Category Archives: Nature

Greenland’s ice cap marches towards extinction


We begin with a brief excerpt from a report By Clare Foran, associate editor of and political writer for The Atlantic:

Denial of the broad scientific consensus that human activity is the primary cause of global warming could become a guiding principle of Donald Trump’s presidential administration. Though it’s difficult to pindown exactly what Trump thinks about climate change, he has a well-established track record of skepticism and denial. He has called global warming a “hoax,” insisted while campaigning for the Republican nomination that he’s “not a big believer in man-made climate change,” and recently suggested that “nobody really knows” if climate change exists. Trump also plans to nominate Republicans to lead the Environmental Protection Agency and the Energy Department who have expressed skepticism toward the scientific agreement on human-caused global warming.

Indeed, Trump’s election is a triumph of climate denial, and will elevate him to the top of a Republican Party where prominent elected officials have publiclyrejected the climate consensus. It’s not that the presidential election was a referendum on global warming. Climate change barely came up during the presidential debates, and voters rated the environment as a far less pressing concern than issues like the economy, terrorism, and health care. But that relative lack of concern signals that voters have not prioritized action on climate change, if they want any action taken at all. Trump’s victory sends a message that failing to embrace climate science still isn’t disqualifying for a presidential candidate, even as scientists warn that the devastating consequences of global warming are under way and expected to intensify in the years ahead.

Trump’s elevation of the Republican booboisie to positions of unprecedented power over the national climate agenda represents the start of a truly dystopian nightmare.

It would all be bizarrely humorous were the consequences not so great and at what history may well look back on as a nexial moment in world politics.

and as for that evidence, consider this from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration:

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And the report:

Although surface melt on the Greenland Ice Sheet did not set a new record in 2016, the long-term trend of decreasing mass continued, according to the latest Arctic Report Card from NOAA and its partners. Multiple factors likely contributed to ice loss in 2016: early melt-season onset, low reflectiveness (“albedo” to climate experts), and unusually high air temperatures and prolonged melt in some regions.

Adapted from the 2016 Arctic Report Card, this graph shows monthly changes in Greenland’s total ice mass between April 2002 and April 2016. The ice mass amounts measured (vertical axis) are relative to the ice mass as of April 2002 (horizontal line set to 0). Report card authors estimated the changes based on measurements by NASA’s Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment (GRACE). The background photo is from Operation IceBridge.

The ups and downs in the graph track the accumulation of snow in the cold season and the melting of the ice sheet in the warm season. The Arctic Report Card: Update for 2016 reported that between April 2015 and April 2016, Greenland lost approximately 191 gigatonnes of ice, roughly the same amount that was lost between April 2014 and April 2015. Though the April 2015–April 2016 mass loss was lower than the average April-to-April decline over the entire observation period, it continued the long-term melt trend: approximately 269 gigatonnes per year from 2002 to 2016.

Over the course of the  2016 warm season, melting was especially pronounced in Greenland’s southwest and northeast. Melt season lasted about 30 to 40 days longer than usual in the northeast, and about 15 to 20 days longer along the west coast. Albedo (the proportion of incoming solar radiation reflected back into space) was the fifth lowest since the year 2000. Albedo was particularly low in the southwest, and near normal only in the northwest.

Climate change poses a major threat to ants


While most of us notice the humble ant only when it invades our homes in wet weather, filch our food at picnic, or deliver a nasty bite when we invade their world, this modest insect plays a vital role in the ecosystem, as noted on the Harvard University forest website:

  • Ants play an important role in the environment.
  • Ants turn and aerate the soil, allowing water and oxygen to reach plant roots.
  • Ants take seeds down into their tunnel to eat the nutritious elaiosomes that are part of the seed.
  • These seeds often sprout and grow new plants (seed dispersal).
  • Ants eat a wide variety of organic material and provide food for many different organisms.

But now, as with so many other creatures on the land, under the waters, and in the air, this vitally important animal faces a serious threat from climate change, a threat that could pose great peril to the rest of us.

From Bowling Green State University:

The world of forest ants may provide a macrocosm of the complex reactions and interactions among species affected by global climate change, according to a research project involving Bowling Green State University biologist Dr. Shannon Pelini.

As escalating amounts of carbon dioxide are introduced into the atmosphere, a chain reaction is induced, leading to increasingly warmer temperatures, Pelini said. This is taking place at an alarming rate, making it more important than ever that we understand how climate change will affect our natural world.

