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Weekly Climate Science Roundup: March 8-14

By David Kroodsma, Climate Central

The Sierra Nevada mountains in California. Credit: istockphoto

Noteworthy climate science papers published in the past week include an analysis of the history of El Niño events, a study of the climate of California’s Sierra Nevada Mountains, and a look into the costs and benefits of charging plug-in vehicles using electricity generated by wind turbines. The journal Nature ran an interesting news piece on what scientists do and don’t know about ocean acidification. Also, one paper analyzed New York City’s climate adaptation strategies, focusing on the coastal city's vulnerability to sea level rise.

One of the publications that came out last week concerns “cumulative emissions” of greenhouse gases, such as carbon dioxide (CO2). This report, from the National Academy of Sciences, isn’t exactly new (see our article on it from last summer), but it does distill a complex topic into a more easily understood framework.

Scientific Studies Published Between March 8th to 14th:


Paper Title: Carbon emission limits required to satisfy future representative concentration pathways of greenhouse gases
Journal: Geophysical Research Letters
Authors: V. K. Arora, and seven others.

The Gist: One of the challenges involved with predicting climate change is that some of the CO2 we put in the atmosphere is removed by natural processes — it is absorbed by the ocean and biosphere — but these natural processes themselves will change as the temperature warms. This paper presents the results from a model that combines a climate model with a model of how the biosphere and oceans absorb CO2. The study finds that it may be nearly impossible to avoid 2°Celsius of warming (the stated goal of the Copenhagen Accord) without drastic emissions cuts in the near future.

Booklet: Warming World Impacts by Degree
Info: Based on the National Research Council report, Climate Stabilization Targets: Emissions, Concentrations, and Impacts over Decades to Millennia (2011).

Credit: istockphoto
The Gist: This 34-page booklet provides a broad analysis of climate change and its impacts. It analyzes scientists’ best guesses of how much warming will result from particular amounts of CO2 emissions, and it lists the potential impacts for one through five degrees Celsius of warming.

The document provides a good summary for a technically-minded individual interested in this subject. It should be noted that the previous paper in this roundup (“Carbon emission limits required to satisfy future representative concentration pathways of greenhouse gases”, published in Geophysical Research Letters) is more pessimistic about how much more room there is for additional manmade CO2 emissions, while still avoiding 2°C of warming by the end of this century.

Paper Title: Permanent El Niño during the Pliocene warm period not supported by coral evidence.
Journal: Nature
Authors: Tsuyoshi Watanabe and 11 others.

The Gist: Some research has suggested that during the Pliocene epoch, three to five million years ago, the earth was a few degrees warmer than it is today and the Pacific Ocean was stuck in a “permanent El Niño” state. Climate change may warm the planet sufficiently during this century to reproduce the balmy climate of the Pliocene, and some climate models show the Pacific switching into this permanent El Niño state. This paper analyzes fossil corals off Indonesia and fails to find evidence supporting the earlier research: the growth patterns of the corals suggest that El Niño actually had a similar pattern during the Pliocene as it does today.

Paper Title: 1,800 Years of abrupt climate change, severe fire, and accelerated erosion, Sierra Nevada, California, US
Journal: Climatic Change
Author: Stephen F. Wathen.

The Gist: Through an analysis of lake sediments, the author provides a detailed history of environmental change in California’s Sierra Nevada Mountains. Between about 3,700 to 3,000 years ago, the climate in this region became more variable, and about 1,300 years ago precipitation increased abruptly. Unsurprisingly, the onset of various droughts is correlated with charcoal in the sediment, indicative of forest fires. The study compares the climate history with ice cores in Greenland, and the author finds that over the past 1,800 years, when it was dry in Greenland, it was also dry in California. The author admits that this finding is surprising, and that he cannot explain why California and Greenland have experienced concurrent droughts. 

Paper Title: Impact of plug-in hybrid electric vehicles on power systems with demand response and wind power
Journal: Energy Policy
Authors: Jianhui Wang, Cong Liu, Dan Ton, Yan Zhou, Jinho Kim, and Anantray Vyas.

Credit: istockphoto

The Gist: This paper analyzes how “smart charging” can allow wind power to cheaply power plug-in hybrid vehicles. (A plug-in hybrid is a vehicle that runs mostly on battery power, but also has a gas motor for longer trips). One problem with wind power is that, at the height of the wind turbines, the wind is often weakest in the middle of the day and strongest at night. However, people use more electricity during the day than they do in the middle of the night. This mismatch might change with the wider adoption of electric cars — most electric cars would be charged at night, thus using the excess electricity produced by wind power. However, because the wind varies, and because it doesn’t take all night to charge a car, it would be useful for the cars to be flexible in when they are charged. That is, a “smart grid” could help decide when to deliver current to the cars’ batteries, and such an electric grid could charge cars more cheaply. The paper models a possible situation in Illinois in the year 2020, when the authors estimate that about 10 percent of the vehicles will be plug-in hybrids. The authors find the cost of charging all the state’s plug-in hybrids in 2020 could be reduced from about $4 million to $3.5 million per week if such a smart grid is used.

Feature: Environment: Earth's acid test
Journal: Nature
Author: Quirin Schiermeier.

The Gist: Because CO2 combines with seawater to form carbonic acid, as concentrations of CO2 in the atmosphere continue to increase, the world’s oceans are becoming more acidic. This news piece summarizes the efforts of scientists to understand how marine life will respond to these more acidic conditions. One of the main concerns with ocean acidification involves sea creatures that form shells, most of which are made of calcium carbonate. These species may not be able to produce their protective cases because the water may become too acidic for the shell-formation process. The hard structures of coral reefs may also be at risk. The story describes scientists’ efforts to understand how different marine life will be affected, and it emphasizes how little we know about how marine life will respond to a more acidic ocean environment.

Paper Title: Developing coastal adaptation to climate change in the New York City infrastructure-shed: process, approach, tools, and strategies
Journal: Climatic Change
Authors: Cynthia Rosenzweig and 16 others.

The Gist: In 2007, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg authorized a panel of experts to develop a climate adaptation plan for the city. The findings and advice of the panel are described in this paper, most of which focuses on sea level rise and the city’s increased risk of flooding. For example, with a sea level rise of two feet, a one in 100-year storm surge is projected to occur four times as often. The study displays maps of potentially flooded areas.


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Ocean Acidification: More CO2 = More Acidic CO2 mixes with seawater to form carbonic acid, making the oceans more acidic.

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