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    An incendiary form of lightning may surge under climate change

    A form of lightning with a knack for sparking wildfires may surge under climate change.

    An analysis of satellite data suggests “hot lightning” — strikes that channel electrical charge for an extended period — may be more likely to set landscapes ablaze than more ephemeral flashes, researchers report February 10 in Nature Communications. Each 1 degree Celsius of warming could spur a 10 percent increase in the most incendiary of these Promethean bolts, boosting their flash rate to about four times per second by 2090 — up from nearly three times per second in 2011.

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    That’s dangerous, warns physicist Francisco Javier Pérez-Invernón of the Institute of Astrophysics of Andalusia in Granada, Spain. “There will be more risk of lightning-ignited wildfires.”

    Among all the forces of nature, lightning sets off the most blazes. Flashes that touch down amid minimal or no rainfall — known as dry lightning — are especially effective fire starters. These bolts have initiated some of the most destructive wildfires in recent years, such as the 2020 blazes in California (SN: 12/21/20).

    But more than parched circumstances can influence a blast’s ability to spark flames. Field observations and laboratory experiments have suggested the most enduring form of hot lightning — “long continuing current lightning”— may be especially combustible. These strikes channel current for more than 40 milliseconds. Some last longer than one-third of a second — the typical duration of a human eye blink.

    “This type of lightning can transport a huge amount of electrical discharge from clouds to the ground or to vegetation,” Pérez-Invernón says. Hot lightning’s flair for fire is analogous to lighting a candle; the more time a wick or vegetation is exposed to incendiary energy, the easier it kindles.

    Previous research has proposed lightning may surge under climate change (SN: 11/13/14). But it has remained less clear how hot lightning — and its ability to spark wildfires — might evolve.

    Pérez-Invernón and his colleagues examined the relationship between hot lightning and U.S. wildfires, using lightning data collected by a weather satellite and wildfire data from 1992 to 2018.

    Long continuing current lightning could have sparked up to 90 percent of the roughly 5,600 blazes encompassed in the analysis, the team found. Since less than 10 percent of all lightning strikes during the summer in the western United States have long continuing current, the relatively high ignition count led the researchers to infer that flashes of hot lightning were more prone to sparking fire than typical bolts.

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    The researchers also probed the repercussions of climate change. They ran computer simulations of the global activity of lightning during 2009 to 2011 and from 2090 to 2095, under a future scenario in which annual greenhouse gas emissions peak in 2080 and then decline.

    The team found that in the later period, climate change may boost updraft within thunderstorms, causing hot lightning flashes to increase in frequency to about 4 strikes per second globally — about a 40 percent increase from 2011. Meanwhile, the rate of all cloud-to-ground strikes might increase to nearly 8 flashes per second, a 28 percent increase.

    After accounting for changes in precipitation, humidity and temperature, the researchers predicted wildfire risk will significantly increase in Southeast Asia, South America, Africa and Australia, and risk will go up most dramatically in North America and Europe. However, risk may decrease in many polar regions, where rainfall is projected to increase while hot lightning rates remain constant.

    It’s valuable to show that risk may evolve differently in different places, says Earth systems scientist Yang Chen of the University of California, Irvine, who was not involved in the study. But, he notes, the analysis uses sparse data from polar regions, so there is a lot of uncertainty. Harnessing additional data from ground-based lightning detectors and other data sources could help, he says. “That [region is] important, because a lot of carbon can be released from permafrost.”

    Pérez-Invernón agrees more data will help improve projections of rates of lightning-induced wildfire, not just in the polar regions, but also in Africa, where blazes are common but fire reports are lacking. More

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    Greta Thunberg’s new book urges the world to take climate action now

    The Climate BookGreta ThunbergPenguin Press, $30

    The best shot we have at minimizing the future impacts of climate change is to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius. Since the Industrial Revolution began, humankind has already raised the average global temperature by about 1.1 degrees. If we continue to emit greenhouse gases at the current rate, the world will probably surpass the 1.5-degree threshold by the end of the decade.

    That sobering fact makes clear that climate change isn’t just a problem to solve someday soon; it’s an emergency to respond to now. And yet, most people don’t act like we’re in the midst of the greatest crisis humans have ever faced — not politicians, not the media, not your neighbor, not myself, if I’m honest. That’s what I realized after finishing The Climate Book by Greta Thunberg.

