SUMMARY: Global heat Jan & Feb hits hard, worries scientists. Bob Henson from Weather Underground explores the loss of normal. Australian scientist Ben Hankamer on new study: world will warm faster than you think. Radio Ecoshock 160323
The jolt. That’s what scientists are calling the absolute heat records set around the world in January and February of 2016. Expert meteorologist and climate science writer Bob Henson takes us on a tour of the new normal.
But hang around too for our second interview, with Australian scientist Ben Hankamer. He’s co-author of a new peer-reviewed paper that says warming will happen much faster than you think.
Hankamer tells us:
“If what the models suggest are correct, then by 2020 we might have to have about emissions reductions of 50% if we want to stay below a 1.5 degree climate change level. And if we want to stay below 2 [deg C] it might be 50% by 2030.
And it really depends if you want to go with this pro-growth strategy or whether you want to carry on with business as usual… Of course you can say ‘we’re not going to do that’ but then you have to also make the assumption that you will keep people in poverty.”
A fifty percent cut in emissions needed by 2020! That’s a call for crisis-level action. Sure, we can continue to splurge on fossil fuels in the developed world, but keep in mind (a) we need almost half the world’s population to keep living in desperate poverty (less than $2.50, a day) and (b) we accept a rapid transition to a ruined state of nature for all coming generations.
That’s coming up in our second half hour. First, let’s get past the weather porn, to explore another step up the staircase to climate catastrophe.
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THE NEW HEAT JOLT – WHAT DOES IT MEAN? BOB HENSON
“February Smashes Earth’s All-Time Global Heat Record by a Jaw-Dropping Margin” That’s the headline at wunderground, the influential Weather Underground blog. What does it mean? Is the new carbon-loaded atmosphere stretching it’s muscles? Is this the new normal, or the end of normal?
Joining us to talk about all this is a seasoned meteorologist, journalist, and one-time storm chaser, Colorado’s Bob Henson. Bob co-wrote one of the most widely used college textbooks on weather, “Meteorology Today” – now out in it’s 11th edition this year. For more than a decade Bob had a front row seat as writer and editor for AtmosNews, from the National Center for Atmospheric Research. His articles are published all over the world, and his latest book is “The Thinking Person’s Guide to Climate Change.” Bob often teams up with Wunderground’s Jeff Masters to bring out all the facts and figures about the strange changes we see today.
Bob Henson, Weather Underground
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Let’s be clear, we are talking about a global average temperature that in February almost reaches the 1.5 degrees C the supposed “safe” level raised at the Paris climate talks in December. Not in 2100, or 2050, but almost right now. NASA released their report forFebruary temperatures – the world is 1.35 degrees C above the baseline, which they choose as the period from 1951 to 1980.
But that’s a recent baseline that minimizes real warming! There was at least a half degree warming from pre-industrial levels (say 1850). So we are already above the 1.5 deg temps agreed as really safe at the Paris climate talks.
Even taking the low-ball NASA starting point, as the Guardian newspaper reports, global temperatures in February 2016 broke all records not a little but, but by “a shocking amount“.
The only good news is that we still have the rest of the year to go, which might cool down. Experts think the current El Nino is winding down over the next few months. For all we know, 2017 might be a La Nina year, and cooler. Henson says it takes a few years steady at 1.5 or 2 degrees above pre-industrial levels to qualify as permanent warming. He thinks we are several decades away from that point. I disagree.
It’s also important to note that CO2 levels, as measured at the Mauna Loa lab in Hawaii, go up during an El Nino year, and never come back down. The reasons for that are complex. For example, drought during El Nino, coupled with climate-driven heat, causes more forest fires, which releases more CO2 into the atmosphere.
But the essential point is we are now well over 400 parts per million CO2, and much higher if we count the more realistic CO2 equivalent (which includes ever-increasing methane, plus rarer but more powerful greenhouse gases).
