Archive for the ‘Climate’ Category

The Arctic Council: A Path Forward

ArcticCouncilThe Arctic Council held a landmark meeting this week, complete with notable attendees, major decisions, and significant agreements. The US sent Secretary of State John Kerry, demonstrating increased focus on Arctic issues even as they remain a non-signatory to the UNCLOS treaty. The group expanded its membership by granting 6 Permanent Observer positions to China, Japan, South Korea, India, Singapore, and Italy. The council of 8 Arctic nations (The A8) also signed the Agreement on Cooperation on Marine Oil Pollution Preparedness and Response in the Arctic, which commits countries to prepare for environmental protection and cooperation in emergency situations. This meeting, held in Kiruna Sweden, demonstrated the expanding interest from both Arctic and non-Arctic countries, but more importantly demonstrated success in international cooperation regarding geopolitical and environmental concerns.

The US, traditionally laggard in commitments and preparations for Arctic change, stepped up its presence and participation in two major ways. First, Secretary of State John Kerry attended the meeting, suggesting earnest engagement from the US. Second, the US released its National Arctic Strategy (pdf here) asserting national security, stewardship, and international cooperation as primary objectives. While a refreshing step forward for the US Arctic policy, its focus on security interests and associated economic interests has been heavily critiqued for lacking firm commitments or stated environmental goals.

During the meeting, the Council evaluated applications for Permanent Observer Status, and granted access to 6 new states, most notably China. China’s adamant pursuit of an Arctic foothold has been rebuffed by Norway and Iceland in recent years over economic and social issues, but their persistence has paid off. The European Union was not so successful as they have been granted a conditional appointment pending resolution of a seal products ban, opposed vigorously by Canada. These issues highlight the increasing weight of Arctic interests as they are now being used for geopolitical leverage.

My final note is one of actual impact, opposed to the political posturing mentioned above. The Council concluded with the signing of Spill Response Accord whereby the A8 nations commit resources and promise cooperation in responding to Arctic emergencies. The success of the Arctic Council in establishing a forum for transnational discussions stands as an exemplar of international negotiations and provides not only progress in dealing with global scale changes, but also hope that nation states are in fact capable of acting on global challenges.

Categories: Climate, Policy Tags: , , ,

Arctic Sea Ice: A New Minimum, Again

3 September 2012 Leave a comment

The Arctic sea ice extent has reached a new record low with 2 weeks left to go in the melt season. This marks a more than 40% decline in sea ice minimums over the last 40 years.  Moreover, this new record low comes in a series of months and years of perpetual record breaking melt seasons, with the 6 lowest annual sea ice minimums being recorded in the last 6 years.  Until this year, 2007 held the record reaching then-unfathomable minimum of 4.2 million sq.

miles. This was thought to be due to a confluence of several climatological factors coinciding to produce a shockingly high rate of melt. The 2007 event, like most climate change events, was interpolated as an extreme,  once-in-a-lifetime type event. It’s only when the record is re-broken in short succession by an even stronger melt event, that we start to realize this is not a coincident, but a long-term, severe pattern.

Conservative estimates garnered from the IPCC 4AR suggest that we may see an ice-free Arctic sometime in the latter half of this century. The more progressive estimates suggest this may occur by mid-century. Until this year, the most extreme estimates put an ice-free Arctic as decades off.  Now some experts are saying this may happen before the end of the current decade.

What does an ice-free Arctic mean?

Sea Ice is classified by its age: first-year, second-year, and multi-year. First-year ice is what forms every winter. It can be up to ~1 meter thick. Though it’s tough going, most Arctic Class icebreakers are able to break through ice of this thickness. If first-year ice persists through the summer, it becomes second-year ice and can grow up to 2m thick. Anything beyond 2m thickness is generally referred to as multi-year ice and can be up to 20m thick at ice-ridges. Second-year and multi-year ice creates nearly impenetrable ice packs. While first-year ice will always reform during the winter, an ice-free summer would eliminate all multi-year ice. The subsequent summer would only have thinner, first-year ice which is less likely to persist through the summer, making it very difficult for multi-year ice to reform.  If the Arctic was to experience an ice-free summer, it would signify that a dramatic threshold had indeed been crossed. This, in conjunction with the associated changes in albedo, creates a pretty strong positive feedback loop, which may entrench the ice-free pattern for the foreseeable future.

