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 »

The urgent voice who refused to be silenced on climate danger

  • This is part three of this profile. Read part one here and part two here.
In response to the revelations of his ongoing research, NASA scientist Jim Hansen has become increasingly active in campaigning to halt climate change over the past decade. Image credit: Greenpeace

In response to the revelations of his ongoing research, NASA scientist Jim Hansen has become increasingly active in campaigning to halt climate change over the past decade. Image credit: Greenpeace

By December 6, 2005, NASA Goddard Institute of Space Studies’ (GISS) temperature record was already sending a clear message: worldwide, 2005 would likely be the warmest year so far. For GISS director Jim Hansen, speaking to the annual American Geophysical Union conference, arguably the world’s largest environmental research meeting, it seemed fair to reveal. For several listening journalists it was newsworthy enough for them to cover Jim’s talk. But it would anger some of Jim’s colleagues at NASA headquarters enough to try to stop him talking to the media. In the process they’d drag him outside the world of pure research he was most comfortable in. “The undue influence of special interests and government greenwash pose formidable barriers to a well-informed public,” Jim would later write about the situation. “Without a well-informed public, humanity itself and all species on the planet are threatened.”

The comments came during a lecture in honour of Dave Keeling, the CO2 tracking pioneer, who’d died of a heart attack in June that year. Soothing Jim’s hesitation, Dave’s son Ralph stressed he was continuing the work of his father, who had even been discussing one of Jim’s papers minutes before his death. And so Jim had brought together evidence showing that Earth’s climate was nearing a ‘tipping point’ beyond which it will be impossible to avoid dangerous changes. However, warming from 2000 onwards might still be kept below the 1°C level that Jim at that time considered hazardous if CO2 levels in the air were held at about 450 parts per million (ppm). Emissions of other greenhouse gases would also need to be significantly reduced. The message was clear: how we get our energy would must change, mainly by shifting away from coal and the vast volumes of CO2 burning it produces.

NASA headquarters was already reviewing all publicity on climate change research, but the latest coverage would force it into even more severe action. The following week it laid out new restrictions on Jim’s ability to comment publicly, and the global GISS temperature record was temporarily taken off the internet. Prominent amongst those setting the new conditions was NASA’s new head of public affairs, appointed by George Bush’s administration, David Mould. His previous jobs included a senior media relations role at the Southern Company of Atlanta, the second largest holding company of coal-burning power stations in the US. Only one company had donated more to the Republican Party than the Southern Company during George Bush’s 2000 election campaign: Enron. 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 »

Tundra plants show modern temperatures unmatched in over 44,000 years

Gifford Miller collects vegetation samples on Baffin Island. Credit: University of Colorado, Boulder.

Gifford Miller collects vegetation samples on Baffin Island. Credit: University of Colorado, Boulder.

Tiny plants in Arctic Canada have shown that average summer temperatures there over the last 100 years are higher than those during any century for over 44,000 years. Gifford Miller from the University of Colorado, Boulder, and his teammates collected plants perfectly preserved but recently revealed by rapidly retreating ice sheets. The temperature findings are especially surprising as around 10% more energy from the sun fell on the Northern half of the planet 5,000 years ago than today.  And by looking at other scientists’ historical temperature records, they think the last time temperatures were as warm as today was likely around 120,000 years ago. “This adds to the growing consensus that the greenhouse gases we’ve added to the atmosphere have made a very large difference to the planet’s energy balance,” Gifford told me.

Scientists have known receding glaciers on Baffin Island are revealing well-preserved moss and lichen for almost 50 years. Gifford first read about it during his PhD, which he completed in 1975, in a paper written by a Canadian Department of Mines and Technical Surveys employee in 1966. “I had been to that site in 1981, found where he’d built a camp at the ice edge, measured how far the ice had disappeared and found plants coming out,” he recalled. “I’d repeated what he had done, but hadn’t done anything else with it. But as the ice is melting a lot right now we hypothesised that this wasn’t an isolated case.”

Glaciers don’t usually preserve what’s underneath them. “It’s almost counterintuitive to some people – you think of ice doing some damage to the landscape,” Gifford said. “But ice doesn’t move on its own, it’s driven by gravity. Where it’s flat, there’s not a whole lot of gravity pushing it, and if the ice is fairly thin and cold it’s an exquisite preservation agent. They’re frozen solid when they’re under the ice, which is very cold, like -14°C.” Sites like that can be hard to get to, as many are on plateaus high above Baffin Island. “You could mount climbing expeditions and spend a week getting to one site, so really there’s no practical way to get up there, except to have very good weather and a helicopter,” the scientist added. Read the rest of this entry »

If we pass safe climate limits, it’s a long way back

University of Victoria's Andrew MacDougall in Canada's Kluane National Park Credit: Nicolas Roux

University of Victoria’s Andrew MacDougall in Canada’s Kluane National Park Credit: Nicolas Roux

If CO2 levels in the air pass the ‘safe’ limit, we’d have to take out up to four-fifths more than we originally emitted to get back under it. That’s the result from seemingly the first study to look at climate change’s reversibility with plausible scenarios, done by Andrew MacDougall from the University of Victoria (UVic), Canada. “With monumental effort and political will climate change is reversible within the millennium,” Andrew told me. “However, more carbon will need to be extracted from the atmosphere than was originally emitted to it. Meanwhile, changes in sea-level are effectively irreversible on the millennial time-scale.”

