Climate Change, Nature, Science

‘Global Thermometer’ Is Tracking Temperature Extremes

A tropical area during low-water season.
Droughts in the tropics are just one consequence of rising global land temperatures. Photo: Shutterstock

According to a paper published in the Journal of Applied Meteorology and Climatology, large areas of the earth are experiencing rising maximum temperatures.

This may sound like a no-brainer, given that we’re in an era of unprecedented global warming, but the conclusions drawn through this research are based on changes in land surface temperatures rather than changes in air and water temperatures.

The researchers analyzed records from NASA’s Aqua satellite between 2003 and 2014 and found spikes in maximum surface temperatures occurred in the tropical forests of Africa and South America and in much of Europe and Asia in 2010, and in Greenland in 2012. These measurements coincided with phenomena including severe droughts in the tropics and heat waves and wildfires across the northern hemisphere. The 2012 land surface temperature spike in Greenland was associated with massive melting of the Greenland ice sheet.

What exactly is land surface temperature? It’s a measurement of the heat radiated by land—including soil, rock, and pavement—and vegetation such as trees and grass. Weather stations generally measure air temperatures just above the surface, so the satellite readings of land surface temperature are critically important in the study of global climate change.

“Imagine the difference between the temperature of the sand and the air at the beach on a hot summer day,” said study lead author David Mildrexler, who received his Ph.D. from Oregon State University. “The air might be warm, but if you walk barefoot across the sand, it’s the searing hot surface temperature that’s burning your feet. That’s what the satellites are measuring.”

The researchers studied annual maximum land surface temperatures averaged across 8-day periods throughout the year. They used data from the Aqua satellite, which crosses the equator in the early afternoon as temperatures reach their daily peak.

“As anyone who pays attention to the weather knows, the Earth’s temperature has incredible variability,” Mildrexler said. However, he added, the planet’s profile of high temperatures tends to be fairly stable from year to year. The researchers’ discovery of a consistent year-to-year profile allowed them to develop a new global-change indicator that uses the entire planet’s maximum land surface temperatures.

“The maximum surface temperature profile is a fundamental characteristic of the Earth system, and these temperatures can tell us a lot about changes to the globe,” said Mildrexler. “It’s clear that the bulk shifts we’re seeing in these maximum temperatures are correlated with major changes to the biosphere. With global temperatures projected to continue rising, tracking shifts in maximum temperature patterns and the consequences to Earth’s ecosystems every year globally is potentially an important new means of monitoring biospheric change.”

In other words, this new research supports the conclusions of a whopping 97 percent of scientists, who believe that global climate change is real, and it’s happening fast, and we need to do something to mitigate that before we reach a point of no return.

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Climate Change, Eco-friendly, Environmentalist

Looking Back and Looking Forward

Climate activists in Tel Aviv.
Photo: Avivi Aharon / Shutterstock.com

The last year has been unprecedented in terms of climate change and climate news. President Trump pulling out of the Paris Agreement while two other remaining holdouts signed on, making the United States now the only country in the world that is not a signatory. Not only that, but he rolled back environmental regulations on everything from oil drilling to pesticide use.

In terms of climate change, the news has been mostly grim, with a few bright spots. Researchers have found, for example, that the coral reefs in Australia’s Great Barrier Reef may be more resilient than once thought.

In the face of inaction from the U.S. government, it is up to states, cities, and individuals to step up and be even more active on behalf of the environment. Everything from being better about recycling to writing to your Congresspeople and Senators will be a huge help in the fight for the earth.

May the New Year be filled with positive news about the climate and newly energized climate activists who are shining a light on the things the current U.S. government is doing to destroy our climate. It’s time for us to get engaged, get active, and make the environment a priority, both individually and politically.

Climate Change, Nature

Global Warming is Drenching the Northeast

Climate change has brought warmer, wetter weather to the Northeast, and that could have a catastrophic effect on farmers in the region.
Potatoes, one of the key cash crops in the Northeastern state of Maine, could be severely affected by warmer and wetter weather. Photo by Agence Producteurs Locaux Damien Kühn on Unsplash

Last week I wrote about how drought conditions in California, caused by climate change, are causing an increase in the number of wildfires there. But on the other side of the country, things are getting warmer and wetter, and that’s hurting farmers in lots of ways.

You might thing that longer growing seasons and a warming climate would benefit the Northeast, which historically has long, cold winters. However, the increasing amount of rain those warmer temperatures are causing has brought flooded fields and an increase in diseases.

For the past two decades, the Northeast has been getting warmer for longer periods of time, and, according to researchers at Cornell University, has experienced a 71 percent increase in the frequency of extreme precipitation events. That’s more than any other region in the U.S.

