Climate change and wild spring weather


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The Greenland block is a high pressure atmospheric block that hangs above Greenland and affects weather moving down to lower latitudes. (flickr/Stig Nygaard)

Jenna Ladd | April 18, 2018

By-in-large, spring weather has been arriving earlier each year in the United States. For instance, the frost-free season was 10 days longer between 1991 and 2011 than it was from 1901 to 1960.

This may come as a shock to Midwesterners, who saw several inches of snow fall this Sunday, April 15th. So what’s going on?

Among some other factors, the Greenland Block has a lot to do with the snowy spring of 2018, according to Dr. David Mechem of the University of Kansas. Mechem, a professor of geography and atmospheric science, explained that there is a persistent atmospheric area of high pressure above Greenland which funnels cold air from the poles straight into the mid-latitudes of North America. He told KCUR that the block was in place throughout February and March and is finally starting to break down, which would bring long-awaited warmer temperatures to the midwest.

Further research is needed to establish exactly what kind of effect climate change has on spring weather, but scientists are noticing some changes. Winter storms (even if they happen in April) have increased in frequency and intensity in the Northern hemisphere since 1950 according to the National Climate Assessment. Nor’easter winter storms plague the eastern U.S. and are caused by the the cold air from the Arctic and warm air from the Atlantic interplaying. This year, that region of the U.S. saw several Nor’easters in very quick succession, which is unusual. A recent study in the journal Nature Communications found that as the Arctic’s climate continues to warm at an alarming rate, winter storms becoming more likely in the eastern U.S.

The good news is that as the Greenland block continues to break down, residents of the mid-latitudes can expect spring to finally arrive. The bad news is that unpredictable spring weather can be expected to continue coming years as the climate continues to change.

U.S. residents increasingly divided on climate change


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A Gallup graph depicts how opinions about climate change have changed over time in the U.S. (Gallup)

Jenna Ladd | March 29, 2018

A recent poll found that Americans have become even more polarized about climate change in the last year. Gallup completed the poll during the first week of March using a random sample of 1,041 adults in the United States.

While concern about global warming is still at a record high, the difference in opinions between Republicans and Democrats is now more stark. The poll found that 69 percent of Republicans thought that the seriousness of climate change is generally exaggerated in the news, while just four percent of Democrats believed the same thing. Similarly, just over 40 percent of Republicans said that they believe the undisputed fact that nearly all scientists believe that global warming is taking place, while 86 percent on Democrats did.

Gallup hypothesized about the increased polarization in opinion between the parties. They wrote,

“President Donald Trump, who has called global warming a “hoax,” may have contributed to this widening divide by reversing a number of government actions to address the issue. These included the announcement that the U.S. will withdraw from the 2015 Paris climate accord, the removal of climate change from the list of top U.S. national security threats and the elimination of the terms “global warming” and “climate change” from U.S. government websites and lexicons.”

Despite evidence that the number of severe weather-related deaths has risen because of climate change, few members of the Republican party seemed to think that climate change would pose a serious in their lifetime. Just 18 percent said that there was any real risk to them.

This year, Gallup has categorized about 48 percent of U.S. citizens as concerned believers in climate change, which is similar to 2017’s 50 percent figure. About 32 percent have mixed opinions about the existence and cause of climate change, and 19 percent are categorized as climate change skeptics.

Hot, drier weather poses risks to beer production


 

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Hops, the grain that gives India Pale Ales their distinct, bitter flavor, has become more expensive as Northwestern weather grows hotter. (Josh Delp/flickr)
Jenna Ladd | March 16, 2018

Per tradition, many will head to a pub for a beer tomorrow to ring in St. Patrick’s Day. Few, however, are likely to think about the way our changing climate impacts beer production.

Beer is made with a fermented grain, namely barely and hops, and water. All these key ingredients become more difficult to source as weather becomes more extreme.

More than seventy percent of hops, which give some beers their bitter flavor, are produced in Washington state, specifically in the Yakima Basin. NOAA National Centers for Environment Information reports that in 2015, that area of Washington faced severe drought conditions from June through August. In fact, hop’s whole growing season in Washington that year was uncommonly warm. The state still managed to produce nearly 60 million pounds of hops, but yields for certain varieties of the grain were much lower than expected. The warmer weather in that region is expected to continue hurting hop production, specifically European varieties that are grown there.

