Category Archives: Keeping Watch on Earth News

Nuclear power IS / IS NOT the answer…

[Editor: Back in the 1980s, I followed the lead of Dr. Helen Caldicott, who called for a “nuclear freeze.”  My spouse and I thought it was important enough that we founded an educational program on the dangers of nuclear arms and nuclear energy.  I have felt the same urgency in more recent years about the dangers of climate change and the absolute imperative of taking action to slow and reverse global warming.  Recently, I’ve read a number of articles promoting the virtues of nuclear power as a cheap “non-fossil-fuel source of energy.”  Below I am posting a few pro and con stories, side by side.  This “balanced” approach is unusual for me – my Benicia Independent is a personal blog, and I am more likely to advocate a position than to lay out pros and cons.  But this particular issue is critical for the planet, and might deserve a little study of the factors for and against a resurgence of nuclear power plants.  – R.S.]

Flanked by cooling towers, a nuclear reactor is contained inside a spherical containment building. Creative Commons, Wikimedia

Climate change is scarier than nuclear power

By Jack Edmonston, Barnstable Patriot, Dec 28, 2019 

While closing the aging Plymouth nuclear plant may have been a wise decision, the world’s withdrawal from nuclear power since the tragic tsunami at Fukushima in March, 2011 will likely lead to disaster.

Before Fukushima, a recent piece in The New Yorker points out, “there was serious discussion among energy experts about a nuclear ‘renaissance.’” After Fukushima, Japan shut all its nukes down. Belgium, Switzerland and Germany announced complete phaseouts of nuclear power, and France announced a major decrease.

The New Yorker reports that Pushker Kharecha, a scientist at Columbia University’s Climate Science, Awareness and Solutions Program, thinks this is a terrible mistake. “Our window of time to mitigate the climate crisis is shrinking by the day … . Given this urgency it simply makes no sense to curtail a non-fossil fuel source like nuclear power in countries that produce significant power from fossil fuels.”

If professors Steven Pinker of Harvard and Joshua Goldman of American University and Swedish nuclear engineer Staffan Qvist are correct, we need to stop closing nuclear plants and start building them as quickly as we can. In a New York Times op-ed, “Nuclear Power Can Save the World,” they argue that the only way to supply the growing global demand for electricity without fossil fuels is through a mix of renewable energy and nuclear power.

The professors believe we have to supplement the nuclear plants we have with a buildup of safer, advanced nuclear plants. While some experts assert that renewables alone can solve the problem, economic models show that at least 20% of our power has to come from a reliable, consistent, low-carbon source. And the only one we have available is nuclear power.

The risk of nuclear power is localized, visible and very low – Chernobyl, Three Mile Island and Fukushima notwithstanding. The risk of global warming is worldwide, not visible until it’s too late, and very high.

The professors tell us that “the reality is that nuclear power is the safest form of energy humanity has ever used.” “Mining accidents, hydroelectric dam failures, natural gas explosions and oil train crashes all kill people, sometimes in large numbers, and smoke from coal-burning kills them in enormous numbers, more than half a million per year.

“By contrast, in 60 years of nuclear power, only three accidents have raised public alarm,” and except for Chernobyl they didn’t kill anyone.

“Climate change is a trolley moving inexorably but slowly toward the people on the tracks,” says Steven Davis, an earth systems science professor at the University of California, Irvine. “Maybe nuclear is scarier because a person could be run down before she even sees the trolley.”

The future of nuclear power lies in “fourth-generation” reactors currently being developed by dozens of startups. They will be mass-produced with standard parts and shipped to the world, “potentially generating electricity at lower cost than fossil fuels.

The good news is that Congress recently passed the Nuclear Energy Innovation and Modernization Act. Unless Donald Trump (who calls global warming a hoax) stops it, we may be on our way to a sensible answer to the problem.


Can nuclear power help save us from climate change?

The technology’s slide must be reversed, the International Energy Agency says, but significant barriers exist
Chemical & Engineering News, by Jeff Johnson, Sept. 23, 2019

Globally, nuclear power is on the skids. Its contribution to electricity generation is in a free fall, dropping from a mid-1990s peak of about 18% of worldwide electricity capacity to 10% today, according to the International Energy Agency (IEA). The agency expects the downward spiral to continue, hitting 5% by 2040 unless governments around the world intervene.

The driver for that intervention would be nuclear reactors’ ability to generate energy with low greenhouse gas emission. To meet the world’s energy needs and avoid the worst effects of climate change, low-carbon electricity generation must increase from providing 36% of the world’s energy today to 85% by 2040, the IEA says.

Electricity sources
The share of electricity generated globally from low-carbon sources has been relatively flat since it peaked in the mid-1990s.
Source: International Energy Agency, “Nuclear Power in a Clean Energy System.”

“Without an important contribution from nuclear power, the global energy transition will be that much harder,” IEA executive director Fatih Birol says in a statement accompanying an IEA nuclear power report. “Alongside renewables, energy efficiency and other innovative technologies, nuclear can make a significant contribution to achieving sustainable energy goals and enhancing energy security.”

But steep barriers to a nuclear energy renaissance exist, among them aging reactors, high costs to build new ones, safety concerns, and questions about how much nuclear is needed in the world’s energy mix.

Historically, nuclear power has played its biggest role in advanced economies, where it makes up 18% of total electricity generation today. France is the most dependent on nuclear energy, with 70% of its electricity generated from nuclear reactors. By number of operating reactors, the US leads with 98 power plants capable of generating 105 GW; France is second with 58 reactors generating 66 GW of electricity.

However, many of those reactors are old. In the US, the European Union, and Russia, plants average 35 years or more in age, nearing their designed lifetimes of 40 years.

Building new nuclear power plants based on traditional designs will be nearly impossible in developed economies, IEA analysts say. The challenges include high costs and long construction times, as well as time needed to recoup costs once plants start running, plus ongoing issues with radioactive waste disposal. In addition, the competitive electricity marketplace in the US makes it hard to sell nuclear energy against that generated more cheaply through natural gas, wind, or solar. Right now, only 11 nuclear plants are under construction in developed economies—4 in South Korea and 1 each in seven other countries.

