Saturday, December 23, 2017

2017 - The Year in Review

For the time being, you can search and download extensive weather and climate reports as well as raw data sets from the websites of NOAA and NASA and I emphasize: for the time being. Sadly, such information is no longer available from the EPA. I make no predictions about the availability of this information next December from any U.S. Government agency.

According to NASA, 2017 is predicted to be the second warmest year on record, exceeding 2015, when a “super” El Nino event was starting and right behind 2016, when this event was tapering off.  In the past, when the Pacific Ocean currents were no longer causing heat to be released into the atmosphere, global temperatures would usually drop, but not this time around.

During October, high temperature records were broken in all six New England states and eastern Canada.

According to the Weather Channel, NOAA’s data show that “Swaths of eastern Africa, eastern Asia, the adjacent Indian Ocean, the central and western Pacific Ocean, the Iberian Peninsula, eastern Asia, and eastern South America have had a record warm January-October 2017.”

In the Pacific Northwest, Seattle and Portland had record high temperatures: 104 and 107 degrees F, respectively. Southern Europe was gripped by hot spells, one of which was labelled “Lucifer”.  Hundreds of wild fires scorched Portugal and northern Spain in October alone, killing dozens.

Back in September, an article in the LA Times quoted an official of the National Interagency Fire Center who was stunned that the fire season had continued into September. As I write this, half way into December, large swaths of outlying Los Angeles are burning, despite the heavy snows of the previous winter and the break from the long lasting drought, creating a hellscape, pictures of which friends of mine from the LA area are posting on Facebook.

A recent article in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences stated quite bluntly that “. . . human-caused climate change caused over half of the documented increases in fuel aridity since the 1970s and doubled the cumulative forest fire area since 1984. This analysis suggests that anthropogenic climate change will continue to chronically enhance the potential for western US forest fire activity” as long as there is fuel to burn.

The 2017 North Atlantic Hurricane season had 17 named storms. That is not a record but the total accumulated energy of these storms (a measurement based on sustained wind speed) was the highest ever. Four storms were Category 4 or above. Total damage was almost $370 Billion.

As an aside, most of Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands are still struggling with major infrastructure damage and lack of basic utilities. The Death toll in Puerto Rico due to the hurricanes and their aftermaths was estimated by the NY Times to be over 1,000.

Hurricane Harvey dumped record amounts of rain on Houston when the storm stalled over the region due to a weakened jet stream which could not push the storm out of the area.

The jet stream is weak due to a warming Arctic, which slows west-to-east winds and thus slows the movement of weather systems across the US and Europe. According to NOAA, a slow jet stream is increasing the incidence of extreme weather, be it heat waves, flooding and even heavy snow fall in winter. Remember that a warm atmosphere holds more moisture and snow can form as easily at 30 degrees as at 15 degrees.

As of November, the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is 405.14 parts per million. Detailed analysis of geologic data shows that the atmosphere has not had this level of CO2 since the end of the Miocene geologic epoch – about 5 million years ago, when sea level was 100 feet higher and  Megalodon sharks which prowled the oceans made the Great Whites seen off of Cape Cod look like guppies.

In other words, a very different planet from the one we inhabit today . . . for the time being.

Happy holidays.

Published in the Westborough News, 12/22/2017

Saturday, October 21, 2017

The Air I Breathed as a Child

When I was a child in the early 1970s, growing up on Long Island, about 30 miles east of NY City, I remember going to the edge of an old sand quarry at sunset during the summers, where I could stare directly into the setting sun, because the air was so polluted. With binoculars, I could actually see sunspots.

Beyond the myriad human illnesses caused by air pollution such as asthma, emphysema, and coronary artery disease, consequences included acid rain, which devastated forests and lakes throughout the northeast.

Regulations resulting from the Clean Air Act of 1970 and equivalent legislation in Europe led to the long-term decline in various forms of air pollution. A cap and trade system put into effect in the US resulted in steadily decreasing sulfur power plant pollution.

I’ve asked myself, with all the improvements in air quality in the ensuing decades, is our air clean enough? Based on an article I read in a recent issue of Science News (09/30/2017, p 18-21), which summarizes the latest research, the answer is an unequivocal no. In fact, the list of modern human maladies connected to air pollution is increasing.

After filtering out other factors, scientists found that even when particulate pollutants (soot from vehicles, power plant, and factory emissions) remain below what are now considered maximum safe levels, death rates still correlate with increases of these substances in the air we breathe. Current estimates are that 200,000 people die each year just from particulate pollution and in the cities where pollution is higher, so is the death rate. The mechanism appears to be inflammation which extends beyond the lungs to other regions of the body, which leads to substantial increases in heart disease and stroke, just as cigarettes do.

Based on animal studies, inflammation from pollution is also a contributor to obesity. Indeed, population studies show that the closer people live to a major roadway, the heavier they were, especially children. Links to diabetes have also been found in both human and animal studies. Particulate pollution and ozone contribute to insulin insensitivity.

The latest studies are showing links between particulate pollution to an increased rate of brain aging, dementia, and Parkinson’s disease. Eighteen such studies have been published and although more work needs to be done, researchers are alarmed.

These observations are being made in a country where the levels of particulate and ozone pollution are already below regulatory standards in most cases. I shudder to think about what is happening in other countries without such controls, for example China and India.

Given what we have known for decades on top of current findings, we need to ask ourselves how much we are willing to sacrifice in terms of increased mortality and preventable illness in order to use our heavily polluting power sources like coal.

