Record rains to impossible winter heat waves emerge from the overloaded atmosphere. A new paper on extreme heat and rainfall is just in time. From Madrid, we talk with lead author Dr. Alexander Robinson. Author and energy specialist Richard Heinberg talks us through high prices, the fragile energy market, and his new book “Power: Limits and Prospects for Human Survival”.
On Canada’s West Coast, British Columbia has become the poster-child for climate disasters. Following the deadly heat dome that killed hundreds last summer, almost 3 million people in greater Vancouver were cut off from the rest of Canada. Three atmospheric rivers brought landslides down over highways, flooded towns and farms, and created havoc. People in New England and the Canadian Maritimes know. An atmospheric river brought washouts, flooded homes, and unseasonable heavy rains to the East Coast last week. Listeners in the UK and Northern Europe went through plenty of extreme rains this season, and Australians are no strangers to weird flooding downpours. China… extreme rains are almost everywhere and increasing almost everywhere.
Let’s find out what this is about from scientists who specialize in extreme weather.
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NEW SCIENCE ON EXTREME HEAT AND RAINS
A freak summer heat wave in the Pacific Northwest killed hundreds in the summer of 2021. In November, three atmospheric rivers brought flooding and landslides, cutting Vancouver off from the rest of Canada. Thousands were forced from their homes. Gasoline was rationed. Welcome to the future: according to breaking science – extreme weather is rapidly becoming the new normal.
The paper title tells all: “Increasing heat and rainfall extremes now far outside the historical climate.” It is Open Access – free for you to read. We reached the lead author, Dr. Alexander Robinson. He is Assistant Professor at Complutense University of Madrid, and Guest Scientist at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research.
On the first day in December, it was 22.5 degrees C, 72 Fahrenheit in Penticton B.C., a few miles from my studio. It was the hottest December day ever recorded in our Province and possibly in Canada. The same December day It was over 70 degrees Fahrenheit in Boulder Colorado. That is crazy summer-like heat in winter.
Alex Robinson tells us about his explorations into extreme heat around the world in 2020. Among Robinson’s co-authors is Stefan Rahmstorf and his earlier co-author Dim Coumou, both of the Potsdam Institute.
Essentially this paper suggests older people who grew up in the 1950’s saw the last stable climate. Have we left the “stationary climate” behind now?
MORE SCIENCE OF ATTRIBUTION FOR 2021 KILLER HEAT DOME
When it comes to the great western heat dome that smothered the Pacific Northwest from Portland to the Western Canada last summer, we should mention a new study just out in November about this event. From the Netherlands, S.Y. Philip lead the paper “Rapid attribution analysis of the extraordinary heatwave on the Pacific Coast of the US and Canada June 2021.”
Philip et al find:
“Based on observations and modeling, the occurrence of a heatwave with maximum daily temperatures (TXx) as observed in the area 45 [deg] N–52 [deg] N [latitude], 119 [deg] W–123 [deg] W [longitude], was found to be virtually impossible without human-caused climate change. The observed temperatures were so extreme that they lie far outside the range of historically observed temperatures. This makes it hard to quantify with confidence how rare the event was….
Looking into the future, in a world with 2 [deg] C of global warming (0.8 [deg] C warmer than today), a 1000-year event would be another degree hotter. It would occur roughly every 5 to 10 years in such global warming conditions.“
According to this new work led by Alex Robinson in the NPJ journal, killer heat waves – like never seen before – are emerging rapidly in the last two decades. Robinson has been studying extreme weather for some years. He co-authored a paper in 2013 titled “Historic and future increase in the global land area affected by monthly heat extremes”.
A CATALOG OF HEAT AND FIRES IN THE PAPER
The scientists find a 3-sigma extreme [rare for that locality] which was rare in period of 1951-1980…
“became much more prominent in the data, covering ~5% of land area over 2001-2010 and subsequently increasing to ~9% over 2011-2020. The latter represents a roughly 90-fold increase compared to the reference period. “
That is a frightening, exponential growth of both land area engulfed by heat, and the record-breaking intensity of heat, which returns more and more often. That is where we are headed.
WHAT IS THE “SIGMA” SYSTEM USED BY CLIMATE SCIENTIST?
SIGMA IS ALL RELATIVE TO GEO-LOCATION…
James Hansen also used the numbered Sigma variations in his papers. Non-scientists can be baffled – what does a Sigma-3 event mean? The answer depends on what the baseline is FOR THAT LOCATION. For example, a Sigma-3 event in Venezuela might be 2 degrees hotter (say), but a Sigma-3 event in New Jersey might be 4 degrees hotter. It is all relative to the collected measurements of temperature (or rainfall) for each location. But the bigger the number, the more extreme the event, and supposedly the more rare it’s occurrence – although both are changing as the world heats. Sigma-1 is not too far off weather we expect; Sigma-2 is noticeable and can be serious for some people; Sigma-3 is quite extreme and may be declared an emergency; Sigma-4 should be very rare, perhaps not seen for a thousand years in some places. It used to be that way.
