See the Tabbed Pages for links to video tutorials, and a linked list of post titles grouped by topic.

This blog is expressly directed to readers who do not have strong training or backgrounds in science, with the intent of helping them grasp the underpinnings of this important issue. I'm going to present an ongoing series of posts that will develop various aspects of the science of global warming, its causes and possible methods for minimizing its advance and overcoming at least partially its detrimental effects.

Each post will begin with a capsule summary. It will then proceed with captioned sections to amplify and justify the statements and conclusions of the summary. I'll present images and tables where helpful to develop a point, since "a picture is worth a thousand words".

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Drought and Extremes of Heat Reduce Farm Yields and Worsen Wildfires

[Updated September 16, 2015]       

Man-made global warming worsens the extreme drought in the American West because of its excessive heating.  Farms in California receive inadequate water supplies, leading to crop losses.  Wildfires are burning record areas of forest in the West as well as in Alaska.  In order to minimize future damaging effects such as these, Americans should join forces with other nations of the world to reduce use of fossil fuels so that greenhouse gas emissions are lowered.

The drought in California.   Barry Baker, an almond farmer in California’s Central Valley, couldn’t provide enough water for the 5,000 acres (about 2,000 hectares) of almond trees he grows, the Vancouver, WA Columbian reported in February 2014  So he tore up about one-fifth of his trees, an irreversible decision (see the image below), and had them reduced to wood chips to fuel a local power plant. 

Alan Thompson of G&F Agri Service oversees the removal of almond trees at Baker Farming Company in Firebaugh, CA, on Feb. 3, 2014. (Scott Smith/AP)

The prolonged drought in California, now in its fourth year, has cut supplies of water used to be available to irrigate crops. In July 2015 the state ordered farmers to stop pumping the water.  A year earlier, farmers’ bids for water drawing rights were rumored to be as high as US$3,000 an acre-foot (a measure of water volume), instead of normal rates of about US$60. The wells on California’s farms have been pumping more water out of the region’s aquifer than is replenished by rainfall, so that the land of the Central Valley is actually sinking.  The resulting damage to the aquifer is permanent, reducing its capacity to hold water if and when rainfall returns.

Economic effects.  A 2015 study by the University of California, Davis of the economic effects of the drought on agriculture in California projects that a) lack of surface water for irrigation is only partly offset by pumping groundwater from deeper wells at higher cost; b) as many as 21,000 agriculture and related jobs will be lost; c) 542,000 acres (about 217,000 hectares) of agricultural land would lie fallow, more than 25% higher than in 2014; and d) US$2.7 billion of economic activity would be lost.  Thus the drought has serious negative consequences on the state’s economy.

Wildfires in the Western U.S.  In the U. S., forest and grassland wildfires have become significant problems in recent years.  So far in 2015, up to August 23, there have been almost 42,000 wildfires which have burned about 7,500,000 acres (about 2,800,000 hectares).  Over the last ten years, information for the year-to-this-date includes some years with higher numbers of fires, but none with a higher acreage burned.  The ten year average for the year-to-this-date was 5,350,800 acres (about 2,140,000 hectares) burned.

An example of the damage that wildfires cause is in the image below.

House threatened by wildfire in California, about Aug. 2, 2015.

One firefighter, David Ruhl, 38, died in California on about Aug. 2, 2015 as he was caught in the blaze in the region shown in the photo above.  Three firefighters, Tom Zbyszewski, 20, Andrew Zajac, 26, and Richard Wheeler, 31, died battling a blaze in Washington state.
The map below shows the locations of most of the 70 large wildfires active on Aug. 23, 2015.
A portion of the U. S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service map showing large (greater than 100 acres (40 hectares)) wildfire incidents present on August 23, 2015.  70 locations are mapped; red, blue, and gray show level 1, level 2 and other incidents, respectively.  In addition to those shown, the total includes five other incidents in Texas, Oklahoma, Louisiana and South Dakota (not shown in this map portion).  The web page stated that in addition there were 99 new fires on this date.
Source: U. S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service Active Fire Mapping Program; (accessed August 23, 2015).
The Forest Service states that on this date there were 72 uncontained large fires and 2 contained fires.  Their locations reflect the severe wildfire hazard presented by severe drought conditions in California and the inland regions of the Pacific Northwest.  The U.S. Drought Monitor showed that as of June 30, 2015 most of California, as well as portions of Nevada and Oregon, experienced extreme or exceptional drought, and other regions of Washington state, Oregon, Idaho and Montana experienced severe drought.  In general regions of drought correlate with incidence of wildfires.
Wildfires in Alaska.  More than a month earlier, the U. S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) reported that Alaska has had more than 600 fires, burning millions of acres of forest, the worst on record.  More than 350 structures have been damaged or destroyed.  Alaska had extreme high temperatures in interior regions during spring 2015 with temperatures 30ºF (16.7ºC) higher than typical, and were drier than usual as well. 
Extreme heat in the West and Alaska. NOAA reports that extreme heat has been prevalent over California and much of the West for the last three years.  This has worsened the effects of drought conditions in the region, which have lasted as long as six years.  In addition to lack of rainfall, low snowpacks in the mountains have led to reduced streamflow in the region, worsening the dryness of the soil.  The high temperatures paired with moderate to exceptional dryness in the American West and Alaska readily set the stage for ignition and spreading of forest wildfires.
Expenses of wildfire management.  The total costs of fire management have risen dramatically, by 60% over the last ten years, to US$2.5 billion.  As of Aug. 20, 2015, direct firefighting expenses have reached US$830 million; in all of 2014 the cost was US$1.2 billion.  Because of funding constraints, the U. S. Forest Service has reduced the proportion of administrative personnel and redirected staffing into firefighting in the field.
The role of global warming.  When confronted with climate extremes such as those described here, we may wonder whether global warming plays any role.  Generally drought refers to low rainfall; excess heat from global warming worsens its effects.  A. P. Williams and coworkers conducted detailed analyses of climate-related variables for California from 1901 to 2014; (Geophys. Res. Let. 2015; DOI: 10.1002/2015GL064924).  They found the drought was record-breaking in 2014 and a near-record for the three years 2012-2014.  From rigorous statistical analysis the authors estimate that global warming was responsible for 8-27% of the observed excess drought conditions for 2012-2014, and for 5-18% for 2014 alone.  These findings indicate that although drought conditions may originate from various climatic factors operating cyclically over many years, its full extreme extent is worsened by global warming, producing the record conditions identified by the authors.
Robeson analyzed periods of drought in central and southern California as far back as 1200 years ago (Geophys. Res. Let. 2015; DOI: 10.1002/2015GL064593.  The drought experienced in 2014, viewed against the earlier droughts, had a probability of happening of once in 140-180 years.  The three-year drought period 2012-2014 was very severe, having a probability of 1 in 10,000.  The four-year drought over 2012-2015 was unprecedented in the 1200 years examined, and is so severe its probability is beyond estimation using the analysis in the report. 
The U. S. Environmental Protection Agency reports, in a post current as of July 15, 2015, that Alaska’s long-term average air temperature has increased 3.4ºF (1.9ºC) over the last 50 years, and that winter temperatures have increased by almost twice as much.  The rate of warming in Alaska is twice as fast as it is for the rest of the U. S.  These trends are due to global warming.  The higher temperatures, coupled with the drought in Alaska’s interior, provide the conditions suitable for starting and spreading forest wildfires.
Images such as the photos shown here speak to us directly, as if we ourselves are experiencing the losses shown.  They are immediate and compelling.
California farms provide a significant fraction of the vegetable and fruit crops that Americans consume.  Yet in recent years California has experienced record combined heat-and-drought conditions, which have led to destruction of fruit (here, almond) trees, and to land deliberately being withdrawn from cultivation instead of producing crops.  This ultimately can affect us all by leading to scarcity and/or higher prices for the foods we consume.
The increasing extent of forest wildfires in U. S. destroys public and private forest lands, and increasingly threatens homes built in the backcountry.  Protecting those homes from fire is the highest priority of wildfire fighters, leading to loss of life and requiring more expenses paid from our taxes. 

[Update] Valerie Trouet and colleagues published a detailed analysis of precipitation in the Sierra Nevada mountains of eastern California online in Nature Climate Change in September 2015.   They focused on the annual mountain snowfall that on melting provides much of the water resources for the state, going back to 1500 C.E.  They found that the water originating as snowfall in the winter of 2015 was the least for the entire 515 year period examined.  The likelihood of such a low snowpack having occurred in the past is estimated at once in every 3,100 years, which points out the extreme nature of this year’s minimum.  In view of projected worsening of man-made warming in the Sierra Nevada, the authors fear “major future impacts” on the region’s water storage ability.
Man-made global warming is a significant factor contributing to the harms and damages exemplified in this post.  In order to minimize the effects of further warming, which will only make droughts, food shortages and forest wildfires worse, we Americans have to join with the people of all nations to reduce the use of fossil fuels so that the further accumulation of carbon dioxide is minimized.  Our policymakers are infused with the same humanity common to  all Americans, and with all inhabitants of our planet.  We must come together to implement meaningful measures to combat the warming of our home, the Earth.
© 2015 Henry Auer

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

President Obama’s Clean Power Plan to Reduce Emissions

The Administration’s Clean Power Plan will significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions from the electric power industry over the next fifteen years.
Global warming affects all humankind.  Changing weather patterns, consisting of greater and more frequent weather extremes have become more and more common in recent years and decades.  Around the world, extreme rains and floods, droughts and unprecedented sea level rise have occurred in ways that we are now accepting as being “new normals” of weather which humanity did not experience in earlier years.  While we cannot point to individual events as being caused by global warming, the frequency of occurrence and patterns around the world are all consistent with the predictions that global warming will worsen extremes of weather and climate going forward.  The warming arises because of humanity’s burning of fossil fuels for energy as well as from other human activities, not from any natural cycling of climate patterns.

Relative effectiveness of fossil fuels.  Carbon dioxide (CO2) is the principal greenhouse gas contributing to global warming.  The fossil fuels used to produce energy yield different amounts of heat per weight of CO2 resulting from combustion.  This is a consequence of the intrinsic chemical properties of each fuel, and cannot be changed by engineering or ingenuity.  These differences are shown in this table: 

           Relative Emission Efficiency of Fuels  

Relative amount of CO2 released per unit of heat obtained, compared to natural gas

 Natural gas


 Petroleum (fuel oil,  gasoline)




The table shows that burning coal produces twice as much CO2 as does natural gas when burned for energy.  (Other references give slightly different numbers without affecting this overall conclusion.)  In other words, use of coal as a fuel, say, for generating electricity, releases twice as much CO2 into the atmosphere as does burning natural gas to obtain the same amount of heat, i.e., to generate the same amount of electricity.  If humankind is concerned about minimizing the worsening of global warming, we would benefit greatly by reducing the use of all fossil fuels, and especially coal.
Coal demands of electric generation.  A typical coal-fired electricity generating plant has a power capacity in the megawatt (MW) range.  To have this capacity, it burns large amounts of coal.  The largest coal-fired plant in the U. S. is the Robert W. Scherer Power Plant in Juliette, Georgia .  When operating to capacity, the facility burns almost 1,300 tons of coal every hour, or 11 million tons a year.  The coal used at Scherer comes from the Powder River Basin in Wyoming.  It is transported by train to the plant, a trip of 1,800 miles.  The coal arrives in trains 124 cars long; such a train can reach as long as two miles in length.  A picture of a coal train is shown here.

The Scherer facility consumes 3-5 such trainloads of coal every day.  When burned, this coal yields 27 million tons of carbon dioxide annually.  The facility has four separate generating units, each with a capacity of 880 MW.   So smaller facilities might use perhaps one-quarter, or one-half, for example, of the amount of coal that the Scherer plant uses. Overall, the U. S. has about 1,000 fossil fuel-fired generating plants, and, since many plants have more than one generator, a total of about 3,100 generating units that fall under the CPP.
The U. S. Clean Power Plan.  President Obama heralded the release of the Final Rule for the Administration’s Clean Power Plan (CPP) on August 3, 2015.  The proposed rule was released over one year earlier and is described here.  The CPP addresses greenhouse gas emissions, primarily CO2, produced by electricity generation in the U. S.  Emissions from this sector of the energy economy are a main component of overall greenhouse gas emissions in the U. S.
Over 4.3 million comments from stakeholders and the public on the proposed rule were received by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), many of whose considerations were incorporated in the Final Rule. 
The CPP’s goal is to reduce emissions from electricity generation by 32% below the levels of 2005 by the year 2030.  Importantly, the plan does not dictate how these goals are to be met.  Rather, it recognizes that the features of each state’s generation infrastructure differ from one another.  As a result, the specific reduction goal for each state has been assigned differently to account for these distinctions.  In addition, each state is given the responsibility of devising its own specific plan for attaining its particular reduction goal.  Among the general paths to reducing emissions, the CPP names retrofitting existing power plants, eliminating noncompliant power plants, and installing renewable energy facilities.   Additionally, states can trade emission allowances among themselves to help attain their objectives.
Opposition to CPP.  Legislative and industrial opponents of the CPP began expressing their concerns as soon as the Final Rule was issued.  Here are some arguments being presented.
The CPP is illegal or even unconstitutional.  The Supreme Court, in Massachusetts v. Environmental Protection Agency and others (2007) interpreted the Clean Air Act, originally passed in 1970, as including the authority to regulate CO2 as an atmospheric pollutant if EPA found it to endanger the welfare of American citizens.  Following up on the Supreme Court’s decision, EPA did subsequently find that the gas threatens the health and welfare of Americans, and of our environment, in 2009.  As a result of this finding, EPA has the legal authority to regulate CO2 emissions.
To the knowledge of this writer the question of the constitutionality of this rulemaking power is not being considered by the courts at this time.
Opponents have called the CPP a “War on Coal”.  In doing so they seek to place the burden of reorganization of the electricity generating industry on President Obama and his administration.  Use of coal in generating electricity has been declining for more than a decade, as has been the number of working coal miners.  A graphic representing the decreasing use of coal is shown here:

Comparison of the use of coal (blue bars) and natural gas (red bars) from 2002 to 2012. 

The graphic shows that the percent share of use of coal in electricity generation has been declining since well before President Obama took office in January 2009.  Perhaps opponents may wish to call this finding “Bush’s War on Coal” (not appropriate) or “Capitalism’s War on Coal”.  In fact the principal factor underlying the diminishing role of coal, and the increasing percent share of use of natural gas, is the growing availability of gas in the U. S. due to the increased use of hydraulic fracturing to produce it.  This has resulted in higher gas production and a lowering of its cost.  The increased availability of natural gas began during the administration of President George W. Bush. 
In spite of the increasing layoffs among Appalachian coal miners, the Congressional delegations from these areas appear not have their interests high on their agendas.  Only Rep. David McKinley, Republican of West Virginia, teaming with Rep. Peter Welch, Democrat of Vermont (not a coal mining state), offered a bill for assistance to miners, in Sept. 2014.  Additional searching does not show that this initiative progressed further in Congress.  President Obama’s administration, however, granted $7.5 million in June 2014 to Eastern Kentucky Concentrated Employment Program Inc. to help retrain out-of-work Kentucky miners.   This action is not consistent with a supposed Administration “War on Coal”.

Clearly market forces expected in a capitalist economy are responsible for the declining share in the use of coal.  The CPP does not institutionalize a “War on Coal”, but in view of the profoundly higher rate of emission of CO2 resulting from its use (see above), the Plan is likely to lead to further reductions in coal use.
The CPP will produce only an insignificant decrease in global emissions.  This writer heard this argument expressed on the National Public Radio program “Here & Now” on August 4, 2015.  Such statements are not supported by the facts.  The U. S. is a major global emitter of greenhouse gases, and the CPP alone has the potential of reducing U. S. emissions by almost 10%.  In addition, representatives from all United Nations members are convening in December 2015 to finalize a global agreement to limit greenhouse gas emissions from all members.  A rigorous stand by the U. S. at the domestic level will enhance its ability to obtain meaningful reductions from other nations.  This is a very important factor going forward.

Coal is a major fossil fuel used in electric power generation, but results in twice the greenhouse gas emissions per amount of heat generated than the other major fossil fuel, natural gas.  The Obama administration has issued its CPP which would reduce emissions by 32% below 2005 levels by 2030.  This is a significant emission reduction program.  Coupled with the Administration’s regulation to increase transportation fuel efficiency by almost a factor of two by 2025 it will have a major effect on the energy economy of the U. S.

© 2015 Henry Auer