Climate ‘tipping points’ could push us past the point-of-no-return after less than 2 degrees of warming

https://www.livescience.com/climate-domino-effects-close.html

By Ben Turner – Staff Writer 1 day ago

Knock-on effects could transform the Amazon rainforest into savannah

Ice melt in Antarctica and Greenland drives changes to sea level and temperature, sparking off rapid changes to other climate systems..

Ice melt in Antarctica and Greenland drives changes to sea level and temperature, sparking off rapid changes to other climate systems.. (Image credit: Shutterstock)

As climate change continues to heat the planet, ice sheets and ocean currents could destabilize each other, leading to a climate domino effect impacting 40% of the world’s population, according to new research.

And these effects could be seen at way lower temperatures than previously thought.

Scientists ran 3 million computer simulations of a climate model, finding that nearly one-third resulted in disastrous domino effects even when temperature increases were below 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit (2 degrees Celsius) above pre-industrial levels, the upper limit set by the Paris agreement. 

Climate tipping points are points of no return in the climate system. Once they are crossed, severe, accelerated changes to the climactic systems that support life on Earth may become irreversible, according to a report by the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Some of these tipping points, such as the collapse of the Western Antarctic ice sheet, could have already been crossed, Live Science previously reported. RECOMMENDED VIDEOS FOR YOU…

Related: Time-lapse images of retreating glaciers

In order to simulate Earth’s climate on a computer, the researchers created a simplified model that focused on how specific “dominos” in the world’s climate systems interact. Some of those dominos were things such as ice sheets, ocean currents or weather patterns such as El Nino, and the model essentially simulated how tipping those — for instance, by melting major ice sheets or slowing the Atlantic conveyor belt that helps cool Europe’s climate — would affect other dominos in the chain.  The model simulated more than 3 million possible scenarios, in which some of the dominos interacted more or less strongly with each other.

The new study found that collapsing ice sheets, like those in West Antarctica and Greenland, were especially likely starting points for tipping cascades. In one disturbing scenario,  cold, glacier meltwater triggered the slowing of the Atlantic current and then — by impacting the El-Niño Southern Oscillation — led to significantly reduced rainfall in the Amazon rainforest, which could transform much of it into savanna.

In another scenario, substantial melting of the Greenland ice sheet would release freshwater into the ocean and slow down Atlantic ocean currents that transport heat from the tropics to the North Pole. This current slowdown would then warm the Southern Ocean, destabilizing Antarctic ice sheets, which would in turn send meltwater into the ocean and ultimately lead to more sea-level rise. This rising sea level, in turn, would cause even more melting of the Greenland ice sheet.

And in many of the simulated futures, climate alterations most dramatically affected coastal regions, where 2.4 billion people, or 40% of the world’s population, lived in 2017, according to the United Nations.

“We’re shifting the odds, and not in our favor — the risk clearly is increasing the more we heat our planet,” co-author Jonathan Donges, a physicist at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (PIK) in Germany, said in a statement. “It rises substantially between 1 and 3 [degrees] C. If greenhouse gas emissions and the resulting climate change cannot be halted, the upper level of this warming range would most likely be crossed by the end of this century. With even higher temperatures, more tipping cascades are to be expected, with long-term devastating effects.”

And we may already be well on our way to some of those tipping cascades. In May, a separate study published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, showed that the Greenland ice sheet, the second largest in the world, is on the brink of accelerated melting. The ice sheet lost 586 gigatons (532 metric gigatonnes) of mass in 2019, according to an August 2020 study. A further study published in the same month reported that the ice sheet may already have passed the point of no return. RELATED CONTENT

How often do ice ages happen?

Has the Earth ever been this hot before?

What would happen to Earth if humans went extinct?

The researchers say that their research may in fact underestimate how close Earth’s climate is to these tipping points, and that drastic, rapid reduction of carbon dioxide emissions is vital in order to avoid them.

“Our analysis is conservative in the sense that several interactions and tipping elements are not yet considered,” study co-author Ricarda Winkelmann, a professor of climate system analysis at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (PIK) in Germany, said in the statement. “It would hence be a daring bet to hope that the uncertainties play out in a good way, given what is at stake. From a precautionary perspective, rapidly reducing greenhouse gas emissions is indispensable to limit the risks of crossing tipping points in the climate system, and potentially causing domino effects.”

According to a 2018 report by the IPCC, put together by the world’s top climate scientists, carbon dioxide emissions must be halved by 2030 if the world is to stay within 2.7 F (1.5 C) of global heating — the threshold beyond which global ecosystems and food networks will face extreme stress and small islands will be inundated. Leaders from the G7 nations are meeting at a summit in Cornwall, England, this week, and they will also meet in November in Glasgow, Scotland, at the United Nations Climate Change Conference, to further negotiate a path forward.

The researchers published their findings June 3 in the journal Earth System Dynamics.

Originally published on Live Science

Satellites May Have Underestimated Global Warming in the Lower Atmosphere Over the Last 40 Years

TOPICS:Atmospheric ScienceClimate ChangeClimate ScienceGlobal WarmingLawrence Livermore National Laboratory

By LAWRENCE LIVERMORE NATIONAL LABORATORY MAY 30, 2021

New research by LLNL scientists shows that satellite measurements of the temperature of the troposphere (the lowest region of the atmosphere) may have underestimated global warming over the last 40 years. One of the physical processes they looked at was tropical water vapor like shown in this NASA image. Credit: NASA

New research by Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) climate scientists and collaborators shows that satellite measurements of the temperature of the troposphere (the lowest region of the atmosphere) may have underestimated global warming over the last 40 years.

