We all understand that Greenland is melting and the Arctic sea ice is also disappearing rapidly but some areas are so high and so cold that they do not normally melt. Satellites have now identified two new areas of melting that have been discovered because they are making lakes of meltwater that are visible from space and they are in new regions.
One region is in East Antarctica which had previously been thought to be too cold to melt. West Antarctica is melting and the sea ice is melting from underneath due to warmer sea water but this is a new area to be seen melting.
The second surprise was on the high plateau of Mongolia which is so cold that the region is called the third pole. This region, which in its entirety would include the Himalayas, has thousands of glaciers and the summer melt provides water for some of the biggest in the world and supplies water for about 1.2 billion people in Asia and India all the way from Pakistan to China. The danger is that the ice will melt away and in the end their will not be enough water to supply the rivers in the summer leaving millions of people and whole nations short of water.
When Tesla announced its model 3 and took orders for 400,000 cars it had a devastating effect on the traditional car manufacturers who can now see that they have been far too complacent. Their symbiotic relationship with the oil companies has gone on far too long and they now realise their mistake and are scrambling to catch up.
Up to now electric cars have been more expensive and considered by the traditional petrol head manufactures a bit of a joke but this is because nobody before Tesla had used a volume production line for manufacturing to get costs down. However, when you consider a few facts you can see the depth of their mistake.
A petrol car has 2000 parts a whereas an electric car has 10% of that. A petrol car already has two electric power units, a starter motor and an alternator, and there is an annual world production of around 150 million of each so electric car motors can be very cheap in volume production.
Batteries prices are on a steep downward curve and this is with existing technology. Many research laboratories around the world are announcing breakthroughs in new materials and performance so we can expect many more improvements with an increase in research investment.
There will be leapfrogging downward plunge in car and van prices which will eliminate oil powered cars in much the same way that mobile phones and digital cameras devastated the tradition manufacturers and it could all happen in ten years.
When you include driverless car technology and solar energy providing very cheap energy, the transport industry as we know it is due for some massive changes and nothing will be the same again.
We may reach our CO2 emission reduction targets with a market driven initiative that will cut our oil consumption and save us money at the same time and no government intervention.
So far we have only been partially successful in reducing the use of fossil fuels, because the resistance put up by oil and coal companies and backed by their national governments has been formidable, but this appears to be about to change and more rapidly that anyone could have foretold.
One of the problems has been the huge amount of expensive infrastructure that will have to be abandoned and the assets stranded by a transition to a clean electric economy and the companies involved and politicians who support them are not prepared to face that.
This may all be about to change and will be market driven so that car companies and electricity companies will have to move rapidly to the new technologies or fail. It took ten years between 1910 and 1920 for the horse powered transport to be replaced by cars and we are entering a similar but bigger period of transition and disruption. Watch this half hour video for an in depth appreciation.
There are a large number of technologies coming together in a perfect storm of change that will change our way of life more rapidly than we could have imagined only a few years ago.
In brief, the price of solar power and wind is coming down so fast that it is cheaper than coal or oil, batteries are getting cheaper and more efficient so that they can deliver stored energy when we need it and cheaply, an electric car only has 18 moving parts compared to a petrol one having 2000 which makes them cheaper to manufacture and operate and more reliable.
Computers are getting massively more powerful and lower in price and can undertake bigger tasks such as self-driving cars and trucks and there are a whole host of new technologies that are changing our lives beyond belief. This blog describes the full range of technologies.
We may have to re-engineer our society to accommodate the massive changes in employment but it will be better than burning fossil fuels until changes in the climate overwhelm us.
It might be an idea to watch this Australian Broadcasting Co video in conjunction with the text.
A lot of things are changing in the energy world and the fossil fuel energy sources of coal and oil are under extreme pressure from two directions. The first is, the addition of CO2 to the atmosphere from burning coal and oil is raising the world temperature, and, if we are to avoid disaster we need to get it under control. At the same time the new energy from solar panels and wind farms is now cheaper than coal electricity and even oil for transport is likely to be replaced by electric transport.
