Tag Archives: climate change

Chicago invests in resilient ecological infrastructure

Leslie Kaufman in the New York Times has a good article, A City Prepares for a Warm Long-Term Forecast, that reviews Chicago’s efforts to improve its ecological infrastructure. The article describes the city’s approach to climate change adaptation:

As a first step, the city wanted to model how global warming might play out locally. …  the scientists said, Chicago would have summers like the Deep South, with as many as 72 days over 90 degrees before the end of the century. For most of the 20th century, the city averaged fewer than 15. By 2070, Chicago could expect 35 percent more precipitation in winter and spring, but 20 percent less in summer and fall. By then, the conditions would have changed enough to make the area’s plant hardiness zone akin to Birmingham, Ala. But what would that mean in real-life consequences?

A private risk assessment firm was hired, and the resulting report read like an urban disaster film minus Godzilla. The city could see heat-related deaths reaching 1,200 a year. The increasing occurrences of freezes and thaws (the root of potholes) would cause billions of dollars’ worth of deterioration to building facades, bridges and roads. Termites, never previously able to withstand Chicago’s winters, would start gorging on wooden frames. Armed with the forecasts, the city prioritized which adaptations would save the most money and would be the most feasible in the light of tight budgets and public skepticism.

… Much of Chicago’s adaptation work is about transforming paved spaces. “Cities are hard spaces that trap water and heat,” said Janet L. Attarian, a director of streetscapes at the city’s Department of Transportation. “Alleys and streets account for 25 percent of groundcover, and closer to 40 percent when parking lots are included.” The city’s 13,000 concrete alleyways were originally built without drainage and are a nightmare every time it rains. Storm water pours off the hard surfaces and routinely floods basements and renders low-lying roads and underpasses unusable.

To make matters worse, many of the pipes that handle storm overflow also handle raw sewage. After a very heavy rain, if overflow pipes become congested, sewage backs up into basements or is released with the rainwater into the Chicago River — … As the region warms, Chicago is expecting more frequent and extreme storms. In the last three years, the city has had two intense storms classified as 100-year events.

So the work planned for a six-point intersection on the South Side with flooding and other issues is a prototype. The sidewalk in front of the high school on Cermak Road has been widened to include planting areas that are lower than the street surface. This not only encourages more pedestrian traffic, but also provides shade and landscaping. These will be filled with drought-resistant plants like butterfly weed and spartina grasses that sponge up excess water and help filter pollutants like de-icing salts. In some places, unabsorbed water will seep into storage tanks beneath the streets so it can be used later for watering plants or in new decorative fountains in front of the high school. The bike lanes and parking spaces being added along the street are covered with permeable pavers, a weave of pavement that allows 80 percent of rainwater to filter through it to the ground below. Already 150 alleyways have been remade in this way.

… Awareness of climate change has filled Chicago city planners with deep concern for the trees. Not only are they beautiful, said Ms. Malec-McKenna, herself trained as a horticulturalist, but their shade also provides immediate relief to urban heat islands. Trees improve air quality by absorbing carbon dioxide, and their leaves can keep 20 percent of an average rain from hitting the pavement. Chicago spends over $10 million a year planting roughly 2,200 trees. From 1991 to 2008, the city added so many that officials estimate tree cover increased to 17.6 percent from 11 percent. The goal is to exceed 23 percent this decade.

The problem is that for trees to reach their expected lifespan — up to 90 years — they have to be able to endure hotter conditions. Chicago has already changed from one growing zone to another in the last 30 years, and it expects to change several times again by 2070. Knowing this, planners asked experts at the city’s botanical garden and Morton Arboretum to evaluate their planting list. They were told to remove six of the most common tree species. Off came the ash trees that account for 17 percent of Chicago tree cover, or more than any other tree. … So Chicago is turning to swamp white oaks and bald cypress. It is like the rest of adaptation strategy, Ms. Malec-McKenna explains: “A constant ongoing process to make sure we are as resilient as we can be in facing the future.”

On Dot Earth Andrew Revkin follows up with links to his description of Seoul and other cities that have substantially improved their ecological infrastructure.

Information and communication technologies in the Anthropocene

UPDATED: Slides from the talks at the end of this blogpost

The use of social media for political mobilization during the political uprisings in Northern Africa and the Middle East during 2010 and 2011; digital coordination of climate skeptic networks during “Climategate” in 2010; and the repercussions of hackers in carbon markets the last years. These are all examples of intriguing phenomena that take place at the interface between rapid information technological change, and the emergence of globally spanning virtual networks.

