Out of desperation, scientists consider manual climate engineering


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One geoengineering method is to release particulate matter into the air that reflects the sun’s rays and cools the Earth. (Flickr/Chris Harrison)
Jenna Ladd | March 30, 2017

In light of the Trump administration’s recent rollback of President Obama’s climate change policies, some scientists are exploring controversial ways to artificially cool Earth’s climate.

The process, known as geoengineering, can include manually sucking carbon dioxide from the atmosphere or spraying particles up into the air that reflect the sun’s rays and cool the planet. The National Academy of Sciences called for more research on geoengineering back in 2015. Many reputable climate scientists are now searching for funding to conduct small, low-risk experiments to assess potential adverse effects of the intervention.

As Earth’s temperatures reach historic highs, some climate scientists view geoengineering as the best of many bad options, while others say artificially cooling the climate may discourage countries from reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

During the Obama administration, some researchers were hoping to receive government money for geoengineering research. Ted Parsons, an environmental law specialist at UCLA, said that the same researchers are weary of accepting money from Trump’s white house.

Parsons said, “To the extent you’re in a political setting where misinformation about climate change is being spread, efforts to cut emissions are being undermined or threatened, then that suggests the possibility that the risks of pursuing research of this kind might actually outweigh the benefits.”

Scientists gathered at the Forum on U.S. Solar Geoengineering Research last week in Washington D.C. Rose Cairns of the University of Sussex voiced her opposition to the practice. She said, “The very existence of significant research programs, whatever their impact on the physical environment, will fundamentally alter in unpredictable ways the social and political context in which climate governance of the future will be conducted.”

More plainly, Cairns said that she was concerned some countries may use geoengineering technology to set a “global temperature” that mets their needs and not the needs of other countries. She also questioned how the international community could ever decide on one “global temperature,” according to report from NPR.

Many of the researchers present expressed reluctance about the practice. Ted Halstead of the Climate Leadership Council said, “It’s with great reluctance that a lot of us are here.” But climate engineering must be discussed, he said, because “we live in a world where we’re heading towards 4 degrees of warming.”

Rising temperatures deplete Colorado River


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The Colorado River provides drinking water for 40 million people. (Katie Rompala/flickr)
Jenna Ladd | February 24, 2017

The volume of the Colorado River has decreased by 19 percent since 2000, and recent research shows that climate change is partly to blame.

Two researchers from Colorado State University and University of Arizona compared temperature, precipitation and water volume in the Colorado River basin from 2000-2014 to historical records dating back to 1896. Since 2000, precipitation in region has decreased by 4.6 percent while temperatures have risen 1.6 degrees Fahrenheit above historical averages. Utilizing existing climate models, the scientists found that the river’s flow should have only decreased by roughly 11.6 percent since the drought began in the area in 2000. Instead, the river’s flow decreased by 19.3 percent due to the effects of global warming, they said.

Published last week in the journal Water Resources, the study read,

“Fifteen years into the 21st century, the emerging reality is that climate change is already depleting the Colorado River water supplies at the upper end of the range suggested by previously published projections. Record-setting temperatures are an important and under-appreciated component of the flow reductions now being observed.”

The Colorado River provides drinking water for 40 million people and irrigates 6,300 square miles of agricultural land. Moving forward, the study’s authors said precipitation in the river’s basin would have to increase by 14 percent by the end of the century in order to mitigate the rising temperature’s effects.

Brad Udall of Colorado State University is one of the study’s co-authors. He said, “We can’t say with any certainty that precipitation is going to increase and come to our rescue.”

Warming ponds could speed up climate change


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Small ponds used by researchers at the University of Exeter and Queen Mary University. (University of Exeter)
Jenna Ladd | February 23, 2017

A recent study shows that when freshwater ponds warm, they release more methane and are able to store less carbon dioxide.

Researchers at the University of Exeter and Queen Mary University of London warmed a collection of man-made ponds by four to five degrees Celsius over the course of seven years. The first of its kind, the study found that the amount of methane released by the ponds increased by double while the amount of carbon dioxide the ponds could store decreased by half.

Professor Gabriel Yvon-Durocher was the study’s lead investigator. He said, “Given the substantial contribution small ponds make to the emission of greenhouse gases, it is vital to understand how they might respond to global warming.”

While ponds and lakes only account for about 0.008 percent of the total volume of water on Earth, they are major contributors of carbon dioxide and methane. Greenhouse gases from freshwater sources are mostly the byproduct of organic matter breaking down in low-oxygen environments.

