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.

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: http://www.chasingice.com/see-the-film/bring-it-to-my-local-theater/ . Let’s bring it to more places in Montana. Everyone should see this!

Ocean Acidification and Climate Change

A news item caught my interest recently – a National Public Radio (NPR) news segment of 11/23/2012 on whether shellfish can adapt to increasingly acidic oceans (NPR shellfish link). Because UN Climate Talks opened in Doha, Qatar today, I thought it would be an appropriate time to talk about ocean acidification trends. As noted by Lauren Sommer during the NPR broadcast, “Scientists say oceans are becoming more acidic as they absorb the carbon dioxide added to the air through the burning of fossil fuels. That can be bad news for oysters, mussels and others animals that are key to the seafood industry and to the marine food web. Scientists are using the unique ocean conditions off the California coast to monitor developments”.

The first comment posted on the NPR web site page of the shellfish story tried to debunk ocean acidification. However, as noted in a second comment, data from several studies clearly show that ocean pH is decreasing. In fact, a study cited by both commentors is the Wootton, et.al., 2008 study (Wootton study link) of ocean pH which is based upon a multi-year data set. The authors of this article give a summary statement of “…our results indicate that pH decline is proceeding at a more rapid rate than previously predicted in some areas, and that this decline has ecological consequences for near shore benthic ecosystems”.

Being a geologist, I like to look at the present oceanic decline in pH in a geologic context. One of the most interesting articles in this area that I’ve found is a 2012 paper by Honisch et. al. that was published in Science (Honisch study link). The authors of this paper, 21 ocean/climate geoscientists, examined the geologic record (these authors confined their study to only approximately the past 300 million years due to the presence of pelagic calcifiers similar to those living today that make the deep-sea carbonate buffer of the modern Earth system) for events that could be associated with ocean acidification, such as mass extinctions and evolutionary turnovers among marine calcifiers. They recognized eight geological events that could be similar to what is occurring today, but state, “…Although similarities exist, no past event perfectly parallels future projections in terms of disrupting the balance of ocean carbonate chemistry—a consequence of the unprecedented rapidity of CO2 release currently taking place”.

One of the better analog events identified by the Honisch study is the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum (PETM) which began about 56 million years ago. During the PETM, global temperature rose about 5 degrees Celsius – a temperature elevation that occurred within just a few thousand years. The increased temperature probably resulted from massive additions of heat-trapping greenhouse gases into the atmosphere sourced initially by volcanic eruptions and later by destabilized methane hydrate deposits and other related events such as wide-spread forest fires and thawed permafrost. It took about 200,000 years for the earth’s systems to counteract this elevated temperature. Consequences of this climate change are wide-ranging and include occurrences such as the largest extinction among deep-sea benthic foraminifers of the past 75 million years, poleward shift of many animals and plants, redistribution of mammals over high-latitude land bridges, and organism adaptation such as smaller body size. However, to put the PETM’s massive greenhouse gas injection into the atmosphere into a context for the present day, Lee Kump, in a 2011 Scientific American article on the PETM (Kump paper link), suggests that the PETM greenhouse gas release “… was only 10 percent of the rate at which heat-trapping greenhouse gases are building up in the atmosphere today”.

As the 21 geoscience authors in the 2012 Honish study summarized, “…the current rate of (mainly fossil fuel) CO2 release stands out as capable of driving a combination and magnitude of ocean geochemical changes potentially unparalleled in at least the last ~300 My of Earth history, raising the possibility that we are entering an unknown territory of marine ecosystem change”.

Let’s hope that there is huge progress made at the UN Climate Change talks.

Hurricane Sandy – A Predicted Event of Climate Change

Earlier this year, a peer-reviewed paper, Physically based assessment of hurricane surge threat under climate change, (PDF bypasses Nature’s paywall) was published in the journal Nature Climate Change. The authors predicted more frequent storm surges for New York City due to the changing climate.

The abstract from the paper follows:

Storm surges are responsible for much of the damage and loss of life associated with landfalling hurricanes. Understanding how global warming will affect hurricane surges thus holds great interest. As general circulation models (GCMs) cannot simulate hurricane surges directly, we couple a GCM-driven hurricane model with hydrodynamic models to simulate large numbers of synthetic surge events under projected climates and assess surge threat, as an example, for New York City (NYC). Struck by many intense hurricanes in recorded history and prehistory, NYC is highly vulnerable to storm surges. We show that the change of storm climatology will probably increase the surge risk for NYC; results based on two GCMs show the distribution of surge levels shifting to higher values by a magnitude comparable to the projected sea-level rise (SLR). The combined effects of storm climatology change and a 1?m SLR may cause the present NYC 100-yr surge flooding to occur every 3–20?yr and the present 500-yr flooding to occur every 25–240?yr by the end of the century.

Many residents of the areas impacted by Sandy are still without power and in the most hard-hit locations probably won’t be back in their homes for quite some time. The next step for families is to look at some sort of disaster recovery plan. The costs of Sandy will most likely be in the billions of dollars. And – Sandy is only one of the more recent catastrophic weather events to occur globally. There is a climate crisis.

Anthropocene: Is there a new human-based geological age?

Geologists are well known for separating the geologic time scale into many time units. The most recent time division, the Holocene, has now lasted about 11,700 years, during which time the climate has been fairly stable. However, at several recent geological meetings, geologists have discussed the premise that because human activity has so irrevocably changed our planet, we have entered a new geological age. The name given to this new, human-caused epoch is the Anthropocene. The Anthropocene was most recently discussed last week at a Geological Society conference in London . Read more about this discussion at: BBC News Science and Environment’s web site.

U.S. Coal Exports

For those concerned about coal use and the environment, the U.S. Energy Administration recently released information on U.S. coal exports. A brief summary follows:

“U.S. 2012 coal exports, supported by rising steam coal exports, are expected to break their previous record level of almost 113 million tons, set in 1981. Exports for the first half of 2012 reached almost 67 million tons, surpassing most annual export volumes dating back to 1949. U.S. coal exports averaged 56 million tons per year in the decade preceding 2011. If exports continue at their current pace, the United States will export 133 million tons this year, although EIA forecasts exports of 125 million tons.”  Source: Today In Energy, U.S. Energy Information Administration, 10/23/2012. Read more at: U.S. Coal Exports