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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

More Heat Waves and Health Problems Ahead

A backyard thermometer in upstate New York (Photo: Craig Miller)

I wore a wool coat to work today.  And I’m ashamed to say that last night I turned the heat on in my apartment.  San Francisco is obviously a special place, particularly in July.  And by “special,” I mean foggy, windy, and cold.  Weather.com says that it was in the 50’s last night and this morning, but I have trouble believing that.

So I found it a little bit hard to relate this morning on a conference call with journalists and scientists talking about climate change, heat waves, and public health.   It seems that much of the world beyond San Francisco has been experiencing some unprecedented heat lately.  According to NOAA, global combined surface and ocean temperatures for January through May 2010 are the warmest on record.   But in California, according to Tom Evans of the National Weather Service (NWS), so far this summer we’ve experienced pretty normal average temperatures, and that’s what the NWS Climate Prediction Center is forecasting for the rest of the summer for most of the state, he said, although the southeastern portion of the state may be in for some hotter-than-normal weather in the coming months.

On the call this morning, which was put together by the Union of Concerned Scientists, the speakers were careful to point out that one or two heat waves cannot be considered evidence for global warming, just at the snowstorms on the East Coast this winter couldn’t be used to refute it.  (This recent article in the Christian Science Monitor has more about the heat waves and changing attitudes about climate change.)

However, said NOAA climatologist David Easterling, “Warming temperatures increase the probability of heatwaves.  By the end of the century, what we currently consider a heat wave, or an extremely hot day, might become the norm.”

Warming temperatures can impact public health in a number of ways, said Michael McGeehin, director of the National Center for Environmental Health at the Center for Disease Control.

“Climate scientists predict that the U.S. will see an increase in the duration, intensity, and frequency of heat waves, and we know that heat waves are a public health disaster,” he said.  “They kill.”

And they could kill in large numbers in the centuries to come, according to a recent paper by Matt Huber of the Climate Change Research Center at Purdue.  Huber was on the call this morning to discuss his analysis, which found that if CO2 levels continue to rise over the next 200 years, hotter temperatures could make areas that are home to 50% of the world’s population uninhabitable during heat waves in the the centuries after 2100.  Problems start happening when the heat index is about 130, he said.  (A temperature of 105 degrees F with a humidity level of 50% has a heat index of 134.)

“I personally think that we’ve already committed to at least 2 degrees (Celsius) of warming, but the kind of warming we’re talking about here, which is on the order of at least 10 degrees Fahrenheit, maybe more like 15 degrees Fahrenheit, that’s something that we can still decide to avoid,” he said.  “And from our calculations it looks like we should really try and avoid that.”

And it looks like that potential warming could be becoming reality faster than some expected.  A new study out of Stanford announced today finds that “exceptionally long heat waves” could become commonplace in the United States in the next 30 years, particularly in the western US.  The study, headed up by Noah Diffenbaugh of the Woods Institute, used climate models to analyze what might happen if global temperatures rise two degrees C above pre-industrial levels by 2039. (An increase of two degrees Celsius is the limit agreed upon in the non-binding  2009 Copenhagen Climate Accord (PDF).)

The Stanford researchers found that “an intense heat wave – equal to the longest on record from 1951 to 1999 – is likely to occur as many as five times between 2020 and 2029 over areas of the western and central U.S.”

The analysis predicts during the 2030s the worst heat waves maybe be even more frequent.

It’s 57 degrees in San Francisco this afternoon, and I am wearing a winter scarf at my desk.  Despite all these grim predictions, right now it’s hard not to think that a little extra heat might be nice.

Study Eyes Climate Impacts on Ocean Ecosystems

Farallone Islands (Photo: Jan Roletto, NOAA)

Farallon Islands. Photo: Jan Roletto, NOAA

The north-central California coast is likely to experience rising seas, more extreme weather events and coastal erosion, increased ocean acidity, and shifting marine habitats as a result of climate change, according to a new report released today from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

The report, “Climate Change Impacts: Gulf of the Farallones and Cordell Bank National Marine Sanctuaries,” was developed in collaboration with 16 agencies and organizations and was released today at the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco.

