rise; ocean waters absorb more heat; methane, another potent greenhouse gas, escapes from the permafrost.

The particles that end up in the Arctic have millions of points of origin, drifting northward from sources like wood and coal stoves used for cooking in India or diesel trucks chugging down U.S. highways. But any particles produced in the Arctic itself are far more likely to linger here and become a more damaging pollution problem.

As the melting Arctic becomes more accessible to ships and enticing for new development, some black carbon sources in the region are increasing. But there are only a handful of research stations monitoring the impact. The Arctic is a difficult place to do research — tough to reach and subject to extreme weather that can interfere with even the best-designed equipment. Utqiaġvik is one of about a half-dozen places in the entire high-Arctic region that are capturing ongoing data on soot.

Going Beyond Assumptions

Scientists had been making a lot of assumptions about how black carbon ended up in the Arctic — based on estimates and sophisticated models of global air masses. But few people had actually ventured out to the tundra to measure it themselves with this level of precision. And unless scientists and policy-makers knew where the problem was coming from, it would be tough to remedy it.

Yanert Ice Field and glacier in Alaska.
Credit: lns1122/flickr

Inside Gunsch and Barrett’s lab in 2015, air was sucked in through a cone-shaped duct on the roof that sorted out particles — anything about a thirtieth of the width of a human hair and smaller could get through. A set of six foil-covered tentacles dangled from the ceiling, shunting the particles between several pieces of equipment designed to sort and measure them.

The most obtrusive of these was “Maverick,” named affectionately after Tom Cruise’s character in the movie Top Gun — a machine made of a complex assemblage of tubes, wires and metal and mounted onto an airplane cart. Gunsch and his supervisor, Kerri Pratt, a chemistry professor at the University of Michigan, had built Maverick by hand and shipped it to the Arctic. Inside Maverick were a set of tiny discs that had to be lined up with meticulous precision so that a laser could zap every microscopic particle at the precise moment it floated into the center of the instrument. As the laser exploded particles into fragments — kind of like “the Death Star [from Star Wars] blowing apart a planet,” Gunsch says — each gave off a unique signature, a fingerprint that could tell the researchers where in the world it came from.

Meanwhile, Barrett was working with Baylor University environmental science professor Rebecca Sheesley to collect the tiny specks that passed through another air sampler. Later, he and Sheesley would analyze them for the presence of radioactive carbon isotopes — in order to tell whether the soot came from ancient carbon (like fossil fuels) or newer sources (like forest fires).

Despite the Space Age novelty of it all, it was tedious work. Gunsch and Barrett trekked back and forth several times a day between an old naval research station just off Utqiaġvik’s desolate, eroded beach road and the lab. They changed out thumb-sized filters made of aluminum foil, recorded weather data and crunched numbers. At night especially they kept an eye out for polar bears, although Gunsch had only ever seen a fox.

Buying Time

In the past decade, researchers have been racing to understand how much of a role black carbon plays in the global climate. It’s not a simple thing to answer: Black carbon is a complicated little substance, made of assorted molecules clumped together into particles of various sizes that can travel large distances and shape-shift as they interact with water, clouds, and chemicals.

Some scientists say black carbon could have an enormous impact on global warming, second only to carbon dioxide in its potency. Other experts think black carbon’s influence on the planet is smaller, but its effects on the Arctic itself could be noticeable. One study, published in 2015 in the journal Nature Climate Change, examined what might happen if the world reduced black carbon emissions (along with a few other more minor greenhouse gases) by about 60 percent — according to one of the authors — and made the most stringent cuts in the next 15 years. Under such a scenario, the Arctic could cool by as much as a 0.2 °C (0.36 °F) by 2050. That might sound small. But it’s a huge amount when you consider that 2 °C (3.6 °F) of atmospheric heat — a threshold long held up by several international authorities, including the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change — is often described as the brink of global catastrophe. And the hotter it gets up north, the warmer the rest of the planet becomes.

Though there is scientific uncertainty about its impacts, reining in black carbon could be a much more palatable political goal than tackling CO2. Globally, emissions of black carbon are already ramping down: In the U.S., for instance, they have dropped dramatically because of regulations on diesel engines.

Dirty Skaftafellsjökull glacier in Iceland.
Credit: Jason Eppink/flickr

And it could be relatively simple to cut back on the sources that are most damaging to the Arctic in particular. For instance, one of the worst culprits lies in the Russian Arctic — where natural gas plants burn off waste methane, sending black carbon into the skies. That problem could be curbed with low-cost technologies that capture the gas instead, and several countries — including Russia and the United States—have endorsed an international agreement to end routine gas flaring by 2030. Another problematic source could be curtailed with a mass effort to promote and distribute cleaner-burning woodstoves in northern latitudes and more efficient cookstoves in the developing world. This would also prevent hundreds of thousands of deaths from smoke inhalation.

In the global scale of things, black carbon’s impact is neither as important nor as long-lasting as that of CO2. But take a bit of soot out of the air, and the effects are almost instant.

The short lifespan of black carbon also makes it an appealing target: A particle of soot can live in the atmosphere for only about a week, whereas a molecule of CO2 can linger there anywhere from a few decades to many millennia. In the global scale of things, black carbon’s impact is neither as important nor as long-lasting as that of CO2. But take a bit of soot out of the air, and the effects are almost instant. “We’re very clear in acknowledging that CO2 is the 800-pound gorilla in the room,” says climate science professor Mark Flanner, an author of the Nature Climate Change study. “But … maybe through selective actions [on black carbon], you can buy yourself a little bit of extra time or slow the amount of warming that will occur within the next few decades.”

When black carbon is regulated, though, it’s often an afterthought. Under the Clean Air Act, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency regulates black carbon as a component of “particulate matter”: Little particles are also a health hazard because they can penetrate human lung tissue, enter the bloodstream, and contribute to asthma, bronchitis, and heart and respiratory diseases.

But particulates are an overarching category that includes light-colored aerosols too, and not every effort to cut back on particles will also reduce black carbon. According to James Baumgartner, air regulator with the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation, “the state of Alaska has no applicable emission standard specific to black carbon.” In 2012, the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe took on new standards to target black carbon as a component of particulate matter. Last fall, California pioneered a new law that requires a 50 percent cut in black carbon emissions by 2030.

