Earth is now the warmest it’s been in some 120,000 years. Eighteen of the last 19 years have been the warmest on record. And concentrations of carbon dioxide — a potent greenhouse gas — are likely the highest they’ve been in 15 million years.
The consequences of such a globally-disrupted climate are many, and it’s understandably difficult to keep track. To help, here’s a list of climate-relevant news that has transpired in 2019, from historically unprecedented disappearances of ice, to flood-ravaged cities. As more news comes out, the list will be updated.
In early 2019, the Rhodium Group — a research institution that analyzes global economic and environmental trends — released a report finding that in 2018 carbon dioxide emissions in the U.S. rose 3.4 percent from the prior year. That’s the second largest gain in the last two decades.
“It’s trending in the wrong direction — it’s not encouraging,” said Robert McGrath, the director of the University of Colorado Boulder’s Renewable and Sustainable Energy Institute who had no role in the report but reviewed it.
Antarctica — home to the greatest ice sheets on Earth — isn’t just melting significantly faster than it was decades ago. Great masses of ice that scientists once presumed were largely immune to melting are losing ample ice into the sea.
“People are beginning to recognize that East Antarctica might be waking up,” said Josh Willis, an oceanographer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory that visits and measures Earth’s melting glaciers.
“There’s growing evidence that eastern Antarctica is not just going to stay frozen and well-behaved in the next 50 to 100 years,” he explained.
A triple whammy of disease, climate change, and deforestation has threatened around 60 percent of the planet’s wild coffee species. While this hasn’t yet imperiled the world’s coffee supply, it jeopardizes your favorite coffee’s resiliency in the face of profound planetary change.
“As farmers are increasingly exposed to new climate conditions and changing pest pressures, the genetic diversity of wild crop relatives may be essential to breeding new coffee varieties that can withstand these pressures,” Nathan Mueller, an assistant professor of earth system science at the University of California, Irvine who researches global food security, said over email.
The results of a new survey — conducted in November 2018 by the University of Chicago’s Energy Policy Institute and the research organization The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research — found that nearly half of Americans said today’s climate science “is more convincing than five years ago, with extreme weather driving their views.”
The polar vortex has become a popular phenomenon for good reason: This weakening of the polar vortex and the subsequent spillover of frigid air has become more common over the last two decades.
“We are seeing these events occurring more frequently as of late,” said Jeff Weber, a meteorologist with the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research.
Although this increase in polar vortex frequency is a hot area of study, one emerging theory blames significantly diminished Arctic sea ice. The Arctic is warming over twice as fast as the rest of the globe and sea ice cover is plummeting. As a result, recent climate research suggests that — without this ice cover — more heat escapes from the oceans. Ultimately, researchers found that this relatively warmer air interacts with and weakens the winds over the Arctic, allowing frigid polar air to more easily escape to southerly places like Cleveland and New York City.
While certain portions of the winter sure felt frigid, overall, the number of daily cold records set in the U.S. has been consistently dwarfed by the number of warm or high temperature records. The score isn’t even close. High records over the last decade are outpacing low records by a rate of two to one.
In the past 10 years there have been 21,461 record daily highs and 11,466 lows.
“The trend is in exactly the direction we would expect as a result of a warming planet,” said Michael Mann, a climate scientist at Penn State University.
Beyond the continually grim news from the north and south poles is the melting of the “third pole,” known as the Hindu Kush Himalaya region. Spreading over 2,000 miles across eight nations (from Afghanistan to Myanmar), these mountainous lands are home to the third-largest stores of ice on the planet and provide water to hundreds of millions of people.
Under the most optimistic conditions, a found that over a third of the ice will vanish by the century’s end. But under more extreme climate scenarios — wherein global climate efforts fail — two-thirds of these mighty glaciers could disappear, with overall ice losses of a whopping 90 percent.
“Glacier-wise, it’s not a great story,” Joseph Shea, one of the report’s lead authors and an assistant professor of environmental geomatics at the University of Northern British Columbia, said in an interview.
The U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Science, Space and Technology is no longer under the leadership of the Republican party, which is candidly opposed to globally-accepted climate science.
Congresswoman Eddie Bernice Johnson, a veteran Democratic lawmaker from Texas, has become Chairwoman and called a hearing for Feb. 13 entitled “The State of Climate Science and Why it Matters,” inviting four scientists to give testimony about major U.S. climate reports and the significance of the latest climate science.
“Climate change is real, it’s happening now, and humans are responsible for it,” Bob Kopp, a climate scientist at Rutgers University and a coauthor of the congressionally mandated Fourth National Climate Assessment Kopp said in an interview, outlining critical points he planned to make to federal lawmakers.
In early 2017, the Trump Administration tried to ax NASA’s Orbiting Carbon Observatory 3, or OCO-3. It didn’t work. Then, again in 2018, the White House sought to terminate the earth science instrument.
Again, the refrigerator-sized space machine persisted.
Now, SpaceX is set to launch OCO-3 to the International Space Station in the coming months, as early as April 25. Using a long robotic arm, astronauts will attach OCO-3 to the edge of the space station, allowing the instrument to peer down upon Earth and measure the planet’s amassing concentrations of carbon dioxide — a potent greenhouse gas.
