Blue Marble - March 2012

Heat Wave Hangover

| Fri Mar. 23, 2012 12:12 PM PDT

Credit: Joe Chung via Flickr.

Credit: Joe Chung via Flickr. 

We know the past 10 days has seen the most mind-blowing heat wave since record keeping began in North America. As some meteorologists say: "It's almost like science fiction at this point."

So what's the likely hangover from this insanely hot and steamy spring break? How will summer-in-winter affect the real summer? 

Credit: Cowgirl Jules via Flickr.Credit: Cowgirl Jules via Flickr.

First up, kickstarting an early growing season is likely to devastate crops subjected to the whiplash of returning cold. Jeff Masters at Wunderblog points out the growing season is now in full swing five weeks early in the Upper Midwest:

A damaging freeze that will severely impact the fruit industry and other sensitive plants is very likely. Indeed, the forecast calls for lows in the upper 20s in the cherry-growing region of Michigan near Traverse City on Monday night.

Credit: Eric Luebehusen, USDA.Credit: Eric Luebehusen, USDA.

And since the mutant March heat melted all the snow in the northern US and southern Canada it primed the way for a hotter and probably drier summer, with reduced water flow in rivers, further stressing crops.

You can see on the latest USDA's Drought Monitor (above) where the seeds of drought are already being sowed. The Drought Monitor notes about the heat wave in the Central and Northern Plains:

Unseasonably warm, dry conditions prevailed, with temperatures averaging 20 to 25°F above normal across most of the region... [T]he unseasonable warmth has led to early crop development and increased water demands.

 Wheat crop withered by drought.: David Kelleher via Flickr.

Credit: David Kelleher via Flickr.

About the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast the Drought Monitor notes:

In southern New England... streamflows and well-water levels have declined, and are in the lowest 2nd and 5th, respectively, in this region... Streamflows have dropped below the 10th percentile in east-central Pennsylvania and much of New Jersey, and have slipped below the 30th percentile across Maryland, Virginia, and eastern West Virginia. 

And about the Southeast the Drought Monitor notes:

 Streamflows in southeastern Alabama are near historic lows, and have dropped to the lowest 20th percentile in... areas of northern Georgia. The ongoing dryness has also been accompanied by daytime highs approaching 90°F, which has increased  water demands for crops and pastures. Likewise, long-term drought is evidenced by record- or near-record low ground water levels across much of southern Georgia and southeastern Alabama... In Florida... severe Drought was expanded across the northwestern shores of Lake Okeechobee, where 90-day precipitation deficits averaged 4 to 6 inches... In addition, Severe Drought was introduced to the southwestern peninsula, where 90-day rainfall has averaged 25 to 50 percent of normal.   

Daily streamflow for 23 Mar 2012.: USGS.Daily streamflow for 23 Mar 2012.: USGS.

Low water flows in rivers may also cause problems for navigation on rivers in the Midwest, making it harder to move crops and other goods to where they need to get to.

This USGS daily stream flow map shows where extremely low flows are already occurring. Combine this map with the Drought Monitor map and you get a preview of where the hangover is likely to really hurt this summer.

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WATCH: Can Pond Scum Save You From $5 Gas?

| Thu Mar. 22, 2012 3:00 AM PDT

In the spectrum of alternative fuel sources, biofuel made from algae is perhaps the most easily mocked. How could the slimy green muck that grows in your aquarium and washes up on the beach be a future cornerstone of American energy independence? So when President Obama stood before the University of Miami recently and said algae could provide up to 17 percent of our transportation fuel, we wanted to know: Is he right? Here's what we found out:

In February, President Obama announced the Department of Energy would allocate $14 million in new funding to develop transportation fuels from algae. DOE is already supporting over 30 such projects, together worth $94 million. Click through the map below to learn more about these projects.

Introducing the New Climate Desk: Stories for a Changing World

| Thu Mar. 22, 2012 3:00 AM PDT

Climate change is one of the defining stories of our time: rising sea levels, bigger storms, peak oil, colder winters and hotter summers. That begs the questions: Why aren't we talking about it more, and what the hell are we going to do about it?

