Tim McDonnell joined Climate Desk after stints at Mother Jones and Sierra magazine. He remains a cheerful guy despite covering climate change all the time. Originally from Tucson, Tim loves tortillas and epic walks.
Some polar bear populations have dropped in recent years, but others appear to have stabilized.
If you're looking for the ground zero of climate change, head to the Arctic. Nowhere else on Earth is changing as quickly or as dramatically; air temperatures there are rising twice as fast as at lower latitudes. In the summer of 2012, Arctic sea ice reached the lowest level ever recorded, shrinking to less than half the area it occupied a few decades ago. Ice has rebounded somewhat in the two years since, but it is still on a downward trajectory of about 13 percent per decade and could disappear altogether in summer months by 2030.
The distressing Arctic prognosis is made abundantly clear in a new report card issued today by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The report card comes out every winter and provides an update of where things currently stand in the Arctic. Here are a few key findings:
Sea ice is disappearing: The 2014 summer sea ice minimum—a snapshot taken when sea ice is at its lowest—was 23 percent below the 1981-2010 average, a loss of ice 2.6 times greater than the total area of California. In the map below, the minimum (which happened in September) is on the right; the pink outline shows the average. The winter maximum, on the left, was also below average, by about 5 percent:
Arctic sea ice extent in the winter maximum (left) and summer minimum (right) were both below average (pink line) in 2014. NOAA
Here's that same data, expressed a different way. You can see that both the minimum and maximum have fallen over the last several decades:
Melting sea ice doesn't raise sea levels much, because the ice is already floating in the ocean. But because the white ice reflects sunlight back into space whereas dark ocean water absorbs it, losing the ice makes global warming happen even faster. Sea ice is also a key wildlife habitat. Perhaps most importantly, sea ice is a very sensitive guage of overall warming; when ice levels drop like this, it's an indication of change happening throughout the climate system.
The Cuomo administration announced Wednesday that it would ban hydraulic fracturing in New York State, ending years of uncertainty by concluding that the controversial method of extracting gas from deep underground could contaminate the state’s air and water and pose inestimable public-health risks.
"I cannot support high volume hydraulic fracturing in the great state of New York," said Howard Zucker, the acting commissioner of health.
That conclusion was delivered publicly during a year-end cabinet meeting called by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo in Albany…The state has had a de facto ban on the procedure for more than five years, predating Mr. Cuomo's first term. The decision also came as oil and gas prices continued to fall in many places around the country, in part because of surging American oil production, as fracking boosted output.
New York is the second state to ban fracking, after Vermont did so in 2012. That move was largely symbolic, since Vermont has no natural gas to speak of. New York, by contrast, would have been a prize for the fracking industry, thanks to its massive share of the Marcellus shale formation.
"This is the first state ban with real significance," said Kate Sinding, a senior attorney in New York for the Natural Resources Defense Council. "My head is still spinning, because this is beyond anything we expected."
The fracking battle in New York isn't quite over yet, Sinding said. Now the attention of activists will turn toward proposed infrastructure projects in the state—like a gas storage facility by Lake Seneca and an export facility on Long Island—that would handle natural gas from fracking projects in neighboring states like Pennsylvania.
Nature is one of the world's flagship peer-reviewed scientific journals, a venue for some of our best new ideas about the world. Sometimes, those ideas are about animals that also happen to be outrageously, unconscionably cute. I'm talking baby-penguins-and-pomeranians-and-monkeys-cute. This morning the ingenious folks in Nature's video department rounded them all up into one face-melting video.
US Secretary of State John Kerry attended the UN climate talks in Lima, Peru, late last week.
Climate negotiators from nearly 200 countries are on their way home from Lima, Peru, after a series of last-minute compromises produced an agreement that, for the first time, calls on all countries to develop plans to limit their greenhouse gas emissions.
As the two weeks of global warming talks drew to a close, familiar fault lines emerged between wealthy countries—which are disproportionately responsible for causing climate change—and developing countries, which will be disproportionately impacted by it. In the end, both sides made sacrifices. Developing nations failed to convince the United States other economic powerhouses to commit cash to fund climate adaptation efforts around the world. And the US lost a battle over a one-word change that made guidelines for countries' climate commitments optional instead of mandatory. As a result, the agreement came out weaker than climate hawks had hoped for, because countries get plenty of wiggle room to potentially scale back their promises.
