The climate science that you do not get from your tee-vee news

Chris Mooney, the Washington Post’s energy and environment reporter, does an excellent job of reporting on climate science for the Post. It’s a shame that news outlets in Arizona do not pick up his reporting more frequently.

WeathermanIn fact, why do our tee-vee news stations have so many “meteorologists” working for them who are simply weather reporters — three times in the half hour as if I didn’t hear them the first time — who do not incorporate environmental sciences into their reporting?

If the Earth is in a warming phase and the American West is in the early stages of a devastating mega drought, don’t you think that environmental sciences should be a part of the newscast? I don’t need some yahoo to tell me what the weather was today three times in every half hour. Use that time constructively to inform me about the important science stuff that I should know about. Prove to me that you earned that meteorology degree, smarty-pants.

Here are some recent reports from Chris Mooney. The Pacific Ocean may have entered a new warm phase – and the consequences could be dramatic:

Two new studies have just hit about the “warm blob” in the northeast Pacific ocean — a 2 degree C or more temperature anomaly that began in the winter of 2013-2014 in the Gulf of Alaska and later expanded. Scientists have been astonished at the extent and especially the long-lasting nature of the warmth, with one NOAA researcher saying, “when you see something like this that’s totally new you have opportunities to learn things you were never expecting.”

The Post’s Sarah Kaplan has covered some of the most immediate consequences of the “blob,” such as weird appearances of strange marine species more typical of warm water, like ocean sunfish, off the Alaskan coast. She also notes that the blob may be linked to the California drought and other odd weather phenomena.

That’s plenty dramatic enough — but in truth, there is a great deal more to say about what this phenomenon may mean in a global climate context.

You see, the 2013-2014 “blob” was just the beginning. In the summer of 2014, warm water also showed up off the California coast. And then, in the fall of last year, “a major change in the wind and weather pattern between Hawaii and the West Coast caused the two warm blobs to merge and expand to fill the entire northeast Pacific Ocean,” says Nate Mantua of NOAA’s Southwest Fisheries Science Center, a co-author of one of the new studies, by e-mail.

According to Mantua, the emergence of the new and consolidated “blob” may be a very significant development with global consequences. That’s because it may relate to a much larger pattern of ocean temperatures called the Pacific Decadal Oscillation, or PDO. A shift in this oscillation, in turn, may be a sign that the planet is on the verge of getting warmer, some scientists say.

“People are seeing a lot of ecological impacts related to this warm water, and people are looking for the story, why is this happening, what is it?” Mantua says. “And it, to me, looks like just an extreme shift into the warm state of the PDO.”

The PDO is kind of like a far more long-term version of the much better known El Niño-La Niña cycle. It is not thought to be related to global warming — rather, it is believed to be the result of “natural internal variability” in the climate system.

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“In 2014 it went from mostly negative values to a very strong expression of the warm phase, and that’s present today,” Mantua says.

If the PDO is not only positive but is going to stay that way, it could be a big deal. Here’s why: Some scientists think a persistent cool phase of the PDO cycle may be a key part of the reason why there has been a much discussed “slowdown” of global surface warming recently. And if they’re right about that, then with the end of the cool phase, we may also see an end to any global warming “hiatus.”

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“When you’re in a cool phase, heat from the atmosphere gets buried in the ocean,” says John Abraham, a climate scientist at the University of St. Thomas in Minnesota. “When you’re in a warm phase, that heat comes out. And we’ve just switched from a cool to a warm phase.”

There’s much more to this lengthy report.

Next, Mooney relatedly reports, The Pacific Ocean has been slowing global warming down. That could be about to change:

Last week, I wrote a long story about a phenomenon called the Pacific Decadal Oscillation or PDO, a naturally occurring wobble in the planet’s climate system that involves the burial and release of heat by world’s biggest ocean — the Pacific. Normally, only geosciences wonks would care about such a thing — but lately, the PDO appears to be taking on a much broader significance.

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Now, a new study in Nature Climate Change has added additional weight to this interpretation of things.

The study, by atmospheric scientist Aiguo Dai of the University at Albany, State University of New York and his colleagues, uses a large number of climate change model simulations to investigate the apparent “pause” in surface warming of late, which has been so heavily touted by climate “skeptics” and even leading politicians like Sen. Ted Cruz.

