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The year climate science caught up with what climate scientists have been saying privately for years

Joseph Romm, Climate Progress
In 2009, the scientific literature caught up with what top climate scientists have been saying privately for a few years now:

Many of the predicted impacts of human-caused climate change are occurring much faster than anybody expected — particularly ice melt, everywhere you look on the planet.

If we stay anywhere near our current emissions path, we are facing incalculable catastrophes by century’s end, including rapid sea level rise, massive wildfires, widespread Dust-Bowlification, large oceanic dead zones, and 9°F warming — much of which could be all but irreversible for centuries. And that’s not the worst-case scenario!

The consequences for human health and well being would be extreme.

That’s no surprise to anybody who has talked to leading climate scientists in recent years, read my book Hell and High Water (or a number of other books), or followed this blog. Still, it is a scientific reality that I don’t think more than 2 people in 100 fully grasp, so I’m going to review here the past year in climate science. I’ll focus primarily on the peer-reviewed literature, but also look at some major summary reports.

Let’s start with the basics. Heat-trapping greenhouse gases are at unprecedented levels, and the paleoclimate record suggests that even slightly higher levels are untenable:…
(4 Jan 2010)

Where on earth is it unusually warm?

Joseph Romm, Climate Progress
It’s cold here and in northern Eurasia, but it’s been positively toasty ar0und the Arctic circle — thanks to an extreme negative phase of the Arctic Oscillation, as the National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC) explained in their online report yesterday.

The temperatures reported by NSIDC show some Arctic anomalies exceeding 7°C (13°F)! That’s not good news for the kind of re-freezing one wants to see in the otherwise rapidly melting Greenland ice sheet (see Nature: “Dynamic thinning of Greenland and Antarctic ice-sheet ocean margins is more sensitive, pervasive, enduring and important than previously realized”). It’s also one reason “December 2009 had the fourth-lowest average ice extent for the month since the beginning of satellite records, falling just above the extent for 2007. The linear rate of decline for December is now 3.3% per decade.”

Significantly, a new study, “Perennial pack ice in the southern Beaufort Sea was not as it appeared in the summer of 2009” by Barber et al. finds that all the crowing by the anti-science crowd about the supposed “recovery” of Arctic sea ice was quite premature:…
(6 Jan 2010)

Britain’s cold snap does not prove climate science wrong

Leo Hickman and George Monbiot, The Guardian
It’s as predictable a feature of the British winter as log fires and roasting chestnuts: a national outpouring of idiocy every time some snow falls.

Here’s what Martyn Brown says in today’s Express:

As one of the worst winters in 100 years grips the country, climate experts are still trying to claim the world is growing warmer.

There’s a clue as to where he might have gone wrong in that sentence: “country” has a slightly different meaning to “world”. Buried at the bottom of the same article is the admission that ” … other areas including Alaska, Canada and the Mediterranean were warmer than usual.” But that didn’t stop Brown from using the occasion to note that “critics of the global warming lobby said the public were no longer prepared to be conned into believing that man-made emissions were adding to the problem.”

The ability to distinguish trends from complex random events is one of the traits that separates humans from the rest of the animal kingdom. It is also the basis of all science; detecting patterns, distinguishing between signal and noise, and the means by which the laws of physics, chemistry and biology are determined. Now we are being asked to commit ourselves to the wilful stupidity of extrapolating a long-term trend from a single event…
(6 Jan 2010)

Coral Can Recover from Climate Change Damage, New Research Suggests

A study by the University of Exeter provides the first evidence that coral reefs can recover from the devastating effects of climate change. Published Jan. 11, 2010 in the journal PLoS ONE, the research shows for the first time that coral reefs located in marine reserves can recover from the impacts of global warming.

Environmental effects of fishing
Scientists and environmentalists have warned that coral reefs may not be able to recover from the damage caused by climate change and that these unique environments could soon be lost forever. Now, this research adds weight to the argument that reducing levels of fishing is a viable way of protecting the world’s most delicate aquatic ecosystems.