The research appears in the Journal of Climate.

The team studied four different properties of tropical climate change. Each property is a ratio between trends in two “complementary” variables. Complementary variables — like tropical temperature and moisture — are expected to show correlated behavior. This correlated behavior is governed by basic, well-understood physical processes.

The first three properties considered by the team involved relationships between tropical temperature and tropical water vapor (WV). WV trends were compared with trends in sea surface temperature (SST), lower tropospheric temperature (TLT) and mid- to upper tropospheric temperature (TMT). The fourth property was the ratio between TMT and SST trends. All four ratios are tightly constrained in climate model simulations, despite model differences in climate sensitivity, external forcings and natural variability. In contrast, each ratio exhibits a large range when calculated with observations. Model trend ratios between WV and temperature were closest to observed ratios when the latter are calculated with datasets exhibiting larger tropical warming of the ocean surface and troposphere.

For the TMT/SST ratio, model-data consistency depended on the combination of observations used to estimate TMT and SST trends. Observational datasets with larger warming of the tropical ocean surface yielded TMT/SST ratios that were in better agreement with model results.

“Such comparisons across complementary measurements can shed light on the credibility of different datasets,” according to LLNL’s Stephen Po-Chedley, who contributed to this study. “This work shows that careful intercomparison of different geophysical fields may help us determine historical changes in climate with greater precision.”  

If climate model expectations of these relationships between tropical temperature and moisture are realistic, the findings reflect either a systematic low bias in satellite tropospheric temperature trends or an overestimate of the observed atmospheric moistening signal.

“It is currently difficult to determine which interpretation is more credible,” said LLNL climate scientist Ben Santer, lead author of the paper. “But our analysis reveals that several observational datasets — particularly those with the smallest values of ocean surface warming and tropospheric warming — appear to be at odds with other, independently measured complementary variables.”

Reference: “Using Climate Model Simulations to Constrain Observations” by Benjamin D. Santer, Stephen Po-Chedley, Carl Mears, John C. Fyfe, Nathan Gillett, Qiang Fu, Jeffrey F. Painter, Susan Solomon, Andrea K. Steiner, Frank J. Wentz, Mark D. Zelinka and Cheng-Zhi Zou, 20 May 2021, Journal of Climate.
DOI: 10.1175/JCLI-D-20-0768.1

Other Livermore scientists include Jeffrey Painter and Mark Zelinka. The LLNL team collaborated with Carl Mears and Frank Wentz from Remote Sensing Systems, John Fyfe and Nathan Gillett from the Canadian Centre for Climate Modelling and Analysis, Environment and Climate Change, Qiang Fu from the University of Washington, Susan Solomon from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Andrea Steiner from the University of Graz, Austria, and Cheng-Zhi Zou from the National Environmental Satellite, Data and Information Service at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Work at LLNL was funded by the Department of Energy’s Regional and Global Model Analysis Program-area in the Earth and Environmental Systems Sciences Division and by several LDRD grants.

The Brazilian Amazon Is Now Releasing More Carbon Dioxide Than It Absorbs

Smoke billows from the canopy of a rainforest
Aerial view of a burning area of the Amazon Rainforest reserve, south of Novo Progresso in the state of Pará, Brazil, on August 16, 2020.

BYMatthew RozsaSalonPUBLISHEDMay 5, 2021SHAREShare via FacebookShare via TwitterShare via Email

READING LISTRACIAL JUSTICELet’s Celebrate Mothers Who Are Fighting to Set Their Loved Ones FreePOLITICS & ELECTIONSPharma Breaks Lobbying Record Defending High Drug Prices and Vaccine PatentsCULTURE & MEDIAThe US Needs to Stop Treating Ramadan Like a National Security IssueRACIAL JUSTICEChomsky: Protests Unleashed by Murder of George Floyd Exceed All in US HistoryIMMIGRATIONUS-Made Border Crisis Persists Despite Biden’s About-Face on Refugee CapPOLITICS & ELECTIONSTexas Democrats Fought GOP Voter Suppression Bill Through the Night

Arecent study published in the journal Nature Climate Change found that the Brazilian Amazon released roughly 20 percent more carbon dioxide than it absorbed during the 2010s. More specifically, the rain forest absorbed 13.9 metric tons of carbon dioxide between 2010 and 2019 — but released 16.6 billion metric tons during that same period. (To put that in context, human fossil fuel combustion is believed to produce around 35 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide.)

The authors point to poor land management policies like forest degradation as well as deforestation as causes. Notably, deforestation of the Amazon has greatly increased during the reign of Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro.

But forest degradation, as the authors write, is the primary culprit in terms of making the rainforest a carbon fount. Forest degradation happens when a forest’s biological diversity and wealth is permanently diminished.

Never miss another story

Get the news you want, delivered to your inbox every day.

  • Email

Indeed, forest degradation contributed 73% of the “gross biomass loss” of the Amazon, compared to deforestation, which contributed 27% of that loss.

“Forest degradation has become the largest process driving carbon loss and should become a higher policy priority,” the authors write.

Rainforests have been called the “lungs” of the Earth, and play a major role in the global carbon cycle. That the Amazon rainforest would become a net emitter of carbon was not entirely surprising given trends, however.

“We half-expected it, but it is the first time that we have figures showing that the Brazilian Amazon has flipped, and is now a net emitter,” Jean-Pierre Wigneron, a co-author of the paper, told Agence France-Presse in a statement.

Wigneron added, “We don’t know at what point the changeover could become irreversible.”

