Topic: Energy and Environment

Continuing to Lower the Sea Level Rise Contribution from Antarctica

Global Science Report is a weekly 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.”

The good news keeps coming in about sea level rise—or more precisely, Antarctica’s (minimal) contribution to it. Last time, we reviewed recent scientific findings indicating Antarctica was on the verge of gaining ice mass (and thus acting to draw down global sea level) as a slightly warmer Southern Ocean results in increasing snow accumulation which acts to offset ice loss from its peripheral (marine-terminating) glaciers.  Without a contribution from Antarctica, alarming visions of a large and rapid sea level rise this century—upwards of a meter  (and by some reckoning up to 6 meters)—are pretty much out the door.  Sans Antarctica, we are looking at a foot to foot-and-a-half of rise, give or take a few inches. Such an amount will undoubtedly require some adjustment and adaptation, but will not involve a wrenching transformation of society. Most of us probably wouldn’t even notice. Consider that, due to a combination of geology and oceanic warming, this same amount (or more) has been experienced in many East Coast locations in the last 100 years.

The good science news may be one reason why global warming has been so absent in the election debates. In response,  last week, the Union of Concerned Scientists helped a collection of local government officials and scientists from Florida pen an open letter to the candidates imploring them to address the issue of sea level rise during their third and final debate (held in Boca Raton).  They didn’t.

It is a good thing that they left the issue alone, for in this week’s Nature magazine comes more evidence that Antarctica is perhaps not going to be the great sea level rise contributor that other research as made it out to be (e.g. Velicogna et al., 2009; Rignot et al., 2011).

Matt King, from Newcastle University, and colleagues set out to refine the Antarctic ice mass change calculations that have been performed using data collected by the Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment (GRACE) satellite. GRACE determines how the mass is changing underneath the satellite by measuring temporal variations in the pull of gravity.  If the strength of the local gravitational attraction increases over time, then it is inferred that the local mass must be increasing (and vice versa).  This is a handy tool for assessing trends in dynamic ice/snow mass in places like Greenland and Antarctica.

But, variations in the ice/snow burden are not the only thing that can change the gravitational pull observed by the GRACE satellite. The ground underlying the ice and snow may be changing as well. And, in fact, it is. The ground in many places around the world is still adjusting to the burdening and subsequent unburdening from the coming and going of the massive amount of snow and ice from the last ice age (and its termination). This process is known as glacial isostatic adjustment (GIA).

The problem is that while we understand that GIA is taking place, we really don’t precisely know the details, like where, when, and how fast—especially over sparsely monitored and studied places like Antarctica.

Two  years ago, a study was published that showed that the GIA model used in most GRACE-based studies was in error, and that when it was corrected, the rate of calculated ice mass loss from across Antarctica declined by some 40 percent  (from ~150 gigatons/yr to ~87 Gt/yr). Since it takes about 374 Gt of melted ice to produce 1 millimeter of global sea level rise, these findings indicated that Antarctica was contributing to sea level rise at a rate of about one-quarter of a millimeter per year (or about 1 hundredth of an inch per year). We detailed that finding, by Xiaoping Wu and colleagues, in a Cato Current Wisdom article in October of 2010.

Now along comes the new study Matt King et al. (2012) that further refines the local GIA over Antarctica. Here is how they did it:

Here we applied a new GIA model (W12a) to GRACE data to estimate the ice-mass balance for 26 independent Antarctic drainage basins from August 2002 to December 2010. The W12a model comprises a glaciologically self-consistent ice history constrained to fit data that delimit past ice extent and elevation, and an Earth viscosity model chosen such that GIA predictions from W12a best fit a suite of relative sea-level records around Antarctica. The advance of W12a on previous models applied to GRACE data is illustrated by the misfit to GPS uplift rates being halved. Our use of W12a addresses the dominant GRACE-related error in previous Antarctic analyses.

With this new model in hand, they were able to produce a new estimate of the rate of ice mass change over Antarctica from 2002 through 2010. That estimate is a loss of only 69 Gt/yr (+/- 18Gt/yr). And further, they found no statistically significant change in this rate when averaged over the whole continent—in contrast to other prominent studies (e.g. Rignot et al., 2011) which claimed a significant acceleration was taking place.