These changes are bringing problems to our existing energy sources as the businesses in the them have a lot invested in infrastructure and need to protect themselves from being left with a redundant asset, or, being in an industry that is side lined. A traditional coal powered electricity supply system involves, typically, a centrally located 1000 megawatt coal powered energy source and a grid network that distributes electric power over long distances to power the region. The major disadvantages of coal are that it produces massive amounts of pollution, including CO2, sulphur and other noxious gasses and also because of the size and heat of the boilers it is not a system that is easy to alter its output and often burns coal at night when power is not needed.
An overview of the different renewable energy sources shows, that solar is reliable, in that it provides power every day when the sun shines and even cloudy days can be forecast in advance. Wind provides cheap electricity, but only when the wind blows and again, windy or calm days can be forecast in advance. Geothermal is reliable and can be used for constant base load but can be switched down if needed. Hydro is also good for base load but has the big advantage that it can be used for peak load spikes and can be switched on and go from nothing to full power in a few minutes.
A modern grid system designed for the new energy sources would be divided into smaller districts and have smart switching to balance power with demand. The big difference between the old and the new systems is that the renewable energy comes from much smaller, constantly changing local sources but its big advantage is that the energy is free and that there are so many small outputs that the gains and losses balance one another out and make it a reliable system.
It’s a different kind of system but with modern monitoring and switching it is a cheaper system to provide power.
If homes providing their own energy are perceived as a threat and weakening of the existing grid, the electricity companies have alternative plans and are looking at the huge transport system, where there is a massive market available. Oil is a diminishing resource and it is a fossil fuel, full of CO2 and other pollutants, and if we are to keep the global temperature below 2C we will have to stop using it.
One way or another we will have to stop using fossil fuels and need an alternative that works.
One of the things about climate change is the way that particles in the atmosphere (aerosols) keep the temperature down. I was first alerted to the statistics when it was reported that after the 9/11 disaster, the USA grounded aircraft for three days and the temperature went up 1C. Whether this was true or not the combination of soot particles from burning coal, farming and aircraft contrails do have a combined effect in shielding the earth’s surface from the suns heat and suppressing the temperature. The big question is by how much?
Another anecdotal story is that when I was living in the UK in the 1970’s the temperature had been stable or even falling for forty years and this was accepted, when we had a message from New Zealand (probably Kevin Trenberth) that the temperature was rising steadily. This was all before satellites.
Looking at the NASA graph the pause in temperature from about 1940 through to about 1980 can be seen quite clearly. This was when the world was gearing up after World War 2 and coal plants were working round the clock to rebuild the economy. From 1980 Europe and the USA stated to clean up their cities by switching from coal to cleaner energy and the atmosphere began to clear and the temperature restarted its upwards path.
There may well be other factors such as El Niño’s and similar cycles of the major oceans but I would suggest that there could easily be an extra 1.0 C increase in temperature built into the system for when we stop burning coal and cut back on flying.
A recent paper by James Hansen and 18 other scientists showed that there was a strong possibility of major storms in the Atlantic that were likely to be way outside the experience of modern history. The extra power of these storms was caused by the rise in temperature of the world and the changing differential between the poles and the equator would give them extra strength.
The situation in the Southern hemisphere is likely to be more extreme than the Atlantic, where the research evidence was found. The Antarctic continent is very high and continues to be very cold while the Equator continues to warm which increases the temperature differential between the two regions. We are already seeing signs of this with the 20% increase in the proportion of Westerly winds in New Zealand and the increase in winter sea ice surrounding the Antarctic, which is caused by stronger winds blowing the ice away from the continent.
The problem for New Zealand is that the South Island lies in the path of the roaring forties and is in the direct path of the route these powerful storms would travel. While the mountains on the West coast mostly protect the more heavily populated Eastern areas, there are still a lot of people and infrastructure that would be exposed to risk. Towns like Invercargill, Bluff and Dunedin and even Wellington, might have to re-evaluate their climate change strategy to accommodate the damage that a hurricane sized storm can do.
If we started including the social and environmental damage that fossil fuels do into the selling price of oil and coal, what would be a fair price? The scale of the implication makes it very difficult to imagine how this can work or even comprehend the concept.
