The effect of water vapor on global warming

One of the false arguments global warming deniers make is that CO2 measurements are unimportant because water vapor is much more effective greenhouse gas. This is one of those statements that has just enough truth behind it to obscure the lie.Yes, water vapor is a very potent greenhouse gas, much more so than CO2, but what the deniers don’t want to admit is that the reason there is water vapor in the atmosphere is because something else warmed it up in the first place.

This process makes water vapor a positive feedback agent with the potential to approximately double the amount of warming due to other sources. As the atmosphere gets warmer the amount of water vapor in the atmosphere also increases. The increased level of water vapor will then trap more heat, resulting in warmer temperatures and even more water vapor. But, the water vapor cannot do it alone. There must be some agent to start the process and that agent in our current situation is CO2. By dumping billions of tons of CO2 in our atmosphere every year, we trap heat in the atmosphere that would otherwise radiate into space and this leads to warmer atmosphere. This warmer atmosphere then leads to more water vapor.

Since water vapor is so important in the process we need to know just how much effect it has on the climate. A team of scientists used measurements from instruments onboard the Aqua spacecraft to make direct measurements of this effect. According to their work, water vapor amplifies global warming by 2.2 watts per square meter per degree Celsius (plus or minus .4 watts per square meter per degree Celsius). In comparison, the solar index (the amount of energy reaching Earth from the Sun) is about 1360 watts per square meter. For every one degree Celsius change in temperature, water vapor increases the amount of energy stored in the atmosphere by about .16%. It may not sound like much, but you keep doing that every day for a long period of time and it will add up to a very large amount of energy stored in the atmosphere that we would not otherwise have.

The scientists point out that this is only a short-term measurement because the amount of data is small. This figure is subject to short-term changes in the weather and climate fluctuations. They used these figures in models to try and determine a long-term value and the models suggested it is between 1.9 and 2.8 watts per square meter per degree Celsius. As more data is collected this figure will be refined to a more accurate value.

NASA facilities threatened by sea level rise – Guess who pays?

A recent article reported on how NASA launch pads at Cape Canaveral and Mission Control in Houston are being threatened by rising sea levels. I have lived in the vicinity of both facilities and can personally attest that they are only a few feet above sea level.  In fact, NASA stated that rising sea levels are the single biggest threat to the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Other NASA facilities being threatened by rising sea levels include Wallops Flight Facility and Langley Research Center, both in Virginia, and Ames Research Center in San Francisco.

The problem with the rising sea level is not that the facilities are threatened with inundation in the near-term, but with all of the other kinds of damage that come with rising sea level. Things like beach erosion and storm surges are greatly affected by how high sea level is. Increase the sea level and you increase the damage that results from those actions.

The forecast for Hampton, VA is for a five foot rise in sea level by the year 2100, or 60 inches in the next 86 years. If we were to assume a constant rate of rise (a bad assumption, but it gives us something to work with), that comes out to .7 inches (1.8 centimeters) per year. That means something that is currently 7 inches above the storm surge will be in the storm surge 10 years from now. These are very low-lying areas, 7 inches will make a big difference. And, that is only in 10 years. Twenty years from now the sea level will be more than 14 inches higher, on average.

Let me put those time frames into perspective. Ten years ago was 2004. George W. Bush was President of the U.S. and defeated John Kerry in his bid to win reelection. The Summer Olympics were in Athens, the U.S. was bogged down in an insurgency in Iraq, and a 9.3 magnitude earthquake occurred off the coast of Indonesia, sending a devastating tsunami across the Indian Ocean.

Twenty years ago was 1994. Bill Clinton was President, 100,000 people were slaughtered in Rwanda, former President Richard Nixon died, Nelson Mandela became President of South Africa, O.J. Simpson was arrested for the murder of his ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman and the Chunnel opened for business, connecting France and Great Britain with an underground rail line.

Consider those events and think back to where you were in those years. If you are more than 20 years old, you will probably realize that these time-spans are not great. The time it takes to prevent damage to the NASA facilities is not at some point in the future. In fact, it isn’t even now. It was at some point in the past. Fortunately, they have already been engaged with making preparations and adjustments. That is the only way they can keep ahead of the threat.