So King and colleagues’ latest refinement puts the Antarctic contribution to global sea level rise at a rate of about one-fifth of a millimeter per year (or in English units, 0.71 inches per century).

Without a significantly large acceleration—and recall the King et al. found none—this is something that we can all live with for along time to come.


King, M., et al., 2012. Lower satellite-gravimetry estimates of Antarctic sea-level contribution. Nature, doi:10.1038/nature,

Rignot, E., et al., 2011. Acceleration of the contribution of the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets to sea level rise. Geophysical Research Letters, 38, L05503,

Velicogna, I., 2009. Increasing rates of ice mass loss from the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets revealed by GRACE. Geophysical Research Letters, 36, L19503,

Washington Post Sees Solar Panel Duties for What They Are: Self-Flagellation

The Washington Post was channeling the Cato Institute’s Herbert A. Stiefel Center for Trade Policy Studies in this morning’s succinct and insightful editorial about the foolishness of taxing imports of Chinese solar panels.

The editorial picks up a few of the themes and draws very similar policy conclusions to those we have been advocating for many years and, without stating it explicitly, presents a compelling case for major reform, if not repeal, of the trade remedies laws.

For context, last week the U.S. Commerce Department published the final rates of duty calculated in both antidumping and countervailing duty (anti-subsidy) investigations of imports of Chinese solar panels, which were initiated in October 2011. (Here are some earlier thoughts on the matter.)

Formal antidumping and countervailing duty orders will take effect, probably, next month following a final determination by the U.S. International Trade Commission that the U.S. solar panel industry has been materially injured by these Chinese imports.

The thrust of the editorial is that the antidumping and countervailing duties, which are “calculated” by Commerce using an absurdly inaccurate, punitive methodology, will hurt other U.S. companies that are downstream and upstream of the solar panel producers in the production supply chain.

Noting the transnational nature of solar panel production, the editorial states:

U.S. firms that export polysilicon, a key material in the panels’ manufacture, or machinery to Chinese solar-panel makers could lose – if not because of the direct influence of the tariffs themselves, then because of the Chinese government’s likely reaction. Analysts worry that the Chinese will retaliate by slapping duties on U.S. polysilicon. Also at risk is the U.S. solar installation business, which has thrived during this period of low-cost panels.

This is one of the critical defects of the AD/CVD regime. It focuses like a laser on assisting industries seeking protection from competition while systematically—indeed statutorily—ignoring the adverse impacts of that “assistance” on downstream U.S. industries. (Bastiat points out that people tend to err by focusing on what is immediately seen, while failing to consider the ripple effects of actions that are less readily observed; U.S. trade remedy law demands that we commit that error!)

Much more often than not (80% of AD measures in the last decade), the foreign product subject to duties is an intermediate good required by downstream U.S. industries. And these downstream firms—the overwhelming victims of AD/CVD duties—have no legal standing in the proceedings that lead to the imposition of duties that raise their costs of production and drive them offshore or out of business. Under the statutes, the U.S. International Trade Commission is forbidden from considering the likely impact on downstream firms. In this age of globalized production and transnational supply chains, nothing could be more absurd.

About the so-called non-market economy methodology used to calculate margins of dumping and, ultimately, duty rates in Chinese (and Vietnamese) antidumping cases, the editorial asks:

But how much should a Chinese-made solar panel cost? The answer isn’t obvious. Commerce’s estimating methods—using Thailand’s economy as a surrogate for China’s—don’t inspire confidence.

These Cato papers (here and here) provide the dirty details of the capriciousness inherent in NME antidumping methodology. This brand new Cato analysis from Scott Lincicome, which documents—among other things—the global green energy subsidies race, explains how the U.S. countervailing duty law does not redress foreign subsidization, but rather punishes U.S. consuming industries and end-users. Getting tough on China means America’s wealth and jobs creators take it on the chin.

In closing, the editorial states:

And if the Chinese want to subsidize U.S. solar-panel buyers for the time being, there’s a good case to let them.

