Saturday, December 17, 2016

Underwriting and Underwater

Originally published in the Westborough News 12/16/2016.

Insurance is a huge part of the world economy. The world’s insurance companies hold about $30 Trillion in assets.  To get an idea of how much money that is, the US economy is about $17 Trillion. 

One thing all insurance companies won’t do is insure you for flooding. You have to buy a flood policy through the Federal Flood Insurance Program because insurance companies know that they will pay out more in flooding claims than the will ever receive in premiums or returns from investing those premiums. They won’t touch it. This insurance isn’t cheap. I don’t live in a flood zone and flood insurance would increase my home insurance premiums by 60 percent.

According to FEMA, $1.2 Trillion in property in coastal areas are insured by the National Flood Insurance Program. $484 Billion of that in Florida alone. Who is on the hook for losses under that program? You and me, that’s who, because the premiums for flood insurance don’t come close to covering the projected losses.

The most recent available projections are that sea level will rise by about 6 feet by the end of this century, if we do nothing to limit temperature increases to 2 degrees C (and we are already at about 1.2 C). This number does not include daily tidal fluctuations, which can be a few feet depending on location or storm surges which can be a dozen feet or more.

But you don’t have to wait for the collapse of the Antarctic or Greenland ice cap to have your whole day ruined. Just a couple of feet can render a property worthless. This isn’t speculation. It’s already happening.

According research published almost two years ago, sunny day nuisance flooding during high tide is already occurring up and down the eastern seaboard and has increased 10 fold since the 1950s.  In south Florida, daily high water levels have been increasing an inch a year. This flooding kills lawns and trees, destroys septic systems, and contaminates aquifers.

The net effect is that it is making people less likely to want to buy a property within 10 feet of sea level. Home prices in coastal areas have dropped over the last 10 years whereas they have gone up most everywhere else. This is true in coastal Massachusetts as well.

Mortgage companies are also in the risk management business, at least they are now, a decade ago, not so much, but I digress.

The mortgage industry is closely watching sea level rise. According to the chief economist of Federal Home Loan Mortgage Corporation (Freddie Mac) “. . . between $66 billion and $160 billion worth of real estate is expected to be below sea level by 2050. By the end of the century, the range is $238 billion to $507 billion”. In Florida, the chances that up to $346 Billion in property will be submerged by 2100 is 1 in 20. I think the likelihood is far higher than that.

These trends will lead to the collapse of the coastal housing market much sooner than 2050. Within a few years, what banker in their right mind would write a 30-year mortgage for a coastal property under even the most optimistic scenarios of sea level rise, especially in places like south Florida? What home buyer would buy a home in a flood prone area? What are the knock-on effects of such a collapse on the rest of our economy?

The answers: None, no one, and nothing good.

A coalition of 29 insurance giants, including Allianz, Lloyds of London, and Swiss RE, among many others, have observed that “Since the 1950s, the frequency of weather-related catastrophes, such as windstorms and floods, has increased six-fold. As climate-related risks occur more often and predictably, previously insurable assets are becoming uninsurable, or those already underinsured further compromised.”  Losses have quintupled since the 1980s alone. There is an increasing gap between potential losses and how much insurance coverage is actually available right now.

Major multi-national insurance companies have no reason to make this stuff up and this coalition is putting its money where its mouth is, by reconsidering how they invest their vast assets which include funding projects which increase society’s ability to cope with floods, storms, and heat waves.
Insurance companies are very concerned about global warming, even if our incoming political leadership denies its existence, because they actually see what is happening.  As one insurance executive stated, “We understand climate change as underwriters, because we are trying to manage the physical consequences of the severe weather we get from climate change.”

Already, no one will insure a home that could be underwater. Soon, no one will finance a home that could be underwater, and by this I mean literally, not financially.

Do you think the incoming administration will listen to the leaders of the insurance and mortgage industries because it’s darn clear they won’t listen to scientists?

Nah – me neither.

Follow the Money

Originally published in the Westborough News on 11/28/2016)

Like a lot of people, I have been trying to make sense of the election of Donald Trump to the Presidency of the United States and its impact on US policy. Among those polices are the ones on global warming.

His views on global warming have been all over the place, ranging from “The concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive” (tweet from 11/6/2012) to “I think there is some connectivity [to human activity]. Some, something” and that what he will address it “depends on how much it’s going to cost our companies.” (NY Times, 11/22/2016).

It’s clear that Mr. Trump looks at the world through a financial lens, so regardless of his words, let’s follow the money.

Trump’s pick to head the transition at EPA is economist Myron Ebell, Director of Global Warming and International Environmental Policy at the libertarian think tank, the Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI), which apparently gets a lot of funding from oil companies like Exxon Mobil. He is totally dismissive of climate research and, according to Politico, thinks “that alarmist environmentalists are using the specter of climate change to push through their Big Government agenda.” 

Interestingly, Ebell was also dismissive of research linking tobacco to lung cancer when he received funding from the tobacco industry in the 1990s.

Follow the money.

Trump’s senior advisor, Robert Walker, wants NASA to eliminate all funding for “politically correct environmental monitoring” which he describes as “politicized science”. Walker thinks other agencies, like NOAA, can better handle such work, although there is no indication at this time that the reduction in NASA’s budget would be shifted to those other agencies.

