Who can afford to hold back rising seas?

UK Prime Minister David Cameron visiting Dawlish a week after the storms that demolished the sea wall that supported the train line. Image copyright Number 10, used via Flickr Creative Commons license.

UK Prime Minister David Cameron visiting Dawlish a week after the storms that demolished the sea wall that supported the train line. Image copyright Number 10, used via Flickr Creative Commons license.

Taking the train along the Devon, UK, coast earlier this week I was hypnotised by the lapping waves I saw through the window, and their concealed power. On such a sunny day, the rail journey through Dawlish is perhaps the most beautiful I’ve been on. But in February its ocean-hugging route became its downfall, when storms demolished the sea wall it rests on. Now, thanks to 300 fluorescent-jacket clad workers who performed £35 million worth of repairs, the dangling tracks I saw on TV news are a fading memory. It’s an impressive achievement, but could we afford it if – due to climate change, for example – such ‘orange armies’ had to do battle more often?

The significance of that question was emphasised by Chris Field from Stanford University in California, when I saw him talk recently. Highlighting that all parts of the world are vulnerable to climate change, Chris showed the below image of New York City in 2011, during Hurricane Sandy. “The existing climate created a situation that caused over $50 billion in economic damage for a region of the world that had a vast amount of economic resources and had a response plan in place,” he underlined. “It just wasn’t a plan that was up to the challenges that they faced.” If climate change causes more $50 billion-damage events, can we afford that?

If New York can be taken unaware by Hurricane Sandy, what happens elsewhere, when sea level's higher? Image credit: Chris Field/IPCC

If New York can be taken unaware by Hurricane Sandy, what happens elsewhere, when sea level’s higher? Image credit: Chris Field/IPCC

Just before the ocean crippled the south-west UK’s rail services, Jochen Hinkel from the Global Climate Forum in Berlin, Germany, and his team were answering a similar question. In a paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the USA in February, Jochen looked at coastal flood damages from projected sea level rise. When I therefore asked him about his work, he was quick to put climate change-driven sea level rise’s role in Hurricane Sandy and this year’s UK storms into context. Read the rest of this entry »

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The witness who collided with government on climate

  • This is part two of this profile. Read part one here.
Jim Hansen giving testimony at a US Congressional hearing in 1988, where he'd declare 99% certainty that humans are changing the climate. Image credit: NASA

Jim Hansen giving testimony at a US Congressional hearing in 1988, where he’d declare 99% certainty that humans are changing the climate. Image credit: NASA

“It’s time to stop waffling so much and say that the evidence is pretty strong that the greenhouse effect is here.” It’s a comment that wouldn’t sound out of place today, but Jim Hansen made it 26 years ago, on June 23, 1988, amid record 38°C temperatures in Washington DC. Jim said it to reporters after telling a Congressional hearing he was 99% certain the world is getting warmer thanks to human-made greenhouse gases.

Jim’s 1980s media bombshells led journalist Robert Pool to liken him to a religious ‘witness’, ‘someone who believes he has information so important that he cannot keep silent’. However, he still felt shy and awkward, preferring to immerse himself in pure science, and so would turn down almost all invitations to speak out for another decade. Jim’s efforts during that period would then help build even stronger evidence on global warming. But with extra motivation provided by clashes with the US government and the arrival of his grandchildren he would return to bear witness more forcefully than ever.

Before his self-imposed media ban Jim would make headlines one more time in 1989, after giving written evidence to a hearing convened by then US senator Al Gore. The testimony reaching the hearing had been altered by the White House to make his conclusions about the dangers of global warming seem less certain. When Jim sent the future vice-president a note telling him this, he alerted the media, turning their scheming into the lead story across all TV networks that evening. John Sununu, aide to then president George H. W. Bush, would then try to get Jim fired for his troubles. But Republican senator John Heinz intervened on Jim’s behalf, and he kept his job.

