Pacific Ocean’s response to greenhouse gases could extend California drought for centuries

ScienceDaily UCLA September 15, 2016

Clues from prehistoric droughts and arid periods in California show that today’s increasing greenhouse gas levels could lock the state into drought for centuries, according to a study led by UCLA professor Glen MacDonald.

The study, published today in the Nature journal Scientific Reports, looked at how natural climatic forces contributed to centuries-long and even millennia-long periods of dryness in California during the past 10,000 years. These phenomena — sun spots, a slightly different earth orbit, a decrease in volcanic activity — intermittently warmed the region through a process called radiative forcing, and recently have been joined by a new force: greenhouse gases.

As long as warming forces like greenhouse gases are present, the resulting radiative forcing can extend drought-like conditions more or less indefinitely, said MacDonald, a distinguished professor of geography and of ecology and evolutionary biology. “Radiative forcing in the past appears to have had catastrophic effects in extending droughts,” said MacDonald, an international authority on drought and climate change.

“When you have arid periods that persist for 60 years, as we did in the 12th century, or for millennia, as we did from 6,000 to 1,000 B.C., that’s not really a ‘drought.’ That aridity is the new normal.”….

Prolonged California aridity linked to climate warming and Pacific sea surface temperature

Glen M. MacDonald et al Scientific Reports 6, Article number: 33325 (2016) doi:10.1038/srep33325 Published on line 15 September 2016

Is nuclear crucial to climate change targets?

Is nuclear crucial to climate change targets?

AFP-JIJI, AP Japan Sep 16, 2016

PARIS – As Britain greenlights its first new nuclear power plant in more than 20 years, experts diverge on the role of nuclear energy in the quest to cap global warming at less than 2 degrees Celsius. The broad challenge in meeting that goal — the cornerstone of the Paris Agreement inked in December by 195 nations — is decarbonizing the world economy as quickly as possible.

We need a global transition to primarily zero carbon energy sources by midcentury,” said Rachel Cleetus, lead economist and climate policy manager for the Washington-based Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS). Along with other think tanks and advocacy groups sounding the climate change alarm, the UCS is not a champion of nuclear power. But with fossil fuels still accounting for 80 percent of total energy consumption, they say, the splitting or fusing of atoms — despite concerns about cost and safety — still has a role to play.

….Not all climate and energy experts, however, are convinced that nuclear is crucial for keeping a lid on global warming. “In fact, it’s a barrier,” said Tom Burke, chairman of London-based E3G, a climate change think tank. “It takes away capital from things that would deliver faster, cheaper and smarter low carbon electricity systems,” he said. It also runs counter, he added, to a wider trend toward decentralized, flexible power generation….

Kenya to Restore Denmark-sized Area of Degraded Land

Kenya announced on September 8th that it will restore 5.1 million hectares (12.6 million acres) of degraded land, an area roughly the size of Denmark, to more productive use. The move is poised to improve livelihoods, curb climate change, safeguard biodiversity and more.

by Hayden Higgins and Aaron Minnick – September 13, 2016 World Resources Institute

As a result of poor land use, including overcultivation and overgrazing, Kenya has been quickly losing land to desertification. The drylands that make up much of the country are particularly susceptible. Kenya’s restoration plan is not only notable because it will reverse some of this degradation, but because of how the country set its international target….…. The benefits of these actions go way beyond land—restoration can bolster several sectors of the environment and economy all at once. Estimates show carbon sequestered by restored trees will lower the country’s CO2 emissions by 3.7 percent (14.5 percent of Kenya’s greenhouse gas emissions came from forestry and land-use change in 2011). These reductions will in turn contribute towards other international environmental agreements, such as Kenya’s nationally determined contribution (NDC) to reduce its emissions 30 percent below business as usual by 2030….