A completely ice-free Arctic is unlikely for several decades, as the thickest and most stubborn ice is landfast against the brutally harsh north shore of Canada. But landfast ice is of  little concern for mariners as its location is known and predictable. It’s the large, thick, drifting ice packs that provide that largest impediments to Arctic access and nautical navigation, and these would be eliminated by an ice-free summer.

Categories: Climate Tags: , ,

Greenland Melting 2012

31 August 2012 1 comment

Extent of surface melt over Greenland’s ice sheet on July 8 (left) and July 12 (right). By July 12, nearly 97% of Greenland was experiencing surface thaw. Image Credit: Nicolo E. DiGirolamo, SSAI/NASA GSFC, and Jesse Allen, NASA Earth Observatory

The mighty Greenland Ice Sheet retains enough water to raise global sea level by 7 meters. Luckily, the bulk of the ice sheet resides at altitudes greater that 1000m meaning most of it rarely is exposed to melt; that is until now. Summer heat records were broken around the world this summer with the Continental US recording its hottest June ever. This heat also found its way to Greenland where melt was recorded at higher elevations on the ice sheet than ever before. Generally, the portion of the ice sheet exposed to melt during a season looks like the map on the left, with melt occurring along the lower elevation periphery while the high elevation dome remains untouched. This year however, melt reached nearly all of the surface (97%).

Ice sheets are controlled by a complex set of mechanisms and physics that result in a dome shaped pile of ice. Simply put, when they’re cold, they flow slow; when they’re warm they flow faster. They’re affected by air temperature and sea temperature, but also by melt water formed on the surface of the glacier. Water, which is denser than the ice, has the potential to flow down beneath the glacier which lubricates the bed and allows for faster flow. Normally, melt is constrained to the lower portions of the glacier and the upper elevations flow very slowly until they reach the melt zone. This year however, melt reached far higher elevations than usual. This is cause for concern because melt at higher elevations has the potential to lubricate and accelerate a larger area of the ice sheet. This is further complicated by a feedback measure by where faster ice, by laws of conservation, becomes thinner ice. Thinner ice sheets lower in elevation, thus exposing more of the ice sheet to to melt, thus completing the feedback mechanism.

While a single year of anomalously high reaching melt in itself will not have much impact on the ice sheet, this, in conjunction with gigantic icebergs breaking off of Petermann Glacier and record breaking velocities of the Jakobshavn Glacier presents a strong argument for an ice sheet, and a climate, in change.

Categories: Climate Tags: ,

Is democracy capable of solving climate change?

13 April 2012 1 comment

In order to answer question of whether or not democracy is capable of solving the climate change issue, there are many components that must be unpacked and addressed.  First must be a discussion of what is meant by solving climate change.  There are numerous options that span the spectrum from complete mitigation, to resilience, to full adaptation, all of which depend upon both the temporal and spatial scales at which solutions are being sought.  Second, the goals of solving climate change vary widely depending upon the group for whom a solution is being sought.  Individuals, communities, nations, corporations, and industries all have preferential outcomes that may come at the direct expense of other groups.  The diverging interests of groups must be openly and evenly discussed if any meaningful solution is to be developed.  The third component is identifying the role (or roles) of government, specifically democracies but more generally government itself, in dealing with the complex nexus of socio-ecological impacts of business decisions.  From the interrogation of these sub-questions, a more comprehensive exploration of democracies capacity for dealing with climate change will emerge.