The reputation Jim had built up as a warming witness went ahead of him in December 1989, as he walked into a ‘roundtable’ meeting held by senators Al Gore and Barbara Mikulski. On the coldest day of the year, in a building whose heating system had failed, Al noticed Jim enter and said, “Hey, aren’t you the guy who…” Despite such jibes, Jim was becoming firmer in his convictions. In April 1990 he offered a group of climatologists an even money bet that one of the next three years would be the warmest in a century. He’d be proven right by the end of the year. Read the rest of this entry »

Give those we love the climate they deserve

Residents in Azaz, Syria on 16 August 2012 clear up after their buildings were bombed during the country's civil war, for which one of the many causes was a drought that has been linked to climate change.

Residents in Azaz, Syria on 16 August 2012 clear up after their buildings were bombed during the country’s civil war, for which one of the many causes was a drought that has been linked to climate change.

Over the next week I hope to be spending time with those I love the most. But this week I’ve been reading the latest newsletter from Medecins Sans Frontiers/Doctors Without Borders (MSF) about the horrible situation in Syria. The country’s civil war has been ongoing since 2011, with a toll that puts the good fortune me and my family enjoy into chilling context.

It’s estimated that there have been 120,000 deaths with over 4.5 million – in a country of just 22.5 million – having to leave their homes. Though that’s a lot of people, I am increasingly numb to the numbers, like many of you might be. But the stories from MSF really hit home. Yes, Syria had serious problems before the war, but it had a comparatively good health system. Now, if you have asthma, diabetes, or appendicitis, it can be life threatening. Ever more children are being born with severe defects, possibly due to the mothers not getting enough folic acid in their diet.

Though there are many factors behind the conflict, an important one is a drought that hit the country’s poorest areas in early 2011. Commentators have highlighted that droughts in Syria have become more common in recent years, linking this to climate change. Earlier this month, US scientists reported that a recent three year drought in Syria was too unusual to be a natural event. All of us who use fossil fuel energy likely bear some responsibility.

While it’s always hard to be certain about such links, they’re backed up by what University of California, Berkeley’s Ted Miguel told me in August. “Many global climate models project global temperature increases of at least 2°C over the next half century,” Ted told me. “Our findings suggest that global temperature rise of 2°C could increase the rate of intergroup conflicts, such as civil wars, by over 50% in many parts of the world, especially in tropical regions where such conflicts are most common.”

Earlier this month, Jim Hansen from Columbia University in New York and his team warned that even world average temperatures 1°C above pre-industrial levels would be dangerous. The Earth has already warmed 0.8°C in the past 100 years, meaning that threshold is near. And many other researchers I’ve spoken to this year have found evidence that shows the dangers. Read the rest of this entry »

How ocean data helped reveal the climate beast

Wally Broecker's famous quote on display at California Academy of Sciences.  Image copyright: Jinx McCombs, used via Flickr Creative Commons license

Wally Broecker’s famous quote on display at California Academy of Sciences. Image copyright: Jinx McCombs, used via Flickr Creative Commons license

  • This is part two of a two-part post. Read part one here.

On the wall of Wally Broecker’s building at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory hangs a 16-foot long terry-cloth snake, blue with pink spots, that he calls the ‘climate beast’. Left in his office as a surprise by his workmates, its name refers to one of Wally’s most powerful quotes about the climate: “If you’re living with an angry beast, you shouldn’t poke it with a sharp stick.”

Today, the sharp stick is the CO2 we’re emitting by burning fossil fuels, which Wally was warning about by 1975. By that time he had also helped confirm that throughout history, changes in Earth’s orbit have given the climate beast regular kicks, triggering rapid exits from ice ages. He became obsessed with the idea that climate had changed abruptly in the past, and the idea we could provoke the ‘angry beast’ into doing it again.