Rainforests are not always carbon emitters. In 2009, scientists at the Climate Congress in Copenhagen, Denmark, warned that rising temperatures and droughts could transform tropical forests into being carbon emitters — rather than carbon sinks, as they were thought to have been previously. At the time, there was some hope that the world’s forests might rise to the occasion and sop up the excess carbon dioxide caused by human industrial activity. Now, that seems to not be the case, and the Climate Congress warning proved to be prophetic.

This is the latest bit of bad news in a series of recent reports which raise red flags about how human industrial activity is changing the planet’s atmosphere on a mass scale. In September the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) revealed that there has been a 68 percent decline in the population sizes of “mammals, birds, amphibians, reptiles and fish” since 1970. Scientists at McGill University revealed last year that the threshold for dangerous global warming is likely to be reached between 2027 and 2042.

Similarly, the World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that roughly 250,000 people will die annually because of factors related to climate change scientists between 2030 and 2050. Finally a study published last month revealed that human beings have not significantly reduced the amount of land we inhabit over the past 12,000 years, strongly suggesting that it is poor management of resources rather than the loss of “wild” lands which is causing climate change.

President Joe Biden has attempted to address climate change by reentering the United States into the Paris climate agreement, beefing up environmental regulations and promising to reduce America’s greenhouse gas emissions by 50% to 52% below the country’s 2005 levels by no later than 2030.

A gas vehicle ban would leave us stuck in the slow lane

A gas vehicle ban would leave us stuck in the slow lane (msn.com)

Emilie Dye  2 hrs ago


Why Australia-China War Talk is Rising Between the Two NationsBill and Melinda Gates are among America’s largest private landowners —…

A Senate Democrat recently began pushing the Environmental Protection Agency to ban the sale of new, gas-powered vehicles by 2035 as a part of new, strict anti-pollution standards. Washington state has put the pedal to the floor and is speeding toward a ban by 2030.a view of a city street filled with lots of traffic© Provided by Washington Examiner

While electric vehicles are the future, outright banning the sale of gas-powered cars will only impede progress. Blanket bans slow innovation, disrupt markets, and hurt at-risk groups.https://products.gobankingrates.com/r/e842bf20ca03e0c72baf5dc63cea5f2a

Right now, only well-off people are able to go the extra mile for the environment and purchase electric vehicles. Those who lost their jobs during the pandemic may care for the environment just as much, but they simply can’t afford the switch to electric.

The truth is electric vehicles are a luxury good. On average, they’re about $20,000 more expensive than your standard gas-powered vehicle. To the average household, that kind of money is the difference between getting a new car or sticking with the old gas guzzler.

Banning the manufacturing of new gas-powered vehicles won’t take them off the roads — or the markets, either. Unable to afford the price of electric vehicles, many vehicle owners will hold on to their older, less fuel-efficient cars for longer. And many people looking to buy a car will purchase used gas vehicles. This will have a negative impact on the environment.

With 86% of people in the U.S. driving to work, fuel efficiency matters. Newer cars with better gas mileage aren’t as inspiring as electric vehicles, but they do help the environment. Even a small marginal benefit is a good thing when multiplied across the population.

As time passes, electric cars are getting cheaper. In just the past 10 years, they have gone from an average of $64,300 to $55,600, and hopefully by the time 2030 rolls around, they will become much more accessible to all. However, by removing cheaper, gas-powered cars from the equation, politicians take away electric vehicle manufacturers’ incentive to lower prices.

Currently, electric vehicles are competing with traditional vehicles. As a result, they have to lower prices and hope that the savings on fuel will tempt those on the margin to choose electric. But with gas cars gone, electric vehicles will only have other high-priced electric vehicles to compete with. This will likely keep prices higher for longer.

Our environmental goals don’t need to clash with the people’s economic well-being. In fact, market incentives will force innovators to produce better, cheaper, cleaner alternatives. People are demanding environmentally friendly options across industries. The government doesn’t need to remove the competition to ensure electric vehicles succeed.

For some, distorting the market and making people pay more to drive is a small price to pay for the environmental benefits. Sadly, the environmental benefits are minimal. Banning electric vehicles wouldn’t fix our reliance on fossil fuels. It will only divert the problem to electricity producers and give politicians a chance to virtue signal about the difference they are making. Until the U.S. shifts to greener electricity sources such as nuclear and hydropower, we aren’t fixing the problem; we are simply transferring it to another department.

Banning gas vehicle sales will put a speed limit on progress while hurting many families who simply can’t afford luxury electric cars. Instead, we should let companies compete to create affordable electric vehicles. America needs to let gas and electric cars race to win customers. If we don’t, environmental enterprises will get stuck in the slow lane.

Emilie Dye (@Emilie_Dye) is the policy director for the Australian Taxpayers’ Alliance, the executive director for the HR Nicholls Society, and a contributor to Young Voices.

Executives call on Biden to slash greenhouse gas emissions to curb climate change

https://www.cnbc.com/2021/04/13/executives-call-on-biden-to-cut-emissions-to-combat-climate-change-.html

PUBLISHED TUE, APR 13 202110:00 AM EDTUPDATED TUE, APR 13 202112:40 PM EDTEmma Newburger@EMMA_NEWBURGERSHAREShare Article via FacebookShare Article via TwitterShare Article via LinkedInShare Article via EmailKEY POINTS

  • More than 300 businesses have called on President Joe Biden to nearly double U.S. targets to reduce planet-warming emissions below 2005 levels by 2030.
  • The push by leaders from companies like Google, Apple, Walmart and Unilever comes ahead of the global leaders’ climate summit the Biden administration is hosting next week.
  • The Obama administration set out to cut emissions by up to 28% below 2005 levels by 2025, but former President Donald Trump halted federal efforts to meet that target.
U.S. President Joe Biden joins a CEO Summit on Semiconductor and Supply Chain Resilience via video conference from the Roosevelt Room at the White House on April 12, 2021 in Washington, DC.

