Sea Creatures Store Carbon in the Ocean – Could Protecting Them Help Slow Climate Change?

April 17, 2019
File 20190415 147502 15sm3nq.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
A sperm whale goes down for a dive off Kaikoura, New Zealand. (Photo by Heidi Pearson, CC BY-ND)

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

As the prospect of catastrophic effects from climate change becomes increasingly likely, a search is on for innovative ways to reduce the risks. One potentially powerful and low-cost strategy is to recognize and protect natural carbon sinks – places and processes that store carbon, keeping it out of Earth’s atmosphere.

Forests and wetlands can capture and store large quantities of carbon. These ecosystems are included in climate change adaptation and mitigation strategies that 28 countries have pledged to adopt to fulfill the Paris Climate Agreement. So far, however, no such policy has been created to protect carbon storage in the ocean, which is Earth’s largest carbon sink and a central element of our planet’s climate cycle.

As a marine biologist, my research focuses on marine mammal behavior, ecology and conservation. Now I also am studying how climate change is affecting marine mammals – and how marine life could become part of the solution.

A sea otter rests in a kelp forest off California. By feeding on sea urchins, which eat kelp, otters help kelp forests spread and store carbon. (Photo by Nicole LaRoche, CC BY-ND)

What is marine vertebrate carbon?

Marine animals can sequester carbon through a range of natural processes that include storing carbon in their bodies, excreting carbon-rich waste products that sink into the deep sea, and fertilizing or protecting marine plants. In particular, scientists are beginning to recognize that vertebrates, such as fish, seabirds and marine mammals, have the potential to help lock away carbon from the atmosphere.

I am currently working with colleagues at UN Environment/GRID-Arendal, a United Nations Environment Programme center in Norway, to identify mechanisms through which marine vertebrates’ natural biological processes may be able to help mitigate climate change. So far we have found at least nine examples.

One of my favorites is Trophic Cascade Carbon. Trophic cascades occur when change at the top of a food chain causes downstream changes to the rest of the chain. As an example, sea otters are top predators in the North Pacific, feeding on sea urchins. In turn, sea urchins eat kelp, a brown seaweed that grows on rocky reefs near shore. Importantly, kelp stores carbon. Increasing the number of sea otters reduces sea urchin populations, which allows kelp forests to grow and trap more carbon.

Scientists have identified nine mechanisms through which marine vertebrates play roles in the oceanic carbon cycle. (Image by GRID ArendalCC BY-ND)

Carbon stored in living organisms is called Biomass Carbon, and is found in all marine vertebrates. Large animals such as whales, which may weigh up to 50 tons and live for over 200 years, can store large quantities of carbon for long periods of time.

When they die, their carcasses sink to the seafloor, bringing a lifetime of trapped carbon with them. This is called Deadfall Carbon. On the deep seafloor, it can be eventually buried in sediments and potentially locked away from the atmosphere for millions of years.

Whales can also help to trap carbon by stimulating production of tiny marine plants called phytoplankton, which use sunlight and carbon dioxide to make plant tissue just like plants on land. The whales feed at depth, then release buoyant, nutrient-rich fecal plumes while resting at the surface, which can fertilize phytoplankton in a process that marine scientists call the Whale Pump.

And whales redistribute nutrients geographically, in a sequence we refer to as the Great Whale Conveyor Belt. They take in nutrients while feeding at high latitudes then release these nutrients while fasting on low-latitude breeding grounds, which are typically nutrient-poor. Influxes of nutrients from whale waste products such as urea can help to stimulate phytoplankton growth.

Finally, whales can bring nutrients to phytoplankton simply by swimming throughout the water column and mixing nutrients towards the surface, an effect researchers term Biomixing Carbon.

Fish poo also plays a role in trapping carbon. Some fish migrate up and down through the water column each day, swimming toward the surface to feed at night and descending to deeper waters by day. Here they release carbon-rich fecal pellets that can sink rapidly. This is called Twilight Zone Carbon.

These fish may descend to depths of 1,000 feet or more, and their fecal pellets can sink even farther. Twilight Zone Carbon can potentially be locked away for tens to hundreds of years because it takes a long time for water at these depths to recirculate back towards the surface.

‘Marine snow’ is made up of fecal pellets and other bits of organic material that sink into deep ocean waters, carrying large quantities of carbon into the depths.

Quantifying marine vertebrate carbon

To treat “blue carbon” associated with marine vertebrates as a carbon sink, scientists need to measure it. One of the first studies in this field, published in 2010, described the Whale Pump in the Southern Ocean, estimating that a historic pre-whaling population of 120,000 sperm whales could have trapped 2.2 million tons of carbon yearly through whale poo.

Another 2010 study calculated that the global pre-whaling population of approximately 2.5 million great whales would have exported nearly 210,000 tons of carbon per year to the deep sea through Deadfall Carbon. That’s equivalent to taking roughly 150,000 cars off the road each year.

A 2012 study found that by eating sea urchins, sea otters could potentially help to trap 150,000 to 22 million tons of carbon per year in kelp forests. Even more strikingly, a 2013 study described the potential for lanternfish and other Twilight Zone fish off the western U.S. coast to store over 30 million tons of carbon per year in their fecal pellets.

Scientific understanding of marine vertebrate carbon is still in its infancy. Most of the carbon-trapping mechanisms that we have identified are based on limited studies, and can be refined with further research. So far, researchers have examined the carbon-trapping abilities of less than 1% of all marine vertebrate species.

The brownish water at the base of this humpback whale’s fluke is a fecal plume, which can fertilize phytoplankton near the surface. Photo taken under NMFS permit 10018-01. (Photo by Heidi Pearson, CC BY-ND)

A new basis for marine conservation

Many governments and organizations around the world are working to rebuild global fish stocks, prevent bycatch and illegal fishing, reduce pollution and establish marine protected areas. If we can recognize the value of marine vertebrate carbon, many of these policies could qualify as climate change mitigation strategies.

