Major hydrologic shifts observed by NASA


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Researchers found that drier areas, like this drought-stricken field in Texas, are getting drier in a recent study. (U.S. Department of Agriculture/flickr)

Jenna Ladd | May 18, 2018

A recent study by NASA, the first of its kind, found that significant amounts of water are shifting around Earth’s surface.

Scientists used data from the Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment (GRACE), two satellites, to track gravitational changes made by hydrologic shifts in 34 regions around the world. From 2002 through 2016, they paired this information with satellite precipitation data, NASA/U.S. Geological Survey Landsat imagery, irrigation maps, and public reports of human activities related to agriculture, mining and reservoir operations.

In short, researchers found that wetter areas are getting wetter and drier areas are getting drier. Jay Famiglietti of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory is one of the study’s authors. He explains, “We see a distinctive pattern of the wet land areas of the world getting wetter – those are the high latitudes and the tropics – and the dry areas in between getting dryer. Embedded within the dry areas we see multiple hotspots resulting from groundwater depletion.”

Scientists point to a couple of things to explain freshwater depletion in areas that are getting drier. In Saudi Arabia and many other parts of the world, for example, ground water has been depleted for agricultural purposes. The study also found that groundwater availability changes with periods of drought. From 2007 through 2015, southwestern California lost enough freshwater to fill 400,000 Olympic size swimming pools because the region saw less precipitation and snowpack during that time and had to rely on groundwater more heavily.

Freshwater loss in many regions was attributed to global warming that caused glaciers and ice sheets to melt away. However, Famiglietti said that much more research is needed to determine whether climate change caused the other hydrologic shifts.

GRACE Follow-On, GRACE’s successor, will continue to monitor the movement on water on Earth and is set to launch on May 22nd from Vandenberg Air Force Base California.

Smog-producing air pollution declining more slowly


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Catalytic converters have decreased the amount of carbon monoxide emitted by cars dramatically since they were first introduced in the 1970s. (Chris Keating/flickr)
Jenna Ladd | May 1, 2018

A new study found that levels of two primary pollutants in the U.S. atmosphere have not been declining as rapidly during recent years as they once were.

Researchers at the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) studied satellite data and ground level measurements of two smog-forming pollutants: nitrogen oxides and carbon monoxide. Levels of these air pollutants decreased dramatically following the implementation of the Clean Air Act in the 1970s. Requirements of that act pushed automakers and energy-producers to develop new technology which curbed the emissions of these two pollutants.

The study found that concentration of these two pollutants in the atmosphere decreased by seven percent each year between 2005 and 2009. However, from 2011 through 2015, the pollutants’ levels only shrunk by 1.7 percent annually.

Helen Worden is a scientist at NCAR and one of the study’s authors. She said to Phys Org, “Although our air is healthier than it used to be in the 80s and 90s, air quality in the U.S. is not progressing as quickly as we thought. The gains are starting to slow down.”

The study noted that the slower decrease in carbon monoxide and nitrogen oxides was especially severe in the eastern part of the U.S. This finding dispels notions that the slower pace can be attributed to traveling air pollution from countries like China. The positive news is that the slower decline in carbon monoxide, which is primarily emitted by vehicles, is likely due to the fact that major strides have already been made to reduce vehicle emissions. In short, clean air technology related to cars may have reached a kind of plateau.

This study was funded by NASA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the University of Colorado Boulder, and the National Science Foundation. The full journal article can be found in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Global temperatures continued to rise in September


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A climate anomalies map from NOAA details significant some climate events during September 2017. (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association)
Jenna Ladd | October 20, 2017

Earth’s climate continued to warm during September 2017, setting some alarming records.

September 2017 was the planet’s fourth warmest September since record-keeping began in 1880. The three warmest Septembers were in 2015, 2016 and 2014. This year’s September was especially notable because no El Niño effect was present. El Niño events typically bring warmer weather because they cause the ocean to release warm air into the atmosphere.

Even in the absence of an El Niño effect, temperatures in January through February of this year have made 2017 the second hottest year on the 138-year record kept by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). In the top spot? 2016, which was 1.02 degrees Celsius above the 20th century average.

Sweltering temperatures were experienced across the globe. The hottest temperature in the Southern Hemisphere was 109 degrees Fahrenheit on September 27th in Birdsville, Australia. In the northern hemisphere, temperatures soared to 123 degrees Fahrenheit on September 3rd in Mitribah, Kuwait.

Record high temperatures are not without consequences. September 2017 also had the second lowest Antarctic sea ice cover during that month on record. The Arctic sea fared slightly better, coming in at number seven for record low sea ice cover during September.

A concise summery of NOAA and NASA’s September climate report can be found here.

Extreme weather reaches ‘uncharted territory’


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Hurricane Matthew is just one example of the climate change-related extreme weather events that have taken place in 2017. (NASA Goddard Space Flight Center/flickr)
Jenna Ladd | March 23, 2017

Last year was a record-breaking year for climate change and not in a good way. Global temperatures set record highs for the third consecutive year and sea ice coverage worldwide shrunk by 4,000,000 square kilometers, that’s about the size of the European Union.

These extraordinary climate conditions led to extreme weather events all around the world. Among them, Hurricane Matthew in the Caribbean, the first category four storm to reach land since in 1963 and severe droughts in southern and eastern Africa. A recent report from the United Nations World Meteorological Organization found that extreme weather has carried over into 2017.

So far this winter, severe storms in the Atlantic Ocean have caused Arctic “heat waves” so that while ice cover in the region should be refreezing, many days it was close to melting. North Africa and the Arabian peninsula have seen colder than usual winter temperatures while parts of Canada and the U.S. have been much warmer than is typical.