U.S. President Joe Biden joins a CEO Summit on Semiconductor and Supply Chain Resilience via video conference from the Roosevelt Room at the White House on April 12, 2021 in Washington, DC.Amr Alfiky | Getty Images

More than 300 businesses and investors are calling on President Joe Biden to nearly double U.S. targets to reduce planet-warming emissions below 2005 levels by 2030.

In a letter published Tuesday, corporate leaders from companies like GoogleAppleWalmartUnilever and General Electric praised the Biden administration for rejoining the Paris climate accord and aggressively addressing climate change.

The push by executives of some of the country’s largest companies to set a goal to slash emissions of carbon dioxide, methane and other gases by at least 50% — a target in line with what environmental groups want — comes ahead of the global leaders’ climate summit the administration is hosting April 22.

The White House plans to unveil a stricter emissions target for the Paris accord on or before the summit of world leaders. The Obama administration set out to cut emissions by up to 28% below 2005 levels by 2025, but former President Donald Trump halted federal efforts to meet that target and pulled the U.S. from the Paris accord.

The companies that signed the letter comprise more than $3 trillion in annual revenue and more than $1 trillion in assets. The letter indicates a shift by the private sector to address their own climate change impact and better align with the goals of the Biden administration, which has vowed to put the country on a path to net-zero carbon emissions by 2050.

Carbon Dioxide Levels Reach 3.6 Million-Year High

Residential houses next to an oil refinery in the Wilmington neighborhood of Los Angeles, California.
Residential houses next to an oil refinery in the Wilmington neighborhood of Los Angeles, California.

BYMatthew RozsaSalonPUBLISHEDApril 9, 2021SHAREShare via FacebookShare via TwitterShare via Email

A white lower-case t on a black background

READING LISTPRISONS & POLICINGMore Than Two-Thirds of Students Want Police Out of SchoolsPOLITICS & ELECTIONSGeorgia’s Voter Suppression Is Sparking Boycotts. History Shows They Can Work.ECONOMY & LABORUnion Calls Foul Play as Amazon Unionization Vote FailsPOLITICS & ELECTIONSMcConnell-Led Opposition to Infrastructure Plan May Haunt GOP in Next ElectionsPOLITICS & ELECTIONSGOP Threatens to Out Donors as “Defectors” to Trump If They Don’t Give MonthlyECONOMY & LABORWork Isn’t Fulfilling Because Capitalism Is a Death March

Because the COVID-19 pandemic caused a massive economic slowdown, experts had hoped that the decline in transportation and manufacturing might slow greenhouse gas emissions at least a little.

Unfortunately, a new report by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) reveals that one of the major gases behind climate change has reached its highest level in 3.6 million years.

The NOAA reports that the average amount of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere was 412.5 parts per million (ppm) in 2020, an increase by 2.6 ppm through the course of the year.

Don’t miss a beat

Get the latest news and thought-provoking analysis from Truthout.

  • Email

Climate scientists generally agree that in order for life on Earth to be minimally interrupted, Earth’s carbon dioxide levels should remain under 350 parts per million. Yet since NOAA begin recording atmospheric composition data in 1960, there has not been a year in which carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere did not increase.

Likewise, in 2020, overall carbon dioxide emissions increased at the fifth-highest rate in the 63 years that NOAA has been recording. It was only surpassed by the rates of increase in 1987, 1998, 2015 and 2016.

A senior scientist at NOAA’s Global Monitoring Laboratory, Pieter Tans, said that if there had not been an economic slowdown, it would have been the highest increase on record. As things current stand, the carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere are at a point comparable to the Mid-Pliocene Warm Period, when the temperature was 7 degrees hotter and the sea level was roughly 78 feet higher than today.

Another organization, Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego, released similar results on Wednesday, announcing that carbon dioxide in the atmosphere was 417.4 ppm at their monitoring station in Hawaii.

The NOAA also reported a “significant jump” in the atmospheric burden of methane in 2020, with the annual amount increasing by 14.7 parts per billion (ppb) in 2020. Not only is this the biggest jump since methane levels began to be systematically measured in 1983, but it is also troubling because of how effective methane is at trapping heat. Although there is much less methane than carbon dioxide in our atmosphere, it is 28 times more potent at trapping heat over the course of a century.

Still, the COVID-19 lockdowns had a minor effect on emissions.

“The estimates vary among the different groups doing these sorts of calculations, but the consensus seems to be about a 7% decrease [in greenhouse gas emissions] relative to 2019 levels,” Dr. Michael E. Mann, a distinguished professor of atmospheric science at Penn State University, wrote to Salon in December.

If climate change is not halted and/or reversed in the near future, experts agree that there will be serious and negative repercussions for all life on Earth, including humans. There will be an increase in extreme weather events like hurricanes and blizzards, an increase in the amount of wildfires and a reduction in the amount of land that can be used to produce food. All of this will lead to fierce competition for resources and mass population displacements, even as an increasing amount of the world’s surface either too hot or too dry to be inhabitable.

President Joe Biden has said that he will prioritize fighting climate change in his presidency. Shortly after taking office, he said in a statement that “environmental justice will be at the center of all we do.”

