SciBlogs

Posts Tagged Russia

Why Arctic sea ice shouldn’t leave anyone cold Gareth Renowden Aug 26

Join the conversation at Hot Topic

In this guest post Neven Acropolis, the man behind the excellent Arctic Sea Ice blog, looks at the reasons why we need to pay attention to the rapid loss of sea ice in the Arctic Ocean.

Arctic sea ice became a recurrent feature on planet Earth around 47 million years ago. Since the start of the current ice age, about 2.5 million years ago, the Arctic Ocean has been completely covered with sea ice. Only during interglacials, like the one we are in now, does some of the sea ice melt during summer, when the top of the planet is oriented a bit more towards the Sun and receives large amounts of sunlight for several summer months. Even then, when winter starts, the ice-free portion of the Arctic Ocean freezes over again with a new layer of sea ice.

Since the dawn of human civilisation, 5000 to 8000 years ago, this annual ebb and flow of melting and freezing Arctic sea ice has been more or less consistent. There were periods when more ice melted during summer, and periods when less melted. However, a radical shift has occurred in recent times.

1 kinnard2011

Ever since satellites allowed a detailed view of the Arctic and its ice, a pronounced decrease in summer sea ice cover has been observed (with this year setting a new record low). When the IPCC released its Fourth Assessment Report in 2007, it was generally thought that the Arctic could become ice-free somewhere near the end of this century. But changes in the Arctic have progressed at such speed that most experts now think 2030 might see an ice-free Arctic for the first time. Some say it could even happen this decade.

2 albedofeedbackWhat makes this event significant, is the role Arctic sea ice plays as a reflector of solar energy. Ice is white and therefore reflects a large part of incoming sunlight back out to space. But where there is no ice, dark ocean water absorbs most of the sunlight and thus heats up. The less ice there is, the more the water heats up, melting more ice. This feedback has all kinds of consequences for the Arctic region.

Disappearing ice can be good for species such as tiny algae that profit from the warmer waters and extended growing season, but no sea ice could spell catastrophe for larger animals that hunt or give birth to offspring on the ice. Rapidly changing conditions also have repercussions for human populations whose income and culture depend on sea ice. Their communities literally melt and wash away as the sea ice no longer acts as a buffer to weaken wave action.

3 jetstreamBut what happens in the Arctic, doesn’t stay in the Arctic. The rapid disappearance of sea ice cover can have consequences that are felt all over the Northern Hemisphere, due to the effects it has on atmospheric patterns. As the ice pack becomes smaller ever earlier into the melting season, more and more sunlight gets soaked up by dark ocean waters, effectively warming up the ocean. The heat and moisture that are then released to the atmosphere in fall and winter could be leading to disturbances of the jet stream, the high-altitude wind that separates warm air to its south from cold air to the north. A destabilised jet stream becomes more ‘wavy’, allowing frigid air to plunge farther south, a possible factor in the extreme winters that were experienced all around the Northern Hemisphere in recent years.

Another side-effect is that as the jet stream waves become larger, they slow down or even stall at times, leading to a significant increase in so-called blocking events. These cause extreme weather simply because they lead to unusually prolonged conditions of one type or another. The recent prolonged heatwave, drought and wildfires in the USA are one example of what can happen; another is the cool, dull and extremely wet first half of summer 2012 in the UK and other parts of Eurasia.

The accumulation of heat in Arctic waters also influences other frozen parts of the Arctic, such as glaciers and ice caps on Greenland and in the Canadian archipelago. As there is less and less sea ice to act as a buffer, more energy can go into melting glaciers from below and warming the air above them. This has a marked effect on Greenland’s marine-terminating glaciers and the Greenland ice sheet.

4 greenlandsurfacemeltjuly2012

Not only are glaciers flowing faster towards sea, but there is also a rapid increase in the summer surface melt Greenland experiences, leading to accelerating mass loss from the Greenland Ice Sheet. As the Arctic warms, an increased contribution to sea level rise is inevitable.

Another way Arctic warming could have worldwide consequences is through its influence on permafrost. Permanently frozen soils worldwide contain 1400-1700 Gigatons of carbon, about four times more than all the carbon emitted by human activity in modern times. A 2008 study found that a period of abrupt sea-ice loss could lead to rapid soil thaw, as far as 900 miles inland.