But this paper by Robinson et al. find:
“Moreover, the occurrence of 4-sigma extremes, still nearly absent in the first decade of this century, affected ~3% of the land area during 2011-2020, reflecting a roughly 1000-fold increase compared to 1951-1980. “
TRACKING IT IN REALITY
From the paper by Robinson et al:
“…event-attribution analyses have shown that the prolonged heat-wave conditions in both Siberia and Australia in 2020 would have been virtually impossible without climate change.
The Siberian heat wave resulted in massive forest fires (releasing an estimated 56 Megatons of CO2) and infrastructure collapse by permafrost melting, leading to the declaration of a state of emergency.
A state of emergency was also declared for the Australian bush fires, associated with the exceptional summer heat from late 2019 to February 2020, also known as the Black Summer. The fires caused disastrous impacts including at least 34 fatalities, hazardous air quality affecting millions of residents, nearly 6,000 buildings destroyed, and the loss of the lives of an estimated 0.5-1.5 billion wild animals.
Meanwhile, the area burned by the Amazon forest fire of 2019 has only been beaten by that of 20208. These, as well as record forest fires of 2020 in California and Colorado, were all initiated under periods of extreme heat.
Also, the record temperatures in parts of the US and Canada in 2021 (with almost 50[ deg] °C at 50°N) have been shown to be virtually impossible without the human-influence on climate. It is becoming increasingly clear that the background conditions driving these destructive, prolonged heat waves only exist due to anthropogenic climate change.”
In a recent interview, Johannes Lohmann from Neils Bohr explained that with climate, the rate of change can be an important as the amount of change. This new study from Robinson and team documents changes in both heat and rainfall developing not over centuries, but increasing rapidly with every decade.
AN EXCURSION INTO GREENLAND
Before we continue with new science of extreme heat and rain, let’s take a brief excursion into Robinson’s extensive research into the Greenland Ice Sheet melt. In March 2021 I talked with Dr. Andrew Christ University of Vermont. He told us Greenland was ice-free within the last million years. Alex Robinson also published about that in 2017. He agrees that almost all of Greenland, likely except high mountain areas, was ice-free sometime within the last 3 million years.
In fact, back in 2011 Robinson and scientist Andrey Ganopolski from PIK stated “Paleoclimate: The past is not the future” when it comes to Greenland. My understanding is that conditions in the last great melting of Greenland, within the last million years, were different than today. Then it was a slower process which we think was triggered by changes in the Earth’s orbit around the sun, or the incline of Earth. The driver was astronomical. But today, a mammal stumbled on stored solar energy, burning it to rapidly alter the atmosphere. The outcome during this and next centuries cannot be predicted from the paleoclimate, other than to say it is possible for Greenland to shed it’s ice cover, revealing the continent and inland sea below. I think that’s what they mean.
Here is a bit from that 2013 paper by Andrey Ganopolski and Alexander Robinson:
“The last interglacial period, or Eemian, was characterized by warmer summer temperatures in the high latitudes of the Northern Hemisphere than in the Holocene epoch. This was accompanied by a sea-level highstand at least four to six metres above present. Because the higher ambient temperatures are in line with those predicted for the end of this century, the paleoclimate conditions of the Eemian are often used as an analogue for future climate change.
However, the cause of Eemian warmth was fundamentally different from that of anthropogenic climate change: unlike today, the concentration of greenhouse gases during the Eemian was essentially the same as in the preindustrial period.”
I find it astounding that after a peak summer temperature around Greenland no hotter than today, the ice sheet was still melting away seven thousand years later. It sounds like warming humans make could determine ice melt and sea levels thousands of years from now.
THE UNTOLD STORY OF EXTREME HEAT IN THE TROPICS…
Going back to extreme heat in your latest paper, deadly heat will not expand evenly over the world, affecting all countries. Science may talk of “average global mean temperatures” but in reality, humans and all living things experience heat in local extremes that can be much, much hotter.
