Tag Archives: greenhouse gas

Amusing Monday: Animations find new ways to talk about climate crisis

I’m always looking for new ways to visualize the causes and effects of excessive greenhouse gases and what is happening to the Earth’s climate. A clever new animation depicts the carbon cycle as a clickety-clackety machine that moves the carbon from place to place.

The video, produced by Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History, shows how carbon takes on different forms as it moves from the air into plants and animals, becomes embedded deep in the ground and then is turned into fuel at a pace that upsets the natural cycle. (Don’t forget to go full-screen.)

“Humans have thrown the carbon cycle out of adjustment, with increasingly severe consequences for climate, oceans and ecosystems,” states the description below the YouTube video.

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Climate Sense: Concerns rise over methane and auto-emission rules

Methane is a powerful greenhouse gas, capable of trapping far more heat than the same amount carbon dioxide, at least in the short term. This week, I point you to some new studies regarding the release of methane and news about a potential showdown between state and federal governments over fuel-economy standards.

Methane, the primary component of natural gas, is not well understood by many people. Methane can absorb more than 100 times as much energy as an equal weight of carbon dioxide, experts say, but methane breaks down in the atmosphere over time, so the effect of releasing a ton of methane actually decreases as time goes on.

Graphic: Environmental Protection Agency

Methane’s “global warming potential,” or GWP, is said to be 28-36 times higher than CO2 when considering the effects over 100 years — so methane is regarded as a major contributor to climate change. Check out the explanation of GWP by the Environmental Protection Agency.

Sources of methane are widespread — from vegetation naturally decomposing in wetlands to incidental releases during natural gas production and transport. Figuring out the amount of methane coming from various sources has been a puzzle for climate scientists.

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Climate change to alter habitats in Puget Sound

In 50 years, Puget Sound residents will see mostly the same plants and animals they see today, but some changes can be expected. Our favorite species may disappear from places where they are now common.

Climate change is expected to bring higher temperatures, shifts in precipitation patterns, rising sea levels and ocean acidification. Some species will no doubt cope where they are. Some will not. Some could move to more hospitable locales, perhaps farther north or to higher elevations in the mountains.

“There are going to be some winners and some losers,” research biologist Correigh Greene told me. His comment seemed to sum up the situation nicely, and I used this quote in the final installment of a three-part series I wrote for the Puget Sound Institute and the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound.

All three climate stories are largely based on a new report from the Climate Impacts Group at the University of Washington called “State of Knowledge: Climate Change in Puget Sound.”

What stands out in my mind is how Puget Sound’s food web could be disrupted in unexpected ways. For example, tiny shelled organisms — key prey for many fish species — are already dying because they cannot form healthy shells. And that’s just one effect of ocean acidification.

The observations mentioned in my story and in the report itself come from a variety of experts who understand the needs of various species — from those that live in the water to those dependent on snow in the mountains. What will actually happen on the ground depends on many variables — from the buildup of greenhouse gases to changing trends such as El Nino.

As things are going, it appears that this year will be the warmest on record. The global average surface temperature is expected to reach the symbolic milestone of 1 degree Celsius above the pre-industrial era, according to the World Meteorological Organization. The years 2011 through 2015 have been the warmest five-year period on record, with many extreme weather events influenced by climate change, according to a five-year analysis by WMO.

The new report from the Climate Impacts Group discusses various scenarios based on total emissions of greenhouse gases. High scenarios presume that emissions will continue as they are now. Low scenarios presume that people will dramatically reduce emissions. What will actually happen is unpredictable at this time.

Greenhouse gas emissions are used to predict carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere, ultimately pushing up the average global temperature. The first graph below shows the range of annual emissions (in gigatons of carbon) depicted by the various scenarios. The next graph shows how the emissions translate into atmospheric concentration. One can take any of the scenarios and see how the levels translate into temperatures at the end of the century. For a more complete explanation, go to page 19 of the report, where these graphs can be found.




Washington leading on ocean acidification

Ocean acidification is hitting Washington’s shellfish industry even before we begin to experience the full effects of climate change, and Gov. Chris Gregoire placed this state in the forefront of action Tuesday when she signed an executive order on the issue.

The order supports the findings of the governor’s Blue Ribbon Panel on Ocean Acidification. Check out the story I wrote for yesterday’s Kitsap Sun.

The panel released the report during an hour-long presentation of the findings. If you have time, I recommend watching the informative presentation, provided by TVW in the player at right.

The executive summary of the report, as well as the full report, its appendices and the governor’s order, can be downloaded from panel’s webpage on the Washington Department of Ecology website.

Gregoire’s order is considered the first state-level action on ocean acidification — and that has attracted attention from across the country. For example, stories were written by environmental reporter Juliet Eilperin of the Washington Post and by Virginia Gewin of Nature magazine.

Ocean acidification has been called the “evil twin” of global warming, because the effects can be more swift and more severe than gradual warming of the Earth. That’s not to discount other serious effects of climate change, including increased frequency of severe storms, sea level rise with increasing flooding, and heat waves with crippling effects on agriculture. But acidification affects organisms at the base of the entire food web.

The effects of ocean acidification will not be reversed for a long, long time, even if greenhouse gas emissions are brought under control. The upwelling of old water along the coast brings this problem right to our doorstep now and for the foreseeable future.

The shift from coal to natural gas, along with the downturn in the economy, has significantly reduced emissions of carbon dioxide in this country the past couple years, but the levels of atmospheric greenhouse gases continue to go up.

“Climate change is taking place before our eyes and will continue to do so as a result of the concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, which have risen constantly and again reached new records,” said Michel Jarraud, secretary-general for the World Meteorological Association, in a press release issued yesterday.