The researchers ran multiple climate model simulations to capture how external “forcings,” or factors like human-induced carbon dioxide emissions, were expected to drive an overall climate warming trend in recent years. Then they “removed” this forced aspect of warming from the actual history of recent temperatures — and sought to identify natural or internal modes of climate variability that could explain the difference between the two.

Sure enough, the PDO — or what the authors call the Interdecadal Pacific Oscillation or IPO to denote its presence in both hemispheres — explained a large part of the deviance from what the climate models expected. In particular, this mode of variability shifted into a cool phase right at the end of the 1990s or the start of the 2000s, slowing down the rate of surface warming.

“During a cold or negative PDO/IPO phase, the tropical Pacific remains in relative cold condition while the central North Pacific is warm,” explained lead author Aiguo Dai by email, “but the global-mean temperature tends to be lower during the negative phase, as shown in our study. Because of this, phase changes of the PDO/IPO have implications for the global warming rate.”

But the effect of this kind of variation is only temporary. It has happened before, it will happen again — but it doesn’t do anything to detract from the background trend of global warming, which can be temporarily muffled but not extinguished by such a mechanism. Thus, the authors conclude, a ramp up of climate change could be in the works.

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“Although it is difficult to predict the future evolution of the IPO,” the study concludes, “the recent history suggests that the IPO-induced cooling trend may have run its course and reverse soon. Should this happen, we will see accelerated global warming rates within the next few decades.”

It won’t necessarily happen immediately, though. “The PDO/IPO entered a negative phase around 1999/2000 and it may have reached its lowest point during the last few years,” Dai explains. “But it will take 10+ years before it recovers to a positive phase, if history repeats itself.”

There are two noteworthy things about this conclusion. One is that with statements like these, scientists are essentially making a testable prediction based on their understanding of the climate system . . .

* * *

Second, this is a case study in something that scientists have long recognized — but that tends to be forgotten in public debate. At the end of the day, the planet’s temperature is the result of both anthropogenic factors like humanity’s carbon emissions, but also modes of natural variability like swings in the Pacific and changes in the output sun. You can’t understand the climate system if you don’t take both into account — and you definitely can’t adequately predict its behavior without including both elements.

Thus, in the end, it may well be that the so-called global warming “slowdown” or “pause” — used to so sharply challenge climate scientists — may lead to their ultimate vindication.

Finally, Mooney reports, The Arctic is ‘unraveling’ due to climate change, and the consequences will be global:

We often hear that climate change is radically reshaping the Arctic, a place many of us have never visited. As a result, it can be pretty hard to feel directly affected by what’s happening up in a distant land of polar bears, ice floes and something odd called permafrost.

new booklet from the  National Academy of Sciences’ National Research Council wants to change that. Synthesizing much past academy work on the Arctic region, the booklet– being released just before the United States assumes the chairmanship of the eight-nation Arctic Council later this month — blazons this message: “What Happens in the Arctic Doesn’t Stay in the Arctic.”

Here are four potential ways, drawing both upon the new report and much of our prior reporting here, that changes in the Arctic will reverberate well beyond it and, in some cases, have planet wide consequences:

1. Changing Your Weather. 

This is controversial, but there is growing scientific research backing the still contested conclusion that changes to the Arctic are leading to changes in weather in the mid-latitudes. The basic idea is that a warmer Arctic plays games with the jet stream, the stream of air high above us in the stratosphere that carries our weather and that is driven by temperature contrasts between the mid and high latitudes.

If the Arctic warms faster than the mid latitudes do, then the jet stream could slow down, goes the theory. It could develop a more elongated and loopier path, leading to a persistence of particular weather conditions — whether intense snow, intense heat, intense rain, or something else that is, you guessed it, intense.

A recent study published in the journal Science found that a more wavy and elongated jet stream in the summer “has made weather more persistent and hence favored the occurrence of prolonged heat extremes.”

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2. Changing What You Eat.

The National Research Council booklet also notes that warming oceans could have a substantial effect on the fishing industry, which prowls the Arctic and sub-Arctic for a crucial part of its catch. “About half of the U.S. fish catch comes from subarctic waters,” notes the report.

