Our planet’s systems have a tremendous capacity to absorb punishment before they begin to show signs of degradation. Earth’s ecology self-heals like a cut on a finger. It assimilates pollution by chemical, physical and biological means — it changes pollutants into non-hazardous materials and proceeds upon its merry way as if there had been no pollution at all. Up to a point.
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Acid rain is an excellent example of how our planet can self-heal. By the late 1960s, the United States was emitting so many sulfate and nitrate pollutants (smog) from burning fossil fuels, that sulfuric acid washed from the sky was killing forests and lakes. President Richard Nixon’s Clean Air Act stopped about half of the sulfur from going into our atmosphere. This was enough to allow nature to take over again and our forests and lakes began to heal.
Global warming didn’t really get started in a big way until the 1950s. Today, the warming rate is seven times greater than it was in the 1950s and the carbon emission rate is four times greater than in the ’50s.
That same sulfur pollution that caused all the acid rain in the ’60s and ’70s is a global cooling pollutant that hides warming. With grossly increasing smog in Asia since about the turn of the century, the results have been that 30 percent of warming that should have occurred has been masked or covered up by global cooling sulfate smog.
It’s also a very common misconception that some of the warming is natural. However, until about 100 years ago, our climate was cooling. The planet cooled about 5 degrees F in polar regions near Greenland (half or less globally) over the last 6,000 years. This research comes from mini-icecaps on Baffin Island where easily dateable rooted plants were revealed from melt. In the last 100 years, the temperature on Baffin has warmed about 7 degrees Fahrenheit; 2 degrees warmer than at any time in the last 120,000 years. Most of this warming has occurred since the 1950s.
The extremes we are experiencing now (temperature, rainfall, drought, etc.) will not increase at the same rate as the average temperature. The physics of thermodynamics say extremes will increase nonlinearly. Earth has lost its ability to buffer the warming. As we replace coal with non-fossil fuel alternatives, masking of warming by global cooling pollutants will also disappear, compounding the nonlinear rate of increasing extremes.
We live on a very complicated and dangerous planet that is worthy of great respect and awe. The past year’s advances in climate science should urge us to put that respect and awe into practice, taking definitive action against global warming.
The American Meteorological Society’s latest report on weather extremes tells us: “Without exception, all the heat-related events studied in this year’s report were found to have been made more intense or likely due to human-induced climate change, and this was discernible even for those events strongly influenced by the 2015 El Niño.”
Human-caused “anthropogenic” influence was documented in 23 of 28 major global geographic regions. The events included increasing average temperature, warming of winter extremes, decreasing humidity due to warming, increasing dryness, increasing heavy precipitation, increased sunshine, more extreme drought, more extreme tropical cyclones, increased wildfire burn area and intensity, decreased arctic sea ice, more high tide flooding and decreased snowpack.
Attempts at Climate Reform
President Obama’s Clean Power Plan (CPP), which is the first policy to set a national limit on power plant-generated CO2 pollution, was one of the major developments of 2015. The CPP is almost identical to the US Kyoto Protocol commitment (created in the mid-1990s) of reducing CO2 emissions but the CPP is 18 years behind Kyoto. In other words, the new regulations are no different than they were a generation ago, and we have emitted almost as much additional carbon dioxide during the delay. Implementation of the CPP began in June 2015, six years after carbon dioxide was successfully declared a pollutant by the EPA. In February 2016 however, the US Supreme Court ordered the CCP back to Federal Appeals Court to determine if it is legal or not. This is the first time that the US Supreme Court has ever blocked an EPA rule.
The US climate commitment at Paris, 80 percent CO2 emissions reductions by 2050, is 30 percent less than and 30 years behind Kyoto Phase 2, which was supposed to be implemented by 2020. President-elect Trump has threatened to back out of the Paris Agreement and he will also have final say over the CPP when it returns from court. After over 20 years of trying, we remain without meaningful climate pollution regulations, even though the US is the single country that has unarguably emitted a third of all CO2 ever emitted — three times more than China. It is also very important to note that the US is the only country in the world that did not ratify the Kyoto Protocol.