    The urgency to act now, to kick the addiction to fossil fuels, practically jumps off the page to punch you in the gut. So while not a pleasant read — it’s quite stressful — it’s a book I can’t recommend enough. The book’s aim is not to convince skeptics that climate change is real. We’re well past that. Instead, it’s a wake-up call for anyone concerned about the future.

    A collection of bite-size essays, The Climate Book provides an encyclopedic overview of all aspects of the climate crisis, including the basic science, the history of denialism and inaction, and what to do next. Thunberg, who became the face of climate activism after starting the Fridays For Future protests as a teenager (SN: 12/16/19), assembles an all-star roster of experts to write the essays.

    The first two sections of the book lay out how a small amount of warming can have major, far-reaching effects. For some readers, this will be familiar territory. But as each essay builds on the next, it becomes clear just how delicate Earth’s climate system is. What also becomes clear is the significance of 1.5 degrees (SN: 12/17/18). Beyond this point, scientists fear, various aspects of the natural world might reach tipping points that usher in irreversible changes, even if greenhouse gas emissions are later brought under control. Ice sheets could melt, raise sea levels and drown coastal areas. The Amazon rainforest could become a dry grassland.

    The cumulative effect would be a complete transformation of the climate. Our health and the livelihood of other species and entire ecosystems would be in danger, the book shows. Not surprisingly, essay after essay ends with the same message: We must cut greenhouse gas emissions, now and quickly.

    Repetition is found elsewhere in the book. Numerous essays offer overlapping scientific explanations, stats about emissions, historical notes and thoughts about the future. Rather than being tedious, the repetition reinforces the message that we know what the climate change threat is, we know how to tackle it and we’ve known for a long time.

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    Thunberg’s anger and frustration over the decades of inaction, false starts and broken pledges are palpable in her own essays that run throughout the book. The world has known about human-caused climate change for decades, yet about half of all human-related carbon dioxide emissions ever released have occurred since 1990. That’s the year the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released its first report and just two years before world leaders met in Rio de Janeiro in 1992 to sign the first international treaty to curb emissions (SN: 6/23/90).

    Perversely, the people who will bear the brunt of the extreme storms, heat waves, rising seas and other impacts of climate change are those who are least culpable. The richest 10 percent of the world’s population accounts for half of all carbon dioxide emissions while the top 1 percent emits more than twice as much as the bottom half. But because of a lack of resources, poorer populations are the least equipped to deal with the fallout. “Humankind has not created this crisis,” Thunberg writes, “it was created by those in power.”

    That injustice must be confronted and accounted for as the world addresses climate change, perhaps even through reparations, Olúfẹ́mi O. Táíwò, a philosopher at Georgetown University, argues in one essay.

    So what is the path forward? Thunberg and many of her coauthors are generally skeptical that new tech alone will be our savior. Carbon capture and storage, or CCS, for example, has been heralded as one way to curb emissions. But less than a third of the roughly 150 planned CCS projects that were supposed to be operational by 2020 are up and running.

    Progress has been impeded by expenses and technology fails, science writer Ketan Joshi explains. An alternative might be “rewilding,” restoring damaged mangrove forests, seagrass meadows and other ecosystems that naturally suck CO2 out of the air (SN: 9/14/22), suggest environmental activists George Monbiot and Rebecca Wrigley.

    Fixing the climate problem will not only require transforming our energy and transportation systems, which often get the most attention, but also our economies (endless growth is not sustainable), political systems and connection to nature and with each other, the book’s authors argue.

    The last fifth of the book lays out how we could meet this daunting challenge. What’s needed is a critical mass of individuals who are willing to make lifestyle changes and be heard. This could trigger a social movement strong enough to force politicians to listen and create systemic and structural change. In other words, it’s time to start acting like we’re in a crisis. Thunberg doesn’t end the book by offering hope. Instead, she argues we each have to make our own hope.

    “To me, hope is not something that is given to you, it is something you have to earn, to create,” she writes. “It cannot be gained passively, through standing by and waiting for someone else to do something. Hope is taking action.”

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    Rapid melting is eroding vulnerable cracks in Thwaites Glacier’s underbelly

    Antarctica’s most vulnerable climate hot spot is a remote and hostile place — a narrow sliver of seawater, beneath a slab of floating ice more than half a kilometer thick. Scientists have finally explored it, and uncovered something surprising.

