The uptick in Arctic lightning could cause more wildfires, potentially triggering a feedback loop that releases massive amounts of carbon into the atmosphere.
- In recent years, researchers have recorded unusually high numbers of lightning strikes and wildfires in Arctic regions.
- A new study explored how increased lightning could cause a "lightning-fire-vegetation feedback loop" that could accelerate permafrost loss.
- To better monitor changing conditions in the Arctic, the researchers called for more high-quality lightning monitoring systems.
Lighting strikes in the Arctic may increase by approximately 100 percent by the end of the 21st century, according to a new study published in Nature Climate Change. If that happens, places like Alaska could suffer significantly higher rates of wildfires and permafrost loss, both of which could accelerate warming in the Arctic.
Some evidence suggests these changes are already underway. In 2015, Alaska suffered the second-most wildfires on record, burning more than 5.1 million acres across the state's northern region. Although it's difficult to measure, lightning likely started many of these fires.
Still, lightning is relatively rare in the Arctic. That's because lightning occurs when warm, moist air rises to meet cold air, which builds up electrical charge. When that charge exceeds a certain threshold, lightning strikes. Because places like Alaska have relatively cold, dry air, thunderstorms only form occasionally.
But climate change may be changing that. In 2019, the National Weather Service's office in Fairbanks, Alaska, reported an unusually high number of lightning strikes within 300 miles of the North Pole. The uptick in lighting may be no surprise, considering the Arctic is warming by more than twice the global average.
In the recent study, researchers used satellite observations and climate data to explore how increasingly frequent lightning could transform the Arctic through changes like increased wildfires and permafrost loss.
"We projected how lightning in high-latitude boreal forests and Arctic tundra regions will change across North America and Eurasia," Yang Chen, study author and research scientist in the UCI Department of Earth System Science, said in a press release. "The size of the lightning response surprised us because expected changes at mid-latitudes are much smaller."
What's especially concerning about the uptick in Arctic lightning is that it could start a "lightning-fire-vegetation feedback loop."
The researchers explained how more lightning could cause more wildfires, which would burn away many of the shrubs, mosses, and other low-lying plants covering the Arctic terrain. Without those plants covering the ground, soil temperatures would rise, making it easier for deciduous trees to grow.
That might sound like a good thing. But expanding forests could also cause regional temperatures to rise because they would absorb more sunlight than the reflective, snow-covered Arctic terrain currently does. What's more, wildfires would melt Arctic permafrost, which stores massive amounts of organic carbon.
The end result of the lightning-fire-vegetation feedback loop would be the release of carbon into the atmosphere.
Still, the variability in climate modeling and lightning monitoring makes it difficult to predict future changes with a high degree of accuracy.
"This phenomenon is very sporadic, and it's very difficult to measure accurately over long time periods," James T. Randerson, study co-author and professor in the Department of Earth System Science at the University of California, Irvine, said in the press release. "It's so rare to have lightning above the Arctic Circle."
The researchers concluded the study by calling for more high-quality lightning monitoring systems, based on the ground and in space.
"Given the large amount of permafrost soil carbon stored in northern ecosystems, this analysis highlights the importance of improving lightning monitoring in the Arctic and the need to develop better models of lightning, fire dynamics, and feedback with vegetation and soils," they wrote.
The ESO finds another exoplanet that's definitely not a place for us to go.
- WASP-76b is an extremely hot planet whose cooler side has a surface temperature of 1,500° C (2732° F).
- Iron that evaporates in the heat of the planet's day side rains down in molten form on the night side.
- ESO learned more about the planet's intense climate thanks to its new ESPRESSO (Echelle Spectrograph for Rocky Exoplanet and Stable Spectroscopic Observations) instrument.
Let's imagine you're vacationing on WASP-76b, a gas-giant exoplanet in the constellation Pisces, some 640 light-years away. The good news is that you're on the super-hot planet's "cool" side. The bad news? Molten iron is raining down and drifting your way from the hot side. "One could say that this planet gets rainy in the evening, except it rains iron," notes astronomer David Ehrenreich of the University of Geneva in Switzerland.
A hellish place to visitImage source: Dotted Yeti/Shutterstock
WASP-76b is one of the most extreme exoplanets astronomers have laid eyes on so far, and both its day and night sides are way to hot for us. It was first identified using the Very Large Telescope (VLT) at the European Southern Observatory (ESO) Cerro Paranal, 2,600 meters above sea level in the super-dry Atacama Desert in Chile. Recent observations of the gas giant's chemistry by the ESO VLT's ESPRESSO instrument revealed its bizarre extremes and iron rain. ESPRESSO is an acronym for the "Echelle SPectrograph for Rocky Exoplanet and Stable Spectroscopic Observations."