Among the many samples that Wally was carbon dating, from the late 1950s onwards he was getting treasure from the oceans. Pouring sulphuric acid into seawater, he could convert dissolved carbonate back into CO2 gas that he could then carbon date. And though nuclear weapon tests had previously messed with Wally’s results, they actually turned out to help improved our knowledge of the oceans. The H-bomb tests produced more of the radioactive carbon-14 his technique counts, and as that spike moved through the oceans, Wally could track how fast they absorbed that CO2.

In the 1970s, as Wally and a large team of other scientists sailed on RV Melville and RV Knorr tracking such chemicals across the planet’s oceans, a debate raged. Was cutting down forests releasing more CO2 than burning fossil fuels? Dave Keeling’s measurements showed the amount of CO2 being added to the air was about half the amount produced by fossil fuels. But plants and the oceans could be taking up huge amounts, scientists argued. Thanks to the H-bomb carbon, Wally’s team found the CO2 going into the oceans was just 1/3 of what fossil fuels had emitted. Faster-growing plants therefore seemed to be balancing out the impact of deforestation, and taking up the remaining 1/6 portion of the fossil fuel emissions. Read the rest of this entry »

Bouncing lasers off satellites backs faster Greenland melt

NASA's Goddard Geophysical and Astronomical Observatory in Greenbelt, Maryland, routinely bounces lasers off satellites, to perform Satellite Laser Ranging (SLR). This facility works with other SLR telescopes around the world. Credit: NASA

NASA’s Goddard Geophysical and Astronomical Observatory in Greenbelt, Maryland, routinely bounces lasers off satellites, to perform Satellite Laser Ranging (SLR). This facility works with other SLR telescopes around the world. Credit: NASA

Japanese and Taiwanese researchers have used old satellite technology to add a decade onto modern gravity-based measurements of Greenland’s ice loss. They used measurements gained by tracking satellites with lasers, getting ‘rough data’ compared to more modern technology, but still confirming an acceleration already seen between the 1990s and 2000s. “There was no mass loss in the 1990s, but there was an acceleration after the year 2000,” says Kosuke Heki from Hokkaido University in Japan.

Though we don’t notice it, Earth’s gravity changes slightly across its surface, because mass isn’t shared equally over it. The link Isaac Newton famously discovered between mass and gravity means that where there’s more mass – for example, where ice sheets sit – gravity is stronger. Since their launch in 2002, twin satellites called Tom and Jerry have been chasing each other around the planet in a game of orbital cat-and-mouse to track these changes. They bounce microwaves from one to the other that scientists can use, among other methods, to track hair’s-breadth changes in the distance between them caused by changes in gravity.

Using Tom and Jerry, also known as the GRACE experiment, scientists have already shown the severity of global warming’s impact on Greenland. They found evidence that Greenland’s ice mass loss is now five times faster than it was in 1992. But for the data from the 1990s there were no gravity measurements. Instead, the researchers worked out the ice mass using laser or radar signals that had been bounced off the glaciers to record their shape, which is known as altimetry . Read the rest of this entry »

Fossil fuels are more than just a bad habit

The benefits fossil fuels bring make them probably the hardest addiction ever to kick. Credit: Don Hankins, via Flickr Creative Commons licence

The benefits fossil fuels bring make them probably the hardest addiction ever to kick. Credit: Don Hankins, via Flickr Creative Commons licence

I’m increasingly realising how much of a creature of habit I am. I have the same bizarre sticky brown yeast extract goo on toast for breakfast each morning. I watch films in my lounge most evenings. And I wonder: How much of my personality is just a collection of habits? What about yours, and all of ours? Could our whole society just be a giant collage of habits? And most relevant to this blog: how much of the human greenhouse gas emissions that are driving global warming come from our habits?

Recently, I’ve been keeping track of how long I spend doing things, which has been helping me swap what I think are bad habits for better ones. It’s tempting to suggest fighting climate change in a similar way. Many people talk about how we burn fossil fuels to propel our cars or run our gadgets as a bad habit, and even an addiction. But it’s more complicated than other addictions. Fossil fuels have been to our society more like food and a salary are to us individually – they’ve helped produce many of the healthiest aspects of the modern world. They’ve powered more than a century of rapid social and technological progress, and given many countries their current rich, well-fed figures.