Many scientists have attempted to tackle this issue by determining the thermal tolerance of various species, then predicting what will happen to them as our world warms. However, this approach as a way to understand nature has its drawbacks because one species never acts alone. Individuals are constantly interacting with other species and the environment in which they live, so comprehending how global change impacts these interactions is crucial to a holistic understanding.

Pelini and her colleagues have made significant progress in this direction with their new study, “Climatic Warming Destabilizes Forest Ant Communities” [open access], which looks at complex interactions of ant communities and their responses to warming. The study was published [open access] in the Oct. 26 edition of the journal Science Advances.

Funded by the U.S. Department of Energy Program for Ecosystem Research and the National Science Foundation, the long-term experiment looked at the interactions ants exhibit over nesting structures in two distinctly different geographical areas. As a postdoctoral researcher at Harvard University, and in collaboration with investigators from the University of Vermont, the University of Tennessee and North Carolina State University, Pelini designed and built large warming chambers within Harvard Forest in Massachusetts. These chambers were also replicated in Duke Forest in North Carolina to provide a comparison to the cooler Harvard Forest.

“It’s one of the biggest climate change experiments in the entire world, which is a really exciting thing to be a part of,” Pelini said. “We were shooting for understanding what goes on with ant communities that exist in a cooler northern latitude and how their responses compare to the same suite of species in populations that occur in the warmer lower latitude.”

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DroughtWatch: Rains bring some significant relief


Today’s updated report from the United States Drought Monitor shows reductions in all drought classifications, with eight of California’s 58 counties now drought-free, thanks to last week’s rains and snowfall:

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Quote of the day: Be afraid. Be very afraid. . .


A sign of the complete corporate victory over the public interest, from Monday’s lead editorial in the Washington Post:

Having held partial or controlling stakes in companies ranging from Phillips Petroleum to American Railcar Industries, billionaire investor Carl Icahn certainly knows a thing or two about how federal regulators deal with business. He also is, at 80, a successful, intelligent, deeply experienced investment pro. Whether his is the ideal résumé for a special adviser to the president on regulatory reform is less clear. Foxes are experts on chicken coops, it is true.

Federal safety, environmental and financial regulations necessarily involve balancing of costs and benefits to the public. The Obama administration’s approach frequently struck the balance in favor of more rules, and there is a reasonable case to be made that pruning regulatory overgrowth could, indeed, help the economy — which, by the way, is doing reasonably well. But Mr. Icahn’s sweeping indictments of the regulatory agencies, voiced repeatedly during the campaign, suggest he would urge President-elect Donald Trump to swing wildly in the opposite direction. “You almost get enraged by some of the stuff,” he told CNBC on Thursday.

The Trump transition team’s statement announcing Mr. Icahn’s new role quoted him as saying that “under President Obama, America’s business owners have been crippled by over $1 trillion in new regulations.” We don’t know where that number comes from, though we did find an estimate from the conservative regulation skeptics at American Action Forum, a think tank, that puts the total cost of major new regulation imposed since the beginning of the second term of George W. Bush’s presidency at $1 trillion. Notably, that study also mentioned $745 billion worth of offsetting social benefits.

Arctic lakes are melting earlier every year


The spatial distribution and magnitude of all significant trends of breakup start and end for all study areas. From the report.

The spatial distribution and magnitude of all significant trends of breakup start and end for all study areas. From the report.

Donald Trump says global warming is a hoax invented by the Chinese.

If so, why are lakes in the Arctic melting earlier with each passing year?

From the University of Southampton:

Scientists from the University of Southampton, UK have found Arctic lakes, covered with ice during the winter months, are melting earlier each spring.

The team, who monitored 13,300 lakes using satellite imagery, have shown that on average ice is breaking up one day earlier per year, based on a 14-year period between 2000 and 2013. Their findings are published in the Nature journal Scientific Reports [open access].

The researchers used information on how light is reflected off the lakes, as recorded by NASA’s Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) sensor, which collects a range of spectral and thermal data on a daily basis as it circles the globe on two satellites. This study used the changes in reflectance to identify the freezing and thawing processes.

Southampton’s Professor Jadu Dash, says: “Previous studies have looked into small numbers of lakes to show the impact of changes in temperature on the cyclic nature of lake-ice cover. However, ours is the first to use time-series of satellite data to monitor thousands of lakes in this way across the Arctic. It contributes to the growing range of observations showing the influence that warmer temperatures are having on the Arctic.”