There are many approaches to solving climate change.  In order to better understand the desired outcomes, it is important to understand the causes and implications of climate change.  Climate change is the result of CO2 accumulation in the atmosphere which causes an increase in the greenhouse effect, resulting in a general warming of the Earth over much shorter time scales than can naturally be accounted for.  While that is the general result, both the largest emitters and the largest impacts are highly concentrated in disparate areas.  This creates a highly uneven pattern of those who are responsible for climate change (i.e. benefit from causing it) are not necessarily those who will incur the most damages from it (i.e. pay for it). This is because CO2 is considered an economic externality, meaning the actual price is not fully represented in the market price.  The 2008 Stern Review on the economics of climate change referred to CO2 as the largest externality of all time. This disarticulation of the costs and benefits of CO2 emissions severely complicates the matter of solving climate change.  It is a global problem that requires everyone to solve, but bears markedly different responsibilities.  How those responsibilities are decided upon is beyond the scope of this essay, suffice it to say, it is a complex problem, in both a temporal and spatial sense.

If we recognize CO2 as the primary driver of climate change, then the obvious way to stop climate change is to stop, or mitigate, CO2 emissions.  Efforts for this have been underway for over two decades now, starting with the recognition of climate change as a problem in the 1980s.  The first actions began in 1992 with the Rio Earth Summit.  In 1997 the Kyoto protocol was signed by the majority of the world and great optimism was abound for meaningful C02 regulation.  The European Union went further by implementing a carbon exchange system to limit its emissions.  While the US has been a primary leader in CO2 emissions, only recently being passed by China, it failed to ratify the Kyoto Protocol and more recently failed to pass a Carbon Cap and Trade bill, proving its lack of leadership in environmental stewardship.  Mitigation, while undoubtedly an important component for long term climate change management, is unlikely to make a meaningful impact in the near future and much research and debate has progressed to more reaction-based measures, namely adaptation.

In addressing “how to solve climate change”, it is important to understand that there are many differing goals or desired outcomes from managing climate change. The standard dialog for discussing climate change is framed as a debate between Business and Government; a debate between the interests of the Economy and the Environment.  There is a severe disconnect between the interests of business and government.  Business obligations are to maximize shareholders profits.  The government obligations are to maximize the welfare of the population.  It is in business’ interest to take advantage of externalities as it maximizes profits, however this is an example of where the market fails to incorporate the total price of a good, and it becomes the government’s responsibility to create regulations that force the externality to be internalized into the market.  This framing can also be represented as short-term (business) and longer-term (government) interests.

Democracy is government of the people, by the people, for the people.  This is equates to majority rule, meaning that the popular opinion is the guiding principle for making rules. However, it occasionally becomes the responsibility of the government to make decisions that serve the long term interests of the country, which may possibly be at odds with the current popular opinion.  This becomes particularly acute when future generations will bear the consequences of current actions, as is the case for climate change.  In order to objectively consider climate change, we must detach ourselves from current interests and weigh the long-term benefits against short-term costs.

It is precisely the responsibility of government to act in the long-term interest of the people.  However, democracy of the people, by the people, for the people, is setup for the good of the people.  Interpretation of “people” becomes vital at this point; “people” may be viewed as the individual or the collective (including future generations).  If “people” is viewed as the individual, then democracy is inherently not setup to deal with long-term questions that span beyond a lifetime.  To make long term changes requires convincing the population that a decision is indeed in their interest, and to do that requires exceptional leadership.  It is leadership that is required to solve the issue of climate change; leadership which is not required nor excluded by democracy.

Categories: Climate, Musings Tags: ,

Carbon Calculation: Natural Gas vs Coal

7 February 2012 Leave a comment

If you follow the media, especially in PA, you’d be led to assume Natual Gas is the energy source of the future. That may very well be so, at least the near future. Many have proffered that we are in the “Natural Gas Century”, though how long this “Century” lasts may be up for some debate. Natural gas does indeed provide cleaner combustion than coal (38%) and oil (32%), but how much difference do these improvements make in the long run? Or asked another way, how long will using alternative fossil fuels delay crossing certain thresholds?

