Water Supply In the Colorado River Basin

Many of the people objecting to my challenge say it should be about why we need to worry about global warming, or even about what to do. They clearly have not paid attention to what the challenge is all about.

But, they are correct in one thing, we need to discuss the effects of global warming more. Is global warming good for us? Bad for us? Or, does it even make a difference? I will be spending more time addressing this issue in the future once I am done with the challenge (come on July 31st!).

In that vein, here is a NASA news release about a study of water in the Colorado River Basin. It paints a pretty bleak picture about what is going on with water in the Southwestern U.S. Using data from the GRACE satellite, scientist have been able to identify the amount of mass the basin area has lost since 2004 and determined it has lost about 53 million acre-feet of water. That is almost twice the total volume of Lake Mead, the largest reservoir in the U.S. What is really scary is that 41 million acre-feet of that amount came from ground water. Imagine you lost 75% of your income and you then started depleting your savings to maintain the same standard of living. Eventually, your savings are going to run out and you will be faced with a bad situation. That is where the Southwest is today in regards to water. The area has lost its water supply and has been relying on ground water to keep things going the same way instead of changing the way they do business. But, as they say in the new release, we don’t know how much ground water there is, so we have no idea how long it will last. If it starts to run out, then there will be a very bad situation in the Southwest.

So, what does this have to do with global warming? Well, there is growing evidence the on-going drought is the result of global warming, and there is growing evidence that the effects of droughts are made worse by global warming. Basically, rainy areas will see more rain while dry areas will see less. Additionally, precipitation that falls as snow on the mountains melts slowly over time and provides water into the summer. As the temperature goes up, it gets too warm for snow and the precipitation falls as rain, which runs off and is no longer available when the dry months of summer come along. To make it worse, the higher temperatures mean there is more evaporation and the area loses even more water. None of these scenarios are good for the future of anyone depending on the water of the Colorado River Basin.

Read this article on the effects of global warming on the area. Richard Seager, a climate scientist who studies water issues at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory of Columbia University in New York does not believe the drought is caused by global warming, but he goes on to point out that the Southwest has suffered drought conditions in some form for 15 years, and warmer climates have resulted in winter precipitation tending to fall as rain rather than snow. With less snow melting during the spring there is a lack of water during the hot summer months.

“It all adds up across the Southwest to an increasingly stressed water system,” he said. “That’s what they might as well get ready for.”

So, even someone who doesn’t believe the drought is caused by global warming believes it has been made worse by global warming. He also believes this is the new normal for the area.
This is not good news. 
In regards to the debate on if global warming is good or bad for us, I think we can put a very firm check mark in the “Bad for us” column on this one.

Orbiting Carbon Observatory Successfully Launched

NASA’s Orbiting Carbon Observatory-2 (OCO-2) was successfully launched before dawn this morning.

It will go through a 10-day check out process and then it will take three weeks to maneuver it into the desired orbit. The science mission won’t start for about 45 days. The mission is scheduled to last two years. They are planning on releasing the initial results early next year (2015).

This is a wonderful mission and I am really looking forward to the results. The troposphere we live in is well mixed so the gas distribution  is very uniform, but not perfectly so. There are concentration differences and these will identify sources and sinks of CO2. OCO-2 has instruments sensitive enough to distinguish these concentration differences and help us understand where CO2 is coming from and where it is going. It will be very interesting to see the results.

NASA’s Carbon Observatory

On February 24, 2009 NASA launched a satellite that would have been a major resource in climate change research – the Orbiting Carbon Observatory (OCO). Unfortunately, the protective launch fairing covering the satellite failed to separate as required and the extra weight prevented the satellite from reaching orbit. We can only speculate at this time what kind of data we would have been able to measure in the five years since then. We haven’t been completely without data, though. The Japaneses satellite GOSAT has been providing us with some of the missing data since 2009.

