All posts by Roger Straw

Editor, owner, publisher of The Benicia Independent

Greenland ice melt: Imagine a herd of 2000 elephants charging into the sea every SECOND!

2019 Arctic Report Card warns of California-sized algal blooms and imperiled livelihoods

PBS News Hour Science, December 10, 2019

A view of ice melting during a heatwave in Kangerlussuaq, Greenland is seen in this August 1, 2019 image obtained via social media. Photo by Caspar Haarloev from "Into the Ice" documentary via Reuters
A view of ice melting during a heatwave in Kangerlussuaq, Greenland is seen in this August 1, 2019 image obtained via social media. From 2002 to 2019, Greenland’s ice sheet lost 267 billion metric tons per year, on average, according to the 2019 Arctic Report Card. Photo by Caspar Haarloev from “Into the Ice” documentary via Reuters

“Two hundred sixty-seven billion tons of ice is really hard to put into context, but you could start by imagining a herd of elephants charging into the ocean from Greenland,” Osterberg said. “If you imagine that, we’re talking about 2,000 elephants charging into the ocean every second. That’s how much mass is going from Greenland into the ocean.” — Erich Osterberg, Dartmouth College climatologist

Dead seals, marked with bald patches, washing onto shores or floating in rivers. A 900-mile-long bloom of algae stretching off the coast of Greenland, potentially suffocating wildlife. A giant, underground storehouse of carbon trapped in permafrost is leaking millions of tons of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, heralding a feedback loop that will accelerate climate change in unpredictable ways.

These are all bleak highlights from the 2019 Arctic Report Card, unveiled on Tuesday at the American Geophysical Union Fall Meeting. Published annually by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the 14th iteration of this peer-reviewed report examines the status of the planet’s northern expanse and changes due to global warming, with potential consequences reaching around the globe.

In addition to scientific essays, this year’s report card for the first time delivers firsthand accounts from indigenous communities confronting the Arctic’s dramatic, climate-caused transformation. More than 70 such communities depend on Arctic ecosystems, which are warming twice as fast as any other location on the planet.

“In the northern Bering Sea, sea ice used to be present with us for eight months a year,” write members of the Chevak, Golovin, Nome, Savoonga, St. Paul Island, Teller, Unalakleet and Wales communities. “Today, we may only see three or four months with ice.”

The 2019 report documented sea ice at its second-lowest level ever recorded during a summer period, out of the last 41 years of satellite observations. This disappearing sea ice not only serves as a natural bridge for Native people hunting for food, but is central to creating the food in the first place. Its loss appears to be tied to dramatic shifts in marine life, as the sea ice helps create cold patches of water where Arctic fish thrive.

Sea ice cover in the Bering Sea on March 20, 2012 (left), and February 24, 2019 (right). Extremely low winter ice extents occurred in the Bering Sea in 2018 and 2019. NOAA Climate.gov image based on NASA satellite images from Worldview

Sea ice cover in the Bering Sea on March 20, 2012 (left), and February 24, 2019 (right). Extremely low winter ice extents also occurred in the Bering Sea in 2018 and 2019. NOAA Climate.gov image based on NASA satellite images from Worldview

Without those cooler pools, economically important marine species from the south — walleye pollock and Pacific cod, for example — are migrating northward, complicating business for the billion-dollar U.S. fisheries operating near Alaska in the Bering Sea.

“Major changes are occurring. For example, we closed the cod fishery early — first time in a long time — because of the decline in stocks there,” Retired Navy Rear Adm. Timothy Gallaudet, deputy NOAA administrator, said Tuesday at a press conference in San Francisco. “Our fishery science really is important to ensure we better manage what’s occurring.”

The Bering Sea and the Barents Sea appear to be the major centers of tumult. Fish leaving southern waters are challenging underwater species — like Arctic cod — for the northernmost territory, and may also consume the marine food typically eaten by seabirds, leaving other species hungry.

Over the last year, the Bering Sea has witnessed mass die-offs of short-tailed shearwaters near Bristol Bay, while the same has happened for ivory gulls in Canada, Greenland, Svalbard and Russia. Populations of Canadian ivory gulls have declined 70 percent since the 1980s, according to the report card.

