The Most Important Issue Facing this Generation is Climate Change. But Will it Come Up at Tonight’s Presidential Debate?

Climate change is threatening cities and island nations with sea-level rise, spurring mass die-offs of sea life, generating extreme weather events with amazing frequency, and posing a rising threat to global food and water supplies. It is no longer just an issue for future generations. It’s a global crisis now, and it’s getting worse. But will the 2016 presidential candidates, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, even be afforded the opportunity to mention it in tonight’s debate?

5-year-temperature-average-ipcc

(IPCC’s global warming index just recently hit 1 C above 1861-1880 temperatures in the five-year average. These temperatures are in the range of the Eemian interglacial period when global ocean levels were 15-25 feet higher than they are today. Furthermore, the current rate of warming at 0.18 C every ten years is about 30-40 times faster than at the end of the last ice age. We’re now in the process of unleashing geological forces capable of producing a mass extinction event on human timescales. Image source: Global Warming Index.)

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The 2016 presidential candidates’ stances on the most important issue facing this generation couldn’t be clearer.

Donald Trump believes climate change is a hoax, wants to increase fossil-fuel burning until the planet bakes and the oceans putrefy, plans to shut down the EPA, wants to back out of the Paris Climate Agreement, can’t wait to kill Obama’s Clean Power Plan, and has a noted penchant for attacking climate change solutions like wind power. Trump’s stances on climate change are so appalling that 375 of the world’s top scientists, including Stephen Hawking and 30 Nobel Prize winners, issued an open letter to the U.S. electorate, essentially pleading that we not vote for Trump on the basis of climate change alone.

The letter notes:

The United States can and must be a major player in developing innovative solutions to the problem of reducing emissions of greenhouse gases. Nations that find innovative ways of decarbonizing energy systems and sequestering CO2 will be the economic leaders of the 21st century. Walking away from Paris makes it less likely that the U.S. will have a global leadership role, politically, economically, or morally. We cannot afford to cross that tipping point.

Hillary Clinton, by comparison, wants to push a big solar energy build-out, support electric vehicles, cut carbon emissions, and ensure that policies like COP 21 and Obama’s Clean Power Plan are enacted and enhanced. Though some climate hawks might not be completely satisfied with Clinton’s record on climate change (we’re going to have to do quite a bit more than what Clinton is shooting for), the reality is that Clinton’s proposed climate policies are aimed at building on and improving Obama’s initial plans.

rapid-renewable-power-growth-under-clinton

(Clinton plans to push renewable energy growth even faster than rates that would be achieved under Obama’s Clean Power plan. By contrast, Trump’s policies would severely reduce current initiatives, likely resulting in less than 10 percent of energy generation from clean sources by 2030. Image source: Hillary for America.)

Clinton’s overall push is for U.S. renewable energy leadership and climate action:

I won’t let anyone take us backward, deny our economy the benefits of harnessing an clean energy future, or force our children to endure the catastrophe that would result from unchecked climate change.

Hermione versus Voldemort on a Tilted Stage

It’s pretty obvious that the difference between Trump and Clinton on an issue that involves the safety and wellbeing of pretty much everyone living on Earth is stark, so much so that Joe Romm at Climate Progress has aptly characterized the debate as a contest between Hermione Granger and Voldemort.

But will the 80 million viewers of tonight’s debate actually get a chance to listen to the candidates’ stances and views on an issue that will impact them from now until the end of their natural lives? Will the debate moderator Lester Holt, a registered Republican, field questions on climate change? Or will a deafening dome of silence fall over the issue, as ice caps melt, seas rise, droughts expand, extreme weather events worsen, ocean health declines, and global temperature records continue to be shattered?

(Republican downplaying of climate change exposed by Jason Box in this poignant video. It’s stark, really, what we’re dealing with.)

Moreover, will Holt act as a moderator, or will he check out as Matt Lauer did during the dual ‘interviews’ of Clinton and Trump last month, essentially abandoning the field to Trump who is well-known for spewing out a barrage of false statements in an attempt to score points? To this point, Joe Romm notes:

…persuasive liars have an inherent advantage in any debate that is effectively unmoderated and unrefereed. This is true not merely in political debates but also in most other kinds of public debates.

Unfortunately, on the issue of fair Presidential debate representation for climate change, the record isn’t too great in 2016 so far. According to Media Matters, only 22 out of nearly 1,500 debate questions have covered climate change. As a result, a critical issue of public safety, national security, and, ultimately, survival, is not being presented to the American people. It’s a failure that generates a false impression that climate change isn’t a real problem — a lack of representation that, in the end, is both irresponsible and dangerous.

Links:

Yes, Donald Trump Did Call Climate Change a Hoax

Trump’s Plan to Drill, Baby, Drill

How Donald Trump Lost his Fight to Kill Wind Farms in Scotland

Hillary’s Plan for Half a Billion Solar Panels

COP 2

Obama’s Clean Power Plan

Hillary for America

Hermione vs Voldemort

‘Climate People’ to Debate Moderators: Survival Matters

Hat tip to Ailsa

Hat tip to DT Lange

La Nina Fizzles, Pacific Hot Blob Returns, Record Global Heat Likely to Remain

A change of three degrees [Celsius] is an “extraordinary deviation — something you would expect to happen once in a millennium.” — Richard Dewey, www.SkepticalScience.com, on ocean warming in the northeastern Pacific

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Four degrees Celsius. That’s the current deviation from the 1981 to 2010 average for sea-surface temperatures over a broad region of the northeastern Pacific, a deviation you typically wouldn’t see once in a thousand years.

During 2013 to 2015 a similar warm-up over this same region of water occurred. Such extreme heat at the ocean surface generated mass loss of sea life. Numerous species from plankton to krill to copepods to starfish and many more on up the food chain were impacted. This great ocean warming also sparked losses of ocean oxygen off Oregon and Washington, pushing waters there into low-oxygen and anoxic states. These states, though they do not support advanced ocean life, tend to support anaerobic microbes that produce various toxins (including hydrogen sulfide gas). At the same time, atmospheric circulation was also impacted, resulting in unprecedented drought conditions for California as a ridiculously resilient ridge of high pressure settled in.

noaa-sea-surface-temperatue-anomaly

(Region of the northeastern Pacific about the size of the state of Washington shows ridiculously hot sea-surface temperatures in the range of 4 C above average. Such once-in-a-thousand-years ocean-surface heat has now occurred for three out of the past five years. As end 2016 nears, this unprecedented blob of hot ocean-surface waters appears to be returning. Image source: NOAA ESRL.)

Such a terrible blow to ocean health combined with ever-more-extreme atmospheric conditions are the very hallmarks of a heating climate. As a result, the events associated with the 2013-2015 hot blob will likely, in future years, be seen as one of the warning shots across North America’s bow — an indication that climate change-related impacts were about to seriously worsen.

Hot Blob Re-Forms as La Nina Splutters

Now, after a one-year hiatus, the hot blob is back and northeastern Pacific sea-surface temperatures are again on the rise. A previously-predicted La Nina is abruptly spluttering out, apparently crushed by a periodic warming of the northeastern Pacific called the Pacific Decadal Oscillation (PDO). This natural variability-related feature is combining with climate change-induced ocean warming to again push ocean surface temperatures into unprecedented ranges.

heat-fire-risk-california

(The northeastern Pacific hot blob is a climate change-related feature that contributes to record heat, drought and wildfire risk for California. Over the coming week, the re-formed hot blob appears ready to plunge the state into 90 to 1oo degree (F) conditions — which will intensify wildfire risk for the state. Image source: Pivotal Weather.)

With the PDO again firing up, the hot blob re-forming, and La Nina starting to splutter, we can expect global temperatures to remain closer to the record-hot levels achieved during 2015 and 2016. This is bad news in that 2017 through 2022 might see another record-hot year coordinate with El Nino, which would push even closer to 1.5 C and 2 C climate thresholds — a clear sign that the age of fossil fuel exploration and burning needs to end as swiftly as possible if livable climate conditions are to be maintained.

Nearer-term, if this heat in the northeastern Pacific remains in place, we can expect worsening hot and dry conditions for the U.S. west coast even as sea life in the affected region again falls under threat. With global temperatures now hitting a range of 1.2 C or more above 1880s averages, there is risk that this event could match or even exceed the related harmful impacts seen during the 2013 to 2015 timeframe.

high-amplitude-jet-stream-waves-rrr

(Unusual high-amplitude Jet Stream ridging over the U.S. west coast like that predicted for Sunday in the GFS model run is associated with both extreme sea-surface temperatures in the northeastern Pacific [the hot blob] and sea-ice loss in the Arctic, both caused by global warming due to fossil-fuel burning. Note the numerous additional powerful ridge and trough formations running downstream of this unusual Jet Stream feature. Image source: Earth Nullschool.)

Climate Change Links Again Non-reported by Media

Despite an obvious relationship between global warming and extreme regional heating events like the hot blob, some prominent media sources continue to link the formation of the hot blob to natural variability without mention of climate change. To do so fails to tell the whole story. Without that 1.2 C warming of the Earth since the 1880s due to our rampant burning of fossil fuels, we would not be seeing so much heat piling up in the northeastern Pacific. As such, the PDO has been put into a kind of climate change hyperdrive. And that’s what’s creating conditions under which these big, dangerous ocean hot blobs continue to grow.

Links:

Skeptical Science

Ridiculously Resilient Ridge

NOAA ESRL

NOAA ENSO

Pivotal Weather

Earth Nullschool

The Weather Channel

Hat tip to DT Lange

Hat tip to Greg

Hat tip to Colorado Bob

Giant Gravity Waves Smashed Key Atmospheric Clock During Winter of 2016 — Possible Climate Change Link

Two [climate change] effects [of Arctic warming] are identified … : 1) weakened zonal winds, and 2) increased [Rossby] wave amplitude. These effects are particularly evident in autumn and winter consistent with sea-ice loss… Slower progression of upper-level waves would cause associated weather patterns in mid-latitudes to be more persistent, which may lead to an increased probability of extreme weather events — Evidence linking Arctic amplification to extreme weather in mid-latitudes, Dr. Jennifer Francis and Dr. Stephen Vavrus, Geophysical Research Letters (emphasis added)

The recent disruption in the quasi-biennial oscillation was not predicted, not even one month ahead. — Dr. Scott Osprey

This unexpected disruption to the climate system switches the cycling of the quasi-biennial oscillation forever. — Professor Adam Scaife

scientists believe that the quasi-biennial oscillation could become more susceptible to similar disruptions as the climate warms. — Physics.org (emphasis added)

jet-stream-crossing-equator-on-february-18-of-2016

(During February of 2016, high-amplitude Jet Stream waves or gravity waves interfered with the upper-level Equatorial Winds. This disruption was so significant that it caused a seasonal upper-level wind pattern near the Equator to change direction, a shift that was unprecedented in modern observation. Note how the upper-level wind flow frequently intersects with and even appears to cross the Equator at some points. Image source: Earth Nullschool global 250 hPa capture for February 18, 2016.)

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I’ve said it before, and I’m going to say it again — loss of predictable seasons, or seasonality, due to human-forced climate change is very big deal. And regardless of how all the scientific details specifically pan out, there are now observed changes to Northern Hemisphere winter, possibly due to human-forced warming, that are apparently starting to undermine its traditional seasonal climate behaviors. As a result, weather patterns appear to be shifting toward greater extremes and lower levels of predictability.

QBO — One of Our Most Predictable Atmospheric Clocks…

For decades now, scientists have been observing a kind of atmospheric clock tick-tocking high above the Equator. Up in the stratosphere, 10 to 13 kilometers above the Earth, winds tend to flow either east to west or west to east. These air flows change direction about every 28 to 29 months. This feature, called the quasi-biennial oscillation or QBO, has never significantly varied. It has always flowed in one direction for a predictable period of time and then switched to flow in the other direction.

Winds flowing at this level of the atmosphere over the Equator have a far-reaching effect, particularly on the winter climate of northern Europe. There, westerly high-level Equatorial winds are known to bring warmer, wetter winters. Easterlies in the stratosphere over the Equator are known to bring cooler, drier winters. The key to remember is that the QBO has always been both amazingly predictable itself, and had equally predictable climate effects. As a result, meteorological observation of the QBO natural-variability pattern enabled forecasters to get an idea of what weather trend to expect for winter — not just during a single year, but also over a longer time horizon.

…and Climate Change May Now Be in the Process of Breaking It

What happens if the QBO becomes less predictable due to influences such as human-forced polar warming? What happens if the big meanders in the Jet Stream produced by this warming dig down all the way to the Equator during Northern Hemisphere winters and start to shove at the upper-level Equatorial wind field, causing the QBO to switch? If that happens, then a major aspect of Northern Hemisphere winter seasonal variability will have been fundamentally altered by climate change. Winter would become less like it is now and more like some strange, difficult-to-predict, climate-change-morphed hybrid of a thing.

Over the past decade, scientists like Dr. Jennifer Francis have observed strange changes to the Northern Hemisphere Jet Stream. In winter, the North Pole has tended to exhibit extreme relative warming versus the rest of the Northern Hemisphere. This warming has created less difference in temperature from north to south during this season. As a result, it appears that the Jet Stream has slowed and is generating very large atmospheric waves, known as gravity waves or Rossby waves. At times, these waves have linked upper-level air flows between the Tropics and the North Pole.

(For years now, Dr. Jennifer Francis has warned that polar amplification could lead to some weird and extreme weather, especially during winter. However, no one initially predicted that the large Jet Stream waves apparently resulting from polar warming would completely disrupt the upper-level Equatorial winds as appears to have happened last February.)

Such strong polar warming during winter is called polar amplification, an effect produced by climate change. Polar amplification happens because greenhouse gasses resulting from fossil-fuel burning (like carbon dioxide and methane) preferentially trap heat during times of darkness. During December through March, large sections of the North Pole are blanketed in the dim of Polar Night. During this time the heat-trapping effects of these gasses really go to work. Additionally, heat from the ocean is transferred through the thinning veil of sea ice over the Arctic Ocean even as local carbon stores add to the overburden of the heat-trapping gasses already in place. The net effect is a much warmer-than-normal Arctic during winter. This warming appears to be doing a serious number on the Jet Stream and, apparently, even Equatorial atmospheric circulation.

Unprecedented QBO Switch in February 2016

During the most recent winter, scientists observed these high-amplitude Jet Stream waves reaching all the way into the Equatorial upper-level wind field with enough oomph to switch an east-west wind pattern to west-east. This switch was entirely unpredicted and unprecedented. No one expected it and it has never before been observed.

The weather pattern for a big swath of Europe was, as a result, flipped from the expected cool and dry to warm and wet. If you had told any atmospheric scientist that such a set of changes would happen, they might have categorically dismissed these claims. But now, some scientists are starting to look at the possibility that the recent QBO flip was due to a climate warming-related influence.

geographical-pattern-of-surface-warming

(Geographic pattern of surface warming as provided by the IPCC. Uneven relative warming of the surface of the Earth may result in some unexpected changes to larger atmospheric circulation patterns. Scientists now indicate that future flips in Equatorial wind patterns, like the big switch that occurred this past winter, may be driven by such atmospheric warming. Image source: IPCC.)

There is a possibility that the recent flip was related to large atmospheric waves which are potentially a result of polar amplification. These waves appear to have impacted the upper-level Equatorial winds, and so are not necessarily related to natural climate variability.

To initiate such a big atmospheric change requires a great deal of force. The equatorial wind field and atmospheric mass is generally the heaviest, is typically the region with the greatest atmospheric inertia. Having an outside influence, like polar warming and associated gravity waves, generating a flip in its flow is about the meteorological equivalent to rivers running up hill. Apparently, due to climate change, atmospheric ‘rivers’ in the Jet Stream may now be capable of doing just that, and that’s pretty disturbing.

Links/Statements/Hat tips:

Scientific hat tip to Dr. Jennifer Francis

Scientific hat tip to Dr. Scott Osprey

Scientific hat tip to Professor Adam Scaife

Evidence linking Arctic amplification to extreme weather in mid-latitudes

Unprecedented atmospheric behavior disrupts one of Earth’s most regular climate cycles

An unexpected disruption of the atmospheric quasi-biennial oscillation

Earth Nullschool

Note: Paul Beckwith again appears to be using this issue as a means self-promotion — bragging about ‘vindication’ and his video ‘that went viral.’ First, this issue is a matter of concern (not petty personal score-keeping). And it is probably one that remains uncertain given that the MET study is the first to touch on it in the peer reviewed science. So any definite claims at this point are both unwarranted and premature. Caution and humility should be the watch-words here. Not active grasping for credit or media attention. Further, I did not work with Paul Beckwith on his first ‘viral’ video — which was an independent response to my initial gravity waves article here. So responsible sources will not conflate my work with that of Paul’s even though he appears to agree with my (admittedly evolving) analysis in some (but not all) instances. For my part, this work is an attempt to open the issue. Not to close it or to support someone attempting to claim credit of first discovery.