We want a certain lifestyle in this country, but are we still willing to pay for it in terms of lives lost?  Given the policies of the elected government in Washington, D.C., who are promoting coal instead of alternative energy that answer, sadly, appears to be yes.

However, even though EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt said without irony that “The war against coal is over,” after the Trump administration recently discarded Obama’s Clean Power Plan, all is not lost for those of us who want cleaner air.

Despite rescinding Obama’s moratorium on leasing more federal land for coal mining and rolling back regulations, the coal industry is still dying. Demand for coal is still declining, and several applications for leasing federal lands have either been cancelled or have gone without any takers.

142 existing coal plants partially or completely shut down since 2009. 81% of the over 200 proposed projects since 2000 have been cancelled, based on Sierra Club data. The reason – they lose money.

Most of coal’s decline can be traced to cheap natural gas, but increasingly the competition is coming from renewable energy, such as wind and solar. According to Bloomberg, solar is the cheapest form of new energy, especially in developing countries and it can compete even without government subsidies.

I wish that we had a government which accepts the science that burning coal is bad policy, bad for our health, and bad for our environment, but I happily accept that market forces are doing what reason and evidence cannot.

The “war on coal” may have been “won,” for the time being, but it’s a pyrrhic victory at best.

The coal industry is itself on life support and I don’t think even Federal intervention can save it.

I doubt the air in the US will ever return to the kind I breathed as a child, but the battle for cleaner air, unfortunately, still continues.

What if our underlying prosperity is ripped out from underneath us?

“What if our underlying prosperity is ripped out from underneath us?” - Paolo Bacigalupi, science fiction author

The people of Puerto Rico are having to answer this question as I write this column. Several days after Hurricane Maria ripped their island apart with sustained winds equivalent to an EF-3 tornado, they have no electricity, no communications, no food, and no potable water. Many don’t even have their own roofs over their heads any longer. 

Even though Puerto Rico is part of the United States, supplies have to be shipped in, then distributed by land over a road network clogged with downed trees. In the meantime, people are getting water from springs created by landslides triggered by the storm. Unless something changes, waterborne diseases may not be far behind.

This is just Puerto Rico. Other Caribbean islands are now uninhabitable or are very close to it. For the first time in 300 years, there is no one living on Barbuda. A third of the buildings on St. Martins were destroyed. The British Virgin Islands lost all their infrastructure. St. Martins lost a third of its buildings, and in the US Virgin Islands almost half the population is still without power. 

The devastation of four hurricanes which exceeded Category 4 over the last few weeks is mind boggling. Estimated losses now exceed a combined $480 billion. Although that represents only about 3% of the 2016 GDP of the US economy, it also means untold suffering for hundreds of thousands of people as well. 

A few years ago, I posted a blog on the Westborough Patch which I titled “A Dope Slap Moment” about Hurricane Sandy. I hoped that the devastation would act as a wakeup call about the realities of climate change. I was criticized by one commenter as “an environmental wacko.” 

At the time, I told that person that the effects of climate change would be obvious within 30 years. I was wrong. The effects are obvious now.

Because I am a data nerd, I plotted up the number of North Atlantic Category 4 hurricanes per decade along with the average global temperature change per decade since the 1860s. The numbers track each other very closely. The number of Category 4 storms per decade before 1900 was less than 5. Since 2000, the number of storms per decade has exceeded 10. So far this decade we have had 13 and we still have 3 years to go.

Brings to mind the words from that old Buffalo Springfield song, “There’s something happening here...”

If you are thinking of retiring to South Florida, you might want to reconsider.

Given these trends, one has to wonder how many people will just pack it in, leave the Caribbean and essentially become climate refugees. Most of these island’s economies are dependent on tourism, which I doubt will recover any time in the near future.

The head of FEMA said on September26th that "We do not have a culture of preparedness in this country," which is absolutely true. We do need to plan for disasters, but we also need to plan for change.

We can no longer assume that the way things were are the way things will be. We can no longer have a flood insurance program that requires people to rebuild on the location where their home flooded. We can no longer encourage developers to build subdivisions in flood plains formerly reserved for flood water storage. We can no longer assume that what used to be low probability events, like a 500-year storm, will not happen again next year, or even the next month. 

If we plan, we can mitigate the threats to our underlying prosperity. We can prepare. But first, we have to recognize there is in fact, a problem. 

These days, that’s a problem all by itself, especially when the President feels the need to explain to reporters that Puerto Rico “is an island sitting in the middle of an ocean.”

Thank you Captain Obvious.

Saturday, September 2, 2017

Welcome to the Future

Many years ago, when I lived on the Gulf Coast, I went sailing with a friend near Galveston. During the late afternoon, we could watch the formation of thunderstorms over the water. The process literally looked as if the clouds were boiling up out of the Gulf of Mexico.

Actually, the explanation is not that farfetched. It is the energy of the warm Gulf waters that give these storms their energy, and can transform a disorganized group of thunderstorm cells into a Category 3 or 4 hurricane in a matter of a couple of days. This was the case with Katrina in 2005 and with Harvey this year.

Begs the question, are either of these hurricanes the result of climate change. Short answer is no. We have always had hurricanes, but a better question to ask is if the warmer waters of the oceans give these storms greater energy than they might have without it.

An analysis in a journal article estimates that since 1968, the additional heat stored in the shallowest depths of the oceans as our climate has warmed is roughly 200,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 joules. That is equivalent to 5 MILLION megatons of TNT. The biggest H-bomb ever detonated was “just” 50 megatons. 

Given that a single hurricane consumes about 12,500 megatons of energy or 200 times the electrical generation of the planet PER DAY, the answer to the question of whether global warming makes hurricanes stronger is, yes, most likely. There is energy to spare stored in the oceans that was not there a few decades ago.

