No matter how far you go on vacation, sometimes you can't get away—especially if you write about science policy for a living.
Entomologist Diana Six and some dead whitebark pines in Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest, about 40 miles southwest of Butte. Photo credit: Krysti Shallenberger
I recently escaped the steamy confines of Washington, D.C., for the mountains of Montana for some sorely needed R & R. The last time I set foot in Big Sky Country was 10 years ago, when I attended a grizzly bear conference at a ranch just outside of Yellowstone National Park. And the first and only other time I visited the state was 35 years ago, when I backpacked in Glacier National Park.
From a climate perspective, things there have gotten worse.
The glaciers I marveled at on my backpacking trip have shrunk considerably, and even then they were a pale approximation of what they once were. The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) estimates that there were approximately 150 glaciers in the area in 1850, and most of them were still there in 1910 when the park was established. In 1979, when I was fending off mosquitoes at the Continental Divide, the official National Park Service estimate was down to 75 glaciers, and now, according to the USGS, there are only 25 glaciers larger than 25 acres.
At that 2004 conference, I learned that global warming is making it harder to keep a key item in the grizzly bear pantry in stock. The bears like to feast on high-protein seeds from whitebark pine cones in the fall to fatten up before hibernation time, but the tree is being ravaged by the mountain pine beetle, which develops faster and survives winter more easily thanks to warmer temperatures.
To be sure, the beetles have been around for a long time, and they aren't the whitebark pine's only problem. The trees also have been suffering from white pine blister rust—a disease accidentally introduced via imported seedlings nearly a century ago—and fire pattern changes have enabled other tree species to invade their territory. But over the last 10 years, beetle outbreaks have intensified. According to a 2012 U.S. Forest Service study, they "are occurring more rapidly and dramatically than imagined a decade ago." Since my last visit, the Forest Service estimates the beetle has killed more than 4.5 million whitebark pine trees in Montana alone.
This grim state of affairs prompted the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) to determine in 2011 that the whitebark pine is in "imminent" risk of extinction due to, among other things, global warming—the first time the federal government identified climate change as a contributing factor in a tree species' demise. Budgetary constraints and more pressing agency priorities, however, have kept the tree off the endangered species list.
The fate of the Yellowstone region's grizzlies, meanwhile, has teetered back and forth in recent years. In 2007, the FWS concluded that they had recovered sufficiently and took them off the threatened species list, which they had been on since 1975. Two years later, however, a federal district court in Montana put them back on, citing concerns about the whitebark pine. Regardless, the FWS is again considering delisting the roughly 700 bears in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, contending they are supplementing their diet with more meat.
Montana Scientists Sound the Alarm
If anyone gets climate in Montana, it's scientists. During my recent visit I picked up a copy of the Missoulian, Missoula's daily newspaper, and came across an op-ed titled "Climate change is a scientific reality." Written by University of Montana entomologist Diana Six and five other Montana-based scientists, the July 30 column was essentially a public version of a letter they and 96 other scientists across the state sent to Montana's governor and the state's congressional delegation in late June.
The scientists cited some of the severe impacts global warming is already having on the state—including longer wildfire seasons and the aforementioned pine beetle—and warned that the consequences of doing nothing to curb carbon emissions would be dire indeed.
They also chastised Montana politicians for turning a blind eye to empirical evidence.
"Some of Montana's political leaders continue to ignore the most basic scientific findings about climate change," they wrote. "We hear them say: 'I'm not a scientist so I cannot be sure.' We are scientists and let us be clear: The scientific evidence that Earth's climate is warming is overwhelming. We need to move from debate to solutions."
One solution the scientists support is the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) recent proposal to limit power plant carbon pollution. The draft plan requires Montana industries to cut carbon emissions 21 percent by 2030. Given that coal was responsible for 53 percent of the electricity generated in Montana last year and the state has the largest coal reserves in the nation, the proposal received a mixed reception among Montana pols. Their responses ranged from praising the EPA for a responsible, flexible plan to condemning the agency for making war on coal and Montana jobs.