Run The Oil Industry In Reverse’: Fighting Climate Change By Farming Kelp

March 1, 20215:00 AM ET

https://www.npr.org/2021/03/01/970670565/run-the-oil-industry-in-reverse-fighting-climate-change-by-farming-kelp

FRED BEVER

FROMLISTEN· 4:044-Minute ListenAdd toPLAYLIST

Adam Baske (left) and Capt. Rob Odlin of Running Tide Technologies in the Gulf of Maine. They release rope that’s entwined with early-stage kelp, a fast growing seaweed that will soak up carbon dioxide.Fred Bever/Maine Public

In the race to stall or even reverse global warming, new efforts are in the works to pull carbon dioxide out of the air and put it somewhere safe.

One startup in Maine has a vision that is drawing attention from scientists and venture capitalists alike: to bury massive amounts of seaweed at the bottom of the ocean, where it will lock away carbon for thousands of years.

The company is called Running Tide Technologies, and it’s prototyping the concept this winter. On a recent day in the Gulf of Maine, boat captain Rob Odlin says the task itself isn’t much different from any other in his seafaring career, whether chasing tuna or harvesting lobster.

“We’re just fishing for carbon now, and kelp’s the net,” he says.

Running Tide CEO Marty Odlin — the boat captain’s nephew — comes from a long line of Maine fishermen, and once imagined he would continue the tradition. But he watched as the warming climate drove major shifts in fish populations, while regulators put a lid on how much could be taken from the sea.Article continues after sponsor messagehttps://ba5f3a62dbe3ec3c57249fbe1f5df38f.safeframe.googlesyndication.com/safeframe/1-0-37/html/container.html

ENVIRONMENT AND ENERGY COLLABORATIVE

Natural Gas Companies Have Their Own Plans To Go Low-Carbon

“It just got really hard for me to go into crazy debt to buy a boat to catch fish that were swimming away,” Odlin says.

The Dartmouth-trained engineer did start an oyster farm. But he also started thinking about how to stop the damage in the Gulf of Maine, one of the fastest warming bodies of water on the planet.

“Essentially what we have to do is run the oil industry in reverse,” he concluded.

As Odlin notes, the fossil fuels we burn for energy started out as plants millions of years ago. Much of it was ocean algae that sank to the bottom of ancient seas, where chemistry and water pressure transformed it into oil, over geologic timescales.

Olivia Mercier runs the kelp hatchery at Portland’s Running Tide Technologies. She raises sporophytes, or early-stage kelp, on a pipe wrapped with biodegradable string; the string will be placed in the ocean.Fred Bever/Maine Public

Odlin wants to mimic those natural processes, and do it in a hurry. He envisions an armada heading hundreds of miles offshore each fall, to deploy millions of free-floating cellulose buoys, each tethered to a kelp-bearing rope.

The kelp will soak up carbon — gigatons of it — via photosynthesis. Months later the mature plant blades will grow too heavy for their biodegradable buoys.

“So the kelp will sink to the ocean bottom in the sediment, and become, essentially, part of the ocean floor,” Odlin says. The ultimate goal is that it will stay there, sequestrated for millions of years, turning back into oil.

This year’s goal is more modest: an on-the-water experiment, floating about 1600 single-buoy “micro-farms” to gather data and prove the concept.

INVESTIGATIONS

As Cities Grapple With Climate Change, Gas Utilities Fight To Stay In Business

Low-tech elegance

The company is part of a new wave of big-thinking about removing carbon from the atmosphere at a planetary-scale.

Microsoft last year committed a billion dollars to kick-start research and development in the emerging field of carbon-removal tech. It also promised to find ways to remove all the CO2 its operations have put in the air since it was founded.

High-tech carbon-removal innovations are emerging around the world. Towering banks of fans that can pull CO2 from the sky. Pumps injecting plant-based biofuels into the earth. But Running Tide seems to be capturing attention — and investment — because of its low-tech elegance.

“When we started learning about Running Tide’s approach, I was blown away by the simplicity,” says Stacy Kauk, who directs sustainability efforts at Shopify, a $150-billion e-commerce company which will be Running Tide’s first customer for carbon-capture credits.

She says Shopify is willing to pay a premium for the credits now, in hopes the technology can ultimately be brought to a price-point that would attract broad buy-in from other businesses and governments.

“They’re not relying on expensive equipment, or energy-intensive processes,” she says. “It’s very simple, and the economies of scale associated with that make Running Tide’s solution have huge potential.”

Marty Odlin, CEO of Running Tide Technologies, in its workshop on Portland’s waterfront. The Dartmouth-trained engineer comes from a fishing family and once wanted to be a fisherman. But after seeing global warming’s effects on the Gulf of Maine fisheries he decided to try and reverse the damage.Fred Bever/Maine Public

At a large scale, though, Running Tide is mindful there could be unwanted consequences. It’s modeling whether, for instance, a multitude of free-floating micro-farms could entangle whales, hinder shipping, or foul beaches.

Outside experts are pitching in: A consortium of oceanographers from MIT, Stanford and other top research outfits will review the project and its environmental risks. But executive director Brad Ack says all that will be weighed in the context of the urgency of combating climate change.

“We have to compare them against the no-action alternative,” he says. “And in this case, the no-action alternative is very grim.”

SCIENCE

A Looming Disaster: New Data Reveal Where Flood Damage Is An Existential Threat

Running Tide’s Marty Odlin says it will take a World-War II level mobilization to remove a major chunk of some 200 years’ worth of humanity’s CO2 pollution, whether via his model or any others that show real-world promise.

“We’re kind of in a cage-match with it right now,” he says. “I’m not in this to give Godzilla a paper-cut.”