Follow the money.

What difference will this policy change make?  I think not much.

Atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration is still 40% higher than it was just two centuries ago and is at a level not seen since the Miocene, 3 million years ago, when palm trees could be found as far north as Alaska. The Arctic ice pack volume is still 75% lower than it was a few decades ago. Mountain glaciers are still receding at record rates. The frequency of extreme weather events is still increasing. Long term droughts still plague regions like the American south west and Australia. Western wildfires have increased three fold since the 1970s.  I could go on.
None of those impacts are going to go away, now or any time in the next several centuries.

Trump’s free market energy policies will not make the coal industry return, because it is being replaced by cheaper natural gas. Even if all Federal lands are opened up to oil and gas drilling, it’s cheaper for companies to go after petroleum resources in areas with extensive infrastructure already in place, like West Texas, where the USGS recently estimated that an existing shale formation previously ignored probably contains 20 billion barrels of oil and 16 trillion cubic feet of natural gas.

An interesting trend is occurring though, the increase in CO2 concentrations has slowed over the last couple of years, because China has started to burn less coal. China’s major cities are choking on coal pollution and China also realizes the impact climate change is making on their country. Most of their major cities are right at sea level and the rate at which their agricultural regions are turning to desert is alarming. It is in China’s long term financial self-interest to address climate change. They know it and they are acting accordingly.

Follow the money.

Our incoming government hasn’t figured that out yet. 

However, according to the NY Times, “Hundreds of American companies, including Mars, Nike, Levi Strauss, and Starbucks, have urged . . . Trump not to abandon the Paris climate deal, saying a failure by the United States to build a clean economy endangers American prosperity . . . Failure to build a low-carbon economy puts American prosperity at risk.”

The article quotes an executive at Mars, who states that regardless of government policies, they will continue to reduce emissions. “We’re doing this because we see a real business risk. We see a real business problem.”

Follow the money.

As I wrote earlier this year, our President-elect’s representatives petitioned the Irish government to build a 1.7 mile long sea wall to protect his recently purchased Doonbeg golf resort. Why does he need this wall? According to Politico, the permit application “explicitly cites global warming and its consequences — increased erosion due to rising sea levels and extreme weather this century — as a chief justification for building the structure.”

Oh, the hypocracy. I say again . . . Follow the money.

Alternative Energy is Going Mainstream

Originally published in the Westborough News on 10/10/2016

Of the 4 trillion kilowatt hours of electric energy produced in the U.S., a third is generated by the burning of coal, down from a peak of over 50 percent in 1997. You may think that the reason for this decline is because of President Obama's "War on Coal" as Senator Mitch McConnell likes to call it.

You would also be wrong.

Obama's "Clean Power Plan", which would regulate the carbon dioxide emissions from any power plant burning fossil fuels hasn't even kicked in yet because coal producers and over 20 states are suing in Federal Court to stop it.

No, coal is declining because it is cheaper to produce, transport, and burn natural gas extracted from abundant subsurface shale formations using hydraulic fracturing technology (aka fracking) which came of age in the early 2000s.

But it's a cheaper fossil fuel that is "fueling" coal's decline and that is not such a good thing, because shale gas isn't exactly environmentally benign, far from it. That's a subject for another column, though.

Bottom line though - coal is dying.

For most of us here in Westborough, how we get the electricity that powers our homes is not something that concerns us. Out of sight, out of mind. We don't see mountaintop removal coal strip mines or massive drilling facilities used to extract gas from shales by fracking. We don't see power plant smoke stacks or the landfills and wet storage ponds used to store highly toxic coal ash and sludge.

What we do see more and more in Westborough are solar panels. Solar panels on residential roof tops and solar panel fields located at Harvey Farm, Milk Street near the railroad overpass, Fisher Street near Otis Street, and along the Massachusetts Turnpike.

It is something we will be seeing more and more of, for many reasons.

I was one of the first homeowners in Westborough to install photovoltaic solar panels on my roof back in 2008. Eight years ago, solar panels cost about $4 per watt. Each of the 24 panels on my roof could generate 195 watts of power. Today, similar sized panels can generate as much as 345 watts and cost as little as $0.50 per watt, a stunning 800% decrease in price, and 76% increase in efficiency!

My "primitive system" still replaces over 75 percent of my total electric use. Today's typical residential system costs less than half of mine and generates more electricity than most households could use. The excess is sold back to the grid.

One of the big arguments against alternative energy is that it is inconsistent. The wind doesn't always blow and the sun doesn't always shine and that is why large "utility scale" commercial solar systems currently account for only 1 percent of all commercial power generated in the U.S, with wind accounting for about 5 percent.

Electric grid operators also are fighting back against connecting non-commercial residential solar to the grid for the same reason. The grid is not designed to handle the highly variable load from so many homes.

But even the intermittent power hurdle is rapidly being overcome through more and more sophisticated battery technology. The Department of Energy states that grid-scale battery storage capacity has increased by a factor of 10 since 2008, while the cost has dropped almost 75 percent. The cost is expected to drop another 20 to 27 percent by 2018. The same is true at the residential level, where a battery storage system now costs the same as a new oil burner or gas furnace.

