Five Questions for John Holdren
On the U.S. Climate Assessment
The federal government this month released its National Climate Assessment
, the most comprehensive report to
John P. Holdren
date on the climate impacts already being felt in the U.S. Saying climate change “has moved firmly into the present,” the report documented how drier regions are growing drier, heat waves more intense, and large swaths of forest dying from insect infestations. Yale Environment 360
asked John P. Holdren, director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, five questions about the report and about plans by President Obama to intensify actions to rein in CO2 emissions and adapt to rising seas and other changes. Read more.
14 May 2014:
Early El Niño Conditions
May Spell Big Weather Impact This Year
Indications are growing that an El Niño weather pattern may be forming in the Pacific Ocean, which could have a profound impact on global weather. El Niño events are spawned by unusually warm ocean waters in the Pacific,
and these NASA satellite images
are one indication of warmer waters. The images depict sea-surface height anomalies, with above average sea-surface height shown in various shades of brown. Above average sea-surface heights are an indication of warmer waters, which expand as temperatures rise. These two images compare conditions in 1997 — a year with one of the most powerful El Niño events of the 20th century — with conditions this May. If an El Niño pattern does develop this year, it could lead to wetter conditions in western North America and South America, which could help end a severe drought now plaguing the U.S. West. The 1997/98 El Niño also created warmer and drier conditions in much of Asia. Other evidence, including data from a network of buoys in the Pacific, also shows a deep pool of warm waters sliding east across the Pacific since January.
Interview: Can Marine Life Adapt
To the World’s Acidifying Oceans?
As the world’s oceans grow more acidic from increased absorption of atmospheric carbon dioxide, marine scientists are confronting a key question: How well can
organisms like mollusks, crustaceans, and corals adapt to these more corrosive conditions? One of the leading authorities in this field is University of California, Santa Barbara marine biologist Gretchen Hofmann. Her work in recent years has shown, in fact, that some sea organisms that build shells do seem to have some ability to acclimate to more acidic waters. But in an interview with Yale Environment 360
, Hofmann cautions that this adaptive capacity has its limits. The continuing burning of fossil fuels, she says, could push ocean acidity past a tipping point, rendering some mollusks and other organisms unable to build shells.
Read the interview.
13 May 2014:
Half of U.S. is Experiencing
Some Degree of Drought, Analysis Finds
Half of the United States is in the midst of a drought, a recent analysis
from the U.S. National Drought Monitor found, with nearly 15 percent of the nation in extreme to
exceptional drought. Dry conditions are pushing north rapidly, along with warmer temperatures, and soil moisture and groundwater levels are low far in advance of the agricultural peak demand season, according to the National Drought Mitigation Center. Much of the Southwest and Great Plains regions have been in a persistent drought for several years, and as this map prepared by federal agencies shows, an exceptional drought is currently plaguing parts of those regions. The entire state of California is experiencing some level of drought, much of it extreme to exceptional. Snowpack is at half its typical level in many parts of the West and much of the snow has completely melted before it normally would, researchers say. The map is based on measurements of climate, soil, and water conditions from more than 350 federal, state, and local observers around the country.
08 May 2014:
Natural Variations May Account
For Up to Half of Greenland's Warming
Up to half of the recent climate change in Greenland and surrounding regions — which have warmed at roughly twice the pace of the rest of the planet since 1979 — may be due to natural climate variations that originate in the tropical Pacific and are not connected
Meltwater from Russell Glacier
with the overall warming of the Earth, a new study
says. Still, at least half the warming remains attributable to rising global carbon dioxide emissions, according to research published in the journal Nature
. Climate data and advanced computer models show that changes in the western tropical Pacific Ocean, which has been about 0.3 degrees warmer than normal, have caused shifts in atmospheric pressure over the North Atlantic. Those changes set off a stationary wave in the atmosphere that arcs in a great circle from the tropical Pacific toward Greenland, pulling warmer air over that massive island. "Along this wave train there are warm spots where the air has been pushed down, and cold spots where the air has been pulled up," one author explained. "And Greenland is in one of the warm spots."