Early in 2016 the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management released a proposed new rule for offshore air pollution standards for oil drilling in both Alaska and the Gulf of Mexico. The agency said it was also reviewing and researching means for controlling black carbon. But members of the oil industry oppose new offshore air standards, the Trump administration has torn down numerous other Obama-era environmental regulations, and the fate of this rule is uncertain. At press time, the rule was still under review.

In the past few years, there have been international efforts to come up with less scattershot ways of curbing black carbon. In April 2015, more than seven months before the Paris climate agreement, the eight nations and six indigenous organizations that sit on the Arctic Council — including the United States and Russia — quietly adopted a framework agreement to “take enhanced, ambitious, national and collective action to accelerate the decline in our overall black carbon emissions.”

It was a “groundbreaking agreement … the first time that the Arctic Council countries had taken action on climate change,” says Erika Rosenthal, a lawyer with the organization Earthjustice. At the same time, the U.S. took over the chairmanship of the Arctic Council, and then–Secretary of State John Kerry championed climate change and saving the Arctic as among his core missions. Later that year, Obama became the first president to travel above the Arctic Circle, and under U.S. chairmanship, the Arctic Council worked on a set of science-based recommendations for cutting black carbon emissions around the world.

New sources of black carbon are creeping into the Arctic as the ice thaws. Between 2008 and 2012, marine traffic in the U.S. Arctic went up 108 percent.

Much of that progress seemed up in the air as the Arctic Council gathered last week in Fairbanks to pass the rotating chairmanship on to Finland under Prime Minister Juha Sipilä. Speaking at that meeting, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson expressed reluctance to make any commitments on climate change: “We’re not going to rush to make a decision,” he said. It’s still not clear whether President Donald Trump will withdraw from the Paris Climate Agreement, though he announced recently that he’d withhold his decision until after the Group of Seven meeting in Italy later this month.

Despite all of that, the United States joined other Arctic nations in signing a pledge at the Arctic Council meeting that explicitly acknowledges how extreme and urgent Arctic warming is. The agreement, called the Fairbanks Declaration, adopts an “aspirational collective goal” to cut black carbon 25 to 33 percent by 2025. It’s less than what scientific models call for, but it is at least a concrete target.

“It’s not enough, but it’s a first step,” says Rosenthal.

Glacier in Tracy Arm, Alaska.
Credit: paweesit/flickr

Unanswered Questions

Meanwhile, new sources of black carbon are creeping into the Arctic as the ice thaws. Between 2008 and 2012, marine traffic in the U.S. Arctic went up 108 percent. In the summer and fall of 2016, the Crystal Serenity became the first luxury cruise liner to travel across the Arctic Ocean from Alaska to New York City. In late April this year, President Trump signed an executive order with the aim of reviving offshore drilling in the Alaskan Arctic and elsewhere, a move that prompted a lawsuit from several environmental groups. Oil companies are drilling more than a dozen exploratory oil wells in the Barents Sea off the coast of Norway. In the Russian Arctic, fossil-fuel companies have invested tens of billions of dollars in a massive drilling project that will ship liquefied natural gas from the Yamal Peninsula to Europe and other parts of Asia.

That means that more answers are needed urgently, and scientists are scrambling to fit the rest of the puzzle pieces together.

As such projects charge ahead, there are still many unanswered questions about how they will affect the Arctic’s air and climate. University of Michigan’s Pratt was surprised when her data revealed that the Prudhoe Bay oil field produced vast quantities of particles that were growing and could have an impact on cloud formation — a finding she and a group of collaborators reported in a paper in December 2016. Two years ago, Baylor’s Sheesley and Barrett, who is now a postdoctoral researcher at the University of North Texas, discovered that the major culprits dirtying Alaskan skies with black carbon in the winter lay in the North American Arctic (including Prudhoe) and the Russian Arctic — another surprise. Maverick, the particle “Death Star,” spent its second field season in 2016 at a remote U.S. Department of Energy research site, where Gunsch got a closer view of black carbon from Prudhoe.

“Maybe this oil field is having a greater impact than we thought,” says Pratt. And if that’s true, then putting more ships, rigs, roads, drills and well pads in the Arctic could have more serious consequences than climate scientists previously understood.

That means that more answers are needed urgently, and scientists are scrambling to fit the rest of the puzzle pieces together. Since 2015, three scientists — one with the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, one at the University of Leeds, and one with the French Laboratoire Atmosphères, Milieux, Observations Spatiales, or LATMOS — have been bringing together groups of researchers from around the world to figure out how to shine a light on unexplained questions about black carbon. Charles Brock, a NOAA research physicist, is trying to organize a project with scientists from multiple agencies that would use research airplanes to track black-carbon pollution as it travels from China, Japan, and Korea to the Arctic. Much of the research on black carbon in the U.S. relies directly or indirectly on government funding whose fate could be tenuous under the Trump administration.

Meanwhile, the Arctic is rapidly unraveling. Since Pratt began her field work in Alaska five years ago, she’s has made several journeys into the waters of the Chukchi Sea and onto the sea ice with local guides in Utqiaġvik. “It’s actually pretty amazing. You can see the changes in the ice just in that time frame,” she said. “It’s quite shocking actually to see it firsthand.” 

Editor’s note: Reporting for this story was supported by a grant from the Fund for Investigative Journalism. Reprinted with permission from Ensia.

18 May 2017. Focus on Carbon Removal a ‘High-Stakes Gamble’

The manmade emissions fueling global warming are accumulating so quickly in the atmosphere that climate change could spiral out of control before humanity can take measures drastic enough to cool the earth’s fever, many climate scientists say.

The most important way the earth’s rising temperature can be tempered is to reduce the use of fossil fuels. But scientists say another critical solution is to physically remove greenhouse gases from the atmosphere — something called “negative emissions” — so that carbon dioxide and rising temperatures could peak, and then begin to decline over time.

An electric power plant in India. Carbon emissions may need to be removed from the atmosphere as a solution to global warming.
Credit: Global Landscapes Forum/flickr

Many of the assumptions underlying the landmark Paris Climate Agreement rely on the idea that humans will be actively removing carbon from the atmosphere late this century because reducing emissions won’t be enough to prevent global warming from exceeding levels considered dangerous.

