NASA’s Carbon Trackers Yield New Maps

Almost lost amid the Copenhagen media clutter was last week’s meeting of the American Geophysical Union in San Francisco. So this week we’re playing a little catch-up. Climate Watch contributor Molly Samuel has the last of three posts on some things that caught our attention at AGU.

The UN’s Collaborative Programme on Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation in Developing Countries, or REDD, was a big topic the past two weeks at the climate conference in Copenhagen. Wealthy countries, including the United States, have put billions of dollars on the table to help developing countries use sustainable forestry practices.

Back here on the California climate beat, there’s forestry-related news, too. Scientists at the NASA Ames Research Center in Mountain View (see map, below) have been working with the California Energy Commission and the Air Resources Board to measure California’s greenhouse gas emissions for the state’s mandated greenhouse gas inventory under AB-32 (the Global Warming Solutions Act of 2006).

Carbon mapping by satellite. Image: NASA

Carbon-mapping California by satellite. Image: NASA

At the American Geophysical Union conference in San Francisco, NASA’s Christopher Potter shared information he’s gathered using MODIS, an imaging instrument that’s hitching a ride on NASA’s Terra satellite. Potter’s data shows that California’s ecosystems–forests, grasslands, croplands, wetlands, etc.–emit about the same amount of carbon that they absorb each year. And in wet years, they absorb considerably more. In an email Potter says, “the natural ecosystem sources can decrease or increase the net emissions of CO2 in the state by about 15%, depending on whether it is a normal precipitation year or a below-normal precipitation year, respectively.”

MODIS isn’t NASA’s only tool aimed at California as it circles the earth. AIRS, or Atmospheric Infrared Sounder, collects data from the troposphere (the layer of the atmosphere closest to the earth). NASA designed it to improve weather forecasting—the troposphere is where our weather happens–but it’s turned out to be an effective instrument for measuring carbons as they bubble up from the earth and circulate in the atmosphere.

Having collected seven years of data on carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, and methane, scientists (and now you) can actually see where the carbons are coming from and where they go. NASA has posted animations showing the methane emitted by wildfires in California, and maps of carbon dioxide concentrations around the world.

Was 2008 Relatively Warm or Cool?

Answer: Both. It depends on your historical time frame.

With a global average surface temperature of 79 degrees Fahrenheit, 2008 was the coolest year since 2000, according to climatologists at the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies (GISS). But it’s also the ninth-warmest year since 1880, so it’s probably not time to invest in a ski resort just yet.

Including the 2008 dip, the 10 warmest years on record (since 1880) have all occurred between 1997 and 2008, according to NASA.

The NASA scientists attribute 2008’s relatively lower temperature to a cooler Pacific Ocean, due to a strong La Nina pattern in the first half of 2008. La Nina and El Nino are opposite phases of a natural oscillation of  upwelling and subsequent temperatures in the equatorial Pacific Ocean.

2008 temperatures in the United States were cooler than any other year this decade, but, as illustrated on the map below, other parts of the world such as Eurasia and the Arctic were exceptionally warm.

Director of GISS James Hansen predicts that because a shift to El Nino is expected to start this year or next, it “still seems likely” that we’ll see a new record high for the average global surface air temperature in that time frame.


Climate Coverage: From Drywall to Rubber Ducks

You just never know where the next climate story will come from.

This week on KQED’s Quest Radio, Marjorie Sun reports on how some of the most common building materials are among the biggest contributors to greenhouse gas emissions. Manufacturing your most basic buttcrack essentials like drywall, steel and cement requires vast amounts of energy. Now, several Silicon Valley start-ups are looking for cleaner solutions and some of their efforts are drawing major venture capital.

Then from the “concrete” to the…well, how would you describe this?  I’m not sure but it’s one of my favorite climate experiments of the year: NASA Deploys Rubber Ducks for Cryosphere Clues. Scientists from California’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena are behind this BBC story that probably should’ve been posted on April 1st.