“This report provides insight into how climate change will play out in our region, how the ocean environment in the Gulf of the Farallones and over Cordell Bank will change and how the organisms that live there will be impacted by it,” said the report’s lead author, oceanographer John Largier of the Bodega Marine Laboratory and UC Davis.

Largier was careful to explain that the report does not make predictions about the future, nor is it a complete assessment of current conditions.

“It’s a group of scientists getting together and making their best judgment of how things are changing, how things will change, and what are we most concerned about,” said Largier.

Topping the list of concerns, he said, are rising sea levels of approximately 1.5 meters by 2100, warming oceans, an increase in the variability of precipitation (drier dry years and wetter wet ones), and ocean acidification, which he called, “the other CO2 problem,” and stressed as both a global and regional concern.

“There are a lot of things we know that are happening.  The real question we have to figure out now is how much this could all this change the ecosystem,” said Largier.  “The system is so complex, it’s not totally clear how it’s going to evolve.  Some populations might do a lot better with climate change, and others are going to be hammered. ”

NOAA

Image: NOAA

The report makes some recommendations for the sanctuaries, including a greater focus on public education, implementing policies that allow for flexibility and adaptation to change, and mitigating other factors that impact the ecosystem such as pollution, invasive species, fishing, and infrastructure development.

“We are just now getting to the state where we say what does climate change mean for us, for my community?” said Largier.  “It’s warming, sure, but what does it mean for ‘here’?  How is it going to play out? And what are the things that are going to happen that really matter at a regional and local level?  This is a huge scientific challenge that we are struggling with, but it’s an essential management and policy challenge.”

Bill Douros, the West Coast Regional Director of NOAA’s Marine Sanctuary program expressed the same sentiment in his opening remarks at the Cal Academy today.

“As we all know, the ocean is going to warm, it’s going to get more acidic, sea levels are going to rise, and those concepts are important, but what’s really important to someone who might be managing those marine protected areas is “How much?” and “By when are the sea levels going to rise and temp going to increase?”  And that’s what this report today provides to us.”

Key Issues highlighted in the report:
⇒ Observed increase in sea level (100-year record at mouth of San Francisco Bay)

⇒ Expected increase in coastal erosion associated with changes in sea level and storm waves

⇒ Observed decrease in spring runoff of freshwater through San Francisco Bay (decreased Sierra snowpack)

⇒ Observed increase in precipitation variability (drier dry years, wetter wet years)

⇒ Observed increase in surface ocean temperature off the continental shelf
(50 year record)

⇒ Observed increase in winds driving coastal upwelling of nutrient-rich waters and
associated observed decrease in surface ocean temperature over the continental
shelf (30 year record)

⇒ Observed increase in extreme weather events (winds, waves, storms)

⇒ Expected decrease in seawater pH, due to uptake of CO2 by the ocean

⇒ Observed northward shift of key species (including Humboldt squid, volcano
barnacle, gray whales, bottlenose dolphins)

⇒ Possible shift in dominant phytoplankton (from diatom to dinoflagellate blooms)

⇒ Potential for effects of climate change to be compounded by parallel
environmental changes associated with local human activities

DOI Setting Up Regional Climate Centers

Rachel Cohen is serving an internship at Climate Watch. She has written for the Oakland Tribune and San Mateo County Times.

AK_87676111_blogBy Rachel Cohen

The federal Deptartment of the Interior has selected the University of Alaska to host the first in a network of eight “regional climate centers” around the country.

In making the selection, Interior secretary Ken Salazar called Alaska “ground zero for climate change,” citing “rapidly melting Arctic-sea ice and permafrost, and threats to the survival of Native Alaskan coastal communities.” The center will be located in Anchorage.