Unlike North America or Europe, temperatures at the tropics normally don’t change that much from month to month. August might only be a half degree hotter in summer than in winter. It is hot a lot of the time. At least, that is how it used to be. The team of scientists led by Robinson in this paper say:
“the 4-sigma and record-breaking monthly heat extremes are concentrated in tropical regions. The low year-to-year variability of monthly temperatures in the tropics (<0.5 [deg] C) compared to the strong long-term warming signal leads to high frequencies of exceptional heat extremes there. “
The paper’s map of extremes and record of the last decade (Fig 2) show a band of countries with the most extremes are tropical lands seldom covered by mainstream media: Brazil, the Congo to Kenya, Indonesia, Malaysia. I have covered in several previous programs the developing possibility that some countries close to the Equator may become uninhabitable. Mass climate migrations from heat and drought are already starting, now as a dribble, later by the millions. Heating the Tropics is yet another case of climate injustice. People who emitted the fewest greenhouse gases get the worst impacts of global warming.
LEAVING THE OLD WORLD BEHIND…
We have left the old world of stable weather behind. Systems for water run-off, flood protection, and sewage were all built to handle conditions in the previous century, the 1900’s. This new research should be a wake-up call for planners, companies and citizens, but it seems science gets out far too slowly, during this climate emergency.
When I read the figures in this new paper – how rapidly extreme heat waves and rains are expanding around the world – I want to shout this from the roof-tops! In the year 2000, Some scientists did not realize this rapid increase in extreme heat and rainfall would happen so soon. I think this a new realization in science, which has not yet reached the public, governments, and corporations.
Twenty-twenty one was the Summer from Hell here in British Columbia, with the heat, fires and smoke. Now supplies are short because roads and railways are broken by super rains that closed every highway. How do you handle personally – the seriousness, and I would say the horror, of what scientists see in the future? Do you think we are entering a new science-fiction like age, where humans and all other species must jump from one disaster to another, trying to survive? Listen next week, for a special program in the work of French philosopher Paul Virilio. He describes our transition into an age of continuing disasters. That is the new “normal”?
JUST ONE DECADE OF WARMING CAN LEAD TO MORE EXTREME EVENTS!
The Robinson et al paper concludes:
“The straightforward extreme-metrics presented here show that only one decade of additional global warming seriously increases the frequency of heat and rainfall extremes. The land area affected by 3-sigma heat has almost doubled and 4-sigma heat has now newly emerged in the observations. Further, an additional decade of global warming has increased the number of rainfall records by a further 5 percentage points.
Although formal attribution studies are still strongly biased towards extra-tropical regions, our results show that tropical regions are experiencing the largest frequency increases in heat and wet extremes, as well as unprecedented events that would have been virtually impossible without climate change. In the coming decade, an upward trend towards more intense and frequent extremes and new heat and precipitation records must be expected, posing critical risks to populations all over the planet.”
COMMENTS ON THIS INTERVIEW FROM ALEX SMITH
THESE HUGE CHANGES ARE COMING NOT OVER CENTURIES, BUT WITH EACH DECADE! (and an extra !) According to biologists, the speed of change may be as injurious to the species as the amount of change….
I want to shout out this severe warning from scientists about rampant extreme rainfall events starting to dominate our days as we continue to heat the planet. We are heading for a hot and flooded planet. It will be miserable and then deadly. Both heat and floods are already increasingly deadly, and we are just in the starting days of this unexpectedly fast ramp up in weather extremes…
POWER, SURVIVAL, AND THE ENERGY MESS
Why are gas and oil prices so high? Why is everyone rushing to produce more fossil fuels while climate catastrophe strikes all over the world? Is there a fatal misunderstanding lurking in our minds? We need to talk with Richard Heinberg. Richard wrote pioneering books on oil, fracking, coal, and energy outlooks. He is Senior Fellow-in-Residence at the Post Carbon Institute. Richard has appeared on Radio Ecoshock several times since 2009.
Despite the pandemic and supply chain problems, the world is overheating. Emissions are still going up because humans are dumping more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere every year. Nobody connects fossil addiction to the fires and floods, not the government, not the media. Richard and I talk through that disconnect.
In TV news there is a corner box with a hand-speaker for the deaf. I want to add a new one for real news about the environment. Almost like those disclaimers on pharmaceutical ads, when buying a new gas-burning car, or flying the family to the tropics for vacation. Any communication promoting fossil fuel use comes with a warning about side-effects, including homelessness, mass migration, and death. Is it fair to say mainstream media has become propaganda for the Party of Extinction?
Are there two Joe Bidens? At the start of November, we saw President Biden warning the world of climate disaster and pushing for action. By mid-November the other Joe Biden was bringing more oil out of the strategic oil reserve. The media happily applauded both and never connect more oil and more climate damage. Richard Heinberg was one of the few to see that dystopia.
Despite all the green talk, everybody is at the game of expanding fossil fuels. As host of COP26 climate talks, the UK just leased out new offshore oil and gas drilling rights. The government of Canada bought out a pipeline for the Tar Sands no private company would touch. Australia wants to sell more coal and gas, Russia, – everybody wants to pump and mine more carbon. How do you see that turning out?