In fact, coal jobs are few and far between in Montana. According to preliminary U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics numbers for 2013, the coal industry employed only 1,116 people out of a total workforce of nearly 437,000. That's an anemic 0.25 percent. Oil and gas jobs are even more scarce. Although there are four oil refineries in the state, only 761 Montanans worked in the industry last year. Agriculture and outdoor recreation are much more important to the state's economy, and climate change is taking a toll on both. Droughts and wildfires are a growing problem for farmers and ranchers, and dead trees don't do much to enhance the hiking experience.
Montana Lawmakers Poised to Halt Progress
Six and her co-authors also called on state officials to make Montana a hub for clean energy jobs. Given the latest news on that front, however, don't count on that happening anytime soon.
Like 28 other states and the District of Columbia, Montana has a standard in place promoting renewable energy, such as wind and solar. Montana's standard, which went into effect in 2008, requires the state's two largest utilities and an electricity supplier to generate 15 percent of their electricity from renewables by 2015, a relatively modest goal. Late last month, a state legislative committee issued a draft report concluding that Montana's standard has been an economic success. It created new jobs, bolstered rural county development, had a "negligible impact" on electric rates, and cut carbon emissions at the same time.
That's the good news. The bad news? Despite the fact that the three companies have already met the 15 percent requirement—and the fact that Montana has the third best wind resources in the country that could meet more than 240 times the state's current electricity demand—the legislative committee recommended that the renewable requirement remain at 15 percent.
You might call that a victory, considering some legislators wanted to drop the standard altogether. Jeff Deyette, a senior energy analyst at the Union of Concerned Scientists, calls it a missed opportunity.
"While Colorado, Minnesota and other states blessed with tremendous wind potential are forging ahead and ramping up their renewable energy targets, Montana is missing a golden opportunity to build on what it has already started," said Deyette, the co-author of "Ripe for Retirement," a 2013 study on aging coal plants. "I can see why Montana scientists are frustrated with their elected officials. Given what we know about global warming, legislators there are clearly putting the interests of the coal industry ahead of their own constituents."
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Fireworks Can Trigger Flashbacks<p>Hyperarousal, a core component of PTSD, occurs when a person is hyper-alert to any sign of threat – constantly on edge, easily startled and continuously screening the environment.</p><p>Imagine, for instance, stepping down the stairs in the dark after hearing a noise; you're worried an intruder might be downstairs. Then a totally unpredictable loud sound explodes right outside your window.</p><p>For people with PTSD, that sound – reminiscent of gunfire, a thunderstorm or a car crash – <a href="https://theconversation.com/veterans-refugees-and-victims-of-war-crimes-are-all-vulnerable-to-ptsd-130144" target="_blank">can cause</a> a panic attack or trigger flashbacks, a sensory experience that makes it seem as if the old trauma is happening here and now. Flashbacks can be so severe that combat veterans may suddenly drop to the ground, the same way they would when an explosion took place in combat. Later, the experience can trigger nightmares, insomnia or worsening of other PTSD symptoms.</p><p>Those of us who set off fireworks need to ask ourselves: Are those few minutes of fun worth the hours, days, or weeks of torment that will begin for some of our friends and neighbors – including many who put their lives on the line to protect us?</p>
Who Else Is Affected?<p>Millions of others, though not diagnosed with PTSD, may similarly be affected by fireworks. <a href="https://adaa.org/about-adaa/press-room/facts-statistics" target="_blank">One in five Americans</a> have an anxiety disorder, many with symptoms of hyperarousal. Also impacted are those with autism or developmental disabilities; they find it difficult to cope with the noise, or just the drastic change from life routines. Then there are people who have to work, holiday or not: nurses, physicians and first responders, who have to be up at 4 a.m. for a 30-hour shift.</p><h3>How to Reduce the Negative Impact</h3><p>There are ways to reduce how fireworks affect others:</p><ul><li>For those with PTSD, the unexpected nature of fireworks is probably the worst part. So at least make it as predictable as possible. Do it in designated areas during designated times. Don't explode one, for instance, two hours after the designated time window. And avoid setting them off <a href="https://www.theguardian.com/society/2018/jul/04/fireworks-ptsd-fourth-of-july-veterans-shooting-survivors" target="_blank">on the 3rd</a>. People are less prepared then.</li><li>If you're aware that a veteran or trauma survivor lives in the neighborhood, move the noise as far as possible from their home and give them prior warning. Consider putting a sign in your front yard noting the time you'll set the fireworks.</li><li>Remember, it doesn't have to be super loud to make it fun. Consider using <a href="https://thehill.com/opinion/energy-environment/504964-its-time-for-silent-fireworks" target="_blank">silent fireworks</a>. And you don't have to be the one who lights the fireworks. Simply enjoy watching while your city or township does it safely.</li></ul>
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By Jeff Berardelli
For the past year, some of the most up-to-date computer models from the world's top climate modeling groups have been "running hot" – projecting that global warming may be even more extreme than earlier thought. Data from some of the model runs has been confounding scientists because it challenges decades of consistent projections.