Andrew started looking at whether climate change could be undone in autumn 2012, after publishing a study showing that melting permafrost will speed up global warming. “The results were pretty grim,” Andrew said. “Combined with the failure of the political classes to implement controls on carbon emissions I began to wonder if there was a way to undo what humanity will do to the climate if we greatly exceeded the 450 parts per million (ppm) target.” That target comes because scientists say temperatures 2°C higher than the ‘pre-industrial’ average from 1850-1899 could become dangerous, and governments have agreed to keep warming below this level. Scientists also calculate that 450 CO2 molecules are allowable in every million air molecules to give us better than a 3/5 chance of temperature rises below 2°C.

After human emissions cease, current evidence suggests that natural processes would take tens of thousands of years to remove all of the fossil carbon from the atmosphere. Most of the warming will remain, even 10,000 years into the future. This sentence could be reduced by taking CO2 directly from the atmosphere, though this would be a huge effort, on the same scale as today’s fossil fuel industry according to one estimate. One method for doing that involves generating electricity by burning plants or trees that grew by absorbing CO2, and capturing and storing the CO2 from the burning. The other, known as air capture, uses machines to scrub CO2 right out of the air. However, this would need to be powered by clean energy and arguments over its cost are holding back research. 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 »

The joker who brought climate science out of the cold

Wally Broecker, when he registered for the Columbia University geology department in 1953. Credit: Department of Earth and Environmental Engineering Archives, Columbia University

Wally Broecker, when he registered for the Columbia University geology department in 1953. Credit: Department of Earth and Environmental Engineering Archives, Columbia University

In Los Angeles on September 1 1955, the day temperatures reached a new record of 43°C, Wally Broecker stood, sweating, giving the first scientific talk of his life. He could scarcely have guessed where the new method he was telling an audience of sleepy archaeologists about, called radiocarbon dating, would send him. But thanks in part to its messages from history he would help spawn the phrase ‘global warming’ and warn of its effects, which have today pushed temperatures even higher.

Wally grew up and started college on the outskirts of Chicago, Illinois, good at maths, but largely uninterested in science. But college-mate Paul Gast steered his career sciencewards by helping get him a summer job at the new Lamont Geological Observatory that Paul had recently started working at. On June 15, 1952 Wally and pregnant wife Grace drove 800 miles to the Palisades, New York mansion Columbia University had inherited, and set up the observatory in. There, in the basement, Wally worked in and soon practically ran Laurence Kulp’s radiocarbon lab. Rather than lose him at the end of the summer Laurence organised for Wally to transfer to Columbia and stay working at Lamont, where he has remained ever since.

Taking advantage of the slow decay of a rare, radioactive form of carbon – carbon-14 – radiocarbon dating was in its infancy. The balance between carbon-14 and the usual form, carbon-12, is quite steady in CO2 in the air, and also in living plants that take up the gas as they grow. But when plants die, the carbon-14 they contain slowly decays to nitrogen. Measuring the ratio between the two forms of carbon, scientists can tell when the plants had died. But in 1952, Laurence’s lab was getting inconsistent readings, with carbon-14 counts sometimes coming out too high, even after Wally had fixed a problem with the equipment. Then Wally realised the problem came from outside the lab. The extra counts were coming from nuclear tests that had recently started over Nevada.

Read the rest of this entry »

Missed Greenland melt cause raises sea level concern

A team of scientists (the tiny figures in the foreground) at the southwest margin of the Greenland Ice Sheet. Almost all of the surface of the sheet melted in July 2012 - and there's a lot more ice benath the surface, that's why faster melting could be so serious for sea level rise. Credit: University of Sheffield

A team of scientists (the tiny figures in the foreground) at the southwest margin of the Greenland Ice Sheet. Almost all of the surface of the sheet melted in July 2012 – and there’s a lot more ice benath the surface, that’s why faster melting could be so serious for sea level rise. Credit: University of Sheffield

The almost complete melting of Greenland’s ice sheet surface on July 11-12 2012 was caused by climate processes not projected by models. That’s according to an international team led by Edward Hanna from the University of Sheffield, UK that has looked at what might have driven the melt. “The models used to predict future climate change are clearly deficient in simulating some of the recent jet stream changes that we have shown to be responsible for enhanced warming and ice melt over Greenland,” Edward told me. And the world needs to pay attention when Greenland defrosts, as the water it produces is a major part of sea level rise.

