Climate Central

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  1. By Damian Carrington, The Guardian

    It was designed as an impregnable deep-freeze to protect the world’s most precious seeds from any global disaster and ensure humanity’s food supply forever. But the Global Seed Vault, buried in a mountain deep inside the Arctic circle, has been breached after global warming produced extraordinary temperatures over the winter, sending meltwater gushing into the entrance tunnel.

    The vault is on the Norwegian island of Spitsbergen and contains almost a million packets of seeds, each a variety of an important food crop. When it was opened in 2008, the deep permafrost through which the vault was sunk was expected to provide “failsafe” protection against “the challenge of natural or man-made disasters."

    The Svalbard Global Seed Vault.
    Credit: Landbruks- og matdepartementet/flickr

    But soaring temperatures in the Arctic at the end of the world’s hottest ever recorded year led to melting and heavy rain, when light snow should have been falling. “It was not in our plans to think that the permafrost would not be there and that it would experience extreme weather like that,” said Hege Njaa Aschim, from the Norwegian government, which owns the vault.

     

    “A lot of water went into the start of the tunnel and then it froze to ice, so it was like a glacier when you went in,” she told the Guardian. Fortunately, the meltwater did not reach the vault itself, the ice has been hacked out, and the precious seeds remain safe for now at the required storage temperature of -18°C.

    But the breach has questioned the ability of the vault to survive as a lifeline for humanity if catastrophe strikes. “It was supposed to [operate] without the help of humans, but now we are watching the seed vault 24 hours a day,” Aschim said. “We must see what we can do to minimise all the risks and make sure the seed bank can take care of itself.”

    The vault’s managers are now waiting to see if the extreme heat of this winter was a one-off or will be repeated or even exceeded as climate change heats the planet. The end of 2016 saw average temperatures over 7°C above normal on Spitsbergen, pushing the permafrost above melting point.

    “The question is whether this is just happening now, or will it escalate?” said Aschim. The Svalbard archipelago, of which Spitsbergen is part, has warmed rapidly in recent decades, according to Ketil Isaksen, from Norway’s Meteorological Institute.

    “The Arctic and especially Svalbard warms up faster than the rest of the world. The climate is changing dramatically and we are all amazed at how quickly it is going,” Isaksen told Norwegian newspaper Dagbladet.The vault managers are now taking precautions, including major work to waterproof the 100m-long tunnel into the mountain and digging trenches into the mountainside to channel meltwater and rain away. They have also removed electrical equipment from the tunnel that produced some heat and installed pumps in the vault itself in case of a future flood.

    Aschim said there was no option but to find solutions to ensure the enduring safety of the vault: “We have to find solutions. It is a big responsibility and we take it very seriously. We are doing this for the world.”

    “This is supposed to last for eternity,” said Åsmund Asdal at the Nordic Genetic Resource Centre, which operates the seed vault.

    Reprinted with permission from The Guardian.

  2. On its surface, the Greenland ice sheet is a vast expanse of seemingly immovable ice. But beneath the monotonous stretch of white, scientists have discovered evidence of waves rippling through one of its outlet glaciers and roiling its innards.

    The waves, observed during the two most intense melt seasons on record, sent an unprecedented cascade of ice and water rushing into the sea and warping the very bedrock upon which the ice sits. As temperatures continue to rise, scientists fear that massive waves of ice could expedite Greenland’s melt even further, pushing sea levels higher.

    Rink Glacier from 34,000 feet.
    Credit: John Sonntag/NASA

    It’s the latest piece of bad news about Greenland’s ice. The ice sheet has been pouring roughly 270 megatons of ice a year into the ocean via the glaciers that stretch out from its hulking mass since 2000. That’s a big uptick compared to preceding decades.

    The new research, published earlier this week in Geophysical Research Letters shows a new way that climate change is taking a toll. Scientists at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, led bySurendra Adhikari, were looking at data from a series of GPS stations set up around the various outlet glaciers that tumble from Greenland’s ice sheet to the sea. Ironically, they were looking at the GPS data to see if it was worth maintaining the network of stations that rings Greenland.

