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From Russia: More Heat, Less Wheat

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

By David Lobell

The heat wave in Russia has captured international media attention, breaking temperature records left and right (see figure below). It has also captured the attention of commodity traders. In a typical year Russia produces about as much wheat as the United States, and is among the top exporters of wheat flour in the world. But this year, wheat has been decimated in the areas around Moscow, with yield expected to be 30 percent or so below normal. This week Russia announced they are banning all exports of wheat from August 15 through the end of the year. Since late June, wheat prices on the Chicago Board of Trade have risen by 50 percent, to more than $7 a bushel. 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

For Roofs, White Is the New Cool

Officials at the US Department of Energy are checking their roofs for some of that “low hanging fruit” available to increase energy efficiency in buildings. A study released this week by Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory suggests that “cool roofs” have the potential to offset up to two years worth of worldwide CO2 emissions and reduce the effects of urban “heat islands.” If that’s the case, increasing the albedo, or reflectivity, of roofs and pavements might be the solution to hotter days in the city.

Flying over most California cities reveals relatively few white roofs (Photo: Craig Miller)

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.

Positive Feedbacks in a Warming Arctic

A thermokarst study site near Toolik Field Station (Photo: Gretchen Weber)

A thermokarst study site near Toolik Field Station (Photo: Gretchen Weber)

The Arctic is warming, almost twice as fast as the global average, according to a recent study.  Much of the accelerated warming here is due to positive feedbacks, including one related to the loss of summer sea ice in recent decades.  White surfaces, like snow and ice, reflect most of the sun’s energy and have a high albedo, while the unfrozen ocean absorbs it.  This creates a feedback loop: the warmer the temperatures, the less sea ice.  The less sea ice, the more heat absorbed, the higher the temperatures.  (As Molly Samuel reported recently, scientists are studying albedo as it relates to California’s snowpack and water supply.)

Another concern in a warming Arctic is thawing permafrost.  Earlier this week, I was out with my polar fellow colleagues measuring the depth of the permafrost here around Toolik Lake with a metal probe and a plastic ruler.  In some places we measured it to be just centimeters below a thin surface layer of plant-supporting soil called the “active layer.”

According to Breck Bowden, a scientist from the University of Vermont who studies permafrost here at Toolik, the latest modeling shows that approximately half of the permafrost in the Arctic will thaw in the next 50 years.  That’s significant not just for the Arctic ecosystems, but potentially for the entire planet.  Scientists estimate that there’s one to two times as much carbon frozen in the Arctic soils as there is currently circulating in the atmosphere, said Bowden.   The problem is that as the permafrost thaws, that carbon (mostly in the form of frozen organic matter), some of which has been frozen for thousands of years, will be processed by microbes in the soil and ultimately released into the atmosphere as greenhouse gases: CO2 and methane.

“So why should someone who is living in Alabama, or Nigeria, or the Phillippines worry about what’s going on the Arctic?” said Bowden. “Well, they should worry a lot if there’s going to be a massive amount of CO2 that gets into the atmosphere and your sea level rises or your crops fail because of changes that are related to CO2 changes globally. What happens here in the Arctic is going to affect everything on the globe.”

One indicator that the permafrost in the Arctic is already thawing is the increase in thermokarsts, which are places where the permafrost has thawed and the ground has collapsed, causing a disturbance in the landscape, and often releasing large amounts of sediment into nearby streams. Several scientists, including Bowden, study thermokarsts around Toolik Lake, and they’ve observed that the number of them is increasing.

A group of us were in the field with Bowden yesterday as he paid a visit to one of his research sites about 20 minutes up the Dalton Highway from Toolik Field Station, and a 30-minute hike across the uneven ground that defines the tundra landscape.

Picking our way through the tundra (Photo: Gretchen Weber)

Picking our way through the tundra (Photo: Gretchen Weber)

“The Arctic explorers uniformly and universally cursed walking on the tundra, and you can see why,” Bowden explained as we hiked.  “You step on it, you break your ankle. You step between it, you break your ankle.  It’s very lumpy.”

The thermokarst we hiked to was not particularly catastrophic-looking to my untrained eye.  It’s a gully that’s about 300 meters long, 20 meters wide, and about five meters deep.  The collapse happened in 2003, and in the subsequent years it has widened, and vegetation has grown back along its sides, giving them a gentle, convex shape.  Someone like me might have hiked down one side of this thermokarst and up the other without giving it much thought.

Bowden was careful to point out that thermokarsts are a natural phenomenon.  (They also have been known to occur when roads and houses are built in the Arctic without proper insulation.)  But he also believes that the increase in thermokarsts observed in remote areas around Toolik is not natural.

“Thermokarsts have been going on as long as there’s been an arctic landscape, and there have been more of them when it’s warmer and fewer of them when it’s colder,” he said.  “But I do firmly believe that there are more of them now than there were 20 years ago, as a consequence of warming we can document in a variety of places.  The question is, why is the warming occurring?”

