Climate Change News

In reading through the torrent of recent news on climate change, I’ve come across a few events that stand out. Following is a brief summary of each taken from the original source:

Nicholas Stern: ‘I got it wrong on climate change – it’s far, far worse’

by Heather Stewart and Larry Elliott, The Observer, — 26 January 2013

“Lord Stern, author of the government-commissioned review on climate change that became the reference work for politicians and green campaigners, now says he underestimated the risks, and should have been more “blunt” about the threat posed to the economy by rising temperatures.

In an interview at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Stern, who is now a crossbench peer, said: “Looking back, I underestimated the risks. The planet and the atmosphere seem to be absorbing less carbon than we expected, and emissions are rising pretty strongly. Some of the effects are coming through more quickly than we thought then.”

The Stern review, published in 2006, pointed to a 75% chance that global temperatures would rise by between two and three degrees above the long-term average; he now believes we are “on track for something like four”. Had he known the way the situation would evolve, he says, “I think I would have been a bit more blunt. I would have been much more strong about the risks of a four- or five-degree rise.”


A New Draft of the National Climate Assessment was released for public review in early January 2013

The following text is from the draft’s Introduction – Letter to the American People:

 “Climate change, once considered an issue for a distant future, has moved firmly into the present. This report of the National Climate Assessment and Development Advisory Committee concludes that the evidence for a changing climate has strengthened considerably since the last National Climate Assessment report, written in 2009. Many more impacts of human-caused climate change have now been observed. Corn producers in Iowa, oyster growers in Washington State, and maple syrup producers in Vermont have observed changes in their local climate that are outside of their experience. So, too, have coastal planners from Florida to Maine, water managers in the arid Southwest and parts of the Southeast, and Native Americans on tribal lands across the nation.”

The concluding paragraph of the letter states, “This National Climate Assessment collects, integrates, and assesses observations and research from around the country, helping to show what is actually happening and what it means for peoples’ lives, livelihoods, and future. This report includes analyses of impacts on seven selected sectors: human health, water, energy, transportation, agriculture, forests, and ecosystems and biodiversity. This report additionally focuses on the interactions among several sectors at the national level. It also assesses key impacts on the regions of the U.S.: Northeast, Southeast and Caribbean, Midwest, Great Plains, Southwest, Northwest, Alaska and the Arctic, Hawai‘i and the Pacific Islands; as well as coastal areas, oceans, and marine resources. Finally, this report is the first to explicitly assess the current state of adaptation, mitigation, and decision support activities.”

President Obama’s Second Inaugural Speech, 21 January 2013 (taken from the Whitehouse transcript)


“We, the people, still believe that our obligations as Americans are not just to ourselves, but to all posterity.  We will respond to the threat of climate change, knowing that the failure to do so would betray our children and future generations.  Some may still deny the overwhelming judgment of science, but none can avoid the devastating impact of raging fires, and crippling drought, and more powerful storms. 

The path towards sustainable energy sources will be long and sometimes difficult.  But America cannot resist this transition; we must lead it.  We cannot cede to other nations the technology that will power new jobs and new industries – we must claim its promise.  That is how we will maintain our economic vitality and our national treasure – our forests and waterways; our croplands and snowcapped peaks.  That is how we will preserve our planet, commanded to our care by God.  That’s what will lend meaning to the creed our fathers once declared.”

Montana’s Legislative Response to Secretary Chu’s Use of Power Marketing Administrations to Upgrade the Electric Grid

Last Saturday, the Montana Senate unanimously adopted Senate Resolution (SR) 2 in response to the Department of Energy (DOE) Secretary Steven Chu’s March 16, 2012, memorandum that outlined his plan to upgrade the electric grid using power marketing administrations. The plan would utilize the nation’s four power marketing administrations (PMAs) – the Bonneville Power Administration, Western Area Power Administration (WAPA), Southeastern Power Administration and Southwestern Power Administration to transition to “… a more resilient and flexible grid”  (Joint Outreach Team Draft Recommendations, pg. 4) and to create more cooperation among system users. As envisioned in the 3/16 memorandum, this would be achieved by:

1. WAPA and Southwestern joining with third parties to develop needed transmission,

2. The PMAs creating rate structures that provide incentives for energy efficiency, demand response, integration of renewables, and prepare the grid for electric vehicle deployment,

3.The PMAs partnering with all owners and operators of the grid to improve grid reliability, and

4. The PMAs working with Congress to help streamline the complex regulatory system that governs them.

The Chu memorandum has generated much controversy. The National Rural Electric Cooperative Association (NRECA) quickly jumped into the fray and contended that under Chu’s plan, most of the upgrade costs would be borne by local energy users. Thus, customers’ power bills could dramatically increase to pay for the new grid system.