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    They found evidence of a never-before-observed phenomenon affecting Rink Glacier, a glacier on the western flank of Greenland. The glacier usually sends about 11 gigatons of ice into the ocean each summer melt season.

    But 2012 was different. A fast-moving (by glacial standards), massive wave rumbled through the glacier’s interior, causing an extra 6.7 gigatons of ice and water to slosh into the sea. That’s the equivalent of 55 million blue whales, the largest animal on earth.

    The wave — dubbed a solitary wave because of its singular nature — traveled at 2.5 miles per month in the summer, picking up to 7.5 miles per month in the fall. Rink Glacier typically only moves a mile or two in a normal year.

    Scientists picked up on the wave using GPS sensors, which shifted more than half an inch as it rolled by. That might not sound like much, but the sensor is sitting on stable Greenland bedrock, which isn’t exactly susceptible to perturbations.

    A similar, though less extreme, wave passed by the sensor in 2010. The behavior is like nothing scientists have ever observed on Greenland.

    “If you were to place a piece of plywood onto two sawhorses then place a large rock in the middle, the plywood would bend, sagging in the middle,” saidErik Ivins, a researcher at JPL who co-authored the study. “When the rock is removed, the plywood returns to the original potion.”

    An animation showing horizontal bedrock motion in response to the solitary wave passing by.
    Credit: Surendra Adhikari/NASA

    Though they’re still trying to understand exactly why it happened, there are a few major clues. Those clues don’t bode well for the future of Rink Glacier or the enormous amount of ice it’s holding back.

    The melt seasons of 2010 and 2012 were two of the most extreme on record. In 2012, a prolonged summer heat wave coupled withsoot from Siberian fires that cast a dark coat over the ice sheet resulted in 95 percent of the ice sheet going into meltdown.

    Scientists suspect that that meltdown is responsible for the wave that tore through Rink Glacier. Meltwater from the interior created new pathways for water to move around and likely lubricated the based of the glacier where it meets the bedrock, priming it for the massive shudder of ice that moved through it.

    Robin Bell, an ice researcher at Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, called the research a “beautiful study linking how the surface of the ice sheet melts and slides with how the surrounding mountains (solid earth) responds. (It’s) remarkable to see the earth lurch in a year when the ice changes more.”

    Temperatures are likely to only keep rising due to climate change. Previous research has suggested that melt seasons like 2012could become the norm by the end of the century, increasing the risk of more glacial waves in the coming century.

    “We suspect that solitary waves may be unique to high melt years,” Adhikari said. “The more warming, the more surface meltwater available to trigger ‘extraordinarily’ dynamic behavior of glacier such as the one we discovered in Rink Glacier.”

    Greenland’s melt is currently responsible for roughly 25 percent of observed sea level rise. That percentage could increase in the coming years if what happened at Rink Glacier spreads to other glaciers.

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  3. As floodwaters from some of the highest tides of the year spilled this week into cul-de-sacs and avenues from Delaware to Hawaii, federal legislation was introduced to ease the growing toll that rising seas are taking on coastal neighborhoods.

    Rep. Carlos Curbelo, a Republican from Florida who champions climate action, joined with Rep. Seth Moulton, a Democrat from Massachusetts, in introducing H.R.2607, a bill to provide $3 billion a year toward projects that improve wetlands and infrastructure to alleviate “frequent and chronic” coastal flooding.

    High tide flooding leads to regular street closures in Atlantic City, N.J., and other coastal cities.
    Credit: John Upton/Climate Central

    “Although the bill makes no mention of climate change or sea level rise, it’s clear from the language that that’s what its drafters have in mind,” said James DeWeese, a fellow at the Georgetown University Law Center researching climate change adaptation policy. “Flooding is already one of our costliest natural hazards — and climate change is exacerbating the risks.”

