• Clouds may be key to determining how high temperatures will rise

    The kind of clouds in the sky is an important factor in determining surface temperatures, scientists have long known. Low-lying clouds tend to reflect sunlight back into space keeping the climate cooler, while high clouds trap heat. The best estimates on global surface temperatures under climate change varies from an astounding 3.6 to 8.1 degrees F. There’s a difference there big enough to change holiday plans, or alter an ecosystem. It’s the kind of clouds in the sky that matter in all this. Research published in the November 2010 Journal of Climate by Axel Lauer at the University of Hawaii, Manoa explored the cloud types most likely to cover the sky in a warming world. Using global climate models that analyzed the tropical eastern Pacific region, simulations were run on late 21st century temperature conditions. The result? A “distinct reduction

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  • Tens of thousands of years needed for Earth to recover from mass carbon releases

    It’s easy to come up with ways that carbon is released into the atmosphere — an erupting volcano, a massive wildfire, or in today’s world, millions of fossil fuel burning cars and power plants. But how does carbon eventually get put back into the earth? A paper published in Nature Geoscience this month by scientists at Purdue University and the University of California at Santa Cruz examined the Palaeocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum, a 170,000 year period of global warming that took place 56 million years ago. It was caused by a single event that released the equivalent of burning the entire reserve of present day fossil fuels. Obviously in the 56 million years since then, the carbon has settled out. But how long that took is a question that has puzzled scientists and has obvious relevance to climate change concerns today.

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  • Spotlight on Lake Tahoe: Climate change brings earlier springs and less snow for famous ski resort

    This is the first installment of a new, regular series in The Hot Zone that spotlights the local effects of climate change in different places in the world. As the globe heats up, it’s becoming apparent that the effects are not uniform everywhere. Some places are getting wetter, some places drier, species are shifting in different ways with dramatic implications for ecosystems. The predominating force shaping the future of the local environment differs as well. In the oceans, acidification has huge impacts for Great Barrier Reef, while in California, fires are raging with increased frequency and ferocity. Government agencies and academic institutions are beginning to assess local and regional impacts as a way to prepare for the coming change. The aim of this series is to bring climate change home to a particular spot on Earth to understand how life

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  • Climate change could bring a more toxic world

    There’s been growing concern about the levels of mercury and chemicals finding their way to the Arctic, which is ending up in the fat of large mammals. Part of the problem is due to the way toxins travel around the globe, but also because animals like polar bears and Arctic foxes are getting leaner. As the extra fat burns away, toxins are released into the blood streams of these animals. Climate change could be exacerbating the problem for very different reasons. Nature News reports that environmental chemists presenting at this week’s Society of Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry annual conference found that warming temperatures and ocean acidity is making toxins more bioavailable. That’s because as ice melts, more seawater is exposed to the air making it easier for toxins to get into the atmosphere. Changes in the circulation of water around

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  • California a bright spot on climate change policy

    This week’s election results probably have a lot of climate folks holed up in denial or commiserating around water coolers. But there was at least one bright spot on the political landscape. Californians turned down a proposition on the ballot that would have stripped away the state’s climate change legislation, which is the most robust and influential in the nation, not least because it impacts a state whose economy rivals that of France. The Global Warming Solutions Act (AB 32) was signed into law by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger in 2006, and sets 2020 as a goal to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels, a roughly 15-20 percent reduction over today’s levels. The legislation has spurred significant growth in the green tech sectors, with green jobs growing 10 times faster than other state averages and attracting nearly $9 billion in

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  • Earth’s climate could take 100,000 years to recover, and a game to solve our climate woes

    Maybe this isn’t news. But it sure got my attention. The Geological Society of London put out a position statement on climate change this week, and among its many interesting tidbits said that the Earth’s climate could take 100,000 years or longer to recover from this most recent bout of CO2, absent any human mitigation. The Society based this projection on numerical models of the climate system that went into the 2007 IPCC report. The Society’s advice, based on this conclusion, is a bit of an understatement:  “…Emitting further large amounts of CO2 into the atmosphere over time is likely to be unwise, uncomfortable though that fact may be.” In a stellar summary of past climates, the Society builds a very convincing argument that the climate troubles we face today do not appear in isolation in Earth’s history. Although the

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  • Climate refugees or invading species? What to do with species on the move.

    Previously  I wrote about the debate in the scientific community about recolonizing species into new areas as climate change forces them out of their old homes. Apparently, a similar debate is happening in the U.S. parks service. I was at an event this week commemorating the opening of a Ocean Climate Center in San Francisco, a place where federal agencies can combine research and mitigation efforts on climate change. Frank Dean, the superintendent of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, which spans some 60 miles of Bay Area coastline, underscored the conundrum parks officials are facing. They are truly in a tizzy. “We’re supposed to let natural processes prevail and exotics are not welcome,” he said. “But if we have species fleeing (from other areas), what do we do from a policy standpoint? It will certainly rock our very core.”