Finally, I absolutely respect and admire the work and opinions of scientists like Gavin Schmidt, Stefan Rahmstorf, Jennifer Francis, the IPCC, the MET Office and others who have helped to build a powerful and compelling consensus on climate change as a critical issue for the 21st Century. Sometimes the process of threat identification will highlight instances that are outside of that consensus currently. And such identifications will, at times, result in strong reactions. I understand that this is part of the process and even if views differ, I will endeavor to read, and where I am able, incorporate them into my ongoing study here.

Approaching the First Climate Tipping Point — On Track to Hit 1.5 C Before 2035

July 2016 was the hottest month ever recorded. That record lasted for all of one month as global temperatures remained at record-high levels through August, resulting in a tie with July during a period when the Earth typically cools.

Given natural variability, we might expect August to remain hot if an El Nino were forming in the Pacific, but at that time, with a weak La Nina struggling to fire off, the exact opposite was the case. In other words, the El Nino/La Nina cycle, which typically helps to drive global warm and cool periods, was pointed in the direction of ‘cool’, but the world remained near record-hot levels.

global-temperatures-through-august-of-2016

(2016 Climate Year continues to redefine global temperature boundaries as August ties July for hottest month ever recorded. Image source: NASA GISS.)

So what the heck was going on?

Rising Greenhouse Gasses are Steadily Rearranging How the Earth Balances Heat

We can’t answer this question without looking at the amazing overburden of greenhouse gasses that are trapping an enormous amount of heat in the Earth’s atmosphere and ocean. Due to decades of rampant fossil-fuel burning, 2016 will likely average around 404 parts per million CO2, which is the Earth’s primary heat-trapping gas that drives global climate. The last time levels of this gas were so high, more than 3 million years ago, the Earth was 2 to 3 degrees Celsius hotter than 1880s averages, seas were 25 to 75 feet higher, and the Earth was a remarkably different place.

CO2 isn’t the only gas adding heat-forcing to the Earth’s atmosphere. Human-emitted methane and other chemical compounds now add together with CO2 to produce a total CO2-equivalent forcing near 490 ppm. If this measure in any way remotely correlates to past climate forcings, then the Earth could well be on a path toward Middle Miocene climates that were around 4 C hotter than 1880s values.

Greenhouse Gas Accumulation Causes the Poles to Warm Faster than the Rest of the World

The way this extra heat — due to greenhouse gas forcing — emerges in the atmosphere is not even. In fact, science has long indicated that the poles warm faster than the rest of the world as the greenhouse gas overburden increases due to global burning of fossil fuels. Ever since the 1990s (and probably before), global climate models have shown that adding CO2 and other greenhouse gasses to the Earth’s climate system preferentially warms the far north and the far south.

This effect is due to the fact that greenhouse gasses more effectively trap and re-radiate the sun’s heat during periods of darkness. The long dark of polar night, lasting for the many months of polar winter, presents a period in which greenhouse gas warming has the opportunity to go into overdrive. In addition, oceans preferentially transfer heat toward the poles. Meanwhile, the melting of heat-reflecting ice coverage traps more heat in the local polar oceans (primarily in the Arctic) even as local carbon stores are increasingly vulnerable to release due to thaw. The result is that the polar regions of the world generate various amplifying feedbacks to the preferential heat forcing already in play. This can drive some big changes in atmospheric circulation patterns, which pull heat up from tropical regions and dump it over the frozen parts of our world.

Ridiculous Antarctic Warmth during Southern Hemisphere Winter

Coming back to El Nino and La Nina, it goes to reason that if the poles warm enough relative to the rest of the climate system, then such a global warming-related polar warm-up might eventually start to warp natural variability to the point that peak warming periods push a bit beyond the typical cycling.

antarctic-heat

(Polar amplification hit high gear during August as Southern Hemisphere winter saw extreme Antarctic warming. Image source: NASA GISS.)

This appears to have been the case during August 2016. As the Equator cooled, Antarctica warmed to a rather extreme degree. Though most of the globe saw above-average temperatures, the highest extreme anomalies were centered over Antarctica. There, the entire region above 75° South Latitude experienced temperatures greater than 3 C above average and a large region saw temperatures striking between 4 to 5.9 C above average for the entire month.

This heat came on the back of numerous high amplitude Jet Stream waves that delivered heat to the polar region during the Southern Hemisphere winter month of August. These waves, which have become a signature feature of Northern Hemisphere winter during recent years, bear with them the trappings of equator-to-pole energy transfer, a new climate effect playing havoc with traditional seasonal variability and possibly messing with some of the most well-established seasonal climate markers (such as the equatorially emerging quasi-biennial oscillation).

abnormal-august-heat

(No latitudinal zones saw below-average temperatures in August of 2016, another rather disturbing feature of this record-hot month. Image source: NASA GISS.)

As the South Pole saw repeated warm-air deliveries from the tropics, the Equatorial Pacific experienced only moderate negative departures below normal, a sign that the emerging La Nina was starting to splutter.

Overall, no latitudinal zone experienced below-average temperatures — another odd marker as the Southern Ocean (which pulls in an enormous amount of the Earth’s rising heat) tends to show below-normal departures in the region of 50° to 60° South Latitude.

We Appear to be on Track to Hit Above 1.5 C Within 15-25 Years

In total, global temperatures, according to NASA, hit 1.2 C above 1880s averages in the NASA measure (or about 0.98 C above NASA’s 20th-century baseline average). As a result, the first nine months of the December-to-November climate year are now averaging around 1.28 C above 1880s levels. And since the last three months of the year are unlikely to average below 1.05 C above 1880s, it appears that a 1.2 C departure or higher is now a lock for 2016.

With so much polar heat in place (this time shifting to the Arctic during September), it appears at least somewhat likely that the final three months for this climate year will tend to average closer to 1.05 to 1.20 C above 1880s averages. Consecutive months in this range or higher would push end-2016 values closer to 1.21 to 1.24 C above 1880s values. Notably, this is a range about 0.4 C higher than 1998 average temperatures. A similar period of warming occurring over the next 18 years would result in a year in which global temperatures exceeded 1.6 C above 1880s levels before 2035.

With global civilization continuing to burn massive volumes of fossil fuels and spewing greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere at a record rate, and with global temperatures so high, we are nearing a time when the first major climate threshold of 1.5 C (dangerous warming) is likely to be breached. Under current rates of fossil-fuel burning, this crossing will likely occur within the next 15 to 25 years. We know this because the Earth is now experiencing a rapid warming (0.15 to 0.2 C per decade), the likes of which has never been seen in human reckoning, and may have never been seen at all during any time of its deep past. It really all is, quite frankly, terrifying.

Links:

NASA GISS

NOAA El Nino

August Ties With July as Hottest Month on Record

An Unexpected Disruption of the Quasi-Biennial Oscillation

Pliocene Climate

Miocene Climate

Gigantic Gravity Waves to Mix Summer With Winter?

Scientific hat tip to Gavin Schmidt

Coming Big Arctic Ocean Warm-Up May Extend Sea Ice Melt Season

It’s September in the Arctic, a time of year when temperatures should be cooling off. But with sea ice at second-lowest levels on record in most monitors and the globe experiencing an unprecedented hot year, it appears that the next week may see the Arctic Ocean reverse its typical seasonal cooling trend and significantly warm up over the coming five to six days.

arctic-heat-september

(GFS model runs show a significant warming is in store for the Arctic Ocean over the coming week — and that’s bad news for sea ice running at second-lowest levels on record in the current daily measures and lowest levels on record for the first eight months of the year so far. Image source: Climate Reanalyzer.)

GFS model runs show a strong pulse of warm air will rise up over the Atlantic Ocean and Barents Sea in the next 72 hours. This warm air then will ride in over the Greenland Sea and invade the Arctic Ocean north of Svalbard. Local temperatures over water are expected to be between 4 and 8 degrees Celsius above average over a broad region of the Arctic. Meanwhile, general departures for the entire region above 66° North Latitude are expected to hit around 2 to 2.5 C above average.

Temperatures for most of the Arctic basin in ice-covered areas are expected to again push to -2 C to +2 C. Generally, air temperatures below -2 C are needed to prevent melt, but in warm water and rough ocean conditions, which have tended to dominate the Arctic recently, air temperatures probably need to average around -4 to -6 C over most of the Arctic to fully halt melt.

Threats to Ice Coming From All Directions

During summer and early fall, the Arctic Ocean tends to help to moderate temperatures over the region, so these are very high predicted temperature departures for this time of year. Such high temperatures are likely due to the effect of added heat bleeding off recently ice-free waters. While sea-ice area and extent measures are in the range of second-lowest on record, there is some indication that sea-ice concentration in the Arctic may be at or near record-low levels.

amsr2-animation-neven

(AMSR2 animation constructed by Neven shows vigorous ice export and melt through the Canadian Arctic Archipelago. This is a heavy blow to the thin veil of multi-year sea ice remaining in the Arctic. Animation by Neven at the Arctic Sea Ice Forum. Images by Universität Bremen.)

The ice, generally, is extraordinarily weak, thin and dispersed. Large gaps run across an arc covering the Atlantic and Siberian side of the polar zone. In addition, large cracks are appearing in the very thin and unstable multi-year ice north of Greenland (below) as sea-ice export now threatens melt in the Beaufort Sea, Canadian Arctic Archipelago, the Nares Strait, the Fram Strait, and on into the northern edge of the Barents Sea.

Risks Rise for a Long Melt Season

Recent animations by Neven over at the Arctic Sea Ice Forum (above) show particularly strong export and melt in the Canadian Arctic Archipelago — which is a pretty unprecedented melt feature. What this means is that the ice is basically being hit from all sides and that the factors necessary to melt ice are compounding.

last-bastian-of-multi-year-ice-breaking-up

(Large section of multi-year ice breaking up north of Greenland on September 9, 2016. In recent years, less and less ice has survived summer melt to make it to the following winter. Ice with an age of more than five years has grown quite scant in the Arctic. The ice shown breaking up in the above image is part of the last bastion of old, thick ice in the Arctic. When that’s gone, the Arctic Ocean will only be a seasonally frozen sea, a possibility that may occur as soon as 2017 to 2025 and will probably occur before 2035. Image source: LANCE MODIS.)

If the big warm-up does occur as predicted this week, there is risk that ice losses will extend through to September 15 and possibly beyond. These melt rates should not be particularly severe, given the time of year, but it is possible that 50,000 to 300,000 square kilometers or more will go. This would be enough to solidify 2016 as the second-lowest year on record for extent and area at the end of melt season. It would also help to fill the big gap between 2007 and 2012 — solidifying already significant decadal melt trends.

Overall, this is a pretty weird forecast, but set in the backdrop of a year that’s on track to be about 1.2 C above 1880s averages — the hottest year on record by far — the possibility of a late-season Arctic warm-up and a late end to a near record melt season is an entirely valid one.

Links:

Climate Reanalyzer

Universität Bremen

Arctic Sea Ice Forum

LANCE MODIS

Hat tip to Greg

Hat tip to DT Lange

New Report: ‘Blowtorch’-Like Ocean Warming Advances Killer Seas, Shifts El Nino, Heats Hydrates

Tampering can be dangerous. Nature can be vengeful. We should have a great deal of respect for the planet on which we live. — Carl-Gustaf Rossby

But as the [IUCN] study points out, 90% of the extra heat that our greenhouse gases trap is actually absorbed by the oceans. That means that the upper few meters of the sea have been steadily warming more than a tenth of a degree celsius per decade, a figure that’s accelerating. When you think of the volume of water that represents, and then try to imagine the energy necessary to raise its temperature, you get an idea of the blowtorch that our civilization has become. — Bill McKibben

The scale of ocean warming is truly staggering with the numbers so large that it is difficult for most people to comprehend. — from the IUCN report Explaining Ocean Warming: Causes, scale, effects and consequences

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If there’s one simple fact about past Earth climates that should keep you awake at night, it’s this — warming the world ocean eventually produces a killing mechanism that is unrivaled by any other in Earth’s deep past. Great asteroids, gamma-ray bursters, earthquakes, tsunamis and volcanism — none of these can rival the vast damage to life on planet Earth that is resulting from ocean warming.

As a study of the sciences, this assertion would be merely an academic one if the human race weren’t now involved in a great injection of an unprecedented volume of greenhouse gasses into the Earth’s airs. As a critical new ocean report from the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) points out, these gasses are trapping an extraordinary amount of heat at the top of the world’s atmosphere. In turn, the atmosphere is transferring the lion’s share of this heat — more than 90 percent — into the waters of our world.

The Extreme Amount of Heat Energy Piling up in Our Warming Ocean

As a result, the surface of the world ocean is warming by 0.1 degree Celsius per decade. That may not sound like much, but it takes about four times the amount of energy to warm one gram of water by 0.1 C as it does one gram of air. This property, called specific heat, is a defining aspect of water. Water has the highest specific heat of any common substance.

heat-accumulation-human-forced-zillions-of-joules

(Since the 1970s, about 300 zettajoules’ (ZJ) worth of heat energy has accumulated in the Earth System due to fossil-fuel burning and related greenhouse gas emissions. That’s about 5 Hiroshima bombs worth of heat accumulating every second. Most of that energy has gone into the world’s oceans. So much heat is bound to have consequences, and these impacts are starting to show up in the form of declining ocean health, melting sea ice and glaciers, shifting climate zones and weather patterns, worsening droughts and storms, and threats of Earth System carbon feedbacks. Image source: Explaining Ocean Warming.)

Liquid water is also far denser than air. And this density generates an even higher impact heat energy transfer multiplier. So not only does it take four times more energy to warm a similar weight of water vs air, once warmed, that water contains that higher level of specific heat energy in a much more tightly concentrated package. And when that high heat concentration liquid water comes into contact with other substances — like ice in the form of ocean contact, or air in the form of evaporation, or frozen hydrates on the sea bed — it can pack a serious heat punch.

The vast volume of water in our oceans, therefore, serves as a kind of heat and energy regulator. It takes a lot of energy to warm it up, but once it does, serious environmental changes start to happen as a result. In other words, the temperature of the global ocean could be viewed as the point on which the whole of the Earth climate system pivots. Once the oceans are set in thermal motion, serious changes to the rest of the world are going to take place. To get an idea how much energy the oceans now contain, of how much potential they now have to dramatically alter our world, consider that if these vast waters were not present, the atmosphere now would have already warmed by 36 degrees C due to the heat-trapping effect of greenhouse gasses already in our atmosphere.

Fossil-fuel blowtorch indeed.

Heating Seas Ultimately Become Killer Seas

There’s a starker message to convey here, one that focuses on this simple yet dire question — how do warming oceans kill? In basic terms, they become toxic and anoxic. Warming oceans melt ocean-contacting glaciers. The glacial melt forces seas to rise and forms a freshwater lid on the global ocean, breaking down ocean conveyor belts and preventing mixing. This freshwater lid also deflects heat toward the ocean bottom. This process in turn helps to thaw methane hydrates. Warm waters that don’t mix and that are filled with bubbling hydrates become very oxygen-poor.

barents-algae-bloom

(Massive algae bloom covers tens of thousands of square miles of open water in the Barents Sea during August of 2016. As glaciers melt, oceans stratify and warm; as water oxygen levels drop, and as hydrates vent due to warming, such blooms result in significant reductions to ocean health and a related global mass-extinction threat. Image source: LANCE MODIS.)

As the land glaciers bleed out into the oceans, the stratified, oxygen-deprived waters become less and less able to support advanced life. The kinds of life warm, oxygen-deprived waters do support are poison-producing microbes. These microbes thrive in the warm, oxygen-poor waters. If ocean heating continues to progress, the warming seas will eventually fill up with their deadly byproducts. Among the most nasty of these is hydrogen sulfide. If enough of it is produced, it will spill out from the ocean into the nearby air, resulting in land animal mortality as well.

In microcosm, we saw a mild taste of some of these effects this past year in Florida as toxic algae blooms filled the warming state’s waterways and coastlines, even forcing some riverside marinas to close due to toxic gasses wafting up from the purple-green, oxygen-starved waters. These effects are a snapshot of a possible future for Earth’s oceans if we don’t get our act together yesterday.

El Niño Shifted, Ocean Hydrates Threatened

As alluded to earlier in this post, a new report, Explaining Ocean Warming, provides some pretty hard evidence that the oceans are on the move toward a much more harmful global climate state. The study, which has rightly received a great deal of media attention, issues a ‘shot across the bow’ warning to pretty much everyone living today. And it finds serious impacts to the ocean and linked climate systems due to a very rapid human-forced global warming.