    “The melt rate is much weaker than we would have thought, given how warm the ocean is,” says Peter Davis, an oceanographer at the British Antarctic Survey in Cambridge who was part of the team that drilled a narrow hole into this nook and lowered instruments into it. The finding might seem like good news — but it isn’t, he says. “Despite those low melt rates, we’re still seeing rapid retreat” as the ice vanishes faster than it’s being replenished.

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    Davis and about 20 other scientists conducted this research at Thwaites Glacier, a massive conveyor belt of ice about 120 kilometers wide, which flows off the coastline of West Antarctica. Satellite measurements show that Thwaites is losing ice more quickly than at any time in the last few thousand years (SN: 6/9/22). It has accelerated its flow into the ocean by at least 30 percent since 2000, hemorrhaging over 1,000 cubic kilometers of ice — accounting for roughly half of the ice lost from all of Antarctica.

    Much of the current ice loss is driven by warm, salty ocean currents that are destabilizing the glacier at its grounding zone — the crucial foothold, about 500 meters below sea level at the drilling location, where the ice lifts off its bed and floats (SN: 4/9/21).

    Now, this first-ever look at the glacier’s underbelly near the grounding zone shows that the ocean is attacking it in previously unknown and troubling ways.

    When the researchers sent a remote-operated vehicle, or ROV, down the borehole and into the water below, they found that much of the melting is concentrated in places where the glacier is already under mechanical stress — within massive cracks called basal crevasses. These openings slice up into the underside of the ice.

    Even a small amount of melting at these weak spots could inflict a disproportionately large amount of structural damage on the glacier, the researchers report in two papers published February 15 in Nature.

    These results are “a bit of a surprise,” says Ted Scambos, a glaciologist at the University of Colorado Boulder who was not part of the team. Thwaites and other glaciers are monitored mostly with satellites, which make it appear that thinning and melting happen uniformly under the ice.

    As the world continues to warm due to human-caused climate change, the shrinking glacier itself has the potential to raise global sea level by 65 centimeters over a period of centuries. Its collapse would also destabilize the remainder of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet, triggering an eventual three meters of global sea level rise.

    With these new results, Scambos says, “we’re seeing in much more detail processes that will be important for modeling” how the glacier responds to future warming, and how quickly sea level will rise.

    A cold, thin layer shields parts of Thwaites Glacier’s underside

    Simply getting these observations “is kind of like a moon shot, or even a Mars shot,” Scambos says. Thwaites, like most of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet, rests on a bed that is hundreds of meters below sea level. The floating front of the glacier, called an ice shelf, extends 15 kilometers out onto the ocean, creating a roof of ice that makes this spot almost entirely inaccessible to humans. “This might represent the pinnacle of exploration” in Antarctica, he says.

    These new results stem from a $50 million effort — the International Thwaites Glacier Collaboration — conducted by the United States’ National Science Foundation and United Kingdom’s Natural Environment Research Council. The research team, one of eight funded by that collaboration, landed on the snowy, flat expanse of Thwaites in the final days of 2019.

    The researchers used a hot water drill to melt a narrow hole, not much wider than a basketball, through more than 500 meters of ice. Below the ice sat a water column that was only 54 meters thick.

    When Davis and his colleagues measured the temperature and salinity of that water, they found that most of it was about 2 degrees Celsius above freezing — potentially warm enough to melt 20 to 40 meters of ice per year. But the underside of the ice seems to be melting at a rate of only 5 meters per year, researchers report in one of the Nature papers. The team calculated the melt rate based on the water’s salinity, which reveals the ratio of seawater, which is salty, to glacial meltwater, which is fresh.

    The reason for that slow melt quickly emerged: Just beneath the ice sat a layer of cold, buoyant water, only 2 meters thick, derived from melted ice. “There is pooling of much fresher water at the ice base,” says Davis, and this cold layer shields the ice from warmer water below. 

    Those measurements provided a snapshot right at the borehole. Several days after the hole was opened, the researchers began a broader exploration of the unmapped ocean cavity under the ice.

    Workers winched a skinny, yellow and black cylinder down the borehole. This ROV, called Icefin, was developed over the last seven years by a team of engineers led by Britney Schmidt, a glaciologist at Cornell University.