WASP-76b is "tidally locked" to its star, meaning that the same side is always facing its sun. The day side gets up to 2400° C (4352°F) while the night side maxes out at a balmy 1,500° C (2732° F).
That day side is so hot that molecules separate into atoms, and metals like iron evaporate into the blistering atmosphere. ESPRESSO's data posed an intriguing question. "The observations show," says astrophysicist María Rosa Zapatero Osorio, "that iron vapor is abundant in the atmosphere of the hot day side of WASP-76b." However, that strong iron signature at the evening boundary between the two sides of WASP-76b was nowhere to be seen near the morning edge. Where could it go? Astronomers believe that the atmospheric and rotational winds carry a fair amount of the iron vapor to the night side where it falls as molten iron rain.
Because exoplanets are always so normal?
Image source: Jurik Peter/Shutterstock
Well, not really. While searching for Earth-like exoplanets, astronomers keep finding a planets that definitely don't qualify.
WASP-76b is way too hot, for example, but it's hardly the only orbiting inferno. Consider HD 149026b, whose surface temperature is just slightly cooler than WASP-76b, coming in at just over 2,000° C (3632°F).
Then there's OGLE-2005-BLG-390Lb, a big — 5.5 times the size of Earth — rocky sphere that's so so cold: -220° C (-364°F). Brrr.
SWEEPS-10 is really close to its star, just 1.2 million kilometers, and races around its sun every 10 hours, as opposed to our roughly 365 days. That proximity means that it's particularly vulnerable to eventually being pulled apart, unless it slips away. And CoKu Tau/4 is just a mere babe, only a million years old.
An immediate win for ESPRESSO
Image source: ESO/M. Zamani/Wikimedia
Credit for the new, deeper understanding of WASP-76b must go to ESPRESSO, which was designed to help search for Earth-like planets around Sun-like stars. In fact, the WASP-76b insights were derived from the instrument's very first observations made in September 2018 by the scientific consortium of experts from Portugal, Italy, Switzerland, Spain and the ESO responsible for the instrument.
Insights such as these have changed the way scientists see ESPRESSO. It's not just for finding exoplanets, but also helping explain them. "We soon realized that the remarkable collecting power of the VLT and the extreme stability of ESPRESSO made it a prime machine to study exoplanet atmospheres," says Pedro Figueira, ESPRESSO instrument scientist at ESO in Chile.
The building material seems so ubiquitous — what can we use in its place?
- Concrete is a surprisingly dangerous contributor of greenhouse gas emissions.
- For years, architects haven't been concerned with these emissions since concrete buildings last for so long; their carbon footprint is spread out over their entire lifespan.
- However, as we approach climate "tipping points," the front-loaded cost of concrete construction may be too high.
"If we invented concrete today, nobody would think it was a good idea," said architectural engineer and panel member Michael Ramage. "We've got this liquid and you need special trucks, and it takes two weeks to get hard. And it doesn't even work if you don't put steel in it."
The four billion tons of concrete produced for construction each year accounts for 8 percent of the world's carbon dioxide emissions, mainly through the production of clinker. Clinker serves as a crucial binding element in cement, the primary ingredient of concrete, and is produced by heating limestone and clay to around 1,400°C (about 2,500°F). Heating limestone (CaCO3) to these temperatures, however, causes a chemical reaction called calcination that results in lime (CaO) and carbon dioxide (CO2) as a waste product. Roughly half of concrete's carbon dioxide emissions is due to calcination, while another 40 percent comes from burning fossil fuels to heat up limestone to the point where this chemical reaction can occur. The last 10 percent comes from the fuel used in the mining and transportation process.
Eight percent might seem like a large slice of the world's carbon dioxide pie, but architectural experts haven't been particularly concerned about this figure until recently. The reason why has to do with concrete's longevity. Normally when calculating a building's total carbon emissions, said Phineas Harper of Dezeen magazine, architects take the amount of carbon needed to construct a building and divide it over the building's total lifespan. "That gives you your per-year carbon emissions," said Harper. However, in our current climate situation, this kind of thinking is "dead wrong."
Had we taken climate change more seriously a hundred years ago, this would probably be fine. But as it stands today, we have only a few short years before we reach climate "tipping points," events that create negative feedback loops in the climate that are very difficult to reverse. The melting of polar ice, which reflects sunlight and contains locked-away greenhouse gases, is a well-known example of such a tipping point. So too is deforestation in rainforests, which increases the likelihood of local droughts, killing even more trees.
As a result, the front-heavy carbon load of concrete buildings inadvertently contribute more to climate change than any straightforward calculation may suggest.
Looking for alternatives
So, if we can't build sustainably with concrete, what other materials can we build with? Ken de Cooman, founder of BC Architects & Studies, discussed how his firm is using materials primarily formed from the earth, like compressed-earth bricks. There are also biocomposite materials, which are formed out of natural fibers embedded in a matrix. Hempcrete, for instance, is a biocomposite of hemp and lime that is actually carbon negative since hemp absorbs CO2 as it grows.
