The Climate in Emergency

A weekly blog on science, news, and ideas related to climate change


Sleepless in DC: Lobbying Against Oil and Gas Exploration in the Atlantic

On Wednesday, I went with a group of others to Washington DC to lobby against oil and gas exploration in the Atlantic. I will write more next week about the history of the issue and the specific political processes involved, but today I want to write about the experience of lobbying–something I’d never done before and had frankly not expected to ever do.

I also need to apologize for not posting on Tuesday–I was busy getting ready to going to DC.

I ended up on the expedition more or less by accident. My husband signed us up to go but then had to back out due to commitments elsewhere, leaving me to carry the family standard, as it were, to Washington, even though I had only the haziest idea of what “lobbying on Capitol Hill” actually meant. I figured I’d go and make the crowd at least look bigger and leave the talking to others.

But while I was fuzzy on lobbying, I was familiar with our cause–keeping oil and gas exploration out of the Atlantic. Wednesday’s events were a follow-up to the BOEM scoping meeting I wrote two posts about last year.

Wednesday began early for me.

I knew I had to get up at 3:45 at the very latest in order to meet the man I was giving a ride to and get both of us to DC in time for check-in and orientation at 7:30. I tend to need more sleep than average and while I got to bed earlier than usual, I knew it wasn’t early enough–I rarely have trouble sleeping, but getting myself to bed at a reasonable hour is a persistent struggle. So I was worrying about my impending sleep deprivation when I discovered my cell phone’s battery was down. I couldn’t remember whether its alarm function would work while it was charging. I went to bed with much trepidation.

And I lay in the dark, not sleeping, worrying about my alarm clock.

I think I slept an hour or two and not all of those minutes were in a row. I asked my passenger to be my driver instead, but I could not even sleep in the car. At one point I dissolved in helpless giggles, I forget why, my wonky, sleep-deprived brain behaving very much as though I’d been drinking. Eventually I got it together, but I had some concern about my performance for the day.

Actually, I did fine. My ignorance about lobbying turned out to be unfounded anyway, because my role was specifically to be an “ordinary person.” We went around in groups to the offices of various Congresspeople and the leader of each group would present our argument and then introduce us, the little people. We’d speak briefly and movingly about the threat from fossil fuel to our homes and livelihoods. Once or twice I lost my train of thought and had to apologize, explaining that I had not slept. The staffers were very understanding.

The staffers generally were very helpful and friendly. Several even made suggestions for how we could plead our case better. What surprised me was how much the Congressmembers who already agreed with us welcomed our visits. I had thought that once someone was on our side further contact would be seen as redundant. Certainly that is how it works in ordinary discourse; if you came to me and said “oil and gas exploration are bad” and I said “yes, I know, I agree,” I wouldn’t want you to keep reiterating your point. I’d say “didn’t you hear me? I said yes!” In politics, evidently, it’s different.

The issue is that the members who already object to oil and gas exploration in the Atlantic are under constant pressure from other lobbyists to change their minds. Since being in Congress means doing what your constituents want, members are eager to hear from constituents whose views they share.

The experience of lobbying taught me many things–most of which I’ll get into in next week’s post. Basically I got a window into how politics in Washington actually work. It’s not the passionate and impersonal generalities we often see from the outside, where you’re either for climate sanity or against it and in the pocket of the Koch brothers. Instead, it is specific decisions made by specific people based on a suite of considerations. If you’re friendly and polite and you speak to a Congressmember’s own interest and priorities, he or she might just say yes.


Imagining Post-Petroleum

I’m working on a novel set in the relatively near future (decades, not centuries ahead) in a post-petroleum society. As the author, I get to make certain decisions about the world of this novel, and one of the things I’ve decided is that although internal-combustion engines still exist, they are only used for emergency vehicles. Most people walk or use horses or oxen to travel over land and a combination of sails and solar electricity to go by water. My thinking is that the most viable alternative fuels–ethanol, biodiesel, and liquified biogas–would be prohibitively expensive for everyday use.