Increasing Wildfires Across Western North America
Work from the Sierra Nevada Research Institute by Anthony Westerling reveals the western US wildfire season has increased by over 60 percent since the 1970s, from 138 days to 222 days, because of earlier onset of spring. The average burn time has increased nearly 800 percent, from six days to 52 days, because of deeper drying from early snowmelt. Burned area increased an astonishing 12 times (1,271 percent). Human-caused ignition has played a very small role in increasing wildfire trends. Westerling also notes: “Given projections for further drying within the region due to human-induced warming, this study underlines the potential for further increases in wildfire activity.”
Work from the University of Idaho and Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory led by John Abatzoglou revealed that most of the increase in wildfire across the American West has happened since about 2000, and beetle killed trees are not factored into the trends (40 million acres across the US West has been killed by native beetles since 2000). Abatzoglou says that in 20 to 30 years, so much of the forest will have burned that the annual burn rate will begin to fall even with continued warming, because there will be too little forest left to burn.
The Amazon Continues to Emit More Carbon Than it Absorbs
It began in 2005 with a 100-year drought. Then in 2010, there was another, more extreme drought. Billions of trees were killed. As a result, the Amazon is no longer absorbing CO2. Instead, it is emitting it to the tune of 257 megatons annually — more than half of Brazil’s annual emissions. The most recent and extensive study of this topic, from 56 researchers at the University of Exeter in the UK, led by Ted Feldpausch, showed the decreasing sequestration was not from drought kill alone, but drought stress induced by higher temperatures was also responsible.
In 2010, I spoke with Leeds University researcher Simon Lewis who performed some of the first work on Amazonia after the 2010 drought. He said billions of trees were killed in the two droughts, and that for all of the trees to decay will take a relatively short 29 years in the rain forest. Lewis continued, “Two droughts like this in one decade will not completely offset the sink within that decade, but three in a decade may.” Considering the newer work by Feldpausch shows the flip has already occurred, it’s clear that — as so often happens with climate science — the deeper we look, the more extensive the damage really is.
A Large Increase in Methane Emissions
Methane is over 100 times more powerful of a greenhouse gas than CO2 in the 20-year short term time frame where abrupt changes pose the most risk. Research from Harvard and Lawrence Berkeley National Labs reports that US methane emissions have increased by more than 30 percent over the 2002–2014 period. The increase is greatest in the central part of the country, but no individual source was as yet discernable and was not readily attributable to any speciﬁc source type. These researchers say the emissions could account for 30-60 percent of the global growth of atmospheric methane during this period. While fracked gas is obviously the source, attribution in these atmospheric studies is more complicated.
Global Warming Psychology
Work from Yale, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, continues a trend of defining the culpability of the so-called Climate Change Counter Movement (CCCM) in obfuscating climate science. This work looked at 164 organizations identified in other academic literature as being involved in the CCCM between 1993-2013 and included 40,785 pieces of textual content and more than 39 million words. Two main findings emerged: organizations with corporate funding were more likely to have distributed content meant to polarize the climate change issue; and corporate funding influences the actual thematic content of these polarization efforts, confirming previous work showing the CCCM to be at the root of climate change politics and discourse.
NOAA Ice-Sheet Collapse Warning
NOAA says it takes 10 years or more for new science to go from conception to acceptance by the consensus. This “warning” implies the Antarctic, and particularly the West Antarctic Ice Sheet (WAIS), is likely the most important part of climate change as sea level rise greater than three feet per century is beyond the rate at which our civilization can adapt. NOAA’s ostensible warning suggests that in the very near future, we will see new modeling that shows 10 feet of abrupt sea level rise by 2050 to 2060 from collapse of the WAIS. This means coastal infrastructure that represents a disproportionate piece of the global economy will be submerged or degenerated to the point of dysfunction, with plausible global economic breakdown.
Extremely salient to this ostensible “warning”: prehistoric evidence of such ice-sheet collapse, not represented by modeling, is common, and at its most extreme is represented by 6.5 to 10 feet of sea level rise in 12 to 24 years at Xcaret Reef on the Yucatan Peninsula 121,000 years ago, from research out of the Autonomous University of Mexico and the German Science Institute in 2009 by Paul Blanchon, et al.