Increases in ocean surface water temperatures subject coral reefs to stresses that lead quickly to mass bleaching. The problem is intensified by ocean acidification, which is also caused by increased CO2. This decreases the ability of corals to produce calcium carbonate (chalk), which is the material that reefs are made of.

Approximately 2% of the world’s coral reefs are located within marine reserves, areas of the sea that are protected against potentially-damaging human activity, like dredging and fishing…
(10 Jan 2010)

The resurgence of El Niño means that 2010 could yet be the hottest year on record

Robin McKie, The Guardian
It may be a hard notion to accept after a week that has seen the nation paralysed by snow and ice. Nevertheless, meteorologists are adamant that our world is still getting warmer. Indeed, many now believe that 2010 may turn out to be the hottest year on record.

Britain may be shivering, the Met Office may have issued emergency weather warnings for the entire country and hundreds of trains and flights may have been cancelled, but our future is destined to be a hot and sticky one. And we are likely to feel the consequences sooner rather than later.

It is a point stressed by Doug Smith, a climate expert at the Met Office. “The hottest year on record was 1998 and some people have argued that if global warming is really taking place, we should have had an even warmer year since then. We haven’t, I admit. And yes, the weather is absolutely terrible at present. However, I am sure things will change – and we won’t have to wait long either.”

Smith and other meteorologists say that for the past few years, temperatures have been prevented from soaring even higher than they did in 1998 thanks to one key factor: the El Niño warming of the Pacific. This phenomenon occurs at irregular intervals of between two and seven years and can last for months, pumping vast amounts of heat into the atmosphere. A strong El Niño occurred in 1998 and played a key role in heating the world to a record-breaking level. (El Niño is Spanish for “the boy”, a reference to the birth of Christ, which relates to the fact that this warming period typically begins around Christmas.)…
(10 Jan 2010)

The sinking Sundarbans

Alexander Cockburn, The Independent
With Copenhagen, Obama’s cap-and-trade bill, and numerous green policy initiatives coming out of Westminster, climate change is finally receiving the attention it deserves in a policy sense. But the plight of people whose lives have already been devastated by climate change has received surprisingly little attention. Fortunately, photojournalist Peter Caton’s new exhibition of photographs from the Sundarbans region in India helps to redress this.

The Sundarbans (meaning ‘beautiful forest’ in Bengali) is a vast area in the Ganges delta comprising a network of 108 swampy, low-lying islands. The area is unique both ecologically, as the home of the man-eating Bengal tiger, and culturally – Hindus and Muslims both worship a deity called Bonobibi. The region’s low elevation above sea-level and proximity to the coast made it particularly vulnerable when Cyclone Aila struck in May 2009, destroying many of the inhabitants’ homes.

Caton and his partner in the field, Cris Aoki Watanabe, have been working in India since 2006. Despite four years of experience witnessing the effects of climate change in the Sundarbans, Caton says that the devastation caused by Aila still took him by surprise. The island’s inaccessibility – it is three to four hours away from Kolkata, the nearest city, and can only be reached by boat – seriously hampered the relief effort and muted the media response…
(11 JaN 2010)

Major Antarctic glacier is ‘past its tipping point’

Shanta Barley, The New Scientist

A major Antarctic glacier has passed its tipping point, according to a new modelling study. After losing increasing amounts of ice over the past decades, it is poised to collapse in a catastrophe that could raise global sea levels by 24 centimetres.

Pine Island glacier (PIG) is one of many at the fringes of the West Antarctic ice sheet. In 2004, satellite observations showed that it had started to thin, and that ice was flowing into the Amundsen Sea 25 per cent faster than it had 30 years before.

Now, the first study to model changes in the ice sheet in three dimensions shows that PIG has probably passed a critical “tipping point” and is irreversibly on track to lose 50 per cent of its ice in as little as 100 years, significantly raising global sea levels.

The team that carried out the study admits their model can represent only a simplified version of the physics that govern changes in glaciers, but say that if anything, the model is optimistic and PIG will disappear faster than it projects…
(13 Jan 2010)