Today’s a special day in the annals of Antarctic exploration, it’s been 100 years to the day since Ernest Shackleton’s ship Endurance was crushed by ice and finally sank after 307 days beset in the pack ice of the Weddell Sea. The disaster ended Shackleton’s hopes of leading the first team to cross the Antarctic continent, but set the stage for one of the most audacious maritime adventures of the era. You can read more about that in Frank Worsley’s excellent book Endurance, or in Shackleton’s own book South. Or you can take the easy way out and read the Wikipedia article here. To mark the occasion the Royal Geographical Society has released a new set of digitized images from the expedition. The images were digitized by scanning the photographic plates directly, the resulting resolution is extraordinary.
There are, not surprisingly, a lot of Antarctic history nerds in Antarctica, so we had a small celebration in honor of the Endurance today. It’s also a good day to reflect on modern Antarctic science and travel. Things have evolved a bit since 1915; the only open small boat journeys that we get to take are to our designated sample sites, and we don’t get to take them in anything approaching exciting conditions. We also have these actual research stations to operate from; for US researchers those are Palmer Station (where I’m writing from), McMurdo Station (less a research station than a logistics hub), and the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station (which I have not been to). You might be asking exactly who operates these stations and how. Where, for example, does the trash go? What about sewage? There are some key differences between the stations but they all follow the same operational logic (that’s a nice way of saying the operation isn’t always logical). By request here’s a quick look at the inner workings of Palmer Station.
First, the basics. Palmer Station was built by the Navy Seabees over a three year period starting in 1965. It was purpose-built for science and, unlike McMurdo Station, was never a military station*. Today the station is operated by something called the Antarctic Support Contract (ASC) on behalf of the National Science Foundation. The ASC is an interesting construct and the relationship between scientists (the end-users of the stations), ASC itself, the individual ASC personnel on-site, and the National Science Foundation resembles a particularly intricate four-party dance that no one has mastered. A lot of toes get stepped on but, in the end, a lot of science gets done. The ASC operates as a subsidiary of a much larger logistical company and is subject to periodic rebidding. Currently the ASC is held by Lockheed Martin, before that it was held by Raytheon. The parent company changes but the internal structure and personnel of the ASC stay more or less the same.
The maximum capacity of Palmer Station is around 46 people, though a typical summertime population is probably closer to 40. Most of these are ASC personnel. At this exact moment there are 34 people at station, 24 of whom work for ASC. Debating the merits of more or fewer ASC personnel supporting fewer or more scientists would take a much longer blog. Suffice to say that toe’s a little bruised. One issue is that the station is old and it takes quite a few people to keep it running (and the personnel here do a great job of that). Another issue is that the station is set up for science groups to come in and out with a minimal time commitment. That’s convenient for scientists, but discourages coordination among science groups or long-term investment in the system by any one group (the Palmer LTER study is a major exception to this). Because of this two ASC personnel have full time jobs just supporting us in basic tasks; allocating space, procuring chemicals, supplies, fixing equipment, etc.
McMurdo Station has the feel of a South Dakota boom town (although I think all of those are de-booming at the moment) with a peak population around 1,200. As a result of the potential environmental impact of 1,200 people in a somewhat-pristine coastal environment there has been some investment in environmental protection at McMurdo. Sewage, for example, is treated in a top-of-the-line sewage treatment facility that is no different from what you’d find in any small municipality. Unfortunately no such investment has been made at Palmer Station. Our sewage and food waste gets a quick grind in a macerator before being released into Arthur Harbor. While this probably doesn’t have any catastrophic impact on the local ecosystem it certainly does have some impact. You can quickly identify the location of the sewage outfall from the gulls and penguins that congregate there (there was an elephant seal in there yesterday, Jacuzzi-like I suppose?). And while it is certainly a bigger problem at McMurdo, the input of artificial hormones and other pharmacological products into the local seawater is a bit disconcerting. This would be a perfect place to test new sewage treatment technology, I’m not sure why that isn’t done (oh right, $$).
Most of the other waste streams at Palmer are treated with a little more care. Food waste that can’t get macerated (e.g. chicken bones) get burned in a barrel (okay, not much care there), virtually everything else gets transported out by ship. Regular trash gets compressed, bundled, and disposed of in Chile. Laboratory waste, which may contain trace amounts of nasty things, gets transported to Chile, then by cargo vessel to the United States. Actual hazardous lab waste, broken down by type, goes out the same way every two years.
Fortunately, since we end up feeding a lot of it to the wildlife in Arthur Harbor, the quality of food at Palmer Station is very high. There are two chefs on staff and they take it seriously. They succeed in doing this without making it seem excessive; I recall being a bit offended that steak, lobster, and other luxury items are flown – at great expense – into McMurdo Station (yet getting scientific equipment flown in or samples out takes nearly an act of Congress). There’s no air traffic here, everything comes in by ship, and the cuisine leans more toward the good home cooking variety. I enjoy it with minimal guilt.
Station power comes from a surprisingly small diesel generator. This and the backup generator keep the diesel mechanic, who also doubles as a heavy equipment operator, pretty busy. McMurdo Station has experimented with diversifying its power sources with varying degrees of success. It has a small (and I understand underutilized) wind farm, and early on it had a small nuclear power plant. I’m not aware of any similar experiments at McMurdo, and really, I’m not sure what else you could do. It’s very cloudy here and it snows a lot, so solar would be a bad choice. The station is far too small to justify nuclear, and that’s pretty unpopular these days anyway. Plenty windy here, but there are a ton of birds, and I hear that wind turbines and birds are a bad mix. So I think we’re stuck with diesel.
There’s one additional quirk that I think is unique to Palmer Station. Everyone, from the station manager to the station doctor to the scientists, pitches in with housework. Once a week you take your turn cleaning up after dinner, and every Saturday afternoon you draw an additional cleaning task out of a hat. It can be a bit annoying when you have to stop doing science to clean, but it’s worth it for the extra sense of community.
*McMurdo Station was originally Naval Air Facility McMurdo, although the purpose of McMurdo Station has always been (mostly) scientific.
This week the Earth Institute’s International Research Institute on Climate and Society convened a 2-day workshop reflecting on efforts over the past 20 years to improve responses to climate variability, especially risks associated with El Niño. Concerns that the current El Niño has the potential to exceed in severity the devastating El Niño of 1997-1998 permeated the discussion. At the conference I presented a brief overview of the social, economic and political changes that will have a large effect on human impacts from El Niño. I amplify those remarks here. For more information, thoughts and opportunities to engage on questions of how climate, fragility and risk interact, check the Environment, Peace and Security Certificate Program website.
Much of the discussion about the fear that the current El Niño will turn out to be even worse than the devastating 1997-1998 El Niño neglects a crucial fact. Today’s El Niño is unfolding over a world that is in many ways more vulnerable than the world of 1997-1998. Just as today’s climate continues to generate extremes without historical precedent, we are starting to see elements of social vulnerability also without historical precedent.
That is an alarming combination.
It is relevant because historical experience tells us that El Niño roughly doubles the risk of major political insecurity breakdowns in countries affected by its weather impacts. So if the year brings together unprecedented weather extremes and unprecedented patterns of fragility, the risks may be worse than our preparations.
Think of a typical pair of office scissors. Their two blades are not especially sharp, yet they can cut very well because of how they interact. In the same way social impacts that arise from extreme weather depend on what kind of underlying vulnerability such weather encounters. We have heard a lot about the meteorological blade of the scissors.
Let us now consider the societal blade.
Global food prices in 1998 were at their long-term average. They have been markedly higher since the shocks of 2008, and even after a period of abating pressure last year remain 25 percent above their long-term average in real terms. As a result, poor communities and vulnerable regions have an elevated baseline risk of food insecurity. Compounding this effect is the unusually high global levels of income inequality, which Thomas Piketty and others have drawn attention to—the poorest of the poor are worse off in many parts of the world.
Changes to the global food system have diminished our ability to respond to food crises since 1998. Global food stocks have shrunk from about 100 days’ worth of consumption to about 60 today. And changes in where those stocks are held make it far more difficult to direct them to humanitarian crises. Finally, government budget deficits in donor countries are far higher than before, making it harder to mobilize large crisis responses.
Politically, the world is showing signs of heightened fragility. Some elements of this fragility were already underway in 1998, and what is alarming is that they have not yet abated. One measure of such fragility is the number of countries experiencing a transitional political state characterized by neither strong democratic institutions nor strong autocratic institutions. Known as anocracies, such countries are not well equipped to absorb exogenous shocks and are highly vulnerable to various forms of instability. Since the late 1990s, they have been at historically unusual highs.
Other elements of political fragility are worse than in 1998. The amount of territory outside of state control has increased to an unexpected and scary degree since 1998, including a number of countries that qualify as failed states (such as Libya) and countries no long exercising sovereignty over major areas (such as Syria). Such areas pose multiple risks. They provide havens for trafficking, terrorism and other illicit behavior. They trigger population displacement. They augment risk of epidemics. And the people within them suffer high levels of vulnerability to food insecurity and other impacts from climatic stress.
The trend in heightened political fragility is now clear enough to be counted as a defining risk of our age. It is also one of the saddest surprises of the past decade, following over 25 years of broad progress toward enhanced security and stability, as documented by scholars such as Steven Pinker. In the last 10 years, security breakdowns have increased in number and intensity, and the resulting human tragedies and geopolitical upheavals have secured a permanent foothold in our daily headlines.