Heavy rainfall increases the likelihood that plants will develop diseases like potato late blight (potatoes are the number-one cash crop in Maine, so this is a big deal for farmers in that state) and fungal problems that stress carrots and other root vegetables.

“Heavy rains not only cause disease problems, but can prevent farmers from having access to the fields to plant in spring or harvest in fall,” said David Wolfe, a professor of plant and soil ecology at Cornell and senior author of the paper.

These extreme rainfall events are expected to continue through the current century, the researchers say.

Farmers’ profit hinges on reaching markets early, when their crops have the most value. Delayed planting due to wet spring soils can have severe negative effects on farmers’ finances. Although they could try planting fields when they’re wet, their heavy farm equipment will compact soil and decrease its ability to hold water, according to the researchers. This, of course, will result in diminishing crop yields.

However, the news isn’t all bad.

“Climate change can easily intensify agricultural susceptibility, but also presents fresh, surprising opportunities,” Wolfe said.

What those opportunities are, remains to be seen. But it’s increasingly clear that farmers all across the country—and all around the world—are going to have to adapt to the changing climate in their areas.

Climate Change, Environmental Hazards, Nature

Has Climate Change Influenced California’s Latest Trouble With Wildfires?

Are wildfires increasing in frequency and severity due to climate change?
Are wildfires increasing in frequency and severity due to climate change? Photo: Shutterstock

It’s been a brutal season of wildfires this fall up and down California, with devastating blazes hitting wine country in the northern part of the state in October and the Los Angeles area now facing a fierce set of fast-growing blazes. Scientists have speculated that human-influenced climate change has contributed to this trend in no small part, and it may continue to do so in the years ahead.

According to InsideClimate News, a wide variety of people’s actions have played a role in complicating the West Coast’s wildfire problem. Rampant development has created more kindling for the fires to spread, and higher temperatures have pulled the moisture out of soil and vegetation. This has left a great deal of dry timber and underbrush that makes it easy for fires to burn.

“There’s a clear climate signal in these fires because of the drought conditions connected to climate change,” said Daniel Swain, a climate scientist at UCLA.

Hot and dry weather has become far more common in California over the years. The average temperature in the summer rose by 2 degrees Fahrenheit between 1950 and 2000, making it so even a wet, cool winter isn’t sufficient to offset the hotter summer climate. In fact, there’s reason to believe winter rains have made the summer and autumn fires worse, as there’s more flammable grass and brush growing than ever.

“As long as there’s fuel to burn, your chances of having large fires increases when you increase temperatures,” Columbia University bioclimatologist Park Williams told InsideClimate News. “It’s that simple.”

There’s reason to believe that unless both the California state government and the corporate world take active steps to reduce their carbon footprint, extreme events like droughts and fires will only continue. Research from the Pacific Northwest National Labs and Utah State University estimates that while there were only about five extremely dry events per decade in the 1930s, the state is on pace for 10 such events every 10 years during the 2070s.

Climate Change, Conservation, Nature, Science

Great Barrier Reef May Be More Resilient Than Once Thought

New research indicates that the Great Barrier Reef may be more resilient than once thought--but that doesn't mean there's no reason for concern.
A sea turtle swims above the Great Barrier Reef. Photo: Shutterstock

New research gives us reason for hope that the Great Barrier Reef is not set up for doom, despite the extensive damage and bleaching of the reef itself.

Scientists at the University of Queensland, the Australian Institute of Marine Science, CSIRO, and the University of Sheffield have recently published a paper with the results of an extensive study in which they found that there are still 100 reefs on the Great Barrier Reef that could help to promote the regional recovery of its ecosystem.

The Great Barrier Reef consists of more than 3,800 individual reefs. These reefs have suffered unprecedented coral bleaching events over the past couple of years. Additionally, the coral-eating crown-of-thorns starfish has also been plaguing the reef system.

The new study shows that there are 100 reefs that fulfill three criteria to promote coral recovery. First, they should lie in cool areas and rarely experience damage from bleaching, thus being able to supply larvae to as many reefs as possible. In addition, reefs should be located in areas of current that can supply coral larvae to as many reefs as possible; and they should not spread the larvae of the crown-of-thorns starfish.

“Finding these 100 reefs is a little like revealing the cardiovascular system of the Great Barrier Reef,” said study author Professor Peter Mumby. “Although the 100 reefs only make up 3 percent of the entire GBR, they have the potential to supply larvae to almost half of the entire ecosystem in a single year.”

“The presence of these well-connected reefs on the Great Barrier Reef means that the whole system of coral reefs possesses a level of resilience that may help it bounce back from disturbances, as the recovery of the damaged locations is supported by the influx of coral larvae from the non-exposed reefs,” said study lead author Dr. Karlo Hock.