Exactly how information and communication technologies affect the behavior of actors at multiple scales, is of course widely debated. The question is: how do we make sense of these changes, from a wider resilience perspective?

Some of these discussions took place at the 2011 Resilience conference in Arizona in a panel convened by us at the Stockholm Resilience Centre, and with generous support from the International Development Research Centre (IDRC, Canada). Ola Tjornbo from Social Innovation Generation (SIG) at the University of Waterloo, explored some of the opportunites, but also profound challenges, related in trying to design effective virtual deliberation processes. Ola noted that while several success stories related to crowd-sourcing (Wikipedia) and collective intelligence (e.g. Polymath) do exist, we have surprisingly little systematic knowledge of how to design digital decision-making processes that help overcome conflicts of interest related to issues of sustainability. Some if these issues are elaborated by SiG, and you can find videos from an interesting panel on “Open Source Democracy” here.

Richard Taylor from SEI-Oxford presented a rapidly evolving platform for integration and dissemination of knowledge on climate adaptation – weADAPT. This platform combines the strengths of a growing community of climate adaptation experts, a database of ongoing local climate adaptation projects, semantic web technologies, and a Google Earth interface. The visualizations are stunning, and provide and interesting example of how ICTs can be used for scientific communication.

Angelica Ospina from the Centre of Development Informatics at the University of Manchester, showcased some ongoing work on mobile technologies and climate adaptation resilience. As Ospina noted, ICTs can provide some very tangible support for various features of resilience, ranging from self-organization, to learning and flexibility. You can find a working paper  by Angelica here.

To summarize: three very different yet complementary perspectives on how ICTs could be harnessed in the Anthropocene: by building new types of virtually supported decision making and collective intelligence processes; linking expert communities and local natural resource management experimentation together; and by exploring the resilience building strengths of decentralized mobile technologies.

Slides from the talks

Victor Galaz (intro)

Ola Tjornbo

Richard Taylor

Controversies around the Social Cost of Carbon

What is the social cost of carbon? That is,the monetary value of the long-term damages done by greenhouse gas emissions? Frank Ackerman from the Stockholm Environment Institute U.S. Center, recently gave a fascinating talk at the Stockholm Resilience Centre where he presented the widely used FUND-model, an integrated assessment model of climate change that links climate change science with economics. According to Ackerman, the interesting aspect with this model is not only that it is commonly cited by policy-makers in the US, but also that some of its basic assumptions, lead to quite bizarre results. The policy implications can not be overestimated.

As Ackerman notes in the TripleCrisis blog:

True or false: Risks of a climate catastrophe can be ignored, even as temperatures rise? The economic impact of climate change is no greater than the increased cost of air conditioning in a warmer future? The ideal temperature for agriculture could be 17oC above historical levels?

All true, according to the increasingly popular FUND model of climate economics. It is one of three models used by the federal government’s Interagency Working Group to estimate the “social cost of carbon” – that is, the monetary value of the long-term damages done by greenhouse gas emissions. According to FUND, as used by the Working Group, the social cost of carbon is a mere $6 per ton of CO2. That translates into $0.06 per gallon of gasoline. Do you believe that a tax of $0.06 per gallon at the gas pump (and equivalent taxes on other fossil fuels) would solve the climate problem and pay for all future climate damages?

I didn’t believe it, either. But the FUND model is growing in acceptance as a standard for evaluation of climate economics. To explain the model’s apparent dismissal of potential harm, I undertook a study of the inner workings of FUND (with the help of an expert in the relevant software language) for E3 Network. Having looked under the hood, I’d say the model needs to be towed back to the shop for a major overhaul.

A working paper that teases the critique in detail can be found here. To summarize the conclusions for non-economists: the social cost of carbon is way higher than $6 per ton of CO2….

