Energy and Global Warming News for July 8: Heat waves could be commonplace in the US by 2039; Methane releases in Arctic Seas could wreack havoc

Heat Wave

By 2039, most of the US could experience at least four seasons equally as intense as the hottest season ever recorded from 1951-1999, according to Stanford University climate scientists. In most of Utah, Colorado, Arizona and New Mexico, the number of extremely hot seasons could be as high as seven.

Heat waves could be commonplace in the US by 2039, Stanford study finds

Exceptionally long heat waves and other hot events could become commonplace in the United States in the next 30 years, according to a new study by Stanford University climate scientists.

“Using a large suite of climate model experiments, we see a clear emergence of much more intense, hot conditions in the U.S. within the next three decades,” said Noah Diffenbaugh, an assistant professor of environmental Earth system science at Stanford and the lead author of the study.

Writing in the journal Geophysical Research Letters (GRL), Diffenbaugh concluded that hot temperature extremes could become frequent events in the U.S. by 2039, posing serious risks to agriculture and human health.

“In the next 30 years, we could see an increase in heat waves like the one now occurring in the eastern United States or the kind that swept across Europe in 2003 that caused tens of thousands of fatalities,” said Diffenbaugh, a center fellow at Stanford’s Woods Institute for the Environment. “Those kinds of severe heat events also put enormous stress on major crops like corn, soybean, cotton and wine grapes, causing a significant reduction in yields.”

The GRL study took two years to complete and is co-authored by Moetasim Ashfaq, a former Stanford postdoctoral fellow now at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory. The study comes on the heels of a recent NASA report, which concluded that the previous decade, January 2000 to December 2009, was the warmest on record.

2-degree threshold

In the study, Diffenbaugh and Ashfaq used two dozen climate models to project what could happen in the U.S. if increased carbon dioxide emissions raised the Earth’s temperature by 1.8 degrees Fahrenheit (1 degree Celsius) between 2010 and 2039 – a likely scenario, according to the International Panel on Climate Change.

In that scenario, the mean global temperature in 30 years would be about 3.6 degrees F (2 degrees C) hotter than in the preindustrial era of the 1850s. Many climate scientists and policymakers have targeted a 2-degree C temperature increase as the maximum threshold beyond which the planet is likely to experience serious environmental damage. For example, in the 2009 Copenhagen Climate Accord, the United States and more than 100 other countries agreed to consider action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions “so as to hold the increase in global temperature below 2 degrees Celsius.”

But that target may be too high to avoid dangerous climate change, Diffenbaugh said, noting that millions of Americans could see a sharp rise in the number of extreme temperature events before 2039, when the 2-degree threshold is expected to be reached.

“Our results suggest that limiting global warming to 2 degrees Celsius above preindustrial conditions may not be sufficient to avoid serious increases in severely hot conditions,” Diffenbaugh said.

Record heat

For the GRL study, the researchers analyzed temperature data for the continental U.S. from 1951-1999. Their goal was to determine the longest heat waves and hottest seasons on record in the second half of the 20th century.

Those results were fed into an ensemble of climate forecasting models, including the high-resolution RegCM3, which is capable of simulating daily temperatures across small sections of the U.S.

“This was an unprecedented experiment,” Diffenbaugh said. “With the high-resolution climate model, we can analyze geographic quadrants that are only 15.5 miles (25 kilometers) to a side. No one has ever completed this kind of climate analysis at such a high resolution.”

The results were surprising. According to the climate models, an intense heat wave – equal to the longest on record from 1951 to 1999 – is likely to occur as many as five times between 2020 and 2029 over areas of the western and central United States.

The 2030s are projected to be even hotter. “Occurrence of the longest historical heat wave further intensifies in the 2030-2039 period, including greater than five occurrences per decade over much of the western U.S. and greater than three exceedences per decade over much of the eastern U.S.,” the authors wrote.