International Effort to Evaluate Climate Models<p>For the past 25 years the international community has been evaluating and comparing the world's most sophisticated climate models produced by various teams at universities, research centers, and government agencies. The effort is organized by the World Climate Research Programme under the United Nations World Meteorological Organization.</p><p>Climate models are complicated computer programs composed of millions of lines of code that calculate the physical properties and interactions between the main climate forces like the atmosphere, oceans, and solar input. But models also go a lot further, incorporating other systems like ice sheets, forests, and the biosphere, to name a few. The models are then used to simulate the real-world climate system and project how certain changes, like added pollution or land-use changes, will alter the climate.</p><p>Every few years there is a new comprehensive international evaluation called the Coupled Model Intercomparison Project (CMIP). In the sixth such effort, known as CMIP6 and now under way, experts are reviewing about 100 models.</p><p>Information gleaned from this effort will act as a scientific foundation for the U.N.'s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) next major assessment report, scheduled for release in 2021. The goal of the report – the sixth in 30 years – is to inform the international community about how much the climate has changed, and, importantly, how much change can be expected in coming decades.</p>
A Conundrum Emerges<p>Over the past year, the CMIP6 collection of models being reviewed threw researchers an unexpected curveball: a significant number of the climate model runs showed substantially more global warming than previous model versions had projected. If accurate, the international climate goals would be nearly impossible to achieve, and there would be significantly more extreme impacts worldwide.</p><p>A foundational experiment in every report addresses "sensitivity": If you double levels of carbon dioxide (CO2) that were in the air before the Industrial Revolution, how much warming do the models show? This doubling is not expected for a few more decades, but it is a quick way to communicate the critical role of greenhouse gases in changing the climate.</p><p>The amount of CO2 in the atmosphere has increased by 35% since the 1800s because of the burning of fossil fuels. As a result, global temperatures have already increased by more than 2 degrees Fahrenheit.</p><p>In the first IPCC assessment report, published in 1990, the answer to that question about the impact of doubling carbon dioxide gave a fairly wide range of results – between 2.7-8 degrees F of global warming. Since then, four more assessments issued six to seven years apart reached nearly the exact same conclusion on sensitivity.</p><p>But that sensitivity may, for the first time, change significantly in next year's assessment. Why? Because starting last year, numerous models in the CMIP6 collection displayed even bigger spikes in temperature upon doubling of CO2 concentrations. We're in serious trouble if the climate sensitivity falls in the mid or upper range of the previous assessments. But if the new, higher estimates are correct, the impacts on civilization would be catastrophic.</p>
In the above CarbonBrief interactive visualization, the bars offer a comparison in the range of sensitivity in the CMIP5 models (gray) and CMIP6 models (blue).