Field Notes from the Arctic: The Journey North

Sleeping quarters at Toolik Field Station, at midnight (photo: Gretchen Weber)

Sleeping quarters at Toolik Field Station, at midnight (Photo: Gretchen Weber)

Naively, I thought Alaska’s “Haul Road” would be smooth.  For some reason, I’d pictured the 414-mile route that runs north, from near Fairbanks, to Deadhorse, near Prudhoe Bay, to be a picture of modern asphalt-laying engineering, and that, during our 350-mile drive to Toolik Field Station, I would be able to catch up on some of the sleep I’d been missing after two nights in a University of Fairbanks dorm room (think college students on summer break in a place where the sun barely sets).  After all, this is the road that tracks the Trans-Alaska Pipeline, connecting the largest oil field in North America (which happens to be operated by BP) to the rest of the continent.

As it turns out, I was heartbreakingly wrong.  Roughly a quarter of the road, which is officially called the Dalton Highway, is paved.  And the paved parts are actually the worst. Between the frost heaves caused by the alternate freezing and thawing of the ground, and those Ice Road Trucker tires chewing up the road, driving the Haul Road is more like an amusement park ride, at least from the back seat of a 15-person van.  Suffice it to say that I did not catch up on any sleep during the ride, which turned out to be a good thing, because the second half of this ride was through some of the most beautiful country I have ever seen.

View from just below Atigun Pass (4643 ft) in the Brooks Range (photo: Gretchen Weber)

View from just below Atigun Pass (4643 ft) in the Brooks Range (Photo: Gretchen Weber)

About 70 miles north of Coldfoot, one of the three “towns” along the road, and 120 miles north of the Arctic Circle, we passed a sign marking the “Farthest North Spruce Tree.”  It actually wasn’t the farthest north spruce tree we saw, and also, it was dead, but right around there was where we crossed the treeline, leaving behind the white and black spruces stunted from extreme temperatures, and crossed into the tundra.

Back in Fairbanks, over breakfast (reindeer sausage), a biologist named Andi Lloyd had talked about her research on the treeline in Alaska.  There’s a lot of evidence showing that climate in the Arctic is changing faster than any place on Earth.  Here, mean winter temperatures have climbed between six and eight degrees F since 1960, and in summer, between two and three, said Lloyd.  This change is affecting how the boreal forest is expanding, she said, and causing the treeline to move north. In some places, such as the Seward Peninsula, Lloyd says it has moved ten kilometers (six miles) in the last century. “The Arctic is changing faster than we can study it,” said Lloyd.

But the relationship between climate change and the forest is not as simple as warmer temperatures equal northern expansion.  Rising temperatures also mean a drier environment, said Lloyd, as precipitation in the region has not increased as much as temperatures, and more warmth means more evaporation.  Lloyd and others have found that trees in the boreal forest are increasingly drought-stressed, which means they are growing much slower than they did in the mid 1900s, and that they are more vulnerable to insect infestation.

“I had a naive idea that the temperature controlled everything, but then I had a dawning awareness that the boreal forest is a moisture-limited forest,” she said.

There are no trees here at Toolik Station, where I will be for the next two weeks talking to scientists about the changing Arctic. The camp is nestled on the shore of Toolik Lake, in the northern foothills of Alaska’s Brooks Range. During the time I am here, the population of the camp will be about 140 people.  We arrived at 10 p.m., after 13 hours of driving, and the sun was still high in the sky.  It was still up there casting shadows when I awoke at 2:30 a.m.  At breakfast time, however, camp is encased in fog, and the temperature is about 45 degrees–kind of feels like I never left San Francisco.

Climate Watch associate producer Gretchen Weber is spending two weeks at Toolik Station, as a Logan Polar Science Fellow.

The Dalton Highway (photo: Gretchen Weber)

Entering the Brooks Range along the Dalton Highway (Photo: Gretchen Weber)

Rising Temps Taking a Toll on Lizards

The mesquite lizard is a member of the Sceloporus genus. Sinervo's study included 48 species of Sceloporus.

Sinervo's study included 48 species of the genus Sceloporus, of which the mesquite lizard (above) is a member.

A new study published this week in the journal Science finds that local lizard populations around the world are going extinct, likely due to climate change.  According to the research, conducted by a team of scientists including Barry Sinervo, a herpetologist at UC Santa Cruz, four percent of the world’s lizard populations have disappeared in the last 35 years, and another 20% of all lizard species could go extinct by 2080 if global temperatures continue to rise.

Using field observation and experiments, and computer modeling, Sinervo and his team determined that increased daytime temperatures in some areas have shortened the amount of time each day during which lizards can forage for food. The data–and that of collaborating scientists on five continents–indicates that higher temperatures and reduced feeding time correlates with the pattern of local extinctions among lizard species across the globe (the Science website has a slideshow explaining how the research was conducted).

