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Jan Lee headshot

IPCC Report: The Low-Down for Today's Climate

Words by Jan Lee

One of the toughest challenges presented by the most recent report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has been understanding its message in relation to everyday events. For many of us, change in climate conditions is normal. That period of drier-than-usual winter days that encourages us to play hooky from work or school, or that seemingly unending string of scorching summer weather can, to some degree, be paired with experiences of the past. Most of us can remember experiencing extraordinarily strange weather anomalies when we were kids that would suggest that climate change and global warming assertions are, well, just a lot of hot air.

Combine this conundrum with the fact that the IPCC report is anything but reader-friendly and easy to process, and it’s understandable why 23 percent of the U.S. population doesn’t believe climate change is a real issue, and 64 percent of Americans say they don’t believe it will be a real threat in their lifetime.

It’s no surprise then, that Stanford University, which maintains a sizable investment in climate change research, has developed a tidy little website for debunking intellectual challenges  just like these. The Stanford Alumni website equips the reader with a regular post of quick, fail-safe answers that will pass any after-class cocktail hour quiz. It may not convince everyone that climate change is a real threat, but it proves that heady topics like this one have little hope of being understood without a good stiff cocktail to go along with it.

But for the rest of us, who don’t have time to mull answers over evening schmoozes, what hope is there to really comprehend, on a personal, real-life level what the IPCC has handed us?

So call this our debunking tool: a handy, although somewhat unsettling list of some of the more awe-inspiring phenomena that have begun to occur of late.

The mystery of the rising methane

Methane emissions are up these days. After a brief lull in rising levels of atmospheric methane (1999 to 2006), levels increased sharply in 2007. Scientists have never had a solid understanding of what drives these emissions, but a recent study by a Guelph University researcher and team suggests that the answer lies not in the tropics as previously believed, or in the dietary habits of bovines, but in the loss of the Arctic’s precious permafrost – which is melting at an alarming rate.
“Methane makes methane, that’s what we’re seeing. You have a feedback loop where methane heats things up and then we get more wetland emissions.” - Prof. Euan Nisbet, University of London.

Prof. Merritt Turetsky and his 19 co-authors took 20,000 measurements across the Arctic, tropics and more temperate areas and discovered that the melting is contributing to greenhouse gas concentrations at a faster rate than anywhere else on the planet.

Not only does the permafrost contain twice as much carbon (CO2) than the atmosphere, but according to the Environmental Protection Agency, methane is much more efficient in trapping radiation than CO2. According to the IPCC report, over a 20-year period, methane will have 86 times the global warming potential of CO2 .

But that’s not to say that the fault of global warming can be foisted on Canada. Measurements taken by air over the Uinta Basin in Utah, home to America's largest concentration of natural gas sites, showed a leakage rate of 6 to 12 percent of the methane that was produced each year.

And while there is the belief that more efficient technology can curb natural gas leaks and even make cows less flatulent, a melting permafrost is exceedingly harder to control without curbing the actual source: a warming planet.

As University of London and author Prof. Euan Nisbet succinctly put it: “Methane makes methane, that’s what we’re seeing. You have a feedback loop where methane heats things up and then we get more wetland emissions.”

El Nino’s gift to India: Monsoon  droughts

Here in North America, particularly on the West Coast, we often associate El Niño with balmy, blustery winters and more rain. But in India, where monsoons can be both a blessing and a torrential force, the weather phenomenon is often the opposite -- and can spell disaster for farmers that rely on the rain to irrigate their crops.

As we reported in March, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) gave a “soft” prediction that El Niño would make an appearance this year. And according to Australia’s Bureau of Meteorology, El Niño is on its way.

If there’s one bright spot in the forecast, it is that scientists are getting closer to understanding the relationship between the climate phenomenon and the monsoon season. Still, with 14 percent of its economy based on agriculture, the forecast of yet another drought (the fourth for India since 2002), is likely to have an impact on the country’s population of  1.3 billion.

IPCC report: Worsening weather anomalies

While scientists are still debating whether this spring’s string of fatal tornadoes can be attributed to warmer temperatures, many scientists do believe that the escalation in catastrophic storms is related to climate change.

According to a report released this week by the Obama administration, the Northeast U.S. has seen a 71 percent increase in precipitation since 1958.

Other discoveries:

  • The length and intensity of heat waves in the U.S. have tripled since 2011. The “prolonged (multi-month) extreme heat has been unprecedented ...” (GlobalChange.gov*)

  • But freak episodes of heat waves were building even before 2011. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 7,233 deaths occurred from extreme heat between 1999 and 2009, including 514 mortalities in during a 10-day heat wave in Chicago in 2005.

  • America is losing its coastlines. An average of 8 inches over the past century doesn’t account for the much higher losses around New Orleans and the Northeastern Seaboard*.

  • Heavy downpours have increased since 1991, with episodes averaging about 30 percent higher than prior to 1960*.

  • Alaska has warmed twice as fast as the rest of the country*. Our story of the eroding coastline of Kivalina  is perhaps the best example of Alaska’s disappearing way of life.

Come to think about it, maybe that drink is in order …

Image of flood following storm in Midwest, 2008: Don Becker

Permafrost, Devon Is. Canada: Anthonares

Extreme heat occurrences: GlobalChange.gov

Jan Lee headshotJan Lee

Jan Lee is a former news editor and award-winning editorial writer whose non-fiction and fiction have been published in the U.S., Canada, Mexico, the U.K. and Australia. Her articles and posts can be found on TriplePundit, JustMeans, and her blog, The Multicultural Jew, as well as other publications. She currently splits her residence between the city of Vancouver, British Columbia and the rural farmlands of Idaho.

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