Wednesday, February 12, 2014

EPA Approves Recycling of Coal Ash in Concrete, Wallboard

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has approved the beneficial use of coal ash in the making of concrete and wallboard, the two largest options for recycling of the material.

The Washington-based agency said in a news release that it concluded that the use of encapsulated coal combustion residuals (CCR) in those materials is appropriate because they are comparable to virgin materials or below the agency’s health and environmental benchmarks. 

 The EPA used newly developed methodology to evaluate the use in concrete as a substitute for portland cement, and the use of flue gas desulfurization gypsum as a substitute for mined gypsum in wallboard.These two uses account for almost half of the total amount of coal ash that is beneficially used.“

 The protective reuse of coal ash advances sustainability by saving valuable resources, reducing costs, and lessening environmental impacts reducing greenhouse gas emissions,” said Mathy Stanislaus, assistant administrator for EPA’s Office of Solid Waste and Emergency Response. Coal ash is formed when coal is burned in boilers that generate steam for power generation and industrial applications. Slightly more than half of coal ash is disposed of in dry landfills and surface impoundments. 

The remainder of coal ash is used beneficially, as well as in mining applications.Earlier this month the EPA set a date of Dec. 19 (prompted by a lawsuit) to make final disposal rules for coal ash as a nonhazardous waste material. 

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Wood boiler users dispute heavy pollution claims

Jeff Luff talks about the new EPA regulations that will effect wood burning stoves like the ones he sells at his outdoor wood furnace shop, CT Wood Furnace in Oxford, Conn. Photo: Autumn Driscoll / Connecticut Post
Jeff Luff talks about the new EPA regulations that will effect wood burning stoves like the ones he sells at his outdoor wood furnace shop, CT Wood Furnace in Oxford, Conn. Photo: Autumn Driscoll 

OXFORD -- The smoke emanating from outdoor wood-burning furnaces can lie thick and low. Rather than rising and dispersing, it can spread out, leaving smoky particles hanging about.

In a time when indoor cigarette smoking is all but forbidden and greenhouse gases are a common concern, there are 500 to 1,000 wood furnaces in the state, the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection estimates, and they are largely unregulated.

That's about to change.

The federal Environmental Protection Agency recently announced it will start regulating the amount of air pollution emitted from wood furnaces, wood stoves and wood pellet stoves in 2015.

But talk to people who sell and use wood-fired heating sources, and you'll come away with the view that much-maligned outdoor wood boilers might be doing the environment a favor. Advocates of the wood boilers claim people who burn gas and oil for heat are ruining the planet .

Jeff Luff sells outdoor wood boilers out of an office building that he and his wife, Claudia, own on Christian Street in Oxford.

"Twelve thousand square feet, and it's all heated with wood," Luff said. "I can tell you're just overcome with the smoke," he added with smirk.

Indeed. On the north side of the building that's home to a number of other small businesses besides Luff's operation, is a large outdoor wood boiler. It was 18 degrees in the shade, and the shed-sized unit was keeping the entire two-story building toasty warm. The boiler was vented by a 25-foot stovepipe from which only a faint blue wisp could be detected.

The new EPA regulations will not apply to fireplaces, outdoor fire pits, barbecues or pizza ovens. Existing wood-burning appliances would be grandfathered in, but those manufactured in 2015 and beyond would have to meet far stricter pollution standards.

The current EPA regulations allow indoor stoves to emit 7.5 grams of particulate matter an hour.

"A cigarette is 0.5 grams an hour," said Tom Swan, owner of Black Swan Hearth & Gift Shop in Newtown. "I sell stoves that release 0.8 of a gram of pollution an hour. That's less than two cigarettes."

Old stoves, he points out, can release as much as 40 grams of smoke an hour. New stoves, he said, are much cleaner.

Swan, who acted as a liaison between the wood stove industry and the EPA while it worked on 2015 regulations, said it's the older wood furnaces that are a problem.

"There are new wood furnaces that are cleaner than fireplaces," Swan said.

