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Warning From Scientists — Halt Fossil Fuel Burning Fast or Age of Superstorms, 3-20 Foot Sea Level Rise is Coming Soon

First the good news. James Hansen, one of the world’s most recognized climate scientists, along with 13 of his well-decorated fellows believe that there’s a way out of this hothouse mess we’re brewing for ourselves. It’s a point that’s often missed in media reports on their most recent paper — Ice Melt, Sea Level Rise, and Superstorms. A paper that focuses on just two of the very serious troubles we’ll be visiting on ourselves in short order if we don’t heed their advice.

The way out? Reduce global carbon emissions by 6% each year and manage the biosphere such that it draws carbon down to 350 ppm levels or below through the early 22nd Century. To Hansen and colleagues this involves a scaling carbon fee and dividend or a similarly ramping carbon tax to rapidly dis-incentivize carbon use on a global scale. Do that and we might be relatively safe. Safe, at least in the sense of not setting off a catastrophe never before seen on the face of the Earth. That’s pretty good news. Pretty good news when we consider that some of the best climate scientists in the world see an exit window to a hothouse nightmare we’re already starting to visit upon ourselves.

The bad news? According to Hansen and colleagues, even if we just continue to burn fossil fuels and dump carbon into the atmosphere at a ‘moderate’ pace some of the terrifically catastrophic impacts of human caused climate change are not too far off.

A Moderate Pace of Burning

The new Hansen paper takes a look into both our geological past and our climate future in an attempt to give us an idea what may be in store. In this scenario, model, and paleoclimate based study, Hansen and colleagues assume two things about global human civilization. The first assumption is that we don’t follow the worst case, business as usual carbon emissions policies that lead to around 1000 ppm CO2 in the atmosphere by 2100. It is instead assumed that some effort is given to reducing coal, oil, and gas consumption. That some renewable energy, increased efficiency and behavior changes replace a significant portion of future fossil fuel emissions. But the most effective solution — a complete transition away from fossil fuel burning over the next few decades — fails.

A1B1

(A1B is a ‘moderate’ emissions scenario that, according to model essays, is likely to see between 2.5 and 3.5 C warming by the end of this Century and around 700 ppm of CO2 accumulation. That is, without the kind of major ice sheet response indicated in the new Hansen study. Image source: Knutti and Sedlacek.)

As a result, we end up with around 700 parts per million carbon dioxide in the atmosphere by 2100. In such a case we’ve followed what the IPCC community terms as the A1B or ‘moderate’ fossil fuel emissions scenario.

A Question of Melt Rate Doubling Time

It is in this context that the Hansen paper attempts to determine a key factor that will have wide-ranging impacts on ocean health, the continued existence and lifespan of coastal cities, and on the severity of the weather itself. That factor is captured by a single simple question — if we continue a moderate pace of fossil fuel burning, then how rapidly will ice sheet and ice shelf melt double?

To Hansen this is a critical question. One he has already done quite a bit of work to answer over recent years. And according to his findings it looks as if land ice melt rates for both Greenland and West Antarctica could now be doubling every 5-20 years. It’s a doubling rate that may find a historical allegory in the milder yet still intense glacial outflows of times long past. And it’s something that, according to Hansen, is being directly driven by an extreme pace of human-based greenhouse gas accumulation.

The Eemian — Significant Sea Level Rise and Terrible Storms Under Far Lower CO2 Forcing

To this point, Hansen’s new paper takes a dive into the paleoclimate study of an ice age interglacial that bears some stunning similarities to our own, human warmed, time period. He looks at the Eemian, a warm period that occurred 130,000 to 115,000 years ago. A period that featured temperatures in the range of 1-2 C above 1880s values (we’re in the process of hitting 1 C above 1880s values this year). A period in which CO2 levels were in the range of 285 parts per million (about 15 parts per million higher than the Holocene average before humans spiked that level to 400 parts per million during recent years). And a period that, according to Hansen’s broad study of past research, included numerous Heinrich type glacial outburst and melt events.

Back then, at 285 parts per million CO2 levels, seas were as much as 5-9 meters (16 to 30 feet) higher than they are today. The global climate, on the other hand, was much stormier. For two Heinrich type events that Hansen investigated were found to have dramatic impacts on severe storms in the North Atlantic during the Eemian. Hansen found large boulders propelled up onto the islands of Bermuda and the Bahamas by what appear to be powerful storm waves. Hansen also noted chevron shaped wave channels carved into the calcified sand beds in the Bahama Island Chain.

Heinrich Event

(Heinrich events included major glacial outflows like the one seen here at Jacobshavn, Greenland. Note the significant ice volume outflow through the channel at center frame. Also note the white dots in Baffin Bay indicating ice berg discharge. For reference, bottom edge of frame is about 100 miles. In past Heinrich Events outflows like the one seen above hit high gear as glaciers released armadas of ice bergs into the oceans which generated ocean and atmospheric changes. As the ice bergs melted, they deposited rocks on the sea bed. These piles of ice raft debris then became a signature geological feature of Heinrich events in the ancient past. Image source: LANCE MODIS.)

It paints an overall picture of very stormy weather in the North Atlantic as a result of these Heinrich ice sheet melt episodes affecting Greenland and West Antarctica. These melt events drove fresh water out into the North Atlantic and the Southern Ocean at the rate of about 0.5 to 1 meters of sea level rise per century. The expanding cold, fresh water along the surface zones in the upper latitude waters shut off heat exchange between the ocean and the atmosphere by generating a stratified ocean state. This fresh water wedge interrupted the plunging of heavier, salt-laden waters in the North Atlantic and the Southern Ocean. A loss of heat exchange that resulted in the cooling of airs directly over the fresh water outflow pools.

Meanwhile, since heavy, saltier waters were no long diving to the ocean bottom in these regions — broader ocean circulation was interrupted. As a result, heat from the equator was no longer traveling poleward. The equator warmed. The cold, fresh water outflow regions cooled. And this high temperature gradient subsequently became a powerful storm generator — providing extreme baroclinic potential energies for the storms that likely reshaped the ocean bottom and deposited massive boulders upon islands throughout the North Atlantic.

It’s worth noting that the 5-9 meter sea level rise during the Eemian occurred in the context of global temperatures that are now similar to our own (1-2 C above 1880s values). But it’s also worth considering that the underlying CO2 and greenhouse gas conditions for the current age are far, far worse. Peak global CO2 during the Eemian never hit higher that 285 parts per million. For the Anthropocene age we are now leaving the 400 parts per million CO2 level in the dust. Meanwhile, the pace at which we are warming is also more than 10 times faster than the pace of warming to peak Eemian heat values. And it’s these two factors — an extreme greenhouse gas overburden combined with a very rapid pace of warming that has Hansen and colleagues very concerned about our climate situation over the next 10-80 years.

Land Ice Below Sea Level — Amplifying Feedback For Melt

Turning to the current day, there’s a growing number of reasons why we should be concerned that rapid land ice melt, large fresh water outflow to oceans, and resulting superstorms could be in our future. First, we’ve learned that the topography of Greenland and Antarctica include numerous channels that tunnel deep into its great glaciers at depths well below sea level. When oceans warm, and they’re warming as you read this, the submerged, sea-facing slopes of glaciers are confronted with more and more heat gnawing away at their under-bellies. Just a 0.1 C increase in water temperature can melt away a meter of ice over the course of a year. Multiply that by glaciers with faces that are submerged hundreds of feet deep whose sea fronting cliffs extend for many miles and you can end up with quite a lot of melt due to very little warming. As more of the undersides of glaciers melt, more of the water tunnels inland and large masses of ice are rafted away from the central ice exposing still more of the land anchored ice to a warming ocean flood.

image

(Image from Hansen Paper shows how land ice melt generates ocean stratification which is an amplifying feedback that enables ocean bottom warming and more land ice melt. Note — AABW stands for Antarctic bottom water, NADW — North Atlantic down welling. Image source: Ice Melt, Sea Level Rise, and Superstorms)

As bad as this dynamic may sound, the process includes one more wrinkle that makes it even worse. As the undersides of ice shelves erode and more fresh water laden ice bergs are pulled out into the ocean, these ice bergs begin to melt en mass. This massive ice melt develops into an enormous and expanding pool of fresh water at the surface. And its this troublesome demon that traps heat in the deeper ocean levels. So, in other words, as the ice from the land glaciers floats away and melts it traps and focuses more heat at the base of these great glaciers. It’s an amplifying feedback. A very serious kind that doesn’t even require the human forced kick to create severe trouble. One that during the Eemian really wrecked the weather and caused massive surges in ocean height.

