Thursday, August 31, 2017

  Thursday, Aug 31

Global surface temperature relative to 1880-1920 based on GISTEMP analysis (mostly NOAA data sources, as described by Hansen, J., R. Ruedy, M. Sato, and K. Lo, 2010: Global surface temperature change. Rev. Geophys., 48, RG4004.  We suggest in an upcoming paper that the temperature in 1940-45 is exaggerated because of data inhomogeneity in WW II. Linear-fit to temperature since 1970 yields present temperature of 1.06°C, which is perhaps our best estimate of warming since the preindustrial period.

Harvey Could Reshape How and Where Americans Build Homes

  • Storm comes as U.S. flood insurance program is up for renewal
  • Texas has one of the most relaxed approaches to building codes

Cost of total flood insurance payments to "severe repetative loss" properties (Credit: Bloomberg) Click to Enlarge.
Hurricane Harvey has highlighted a climate debate that had mostly stayed out of public view -- a debate that’s separate from the battle over greenhouse gas emissions, but more consequential to the lives of many Americans.  At the core of that fight is whether the U.S. should respond to the growing threat of extreme weather by changing how and, even where, homes are built.

Who Pays for the Rising Cost of Natural Disasters: QuickTake Q&A
That debate pits insurers, who favor tighter building codes and fewer homes in vulnerable locations, against home builders and developers, who want to keep homes as inexpensive as possible.  As the costs of extreme weather increase, that fight has spilled over into politics: Federal budget hawks want local policies that will reduce the cost of disasters, while many state and local officials worry about the lost tax revenue that might accompany tighter restrictions on development.

Harvey slammed ashore in Texas Friday with historic levels of rain and flooding.  On Wednesday, the storm returned, making landfall a second time in southwestern Louisiana, which was devastated by Hurricane Katrina in 2005.  At least 15 people have died so far in Texas, according to a count by the Austin American-Statesman newspaper.  Thousands more have been displaced from their homes.  Early estimates on damages range from $42 billion to more than $100 billion.

Contributing to the high losses is the fact that Texas, despite being one of the states most vulnerable to storms, has one of the most relaxed approaches to building codes, inspections, and other protections.  It’s one of just four states along the Gulf and Atlantic coasts with no mandatory statewide building codes, according to the Insurance Institute for Business & Home Safety, and it has no statewide program to license building officials.
The consequence of loose or non-existent codes is that storm damage is often worse than need be.  "Disasters don’t have to be devastating," said Eleanor Kitzman, who was Texas’s state insurance commissioner from 2011 to 2013 and now runs a company in South Carolina that constructs and finances coastal homes that are above code.  "We can’t prevent the event, but we can mitigate the damage."
How Harvey Squeezes Congress on Flood Insurance: QuickTake Q&A
Ned Muñoz, vice president of regulatory affairs for the Texas Association of Builders, said cities already do a good job choosing which parts of the building code are right for them. And he argued that people who live outside of cities don’t want the higher prices that come with land-use regulations.
Ron Jones, an NAHB board member and builder in Colorado who is critical of the organization’s views on codes and regulations, said that while the focus now should be on helping people hurt by Harvey, he hoped the storm would also force new thinking.

"There’s no sort of national leadership involved," said Jones.  "For them it’s just, ’Hell, we’ll rebuild these houses as many times as you’ll pay us to do it.’"

The home builders demonstrated their power again this year, when President Donald Trump reversed an Obama administration initiative restricting federally funded building projects in flood plains.  "This is a huge victory for NAHB and its members," the association wrote on its blog.

Yet on other issues, Trump’s administration appears to be siding with those who favor tougher local policies.  In an interview just before Harvey, FEMA chief Brock Long expressed support for an Obama administration proposal to spur more local action on resilience, such as better building codes, as a condition of getting first-dollar disaster relief from Washington.

"I don’t think the taxpayer should reward risk," Long told Bloomberg in the interview, four days before Harvey slammed into Texas.

It may seem surprising that a Republican administration would side with its Democratic predecessor on anything, especially something related to climate change.  But the prompt is less ideological that practical.  Over the past decade, the federal government spent more than $350 billion on disaster recovery, a figure that will almost certainly increase without major changes in local building codes and land use practice.

And much of that money goes to homes that keep getting hit. That’s true for the National Flood Insurance Program, which Congress must reauthorize by the end of next month; some lawmakers, and Long himself, have said homes that repeatedly flood should be excluded from coverage.  But there are also 1.3 million households that have applied for federal disaster assistance money at least twice since 1998 -- many of them in the same areas hit hardest by Hurricane Harvey.

Read more at Harvey Could Reshape How and Where Americans Build Homes

Southern Co. Decides to Press Ahead with Vogtle Expansion

Construction on units 3 and 4 of Plant Vogtle. (Credit: Georgia Power Co.) Click to Enlarge.
Southern Co. and other utilities building the Vogtle nuclear expansion project in Georgia are prepared to finish the reactors but will lay out a set of assurances that must be met in a filing with state utility regulators tomorrow, E&E News has learned.

This means Plant Vogtle will remain the only set of nuclear reactors under construction in the United States, at least for now.

Southern's Georgia Power Co., the main sponsor of the project, must secure regulatory approvals in Georgia.  The utility and the public power co-owners also must have certain financial guarantees to complete the reactors, according to multiple sources familiar with the document.