“Carbon dioxide is the most important gas humans are emitting into the atmosphere,” said Annmarie Eldering, the project scientist for OCO-3 at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. “Understanding how it will play out in the future is critical.”
Here’s a statistic: On Earth, 18 of the last 19 years have been the warmest in recorded history.
The globe’s 21st-century heating, however, becomes all the more stark when compared to the coldest years on record. As climate scientist Simon Donner, who researches human-induced climate change at The University of British Columbia, underscored via a list posted on Twitter, the planet’s 20 coldest years all occurred nearly a century ago, between 1884 and 1929.
The coldest year on record occurred in 1904.
Two NASA satellites have watched Earth grow greener over the last 20 years — in large part because China is hellbent on planting millions of trees.
Earth’s greening — meaning the increase in areas covered by green leaves — has made the greatest gains in China and India since the mid-1990s. “The effect comes mostly from ambitious tree-planting programs in China and intensive agriculture in both countries,” as it released maps of the planet-wide changes.
China kickstarted its tree-planting mobilizations in the 1990s to combat erosion, climate change, and air pollution. This dedicated planting — sometimes done by soldiers — equated to over 40 percent of China’s greening, so far.
The scope of a Green New Deal — if such a program ever truly comes to match the scale of the original New Deal — wouldn’t just put millions of Americans to work, but could very well transform the mood, culture, and spirit of the United States in the 21st century.
The New Deal wasn’t just paying people to build things. People were doing fulfilling, nation-improving work. They planted three billion trees. They built many of the nation’s bridges and roads. Today, we drive under their tunnels and walk through their parks.
“Those men at the end of their lives would take their families back to show them what they had done — because they were quite proud of it,” said Gray Brechin, a historical geographer and New Deal scholar.
Princeton physicist and carbon dioxide-advocate William Happer has been selected to head the brand new Presidential Committee on Climate Security, reports The Washington Post. Happer maintains that the planet’s atmosphere needs significantly more CO2, the potent greenhouse gas that U.S. government scientists — and a bevy of independent scientists — have repeatedly underscored is stoking accelerating climate change.
Because plants use carbon dioxide to live, Happer has said “more CO2 is actually a benefit to the Earth,” asserted that Earth is experiencing a “CO2 famine,” and concluded that “If plants could vote, they would vote for coal.”
Earth and plant scientists disagree.
“The idea that increased CO2 is universally beneficial [to plants] is very misguided,” said Jill Anderson, an evolutionary ecologist specializing in plant populations at the University of Georgia.
A potent atmospheric river — a long band of water vapor that often transports ample amounts of moisture to the western U.S. like “rivers in the sky” — deluged portions of Northern California in late February. The Russian River, which winds through the Sonoma County town of Guerneville, reached over 45-feet high and swamped the area, prompting the Sheriff to announce on Twitter that the town had been surrounded by water — with no way in or out.
While California relies heavily on these wintertime atmospheric rivers for its water, scientists expect these storms to grow dramatically wetter as Earth’s climate heats up.
“We’re likely to see rain in increasingly intense bursts,” said Daniel Swain, a climate scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research.
During winter, the Bering Strait has historically been blanketed in ice. But this year, the ice has nearly vanished [by late February].
“The usually ice-covered Bering Strait is almost completely open water,” said Zack Labe, a climate scientist and Ph.D. candidate at the University of California at Irvine.
“There should be ice here until May,” added Lars Kaleschke, a climate scientist at the Alfred Wegener Institute for Polar and Marine Research.
Solar geoengineering is widely viewed as risky business.
The somewhat sci-fi concept — to use blimps, planes, or other means to load Earth’s atmosphere with particles or droplets that reflect sunlight and cool the planet — has crept into the mainstream conversation as a means of reversing relentless climate change, should our efforts to slash carbon emissions fail or sputter. But geoengineering schemes come with a slew of hazards. A number of studies have cited the ill consequences of messing with Earth’s sun intake, including big falls in crop production, the likelihood of unforeseen adverse side effects, and critically, a weakened water cycle that could trigger drops in precipitation and widespread drought.
Yet new research, published in the journal Nature Climate Change, acknowledges these problems but finds a potential fix: only deploying enough reflective specks in the atmosphere to reduce about half of Earth’s warming, rather than relying on geoengineering to completely return Earth to the cooler, milder climate of the 19th century. In other words, giving Earth a geoengineering dose that would reverse a significant portion of the warming, but not enough to stoke the problematic side effects.
“Solar engineering might not be a good choice in an emergency,” said David Keith, a solar engineering researcher at Harvard University and study coauthor. “If it makes any sense at all, it makes sense to gradually ramp it up.”
With no benefit to itself, Earth’s vast sea has gulped up around 30 percent of the carbon dioxide humans emitted into Earth’s atmosphere over the last century. Critically, scientists have now confirmed that the ocean in recent decades has continued its steadfast rate of CO2 absorption, rather than letting the potent greenhouse gas further saturate the skies.
But a weighty question still looms: How much longer can we rely on the ocean to so effectively store away carbon dioxide, and stave off considerably more global warming?
“At some point the ability of the ocean to absorb carbon will start to diminish,” said Jeremy Mathis, a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) climate scientist who coauthored the study. “It means atmospheric CO2 levels could go up faster than they already are.”
“That’s a big deal,” Mathis emphasized.
More to come as 2019 unfolds….