About three-quarters of Kenyans are farmers, and many citizens rely on land and resources for their livelihoods. Continent-wide, 3 percent of agricultural productivity is lost due to soil and nutrient loss. Restoration can boost the quality of soil, reduce drought and erosion, and increase crop yields. Restoring degraded lands to productivity can also improve air and water quality for residents. In particular, land restoration will benefit Kenya’s least-advantaged, including members of nomadic tribes that make their living by grazing livestock and growing food crops in the rangelands. These arid and semi-arid landscapes constitute 80 percent of the country, and are widely degraded. Hitting the 5.1 million hectare target means wide areas of rangeland will have to be restored.

… Kenya’s commitment is just the latest addition to growing global and regional restoration movements. The Bonn Challenge reached in 2011 aims to restore 150 million hectares (371 million acres) of degraded land by 2020; 350 million (865 million acres) by 2030. So far, 38 countries, now including Kenya, have made commitments to restore degraded lands.

Regionally, Kenya joins Burundi, Central African Republic, Cote d’Ivoire, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ghana, Ethiopia, Guinea, Liberia, Madagascar, Malawi, Mozambique, Niger, Republic of the Congo, Rwanda and Uganda in making restoration commitments. Collectively, they’ve promised to restore 46 million hectares (114 million acres) by 2030, goals that support the Bonn Challenge and AFR100, a regional, country-led initiative to restore 100 million hectares (247 million acres) of degraded land in Africa.

Near-Record Low 2016 Arctic Sea Ice

2016 ties with 2007 for second lowest Arctic sea ice minimum

By Brian Kahn September 15th, 2016

Arctic sea ice is one of the grandaddy’s of climate indicators. …. This year’s sea ice extent has bottomed out as the second lowest on record, according to the National Snow and Ice Data Center. It continues a troubling trend as rapidly warming air and water eats away at the briny, frozen mantle on the top of the planet…. This year has been exceptional by many standards. March saw the lowest sea ice maximum ever recorded followed by a string of record low months. The Northwest Passage opened up, allowing a luxury cruise ship to travel from Anchorage to New York. And a freak storm in August turned ice thin and brittle near the North Pole. Satellites show the last seven months of sea ice and reveal its steep decline this year. The late August breakup is particularly notable.

All 10 of the smallest sea ice extents on record have occurred since 2005. In the nearly four decades of satellite monitoring, sea ice has disappeared at a clip of 13.4 percent per decade. This year’s cracked ice also continues a troubling trend of disappearing old ice. Though some of that ice will refreeze together this winter, some has disappeared for good and new ice will be left to fill in the gaps. That’s like putting a piece of paper over a hole in your wall, though. Young ice tends to be weaker and thinner and thus more susceptible to summer melt. It’s a trend that’s already happening. Ice younger than four years comprised 97 percent of all Arctic sea ice in 2015 compared to 80 percent in 1985….

2016 ties with 2007 for second lowest Arctic sea ice minimum

Posted: 15 Sep 2016 12:33 PM PDT

The Arctic’s ice cover appears to have reached its minimum extent on September 10, 2016, according to scientists. Arctic sea ice extent on that day stood at 4.14 million square kilometers (1.60 million square miles), statistically tied at second lowest in the satellite record with the 2007 minimum.

U.S. forests are so full of dead trees that some scientists want to burn them instead of coal

By Chris Mooney September 8 2016 Wash Post

The state of California, wracked by drought, has 66 million dead trees across its landscape. They’ve been killed by both the drought itself and by voracious bark beetles, and now they’re just sitting there — destined to either decompose, burn in a wildfire, or be incinerated, for safety reasons, by state fire managers before the next blaze comes along.

And it isn’t just California. Raging bark beetle infestations, fanned by warmer temperatures and droughts, have also struck forests in Colorado, Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho in recent years. “About 100,000 beetle-kill trees fall every day in Wyoming and northern Colorado, to give you an idea of the order of magnitude,” says Erica Belmont, a professor of mechanical engineering at the University of Wyoming.