My logic is that fossil fuel mobilizes dramatically more energy than any sustainable source can yield.

However, I’m not an expert on such things, and I have never encountered a similar guess in anybody else’s writing. Perhaps that’s because few people like the idea of losing fast transportation–although I actually think the change would be a net social good, provided that emergency vehicles and the Internet still exist (which, in my book, they do).

In any case, the book is a novel, a story about people and about ecology, it’s not about economics. I never actually researched my assumptions about my fictional society’s energy economy. And, truth to tell, I am not going to invest the time to do so thoroughly. But how would I go about doing that research? How difficult would it actually be?

The question to start (and maybe end) with is how much land does it actually take to grow the raw ingredients for each type of fuel? After all, the more land the process takes, the greater the opportunity cost involved in growing the fuel instead of, say, food. Although the final cost of the fuel would be the result of market forces I will not even try to predict, the cost in land might be a reasonable rough proxy.


I started with ethanol because it is already used as a fuel and because I knew one of its possible sources–corn–would be easy to get a per-acre figure for. To be clear, there are other ways to make ethanol, some of which, such as wheat straw, are potentially waste products from other endeavors, meaning that the cost in land might be very low but very complicated to calculate. I wanted something simpler.

And actually, it’s simpler than I thought. After some back-of-the-envelope math (literally on the back on an envelope) and online searches, I realized I don’t need to calculate gallons per acre–I need to calculate how much food a gallon of ethanol could have been.

Now, the articles I found on the ecological footprint of ethanol all focused on whether ethanol as it is produced today is a properly “green” fuel. We’re after a slightly different question, so I chose a different angle–I looked up a recipe for corn whiskey. Whiskey is, after all, ethanol.

Turns out, with a recipe that uses only grain, water, and yeast (no sugar or syrup), a five-gallon whiskey run uses almost nine pounds of corn, plus some barley.  It yields one to two gallons of shine. So, to make our numbers simple, we can say ten pounds of corn for two gallons of ethanol, or five pounds per gallon. We’re just trying to get in the right ball-park here.

One pound of corn has almost 400 calories and 15 grams of protein, so we can say that each gallon of fuel could have been one person’s daily food ration instead. So we’re looking at a one-to-one ratio here. I don’t mean that making fuel necessarily would take food out of people’s mouths–there might already be enough food. But the cost of a gallon of corn ethanol will always be above whatever it costs to eat corn all day (because you have to pay for processing also).


Biodiesel is basically oil, usually vegetable oil, that has been processed so it can run in a Diesel engine. Ordinary oil works as a fuel also, but requires a converted engine. Many different kinds of oil will work, though soybean oil is the most popular in the US at present and Canola is most popular in Europe. Yields for Canola are significantly higher than for soy, and happens to be the crop I found information on–it averages around 160 gallons of oil per acre, depending on where it grows.

So, what is the cost? Canola oil is edible, but it’s not something you could live on alone for a day (yech!). Instead, choose some food crop that likes the same climate as Canola (corn does not) and compare the per-acre yield.

The same source lists a 48 gallon-per-acre yield for soybeans. Now, estimating the food value of that many soybeans if they aren’t pressed for oil is difficult for several reasons, not least of which being that humans generally process soy before eating it. I don’t feel like trying to figure out how many servings of tofu per acre a soybean field yields….but soy does grow in the same climate as corn and farmers often alternate the two crops in the same field (I live in a rural area that mostly produces corn and soybeans and chickens, so I see this rotation up close). So we can express the cost of fuel oil derived from soy in corn–corn yields roughly 6,200 pounds per acre, or 1,240 human-days of food. That’s almost 26 human-days per gallon–expensive, especially as compared to ethanol on a gallon by gallon basis (although oil is a more efficient fuel).