In a step in this direction, the International Whaling Commission passed two resolutions in 2018 that recognized whales’ value for carbon storage. As science advances in this field, protecting marine vertebrate carbon stocks ultimately might become part of national pledges to fulfill the Paris Agreement.

Marine vertebrates are valuable for many reasons, from maintaining healthy ecosystems to providing us with a sense of awe and wonder. Protecting them will help ensure that the ocean can continue to provide humans with food, oxygen, recreation and natural beauty, as well as carbon storage.

Dire future etched in the past: CO2 at 3-million year-old levels

 

https://phys.org/news/2019-04-dire-future-etched-co2-million.html

The last time there was so much CO2 in Earth's atmosphere, ice caps virtually disappeared
The last time there was so much CO2 in Earth’s atmosphere, ice caps virtually disappeared

Planet-warming carbon dioxide in Earth’s atmosphere—at its highest level in three million years—is poised to lock in dramatic temperature and sea level rises over a timescale of centuries, scientists warned this week.

The last time that CO2 hit 400 parts per million (ppm) Greenland was ice free and trees grew at the edge of Antarctica.

It was long thought that today’s greenhouse gas levels were no greater than those 800,000 years ago, during a period of cyclical planetary warming and cooling that would have likely continued but for manmade emissions.

But analyses of ice cores and ocean sediments in the coldest place on Earth have now revealed that 400 ppm was last surpassed three million years ago during the Late Pliocene, when temperatures were several degrees Celsius higher, and oceans at least 15 metres deeper.

At the same time, state-of-the-art climate modelling by experts at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (PIK) have correlated directly with the CO2 levels found in these Antarctic samples.

“The Late Pliocene is relatively close to us in terms of CO2 levels,” Matteo Willeit, PIK member and lead study author, told AFP.

“Our models suggest that there were no glacial cycles—there were no big ice sheets in the northern hemisphere. CO2 was too high and the climate was too warm to allow big ice sheets to grow.”

Nations in 2015 struck the landmark Paris deal on climate change, promising to curb greenhouse gas emissions and limit temperature rises to “well below” 2 Celsius (3.6 Fahrenheit).

Yet 2017 saw emissions levels unsurpassed in human history, and climate experts warn that time has all but run out to drastically slash fossil fuel use and avert runaway global warming.

Seas 15-20 metres higher

Scientists gathered this week in London for a conference on the Pliocene epoch, and highlighted the lessons to be learned today embedded in its ancient ice and sediment samples.

Record levels of greenhouse gases in 2017
Change in levels of CO2, methane and nitrous oxide in the atmosphere since 1984

“The headline news is that temperatures were 3-4 degrees higher globally than they are today, and sea levels were 15-20 metres (50-65 feet) higher,” Martin Siegert, professor of geoscience at Imperial College London, told reporters.

With just 1C of warming so far, Earth is already dealing with floods, droughts and superstorms made worse by rising seas.

Siegert said that 400 ppm didn’t mean that the severity of Pliocene sea-level rises was imminent. But unless humans figure a way to suck CO2 out of the air on a massive scale, severe impacts are inevitable, sooner or later.

“There’s a lag,” he explained. “If you turn on the oven at home and set it to 200C, it doesn’t reach that (level) immediately. It’s the same for climate.”

Siegert said glaciologists, based on current CO2 concentrations, expect between 50 centimetres and one metre of sea-level rise this century.

“It would be difficult for it to be much more than that because it takes time to melt,” he added.

“But it doesn’t stop at 2100—it keeps going.”

Rocketing pace of CO2

In October, the UN concluded that greenhouse gas emissions must decline by about half within 12 years to preserve a chance of capping global warming at 1.5C, the level needed to avoid severe climate impacts.

But despite these and earlier warnings, CO2 emissions from fossil fuel use, construction, aviation and agribusiness continue to rise, and are currently on track to heat up the planet 4C by century’s end.

Even without additional carbon pollution, the outlook remains bleak.

Manmade emissions on the other hand have added some 120 ppm of CO2 in a little over a century and a half
Manmade emissions on the other hand have added some 120 ppm of CO2 in a little over a century and a half

“If we stay at 400 ppm, we stay on the course to a Pliocene-like climate,” said Tina van De Flierdt, a professor of isotope geochemistry at Imperial.

She warned that under similar conditions to the present day, the Pliocene saw the disappearance of the Greenland ice sheet—which today holds enough frozen water to raise sea levels by some seven metres worldwide.

“The West Antarctica ice sheet holds about 5 metres—that was probably gone,” she added.

As is happening today, Earth’s poles warmed far quicker than the rest of the planet during the Pliocene, earlier research has shown, including a study in Nature Climate Change.

During earlier periods, Earth has seen sustained concentrations of carbon dioxide was even higher than 400 ppm, but it took millions of years for those increases to occur.

Manmade greenhouse gas emissions, on the other hand, have boosted CO2 levels by more than 40 percent in a little over 150 years.

‘A crazy experiment’

At 412 ppm and rising, experts said temperature rises of 3-4C are likely now locked in.

So what happened to Earth the last time CO2 was so prevalent?

It was captured in the trees, plants, animals and minerals alive at the time and buried underground when they died.

“And what we’ve been doing for the last 150 years is digging it all up and putting it back into the atmosphere,” said Siegert.

“It’s like a crazy experiment: ‘Let’s take that CO2 that took 100 million years to be sequestrated and put it back—instantly, on a geological timescale—in the atmosphere and see what happens'”.

Climate change: ‘Magic bullet’ carbon solution takes big step

Image captionChalky grains of calcium carbonate are the result of concentrating the CO2 that’s extracted from the air

A technology that removes carbon dioxide from the air has received significant backing from major fossil fuel companies.

British Columbia-based Carbon Engineering has shown that it can extract CO2 in a cost-effective way.