    Billions of dollars of federal work to reduce flood hazards already focuses heavily on protecting high-value oceanfront property from storm surges. Lower-income neighborhoods built near bays and coastal rivers are being left vulnerable to frequent floods when tides are high.

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    The new bill could start to tackle this inequity by meeting up to 90 percent of the cost of wetland restoration projects and new and improved floodwalls, dunes, levees and drainage systems — local infrastructure that would help communities tackle their own unique flood threats in different ways.

    “It’s safe to say that $3 billion a year is a drop in the ocean compared to the total need, but it’s a step in the right direction,” DeWeese said. “Whether the money leads to smart adaptation choices in the long run is really dependent on how communities decide to spend the money.”

    Routine flooding is rapidly getting worse in coastal communities nationwide as fossil fuel and deforestation pollution traps heat, melting ice and expanding water, raising sea levels.Land is also sinking in some areas, particularly in the Mid-Atlantic.

    Floods that block roads, damage property and sometimes enter homes are called nuisance floods. Their economic and psychological impacts are difficult to assess but appear to be vast. They can strike during storms, but also occur on calm and sunny days.

    A Climate Central analysis this month projected rapid rises in risks for 90 U.S. cities with flat landscapes, such as Atlantic City, N.J., and San Mateo, Calif. Research by the Union of Concerned Scientists has warned that nuisance floods could be striking Washington and other major cities once every three days on average within 30 years — the typical life of a mortgage.

    Coastal flooding in Miami.
    Credit: Thomas Ruppert, Florida Sea Grant/Flickr

    Tides pushed higher by the combined effects of climate change, a new moon and springtime conditions have been spilling into low-lying neighborhoods around the country this week. These tides are colloquially called king tides.

    “This time of year we tend to see an uptick in some of the seasonal tides,” said William Sweet, a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration oceanographer. “In some cases the tide alone will be sufficient to cause some minor coastal flooding.”

    Coastal experts weary of seeing nuisance flooding overlooked by the federal government welcomed the bill, characterizing its introduction alone as a positive sign, even if it doesn’t become law.

    “It's great to see members of Congress specifically recognizing chronic flooding and the toll it takes on communities,” said Kristina Dahl, an independent scientist who helped produce the recent Union of Concerned Scientists study. “That feels like a huge step forward.”

    While the legislation would help fund options for defending property from rising seas, it doesn’t include any provisions to help residents abandon vulnerable areas and move to safer ground. Nor does it provide planning support for local governments, helping them make zoning decisions to reduce building on land where flooding will inevitably get worse.

    Seas will continue to rise at a hastening pace in the years and decades ahead, even if immediate steps are taken to reduce greenhouse gas pollution.

    “Many of the communities that will be grappling with chronic inundation in the next 20 years will ultimately need to be considering retreat,” Dahl said. “Rather than wait for a big storm to cause catastrophic flooding of these homes, this bill could potentially address retreat and relocation at the individual home level.”

    The bill is being introduced at a tumultuous time in Washington. The embattled Trump administration is proposing steep spending cuts to federal programs — including the elimination next year of $70 million a year in coastal management grants that support similar flood-reduction efforts.

    When the administration first proposed slashing funds like these, coastal states and leaders successfully united to push back fiercely. Coastal communities traverse political lines, home to rich and poor, conservative and liberal, from Louisiana to Oregon to Wisconsin and New York.

    “Flood protection should be a bipartisan concern,” Rep. Curbelo spokesperson Joanna Rodriguez said. “We hope to garner and continue building support from areas across the country that are most at risk.”

    The $3 billion a year in coastal spending proposed in the new bill may go only a small way to meeting the high costs of flood control projects needed nationwide, but it “absolutely would be a game-changing amount,” said Grant Williams, a government affairs official with the Coastal States Organization, which represents coastal states.

    “It’s definitely something that we think is a step in the right direction,” Williams said. “There’s a need out there, especially when you start getting down into the local level.”