Having long studied the Greenland ice sheet, or GrIS, Edward was perhaps one of the people least amazed by 2012’s events. “Last year’s record melt was a bit of a surprise, but perhaps not so startling in retrospect, given strong recent warming of the ice sheet area since the early-mid 1990s,” he said. With other scientists he has also found a clear change since 2007 in early summer Arctic wind patterns relative to previous decades that has led to warm Greenland summers. In particular, jet stream patterns of winds weaving north and south in drunken circles around the pole have changed to drive warm winds over Greenland. That study also linked these changes to cool, wet summers in the UK since 2007, whose unusual wetness in 2012 is seemingly the other face of the GrIS melt coin. Read the rest of this entry »

Deciphering climate messages via the heart of the atom

Vemork Hydroelectric Plant at Rjukan, Norway, which Hans Suess advised on heavy water production, telling Nazi Germany it couldn't make heavy water quickly enough for military use. His expertise with heavy water was part of an interest in nuclear science that led him to become a pioneer in carbon dating.

Vemork Hydroelectric Plant at Rjukan, Norway, which Hans Suess advised on heavy water production, telling Nazi Germany it couldn’t make heavy water quickly enough for military use. His expertise with heavy water was part of an interest in nuclear science that led him to become a pioneer in carbon dating.

When Hans Suess chose to study physical chemistry, he went nuclear, apparently overturning two generations of family tradition. Hans was born in 1909, just as his father Franz succeeded his grandfather Eduard as a geology professor at the University of Vienna. Hans got his PhD from the same university in 1936, but in studying heavy water he was set to aid the historic advances in nuclear science of the time. Yet a transatlantic scientific coincidence would bring him back to more environmental science, and see him help pioneer radiocarbon measurements. With that expertise, Hans showed humans were raising atmospheric CO2 levels, and revealed another surprising source of variations in climate.

The common theme to these achievements was how neutrons and protons combine in an atom’s nucleus. For example, hydrogen atoms found in conventional water have just a single proton in their nuclei. In heavy water, some of these atoms are replaced by a rarer form of hydrogen, known as deuterium, whose atoms have an extra neutron in their nuclei. That gives heavy water properties that can help nuclear reactors, which Nazi Germany notoriously hoped to exploit to make nuclear weapons.

With Hitler’s armies occupying Austria just two years after Hans finished his PhD, his expertise brought him to the attention of the Nazi regime. They called him in to advise a hydroelectric power plant in Vemork, Norway, that was making heavy water. Hans visited several times, reporting that it couldn’t make heavy water quickly enough for military use. Allied forces destroyed it in 1943 anyway, in audacious raids fictionalised in the film “Heroes of Telemark”.

Alongside working with heavy water, Hans studied why the chemical elements exist in the amounts that they do. The answer laid in how stable different numbers of protons and neutrons are when they come together in nuclei. He continued this work after the Second World War in West Germany, helping develop the “Nuclear Shell Theory” explanation, which other scientists won the Nobel Prize for Physics for in 1963. Suess missed out on this acclaim partly because two teams came up with the explanation at the same time. But when the other team, based at the University of Chicago, invited him to visit, Hans’ life changed course towards unravelling the secrets of Earth’s history. Read the rest of this entry »

Historical sea voyage sends manmade warming signal

The HMS Challenger sailed 69,000 miles, taking around 360 temperature soundings on the first global marine expedition from 1873-1876. This painting, by William Frederick Mitchell, is from  its earlier life as a warship, in 1858.

The HMS Challenger sailed 69,000 miles, taking around 360 temperature soundings on the first global marine expedition from 1873-1876. This painting, by William Frederick Mitchell, is from its earlier life as a warship, in 1858.

Data from a 19th century scientific mission, the first global marine research expedition, have provided strong evidence that humans have influenced climate throughout the entire 20th century. From 1873–1876 the HMS Challenger, a corvette of the British Royal Navy, sailed 69,000 miles and took hundreds of ocean temperature soundings. Last year, scientists used its measurements to show the top 700 metres of the ocean has warmed around 0.33°C since Challenger’s voyage. Understandably, seeing a global effect in the limited Challenger data is fraught with difficulty. Nevertheless, Will Hobbs from the University of Tasmania, Australia, and Joshua Willis at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, have now checked if this warming is linked to humans. “Even accounting for all uncertainties and limitations, the temperature change could not be realistically explained by natural variability alone, implying a long-term human signal,” Will told me.

Having swapped cannons for labs, among HMS Challenger’s projects was a series of around 360 soundings for temperature. At each sounding, its scientists dropped pressure-protected thermometers into the ocean attached to a rope every 100 fathoms (182 m) down to 1000 fathoms depth. “The scientists kept detailed records of how each measurement was taken, problems encountered, and how accurate and precise their measurements were,” Will said. “All instruments were calibrated in a lab before and after the expedition. So we have a lot of information about what level of accuracy we can expect, in some ways more than from modern automated observing systems, which are usually left to their own devices after deployment.” Read the rest of this entry »