Support Our Work
Helping climate science make sense.

Climate in Context: August 17, 2010

By Alyson Kenward

Editor's Note: This is the first installment of what will become daily, quick-hitting blog posts that will cover climate science and energy developments from our nonpartisan (yet still entertaining) perspective. 

Coal Ash Ruined My Sunday Night

Shouldn’t Sunday night, by default, be relaxing? After all, it’s the best time to recover from a fun-filled weekend and to prepare for the busy workweek ahead. Unfortunately, anyone who caught this Sunday’s repeat episode of “60 Minutes” probably wasn’t left with any calm feelings. In a segment titled "Coal Ash: 130 Millions Tons of Waste", correspondent Lesley Stahl informed viewers that there is virtually no regulation of the staggering amount of toxic waste byproduct known as coal ash that is generated each year in the burning of coal for electricity in the U.S.

After listing off the poisonous metals that are concentrated in coal ash, including arsenic, mercury, cadmium, thallium, selenium and lead, Stahl pointed out the careless ways in which coal companies dispose of it all – none of it made for an easy Sunday night. Scientists still need to figure out exactly how toxic coal ash is, but Stahl says the EPA is lagging behind with instituting regulations based on existing knowledge.

Stahl seems to have missed the mark on one very important point, however. When speaking with Jim Roewer, a coal lobbyist, about how 48 percent of electricity in America comes from coal, Stahl says, “we can’t get rid of coal.” Well, this isn’t entirely true. Technology already exists for replacing coal with natural gas, wind turbines and nuclear power plants. What Stahl probably meant was that to do away with coal would require a costly change in infrastructure. But since scientists say we’ll need to change our electricity sector one way or the other if we expect to dramatically lower carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions to avoid the most serious potential consequences of climate change, starting to phase out coal-power sooner rather than later could help kill two birds with one stone. 

Are Irrigation Canals a Cause of Regional Climate Change?

An irrigation canal in California
(Credit: Aquafornia/Chris Austin (Flickr)

Poor carbon dioxide. The tiny molecules take all the blame for the world’s recent climate change. Sure, the man-made emissions of billions of tons of CO2 into the atmosphere every year has led to increasing global temperatures, but CO2 is far from the only agent of climate change. For example, methane, along with short-lived emissions such as black carbon, has been shown to affect the climate.

A new study published in the Journal of Geophysical Research sheds light on another climate change driver – changes in land use. A research team from Rutgers University in New Jersey (up the road from Climate Central's Princeton office, woot!) has found evidence that the vast network of irrigation canals that run across the Great Plains may have increased the amount of precipitation in the area by as much as 30 percent since the 1940s. The changing precipitation patterns mean that the canals may have altered the weather and longer-term climate in that region, and the irrigation systems are also linked to loss of groundwater reserves across the prairies. (Of course, the irrigation systems also help sustain American agricultural production). While global climate change may also contribute to the increased precipitation, the discovery that irrigation canals may be involved in changing the climate at the regional level reveals yet another way in which human activities control some of the puppet strings.

Severe Weather and Climate Change? Let’s Review.

It took more than a month of a ferocious Russian heat wave and weeks of tragic flooding in Pakistan to make it happen, but last week news organizations around the world finally started exploring the links between severe weather and climate change. However, only a handful of news organizations managed to address what a difficult question that actually is to answer. Over the weekend, the New York Times nicely covered why scientists can’t say climate change is causing this severe weather, but that it is expected to make weather extremes worse. And on Monday, the Guardian included an op-ed from climate scientist Stefan Rahmstorf that offered evidence for the fact that man-made greenhouse gas emissions are probably to blame for at least some of the current rash of deadly weather events.

(Oh yeah – we did a pretty good job of this too, by the way.)

For now it’s hard for scientists to say what the link is between severe weather and climate change – though most of them say there is, indeed, a link – but a group of them are going to put on their thinking caps this week near Boulder, Colorado to see how they can push the state of knowledge forward. Climate Central’s own senior research scientist Claudia Tebaldi will be there.

Check back here, and follow us on twitter via @climatecentral for more from that conference later this week.

« Climate in Context

« Climate in Context


Climate Change Means a Longer U.S. Growing Season Later frosts mean longer growing seasons for the U.S.

View Gallery