I remember the late Dr. Albert A. Bartlett of Colorado spent a lifetime teaching how important and threatening exponential math can be. That’s where we get an increase on the increase. Is that happening now with greenhouse gas emissions? Sort of. Henson tells us CO2 was going up about 1 part per million a year during the 1960’s. It became 2 parts per million annually during the early 2000’s, and since 2015 has been hitting 3 parts per million increase. So yes, that is exponential, and ever-more dangerous.
Here’s one of my worries. Every time the Earth takes another jump in temperature, a great number of irreversible feed-backs get a push. So we might be going up a stair-case, step-by-step, which only goes up. For example, what is the condition of the Arctic sea ice this winter? Yes, it is the lowest on record for February. The extent is low, and the ice is thin.
However, that does not necessarily mean we will hit a new record low sea ice level in the Arctic this summer, Henson says. The main factor that can break that record is whether it is cloudy in the Arctic during the key months of June and July, when the polar sun is strongest, or wide open and sunny. So we’ll have to wait and see.
It’s been just plain weird in the Arctic. It rained at the Pole in the December darkness, and there’s been a lot of open ocean north of Scandinavia. Henson tells us about conditions around Svalbard for example. North of Norway, where the ice should be surrounding Svalbard, it the sea is open. And that northernmost city in the world (at 78 degrees latitude) has been strangely warm. Some days it was 20 to 40 degrees Fahrenheit warmer than usual. That’s a huge jump!
Mark Sereze of the U.S. National Snow and Ice Data Center says this past winter is the strangest he’s ever seen in the Arctic. For example, Anchorage Alaska had the warmest weather ever, with the least snow ever.
DID EL NINO BREAK THE CALIFORNIA DROUGHT? YES AND NO.
Did this El Nino manage to break the long California drought, as advertised? It did not go as expected. The big deluges from El Nino tracked hundreds of miles north of California, hitting Oregon and Washington State. At least there has been some snow in California mountains, which should ease water supplies somewhat. Water supplies for Sacramento and San Francisco have half recovered.
But it’s an “ominous sign” Henson says, that this El Nino did not fully break the California drought this year. That’s partly because projections are for the U.S. Southwest states, including California and Arizona, to get drier and drier as this century rolls on.
HEAT RECORD IN LOWER ATMOSPHERE
We’ve talked about heat records set on land. But it’s not just there. Dr. Roy Spencer at the University of Alabama in Huntsville has persistently talked down the threats of global warming. He often interprets satellite data to find the lowest estimates. But even he reports the lower atmosphere is hotter than ever.
SEVERE IMPACTS ALREADY THIS YEAR
As Bob and Jeff Masters picture in their blog, there have been severe impacts of this combined El Nino and a jolt in climate-induced heating. Extreme drought has cost Vietnam and Zimbabwe at least 10% of their Gross Domestic Product. That has not been reported in mainstream news at all. We did hear about the strongest typhoon ever recorded hitting the Pacific island of Fiji. That country has continued it’s state of emergency for another month, as thousands of people remain in temporary shelters. Their homes and businesses were demolished.
As Henson blogs: “For comparison, nine nations had their most expensive weather-related natural disasters in history in all of 2015, and only one did so in 2014.”
Henson tells us scientists predict with the warming of the Pacific Ocean, there is a better chance we will get more El Nino heat years in the coming decades. You can guess what that means, from what happened this year. Our guest predicts we will see dramatic rises in temperatures, and surprising extreme weather, in this coming decade.
On another front, Australia’s Great Barrier Reef Marine Authority has just issued an alert about widespread coral bleaching. Coral guru Thomas J. Goreau has been privately warning this could be another huge coral die-off.
Bob Henson is that rare combination of meteorologist and journalist. He’s been published all over the world, but my favorite spot to find him is at the Weather Underground blog, at wunderground.com. His Twitter handle is @bhensonweather.