The amount of rain pouring on Texas as I write this column is estimated at around 50 inches in some areas. That’s more than what we get up here in New England in an average year. 

One of the lessons of this storm is that living outside the 100-year flood plain is no guarantee of safety. The second lesson is that the lack of regional planning and unchecked urban sprawl which Houston represents made such flooding far, far worse. Keep that in mind the next time you want to curse the Planning Board or our storm water management regulations.

In the coming weeks, we will feel the effects of Harvey, as most of the refineries which supply gasoline to large parts of the US are located in the Houston area and may be shut down for weeks to repair damage, but that is the least of it.

According to an article just sent to me by a friend who is an insurance actuarial, less than one sixth of the households in the Houston area have flood insurance. Either people could not afford it or they live in areas formerly not thought to be subject to flooding. 

The economic effects of this storm will ripple through the economy in the years to come. Some areas are completely wiped out and this is just in the Corpus Christie and Rockport areas where the storm hit directly. The rains that have inundated the fourth largest city in America has left tens of thousands homeless already. What are many of these people going to do when insurance won’t cover the damage?

The post-Katrina history of New Orleans is instructive. There are vast swaths of the city that have never been rebuilt. The block I lived on up near the Lake Pontchartrain back in 1984 is still largely vacant 12 years later. 

A nightmare scenario for the region’s economy is that like New Orleans, many people will just walk away from their homes and their mortgages. They won’t rebuild because they can’t afford it, even with Federal disaster aid assistance. Insurance companies, seeing how vulnerable large areas of Houston are to flooding, will jack up insurance rates even for standard homeowners insurance, not only in Houston but all over southeast Texas, making home ownership an even harder proposition. 

Then there is the question of who will be willing to buy in these now vulnerable areas. Banks will be flooded (pun intended) with thousands of homes that may well be worthless, causing the real estate market to tank. 

This scenario was expected to play out in Florida before anywhere else, but Texas may well be the first poster child for this kind of real estate collapse. This doesn’t even begin to cover the suffering of the many less fortunate people who will be left homeless by this disaster, who also lost everything as well.

I fear that what we are seeing here is part of the New Normal. Storm events whose frequency and magnitude will forever change our expectations. We are fortunate that this disaster did not hit us, but do not think for a moment that we are invulnerable. 

Welcome to the future.

Published in the Westborough News, 09/01/2017

Sunday, August 20, 2017

Small Minds and Large Problems

“People’s minds aren’t made for problems that large.” – Tyrion Lannister of Westeros

Sage words from a fictional character in reaction to an existential threat on a fantasy world.

 “The benefits of a changing climate are often ignored and under-researched. Our climate is too complex and the consequences of misguided policies too harsh to discount the positive effects of carbon enrichment . . . as the Earth warms, we are seeing beneficial changes to the earth’s geography. For instance, Arctic sea ice is decreasing. This development will create new commercial shipping lanes that provide faster, more convenient, and less costly routes between ports in Asia, Europe, and eastern North America.”

“A higher concentration of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere would aid photosynthesis, which in turn contributes to increased plant growth. This correlates to a greater volume of food production and better quality food. Studies indicate that crops would utilize water more efficiently, requiring less water. And colder areas along the farm belt will experience longer growing seasons.”  - Lamar Smith, Congressman of Texas

Lame words from a real politician in reaction to an existential threat closer to home.

Rep. Smith is one of the most vocal critics of modern climate science in Congress. He recently came to these “conclusions” after visiting the Arctic last March and talking extensively with climate scientists about their research and witnessing first hand glacial retreat in Greenland.

Wow! Who would have thought that “enriching” the CO2 concentration in our atmosphere to levels not seen in 3 million years would be so wonderful for humanity? It’s good news all around. Longer growing seasons in North Dakota and Maine! New shipping lanes through the Arctic!

Of course, if you live in areas close to sea level, you might be a tad less sanguine about the prospects of a CO2 “enriched” atmosphere as residents of the US eastern seaboard are finding out. If you are a farmer or rancher south of the Mason Dixon line, you’d be hard pressed to see the benefits of a warming world as well.

A new study published in the journal Science estimates that the Deep South and Texas in particular will be more heavily and negatively impacted as the climate warms than many other regions of the US. Rep. Smith’s own district is expected to see annual losses in gross domestic product exceeding 20% per year by the 2080s.

Increased CO2 does help plants grow, but other nutrients a plant needs, such as nitrogen, phosphorus, and trace metals, will not increase in lock step, so the law of diminishing returns kicks in. Plants produce less protein per unit volume and thus become less nutritious. As temperature increases more frequent droughts and intense storms will also not make agriculture any easier.

Yes, the Arctic will be navigable for some portion of the year as the region warms, but even a warm Arctic will still be subject to the intense storms only found in that region of the world, which is a long way from any emergency services in case a ship founders. Even now, cruise ships plying the fabled Northwest Passage have to be accompanied an emergency support ship.

Smith’s opponent in next year’s election, Joe Kosper, told the Huffington Post that Smith’s logic is equivalent to being in a flood and rejoicing at all the new fresh water or being in a burning house and thinking that you don’t have to worry about your heating bills.

If you squint really hard here, you can find some good news. After years of relentless and excoriating attacks on climate scientists as chairman of the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology, Congressman Smith has finally admitted that humans are causing the atmosphere to warm up.

