Sunday morning Antarctica, and the future of transport

Chris Laidlaw interviewed the new Director of the British Antarctic Survey, Professor Jane Francis, in his Sunday Morning programme on National Radio in the weekend. I thought the discussion worth drawing attention to as an exemplar of the kind of thoughtful interviewing climate science deserves but only occasionally receives. The listening public also deserves such interviews from the media if it is to understand the weight of the scientific consensus on climate change. Respect is due to Laidlaw’s understanding of the basic thrust of climate change and its implications, making him well equipped to elicit from Professor Francis a very clear account of her work on Antarctic forest fossils and more generally on the threatened sea level rise from melting in the West Antarctic Ice Sheet.

Francis has a fascinating story to tell of her work on fossil plants in the Antarctic and the evidence from the fossils that the continent some 100 million years ago was forested in a period when the globe was in a warm period sufficient to melt polar ice. She discussed with Laidlaw the ways in which trees probably coped with the months of cold but not freezing darkness each year by moving into a kind of dormancy.

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The big warm: NZ heading for warmest-ever winter

If you think it’s been a warm winter in New Zealand, you’re right. NZ is rapidly approaching the end of a record-breaking winter — the warmest for at least 150 years1. Calculations by Auckland climate scientist Jim Salinger show that NZ’s average temperature for June/July/August is running at 9.5ºC, a remarkable 1.2 deg C above the 1971-2000 average, and comfortably ahead of 1998’s old record of 9.3ºC. Commenting on the numbers, Salinger notes the absence of cold snaps in recent months:

The door to cold spells from the Southern Oceans — apart from a brief surge in June — has been well and truly closed this winter. September-like temperatures have been occurring throughout August, giving the country its warmest winter and August ever.

The long term warming signal is clear, he says:

The clearest climate warming signal is seen in winter, where temperatures are now 1.1 deg C warmer than they were around 1870. The warming trends have been very consistent, especially since the 1950s, when frosts days have decreased dramatically across the country.

I can certainly vouch for the absence of frost. At Limestone Hills, we recorded 19 frost days in 2011 and 23 in 20122, but only 6 so far this year. Evidence of winter warmth can be seen in gardens around the country. The asparagus spear pictured above first poked its head out of our soil two weeks ago, and is now being joined by half a dozen more — at least a month earlier than normal for North Canterbury.

To unpick just why this winter’s been so warm, I asked VUW climate scientist Jim Renwick to look back at the atmospheric circulation set-up in the New Zealand region. Here’s his (lightly edited) analysis:

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  1. Reliable temperature records in NZ date back to the 1860s. []
  2. For the full year. Frost days are any day where the temp falls below zero, and are unusual (1 – 2 a year) after August. []

Beatin’ the heat: cut carbon or we’re cooked

The area of land affected by extreme heatwaves is expected to double by 2020 and quadruple by 2040, and there’s no way we can stop it happening according to a new paper by Dim Coumou and Alexander Robinson – Historic and future increase in the global land area affected by monthly heat extremes (Environmental Research Letters, open access). However, the researchers find that action to cut emissions can prevent further dramatic increases in heat extremes out to the end of the century.

The paper’s made headlines around the world — see The Guardian, Independent, and Climate Central — most focussing on the inevitability of more, and more intense, heat events in the near future. Dana Nuccitelli at The Guardian provides an excellent discussion of the science behind the new paper so, to avoid reinventing the wheel, I’m going to focus on a fascinating chart from the paper, and then ponder the implications for climate policy.

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TDB Today: overshoot and the end of life as we know it

On Tuesday, the world whizzed past Earth Overshoot Day — the day in the year when we go beyond what the planet can produce or absorb in a year, and start consuming our natural capital. Like fishermen taking more fish than can be replaced by the remaining population, we risk running out of the very thing we value most, as I explore in my column at The Daily Blog this week — Living off our natural capital, or the end of the world as we know it is nigh. Comments over there, please.

100% useless: NZ government announces pathetic 5% emissions target

Climate change minister Tim Groser has finally got around to announcing that New Zealand’s emissions reduction target for 2020 will be a 5 percent reduction on 1990 levels — a significant step back from NZ’s previous conditional commitment to make cuts in the 10 to 20 percent range. Since the Key government refused to join the second commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol last year, this target is being adopted under the wider UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, and therefore has no penalties (or incentives) attached. Groser’s announcement claims:

The target is affordable and demonstrates that New Zealand is doing its fair share to address global climate change. In deciding this target, the Government has carefully balanced the cost to New Zealand households and businesses against taking ambitious action to tackle climate change.

This is an unconditional target to take responsibility for our emissions, and gives certainty to domestic stakeholders.

Groser also claims that the new target “compares favourably with our traditional partners’ actions” — but fails to note that it’s way out of line with UK and EU commitments to cuts of 30% and 20% over the same period.

The announcement will come as little surprise in the context of recent government actions — in particular Groser’s reckless mismanagement of the emissions trading scheme, which is now leading to huge and expensive dislocation in the forestry sector.

Further context for Groser’s approach to climate policy came in a reply to a series of questions from Green Party climate spokesman Kennedy Graham at Question Time on August 8th. Asked to reconcile sanctioning a new West Coast coal mine with climate action, Groser made himself completely clear:

We will not sacrifice everything to the altar of climate change.

Failing to take climate change seriously — by failing to cut emissions and doing nothing to encourage prudent adaptation — will sacrifice the entire country to the effects of climate change. By refusing to bite the bullet, Groser and his cabinet colleagues put easy money now ahead of our future wellbeing. Or, perhaps, any future worth having.