Climate Crisis: Present Changes and Coming Impacts

climate-changeThis Tuesday, the Whitehouse received the latest draft of the Climate Assessment Report, a scientific study produced by the National Climate Assessment to determine the impacts of Climate Change. In addition to outlining the risks it poses to various regions in the US, the report also addresses the apparent increase in the number of severe weather events that have taken place in the past few years, and how these events affect local economies and communities.

According to the 840-page report, America is fast becoming a stormy and dangerous place, with rising seas and disasters effecting regions from flood-stricken Florida to the wildfire-ravaged West. The report concluded that Climate change’s assorted harms “are expected to become increasingly disruptive across the nation throughout this century and beyond.” It also emphasized how warming and its all-too-wild weather are changing daily lives, even using the phrase “climate disruption” as another way of saying global warming.

Climate_Change_vulnerability_USHenry Jacoby, co-director of the Joint Program on the Science and Policy of Global Change at the MIT, was joined by other scientists and White House officials when he claimed that this is the most detailed and U.S.-focused scientific report on global warming. Above all, the most chilling claim contained within is the fact that “Climate change, once considered an issue for a distant future, has moved firmly into the present.”

The report also examined the effects at the regional and state-level, compared with recent reports from the UN that examined North America as a single case study. In a recent interview with CBC’s The Lang & O’Leary Exchange, Jacoby pointed to a range of impacts of global warming that people see everyday, from the change in the growing season, to extreme heat, severe Atlantic storms and drought in some areas.

climate_change_variableweatherAs he explained, these changes are far more than just variable weather:

If you look at what’s happening to the Arctic ice at your northern border, you are seeing changes to the ice like you haven’t seen in hundreds of years. We’re seeing change on a scale that’s going beyond variability.

A draft of the report was released in January 2013, but this version has been reviewed by more scientists, the National Academy of Science, 13 other government agencies, and was subject to public comment. It is written in a bit more simple language so people could realize “that there’s a new source of risk in their lives,” said study lead author Gary Yohe of Wesleyan University in Connecticut.

Even though the nation’s average temperature has risen by as much as 1.9 degrees since record keeping began in 1895, it’s in the big, wild weather where the average person feels climate change the most. As the report’s co-author Katharine Hayhoe – a Texas Tech University climate scientist – put it, extreme weather like droughts, storms and heat waves hit us in the pocketbooks and can be seen by our own eyes. And it’s happening a lot more often lately.

climate_change_precipThe report says the intensity, frequency and duration of the strongest Atlantic hurricanes have increased since the early 1980s. Winter storms have increased in frequency and intensity and shifted northward since the 1950s, with heavy downpours increasing by 71 per cent in the northeast alone. Heat waves are projected to intensify nationwide, with droughts in the southwest expected to get stronger. Sea levels have risen 20 centimetres since 1880 and are projected to rise between 0.3 meters and 1.2 metres by 2100.

The report was also clear that the 2010’s have been a record-setting decade. For example, since January 2010, 43 of the lower 48 states have set at least one monthly record for heat, such as California having its warmest January on record this year. In the past 51 months, states have set 80 monthly records for heat, 33 records for being too wet, 12 for lack of rain and just three for cold, according to an Associated Press analysis of federal weather records.

climate_change_tempsAs she described it, America is basically in a boxing match, and is currently on the ropes:

We’re being hit hard. We’re holding steady, and we’re getting hit in the jaw. We’re starting to recover from one punch, and another punch comes.

John Podesta, an adviser to President Barack Obama, said on Monday that the report includes “a huge amount of practical, usable knowledge that state and local decision-makers can take advantage of.” The report also stressed that climate change threatens human health and well-being in a number of ways. Those include smoke-filled air from more wildfires, smoggy air from pollution, more diseases from tainted food, water, mosquitoes and ticks.

climate_change_lossAnd then there’s more pollen because of warming weather and the effects of carbon dioxide on plants. Ragweed pollen season has lengthened by 24 days in the Minnesota-North Dakota region between 1995 and 2011, the report says. In other parts of the Midwest, the pollen season has gotten longer by anywhere from 11 days to 20 days. And all of this has associated costs, not the least of which is in damages, insurance costs, and health care expenses.

Flooding alone may cost $325 billion by the year 2100 in one of the worst-case scenarios, with $130 billion of that in Florida, the report says. Already the droughts and heat waves of 2011 and 2012 added about $10 billion to farm costs, the report says. Billion-dollar weather disasters have hit everywhere across the nation, but have hit Texas, Oklahoma and the southeast most often, the report says. And there is the impact on agricultural producers, which is also stressed:

Corn producers in Iowa, oyster growers in Washington state and maple syrup producers in Vermont are all observing climate-related changes that are outside of recent experience.

Climate_Change_vulnerability1Still, it’s not too late to prevent the worst of climate change, says the 840-page report, which the White House is highlighting as it tries to jump-start often stalled efforts to curb heat-trapping gases. However, if the U.S. and the world don’t change the way they use energy, the current effects will continue to intensify to the point where property damage, wildfires, storms, flooding and agricultural collapse will become untenable.