New and Encouraging Evidence Is Emerging<p>At first, scientists were uncertain whether the new model runs were on to something, so the international modeling community dug in to produce multiple studies. The results are not yet conclusive, but a gradual collective sigh of relief seems to be materializing.</p><p>"Evidence is emerging from multiple directions that the models which show the greatest warming in the CMIP6 ensemble are likely too warm," explains Dr. Gavin Schmidt, director of NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies.</p><p>For example, <a href="https://www.earth-syst-dynam-discuss.net/esd-2020-23/" target="_blank">a study</a> released April 28 evaluated the past performance of the models making up the CMIP6 ensemble. The team assigned weights to each model based upon historical performance of their warming projections, weighing the poorer performing models less. By doing so, both the mean warming and the range of warming scenarios in the CMIP6 ensemble decreased, meaning the warmest models were the ones with weaker historical performance. This result supports a finding that a subset of the models are too warm.</p><p>That conclusion is supported by another new study evaluating one particular model – the Community Earth System Model (CESM2) – that showed greater warming. Using that model, the researchers simulated the climate in the early Eocene era, about 50 million years ago, when rainforests thrived in the Arctic and Antarctic. The CESM2 simulated a historical climate that seems way too warm compared with what is known about that era from geological data, indicating that the model is likely also too warm in its future projections.</p><p>Two other recent studies of the CMIP6 models being evaluated use clever analysis methods to <a href="https://www.google.com/url?q=https://www.earth-syst-dynam-discuss.net/esd-2019-86/&sa=D&ust=1589209938203000&usg=AFQjCNHYwFB-1KqndGfJ4sXdrrm9DpbLaQ" target="_blank">narrow the range</a> of future warming projections and also <a href="https://www.google.com/url?q=https://advances.sciencemag.org/content/6/12/eaaz9549&sa=D&ust=1589209938203000&usg=AFQjCNEhKY1YZ19qgjSZ_hJM14JmzqXOXw" target="_blank">reduce the projected warming</a> of the CMIP6 models by 10 to 15%.</p><p>Through the intensive research spurred by the CMIP6 climate-sensitivity curveball, scientists have been able to turn a confounding challenge into a confidence builder, providing even greater certainty than they had before in both the abilities of the climate science community and in the computer models used. Moreover, the experience has helped unearth uncertainties remaining in the modeling process.</p><p>Experts conclude much of this uncertainty probably lies in the complexity of clouds. "We have been looking as a community at why the models with greater warming are doing what they are doing – and it's tied to cloud feedbacks in the southern mid-latitudes mostly," explains Schmidt.</p><p>In fact, <a href="https://advances.sciencemag.org/content/6/26/eaba1981" target="_blank">a new study</a> addressing the increased sensitivity was published in Science Advances stating, "Cloud feedbacks and cloud-aerosol interactions are the most likely contributors to the high values and increased range of ECS [sensitivity] in CMIP6."</p>
Understanding the Complexity of Clouds<p>It's long been known in climate modeling circles that cloud processes and interactions are a potential weak link for climate modeling. That reality has been brought front and center by the urgent challenges posed during this CMIP6 evaluation period, but the current evaluation of models also provides an opportunity for discovery and improvement.</p><p>Cloud complexity comes from the reality that clouds have a multitude of sizes, altitudes, and textures. Some clouds cool Earth by providing shade, reflecting sunlight back into space. Others act like a blanket, trapping heat and warming the world.</p><p>Given that about <a href="https://www.nasa.gov/vision/earth/lookingatearth/icesat_light.html" target="_blank">70% of the globe</a> is covered by clouds at any given time, it's no surprise that they play an integral role in regulating the climate. The challenge is to figure out which types of clouds will increase, which will decrease, and what the net effect will be on cooling or warming as the climate changes.</p><p><a href="https://www.nature.com/articles/s41561-019-0310-1" target="_blank">One study</a> last year reached an alarming conclusion: Left unchecked, the release of CO2 into the atmosphere may lead to a tipping point where shallow low clouds disappear – leading to runaway, catastrophic warming of nearly 15 degrees F. While scientists see that outcome as only a remote possibility, it drives home the urgent need to better understand clouds.</p><p>"We have a saying at NOAA: It isn't rocket science – it's much, much harder than that," quips Dr. Chris Fairall, ATOMIC's lead investigator. "One of the major problems for modeling is there is not clean separation of scales." The photo below is one that Fairall took from the NOAA P-3 aircraft.</p>
Investigating the Secrets of Clouds<p>To address the urgent question about the dynamics and role of clouds in a warming world, NOAA and European partners launched their ongoing research effort unprecedented in scale. The U.S. contribution, ATOMIC – short for Atlantic Tradewind Ocean-Atmosphere Mesoscale Interaction Campaign – is an international science mission that was featured recently on "<a href="https://www.cbsnews.com/video/study-aims-to-examine-links-between-climate-change-and-clouds/" target="_blank">CBS This Morning: Saturday</a>."</p>
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