Vogtle's future has been in flux since its main contractor, Westinghouse Electric Co. LLC, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in March.  Westinghouse's bankruptcy stemmed from significant cost increases at Vogtle and a separate nuclear project in South Carolina.

Westinghouse's parent, Toshiba Corp., has pledged $3.7 billion in payments to Vogtle regardless of whether the reactors are built.  Toshiba must start making those payments in October to help underwrite the project.

Georgia Power's decision to continue building Vogtle is no surprise, but the electric company does not have the final say in whether Vogtle gets finished.  That is up to the Georgia Public Service Commission.

The PSC filing will trigger a six-month review, which will give the company and commission time to see whether Toshiba makes its first payment, of $300 million, in October.

The other assurances the utilities are seeking are an extension of federal production tax credits beyond 2020 so Vogtle's reactors can receive them and additional money from the Department of Energy.

Read more at Southern Co. Decides to Press Ahead with Vogtle Expansion

Boston Studying a Hurricane Barrier to Combat Flooding

The yellow line represents Kirshen’s proposed hurricane barrier (Credit: WBZ-TV) Click to Enlarge.
With devastating flooding scenes coming out of Texas, some experts say Boston could experience its own catastrophic flooding in just a few decades.

“We get a major flood in a couple of decades and now, with higher seas, Boston is going to look like from the air the way it did in the 1770s.  You’re just going to see the high points,” said Paul Kirshen, UMass Boston School for the Environment Professor and Academic Director of the school’s Sustainable Solutions Lab.

While Houston grapples with rain, Kirshen said Boston’s challenge will be more powerful hurricanes and high tides due to climate change.

That is why Kirshen and the Lab are now studying whether a massive hurricane barrier costing billions could protect Boston and surrounding communities from flooding.

“One of them would stretch from Winthrop here where Deer Island sewage treatment plant is, all the way to Hull,” he said.

The study aims to help the city of Boston determine solutions for flooding that could also have a major economic impact.

“We know by the end of the century, $85 billion dollars worth of assets will be in the FEMA flood plane,” said Boston’s Chief of Environment, Energy, and Open Space, Austin Blackmon.

In addition to considering a massive barrier, Blackmon says the city is considering more “shovel-ready” projects to protect areas vulnerable to flooding such as East Boston, Charlestown, and the Seaport District.

Read more at Boston Studying a Hurricane Barrier to Combat Flooding

U.S. Is Eliminating Its Arctic and Climate Envoys.  What Message Does that Send?

The envoys gave the U.S. seasoned voices in international negotiations involving complex issues around climate change and the future of the Arctic region.

As U.S. climate envoy during the Obama administration, Todd Stern developed the United States' international leadership on climate change issues. "The (Trump) administration has already shown its colors on this issue," he said. (Credit: Attila Kisbenedek/AFP/Getty) Click to Enlarge.
As Secretary of State Rex Tillerson eliminates or shifts dozens of high-level diplomatic positions within the State Department—including the special envoys for climate change and the Arctic— those who have spent careers on these issues worry about the message being sent to the international community.

"On the appearance side, I think it definitely will be read by other governments as downgrading our interests," said Brooks Yeager, who was the deputy secretary for environment at the end of the Clinton administration.  "At least in appearance, we're not devoting the same level of attention as other governments."

In a letter sent to Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) this week, Tillerson identified 36 special envoy positions that he plans to abolish.  "I believe that the Department will be able to better execute its mission by integrating certain envoys and special representative offices within the regional and functional bureaus, and eliminating those that have accomplished or outlived their original purpose," Tillerson wrote.

The move is in step with the continued shrinking of the federal government under President Donald Trump, where an exodus of Obama staffers, a hiring freeze and a lack of political appointments has left the State Department's ranks thinner by the week.

The appointees who have held top positions as envoys on climate change and the Arctic have represented the United States in international climate negotiations and in multilateral diplomatic talks on the future of the Arctic region.  Currently, both of those positions are vacant. Jonathan Pershing, former special envoy for climate change, and Admiral Robert Papp, former special representative for the Arctic, both resigned after Trump's election.

Read more at U.S. Is Eliminating Its Arctic and Climate Envoys.  What Message Does that Send?

Researchers Tackle Methane Emissions with Gas-Guzzling Bacteria

The sampling site used to isolate the methanotroph, namely a geothermal field in Rotokawa, New Zealand. [Credit: Dr Carlo Carere (GNS Science)] Click to Enlarge.
An international research team co-led by a Monash biologist has shown that methane-oxidising bacteria -- key organisms responsible for greenhouse gas mitigation -- are more flexible and resilient than previously thought.

Soil bacteria that oxidize methane (methanotrophs) are globally important in capturing methane before it enters the atmosphere, and we now know that they can consume hydrogen gas to enhance their growth and survival.

This new research, published in the International Society for Microbial Ecology Journal, has major implications for greenhouse gas mitigation.

Industrial companies are using methanotrophs to convert methane gas emissions into useful products, for example liquid fuels and protein feeds.

"The findings of this research explain why methanotrophs are abundant in soil ecosystems," said Dr Chris Greening from the Center for Geometric Biology at Monash University.

"Methane is a challenging energy source to assimilate.