When the post-WWII record for global refugees and internally displaced populations was broken last year, topping 50 million for the first time, it came amid so much bad news that it scarcely got the attention it deserved.
These changes take place against a backdrop of rapid population change in the poorest countries of the world, which has the effect of increasing the number of people exposed to the risks of El Niño. There are 1.3 billion more people in the world now than in 1998. Calculations with spatial data carried out by Tom Parris and colleagues at ISciences show that an additional 230 million people now reside within the areas most affected by the 1997-1998 El Niño.
That’s like adding an additional Indonesia (203 million people in 1998) and Malaysia (23 million in 1998) to the El Niño front lines.
Moreover, in areas where rapid urbanization is not being met with equally fast increases in jobs and political participation, the potential for protests and instability is also rising. Here, too, the trends are not in our favor. In 1998 poor cities were growing at about 3 million people per year. Today the number is 7.5 million.
If you thought things couldn’t get worse, recall that whatever weather shocks emerge from El Niño today will do so in the context of long-term climate change that is manifesting at a more rapid pace than we earlier anticipated. September 2015 was about half a degree Centigrade higher than September 1997, for example. For the year as a whole, 2015 is shaping up to be the hottest ever on record—if trends continue it will be about a quarter of a degree hotter than 1998 and a third of a degree hotter than 1997.
Fractions of degrees may not seem like much at first glance, but when the global climate system entered lesser degrees of this non-analog state earlier in the decade we witnessed such unprecedented disruptive shocks as the heat waves that triggered the global food crisis associated with the Arab Spring, unusual devastating floods in Pakistan, widespread and traumatic wildfires in the western and southwestern U.S., and unusual large storms such as those affecting Myanmar, Philippines and the United States.
So the fact that the 2015-2016 El Niño will do its damage against an even higher level of baseline climate risk ought to give us serious pause.
Some societal risks we know with some confidence, stemming from analysis of the historical data. Food security problems, population displacement, disease outbreaks and political unrest are among such risks. Others are less well understood. Being less well understood does not make them less significant.
The risks that are relevant when considering how El Niño might interact with the underlying social and political changes underway are less predictable than El Niño itself. Cataclysmic breakdowns in human security are thankfully rare events, shaped by a number of causal forces that are marked by high uncertainty.
We cannot say whether El Niño will definitely trigger specific events culminating in large-scale crises in the coming year, in the same way that we wouldn’t be able to know for sure whether a specific drunk driver will cause an accident.
But as with the drunk driver, we know enough to say the risks are high and scary. We ought to be looking harder at whether we are prepared.
To hear my full talk, visit the IRI El Nino 2015 conference website and watch the beginning of the day two recording.
A snapshot of the changing climate of the West Antarctica Peninsula, where the impact of fast-rising temperatures provides clues about future ecosystem changes elsewhere.
When the ship pulls up at Palmer Station each Antarctic spring, the arriving scientists glance up at the massive glacier that covers most of Anvers Island. It has been retreating about 7 meters per year, and this year is no different.
In this part of Antarctica, on the peninsula that sweeps toward South America, the climate is changing fast.
“Global warming is affecting Antarctica just as it’s affecting everywhere in the world at this point, but it is proceeding faster in both of the polar regions than it is anywhere else on the planet. What happens here is an early warning of what will be happening to ecosystems elsewhere – it’s just happening sooner and faster in Antarctica,” said Hugh Ducklow, the lead principal investigator at Palmer Station and a biogeochemist at Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory.
Temperatures have been warming on the West Antarctic Peninsula at about 0.5° Celsius per decade since the early 1950s, a rate about four times faster than the global average. While winter sea ice extent in the Southern Ocean as a whole has changed little, the sea ice here begins to advance about 2 months later than it did in the 1980s and retreat about a month earlier. The West Antarctic Peninsula is bathed by relatively warm waters from the Antarctic Circumpolar Current that comes close to the surface near the peninsula, and that current is gaining heat as the oceans warm, studies show.
The changes and their cascading effects are showing in the ice and in the numbers and species of marine wildlife. The population of native Adélie penguin has declined from 15,000 pairs in the area around Palmer Station in the 1980s to fewer than 3,000 today. Penguin species from farther north, the Chinstrap and Gentoo, have started moving in, while Adélie numbers are increasing farther south in a region that hasn’t experienced as much warming. Fur seals and elephant seals, neither native to the area, are also now appearing near the Anvers coast. (Read more about the changing habitat of penguins and seals in this recent post and in the video above.)
Warming temperatures and changes in the sea ice matter for the entire marine food chain in this region where whales feed in the summer and large numbers of sea birds breed.
The ice is an important factor in the strength of the spring phytoplankton bloom and for the growth of ice algae, which are both important food sources for krill, which in turn are the main food source for the region’s penguins, whales and seals.
When sea ice covers the coastal water in early spring, it prevents the spring bloom from starting too early, when it could be disrupted by storms, explained Jeff Bowman, a marine biologist from Lamont who is currently working at Palmer Station. As temperatures rise, the sea ice leaves earlier, and climate phenomena that drive weather patterns could impact marine life in different ways. Studies suggest that the Southern Annular Mode (SAM) is more likely to be positive, meaning stronger winds will be more common, likely disrupting phytoplankton growth, and tropical storms could send precipitation across the Southern Ocean that can put penguin eggs and chicks at risk. (Read more about phytoplankton and what Bowman is seeing at Palmer Station in his research blog, Polar Microbes.)
The scientists at Palmer Station see changes like these up close every year, and they have collected data through the Long-Term Ecological Research program for the past two decades to track ecological and environmental changes and how those shifts cascade through the ecosystem. Two years ago, a video team joined them. You can watch the Palmer Station scientists at work and see the surrounding environment in the movie Antarctic Edge: 90 Degrees South.
Learn more about Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory scientists and their work.
The plan, going into Copenhagen in late 2009, was to broaden and deepen the Kyoto Protocol. This plan failed. The draft agreement prepared in advance of this conference was very long and filled with brackets, indicating that countries could not agree about very much. Once it became clear that an agreement about limiting emissions could not be negotiated, a short agreement was put together on the spot by a subset of countries.
This agreement set a global goal for limiting temperature change and invited all countries to submit pledges for the contributions they intended to make to this global effort. This agreement was not “legally binding,” and an analysis of the pledges submitted after this conference indicated that they fell far short of the emission limits that would need to be made if the global goal were to be achieved.
The Paris conference will build on the foundation laid so hastily in Copenhagen. The intention is to negotiate a “legally binding” agreement that will include arrangements for measuring, reporting, and verifying emissions. Rather than negotiate emission limits, countries are submitting new “Intended Nationally Determined Contributions.”
An analysis by the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change Secretariat shows that these intended contributions, if fulfilled, will still allow global emissions to increase through 2030. The claim is that the pledges being made will reduce emissions relative to “business as usual,” but this is a hard claim to substantiate since “business as usual” isn’t observable. Moreover, it isn’t obvious that countries will fulfill their pledges.
All of the pledges made in Paris will be voluntary. It is hoped that, by a process of “pledge and review,” these pledges can be strengthened—and that countries will feel obligated to fulfill them. However, countries have not always fulfilled their pledges in the past, and it isn’t obvious that this agreement is going to cause countries to behave very differently in the future.
Scott Barrett is Lenfest-Earth Institute Professor of Natural Resource Economics, Columbia University. His website is www.globalpublicgoods.com. He and Carlo Carraro and Jaime de Melo have written a new e-book, out this month, that you can download: “Towards a Workable and Effective Climate Regime.”
This post is one in a series reflecting on what has changed since the climate talks of 2009 in Copenhagen. Barrett was among those writing for State of the Planet about those talks back in 2009. Here is an excerpt from back then (the full text is here and here):
The three pages of text that emerged after years of preparation and two weeks of intense negotiation in Copenhagen signally fail to address what the document correctly calls “one of the greatest challenges of our time”—global climate change. To many, the Copenhagen Accord will seem a setback; actually, it is a continuation of a long history of failure. The essential problem lies with the strategy of addressing this complex issue by means of a single agreement. Breaking this colossal problem into smaller pieces would allow us to achieve more.
… Climate change is the greatest collective action problem in human history, so we should not be surprised that it has been difficult to address. But our approach has made it harder than necessary. A better way to negotiate would be to break this colossal problem up into smaller pieces, addressing each piece using the best means appropriate.
The lines of data are slowly creeping across our Ross Ice Shelf GIS map and with each new line comes an improved understanding of Ross Ice Shelf. What can you learn from a ‘snapshot’ of data? The radar image above contains a nice story. You can see the ice thickness in the Y-axis of the annotated radar image. The ice shelf is approximately 300 meters thick. For scale this means you could stand 3 statues of liberty one on top of another and still have 21 meters of ice layered above them. The top layer on the ice shelf is snow that has accumulated on the surface of the shelf, layered almost flat as it fell on a level ice surface. Below you can see the ice that has flowed in from the Antarctic ice sheet with rumpling and roughness collected as it moved over the rougher terrain of the bed topography. Below that you can see the faint outline of the bottom of the ice shelf. This is where the radar stops, unable to image through the ocean water.
The radar and gravity work together to create a complete image of the Ross Ice Shelf and the bed below. Radar provides information on the ice layers but stops where the gravity excels, at the ice/ocean interface. With two gravimeters strapped down side by side in the LC130 and humming away as they collect data, the dual instrumentation has the project well covered.