Yvon-Durocher continued, “Our findings show that warming can fundamentally alter the carbon balance of small ponds over a number of years, reducing their capacity to absorb and increasing emissions of methane. This could ultimately accelerate climate change.”

The scientist noted that these findings are different than those normally observed on land, where the effect of rising temperatures lessen over time. In contrast, when ponds warm and release methane, a gas that is known to be 25 times more potent than carbon dioxide, they actually exacerbate warming.

Ponds of less than one meter, such as those used in the study, are responsible for the release of 40 percent of all inland methane emissions.

 

The professor noted, “This accelerating effect in ponds, which could have serious impacts on climate change, is not currently accounted for in Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change models.”

The complete study can be found in the journal Nature Climate Change.

Climate change to decrease average number of mild weather days


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Residents enjoy pleasant weather at Noelridge Park in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. (Louis/flickr)
Jenna Ladd | January 24, 2017

The first of its kind, a recent study found that climate change is likely to decrease the number of “nice weather” days worldwide.

The authors of the study, scientists from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association and Princeton University, define “nice” or “mild” days as those days when temperatures are between 64 and 86 degrees Fahrenheit, dew points are below 68 degrees Fahrenheit and less than half of an inch of rain falls. Currently there are an average of 74 nice days globally per year, but that number is likely to drop to 70 in the next twenty years and to 64 by 2081.

Karin van der Wiel is a postdoctoral researcher at Princeton University and lead author of the study. She said,

“We used a climate model to simulate the current climate. In that simulation we counted the number of mild days. Then, we increased greenhouse gases in the climate model to simulate the future effects of climate change. This leads to increasing temperatures, changes in humidity, changes in precipitation over the whole world and with very specific patterns. In this new, future climate, we counted the number of mild days again. We could then calculate the change — increase or decrease — of mild weather days for each location globally.”

Not all corners of the Earth will be affected equally, however. Tropical regions are expected to lose the most nice days, with some areas losing up to 50 per year by the end of this century. Meanwhile, London is expected to gain 24 nice days each year.

Predictions for Cedar Rapids, Iowa mirror global averages. Eastern Iowa currently enjoys 76 nice days annually; researchers say that number is expected to drop to an average of 72 between 2016 and 2035 and to 66 each year between 2081 through 2100.

Frequent high humidity makes it tough for Iowa to meet the pleasant weather criteria outlined in the study. Absolute humidity has risen by 13 percent during the summer months in Des Moines since 1970, according to Iowa State climate scientist Gene Takle. Increased humidity also contributes to the extreme rain events that have plagued Iowa in recent years.

van der Wiel said, “Mild weather is something everyone knows, experiences, and has memories of,” she continued, “Our study shows that human-caused climate change is going to lead to changes in mild weather all over… The changes are happening now, and where people live.”

2016 marks third consecutive hottest year on record


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Ethiopia, among many other African countries, experienced extreme drought and famine in 2016. (European Comission DG Echo/flickr)

 Jenna Ladd | January 19, 2017

Yet another record was set on Wednesday when the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA) released its annual Climate Report.

The report announced that 2016 was the hottest year on record for the third consecutive year. Deke Arndt is the chief of the monitoring group at NOAA’s National Centers for Environmental Information in Asheville, N.C.

Arndt said, “[Last year] was the warmest year on record, beating 2015 by a few hundredths of a degree, and together those two years really blow away the rest of our record.” He continued, “And that doesn’t sound like a lot, but when you take that and you average it all the way around the planet, that’s a big number.”

Rising temperatures were not limited to certain regions. Experts said that some part of every major ocean and every major continent experienced record heat. The Arctic, however, saw some of the most extreme warming. During Fall of 2016, temperatures were a full 20 to 30 degrees Fahrenheit warmer than average across large parts of the Arctic ocean.

Scientists say the long-term warming caused by climate change was intensified by the El Niño weather phenomenon during 2015 and 2016. Their combined effect caused drought and famine in Zambia, Congo, Zimbabwe, Mozambique and Malawi, among other countries. Now that El Niño is coming to an end, Arndt said that the annual temperature-recording breaking probably will too, but an overall warming trend will continue.

Arndt said, “The long-term warming is driven almost entirely by greenhouse gases. We’ve seen a warming trend related to greenhouse gases for four, five, six decades now.”