Seasonal records

The Stanford team also forecast a dramatic spike in extreme seasonal temperatures during the current decade. Temperatures equaling the hottest season on record from 1951 to 1999 could occur four times between now and 2019 over much of the U.S., according to the researchers.

The 2020s and 2030s could be even hotter, particularly in the American West. From 2030 to 2039, most areas of Utah, Colorado, Arizona and New Mexico could endure at least seven seasons equally as intense as the hottest season ever recorded between 1951 and 1999, the researchers concluded.

“Frankly, I was expecting that we’d see large temperature increases later this century with higher greenhouse gas levels and global warming,” Diffenbaugh said. “I did not expect to see anything this large within the next three decades. This was definitely a surprise.”

The researchers also determined that the hottest daily temperatures of the year from 1980 to 1999 are likely to occur at least twice as often across much of the U.S. during the decade of the 2030s.

“By the decade of the 2030s, we see persistent, drier conditions over most of the U.S.,” Diffenbaugh said. “Not only will the atmosphere heat up from more greenhouse gases, but we also expect changes in the precipitation and soil moisture that are very similar to what we see in hot, dry periods historically. In our results for the U.S., these conditions amplify the effects of rising greenhouse gas concentrations.”

Besides harming human health and agriculture, these hot, dry conditions could lead to more droughts and wildfires in the near future, he said. And many of these climate change impacts could occur within the next two decades – years before the planet is likely to reach the 2-degree C threshold targeted by some governments and climate experts, he added.

“It’s up to the policymakers to decide the most appropriate action,” Diffenbaugh said. “But our results suggest that limiting global warming to 2 degrees C does not guarantee that there won’t be damaging impacts from climate change.”

Methane Releases in Arctic Seas Could Wreak Devastation

Massive releases of methane from arctic seafloors could create oxygen-poor dead zones, acidify the seas and disrupt ecosystems in broad parts of the northern oceans, new preliminary analyses suggest.

Such a cascade of geochemical and ecological ills could result if global warming triggers a widespread release of methane from deep below the Arctic seas, scientists propose in the June 28 Geophysical Research Letters.

Worldwide, particularly in deeply buried permafrost and in high-latitude ocean sediments where pressures are high and temperatures are below freezing, icy deposits called hydrates hold immense amounts of methane (SN: 6/25/05, p. 410). Studies indicate that seafloor sediments beneath the Kara, Barents and East Siberian seas in the Arctic Ocean, as well as the Sea of Okhotsk and the Barents Sea in the North Pacific, have large reservoirs of the planet-warming greenhouse gas, says study coauthor Scott M. Elliott, a marine biogeochemist at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico.

EU Tightens Industrial-Pollution Controls for Air, Water, Soil

The European Union tightened rules on air, water and soil pollution by 52,000 industrial installations after a compromise on how much extra time electricity, oil and steel companies should get to comply.

The European Parliament voted to strengthen the 1996 Integrated Pollution Prevention and Control law covering such discharges as sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, dust particles, dioxins and heavy metals. The measure excludes carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas regulated by Europe’s cap-and-trade program.

“This offers more clarity and a better chance of a level playing field across Europe on environmental requirements for industrial installations,” said Holger Krahmer, a German member who steered the new rules through the 27-nation EU assembly today in Strasbourg, France. The bloc’s national governments have already signaled support for the draft law, making their final approval after two-and-a-half years of deliberations a formality in the coming weeks or months.

The new legislation enhances the role of the most effective emissions-reduction technology, known as best available techniques, in the granting of permits for electricity plants, oil refineries and metals, minerals, chemicals and waste- incineration sites subject to the rules. Large pig and poultry farms are also affected by the law, which is due to be phased in starting around the end of 2012.

A Flush of Funding for Carbon Capture

In the endeavor to reduce greenhouse emissions, carbon capture and storage technology continues to generate a lot of interest.

The idea, of course, is to reduce the planet-warming capacity of heavy industries that burn fossil fuels (chiefly coal-fired power plants, at this stage) by collecting the carbon dioxide they would ordinarily spew out into the atmosphere and, well, storing it somewhere.

