Monday, May 30, 2011

Will the warmer North Dakota be drier or wetter?

Like most areas across the globe North Dakota is currently in the midst of a long-term warming trend. It is well-established that warming will continue because of human activities. Over the 21st century even if we seriously curb our warming greenhouse gas emissions we face noticeable additional warming. Continuing with the carefree business-as-usual is playing a game with no winning results.

What about local effects? Global average temperature numbers like linked above have use, but the driving reason behind using the term "climate change" rather than "global warming" is that the changes are not simply that the temperature is however many degrees higher everywhere. The surface temperature change is and will be variable (such as land areas warming much more than ocean and the Arctic warming most extreme of all) and temperature is not the only thing that changes.

With the last couple decades of the rising Devils Lake and and many historically high flooding levels, in this region we obviously know how impactful long-term shifts in precipitation are. Is the current wet period a symptom of climate change and something that will continue and worsen?

Though obviously more relevant, these questions about much smaller scale are more difficult to answer. These are different beasts, but similar to how weather forecasts can readily say there will be a system passing through the area but typically not for certain if it will bring precipitation where you are much less exactly how much, we can say with great certainty there will be changes to climate but not exactly what they will be for, say, North Dakota. Regional impacts is an area of much interest these days because of the importance and how much we do not know on it at this point.

Many people, thinking of how deserts are hot and dry, may initially assume that warming means it simply will be drier. With warming indeed you expect more evaporation. Yet, moisture that evaporates from somewhere will return to the surface as precipitation somewhere. Maybe at a given area you get more evaporation, but maybe you get even more precipitation. Another factor to consider is changes in the general flow of weather patterns (e.g, through shifts in the jet stream). Maybe you get more storm systems and resulting precipitation, but maybe you get less.

Yet another issue to consider besides how much precipitation occurs is when it occurs. There could be no change in the annual average, but if the distribution through the year changes significantly that can have major impacts. Average annual precipitation for the Grand Forks area is about 20 inches (counting the snow amount in liquid equivalent). Almost half the amount falls in June-August. Suppose we kept the same annual average but lost half the amount during summer, balancing it by increasing the winter amount. Agriculture would likely suffer during those warmer and drier months, and the greater cold season precipitation would mean worse flooding in spring. Or suppose that the summer rain amount remains the same but is compiled over much fewer days with precipitation but having much heavier amounts.

Climate models, though often maligned by people who do not understand them, allow us to investigate what is likely to happen.

The Interior Department Bureau of Reclamation produced a recent report analyzing impacts to water supplies in the western US (pdf) under the expected changing conditions of the 21st century. The work separately examined various western river basins and found the warming of 5-7 degrees Fahrenheit area-wide but found that farther southwest drying and decreased runoff were likely while up like in the Missouri River basin the evidence suggests increases in the annual average precipitation.

A central facet of this analysis was compiling the results from 112 comparable climate model simulations and surveying the results. Below are figures 2 and 3 from the report which show the median change in temperature (in deg F) and precipitation (in % of annual average) comparing projected 2070-2099 to historical 1950-1979. The median value is likely very similar to the average, but by taking the median value - the middle value when all the values are ranked in order - extreme outlier values can have much less effect on the result than they could by computing the average.

Yet even with more precipitation on average per year, overall conditions could be such that they would not be "wetter". A recent review by Dai focused on drought over the 21st century with continued climate change. Cutting to the chase, the breadbasket of North America, including North Dakota, could face almost unimaginable drought conditions by within about 50 years.

There may be difficulty using the Palmer Drought Severity Index or variations on it for such projections as Dai does. The point still applies that even with more precipitation in a year, it can still be drier with increased evaporation because of warming and if the distribution of that precipitation changes such that more ends up as runoff.

Rather than have a dismissive attitude because of the uncertainty about how North Dakota and this region will be affected, that should be cause for even greater concern. We do not have the issue of mountain snowpack building during winter and releasing at the right rate during spring and summer, but we do have worries here when it comes to flooding and agriculture. There are a lot of changes that can mean negative results. Seems like something to try to avoid rather than speed toward faster and faster.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Tim Polluty and the GOP Climate Trasher Brigade

As part of his official 2012 presidential campaign rollout, Tim Polluty, er... Pawlenty, claimed he would be telling "hard truths". Oddly though, his idea of hard truths seems to be red meat for conservative activists. Pawlenty has fled from the hard truth of needing to address climate change.