NRECA’s concerns hit home in Montana because WAPA is taking the lead in Chu’s plan and WAPA is a primary PMA for that part of Montana east of the continental divide. This means that several of the Montana electric cooperatives get their federal allocations from WAPA and utilize WAPA transmission. Consequently, the cooperatives have been very vocal about the potential negative impact of the Chu plan on their customers’ future rates.

DOE and WAPA formed an initiative called “Defining the Future” and a Joint Outreach Team (JOT – a joint team of experts from WAPA and DOE) in response to Chu’s grid upgrade plan. Hearings about the initiative were held in six locations throughout WAPA’s territory during the past summer. Rural electric cooperative reps showed up at the Billings, Montana hearing, and all expressed apprehension about the potential of increased rates. The JOT draft recommendations were published in late November 2012. Of note are some changes that the JOT made from the Chu plan –  … “the JOT decided not to pursue any recommendations specifically targeted at energy efficiency, demand response, or electric vehicles. Further, a number of the areas addressed through the recommendations are considered on a regional basis…” (JOT Draft Recommendations, pg. 5).

This brings us to the start of the 2013 Montana legislative session. JOT representatives gave a brief summary of their draft recommendations to a combined Senate Committee on Energy and Telecommunications and the House Federal Relations, Energy, and Telecommunications Committee during the session’s first week. This allayed some concerns, but SR 2 was still introduced the next week, which according to Montana Senator Olson at the 1/17 SR 2 hearing, “stems from communications between the Montana Legislative Interim Energy and Telecommunications Committee and DOE”.  Senator Olson further noted during the hearing that WAPA and DOE had recent meetings regarding the future of transmission needs in this part of country, but that none of the policy was communicated to the Montana legislature. A letter from the Senate Energy and Telecommunications Committee was sent to DOE about the lack of communication, but Senator Olson characterized DOE’s response as “snarky”. Thus, SR 2 was crafted in order to make sure that DOE received the Senate’s remarks on the initiative by the close of the comment period on 1/22/2013.

It will be interesting to see what happens with the initiative and SR 2, but this all is reminiscent of the last Montana legislative session and the hearings on HB 198 (the bill that granted the power of eminent domain to many a corporation). Several of the same concerns, including increased power rates and lack of notification, were raised during these hearings. What goes around comes around.



Climate Change Impact on Earth Surface Systems

As Congress continues to stonewall on climate change legislation, I think that a recent article published in the Perspectives section of Nature Climate Change, The impacts of climate change on terrestrial Earth surface systems, is worth contemplating. The authors, Jasper Knight and Stephan Harrison, argue that “… at present, governments’ attempts to limit greenhouse-gas emissions through carbon cap-and-trade schemes and to promote renewable and sustainable energy sources are probably too late to arrest the inevitable trend of global warming. Instead, there are increasingly persuasive arguments that government and institutional focus should be on developing adaption policies that address and help mitigate against the negative outcomes of global warming, rather than carbon trading and cataloguing greenhouse-gas emissions”.

Don’t think that the authors suggest for us to just walk away from the greenhouse-gas emission and global warming problem, though. What they are advocating is a more inclusive strategy for dealing with global warming, one that includes understanding and managing the impacts of climate change on the dynamics of Earth surface systems – systems that include glaciers, rivers, mountains and coasts. These systems supply resources such as soil and water, and as such are critical components to life on earth. And, as we just witnessed with Superstorm Sandy, some of these systems, such as coastal and river systems, are vital in alleviating the impact of catastrophic weather events.

The major problem with immediately incorporating earth surface system data into a global warming management response is that earth surface systems operate on a much longer time scale than elements of the biosphere. To mitigate the time dilemma, there is potential in looking at earth surface system responses to past climatic events. Knight and Harrison note that, “…for instance, climate cooling during the Little Ice Age in Europe (~ad 1550–1850) had significant impacts on the sediment yields of mountain, fluvial and slope systems, particularly in marginal regions already predis­posed to be climatically sensitive to changes in temperature and pre­cipitation patterns, including their seasonality”.

In any event, currently, most Earth surface systems are not regularly monitored regarding climate change. This is a huge policy omission, both nationally and internationally, because Earth surface system dynamics are a major part of the landscape response to climate change, and these systems function on multinational spatial scales that play into sustainable resource management. It is going to take a large-scale effort by scientists, governments, and most importantly, citizens to make sure that the response to global warming includes understanding and managing the impacts of climate change on the dynamics of Earth surface systems. It’s long past time to get to work.

