The Climate in Emergency

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


And in Comes O’Malley

Martin O’Malley has just thrown his hat in the Presidential ring, a move that surprises no one who has been watching his career. His presence also makes the race a bit more homey for me, since he has just completed two terms as Maryland’s governor and that is my state. Unfortunately, he’s a relative unknown outside the state, and the buzz so far is that he’s not going much of anywhere this time around. A recent cartoon depicted the “O’Malley Bandwagon,” being drawn by a rocking-horse. But he’s young enough that he could easily try again, perhaps with a cabinet-level position in the meantime to round out his resume.

But how is he on climate change? What would it be like if he did win?

Martin O’Malley is like the other two Democratic hopefuls in that we don’t have to rely on his campaign promises to guess how he’d do on climate as President–he has already shown his colors as Governor of Maryland. And his colors are surprisingly green. He has been called a climate hawk, and his interest in the environment isn’t just political. It’s entirely genuine. He’s taken some heat from climate deniers of late, who pounced on his assertion that climate change is a “business opportunity,” as if he were some kind of opportunist. Of course, that isn’t what he meant–he meant that actually doing something about climate change is not only the the right thing, but also the profitable thing. And he’s exactly right–there’s nothing fiscally responsible about environmental disaster.

Under Mr. O’Malley’s leadership, Maryland really stood out on climate and related issues. He has set goals of reducing the state’s greenhouse gas emissions (from 2006 levels) by 25% by the year 2020 and by 80% by 2050. He brought the state into the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI), a functional carbon pricing program that raises money for energy-efficiency programs that can lower residents’ utility bills. He released the Maryland Climate Action Plan, in 2008, championed the Greenhouse Gas Emissions Reduction Act of 2009, and started Maryland’s Zero Emissions Vehicle Program and got the Maryland Offshore Wind Energy Act passed, both in 2013.

Then there’s the goal of diverting 65% of our waste from landfills by recycling and composting, in order to reduce methane emissions. There’s the tree-planting program designed to deepen carbon sinks. There’s the expansion of rail lines in Baltimore and in Maryland’s D.C. (reduces car traffic and related emissions). Public buildings follow highest International Energy Conservation Code from the International Code Council. Residents who cut peak-time electricity usage get discounts on their bills. Mr. O’Malley held ClimateStat meetings every quarter, where he was genuinely enthusiastic about the proper presentation of data.

Has all of this worked?

So far, yes. Maryland’s greenhouse gas emissions have gone down, and although much of the decrease was actually due to the Great Recession and other such factors, the state has done somewhat better than the country as a whole–even as its population grows faster than average.

How many of these programs will hold in the face of our new, pro-business, Republican governor, Larry Hogan, is anybody’s guess, but Mr. O’Malley could have taken steps to try to slow reversal of his policies; what many environmentalists see as his one major failing, his issuing of strict guidelines for fracking (as opposed to not considering fracking at all), can be seen as an attempt to make it harder for Governor Hogan to write his own, loose guidelines (in fact, Maryland remains under a moratorium on fracking, which Mr. Hogan agreed to not veto).

Mr. O’Malley does have a somewhat deserved reputation for verbal awkwardness (he’s a bit of a geek, though he also plays in an Irish rock band called O’Malley’s March) but he can talk the talk on climate change, too. He brought up climate change in his very first Presidential campaign speech and features the issue prominently on his website. He has publicly acknowledged that Maryland is feeling the effects of climate change already. He has unequivocally opposed the Keystone XL Pipeline, in part on climate grounds. Of national energy policy, he has said “An all-of-the-above strategy did not land a man on the moon. This is a systems engineering challenge, as was landing a man on the moon,” and that reducing greenhouse emissions should be the explicit goal of American energy policy.

Mr. O’Malley is the real deal on climate, and he is a careful, strategic politician. Whether he manages to be a serious contender for the White House this time around or not, he will be one in the future. Speaking strictly as the author of a single-issue blog on climate change, I am very much ok with that.






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Retrospectives are popular this time of year, for obvious reasons. It’s good to take some time every year to look both back and forward, to step out of the day-to-day for a moment and look at the larger context. What have we done? What have we experienced? Are we really on the trajectory we want, or do we need to change our ways? The transition from one year to the next is as good a time to do this work as any other.

Countdowns irritate me (“The Top 10 ‘Top 10’ Lists of 2014!”) so I’m not going to write one, but I do want to take a look back at this year that was through the lens of climate-related issues.

I make no claim that this is an exhaustive list of important climate stories; I have not combed through the world’s newsfeeds and performed scientific analyses upon the results to determine by some objective criterion which stories deserve more attention. This is simply my look back over the stories that have reached my ears through 2014. I’ve included updates, where I can find them. Some are good news, some are not, but few have been in the news as much as they should have been.

California Drought

The first and the last climate story of 2014 might well be the California drought, which has lasted for several years and is still ongoing, recent flooding not withstanding. December’s unusually intense rains have indeed eased conditions dramatically and California is again turning green. If the rains keep up, the drought could indeed end. However, the region’s water deficit was so deep that a third of the state is still in the most severe drought category the US Drought Monitor has.