07 May 2014:
Stanford Drops Coal Stocks
From Its $18.7 Billion Endowment Portfolio
Stanford has become the first major U.S. university to divest its shares in coal-mining companies from its endowment funds, lending support to a growing nationwide movement calling for universities and
Fossil Free Stanford
pension funds to drop investments in fossil fuel companies. Citing guidelines that allow trustees to weigh whether “corporate policies or practices create substantial social injury” when choosing investments for the university's $18.7 billion endowment, the board decided, after five months of deliberation, to purge stakes in up to 100 companies worldwide that derive profits primarily from coal mining. A Stanford spokeswoman said that coal companies constitute a small fraction
of the university's total endowment investments, “but a small percentage is still a substantial amount of money." Board members said their decision was made partly because coal is the most carbon-intensive of any major fossil fuel and that less carbon-intensive energy sources are available.
05 May 2014:
New European Satellites
To Give More Detailed Views of Earth
The European Space Agency has begun launching
a series of satellites designed to collect detailed environmental data around the globe — from radar-based, high-definition imagery to information about the
atmosphere's chemical composition. The first satellite in the ESA's Copernicus program, the Sentinel 1A, was launched last month and has already returned many striking images based on radar data, such as this view of Brussels, Belgium, in which the dense urban area contrasts with the city's heavily vegetated surroundings. Once Sentinel satellite 1B is launched next year, the two will be able to map the entire globe in six days, giving researchers and conservationists a powerful way to monitor both short- and long-term changes in the environment. Four additional groups of satellites are set to launch this year. Those arrays will focus on high-resolution photo imagery, topography, surface temperatures, and atmospheric chemistry.
Carries on in Key Arctic Ecosystem
At a time of rapidly deteriorating relations between Russia and America, U.S. scientist Joel Berger continues his work with his Russian counterparts
Third in a series of blog posts from the Russian Arctic
on Siberia's Wrangel Island. In the third of three blog posts for Yale Environment 360
, Berger — a biologist with the Wildlife Conservation Society and the University of Montana — writes about efforts to better understand how rapid climate change might affect muskoxen and other wildlife in the Russian and North American Arctic. As Berger explains, a key focus of Russian-American scientific cooperation is Beringia, the region of northwestern Alaska and extreme northeastern Russia where two countries — and continents — are divided by the Bering Sea.
28 Apr 2014:
Economic Viability of Nuclear
Power Under Threat, Energy Group Says
Nuclear reactors in the U.S. need a boost — either through carbon taxes or regulations forcing coal-fired plants to slash emissions — or economic factors will force many to close, according to a report
from a non-profit group. Nuclear power — currently the only major zero-carbon, around-the-clock baseload power source — supplies 19 percent of U.S. electricity and is key to meeting President Obama's pledge to reduce emissions 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020, according to the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions. The economic viability of the 100 nuclear reactors in the U.S. is worsening, the report says, because of the abundance of cheap natural gas and rising wind energy production. A carbon tax or some form of carbon trading — for instance, requiring coal-fired plants to purchase and blend their electricity output with nuclear power — will be essential to keeping nuclear plants from closing before the end of their lifespans, the report contends. Four power companies recently announced the early retirement of five nuclear reactors, which constitute more than 4 percent of U.S. nuclear capacity, the group says.
25 Apr 2014:
Soils Release Far More CO2
Than Previously Thought, Researchers Find
As atmospheric CO2 levels rise, soils will likely store less carbon than scientists and climate models had predicted, according to new research
published in Science
. Scientists have long understood that rising carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere spur
photosynthesis and plant growth, adding more carbon to the soil. Scientists had thought this soil carbon was relatively stable and could remain locked away
for centuries. But the new study, from researchers at Northern Arizona University shows that increasing soil carbon actually spurs microbes to produce more CO2. Higher atmospheric CO2 levels added roughly 20 percent more carbon to the soil, through increased photosynthesis, but they also increased carbon turnover by microbes by 16.5 percent. Many climate models had assumed that far more of the carbon absorbed by soils stayed there for long periods of time. "Our findings mean that nature is not as efficient in slowing global warming as we previously thought," the lead researcher said.