The researchers discovered that all five study areas in the Arctic (Alaska, Northeast Siberia, Central Siberia, Northeast Canada and Northern Europe) showed significant trends of early ice break-up in the spring, but to varying degrees. Central Siberia demonstrated the strongest trend, with ice starting to break-up an average of 1.4 days earlier each year. Northern Europe showed the lowest change of ice break-up at 0.84 days earlier per year. They found a strong relationship between decreasing ice cover and an increasingly early spring temperature rise.

The team also examined the timing of formation of ice cover on the lakes in late autumn. Although the use of satellite images wasn’t possible due to the short daylight period limiting valid satellite observation, observations on the ground suggest lake freezing is starting later – further shortening the ice period, although more work would be needed to confirm this.

Co-author Professor Mary Edwards, from the University of Southampton, comments “Our findings have several implications. Changing ice cover affects the energy balance between the land and atmosphere. Less ice means a longer season for lake biology, which together with warmer temperatures will affect processes such as CO2 and CH4 emissions. Furthermore, many people use ice-covered landscapes for winter transport, and so spring and autumn travel for commercial and subsistence activities is likely to be more and more affected.”

Professor Dash concludes: “This demonstrates the potential of routine satellite data for long term monitoring of physical changes on the Earth’s surface. In the future, the new Sentinel series of satellites from the European Space Agency provide potential opportunities to examine these changes in greater detail.”

El Niño brings a severe drought to Africa


From the U.S. Geological Survey:

“Really?” and “Strange, but true” might be popular reactions to the idea that periodic El Niño events in the Pacific Ocean could have a long distance influence on drought conditions in Africa, almost half-a-world away. Unlikely as it may seem, these connections are widely accepted by climate scientists and weather experts across the globe. Strange, but true, indeed.

El Niño and its counterpart, La Niña, are the warm and cool phases of a recurring climate pattern across the tropical Pacific — the El Niño-Southern Oscillation – that shifts back and forth irregularly every two to seven years. By disrupting large-scale air movements in the tropics and thus affecting temperature, precipitation, and winds, these changes in the Pacific Ocean set off a cascade of global side effects with each oscillation.

Drought comes to Africa

In the northern hemisphere’s winter and fall of 2015, El Niño reached a record high temperature in December-January-February and triggered historic levels of famine far away in east Africa. A related drought across southern Africa affected 30 million people. In November of 2016 Zimbabwe still faced severe water shortages.

Observed Niño 3.4 sea surface temperature (SST) anomalies (vertical bars) and estimates of El Niño SST anomalies. Compared to an ensemble of climate change simulations (red line).  USGS image produced by Chris Funk. Public domain.

Observed Niño 3.4 sea surface temperature (SST) anomalies (vertical bars) and estimates of El Niño SST anomalies. Compared to an ensemble of climate change simulations (red line). USGS image produced by Chris Funk. Public domain.

Scientists from the U.S. Geological Survey, the University of California Santa Barbara, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) tracked the severe droughts in eastern and southern Africa. This science team has recently published a paper in the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society (chapter 15) that assesses the extent that warmer ocean waters resulting from human-caused climate change likely intensified the impacts of the drought.

The authors of the study evaluated the impacts of the rainfall reductions and air temperature increases in Africa during this period by means of a contra-positive experiment, in which a “world without climate change” was simulated in complex hydrologic models. These experiments revealed that the warming of El Niño beyond its historical averages during 1946-1975 likely helped produce a very large reduction in streamflow: 35% for Ethiopia and 48% for Southern Africa. Both regions experienced severe water shortages, as illustrated by estimates of per capita water availability.

“In summary, what we seem to be seeing,” said Chris Funk, a USGS scientist and lead author of the study, “is that, as the oceans warm due to climate change, pockets of very warm sea surface temperatures develop that often act to increase the impact of natural climate variations such as El Niño and La Niña. These extreme sea surface temperatures can intensify droughts over food insecure areas, contributing to water stress and disrupting economic growth.”

The data and scientific reasoning for these findings are detailed in the publicly available professional paper.

Monitoring drought to get ahead of famine

Ethiopia suffered drought conditions in 2015 that were comparable to the severe drought and ensuing famine of 1984, during which hundreds of thousands of people perished. Like the case in the 1980s, the 2015 Ethiopian drought was related to a strong El Niño. Unlike that terrible episode, widespread acute food insecurity was avoided in 2015-2016 due to effective climate services, early warning of potential food insecurity, and social safety nets, particularly through the Famine Early Warning Systems Network (FEWS NET).