A schedule of flying two flights a day can be exhausting. However, the limited time in an Antarctic field season led to the plan to fly with two crews so data can be collected day and night; after all radar, gravity and magnetics don’t need the light to collect images. The personnel have been broken into teams so there is a constant rotation of working, sleeping and data review. The small cohort in the science team has been training each other on the various instrument operations to provide more flexibility in the flight planning.
Being on the ice can be an intense and compressed time…but it can also be filled with unexpected problems and delays. Weather has cancelled several flights, as have priority needs of the guard to handle emergencies and support missions. The cold, dry static environment can be hard on equipment and a couple of the laptops used to manage the data have stopped working adding stress to the workload, as has illness. Although the team has been challenged by the cold and the weather they have managed 6 flights with more on the upcoming docket.
The team has taken advantage of down days to share presentations about the ROSETTA project with the other residents of McMurdo and Scott Bases. McMurdo and Scott are both located on Ross Island just at the edge of the Ross Ice Shelf. McMurdo is home to the U.S. research teams housing about 1000 residents during the austral summer season. Scott Base is home to the New Zealand teams, with close to 100 during the austral summer season. Sharing science is one of the perks of polar fieldwork.
Check out the newest lines on the GIS map and stop back for more. As we write the team is gearing up for another flight….and more lines of data with more stories.
For more about this NSF and Moore Foundation funded project, check our project website: ROSSETTA.
Margie Turrin is blogging for the IcePod team while they are in the field.
Smoke from forest fires has been choking cities across Southeast Asia for months. The hazy, yellow blanket poses serious public health and economic risks for the communities it envelops. Indonesian authorities have been working hard to put out the fires, but have had trouble preventing the fires, which are intentionally set to clear land for agriculture. The government has resorted to using warships to evacuate its citizens from fire-affected areas. However, few of the other inhabitants of Indonesia’s forests, like the endangered orangutans, have made it to safety.
The fires are more than a local menace—they pose a global threat as well. They are huge—visible from space—and have begun to garner worldwide attention. Burning peat releases immense stores of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere, strongly contributing to global warming. Since September, daily CO2 emissions from the fires alone routinely surpass the average daily emissions from the entire U.S. economy.
Why is so much carbon released from these fires?
The forests now burning had been growing on, and were contributing to, vast stores of peat—the partially decayed plant material that accumulates where growth is faster than decay. Peatlands (places where peat accumulates) are an important part of the Earth’s climate system—they are the primary locations where carbon from the atmosphere is sequestered on land. While they cover only 3% of the land surface, they hold 30% of soil organic carbon.
Since the end of the last ice age, approximately 600-700 gigatonnes of carbon—that’s 600-700 billion tonnes—have been sequestered from the atmosphere as peat, roughly equivalent to the total amount of carbon that was in the atmosphere before industrial times. As tropical peat forests are drained and burned, carbon that took thousands of years to accumulate is rapidly released back into the atmosphere.
Guido van der Werf, a forest scientist at the University of Amsterdam, estimated the total emissions from the fires this year to be 1.62 billion tonnes of CO2, or about 0.44 gigatonnes of carbon (GtC) so far this season.
Let’s put this number into some context.
Of the 600-700 GtC that have been sequestered in peatlands globally since the last ice age, about 100 GtC are in the tropics; the rest are in boreal and Arctic regions. That means that the emissions from the fires this season alone are nearly half a percent of the total carbon accumulated in all tropical peatlands since the last ice age ended a little more than 11,000 years ago, or 0.15% of all the carbon emitted by human activity since the industrial age began.
Indonesian peatlands accumulate carbon at a rate of about 55 grams of carbon per meter squared per year—higher than most tropical peatlands elsewhere. If we generously extrapolate this rate to the about 400,000 km2 of tropical peatlands worldwide, the rate of accumulation of all tropical peatlands globally is only about 0.02 GtC annually. At 0.44 GtC, the Indonesian peat fires this season have emitted what took the entire Earth’s tropical peatlands at least 22 years to accumulate.
Forest fires are set each year, often illegally, for agriculture. The most common purpose is to produce palm oil, an economically important commodity, which is an ingredient in thousands of foods and cosmetics. Indonesia produced about 31 million tonnes of palm oil last year, and is projected to produce 31.5 million tonnes this year. The U.S. Energy Information Administration reports that burning a gallon of gasoline releases 2.5 kilograms of carbon to the atmosphere. This year, a gallon of palm oil from Indonesia will have released almost 10 times that, 24 kilograms of carbon, from burning peat forest.
Palm oil can be produced sustainably, but there is great economic pressure on small farmers to produce palm oil as quickly and cheaply as possible. Enforcement of laws that prohibit burning of peat forest is left to local authorities who are more easily influenced by their constituents and the palm oil companies that support them than by the Indonesian national government. Consumer pressure may be the only way to reduce these unsustainable agricultural practices.
What makes this year so bad?
El Niño conditions in the Pacific Ocean have made Indonesia and the rest of Southeast Asia particularly dry, lowering the water tables in the peat forests, making much more of the peat available to burn. Normally, peat does not burn below the water table, where it is water saturated. Further, many places where land is cleared by burning are also drained, artificially lowering water tables even further.
During the last major El Niño, 1997-98, about 0.95 GtC were released from Indonesian peat forest fires, and though this year only about 0.44 GtC have burned away, the season is not yet over.
It’s been a busy few days as we wrap up ice sampling and make the transition to sampling by boat at the regular Palmer LTER stations. This afternoon we’ll break down the ice removal experiment we started over a week ago. On Monday we went out for the final sampling at our ice station – though if the ice sticks around for a couple more weeks we’ll try to go out one final time to see how the spring ice algal bloom is developing. The heavy snow cover on the sea ice has delayed the start of the bloom, however, things are starting to happen. During our last sampling effort we lowered a GoPro camera underneath the ice to take a look.
You’ll notice a couple of interesting things about the underside of the ice. First, it’s extremely rough. Landfast sea ice often looks like this; the ice forms from many small flows being compressed together against the shoreline during the fall. As a result there is a lot of “rafting” of small ice floes atop one another. This can present some real challenges when selecting a sampling spot. The first couple of holes that we tried to drill exceeded what we knew to be the mean thickness of the sea ice. It took a few tries to find a representative spot.
You’ll also notice that the ice has a distinct green color, concentrated on the lower (or higher, in the video) rafts. That’s the start of the ice algal bloom. If the ice was snow free the bloom would have developed by now into a thick carpet. You can contrast the video above with the image at right of sea ice sampled from McMurdo Sound roughly three weeks earlier in the season (in 2011). Although much thicker that ice was covered by only a few centimeters of snow. If the Arthur Harbor ice sticks around for a couple more weeks it will develop some good growth (unless the krill come along and graze the algae down). You might be wondering why, if the algae are limited by the availability of light, they are concentrated on the deeper rafts further from the light. I’m not entirely sure, but I have a hypothesis. I’ve been searching for a literature reference for this and haven’t located one yet, but I recall hearing a talk from an expert on the optical physics of sea ice describing how the sunlight that manages to penetrate sea ice reaches a maximum some distance below the ice. This might seem counter-intuitive, but makes sense if you consider the geometry of the floes that coalesced to make the ice sheet.
As you can observe in the video the light is largely penetrating the ice around the edges of these floes. The rays of light enter the water at an angle, and intersect at some distance below the ice determined by the mean size of the floes and (I’m guessing) the angle of the sun. The depth where this intersection happens is the depth of greatest light availability. Above this depth the water is “shaded” by the ice floes themselves. In our case I think this depth corresponds with the depth of those deeper floes. Unfortunately our crude hand-deployed light meter and infrequent sampling schedule are insufficient to actually test this hypothesis. We’d need a much higher-resolution instrument that could take measurements throughout the day. Something to think about for the future.
In the meantime Rutgers University undergraduate Ashley Goncalves, spending her Junior year with the Palmer LTER project at Palmer Station, made this short video that describes the process of collecting water for our experiment from below the ice in Arthur Harbor. Let the boating begin!
There is a lot more reason for optimism about the Paris climate talks than there was before Copenhagen in 2009. In particular, this time around, President Obama has taken clear steps to reduce U.S. emissions of greenhouse gases, mainly via executive action in the face of an intransigent Congress. Perhaps as important was the president’s recent cancellation of the Keystone pipeline, which was a largely symbolic move, but drew public attention to the issue of “stranded assets.” Why should fossil fuel companies continue to explore for more oil and gas, and produce fuel from increasingly low-grade reservoirs, using technically difficult methods, when identified reserves are already larger than any safe limit on total emissions?
This said, the commitments made by various nations in advance of the Paris meeting are far too small to effectively curb increasing atmospheric CO2, as articulated by Steve Koonin in a New York Times op-ed a week ago, for example. There are two ways of looking at this. The first is Koonin’s: “The flood is coming, start building your ark.” No doubt he is right, to some degree. It seems probable that growth of fossil fuel emissions will continue, and atmospheric CO2 will exceed 600 ppm by mid-century. At that point, many expensive adaptations to climate change will already be underway. Also, the negative consequences of greenhouse gas accumulation may be clear enough to warrant implementation of a palette of methods for carbon-dioxide removal from air. (Interested readers should refer to the National Research Council report on this topic). Alternatively, we will be stuck with high greenhouse gas concentrations and continued warming for centuries to come.