It’s a process that Hansen and his colleagues believe make both Greenland and West Antarctica very vulnerable. A process that could, when combined with the high velocity human heat forcing, produce melt rates that double every 20, 10 or even every 5 years. But of the two — Greenland or Antarctica — which is worst off?

Greenland topography

(Topographic map of Greenland sans its great ice sheet. Most of central Greenland’s mass is now below sea level. It’s a basin that now holds a miles high ice mountain. Various channels allow ocean water access to the central ice mass should the channel openings melt due to warming oceans. Such an invasion could set off a rapid sea level rise driven by Greenland melt. Image source: Livescience.)

Greenland, for its part, is little more than a great Archipelago held together by its stunning ice mass. Remove the ice and the interior of Greenland would flood, leaving a ring of islands as a final remnant. Though deep, most of these channels run up slope. And this feature, according to the Hansen study, may be one saving grace for potential Greenland ice melt pace. Up slope channels limit the impact of basal melt by serving to check rates of catastrophic destabilization. So though Greenland is certainly vulnerable to ice melt due to the fact that many channels cut hundreds of feet below sea level and into the island’s glacial heart, it is not as vulnerable as West Antarctica.

There, many channels cut deeper beneath the Antarctic ice mass. But not only are they below sea level by hundreds of feet as with Greenland, they slope down. They slope down and not for just a little ways under the ice sheet — some of these ocean heat skids extend in down-sloping fashion for hundreds of miles beneath the Antarctic ice. The result is a kind of skid, that once unlocked by initial melt, can continue to expose larger and large chunks of bottom ice to the warming ocean. Allowing, ultimately, the creation of new warming seas underneath the ice and floating it away in very rapid fashion.

In West Antarctica, ice shelves facing the Weddell and Ross seas both feature these dangerous retrograde slopes. In East Antarctica, the Totten Glacier is likewise vulnerable as are many other glaciers surrounding the vast periphery of Antarctica.

Retrograde slope Ross ice shelf

(Retrograde slopes behind ice sheet grounding lines are just one reason why Antarctic land ice is so unstable. Image source: Ice Sheet Mass Balance and Climate Change.)

Finally, in addition to being surrounded by the warming, deeper waters of the Southern Ocean, in addition to featuring dangerous retrograde slopes that channel warming sea water further and further inland and beneath the ice sheets, West Antarctica itself sits on a geological hot bed. Though not mentioned in the Hansen study, recent work also highlighted that West Antarctica rests atop a geologically active zone that had formed numerous sub-glacial lakes warmed by geological activity. This added geological heat makes West Antarctica that much less stable — an instability that when given the shove of human heated oceans is leading the Larsen B Ice Shelf to completely collapse by 2020. It makes Antarctic land ice that much more vulnerable to the added heat human beings are forcing into the oceans and opens up the ominous possibility that melt rate doubling times for West Antarctica could become quite extreme indeed.

Modeling Land Ice Melt’s Impact in the 21st Century — Facing A Coming Age of Superstorms

So what does all this mean? In the worst case (5-10 year melt rate doubling times), it’s possibly 3 meters of sea level rise by mid Century, perhaps 7 meters by end Century under business as usual fossil fuel emissions. Even in the more moderate cases (10-20 year melt rate doubling times), 1 meter of sea level rise by mid Century and 3 meters or more of sea level rise by end Century is not entirely out of the question, according to Hansen’s new research. These potentials are markedly different than the more conservative rates outlined by IPCC which is still calling for a less than 1 meter sea level rise under even the worst case human carbon emissions scenarios (1000 parts per million CO2, in the range of 1200 ppm CO2e).

So much fresh water hitting the oceans would cause a rapid stratification. A rapid loss of ocean to atmosphere heat exchange in the regions impacted. A train wreck of heat backing up at the equator. Such a train wreck would result in temperature extremes and gradient differences that would make the Eemian Heinrich events (mentioned above) seem moderate and slow by comparison.

Hansen has been working on global atmospheric models for tracking these events for a number of years now. And this new study is an improvement on his earlier, model-driven “Storms of My Grandchildren” work. Hansen’s new model runs are imperfect simulations of what may happen given large melt pulses from Greenland and Antarctica. The models, according to Hansen, mix the ocean water too much, reducing the overall impacts of stratification through the mechanism of the fresh water wedge. However, even with this imperfection, the temperature gradients displayed by these models are absolutely stunning. A clear warning to anyone who still wants to keep burning fossil fuels that they’re really grabbing the dragon by the tail.

image

(A mid range simulation including 10-20 year melt rate doubling times and 6 feet of sea level rise by 2080 — half Greenland, half Antarctica — shows enormous weather impacts in the form of a severe, superstorm generating, temperature gradient. Image source: Ice Melt, Sea Level Rise, Superstorms.)

In the above image we can see just one of these model runs. The model assumes a 10-20 year doubling time for rate of land ice melt. It contributes equal portions of melt from Greenland in the north and Antarctica in the south. Greenhouse gas accumulation is considered to be along the moderate case A1B track. By 2080 we have about six feet of sea level rise globally and about 600 parts per million CO2 in the atmosphere. The more rapid rate of melt has put a temporary damper on the rate of global atmospheric warming which has dipped to 1.11 C above 1880s values (just slightly higher than today). But much of this cooling is localized to the Southern Ocean and to an extreme cold pool in the North Atlantic between Northwestern Europe and Greenland.

There a massive outflow of fresh water has shut down the ocean’s ability to exchange heat with the atmosphere. AMOC has been vastly weakened. The Gulf Stream is backed up along the US East Coast and into the Gulf of Mexico. Heat is building in the Arctic opposite Greenland and all along the Equator. Temperature anomalies in the range of 17 degrees Celsius below average occur over the ocean fresh water pool. This drop is enough to generate year round winter like conditions in the cold pool region even as other sections of the atmosphere around it continue to warm or retain severe excess heat.

Energy imbalance at the top of the atmosphere rockets to between 2 and 4 Watts per meter squared. What this means is that, in failing to ventilate heat to the atmosphere in the North Atlantic and Southern Ocean, the world ocean system has continued to accumulate a massive amount of heat. Heat that is now going to work warming the ocean bottom and hitting the bases of the already rapidly melting land ice.

Sandy

(More superstorms in our future. If Hansen’s new research is correct storms like Sandy will grow both more powerful and more common as Greenland dumps ever increasing volumes of fresh water into the North Atlantic. Image Source: NASA.)

For the North Atlantic, it is the greatest of understatements to say that an area of perpetual winter surrounded by warming airs and sitting atop a warming deep ocean is a major storm generator. Summer time temperature deltas between the center of the cold pool will range from near zero C to 20s, 30s and 40s C over nearby ocean and continental land masses. It’s like taking the High Arctic and shifting it to Scotland while all the adjacent airs warm. Temperature gradient and baroclinic (pressure gradient) energy for storm generation will be on the order of something that modern humans have never experienced. The potential for superstorms in this model simulation will, notably be quite high.