Dr. Hock added that this does not mean the Great Barrier Reef corals are safe or in great condition. There is still plenty of reason for concern when it comes to the health of the GBR. “The fact that the study only identified around 100 of these reefs across the entire 2,300-km length of the massive Great Barrier Reef emphasizes the need for both effective local protection of critical locations and reduction of carbon emissions in order to support this majestic ecosystem.”

However, the research also indicates that focusing efforts on these healthy and well-connected reefs, and continual monitoring of those reefs’ health, may be a step toward restoration of the reef. The ecosystem is still vulnerable to the effects of climate change and predation. So, there’s reason for hope, but that optimism must remain guarded until the forces that caused the death of vast swathes of the reef system can be controlled.

Climate Change, Nature, Science

Global Warming Hiatus? Not So Much

The "global warming hiatus" really wasn't. Read more in this post.
Arctic glaciers. Photo: Shutterstock

New data from the University of Alaska Fairbanks shows that missing Arctic temperature data, not the climate, created the seeming “pause” of global warming from 1998 to 2012.

In fact, the improved datasets the researchers gathered shows that the Arctic warmed six times faster than the global average during the so-called global warming hiatus.

Atmospheric scientist Xiangdong Zhang collaborated with colleagues at Tsinghua University in Beijing and Chinese agencies studying Arctic warming to analyze temperature data collected from buoys in the Arctic Ocean.

“We recalculated the average global temperatures from 1998 to 2012 and found that the rate of global warming had continued to rise at 0.112 degrees C per decade instead of slowing down to 0.05 degrees C per decade as previously thought,” Zhang said.

How did the data lead scientists down the wrong path before?

Most current estimates use global data that represents a long timespan and provides good coverage of a global geographic area. But the Arctic, being so remote, lacks a comprehensive network of instruments to collect accurate temperature data.

To improve the dataset, Zhang’s team relied on temperature data collected from the International Arctic Buoy Program at the University of Washington. For global data, the team used newly corrected sea surface temperatures provided by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. By doing so, the team was able to re-estimate the average global temperatures during that time with more accurate and representative data.

The global warming hiatus is a hotly debated topic among climate scientists. Some say that an unusually warm El Niño in 1997-1998, followed by an extended period afterward that didn’t have an El Niño may have disrupted global warming.

It was a nice dream, but unfortunately, the new data sets and resulting estimates prove conclusively that global warming did not pause at all. Not only that, but until recently, scientists didn’t consider the Arctic big enough to greatly influence global temperatures.

“The Arctic is remote only in terms of physical distance,” Zhang said. “In terms of science, it’s close to every one of us. It’s a necessary part of the equation and the answer affects us all.”

Environmental Hazards, Science

Scientists Find New Way to Process Radioactive Waste

The question of what to do with radioactive waste may have been solved by a team of Japanese scientists.
The question of what to do with radioactive waste may have been solved by a team of Japanese scientists. Photo: Shutterstock

Ever since the first atomic bomb was exploded during World War II’s Manhattan Project, and ever since the first nuclear power plant opened in Obninsk, Russia, radioactive waste has been accumulating. As the number of nuclear power plants and nuclear weapon plants increased, the question of what to do with all that waste has become one of the biggest issues facing science today.

The primary issue is what to do with radioactive waste after the uranium and plutonium have been recovered from spent nuclear fuel using standard reprocessing methods such as Plutonium Uranium Redox Extraction (PUREX).

Up until now, the most viable option for disposal of nuclear waste has been burying it deep underground. Other solutions such as partitioning and transmuting, which involve separating nuclear fuel into minor actinides such as neptunium, americium, and curium, have proven to be costly and cumbersome because of the need to separate isotopes before they can undergo transmutation. But now, a team of researchers at Tokyo Institute of Technology may have come up with a solution to the radioactive waste problem.

The team discovered a method of dramatically reducing the effective half-life of long-lived fission products (LLFPs) such as selenium-79, zirconium-93, technetium-99, palladium-107, iodine-129, and caesium-135. That method involves transmuting these isotopes in fast-spectrum reactors, which don’t need isotope separation like other methods do.

By adding a moderator (slowing-down material) called Yttrium deuteride (YD2), the team found that LLFP transmutation efficiency increased in the radial blanket and shield regions of the reactor. The researchers say this increased effectiveness is due to the moderator’s ability “to soften the neutron spectrum leaking from the core.”

Using this method, the researchers say, the 17,000 tons of LLFPs in Japan could potentially be disposed of by using 10 fast spectrum reactors. This method also has the advantage of contributing to electricity generation and supporting efforts toward nuclear non-proliferation.

Although ultimately, the best solution to the nuclear waste problem is to invest in non-toxic energy sources like solar and wind power, it’s a good thing these researchers came up with a way to decrease the toxicity of radioactive waste and give its by-products a new life—and a much shorter half-life.