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We’re Not Alone: Wimpy Winter Weather Across the Country

Some atmospheric scientists think that could change soon.

By Andrew Freedman

While some may be cheering the lack of snow as welcome relief, the widespread lack of it spells trouble for the ski industry, which pumps billions into the wintertime economy in states from California to Maine, and requires cooperation from Mother Nature to stay in business.

Craig Miller/KQED

Snow from last year's big winter storms could still be seen on the mountains near Lake Tahoe on August 30th. This winter has been one of the driest on record.

Ski area operators across the country are already reporting drops in lift ticket sales, and are hoping for a major change in the weather pattern to bring colder, snowier weather. So far, die-hard skiers have been forced to either ski on man-made snow or travel to one of the few far-flung areas that have benefited from the unusual weather, such as the mountains of New Mexico or Alaska (where one town has had 18 feet of snow).

Compared to last winter, this wimpy winter weather is coming as quite a shock.

Snow was so widespread last winter that at one point in January, every state except Florida had some snow on the ground. But this year, the U.S. had the 11th least extensive December snow cover in the 46-year satellite record, said David Robinson, the director of the Global Snow Lab at Rutgers University.

“Is it fair to call it a snow drought? We’re getting there,” Robinson said. “It’s certainly an early season snow drought.”

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The Easy Fix That Isn’t

Touted as a simple way to combat climate change, white roofs may actually increase global warming, according to a new Stanford study. 

NNSA/flickr.

Installing white roofs (or painting them white) has been promoted as a way to help slow global warming. New research shows that white roofs may actually add to global warming.

By Alyson Kenward

If you’re interested in staving off climate change without trying too hard, painting your roof white seems like a complete no-brainer. It’s far cheaper than trading in your SUV for a Prius, and it turns the laws of physics to best advantage. Dark roofs absorb sunlight that heats up your house, office tower, or apartment building. That means you’re bound to crank up the energy-intensive air conditioner to keep pace in the summer months — and since electricity in the U.S. comes largely from fossil fuels, the net result is more heat-trapping greenhouse gas emissions, and more global warming.
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The Other Effect of CA’s Clean Air Laws

(Photo: David McNew/Getty Images)

By Andrew Freedman

Pollution reduction measures that were aimed primarily at reducing California’s notorious smog problem and improving public health, also helped cut emissions of black carbon — a key global warming agent — according to a new study published Tuesday.

Black carbon, more commonly referred to as soot, is an atmospheric particulate that scientists have shown to be a significant contributor to global warming. It is an attractive target for emissions reductions because relatively cost effective technologies to reduce it already exist, such as diesel particulate filters for trucks, and because unlike carbon dioxide (CO2), which stays in the air for decades to millennia, black carbon only remains airborne for days to weeks. Continue reading

New Federal Climate Change Plan for Wildlife

Caribou on Alaska's North Slope (Photo: Gretchen Weber)

By Andrew Freedman

Calling global climate change “the transformational conservation challenge of our time,” the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (FWS) issued a new climate change strategic plan on Monday, which represents a significant shift in the agency’s approach to protecting species. The plan puts a heavy emphasis on the need for the federal government to work closely with state and local agencies, academia, and private groups as climate change alters the suitable habitat for many species across the country.

As the plan notes, climate change is already shifting habitat and threatening species large and small, from polar bears to alpine plants.

“In the history of wildlife conservation, the Service and the larger conservation community have never experienced a challenge that is so ubiquitous across the landscape. Our existing conservation infrastructure will be pressed to its limits — quite likely beyond its limits — to respond successfully,” the plan states.
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A Tale of Two Coasts: The East Roasts While the West Shivers

By Andrew Freedman

People along the West Coast from Seattle to San Diego, who have shivered through an unusually cool summer, can be forgiven for being just a little bit jealous of residents of the East Coast, where warm temperature records have repeatedly been smashed this summer. During June, July and part of August as well, it seemed that many coastal areas of the West were missing out on summer entirely.

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Heat Records Set in 17 Countries — So Far

This post also appears at Climate Central, a content partner of Climate Watch.

By Andrew Freedman

California’s freakishly cool summer has been bucking a global trend this season. You’ve seen the headlines from Moscow and Pakistan–but that’s just part of the story. 2010 has featured several extreme heat events, as well as record flooding, in many countries worldwide. The number of countries that have set new national records for the warmest temperature recorded — 17 — would beat the old record of 14, provided that all of the new records are verified by meteorological agencies. According to meteorologist Jeff Masters of the private weather forecasting firm Weather Underground in Ann Arbor, Michigan, the countries that have set new records thus far this year comprise about 19 percent of the earth’s surface area. Continue reading

Annual Climate Report Shows a Warming World

This post also appears at Climate Central, a content partner of Climate Watch.

By Alyson Kenward

Global temperatures continued to increase in 2009, and atmospheric greenhouse gas levels also rose, according to a new “State of the Climate Report” from the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). The report, released today as a supplement to the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society, offers a detailed look at last year’s major weather and climate events, and reviews long-term global climate trends. Overall, it paints a picture of a world that continues its long-term warming trend, albeit with considerable variability from year-to-year. Continue reading

What’s Soot Got to Do With It?