Brewing beer also requires great quantities of water. Drought conditions in many parts of California have made beer production difficult and costly. For taste, brewers prefer to use river and lake water, but as river flows reduce and reservoirs run dry, many breweries have had to switch to groundwater. Groundwater is typically mineral-rich and can give beer a funny taste. Some brewers have likened it to “brewing with Alka-Seltzer.”

In 2015, top breweries released a statement detailing the way climate change affects production,

“Warmer temperatures and extreme weather events are harming the production of hops, a critical ingredient of beer that grows primarily in the Pacific Northwest. Rising demand and lower yields have driven the price of hops up by more than 250% over the past decade. Clean water resources, another key ingredient, are also becoming scarcer in the West as a result of climate-related droughts and reduced snow pack.”

New Belgium and Sierra Nevada are among many breweries that have implemented internal energy conservation practices. Sierra Nevada uses more than 10,000 solar panels to supply energy to its California brewery and New Belgium employees started giving up their bonuses to purchase wind turbines for the company over twenty years ago.  As grains, water and energy become more costly, brewers and consumers alike may benefit from considering the ecological impact each pint of beer has this Saturday.

 

Gender disparities extend to climate resiliency


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Women are often responsible for gathering fuel and water for domestic purposes, task that is much more difficult and time consuming as the climate continues to change. (Flickr/United Nations Ian Steele)
Jenna Ladd | March 9, 2017

Yesterday’s International Women’s Day inspired record-setting strikes, calls for equal pay and representation as well as conversations about how climate change disproportionally affects women and girls.

A recent photo essay from the United Nation’s titled, “Climate Change is a Women’s Issue” depicts the ways climate disasters and gradually shifting weather patterns exacerbate the social inequities faced by women. Its figures state that 80 percent of the people that have been displaced by climate change worldwide are women. Increasingly frequent periods of drought mean that women and girls also spend much more time walking to retrieve water and much less time working or in school.

The United Nationa’s environment gender expert, Victor Tsang, and communication officer, Shari Nijman, wrote recently,“While environmental changes affect everyone, due to existing gender inequalities, women often bear the bulk of the burden. In patriarchal societies, cultural, legal and political restrictions often undermine women’s adaptability and resilience to climate change.” The authors later suggest that providing equal access to land, agricultural extension services, financial inclusion and education for women is key to curbing and coping with climate change.

For the first time ever, the U.N. climate talks incorporated a Gender Action Plan this year at the COP23 conference in Bonn, Germany. The plan “seeks to advance women’s full, equal and meaningful participation and promote gender-responsive climate policy and the mainstreaming of a gender perspective in the implementation of the Convention and the work of Parties.”

Georgetown’s Institute for Women, Peace and Security argued in a 2015 report that inclusion of women in high-levels of climate decision-making like the U.N. conference of the parties is necessary, but not sufficient. Among many recommendations, they ask that national governments develop disaster plans that specifically aim to lessen impacts on women and that private sector stakeholders invest in job opportunities for women that also combat the effects of climate change. Researchers point out that these steps not only lessen the burden of a warming planet for women but also recognize them as a powerful part of the solution.

As former Finnish president H.E. Tarja Halonen once said, “[Women] are powerful agents whose knowledge, skills and innovative ideas support the efforts to combat climate change.”

Extreme weather events more likely even if climate change is curtailed


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Parched soil in Illinois during the 2012 drought. (Thought Quotient/flickr)
Jenna Ladd | February 22, 2017

A study recently published in the journal Science Advances found that even if global climate change mitigation goals are met, extreme weather events will still occur more frequently in the future.

The United Nations Paris Climate Accord aims to keep global temperatures from increasing more than two degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. Even if the global community succeeds, human-induced climate change has already made extreme heatwaves, floods and droughts significantly more common.

Unfortunately, scientists say that the existing emission-reduction pledges by the world’s nations are not enough to keep temperatures from rising above 2 degrees Celsius. The study finds that if temperatures were to rise to 3 degrees hotter than preindustrial levels, North America would see at least a 300 percent increase in extreme weather events, for example.

Dr. Noah Diffenbaugh is a climate scientist at Stanford University and the study’s lead author. He said to the Scientific American, “In addition to not meeting the global temperature target, those commitments also imply substantial increase in the probability of record-setting events. Not only hot events but wet events, and also in other regions of the world, dry events as well.”