"By being able to use hydrogen as well, methanotrophs can grow better in a range of conditions."
"This study is significant because it shows that key consumers of methane emissions are also able to grow on inorganic compounds such as hydrogen," Dr Greening said.

"This new knowledge helps us to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases."

Read more at Methane Emissions Tackled with Gas-Guzzling Bacteria

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

  Wednesday, Aug 30

Global surface temperature relative to 1880-1920 based on GISTEMP analysis (mostly NOAA data sources, as described by Hansen, J., R. Ruedy, M. Sato, and K. Lo, 2010: Global surface temperature change. Rev. Geophys., 48, RG4004.  We suggest in an upcoming paper that the temperature in 1940-45 is exaggerated because of data inhomogeneity in WW II. Linear-fit to temperature since 1970 yields present temperature of 1.06°C, which is perhaps our best estimate of warming since the preindustrial period.

Hurricane Harvey Is Testing Our Ability to Communicate Natural Disaster Risks

How do scientists drive home a threat that has no precedent?

Since slamming into the Texas coast as a Category 4 hurricane late Friday, Harvey has dumped at least 9 trillion gallons of rain across the state — enough to fill Utah’s Great Salt Lake twice.

And with Houston already inundated, the rain continues to fall.  One meteorologist estimates that by the time the storm subsides it will have dropped a mind-boggling 25 trillion gallons of water across the state.

Certain locations along the Gulf of Mexico are expected to see as much rain in a few short days as is typical in an entire year.  To accurately portray the staggering totals, the National Weather Service had to add new colors to its precipitation maps.

#Harvey in perspective.  So much rain has fallen, we've had to update the color charts on our graphics in order to effectively map it. (Credit: NWS-National Weather Service) Click to Enlarge.
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#Harvey in perspective. So much rain has fallen, we've had to update the color charts on our graphics in order to effectively map it.
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#Harvey in perspective.  So much rain has fallen, we've had to update the color charts on our graphics in order to effectively map it. (Credit: NWS-National Weather Service) Click to Enlarge.
Harvey has wreaked havoc along the Texas Gulf Coast, just as meteorologists warned it would.  But it has also proved somewhat of a communications nightmare. 

Marshall Shepherd, director of the Atmospheric Sciences Program at the University of Georgia and a former president of the American Meteorological Society, told HuffPost that the bottom line is this:  Harvey is an unprecedented storm system. 

“We’re kind of making this up as we go,” he said of meteorologists’ mapping and communication about the sheer magnitude of the event.  “We haven’t seen this type of rainfall over [such a short] amount of time.” 

Given precipitation totals through Monday and the forecast for the rest of the week, Shepherd said the situation in Texas “is shaping up to be [the] worst flood disaster in U.S. history.”

The previous benchmark for flooding in an American city was Tropical Storm Allison in 2001, which dumped 40 inches of rain on Houston in five days, killing nearly two dozen people and causing $5 billion in damage.  (The one-day U.S. record, 43 inches, hit rural Alvin, just south of Houston, during 1979′s Tropical Storm Claudette.)

Harvey delivered as much rain as Allison in roughly half the time — a statistic Shepherd described as “ridiculous.” 

For Shepherd and other experts, the extent of the disaster came as little if any surprise.  Early forecasts called for massive amounts of rain and “catastrophic and life-threatening flooding.” On Friday, the National Weather Service in Corpus Christi offered this stark warning: “Locations may be uninhabitable for weeks or months.”  And by Sunday morning, the NWS was cautioning that “all impacts are unknown & beyond anything experienced.”

Interstate 45 near downtown Houston is submerged Sunday after a downpour from Harvey. (Credit: Richard Carson / Reuters) Click to Enlarge.
As Harvey has shown, conveying to the public the deadly risks of such an unprecedented weather event is not easy.

Sarah Watson, a climate and flood risk communication consultant that does contract work for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, told HuffPost she sees the problem as cultural.  Many people associate tropical storms with wind and storm surges but not necessarily with heavy rain — which often proves to be the most destructive effect.  When a storm like Harvey is downgraded from a Category 4 hurricane to a tropical storm, for example, people are often quick to think the threat has subsided.

Read more at Hurricane Harvey Is Testing Our Ability to Communicate Natural Disaster Risks

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

  Tuesday, Aug 29

Global surface temperature relative to 1880-1920 based on GISTEMP analysis (mostly NOAA data sources, as described by Hansen, J., R. Ruedy, M. Sato, and K. Lo, 2010: Global surface temperature change. Rev. Geophys., 48, RG4004.  We suggest in an upcoming paper that the temperature in 1940-45 is exaggerated because of data inhomogeneity in WW II. Linear-fit to temperature since 1970 yields present temperature of 1.06°C, which is perhaps our best estimate of warming since the preindustrial period.

Hurricane Harvey:  Lawyers Warn of Climate Lawsuits over Damages

Texas National Guardsmen helping residents hit by flooding from Hurricane Harvey (Picture Credit: Army National Guard/Lt Zachary West) Click to Enlarge.
Hurricane Harvey is wreaking unprecedented damage on Texas.  Should city planners, government agencies and businesses have seen it coming?  Could they have prevented death and disruption by acting differently?