Another perspective is that in Paris the international community will commit themselves to taking effective action designed to curb emissions and avoid warming beyond 2° C. Having made this commitment, together with some first steps, they may return in future years to amend their specific regulations, in order to succeed in their agreed goal. This is essentially what happened with regard to regulating CFC (chlorofluorocarbon) emissions in order to preserve the Earth’s stratospheric ozone layer. The first international treaty, The Montreal Protocol, signed in 1987, committed nations to effective action. But the specific regulations in that treaty were insufficient for success. Because a commitment had been made, however, subsequent revisions were relatively easy to implement, and ultimately success was—more or less—achieved.
Finally, it is just possible that Paris is less important than it seems. The dramatic fall in price for electrical generation using solar photovoltaic (PV) technology has been accompanied by 35 percent annual growth of PV capacity in this century, with wind power capacity growing in parallel at more than 25 percent per year. This is, in part, a success story for tax breaks and other incentives that have driven rapid growth, which in turn reduced the unit costs.
Conventional wisdom is that this rapid pace will soon diminish. When wind and solar electrical generation exceed a few tens of percent of the total, energy storage methods will become essential, to account for the temporally intermittent, spatially disbursed nature of renewable power generation. In turn, energy storage technology is improving very slowly, so most people think that a storage bottleneck will persist past 2050.
However, perhaps this conventional wisdom is wrong. If the international community were to fully understand the threat of climate change, and the likely cost of mitigation and adaptation, perhaps we would commit to continued tax breaks and incentives, and propel the renewable energy transition toward completion. In the long run, I am sure this would be less expensive than coping with the consequences of growth in greenhouse gas emissions through 2050. The energy industry can be incredibly nimble, as recently exemplified by 35 percent annual growth in fracked oil production in North Dakota. If solar PV and wind, including storage, were to become truly cost-competitive at the utility scale, there is no doubt that renewable capacity would continue to double every few years.
Finally, one more thought. The energy transition, and/or mitigation of CO2 emissions, will surely be expensive. However, it is not clear to me why this is considered to be a drain on the economy. We already spend plenty of money taking care of waste products, via sewage treatment and garbage disposal. It seems to me that large-scale replacement of energy infrastructure, or carbon dioxide removal from air, like the recent replacement of communications and data storage infrastructure, will serve to create jobs and economic growth. Of course, such processes will involve a net transfer of resources to some groups, away from others. Perhaps that is the main impediment to progress.
This post is one in a series reflecting on what has changed since the climate talks of 2009 in Copenhagen. Keleman was among those writing for State of the Planet about the Copenhagen talks in 2009. Here is an excerpt from back then (the full text is here):
… Somehow, some people have come to believe that if a single study suggesting human-induced climate change is incorrect, the entire scientific basis for the hypothesis is invalidated. A corollary, implicitly adopted by some “believers” and “skeptics” alike, is that predictions of warming due to human CO2 emissions must be almost certain in order to justify major efforts to reduce CO2 output.
… Nevertheless, everyone involved needs to embrace the idea that all scientists are skeptics; that all scientific theories are open to doubt; and in particular that future projections of climate change are subject to considerable uncertainty. Furthermore, the economic and environmental impacts of warming are also uncertain, as are the costs of CO2 mitigation. When scientists hide these uncertainties, or simply don’t discuss them, they lose credibility.
… Does this mean that no political action should be taken until scientific uncertainties are resolved? Of course not. … atmospheric CO2 concentration continues to rise, more rapidly and to higher values than recorded in gas trapped in glacial ice over the past 500,000 years. This is mainly due to use of fossil fuels, and it is pushing us further and further into uncharted territory. Though there are many other factors that influence global climate, there is no doubt that CO2 is a greenhouse gas. And, in addition to the threat of climate change, there are ample reasons to conserve energy and reduce our dependence on fossil fuels. The longer we delay, the higher will be the cost of limiting CO2 in the atmosphere. The cost may be high now, but it will only get higher in the future.
The Science, Revisited
The climate is changing. We’re causing it. It’s going to affect our lives and our livelihood, if it isn’t already. It’s going to be expensive. But we can do something about it.
That’s how a group of young scientists at a conference in 2013 summed it up. This video, shot by climate scientist William D’Andrea of the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, explains in the simplest terms possible what we ought to know about climate change, and why we should care.
This is one in a series of posts looking back at some key State of the Planet stories about climate science. The original post about D’Andrea’s project, with a second video, is here.
There is no religion that does not teach its adherents the need to nurture the earth, or the need for the brotherhood, equality and humility of men. In every generation, in every land and in every clime is born a populist who embraces such goals to rise as a leader of the people. Yet, on the eve of Paris, we are visited by gunfire and death, symbolizing the distrust that is bred by inequity of opportunity. Religions uniformly preach peace, even as some adherents invoke martyrdom as a path to address injustices, perceived and real. Sadness embraces the families of those martyred as well as those whom they extinguished with little reason.
It is remarkable that we are in the 21st COP at Paris. In the furthest reaches of the world, there is now an awareness of our changing climate, of the human influence, and of the leaders who debate what needs to be done, year after year, decade after decade. The clock ticks, and in the absence of change in energy policies, the day comes ever closer. Inequities past and future color the debate, forestalling action. Technology has brought us low-cost global communication, and also enabled a global economy. It has also brought us closer and further from each other. We now know more about other cultures. We also see the differences, and sharpen our sense of inequities. Perhaps, this, rather than a control of greenhouse gases, needs to be the primary conversation.
It is no secret that the poor in any country, and the poorer countries, are the most adversely affected by the present and future climate. Their ability to withstand floods or droughts, or climate induced disasters of any sort, is the most limited. Unable to buffer themselves from the vagaries of climate, they have lower economic and agricultural productivity, lower resilience to shocks, and are for all purposes trapped. They lack reliable sources of energy that could increase their productivity, and allow them a better access to the local or global economy. Solving this may provide them the income that eventually helps them better address shocks, climatic, political or economic. Of course, such a pathway has to be harmonious with nature. These are the challenges we should be discussing and addressing as a common, global goal.
Most energy sources on the planet can be traced back to the sun. The winds blow in response to temperature differences created by imbalances in solar radiation. Hydropower relies on river flows that come from rain, which in turn is supplied by evaporation stimulated by the sun. Biofuels, coal, oil and gas result from biological activity on land and in the oceans that was once stimulated by the sun. We know how to harness all these sources to produce electricity and heat. The sun’s rhythm governs our every day, waking, sleeping and working, as it does life across the planet. It would seem that finding a way to tap this energy in an environmentally benign way, and making it as available to the masses as cellular phones have become, would be the grandest economic opportunity of the 21st century.
Indeed, recent initiatives in China and elsewhere have dramatically reduced the initial investment required to tap solar and wind energy. This is exciting since these sources can be implemented and spread much as cell phones have—across the world, to areas poor and rich, on or off an existing grid. This is a grassroots business opportunity, that brings together large manufacturers, last mile implementers, supply chain intermediaries and maintenance specialists, and diverse users who are bound to translate the opportunity into diverse income streams through their ingenuity and local knowledge.
The COP discussions have revolved around targets for decarbonization to mitigate climate change. I think this needs to be a discussion about how the development of a renewable energy platform can lead to sustainable and inclusive economic growth of all sectors of society in the world. Uplifting the poor, while a moral imperative, may not actually translate beyond political slogans. Perhaps, this is why the debates are not framed in this light. The 20th century showed us that the rich get richer as the poor are uplifted. Let the 21st be about how to improve conditions for all living beings on the planet.
The second thread in the climate change discussions is that of climate change adaptation, recognizing that the political processes that lead to reductions in the emissions of greenhouse gases may not yield results in time. There are many dimensions to this discussion, ranging from questions as to investment in infrastructure to financial risk management to migration to food and water security. A tacit assumption in many such discussions is that societies are, by and large, adjusted to climate risk, and it is the change due to human influence on the earth’s climate that we need to address.
This is a rather unfortunate posture that cripples real action, since future predictions of future climate with any specificity as to location or variable of concern are clouded by significant uncertainty not just in the models, but also in the assumptions that drive our models. Yet, floods and droughts ravage many places, with loss of life, disease, food insecurity, and property losses emerging as a surprise that we struggle to recover from, even from events that have been seen perhaps many times in the last century, but forgotten over the course of time. Again, if we are concerned about the well-being of people, we have a moral imperative to help increase resilience to climate shocks, whether or not we are concerned with climate change. The latter is an attendant factor that simply increases the urgency of the matter.
It is my view that mitigation of and adaptation to climate change should not be seen as two separate sides of a response to a threat. Rather, we need to approach both synergistically, under a paradigm that is primarily focused on economic growth and poverty alleviation, which in turn would reduce the risks of conflict and the threat to life on earth.
Every year, as climate induced disasters happen, in Brazil, in the United States, in Europe, in India, in Africa and in China, vivid images of tragedy pull at our heartstrings, and much is spent on international relief and recovery. Yet, many of the poorer places that are subject to these disasters have little to show a year later from the outpouring of support. A focus on economic growth stimulated by renewable energy, and accompanied by pre-emptive solutions to floods and droughts, through improvements in agriculture, in food preservation using energy sources, in the diversion and control of floods, and in early warning and action systems, would be transformative.