Resilience and Life in the Arctic

On Thursday, March 10, 2011, the Resilience Alliance Board voted to accept Eddy Carmack as the new Program Research Director. Eddy is a climate oceanographer studying water and people from oceans to estuaries as scientific lead for the Canada’s Three Oceans monitoring program in the Arctic and Subarctic; he is retiring in 2011.  He invented something extraordinary – a Philosopher’s Cruise on the Canadian icebreaker Louis St. Laurent as it journeyed through the North West Passage while monitoring data were collected. It was like the meetings on islands that the Resilience Alliance delights in.  It brought scientists form different disciplines, from the polar climate change community, philosophers, senior leaders in the Canadian government, Dene from the Canadian Senate, aboriginal and other young people, policy advisors to governments, business people from communications and people from the Resilience Alliance.  We lectured and talked, and discovered new steps. I describe my discoveries and one new step here. – CSH

Is the Arctic about to flip into a new state as a consequence of climate change?   It is certainly the first region of the world where climate change has so clearly demonstrated its early impacts. But it is also the place where political transformations have opened the opportunity for leaders and citizens to address economic, social and ecological changes. Such flips are an inevitable potential in any living system. They are rare but dramatic, and potentially transforming.  One of the steps that can now be made is to join the international science monitoring effort with a community based one.

How We Grow, How We Die, How We Transform

The Arctic is no different from any system of life. Every living system, at some stage, grows: a baby, a neighborhood, a company, a town, a forest, a grassland, a nation, a global set of biophysical and human processes, During the early phase, growth is dominated by entrepreneurial processes.  Early growth in a temperate forest, for example, sees saplings beginning to grow on a landscape during a period when entrepreneurial, pioneer species and physical forces dominate.  The system then continues to develop during an intermediate period with more diverse interacting species, leading to a period where a mature forest of a few species emerges that captures and stores the capital that has been accumulated.

But also, nearing the culmination of this first phase of growth and accumulation, resilience gradually decreases, new invaders are progressively resisted, and the system becomes locally stable but rigid, less resilient, with little latitude for innovation or for adapting to surprise. For example, the 800 year old trees of the Cathedral Grove in the Vancouver Island temperate rain forest stun the mind and entrance the spirit.  But its delights as a mature, temperate rain forest, immense and still, but singing with its small bits, also poise it on a sensitive edge of collapse. Remember the great windstorm of January 1997 that felled a number of giants? As a mature forest, it had become, and the survivors continue to be, an accident waiting to happen.  In other forests, the accident might be a fire, a windstorm or an insect or disease outbreak.

When collapse is triggered, then reorganization and renewal follows.  That is when power lays in the hands of the individual- plant, animal, person or small group. They can launch experiments, some of which can survive to determine the future. This is when resilience expands and where surprise and novelty can suddenly appear. The collapse is a kind of Schumpeterian creative destruction: certainly destructive, but much more interesting, also creative because it releases new opportunity that earlier was smothered. That might lead to the return of the original cycle from the memory of the old established by their seeds and saplings. Or more intriguingly, novelty might emerge as invasive species establish unexpected synergies with native species that fruitfully nucleate a new system, a new cycle.

That full cycle is what we call the Adaptive Cycle, one where there is a “front-loop” of growth, followed by a “back loop” of collapse and reorganization (see: Holling, C.S. and Lance H. Gunderson. 2002).

In terrestrial ecological systems, change during the front loop is incremental and learning is gradual and applied. It is essentially predictable.  In contrast, during the back loop, disorganization reigns, constraints are removed and probabilistic events can begin to emerge and synergize to nucleate the beginning of a new pathway. That back loop is faster in natural ecological systems than the front loop. It is the time when the individual – species or person- has the greatest potential influence. Learning can be dramatic, but it is chaotic and there are extensive unknowns.  The back loop is inherently unpredictable.

The front loop is a period of increasing efficiency, the back loop a period of reemerging resilience.


At times, the memory of the old system can be subverted by larger changes that, at a larger scale of cycles, have set new conditions that can flip biospheres into new states at smaller scales.  Going up and down such scales is what Panarchy adds to the Adaptive Cycle (see: Holling, C.S., Gunderson, L. H. and G.D. Peterson, 2002)

Global climate change did that 11,000 years ago, and established the conditions for new biospheres.  For example, much of Florida, and I would guess, Cedar Key, where we used to live, earlier was dry oak and grass savannas since so much of the water of the world was still trapped in ice sheets.  Shorelines were many kilometers from their present location, and the present Everglades were semi-arid lands.

Similarly, the southern edge of the present Boreal Forest was a mixed oak and beech savanna, waiting for the ice sheets to retreat and for the appearance of new species from the south that gradually, in a sequence of adaptive cycles, established the present interacting mix of spruce and fir, jack-pine, alders and birch.

