Walrus Without Ice

Polar Cruises via FlickrPolar Cruises via Flickr

During my trip through the Arctic Ocean last month (Arctic Ocean Diaries) we saw a few walrus streaming south through the Chukchi Sea towards the Bering Strait. Winter was on their tails. Or at least soon would be.

There's a lot of urgency just now to figure out exactly where Pacific walruses are feeding and traveling off Alaska. That's because their world is changing so unbelievably fast. 

Sea ice extent in the Chukchi Sea as of 12-16 Nov 2012: National / Naval Ice CenterSea ice extent in the Chukchi Sea as of 12-16 Nov 2012: National / Naval Ice Center

Sea ice—the mobile platforms where walruses haul-out to rest and give birth—is in rapid decline throughout the Arctic. This summer broke the record for lowest ice extent ever seen. There was little to none in the US Arctic—the Chukchi and Beaufort seas—for most of the summer and fall.

The map above shows how little ice is in the Chukchi even now, midway through November. Red, orange, and yellow mark sea ice extents of between four-tenths coverage and ten-tenths coverage. As you can see from the amount of white in the map, there's still a whole lot of open water up there.

Tracks of 40 tagged walrus in the Chukchi Sea during summer 2012: USGS Alaska Science CenterTracks of 40 tagged walrus in the Chukchi Sea during summer 2012. Star marks approximate position of Shell oil well: USGS Alaska Science Center

As part of an ongoing effort towards an Endangered Species listing for Pacific walrus, researchers with the United States Geological Survey have been tagging walruses to see where they're traveling and how they're managing in the presence or absence of sea ice. From this will come a designation of critical habitat.

The map above shows the tracks of 40 walruses tagged this summer. You can start to see which areas are important to them. (For an animated track map that includes the dwindling sea ice margin go here.)

I added the black star on the map to show the approximate position of Shell's well in the virgin seafloor of the Chukchi Sea, Burger Oil Field. (See my earlier post on Shell's drilling efforts and errors.)  Sadly, there look to be a lot of walruses using the dangerous waters around that well.


The video explains the USGS research efforts underway, with some gorgeous footage of walruses on ice and off.

In his press conference today, President Obama not only broke the much discussed "silence" on climate change—he also showed he's been giving serious thought to how to move forward on the issue over the next four years.

In response to a question from New York Times White House correspondent Mark Landler, the president confirmed his belief that climate change is real and driven by humans, and implied that it has something to do with recent extreme weather. He went on to say that an "education process" is needed to get Americans on board with long term solutions to climate change—a "conversation across the country" that, he suggested, he would be leading.

At the same time, the President also mentioned that more "short term" solutions may be in the offing, perhaps referring to a variety of potential regulatory steps by the Environmental Protection Agency. Notably, President Obama also promised any long term climate solution would be bipartisan.

But, most of all, he promised a lot less climate silence. "You'll hear more from me in the coming months and years" on the issue, he said.

On Monday, the International Energy Administration released a new report that projects that the US will pass Saudi Arabia as the world's leading producer of oil in 2020. U-S-A! U-S-A!


"The United States, which currently imports around 20% of its total energy needs, becomes all but self sufficient in net terms—a dramatic reversal of the trend seen in most other energy importing countries," the IEA concluded.

The projection, of course, flies in the face of the allegation that President Obama has destroyed the oil and gas industry in the US with his crushing regulatory agenda. He hasn't. Crude oil production actually increased 14 percent between 2008 and 2011.

Yet the amount of oil we produce is expected to decline again after 2020. Saudi Arabia is expected to retake the global lead by 2030. So maybe we should be thinking about a Plan B.

Wind turbines at China's Tianjin Eco-City.

Despite recent strides toward climate action, China is still the world's biggest emitter of greenhouse gases and one of the biggest consumers of coal —and hence the archetypal global warming scapegoat. But on at least one count, a new study says, China is kicking America's butt, and probably will be for decades: wind energy.

As of 2011, North America (predominated by the US) claimed 22 percent of the world's total wind power capacity, four points behind China, according to analysis released today by the Global Wind Energy Council. By 2015, China's lead could be up to eight percent over the US. And over the next two decades, the gap could widen even more.