Mauna Loa CO2 Measured data (red), extrapolated to 2050

The atmospheric CO2 dataset collected from atop Mauna Loa Observatory suggests that we will cross the 450ppm threshold in early 2037, if we maintain our current energy portfolio. This little experiment calculates the change in atmospheric CO2 if we were to alter the energy portfolio by replacing coal with natural gas. To do this, I create 3 scenarios increasing natural gas use by 50%, 100%, and 200%.  There are a few basic assumptions in this calculation. 1) Natural Gas will only be used to  replace the dirtiest fuels: coal first, then oil. 2) The current energy portfolio is the same energy portfolio that’s been used for the last 50 years, and is responsible for the measured increase in CO2. 3) The change from our energy portfolio will happen instantaneously at 2025. There may be additional benefits achieved from ramping up to these goals, but substantial change takes time, here approximated as a 13 year implementation plan. 4) 450 ppm atmospheric CO2 is a threshold that is desirable to avoid. Many have suggested that 450 ppm will equate to ~2C degree warming.  450 will serve as the threshold for evaluating the different scenarios.

Scenario 1 increases our current natural gas use by 50%, moving from the current 25% to 37%. If implemented in the year 2025, this will delay us crossing the 450ppm threshold by 15 months.  Scenario 2 increases natural gas use by 100%, making it responsible for 50% of all energy. This would reduce our CO2 emissions enough to offset the threshold by 2 1/2 years.  In the maximum 200% increase scenario, the threshold is delayed by 5 years.

While at first this delay of only a few years seems insignificant, it would represent a substantial change in energy tastes and/or policy, which we have only seen in a limited expanses. Additionally, even the minimum scenario 1 calculation shows that the threshold is delayed by more than a year, after only 12 years of implementation.  That equates to an 8% delay. These carbon savings would continue to accumulate and have larger impacts over longer time horizons.

There are a few caveats, however. 1) This calculation assumes that natural gas will directly compete with only the dirtiest coal and oil, when in fact it will compete with all energy sources.  2) Natural gas is still a fossil fuel and does not get around the fundamental limitation of fossil fuels, which is that they are finite. 3) Natural gas production has the potential for direct release of methane, which is a 12x more efficient greenhouse gas than CO2, though it has a much shorter residence time (~10-12 years). While natural gas will not be the end-all energy savior, the interest in it does represent a first step away from coal and oil and does have the potential to buy us more time while we work toward a more comprehensive solution to our energy concerns. While increased natural gas use  provides a rather minimal change,  it is a change nonetheless, and showing that we can change our energy use will help ease the fears associated with the massive energy overhaul that will be required to fuel our future.

Categories: Climate, Energy Tags: , , ,

Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS)

The modern era of development, since the industrial revolution, has been fueled by cheap reliable energy sources, namely coal.  Coal is responsible for nearly 50% of US electricity. Coal however, is also the largest emitter of CO2.   With over 1/3rd of the world’s population living in two of the world’s most rapidly developing countries, China and India, the next generation of development will demand (and IS demanding) a cheap reliable source of energy (Chu, 2010).  To achieve the growth that these economies demand, coal will be necessary for the immediate future.  While investment in renewable energy sources should continue, figuring out ways to make coal more environmentally friendly is the key to achieving equitable and sustainable development.

Coal fired electricity generating plants are the biggest emitters of carbon dioxide.  The most direct method of capturing carbon is to capture it before it enters the atmosphere, right at the source.  There are several methods of achieving this goal.  Further details can be found here.

Post-Combustion: This is the traditional model of CO2 capture.  The combustion of coal produces smoke that is laden with CO2.  Extracting CO2 from this smoke can be achieved by either a physical or chemical mechanism.  The physical mechanism acts much the same way as a traditional “scrubber” that removes sulfur and particulate matter from the smoke.  The second mechanism for removing CO2 from the smoke involves a chemical reaction.  By forcing the CO2 smoke through an “amine” solution, CO2 binds to chemicals in the solution.  Once this solution becomes saturated with CO2 it is then ready for storage.

Pre-Combustion: This involves removing CO2 before it undergoes combustion.  Using high pressure and temperatures, fossil fuels can be disassociated into two parts, hydrogen and carbon monoxide.  The hydrogen is then used as a fuel, while the CO is converted to CO2 and is then ready for storage.  This process in energy intensive and is therefore less economically viable for production; however it may become more attractive if hydrogen fueled technologies become more prevalent.