An article by AP reporter Dina Cappiello from today highlighted how Pawlenty is hardly alone among Republican politicians who have abandoned more reasonable positions in favor of pandering to their base.

Today there are generally two flavors of Republicans when it comes to the issue of climate change - (1, which I will refer to here as know-nothings) the ones who dispute the science and so obviously oppose any action to address the issue and (2, which I will refer to here as do-nothings) the ones ambivalent about or even partially accepting of the science yet still opposing serious action to address the issue.

Cappiello examines how certain politicians have raced into their positions now that the political climate change among so many conservatives has made disbelief in human impact on climate an article of faith. Republicans are obviously quite far from Theodore Roosevelt, but 20 years later they are distant from the limited efforts by George H W Bush. Even just a few years ago as Cappiello points out that there would be Republicans who would support some sort of positive climate change action like emissions trading programs. But no more, and the race is on for many, including Tim Pawlenty, Newt Gingrich, Mitt Romney, Jon Huntsman, to disavow such a recently held stance. But to where to move one's stake?

Gingrich is an expert at flip-flopping on this issue. He has decided to go fully know-nothing and dispute the science.

Romney is well-known for repositioning himself, and he has put himself into the solidly into the know-nothing camp, though more literally "know-nothing". Rather than trying to challenge climate science directly by claiming he knows better than the scientists he simply ignores all the scientists with an "I don't know" view. If only there were experts from states Romney holds dear like Massachusetts or Michigan where he could become a little educated on the science.

Pawlenty has gone the "so sorry" route with regard to policy actions. Though not as confrontational and dismissive as Gingrich, Pawlenty claims that while warming is real, human influence on climate is negligible.

Such shifts to being know-nothings (or you might say wannabe know-betters) are not so surprising if you figure these are shameless politicians aiming to ingratiate themselves to ignorant but loud elements of their party. Somewhat interesting though are those who veer only into do-nothingism.

Huntsman has already shown that he may not make his political career a race to the right with his couple years as Ambassador to China in the Obama administration. Despite opposing action, he has rejected the science denial and attacking of the experts in the field.

New Jersey governor Chris Christie has put himself in basically in the same position as Huntsman by saying he accepts the fundamental facts humans are altering the climate, though his lip service to needing to do something about it is belied by his plan to withdraw his state from the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative. But despite going the wrong way on policy, Christie is a rare example of a Republican leader becoming more correct on the science. Not long ago Christie had been one of the know-nothings saying he just could not figure it out. Not sure how he came to recognize and accept the broad consensus from the experts on the science, but I will take it as a positive sign.

My hope is that some Republicans keeping attached to reality can help get the larger part of the party back in that direction and that the tension of accepting a problem and not working toward any serious solution cannot hold. That first part is just a matter of time - climate change simply will not be something that can be ignored forever, though it might be long enough to dig us into a massive hole. The second part though sounds pie-in-the-sky. You can see from the deficit/debt issue, from among many, that a big problem does not mean a meaningful effort toward a solution is imminent. And many Democrats (like those at least recently of North Dakota) have readily claimed acceptance of the science while throwing roadblocks in the way of action. But there is no way there would be action if the majority of our leadership has their heads in the sand.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

The Non-Missing Link

It was satisfying today to see in the Herald the front page, starting-above-the-fold news article about the connection between extreme weather and climate change (non-local link). It was dry and appropriately restrained, just as would be expected from something that is basically a summary of research and comments from climate scientists.

The main point is that "global warming" also means many places also see a tilting of the odds toward making extreme weather more likely.

It is good to see this presented because many will try to shoot down any connection between climate change and extreme weather with a simplistic claim that since there has always been extreme weather that climate change cannot be influencing its occurrence. The same sorts of people use the same incorrect logic attempting to dispute that humans are influencing climate now because climate has always changed naturally. Founder of Bill McKibben recently sarcastically attacked dismissal of climate change impacting weather.

