Summer Silly Season
It’s the height of silly season, and in 2016 the season is sillier than ever. 2016 being an election year, the United States will now immerse themselves in two weeks of that uniquely American and totally over-the-top set of events called the national conventions of the Democratic and the Republican political parties. They can be expected to be more outlandish than ever this year, especially the Republican one. It commences this Monday in Cleveland, Ohio. Ohio is one of those states with an ‘open carry’ law and the supporters of, and opposition to, Donald Trump are planning to bring their guns. Is the USA moving rapidly backward to the 18th century, when political decisions were decided in the main street of Tombstone at high noon? Looks that way. In any event, you can be sure that few in that country will be thinking much about policy, or implementation methods, to deal with climate change.
Meanwhile the UK is in a post-Brexit mood of political frivolity as the various leaders who got the country into that mess race for the exits, only, in some cases, to be dragged back into the fray. Boris Johnson, after leading the ‘leave’ movement, unexpectedly announced he would not be a candidate for leader of the Conservative party, and therefore Prime Minister replacing David Cameron. Then, the new PM, Theresa May, upset his plans by appointing him Foreign Secretary, putting him very much in the middle of the Brexit negotiations with the EU. PM May has also apparently taken the opportunity, when few were looking, to scrap the Department of Energy and Climate Change, rolling its mandate into an expanded Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy. Looks like her enthusiasm for climate mitigation may be less than stirling.
The rest of the EU is tottering around wondering what Brexit really means for them, while terrorism continues to capture the front page in all member countries with some of the worst acts of random public violence seen in some considerable time, especially in France. Plus an attempted coup in Turkey. They are not thinking too much about climate just now, either.
Several people have noted the similarities between Mr. Trump and Mr. Johnson. I wonder if Mr. Trump would refuse to serve as President if he wins? Boris refused to stand for Prime Minister after Brexit vote success. Cartoon by Darcy.
Australia completed its peculiarly unsatisfying election without resolving its schizophrenic attachment to coal mining and reef minding. Those who thought that the worst bleaching on record on the Great Barrier Reef had garnered sufficient concern from the public that reef conservation would be a major factor in the election are re-examining their convictions. Yes, the Australian public genuinely values, and wants to sustain the reef, but, no, the issue of reef management still does not rise high enough when political shills are shouting ‘jobs’, ‘economy’, and ‘position in the world’. Neither major party put forward sufficiently serious proposals for how to ensure the existence of the Great Barrier Reef for voters to be able to distinguish between them. If Australia persists in encouraging foreign interests to come in and help dig up its coal, and ship it overseas from ports along the Queensland coast, directly inshore of the reefs, that country’s leaders are not being serious about either climate change or the Great Barrier Reef. No signs yet that the reef is anywhere near the top of the new (old) government’s agenda, and Australia continues to lag badly in climate change mitigation.
China and a number of its neighbors have just received the results of the investigation by an international tribunal in The Hague into Chinese territorial claims in the South China Sea. China’s so-called nine-dash line surrounds the overwhelming majority of the South China Sea, and China bases its claim that this is all Chinese territory on traditional use going back many centuries. Not surprisingly, the court in The Hague found the claim had no justification under the International Law of the Sea Convention to which China, the Philippines and other claimant countries are all signatories. There is a lot of blustering going on, plus some signs that serious negotiations over how to manage this crucially important piece of the ocean may finally get under way.
China’s ‘nine-dash line has been ruled invalid. China is ignoring the ruling. Where does that leave the South China Sea? Cartoon by Sayish Acharya.
The South China Sea is important for oil and other minerals believed to lie beneath it, for its fisheries, particularly those around the Spratley and the Paracel island groups, and especially for the valuable international trade it supports. Paradoxically, none of the countries that dispute ownership of portions of this region want to see international trade impeded, so there will likely be some willingness to negotiate a mode of operation in good faith. Still, such political interactions among nations can cause attention to stray from other issues, such as the management of the international fisheries in the South China Sea, the management of coral reefs in the region, or the mitigation of climate change.