It has now been boosted by $68m in new investment from Chevron, Occidental and coal giant BHP.

But climate campaigners are worried that the technology will be used to extract even more oil.

Media captionThe BBC’s Matt McGrath explains how one company is removing CO2 from our air

The quest for technology for carbon dioxide removal (CDR) from the air received significant scientific endorsement last year with the publication of the IPCC report on keeping the rise in global temperatures to 1.5C this century.

In their “summary for policymakers”, the scientists stated that: “All pathways that limit global warming to 1.5C with limited or no overshoot project the use of CDR …over the 21st century.”

Around the world, a number of companies are racing to develop the technology that can draw down carbon. Swiss company Climeworks is already capturing CO2 and using it to boost vegetable production.

Carbon Engineering says that its direct air capture (DAC) process is now able to capture the gas for under $100 a tonne.

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With its new funding, the company plans to build its first commercial facilities. These industrial-scale DAC plants could capture up to one million tonnes of CO2 from the air each year.

So how does this system work?

CO2 is a powerful warming gas but there’s not a lot of it in the atmosphere – for every million particles of air, there are 410 of CO2.

While the CO2 is helping to drive temperatures up around the world, the comparatively low concentrations make it difficult to design efficient machines to remove the gas.

Carbon Engineering’s process is all about sucking in air and exposing it to a chemical solution that concentrates the CO2. Further refinements mean the gas can be purified into a form that can be stored or utilised as a liquid fuel.

Does this require some complicated chemistry?

Absolutely.

Carbon Engineering’s barn-sized installation has a large fan in the middle of the roof which draws in air from the atmosphere.

It then comes into contact with a hydroxide-based chemical solution. Certain hydroxides react with carbon dioxide, reversibly binding to the CO2 molecule. When the CO2 in the air reacts with the liquid, it forms a carbonate mixture. That is then treated with a slurry of calcium hydroxide to change it into solid form; the slurry helps form tiny pellets of calcium carbonate.

The chalky calcium carbonate pellets are then treated at a high temperature of about 900C, with the pellets decomposing into a CO2 stream and calcium oxide.

That stream of pure CO2 is cleaned up to remove water impurities.

“The key to this process is about concentrating the CO2,” said Carbon Engineering’s Dr Jenny McCahill.

“We can then put it underground as in sequestration, or we can combine it with hydrogen to form hydrocarbons or methanol. There’s a number of things you can do.”

Can you really make a liquid fuel from CO2?

Yes. It’s complicated but it can be done.

The captured CO2 is mixed with hydrogen that’s made from water and green electricity. It’s then passed over a catalyst at 900C to form carbon monoxide. Adding in more hydrogen to the carbon monoxide turns it into what’s called synthesis gas.

Infographic

Finally a Fischer-Tropsch process turns this gas into a synthetic crude oil. Carbon Engineering says the liquid can be used in a variety of engines without modification.

“The fuel that we make has no sulphur in it, it has these nice linear chains which means it burns cleaner than traditional fuel,” said Dr McCahill.

“It’s nice and clear and ready to be used in a truck, car or jet.”

Direct air captureImage copyrightALAMY
Image captionCarbon Engineering’s direct air capture plant

Why are fossil fuel companies investing in this process?

CO2 can also be used to flush out the last remaining deposits of oil in wells that are past their prime. The oil industry in the US has been using the gas in this way for decades.

It’s estimated that using CO2 can deliver an extra 30% of crude from oilfields with the added benefit that the gas is then sequestered permanently in the ground.

“Carbon Engineering’s direct air capture technology has the unique capability to capture and provide large volumes of atmospheric CO2,” said Occidental Petroleum’s Senior Vice President, Richard Jackson, in a statement.

“This capability complements Occidental’s enhanced oil recovery business and provides further synergies by enabling large-scale CO2 utilisation and sequestration.”

One of the other investors in Carbon Engineering is BHP, best known for its coal mining interests.

“The reality is that fossil fuels will be around for several decades whether in industrial processes or in transportation,” said Dr Fiona Wild, BHP’s head of sustainability and climate change.

“What we need to do is invest in those low-emission technologies that can significantly reduce the emissions from these processes, and that’s why we are focusing on carbon capture and storage.”

How have environmentalists reacted to Carbon Engineering’s plans?

Some climate campaigners are positive about the development of direct air capture technology, but others are worried that it will be used to prolong the fossil fuel era.

“It’s a huge concern,” Tzeporah Berman, international programme director for Stand dot earth, told BBC News.

“We need to be working together to figure out how we move away completely from fossil fuel – that’s our moral and economic challenge but these technologies provide a false hope that we can continue to depend on fossil fuels and produce and burn them, and technology will fix it – we are way past that point!”

Liquid fuel
Image captionIts liquid fuel burns cleanly, says Carbon Engineering – and can be used in cars, truck or airplanes

Others are concerned that the development of direct air capture devices may just encourage some people to think that they don’t have to personally reduce their carbon footprint.

“I think there’s a real danger that people will see this technology as a magic bullet and not cut back their carbon,” said Shakti Ramkumar, a student at the University of British Columbia (UBC), who is active in climate change protests.

“We have a moral responsibility to reduce our consumption on a large scale. We need to reflect deeply on how we live our lives and whether everyone can have access to the things we have, and fairness, so we can all live a good life.”

So is this technology a ‘magic bullet’ for climate change?

It’s impossible to say if Carbon Engineering’s idea will emerge as the type of device that makes a major difference in the battle against climate change.

Steve Oldham
Image captionCarbon Engineering’s CEO Steve Oldham

Certainly, the company believes that its machines could become as common as water treatment plants – providing a valuable service, yet hardly noticed by the general public.

Right now, it has secured enough money to build a commercial facility and can draw down carbon for less than $100 a tonne. But there is a big worry that with large investments from the fossil fuel industry, the focus of its efforts could be turned to producing more oil, not just tackling climate change.