These hard findings are worth reading directly:

  1. Sea-surface temperature, ocean heat content, sea-level rise, melting of glaciers and ice sheets, CO2 emissions and atmospheric concentrations are increasing at an accelerating rate with significant consequences for humanity and the marine species and ecosystems of the ocean.
  2. There is likely to be an increase in mean global ocean temperature of 1-4 degrees C by 2100. The greatest ocean warming overall is occurring in the Southern Hemisphere and is contributing to the subsurface melting of Antarctic ice shelves. Since the 1990s the atmosphere in the polar regions has been warming at about twice the average rate of global warming.
  3. There is likely to be Arctic warming and ice loss, and possibly the essential removal, in some years, of the summer Arctic sea ice within the next few decades.
  4. Over the last 20 years there has been an intensification and distinct change in the El Niño events, with a shift of the mean location of sea-surface temperature anomalies towards the central Pacific.
  5. Currently 2.5 Gt of frozen methane hydrate are stored in the sea floor at water depths of 200 to 2000 m. Increasing water temperature could release this source of carbon into the ocean and ultimately into the atmosphere.

These are all Earth-shattering scientific statements. For those who frequent this blog, points 1 through 3 are probably pretty familiar. The last two, however, require more in-depth explanation.

global-warming-el-nino

(Some scientific studies have pointed out that warming the world ocean will result in a shift of El Niño toward the central Pacific. A new ocean report finds that it’s already happening. Image source: Global Warming May Dent El Niño’s Protective Hurricane Shield, Increase Droughts.)

For a long time now, scientists have believed that El Niño wouldn’t be affected by climate change until the end of this century. But as with sea ice, it appears that such impacts may well be advancing faster than expected. As we’ve alluded to here, there’s been an apparent shift in El Niño toward the central Pacific over recent decades. This may well be a climate change-related shift. The fact that the IUCN report highlights this change is a sign that the broader sciences are starting to tackle the notion of early alterations to El Niño due to climate change as well.

However, the most ominous language here centers around methane hydrate. For years, there’s been adamant push-back against potential risks to hydrates coming from well-respected sections of the climate sciences. Nonetheless, those downplaying the threat of warming to hydrates have yet to produce any conclusive proof as to why warming the ocean bottom and applying heat to hydrates won’t result in at least some feedback from these carbon stores (especially under the higher-range warming scenarios). The IUCN report reiterates this risk by identifying 2.5 billion tons of frozen seabed methane at shallow and mid-ocean depths that will ultimately be exposed to warming — risking both an ocean and an atmospheric release.

These last points serve to underline some pretty basic facts, the chief of which is that pushing Nature, and heating up her life-blood world ocean waters, is a very, very dangerous game. And if this poignant new report sends any message at all it could simply boil down to this — turn back before it’s too late.

Links:

IUCN Report: Explaining Ocean Warming

Specific Heat

Ocean Warming

Awakening the Horrors of the Ancient Hothouse

LANCE MODIS

Slimy Green Algae Invades Florida

The oceans are heating up. That’s a big problem on a blue planet.

Global Warming May Dent El Niño’s Protective Hurricane Shield, Increase Droughts

Hat tip to Cate

Hat tip to George Hayduke

It’s Looking Like We’ll Never See Another Month Below 400 ppm CO2 Again

The truth is, when I was born, atmospheric CO2 levels were around 300 ppm. Today — maybe even this week — will be the last time anyone alive experiences a level below 400 ppm, and no one born in the coming century or even longer will ever see less than 400 ppm again. That is a deep, deep observation, with ramifications for our children and for every future generation. — Peter Gleick during November of 2015

*****

nasa-model-co2-earths-atmosphere

(NASA model visualization of CO2 in the Earth’s atmosphere. Image source: NASA.)

I just want to take a moment to tell you something that’s pretty important. You are now an alien. You’ve been made an alien by fossil fuel burning. And you’re now living in, breathing, a heat-trapping atmosphere that’s entirely alien to your species. Sometimes races of creatures suffering such habitat changes are capable of surviving the environmental shifts that inevitably occur as a result. Sometimes they are not. But you’ve been placed in this situation now and it’s getting steadily worse.

Big August CO2 Jump Locking 400 ppm In

The August preliminary data are in. And it’s pretty grim. For with a big year-on-year CO2 jump in August, it looks like September of 2016 will be unable to achieve monthly CO2 averages below 400 parts per million. What that means is that the last month below the 400 level was probably October of 2015. So, for almost a year now, we’ve been living in the climate age of 400+, likely never to return to monthly atmospheric CO2 levels in the 300s again during the lifetimes of any of us humans now inhabiting this Earth.

According to NOAA, August CO2 measurements at the Mauna Loa Observatory averaged 402.25 parts per million, which is a big 3.32 parts per million jump over 2015 August readings. Adding this number to previous months, we find that 2016, so far, has seen an average rate of rise of 3.495 parts per million during its first 8 months — significantly ahead of previous annual record rates of rise during 2015 and 1998 (3.05 and 2.93 ppm respectively).

co2-the-keeling-curve

(Two year Keeling Curve trend seems to indicate that it’s unlikely monthly values will fall below 400 parts per million during 2016 and, for all practical purposes, ever again unless some kind of unprecedented change is made to global carbon emissions policies. Image source: The Keeling Curve.)

Such a big August jump makes it highly unlikely that September will average below 400 parts per million due to the fact that monthly drops leading into September typically average around 1.8 ppm CO2. If this trend holds true for 2016, then September will average around 400.5 ppm CO2. And since September typically sees the lowest atmospheric CO2 levels during any given year, the current month is basically the world’s last chance to see a 30 day period that averages below 400 ppm.

Conditions Not Seen in Millions of Years

Atmospheric CO2 levels are now so high that you have to go back about 3 million years into the Pliocene to find similar ranges. During that time, the world was between 2 and 3 degrees Celsius warmer than 1880s temperatures. Oceans were 25 to 75 feet higher and the world was a dramatically different place.

400-ppm-co2-you-are-here

(The age of 400 parts per million CO2 is here. It’s something not seen in about 3 million years. In other words, you’re breathing air right now composed of properties that no homo sapiens sapiens has ever breathed before. Image source: Climate Central.)

But adding in all greenhouse gasses like Nitrogen compounds and Methane resulting from fossil fuel burning (and other human activities) and you end up with a CO2 equivalent in the atmosphere close to 490 parts per million. Such a level of forcing correlates more closely to an even more ancient climate period called the Middle Miocene of about 15 million years ago when global temperatures were between 3 and 4 C warmer than they are today.

As such, crossing the 400 ppm CO2 threshold is not merely symbolic. It is a sign of the increasing likelihood of climate harms to come. And it appears now that we crossed that pass back during October of 2015 — unaware that we’d already entered a tough new climate age.

Links:

NOAA CO2 Trends

The Keeling Curve

Pliocene Climate

Miocene Climate

What Passing Key CO2 Mark Means to Climate Scientists

A Year in the Life of CO2

Possible Record Methane Spike at Barrow, Alaska — What Does it Mean?

There’s no avoiding it — climate change is a controversial subject; a threat that should unify us all that, due to reticence, denial, fear, and a basic lack of understanding, is instead often quite divisive. But among the subjects that stand out as real fodder for acidic controversy, the issue of methane feedbacks from the global climate system — the oceans, thawing permafrost, and especially the Arctic — is one of the worst. There’s a noted tendency to either downplay or overplay risks. Though this polarization is likely fed by the general mysteriousness and complexity of the subject, its potential existential nature also feeds into the heat that methane feedback-related discussions tend to draw.

It all makes one hope for improved discussion on the subject. Given the fact that catastrophic methane feedback appears unlikely (but would have a high overall impact if it did emerge), it’s probable that the subject will continue to generate a difficult conversation for as long as human-forced warming is an issue, and so long as the science continues to remain uncertain.

copernicus-observatory

(The Copernicus Observatory shows surface methane hot spots in China, Africa, South America, the U.S., Canada, Europe, Russia and the Arctic. Note that generally high concentrations still tend to center over the Arctic. Meanwhile, the various hot spots seem to indicate major sources like fossil-fuel industry wildfires, wetlands, droughts, the Arctic Ocean and glacial and permafrost thaw. Also note that current readings indicate a serious rise in global methane concentrations, but not a spike that significantly exceeds peak 20th-century additions. It’s worth considering that, during recent years, expanded natural gas exploration and extraction through fracking has likely contributed a substantial new human methane source addition to the global atmosphere. Meanwhile, there is some concern that the Earth System may be starting to mildly feed back by bleeding additional carbon from warming lands, forests, oceans and permafrost.)

It’s not really a question of whether or not some scientists are concerned or if there is a risk, however ill-defined. Dr. James Hansen has often indicated that a strong methane feedback from the Arctic or world ocean system would be a climate nightmare that could well eliminate the time window to respond to prevent catastrophic warming. Methane and other carbon feedbacks are prime suspects for past hothouse event triggers — potentially playing a role in setting off events like the Permian-Triassic Extinction and/or greatly contributing to the loss of ocean health that was a key feature of these extinction events. Neil deGrasse Tyson alluded to this risk in his 2014 rerendering of the science series Cosmos.

Polar researchers, including those at the National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC), often point to varying risks and potentials for methane feedback from numerous sources such as permafrost thaw. Others fear releases coming from seabed stores — claims that often meet stiff resistance from more established areas of the science. But given how close we are to locking in 2-degree-Celsius or greater amounts of warming this century, it doesn’t take a lot of carbon feedback, methane or otherwise, from the Earth System to generate a problem. Even a moderate feedback would cut the time necessary for carbon emissions draw-downs. It is for this reason that monitoring of the methane, and overall carbon feedback, situation is a necessary part of developing a comprehensive climate change situational awareness (which I have worked hard to develop here at this blog). Which is why, today, we are going to talk a little bit about a big methane spike appearing in the hourly readings near Barrow, Alaska.

Apparent Record Methane Spike in the Hourly Readings at Barrow

Yesterday, climatologist Brian Brettschneider, whose Twitter feed provides a good stream of informed climate change-related updates, posted a truncated version of this NOAA ESRL graph:

hourly-methane-spike

The graph tracks hourly methane readings at the data collection location for Barrow, Alaska. As shown, the recent (and unconfirmed) data set shows what appears to be a record methane spike for that location. Also note that big spikes appear in the hourly data at certain points many times since 2000, as is typical during this time of year. Most notably, a similar very large spike occurred in 2004, one that the recent 2016 spike just edges out.

Looking at the graph, there’s a lot that it doesn’t tell us. Firstly, what is the source of this methane spike? If the spike was an outlier with no periodicity it might indicate the potential for some kind of anomaly or human source. However, since seasonal spikes seem to show up in this graph, this hints that the current spike is environmental. In addition, since Alaska as a whole and Barrow in particular both recently experienced some of their warmest weather on record, there’s some reason to suspect that this added heat played a part in the 2016 spike. And, 2004 also saw a period of then-record warmth during summer in Alaska. So Alaska warming is in line as a suspect cause for the 2016 methane spike.

As anomalous spikes go, this one is pretty big — it apparently set a new hourly record methane reading around 2370 parts per billion for the recording station. But since this Barrow spike isn’t visibly part of some big regional methane plume and since the global monitors aren’t recording a big methane jump as well, we can be pretty certain that this particular spike, if confirmed, is a local and probable short-term issue, and not a sudden, huge methane release issue of global importance. However, it does represent another point in a context that seems to include some big local methane sources popping up in the Arctic environment and possibly indicating a larger, if comparatively moderate, regional feedback taking place in response to the warming and thawing ongoing there. (No consensus scientific study has yet fully confirmed such a preliminary observation, which is a threat analysis-based potential identification on my part.)

So, overall, something to add to the big pot of bubbling concerns — but nothing to light your hair on fire over yet.

Conditions in Context

During the 20th century, large-scale industrialization linked to fossil-fuel burning and extraction helped to drive rapid rates of atmospheric methane increase. These rates peaked during the late 1980s and early 1990s when global policy measures helped curtail methane leakage from fossil fuel infrastructure. According to NOAA, annual rates of global atmospheric methane increase peaked in 1991 at a 14.32 ppb yearly jump.

ch4-trend

(Global methane is again hitting a rapid rate of rise. Though the Earth System appears to be providing some ominous rumblings that feedbacks may be on the way, the present spike is likely primarily due to increased fossil-fuel extraction activity, particularly due to fracking. Image source: NOAA.)

Such curtailments helped to produce a mid-1990s to mid-2000s plateau in the rate of atmospheric methane accumulation. Now, with the advent of fracking and with global warming appearing to generate a number of possible new methane sources (or amplify traditional sources) from the Earth System, rates of annual methane increase are again on the rise. In 2014 and 2015, annual increases hit 12.53 ppb (the third highest annual rate of increase in the NOAA record) and 10.07 ppb respectively (tenth highest). Preliminary reports show that 2016 appears to be on track to hit near 10 ppb worth of atmospheric increase.

As a result, it appears that fracking, primarily, and warming-related feedback (possibly secondarily) are contributing to annual rates of atmospheric methane increase that are comparable to peak periods of increase during the late 1980s and early 1990s. However, these rates of increase, though significantly adding a heat forcing that about equals one quarter to one third of the annual CO2 addition, show no current indication of a catastrophic rate of methane increase that would point toward the major environmental releases some have feared. As such, the greatest part of our ability to currently prevent further rising rates of atmospheric methane comes in the form of rapidly reducing all fossil fuel use and particularly to contain and reduce coal mining and oil and natural gas fracking. And if we do that, there will be less heat stress on the environmental methane stores and less overall long-term pressure for the kinds of feedbacks some of us have come to fear.

Links:

NOAA ESRL

All About Frozen Ground

The Arctic Turns Ugly

Hydrate Catastrophe Unlikely

The Copernicus Observatory

Brian Brettschneider

Toward Improved Discussions: Methane

An Update on Fracking Emissions

Cosmos

Hat tip to Griffin

What’s Swimming in the Open Water Near the North Pole These Days?

Globally, it’s been a record-hot year. But nowhere has seen so much anomalous warmth during 2016 as the Arctic. As melt season draws to a close, some dramatic effects are now becoming visible in the NASA satellite shots. Large regions near the North Pole are losing their white covering of sea ice and showing the telltale blue-black of open water:

north-pole-open-water

(Large areas of open water are visible near the North Pole in this LANCE MODIS satellite shot.)

The above image, provided by NASA, shows the Northern Hemisphere polar region on September 5, 2016. To get some sense of the size of this region of low-concentration sea ice, the bottom edge of this capture represents approximately 300 miles. For a point of reference, the North Pole can be seen where the lines of the satellite image frames converge in the lower left-hand side of the capture.

All throughout this satellite shot, we see large expanses of open water. The smaller openings are five to ten miles wide, with very large openings ranging as much as 50 miles long appearing as well. Cloud cover is present throughout the image and blocks some visibility to open regions on the Siberian side of the Pole (upper section of the image) and over the Pole itself (lower left).

arctic-sea-ice-area

(Arctic sea ice area coming uncomfortably close to 2012 record lows in this NORSEX SSM model summary.)

Loss of ice in this region of the central Arctic is similar to and perhaps more extensive than that seen during 2010 and 2013. In 2013, strong storms combined with weakened ice states resulting in severe melt near the North Pole, with ice becoming more dispersed throughout the Arctic. This year, both storms and heat have hit the ice hard. Now, ice edge extent is far lower than in 2013 even as low-concentration ice floes and open water are visible near the Pole. As such, the overall health of sea ice is dramatically worse during 2016.

Unfortunately, sea ice buoy observations near the North Pole have seen cuts to research funding and no camera buoys are operating near the Pole. Otherwise, we’d probably be treated to images like this:

north-pole-camera-2-swims

(North Pole Camera 2 goes for a swim during the summer of 2013 as a period of extensive near-polar melt set in. Most indicators show that ice conditions at the North Pole this summer were as bad or worse. Image source: North Pole Environmental Observatory.)

The large, open sections of water near the Pole appeared as sea-ice extent and area in many measures fell to second lowest on record for this time of year. Some measures (shown in the middle image above) have come uncomfortably close to the 2012 record low line.

Overall, 2016 is a very bad year for sea ice. And the weird prospect of polar bears (or anything else) being forced to swim at the North Pole is not at all something to brighten one’s day.