With increased income comes the possibility to acquire a more egalitarian perspective, pay for education, to pay for infrastructure development, to pay for effective institutions and for risk mitigation. I look forward to a world where the enlightened few see it fitting to steer us in this direction, and look beyond the rhetoric of emissions, and inequity in past and future carbon emissions, with suspended disbelief as to the potential calamities that face us. Sustainable development as an objective encompasses the climate and energy challenge, and the natural responses to these challenges promise directions for bringing people and countries out of poverty.
In September, the governments of the world agreed to the sustainable development goals to be achieved by 2030, except Goal 13 (of 17), to deal with climate change. In December we can complete the agreement on that 13th goal. The 193 countries of the world must do nothing less.
This post is one in a series reflecting on what has changed since the climate talks of 2009 in Copenhagen. Lall also wrote for us back in 2009, before the Copenhagen summit. Here’s an excerpt (for his full post, go here):
… In most places where we have multi-century historical records of rainfall or “proxy” natural records, such as tree rings, we see persistent shifts in rainfall patterns. Presumably due to natural causes, these often go beyond ranges experienced in the 20th century, and have lasted years or decades. In the meantime human population has boomed. Many developing countries are particularly subject to such swings, and now with huge numbers of people and little infrastructure, they are particularly vulnerable. Developed countries also are now quite susceptible to systematic climate shifts, since much of their modern infrastructure, especially for water, was designed on the assumption that climate does not change with time. Today, in many places in North America, Australia and Europe, this infrastructure is at the limits of its performance, and their chance of failure is high if protracted droughts or extreme floods come along.
Given the prospects for human suffering and international conflict over water, Copenhagen offers an opportunity to focus the climate change debate in a new way, that has nothing to do with conjecture: we must increase the resilience of water resources to shifts that we already know are quite real.
… While there is pessimism about the prospects of a binding agreement on future carbon emissions, there are things we can do now to address problems that are already with us—and will almost certainly accompany us down the road. It is imperative that the momentum and interest generated at Copenhagen be channeled toward them.
The Ross Ice Shelf is much like the Rosetta Stone. The historic stone was inscribed in three different scripts; each telling the same story but in a different tongue. When matched together the information was enough to allow scholars to decode an ancient language. The Rosetta Project in Antarctica also brings together three different ‘scripts’, but in this case they written by three Earth systems; the ice, the ocean and the underlying bed each have a story to tell. Mapped together these three systems can be used to unlock the mysteries of Antarctic ice history in this region and help us to develop models for predicting future changes in Antarctic ice.
The multi-institutional project is multi-disciplinary in nature and takes advantage of the recently commissioned IcePod integrated ice imaging system as the main science platform. IcePod is package of geophysical instruments packed into a 9 ft. container and loaded onto the large LC130 transport planes supporting science in the polar regions. Flown by the US Air National Guard these planes are the workhorses of the science program. A unique ‘arm’ that fits into the rear side-door of the plane is used to attach the IcePod outside the aircraft, allowing it to be used on both dedicated missions and flights of opportunity.
IcePod’s instruments include two radar to image through the ice, lidar to measure to the ice surface, cameras for surface images, and a magnetometer to better understand the tectonics and origin of the bed below the ice shelf. Together with the IcePod instruments the project will use two separate gravimeters in order to develop a bathymetric map of the seafloor under the ice shelf. Gravity is a critical data piece in this project as the radar is unable to image through the water under the ice shelf.
The Ross Ice Shelf is a thick slab of ice that serves to slow and collect ice as it flows off the Antarctic peninsula. Ross is the largest of the Antarctic ice shelves moving ice at rates of 1.5 to 3 meters/day. Somewhat triangular in shape, it is bounded by the West Antarctic ice sheet on the west, the East Antarctic ice sheet on the east, and the Ross sea along the front.
This three year project involves 36 separate flights in a two season field campaign. The first field season is underway now, and will focus on building the larger framework for the dense 10 km spaced grid of flights that is planned for the following season. As each day’s flights are logged they are being posted on our interactive website. You can follow our campaign by linking directly to this data portal to watch the grid develop. You can select the project proposed flight plan (v9) on the Data Map to get a complete look at the project plan. The end product will be a dense grid of flightlines evenly spaced and crossing with regular tie points.
First flights included two survey lines across the ice shelf. The most southern of the two lines was flown by IcePod in 2014 during commissioning flights, and by the NASA IceBridge project in 2013. These two flights provide a calibration line for the system. The northern line is the first new line for the project. The map also shows a small test flight for the equipment and a line up to South Pole that was a piggy back flight with another mission of the plane.
You will note that flights originate from McMurdo so there is a dense radiating line from the base. Minna Bluff is a prominent volcanic promontory that sticks out close to MCM. The bluff was first identified by Capt. Scott in 1902 and is mentioned often in Antarctic exploration history.
Check the flight tracker daily for updated flight lines.
For more about this NSF and Moore Foundation funded project please check our project website: ROSSETTA
Margie Turrin is blogging for the IcePod team while they are in the field.
Many experts at Columbia University’s Earth Institute are attending or closely watching the Paris climate summit. These include world authorities on climate science, politics, law, natural resources, national security, health and other fields, who can offer expert analysis to journalists. Also, this week we start our Paris Climate Summit blog, with news, views, and scientific perspective from our staff. Below, a guide to resources that journalists covering the summit can tap.
The Paris Climate Summit A frequently updated blog from Earth Institute experts with explainers, commentary and other features.
Recent Climate Research The top Earth Institute scientific papers from 2015 and previous recent years.
Milestones in Climate Science A 60-year timeline of studies from Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory that have shaped modern climate science.
Copenhagen Climate Conference 2009 Our blog from the last major summit provides historical perspective.
(Not an exhaustive list. *Denotes person attending the summit.)
*Peter deMenocal, professor, Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory. Paleoclimatologist DeMenocal leads the observatory’s new Center for Climate and Life, which will examine globally how climate change affects ecosystems and human sustainability.
Jason Smerdon is a Lamont-Doherty climate researcher and educator who co-directs the Earth Institute’s undergraduate sustainable development program.
Gavin Schmidt directs the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies. He is a leading communicator on the fundamentals of climate science, and the implications.
*Scott Barrett, Earth Institute professor of natural resources; expert in dynamics of transnational negotiations, treaties and conflict resolution, especially climate. Barrett is coeditor of a new e-book prepared especially for the summit.
*Michael Gerrard, director, Sabin Center for Climate Change Law, leader in the study of climate’s legal implications on state, national and international levels.
Michael Burger, executive director, Sabin Center for Climate Change Law, consults internationally on efforts to reduce carbon emissions, and on climate adaptation.
Steven Cohen, Earth Institute executive director, comments frequently on political developments surrounding climate and sustainable development.
Solutions, adaptations, sustainable development
*Lisa Goddard, director, International Research Institute for Climate and Society (IRI), which works with governments around the world to predict and adapt to medium-term climate swings.
*Cynthia Rosenzweig, Earth Institute senior research scientist, is a pioneer in studying how cities can adapt to climate change.
*Guido Schmidt-Traub, executive director, Sustainable Development Solutions Network. SDSN is a UN effort hosted by the Earth Institute that mobilizes teams across the world to solve global challenges, including climate change.
*Laura Segafredo manages SDSN’s Deep Decarbonization Pathways Project, a global collaboration of energy researchers charting steps for nations to cut emissions.
Upmanu Lall directs the Columbia Water Center, which tackles water-supply challenges and their relation to climate across the world.
Pedro Sanchez, director, Agriculture and Food Security Center, helps direct multiple projects in developing countries to ensure a robust food supply in changing conditions.
Shahid Naeem, director, Earth Institute Center for Environmental Sustainability, is an ecologist who deals with issues of conservation and biodiversity.
Marc Levy, deputy director, Center for International Earth Science Information Network (CIESIN), is a political scientist who studies the human dimensions of environmental change, including climate’s potential for violent conflict.
Alexander deSherbinin, CIESIN senior researcher, maps out the human consequences of climate change, including potential large-scale population migrations.
*Madeleine Thomson, IRI senior researcher, works to understand the health effects of climate, and help provide adaptations.
*Patrick Kinney, Earth Institute professor based at Mailman School of Public Health, studies the health effects of climate change, especially in cities.
Anthony Annett, an economist, leads the Earth Institute’s initiative to engage religious communities with climate and sustainable-development issues.
*Ben Orlove, anthropologist and co-director of the Center for Research on Environmental Decisions, studies how the public apprehends climate change issues.
# # #
More information: Kevin Krajick, Senior editor, science news, The Earth Institute firstname.lastname@example.org 212-854-9729
The storms of the past week cleared most of the pack ice out of Arthur Harbor, although the land fast ice that we’ve been sampling from has survived. In anticipation of the start of the boating season there was a flurry of activity yesterday as station personnel cleared off the boat ramp and got the zodiacs ready. Unfortunately Jamie and I didn’t think to start the time lapse below until yesterday afternoon after most of the three-ring circus had died down, but you still get a sense of the activity.
There are two science groups waiting to start boating operations; our group and a group of penguin researchers (aka “the birders”). Both groups are part of the Palmer LTER. While we will spend the summer investigating water column processes however, the birders will spend their summer visiting the various penguin rookeries and maintaining a remarkable long term dataset of penguin population.