Increasingly, such questions will be litigated in courtrooms and rely on climate science to answer, three environmental lawyers wrote in the journal Nature on Monday.

Advances in the science of linking weather extremes to global warming has the potential to change the legal landscape, they write.  The more clearly scientists can demonstrate an event was foreseeable, the more victims can – and will – seek redress from negligent authorities.

“In a world where events like Hurricane Harvey are predicted to increase, and predicted confidently by scientists… courts will be called upon more and more to disentangle these issues,” co-author Sophie Marjanac, an Australian-qualified lawyer with Client Earth, told Climate Home.

Marjanac give examples of potential targets for lawsuits.  In Houston, Texas, developers were allowed to build on wetlands that otherwise would have helped to drain floodwaters.  If it can be shown those decisions endangered people and property – and failed to anticipate known climate risks – the relevant authorities could be on the hook for payouts, she said.

Then there are businesses.  At least 10 oil refineries along Texas’ gulf coast have reportedly been forced offline by flooding.  Marjanac said they could be liable for any environmental damage resulting from taking inadequate precautions, or face wrangles with insurers.

Such legal cases would hinge on attribution science:  studies showing that climate change was at least partially to blame for the damages.

In the article, Marjanac and her coauthors wrote:  “Claims are likely to arise when those actors fail to share or disclose relevant knowledge, or fail to take adaptation actions that would have protected those to whom they owed a duty of care.  Such litigation may become an important driver of both mitigation of greenhouse gas emissions and adaptive action by both public and private sectors.”

Read more at Hurricane Harvey:  Lawyers Warn of Climate Lawsuits over Damages

Electricity Consumption in Europe Will Shift Under Climate Change

Maintenance workers view air conditioning pipes, Hospital Donostia, San Sebastian, Spain, 23/03/2015. (Credit: age fotostock / Alamy Stock Photo) Click to Enlarge.
Rising temperatures due to greenhouse gas emissions will fundamentally change electricity consumption patterns in Europe.  A team of scientists from Germany and the United States now analyzed what unchecked future warming means for Europe's electricity demand: daily peak loads in Southern Europe will likely increase and overall consumption will shift from Northern Europe to the South.  Further, the majority of countries will see a shift of  temperature-driven annual peak demand from winter to summer by the end of this century. This would put additional strain on European power grids, the study now published in the renowned US journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) suggests.

"It is fascinating to see how the response of electricity consumption to temperature changes is similar across European countries' peak and total electricity use seem to be smallest on days with a maximum temperature of about 22°C (72°F), and increases when this daily maximum temperature either rises or falls," lead author Leonie Wenz from the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (PIK) explains.  "We use this common characteristic as a basis for estimating future electricity consumption under climate change - that is beyond the current temperature range.  That way, those European countries that are already experiencing very hot temperatures today serve as examples for the future of cooler countries. It turns out that electricity demand in Europe will shift from countries like Sweden or Norway to countries like Portugal or Spain.  Concurrently, the annual peak load will shift from winter to summer in most countries."

Read more at Electricity Consumption in Europe Will Shift Under Climate Change

It's a Fact:  Climate Change Made Hurricane Harvey More Deadly - By Michael E Mann

We can’t say that Hurricane Harvey was caused by climate change.  But it was certainly worsened by it.

 A family evacuate their home after flooding from Hurricane Harvey, Houston, Texas, 27 August. (Photograph Credit: Joe Raedle/Getty Images) Click to Enlarge.
What can we say about the role of climate change in the unprecedented disaster that is unfolding in Houston with Hurricane Harvey?  There are certain climate change-related factors that we can, with great confidence, say worsened the flooding.

Sea level rise attributable to climate change – some of which is due to coastal subsidence caused by human disturbance such as oil drilling – is more than half a foot (15cm) over the past few decades (see here for a decent discussion).  That means the storm surge was half a foot higher than it would have been just decades ago, meaning far more flooding and destruction.

In addition to that, sea surface temperatures in the region have risen about 0.5C (close to 1F) over the past few decades from roughly 30C (86F) to 30.5C (87F), which contributed to the very warm sea surface temperatures (30.5-31C, or 87-88F). 

There is a simple thermodynamic relationship known as the Clausius-Clapeyron equation that tells us there is a roughly 3% increase in average atmospheric moisture content for each 0.5C of warming.  Sea surface temperatures in the area where Harvey intensified were 0.5-1C warmer than current-day average temperatures, which translates to 1-1.5C warmer than “average” temperatures a few decades ago.  That means 3-5% more moisture in the atmosphere.

That large amount of moisture creates the potential for much greater rainfalls and greater flooding.  The combination of coastal flooding and heavy rainfall is responsible for the devastating flooding that Houston is experiencing.

Not only are the surface waters of the Gulf of Mexico unusually warm right now, but there is a deep layer of warm water that Harvey was able to feed upon when it intensified at near record pace as it neared the coast.  Human-caused warming is penetrating down into the ocean.  It’s creating deeper layers of warm water in the Gulf and elsewhere.

Harvey was almost certainly more intense than it would have been in the absence of human-caused warming, which means stronger winds, more wind damage and a larger storm surge. (As an example of how this works, we have shown that climate change has led to a dramatic increase in storm surge risk in New York City, making devastating events like Hurricane Sandy more likely.)