This is just another example of the administration’s policies working at cross purposes. To the fanfare of the Sierra Club and other environmental groups, President Obama has rhetorically championed the idea of greening our energy consumption profile. Of course, one of the biggest obstacles to that goal has been that the costs don’t justify the benefits. Hasn’t Chinese dumping and subsidization helped to reduce that obstacle? And aren’t duties on Chinese solar panels anathema to that goal?

Duties on solar panels, wind towers, and presidential interventions to block foreign investments in U.S. wind farms suggest that industrial policy—and not environmental policy—explains the president’s interest in green energy.

Recognizing in an editorial that duties imposed to benefit one industry or one firm (as is often the case with trade remedies measures) cause collateral damage to other industries is a laudable development for the Washington Post.  We look forward to the follow-up editorial calling for explicit repeal of the self-flagellating U.S. antidumping law.

Is the Long-Awaited Snowfall Increase in Antarctica Now Underway?

Global Science Report is a weekly 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.”

Whenever the topic of rising seas comes up, we point out that Antarctica is expected to gain mass through enhanced snowfall in a warmer climate, and therefore its contribution to global sea level rise should be negative—that is, the water locked up in the added snowfall there will act to reduce the level of the globe’s seas. The models used by the Intergovernmental  Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in their 2007 Fourth Assessment Report project the sea level reduction from this mechanism by the end of the 21st century to amount to somewhere between 2 cm and 14 cm (roughly 1 to 6 inches). While this is not a lot, the main point is that Antarctica is not expected to be a contributor to rising seas as the climate warms. Without a large contribution from Antarctica, we will not approach alarmist projections of a meter-plus of sea level rise by century’s end.

Up to now, though, Antarctica has not exactly been with the program.

Instead of gaining mass through increased snowfall, there have been indications that Antarctica is losing ice (contributing to sea level rise) as ice discharge from its coastal glaciers exceeds gains from snow increases (which have been hard to find).  One has to wonder whether Antarctica, contrary to expectations, will continue to lose mass and become an important contributor sea level rise, or whether the projected increases in snowfall have just not yet reached a magnitude sufficient to offset the loss from glacial discharge.

Things are starting to change down there.

The research that has gotten the most attention on the subject of Antarctic mass balance has been based on observations made by the Gravity Recovery And Climate Experiment (GRACE) satellite.  This orbiter senses changes in gravity (i.e., mass) which can be caused by increasing snow and ice loads over the continent.  One key piece of information which must be factored into the calculations of ice mass change is the change in the underlying geologic formations, which are still rebounding from enormous amounts of ice lost after the end of the last ice age.  This geologic motion, known as the glacial isostatic adjustment (GIA), is largely modeled rather than directly observed. Our level of knowledge (or lack thereof) of the true GIA adds a sizable amount of uncertainty to GRACE-based estimates of the ice mass changes over time in Antarctica (and Greenland, the northern hemisphere’s cheap imitation of Antarctica).

In a widely cited finding, Velicogna (2009) reported that Antarctica was losing ice at a rate of about 104 gigatons per year (Gt/yr) during the period 2002–2006, increasing to a loss rate of 246 Gt/yr during 2006–2009 (about 374 Gt of ice are equivalent to 1 mm of sea level).  Rignot et al. (2011) also found an acceleration of ice loss there, increasing from a loss of about 209 Gt/yr (in 2003-2007) to about 265 Gt/yr from 2007 to 2010.  However, Wu et al. (2010) argued that the GIA model used in these previous studies is incorrect, and that when a more accurate GIA model is incorporated in the GRACE-based ice mass change calculations, Antarctica was only losing about 87 Gt/yr during the period 2002–2008.

