A warming Arctic Circle could be responsible for bursts of cold weather in the south.
- Winter Storm Uri brought snow and freezing temperatures to Texas this week, causing multiple deaths and damage to infrastructure.
- Climate scientists have spent years exploring the relationship between extreme winter weather and warming temperatures in the Arctic Circle.
- Some studies suggest that the warming Arctic disrupts a natural phenomenon known as the polar vortex, which normally contains cold air in the north.
Winter Storm Uri battered the southern U.S. this week with frigid temperatures and unusually high snowfall. In Texas, the cold weather brought widespread power outages and damage to infrastructure, contributing to at least several dozen deaths.
But while the consequences of the storm are evidence, its causes are more of a mystery. In the context of climate change, the recent weather raises an obvious question: If the climate is warming, why are some parts of the world experiencing bouts of extreme cold?
It's a topic climate scientists have been exploring for years.
One idea centers on the pattern of cold air above the Arctic Circle. This pattern, known as the polar vortex, is an area of cold, low-pressure air that swirls in the stratosphere above Earth's North and South poles. When it's strong, the polar vortex spins in a regular pattern, with the jet stream serving as a barrier that keeps cold air contained in the north.
Confused about the #PolarVortex? Usually a strong jet stream confines Arctic air to the north, stabilized by a big… https://t.co/KfT78Wa0py— UN Climate Change (@UN Climate Change)1613407491.0
But warm weather can disrupt this system. When temperatures rise, the jet stream weakens and becomes wobbly, sometimes allowing cold air to shoot out across the planet. What may be contributing to disruptions in the polar vortex is a phenomenon called Arctic amplification, which describes how the Arctic has warmed by more than twice the global average in recent decades.
Although some studies suggest relationships between the warming Arctic and increased winter storms, scientists still aren't exactly sure how Arctic climate change might be reshaping winters around the world. For example, the polar vortex is a natural phenomenon, and so some of its fluctuations could be attributed to natural variability. What's more, other factors, like changes to Arctic atmosphere and sea ice, might also play a role.
Given the complexity of climate systems, it's difficult for scientists to determine how changing temperatures in one region may affect weather patterns in another. But that's not to say they're all in complete disagreement. A 2020 paper published in Nature, for example, commented on the "divergent consensuses" between various observational and model studies on the topic of Arctic warming and severe winter weather.
"The divide on the influence of Arctic change has contributed to the impression that this research topic is controversial and lacking consensus," the authors wrote. "An alternative interpretation is that the wide range of results should be expected, owing to the varying approaches to studying the problem and the complexity and intermittency of Arctic/midlatitude connection."
While scientists continue to study the relationship between the Arctic and weather patterns across the globe, other climate trends are relatively clear.
The average surface temperature of the planet has risen about 2.12 degrees Fahrenheit since the late 19th century, warming at a rate nearly 10 times faster than the planet did after the Ice Age, according to NASA. And despite warmer temperatures, the NOAA reports that the U.S. was hit by nearly twice the amount of extreme winter storms during the later half of the 20th century than the first.
Methane is 80 times more effective than carbon dioxide at trapping heat in the atmosphere.
- Methane is the second most abundant greenhouse gas on the planet.
- A recent study analyzed ice core samples from the pre-industrial era to measure the extent to which industry has played a role in increasing atmospheric methane levels.
- The researchers note that their results suggest action can be taken to stem methane pollution.
Methane is the second most abundant greenhouse gas. Colorless, odorless, and lighter than air, methane (CH4) is some 80 times more effective at trapping the atmosphere's heat than carbon dioxide. Scientists estimate it to be responsible for about 25 percent of current global warming. Since the Industrial Revolution, the amount of methane in the atmosphere has increased by at least 150 percent.
Still, it's been hard to determine the primary emitters, and the extent to which natural processes are to blame.
Now, new research suggests that methane emissions from fossil fuels have been "vastly underestimated" by as much as 40 percent. The study focused on fossil methane, which is emitted through natural and anthropogenic sources like geologic seeps and the production of fossil fuels including natural gas. Biological methane is the gas's other form, and it comes from natural sources like wetlands, and human activity like rice farming.