Final Notes — Superstorm Conditions Could Emerge Sooner than Models Indicate

The point to consider here is that large scale land ice melt sets in place forces that result in a weather wip-lash of epic proportion. It’s been the heart of Hansen’s work for many decades and it’s an issue that we really need to consider as time goes forward. A dwindling time for response that may well be much shorter than even Hansen’s models indicate. First, ice sheet vulnerability may well be higher than IPCC officials imagine and we could well be on a slope of melt rate doublings in the range of 5-20 years now.

global sea level change

(Global sea level rise keeps hitting a steeper and steeper slope. Image source: Dr. James Hansen, Columbia University)

Second, Hansen’s models likely capture the atmospheric impact of such large-scale land ice melt later than would happen in the real world. This later capture is due to the fact that his low resolution models mix the ocean heat more with the atmosphere than would occur under the kinds of ocean stratification events that we are likely to see due to these doubling times. Third, and finally we return again to the paleoclimate time of the Eemian where there is ample evidence that a mere 0.5 to 1 meter per century rate of sea level rise due to melting Greenland and West Antarctic ice during that time set in place conditions to generate superstorms with high enough peak intensity to deposit massive boulders upon islands in the Atlantic and to carve the impression of gigantic, long-period waves into the sea bed.

Anyone reading this work and considering the notion that some of the greatest scientific minds this age has birthed could be right is immediately confronted with the realization that the gargantuan forces we are playing with are not to be trifled with. And yet, the trifling continues despite the wise and well considered scientific warning to relent.

Links:

Hansen Paper: Ice Melt, Sea Level Rise and Superstorms

Dr. James Hansen, Columbia University, Former NASA GISS Lead Scientist

Knutti and Sedlacek: Robustness and Uncertainties in Climate Model Projections

The Eemian

LANCE MODIS

Livescience — Topographic Map of Greenland Sans Ice Sheet

Ice Sheet Mass Balance and Climate Change

NASA: 10,000 Year Old Ice Shelf to Collapse by 2020

IPCC Sea Level Change

NASA Earth Data

Storms of My Grandchildren

 

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Nearly 5600 Plug-in Electric Vehicles Sold in US This September

A massive wave of electric vehicles is starting to build in the US. Over the past month record sales in many EV and PHEV models drove total sales of all plug-ins to 5598, a new all-time record.

Leading the top performers was the Chevy Volt which sold 2851 vehicles this September. The Volt roared in to post a back-to-back record sales following August’s surge. This sales boost seemed to mock an endless stream of negative and unreliable press criticizing everything from the high numbers of vehicles sold to the Volt’s falling price — which made it ever more available to customers.

Directly on the Volt’s heels was the Plug-in Prius. Prius leveraged its powerful brand, a less expensive EV model, and a, somewhat short, though still significant, all-electric range of 11 miles, to sell 1652 units. This rate of sales was far higher than expected and was just two vehicles short of its previous record in April.

The Nissan Leaf also showed strong sales for the month, pushing 984 vehicles out onto the road. Nissan is also starting to market a cheaper and a longer-range version of the Leaf for 2013.

Honda and Mitsubishi made minor showings to round out total known EV sales of 5598. However, Fisker and Tesla do not release monthly sales figures, but probably sold a total of an additional 250 vehicles (approximate). This likely means that total electric vehicle sales for September challenged the 6000 mark.

Already, new offerings for 2013 are starting to become available. Most notable is the Ford C-MAX Energi which is a plug-in hybrid electric vehicle like the Volt and the plug-in Prius. With 47 mpg fuel economy and a battery stack that offers a gasoline free driving range of 20 miles, the C-MAX Energi boasts an EPA 95 MPGe average fuel efficiency. The Energi is less expensive than either the Prius plug-in or the Volt and, therefore, may prove a competitor for added sales and driving down EV prices.

With all the new energy swirling around EVs, it appears that total US sales may well exceed 50,000 by the end of this year. The Volt has already sold over 30,000 vehicles worldwide and interest in EVs continues to grow as more people adopt this revolutionary and environmentally friendly new technology.

This surge in alternative fuel vehicles couldn’t come too soon. With the Arctic in rapid decline and with impacts from human caused global warming set to worsen, it is high time the world began a shift to less carbon intensive technologies, and to systems that offer the opportunity for radically diminishing greenhouse gas emissions. Furthermore, larger EV fleets will greatly enhance US energy independence by taking a bite out of oil consumption and reducing the need for US oil imports.

Links:

http://green.autoblog.com/2012/10/04/september-alt-fuel-sales-continue-rapid-clip-plug-ins-sell-5-00/

2012’s Realization of the End of Arctic Sea Ice: The Tale of Our Northern Cryosphere’s Last Days in Words, Images and Numbers

(Image Credit: NSIDC)

2012 Sea Ice: A Saga of Violent Loss

2012. It may not be the year the world ended. But it will, likely, be the year we came to terms with the eminent and tragic final days of Arctic sea ice.

It began innocuously enough. Five years after the record losses seen in 2007, there was some cause for hope of a slower, more gradual decline. Most 2007 records had held with 2011 seeing only a slight drop in the sea ice area measurement. Though it was obvious calls for sea ice recovery were entirely unfounded, there was little reason to suspect another season of violent losses like that seen during 2007. The weather was predicted to be unfavorable for a record melt and, at most, minor losses were expected.

What unfolded was a sea ice Armageddon of massive scale. A freakish loss that defied all conventional expectation of weather and climate. For most of the summer, conditions favored a spreading out of the ice sheet. This condition usually enhanced the resiliency of sea ice, keeping the reflective coating over a larger area and, therefore, driving temperatures down.

But, this year, it was apparent the sea ice had spread out too much, had grown too thin. A rotten film filled with holes and encircled by an invading mass of warmer winds and seas. An ice screen vulnerable to the assault of sun, wind, and wave in a way that the Arctic sea ice had never been vulnerable. Not in our history, at least. Not in that thin span measuring our frail and short-sighted civilization.

(Image Credit: NASA)

The sea ice was waiting. Spread out, beleaguered. Grimly expecting a telling blow.

That blow came during late August in the form of a powerful storm. The Great Arctic Cyclone of 2012.

Spawning in the burning Siberian Arctic, this storm formed in a region where massive blazes had, only a month before, belched out enough smoke to cover Canada’s valleys, thousands of miles away. Latent heat and moisture had concentrated there, building and building through an unnaturally long and hot summer season.

Like a hurricane, its clouds towered, marching out with gathering strength to assault the frail and weakened ice. The giant storm howled, sending 65 mile-per-hour winds through the Chukchi Sea, and aiming its fury strait at the Arctic’s heart. It dug deep from heat and moisture reserves to the south, a source of energy only recently made available by human-caused warming. And it spent that new-found might in a mountainous blow against the desperately weakened ice. Waves of 6, 8, 12 feet roared over the thinly frozen sea, breaking it into a slurry and mixing it with the warmer surrounding ocean as if in an enormous blender. When The Great Arctic Cyclone of 2012 finally died out somewhere near the North Pole, hundreds of thousands of square miles of sea ice had been churned up, spit out, melted.

From our perch high above the Earth, from our lookout through the Japanese Space Agency‘s satellite eye, the sea ice just prior to the week-long Great Arctic Cyclone of 2012 looked like this:

And, afterward, most of the ice in the vast Chukchi Sea had been cleared away. Melted in the storm’s fury or pushed deep into the high Arctic, driven against that final buttress for northern ice: Greenland.

But the story of 2012’s deadly melt was far from over. The now thinned and storm-weakened ice continued its daily decline for more than a month after the ravages of The Great Arctic Cyclone of 2012 abated, finally reaching a state far, far weaker than even the terrible year of 2007. It left the Arctic with about half the ice coverage seen during the 1980s. An ice coverage that is now also far, far thinner.

What we can take away from the sea ice’s decline since the 1980s and its telling year of violent and freakish loss in 2012 is a simple message:

The ice will be gone soon. The only question is how soon.

A Tale of Loss By the Numbers

In answering the question of how soon the last small remnant of Arctic sea ice will vanish, victim to the powerful forces our human world has set loose upon it, we should take a look at the numbers, at what we know has come before, and at where the trends are leading.

In taking this final remnant of ice into account, we have three measures. They include sea ice extent, sea ice area, and sea ice volume. Each measurement has its own tale to tell and each tale can give us some idea as to when sea ice will finally fail — first at the end of summer, and last for all time and for all seasons.