Finally, need I mention Rio, the Olympics, and Brazil’s political and economic problems? Or the European Cup of soccer just concluded? Or any of a host of other diversions that always happen in the silly season? Politically, Canada seems like an oasis of calm in a troubled world, but here too it is mid-summer, and time for barbeques, rodeos, pride parades and other fun times. Canada’s own march towards climate mitigation has not stalled (so far as I know) but it is certainly not the topic of conversation it was a couple of months ago.
Climate change waits for no one
Now, it’s OK for countries to take a mid-summer breather in the struggle to wrestle our use of fossil fuels, or at least our emissions of greenhouse gases from that use, to the ground. But climate change is not taking a breather, and I worry that the impetus out of Paris is starting to falter.
What is the state of play on climate? The short answer is that things are getting worse perhaps faster than had been expected, and mitigating actions remain far too timid, despite the excellent progress that has been made over the past year.
The 30th June issue of Nature carrier an important assessment (open access here) by 10 climate scientists from research institutions in Austria, Switzerland, Germany, Netherlands, USA, Brazil, Australia, South Africa, and China. Led by Joeri Rogelj of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA), in Austria, and ETHZurich, in Switzerland, the team conducted a detailed assessment of the likely consequences of implementing the commitments for GHG reduction made by nations around the world under the Paris Accord, their so-called INDCs. They also reviewed earlier assessments of INDCs made by other scientists (including ones I have reported on here). The value of this new assessment is that it is undertaken by an accomplished team, includes assessment of INDCs for all signatories to the Paris Accord, and appears in the peer-reviewed scientific literature.
It’s no surprise that Rogelj and colleagues report that the present set of INDCs, even if fully implemented, will not achieve the goal of keeping global warming below 2oC during this century. They find that if all INDCs are implemented fully, including those parts that are currently presented by countries as conditional on such things as international funding support, and if climate mitigation efforts continued at the same level beyond 2030, global mean increase in temperature by 2100 would have a 50% chance of being below 2.7oC (±0.2), rather than below the 2.0oC sought. They find that a very substantial effort to further improve mitigation will be needed to wrench this down to 2.0oC, and report that it now appears impossible to manage emissions sufficiently well to not exceed the stiffer 1.5oC target at least briefly. They recommend an early effort to increase the INDCs in order to make the effort needed after 2030 more manageable, and note that even the 2OC target will likely require some use of what are called negative emissions technologies.
The (rather complex) figure from the Nature paper by Rogelj et al showing the trend in annual emissions of GHGs and how this changes when INDCs are implemented. Even by implementing all INDCs, including those that have conditions attached, does not get the world to where we need to be. There is a need to continually strengthen the INDCs, starting sooner rather than later. Exploring new technologies for capturing carbon could be an especially useful effort, but the main message is that we have an enormous job to accomplish, and we have barely started. Note that global emissions in 2030 are larger than they are today – we have not yet begun to turn the corner. Figure © Nature.
Every politician in every country needs to be continually reminded of the job we have to do, and citizens who care need to be active in promoting a continued improvement in the INDCs and in the actual actions taken by their country. Otherwise, we will simply fall behind while warming slowly.
Recent changes on the planet
How has climate been impacting the planet while humans have had their thoughts elsewhere? Well, some of us have not had our thoughts elsewhere, so reports are around – they just have not been front page news. Early in June there were more reports of melting in Antarctica and the Arctic. The CBC picked up a study of ice loss on the West Antarctic shelf that had just been published in Geophysical Research Letters on 6th June (open access here). The five authors, led by Fraser Christie of University of Edinburgh, were able to use Landsat imagery to monitor grounding line movement over four decades along the Bellingshausen margin of West Antarctica, an area little monitored despite potential for future ice losses. The grounding line is the most distal point at which a glacier moving out from shore no longer rests on the subtidal substratum. They were able to recognize the position of the grounding line as the most seaward change in surface slope of the ice. As the ice shelf melts back towards the land, the grounding line retreats also.
