Summer Catch-Up on the Environment

by Bill Chameides | August 22nd, 2012
posted by Erica Rowell (Editor)

Permalink | Comments Off on Summer Catch-Up on the Environment

Here’s some of the environmental news that was in play while I was away.

A couple of the big environmental stories reported on over my sojourn were just more of the same bad environmental news from before I left: the drought (see here and here) and wildfires. But there were lots of other stories of note.

Sobering Climate Science Development: Dice Now Loaded for Extreme Hot Weather

The biggie in the peer-reviewed literature, which got some press around the time I was heading out of town (see here, here and here), was probably the paper by Jim Hansen of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies and colleagues published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. It addresses one of the central issues being debated both in the climate science community and policy arena these days: is climate change responsible for the increasingly frequent bouts of extreme weather we now have?

Hansen et al say yes. Performing a statistical analysis (not a modeling study), the authors compared global temperature extremes during the past 30 years (1981-2010) to a baseline period of 1951–1980. They found that extremes in summer heat are now more extreme (i.e., hotter) and cover a much larger land area (10 percent versus less than 1 percent) than in the earlier period. The increase is large enough that it is unlikely to be explained by natural variability.

You can think of it this way: if the temperature for any given day is determined by random statistics, like a roll of the dice, those dice have now become loaded to favor extreme high temperatures. (Read more at RealClimate.)

Good News on the Climate Front: Carbon Sink Holding Steady

A number of studies in recent years (see here and here) have concluded that terrestrial carbon sinks — places that take a good chunk of the carbon dioxide (CO2) we add to the atmosphere out of it — have been slowing down. That’s not a welcome development because those sinks help slow down climate change. But now a new study published in the journal Nature by Ashley Ballantyne of the University of Colorado, Boulder, and colleagues argues that the carbon uptake by both the ocean and land has not decreased at all, but has instead kept pace with growing anthropogenic CO2 emissions over the last 50 years.

A second independent study, by Anders Ahlström of Lund University and colleagues published in the journal Geophysical Research Letters, is on the fence — arguing that if the terrestrial sink is in decline, it’s too early to call it.

Proved Oil Reserves Jump in 2010

The U.S. Energy Information Administration’s (EIA) 2010 report “U.S. Crude Oil, Natural Gas, and Natural Gas Liquids Proved Reserves” is finally out — federal budget cuts delayed the analysis — and there’s a big surprise: proved oil reserves* are reported to be 13 percent larger than they were in the 2009 report.

That’s the largest annual jump since 1977, the year the government began tracking these data, and it places our proved reserves at their highest levels since 1991. Why the jump? The government report largely credits two factors:

fracking, which has made it economical to access oil from rocks like shale with low permeability, and
the rising price of oil, which has made it economical to produce more expensive oil.

(Source: U.S. EIA)

Cloud Over Texas Fracking Study Extends to Reviewer

Seems like the University of Texas at Austin continues to fumble the fracking ball. Just before I left for vacation, an assessment of environmental impacts from fracking by a team of UT researchers came under fire when it was revealed that the lead author, Chip Groat, had financial ties to the oil and gas industry. To settle any apparent conflict of interest, last week the university appointed a three-person panel to review the report, but, curiously, one of the reviewers also has financial ties to the industry.

New Ocean Health Index Factors in Humanity with a ‘Room to Improve’ Score

Writing in the journal Nature last week, a 30-plus-member team led by Ben Halpern of the University of California, Santa Barbara, measured ocean health across 10 goals ranging from food production to recreation.

What’s unique to this index its focus on ocean health as a sustainability issue from a human perspective. For example, take the goal of clean water — a higher score means the ocean is being used in a way that will also allow future generations to access clean coastal waters. Using a 100-point scale, country scores ranged from 36–86, with an overall global average of 60.

Bet you can’t guess who received the top score. It was Jarvis Island — a little known U.S. territory in the equatorial Pacific some 1,300 miles off Hawaii’s coast, whose uninhabited, relatively pristine whose terrestrial and submerged lands are a National Wildlife Refuge. Wild. Truly.

With respect to actual countries, and specifically developed nations, Germany came in first with a score of 73. No gold medal for the United States: the U.S. score of 63 leaves “room for improvement.”

Arctic Sea Ice Melt

It’s on track to beat the low set in 2007. Follow it here. Of course, we won’t know for sure until mid-September. Stay tuned.

Way Cool Energy Efficiency Numbers

The savings that could be had from efficiency measures should be enough to get even the most curmudgeonly curmudgeon jazzed. Writing in the journal Nature, Philip Farese, a former energy analyst at the U.S. National Renewable Energy Laboratory, reports that in 2010 buildings consumed about 40 percent (or about 40 quads) of our annual energy budget and is expected to grow by almost eight percent in 2030. But it doesn’t have to. For example, Farese writes, we could reduce building energy consumption:

  • by more than 20 percent, were we to take advantage of current technologies,
  • by about 45 percent with emerging technologies expected to be available in about five years, or
  • by 65 percent with technologies in R&D.

And those reductions account for so-called rebound effects (wherein increased efficiency leads to energy savings but also higher energy use) on the order of 15 percent. The savings could add up to as much as $275 billion annually.

The Recap

So, to sum up: it’s a hot, dry and loaded crapshoot; the land is sucking up carbon and holding more proved oil in reserve; fracking conflicts remain interesting; our ocean health could use a tuneup; sea ice may be headed for a new low; and all the while the curmudgeons of the world should be jazzed about efficiency.


End Note

* Proved reserves are the part of the hydrocarbon resource that is already discovered and is commercially recoverable with existing technology. For more see our glossary. EIA includes crude oil plus lease condensate in its crude estimate. Lease condensate includes hydrocarbon gas that reverts to a liquid phase once it’s pumped to the surface. See EIA’s definition here.

filed under: Arctic, climate change, drought, energy, energy efficiency, faculty, fossil fuels, fracking, global warming, oceans, oil, temperatures, weather
and: , , , , , , , ,

comments disabled after 30 Days

©2015 Nicholas School of the Environment at Duke University | Box 90328 | Durham, NC 27708
how to contact us > | login to the site > | site disclaimers >

footer nav stuff