5 permafrostdistribution

Apart from widespread damage to infrastructure (roads, houses) in northern territories, resulting annual carbon emissions could eventually amount to 15-35 percent of today’s yearly emissions from human activities, making the reduction of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere a much more difficult task.

An even more worrying potential source of greenhouse gases is the methane in the seabed of the Arctic Ocean, notably off the coast of Siberia. These so-called clathrates contain an estimated 1400 Gigatons of methane, a more potent though shorter-lived greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. Methane clathrate, a form of water ice that contains a large amount of methane within its crystal structure, remains stable under a combination of high pressure and low temperature. At a depth of 50 meters or less the East Siberian Arctic Shelf contains the shallowest methane clathrate deposits, and is thus most vulnerable to rising water temperatures. Current average methane concentrations in the Arctic already average about 1.90 parts per million, the highest in 400,000 years.

6 methaneconcentration

7 russiaplantsflagApart from these unrecoverable sources of fossil fuel the Arctic is also endowed with large amounts of recoverable oil and natural gas. As the sea ice retreats, the Arctic’s fossil treasures are eyed greedily by large corporations and nations bordering the Arctic Ocean. Not only might this lead to geopolitical tensions in a world where energy is rapidly becoming more expensive, it is also highly ironic that the most likely cause of the disappearance of Arctic sea ice – the extraction and burning of fossil fuels – could lead to more extraction of said fuels. Another feedback loop.

News articles referring to the Arctic and its sea ice usually have pictures of polar bears accompanying the text. But although many animals in the Arctic will be impacted negatively by the vanishing of Arctic sea ice, much more is at stake. After thousands of years in which the sea ice played a vital role in the relatively stable conditions under which modern civilisation, agriculture and a 7 billion strong world population could develop, it increasingly looks as if warming caused by the emission of greenhouse gases is bringing an end to these stable conditions. Whether there still is time to save the Arctic sea ice, is difficult to tell, but consequences will not disappear when the ice is gone. It seems these can only be mitigated by keeping fossil fuels in the ground and out of the air. Whichever way you look at it, business-as-usual is not an option.

For more information on Arctic sea ice, check out Neven’s Arctic Sea Ice blog.

Image credits:
Arctic sea ice extent reconstruction – Kinnard et al. 2011

Sea ice albedo feedback – NASA

Polar jet stream – NC State University

Greenland ice sheet surface melt – NASA

Permafrost distribution in the Arctic – GRID-Arendal

Atmospheric methane concentration – NOAA ESRL

Russia plants flag at North Pole – Reuters

Polar projections Gareth Renowden Jun 22

Join the conversation at Hot Topic

Arctic vir 2012147

This stunning view of the Arctic and the northern hemisphere was captured by the Suomi-NPP satellite a couple of weeks ago. You can clearly see where the Arctic sea ice is beginning to melt and break up (the bluish bits of offshore ice). More on the image at the Earth Observatory. Meanwhile, new research indicates that extreme Arctic warming and the break-up of the West Antarctic ice sheet may be closely linked, according to evidence from an amazing lakebed core from Russia’s Lake El’gygytgyn1. From the Science Daily report:

Brigham-Grette, the lead U.S. scientist says, “What we see is astonishing. We had no idea that we’d find this. It’s astonishing to see so many intervals when the Arctic was really warm, enough so forests were growing where today we see tundra and permafrost. And the intensity of warming is completely unexpected. The other astounding thing is that we were able to determine that during many times when the West Antarctic ice sheet disappeared, we see a corresponding warm period following very quickly in the Arctic. Arctic warm periods cluster with periods when the Western Antarctic ice sheet is gone.”

Not good news.

  1. I’m glad The Climate Show is on sabbatical and I don’t have to attempt to pronounce that…

The Climate Show #10: David Suzuki survives tech meltdown Gareth Renowden Mar 31

Join the conversation at Hot Topic

Meltdown in the treacle factory (Glenn’s PC) means that episode 10 of everybody’s favourite Climate Show is only available in full by podcast. We’ve resurrected the video of our interview with David Suzuki, the great Canadian environmentalist and campaigner (above), but for the full goodness — a great climate change graphic, Russian heatwave analysis, thoughts on climate communication, John “Skeptical Science” Cook introducing the new politicians’ myths section on SkS and explaining the #1 skeptic delusion (no, it isn’t the sun wot dun it), plus a whole stack of solutions — tidal power, electric motorbikes, biochar for pasture and artificial photosynthesis — you’ll have to listen to the audio version (link below). That means you’ll have to do without the graphics we so lovingly describe, but… they’re all in the show notes below the fold… (Back, with luck with pictures, in two weeks).