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  • Commerical space travel could threaten the climate

    Commercial spaceflight could open up all kinds of new opportunities that would expand the limitations of Earth. Mining asteroids for heavy metals, energy generation through solar power satellites, and space tourism are all ideas that are being explored as companies seek ways to make business out of the Final Frontier. With companies like Spaceport America opening the world’s first commercial spaceport in Las Cruces, New Mexico earlier this month and Virgin Galactic now booking $200,000 space tours, it seems the future of space travel could be right around the bend. Congress is investing $1.6 billion in private space-flight investments through NASA to kick-start the fledgling industry, particularly in the outsourcing of astronaut and cargo transport. Check out a video of the Spaceport America dedication: Not to put a damper on all the hype, but it seems there’s been one overlooked

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  • Species may experience survival ‘tipping points’ at high temperatures

    Some species seem to be taking climate change really hard, while others appear to be skating through it with little impact. But looks can be deceiving. As temperatures continue to rise, resilient species may, too, find themselves under too much change to survive. A new study published in the recent journal Nature explores how Arctic and alpine species are coping. Ecologists Daniel Doak from the University of Wyoming and William Morris from Duke University conducted a long term study of plants in the high altitudes of Colorado and New Mexico and along the Alaskan coastline. They found a complex set of responses to temperature increases. Survival was poor, in many cases along the most drastic extremes of the southern edges. But that negative response was somewhat offset by faster plant growth. The scientists don’t believe that the two patterns cancel

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  • Population growth could reverse carbon reduction gains

    Back in the late 1960s, the environmental movement was in a tizzy over predictions that overpopulation would soon cause mass human starvation and eventually kill the planet. But the Malthusian vision fell to the wayside once the Green Revolution made farming that much more productive and countries began enacting environmental reforms that lessened some of the worst abuses in pollution. These days you don’t hear much concern over the size of Earth’s ballooning human population, even as it reaches nearly 7 billion people — nearly twice the population of 1970. Yet the topic has popped up again, this time in the context of climate change. In a paper to be published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers led by the National Center for Atmospheric Research found that adding another three billion people by mid-century (considered a

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  • Climate change could jumpstart the metabolisms of tropical species

    Metabolism is more than just what may be responsible for sluggishness or weight gain. In fact, it’s the basis of life, controlling everything from growth and reproduction to energy production and cell formation through a series of chemical reactions. Air temperature can affect metabolism, especially for species that rely on the external weather to control body temperature. Ectotherms like reptiles and amphibians get lethargic when it’s cold and frisky when it’s warm. New research published in the October 7 edition of Nature points out that global warming could be having an unsuspecting impact on metabolisms, especially in the tropics. Much concern over species has focused on the Arctic and mid to high latitudes, where shifts in temperature are most extreme. But the University of Wyoming-led team writes that species in the tropics (they studied ectotherms) will have greater absolute shifts

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  • The seas are rising, but how much?

    As the mercury continues to rise, we all know that the sea level is also going up. But by how much? Scientists do the best they can to model the impacts, and based on that policy makers have come up with the 2 degree Celsius limit to how much hotter the Earth can get and still be in the safety zone. But what if they’re wrong? A paper published in the September Journal of Quaternary Science synthesized ice, marine, and terrestrial data from the last interglacial event, some 125,000 years ago, which was mainly driven by orbital changes in the Earth. University of Exeter geographers Chris Turney and Richard Jones came up with a revised estimate of average global temperatures of 1.9 degrees C warmer than pre-industrial levels, which resulted in a whopping sea level rise of 6.6 to 9.4

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  • Helping dying species find new habitats

    Speaking of finding a habitable planet, the Sept. 24 journal Science has highlighted an interesting debate in the conservation community about recolonizing species that are going under because of climate change. The hope is that they can prevent species from going extinct by giving them a new home, one that is now habitable because of changing climate conditions. Some 20-30 percent of the Earth’s species are at high risk of extinction if global temperatures exceed 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. As climate change causes shifts in habitats, making old homes inhospitable and new areas welcoming to a species, the major question becomes should humans actively assist that transition. From a more theoretical standpoint, should habitats be considered stable, timeless places to be preserved as nature reserves or parks? Or are habitats

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  • James Kasting: Finding a habitable planet

    As we encounter all the successes and setback to environmental sustainability on our planet, there are those keeping up the mission to figure out what makes Earth habitable to begin with and whether life exists elsewhere in the universe. James Kasting, a geoscience professor at Penn State University and arguably the world’s leader in the study of habitable planets, offered some insights at the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco on Wednesday. His new book, How to Find a Habitable Planet, has recently been released and can be considered a primer on the search for other life. Other scientists, namely Peter Ward, author ofThe Medea Hypothesis (2009), have taken the viewpoint that life is rare in the universe because it is fundamentally harmful in its destabilizing affect on a planet’s climate (an argument hard to refute in today’s age of climate

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  • Frigid mountain glaciers prevent erosion

    Glaciers are well known shapers of the landscape as they advance and recede through the ice ages. In the U.S. we even have Glacier National Park named after the work of glaciers, which carved out huge valleys and lakes and sculpted the dramatic mountains, which have exposed the finest fossilized examples of extremely early life found anywhere on Earth. As we all know, glaciers are in trouble. At the Montana Park, only 25 glaciers remain in 2010 of an estimated 150 that existed in the mid 1800s, and scientists believe all will disappear by 2030 under current climate change scenarios. Scientists are now finding that glaciers not only mold the landscape, but can protect it as well from the forces of erosion. In a paper published int he journal Nature this week, University of Arizona geologist Stuart Thomson and colleagues

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