The good news is that the Orbiting Carbon Observatory-2 (OCO-2) is set to launch July 1 from Vandenberg AFB in California. Once in orbit, it will be in a constellation of five satellites that measure Earth’s environment. The orbit of these satellites is 99 minutes long and pass over the equator (going north) at 1:36 PM local solar time. That means when they are directly over the equator, the point on the Earth’s surface directly beneath them will always have the Sun at the same point in the sky. The advantage to this is that all of the measurements will be nearly simultaneous and will be made at about the same local time. This makes it possible to compare data taken many orbits apart and not have to worry about variations due to changes in the solar angle.

OCO-2 is a very important mission and the instruments on the satellite will collect data that is critical to our understanding of what is going on with carbon dioxide in our atmosphere. We know that the level of CO2 is rising and we know most of the increase is due to man made activities, but we are lacking in specific details. Where is the CO2 coming from? And, where is it absorbed. In scientific parlance, that is known as sources and sinks. And, how are these sources and sinks changing over time? If something is a sink or source today, but was even more or less of a sink or source years ago, that is important to know. This mission will help us answer questions like that. It will be used in conjunction with data from aircraft, land stations and other satellites to provide a more complete picture of what is going on.

We know that the level of CO2 in the atmosphere is the highest it has been in at least the last 800,000 years. We know man made CO2 is responsible for the rise. We know much of the CO2 is being absorbed by the oceans, causing them to become more acidic. But, where does the rest of the absorbed CO2 go? The specific location and identity of those sinks is not fully understood. Detailed information is needed.

If the launch is successful this time, OCO-2 will begin orbiting Earth and providing thousands of data points on the CO2 cycle and our understanding of what is going on will begin to improve.

El Nino is back. What does it mean?

El Nino is the name given to the natural cycle that involves the eastern Pacific getting warmer in the area close to the equator. (La Nina is the name for the alternative cycle when the waters there are cooler. The two together are known as the El Nino Southern Oscillation – ENSO.) This is one of the most significant natural cycles and occurs every few years. It has the potential to change weather around the world. Take a look at this graphic showing the sea surface temperature anomaly. The darker the red, the warmer it is relative to the long-term average.

Source: Climate Reanalyzer

You can clearly see how the water temperature off western South America is warmer than usual, which is the classic definition of El Nino. The name comes from how local fishermen noticed the change  in the water and how it seemed to always arrive in the late fall – about Christmas time. El Nino means ‘the boy’ and refers to the Christ child of Christmas. The name has stuck.

But, the important thing is to notice how the warm water stretches all the way across the Pacific Ocean. The significance of this lies in the fact that warm water creates atmospheric low-pressure areas which results in thunderstorms. There is now a Pacific Ocean-wide corridor of low pressure which will allow thunderstorms to develop and travel all the way from Asia to South America. One of the things this leads to is a change in the Hadley Cells.

Hadley Cells are circulation patterns in the atmosphere. Warm air near the equator rises and then travels towards the poles at high altitude. When the air reaches the mid-latitudes it sinks back to the surface and travels back towards the equator. This circulates heat and causes the trade winds. A stronger El Nino results in stronger Hadley Cells. Live Science has a nice graphic here showing how this all works.

You can probably see where this is going. More heat is being circulated through-out the world as a result of El Nino. Changes in the heat and water vapor input in a given region will result in changes to the weather in that region. How much of a change and what kind can be expected? That is a big variable. Some regions will experience greater rainfall. Others will experience droughts. Depending on the strength of the El Nino event, the effect could be anywhere from very mild to catastrophic.

Some of the most dramatic example of El Nino effects is a series of famines that have occurred in what is modern-day India, including the Great Famine of 1876-1878 (5.5 estimated dead) and the Bengal Famine of 1770 (10 million estimated dead). These famines occurred when the monsoons did not occur and the crops failed. The famines were greatly aggravated by British mismanagement.

What has been found is that severe droughts in India always occur during El Ninos, but not every El Nino leads to droughts in India. The apparent link seems to be where the Pacific is warmest. When it is warmer in the Central Pacific, India has droughts. When it is warmest in the Eastern Pacific, India is spared. Take a look at the plot of surface temperatures, similar to the plot above.

Source: Climate Reanalyzer

The figure above showed the difference from the average. This plot shows the actual average temperature. The way I interpret this data is that it is warmer in the Central Pacific region than in the Eastern Pacific region off of South America. This could be bad news for India. The good news is that Britain is not handling the management any more.