    A remote-operated vehicle called Icefin was lowered down a borehole, through more than 500 meters of ice, to measure ocean currents and ice melting rates under Thwaites Glacier.Icefin/ITGC/Schmidt

    Schmidt and her team piloted the craft from a nearby tent, monitoring instruments while she steered the craft with gentle nudges to the buttons of a PlayStation 4 controller. The smooth, mirrorlike ceiling of ice scrolled silently past on a computer monitor — the live video feed piped up through 3½ kilometers of fiber-optic cable.

    As Schmidt guided Icefin about 1.6 kilometers upstream from the borehole, the water column gradually tapered, until less than a meter of water separated the ice from the seafloor below. A few fish and shrimplike crustaceans called amphipods flitted among otherwise barren piles of gravel.

    This new section of seafloor — revealed as the ice thins, lifts and floats progressively farther inland — had been exposed “for less than a year,” Schmidt says.

    Now and then, Icefin skimmed past a dark, gaping cleft in the icy ceiling, a basal crevasse. Schmidt steered the craft into several of these gaps — often over 100 meters wide — and there, she saw something striking.

    Melting of Thwaites’ underbelly is concentrated in deep crevasses

    The vertical walls of the crevasses were scalloped rather than smooth, suggesting a higher rate of melting than that of the flat icy ceiling. And in these places, the video became blurry as the light refracted through vigorously swirling eddies of salty water and freshwater. That turbulent swirling of warm ocean water and cold meltwater is breaking up the cold layer that insulates the ice, pulling warm, salty water into contact with it, the scientists think.

    Schmidt’s team calculated that the walls of the crevasses are melting at rates of up to 43 meters per year, the researchers report in the second Nature paper. The researchers also found rapid melt in other places where the level ceiling of ice is punctuated by short, steep sections.

    The greater turbulence and higher melt also appear driven by ocean currents within the crevasses. Each time Schmidt steered Icefin up into a crevasse, the ROV detected streams of water flowing through it, as though the crevasse were an upside-down ditch. These currents moved up to twice as fast as the currents outside of crevasses.

    The fact that melting is concentrated in crevasses has huge implications, says Peter Washam, an oceanographer on Schmidt’s team at Cornell: “The ocean is widening these features by melting them faster.”

    This could greatly accelerate the years-long process by which some of these cracks propagate hundreds of meters up through the ice until they break through at the top — calving off an iceberg that drifts away. It could cause the floating ice shelf, which presses against an undersea mountain and buttresses the ice behind it, to break apart more quickly than predicted. This, in turn, could cause the glacier to spill ice into the ocean more quickly (SN: 12/13/21). “It’s going to have an impact on the stability of the ice,” Washam says.

    [embedded content]
    This video, captured by a remote-operated vehicle called Icefin, shows the underside of Thwaites Glacier where it flows off the coastline of West Antarctica. Horizontal sections of the ice are smooth, indicating slow melting. But on steep ice surfaces — especially along the walls of deep cracks in the ice — the surfaces are scalloped, suggesting a much higher rate of melt, driven by turbulent swirling of warm, salty ocean water and cold, fresh meltwater. An example of the difference between those two surfaces is clearly visible from 0:11 to 0:13 in the video, when Icefin captures a scalloped vertical surface intersecting with a smooth horizontal one.

    These new data will improve scientists’ ability to predict the future retreat of Thwaites and other Antarctic glaciers, says Eric Rignot, a glaciologist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., who assisted the team by providing satellite measurements of changes in the glacier. “You just cannot guess what the water structure might look like in these zones until you observe it,” he says.

    But more work is needed to fully understand Thwaites and how it will further change as the world continues to warm. The glacier consists of two side-by-side fast-moving lanes of ice — one moving 3 kilometers per year, the other about 1 kilometer per year. Due to safety concerns, the team visited the slower lane — which still proved extremely challenging. Rignot says that scientists must eventually visit the fast lane, whose upper surface is more cracked up with crevasses — making it even harder to land aircraft and operate field camps.

    The research reported today “is a very important step, but it needs to be followed by a second step,” the investigation of the glacier’s fast lane, he says. “It doesn’t matter how hard it is.” More

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    Climate ‘teleconnections’ may link droughts and fires across continents

    Large-scale climate patterns that can impact weather across thousands of kilometers may have a hand in synchronizing multicontinental droughts and stoking wildfires around the world, two new studies find.

    These profound patterns, known as climate teleconnections, typically occur as recurring phases that can last from weeks to years. “They are a kind of complex butterfly effect, in that things that are occurring in one place have many derivatives very far away,” says Sergio de Miguel, an ecosystem scientist at Spain’s University of Lleida and the Joint Research Unit CTFC-Agrotecnio in Solsona, Spain.