Antarctic Ice Shelves Deteriorating Rapidly
Early this year, researchers at Scripps Institution of Oceanography at University of California, San Diego showed Antarctic ice shelf volume decline from zero to 300 cubic kilometers in about the last 20 years. The loss is caused by thinning, mostly from melt below the surface. Ice loss was led by the WAIS, which increased by 70 percent in the last 10 years of the study. At its greatest, the under-ice melt rate is up to 100 meters per year (328 feet).
Ocean Heat Content Doubles in Recent Decades
The above research from Scripps Institute is proven through data collection that dates back as far as the extraordinary 18th century (1872-76) circumpolar ocean science expedition of the HMS Challenger led by Captain George Nares. Work from the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, Princeton, NOAA and Penn State shows that nearly half of the industrial-era increase in global ocean heat content has occurred in recent decades, with over a third of the accumulated heat occurring below 700 meters.
First Tipping Point Timeline for Collapse of the WAIS
Research out of the German National Science Institute first described a very distinct tipping point with the WAIS where collapse becomes irreversible in about 2050 to 2060. The very important take-away from this work is that to prevent ice-sheet collapse, we must return ocean temperature to its preindustrial stable temperature by 2050. The challenge here is that it is much more difficult to cool the oceans than it is the atmosphere. See here for an in-depth article in Truthout about the WAIS and the ability of current policy to prevent what would be the largest and most impactful climate change reality of our time.
Dynamical Ice-Sheet Collapse Modeling Arrives
Consensus climate projections have not, up to now, included abrupt sea level rise, because it has not yet been modeled. But this is changing. Researchers at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and Penn State (DeConto and Pollard) have for the first time modeled marine ice sheet collapse physics with results that begin to show what ice-sheet collapse might have looked like in the distant past. These physics include hydrofracturing of buttressing ice shelves (melt water heavier than ice that forces crevasses open) and structural collapse of marine-terminating ice cliffs where 200 to 300 feet is as tall as an ice cliff can get before it collapses under its own weight. This has very important implications for the WAIS — which rises 6,000 feet above sea level and whose bed rests on the ocean floor 3,000 feet below sea level — where crushed ice debris from collapse can be rapidly washed away from the collapsing ice face by ocean waters.
Larsen C Ice Shelf Collapsing
The Larsen C Ice Shelf in Antarctica is collapsing. Preceding the Larsen C, the Larsen B went in 2002; preceding that, the Larsen A went in 1995. Both A and B were about the size of Rhode Island. B went in 40 days. It disintegrated into a pile of crushed ice three times the size of Rhode Island and washed out to sea. In early 2016, a crack across the back of the Larsen C Ice Shelf was discovered. By December, it was 70 miles long and 300 feet wide, and extended 1,000 feet — all the way through the 1,000 feet-thick ice shelf. It is only a matter of time before a Delaware-size iceberg breaks off, or the ice shelf disintegrates into crushed ice like the Larsen B.
The important thing here is that each of these three ice shelves was closer to the South Pole than the one that melted before it, meaning that warming is progressing. Moving even closer to the pole, the next ice shelves are the Ross and Ronne, on either side of the WAIS, both bigger than California. The great difference between the Larsen Ice Shelves and the Ross and Ronne is that the Larsen’s buttressing only held back a small amount of mountain ice along the Antarctic Peninsula. The Ross and Ronne will release the 9,000 feet-thick WAIS with enough ice to raise the sea level 16 to 20 feet.
Alternatives and Renewable Energy
For the first time, green energy implementation was greater than increasing energy demand — meaning, more green energy was made available than the total energy that was needed in the world. China leads the world with clean energy installation, triple that of the US and Europe. China has also announced that it would not be building new coal-fired power generation, and 200 coal facilities already permitted or in the planning stages will not be built. India said it had enough generation already built to last three to five years.
In 2016, the cost of solar dropped to 2.7 cents per kWh, less than the 3 cents per kWh for fracked gas. Solar costs have fallen more than 80 percent since 2008, onshore wind is down 40 percent, and grid-scale batteries cost 70 percent less. Total world solar and wind generation is now over 3 percent of the total.