But that assumption relies on technology that hasn’t been proven to work on a global scale. Removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere on a scale large enough to slow global warming is untested, and the technology is in its infancy. The effect it could have on the earth is largely unknown, and some scientists warn that some of the consequences of using negative emissions technology could be catastrophic.

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Because of all those unknowns, it’s critical that humanity doesn’t bet its future on negative emissions, Stanford University Woods Institute for the Environment scientists Katharine Mach and Christopher Field write in a paper published Thursday in the journal Science.

The paper argues that both negative emissions technology and a commitment to quickly cutting carbon dioxide emissions as much as possible are critical to solving the climate crisis.

Carbon concentrations in the atmosphere must not exceed 450 ppm if global warming is to be prevented from exceeding a level considered dangerous by most climate scientists —  2°C (3.6°F), the primary goal of the Paris Climate Agreement. The problem, though, is that humanity is quickly running out of time to limit more warming. The atmosphere blew past the 400 ppm mark last September and it’s on a trajectory to pass 450 ppm within 22 years.

Most of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change models underlying the Paris Climate Agreement assume some level of large-scale carbon removal will be occurring in the coming decades, but nobody knows exactly how that will be accomplished.

Ben Sanderson, a climate scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research who is unaffiliated with the paper, said the study shows that carbon removal shouldn’t be treated as a cure-all for climate change because the future of humanity can’t rely on untested technology.

“The major risk is that the planned-for CO2 removal might never come to pass — and this is a very real concern,” Sanderson said.  

The paper warns of dire consequences if the effects of negative emissions technology aren’t fully accounted for before they’re implemented.

For example, one of the negative emissions technologies carbon-removal proponents often cite as the most promising — bioenergy and carbon capture and storage, or BECCS — could create widespread food insecurity because it could take half of the world’s farmland out of production.

BECCS relies on converting agricultural areas and other land to vast new forests, which absorb atmospheric carbon in tree trunks and roots. The trees would be harvested for biomass energy and burned in power plants. The resulting carbon emissions would be captured and stored permanently — a method some scientists believe could be worse for global warming than burning fossil fuels.

“Converting land on this staggering scale would pit climate change responses against food security and biodiversity protection,” the paper says.

Chief among the many other negative emissions technologies being developed include expanding forests globally to store more carbon naturally, and building hundreds or thousands of facilities that directly remove carbon from the atmosphere and store it permanently. Those facilities, called “direct air capture” plants, have never been built on a large scale and scientists say they would require a large amount of energy to operate and many thousands of them would have to be constructed to make a dent in global warming.

The paper criticizes the idea of peak and decline — the theory that carbon removal could bring about a peak in global temperatures and then begin to cool the planet. That may be risky because the costs and consequences of global cooling following a temperature peak are not well understood. Some of the effects of climate change such as sea level rise and melting polar ice sheets can’t be reversed as the globe cools.

“These scenarios bet the future on CDR (carbon dioxide removal) technologies operating effectively at vast scales within only a few decades,” the paper says, referring to climate models assuming a peak and decline in atmospheric carbon concentrations. “Estimates of economic costs are crude for such scales and environmental tradeoffs are potentially stark.”

A Syncrude oil sands facility in Canada. Oil sands are among the most polluting forms of fossil fuels.
Credit: Pembina Institute/flickr

Ecosystems that will have begun to adapt to higher global temperatures as the world warms may struggle to adjust to the global cooling that peak and decline envisions. Scientists haven’t done much research on what the effects might be, Field said.

Sanderson said that peak and decline is unlikely within this century, but much more likely in the next century or beyond because changes in the climate system are hard to turn around even as atmospheric carbon concentrations decline.

The paper says that massive deployments of negative emissions technologies might work, but if they don’t, “future generations may be stuck with substantial climate change impacts, large mitigation costs, and unacceptable tradeoffs.”

Field said that when all the unknowns about negative emissions are considered, the best strategy to solve the climate crisis is to both develop carbon removal technology and work as quickly as possible to cut emissions today.

The paper generated a range of responses from negative emissions experts.

Klaus Lackner, director of the Center for Negative Carbon Emissions at Arizona State University and one of the world’s leading experts on carbon removal, said that he agrees with most of the paper’s conclusions, but it implies that climate change can be mitigated if emissions are drawn down quickly today.

“Yes, we should reduce emissions and move away from fossil fuels, but we will overshoot acceptable CO2 concentrations — indeed, we may already have overshot,” Lackner said, adding that no matter how much emissions are cut today, failure to develop negative emissions technologies will seriously damage the planet.

Pollution from a manufacturing complex in Toronto.
Credit: United Nations/flickr

He said cutting carbon emissions gets more and more difficult the more they are reduced. Carbon removal is necessary to prevent atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations from growing further.

Glen Peters, a scientist at the Norway-based climate research organization CICERO whose 2016 paper called focusing on negative emissions technology a “moral hazard,” said he agrees with the paper’s conclusion that countries need to both radically cut greenhouse gas emissions while also upscaling negative emissions technology.

Peters said he isn’t worried about the consequences of peak and decline because paleontological records suggest there are few catastrophic consequences of small declines in the earth’s average temperature over a period of decades.

Sanderson said the questions the paper raises about the degree to which negative emissions technologies should be developed may be best solved by a putting a price on carbon.

“A well designed carbon market would find the optimal combination of emissions reductions and carbon removal,” he said. “This rather breaks the deadlock for decision makers today — they don’t have to decide whether to reduce emissions or invest in reduction technologies, all they need to do is put a price on carbon.”

John DeCicco, a professor at the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor Energy Institute, called the paper “excellent and thoughtful,” but it does not sufficiently recognize that the global carbon cycle already includes carbon removal processes. He said the paper doesn’t sufficiently factor in ways forests and soils could be managed to store more carbon than they do naturally.

DeCicco said that he agrees with the paper’s conclusion that it’s unwise for countries to automatically assume that technology will be developed to bring atmospheric carbon concentrations and global temperatures down to tolerable levels eventually.

“Hoping that future generations might somehow figure out an atmospheric CO2 decline in a way that undoes climate catastrophe is just foolish,” he said, adding that it’s critical for humanity to pursue both emissions cuts and carbon removal technology as quickly as possible.