The Tale of Sea Ice Extent: Jack Frost’s Shrinking Arm

Sea ice extent is a measure of how far the sea ice edge reaches. If we take the border of the continuous outward edge of the polar ice and draw a line around it, all regions within that circle are counted as part of sea ice extent. Extent does not count holes in the ice. So this measurement may include some open water areas behind the extent border.

Up until 1979, our best observations for sea ice extent came from reports collected by ships. But even these spotty accounts were enough to show a slow, long-term decline in sea ice since the early 20th Century. What satellite measurements did was make sea ice extent and area measures far more accurate.

In 1979, sea ice extent measured 7.2 million square kilometers according to the first measurement set collected by the National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC). Final sea ice extent for end of 2012 was 3.6 million square kilometers. A visual graph of this 33 year decline was composed by Larry Hamilton and can be seen here:

As you can see from the graph, sea ice extent slowly retreated through the 1970s and 1980s. The 1990s showed substantial average losses. But the rate of loss was still relatively slow. Even the early 2000s, when looking at extent measures alone, doesn’t give us any clear indication that we are on the verge of a rapid, violent decline. It is not until the period of 2005-2012 that we begin to get a hint that something devastating is afoot with 2012 putting a final full stop on a period of melt that has resulted in the loss of half the Earth’s northern sea ice extent.

Final numbers for sea ice extent losses since 1979:

  • 3.6 Million Square Kilometers of Sea Ice Extent Lost
  • 50% of Arctic Sea Ice Extent Lost

A 50% loss of sea ice in so short a period is a devastating reduction in the reach of the world’s frozen regions. If Jack Frost were to serve as a metaphor for the sea ice, we’d say his arms had been cut in half.

Sea ice extent gives us our least detailed picture of ice loss. Since it only measures the edge of ice, we don’t really know what’s going on behind the ice margin. And that’s where looking at sea ice area comes into play.

The Tale of Sea Ice Area: Frozen Swiss Cheese

If sea ice extent draws a circle around the ice pack’s leading edge, then sea ice area tries to take into account all the visible surface ice as well as open holes behind the ice pack. Area, therefore, is the total measure of all ice as visible from above.

For sea ice area measurement, we also have data compiled by NSIDC and posted on the polar ice observatory Cryosphere Today. From these measurements, we get a picture of sea ice area decline since 1979 when area measured 5.9 million square kilometers at the end of the melt season. Cryosphere Today provides a good graph for sea ice area, measuring the progression of freeze and melt season to season, year to year:

The peaks show maximum annual sea ice area at winter’s end. The dips show the summer sea ice minimum. The red dot is showing today’s measurement.

As with sea ice extent, area remained relatively stable through the 1980s. A very gradual and slow decline began in the 1990s and extended through the mid 2000s. Then, after 2005, the bottom dropped out. A visual of the total loss seen in the graph at end of summer provides a stunning record of how much sea ice area has diminished:

By the numbers, final minimum sea ice area in 1979 was 5.9 million square kilometers. Final minimum sea ice area in 2012 was 2.24 million square kilometers.

Final losses for sea ice area since 1979:

  • 3.66 Million Square Kilometers of Sea Ice Area Lost
  • 62% of Arctic Sea Ice Area Lost

It is important to note that sea ice area is a more exact measurement than sea ice extent. Taking into account the holes in the ice gives us a more complete picture of the sea ice’s health. And in comparing sea ice area and extent, we can see the actual losses are much greater than the initial sea ice extent measure would have indicated. The tale of sea ice area loss since 1979 is this: a 62% drop in sea ice area since 1979 shows the Arctic ice has been reduced to little more than frozen Swiss Cheese.

But the most detailed and devastating measure of sea ice is yet to come: sea ice volume.

The Tale of Sea Ice Volume: Only a Thin Film Left

Just as it was difficult to get an accurate measure of sea ice area and extent before the age of satellites, it has been equally difficult to gain an accurate measure of sea ice volume. That is, until Cryosat data began being used just this year.

Over the past few years, however, a sea ice modeling tool known as PIOMAS (Pan-Arctic Ice Ocean Modeling and Assimilation System) has taken data observations from the Arctic (ships, planes, submarines, satellites) and plugged it into a model to get a general sense of total sea ice volume. PIOMAS data, until recently, was considered a secondary, less accurate source of Arctic sea ice information. This demotion was due to the fact that PIOMAS was only a model based on direct observations, not a direct observation itself. But the status of PIOMAS changed when an analysis of Cryosat2 data by British scientists validated the PIOMAS findings, proving the model accurate. Cryosat2 used a space-born sensor to plumb the ice and it was these measurements that validated the PIOMAS results.

When the PIOMAS results were validated, a ripple of fear passed out through the Arctic sea ice community. The reason for this dread, if you are not a habitual observer of Arctic sea ice, will grow more clear to you as you read further.

Sea ice volume is a total measurement of the ice. Its length, its width and its depth. The measure is in cubic kilometers, not the flat squares seen above as from a photograph. In short, volume tells the real story of the Arctic sea ice.

And the story is very, very grim.

The above image, provided by Larry Hamilton, takes collected PIOMAS data, and plugs it into a simple graph. If a picture paints a thousand words, then this one paints a million. For my part, I will do my best to summarize.

What the PIOMAS data in the graph reveals is that the gradual declines seen in Arctic sea ice area and extent measures were hiding a much larger trend. A trend of substantial ice loss that has been ongoing since 1979. The 1980s was not the stable decade area and extent would indicate. The 90s showed a period of rather rapid ice loss. And the 21rst century showed a tremendous and increasing pace of decline.

Any child knows that when ice melts in a glass, it grows thin first, then loses most of its surface at the end if its melt. This process is what appears to have happened with Arctic sea ice at the scale of giants.

Final losses for sea ice volume since 1979:

  • 13,300 Cubic Kilometers of Sea Ice Volume Lost
  • 80% of Arctic Sea Ice Volume Lost

Since volume is the most exact measurement, total losses of sea ice in the Arctic are even worse than the satellite pictures would indicate. Much worse, in fact. An 80% loss of sea ice volume since 1979 is a tremendous decline by any account. It shows the ice has grown very, very thin. And more importantly, it shows that we are very close to a time when no sea ice will remain in the Arctic by end of summer.

2012’s Realization of the End of Arctic Sea Ice

How soon? How soon can we expect for there to be no ice left in the Arctic at the end of summer?

And can we expect a total loss of Arctic sea ice at all times of the year within our lifetime? Will the polar sea ice become little more than a myth told at Christmas time? Will the siren song of polar bears and other Arctic creatures, long vanished from the Earth, haunt us in our dreams or the dreams of our children?

The tragic answers to these questions have become ever more clear just this year. The saga of unpredictable violence and melt that occurred during the summer of 2012 combined with Cryosat2 sea ice volume discoveries to paint a picture of Arctic sea ice vanishing far faster than previous models and scientific expectations forecast. In the past, the convention of scientists at the IPCC had expected a nearly ice-free Arctic by the end of this century. That ‘past’ was as near back as 2007.

Now, those expectations are shattered. Now, you would be hard-pressed to find a single climate scientist who predicts the Arctic summer sea ice will last more than 40 years. A new consensus for ice-free conditions seems to be forming around the 10-20 year mark. And a growing number of scientists are predicting ice-free Arctic seas within the next 3-10 years.

This is the radical change that falls out of the consequences of one freakish year.

But, back to our original question: how soon could it happen?

At the absolute worst case? One year.

Yes. There is a slight but not insignificant chance that all the sea ice could melt away next summer. This event isn’t likely but it is possible if weather conditions like those occurring during 2007 repeat. During that year, 2,500 cubic kilometers of sea ice volume melted away. And this is very close to the present sea ice volume minimum of 3,300 cubic kilometers remaining at the end of 2012. So it is possible, though not likely, that there will be no sea ice left by the end of summer next year. The possibility is low, but not so low as to discount entirely. For sake of argument, we’ll say a 10% chance.

10% isn’t too likely, but it’s enough to keep a climate eye on the Arctic just in case.