When our view of the scale of a system in space and in time is expanded in this manner, new ranges of scale are perceived where ecosystems become seen as transient assemblages, that for a time- long for people, short for evolving systems- maintain persistent associations of species and local climate, to be ultimately replaced by new conditions that have emerged at a larger scale. Regional or global changes in climate intrude, and ultimately the earlier association breaks down to evolve to another.

Inside vs. Outside the System

Time and space scales in the boreal forest (from Peterson et al 1998. Ecosystems)

I have written this to this point inferring an Olympian view from inside the system, where we perceive with equal precision small and big elements, fast and slow ones and all in between. The fast cycling of leaves are perceived as precisely, with as much detail as the very slow millennial scale cycling of bioregions. The first occurs in days and months, and the other in centuries and hundreds of kilometers.  But standing outside the full system, in real life, we humans see partial chunks of that full spectrum. We perceive and live in a reduced scale range.  Some elements have a speed that are seen and reacted to immediately, some are slower and are seen roughly and periodically.  For long periods, as the slow elements on the inside change, that change is invisible to us on the outside.

Hence, within our constrained, but swinging rhythm, for long periods we see and act on principally the fast variables.  Changes in them dominate our actions, management and policies.  Think of the recent financial crisis that precipitated a global surge of surprise and the unknown in 2008/2009. That emerged because our society had slowly evolved a global economy based on a front loop concentration on fast investments through reduced financial regulation and monitoring and on extending globally.  Removing controls on an imaginary market was seen as allowing the market to solve any unexpected deviations without explicit attention.  Big instabilities could be forgotten. That is as much of a joke of limited economic theory as it is of myopic vision.

This focus on fast economic variables led to an emphasis on efficiency but also to the emergence of slowly increasing, hidden forces caused by diversified, subdivided and fragmented investments.  No one knew where they were, or what they cost. That eventually triggered a collapse that exposed the reality that slow, invisible changes had decreased the resilience of the world economy.  Globalization spread the collapse.  What was presumed to be efficient began to be realized as being myopic.

The Planet First, The People Next

Now that process is happening to biophysical elements, not just economic ones.  Humans have become a global force by also slowly increasing green house gas emissions, modifying the landscape and transforming the hydrosphere. We are, perhaps, at the beginning of the impact of those slow changes as climate warms because of human influences. Humans have become a global force. We are at the time of a large scale back loop when the individual – species or person- has the greatest potential influence. It is the global time when small is beautiful and local experiment most useful. Learning is chaotic and there are extensive unknowns.  The back loop, recall, is inherently unpredictable.

That is particularly evident in the Arctic now as we see the floating ice sheets dramatically contract and glaciers melt. Over the past decade, radar satellite imagery shows that the ice sheets on the Arctic Ocean have shrunk to 2/3 of their original extent and thickness. It is simply astonishing that the thickness can be measured within a few centimeters from space!

The image of change described earlier shows adaptive cycles arranged in structures across scales. This equally applies to a different set of ecological and physical processes at the top of the world, in the Arctic region.

In one orientation of a map of the top of the world, sitting on the pole, scanning the world above the Arctic Circle, we see Alaska at the top left, Canada on the left side, Greenland and Iceland on left bottom, Norway, Sweden, and Finland on the right bottom and Russia sprawling throughout the right side to the top.  Those nations represent the Arctic Council of eight nations. This is indeed a view from the top of the world.

The Arctic Ocean dominates the center of the map, while Northern Alaska, the Canadian Arctic archipelago and Greenland fringe the left side.  This is the region where the North West Passage was imagined in its alternate routes. This is a region, at smaller scales, of ocean passages, changing ocean currents, productive biotic hotspots, and Inuit communities with polar bears, beluga whales, seals and Arctic fox both at the top of the world and the top of the food network or chain. Even the subsurface topography is only crudely known as are the biotic interactions and the water chemistry.  The Beaufort Sea is now freshening as melt water creates the largest collection of fresh water in the world. The area is the focus of the International Polar Year (IPY) and, more specifically of Canada’s contribution: The Canada’s Three Oceans (C3O) project, led by Eddy Carmac (Carmac and Mclaughlin. 2011).