Carbon Engineering says that if governments want to invest in its process they are very welcome to do so. If they’re not ready to stump up the cash, the company is happy to take funding from the energy industry as time is so short, and the need for the technology is so great.

“Is it the silver bullet?” asked CEO Steve Oldham.

“I would never say to anybody that you want to put all your eggs in one basket – the future of the planet is very important for us all.

“But having the technology built, available, ready to go, with no harmful chemical side-effects, no land-usage, having those available – that’s a good thing.

“If or when we need them, and if you read the science that’s today – it’s available, it’s ready.”

Carbon Emissions Are Now 10x Higher Than When The Arctic Had Crocodiles And Palm Trees

main article image
(Orla/iStock)

By about the time our great-grandchildren have children of their own, we humans will likely have broken a climate record that has stood unchallenged for 56 million years.

New research has found that humans are pumping nearly 10 times more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere than what was emitted during Earth’s last major warming event, called the Palaeocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum (PETM).

If carbon emissions continue to rise in the future, mathematical models predict that within the next few hundred years, we could be facing another PETM-like event.

In other words, in the near future, Earth could resemble its distant past: a time when the Arctic was free of ice, inhabited by crocodiles and dotted by palm trees.

“You and I won’t be here in 2159, but that’s only about four generations away,” warns palaeoclimate researcher Philip Gingerich from the University of Michigan.

“When you start to think about your children and your grandchildren, and your great-grandchildren, you’re about there.”

The PETM is often used as a benchmark for current global warming. During this time, rapid climate changes saw landscapes transformed, oceans acidified, and widespread extinctions triggered.

It took more than 150,000 years for the world to recover, but what happened then has nothing on what is happening now.

Global temperatures during the PETM peaked at about 7 degrees Celsius (13 degrees Fahrenheit) higher than today’s average, and we are quickly catching up to those heights.

The new study suggests that if nothing changes, within 140 years, humans could pump out the same amount of greenhouse gases released during the entire PETM.

“The fact that we could reach warming equivalent to the PETM very quickly, within the next few hundred years, is terrifying,” says Larisa DeSantis, a palaeontologist at Vanderbilt University, who was not connected to the new study.

The reason it’s terrifying is because we are headed off the road map. Today, climate scientists use the PETM as a case study for what global warming might do to our planet and when those changes might be expected.

But as useful as this has been, today, we live in a different world. While the PETM is thought to have occurred from a comet or a volcano, our current climate catastrophe is being fuelled primarily by humans, at a rate unseen in Earth’s climate record.

It’s also happening in the middle of what should be a cooling trend, in a time when the world is full of different ecosystems and species.

With all of these variable factors, the new research suggests that using the PETM as a gauge for current warming may not be quite so useful in the future.

“We don’t have much in the way of geologic examples to draw from in understanding how the world responds to that kind of perturbation.”

It looks like our descendants are on their own.

This study has been published in Paleoceanography and Paleoclimatology.

WHAT EXACTLY ARE GREENHOUSE GASES, ANYWAY?

Here at Climate Reality, we sometimes need to take a step back.

You know how your good friend Dave can rattle off pre-season stats with the precision of a brain surgeon, always seems to win your fantasy football league, and can’t begin to understand why you’re still rooting for [insert “Your Team” here]? Well, we’re kind of the Dave of climate action.

We’re so in the thick of climate everything that we can forget the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) report isn’t exactly flying off the shelves, so to speak, like Michelle Obama’s memoir Becoming.

But every so often, a headline will pop up that brings us right back down to the very Earth we’re working so hard to protect.

Citing a survey done by Yale and George Mason universities, Vox declared last year, “Almost 90 percent of Americans don’t know there’s scientific consensus on global warming.” More recently, the Verge proclaimed: “About half of Americans don’t think climate change will affect them — here’s why.”

These headlines are far from an aberration and come as no surprise: amid near-constant partisan squabbles and a lack of uniform learning standards, climate change education is uneven at best – and woefully lacking at worst. It doesn’t help that it can also feel like such an overwhelming worry that many simply tune it out entirely.

So, that’s why we’re getting back to basics to answer one of the most foundational questions a person can have about our warming world: What exactly are greenhouse gases, anyway?

WELL, THEY’RE GASES, SILLY BILLY

That’s right! They’re also largely naturally occurring. But they act a little differently than non-greenhouse gases like nitrogen, oxygen, and argon.

You see, according to Encyclopedia Britannica, greenhouse gases (GHG) like carbon dioxide (the main GHG driving climate change), include “any gas that has the property of absorbing infrared radiation (net heat energy) emitted from Earth’s surface and reradiating it back to Earth’s surface.”

Did you get all that? Some but not all? Same.

In more straightforward speak, here’s the gist: GHGs like CO2, methane, nitrous oxide, and ozone let sunlight in to heat the Earth’s surface but they don’t let all that heat energy back out. Think about it like the global equivalent of wrapping yourself up in a big blanket – or the way the glass walls and roof of an actual greenhouse let sunlight in during daylight hours and retain that warmth at night.

Actually, it’s exactly like that. Hence their name. Get it?

SO THEY “TRAP” HEAT IN THE ATMOSPHERE?

Yes. And under normal circumstance, this is a great, necessary thing – and it’s exactly how the planet is built to work.

“Earth’s surface warms up in the sunlight. At night, Earth’s surface cools, releasing the heat back into the air,” NASA’s Climate Kids explains. “But some of the heat is trapped by the greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. That’s what keeps our Earth a warm and cozy 59 degrees Fahrenheit, on average.”

This is known as the “greenhouse effect,” and without it the planet would be too cold to support life. NASA estimates that without naturally occurring GHGs, Earth’s average temperature would be near 0 degrees Fahrenheit (a very chilly negative 18 degrees Celsius).

Brrrrrrr.

>> Learn more: What Is the Greenhouse Effect? <<

WELL, WHAT’S THE PROBLEM THEN?