There is more potential for nuclear energy expansion in developing nations with state-controlled, centralized economies. China is the world’s third-largest nuclear generator, with 45 reactors capable of producing 46 GW of electricity. China also has the biggest plans for new power plants, with 11 at various stages of construction, the IEA says. India is building 7; Russia, 6; and the United Arab Emirates, 4, with a sprinkling of other new plants coming throughout the rest of the world. All will be state owned, the IEA says.

The nuclear industry’s main hope for future expansion lies in a new generation of small, modular reactors that generate less than 300 MW each and are amenable to assembly-line construction. These are still under development, however, with none licensed or under construction.

A middle path between new plants and no plants is lifetime extensions for existing reactors. The IEA estimates the costs for maintenance and improvements needed to continue operating an existing nuclear reactor for an additional 10–20 years would be $500 million–$1.1 billion per gigawatt, an amount the IEA says is comparable to constructing a renewable—solar or wind—system of the same size. The result would be effectively 1 GW of new, low-carbon electricity without the delays involved in siting and building a new solar field or wind farm.

In the US, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) has already renewed and extended the operating licenses from 40 to 60 years for 90 of the 98 operating reactors. The industry is now focusing on renewals to operate for up to 80 years. Similarly, other countries are considering extending existing reactor operations but for shorter periods, the IEA reports.

These extensions present what the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) terms a “nuclear power dilemma.” The nonprofit organization, which advocates scientific solutions to global problems, has been a frequent nuclear industry critic.

Aging nuclear plants
Many nuclear power plants in the US, the European Union, and Russia are reaching the end of their design lifetime, while those elsewhere in Asia are much younger.
Source: International Energy Agency, “Nuclear Power in a Clean Energy System.”

“We are very cognizant of this climate challenge and the need to act quickly to cut greenhouse gas emissions,” says Rachel Cleetus, the UCS’s climate and energy policy director. The UCS’s solution for providing energy in a warming world is to tax and cap carbon dioxide emissions and introduce a low-carbon electricity standard for all energy sources. Such measures would drive the construction and development of low-carbon energy facilities and technologies, the UCS says.

For nuclear energy in particular, the organization endorses temporary financial support for the extension of some plants, conditioned on rate protection for consumers, safety requirements, and greater investments in renewables and energy efficiency. “We can’t just give them lots of money and blanket life extensions,” Cleetus says. Scenarios and mathematical models run by the UCS show nuclear is very unlikely to grow beyond providing at most 16% of the world’s electricity generation capacity by 2050 even with aid, far short of the 85% or more of the low- or noncarbon generation needed to address global warming.

Underlying the debates about power plant costs and operating lifetimes are questions of safety and risks—real and perceived—of nuclear reactors and radioactivity. These concerns have made nuclear power unpopular in the US, Germany, Japan, and elsewhere.

The San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station (SONGS), resting on the US West Coast north of San Diego, provides an example of why. Seven million people live within 80 km of the plant.

A stormy relationship between SONGS and its surrounding community goes back decades. Most recently, the facility was completely shut down in 2013 after two nearly new steam generators failed. The replacements were part of a $670 million overhaul that was supposed to provide 20 more years of life for the plant.

Then, while transferring used fuel into a storage vault last year, contractor Holtec International mishandled and nearly dropped a 50-metric-ton spent fuel canister. The NRC subsequently cited plant owner Southern California Edison for failing to properly report the incident, as well as conditions that led to it. The public learned about the slipup from a whistle-blower speaking at a community meeting. The event halted fuel transfer operations, which are just now restarting.

“Repairs and replacements could be done properly at nuclear plants,” says L. R. “Len” Hering Sr., a retired rear admiral of the US Navy who lives near SONGS and is cochair of a task force established by Rep. Mike Levin (D-CA) to address community safety concerns at the facility.

Hering bases that assessment on his navy experience. “Ships are designed to last roughly 30 years, and when the navy goes through a process of life extension, we do extensive testing and evaluation,” he says. “We make certain all components are up to snuff. In the navy, repairs are made by a focused group of individuals separate from the ship’s operators, and it is not about cost.”

He has not seen a similar level of attention and rigor at SONGS. Once a nuclear advocate, he has cooled on nuclear power because of concerns over management and regulation. “I don’t believe the NRC has the capacity to properly inspect and oversee operations or maintenance,” he says.

Meanwhile, some of the groups advocating for strong action to address climate change question whether more nuclear energy is necessary. Over the past 20 years, as nuclear power generation has declined, renewable sources have expanded by some 580 GW—more than the output of all the world’s nuclear power plants—to make up the difference. Consequently, the overall share of low-carbon electricity sources—hydropower, nuclear, solar, and wind—has stayed even at about 36%.

The IEA applauds the growth of renewables but says that it is unprecedented and not sustainable. Hence the agency’s support for nuclear power.

However, energy researchers at the World Resources Institute and the UCS, speaking at a recent US congressional hearing, say renewable sources will continue to expand, and major increases in energy efficiency are on the horizon. In addition, the researchers expect that as more renewable energy facilities come on line, new technologies will be developed to address the challenge of variable output from renewable energy sources, such as with solar on an overcast day.

Overreliance on nuclear might in fact stall development and installation of technologies needed for a transition to a low-carbon future, Cleetus argues. Her modeling shows that capital investment needed for renewable energy development—building high-voltage power lines, advanced batteries and other storage systems, and of course, renewable resources themselves—could be funneled off to build and retrofit more nuclear power plants. And then there are those who question whether nuclear energy can even be called low carbon if greenhouse gas emissions are considered for the full energy cycle, including plant construction, uranium mining and enrichment, fuel processing, plant decommissioning, and radioactive waste deposition.


See also The New York Times Opinion, “Nuclear Power Can Save the World” by Joshua S. Goldstein, Staffan A. Qvist and Steven Pinker, April 6, 2019

The 7 reasons why nuclear energy is not the answer to solve climate change

Mark Z. Jacobson, Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering, Director, Atmosphere/Energy Program, Stanford University, Dicaprio Foundation, Jun 20, 2019

There is a small group of scientists that have proposed replacing 100% of the world’s fossil fuel power plants with nuclear reactors as a way to solve climate change. Many others propose nuclear grow to satisfy up to 20 percent of all our energy (not just electricity) needs. They advocate that nuclear is a “clean” carbon-free source of power, but they don’t look at the human impacts of these scenarios. Let’s do the math…

One nuclear power plant takes on average about 14-1/2 years to build, from the planning phase all the way to operation. According to the World Health Organization, about 7.1 million people die from air pollution each year, with more than 90% of these deaths from energy-related combustion. So switching out our energy system to nuclear would result in about 93 million people dying, as we wait for all the new nuclear plants to be built in the all-nuclear scenario.