Support for the GRACE-based calculations comes from the general agreement between the GRACE numbers and those calculated from studies of changes in the grounding lines of coastal glaciers and the ice flow across those grounding lines in association with the other aspects of the mass balance.  This method is known as the Input-minus-Output Method (IOM).  The IOM estimates of the average ice loss from Antarctica over the past several decades (1992–2007) lie somewhere around 136 Gt/yr, in rough agreement with the GRACE-based estimates.  However, the IOM is also subject to a lot of uncertainty. An attempt by Zwally and Giovinetto (2011) to reduce the uncertainty and increase the accuracy resulted in an IOM-based estimate of a loss of only 13 Gt/yr over the same 18-yr period and led the researchers to conclude that:

Although recent reports of large and increasing rates of mass loss with time from GRACE-based studies cite agreement with IOM results, our evaluation does not support that conclusion.

It seems that as the calculations and derivations are improved, the amount of ice mass that Antarctica is supposedly losing gets less and less.

Or perhaps it isn’t losing any mass.

Using a set of observations from a series of satellites that have been in orbit since 1992 and that measure changes in the height of the surface of the ice (ICESat), NASA’s Jay Zwally and colleagues (2012) report that Antarctica is gaining mass. Zwally recently presented his findings to a workshop of the Ice-Sheet Mass Balance and Sea Level expert group of the Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research and the International Arctic Science Committee. According to his abstract, Zwally reported that “During 2003 to 2008, the mass gain of the Antarctic ice sheet from snow accumulation exceeded the mass loss from ice discharge by 49 Gt/yr (2.5% of input), as derived from ICESat laser measurements of elevation change.”

Zwally further added, “A slow increase in snowfall with climate warming, consistent with model predictions, may be offsetting increased dynamic losses.”

So the “global warming, leading to increased snowfall, leading to a drawdown of global sea level” mechanism may be operating after all.

A paper to soon appear in Geophysical Research Letters give us another enticing look at recent snowfall changes in Antarctica.  In “Snowfall driven mass change on the East Antarctic ice sheet,” Carmen Boening and colleagues from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory report that extreme precipitation (snowfall) events in recent years (beginning in 2009) have led to a dramatic gain in the ice mass in the coastal portions of East Antarctica amounting to about 350 Gt in total (Figure 1).

Figure 1. Timeseries of snow accumulation in coastal East Antarctica (shaded region in inset).
(Source: Boening et al., 2012)
Boening et al. reported that the increase in ice mass in East Antarctica has not completely offset the loss of ice mass during the same time in West Antarctica, but as this comparison is made using GRACE data, it is hard to know just how accurate it is.

Also note that a few years with a lot of snowfall does not mean that a change in the long-term snowfall rate has occurred.  Nevertheless, the situation bears careful watching.

Putting everything together, we conclude that many of the claims that Antarctica is rapidly losing ice and increasingly contributing to a rise in global sea levels must now be, at the very least, tempered, if not overturned entirely. Time will certainly tell. And time will also tell just how much we need to worry about future sea level rise. Currently, the answer seems to be “not overly much.”


Boening, C. et al., 2012. Snowfall-drive mass change on the East Antarctic ice sheet. Geophysical Research Letters, in press, DOI:10.1029/2012GL053316.

Rignot, E., et al., 2011. Acceleration of the contribution of the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets to sea level rise. Geophysical Research Letters, L05503, DOI:10.1029/2011GL046583

Velicogna, I., 2009. Increasing rates of ice mass loss from the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets revealed by GRACE. Geophysical Research Letters, 36, L19503, DOI: 10.1029/2009GL040222.

Wu, X., et al., 2010. Simultaneous estimation of global present-day water transport and glacial isostatic adjustment. Nature Geoscience, 3, DOI: 10.1038/NGEO938.

Zwally, H.J., and M.B. Giovinetto, 2011. Overview and assessment of Antarctic ice-sheet mass balance estimates: 1992-2009. Surveys in Geophysics, 32, 351-376, DOI: 10.1007/s10712-011-9123-5.

Zwally, H.J., et al., 2012. Mass gains of the Antarctic ice sheet exceed losses. Presentation to the SCAR ISMAA Workshop, July 14, 2012, Portland Oregon.

Water: Excess of Subsidies, Lack of Markets

A recent op-ed in the Wall Street Journal describes what happens in an industry that suffers from a plethora of subsidies and a dearth of free markets. Water experts Peter Culp and Robert Glennon write:

In 2012, the drought-stricken Western United States will ship more than 50 billion gallons of water to China. This water will leave the country embedded in alfalfa–most of it grown in California–and is destined to feed Chinese cows. The strange situation illustrates what is wrong about how we think, or rather don’t think, about water policy in the U.S.

You can read about the historical background to this “strange situation” in an essay I co-authored with Peter Hill. Basically, irrigation water in the Western states is heavily subsidized and–unlike most commodities–is not easily traded in open markets. The result is a great deal of waste, economic inefficiency, and negative environmental consequences.

Here is some of Culp and Glennon’s discussion of the perverse results of big government water policies. (Keep in mind that ”water rights” for farmers has come to mean ”rights” to hugely subsidized water).

Alfalfa is a water-guzzling crop and the water embedded in the alfalfa that the U.S. will export to China in 2012 is enough to supply the annual needs of roughly 500,000 families.

Southern California’s Imperial Irrigation District gets its water from the Colorado River, 82 miles to the east. Alfalfa farmers in the district use as much as 50% more water than growers in other areas of the state due to scorching heat, salty soil and, perhaps most important, their legal rights to an enormous quantity of cheap water. This single irrigation district controls more than 20% of the total annual flow of the Colorado River. Remarkably, the district’s water rights are 10 times higher than that of the entire state of Nevada.

The perversity of a situation in which California taxpayers must spend tens of billions to protect the water supplies of vital farms and cities even as California farmers convert tens of thousands of irrigated acres to feed cows in China reflects the growing incoherence of domestic water and agricultural policy. Antiquated Western water laws often block intrastate or interstate water transfers that could satisfy changing domestic urban, agricultural and environmental needs.

In many Western states, moreover, farmers who conserve water by modernizing their irrigation systems don’t get to use, lease or sell the water they save … Even when a transfer is possible, complicated regulatory procedures mean that final approvals can take years. Interstate transfers typically fare even worse.

Cronyism in the Energy Industry — from Enron to Al Gore

Tomorrow, Robert L. Bradley Jr. will discuss “Give Me Regulation: From Samuel Insull to James E. Rogers in the Electric Power Industry” at a Cato Policy Forum. The talk draws upon Bradley’s most recent book, Edison to Enron: Energy Markets and Political Strategies, the second volume in his trilogy on political capitalism in the energy industry.

Maybe he should call it, “From Samuel Insull [who organized Commonwealth Edison back around 1900] to Al Gore.”

The Washington Post reports today that former vice president Gore’s “clean energy” companies have received $2.5 billion in taxpayers’ money from the Obama administration. Which is perhaps not unrelated to the fact that “[j]ust before leaving public office in 2001, Gore reported assets of less than $2 million; today, his wealth is estimated at $100 million.”

I suppose it could be worse—Gore’s companies didn’t get all the $90 billion that the Obama administration doled out to uneconomic energy firms.

Attend the forum or watch it online at noon Friday.

Privatize or Contract Out?

The Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority (MARTA) spends $50 million more than its peers on employee benefits, says KPMG in an audit of the agency. Reducing benefits to national average levels (easier said than done) and contracting out some services such as cleaning would allow MARTA to erase a $33 million deficit in its annual budget.

Comparing a transit agency’s efficiency to its peers is like criticizing a bank robber for stealing more than home burglars. The fact is that they are both ripping people off, and just because some are a bit less rapacious doesn’t make them any more morally correct.

Private jitney in direct competition with MARTA bus.

So I suggest a more aggressive agenda: complete privatization. Atlanta is one of the few cities that doesn’t outlaw private transit in competition with the public agency, and as a result it has a number of private jitneys that operate without subsidies and often charge riders less than MARTA. The jitneys even stop at MARTA’s bus stops.

Many of the jitneys serve Atlanta’s Hispanic communities. One curiosity: according to one report, most MARTA drivers speak only English while most jitney drivers speak only Spanish.

Given that private operators provide transit service without subsidies, how can MARTA justify spending $400 million a year in taxpayer funds on transit? One reason is that MARTA spent $4 billion building a 52-mile rail system that serves a tiny fraction of the Atlanta metropolitan area. When counting amortized capital costs, this rail system costs about 50 percent more to operate, per vehicle mile, than MARTA buses, which themselves cost far more than private buses.