Links:

NASA GISS

LANCE MODIS

NORSEX SSM

North Pole Environmental Observatory

 

New Study: Climate Change Has Doubled the Number of Category 4 and 5 Storms Striking East and Southeast Asia

The atmospheric-ocean heat engine. It’s a pretty simple mechanism for pumping up the power of storms. But as simple as it is, the results can be devastating when this engine gets revved up by human-forced climate change, according to a new study released Monday in Nature Geoscience.

The Heat Engine in Action

As the ocean surface warms, it heats the local atmosphere. This generates an updraft that pushes higher and higher into the air above. Heat also causes water at the ocean surface to evaporate. This evaporated water is borne up on the winds and air currents rising above the heating water. A low-pressure system forms and the water vapor condenses into clouds which ultimately become thunderstorms. The Coriolis effect gives it all a nudge and the storms and clouds start to spin…

pacific_typhoon_tracks_1980-2005

(Pacific Ocean typhoon paths from 1980 through 2005. A new study shows that the destructive power of landfalling typhoons in East and Southeast Asia has increased by nearly 50 percent since 1977. Meanwhile, the number of category 4 and 5 storms striking land has doubled. All impacts due to ocean-surface warming related to human-caused climate change. Image source: Commons.)

The process described above happens every day at the ocean surface. Sometimes these storms form into the powerful cyclones we call hurricanes and typhoons. Under normal global temperature conditions, the kinds and intensities of these storms are what we have generally come to expect. But if you add heat to the Earth System, as we do when we burn fossil fuels and dump carbon into the atmosphere, the whole storm formation process gets amped up — and produces the powerful outlier storms that have become more common over recent years.

Add Human-Forced Warming and End up With More Powerful Storms

The fact that such added heat tends to generate more powerful storms has been a generally accepted part of our understanding of climate science for some time now. However, it was not until recently that this signal of rising storm intensity became visible in the science. Now, a new study published today in Nature Geoscience indicates that’s exactly what’s happening in parts of the Western Pacific.

It’s a pretty earth-shattering revelation with multiple climate change-related findings which are worth reading about in full here. These findings boil down to the following:

  1. The number of category 4 and 5 storms striking southeast Asia has doubled since 1977.
  2. The overall destructive power of storms striking this region has increased by nearly 50 percent over the same period.
  3. This increase in powerful storms has been caused by ocean warming related to climate change.

Standing alone, any one of these findings would be significant. Taken together, they paint a picture of significantly rising risk of storm damage and related loss of life due to climate change in one of the world’s most highly populated regions. In other words, the storms firing and running in to land in this region are not the same as they once were. They have been dramatically altered by the massive volume of greenhouse gasses hitting the world’s atmosphere due to fossil-fuel burning, accumulating over the decades.

The study notes that:

Here, we apply analysis to corrected data and show that, over the past 37 years, typhoons that strike East and Southeast Asia have intensified by 12 to 15 percent… a nearly 50 percent increase in instantaneous destructiveness… with the proportion of category 4 and 5 storms doubling or even tripling… We find that increasing intensity of landfalling typhoons is due to strengthened intensification rates which are, in turn, tied to locally enhanced surface warming on the rim of East and Southeast Asia.

Ramping Storm Intensity

This scientific study helps validate and clarify what many weather and climate observers have already noted during recent years. The destructiveness of storms striking land in East and Southeast Asia is not normal. And, land-falling category 4 and 5 storms are occurring with greater frequency over broader regions.

4-storms-take-aim-on-southeast-asia

(Four Pacific typhoons take aim on Southeast Asia during July of 2015. A new study finds that the landfall intensity of storms like these is increasing due to human-caused climate change. Image source: NOAA.)

The Western Pacific basin is now capable of producing storms like Haiyan, whose destructive intensity at landfall was mostly theoretical decades before. This increase in intensity has been observed during a period of rapid Earth warming. And with more warming in store, the storms are likely to grow even more intense. From the Nature Geoscience study:

The projected ocean surface warming pattern under increased greenhouse gas forcing suggests that typhoons striking eastern mainland China, Taiwan, Korea, and Japan will intensify further. Given disproportionate damages by intense typhoons, this represents a heightened threat to people and properties in the region.

Links:

Intensification of landfalling typhoons over the northwest Pacific since the late 1970s, Wei, M. and Xie, S.

NOAA

Asian typhoons becoming more intense, study finds

Commons

The Coriolis effect

More Fuels from Hell or the Renewable Grid? Stark Energy Choices for the Next Decade

Continuing to burn and extract fossil fuels comes at a terrible and rising risk for pretty much everyone. Thankfully, the capacity to reduce our dependence on these fuels from hell and transition to far less environmentally harmful energy sources is available like never before. But whether or not we make that choice as a society will depend on the actions of both political and economic leaders as well as individuals in the U.S. and around the world.

Biggest Oklahoma Earthquake Ever Seen and Fossil-Fueled Storms

In Oklahoma, the filling of fracking wastewater injection wells is applying a huge stress to the bedrock. There, the new presence of billions of tons of water is changing the way the land bears weight even as it lubricates existing fault lines. This change, in turn, is setting off earthquakes of never-before-seen intensity, not only in Oklahoma, but in many places across the central U.S.

usgs-map-fracking-earthquake

(USGS map of a fracking-related earthquake that struck Oklahoma City on Friday. Continuing to frack in the central U.S. will likely produce increased risk for such quakes even as it provides greater access to climate change-worsening fossil fuels. Image source: USGS and Arstechnica.)

On Saturday, one of these quakes reached a 5.6 magnitude near Oklahoma City, injuring one person, damaging a number of buildings in the historic section of town, and causing stock losses at local grocery stores. As earthquakes go, this was a moderate-intensity event, but it was the largest such event that Oklahoma City had ever seen. There is a reasonable and growing concern that the fossil-fuel extraction activity that is fracking could produce far worse — especially if sections of the New Madrid Fault Line to the east in Missouri become stressed.

Farther south, concerned residents in Louisiana, after suffering a 500-year rainfall event linked to climate change that dumped 6.9 trillion gallons of water over the state in just a few days, are attempting to block oil exploration leases in the Gulf of Mexico. This heavy weather is being born in a world in which increasing rates of evaporation are intensifying droughts in some regions and sparking powerful rainfall events in others. This type of extreme weather will continue to worsen so long as we keep burning fossil fuels.

500-year-rainfall-event-louisiana

(A 500-year rainfall event that dumped 6.9 trillion gallons of water over Louisiana in August — one of numerous climate change-related 500-year flood events hitting the U.S. in 2016 — helped to raise concerns and spark protests over the opening of new drilling rights in the Gulf of Mexico. Image source: Weather Matrix/Jesse Ferrell.)

Louisiana residents are starting to get worried, and with good reason. Now, hundreds of Louisiana protesters are valiantly attempting to prevent the opening of new fossil fuel leases that could free up another 30 billion tons of carbon-based fuels for burning. If such oil was discovered and brought to market, it would effectively add three more years to the lifespan of global fossil-fuel burning at a time when a rapid cessation of such burning is necessary to preserve anything remotely resembling a livable climate. Similar protests along the East Coast spurred the Obama Administration’s choice to close oil exploration leases in the Atlantic for at least the next five years. Sadly, thus far, no such positive outcome has occurred for the Gulf. After the recent exploration rights auctions, the production of these harmful fuels is one step closer to market.

A Huge Opportunity For the Alternatives

Fracking-related earthquakes in Oklahoma City and oil-lease protests as an upshot of climate concerns by citizens are just two events in a larger tapestry of conflict over the use of dangerous and volatile fossil fuels. As this conflict rages across the globe, new energy sources are starting to make inroads. In particular, wind and solar power during recent years have gone mainstream as electrical power generation sources. In the U.S. so far during 2016, more than 90 percent of new installed electricity generation capacity has come from wind and solar combined. On the current path, these two energy sources will account for ten percent of total U.S. electricity production by 2021, a more than five-fold increase in ten years.

Moreover, a recent report by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) finds that it is technically possible for the largest grid in the world (occupying the eastern U.S.) to receive fully 30 percent of its energy from renewable sources by 2026. These potentials do not include recent and projected advances in battery storage technologies, which provide an opportunity to further expand wind and solar generation by helping to make these clean energy sources less variable.

nrel-scenarios

(The National Renewable Energy Lab recently reported that the eastern U.S. could get 30 percent or more of its grid electrical power from wind and solar by 2026. Image source: NREL and Vox.)

Improvements in renewable energy cost and continuing technological advances have helped to drive this expanded access. In almost all major markets, wind and solar are competitive with fossil fuels on price. Utility renewable power purchase agreements (PPAs) now range as low as 2.5 cents per kilowatt hour while homeowners who install solar are often able to save money and recoup investment costs in as little as five years. In addition, the fact that wind and solar does not result in damage to water supplies, rising earthquake risks, various fossil-fuel related health hazards (related to air and water contamination), or the greenhouse gasses that have so wrecked our climate, adds another huge cost benefit to civilization at large — a strong justification for the continued subsidization of these fuel sources (as well as the obvious justification that fossil-fuel subsidies should be cut).

In the end, the action by political parties, economic leaders, voters, and individuals will determine which path we take over the next ten years. If solar and wind energy are suppressed by fossil-fuel interests strong-arming local and state governments (as they were in Nevada), if Republican climate change deniers continue to be elected to Congress or capture the Presidency, if economic leaders around the world continue to support government subsidies for fossil fuels, if capitalists continue to use financial market levers to suppress renewable energy industries, and if individuals do not take the increasingly available opportunities to reduce their fossil-fuel energy consumption and make the energy switch, then fossil-fuel burning will continue to increase over the next ten years and related harms will continue to ramp up.

However, if everyone makes the choice to start doing something about these rising problems now, then we have an opportunity to make a big leap forward, to make our civilization more resilient to climate change, to reduce climate harms, and to rapidly set out on a path toward a much-needed energy transition. Ultimately the choice of seeming ease in continuing to use fossil fuels is really one of seriously increasing pain. We need to make the other choice. And we all need to start doing it now.

Links:

Fuels from Hell

USGS

Biggest Oklahoma Earthquake Ever Seen

New Madrid Fault Line

Gulf Coast Residents Crash Oil Lease Auction

Facebook Weather Matrix

U.S. Solar Market Insights

Eastern U.S. 30 Percent Renewables by 2026

NREL

G20 Baulks at Ending Fossil Fuel Subsidies

Hat tip to June

Hat tip to Colorado Bob

Hat tip to DT Lange

Warm, Storm-Force Winds Blowing From the Equator Flip West Antarctic Winter to Summer

In a record-hot world, there’s a lot of lower-latitude heat just waiting for a weakness in the increasingly feeble Jet Stream to make a big poleward rush. Such was the case today as an intense wave of warmth exploded up from the Equatorial region and began to spread summertime temperatures over sections of West Antarctica — technically still in the grips of the Southern Hemisphere’s winter season.

image

(A surge of heat breaks over West Antarctica on September 2nd, 2016, pushing air temperatures over vulnerable coastal glaciers and ice shelves near or above the melting point [0 degrees Celsius]. Image source: Earth Nullschool.)

The warm winds began their southward turn about a thousand miles west of coastal South American and along the 20 degrees south latitude line. Tapping hot, tropical air, the winds then ran over hundreds of miles of open ocean — following the arch of a bulging ridge in the Jet Stream. These winds then gathered, howling through the Southern Ocean with storm force gusts of 50 to 65 mph before delivering their payload of abnormal warmth to West Antarctica.

Larsen C Ice Shelf Experiencing Above-Freezing Temperatures in Winter

Along the coast of Ellsworth Land, temperatures have risen to near the thawing point (0 degrees C), in winter, in a region that typically sees -2 to -3 C readings during summer. Temperatures that are 15 to 23 C above average (27 to 40 F) now range all over the Antarctic Peninsula and nearby areas of West Antarctica. Perhaps most dramatic are the 1.5 C readings coming from sections of the C region of the Larsen Ice Shelf bordering the Weddell Sea. There, downslope hurricane-force winds howling over the shelf are helping to spike local temperatures even as sea ice in the Weddell is splintered and shoved away from the Larsen C edge.

West Antarctic Heatwave

(A wave of 20+ C [36+ F] above-average temperatures blankets the vulnerable glaciers of West Antarctica on Friday, September 2nd. This pulse of tropical warmth is enough to drive readings over Antarctica to summertime or warmer ranges during winter, with some regions that typically experience below-freezing temperatures year-round nearing or exceeding the thawing point. Image source: Climate Reanalyzer.)

Larsen C is of particular interest due to a large crack spreading through its main body, threatening to break off a Connecticut-sized chunk of ice and disrupt the stability of the larger ice shelf. The most northerly of the remaining large Antarctic Peninsula ice shelves, this towering mass of frozen water serves to buttress a number of large Antarctic glaciers. Its loss or destabilization would allow these glaciers to increase their speed of ocean discharge and in turn, speed the rate of global sea-level rise. Needless to say, this combination of above-freezing temperatures during winter and hurricane-force winds won’t help to stabilize this now more than 120-kilometer long and hundreds-of-feet-deep crack.

Antarctic_surface_temperature

(Differences between average summer and winter temperatures over Antarctica. For sections of West Antarctica near the Antarctic Peninsula, Friday through Sunday will see temperatures more typical to Antarctic summer — during late winter. Image source: European Center for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts.)

A Winter of West Antarctic Heat — Larger South Pole Warm-up on the Way?

More broadly, warming this region to above freezing for extended periods is a concern among glaciologists. In the past (during the Pliocene and Miocene), when atmospheric CO2 levels have hit a range of 390-405 parts per million or above, West Antarctica (and ultimately East Antarctica) experienced warmth which resulted in seas that were many feet and meters higher than today. With atmospheric CO2 readings likely to average near 405 ppm during 2016 (or total greenhouse gas levels in the range of 490 ppm CO2e), it appears that frequent periods of summer-like temperatures and related increasing melt pressure are now possible during polar winter.

Over recent months, this section of Antarctica has been clobbered repeatedly by such spates of above-normal temperatures. Back in June, an odd Jet Stream excursion (gravity wave) pulled a big pulse of Equatorial heat over West Antarctica. Today’s event is just one of a number of recent big warm air invasions into this highly vulnerable zone.

CFSv2 Hot South Pole Summer

(More severe melt stress for Antarctic glaciers? NOAA’s CFSv2 model shows a ridiculously hot South Pole summer may be on the way. Side note — over the past year or so this forecast model has run somewhat cooler than actual temperatures for the Arctic region. Image source: NOAA.)

Taking this most recent warming event into context and looking forward into late 2016 and early 2017, at least one global forecast model is predicting a period of severe Antarctic warming during this time. NOAA’s CFSv2 model, for example, finds a very extreme Antarctic temperature spike emerging over pretty much all of Antarctica during the late Southern Hemisphere summer and early fall months of 2017.

Links:

Earth Nullschool

Climate Reanalyzer

European Center for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts

Another Blow to Glacial Stability

NOAA

Weather data provided by the Global Forecast System Model

Endless Hot Summer of 2016 — Heavy Arctic Sea Ice Losses, Record Temps for Alaska and Hermine’s Rains Barreling In

From the Arctic leveling yet another challenge to all-time record lows for sea ice, to a ridiculously long spate of hotter-than-normal temperatures for Alaska, to Hermine — which appears to be readying to drop 20 inches of rain over parts of the Southeast — there’s a ton of concerning climate news today. Let’s get to it.

Storms, Mega-Dipoles, and Shattered Sea Ice

A few weeks ago, big storms of near-record intensity started ripping through the Arctic. These storms saw numerous pressure dips into the 960-millibar range. These severe systems raked the ice with gale-force winds, heavy seas, and rainfall. A vulnerable ‘arm’ of ice extending out from the central Arctic toward Wrangel Island began to disintegrate under these multiple insults.

Melt Lobes

(The two frames above provide a good visual of the most vulnerable Arctic Ocean melt regions for early to mid-September. These primarily compose the Siberian side of the Arctic and run on toward the Pole. A mostly detached and storm-battered region of sea ice north of Wrangel Island [left frame] is likely to see continued losses through mid-September. At the same time, another vulnerable lobe of ice extending from the Pole to the Laptev Sea [right frame] is seeing substantial thinning. As southerly winds pick up later this week over the Barents and Greenland Seas, the Atlantic side of the Arctic [lower right portion of right-hand image] may also take a final blow or two before refreeze starts to kick in. Images provided by: LANCE-MODIS. Date for images: September 1, 2016.)

Meanwhile, another melting wedge running out from the Pole toward the Laptev Sea was increasingly wracked, showing severe losses along the ice edge even as large openings expanded, stretching in toward the Pole. As a result, major late-season drops in Arctic sea ice area and extent measures began to show. Unfortunately, the damage had only just begun.

