Category Archives: Arctic & Antarctic

New report: How climate change is impacting where you live

The National Climate Assessment (NCA) report, prepared by the U.S. Global Change Research Program, is essentially the U.S. equivalent of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC): Using the best available science, over 300 experts synthesized current understanding of observed and future climate changes and impacts, particularly in the U.S. The third ever NCA was released today, and concludes beyond a reasonable scientific doubt that Americans are being affected by climate change.

Among the findings:

  • U.S. average temperatures have increased by 1.3 to 1.9ºF since record-keeping began in 1895, and most of this warming has occurred since 1970
  • Heavy precipitation has increased in many parts of the country
  • Extremes such as heat waves, droughts, floods, and North Atlantic hurricanes are more frequent and/or intense
  • Summer sea ice in the Arctic has halved since record-keeping began in 1979
  • Sea level rise has increased coastal erosion and storm surge damage

These changing conditions produce a variety of tangible stresses on society by affecting human health, water resources, agriculture, energy, infrastructure, and natural ecosystems. The particular impacts vary by region, but no corner of the country is immune to the change.

So what’s happening where you live?

Source: National Climate Assessment

Unless we take immediate action to curb our emissions of heat-trapping gases, the foreseeable future will be plagued by further warming and worsening impacts. The good news is that because we know what the cause is, we also know what is needed in order to stabilize our planet. We must come together now—locally, nationally, and internationally—and work towards a better future.

This post first appeared on our EDF Voices blog

Also posted in Basic Science of Global Warming, Extreme Weather, Oceans, Science| Comments closed

Arctic Melting – a Business Opportunity, but Also a Dangerous Climate Risk

The Obama Administration recently released a plan to cope with a warming Arctic.

Climate change has increased warming in that region at a striking rate, and it has extended the ice melting season by about two weeks per decade.

As a result, the Arctic–which was inaccessible to commercial shipping as recently as 2008–saw 71 vessels cross last year.

Speedy Arctic development, however, is an indisputably risky business.

The Threat

Over the past three decades, warmer temperatures have caused Arctic sea ice to lose half of its area and three quarters of its volume.

Even with a slight increase in ice this winter, the Arctic’s sea ice last December was still the fourth lowest on record.

In the summer of 2012 alone, sea ice shrunk by 350,000 square miles compared to the previous summer. That’s an area the size of Venezuela.

Permafrost, defined as frozen soil, sediment, or rock that has remained at or below zero degrees Celsius for at least two years, comprises about 25 percent of the land in the Northern Hemisphere.Along with record ice melt, all of the permafrost-monitoring sites in northern Alaska have experienced record high temperatures in the past few years.

According to estimates, the carbon dioxide and methane stored in the Northern Hemisphere’s permafrost is equivalent to more than double the carbon concentration currently in the atmosphere.

The Northern Hemisphere’s shallow (zero to three meters deep) permafrost is the part most susceptible to melting, and that part alone contains carbon dioxide and methane equivalent to more than 400 ppm of atmospheric carbon dioxide – or, the amount currently in the entire atmosphere. (That’s according to “Report from International Permafrost Association: Carbon Pools in Permafrost Regions” by Kuhry, Peter, Chien-Lu Ping, Edward A. G. Schuur, Charles Tarnocai, and Sergey Zimov.)

Permafrost in the Arctic. Source: Wikimedia Commons

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)–the world’s foremost authority on climate change–expects the Northern Hemisphere’s permafrost to melt 20 to 35 percent by 2050.

Quick math with very conservative assumptions tells us this: if not curtailed, carbon emissions from the Northern Hemisphere’s permafrost melting will bring the atmospheric carbon concentration beyond 450 ppm, the number the IPCC deems the threshold beyond which the world can expect extreme shifts in weather patterns, ecology, and geology.

While the lasting effect of permafrost thaw on atmospheric carbon concentrations is uncertain, it is safe to say that the scale of the risk is potentially enormous and expensive into the trillions of dollars.

According to Maplecroft’s 2013 Climate Change Vulnerability Index, 67 countries with an “estimated combined GDP of $44 trillion will come under increasing threat from the physical impacts of more frequent and extreme climate-related events.”

The World Bank (2010) estimates annual climate change adaptation costs for the years 2010 to 2050 to be $70 to $100 billion for the developing world alone.

Unmitigated permafrost melting promises to hasten temperature increases and greatly exacerbate these costs.

The Business Interest

While methane from permafrost melt rises like a thick, invisible smoke stack, some members of the business world are focused on the economic potential of an increasingly iceless–and thus accessible–Arctic frontier.

The foremost reason for the Arctic’s economic promise is its massive oil and gas deposits.

According to Foreign Affairs:

The Arctic’s oil and gas fields account for 10.5 percent of global oil production and 25.5 percent of global gas production. And those numbers could jump soon. Initial estimates suggest that the Arctic may be home to an estimated 22 percent of the world’s undiscovered conventional oil and gas deposits, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.

Recent investments of many billions of dollars from oil giants–including Shell, ExxonMobil, ConocoPhillips, Statoil, Gazprom, and Rosneft–shows the excitement in the industry regarding the future revenues from these formerly ice-restricted resources.