Christie and his colleagues were able to show that ~65% of the grounding line along the margin retreated between 1990 and 2015, while only 7.4% of it showed a net advance. There was pervasive and accelerating retreat in regions of fast ice flow and/or thinning ice shelves. The extent of retreat was 2.77 km over the 25 year period at the Ferrigno Ice Stream, 1.77 km at the Fox Ice Stream, and 0.92 km at the Stange Ice Shelf. Extent of retreat was less in other sites. The few sites showing advances all showed less than 0.4 km advance over this period.
Figure from the paper by Christie and colleagues depicting the extent of grounding line retreat along segments of the Bellingshausen margin of West Antarctica. The Ferrigno, Fox Ice and Stange locations are denoted by Fer, Fox and Sta respectively. Figure © Fraser Christie.
Where imagery permitted a look further back to 1975, there was evidence that the retreat has been going on, not always at a constant rate, throughout this time. It’s clear that this region of the West Antarctic Shelf has seen a pervasive and continuing trend of retreat; a fact which correlates well with estimates of the thinning of the ice sheet inland from this coastline. Air temperatures along the West Antarctic coast remain well below zero. The observed long-term and continuing retreat is due to melting caused by relatively warm circumpolar deep water impinging against the seaward margin, and undersurface where accessible, of the ice shelf. The results support earlier studies in nearby locations suggesting that the West Antarctic ice shelf has been undergoing relatively rapid melting for several decades and may be now approaching a point of no return that will lead to accelerated transport of ice from the continent to the ocean. Anyone who thinks the scientists have been exaggerating the likely rise in sea level due to climate change during this century needs to pay attention to the West Antarctic Shelf.
On 13th June, 2016, Bobby Magill reported in the authoritative blog site, Climate Central, on a study by Christina Schädel of Northern Arizona University, Flagstaffe, and 27 colleagues, published in Nature Climate Change (unfortunately not open access). It has me a tad concerned.
Schädel and colleagues point out that northern climate change is both warming and drying climates, and that how permafrost responds depends on whether it melts into relatively dry soil or more boggy, wet soil. The soils are rich in organic carbon, and under drier conditions, the soils release carbon primarily as CO2. Under wetter conditions, the waterlogged soils tend to be anaerobic. These soils release carbon primarily as CH4, methane. Using a series of controlled incubation studies of permafrost soil under different conditions of temperature and moisture, they were able to quantify the consequences.
Warming by 10oC increases the rate of carbon emissions by a factor of two. Under aerobic conditions they release 3.4 times as much carbon (as CO2) as under anaerobic conditions (CH4 emissions). Despite the fact that methane is a more powerful greenhouse gas than CO2, this difference in the rate of emission of carbon is sufficient to ensure that permafrost that melts into drier soils will have a more potent positive feedback effect on warming than will permafrost thawing into boggy conditions. There is a clear message here for management of the Arctic. We need to protect permafrost from thawing to whatever small extent is possible, but if it is going to thaw, we need to encourage situations where the soil will remain boggy, rather than embark on drainage schemes to make the land more useable.
Canada’s tundra is a mix of lakes, bogs, and lowlands that contain enormous quantities of carbon. Thawing of the permafrost brings substantial risk of positive feedbacks that will speed up climate change. Photo of Canada’s Northwest Territory by Peter Griffith/NASA.
Canada and Siberia have immense areas of permafrost peatlands, and the Artctic as a whole is estimated to contain over 1 trillion tonnes carbon locked up in such soils. This is twice the total amount of carbon currently in the atmosphere as CO2 and CH4 combined. Its gradual (or more rapid) release will have substantial impacts on climate, and poses a risk for our efforts to manage climate.
