Super-scientist Kevin Trenberth from the U.S. National Center for Atmospheric Research talks hot oceans, stronger hurricanes (like Dorian), and Greenland melting 2 to 3 times faster than scientists thought possible. Kevin makes a surprising announcement about his own future: this famous scientist is leaving Trump’s America, as the United States of Denial guts climate regulations. UK climate Professor Edward Hanna explains the forces behind the disastrous melting on Greenland.
As I come on the air, tropical forests are on fire from the Amazon to the Congo. The Arctic is burning from Alaska to Siberia. That is next week’s show. Plus the Bahamas were almost wiped out by Hurricane Dorian. It is too much to process as the climate-driven hits just keep on coming. We take one horrifying disaster at a time here on Radio Ecoshock. I’m Alex Smith. Welcome back.
After our first guest, I will do a quick catch up on a few of the climate low lights from this summer, including the amazing European July heat wave. Plus, here are two quick questions for you: what country is the world’s biggest exporter of natural gas? And then what country is the world’s biggest exporter of coal? Answers later in this program.
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DR. KEVIN TRENBERTH REPORTS
Is the astounding melt on Greenland this summer due to a natural atmospheric cycle rather than global warming?
Dr. Kevin E. Trenberth specializes in the transport of heat, water and energy in the atmosphere and ocean. He was a pioneer in the study of El Nino and La Nina events, and a lead author for three reports by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (the IPCC). Originally from New Zealand, Dr. Trenberth is a Distinguished Senior Scientist in the Climate Analysis Section at the National Center for Atmospheric Research, or NCAR, located in Boulder Colorado.
It is an honor to welcome Kevin Trenberth back to Radio Ecoshock.
MARINE HEAT WAVES KILL MILLIONS OF FISH, and DAMAGE THE ENTIRE OCEAN FOOD WEB
There are also “marine heat waves” like the hot blob that showed up in the North Pacific in 2015-2016. That was estimated to have
“led to the loss of over 100 million cod. It had profound effects that have been measured throughout the entire food web, from the phytoplankton to the zooplankton, the small fish, large fish, all the things that prey on the fish including the whales. There was a big loss of whales that was documents. And then there are things like sea otters and marine animals along the coast…Just recently there has been a marine heat wave in the South Tasman Sea which is right near New Zealand and there was one there about 2016 as well.” (Kevin Trenberth on Radio Ecoshock)
Trenberth: “The North Atlantic Oscillation is really a weakening or a strengthening of the overall Westerlies across the North Atlantic. In the positive phase the Westerlies are active further north. The storm track is further north. It’s very warm in Europe and all of the storms that go from Europe into Siberia have a particular track.
In the negative phase, the whole pattern tends to shift further south. It’s a lot weaker in the north and you get very cold conditions in that case in Europe.”
He then says, in reply to my question, that this NAO pattern could indeed be altered by climate change. Previously he also pointed out the North Atlantic Oscillation is not as active in summer as it is in winter.
While 2012 was the lowest Arctic sea ice level so far, it is still possible that record low will be surpassed this year of 2019. We have to wait until later in September to find out.
A new study in Nature Climate Change (“Midlatitudes unaffected by sea ice loss” August 2019) counters the sea ice/jet stream observations by Jennifer Francis. Trenberth finds the idea of causation of weather changes in North America and the Jet Stream BY changes in Arctic sea ice is “very questionable”. But going the other way, when we have an El Nino we get warm air surging up into Alaska, that melts more sea ice. Trenberth says the idea that changes in the sea ice could affect winter weather in North America “simply doesn’t add up in my view”.
OCEAN HEATING, HOT PATCHES AND HURRICANES
Trenberth says heat transfer from a hotter atmosphere to the ocean is “pretty regular, and in fact that’s the best single indicator that the planet is warming. 2018 is the warmest year for the global oceans. 2017 is the second warmest. 2015 is the third warmest and 2016 is the fourth warmest.”
2016 was slightly less warming for the ocean due to the El Nino event that year. During an El Nino, large amounts of heat are released in the Eastern Pacific Ocean, meaning a transfer of heat from the ocean to the atmosphere, rather than the other way around. 2016 was the warmest year for the land surface temperatures, due mainly to the El Nino. But 2018 stands out as the year of the warmest oceans so far.
ROAMING OCEAN HOTSPOTS THAT CAN BIRTH KILLER STORMS
“Where the hot spots occur from one year to the next can certainly vary, and that’s partly because of things like El Nino and maybe the North Atlantic Oscillation or the weather more generally. And so where the hotter spot occurs can certainly vary, but as a whole the oceans are warming up. There’s no doubt whatsoever.”