Essentially, this has been two droughts, back to back–one caused by cool ocean temperatures and a second, more severe drought caused by warm ocean temperatures. California has a strongly seasonal precipitation pattern and receives almost all of its water in the winter; last winter, a weirdly persistent blocking high diverted that moisture north instead. The result was the region’s worst drought on record, causing serious economic hardship, water shortages, and intense fires. The blocking high is gone, now, but it could come back.

A Federal study has, somewhat bizarrely, announced that climate change didn’t cause this drought–bizarre because climate doesn’t cause weather any more than a rising tide causes ocean waves. But when a wave drenches your beach chair, the fact that the tide is coming in is not exactly irrelevant. In fact, persistent highs like the one that caused the second portion of the ’11-’14 drought are more likely with global warming and could be linked to both warming ocean temperatures in the Pacific and larger ice-free areas in the arctic.

The El Nino that Wasn’t

Earlier this year, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) announced that an El Niño, possibly a very serious one, was about to begin. El Niño is the name of one pole of a multi-year cycle of ocean current and wind pattern changes in the Pacific. The other pole is called La Niña. This cycle, called El Niño Southern Oscillation (ENSO) influences weather patterns worldwide. Climate change does not cause the ENSO, but no one knows how to two patterns might interact.

The El Niño hasn’t happened yet, though NOAA says it is still possible a weak one might develop this winter. The issue is that although the Pacific has been unusually warm, it has not stayed warm enough or long enough to meet the definition of an El Niño event.

And yet, 2014 has been like an El Niño in many ways.

El Niños usually decrease Atlantic hurricane activity while increasing activity in the Pacific storm basins and indeed the Atlantic had only eight named storms (though several were unusually powerful), while the various storm basins of the Pacific were either normal or unusually active. The Eastern Pacific produced 20 named storms, plus two more in the Central Pacific–not record-breaking, but close. The Western Pacific has produced 22 named storms (not counting Genevieve, which moved west from a different basin), which is actually on the quiet side for that region, though again several storms were unusually intense.

And a massive coral bleaching event is underway across much of the world, such as is typical for the most severe El Niños. Corals turn white or “bleach” in hot water when they eject the microscopic algae that give them their color and their food. A bleached coral isn’t dead and can re-acquire algae, but if the animal stays bleached too long or too often it will die. A quarter of marine life depends on coral.

All of this suggests that maybe whatever causes El Niños are such isn’t happening this year–maybe instead we’re just looking at a new, hotter normal?

A Hot Year

2014 was the hottest year on record. The Eastern half of the United States was cold last winter, and again briefly this fall, but remember those cold snaps were balanced by unseasonable warmth elsewhere. It was also the 38th consecutive year that contained a global heat record of some type (such as the hottest May). Because the oceans were also hotter than they’ve ever been before, sea level was also higher than it has ever been before–water expands when it’s hot. If you did not personally experience unusual heat, then you are lucky. Other people in other places did–and some died from it.

Holes in Siberia

In July, three holes were found in the Yamal Peninsula of Siberia–(“found” in the sense of “identified by science; local people watched one of them form on September 27, 2013. Accounts differ, but involve some kind of explosion). The scientists who have examined the holes confirm that these weren’t meteor impacts or weapons testing, but there is still no firm consensus on how they formed (the various articles purporting to solve the mystery disagree with each other).

These things look sinister–rather like giant bullet holes a hundred feet across. The human intuition can be fooled, of course, but bizarreness is often an indication that something might be seriously wrong. For example, in medicine, strange symptoms (e.g., unexplained tingling or weakness that spreads, or facial paralysis) are usually a bad sign. Explanations vary; melted-out cavities caused sinkholes; collapsed ice-hills, called pingos; or methane ejections caused by either high pressure or a reaction involving water, gas, and salt. That last seems most plausible and also the most frightening, since methane is a powerful greenhouse gas, suggesting a destructive feedback loop.

Regardless of specifics, Siberia is warmer now than it has been for 120,000 years and the leading explanations all involve melting permafrost, suggesting that these holes are what they look like–evidence that what we knew as normal has ruptured.

IPCC Reports

The International Panel on Climate Change released its 5th Assessment Report this year in several installments. The report didn’t actually say anything new (the IPCC compiles scientific results to make its reports rather than conducting new research) but none of what it said was comforting. Climate deniers widely spoke out against the report, and early version accidentally added fuel to the “climate pause” ridiculousness, and the mainstream media barely acknowledged that the report existed. Nevertheless, for those who care to read it, the report offers further acknowledgement that s*** just got real.

A Series of Climate Actions

Meanwhile, we the people responded to climate-related issues in a massive way. In early March, coordinated protests across the United States saw almost 400 people arrested for handcuffing themselves to the White House fence and nine more arrested at a sit-in at the State Department offices in San Francisco, all to protest the Keystone XL pipeline. The same weekend, the Great March for Climate set out from Los Angeles towards Washington DC by foot on a more generalized mission for climate sanity. The mainstream media ignored all of this.

In April, a multicultural group from the Great Plains calling itself the Cowboy Indian Alliance (CIA) brought their horses, tipis, and an ornately carved covered wagon to the National Mall to hold a week of events and a rally in protest of the pipeline. Supported by a modest crowd of more local protesters (including me and my husband), the cowboys and Indians, dressed in feathers or carrying flags showing each ranch’s brand and praying in several different languages and accents, rode horses through the DC streets to present Present Obama with a hand-painted tipi and nobody in the mainstream media noticed.