“We can’t wait for some sort of technological deus ex machina to save us from ourselves," DeCicco said. 

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18 May 2017. Sharp Rise in Flooding Ahead for World’s Poorest

Coastal residents of poor and fast-growing tropical countries face rapid increases in the numbers of once-rare floods they may face as seas rise, with a new statistical analysis offering troubling projections for regions where sea level data is sparse.

Stark increases in instances of flooding are projected for Pacific islands, parts of Southeast Asia and coastlines along India, Africa and South America in the years and decades ahead — before spreading to engulf nearly the entire tropical region, according to a study led by Sean Vitousek, a researcher at the University of Illinois, Chicago.

Residents of Kerala in southern India face sharp increases in the number of floods in the years ahead.
Credit: Thejas Panarkandy/Flickr

“Imagine what it might feel like to live on a low-lying island nation in the Pacific, where not only your home, but your entire nation might be drowned,” Vitousek said.

The researchers combined a statistical technique used to analyze extreme events with models simulating waves, storms, tides and the sea level effects of global warming. They created snapshots of the future — flood projections that can be difficult to generate with the limited ocean data available in some places.

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“If it's easy to flood with smaller water levels coming from the ocean side, then gradual sea level rise can have a big impact,” Vitousek said. “For places like the Pacific islands in the middle of nowhere that don’t have any data, we can make an assessment for what’s going to happen.”

The study found that the frequency of formerly once-in-50-year floods could double in some tropical places in the decades ahead. The findings were published Thursday in the Nature journal Scientific Reports.

Red areas in this map represent large projected increases in the frequency of floods following 10 centimeters (4 inches) of additional sea level rise.
Credit: Vitousek et al., "Doubling of coastal flooding frequency within decades due to sea-level rise," Scientific Reports, 2017.

“This is the first paper I’ve seen that tries to combine all these different elements in the context of sea level rise,” said Richard Smith, a statistics professor at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill who studies environmental change. “They’ve done it in a very systematic and well organized way.”

The tropics are home to some of the world’s most vulnerable coastal residents, often living in houses made from flimsy construction materials, under governments that have limited ability to provide food, water and care when disasters strike.

“Many poor developing countries like Bangladesh are going to see greater frequency and magnitude of flood events — even with the best efforts to reduce emissions,” said Saleemul Huq, director of the International Centre for Climate Change and Development in Bangladesh.

Residents of these sweltering regions have released little of the greenhouse gas pollution that’s warming the earth’s surface, melting ice and expanding ocean water and causing seas to rise. Global temperatures have risen nearly 2°F since the 1800s.

“These vulnerable countries and communities need to be supported to improve early warning and safe shelters — followed by economic support to recover afterwards,” Huq said.

All coastal regions face risks from rising seas, though the nature of the hazards varies. Seas are rising at about an inch per decade globally, at an accelerating rate with several feet or more of sea rise likely this century. Detailed information on water levels in many vulnerable places, however, is sparse.

“Understanding of sea level rise in the tropics is challenging because there’s a lack of long-term data,” said Benjamin Horton, a Rutgers professor who wasn’t involved with the study. “Tide gauges were installed for navigation in ports; big trade was between the industrialized nations of Europe and U.S.”

Unlike vulnerable cities and towns along the East Coast of the U.S., where frequent storms and big waves lead to large variations in day-to-day water levels, tropical coastlines tend to be surrounded by waters with depths that vary less. That means many tropical coastlines were not built to withstand the kinds of routine flooding that will be caused by rising seas.

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18 May 2017. El Niño Again? This Is Why It’s Hard to Tell

The tropical Pacific Ocean is once again carrying on a will-it-or-won’t-it flirtation with an El Niño event, just a year after the demise of one of the strongest El Niños on record.

The odds right now are about even for an El Niño to develop, frustrating forecasters stuck in the middle of what is called the spring predictability barrier. During this time, model forecasts aren’t as good as seeing into the future, in part because of the very nature of the El Niño cycle.

The reason scientists try to forecast El Niño is because of the major, often damaging, shifts in weather it can cause around the world. The last one brought punishing drought to parts of Southeast Asia and Africa and torrential rains to parts of South America.

An El Niño also helps boosts global temperatures, as it did in 2016, the hottest year on record, and previously in 1998. Global warming, though, means that 2016 was almost 0.5°F (0.3°C) hotter than 1998, even with comparably strong El Niño events.

If another El Niño does materialize this year, it would be only the second time in the records that the Pacific went from the hot phase of an El Niño to the cold phase of a La Niña and then back to an El Niño again within three years. The relatively limited nature of those records, though, means researchers can’t be certain that such a combination is all that rare.

Even Odds

The tropical Pacific Ocean naturally vacillates between three different states about every three to five years. In its neutral state, warm water is pooled up on the western side of the basin, which fuels thunderstorms there. During a La Niña, the east-to-west trade winds that pile up that warm water intensify, amping up the normal conditions across the basin.

But during an El Niño, those trade winds relax or even reverse, allowing the warm water to spill to the eastern side of the basin, displacing storm activity toward the central Pacific.

To have confidence that an El Niño is in the offing, forecasters want to see both the ocean and the atmosphere getting into gear. While the eastern Pacific has shown some signs of warming in recent weeks, the atmosphere has yet to show signs that it is following suit.

Despite the fact that the major El Niño of 2015-16 was followed by a rather puny La Niña, the atmosphere seemed to see a lingering influence from that La Niña through the winter.

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“That makes it hard for the ocean to warm up because the atmosphere is essentially trying to kick it back into a cooler state,” Michelle L’Heureux, an El Niño forecaster for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), said. The atmosphere has only just started to look more neutral, she said.

Forecasters also aren’t seeing a big pocket of warm water below the ocean surface, which is needed to feed bigger El Niño events, though not necessarily weak ones. The presence of such a warm reservoir would give them more confidence that an El Niño was likely.

“We’re not quite seeing those indicators emerge on our radar yet,” L’Heureux said.

Consequently, the latest forecast from NOAA has equal chances — just shy of 50 percent — of continued neutral conditions or an El Niño developing in late summer or fall.

Spring Barrier

The computer models that simulate the physics of the climate system are more bullish on an El Niño than are forecasters because the forecasters know that the models just aren’t as good at predicting an El Niño development at this time of year — known as the dreaded spring predictability barrier.