The storage part has all manner of potential downsides, which are a matter of lively debate.

But before society even gets that far, it needs to sort out the capture part. And among the first problems on that side of the equation is that methods currently being explored for capturing carbon dioxide use a lot of energy themselves.

Bookies buying into climate change race

We’ve heard complex arguments from scientists armed with graphs and pie charts. We’ve been power-pointed to death by former US vice-presidents.

We’ve heard plenty of “programmatic specificity” about the issue from politicians, diplomats and climate negotiators.

We’ve heard the “we’ll all be rooned” arguments from climate change skeptics, miners and heavy industries resisting change.

But where’s the smart money?

The insurance industry like to give themselves fancy titles like “risk managers”. But let’s cut to the chase here. In essence, they’re bookies. They’re not framing a market on the Melbourne Cup or a football match, but they are busy weighing up the chances of you crashing your car or burning your house down, against the cost of the premium they’ll charge you. And, just like bookies, they always frame the market slightly in their favour.

Green religion movement hopes spill wins converts

Religious leaders who consider environmental protection a godly mission are making the Gulf of Mexico oil spill a rallying cry, hoping it inspires people of faith to support cleaner energy while changing their personal lives to consume less and contemplate more.

“This is one of those rare moments when you can really focus people’s attention on what’s happening to God’s creation,” said Walt Grazer, head of the National Religious Partnership for the Environment.

Activists in the movement often described as “green religion” or “eco-theology” are using blogs and news conferences to get the word out. Some are visiting the Gulf, inspecting oil-spattered wetlands and praying with idled fishermen and other victims.

And believers in the stricken coastal regions are looking at the consequences of the oil’s reach and asking what good can come out of it.

Nuclear Power Going To Waste?

How does a federal ruling finding that the Obama administration does not have the legal authority to abandon Nevada’s Yucca Mountain waste site affect U.S. nuclear energy policy?

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s board ruled last week that the administration does not have the legal right to withdraw its license for the proposed nuclear waste repository site. President Obama has already yanked funding for the site, and many aspects of the project are being ramped down. The Energy Department plans to appeal the commission’s ruling.

What should the federal government do to safely dispose of nuclear waste? Should a nuclear waste plan be included in any climate and energy bill? How does this decision by NRC affect the administration’s ability to approve nuclear loans?

Energy Department Lags in Saving Energy

Like flossing or losing weight, saving energy is easier to promise than to actually do “” even if you are the Department of Energy.

Its Web site advises that choosing new lighting technologies can slash energy use by 50 to 75 percent. But the department is having trouble taking its own advice, according to an internal audit released on Wednesday; many of its offices are still installing obsolete fluorescent bulbs.

And very few have switched to the most promising technology, light-emitting diodes, which the department spent millions of dollars to help commercialize.

Many of the changes would generate savings that would pay back the investment in two years or so, according to the report, by the department’s inspector general.

Does the Heat Wave Confirm Climate Change? Yes and No

With record-breaking summer temperatures from Beijing to Baghdad to Boston, many people are wondering whether the searing heat is a direct result of global warming.

Most every climatologist will tell you that you can’t extrapolate a long-term climate trend from a single weather event or finite period. So, even though the current heat wave gripping much of the world has been rewriting the record books, it may not really tell us all that much about climate change.

Indeed, in attempting to quell climate-change skeptics following a period of heavy snow this past winter, Obama administration scientist Jane Lubchenco stated, “It is important that people recognize that weather is not the same thing as climate.”

On its website, NASA further distinguishes the difference between weather and climate:

The difference between weather and climate is a measure of time. Weather is what conditions of the atmosphere are over a short period of time, and climate is how the atmosphere “behaves” over relatively long periods of time.

On the other hand, weather is itself a variable that is at least partially a result of an overall climate, as Anthony Leiserowitz, director of the Yale Project on Climate Change told The Christian Science Monitor.