Watch The Climate Show on our Youtube channel, subscribe to the podcast via iTunes, or listen direct/download here:

The Climate Show

Follow The Climate Show at The Climate Show web site, on Facebook and Twitter.

News & commentary:

Today’s great graphic:

Hat-tip to John Cook at SkS:
http://www.skepticalscience.com/One-of-the-best-climate-change-ads-Ive-seen.html

Record-Breaking 2010 Eastern European/Russian Heatwave

Communicating climate issues:

1: How not to change a climate sceptic’s mind: How we interpret facts depends on who is telling us about them: the Cultural Cognition Project.

2: Distrust of climate science due to lack of media literacy: “To be climate change literate, the public must first be media literate,” since print, TV and radio reports and opinion pieces are the main ways that the public gets its information about climate change science, Cooper says.

3: People who have experienced extreme weather tend to take climate change more seriously.

Feature interview: David Suzuki, co-founder of the David Suzuki Foundation, is an award-winning scientist, environmentalist and broadcaster. He is renowned for his radio and television programs that explain the complexities of the natural sciences in a compelling, easily understood way. He turned 75 last week. To celebrate he’s put out a film called Force of Nature – David Suzuki’s legacy project.

Debunking the skeptic with John Cook from Skeptical Science.

Climate myths from politicians:


http://sks.to/skepticquotes

It’s the Sun (no, it isn’t):

Fingerprints expected from solar warming

Solar warming prediction: warming stratosphere

Solar warming prediction: days warm faster than nights

Solar warming prediction: summers warm faster than winters

http://sks.to/sun

Solutions

An electric motorbike: Zero Motorocycles has secured $17 million in financing from a group of investors.

10MW tidal power station gets Scottish government’s approval, but NZ’s Kaipara Harbour scheme (just consented) will be 200MW when fully installed.

Biochar Incorporation into Pasture Soil Suppresses in situ Nitrous Oxide Emissions from Ruminant Urine Patches, and Carbon News.

Daniel Nocera’s “Solar leaf” unveiled:

About the shape of a poker card but thinner, the device is fashioned from silicon, electronics and catalysts, substances that accelerate chemical reactions that otherwise would not occur, or would run slowly. Placed in a single gallon of water in a bright sunlight, the device could produce enough electricity to supply a house in a developing country with electricity for a day, Nocera said. It does so by splitting water into its two components, hydrogen and oxygen.

Thanks to our media partners: Celsias.co.nz, Scoop and KiwiFM.

Theme music: A Drop In The Ocean by The Bads.

The gas almost works (more methane) Gareth Renowden Nov 27

Join the conversation at Hot Topic

Atmospheric methane levels continued to increase in 2009, the World Meteorological Organisation’s annual Greenhouse Gas Bulletin (summary PDF) confirmed this week. Methane averaged 1803 ppb over the year, up 5 ppb on 2008, and now contributes 18.1% of the radiative forcing caused by current greenhouse gas levels. The Bulletin suggests that “likely causes were above average wetland methane emissions due to exceptionally warm temperatures at high northern latitudes in 2007 and heavy precipitation in tropical wetlands in 2007 and 2008. However, it cautions that the reasons for the recent increases are not yet fully understood.”

A hint that the rise might be continuing this year is contained in this rather striking graph of methane levels recorded recently at the Mt Zeppelin recording station (a misty mountain?) in Ny Ã…lesund, Svalbard…

Zepmethane201011.png

The graph comes from NOAA’s Earth System Research Labs Global Monitoring Division’s new data visualisation web page here (you’ll see a CO2 graph first, but click on the menu to the left of the graph to get the methane version). The readings for the last year are preliminary, and shown in brown. The last five data points are so far off the chart that they are almost certainly going to be rejected as being caused by local contamination. That’s happened before — the green dots show when — and at the moment other Arctic sites are not showing a similar rise. However, Svalbard is close to sea floor methane hydrate deposits that are known to be venting gas.

