Dr. Ricky Rood's Climate Change Blog

Cold and Warm, Again and Again

By: RickyRood, 7:23 PM GMT on July 21, 2009

Cold and Warm, Again and again

I have been in Colorado since the beginning of May. The weather has been wet and mostly cool. This weekend there was an extreme heat alert in Los Angeles, which was attributed stubborn high pressure over the Southwest. And tonight in Boulder, Colorado, once again thunderstorms form to the east of the Rockies and move from the northwest towards the southeast. (One, perhaps, has to be a meteorologist to perceive the connectedness in those sentences.)

So this wet weather got me to thinking. Last winter it was cold in the eastern half of the U.S. and there was a lot of chatter about the cold winter demonstrating that global warming was a hoax. As I recall, but I can’t find the quote right now, I read one place that God had taken back the Earth from the scientists. Here are my blogs from last winter. ( Cold in a Warm World , Cold in the East , Last Year and This Year ). So two things struck me, why have I not seen a lot of chatter about the current weather here in Colorado and the lack of global warming, and what is it like in the rest of the world?

I think the answer to the first question is easy. In the United States much of the argument about global warming is driven by what goes on in Washington, New York, and Chicago. It’s been known, at least since the Dust Bowl days, that the weather in Washington has a large impact on weather and climate funding and policy. The answer to the second question is pretty easy to answer, and it is worth a look.

Here is temperature information from the National Climatic Data Center (NCDC) .

Figure 1: Difference of observed temperature in June 2009 from the 30 year average calculated from 1961 to 1990 observations.

What strikes me about this imagine is the lack of blue on the graph. The nice comfortable area where I currently reside, Colorado, is there. And there are small cooler than average regions in Europe, Asia, and South America. Africa is just hot. Virtually all of the oceanic area is warmer than normal. In fact, according to the NCDC discussion the sea surface temperatures were the warmest on record for June. Taking land and ocean together, June 2009 was the second warmest on record. The warm sea surface temperatures are part of an El Nino event which is evolving. (June El Nino discussion, Current El Nino discussion ) The El Nino is currently predicted to be a moderate event, but at this point, the temperatures are flirting with new records of global warmth.

So my cool little part of the United States is not so representative of the world. When I look at a map of global temperature anomalies, the difference from the average, I expect to see warmer and cooler regions. That is because many climate phenomena are associated with waves and the position of waves. Waves have a warm part and a cool part, and if the wave is positioned itself a few hundred kilometers east or west, north or south, warmer and cooler temperatures are observed. I also look at the land sea contrast. For example, if the flow is such that maritime air enters the continent in a different region than average, then in summer, that is likely to appear as a cool anomaly on the continent. This is true even if the same air comprised a warm anomaly out over the ocean. In the observations, on the continents warm and cool patterns appear together in a wave-like pattern. There is nothing that defies intuition.

Just for kicks, I decided to look at the observations for June 2008, a year ago.

Figure 2: Difference of observed temperature in June 2008 from the 30 year average calculated from 1961 to 1990 observations.

There are two things that strike me in this figure from a year ago. The first is the similarity of the cool anomalies on the continent. Second is the structure over the ocean. The cool patch over the Pacific is connected to a spreading cool region in western North American. The pattern is suggestive of what might be expected from a series of storms flowing onto the Canadian and Alaskan coasts. The difference over the oceans (and Africa?) for the two years is consistent with the evolution of El Nino. The June 2008 temperatures were also much warmer than normal.

It is simple to look at these maps and see that that planet is warmer than the 30 year average defined by 1961-1990. My casual observations of maps suggest, to me, some level of understanding of the warm and cool features. These are related to El Nino, the position of waves in the atmosphere, and oceanic-continental temperature contrasts. The attribution of causation to these elements of the climate system requires more analysis, but there is nothing in the observations that suggest that global warming is not real. It just reminds me that because it is only 63 degrees (F) at noon in Boulder, CO, does not mean the rest of the world is the same.


Waxman - Markey : For it or against it?

By: RickyRood, 8:37 PM GMT on July 10, 2009

Change is on the way

When I started my class on climate change problem solving in the winter of 2006 many of the students in the class had as their number one issue that the U.S. had not signed the Kyoto Protocol. This failure to sign was placed firmly on the Bush Administration. This example provides a place to start to explore the complexity of developing policy. It only takes casual analysis to start to unravel this knot. First, the U.S. had signed the Kyoto Protocol during the Clinton Administration. What the U.S. did not do was to ratify the Kyoto Protocol within our government. In fact, knowing the Kyoto Protocol would go down to certain defeat, the Clinton Administration did not send the Protocol forward for ratification. The U.S. had, however, been a very active participant in the writing of the protocol, which included many provisions to stand at the foundation of a future cap and trade carbon market. The Bush administration maintained that there were fundamental flaws in the Kyoto Protocol, and in fact, there were substantial flaws. It is difficult to look at the Kyoto Protocol and to conclude that it has led to any reduction of the emissions of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

As that first class evolved the students started to talk more about the symbolic and political value of the Kyoto Protocol. In the following years, students coming into the class have placed far less attention on the Kyoto Protocol. Yes, there are political and symbolic consequences that follow from the U.S. not ratifying, and ultimately disowning, the Protocol, but there are lessons learned - we need to move forward with policies and laws and behavior that will really work.