We understand that the burning fossil fuels is putting more CO2 into the atmosphere and that it is changing the climate and threatening our way of life. The main threats are rising temperatures, changing weather patterns, increased ocean acidity and rising sea levels and it includes the whole world, so should we put the cost onto the price of a litre of petrol and would anyone understand?
If we scale the problem down so that we take the City of Auckland as a closed system and said that the use of oil for transport will cause sea levels will rise by one metre by 2050 to 2070 and at that point Auckland airport will be flooded (which it will) and we will have to build a new one in another place.
How much social cost should we add to the price of a litre of petrol or diesel?
That is the problem but on a much bigger scale. At the moment there are no social or environmental costs included in fossil fuels but if there were, we would be a lot more responsible and aware of what we are doing.
A lot of scientists are getting very worried about this years melting of the Arctic sea ice as it is way below normal. The very warm winter reduced the new ice cover and storms have broken up regions of ice making a bad start to the summer melt. There is some way to go yet but as the NASA satellite chart shows the season has made a disastrous start.
A few things have happened recently, both good and bad, that makes me wonder if we are doing our share to avert an impending climate disaster. On the good side we have signed and ratified the COP21 climate agreement and just announced a positive policy to introduce some electric transport. On the negative side we have delayed the closure of the Huntley power station coal fired boilers and Fonterra are opening two new dairy processing plants which will use coal to dry the milk into powder.
The UN have commissioned a huge amount of scientific research both in the IPCC reports and the COP21 agreement that set out what we need to do to avert disaster and how much we do, or don’t do will result in certain outcomes.
The best outcome that we can hope to achieve is a 1.5 C increase in temperature above 1880 (about where we are now) and it requires that we stop burning fossil fuels immediately, change our farming systems and then start removing CO2 from the atmosphere.
We are clearly not going to do that but it does highlight the situation that, as we get further into the century and the climate disasters start to get much worse we will have to act rapidly to stop using oil and coal and start to remove CO2 from the atmosphere.
To highlight the scale of the problem by looking at our two negative decisions with burning coal, we will eventually have to remove the CO2 we are adding to the atmosphere.
If the single Huntly coal fired boiler is running at near capacity, it will be burning around 1000 tons of coal a day or 365,000 tons a year. To sequester the CO2 from this burning we will have to plant 40 trees per ton and this will amount to 14,600,000 trees for every year of operation.
The Fonterra boiler may burn 100 tons of coal a day for each operation and just one will burn 36,500 tons of coal a year and they will need to plant 1,460,000 trees a year to soak up the CO2 they are putting into the atmosphere.
The scale of the problem is huge but avoiding it today only piles up problems for the future and we have already wasted thirty years when the problems have been apparent but the people and the politicians political will have not been there and prepared to face the facts and take action.
It is much cheaper to face the problems now and reduce the disaster that is imminent.
There has been quite a lot of interest in the speed and timing of sea level rise recently, brought about by the publication of new research and the sudden jump in world surface temperatures. The last IPCC report estimated a range of between 0.7 metres and 0.9 metres by the end of the century but there was a clause that specifically excluded Antarctica and Greenland’s melting ice sheets because not enough was known about them to quantify it. Most of the ice melting in Antarctica is from ice that is already in the sea and therefore does not contribute to sea level rise but the ice shelves hold the land glaciers in position and if the ice shelves go the land based glaciers slip quickly into the sea.
The results of the massive research effort to clarify the situation are now coming in thick and fast and they are all bad. James Hansen has sounded the alarm.
Just a quick note on what I believe are the important parameters. Firstly, just one metre is enough to bankrupt most economies and will displace two hundred million people causing a huge refugee problem if not world wars. Secondly we want to know the timing, if it will happen in our families’ lifetime so that it becomes of personal interest. So, all we want to know is, when are we going to get a one metre sea level rise?
The interesting part is that almost all the science on sea level rise shows that it rises very slowly under natural circumstances. But we are not in a natural situation. We have raised the level of CO2 in the atmosphere to 400 ppm instantaneously in paleological terms and we have raised the temperature by 1.5 C in a nanosecond in Earth’s history terms and there is no precedent for that.