We’re all pulling for these rubberized cryonauts, hoping they don’t end up in an endless swirl as part of the giant Pacific plastic trash vortex that David Gorn reported on in August.

“Is the Planet Just Doomed?”

3117211300_7c2dceccac_m.jpgThe world needs to completely phase out coal emissions over the next 20 years to avoid climate disaster, James Hansen, the head of NASA’s Goddard Institute of Space Studies (GISS) told a room packed with several hundred people at the AGU conference in San Francisco on Wednesday.

An immediate moratorium on new coal use that does not capture CO2 and phasing out of all other coal emissions by 2030 is the path to reach a target for CO2 emissions of 350 parts per million (ppm) identified in a new study led by Hansen. Previously, Hansen has said that the dangerous level for CO2 was likely to be 450 ppm or higher, but in light of new observations and analysis of ‘slow’ feedback processes like ice melt and greenhouse gas release from the ocean and soil, the study team revised that projection.

Unfortunately for the world, current atmospheric CO2 levels are already at 385 ppm.

(Hansen, a well-known climatologist, received a lot of publicity in 2005 and 2006 over his assertions that NASA administrators tried to censor his public statements about the causes of climate change.)

“We’ve got to get politicians to understand that it is more serious, and we’re at a more critical stage, than they seem to understand,” said the scientist. “No one is doing anything even close to what’s needed, even those countries who appear to be the most serious.”

Hansen’s colleague Pushker Kharecha acknowledged in an earlier lecture that phasing out coal over the next 20 years would be a “Herculean” task, but that it is possible, and necessary. Even if the world comes together to meet this goal, atmospheric CO2 would peak at 400-425ppm before gradually declining with the help of reforestation and other efforts.

Hansen warned that because of certain feedback loops, there will be no escape from “The Venus Syndrome” – runaway global warming – once the climate reaches certain tipping points. We may have already reached the tipping point with the Arctic sea ice which has decreased dramatically, he said. Other indicators he cited are a quadrupling of wildfires in American West over the last 30 years and the rapid retreat of glaciers, which he predicted will have disappeared within 50 years under a “business as usual” scenario.

All of this led one member of the audience to ask the question in everyone’s mind:

“Is the planet just doomed?”

To that Hansen replied that some human causes actually have slowed, such as CFCs and methane, and that there are technologies worth exploring like burning nuclear waste. Then he added, “I think we’ll solve the problem, but we need to tell the truth that it does require a carbon price. Politicians are not willing to do this.”

I can’t say I found his answer especially reassuring.

Despite a Cool Summer, LA is Getting Hotter

It was looking like a cool summer in Los Angeles until a couple of weeks ago.  Temperatures in downtown LA topped 90 degrees Fahrenheit only once this summer until September 25th.  Since then, according to the National Weather Service’s Climatological Report, the city has seen 4 days above 90, including today. Which is what a group of university and NASA scientists say Southern Californians had better get used to.  

The scientists analyzed 100 years of temperature data collected in downtown Los Angeles  and found that between 1906 and 2006 the average number of extreme heat days – those over 90 degrees – increased from 2 per year to more than 25 per year.  In that time, the average maximum daytime temperature for the city climbed 5 degrees.  Heat waves have also increased, from 2-day events to sweltering stretches that last for 1-2 weeks. The scientists predict that in the coming decades, 10-14 day heat waves will be the norm. 

The bottom line? Even though this summer was a cool one, Southern California is going to get warmer, for longer periods of time. “Our snow pack will be less, our fire seasons will be longer, and unhealthy air alerts will be a summer staple” said study co-author Bill Patzert, a NASA climatologist and oceanographer.

The scientists assert that the main cause of this increase in temperature and heat days in Los Angeles is due the “urban heat island effect,” which makes urban areas 2-10 degrees Fahrenheit warmer than the surrounding rural areas.

Check out a historical temperature chart for downtown Los Angeles and a full report on the study here.