Already, the report has its detractors, many of whom appeared together for a Special Report segment on Fox News. In addition to commentator George Will questioning the scientific consensus – which accounts for 97% of the scientific community – Charles Krauthammer compared to the findings to a bargaining process, and ultimately condemned it as “superstition”. As he put it:

What we’re ultimately talking about here is human sin, through the production of carbon. It’s the oldest superstition around. It was in the Old Testament. It’s in the rain dance of the Native Americans. If you sin, the skies will not cooperate. This is quite superstitious and I’m waiting for science that doesn’t declare itself definitive but is otherwise convincing.

climate_change_denialNot to belabor the point, but superstition is what happens when people trust in rituals and practices that have no discernible effect whatsoever on a problem to protect themselves from said problem. Conducting research, performing field studies, and compiling statistics that cover hundreds, thousands, and even millions of years – this is called the scientific method. And Krauthammer would do well to realize that it is this same method that has done away with countless superstitious rituals throughout history.

He and other so-called skeptics (though a more accurate term is deniers) would also do well to understand the difference between superstition and a little thing known as cause and effect. For example, avoiding black cats, not walking under ladders, or sacrificing human beings to make the sun rise or the crops grow is superstition. Pumping thousands of tons of carbon dioxide into the air, which is known to have the effect of absorbing the sun’s thermal energy (aka. radiant forcing), is cause and effect.

See? Easily distinguished. But if there’s one thing that the “denial machine” has shown an affinity for, its remaining divorced from the scientific consensus. Luckily, they have been in full-retreat for some time, leaving only the most die hard behind to fight their battles. One can only hope their influence continues to diminish as time goes on and the problems associated with Climate Change get worse.

You can read the  full Climate Assessment Report here.

Sources: cbc.ca, abcnews.go.com, IO9.com, (2), nca2014.globalchange.gov

Climate Crisis: The Pacific Ocean’s Cooling Effect

pacific1Climatologists and environmental scientists have been cataloging the global warming trend for decades, examining multiple fields of data that show fluctuations over a period of eons. And despite what appears to be a consistent trend warming that has been taking place since the 18th century – when levels of atmospheric CO2 began to climb steadily – there have been anomalies in the data.

One period was the three decades that fall between the 1940’s and 1970’s when no significant terrestrial warming took place, and the Pacific Ocean was anomalously cold. The Pacific is somewhat of a wild card when it comes to our climate, since it is responsible for the weather patterns known as El Niño and La Niña that can swing global average temperatures by as much as 0.3 degree Celsius.

Global_Temperature_Anomaly_1880-2012.svgFor the past decade or so the tropical Pacific has again gone cold and a new study suggests that it may once again be related to the recent “pause” in global warming of average temperatures. Although the past decade also qualifies as the hottest on record, the trend has been milder than expected, with average surface temperatures plateauing for many years.

This is in stark contrast to the end of the 20th century, when rising concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere accelerated warming to new heights. To explain this, climate scientists Shang-Ping Xie and Yu Kosaka of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California looked to the Pacific Ocean, using observable data and an advanced computer model.

NASA_global_warming_predThe latter came from the US Department of Commerce’s Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory computer model of the oceans and atmosphere. By adding in sea-surface temperatures of an oceanic area covering roughly 8 percent of the globe, the researchers were able to mimic the recent hiatus in global warming as well as weather phenomena like the prolonged drought in the southern US.

The results were published in the Aug. 29th edition of Nature Magazine. In it, Xie observed that the “tropical Pacific is the engine that drives the global atmosphere and climate. There were epochs of accelerated and stalled warming in the past.” This included the pause in a global warming trend between the 1940s and 1970s, which has often been attributed to sunlight-blocking air pollution from Europe, the Soviet Union and the US.

Pollution over Mexico CityOther factors have also been considered – volcanoes, an unusually weak solar cycle, air pollution from China – when looking at restraining trends in global warming. Some of the observed climate effects may also stem from other ocean dynamics such as variations in the mixing of surface and deep ocean waters. And the meltdown of significant ice from Greenland or Antarctica might even cool oceans enough to offset the extra heat trapped by rising levels of greenhouse gases for a time.

What is less clear at this point is what is driving cycles of cooling and heating of tropical Pacific Ocean waters. But it is clear that the cool Pacific pattern cannot persist forever to cancel out the extra heat trapped by rising CO2 concentrations, Xie notes. As climate modeler Gavin Schmidt of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies recently stated:

We need updates to the forcings and a proper exploration of all the different mechanisms together. This has taken time but will happen soon-ish.

global-warming-trends_lrgAnd despite any pause in the trend toward hotter temperatures, the first decade of the 21st century was still the hottest recorded decade since the 1880s, and it included record heat waves in Russia and the US as well as a precipitous meltdown of Arctic sea ice and surging sea level rise. Atmospheric concentrations of CO2 touched 400 parts per million on Mauna Loa in May, a first in the time line of human existence.

A cooler Pacific due to prolonged La Niña activity may have restrained global warming for the past decade or so, but it is unlikely to last. As Xie noted:

This effect of natural variability will be averaged out over a period of 100 years. and cannot argue away the threat of persistent anthropogenic warming that is occurring now.

These warnings are key since any changes or anomalous readings are often seized upon by Climate Change deniers as evidence that the problem does not exist, is not man-made, or is at least not as severe as otherwise predicted. But in the coming decades, even the most benign scenarios are still fraught with peril. If the worst is to be averted, extensive and positive changes need to be made now.

Source: news.cnet.com, nature.com