The birders were supposed to get their final zodiac training today, but although the harbor is clear of ice the winds are back up (gusting around 30 kts at the moment) so everything is getting shifted back. In the meantime we will have a late night sampling another time point from the experiment that we started on Tuesday. As I described in the previous post, for this experiment we are making use of the highly unusual ice conditions to study what happens to the microbial community when the ice is suddenly removed (as has happened to much of Arthur Harbor and the surrounding area in the last week). Although we won’t know the results of most of our analyses for several months, we can make some interesting qualitative observations as the experiment progresses.
One of the interesting observations so far was the initial condition of the microbial community. During a down moment yesterday I took a look at water from just 24 hours into our experiment to see what was growing (so this isn’t exactly the initial condition, but a close approximation of it). What we found really surprised me. Here are a couple of images that illustrate the phytoplankton community in our experiment:
The traditional wisdom would suggest that the spring phytoplankton bloom should start with diatoms. Following the initial diatom bloom there are successive, mixed blooms of haptophytes, cryptophytes, dinoflagellates, and other groups of phytoplankton. Observations from this time of year are very sparse however, so it is difficult to know if we are seeing something that is unique or the normal phytoplankton assemblage for this time of year. The composition of the phytoplankton assemblage is not merely academic; it dictates how carbon will flow through the food web in a given season. Large diatoms for example, are easily feed upon by krill, resulting in high krill biomass and more and more healthy top predators (e.g. penguins, seals, and whales). Smaller phytoplankton (like cryptophytes) produce a more complex food web that might ultimately channel less carbon to the top trophic levels. We will have to wait and see how the situation plays out this year…
During the Copenhagen climate meetings in 2009, I posted a piece in the Huffington Post assessing the conference. At that time I observed that:
“There is a broad consensus about the need for reductions in the emissions that cause global warming. Copenhagen is providing the entire world a crash course in climate science and policy. Over the past decade, the politics of national and global climate policy has shifted from the fringes of the public policy agenda to the center. The real story of Copenhagen is the maturation of this key issue of global environmental policy. … Climate change is just the first global environmental problem we have come to understand. At Copenhagen we are barely discussing the other global environmental issues such as species extinction, the destruction of the oceans and degraded fresh water supplies. But we could.”
As we approach the Paris version of these endless talks, COP21, to be held next month, it’s fair to ask: What has changed over the past six years, and did Copenhagen stimulate any of these changes?
What has changed is the broad consensus on climate change has broadened, and recent polls show that even Republicans in the United States understand the nature of the problem. Globally, individual nations have volunteered greenhouse gas reduction targets in anticipation of the Paris meetings. Unlike Copenhagen, where calls for mandatory reductions and transfer payments to the developing world caused the collapse of any potential agreements, the world community seems more realistic as it approaches the Paris meetings. An agreement that codifies the reductions already pledged seems within reach, even if its value is more symbolic than real.
There remains a possibility that the call for transfer payments from wealthy nations to developing nations could disrupt the effort at building a global consensus. Previous aid promises were not fulfilled, and there is some political pressure to get the issue back on the global agenda. One of the major changes since 2009 is the clear perception that some nations once classified as developing, such as China, Brazil and India, can no longer be thought of in that way. While this was also the case in 2009, six years later, they are clearly in a category of their own.
My own view of the Paris talks and the ones that came before is that they have value, but it is important to understand their inherent limits. The climate issue is really an issue of the energy base of a nation’s economy. Modern economies require energy, and economic development depends on plentiful, reliable, reasonably priced energy. The issue is so central to economic growth and the stability of political regimes that no nation state will fundamentally limit its flexibility in delivering energy for any reason. It is central to sovereignty in the modern world. But communicating the dangers of fossil fuels and the need to transition to a renewable energy based economy is something these meetings have achieved, and the importance of that achievement should not be underestimated.
The climate issue seems to generate a high level of ideologically based politics, emotional rhetoric and political symbolism. It is time to move past symbols to pragmatism and political reality. We need to move toward an acceptance of nine fundamentals if we are to address the climate change crisis:
- Human induced climate change is real, already underway and will continue into the future.
- We cannot precisely predict the future impact of climate change on human settlements and economic well-being.
- Fossil fuels are the largest single generator of greenhouse gases.
- Our economic way of life and therefore the political stability of our world are highly dependent on energy that mainly comes from fossil fuels.
- The transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy is necessary but will take decades to accomplish.
- Reducing the use of fossil fuels by raising the price of these fuels is unlikely to achieve political support or be supported by the world’s governments.
- Reducing the use of fossil fuels by developing lower priced, reliable and renewable sources of energy requires additional technological development.
- Reduced energy costs will have great political appeal and positive economic impact.
- The increased use of current renewable energy technologies will be facilitated by government policy to attract capital and reduce the price of energy.
In my view, the battles over oil pipelines, fracking and divesting capital from fossil fuel companies are symbolic battles that serve to distract us from the operational issues that will facilitate the transition to a renewable energy economy. One issue to engage in is the coming battle to renew the favorable tax treatment of renewable energy in the U.S., now slated to end in December 2016. Ending that tax expenditure would slow down the growth of the solar and wind industry and have an immediate and dramatic impact on the production of greenhouse gases.
The Department of Energy and the National Science Foundation’s research budget for renewable energy technologies needs to be increased dramatically. The federal government should take the lead in purchasing electric vehicles and installing renewable energy. A federal fund to restore and build infrastructure will probably appear on the federal agenda during the next decade. Some part of that funding should be devoted to upgrading the electric grid to make it smarter and more efficient, funding public charging stations for electric vehicles, funding mass transit, and providing resources to make coastal infrastructure more resilient and better able to adapt to the impact of climate change.
The action required to transition off of fossil fuels and other single-use resources requires a sophisticated partnership between the public and private sectors.
The greatest danger to America’s transition to a renewable resource based economy is not industry, which will make plenty of money off of this transition, or the public, which appears ready to move, but the anti-government ideology that continues to paralyze our federal government.
The action required to transition off of fossil fuels and other single-use resources requires a sophisticated partnership between the public and private sectors. There will be some instances when the work that needs to be done—for example, basic research or infrastructure finance—will require federal funds. There will be other instances when the tax code or other incentives will be needed to attract private capital and companies into the market. And there will be even more instances when government action is not needed, and the best thing government can do is get out of the way and let the private sector act. By sophisticated partnership, I mean one that is guided by results-oriented pragmatism rather than symbols and ideology.
The climate talks in Paris will focus attention on the climate issue and increase understanding of the nature of the problem. Then the spotlight shifts to nations and cities, and hopefully from talk and chit-chat to funding and action. There are many signs that the transition from fossil fuels has begun. The speed of that transition is at issue and will require creativity, consensus and cash to be completed.
This post is one in a series reflecting on what has changed since the climate talks of 2009 in Copenhagen.
Editors’ note: This is the first in a series of posts on the 2015 Paris climate summit. You can follow all of our coverage on a special State of the Planet feature page.
What is it?
COP21, the 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference, will be held outside of Paris in Le Bourget, France, from Nov. 30 to Dec. 11. It is called COP21 because it is the 21st annual meeting of the Conference of Parties to the 1992 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. The parties meet each year to assess their progress in dealing with climate change; its objective is to achieve “stabilization of greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system.”
The 195 countries who make up the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change will send over 40,000 delegates to the talks in Paris. At least 80 world leaders will attend, including the leaders of Germany, South Africa, Brazil and England, and those of the three biggest carbon emitting countries: President Barack Obama from the United States, Chinese President Xi Jinping and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
What is the goal?
The goal of COP21 is to negotiate a new international climate change agreement that can keep the average global temperature rise below 2° C by 2100 compared to pre-industrial levels. The agreement will be universal and include pledges from the parties to limit and reduce greenhouse gases, implement strategies to adapt to the impacts of climate change, and commit financial support to help developing countries deal with climate change. The agreement will also likely establish five-year reviews to make sure countries are keeping their commitments and to ratchet up emissions reduction targets in order to meet the 2˚C goal.
Why does it matter?
Human activities have generated greenhouse gases—carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide and fluorinated gases—that have collected in the atmosphere and warmed the planet. Between 1990 and 2014, global greenhouse gases increased 36 percent. In 2011, Asia, Europe and the United States were responsible for 82 percent of total greenhouse gas emissions. Some of the carbon dioxide that we have already pumped into the atmosphere will remain there for hundreds of years.
The increase in greenhouse gases over the last 100 years has so far caused average global temperatures to rise .85˚C. Data for 2015 from the Met Office, the United Kingdom’s national weather service, shows that Earth’s global mean temperature will reach 1˚C above pre-industrial levels for the first time this year. While this does not sound like much, we are already feeling the effects of this warming with more extreme heat, heavy downpours, increased wildfires, insect outbreaks, loss of glaciers and sea ice, sea level rise and flooding.
Scientists and over 100 nations have agreed that limiting the global temperature rise to 2˚C is critical to avoiding more catastrophic climate change effects. According to the World Resources Institute, if we continue on a “business as usual” trajectory of generating greenhouse gases, we will reach 2˚C by 2045. This will increase the risk of sea level rise, intensify wildfires and make them more frequent, exacerbate heavy precipitation events and the severity of droughts, acidify the oceans, cause extinction of animal species and jeopardize our food supplies. With each degree above the 2˚C limit, the impacts of climate change will be more severe and the risks greater that tipping points could be passed, resulting in abrupt and irreversible changes in the global climate system.