The findings, published in Nature, are based on analyses of pre-industrial ice samples obtained from glaciers in Greenland. Because these ice core samples show how much methane was in the atmosphere before the Industrial Revolution, the analyses can offer a more accurate estimate of the extent to which human activity has been responsible for the recent increases of atmospheric methane.
Hmiel et al.
The results show that, prior to the Industrial Revolution, fossil methane emissions were about 1.6 to 5.4 teragrams. For context, the current estimate of total annual methane emissions is 172 to 195 teragrams. So, if the results are accurate, the implication is that human activity is almost entirely responsible for methane emissions, while natural contributors like gas seeps play a smaller role than previously thought. The results also suggest that the industry is likely underreporting the amount of methane leaks coming from various points in the supply chain, including processing, production, and transportation.
But that's not all bad news to lead study author Benjamin Hmiel, a researcher at the University of Rochester.
Fracking rig site in Oklahoma
J Pat Carter / Contributor
"I don't want to get too hopeless on this because my data does have a positive implication: Most of the methane emissions are anthropogenic (human-caused), so we have more control," Hmiel told USA Today. "If we can reduce our (methane) emissions, it's going to have more of an impact. [...] Placing stricter methane emission regulations on the fossil-fuel industry will have the potential to reduce future global warming to a larger extent than previously thought."
Methane emissions come from all sectors of the fossil fuel industry. But natural gas seems to be an especially dirty contributor, mainly because of the large amounts of gas that's lost during the production process. This leakage challenges the idea that natural gas is a relatively clean "bridge fuel" that society can burn as it develops more renewable energy sources. For example, a recent study found that the methane leakage rate in the U.S. natural gas supply chain was much higher than previous estimates from the Environmental Protection Agency. The implication: Natural gas comes with steep hidden costs.
Reducing methane emissions
The good news is that methane has a relatively short atmospheric lifespan. Unlike carbon dioxide, which can linger in the atmosphere for about 200 years, methane vanishes after about a decade. Its heat-trapping power, however, makes it a serious climate threat over the short term.
"It's impossible to hit [the Paris agreement climate] targets with methane in the mix," Lena Höglund Isaksson, a greenhouse gas expert at Austria's International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis, told National Geographic.
Although reducing methane leaks in the natural gas supply chain might be difficult, many experts argue that it's one of the more inexpensive and straightforward ways to curb greenhouse gas emissions. Beyond tightening regulations regarding leak monitoring and equipment surveys, a 2018 study published in Science recommended several ways gas companies can reduce methane leaks:
- Install less failure-prone systems
- Conduct on-site leak surveys
- Re-engineer individual components and processes
- Deploy sensors at individual facilities and on towers, aircraft or satellites
Change is coming, but not from the generation that currently holds positions of power.
- With figures like Greta Thunberg and demonstrations like the global climate strike, it's become apparent that young people are driving the effort to stop climate change.
- This generational pressure is the key to change. In the same way that smoking became less accepted in society, even frowned upon, so too can the behaviors that have sped up climate change.
- Moving forward, energy companies will play a major role if they can reimagine themselves as part of the solution to this crisis and forge a better path to save the planet.
A Better Planet: Forty Big Ideas for a Sustainable Future
There's concrete tradeoff logic lurking beneath the numbers and market abstractions.
- Filthy-fuel suffering is here today: 95% of humans breathe "dangerously polluted air," and globally "1 in 6 deaths are caused by air pollution."
- Paying extra for cleaner energy buys reduced suffering for today's kids and all future humans.
- For more "moral clarity" always look under "the numbers," and put their abstract tacit tradeoffs in concrete and personal terms.
Like the kid in the emperor's new clothes tale, Greta Thunberg sees through the "smart" games that blind us to clear, present, and colossal danger. These number-struck rituals of rationality were built for a world we no longer live in. Here's how to get more "moral clarity" (and avoid sophisticated math-masked moral and mortal mistakes).