An ice-free Arctic also creates shorter shipping routes.

For the first time ever, the Northern Sea Route, which passes through the Arctic to connect Europe to Eurasia, is open to commercial shipping, with over 70 vessels sailing through in 2013.

The Arctic also harbors valuable deposits of zinc, nickel, palladium, diamonds, platinum, cobalt, tungsten, uranium, and other minerals. And above ground, forestry, fishing, and many other industries promise to benefit from Arctic development.

 A Dangerous Cycle

As melting ice unlocks the Arctic, it threatens to push temperatures to tipping points. It also unleashes economic activity that may spark positive feedback loops, bringing more and more Arctic melting – and thus more carbon dioxide and methane released from permafrost.

Additionally, as a warming climate allows snow and ice to thaw, tundra species are being replaced with evergreen trees, which absorb more sunlight. (Snow is white, so it absords less of the sun's heat than the darker evergreens.) That means that more tree cover will, counter-intuitively, further increase warming and thawing trends in the Arctic.

Other factors such as direct carbon loss through combustion and increasing fires could also further increase this cycle.

While the science regarding permafrost melt’s climate implications remains uncertain, the risk is so enormous that turning a blind eye while developing the Arctic frontier is tremendously irresponsible.

The ensuing hastening of permafrost’s melt could lead to global economic costs that drastically exceed the benefits from Arctic development.

Also posted in News, Science| 3 Responses, comments now closed

Antarctica's Glacial Melt

There should no longer be any doubt. Climate change is here, and it is happening. 26,000 broken heat records this summer speak for themselves.

Extreme weather events hit home. Another consequence of climate change, by contrast – rising sea levels – often seems far away and far off.

“Far away” is easily dismissed. U.S. coasts are as much in danger as sea shores anywhere else on the planet.

"Far off” often seems tougher to address. After all, seas have only risen by inches so far. Projections say we could see three or more feet by the end of the century.

Even right now, though, we’re seeing the evidence of sea level rise. Antarctic ice sheets have been melting to the tune of 24 cubic miles of melt water per year, every year, since 2002.

That is a huge number, but a fairly abstract number. So The Globalist designed a quiz to make the giant quantity feel a bit more real. EDF was honored to help with the research for the quiz.

See if you can answer the question:

If you were to take the melt-off from Antarctica's ice sheets over the past decade (2002 to 2012) and pour it into a California-sized Jell-O mold, how high would the water rise?

The right answer might surprise you. Hint: Think Paul Sturgess, the world's tallest professional basketball player.

And check out The Globalist quiz for more details.

Also posted in Extreme Weather, News, Oceans, Science| 1 Response, comments now closed

Time-Lapse Video of Alaska's Eroding Coastline

Sheryl CanterLast week, the New York Times Dot Earth blog posted a sobering video of coastline erosion in Alaska. This is no simulation – it's a time-lapse video made from pictures taken two hours apart from late June to late July of this year.

[kml_flashembed movie="http://www.youtube.com/v/mv5udkIacBw" width="425" height="350" wmode="transparent" /]

Read More »

Posted in Arctic & Antarctic| 1 Response, comments now closed

My Arctic Journal

Fred KruppThis post is by Fred Krupp, president of the Environmental Defense Fund.

A few weeks ago, I returned from a voyage called the Arctic Expedition for Climate Action. Sponsored by the Aspen Institute, the National Geographic Society, and Lindblad Expeditions, our group [PDF] included over 100 business leaders, scientists, environmentalists, journalists, politicians, religious leaders, and community activists.

Orthographic projection over Svalbard (red dot).In a word, it was sensational. We set out by ship from Svalbard – almost the closest land to the North Pole, and a three hour plane flight from Oslo, Norway. This is by far the closest to the North Pole I've ever been. My prior trips to the north shore of Alaska at Prudhoe Bay and the north coast of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge were much further south.

Read More »

Posted in Arctic & Antarctic| Comments closed

News from the Antarctic

James WangThis post is by James Wang, Ph.D., a climate scientist at Environmental Defense Fund.

This month, while Arctic sea ice hits its annual wintertime high (such as it is – see last week's post), Antarctic sea ice reaches its summertime low.

We've already posted about the British Antarctic Survey's report of a vast ice berg on the verge of breaking off the Wilkins Ice Shelf. Here's more on what's happening at the South Pole from NASA's recent briefing on polar sea ice.

Read More »

Posted in Arctic & Antarctic| Comments closed
  • About this blog

    Expert to expert commentary on the science, law and economics of climate change.

  • Categories

  • Get blog posts by email

    Subscribe via RSS

  • Meet The Bloggers

    Megan CeronskyMegan Ceronsky
    Attorney

    Nat KeohaneNat Keohane
    Vice President for International Climate

    Ilissa Ocko
    High Meadows Fellow, Office of Chief Scientist

    Peter Zalzal
    Staff Attorney

    Gernot Wagner
    Senior Economist

    Graham McCahan
    Attorney

    Mandy Warner
    Climate & Air Policy Specialist

    Pamela Campos
    Attorney

    Kritee
    High Meadows Scientist