McKibben: naming the enemy

“It has become a rogue industry, reckless like no other force on Earth. It is Public Enemy Number One to the survival of our planetary civilization.”  These are the words Bill McKibben uses to describe the fossil-fuel industry in a recent striking article in Rolling Stone which has received wide attention. It’s well worth reading, not least for the elegant lucidity of its prose. This post is not intended as some kind of summary, but rather as a reflection on McKibben’s notion that we need to recognise that we are up against a formidable enemy.  He moves to this declaration by considering three numbers.

The first is 2o Celsius, the level of warming which is widely accepted politically as not to be exceeded. Scientifically it can’t be regarded as a safe level of warming, and it’s certainly not so regarded by McKibben, but ”political realism bested scientific data, and the world settled on the two-degree target”.

The second number is 565 gigatons, which is the amount of carbon dioxide scientists estimate can still be added to the atmosphere by mid-century and give us a reasonable (80%) hope of staying below two degrees.

The third number is 2,795 gigatons, which is the amount of carbon already contained in the proven coal and oil and gas reserves of the fossil-fuel companies, and the countries that act like fossil-fuel companies. “In short, it’s the fossil fuel we’re currently planning to burn.” And it’s five times more than we can burn and have any hope of staying within two degrees of warming.

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Greenland’s extraordinary summer: melting records and ice island setting sail

Petermann2012203

July has been an amazing month in Greenland. The Petermann Glacier has given birth to another huge ice island — taking its terminus further back up its fjord than at any time in the last 100 years (at least), record high temperatures have been recorded at the summit of the ice sheet at 3,200 meters, initiating surface melt over the whole vast sheet, ice sheet albedo has plummeted, and the Jakobshavn Isbrae’s calving front has retreated into the ice sheet.

The best coverage of the Petermann event, as on most matters to do with the Arctic summer and sea ice melting season is to be found at Neven’s Arctic Sea Ice blog. It’s well worth reading the comments under the Petermann post there, to get a really informative picture of what’s being going on. Here’s a description by Dr Andreas Muenchow1 of what the calving would have been like:

I described the Petermann calving to some media folks as a gentle and very quiet affair similar to a rubber duckie pushed out to sea from the deck of a flat pool.

Some duckie, some pool…

Illulisatanimated2012203Further south, the the “root” of the Jakobshavn Isbrae has enlarged significantly, with the calving front of Greenland’s most productive glacier retreating further into the ice sheet. The “blink” image I’ve cobbled together (left) shows day 203 of this year compared with day 202 of last year2. The difference is large and very obvious. Greenland specialist Dr Jason Box was flying out of Ilulisat shortly after the retreat earlier this month, and snapped the photo below out of the window of his plane. As he commented on Facebook, it looks like the glacier has divided into two streams.

BoxGreenlandIllulisat

Up at the summit of the Greenland ice sheet at 3,200 metres, a new high temperature record of 3.6ºC was set on July 16, hard on the heels of four days in row of temperatures above freezing, from July 11 to 14. Considering that temperatures above zero had only been recorded four times in the preceding 12 years, this amounted a remarkable heatwave, and triggered an astonishing melt record.

Greenlandmelt2012

This NASA graphic shows how the melting surface, shown in shades of red, spread over the whole surface of the ice sheet from July 8 to July 12. This amounts to “the largest extent of surface melting observed in three decades of satellite observations”, according to NASA. The last such melting event occurred in 1889, and ice cores show that they occur every 150 to 250 years. However, given the steady increase in melt area over the last decade, and the precipitous drop in ice sheet albedo (see below), especially at high altitudes, it may not be 150 years before such a melt happens again.

GISalbedo201207

The last time I looked at this extraordinary summer in Greenland, it was to report Jason Box‘s view that “it is reasonable to expect 100% melt area over the ice sheet within another similar decade of warming”. It took two weeks to come true. Forgive me if I find that alarming.

  1. Andreas provides great coverage of the Petermann glacier at his blog — perhaps unsurprisingly, as he’s on his way up there to recover instrumentation soon. []
  2. Source: 2012, 2011. []

Jim Renwick on the state of climate science

I have been listening to a lecture by Victoria University climate scientist, James Renwick, who has recently moved to the university from his post as principal climate scientist at NIWA.  In the seminar he sets out in broad terms some of the latest developments in the science. It’s a very clear summation, with some recent interesting graphs and charts, showing the direction which in which climate change is continuing to move. Needless to say there’s no change in direction apparent. I recommend the lecture as well worth listening to. I’ll only touch lightly in this post on the scientific content of the lecture; my main purpose is to highlight comments Renwick made along the way indicating the concern he feels about where we are headed.

I was particularly struck by an early statement made after he had remarked on the 2011 emissions reaching a record level of 31.6Gt and pointed to the graph of steadily increasing concentration of CO2 measured at Mauna Loa. I’ve transcribed it: Continue reading “Jim Renwick on the state of climate science”

Cranks in court: sciblogs podcast plug

This week’s Sciblogs podcast is something of a climate special. The Science Media Centre’s Peter Griffin opens the show by talking to me about the High Court hearing of the case brought against NIWA by Barry Brill and his boys, and then discusses what we know about the state of the climate with Jim Renwick, now ensconced at Victoria University. Peter also talks to Dr Melanie Massaro about her paper Trapped in the postdoctoral void. You can listen to the podcast at Sciblogs, or subscribe via iTunes or Stitcher. Recommended.

Warming in Wellington

In this guest post, first published last week in the Dominion Post, Jim Salinger looks at the long term temperature record for Wellington, and how it has been constructed. Jim’s currently the Lorry Lokey Visiting Professor in the Program in Human Biology at the Woods Institute for the Environment at Stanford University in California.

Climate scientists want to monitor how climate is changing and global warming progressing. This is particularly pertinent as this week the New Zealand Climate Science Education Trust are currently being heard in the Auckland High Court to try to persuade a judge to invalidate New Zealand’s temperature records which have been compiled and collected by the National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research and the former government agencies. The coalition asserts the only way NIWA can claim a warming trend of 1°C over the past century is by cooking the books.

This century climate scientists are very interested in tracking climate as human factors are going to be the dominant influence on climate this century, save a meteor crashing in to the planet. They are interested in adjusting the readings as though they are taken from one location in an area. Wellington has one of the longest and best climate records of any region in New Zealand. This is why climate scientists carefully adjust temperature records.

When Sir James Hector, Director of the Colonial Museum in Wellington in the 1860s established a network to monitor New Zealand’s weather and climate, the primary stations were established for weather forecasting, so the priority on permanency of location of a climate monitoring site for climate change was lower. However we are indebted to Sir James’s Scottish heritage as in setting up the network he purchased precision thermometers which were housed in Stevenson screens to ensure consistency. Observations were taken under standard conditions, in his words ‘rigorous….’. This has given us a legacy of climate monitoring under rigorously enforced methods with very reliable observations from the 19th century, the envy of many countries.

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