To be sure, the horror stories heard from some living downwind of outdoor wood boilers are real. People's lives have been up-ended by a wood-burning unit up the street.

The change in EPA rules can't come soon enough for Wilson Converse, of Weston, and his wife, Suzan. The Converses live across the street from a wood-burning furnace, and they have measured the particulate level in their home when their neighbor burns wood. It can reach dangerous levels.

Converse said it's not just his house. The entire neighborhood is being overridden with smoke from the furnace.

"Everybody," Converse said. "It's 24-7."

The neighbor who owns the wood furnace, Joe Tassitano, said the complaints won't deter him from using his furnace.

"I have nothing to say," Tassitano said. "I love wood boilers."

The EPA's new regulations would require increased efficiency. At the end of five years, the EPA has said, the wood stoves and furnaces on the market will be 80 percent cleaner than those sold today.

These new stoves will burn wood much more efficiently. Those who own them will spend less on wood, saving money on fuel. They'll also reduce the health costs caused by breathing smoky air.

In all, the EPA has said, the new standards will create a $1.8 billion to $2.4 billion a year in economic benefit in the United States.

Unmoved, Luff estimates thousands of wood boilers are running in Connecticut alone -- he had sold 2,500 himself -- and the vast majority of them operate without complaint. He is quick to point out that photos in the paper of smoking flues are usually taken when the unit is cold.

"Once it's up to temperature, you see nothing," Luff said. "That's called gasification burn."

Burning wood, Luff says, is better for the environment because it's not a fossil fuel. Burning wood has a "zero carbon footprint" because the carbon dioxide generated by the burning wood is offset by the trees that are growing to replace the firewood.

Luff said the people who burn wood are no match for the clean-air lobby, which they view as wrong-headed when it comes to wood.

"If you have 4 1/2 acres, you'll have an endless supply of fuel," he said. "You'll never diminish your supply of trees."

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Let us hope the harbingers of climate-change doom are wrong

"I was born in the fine city of Limerick, Ireland, on the mighty Shannon. You could say I spent my youth surrounded by water"
Nigel Griffiths, 63, from Throney, Somerset, walks his dog Cassie as rain begins to fall heavily on the already flooded Somerset Levels

Pictures last week of a storm-tossed Britain and the Duke of Edinburgh marching resolutely to church, his umbrella seeming to carry him along like Mary Poppins, reflected the disenchantment with our wet and excessively windy winter that I shrewdly discerned among my radio listeners last Sunday.

Complaining about the weather is part and parcel of everyday conversation in our temperate climate, where anything more than a light breeze, a drizzle of rain or the odd snowflake can bring the country to a halt. My listeners’ gripes were softened, however, by a couple listening in supposedly continuously sunny Barbados, who told us that it was raining cats and dogs there. It’s not without its own significance that the only time I spent in Barbados, it rained steadily for a week, and before you say anything, it was during the high season. Then, to further discomfort the complainers, a listener from the other end of the world, Auckland, New Zealand, bade us be of good cheer, for it was thundering and lightning like billy-o even as we spoke, in his corner of the Land of the Long White Cloud.

We rarely get it in the neck from the weather. We’re spoilt, and when things do get serious, we’re slow to get jerked from our complacency and do something about it. Leaves on the line, rivers breaking their banks, trees blown down across the roads, have all happened before, but always seem to come as a surprise. Let us devotedly hope that the harbingers of climate-change doom are not right, because we’ll never cope with forest fires, tsunamis, volcanoes, tornadoes or earthquakes.

I was born in the fine city of Limerick, Ireland, on the mighty Shannon. You could say I spent my youth surrounded by water, as it seemed to rain every day. I cycled to school in it, played rugby in it, swam in the river in it. A wonderful film, Angela’s Ashes, reflected my life then, and the main reaction I got from people who’d seen it was disbelief, not at the poverty, but the steady downpour of rain that permeated the film. I had to reassure them that it was true to life, if a little understated.