Stratospheric Geoengineering With Limestone, Not Sulfates
Geoengineering to cool the Earth with global cooling sulfates has a bad reputation and is widely believed to make acid rain and ocean acidity much worse. This is a good guess as lower atmospheric sulfate emissions have historically created serious problems with acid rain and ocean acidity. The geoengineering technology, however, uses 100 times less sulfate than we are emitting today, and injects it into the stratosphere above 50,000 feet where it works literally 100 times better than in the lower atmosphere. However, sulfate eats ozone and so far, we are pretty sure that this relationship would not be a good thing.
Earlier this month, a team from Harvard led by David Keith published a study about using calcite (calcium carbonate or limestone) to cool the Earth. This class of alkaline metal salts results in similar cooling to sulfates — with a big difference. The minute amount of stratospheric injection of calcite not only cooled our atmosphere markedly, it increased stratospheric ozone (instead of depleting it). Costs for an operation that uses calcite for cooling are fantastically low compared to direct atmospheric removal of carbon dioxide, which itself is dramatically less expensive than the cost of emissions reductions. Calcite dust in our atmosphere is deposited naturally across the globe at a rate that is 10 to 1,000 times greater than the amount of calcite that would be needed to cool the Earth.
It’s also very important to note that geoengineering is not a substitute for evolving global energy generation to alternatives other than fossil fuels. The fossil fuel era was an extraordinary time that allowed our civilization to mature. Now that we have discovered much cleaner, cheaper and less impactful ways to generate our energy, the sooner we ditch fossil fuels the better.
Sequestration Through Mineralization: Faster Than Previously Understood
A field demonstration, published by a cast of 18 scientists in Iceland, the US, Denmark, Australia and the Netherlands, has shown rapid CO2 storage (sequestration) through permanent mineralization at the CarbFix site in Iceland. The project injected CO2 into basaltic rocks at a depth of 1800 feet and observed mineralization — the chemical conversion of CO2 into stable metal salts like calcium carbonate. This process has been known for quite some time but now a field evaluation has shown it to happen in less than two years, instead of the hundreds of thousands of years previously projected. This short duration mineralization vastly reduces the risk to atmospheric leakage and compromise of aquifers.
Carbon Capture Using Fuel Cells Generates More Net Energy
This one is particularly astonishing: carbon dioxide removal from coal generation flue gas can be accomplished with the addition of existing fuel cell technology to the coal electricity generation process. This private technology, partnering with Exxon Mobile (white paper) showed removal of 90 percent of CO2 and 70 percent of smog-producing pollutants. Most surprisingly, the process generates excess energy and water as byproducts instead of requiring additional energy. The total generation with the combined processes is 180 percent of the generation that would come from the coal alone.
Direct Air Capture Work Continues
Throughout the year, many climate scientists continued to advocate for both dramatic reductions in emissions and an engagement with CO2 capture technologies. Work in advancing our climate culture towards negative emissions continued with private organizations completing field scale production units (Global Thermostat and Carbon Engineering) with costs far less than some theorists have suggested. Most of the new technologies to remove CO2 from the atmosphere reduce energy requirements and increase efficiency. It just goes to show that some theoretical scientists, like is so often the case with climate research, are arguing against science that proves otherwise.
Of great interest in 2016 was the advancement of the “moisture swing” CO2 capture process being developed by Dr. Klaus Lackner, director of the Center for Negative Carbon Emissions at Arizona State University. In 2009, Lackner’s work had proceeded to where costs were $16 per ton with $0.05 kWh energy costs. Now that solar is at $0.03 per kWh and continuing to fall rapidly, costs are obviously falling for direct air capture with all technologies. This technology is particularly effective because it does not use high temperature to restore the absorbing materials. Instead, room temperature water is used to “wash” the CO2 out of the process.
Emissions Reductions, Trump and the Future
Emissions reductions can no longer prevent dangerous climate change. Even with the best case scenario of 80 percent reductions by 2050 (as outlined in the Paris commitment), we will see additional warming of double to triple what we have already seen — well above the 2 degree C limit. We have simply delayed too long.
To prevent Earth’s temperature from exceeding the dangerous limit we have to remove the excess long-lived CO2 already in our sky. The new technologies of directly removing already emitted CO2 have the capacity to prevent dangerous climate change in time frames that matter. In addition to emissions reductions, it’s clear that direct treatment of climate pollution must be part of our future as we head into 2017.