Sinervo described his research today on the NPR program Science Friday as part of a panel discussing modern extinctions.  He was joined by UC Berkeley integrative biology professor Tony Barnosky and San Francisco State Biology professor Vance Vredenberg.  Christopher Joyce reported on the study’s findings yesterday on NPR’s All Things Considered.

Tracking the Changing Glaciers of the West

Yosemite's Dana Glacier, in 2008 and 1883 (photo: Gretchen Weber)

Yosemite's Dana Glacier in 2008, and a photo of it from 1883. Photo: Gretchen Weber

Years of exhaustive (and exhausting) field work out of Portland State University has produced some stunning visual images online.

Not quite two years ago, reporter Sasha Khokha and I joined geologist Hassan Basagic on a long trek to photograph the Dana Glacier, located just inside the eastern edge of Yosemite National Park.  Since 2003, Basagic has been documenting the changes in the glaciers of the Sierra using historic photographs, and we joined him in September of 2008 to see the shrinking glacier for ourselves. We documented the trip with a radio report, an audio slide show, and web videos.

That field work was part of a project called “Glacier Rephotography of the American West” which tracks the retreat of glaciers across the western United States over the last century.

Tom Knudson of the Sacramento Bee, who has closely followed the project, tells us that it has produced a new online resource. It includes a series of interactive time lines that showcase historic photos as well as more recent ones (including Basagic’s) that, when viewed side by side, offer some startling views of how glaciers in various regions have changed.

For more remarkable images of moving glaciers, explore the “Extreme Ice” episode of the PBS series Nova.

Spring Comes Sooner, Some Species Suffer

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Spring in the United States comes ten days sooner than it did just 20 years ago, according to scientists on a media call Tuesday.   This phenomenon, known as “spring creep” (or “season creep“), may be good news for flip-flop fans, but it doesn’t always work out well for native species in certain habitats.  According to Reuters, scientists on the call (which was sponsored by the Union of Concerned Scientists) explained that when spring comes earlier, it doesn’t just bring warm weather sooner — it actually throws off the balance of entire ecosystems by encouraging the spread of invasive species, many of which are better able to adapt to the changing conditions than are native plants and animals.  In the American West, warmer weather is already shrinking the habitat of the American pika, and more of it could make wildfires more frequent and intense.

NASA: 2009 Tied for Second-Warmest Year

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Parts of the northern hemisphere may have had an extremely cold December, but nevertheless, last year tied for the second-warmest in 130 years of global instrumental temperature records, according to the latest surface temperature analysis of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies (GISS).  The analysis finds that global temperatures were so similar in 1998, 2002, 2003, 2006, 2007, and 2009, that they are all tied for second place. In the Southern Hemisphere, 2009 set the record as the warmest year, according to this report.

James Hansen, head of NASA’s GISS, and his team have released their end-of-year summary for 2009, initially posted on the Real Climate blog.  It’s pretty dense, but here are some additional highlights:

– The scientists offer an explanation for an apparent data discrepancy over whether 1998 or 2005 was the warmest year.  In short, it comes down to the difference in the way GISS and HadCRUT (Hadley Centre/University of East Anglia Climatic Research Unit) assign or do not assign temperature data for areas without observing stations.  (HadCRUT leaves them out of the analysis, while GISS assigns values based on various factors outlined in the summary.)  GISS maintains that 2005 was the warmest year.

– According to the report:

“There were strong negative temperature anomalies at middle latitudes in the Northern Hemisphere, as great as ‐8°C in Siberia, averaged over the month. But the temperature anomaly in the Arctic was as great as +7°C.”

In other words, 2009’s cold December in certain areas of the planet, as well as an unusually cold 2009 summer in the United States and Canada, do not reflect overall global temperatures nor signal a cooling trend:

“It is obvious that in December 2009 there was an unusual exchange of polar and mid‐latitude air in the Northern Hemisphere. Arctic air rushed into both North America and Eurasia, and, of course, it was replaced in the polar region by air from middle latitudes. The degree to which Arctic air penetrates into middle latitudes is related to the Arctic Oscillation (AO) index, which is defined by surface atmospheric pressure patterns…”

According to GISS data, December 2009 was the most extreme negative Arctic Oscillation since the 1970s.

– The report underscores that monthly temperature anomalies tend to be greater than seasonal anomalies and that the the mean temperature of a particular month might not be the best way to identify global warming. Instead, one needs to look at measurements over the long-term, which, according to GISS data, indicate general warming over at least the last 50 years, just about everywhere on the planet.

The summary concludes with a sort of admonishment:

“The bottom line is this: there is no global cooling trend. For the time being, until humanity brings its greenhouse gas emissions under control, we can expect each decade to be warmer than the preceding one. Weather fluctuations certainly exceed local temperature changes over the past half century. But the perceptive person should be able to see that climate is warming on decadal time scales.”