Still, alternative energy is growing as "policies in three-quarters of America's states encourage the addition of wind and solar as replacements for coal. As costs have dropped, some states are pushing a faster switch to those renewables," according to a recent Case Western Reserve University study.

There are approximately 174,000 people working in the U.S. coal industry, including mining, transport, and power plants and that number is rapidly declining. In 2015, the solar energy and wind energy industries employed 209,000 and 88,000 people respectively and grew 20 percent from just the previous year.

Add onto these numbers the fact that almost two million people are employed in the energy efficiency sector, which increased by 14 percent this last year, and you can see that far from being a job killer, moving to a low carbon energy economy is creating whole new industries, creating new, cheaper and more efficient energy production technology and making rapid inroads into our energy production.

As of 2015, solar systems in the U.S. alone generated 25 gigawatts of electricity and accounted for 29.5 percent of all new electric generating capacity that year, beating out new natural gas power plant installations. Rooftop solar alone could eventually account for 40 percent of all U.S. electric power generation.

It is not out of the realm of possibility that within the next decade, new homes will include solar power generation and storage systems just the way they now include heating, plumbing, and kitchen appliances, because the systems will be that cheap.

Alternative energy is not a pie-in-the-sky liberal fantasy. It is in fact becoming an important contributor to how we get our electric energy. Given what we know about our warming planet, alternative energy is not an alternative.

Is it dry enough for ya?

Originally published in the Westborough News on 09/20/2016

I have used my lawn mower this July about as often as I used my snow blower last January, which is to say, not much. My lawn is a lovely shade of brown.

By the time you read this, we will have come out from a multi-day heat wave in Massachusetts, where daily maximum temperatures exceed 90 degrees for 3 days or more. According to my backyard weather station (and the National Weather Service), this one lasted 8 days.

This latest heat wave is not the longest we have had in Massachusetts. That record belongs to a 9-day heat wave back in July, 1912, so we came darn close, but this heat wave is one of the top longest 10 heat waves.

The interesting this is, these long duration heatwaves used to occur on average about every 37 years. Since 1980, they occur about every 5 years.

Can we say that this PARTICULAR heat wave is a DIRECT result of climate change?

Technically no. There are all sorts of local reasons for any given weather event.

HOWEVER - the increasing frequency and extent of such heat waves is the direct result of global warming. Period.

This trend IS climate change. Right here, right now.

Summers here in Massachusetts are getting hotter too.  July average daily temperatures have increased over 3 degrees since 1900 and maximum daily temperatures by over 4 degrees. I am not making this up, you can see for yourself at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) web site and they will plot it up very nicely for you ( Your tax dollars at work.

June 2016 was the 14th straight month of record breaking monthly average temperatures. According to NASA and NOAA.  This year is on track to be another record-breaking year for global average temperatures.

This year is on track to be another record-breaking year for global average temperatures. So far, data from NOAA shows global average temperatures this year are already over 0.2 degrees higher than last year. That doesn’t seem like a lot until you realize that the amount of energy it takes to cause that global temperature increase that much is equivalent to the total energy output of the United States roughly 720,000 years which is a rather large number.

So here’s the scary thing. Last December’s Paris Climate Summit produced an agreement to limit warming to no more than 1.5 degrees C from 1900 but the current spike in global temperatures already have the world flirting with that temperature level within the next few years, even though the agreement is looking to accomplish this over the next few decades.

I look at the data and have come to my own conclusion that things are starting to move very quickly. I hope that this year’s rapid increase in global temperatures will not repeat itself. 2017 could be cooler than this year or last but unless there is a major volcanic eruption like Pinatubo in the early 1990’s, which temporarily cooled the planet, the chances of a next year being cooler are decreasing.

I am not writing this stuff to scare you. I am just stating the facts, because most of the day-to-day media aren’t doing it in a way that really emphasizes what we are facing when they pay more attention to a) whether Taylor Swift is dating Tom Hiddleston, b) whether Tom Brady was shafted by Roger Goodell, c) whether David Price was worth it, or d) whether the latest tweets from Donald Trump will finally derail his campaign.

In case you were wondering: a) who cares?,  b) yes, c) no, and d) I doubt it.

Adaptation or Retreat . . . or Both

Originally published in the Westborough News on 07/13/2016

In my last column, I asked the question - "What are we going to do about global warming?"

Fact of the matter is that no matter what we do right now, we are going to have to adapt. The window on preventing substantial changes to global climate and consequent knock-on effects probably closed about 10 years ago.

In basic physics you learn about inertia and momentum - objects at rest tend to stay at rest and objects that are moving tend to stay moving. It's like when you try to push a car in neutral gear. It's really hard to get the car going but you don't want to be in front of it when it's finally moving.

Although the physics is not the same, the Earth's climate can also be described using these same two concepts from Newtonian mechanics. By increasing the carbon dioxide content of the atmosphere by 42 percent in less than two centuries, we have applied a very strong push to the Earth's climate unprecedented in the geologic record since the extinction of the dinosaurs and we are only now starting to see it shifting. That extra CO2 will be there for the next millennium.

We cannot take that push back, so we will have to adapt and that is not going to be easy. In this country, there are already climate refugees.

