It was three, maybe four o’clock in the morning when he first saw them. Grad student Jeff Bowman was on the deck of a ship; he and a University of Washington biology team were on their way back from the North Pole. It was cold outside, the temperature had just dropped, and as the dawn broke, he could see a few, then more, then even more of these little flowery things, growing on the frozen sea.

“I was absolutely astounded,” he says. They were little protrusions of ice, delicate, like snowflakes. They began growing in the dry, cold air “like a meadow spreading off in all directions. Every available surface was covered with them.” What are they?

“Frost flowers,” he was told. “I’d never heard of them,” Jeff says, “but they were everywhere.”

They aren’t flowers, of course. They are more like ice sculptures that grow on the border between the sea and air. On Sept. 2, 2009, the day Jeff’s colleague Matthias Wietz took these pictures, the air was extremely cold and extremely dry, colder than the ocean surface. When the air gets that different from the sea, the dryness pulls moisture off little bumps in the ice, bits of ice vaporize, the air gets humid — but only for a while. The cold makes water vapor heavy. The air wants to release that excess weight, so crystal by crystal, air turns back into ice, creating delicate, feathery tendrils that reach sometimes two, three inches high, like giant snowflakes. The sea, literally, blossoms.

Read the rest of this entry »


Above, more of my interview with JPL’s Eric Rignot at AGU. Dr. Rignot, one of the most respected experts on Antarctic ice metrics, discusses ice balance and the impact of IMBIE – the recently published  Ice Mass Balance Inter-comparison Exercise which brought together divergent data sets on ice sheet dynamics.

Timely due to  this weekend’s announcement of recent observations of temperature increase over the West Antarctic Ice Sheet.


OSLO, Dec 23 (Reuters) – West Antarctica is warming almost twice as fast as previously believed, adding to worries of a thaw that would add to sea level rise from San Francisco to Shanghai, a study showed on Sunday.

Annual average temperatures at the Byrd research station in West Antarctica had risen 2.4 degrees Celsius (4.3F) since the 1950s, one of the fastest gains on the planet and three times the global average in a changing climate, it said.

The unexpectedly big increase adds to fears the ice sheet is vulnerable to thawing. West Antarctica holds enough ice to raise world sea levels by at least 3.3 metres (11 feet) if it ever all melted, a process that would take centuries.

“The western part of the ice sheet is experiencing nearly twice as much warming as previously thought,” Ohio State University said in a statement of the study led by its geography professor David Bromwich.

The warming “raises further concerns about the future contribution of Antarctica to sea level rise,” it said. Higher summer temperatures raised risks of a surface melt of ice and snow even though most of Antarctica is in a year-round deep freeze.

See the video above for a play-by-play of Hurricane Sandy, and at the end, a telling anecdote from increasingly horrified former Republican congressman Joe Scarborough.


The world’s largest insurers are tallying the costs of climate inaction, and the numbers are staggering.

Swiss Re announced recently that total economic losses in 2012 from “natural catastrophes and man-made disasters” — primarily weather events — should reach roughly $140 billion. Over 11,000 lives were lost due to the so-called “natural catastrophes” alone.

According to the Swiss Re report, “Natural and man-made catastrophes in 2012,” the top five insured loss events are all in the U.S.

“Hurricane Sandy is the largest Atlantic hurricane on record in terms of wind span. This record storm surge caused widespread flooding and damage to a densely populated area on the East Coast of the U.S. It also led to the worst power outage caused by a natural catastrophe in the history of the U.S.”

But Sandy wasn’t the only event to blame. According to the report, “extremely dry weather conditions and limited snowfall in the U.S. led to one of the worst droughts in recent decades, affecting more than half of the country. Drought-related agricultural losses are likely to reach approximately $11 billion, including pay-outs from federal assistance programs.

Read the rest of this entry »


FOR those who advocate the electrification of the automobile, it has been a good year. No fewer than eight significant plug-in models came to market in the United States in 2012.

That’s progress, but even if the absolute number was modest, the heft of the companies behind them could not be ignored: battery-electric and plug-in hybrid cars arrived from BMW and Honda, while Ford and Toyota each released two. Tesla and Coda, California-based electric specialists, offered sedans with starkly different levels of appeal.

So it may be tempting to declare 2012 the year of the electric car — at least until you consider that many of these debuts were for limited production runs of a couple of thousand vehicles. When the year’s final sales figures are reported, cars with plugs will still represent only about one-third of 1 percent of the new-car market.

Despite their small share of overall sales, plug-in cars seem to have established a beachhead this year, regardless of the ups and downs revealed in the year’s electric car headlines.

TESLA MODEL S In January, Franz von Holzhausen, design chief at Tesla Motors, promised that the first car designed and produced entirely by the start-up, the Model S, would not only be a good E.V. but “the best sedan on the planet.”

At the time, auto reviewers mostly dismissed the words as more Silicon Valley braggadocio. But once they drove the car, many who had been Tesla doubters became E.V. believers. Automobile magazine and Motor Trend each named the Model S its car of the year.

NISSAN LEAF WILTS Tesla was not the only company that failed to meet E.V. sales goals in 2012. Nissan struggled to find customers for its all-electric Leaf compact. But even with tepid sales in the first few months of the year, Carlos Ghosn, Nissan’s chief executive and one of the auto industry’s most outspoken E.V. proponents, stood firm: “I am not changing my bullish approach,” he told reporters at the New York auto show in April.