Of course, biodiesel can be made from waste fry oil, in which case it has no cost at all, apart from the expense of processing and transportation.

Liquified Biogas?

I listed this one without actually knowing if it exists. Liquified natural gas (LNG) is a popular (though debatable) alternative fuel. Natural gas is methane from fossil sources. Since biogas is methane from non-fossil sources, liquified biogas (LBG?) should be a possibility. And it is! They make it in Sweden!

Calculating the cost in land of (LBG) is somewhere between very simple and very hard. Hard because it can be made of almost anything, easy because biogas is already being produced by anything rotting anaerobically. Methane is a more powerful greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide is, so it is better for the planet to burn the stuff than to release it–which is why you can actually get a negative carbon footprint by using waste methane (from landfills or from livestock waste pools) to generate power.

In my post-petroleum society, the problem with biogas is therefor not how do you produce it but how do you gather up and use the gas being produced anyway. Its cost in land is therefore essentially zero. But to use it as a transportation fuel you have to liquify it (why? I’m not sure, but I’m guessing its volume is way too large in gaseous form) and that means chilling it to -259° F. How? That’s some serious refrigeration. Does the chilling have a cost?

Liquifying methane involves a 10% energy loss. That is, however much methane you want to liquify, you need 10% as much again to power your freezers. Once chilled, however, the methane will stay liquid indefinitely at no extra cost, provided it is properly insulated (I assume you’d need to use some kind of refrigerant chemical for this, but while commercial refrigerants are all currently greenhouse gasses themselves, climate-sane refrigerants are possible and we can assume our futuristic society has one).

Of course, 10% of nothing is nothing, but if our futuristic society is depending on waste methane its total supply is limited–and if liquified, is 10% smaller than it might otherwise be.  And if you’re transporting it by truck, you’ll lose even more fuel powering the truck. That might become a factor in the final cost of the product.

Bringing it all together

For full disclosure I ought to say I’m terrible at basic math. Curiously, calculators don’t help because the problem is that I sometimes change numbers without knowing it. So my calculations here are not guaranteed to be free of error–my objective is not to provide finished numbers but to suggest a way of thinking about energy costs in a post-petroleum world.

And as I’ve said, at-the-pump prices in such a world would depend on so many factors that I’m not even going to try to make a guess–except in my capacity as a novelist.

In my book, the US no longer uses the dollar as its currency but the share. “A share,” in this context, is theoretically equal to survival rations for one person for one day–food, water, and everything necessary to maintain adequate shelter, all at a very basic level. In practice, one share pays for basic room and board at a hostel. Having stayed at many hostels and seen their variation in price, I’d say a share is equal to about $20.

Now, the concept of a “human-day in food” is very similar to a share, except a share also includes water and a roof. Put all this together, and I can actually get rough prices for how much the raw materials for each of these fuels would be in my fictional societies:

  • Corn ethanol: .6 share, or $12 per gallon
  • Waste biomas ethanol: free but not unlimited
  • Canola biodeisel: 3 shares, or $60 per gallon
  • Soy biodeisel: 12 shares, or $240 per gallon
  • Waste oil biodeisel: free but not unlimited
  • Liquified biogas: free but not unlimited

Remember, these are raw material prices. Pump prices would be higher and would vary a lot from place to place depending on how much free raw material was available in your area–transporting fuel long distances might be prohibitively expensive. Ball park, I’d say we’re looking at pump prices at $20 or more a gallon, though, so you’re not going to have a private automobile.

(Unless it’s electric. Would there be enough electric capacity for electric cars? My novel assumes not, but that’s another discussion).

But if your house is on fire or if you need an ambulance, help will be on its way quickly. If you live near the water you can travel or ship goods by solar sailboat. You’ll shop locally and so will your neighbors, so your local economy will be strong. You’ll like it.


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Your Tuesday Update: Hurricane Alex

Hello, all! Welcome to your Tuesday update! Did you notice the hurricane?