For an article I’m writing about employment prospects in the UK’s chemical industry, I recently spotted the table below. It shows ‘gross value added’ (GVA), a measure of the money contributed to the economy, per person across the country’s different industries. It was striking to me that while bankers may get all the headlines for their wealth, the energy industry has the greatest earning power per head in the UK.

Oil and gas extraction help the "Mining and Quarry; Energy & water" sector make the largest contribution per head to the UK economy, as they employ relatively few people relative to their large economic output . Credit: Office for National Statistics

Oil and gas extraction help the “Mining and Quarry; Energy & water” sector make the largest contribution per head to the UK economy, as they employ relatively few people relative to their large economic output. The ‘total’ figure is the overall GVA for the UK, averaged across all industries. Credit: Office for National Statistics

Much like I’d quickly struggle without food or money, today sharply taking fossil fuel energy away from our societies would immediately threaten our existence. In fact, some think even the small changes already happening taste bad. Again in the UK chemical industry, there are worries that higher costs from clean energy are making it less competitive with other countries. Part of the way it would like to avoid this issue is through unconventional natural gas supplies, presumably extracted through controversial ‘fracking’ methods. Read the rest of this entry »

How a beer bottle helped reveal rapid past climate change

According to Willi Dansgaard "A sophisticated experimental set-up on the lawn became the beginning of a new field in geophysics." Credit: Centre for Ice and Climate, Niels Bohr Institute, University of Copenhagen.

According to Willi Dansgaard “A sophisticated experimental set-up on the lawn became the beginning of a new field in geophysics.” Credit: Centre for Ice and Climate, Niels Bohr Institute, University of Copenhagen.

On Saturday June 21, 1952, in a garden in Copenhagen, Denmark, raindrops fell through the slim neck of a beer bottle, splattering and splashing as they hit its bottom. But the bottle wasn’t carelessly left behind – Willi Dansgaard had inserted a funnel into its neck so he could use it for an experiment. He was watching it closely, collecting rain to later measure in his lab. Each drop brought Willi closer to revealing the secrets of Earth’s history, by giving scientists a way to work out temperature from ancient ice. In doing so, he would help show how climate can change much faster than experts had thought possible.

Willi was born in Copenhagen in 1922, living and studying physics and biology there until going to work for the Danish Meteorological Institute (DMI) in 1947. The DMI sent Willi and his wife Inge to Greenland, first to study the Earth’s magnetic fields, and then to help improve the reliability of weather forecasts. Their time there left the pair with ‘deep impressions of the course of Greenland nature, its forces, its bounty, its cruelty, and above all its beauty,’ Willi wrote in his autobiography. ‘We were both bitten with Greenland for life, but after a year the need for further education forced us to turn homeward.’

So in 1951, Willi took a job at the biophysics research lab at the University of Copenhagen, where his first job was to install a mass spectrometer. Able to distinguish between chemicals using weight differences, mass spectrometers are often described as atomic-level weighing scales. But they actually measure molecules’ weight by firing them through an electromagnetic field at a detector, similarly to how bulky old TVs fire electrons at their screens. Though mass spectrometers existed since the early 20th century, Second World War US efforts to produce uranium for an atomic bomb had boosted their power. Willi set up the type of machine that had been invented in the course of that work, so his department could detect tracers used in medicine and biology.

By 1952, Willi knew that his mass spectrometer could separate forms of the same chemical elements – or isotopes – that could differ in weight by as little as a single neutron. And faced with a wet weekend in June, he wondered whether the amount of these isotopes in rainwater could change from one shower to the next. ‘Now when I had an instrument that ought to be able to measure it, there was no harm in trying,’ he writes. ‘I placed an empty beer bottle with a funnel on the lawn and let it rain.’

Read the rest of this entry »