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  4. Capturing carbon dioxide emissions from electric power plants and storing them permanently underground may be among the most important ways countries can prevent climate change from spiraling out of control.

    But, as with many other federal climate-related programs, President Trump’s proposed 2018 budget nearly snuffs out funding for carbon capture and storage, or CCS, research and development, possibly dramatically slowing the advancements in that technology.

    The Petra Nova W.A. Parish carbon capture and storage project in southeast Texas. Credit: U.S. Department of Energy

    The budgetcalls for the U.S. Department of Energy’s CCS programs to receive a 75 percent funding cut. The budget for the National Energy Technology Laboratory’s research program, which administers the CCS research along with the DOE’s Office of Fossil Energy, is slated to be zeroed out altogether. The DOE’s fossil energy research and development budget is being cut by more than half.

    In raw numbers, the Trump administration is proposing to cut the Office of Fossil Energy’s carbon capture program to $16 million in 2018 from $66 million in 2016. The White House wants to cut the carbon storage program to $15 million from $67 million, and cut the NETL’s $53 million research budget down to zero. All told, DOE’s fossil energy program would see its budget cut to $280 million from $618 million.

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    “With the proposed budget, CCS research will slow to a crawl and the United States will lose its leadership in a vital area — one that benefits the economy as well as the environment and the people upon which that economy depends,” saidJeffrey Bielicki, a geodetic engineering professor and CCS researcher at Ohio State University.

    Cuts to federal carbon storage programs are part of the Trump administration’svow to eliminate or drastically reduce the government’s efforts to address climate change. Trump has called global warming a “hoax,” and Energy Secretary Rick Perry has questioned the role of humans in causing climate change. White House Budget Director Mick Mulvaney has said the administration believes spending on climate change is a waste of money and, he has called much of the Obama administration’s climate-related research “crazy.”

    Representatives of the DOE and the White House did not respond to requests for comment.

    CCS researcherPeter Kelemen, an earth and environmental sciences professor at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, said the DOE and the National Science Foundation have been the main funder for many academic CCS research projects. The NSF is targeted for an 11 percent budget cut, according to the American Geophysical Union.

    The White House budget is unpopular in Congress and is unlikely to be approved in its current form. However, Kelemen said that DOE officials have told him that upcoming budget battles in Congress could lead to gridlock in CCS and other scientific research funded by the federal government.

    “They said that until a budget is passed, people within the DOE are basically obligated to follow guidelines from the president,” Kelemen said. “In their view, a lack of legislative action should not be perceived as postponing difficult times for CCS researchers within the DOE.”

    As the climate warms, CCS research becomes all the more urgent as part of a variety of global efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere.

    U.S. Secretary of Energy Rick Perry addressing staff at the Idaho National Laboratory on May 8. Credit: Idaho National Laboratory/flickr

    CCS may be critical to preventing global warming from exceeding levels scientists consider dangerous — 2°C (3.6°F),according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. CCS projects are being developed at several coal-fired power plants in the U.S. and Canada, and at other sites around the world.

    Carbon capture, storage and removal research is becoming more andmore urgent because studies suggest that the globe is on a trajectory to blow past atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations within 22 years that make make 2°C of global warming inevitable.

    To combat that problem, most of the scientific models that form the basis of theParis Climate Agreement rely on creating “negative emissions” by removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and storing it permanently underground.

    Scientists say carbon removal is likely to involve expanding forests worldwide to store more carbon dioxide in their tree trunks and roots while also developing facilities that can suck carbon dioxide directly out of the air — technology that is in its infancy today. The technology that allows carbon dioxide to be captured and stored at electric power plants is different from the kind that can remove climate pollution directly from the air.

    As part of the DOE’s carbonstorage program, scientists study how carbon dioxide behaves when it is injected into underground rock formations. The carbon capture program conducts research and development on ways to capture carbon from power plants and scaling up those technologies.