I have mentioned these NASA facilities, but this same threat extends to anything close to the coast, including all of the private homes built with a view of the sea. They are now more at risk and that risk will increase at an alarming rate in the next few years.

And, by the way, let’s be clear about this, we are the ones that will have to pay for it. One more example of how you need to take your checkbook out and send money to the deniers every time you reject the reality of global warming.

What about that expanded harvest?

So, to recap, deniers first said there was no global warming. Then, they said any warming was so small that we didn’t need to worry about it. Then, they said it was all just a natural cycle. Now, they are saying it is actually good for us. Do you see a trend here?

One of the things they are now claiming is that global warming will increase the zone where we can grow crops and increase the length of the growing season. In this way, it is actually  good for us. So, how is this turning out?

I have always been very skeptical of this claim, mainly because I grew up in agricultural areas and have always followed agriculture. I do some work in the local vineyards with some friends in this area. Growing a crop is about a lot more than planting seeds and then kicking back until harvest time. You have to worry about weeds, disease, insects, watering and weather – just to name a few things.

Droughts and heat waves have a devastating effect on crops. Just take a look at what is happening to the farms in California right now. They are having to plow their crops under because they don’t have enough water. On the other hand, too much water can be just as bad. A flooding rain can wash a whole farm out in a matter of a few hours. The evidence shows that overall, droughts and floods have been about the same so far, but dry areas are getting drier and wet areas are getting wetter. So, areas with droughts are getting worse and areas with floods are also getting worse.

Another weather event that farmers fear is the hail storm. A severe hail storm can pound a crop into the dirt in just minutes.

Of course, the obvious point is it doesn’t matter how long the growing season is if you don’t have a crop.

And, a warmer climate will also result in better conditions for insects and diseases that destroy crops.

None of this takes into account the fact that grain crops such as corn and wheat are very sensitive to heat. The yield goes down once the temperature gets higher than a certain point.

I had all of this in mind when I read an article in the May 13 issue of Eos, Transactions, American Geophysical Union.  Climate change, water rights, and agriculture: A case study in Idaho reports on an investigation into the effects of climate change on agriculture. Their findings?

“They found that if climate change increases the volatility of the temperature and the water supply, irrigated agriculture in the region could face significant damages. In fact, crop revenue losses could be up to 32%.”

This is just one study for one particular region, but the point is pretty clear. Just because more land is available for growing crops and the length of the growing season is longer, it doesn’t mean there will be a larger harvest. Climate change will make certain things better for crops, but it will also make a lot of things worse at the same time.

Again, we see that all of us at the bottom will have to foot the bill for all of this. This time, in the form of higher food prices.

The Polarization of Climate Change

We have entered a huge public debate concerning climate change. The science is irrefutable, and yet we have this enormous debate. Some of it is understandable. The fossil fuel industry fears it has a lot to lose, so it is funding denier agencies to the tune of about $70 million per year to keep it going. Still, there is more to it than that. I have long believed that much of the debate has nothing to do with science and more to do with politics. A recent article I saw in the Wall Street Journal supports my case.

The Wall Street Journal is an excellent paper and is the go-to source for news on business. However, they have taken a very severe climate change denier position, often making very unsubstantiated claims, such as this editorial here. This one was bad enough to motivate a response, written by Jerry Melillo, the chair of the independent Federal Advisory Committee that produced the National Climate Assessment. The WSJ, for whatever reason, included a response by a Weldon Wilson of Sherman Oaks, CA. I did some searching and the only Weldon Wilson I found in Sherman Oaks, CA is the chair of an insurance company. How this makes Mr. Wilson credible enough to debate climate change with Dr. Melillo is beyond me. But, let’s look at Mr. Weldon’s last statement,

I for one prefer to leave my grandchildren with the risk from fossil fuels rather than the consequences of the Obama agenda.

Whaaat? The Obama agenda?

To keep the facts straight, manmade climate change has been an active topic since the early 1980s, at the very least. That was long before Obama ever showed up. But, I think this statement illustrates much of the problem at hand – agreeing that we are changing the climate equates to agreeing with Obama in the minds of many people.