Utility-scale wind and solar farms, on the other hand, take on average only 2 to 5 years, from the planning phase to operation. Rooftop solar PV projects are down to only a 6-month timeline. So transitioning to 100% renewables as soon as possible would result in tens of millions fewer deaths.

This illustrates a major problem with nuclear power and why renewable energy — in particular Wind, Water, and Solar (WWS)– avoids this problem. Nuclear, though, doesn’t just have one problem. It has seven. Here are the seven major problems with nuclear energy:

1. Long Time Lag Between Planning and Operation

The time lag between planning and operation of a nuclear reactor includes the times to identify a site, obtain a site permit, purchase or lease the land, obtain a construction permit, obtain financing and insurance for construction, install transmission, negotiate a power purchase agreement, obtain permits, build the plant, connect it to transmission, and obtain a final operating license.

The planning-to-operation (PTO) times of all nuclear plants ever built have been 10-19 years or more. For example, the Olkiluoto 3 reactor in Finland was proposed to the Finnish cabinet in December 2000 to be added to an existing nuclear power plant. Its latest estimated completion date is 2020, giving it a PTO time of 20 years.

The Hinkley Point nuclear plant was planned to start in 2008. It has an estimated completion year of 2025 to 2027, giving it a PTO time of 17 to 19 years. The Vogtle 3 and 4 reactors in Georgia were first proposed in August 2006 to be added to an existing site. The anticipated completion dates are November 2021 and November 2022, respectively, given them PTO times of 15 and 16 years, respectively.

The Haiyang 1 and 2 reactors in China were planned to start in 2005. Haiyang 1 began commercial operation on October 22, 2018. Haiyang 2 began operation on January 9, 2019, giving them PTO times of 13 and 14 years, respectively. The Taishan 1 and 2 reactors in China were bid in 2006. Taishan 1 began commercial operation on December 13, 2018. Taishan 2 is not expected to be connected until 2019, giving them PTO times of 12 and 13 years, respectively. Planning and procurement for four reactors in Ringhals, Sweden started in 1965. One took 10 years, the second took 11 years, the third took 16 years, and the fourth took 18 years to complete.

Many claim that France’s 1974 Messmer plan resulted in the building of its 58 reactors in 15 years. This is not true. The planning for several of these nuclear reactors began long before. For example, the Fessenheim reactor obtained its construction permit in 1967 and was planned starting years before. In addition, 10 of the reactors were completed between 1991-2000. As such, the whole planning-to-operation time for these reactors was at least 32 years, not 15. That of any individual reactor was 10 to 19 years.

Creative Commons: Wikimedia

2. Cost

The levelized cost of energy (LCOE) for a new nuclear plant in 2018, based on Lazard, is $151 (112 to 189)/MWh. This compares with $43 (29 to 56)/MWh for onshore wind and $41 (36 to 46)/MWh for utility-scale solar PV from the same source.

This nuclear LCOE is an underestimate for several reasons. First, Lazard assumes a construction time for nuclear of 5.75 years. However, the Vogtle 3 and 4 reactors, though will take at least 8.5 to 9 years to finish construction. This additional delay alone results in an estimated LCOE for nuclear of about $172 (128 to 215)/MWh, or a cost 2.3 to 7.4 times that of an onshore wind farm (or utility PV farm).

Next, the LCOE does not include the cost of the major nuclear meltdowns in history. For example, the estimated cost to clean up the damage from three Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear reactor core meltdowns was $460 to $640 billion. This is $1.2 billion, or 10 to 18.5 percent of the capital cost, of every nuclear reactor worldwide.

In addition, the LCOE does not include the cost of storing nuclear waste for hundreds of thousands of years. In the U.S. alone, about $500 million is spent yearly to safeguard nuclear waste from about 100 civilian nuclear energy plants. This amount will only increase as waste continues to accumulate. After the plants retire, the spending must continue for hundreds of thousands of years with no revenue stream from electricity sales to pay for the storage.

3. Weapons Proliferation Risk

The growth of nuclear energy has historically increased the ability of nations to obtain or harvest plutonium or enrich uranium to manufacture nuclear weapons. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) recognizes this fact. They concluded in the Executive Summary of their 2014 report on energy, with “robust evidence and high agreement” that nuclear weapons proliferation concern is a barrier and risk to the increasing development of nuclear energy:

The building of a nuclear reactor for energy in a country that does not currently have a reactor allows the country to import uranium for use in the nuclear energy facility. If the country so chooses, it can secretly enrich the uranium to create weapons grade uranium and harvest plutonium from uranium fuel rods for use in nuclear weapons. This does not mean any or every country will do this, but historically some have and the risk is high, as noted by IPCC. The building and spreading of Small Modular Reactors (SMRs) may increase this risk further.

Creative Commons, Wikimedia

4. Meltdown Risk

To date, 1.5% of all nuclear power plants ever built have melted down to some degree. Meltdowns have been either catastrophic (Chernobyl, Russia in 1986; three reactors at Fukushima Dai-ichi, Japan in 2011) or damaging (Three-Mile Island, Pennsylvania in 1979; Saint-Laurent France in 1980). The nuclear industry has proposed new reactor designs that they suggest are safer. However, these designs are generally untested, and there is no guarantee that the reactors will be designed, built and operated correctly or that a natural disaster or act of terrorism, such as an airplane flown into a reactor, will not cause the reactor to fail, resulting in a major disaster.

5. Mining Lung Cancer Risk

Uranium mining causes lung cancer in large numbers of miners because uranium mines contain natural radon gas, some of whose decay products are carcinogenic. A study of 4,000 uranium miners between 1950 and 2000 found that 405 (10 percent) died of lung cancer, a rate six times that expected based on smoking rates alone. 61 others died of mining related lung diseases. Clean, renewable energy does not have this risk because (a) it does not require the continuous mining of any material, only one-time mining to produce the energy generators; and (b) the mining does not carry the same lung cancer risk that uranium mining does.