The concern with GHGs isn’t the gases themselves – at least not on their own. Like we mentioned, most are naturally occurring and their action to retain heat is imperative for life on Earth. The problem has to do with the amount of certain GHGs in our modern atmosphere.

Since the Industrial Revolution, our burning of fossil fuels for energy has emitted hundreds of billions of tons of heat-trapping CO2 into the atmosphere, where it stays for a very long time. More and more CO2 (and other GHGs) means more and more heat.

Unlike the naturally occurring CO2 that acts as part of the normal greenhouse-effect process, this added carbon and the extra heat are more than the Earth’s finely balanced systems can handle. At least without changing our climate and making storms more violent, oceans more acidic, and on and on.

With all the coal, oil, and gas being burned, it’s unsurprising then that CO2 levels as of 2017 (the most-recent complete year) stood at 405.0 parts per million (ppm), higher than at any point in at least the past 800,000 years.

If history is any guide here, that’s not good news for the Earth – or for us.

“The last time the atmospheric CO2 amounts were this high was more than 3 million years ago, when temperature was 2°–3°C (3.6°–5.4°F) higher than during the pre-industrial era, and sea level was 15–25 meters (50–80 feet) higher than today,” according to NOAA.

Remember the bottom line here: Burning fossil fuels creates GHGs, polluting the atmosphere. More GHGs equals more heat and more climate change. More dangerous storms. More terrible wildfires. More farms drying out. More diseases spreading further across the Earth. You get the picture.

Watch:

WHAT CAN I DO?

Our movement is at a critical turning point in the fight for common-sense solutions to the climate crisis. The good news is, the power to make meaningful progress on climate is in our hands.

But it all starts with understanding what is happening to our planet.

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Carbon emissions spiked in 2018, research firm finds

By Amanda Schmidt, AccuWeather staff writer
January 08, 2019, 12:48:01 PM EST

Carbon emissions US

In this June 1, 2016, photo, piles of wood chips sit near a paper mill in Tacoma, Wash. AP Photo/Ted S. Warren, File)

https://www.accuweather.com/en/weather-news/carbon-emissions-spiked-in-2018-research-firm-finds/70007095

United States carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions rose sharply last year. This incline follows three years of decline.

The Rhodium Group, a research firm, released preliminary estimates that showed emissions increased by 3.4 percent in 2018 based on preliminary power generation, natural gas and oil consumption data.

This marks the second largest annual gain in more than two decades, surpassed only by 2010 when the economy bounced back from the Great Recession.

CO2 emissions from fossil fuel combustion in the U.S. peaked in 2007 at just over 6 billion tons. Between then and the end of 2015, emissions fell by 12.1 percent, an average rate of 1.6 percent per year.

The Great Recession played a significant role in the decline along with a significant drop in carbon intensity of U.S. energy supply, primarily due to a switch in power generation from coal to cleaner energy sources, such as natural gas, wind and solar.

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Since 2016, the pace of U.S. emissions decline has slowed, from 2.7 percent in 2015 to 1.7 percent in 2016 to 0.8 percent in 2017. This slowdown in progress was noted in the group’s annual Taking Stock report from June 2018.

The group noted at the time that this slowdown and a lack of new climate policy action at the federal level would make U.S. emissions fall short of Paris Agreement targets, which would require a reduction in emissions of 26-28 percent below 2005 levels by the year 2025.

President Donald Trump pulled the U.S. out of the Paris Agreement in June 2017, but the Paris Agreement provides emissions goals that policymakers can use as a guideline.

The recent preliminary report by the group states that the U.S. was already off track in meeting Paris Agreement targets, and the gap is even wider headed into 2019.

The group does not expect a repeat of 2018 this coming year. However, the data provides some important insights into the emission reduction challenges facing the U.S.

US climate action 2018

In this Friday, Feb. 2, 2018 photo, wind turbines stand in a field near Northwood, Iowa. With global temperatures rising, superstorms taking their deadly toll and a year-end deadline to firm up the Paris climate deal, leaders at this year’s U.N. General Assembly are feeling a sense of urgency to keep up the momentum on combating climate change. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall, file)

While a record number of coal-fired power plants were retired in 2018, natural gas beat out renewables to replace most of this lost generation and also fed most of the growth in electricity demand.

“Natural gas-fired generation increased by 166 million kWh during the first 10 months of the year. That’s three times the decline in coal generation and four times the combined growth of wind and solar,” the preliminary report reads.

As a result, power sector emissions overall rose by 1.9 percent, according to the report.

The transportation sector held its title as the largest source of U.S. emissions for the third year running. A strong growth in demand for diesel and jet fuel offset a modest decline in gasoline consumption.

“This highlights the challenges in decarbonizing the transportation sector beyond light-duty vehicles,” the preliminary report reads.

The buildings and industrial sectors also had significant emissions gains, partially as a result of the unusually cold weather at the start of the year.

Direct emissions from residential and commercial buildings increased by 10 percent in 2018 to their highest level since 2004. This comes from sources including fuel oil, diesel and natural gas combusted on site for heating and cooking.

The increase highlights the limited progress made in developing decarbonization strategies for these sectors.

“While buildings have begun to attract some creative policy thinking, the industrial sector is still almost entirely ignored,” the preliminary report reads.

california stacks climate ap

The stacks from the Valero Benicia Refinery are seen as a pedestrian walks in a nearby neighborhood, Wednesday, July 12, 2017, in Benicia, Calif. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli)

The estimates provided in the preliminary report are for energy-related CO2emissions only, which account for roughly three-quarters of total greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in the U.S.

Official Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) 2018 inventory numbers for all GHGs will not be available until 2020.

To meet the Paris Agreement target, the U.S. would need to reduce energy-related COemissions by 2.6 percent on average over the next seven years, which is more than twice the pace the U.S. achieved between 2005 and 2017 and significantly faster than any seven-year average in U.S. history.