“You can’t say any one heat wave is caused by global warming,” Leiserowitz said. “But you can say that what global warming does is make events just like this more likely.”


10 Responses to Energy and Global Warming News for July 8: Heat waves could be commonplace in the US by 2039; Methane releases in Arctic Seas could wreack havoc

  1. Peter Mizla says:

    I just received this in my mail from another source I get information from- (climate concern Yahoo groups – I also receive it from CP

    The heat ‘up’ is beginning- most Decadal Climate Predictions see a large warming this decade- after 2020 it will increase-

    I can easily see how it will affect agriculture in the future- the heat and drought here is really drying my garden- the only agriculture in Connecticut that will do well is our growing wine industry-

    The above is fascinating information- fed into a computer- with results that where very minutiae.

    Thanks for posting —–

  2. Colorado Bob says:

    Observed event –

    As of 1222 PM, Rick Husband Airport reported 6.88 inches of rain over the previous 24 hours. This is a new all time 24 hour rainfall record for the official observing station in Amarillo Texas. This breaks the previous record of 6.75 inches from May 15th and 16th, 1951. The rain is still falling so this total will likely increase within the next few hours.

    Current radar out of Amarillo shows it to be raining like hell there.

  3. Bruce says:

    Umm, “wreack” is a spelling misteak.

  4. john kearns says:

    Well doggies, Bruce. I was just about to ask, “What hath Robb wrought?” –
    where “wrought” is pronounced “wrote”, I guess. At least “wreack” isn’t “reek”.

    Mark Twain wrought a satire called “The Awful German Language”. I wish he had written an “The Awful English Language” as well but that would have required a third visit of Halley’s Comet to finish.

  5. Rob Honeycutt says:

    Yikes! It hit 111F in Phoenix AZ today.

  6. villabolo says:

    2-degree threshold

    In the study, Diffenbaugh and Ashfaq used two dozen climate models to project what could happen in the U.S. if increased carbon dioxide emissions raised the Earth’s temperature by 1.8 degrees Fahrenheit (1 degree Celsius) between 2010 and 2039 – a likely scenario, according to the International Panel on Climate Change.
    Pardon an amateurs question.

    Are we not due, because of thermal lag, for another 1 degree Fahrenheit rise in temperature in the next 30 years even if we stop all emissions immediately?

    Has this been factored into the equations and, if not, how would it effect the timeline? Also, how would Arctic ice cap meltdown effect the situation?

    If their premises and calculations are correct (I realize they used 24 models), Diffenbaugh and Ashfaq’s prognostication may come sooner anyways.

  7. john kearns says:

    The folks in the Pacific Northwest were calling June “June-uary” not so long ago; wondering whether they were to have a year without a summer as cold rainy overcast days kept succeeding the dreary days before. No longer.

    Vancouver, B.C, Seattle, WA and Portland, OR are sizzling, with maximum temperatures in the high nineties. Daily records have been topped by five to ten degrees F all along the coast. These conditions must be hard to bear for those used to colder weather; the nights have been mercifully cool. Attention, we may be sure, is being paid.

  8. adelady says:

    As an Australian, I’ve often wondered how the political and scientific attitudes of the world at large could be different. What if Australia had had the deep soils and other wonderful attributes of the North American continent supporting a huge population and the Australian shallow, depleted soils and extensive deserts had been where the USA is in the NH with less than 30 million people?

    Well, we certainly wouldn’t have been swamped with all the rubbish about faulty temperature recording. The USA would have been leading the way with mitigating strategies long before now.

    Welcome to the heatwave world.

  9. Philip says:

    A.D. Cherson has an interesting comment to the NYT Green Blog post, The Heat Wave and the Climate Divide. It’s about human adaptability to extreme temperatures.

  10. Ryan T says:

    Why isn’t Australia helping to lead the way with mitigating strategies, Adelady? The answer seems similar to that in America: Money, politics, industry-driven disinformation, and ratings-driven media that are quite happy to help keep the controversy alive.