The study found that extreme heat records are the most likely to be affected by unabated climate change. Scientists focused primarily on North America, Western Europe and East Asia. They found that hotter-than-ever night time temperatures have been occurring much more frequently in recent years. If the climate warms to the 3 degree threshold, extreme heat events are expected to happen five times more frequently in half of Europe and at least three times more frequently in parts of Eastern Asia.

The study reads, “However, even if cumulative emissions are sufficiently constrained to ensure that global warming is held to 1° to 2°C, many areas are still likely to experience substantial increases in the probability of unprecedented [extreme weather] events.”

An interactive map created by researchers at Carbon Brief allows user to see which past extreme weather events can were cause by anthropogenic climate change and which were not.

Link between climate change and conflict questioned


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The relationship between climate change and conflict has been studied in Kenya more than many other nations. (Viktor Dobai/flickr)

Jenna Ladd | February 15, 2018

It has been accepted in many scientific communities that climate change can lead to civil unrest and violence, but a recent editorial in the Journal Nature tells readers not to be so sure.

The editorial’s authors did a literature review of 124 studies which assessed the link between climate change and war or civil unrest. They claim to have found three kinds of sampling biases among the studies. First, researchers overwhelmingly looked at regions where violence was already happening or had happened recently. Second, they noted that the studies primarily included countries in Africa and left out other nations that have been severely impacted by climate change. Finally, the mostly-white, Western researchers usually chose to study countries that were easily accessible to them and where the locals spoke English; think countries like Kenya.

Tobias Ide studies peace and war at the Georg Eckert Institute for International Textbook Research and is one of the paper’s authors. He said to The Atlantic, “If we only look at places where violence is, can we learn anything about peaceful adaptation to climate change? And if we only look at those places where there is violence, do we tend to see a link because we are only focusing on the places where there is violence in the first place?”

Solomon Hsiang has been openly critical of the paper’s claims. Hsiang’s 2013 findings showed that for every standard deviation change in precipitation or temperature, the likelihood that an area will experience civil unrest rises by 14 percent. The University of California Berkeley economist and public policy professor said in an email to The Atlantic, “Studying conflict-prone regions isn’t a problem, it’s what you would expect. Nobody is studying Ebola outbreaks by studying why Ebola is not breaking out in cafés in Sydney today, we study what happened in West Africa when there was an actual event.”

Either way, the paper draws attention to the myriad opportunities for study of climate change and conflict in countries outside of Africa and the Middle East. Ide said, “I was a bit surprised that even within American studies, there’s not really a focus on Latin America, basically. You can be concerned about Iraq, Syria, or India because of geopolitical relevance—but why not look for [climate-related conflict] in Mexico, or Honduras, or Brazil? Because that would have much sharper consequences for the United States.”

Crop production linked to regional changes in climate


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Corn and soy plants can cool the climate on a regional level, but intensified conventional agriculture can harm water and soil quality. (Lana/flickr)

Jenna Ladd | February 14, 2018

A new study by researchers at Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Dartmouth College detail the way intensive agriculture has influenced precipitation and temperature patterns in the midwest.

During the second half of the 20th century, corn production in the midwest increased by 400 percent and soybean yields doubled due to more intensive agricultural practices. The study, which was published in Geophysical Research Letters, found that the midwest also saw significantly more precipitation and lower temperatures during the summer months over the same period of time. They concluded that the changes were not merely correlated, but that the land use change actually caused the regional climate changes.

The authors explain that each time plants take in carbon dioxide, they release moisture into the atmosphere through pore-like structures called stoma. With more plentiful and robust plants due to intensive agriculture, the amount of moisture corn and soy crops collectively release into the atmosphere has increased in the midwest since the 1950’s. This extra moisture, the study found, has caused summer air to cool and more precipitation to fall. In the last fifty years, average summertime rainfall in the midwest has increased by 15 percent and average summer temperatures have dropped by 0.5 degrees Celsius.

Roger Pielke Sr., a senior researcher at the University of Colorado at Boulder commented on the study, he said, “This is a really important, excellent study. The leadership of the climate science community has not yet accepted that human land management is at least as important on regional and local climate as the addition of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere by human activities.”

Since completing the study, the researchers have developed a formula that accounts for the causative relationship between plants and regional climate changes that can be entered into U.S. regional climate models. It correctly predicted those changes that have been observed in the midwest over the last 50 years.

The study opens the door for further research into land use changes and how they can affect local climate.