    In itsjustification for the cuts, the White House said most of the DOE’s applied energy research, including the science conducted by the Office of Fossil Energy, is best done by the private sector.

    But Bielicki said the economy isn’t yet strong enough for the private sector to support CCS research and development on its own. Private investment in CCS is dependent on government support for inexpensive research into basic chemistry and physics behind CCS and costly real-life demonstration projects that the industry is unlikely to invest in just yet, he said.

    Klaus Lackner, director of the Center for Negative Carbon Emissions at Arizona State University, said the potential budget cuts’ impact on negative emissions research is complicated because most DOE carbon capture and storage research focuses on sequestering emissions from coal-fired power plants — technology that is not yet compatible with negative emissions techniques under development.

    “However, this attempt at budget slashing shows that it will get a lot harder to do research on the topic of managing carbon,” Lackner said, adding that the government should be expanding the scope of carbon storage research. “CCS should not be limited to coal technology.”

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  5. Less than a year after Hurricane Matthew raked the East Coast, killing 34 people and causing $10 billion in damage in the U.S. alone, coastal areas are once again preparing for the onset of the Atlantic hurricane season.

    This year, forecasters with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration are expecting to see above-average storm numbers in the Atlantic, despite the uncertainty of whether an El Niño will develop over the summer. The forecast is currently for 11 to 17 named storms to form, of which five to nine are expected to become hurricanes, and two to four major hurricanes.

    Prenille Nord, 42, poses for a photograph with his children Darline and Kervins among the debris of their destroyed house after Hurricane Matthew hit Jeremie, Haiti in October 2016. Matthew killed more than 500 people across the Caribbean, primarily in Haiti.
    Credit: REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins

    The forecast, though, “does not predict when, where, and how these storms might hit,” Ben Friedman, the acting NOAA administrator said during a press conference, as he and other officials urged coastal residents to begin their preparations.

    During Thursday’s press conference, officials also touted the updated models and tools they have to produce better forecasts for individual storms, part of a concerted effort that has greatly improved hurricane forecasts over the past couple of decades. Those comments, though, come just a few days after the release of President Trump’s budget request, which calls for reductions to some of those very programs.

    The 2017 hurricane season got off to an early start, with Tropical Storm Arlene forming in April, only the second April storm in the satellite era. Early storms, however, are not necessarily indicators of how active a given season will be.

    To gauge the hurricane season, forecasters use various climatological clues, such as the state of the El Niño cycles, as well as expected trends in ocean temperatures and a measure called wind shear, which can cut off storm formation.

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    El Niño is a key factor in making hurricane seasonal forecasts because the changes in atmospheric patterns over the tropical Pacific that it ushers in have a domino effect on patterns over the Atlantic, tending to suppress hurricane formation.

    Whether an El Niño will develop is currently something of a question mark, though, with the odds about even for El Niño or neutral conditions this summer and fall. Also uncertain is whether any El Niño that does materialized will be strong enough to influence the Atlantic.

    But sea surface temperatures across swaths of the Atlantic are currently above average and are expected to stay that way, and wind shear is also expected to stay low, both of which would tend to support more storm formation.

    So given the signals that forecasters have to work with, they expect a 45 percent chance of above-average storm numbers, a 35 percent chance of near-normal, and only a 20 percent chance of below-normal activity.

    Those percentages translate to the ranges of numbers of storms expected at different strengths. The 11 to 16 named storms include those that reach tropical storm status or higher, defined as a storm with wind speeds of 39 mph or higher. Five to nine of those storms would be expected to strengthen into hurricanes, with winds in excess of 74 mph. And then two to four of those hurricanes would be expected to reach major hurricane status, defined as Category 3 or above on the Saffir-Simpson scale of hurricane strength, or winds above 111 mph.

    An average Atlantic season has 12 named storms, six hurricanes, and three major hurricanes.