Yes, there was a hurricane out in the Atlantic last week. While there are parts of the world that get tropical cyclones any time of year, the Atlantic isn’t one of them. Typically, the season runs from June to November, with storms at the beginning and end of that season being rare. For a hurricane to form, the water underneath must usually be at least 80° F., something we rarely see in January. Nevertheless.

Alex formed as an extra-tropical storm near the Bahamas, crossed the Atlantic, and then moved over warm water near the Azores, developed tropical organization and eventually grew into a strong Category 1 storm before crossing the Atlantic again, becoming extra-topical, and ending up over the Canadian Maritimes where it sucked cold air south and gave the Eastern US a taste of actual winter for a change.

So, if anybody makes a “where is global warming” joke this week over the cold temps, you can explain that it’s cold because of a January hurricane.

Does Alex really have anything to do with climate change? As usual, that is the wrong question and the right question–are out-of-season tropical cyclones becoming more common–is impossible to answer because, as usual, there is no baseline data. Alex was only the third January hurricane ever recorded, but we really haven’t been recording hurricanes very long and until recently a lot of storms that never made landfall must simply have been missed. With no baseline, we can’t tell if anything has changed. And for events that only happen a few times a century anyway, it would take a long time for a new signal to show itself even if we did have a baseline.

So, all we can really say is that January hurricanes are rare and we just had one.

But it just seems weird.



California Methane Leak

As you may already be aware, California is leaking.

More specifically, a giant natural gas storage facility just north of Los Angeles is leaking, and the amount of methane coming out of this thing is huge. It’s been going on since October and is likely to go right on until March. My Facebook feed has been filling up with dire warnings about Armageddon, but the nightly news has been strangely quiet.

So, what’s the story with this leak, how bad is it really, and is it really being nationally ignored?

It’s easy to find a detailed description of the problem online, so another detailed exposition seems superfluous. Here is just a quick summary to get us all on the same page.

The storage tank in question is actually the space in the rock where a huge pool of petroleum used to be. Industry pumped the petroleum out and sold it and then decided to use the empty space for temporary storage of natural gas. Basically, the owner, the Southern California Gas Company (or SoCal Gas) wanted to be able to keep a lot of inventory on hand so as to be able to respond quickly to changes in price and demand. This is a storage tank bigger than anything humans could actually build and it is accessible only by a well sunk deep in the rock.

SoCal Gas has a lot of these things, but the Aliso Canyon facility is the second-largest in the Western US. 86 billion cubic feet of capacity–that’s a cave that, if actually cube-shaped, would be almost half a mile on a side. It’s almost a mile and a half underground.

I’m not sure whether anyone knows when the leak started, but SoCal Gas found it on October 23rd. Since then, the rate of leakage has varied, and apparently it’s only measured occasionally, so no one knows exactly how much has leaked, but it’s probably around 50,000 kilograms per hour, or about 7% of the nation’s total natural gas emissions. Big.

Natural gas, remember, is mostly methane, a powerful greenhouse gas. The term is used to specify methane from fossil sources, as opposed to biogas.

Methane is not toxic (though if you tried to breathe too much of the stuff you’d suffocate for lack of oxygen), so the main threat here is through the greenhouse effect. But the gas in the storage facility is mixed with mercaptan, the stuff used to give gas a recognizable odor. So the whole situation quite literally stinks, and while mercaptan is not considered dangerous, is it very mildly toxic and area residents (human and otherwise) are experiencing symptoms like headaches and nausea–and for some, more serious symptoms. Small amounts of other chemicals, present in the gas (including benzene, which is seriously dangerous) may also be contributing factors.

No one knows exactly why the well is leaking, but SoCal Gas might have been able to shut the thing off if they hadn’t decided to remove rather than replace a critical valve (and lie about it) back in 1979. For this and other reason, the company is now being sued within an inch of its life. Governor Brown has declared a state of emergency, but did so in such a way as to make sure that neither taxpayers nor ratepayers would pick up the costs. California is not playing around on this one.

