Sense and Sensitivity

September 24, 2013


IPCC AR5, at least the first parts of it, will be coming out this friday.

Don’t ask me how it is that IPCC still wants to put out their most important media product in a friday news dump. I’m too tired to flog that horse.

Anyway, leading up to that, rather than pretend I’ve got the leaked documents, I thought it would be productive to post discussions of what are sure to be some of the major talking points – they’ve already emerged – climate sensitivity and the purported “pause” in global warming.

Zeke Hausfather, a careful researcher and writer, has been doing some thinking about the issues.

Zeke Hausfather at the Yale Forum on Climate Change and the Media:

Climate ‘skeptics’ down-play the sensitivity of Earth’s climate to increased CO2 emissions and concentrations, and so might some policy makers. In the end, it’s the emissions and concentrations that most matter rather than uncertainties about climate sensitivity.

Climate sensitivity is suddenly a hot topic.

Some commenters skeptical of the severity of projected climate change have recently seized on two sourcesto argue that the climate may be less sensitive than many scientists say and the impacts of climate change therefore less serious: A yet-to-be-published study from Norwegian researchers, and remarks by James Annan, a climate scientist with the Japan Agency for Marine-Earth Science and Technology (JAMSTEC).

While the points skeptics are making significantly overstate their case, a look at recent developments in estimates of climate sensitivity may help provide a better estimate of future warming. These estimates are critical, as climate sensitivity will be one of the main factors determining how much warming the world experiences during the 21st century.

Climate sensitivity is an important and often poorly understood concept. Put simply, it is usually defined as the amount of global surface warming that will occur when atmospheric CO2 concentrations double. These estimates have proven remarkably stable over time, generally falling in the range of 1.5 to 4.5 degrees C per doubling of CO2.* Using its established terminology, IPCC in its Fourth Assessment Report slightly narrowed this range, arguing that climate sensitivity was “likely” between 2 C to 4.5 C, and that it was “very likely” more than 1.5 C.

The wide range of estimates of climate sensitivity is attributable to uncertainties about the magnitude of climate feedbacks (e.g., water vapor, clouds, and albedo). Those estimates also reflect uncertainties involving changes in temperature and forcing in the distant past. But based on the radiative properties, there is broad agreement that, all things being equal, a doubling of CO2 will yield a temperature increase of a bit more than 1 C if feedbacks are ignored. However, it is known from estimates of past climate changes and from atmospheric physics-based models that Earth’s climate is more sensitive than that. A prime example: Small perturbations in orbital forcings resulting in vast ice ages could not have occurred without strong feedbacks.

Water Vapor: Major GHG and Major Feedback

Water vapor is responsible for the major feedback, increasing sensitivity from 1 C to somewhere between 2 and 4.5 C. Water vapor is itself a powerful greenhouse gas, and the amount of water vapor in the atmosphere is in part determined by the temperature of the air. As the world warms, the absolute amount of water vapor in the atmosphere will increase and therefore so too will the greenhouse effect.

That increased atmospheric water vapor will also affect cloud cover, though impacts of changes in cloud cover on climate sensitivity are much more uncertain. What is clear is that a warming world will also be a world with less ice and snow cover. With less ice and snow reflecting the Sun’s rays, melting will decrease Earth’s albedo, with a predictable impact: more warming.

There are several different ways to estimate climate sensitivity:

  • Examining Earth’s temperature response during the last millennium, glacial periods in the past, or periods even further back in geological time, such as the Paleocene Eocene Thermal Maximum;
  • Looking at recent temperature measurements and data from satellites;
  • Examining the response of Earth’s climate to major volcanic eruptions; and
  • Using global climate models to test the response of a doubling of CO2 concentrations.

These methods produce generally comparable results, as shown in the figure below.

Figure from Knutti and Hegerl 2008.

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Good news for the planet is, of course, Mr. Yuck for climate deniers.

Four key technologies in ascendance. Wind, for instance.

A new report from Michigan Public Service Commission shows that wind energy is now “essentially equivalent” to conventional generation in cost.

Michigan’s current Renewable Portfolio Standard (RPS) requires electric providers to ramp up their use of renewable energy in order to obtain 10% of their electricity sales from renewable resources in 2015. Those goals are expected to be met in nearly all cases, and the exception has announced plans to wind down service.

The RPS has resulted in approximately 1,400 MW of new renewable energy projects operating or currently under development in our state (94% of these new projects are wind energy projects and approximately half are non-utility owned). By the end of 2013, in total, Michigan consumers will have paid approximately $675 million in surcharges supporting this expansion.

Due to decreases in renewable energy costs, surcharge collections are expected to be significantly reduced or even eliminated for some electric providers beginning in 2014, because project costs are in some cases essentially equivalent to conventional generation under current conditions.

..and continuing to get cheaper, I might add — because the more fossil fuels you use, the more expensive they get, but with renewables, its just the opposite, the more you use, the cheaper they get.