On the wonderful golf links of Lahinch in County Clare, they keep a weather eye on the goats that crop the fairways. If they are sheltering in the lee of the clubhouse it means rain. The members play on. “That’s a soft day,” they’ll say, and that’s the way I’ve always looked on it.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Flooding experts say Britain will have to adapt to climate change – and fast

Boat carries residents on the Somerset Levels

"You are looking at retreat," says Prof Colin Thorne, a flooding expert at the University of Nottingham. "It is the only sensible policy – it makes no sense to defend the indefensible." This assessment of how the UK will have to adapt to its increasing flood risk is stark, but is shared by virtually all those who work on the issue.Centuries of draining wetlands, reclaiming salt marshes and walling in rivers is being put into reverse by climate change, which is bringing fiercer storms, more intense downpours and is pushing up sea levels. Sea walls are now being deliberately allowed to be breached, with new defences built further back, and fields turned into lakes to slow the rush of the water, as flood management turns back towards natural methods.Thorne says the strategy of once more "making space for water" has been around for a decade, but the urgency of implementing it has increased sharply. "We thought then we were talking about the 2030s, but it is all happening a heck of a lot quicker."

Large parts of southern England had their wettest January ever recorded, the Met Office announced on Thursday, and the Somerset Levels, much of which is below sea level, have been inundated for weeks. "I have enormous sympathy for these people," says Thorne. But he thinks the 1,000-year history of keeping the sea out of the area is coming to the end. "Can the Somerset Levels be defended between now and the end of the century? No," he says.

Hannah Cloke, a flooding expert at the University of Reading, agrees: "We could make the choice to protect the Levels forever, but that is going to take a lot of resources. My gut feeling is that you are going to have to let that be a marshland in the end. But people live there and have their livelihoods there, so it is very tricky." Cloke says greatest priority across the country is giving people the help they need to adjust to more frequent floods, from warnings and emergency planning down to home-level protection, such as water-absorbing green roofs and porous paving stones. She points to a small but growing trend of riverbank homes being raised on stilts.

"We have to realise we cannot defend at all costs. We have to adapt to climate change," says Professor Rob Duck, a coastal expert at the University of Dundee, noting that Hull, Norfolk, Suffolk, Essex, Sussex and the Wirral are places at risk. "Building higher and higher walls is not the answer." Big flood defences often just shift the problem elsewhere, he says, or cause an even greater catastrophe when they eventually breach.

Ola Holmstrom, UK head of water at consultancy firm WSP, says the hard choices must be taken soon: "Unfortunately increasing urbanisation and climate change means the question of flood risk management is not going to go away. Someone will need to make some tough decisions, and for the benefit of those currently flooded and those whose livelihood depends on the land, it would be best if this happens sooner than later."

Government-funded landscape experiments in Somerset and Yorkshire are demonstrating that blocking upland drainage channels, replanting trees next to rivers and deliberately flooding fields can protect downstream homes by slowing the flow of water, which stops waters rising fast and reduces the silting up of channels.

"In the UK, going back to nature is the right way to go: it works," says Cloke. "We have tried the engineering solution and the cost of maintaining that is very high and we just don't have the money to maintain these standards." The government's annual funding for flood defences is falling by 15% in real terms under the coalition, while the risk of flooding is rising and is the greatest impact of climate change, according to government scientists.

Making more use of land to hold back flood water will have the greatest impact on farmers, who manage two-thirds of the UK's land. Paul Cottington, south-west environment adviser for the National Farmers' Union, says: "The land has been modified for centuries and there's a reason for that: we have very good productive farmland." He says every 100 hectares of land can feed 400 people, and that some farmers are already working in uplands to help alleviate flooding. But, Cottington says, farmers could provide flood relief with their land, if paid for that service with long-term agreements, and he points to an existing scheme in Kent that protects Tonbridge in this way. Thorne says bluntly that such changes to farmland are inevitable: "Get used to it, guys."

On the future of the Levels, Cottington says: "In the long term, the Levels can be whatever they need to be. They are what they are through human effort but what they become should be decided by the people who live and work there."