Interestingly, one of the best candidates for replacing concrete in construction projects is something of an old-fashioned solution — timber. One might wonder if using timber is all that wise given the importance of forests in maintaining the health of our environment, this might seem counterintuitive. Ramage acknowledged that building out of timber would require sustainable practices. In order to make construction using timber sustainable, a number of trees would have to be planted for every tree that is cut down. And, added Ramage,"It's important to remember that every kilogram of timber we build with holds the equivalent of 1.8 kilograms of carbon dioxide." Unlike concrete, timber stores carbon dioxide, lowering a building's overall carbon footprint.
A photo of Andrew Waugh's all-timber building constructed in North London.
Image source: Architecture of Emergency, 2019
As an example of this, architect Andrew Waugh described a building his firm built in North London.
"We built the entire building from solid timber from the first floor up. So all the internal walls, external walls, lift shafts, staircases, all in timber. … It's about 2.8 trees per person that live in that building and for every one of those trees that was cut down to build that building five more were planted in its place."
Timber is growing in popularity as a construction material, both because of its greater sustainability and because of advances that have enabled it to be used in taller buildings, like cross-laminated timber. These developments have not left the concrete industry too happy, which has taken out advertisements emphasizing the flammability of timber buildings and the environmental impacts of cutting down trees.
"We must be doing something right," said Waugh, "because, much like the tobacco industry in the 1980s and 1990s, Big Concrete is beginning to fight back."
Many of the methods we can employ to address climate change can seem radical. After all, many climate change activists ask that we stop engaging in many activities that have been a part of our lives for decades. But the climate crisis didn't suddenly arise out of nowhere — it's these activities that have, bit by bit, added momentum to this phenomenon.
Reversing that momentum will mean cutting back on fossil fuels, eating meat, building in concrete, and many more activities that we have taken for granted.
Update Tuesday, October 15, 2019: This story was updated to specify when and how carbon emissions are released during the cement production process.
A grim warning for the future of Iceland's glaciers.
- Icelandic locals and scientists have created a plaque for the melted Okjökull glacier.
- Due to climate change, the glacier is no more.
- If this trend persists, by 2200 all of Iceland's glaciers will have melted.
Loud and roaring glaciers once populated the Icelandic shores. Their reign and permanence stood unquestioned for centuries — millennia. That is, until now. The glacier that was once known as Okjökull, colloquially referred to as "Ok," saw its last day in the sun sometime in 2014.
Rising temperatures from the onslaught of the climate crisis has taken another victim. "Ok" was not the largest or most well-renowned glacier in Iceland, but it was historically significant enough to have been mentioned by early Viking settlers. Nearly a century ago, the glacier covered some 6 square miles and was about 165 feet thick, before dwindling down to a .4 square mile radius, with ice just shy of 50 feet deep.
A glacier is a compacted body of ice that accumulates greater mass every winter, while losing some in the summer. It's constantly on the move but is able to support itself. Once a glacier stops, it enters its final melting countdown, never to be whole again.
Icelandic cultural heritage
Glaciologists consider the remains of this glacier "dead ice."
A group of locals and scientists have decided to eulogize the world's first dead glacier with a plaque. It's been led by author Andri Snær Magnason and geologist Oddur Sigurðsson. The sign will be installed on August 18th, 2019 at the former site.
Written in both Icelandic and English the plaque's opening and closing statement is as follows:
"In the next 200 years, all our glaciers are expected to follow the same path... This monument is to acknowledge that we know what is happening and what needs to be done. Only you know if we did it."
Speaking to The Guardian, Cymene Howe, associate professor of anthropology at Rice, stated that this would be one of the first monuments to a glacier felled by climate change.
"Frozen within them are histories of the atmosphere. They are also often important cultural forms that are full of significance," she said.
Her colleague Dominic Boyer, warns that Okjökull's fate will one day be shared by all of the glaciers in Iceland if we do not curb our greenhouse gas emissions.
The northernmost point of the globe is warming twice as fast as the rest of the planet. With last June being one of the hottest months of world record, scientists fear that we're getting closer to a climate tipping point. One in which we'll hit a runaway effect and the possibility of Iceland's glaciers all being completely gone by 2200 — this, reportedly, would raise global sea levels by a centimeter.
Looking toward Greenland, we can see a fuller picture of the way local culture meshes with these important geological features.