Finally, the more tenuous but potentially relevant climate factors: part of what has made Harvey such a devastating storm is the way it has stalled near the coast.  It continues to pummel Houston and surrounding regions with a seemingly endless deluge, which will likely top out at nearly 4ft (1.22m) of rainfall over a days-long period before it is done.

The stalling is due to very weak prevailing winds, which are failing to steer the storm off to sea, allowing it to spin around and wobble back and forth.  This pattern, in turn, is associated with a greatly expanded subtropical high pressure system over much of the US at the moment, with the jet stream pushed well to the north.  This pattern of subtropical expansion is predicted in model simulations of human-caused climate change.

More tenuous, but possibly relevant still, is the fact that very persistent, nearly “stationary” summer weather patterns of this sort, where weather anomalies (both high-pressure dry hot regions and low-pressure stormy/rainy regions) stay locked in place for many days at a time, appears to be favored by human-caused climate change.  We recently published a paper in the academic journal Scientific Reports on this phenomenon.

In conclusion, while we cannot say climate change “caused” Hurricane Harvey (that is an ill-posed question), we can say is that it exacerbated several characteristics of the storm in a way that greatly increased the risk of damage and loss of life.  Climate change worsened the impact of Hurricane Harvey.

Read more at It's a Fact:  Climate Change Made Hurricane Harvey More Deadly

Trump’s Judges:  A Second Front in the Environmental Onslaught

As the Trump administration keeps moving aggressively to roll back environmental protections, it has a potent legal weapon — the scores of federal judges that President Trump will be appointing, most of whom are expected to hold anti-regulatory, pro-business views.

The future status of Bears Ears National Monument in Utah may end up being determined in federal court. (Credit: Bob Wick/BLM) Click to Enlarge.
Lawyer Richard Ayres has been fighting for the environment in federal courts for nearly five decades, but he says he’s never seen an onslaught on basic environmental protections like the one coming out of the Trump White House.  Still, something scares Ayres even more than the determination of the Trump team to dismantle President Barack Obama’s climate change initiatives, shrink federally protected lands, weaken smog standards, scale back habitat for rare species, and expand drilling into the Atlantic and Arctic oceans.

What most unnerves Ayres and other veteran environmental lawyers and legal experts is the unprecedented opportunity President Trump has to fill the federal judiciary with anti-regulatory, pro-business appointees.

Trump has far more openings to fill than previous presidents, and Democrats have far less power to block his nominees than the opposition party has had in the past.  And while Trump has trailed his predecessor in nominating officials for the executive branch, he has far outpaced recent presidents in selecting federal judges.  So far, he’s nominated 31 judges to fill 140 open slots out of the 890 federal judgeships.  By contrast, Obama had 54 openings for federal judges when he took office.

Not only will these judges potentially play a role in upholding Trump’s rollbacks of environmental protections, they likely will remain in their posts for decades after Trump leaves office.  Federal judges are appointed for life, and so far Trump’s appointees are younger on average than appointees of previous presidents.

“Trump is going to appoint a lot of judges that will change the complexion of the court system for a long time,” says Ayres, who has been a prominent environmental lawyer since 1970 and was one of the founders of the Natural Resources Defense Council.  “It very well could be the biggest impact he has on the environment.  Imagine another 10 percent of the judiciary filled with Trump appointees.  Environmental organizations will fight back and litigate and save some things, but there’s a whole lot of damage that will take forever to repair — if it’s repairable.”

Read more at Trump’s Judges:  A Second Front in the Environmental Onslaught

Monday, August 28, 2017

  Monday, Aug 28

Global surface temperature relative to 1880-1920 based on GISTEMP analysis (mostly NOAA data sources, as described by Hansen, J., R. Ruedy, M. Sato, and K. Lo, 2010: Global surface temperature change. Rev. Geophys., 48, RG4004.  We suggest in an upcoming paper that the temperature in 1940-45 is exaggerated because of data inhomogeneity in WW II. Linear-fit to temperature since 1970 yields present temperature of 1.06°C, which is perhaps our best estimate of warming since the preindustrial period.

New Source of Energy-critical Lithium Found in Supervolcanoes, Stanford Researchers Find

Stanford researchers detail a new method for locating lithium in lake deposits from ancient supervolcanoes, which appear as large holes in the ground that often fill with water to form a lake, such as Crater Lake in Oregon, pictured here. (Image credit: Lindsay Snow / Shutterstock) Click to Enlarge.
Most of the lithium used to make the lithium-ion batteries that power modern electronics comes from Australia and Chile.  But Stanford scientists say there are large deposits in sources right here in America: supervolcanoes.

In a study published today in Nature Communications, scientists detail a new method for locating lithium in supervolcanic lake deposits.  The findings represent an important step toward diversifying the supply of this valuable silvery-white metal, since lithium is an energy-critical strategic resource, said study co-author Gail Mahood, a professor of geological sciences at Stanford’s School of Earth, Energy & Environmental Sciences.

“We’re going to have to use electric vehicles and large storage batteries to decrease our carbon footprint,” Mahood said.  “It’s important to identify lithium resources in the U.S. so that our supply does not rely on single companies or countries in a way that makes us subject to economic or political manipulation.”

