Clothesline in Winter

Clothesline in Winter

Friday, August 31, 2012

Arctic Sea Ice Breaks Record Low: Just a Number?

“Arctic sea ice cover melted to its lowest extent in the satellite record yesterday, breaking the previous record low observed in 2007,” according to the National Snow & Ice Data Center. “Sea ice extent fell to 4.10 million square kilometers (1.58 million square miles) on August 26, 2012.”

4.10 million square kilometers. How significant might that be?

Well, consider that less than two weeks ago, I reported that Arctic ice was headed for a record low. “In fact, we’re at 5.09 million square km as I write this,” I wrote.

5.09 million square kilometers eleven days ago; 4.10 million square kilometers today. That’s like melting an area the size of South Carolina – EVERY SINGLE DAY. They tell us that there are 2-3 weeks of melting season remaining, so we will surely blow away all previous records by a large margin, before seasonal cold returns.

Today's record-low ice extent, right; ice cover 11 days ago, left.
"By itself it's just a number, and occasionally records are going to get set," NSIDC research scientist Walt Meier said about the new record. "But in the context of what's happened in the last several years and throughout the satellite record, it's an indication that the Arctic sea ice cover is fundamentally changing."

He’s not exaggerating. Including this year, the six lowest ice extents in the satellite record (since 1979) have occurred in the last six years.  The remaining sea ice is now thinner than ever as well, making it an easy target for more melting next year.  And when it melts, it replaces nearly endless expanses of bright reflective white ice with dark, sun-absorbing sea water, further warming the earth’s climate.

Not just a record low: a record rate of loss
But with all we have to worry about, why should Christians – or any people of goodwill – care about ice?

The Psalms tell us “The earth is the Lord’s,” not our own. In Genesis, we find that God has given mankind the responsibility of stewardship, to “work and keep” the garden:  all that God has made – people, plants and animals. The Gospels warn us that God’s fearsome justice awaits those who – although appointed stewards and tenants – attempt to seize for themselves that which properly belongs to the Creator. And in St. Paul’s letters, we find that God’s redeemed children should be exactly what the groaning creation is longing for – agents of renewal and redemption for all things that belong to the Lord we love.

All that dark blue open water used to be reflective white ice
But we cannot bless the creatures of the earth – including the seven billion humans among them – if we fundamentally disrupt their homes and habitats. Surely the record-breaking droughts, floods, wildfires and soaring global food prices of the last several years have shown us that. And in the images that accompany this writing, let’s not ignore that massive block of terrestrial ice on Greenland. As it melts along with the sea ice, its water – enough to raise sea levels by 24 feet – will be coming soon to coastal habitats on which so many of God’s creatures depend for their survival, including us.

Maybe it's time to take creation care off the back burner? For starters, why not take a look at our own carbon footprint, and make changes to reduce our own harm?

Thanks for reading, and may God bless you.

J. Elwood

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

So Much Coal: Why Not Use It?

“We have 250 years of coal. Why the heck wouldn’t we use it?”  Mitt Romney, August 16, 2012

Every so often, a question gets asked that simply demands an answer.  Especially so when the asker may soon become President of the United States.

Now we recognize that this is a bit ticklish. Democrats, Independents and Republicans all read the Clothesline Report.  And we have done our best to remain politically neutral. In the past I’ve been criticized for gushing over a Republican congressman’s stance on carbon pricing. And I’ve been hauled off to jail for protesting the policies of a Democratic president. So maybe I’ve earned the right to give an honest answer to a Republican’s question.

Earth science tells us that for the last two million years, the earth has known two principal conditions: ice ages, and interglacial. During ice ages, there were about 440 billion tons of CO2 in the atmosphere; in the nice warm interglacial periods, atmospheric CO2 increased to 660 billion tons.  It usually hasn’t lingered too long in the middle, but switched back and forth every 100,000 years, or so.

440 billion tons and it’s cold; 660 billion tons and it’s warm – warm like the world our ancestors were born into, and in which human civilization flourished. Things fluctuated from time to time, but the range was stable enough to support complex societies like ours.

But that all began to change in the mid-18th century, when mankind started burning coal, and then oil & gas. Furthermore, armed with the power of fossil fuels, humankind began mowing down the carbon-rich forests as well.  Now, instead of 660 billion tons of CO2 in the air, there are more than 880 billion tons. For millions of years, the atmosphere has never held this much carbon – double the level of the ice ages. In fact, since 1750, we’ve taken the increase in carbon since the ice ages, and doubled it again.

And now, an American presidential candidate wants to know: Why not produce and burn all our remaining reserves of coal?