That project is dedicated to monitoring the Arctic from the northern Pacific through the Arctic into the northern Atlantic. Physical, chemical and biological attributes are sampled along a trajectory that can ultimately reveal, when repeated, the changes that occur as regional temperature increases.  Melting of floating ice sheets, increases in water acidity, and hints of impacts on some species in the trophic network are already evident.  The most obvious hints come from speculation concerning polar bears as they hunt for food on diminishing ice sheets.  But there are also hints from suspicions about planktonic species. Fish resources are likely to respond, and the knowledge needed to mange them is weak.

These observations reinforce the steps now underway to collect the kind of data, test speculations and develop models that are essential as change progresses on the top of the world.  The possibility of flips of ecological systems is very real, with surprises emerging that will have positive and negative consequences from a human perspective.  There are existing examples on land as permafrost melts; more will appear in the oceans.

The economic consequences for access to new fossil fuel sources and for ship movement through the Arctic are increasingly raising social, ecological and political issues that challenge and invite a cooperative regime of governance among the nations of the north. Perhaps Norway’s experience as one of the eight Arctic nations can help.  They have dealt with their own oil development in a way that recognizes present and future social needs. Perhaps those lessons are transferable to other Arctic nations.  At the moment, however, individual nations tend to launch competitive national initiatives to establish sovereignty, in preparation for international negotiations.

Next the People

These clear changes in the impacts of climate change suggest a need to expand national efforts to moderate climate change from present  international steps limiting greenhouse gas emissions, to new regional steps to adapt to existing and expected effects of changes in climate (for example, see Visbeck, 2008). Active Adaptive Management then becomes a priority, and the north the place to initiate and test the steps. Scientists, stakeholders and citizens are an integral part of the approach that has evolved. In the Arctic new scientific, social and political forces can combine for mutual benefit as an initiative leading to international action.

The polar program is therefore more than natural science. It is politics, history and social science as well.  Preeminently, the Inuit will be profoundly affected.

Historically, it is hard to imagine a more adaptive culture than that of the Inuit who lived on ice and land in the Arctic, prior to the appearance of Europeans. The Inuit and others hunted and lived over 4 000 years in ecological edges and hotspots, shifting away when climate became colder, back again when it got warmer.  Throughout, they adapted inventively for blunt survival.

The appearance of Europeans launched one transformation of these societies. Conversation now with those who live in and know the north feature telling stories of the isolating, shattering Residential Schools, of forced movement of Inuit groups torn from northern Quebec forests to Arctic deserts. The Churches, RCMP, and the government were blind, locked in their own paradigm of conquest and dominance. These are examples from our past that now are seen as representing beautifully intentioned narrowness and overwhelming ignorance (McGrath 2008).

Since then, the Inuit have experienced both crises and opportunities whose effects are barely grasped as settlements increasingly detach people and parts of their culture from the land and seascape.

The Arctic is now on the edge of a new sudden flip into a new regime caused by climatic, global economic and social causes. The Inuit’s adaptive capacity is one element that could help invent elements for the transition. Recent changes in political structures in northern Canada, Alaska and in Greenland open the opportunities. In addition, the best of integrative science at the scales now examined in Polar Studies is the other.  Extending the work of the International Polar Year and of the Three Canadian Oceans’ Project is therefore a prime opportunity.

A fundamental step for that extension is to join a new social initiative with existing scientific ones.  That could be done in a program that developed a consortium of local communities to monitor the physical, biological and social changes on land and at sea, using small vessels or snow machines owned by each community.

An early example of such a program is provided by Carmack and Macdonald (2008) who describe examples of indigenous knowledge and western science combining to give deeper insight than either alone. That local monitoring can combine to provide data and understanding at a next larger scale. And that in turn would combine with the IPY and 3CO programs for a full Arctic and costal assessment.

The Panarchy would be bridged and its different speeds perceived.  People would combine their talents, different experiences and histories as a stage for policy responses globally and regionally and for living locally.

That sounds nice, but how will we get people from eight different nations to cooperate, and have their governments act accordingly and not with selfish greed for resources?

Such an initiative would have its own local economic benefit as residents used their community vessel for other activities as well.  It would, for example, connect to the existing Canadian Rangers program, an existing network of local peoples with extraordinary skills in living on the land. There is deep knowledge of ecosystems and environment in every community of the Arctic and of the Pacific coast, knowledge drawn from the history and present experiences of the Inuit and First Nations. This new project would open a new direction to build on the deep identities indigenous peoples have slowly evolved in their earlier worlds. It could begin small and expand as naturally appropriate.