Despite the consensus that more coastal and flood plain land will have to be used to make space for water, the experts are also clear that major concrete defences will still be needed in urban areas. Alastair Chisholm, policy manager at the Chartered Institution of Water and Environmental Management, says: "We need to recognise the real value of protecting large, low-lying communities and economically important land. The idea of moving large communities, like flood-prone Hull for example, is a very difficult to contemplate. In the Netherlands, they know that ultimately they have little option but to defend and hold the line at significant cost." He says accepting the big price tag that has to be paid – increased flood defence spending on towns – may in the end be most socially acceptable course in built-up areas.

However, outside major towns and cities, the Environment Agency has long accepted that retreat is inevitable, stating in 2008: "We are not going to be able to hold the line everywhere for ever."

Thorne agrees: "You are going to lose the battle one dark night and it will be brutal. I think we can be more civilised than that and plan ahead. We need to [beware of] hubris and know that if we fight nature, we will lose in the end."


Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Watch 60 Years Of Climate Change In 15 Seconds


According to NASA, 2013 was tied (with 2009 and 2006) for seventh warmest year globally on record, dating back to 1880. NASA scientists have played a leading role in climate research in recent decades and the agency’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies (GISS) this month updated a report analyzing worldwide surface temperatures.

“Long-term trends in surface temperatures are unusual and 2013 adds to the evidence for ongoing climate change,” GISS climatologist Gavin Schmidt said. “While one year or one season can be affected by random weather events, this analysis shows the necessity for continued, long-term monitoring.”

The NASA data finds that with the exception of 1998, the 10 warmest years in the 134-year record have all come since the latest turn of the century, with 2010 and 2005 ranking as the warmest years on record.  

Climate Change NASA
Global average temperatures for 2013 (Credit: NASA)

To drive the point home, GISS created the below animation that shows the increase in temperatures worldwide over the past 60 years, compiled from data collected by over 1,000 meteorological stations around the globe.

A release from NASA makes the case that the increase in temperatures over the long-term is more a social problem than a matter of eons-long natural climate patterns:
Driven by increasing man-made emissions, the level of carbon dioxide in Earth’s atmosphere presently is higher than at any time in the last 800,000 years.

This summer, NASA plans to launch the Orbiting Carbon Observatory with the goal of studying both natural and manmade sources of carbon dioxide, one of the gases believed to be largely to blame for climate change.

Monday, February 3, 2014

Leading Scientists Explain How Climate Change Is Worsening California’s Epic Drought

Scientists have long predicted that climate change would bring on ever-worsening droughts, especially in semi-arid regions like the U.S. Southwest. As climatologist James Hansen, who co-authored one of the earliest studies on this subject back in 1990, told me this week, “Increasingly intense droughts in California, all of the Southwest, and even into the Midwest have everything to do with human-made climate change.”
Why does it matter if climate change is playing a role in the Western drought? As one top researcher on the climate-drought link reconfirmed with me this week, “The U.S. may never again return to the relatively wet conditions experienced from 1977 to 1999.” If his and other projections are correct, then there may be no greater tasks facing humanity than 1) working to slash carbon pollution and avoid the worst climate impact scenarios and 2) figuring out how to feed nine billion people by mid-century in a Dust-Bowl-ifying world.
Remarkably, climate scientists specifically predicted a decade ago that Arctic ice loss would bring on worse droughts in the West, especially California. As it turns out, Arctic ice loss has been much faster than the researchers — and indeed all climate modelers — expected.

And, of course, California is now in the death-grip of a brutal, record-breaking drought, driven by the very change in the jet stream that scientists had anticipated. Is this just an amazing coincidence — or were the scientists right? And what would that mean for the future? Building on my post from last summer, I talked to the lead researcher and several other of the world’s leading climatologists and drought experts.