There was once a Republican president who figured that politicians could use some help with scientific questions. So Abraham Lincoln created the National Academy of Sciences. For the last century and a half, the NAS has been digesting state-of-the-art science for our nation’s leaders.  Today, the NAS has some answers for Mr. Romney:

“The higher the total CO2 emitted,” says the latest NAS report, “and the higher the resulting atmospheric concentration, the higher the warming will be for the next thousand years.” They illustrate the relationship between heating the globe and CO2 concentration in this graph:

National Academy: The more CO2 emissions, the hotter the earth will be.
The implications of the NAS graph are clear: the earth is already going to get much warmer, but the extent of the heating will depend on how much more carbon we burn.  

And how much more CO2 would result from all that U.S. coal? Well, here’s a bit of hypothetical math. The earth went into the Industrial Revolution with 660 billion tons of CO2 in the atmosphere. Mankind has raised that level to 885 billion tons today, a level not seen on earth in millions of years.

Now let’s suppose – for the sake of illustration – that the whole world stopped burning all fossil fuels tomorrow – cold turkey. Not one gasoline engine; not one gas stove; not one coal mine anywhere – except only American coal mines. And we produced all that coal, as Mr. Romney suggested. Then what? The following table tells the hypothetical story:

The earth’s atmosphere would then be clogged with more than 1.2 trillion tons of CO2. That’s about double the pre-industrial level, and enough, according to the NAS, to raise global heat by 6.1oF. This isn’t a projection or a scientific model. It’s accounting.

What does 6.1oF more heat mean for the earth?  Here again, we look to the NAS for insight. They tell us:
  • Global crop yields would decrease by 20-50%, based on current farming practices.
  • 90% of summers would be hotter than the hottest 5% of summers in the 20th century.
  • In the U.S. West, wild fires would be 6 to 12 times larger than they are today.
  • The Greenland Ice Sheet would shrink and eventually disappear, raising sea levels by 13-24 feet.
  • And although the NAS doesn’t mention it, New York would feel like Huntsville, AL; Huntsville would feel like Waco, TX; and Waco would feel downright infernal.

U.S. coal alone would crank up the earth's heat by 6.1F.
I know all this sounds scary. But it’s not nearly scary enough. Remember, our hypothetical case assumed that the whole world immediately stops using all fossil fuels except U.S. coal. In fact, American coal accounts for only 30% of global CO2 emissions.  The remaining 70% – from Canadian tars sands oil, to Saudi light crude, to Chinese coal mines and American shale gas – aren’t going away anytime soon.  In fact, the more recklessly an American president insists on his right to foul the global atmosphere for short-term national gain, surely the more we must expect other nations to do the same.

So, why shouldn’t we use all our American coal? Maybe the question shouldn’t be directed to cheering supporters at a campaign stop. Instead, it might be wise to ask the researchers at the U.S. National Academy of Sciences. The greatest Republican ever – and perhaps the greatest president – established them for this very reason.

Thanks for reading, and may God bless you.

J. Elwood

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Arctic Ice Melt: The U.N. Scientists Were Wrong!

Have you ever wondered if maybe those scientists have gotten it all wrong? 

The climate warnings have been so dire, but the costs of responding are so great. Things we take for granted – spacious suburban homes, powerful performance vehicles, the mobility to travel at will, fresh food flown in from distant sources – would certainly have to change. If not, our kids would inherit a severely damaged world, and their kids might not inherit much of anything at all.

But maybe it’s all alarmism. Even scientists can get things wrong. Why should we change our lifestyle because of speculative computer models?

In fact, they did get things wrong. Back in 2007 the U.N.’s climate science panel (called the IPCC) issued its 4th Assessment Report, and it was alarming. The globe was heating up, they said. Sea levels were rising. Extreme weather events like floods and droughts were increasing, and the polar ice was melting. It would all result in global hunger, displacement of coastal communities, mass human migration, conflicts over shrinking resources and the loss of terrestrial and marine species.

If we believed them, the future looked grim, unless the nations of the earth acted promptly to protect the creation, and restore climate balances. 

But Americans are not easily pushed around – not by scientists, and certainly not by technocrats at the U.N. Back then, only 8% of us believed that climate change wasn’t happening at all; but by the next year, the number had jumped to 11%, and then 16%. By 2010, fully 19% of us believed climate change would never happen.

Perhaps the scientists had it all wrong. 