In Louisiana, a small community of 60 Native Americans are going to be relocated because the bayous they have lived in for generations are being swallowed by the Gulf of Mexico. The Mississippi delta is not a perfect example of the impacts of sea level rise - the reasons for the disappearance of the delta are many, but sea level rise is among them. Regardless, relocating this Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw settlement will cost $48 million of our tax dollars.

In Alaska, the Inupiat village of Shishmaref voted to move their village 10 years ago as powerful winter storms eroded the melting permafrost out from underneath their homes. They are still trying to get it done a decade later.

We are no stranger to the effects of a rising ocean here in Massachusetts. Cape Cod is a relic of the ice age, a huge jumble of silt, sand, gravel, and boulders that define the furthest extent of the Laurentide Ice Sheet that once covered New England.

The Cape has always been reshaped by waves and storms, but now, rising sea levels are accelerating changes to this ephemeral landscape of shifting sands. The parking lot at Herring Cove Beach in Provincetown is being destroyed as the ocean pushes inland and the National Park Service is embarking on a program called "managed retreat" to start relocating facilities on public lands further away from the ocean all around the Cape.

Quoting Professor of Law Michael Gerrard, in a recent article in the New York Times: "It reflects a sound planning approach that is regrettably uncommon so far. As sea-level rise advances [managed retreat] is going to become increasingly important in large parts of the country." It's also going to be very expensive. Just moving the Herring Cove Beach parking lot is going to cost $3 million.

Moving a parking lot is child's play compared to other areas of the US.

I was once chided by a climate change denier who asked me why people in Florida were not retreating from their coast lines. They are not retreating yet but it's getting increasingly more expensive to stay there.

According to an article in the Guardian, "Miami Beach is spending $400 million to raise roads and install pumps to drain streets that experience regularly flooding at high-tide - and to prevent salt water from contaminating fresh water storage inland, " because sea level is expected to be almost 3 feet higher by mid-century.

Even those expenditures will be dwarfed by the value of real estate that, according to NOAA, will be underwater by mid-century. In Coral Gables, 10 percent of the homes, worth $3 billion, will be flooded permanently.

Florida is in tough shape for a couple of reasons. First, it is composed of porous limestone so rising seas will come up from below, rendering sea walls ineffective. Second, large parts of the state are within 10 feet of sea level. Third, Governor Rick Scott won't allow his own state environmental officials to utter the phrase "global warming".

Now, we are a first world country and the impending impacts of sea level rise alone are presenting daunting prospects for adaptation. Imagine if you are a third world country like Bangladesh where tens of millions of desperately poor people live within 10 feet of sea level and ocean storms can flood as far as 120 miles inland.

The impacts of global warming do not, and will not, respect socio-economic status or wealth.

According to the above mentioned Guardian article, a certain real estate tycoon's crown-jewel Florida resorts will be subject to the same effects. Mar-a-lago in Palm Beach will be flooded 210 days per year by 2045.

This same real estate tycoon recently petitioned the Irish government to build a 1.7 mile long sea wall to protect his recently purchased Doonbeg golf resort. Why does he need this wall? According to Politico, the permit application "explicitly cites global warming and its consequences - increased erosion due to rising sea levels and extreme weather this century - as a chief justification for building the structure."

Same guy who says global warming is a hoax. You just cannot make this stuff up.

It's Not Your Imagination

Originally published in the Westborough News on 07/01/2016

There was an interesting article in the New York Times a couple of months back with the headline “Global Warming Feels Quite Pleasant.”

The article states that “80 percent of Americans now find themselves living in counties where the weather is more pleasant than it was four decades ago.” The reason is that temperature increases have not been even. So far, winters have gotten warmer by a bit over 1 degree F per decade whereas summers have only warmed 0.13 degrees F per decade and average humidity has decreased.

If you live in a temperate part of the US closer to the coast like we do here in Westborough, what’s not to like? 

Of course, if you live in Southern California, West Virginia, South Carolina, Texas, maybe not as much.

If you think there have been more and more news stories about such disasters as flash floods, intense storms and wild fires – it is not your imagination, it’s because that is what is happening.

I have been watching these news events and decided to do a bit of digging. I went to as unbiased a source of information as I could find, the Insurance Information Institute, for some information. They had some very helpful graphs ( which show what is going on. 

The trend for severe storms has gone from roughly 30 a year in the 1980s to over 50 a year in the last decade. 

Likewise major flood events have gone from less than 5 per year in the 1980s to over 10 a year in the last decade. 

Western wild fires have increased three fold from 1970 until now and the number of fires per year is tied very closely to average annual temperatures in that region (

The saying goes in science that correlation is not causation. It could be coincidence that as the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere is increases, so does the frequency of extreme weather events. 

After all, there is an astounding correspondence between the per capital consumption of mozzarella cheese and the number of awarded civil engineering doctorates per year or the number of swimming pool drownings versus the number of films Nicolas Cage has appeared in (

So why pay attention to catastrophes versus greenhouse gas concentrations and not drownings versus Nicholas Cage movies?

The answer is causation. There is no causal mechanism to make the connection between the silly correlations above, but there is one for greenhouse gases versus weather-related natural disasters.