“The spring barrier is this incredibly difficult thing to deal with,” L’Heureux said. It’s also somewhat tricky to define and tease apart.

Some of the lack of predictability comes from the fact that an El Niño tends to peak in late fall or early winter, and predictions become more difficult the further away from an event you are. But even predictions made in the spring for summer conditions aren’t very good, pointing to other factors at work.

Spring is also a time of transition, when any signal from the climate system is more difficult to pick out from the noise of weather because that noise is higher.

That difficulty also comes from the nature of the El Niño cycle itself. El Niño needs both the ocean heat and weak or reversed trade winds to come together to form, and those winds are much harder to predict further in advance. During a decaying El Niño, which happens in late winter and into spring, warm surface water drains north and south away from the equator, allowing colder waters to well up from below, Aaron Levine, a postdoctoral associate at NOAA’s Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory, explained in a blog post. This tips the momentum of the system toward a La Niña, meaning that what the atmosphere is doing is less important.

People cross a flooded road after a massive landslide and flood in the Huachipa district of Lima, Peru, on March 17, 2017, when a coastal El Niño ramped up rains.
Click image to enlarge. Credit; REUTERS Guadalupe Pard

Essentially, during the spring, the ocean is a lot less helpful at cluing forecasters into whether an El Niño might happen in the coming months.

Some research has suggested that the warming of the planet from the buildup of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere might lead to more strong El Niño and La Niña events. The limitations of computer models in fully capturing the behavior of the El Niño-La Niña cycle means that much remains unclear about how that cycle might change as the planet’s temperature continues to rise.

Warming could exacerbate the global weather impacts of El Niño and La Niña, though. For example, when temperatures are drier, any drought that occurs will be worse because that added heat leads to more evaporation. On the flip side, warming could also cause the heavy rains that fall in certain areas during an event to be even stronger, because a warmer atmosphere has more moisture available for those rains.

Models are partly more bullish than forecasters on the prospects of El Niño this year because of the extremely warm waters that popped up off the coast of Peru during a so-called coastal El Niño during the winter. Those waters reached 1.8°F (1°C) above normal and helped fueled intense rains that caused major flooding in the region.

While there have been instances where a coastal El Niño bled over into full-blown one, it’s not guaranteed, and temperatures along that coastal area have been fading over the past few weeks.

Current sea surface temperatures have been hovering around the 0.9°F (0.5°C) above-average threshold that defines an El Niño, but those temperatures need to persist for much longer for forecasters to feel comfortable issuing an El Niño watch, meaning conditions are favorable for it to develop over the next six months.

“Obviously as a forecaster we would like the system to make a decision,” L’Heureux said.

If an El Niño does materialize this year, it will be only the second time in 65 years of record keeping that such a back-to-back situation occurred. The other instance was in 1963 to 1965. But that record likely isn’t long enough to have captured the full range of how an El Niño can behave.

“Some of these behaviors aren’t incredibly unusual, it’s just that we haven’t had an opportunity” to observe them yet, Levine said. “Every new event gives us new information.”

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15 May 2017. Warm Arctic Fuels Second-Warmest April on Record

An unusually warm Arctic spring fueled the second-hottest April on record globally, with global warming and unusual weather conspiring to shrink sea ice and push up polar temperatures.

April temperatures were 1.5°F (0.9°C) warmer worldwide than the 1950 to 1980 average, NASA data released Monday showed, extending to three a string of hot months in which temperatures were surpassed just once in history. April temperatures were higher only in 2016.

Temperatures were well above average globally in April, with the biggest temperature anomalies in the Arctic.
Credit: NASA GISS

The warm global average last month was heavily influenced by a continuation of unusually high temperatures in the Arctic. The Arctic warmth has been linked to record low levels of sea ice and to the variability of weather, including northward-moving storms that have brought heat with them.

“If it’s just natural variability, it’s a type of natural variability I am not familiar with,” said Mark Serreze, director of the National Snow and Ice Data Center. “There’s a lot going on here and I think there’s some catchup to do in the research community.”

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Temperatures were also well above average in the Eastern U.S., China and across Africa. Only a few patches of the globe were cooler.

The Arctic is warming faster than other regions as greenhouse gas pollution traps heat. The average Arctic temperature last year was 6.3°F (3.5°C) higher than in 1900. Temperatures elsewhere are rising by about a quarter of that rate.

Svalbard, an Arctic archipelago between mainland Norway and the North Pole, photographed late last year.
Credit: Christopher Michel/Flickr

The rapid changes underway in the Arctic are partly caused by the disappearance of sea ice, which causes more light and heat to be absorbed at the ocean’s surface during sunny months instead of being reflected into space.

A longtime decline of summertime Arctic sea ice has spilled over during the past two years to also affect winter months. During dark and cold months, the sea ice acts like an insulating cap that slows the release of ocean heat into the air.

“The changes are becoming more noticeable in the winter as well, and that’s leading to a different sort of feedback,” said Kent Moore, a University of Toronto physics professor who’s currently chair in Arctic studies at the University of Washington. “Now I think we’re seeing a feedback that involves less sea ice that allows more heat to be transported into the atmosphere.”

Temperature and sea ice changes in the Arctic can affect wildlife and open up new areas for oil drilling and shipping — both industries that can have heavy climate impacts. The changes also appear to affect the weather in the U.S. and in other parts of the world, including by causing cold snaps.

Climate data from this crucial region and from Antarctica is more limited than for other areas. That can make the causes and consequences of recent changes in the frigid regions difficult for scientists to decipher.

The World Meteorological Organization on Monday said it had “kicked off” a two-year science blitz called the ‘Year of Polar Prediction,’ which aims to deploy new instruments to help close research gaps and improve the accuracy of weather predictions.

“The poles influence weather and climate conditions in lower latitudes where hundreds of millions of people live,” the United Nations body’s Petteri Taalas said in the statement.

14 May 2017. Slow-Freezing Alaska Soil Driving Surge in CO2 Emissions

By Oliver Milman, The Guardian

Alaska’s soils are taking far longer to freeze over as winter approaches than in previous decades, resulting in a surge in carbon dioxide emissions that could portend a much faster rate of global warming than scientists had previously estimated, according to new research.