24 Apr 2014:
Browning of Congo Rainforest
Is Depicted in NASA Satellite Data
Persistent drought has taken a major toll on Africa's Congo rainforest, with large-scale browning intensifying and affecting a growing portion of the forest over the past decade, an analysis of NASA satellite data shows
browning trend significantly dwarfed smaller areas of "greening" — a satellite-derived indicator of forest health — during April, May, and June each year from 2000 to 2012, according to research published in Nature
. The browning of Congo's rainforest is significant, researchers said, because most climate models forecast that tropical forests may face increasing stress and rainfall shortages in a warmer and drier 21st century. A continued drying trend might alter the composition and structure of the Congo rainforest, affecting its biodiversity and carbon storage, according to the study. "Recent climate anomalies as a result of climate change and warming of the Atlantic Ocean have created severe droughts in the tropics, causing major impacts on forests," a NASA researcher said.
Five Questions for IPCC Chairman
On Future of Climate Change Action
The UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change issued a report last month on steps the world can take
to avoid the worst impacts of future climate change. It was the final interim report before the IPCC’s major Fifth Assessment Report due to be released in October. Yale Environment 360
asked Rajendra K. Pachauri, who has served as IPCC chairman since 2002, five questions about the latest report and about the prospects that the international community will finally take decisive action to address climate change at talks scheduled in Paris in 2015.Read more.
21 Apr 2014:
Massive Data Crunch
Shows Steady Rise in Warmer Days
The proportion of days in the United States that are warmer than the long-term average increased from 42 percent in 1964 to 67 percent today,
according to an analysis of 3.2 million temperature anomalies over the last
50 years. Enigma.io
, a New York City-based company that specializes in searches of information from public databases, examined data from 2,716 U.S. weather stations to track the temperature anomalies. The company found that since 1964, temperature anomalies characterized as warm or “strong warm” have increased by an average of .5 percent a year. Enigma’s data show, for example, that in 2012, 84 percent of temperature anomalies in the U.S. skewed on the warm side. The company forecast that by the 2030s more than 70 percent of anomalous temperatures in the U.S. are likely to be higher than the historical average, rather than colder.
Studying a Polar Menagerie
On an Island in Arctic Russia
Ninety miles from the Russian mainland and 300 miles above the Arctic Circle, Wrangel Island is home to an eclectic assortment of fauna and flora — muskoxen,
Second in a series of blog posts from the Russian Arctic
polar bears, wolves, reindeer, wolverines, walruses, Asia’s only population of snow geese, and 417 plant species. Joel Berger, a field biologist with the Wildlife Conservation Society and the University of Montana, spent several weeks on Wrangel Island this spring. In the second of three blog posts for e360
, he describes the arduous conditions under which Russian and U.S. scientists collect data on the island’s odd assortment of creatures.
14 Apr 2014:
Despite Stark Warnings,
UN Panel Finds Signs of Hope on Climate
Although greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise at an alarming rate, governments are beginning to embrace carbon-cutting initiatives, while technological advances are sharply reducing the cost of deploying solar and wind power, according to the latest report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
The working group report on climate mitigation
, released in Berlin, said that global CO2 emissions have risen about 2.2 percent a year this century — twice the rate of the last few decades of the 20th century — and that holding temperature increases to 2 degrees C (3.6 F) can only be achieved through an intensive push over the next 15 years. But the report also said that the political will to reduce carbon emissions seems to be rising around the world, and that shifting the global energy system from fossil fuels to zero- or low-carbon sources would reduce economic growth by only about .06 percent per year.
“The loss in consumption is relatively modest,” said IPCC chairman Rajendra Pachauri. “The longer we delay the higher would be the cost.”