PROFESSOR STEFAN RAMSTORF – “CLIMATE EMERGENCY”
Professor Stefan Rahmstorf, from Germany’s Potsdam Institute of Climate Impact Research, told Australian newspapers “We are in a kind of climate emergency now.” In the show, I run a few minutes from a short interview of Stefan Ramsdorf done by by Phil Stubbs of theenvironmentshow.com
FASTER AND SOONER – BEN HANKAMER
Look out. The world may warm much faster than we thought. That could create an energy-squeeze. It’s all in new a big-picture study from Australian researchers. Let’s peer into a real future, with Professor Ben Hankamer from the Institute for Molecular Bioscience at the University of Queensland, near Brisbane Australia.
Dr. Ben Hankamer
Now we know the choices. Let half the world’s people live in poverty, and keep up our energy-intensive lifestyles for an extra ten years. Then we all struggle to survive with rising seas, heat waves, drought, fires, and weather so unstable crops and species are doubtful. OR the world’s leaders and people somehow wake up from the fog, to begin the war on carbon emissions, to make the transition to a low-energy, all-renewable world. We have four years to cut our emissions in half. It’s beyond the days of worry,now. It’s do or die.
The title of this new paper suggests giant topics: “Trading Off Global Fuel Supply, CO2 Emissions and Sustainable Development“. It was published in the open access journal PLOS one. Anyone can read the full paper, and please do.
In the interview, we look more deeply into this concept of personal energy use. Here in North America, we like to think personal energy use is going down, as cars become more fuel efficient, bike use increases, and things like LED light bulbs slash utility bills. Is that assumption wrong? Yes and no. It’s true many appliances, cars and stuff are becoming more energy efficient. But it appear we are using the saved money to buy still more appliances, cars and stuff.
One of the paper authors, Dr. Wagner says ““Simply put, as we get more efficient at manufacturing, goods get cheaper and we buy more.” That sounds to me like a restatement of the classic Jevons Paradox, which was originally applied to coal. So it’s still true.
I’m also assuming that a huge portion of demand for personal energy use will come as billions of people in the “developing world” get motorbikes, electric appliances and all the things we take for granted.
So here is one thing new in this study: previous studies did not include the relationships between energy use, climate and poverty. Add in population, and the amount of carbon left to safely burn takes a nose-dive. In my opinion, we don’t have much of a chance of staying below 2 degrees C warming in the next 20 years. So buckle up your seat belts for world-changing extreme weather, and the relentless rise of the seas.
But Ben Hankamer is much more positive. He thinks there is plenty of solar energy to power the world. If global leadership recognizes the crisis in time, and organizes us all to act, maybe we can pull out before a real climate catastrophe is inevitable.
Again, most of our fossil fuel use is in liquid form, especially for transportation, I wonder how much renewable energy can really replace that? That is exactly the question being investigated at the Solar Biofuels Research Centre in Queensland Australia. It’s co-ordinated by the University of Queensland, with major corporate partners. They are testing algae that grows in the sun, which can then be converted to a number or widely recognized liquid fuels.
Large-scale projections by necessity assume a future economy similar to what we have now. But I worry that the economy will slide into a Depression, where wealth shrinks instead of grows. That may come from unsustainable debt levels, and all countries will be buffetted by increasing costs of replacing infrastructure and crops damaged by an unstable climate. Most studies do not include that possibility.
THE WORST PREDICTION: ALMOST 4 DEGREES OF WARMING (OR MORE!) BY 2026
The most dire prediction comes from Sam Carana.
The post in Arctic News is not a scientific paper, but a blog with some scientific contributors. This blog is sometimes too extreme, and sometimes spot on. I don’t have the expertise to say what is right or wrong with Sam’s calculation of 3.9 degrees C warming by 2026, shown in the graphic, part way down in this post. Sam Carana draws on a number of warming factors which I’ve seen listed separately in scientific papers, but which are too seldom brought together. I ask our guest Ben Hankamer if he thinks a warming of 3.9 degrees C by 2026 is possible. Ben says it could be possible!
Graphic by Sam Carana of Arctic News blog.
And that is Carana’s low end number. His worst case scenario is so bad we can hardly conceive of it.
Mind you, one of the original climate change scientists, Dr. James Hansen, has just released a paper with a gang of other scientists warning that heating is coming, and seas rising, faster than anyone thought possible!
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