Salazar said that in the weeks to come, DOI will be screening proposals for the next four centers, targeted for the Northwest, Southeast, Southwest and North Central regions.

The first center follows quickly the announcement in February that NOAA is establishing a National Climate Service. Modeled on its century-old National Weather Service, the NCS will also have a regional emphasis.

“The new service will give more structure and visibility to NOAA, changing the way money moves around, and resources can be brought to bear,” said Kelly Redmond, a climatologist with NOAA’s Western Regional Climate Center in Reno.

Redmond, who has been involved with the creation of the Climate Service for the past couple years, said the new service aims to provide decision makers, including state and local planners and policymakers, with the kinds of information they’ve been asking for.

That ranges from answers to “backyard questions,” such as looking up the climate of a new home’s location or whether to fodder for major business investment decisions.

Officials say the new federal service will work within the existing budget and appoint a director to each of six regions.  The Western Regional Climate Center, in Reno, where Redmond is based, is affiliated with the University of Nevada’s Desert Research Institute.

Roughly half of the total land area in the western US is federally managed. Much of it is arid and mountainous, with its own set of climate issues.  NOAA works with a matrix of state and federal agencies, some with overlapping jurisdictions.  The Climate Service will pull research from diverse sources under one umbrella.

Redmond says coordination of climate information is evolving along a path similar to that which led to the  creation of NOAA in the 1970s.  While national and local weather systems are well connected, climate programs remain fragmented. By creating a single conduit for climate information, Redmond says NOAA may be better able to prioritize research efforts.

Likewise, Salazar says his department’s Regional Climate Science Centers “will provide science about climate change impacts, help land managers adapt to the impacts, and engage the public through education initiatives.”

“In short,” said Salazar in his statement, “Climate Science Centers will better connect our scientists with land managers and the public.”

Hot Topics in San Diego

NASA's "Dynamic Planet" exhibit at the San Diego Convention Center. Photo: Craig Miller

NASA's "Dynamic Planet" exhibit at the San Diego Convention Center. Photo: Craig Miller

SAN DIEGO –The annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) draws “thousands” of scientists in virtually every endeavor, from astrophysics to zoology. In climate science circles there was no lack of topics to choose from this year. Among them:

Geo-Engineering

Several sessions were devoted to the notion of fending off climate change by tinkering with earth systems. In technical sessions and news briefings, there was a range of opinion on display, from “Let’s try it” to “Let’s look at it,” to “Don’t even think about it.” There seems to be general agreement that techniques like seeding the atmosphere with particulates could yield rapid results–but the idea is fraught with political controversy and legal pitfalls. Stanford’s Ken Caldeira likened the idea to a cancer patient who accepts the risks of chemotherapy, in order to avoid worse consequences. Philosophy professor (and Caldeira’s former teacher) Martin Bunzl, firmly rejected that analogy, saying that unlike cancer therapy, the risks are not well known and “You can’t just turn it off.” Bunzl directs the Climate and Social Policy Initiative at Rutgers University.

At Climate Watch, we’re preparing an explanatory radio feature on geo-engineering, for broadcast in the coming weeks.

Oceans

The plight of the planet’s oceans was a focus of the conference, with numerous discussions of acidification, marine reserves and the newly implemented concept of “marine spatial planning,” an effort to map the oceans’ topography, biota and habitat, then translate that into a kind of zoning plan for human use (an approach specifically mandated by the Obama administration last year).

In October, researchers will formally conclude the Census of Marine Life, a 10-year collaboration among scientists in 80 countries, to “assess and explain the diversity, distribution and abundance of life in the ocean.” During a media briefing at AAAS, census Co-Chief Scientist Ron O’Dor estimated that the final tally would include 5,000 newly discovered species (“not counting the microbials”), from flying sea cucumbers to the “Rasta sponge,” which, according to O’Dor’s colleague, Shirley Pomponi, appears to sport dreadlocks and also “produces an anti-cancer compound.” O’Dor said one general conclusion from the census would be that while it is “large and resilient, we can’t keep insulting the ocean forever.”