On Far-Flung Wrangel Island,
A Scientist Sizes up Muskoxen
As a field biologist for the University of Montana and the Wildlife Conservation Society, Joel Berger has been to his share of end-of-the-earth places. But few have
Muskoxen on Wrangel Island
rivaled Wrangel Island, the rugged, frozen outpost located 300 miles above the Arctic Circle in Russia’s extreme Far East. In the first of three reports for Yale e360
, Berger describes the arduous trip to Wrangel and the scientific work that has taken him there — research with Russian colleagues on the island’s 900 muskoxen, a shaggy beast that is a relic from the Pleistocene era. In subsequent reports, Berger will describe the motley assortment of wildlife that has colonized Wrangel and the contrasting impacts of climate change on eastern Siberia and Arctic Alaska.
07 Apr 2014:
Newfound Atmospheric 'Hole'
Threatens Polar Ozone Layer, Scientists Say
Researchers have discovered
a large opening in the Earth's atmosphere that is enabling pollutants to rise
Pacific atmosphere hole an elevator to the stratosphere
into the stratosphere and destroy ozone. The hole, which is in a part of the lower atmosphere called the "OH shield," is several thousand kilometers long and is centered over the tropical west Pacific Ocean. It's relatively close to Southeast Asia, a region with a booming population and rapidly increasing air pollution. The hole is a major concern because the OH shield usually scrubs air of chemical compounds emitted near the ground before they can reach the stratosphere, where those compounds can persist for long periods of time, reacting with and destroying ozone, say researchers at Germany's Alfred Wegener Institute who identified the hole. The newly discovered phenomenon acts as a sort of elevator, researchers say, drawing chlorofluorocarbons, sulfur dioxide, and other contaminants straight up to the stratosphere and bypassing the OH shield scrub.
E360 Announces Contest
Yale Environment 360
For Best Environmental Videos
is holding a contest to honor the best environmental videos. Entries must be videos that focus on an environmental issue or theme, have not been widely viewed online, and are a maximum of 15 minutes in length. The first-place winner will receive $2,000, and two runners-up will each receive $500. The winning entries will be posted on Yale Environment 360
. The deadline for entries is June 6, 2014. Read further contest information.
03 Apr 2014:
Deforestation of Sandy Soils
Increases the Release of CO2, Study Finds
The texture of the soil that microbes live in determines how much carbon they release after deforestation, with sandy soils sending the most carbon into the atmosphere, according to research
led by Yale scientists.
Soils most affected by forest loss in red; least in yellow.
Subterranean microbes regulate carbon emissions from soil, and drastic changes to the microbial community, such as those that follow deforestation, can allow more CO2 to escape into the atmosphere and exacerbate global warming. The texture of soil, rather than such factors as temperature or nutrient concentrations, was the most important factor governing the release of CO2, the researchers found. Muddy, clay-like soils provide the most stable environment for microbial communities, likely because they're better at retaining nutrients than loose, sandy soils. The team used the findings to map areas in the U.S. where soil microbial communities would be most and least affected by deforestation, which could help inform land management practices.
Comment: e360 Point/Counterpoint Debate
On University Fossil Fuel Divestment
Scientists Charles H. Greene, of Cornell University, and Daniel M. Kammen, of the University of California, Berkeley, offer commentary on the recent Yale Environment 360 Point
articles on the
Student protest at Tufts University last spring
issue of whether universities should take a stand against climate change by divesting from companies that produce oil, natural gas, or coal. Greene and Kammen make the case that the movement to divest is gaining ground on U.S. campuses and will eventually succeed because fossil fuels are increasingly seen as a potentially risky investment. "We predict that divestment at the nation’s colleges and universities will occur much more rapidly than anybody imagined at the start of the campaign just over a year ago," they write. Read their comment.
31 Mar 2014:
IPCC Issues Stark Report
On Present and Future Climate Impacts
Rapidly rising levels of greenhouse gases are already having a major impact on the earth’s natural systems and the problem is likely to grow significantly worse
unless these emissions are brought under control, according to a new report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). The report
, released in Yokohama, Japan, said that steadily rising temperatures are melting polar ice caps, sharply diminishing Arctic sea ice, intensifying heat waves and heavy rains, causing the death of coral reefs, and placing water and food supplies under stress. The report on climate impacts, drafted by several hundred of the world’s leading climate scientists, emphasized that the world’s food supply is at considerable risk. Already, the report said, heat waves and water stress are affecting the output of wheat and corn on a global scale, impacts that are only expected to intensify in the future, further exacerbating food shortages. “Nobody on this planet is going to be untouched by the impacts of climate change,” said IPCC chairman Rajendra K. Pachauri.