Last week, this stormy pattern saw the added wrinkle of a strong high-pressure system in the range of 1040 mb intensity forming over the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas. This new system created an extreme pressure gradient between itself and the storms raging near the Pole and on the Atlantic side. Expert Arctic sea ice observer Neven aptly coined this condition the 2016 Mega-Dipole.

Neven's Mega-Dipole

(Neven’s Mega-Dipole featured a burly high-pressure system over the Pacific side of the Arctic as strong storms continued to rage across the Atlantic side on August 29th. The combined force of these systems helped further damage the already weakened sea ice as warm winds blowing between them pulled heat up from Siberia, generating a late-season temperature spike over the Arctic Ocean. Image source: Earth Nullschool.)

Strong winds blew between the juxtaposed low- and high-pressure systems. This convergence sucked an intense pulse of warm air up from the south, not only providing a severe blow to the ice from gales and waves, but also injecting a surge of late-season heat into the High Arctic. In addition to the damage being done to the two melt arms, the whole of the remaining contiguous ice was driven in one big push toward the Canadian Arctic Archipelago — a shove that has now likely resulted in the complete separation of the thinned near-Wrangel ice from the pack even as large polynya (or holes) opened up within 10 kilometers of the Pole.

Late Season Arctic Heat Spike

(A late-season temperature spike in the region above 80° North Latitude is helping to generate a surge in ice losses during early September. Image source: DMI.)

All this pushing and shoving and storming and low and high pressuring in the context of never-before-seen Arctic warmth has brought most of the major measures within range of beating out 2007 as second-lowest extent on record by mid-September. Meanwhile, a few of the measures are now making serious challenges to the 2012 record-low marks.

Over the coming days, the various high-pressure systems are predicted to shift more toward the Siberian side of the Arctic. Meanwhile, storms are expected to gather around Greenland, with some hitting the 970 to 980 mb range as they circulate up from the North Atlantic. Warm air is expected to funnel in from the Barents and Greenland Seas even as the region north of Greenland starts a cooling trend.

Sea Ice Extent Measures

SSMI

(Japan’s JAXA monitor shows [top left] sea ice extent beating out 2007 in the daily extent measure. Meanwhile, DMI’s EUMETSAT-based monitor shows [top right] extent falling to near the 2012 line. Sea ice area in NERSC’s SSMI monitor [bottom] over recent days comes uncomfortably close to the 2012 line.)

This hot-cold juxtaposition combined with ongoing pressure from storms, winds, and waves should continue to damage and expel the most vulnerable sections of ice in the near-Pole region and on toward the Laptev as well as the detached ice floes near Wrangel Island. Additional losses in the range of 150,000 to 300,000 square kilometers or more over the coming seven days are entirely possible. If this happens, it would be a rather severe rate of loss for early September all on top of a year that, on average so far, has seen lowest-recorded sea ice extents for the January-to-August timeframe and remains on track to hold that low mark through year-end.

An Amazingly Hot Year for Alaska

We should be very clear that despite all the storms and other weather drama going on over the Arctic Ocean, the primary cause for severe sea-ice losses is a record-hot world in which a lion’s share of the temperature rise is occurring over the far northern latitudes. And not too far from the melting Arctic sea ice, another Arctic region is also getting a big dose of this record heat.

This year, Alaska appears set to exceed all previous marks for warmest temperatures ever recorded during an annual period for the state:

(Through August 27, Alaska had experienced zero cooler-than-typical days, 22 days of relatively normal temperatures, and 218 days in which temperatures were in the top third of all daily averages. It’s a record that makes previous all-time hot years 2014 and 2015 look somewhat cool by comparison. Image source: Climatologist Brian Brettschneider.)

As climatologist Brian Brettschneider recently found, above, the number of days featuring temperatures in the top third of measurements included nearly nine out of ten of all days so far during 2016 and through August 27th. This extreme Alaskan heat has already exceeded the number of warmer-than-normal days during record-hot years 2014 and 2015. With four months in 2016 still remaining, and with the Arctic Ocean opening up to its north, it appears that Alaska is about to blow these previous record years out of the water.

Alaska in hot water

(Sea-surface temperatures surrounding Alaska are between 3 and 5 degrees Celsius above average. Such extreme ocean heat should help keep temperatures abnormally warm over the state for at least the next couple of months and continue to add to a period of record heat during 2016. Note that the graphic above shows temperature departures from normal ranges, not absolute temperature values. Image source: Earth Nullschool.)

La Niña is settling in, though. This would normally provide some hope that temperatures in Alaska might start to fall off a bit, but right now, the local ocean waters surrounding Alaska are extraordinarily warm. It’s as if the Pacific ‘hot blob’ that plagued the U.S. west coast in 2014 and 2015 has shifted north toward Alaska in 2016. This climate change-related warm-water feature is likely to continue to create a warm surface temperature bias for the state over the next couple of months.

20 Inches of Rain Possible for Parts of the Southeast

Moving south and away from the various heating and melting in the Arctic, we find yet another big rainstorm brewing in the moisture-stacked atmosphere of the Gulf of Mexico. In this case, unlike the big deluge that roared through Louisiana during early August, this collection of towering thunderheads has a name — Hermine.

Hermine 4

(Hermine, which may produce severe flooding over the U.S. southeast in the coming days, barrels toward Florida in this National Hurricane Center satellite animation.)

Punching up to minimal hurricane status early in the afternoon (EST) on Thursday, Hermine is predicted to make landfall along the big bend of Florida (pushing in 3-8 foot storm surges), track north into Georgia and then run up along coastal South Carolina, North Carolina and Virginia. Along this path, 4-10 inches of rainfall are expected with local amounts hitting as high as 20 inches.

To this point, The National Hurricane Center notes:

Hermine is expected to produce storm total rainfall accumulations of 5 to 10 inches over portions of northwest Florida and southern Georgia through Friday, with possible isolated maximum amounts of 20 inches. On Friday and Saturday, Hermine is expected to produce totals of 4 to 8 inches with isolated maximum amounts of 10 inches possible across portions of eastern Georgia, South Carolina, and eastern North Carolina through Saturday. These rains may cause life-threatening flash flooding.

As with past rain-bomb events this year, Hermine is churning through a record-hot atmosphere and feeding on overall record-high moisture levels. Sea-surface temperatures over the Gulf of Mexico and particularly over the Gulf Stream region of the Atlantic near the eastern seaboard are extraordinarily hot. Ocean surfaces off coastal Virginia, for example, now rival those along the eastern Gulf at near 30 degrees Celsius (86 F). The result is that a ton of storm energy in the form of heat and moisture is blanketing a big swath from Florida to the U.S. northeast. In this heat- and moisture-rich environment, even the high forecast rainfall amounts have a potential to be exceeded.

Hot Water Gulf Stream

(Ocean temperature and currents map for 8/30/16. Water temperatures in the Gulf Stream off the U.S. east coast are near 30 C [86 F] or about 4 C hotter than normal. This means there’s almost as much potential storm fuel for a hurricane off the eastern seaboard as there is in the northeastern Gulf of Mexico — fuel that can both provide energy for extreme rainfall events related to Hermine and for a possible rapid reintensification. Image source: Earth Nullschool.)

Moreover, Hermine is predicted retain a degree of strength over land due to this fuel even as it is expected re-emerge over water along the North Carolina sounds and then track toward the hot Gulf Stream. Along this track, the storm is expected to restrengthen and lash coastal North Carolina, Virginia, Delaware and New Jersey before it skirts Long Island and Massachusetts. Given the hot ocean waters, some models even show Hermine bombing into a significant storm with ECMWF model runs earlier today highlighting a potential for a 969 mb storm center off Delaware on late Saturday.

Fortunately, the storm center is currently predicted to remain offshore after re-emerging over open waters on Saturday. However, the large circulation of the system means that any reintensification will likely see some of the storm’s related rain bands swirling out over the mid-Atlantic and northeast coasts.

******

So from big sea ice losses to record heat in Alaska, to what’s shaping up to be another extreme rain event for the U.S. southeast, the climate hits just keep on coming. It’s all a part of the context of climate change that’s been steadily settling in over the past few decades, which paints a rather obvious picture of ongoing climate shifts and alterations to expected weather patterns — to include the loss of sea ice, the intensity of heat over Alaska and the severity of rains falling out during storms like Hermine.

Links:

Warm Arctic Storm Tears Sea Ice to Shreds

LANCE-MODIS

2016’s Mega-Dipole

Earth Nullschool

DMI

JAXA

SSMI

Brian Brettschneider

The National Hurricane Center

Dan Leonard

Hat tip to Colorado Bob

Hat tip to DT Lange

Hat tip to DavidlWindt

Hat tip to Jay M

Hat tip to the Arctic Sea Ice Forum

Hat tip to Greg

Climate Change May be Readying to Split the Heavens over the U.S. Southeast — So What Can We Do?

None of us are bystanders when it comes to climate change. Whether we’re aware of it or not, we’re all caught up in the most pressing trouble of our age. Our great burning of fossil fuels is steadily turning the Earth’s climate into something terrible. Once we realize this, the imperative for action becomes as clear and keen as a razor’s edge.

*****

Only a few weeks after severe rains inundated Louisiana, another powerful atmospheric bomb may be leveling its sights toward a broad region of Florida and the US Southeast. Rainfall amounts in excess of one foot are expected over portions of Florida as a tropical depression is expected to strengthen into a tropical storm as it churns in from a record-hot Gulf of Mexico. Coastal portions of Georgia, South Carolina and North Carolina may see 5-10 inches of rain over the coming few days. And long range forecasts indicate a possible tropical storm or weak hurricane threat to interests from the Outer Banks through New England by late this week.

The storm, fueled by unprecedented levels of ocean and atmospheric heat and moisture, has the potential to dump rains at rates capable of overwhelming local infrastructure. If this happens, vehicles and homes will once more be under the gun for severe and damaging flooding in a summer that has seen a seemingly endless litany of such events across the U.S. and around the world.

Florida Floods Inbound

(NOAA QPC forecast shows that parts of coastal Florida near Tampa could experience more than a foot of rainfall this week as a tropical depression moves in from the Gulf. Heavy rains are predicted to hammer most of Florida and the U.S. southeastern coastline. Such rainfall events are fueled by global warming which generates a heavier load of moisture held aloft in the Earth’s atmosphere, producing more extreme rainfall events.  Image source: NOAA.)

Behind the 8-Ball on Climate Change

Events like these increasingly drive home the point — whether we like it or not, we are now entering a new climate era. How dangerous and destructive that era will be still depends on our actions as individuals, communities, and nations.

Earlier this month, the IPCC issued two stark announcements. Though probably not a surprise to readers and researchers here, these statements will likely come as a shock to most of the climate-concerned world. The first statement indicated that the Paris 2 degrees Celsius target could not now be achieved without a rapid reduction of fossil-fuel burning to about zero combined with the application of a number of yet-to-be-developed negative carbon emissions technologies that would draw some of that massive, heat-trapping CO2 overburden out of the air. The second statement declared that given the likely difficulty of hitting the 2 C target, and considering the fact that 2016 will probably have already hit near 1.2 C above 1880s temperatures, the feasibility of keeping warming below Paris’ provisional 1.5 C target is now highly questionable.

In other words, even the fast-feedback biased Equilibrium Climate Sensitivity models show that the window for 1.5 C is probably closed and the 2 C window is slamming shut pretty fast. To this point, we should give a concerned nod to Hansen et al.’s shot-across-the-bow assessment of paleoclimate, where the 405 parts per million CO2 and 490 ppm CO2e currently in the Earth’s atmosphere hints that long-term warming from simply a maintained level of these greenhouse gasses is about 3-4 C (see How Sensitive is our Climate?).

Regardless of how climate sensitivity ultimately pans out, the world is in kind of a rough spot with some bad climate outcomes likely already locked in. Sadly, we are experiencing the first forays of these now, as the past week brings news of a freak lightning strike killing hundreds of Arctic-native reindeer in Norway, while three tropical cyclones formed simultaneously in the record-hot Atlantic. Tropical Depression 9 is expected to dump a foot or more of rainfall over parts of Florida just a couple of weeks after Louisiana experienced a flood disaster whose damages now rival that of Hurricane Andrew — resulting in a massive housing crisis with 86,000 people seeking federal aid.

Lake Mead New Record Lows

(Warming the Earth’s atmosphere increases both evaporation and precipitation intensity, resulting in more extreme floods and droughts. We see this in various record rain and drought events now ranging the world. At Lake Mead, Nevada — a key U.S. reservoir — water levels again hit new record lows this year, nearing the mandatory end-year rationing level of 1,075 feet. Image source: U.S. Lakes Online.)

At the same time, and on the other end of the hydrological scale from Louisiana (and possibly Florida), Lake Mead, Nevada, after suffering from a decades-long Colorado River drought, is edging closer to the mandatory rationing line where multiple states will see water supplies cut. Practically everywhere we look, from species migrating toward the poles, to ever-more-extreme weather, to the worst global coral-bleaching event on record, to the burning Amazon rainforest, to the thawing tundra, to diseases like Zika leaping out of the tropics, to algae blooms spreading dead zones into rivers, lakes, and oceans, we can see these climate impacts growing stronger and starker.

Meanwhile, near-future vulnerabilities are becoming clearer. In one example, the Department of Energy just issued a new report showing, as has been stated here on this blog many times, that our current centralized power infrastructure is very vulnerable to even relatively moderate levels of warming, related extreme weather, and sea level rise.

The trouble is getting locked in, but it becomes even worse if we continue to emit carbon, to burn fossil fuels. So given this harsh context — a context that should be a call to action for everyone living upon the warming Earth — there is now clear and present cause to both ask and answer the question, What can we do? How can we respond before climate chaos sets in and it becomes difficult or even impossible to act effectively?

Mobilization for Climate Action

Many years ago, I asked the same question of myself — what could I do?

Back in 2011, after having kept a close watch on the emerging threat that was climate change and after having read James Hansen’s seminal book, Storms of My Grandchildren, I decided that something had to be done. 350.org was holding a ‘stop the pipeline’ rally that November and I signed up to participate. I wanted to get arrested along with climate leader Bill McKibben, but I let myself be swayed by family concerns. So braver and more noble souls than I stood on that thin line. Nonetheless, I did my own small part. More importantly, I returned from the rally even more resolved and, in a few short months, I started this blog. My climate activism has continued ever since.

Stop the Pipeline

(350.org and NRDC’s spearhead effort to stop the Keystone XL Pipeline was ultimately successful due to broad and ardent climate activism. However, in order to prevent the worst effects of climate change, a great number of other pipelines, wells, and coal mines will have to be blocked or halted. It’s a simple fact, really, that we need to choose between a livable future and continuing to burn dangerous fuels. And that’s the reason why political participation and activism is so very important at this time. Image source: On Earth.)

Another person I respect, my father-in-law, is a long-standing member of the Sierra Club. If you’re not familiar, the Sierra Club is a 126-year-old environmental organization that supports an active transition away from fossil fuels and is currently involved in various anti-fracking and coal plant shutdown actions. This summer, my father-in-law participated in county meetings in King George, Virginia in an effort to get fracking banned in that region. For some reason, fossil-fuel interests are keen to frack King George. Apparently, there’s a decent amount of tight oil in this part of Virginia. In any case, my father-in-law helped to get strong anti-fracking regulations put in place for the county — so strong that the fracking interests are now, like TransCanada, threatening to sue.

We Can Do This Together

My good friend Colorado Bob used to be an oil worker. He, like so many of us, was part of a system that generated the harms that are now coming. Bob is now one of the most outspoken advocates for climate awareness and action that I know. For years, he’s written and linked to internet articles on the subject of climate change. He’s an active voice on some of the most prominent climate forums, like Weather Underground and ClimateProgress to name just a couple. Bob’s out there every day doing something to raise awareness, to educate people, to get us all moving in the right direction. Many of the concerned people who frequent this blog like Greg, Wili, Cate, DT Lange, ThereAreSoManyThings, TheSecularJurist, Kevin, June, Mulga, Redsky, Leland Palmer, Spike, Bill h, mlparrish and so many more have done something similar.

NASA Modified poster

(Houston, we have a problem… NASA recently modified this World War II-era poster to illustrate the need for a global mobilization to prevent harm due to human-caused climate change. Join NASA and become a part of that necessary action today. Image source: NASA.)