First, a little background. Climate change makes Western droughts longer and stronger and more frequent in several ways, as I discussed in my 2011 literature review in the journal Nature:

Precipitation patterns are expected to shift, expanding the dry subtropics. What precipitation there is will probably come in extreme deluges, resulting in runoff rather than drought alleviation. Warming causes greater evaporation and, once the ground is dry, the Sun’s energy goes into baking the soil, leading to a further increase in air temperature. That is why, for instance, so many temperature records were set for the United States in the 1930s Dust Bowl; and why, in 2011, drought-stricken Texas saw the hottest summer ever recorded for a US state. Finally, many regions are expected to see earlier snowmelt, so less water will be stored on mountain tops for the summer dry season.

I labeled this synergy Dust-Bowlification. The West has gotten hotter thanks to global warming, and that alone is problematic for California.
“The extra heat from the increase in heat trapping gases in the atmosphere over six months is equivalent to running a small microwave oven at full power for about half an hour over every square foot of the land under the drought,” climatologist Kevin Trenberth explained to me via email, during a drought. “No wonder wild fires have increased! So climate change undoubtedly affects the intensity and duration of drought, and it has consequences. California must be very vigilant with regard to wild fires as the spring arrives.”

And then we have the observed earlier snow melt, which matters in the West because it robs the region of a reservoir needed for the summer dry season — see “US Geological Survey (2011): Global Warming Drives Rockies Snowpack Loss Unrivaled in 800 Years, Threatens Western Water Supply” and “USGS (2013): Warmer Springs Causing Loss Of Snow Cover Throughout The Rocky Mountains.”

Climate change undoubtedly affects the intensity and duration of drought, and it has consequences.

As climatologist and water expert Peter Gleick noted to me, quite separate from the impact of climate change on precipitation, “look at the temperature patterns here, which are leading to a greater ratio of rain-to-snow, faster melting of snow, and greater evaporation. Those changes alone make any drought more intense.”

But what of the possibility that climate change is actually contributing to the reduction in rainfall? After all, as Daniel Swain has noted, “calendar year 2013 was the driest on record in California’s 119 year formal record, and likely the driest since at least the Gold Rush era.”

Trenberth explained that, according to climate models, “some areas are more likely to get drier including the SW: In part this relates a bit to the wet get wetter and dry get drier syndrome, so the subtropics are more apt to become drier. It also relates to the expansion and poleward shift of the tropics.”

Back in 2005, I first heard climatologist Jonathan Overpeck discuss evidence that temperature and annual precipitation had started to head in opposite directions in the U.S. Southwest, which raises the question of whether we are at the “dawn of the super-interglacial drought.” Overpeck, a leading drought expert at the University of Arizona, warned “climate change seldom occurs gradually.”

What’s going on in the Southwest is what anthropogenic global warming looks like for the region.

In a major 2008 USGS report, Abrupt Climate Change, the Bush Administration (!) warned:
“In the Southwest, for example, the models project a permanent drying by the mid-21st century that reaches the level of aridity seen in historical droughts, and a quarter of the projections may reach this level of aridity much earlier.”

In 2011 US Senate testimony, Overpeck stated:

There is broad agreement in the climate science research community that the Southwest, including New Mexico, will very likely continue to warm. There is also a strong consensus that the same region will become drier and increasingly snow-free with time, particularly in the winter and spring. Climate science also suggests that the warmer atmosphere will lead to more frequent and more severe (drier) droughts in the future. All of the above changes have already started, in large part driven by human-caused climate change.
Overpeck told me this week, “because I think the science only gets stronger with time, I’ll stick to my statements that you quote.” He added, “what’s going on in the Southwest is what anthropogenic global warming looks like for the region.”

Beyond the expansion and drying of the subtropics predicted by climate models, some climatologists have found in their research evidence that the stunning decline in Arctic sea ice would also drive western drought — by shifting storm tracks.

“Given the very large reductions in Arctic sea ice, and the heat escaping from the Arctic ocean into the overlying atmosphere, it would be surprising if the retreat in Arctic sea ice did *not* modify the large-scale circulation of the atmosphere in some way,” Michael Mann, director of the Earth System Science Center at Pennsylvania State University, told me this week. “We now have a healthy body of research, ranging from Lisa Sloan’s and Jacob Sewall’s work a decade ago, to Francis’s more recent work, suggesting that we may indeed be seeing already this now in the form of more persistent anomalies in temperature, rainfall, and drought in North America.”