“Our analysis suggests that some of the biggest warming is occurring in the southern oceans. But the difference is that there are very strong winds there and a lot of that heat gets carried down to greater depths in the ocean.” Those winds can drive sea ice further offshore, as happened a few years ago, increasing the extent. In fact, Trenberth tells us the sea ice extent in Antarctica is not a good indicator of global warming, compared to Arctic sea ice coverage. Yet in the last few years, we have seen “remarkably low” sea ice in Antarctica.
As Hurricane Dorian just ripped through the Bahamas, we need to emphasize what Dr. Trenberth just told us in this interview. The oceans have absorbed most of the abnormal heat energy from humans loading the atmosphere with greenhouse gases. Some say up to 90% of the real warming went into the oceans, and water holds heat better than land. The atmosphere hardly holds heat at all.
All the record hot years in the seas were in the last four years, with 2018 the hottest ever recorded. Trenberth explained this extra heat is not evenly distributed. Hot spots and marine heat waves can pop up anywhere in the world.
The warmest patches in the ocean move around. In 2017 one of the warmest patches of ocean was in the Gulf of Mexico. That led to Harvey, Irma and Maria. In 2018, one of the warmest patches of the ocean was off the coast of the Carolinas, which added to the destructive power of Hurricane Florence. Hot patches occurred in the Indian Ocean, leading to two “very unusual” cyclones (hurricanes) that devastated Mozambique and neighboring countries in March 2019 (named Idai and Kenneth). Trenberth credits ocean hot patches also for cyclone Fani that struck India and Pakistan in May 2019. And yes the waters were hot in the Caribbean as Hurricane Dorian powered up from at Category 2 storm to Cat 5 in just two days.
Most of us hear TV weather experts explain a hotter ocean can add energy to hurricanes, as both added rains to drop and higher wind speeds. But they never connect that to the big picture of warming oceans all over the world.
Our hotter ocean pops up as strong and unusual storms half a world away from countries emitting the most greenhouse gases. The hurricanes or cyclones strike innocent countries like Mozambique or Bangladesh. This one of the way our pollution spreads damage to other countries with tiny emissions. At the international level, there has been a lot of talk about rising seas overcoming island nations, but very little about devastating storm damage. Random ocean hot spots sound like a weapon in a kind of climate war against the world, a kind of carbon terrorism.
NOTES FROM ALEX SMITH – AUSTRALIA: PLEASE SEEK HELP
The carbon killers are populated with nice people. Along with my own country of Canada, one of the leading carbon terrorists is surprising. I asked who the biggest supplier of natural gas to the world is. You might think of a Middle East country like Qatar, or Russia, the gas giant that heats Europe. No. The biggest exporter of natural gas is Australia. That pleasant land “down under” is also the biggest coal exporter in the world. Australia exports the carbon that lashes out in mega-storms, mega-fires and ungodly floods all over the world.
The current government of Australia is not sorry about it all. They use fake Kyoto carbon credits to pretend they are going along with climate action. The ruling party is a home for climate deniers and anti-science. In fact, the Australian government wants to make even more planet-killing jobs with even more mega-coal mines. They sell mostly to Asia, with Indian company Adani investing billions there. There isn’t a lot of Australian exports that climate-aware consumers can boycott. Australia has become the dirty petro-state selling to Asia. Only when those customer countries convert to renewables, and stop buying Australian LNG and coal, can we expect much action from a country whose main industry is killing off the future for generations to come.
In Australia, groups like GetUp! and Greenpeace are fighting fossil fuel expansion tooth-and-nail, but so far the public is content to let the darkness grow. Australia, we love you, but let’s talk. You are quickly becoming the loved relative who succumbs to addiction – to fossil fuel addiction. Please seek help. We need you back as a peaceful member of the world community.
AMAZING HEAT IN EUROPE
There are climate milestones, the markers in what could be a journey toward Hell. Surely the July heat wave in Europe was one of those. Heat records in France were not just broken. They were smashed by many degrees. Paris had never been so hot in recorded history than July 25, 2019 when it almost reached 110 degree Fahrenheit, 43 degrees C. That is just nuts. It was scorching hot all across northern Europe, where air conditioning is scarce. It was only the second time in history that a temperature over 100 degrees, 37.7 C, was recorded in London. Scientists estimate summers in the last 17 years in Europe are hotter than any in the previous 500 years. Before that we don’t have records to know, but the recent record may be higher that in the last thousands or even million of years.