A couple of days ago, we reported on one way they did get it wrong. In 2007, the IPCC projected that as early as 2044 the Arctic could lose a whopping 2.1 million km2 of sea ice. Here’ s the scary graph they gave us:

Well, in fact, the Arctic has been melting.  Here’s the amount of Arctic sea ice cover on August 15 over the last 33 years, measured daily by satellites for the National Snow & Ice Data Center:

And,as I said, the U.N. scientists got their projections all wrong. Here’s a comparison of the IPCC projections to what has actually happened since 2000:

As you can see, the Arctic isn’t responding at all the way the IPCC said it would. In fact, we’re melting the Arctic four times faster than the fastest estimate they made in 2007. And if you look at the alarming trends from the last few years – which may or may not predict a new trajectory – Arctic melting may now be a runaway train. The consequences for faster global warming, melting of the Greenland ice sheet, accelerated global sea level rise, and even slowing the climate-stabilizing ocean conveyer currents are not fully known. But let’s not be blind: There will be consequences.

Scientists are fallible. Their models often miss something important.  At first, we take comfort from this. But then the dreadful reality hits us: You can be wrong in more ways than one.

The earth hasn’t seen this much earth-warming CO2 in the atmosphere for millions of years. And those scientists have mostly been predicting slow, steady global warming. Bad, no doubt, but largely a problem for the distant future – something to be solved after we balance the budget, reduce unemployment, or counter nuclear threats from rogue states.

But maybe they’re wrong. They didn’t see how fast we’d lose the Arctic ice. They didn’t see the extent of devastating droughts and wildfires in the American and Russian breadbaskets. They didn’t see the pace of food cost increases and the rapid spread of global hunger.

How do we respond to these challenges? We may urge our leaders to prioritize climate action. We may take a serious look at our own carbon footprint, and make changes to reduce our own harm. We may begin the conversation among our friends, co-workers and churches.

But whatever we do, let’s not make the mistake of finding comfort in the failure of the experts to predict the future. More likely than not, the surprises will be unpleasant. My kids – and yours – are counting on us.

Thanks for reading, and may God bless you.

J. Elwood

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Warnings from the Top of the World

Let’s face it: We don’t care all that much about sea ice.

We care about our kid’s job, or our GPA in college. We care about our favorite sports team, or who’s winning the election. We care about the noisy neighbors, or the worsening traffic on our commute.

But sea ice? Hardly on the radar screen, right?

Today's ice v. normal (orange line)
And that’s a pity, because scientists at the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) tell us that it’s more important to our future – and our kids’ futures – than most things we worry about.

Bright white ice used to cover most of the Arctic, from Siberia to Greenland, even in midsummer.  But it’s been shrinking, year by year, as the earth warms. And now the U.S. National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC) tells us that this year will be a new record for ice shrinkage by a wide margin. The last record was set in 2007, and this year’s ice melt is way ahead of that.

We might have thought that maybe this would a good thing. After all, mariners have been trying for ages to open the Northwest Passage, and avoid those long voyages through warmer southern waters.  Just last week, a Chinese ship docked in Iceland, after taking the shortcut along the northern coast of Russia.

"To our astonishment ... most part of the Northern Sea Route is open," expedition leader Huigen Yang told Reuters upon arrival. The Chinese had expected much more ice, and now plan to return by a more direct route closer to the North Pole.

But there is a problem in all this, according to the NAS. All that former bright white ice was really reflective, sending about 60% of the energy from the sun’s rays back out into space. By contrast, ocean water is really dark, and it reflects only about 10% of the sun’s energy that hits it. The remaining 90% gets absorbed, and warms the oceans. The more the Earth warms, the Polar Regions become more energy-absorbent, generating even more warmth.  That’s why small changes in the Earth’s systems sometimes turn into big changes for the Earth.

The U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warned that this would happen back in 2007. But many people predicted they’d be way off.  In fact, they were. But like so many scientific predictions regarding the damage to the Earth from climate change, they were wrong in the wrong way. Actual sea ice melting is far worse than the IPCC predicted. The IPCC warned that Arctic sea ice cover could shrink to about 7.0 million square km by this time. In fact, we’re at 5.09 million square km as I write this, and falling.

The U.N. IPCC was wrong: It's much worse
And today, there’s more deep-blue absorbent water in the Arctic than there was on average in the period 1979-2000 by an area roughly the size of India. For the Earth’s climate, it’s as though we’ve taken an area called home by over one billion people, and repainted the entire surface from reflective white to limousine-black -- to bake in the sun all day long.

Whatever the world’s nations decide to do in the year ahead, that India-sized black limo will again be baking in the Arctic sun next summer, only it will be bigger, and hotter.  That’s why we can’t afford to get around to listening to the climate scientists after our immediate concerns – the recession, the pennant race, the election, or whatever – are resolved.

Breaking records: more open water than ever
For your own sake, and for your kids, the time to demand climate action is now.  Our leaders will only do what we demand that they do. Why not take a moment, and make your voice heard

Thanks for reading, and for speaking out. And may God bless you.

J. Elwood