Climate and Energy News Roundup 12/2/2016

Climate

Two new research papers raise concerns about the stability of the Pine Island glacier in West Antarctica.  One paper, published in the journal Nature suggests that the glacier started to melt in the mid-1940s as warm sea water flowed into a cavity under it.  That melting led ultimately to the rift that formed in 2013 and broke through in 2015, releasing a 225 square mile iceberg.  The other paper, published in Geophysical Research Letters, investigated rifts that started in the center of the glacier and propagated outward toward the margins.  Those rifts are also being caused by warm sea water under the glacier and are occurring further inland than previous rifts, raising concern about the vulnerability of the glacier to collapse.  Maria Gallucci, writing at Mashable, has further information about the papers.

Last week, while we were on Thanksgiving break, a paper appeared in the journal The Cryosphere examining the extent of Antarctic sea ice during the period of satellite records (1989-present) and comparing it to records from ships’ logs during the “Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration” (1897–1917).  The study found that the impact of natural variability on the extent of Antarctic sea ice was larger than previously thought, making it difficult to tease out the effects of climate change from the effects of that variability.  Nevertheless, it appears that there has been a decrease in sea ice extent of at most 14% over the past century.  Unfortunately, press coverage of the paper was confusing at best, causing one of the authors to issue a commentary and clarification via Carbon Brief.

Also, on Friday of last week the Arctic Council released its Arctic Resilience Report in which they documented four tipping points that may have already been triggered: growth in vegetation on tundra, which replaces reflective snow and ice with darker vegetation, thus absorbing more heat; higher releases of methane from the tundra as it warms; shifts in snow distribution that warm the ocean, resulting in altered climate patterns as far away as Asia, where the monsoon could be effected; and the collapse of some key Arctic fisheries, with effects on ocean ecosystems around the globe.  Meanwhile, the Norwegian archipelago of Svalbard is likely to have an average annual temperature above freezing for the first time.  A number of factors associated with climate change, including the loss of sea ice have led to this situation.

Bolivia may serve as a case study of the impacts of drought and climate change on countries dependent of glaciers for part of their water supplies.  The country is in a prolonged drought that is having a major impact on the poorest regions of the country, leading to migration and social unrest.  On the subject of South America, illegal deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon has increased 29% since 2015, bringing the rate to its highest level in eight years.  The finding has raised fears that the country could lose a decade’s worth of progress in forest protection.

A large study published in Nature combines data from 49 field experiments located across North America, Europe, and Asia to examine the impact of warming on the loss of soil carbon to the atmosphere.  The authors conclude that their data provide strong empirical support for the idea that rising temperatures will cause more carbon to be lost than is stored, leading to a positive feedback that will accelerate warming.  Although independent of this study and its dire implications, an editorial in Nature Geoscience calls for increased research in climate remediation, including even studies on managing incoming solar radiation, but particularly studies on enhanced weathering to return atmospheric carbon to the soil.

Tornado outbreaks are sequences of tornadoes that occur in close succession.  A new study in the journal Science has found that the number of tornadoes in the most extreme outbreaks has roughly doubled over the past 50 years, but the increase doesn’t seem to be related to climate change.  Meanwhile, on a separate but related topic, a new paper in the journal Scientific Reports argues that climate change is causing the track of hurricanes to shift northward in the Atlantic Ocean, although hurricane specialist Kevin Trenberth finds the data to be inconclusive.

In a previous Weekly Roundup I included links to the lawsuit against the federal government brought by 21 youths aged 9 to 20 who argue that the government isn’t doing enough to address the problem of climate change and protect the planet’s future.  Now Chelsea Harvey has interviewed several lawyers to assess the chances that the children will prevail.

The bleaching of the Great Barrier Reef that occurred in April as a result of record sea surface temperatures was the worst ever recorded and has resulted in 67% mortality in the north section.  The central and south sections fared better, with 6% and 1% mortality, respectively.  The scientists conducting the study have an article at The Conversation.

Yellow cedar trees, which are actually a form of cypress, are dying across 1,500 square miles between latitude 50 and latitude 60 north has a result of a warming climate.  The warming has been thinning the snow cover, exposing the roots to freezing conditions.

Energy

Using a new report by Ted Nordhaus and Jessica Lovering of the Breakthrough Institute as the basis, Eduardo Porter of The New York Times argues that as long as the new Trump administration keeps our nuclear power plants online, continues tax incentives for wind and solar, and doesn’t interfere with the shale energy revolution, “the U.S might outperform the commitments that the Obama administration made in Paris.”  On the other hand, analysts with Climate Interactive did some thought experiments with the help of computer simulation to see what might be the impact of a few scenarios and found that future warming depends on whether the Trump administration is a trend setter, both domestically and abroad.

Bloomberg Markets reports “Kinder Morgan Inc. and Enbridge Inc. won Canadian government approval for two pipeline projects — a long-awaited boost for the oil industry that could potentially expand exports, open new Asian markets and lift prices for locally produced barrels of crude.”  Prime Minister Trudeau was quoted as saying “The fact is oil sands production is going to increase in the coming years.  Because we are at capacity in terms of existing pipelines, that means more oil is going to be transported by rail in the coming years if we don’t build new pipelines.”  Meanwhile, in the U.S. gas pipelines are being re-engineered to allow bidirectional flow, meaning that by 2017 many older pipelines will be able to carry gas from the Marcellus and Utica shale fields in the northeast to the Gulf Coast for export.

According to The Hill, the Government Accountability Office released a pair of reports Monday on the federal ethanol blending mandate, concluding that advanced biofuels are not likely to reach the market penetration that the renewable fuel standard predicted, suggesting that greenhouse gas emissions are unlikely to fall as much as hoped.  Speaking of cars, on Wednesday EPA proposed ahead of schedule the mid-term review of the goal to require car manufacturers’ fleets to average 54.5 miles per gallon by 2025.  If successful, this would make it more difficult to roll back the new CAFE standards.  Finally, automobile manufacturers are losing a significant amount of money on each electric vehicle they sell in the U.S., but are willing to do so for a while because of mandates in California.

Although China has reiterated its plans to push forward on climate action, it is scrambling to mine and burn more coal, The New York Times reports.  Meanwhile, on the other side of the globe, the EU will begin phasing out coal subsidies and cut its energy use by 30% by 2030, under a major clean energy package announced in Brussels on Wednesday. The 1,000-page plan also proposes measures to cut household electricity bills, integrate renewables into power markets, and limit use of unsustainable bioenergy.  The plan, which was widely criticized by environmental groups, must be approved by both the Council of Ministers and the European Parliament before becoming law.

India just unveiled a photovoltaic solar power facility with a capacity of 648 MW, making it the largest PV solar facility in the world.  As a result, India now has a solar capacity over 10 GW and is expected to become the world’s third-biggest solar market from next year onwards, after China and the US.

A new survey of 1,000 people conducted by the Republican polling firm Public Opinion Strategies has found that 75% of Trump voters support “action to accelerate the deployment and use of clean energy” — including solar, wind, energy efficiency, and community renewable projects.  The survey also revealed lots of other interesting opinions concerning energy.

These news items have been compiled by Les Grady, member and former chair of the CAAV steering committee. He is a licensed professional engineer (retired) who taught environmental engineering at Purdue and Clemson Universities and engaged in private practice with CH2M Hill, the world’s largest environmental engineering consulting firm. Since his retirement in 2003 he has devoted much of his time to the study of climate science and the question of global warming and makes himself available to speak to groups about this subject. More here.

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