Well, This is a Problem

The back gardens of Mayflower, Arkansas aren’t looking too good:

spill

Yes, that’s oil. Canadian oil, no less. You’re welcome.

I’ve heard surprisingly little about this event, which occurred when an Exxon Mobil pipeline ruptured on Friday. It appears that the press have limited access while the cleanup crews are at work. National Geographic had a good piece, though.

Call me cynical, but I think the Canadian media are purposely keeping quiet on this one. It’s a very inconvenient time for a pipeline to burst, given that all levels of government and industry are pushing for Keystone, Northern Gateway, Energy East, etc., etc.

News of this event is largely relying on Mayflower citizens leveraging social media. There’s no way to verify their photos and videos, but they’re striking nonetheless. Here’s a video of the situation on a residential street – note the lack of cleanup crews.

The oil is going straight into the storm drain, the man in the video says, which makes me shudder. I don’t know anything about Mayflower’s stormwater system, but where I live those storm drains are about three steps removed from the Red River. Once oil got in there, I can’t imagine it ever getting out.

I find it puzzling that the negative impacts of pipelines are so often catalogued as “environmentalists’ problems” in the Canadian media – here’s a typical example. In reality, they’re everyone’s problems. Environmentalists (as much as I detest that label) are just the people who realize it. We are not a special interest group; we represent everyone. When it comes to disasters, from short-term spills like the one in Mayflower to millennial-scale impacts like climate change, Canadian oil will affect everyone indiscriminately.

Side note: Sorry I have been so absurdly quiet recently. I am busy building two climate models – just small ones for term projects, but so enjoyable that everything else is getting neglected. I’ll be posting much more on that in about a month.

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Counting my Blessings

This is the coldest time of year in the Prairies. Below -20 °C it all feels about the same, but the fuel lines in cars freeze more easily, and outdoor sports are no longer safe. We all become grouchy creatures of the indoors for a few months each year. But as much as I hate the extreme cold, I would rather be here than in Australia right now.

A record-breaking, continent-wide heat wave has just wrapped up, and Australia has joined the Arctic in the list of regions where the temperature is so unusually warm that new colours have been added to the map legends. This short-term forecast by the ACCESS model predicts parts of South Australia to reach between 52 and 54 °C on Monday:

For context, the highest temperature ever recorded on Earth was 56.7 °C, in Death Valley during July of 1913. Australia’s coming pretty close.

This heat wave has broken dozens of local records, but the really amazing statistics come from national average daily highs: the highest-ever value at 40.33 °C, on January 7th; and seven days in a row above 39 °C, the most ever, from January 2nd to 8th.

Would this have happened without climate change? It’s a fair question, and (for heat waves at least) one that scientists are starting to tackle – see James Hansen’s methodology that concluded recent heat waves in Texas and Russia were almost certainly the result of climate change.

At any rate, this event suggests that uninformed North Americans who claim “warming is a good thing” haven’t been to Australia.

Since I Last Wrote…

Since I last wrote, I finished my summer research at Andrew Weaver’s lab (more on that in the weeks and months to come, as our papers work through peer review). I moved back home to the Prairies, which seem unnaturally hot, flat and dry compared to BC. Perhaps what I miss most is the ocean – the knowledge that the nearest coastline is more than a thousand kilometres away gives me an uncomfortable feeling akin to claustrophobia.

During that time, the last story I covered has developed significantly. Before September even began, Arctic sea ice extent reached record low levels. It’s currently well below the previous record, held in 2007, and will continue to decline for two or three more weeks before it levels off:

Finally, El Niño conditions are beginning to emerge in the Pacific Ocean. In central Canada we are celebrating, because El Niño tends to produce warmer-than-average winters (although last winter was mysteriously warm despite the cooling influence of La Niña – not a day below -30 C!) The impacts of El Niño are different all over the world, but overall it tends to boost global surface temperatures. Combine this effect with the current ascent from a solar minimum and the stronger-than-ever greenhouse gas forcing, and it looks likely that 2013 will break global temperature records. That’s still a long way away, though, and who knows what will happen before then?

A Bad Situation in the Arctic

Arctic sea ice is in the midst of a record-breaking melt season. This is yet another symptom of human-caused climate change progressing much faster than scientists anticipated.

Every year, the frozen surface of the Arctic Ocean waxes and wanes, covering the largest area in February or March and the smallest in September. Over the past few decades, these September minima have been getting smaller and smaller. The lowest sea ice extent on record occurred in 2007, followed closely by 2011, 2008, 2010, and 2009. That is, the five lowest years on record all happened in the past five years. While year-to-year weather conditions, like summer storms, impact the variability of Arctic sea ice cover, the undeniable downward trend can only be explained by human-caused climate change.