SoCal has tried to pump mud down into the access well to plug the leak, but that has not worked. Now they are drilling a second well that is supposed to intersect the first–for reasons I do not understand, this is supposed to make the leak easier to plug. Drilling a well that deep will take a long time, which is why the leak might not be plugged until March.

The whole situation is bizarrely reminiscent of the Gulf oil spill, both in terms of its scale and in terms of of the technical detail of plugging the well. But there are some important differences, too–notably, methane is invisible and non-toxic, making this leak insidious. Once the well is plugged and the mercaptan disperses, it will be easy to pretend the whole thing is over. There will be no tar balls washing up on scenic beaches, no disturbing fish and dolphin kills from this one. But the methane will remain in the atmosphere, warming the planet further, for roughly a century.

So is this climate Armageddon?

Not really in any way it wasn’t before. This leak is huge, for a single leak, and it is enough to have a real impact on what strategies we use to bring our emissions down; to meet our goals, we’ll have to work even harder, now. But at the same time, the US alone is producing lots more methane–from other, smaller natural gas leaks, from landfills, and from the guts of our huge herds of cattle. And even adjusting for its greater power as a greenhouse gas, methane still only produces less than a 6th as much warming as carbon dioxide does because there is so much less of it. The real heavy-hitter is still carbon dioxide.

The bottom line is that this leak is not the end of the world all by itself, but plugging it up isn’t going to save the world by itself, either. It’s just another few straws on an already badly overloaded camel. And that could explain the relative lack of news coverage.

It’s true that the California leak rarely makes the major news outlets. I have not done an exhaustive study on the subject, but a search of online records and the memories of my social media contacts does suggest it’s not being treated like front-page news by anybody. If you don’t follow environmental news specifically, and are not connected by social media to anyone who does, you might well miss the story completely. But it’s not being blacked out, either–CNN and NPR have both covered the story on their websites, though I am not clear yet whether either did so on air, and there are plenty of articles in the online/print media, including some on mainstream sites.

Broadcast media simply cannot cover as many stories as print/online media can. There aren’t enough hours in the day. And this genuinely does not sound like the top-tier disaster that some people are making it out to be. I don’t think anybody’s trying to keep this quiet in any deliberate way. Instead, I think we’re witnessing the silence of a mainstream journalism that still doesn’t consider the environment generally, or climate change specifically, very important.

Maybe we need to call or write in again and ask them to cover this? Because while the California leak is bad, media undercoverage of a major issue is far worse.

The other thing that’s far worse is that this is not the only large methane storage facility there is–and while California at least is taking steps to improve safety, at the moment we don’t know when the next leak will come or how big it will be.

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Your Tuesday Update: The State of the Union

Well, he did it. President Obama used part of his last State of the Union speech to discus climate change in clear, honest terms. He included mention of how the US Military (hardly a bastion of liberal permissiveness!) takes the issue seriously, and used the word “change” many times in his introduction in ways that seemed to hint of climate even when he didn’t say so:

It’s change that can broaden opportunity, or widen inequality. And whether we like it or not, the pace of this change will only accelerate.

You can read the text of the speech here, if you missed it.  It was a good oration–obviously political and boosterish, but that’s what these things are for. If they ever served as a kind of annual briefing to Congress, as per the Constution, they need serve that function no longer, and thank goodness for that (didn’t Congressmembers read newspapers back in the 1700’s? Why did they need a Presidential briefing even then?). As a feel-good piece of rhetoric that actually touched on a number of important issues, the State of the Union was a success.

I would have liked it if Mr. Obama had gone one step further. He identified four major issues we as a country must tackle. Climate change was one of them. I wish he’d actually acknowledged that climate change is all of them.

First, how do we give everyone a fair shot at opportunity and security in this new economy?

Second, how do we make technology work for us, and not against us — especially when it comes to solving urgent challenges like climate change?

