Climate and Energy News Roundup 12/9/2016

In a week of important political news, the big item related to climate was the nomination of Scott Pruitt, the Attorney General of Oklahoma, as Administrator of the EPA.  He has been a leader of the legal fights against the Clean Power Plan, regulation of methane emissions from the oil and gas industry, and the EPA Waters of the United States rule.  The Washington Post called the nomination “a move signaling an assault on President Obama’s climate change and environmental legacy” and The New York Times said it signals “Mr. Trump’s determination to dismantle President Obama’s efforts to counter climate change – and much of the EPA itself.”  On the other hand, organizations such as the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity were buoyed by the nomination, even though energy experts say the energy market has already shifted away from coal and is unlikely to move back.  Joe Romm has summarized the partisan divide on this nomination.  A particularly disturbing item in the news this week was a memorandum from the Trump transition team to DOE asking for, among other things, the names of all employees who had worked on clean energy and climate issues.

Climate

Two papers published in the December 7 issue of Nature appear to paint different pictures of the stability of the Greenland ice sheet over the past 2.8 million years.  However, one climate scientist invoked the old story of blind men feeling and describing an elephant to suggest that the findings don’t necessarily contradict each other.  Rather, at times, nearly all of Greenland’s ice could have melted (as seen by one team) while a frozen cap remained in the eastern highlands (as seen by the other team).  Taken together, the papers suggest that Greenland’s ice may be less stable than previously believed, raising concern for its long-term future.  At the other pole, another ice shelf has developed a large rift.  Last week I wrote about the Pine Island ice shelf, but this week it is Larsen C.  NASA released a new photo taken by researchers flying above the ice shelf showing that the rift is getting longer, deeper, and wider. Scientists say it will eventually cause a large section of the shelf to break off, releasing an iceberg the size of Delaware.

Sea ice was also in the news this week, with record low levels being reached in both area and volume in the Arctic.  In addition, the decline in the Antarctic was particularly startling.

On Monday, Indonesian President Joko Widodo announced a moratorium on all activities that could damage the nation’s peat-filled wetlands.  This could help prevent wildfires and the emission of billions of tons of CO2 over the next few decades.

On Tuesday, NASA announced its first new earth science mission since the 2016 election: the Geostationary Carbon Cycle Observatory, or GeoCARB. The observatory will monitor vegetation stress in the Americas from about 22,000 miles up. It also will observe how greenhouse gases – CO2, CO, and CH4 – are processed in those environments.  Also set to launch is the Cyclone Global Navigation Satellite System (CYGNSS), which will use 8 microsatellites to improve hurricane wind speed forecasts and study how certain clouds and storm systems take shape.  Although this is an experimental system with short-lived satellites, if successful it will likely lead to a more permanent system.  Meanwhile, in response to information suggesting that the Trump administration planned to defund NASA’s earth science programs, scientists around the world were tweeting their appreciation to NASA for the many ways those programs had helped them understand Earth.

A new paper by a team of communications experts, published in the Bulletin of the World Meteorological Organization, seeks to assist scientists in communicating linkages between extreme events and climate change.

An international team, led by NOAA scientists, has published a paper in the on-line journal Scientific Reports in which they project that by 2050 more than 98% of coral reefs around the world will be afflicted by “bleaching-level thermal stress” each year.  “The likelihood of the reef being able to survive through that is extremely low,” one of the report’s co-authors, Scott Heron of NOAA, told Guardian Australia.

The results of a meta-study published in the journal PLOS Biology on Thursday show that climate-related local extinctions have already occurred in hundreds of species, including 47% of the 976 species surveyed.  The frequency of local extinctions was broadly similar across climatic zones and habitats but was significantly higher in tropical species than in temperate species (55% versus 39%).  In addition, new research published in the journal Biology Letters expects melting ice in the Arctic to cause polar bear numbers to collapse by a third in as little as 35 years.