Fortunately, there is a host of scientists, politicians, educators, artists, entrepreneurs, community leaders, journalists, and others who spend every day thinking about the answers to those questions. Maybe you're one of them. Ultimately, the story of climate change is their story—your story. But the media could still do a better job of telling it.

That's where the Climate Desk comes in.

Two years ago (the hottest year on record, by the way), a group of forward-thinking news outlets (The Atlantic, Center for Investigative Reporting, Grist, Mother Jones, PBS' Need to Know, Slate, and Wired) launched an innovative journalistic collaboration to explore the impact—human, environmental, economic, political—of a changing climate. Climate Desk has been gathering pace ever since, and today we're proud to announce our revamped website and the addition of a new partner: The Guardian. It's one of the UK's oldest and most distinguished newspapers, and has a substantial digital footprint in the US. The first UK newspaper to launch a dedicated environment section, the Guardian has one the biggest and most prolific environmental coverage teams in the world.

We're here to sift through the policy, protests, and polar bears to bring you the most important climate change stories: the ones that affect you, your corner of the world, the changes in your own backyard.

Check out our latest video, Pond Scum to the Rescue, to understand how algae might battle political derision to become a vital fuel source. Your Town Is Fracked shows how Pennsylvania limits local control over oil and gas drilling—potentially jeopardizing residential neighborhoods, watersheds, and even school zones. Climate Desk's one-on-one with Michael Mann, reported and written by , is the climate scientist's account of attacks by entrenched interests seeking to undermine his “hockey stick” graph.

We want to hear from you. What are you concerned by, or want to know more about? Tell us and keep checking back with the Climate Desk for more from this unfolding story .

Monster Heat Wave Stomps NOAA Website

| Wed Mar. 21, 2012 11:03 AM PDT

Derived from Mizunoumi via Wikimedia Commons.

Derived from Mizunoumi via Wikimedia Commons. 

March's mutant heat has been so extreme it's crashed the 'Extremes' section of NOAA's National Climatic Data Center (NCDC) website. Why? Because:

  1. the software couldn't handle the huge number of high-temperature records being set and
  2. the site couldn't handle the huge demand from people wanting to see the records

I've been so frustrated at being unable to access the site in the midst of one of the most extreme weather events in more than a century of record keeping that I found myself visited by a feverish little brain worm called 'conspiracy.' 

Credit: NOAA National Climatic Data Center.Credit: NOAA National Climatic Data Center.

But according to Jeff Masters at Wunderblog the NCDC has spent the week reengineering their software to handle the extreme load on both records and demand.

Today the site is up and running again—though only with data through last Sunday. You can see in the chart above the monster rate of broken records. A few noteworthies:

  • Not only are daytime high-temp records (Hi Max) falling but more impressively the number of nighttime high-temp records (Hi Min) are falling nearly as fast.
  • Hi Max records are outpacing Lo Max (daytime low-temps) records by 25-to-1 last week.
  • Hi Min records are outpacing Lo Min (nighttime low-temps) records by 16-to-1 last week.

 

Historic heat wave in N. America turns winter to summer: NASA Earth Observatory image by Jesse Allen, using data from the Level 1 and Atmospheres Active Distribution System (LAADS).

Monster heat wave in N. America turns winter to summer: NASA Earth Observatory image by Jesse Allen, using data from the Level 1 and Atmospheres Active Distribution System (LAADS). 

NASA's Earth Observatory just published this map showing the intensity and scope of the heat wave as surface temperature anomalies. The map compares the current heat wave to average temps for the same eight-day period in March from 2000-2011. Warmer than average temps are red, near-normal temps are white, cooler than average are blue. From the Earth Observatory:

Records are not only being broken across the country, they're being broken in unusual ways. Chicago, for example, saw temperatures above 26.6°Celsius (80°Fahrenheit) every day between March 14-18, breaking records on all five days. For context, the National Weather Service noted that Chicago typically averages only one day in the eighties each in April. And only once in 140 years of weather observations has April produced as many 80°Fahrenheit days as this March. Meanwhile, Climate Central reported that in Rochester, Minnesota. the overnight low temperature on March 18 was 16.6°Celsius (62°Fahrenheit), a temperature so high it beat the record high of 15.5°Celsius (60°Fahrenheit) for the same date.