In September, close to 400,000 people (including me and my mother) converged on New York City for The People’s Climate March, demanding climate action. Similar events all over the world were timed for the same day, the weekend world leaders converged in New York to discuss the climate. The following day, a peaceful civil disobedience action briefly shut down traffic on Wall Street. This time the media noticed and began reporting on the issue, but a month later NPR–which is supposedly liberal–disbanded its environment and reporting team, leaving only a single part-time reporter on the beat.

In November, the Great March for Climate arrived in Washington DC and then held a week of events protesting the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission for failing to provide true oversight of the natural gas industry. Some of the leaders of this project immediately reoriented and joined the We Are Seneca Lake campaign, protesting a planned natural gas storage facility. Dozens of people associated with that campaign have been arrested and the only reason I know anything about it is that I happen to be Facebook friends with one of them.

December also saw a second People’s Climate March, this one in Lima, Peru, timed to coincide with the Climate Conference there.

We’re developing some momentum, definitely. Renewable energy capacity is increasing dramatically as are jobs in “green technology.” Prices for renewable energy keep falling. A growing number of companies and organizations, including the Rockefeller family, are divesting themselves from the fossil fuel industry. The world is on track to finally create a global plan to reduce greenhouse  gas emissions next year and some countries, including the United States and China, already have emissions reductions plans in place.

The Climate of 2014

Is our situation rosy? Frankly, no. But is it hopeless? No, certainly not. If we keep the pressure up going forward and if we vote in climate-sane candidates at the next opportunity (in two years, in the United States), we’ve got a chance to make a real difference.

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Solutions that Aren’t

Occasionally, we hear nuclear power, natural gas, or even cold fusion advanced as solutions–or at least partial solutions–to the climate crisis. It is true that each of these has the potential to give us energy with much lower greenhouse gas emissions than coal or petroleum products. It’s also true that each has obvious drawbacks–existing forms of nuclear power plant blow up occasionally, natural gas is fracking awful, and cold fusion might not even exist. But, proponents assure us, all these are surmountable problems and we shouldn’t hesitate to use all available tools when the climate is on the line.

Yes, I’m being flippant on purpose.

But as obvious as the drawbacks are, the argument for giving all available options a try does have a certain merit; the drowning should not question the life-preserver, after all. As usual, a little bit of knowledge is dangerous, because it allows two conflicting arguments to each be framed in terms that appear to make complete sense.  That’s why I want to go into detail about all the various reasons why these solutions aren’t really solutions at all–and what the real solution is.

Nuclear Power

Yes, nuclear power plants–technically, nuclear fission plants, because their energy comes from atomic nuclei breaking apart–do sometimes blow up. They don’t do so very often, so there is an argument to be made that the small risk of catastrophic failure is worth the certainty of low-carbon energy. The counter-argument is that even a small risk of catastrophe is too high. We can leave that debate to philosophers, because even a perfectly functioning nuclear power plant produces radioactive waste that nobody really knows what to do with. In other words, there’s going to be a disaster even if the plant functions perfectly–it will just be a slower and less dramatic disaster.

Perhaps more importantly for this discussion, nuclear power isn’t free of greenhouse gas emissions. While it’s true that a plant in operation produces only heat, steam, and nuclear waste (the steam spins turbines, generating electricity), virtually every other step in the process, from mining uranium to building and eventually de-commissioning the plant, releases greenhouse gasses. Estimates of how much nuclear power plants actually add to the greenhouse effect vary a lot,  though the extremes on either side suffer from clear methodological problems. 66 grams of carbon dioxide equivalent per kilowatt hour (gCO2e/kWh) is a reasonable, middle of the road figure. That’s about a tenth of fossil fuel alternatives, but it’s not nothing.

True, as long as fossil fuels power most industry and transportation no power installation of any type is greenhouse-free, but wind farms only have about 10 gCO2e/kWh. That’s one sixth of nuclear’s figure, and wind farms  never blow up.

And on top from the shortcomings nuclear has in the abstract, the practical limitations of the real world create two more serious problems. First, uranium, like fossil fuel, is not a renewable resource. Eventually, we’ll run out of it. As supplies start to run low, the nuclear industry would find itself in the same position the fossil fuel industry is now–forced to exploit ores of poorer quality or that are harder to get to.  The harder ore is to mine, and the more ore must be processed for the same amount of energy, the higher the carbon footprint of nuclear power will be.

Second, switching from fossil fuel to nuclear fission would involve building a lot more nuclear power plants., something like a new plant every week for decades on end. Since 12% of a nuclear plant’s carbon emissions come from its construction alone (not counting mining and processing its initial supply of fuel), it’s not at all clear that building all those plants that quickly would really reduce our collective carbon footprint much. More importantly, building a nuclear plant is incredibly expensive and time-consuming–a new 1,000 megawatt facility takes ten years and three billion dollars. And that’s after the plant’s owners have  found a location willing to host a political hot potato that could blow up. These things are not good investments. Nobody is going to build enough of them to replace fossil fuel any time soon.