“It is certainly feasible, but will likely require a fairly significant change in policy in the very near future and/or extremely favorable market and technological conditions,” the preliminary report reads.

Arctic permafrost might contain ‘sleeping giant’ of world’s carbon emissions

Muostakh Island is part of the East Siberian Arctic Shelf which is the most vulnerable part of the Arctic coastline when it comes to permafrost thaw. Image credit – Prof. Igor Semiletov.

As temperatures rise in the Arctic, permafrost, or frozen ground, is thawing. As it does, greenhouse gases trapped within it are being released into the atmosphere in the form of carbon dioxide and methane, leading to previously underestimated problems with ocean acidification and potential mercury poisoning.

About one quarter of the region is covered in permafrost, which is soil, sediment or rock that has been frozen for at least two years. With its retreat, the carbon that is released could contribute significantly to global warming.

‘We call it the sleeping giant of the global carbon cycle,’ said Professor Örjan Gustafsson, an environmental scientist at Stockholm University in Sweden. ‘It’s not really accounted for in climate models.’

Prof. Gustafsson and his colleagues are trying to determine exactly what permafrost consists of, how quickly it is warming and what happens when it thaws. To do this, they are drilling into three types of permafrost around the East Siberian Sea as part of a project called CC-Top.

In addition to the most common type found in soil on land, they will also be looking at high-carbon permafrost that formed about 50,000 years ago called Yedoma, and another type found under the seafloor of shallow coastal shelf areas that were flooded as sea levels rose about 11,650 years ago. ‘(This) subsea permafrost is the most vulnerable of the three so that’s the major focus of the project,’ Prof. Gustafsson said.

The researchers have been comparing the temperatures of permafrost on land and underwater. About 10,000 years ago, the temperature of both permafrost types was about -18˚C. They found that permafrost on the ground has now warmed up to about -10˚C but under the sea it has reached 0˚C. ‘That was surprising,’ Prof. Gustafsson said. ‘I had no idea that subsea permafrost was thawing so quickly.’

Ocean acidification

They’ve also examined what happens when thawed permafrost from land reaches the sea. Some of the released carbon reacts with water to form carbonic acid – the same gas present in fizzy water. Although it’s a weak acid, Prof. Gustafsson and his colleagues found that it contributes significantly to acidification of the Arctic ocean. This affects marine biodiversity. Acidic water, for example, dissolves the carbonate skeletons of organisms such as plankton.

The team’s findings point to much higher levels of ocean acidification than that predicted by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in their report published in 2014, which largely considered the effect of anthropogenic carbon emissions.

‘Acidification could be 100 times more severe,’ Prof. Gustafsson said. ‘Ocean acidification by permafrost carbon from land is a new mechanism we hadn’t thought about much, and we didn’t think it was so strong.’

Next, the team plans to investigate the methane that is escaping from subsea permafrost. In many parts of the Arctic, the concentration of the gas in seawater is high but the researchers aren’t exactly sure of its source. It could be the result of thawing permafrost soil or methane hydrates – solid methane buried underwater. Or it might originate from natural gas much deeper down that is reaching the surface through cracks in permafrost as it melts.

‘We really need to understand that to predict how methane releases will develop in the coming decades or centuries,’ said Prof. Gustafsson.

Permafrost thaw is already a growing concern for those living in the region who experience its effects. In coastal areas, where it is particularly prone to thawing, buildings constructed on permafrost are collapsing or becoming damaged due to thaw while roads are cracking. Escaping carbon and organic matter are also likely to have an impact on the wildlife that communities rely on for food.

‘Ocean acidification by permafrost carbon from land is a new mechanism we hadn’t thought about much, and we didn’t think it was so strong.’

 

Prof. Örjan Gustafsson, environmental scientist, Stockholm University, Sweden

Dr Hugues Lantuit, a researcher at Alfred-Wegener Institute in Potsdam, Germany, and his colleagues are interested in what happens to carbon and other substances that seep out from permafrost in these coastal areas as part of a project called Nunataryuk. They will be conducting fieldwork in Russia, Svalbard, Greenland, Canada and Alaska.

The project is involving local communities in their work. In Aklavik, a hamlet on the Yukon coast in Canada, for example, the team is consulting Inuit communities to pin down relevant sites for their research, such as areas where fish is plentiful or where erosion is pronounced.

Through meetings, the researchers gain insight into local issues that could be addressed in their research. In Svalbard, for example, where the coastline is rocky, permafrost thaw is mostly affecting infrastructure on land whereas coastal erosion is more of a concern in Russia and North America. At the same time, locals can learn scientific techniques from researchers. ‘It’s truly a learning experience on both sides,’ Dr Lantuit said.

Subsistence

Some communities are worried about the effect of climate change on wildlife, which they depend on for subsistence. One of the project’s goals is therefore to investigate the release of organic matter from thawing permafrost into the Arctic Ocean. ‘This has a direct impact on the fish population but we do not exactly understand how,’ Dr Lantuit said.

The team is trying to figure out whether thawing permafrost will make the sea cloudy by releasing sediment into the water, thus allowing less light to penetrate. This could result in fewer fish as the algae and plants they depend on for food can’t photosynthesise in dark water. Alternatively, it could have a positive effect. ‘More carbon could also mean more nutrients, so big party time for microorganisms, phytoplankton and potentially fish,’ said Dr Lantuit.

Thawing permafrost is also a health concern as it is expected to release contaminants and pathogens. In a study published earlier this year, members of the team found that permafrost contains more mercury than any other source on the planet when it was previously thought to contain an insignificant amount. Since mercury is a poison, it could have serious health implications, ranging from impaired memory to vision problems if it gets out. ‘Now we’re trying to quantify the release of mercury and to see which regions are susceptible,’ said Dr Lantuit.