 

 Global temperature trend: NASA Earth Observatory, Robert Simmon.

Global temperature trend: NASA Earth Observatory, Robert Simmon.

Clearly 2012 is stomping the norm since 2000. And as you can see in this chart of rising global temperatures, the norm since 2000 has stomped all the norms of the prior century.

USDA Not Changing Policy on Environmental Review for Rural Loans

| Tue Mar. 20, 2012 3:38 PM PDT

Earlier this week, the New York Times reported that the US Department of Agriculture was considering changing its policies on loans to home- and business-owners in rural areas to require environmental review on properties with oil and gas leases. The possible change would have subjected those properties to a thorough examination of the potential risks posed by fossil fuel extraction before the USDA granted loans—which could have been a very big deal in rural communities where hydraulic fracturing, a process used to extract natural gas from shale rock, has become an issue. But a statement issued by Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack on Tuesday indicates that the department is not moving forward with those plans.

Currently, lands where an oil or gas company has a leases to drill are granted what's known as a "categorical exclusion" from the National Environmental Policy Act, a law that requires environmental review on any federal projects. The article over the weekend indicated that USDA was considering requiring this NEPA review before granting loans and loan guarantees through the Rural Housing Service and the Rural Business and Cooperative program, two USDA efforts designed to help rural homeowners and businesses, respectively by providing low-interest loans. The USDA provides a total of $165 billion in loans and loan guarantees, and a lot of that money goes to states where oil and gas leases are becoming more common.

If the USDA did decide to enforce NEPA review on properties with oil and gas drilling leases, it would likely have had broad implications for anyone seeking a loan for property on that land, as it could affect property and resale values. It would have meant closer scrutiny of potential environmental impacts, and would have made it more difficult—if not impossible—to obtain these rural loans on leased land if the review cited major impacts, as the Times piece noted. 

Here's Vilsack statement on Tuesday, affirming that those properties will still be exempt from those reviews:

As indicated in previous statements, USDA will not make any policy changes related to rural housing loans. The information provided to Congressional offices on March 8, 2012 was premature and does not reflect past, current or future practices of the department.
Tomorrow, I will authorize an Administrative Notice reaffirming that rural housing loans are categorically excluded under the National Environmental Policy Act.

According to sources who have been following the issue in Washington, the possible change to require NEPA reviews was only a discussion draft and had not been approved by senior officials. The USDA did not respond to a request for further comment on potential concerns within the agency about these loans and enforcement of NEPA.

Environmental groups that have been following concerns related to fracking expressed disappointment on Tuesday about the USDA's decision not to enforce NEPA on these loans."We'd hope Secretary Vilsack would stand by the assessment of his colleagues at USDA who believe a full, thorough environmental review of these leases take place first," said Environmental Working Group spokesman Alex Formuzis. "The potential risks fracking poses to our land, air and water demands the government take the necessary precautions at its desposal when possible."

While Few Noticed, Hawaiian Lizard Went Extinct

| Tue Mar. 20, 2012 11:34 AM PDT

Copper-striped blue-tailed skink.: Credit: Chris Brown, USGS.

Copper-striped blue-tailed skink: Chris Brown, USGS. 

A species of lizard native to the Hawaiian Islands—the copper striped blue-tailed skink (Emoia impar)—is now officially extinct. The species was once common throughout the Hawaiian Islands and is still found on other island groups in the tropical Pacific.

But the last confirmed sighting in the state of Hawaii was on the Na'Pali coast of Kauai in the 1960s. Repeated field surveys between 1988 and 2008 on Kauai, Oahu, Maui, and Hawai'i yielded no evidence of their existence.

The authors of a new paper in the science journal Oryx write that this is a case of a cryptic extinction—that is, when a species easily confused with a similar species goes missing for decades and no one notices. From the paper:

The introduction and spread of a similar skink Lampropholis delicata across the islands appears to temporally follow the decline of Emoia impar, although there is no evidence of competition between these species. It appears that  Lampropholis delicata is spreading to occupy the niche vacated by the extirpated Emoia impar. Further confusion exists because the skink Emoia cyanura, which is very similar in appearance to Emoia impar, appears to have been introduced to one site within a hotel on Kaua'i and persisted as a population at that site for approximately 2 decades (1970s–1990s) but is now also extirpated. 