Another way to appreciate the elevated levels of methane in northern high latitudes is to take a look at the ESRL’s Globalview-CH4 page, which features a nice (but large) animation of monthly methane levels by latitude from 1997 to 2009. There’s a clear hemispheric imbalance as well as an obvious seasonal cycle. Mesmerising viewing.

This recent AP article explores why Arctic methane levels are worth watching. Russian scientist Sergey Zimov, director of the Northeast Science Station near Chersky on the Kolyma River in Siberia is shown doing a Katey Walter in the pictures accompanying the text. It’s a good overview of the state of play in a region where, as Zimov says, “total carbon storage is like all the rain forests of our planet put together”, and where there’s a lot of sea floor methane hydrate bubbling away…

Methane hydrates are also plentiful under the sea floor around New Zealand, and evidence is emerging that huge amounts of the gas might have erupted during glacial/interglacial transitions. A new paper, Gas escape features off New Zealand: Evidence of massive release of methane from hydrates by Bryan Davy, Ingo Pecher, Ray Wood (all of GNS Science), Lionel Carter (VUW) and Karsten Gohl (Alfred Wegener Institute) [Geophys. Res. Lett. (2010) vol. 37 (21) pp. L21309] looked at sea floor scans of 20,000 km2 of the Chatham Rise, which lies to the east of the South Island. They found thousands of distinct of gas escape features, from numerous small “pockmarks” about 150m across to ten of the largest such structures yet found — 8 to 11 km across, twice the size of the largest recorded to date. The team estimate that one structure of that size could release as much as 7 x 1012g methane, equivalent to about 3% of current natural emissions. The paper suggests that methane hydrate decomposition could have been stimulated by the reduction in sea floor pressure caused by the 120 m fall in sea level during glacial periods, and by periodic incursions of deeper warm water. You have to hope we don’t see too many of those things going pop in the near future…

[Richard Thompson, John Kirkpatrick, Cropredy 1980]

Wake the world Gareth Renowden Sep 24

Join the conversation at Hot Topic

This is a guest post by Anthony Giddens and Martin Rees. Giddens is a former director of the London School of Economics, a fellow of King’s College, Cambridge and the author of The Politics of Climate Change. Rees is president of the Royal Society.

This year has seen outbreaks of extreme weather in many regions of the world. No one can say with certainty that events such as the flooding in Pakistan, the unprecedented weather episodes in some parts of the US, the heatwave and drought in Russia, or the floods and landslides in northern China were influenced by climate change. Yet they constitute a stark warning. Extreme weather events will grow in frequency and intensity as the world warms.

No binding agreements were reached at the meetings in Copenhagen last December. Leaked emails between scientists at the University of East Anglia, claimed by critics to show manipulation of data, received a great deal of attention – as did errors found in the volumes produced by the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Many newspapers, especially on the political right, have carried headlines that global warming has either stopped or is no longer a problem.

It cannot be emphasised too strongly that the core scientific findings about human-induced climate change and the dangers it poses for our collective future remain intact. The most important relevant fact is based on uncontroversial measurements: the carbon dioxide concentration in the atmosphere is higher than it has been for at least the last half-million years. It has risen by 30 per cent since the start of the industrial era, mainly because of the burning of fossil fuels. If the world continues to depend on fossil fuels to the extent it does today, carbon dioxide will reach double pre-industrial levels within the next half-century. This build-up is triggering long-term warming, the physical reasons for which are well-known and demonstrable in the laboratory.

Data from the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration show that this year is set to be the warmest year globally since their records began in 1880. June was the 304th consecutive month with a land and ocean temperature above the 20th-century average. Last year, the administration analysed findings from some 50 independent records monitoring temperature change, involving 10 separate indices. All 10 indicators showed a clear pattern of warming over the past half-century.

A renewed drive is demanded to wake the world from its torpor. The catastrophic events noted above should provide the stimulus. The floods in Pakistan have left some 20 million people homeless. Pakistan cannot be left to founder – but neither can other poor countries, many of which are vulnerable to catastrophic weather events.

World leaders should expedite and accelerate the discussions currently under way to provide large-scale funding for poorer countries to develop the infrastructure to cope with future weather shocks.