Perhaps the honorable Congressman has entered the bargaining stage of grief, preceded by denial and anger, which he has for years expressed towards climate scientists. One may assume he will progress to depression and acceptance. Of course the $700,000 in donations he has received from the oil and gas industry since 1986 will presumably assuage his delicate psyche.

All kidding aside, the climate change problems we are facing are that large, and small-minded men such as Congressman Smith have shown themselves to be uniquely ill-equipped to deal with an issue which is becoming more apparent with each new piece of data collected by researchers at outposts near and far around the world.

“Facts do not cease to exist because they are ignored.” – Aldous Huxley (also a real person)

Sunday, July 23, 2017

Doomsday is [not] Nigh

I read an article in NY Magazine a few days ago entitled “The Uninhabitable Earth” which basically stated that we are already screwed: “Famine, economic collapse, a sun that could cook us: What climate change could wreak – sooner than you think.” The heck with sea level rise, we could see mass calamities of biblical proportions in the next few decades.

I felt like going out and shooting myself after reading it (not really, but it sure was depressing).

Then there was Professor Stephen Hawking, the noted physicist, who stated in no uncertain terms that the Earth would turn into Venus because Trump pulled us out of the Paris Climate Accords. In case you don’t know, Venus’ atmosphere is hot enough to melt lead and is a hellish mix of CO2 and sulfuric acid.

Even Nobel-winning scientists get it wrong and Hawking is completely wrong. The makeup of the Earth’s atmosphere, Earth’s distance from the sun, and the recycling of the Earth’s crust by plate tectonics means that the atmosphere could never morph into one like Venus.
However, the Earth does not have to turn into Venus for our planetary home to get very uncomfortable for its current inhabitants.

Back to the NY Magazine article. An analysis of the science by Climate Feedback, a consortium of academics scientists who fact-checking climate change articles, rated the story’s credibility to be low because the author either misrepresented the supporting research or presented the information out of context. These kinds of comments are usually reserved for articles published by the London Daily Mail and Breitbart, or press releases from the current head of the EPA.

Dr. Michael Mann, a climatologist from Penn State said in his comments “The evidence that climate change is a serious problem that we must contend with now, is overwhelming on its own. There is no need to overstate the evidence, particularly when it feeds a paralyzing narrative of doom and hopelessness.”

Dr. Mann and others expanded on this theme in a Washington Post Op-Ed, stating that invoking “fear does not motivate, and appealing to it is often counter-productive as it tends to distance people from the problem, leading them to disengage, doubt and even dismiss it.” Worry, interest, and hope on the other hand, do motivate people to action.

As I said in a column a few weeks back, there is hope because right after Trump reneged on the Paris Accords, cities, states and corporations and almost every other country stepped up to say that they will work to meet the Accords’ goals.

There is hope in the continuing growth of renewable energy technology. According to InsideClimate News Clean Energy Wire (7/10/2017): a Texas (Texas!) company wants to build transmission lines to transport unused wind power to other parts of the U.S.; Utility-scale renewable energy production surpassed nuclear power for the first time in over 30 years; and lastly, renewable energy prices are falling so fast that, according to Morgan Stanley, by 2020, they “will be the cheapest form of new-power generation across the globe.” The analysts say that not even politicians will be able to keep the US from meeting the Paris Accord targets.

The Paris Accord targets are pretty modest though, given the scale of the problem. At current CO2 levels, glaciers are going to continue to melt, sea levels are going to continue to rise, and weather instability will continue to increase. We will need to adapt to a changing planet. The doomsday scenarios described in the NY Magazine article could come to pass in the more distant future – if we do nothing.

However, we aren’t doing nothing. We just need to do more, because predicted events keep on occurring.

For example, Professor John Mercer of Ohio State made the following prediction 39 years ago, when we knew a lot less than we do now: “One of the warning signs that a dangerous warming trend is under way in Antarctica will be the breakup of ice shelves on both coasts of the Antarctic Peninsula, starting with the northernmost and extending gradually southward.”

The long-expected calving of an iceberg the size of Delaware from the Antarctic Peninsula Larsen C ice shelf occurred two weeks ago. The collapse of adjacent Larsen A and B ice shelves further to the north started the same way.  

The validity of a scientific theory is based on its ability to make testable predictions. By that standard, Dr. Mercer nailed it.

Doomsday is not nigh, but only if we continue to act.

Sunday, June 18, 2017

I thought Quitting was for Losers

They said these jobs are goin’ boys, and they ain’t coming back.” – from My Hometown by Bruce Springsteen, 1984

I was not at all surprised that President Trump withdrew from the Paris Climate Accord.

Disappointed, but not surprised. Anyone who thought he could be persuaded otherwise was deluded.

For crying out loud, they day after Trump met with Al Gore, Trump appointed Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt to head the EPA. Pruitt has sued the EPA at least 20 times on behalf of Oklahoma oil and gas companies and also doesn’t think much of climate science.

Trump also ignored the reasoned pleas of Bank of America, Citigroup, Dow Chemical, DuPont, Goldman Sachs, JP Morgan Chase, Morgan Stanley, Chevron, Procter & Gamble, and even ExxonMobil to remain a part of the accord.

No, Trump was just keeping a promise to his base, including the out-of-work miners in West Virginia and Kentucky, regardless of all the factually inaccurate justifications he used in his Rose Garden announcement last week.

President Trump still thinks he can bring back the coal industry by the simple fiat of cancelling the Paris Accord, as if that was the reason why the coal industry was collapsing in the first place.  As I wrote last October, coal-generated power has declined in the U.S. from 50 to 30% since 1997, right through the administration of George W Bush. If Bush could not save the coal industry, what makes Trump think he can?

