Monday, July 04, 2016

Getting Hotter

Text of the Sustainable Futures Report for Friday the 24th of June, published as a podcast at

The big news in the UK this week is the EU referendum and by the time you hear this you will probably know the outcome. As I write this episode all I can say is that it is very finely balanced. The referendum has displaced most other news, some of which is arguably far more important. You'll remember that I have commented that each month this year has been the hottest month since records began. In fact there has been a sequence of 13 months, each one the hottest for the time of year since records began. This week I’m looking at what the scientists say is causing this, and what the consequences could be.

Global Temperatures

The US National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) reports that for the 13th consecutive month, global temperatures hit a new record level in May, and those 13 months are the longest such stretch in 137 years of record-keeping.

According to scientists from NOAA’s National Centers for Environmental Information.  

The globally averaged sea surface temperatures were at a record high for May,
The Northern Hemisphere snow cover extent was the fourth smallest in the 50-year period of record.
Much-warmer-than-average temperatures contributed to North America’s fourth warmest May since continental records began in 1910 and unusually warm conditions were present across much of northern Europe. In Finland, 20 locations set new all-time high May temperature records. 
Africa saw its fourth warmest May since 1910
New Zealand recorded its highest May temperature since national records began in 1909, while Australia recorded its second highest May temperature since 1910.

NASA reported earlier this year that 2016 Arctic Sea Ice Wintertime Extent had hit Another Record Low
The new record low follows record high temperatures in December, January and February around the globe and in the Arctic. 

The atmospheric warmth probably contributed to this lowest maximum extent, with air temperatures up to 6℃ above average. The wind patterns in the Arctic during January and February were also unfavourable to ice growth because they brought warm air from the south and prevented expansion of the ice cover. But ultimately, what will likely play a bigger role in the future trend of Arctic maximum extents is warming ocean waters, said 
Walt Meier, a sea ice scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center.
“It is likely that we're going to keep seeing smaller wintertime maximums in the future because in addition to a warmer atmosphere, the ocean has also warmed up. That warmer ocean will not let the ice edge expand as far south as it used to,” 

This year’s record low sea ice maximum extent will not necessarily result in a subsequent record low summertime minimum extent, Meier said. Summer weather conditions have a larger impact than the extent of the winter maximum in the outcome of each year’s melt season; warm temperatures and summer storms make the ice melt fast, while if a summer is cool, the melt slows down.
Arctic sea ice plays an important role in maintaining Earth’s temperature—its bright white surface reflects solar energy that the ocean would otherwise absorb. But this effect is more relevant in the summer, when the sun is high in the sky in the Arctic, than in the winter, when the sun doesn’t rise for months within the Arctic Circle. In the winter, the impact of missing sea ice is mostly felt in the atmosphere, said Jennifer Francis, a climate scientist at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey. “In places where sea ice has been lost, those areas of open water will put more heat into the atmosphere because the air is much colder than unfrozen sea water,” she said. “As winter sea ice disappears, areas of unusually warm air temperatures in the Arctic will expand. These are also areas of increased evaporation, and the resulting water vapour will contribute to increased cloudiness, which in winter, further warms the surface.”

Atmospheric CO2

These climate records come as atmospheric co2 continues to rise, and at an increasing rate. Carbon dioxide surpassed 400 parts per million (ppm) at the South Pole for the first time in 4 million years on 23rd May 2015, [last year] according to the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii. One year on the level has reached 408ppm. The level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere fluctuates throughout the year because large amounts are absorbed by vegetation in the northern hemisphere during the growing season. But this summer levels are not expected to fall below 400 ppm and in fact they are not expected to fall below 400ppm again in our lifetime.

Prof Richard Betts, of the Met Office Hadley Centre and University of Exeter, says that the human-caused rise in the atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide is being given an extra boost this year by the natural climate phenomena of El Niño . Betts is lead author of a recent paper in Nature Climate Change. He said: "The atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration is rising year-on-year due to human emissions, but this year it is getting an extra boost due to the recent El Niño event. This warms and dries tropical ecosystems, reducing their uptake of carbon, and exacerbating forest fires. Since human emissions are now 25% greater than in the last big El Niño in 1997/98, this all adds up to a record CO2 rise this year.” Carbon dioxide, CO2, is of course the most common greenhouse gas but by no means the only one.