That’s where science comes into play.

Theories in science are not hazy guesses. The throwaway line in a movie – “It’s only a theory” has always made me cringe. 

What they are, are ideas supported by a wealth of facts, which describe and PREDICT conditions in nature.

I emphasis the word “predict” because any scientific theory must make predictions that can either be tested in the lab or compared to the world at large. If the predictions are not borne out by the facts, the theory must either be rejected or modified. That’s the way science works. 

The scientific theory of human-caused climate change is based on well-known facts, the first being that carbon dioxide and methane absorb heat radiation. It makes predictions such as – global air temperatures will increase as greenhouse gas concentrations increase; the number of intense weather events will increase; the oceans will warm; drier areas will become drier; wetter areas will become wetter; glaciers will melt; sea level will rise, to name but a few. 

These predictions are exactly what we are seeing – all over the planet and these changes are happening very quickly. We are seeing changes over the course of one or two generations that are unprecedented in the 150 year instrumental weather records and as near as we can tell, unprecedented in the geologic record going back tens of millions of years.

It’s not your imagination. The question is – what are we going to do about it? Not the government, not the UN, not aliens – us. What are WE going to do about it?

I'll Sue You, You'll Sue Me . . .

Originally published in the Westborough News on 06/24/2016

Once upon a time, there was a publicly-traded multi-national company which made products used by people all over the world and they made a lot of money doing it. They hired the best scientists and engineers so that they could make sure they always had enough raw materials to continue to make these products. They even had their own fleet of ships to transport their raw materials and products all over the planet.

Some of the company’s scientists came up with the brilliant idea of using their far-traveling fleet of ships to collect scientific data during their ocean-spanning journeys. They used that data and some of the best mathematical computer models in use by premier research institutions to process the data and published their findings in widely read scientific journals. 

They were considered pioneers in their area of research.

As a result of this research, this company knew that its products were causing problems of a world spanning nature. They were so concerned about these findings that they actually decided to not extract raw materials from property they leased in Indonesia because of the effects it would cause.

Fiction? No. The company is Exxon and the year was 1980. The lease in question was an offshore gas field in Malaysia containing perhaps the largest untapped reservoir of natural gas in the world, but which also contained so much CO2 that Exxon decided to shelve the project.

In 1980, this is what Exxon research scientists were saying about CO2 in our atmosphere:
There is no doubt that increases in fossil fuel usage and decreases in forest cover are aggravating the potential problem of increased CO2 in the atmosphere.”

In fact, Exxon’s scientists were publishing articles about the dangers of rapidly increasing CO2 on the atmosphere and weather patterns as far back as 1970.

A decade later, the company changed its tune regarding CO2. By 1989, Exxon was funding industry groups such as the “Global Climate Coalition” whose mission was to create uncertainty around climate science and oppose policies which would reduce greenhouse gas emissions, even though the group’s own scientists stated that “The scientific basis for the Greenhouse Effect and the potential impact of human emissions of greenhouse gases such as CO2 on climate is well established and cannot be denied.”

Exxon is one of a number of major companies in the fossil fuel business who in aggregate spent hundreds of millions of dollars to fight legislation aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions and to sew doubt about climate science.

The end result is that 25 years later, we have a presidential candidate who tweets that “the concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive.”

Mission accomplished, Exxon.

But there’s a problem.

Seventeen state attorneys general are now investigating Exxon for making fraudulent statements to shareholders, including our own Attorney General Maura Healey, who stated that “Fossil fuel companies that deceived investors and consumers about the dangers of climate change should be held accountable. That’s why we have joined in investigating Exxon Mobil. We can all see today the troubling disconnect between what Exxon knew and what the company shared with the public regarding the consequences of burning the fuel it markets.”

This statement really pissed off Exxon, so it has filed its own law suit (in Texas) against AG Healey to impede her own investigation into Exxon’s own research and corporate decisions.
The Massachusetts AG’s office responded to Exxon by saying that "Our investigation is based not on speculation but on inconsistencies about climate change in Exxon documents which have been made public. The First Amendment does not protect false and misleading statements in the marketplace.”

Exxon has responded that these investigations “are an attempt to limit free speech and are the antithesis of scientific inquiry.”  In addition, the investigation “. . . would still violate the First Amendment, because it burdens Exxon’s political speech . . .”

In other words, Exxon is saying that they have the right to make statements they know are fraudulent because such speech is protected under the First Amendment (quoting Mitt Romney: “Corporations are people, my friend.”). 

A person can stand up in a crowded theater and yell “Fire!”, but is it protected speech?

Me thinks not.

I leave you with this factoid: On Thursday, June 10th, it was 75 degrees in the town Nuuk, about 30 degrees above average and 4 degrees warmer than in New York City that same day. It was the warmest day ever recorded there in June.

So what?

Nuuk is the capital of Greenland. It is located at a latitude of 64 degrees, 24 degrees further north than New York.

Anyone ready to yell “fire!”?

The Day After Tomorrow

“It ain't what you don't know that gets you into trouble. It's what you know for sure that just ain't so.” – Samuel Clemens

Anyone remember the 2004 movie “The Day After Tomorrow” where global warming throws the world into a new ice age overnight and we all end up as refugees in Mexico? I won’t blame you if you don’t, because it was a pretty forgettable movie whose premise was based on a novel written by a guy who is still certain he was abducted by aliens in 1983. 