Fishermen and fishing boats may have new routes open to them due to a less icy Arctic, the report acknowledges. But at the same time, the composition and distribution of species could change with warming waters[.]

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Granted, we shouldn’t be alarmist about this. As we’ve previously reported, contrary to a number of press accounts, global warming is not going to take away your fish and chips.

3. Raising Sea Levels.

The melting of ice on land in the Arctic — whether from glaciers and ice caps in the Arctic, or the Greenland ice sheet — contributes to sea level rise that does not stay in the Arctic, but rather, spreads around the world. Greenland is of course the biggest potential contributor, since if it were to melt entirely, it would cause 20 feet of sea level rise.

And there’s also a less known Arctic contributor to sea level changes: the way polar melting could weaken the great overturning circulation of the oceans.

There is suggestive evidence that the melting of Greenland is already contributing to a freshening of the waters of the north Atlantic. This, in turn, may be slowing down the so-called Atlantic meridional overturning circulation — which carries a tremendous amount of warm water northward in the Atlantic.

If the circulation weakens, then it affects sea level on either side of it. That’s for two reasons (explained in more depth here): Warmer waters lie to the right or east of the Gulf Stream, and warm water expands and takes up more area — leaving sea level lower on the U.S. coast side of the circulation. A weakening would thus raise our sea level.

There’s also the fact that in the northern hemisphere, “sea surface slope perpendicular to any current flow, like the Gulf Stream, has a higher sea level on its right hand side, and the lower sea level on the left hand slide,” according to Stefan Rahmstorf of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research. So again, a weaker Gulf Stream evens that out, and you’d see sea level rise on the U.S. coast.

4. Worsening Global Warming Itself.

Finally, changes in the Arctic are expected to amplify global warming itself. The principal way this could happen is through the thawing of frozen ground or permafrost, which covers much of the Arctic, and which contains huge stores of frozen carbon.

Recent scientific analysis has affirmed that Arctic permafrost is packed with carbon — some 1,330 and 1,580 gigatons worth, and that may be a low end estimate — and that over the course of the century, a substantial fraction will get released to the atmosphere. It would probably happen slowly and steadily, but it could amount to a significant contribution to overall global warming.

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If enough [permafrost thaws], the volume of carbon emissions could be enough to set back worldwide efforts to reduce emissions from fossil fuel burning by adding an entire new source of greenhouse gases beyond the usual suspects, like fossil fuels and deforestation.

polar-bear-on-ice-flowLast month, when we learned that Arctic sea ice had reached a new record low for its winter maximum ice extent, former deputy assistant secretary of state Rafe Pomerance said: “The Arctic is unraveling, warming twice as fast as the rest of the planet.”

It’s a powerful quotation, and as the United States takes chairmanship of the Arctic Council on April 24, you shouldn’t assume that “unraveling” is irrelevant to you. We’re all invested in the Arctic, because we’re all invested in the planet.

Well, all except for the climate science deniers who are looking forward to the Apocalypse and the Rapture. “No one knows when that day or hour will come —not the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.” Matthew 24:36. 
Boy are they going to be surprised when God is pissed that they have not Cared for Creation and been good stewards of the Earth.

I’m sure that Pope Francis will have much more to say about this later this month. Vatican Announces Major Summit On Climate Change:

Catholic officials announced on Tuesday plans for a landmark climate change-themed conference to be hosted at the Vatican later this month, the latest in Pope Francis’ faith-rooted campaign to raise awareness about global warming.

The summit, which is scheduled for April 28 and entitled “Protect the Earth, Dignify Humanity. The Moral Dimensions of Climate Change and Sustainable Development,” will draw together a combination of scientists, global faith leaders, and influential conservation advocates such as Jeffrey Sachs, Director of the United Nations Sustainable Development Solutions Network. UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon is slotted to offer the opening address, and organizers say the goal of the conference is to “build a consensus that the values of sustainable development cohere with values of the leading religious traditions, with a special focus on the most vulnerable.”

“[The conference hopes to] help build a global movement across all religions for sustainable development and climate change throughout 2015 and beyond,” read a statement posted on several Vatican-run websites.