"I would say that whereas at the end of last week, the draft agreement was close to unambiguously positive, over the weekend it did get watered down," said Harvard environmental economist Robert Stavins. (You can read his more detailed analysis here).
So what happens now? The Lima agreement is essentially a playbook for diplomacy in the run-up to next December's major global warming talks in Paris, where countries will meet in an attempt to finalize the world's first universal climate accord. Before that can happen, there's still a whole lot of negotiating left on the table, at both the domestic and international levels.
First, every country is now supposed to come up with its plan for reducing greenhouse gas emissions, like the joint plan announced last month by the US and China. Guidelines for what those plans must include are pretty loose, but in most cases they'll lay out an emissions reduction target, a timeline for reaching it, and a series of domestic policy measures to achieve it. The Lima agreement requires that the plans be more aggressive than a "business-as-usual" scenario.
The plans can also (but aren't required to) include commitments for low-carbon economic development, pledges of financial assistance for developing countries, or really whatever else a country feels like sticking in there. Those plans are due to the UN climate committee no later than October 1.
Once every country has submitted its contribution, the UN will conduct an analysis of how far they go, collectively, toward slowing climate change. This will be like a report card grading the actual impact the Paris agreement is likely to have. Expect that by November.
At the same time, negotiators will be tinkering away on nearly 40 pages of draft text that will serve as an introduction to the patchwork of national contributions (see the "Annex" here). There are smaller meetings early in 2015—first in Bonn, Germany, and then in Geneva, Switzerland—where this will be the main task at hand. That document will be presented in May, then tweaked and (fingers crossed) finally approved in Paris.
Stay tuned over the next several months for commitments from key players like India, Russia, and Australia.
For a sobering, detailed look at the current state of affairs, take a look at the US Geological Survey's just-released data visualization tool. The most shocking thing, to me, is the year-by-year playback of reservoir levels, many of which have now dipped to less than a quarter of their capacity (screenshot below):
Climate scientists have warned for years that rising greenhouse gas concentrations will lead to more frequent and severe droughts in many parts of the world. Although it's generally very difficult to attribute any one weather event to the broader global warming trend, over the last couple of years a body of research has emerged to assess the link between man-made climate change and the current California drought. There are signs that rising temperatures (so far, 2014 is the hottest year on record both for California and globally) and long-term declines in soil moisture, both linked to greenhouse gas emissions, may have made the impact of the drought worse.
But according to new research by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, California's drought was primarily produced by a lack of precipitation driven by natural atmospheric cycles that are unrelated to man-made climate change. In other words, climate change may have worsened the impacts of the drought, but it isn't the underlying cause.
"The preponderance of evidence is that the events of the last three winters [when California gets the majority of its precipitation] were the product of natural variability," said lead author Richard Seager, a Columbia University oceanographer.
"The preponderance of evidence is that the events of the last three winters were the product of natural variability."
Over the last three years, Seager said, unpredictable atmospheric circulation patterns, combined with La Niña, formed high-pressure systems in winter over the West Coast, blocking storms from the Pacific that would have brought rain to California. The result has been the second-lowest three-year winter precipitation total since record-keeping began in 1895. But that pattern doesn't match what models predict as an outcome of climate change, said Seager. In fact, the study's models indicate that as global warming proceeds, winter precipitation in California is actually predicted to increase, thanks to an increased likelihood of low-pressure systems that allow winter storms to pass from the ocean to the mainland.
Unusually high sea-surface temperatures in parts of the Pacific over the last two years also played a minor role in producing the observed high-pressure systems, the report found. But those anomalies were scattered, which is inconsistent with the uniform, general ocean surface warming expected as an impact of climate change.
As a result, the confluence of atmospheric and ocean conditions that have recently blocked rain in California look like an exception to, rather than representative of, the expected climate change trend, Seager said.
All this doesn't mean you should dismiss the risk of future droughts: Seager stressed that additional research is needed to determine whether increased temperatures on land—leading to increased evaporation and demand on water supplies—could offset future gains in California's winter rainfall.