USGS Water Hole Status map, early December 2016. Information source: earlywarning.usgs.gov

USGS Water Hole Status map, early December 2016. Information source: earlywarning.usgs.gov

Created by USAID in 1985 to help decision-makers plan for humanitarian crises, FEWS NET provides evidence-based analysis of food insecurity in some 35 countries. Implementing team members include the government agencies of NASA, NOAA, U.S. Department of Agriculture, and USGS, along with the commercial entities, Chemonics International Inc. and Kimetrica.

Scientists at USGS, University of California Santa Barbara, NASA, and NOAA monitored the severe droughts associated with the extreme 2015-16 El Niño event in partnership with FEWS NET specialists in Africa and Washington, helping the U.S. Agency for International Development provide early and effective humanitarian assistance. The combined information derived from U.S. satellite remote sensing, climate forecasting, and land surface modeling capabilities provided the agro-climatic evidence needed by FEWS NET food security analysts to project livelihood impacts many months in advance. The resulting early warning of potential acute food insecurity was instrumental in mobilizing the resources needed to prevent a humanitarian catastrophe.

Catastrophic ice retreat reported at both poles


One of the most frightening reports we’ve seen on the collapse of the globe’s ice caps has just been released by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

The month of November brought significant declines in ice at both poles, and at levels far beyond anything expected.

And melting ice, besides its role as confirmation of major global warming, is also the harbinger of faster-than-expected rises in sea levels across the globe.

From Climate.gov:

If every swan you ever saw was white, you might think a black swan is impossible. That idea is the basis for what people in the world of commerce call a black swan event: a situation—such as the 2008 financial crisis—so rare that few people saw it coming. In the world of sea ice, November 2016 brought the kind of surprise that few sea ice scientists anticipated. Ice conditions were so unusual that Ted Scambos, the lead scientist at the National Snow and Ice Data Center, described them as a black swan event.

Really, really, really low

In early December, the National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC) reported that both Arctic and Antarctic sea ice extents had dropped to record lows in November 2016. The surprise was more than just both hemispheres experiencing record-low extents. The extents were far outside the range of variability that we’d expect based on historical observations.

In its graphs of Arctic and Antarctic sea ice extent, NSIDC always includes a band of gray shading that shows the range of natural variability, which they define as ± two standard deviations. (Standard deviation is a statistical method of showing the spread of values scattered around the mean. One standard deviation above and below the mean includes roughly 68% of the values measured, two standard deviations on either side of the mean include roughly 95% of the values, and three standard deviations include 99.7% of the values.)

These graphs show the five-day running mean of Arctic (top) and Antarctic (bottom) sea ice extents, August 1 – December 20, 2016. For a five-day period in November, Arctic sea ice actually declined. (Note that the difference from the long-term average is not the same for running daily means as for monthly averages.) Adapted from NSIDC's Charctic.

These graphs show the five-day running mean of Arctic (top) and Antarctic (bottom) sea ice extents, August 1 – December 20, 2016. For a five-day period in November, Arctic sea ice actually declined. (Note that the difference from the long-term average is not the same for running daily means as for monthly averages.) Adapted from NSIDC’s Charctic.

In November 2016, Arctic sea ice extent was 3.2 standard deviations below the 1981–2010 average. The chance of that happening is 1 in 1,000. At the same time, Antarctic sea ice extent was 5.7 standard deviations below its 1981–2010 November average. The chance of that happening is 1 in 100,000,000!

Widespread warmth in the Arctic

In November 2016, Arctic sea ice extent averaged 3.51 million square miles (9.08 million square kilometers) over the course of the month.

This map shows Arctic sea ice concentration anomalies in November 2016, based on data from the National Snow and Ice Data Center. Areas with unusually high concentration are blue, and areas with unusually low concentration are red. The darker the color, the greater the difference from the difference from the long-term average.

This map shows Arctic sea ice concentration anomalies in November 2016, based on data from the National Snow and Ice Data Center. Areas with unusually high concentration are blue, and areas with unusually low concentration are red. The darker the color, the greater the difference from the difference from the long-term average.

November usually falls within the Arctic sea ice growth season: the summer minimum usually occurs in mid to late September. And sea ice extent did grow rapidly for part of the month, but then it reversed course and actually declined for five straight days, losing a total of roughly 19,000 square miles (50,000 square kilometers). The reversal was nearly unprecedented; in 2013, Arctic sea ice experienced a similar, though much smaller fall retreat: two consecutive days of melt, during which 5,400 square miles (14,000 square kilometers) of ice was lost.

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