David Carlson is the World Climate Research program director. He said, “Even without a strong El Niño in 2017, we are seeing other remarkable changes across the planet that are challenging the limits of our understanding of the climate system.”

In the month of February alone, nearly 12,000 warm temperature records were broken in the U.S.

Carlson added, “We are now in truly uncharted territory.”

2016 marks third consecutive hottest year on record


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Ethiopia, among many other African countries, experienced extreme drought and famine in 2016. (European Comission DG Echo/flickr)

 Jenna Ladd | January 19, 2017

Yet another record was set on Wednesday when the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA) released its annual Climate Report.

The report announced that 2016 was the hottest year on record for the third consecutive year. Deke Arndt is the chief of the monitoring group at NOAA’s National Centers for Environmental Information in Asheville, N.C.

Arndt said, “[Last year] was the warmest year on record, beating 2015 by a few hundredths of a degree, and together those two years really blow away the rest of our record.” He continued, “And that doesn’t sound like a lot, but when you take that and you average it all the way around the planet, that’s a big number.”

Rising temperatures were not limited to certain regions. Experts said that some part of every major ocean and every major continent experienced record heat. The Arctic, however, saw some of the most extreme warming. During Fall of 2016, temperatures were a full 20 to 30 degrees Fahrenheit warmer than average across large parts of the Arctic ocean.

Scientists say the long-term warming caused by climate change was intensified by the El Niño weather phenomenon during 2015 and 2016. Their combined effect caused drought and famine in Zambia, Congo, Zimbabwe, Mozambique and Malawi, among other countries. Now that El Niño is coming to an end, Arndt said that the annual temperature-recording breaking probably will too, but an overall warming trend will continue.

Arndt said, “The long-term warming is driven almost entirely by greenhouse gases. We’ve seen a warming trend related to greenhouse gases for four, five, six decades now.”

The Climate Report, along with a separate analysis by NASA which duplicated its results, were released on the same day that confirmation hearings began for Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt, who has been nominated by President-elect Trump to lead the Environmental Protection Agency. Pruitt, who staunchly supports the fossil fuel industry, is identified as “a leading advocate against the EPA’s activist agenda” in his official biography.

The complete report and a summary of its findings can be found here.

University of Iowa alumnus receives BBVA Frontiers of Knowledge Award


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University of Iowa Alumnus, James Hansen (Columbia University)
Jenna Ladd | January 17, 2017

University of Iowa Alumnus James Hansen has been honored with the BBVA Foundation Frontiers of Knowledge Award in the Climate Change category.

The BBVA Foundation promotes, finances, and developments research projects in Biomedicine and Health, Environment, Economy and Society, Basic Sciences and Technology, and Arts and Humanities on behalf of the BBVA Group, a multinational banking group headquartered in Bilbao, Spain.

Hansen received the Frontiers of Knowledge Award along with Japanese climatologist Syukuro Manabe. The two men independently developed the first computation models with the ability to simulate climate behavior, and pioneered the “use of these models to understand and project how Earth’s climate responds to changing concentrations of atmospheric CO2,” said the BBVA’s prize jury.

Originally from Denison, Iowa, Hansen earned his Bachelors, Masters, and PhD from the University of Iowa in Physics. He studied under renowned physicist James VanAllen in the space studies program in the late 1960’s. In 1967, Hansen joined NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies. While researching planetary atmospheres at the Institute, Hansen was instrumental in establishing that Venus’ extremely hot temperatures were due to a greenhouse gas effect.

As CO2 levels in Earth’s atmosphere continued to rise throughout the 1970’s, Hansen shifted his focus and began to study the effect of CO2 on climate. He developed a computational model independently from Manabe, and his conclusions were published in the Journal of Science in 1981. The BBVA prize jury points out that this research was important because it was the first ever to incorporate global temperature data and to predict how global warming would affect other earth processes such as oceanic circulation and flooding.

Manabe said, “I started working with models earlier, but Hansen was the first to use these models to make predictions.”

Hansen served as Director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies from 1981-2013. He is now an adjunct professor at Columbia University’s Earth Institute where he has led the Climate Science, Awareness and Solutions program since 2013.

Arctic region sees unprecedented warming in 2016


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NASA scientists surveying Arctic melt ponds during the summer months of 2011. (NASA Goddard Space Flight Center/flickr)
Jenna Ladd | December 14, 2016

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) presented its annual Arctic Report Card on Tuesday, and there’s no cause for celebration.

Scientists say that the Arctic experienced its warmest year ever recorded, and temperatures in the region are rising at “astonishing” rates. Jeremy Mathis is director of NOAA’s Arctic research program, he said, “Rarely have we seen the Arctic show a clearer, stronger or more pronounced signal of persistent warming and its cascading effects on the environment than this year.”

Scientists explained that warming which used to only have an effect in the summer months is now affecting the Arctic year-round. Mathis added, “The Arctic as a whole is warming at least twice as fast as the rest of the planet.”

The report said that the warming of the Arctic can be explained by long-term increases in carbon dioxide emissions and air temperatures as well as natural seasonal and regional variability. These effects are compounded by the feedback loops in the Arctic climate system. Before human-induced climate change, the Arctic region remained cool because large areas of ice and snow reflected much of the sun’s rays back into space. Now that large areas of the ice and snow are melting away, the sun’s rays absorb into the dark land masses and ocean water, causing temperatures to rise more quickly.

Mathis said, “What happens in the Arctic, doesn’t stay in the Arctic.”

He explained that warm temperatures in the Arctic could be influencing jet stream patterns in the Northern hemisphere, potentially causing extreme weather in the United States.

Rafe Pomerance, a member of the Polar Research Board of the National Academy of Sciences, was not involved with the report card. He said,“The 2016 Arctic Report Card further documents the unraveling of the Arctic and the crumbling of the pillars of the global climate system that the Arctic maintains.”