Catastrophes do happen though and the realization that they have happened on a worldwide scale represents a paradigm shift in the fields of geology and paleontology. I can pinpoint the exact day that this shift occurred – June 6th, 1980, when Luis and Walter Alvarez published “Extraterrestrial Cause for the Cretaceous-Tertiary Extinction” (layman’s translation: - “The Day the Killer Asteroid Wiped out the Dinosaurs”) in the highly regarded journal “Science.”

It took well over a decade, but the scientific community finally decided the Alvarez’s were right. Subsequently, when geologists went back to look at the geologic record with a new perspective, they came the realization that many other geologic events like mass extinctions probably occurred far more swiftly than originally thought.

Like all geologists, I learned that the “present is the key to the past” - that the slow and steady geologic processes we see today can explain the geologic record. This principle was espoused by Charles Lyell, considered the “father of geology.” Back in the early nineteenth century Lyell’s principle was very insightful, based on his scientific observations at the time, but we know a lot more now than we did almost 200 years ago.

Today, earth scientists of all stripes look at the geologic record with the perspective that “the past could be the key to the present,” which finally brings me to the main focus of this week’s column.

Our current climate is part of an “interglacial” – a warm period between ice ages.  The last interglacial occurred 125,000 years ago, a time period called the Eemian when the CO2 concentration was 285 ppm, roughly where it was just 200 years ago, when Lyell was a young man. Atmospheric CO2 is now above 400 ppm and increasing at rate unlike anything seen since the demise of the dinosaurs.

The interesting thing about the Eemian is that although global average temperatures were just a tad bit warmer than today, sea levels were 6 to 9 meters (20 to 30 feet) higher. 

So what does the Eemian have to say about what’s going on in our world today? Recent peer-reviewed papers published in the last few months have investigated this question. 

One paper looked at what rapidly warming air could do to the Antarctic Ice shelves, which sit on the ocean floor and hold back the glaciers on the Antarctic continent. This paper calculates that the Antarctic glaciers could collapse within the next 100 years due to a process called structural failure.

Just as dams can fail when their structure is too weak to hold back the water, the cliffs of ice at the edges of the ice shelves can also fail when they become too weak in the warming polar atmosphere, causing the rest of the ice shelf to collapse like lines of dominos.

Another group of scientists, led by James Hansen, formerly of NASA, calculate that cold, freshwater from the melting Greenland and Antarctic ice caps will cool the ocean’s surface waters, trapping warmer water at depth where they will start to melt the ice shelves from below, accelerating their disintegration, leading to ice shelf to collapse and rapid sea level rise within the next 100 years.

I would note that over the last few years, signs of this surface ocean cooling and deep water warming are already being measured in the far northern Atlantic south of Greenland and in the Southern Ocean off of Antarctica.

So, here we have two recently-published peer-reviewed papers, both of which describe how the Antarctic ice cap could collapse a whole lot faster than anyone thinks, leading to significant sea level increases in a matter of decades that until recently was thought would take centuries. 

Both papers suggest that the planet could be near a tipping point, when our global climate could change quickly. Not Hollywood-disaster-movie quick, but within-our-lifetimes quick.
Are these predictions accurate? 

Hansen’s predictions and calls to action have been described as alarmist. On the other hand, maybe we should be alarmed.


Hansen testified before Congress in 1988 that global warming had begun and used his mathematical models to predict that global average temperatures were set to increase by about 0.75 degrees C by 2005. 

His now 30-year old predictions were pretty much spot on. 

That’s why.

Originally published in the Westborough News on 04/08/2016

What a Difference a Year Makes

I heat my home with fuel oil and spread my payments to my heating oil provider throughout the year on a budget plan. It can sometimes be annoying to shovel a couple of hundred bucks at my oil company starting in July, watching the balance build up and up, but it can also be gratifying to see the balance decline after a delivery, knowing that I don't have to shell out $500 or $600 all at once.

This winter, which ends officially in about two weeks, the balance just kept going up. I figured I would stop sending money to the oil company at the beginning of February because there was no way I was going to be needing $1,500 worth of heating oil between now and July, but the company beat me to it, sending me a notice which in essence said "PLEASE DON'T SENT US ANY MORE MONEY."

Last December, I predicted, with tongue firmly in cheek, that we would have a mild winter because I had just spent a lot of money on a brand spanking new snow blower. We did (so far) have a mild winter, but I knew it was not because of my now little-used snow blower (though I have to admit, it made short work of the snow we did have).

Based on my review of the literature, I knew it would be a mild winter because of the ocean circulation changes known as El Nino, which I have discussed before.

Much as I am gratified to not be spending money on heating oil and to be disappointed that I didn't get to play with my new toy as much as I wanted to, there is more than an exceptionally strong El Nino going on here, which doesn't bode well at all.

Last month was the warmest February on record in the Arctic. Average temperature in the central Arctic were 11 to 14 degrees F above the historical mean, which puts them at levels not normally seen until June. The February extent of sea ice in the Arctic decreased by about 448,000 square miles from historical averages, which is roughly equivalent to the combined area of Texas AND California.