Belmont is studying an intriguing solution for what to do with all these dangerous dead trees — namely, burn them for energy. In a recent study in Energy Policy, Belmont and colleague Emily Beagle do the math on whether it would make sense to use the timber in existing coal plants, which can be “co-fired” with wood. In isolation, it probably costs coal plants too much money to go around rounding up dead trees, carting them back, and then burning them — a big endeavor, Belmont explained. But there are sources of possible funds. For instance, the U.S. Forest Service is currently spending considerable money to treat forests and rid them of these dangerous trees — money that, maybe, could be given to the companies that burn them for energy instead, the study suggests.

Moreover, coal plants are facing strong climate regulations, in the form of the pending Clean Power Plan. In this regulatory context, burning trees that are already destined to decompose, catch fire, or be incinerated — and thus, give off greenhouse gases to the atmosphere no matter what — could conceivably supplant some of coal’s voluminous emissions.

Large numbers of scientists have loudly protested recent legislative attempts to decree that biomass burning is “carbon neutral” based on the logic that, even though it gives off greenhouse gas emissions just as coal does (releasing the carbon that had been stored in the tree as it grew), future tree regrowth will one day sequester those emissions once again. A leading critique of this assertion is that it takes a long time for a tree to grow back, meaning that the biomass burning is still adding carbon dioxide to the atmosphere for, at least, decades — a time period that can make a real difference for the climate and for climate policy. Moreover, there is not necessarily any guarantee that for every tree chopped down to provide electricity, another corresponding tree will regrow someday. Changing decisions about land use, for instance, could upset that assumption ….

…”The commonly-made claim that burning wood for energy is ‘carbon neutral’ is at best an exaggeration and at worst completely wrong,” said Phil Duffy, president of the Woods Hole Research Center and a prominent critic of biomass energy, after reviewing the study for the Post. “Because beetle-kill wood will decompose anyway, however, this case comes closer to being carbon neutral than others.”

But Duffy also added by email that the research may have missed some key points that complicate the analysis, such as the amount of carbon that would be required to transport dead trees to coal plants before they are even burned. He also pointed out by email that “it is not clear if they accounted for the greater emissions from wood versus coal per unit of energy produced.” Ultimately, Duffy suggested, the research might be “pretty overoptimistic about the amount of emissions saved compared to the baseline scenario (letting the wood decompose and burning pure coal).”…

Record-smashing August means long-awaited ‘jump’ in global warming is here

Every month of 2016 has set a temperature record.

Joe Romm September 14, 2016

NASA temperature analysis for August: “Another month, another record.” Credit: NASA

We appear to be in the midst of the long-awaited jump in global temperatures. And that means “The kinds of extreme weather we have seen over the past year or so will be routine all too soon, but then even worse records will be set,” as Kevin Trenberth, one of the world’s leading climatologists, told me.
NASA has reported that last month was not merely “the warmest August in 136 years of modern record-keeping,” it tied with this July 2016 for the “warmest month ever recorded.” And for 11 straight months (starting October 2015), the world has set a new monthly record for high temperature
. So even though 2014 set the record at the time for the hottest year — and then 2015 crushed that record, NASA says there is a greater than 99 percent chance 2016 will top 2015. And it probably won’t be close according to this projection tweeted out by NASA’s Gavin Schmidt:

Land and ocean temperature index (LITI) with 2016 prediction. Credit: NASA

Why does this string of record-setting months and years matter? As I reported last year, climatologists have been expecting a “jump” in global temperatures. There is “a vast and growing body of research,” as Climate Central explained in February 2015 that “humanity is about to experience a historically unprecedented spike in temperatures.”

A March 2015 study, “Near-term acceleration in the rate of temperature change,” makes clear that an actual acceleration in the rate of global warming is imminent — with Arctic warming rising a stunning 1°F per decade by the 2020s. More than 90 percent of global heating goes into the oceans (see excellent article here)  — and ocean warming has accelerated in recent years. Climatologist Kevin Trenberth of the National Center for Atmospheric Research explained here in 2013 that “a global temperature increase occurs in the latter stages of an El Niño event, as heat comes out of the ocean and warms the atmosphere.” Well, we are indeed at the end of an El Niño event, and we have indeed seen a big global temperature increase. In April 2015, Trenberth told me thought “a jump is imminent.”