Third, how do we keep America safe and lead the world without becoming its policeman?

And finally, how can we make our politics reflect what’s best in us, and not what’s worst?

I’ll leave that one hanging there as food for thought.

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A Third Novel Excerpt

This is a short excerpt from an early draft of my novel-in-progress, Ecological Memory. The book is set twenty years after the sudden end of civilization and, with it, the Age of Fossil Fuel. A new civilization is starting to put itself together. Climate change is one element of the story, given that the characters are creating a true post-petroleum society and coping with a changed climate.

The climatologist, Diana Cartwright, traveled with an apprentice, a big, physically powerful man named Dashawn Harris. Not only was his body tall and broad but his thick black beard covered half his chest and a full mane of narrow dreadlocks hung to his shoulders and swung when he walked. Even his personality seemed big and not quite in control. Some irrepressible giggle seemed always about to burst forth. Beside him, Diana looked like a tiny but very authoritative bird. Elzy liked both of them immediately.

Elzy and Dashawn left the others to catch up in private and ate lunch with each other. While they ate, a thick, driving rain blew in, thundering on the roof. Occasional rumbles of actual thunder added to the noise. Dashawn could talk over the din without effort. He ate much and with much enjoyment and told a long series of wonderfully horrible jokes that made Elzy blush and choke on her food. And Elzy didn’t blush over such jokes easily–she could be pretty ribald herself, when not around Andy. Besides being very funny, Dashawn was a self-taught roboticist. Dr. Cartwright was his teacher, rather, she was his partner and supervisor in the project that he hoped would make him a real professional. He was going to design and program her drones.

“I make things friggin’ fly, dude,” he explained. “Oh, sorry—dudette.”

After lunch, the gusty rain continued. There being little else to do, the four of them sat together in the dining hall off the little museum and chatted about their work. Andy described some of his projects but in brief and vague terms suitable for social discourse. Diana was more technical, excitedly bubbling forth about the acute lack of data plaguing her field. Elzy had learned of the problem in school, but she had not heard the details. She could not tell whether Andy had or not.

The woman explained that a number of research stations had brought trace gas detectors online over the last five or ten years and the carbon dioxide concentration seemed to be falling slowly but steadily. That was the good news. The bad news was that the detectors underestimated methane, chlorofluorocarbons, and hydrofluorocarbons, because all those powerful greenhouses gasses were all concentrated in clouds near their release points. No one knew where most of the release points were, so no one had any idea how much was actually leaking into the sky. Water vapor, another major greenhouse gas, was a problem too, since no one had enough data to accurately model the changing hydrologic cycle. In days gone by all this could have been studied by satellite, but launching new satellites was still out of the question.

Climatology was basically flying blind.

Dr. Cartwright wanted to use her drones to replace the satellites, at least within American airspace. Her plan called for hundreds of solar-powered, fully autonomous drones able to fly repeated transects across hundreds of miles, sampling trace gasses, humidity, wind speed and direction, and temperature. Obviously, building and flying that many drones would take a lot of money and the permission of many different air traffic jurisdictions—but few towns would raise money for climatological research, which most people still saw as irrelevant. Most climatologists depended on private donations, but Diana needed money on an entirely different scale.

Her solution was to seek funding through the meteorological observatories. The towns did fund those, because everybody needed accurate weather predictions, and the meteorologists missed the satellites, too. Diana hoped to find ways to make her drone networks serve the observatories, so that they would fund the project. Perhaps she could use existing weather drone data as well.

Elzy enjoyed listening to the woman describe her project. Before long, they had tentative plans for Elzy to do a lecture circuit on behalf of Diana’s work the following year in order to help secure the cooperation of more towns. They traded contact information. Andy smiled slightly.