    NOAA evaluates the accuracy of its seasonal forecasts each year, with the aim of seeing the number of storms fall in the given ranges at least 70 percent of the time, which they do consistently, Gerry Bell, lead seasonal hurricane forecaster with NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center, said.

    Credit: NOAA

    It has been a record-setting 12 years since a major hurricane made landfall on the U.S. coast; the last to do so was Hurricane Wilma during the blockbuster 2005 season.

    “While some may think that’s lucky . . . in fact, tropical storms and lesser hurricanes can be just as damaging and just as deadly,” Friedman said, citing Matthew as a prime example. Matthew, which was for a time the first Category 5 hurricane to form in the Atlantic since Hurricane Felix in 2007, had weakened to a Category 1 storm by the time it made landfall in South Carolina last October.

    The punishing storm surge that pushed ashore from Florida to the Carolinas and the torrential rains it dropped inland still made it the 10th costliest storm recorded in the Atlantic basin, according to the reinsurance firm Aon Benfield.

    Storm surge and heavier downpours are two areas where climate change is exerting an influence on the damage produced by hurricanes. As global temperature rise, sea level rises too, meaning hurricane surges can reach further inland. Rising temperatures also concentrate moisture in the atmosphere, providing more fuel for heavy rains.

    The impact of climate change on hurricanes themselves is active area of research; the general consensus is that there may be fewer storms overall in a warmer world, but a higher proportion of them will be major hurricanes. Major hurricanes have already increased in the Atlantic since 1970.

    Some research has also suggested that the hurricane season could become longer, meaning more pre-season storms like Arlene.

    During the press conference, Mary Erickson, deputy director of National Weather Service, touted the increased accuracy of hurricane forecasts resulting from investments into improving models. In the 25 years since Hurricane Andrew devastated southeastern Florida, the 3-day track forecast for hurricanes has improved by 65 percent, she said.

    Two new models coming online this season could improve forecasts even more. One, the Hurricane Weather Research Forecast model includes better resolution of storms, advanced ways of feeding data into the model and more accurate atmospheric physics, all of which could improve intensity forecasts for storms by up to 10 percent and track forecasts by up to 7 percent, Erickson said.

    Rainfall amounts over the last seven days in the Southeast, most of which were due to Hurricane Matthew.
    Credit: NOAA

    Another model replaces the retiring Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory Hurricane Model after 22 years, and it also improves track and intensity forecasts.

    Many of the improvements to those models have come as part of a concerted effort called the Hurricane Forecast Improvement Program. That program was established by NOAA in 2009, in part as a response to the pummeling the U.S. received from a number of hurricanes during the early years of that decade and the relative lack of progress made in improving forecasts up to that point.

    Trump’s 2018 budget request currently includes a $5 million reduction in funding "to slow the transition of advanced modeling research into operations for improved warnings and forecasts" including the HFIP.

    That budget provision doesn’t jibe with bipartisan-supported Weather Research and Forecasting Innovation Act of 2017, which the President signed into law last month and which states that “NOAA must plan and maintain a project to improve hurricane forecasting.”

    “I don't think Congress will take his proposal seriously at all . . . so it can probably be ignored in favor of the legislation that has actually passed,” Brian McNoldy, a hurricane researcher at the University of Miami, said in an email. “But supposing Congress did pass his budget as-is, yes, it would be devastating to weather prediction across the board, including hurricanes.”

    Forecasters will also be able to use the improved observations of the GOES-16 satellite, which has four times the resolution and updates five times faster than its predecessors. In particular, its lightning mapper will help forecasters better understand how a storm is developing, as lightning often accompanies rapid storm development. When it becomes operational later this year, GOES-16 will move into orbit over the East Coast, in prime hurricane-watching position, Friedman said..

    NOAA is also making its previously experimental storm surge watches and warnings operational this year, in an effort to better prepare coastal areas under threat of flooding. Hurricane graphics will also include an experimental visualization of how far damaging winds extend out from the center of a storm.

    NOAA will update its forecast in early August, just before the typical peak of the hurricane season.

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