Monday, July 6, 2015

Anybody notice NOAA has disappeared El Nino?

A couple of months ago, NOAA had declared a long-awaited El Nino event, after an unprecedented 54-month Nino-less period with two declared La Ninas and multiple abortive flirtations with El Nino status.

Their longstanding requirements for El Nino require at least five consecutive three-month averages at or above +0.5C. The new El Nino, as we've seen, inspired some commentators to literally incoherent levels of excitement:

Eric Holthas' unstoppable global juggernaught looked like this in the NOAA data:

And if you're thinking that looks pretty tame compared to the other El Ninos since 2003, you're right. In fact, those months were so marginal that they have now slipped out of El Nino status altogether. A few weeks ago NOAA made a quiet adjustment to its January-Febuary-March numbers, downward by 0.1C. This had the somewhat starting result of disappearing El Nino from NOAA's data:
Instead of a El Nino entering its eighth month, we now have two 3-month averages on either side of a Nino-spoiling 0.4C January-Febuary-March.

This means that when NOAA re-welcomes El Nino in a couple months, we will have had gap of 58 months, just a hair under 5 years, between El Nino events. Whereas the prior record was just 52 months (1959-1963, if you're curious.)

There is no serious point to this, other than the fact that scientists reassess and adjust data sets all the time, as better information becomes available. It's not the mark of a grand conspiracy to control a narrative, just researchers going about their business -- so routinely that a change like this can go almost unnoticed.

Saturday, July 4, 2015

Is nuclear energy expensive?

Spot the leader.

Robert Wilson doesn't think so:
But like it or not, offshore wind is now the only scalable form of renewable energy in Britain. Solar and onshore wind are not. This leaves us with three choices as far as low carbon electricity is concerned: nuclear, offshore wind and CCS. Nuclear is currently much cheaper than offshore wind, and this is not likely to change tomorrow. So, forget about calling nuclear expensive, and be more honest and say that de-carbonisation is expensive. If nuclear energy is expensive then it is time we lowered our expectations when it comes to climate change, because cheaper options are not staring us in the face.
 While Wilson's tone is more dismissive of renewable energy than I would be, I substantially agree with his point -- calling nuclear energy expensive whilst supporting heavy investments in wind, solar, and other non-hydro renewable energy often amounts to the pot calling the kettle black.

Getting our emissions down to 20% or 10% of present-day emissions is going to cost quite a bit of money. In the long run, that investment will pay off. Even in the short run, there are substantial benefits to be had in the form of improved air quality, better transportation networks, more efficient and reliable energy grids, and so on. But there is no getting around the fact that the cost will be several trillion dollars (which, it should be pointed out, is still a tiny share of the world's wealth.)

While renewable energy is getting cheaper, it is the worst kind of motivated reasoning to think that it will continue getting cheaper indefinitely along a linear trend. While intermittancy at high levels of renewable penetration is a problem that can certainly be overcome, fixes all involve additional investment and increased costs.

Smart government policies can make renewables cheaper -- by supporting research into new technologies, encouraging adoption on a wide scale, and by making changes to the utility model and the grid such as dynamic pricing which favor the development of more renewables.

Similarly, though, a smart set of policies could make nuclear energy much cheaper. Settling on a single standard design, providing a steady stream of orders for that design, and streamlining regulatory approval after the initial instances of that design, could bring costs down dramatically. Whether or not you think the US government was right to commit itself to the long-term storage of nuclear waste, it did make that commitment and ought to settle on a site and answer that question once and for all.

Whatever low-carbon energy sources are the most successful, we ought to resign ourselves to spending some serious cash up front. Hydrocarbons are a very efficient way to store energy, and I very much doubt if any alternative energy source in our lifetimes is going to be easier than just pumping the stuff out of the ground. Renewable energy advocates who decry the expense of nuclear energy are sharpening the sword that will be at their throats for the foreseeable future.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

In which Judith Curry reads an article

. . . which turns out to be wrong.

Apparently, while visiting the UK, Curry read an article about how greedy biomass-burning greens are destroying everything, leaving the virgin forests of Britain an apocolyptic hellscape. Skeptic that she is, she swallows this premise whole and reguritates for her readers, despite the fact that literally ten seconds of Googling shows it to be pure fiction.

But first, the heart-wrenching tale of a rabid biomass industry run amok [Trigger warning: graphic scene of 50 trees being cut down]:
But what ex-teacher Pountney and Wilson saw looked to them like utter desolation. They came across a stand where about 50 mature oaks, some 300 years old, had been felled the previous winter. Their trunks lay in ragged piles, some sawn into roundels.
The oaks’ fate, the Trust has confirmed, was to be burnt: as ‘sustainable’ heating fuel in log-burning stoves – a market which is expanding rapidly. According to trade group HETUS, almost 200,000 such stoves are installed every year – a five-fold increase since 2007.
 Those fifty trees become the core evidence for the claim that biomass fanatics have sent England into a downward spiral of desertification set to cumulate in a "Mad Max" style countryside.

[And then we spend the aforementioned ten seconds fact-checking.]

Surprisingly, not so:

England's forests and woods had dwindled to just 5.2% by 1905.

The first world war was the low point, and in 1916 Herbert Asquith's government established the Acland committee to study the problem. They said England desperately needed to replenish and maintain "strategic reserves of timber", and within a few years the Forestry Act would lead to the establishment of the Forestry Commission to carry this out.