“We as indigenous people have always adapted to our environment — whether something was imposed upon us or not,” Mellisa Johnson, executive director of the Bering Sea Elders, said Tuesday at a press conference in San Francisco. “The Mother Earth is doing what she needs to do because we are not taking care of our land and sea as given. We’re going to continue to adapt and move forward with the change.”

A fledgling short-tailed shearwater (Puffinus tenuirostris) on Heron Island, Australia. Shearwaters migrate north of the Bering Strait in the northern summer. Photo by Auscape/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

A fledgling short-tailed shearwater (Puffinus tenuirostris) on Heron Island, Australia. Shearwaters migrate north of the Bering Strait in the northern summer. Photo by Auscape/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Ivory gull in Svalbard. Photo by Mats Brynolf via Getty Images

Ivory gull in Svalbard. Photo by Mats Brynolf via Getty Images

Those die-offs may also be due to the rise of algal blooms across the Arctic waterways. Red tides and other harmful algal blooms — typically a phenomena of warmer, southerly waters — are becoming more common in the north, as also detailed in last year’s report.

“Not only are we seeing these blooms in this particular region happening earlier, but they’re also substantially larger than what you would expect even later on in the year,” Karen Frey, a geographer and biogeochemist at Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts, and co-author of the 2019 Arctic Report Card, told the PBS NewsHour.

Frey described the sea ice as a dark cap on the ocean, reflecting sunlight back into the atmosphere, keeping the algae contained and in check. When sea ice declines, large algal blooms are expected to increase.

Marine algae are essentially waterbound plants — they need sunlight and nutrients to multiply. During the winter, they’re mostly inactive because the Arctic is dark, at times for 24 hours a day. This inactivity allows nutrient to build up during the winter months. Then, as sea ice disappears in spring and summer months, sunlight can penetrate into the water, allowing algae to flourish to levels never before seen.

Without that cap, Arctic seas experiencing some of the highest algal production rates in the world, Frey said. She pointed to a 930-mile-long algal bloom — longer than California — recorded off the eastern coast of Greenland in May 2019. Based on observations from NASA’s Aqua satellite, the biomass in this bloom was 18 times higher than any event on record and occurred one month earlier than the typical peak for algal blooms. Earlier blooms suggest larger sea-choking events lasting for longer portions of the year.

Total mass change (in gigatonnes or billions of metric tons) of the Greenland ice sheet between April 2002 and April 2019. Infographic by Megan McGrew

Total mass change (in gigatonnes or billions of metric tons) of the Greenland ice sheet between April 2002 and April 2019. Infographic by Megan McGrew

Another issue highlighted in the report is the age of the sea ice, which is becoming younger and younger as the years pass. In 1985, old ice — chunks that have been frozen continuously for more than four years — accounted for 33 percent of sea ice in the Arctic ocean.

“Now, it’s just 1 percent. There’s just this little sliver of this old ice remaining,” said Erich Osterberg, a climatologist at Dartmouth College. That decline is noteworthy because older sea ice is much thicker and harder to melt. “Right now, the vast majority of the sea ice is first-year ice. It’s new ice, about 70 percent of it.”

As sea ice vanishes, it allows ocean water to warm, which in turn increases air temperatures and imperils other forms of frozen water.

Greenland, where Osterberg conducts much of his research, is home to the second-largest ice sheet on the planet — and it is disappearing. The Arctic Report Card shows that roughly 95 percent of the Greenland ice sheet melted at some point in 2019, and the magnitude of ice loss rivaled 2012 as the worst year on record. From 2002 to 2019, Greenland’s ice sheet lost 267 billion metric tons per year, on average.

“Two hundred sixty-seven billion tons of ice is really hard to put into context, but you could start by imagining a herd of elephants charging into the ocean from Greenland,” Osterberg said. “If you imagine that, we’re talking about 2,000 elephants charging into the ocean every second. That’s how much mass is going from Greenland into the ocean.”

These melts appear to be happening faster along the edges of the ice sheet, which speak to other disparities occurring across the Arctic region. Some parts of the Arctic are simply warming faster and faring worse than others from year to year. For example, snow cover over the North American Arctic was significantly lower than that of Eurasian portions, which remained normal last year.