For the record, I am not a fan of Obama at all. He did not get elected with my vote. If I was to go off and voice my opinion of him I’m afraid the things I have to say about him would result in the Secret Service knocking on my door to ask me some questions.

But, climate change is not about Obama and it is not about Al Gore, either. It is about the science and the science is undeniable. Really, the only possible way for anyone to deny man made global warming is to reject science. The science has nothing to do with any individual or political party. But, we have managed to make it look like it does.

In the minds of too many people, climate change means Obama. Denying climate change means the Republicans. This is too bad for the Republicans. I’m not a Republican either, so it doesn’t really bother me that they are driving over a cliff. But, if the Republicans want to move forward and win elections then they need to start doing things like embracing climate change and fighting the effects it is having on the electorate. More and more people are becoming convinced it is real and we are at fault and something needs to be done. Political campaigns may get money from the fossil fuel industry, but its the people that vote and if the people reject the message it will be harder to win at the ballot box.

The real problem with that is it will simply politicize the public debate even more.

Greenland Mass Loss

The two graphics below come from the Polar Portal and show the change in the total mass of Greenland (with its ice sheet) between June 2006 and December 2013. As you can see, the total mass is consistently declining after averaging the seasonal increases and decreases. The data for these plots comes from the GRACE – the Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment. GRACE consists of twin satellites with the ability to measure to make extremely precise measurements in the strength of the gravity field. Since gravity depends on the amount of mass present, the gravity maps it makes indicates the amount of mass in the area it is flying over. Comparing the gravity maps over a period of years can show how much the amount of mass in that area is changing. In this case, it is decreasing.

Of course, this would not be happening if it were not for the fact that the ice is melting and flowing into the ocean. And, it takes heat to melt ice, especially the amount of ice we are talking about here – well over 2000 gigatons since 2004.

Forest Fires and Arctic Melting

The summer melt season of 2012 was very dramatic. Take a look at this plot from the National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC).

The dark, solid line is the 1989-2010 average Arctic sea ice extent. The dotted line is the 2012 sea ice extent. The light gray line on the left is the 2014 sea ice extent. We can see from this plot that the 2012 extent was pretty average for what has been observed this century all the way up to early-June. At that point, it took a severe turn for the worse and the extent simply collapsed, reaching the all time record low in September.

Something similar was observed in Greenland at the same time. Normally, the ice on top of the ice sheet doesn’t melt, or melts very little. It is over 2 miles high in places and the highest elevations remain below freezing, even during the summer. But, in the summer of 2012, 97% of the ice sheet was melting at one time. This was the most extensive melting event since 1889.

A new study done by researchers at Dartmouth College found evidence that this extensive melting on Greenland was not due solely because of global warming, but by a combination of warming and soot from wildfires. In particular, extreme forest fires in Siberia sent soot and particulate matter high in the atmosphere and some of that matter settled on the Greenland ice sheet. By making the ice slightly darker (known as lowering the albedo), the soot increased the amount of sunlight absorbed by the ice and increased the melting. There is evidence something similar may have occurred in 1889, as well.

The question I now have is, did this also happen to the sea ice? The fires of 2012 may have been responsible for the Greenland melting, but wouldn’t explain the sea ice melting. The fires didn’t start until July, so the smoke could not have been on the sea ice at the beginning of June. The smoke was blowing across the Pacific by early-July, so it is possible it fell on Greenland in time for the big ice melt.

However, there were also massive forest fires in Siberia two years earlier, in the summer of 2010. If the smoke from those fires was lofted high in the atmosphere it might have taken over a year to fall in the Arctic region. We would need to get some ice cores that included that time frame and see if there are traces of soot in the ice. Then, we would need to check the composition of that soot to try and identify where it came from.

This doesn’t mean climate change is off the hook. Even with the soot, global warming is responsible because it made the Arctic region warmer (allowing the ice to melt) and it is also responsible for the events in Siberia that led to the wildfires (putting the soot in the air).

This year might be a test of the hypotheses. If it took 1-1/2 to 2 years for the 2010 smoke to get to the Arctic ice, then that would be a good starting guess for how long it took the smoke from the 2012 fires to get there. If so, this might be a very bad year for Arctic sea ice melting.