While Magill stresses the value of this study in helping climate scientists calculate the feedback due to emissions from thawing permafrost more accurately, I think there is also a value if this study can be used to influence thinking by those who will be managing Arctic environments. Last spring, at the Muskoka Summit on Environment, Nigel Roulet of McGill University recommended that the best way to handle Canada’s extensive, thawing peatlands, given that we do not know much about how to capture emitted greenhouse gases, is to disturb them as little as possible. To me, the study by Schädel and colleagues, screams out “and try to keep them wet”.
On 1st July, Evan Weller of Pohang University of Science and Technology, South Korea, and five colleagues from China, Australia and Canada published an article in Science Advances dealing with the growth in the Indo-Pacific Warm Pool (it is available on open access here). So, what is the Indo-Pacific Warm Pool (IPWP)? First, it is hardly a pool at all if you use conventional meaning of pool as a bit smaller than pond and even smaller than lake. This is the largest area of warm water in the world’s oceans, and is technically defined as the region in the Indo-Pacific in which average annual sea surface temperature exceeds 28oC, a temperature which coincidentally is sufficient for the spawning of hurricanes, cyclones and typhoons. It stretches across the tropical Indian Ocean from near the coast of Africa, east across about two thirds of the tropical Pacific Ocean to include French Polynesia. It is formed by the warming due to intense tropical sunlight, and plays a major role in determining global weather patterns, including such details as where and when rain falls in the tropics.
Images from Evan Weller’s study showing the change in extent from 1953 (dotted line) to 2012 (solid line) and the change in temperature (as Celsius degrees increase or decrease) over the 60 years, as revealed by observations (A), and as modelled using all causal factors (B), only anthropogenic factors (C), and only natural factors (D). It’s clear that using all causal factors yields a model result closest to obse4rved changes, but that the use of anthropogenic factors only yields nearly the same result. Figure © E. Weller.
The IPWP has been growing larger over at least the past 60 years, and some climate scientists consider this expansion of the IPWP to be more important for changes in global weather than the el Niño – la Niña alternation (or the ENSO – el Niño Southern Oscillation – of which this is a part). Weller and his colleagues have used climate models to explore the causes of IPWP changes, and have demonstrated that our emissions of greenhouse gases have the primary causative role.
Specifically, they examined the changes from 1953 to 2012 in geographic extent and in temperature, comparing observations to results produced by global climate models that included only natural causal factors (volcanism, solar irradiance, Pacific Decadal Oscillation), only anthropogenic factors (mainly GHG emissions), or natural and anthropogenic factors combined. They showed that natural factors alone produced only modest, non-directional change, while the combination of natural and anthropogenic factors yielded a result close to that observed. Anthropogenic factors alone yielded a result close to, but a little more extreme than actual observations.
The consequences of a warming and expanding IPWP are profound. They include both the spawning of more tropical cyclonic storms and their longer persistence, and alteration in where and when monsoons deliver their rainfall. Weller and colleagues have confirmed one more detail of just how profoundly we are altering the planet’s climate.
Reference (above) to ENSO and the PDO lead me to also, just for completeness, mention the IPO – Interdecadal Pacific Oscillation. Each is an oscillation in the pattern of sea surface temperatures across the Pacific Ocean. Where ENSO oscillates on a variable 6 month to 2 year cycle, the PDO oscillates on an approximately 10 year cycle and the IPO oscillates on a 15 to 30 year cycle. The PDO primarily affects temperatures in the North Pacific, the IPO affects both the North and South Pacific and ENSO has a circumtropical effect. Climate scientists have a growing understanding of these cycles and their causes, perhaps knowing most about ENSO and least about the IPO. They all cause ripples in the temporal trend of climate, complicating the story that climate science tries to tell. For example, we had a relatively long period of negative ENSO until 2013 or 2014, with the world experiencing la Niña, or very weak el Niño conditions. These had the effect of lowering global temperatures during the early part of this century, giving rise to the claim by climate change deniers that there was a pause in climate change.