While the heat caused discomfort and suffering, it may not have caused a lot of heat deaths this time, compared to tens of thousands of people dying in the European heat wave of 2003. So if you measure the on-coming heat by mortality, you will be fooled. We may be able to adapt as things get hotter and hotter, until we can’t. However, such heat events may help governments at least admit we are in a climate emergency, and power movements like Extinction Rebellion.
DR. EDWARD HANNA ON THE BIG GREENLAND MELT
When billions of metric tonnes of Greenland ice melted into the sea in 2012, a team of scientists said it was more than global warming. A pattern of atmospheric pressure zones called the North Atlantic Oscillation, or NAO, was boosting the big melt. Now that super-melt on Greenland has happened again this summer of 2019. Hundreds of billions of metric tonnes of ice just poured off Greenland into the sea. Sea levels will rise measurably from what happened there just in July.
The size and speed of the Greenland melt this summer just shocked me. I thought “this is a major climate event” which the public cannot see.
Scientists including Edward Hanna, Xavier Fettweis and others just published the paper “Important role of the mid-tropospheric atmospheric circulation in the recent surface melt increase over the Greenland ice sheet“. If that sounds obscure, we delve into the importance of understanding atmospheric circulation in the Atlantic – when we want to grasp the main drivers of the big melt on Greenland this year.
Get ready to meet a new friend: the NAO – the North Atlantic Oscillation. You learned about El Nino and La Nina because it affects weather where you live. Those are changes in the ocean. But another back-and-forth pattern in the atmosphere over the North Atlantic can change weather in New England, the Canadian Maritimes, Ireland the United Kingdom – and especially Greenland. It’s worth knowing how it works.
Dr. Edward Hanna is a Professor of Climate Science and Meteorology at the University of Lincoln, UK. We last spoke on Radio Ecoshock in January 2018 about a cold pattern in North American or European winters – due to changes in the Arctic. I like talking with Edward because he has clear explanations on a wide range of topics.
Dr. Edward Hanna, University of Lincoln UK
You can find my previous interview with Edward Hanna in January 2018 here.
THE JET STREAM CAN REVERSE, WHICH IS HOW THE EUROPEAN HEAT WAVE HIT GREENLAND
Edward was able to clear up the confusion of how the record-breaking heatwave in July, where North African heat flooded northern Europe, managed to reach Greenland. Normally weather goes from West to East, due to the direction of spin of this planet. But this heat wave had to go the opposite way, from East to West! Hanna tells us that the Jet Stream can reverse and flow East to West, and that is how this July heat wave traveled. I knew the Jet Stream could wobble and form into north/south waves, but did not know it could entirely reverse itself at times.
The reversal of the Jet Stream is really a function of the North Atlantic Oscillation. When the NAO is “negative”, as it has been for most of 2019, the Jet Stream changes direction. That also happened in 2012 when there was another massive melt on Greenland.
Hanna tells us the Jet Stream/NAO is so complex that we cannot make models or projections for how these will operate over the rest of the century. He did send along the chart mentioned in the interview – showing the state of the NAO over the last century. You may need to read up a little science to understand this one.
[Chart of state of North Atlantic Oscillation in past century, courtesy of Edward Hanna , University of Lincoln.]
Hanna says that using the American Grace satellites, scientists have measured the gravitational loss of ice over Greenland during the last 17 years. The average loss every year has been about 250 billion metric tonnes of ice – almost all of it pouring into the sea. I asked if some evaporated into the atmosphere, adding to humidity. But Hanna says that would be a small amount, partly due to dry atmospheric conditions over cold Greenland. Cold air holds less water vapor.
Aside from the Greenland melt, satellite photos reveal we have lost about three quarters of the volume of the sea ice cover in the Arctic in late summer (September) since the 1970s. Last year and this year, there is an open patch of ocean just North of Greenland, something we did not expect to see. When sea ice moves away from the Greenland glaciers, this may speed up ice loss due to greater wave action, the arrival of warmer seas, and possibly coastal erosion. Loss of sea ice does not affect sea levels, but loss of ice that was sequestered on land certainly does.
When we see frightening storm surges, like the 18 feet of seas that rolled over the Bahamas during Hurricane Dorian – remember that because we are heating the planet, Greenland is continually adding to sea level rise. That relentless water from Greenland will force us to re-draw the maps of coastlines and retreat from coastal cities toward higher ground. I’ll be covering our need to plan for that in a coming show.
MORE SCIENCE TO HELP US UNDERSTAND THE GREENLAND MELT AND THE NAO
During the interview, I raise this earlier paper by Hanna et al: “Brief communication: Recent changes in summer Greenland blocking captured by none of the CMIP5 models“. This fits in with other discussions on Radio Ecoshock about how science is so often behind the big changes already happening on the ground (or in this case, in the ice).