Measurements of carbon dioxide levels taken from aircraft, satellites and on the ground show that the amount of CO2 emitted from Alaska’s frigid northern tundra increased by 70% between 1975 and 2015, in the period between October and December each year.

Researchers said warming temperatures and thawing soils were the likely cause of the increase in CO2 at a time of year when the upper layers of soil usually start freezing over as winter sets in.

Alaskan tundra.
Credit: Sathish J/flickr

In the Arctic summer, the upper level of soil, which sits above a vast sheet of permafrost that covers much of Alaska, thaws out and decomposing organic matter starts to produce CO2. From October, colder temperatures help freeze the soil again, locking up the CO2.

Alaska’s warming autumns and winters are altering this process. Whereas soils 40 years ago took about a month to completely freeze over, the process can now take three months or longer. In some places in the state, the soil is not freezing until January, particularly if there is a layer of insulating snow.

The result is a huge and continuing expulsion of CO2, a planet-warming gas, into the atmosphere. In 2013, a particularly warm year racked by wildfires in Alaska, around 40m more tons of CO2 was given out by soils than absorbed by vegetation – an amount four times larger than that emitted by the state’s use of fossil fuels.

“A lot of models were predicting this thawing would happen, but not for another 50 to 100 years – we didn’t think it would happen this quickly,” said Roisin Commane, researcher at the Harvard John A Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences and lead author of the report, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

“The timescale of this surprised many of us,” she said. “There is a lot of potential CO2 from these soils, which worries people. We’d prefer the carbon stays there.”

Commane said the large volume of CO2 released suggested some of it was coming from permafrost. Typically found a meter or so below much of Alaska, permafrost contains carbon that has been frozen for up to 40,000 years. It is being scrutinized by scientists concerned that it is starting to thaw.

It is estimated that Arctic permafrost contains roughly twice as much carbon as the Earth’s entire atmosphere. This means its disappearance would probably contribute to a severe change in the climate that would be dangerous to many species, including humans.

“Some of this CO2 has to come from permafrost thawing but we don’t know how much,” said Commane. “That is something we really want to work out.”

Data for the research was taken from Nasa analysis of CO2 from aircraft and satellites, as well as readings from a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration station in Barrow, Alaska.

The Arctic is warming at around twice the rate of the rest of the world and Alaska has experienced three record warm years in a row. In 2016, the average temperature was 5.9F warmer than the long-term average.

“The entire Alaska region is responding to climate change,” said Donatella Zona of San Diego State University in California, who was not affiliated with the study.

“The amount of carbon lost from Arctic ecosystems to the atmosphere in the fall has increased significantly over the past 40 years. By better capturing these cold season processes and putting previous smaller-scale measurements into a bigger context, this study will help scientists in their efforts to improve climate models and predictions of Arctic climate change.”

Reprinted with permission from The Guardian.

13 May 2017. Indian Solar Prices Hit New Low, Undercutting Fossil Fuels

By Michael Safi, The Guardian

Wholesale solar power prices have reached another record low in India, faster than analysts predicted and further undercutting the price of fossil fuel-generated power in the country.

The tumbling price of solar energy also increases the likelihood that India will meet — and by its own predictions, exceed — the renewable energy targets it set at the Paris climate accords in December 2015.

Solar maintanance in Tinginaput, India.
Credit: UK Department for International Develelopment/flickr

India is the world’s third-largest carbon polluter, with emissions forecast to at least double as it seeks to develop its economy and lift hundreds of millions of citizens out of poverty.

Ensuring it generates as much of that energy as possible from renewable sources is considered crucial to limiting catastrophic global temperature increases.

At a reverse auction in Rajasthan on Tuesday, power companies Phelan Energy and Avaada Power each offered to charge 2.62 rupees per kilowatt-hour (kWh) of electricity generated from solar panels they hope to build at an energy park in the desert state. Last year’s previous record lowest bid was 4.34 rupees per kWh.

Analysts called the 40 percent price drop “world historic” and said it was driven by cheaper finance and growing investor confidence in India’s pledge to dramatically increase its renewable energy capacity.

It reduces the market price of solar tariffs well past the average charged by India’s largest thermal coal conglomerate, currently around 3.20 rupees per kWh . Wholesale price bids for wind energy also reached a record low of 3.46 rupees in February.

Kanika Chawla, a senior programme lead at the Delhi-based Council for Energy, Environment and Water (CEEW), said it was encouraging that Rajasthan project bidders were “new players, not the same old market leaders."

Prices were likely to drop further if the cost of borrowing money continued to fall — which she said was one of the major drivers in the record low prices this year.

“Any future incremental gains in prices will not come from the decline in technology prices, they will come from declines in the cost of finance,” she said.

Investors were also likely encouraged by a recent move to allow the state-backed Solar Energy Corporation of India to act as a guarantor in agreements between energy developers and India’s debt-ridden power distribution companies.

India One Solar Power Plant.
Credit: Brahma Kumaris/flickr

Tim Buckley, a director at the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis, said the most important factor driving a rush of international investment in Indian renewables was the “transparency, longevity and certainty” of the country’s energy policy.

“That is absolutely critical because when you invest for 25 to 35 years, you need certainty and clarity of policy,” he said.

“India has prime minister [Narendra] Modi saying this is his number one objective, you have energy minister [Piyush] Goyal talking about it every day. There is no doubt in anyone’s mind about Goyal’s commitment to this program and Modi’s endorsement of what Goyal’s doing,” he said.

By 2022, India aims to have the capacity to generate 175 gigawatts of power from solar, biomass and wind energy. A draft report by the country’s electricity agency in December predicted that capacity would increase to 275 gigawatts by 2027.

The same draft report said it was unlikely India would need any new coal power stations for at least 10 years, beyond the 50 gigawatts of projects already in the pipeline.

Chawla said the successive drops in renewable prices “should be celebrated” but cautioned that systemic reforms were still needed to make the trend sustainable.

Renewable energy projects also still enjoyed exemptions from some taxes that fossil fuel-generators had to pay, she added. “We need to run the numbers before we can say [unsubsidised solar] is cheaper than coal, but it’s definitely competitive,” she said.

Reprinted with permission from The Guardian.

12 May 2017. Warmer Temperatures Drying the Rio Grande

The intensifying effects of warming temperatures on water shortages have been detected in remote northern New Mexico, where melting snowfall feeds one of the Southwest’s most important rivers.