It was so warm in Anchorage that the organizers of the Iditarod had to ship in snow by rail for the starting leg of the race. Alaska itself has seen its average winter temperatures rise by 6 degrees F in the last 60 years (twice as much as the lower 48 states).

Most people studying these phenomena do not think these observations have anything to do with El Nino. One of the main predictions by climate scientists is that the effects of accelerated global warming would be felt first in the Arctic.

The record-setting February, which followed a record-setting January was so significant that even diehard climate "skeptics" are starting to admit that the Earth, is in fact, getting warmer.

The warming of the Arctic is of much more consequence than just starving polar bears and native villages (30 so far) which have been or are about to be relocated away from their ancestral coastal locations due to melting shorelines. About 24 percent of the northern hemisphere is underlain by a vast layer of permafrost or frozen ground, which contains a huge volume of un-decayed organic matter, like peat.

As the permafrost thaws, this material starts to decay, which releases methane, which is 25 times more potent as a greenhouse gas than CO2. Scientists estimate that the Arctic's permafrost contains about 1.4 trillion tons of carbon which can be converted to methane and CO2. By contrast, the Earth's atmosphere contains 0.85 trillion tons of carbon in the form of CO2 and lesser amounts of other gases.

So as the permafrost thaws, more greenhouse gases will be released, which will accelerate warming and cause more thawing in a "positive" feedback loop. This trend is positive only in the sense that the effects are ever increasing.

The question is how fast this process is happening and scientists do not know the answer. Even though the speed of this process has not been quantified, the fact is that the permafrost is observably thawing out.

Ten years ago, scientists were predicting that locations such as Prudhoe Bay on Alaska's North Slope, would be stable until the 2070s. Much to their alarm, these areas are already melting. That ought to tell you something.

So here we are closing out a winter which could not have been more different than the previous one.

Will we see a winter like 2014/15 again in the future? Will we see a year with temperatures lower than 2015? I am sure we will, but as time goes on, the probability of these conditions happening on a year over year basis is going to decrease.

Good news for my heating oil bill. Bad news for the Iditarod . . . and the permafrost.

Originally published in the Westborough News on 03/11/2016

This is for All the Lonely People

"During 2015, the average temperature across global land and ocean surfaces was 1.62 degrees F (0.90 degrees C) above the 20th century average . . . surpassing the previous record set last year by 0.29 degrees F (0.16degrees C) and marking the fourth time a global temperature record has been set this century. This is also the largest margin by which the annual global temperature record has been broken." - National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, January, 2016

Climate researchers were sure that 2015 would go into the record books based on what happened in 1998, when a major El Nino event led to record high global average temperatures. That record stood until 2005, which was not a year of an El Nino event. Nor were 2010 or 2014, which were also record breaking years.

As an aside, an El Nino occurs when trade winds in the sub-tropic eastern Pacific weaken, allowing sea surface temperatures to increase, so that heat energy stored deep in the ocean can discharge to the atmosphere and then can disrupt weather patterns from Southeast Asia to the Western Atlantic. A strong El Nino releases a vast amount of energy.

Now, 0.9 degree C may not sound like much until you translate it into the amount of energy it takes to make that increase - about 4.5 exaJoules or the entire energy consumption of the US . . . for 3.6 million years. Also, the increase is just for the temperature of the earth's surface. Scientists estimate that the oceans have absorbed 90 percent of the heat energy produced by global warming since the mid-20th century so the amount of heat the Earth's oceans have absorbed is TEN times that amount.

If you wonder where the heat driving the 2015-16 El Nino came from, look no further.

As I wrote last summer, when the Earth was about 8 degrees C cooler than today, Westborough was under a mile or two of ice. Do you want to hazard a guess what things will be like when the earth is even 4 degrees warmer than the mid-20th century, which is the current projection for 2100?

"Look, if anybody still wants to dispute the science around climate change, have at it. You'll be pretty lonely, because you'll be debating our military, most of America's business leaders, the majority of the American people, almost the entire scientific community, and 200 nations around the world who agree it's a problem and intend to solve it." - President Barack Obama, January 12, 2016

I have been surprised that the columns I have written on global warming have not produced that much feedback, even though, to my surprise, they were published in more than just the Westborough News. In the months since I started writing, I have had only a few people contact me directly.

A couple of them were in the President's "lonely" category and they made their opinions of me very clear, starting with terms such as "ignorant," "deluded," "stupid," and going down from there. Curiously, they have even accused me of having my head in the sand, which is weird since I am not the one denying what is going on here.

I expect further apoplexy about this column and repetition of arguments such as temperatures are not increasing, the data are all faked, that this is a conspiracy among climate researchers to get more money, CO2 has nothing to do with warming, it's all natural, it's the sun, that I am alarmist, ad infinitum.

They have claimed bias and that a balanced point of view is not being published; however, science isn't about equal time. It's about the data and if the data support your ideas, then they win the day (and by the way, I am not stopping the paper from publishing any viewpoint other than my own).