For now, from his uncle’s re-purposed lobster boat off Maine’s coast, the Running Tide team is tending the buoys, making sure they survive the winter storms. They’ll return in the spring to sink this test-crop of carbon-removing kelp a thousand meters deep, hopefully to stay there for millennia.

  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Flipboard
  • Email
Podcast logo

Subscribe to the Short Wave Podcast

More Stories From NPR

SCIENCE

How Fast Are Oceans Rising? The Answer May Be In Century-Old Shipping Logs

ENVIRONMENT

It’s Not Just Texas. The Entire Energy Grid Needs An Upgrade For Extreme Weather

Too Much CO2 Has an Unnerving Effect on The World’s Trees, New Study Finds

main article image
(Matthew Smith/Unsplash)

Trees that grow quickly die younger, risking a release of carbon dioxide that challenges forecasts that forests will continue to be a “sink” for planet-warming emissions, scientists said Tuesday.

Researchers said current climate models expect forests to continue to act as a carbon sink through this century, with high temperatures and concentrations of CO2 thought to stimulate tree growth and so help them absorb more carbon as they mature quicker.

But in the study, led by England’s Leeds University and published in the journal Nature Communications, they warned that this faster growth was also linked to trees dying younger – suggesting increases in the role of forests as carbon storage may be “short lived”.

The researchers examined more than 200,000 tree-ring records from tree species across the globe and found that trade-offs between growth and lifespans occurred in almost all of them, including tropical trees.

Society has benefited from the increasing ability of forests to soak up carbon in recent decades, said co-author Steve Voelker, from the State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry, in a Leeds University statement.

“Our findings, very much like the story of the tortoise and the hare, indicate that there are traits within the fastest growing trees that make them vulnerable, whereas slower growing trees have traits that allow them to persist,” he said.

The researchers said the findings suggest that the chances of dying increase dramatically as trees reach their maximum potential size.

But they said it might also be that fast-growing trees invest less in defences against diseases or insect attacks, or are more vulnerable to drought.

Earth’s average surface temperature has risen just over one degree Celsius above pre-industrial levels, enough to boost the severity of droughts, heatwaves and superstorms made more destructive by rising seas.

Sink or source?

Commenting on the study, David Lee, professor of atmospheric science at England’s Manchester Metropolitan University, said Earth system climate models currently predict the carbon storage of forests to continue or increase.

“This study shows the opposite, that increased CO2 compromises forests as a carbon sink,” he said.

But Keith Kirby, woodland ecologist at the University of Oxford, said it was not necessarily the case that forests would reverse their carbon role.

“We cannot rely as much on increased growth per unit area to maintain and enhance the forest carbon sink potential, but this might be offset by slowing deforestation and increasing the expansion of the extent of forests where this can be done in a sustainable way,” he said.

Global forests – and especially the tropics – soak up 25 to 30 percent of the planet-warming CO2 humanity spews into the atmosphere.

Last year, a football pitch of primary, old-growth trees was destroyed every six seconds, about 38,000 square kilometres (14,500 square miles) in all, according to Global Forest Watch.

© Agence France-Presse

Scientists have ruled out the worst-case climate scenario — and the best one too

There’s a range of possibilities for how much the earth will warm. A new study narrows the likely window by the largest margin in decades.

An oil refinery in Corpus Christi, Texas.
Oil refineries like this one in Corpus Christi, Texas, are heating up the planet.
 Roschetzky Photography/Shutterstock

The basic mechanics of climate change are simple: Carbon dioxide in the atmosphere traps heat. More carbon dioxide means more heat is trapped across the Earth, causing it to warm up.

But scaled up over the entire planet, these physical processes interact in a myriad of complex and sometimes unexpected ways. The Arctic reflects sunlight back into space. Clouds in some circumstances trap heat, and in others, they cool the region beneath them. Forests store a big chunk of carbon, but they’re being burned, cut down, and dying off from warming. The ocean soaks up a huge amount of heat and carbon dioxide, but it can’t absorb it forever. And these effects are not all linear; some may taper off as the planet heats up while others may suddenly accelerate.

That’s why scientists for decades have struggled to answer the basic question of how much the earth will eventually warm up for a given amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

The term for this parameter is equilibrium climate sensitivity. The classic way of framing it is asking what happens if we double the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere compared to levels prior to the industrial revolution. Back in the 1800s, it was about 280 parts per million. Today, it’s about 413 ppm. Some estimate it could reach 560 ppm as soon as 2050 without major mitigation steps.

A team of 25 scientists from around the world recently took a stab at answering the question of how sensitive the Earth’s climate is to carbon dioxide and came up with range of possibilities. Their results, published July 22 in Reviews of Geophysics, showed that the planet would most likely warm on average between 4.7 degrees Fahrenheit and 7 degrees Fahrenheit (2.6 degrees Celsius and 3.9 degrees Celsius) if atmospheric carbon dioxide were to double.

This is still a wide span, but it’s much smaller than prior estimated range of 2.7 and 9.1 degrees Fahrenheit (1.5 and 4.5 degrees Celsius) that had been the reigning benchmark for decades.

Why climate sensitivity is so important to our understanding of climate change

In 1979, the National Research Council put together a report looking at the ways increasing carbon dioxide emissions would impact the world. The researchers behind the report understood even then that it would be a complicated task.

“In order to address this question in its entirety, one would have to peer into the world of our grandchildren, the world of the 21st century,” they wrote. “A complete assessment of all the issues will be a long and difficult task.”

It was this report that came up with the climate sensitivity range between 2.7 and 9.1 degrees Fahrenheit (1.5 and 4.5 degrees Celsius). Now that we’re in the 21st century, how much has our understanding of climate science improved?