6. Carbon-Equivalent Emissions and Air Pollution

There is no such thing as a zero- or close-to-zero emission nuclear power plant. Even existing plants emit due to the continuous mining and refining of uranium needed for the plant. Emissions from new nuclear are 78 to 178 g-CO2/kWh, not close to 0. Of this, 64 to 102 g-CO2/kWh over 100 years are emissions from the background grid while consumers wait 10 to 19 years for nuclear to come online or be refurbished, relative to 2 to 5 years for wind or solar. In addition, all nuclear plants emit 4.4 g-CO2e/kWh from the water vapor and heat they release. This contrasts with solar panels and wind turbines, which reduce heat or water vapor fluxes to the air by about 2.2 g-CO2e/kWh for a net difference from this factor alone of 6.6 g-CO2e/kWh.

In fact, China’s investment in nuclear plants that take so long between planning and operation instead of wind or solar resulted in China’s CO2 emissions increasing 1.3 percent from 2016 to 2017 rather than declining by an estimated average of 3 percent. The resulting difference in air pollution emissions may have caused 69,000 additional air pollution deaths in China in 2016 alone, with additional deaths in years prior and since.

Pexels commons

7. Waste Risk

Last but not least, consumed fuel rods from nuclear plants are radioactive waste. Most fuel rods are stored at the same site as the reactor that consumed them. This has given rise to hundreds of radioactive waste sites in many countries that must be maintained and funded for at least 200,000 years, far beyond the lifetimes of any nuclear power plant. The more nuclear waste that accumulates, the greater the risk of radioactive leaks, which can damage water supply, crops, animals, and humans.

Summary

To recap, new nuclear power costs about 5 times more than onshore wind power per kWh (between 2.3 to 7.4 times depending upon location and integration issues). Nuclear takes 5 to 17 years longer between planning and operation and produces on average 23 times the emissions per unit electricity generated (between 9 to 37 times depending upon plant size and construction schedule). In addition, it creates risk and cost associated with weapons proliferation, meltdown, mining lung cancer, and waste risks. Clean, renewables avoid all such risks.

Nuclear advocates claim nuclear is still needed because renewables are intermittent and need natural gas for backup. However, nuclear itself never matches power demand so it needs backup. Even in France with one of the most advanced nuclear energy programs, the maximum ramp rate is 1 to 5 % per minute, which means they need natural gas, hydropower, or batteries, which ramp up 5 to 100 times faster, to meet peaks in demand. Today, in fact, batteries are beating natural gas for wind and solar backup needs throughout the world. A dozen independent scientific groups have further found that it is possible to match intermittent power demand with clean, renewable energy supply and storage, without nuclear, at low cost.

Finally, many existing nuclear plants are so costly that their owners are demanding subsidies to stay open. For example, in 2016, three existing upstate New York nuclear plants requested and received subsidies to stay open using the argument that the plants were needed to keep emissions low. However, subsidizing such plants may increase carbon emissions and costs relative to replacing the plants with wind or solar as soon as possible. Thus, subsidizing nuclear would result in higher emissions and costs over the long term than replacing nuclear with renewables.

Derivations and sources of the numbers provided herein can be found here.


Nuclear power is not the answer in a time of climate change

AEON, By Heidi Hutner, Stony Brook University, Erica Cirino, science photojournalist, and editor Pam Weintraub, May 28, 2019
<p>The Woolsey Fire seen from Topanga Canyon in California. <em>Photo courtesy of Peter Buschmann/USDA/Flickr</em></p>
The Woolsey Fire seen from Topanga Canyon in California. Photo courtesy of Peter Buschmann/USDA/Flickr

In November 2018, the Woolsey Fire scorched nearly 100,000 acres of Los Angeles and Ventura counties, destroying forests, fields and more than 1,500 structures, and forcing the evacuation of nearly 300,000 people over 14 days. It burned so viciously that it seared a scar into the land that’s visible from space. Investigators determined that the Woolsey Fire began at the Santa Susana Field Laboratory, a nuclear research property contaminated by a partial meltdown in 1959 of its failed Sodium Reactor Experiment, as well as rocket tests and regular releases of radiation.

The State of California’s Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC) reports that its air, ash and soil tests conducted on the property after the fire show no release of radiation beyond baseline for the contaminated site. But the DTSC report lacks sufficient information, according to the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists. It includes ‘few actual measurements’ of the smoke from the fire, and the data raises alarms. Research on Chernobyl in Ukraine following wildfires in 2015 shows clear release of radiation from the old nuclear power plant, calling into question the quality of DTSC’s tests. What’s more, scientists such as Nikolaos Evangeliou, who studies radiation releases from wildfires at the Norwegian Institute for Air Research, point out that the same hot, dry and windy conditions exacerbating the Woolsey Fire (all related to human-caused global warming) are a precursor to future climate-related radioactive releases.

With our climate-impacted world now highly prone to fires, extreme storms and sea-level rise, nuclear energy is touted as a possible replacement for the burning of fossil fuels for energy – the leading cause of climate change. Nuclear power can demonstrably reduce carbon dioxide emissions. Yet scientific evidence and recent catastrophes call into question whether nuclear power could function safely in our warming world. Wild weather, fires, rising sea levels, earthquakes and warming water temperatures all increase the risk of nuclear accidents, while the lack of safe, long-term storage for radioactive waste remains a persistent danger.

The Santa Susana Field Laboratory property has had a long history of contaminated soil and groundwater. Indeed, a 2006 advisory panel compiled a report suggesting that workers at the lab, as well as residents living nearby, had unusually high exposure to radiation and industrial chemicals that are linked to an increased incidence of some cancers. Discovery of the pollution prompted California’s DTSC in 2010 to order a cleanup of the site by its current owner – Boeing – with assistance from the US Department of Energy and NASA. But the required cleanup has been hampered by Boeing’s legal fight to perform a less rigorous cleaning.

Like the Santa Susana Field Lab, Chernobyl remains largely unremediated since its meltdown in 1986. With each passing year, dead plant material accumulates and temperatures rise, making it especially prone to fires in the era of climate change. Radiation releases from contaminated soils and forests can be carried thousands of kilometres away to human population centres, according to Evangeliou.