Big-headed ant (Pheidole megacephala): April Nobile / © AntWeb.org / CC-BY-SA-3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Big-headed ant (Pheidole megacephala): April Nobile / © AntWeb.org / CC-BY-SA-3.0 via Wikimedia Commons. 

So what was the driver behind this extinction? It remains something of a mystery, though there are hints that predation by invasive ants was a factor. The authors write:

A review of the plausible causal factors indicates that the spread of the introduced big-headed ant Pheidole megacephala is the most likely factor in this lizard decline... This study highlights the cryptic nature of this early species extinction as evidence that current biogeographical patterns of non-charismatic or enigmatic reptiles across the Pacific may be the historical result of early widespread invasion by ants. 

 

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Mutant Heat Wave Shattering Records

| Mon Mar. 19, 2012 11:18 AM PDT

 NOAA/Southern Regional Climate Center

Credit: NOAA/Southern Regional Climate Center

More than 2,200 warm temperature records have been set so far in March. Take a look at the map above to see where temps are crazy departures from normal.

This isn't your average heat wave. Its duration, set against more than a century of record keeping, makes it one for the climate change chronicles. Here's what some meteorologists are saying:

From the National Weather Service in Chicago: Chicago and Rockford have now both broken high temperature records 5 days in a row. There is even the potential they could tie or break record highs for up to an unbelievable 8 days in a row depending on how warm temperatures get Monday through Wednesday. It is extraordinarily rare for climate locations with 100+ year long periods of records to break records day after day after day.

From Jeff Masters' Wunderblog: The ongoing March heat wave in the Midwest is one of the most extreme heat events in US history. With so many records being shattered, it is difficult to cover in detail just how widespread, long-lasting, and extreme the event is.

According to the CapitalClimate blog (HT Climate Central) warm weather records this month are outpacing cold records by a whopping 19-to-1. 

Credit: NWS.Credit: NWS.

Take Chicago. You can see in the graph above how radical this year's heat wave is compared with the five other top warmest Marches on record. The hashed black line shows the average month-to-date temps in degrees Celsius for March (convert here). The dotted blue line shows the month-to-date average temps for 2012 based on current predicted temperatures.

The upper Midwest topped out at Winner, South Dakota, yesterday, which hit 94°F—the earliest 90° reading ever recorded in the Northern Plains, according to Jeff Masters. He also points out the high temps aren't stopping at the border. Canada is weathering record-breaking heat too:

Winnipeg, Manitoba broke its record high for the past four days in a row, and hit 21°C (70°F) yesterday, its hottest temperature on record so early in the year. With today's forecast by Environment Canada and wunderground both calling for highs near 25°C (77°F), Winnipeg is likely to record its highest March temperature on record.

 

 

To put what's going on into a bigger perspective, this NASA/Goddard Institute for Space Studies video shows 131 years of global warming between 1880 and 2011 in 26 seconds. This year looks set to reinforce that accelerating trend. 

Great News for Whiskey Drinkers!

| Fri Mar. 16, 2012 11:59 AM PDT
Celtic Renewables founder Martin Tangney does his best mad whiskey scientist.

A confession: When I wrote about the environmental footprint of various kinds of booze a while back, I was really hoping that whiskey would turn out to be the greenest. That's because it's far and away my favorite alcoholic beverage, whether served on the rocks in a comfy bar or sipped from a flask, campfire-side. What I found, though, is that the production of whiskey and other spirits requires much more energy than wine or beer. This is especially true in boutique distilleries that use old-fashioned pot-style stills, which make delicious whiskey but are pretty inefficient when it comes to energy use. The distilling process also makes a lot of waste. I found myself ruing the day I ever looked into all this. Who wants to feel guilty about booze, for goodness sake?

Imagine my delight, then, when I learned about a Scottish startup that is poised to make whiskey production greener. Celtic Renewables has figured out how to ferment whiskey waste and turn it into biofuel, along with two other useful products.