Check out the chart below, from the report. The concentric circles represent that total global capacity in 2020 (inner) and 2030 (outer); the colors represent the shares of that total held by various regions or countries:

Courtesy Global Wind Energy CouncilCourtesy Global Wind Energy Council

 Precipitation associated with Sandy, 23-31 Oct 2012 (preliminary): NOAA National Climatic Data Center

Precipitation associated with Sandy, 23-31 Oct 2012 (preliminary): NOAA National Climatic Data Center

According to NOAA's National Climatic Data Center State of the Climate Report, post-tropical cyclone Sandy made landfall with a central minimum pressure of 946 millibars—potentially a record low for the Northeast coast, pending further assessment. The storm also rated as the largest hurricane to form in the North Atlantic  in terms of wind spread, with a gale diameter of 945 miles.

This month's report focuses on Sandy as the monster rampaging through October. Here are a few other noteworthy  stats associated with that storm:

  • The observed water level at The Battery in New York City of 13.8 feet set an all-time record there, topping Hurricane Donna's 1960 record by more than three feet.
  • The Delaware River in Philadelphia set a new record high water level of 10.6 feet, beating out the previous high of 10.5 feet set in April 2011. 
  • Sandy's blizzard dropped more than a foot of snow in six states from North Carolina to Pennsylvania, shattering October monthly and single storm snowfall records. Snowfall totals in the highest elevations approached three feet.


NOAA National Climatic Data Center

NOAA National Climatic Data Center 

Aside from Sandy's mayhem, October was shaping up to be a relatively benign month by 21st century standards. The average temperature in the lower 48 was 53.9°F—0.3°F below the long-term average. That ended a 16-month streak of above-average temperatures starting in June 2011.

But even October couldn't mitigate the bigger picture for the year. The period between January and October 2012 saw the warmest first ten months of any year on record for the contiguous US dating back to 1895.

  • The national temperature of 58.4°F was 3.4°F above the 20th-century average and 1.1°F above the previous record warm between January and October 2000.
  • The first 10 months of 2012 racked up as record warm in 21 states.
  • The first 10 months of 2012 racked up among the 10 warmest in 25 states.
  • Only Washington state saw temperatures near average for the period. 


NOAA National Climatic Data Center

NOAA National Climatic Data Center 

As you can see from this graph, previous record hot years dating back to 1895 were wiped out by 2012's heat so far (click graph for larger image). That heat led to a few other costly complications in terms of drought and crop failures:

  • January-October 2012 was the 16th driest period on record for the lower 48: precip totals 1.9 inches below the average of 24.78 inches.
  • Drier-than-average conditions were present from the Southwest, through the Rockies, across the Plains and into the Midwest.
  • Nebraska and Wyoming were record dry for the period. Nebraska's statewide precipitation total of 11.92 inches was 9.4 inches below average, while Wyoming's precipitation of 6.57 inches was 5.2 inches below average.
  • The Gulf Coast, parts of the Northeast, and the Pacific Northwest were wetter than average during January-October.
  • Washington's year-to-date precipitation total was 33.23 inches, 7.36 inches above average, and the fourth wettest January-October on record.

From the report:

The U.S. Climate Extremes Index (USCEI), an index that tracks the highest and lowest 10 percent of extremes in temperature, precipitation, drought and tropical cyclones across the contiguous U.S., was nearly twice the average value during the January-October period, and marked the second highest USCEI value for the period. Extremes in warm daytime temperatures, warm nighttime temperatures, and the spatial extent of drought conditions contributed to the record high USCEI value.

From a Coast Guard flyover of Long Island after Hurricane Sandy.

The catastrophic damage left by Hurricane Sandy has once again underscored the costly shortcomings of the way we—that is, federal taxpayers—insure property owners against the monster storms that are becoming ever more predictable as the planet warms and sea levels rise.

Storms, not terrorists, present the biggest threat to the coastal cities and communities that are home to more than half of all Americans—not to mention critical conduits for international trade. And yet the FEMA-administered federal flood insurance program, which took a bath after Hurricane Katrina six years ago, is still foundering. As the New York Times reported this morning:

The federal program collects about $3.5 billion in annual premiums. But in four of the past eight years, claims will have eclipsed premiums, most glaringly in 2005—the year of Hurricanes Katrina, Rita and Wilma—when claims totaled $17.7 billion. Private insurance companies have long avoided offering flood insurance to homeowners.

"It's like rat poison to them," said Tony Bullock, an insurance industry lobbyist, explaining how the risk outweighs the benefit for private insurers. "You need the federal backstop."