The Ethane Impact

Tomás Sherwen directs me to an article in reporting on ethane and a new study led by the University of Colorado Boulder, recently published in Nature Geoscience.
This found that a steady decline of global ethane emissions following a peak in about 1970 ended between 2005 and 2010 in most of the Northern Hemisphere and has since reversed. The decline of ethane and other non-methane hydrocarbons (NMHC) starting around 1970 is believed to be primarily due to better emission controls which resulted in reduced emissions from oil and gas production, storage and distribution, as well as combustion exhaust from cars and trucks. Between 2009 and 2014, ethane emissions in the Northern Hemisphere increased by about 400,000 tons annually, the bulk of it from North American oil and gas activity.

"About 60 percent of the drop we saw in ethane levels over the past 40 years has already been made up in the past five years," said Associate Research Professor Detlev Helmig, lead study author. "If this rate continues, we are on track to return to the maximum ethane levels we saw in the 1970s in only about three more years. We rarely see changes in atmospheric gases that quickly or dramatically.”

Ethane, propane and a host of other NMHCs are released naturally by the seepage of fossil carbon deposits, volcanic activity and wildfires, but human activities, which also include biomass burning and industrial use, constitute the most dominant source of the NMHCs worldwide.
"These human sources make up roughly three-quarters of the atmospheric ethane that is being emitted," said Helmig.

A component of natural gas, ethane plays an important role in Earth's atmosphere. As it breaks down near Earth's surface it can create ground-based ozone pollution, a health and environmental risk.
Chemical models by the team show that the increase in ethane and other associated hydrocarbons will likely cause additional ground-based ozone production, particularly in the summer months.
"Ethane is the second most significant hydrocarbon emitted from oil and gas after methane,"

The air samples for the study were collected from more than 40 sites around the world, from Colorado and Greenland to Germany, Switzerland, New Zealand and Earth's polar regions. The study also showed that among the air sampling locations around the world, the largest increases in ethane and shorter-lived propane were seen over the central and eastern United States, areas of heavy oil and gas activity.
"We concluded that added emissions from U.S. oil and gas drilling have been the primary source for the atmospheric ethane trend reversal," said Professor Helmig.

Implications for fracking?

Nobody actually mentions fracking in the article, but on the one hand they attribute the original decline in ethane emissions to improved controls by the oil and gas industry, and on the other they identify US oil and gas drilling as the primary source for the reversal. Maybe this is due to an increase in activity or maybe it is due to increased fugitive emissions caused by the development of fracking. Either way, greenhouse gases of all types must be controlled if we are to control emissions and slow down global warming. They must be monitored and controlled across the world, including at UK fracking sites.

"There is high interest by scientists in methane since it is a strong greenhouse gas," said Professor Helmig. The new findings on ethane increases indicate there should be more research on associated methane emissions.

Global warming is an issue because it is expected to lead to more unpredictable and violent weather. We’ve had a lot of violent weather in recent years and we’re always careful to say that it’s consistent with global warming  although of course it doesn’t prove global warming. We’ve had unpredictable and violent weather this very day in London. 
In the suburb of Bexley, south-east London, over 20mm of rain fell in one hour – close to half the June average. Two polling stations in Kingston were washed out and had to be relocated. Rail and Tube services were suspended, cars were submerged and the London Fire Brigade received more emergency calls in an hour than it expects in a whole day. More storms are expected later today. It’s not more than a couple of weeks since heavy rain led to extensive floods in Paris. 

By comparison, of course, all this is a minor inconvenience. 

Indian Heatwave

Last month India recorded its hottest day ever as temperature hit 51C (that's 124F). This has serious consequences both for agriculture and for human health. In other parts of India the monsoon rains have been falling. Lightning is not uncommon at the time of the monsoon, but this year it has been unusually violent and nearly 100 people have been struck and killed.

Prof Stefan Rahmstorf, at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research in Germany, said recently: “These [record-breaking events] are very worrying signs and I think it shows we are on a crash course with the Paris targets unless we change course very, very fast. I hope people realise that global warming is not something down the road, but it is here now and it affecting us now.”
“What is happening right now is we are catapulting ourselves out of the Holocene, which is the geological epoch that human civilisation has been able to develop in, because of the relatively stable climate,” says Rahmstorf. “It allowed us to invent agriculture, rather than living as nomads. It allowed a big population growth, it allowed the foundation of cities, all of which required a stable climate.”

