Climate Change, Nature, Science

“Climate Engineering” Plan Could Have Unintended Consequences

A squirrel peeking out of a tree
“Climate engineering,” also known as geoengineering, in order to reduce climate change could have unintended consequences. Photo: Shutterstock

The world is facing a climate crisis, there’s no doubt about it. Some of the best and brightest minds in the world are working hard to come up with solutions. One such solution involves “climate engineering” in the form of spraying sulfur dioxide in the upper atmosphere to create a sulfuric acid cloud, as large volcanic eruptions do.

But as with most things, there are potential unintended consequences.

First, sulfuric acid is the main component of acid rain, which devastates forests, acidifies waterways to the detriment of aquatic life, and corrodes building materials and paints. In the United States, there were extensive efforts to clean up emissions from coal-fired power plants and steel refineries after it was discovered in the late 1970s that acid rain from these factories’ emissions was devastating forests in the Northeast.

Secondly, even if the world’s scientists decided that the risk of acid rain was less than the risk of absolute ecological disaster and decided to go ahead with their mission of spraying sulfur dioxide into the upper atmosphere, new research from Rutgers University shows that suddenly stopping the spraying would have a devastating effect on animals and plants.

Basically, if the spraying were to stop, the atmosphere would warm rapidly.

“Rapid warming after stopping geoengineering would be a huge threat to the natural environment and biodiversity,” said study lead author Rutgers Distinguished Professor Alan Robock. “If geoengineering ever stopped abruptly, it would be devastating, so you would have to be sure that it could be stopped gradually, and it is easy to think of scenarios that would prevent that. Imagine large droughts or floods around the world that could be blamed on geoengineering, and demands that it stop. Can we ever risk that?”

But how would “climate engineering” with sulfur dioxide work? Basically, the cloud of sulfuric acid that forms after the airplanes spray sulfur dioxide would reflect solar radiation and cool the planet. The spraying would lead to an even distribution of sulfuric acid clouds in the Northern and Southern Hemispheres, which could lower the global temperature by about 1 degree Celsius—about the level of global warming since the Industrial Revolution began in the mid-1800s.

However, planes would have to fly continuously into the upper atmosphere to maintain the cloud, because it would only last about a year if spraying stopped. But plants and animals simply can’t evolve that quickly, much less move quickly enough to find suitable new habitats.

“In many cases, you’d have to go one direction to find the same temperature but a different direction to find the same precipitation,” Robock said. “Plants, of course, can’t move reasonably at all. Some animals can move and some can’t.”

Another possible complication of the spraying plan: one side effect of it would be an El Niño warming of the surface waters in the Pacific Ocean, which would cause a devastating drought in the Amazon.

Ultimately, what it all comes down to is that sulfur dioxide spraying may not be a viable option to keep global climate change under control. Between the effects of acid rain and the need for animals and plants to find suitable new habitats rapidly if the spraying stops and the temperatures changes rapidly, spraying of sulfur dioxide sounds like it could well cause more problems than it cures.

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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, 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.”

Climate Change, Conservation, Nature

Old Nautical Charts Reveal Coral Loss

British navigation charts from the 1800s show us how much coral has disappeared.
British navigation charts from the 1800s show us how much coral has disappeared. Photo: Shutterstock

Nautical charts mapped in the 18th century are showing modern researchers just how much coral has been lost around the world.

A new U.S. and Australian study has compared early British navigation charts to modern coral habitat maps to determine what changes have taken place over the past three centuries.

The study was led by Professor Loren McClenachan of Colby College in Waterville, Maine, with assistance from the University of Queensland (UQ) in Australia and the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence in Coral Reef Studies.

Professor John Pandolfi of UQ said that the study used information from “surprisingly accurate” 18th century nautical charts and satellite data to understand coral loss in the Florida Keys.

Professor McClenachan said that more than half of the coral reef habitat mapped in the 1770s was no longer there. In some areas, coral loss was close to 90 percent.

“We found near the shore, entire sections of reef are gone, but in contrast, most coral mapped further from land is still coral reef habitat today,” McClenachan said.

This is one of the first studies where marine scientists have measured the loss of coral reef habitats over a large geographic area. Most studies look more closely at the loss of living coral from smaller sections of reefs.

“We found that reef used to exist in areas that today are not even classified as reef habitat anymore,” Pandolfi said. “When you add to this the 75 percent loss of living coral in the Keys at that finer scale, the magnitude of change is much greater than anyone thought.”

Dr. Benjamin Neal of the Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences in East Boothbay, Maine, said that the early maps were remarkably precise.

“They had the best technology and they used it to create new information that conferred a lot of power,” Neal said. “The maps were essential to expansion of the British Empire, and luckily for us, they also included a lot of useful ecological information.”

This research has important conservation implications. As the authors said, when large-scale changes like this were overlooked, scientists could miss out on information about past abundance.

“We tend to focus on known areas where we can measure change. That makes sense. Why would you look for coral where you never knew it was?” McClenachan said.