Greenland’s glaciers as cultural precedent
Northern lights over the shore of the frozen Disko Bay. The ice fjord nearby is listed as UNESCO world heritage site. Photo credit: Martin Zwick / REDA&CO / Universal Images Group via Getty Images
Sermeq Kujalleq, also known as the Jakobshavn Glacier, is one of the world's fastest glaciers. Part of the greater Greenland ice sheet, it's been around for more than 250,000 years. While it's garnered a lot of tourism over the past decade, it's also an integral part of the townsfolk who live around it. One local named Uffe Bang, says that he likes to take the time out at least twice a month to walk the trails and take in the scenery.
Great fishing in the fjord has attracted people to build settlements here for hundreds of years. During the Stone Age, a group of people called the Saqqaq lived here. European whalers docked in the 16th century, establishing trade posts in the Disko Bay. Today, the colony of Jakobshavn consists of some 4,500 people — the third largest city in Greenland and has since become the country's most famous tourist spot.
The massive glacier has been receding since 1850. In the 20th century, the glacier withdrew eight miles — in the first 10 years of the 21st century, it has already receded an additional nine.
Sermeq Kujalleq, is safe for now. Glaciologists note that there has been a slight interruption in its long-term retreat. As the glacier is so large, it'll likely be producing icebergs and still be a sight to see for hundreds of years. Ilulissat resident Casper Malchow remarked:
"It is a place that is good for the soul. Alone on the mountain with huge icebergs in the background and the sounds of whale playing in the icy water, it does something to you."
Hopefully, the same will be said for Greenland's Icelandic glacier brethren in the many years to come.
It is rare for them to form, nonetheless reach this size.
- Climbing instructor discovers a glacial "lake" high in the Alps.
- A glacial meltwater lake this size is usually a rare occurrence.
- French glaciologists are concerned that climate change could create more dangerous lakes like these in the future.
In the wake of Europe's unprecedented heatwave, the international community is seeing further glimpses of the many changes which lie ahead for our world climate. Recently, a French mountaineer caught a beautifully striking, albeit disconcerting picture of a glacial lake in the High Alps.
Alpinist Bryan Mestre, took the photographs of the newly materialized lake on June 28th near the base of Dent du Géant Mountain, part of the larger Mont Blanc range that runs through France and Italy. A frequent hiker, Mestre remarked that this was the first time he'd ever seen a lake at this altitude during the summer months.
Hikers and climate scientists alike expect to see some glacial melting during the hottest days of summer. But the creation of an entire lake is a remarkably rare event. And one we might be seeing more of as climate change keeps turning up the heat.
France’s heatwave lake
Europe was in one of the most intense heat waves in recent memory this June. When Mestre discovered the lake on June 28th, France set an all-time record high of 114.6 degrees in the southern Gallargues-le-Montueux region. Record temperatures in the Mont Blanc region topped out at 48.74 degrees.
The Mont Blanc mountains remain covered in snow and ice all year round. The lake that Mestre found was around 9,800 feet above sea level and is also usually covered in ice.
"Needless to say, the lake was a real surprise… It's located in the 3,400 to 3,500-meter (11,155 to 11,483-feet) area. You're supposed to find ice and snow at this altitude, not liquid water. Most of the time when we stay for a day at this altitude, the water in our water bottles starts freezing," Mestre told IFL Science.
Water above the Alp's 3,000 meter line is supposed to stay permanently frozen.
When speaking to the London Evening Standard, Mestre also remarked that:
"I have seen similar events in the Andes or in the Rockies, but the ecosystem is a lot different there. Snow is permanent in the Alps above 3,000 meters — it's not supposed to melt. Of course, with the whole global warming deal, it does melt, but it doesn't get this big."
According to National Geographic France the lake was around 10 meters by 30 meters or (33 feet by 98.5 feet). The lake was holding a couple thousand cubic meters of meltwater.
While this may have been an initial surprise to Mr. Mestre, many French glaciologists are starting to see a concerning trend as a similar lake was discovered in the same place last year.
French glaciologist concerns
Photo credit: JEAN-PIERRE CLATOT / GETTY IMAGES
Christian Vincent, a glaciologist at the Grenoble Glaciology Laboratory, believes that there is a direct link between the formation of this kind of pond and global warming.
Vincent remarks about a similar experience when a pond had formed over by the Rochemelon glacier in the Arc Valley, which sits on the French-Italian border. A lake had sprung up over a number of years, slowly gaining in size:
"At first it was a small pond formed in the 1960s, which grew without anyone perceiving its evolution. It was during a reconnaissance a few years ago that I realized that it contained 650,000 cubic meters of water and that it was threatening to overflow. An alert was then given and an artificial emptying operation had cleared the lake."
Vincent warns that we must be vigilant in tracking and understanding how these glacial "lakes" appear. While there is no immediate threat from the pond Mestre spotted, that doesn't preclude future problems from arising from this area or other ones like it.
"When the volume of these lakes becomes very important, it can become very dangerous if they overflow on the surface. This can threaten downstream structures and homes," says Vincent.