Now let’s try to answer the question a little more accurately. Let’s rephrase it and ask how soon is it reasonably likely for summer sea ice to be gone? What’s the best date given current trends?

The answer to this question is actually rather easy. We can track current trends by looking at sea ice volume trends and extrapolating those trends over time. And what we find, doing the math, is that if current melt trends continue, the summer sea ice is most likely to have melted out of the Arctic within the next 4-6 years. We can find this number by averaging sea ice volume declines year-over-year since 2007. When we do this, we find that about 640 cubic kilometers are lost each year, on average. Multiplying this figure by 5 gives us 3,200 cubic kilometers of sea ice remaining, just 100 cubic kilometers below the current minimum.

Since past trends aren’t entirely predictive of future results, we can’t be certain that this event will happen accordingly. An anomalous year like 2007 could wipe out all the sea ice next year or the year after. The sea ice could have been so damaged from 2012’s freak season that each year following will result in more and more melt, a kind of amplifying death spiral until there is no ice left three years from now (a trend that bears out on the exponential graph below). Or, more hopefully, the stunning increase in losses over the past five years will abate due to some unforeseen inertia taking hold — perhaps Greenland providing a kind of fortress for the last of the sea ice. But given the stunning loss trends since 2007 and the added effect of increased sea ice fragility, there is a high likelihood, about 50%, that all the sea ice will be gone by 2018.

The gravity of this prediction should be settling in at this point. I’m not predicting the chance of a summer shower here. I’m providing science-based threat analysis for an event that hasn’t happened in the past 2 million years being a coin toss away within six years. Some scientists are also making this assessment. Deniers, are you listening?

What is important to note is that even my coin toss and average loss analysis may be too optimistic. According to exponential trends — a curve fit over the past 33 years of volume loss — we reach zero sea ice volume by 2015 with a 95% confidence interval for total loss occurring between 2013 and 2018. So my 50% estimate by 2018 may well be low and late (though it takes into account the inherent problems with curve fitting analysis). In any case, you can see this devastating exponential trend here:

(Image credit: Wipneus)

What’s our best reasonable hope then?

At some point, the 90% marker pops up and we don’t really have much reasonable expectation for sea ice to last beyond that point under the current conditions of human-caused global warming and Arctic ice melt trends. Currently, based on the best trends analysis, it’s about 90% likely that summertime Arctic sea ice will be all or mostly gone by 2035. At that point, the only potential source for sea ice comes from Greenland melt and we would hope that volumes of Greenland melt don’t rise to the point of emitting enough ice to temporarily re-grow the summer sea ice.

And an end to Arctic sea ice year-round?

Going back to the potential for events based on exponential trends, it is important to examine entirely what they indicate. What the exponential volume trends are showing is that all sea ice could be gone, year-round, by 2032. This means that in many of our lifetimes (20 years) there could be no Arctic sea ice left — at all.

(Image credit: Wipneus)

Back in 2007 these exponential trend graphs bearing out didn’t seem so likely. But, now, it appears that sea ice melt in the Arctic is an exponential, nonlinear event. The result is that it is much more likely that these trend models will serve as accurate future predictions. At this point, it appears far more likely, 25-35 percent perhaps, that amplifying feedbacks in the Arctic will result in ice free conditions for the Arctic Ocean, year-round, by the mid 2030s.

And this is the sad legacy of 2012: the realization of an eminent end of Arctic summer sea ice within, at most, 20 years, and of a likely end to all Arctic sea ice during the first half of this century should human greenhouse gas emissions not abate dramatically and soon.

Links:

Arctic Sea Ice in Rapid Decline, May Break 2007 Record by Summer’s End

Smoke From Massive Siberian Fires Seen in Canada

Moving Toward a Fire Age

GISS

The National Snow and Ice Data Center

Cryosphere Today

The Japanese Space Agency

PIOMAS

The Arctic Ice Blog

Bob Lutz: Chevy Volt On Verge of Profitability

A recent flurry of Volt bashing has arisen in the conservative media, likely, due to some desperate need to show that President Obama is a failure as Mitt Romney continues to trail in the polls. However, these destructive attacks target a source of American innovation and achievement as well as directly inhibit efforts for increasing energy independence at a time of rising fuel prices and climate instability.

So the question arises, do these sources really want to fight this battle?

The primary line of attack seems to have crystallized around a radical notion that each Volt is losing 40,000, 50,000, or even 60,000+ per vehicle sold. The fuzzy math includes investment in the production figures and makes a number of bad assumptions on the costs for vehicle systems. In the end, the numbers presented in the articles just don’t add up. And Bob Lutz agrees.

Lutz is both a conservative and a former executive at General Motors. So Lutz knows his business. And he apparently doesn’t wish to be drawn into the wrong side of a media war waged for political gain. In a recent interview Lutz noted:

“The statement that GM “loses” over $40K per Volt is preposterous. What the “analyst” in whom poor Ben Klayman placed his faith has done is to divide the total development cost and plant investment by the number of Volts produced thus  far. That’s like saying that a real estate company that puts up a $10 million building and has rental income of one million the first year is “losing” 9 million dollars, or several hundred thousand per renter.”

In the statement, Lutz refers to a recent article in Reuters which estimated the Volt lost 49,000 dollars per sale. Over past months, Reuters has been notorious for spewing this kind of bad information from everything related to alternative energy and climate change. They vacillate between responsible journalism and outrageous claims like the one posted above.

Lutz countered by noting that the Volt is likely very close to profitability already:

“Thus, the “Volt”, by my estimate, is either close to “variable break-even” or may be on the cusp of a positive gross margin. Deduct the per-unit allocation for all fixed cost, depreciation and amortization and it is, surely, still “under water”….but not by much, and less and less so as the volume builds and other, higher-margin GM cars, like the Cadillac ELR, piggy-back off of the Volt’s initial investment.”

Lutz’s comments come on the heels of two consecutive months of record Volt sales. A series of records some ‘journalists’ seem desperate to downgrade. I suppose the prospect of an American electric vehicle revolution is just too much of a good thing for some to stomach? In any case, despite these salient admissions by Lutz, the mad, ill founded, and half-crazed attacks on the Volt continue unabated. One would think that conservative-linked sources would have learned that attacking American innovation and the prowess of American workers was bad political policy. We’ll have to see how things bear out in the coming months and days. But, with each passing week, the purveyors of this form of ‘slanted beyond the tilt’ messaging are becoming more and more of a laughingstock.

Links:

http://insideevs.com/bob-lutz-responds-to-reuters-article-chevrolet-volt-is-at-variable-break-even-now-video/#comment-29792

http://mediamatters.org/blog/2012/09/13/volt-bashing-trumps-national-security-in-the-co/189876

Chevy Volt Hits New Record, Breaks 16,000 US Sales for 2012, Total Sales Worldwide Now Around 30,000 vehicles

September saw another record month for Chevy Volt sales in the US. Overall, 2851 Volts were sold just edging out August’s previous record of 2831 US sales. A combination of word of mouth, new Volt marketing strategies, and very appealing incentives to buyers pushed the revolutionary new auto out at ever-increasing rates.

Overall US sales are now 16338 for 2012 with total US sales since December of 2010 at 24335. Worldwide total sales for both the Volt and Ampera are now likely within a few vehicles of the 30,000 mark making the Volt the best selling electric vehicle of all time.

This month’s sales come despite a massive negative media storm in the conservative press attempting to kill off the revolutionary and disruptive new vehicle and a plug in electric design that threatens to lay the groundwork for breaking transportation’s dependence on fossil fuels across the world. The shrill storm of what could only be called negative advertising included a wide range of attacks using fuzzy math to inflate the Volt’s cost, to brand the vehicle as a taxpayer subsidized failure, or to, in an schizophrenic kind of wobbling criticize the Volt’s lowering cost to consumers.

I suppose these various magazines and pundits are against the American people getting a good deal on a revolutionary new technology that promises to kick open the door to US energy independence? In any case, the deafening silence from these sources on over 40 billion dollars in fossil fuel subsidies is telling to say the least. When will the fuzzy math stories on subsidized $10 per gallon gasoline emerge? We’re waiting.