Science & Policy

In keeping with the meeting’s theme of “Bridging Science and Society,” and reflecting the current angst over credibility in science, there were overflow sessions with titles such as “A Wobbly Three-Legged Stool: Science, Politics and the Public.” While people spilled out the door of that room, hard-science lectures in adjacent rooms drew just a smattering of people. In an interview with Climate Watch, Brad Allenby, a professor of engineering and ethics at Arizona State University, lamented that “the climate change discussion has become so polarized, even among scientists, that it’s difficult to present the public with factual information that is credible.”

European Union exhibit at AAAS. Some attendees commented that the exhibit hall seemed sparse this year. Photo: Craig Millerl

European Union exhibit at AAAS. Some attendees commented that the exhibit hall seemed sparse this year. Photo: Craig Miller

National Climate Service

NOAA chief Jane Lubchenko used the occasion of the conference to talk up her agency’s new National Climate Service, funded by legislation last year. The new branch will provide one-stop shopping for climate research and tools for policymakers, including those at the state and local level. Lubchenko says she hopes to have the new unit operational by October, when the federal fiscal year turns over.

The Return of El Nino?

The federal Climate Prediction Center, operated by NOAA, reported this week that current conditions in the Pacific would seem to foreshadow a return to El Nino conditions, possibly within the next few weeks.

2006 El Nino conditions, as observed by the Jason satellite. Photo: NASA

2006 El Nino conditions, as observed by the Jason satellite. Photo: NASA

The ocean conditions formally known as ENSO, or the El Nino/Southern Oscillation, arise when normal upwelling of deep, cold water abates, causing warmer surface temperatures (SST).

El Nino and its opposite, La Nina, have far-reaching implications on weather patterns. Here on the West Coast, it usually means wetter winters in southern California and drier ones in the Pacific Northwest.  Because northern and central California lie in between, things there can go either way.

El Nino can also have a significant impact on fisheries, as much of the food chain is interrupted when upwelling slows.

Here’s a good overview of El Nino “mechanics” from UC Berkeley.

Climate Debate Runs Hot and Cold

We see occasional references in our discussions here to a “cooling phase” over the past decade or so. It’s often evoked in arguments against the case for global warming. Of course, in the centuries-long span of the Earth’s climate patterns, a decade or so is a mere blip on the screen.

Now a climatologist at Lawrence Berkeley National Lab has co-authored a paper that warns against using “periods of a decade or two” to argue the case one way or the other (we also often hear people use temperature data from recent hotter years as evidence for global warming).

Andrew Revkin summarizes the findings in his blog for the New York Times.

Wehner works in the Computational Research Division at LBNL and co-authored the paper with NOAA scientist David Easterling of the National Climatic Data Center, in Ashville, NC. Easterling wrote the Center’s FAQ page on global warming, in which he includes this answer to the question of whether the global climate is warming:

Global surface temperatures have increased about 0.74°C (plus or minus 0.18°C) since the late-19th century, and the linear trend for the past 50 years of 0.13°C (plus or minus 0.03°C) per decade is nearly twice that for the past 100 years. The warming has not been globally uniform. Some areas (including parts of the southeastern U.S. and parts of the North Atlantic) have, in fact, cooled slightly over the last century. The recent warmth has been greatest over North America and Eurasia between 40 and 70°N. Lastly, seven of the eight warmest years on record have occurred since 2001 and the 10 warmest years have all occurred since 1995.”

As for the geographic fluctuations, Robert Bornstein of San Jose State has produced data showing a general cooling trend along the California coast over the past 30 or 40 years. But he’s quick to point out that the anomaly is most likely a result of, not an argument against the broader global warming trend.