Kate Brown, a historian at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the author of Manual for Survival: A Chernobyl Guide to the Future (2019), and Tim Mousseau, an evolutionary biologist at the University of South Carolina, also have grave concerns about forest fires. ‘Records show that there have been fires in the Chernobyl zone that raised the radiation levels by seven to 10 times since 1990,’ Brown says. Further north, melting glaciers contain ‘radioactive fallout from global nuclear testing and nuclear accidents at levels 10 times higher than elsewhere’. As ice melts, radioactive runoff flows into the ocean, is absorbed into the atmosphere, and falls as acid rain. ‘With fires and melting ice, we are basically paying back a debt of radioactive debris incurred during the frenzied production of nuclear byproducts during the 20th century,’ Brown concludes.

Flooding is another symptom of our warming world that could lead to nuclear disaster. Many nuclear plants are built on coastlines where seawater is easily used as a coolant. Sea-level rise, shoreline erosion, coastal storms and heat waves – all potentially catastrophic phenomena associated with climate change – are expected to get more frequent as the Earth continues to warm, threatening greater damage to coastal nuclear power plants. ‘Mere absence of greenhouse gas emissions is not sufficient to assess nuclear power as a mitigation for climate change,’ conclude Natalie Kopytko and John Perkins in their paper ‘Climate Change, Nuclear Power, and the Adaptation-Mitigation Dilemma’ (2011) in Energy Policy.

Proponents of nuclear power say that the reactors’ relative reliability and capacity make this a much clearer choice than other non-fossil-fuel sources of energy, such as wind and solar, which are sometimes brought offline by fluctuations in natural resource availability. Yet no one denies that older nuclear plants, with an aged infrastructure often surpassing expected lifetimes, are extremely inefficient and run a higher risk of disaster.

‘The primary source of nuclear power going forward will be the current nuclear fleet of old plants,’ said Joseph Lassiter, an energy expert and nuclear proponent who is retired from Harvard University. But ‘even where public support exists for [building new] nuclear plants, it remains to be seen if these new-build nuclear plants will make a significant contribution to fossil-emissions reductions given the cost and schedule overruns that have plagued the industry.’

Lassiter and several other energy experts advocate for the new, Generation IV nuclear power plants that are supposedly designed to deliver high levels of nuclear power at the lowest cost and with the lowest safety risks. But other experts say that the benefits even here remain unclear. The biggest critique of the Generation IV nuclear reactors is that they are in the design phase, and we don’t have time to wait for their implementation. Climate abatement action is needed immediately.

‘New nuclear power seemingly represents an opportunity for solving global warming, air pollution, and energy security,’ says Mark Jacobson, director of Stanford University’s Atmosphere and Energy Programme. But it makes no economic or energy sense. ‘Every dollar spent on nuclear results in one-fifth the energy one would gain with wind or solar [at the same cost], and nuclear energy takes five to 17 years longer before it becomes available. As such, it is impossible for nuclear to help with climate goals of reducing 80 per cent of emissions by 2030. Also, while we’re waiting around for nuclear, coal, gas and oil are being burned and polluting the air. In addition, nuclear has energy security risks other technologies don’t have: weapons proliferation, meltdown, waste and uranium-worker lung-cancer risks.’

Around the world, 31 countries have nuclear power plants that are currently online, according to the International Atomic Energy Agency. By contrast, four countries have made moves to phase out nuclear power following the 2011 Fukushima disaster, and 15 countries have remained opposed and have no functional power plants.

With almost all countries’ carbon dioxide emissions increasing – and China, India and the US leading the pack – the small Scandinavian country of Denmark is an outlier. Its carbon dioxide emissions are decreasing despite it not producing any nuclear power. Denmark does import some nuclear power produced by its neighbours Sweden and Germany, but in February, the country’s most Left-leaning political party, Enhedslisten, published a new climate plan that outlines a path for the country to start relying on its own 100 per cent renewable, non-nuclear energy for power and heat production by 2030. The plan would require investments in renewables such as solar and wind, a smart grid and electric vehicles that double as mobile batteries and can recharge the grid during peak hours.

Gregory Jaczko, former chairman of the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the author of Confessions of a Rogue Nuclear Regulator (2019), believes the technology is no longer a viable method for dealing with climate change: ‘It is dangerous, costly and unreliable, and abandoning it will not bring on a climate crisis.’


See also: Bulletin of Atomic Scientists – “Why nuclear energy is not the answer” by Arjun Makhijani, September 8, 2011
See also: Nuclear Power, Not The Answer — 100 Percent Renewable Energy is the Only Moral Choice, Before the Flood, by Kelly Rigg, Director, The Varda Group for Environment and Sustainability
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    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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      Amid flooding and rising sea levels, residents of one barrier island wonder if it’s time to retreat

      The Washington Post, by  Frances Stead Sellers,  Nov. 9, 2019 PST

      OCRACOKE, N.C. — On any normal late-fall day, the ferries that ply the 30 miles between Swan Quarter and this barrier island might carry vacationing retirees, sports fishermen and residents enjoying mainland getaways after the busy summer tourist season.

      But two months ago, Hurricane Dorian washed away all signs of normalcy here. After buzz-cutting the Bahamas, the giant storm rolled overhead, raising a seven-foot wall of water in its wake that sloshed back through the harbor, invading century-old homes that have never before taken in water and sending islanders such as post office head Celeste Brooks and her two grandchildren scrambling into their attics.

      Ocracoke has been closed to visitors ever since. Island-bound ferries carry yawning container trucks to haul back the sodden detritus of destroyed homes. And O’cockers — proud descendants of the pilots and pirates who navigated these treacherous shores — are faced with a reckoning: whether this sliver of sand, crouched three feet above sea level between the Atlantic Ocean and Pamlico Sound, can survive the threats of extreme weather and rising sea levels. And if it can’t, why rebuild?

      “That’s the unspoken question. That’s what nobody wants to say,” said Erin Baker, the only doctor to serve this community of 1,000. “It’s a question of how do we continue to have life here.”

      Scientists have long warned that Ocracoke’s days are numbered, that this treasured island is a bellwether for vast stretches of the U.S. coast.

      “Virtually everyone from Virginia Beach south to the U.S./Mexico border is going to be in the same situation in the next 50 years,” said Michael Orbach, professor emeritus of marine affairs at Duke University. “And it’s only going to get worse after that.”

      If Ocracoke’s ultimate prognosis is grim, Tom Pahl, the township’s county commissioner, remains committed to its recovery.