Construction of the rail system aimed to attract middle-class commuters out of their cars, but was done at the expense of limiting bus service to working-class neighborhoods. Although greater Atlanta’s population has grown by more than 150 percent since it started building rail transit, MARTA has done very little to expand bus service. As a result, transit’s share of Atlanta-area commuting declined from 11.0 percent in 1970 to 4.1 percent in 2010, which is hardly an endorsement of rail transit.

Contracting out and the other actions proposed in the KPMG audit can save a little money, but that savings will probably just be wasted on some other part of the transit system. In the long run, such reforms do little more than rearrange the deck chairs as the boat is sinking. Complete privatization would save Atlanta-area taxpayers more than a billion dollars every four years and still result in decent transit service to Atlanta neighborhoods that want and need it.

Amtrak Shrugged

Watching one of the first showings of Part II of Atlas Shrugged was a surrealistic experience for me after testifying earlier in the day (September 20) to the House Transportation Committee about Amtrak. In the movie, government officials piously argue that for the “greater good” they need to provide “guidance” to the nation’s capitalists—and the more guidance they give, the more capitalism fails, which naturally justifies even more guidance.

In the hearing, I testified that Amtrak can’t be reformed because, as a government entity, it will still be controlled by politics, and the only solution was privatization. This led Peter DeFazio, my own former congressman (I moved to an adjacent district four years ago) to reem me out for not having faith in government.

“You don’t believe government should run our air traffic control? You don’t believe government should run our highways? You don’t believe government should subsidize the Port of Los Angeles?” Before I could fully answer each question, he would roll his eyes and interrupt me with incredulous moans. Fortunately, one of the other committee members rescued me and gave me a chance to answer.

Ironically, one of DeFazio’s own questions should have been his undoing. Somehow, he didn’t think Americans could manage to buy cheap goods from Asia unless the federal government subsidized the Port of Los Angeles. Aside from the fact that he probably bemoans the import of cheap goods from Asia, why subsidize the Port of Los Angeles when there are so many other suitable West Coast ports—and in particular, the heavily underutilized Port of Coos Bay in DeFazio’s own district?

Of course, DeFazio also thinks the feds should subsidize the Port of Coos Bay. But given that the Los Angeles metro area has 12 million people and therefore some two dozen representatives in Congress, while the Coos Bay area has about 60,000 people and therefore a fraction of one representative, subsidies are mainly going to go to the former and not the latter even though the latter is a much better natural harbor.

But it was not just DeFazio who supported government control of the economy. Republicans and Democrats at the hearing were equally guilty of thinking that they, the enlightened representatives of the people, should decide where “investments” should be made in transportation, how much people should get paid, and who should produce what “for the greater good.”

“Everyone here believes in creating jobs,” said one Republican. I wanted to raise my hand and say, “No, I believe in creating wealth, not jobs. Your idea of ‘creating jobs’ destroys wealth by taking from some people the wealth they created and giving to others who aren’t creating it.” But I realized that by “everybody here,” the Member meant “every elected official in the room,” not us non-entities who were there to testify or witness the hearing.

Later, another Republican who had been critical of Amtrak’s losses said, “No one here wants to destroy Amtrak; we just want it to run more efficiently.” Once again, I wanted to raise my hand and say, “I want to destroy Amtrak, because Amtrak is spending phenomenal amounts of money running crappy trains.” But again, I restrained myself.

Rather than privatize Amtrak, at least some Republicans propose to contract out Amtrak’s trains to private operators. Congress would still decide where those trains should run. The Republicans who support this proposal would also require the private operators to honor Amtrak’s contracts with workers. Those two requirements would destroy most of the benefits of contracting out.

In Atlas Shrugged, a man named John Galt convinces all the smart people in the country to “go on strike” until the government fails from mediocrity. Fortunately, such a strike won’t be necessary in real life as the mediocre results of government control will lead to failure all by itself. We just have to hope that there is enough wealth left in the country that we can put it back together.