Of course, wind has the advantage of being, well, free – in the sense that utilities and customers know that the base cost of the fuel will be the same 25 years, and 2500 years, from now, as it is today.  For utilities, this makes signing a 20 year contract much easier.

A new annual wind energy evaluation for the entire US from Berkeley Labs shows that wind energy is cheaper than ever, and continuing to drop –

Falling wind turbine prices are pushing installed project costs lower. Wind turbine prices have fallen 20 to 35% from their highs back in 2008, and these declines are pushing project-level costs down.  Based on a large sample of wind projects, average project costs in 2012 were down almost $200/kW from the reported average cost in 2011, and down almost $300/kW from the reported average cost in both 2009 and 2010.  Among projects built in 2012, the windy Interior region of the country was the lowest-cost region, with average project costs of ~$1,760/kW.

Wind energy prices have been falling since 2009, and now rival previous lows.Lower wind turbine prices and installed project costs, along with improved capacity factors, are enabling aggressive wind power pricing.  After topping out at nearly $70/MWh in 2009, the average levelized long-term price from wind power sales agreements signed in 2011/2012 – many of which were for projects built in 2012 – fell to around $40/MWh nationwide.  This level approaches previous lows set back in the 2000-2005 period, which is notable given that wind projects have increasingly been sited in lower quality wind resource areas.  Wind energy prices negotiated in 2011 and 2012 are generally lowest in the Interior region of the U.S., with prices averaging just above $30/MWh, and typically ranging from $20-40/MWh. Even with today’s very attractive wind energy prices, however, wind power sometimes struggles to compete with what are currently very low natural gas and wholesale power prices in many parts of the country.


1. Wind deployment
Since 1999, the average wind turbine has increased electrical output by 260 percent. So although turbine prices have risen in recent years, the cost of electricity from wind has fallen to around 5 cents per kilowatt-hour — a 90 percent drop since the 1980s. In 2012, wind was the single largest source of new electricity capacity in the U.S., beating even natural gas.

2. Solar photovoltaic (PV) deployment
As we recently pointed out, there is now a solar PV system installed in America every four minutes, up from every 80 minutes in 2006. According to GTM Research’s Solar Market Insight report, the national average price of an installed PV system declined by 26.6 percent in 2012. That drop has been helped by a strong reduction in module costs and pricing due to global oversupply. The DOE points out that the cost of a solar module in 2012 is 1 percent of what it cost 35 years ago.

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Dear Koch Brothers

If this upsets your stomach, peppermint tea works wonders.




Arctic Ice Roundup

September 22, 2013

So, the Detroit Lions ended a 21 game losing streak in Washington (back to 1939), beating the Redskins,  former NFC  East Champs, who are now 0 and 3.

In the past, Lions fans would have been high-fiving and remarking that this, no doubt, was the beginning, at last, of the big turnaround for the Lions.  But the hard facts have always caught up with us. The Lions are just too thin on talent to endure over the season. They’ll fold like a cheap suit in coming weeks.

Which brings me to Arctic ice.  As regular as the seasons, any fall that does not bring a new record low in arctic ice extent is hailed as a “recovery” by the climate denial media.  I get it. They must be feeling more and more like Lions fans as the planet keeps finding new ways to show us that climate change is just warming up – and the collapse of arctic is the most visible, most dramatic manifestation of that process – anything they can do to deny that reality, they will try.  The animation above shows just how fragile and slushy this year’s ice “recovery” was.
Here’s this year’s tale of the tape.


The Arctic is on course for an ice-free summer within the next few decades, as scientists on Friday declared that sea ice in the region had fallen to one of the lowest annual minimums on record.

“The overall trend is still decidedly downwards,” the NSIDC director, Mark Serreze, said in a statement. “The pattern we’ve seen so far is an overall downward trend in summer ice extent, punctuated by ups and downs due to natural variability in weather patterns and ocean conditions.”

He went on: “We could be looking at summers with essentially no sea iceon the Arctic Ocean only a few decades from now.

In the run-up to the release next week of the United Nations’ blockbuster global warming report, climate doubters have seized on the apparent “recovery” of sea ice, compared to last year’s death spiral, as evidence that there is no need for concern about the melting of the Arctic sea ice. But satellite images going back to 1980 and records compiled by scientists using ice cores and tree ring data going back as far as 1870 show a continued and dramatic long-term decline in summer sea ice.

The so-called recovery of the sea ice this year does not even begin to reverse that decline, scientists said on Friday. “Last year was so outrageously below the trend line that it was really no surprise that it would not be quite so low this year,” said Jennifer Francis, a research scientist at Rutgers University. “Clearly we are on this very definite downward trend.”

Julienne Stroeve, another NSIDC researcher, noted that this year’s low minimum was reached amid cooler temperatures than the last several summers, which helped to slow melting. “We had a pretty cold summer in general for the time period we’re looking at and yet the sea-ice cover didn’t recover to the extent that we had in the 1970s and 1980s,” she said.