On many fronts, the gains in climate science have been vast and substantial. New measurements from ice cores, satellite monitoring, and sophisticated computer models have yielded new insights in the the climate of the past, present, and future. Scientists are even getting close to being able to see carbon dioxide emissions in real time.

Aerial photo taken on Sept. 1, 2017 shows flooded houses after Hurricane Harvey attacked Houston, Texas
Scientists have found that the record flooding in Houston, Texas, after Hurricane Harvey in 2017 was worsened by climate change.
 Yin Bogu/Xinhua News Agency via Getty Images

However, until recently, the estimates of climate sensitivity barely budged. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a team of scientists assembled by the United Nations, came up with the same estimate climate sensitivity in 2014 as the National Research Council came up with in 1979. But not for lack of trying.

“There have been a number of research studies over the years that have looked at the climate sensitivity range,” said Donald Wuebbles, a professor of atmospheric sciences at the University of Illinois and an author of the 2014 IPCC report who was not involved in the new paper, in an email. “The best of those studies had not been able to reduce this sensitivity from the range much differently than the traditional range of 1.5-4.5 C.”

So a new smaller climate sensitivity range is significant. Since it’s a foundational parameter of climate models, it can yield a more precise range for what to expect as the world continues warming.

It took decades of advances in science to narrow the boundaries of climate sensitivity

Then how did this team of researchers chip away at a problem that has vexed climate scientists for more than 40 years?

It wasn’t any one finding in particular. Rather, the team took the colossal body of research that has built up in the intervening decades to create their sensitivity estimate. They drew on paleoclimate records dating back 3 million years, observational temperature records over the last 150 years, and a new generation of climate models.

“The single biggest factor was the ability to combine estimates from these three independent lines of evidence,” explained Zeke Hausfather, director of climate and energy at the Breakthrough Institute and a coauthor of the new paper.

Baked into these lines of evidence is a better understanding of underlying phenomena like how albedo — the reflectiveness of the earth’s surface — changes as the air warms, how aerosols form and reflect sunlight, and how natural variability in the climate factors in.

Hausfather added that in recent years, scientists have gained to insight into feedback loops in the climate that can enhance warming. That means that over time, greenhouse gas emissions will pack a bigger punch for the climate.

“We’d expect a bit more warming, all things being equal, in the future from emissions than we have today,” he said.

The resulting estimate of climate sensitivity — 4.7 degrees to 7 degrees Fahrenheit (2.6 degrees Celsius and 3.9 degrees Celsius) — may seem small, but it represents a drastic shift from the world as we know it today. In an editorial in the Hill, Hausfather pointed out that during the last ice age 20,000 years ago, the planet was on average 9 degrees Fahrenheit (5 degrees Celsius) cooler than today. That led to so much ice across the planet that global sea levels were 300 feet lower than they are today.

Members of the “Ice Memory project” extract an ice core piece out of a drill machine, on August 25, 2016.
Scientists examine an ice core drilled from a glacier. These sample provide a window in the past climate of the planet. 
Philippe Desmazes/AFP via Getty Images

It’s also important to remember that the climate is already changing, providing some real-world results for how the climate system responds to carbon dioxide. The world has warmed more than 1 degree Celsius since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution. Sea levels have risen more than 8 inches since 1880, and the rate is accelerating.

Even if humanity were to halt emissions now, there is still inertia in the climate system and the planet would likely continue warming by a certain amount.

And while much of climate discussions center on changes in average temperatures, those shifted averages obscure the fact that there can be drastic increases in the extremes. Scientists have found signals of human caused emissions in the growing intensity of hurricanes, the frequency of heat waves, and the drying of some forests, a key ingredient in wildfires.

Could scientists narrow the boundaries of climate sensitivity even more?

“It’s difficult,” Wuebbels said. “I would expect though that after another decade (or so) of climate changes and the observations of climate relevant processes that the range should be able to be reduced further.”

However, the world can’t wait another decade for better information to act, and Ploy Pattanun Achakulwisut, a climate scientist at the Stockholm Environment Institute, said the new findings are a call to action.

“This study is an important milestone for the climate science community, and only serves to strengthen what the public and policymakers have known for decades: that we need to transition away from fossil fuels,” she wrote in an email. Achakulwisut added that the results emphasize the need for leaders to create policies to speed up the move toward low-carbon energy.

Human action remains the greatest uncertainty for the global climate

While the new climate sensitivity estimate gives the world a clearer vision of the future, it is a future that can still be altered by our actions.

Indeed, the biggest factor shaping the future of the climate, and the greatest source of uncertainty, is what humans will do about it in the coming years. Power plants, farms, aircraft, trucks, buildings, deforestation, and other human-sources collectively spew carbon dioxide into the air at a rate of 2.6 million pounds per second, making humans the dominant source of changes in the climate over the past 50 years. And that rate is accelerating: More than half of all human greenhouse gas emissions occurred in just the last 30 years.

The question is how long this will continue and when the curve of carbon dioxide emissions will bend. However, like climate sensitivity, there has been some narrowing of what to expect in recent years. Current human greenhouse gas emissions are now much less likely to follow the most pessimistic trajectory, which assumes unchecked growth of fossil fuel combustion and little to no efforts to limit climate change.

Protestor with “Our future in your hands” written on their hands.
Student call for action on climate change at protest in Brussels, Belgium.
 Alexandros Michailidis/Shutterstock

The dirtiest sources of energy are now declining, and some parts of the world are making progress to cut emissions while others have signed onto aggressive targets. But emissions are still rising, and limiting climate change demands cutting them drastically, and soon.