In May, a UN Framework Convention on Climate Change report concluded that 1.5˚C would be a preferable limit, but would require a faster reduction of energy demand and an immediate scaling up of low-carbon technologies to curb greenhouse gases.
When does COP21 go into effect?
In 1997, at COP3, 192 parties adopted the Kyoto Protocol (the United States did not ratify the protocol), which legally bound developed countries to reduce their emissions. Kyoto’s first commitment period went from 2008 to 2012. A second commitment period, known as the Doha Amendment, began in 2013 and ends in 2020. The COP21 agreement will take effect in 2020 when the Kyoto Protocol ends.
How will it work?
At COP15 in Copenhagen in 2009, the 195 countries involved in the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change pledged to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions by 2025-2030.
Ahead of COP21, all the states were invited to submit their “Intended Nationally Determined Contributions” that indicate what actions the countries will take to reduce their emissions. Each plan takes into account a country’s particular circumstances and capabilities, and may address adaptation to climate change impacts, and what support they will need from, or be willing to give to other countries.
One hundred-thirty-one of these “intended contributions” have been submitted. Here are a few examples.
The United States has pledged to reduce greenhouse gas emissions 26 to 28 percent below its 2005 levels by 2025, with best efforts to reduce emissions by 28 percent. Strategies to achieve the goal include the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s regulations to cut carbon pollution from new and existing power plants, tighter fuel economy standards for light and heavy-duty vehicles, and the development of standards to address methane emissions from landfills and oil and gas production.
China pledges that its carbon emissions will peak by 2030 or sooner if possible, and that the country will reduce carbon dioxide emissions for each unit of Gross Domestic Product (its “emissions intensity”) by 60 to 65 percent from 2005 levels, derive 20 percent of energy from non-fossil fuels, plant more forests and improve the country’s adaptation to climate change impacts.
India intends to reduce the emissions intensity of its GDP by 33 to 35 percent by 2030 from 2005 levels, increase forest and tree cover to provide additional carbon sinks and generate 40 percent of its electricity from non-fossil fuel sources by 2030 with help from the Green Climate Fund. (The Green Climate Fund was established by 194 nations in 2010 with the goal of raising $100 billion a year by 2020 to assist developing countries deal with climate change.)
Brazil will reduce its greenhouse gas emissions 37 percent below 2005 levels by 2025, then by 43 percent below 2005 levels by 2030. Strategies to achieve this include using renewable resources for 45 percent of its energy by 2030, stopping illegal deforestation by 2030, restoring forests and developing sustainable agriculture. It will also implement adaptation policies to make its population, ecosystems, infrastructure and production systems more resilient.
The European Union has committed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions 40 percent from 1990 levels by 2030, in part by getting 27 percent of its energy from renewable energy resources and improving energy efficiency 27 percent by 2030.
Are the climate pledges ambitious enough to meet the goal?
The Climate Action Tracker, an independent scientific analysis, estimates that the climate pledges submitted so far will result in an increase of 2.7˚C of warming by 2100. This is an improvement over the worst-case scenario of a 4.5 to 6° C increase, which is what scientists estimate will result if we continue with business as usual; but it does not get us where we need to go.
However, the goal of remaining under the 2° C mark is targeted for 2100; these first climate pledges extend to 2025 or 2030. Much greater emissions reduction efforts will be needed after 2025 and 2030 to achieve the 2˚C limit. So a five-year periodic review mechanism will be critical to spur countries to set increasingly ambitious goals to reduce emissions.
What would a successful COP21 look like?
COP21 may or may not produce a treaty that legally binds countries to meet their emissions targets. If it does not, this should not be considered a failing, since legally binding treaties can cause countries to make overly modest commitments for fear of falling short, or opt out altogether.
COP21 will be considered a success if it:
- Results in countries agreeing on shared long-term goals to reduce carbon emissions and work towards climate resilience.
- Recognizes that all countries must take action.
- Creates a climate financing arrangement that is acceptable to both developed and developing countries.
- Establishes five-year reviews to encourage countries to continually set more ambitious emissions reduction goals.
- Ensures that countries are transparent about their progress and actions through an effective reporting and verification process.
Why should you care?
COP21 is the best opportunity for the world to finally slow the rate of climate change. Its outcome will affect our lives and those of our children and grandchildren. If successful, COP21 will hopefully help us avert the most disastrous and potentially irreversible effects of climate change. As President Obama said, “We are the first generation to feel the impact of climate change, and the last generation that can do something about it.”
The Laurence M. Gould departed for Punta Arenas last night, taking Colleen with it and leaving Jamie and I on our own until reinforcements arrive in two weeks (you can check out Jamie’s blog here for more on what we’re up to this season). That should work out fine although we’ll be very busy on sampling days – when and if we get sampling days. We were supposed to get out today but the weather isn’t cooperating.
Shortly after the Gould departed the wind started to increase. Right now the Gould is getting 50 kt winds at the southern edge of the Drake Passage (sorry Colleen!), we’re getting a steady 35 kt wind the blew all night and should last through today. I’m nervous about what that will do to our sampling plan. So far the land fast ice where our ice station is has held together; it’s a nearly a meter thick and pretty well anchored to the land. Sometime this season it’s going to give out though, and I’m hoping that we can sample from it a couple more times before that happens.
The flip side is that when the ice goes away we’ll be able to start using the zodiacs to sample at our regular stations, at least until the ice blows back in. The worst case scenario is being in the awkward position of too much ice for the zodiacs, but no solid land fast ice from which to sample. To get an idea of how fast things can change compare the ice conditions in the following pictures to the conditions when the Gould departed:
The fast departure of the ice underscores an important ecological concept that is central to this region. The timing of the switch from ice covered to open water conditions has a major impact on the strength and timing of the spring phytoplankton bloom; the annual ecological event from which everything else derives (think of it like a burst of new green grass in the Serengeti).
In the springtime Antarctic phytoplankton are limited in growth only by the absence of light. Nutrients have been replenishing all winter, there are no grazers around (yet), and the phytoplankton are relatively indifferent to temperature. Right now at Palmer Station we have nearly 18 hours of daylight, what keeps the phytoplankton bloom from exploding right now is the ice. Only 6 % of the light that hits the surface of the fast ice in Arthur Harbor is making its way down into the water. That’s enough to support the growth of specialized ice algae and low-light adapted phytoplankton just below the ice, but not a major bloom deeper in the water column. At just 10 m depth only about 0.01 % of the light that hits the surface remains; it is essentially totally dark.
So as soon as the ice departs the phytoplankton are primed to start growing. In Arthur Harbor the wind is driving the ice away, does this mean a bloom is about to start? Not necessarily. For phytoplankton, what the wind gives it also takes away. A strong wind induces strong vertical mixing in the water column. This impact of vertical mixing on phytoplankton has been studied in places like the North Atlantic for a very long time. Some phytoplankton can swim, but none can swim fast enough to outpace vertical mixing. Under a stiff, sustained wind phytoplankton in the surface are mixed deep into the water column. If they don’t go too deep that’s fine. Below a certain point they can’t photosynthesize enough to meet their metabolic demands (we usually take this to be the 1 % light level), but like all organisms they have energy stores and can wait to get mixed back above this depth. Pushed deep enough however, at what we call the critical depth a phytoplankton cell has insufficient energy stores to make it back to the surface. Under these conditions, although phytoplankton may be growing at the surface, the formation of the bloom will be suppressed.
So what does this have to do with timing? It’s no surprise that the strongest storms happen in the winter. In low sea ice years, with less land fast ice and an earlier retreat of both land fast and pack ice, the surface of the Antarctic ocean is exposed to late winter storms and strong mixing. Phytoplankton that have been overwintering safely in the stable water column below the ice start to grow, but are constantly mixed down below the critical depth. Eventually this stock of phytoplankton is depleted (or much reduced), leaving insufficient numbers to initiate the bloom when conditions finally calm down. This idea has been explored in a number of studies, including this great 1998 paper led by Kevin Arrigo at Stanford and this 2006 study led by Hugh Ducklow at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory. This latter study is particularly interesting because it implicates the Southern Annual Mode (SAM) in determining the strength of the spring bloom. As the plot at right shows it’s clear that SAM isn’t the only thing that determines ice duration, extent, and the strength of the bloom, but it has a clear and logical role.
More recent studies have extended the link between sea ice and SAM to higher trophic levels, including krill. One of my favorite Palmer LTER papers is this 2013 paper by Grace Saba et al., which does a great job of illustrating the link and exploring the idea in the context of climate change. A negative phase in the SAM during the winter and springs leads to low wind and high ice conditions (a double bonus for phytoplanton). These conditions set the stage for a strong bloom and good krill recruitment (a large number of juvenille krill being “recruited” to the sexually mature, adult size class). A positive SAM during the winter and spring leads to low ice, high wind, and a taxonomically different and overall smaller phytoplankon bloom. This leads to fewer krill with a direct negative impact on penguins, seals, seabirds, and whales.
This post is getting long (this is what happens when a sampling day gets weathered out) so I want to end by wrapping it back around to the current season. As I described in a previous post things are a little different this year. The SAM index has generally been positive with some dips into the negative. Only for the month of October was the mean SAM negative, and not very. Despite this there is a definite positive sea ice anomaly. This seems to be driven by the strong, persistent El Niño in the equatorial Pacific that shows no sign of abating any time soon. Regardless of SAM, ice conditions are good this year, in a few weeks we’ll see what that means for the spring bloom when the ice clears out for good!