Back in 2004, Lisa Sloan, professor of Earth sciences at UC Santa Cruz, and her graduate student Jacob Sewall published an article in Geophysical Research Letters, “Disappearing Arctic sea ice reduces available water in the American west” (subs. req’d).

As the news release at the time explained, they “used powerful computers running a global climate model developed by the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) to simulate the effects of reduced Arctic sea ice.” And “their most striking finding was a significant reduction in rain and snowfall in the American West.”

“Where the sea ice is reduced, heat transfer from the ocean warms the atmosphere, resulting in a rising column of relatively warm air,” Sewall said. “The shift in storm tracks over North America was linked to the formation of these columns of warmer air over areas of reduced sea ice in the Greenland Sea and a few other locations.”

Last year, I contacted Sloan to ask her if she thought there was a connection between the staggering loss of Arctic sea ice and the brutal drought gripping the West, as her research predicted. She wrote, “Yes, sadly, I think we were correct in our findings, and it will only be worse with Arctic sea ice diminishing quickly.”

This week, Sewall wrote me that “both the pattern and even the magnitude of the anomaly looks very similar to what the models predicted in the 2005 study (see Fig. 3a).” Here is what Sewall’s model predicted in his 2005 paper, “Precipitation Shifts over Western North America as a Result of Declining Arctic Sea Ice Cover”:

Figure 3a: Differences in DJF [winter] averaged atmospheric quantities due to an imposed reduction in Arctic sea ice cover. The 500-millibar geopotential height (meters) increases by up to 70 m off the west coast of North America. Increased geopotential height deflects storms away from the dry locus and north into the wet locus

“Geopotential height” is basically the height above mean sea level for a given pressure level. The “500 mb level is often referred to as the steering level as most weather systems and precipitation follow the winds at this level…. This level averages around 18,000 feet above sea level and is roughly half-way up through the weather producing part of the atmosphere called the troposphere.”
Now here is what the 500 mb geopotential height anomaly looked like over the last year, via NOAA:

2013 anomaly

Look familiar? That is either an accurate prediction or one heck of a coincidence. The San Jose Mercury News described what was happening in layman’s terms:

… meteorologists have fixed their attention on the scientific phenomenon they say is to blame for the emerging drought: a vast zone of high pressure in the atmosphere off the West Coast, nearly four miles high and 2,000 miles long, so stubborn that one researcher [Swain] has dubbed it the “Ridiculously Resilient Ridge.”

Like a brick wall, the mass of high pressure air has been blocking Pacific winter storms from coming ashore in California, deflecting them up into Alaska and British Columbia, even delivering rain and cold weather to the East Coast.

This high pressure ridge is forcing the jet stream along a much more northerly track. Sewall told me that multiple factors are driving drought in California:

There are, of course, caveats. This is one year, the model studies were looking at averages of multiple decades (20 or 50 years). There are other factors besides the Arctic ice that influence storm tracks; some preliminary work suggests that a strong El Nino overwhelms any influence of the ice. In El Nino “neutral” times (such as recently), the ice impact can have more of an effect.
And for this year, it looks like ice may well be having more of an effect. The geopotential height anomaly looks very much like what the models predicted as sea ice declined. The storm track response also looks very similar with correspondingly similar impacts on precipitation (reduced rainfall in CA, increased precipitation in SE Alaska). While other factors play an influence, the similarity of these patterns certainly suggests that we shouldn’t discount warming climate and declining Arctic sea ice as culprits in the CA drought.

NOAA and Prof. Jennifer Francis of Rutgers have more recently shown that the loss of Arctic ice is boosting the chances of extreme US weather.

Francis told me this week that “the highly amplified pattern that the jet stream has been in since early December is certainly playing a role in the CA drought.”