Of Seas and Storms and Shorefront Homes

| Thu Mar. 15, 2012 2:37 PM PDT

Climate Central has released a new in-depth report on the combined impacts of rising seas and storm surges. With rising water levels, more people and property are at risk—especially during storms, which force water farther inland. Here's an excerpt from the executive summary:

Global warming has raised sea level about eight inches since 1880, and the rate of rise is accelerating. Scientists expect 20 to 80 more inches this century, a lot depending upon how much more heat-trapping pollution humanity puts into the sky. This study makes mid-range projections of 1 to 8 inches by 2030, and 4 to 19 inches by 2050, depending upon location across the contiguous 48 states.
Rising seas dramatically increase the odds of damaging floods from storm surges. For more than two-thirds of the locations analyzed (and for 85% of sites outside the Gulf of Mexico), past and future global warming more than doubles the estimated odds of “century” or worse floods occurring within the next 18 years — meaning floods so high they would historically be expected just once per century. For more than half the locations analyzed, warming at least triples the odds of century-plus floods over the same period. And for two-thirds of the locations, sea level rise from warming has already more than doubled the odds of such a flood even this year.

As the report notes, five million people live less than four feet above current high tide levels. Climate Central found that three million acres of key infrastructure like roads, bridges, schools, farms, and hospitals are also at risk from flooding as sea levels rise.

The report also includes a closer look at heavily impacted states such as Florida, which is home to 8 of the 10 most-impacted cities. Some of the stats on how fast it's happening are pretty shocking:

  1. Odds of a 100-year flood or worse by 2030, with sea level rise from global warming: 25%
  2. Odds without global warming: 10%
  3. Bottom line: global warming multiplies the odds by 2.6x
  4. Historic local sea level rise rate: 1.1 inches/decade
  5. Projected new sea level rise by 2050: 13 inches

As are the figures on how much is at risk:

  1. Population at risk: 2.4 million
  2. Homes at risk: 1.3 million
  3. Land area at risk: 1.8 million acres
  4. Towns and cities where at least half the population is at risk: 107
  5. Counties where at least 10% of the population is at risk: 8
  6. Cities with the largest total exposed populations, ranked most to least: Hialeah, Pembroke Pines, Cape Coral, Miami Beach, Plantation, Miramar, Fort Lauderdale, Davie, St. Petersburg, Miami
  7. Counties with the largest total exposed populations, ranked most to least: Miami-Dade, Broward, Lee, Pinellas, Collier, Hillsborough, Monroe, Charlotte, St. Johns, Brevard
  8. Miami-Dade and Broward Counties each have more people living on land below 4 feet than any US state except Florida itself and Louisiana.

Cherry Blossoms in February?

| Thu Mar. 15, 2012 8:37 AM PDT

Cherry blossom season is epic in Washington, DC, drawing people from all over the world to enjoy the fluffy pink and white trees that Tokyo's mayor gave to the city as a gift in 1912. This year is the centennial celebration, and more than a million visitors are expected in the city during the five-week-long festival. But the trees are blooming ever-earlier, thanks to global warming, which could mean holding the celebration in February by the time the bicentennial rolls around.

The average date for "peak bloom" is April 4, but this year's exceptionally warm weather (it's supposed to hit 82 degrees here on Thursday) has forced the National Park Service to move the date of anticipated bloom up twice already. After adjusting it again on Wednesday, the NPS now predicts peak bloom will happen between March 20 and 23.

But it could be even earlier in the coming years. The Washington Post on Thursday flagged a recent paper from researchers at the University of Washington that predicts that rising temperatures could push peak bloom back to February within this century. In the worst warming scenario—if the world moves forward on a high-green-house-gas emissions path—we could be seeing blooms 13 days earlier by 2050 and 29 days earlier by 2080. On the mid-range emissions path, blooms are expected to come five days earlier by 2050 and 10 days earlier by 2080.

The paper, from Soo-Hyung Kim of the Center for Urban Horticulture at the University of Washington, notes that, "For its sensitivity to winter and early spring temperatures, the timing of cherry blossoms is an ideal indicator of the impacts of climate change on tree phenology." Here's what the changes look like going forward under two different emissions scenarios: