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Weather, County Energy Strategy and Our “Blue Marble”

February 14, 2012 by Tony Noerpel filed under Columns, Sustainable Planet No Comments

“We conclude that extreme heat waves, such as that in Texas and Oklahoma in 2011 and Moscow in 2010, were “caused” by global warming, because their likelihood was negligible prior to the recent rapid global warming.” – NASA climate scientists James Hansen, Makiko Sato and Reto Ruedy [1]

“Watching the weather over the past two years has been like watching a famous baseball hitter on steroids.”– Meteorologist Jeff Masters.

Government budgets are tight. I understand that much. And some expenses must get cut from the county budget. I don’t envy our Board of Supervisors having to balance it. They will get an earful from irate citizens no matter what they do and I sympathize with them even as I empathize with citizen concerns about loss of services. But having stayed out of this process in the past, I find myself motivated to join the fray this year.

In 2005, I met with our then future State Senator Mark Herring and we discussed global warming and our pending energy crises. At the time oil was less than $40 a barrel and I told him that soon it would be over $100. To any skeptical thinker paying attention that was not a hard prediction to make. We are running out. But the anthropogenic global warming problem is much worse as it is an existential threat. Herring asked me what he was supposed to do, after all his business as a local government official was to decide whether or not to build an overpass or install a traffic light or determine the size of signs. I had no answer then but promised to work on it. I do now. If we understand and accept the reality of global warming and fossil fuels depletion, it clarifies many of our decisions even at the local level. Any action which consumes less energy will do. Any action which commits us to consuming more energy is a mistake.

Loudoun County currently has an outstanding energy manager in Najib Salehi and under his leadership and with the cooperation of both the Board of Supervisors and county staff; our county has saved millions of dollars adopting energy efficient and energy conserving strategies. Our county has been recognized nationally for its County Energy Strategy.

For me the most important aspect of this effort is that the whole county and its citizenry have come to embrace sounder energy use policy because of the example of the CES. I attended the County Chamber of Commerce awards ceremony last year honoring local businesses which have adopted green business practices. As a local business owner myself I have since been encouraging my general partner that we need to compete this year in the competition.

In 2005, anthropogenic global warming was already a dominant factor influencing our climate. When the category-three Hurricane Katrina slammed into New Orleans on August 29th 2005, pushing massive flood waters into Lake Pontchartrain, breaching the levees and flooding the city, pundits attributed the disaster to global warming. While there is justification for this conclusion the explanation is based on statistics and the argument is both subtle and nuanced. Category three hurricanes have made landfall before the era of global warming. And the extent of the Katrina disaster and human trauma had more to do with oil and gas development off the coast of Louisiana (which carved up the wetlands with canals and caused subsidence of millions of acres) and more immediately with the incompetence of the Bush administration. But weather is becoming increasingly extreme. The more recent severe events, such as the 2010 Moscow drought and the 2011 Texas drought can be convincingly attributed to anthropogenic global warming without having to rely on subtle statistical arguments. Anthropogenic global warming caused these disasters.

The Moscow drought caused such a severe loss of crops in Russia that the country suspended grain exports. This caused a food shortage in the Middle East which most likely precipitated the “Arab Spring”. I’ve seen lots of photos of desiccated fields around the city taken that summer but the most visceral image has to be the plot of the July temperature anomalies in Moscow since 1950 shown in Figure 1. Note that while there had been one summer which was 5 degrees Fahrenheit colder than the mean there are seven summers which were 5 degrees warmer. This is evidence of a linear global warming effect, a linear shift of the probability density function. However in 2010 the temperature was 12 degrees warmer than the mean. There is almost no probability of such a warm summer occurring as indicated by the superimposed Gaussian distribution curve. Such an event is not only evidence of global warming but evidence that the warming is now non-linear. That the recent extreme heat events are caused by anthropogenic global warming is in fact the conclusion of a PNAS paper by Stefan Rahmstorf and Dim Coumou [2].

Figure 1 July Temperature Anomalies in Moscow since 1950 from National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration.

Figure 2 plots the average temperature in the June-August period in Texas for every year since 1895 against the June through August total rainfall. Observe that every year, drought or not, falls on a curve or not far off this curve. Thus given one of these measures, we could predict the other with close approximation. Texas State Climatologist John Nielsen-Gammon is the source of this figure [3]. Nielsen-Gammon explains, “The year 2011 continues the recent trend of being much warmer than the historical precipitation-temperature relationship would indicate, although with no previous points so dry it’s hard to say exactly what history would say about a summer such as this one. Except that this summer is way beyond the previous envelope of summer temperature and precipitation.” Again, the 2011 Texas drought suggests that the Earth climate may have changed state.

Figure 2 Texas summer temperature verse total rainfall since 1895 [3].

Figure 3 is a picture of our home planet taken by satellite on January 4, 2012. Isn’t it breath-taking? Meteorologist Jeff Masters explains:

“A new polar orbiting satellite has returned a stunning true-color image of the Earth taken on January 4, 2012. The Suomi NPP satellite, launched on October 28, 2011, is the first one designed to both take measurements to improve short-term weather forecasts, and collect data to increase understanding of long-term climate change. The VIIRS instrument on the satellite collected a series of true-color images of the Western Hemisphere on January 4 that were stitched together to create a new “Blue Marble” image of Earth, like the ones taken by the Apollo astronauts in the 1970s.

“The image is very interesting meteorologically, and extremely strange. It is obvious that it is a winter image, as revealed by the large area of stratocumulus clouds off the U.S. East Coast all the way to South Florida, caused by cold Canadian air blowing offshore. However, the U.S. and Canada are virtually snow-free and cloud-free, which is extremely rare for a January day. The lack of snow in the mountains of the Western U.S. is particularly unusual. I doubt one could find a January day this cloud-free with so little snow on the ground throughout the entire satellite record, going back to the early 1960s. NOAA’s Advanced Hydrologic Prediction Service shows that only one state–Washington–had areas where precipitation accumulated more than 0.25″ on January 4, 2012, which is an extraordinary occurrence for a January day.”

On his blog “weather underground” Masters has described the 14 one-billion dollar plus weather events occurring in the United States during 2011. This, of course, is a record.

The take home points are that anthropogenic global warming is real and is now evident and is indeed responsible for the extreme weather events we have been experiencing. This conclusion is no longer ambiguous or subject to qualification. Further, the changes do not appear to reflect a simple linear warming with respect to the additional atmospheric carbon dioxide but suggest a non-linear state transition has taken place. Our climate is no longer the same as what it once was. There is also at least one degree Fahrenheit more warming in the pipe line even if we abandon our cars and stop heating our homes; so the weather will continue to deteriorate; another easy prediction to make.

It is more important than ever that the county take the lead in teaching us how to conserve energy, not simply because of the immediate savings we enjoy but because we simply have no choice.

In a future article, I will discuss the summer time melting of the arctic sea ice and the probable impact on the weather. In fact as I write the arctic sea around Svalbard Island is already melting two months early, promising another extremely warm summer and another raft of frightening weather events later this year. The exposure of the dark Arctic Ocean during the summer months to incoming short wave solar radiation is one big nonlinear amplifying feedback on the Earth climate resulting from our misbehavior. It is past time to stop dishonest, cowardly and foolish denial.

Figure 3. The new “Blue Marble” image of Earth on January 4, 2012, as seen by the VIIRS instrument on the new Suomi NPP satellite. Image credit: NASA. [4]


[1] James Hansen, Makiko Sato and Reto Ruedy, “Perceptions of Climate Change: The New Climate Dice”, http://www.columbia.edu/~jeh1/mailings/2012/20120105_PerceptionsAndDice.pdf

[2] Stefan Rahmstorf and Dim Coumou and http://www.pnas.org/content/early/2011/10/18/1101766108.abstract

[3] John Nielsen-Gammon, http://blog.chron.com/climateabyss/2011/08/texas-drought-spot-the-outlier/

[4] http://www.flickr.com/photos/gsfc/6760135001/in/photostream

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