…this extremely distorted and persistent jet stream pattern is an excellent example of what we expect to occur more frequently as Arctic ice continues to melt.

“The extremely strong ridge over Alaska has been very persistent and has caused record warmth and unprecedented winter rains in parts of AK while preventing Pacific storms from delivering rain to CA,” she explained. “But is this pattern a result of human-caused climate change, or more specifically, to rapid Arctic warming and the dramatic losses of sea ice? It’s very difficult to pin any specific weather event on climate change, but this extremely distorted and persistent jet stream pattern is an excellent example of what we expect to occur more frequently as Arctic ice continues to melt.”

While there is no doubt that climate change is making droughts more intense, the specific connection the loss of Arctic ice is emerging science, and some, like Trenberth, are skeptical that the case has been made.
Whether or not there is a proven link to the loss of Arctic ice, Senior Weather Channel meteorologist (and former skeptic) Stu Ostro has been documenting “large magnitude ridges in the mid-upper level geopotential height field” lasting as long as many months that “have been conspicuous in the meteorology of extreme weather phenomena.”

Ostro gave a talk last year (with Franics), and as Climate Desk summarized, “Ostro’s observations suggest that global warming is increasing the atmosphere’s thickness, leading to stronger and more persistent ridges of high pressure, which in turn are a key to temperature, rainfall, and snowfall extremes and topsy-turvy weather patterns like we’ve had in recent years.”
The climate is changing. “All of our weather is now, and increasingly in the future, influenced by climate change,” Gleick wrote me. “The question about attribution (i.e., is this drought caused by climate change) is, of course, the wrong question — easy for deniers to dismiss because it is not easy to show unambiguous links to some kinds of individual events.”
What is especially worrisome is that climate change has only just started to have an impact on Western droughts. We’ve only warmed 1.5°F in the past century. Absent strong climate action, we are on track to warm 10°F over the next century!
We continue to dawdle even though scientists have been warning us of what was coming for decades. Hansen himself co-authored a 1990 study, “Potential evapotranspiration and the likelihood of future drought,” which projected that severe to extreme drought in the United States, then occurring every 20 years or so, could become an every-other-year phenomenon by mid-century.

All of our weather is now, and increasingly in the future, influenced by climate change.

So we should listen to Hansen’s current warnings. In 2012 he warned in the NY Times of a return to Dust Bowls, writing, “over the next several decades, the Western United States and the semi-arid region from North Dakota to Texas will develop semi-permanent drought … California’s Central Valley could no longer be irrigated. Food prices would rise to unprecedented levels.”

Hansen repeated those concerns in an email to me this week, noting that the current drought “will break, of course, likely with the upcoming El Nino, but as long as we keep increasing greenhouse gases, intense droughts will increase, especially in the Southwest. Rainfall, when and where it comes will tend to be in more intense events, with more extreme flooding. These are not speculations, the science is clear.”

How long can these droughts last? They have lasted for decades in the distant past, and one 2010 study warned that we could see “an unprecedented combination” of multi-decade droughts “with even warmer temperatures.”

Drought researcher Aiguo Dai was quoted in a 2012 NCAR news release for a 2012 study warning, “The U.S. may never again return to the relatively wet conditions experienced from 1977 to 1999.”
This week I asked him, “Do you still stand by that statement?” He replied:

Yes, I still stand by that statement. The model projections have not changed. To the extent we can trust the CMIP [Coupled Model Intercomparison Project] model projections, I still think the U.S. will experience increased risk of drought in the coming decades. What has been happening during recent years in the central and western U.S. is very consistent to what I have been predicting: both the natural variability (IPO [Interdecadal Pacific Oscillation]) and human-induced climate change will increase the risk of drought over these regions for the next 1-2 decades. After that, the IPO may switch to a positive phase that normally would bring more rain over the U.S. regions, but by that time the human-induced warming have over-dominate the natural variability, with the U.S. regions still in drier conditions (compared with the 1980s-1990s).