By Andrew Freedman, Climate Central

Most of the discussion regarding the highly anticipated Senate energy and climate change legislation, which Senators John Kerry (D-MA) and Joseph Lieberman (I-CT) introduced last week following months of negotiations, has focused on the bill’s provisions pertaining to offshore oil and gas drilling, incentives for renewable energy, and cap on carbon emissions for certain economic sectors.

Although the bill’s carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions reduction targets–an 80 percent emissions cut by 2050 compared to 2005 levels–would yield significant long-term climate benefits, the bill also addresses man-made climate change in the shorter term.

Stack emissions from a bulk freighter in San Francisco Bay. Photo: Craig Miller

Stack emissions from a bulk freighter in San Francisco Bay. Photo: Craig Miller

A little-noticed portion of the bill concerns short-lived air pollutants such as black carbon (otherwise known as soot) and tropospheric ozone. These pollutants disrupt the climate on far shorter timescales than CO2, which scientists consider the most important greenhouse gas and the main villain in the climate change story.

Once emitted by the burning of fossil fuels, the use of solid-fuel cooking stoves or biomass burning, among other sources, black carbon only stays aloft for days to a few weeks before being washed out of the atmosphere by precipitation. This means that once black carbon emissions are reduced, there would be almost immediate climate benefits.

The Kerry-Lieberman bill would direct the US EPA to use its existing authority under the Clean Air Act to reduce black carbon emissions from diesel engines, using devices called diesel particulate filters which trap soot emissions before they escape from a vehicle’s tailpipe.

It would also call upon the EPA to publish a report on black carbon “sources, impacts, and reduction opportunities,” including an examination of how foreign assistance programs could help reduce emissions in other nations. In addition, the bill would establish an inter-agency process to facilitate “fast mitigation strategies” that focus on non-CO2 warming agents. This process would involve agencies such as the EPA and the Energy Department (DOE).

How big a climate player is black carbon?

Black carbon is thought to be a powerful warming agent in many regions, particularly snow and ice-covered areas such as the Himalayas and the Arctic. As its name suggests, black carbon particles are dark in color, and are therefore strong absorbers of incoming solar radiation. They warm the atmosphere and alter cloud characteristics, and when they land on brightly colored snow and ice, they darken the surface, causing a large uptick in the absorption of solar radiation, which hastens melting.

In the Arctic, black carbon contributes to a feedback loop that has helped cause a rapid melting of sea ice cover and drive temperatures upward at nearly twice the rate of the rest of the world. The decade from 1999-2008 was the warmest ten-year period in the Arctic of the past 2,000 years, according to a study published in the journal Science in 2009.

In addition to Arctic warming, black carbon has been shown to alter regional climate patterns such as the Indian monsoon, and human inhalation of soot particles is known to be a major health hazard worldwide.

In recent years numerous scientists, most prominently V. (Ram) Ramanathan of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography and James Hansen of NASA have called for significant cuts in short-lived air pollutants as a way to reduce climate change in the near term, while efforts continue to address CO2 emissions in the long run. Ramanathan’s studies have shown that black carbon may be the second largest contributor to global climate change.

In March testimony before the House Select Committee for Energy Independence and Global Warming, Ramanathan stated that the current global warming effect of black carbon “may be as much as 60 percent” of the CO2 warming effect. He noted, however, that there are significant uncertainties about black carbon’s role in the climate system.

Ramanathan told House lawmakers that reducing black carbon emissions “may provide a possible mechanism for buying time to develop and implement effective steps for reducing CO2 emissions.”

Bill is aligned with recent scientific advice

The Kerry-Lieberman bill’s inclusion of rapid mitigation strategies is consistent with advice contained in a new paper from an interdisciplinary panel of scholars, published on May 11 by the University of Oxford in the UK. The paper argues that non-CO2 drivers of climate change have been overlooked “for reasons of convenience in framing policy” rather than due to scientific concerns, and it presents a vision for an overhaul of climate policy that would include a much more prominent role for addressing emissions of short-lived air pollutants.

“Since action on these non-CO2 ‘forcers’ may have quicker impact and large, immediate primary benefits, we would give them priority, now. In contrast to long and arduous tasks, these can be ‘quick hits’,” the report states.

The bill’s provisions are also consistent with the findings of a scientific panel that examined options to address rapid Arctic climate change. In a 2008 report, the panel strongly endorsed pursuing emissions reductions of black carbon and other short-lived air pollutants. “…Curbing short-lived climate forcing agents, through rapid international action and Arctic nation leadership, may prove to be the best and perhaps only viable strategy for slowing Arctic warming in the time frame of years to a decade,” the report stated.

Considering that the Kerry-Lieberman bill itself faces a highly uncertain future, with significant resistance in both political parties, it may yet take even longer to address what many experts consider to be a ripe, low hanging fruit of the climate challenge. This does not bode well, given the much more difficult work that lies ahead to reduce CO2 and other longer-lasting greenhouse gases.

In April, Molly Samuel reported on the effects of black carbon and snow albedo on the California’s water forecasting efforts.