The four spent the day together. Elzy never heard Andy talk to Diana about anything besides work, but he seemed happy at it. Before she retired for the night, Diana said that if the weather cleared she would head up Tuckerman’s Ravine early. As she explained, a person of her age did not climb mountains quickly and she wanted to be able to get right to work that same day. Andy said goodbye to her with typical cool professionalism and she replied in kind. A fond twinkle in her eye told Elzy she was used to it.

“Dr. Cartwright!” Elzy called, giving in to curiosity at last, “what is that humming? Do you hear it?”

“Oh, yes,” the woman said, turning back towards her and smiling. “It’s just my dancing pants!” And she pulled up one leg of her trousers to reveal the straps and bars of a robotic exoskeleton. She was paraplegic.

“You’re going up Tucks in an exo?” Elzy exclaimed. Most exos she had seen were cranky and stiff. The older models required use of canes or crutches.

“I told you I do good work,” Dashawn said, and winked.

In the above passage, I’m touching on several issues. One is that, without fossil fuel, all use of energy is going to get more expensive. While I hate to say never, I’d be surprised if any technology ever gives us as much energy as fossil fuel did, at least not without also giving us similarly serious side-effects. Giving up fossil fuel will mean adjusting to a lower-energy society. What advanced technology will do is give us more energy-efficient ways of doing things so that we won’t miss that extra energy. But there may be some exceptions. In the novel, I’m guessing that one such exception will be the loss of the space program–which would cause a serious problem for both meteorological and climatological research.

But I also believe that most problems have solutions.

Another issue stems from the way many people talk about technology as if it existed as a series of ridgedly structured steps–there is the accusation “you want to take us back to the Stone Age!” As if, were we to give up certain technologies, we would also suddenly find ourselves without all of the scientific and cultural progress we’ve made since whatever-it-was was invented. If course that isn’t true.

In my novel, there are no more personal automobiles. Cars and trucks exist, but for emergency use only. The sustainable energy sources that sustain them are too expensive for every-day use. So this is a society where people walk or ride horses or use carts drawn by horses or oxen. But it is also a society where a paraplegic woman can wear a robotic exoskeleton so advanced that she can walk up Tuckerman’s Ravine on Mt. Washington, an extremely challenging trail.

Not to mention the fact that she is a world-class climatologist and no one ever uses either her gender or her race (the character is Indian) to question her ability.

All this is fiction, of course, but there is a place for dreaming.



El Nino, the Polar Vortex, AND Climate Change!

How many weather-and-climate-related buzzwords can you fit into a single week’s weather? All of them, apparently, since these phenomena are all interconnected. We can’t really say where one ends and other begins.

This week it finally feels like winter in the Eastern US. Denialers are, I am sure, imagining themselves vindicated. I can’t help feeling reassured myself, as though cold weather meant climate change isn’t as serious as I’d thought. Meanwhile, the British Isles drown and the North Pole melts.

A few days ago, one of history’s most powerful storms formed in the North Atlantic, near Iceland, and proceeded to slam to slam into Scotland and its neighbors with 100 MPH winds and dropped a huge amount of rain on areas already sodden from a series of floods in December. The storm, named Frank, was not a hurricane, but the distinction seems rather academic.

Frank blew a huge amount of warm air north, over the pole. There isn’t much in the way of weather instruments up there, but from what data we have and from computer modeling, it looks like the North Pole rose above the freezing point for a few hours—that’s fifty degrees Fahrenheit above average for this time of year.

But the cold air that had been over the pole before Frank blew in had to go somewhere, so it moved south and some of it is over my head right now.

So it’s not just that this week’s more seasonable weather is balanced by warmer weather elsewhere, it was actually caused by warmer weather elsewhere.

But what caused Frank?

Nobody seems exactly sure, although El Nino is a likely culprit. Since El Nino makes the Northern Hemisphere as a whole warmer and wetter, powerful winter storms become more likely. Others see it as a symptom of global warming, which also makes the planet warmer and wetter in a general way (that extra moisture has to come from somewhere, though, hence the droughts in some places). Of course, as I’ve explained, both can be true at once.