2012 – Warmest Year on Record

US_Jan-Dec2012_tempanom_300NOAA’s National Climate Data Center (NCDC) announced today that 2012 was the warmest year on record for the contiguous U.S in over a century of record keeping. The average temperature for 2012 was 55.3°F. This is 3.2°F above the 20th century average and is 1.0°F above the previous 1998 record. Other temperature notables for 2012 include: the fourth warmest winter, an extremely warm spring, the second warmest summer, and a warmer than usual fall.

2012 was also the 15th driest year on record for the contiguous U.S., with an average of 26.57 inches, which is 2.57 inches below average. Snowpack totals in the Southern to Central Rockies were less than half of normal; winter snow cover for the contiguous U.S. was the third smallest on record. The minimal snowpack and the persistent dryness of 2011 set the stage for the pervasive drought conditions that occurred in many areas of the U.S. in 2012.

In regards to climate extremes, the U.S. Climate Extremes Index showed 2012 to be second most extreme year on record for the U.S. Catastrophic events such as Superstorm Sandy, Hurricane Isaac, and tornadoes across several parts of the country, gave 2012 the edge over the former extreme weather year of 1998.

Constructing A Paleotemperature Record As A Check On Global Surface Thermometer Records

An independent global surface (GST) temperature record was recently compiled from several geological and historical sources.  David Anderson, of the National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration’s National Climate Data Center, USA, and several colleagues constructed a Paleo Index which is based upon 173 temperature-sensitive proxy time series. As noted by Anderson and others in their paper in press, Global Warming in an Independent Record of the Last 130 Years (to be published in the journal Geophysical Research Letters):

“The thermometer-based global surface temperature time series (GST) commands a prominent role in the evidence for global warming, yet this record has considerable uncertainty. An independent record with better geographic coverage would be valuable in understanding recent change in the context of natural variability. We compiled the Paleo Index (PI) from 173 temperature-sensitive proxy time series (corals, ice cores, speleothems, lake and ocean sediments, historical documents).”

The PI extends back to 1730 and documents a significant increase in warmth from 1880 to 1995, much like the thermometer-based GST. The results of the PI, which are taken from numerous globally distributed proxies, well corroborates the thermometer data.  This independent check on the thermometer-based GST helps to bolster assurance in its accuracy.

Coal Could Overtake Oil As Number 1 Global Energy Source By 2017

I watched a coal unit train zip through the Belgrade-Bozeman, Montana, area yesterday. The Montana Rail Link unit train was 125 cars in length and presumably bound for Pacific Northwest seaports. The coal is sourced from the Powder River Basin, an approximately 20,000-acre part of Wyoming that supplies about 40 percent of U.S. coal. An informative guide to the Montana-Pacific Northwest coal train situation is the July 2012 Western Organization of Resource Councils’ publication – RAIL IMPACTS OF POWDER RIVER BASIN COAL TO ASIA BY WAY OF PACIFIC NORTHWEST TERMINALS.

My viewing of the coal train passage coincided time-wise with a press release on the International Energy Agency’s (IEA) Medium-Term Coal Market Report. The IEA contends that by 2017 coal will closely rival oil as the number one global energy source.

“Thanks to abundant supplies and insatiable demand for power from emerging markets, coal met nearly half of the rise in global energy demand during the first decade of the 21st Century,” said IEA Executive Director Maria van der Hoeven. “This report sees that trend continuing. In fact, the world will burn around 1.2 billion more tonnes of coal per year by 2017 compared to today – equivalent to the current coal consumption of Russia and the United States combined. Coal’s share of the global energy mix continues to grow each year, and if no changes are made to current policies, coal will catch oil within a decade.”

The growth trend for coal will increase globally except for in the U.S. where cheap natural gas will bring a decline to coal usage. China and India will be the big markets for coal over the next five years, accounting for than 90 percent of the increase in coal demand.

In a Huff Post Green Blog, van der Hoeven notes that although affordable coal has aided emerging economies …” the surge in coal burning is not good news. Despite industry’s effort to promote “clean” coal, the black matter remains the dirtiest of all fossil fuels. The average coal-based power plant emits a tonne of CO2 per MWh generated, about twice the level of a power plant using combined-cycle gas turbines.”

The relentless growth trend for coal currently appears untouched by either climate policy or the economic slowdown. Given the present political situation, it may well be that cheap natural gas continues to be our biggest hope for carbon emission reductions.

Largest Ice Calving Event Caught on Video

As part of the filming for the documentary,Chasing Ice, two filmmakers caught a massive calving event of a Greenland glacier (see the accompanying YouTube video, via The Guardian, inserted below). One of the filmmakers, James Balog, said the event is like seeing “Manhattan breaking apart in front of your eyes”. Chasing Ice chronicles climate change’s impact on Arctic glaciers. Balog began his multiyear time-lapse photographic expedition in 2005. With the help of other adventurers, and on assignment for National Geographic, Balog set up cameras across the Arctic in hopes of documenting the changing glaciers. The result of this work clearly records the disappearance of Arctic glaciers and a transformation of our planet.