      “Is this really sustainable? The answer is pretty clearly no,” he said. “But what’s the timeline? No one has been able to say, ‘You’ve got 15 years, 40 years, 100 years.’ The clear-eyed vision is resiliency then retreat.”

      [As North Carolina focuses on getting ahead of hurricanes, some residents are hesitant to move]

      The disaster has in some ways shortened people’s outlook.

      “I don’t think we’re thinking that far ahead right now,” said Monroe Gaskill, 64, echoing in the distinctive island brogue the immediate concerns of many “ol’ toimers”: whether the island will be open in time for duck-hunting season later this month; where students will study next semester when they have to relinquish their temporary classrooms in the old Coast Guard Station; and what will become of all the displaced residents, who are holed up in rental units, once the tourists return next Easter.

      Even as some houses are being bulldozed, neighbors are working together to raise others.

      “Now I know there is no such thing as high enough,” said Janet Spencer behind the counter of the hardware store, which reopened without power right after the storm. She and her husband jacked up their home 18 years ago — just one cinder block too few to keep out Dorian. Still, she said, long-term residents won’t leave.

      “It’s the only thing we know,” she said.

      The home of Edward and Stella O’Neal is torn down due to damage caused by flooding during Hurricane Dorian in Ocracoke. (Daniel Pullen/for The Washington Post)
      The home of Edward and Stella O’Neal is torn down due to damage caused by flooding during Hurricane Dorian in Ocracoke. (Daniel Pullen/for The Washington Post)
      Monroe Gaskill, a commercial fisherman and licensed hunter guide, said he thinks people on the island are more focused on their immediate concerns right now. (Daniel Pullen/for The Washington Post)
      Monroe Gaskill, a commercial fisherman and licensed hunter guide, said he thinks people on the island are more focused on their immediate concerns right now. (Daniel Pullen/for The Washington Post)

      There are hazards everywhere, said Amy Howard, 47, a local historian and craft store manager, and hurricanes have shaped the culture of this storied village. She showed off the floorboards her great-grandfather cut out in 1933 to relieve pressure from mounting water and prevent the house from floating off its foundations. The building was raised in 1944 after a storm, and her father plans to elevate it further.

      Alton Ballance, a descendant, like Gaskill and Howard, of the island’s earliest white settlers, has heard the call to retreat. “Time to get off that island!” one friend, an ocean scientist, has told him. “There may come a day when it’s not feasible to continue,” Ballance concedes, but for now he is methodically stripping out the old family home and installing new electrical outlets waist-high.

      “It’s easy for people in government and sometimes in the media to target a small place like this,” Ballance said, rocking back and forth on a porch swing outside the room where his mother was born.

      The Federal Emergency Management Agency provided support for rebuilding roads and other infrastructure. But a recent decision to deny residents individual assistance, which would have helped with temporary housing, has provoked ire when so many coastal communities received funds after hurricanes such as Sandy in 2012.

      FEMA said it provides the funding only when state and local resources are overwhelmed.

      North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper has signaled his commitment to rebuilding. But the islanders’ sense of injustice reflects a broad dilemma, according to Rob Young, director of the Program for the Study of Developed Shorelines at Western Carolina University — a lack of clarity about which parts of the nation’s threatened shoreline can and should be protected.

      “There is no clear national plan,” said Young, so FEMA’s decision “comes across as arbitrary.”

      While Young does not advocate mass migration, wetter storms are raising questions about using taxpayer money to rebuild coastal communities.

      “At some point, there is going to be a breaking point,” he said, “when the public sector is either not going to want or to be able to afford to accept the risk.”

      Meanwhile, the future of the Outer Banks is made more precarious by development, said Stanley Riggs, who devoted his career at East Carolina University to studying the state’s 10,000-mile coastline.

      “We’re loving these islands to death,” Riggs said, constructing roads and bridges to bring in tourists and blocking the natural flow of tides and storms that over millennia have shaped the 175-mile string of shifting sand banks.

      What remains of Highway 12 is piled up to be hauled away after flooding caused by Hurricane Dorian. (Daniel Pullen/for The Washington Post)
      What remains of Highway 12 is piled up to be hauled away after flooding caused by Hurricane Dorian. (Daniel Pullen/for The Washington Post)

      Riggs served on a state advisory panel that in 2010 predicted more than three feet of sea-level rise by 2100, prompting a backlash from lawmakers skeptical of climate change and developers.  A compromise bill, based on a shorter timeline, passed in 2012, even as the jeopardy has become clearer here: The coastline of Cape Hatteras, north of Ocracoke, is eroding rapidly, retreating by more than a mile since Hurricane Isabel in 2003; to the south, once-vibrant Portsmouth is a ghost town.

      Sitting outside the makeshift classrooms, middle school science teacher Patricia Piland described how climate science has become real for her eighth-graders. Their curriculum this semester focuses on the hydrosphere, but she has moderated her message for students shell shocked by their narrow escape.

      “One girl said, ‘So, we’re screwed.’ ” Piland recalled. “I told them I believe we can plan for sea-level rise.” Doing so, she said, will require working with nature rather than responding to the demands of developers.

      Enrollment at the school has dropped from 174 to 157 since the storm, and Brooks, the post office head, is seeing the community fray slightly as families file change-of-address forms. “There will be more,” she predicted, weeping as she recalled the trauma of being trapped by rising water.

      Some people who lost their jobs took off quickly. Others are still deciding. Tom Parker, 66, who moved here 20 years ago, wiped away tears as he sat under the live oak tree where he has made a steady income charging tourists $1 to have their photo taken among its gnarled branches.

      “I’m tired of having this constant risk of having it all destroyed,” he said.

      But for many people who come here to wait tables or clean motel rooms, Ocracoke remains a place of opportunity, not retreat. The storm was a setback for Idalid Maldonado, a seasonal worker already facing problems this year with her visa, but she hopes it’s only a temporary one.

      She set down the wheelbarrow she has been using to lug the salt-stained contents out of guest rooms to ponder whether she will be back next summer.

      “I don’t know,” Maldonado said. “I don’t know.”

      About one-third of Ocracoke’s population is Latino, many of whom came like Maldonado to serve summer visitors and then were seduced by the gentle year-round rhythm of island life where children can roam free.

      “We talked about moving, but here, it’s a special place,” said Gloria Benitez-Perez, whose husband is in the construction business and built their house on stilts. “We are going to be fine.”