There was indeed a slowdown in the rate of warming of the lower atmosphere. But the planet was still warming – it’s just that the extra heat was being stored in the ocean during this period. Now that we have had a major el Niño, even though we may be moving back into la Niña territory, much of that stored heat is going to get transferred from the ocean to the atmosphere. This is likely part of the reason why the planet has been on a tear, with NOAA reporting in its global climate analysis for May 2016, that:
“the combined average temperature over global land and ocean surfaces for May 2016 was the highest for May in the 137-year period of record, at 0.87°C (1.57°F) above the 20th century average of 14.8°C (58.6°F), besting the previous record set in 2015 by 0.02°C (0.04°F). May 2016 marks the 13th consecutive month a monthly global temperature record has been broken—the longest such streak since global temperature records began in 1880.”
With that news, it perhaps should not be a surprise that the Arctic sea ice is continuing on a record pace of melting. On 6th July, NASA’s National Snow and Ice Data Center reported that the pace of melting of Arctic sea ice had slowed during late May, however it has since speeded up and is again tracking the most extreme year seen so far (2012). In September, I anticipate we will learn a new record for low sea ice extent has been set.
Just to throw in a little complication, sea ice around Antarctica has been growing in extent in recent years – not to the same extent as sea ice has been receding in the Arctic, but still growing. This became another fact which climate change deniers picked with glee. Well, it seems to have stopped growing. The Washington Post reported on 5th July that while Antarctic sea ice reached a maximum in excess of 20 million km2 in September 2014, it had shrunk in 2015. It also reported that a new study in Nature Geoscience by Gerald Meehl, of the National Center for Atmospheric Research, Boulder, Colorado, and four colleagues had made some real progress in understanding the reasons why sea ice had been growing around Antarctica at a time when the planet was warming. The article, which is viewable here, reports evidence that the growth of ice in past years was a consequence of the behavior of the Interdecadal Pacific Oscillation – the one with the 15-30 year cycle. I read the article several times and do not claim to understand it. I see it as evidence that climate science continues to make headway in understanding how our global climate works. (I guess that means I am taking its claims on faith, which is no better than the denialists, who reject such claims on faith!)
Getting back to biological issues, ones I perhaps am more qualified to discuss, let me offer two quick examples showing how serious climate impacts are becoming. I am still awaiting definitive data on the surveys done on the Great Barrier Reef following the bleaching event earlier this year. They will come soon and will reveal just how much mortality of corals occurred. In the meantime, also out of Australia, there are reports of massive die-off of mangroves. There are no detailed data yet, but aerial photos reveal an unprecedented event covering hundreds of hectares of mangrove habitat on two locations along the coast of the Gulf of Carpentaria – Limmin Bight in the Northern Territory and Karumba in Queensland. The cause(s) is unknown, but the recent coral bleaching suggests high temperatures or a related environmental change may be the cause.
Aerial view of mangrove die-off along coast of Gulf of Carpentaria, Australia. Photo © Norm Duke
My second example is a recent article in the New York Times magazine, asking whether the United States should save Tangier Island from oblivion. Tangier Island is on the Virginia coast, in Chesapeake Bay, and sea level rise is slowly flooding it. One study, published in Nature last year, estimates the island may be liveable for another 50 years at most. The Times article speaks about how people have a sense of belonging to the place they have always lived, and try desperately to find ways of remaining there as long as they can. It makes the point that Tangier Island is just one of the first of many places around the shores of that wealthy country where the desire to remain will be put to the test by climate change. I personally doubt the US will step in to ‘save’ Tangier Island – it is not the home of the rich and famous. But I also anticipate that very large quantities of money will be spent by that wealthy country in foolish efforts to hold back the sea around many other parts of its shoreline. That money should mostly be being put into the effort to curtain greenhouse gas emissions. In this sillier than usual silly season, I doubt anyone is thinking much about that.