The 2012 melt season started off hopefully, with April sea ice extent near the 1979-2000 average. Then things took a turn for the worse, and sea ice was at record or near-record low conditions for most of the summer. In early August, a storm spread out the remaining ice, exacerbating the melt. Currently, sea ice is significantly below the previous record for this time of year. See the light blue line in the figure below:

The 2012 minimum is already the fifth-lowest on record for any day of the year – and the worst part is, it will keep melting for about another month. At this rate, it’s looking pretty likely that we’ll break the 2007 record and hit an all-time low in September. Sea ice volume, rather than extent, is in the same situation.

Computer models of the climate system have a difficult time reproducing this sudden melt. As recently as 2007, the absolute worst-case projections showed summer Arctic sea ice disappearing around 2100. Based on observations, scientists are now confident that will happen well before 2050, and possibly within a decade. Climate models, which many pundits like to dismiss as “alarmist,” actually underestimated the severity of the problem. Uncertainty cuts both ways.

The impacts of an ice-free Arctic Ocean will be wide-ranging and severe. Luckily, melting sea ice does not contribute to sea level rise (only landlocked ice does, such as the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets), but many other problems remain. The Inuit peoples of the north, who depend on sea ice for hunting, will lose an essential source of food and culture. Geopolitical tensions regarding ownership of the newly-accessible Arctic waters are likely. Changes to the Arctic food web, from blooming phytoplankton to dwindling polar bears, will irreversibly alter the ecosystem. While scientists don’t know exactly what this new Arctic will look like, it is certain to involve a great deal of disruption and suffering.

Daily updates on Arctic sea ice conditions are available from the NSIDC website.

How much is most?

A growing body of research is showing that humans are likely causing more than 100% of global warming: without our influences on the climate, the planet would actually be cooling slightly.

In 2007, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change published its fourth assessment report, internationally regarded as the most credible summary of climate science to date. It concluded that “most of the observed increase in global average temperatures since the mid-20th century is very likely due to the observed increase in anthropogenic greenhouse gas concentrations”.

A clear question remains: How much is “most”? 51%? 75%? 99%? At the time that the IPCC report was written, the answer was unclear. However, a new frontier of climate research has emerged since, and scientists are working hard to quantify the answer to this question.

I recently attended the 2011 American Geophysical Union Fall Meeting, a conference of over 20 000 scientists, many of whom study the climate system. This new area of research was a hot topic of discussion at AGU, and a phrase that came up many times was “more than 100%”.

That’s right, humans are probably causing more than 100% of observed global warming. That means that our influences are being offset by natural cooling factors. If we had never started burning fossil fuels, the world would be cooling slightly.

In the long term, oscillations of the Earth’s orbit show that, without human activity, we would be very slowly descending into a new ice age. There are other short-term cooling influences, though. Large volcanic eruptions, such as Mount Pinatubo in 1991, have thrown dust into the upper atmosphere where it blocks a small amount of sunlight. The sun, particularly in the last few years, has been less intense than usual, due to the 11-year sunspot cycle. We have also experienced several strong La Niña events in the Pacific Ocean, which move heat out of the atmosphere and into the ocean.

However, all of these cooling influences pale in comparison to the strength of the human-caused warming influences. The climate change communication project Skeptical Science recently summarized six scientific studies in this graphic:

Most of the studies estimated that humans caused over 100% of the warming since 1950, and all six put the number over 98%. Additionally, most of the studies find natural influences to be in the direction of cooling, and all six show that number to be close to zero.

If you are interested in the methodologies and uncertainty ranges of these six studies, Skeptical Science goes into more detail, and also provides links to the original journal articles.

To summarize, the perception that humans are accelerating a natural process of warming is false. We have created this problem entirely on our own. Luckily, that means we have the power to stop the problem in its tracks. We are in control, and we choose what happens in the future.

News

Two pieces of bad news:

  • Mountain pine beetles, whose range is expanding due to warmer winters, are beginning to infest jack pines as well as lodgepole pines. To understand the danger from this transition, one only needs to look at the range maps for each species:

    Lodgepole Pine

    Jack Pine

    A study from Molecular Ecology, published last April, has the details.

  • Arctic sea ice extent was either the lowest on record or the second lowest on record, depending on how you collect and analyze the data. Sea ice volume, a much more important metric for climate change, was the lowest on record:

And one piece of good news:

  • Our abstract was accepted to AGU! I have been wanting to go to this conference for two years, and now I will get to!