Supervolcanoes can produce massive eruptions of hundreds to thousands of cubic kilometers of magma — up to 10,000 times more than a typical eruption from a Hawaiian volcano. They also produce vast quantities of pumice and volcanic ash that are spread over wide areas. They appear as huge holes in the ground, known as calderas, rather than the cone-like shape typically associated with volcanoes because the enormous loss of magma causes the roof of the chamber to collapse following eruption.

The resulting hole often fills with water to form a lake — Oregon’s Crater Lake is a prime example.  Over tens of thousands of years, rainfall and hot springs leach out lithium from the volcanic deposits.  The lithium accumulates, along with sediments, in the caldera lake, where it becomes concentrated in a clay called hectorite.

Exploring supervolcanoes for lithium would diversify its global supply.  Major lithium deposits are currently mined from brine deposits in high-altitude salt flats in Chile and pegmatite deposits in Australia.  The supervolcanoes pose little risk of eruption because they are ancient.

“The caldera is the ideal depositional basin for all this lithium,” said lead author Thomas Benson, a recent PhD graduate at Stanford Earth, who began working on the study in 2012.

New Source of Energy-critical Lithium Found in Supervolcanoes, Stanford Researchers Find

The Big Drumroll Ends with a Thud:  DOE’s Study on the US Power Grid - By Susan Tierney

Power grid (Credit: Click to Enlarge.
The Department of Energy last week released its long-awaited grid-reliability study, after months of work at the agency to respond to Secretary Perry’s directive calling for the report.  The tone and content of Perry’s April 14th memo suggested to many that the study would inevitably produce a set of findings that coal-fired power plants could take to the bank as proof that they need help from the federal government to stay in operation.

Now that the report is actually out, what’s surprising is that there are not many surprises.  In keeping with other recent actions by the DOE, it provides little technical support for bailing out financially struggling coal-fired power plants.  And that, in itself, is the main eye-opener.

The report examined the transitions underway in the electric industry and attempted to answer several questions:  What’s driving change in the mix of technologies we use to generate power?  And to what extent are these changes making the U.S. power supply less reliable?

An earlier, leaked draft of the report clearly pointed to the many factors driving changes in the industry―ones that had been covered in countless other previous studies by experts at the Energy Department, the national labs, power grid operators, and other institutions.  That draft pointed to the important role that low natural gas prices have played in putting financial pressure on existing coal and nuclear plants, and in turn on the changing technology mix in the power system.  And it found that many coal plant retirements were not ‘premature’ (which the report characterized as being unduly early in light of their operational efficiency), and that renewable energy had not caused plant closures (but had exacerbated the problem).

Many of us wondered how the credible technical material in that earlier draft might be elbowed aside in the final report to support other narratives.

But the final report actually contains similar findings, namely that:
  • Natural gas is the key driver of financial pressure on power plants, and plays a much bigger role than flat demand and renewable energy
  • Many observed power plant retirements were appropriate and consistent with markets as they are currently functioning, and not every power plant retirement is cause for alarm
  • The nation’s electric system is now more diverse than in the past
  • States value things like jobs and clean energy and adopt policies to support them, which creates tensions with federally regulated electricity commodity markets
  • Changing power systems require more flexible resources to maintain reliability, but the introduction of ‘variable’ renewable power projects doesn’t necessarily undermine reliability
  • Extreme weather events are posing and will increasingly introduce challenges for grid operations and―in combination with the other changes underway in the system―more research will be needed to support a more modern and resilient grid
  • More coordination is needed between the nation’s gas and electric industries.
In my own work, I have come to many of these same conclusions―in a recent National Academy of Sciences study on grid resiliency, in a recent study I co-authored on markets, reliability and the changing power system, in testimony at the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, and elsewhere.

There are, however, several important distinctions between the DOE Grid Study and these other reports.  First, although the lengthy DOE report pays considerable attention to the importance of maintaining a resilient and reliable grid in the face of extreme weather events, the words ‘climate’ or ‘climate change’ appear only once in 155 pages (in reference to President Trump’s Executive Order calling for rescission of certain energy and climate-related policies).

This omission undermines the Department’s call to provide proper compensation for certain power plants―notably, existing nuclear plants and hydroelectric facilities which, like coal-fired plants, are currently under financial stress in various wholesale markets.  Without a willingness to point out that nuclear and hydro facilities produce power with zero carbon emissions, and that few wholesale markets properly compensate generators for their zero-carbon attribute, the DOE Grid Study misses an opportunity to support reasonable reforms to market rules.  And it underscores the impression that this report’s goal is to support coal-fired generation, consistent with the Trump Administration’s pro-coal agenda.

In the end, most of the Grid Study’s recommendations are relatively benign, and valuable. There’s one recommendation on “Energy Dominance” that simply commits the Energy Department to support the President’s Executive Order. And the final, omnibus recommendation on Infrastructure Development supports DOE and other federal agencies’ actions to accelerate and reduce the costs of “licensing, relicensing, and permitting of grid infrastructure such as nuclear, hydro, coal, advanced generation technologies, and transmission.” This is hardly a new position in Washington, and understates the legal, timing and political challenges that the new Administration will face in changing regulations affecting the siting, permitting and licensing of transmission, LNG facilities, natural gas pipelines, existing and new nuclear plants, and coal-fired generating capacity.