Too much climate-crisis thinking presumes we should only do what we know is "right" if that's as cheap as today's bad way. But why is that the correct criteria? Current pollution-cheat prices ignore that the status-quo system can't last long. And that move voids vast avoidable suffering from "smart" considerations.
Here's the concrete tradeoff logic lurking under "the numbers" and market abstractions:
a) Keep using cheap dirty energy and your kids will have worse and shorter lives.
b) Choose higher-and-truer-cost clean energy but your kids live better and longer lives.
What we get for paying extra is reduced suffering — for today's kids, and for all future humans.
"How Dare You" not pay to prevent harming the life chances of the young, Thunberg thundered at the U.N. To keep using filthy fuel is to knowingly increase suffering (surely that "would be evil" declared Thunberg).
Again, using pollution-cheat prices as a barrier ensures ethical errors — moral mistakes that will make billions of lives worse.
Lest you think I'm exaggerating, consider this: "Over the last several decades, policy consensus has cautioned that the world would only tolerate responses to climate change if they were free—or [cheaper than current costs]" from David Wallace Welles's must-read The Uninhabitable Earth. Let's translate: Many of those trained in our governing games feel we should only stop burning the biosphere if it's cheap enough to not hurt profits. Otherwise, burn on. And burden kids with the "planetary overdraft" they'll have to pay dearly for.
Stopping climate change will pump trillions into the economy
Countless cases of similar hidden hideous "logic" exist (e.g. this capitalism-will-save-us piece brags that "solar and wind can now go head-to-head with fossil fuels"). Phrases like "commercially viable" often signal the same ethics error — basically no price in any current market covers actual full clean-up costs.
Status-quo market-thinking stokes this poisonous "planetary overdraft," and most "cheapest option" thinking ignores that mitigation costs ruthlessly compound over time. Every delay increases ultimate costs. And don't forget those "costs" translate to real people really suffering.
And filthy-fuel suffering isn't only a future woe. It has deadly effects right now, we just aren't paying attention. Ninety-five percent of humans breathe "dangerously polluted air," and globally "1 in 6 deaths are caused by air pollution." To not aggressively switch to cleaner, costlier energy risks a best-case death toll of "25 holocausts." Our business-as-usual games will beat the old one-Holocaust "banal evil."
The main old-moral-world case for using lowest-cost energy is to avoid reducing "growth." But that growth-at-all-costs mindset ignores now-known material and moral limits. There is no known way to avoid selectively reducing material growth (today's material burn rate is at 160% of what the Earth can sustain).
Like our physical infrastructure, much of our cognitive infrastructure must be retooled for those now-known material and moral limits we face. You may want to weigh with more care what you're willing to pay to do the "right thing" (e.g., giving our kids better lives).
For more "moral clarity" always look under "the numbers," and put their abstract tacit tradeoffs in concrete and personal terms. That's the same move used in prior Thought Fix posts to reveal errors in typical "discounting" and "growth" arguments. Similar moves can reformulate many worked-in-the-old-world "smart" games.
Humans hate to surrender, but this clearly makes good sense.
- In a new Science article, three academics make the case for managed retreat due to climate change.
- Beginning the process now instead of waiting until it's too late will save money and lives.
- Indonesia is moving its capital from Jakarta to Borneo as the former city is sinking.
On January 23, 1973 one of the world's most active volcanoes began erupting on the Icelandic island of Heimaey. Home to over 4,000 people (and eight million puffins), the eruption posed an existential crisis: the lava was going to destroy their homeland. Incredibly, the eruption continued for nearly six months. Yet island residents had no intention of giving up.
In The Control of Nature, New Yorker writer John McPhee writes about the heroic effort spearheaded by physicist Thorbjorn Sigurgeirsson, who had the idea of cooling the lava. Though half the city was destroyed, his plan worked. Today Heimaey residents have a physicist to thank for their continued, yet always tenuous, existence.