A frozen beach on the Bering Sea coast is seen near the last stretch mushers must pass before the finish line of the Iditarod dog sled race in Nome, Alaska, March 11, 2014. The Bering Sea is experiencing the most dramatic changes in the Arctic. Photo by REUTERS/Nathaniel Wilder

A frozen beach on the Bering Sea coast is seen near the last stretch mushers must pass before the finish line of the Iditarod dog sled race in Nome, Alaska, March 11, 2014. The Bering Sea is experiencing some of the most dramatic changes in the Arctic. Photo by REUTERS/Nathaniel Wilder

The way that permafrost — perennially frozen ground — appears to be thawing may spell ill tidings for atmospheric levels of greenhouse gases. Permafrost holds the corpses of plants, animals and microbes that died in Arctic and boreal habitats over hundreds of thousands of years.

That’s a huge cache of carbon, namely along the southern borders of the Arctic and ranging from 1,460 to 1,600 billion metric tons, currently locked in the ground. If fully released, this permafrost carbon may accelerate climate change faster than currently predicted. And this year’s Arctic Report card spotlights how those gases are already leaking — to the tune of about half a billion metric tons (or 1.1 trillion pounds)–into the atmosphere.

“We’re not really accounting for this extra carbon coming out of the Arctic,” said Ted Schuur, an ecosystem scientist at Northern Arizona University who wrote the report card’s essay on permafrost. For comparison, humans burn enough fossil fuels each year to release about 10 billion metric tons of carbon.

While Arctic communities may be suffering the most now, elsewhere is starting to feel the effects, too — as the warming air disrupts weather patterns, throws off the polar jet stream and causes summer heat waves and winter cold snaps across much of North America and Europe.

“Things that we see happen in the Arctic are kind of foreshadowing what we expect elsewhere,” Schuur said.


Nsikan Akpan, digital science producer for PBS NewsHour and co-creator of the award-winning, NewsHour digital series ScienceScope.
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    “Nobody Is Above the Law” Events

    By Roger Straw, December 5, 2019
    Nobody Is Above the Law. That’s why we’re calling on Congress to Impeach & Remove Donald Trump.  —   impeach.org

    Groups all across the nation – including many here in the Bay Area – are planning to hold rallies on the evening before the announced HOUSE vote.  That’s coming up pretty soon.

    Stay alert for the announcement of the vote and plan now to attend a nearby rally.  You can find details for nearby rallies and RSVP your intention at https://www.impeach.org/event/impeach-and-remove-attend/.

    Roger Straw

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      U.N. Climate Conference Opens in Madrid

      Delegates from nearly 200 countries meet to hash out crucial negotiations on the Paris climate agreement.

      Waves hit the shore in Majuro, the capital city of the Marshall Islands, one of the small islands nations pushing for U.N. action at COP25.
      Waves hit the shore in Majuro, the capital city of the Marshall Islands, one of the small islands nations pushing for U.N. action at COP25. HILARY HOSIA/AFP, GETTY IMAGES
      U.N. Climate Meetings Begin With Message of Urgency

      This year’s annual U.N. Climate Change Conference, known as COP25, begins today in Madrid, where 29,000 visitors are expected over the next two weeks, including 50 heads of state. Ahead of the conference, U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres  underlined the meeting’s urgency, saying that the climate crisis could soon reach the “point of no return.” “What is still lacking is political will,” Guterres said on Sunday. “[T]he world’s largest emitters are not pulling their weight.”

      At COP25, delegates from nearly 200 countries are expected to nail down some details left open by the 2015 Paris climate accord, including how carbon-trading systems and compensation for poor countries with rising sea levels will work. The conference was originally scheduled to be held in Brazil and then Chile, but the election of President Jair Bolsonaro and the protests in Santiago changed those plans. Spain agreed to host last month.

      Europe leads the way. The European Union’s new team of leaders began their terms on Sunday, emphasizing climate change policy as a key priority for the bloc. European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, the first woman in the position, arrives in Madrid today. It was also announced Sunday that Mark Carney, currently the governor of the Bank of England, will become the U.N. envoy on climate finance in January.

      Who is the U.S. sending? Senior members from the Trump administration will be notably absent from COP25, though U.S. House speaker Nancy Pelosi is bringing a 15-member congressional delegation to Madrid. Last month, the United States began the yearlong process to withdraw from the Paris agreement—the only country to do so.