The United States and China are far and away the biggest polluters in the world, contributing well over 40 per cent of total global emissions. The European Union is pursuing progressive policies in containing the carbon emissions of its member states. Yet whatever the EU and the rest of the world do, if the US and China do not alter their current policies there is little or no hope of containing climate change.

The US has 4 per cent of the world’s population but churns out 25 per cent of the world’s carbon emissions. It must assume a greater leadership role in world efforts to curb climate change. President Barack Obama should reassert that containing climate change is one of the highest priorities of his administration.

Positive initiatives are happening at the level of local communities, third-sector organisations, cities and states. These groups must exert pressure on many different levels to promote a significant reduction in emissions across the whole US.

China’s leaders show increasing awareness of how vulnerable their country is to climate change, and are investing in renewable technologies and nuclear power on a substantial scale. However, China’s carbon emissions are steadily increasing. It has the right and the need to develop, but much clearer plans than seem to exist at present are needed to show how the country intends to move away from its existing high-carbon path. The Chinese leadership should formulate such plans, make them public and open them up for international scrutiny.

The current emphasis on improving energy efficiency is important, but nowhere near enough to seriously chart such a path.

Russia is the third-largest emitter of greenhouse gases. President Dmitry Medvedev has proposed targets the country should adopt, but as they stand they are empty. Calculated against a 1990 baseline, they are accounted for simply by the decline of the country’s uncompetitive heavy industries.

Above all, a renewed impetus to international collaboration is required. The meetings of the UN to be held at Cancun in December carry little promise of initiating policies on the scale needed. The US, China, the EU and other major states such as Brazil and India, with due attention paid to the interests of smaller nations, should work with a greater sense of urgency.

Finally, limiting carbon emissions won’t happen solely through regulation and target-setting: innovation — social, economic and technological — will be central. Enlightened business leaders should step up their attempts to this end. The rewards, after all, are huge. The actions needed to counter this threat — the transition to a lifestyle dependent on clean and efficient energy — will create manifold new economic opportunities.

[Beach Boys]

All around the world Gareth Renowden Sep 23

Join the conversation at Hot Topic

The Arctic Ocean has been circumnavigated by sailing vessels in a single season for the first time. The Norwegian trimaran Northern Passage reports that it has passed 74ºN, traditionally regarded as the eastern end of the NW Passage, and is now sailing into Baffin Bay heading for Pond Inlet. The Russian boat Peter 1 is reported to be about one hour’s sailing ahead of them. In their blog post marking the milestone, Thorleif Thorleifsson and Børge Ousland provide this telling comment:

It is, unfortunately, the dramatic changes in Arctic sea ice conditions in recent years that have made this trip possible. On the time of Roald Amundsen it took five to six years to complete the same distance, due to the extremely difficult and demanding ice conditions. Now we have proven that it is possible to make the voyage in a 31-foot fibreglass sailing boat, equipped with a 10 horsepower outboard motor for emergencies. This shows how dramatic and how fast these changes are happening. The changes that we are witnessing will influence climate on a global scale, in addition to the whole range of animal life in the Arctic — especially seals and polar bears, whose lives are dependent on the sea ice.

It is our hope that our voyage will be seen as a strong, visible symbol of the scale and the speed of these changes.

Congratulations to both teams for their remarkable achievement. Given that the first circumnavigation by a sailing vessel was made by the French yacht Vagabond over two seasons as recently as 2002-2003, it’s clear that the pace of change in the Arctic is not slackening. Reflecting that, the Arctic Forum — a meeting of countries with claims to Arctic territory — is currently underway in Moscow. The Independent reports that the mood of the meeting is “conciliatory”, but the pressure to establish territory is growing as the rush to exploit oil, gas and mineral resources intensifies (see BBC for more).

[Updated] And to remind us that what’s at stake in the Arctic is a great deal more than a few billion barrels of oil, Yahoo News carries an IPS story on Arctic warming and the methane problem. If the average global warming is held to 2ºC (which doesn’t seem likely under present policy settings), the Arctic will warm much faster. NSIDC director Mark Serreze is characteristically blunt:

“I hate to say it but I think we are committed to a four- to six-degree warmer Arctic,” Serreze said.

If the Arctic becomes six degrees warmer, then half of the world’s permafrost will likely thaw, probably to a depth of a few metres, releasing most of the carbon and methane accumulated there over thousands of years, said Vladimir Romanovsky of the University of Alaska in Fairbanks and a world expert on permafrost. […]

That would be catastrophic for human civilisation, experts agree.