Imagine the potential for the Inuit kid or the young Haida native to develop the knowledge that can link his elders knowledge, with modern science, and economically viable harvesting, across scales.  A member of a true regional and global citizenship, who could recapture a disappearing identity.


Carmack, Eddy and Fiona McLaughlin. 2011. Towards recognition of physical and geochemical change in Subarctic and Arctic Seas. Progress in Oceanography. in press. (doi:10.1016/j.pocean.2011.02.007)

Carmack, Eddy and Robie Macdonald. 2008.  Water and ice-related phenomena in the Costal Region of the Beaufort Sea: Some parallels between native experience and western science. Arctic 61(3): 1-16.

Gunderson, L.H and Holling, C.S (eds) Panarchy: Understanding transformations in Human and Natural Systems . Island Press, Washington and London.

Holling, C. S., L.H. Gunderson and G.D. Peterson. 2002. Sustainability and Panarchies. In. Gunderson, L.H and Holling, C.S (eds) Panarchy: Understanding transformations in Human and Natural Systems . Island Press, Washington and London, Chapter 3, 63-102.

McGrath, M. 2006. The Long Exile. Alfred A. Knopf, Nerw York, 268 pp.

Visbeck, M. 2008. From climate assessment to climate services. Nature Geosciences, 1, 2-3. doi:10.1038/ngeo.2007.55

Does an increased awareness of catastrophic “tipping points”, really trigger political action?

This critical question relates to a suite of resilience related research fields, ranging from early warnings of catastrophic shifts in ecosystems, non-linear planetary boundaries, and the role of perceived crisis as triggers of transformations towards more adaptive forms of ecosystem governance.

The answer might seem quite straight-forward: “yes!”. Why wouldn’t political actors try to steer away from potentially devastating tipping points? Political philosopher Stephen M. Gardiner elaborates the opposite position in a very thought-provoking article in the Journal of Social Philosophy (2009) about the moral implications of abrupt climate change.

Planetary Boundaries

Planetary Boundaries

According to Gardiner, several economical, psychological and intergenerational dilemmas make it likely that an increased awareness of devastating “tipping points”, undermine political actors’ work towards effective climate change mitigation. Instead, it induces them to focus on adaptation measures, and involve in what Gardiner denotes an “Intergenerational Arms Race”.

Suppose, for example, that a given generation knew that it would be hit with a catastrophic abrupt change no matter what it did. Might it not be inclined to fatalism? If so, then the temporal proximity of abrupt change would actually enhance political inertia, rather than undercut it. (Why bother?)

In addition, according to Gardiner, in facing abrupt climate change, there will be other more urgent concerns than climate change mitigation, again creating greater risks for future generations.

[T]he proximity of the abrupt change may actually provide an incentive for increasing current emissions above the amount that even a completely self-interested generation would normally choose. What I have in mind is this. Suppose that a generation could increase its own ability to cope with an impending abrupt change by increasing its emissions beyond their existing level. (For example, suppose that it could boost economic output to enhance adaptation efforts by relaxing existing emissions standards.) Then, it would have a generation-relative reason to do so, and it would have this even if the net costs of the additional emissions to future generations far exceed the short-term benefits. Given this, it is conceivable that the impending presence of a given abrupt change may actually exacerbate the PIBP “the problem of intergenerational buck passing”], leaving future generations worse off than under the gradualist paradigm.

So what are the ways to get out of this dilemma? Gardiner suggests:

In my view, if we are to solve this problem, we will need to look beyond people’s generation-relative preferences. Moreover, the prevalence of the intergenerational problem suggests that one set of motivations that we need to think hard about engaging is those connected to moral beliefs about our obligations to those only recently, or not yet, born. This leaves us with one final question. Can the abrupt paradigm assist us in this last task? Perhaps so: for one intriguing possibility is that abrupt change will help us to engage intergenerational motivations.

(Thanks to Simon Birnbaum for passing on Gardiner’s article.)

Mapping impact of snow and ice feedbacks on climate

NASA Earth Observatory Image of the day has some powerful figures created with data from a new paper by Mark Flanner and others Radiative forcing and albedo feedback from the Northern Hemisphere cryosphere between 1979 and 2008. in Nature Geoscience. They use satellite data to estimate how changes in snow and ice in the Northern Hemisphere have contributed to rising temperatures over the last 30 years. They found that these changes in albedo have warmed the planet more than expected from models.