The news said high gas costs are all about new demand, now that the pandemic is ending. Of course “the pandemic is ending” turned out to be a cruel lie. But Richard Heinberg again was among the few to point out a whole other background to high energy prices: depletion.
As Heinberg has said in his books and newsletter, the fossil fuel industry goes for the cheapest easiest fuels first. We have been doing that for decades. The old oil and gas wells are running out. We fill in the difference with fracking, but those wells need to be abandoned and moved within two years. The frackers are always, always drilling new wells, leaving old ones behind, blowing up more of the underground for bubbles of oil or gas.
Of course, with enough financial incentive, humans will go to greater and greater extremes, testing even more risks, to get more coal, oil, and gas. So we see deep ocean drilling platforms, and companies eager to drill in the unforgiving Arctic. Wildlife preserves, sensitive places – it doesn’t matter. We addicts need our fix.
POWER – LIMITS AND PROSPECTS FOR HUMAN SURVIVAL
Here is a short quote from Richard’s introduction for this new book “Power – Limits and Prospects for Human Survival“:
“I test the widespread belief that the pursuit of power is irrepressible, that bullies will forever be bullies, that the high and mighty will ultimately triumph, and that people in wealthy countries will never willingly give up comforts and conveniences in order to forestall global environmental catastrophe.”
“I was determined to find answers to three survival-level questions:
1. How has Homo sapiens, just one species out of millions, become so powerful as to bring the planet to the brink of climate chaos and a mass extinction event?
2. Why have we developed so many ways of oppressing and exploiting one another?
3. Is it possible to change our relationship with power so as to avert ecological catastrophe, while also dramatically reducing social inequality and the likelihood of political-economic collapse?”
In fact, Heinberg develops answers for all three of those goals, with mountains of research and decades of insight. Richard Heinberg is, in my opinion, among the most informed about fossil fuel reserves, production and impacts anywhere. His new book is something different, yet out of the same stream. He investigates “power”. What is it? The answers are not that simple, but every life form does it. Richard begins the book with the micro-power stations that surround us everywhere: bacteria, plants and tiny animals that manage to gather electrons for power. I learned the basic details of life power in that chapter.
He also takes us on a tour of energy use before the industrial revolution. By definition, all human settlements were sustainable. Those which exceeded the bounds of relatively local food and energy, collapsed. When I interviewed the Frenchman Jean Jancovici in 2018, he suggested that humans know very well how to live without fossil fuels. We need to relearn some Medieval technology?
THE STOP AND START ECONOMY
There are relationships between your specialty of energy production and this pandemic. If we picture a major oil or gas company, there are long term plans and huge amounts of financing which is money coming at a price over time. Now the economy accelerates or shrinks based on public fear and mutations of a virus. Whole fuel burning industries like cruise lines and air line teeter on the edge and get government bailouts. Can fossil fuel production survive in a stop and start environment?
WHAT IS AT STAKE
In his book “Power” Heinberg is clear:
“My reason for writing this book is that I believe it is vital that as many people as possible understand the following point: Whatever degree of resilience or sustainability we can achieve prior to, during, or after collapse must come from a return to self-limiting behaviors.
The call for power-limiting behavior is implicit in a great deal of existing environmental, social justice, and spiritual literature. This book makes that call explicit; grounds it in physics, biology, anthropology, and history; brings it up to date; and underscores what is at stake.”
WRAP UP WITH ALEX SMITH
Last week when Alex Robinson and I spoke, this was the situation here in British Columbia:
“We are just now going through a THIRD atmospheric river in about a week. Highways to Vancouver are still mostly cut off. Grocery stores where I live are bringing in supplies from Alberta instead. Canada’s largest port shipping to Asia is cut off from the country, although one of two rail lines is now operating, sort of. More people forced to evacuate near Vancouver, again. The main freeway going into the city is cut off with a Tiger Dam. Also, less reported by media, a giant pipeline from Alberta oil sands has been damaged and shut down, for now. It is difficult to calculate the very large economic costs.”
As you heard, it was over 70 degrees Fahrenheit, 21 C, in Colorado in December. A mini-winter heat wave swung through Western U.S. and Canada. In a coming show we will explore winter heat waves, like the 2019 wonder in the UK, where sales of shorts and bathing suits went way up in summery February.
People who grew up before 1980 – your times are gone. Every oldster laments the passing of their world, but never before, the environment in which it was lived. The fairly stable climate running under all written history has passed. Now we explore this new world we leave for our descendants, and all other species who can survive in it. This is a stunning moment. Develop inner strength, brave but flexible, rejoice with less, step lightly on the Earth.
I’m Alex Smith. Thank you for listening to Radio Ecoshock, and a special thanks to listeners who make this possible with their generous donations.