2018 report from the IPCC examined what people would have to do to meet the more aggressive target under the Paris climate agreement, limiting warming to less than 1.5 degrees Celsius. The report concluded that the world’s greenhouse gas emissions need to be half of where they are now by 2030, zero by 2050, and thereafter emissions would actually have to be removed from the atmosphere to stabilize the climate.

That goal is almost certainly out of reach. The emissions gap between where the world is and where it needs to be is only getting wider.

And now with the latest estimate of climate sensitivity, the low-end estimate of climate sensitivity has gone up, meaning there’s virtually no chance of staying below 2 degrees Celsius of warming if carbon dioxide concentrations reach 560 ppm. Even with the inherent uncertainties of these forecasts, these factors point toward a need for more concerted action to curb greenhouse gases.

“When it comes to climate, uncertainty is not our friend because the damages of climate change increase non-linearly,” Hausfather said. “Because there are some uncertainties we are never really going to be able to get rid of, it really suggests we need to be cautious about our emissions.”

The problem of dangerous levels of global warming can still be solved, but the easiest options are off the table, and the longer we wait, the harder it gets.

Carbon Emissions Are Chilling The Atmosphere 90 Km Above Antarctica

main article image
Noctilucent clouds, Kuresoo bog, Soomaa National Park, Estonia. (Martin Koitmäe/Wikimedia/CC BY 4.0)

JOHN FRENCH, THE CONVERSATION
28 JULY 2020

While greenhouse gases are warming Earth’s surface, they’re also causing rapid cooling far above us, at the edge of space.

In fact, the upper atmosphere about 90 kilometres (56 miles) above Antarctica is cooling at a rate 10 times faster than the average warming at the planet’s surface.

Our new research has precisely measured this cooling rate, and revealed an important discovery: a new four-year temperature cycle in the polar atmosphere. The results, based on 24 years of continuous measurements by Australian scientists in Antarctica, were published in two papers this month.

The findings show Earth’s upper atmosphere, in a region called the “mesosphere”, is extremely sensitive to rising greenhouse gas concentrations. This provides a new opportunity to monitor how well government interventions to reduce emissions are working.

Our project also monitors the spectacular natural phenomenon known as “noctilucent” or “night shining” clouds. While beautiful, the more frequent occurrence of these clouds is considered a bad sign for climate change.

Studying the ‘airglow’

Since the 1990s, scientists at Australia’s Davis research station have taken more than 600,000 measurements of the temperatures in the upper atmosphere above Antarctica. We’ve done this using sensitive optical instruments called spectrometers.

These instruments analyse the infrared glow radiating from so-called hydroxyl molecules, which exist in a thin layer about 87 kilometres (54 miles) above Earth’s surface. This “airglow” allows us to measure the temperature in this part of the atmosphere.

Our results show that in the high atmosphere above Antarctica, carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases do not have the warming effect they do in the lower atmosphere (by colliding with other molecules). Instead the excess energy is radiated to space, causing a cooling effect.

Our new research more accurately determines this cooling rate. Over 24 years, the upper atmosphere temperature has cooled by about 3 degrees C, or 1.2 degrees C per decade. That is about ten times greater than the average warming in the lower atmosphere – about 1.3 degrees C over the past century.

Untangling natural signals

Rising greenhouse gas emissions are contributing to the temperature changes we recorded, but a number of other influences are also at play. These include the seasonal cycle (warmer in winter, colder in summer) and the Sun’s 11-year activity cycle (which involves quieter and more intense solar periods) in the mesosphere.

One challenge of the research was untangling all these merged “signals” to work out the extent to which each was driving the changes we observed.

Surprisingly in this process, we discovered a new natural cycle not previously identified in the polar upper atmosphere. This four-year cycle which we called the Quasi-Quadrennial Oscillation (QQO), saw temperatures vary by 3-4 degrees C in the upper atmosphere.

Discovering this cycle was like stumbling across a gold nugget in a well-worked claim. More work is needed to determine its origin and full importance.

But the finding has big implications for climate modelling. The physics that drive this cycle are unlikely to be included in global models currently used to predict climate change. But a variation of 3-4 degrees C every four years is a large signal to ignore.

We don’t yet know what’s driving the oscillation. But whatever the answer, it also seems to affect the winds, sea surface temperatures, atmospheric pressure and sea ice concentrations around Antarctica.

‘Night shining’ clouds

Our research also monitors how cooling temperatures are affecting the occurrence of noctilucent or “night shining” clouds.

Noctilucent clouds are very rare – from Australian Antarctic stations we’ve recorded about ten observations since 1998. They occur at an altitude of about 80 kilometres (50 miles) in the polar regions during summer. You can only see them from the ground when the sun is below the horizon during twilight, but still shining on the high atmosphere.

The clouds appear as thin, pale blue, wavy filaments. They are comprised of ice crystals and require temperatures around minus 130 degrees C (266 F) to form. While impressive, noctilucent clouds are considered a “canary in the coalmine” of climate change. Further cooling of the upper atmosphere as a result of greenhouse gas emissions will likely lead to more frequent noctilucent clouds.

There is already some evidence the clouds are becoming brighter and more widespread in the Northern Hemisphere.

Measuring change

Human-induced climate change threatens to alter radically the conditions for life on our planet. Over the next several decades – less than one lifetime – the average global air temperature is expected to increase, bringing with it sea level rise, weather extremes and changes to ecosystems across the world.

Long term monitoring is important to measure change and test and calibrate ever more complex climate models. Our results contribute to a global network of observations coordinated by the Network for Detection of Mesospheric Change for this purpose.