      A pile of debris grows in Ocracoke. (Daniel Pullen/for The Washington Post)
      A pile of debris grows in Ocracoke. (Daniel Pullen/for The Washington Post)
      Local artists painted and displayed signs to boost morale in Ocracoke after Hurricane Dorian. (Daniel Pullen/for The Washington Post)
      Local artists painted and displayed signs to boost morale in Ocracoke after Hurricane Dorian. (Daniel Pullen/for The Washington Post)

      But, like the shipwrecks that surface after storms, existing problems gained prominence following Dorian’s blow. Stanley “Chip” Stevens, owner of Blackbeard’s Lodge, named after the fearsome buccaneer who was beheaded here, said there has been no full accounting of Dorian’s damage and of the impact on people living in sheds and trailers who are “the backbone of our service workforce.”

      He advocates more building, not less, to support the “shadow economy” on which Ocracoke — and impoverished Hyde County — depend.

      “What the island needs is affordable housing,” Stevens said.

      Aid workers, meanwhile, comment on the extraordinary challenges of offshore construction. Every box of nails, each bottle of bleach and all the two-by-fours have to be driven out through low-lying country before being loaded for the almost three-hour ride across the Sound. Contractors face a round-trip commute of six hours or more, or they have to find a place to stay.

      There is another, shorter, route out of Ocracoke.

      North of the village, past the discarded cars and the corroded appliances, Highway 12 leads through the National Park’s windswept dunes to an isolated ferry terminal.

      Dorian chewed up the tarmac. Only four-wheel drives are allowed to make the trip, tucking in behind a tow truck that leads over rutted, chassis-scraping sand to the waiting Hatteras ferry.

      Once the road is passable — perhaps by late November — it will provide a lifeline. But it won’t restore normalcy or eliminate the sense that this little paradise is in limbo.

      “The hard part hasn’t started yet,” said Baker, the island doctor, who is monitoring patients’ stress at the metal mobile clinic shipped in to replace her flooded facility. The hurricane that pummeled the Bahamas had reduced to a Category 1 by the time it swamped Ocracoke, she said.

      “There’s a whole new level of fear for those who stay.”

      Erin Baker, the only doctor in the community of 1,000, in front of her temporary clinic. Her facility was damaged by flooding from Hurricane Dorian. (Daniel Pullen/for The Washington Post)
      Erin Baker, the only doctor in the community of 1,000, in front of her temporary clinic. Her facility was damaged by flooding from Hurricane Dorian. (Daniel Pullen/for The Washington Post)
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        How Scientists Got Climate Change So Wrong

        Few thought it would arrive so quickly. Now we’re facing consequences once viewed as fringe scenarios.
        The New York Times, Opinion, by Eugene Linden, Nov. 8, 2019
        Transit workers pumped water out of the South Ferry subway station in Lower Manhattan after Hurricane Sandy in 2012.
        Transit workers pumped water out of the South Ferry subway station in Lower Manhattan after Hurricane Sandy in 2012. Credit…Hiroko Masuike/The New York Times

        For decades, most scientists saw climate change as a distant prospect. We now know that thinking was wrong. This summer, for instance, a heat wave in Europe penetrated the Arctic, pushing temperatures into the 80s across much of the Far North and, according to the Belgian climate scientist Xavier Fettweis, melting some 40 billion tons of Greenland’s ice sheet.

        Had a scientist in the early 1990s suggested that within 25 years a single heat wave would measurably raise sea levels, at an estimated two one-hundredths of an inch, bake the Arctic and produce Sahara-like temperatures in Paris and Berlin, the prediction would have been dismissed as alarmist. But many worst-case scenarios from that time are now realities.

        Science is a process of discovery. It can move slowly as the pieces of a puzzle fall together and scientists refine their investigative tools. But in the case of climate, this deliberation has been accompanied by inertia born of bureaucratic caution and politics. A recent essay in Scientific American argued that scientists “tend to underestimate the severity of threats and the rapidity with which they might unfold” and said one of the reasons was “the perceived need for consensus.” This has had severe consequences, diluting what should have been a sense of urgency and vastly understating the looming costs of adaptation and dislocation as the planet continues to warm.

        In 1990, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the United Nations group of thousands of scientists representing 195 countries, said in its first report that climate change would arrive at a stately pace, that the methane-laden Arctic permafrost was not in danger of thawing, and that the Antarctic ice sheets were stable.

        Relying on the climate change panel’s assessment, economists estimated that the economic hit would be small, providing further ammunition against an aggressive approach to reducing emissions and to building resilience to climate change.

        As we now know, all of those predictions turned out to be completely wrong. Which makes you wonder whether the projected risks of further warming, dire as they are, might still be understated. How bad will things get?

        So far, the costs of underestimation have been enormous. New York City’s subway system did not flood in its first 108 years, but Hurricane Sandy’s 2012 storm surge caused nearly $5 billion in water damage, much of which is still not repaired. In 2017, Hurricane Harvey gave Houston and the surrounding region a $125 billion lesson about the costs of misjudging the potential for floods.

        Flooded roads in Beaumont, Tex., after Hurricane Harvey in 2017.
        Flooded roads in Beaumont, Tex., after Hurricane Harvey in 2017. Credit…Alyssa Schukar for The New York Times

        The climate change panel seems finally to have caught up with the gravity of the climate crisis. Last year, the organization detailed the extraordinary difficulty of limiting warming to 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit (1.5 degrees Celsius), over the next 80 years, and the grim consequences that will result even if that goal is met.

        More likely, a separate United Nations report concluded, we are headed for warming of at least 5.4 degrees Fahrenheit. That will come with almost unimaginable damage to economies and ecosystems. Unfortunately, this dose of reality arrives more than 30 years after human-caused climate change became a mainstream issue.

        The word “upended” does not do justice to the revolution in climate science wrought by the discovery of sudden climate change. The realization that the global climate can swing between warm and cold periods in a matter of decades or even less came as a profound shock to scientists who thought those shifts took hundreds if not thousands of years.

        Scientists knew major volcanic eruptions or asteroid strikes could affect climate rapidly, but such occurrences were uncommon and unpredictable. Absent such rare events, changes in climate looked steady and smooth, a consequence of slow-moving geophysical factors like the earth’s orbital cycle in combination with the tilt of the planet’s axis, or shifts in the continental plates.