On June 26, 2009 the U.S. House of Representatives passed the American Clean Energy and Security Act, often called the Waxman-Markey Climate Bill. This bill has both been hailed as a historic breakthrough as well as strongly criticized. Negative comments have come from all sides – ranging from those who feel that it does not really address climate change to those who feel that climate change is a dangerous hoax promulgated onto society by conspiratorial elements. The full text and history of the bill can be found at opencongress.org . At the end of the blog I have placed a set of links to analysis and opinion about the bill. ( A good QandA from Washington Post)

A week ago I had a plan of presenting some sort of comprehensive, objective analysis of the Waxman-Markey Climate Bill. I have received a number of summaries and analyses by people and organizations that I respect. I decided that before I wrote such a blog, I would actually look at the whole bill, not just summaries. I have looked at the bill, and it is enormous. It defies my naïve skills. Here are my reactions.

The bill is representative of the participatory government that we have. The issues of all are included in some way or another. The bill does explicitly recognize the link between energy consumption and climate change, and hence, the link to energy security and a robust economy. As such, interests of the coal industry are represented in a way that promotes more environmentally friendly use of coal. This stands in contrast to those who feel that there is no way to use coal in a way that does not damage the environment. Such tensions are built throughout the bill, and this has been the source of hundreds of blogs and comments that have attacked the bill.

That said - everything that I can think of is touched in the bill in some way or another. For example, there is discussion of forestry and the role of trees in cities. There is the question of the length of time carbon dioxide is held in the trees. There are trees in the cities, trees in the National Forests, and trees in diplomacy. There is much to be said about efficiency, how a market might be set up, and ways to motivate the development of alternative energy. There is language to promote the future. There is also language to perpetuate the present, often based on the need to maintain economic stability.

At one level, the bill does lay on the table the issues that are important for addressing climate change and the relation of these issues to energy policy. This is important; that is, getting the issues on the table. On the other hand these issues do not exist in a coherent and integrated fashion in a way that, convincingly, addresses the issue of reducing carbon dioxide emissions and mitigating global warming. It is like the bill is a closet, with a very long closet rod, and every one has made sure that they have something hanging on that rod. This is often the case when something is built through a participatory process; it is the natural result of a process that strives to build majority (or consensus) buy-in.

This process leads to something that is fragmented. While all of the pieces are there, the pieces that are most important are not clearly distinguished from the pieces that are less important. The granularity that separates the near term from the long term is not clear; that is, what are the important things to do first? And the ultimate goals, energy security, a robust economy, and a safe environment - are these fragments brought together in a way that achieves these goals?

The question of whether or not to support the Waxman-Markey Bill then comes down to does this bill work? And if we do not think that it works as written, are getting these issues documented, on the table, and into consideration of essential importance?

The Waxman-Markey Bill is a long way from being law. At this moment it serves as a valuable starting point; it is on its way to the Senate. It is not realistic to expect what will emerge from the Senate and come back to the House will be the law that "solves the climate change problem." The issues are too complex and the constituencies too broad, too volatile, to expect a solution at birth. Therefore, the question becomes is this the bill to build on going forward? Does the bill do the important things in the next 10-20 years that matter to climate change? Are there mechanisms in the bill that, explicitly or implicitly, maintain our current behavior going forward?

My opinion, the Waxman-Markey Bill is an important step, and it is just that – a step. We do not have the luxury of continuing to defer climate policy and controlling greenhouse gas emissions. In the Senate, there will be another round of participatory policy making. And whether or not the American Clean Energy and Security Act is an effective and good legislation will depend on whether or not the bill does the right things in the short-term and lays a flexible and robust foundation for the long-term. It is not, yet, a bill to oppose or support, but it is one to change and to make work.


Commentary and Analysis on Waxman-Markey:

Breakthrough Institute

Sightline Institute

Grist 1

Grist 2

Yale Environment 360

The Heartland Institute

Reliability of the Forest

By: RickyRood, 7:42 PM GMT on July 01, 2009

Reliability of the Forest

This is the third in a series of blogs on forests taking up the carbon dioxide that comes from the burning of fossil fuels. I started with a discussion of the pine beetle infestation that is currently killing many trees in the western U.S. and Canada. An important point is that disruptions to forests are often a major source of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere. Therefore, whether or not the pine beetle infestation is exacerbated by climate change, the impact of the infestation on climate change is definitive. I give a set of links to primary references below.