Let’s put this into perspective. There are now about 50,000 coal miners in the US and perhaps another 124,000 who transport coal or work in coal-fired power plants. In 2015, the solar energy and wind energy industries employed 297,000 people and grew 20% from just the previous year.  Heck, more people work at JC Penny than mine coal.

Yet we pulled out of a voluntary international agreement signed by every other country in the world, other than Nicaragua and Syria, to keep a promise to the coal miners that Trump had their backs.

The only way the coal industry could conceivably come back would be for the price of natural gas to permanently go sky high and that is highly unlikely in the near term. The combination of hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling technologies which allow extraction of natural gas from vast shale formations throughout the country now means that the US has enough natural gas to last almost a century at minimum. It is doubtful that natural gas prices will ever reach levels needed to make coal economic for the next four generations, let alone the next four years.

The irony is that if Trump really wanted to blame somebody for the decline of coal, he would blame oil and gas companies.

Even if coal came back, the jobs won’t. Like many other industries, coal mining has joined the trend towards automation. The days of pick and shovel mining are long gone, especially now that coal companies can blast the tops off of mountains and use massive dragline excavators to extract coal.

Let me be clear, the voluntary Paris Accords by themselves are not sufficient to keep global temperatures below the 1.5 degree C target the agreement called for, but it’s a start, a start that should have happened a couple of decades ago, but a start nonetheless.

What I was heartened by were the announcements by state and local governments throughout the country that they will work to meet the goals of the Paris Accords, including Massachusetts and coastal cities, which have the most to lose as sea level rises.

These cities include Boston, Houston, Anchorage, Los Angeles, Charleston, Seattle, Miami, Newark, New Orleans, Tampa, and West Palm Beach. So far, 187 US cities in blue states and red have agreed to uphold the accords.

Other climate news from last week which got lost in the chatter about the US exit from the Paris Accords include:

  • Carbon dioxide levels exceeding 409 ppm for this first time in the instrumental record. Geologic data indicates that levels exceeding 400 ppm last occurred more than 3 million years ago. 
  • The imminent calving of an iceberg the size of Delaware from the Larsen C ice shelf in Antarctica. This event could presage the collapse of the Larsen C shelf, the way similar calving events occurred prior to the collapse of Larsen A and B, in 1995 and 2002, respectively.

 “Well I’m sorry my son but you’re too late in askin’, Mr. Peabody’s coal train has hauled it away.” – from Paradise by John Prine, 1971

Published in the Westborough News, June 17, 2017

Monday, May 29, 2017

The Cost of Doing Nothing

Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts.” - Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan

In the early 20th century, Glacier National Park in Montana had 150 glaciers. By 1966, there were only 37. Today, there are 26 and many of these have shrunk by as much as 85 percent since the 1970s. This is a fact.

Based on current trends, the U.S. Geological Survey now estimates that the last remaining glaciers in the park will be gone in the next few decades. This is a prediction, based on trends that have been well-nigh inexorable.

The New York Times recently hired a new columnist, Bret Stephens, who, while acknowledging that human-caused global warming is real, thinks that the case for doing something about it is overblown because, you know, scientists have been wrong before.

By way of example, he used, and I kid you not, the results of the 2016 elections, where the pollsters apparently got it wrong. Pollsters used statistical analysis. Climate scientists use statistical analysis. After all, if the geniuses at 538, Gallup, Pew, PPP, and Quinnipiac got it wrong about the last election, couldn’t climate scientists be wrong about the impacts of climate change?

If you saying to yourself “Huh?”, then you have just been introduced to the rhetorical device known as the “straw man argument,” where misrepresentation is used to make an opponent’s argument appear weaker and thus induce uncertainty in the minds of an audience.

There is a world of difference between political polling data and temperature data. People’s opinions can change from day to day. People lie. People you talked to one day are not there the next. Polling methodology varies between different organizations. People decide not to vote and vice versa.

In contrast, temperature data collected from say, the Blue Hill Observatory on October 21st, 1953 at 4 PM will not change to another value tomorrow. It will always be the data value collected on that day at that time. The size measurements of the Sperry Glacier in Glacier National Park which were collected in 1966 and 2015 will not change either.

Apples are not oranges and political polling analysis is not climate science.
Something else Mr. Stephens said in his column was that the global average temperature change of 1.5 degrees F since the late 1880s is “modest”. Compared to the daily swings in temperature, that doesn’t seem like much, but the amount of energy required to make a 1.5 degree average global temperature increase is equivalent to 1.1 million megatons of TNT or about 71 million Hiroshima-sized atomic bombs.

Bottom line is that there is nothing “modest” about a 1.5 degree F increase global average temperature. Another fact Mr. Stephens fails to mention is that two thirds of the temperature increase, in the air at least, has occurred since 1970.

I suppose it’s all about how you present the numbers.

Brett Stephens does not think that addressing climate change is worth the cost, because climate science deals with probabilities and probabilities means uncertainty.

It’s highly probable that sea level rise will drown coastal cities in a couple of centuries. It’s less probable that it will happen in our lifetimes, but not impossible.

Even with the most modest estimates of sea level rise, about 3 feet by 2100, flood risks rise dramatically. Current projections are that just between now and 2050, the costs of flooding could be as high as $1 TRILLION per year in the world’s 136 largest cities, including New York, Tampa, New Orleans, and Boston.

This is the cost of doing nothing.

Published in the Westborough News, May 26th, 2017

Monday, May 1, 2017

Science is not a Liberal Conspiracy

The good thing about science is that it's true whether or not you believe in it.” – Neil deGrasse Tyson

Scientific endeavor can be boiled down to this: It is the process of using observation and experiment to come up with explanations about how nature works. These explanations are always subject to revision as new data comes along.