All life is tenuous, one of those inconvenient truths we only face when forced. In McPhee's book, a compilation of three New Yorker articles, the writer covers the existential terror residents of Los Angeles's hilltops face, with the constant fear of "the big one" in the back of their minds; he also discusses the peril of living in New Orleans, predating Katrina by decades.
Still, humans live in places that are simply not habitable, at least in the long-term. When we find out that fact, still we cling tight to an environmental heritage we refuse to give up.
Our pride will be, and often is, the death of us. That's why a new article on "managed retreat," published in the journal Science, is going to be relevant in the coming decades. Climate change will force mass relocations on a previously unthinkable scale. Better to begin the process now before time has run out.
The three authors, all of whom studied at or work for Stanford University, believe managed retreat isn't a submission, but rather a smart policy decision that will allow societies to adapt and thrive rather than succumbing to the imminent dangers of climate change.
Seaside Property Owners May Be Forced To Retreat
Despite the current administration's denial of basic climate facts, other government agencies, such as NASA, clearly detail the problems we are facing. Even if we completely change our carbon-dumping ways today, there is no escaping damages already caused—tragically, nor is the world going to change its ways in the immediate future. The American political party most likely to put forward smart solutions refuses to even hold a debate on the topic.
As with human nature in general, the authors—A.R. Siders (the University of Delaware), Miyuki Hino (Stanford University), and Katharine J. Mach (the University of Miami)—write that retreat is often treated as defeat. That negative connotation blinds us to preparation necessary for a successful managed retreat.
Since the process is usually ad hoc, communities forced to retreat are not adequately taken care of at both ends: in the regions they're leaving and those they're relocating to. By reconceptualizing retreat as a societal goal, they believe we can better wrap our heads around the entirety of the process.
"We propose a reconceptualization of retreat as a suite of adaptation options that are both strategic and managed. Strategy integrates retreat into long-term development goals and identifies why retreat should occur and, in doing so, influences where and when. Management addresses how retreat is executed."
One problem is short-term financial gain on coastal regions, the exact areas that will first have to be abandoned. For example, I currently rent an apartment on the west side of Los Angeles. As my wife and I begin to look for property to buy, it will certainly not be in the region we currently live. The notion of taking a 30-year mortgage in an area that could be uninhabitable in a few decades makes you reconsider the term "underwater" in every possible context.
Volcano eruption on Heimaey Island in Iceland on 23 January 1973. Firefighters working on controlling the lava flow by cooling it down with water so it does not flow into the harbor.
Photo by Fred Ihrt/LightRocket via Getty Images
That kind of foresight is no longer an option. There is no more speculation regarding coastal retreat. The entire state is just beginning to deal with that reality. How we deal with that—what we do with existing infrastructure; how and where we build new developments; what regions are best for agriculture and public works—is a question we will collectively face in the near future. Given recent reports on the state of the Arctic, that future is nearer than imagined.
As the authors conclude, managed retreat affects both individual psychology and market forces, which is why preparation is key. If we can begin planning for the forthcoming reality now, the better off we'll be as upcoming generations deal with the ravages of the last two centuries of industry.
The hardest aspect of managed retreat will likely be forcing the polluting agents, such as oil companies, to listen to environmental science. As American lobbying efforts have proven over the last half-century, you can purchase the legislation that best suits your interests. This needs to change immediately.
If this frightening yet informative Science article teaches you one thing, let it be this: there is a path ahead, but we have to initiate the process now. That requires communities that will be hit hardest to force their governments to take action. As they note, different regions are on different time scales. Los Angeles will likely not need to move as quickly as Miami, yet the sooner we begin, the better it will be for everyone.
At least one nation is already planning for the inevitable: Indonesia has announced plans to move its capital to Borneo over the next decade, as Jakarta is sinking. Climate change might not be the main driver of this initiative—poor city planning is mostly to blame, which has resulted in polluted waterways—but considering rising sea levels are part of the equation, let this serve as a template that many other countries will soon need to implement, whether they like the news or not.