When climate scientists try to estimate how much the Earth will warm due to increasing levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, a key consideration is the role of plants and soils. The more carbon they absorb, the more they reduce the global warming potential.
But recent studies indicate that assumptions about plants' and soils' capacity in the so-called "carbon cycle" may be overly optimistic. If these studies are correct, even bigger cuts in greenhouse gas emissions will be needed to prevent drastic, irreparable climate shifts.
Not only is it possible that plants won't be able to absorb as much carbon as climate models currently project, but plants' response to the carbon cycle could actually amplify global warming, Paul Higgins and John Harte write in the November edition of the Journal of Climate.
Scientists have been trying to come up with ways to weaken hurricanes since the 1940s. Nothing that has been tried so far has worked, but that hasn't stopped a virtual cottage industry of researchers from hatching the next big, bold proposal.
The latest idea, published in the August issue of the journal Atmospheric Science Letters, comes at it from a new angle and at an opportune moment: A study published last week in the National Academy of Sciences concluded that large, damaging hurricanes will happen with greater frequency as global temperatures climb.
Early efforts at hurricane modification involved "seeding" clouds in the eye of an established hurricane in an attempt to disrupt its core. The new plan calls for seeding low marine stratocumulus clouds in areas where hurricanes form—before they form.
The worst drought since at least the 1950s has barely registered on political radar screens this year. Water doesn't make it into convention or stump speeches, or onto bumper stickers or campaign signs.
To many people concerned about the nation's water supply, this drought of attention to a vital resource underscores a glaring, ongoing problem that will likely worsen in coming years if it is not addressed soon.
"The nation lacks a coherent approach to dealing with water," said Gerald Galloway, a civil engineer, hydrology expert and former president of the American Water Resources Association. "Everyone is just hoping it will get better. Hope is not a method." The nation's hydrologic future has become increasingly uncertain because of climate change, he believes, and that uncertainty is making planning and decision making difficult at a time when both are desperately needed.
What the nation has had for many years, Galloway says, is an ad hoc, piecemeal and dysfunctional system for dealing with water issues.
There is no overarching authority, or policy, to look at the broad picture and go beyond the problem de jour, deal with the mounting water conflicts, keep track of resources and scientific data, and address the needs of a crumbling infrastructure.
Colorado is the kind of place where you can play softball in shorts in 70-degree weather in the morning, then bundle up and brace for a blizzard by nightfall. The state's weather is so variable that one winter will leave a giant snowpack in the Rockies, and the next, like the last one, will be bone dry and prime the forests for devastating wildfires when the summer heat arrives.
Even in a relatively quiet year, Colorado's weather keeps the state climatologist, Nolan Doesken, very busy. This year, with a prolonged drought, record-breaking heat in the spring and early summer, and massive wildfires in June, Doesken has been going nonstop for months.
Doesken has been studying the state's climate since 1977, when he arrived at Colorado State University's Colorado Climate Center in Fort Collins. He was appointed state climatologist in 2006 and is a former president of the American Association of State Climatologists. Over the years he has not only recorded his state's wild extremes, he's also been in the middle of some, including a rainstorm that dumped 14 inches in a day, and an early fall snowstorm that left him stranded in a car on a highway.
InsideClimate News spoke via email with Doesken about his job.
Will 2012 go down as the year that left the idea of nuclear energy expansion in the hot, dry dust?
Nuclear energy might be an important weapon in the battle against climate change, some scientists have argued, because it doesn't emit greenhouse gases. But separate of all the other issues with nuclear, that big plus would be moot if the plants couldn't operate, or became too inefficient, because of global warming.
In June, InsideClimate News reported on the findings of Dennis Lettenmaier, a researcher at the University of Washington. His study found that nuclear and other power plants will see a 4 to 16 percent drop in production between 2031 and 2060 due to climate change-induced drought and heat.
The U.S. is getting plenty of both this year. Just Sunday, the Millstone nuclear plant in Waterford, Conn., had to shut down one of its two reactors because seawater was too warm to cool it. It was the first time in the plant's 37-year history that the water pulled from the Long Island Sound was too warm to use.
So the question becomes, is the future already here?
The Climate Prediction Center in Camp Springs, Md., will release its updated outlook for the Atlantic hurricane season on Thursday—but in this year of meteorological twists, predicting how the season will play out is a lot trickier than usual.
When the CPC issued its initial forecast on May 24, it appeared the season would probably be about normal, although the forecasters gave themselves plenty of wiggle room. Because of uncertainties about the emergence of El Niño, they said there would be between nine and 15 named storms, four and eight hurricanes, and one and three major hurricanes.
"We give a range that is determined by the science," said Gerry Bell, who leads the CPC's hurricane forecast team. "If there is uncertainty, you need a bigger range."
By now, the hurricane picture is usually in better focus, and the range of possibilities narrows. But El Niño is not showing its cards, and that leaves the forecast cloudy.
While the nation is fixated on the punishing heat and drought gripping the United States, parts of the country are still coping with losses from another blast of extreme weather that battered their cities, towns and farms this spring: hailstorms.
The Storm Prediction Center in Norman, Okla., said there were about 500 more reports of one-inch diameter or larger hail the first half of this year than the 2005-2011 average. Property damage from just two intense hailstorms that hit large cities could exceed $1.5 billion.
Is this year's hail onslaught a sign of things to come in a warming world? Much uncertainty remains about climate change's impact on future hailstorms, with some scientists saying there could be fewer of them, and others predicting even more damage in the future.
The fires that are burning throughout the country offer a window into what we can expect in the future as the climate heats up. That grim assessment comes from Steve Running, a wildfire expert, ecologist and forestry professor at the University of Montana. Running was among the scores of scientists who, along with Al Gore, won the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize for their work on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
Running's insight is so sought after these days that he has speaking engagements scheduled four years out, about one a week. The pace picked up in June, when people began turning to him for his perspective on the massive Western wildfires. As of Monday, there were 52 active fires across the country, most in the West, that have burned more than 900,000 acres, according to the National Interagency Fire Center. Nearly 1,000 homes have been destroyed in the West alone, and at least three deaths have been attributed to the fires.
InsideClimate News caught up with Running last weekend to get his views on what's going on now, and what we can expect in a world dominated by climate change.
Polar bear scientist Steve Amstrup was stunned when he learned he had won the 2012 Indianapolis Prize, the Nobel Prize of conservation.
"You could have bowled me over with a feather," he said.
The award from the Indianapolis Zoo—and the $100,000 that goes with it—is given every other year to a person who has made extraordinary contributions to the conservation of a single animal species or multiple species.
No one has done more to save polar bears than Amstrup, who has been studying the animals and their habitat since 1980. He has called attention to their plight and the grim future they face due to the disappearance of Arctic ice caused by climate change. He projects that two-thirds of the world's polar bear population could disappear by midcentury unless climate change is slowed, and extinct by the end of the century.
In California, officials in coastal cities are becoming increasingly aware of the potential impacts of climate change, and they're preparing to deal with them.
Not so in Virginia, where even the words "sea level rise" and "climate change" are verboten. Earlier this year, state lawmakers found they could not use those phrases in requesting a study on potential impacts on Virginia's coastal cities. Reporter Scott Harper of the Virginian-Pilot said Republicans objected, fearing it would stir up conservative activists, some of whom believe such terms are liberal code words.
And in North Carolina, officials are hiding their heads in what comedian Stephen Colbert called the "soon-to-be-underwater sand."