A really good explanation supported by a lot of facts which makes consistent verifiable predictions becomes a scientific theory. Scientific theories do not become facts, they explain them.

Newton’s explanations for why apples always fall from trees or why planets orbit the sun worked well for centuries. In fact, they still work and we still use Newton’s laws to chart the course of NASA probes to the outer planets. But when scientists started to measure the speed of light and perform detailed measurements of the movement of stars, they found that Newton’s laws broke down.

Enter Einstein and his theories of general and special relativity which can be used to derive Newton’s laws (just don’t ask me to do it) and explain the motions galaxies or how time appears to slow the faster one goes. But even relativity has its limits at the subatomic level. We just haven’t come up with a better model . . . yet.

Scientists get things wrong a great deal of the time – that’s another definition of research, but it is through the process of finding which explanations consistently make good predictions and which ones fail, that science advances and builds a consensus about how nature works.

Do scientists screw up or become wedded to ideas that in retrospect, look silly, or even commit fraud? They sure do, because they are human. What happens though is that new information comes along or another scientist will eventually try to replicate what an earlier scientist published. Screw ups and fraud are exposed and outmoded ideas get derailed.

Case in point - geologists ridiculed Alfred Wegner back in 1912 when he proposed the idea of continental drift. Wegner had all sorts of data which showed that continents had once been joined together, but his explanation for how they moved was wrong. Not until the 1950s did geologists and oceanographers gather the data which formed the basis of plate tectonic theory, which explained how continents move and mountain ranges arose. In retrospect, previous geological explanations for how mountains and ocean basins formed now look ridiculous.

I used to be a practicing scientist. More than once I got things egregiously wrong and fell victim to my own preconceived notions, which were subsequently not born out by the facts. In all cases, either I corrected my own errors or other people did. These were learning experiences.

Critics of scientific work will point to mistakes that scientists have made as if to say “See, they messed up here so why should we trust them on anything?” Critics will cite questions or uncertainties scientists have not yet addressed.

It’s a specious argument to say that because scientists do not know everything, they therefore know nothing or that because some aspect of science turns out to be wrong means that an entire branch of science should be ignored. Still, those arguments get made.

There will always be uncertainty. There will always be questions to answer. If that weren’t the case, there would be no reason for scientific endeavor.

Science is important. It always has been. Science has gotten this country to where it is today.

Abraham Lincoln established the National Academy of Sciences because he realized how important science would be to the future of this country. Government support for scientific research has paved the way for many of the technological and medical advances that now sustain us.

As a whole, researchers and academic scientists have tried to stay out of the hurly burly of politics or become activists for fear that their field will become a target of partisan politics.

Scientists and science have become targets anyway. A century ago, and sadly to this day, the targets were biologists who either taught or researched evolution. Today, climatology is in crosshairs in the form climate change denial, which is now present at the very highest levels of our federal government.

But it is science which shows that pollution poses real risks for people or life in general. It is science which shows that our planet is billions of years old, that life has been on it for almost that long, and that life changed via the process of evolution. It is science that shows that our climate has always changed and that humans are the ones changing it now, to our detriment. It is science that shows that vaccines save lives and do not cause autism.

These scientific findings are inconvenient for certain businesses, politicians or religious groups, most of which are on one side of the political spectrum.

Still, we ignore these inconvenient findings at our peril.

I have a T-shirt that reads, “Science is not a liberal conspiracy.” It’s really sad that such a slogan is even necessary, but I really like wearing the shirt, because it’s true.

Published in the Westborough News April 28th, 2017

Friday, March 31, 2017

Politics, Pipelines, and Power

Among the many political events in an event filled third week of March, the Trump administration made good on a campaign promise and granted the permit to build the TransCanada’s Keystone XL Pipeline. The permit was previously denied by the Obama State Department back in 2015 (FYI - TransCanada’s US headquarters is here in Westborough).

The pipeline has long been hailed as a way to make the US more independent of Middle Eastern oil, create tens of thousands of new jobs, and lower the price of oil. The reality is that it will do none of these things.

It will provide between 2,000 and 6,000 temporary jobs during construction and perhaps a few hundred permanent jobs during its lifetime. The pipeline will transport heavy bitumen mined from the Canadian Athabasca tar sands to refineries on the Gulf Coast where it will be processed for export, not domestic use. Even the pipeline steel will be manufactured in Russia or India.

We can also contrast this pipeline with the alternative energy industry’s record over the last several years. In 2015, the solar energy and wind energy industries employed 209,000 and 88,000 people respectively on a permanent basis and grew 20% from just the previous year.

States, communities and landowners along the pipeline will bear the risk in the event of a pipeline rupture. Pipelines that transport diluted bitumen, as this one will, break 25 times more frequently than pipelines transporting normal crude oil due to internal corrosion.

The benefits of Keystone XL to the US economy will be trivial, at best, although TransCanada will profit handsomely.

The powers that be have been dismissing solar and wind power as too intermittent, too expensive and too insufficient. In fact, I had conversation a couple of weeks ago with a retired engineer who worked at the Seabrook nuclear power plant, who was just as dismissive for the same reasons. The math says otherwise.

Seabrook is rated at 1244 Megawatts and produces 10,800 Gigawatt hours of electricity per year. The first five wind turbines of the Block Island Wind Farm are rated at 30 Megawatts and currently produce 125 Gigawatt hours per year. Simple math says that 430 such turbines would generate the equivalent of Seabrook plant.