While Sandy's overall financial toll has yet to be tallied, Gov. Andrew Cuomo has estimated damages in New York state alone at $50 billion. No more than $20 billion of the overall cost will be covered by private insurance, says Cynthia McHale, director of the insurance program at Ceres, a sustainable-economy coalition consisting of companies, investors, and public-interest groups. This puts most of the remaining burden on state and federal governments.

The race is on for the next chairman of the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee—and no matter who wins, he won't be a big fan of science.

So far, three men have announced that they would like to take over for Rep. Ralph Hall (R-Texas), who is stepping down because House rules limit representatives to 6 years as chairman. Hall was certainly no champion of science, telling National Journal last year that he doesn't think humans are having a significant impact on the climate because, "I don't think we can control what God controls." He also said he was "really more fearful of freezing," and that he thinks climate scientists dreamed up the whole "warming" thing to make money.

But the would-be new chairs aren’t much better. So far, Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.), Lamar Smith (R-Texas), and James Sensenbrenner Jr. (R-Wisc.) have all announced that they would like to take over, Science reports. Here are some of their greatest hits on science.

Rohrabacher: You can check out his webpage on the subject, which is full of crazy, or read his March 2009 speech on how scientists made up global warming as part of a "radical agenda to change our way of life." Or you can see his May 2011 comments that seemed to indicate that he believes that trees cause global warming. His greatest hit, however, was suggesting in a hearing that historic global warming was caused by "dinosaur flatulence." (While you're at it, check out my colleague Daniel Schulman's 2010 story about Rohrabacher taking up arms in Afghanistan in the '80s.) 

Smith: Here's Smith in December 2009 chastising news networks for not devoting enough coverage to the so-called "Climategate" affair: "We now know that prominent scientists were so determined to advance the idea of human-made global warming that they worked together to hide contradictory temperature data." His congressional website does at least acknowledge that the climate is changing, but not that human activity is a major factor.

Sensenbrenner: The Wisconsin lawmaker believes that climate change is a "massive international scientific fraud," and in December 2009 declared, "There's increasing evidence of scientific fascism that's going on." But his best one-liner, perhaps, was at a 2007 panel in which he suggested that maybe we should put catalytic converters on cow butts to deal with gases.

 Thunderstorms over Brazil: NASA astronaut photos via Wikimedia Commons

Thunderstorms over Brazil: NASA astronaut photos via Wikimedia Commons

More than two dozen major climate models are being used to forecast global warming from rising greenhouse gas emissions—notably how much warming will occur when atmospheric carbon dioxide doubles from preindustrial times. At current rates that unhappy milestone will be reached well before 2100. So which models are more accurate?

"Because we have more reliable observations for humidity than for clouds, we can use the humidity patterns that change seasonally to evaluate climate models," says co-author Kevin Trenberth.

For decades the leading models have predicted an average rise of 5 degrees Fahrenheit (2.7 degrees Celsius), with models on the low end predicting a rise of 3 degrees F (~1.6 degrees C) and those on the high end predicting 8 degrees F (5.3 degrees C). Now a new analysis in the leading journal Science suggests that the higher end forecasts are more accurate.

Why? Moisture has a lot to do with it. Clouds, well, they cloud the picture. Satellites observe clouds. But satellite failures, observing errors, and other inconsistencies make it difficult to build a global cloud census consistent over many years. A better measure is water vapor. Satellite estimates of the global distribution of humidity have become more reliable than their estimates of clouds.

Relative humidity is incorporated in climate models to generate and dissipate clouds. So the authors checked the distribution of relative humidity in 16 leading climate models to see how accurately they portray the present climate. They focused on the subtropics, the places where sinking air from the tropics make dry zones, home to most of the world's major deserts.



What they found was that estimates based on observations show relative humidity in the dry zones between about 15 and 25 percent. Whereas many models inaccurately depict humidities of 30 percent or higher. Less humidity equals fewer clouds equals less albedo to reflect sunlight back into space, hence more warming.

The models that best captured the actual dryness currently seen in the subtropics were those with the highest temperature forecasts. Specifically those projecting a global temperature rise of more than 7 degrees F (3.8 degrees C) by the time of doubled C02 levels. The three models with the lowest temperature forecasts were also the least accurate in depicting relative humidity in these zones.