Eventually, the team hopes to come up with solutions to manage the effects of thawing permafrost. They’re developing models that should help. In one project, they are looking at what would happen if permafrost was the source of an outbreak of Anthrax – a bacteria that can infect the skin, lungs and intestines. They are also creating models to predict damage to infrastructure.

Improvements are already underway. Nunataryuk researchers have been working on developing buildings that can better resist thawing permafrost by getting communities in North America and Russia to exchange strategies. In North America, for example, there was a tendency to build lightweight constructions using wood or metal whereas buildings are made from concrete in Russia.

‘There is a move towards using some of the knowledge on both sides to create new and better infrastructure,’ said Dr Lantuit. ‘We now have 40 to 50 years of warming in some areas so we can really see what works and what doesn’t.’

The research in this article was funded by the EU. If you liked this article, please share it on social media.

Scary picture of past global warming event painted in UW study

Harsh drought conditions in parts of the American West are pushing wild horses to the brink and forcing extreme measures to protect them. Federal land managers have begun emergency roundups in the deserts of western Utah and central Nevada. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

Curtis Deutsch recently released a study in the journal Science that is the stuff of nightmares, or at least a major motion picture about a dystopian past.

The associate professor of oceanography at the University of Washington essentially ran a computer simulation of the end of the Permian geological period to try to determine why most of the Earth’s species were snuffed out 252 million years ago.

What’s extraordinary is what happened when Deutsch combined his model with data from fossils and information that scientists at Stanford have collected on animal species. They were able to conclude that greenhouse gases released from massive volcanoes warmed the Earth and depleted oxygen from the oceans, thus cooking or suffocating 96 percent of marine species and 70 percent of terrestrial species.

“Today, of course, we are the volcanoes,” Deutsch said. “We are accessing deep reservoirs of carbon stored in the Earth and we’re releasing that carbon dioxide in those fuels into the atmosphere. That’s ultimately what warms up the climate.”

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But, unlike the volcanoes of the Permian Period, humans can control how much carbon dioxide we release into the atmosphere. Deutsch says there’s more promise now that humans have the ability to move away from fossil fuels and harness the power of solar and wind.

“It’s true that we are well behind schedule and in many cases, including in this country, often lack the political willpower to do it, but scientifically and technologically, we can do it,” Deutsch said.

If humans end up dragging their feet and have to deal with another near-total extinction, there’s pretty good past evidence that shows the Earth will rebound and life will flourish once again. But, of course, paleontologists say it’ll take a few million years to build back the diversity of life that existed pre-mass extinction.

“Even knowing that diversity will return, I still think it’s better not to induce a large extinction event,” Deutsch said.

Fortunately for us, we’re smarter than marine life and we’re not living in a massive cloud of volcanic ash. So can’t we just invest in more air conditioning?

Deutsch says humans certainly have the ability to adapt to many of the results of global warming. For example, we’re able to plan for droughts, fight summer forest fires, and sit in front of air conditioners.

“The Permian Period extinction is a good example because there is a very clear signal in the data that shows us that when you push the climate to that level – 10 degrees of warming on the Celsius scale – you clearly are beyond the limits of adaptation. Temperatures get beyond what species would accommodate today and oxygen gets extremely low – beyond what most species can handle today.”

The problem with the extinction of the ocean is there is nothing we know of that will reverse the damage, according to Deutsch. It’s technologically infeasible to cool off the ocean and add more oxygen. The only way to avoid major disruption is to not allow the ocean to warm in the first place while also hoping that marine life is able to adapt. They must also contend with avoiding large fishing nets, which obviously weren’t around during the Permian Period.

U.S. REFUSES TO ‘WELCOME’ LANDMARK CLIMATE CHANGE REPORT, ALONGSIDE RUSSIA AND SAUDI ARABIA

The U.S. joined Saudi Arabia, Russia and Kuwait in blocking the incorporation of a key scientific study into global climate talks in Poland. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, in a landmark report released in October, warned of the dire effects of a global average temperature rise of 1.5 Celsius, and outlined ways to avoid it.

On Saturday, the four major oil and gas producing nations acted together to block endorsement of the study, which was commissioned at the 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris.

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“I think it was a key moment,” Alden Meyer of the Union of Concerned Scientists, told The Associated Press. “The fact that a group of four countries were trying to diminish the value and importance of a scientific report they themselves, with all other countries, requested three years ago in Paris is pretty remarkable.”

The chart below by Statista shows how global carbon dioxide emission levels have risen since 1990.

20181210_CO2_EmissionsThis chart shows how global carbon dioxide emission levels have risen since 1990. COP24 is attempting to build on the Paris climate deal and develop more climate-conscious policies to limit damaging emissions.STATISTA

The report was widely hailed by world leaders as a key step in efforts to tackle climate change. But negotiations at the U.N. Climate Change Conference in Katowice, Poland, hit an obstacle on Friday when the U.S., Russia, Saudia Arabia and Kuwait objected to the conference “welcoming” the study.

Instead, they had wanted the conference to “note” the study, as they didn’t endorse its findings.

“The United States was willing to note the report and express appreciation to the scientists who developed it, but not to welcome it, as that would denote endorsement of the report,” the U.S. State Department said in a statement. “As we have made clear in the IPCC and other bodies, the United States has not endorsed the findings of the report.”

Delegates criticized the countries for blocking the report’s endorsement.

“It’s not about one word or another. It is us being in a position to welcome a report we commissioned in the first place,” said Ruenna Haynes, a diplomat from St. Kitts and Nevis.

“If there is anything ludicrous about the discussion it’s that we can’t welcome the report,” she said to applause, reported the BBC.

In a tweet on Sunday, U.S. Senator Kamala Harris of California emphasized the need for the U.S. to take action to tackle climate change.

“America can—and must—meet the challenge of climate change head-on. It’s up to us to do what is necessary to secure a safe, healthy future for generations to come,” she tweeted.

The move casts doubt on whether delegates will be able to reach a consensus on measures to tackle climate change by Friday, when the conference concludes.