Natural Gas

Natural gas, which is mostly methane, has been touted as a bridge fuel, a lower-carbon option that we can use until we can get off fossil fuel entirely. It is true that burning methane produces much less carbon dioxide than other fossil fuels do, but its carbon footprint is still pretty big–six times that of nuclear, for example. Methane is also itself a greenhouse gas, and as such is much more powerful than carbon dioxide. Exploiting natural gas inevitably results in some of the stuff leaking–in fact, about a tenth of the United States’ current methane emissions come from leaks at a single cluster of facilities. I don’t know whether anyone has figured the greenhouse effect of leaked methane into the carbon footprint of natural gas, but it’s a good bet this fuel is not the panacea it’s claimed to be. And then there is fracking, the dominant technique for acquiring natural gas, which carries its own high environmental cost.

To be clear, burning methane for energy is not always a bad thing. Once methane is at the surface and about to be released into the sky, burning it is the best thing to do, since that converts the methane to carbon dioxide, which is a weaker greenhouse gas. Electricity generated by burning landfill gas, which is what my husband and I buy, actually has a carbon footprint of less than zero as a result. Also, methane produced by decomposition recently–biogas or landfill gas, not natural gas–generally doesn’t change the planet’s carbon budget much because those carbon compounds were in circulation already (there are exceptions, of course). Methane has a place as a fuel in a post-petroleum world. It is only its fossil fuel form–natural gas–that doesn’t.

The big problem with natural gas is not even fracking or the details of its carbon content. The big problem is that the more natural gas we harvest, the cheaper it will get. Low costs drive more consumption. We could end up burning more fossil fuel than we otherwise would, offsetting the value of a switch from coal to natural gas. Investing in new natural gas infrastructure would also make it harder and more expensive to switch to renewable fuel later. As a bridge fuel, it’s a bridge to nowhere because using natural gas makes switching to renewables less likely.

Cold Fusion

Cold fusion is a form of nuclear power in which energy is harvested from the combination of small atomic nuclei, rather than the splitting of large ones, as in standard fission power plants. The trouble with it as a power source, is that fusion needs very high temperatures in order to get going–like the inside of a star or a hydrogen bomb. Cold fusion involves somehow persuading this reaction to occur at more reasonable temperatures (not necessarily cold by human standards) so we can put it inside a power plant. Science fiction writers have long assumed that someday this puzzle will be solved and we will then have cheap, abundant energy with no pollution or radioactive waste forever.

Whether the technology is anything more than a sci-fi trope hasn’t been clear. Every few years, a team announces it has a cold-fusion device, but none actually pan out.

All that could be changing. Cold fusion (sometimes referred to by other names) has received more attention from researchers in recent years, with some apparent success. So cheap, abundant energy with no pollution of any kind might really be a thing soon. That’s great, right?

Maybe not.

The problem is that at least part of the issue with fossil fuel is precisely that it is a cheap and abundant energy source, and altering the energy balance of a complex system (like the biosphere) always alters the way that system functions and not always in a good way. Most if not all of our current environmental problems are a direct result of our species having an energy budget out of proportion to our other resources, like arable land, potable water, and the various mineral ores. More energy means we can use resources faster, which in the short term provided the illusion of having more resources. Our population ballooned into the billions and the lucky among us became the wealthiest people the world has ever known. In the longer term, faster resource use has come with a huge cost in terms of habitat destruction, pollution, soil exhaustion, and everything else.

Here is an analogy.

Let’s say you have a large pasture with a stream running through it in which you want to keep horses. The number of horses you can keep is limited by the amount of grass your pasture can grow. Fine, but you want more horses, so you buy hay to supplement your grass. Now, your pasture can hold more horses and you like that, so you keep adding more hay. If you add an infinite amount of hay, can you have an infinite number of horses? No, because growing grass wasn’t the only thing your pasture was doing–it was also providing your animals with drinking water and room to move around, plus recycling their feces and urine into fertile soil. If you keep adding horses and more hay, at some point your pasture is going to get overwhelmed and stop providing its other services. Your animals won’t starve, but they’ll end up standing knee-deep in their own waste, with nothing but sewage to drink and hardly any room to move around.

Adding more energy to the human economy is like adding more hay to the horse pasture–by removing one limitation, we free ourselves to exceed the other limitations that are still there. Global warming is the most obvious sign that fossil fuel is destabilizing the planet, and it is possible to imagine alternate energy sources, like cold fusion, that don’t change the climate. But those alternatives will almost certainly destabilize the system in some other way, because that is what adding cheap, abundant energy does.

So, What Can We Do?

The thing is, we can imagine inventing social and economic structures that would allow us to use cold fusion safely. We can imagine nuclear fission plants designed so that they do not blow up and do not create nuclear waste. We can imagine natural gas installations that do not leak. All of the drawbacks for all of these energy sources could, in theory, have work-arounds such that they can live up to their promises, but those developments are in the future if they are anywhere at all.

There is only one solution that requires no additional technology and has been proven 100% effective already; use less energy.

Yes, we’ll need some infrastructure changes, and some new inventions would be useful for letting us keep at least some aspects of our comfortable lifestyles. But, basically, we could stop warping the sky tomorrow by just turning the machines off. Every day we put off that decision is a day we change the climate.


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Methane Surprise!