NASA Earth Observatory writes:

The left image shows how much energy the Northern Hemisphere’s snow and ice—called the cryosphere—reflected on average between 1979 and 2008. Dark blue indicates more reflected energy, in Watts per square meter, and thus more cooling. The Greenland ice sheet reflects more energy than any other single location in the Northern Hemisphere. The second-largest contributor to cooling is the cap of sea ice over the Arctic Ocean.

The right image shows how the energy being reflected from the cryosphere has changed between 1979 and 2008. When snow and ice disappear, they are replaced by dark land or ocean, both of which absorb energy. The image shows that the Northern Hemisphere is absorbing more energy, particularly along the outer edges of the Arctic Ocean, where sea ice has disappeared, and in the mountains of Central Asia.

“On average, the Northern Hemisphere now absorbs about 100 PetaWatts more solar energy because of changes in snow and ice cover,” says Flanner. “To put it in perspective, 100 PetaWatts is seven-fold greater than all the energy humans use in a year.” Changes in the extent and timing of snow cover account for about half of the change, while melting sea ice accounts for the other half.

Flanner and his colleagues made both calculations by compiling field measurements and satellite observations from the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS), Advanced Very High Resolution Radiometer, and Nimbus-7 and DMSP SSM/I passive microwave data. The analysis is the first calculation of how much the energy the entire cryosphere reflects. It is also the first observation of changes in reflected energy because of changes in the entire cryosphere.

Mapping Greenland’s melt

The same arctic weather patterns that have been cooling N. Europe and the Eastern USA have been warming Greenland as is shown in NASA’s image of the day Record Melting in Greenland during 2010:

2010 was an exceptional year for Greenland’s ice cap. Melting started early and stretched later in the year than usual. Little snow fell to replenish the losses. By the end of the season, much of southern Greenland had set a new record, with melting that lasted 50 days longer than average.

This image was assembled from microwave data from the Special Sensor Microwave/Imager (SSM/I) of the Defense Meteorological Satellites Program. Snow and ice emit microwaves, but the signal is different for wet, melting snow than for dry. Marco Tedesco, a professor at the City College of New York, uses this difference to chart the number of days that snow is melting every year. This image above shows 2010 compared to the average number of melt days per year between 1979 and 2009.

When snow melts, the fine, bright powder turns to larger-grained, gravely snow. These large grains reflect less light, which means that they can absorb more energy and melt even faster. When the annual snow is melted away, parts of the ice cap are exposed. The surface of the ice is also darker than snow. Since dark ice was exposed earlier and longer in 2010, it absorbed more energy, leading to a longer melt season. A fresh coat of summer snow would have protected the ice sheet, but little snow fell.

Clive Hamilton on climate denialism and social-ecological systems and

Clive Hamilton is an author and Professor of Public Ethics at Charles Stuart University and Centre for Applied Philosophy and Public Ethics in Australia.  He has been writing about the ethics of climate change, and climate denial.

In his interesting talk, Why We Resist the Truth About Climate Change, one of the points he makes is the importance and difference of a social-ecological perspective:

Developments in climate science have revealed a natural world so influenced by human activity that the epistemological division between nature and society can no longer be maintained. When global warming triggers feedback effects, such as melting permafrost and declining albedo from ice-melt, will we be seeing nature at work or human intervention? The mingling of the natural and the human has philosophical as well as practical significance, because the “object” has been contaminated by the “subject”.

Climate denial can be understood as a last-ditch attempt to re-impose the Enlightenment’s allocation of humans and Nature to two distinct realms, as if the purification of climate science could render Nature once again natural, as if taking politics out of science can take humans out of Nature. The irony is that it was Enlightenment science itself, in the rules laid down by the Royal Society, that objectified the natural world, putting it on the rack, in Bacon’s grisly metaphor, in order to extract its secrets. We came to believe we could keep Nature at arms-length, but have now discovered, through the exertions of climate science, something pre- moderns took for granted, that Nature is always too close for comfort.

For more see his book, Requeim for a Species, or his related talk at the UK’s RSAFacing up to Climate Change.

Is promoting climate change disinformation a new type of crime against humanity?