There’s an active debate ongoing as to whether or not climate scientists should become political advocates for climate action. Underlying this debate is a notion that climate change is somehow an issue with sides — that there’s some kind of legit, moral, non-biased middle ground a scientifically informed person can take. The truth is that climate change simply will continue to happen and worsen if we keep burning fossil fuels, and that non-bias in this case can swiftly tip into immorality. Once it is realized that climate change will result in mass migration, mass destruction of wealth and property, and a high risk of mass loss of human and animal life, it becomes abundantly clear that something must be done. These facts render the issue of climate neutrality in the sciences a moot point. Even those intending to remain non-biased will inevitably draw fire, as simply reporting facts on the issue, as Michael Mann found during the 2000s, has made scientists a target of fossil-fuel monetary and political interests seeking to obscure these facts from the public eye — a simple truth that scientists like James Hansen realized long ago. In his case, activism was not just morally courageous, it was practical and scientific. Something terrible was happening, would continue to happen if we didn’t do something about it. Hansen’s point on this was amazingly clear:

Only in the last few years did the science crystallize, revealing the urgency – our planet really is in peril. If we do not change course soon, we will hand our children a situation that is out of their control… [emphasis added]

As out-of-control as that future threatens to become, the bravery and resolve of some of this nation’s children in the face of that threat is, quite frankly, astonishing. If you think you’re too young to act, just take a look at Our Children’s Trust. In this case, a group of preteens and teenagers are taking on the federal government over climate change. They’re claiming that the government isn’t living up to its sacred pledge to protect their health and welfare. If these kids have the intestinal fortitude to go at the Feds with all legal guns blazing, to set aside huge chunks of their lives to take on an issue that is so important to everyone, then there’s no excuse for us adults.

Every Life Matters

Back when I was writing about Hurricane Sandy slamming into the U.S. northeast, my wife was involved in the sheltering of animals displaced by the disaster, as part of the response effort in the region. She and many others spent days housed in the gymnasium at a local community college, taking cold showers and eating rations provided by local disaster agencies, putting themselves at risk walking dogs as a powerful ice storm followed the devastating coastal low. Their compassion for the voiceless, the innocent and the helpless are a part of what we will need to effectively deal with climate change. Part of our challenge will be to help the living creatures and forests of our world survive the rapid warming and the climate disruptions that result. We must open our hearts to the plight of the innocent, the poor, and the voiceless, and not turn our eyes away in callous denial of harm done.

Fish Lizard Island

(When it comes to facing climate change, every life matters. From fish, to coral reefs, to forests, to polar bears, to companion animals, to human beings, confronting climate change is ultimately an effort to save lives. Great Barrier Reef image source: The Guardian.)

Have my father-in-law, Colorado Bob, McKibben, Hansen, Mann, Our Children’s Trust, my wife and tens of thousands of other advocates, scientists, and everyday people won the war on climate change? Heck no. We see the results of our present failings with increasing extremity each and every day. But the point is that our actions have mattered and, more importantly, have become a part of a potential for heroism on a mass scale, a global effort to shift energy and climate policy and to help those that suffer due to the changes. All of us have the opportunity now to become a part of what will probably be the biggest life-saving effort ever undertaken by our race.

A Call to Act

Big or small, all our actions have an impact and we can all do something through the simple impetus of deciding to do the right thing. We can join 350.org and the Sierra Club, we can vote for candidates who promise strong action on climate change, we can speak out in support of the science, we can cut the lion’s share of meat out of our diets, we can install solar panels on homes and businesses, we can ride bikes, and support electric vehicles. We can raise awareness among our families, friends and neighbors. We can plant gardens and help to rejuvenate the carbon-capturing soil. We can join community, state, national and international aid and response networks to help people and animals harmed or displaced by climate change. We can defend the IPCC and other scientific agencies from politically-motivated attacks by fossil-fuel special interests. We can all become part of the action supporting positive responses and blocking the use of destructive fuels like oil, gas and coal.

What we ultimately choose to do first is not as important as the simple decision to begin to do something. The important thing is to act, to act now, and to resolve to do more each day. To become a part of a necessary growing effort. To stand up and make the moral decision to become a soldier in a global mobilization, not only to fight for the lives of our children and grandchildren, but for all the poor and innocent creatures of this Earth — human or otherwise — who are now so vulnerable to a rising disaster of fossil-fuel burning’s making.

So please join with me in lifting our voices in this call to act, swiftly, with purpose, and now.

Links:

IPCC — Two degree climate target not possible without ‘negative emissions’

IPCC Special Report to Scruitinize Feasibility of 1.5 C Climate Goal

How Sensitive is Our Climate?

Climate Sensitivity, Sea Level Rise, and Atmospheric CO2

Lightning Kills 323 Reindeer in Norway

NOAA

350.org

Sierra Club

The Guardian

Our Children’s Trust

The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars

NASA

Weather Underground

ClimateProgress

King George Moves to Protect Water Supply From Fracking

On Earth

Storms of My Grandchildren

Our Grid is Incredibly Vulnerable to Climate Change

Bill McKibben

NRDC

Hat tip to Greg

Hat tip to DT Lange

Hat tip to Colorado Bob

Warm Arctic Storm Tearing Sea Ice to Shreds amidst Big 2016 Heat Spike

Abnormal. Unprecedented. Remarkable. Extreme. These words are supposed to describe unusual events, but in the weird world we’re now entering, the extreme has become commonplace. Some people call this emerging state of affairs ‘the new normal.’ A more direct descriptor is ‘spiraling into climate chaos.’

Chaos is an apt word to describe the scene in the Arctic this week as one of the most powerful summer cyclones ever to form rages in a place that has just experienced a record-shattering influx of atmospheric heat. This storm is hammering the sea ice, pushing it nearly to the second-lowest extent on record. But worse may be still to come as a very weak and diffuse ice pack is predicted to face off against a storm that’s expected to significantly reintensify on both Friday and Tuesday.

Record Arctic Heat

The Arctic. It’s a place we typically associate with frozen things. Due to the billions and billions of tons of heat-trapping gasses dumped into the atmosphere each year by burning fossil fuels, now it’s a place that’s thawing at a disturbingly fast pace. The region could best be described in these few words — record abnormal warmth in 2016.

(This graphic from University of California, Irvine Ph.D. candidate Zack Labe is a visual measure of a stunning jump in Arctic temperatures for 2016. So much heat in the Arctic has profound implications, not just for the Arctic ice and environment, but for the rest of the world as well. In other words — warming that happens in the Arctic doesn’t stay in the Arctic.)

So far, 2016 has seen temperatures in the Arctic that are well above the warmest previous year ever recorded. This big spike in a decades-long trend includes, for this single year, about 35 percent of all the temperature rise experienced there since the late 1940s. It’s like taking more than a third of all the warming in the Arctic seen over the past 68 years and cramming it into just one year. It’s insane.

The Warm Storm Generator

Heat in the Arctic doesn’t just emerge there. It comes, largely, in the form of energy transfer.

Heat-trapping gasses warm the atmosphere in an uneven fashion. The way these gasses absorb solar radiation results in more heat trapping during the dark of night. And the Arctic experiences a thing called polar night which lasts for months.

As a result, the Arctic already gets a slightly more powerful nudge from global warming than the rest of the world. As the cold begins to fail in the Arctic, a number of amplifying feedbacks come into play that further multiply the warmth.

image

(A dance of cyclones. GFS model rendering by Earth Nullschool shows a strong influx of heat from the Eurasian Continent and the Barents and Kara Seas feeding into a bombing low-pressure system on Monday at 12:00 UTC. The low is predicted to meet up with the currently raging Arctic cyclone by late Monday or early Tuesday. Combined, these lows are expected to drop into the 960s to 970s mb level, extending the scope of the strong event and possibly resulting in the most powerful cyclone ever to have formed this time of year in the Arctic Basin. Image source: Earth Nullschool.)

As the Arctic heats up, its natural barriers to heat coming up from the ocean or from the south begin to fail. The more evenly-warmed surface of the ocean transfers some of its heat north and pumps this added energy into the Arctic air. The lower sea-ice levels cause this water to warm even more, its dark surface trapping more of the summer sun’s warmth than the white ice ever could.

The polar Jet Stream begins to weaken as the relative difference between Arctic and lower-latitude temperatures drops. In the Jet Stream’s meanders, strong warm winds blow in from the ever-hotter continents and ocean surfaces of the mid and upper latitudes.

It’s a simple physical property of the atmosphere that burgeoning heat often seeks out the cold. It rises as it flows toward the Pole, and when it collides with these chilly pockets, the result can be an atmospheric maelstrom.

The Great Arctic Cyclone of 2016 Smashes Sea Ice

Such was the case earlier this week as a warm tongue of air flowed up into area of the Laptev Sea from Siberia. This warm flow tapped moisture from the Kara and Barents Seas and fed into a developing storm system (see article here). Pressures at the storm’s center rapidly fell and by late Monday, August 15th, had dropped to 966.5 millibars. The result was one of the strongest cyclones ever to form over the Arctic Ocean during August.

(We’ve probably never seen the ice so thin near the Pole during August. Zack Labe‘s rendering of SSMIS sea ice concentration measures from late July to August 17 shows a stunning degree of thinning and loss. Note the large, low-concentration holes opening up near the Pole in the final few frames.)

The storm rampaged through the Arctic. Pulling in strong winds and heavy surf, it smashed the sea ice, driving daily extent losses to 110,000 square kilometers on Tuesday and greatly thinning a vulnerable tongue of ice running out toward the Chukchi Sea. Meanwhile, near the Pole, great gaps 50 to 100 miles wide have opened up, revealing water that is 80 percent clear of ice.

The storm subsequently weakened, with pressures rising today into the 985 mb range. But over the next few days, the system is predicted to reintensify — first on Friday to around 971 to 978 mb as it approaches the Canadian Arctic Archipelago, and then again on Tuesday to around 963 to 976 mb when it loops back toward the Laptev.

Central Arctic Basin Sea Ice lowest Ever Recorded

(AMSR2 and SSMIS sensor reanalysis shows that 2016 Arctic sea ice area [black line] in the Central Arctic Basin — a key region for indicating sea ice health — hit new record lows over recent days. A signal pointing to risk that a challenge to 2012 records may emerge in some measures over the coming days as the 2016 cyclone is expected to re-intensify. Image source: The Great White Con.)

In each case, the storm is predicted to draw on heat, moisture, and low-pressure cells riding up from the south, with the first stream of energy feeding into this low from over the Beaufort and Bering Seas and northeastern Siberia, and the second running up from the Barents and Kara Seas, western Siberia and northeastern Europe (you can see the succession of lows and moisture here in this model run by Climate Reanalyzer).

If this happens, we’ll be coming out of a situation where a warmth-fueled Arctic cyclone will have bombed to record or near-record strength on two to three separate occasions, all the while applying its buzz-saw winds, waves and Coriolis forces to the sea ice — a full-blown nightmare Arctic sea-ice melt scenario in the midst of a record-hot year.

UPDATE (8/19):

A recent report by expert ice observer Neven over at the Arctic Sea Ice Blog (which is very informative) finds that storm impacts thus far have been significant, if not yet quite as extraordinary as the Great Arctic Cyclone of 2012. Overall sea ice area measures (not just those in the Central Arctic Basin indicated above) according to Wipneus have dropped into second lowest on record just below the 2007 line. Extent, meanwhile, in the JAXA measure after falling an average of 90,000 square kilometers per day, is today at third lowest on record — trailing 2007 by just 30,000 kilometers. Tracking for end of year now appears most likely to fall into a range near 2007 in many measures. But the current storm appears to have provided a potential for a stronger downward trend for the ice in which some measures (particularly various regional measures) have the potential to approach or exceed 2012.

Arctic Sea ice Chukchi

(Peering through the clouds on August 19 in this LANCE MODIS satellite shot we find that sea ice in the Chukchi appears to have been greatly reduced and thinned by the current cyclone. Loss and thinning of the ice bridge with the main pack means that this ice may have also suffered separation. Toward the Laptev, sea ice in the pack between that Arctic sea and the Pole is extraordinarily mobile and becoming more diffuse. These observed conditions still present a potential for large daily losses and further reductions in total sea ice coverage. So current tracking comes with a ‘risk of downside’ caveat. Image source: LANCE MODIS.)

One final point is that we are entering La Nina and such events tend to increase heat transport toward the Arctic and particularly into the Arctic Ocean. For this reason El Nino year +1 or El Nino year +2  can tend to present higher risk for greater sea ice melt totals. As such, and dramatic as the heat and melt in the Arctic has been for this year, it’s worth noting that what we may be watching is a set-up for 2017 or 2018 to see worsening conditions. La Nina is currently expected to be weak, so the related North Atlantic influence (NAO) that has been so devastating to the ice during the recent record warm years may be somewhat muted. We’ll have to see.

2016, however, is not entirely out of the woods. Thin ice in the Chukchi and an increasingly thin and diffuse pack extending from the Pole toward the Laptev remain very vulnerable to late season flash melt and compaction. Model runs today indicate the current set of storms tending to restrengthen on one or two occasions back to the 970s or 960s before finally ebbing on Wednesday. After this, some models show a tendency to flip toward a strong high pressure influence which would again wrench the ice (this time toward compaction). So the troubling 2016 Arctic melt drama is still far from over.

Links:

Powerful Arctic Cyclone to Blow Hole in Thinning Sea Ice

Arctic Sea Ice Graphs

Arctic Cyclone Update 1

Arctic Cyclone Update 2

NASA: Implications of a Warming Arctic

Zack Labe

Tropical Tidbits

JAXA Sea Ice

Earth Nullschool

The Great White Con

Hat tip to DT Lange

Hat tip to Colorado Bob

Hat tip to Bill h

Zero Percent Contained — Blue Cut Fire Explodes to 30,000 Acres, Forces 82,000 People to Flee

Rising temperatures. Deepening drought. Worsening wildfires. Such are the new climate realities for the State of California in a record-hot world.

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Yesterday, amid 100-degree heat and blustery winds, and on the back of a devastating drought nearing the close of its fifth year, a dangerous wildfire sparked in the Cajon Pass in San Bernardino County. Originating near Interstate 15 at 10:30 AM Tuesday, the blaze fed on the heat, strong winds, and bone-dry brush. In just two hours, the fire had exploded to 1,500 acres in size. Fanning out, it began to threaten homes and buildings within this well-known section of southern California.

(Tuesday feed tracking the early hours of the Blue Cut Fire provided by CBS News on Youtube.)

By early afternoon, emergency officials were scrambling to get ahead of the fire. More than 750 firefighters were mobilized as neighborhood after neighborhood emptied before the gigantic walls of smoke and flame. Sheriffs hurried from door to door, urging people to leave or notify next of kin. Residents spilled onto roadways shrouded by darkness as towering pillars of black burst into the skies above them. Joining together in long trains of cars, they formed a press of 82,000 fleeing the fire. By evening, homes along Highway 138 were engulfed, a local McDonald’s burned, and the famous Summit Inn on historic Route 66 was consumed to its foundations.

As of late Tuesday, the fire had swelled to 15,000 acres; Governor Jerry Brown declared a state of emergency. Numerous structures including multiple ranches and communities had been surrounded or invaded by fire. Tracey Martinez, Public Information Officer for the San Bernardino County Fire Department, made this announcement:

“We know that we’ve lost structures, it’s unknown how many at this time. This fire is still raging out of control.”

Blue Cut Fire Train

(Train passes in front of a section of the Blue Cut Fire in San Bernardino County, California on Tuesday. Image source: CALFIRE.)

Throughout the night, the fire continued to engorge even as more emergency personnel rushed to the scene. Burning embers, lofted on the updraft created by the fire, rained down upon the region. Spot fires ignited as the main body of the blaze expanded. As of early morning on Wednesday the fire had spread to 30,000 acres. At least 1,300 firefighters, 152 engines, 18 fire crews and ten air tankers were involved in fighting the blaze by that time. Despite this enormous effort on the part of emergency personnel, the fire was still zero percent contained.

Extreme Weather Worsens Risk, Produces Multiple Fires

On Wednesday, the weather forecast called for near-100 degree temperatures, very low humidity, and light winds in the San Bernardino area. Such conditions represent continued risk for fire expansion, though lighter winds may provide some slight aid to the hundreds of firefighters now on the ground.

West Coast Heatwave Brings Wildfire Risk

(Predicted west coast temperatures for Friday afternoon show readings in the upper 90s and 100s stretching into northern California, Oregon, and Washington. It’s exactly the kind of heat and dryness that can increase fire danger. Image source: Earth Nullschool.)

This weather pattern is part of a larger heatwave sprawling up and down the U.S. west coast. The heat and dryness have fanned two additional large fires in California over the past few days. In Clayton, a fire scorched 4,000 acres on Tuesday, burning 100 homes. As of Wednesday morning, this fire was listed as only five percent contained. A third fire, the 6,900-acre Chimney fire, is only 25 percent contained after consuming 40 structures.

Over the next few days, this heatwave is expected to expand northward along the U.S. west coast, bringing with it heat and the kind of bone-dry weather conditions that can worsen fire hazards. In Portland, Oregon, for example, temperatures are expected to challenge the 100-degree mark over the coming three days as humidity plummets.