Quality, Transparency, and Rigour

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reports are likely the most cited documents on the subject of global warming. The organization, established by the United Nations, doesn’t do any original research – it simply summarizes the massive amount of scientific literature on the topic. Their reports, written and reviewed by volunteer scientists, and published approximately every six years, are a “one-stop shop” for credible information about climate change. When you have a question about climate science, it’s far easier to find the relevant section of the IPCC than it is to wade through thousands of results on Google Scholar.

The main problem with the IPCC, in my opinion, is that their reports are out of date as soon as they’re published, and then everyone has to wait another six years or so for the next version, which is subsequently out of date, and so on. Additionally, because there are so many authors, reviewers, and stakeholders involved in the IPCC, the reports come to reflect the lowest-common-denominator scientific understanding, rather than the median opinion of experts. In particular, government officials oversee the writing and reviewing of the Summary for Policymakers, to make sure that it’s relevant and clear. However, some governments are beginning to abuse their power in this process. The late Stephen Schneider, in his 2009 book Science as a Contact Sport, recounts his experiences with government representatives who absolutely refuse to allow certain conclusions to be published in the IPCC, regardless of their scientific backing.

The result is that the IPCC reports frequently underestimate the severity of climate change. For example, in the most recent report, the worst-case estimate of sea level rise by the end of this century was 0.59 m. Since then, scientists have revised this estimate to 1.9 m, but it won’t show up in the report until the next edition comes out around 2014.

Another example concerns Arctic sea ice: the worst-case scenario from the IPCC was an ice-free Arctic in the summer beginning around 2100. These estimates have come down so rapidly that there’s an outside chance the summer sea ice could be gone before the next IPCC report has a chance to correct it (presentation by Dr. David Barber, media coverage available here). It will more likely disappear around 2035, but that’s still a drastic change from what the IPCC said.

Despite this conservative stance, there are still some who think the IPCC is alarmist (this is usually paired with something about a New World Order and/or socialists using a carbon tax to take over the world). Naturally, the IPCC has become a favourite target of climate change deniers, who wish to obscure the reality of human-caused global warming. Last year, they claimed to have found all kinds of errors in the latest report, somehow proving that global warming wasn’t happening. In fact, most of these so-called “errors” were nothing of the sort, and the worst of the two real mistakes in the report involved a typo regarding which year certain glaicers were expected to disappear. Not bad, for a three-thousand-page document, but it created quite the media firestorm. Apparently scientists are expected to have 100% accuracy at all times, or else they are frauds.

Just a few weeks ago, the IPCC made some changes to their policies in response to these events. Their press release about the new policies featured the phrase “Boost Quality, Transparency and Rigour” in the title.

No, no, no. That’s not what the IPCC needs. These are very admirable goals, but they’re doing just fine as it is. Actions to “further minimize any possibility of errors in future reports” should not be their top priority. Further extending the review process will only further delay the publication of each report (making them even more out of date) and further enhance their lowest-common-denominator position. When you have an error rate on the order of 0.67 errors/1000 pages, should you spend your energy getting that all the way down to zero (a virtually impossible task) or on the real issues that need to be addressed?

I think the IPCC should adopt a continually-updating online version of their report. This would solve their chronic problem of being out of date, as well as help the organization adapt to the increasing role of the Internet in our world. Any future errors the deniers liked to yell about would be fixed immediately. Governments would be forming policies based on the best available evidence from today, not a decade ago. Everything would still be in one place, and version control would allow transparency to remain high.

The IPCC should also make it more clear when their estimates are too conservative. When a single sentence that didn’t even make it into the summary is shown to overestimate the problem, the climate science community ties itself up in knots trying to correct its tattered image. But prominent conclusions that underestimate the problem go unacknowledged for decades. If it were the other way around, can you imagine the field day deniers would have?

Luckily, the changes made to IPCC policy are not all aimed at appeasing the bullies. A long-overdue communications plan is in development: a rapid response team and Senior Communications Manager will develop formal strategies for public education and outreach. Hopefully, this will counteract the false claims and defamation the IPCC has been subject to since its creation.

Another new plan is to create an Executive Committee, composed of the Chair, Vice Chairs, Working Group Co-Chairs, and advisory members. This will “strengthen coordination and management of the IPCC” and allow for actions to be taken between reports, such as communication and responding to possible errors. A more structured administration will probably be helpful, given that the only people in the organization currently getting paid for their work are the office staff (even the Chair doesn’t make a cent). Coordinating overworked scientists who volunteer for a scientific undertaking that demands 100% accuracy can’t be an easy task.

Will the IPCC continue to be the best available source of credible information on climate change? Will its structure of endless review remain feasible in a world dominated by instant news? Should we continue to grant our governments control over the contents of scientific reports concerning an issue that they desperately want to avoid? Should we continue to play to the wants and needs of bullies? Or should we let scientists speak for themselves?