“It’s really an embarrassment for the world’s leading scientific superpower to be in this position of having to disbelieve a report that was written by the world’s scientific community, including a large number of pre-eminent U.S. scientists,” Meyer said.

Indisputable Facts On Climate Change

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In this Nov. 17, 2018 photo, President Donald Trump talks with Gov.-elect Gavin Newsom, left, as California Gov. Jerry Brown listens during a visit to a neighborhood impacted by the Camp wildfire in Paradise, Calif. For US governors, including 19 taking office early next year, fires, floods and other climate-related emergencies could become top policy concerns. For some, the concern is often trying to curtail global warming. But other leaders also have taken steps to mitigate damage from future disasters. Photo credit: ASSOCIATED PRESS

Last Friday the National Climate Assessment Report was quietly unveiled. It contained dire warnings about the consequences to the U.S. as a result of climate change.

President Trump, who once called climate change a hoax, said that he doesn’t believe the findings of potentially devastating impacts. The President has since backed away from his assertion that climate change is a hoax, but apparently feels that the threat is overstated.

Let’s review what we know to be true, what is understood about the greenhouse effect, and how models can be effectively used to make predictions. In a follow-up article, I will address a frequently overlooked tool for helping to address climate change.

Indisputable Facts

Here are facts, accepted by almost everyone. I still encounter some people who don’t accept them, but that doesn’t change that these facts are demonstrated by multiple lines of evidence.

First, the atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide has risen steadily since humans began to use large quantities of coal during the Industrial Revolution. The atmosphere has now reached levels of carbon dioxide that have never been seen in the history of human civilization. The record over the past 60 years looks like this:

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Atmospheric carbon dioxide record since 1960.NATIONAL OCEANIC AND ATMOSPHERIC ADMINISTRATION

Second, carbon dioxide is known to be a greenhouse gas. I will explain more about what this means in the next section.

Third, the average surface temperature of the earth is rising. That doesn’t mean it’s rising everywhere, and it doesn’t mean the temperature rise is responsible for every significant weather event.

Global temperatures are rising.NASA

I live in Phoenix, and this summer it seemed that we broke new temperature records every week. The past two years have been two of the hottest on record in Phoenix, and that has been the case for many cities, and for the U.S. as a whole.

Fourth, the world’s sea levels are rising. This is understandable because as water warms, it expands. And as the temperature increases, glaciers melt. Both factors add to the sea level, which has already risen by four to eight inches. This results in loss of coastline, and ultimately the loss of some islands.

Climate Change Science Made Simple

Now for a short primer on greenhouse gases.

The surface of the earth is warmed by visible solar radiation that passes through the earth’s atmosphere. As solar radiation causes surfaces to warm, energy is reemitted from those surfaces in the form of infrared radiation. Infrared radiation has longer wavelengths than the visible radiation from the sun, and it doesn’t simply pass through the atmosphere.

The earth’s atmosphere contains certain gases—water vapor, methane, and carbon dioxide, to name a few—that absorb the infrared radiation from the surface of the earth and radiate some of that energy back toward the earth.

Civilization likely only exists because of the greenhouse effect. Primarily because of the water vapor in the atmosphere (the most important greenhouse gas), the earth is about 60°F warmer than it would be without a greenhouse effect.

But, since greenhouse gases in the atmosphere are responsible for the greenhouse effect, it stands to reason that if the atmospheric concentration of those greenhouse gases increases, then so should the surface temperature of the earth.

So, there is a mechanism that explains why the temperature is increasing (rising greenhouse gases) and we have the actual observation that the temperature is increasing (and the supporting observation that sea levels are rising).

Understanding Models

So far, this is pretty straightforward. None of what I have written thus far is controversial. So, why can’t we all agree that there is a problem? There are multiple reasons, but let me focus on the simplest.

Even though we have an understanding of why rising carbon dioxide levels should impact the temperature, the ecosystem is complex. We have to rely on computer models to predict and project possible outcomes. When there are discrepancies between what the models predict and what is measured, critics seize on those discrepancies to cast doubt on climate science.

But speaking as someone who has developed and used computer models numerous times, this is how models are built and refined. You can build a model of a system (like a chemical reactor), but then you have to measure that model against reality.

For example, I can develop a model that may predict that the outlet concentration of a reactor should contain 10% methane. If the actual measurement in the outlet is 25% methane, I need to look at the assumptions of the model. I may need to revise equations that went into the model. Eventually, I will produce a model that matches what is actually observed.

But I am still not finished. I now have to do tests to further validate the model. I can change the temperature or pressure of the reactor, and see if the model can accurately predict the output under the new conditions. Over time, and through experimentation, I gain confidence in the model’s ability to predict changes — which is my ultimate objective.

This is the case with climate models. If a model incorrectly predicts a temperature, it may be that we simply don’t fully understand some of the feedback loops. So, we revise and tweak the model until it better replicates reality. Then we can extrapolate into the future with a higher degree of confidence.

There is uncertainty in modeling, and that’s seized upon by critics to overstate the uncertainty about the possible outcomes.

Conclusions

Make no mistake. The earth is warming. Some want to argue about how much of that impact is man-made, and how much is a function of natural fluctuations in the climate. But carbon dioxide concentrations are also climbing, and we know humans are responsible for that. So we know that humans are making at least some impact.

The bottom line is we are conducting an unprecedented experiment on the ecosystem, and we can say with a high degree of confidence that further warming is in store. Given the risks, we should use every tool in our arsenal to address this issue.

In the next article, I will address one largely overlooked approach.

Robert Rapier is a chemical engineer in the energy industry. Robert has 25 years of international engineering experience in the chemicals, oil and gas, and renewable energy industries, and holds several patents related to his work. He has worked in the areas of oil refining,…

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Robert Rapier has over 20 years of experience in the energy industry as an engineer and an investor. Follow him on Twitter @rrapier or at Investing Daily.