In any case, the Volt is the spearhead in a surging US electric vehicles market. Overall, about 5,000 electric vehicles have sold in the US just this month alone. Surging Volt sales in August and September were met by rising Leaf sales as well. The Nissan Leaf, which had seen declining sales over the past few months staged a comeback in September and saw 984 vehicles fly off lots for the month. Nissan had said the Leaf would stage a comeback and made good with a 43% increase over the previous month. In all, a total of 5,212 Leafs have sold so far this year in the US. In addition, a longer-range, lower priced version of the Leaf is about to release. These new advances should make the race between EVs ever more interesting.

Though figures for Toyota’s plug-in Prius haven’t yet posted for September, they should be in the range of 800-1200 based on initial estimates. Toyota’s plug in, though boasting less all electric range than the Volt, is seen as a somewhat affordable competitor. But it appears that Chevy’s own discounts and affordable leasing options on the Volt have made it more appealing to the slightly less electric Prius. Toyota, however, is a powerful brand and shouldn’t be counted out in this competition.

Additional electric vehicle sales came from Tesla, Fisker, Mitsubishi and Ford. Given the increasing interest and expanding market for US electric vehicles, it appears that the domestic market is on its way to breaking 50,000 total EVs and PHEVs sold by the end of 2012. Overall, a substantial leap forward for an appealing and highly beneficial new technology.

Links:

http://insideevs.com/september-2012-plug-in-electric-vehicle-sales-report-card/

http://media.gm.com/content/dam/Media/gmcom/investor/2012/1002SalesRelease.pdf

Global Warming, Storms, Starfish Take Out Half of Great Barrier Reef

According to a new paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences and to a report published in the Washington Post, Australia’s Great Barrier Reef has lost more than 50% of its coral since 1985.

The report showed that coral coverage had dropped from 28 percent to 13.8 percent during the period studied. Though the study took stock of years from 1985 to 2012, it found that most of the damage, about two thirds, had occurred since 1998.

Primary drivers for damage were global warming and industrial agriculture. Abnormally powerful cyclones slammed the reef in the decades of the 2000s and 2010s, causing severe losses. Furthermore, instances of coral bleaching, when hot waters cause corals to weaken or die off, multiplied during the period of record showing greater frequency after 1998. Both coral bleaching and increased numbers of powerful cyclones were likely global-warming related. But the third impact, an exploding population of reef devouring starfish, was spurred by agricultural run-off in Australia. The starfish, which can feed on nutrients in the run-off, multiplied to cover large sections of reef and devoured vast volumes of reef-building algae.

Though it may be possible for Australia to reign in some of its Agricultural run-off, it is unlikely that it will be able to reduce instances of coral bleaching and increasingly damaging storms without partnering with countries around the world to drastically cut greenhouse gas emissions.

Recent studies have shown that corals suffer from a combined threat of bleaching in the south and ocean acidification in the north. Overall, under current greenhouse gas emissions regimes, it is expected that most corals will be dead by around 2060 and about 500-600 ppm CO2. In fact, this combination of heating and ocean acidification is causing major stresses to many life forms in the ocean and risks not only a massive die-off among corals, but among millions of ocean animal species including the fish that many countries and humans depend on for food and livelihoods.

Below is a comparison of the potential for bleaching events during the 2030s and 2050s provided by NOAA:

Pace of Refreeze Keeps Arctic Sea Ice 55-60 Percent Below 1980s Values For This Time of Year

Today, sea ice area continued a moderate rate of advance for this time of year. Overall, values increased by about 60,000 square kilometers to reach 2.82 million square kilometers, which is still below the record low set just last year. JAXA and NSIDC are also showing moderate rates of refreeze, with extent values still below records set in 2007 before they were shattered this year.

Overall, JAXA and most monitors are showing sea ice area and extent at record lows for this date and at 55-60 percent below seasonal values for this day during the 1980s.

Yesterday’s report from NSIDC had numerous interesting highlights. One included an analysis of sea ice age showing that young ice is becoming dominant as Arctic sea ice continues to decline. You can see the difference between 2007 and 2012 sea ice age in the following graph, provided by NSIDC below:

Most telling in these graphs and images is a massive loss of five year or older ice from 2007 to 2012. The result is that Arctic sea ice is even more vulnerable to melt than it was post 2007.

The Arctic has a long way to go to have any reasonable resemblance of recovery for this time of year through winter. And with temperatures beginning to fall throughout the region it does seem likely that rates of freeze will pick up a bit. However, a lot of heat energy remains locked in the water and the Arctic has a severe ice deficit to recover from. So it remains doubtful whether winter refreeze will better the Arctic’s position to endure the summer melt coming in 2013.

Links:

http://www.ijis.iarc.uaf.edu/en/home/seaice_extent.htm

https://sites.google.com/site/arcticseaicegraphs/

http://arctic.atmos.uiuc.edu/cryosphere/

http://nsidc.org/arcticseaicenews/

Are Renewable Energy Sources Set to Outcompete Fossil Fuels?

A flurry of news reports heralding a new oil and gas age for the US glosses over a dark and difficult to deal with fact. The cost to extract both of these non-renewable resources is increasing. Tight oil and gas fracturing, claimed to be an energy savior for the US despite a plethora of problems including well casing leaks, contaminated water supplies, methane leaks, surging investment costs, and high costs to bring the fuels to market, are expected, by many sources, to be the ‘new future.’

In short, the ‘new future’ looks a lot like the old past, but much more expensive and coming on the heels of a long string of global warming impacts. For gas, the cost of the tight sources is over twice that of traditional wells, costing around $5 to extract a unit of tight shale gas. For oil, tight shale supplies require as much as $90 dollars per barrel to produce. These high costs are nearly twice as much as the often derided and vilified ethanol, which requires $50 dollars per barrel to produce without subsidy.

But the massive oil and gas marketing campaign to put out renewable energy’s electric fire continues apace. This week showed a flurry of glittery and optimistic oil and gas reports coupled with the typical volley of hit pieces aimed at everything that replaces oil from the Chevy Volt to your friendly neighborhood wind farm. The usual suspects all repeated their shrill and desperate chant of ‘the Volt is dead’ a month after Volt sales reached new records and costs to produce each vehicle were dropping fast as sales numbers increased.

Misinformation painting the Volt as uneconomic was belied by these numbers and a recent report showing that the Volt only costs consumers 3 cents per mile to drive. A regular ICE vehicle at $4 per gallon gasoline and 30 miles per gallon fuel efficiency costs 13 cents a mile to drive, more than four times as much. How does the Volt achieve such a feat? Get rid of as much oil input as possible and move to a, far more efficient, battery and electric motor configuration.

Perhaps these lower costs are the reason owners rank the Volt highest in customer satisfaction.

The Volt is dead! Long live the Volt!

But despite all the positive attributes of this powerful, new American technology, a large section of the media is now bent on killing the vehicle. At every success a new negative spin is generated. For example, as the Volt broke sales records last month, hundreds of blogs and articles parroted the fact that GM was offering discounts on the car as a sign of weakness. The same papers and blogs, many months before, criticized the Volt for being too expensive. So which is it? Similar negative information has been spewed about wind, solar, and biofuels. The only solution heralded by these ‘news’ sources appears to be fossil fuels, whose rather large and long string of negatives these news sources wholly ignore. Which ultimately begs the question, who pays the check?

Attempts at fossil fuel dominance and public opinion shaping ranged long and far throughout traditional media and in politics. Overall, it was a typical, banner week for the increasingly rickety fossil fuel based economy. But despite all this misinformation which one blogger recently to compared to the reign of ‘the Dark Lord,’ there were a number of glimmers of hope peaking out through all this misinformation.