This week, the internet is full of the discovery of an unexpected methane “hotspot” in the Four Corners region of the United States. A hotspot, in this context, is an unusually high concentration of the gas in one particular area–the highest such concentration in the country, although there are several other such hotspots elsewhere on the planet.

Obviously, the big questions are where did this plume of gas come from and can we–or should we–do anything about it. After all, methane is a greenhouse gas much more powerful than carbon dioxide.

The short version of the story is that the plume was discovered when researchers from NASA  and from the University of Michigan analyzed data collected by a European satellite between 2003 and 2009. They then compared that data to other data collected from a ground-based measuring station and concluded that yes, indeed, there is a lot of methane there–almost 10% of the country’s total methane output every year comes from this spot.. The San Juan Basin has been and continues to be heavily exploited for fossil fuel of various types, including natural gas, which is mostly methane. There are, of course, other areas being exploited for natural gas, but none produce so intense a methane plume. The Four Corners area is unusual simply because its equipment (and possibly its rocks as well) are very leaky. That means that yes, we can do something about it, and should; the owners of the equipment should stop the leaks.

Unfortunately, a lot of media outlets, including the venerable Associated Press, have apparently put out stories without actually reading all of the NASA press release, because they variously blame the plume on fracking, coal, or venting of natural gas during coal mining. It’s interesting to note that even generally reliable sources can sometimes be wrong. It’s best to go back to the original source whenever possible, in this case a scientific paper published in a journal called Geophysical Research Letters.

Unfortunately, I cannot access the paper because it’s behind a pay wall that I do not have the cash to scale (I am a poor, humble science writer….).  And the sources I can access, so far, leave some of my other questions unaddressed.

But the information I can access still leaves a lot of questions unanswered. Perhaps most importantly, why was this gas plume such a surprise? Apparently, the researchers initially assumed the anomalous reading had to be an equipment malfunction, not a real gas plume.. The real headline here is not that this one spot has a lot of methane but that the previous estimates of methane emissions globally were wrong, possibly really wrong. But why and how? The obvious answer is that the satellites can sense things that ground-based instruments cannot, not that satellites are more accurate (they aren’t) but that they can see places that ground-based sensors cannot access for whatever reason. But in this case researchers used ground-based sensors to check the satellite’s results, so obviously the San Juan Basin is not one of those inaccessible areas.

If we don’t know how much methane is coming out of the ground, our predictions for climate change will be off. If we don’t know where the methane is coming from, we can’t find ways to turn off the flow. We have better answers now, thanks to this discovery, than we did before, and that’s a good thing. President Obama has included looking for methane leaks and addressing them in his plan to stop changing the climate. That’s also a good thing. But it’s odd that none of the sources I’ve read thought it important to report why we didn’t have this information before.

It’s also odd that petroleum industry leaders have downplayed the discovery, arguing (incorrectly) that the methane plume does not matter. After all, the leaks at the San Juan Basin amount to nearly one trillion cubic feet of natural gas. At current prices, and depending on whether we’re talking industrial or residential customers, that could be anywhere from five to seventeen million dollars worth of inventory that is just flying off into the sky there. You’d think somebody would care about that.

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Western Pacific Typhoons

Japan can’t seem to catch a break this year.

Aside from the eruption of Mount Ontake (which was quite a disaster, but tangential to this blog), the country has had a serious problem with weather, especially flooding. Three typhoons have made landfall on the islands so far (Neoguri, Halong, and Phanfone), plus, Tropical Storm Man-yi raked the length of Japan in September, dropping almost twenty inches of rain within two days. At least one non-tropical rainstorm in August caused flooding and deadly mudslides as well. An Internet search for “unprecedented flooding Japan 2014” yields multiple results not all of them from the same storm. 

Japan is large enough that these storms have not all hit the same places, but still, it must be very difficult to be Japanese this year.

Another storm is on the way now, the startlingly monstrous Vongfong. There is some hope that it will weaken before hitting Japan itself, but it is a super typhoon and is one of the most powerful storms on record–ever. It is being compared to last year’s Typhoon Haiyan, the very existence of which convinced many that something has gone really, really wrong with Earth’s atmosphere. Well, now here’s another one.

To be clear, a typhoon is the same thing as a hurricane; different ocean basics use different names for the same type of storm. The collective term for any storm with this kind of structure is ” tropical cyclone.” A tropical cyclone that has sustained maximum wind speeds of 75 MPH or more is a hurricane, a typhoon, or a cyclone, depending on where in the world it is. Tropical depressions and tropical storms are weaker versions of the same thing. A super typhoon is the equivalent of a class 4 or 5 hurricane.

I have found little to no discussion of Japan’s troubles in general, or Super Typhoon Vongfong specifically, in terms of climate change so far. Perhaps the problem is that I can’t read Japanese and so am probably missing the vast bulk of coverage on these storms. I expect that if Vongfong causes a major disaster we may hear more about it here in the English-speaking world.

In the meantime, I am curious–when such discussions do get going, will they have a basis in fact?

Each storm basin produces slightly different storm behavior, with different storm seasons and different numbers of storms being typical per season. The Northwest Pacific basin is the most active in the world; it runs all year, though there is typically a lull over the winter, and its storms are often more powerful than those in the Atlantic. So a season that looks vicious to a writer based in the United States might be normal for Japan. So, is this an unusually powerful typhoon season?