A new study published in the journal Nature Climate Change has found that storms in the U.S. that now occur about once a season could happen five times a season by the end of the century and bring up to 70% more rain.  Such massive amounts of rain occurring more often could put significant strain on infrastructure that already struggles to deal with heavy rainfall.

As will be reported next week at the American Geophysical Union meeting in San Francisco, paleoclimatologist Kim Cobb and her team from Georgia Tech have reconstructed Pacific Ocean temperatures for much of the last 7000 years.  Although many things were going on in the climate over that time, there was no discernable effect on El Niño events until the 20th century, when they became more extreme and intense, presumably because of global warming.  Speaking of El Niño, the recent event is over and has now been replaced with a weak La Niña, which typically causes temperatures to drop.  Satellite measurements have detected such a drop over land, which resulted in some misleading press and tweets, as explained by Chris Mooney of The Washington Post.  Also, The Weather Channel pushed back against one misleading article because one of their videos was featured prominently in it.  In addition, Bob Henson and Jeff Masters of Weather Underground posted an excellent blog on the subject.  If you only want to read one of these articles, read the one by Henson and Masters.

Energy

If you have been contemplating adding solar panels to your roof as your contribution to fighting climate change, then you may have been concerned about the energy payback period – i.e., the point at which the solar industry has produced more energy than was required to get it up and running.  Well, a new paper in Nature Communications has examined that question and determined that, in general, 2011 was the break-even year.  Consequently, you can relax and be assured that adding solar panels will indeed reduce your carbon footprint.  Chris Goodall had a conversation with the authors and has reported it on his blog, Carbon Commentary.

Anrica Deb, writing for The Guardian, explores the question of just how clean electric vehicles are, once we consider the source of the electricity and the manufacture of the batteries.  Another aspect of electric vehicles to consider is a decrease in driving range as the batteries age.  For example, the owner’s manual for the new Chevy Bolt warns drivers that they can expect to lose 10% to 40% of the battery capacity over the 8 year warranty period for the battery.  Meanwhile, a study from the research firm IHS Markit finds that electric vehicles could make up one third of the world’s car sales by 2040.  On the topic of electric vehicles, John Deere has unveiled a prototype all-electric farm tractor.

The Risky Business Project, founded by co-chairs Michael Bloomberg, Hank Paulson, and Tom Steyer, has shifted its focus from analyzing the risks of climate change to the opportunity that reducing those risks presents to the U.S. economy.  Its new report, From Risk to Return: Investing in a Clean Energy Economy, presents a convincing argument for the business case for a clean energy future.  However, the report states: “The private sector alone cannot solve the climate change problem. We know from our collective business and investment experience that the private sector will take action at the necessary speed and scale only if it is given a clear and consistent policy and regulatory framework. That framework must send a clear, consistent, and long-term market signal on the necessity of climate action, provide incentives for innovation and deployment of clean energy systems, and help society adapt to climate impacts that are inevitable due to past and current emissions.”  The change of administrations will make that difficult to achieve.

A new study by the Energy Institute at the University of Texas at Austin seeks to capture the full cost of new electric power generation – including environmental and public health costs – on a county-by-county basis in the U.S.  When environmental and public health costs are considered, coal is not the least cost option in a single county and wind is the least cost option in the largest number of counties with natural gas combined cycle (NGCC) plants second.  When those external costs are excluded, coal is the least cost option in only 3% of the counties, with NGCC plants providing the least cost option in the most counties, with wind second.  Speaking of wind, the developers of a 119-turbine wind farm in Aroostook County, Maine, that would have been the largest in the state and one of the largest ever planned for New England, have withdrawn their application, citing interconnection problems.

In earlier Roundups I have linked to articles about perovskites and their potential for increasing the efficiency and decreasing the costs of solar cells.  Now Robert Service provides a summary of advances in perovskite development gleaned from a recent meeting of the Materials Research Society.  The bottom line: they are almost ready for the market.

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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