RIUS GOES MAINSTREAM Toyota added a plug-in version to its growing family of Prius hybrids in 2012. It also added the extra-capacity Prius V wagon and the subcompact Prius C, rated at 53 m.p.g. in city driving. Prius is now the No. 1 selling line of cars in California.

It took 15 years for the Prius to grow from an avant-garde experiment, to a high-volume product line. In 2012, Toyota will sell more than one million hybrids globally.

It’s Been 27 Years

December 20, 2012

Succinct video from Climate Nexus asks the question.

“It’s been 27 years since we had a month that was at or below the average temperature of the 20th century. Does that mean anything?”


November 2012 also marks the 36thconsecutive November and 333rd consecutive month with global temperature higher than the long-term average. The last month with a below average temperature was February 1985, nearly 28 years ago.

For a nostalgic walk thru a cooler world, check out the interactive page here.


Just published on the Yale Forum on Climate Change & the Media.

I talked to a whole lot of scientists at this year’s American Geophysical Union Conference, and a number of them took time for interviews.  I’ll be building videos around these in the coming year, but for now, here is a sampling of perspectives on what we know now, and what we’re looking for in 2013.

Included are Charles Miller of NASA JPL and Ben Abbott of U. of Alaska, on permafrost. Texas A&M’s Andrew Dessler on Extreme weather attributions, Eric Rignot of JPL on polar ice, Robert Rohde, lead scientists of Berkeley Earth Surface Temperature project, Ben Santer on IPCC models and the upcoming report,  Ted Scambos of National Snow and Ice Data Center – on Snow and Ice Data,  and Jason Box of Byrd Center on Greenland melt.

Despite some unevenness, bumps along the way, and a few major problems that need to be ironed out, Germany’s energy transformation continues, driven by a deceptively simple policy that has proven to be the most effective driver of renewable energy transformation worldwide.

Renewables International:

On Friday, Germany’s Manager Magazine reported preliminary figures for the German power sector, revealing that Germany exported more electricity in the first 3 quarters of 2012 than ever before. Nonetheless, some remain concerned.

According to preliminary figures not yet published by the BDEW, an association representing power and water providers, Germany exported 12.3 terawatt-hours of electricity in the first 9 months of 2012, compared to minus 0.2 terawatt-hours in the first 3 quarters of 2011 (effectively meaning that Germany was a net importer in the first 3 quarters of last year). The sudden nuclear phaseout last spring clearly reveals itself when we look at the statistics for the first 9 months of 2010, when Germany was a net exporter of 8.8 terawatt-hours. Nonetheless, experts remain concerned mainly about two things: the wide gap between peak power demand in the evening late in November; and the low value of German power exports relative to power imports.

In the evening in late November, power demand in Germany generally peaks for the year at around 80 GW. These hours are reliably always dark, so no power will come from photovoltaics. If there is also little wind power at that time, Germany will have to have that entire amount as dispatchable power generating capacity. The situation is not new, however, and it will not change; going forward, Germany will always have to have at least 80 GW of dispatchable power generating capacity, though not all of that need be fossil and nuclear – power storage will increasingly make up a small share of the pie, and gas turbines could increasingly run on biogas and gas made from excess renewable electricity (power to gas, itself a form of power storage).


The Tesla Model S sedan  – shown above burning rubber in an weirdly silent demonstration of how much power electric drives deliver to the road – looks like a sales success, and may power electric car manufacturer Tesla to profits in 2013.


The Tesla Model S electric luxury sedan has been a runaway success, with the car praised by most that have driven it and order books already registering more than 13,000 sales. To take advantage of the strong demand, Tesla is in prime position to charge a little more for the Model S and that is exactly what it looks to be doing.


General Motors and ABB today showed the next stage in battery reuse, the repackaging of five used Chevrolet Volt batteries into a modular unit capable of providing two hours of electricity needed by three to five average American homes.

The uninterruptable power supply and grid power balancing system was demonstrated during GM’s Electrification Experience. The prototype unit provided 25 kW of power and 50 kWh of energy to power all the support lighting and audiovisual equipment in an “off-grid” structure used for the event.

“GM’s battery development extends throughout the entire life of the battery, including secondary use,” said Pablo Valencia, GM senior manager of battery lifecycle management. “In many cases, when an EV battery has reached the end of its life in an automotive application, only 30 percent or less of its life has been used. This leaves a tremendous amount of life that can be applied to other applications like powering a structure before the battery is recycled.”

GM and ABB last year demonstrated how a Chevrolet Volt battery pack could be used to collect energy and feed it back to the grid and deliver supplemental power to homes or businesses.

During today’s demonstration, the energy storage system was run in a “remote power back-up” mode where 100 percent of the power for the facility came from Volt batteries through ABB’s Energy Storage Inverter system. A similar application could one day be used to power a group of homes or small commercial buildings during a power outage, allow for storage of power during inexpensive periods for use during expensive peak demand, or help make up for gaps in solar, wind or other renewable power generation.

These functions, along with frequency regulation on electric distribution systems, could someday be used by utilities to reduce cost to customers and improve the quality of power delivery. These applications are referred to as community energy storage to distinguish them from substation-size energy storage projects.

“We showed today how fast this research concept is turning into reality,” said Allen Burchett, ABB’s senior vice president for Business Development in North America. “The ABB-GM Volt battery system is the world’s first use of car batteries as possible back-up power for homes and other commercial uses. We will be installing it on the grid soon to complete the technical evaluation, and this will tell us all what smart grid applications are possible, like back-up power, reducing energy cost, strengthening utilities’ distribution systems and storing surplus renewable energy.”