Conditions in Context — Climate Change Increases Temperatures, Worsens Western Drought, Increases Fire Hazard

“It hit hard, it hit fast, it hit with an intensity that we haven’t seen before.” — Mark Hartwig, San Bernardino Fire Chief.

The Blue Cut Fire erupted during a five-year-long drought that is the worst in California history. According to the U.S. Drought Monitor, 33 million people in California are currently afflicted by drought conditions. This drought has been worsened by a human-forced warming of the Earth’s atmosphere and oceans. Under such warming, scientists have long warned, the risk of heat, drought, and fires increases. This stark condition is illustrated by the great unevenness of precipitation falling on the U.S. — in just the past seven days, more rain has fallen over parts of Louisiana than the total of all the precipitation for the past five years in San Bernardino.

Now, with global temperatures hitting near 1.2 degrees Celsius above 1880s averages, the pattern of persistent and worsening drought over the U.S. west has become clear. The Blue Cut Fire emerged in this context. And though this region of San Bernardino County has long faced fire risks, the danger, along with the heat, is on the rise.

(UPDATES to follow)

Links:

More than 80,000 People Flee Out-of-Control Blue Cut Fire

CBS News Feed Blue Cut Fire

Historic Summit Inn Gutted

The Clayton Fire

The Chimney Fire

Earth Nullschool

CALFIRE

The National Interagency Fire Center

The U.S. Drought Monitor

San Bernardino Precipitation Record

Hat tip to DT Lange

Hat tip to Colorado Bob

Hat tip to Greg

July was the Hottest Month Ever Recorded; 2016 Set to Make 1998 Look Cold by Comparison

July 2016 was the warmest July in 136 years of modern record-keeping, according to a monthly analysis of global temperatures by scientists at NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies (GISS) in New York. NASA GISS.

2016 — 99 Percent Likely to be the Hottest Year on Record by a Big Margin

In 1998, the world went through a big heat wave. In just one year, global temperatures jumped by about 0.15 degrees Celsius above previous record highs. Riding on the wave of an extraordinarily powerful El Nino, atmospheric CO2 that was then in the range of about 365 parts per million (and CO2e — CO2-equivalent greenhouse gasses — in the range of 415 ppm) pushed global temperatures to around 0.9 C above 1880s averages by year-end.

This extreme heat set off a rash of weather and climate disasters around the world. A global coral bleaching event sparked off. At that time it was only one of a few ever recorded and was seen by scientists as one of the early warning signs of global warming. Droughts, floods, and fires occurred with a then-unprecedented frequency. Some began to wonder if the bad effects of climate change were starting to take hold.

But 1998 was just a mild foretaste of what was to come. In the years that followed, new global temperature records were breached time and time again. 1998 was swiftly surpassed by 2005 which was again beaten out by 2010, then 2014 and finally 2015. Now, 2016 looks like it will end around 1.2 C hotter than 1880s averages. It appears that in just three years, the world will have warmed by more than 0.2 C. In the 18-year period since 1998 the world’s long and worsening hot spell will have increased its top range by as much as 0.3 degrees C, or more than 30 percent.

Gavin Schmidt, NASA GISS head, tells this tale far more succinctly, stating:

July data are out, and what do you know, still 99% chance of a new annual record in 2016.

2016 Hottest Year on Record

(Can you pick out 1998 on this graph? Look hard. You might find it… Driven on by record levels of atmospheric greenhouse gasses in the range of 490 ppm CO2e, global temperatures are in the process of spiking to around 1.2 C above 1880s averages in 2016. Climate scientists like Gavin Schmidt indicate that there’s a 99 percent chance that this year will be the hottest ever recorded. Image source: Gavin Schmidt.)

Another way to sum up how much the world has warmed since 1998 is the observation that the coolest months and years going forward are likely to be hotter than 1998 average temperatures. In other words, if we saw 1998 global temperatures now, it would be anomalously cold. The Earth’s natural cycling between La Nina and El Nino is, at this time, highly unlikely to produce a year as cool as 1998.

Hitting a New High Mark for Global Heat

As for 2016, the unbroken tally of record hot months has grown incredibly long. July itself, in NASA’s most recent announcement, has come in at about 1.06 C hotter than 1880s averages (and 0.84 C hotter than NASA’s 20th-century baseline). This makes the month we just went through the hottest month ever recorded in the global climate record by a substantial 0.1 C margin (beating out July of 2011 as the previous record-holder).

GISTEMP Anomaly

(Due to strong land-surface warming during summer in the Northern Hemisphere, July is typically the hottest month of the year. July 2016 was both the hottest July on record and the hottest ever month in the past 136 years of recordkeeping. Image source: NASA.)

At this point, you have to go all the way back to September of 2015 to find a month that isn’t now a new record-holder. And, as you can see in the month-to-month comparison graph above by NASA, many of the recent records have been very strong indeed.

Such heat has brought with it every manner of trouble. From droughts in the Amazon rainforest, to record-low sea ice levels, to worsening droughts, to a global rash of floods and wildfires, to the longest-running coral bleaching event ever recorded, to expanding ocean dead zones and lakes and riverways choked with algae, to tropical viruses like Zika marching northward as anthrax-carrying deer are coughed up out of the thawing permafrost, to the loss and destabilization of glacial ice around the planet, the picture of the world in 2016 is one of a place suffering far greater and wider-ranging climate disruptions than during 1998.

Now, given the considerable difference in impacts over just an 18-year time period and an approximate 0.3 C temperature increase, imagine what another 18 years and another 0.3 C or greater would unleash.

Portrait of the Hottest Month Ever — More Arctic Warming

July was just one part of this big upward jump in global temperatures and related extreme climate conditions. The distribution of that heat showed that climate-change-related polar amplification was still in full swing up north.

Above-average temperatures continued to concentrate near the vulnerable Arctic. NASA shows that temperatures in the region of 75 to 90° North Latitude ranged from around 1.4 to 2.1 C above normal. Such record-warm readings were likely due to loss of sea ice and consequent albedo reductions in the region of the Beaufort Sea and the Canadian Arctic Archipelago (see Arctic map here). Peak temperature departures in this zone hit as high as 7.7 C above average for the month — pretty extreme for northern polar July.

Conversely, a small pool of slightly cooler-than-normal readings hovered over the East Siberian Sea. But this small region was far milder, achieving only a peak 2 C departure below 20th-century norms.

GISS Temperature Map July 2016

(The hottest month on record globally shows highest above-average temperatures exactly where we don’t need them — in the Arctic north of Alaska, Canada, and Greenland, near the Yamal Peninsula and the Kara Sea, and in the south over West Antarctica. Image source: NASA.)

The broader region from Latitudes 35° S to 75° N saw temperatures ranging between 0.7 and 1.4 C above the NASA 20th-century baseline. This included the Equator at around 0.8 C above average despite the cooling effects of the Eastern Pacific which was starting to tilt toward La Nina conditions.

From 35° S to the pole, temperatures rapidly fall off for July with the region from 75° to 90° S seeing 1 to 1.6 C negative temperature departures. It’s worth noting that this Antarctic region was the only area to experience widespread below-average temperatures on the globe. Even so, West Antarctica stood as a noted warm outlier in this single large cool pool, with temperatures for most of the Antarctic Peninsula and adjacent inland regions hitting 4 C or more above normal.

Outlook — Predicted La Nina is Weak; Northern Polar Amplification is Strong

Cooler surface waters in the Equatorial Pacific are predicted to produce a weak, late La Nina for 2016 and early 2017. This event is not expected to be anywhere near as strong as the significant 2010 to 2012 La Nina. As a result, it will likely have a lesser overall downward effect on global surface temperatures.

GFS global temperature tracking

(GFS global temperature tracking indicates that August is likely to be as warm or slightly warmer than July, which puts this month within striking distance of another consecutive monthly global high temperature record. Image source: Karsten Haustein Climate Reanalysis.)

On the other hand, as August and September roll into October and November, Northern Hemisphere polar amplification is likely to intensify and this will tend to further buffer the downward temperature swing typically produced by La Nina. Therefore, it’s not likely that August to December temperatures will fall outside of the 0.95 to 1.15 C June-July temperature differential from 1880s ranges.

Current GFS model tracking for August (see image above) hints at a likely range between 1.05 and 1.15 C above 1880s values, which means that August is currently on track to challenge previous all-time temperature records for the month and that 2016 is continuing to solidify its extreme heat gains.

Links:

NASA GISS

Gavin Schmidt

Karsten Haustein Climate Reanalysis

BOM ENSO Forecast

NOAA ESRL

Hat tip to Colorado Bob

Hat tip to DT Lange

Hat tip to Ridley Jack

Powerful Cyclone to Blow Hole in Thinning Arctic Sea Ice

Back in 2012, a powerful Arctic cyclone smashed the sea ice with days of wind and waves. This year, a storm that’s nearly as strong threatens to make a similar mark on late-season melt. With a very unstable Arctic weather pattern in play, there’s an outlier possibility the dynamic is setting up for something even more dramatic by late August.

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Earlier today, a strong gale roared up out of the Laptev Sea north of central Siberia. Feeding on the abnormally warm, moist air over the Barents Sea and the hot air over northwestern Siberia, the storm collided with comparatively cold air over the central Arctic. The differences between hot/cold and damp/dry air can really bomb out a storm system.

Arctic Cyclone

(Storms, heat and moisture feed up through a high-amplitude wave in the Jet Stream over northern Europe and Siberia and into a developing Arctic cyclone over the Laptev Sea during the early hours of August 15, 2016. Image source: LANCE MODIS.)

Central pressures in the storm fell to 969 millibars and the winds whipping out over the Laptev, East Siberian, and central Arctic waters gusted at 45 to 55 miles per hour. Waves of 6 to 10 feet or higher roared through the newly-opened waters filled with increasingly dispersed ice floes.

The Great Arctic Cyclone of 2016?

This powerful storm is pulling these strong winds over some of the weakest and thinnest sections of Arctic sea ice. During July and August a huge section of ice running along the 80° North Latitude line and stretching from the Laptev, through the East Siberian Sea, and into the Beaufort Sea grew ever more thin and eventually dispersed. Now 25 to 60 percent ice concentrations in this region abound — a tongue of thinning which stretches nearly to the North Pole itself.

Powerful Arctic Cyclone

(A powerful storm running out of the Laptev Sea and into the central Arctic is threatening sea ice with strong winds, large waves, and the motion of abnormally warm surface waters. Image source: Earth Nullschool.)

The storm is generating waves, mixing warmer-than-normal surface waters with even higher temperature waters just below. These sea surfaces are between 1 and 2 degrees Celsius above average over much of the area, with pockets of 3 or even 4 C above normal surface water temperatures interspersed. The storm’s Coriolis Effect will spin chunks of ice out from the pack to float lonely in these warmer-than-normal waters as they are churned by the raging swells.

Storm Raging Over Warm Waters, Thin Ice

Currently, the storm’s strongest winds and waves are running through a big melt wedge that extends from the Laptev and East Siberian Seas toward the 85th parallel. The motion and force produced by the storm’s winds and waves will eject the ice currently located over the northern East Siberian and Chukchi Seas even as waves eat into it. Upwelling of warm water in the seas beneath the center of the storm will open and disperse the ice, generating holes and polynya as it tracks north of the 85th parallel and toward the Pole.

Thin Arctic Sea Ice

(Very low concentrations of ice, like those seen in this Uni Bremen image, are vulnerable to disruption and melting by storms during August and early September. Current ice thinning and dispersal are among the worst seen for any year. With a powerful storm now raging over the ice, impacts to end-season totals could be significant. Image source: Universität Bremen.)

Compared to the Great Arctic Cyclone (GAC) of 2012 — an event that helped to tip that year into the strongest late-season melt on record — this storm is a bit weaker. The GAC bottomed out at 963 mb and carried on for about four days. The current storm, by comparison, is expected to remain in place for quite some time even as it slowly weakens over the coming days.

Arctic sea-ice extent values are now tracking at around third lowest on record, or just above the 2007 line. Such a strong storm certainly has the potential to knock a big hole in the ice, possibly propelling 2016 closer to 2007 ranges or even beyond them. Surface waters in the Laptev, East Siberian, Chukchi, and Beaufort Seas aren’t quite as warm as they were in 2012, but there’s still a lot of potential here for storm-associated melt. Meanwhile, the very warm waters over the Kara and Barents Seas remain a disturbing feature.

Arctic in hot water

(Above-average sea-surface temperatures during late summer have more potential to rapidly melt sea ice when they are churned up and put into motion by powerful storms. Image source: NOAA NCEP.)

Models predict that lows will continue to feed in from the Atlantic and northeastern Siberia along various high-amplitude waves in the Jet Stream to combine in a triangular bite between the East Siberian Sea, the Laptev Sea and the Pole. Such continued reinvigoration will tend to enforce a generally stormy and unstable atmosphere. And there’s some risk (small, but worth considering) that the current storm could refire into something more powerful on the fuel provided by one of these lows.

Troubling Atmospheric Instability Loads the Dice for Future Bombification

Already, a few of the long-range models are popping with amazing predictions of storm-center intensity in the range of 950 to 960 mb. Both the GFS model and CMC models separately produced these results for the nine to 12 day timeframe. GFS had backed off its own high-intensity forecast when this odd CMC run popped up (see below).

CMC Arctic Megacyclone

(CMC 10-day forecast model run showing an extremely powerful 955-mb low just north of Svalbard on August 25th. Such a storm is low-probability at this time, but its formation would likely result in serious impacts to sea ice. Image source: Tropical Tidbits.)

Though these are long-range outliers, there is quite a lot of fuel for strong storms in the region this year due to conditions related to human-caused climate change. In particular, ocean surfaces in the Barents and Kara Seas are in record-hot ranges. And the heat and moisture coming off those waters is fuel for some serious atmospheric instability as the Polar region attempts to cool. Any significant cooling in the 80-90° North Latitude region would help to generate a strong dipole between this zone and the Kara-Barents. Such a dipole would create strong instability for storm generation.

A low bombing out at 953 to 955 mb in ten days, as the CMC model currently indicates, would represent an Arctic megacyclone with serious potential to wreck sea ice. The location predicted would generate a strong push of warm water from the Barents and Laptev and on toward the ice-clogged polar waters. The resulting Ekman pumping and powerful swell generation would have the potential to generate severe ice losses in the late August timeframe.

Probabilities for such a storm this far out are low, but given the underlying conditions, it’s worth putting a marker out. This is, therefore, a situation to watch. We’ve already got one strong storm blowing away at the ice. A one-two punch would hurt even more. In other words, the situation in the Arctic just got really interesting. Let’s just hope it doesn’t tilt into scary…

Links:

Big Cyclone

LANCE MODIS

Earth Nullschool

Universität Bremen

Ice vs. Storm

NOAA NCEP

Tropical Tidbits

For Louisiana, the Rains of Climate Change Fall Hard — More Heavy Storms Expected to Hit Central U.S.

Imagine, for a moment, that the Earth’s atmosphere is simply a big storm-generating engine. Imagine that the ignition trigger for this engine comes in the form of heat rising off the land and ocean surface. And imagine that the engine’s fuel is water vapor evaporated by that heat.

Keep the level of heat and water vapor constant, and you’ll get a continuous, steady stream of storms firing off. But increase the heat and water vapor content, as we have over the past 137 or so years, and the storms that engine produces become a whole hell of a lot more powerful.

In this context, in the last few days record atmospheric and ocean-surface heat helped to produce some of the highest water vapor levels ever recorded over Louisiana. This extreme moisture content, in turn, sparked some of the worst flooding ever seen for the state. From the Pacific Standard:

As the atmosphere warms thanks to greenhouse gas emissions, it can hold more water vapor — and this effect makes it exponentially more likely that extreme rainfall events will occur. The weather balloon released on Friday morning from the New Orleans office of the NWS measured near all-time record levels of atmospheric moisture, higher than some measurements taken during past hurricanes. The NWS meteorologist who reported this morning’s reading remarked simply, “obviously we are in record territory.”

By burning fossil fuels in such high volumes for so long, that’s what we’ve done. We’ve added heat and moisture fuel to the atmospheric engine such that historic, unprecedented rain events now seem to be a weekly occurrence. And the strength of storms hasn’t increased by only a bit: the strongest storms are now exceptionally more powerful than they were back before so much CO2 and other greenhouse gasses turned the Earth’s atmosphere into something the structures of human civilization aren’t really engineered to handle.

Amite River

(The Amite River hits highest crest ever recorded as sections of Louisiana see 20-30 inches of rain. Image source: NOAA.)