        Then, in the 1960s, a few scientists began to focus on an unusual event that took place after the last ice age. Scattered evidence suggested that the post-ice age warming was interrupted by a sudden cooling that began around 12,000 years ago and ended abruptly 1,300 years later. The era was named the Younger Dryas for a plant that proliferated during that cold period.

        At first, some scientists questioned the rapidity and global reach of the cooling. A report from the National Academies of Science in 1975 acknowledged the Younger Dryas but concluded that it would take centuries for the climate to change in a meaningful way. But not everyone agreed. The climate scientist Wallace Broecker at Columbia had offered a theory that changes in ocean circulation could bring about sudden climate shifts like the Younger Dryas.

        And it was Dr. Broecker who, in 1975, the same year as that National Academies report playing down the Younger Dryas, published a paper, titled “Climatic Change: Are We on the Brink of a Pronounced Global Warming?” in which he predicted that emissions of carbon dioxide would raise global temperatures significantly in the 21st century. This is now seen as prophetic, but at the time, Dr. Broecker was an outlier.

        Then, in the early 1990s, scientists completed more precise studies of ice cores extracted from the Greenland ice sheet. Dust and oxygen isotopes encased in the cores provided a detailed climate record going back eons. It revealed that there had been 25 rapid climate change events like the Younger Dryas in the last glacial period.

        The evidence in those ice cores would prove pivotal in turning the conventional wisdom. As the science historian Spencer Weart put it: “How abrupt was the discovery of abrupt climate change? Many climate experts would put their finger on one moment: the day they read the 1993 report of the analysis of Greenland ice cores. Before that, almost nobody confidently believed that the climate could change massively within a decade or two; after the report, almost nobody felt sure that it could not.”

        In 2002, the National Academies acknowledged the reality of rapid climate change in a report, “Abrupt Climate Change: Inevitable Surprises,” which described the new consensus as a “paradigm shift.” This was a reversal of its 1975 report.

        “Large, abrupt climate changes have affected hemispheric to global regions repeatedly, as shown by numerous paleoclimate records,” the report said, and added that “changes of up to 16 degrees Celsius and a factor of 2 in precipitation have occurred in some places in periods as short as decades to years.”

        The National Academies report added that the implications of such potential rapid changes had not yet been considered by policymakers and economists. And even today, 17 years later, a substantial portion of the American public remains unaware or unconvinced it is happening.

        Melt water poured into a fjord in western Greenland this summer when a heat wave that smashed records in Europe moved over the island.
        Melt water poured into a fjord in western Greenland this summer when a heat wave that smashed records in Europe moved over the island. Credit…Caspar Haarl’v/Associated Press

        Were the ice sheets of Greenland and Antarctica to melt, sea levels would rise by an estimated 225 feet worldwide. Few expect that to happen anytime soon. But those ice sheets now look a lot more fragile than they did to the climate change panel in 1995, when it said that little change was expected over the next hundred years.

        In the years since, data has shown that both Greenland and Antarctica have been shedding ice far more rapidly than anticipated. Ice shelves, which are floating extensions of land ice, hold back glaciers from sliding into the sea and eventually melting. In the early 2000s, ice shelves began disintegrating in several parts of Antarctica, and scientists realized that process could greatly accelerate the demise of the vastly larger ice sheets themselves. And some major glaciers are dumping ice directly into the ocean.

        By 2014, a number of scientists had concluded that an irreversible collapse of the West Antarctic ice sheet had already begun, and computer modeling in 2016 indicated that its disintegration in concert with other melting could raise sea levels up to six feet by 2100, about twice the increase described as a possible worst-case scenario just three years earlier. At that pace, some of the world’s great coastal cities, including New York, London and Hong Kong, would become inundated.

        Then this year, a review of 40 years of satellite images suggested that the East Antarctic ice sheet, which was thought to be relatively stable, may also be shedding vast amounts of ice.

        Rifts in the Amery ice shelf in Eastern Antarctica. In September, a section of the shelf broke away, forming a 600-square-mile iceberg.
        Rifts in the Amery ice shelf in Eastern Antarctica. In September, a section of the shelf broke away, forming a 600-square-mile iceberg. Credit…Richard Coleman/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

        As the seas rise, they are also warming at a pace unanticipated as recently as five years ago. This is very bad news. For one thing, a warmer ocean means more powerful storms, and die-offs of marine life, but it also suggests that the planet is more sensitive to increased carbon dioxide emissions than previously thought.

        The melting of permafrost has also defied expectations. This is ground that has remained frozen for at least two consecutive years and covers around a quarter of the exposed land mass of the Northern Hemisphere. As recently as 1995, it was thought to be stable. But by 2005, the National Center for Atmospheric Research estimated that up to 90 percent of the Northern Hemisphere’s topmost layer of permafrost could thaw by 2100, releasing vast amounts of carbon dioxide and methane into the atmosphere.

        For all of the missed predictions, changes in the weather are confirming earlier expectations that a warming globe would be accompanied by an increase in the frequency and severity of extreme weather. And there are new findings unforeseen by early studies, such as the extremely rapid intensification of storms, as on Sept. 1, when Hurricane Dorian’s sustained winds intensified from 150 to 185 miles per hour in just nine hours, and last year when Hurricane Michael grew from tropical depression to major hurricane in just two days.

        If the Trump administration has its way, even the revised worst-case scenarios may turn out to be too rosy. In late August, the administration announced a plan to roll back regulations intended to limit methane emissions resulting from oil and gas exploration, despite opposition from some of the largest companies subject to those regulations. More recently, its actions approached the surreal as the Justice Department opened an antitrust investigation into those auto companies that have agreed in principle to abide by higher gas mileage standards required by California. The administration also formally revoked a waiver allowing California to set stricter limits on tailpipe emissions than the federal government.

        Even if scientists end up having lowballed their latest assessments of the consequences of the greenhouse gases we continue to emit into the atmosphere, their predictions are dire enough. But the Trump administration has made its posture toward climate change abundantly clear: Bring it on!

        It’s already here. And it is going to get worse. A lot worse.

        The flooded roadway into the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel in Manhattan after Hurricane Sandy.
        The flooded roadway into the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel in Manhattan after Hurricane Sandy. Credit…Andrew Burton/Getty Images

         

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