In the years since, a steady programme of afforestation has increased England's forest cover back to 13% – not far off the levels of 1,000 years ago. To put that in context, many other European countries average about 37% coverage, so England still has one of the continent's lowest levels. But the commitment to afforestation is clear, with modern English foresters using a wide variety of native broadleaf, conifers and species that could thrive in our changing climate.
How is that Britain's forest cover continues to expand, having more than doubled in the course of the 20th century? Private owners making use of generous tax breaks:

The new Forestry Commission report, conducted for the UN’s food and agriculture department, disclosed that the amount of woodland owned by individuals now accounts for almost half of all our tree cover, having grown by 22 per cent in 15 years, the Sunday Times reported.

Those buying woodland as an investment have found that it has outperformed shares and commercial property in recent years, with an annual return of 5 per cent. Once owned for two years, it is except from inheritance tax.

Proceeds from the sale of timber are also exempt from income tax and corporation tax and there is no capital gains tax on the growth of value in tree crops.
So the United Kingdom uses tax policy to make forests an attractive investment, with the result that private landowners turn over more of said land to forest, with the result that there is more forest. But, wait! Somewhere in this country of 64 million people, someone cut down 50 trees. Teh horror.

Weak sauce, former scientist/professional fake skeptic Judith Curry.

Friday, May 15, 2015

Eric Holthas' Dark Night of the Soul

Me: Cruising the interwebs when suddenly . . .

Hmm, sounds interesting. Last time I checked, the current El Nino was anemic threatening to become average. Let's read more!

Last year at this time, I was harping about the "monster" El Niño that seemed to be brewing in the tropical Pacific Ocean. It didn’t pan out. But from the looks of the latest data, I was just one year too early.
OK, for any budding journalists out there, "Despite the appearance of failure, it turns out that I was right all along" is not a great theme for an article.


Eric Holthaus reflects (dramatic reenactment)

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Depressing graph of the day

We will at some point need to talk about the old mayonnaise in new bottle that is "ecomodernism." For today, a pie chart from the IEA that illustrates what is happening in the world while we are distracted by nonsense:


Wednesday, April 15, 2015

GISTEMP March: +0.84C

GISTEMP updated pretty early this month, it seems. March was very hot; 3rd hottest on record (+0.84C). That should mean another "hottest 12 months" is in the offing.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Desalinization and the fragile society

California is looking towards desalinization to address its water shortage:

Now, for the first time, a major California metropolis is on the verge of turning the Pacific Ocean into an everyday source of drinking water. A $1 billion desalination plant to supply booming San Diego County is under construction here and due to open as early as November, providing a major test of whether California cities will be able to resort to the ocean to solve their water woes.
This is part of a larger trend:
Across the Sun Belt, a technology once dismissed as too expensive and harmful to the environment is getting a second look. Texas, facing persistent dry conditions and a population influx, may build several ocean desalination plants. Florida has one operating already and may be forced to build others as a rising sea invades the state’s freshwater supplies.
In California, small ocean desalination plants are up and running in a handful of towns. Plans are far along for a large plant in Huntington Beach that would supply water to populous Orange County. A mothballed plant in Santa Barbara may soon be reactivated. And more than a dozen communities along the California coast are studying the issue.
This trend shouldn't be viewed in isolation, but rather as part of a broad suite of high-tech, high-capital, energy intensive solutions -- or "solutions" -- to environmental problems created or (more often) intensified by population growth and climate change.

Other examples include the vertical farming movement (a more recent write-up is here) and the increasing reliance of sky resorts on snow machines. Global consumption of air conditioning is rising rapidly and the latent demand for it is already vast.

The result of these trends is apt to be a global society that is more comfortable, and more insulated from temporary shifts in weather. These are, of course, good things in and of themselves. They illustrate that there are (as few doubted there were) technological fixes that allow us to adapt (to some extent) to a warmer world.

But while a society that is increasingly dependent on such devices is in the short term more robust, it is in the longer term more fragile. The more you rely on energy-intensive, technologically sophisticated "solutions" to maintain reliable supplies of things as basic to human survival as food and water, the more vulnerable said society is to disruptions that may compromise those work-arounds.

While a society with desalinized drinking water is more resistant to drought, it is only so as long as the power in on, and the engineers come to work, and the spare parts are in supply. Lose that, whether to extreme weather, or war, or terrorism, or some other disruptive force -- and in addition to your other problems you will be very thirsty, very quickly.

We already live in a technological society, of course. I'm under no illusions that we would be able to feed seven billion people without the factories that produce fertilizer or the trucks and ships which move those fertilizers to the farm or the food to the market. Technological dependence exists along a spectrum. Things like desalinization move us further along that spectrum [1]. So while we store up more climate stresses for the society of nine billion people who will be confronting them at mid-century, we are also bequeathing to them an infrastructure which will be more vulnerable to catastrophic collapse -- a tall tower built taller even as the winds begin to howl.

1. This is especially concerning when we push ourselves down that spectrum for no good reason, and desalinization in California is a perfect example of this. In California, as in most other places, the lion's share of the water -- more than three-quarters of it -- is used by agriculture. But when Gov Jerry Brown announced his emergency plan to save water across the state, he asked virtually nothing from the agriculture sector:
Brown's seven-page executive order, issued Wednesday, outlined the first statewide mandatory water use restrictions in California's history.

Among them: He ordered a 25% reduction in urban use statewide compared to 2013 levels. The directive also bans the use of drinking water to irrigate median strips in public roads, initiates the removal of 1,150 football fields worth of grass to be replaced with drought-tolerant plants; and orders golf courses, campuses and cemeteries to significantly cut their water consumption.
Agricultural mandates were fewer and milder. Irrigation districts were directed to develop drought management plans that include supply and demand data. Agencies in basins where groundwater has been overpumped must immediately monitor groundwater levels.

Ignoring three-quarters of the consumption during a period of unprecedented drought is obviously a political decision, not a practical one. In this context, the valuable technological asset of desalinization is not being put to use to adapt to climate change so much as to adapt to political cowardice and a feckless electorate.