The WMA reported that the years 2001–2011 were all among the warmest on record, and it appears that 2012 will continue the trend, despite a cooling influence from La Niña early this year.

“Naturally occurring climate variability due to phenomena such as El Niño and La Niña impact on temperatures and precipitation on a seasonal to annual scale,” Jarraud said. “But they do not alter the underlying long-term trend of rising temperatures due to climate change as a result of human activities.

“The extent of Arctic sea ice reached a new record low. The alarming rate of its melt this year highlighted the far-reaching changes taking place on Earth’s oceans and biosphere,” he added.

Environmental correspondent Alister Doyle reported today for Reuters that the United Nations Panel on Climate Change now believes that it is more certain than ever that humans are the primary cause of global warming.

In its 2007 report, the panel pegged the certainty at more than 90 percent. Now, it appears likely that the scientists will increase that certainty in the next report in 2013, said Rajendra Pachauri, head of the panel who spoke with Doyle at a climate conference in Qatar.

“We certainly have a substantial amount of information available by which I hope we can narrow the gaps, increase the level of certainty of our findings,” he said, adding that analyses also will increase the predicted rate of sea-level rise.

Meanwhile, the “Draft National Ocean Policy and Implementation Plan” is still undergoing review by the National Ocean Council. The report contains a chapter called “Resiliency and Adaptation to Climate Change and Ocean Acidification” (PDF 732 kb). That chapter contains some of the same recommendations offered by Washington state’s Blue Ribbon Panel, but the state plan is more specific and comes with a recommended $3.3 million budget to begin work on the problem.

U.S. Rep. Doc Hastings of Washington, chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, is attempting to derail the plan, saying it creates an unnecessary bureaucracy and asserts federal controls not approved by Congress. Read the news release about House action against the plan.

I have not talked to anyone on the council lately, but it appears that President Obama’s election campaign over the past year effectively derailed any movement on this issue. In his first press conference after the election, he pledged to jump-start the climate-change effort, but no mention was made of the ocean policy. Review the video below at 42:20.

When nobody was around to hear the rain …

The atmosphere that existed on Earth some 2.7 billion years ago can be understood a little better by examining the fossil record created when raindrops fell into volcanic ash so very long ago.

A South African meerkat sits on a volcanic rock where raindrops left an impression 2.7 billion years ago.
Photo courtesy of Wlady Altermann, University of Pretoria

Using impressions left by falling raindrops, University of Washington researchers have deduced that the atmospheric pressure back then was not so different from today but that greenhouse gases were probably causing the Earth to heat up considerably.

It was a time in the Earth’s geologic history when plants and animals did not yet exist but microbes were common.

The findings, published yesterday in “Nature,” provides new information in the search for life on other planets.

I was awakened early this morning by the sound of gusty winds blowing millions of raindrops against the side of my house. As I lay in the dark, for once I was not thinking about how much I yearn for spring weather to replace our ongoing gloom. Instead, I was thinking about how the rains have endured, realizing that it was raining on Earth long before the most primitive plants and animals could benefit from the falling water.

Our mystery of the ancient raindrops begins with a long-held understanding that during those early days on Earth, the sun was burning about 30 percent dimmer than today, according to information provided by Vince Stricherz of the UW’s Office of News and Information. Other things being equal, the Earth would have been encrusted in ice. But geologic evidence shows that rivers were flowing across the surface.

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Governor’s rule-suspension order raises questions

Business and environmental groups have been waiting for the other shoe to drop since Gov. Chris Gregoire announced that she was suspending state rule-making activities. Her declared motive was to provide small businesses “stability and predictability they need to help with our state’s recovery.”

At the time of the announcement on Nov. 17, the governor indicated that her executive order (PDF 14 kb) would not apply across the board. Some regulations would continue to move through the rule-making process. Criteria for exempting rules (PDF 20 kb) from the moratorium were wide enough to slide through nearly any regulation that the governor wishes to pursue.

Regulations may continue through the rule-making process if they are:

  • Required by federal or state law or required to maintain federally delegated or authorized programs;
  • Required by court order;
  • Necessary to manage budget shortfalls, maintain fund solvency, or for revenue generating activities;
  • Necessary to protect public health, safety, and welfare or necessary to avoid an immediate threat to the state’s natural resources;
  • Beneficial to or requested or supported by the regulated entities, local governments or small businesses that it affects;
  • The subject of negotiated rule-making or pilot rule-making that involved substantial participation by interested parties before the development of the proposed rule;
  • A permanent rule previously covered by emergency rules; or
  • An expedited rule under RCW 34.05.353 where the proposed rules relate only to internal governmental operations.

Let’s face it. To really understand what this means, we must wait for the list of regulations that will actually be placed on hold for the next year or more. On environmental issues, both business leaders and environmental activists have interpreted Gregoire’s move as a relaxation of her aggressive environmental policies. But how far that will go is yet to be seen. Remember, she said recently that we cannot take a time-out on saving Puget Sound, recession or not. (See Water Ways, Oct. 21)

Each agency must report by the end of January which rules they want to suspend and which they want to keep moving through the process, along with justifications for their decisions.

Almost immediately after Gregoire’s executive order was announced, Washington Department of Ecology posted a list of six rules that will proceed. They are related to greenhouse gas reporting, air pollution sources, Water Pollution Control Revolving Fund, Upper Kittitas groundwater management, and chemicals of concern in children’s toys.

At the end of this blog entry, I’ve listed all the Ecology regulations now moving through the pipeline.

Washington House Republicans credited Rep. Ed Orcutt, R-Kalama, with coming up with the idea of suspending state regulations. In August, Orcutt sent a letter asking Gregoire to suspend all regulations except for those related to health emergencies and fishing and hunting seasons.
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