And now that Frank has heated up the North Pole, there are signs the Polar Vortex may be destabilizing again. The Polar Vortex, remember, is not a type of weather but a circular wind pattern, one that normally keeps cold air sequestered around the poles. When the Vortex weakens, it becomes excessively wavy, with some waves reaching down to freeze parts of the lower latitudes and other waves allowing warm air to edge poleward, as we have seen in recent years. We may be seeing it again.

And a weakened polar vortex could be caused by melting sea ice, which is definitely climate change, or in this case it could be caused by Frank, which might be climate change.

The important thing to remember in all of this is that all weather is related to other weather and is always caused by the various things that cause weather. Each incident can be explained, in isolation, without climate change, which is a long-term trend. That means that freakishly warm events, whatever their proximate cause, are happening more often than freakishly cold events.

If the weather seems odd these days, that’s because it is.

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Looking Back

It’s time for our New Year retrospective again–here is a summary of the climate-related stories that caught my attention in 2015. I do not claim that this is an exhaustive or representative list. It’s in no particular order.

Looking over this list, I feel no particular optimism, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t any. I have a cold at the moment, which might make it difficult to remain up-beat.

Extreme Weather

The American Northeast became ridiculously snowy (although not unusually cold). California’s drought continued, as did drought in places like Texas and, for part of the summer, the Eastern states of the US. All of those places except California have also seen catastrophic flooding. Wildfires swept the Northwest of the US, from Oregon to Alaska and in to Western Canada. Several firefighters died. The planet as a whole set another heat record, and many new local heat records were set as well—few if any cold records. We saw some insanely powerful hurricanes and typhoons as well, all in the Pacific. Some of this wild weather is clearly due to our being in an El Nino, but climate change may play a role as well. It’s not either/or.

Fossil Fuels

The public process by which new offshore areas, including parts of the East Coast, could be opened to oil exploration has begun.

After years of largely symbolic political maneuvering, President Obama finally said No to the Keystone Pipeline.

A number of oil trains crashed. Same as last year. I hate that those two statements go together.

Shell Oil pulled out of its attempt to drill for oil off the coast of Alaska—which looks like a victory, but it is likely to ramp up pressure to be allowed to drill in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge instead.

Electoral Politics

The US Presidential campaign is now well underway. And while the Democratic candidates at least are all climate-sane, the media has not been treating that aspect of their campaigns as important. I’ve been covering this issue because we have to win this next election, “we” being the climate sane, and the Democrats look like the vehicle to do it. This blog is neutral on all other issues.


We have learned that the energy giant knew about global warming decades ago, despite its more recent denialist rhetoric. Given that I knew about global warming decades ago, too, and I was a child whose father simply read a lot, I don’t see how this is a surprise. Still, there have been called to prosecute the company for fraud and I support those calls.

Paris Accord

The world’s leaders got together and decided that destroying the world would be a bad idea. Ahead of the summit, we in the US organized a series of demonstrations in support of a strong climate agreement and nobody noticed. I sound cynical and facetious. Actually, I am cautiously optimistic about the Paris climate accord. I am only cynical, at present, about the American political process necessary for meaningful action on the subject.

The Pope’s Letter

Pope Francis released an official open letter to his Church (called an encyclical) quite correctly describing climate change as a serious problem with a moral dimension.

Jellyfish Blooms

For the second year in a row, large numbers of jellies were seen in Maine waters, suggesting a deep ecological imbalance that is possibly climate-related—except nobody knows for sure, because we have no baseline data on jellyfish populations.

Syrian Refugees

Syria has blown up in all sorts of horrible, awful ways, from a massive refugee crisis to the formation of a really scary international terrorist organization that likes to behead men and sell girls as sex slaves in the name of God. And yes, climate could have played a role. These stories go back before this year, but it was in 2015 that they became dominant in American news (finally).