The forests and soils of the world store an enormous amount of carbon. In the spring the plants take up carbon dioxide, and in the fall carbon dioxide is released. In the figure shown, the uptake of carbon dioxide is slightly larger than the release of carbon dioxide (1 billion tons of carbon is taken up in the net). This stands in comparison with about 5 billion tons of carbon dioxide released by fossil fuel burning. The transfer of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere into trees and soils by biological processes is an important removal process. Our accounting and management of terrestrial ecosystems is an important part of our strategies to manage carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

Carbon Budget in the Earth’s Climate System

Forests are an important part of the carbon management puzzle; however, forests cannot be relied on as the place where we place our excess carbon dioxide. There is a limited ability for forests to take up carbon dioxide, and forests are, often, in direct competition with other uses of land on which forests grow. In particular, deforestation, especially to turn land over to agriculture, is an important source of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere. Avoiding deforestation is important way to reduce emissions.

In the first blog of the series I introduced a paper by Dale et al. that discusses the importance of disruptions to forests. Climate Change and Forest Disturbances: Dale et al. 2001 The destruction of trees in western North America by the pine beetle is such a disruption. In the limited geographical region studied by Kurz et al., Nature, 2008, they found the forest changed from taking up 0.59 Megatons of C per year to releasing 17.6 Megaton of C per year. The emissions associated with the pine beetle infestation are comparable, in Canada, to both the forest fire emissions and the emissions from the transportation sector. This demonstrates the slow take up of carbon dioxide by a growing forest in contrast to the rapid release of carbon dioxide if the forest dies quickly. This poses a great challenge to carbon management – many years of carbon accumulation can be released very shortly. Therefore, for the long term, the forests are not a robust place to store excess carbon dioxide. Again, this contributes to my conclusion that we will be compelled to develop technology to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and store it someplace more permanent.

Over the past few years we have experienced other disruptions to the forest which provide examples of the impact of the disruptions. Chambers et al. in Science in 2007 calculated the amount of carbon dioxide released by forests killed and damaged by hurricane Katrina. They calculated a total biomass loss of 105 Teragrams C from the damaged forests, which is comparable to the net annual uptake of carbon dioxide by forests in the U.S. In this case, we see an entire year’s worth of carbon take up lost to a single disruptive event. Another type of disruption to forests is drought. In a paper published by Peter’s et al. 2007, the uptake by forests in the North America was reduced by about 50% during the extensive 2002 drought.

The disruptions described above all lead to increasing the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. It is true that climate change through the increase of carbon dioxide and the warming of higher latitudes also accelerates growth and, therefore, uptake of carbon dioxide. Nemani et al. calculated that the take up of carbon dioxide has increased by about 6 % between 1982 and 1999, with interestingly, the largest increase in tropical ecosystems. (Some have argued that the increases in, say, Canada and Siberia, should provide a natural buffer to warming, and hence, are more important to managing carbon dioxide.) Kurz et al., Nature, 2008 compare the loss due to pine beetles with this increased use of carbon dioxide by the trees, and again, find that the loss associated with the disruption to the forest is comparable to increased uptake.

From the perspective of climate change it is important to manage the carbon that is stored in trees. We need to keep the carbon that is in the trees, in the trees. However, to imagine that we truly control the amount of carbon dioxide accumulating in the atmosphere with the uptake by trees is naïve. The trees are not, in the long term, a reliable place to store this carbon dioxide. A single disruptive event to a large forest counters many years of carbon uptake. Additionally, there are ecosystem impacts. If it is a goal to limit warming and stabilize the climate, then we need to reduce emissions. We also, however, need to figure out how to remove the carbon dioxide that has already been emitted.


Primary References:

Kurz et al., Nature, 2008

Chambers et al. in Science in 2007

Logan and Powell, American Entomologist, 2001

Nemani et al.

Peter’s et al. 2007

Climate Change and Forest Disturbances: Dale et al. 2001 from class readings

Effects of Climate Change on Range of Pine Beetles: Carrol et al. 2003

Pine Beetle Symposium 2003

Previous Pine Beetle Blogs:

Beetles and the Climate

Climate and the Beetles

Previous Blogs on Phenology and Ranges of Trees

Series of Blogs in 2008 of Spring Coming Earlier

Trees Moving North

The views of the author are his/her own and do not necessarily represent the position of The Weather Company or its parent, IBM.

Dr. Ricky Rood's Climate Change Blog

About RickyRood

I'm a professor at U Michigan and lead a course on climate change problem solving. These articles often come from and contribute to the course.

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