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The only place that I’ve found Chasing Ice currently playing in Montana is at the Wilma Theater in Missoula. It is scheduled to be at the Wilma at least until next Wednesday, 12/19. The Chasing Ice website does have a form available whereby a request can be made to bring the film to more local theaters. Here’s the link: . Let’s bring it to more places in Montana. Everyone should see this!

Mississippi River Water Wars

Water levels in the lower stretch of the Mississippi River are so low that the U.S. Coast Guard closed a stretch of the river today after a barge tow ran aground south of Memphis. Considering that water levels are projected to continue dropping due to the worst U.S. drought in 56 years over part of the Great Plains and Upper Midwest, navigation could become severely impacted.

The United States Army Corps of Engineers, the agency that administers river and reservoir water levels, has come under pressure to delay or even to suspend the annual decrease in discharge from Missouri River reservoirs and to increase dredging and blasting work.

However, upstream water users are not rushing to agree to increased water releases. Water uses upstream include hydroelectric power, irrigation, recreation, and most recently  fracking, which is associated with Bakken oil shale production. And – even if the Corps opted to release more water for downstream users, it can’t because it must abide by the Missouri River Master Manual. Most crucially, though, the Missouri flow to the Mississippi through the Gavins Point Dam near Yankton, S.D., must increase quickly or dangerous rock pinnacles near Thebes, Illinois will be exposed which could shut down barge traffic on the Mississippi by December 10th.

The economic impact of restricted or even halted shipping on the Mississippi River is considerable. As stated in a recent National Public Radio news segment, Water Levels Dangerously Low on Mississippi River,  …”about 60 percent of the country’s grain exports and 20 percent of its coal for electric generation travel by river…”. The urgency of this situation has escalated such that barge companies are pressing President Obama to declare an emergency along the Mississippi River.

The water wars continue….

2 Degrees Celsius – An Inevitable Global Average Temperature Increase?

The Global Carbon Project’s recent analysis on current carbon dioxide emissions published in the latest issue of Nature Climate Change underscores the necessity for action in emission reduction. The commentary’s authors concluded that the rapid growth in fossil fuel emissions makes a global average temperature increase of 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) inevitable. It is this 20 Celsius global average surface temperature limit that was agreed to during the 2009 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen, Denmark. And it is the goal of the in-progress 18th annual United Nations climate-change summit in Doha to create a world treaty, which would be signed in 2015, to slow global green-house gas emissions so that global average surface does not rise by 20 Celsius.

The commentary conclusions put this goal in question. As the authors state in the abstract, “The latest carbon dioxide emissions continue to track the high end of emission scenarios, making it even less likely global warming will stay below 2 °C. A shift to a 2 °C pathway requires immediate significant and sustained global mitigation, with a probable reliance on net negative emissions in the longer term.”

The commentary’s abstract is found at Nature Climate Change – The challenge to keep global warming below 2 °C.

Polar Ice Melting Fast

A new study published in Science on 11/30/2012 shows that the Antarctic and Greenland ice sheets are losing more than three times as much ice each year as they were in the 1990s. The melting of ice, two thirds of which has occurred in Greenland, has raised sea levels by 11.1 millimeters since 1992.

ice melt
Source: ESA/NASA/Planetary Visions
Based on the Shepherd Science study, this image of Antarctica has a superimposed chart of changes in global sea level due to ice sheet melting since 1992. The background image shows thickening (blue) and thinning (red) of Antarctica’s ice sheets over the same period.

The study is the combined work of 47 researchers from 26 laboratories and was  supported by the European Space Agency and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. As summarized in the abstract of the Science publication, “We combined an ensemble of satellite altimetry, interferometry, and gravimetry data sets using common geographical regions, time intervals, and models of surface mass balance and glacial isostatic adjustment to estimate the mass balance of Earth’s polar ice sheets. We find that there is good agreement between different satellite methods—especially in Greenland and West Antarctica—and that combining satellite data sets leads to greater certainty. Between 1992 and 2011, the ice sheets of Greenland, East Antarctica, West Antarctica, and the Antarctic Peninsula changed in mass by –142 ± 49, +14 ± 43, –65 ± 26, and –20 ± 14 gigatonnes year−1, respectively. Since 1992, the polar ice sheets have contributed, on average, 0.59 ± 0.20 millimeter year−1 to the rate of global sea-level rise.”

The research was undertaken as part of the Ice Sheet Mass Balance Inter-comparison Exercise (IMBIE). Read more on the study: Science – A Reconciled Estimate of Ice-Sheet Mass Balance