Previously he had explained that this jump could be 0.2°C or 0.3°C, which is to say up to 0.5°F! That change would happen “relatively abruptly,” but last for 5 or 10 years before it jumped again. It looks like Trenberth was right (though it will take a few years to know for sure). When I asked him to comment on the stunning jump in global temperatures we’ve seen in the last 18 months, he said: The increase in carbon dioxide and other heat trapping gases from human activities is relentless. The effects on global mean surface temperatures can be masked by natural variability for a decade or a bit more, but as the natural variability goes in the other direction, suddenly it is quite a different story and record after record gets broken.”

That’s where we are. Global temperatures often jump over a couple years, then they rise more slowly, like a staircase (or ladder) where the steps are sloped up. The climate science deniers make a lot of noise during the short periods of slower warming, and stay strangely quiet during the jumps. Go figure!

Trenberth explains that “the nature of the changes going on now suggest that we have made another step up the ladder to another rung, and we won’t go down again.” That means the recent bouts of extreme weather “will be routine all too soon, but then even worse records will be set. It is not something to welcome and it is hard to plan for.” It is time to slash carbon pollution so we can stop climbing this stairway of ever-worsening extreme weather and climate change.

Climate Change and Nutrition—Polar Bears, Fish

Land-based food not nutritionally sufficient for wild polar bears, according to new study

Posted: 13 Sep 2016 12:05 PM PDT

On average, a polar bear loses up to 30 percent of its total body mass while fasting during the open-water season. Although some scientists previously believed land-based foods could supplement the bears’ nutritional needs until the sea ice returns, a new study has revealed that access to terrestrial food is not sufficient to reduce the rate of body mass loss for fasting polar bears.

Study links altered brain chemistry, behavioral impairments in fish exposed to elevated carbon dioxide

Posted: 13 Sep 2016 09:52 AM PDT

Increased carbon dioxide concentrations alters brain chemistry that may lead to neurological impairment in some fish, a first-of-its-kind study demonstrates.

Brazil just ratified the Paris climate agreement. Here’s why that’s a really big deal

  • third-largest country for emissions, after the U.S. and China, to have done so
  • ratified countries total ~ 41% of global emissions; need to get to 55% for agreement to go into effect
  • remaining countries that emit more than Brazil, but have not yet ratified, are Russia (7.5 percent of emissions), India (4.1 percent), Japan (3.79 percent), and Germany (2.56). If all four of those countries also ratified this year, the agreement would easily enter into force.

By Chris Mooney and Dom Phillips September 12 Wash Post

RIO DE JANEIRO–Brazil, the country that’s home to the largest tropical rainforest on Earth, ratified the Paris climate agreement Monday — making it the third-largest country for emissions, after the U.S. and China, to have done so… Brazil’s ratification is significant because in order for the climate agreement to enter into force, 55 separate countries, accounting for 55 percent of global emissions, must sign and then ratify or otherwise approve it. Currently, according to the World Resources Institute, 27 countries have done so, representing 39.08 percent of those emissions (this total does not include Brazil).

However, the majority of those are small countries that don’t contribute much global carbon pollution (though the total also includes a few moderate sized countries like Norway and Peru). And then there are the U.S. and China, which just joined the agreement and account for a whopping 38 percent. Brazil, however, accounts for a very significant 2.48 percent of global emissions — making it the globe’s 7th highest emitter, and also a rather unique one in that so many of its emissions are due to deforestation of the Amazon, rather than the burning of fossil fuels.

The country has reduced deforestation by 80 percent since 2004 — but significant portions of the vast Amazon rain forest are disappearing every year, and after a steady decline in deforestation rates from 2005 onwards, deforestation rose in both 2013 and 2015….The only remaining countries that emit more than Brazil, but have not yet ratified, are Russia (7.5 percent of emissions), India (4.1 percent), Japan (3.79 percent), and Germany (2.56). If all four of those countries also ratified this year, the agreement would easily enter into force. But other countries could also contribute to tipping the world into an officially active Paris regime, including Canada (1.95 percent), South Korea (1.85 percent), Mexico (1.7 percent), the U.K. (1.55 percent), Indonesia (1.49 percent), South Africa (1.46 percent) and Australia (1.46 percent).