Suppose you have a casino full of slot machines and someone goes in and tweaks the software to affect the payout frequency. Of course you cannot look at any single jackpot earned by some player and call that a direct result of that meddling - after all there were jackpots it. But just like it is "irresponsible not to mention climate change" when referencing extreme weather events, because of how the background state is being altered you cannot simply ignore the software rewrite when considering jackpots and collective payouts.

I think a lot people have gotten a pretty good understanding (or at least acceptance) of how El Nino and La Nina can drive a tendency toward seasonal weather leaning one way or another, like this region tends to be cooler and likely wetter during a La Nina winter such as 2010-2011.

The same principles of the weather being influenced, though not controlled or overwhelmingly dominated, apply with climate change. It makes sense then that people would similarly be able understand how climate change impacts (and will increasingly impact) the likelihood of extreme weather events.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

It is the best of times, it is the best of times

Today the Herald gave us another op-ed page entry lavishing praise on the fossil fuel industry and stating how absolutely essential it is to our economy and lives, which I believe is the accepted order for those priorities. It is hard to remember distinctions between these columns and letters as the continuous stream tends to all run together.

This one though did make the case that coal=good and renewable=bad because satellite pictures of coal power plants have around them parking lots with cars while wind turbines do not. Who can argue with that logic? How could you argue it - by noting the facts that there are more wind industry jobs than coal mining jobs and that only about 60,000 Americans (1 per 5000) working in coal power plant jobs? Then you would just open the door to the pivot that few jobs in coal is good because that helps keep it cheap, cheap, cheap as is so important.

Anyway, ordinarily such a letter would not so much register. But the next letter was another lamentation on the federal debt "asteroid" that faces the economy with an "extinction-level event". And this on the day of the latest Harold Camping Rapture prediction!

Since the world has not ended today, I decided this is the best time to be alive, so we should all soak it up, gloat, and relish it.

How can I conclude that? Easily. We can dismiss the past as a preferable time to live because obviously it is awful, at least up to the "good ol' days" we can remember, whenever those were.

Backward is worse, so what about forward in time? Society is utterly dependent on a foundation of energy from fossil fuels, as so many commentators have insisted. Since that foundation will only last another few decades to few decades plus a century, any time beyond that will be terrible.

I know that virtually half the American political spectrum simply reflexively disregards climate science, but indeed human activities are driving climate change, and this will have negative results.

The debt problem can be considered an anti-problem, i.e., a good thing for us. Think about it - we are living beyond our means, which equals benefit. Taking more than we deserve is good for us, right? Free money. Despite the gnashing of teeth and wailing about how big a problem it is, who thinks we are actually going to do anything serious about the debt? Blowing off climate science correlates very highly with refusal to even consider increasing revenue through any higher tax rates. Then on the other hand, what would end up getting cut to balance the ledger? Quite simply, there is no good reason to expect we are actually going to pay the deficit spending piper. So win-win!

Since we are not going to divert that debt asteroid, it might end up hitting us. But that will be later! It is the same story with the double-doozy of no longer having cheap fossil fuels and dealing with the environmental disruption from all the earlier burning of them. Sure, you can say it is already starting to hit the fan with oil prices and warming we have already seen. But, it is not going to get really bad until the future.

We are in the sweet spot right now. In a world of "I got mine", we are set here in 2011. Let the poor saps in 2111 pull themselves up by their bootstraps and solve whatever problems they may face if they can no longer sweep them under the rug. If they wanted things better they should have been smarter, worked harder, or whatever to be alive now.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Bow Lower

The past week or so the Herald has featured some op-ed writings about a particular flavor of coal pollution. On May 7, Terrence Kardong of the Dakota Resource Council (DRC) defended EPA air quality standards. Two days ago the DRC had a column basically saying North Dakota should begin shifting energy generation away from coal and toward renewable sources. Again, the selling point used was air quality.

Yesterday, Perrie Schafer came riding in to the defense of the coal industry in response to the earlier letter. The defense is that the industry is spending and making efforts to meet air standards, that "North Dakota’s air is clean and getting cleaner", and critically that we should simply be more appreciative of coal and the coal industry. Schafer says,
[t]he state needs to stand up for an industry that is responsible for more than 20,000 good-paying jobs and more than $90 million in state tax revenue every year — and keeps the lights on.