The paper:

Climate-lovers are happy about some of the hawks elected on Tuesday. But they're also cheering the unceremonious dismissal of several congressional climate villains. That includes four of the lawmakers that the League of Conservation Voters deemed the "Flat Earth Five" and spent $3 million to unseat:

1. Ann Marie Buerkle, a Republican from New York's 24th district. In 2010, Buerkle unseated Democratic incumbent Dan Maffei. But in a rematch this year, Maffai came out on top. Buerkle was a major target for environmental groups, thanks to her comments in a 2010 debate that "a lot of the global warming myth has been exposed." Cap and trade, she said, is a "tax on energy … based on some specious global warming. Whether or not there's real global warming has not been determined."

2. Francisco Canseco, a Republican from Texas' 23rd district. Canseco lost to challenger Pete Gallego in a race that included fights over rare eyeless spiders and the dunes sagebrush lizard. Canseco was not happy when the League of Conservation Voters went after his climate denial, telling a Christian news site, "It is really counterproductive to have a debate about whether or not there is climate change … What we should be having is a debate about policies that are promoted and implemented in the name of climate change and that negatively impact opportunities for our citizens and kill jobs."

3. Dan Lungren, a Republican from California's 7th district. Lungren, a four-term incumbent, appears to have lost his reelection bid to Democrat Ami Bera, though he is not conceding yet. He's wishy-washy on climate. "There is no doubt that there is global change, climate change," he said in a September debate. "The question is who causes it and is it caused predominantly by human activity."

4. Joe Walsh, a Republican from Illinois' 8th district. Walsh lost to Democrat and combat veteran Tammy Duckworth on Tuesday night, after a race that got pretty ugly. LCV targeted Walsh over his comments like "man's potential role in global warming has not been definitively determined." He has also said he thinks the government's only role in climate change should be to fund more science (which he would likely continue to ignore), and he thinks the Environmental Protection Agency "ought to be scrapped."

The fifth member of the "Flat Earth Five," Republican Dan Benishek of Michigan's 1st district, won by a narrow margin. Benishek, a physician who took office in 2011, says he's not really sure about this whole climate change thing. "I'm not sure how significant global warming is," he said at a debate last month. "You have to be very skeptical of science, OK?"

To be clear, there are still plenty of climate deniers in the House—these four just happen to be some of the loudest. "It's not just that these guys are deniers, but they're vocal in leading the charge against action on global warming," said Navin Nayak, LCV's senior vice president for campaigns. "The point of [the campaign] was to send a message. We took five races that were competitive and put real money behind trying to beat these guys."

McKibben and his crew at the tour's Seattle stop last night.

If there's any good to come out of Hurricane Sandy, it could be that the storm provided a platform for several big-name politicians—Andrew Cuomo, Michael Bloomberg, and as of Tuesday night President Obama—to finally connect the dots between extreme weather and climate change. But although the polls show extreme weather to be a top motivator for getting folks interested in climate change, the challenge for activists is always how to convert short-term interest in a particular disaster into long-term awareness.

This week environmental activist and author Bill McKibben has set out to do just that, with a wide-ranging bus tour that seeks to use Sandy as fresh ammunition in an ongoing fusillade against Big Oil, principally by urging individuals, universities, and governments to divest from fossil fuel companies.

"I'm as hopeful as I've felt in 25 years of working on climate change," McKibben said Thursday morning from his narrow bunk on the bus, barreling down the open road somewhere south of Tacoma, Wash., en route to a biofuel re-fueling station. He and seven organizers will live on the bus for the next month as it wends its way from the Bay Area to New York and back to Salt Lake City. "At least it feels now like we're fighting back, and we've found the right people to fight back against."

The tour has been in the works for some time, and was crafted as a vehicle for the statistics-based "Do The Math" campaign that has been McKibben's primary shtick since his July article in Rolling Stone. Among the chief numbers:

  • 2°C: the amount of warming the world can safely handle—already, humans have raised the earth's temperature by 0.8°C.
  • 565 gigatons: the amount of carbon dioxide we can put in the atmosphere before we reach that level of warming—which, at our current rate could happen in just the next 16 years.
  • 2,795 gigatons: the amount of carbon we'd release if we burned all the world's fossil fuel reserves, worth some $27 trillion.

The tour will also be a chance for green-minded policy wonks to start putting their heads together for the big challenges of a second Obama presidency, starting with what promises to be a heated re-launching of the fight against the Keystone XL pipeline, which the president will likely make a final call on in the coming months.

For now, McKibben wants to get as much mileage as possible out of Hurricane Sandy, which showed "there's no way to escape climate change," he said. "The most powerful island on earth was overwhelmed, and everyone knew it."