After a tough couple of weeks things are starting to look up. I’ve got the flow cytometer up and running, and Colleen’s instrument received a complete makeover (thanks to the über instrument tech at Palmer) and is producing good data. The big question is whether I can gain enough proficiency over the next two days to keep it going after Colleen leaves on Sunday.
The operational instrument status comes just in time; yesterday we went back to the sea ice station that we established on Tuesday to do some science. In addition to collecting some pretty novel data it was a good chance to practice the measurements we’ll be making all season for the Palmer LTER. It felt good to get out but hopefully for most of the season it will be a little warmer, however. That it would be cold in early spring in Antarctica is kind of a no-brainer, but that didn’t keep it from surprising me yesterday. And the downside to doing fieldwork cold is that it takes longer, so you end up getting colder, and things take even longer…
In addition to making all the core LTER measurements (see the end for descriptions); chlorophyll a, nutrients (inorganic nitrogen and phosphorous), primary production, bacterial production, dissolved organic carbon, particulate organic carbon, bacterial abundance, photosynthetically active radiation, and UV, we took multiple RNA and DNA samples (my main focus for this trip), large amounts of water for lipidomics (Jamie’s project) and samples to measure hydrogen peroxide. This last measurement was a consolation prize since we couldn’t measure superoxide – the two species have some similarities – and it gives us some indication of what to expect now that Colleen’s instrument is up and running.
So what did we find? It’s early in the season, and there isn’t that much happening yet below the ice. Everything is driven by light, and it’s pretty dark under there. But things are starting to happen, and all the action is near the ice. We measured only two depths in the water column (and that still took us over three hours), just below the ice and 2 meters further down. Even over that short distance there was a big difference in what’s going on. The concentration of hydrogen peroxide – a byproduct of photosynthesis – was much higher near the ice, and there were about four times as many bacteria just beneath the ice than 2 meters below it.
Hopefully, if the weather’s good we’ll get a chance to go back out on Monday. If the ice holds together for just a couple more weeks we’ll be able to document the transition from an ice-covered to an ice-free state, and get the data to test some hypotheses about how bacteria and phytoplankton respond to this transition. In the meantime yesterday’s bitterly cold wind has given way to calm conditions and outside the snow is falling. The woodstove in the Palmer Station galley is putting out a nice glow and the stress of fieldwork is dissipating for a moment…
As promised here’s a quick description of the core LTER measurements:
Chlorophyll a: The principal (but certainly not only) photosynthetic pigment in phytoplankton. Oceanographers having been measuring the concentration of chlorophyll a in the water for a long time as a measure of phytoplankton biomass, and as an estimate of how much primary production is happening.
Primary production: The amount of carbon dioxide that is being taken up by phytoplankton and converted into organic carbon. The whole food web depends on primary production, and much of our work is focused on what aspects of the ecosystem control the amount that happens.
Bacterial production: Sort of the inverse of primary production, this is the amount of organic carbon taken up by bacteria. We can’t measure this directly so we estimate it from the uptake of certain carbon compounds that we can track.
Dissolved organic carbon: One of the most mysterious types of carbon out there (see this article for some indication why). This is organic carbon in pieces small enough for bacteria to take them up.
Particulate organic carbon: Phytoplankton die, they become particulate organic carbon. It’s sad.
Bacterial abundance: The number of bacteria in the water, measured on our now operational flow cytometer.
Nutrients: Nutrients in the ocean are operationally divided into macro and micro categories, depending on their biologically relevant concentrations. We measure nitrogen and phosphorous, the principal macronutrients.
Photosynthetically active radiation (PAR): In addition to nutrients phytoplankton need light to grow. PAR is the part of the electromagnetic spectrum that can actually be used in photosynthesis. Too little PAR (like under thick, snow covered ice) and you get very little photosynthesis. Too much PAR (like at the surface of the ocean during the Antarctic summer) also produces very little photosynthesis!
We’re off to a rough start this season! Two of our instruments are down, including our flow cytometer – annoying, but we can deal with it – and Colleen’s instrument for measuring superoxide. That’s a real problem. Colleen is only with us for five more days. When she leaves the instrument stays, but we will no longer have a skilled operator! Measuring superoxide is not trivial and I was supposed to spend a good chunk of this week learning how to do it. That’s going to be tricky with no instrument. Fortunately the instrument tech at Palmer this season is handy with a soldering iron and seems to have some ideas. We’ll see how that plays out tomorrow.
The one piece of good news this week is that the big storm last Sunday didn’t do much damage to the land-fast sea ice near Palmer Station. At least for now we can do a little science on the ice. This afternoon Jamie Collins, Nicole Couto, and I went out with the SAR team to establish a sea ice sample site near the station. Hopefully we can get a couple weeks of sampling at this site before the sea ice deteriorates.
Being able to do some science on the sea ice at Palmer Station is actually a pretty big deal and an unexpected bonus for this season. In some ways this is a very logical place to study ice. Palmer Station is the United States’ premier polar marine research station, and you can find dozens of papers describing the ecological importance of sea ice in this region. It’s been years however, since anyone was able to routinely access sea ice from the station. Considering the amount of ecological research that takes place here this actually seems a little silly; the single most important feature is virtually ignored for practical reasons. Working on ephemeral, dynamic sea ice requires a set of skills, equipment, and intrepidness that simply doesn’t exist in this day and age within the US Antarctic Program.
Our very small adventure today (on relatively thick, static ice) is reason to hope that that might eventually change. There isn’t a lot of institutional knowledge about sea ice at Palmer Station, but Station staff and management are open minded and seem eager to learn. As a further indication the Cold Regions Research and Engineering Lab recently provided new recommendations for sea ice operations at McMurdo Station, a major step toward a rational, data-based policy for traveling and working on ice (which I’ll link it I can find, too tired to search now… must fix flow cytometer…).
Hopefully we can get some good science done on the sea ice this season. In the Arctic large, under ice phytoplankton blooms are a major source of new carbon to the ecosystem. In the Antarctic blooms of algae at the ice-water interface are an essential food source for juvenile krill – adult krill being the major food source for virtually everything else down here. Getting some indication of when, where, and how often these events occur along the West Antarctic Peninsula will tell us a lot about how these ecosystems function, and what will happen to them as the ice season and range continues to decline.
We arrived at Palmer Station last Thursday morning after a particularly long trip down from Punta Arenas. Depending on the weather the trip across the Drake Passage and down the Peninsula to Anvers Island typically takes about four days. This time however, the Laurence M. Gould had science to do and a NOAA field camp to put in at Cape Shirreff on Livingston Island. This was a particularly welcome event as it gave us an opportunity to get off the boat and get a little exercise unloading 5 months of supplies for the NOAA science team.
Since arriving at Palmer Station the activity has been nonstop. In addition to lab orientations and water safety training there is the seemingly never-ending job of setting up our lab and getting instruments up and running. Yesterday evening following the weekly station meeting we did manage to go for a short ski on the glacier out behind the station. I’m glad we did because today the weather took a real turn for the worse; winds are gusting to 55 knots and strengthening. This is a real concern for us because wind strength and direction are the primary determinant of the presence and condition of sea ice in this area. As I wrote in my previous post we are hoping for sea ice to be either very solid, so we can sample from it or clear out completely, so we can get the zodiacs in the water. We’ll have to wait until the storm passes to see what conditions are like but very likely it will be neither!
We finished our work at the river transect. Now we had one more sample to collect. It was to the north where the abandoned valley is still flooded at the site of the tube well that started this idea. It is well BNGB013 along one of the transects that was done for the BanglaPIRE project. It was done along the side of a major “highway”, so will be accessible and it not far out of our way home. Alamgir had a contact in a nearby village and arranged, and rearranged a driller. We were glad to be heading back
to Dhaka. The hotel we stayed in was the best in Brahmanbaria, but it had bedbugs. In this moderate sized town, the choice of restaurants was limited.
The drillers arrived at our meeting place late. There was a fight between two villages the night before and some people were stabbed. They own a plot of land along the main road in the other village. Those villagers wanted them to swap it for land perpendicular to the road, but they refused. The land along the road is valuable for shops. The result was a fight until the police broke it up, but several people ended up injured. They came without their equipment so
they could sneak quickly through the other town. They got what they needed at the store where we met about 2 km west of the well site. I went ahead and located the exact place we wanted to sample.
Since the well had already been logged and sampled, we only needed to drill down to the sands, making sure the stratigraphy agreed. Relooking at the logs of the well, I realized that we barely had enough extension rods to make it to the sampling depth. Luckily we hit the sands with a couple of feet to spare. We
got our sample and headed for Dhaka. Of course, we hit terrible traffic and were late to dinner with other scientists from our project that just arrived from the U.S. Over dinner I learned that Kazi Matin Ahmed, one of the Dhaka University professors we work with was from a town right near our sampling. He said that growing up he would go to school by boat during the monsoon. The next day was packing up at the university and making copies of everything. We also had to pack up a number of GPS and seismic recorders that need to be returned to the U.S. for repairs. Unsalvageable was one from Madhupur that was destroyed in a fire. This trip was very successful; we achieved all our goals, although as usual, there were a lot of changes of plans on the fly. In Bangladesh, nothing goes as planned, but we always get everything
done. Bangladesh is a country of resilient people who know how to get things done.