The Climate Report, along with a separate analysis by NASA which duplicated its results, were released on the same day that confirmation hearings began for Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt, who has been nominated by President-elect Trump to lead the Environmental Protection Agency. Pruitt, who staunchly supports the fossil fuel industry, is identified as “a leading advocate against the EPA’s activist agenda” in his official biography.

The complete report and a summary of its findings can be found here.

Researchers perplexed by tornado clusters’ growing size


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An image of a tornado touching down in Oklahoma in May of 1981 from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s photo archive. (NOAA/flickr)
Jenna Ladd | December 2, 2016

A recent study in the journal Science reveals that tornado outbreaks are growing in size, and scientists are unsure why.

The study was published just days after 18 tornadoes devastated parts of the Southeast United States Tuesday night into Wednesday morning. The study’s lead author, Michael Tippett of Columbia University, said that 50 years ago tornado clusters, may have involved about 12 tornados, now they average roughly 20. The researchers studied the most extreme outbreaks, which happen about once every five years, and discovered a steady increase in tornado cluster size since the mid-1960’s.

Before the outbreak on Tuesday, 2016 had seen a record low number of tornadoes. In an interview with the Associated Press, Tippett said,“Something’s up. The tornadoes that do occur are occurring in clusters. It’s not any increase in the (total) number of tornadoes.” In contrast with upticks in other kinds of extreme weather, researchers are not seeing a connection between human-induced climate change and larger tornado clusters. Tippett said, “It’s not what we expected. Either it’s not climate change because not everything is, or it is some aspect of climate change we don’t understand yet.”

The article mentioned that the circulation of warm water in the Pacific and Atlantic oceans could be responsible for the tornado clusters’ growth over the years, but there is no evidence yet to support this claim.

Other scientists question the validity of Tippett’s study, claiming that increased reporting and the prevalence of urban sprawl may be responsible for the perceived growth of tornado outbreaks. One critic is Howard Bluestein, a meteorology professor at the University of Oklahoma. He said, “It’s a useful exercise, but I would be very, very careful in accepting it.”

Seven people were killed by this week’s tornado cluster, several more were injured.

Iowa ranks among top 20 states for air pollution


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Three of the national top 100 toxic chemical producing companies are located in Iowa. (Cliff/flickr)
Jenna Ladd | September 30, 2016

A recent analysis by the Center for Public Integrity found that Iowa is ranked among the top 20 states in the union for both toxic chemicals and greenhouse gases in the air.

The center, a non-profit, non-partisan organization that performs analysis of government and ethics issues that affect the public, analyzed federal air quality data from 2010 to 2014, the most recent year for which complete data is public. The report showed that Iowa’s hazardous air emissions increased from 17.6 million pounds per year in 2010 to 18.7 million pounds per year in 2014. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), some common hazardous air pollutants include lead compounds, arsenic compounds, vinyl chloride, and chloroform. Iowa ranks 17th nationally for toxic air emissions.

Analysis reveals that most toxic air emissions can be attributed to a handful of power plants, factories, and other facilities. Three of the top 100 contributors are located in the state of Iowa. Climax Molybdenum Co. of Fort Madison ranks among the top ten and released 4.4 million pounds of hazardous chemicals such as ammonia into the air in 2014. Eric Schaeffer, Director of the Environmental Integrity Project called ammonia a “serious pollutant.” Schaeffer said, “It can cause significant health effects when people are exposed to it,” he added, “But it also can lead to water pollution when it falls back to Earth and gets transformed into nitrogen.” Eric Kinneberg, a spokesperson for the Phoenix-based company that owns Climax Molybdenum, said that the plant is working to curb emissions. While not yet fully operational, the company is installing an ammonia scrubber that is predicted to cut ammonia emissions by 90 percent. Kinneberg said, “We share the same goals of achieving and maintaining clean air for all Iowans.”

While the Hawkeye state still ranks 19th nationally for greenhouse gas emissions, emissions dropped by 11 percent from 2010 to 2014. Experts say that much of Iowa’s greenhouse gas emission decrease can be explained by a surge in wind and solar energy investments. Power plants owned by MidAmerican Energy and Berkshire Hathaway are responsible for a large portion of greenhouse gases in the air, but both companies are making strides to limit emissions. Berkshire Hathaway said that it has invested in technology that has significantly reduced emissions of sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxide, particulate matter and mercury. Perhaps more notably, MidAmerican Energy has retired four coal fueled units and switched a fifth over to natural gas, which also curbs emissions. The company has also invested over $10 billion in wind energy since 2014. MidAmerican most recently announced a $3.6 billion wind energy project that will be constructed on multiple sites around the state.