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Climate science 2005: Major new discoveries

Kelly Levin and Jonathan Pershing, World Resources Institute
2005 was a year in which the scientific discoveries and new research on climate change confirmed the fears and concerns of the science community. The findings reported in the peer-reviewed journals last year point to an unavoidable conclusion: The physical consequences of climate change are no longer theoretical; they are real, they are here, and they can be quantified.

In this short paper, WRI reviews some of the major discoveries from the past year. Taken collectively, they suggest that the world may well have moved past a key physical tipping point.

In addition, the science tells us the effects of climate change are at a scale that adds enormous urgency not only to the efforts to prevent additional change, but equally important, to efforts to adapt to the impacts already occurring.

Finally, the science makes it clear that additional climate impacts will result even if emissions of greenhouse gases are halted immediately.

A wide body of scientific and technical literature was reviewed in the preparation of this paper, including key general science journals (Nature and Science), several technical journals (Geophysical Research Letters, Annals of the Missouri Botanical Gardens, Ecology Letters, Ecology, Environment International, and Journal of Climate) and material from key web sites and international organizations (, the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization, the U.S. Department of Energy, and others).

Each scientific paper is briefly described, along with the full citation to the original paper, and a short comment regarding the implications of each discovery is offered.

2006, ISBN: 1-56973-608-1 (14 pages)
Kelly Levin and Jonathan Pershing
(15 March 2006)
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Louisiana Faces an Exodus From the Coast

Once the salt water is in your veins, Louisiana’s coastal folk say, it’s hard to give up the lifestyle of moonlit shrimping trips, the town “fais do-do” dances and afternoons spent on the bayous angling for catfish.

But since last year’s catastrophic hurricanes, this swampy land defined by Cajuns, cypress and tupelo gum forests, bayou-side saloons and, more recently, subdivisions may have become too vulnerable for that lifestyle to continue.

Even before the devastation caused by Katrina, Louisiana’s swampy coast had been sinking by as much as 2 inches a year. Along with that subsidence, the area is even more susceptible to flooding because last year’s hurricanes damaged vast tracts of wetlands — already shrinking because of man’s activities — that used to buffer the area from storms blowing in off the Gulf of Mexico.
(18 March 2006)

Carbon Dioxide Hyrdates Could Secure Sub-Sea Sequestration

Green Car Congress
Capturing and storing carbon dioxide produced by the generation of power and production of synthetic fuels is a critical component in plans to reduce the rate of anthropogenic climate change. Depleted off-shore oil fields are primary targets for CO2 storage, with the accompanying prospect of enhanced oil recovery (earlier post.) Yet the concern remains: what if the CO2 leaks back out?

A team at the Center for Gas Hydrate Research at Heriot-Watt University in the UK is investigating a natural physical process that could help secure carbone dioxide captured and sequestered in the sub-seabed.

In some conditions, seawater and carbon dioxide could combine into carbon dioxide ice-like compounds—carbon dioxide hydrates—in which the water molecules form cavities that act as cages, trapping the carbon dioxide molecules. In the event of carbon dioxide starting to leak into the sea from an under-seabed disposal site (e.g., a depleted North Sea oil or gas reservoir), this process could add a second line of defense preventing the escape of the gas.
(17 March 2006)
One commenter (commentator?) notes a concern that “Hydrates are also prone to rapid outgassing if the pressure drops – which it will, once outgassing starts! This is a major reason why the huge methane reserves trapped in natural suboceanic hydrate deposits have not yet been commercially tapped.” -AF

The False Promise of ‘Clean Coal’

Kari Lydersen, The NewStandard via AlterNet
Even a quick glance at coal-producing states like West Virginia shows that the idea of an eco-friendly use for the fossil fuel is far more misnomer than reality.

On the West Virginia-Ohio border, the tread of the county’s coal-burning power industry is expanding, digging into the Appalachian Mountains and kicking up clouds of pollution. While small towns choked by power plants hear the promise of new “clean coal” technologies, mining communities know there is no technological remedy for the destruction the industry is wreaking in their communities.

Though most people probably associate coal with the bygone Industrial Age, the Bush administration considers it an essential part of the nation’s energy mix. At least 114 new coal-burning power plants are currently in the building or permitting stages around the country. According to a 2006 report from the US Energy Information Administration, US power consumption from coal is expected to rise 1.9 percent per year through 2030, significantly more than the expected rise in energy consumption from petroleum (1.1 percent) and natural gas (0.7 percent).
(16 March 2006)

Warmer oceans blamed for intense hurricanes

Palm Beach Post
Rising ocean temperatures are directly linked to a worldwide increase in hurricane strength over the past 35 years, a Georgia Tech research team reported Thursday — a finding that could add fuel to the debate over possible links between global climate change and hurricanes.

The new report comes on the heels of a warning this week by a coalition of state insurance commissioners that the insurance industry is “threatened by a perfect storm of rising weather losses, rising global temperatures and more Americans than ever living in harm’s way.”
(17 March 2006)

Storm Intensity Tied to Warming of Sea Surfaces

Robert Lee Hotz, LA Times

A study fuels the climate change debate by linking the rise in severe hurricanes to ocean temperatures. Many experts are skeptical.
Rising ocean temperatures have stoked the growing fury of hurricanes, according to a study made public Thursday that intensifies a debate over the link between global warming and the ferocity of storms.

Of all the factors that drive a major storm — such as humidity, wind shear or broad air circulation patterns — only the steady increase in sea surface temperatures over the last 35 years can account for the rising strength of tempests in six oceans around the world, including the North Atlantic, Pacific and Indian oceans, scientists at the Georgia Institute of Technology reported.

“This firms up the link between sea surface temperatures and hurricane intensity,” said climate variability expert Judith A. Curry, a senior author of the study who heads Georgia Tech’s School of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences. “It is an important piece of the global warming debate.”

Their research revealed that the increase in the most severe storms — category 4 and 5 hurricanes have doubled since 1990 — was directly linked to the rising temperatures of tropical oceans, which warmed globally by 1 degree Fahrenheit during the same period. Warm water vapor rising from the sea helps energize massive storms.

Though many hurricane experts remained unconvinced of the connection between global warming and storm intensity, Curry said: “This trend can’t be explained by natural cycles because the cycles are different for each basin…. This is not natural variability.”

The Georgia Tech study, published Thursday in the online edition of the journal Science, comes after several unusually disruptive storm seasons worldwide.
(17 March 2006)

Water forum warns of shortages

Mark Stevenson, Associated Press via Seattle Times
MEXICO CITY — An international summit on global water supplies opened Thursday with presidents and princes calling for solutions to shortages and inequalities in the most basic of commodities.

Organizers of the weeklong forum said their goal was to improve water supplies for the poor. But opponents claimed their real mission was privatization.

“Water is a public possession that all governments must guarantee,” Mexican President Vicente Fox said in his welcoming speech at the Mexico City convention center, where 11,000 delegates and representatives of about 130 countries met behind closed doors.

Loic Fauchon, president of the nongovernmental World Water Council, told the fourth World Water Forum that the poor often struggle to obtain decent, affordable water. He said developed countries should create a huge investment fund to finance water-system improvements in the world’s 50 poorest countries and 20 poorest megacities.
(17 March 2006)