Climate Change, Environmental Hazards, Nature, Science

Was Hurricane Harvey Caused by Global Warming? Not Entirely

Was Hurricane Harvey caused by global warming? Not entirely.
Cars submerged by flooding in the wake of Hurricane Harvey. Photo: michelmond / Shutterstock.com

Climate change is responsible for a lot of things, but it may not be directly responsible for Hurricane Harvey.

Harvey is not the first hurricane to hit the Texas coast.  A deadly hurricane struck Galveston in 1900, and that storm caused thousands to lose their lives, primarily due to the lack of warning. Meteorology was not an advanced science at that time, and there were no satellites to track the storms as they moved across the Atlantic Ocean.

However, climate change is almost certainly responsible for the epic rainfall and catastrophic flooding endured by the cities struck by Hurricane Harvey.

“This is they type of event, in terms of extreme rainfall, that we would expect to see more of in a warming climate,” Dr. Friederike Otto from the University of Oxford told the BBC.

In fact, the rainfall was so extreme that the National Weather Service had to add new colors to its rainfall maps to account for the intensity of Harvey’s rains.

There’s a physical law called the Clausius-Claperyon equation, which says that a hotter atmosphere holds more moisture. For every degree Celsius in warming, the atmosphere can hold 7 percent more water, which makes rainfall events more extreme.

The temperature of the seas also contributes to the strength of hurricanes.

“The waters of the Gulf of Mexico are about 1.5 degrees warmer than they were from 1980 to 2010,” Sir Brian Hoskins of the Grantham Institute for Climate Change told the BBC. “This is very significant because it means the potential for a stronger storm is there, and the contribution of global warming to the warmer waters in the Gulf, it’s almost inevitable that there was a contribution to that.”

Although there have been slow-moving storms over Texas in the past, some scientists still attribute the intensity of Harvey to climate change.

Professor Stefan Rahmstorf from the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research says that a general slowdown in atmospheric circulation in the earth’s middle latitudes could be a result of changing climate in other parts of the world.

“This is a consequence of the disproportionately strong warming in the Arctic,” Rahmstorf said. “It can make weather systems move less and stay longer in a given location—which can significantly enhance the impacts of rainfall extremes.”

Other scientists think it’s a stretch to believe that the slowly moving nature of the storm is caused by climate change. “I don’t think we should speculate on these more difficult and complex links like melting in the Arctic without looking into these effects in a dedicated study,” said Dr. Otto.

In addition to the damage caused by the flooding, pollution is causing the floodwaters to become a toxic stew of sewage, garbage, chemicals from more than 20 Superfund sites in the Houston area, oil and petrochemicals from damaged refineries, and much more, are causing concern.

“There’s no need to test [the water],” Houston Health Department spokesman Porfirio Villareal told the New York Times. “It’s contaminated. There’s millions of contaminants.”

Climate Change, Nature, Science

Galápagos Seabird Population May Shrink Due to Global Warming

Nazca boobies and other animals are in jeopardy as water warms around the Galápagos Islands.
A Nazca booby guards her egg. Photo via Pixabay

The Galápagos Islands are the home of thousands of unique species. In fact, those islands were where Charles Darwin began writing about his findings on evolution. But at least one of these species is in jeopardy because of warming ocean temperatures.

Within the next century, rising ocean temperatures around the Galápagos Islands are expected to make the water too warm for sardines to tolerate.

Why is that important? Sardines are a key prey species for many seabirds including the Nazca booby.

Wake Forest University biologists published a study in the August 23 issue of the journal PLOS ONE about this phenomenon. They used decades of data on the diet and breeding of the Nazca booby to understand how the absence of sardines could affect the booby population.

They studied the diet, breeding, and survival of Nazca boobies as part of their study at Isla Españnola in the Galápagos Islands for more than 30 years. In 1997, halfway through their study, sardines disappeared from Nazca booby diet samples, replaced by flying fish.

Flying fish are less nutritious than sardines, and as researcher Emily Tompkins, lead author of the study, said, as flying fish replaced sardines in the birds’ diet, “reproductive success was halved.”

“If the current links between diet and reproduction persist in the future, and rising ocean temperatures exclude sardines from the Galápagos, we forecast the Nazca booby population will decline,” Tompkins said.

David Anderson, a professor of biology and co-author of the study, said, “Few connections have been made between ocean warming and population effects in the tropics, making this study significant.”

But the Nazca booby isn’t the only creature that could be harmed by rising ocean temperatures. The study suggests that other Galápagos predators that do well when sardines are available will have to adjust to a new menu within the next 100 years.

So many species have gone extinct or become highly endangered due to global climate change—probably including species we never even discovered—that it behooves us to act to stop, or at least slow, climate change. Given the United States’ exit from the Paris Climate Agreement, it’s up to other nations, and states and cities within the U.S., to step up and do something about this increasing danger to the survival of all animals, including humans.