Topic: Energy and Environment

The Buzz on Alex and Global Warming

Of course we’re referring to Hurricane Alex here, which blew up in far eastern Atlantic waters thought to be way too cold to spin up such a storm.  Textbook meteorology says hurricanes, which feed off the heat of the ocean, won’t form over waters cooler than about  80°F.  On the morning of January 14, Alex exploded over waters that were a chilly 68°.

Alex is (at least) the third hurricane observed in January, with others in 1938 and 1955.  The latter one, Hurricane Alice2, was actually alive on New Year’s Day.

The generation of Alex was very complex.  First, a garden-variety low pressure system formed over the Bahamas late last week and slowly drifted eastward.  It was derived from the complicated, but well-understood processes associated with the jet stream and a cold front, and that certainly had nothing to do with global warming.

The further south cold fronts go into the tropical Atlantic, the more likely that they will just dissipate, and that’s what happened last week, too.  Normally the associated low-pressure would also wash away.  But after it initially formed near the Bahamas  and drifted eastward, it was  in a region where sea-surface temperatures (SSTs) are running about 3°F above the long-term average consistent  with a warmer world. This may have been just enough to fuel the persistent remnant cluster of thunderstorms that meandered in the direction of Spain.

Over time, the National Hurricane Center named this collection “Alex” as a “subtropical” cyclone, which is what we call a tropical low pressure system that doesn’t have the characteristic warm core of a hurricane.

Big Brother Wants to Run Your Self-Driving Car

As part of his 2017 budget proposal, Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx proposes to spend $4 billion on self-driving vehicle technology. This proposal comes late to the game, as private companies and university researchers have already developed that technology without government help. Moreover, the technology Foxx proposes is both unnecessary and intrusive of people’s privacy.

In 2009, President Obama said he wanted to be remembered for promoting a new transportation network the way President Eisenhower was remembered for the Interstate Highway System. Unfortunately, Obama chose high-speed rail, a 50-year-old technology that has only been successful in places where most travel was by low-speed trains. In contrast with interstate highways, which cost taxpayers nothing (because they were paid for out of gas taxes and other user fees) and carry 20 percent of all passenger and freight travel in the country, high-speed rail would have cost taxpayers close to a trillion dollars and carry no more than 1 percent of passengers and virtually no freight.

The Obama adminstration has also promoted a 120-year-old technology, streetcars, as some sort of panacea for urban transportation. When first developed in the 1880s, streetcars averaged 8 miles per hour. Between 1910 and 1966, all but six American cities replaced streetcars with buses that were faster, cost half as much to operate, and cost almost nothing to start up on new routes. Streetcars funded by the Obama administration average 7.3 miles an hour (see p. 40), cost twice as much to operate as buses, and typically cost $50 million per mile to start up.

The point is that this administration, if not government in general, has been very poor at choosing transportation technologies for the twenty-first century. While I’ve been a proponent of self-driving cars since 2010, I believe the administration is making as big a mistake with its latest $4 billion proposal as it made with high-speed rail and streetcars.

The problem is that the technology the government wants is very different from the technology being developed by Google, Volkswagen, Ford, and other companies. The cars designed by these private companies rely on GPS, on-board sensors, and extremely precise maps of existing roadways and other infrastructure. A company called HERE, which was started by Nokia but recently purchased by BMW, Daimler, and Volkswagen, has already mapped about two-thirds of the paved roads in the United States and makes millions of updates to its maps every day.

Heat-related Death Projections Don’t Square with Observations

Global Science Report is a feature from the Center for the Study of Science, where we highlight one or two important new items in the scientific literature or the popular media. For broader and more technical perspectives, consult our monthly “Current Wisdom.”

We realize that we are 180° out of sync with the news cycle when we discuss heat-related death in the middle of Northern Hemisphere winter, but we’ve come across a recent paper that can’t wait for the heat and hype of next summer.

The paper, by Arizona State University’s David Hondula and colleagues, is a review of the recent scientific literature on “human health impacts of observed and projected increases in summer temperature.”

This topic is near and dear to our hearts, as we have ourselves contributed many papers to the scientific literature on this matter (see here).  We are especially interested in seeing how the literature has evolved over the past several years and Hondula and colleagues’ paper, which specifically looked at findings published in the 2012-2015 timeframe, fills this interest nicely.

Here’s how they summed up their analysis:

We find that studies based on projected changes in climate indicate substantial increases in heat-related mortality and morbidity in the future, while observational studies based on historical climate and health records show a decrease in negative impacts during recent warming. The discrepancy between the two groups of studies generally involves how well and how quickly humans can adapt to changes in climate via physiological, behavioral, infrastructural, and/or technological adaptation, and how such adaptation is quantified.

Did you get that? When assessing what actually happens to heat-related mortality rates in the face of rising temperatures, researchers find that “negative impacts” decline. But, when researchers attempt to project the impacts of rising temperature in the future on heat-related mortality, they predict “substantial increases.”

In other words, in the real world, people adapt to changing climate conditions (e.g., rising temperatures), but in the modeled world of the future, adaptation can’t keep up. 

On the Bright Side: A Deceleration of Sea Level Rise Along the Indian Coastline

Parker and Ollier (2015) set the tone for their new paper on sea level change along the coastline of India in the very first sentence of their abstract: “global mean sea level (GMSL) changes derived from modelling do not match actual measurements of sea level and should not be trusted” (emphasis added). In contrast, it is their position that “much more reliable information” can be obtained from analyses of individual tide gauges of sufficient quality and length. Thus, they set out to obtain such “reliable information” for the coast of India, a neglected region in many sea level studies, due in large measure to its lack of stations with continuous data of sufficient quality.

A total of eleven stations were selected by Parker and Ollier for their analysis, eight of which are archived in the PSMSL database (PSMSL, 2014) and ten in a NOAA sea level database (NOAA, 2012). The average record length of the eight PSMSL stations was 54 years, quite similar to the average record length of 53 years for the eleven NOAA stations.

Results indicated an average relative rate of sea level rise of 1.07 mm/year for all eleven Indian stations, with an average record length of 51 years. However, the two Australian researchers report this value is likely “overrated because of the short record length and the multi-decadal and interannual oscillations” of several of the stations comprising their Indian database. Indeed, as they further report, “the phase of the 60-year oscillation found in the tide gauge records is such that sea level in the North Atlantic, western North Pacific, Indian Ocean and western South Pacific has been increasing since 1985-1990,” which increase most certainly skews the rate trend of the shorter records over the most recent period of record above the actual rate of rise.

Tug-of-War over Federal Lands Leads to Standoff

Lost in all the hoopla over “y’all queda” and “VanillaISIS” is any basic history of how public rangelands in the West–and in eastern Oregon in particular–got to this point. I’ve seen no mention in the press of two laws that are probably more responsible than anything else for the alienation and animosity the Hammonds felt towards the government.

The first law, the Public Rangelands Improvement Act of 1978, set a formula for calculating grazing fees based on beef prices and rancher costs. When the law was written, most analysts assumed per capita beef consumption would continue to grow as it had the previous several decades. In fact, it declined from 90 pounds to 50 pounds per year. The formula quickly drove down fees to the minimum of $1.35 per cow-month, even as inflation increased the costs to the government of managing the range. 

The 1978 law also allowed the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management (BLM) to keep half of grazing fees for range improvements. Initially, this fund motivated the agencies to promote rancher interests. But as inflation ate away the value of the fee, agency managers began to view ranchers as freeloaders. Today, the fee contributes will under 1 percent of agency budgets and less than 10 percent of range management costs. Livestock grazing was once a profitable use of federal range lands but now costs taxpayers nearly $10 for every dollar collected in fees.

You Ought to Have a Look: 2015 Temperatures, Climate Sensitivity, and the Warming Hiatus

You Ought to Have a Look is a feature from the Center for the Study of Science posted by Patrick J. Michaels and Paul C. (“Chip”) Knappenberger.  While this section will feature all of the areas of interest that we are emphasizing, the prominence of the climate issue is driving a tremendous amount of web traffic.  Here we post a few of the best in recent days, along with our color commentary.

What’s lost in a lot of the discussion about human-caused climate change is not that the sum of human activities is leading to some warming of the earth’s temperature, but that the observed rate of warming (both at the earth’s surface and throughout the lower atmosphere) is considerably less than has been anticipated by the collection of climate models upon whose projections climate alarm (i.e., justification for strict restrictions on the use of fossil fuels) is built.

We highlight in this issue of You Ought to Have a Look a couple of articles that address this issue that we think are worth checking out.

First is this post from Steve McIntyre over at Climate Audit that we managed to dig out from among all the “record temperatures of 2015” stories. In his analysis, McIntyre places the 2015 global temperature anomaly not in real world context, but in the context of the world of climate models.

Climate model-world is important because it is in that realm where climate change catastrophes play out, and that influences the actions of real-world people to try to keep them contained in model-world.

So how did the observed 2015 temperatures compare to model world expectations? Not so well.

Some Blessings of Cheap Oil and Low Inflation

1. Cheaper oil lowers the cost of transporting people and products (including exports), and also the cost of producing energy-intensive goods and services.  

2. Every upward spike in oil prices has been followed by recession, while sustained periods of low oil prices have been associated with relatively brisk growth of the U.S. economy (real GDP).

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3. Far from being a grave danger (as news reports have frequently speculated), lower inflation since 2013 has significantly increased real wages and real consumer spending.

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4. Cheaper energy helps explain why the domestic U.S. economy (less trade & inventories) has lately been growing faster than 3% despite the unsettling Obama tax shock of 2013.

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