I can pick out a items that fit as warning signs of abusive relationships. But please do not tell the coal industry that - they might, I mean, I might fall down the stairs or walk into a door.

This issue has been festering (as many do), and air quality is bubbling up in North Dakota recently. But note to what this particular back-and-forth on air quality does not refer. Air quality and respiratory health is only a sliver of the coal pollution issues pie.

You could stretch and say they are covering acid rain (warning: cap-and-trade at work!). Mercury is not covered. Arsenic and heavy metals are not covered. And of course the billions of tons gorilla in the corner (and everywhere else in the atmosphere) is greenhouse gas emissions. Even never-will-be-achieved "clean" coal burning that eliminated NOx, SO2, mercury, arsenic, heavy metals, and particulates is still grossly polluting by dumping massive amounts of climate-altering and ocean-acidifying CO2 into the atmosphere.

Yet for the likes of Schafer we should be more often kissing the dirty feet of the coal industry in appreciation for how they "keep the lights on" for cheap, even though it is punting the future off a cliff.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

This week in overturning the paradigm

This week in overturning the paradigm

Here are the headlines associated with several links that came back from doing a search related to a newly released study...

"Study Shows Salty Diet Good; Heart Group Disagrees"

"Low-Salt Diets Reduce Heart Disease Risk, Right? A Study Disagrees"

"New Study Questions Whether We Should All Be Ducking Salt"

"Controversial new study suggests low-salt diet increases risk of death"

"Health Buzz: Eating Less Salt May Not Help Heart Health"

"Sodium won't kill you? Scientists shake up what we know about salt"

"Low-sodium diet may not be helpful, study suggests"

There is a range there from hinting that sodium intake is not much of a health factor to suggestion more salt is better such that reading all of them one could easily think they do not all refer to the same single study. Across the board there is a sign of conflict. Keep that in mind. Let us go a little more in depth on this conflict with this article from WebMD.

In summary, in this new study "[p]eople with the highest sodium levels had a significantly lower risk of dying from heart disease than did people with the lowest sodium levels."

Those in the business of selling salt applaud and are ready to call this the whole story. "Predictably, [American Heart Association] guidelines ... drew fire from the Salt Institute, the trade group representing the salt industry. The group has been quick to herald the European findings. 'We now know conclusively that the U.S. government's war on salt consumption will cause harm,' Lori Roman, president of the Salt Institute, says in a news release."

Ralph L. Sacco, MD, president of the American Heart Association and chairman of the neurology department at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine, responds by rattling off multiple issues with this new study itself as well as noting that the conventional wisdom calling for limited salt intake is well-established.

In the end, what will many of the casual browsers who came across this news take away from? I can hear the voices talking about how they read that more salt is good for you.

There very well might be something to this new study that will hold up to time and further investigation and is contrary to the conventional wisdom. But this one study does not "shake up what we know about salt" as one of the above-noted links said so cleverly (salt shaker, shake, get it?).

What though is likely to spark interest and catch eyes? Conflict. Disagreement. Saying that what we thought we knew is wrong and something else is true. So things carrying the whiff of that get sold by the supposedly neutral media, to say nothing of the Salt Institutes of the world that are looking for benefit from overturning the paradigm.

There can be many headlines like, "More research shows low-sodium diet good for you" that barely cause a ripple while a single headline suggestive of more salt being better can receive a massive push and cause waves. That happens regularly with climate science. Study after study build and tweak our knowledge and understanding fully consistent with anthropogenic climate change being quite real. A few make the general headlines, but most do not. Yet the rare item even hinting at fundamental (or sometimes even marginal) disagreement is picked up and trumpeted by those who so wish that climate change is no concern.

It can actually be funny when that frenzy leads to misinterpretation and an own-goal. Last year the retraction of a paper studying sea level rise was celebrated by some as meaning the rise was not occurring. Actually the retraction was because of problems with the paper such that the lower numbers cited in it were not actually supported, and the evidence was actually consistent with previous work that pointed to more sea level rise that the low end the paper suggested.