As mentioned above, Chevy recently discounted its revolutionary Volt by as much as 10,000 dollars or offered leases for $299 (not $159 as claimed in the misinformation media), spurring new sales and raising the possibility that total Volt sales would reach 30,000 by end of September. Overall, this is far better than the earlier launch of the, equally derided and vilified at the time, Toyota Prius during its first two years. In addition, even as prices for the Volt are going down, quality is going up. The EPA estimated battery range for the vehicle has climbed from 35 miles to 38 miles resulting in a combined average mileage of 98 mpg. This gives most Volt users about 1000 miles of travel between fill-ups which means savings on top of savings for owners.

In addition, US alternative energy coming from solar, wind, and geothermal, as a percentage of electric power, has grown from 3% to 6% within the last four years. Total alternative energy from electric power adding in hydro-electric and geothermal is now over 15%, more than nuclear energy as a proportion of electricity generation. And since the primary contributor to greenhouse gas emissions is electricity generation (coming from coal and natural gas generation and extraction), this leap in alternative energy capacity is a help in dealing with the problem of climate change.

Perhaps most important is level costs and falling prices. Wind and solar energy are very stable energy sources, making it easy for investors to predict outcomes. Not so with natural gas, which is one of the most volatile energy sources available, making it a baby for those who love to game the market. And as time has gone forward, costs for wind and solar continue to drop. Wind is now less expensive than everything but the least expensive natural gas plants. And solar is now less expensive than new nuclear energy and combined cycle gas and coal plants that could be retrofitted for carbon capture at even greater prices. In fact, over the past 18 months, the cost of solar panels has dropped by 65%, leading to a boom in panel sales around the world and in the US even as modest subsidy support for the new energy sources may be withdrawn.

The same can certainly not be said for fossil fuels. Natural gas is driving some companies to the edge of bankruptcy due to the rising cost of extraction and a glut on the market, caused, in part, by rising alternative energy usage. In addition, oil just saw its most expensive year on record. And people are beginning to awaken to the vast external costs and harm of coal use, with opposition to new plants rising in the US and around the world.

Across the globe, countries are taking notice of the alternative energy sea change. During a period this spring, Germany produced 50% of its energy from solar panels. That number is expected to rise to as high as 70% by next year. And as one of the only bright lights in Portugal’s ailing economy, it has managed to install enough renewable energy to make up 45% of its entire electricity grid. Going forward, this energy capital will help to stabilize and improve an otherwise troubled economy by reducing its dependence on imported fuels. Similar stories are being told across Europe and in places in the US. North Dakota produces 20% of its electricity through wind. California and Texas are following suit.

A view of the total installed capacity for US wind energy can be seen below (As of August 2012, the number broke 50 gigawatts installed, a 3.1 GW addition in just 8 months!).

The EU has installed 100 gigawatts of wind capacity and China boasts over 60 gigawatts of installed wind energy capacity. In total, nearly 50 gigawatts of new wind energy capacity will be installed during 2012. Solar energy is now surging to catch up, with total solar energy installations to reach 30 gigawatts in Germany alone this year. The US now boasts 6 gigawatts of solar energy and growing and the world is now adding nearly 30 gigawatts of solar energy capacity each year. This combined installation of 80 gigawatts wind and solar each year is a significant leap forward for alternative energy and is starting to prove its ability to outpace fossil fuels as a primary energy provider.

A sad fact is that, without the harmful media and political campaign being waged by US oil, gas, and coal special interests, the US could be even further along in developing domestic energy sources independent of foreign influence or climate damaging pollutants. Recent opposition to the production tax credit by oil money soaked republicans in Congress now threatens thousands of US alternative energy jobs and will likely further slow development of wind and solar energy production capacity within the US. This removes a key feed-in to US manufacturing and cedes more leadership to competitors overseas — primarily Europe and China. But the republicans, who run on the false mantra that they believe all ‘government subsidies are bad,’ never saw a fossil fuel subsidy they didn’t like and are fighting tooth and nail to keep the oil and gas industry’s incentives of 40 billion dollars intact even as they campaign on expanding subsidy support to this already subsidy bloated industry. But the republicans have been unable to stop what is a growing US and world-wide trend, only delay it, much to the harm of their native country.

(Romney and the republican strawman, Solyndra, on campaign trail together)

The renewable energy boom in the US has also led to a benevolent side effect — an increase in US manufacturing, installation, and alternative energy service jobs. Overall, green energy supports three times the number of jobs when compared to fossil fuels. As a result, more than 8.5 million people work in an alternative energy or energy efficiency related profession, according to Business Week. Look at the map below to find the nearest wind energy component manufacturing facility. Most likely, it is in a city or state near you:

All these facts combine to make the alternative energy sector a growing challenge to the established fossil fuel special interests. And, for this reason alone, we are likely to continue to see a stream of misinformation and demonization of the alternatives coming from fossil-fuel associated sources. But the next time you hear someone say the words Solyndra in a political context, bash wind or solar, or demonize the Volt, it’s important to know where that message originated — those casting their lot with the dirty, dangerous, and depleting fossil fuels.

Links:

After Nearly Two Weeks of Refreeze, Arctic Still in Record Low Territory

Arctic re-freeze officially began on September 19th. Now, twelve days later, all monitors are still showing sea ice area and extent below the record low set in 2007. Overall, departures from the 2007 minimum are still in the range of 150,000 to 250,000 kilometers. At the current pace of refreeze, it will still be a few more days before the lowest extent for 2007 is exceeded in some monitors.

Departures from the ‘average’ sea ice area for the period of 1979-2008 are still very high at 2.48 million square kilometers below the ‘norm.’ Departures from values seen during the 1980s, however, are much greater. In the range of 3.8 million square kilometers below values for the same date. This is a loss of 58% of sea ice for the same period since the 1980s.

As for sea ice extent, you can see from the graph below that we are also currently in the range of about 60% less than the 1980s for the September minimum. Current values tend to be holding this difference. As we go forward into winter we would expect at least some of this gap to erode. We’ll have to see by how much as the season progresses.

(image credit: Neven)

All current measurements for sea ice are showing record low values for this date in history and, as noted above, current values are still below all time records for every year except for 2012.

We are still waiting on a final sea ice volume measurement from PIOMAS to determine yearly volume losses for 2012. So far, losses are in the 400 cubic kilometer range. But this official measurement is as of August and a final number for September is yet to be produced. An excellent visual of sea ice volume losses through August 25, 2012, provided by L. Hamilton, can be seen below.

Links:

http://www.ijis.iarc.uaf.edu/en/home/seaice_extent.htm

http://nsidc.org/arcticseaicenews/

http://arctic.atmos.uiuc.edu/cryosphere/arctic.sea.ice.interactive.html

https://sites.google.com/site/arcticseaicegraphs/

Arctic Hottest in 1,800 Years, 2 to 2.5 Degrees Hotter Than Medieval Warm Period, Svalbard Study Shows

According to a recent study produced by Columbia University, and funded by the U.S. National Science Foundation and the Keck Geology Consortium, the Arctic is now hotter than at any time during the last 1,800 years. The Medieval Warm Period, often cherry picked as a benchmark for global warming deniers, was 2 to 2.5 degrees Celsius cooler than the current high Arctic environment.

The study observed differences between the content of saturated and unsaturated fats in dead algae in lake sediments to determine temperatures through past ages. During cold periods, algae produce more unsaturated fats. During warm periods, the amount of saturated fats produced is greater. This provided researchers with a biological thermometer for past Arctic ages. You can view a very instructive video of how the differences in these fats is used as a thermometer here.

Earlier studies have shown that areas bordering the Arctic, such as southern Greenland and parts of Canada, were warmer than today. But the new data, coming from a Svalbard lake, show that the high Arctic was cooler. This broader picture shows that the Medieval Warm Period was more of a regional phenomena while, now, the entire Arctic is undergoing a massive heating not seen in ages.

This study is a major validation of others that have shown a regional warming during medieval times. One such study was the famous ‘Hockey Stick’ graph produced by Michael Mann.