According to a preliminary schedule of events for the convening, attendees hope to offer a joint statement highlighting the “intrinsic connection” between caring for the earth and caring for fellow human beings, “especially the poor, the excluded, victims of human trafficking and modern slavery, children, and future generations.”

popeThe gathering will undoubtedly build momentum for the pope’s forthcoming encyclical on the environment, an influential papal document expected to be released in June or July. The Catholic Church has a long history of championing conservation and green initiatives, but Francis has made the climate change a fixture of his papacy: he directly addressed the issue during his inaugural mass in 2013, and told a crowd in Rome last May that mistreating the environment is a sin, insisting that believers “safeguard Creation … Because if we destroy Creation, Creation will destroy us! Never forget this!” The Vatican also held a five-day summit on sustainability in 2014, calling together microbiologists, economists, legal scholars, and other experts to discuss ways to address climate change.

The upcoming conference and the release of the encyclical could also have political implications here in the United States. The pope is scheduled to stop by Washington, D.C. during his trip to America in September, where he plans to address a joint session of Congress.

Give ’em hell, Frank!

8 responses to “The climate science that you do not get from your tee-vee news

  1. Chris Mooney has appeared in person at the Tucson Book Festival and has been well received. In his two books, “The Republican War on Science” and “The Republican Brain” has has posited an extremely scary premise. His premise is that the more education a Republican has received, the more likely this person is to be a climate denier and to be much more anti-science.
    This is a stunning finding, but I think that mainstream media doesn’t want to think through what it means. I recently had a short email conversation with a professor who called Mooney a “partisan hack”. In fact, Mooney’s theory is based on solid, impartial studies.

  2. As I read this blog, I thought about all the times I have argued here about climate change and the near rage that went into the responses to what I had to say. I was always a little puzzled by the responses because I never denied the existence of climate change, just the impact mankind has on it. I have done some studying and reading and I had a blinding glimpse of the obvious and, for the life of me, I don’t know why I didn’t see it before.

    Establishing a connection between mankind’s actions and global climate change/warming serves the liberal left wing agenda very well and is critical to their purposes. They have to do that because:

    It allows the punishing of success by penalizing the “polluters”. And by “polluters” they mean the western industrialized world which has been too successful at the expense of the rest of the world. They look the other way for other polluters whose standard of living is less than the western world, as if their pollution was somehow less polluting.

    It allows for the damaging, if not destruction, of big corporations which they hate with such fury and passion. Again, though, that is only in the western world as if corporations in the rest of the world are somehow better.

    It allows vast transfers of unearned wealth from the west to the rest of the world. Whether it is the purchase of energy credits, or mandatory “investments”, or simply outright cash transfers, the west must give until it hurts.

    It requires the standard of living in the west to be reduced to a fairer level. It isn’t fair that the west enjoys such a high standard of living while other parts of the world live in mud huts. It just isn’t fair otherwise.

    In general, it is an opportunity to make it a fairer world. Income disparities can be reduced, if not eliminated. The rich would get their comeuppance and the poor would see their lot in life improved.

    So it really isn’t a concern about climate change, which is going to occur regardless of what people do. It is all about social justice using climate change as the club to make it happen. But first, you have to beat the world into submission about mankind being the culprit.

    • Steve, you are wrong. On everything that you have said. EVERYTHING.

    • The worst aspect of your approach, Steve, is that if you’re wrong you won’t know it until it’s way too late. For a guy who owned a business, and presumably is familiar with the concept of risk management, it’s an odd approach.

      • Bob, in one sentence, you have encapsulated my greatest concern about climate change. What investments should be made based on the possibility that mankind does have an impact on it? How steep should it be? How much damage to our economy do we accept based upon squishy science? And it will cause damage.

        I am familiar with risk management, but the tenets of risk management are difficult to apply here because change is going to occur regardless of what we do and we have no “go/no go” decision to make. The only question is how much we are willing to invest on the chance we can affect the outcome. And that is VERY difficult to assess because the whole subject of climate change is intertwined with politics to the point that the two can’t be separated. The political side is driven with all sorts of non-climate change related issues in deciding what we should pay. In other words, the west has to be punished for their success while the rest of the world continues to pollute at will. Which makes no sense if we are serious about trying to affect climate change.

  3. Thanks for sharing that.