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    Major droughts arise around the same time at drought hot spots around the world, and the world’s major climate teleconnections may be behind the synchronization, researchers report in one study. What’s more, these profound patterns may also regulate the scorching of more than half of the area burned on Earth each year, de Miguel and colleagues report in the other study.

    The research could help countries around the world forecast and collaborate to deal with widespread drought and fires, researchers say.

    The El Niño-Southern Oscillation, or ENSO, is perhaps the most well-known climate teleconnection (SN: 8/21/19). ENSO entails phases during which weakened trade winds cause warm surface waters to amass in the eastern tropical Pacific Ocean, known as El Niño, and opposite phases of cooler tropical waters called La Niña.

    These phases influence wind, temperature and precipitation patterns around the world, says climate scientist Samantha Stevenson of the University of California, Santa Barbara, who was not involved in either study. “If you change the temperature of the ocean in the tropical Pacific or the Atlantic … that energy has to go someplace,” she explains. For instance, a 1982 El Niño caused severe droughts in Indonesia and Australia and deluges and floods in parts of the United States.

    Past research has predicted that human-caused climate change will provoke more intense droughts and worsen wildfire seasons in many regions (SN: 3/4/20). But few studies have investigated how shorter-lived climate variations — teleconnections — influence these events on a global scale. Such work could help countries improve forecasting efforts and share resources, says climate scientist Ashok Mishra of Clemson University in South Carolina.

    In one of the new studies, Mishra and his colleagues tapped data on drought conditions from 1901 to 2018. They used a computer to simulate the world’s drought history as a network of drought events, drawing connections between events that occurred within three months of each other.

    The researchers identified major drought hot spots across the globe — places in which droughts tended to appear simultaneously or within just a few months. These hot spots included the western and midwestern United States, the Amazon, the eastern slope of the Andes, South Africa, the Arabian deserts, southern Europe and Scandinavia. 

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    “When you get a drought in one, you get a drought in others,” says climate scientist Ben Kravitz of Indiana University Bloomington, who was not involved in the study. “If that’s happening all at once, it can affect things like global trade, [distribution of humanitarian] aid, pollution and numerous other factors.”

    A subsequent analysis of sea surface temperatures and precipitation patterns suggested that major climate teleconnections were behind the synchronization of droughts on separate continents, the researchers report January 10 in Nature Communications. El Niño appeared to be the main driver of simultaneous droughts spanning parts of South America, Africa and Australia. ENSO is known to exert a widespread influence on precipitation patterns (SN: 4/16/20). So that finding is “a good validation of the method,” Kravitz says. “We would expect that to appear.”

    In the second study, published January 27 in Nature Communications, de Miguel and his colleagues investigated how climate teleconnections influence the amount of land burned around the world. Researchers knew that the climate patterns can influence the frequency and intensity of wildfires. In the new study, the researchers compared satellite data on global burned area from 1982 to 2018 with data on the strength and phase of the globe’s major climate teleconnections.

    Variations in the yearly pattern of burned area strongly aligned with the phases and range of climate teleconnections. In all, these climate patterns regulate about 53 percent of the land burned worldwide each year, the team found. According to de Miguel, teleconnections directly influence the growth of vegetation and other conditions such as aridity, soil moisture and temperature that prime landscapes for fires.

    The Tropical North Atlantic teleconnection, a pattern of shifting sea surface temperatures just north of the equator in the Atlantic Ocean, was associated with about one-quarter of the global burned area — making it the most powerful driver of global burning, especially in the Northern Hemisphere.

    These researchers are showing that wildfire scars around the world are connected to these climate teleconnections, and that’s very useful, Stevenson says. “Studies like this can help us prepare how we might go about constructing larger scale international plans to deal with events that affect multiple places at once.” More

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    It’s possible to reach net-zero carbon emissions. Here’s how

    Patricia Hidalgo-Gonzalez saw the future of energy on a broiling-hot day last September.

    An email alert hit her inbox from the San Diego Gas & Electric Company. “Extreme heat straining the grid,” read the message, which was also pinged as a text to 27 million people. “Save energy to help avoid power interruptions.”

    It worked. People cut their energy use. Demand plunged, blackouts were avoided and California successfully weathered a crisis exacerbated by climate change. “It was very exciting to see,” says Hidalgo-Gonzalez, an electrical engineer at the University of California, San Diego who studies renewable energy and the power grid.

