No let up–it just gets worse

They say that you can’t judge a book by it’s cover.  That’s certainly true for the 2018 edition of the State of the Climate report just published by the American Meteorological Society (AMS). The report’s cover shows a landscape of pretty desert wildflowers against a backdrop of cool hills. It all looks so calm and peaceful.

You would never guess from this image that wildfires were blazing across California, scorching British Columbia, and ripping through northern Ontario [1]. While in Europe and Asia, heatwaves are breaking all the records, Greece is struggling to recover, and Portugal is on fire. [2]

Every year the AMS publishes an annual check-up of the planet’s health led by scientists from NOAA and incorporating the work of over 500 international scientists. Check it out here.

It’s not an easy read—comprising over 260 pages of densely packed evidence-based, and carefully referenced narrative.  It takes a bit of time to wade through weeds and to sort out the most salient (and generally the most alarming) sets of data.

The tropical planet

All the evidence points to an inexorably warming planet–there simply isn’t any doubt about this any more. 2017 wasn’t the hottest year on record: 2016 still tops the list. Last year came in maybe second or third warmest since records began over a century ago.  All the other temperature metrics were way above normal—as they have been for more than a decade.  The ten warmest years on record have all occurred since 1998, with the four warmest years occurring since 2014.

Land temperatures were the third highest on record, and sea surface temperatures were also third highest. The average rate of change of surface temperatures since 1901 is between 0.7 and 0.9°C per century.  But this rate of change has nearly doubled in the period since 1975.

It is essential to understand this: the rate of warming is increasing.  Things are not settling down—they are steadily getting worse.

Melting and flooding

The world’s glaciers are melting away—they continue to lose mass as they have done each year since monitoring began in 1980. Seven of eight reference glaciers in Alaska, Washington state, and British Columbia show continuous melting.  The melting glaciers and ice sheets drive up global sea levels—which are now the highest ever recorded by the watching satellites: almost 8 cm higher than the 1993 average.

The Hawaiian islands experienced record high sea levels during 2017. In August, the tide gauge in Honolulu Harbour registered the highest hourly water level since records began in 1905. There has been repeated flooding even on days when the weather was fine–a phenomenon thought to be caused by several physical processes occurring simultaneously—all contributing a small amount to an aggregate substantial rise in sea level and flooding. These events are called nu’a kai, meaning piled ocean. The causes and implications of nu’a kai are not well understood—which is not a good sign for small islands and coastal communities, given that sea level rise is likely to increase the global frequency of these unexpected fair-weather flooding events.

The worldwide trend of rising permafrost temperatures continued  in 2017.  Record high temperatures were registered for nearly all sites in Alaska and north-western Canada. In other areas, including north-east Canada, permafrost temperatures measured in 2016/17 were among the highest ever recorded.

Exceptionally high temperatures were observed in the permafrost across the American and European Arctic, with record values recorded in parts of Alaska  and north-western Canada.

Up in the Arctic, the pace of warming is alarming. Annual average air temperatures in 2017 continued to increase at twice the rate of the rest of the world. As summer sea ice extents continue to shrink, the seasonal build-up of upper ocean heat in ice-free regions is increasing. In August 2017, sea surface temperature records were broken in the Chukchi Sea (north-west of Alaska), with some regions as warm as +11°C: as much as 4°C warmer than the long term mean.

Storm watch

And then there were the hurricanes.

Harvey made landfall on 25 August just east of Rockport, Texas, churning in behind a 3-meter storm surge that destroyed or damaged 35,000 homes. The hurricane’s forward motion then slowed to a virtual halt about 100 km inland.  It rained incessantly.

Harvey smashed all the US rainfall records ever registered—dumping about a trillion gallons of water across Harris Country in  southeast Texas. Over 300,000 structures and half a million vehicles were flooded.

Harvey was closely followed by Irma—which broke all the records in a different way. The hurricane generated the highest ACE value (a measure of a storm’s destructive potential) ever recorded in the Caribbean. During its catastrophic rampage through the islands Irma made four Category 5 landfalls: at Barbuda, St Martin, Virgin Gorda, and Little Inagua in the Bahamas.

A few days later, Hurricane Maria ripped into Dominica and Puerto Rico killing a total of 1500 people—mostly in Puerto Rico.  Not counting the several thousand that died on that island in the hurricane’s aftermath.

So there is no good news.

And frankly, it’s going from bad to worse.

For Canada, the warming permafrost is an extreme hazard. A clear and very present danger. The frozen soil supports most of the built infrastructure in the region: buildings, highways, airstrips, and pipelines. Climate variables such as atmospheric temperature, rain events, and snow depths, are driving higher permafrost temperatures and increasing the thickness of what’s called the active layer—the surface soil layer that thaws and refreezes each season.

Although many countries are successfully reducing their emissions of greenhouse gases—most notably in Europe, the global picture shows no sign of improving. The atmospheric concentrations of the three primary greenhouse gases: carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide, are all increasing. They show absolutely no sign of levelling off.

And that means the planet gets warmer.  That’s what greenhouse gases do.

And yet we know how to solve this problem.  A global shift to generating electricity from renewable energy coupled with a rapid transition to electric vehicles would have a substantial impact on emissions and on the atmospheric concentrations of the greenhouse gases that are cooking the planet.

Wind power and solar photovoltaic energy are now the least-cost power generation options. Coupled up with megawatt-scale energy storage systems and smart meters, renewable energy is both reliable and dispatchable.

Crisis? What crisis?

What is lacking is the political courage, the leadership, and the vision to drive this period of change more strongly and aggressively towards a low-carbon global economy.

In the USA and Canada there are states, provinces and cities that have understood the need for bold action, and which have implemented successful local and regional policies to cut back on emissions. But at the national level, the lack of concern, the denial, and the inaction, particularly in the US, is a global disgrace. [3]

Fake news?  It’s not the news that’s fake.


[1] See: Mendocino complex fire now largest in California history, capping destructive year.  Accessed at http://latimes.com/local/lanow/la-me-In-california-wildfires-danger-level-20180806-story.html

[2] See : Our climate plans are in pieces as killer summer shreds records.  Accessed at: https://www.cnncom/2018/08/04/world/climate-change-deadly-summer-summer-wxc-intl/index.html

[3] All the numbers and information summarized in this text are taken from the BAMS report which is available here:  https://www.ametsoc.org/ams/index.cfm/publications/bulletin-of-the-american-meteorological-society-bams/state-of-the-climate/.  BAMS is the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society.

 

 

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