There are still a few atmospheric scientists who are contrarians. An example is Richard Lindzen, formerly of MIT and now a paid consultant for the libertarian think tank, the Cato Institute. Lindzen predicted that temperatures would never exceed natural variability of 0.1 degree give or take 0.3 degrees. As we can see, we are way beyond that now. Still Lindzen insists that the climate models and data are wrong.

Lindzen no longer publishes any research. His last paper was rejected by the National Academy of Sciences because he cherry-picked the data. Instead, he writes op-eds for the Wall Street Journal which claim that trying to address climate change will devastate our economy.

I am sure you can find medical doctors who still think germs don't cause disease or smoking doesn't cause lung cancer. Like Lindzen, they represent a tiny minority.

"Climate change poses another significant challenge for the United States and the world at large. As greenhouse gas emissions increase, sea levels are rising, average global temperatures are increasing, and severe weather patterns are accelerating. These changes . . . will devastate homes, land, and infrastructure. These effects are threat multipliers that will aggravate stressors abroad such as poverty, environmental degradation, political instability, and social tensions - conditions that can enable terrorist activity and other forms of violence" - U.S. Department of Defense Quadrennial Defense Review 2014

If I am an alarmist, I am in good company.

Originally published in the Westborough News on 01/29/2016

So What Is The "Anthropocene" Anyway?

Short answer is that if a proposal by international group of scientists is accepted, the Anthropocene will be the newest member of the geologic time scale.

Before the advent of radiometric dating, which allowed geologists to know with a decent degree of precision how old rocks are, geologists used a relative time scale, based on the types of fossils or major changes in geologic strata. Until the beginning of the 20th century, all a geologist could tell you is that rocks containing the bones of dinosaurs were younger than rocks containing the shells of trilobites, but not how much younger.

So geologists created a time scale which broke down the history of the Earth into ever smaller groupings called Eons, Eras, Periods, and Epochs. Therefore, we live in the Holocene Epoch of the Quaternary Period of the Cenozoic Era of the Phanerozoic Eon. Got it?

The Cenozoic started 65 million years ago, with the extinction of the dinosaurs. The Quaternary started about 2.6 million years ago, when the Earth started into a cycle of periodic worldwide glaciations. The Holocene started about 11,700 years ago, with the end of the last ice age.

The term "Anthropocene" is derived from Greek for human and recent. The idea of the Anthropocene is not new and geologists as far back as the late 1800s looked at humanity's effect on the planet and thought we were entering a new geologic era defined by man's impact on the planet.

The key here is whether human impact on the planet is leaving a definable imprint on the geologic record. The short answer to that question is yes. The decision regarding when the Anthropocene starts will be based on which imprint is chosen because there are several.

Anyone who doubts that humans are changing the planet need only drive down Rte. 9 in Westborough and look at the pile of dirt in front of the Car Max site. A few excavators made that pile in just a few days. It would take nature tens of thousands of years to redistribute that much material in this neck of the woods, short of some catastrophe like a major earthquake or flood event. In fact, humans move more dirt and rock in a given year than all natural erosion processes combined.

Changes in how sediments get to and are deposited in the oceans are being caused by deforestation, damming of rivers, construction of roads and cities, among other human activities. If it weren't for the active intervention of the Corps of Engineers, the Mississippi River would have shifted course to the Atchafalaya River basin in Western Louisiana decades ago, changing how sediments are deposited in the Gulf of Mexico.

Humans are driving changes in the distribution of organisms around the planet and it is a documented fact that humans are driving many forms of life to extinction at a rate many times that which might be expected to occur if we weren't around. I mentioned above that geologists used to define geologic time by changes in the fossil record. Those changes usually coincide with extinction events, like the demise of the dinosaurs.

Mercury from the burning of coal and a radioactive elements derived from nuclear fallout are also detectable in sediments deposited in the oceans and large bodies of freshwater. And of course, humans are changing the atmosphere. Scientists have long been able to make accurate estimates of how the Earth's atmosphere has changed over geologic time. Glaciologists have studied air trapped in glacial ice going back almost 800,000 years. Further back than that, the composition of the atmosphere can be deduced from the distribution of isotopes of carbon, oxygen and other elements bound up in the fossils of microorganisms deposited on the sea floor.

This is how we know what the composition of the atmosphere has been for many millions of years in the past and how we know that atmospheric changes which have occurred over the last century are unprecedented in the geologic record at least since the beginning of the Cenozoic, some 65 million years ago.

A 2014 paper published in the journal "Geology" discussed how the 6 billion tons of plastic produced since 1950 are starting to show up in the geologic record. A new term has been coined for one type of this material: "plastiglomerate". Plastiglomerate forms when plastic is melted into fragments of rock and sand, such as when soda bottles or other refuse are thrown into a bonfire. The stuff is incredibly tough and resistant to breakdown. Scientists expect it will be found in coastal regions throughout the world, wherever humans and plastic and beaches are in the same place at the same time.

The article stated "Our results indicate that this anthropogenically influenced material has great potential to form a marker horizon of human pollution, signaling the occurrence of the informal Anthropocene epoch."

So, in a million years or so, long after our civilization has turned to dust, the most durable marker of human presence on Earth may be random gobs of melted plastic left in sandstone by drunken beach partiers.

Food for thought on a cold winter's day.

Originally published in the Westborough News on 01/22/2016