Ironically, the report produces little beyond rhetoric for pro-coal constituencies. It recommends that the Environmental Protection Agency relax its policy on New Source Reviews for new coal plants and for major modifications to existing ones. Such changes are no doubt on EPA Administrator Pruitt’s radar screen, but they will be neither easy nor quick, and will provide little solace for existing coal-fired power plants currently facing financial pressure.

Climate May Quickly Drive Forest-Eating Beetles North, Says Study

Dead pines in northeastern Oklahoma, where some forests have been hit hard by beetles. (Credit: Kevin Krajick/Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory) Click to Enlarge.
Over the next few decades, global warming-related rises in winter temperatures could significantly extend the range of the southern pine beetle -- one of the world's most aggressive tree-killing insects -- through much of the northern United States and southern Canada, says a new study.  The beetle's range is sharply limited by annual extreme temperature lows, but these lows are rising much faster than average temperatures -- a trend that will probably drive the beetles' spread, say the authors.  The study was published today in the journal Nature Climate Change.
Southern pine beetle. (Credit: Erich Vallery/USDA) Click to Enlarge.

The study points to "huge vulnerability across a vast ecosystem," said lead author Corey Lesk, a graduate student at Columbia University's Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences. "We could see loss of biodiversity and iconic regional forests. There would be damage to tourism and forestry industries in already struggling rural areas." Coauthor Radley Horton, a researcher at Columbia University's Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, said infested forests could also dry out and burn, endangering property and emitting large amounts of carbon into the atmosphere.

Until recently, southern pine beetles lived from Central America up into the southeastern United States, but in the past decade or so they have also begun appearing in parts of the Northeast and New England. Substantial outbreaks began occurring in New Jersey in 2001. The beetles were first found on New York's Long Island in New York in 2014 and Connecticut in 2015.

Lesk and Horton project that by 2020, the beetles will establish themselves along the Atlantic coast up to Nova Scotia. They say that by 2050, 78 percent of the 48,000 square miles now occupied by pitch pine forests from southern Maine to eastern Ohio will have climates newly suitable to the beetles. By 2060, they expect the beetle will further establish itself from southern New England through Wisconsin, and by 2080, climates suitable for the beetle should reach 71 percent of red pines and 48 percent of jack pines, which extend across more than 270,000 square miles of the northeastern United States and southern Canada.

[Of interest:  Use of Chemicals for Prevention and Control of Southern Pine Beetle Infestations]

Read more at Climate May Quickly Drive Forest-Eating Beetles North, Says Study

Sunday, August 27, 2017

  Sunday, Aug 27

Global surface temperature relative to 1880-1920 based on GISTEMP analysis (mostly NOAA data sources, as described by Hansen, J., R. Ruedy, M. Sato, and K. Lo, 2010: Global surface temperature change. Rev. Geophys., 48, RG4004.  We suggest in an upcoming paper that the temperature in 1940-45 is exaggerated because of data inhomogeneity in WW II. Linear-fit to temperature since 1970 yields present temperature of 1.06°C, which is perhaps our best estimate of warming since the preindustrial period.

Keep It 100 - by Bill Mckibben

The unimaginable is now possible:  100% renewable energy.  We can't settle for less.

The Knock On Environmentalists Is that They’ve Been Better at Opposing than Proposing.  Sure, being against overheating the planet or melting the ice caps should probably speak for itself—but it doesn’t give us a means.  So it’s important news that the environmental movement seems to be rallying round a new flag.  That standard bears a number:  100 percent.

It’s the call for the rapid conversion of energy systems around the country to 100 percent renewable power—a call for running the United States (and the world) on sun, wind, and water. What Medicare for All is to the healthcare debate, or Fight for $15 is to the battle against inequality, 100% Renewable is to the struggle for the planet’s future. It’s how progressives will think about energy going forward—and though it started in northern Europe and Northern California, it’s a call that’s gaining traction outside the obvious green enclaves.  In the last few months, cities as diverse as Atlanta and Salt Lake have taken the pledge.

No more half-measures.  Barack Obama drove environmentalists crazy with his “all-of-the-above” energy policy, which treated sun and wind as two items on a menu that included coal, gas and oil.  That is not good enough.  Many scientists tell us that within a decade, at current rates, we’ll likely have put enough carbon in the atmosphere to warm the Earth past the Paris climate targets.  Renewables—even the most rapid transition—won’t stop climate change, but getting off fossil fuel now might (there are no longer any guarantees) keep us from the level of damage that would shake civilization.

The plummeting cost of home solar (Credit: Click to Enlarge.
In any event, we no longer need to go slow:  In the last few years, engineers have brought the price of renewables so low that, according to many experts, it would make economic sense to switch over even if fossil fuels weren’t wrecking the Earth.  That’s why the appeal of 100% Renewable goes beyond the Left.  If you pay a power bill, it’s the common-sense path forward.
With each passing quarter, the 100 percent target is becoming less an aspirational goal and more the obvious solution.  Hell, I spent the spring in some of the poorest parts of Africa where people—for the daily price of enough kerosene to fill a single lamp—were installing solar panels and powering up TVs, radios and LED bulbs.  If you can do it in Germany and Ghana, you can do it in Grand Rapids and Gainesville.