Based on 1981-2010 data, the NW Pacific can produce anywhere from 14 to 39 storms of tropical storm strength or more, with an average of 26. Of these, anywhere from 5 to 26 are typhoons, the average being 16.5. Since 1960, the number of super typhoons per year varies from 1 to 11.

Getting a reliable list of the actual storms in this season is difficult, probably because English sources focus on the two basins that can threaten the United States and the NW Pacific cannot. By comparing several different blogs and news sites–not all of which agree with each other–I conclude that Vongfong is the basin’s ninth typhoon and its sixth super typhoon. These numbers are right in the middle of the typical range for the last several decades, but since the year still has three more months to run, this does look to be a busier than average year–but not an extraordinary one.

I am not a climatologist, so I could easily be contradicted here, but it looks like the only extraordinary thing this year–so far–is Vongfong. That might be enough. And of course, climate change does not cease to play a role in the weather when the weather is average or even calm; global warming is not an event but an element within all events. And even if the frequency of this year’s storms is not unusual, storm surges and total rainfall are higher than they would be without global warming. Recently I made a rough tally of the people who die of global warming? Get ready to add a few more when Vongfong rolls in.

Part of the reason I wanted to write about the Pacific storm season this week is simply that I know most of my readership is American, and American media (somewhat understandably) focuses on American news. I wanted to post a reminder that extreme weather still happens even when it isn’t happening here (though, of course, parts of the US are suffering from extreme weather as well).

But the other reason is that I’ve been watching the Pacific, expecting an extreme season, just as I’d been expecting a mild Atlantic season. This was supposed to be an El Niño year. As I said this spring:

El Niño refers to an unusual weakening of the trade winds, which causes warming of certain parts of the Pacific ocean. The name means “the Child,” referring to the Christ Child, because of the bad fishing the warm water causes off of Peru around Christmas during El Niño years. The pattern radically changes the weather across much of the globe. For example, El Niños partially suppress Atlantic hurricane activity but increase hurricane formation in the Pacific. A stronger trade winds and a cooling of the Pacific is called La Niña (“the Girl,” because it is the opposite of “the Boy”) and likewise alters worldwide weather. The Pacific moves between these two extremes every three to seven years for reasons no one really knows. The cycle is called ENSO, for El Niño Southern Oscillation.

When I wrote that, signs were good (or bad, depending on your perspective) that an El Niño was going to develop. It has not not happened yet, though it is still possible. Apparently, the Pacific waters have warmed, but other aspects of the El Niño pattern have not developed. I don’t know whether this year’s quiet Atlantic hurricane season is related to this almost-Niño or not. The busier than average Pacific season probably is, since the Pacific has been warmer than usual, and tropical cyclones feed on warm water.

An interesting question is whether the Atlantic is also warmer than usual? It might well be, if the relative lack of hurricanes is due to increased wind-shear (as it would be in an El Niño year). That is, warm water can cause increased storm activity, but decreased storm activity does not, all by itself, mean the water is cool.

The thing is that nobody knows what drives the ENSO, and so nobody knows its real relationship to climate change. It’s a reasonable guess that we could be in for more frequent or more severe El Niños, since both involve warming water, but we can’t be sure. Something else besides warm water might be necessary, and without that something else, more frequent El Niños might not happen.

I’m wondering if perhaps this is what the future looks like? Pools of warm water forming in the Pacific (and possibly elsewhere), causing some of the effects associated with El Niño, but not all of them? If so, Asia had better watch out.

If anyone has further insight on this, please drop me a line.


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How to Quit Fossil Fuel in a Few Simple Steps!

By now, most people reading these words probably know why getting off fossil fuel is important, but you might not really know how. It is difficult, and getting off fossil fuel entirely probably requires the collective effort of a whole community (or enough money to build your own personal infrastructure, as some off-the-grid enthusiasts do). It’s a big, overwhelming problem that is hard to think about clearly.

But an individual or a couple can make substantial progress. I have (though I am not entirely off fossil fuel yet). Here’s how.

Step 1: Set a Goal

Do this right now; write down on a piece of paper “I will get off fossil fuel soon.”

Or use whatever wording works for you. The point is to make cutting your fossil fuel use to zero your actual, honest goal. You may or may not succeed, but you won’t likely succeed if you don’t honestly try.

Step 2: List Your Fossil Fuel Uses

I don’t mean to count up how much you use, I mean to itemize the things that you do that constitute fossil fuel use (though it is very helpful to know which uses are the big ones, the places where most of your fossil fuel goes). Here is a hypothetical example:

  • Gas for my car
  • Gas for my lawn mower
  • Gas for public transportation I use
  • Fuel for the airplanes I fly on
  • Heating oil
  • Natural gas for my stove
  • Household electricity
  • Office electricity
  • Food transportation
  • Food processing
  • Creating “stuff” for me to buy

Step 3: Divide and Conquer!

Probably, most of your fossil fuel use falls into just a couple of categories–maybe electricity, gas, and food transportation/processing. Pick one category to work on first. When you have made substantial progress on that, or if you get stuck and have to wait for something to change, work on the next category.