In other words, we have very good reasons to believe that settling for a 2ºC target would be to acquiesce in a global disaster. We can only hope for two things: that the climate commitment (the inevitable warming “in the pipeline”) does not push the Arctic into a huge release of methane, and that the world’s leaders wake up to the real scale and urgency of the problem. For all our sakes.

[Oasis]

Lester Brown: Russian heat hits world grain supplies Bryan Walker Aug 13

Join the conversation at Hot Topic

One of the things that persuaded Gwynne Dyer that it was time to write his book Climate Wars was the realisation that ’the first and most important impact of climate change on human civilization will be an acute and permanent crisis of food supply’. He’s not the only one to recognise that. Many of us hearing about what the Russian heat wave is doing to crops have no doubt been wondering what the effect of so much loss might be on global supplies. Right on cue Lester Brown, whose Plan B books always lays great stress on food reserves, has produced  an update on what the failed harvest in Russia might mean.

’Russia’s grain harvest, which was 94 million tons last year, could drop to 65 million tons or even less. West of the Ural Mountains, where most of its grain is grown, Russia is parched beyond belief. An estimated one fifth of its grainland is not worth harvesting. In addition, Ukraine’s harvest could be down 20 percent from last year. And Kazakhstan anticipates a harvest 34 percent below that of 2009. (See data.)’

He notes that the heat and drought are also reducing grass and hay growth, meaning that farmers will have to feed more grain during the long winter. Moscow has already released 3 million tons of grain from government stocks for this purpose. Supplementing hay with grain is costly, but the alternative is reduction of herd size by slaughtering, which means higher meat and milk prices.

The Russian ban on grain exports and possible restrictions on exports from Ukraine and Kazakhstan could cause panic in food-importing countries, leading to a run on exportable grain supplies. Beyond this year, there could be some drought spillover into next year if there is not enough soil moisture by late August to plant Russia’s new winter wheat crop.

The grain-importing countries have in recent times seen China added to their list. In recent months China has imported over half a million tons of wheat from both Australia and Canada and a million tons of corn from the US. A Chinese consulting firm projects China’s corn imports climbing to 15 million tons in 2015. China’s potential role as an importer could put additional pressure on exportable supplies of grain.

The bottom line indicator of food security, Brown explains, is the amount of grain in the bin when the new harvest begins. When world carryover stocks of grain dropped to 62 days of consumption in 2006 and 64 days in 2007, it set the stage for the 2007—08 price run-up. World grain carryover stocks at the end of the current crop year have been estimated at 76 days of consumption, somewhat above the widely recommended 70-day minimum. A new US Department of Agriculture estimate is due very soon, which will give some idea of how much carryover stocks will be estimated to drop as a result of the Russian failure.

We don’t know what all this will mean for world prices. The prices of wheat, corn, and soybeans are actually somewhat higher in early August 2010 than they were in early August 2007, when the record-breaking 2007—08 run-up in grain prices began. Whether prices will reach the 2008 peak again remains to be seen.

Brown performs the obligatory ritual of acknowledging that no  single event can be attributed to global warming, though I would have thought that by now that proviso could be taken as read. It’s surely more important to affirm, as of course he does, that extreme events are an expected manifestation of human-caused climate change, and their effect on food production must be a major concern.

’That intense heat waves shrink harvests is not surprising. The rule of thumb used by crop ecologists is that for each 1 degree Celsius rise in temperature above the optimum we can expect a reduction in grain yields of 10 percent. With global temperature projected to rise by up to 6 degrees Celsius during this century, this effect on yields is an obvious matter of concern.’
 

Demand isn’t going down to match the reduction:

’Each year the world demand for grain climbs. Each year the world’s farmers must feed 80 million more people. In addition, some 3 billion people are trying to move up the food chain and consume more grain-intensive livestock products. And this year some 120 million tons of the 415-million-ton U.S. grain harvest will go to ethanol distilleries to produce fuel for cars.’

And the obvious conclusion:

’Surging annual growth in grain demand at a time when the earth is heating up, when climate events are becoming more extreme, and when water shortages are spreading makes it difficult for the world’s farmers to keep up. This situation underlines the urgency of cutting carbon emissions quickly–before climate change spins out of control.’