So what do we have? There are three regions of the planet that hold enough ice to raise sea levels quickly and these are Greenland, West Antarctica and East Antarctica and they are all very different.
Firstly, it should be mentioned that the atmosphere is not a good conductor of heat and will not melt ice quickly and so this somewhat rules out Greenland because it does not have much ice sitting in the ocean. It is melting fast and will be a contributor and it pays to listen to Greenland specialist Jason Box.
Greenland's meltwater is upsetting the Gulf Stream and may give Europe some very bad weather but it is melting at the rate that could give a 100 to 300 mm of sea level rise quickly. It is part of the picture.
Second is that East Antarctica has by far the biggest amount of ice but it is remote and poorly observed so that apart from the knowledge that the Totton glacier is losing mass from the bottom of its glacier tail sitting in the sea, not all that much is known. It is certainly melting around the edges but lack of access is hindering research.
I strongly recommend watching this half hour lecture video of Eric Rignot at the American Geophysical Union meeting.
This leaves West Antarctica which is a series of islands holding in position a massive sheet of ice around 1000 metres thick and resting on the bed of the ocean.
What is happening here is that the temperature differential between the high cold Antarctic and the warming equator is increasing and the winds flowing from the cold to the warm are blowing faster.
This is causing a turnover of the water at the edge of the ice so that the very cold surface water (-2 C) is being blown out to sea (as evidenced by the increasing winter ice) and is drawing the warmer deep water (4 C) nearer the surface. This warmer water has now reached the grounded ice shelves of West Antarctica and melting them from the bottom and it is doing so at a furious rate.
There are other minor regions of glaciers in Alaska and the Himalaya's which are also steady contributors.
Nobody has ever seen and recorded a massive ice shelf disintegrate before and so it is not researched. The ice shelves named Larsons A and B disintegrated suddenly from 1995 onwards and it was photographed from space but nobody was expecting it to happen and so there were no instruments in place to research how it happened. That is not the case now and millions have been spent on observing and researching various ice shelves to work out what is happening. This research is where the new warnings are originating but much of the research is not completed yet and will take years before it is published and then many more years before it becomes government policy.
We therefore have to get the honest opinions of five or six leading scientists who are working on the ice and can interpret the results of the research so far and where we are headed.
A quote from The Royal Society of New Zealand emphasises the urgency.
“Experience shows that uncertainties around climate changes can result in decision-making being postponed until changes are clearer. This ‘wait and see’ approach is in itself risky, since the direction and rough magnitude of climate changes, and the associated increases in key risks, are well understood.”
The distilled consensus of opinion appears to be that we can expect the additional 800 mm of sea level rise to make the one metre in around forty to fifty years. Close enough to affect the lives of most people alive today.
The New Zealand governments recommendation to councils is to plan for 500 mm by 2100 which is clearly inadequate.
Here is an even more pessimistic report by people better qualified than me. https://www.kcet.org/redefine/sea-level-rise-could-come-much-sooner-than-you-think
There are so many reports coming out now about sea level rise that I am getting confused about the totals.
If we start with the IPCC Fifth report which only deals with thermal expansion, they have a range of scenarios, where only the worst case is valid, because we have already exceeding it, and that comes to 900 mm by the end of the century and about 500 mm by 2050.
We next have the report in Nature ‘Antarctica’s contribution to sea level rise by Robert DeConto’ where his research shows that the rate of ice loss will contribute one metre by 2100.
This only deals with Antarctica's contribution.
There is an excellent presentation by Eric Rignot of NASA at the American Geophysical Union where he summarises the accelerating rates of all the big glacial regions but hesitates to come to a real estimate of the totals for the end of the century but explains a very dire situation.
And lastly we have James Hansen who uses his vast experience to point to conclusions about a nonlinear collapse of the big ice sheets and the consequent pulse in sea level rise which could be as high as four metres this century.
Eric Rignot said that trying to model the rate of collapse of the ice shelves is so complicated that by the time it is done it will be much too late. In fact, he says that the current situation is unstoppable.