Electricity is probably one of the big ones for most people. 40% of US electricity use is either residential or commercial, meaning citizens have direct control (collectively) over it. That’s huge. Readers in other countries are probably in a similar situation. Not all electricity is from fossil fuel, of course, so your first step here is to find out whether yours is. If you are already on alternative electricity, you’re probably done with this one. Congratulations.

If your electricity is not renewable, you probably don’t have to do without but you will likely have to reduce how much you use. A good way to start is to go on an energy fast. As an educational exercise for yourself, go without electricity for a set period of time, say three days or a week. If that is logistically impossible, you can make exceptions for specific activities (like going to work) or take symbolic steps. For example, if you do not want to turn off your refrigerator and freezer, commit to not opening their doors during the fast–pretend they are not there.  If you must use your computer for work, do so, but commit to not using social media or personal email. The idea is to make an honest effort to do without in order to learn which uses of electricity add something to your life and which do not. You might be surprised.

For example, refrigerators and clothes dryers are major electricity users and most people probably take them for granted, but you can do without either. Line-dried clothes smell divine and refrigerators often become places where people hide food to spoil. If you buy food in small quantities and use it promptly you might not need it, especially if some or all of your meals are vegan.

But, in point of fact, our refrigerator stays on and my husband occasionally uses the dryer on the no-heat setting–and our fossil fuel contribution from home electricity use is now zero. How? Our electric company offers a certain number of kilowatt-hours per month from landfill gas generation and we keep our usage below that number. Landfill gas is the methane that leaks out of landfills. Collecting it and burning it to generate electricity does release carbon dioxide, but methane is a more powerful greenhouse gas than CO2 is, so our electricity actually has a negative carbon footprint. Isn’t that awesome? Your electric company may offer something similar, and if it doesn’t you can ask them to, or find a new electric company that is more helpful.

You may have to reduce your usage a bit to stay within the limit, but that should not be difficult. We did it by not using our supplemental electric heat, line-drying most of our clothes, switching to energy-efficient appliances and light fixtures, and turning off the electricity at the breaker when we leave home so as not to “leak” power through appliances on stand-by.

Gas is another big one. Some people can get by without a car, but others just can’t. If you happen to be shopping for a new car, you can get a diesel, convert it to biodiesel or veggiediesel, and then find or create a fuel source (some people make veggiediesel from donated used fry oil from restaurants). An electric car is another possibility, if you have enough non-fossil-fuel electric capacity to charge it.

If a new car is not an option for you, try a gas-fast. Again, this means going without as a means of educating yourself. How many places can you get to by bike, on foot, or by public transit (which is usually not fossil-fuel free, but it’s usually an improvement)? How many of the trips you normally take do you really need to make? You might be surprised here, too. Minor lifestyle changes and a little ingenuity might get you out of cars all together.

If you do have to use your car, get thinking about steps you could take in the future and in the meantime set a concrete goal for gas reduction. Our first goal was to use our car less than once per week. We have achieved that for the summer, although in the winter my husband is a volunteer firefighter and he needs to drive to fires. Our next goal is to reduce our total annual gas usage by 10%.

Food can involve a lot of fossil fuel, given how far it usually travels. Factory-farmed meat is especially carbon-intense. I do not know what the carbon footprint of local, free-range meat is–it probably depends a great deal on how the individual grower does things. Ideally, you could grow all your own food or buy food from right near where you live and transport it in a backpack. Don’t laugh, many humans have lived that way, many of them probably happily. You probably don’t have the option, but you can get creative about ways to get fossil fuel out of your food in future, and in the meantime work on eating local as much as possible (and cutting out factory-farmed meats).

Depending on where you live, this may be easier or harder than you think it should be. A good way to get started is, again, to set manageable but challenging goals. For example, commit to getting all your fruits and vegetables from within your state, or 60% of all your food by weight from within a 50 mile radius, or whatever else works for you. You get to decide whether you want your goals to be detailed (weighing produce and calculating miles) or general (shop mostly at the farmer’s market).

Part of my practice is that when I can’t find local food, I at least stick to food that could be local–for example, bananas don’t grow in my area, so I no longer eat them. I’m not absolute about this; lentils don’t grow in my area, either, but I eat a lot of them. I don’t turn up my nose at what other people offer me when I’m a guest in their home and I make other exceptions, now and then. I find that making exceptions and being flexible makes any discipline easier to stick to.

So Where Does All this Leave You?

Realistically, getting off fossil fuel may be a long-range goal for you, but you’ll get farther if you take achieving your goal seriously. No vague “I guess I’ll try to be a little greener.” Defining sub-goals and achieving them is also important psychologically. Remember, where you get stuck is where you get busy, because other people are probably stuck, too, and you can help un-stick them.

Remember, too, to support political and corporate leadership towards dealing with climate change. The one cannot make it without the many, and the many cannot make it without the one.


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On Natural Gas

So, this has been bothering me for a while now. One of the arguments for fracking–an environmentally destructive method of extracting natural gas–is that it is a relatively clean fuel with a lower carbon footprint than coal or petroleum products. How could any fossil fuel have a lower carbon footprint? Isn’t the chemistry of burning carbon compounds basically the same everywhere?

Well, it turns out that no, the chemistry isn’t always the same. Natural gas is relatively clean, with a lower carbon footprint. There are some complications, of course.