There’s a podcast in which Lester Brown speaks at greater length, elaborating the matters covered in his written update, and amongst other things commenting on how we might be thankful, from a global grain harvest perspective, that it was Moscow and not Chicago or Beijing which experienced temperatures so far above the norm. The grain loss would have been much higher in either case.

It’s worth adding that while the Russian event is dramatic in terms of its obvious impact on exports of grain globally, there are plenty of other places where food production is threatened by extreme events or by other  trends which are in line with climate change predictions. It is impossible to look at the vast flooding of land in Pakistan and not wonder how they will cope with the washing away of millions of hectares of crops — there have been “huge losses” according to the BBC.

’We need to cut carbon emissions and cut them fast.’

Fire and rain Gareth Renowden Aug 12

Join the conversation at Hot Topic

The last few weeks have seen some extraordinary weather events around the world: relentless extreme heat in Russia, biblical flooding in Pakistan and devastating landslides in China. Tens of millions of people have had their lives disrupted and thousands have died, and — beyond reasonable doubt — global warming is playing a part in creating these extremes. But how much of a part? Michael Tobis asked this question in a recent post:

Are the current events in Russia “because of” “global warming”? To put the question in slightly more formal terms, are we now looking at something that is no longer a “loading the dice” situation but is a “this would, practically certainly, not have happened without human interference” situation?

The answer, at least in the case of the current extremes, would appear to be yes.

Jeff Masters at Weather Underground has (as usual) been providing exemplary coverage of the Russian heat wave, and in a post on August 6th he described it as “one of the most remarkable weather events of my lifetime”. Over the month of July, Moscow’s mean daily temperature was 7.8ºC above normal (the previous record, set in 1938, was 5.3ºC above normal), and since the beginning of August the daily maximum has been consistently 15ºC above average, which Masters describes as “a truly extraordinary anomaly”. At the time of writing, Moscow had experienced 29 successive days with temperatures over 30ºC, easily the longest and most intense heat wave since records began. Masters quotes Alexander Frolov, head of Russia’s weather service:

Our ancestors haven’t observed or registered a heat like that within 1,000 years. This phenomenon is absolutely unique.

What’s particularly striking about this event is the large margin by which previous long-standing records are being smashed. The Economist, in an excellent article on climate change and extreme weather, quotes Dutch meteorologist Geert Jan van Oldenborgh on the odds:

…a straightforward comparison of the temperatures seen this summer with those of the past 60 years suggests that a large patch of Russia is experiencing temperatures which might be expected only once every 400 years or so. Some places within that patch are hotter than might be expected over several millennia.

Those numbers assume the climate isn’t warming. When van Oldenburgh assumes warming:

…the heatwave starts to look less improbable–more like the sort of thing you might expect every century. As the warming trend continues in the future, the chances of such events being repeated more frequently will get higher.

Van Oldenborgh did a similar analysis of the heat and cold anomalies of last northern hemisphere winter, which I covered back in April. The key point is that if the climate were not changing, an event as dramatic as the Russian heatwave would be very, very unlikely. If we factor in the warming trend, it remains unusual, but less so. And if that warming trend continues (and it will), then we can expect more record-breaking heat waves around the world.

Global warming impacts the weather we experience in two ways: by increasing the probability of new records — when a heat wave happens, you are likely to get more warmth (see the graph in my post on rainfall). But there is a second impact: the potential for changes in the circulation of the atmosphere. The climate of any part of the planet depends on lots of factors, but the flow of weather systems is crucial. As an example, consider the South Island of New Zealand. The prevailing (or normal) wind is westerly, and when that wind bumps into the Southern Alps it drops rain, and lots of it. Hence rainforest, speedy glaciers and tourism. On the other side of the Alps, we get warm dry winds and little rain. Now imagine that the frequency of easterly winds increases and westerlies decrease. The east coast gets wetter, and the west coast dryer. Cue big change in climate, even if the temperature doesn’t warm. There’s actually a hint of this happening in the modelling toward the end of the century — though for the east coast of the north island, not down here.