Ban Ki-moon, secretary general of the United Nations, has called world leaders to the U.N. headquarters on the 21st of this month for a ratification ceremony for the Paris agreement. Some 175 have already signed, and along with the recent move by the U.S. and China, Brazil’s move just considerably increased the likelihood that there will be something to celebrate.

Staff writer Phillips contributed to this report from Rio de Janeiro; Chris Mooney from Washington.

Best shot at cooling the planet might be under our feet

Studies suggest that regenerating soil by turning our backs on industrial farming holds the key to tackling climate change

Jason Hickel Saturday 10 September 2016 04.00 EDT Last modified on Saturday 10 September 2016 13.01 EDT guardianUK

It’s getting hot out there. Every one of the past 14 months has broken the global temperature record. Ice cover in the Arctic sea just hit a new low, at 525,000 square miles less than normal. And apparently we’re not doing much to stop it: according to Professor Kevin Anderson, one of Britain’s leading climate scientists, we’ve already blown our chances of keeping global warming below the “safe” threshold of 1.5 degrees.

If we want to stay below the upper ceiling of 2 degrees, though, we still have a shot. But it’s going to take a monumental effort. Anderson and his colleagues estimate that in order to keep within this threshold, we need to start reducing emissions by a sobering 8%–10% per year, from now until we reach “net zero” in 2050. If that doesn’t sound difficult enough, here’s the clincher: efficiency improvements and clean energy technologies will only win us reductions of about 4% per year at most.

….How to make up the difference is one of the biggest questions of the 21st century. There are a number of proposals out there. One is to capture the CO2 that pours out of our power stations, liquefy it, and store it in chambers deep under the ground. Another is to seed the oceans with iron to trigger huge algae blooms that will absorb CO2. Others take a different approach, such as putting giant mirrors in space to deflect some of the sun’s rays, or pumping aerosols into the stratosphere to create man-made clouds. Unfortunately, in all of these cases either the risks are too dangerous, or we don’t have the technology yet. This leaves us in a bit of a bind. But while engineers are scrambling to come up with grand geo-engineering schemes, they may be overlooking a simpler, less glamorous solution. It has to do with soil.

Soil is the second biggest reservoir of carbon on the planet, next to the oceans. It holds four times more carbon than all the plants and trees in the world. But human activity like deforestation and industrial farming – with its intensive ploughing, monoculture and heavy use of chemical fertilisers and pesticides – is ruining our soils at breakneck speed, killing the organic materials that they contain. Now 40% of agricultural soil is classed as “degraded” or “seriously degraded”. In fact, industrial farming has so damaged our soils that a third of the world’s farmland has been destroyed in the past four decades.

As our soils degrade, they are losing their ability to hold carbon, releasing enormous plumes of CO2 [pdf] into the atmosphere. There is, however, a solution. Scientists and farmers around the world are pointing out that we can regenerate degraded soils by switching from intensive industrial farming to more ecological methods – not just organic fertiliser, but also no-tillage, composting, and crop rotation. Here’s the brilliant part: as the soils recover, they not only regain their capacity to hold CO2, they begin to actively pull additional CO2 out of the atmosphere.

The battle here is not just between two different methods. It is between two different ways of relating to the land

The science on this is quite exciting. A study published recently by the US National Academy of Sciences claims that regenerative farming can sequester 3% of our global carbon emissions. An article in Science suggests it could be up to 15%. And new research from the Rodale Institute in Pennsylvania, although not yet peer-reviewed, says sequestration rates could be as high as 40%. The same report argues that if we apply regenerative techniques to the world’s pastureland as well, we could capture more than 100% of global emissions. In other words, regenerative farming may be our best shot at actually cooling the planet….