28 Mar 2014:
West Antarctic Glacial Loss
Is Rapidly Intensifying, New Study Shows
Six massive glaciers in West Antarctica are dumping far more ice into the Southern Ocean than they were 40
An 18-mile crack in the Pine Island Glacier
years ago and now account for 10 percent of the world’s sea level rise
, according to a new study. Reporting in Geophysical Research Letters
, an international team of scientists said that the amount of ice draining from the six glaciers has increased by 77 percent since 1973. The scientists said that the ice loss from the six glaciers is so substantial that it equals the amount of ice draining annually from the entire Greenland Ice Sheet. The scientists used satellite data from 1973 and 2013 to gauge the ice loss from the six glaciers. The Pine Island Glacier
is moving more rapidly to the sea than any of the other six, with its speed increasing from 1.5 miles per year in 1973 to 2.5 miles per year in 2013. The glaciers are dumping more ice into the sea primarily because warmer ocean waters are loosening the ice sheets’ hold on the sea floor, which speeds up glacial flow.
Five Questions for Mario Molina
On Climate Science’s PR Campaign
The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), the world’s largest scientific society,
recently launched the “What We Know”
campaign, designed to cut through the fog of misinformation about climate change and convey to the public the current state of climate science. Chairing that effort is Mario J. Molina, a chemist who won a 1995 Nobel Prize for his work on the threat to the world’s ozone layer. Yale Environment 360
asked Molina five questions about the AAAS campaign and why it might succeed where previous efforts have failed.
20 Mar 2014:
The 2013-2014 Winter Was
The 34th Coldest on Record in U.S., NASA Says
Although many residents of eastern North America may feel like they’ve just suffered through a winter of record cold, the fact is that the winter of 2013-2014 was only
the 34th coldest in 119 years of record keeping in the U.S. As this map
from the U.S. National Climatic Data Center shows, temperatures in the eastern and southern U.S. from Dec. 1, 2013, to Feb. 28th, 2014, were as much as 8 degrees C (14 F) colder than the 2000 to 2013 average for those months. But the western U.S. and Alaska saw unusually warm weather, with California experiencing its hottest winter on record. Overall, temperatures this past winter in the U.S. were about 1 degree F above average. Meanwhile, temperatures in Russia, Asia, and much of Europe were well above average this winter, and land temperatures globally for December, January, and February were the 10th warmest on record.
19 Mar 2014:
CO2 Levels Have Crossed
400 ppm Threshold Far Earlier This Year
Concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere have reached the 400 parts per million threshold two months earlier this year than last, an indication that the planet will soon experience the 400 ppm level year-round, according to
scientists from the Scripps Institute of Oceanography. Last year was the first time in hundreds of thousands of years that the 400 ppm threshold was crossed. Scripps scientists expect
CO2 levels to hover around 400 ppm for the next two months, when the Northern Hemisphere spring will go into full bloom and plants will suck CO2 from the atmosphere until going dormant in the fall. "It’s just a matter of time before it stays over 400 forever," said Ralph Keeling, who took over the CO2 monitoring program from his father, Charles David Keeling, who started it in 1958. Since then, atmospheric CO2 levels have risen steadily from 313 ppm as the world continues to burn fossil fuels. Scientists estimate it's been 800,000 to 15 million years since the planet has seen concentrations this high.
