Waiting for El Nino

April 16, 2014


Australian Bureau of Meteorology: All international climate models surveyed by the Bureau indicate that SSTs in the equatorial Pacific Ocean will continue to warm during autumn and winter. Almost all models indicate El Niño thresholds will be exceeded during the southern hemisphere winter.

The well known climate denial canard – “There has been no warming in x years”, derives from the gigantic el nino event of 1998.  In El Nino events, warm water from the western Pacific spreads across to the eastern Pacific and the coast of South America. The ocean surface pumps enormous amounts of heat and moisture into the atmosphere, with effects on global weather and temperatures.  Historically these are warm years.
In the past decade, El Nino’s evil twin, La Nina, has been the more dominant influence – with cooler pacific waters that tend to suck more heat down into deeper levels, and are a damper on global temperatures.

The graph below shows the relationship between El Nino, La Nina, and global temperature.  Note that even the “cold” La Nina years continue to warm.

If a new El Nino develops, climate experts look for a new record in Global temperature, as well as a host of other extreme events around the planet.

World Meteorological Organization:

Since the second quarter of 2012, El Niño-Southern Oscillation (ENSO) indicators (e.g., tropical Pacific sea surface temperatures, sea level pressure, cloudiness and trade winds) have generally remained at neutral levels. This is expected to continue into the earlier part of the second quarter of 2014, according to the WMO Update.

However, since February there have been two strong westerly wind events, and a general weakening of the trade winds in the tropical Pacific. This has led to a significant warming of the waters below the surface of the central Pacific, which historically has been one of the precursors to El Niño development. While there is no guarantee this situation will lead to an El Niño event, the longer the trade winds remain weakened, and subsurface temperatures stay significantly warmer than average, the higher the likelihood of the emergence of an El Niño.

 “Model forecasts indicate a fairly large potential for an El Niño, most likely by the end of the second quarter of 2014,” said the Update, which is compiled from inputs from climate experts and prediction models around the world. “For the June to August period, approximately two-thirds of the models surveyed predict that El Niño thresholds will be reached, while the remaining models predict a continuation of neutral conditions. A few models predict an earlier El Niño onset, such as in May. No model suggests a La Niña in 2014.”

However, the strength of the possible El Niño cannot be reliably estimated at the current time.

“El Niño and La Niña are major drivers of the natural variability of our climate. If an El Niño event develops – and it is still too early to be certain – it will influence temperatures and precipitation and contribute to droughts or heavy rainfall in different regions of the world,” said WMO Secretary-General Michel Jarraud. “The major advances in our forecasting capabilities mean that we will be better prepared to manage the impact of these events especially if extreme on agriculture, water, health and many other climate-sensitive socio-economic sectors.”

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Senator Charles Grassley is known to be a long time fiscal conservative Republican Senator from Iowa. Obviously, the size and scope of the Iowa wind industry belies the anti-renewable propaganda of the science denial right.  In speaking up this way, Senator Grassley offers powerful support and factual underpinning scrutinizing the web of subsidies that fossil fuels have enjoyed for more than a century.


Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA) spoke up about the “intellectually dishonest argument” that bubbled to the surface at a Senate Finance Committee hearing on April 3rd.

His remarks were in response to an amendment introduced by Sen. Toomey (R-PA), under the short title “Eliminate crony capitalist energy tax credits,” which proposed to eliminate the renewable energy Production Tax Credit (PTC), as well as credits for renewable fuels, energy efficient appliances, electric motorcycles and fuel cell vehicles. In explaining the amendment, Sen. Toomey declared wind power to be a “politically favored form of energy.”

Senator Grassley gave a powerful response that put energy tax credits in context.

Sen. Toomey’s amendment failed by a vote of 18-6 in the Senate Finance Committee. Senators Toomey (R-PA), Isakson (R-GA), Roberts (R-KS), Burr (R-NC), Hatch (R-UT) and Enzi (R-WY) supported it, and the remainder of the Committee members opposed.

The Committee later approved, via voice vote, the Expiring Provisions Improvement Reform and Efficiency (EXPIRE) Act of 2014. This bill includes an extension of the renewable energy production tax credit (PTC) and investment tax credit (ITC) which would let wind energy developers qualify for the tax credits if they start construction on their wind projects by the end of 2015.  The next step will be for the EXPIRE Act to move to the Senate floor for consideration.

In the broader picture, the Senate Finance Committee members agree that they wish to address tax reform in a comprehensive fashion, rather than through short-term bills like this one.  Chairman Wyden (D-OR) declared that this consideration of the EXPIRE ACT would be the last time that the Committee works on tax extension provisions.  They plan to pivot to comprehensive tax reform in the future.


Above – ERCOT (Electric Reliability Council of Texas provides this map of Locational Marginal Pricing of electricity (MWH) across its service area.

Note prices of electricity are color coded.  Now note the bright red/orange blob across the west Texas Oil patch.

The far west of Texas is ground zero for the extraction of exotic fossil fuels like fracked natural gas and Shale oil. It is also prime territory for solar energy — hot, flat, and clear.  Much of that solar has remained unexploited due to transmission bottlenecks that make it difficult to transmit power to the more populous eastern Texas cities.

But the explosion of gas and shale fields in West Texas means, there is a huge demand for electricity - and “solar wildcatters” are springing up to meet that demand.  Traditional Texas wildcatters drill for oil,  with the knowledge that most holes will be dry.

Solar wildcatters know that every panel they set up will be catching the suns rays – their only uncertainty is price.
In the existing situation –  high demand from fossil fuelers jacks up those prices, feeding a blossoming solar industry, ramping up more mass production of solar panels, dropping those prices, - making solar only more inevitable by the moment, and hastening the imminent assimilation of the energy industry.