Finally, a 2009 NOAA-led paper warned that, for the Southwest and many semi-arid regions around the world, “the climate change that is taking place because of increases in carbon dioxide concentration is largely irreversible for 1,000 years after emissions stop.” Impacts that should be expected if we don’t aggressively slash carbon pollution “are irreversible dry-season rainfall reductions in several regions comparable to those of the ‘dust bowl’ era.”

When the climate changes, it ain’t gonna change back.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

For Already Vulnerable Penguins, Study Finds Climate Change Is Another Danger

Weather extremes are leading to an increase in penguin chick mortality in a large breeding colony in Argentina.

Life has never been easy for just-hatched Magellanic penguins, but climate change is making it worse, according to a decades-long study of the largest breeding colony of the birds.
The chicks are already vulnerable to predation and starvation. Now, the study at Punta Tombo, Argentina, found that intense storms and warmer temperatures are increasingly taking a toll.
“Rainfall is killing a lot of penguins, and so is heat,” said P. Dee Boersma, a University of Washington scientist and lead author of the study. “And those are two new causes.”
Climate scientists say more extreme weather, including wetter storms and more prolonged periods of heat and cold, is one impact of a climate that is changing because of emissions of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. While monitoring the penguin colony, Dr. Boersma and her colleagues also documented regional temperature changes and increases in the number of days with heavy rains.
The study, which is being published online Wednesday in the journal PLoS ONE, is one of the first to show a direct impact of climate change on seabirds. Most studies have looked at how warming temperatures affect animals indirectly, by altering predation patterns or food supplies.
William J. Sydeman, senior scientist at the Farallon Institute in California, who was not involved in the research, said the study linked changes in climate, which occur on a scale of decades, to the daily scale of life in the colony. “That’s a unique contribution,” he said.
The colony at Punta Tombo, in a temperate and relatively dry region about midway along Argentina’s coast, is home to about 200,000 breeding pairs of the penguins, which are about 15 inches tall as adults. Dr. Boersma has been working there since 1982, with long-term support from the Wildlife Conservation Society.
For this study, the researchers compiled data on nearly 3,500 chicks that they meticulously tracked by checking nests once or twice a day throughout the six-month breeding season, which starts in September.
“We knew when each chick hatched, and its fate,” Dr. Boersma said.
Typically, nearly two-thirds of hatchlings at the colony do not survive to leave the nest. In most years, the researchers found, starvation and predation — by other seabirds and small animals — caused the majority of the deaths.
But they found that heavy storms killed birds in 13 of the 28 years of the study. In two years, storms were responsible for most of the deaths. Extreme heat killed more hatchlings as well, although the effect was less pronounced.
Like other young birds, penguin hatchlings can die from hypothermia if their down gets wet and loses its insulating air spaces. The birds are most vulnerable from about a week after hatching — before that they are largely protected by a parent — to about six weeks, when they develop waterproof plumage.
“They didn’t used to have to contend with this variability in the climate,” Dr. Boersma said. “And they certainly didn’t have to contend with all this rainfall.”
Since 1987, the number of breeding pairs in the colony has declined 24 percent, Dr. Boersma said. It is difficult to calculate how much of that decline can be attributed to storms and rain, she said.
Dr. Boersma said the increasing frequency of heavy storms was most likely directly affecting other seabird species that were breeding in the region.
In fact, the same direct effect is being seen half a world away, in a terrestrial bird.
In a study of a population of peregrine falcons in the Canadian Arctic that was published last year in the journal Oecologia, researchersreported that heavy rains killed large numbers of hatchlings, and documented an increase in the frequency of such rains over decades.
Alastair Franke, a University of Alberta scientist who led the study, said he was stunned when he read Dr. Boersma’s paper. “It’s amazing that we’re seeing such similarity between the two studies,” he said.
In her work, Dr. Boersma showed that the mortality caused by storms was in addition to those from other causes.
Dr. Franke said that was one of the most interesting aspects of Dr. Boersma’s study.
“This is a double whammy for the penguins,” he said. “You’re still going to get all the starvation and predation. But now you get increased mortality from rainfall as well.”