Just remember, a study can safely always be assumed to not overturn our understanding. That is true regardless of the direction it supposedly flips things. We have compiled a lot of evidence putting the Charney sensitivity around 5 degrees Fahrenheit. Something new out of the blue saying it is either 1F or 10F should be viewed skeptically. Follow the full weight of all the evidence, not just that latest new thing.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Peaking out of the fishbowl

We got a bit of snow this past weekend, and while out and about I caught a snippet of conversation referencing the snow and mentioning global warming. I will say that discussion did not exactly involve the perhaps expected questioning that constantly pops up of how there can be heavy/early/late/whatever snow if there is supposed to be global warming. What the people exactly were saying is not really important, but as someone who is relatively knowledgeable about weather and climate what was striking was how unknowledgeable these ordinary people that I overheard were.

I am obligated to give my standard note about ignorance. There is nothing wrong with ignorance of a subject per se. Problems come from certain sorts of responses - disregard of what is known about and those who are expert on the subject, filling the knowledge gap with demonstrably false information and ignoring correction, etc.

It is easy to get a little isolated at times and forget the minimal knowledge of most people when it comes to climate science. Thus it is important to remember to highlight "the big picture", as at Skeptical Science - because of human activities the Earth is warming and will continue to warm with net negative results.

Not sure how best to do so, but I think ground can be gained with many of the people who have a major dearth of knowledge related to weather and climate. There is probably not some single way. Some may respond to the simple authoritative statements like in the paragraph above, some may respond to certain details such as the basic physics, etc.

That malleable group though may be rather small at very least in the US because of the politicization of the issue of climate change here. The Republican party has virtually made denial of climate science a litmus test, and partisans tend to follow the stances of their leaders. Yet the higher the education level among Republicans the greater the tendency to deny the science. There are interesting ideas to explain this like that "more educated" Republicans are more detached from the science and more politically polarized and that they are more likely to come into contrarian garbage that can be believed to disprove climate change. On the flip side of the coin at least there are many on left who do accept the science even though they are clueless about it. The correct thing for the correct reason is best, but the correct thing is an acceptable runner-up.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Green scapegoating

It has been several weeks, but an asburd letter to the editor by Harvey Tallackson (link from Bismarck Tribune, with a subsequent reply) illustrated the dangers when people believe the unsubstantiated views of extremists on environmental issues. But the worrisome extremists are actually those serving up the short-sighted and self-serving rhetoric opposing sensible regulation intended to avert the trashing of our world and crimping of the future in pursuit of the quick buck for today. Tallackson is another who has drunk the corporate kool aid that protecting the environment equates to destroying the economy. Of course that is ludicrous at face value, but also the idea we are doing much to protect the environment is not accurate.

The extremists are the groups like the National Association of Manufacturers, the American Enterprise Institute, Americans for Tax Reform, the Institute for Energy Research, and politicians of many stripes (though mainly Republicans who now seemingly have such belief as a litmus test) including Mitch McConnell who all simply dismiss efforts to rein in climate-altering carbon pollution by declaring it will "destroy" jobs and increase costs.

As much as I despise even linking to such hollow "arguments", I want to show how automatic, brain-dead, and from-everywhere the claims are. Any action attempting to head off the cost and suffering of climate change is dismissed with a handwave and some combination of a label of tax and claims of job losses and freedom taking.

To be abundantly clear, continuing to do nothing about climate change will destroy livelihoods and is a tax on the future. If you want to protect people's well-being, you must protect our home. And that does not mean protecting the right to use the environment as an unlimited dumping ground for pollution.

The Clean Air Act has a history of benefits far outweighing costs. Dealing with ozone depletion at the government level spurred technological advancement that limited the costs of action. A "cap and trade" mechanism has proven effective in addressing the problem of acid rain in North America. Climate change is a larger problem, yet that makes it even more exasperating that even the most meager efforts against it are demonized.

Of course many people can still dismiss anything like ozone depletion, acid rain, and climate change as something from scam, hoax, to complete non-issue in order because of the psychological block against any role for government in maintaining livability. Strange though where that opposition stops. If we have to pinch every penny no matter the ultimate cost to the environment and thus us a later, why not oppose schools and even construction of buildings - are those things not similar wastes of money that could be put to better use (or pockets) rather than in such "investments" for the "future"?