But, El Ninos are not bad news for everyone. Actually, for us in the U.S. it will be a good thing. A typical El Nino brings mild temperatures and more rainfall for the southern half of the country. This would be particularly welcome in the mid-Plains and the Southwest where drought has been raging for many years. In fact, several states out here are at risk of running out of water.  More rain would be good.

So, let’s talk about the White Elephant sitting in the middle of the room. Is global warming affecting the ENSO cycle? Quite simply, we don’t know yet. There are some that believe a connection exists, but more data is needed. What is known for sure though, is the El Nino affects the short-term accuracy of our computer models. The models are highly accurate when predictable conditions exist. But, unpredictable events like ENSO and volcanic eruptions disrupt them. The good news is that when the events occur and are included in the models, the models once again become highly accurate – in excess of 95% accurate and getting better. I have not heard what the models are forecasting with the this current El Nino included, but I will keep a look out for any news.

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.

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.


Severe Weather in the United States

There was a very interesting article in the May 6th issues of Eos, Transactions, American Geophysical Union. The article, Severe Weather in United States Under a Changing Climate, takes a thorough look at the way various aspects of severe weather have changed since the 1950s and the message is pretty definitive. There is a nice graphic (figure 1 in the article) that shows the frequency of different kinds of severe weather in each decade since the 1950s. It takes a little bit of reading because there is so much information in the figure, but certain things really stand out right away. Below is a summery of some of the information in this paper.

Damages due to billion dollar events
The NOAA/NCDC Billion Dollar Weather website lists 151 weather/climate disasters resulting in at least $1 billion in damages that have occurred since 1980. The damages for these events have all been adjusted to reflect constant dollar values (2013 dollars). The total amount of damages exceeds $1 trillion. That comes out to about $3000 for every person in the U.S., or roughly $100 per year on average. The total for 2011 was for about $200 for every person ($60 billion total) and $360 per person in 2012 ($110 billion total). These costs are only as a result of the billion dollar-plus events and include such events as major heat waves, severe storms, tornadoes, droughts, floods, hurricanes and wildfire. The list does not include expenses such as increased expenses for utilities, food and increased insurance that are the result of daily climate change conditions.

Temperature extremes
The article states the average temperature has increased by 1.5 degrees F since 1895 with most of the warming occurring since 1970, “culminating with the warmest year on record in the United States in 2012.” They found there has been a significant increase in the number of record high temperatures the last two decades. There has been a significant drop in the number of record low temperatures over the same period. Heat waves have become more frequent across the U.S.

Precipitation extremes
Over the last three decades the heaviest rainfall events in rainy areas have become more frequent and the amount of rain in heavy rain storms has been significantly above average. Other areas have seen significant decreases. The total number of extreme snowstorms has been substantially higher the last three decades.

Floods and droughts
There has been no nation-wide trend detected for droughts, but regional trends have been detected. In particular, the on-going drought in the western U.S. has resulted in the driest the region has been in 800 years. Floods have followed the same pattern. We don’t know enough yet to detect a nationwide trend, but regional trends have been detected. In other words, it appears the regions that tend towards the dry end are getting drier and regions that tend toward the wet end are getting wetter.

Hurricanes and severe storms
There has been an increase in the intensity, frequency, and duration of category 4 and 5 (the strongest) storms in the Atlantic. The number of category 3, 4 and 5 storms in the North Atlantic since the year 2000 is the greatest since the 1950s. This increase in activity is linked to higher sea surface temperatures. The number of strong tornadoes and East Coast winter storms have not been seen to have changed over the last 60 years.

As we all know, weather forecasting is complicated and difficult. So, too, is the climate. But, what we see is a very clear picture that severe weather in the U.S. is becoming ever more severe. We may not have all of the details worked out just yet, but there can be no doubt that the weather is changing in response to a changing climate. And, once again, we see the end user is the one that gets stuck paying the bills. Everyone always passes increased costs on to their customers. The people at the end have no customers to pass it on, so they get stuck.

So, when you decide to deny climate change and resist efforts to do something about it, be sure to pull out you checkbook and make out a check to the rich and powerful.