18 Mar 2014:
Wildflower Season in Rockies
Is 35 Days Longer as Climate Warms
A warming climate has extended the wildflower season in the Rocky Mountains by 35 days since the 1970s,
according to a 39-year study of more than two million blooms. The bloom season, which used to run from late May to early September, now lasts from late April to late
Crested Butte, Colorado
September, the researchers say. Previous, less extensive studies seemed to indicate most wildflowers simply shift their bloom cycles to earlier in the year, but new findings
published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences
show that the changes are more complex, with the flowers reaching peak bloom sooner and flowering later in the year. The shift in the timing of blooms could have a major impact on pollinating insects and migratory birds. For example, hummingbirds that summer in the Rocky Mountains time their nesting so that their eggs hatch at peak bloom, when there is plenty of flower nectar for hungry chicks. As the bloom season lengthens, the plants are not producing more flowers. The same number of blooms is spread out over more days, so at peak bloom there may be fewer flowers and less food for hummingbirds, the researchers say.
17 Mar 2014:
Northeast Greenland Glaciers
Are Now Melting Rapidly, Study Finds
The glaciers of northeast Greenland, long thought to be the most stable part of the massive Greenland ice sheet, are melting at an accelerating pace, losing roughly 10
billion tons of ice annually for the past decade, say researchers
from the U.S. and Denmark. The finding will likely boost estimates of global sea level rise, which had previously not accounted for massive ice loss from that region, scientists say. The Zachariae ice stream in northeast Greenland, which drains 16 percent of the ice sheet, has retreated roughly 12.4 miles in the past decade, outpacing the fast-moving Jakobshavn glacier, which has retreated 21.7 miles over the last 150 years. Ice loss from the region is likely accelerating, the researchers say, because ice dams in nearby bays that had been blocking the glaciers' paths are now also melting, freeing the way for the glaciers to flow into the ocean.
14 Mar 2014:
Major Winds Have Lashed
North Atlantic This Winter, NOAA Map Shows
Forty-three hurricane-force winter storms have lashed the North Atlantic since late October, boosting the region's average wind speed in January and February by more than 12 miles per hour, as shown in this map
the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). The blue colors indicate areas where wind speeds exceeded the 1981-2010 average; browns indicate winds that were lower than average. In the North Atlantic, an unusually high number of hurricane-force storms, with winds exceeding 74 mph, battered southeastern Greenland, Norway, and the coast of western Europe. The U.K. Met Office recently issued a report on the December and January storms that ravaged the British coast, saying
, "For England and Wales this was one of, if not the most, exceptional (two month) periods of winter rainfall in at least 248 years." No studies have confirmed a link between these intense winter storms and climate change, but some scientists think climate-driven changes in the jet stream
may be behind the wild weather.
07 Mar 2014:
U.S. Car-Sharing Programs Have
Taken 500,000 Cars off Roads, Report Says
The rapid growth of car-sharing programs has cut the number of vehicles on U.S. roads by more than half a million, according to new research
by AlixPartners, a consultancy group with clients in the automotive industry. The trend will continue beyond 2020, the group projects, at which point 4 million people will be participating in car-sharing programs and 1.2 million fewer cars will be on the road. Of the 10 cities surveyed, residents of Boston, home of the Zipcar company, were most aware of car-sharing programs. Young people and, surprisingly, households with children were least likely to own their own cars, the survey said. Roughly half of the people who had tried car-sharing had already decided not to purchase or lease their own car, and did not plan to do so in the future. Rather than environmental concerns, nearly 60 percent of interviewees said cost and convenience led them to participate in car-sharing.
06 Mar 2014:
Warm River Water Plays Major
Role in Arctic Sea Ice Melt, Study Finds
Relatively warm water flowing into the Arctic Ocean from rivers contributes significantly to Arctic sea ice melt each summer, a phenomenon that will intensify as the region warms, according to NASA researchers
. The river discharge not only melts coastal sea ice, it also has
a wider climate impact as it creates more open water, which is darker than ice and absorbs more heat from sunlight. As these NASA images show, when water from Canada's Mackenzie River flowed into the Beaufort Sea in the summer of 2012, average surface temperature of the open water rose by 6.5 degrees C (11.7 degrees F) after the pulse of river water. Flow from the Mackenzie raised sea surface temperatures as far as 350 kilometers (217 miles) from the coast. The researchers note that river discharge is becoming an increasingly important contributor to melting Arctic sea ice because the volume and temperature of fresh water discharge is increasing as inland Arctic areas warm more each summer.