430 is a big number until you consider that Europe currently has 3,230 offshore wind turbines and installed over 400 in 2015 alone. Texas has over 10,000 turbines, which produce up to 50% of the state’s power.

We are way behind the alternative energy curve here in the US, except in states like Texas, ironically enough. Economies of scale have brought down the price of solar and wind to the point where they are competitive with natural gas or coal and are way cheaper than nuclear power.

Approving the Keystone XL pipeline may have had great political symbolic value to the Trump administration; however, it’s a nonstarter economically. If Donald Trump really wanted to put his influence behind energy industries that are creating jobs, he wouldn’t be promoting tar-sands pipelines and a dying coal industry.

It should come as no surprise that clearly, he is listening to the wrong people.

Published in the Westborough News, March 31, 2017

Trends, Curves and Accelerations

Last weekend’s cold snap notwithstanding, I really, really expected this winter would be colder than last. The world had wound down from an El Nino of historic proportions, which helped drive global temperatures to record levels in 2015 and 2016.

But it really wasn’t. Instead, the red wing blackbirds were back the third week of the February and the spring peepers were happily chirping away in the swamps near my home on the 28th.  February 2017 was warmer than February 2016 and it was 15 degrees warmer than the February 2015 (which was an awfully cold winter).

Saying a warm day in February is absolute proof of global warming is as ridiculous as Senator Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma standing in the well of the Senate with a snowball saying it is absolute proof that global warming is a hoax. Indeed, you can say the same thing about a warm February. We’ve had them before. In fact, February 2017 was only the 9th warmest on record in Massachusetts. The warmest was in 1984.

What scientists look for are trends. The trend is that an average Massachusetts February in the early 21st century is about 4 degrees warmer than it was at the end of the 19th century, based on records from the Blue Hill Observatory. From a climate perspective, that’s a lot. Our climate is shifting.

As an aside, the Blue Hill Observatory in Milton has the longest continuous record of weather data in the United States, and recordings are still made with the same 19th century equipment.

OK, a warm winter isn’t so bad. Anyone want to tell me that last summer’s heat waves were fun?

In physics, the term acceleration is defined as the rate of change of velocity per unit of time. If you step on the gas pedal in your car, you increase your speed and you keep increasing it until you take your foot off the pedal.

If you want to know why the issue of climate change is a big deal now when it wasn’t 25 or 30 years ago. The answer is acceleration.

I recently looked at the “Keeling Curve”. It is so significant that the American Chemical Society designated it a “National Historic Chemical Landmark,” something only a data geek could love.

The Keeling curve is a graph displaying very careful daily measurements of CO2 collected from the summit of Mauna Loa on Hawaii since the early 1960s, started by Charles Keeling of the Scripps Institute in California. The graph is an upward trending curve with time, a classic example of acceleration.

Humans have been changing the CO2 concentration in the atmosphere since the beginning of the industrial revolution. In the mid-1960s, the rate of increase was about 0.4 parts per million (ppm) per year, then 1.4 ppm/year until the late 1990s and thereafter, over 5 ppm/year. During each of those time intervals we accelerated the rate of concentration increase by a factor of three.

It’s as if we tapped on the gas pedal during the early 20th century, pushed on it in the 1960s and stomped on it starting in the 1990s. 

Most of the CO2 we have added to the atmosphere has been added since the 1960s.

I will grant you that five parts per million doesn’t seem like a very big number. Even 400 ppm, the current concentration in our air, is a small number. It’s just 1 part in 2,500.

Funny thing about chemistry is that the relative quantity of something can have nothing to do with It’s the absolute effect.

400 ppm of carbon monoxide from a leaky furnace will kill you in a matter of hours. 0.04 ppm of Fentanyl can kill an adult in minutes.

When C02 was at 180 ppm 25,000 years ago, the northern hemisphere looked like Antarctica.  When CO2 last was at 400 ppm, about 3 million years ago, sea level was over 20 feet higher than now.

This is why the projected impacts of climate change have become a very real, imminent, and potentially society-altering issue now when it wasn’t a generation ago.

According to the Washington Post, the Trump administration wants to cut National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's budget by 17%. The biggest single cut proposed is the National Environmental Satellite, Data, and Information Service, which includes a key repository of climate and environmental information, the National Centers for Environmental Information.

Ironic, isn’t it? Black birds and small frogs seem to know what’s going on, but the administration in DC seems hell bent on not wanting to know.

Published in the Westborough News March 10, 2017

Sunday, February 5, 2017

Facts are Stubborn Things

“Facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passion, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence.” -John Adams, lawyer, diplomat, statesman, political theorist, Founding Father, and Second President of the United States

A few days ago, the following simple statement of fact was deleted from the Twitter account of the Badlands National Park.

"The pre-industrial concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere was 280 parts per million (ppm). As of December 2016, 404.93 ppm. Today, the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is higher than at any time in the last 650,000 years.”

Since Donald Trump’s election last November, scientists and researchers have been scrambling to download and mirror as much raw data and research results from Federally-funded web sites and public data sets as they could, because they feared what the new administration would try to do.

So, the deletion of this tweet seemed to confirm these fears. It was taken by many environmental activists, politicians, and federal employees as the first salvo in a campaign to suppress the dissemination of climate science information and related data by the new administration.

It was not hard to see why people would come to this conclusion, given statements by President Trump and his nominees, as well as his chief of staff, Reince Priebus who considers climate change “a bunch of bunk.”

After the new administration removed all mention of climate change from the White House and State Department web sites, froze the social media accounts at NASA, EPA, and the Department of Agriculture, and then stated its plans to remove climate change web pages from the EPA web site, the backlash was immediate.