Today, the Earth’s atmosphere also has a bit more kick due to another contributing factor: The Earth is now cooling down from a strong El Nino that helped push the world to record-hot temperatures in 2015 and 2016. To be clear, this El Nino is not the cause of the record-hot global temperatures (nor of all the added extreme rainfall potential) — it’s the warm side of the natural variability cycle. However, when you add in human greenhouse gasses, each El Nino brings with it the risk of hitting new hottest temperatures ever. As those new hot temperatures are reached, the atmosphere gets another kick into a higher, more damaging storm-firing gear.

As El Nino cools toward La Nina, that heavy volume of extra moisture loses a bit of its atmospheric support. Imagine tons and tons of moisture held up only by the heat rising from below. Take some of that heat away, and a big portion of that huge volume of moisture is going to fall out somewhere as a big rain bomb. Over the past few days, these huge dumps of rain set their sights on Louisiana.

Louisiana Floods Worst Ever Recorded

About a week ago, a powerful flood of atmospheric moisture emerged from the record-hot surface waters of the Gulf of Mexico. Almost immediately, extremely strong storms bloomed, producing very heavy rainfall totals in the range of one foot or more along sections of coastal Florida and just offshore.

Over the course of the next few days, this big swirl of moisture, which in many ways resembled a tropical cyclone without the strong center of circulation, drifted west. By late Thursday, it began to move inland over sections of coastal Louisiana. It was then that the real inundation started. By Friday, reports were coming in that one foot of rain had already fallen in southeastern portions of the state. Throughout Saturday and Sunday, the rains just kept coming.

Historic Rainfall Louisiana

(Areas in blue on the precipitation map show regions that have received greater than one foot of rainfall over the past 72 hours. Note the huge swath in central southern Louisiana. Heavy storms have also hammered the central Mississippi River states and southeastern Texas. Image source: iWeatherNet.com.)

By early Monday, 72-hour rainfall totals showed that fully one-third of Louisiana had received more than one foot of rainfall (see map above). Local spikes within this huge swath have now exceeded two feet with total amounts as high as 30 inches reported.

As the heavy rains fell like never before, they pushed a historic flood of water down local rivers, many of which hit their highest levels ever recorded at various locations Sunday and Monday. As of Monday morning, the Amite River had crested six feet above the previous record high level at Magnolia and more than four feet above the all-time high at Denham Springs.

Currently, most of the eastern half of Baton Rouge and numerous adjacent communities are experiencing very severe flooding. There, 125 vehicles are reported stranded on Interstate 7 even as more than 1,000 homes have flooded. In Livingston, St. Helena Parish, and Tangipahoa Parish another 1,700 homes are reported to have flooded. With floods affecting operations, hospitals such as Ochsner Medical Center in Baton Rouge are being forced to transfer patients. Rail lines have been flooded out, telephone service cut off, and seven people are reported to have lost their lives with more missing.

Louisiana Homes Flooded

(Residents must use motor boats to access homes in southeastern Louisiana as around 20,000 residents have been forced to evacuate. Image source: KVEW.)

Throughout the region, more than 3,500 emergency personnel have been helping to evacuate those in the flood zone and hundreds have been plucked from the rising waters including a well-known college sports commentator and his wife. In total, more than 20,000 people and thousands of companion animals have now been rescued. Louisiana governor John Bel Edwards, who declared a state of emergency on Friday, watched aghast as his mansion’s basement flooded this morning, forcing him to join the displaced.

Unfortunately, storms continue to rumble over Louisiana, with one of these tossing out a lightning bolt that sparked a fire at a local oil refinery this morning (which was subsequently extinguished).

More Big Storms Predicted from Texas to the Great Lakes

Much of the moisture from the system that generated unprecedented flooding in Louisiana has since been pulled into a big trough stretching from Texas diagonally across the Mississippi into northeastern Ohio. Big storms are predicted to erupt along this frontal boundary today and tomorrow, with significant heavy rainfall expected.

Precipitation Map

(NOAA’s seven-day forecast shows very heavy storms from Texas to the Great Lakes. Image source: NOAA QPC.)

This precipitation pattern is predicted to remain mostly in place over the coming week as the frontal boundary stalls and then sags toward Tennessee. Areas expected to see heaviest precipitation totals range from Texas through northern Louisiana and into the Great Lakes region.

It’s worth noting that there’s still a huge amount of moisture in this system. So far, NOAA-predicted precipitation amounts have come up short of the heaviest amounts hitting local regions by as much as 50 percent or more, so unfortunately we’re likely to see more flash-flooding events over a broad area as the week progresses. With so much heavy precipitation falling along the Mississippi, it’s likely that a number of significant flood pulses will be headed toward portions of that large waterway.

Links:

Death Toll Rises in Historic Louisiana Floods — 20,000 Rescued

Historic Flood Event in Louisiana From 20-30 Inches of Rain

America’s Latest 500-Year Rainstorm

Total Rainfall Over Past 3 Days

Rain Bombs Set Sights on U.S. Gulf Coast

KVEW

NOAA QPC

NOAA Doppler Radar

iWeatherNet Weather Map

NOAA River Gauges

Hat tip to Bill McKibben

Hat tip to DT Lange

Hat tip to Colorado Bob

Hat tip to Jay M

Hat tip to Cate

Hat tip to Darvince

Smashing Through 490 — Fragmenting Prospects for Avoiding 2 C Warming

“The IPCC indicated in its fourth assessment report that achieving a 2 C target would mean stabilizing greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at around 445 to 490 ppm CO2 equivalent or lower. Higher levels would substantially increase the risks of harmful and irreversible climate change.” –Johan Eliasch

NOAA's Greenhouse Gas Index

(NOAA’s greenhouse gas index shows that CO2e concentration for 2015 averaged 485 ppm. Given recent rates of rise, the 2016 average should be near 490 ppm CO2e. At the latest, this key threshold will be crossed some time during 2017. Image source: NOAA’s Earth Systems Research Laboratory.)

*****

There are a few things we know about climate change that should really keep us up at night. The first is that the world is warming, and this warming of the Earth, in so many ways, is dangerous to human beings and all the other innocent creatures living here.

The second is that, over recent years, this warming has been very rapid. In the three years from 2014 through 2016, the Earth’s atmospheric temperature is likely to have increased by 0.2 degrees Celsius or more to around 1.2 C above 1880s levels. When thinking about this in absolute terms, it doesn’t sound like much. But in geological terms, this is very rapid warming, especially when you consider that, at the end of the last ice age, it took about 400 years to produce a similar amount of atmospheric temperature gain.

What all this boils down to is that as global temperatures have spiked, we’ve rapidly crossed an established climate threshold into a far more geophysically dangerous time.

Surging Levels of Heat-Trapping Gasses

405 parts per million carbon dioxide. That’s about the average level of CO2 accumulation the Earth’s atmosphere will see by the end of 2016, due primarily to fossil-fuel burning. It’s a big number. The Earth hasn’t seen a number like that in millions of years. But 405 ppm CO2 doesn’t tell the whole story of heat-trapping gasses in the atmosphere. To do that, we have to look at another number — carbon dioxide equivalent or CO2e.

The Keeling Curve August

(During a typical September and October, daily or weekly values may briefly dip below 400 ppm CO2, as detected at the Mauna Loa Observatory. But after September-October 2016, it’s unlikely that you or I will ever see such low levels of CO2 from that measure again in our lifetimes. Image source: Scripps Institution of Oceanography.)

490 ppm CO2e. That’s about the total amount of CO2-equivalent heat forcing from all the human-added greenhouse gasses like CO2, methane, various nitrogen compounds, and other gaseous chemical waste that the Earth’s atmosphere will see by late 2016 to early 2017.

Why is this a big deal?

Four reasons —

First, hitting 490 CO2e crosses the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change‘s (IPCC) lowest climate threshold. If this were a highway, and climate change were a collision, we’d now be careening through the first guardrail.

Second, 490 CO2e represents significant current and future warming (and there’s good reason to believe that IPCC’s estimates of that warming may be a bit conservative).

Third, it signifies that we have now fully entered the era of catastrophic climate change, with some bad climate outcomes almost certainly locked in as a result. We see a number of these instances now in the form of extreme rainfall events, extreme drought, coral bleaching, sea ice and glacial melt, threatened crops, ocean anoxia and dead zones, widespread harmful algae blooms, ocean acidification, and expanding infectious disease ranges. However, what we are experiencing now is just the tip of the (melting) climate change iceberg if we do not rapidly respond.

Fourth, if we were never really aware before that we very urgently need to get serious about swiftly cutting fossil-fuel emissions, protecting and regrowing forests, and working to help people to adapt to climate change, then this is our wake-up call.

Crossing the First Climate Threshold — 490 ppm CO2e

How did 490 ppm CO2e become a climate milestone? In short, it represents the threshold at which the first of four global-warming scenarios is basically locked in.

To understand this more, we need to take a closer look at these four scenarios, which were established by the IPCC in 2007. The IPCC calls these scenarios Representative Concentration Paths or RCPs. The four potential pathways are informed by the amount of fossil fuels potentially burned through the year 2100, the levels of CO2e heat-trapping gasses in the atmosphere as a result, and how much the world consequently warms over this timeframe.

RCPs range from 2.6 to 8.5 watts per meter squared, with these measurements indicating the amount of added heat from the greenhouse gas additions trapped at the top of the atmosphere. A more direct measure is to look at the total greenhouse gas thresholds for each scenario. Broken down, the four RCP pathways represent 490 ppm CO2e (RCP 2.6), 650 ppm CO2e (RCP 4.5), 850 ppm CO2e (RCP 6.0), and 1370 ppm CO2e (RCP 8.5). For reference, atmospheric CO2e levels just prior to the start of large-scale fossil fuel burning were around 300 ppm. By comparison, 1370 ppm CO2e is about equivalent to the levels during some of the worst hothouse mass extinctions the Earth has experienced.

In a nutshell, RCPs represent potential warming scenarios. A middle-range temperature increase estimate by the year 2100 for each scenario can be seen below in this table provided by Skeptical Science:

rcp pathways

Developed at the IPCC’s 2007 meeting, these RCPs also describe a range of potential human civilization responses to global warming. RCP 2.6 allows for fast emissions cuts beginning at the time of the 2007 meeting. These cuts would swiftly level off and then reduce fossil-fuel emissions and ultimately generate one of the milder warming scenarios. The IPCC envisioned that warming would remain near 1.5 C this century under these emissions cuts. Scientists hoped this scenario would allow the avoidance of most of climate change’s bad outcomes.

RCP 4.5 assumes somewhat less aggressive emissions cuts, with fossil-fuel burning and related carbon emissions peaking near 15 billion tons per year by the mid-2040s. Stronger warming is locked in with this scenario — about 2.4 C according to IPCC — and scientists were doubtful that serious climate impacts could be avoided.

emissions-graph-rpc-small

(We’ve pretty much missed the window for the IPCC’s mildest possible climate scenario, RCP 2.6, which would have required strong policies and policy support almost immediately following the IPCC’s 2007 meeting. Image source: Skeptical Science.)

RCP 6.0 shows emissions cuts that are slow to unfold. Global carbon emissions would peak around 19 billion tons per year by 2060 and then rapidly drop off. Warming under this scenario is considerable, hitting 3 C by the end of this century. So much warming and such high levels of greenhouse gasses would result in some seriously bad outcomes.

The final pathway, RCP 8.5, represents an absolute nightmare climate scenario. Under this path, real emissions cuts are not achieved. Despite growth in renewable energy, all energy use continues to grow as well, including fossil fuels. As a result, in this scenario, the IPCC expects the Earth to warm by a catastrophic 4.9 C by 2100.

In the context of understanding climate change, particularly for someone interested and patient enough to read the IPCC reports, the various RCP scenarios were a real help in exploring climate change options and outcomes. They helped many scientists and policymakers provide clear warnings and rewards for action by governments, the public, and business leaders.

projected impacts of climate change

(Climate change produces multiple difficult-to-predict impacts. As temperatures rise, conditions grow ever more extreme. In the graph above, it’s worth noting that sea-level rise is already an issue for many cities and regions including numerous Pacific islands, Bangladesh, the Indus Delta region, South Florida, New Orleans, New York, and the various low-lying coastal and river delta regions around the world. Image source: Federal Highway Administration.)

But despite very clear communication and activism from scientists like Dr. James Hansen, policy bloggers like Joe Romm, and climate activists like Bill McKibben, overall global emissions policy has not moved swiftly enough to stay within the RCP 2.6 pathway in the 9 years since its creation. In fact, decent global emissions reduction policies didn’t begin to universally take hold until recently, in 2014 and 2015, and those implemented were often ardently opposed by fossil fuel-related political interests in countries like Australia, Great Britain, Germany, Canada, and the United States.

As a result, emissions stayed near or just below worst-case pathway ranges (RCP 8.5). As of this year, the window for achieving the RCP 2.6 scenario — or the mildest and most optimistic warming scenario — appears to have closed.

Possibly More Warming From 490 CO2e Than We Feared

Hitting 490 CO2e in 2016 means that the 1.5 C warming IPCC predicted for this amount by 2100 is almost certainly locked in. With the world hitting near 1.2 C above 1880s temperature averages in 2016, some reasonable questions have been raised, the most relevant being if 490 ppm CO2e will result in more warming than IPCC predicted.

To be fair, the 1.5 C figure above is a simplification of model predictions ranging from about 0.9 C to around 2.3 C during this century under a 490 ppm CO2e forcing. However, since we’ve already surpassed the lower portion of this range, and we’re barely into the beginning of this century, it appears that some of the lower sensitivity model runs were rather far off the mark. Moreover, paleoclimate proxy temperature data indicates that 490 ppm CO2 during the Middle Miocene produced warming in the range of 4 C long-term (over hundreds of years). Given this implied long-term impact, and coupled with annual readings that are already in the 1.2 C range, it’s possible to infer an ultimate warming closer to 2 C by 2100 from a maintained 490 ppm CO2e. Hitting such a mark would only require about 0.11 C warming per decade — a rate of decadal warming about 40 percent slower than the temperature rise seen from the late 1970s through the 2010s.

Arctic Sea Ice August 9 2016

(Amplifying feedbacks due to loss of sea ice reflectivity in the Arctic and Antarctic, reduced carbon-store uptake and carbon-store emissions can result in an overall greater sensitivity to an initial heat forcing such as the current 490 ppm CO2e. Paleoclimate proxies hint that these feedbacks may cause the Earth System to be more sensitive than IPCC models currently indicate. Image source: LANCE MODIS.)

The paleoclimate-implied warming from the other climate scenarios is likely higher as well. RCP 4.5 probably hits closer to 3 C under such a climate sensitivity range. RCP 6.0 probably sees 4 to 4.5 C warming by 2100. And the worst-case RCP 8.5 probably achieves closer to 6 C warming.

It’s for these and other reasons that some scientists say that avoiding 1.5 C at this time is probably impossible. Meanwhile, it’s pretty reasonable to say that avoiding 2 C presents a huge challenge requiring a very rapid response, a goal that will probably require reducing the atmospheric CO2e levels below their current ranges.

CO2e Increasing by 3 ppm Per Year

Human beings are still dumping massive volumes of carbon into the atmosphere. Carbon emissions are still near record-high levels. As a result, atmospheric CO2e levels are rising by about 3 ppm or more each year. For 2016, CO2 alone may rise by 3.4 ppm or more, and CO2e may jump by more than 4 ppm — to hit near 490 ppm CO2e. This is due in part to the 2015-2016 El Nino’s cyclical warming of the Equatorial oceans, forests, and lands on top of the already-strengthening heat of human warming. And this added heat reduces the ability of these carbon sinks to take in CO2.

Even if this rate of CO2e rise is just maintained, it’s possible that we’ll see 1.5 C warming not by the end of this century, but by the early 2030s. And as the world heats up, it’s likely we’ll see additional emissions coming as carbon sinks become stressed and stop taking in such high volumes of greenhouse gasses or even turn into sources.

The result is that the challenge presented to us now is far greater, far more urgent than that of 2007. We risk, over the next few decades, locking in not just 2 C warming, but 3 C warming or more if we do not act swiftly and seriously. And with 1.5 C warming coming with almost 100 percent certainty, we need to ramp up climate-change mitigation strategies as well as provide aid and succor for the increasing harms, dislocations, and inequalities that will likely emerge.

Links:

NOAA’s Earth Systems Research Laboratory

The Keeling Curve

Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change

Hansen and Sato Estimated Paleoclimate Temperatures

Skeptical Science — Beginner’s Guide to RCP Scenarios

Transportation’s Role in Reducing Greenhouse Gas Emissions

LANCE MODIS

Carbon Sinks in Crisis

Climate Change — Financing Global Forests

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