Our friends over at Business Insider have been circulating a chart called Welcome to the Terrordome, which depicts an “almost violent decline in solar pricing” globally, to the point where solar beats oil and liquid natural gas in some markets. As for how much lower solar can go, we’ve been tracking the journey of solar from an exotic space technology to a backyard standard, and BI’s arguments for a solar-dominated world dovetail with our observations.

For the record, BI sourced the chart and background information from a note by Michael Parker and Flora Chang of the investment firm AllianceBernstein via its research driven subsidiary Sandford C. Bernstein.

The BI article is provocatively titled “The Solar Industry Has Been Waiting 60 Years For This To Happen — And It Finally Just Did.” It’s well worth a read in full but for those of you on the go, here are a couple of tantalizing bits referencing the now-notorious chart.

Low Cost Solar

1. Solar is a new technology that will continue to be cheaper as the technology advances.

We’ll strongly second that, and add the observation that at least some amount of utility-scale solar, and a practically infinite amount of distributed solar, can be piggybacked on buildings, brownfields, and other sites that have already been built upon.

That includes solar windows and other building-integrated solar elements as well as rooftop and ground mounted systems.

In that context, it’s easy to see how millions of distributed solar owners will eventually blow up the now-conventional model of an energy harvesting industry dominated by large companies.

Here in the US, the Obama Administration has been aggressively pursuing the distributed solar model, both from the foundational research end and through nuts-and-bolts initiatives like the Rooftop Challenge, which is designed to reduce the overall cost of installed solar power.

High Cost Fossils

2. Fossil fuel extraction will continue to get more expensive.

We’ll strongly second that one, too. The basic idea is that as conventional reserves are tapped out, exploration moves to sites that are far more complicated and expensive to access.

When you hear that, you naturally think of deep ocean sites, but here in the US you also have two forms of land based fossil fuel extraction, mountaintop removal for coal and fracking for oil and gas, which have undergone a recent boom and are encroaching on populated areas that formerly hosted little or no such activities.

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The Joint Center for Artificial Photosynthesis (JCAP) is the nation’s largest research program dedicated to the development of an artificial solar-fuel generation technology. Established in 2010 as a U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) Energy Innovation Hub, JCAP aims to find a cost-effective method to produce fuels using only sunlight, water, and carbon dioxide as inputs.

JCAP brings together more than 140 top scientists and researchers from the California Institute of Technology and its lead partner, Berkeley Lab, along with collaborators from the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory, and the University of California campuses at Irvine and San Diego.


Above,  someone did a really nice job on the graphics for this segment where an ABC interviewer chats with Dr. Michelle Fowler of Goddard Space Flight Center.  I wasn’t aware there was a panic going on in fundamentalist religious circles over tonight’s “blood moon” total lunar eclipse, but once again, I’ve been out of the loop.

In a country where a sizable number of people believe the sun goes around the earth, this is a healthy reminder that all of us have a responsibility as science communicators – and not just in areas of climate.

Raw Story:

Pastor John Hagee is warning members of his megachurch to prepare for the end of the world because a “blood moon” eclipse on Tuesday is signaling that the End Times could be beginning.

On Tuesday, most of the United States will be treated to the first of four complete lunar eclipses — which scientists call a tetrad — occurring in six month intervals. The eclipses are often referred to as “blood moons” because as sunlight shines on the moon through the Earth’s atmosphere, it gives the moon a red color.

Hagee, pastor of Texas’ Cornerstone Church, has written a book on the phenomenon titled Blood Moons: Something is About to Change. And he is airing a live television event on Tuesday to reveal “direct connections between four upcoming blood-moon eclipses and what they portend for Israel and all of humankind.”


The tetrad — or four consecutive and complete lunar eclipses occurring at approximately six-month intervals — will all be visible over the United States this year and next, according to NASA lunar eclipse expert Fred Espenak.

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Above, from December 2013, a segment from Jim Byrne’s  San Francisco interview with Lord Nicholas Stern of the London School of Economics, on the cost of mitigating climate change.

We’re going to be spending money on energy in coming years. Question is, will we keep spending it on the polluting technologies of the 19th century, or begin, belatedly, deploying the technologies of the new energy revolution?

The latest Working Group report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is out, with a surprisingly affordable sticker price on climate protection.


The U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has just issued its third of four planned reports. This one is on “mitigation” — “human intervention to reduce the sources or enhance the sinks of greenhouse gases.”

.. The first report warned that continued inaction would lead to 9°F warming (or higher) for most of the U.S. and Northern Hemisphere landmass, resulting in faster sea level rise, more extreme weather, and collapse of the permafrost sink, which would further accelerate warming. The second report warned that this in turn would lead to a “breakdown of food systems,” more violent conflicts, and ultimately threaten to make some currently habited and arable land virtually unlivable for parts of the year.

Now you might think it would be a no-brainer that humanity would be willing to pay a very high cost to avoid such catastrophes and achieve the low emission “2°C” (3.6°F) pathway in the left figure above (RCP2.6 — which is a total greenhouse gas level in 2100 equivalent to roughly 450 parts per million of CO2). But the third report finds that the “cost” of doing so is to reduce the median annual growth of consumption over this century by a mere 0.06%.

You read that right, the annual growth loss to preserve a livable climate is 0.06% — and that’s “relative to annualized consumption growth in the baseline that is between 1.6% and 3% per year.” So we’re talking annual growth of, say 2.24% rather than 2.30% to save billions and billions of people from needless suffering for decades if not centuries. As always, every word of the report was signed off on by every major government in the world.

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