Here is another paper that helps understand the relationships between atmospheric cycles and Greenland ice melt:
“Brief communication: Impact of the recent atmospheric circulation change in summer on the future surface mass balance of the Greenland Ice Sheet“. This one is led by Alison Delhasse with Xavier Fettweis as co-author again.
FEELING ANXIOUS ABOUT CLIMATE CHANGE? YOU ARE NOT ALONE
– by Alex Smith
From Australia, my friend and long-time anti-nuclear slash climate activist Christina Macpherson writes:
“In Australia, this rich and privileged country, we nevertheless have a high rate of youth mental illness and youth suicide. While I do believe that the innermost connections – parents, family, friends – are of paramount importance, they are not the whole story. For the first time – this concept is taken up in this article: “Feeling Anxious About Climate Change? Therapists Say You’re Not Alone”. Victoria Knight from Kaiser Health news says “the psychiatric and psychological communities have names for the phenomenon of worrying about the Earth’s fate: “climate distress,” “climate grief,” “climate anxiety” or “eco-anxiety””.
Time magazine reports that suicide rates in America are the highest since World War Two. Is climate anxiety and fear of the future part of that?
I hope my Radio Ecoshock show does not contribute to this. I think people are better off to know the facts than to fear them. Of course, there is much more going on than climate, with on-going nuclear fear, alienation aided by cyber-reality, mass extinction of our fellow species, overpopulation, and a sense the whole thing could implode at any time, like New York going dark.
Personally I continue to cherish life, and the privilege of living each day, even if the future is in danger.
DO WE JUST NEED BETTER LEADERS AT THE TOP?
I wish I could be confident that climate dishonesty comes from the top. While I am not a fan of Karl Marx, he did say Capitalists themselves are as deluded as the workers. Even though the rape of the world is lead by a small group of (99%) men who play the game of piling up money and power until death levels them – even so, we all agree as long as it appears to benefit us in these short-term lives biology gives us.
We are comfortable, living in a time of undreamt-of opportunities. Would you like to appear on the other side of the world? No problem, if you are one of the insiders. You and I are insiders. I could fly to Australia. My “air miles” benefit would be to hurry the extinction of more species, possibly eventually including our own.
I have countless energy slaves. I deal with companies like Facebook and Twitter who secretly hope to steal the remains of our freedom. I am learning to live with being tracked and spied on, to have my “data identity” sold and re-sold without notice.
Reading history shows us humans have dangerous flaws. We are predators who too often prey on each other. I’m not sure it will be enough to replace our leaders (although I’d love to see that happen, to see some PROGRESS!)
Climate denial may be manufactured for the power and profit for a few, but it is broadcast by the stupidity of many. To not acknowledge what is happening to our environment, even as it repeatedly punches us in the face, seems like a suicidal flaw in humans. There is no doctor to help. We can only heal ourselves when we admit the sickness.
DON’T COUNT ON “MAYBE IF”….
We are told a long crawl out of disaster is still possible, for a limited time. After that, feedbacks from nature overwhelm human emissions and take over. Of course the dust clouds of a nuclear war might yield ten years of cooling clouds. Or an asteroid. Even a very massive string of persistent volcanoes perhaps. Any of these could knock out the human system powered by fossil fuels.
Perhaps at the last minute a computer-aided inventor will produce a carbon-sucking machine that can perform to scale. But even the time of deployment might make it too late. Once the reflective sea ice is gone, the permafrost becomes a carbon machine, with possible methane burping up from clathrates below the seas, once the great forests die, once key persona in the hidden web that supports mammals is broken, or a manufactured disease is released – so many nightmares are beyond our ability to recover.
When a Dark Age becomes our best hope, we can only mourn our recent understanding of the galaxies and the micro-universe might be lost. The eco-catastrophe would reverberate into science, the arts, gender freedom, so many things!
I have to give up the “right” to fly to Australia. Can I? Will I? Will you?
COMING UP ON RADIO ECOSHOCK NEXT WEEK
Next week we send the Ecoshock climate ambulance after another great tragedy unfolding: the fires. There are two tropical climate war zones to report: the famous case of fires in the Amazon, and more in Angola and the Congo. The week following I hope to have the latest on the Arctic fires which may threaten us even more. We need to talk about humans planning their retreat from the coasts, the sudden heat as we clean up air pollution, and so much more.
I’m Alex Smith. We have a lot of work to do to find peace and balance on our planetary home. Thank you for listening and caring about our world. Please don’t forget to help support this free climate outreach program if you can.