Some Chemistry

Natural gas is so called in contrast to manufactured gas, which was typically made from coal. Manufactured gas was very popular through the 1800’s and early 1900’s. The gas lights of gas-lit London (and elsewhere) burned manufactured gas, as did the household ovens that were so tragically easy to use in suicide–manufactured gas is very toxic. The manufacturing process for  gas was an environmental nightmare.

Natural gas, in contrast, exists in gaseous form naturally, hence the name. It burns relatively clean. A natural gas oven cannot kill a person (unless the gas explodes), so the switchover actually caused a dramatic drop in suicide rates–apparently, making self-injury just a little harder gives a lot of people enough time to change their minds..

Natural gas is mostly methane, which really does release less carbon dioxide per unite of heat released than any of the other fossil fuels.

This is because the energy released from burning any substance comes from all of the chemical reactions that occur during the fire. All fossil fuels are hydrocarbons–chemical compounds made mostly out of carbon and hydrogen. When these burn, the carbon combines with oxygen, releasing energy and creating carbon dioxide. But the hydrogen also combines with oxygen, a second chemical reaction–this one releases heat, too, but creates only water.

Because methane has the least number of carbon atoms per hydrogen atoms of any fossil fuel, burning it creates the least amount of carbon dioxide per unit of heat–but by the same principle, burning methane produces more water.

Water vapor is also a greenhouse gas.

What About Water Vapor?

Water vapor is our most important greenhouse gas. Most of it is natural; humans didn’t create the greenhouse effect, we’re just adding to it.

But human activity is adding water vapor to the sky. Besides the chemical production of water through burning fossil fuel, irrigation and other industry exposes more water to evaporation (and transpiration by plants). And, the warmer the planet gets, the more water the atmosphere can hold and so the more water is sucked up into the sky. This is part of how heat waves make droughts worse.

So, what is all this extra water vapor doing to the climate?

It’s hard to tell for sure, because there is a lot scientists still don’t know about the hydrological cycle–including how much water vapor, exactly, is in the sky. Humidity is very variable, so, depending on where and when you measure, the atmospheric concentration of water vapor could be anywhere from zero to 4%.

Climate scientists do know the feedback loop between hotter weather and increased evaporation is very serious. The more water evaporates, the hotter the planet gets, and the hotter the planet gets, the more water evaporates.  This is just one of the several feedback loops that could easily make global warming become a frighteningly self-exacerbating problem.

But the extra water vapor we add directly (through irrigation, and so forth) it more confusing. Climate scientists typically ignore this extra humidity, in part because it isn’t clear that it has a global impact. A huge amount of water goes up into the sky–the entire flow of the Colorado River and most of the Aral Sea, for example, both are sucked up by human activity and almost all of that water either evaporates or is transpired. But at least some of that water probably falls back down again pretty quickly, so the total amount of water vapor in the air might not increase all that much. Still, at least some of that water vapor probably stays up there for a while, plus both  groundwater mining (pumping well water out faster than it can recharge) and fossil fuel use add water to the cycle that wasn’t in it at all before. It seems plausible that there is at least as much extra water vapor in the sky as extra carbon dioxide. That must be having some effect.

Anthropogentic (human-caused) water vapor could be one of the things science is wrong to ignore. But on the other hand, there is a lot more water vapor than carbon dioxide up there. The concentration of CO2 has gone up by about 100 parts per million (PPM) since the Industrial Revolution, meaning that just over a third of what’s in the atmosphere is our doing. In contrast, if the concentration of water vapor has also gone up by about 100 PPM as a direct result of human activity (that is, not counting the feedback loop), then only about one ten-thousanth of the water vapor up there is our doing. The extra might well be lost in the shuffle.

The above figure assumes that the global concentration of water vapor is 1% which, as noted earlier, might well be wrong–the true figure could be anywhere from 4% to zero, but given how much of the planet is either ocean or humid landscape, 1% seems plausible. The point is that, whatever the real numbers are, we’re looking at a difference of several orders of magnitude between the concentrations of the two gases. Of course, while an extra 1oo ppm of water vapor might mean nothing over, say, a rainforest, over a desert where natural humidity approaches zero, the difference might be quite real. So, whether anthropogenic water vapor matters might therefore be a very complex question, depending on where the increase occurs and what happens to the global climate if certain areas warm disproportionately.

The reason I bring all this up is that while coal is a very dirty, destructive fuel on almost any conceivable level, burning it produces no water vapor at all. When methane (natural gas) burns, for every one molecule of carbon dioxide produced, we get two molecules of water.

Bringing It All Together

On balance, I’d say that burning methane is better for the sky than coal is, and may be better than gasoline and other petroleum products. Much of our natural gas now comes from hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, which is an environmental horror show (flammable well-water, increasing earthquakes), but so is coal mining (mountain-top removal) and petroleum (oil spills, groundwater contamination). The EPA’s new rules for CO2 emissions will probably encourage the natural gas industry at the expense of the coal industry, and that’s ok.

But the issue with water vapor is only one place where the environmental impact of natural gas might be more complex than it sounds. Clearly, the stuff is no panacea.

Ultimately, we’re going to have to get off fossil fuel entirely, and that is where our efforts need to go–towards renewable energy sources and energy conservation. Anything else is probably a distraction, although any step that lowers our carbon emissions is an improvement and needs support.