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        Flood of Oil Is Coming, Complicating Efforts to Fight Global Warming

        A surge of oil production is coming, whether the world needs it or not.

        A Norwegian oil platform in the North Sea. Norway’s production has declined for two decades, but its development of the Johan Sverdrup deepwater field should reverse the trend.
        A Norwegian oil platform in the North Sea. Norway’s production has declined for two decades, but its development of the Johan Sverdrup deepwater field should reverse the trend. Credit…Nerijus Adomaitis/Reuters
        The New York Times, by Clifford Krauss, Nov. 3, 2019

        HOUSTON — The flood of crude will arrive even as concerns about climate change are growing and worldwide oil demand is slowing. And it is not coming from the usual producers, but from Brazil, Canada, Norway and Guyana — countries that are either not known for oil or whose production has been lackluster in recent years.

        This looming new supply may be a key reason Saudi Arabia’s giant oil producer, Aramco, pushed ahead on Sunday with plans for what could be the world’s largest initial stock offering ever.

        Together, the four countries stand to add nearly a million barrels a day to the market in 2020 and nearly a million more in 2021, on top of the current world crude output of 80 million barrels a day. That boost in production, along with global efforts to lower emissions, will almost certainly push oil prices down.

        Lower prices could prove damaging for Aramco and many other oil companies, reducing profits and limiting new exploration and drilling, while also reshaping the politics of the nations that rely on oil income.

        The new rise in production is likely to bring economic relief to consumers at the gas pump and to importing nations like China, India and Japan. But cheaper oil may complicate efforts to combat global warming and wean consumers and industries off their dependence on fossil fuels, because lower gasoline prices could, for example, slow the adoption of electric vehicles.

        Canada, Norway, Brazil and Guyana are all relatively stable at a time of turbulence for traditional producers like Venezuela and Libya and tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Their oil riches should undercut efforts by the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries and Russia to support prices with cuts in production and give American and other Western policymakers an added cushion in case there are renewed attacks on oil tankers or processing facilities in the Persian Gulf.

        Driving New Production

        Daniel Yergin, the energy historian who wrote “The Prize: The Epic Quest for Oil, Power and Money,” compared the impact of the new production to the advent of the shale oil boom in Texas and North Dakota a decade ago.

        “Since all four of these countries are largely insulated from traditional geopolitical turmoil, they will add to global energy security,” Mr. Yergin said. But he also predicted that as with shale, the incremental supply gain, combined with a sluggish world economy, could drive prices lower.

        There is already a glut on the world market, even with exports from Venezuela and Iran sharply curtailed by American sanctions. Should their production come back, that glut would only expand.

        Years of moderate gasoline prices have already increased the popularity of bigger cars and sports utility vehicles in the United States, and the probability of more oil on the market is bound to weigh on prices at the pump over the next few years.

        The oil-supply outlook is a sharp departure from the early 2000s, when prices soared as producers strained to keep up with ballooning demand in China and some analysts warned that the world was running out of oil.

        Then came the rise of hydraulic fracturing and drilling through tight shale fields, which converted the United States from a needy importer into a powerful exporter. The increase in American production, along with a choppy global economy, shaved oil prices from well over $100 a barrel before the 2007-9 recession to about $56 on Friday for the American benchmark crude.

        Those low prices have forced OPEC and Russia to lower production in recent years, and this year many financially struggling American oil companies have slashed their exploration and production investments to pay down their debts and protect their dividends.

        An Era of Cheaper Oil

        The new oil will accelerate those trends, energy experts say, even if only for a few years as production declines in older fields in other places.

        “This could spell disaster for every producer and producing country,” said Raoul LeBlanc, a vice president at IHS Markit, an energy consultancy, especially if the United States and Iran come to some sort of nuclear deal.

        Like the shale boom, the coming supply surge is a sudden change in dynamics. Guyana currently produces no oil at all. Norwegian and Brazilian production has long been in decline. And in Canada, concerns about climate change, resistance to new pipelines and high production costs have curtailed investments in oil-sands fields for five consecutive years.

        Production of more oil comes at a time when there is growing acknowledgment by governments and energy investors that not all the hydrocarbons in the ground can be tapped if climate change is to be controlled. But exploration decisions, made years ago, have a momentum that can be hard to stop.