Researchers seeking to improve forecasts for how much water from the Rio Grande will be available for 5 million people each year found that rising temperatures are causing less of each winter’s snowpack to flow down the river as water.

The Rio Grande in New Mexico.
Credit: Ryan Wick/Flickr

The discovery showed how a warming climate “exacerbates the dry conditions whenever there's not a lot of snow to begin with,” said Flavio Lehner, a climate scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research who led the research.

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Water in the rugged region comes in booms and busts, with boom years flush with winter storms that dump snow that melts to feed rivers in warmer months. The effects of warming are being exacerbated in the bust years, evaporating water that’s in short supply.

“For a wet year like this year, I don’t think the effect is that big,” Lehner said. “Whenever you have a dry year to start out with, and it’s also warm — which will become more likely in the future — then you will end up with even less water in the river.”

The effects of warm temperatures on the Rio Grande flow can be seen in measurements going back to the 1940s. To look back to the 1570s, the scientists turned to studies of tree rings to probe the connections between temperatures, snowfall and riverflow each year.

Snowpacks in the Upper Rio Grande provide water used by cities and farms downstream.
Credit: Flavio Lehner

Temperatures have risen at the Upper Rio Grande by nearly 2°F since the 1980s, a rapid rise caused by natural weather variation and global warming. The scientists found that the low efficiency with which Upper Rio Grande snowpacks have been turning into river water since then was unprecedented for at least 445 years.

The findings were published in Geographical Research Letters this week, pointing to worsening problems for water supplies in the region and elsewhere.

Fossil fuel pollution and deforestation have led to record-breaking heat worldwide for three years running, which has intensified droughts. Higher temperatures worsened the recent Californian drought and caused a sharp rise in Western forest fires.

Park Williams, who studies climate and ecology at Columbia, published research in the fall blaming the parching effects of climate change for more than 10 million acres of Western forest fire since the 1980s. He has performed research throughout the Southwest but wasn’t involved with the new study.

Drought for much of the 21st century has resulted in low river flows in the region “rivaling some of the worst prolonged droughts of the past several hundred years,” Williams said. The drought years have been linked to the Southwest’s “wildly variable” climate and they followed an “exceptionally wet period” in the 1980s.

“Given the high variability of climate in this region, we should not be totally surprised if very wet 1980s-type conditions return at some point during our lives,” Williams said. “But if this study is correct, we should also expect average water supply for humans to decline over the long term as temperatures warm.”

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11 May 2017. Happy(?) Birthday Temperature Spiral

It was a year ago this week that climate scientist Ed Hawkins unveiled a climate visual that wowed the world: an animated spiral showing the inexorable rise of global temperatures thanks to humanity’s release of heat-trapping greenhouse gases.

The graphic featured, in eye-catching rainbow colors, the progression of temperatures from the late 19th century to today, as they begin to approach 2°C (3.6°F) of warming from that earlier, pre-industrial era.

In the landmark Paris climate agreement, countries agreed to keep warming below that level — and to try to aim for an even more ambitious 1.5°C (2.7°F) target. That agreement is now potentially threatened as the Trump administration mulls whether to pull out or weaken U.S. commitments to greenhouse gas reductions within it.

For its birthday, Hawkins has added the first few months of 2017 to the temperature spiral. Though 2017 is unlikely to best 2016 as the hottest year on record globally, so far each month of the year has ranked as second or third hottest, a clear sign of how much greenhouse gases have warmed the planet.


Monthly global temperatures from 1850-2017. Credit: Ed Hawkins

Hawkins, who works at the University of Reading in the U.K., made the spiral as part of an effort to find better ways to convey the stark warming of the planet to the public. The spiral treatment was suggested by a colleague, and, as Hawkins wrote in a blog post for the anniversary of the spiral, “it was a Friday afternoon – what else was I going to do?”

When he posted the graphic to Twitter, he thought it might generate some mild interest, but it quickly went viral: His original tweet has been retweeted more than 15,000 times. In the year since its inception, the graphic has been viewed 3.4 million times, he said.

“I was particularly pleased that the graphic engaged so many non-scientists and helped them to understand the reality of our warming planet,” he said in an email.

Hawkins said one of the most exciting moments was when a version of it appeared during the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games in Rio.

The spiral plots monthly global temperature data from the U.K. Met Office and charts how each month compares to the average for the same period from 1850-1900, the same baseline used in the most recent report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

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The spiral shows how global temperatures fluctuate from year to year, but as the calendar dates progress, the overall warming trend becomes abundantly clear. By 2016, the hottest year on record, those monthly temperature anomalies edge close to the 1.5°C mark. While those exceptionally high temperatures received a boost from a strong El Niño, most of the warming is due to human-caused greenhouse gas emissions.

“We do not expect every year to set a new record and I think the spiral can help communicate these variations in global temperature,” Hawkins said. “For example, the large El Niño event in 1877-78 can be seen to warm the planet temporarily, but those temperatures have been long overtaken by the overall warming trend.”

The success of the temperature spiral led Hawkins and others to use the treatment for other climate indicators. One adds on to Hawkins’s graphic by plotting projections of warming to the end of the century assuming greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise at current rates.

Another shows how one of the worst greenhouse gases, carbon dioxide, has risen past a concentration of 400 parts per million, likely the first time that has happened in human history. This year, CO2 levels at the Mauna Loa observatory in Hawaii breached 410 ppm for the first time.

Hawkins thinks the temperature spiral is a tool that could help convince the public and governments that warming needs to be controlled.

“Many commentators used the graphic to suggest that global temperatures are ‘spiralling out of control.’ I would disagree,” he wrote. “The fact that humans are the dominant cause of the past changes means that we have control over what happens next. The positive message is that our choices now can dictate how the spiral evolves over the coming decades.”

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10 May 2017. Interior Dept. Vows to Amend Methane Rule After Setback

The Department of Interior plans to try to roll back rules limiting methane pollution and waste from fossil fuel drilling on federal lands, after a bid to repeal the regulations failed in the Senate.

Senators voted 51-49 Wednesday against an effort to repeal the Obama-era rules, with three Republicans joining all Senate Democrats in voting to oppose it.