The effects of carbon dioxide as a Greenhouse Gas have been understood for over 150 years.  While it is harmful in high atmospheric concentrations, CO2 itself is an inert gas.  Under moderate pressure it can easily be stored and transported as a liquid.  (The US National Renewable Energy Lab has compiled a nice set of resources).  It is in this liquid form that CO2 can then be stored.   The critical issue with storing COis that the margin of error is razor thin.  The stored carbon needs to be trapped for thousands of years.  At this time scale, even a minor leak of 0.1%/year becomes devastating, as it would evacuate the entire reservoir in 1000 years.  With these margins, high precision monitoring becomes crucial which further increases the cost of CCS.

Carbon Capture technology removes 80-90% of CO2.  However, current carbon capture methods reduce energy output by about 30%.  This means that 30% more coal will need to be burned in order to maintain the same energy output while at the same time still releasing some carbon into the atmosphere.  While this results in less total pollution for the atmosphere, the carbon savings are partially offset by the additional pollution and emissions from the mining and transportation of the extra coal.  Additionally, there is a chance of the carbon being released during transport or storage.  There are many issues at play when it comes to Carbon Capture and Storage, but it is possible, and it is necessary.  The technology will continue to advance and the price of that technology will contine to fall.  CCS will be a crucial step in the path toward carbon neutral growth, as coal will be an integral part of the global energy portfolio for the foreseeable future.

Is CCS feasible? Yes it is feasible, but it comes at a cost.   And unless we start valuing the price of our planet nearly as much as we value of our energy, we’re bound to lose both.

Climate Deniers Eat Their Own

Anthony Watts, doubt monger extraordinaire, has come out hard against ongoing research that preliminarily verifies the accuracy and statistical significance of climate change.  No surprise there.  Equally unsurprising is how quickly he turned against the study when he had previously stated he was “prepared to accept whatever result they (the researchers) produce, even if it proves my premise wrong.” Well the results so far are showing Watts’ premise wrong, yet here he is contesting the results.

The Berkeley Earth Surface Temperature (BEST) project began in 2007 as an unbiased, independent study to examine the entire global temperature record. They developed methods designed to address several issues that had been raised by skeptics.  Though officially an “non-political, non-partisan” group, climate deniers had reason to believe the results would fall in their favor. Along with addressing some of the issues raised by skeptics, the BEST team was also lead by one of their own, Dr. Robert Muller. Muller, PhD in particle physics, has been highly critical of climate scientist Dr. Michael Mann.  In addition to be lead by a climate skeptic, the BEST team also relied on dubious funding sources.  The Charles G. Koch (1/2 of the Koch Brothers) Charitable Foundation donated $150,000 (24% of the total BEST funding).

With all this, Anthony Watts had good reason to support such a study. He made several statements in favor of this study including an approval of the methods: “I’ve seen some of the methodology, and I’m pleased to say that their design handles many of the issues skeptics have raised”.  Even anti-smoking/ozone/everything-there-is-to-be-opposed skeptic Fred Singer lent his support to the BEST Project.

So why was Watts so upset with the preliminary results that Muller delivered during his testimony to the House Committee of Science, Space and Technology on 31 March 2011?  Because he reported the results of the science.  And the science once again says, “We are seeing substantial global warming” and “None of the effects raised by the [skeptics] is going to have anything more than a marginal effect on the amount of global warming.”

But that’s not what deniers want/need to here.   So, they are forced to attack even the most conservative of the climate scientists.  Instead of objectively analyzing the data, they have to attack data that don’t agree with their predetermined outcomes.  Even when the climate deniers approve the methods, approve the data, and approve the scientist, they are still unwilling to accept the results.  This blatant suspension of objectivity further shows the climate deniers hand, which appears to be getting weaker everyday.  Even so, the deniers don’t appear to be folding soon.


Categories: Climate Tags: ,