        A drilling ship operated by Noble Energy for Exxon Mobil off Guyana. The South American country’s entry into the ranks of oil producers follows a string of major discoveries. Credit…Christopher Gregory for The New York Times

        “Legacy decisions keep going,” said John Browne, BP’s former chief executive. “Things happen in different directions because decisions are made at different times.”

        The added production in Norway comes despite the country’s embrace of the 2016 Paris climate agreement, which committed nations to cut greenhouse-gas emissions. Its sovereign wealth fund has cut investments in some oil companies, and its national oil company, Equinor, has pledged to increase its investments in wind power.

        Equinor, which recently changed its name from Statoil to emphasize its partial pivot to renewable energy, nevertheless defends the new field on its company website, asserting, “The Paris Agreement is quite clear that there will still be a need for oil.”

        Norway’s rebound from 19 years of decline began a few weeks ago as Equinor began production in its Johan Sverdrup deepwater field. The field will eventually produce 440,000 barrels a day, increasing the country’s output from 1.3 million barrels a day to 1.6 million next year and 1.8 million in 2021.

        In Brazil, after years of scandal and delays, new offshore production platforms are coming online. Production has climbed over the last year by 300,000 barrels a day, and the country is expected to add as much as 460,000 more barrels a day by the end of 2021. In the coming days, Brazil is scheduled to hold a major auction in which some of the largest oil companies will bid for drilling rights in offshore areas with as much as 15 billion barrels of reserves.

        In Canada, the 1,000-mile Line 3 pipeline that will take oil from the Alberta fields to Wisconsin, is near completion and awaiting final permitting. Energy experts say that could increase Canadian production by a half million barrels a day, or about 10 percent.

        And the most striking change will be in Guyana, a tiny South American country where Exxon Mobil has made a string of major discoveries over the last four years. Production will reach 120,000 barrels a day early next year, rising to at least 750,000 barrels by 2025, and more is expected after that.

        Guyana potentially has the most complicated future of the four countries. Its ethnically divided politics are sometimes turbulent, and Venezuela claims a large portion of its territory. But with the oil fields miles offshore, drilling is largely protected. In addition, Venezuela is mired in a political and economic crisis and unlikely to challenge a Chinese state company which has an oil investment in Guyana, along with Exxon Mobil and Hess.

        Energy experts say the new production from the four nations will more than satisfy all the growth in global demand expected over the next two years, which is well below the growth rates of recent years before economic expansion in China, Europe and Latin America slowed.

        At the same time, new pipelines in Texas are expected to increase United States exports to 3.3 million barrels a day next year, from the current 2.8 million.

        That adds up to a vast surplus unless there is a resurgence of global economic growth to stimulate demand, or a prolonged conflict in the Middle East or other disruption to supply.

        “To support prices, OPEC is going to have to extend and probably deepen their production cuts for a while,” said David L. Goldwyn, a top State Department energy diplomat during the Obama administration. “Getting the prices up to the point where Aramco can launch its I.P.O. is a big Saudi priority.”

        The new barrels on the world market will also put pressure on companies producing in the United States, where profit margins for shale production are slim at current price levels and stock prices are falling.

        “If I was in the business I would be scared to death,” said Philip K. Verleger, an energy economist who has served in both Democratic and Republican administrations. “The industry is going to face capital starvation.”

        American oil executives express concern that drilling will fade in North Dakota, Oklahoma, Louisiana and Colorado as oil prices drop to as low as $50 a barrel in the next few years. Small companies are expected to merge, while others go bankrupt.

        Scott D. Sheffield, chief executive of the Texas-based producer Pioneer Natural Resources, said he expected the growth of United States oil production to ease from 1.2 million barrels a day this year to 500,000 barrels next year and perhaps 400,000 barrels in 2021. Those increases are modest compared with the average increase of a million barrels a day every year from 2010 to 2018.

        But Mr. Sheffield said he was optimistic, in part because new supplies coming to market could be offset by production declines in older fields in Mexico and elsewhere after 2021.

        “There are no more big, giant new projects except Guyana,” he said. “We just have to be patient for a couple of more years.”


        A version of this article appears in print on , Section A, Page 1 of the New York edition with the headline: Needed or Not, Oil Production Is Set to Surge.

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