The “Twitter rebellion” started when “alt” versions of official federal agency Twitter accounts, over 80 in all, started popping up, such as @AltUSNatParkService, @Rogue NASA, @ungaggedEPA, even @RogueDeptOfEducation. “@NOAA (uncensored)” described itself as the “Unofficial ‘resistance’ group for NOAA. We are dedicated to the understanding and stewardship of the environment.”

The backlash and media attention garnered by the Trump administration’s actions have, ironically, made EPA’s climate change pages extremely popular in the last two weeks.

The Washington Post reported that “ has had a 2,700 percent increase in visitors in the five days since the inauguration, as compared with the five days before. Similarly, the agency's climate change research page has had a 500 percent increase in visitors.”

Another result is that plans to remove climate change web pages from the EPA web site have since been scrubbed, according to the Post.

There seems to be nothing that makes something more popular than telling folks that it will soon be unavailable. I am happy to report that apparently, this goes for facts, as well.

There has been a lot of discussion about how we are now living in a “post-fact” era or that there is such a thing as “alternative facts.”

Well, maybe not so fast. Facts still matter. I am very heartened that there are people in our government who are adamant in their defense of facts, in their defense of basic data.

I think it is bizarre in the extreme that anyone would think that making these facts unavailable will change anything.

Melting glaciers will not refreeze. The carbon dioxide content of the atmosphere will not decline by 40%. The increasing frequency of extreme weather events will not suddenly decrease. Coastal sunny day flooding will not stop. The global increase in temperatures will not reverse. Cities and states will not suddenly stop planning for rising seas and extreme weather.

Facts still matter.

Facts are stubborn things.

Published in the Westborough News, February 3rd, 2017

Monday, January 23, 2017

Black Swans in the Middle of Winter

A black swan is supposed to be a very unlikely and unexpected event. Something like temperatures above 32 degrees F at the North Pole in the middle of winter.

The high Arctic has not seen the sun since the Autumn Equinox, which occurred on September 22nd.

Yet on December 23rd, 2016, the temperatures recorded near the North Pole were 50 degrees F above normal, or about 32 degrees F, just a couple of degrees cooler than it was in Westborough that day. 

Try to wrap your head around that one. It’s about as bizarre as having the ocean freeze at the equator on June 22nd. How about this? Same thing happened last year at this time.

When unlikely and unexpected events start to repeat themselves, they become neither.

The Arctic Report Card put out by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) for 2016 reads like this:
  • “The average surface air temperature for the year ending September 2016 is by far the highest since 1900, and new monthly record highs were recorded for January, February, October, and November 2016” (The Arctic is warming twice as fast as the rest of the planet). 
  •  “After only modest changes from 2013-2015, minimum sea ice extent at the end of summer 2016 tied with 2007 for the second lowest in the satellite record, which started in 1979.” 
  • “Spring snow cover extent in the North American Arctic was the lowest in the satellite record, which started in 1967.” 
  •  “In 37 years of Greenland ice sheet observations, only one year had earlier onset of spring melting than 2016.”
 2016 will go down as the hottest year globally since instrumental records started being kept over a century ago, slightly hotter than 2015, which beat 2014, which beat 2010 and so on. All the hottest years on record have occurred since the turn of the century.

Another little event is going on at the other end of the planet as I write this, in a region called the Antarctic Peninsula. It is an arm of Antarctic that extends north towards the southern tip of South America. Thus it is the most northerly part of that continent, equivalent in latitude to central Alaska in the northern hemisphere.

A 1,000 foot wide crack is rapidly progressing through an 1,000 foot thick floating ice shelf on the Antarctic Peninsula called Larsen C. When (not if) this crack connects to the ocean only 12 miles away, the ice shelf will calve an iceberg the size of Delaware.

So why should we care?

These ice shelves keep the glaciers on land from flowing into the ocean. The best analogy I can think of would be akin to a carefully constructed pile of oranges at the supermarket. Pull out an orange near the bottom of the pile and the whole thing collapses.

There used to be Larsen A and Larsen B ice shelves too, but they disintegrated 1995 and 2002, respectively. If the entire Larsen C ice shelf collapses, the glaciers behind it could raise sea level about four inches when they subsequently flow into the ocean and melt.

This one iceberg from the Larsen C ice shelf will still leave plenty remaining, but given that the entire Larsen A shelf collapsed in a matter of hours, scientists are monitoring the health of Larsen C closely.

The other Larsen shelf collapses all started with the calving of large icebergs.

My last observation for the beginning of the New Year is a study just published by climate researchers at UMass Amherst that I first heard about in the Boston Globe (and yes, I actually read the journal article).

The Northeastern US is warming much faster than the rest of the continental US, and in fact, the rest of the world outside of the Arctic. They estimate that there is an 85% chance that the northeast will be 2 degrees C warmer than in 1900 by the year 2045. The rest of the world will get there about 2070.
The researchers also say this estimate is conservative. In other words, we could get there faster.

What does that mean for us?

Warmer and wetter winters in New England, but hotter summers. Also, more heatwaves, or as the authors put it “a substantial increase in summer temperature extremes in the US before global warming reaches 2 degrees C”.

Based on data from the Blue Hills Observatory I downloaded from NOAA, Eastern Massachusetts may already be 1.5 degrees C above where we were in 1900.

I am not planning to sell my snow blower just yet, but I am also not planning on retiring to Florida either. At the rate things are going, I won’t need to.

Happy New Year.

(Originally published in the Westborough News, January 20, 2017)