Michael Man one of the most eminent climate scientists said that he might quibble about some of Jim Hansen’s research but the conclusions were probably correct.
New Zealand’s government is still using the IPCC mid-range scenario of about 700 mm by 2100 even though it does not include melting glaciers and ice shelves and we have long passed any hope of restricting sea levels to those optimistic level.
The NZ Climate Commissioner, Jan Wright is pointing out the folly of not facing the facts and planning for the future, but even she is using very conservative figures of one metre sea level rise.
We expect a government to look at the countries future and use the available facts to plan for the safest outcome, but there is a deafening silence or outright denial, that there is any problem at all.
We can’t change what is happening to the climate but we can plan our infrastructure to minimise the worst of the effects and it start by recognising the gravity of the situation. Here is a summary of some NZ infrastructure losses.
Hansen’s report on climate change has been getting a lot of publicity so I thought a ‘Bob Bingham’ summary might help explain the overall picture.
Hansen comments that we have been burning fossil fuels and producing CO2 without any idea of the consequences to our planet. The report compares the Eemian period, which was the previous warm period, 125,000 years ago, when the temperature was only 0.5 C warmer than today, and sea levels were 2m to 7m higher.
The level of CO2 at that time was 300 ppm compared with 400 ppm today but the temperatures were similar.
His report centres on the ‘Great ocean conveyor, or thermohayline circulation which flows round the world and distributes heat around the planet.
With CO2 in the atmosphere at 400 ppm, heat from the sun is warming the planet and most heat goes into the oceans. This heat in the oceans melts the grounded ice shelves from below and increases the release of fresh water.
This fresh water interferes with the sinking of the salt laden sea water at the poles and slows the thermohayline circulation and consequently slows the distribution of heat around the planet.
As the ice shelves break up there is an increase in the speed at which the big ice sheets move towards the sea and consequently they are melted by the warmer ocean water.
The physical action of ice melting uses heat and keeps the poles cooler.
The result is that the Poles remaining cold and the tropics becoming warmer makes an energy imbalance in the planet which can drive much more powerful storms. Typical instances would be along the course of the Gulf stream, across the Pacific Ocean and round the Southern Ocean. Read the report
Hansen is warning about sudden pulses of sea level rise of several metres, which has happened before, but for the people here today a sudden increase of one metre would be catastrophic to the economies of the rich nations. London for instance is currently protected to one metre and could withstand two metres given enough time but after that it is flooded and this would be true for the USA East coast, South West coast and California, China and Holland.
In my early morning walk this summer I have noticed that the Maori ford over the Kerikeri river has been flooded very frequently. It takes some time for these simple observations to filter though the grey matter but eventually I found that the sea level has risen close to 200 mm due to the El Nino causing expansion of the much warmer sea water.
This chart from the new Jason 3 ESA/ NASA satellite shows the dramatic rise in sea level around the New Zealand cost. Let’s hope that we don’t get an autumn gale from the North or we may get some serious flooding.
By the end of the century the world will have eleven billion people, even though birth rates are largely under control. The cause is that, with better health and education, we are all living longer which is explained very well by Hans Rosling Here.
At the same time, we have already missed the two easy opportunities to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions to control temperatures and are now only left with the more difficult options. (Red and Green lines)
We can still achieve our targets to feed this 50% increase in population if we reduce waste and eat all the food that the farmers grow, and also cut back on the inefficient system of feeding cattle good food to get back a small amount of meat od dairy. The livestock population needs to be reduced by 75%.
If we do not move fairly quickly to make changes it is difficult to see how we are going to avoid a catastrophe in food production as this chart of the USA indicates. How can farmers grow crops in those temperatures?
As we are seeing in the Syria/Europe disaster it’s not easy to stop the mass flow of desperate people and it is better to make changes now than to try and fight it out later.
As part of a course on climate change with Exeter University through Future Learn I have to show a house that is adapted to the changing climate.
As I have made some changes myself I am showing what I have done to adapt my own house to today’s conditions compared to the conditions it was built to encounter.
The changes I have made are
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