But the spikes in global surface temperatures in recent months have been anything but stable. They did not just break the records, they obliterated them. “The numbers are completely unprecedented,” says Adam Scaife, at the Met Office in the UK. “They really stick out like a sore thumb.”
The scorching temperatures mean 2016 is all but certain to be the hottest year ever recorded, beating the previous hottest year in 2015, which itself beat 2014. This run of three record years is also unprecedented and, without climate change, would be a one in a million chance. Scaife says: “Including this year so far, 16 of the 17 warmest years on record have been since 2000 – it’s a shocking statistic.”
Prof Michael Mann, at Penn State University in the US said, “It is in my view highly unlikely that we would be seeing record drought, like we’re seeing in California, record flooding in Texas, unprecedented wildfires in western North America, and the strongest recorded hurricanes in both the northern and southern hemisphere were it not for the impact of human-caused global warming.”

The Precautionary Principle

All these events are consistent with global warming  although of course they don’t prove global warming. But what about the precautionary principle? If we can’t be sure that something is true but we know that the consequences could be horrendous if it is, isn’t it time to take precautions just in case?

And yet if there’s no consensus on the EU referendum, even within parties, there’s certainly no consensus on climate change and global warming; on what we should do about it or whether we should do anything at all. That’s just the UK. All parties in all countries have to come together, reach a consensus and implement actions. After last year’s Paris climate summit David Cameron said: “We've secured our planet for many, many generations to come– and there is nothing more important than that.” Sadly that’s untrue. Yes, there is nothing more important than securing the planet for future generations, and yes, 195 countries came to an agreement. They committed themselves to INDCs, Individual Nationally Determined Contributions to the reduction of greenhouse gases. But these INDCs were all calculated on different bases and did not explain how the reductions would be achieved. When they were all added together the conclusion was that they would not be enough to limit global warming to 2℃, let alone the ideal 1.5℃ level. Achievement of anything depends on implementation of measures, as yet undefined, to fulfil these INDCs. There will be a review of progress in 5 years time. I feel that might be too late.

 All very depressing, but as I’ve said before, if you don’t believe anything can be done you might as well not get out of bed. There are things to be done. They take the form of reiterating facts, of highlighting risks, of exposing the fallacy of unquestioned business as usual, even of public protest. Many people have said that the referendum campaign is about the future of our children and grandchildren. So is the protection of our way of life on this planet. Only it’s much more important than the EU. And if we make the wrong decision on the planet there really is no way back. Of course, even though the EU voting is over, the reverberations of the decision will go on and on. Don’t let that distract you from more important things.

Air Quality

Air quality, for example. Recently it was shown that some VW cars were programmed to emit far less pollution during test than they would in normal operating conditions. The saga goes on. Now it has been revealed that cars from VW and many other manufacturers switch off their pollution control systems automatically if the ambient temperature falls below 18℃. This is to prevent damage to the engine, and is perfectly legal within the regulations. Last year the temperature in the UK exceeded 18℃ on only 50 days out of 365. 

I commented last week on the Deregulation Act, which implies that regulations, including environmental regulations, should be implemented giving priority to economic growth. Should we soft-pedal on emissions legislation for cars to protect our automotive industries? Where’s the economic growth in preventing early deaths from respiratory diseases? If we treat fewer patients for respiratory diseases that actually cuts the contribution to GDP growth from that aspect of healthcare. Or to look at it the opposite way, the more patients we treat for such diseases, the more economic growth. The world can really be perverse.

Just a couple of news items before I go.

News from China

The i newspaper published a letter this week from Elizabeth Broderick Barker. “Over the past year, my husband and I have bought five household items of Chinese origin, ranging from a leaf blower to a tin opener, and each one either broke shortly after purchase or simply did not work at all. Have I just been unlucky or has anyone else had  similar experiences? I am now feeling very nervous about our nuclear power stations.” 

This was followed up by another from Chris Phillips. 
“Until 2013 I owned a small company producing components for the car trade.  However Chinese manufactured components flooded the market. They were for the most part perfect copies of German, French and Japanese designs ( no fear of patent laws ). They looked good and were widely available and were cheap. Unfortunately the quality of the metals used was poor, resulting in a high warranty rate and short life expectancy. I too am feeling very nervous about our future nuclear power stations.

And late news just in. Apparently as a result of unprecedented turnout of people to vote in the referendum the government decided to extend the vote to two days. Anyone intending to vote leave was told to come back on Friday.

Well by now you’ll know what effect, if any, this had on the result. I don’t know the result yet, but if the people who did the exit poll at the general election are as accurate this time, I’ll know at about ten past ten this evening. That’s last evening to you.

I’ll no doubt comment on it next week. That’s next week to all of us.

This is Anthony Day.
That was the Sustainable Futures Report.

That’s all for now.

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