Natural gas flaring in North Dakota.
Credit: Tim Evanson/Flickr

Methane is a major component of natural gas, and it’s also a health hazard and a major contributor to global warming. Some escapes from gas and oil operations to the atmosphere by venting or through leaks, and some is burned off in a process called flaring.

Sen. John McCain, a Republican from Arizona, called the control of methane “an important public health and air quality issue” in a statement after he helped vote down the repeal effort. But he called on the Trump administration to “revise and improve” Obama’s rule.

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While Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke told Bloomberg he has “never been very comfortable” with the waste of natural gas from public land, his department said after the vote it had “flagged the Waste Prevention rule as one we will suspend, revise or rescind.”

The methane rules were designed to reduce pollution and protect public resources, but they’re opposed by gas and oil drillers, who characterize them as costly and burdensome. “The rule could impede U.S. energy production,” the American Petroleum Institute’s Erik Milito said in a statement.

Efforts to revise or repeal the rules may take years, with proposals to change or eliminate federal regulations requiring public hearings, and expert analysis needed to help overcome any legal challenges.

Environmentalists lauded Wednesday’s vote. It handed them a rare recent victory over the gas and oil industry.

The environmentalists were joined in their celebrations by some fiscal conservatives. The nonprofit Taxpayers for Common Sense has been a leading critic of the repeal effort. That’s because natural gas from public lands is a public asset, and reducing methane waste will help boost overall royalties received for it.

The Government Accountability Office estimated in 2010 that federal royalty payments could be boosted by $23 million a year by “economically” minimizing venting and flaring of methane using technology that’s “currently available.”

“This is great news, I think it’s a victory for taxpayers,” Ryan Alexander, president of Taxpayers for Common Sense, said after the vote. “We will definitely be working with the Department of Interior and talking to the different offices there to inform them of our opinions — and to make sure they’re thinking about taxpayers.”

California, Colorado and some other states have been moving in recent years to limit methane leaks by the gas and oil industry and by utilities, spurred in part by desires to reduce air pollution, slow global warming and prevent accidents.

“Some governments are starting to take methane seriously — up to a point,” said Steve Weissman, associate director of the University of California, Berkeley’s Center for Law, Energy, and the Environment.

Weissman warned that some leakage is inevitable so long as energy from fossil fuels is heavily relied upon.

“We should be able to go a long way to reduce methane leaks,” Weissman said. “But as long as we withdraw and rely on natural gas, this very light gas will find passageways to freedom.”

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10 May 2017. America’s Most Vulnerable to Rising Seas

Coastal communities are enduring growing flood risks from rising seas, with places like Atlantic City, sandwiched between a bay and the ocean, facing some of the greatest threats.

Guided by new research by Climate Central’s Scott Kulp and Benjamin Strauss, reporter John Upton and photographer Ted Blanco chronicled the plight of this city’s residents as they struggle to deal with the impacts.

Upton spent months investigating how the city is adapting, revealing vast inequity between the rich and the poor.

Read the story
 

10 May 2017. Glacier National Park Is Losing Its Glaciers

Glacier National Park is losing its namesake glaciers and new research shows just how quickly: Over the past 50 years, 39 of the parks glaciers have shrunk dramatically, some by as much as 85 percent.

Of the 150 glaciers that existed it the park in the late 19th century, only 26 remain.

“The trend is consistent, there’s been no reversal,” Daniel Fagre, the U.S. Geological Survey scientist who led the research, said.


Boulder Glacier with visitors in 1932 and bare land in 1988. The ice has shrunk so much that it’s no longer considered an active glacier.
Credit: George Grant/Glacier National Park (left). Jerry De Santo/University of Montana image 642.001 (right).

The loss of glaciers potentially affects not just tourism to the park, which hit a record 2.9 million visitors last year, but also local ecosystems that depend on the summer release of glacial meltwater.

The pristine, 1 million-acre park sits along the border with Canada in Montana and has long been a poster child for climate change in U.S. national parks. Side-by-side photo comparisons show in the starkest terms just how far some glaciers have retreated, with some only reduced to small nubs of ice.

The retreat has happened as temperatures in the region have risen by 1.5°F since 1895 as heat-trapping greenhouse gases have continued to accumulate in the atmosphere.

A 2014 study found that it is this human-caused warming that accounts for the bulk of worldwide glacier loss over the past few decades.

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The glaciers of Glacier National Park have been particularly vulnerable because overall they are smaller and don’t extend as high up as in other areas. Because of this and the relatively rapid warming, “we’re sort of on the leading edge of glacier retreat that’s occurring all over the world,” Fagre said.

Fagre and his colleagues used digital maps made from aerial photos and satellite observations to chart the ever-shrinking perimeters of the glaciers, comparing glacier areas in 1966, 1998, 2005 and 2015-2016.

The rates of decline vary from glacier to glacier; some are at relatively higher elevations and shaded by nearby mountains. On average, the glaciers in the park have shrunk by 39 percent since 1966.

How quickly the remaining glaciers might go is hard to predict, as relatively cool years can afford a small reprieve, but hot years can push glaciers already on the brink below the 25-acre threshold used to define a glacier.

The perimeter of Sperry Glacier in Glacier National Park in 1966,1998, 2005, and 2015.
Click image to enlarge. Credit: U.S. Geological Survey

“The most important aspect of this is that the process is only going in one direction,” Fagre said. “They’re all inexorably going to that ultimate fate.”

The newly released data is part of an ongoing USGS effort to monitor glacier change in Montana, Alaska and Washington.

Understanding how glaciers are changing is important because they play a key role in local ecosystems. Summer meltwater helps top up streams that might otherwise run dry and many species are highly adapted to the cold temperatures of the water, Fagre said.

The subject of national parks and monuments has recently become a contentious one, with the Trump administration recently ordering the Interior Department to review all large national monuments to recommend ways to shrink or abolish them. The order is part of a larger effort by the administration to open up fossil fuel development on federal lands.

During his confirmation hearing, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke cited his personal observations of the retreat of Glacier National Park’s Grinnell Glacier as evidence that the climate was changing, but he hedged on whether humans were the reason for that change and has advocated for U.S. fossil fuels.

Scientists and advocates have warned, though, that such development will only continue to fuel the warming that is driving Glacier National Park’s glaciers to extinction.

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