So can we draw a line between Russian heat, flooding in Pakistan and China and changes in the pattern or shape of weather? Perhaps a combination of the after-effects of El Niño, record sea-surface temperatures in the tropical Atlantic and a reduction in Arctic sea ice are affecting the way the jet stream meanders around the northern hemisphere, creating a persistent ridge of high pressure over Russia — a blocking pattern that has flow on effects for Asia. Wired asked Kevin Trenberth if the heat and floods could be linked:

’The two things are connected on a very large scale, through what we call an overturning or monsoonal circulation,’ he said. ’There is a monsoon where upwards motion is being fed by the very moist air that’s going onshore, and there are exceptionally heavy rains. That drives rising air. That air has to come down somewhere. Some of it comes down over the north.’

Rob Carver at Weather Underground explains more here, New Scientist discusses the “frozen” jet stream here and UK Met Office scientist Peter Stott (who wrote the definitive paper on the record-breaking European heat wave of 2003) offers his thoughts at the Guardian.

What I find scary in all this is the multiple coincidence of record heat and catastrophic flooding in Pakistan and China — in a year where the first six months had already set a record for insurance losses on extreme events. The last 12 months have been the warmest in the global record. A modest El Niño event has boosted temperatures and affected weather patterns in an eery echo of events that followed the great El Niño of 1997-98. Back in 1999, Kevin Trenberth reviewed the extreme weather events of 1997-98. It was, as he suggests, a wild ride:

In early August, for example, major floods devastated parts of Korea, and in August and September 1998, extensive monsoon-related flooding struck heavily-populated eastern India and Bangladesh. Widespread heavy rains in China, at about the same time, released the mighty Yangtze River from its banks, with ensuing reports of more than 3,000 deaths, some 230 million people homeless, and over $30 billion in flood damage. In the summer of 1998 heat waves and air pollution episodes plagued many regions of the world, particularly in Egypt and other Mediterranean countries, and in southern Europe. In New Zealand, record floods in July and October 1998 were the worst in 100 years. But the costliest disaster of them all, in terms of human life, struck the Caribbean in late October. Hurricane Mitch caused the deaths of more than 11,000 people in Honduras, Nicaragua, Guatemala and El Salvador, primarily through the extensive flooding that followed prolonged and heavy rains.

This time round the floods are in Pakistan instead of India and Bangladesh, and the heat has moved north from the Mediterranean to Russia. The Atlantic hurricane season has not yet really got going, but we can only hope there won’t be another Mitch. In the 12 years since that El Niño, the climate system has continued to accumulate energy. When an ENSO event releases that energy it has to go somewhere, and that’s into heatwaves, floods, hurricanes and melting ice.

As the years go by and the warming continues, those extremes are only going to get worse. To me, it looks very much as though it won’t be a gradual warming that causes us the biggest problems, it’ll be the direct and indirect effects of increasing weather extremes. Hot years are going to be hard years for humanity.

[Update: The Wonk Room covers the same subject, but includes an interview with Rob Carver:

I agree with Michael Tobis’s take at Only In It For the Gold that something systematic has changed to alter the global circulation and you’ll need a coupled atmosphere/ocean global model to understand what’s going on. My hunch is that a warming Arctic combined with sea-surface-temperature teleconnections altered the global circulation such that a blocking ridge formed over western Russia leading to the unprecedented drought/heat wave conditions. Without contributions from anthropogenic climate change, I don’t think this event would have reached such extremes or even happened at all.

]

[Update 2 (in quick succession): Stu Ostro at The Weather Channel posts on Russian heat, extremes and 500mb anomalies:

The upshot: Whether with temperatures, precipitation, or storms (tropical or otherwise), and regardless of in which direction the extremes are, it's a case of Weather Gone Wiggy, and this is happening at the time when the Earth's climate is at an exceptionally warm level compared to that of at least the past century. There have been extremes for as long as there has been weather; it's their nature which is changing along with changing atmospheric moisture, stability, and circulation patterns.

]

[Update 3 (on a roll!): World Meteorological Organisation on recent extremes]

[Update 4: The Guardian expands on Weather Underground's list of new temperature records.]

[Update 5, 14/8/10: Jeff Masters posts on the jetstream and its influence on the heatwave: The Great Russian Heat Wave of 2010 is one of the most intense, widespread, and long-lasting heat waves in world history.]

[Sweet dreams and flying machines in pieces on the ground]

Network-wide options by YD - Freelance Wordpress Developer