“I’m not at all surprised there was a jump upward — we’ve never set two record lows in a row,” said Walt Meier, aNASA scientist who has monitored sea ice for years. “I would say I’m a little surprised the jump is as big as it is.”

Last year’s ice extent was so low that this year’s recovery looks larger by comparison, Dr. Meier said. The main reason for this year’s growth, Dr. Meier added, was that the region was colder and cloudier through the spring and summer than in the recent past.

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One of the key indicators of what may happen in the future with higher co2 levels, is the paleo record. We can look at the Paleocene Eocene thermal maximum as a model for what our current pulse of co2 could do to the planet.

Peter Ward has been looking into much deeper time throughout his career.  The view over 4 billion years is instructive but not happy news.

We look for Fred Singer and the Heartland Institute to tout these results soon.

Right Wing Watch:

After blaming Colorado wildfires on a kiss between State House Majority Leader Mark Ferrandino and his partner that was featured on the Denver Post, pastor Kevin Swanson is also blaming the gay kiss on recent floods to hit the state.

While speaking with fellow pastor and Generations Radio co-host Dave Buehner, Swanson said that it is not a coincidence that the state experienced deadly floods at the same time Colorado “legislators committed homosexual acts on the front page of the Denver Post” and made sure to “kill as many babies as possible” and “encourage as much decadent homosexual activity as possible.” He even mentioned the new liberal marijuana law as a reason that the state is witnessing “the worst year ever in terms of flood and fire damage in Colorado’s history.”

Buehner added that “sometimes when you’re in a flood of dissipation, God might bring a real flood to show you the consequences of the flood of your dissipation.”


National Snow and Ice Data Center:

On September 13, Arctic sea ice reached its likely minimum extent for 2013. The minimum ice extent was the sixth lowest* in the satellite record, and reinforces the long-term downward trend in Arctic ice extent. Sea ice extent will now begin its seasonal increase through autumn and winter. Meanwhile, in the Antarctic, sea ice extent reached a record high on September 18, tied with last year’s maximum.

Please note that this is a preliminary announcement. Changing winds could still push ice floes together, reducing ice extent further. NSIDC scientists will release a full analysis of the melt season in early October, once monthly data are available for September.

John Abraham and Dana Nuccitellli in the Guardian:

As Suzanne Goldenberg reported in The Guardian yesterday, Arctic sea ice appears to have reached its annual minimum extent, at approximately 5.1 million square kilometers. This is the 6th-lowest extent since the satellite record began in 1979.

But in fact, scientists have also reconstructed Arctic sea ice extent data much further into the past. For example, Drs. Walsh & Chapman from the University of Illinois have estimated sea ice extent as far back as the year 1870 using a vast array of data (for example, records kept by the Danish Meteorological Institute and Norwegian Polar Institute, and reports made from ocean vessels). While climate contrarians will sometimes try to argue that Arctic sea ice extent may have reached similar lows to today’s in the 1920s or 1930s–1940s, the data compiled by Walsh & Chapman tell a very different story.

Average July through September Arctic sea ice extent 1870–2008 from the University of Illinois (Walsh & Chapman 2001 updated to 2008) and observational data from NSIDC for 2009–2013

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Full disclosure: it’s my nephew. Pretty promising musician, and nice vid.

If you like it, you can vote it up at a music video site, Beat 100.

Paul Douglas update on Colorado and the hurricane watch in the Gulf.

While we’ve been watching Colorado, to the south, historic flooding from an unprecedented double whammy of tropical storms has devasted Mexico.


Tropical Storm Manuel lashed Mexico’s northwest coast with heavy rains on Thursday, prompting evacuations and adding to flash floods that have unleashed chaos across Mexico and killed at least 97 people.

Storms have inundated vast areas of Mexico since late last week, wrecking roads, destroying bridges and triggering landslides that buried homes and their occupants. Roads became raging rapids in the Pacific resort of Acapulco, stranding some 40,000 tourists.

Emergency services said heavy rains were beating down on the northwestern state of Sinaloa and that hundreds of people had been evacuated from coastal communities.

The U.S. National Hurricane Center said an area of low pressure over the oil-producing southern Gulf of Mexico had a 60 percent chance of becoming a tropical cyclone over the next 48 hours and could dump heavy rains on already flooded areas in southern and eastern Mexico.

The fresh misery comes after tropical storms Ingrid and Manuel converged on Mexico from the Gulf and the Pacific over the weekend, triggering the flash floods.

Ingrid dissipated, but Manuel then strengthened and gained hurricane strength before it was downgraded again to a tropical storm. Manuel was expected to weaken further to a tropical depression later on Thursday.

More than a million people have been affected across the country, and 50,000 have been evacuated from their homes.

The second in a series of “Dark Snow Log” posts. Combing thru the archives of footage and stills we picked up in Greenland, I’m pulling out little pieces of the story that I hope will eventually make a larger picture.

The first Dark Snow Log piece is below.

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