Donald Brown,a professor of law and environmental ethics at Penn State University,on his blog Climate Ethics wonders whether funding climate disinformation is A New Kind of Crime Against Humanity?. He writes:

On October 21, 2010, the John Broder of the New York Times, reported, that “the fossil fuel industries have for decades waged a concerted campaign to raise doubts about the science of global warming and to undermine policies devised to address it. According the New York Times article, the fossil fuel industry has ” created and lavishly financed institutes to produce anti-global-warming studies, paid for rallies and Web sites to question the science, and generated scores of economic analyses that purport to show that policies to reduce emissions of climate-altering gases will have a devastating effect on jobs and the overall economy.”

Without doubt those telling others that there is no danger heading their way have a special moral responsibility to be extraordinarily careful about such claims. For instance, if someone tells a child laying on a railroad tracks that they can lie there all day because there is no train coming and has never checked to see if a train is actually coming would be obviously guilty of reprehensible behavior.

Disinformation about the state of climate change science is extraordinarily if not criminally irresponsible because the consensus scientific view of climate change is based upon strong evidence that climate change harms:

(1) are already being experienced by tens of thousands in the world;(2) will be experienced in the future by millions of people from greenhouse gas emissions that have already been emitted but not yet felt due to lags in the climate system; and,

(3) will increase dramatically in the future unless GHG emissions are dramatically reduced from existing global emissions levels.

These harms include deaths and harms from droughts, floods, heat, storm related damages, rising oceans, heat impacts on agriculture, loss of animals that are dependent upon for substance purposes, social disputes caused by diminishing resources, sickness from a variety of diseases, the inability to rely upon traditional sources of food, the inability to use property that people depend upon to conduct their life including houses or sleds in cold places, the destruction of water supplies, and the inability to live where has lived to sustain life. In fact, the very existence of some small island nations is threatened by climate change. …

The October 21 New York Times article … concludes that some US corporate sponsored activities are helping elect politicians that have been influenced by the most irresponsible climate change scientific skeptical arguments. These corporations are clearly doing this because they see climate change greenhouse gas emissions reduction strategies as adversely affecting their financial interests. This fact leads to even greater moral culpability for American corporations because their behavior is as offensive as if the person who tells the child train that no train is coming when they don’t actually know whether a train is on its way makes money by misinforming the child.

The October 21 New York Times article concludes that the oil, coal and utility industries have collectively spent $500 million just since the beginning of 2009 to lobby against legislation to address climate change and to defeat candidates who support actions to reduce the threat of climate change. It would be one thing for an American corporation to act irresponsibly in a way that leads to harm to Americans, but because of climate change’s global scope, American corporation’s have been involved in behavior that likely will harm tens of millions of people around the world. Clearly this is a new type of crime against humanity. Skepticism in science is not bad, but skeptics must play by the rules of science including publishing their conclusions in peer-reviewed scientific journals and not make claims that are not substantiated by the peer-reviewed literature. The need for responsible skepticism is particularly urgent if misinformation from skeptics could lead to great harm. For this reason, this disinformation campaign being funded by some American corporations is some kind of new crime against humanity.

Corals and reality of climate change

Simon Donner writes on Maribo about climate change and coral reefs:

In 2007, my colleagues and I published a study examining of the likelihood of the 2005 “hot spot” occurring with and without human influence on the climate system. The study contrasted model simulations of the Caribbean with historical data and then computed the statistics of extreme ocean temperature events. The second slide summarizes some of the key results of from study. In a nutshell, our best analysis concluded the 2005 Caribbean “heat wave” would likely be on the order of a once in a thousand year event, had there been no human-generated greenhouse gas or aerosol emissions since the Industrial Revolution (“natural forcing”). By the 1990s, the human forcings increased the odds to once in 10-50 years. And continued warming under “business as usual” would make such heat waves happen in three out of every four years.

Five years later, a Caribbean “heat wave” has happened again. I’ve been writing for months that there was a strong likelihood of extensive coral bleaching in the Caribbean this fall according to NOAA’s advance forecast of sea surface temperatures (in fact, we had a good inkling of this last summer). Now we’re getting reports of bleaching from observers in the Caribbean. Add this to the observations (following predictions, once again!) from Southeast Asia and the Equatorial Pacific, and we have what may be the most, or second most, extensive “global” coral bleaching event in recorded history.

For all those writing about this event, keep in mind the predictions. This is what the scientific community predicted was likely to happen. An event which we calculated would be a once in a millennium occurrence without human impact on the climate, happened again five years later.