1,800 Year Record Warming Put into Context

Natural cycles, often invoked by climate change deniers as a form of pseudo-intellectual argument, would result in the Arctic and the rest of the world cooling long-term. In fact, there is no natural force now acting on the Arctic that is capable of pushing its temperatures into a range not seen since 1,800 years ago. The Svalbard measurements now combine with a number of other sources, including Mann’s now-famous hockey stick graph, to provide solid evidence that the human forcing (greenhouse gas emissions) is pushing world temperatures unnaturally high.

(note that the Mann Graph now lags human-caused warming by about .1 degree Celsius, so the actual slope is even steeper than the one depicted)

As you can see in the graph, average world temperatures decline until major use of fossil fuels begins in the mid-19th century. At that point, temperatures rocket upward along a very steep slope. A very unnatural departure for the relatively stable Holocene epoch.

Response Times to Forcing Lag

What is most concerning is the fact that we are still in the early phases of Arctic and world warming. Because the areas of ice are so vast, because the ocean is so deep, because it takes lots of energy to move the atmosphere around and to heat it up, a huge amount of inertia exists. This inertia is fighting to keep world temperatures static. It is fighting to keep the glaciers and sea ice from melting. It is fighting to keep the weather systems in place.

But the vastly powerful human forcing of greenhouse gas emissions is moving these systems around like so many enormous toys. The fact that we are already seeing so much melt, that we are already seeing temperatures outside the range of nearly 2000 years is cause for serious, deep concern.

Geologists don’t have any kind of clear record for these kinds of changes ever moving along so fast. But they don’t have any kind of record for greenhouse gasses accumulating in the atmosphere at so fast a pace either. The most recent observable corollary occurred about 50 million years ago and happened at a speed 1/10th as fast as the human greenhouse gas accumulation. The related warming caused a mass extinction in the ocean and resulted in severe stresses to land animals whose end result was greatly reduced size and weight as animals concentrated in mountains and near less productive polar regions.

Inertia has already created a major overhang of climate impacts. At around 400 ppm CO2, the amount currently in the Earth’s atmosphere, Greenland and West Antarctica melt, contributing about 75 feet to sea level rise. The problem here is that the current forcing is likely enough to push another 100-200 ppm of CO2 out of the Earth’s oceans, forests, tundras and glaciers, lifting world CO2 into the range that could result in all the ice melting and another mass extinction in the oceans. That risk is current even if we stop producing CO2 today and will likely result in the need for CO2 capture from the atmosphere or possible, and very risky, applications of geo-engineering technologies. Continuing to burn fossil fuels at volumes great enough to increase CO2 concentrations by 2-3 ppm or more per year is nothing short of an exercise in madness and will likely result in a world with near 1000 ppm CO2 by the end of this century. And though a world at 600 ppm CO2 is tremendously difficult to live in, a world at 1000 ppm CO2 is a hellish nightmare.

Putting these things into context, even if we cease all fossil fuel emissions today, we are potentially on a path to conditions not seen in the last 10-30 million years. And, if we continue emitting fossil fuels in a business as usual manner, we are heading toward conditions not seen in the last 50 million years at least and perhaps never seen before.

As such, the current 1800 year warming happening in the Arctic is just another milestone along our current road. And that way, should we choose to continue, is little more than a short, hot road to hell.

Links:

Columbia Study

If Republican Economic Policy is to Drive Down Wages and Ship Jobs Overseas, Then How Can They Hope to Reduce Government Dependence?

There’s a bit of an internal contradiction in this tired, old republican narrative that keeps being recycled. This narrative that derides government dependence and smugly assumes that their own set of economic values reduce that dependence. But looking at republican policies, it becomes clear that those very policies foster the dependence they claim to deride.

Drive Down Wages

Overall republican policy has been little more than a direct assault on living wages for Americans since the mid to late 1980s. Teachers, professors, workers, scientists, people working in the public sector have all been criticized as having wages and benefits that were too high. They, first, claimed there was a need for increased efficiency. Then they targeted individual groups, leveraging a form of class envy to target college professors’ tenure, teacher benefits, the pay and benefits of any and all union workers.

The result of this wide-ranging leveraging of envy to degrade the US middle class has been a lowering of overall standards of living, wages, and benefits for the larger American public. And it is this assault that has necessitated the US dependence on debt for growth for so many of its citizens.

Perhaps the most obvious sign that republican policy is directly against rising standards of living for the US population at large is a broad-based opposition to the US minimum wage. Republicans often deride the need for a minimum wage at all, much less its increase even if it lags behind inflation. And, at every turn, republicans have attempted to undermine the principle supporting a minimum wage, even pushing for a return to the dark days of child labor and children competing with parents for wages.

Ship Jobs Overseas

When republicans have failed to drive down wages and lower benefits, they have pushed for moving large corporations, institutional employment, and services to lower wage areas. This has occurred within the US where corporations have ‘raced to the bottom’ by moving facilities to lower wage regions in the south. The result has been a dessication of jobs in developed regions while the lower wage regions become more and more dependent on government assistance (explored more below).

But the most extreme manifestation of this policy has come in the form of encouraging businesses to move production to places like China. Now, US workers are forced to compete with foreign workers in areas that are far less developed than the south. Areas that haven’t even industrialized. This creates a major distortion in which advanced society Americans are forced to compete directly with slave wage labor.

At a speech to Bain investors, republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney bragged about how Chinese workers ‘lived in dormatories,’ shared bathrooms with twenty other workers, were paid 26 cents an hour, and worked extremely long shifts. In republican parlance, this is the ideal work-force. And it is this kind of workforce that is destroying the American standard of living.

A wise economic mogul, Henry Ford, once noted that, in order to support business, workers required wages high enough to purchase a decent portion of the products they produced. And so Ford paid his workers enough to purchase the automobiles his factories pumped out. The same goes for American society. If you want a wealthy civilization able to enjoy the benefits of modern life, work compensation must rise to meet that aspiration.

Driving down wages and shipping jobs overseas, however, creates another result — increased reliance on debt and public support.

How Republicans Build a Dependency Society

So now we come full circle. If job wages and benefits are always heading down; If jobs themselves, to greater and greater degrees, are heading overseas; then how do you still grow the economy?

There are two methods — expand debt and/or expand government assistance.

In the first method, credit becomes cheap and easy to access. Middle class workers, seeing their wages drop, turn to cheap credit to support families, keep their homes or purchase ever-more-expensive food and fuel. This expansion of debt creates a bubble that sustains economic growth for a while. But, overall, the unsustainable nature of debt comes crashing down and the number of poor expand.

It is a sad fact that the result is that people robbed of their access to the American dream by a combination of declining wages and benefits and debt dependence become a part of a growing class of poor and disenfranchised. The only agency, at this point, able to provide assistance to these people becomes federal, state, and local governments. Charity organizations and churches lack the larger ability to rise to this challenge, because the size of the problem generated has become so large. In the end, the result of republican policies, therefore, becomes government dependence.

Right To Work States and Food Stamps

One policy that has resulted in a devastating decline in wages and massive increases in individual independence has been the perpetuation of ‘right to work’ laws in many republican states. These laws remove the ability of people to organize and bargain through unions and, by extension, to participate in the wealth generation process. As a result, right to work states have seen wages decline and food stamp roles explode. Georgia, for example, has fully 19 percent of its population dependent on food stamps. In Mississippi, more than one in five people rely on government food stamps due to the work and wage destroying republican economic policies.

Creating a Requirement for Government Assistance

It is a sad irony that republican rhetoric and republican policy are at diametric opposition. An analysis of policy results shows the bald lie in republican talking points. In short, republican policy is directly designed to increase need, increase, dependence, and reduce an individual’s ability to remain independent of outside support. Republican policy is the very definition of dependence multiplying. Opportunities for luck and good fortune are reduced. And rewarding individual pluck, diligence, and hard work is taken away. In the end, more people must turn to the very government policies republicans attack politically — social security, medicare, medicaid, food stamps, public education — for assistance. And the end result of removing these programs while creating dependence upon them would be an explosion of American poverty.

For these reasons, and for a number of others, republican economic policy is fundamentally dis-enabled to advance American recovery from the worst economic recession since the great depression. A recession, in vast part, resulting from failed republican policies.

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