Even 72 percent of Republicans want to “accelerate the development of clean energy.”  That explains why, for example, the Sierra Club is finding dramatic success with its #ReadyFor100 campaign, which lobbies cities to commit to 100 percent renewable.  Sure, the usual suspects, such as Berkeley, Calif., were quick to sign on.  But by early summer the U.S. Conference of Mayors had endorsed the drive, and leaders were popping up in unexpected places. Columbia, S.C., Mayor Steve Benjamin put it this way:  “It’s not merely an option now; it’s imperative.”

Environmental groups from the Climate Mobilization to Greenpeace to Food and Water Watch are backing the 100 percent target, differing mainly on how quickly we must achieve the transition, with answers ranging from one decade to around three.  The right answer, given the state of the planet, is 25 years ago.  The second best:  as fast as is humanly possible.  That means, at least in part, as fast as government can help make it happen.  The market will make the transition naturally over time (free sunlight and wind is a hard proposition to beat), but time is the one thing we haven’t got, so subsidies, hard targets and money to help spread the revolution to the poorest parts of the world are all crucial.

That’s why it’s so significant that Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) joined with Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) in April to propose the first federal 100 percent bill.  It won’t pass Congress this year—but as a standard to shape the Democratic Party agenda in 2018 and 2020, it’s critically important.

Congress, however, is not the only legislative body that matters in America.  Earlier this year, for instance, the California State Senate passed—by a 2-1 margin—a bill that would take the world’s sixth-largest economy to 100 percent renewable by 2045.  Last month, Gov. Jerry Brown, in a bid to recreate the spirit of the Paris climate talks, invited the world’s “sub-national” leaders—governors, mayors, regional administrators—to a San Francisco conference in September 2018.

“Look, it’s up to you and it’s up to me and tens of millions of other people to get it together,” Brown said, as he invited the world to his gathering.

That’s Not to Say that This Fight Is Going to Be Easy.  Fossil fuel corporations know they’re not the future, yet they’re determined to keep us stuck in the past.  Energy Secretary Rick Perry, for example, recently ordered a “study” that, as Democratic senators have pointed out, is “a thinly disguised attempt to promote less economic electric generation technologies, such as coal” by trying to show that intermittent sources of power such as sun and wind make the grid unreliable.

From the September issue of the new In These Times. (Credit: Click to Enlarge.
That’s always been the trouble with renewables:  The sun sets and the wind dies down.  Indeed, one group of academics challenged Mark Jacobson’s calculations this spring partly on these grounds, arguing that unproven techniques of capturing and storing carbon from fossil fuel plants will likely be necessary, as well as continued reliance on nuclear power.  Yet technology marches on.  Elon Musk’s batteries work in Tesla cars, but scaled up they make it economically feasible for utilities to store the afternoon’s sun for the evening’s electric demand.  In May, at an industry confab, one California utility executive put it this way: “The technology has been resolved.  How fast do you want to get to 100 percent?  That can be done today.”
That Means, of Course, that Renewables Advocates Need to Emphasize the Jobs that Will Be Created as We Move Toward Sun and Wind.  Already, more Americans are employed in the solar industry than in coal fields, and the conversion is only just beginning. Sanders and Merkley’s federal 100 percent bill, beyond its generous climate benefits, is expected to produce 4 million new jobs over the coming decades.

And since those jobs aren’t always going to be in the same places as the fossil fuel ones they replace, renewable advocates must also demand a just transition for displaced workers.  Labor Network for Sustainability (LNS) is a pro-climate and pro-labor group advocating that such workers get a deal like the 1944 G.I. Bill: three years of full wages and benefits, four years of education and retraining, and job placement in community economic development programs. This, by the way, is also a strong reason for a robust social safety net—revolutions come with losers as well as winners.
The political battle for renewables will be hard-fought.  In January the New York Times reported that the Koch brothers have begun to aggressively (and cynically) court minority communities, arguing that they “benefit the most from cheap and abundant fossil fuels.”  Their goal is not only to win black voters to the GOP’s energy program, but to stall renewables in majority-black-and-brown cities like Richmond, Calif.

Read more at Keep It 100.
It’s a thankless job, but green spaces save us millions by soaking up pollution and cooling us down.

City trees (Photo Credit: Medioimages/Photodisc) Click to Enlarge.
Trees have a proven positive impact on cities:  They lower wind speed and thus energy consumption.  They reduce pollution and heat.  They generally improve how neighborhoods are perceived.  They make cities more livable.  But the best way to prove why cities should plant more trees might be the fact that they have a significant economic impact.

A new study published in the online journal Ecological Modelling puts a number on just how much money trees save cities.  After studying 10 megacities around the world and taking into account air pollution, storm water, building energy, and carbon emissions, the researchers found that trees have an economic benefit of about $505 million every year.  From Beijing and Cairo to London and Los Angeles, researchers from the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry and Parthenope University of Naples found that trees are worth $1.2 million per square kilometer, or $35 per capita.

But in the future, those numbers could be much greater.  In megacities, which are defined as cities with more than 10 million people, tree cover today ranges from 8.1% of the metropolitan area to 36%.  But the potential tree cover ranges from 15.6% to 24%, meaning there’s significantly more space to plant trees.  “Planting more trees in potential tree cover areas could nearly double the benefits provided by the urban forest,” the researchers write.

Read more at Trees Can Save a City $500 Million Every Year