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    This kind of collective societal response, in which we reshape how we interact with the systems that provide us energy, will be crucial as we figure out how to live on a changing planet.

    Earth has warmed at least 1.1 degrees Celsius since the 19th century, when the burning of coal, oil and other fossil fuels began belching heat-trapping gases such as carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Scientists agree that only drastic action to cut emissions can keep the planet from blasting past 1.5 degrees of warming — a threshold beyond which the consequences become even more catastrophic than the rising sea levels, extreme weather and other impacts the world is already experiencing.

    The goal is to achieve what’s known as net-zero emissions, where any greenhouse gases still entering the atmosphere are balanced by those being removed — and to do it as soon as we can.

    Scientists say it is possible to swiftly transform the ways we produce and consume energy. To show the way forward, researchers have set out paths toward a world where human activities generate little to no carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases — a decarbonized economy.

    The key to a decarbonized future lies in producing vast amounts of new electricity from sources that emit little to none of the gases, such as wind, solar and hydropower, and then transforming as much of our lives and our industries as possible to run off those sources. Clean electricity needs to power not only the planet’s current energy use but also the increased demands of a growing global population.

    Once humankind has switched nearly entirely to clean electricity, we will also have to counter­balance the carbon dioxide we still emit — yes, we will still emit some — by pulling an equivalent amount of carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and storing it somewhere permanently.

    Achieving net-zero emissions won’t be easy. Getting to effective and meaningful action on climate change requires overcoming decades of inertia and denial about the scope and magnitude of the problem. Nations are falling well short of existing pledges to reduce emissions, and global warming remains on track to charge past 1.5 degrees perhaps even by the end of this decade.

    Yet there is hope. The rate of growth in CO2 emissions is slowing globally — down from 3 percent annual growth in the 2000s to half a percent annual growth in the last decade, according to the Global Carbon Project, which quantifies greenhouse gas emissions.

    There are signs annual emissions could start shrinking. And over the last two years, the United States, by far the biggest cumulative contributor to global warming, has passed several pieces of federal legislation that include financial incentives to accelerate the transition to clean energy. “We’ve never seen anything at this scale,” says Erin Mayfield, an energy researcher at Dartmouth College.

    Though the energy transition will require many new technologies, such as innovative ways to permanently remove carbon from the atmosphere, many of the solutions, such as wind and solar power, are in hand — “stuff we already have,” Mayfield says.

    The current state of carbon dioxide emissions

    Of all the emissions that need to be slashed, the most important is carbon dioxide, which comes from many sources such as cars and trucks and coal-burning power plants. The gas accounted for 79 percent of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions in 2020. The next most significant greenhouse gas, at 11 percent of emissions in the United States, is methane, which comes from oil and gas operations as well as livestock, landfills and other land uses.

    The amount of methane may seem small, but it is mighty — over the short term, methane is more than 80 times as efficient at trapping heat as carbon dioxide is, and methane’s atmospheric levels have nearly tripled in the last two centuries. Other greenhouse gases include nitrous oxides, which come from sources such as applying fertilizer to crops or burning fuels and account for 7 percent of U.S. emissions, and human-made fluorinated gases such as hydrofluorocarbons that account for 3 percent.

    Globally, emissions are dominated by large nations that produce lots of energy. The United States alone emits around 5 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide each year. It is responsible for most of the greenhouse gas emissions throughout history and ceded the spot for top annual emitter to China only in the mid-2000s. India ranks third.

    Because of the United States’ role in producing most of the carbon pollution to date, many researchers and advocates argue that it has the moral responsibility to take the global lead on cutting emissions. And the United States has the most ambitious goals of the major emitters, at least on paper. President Joe Biden has said the country is aiming to reach net-zero emissions by 2050. Leaders in China and India have set net-zero goals of 2060 and 2070, respectively.

    Under the auspices of a 2015 international climate change treaty known as the Paris agreement, 193 nations plus the European Union have pledged to reduce their emissions. The agreement aims to keep global warming well below 2 degrees, and ideally to 1.5 degrees, above preindustrial levels. But it is insufficient. Even if all countries cut their emissions as much as they have promised under the Paris agreement, the world would likely blow past 2 degrees of warming before the end of this century. 

    Every nation continues to find its own path forward. “At the end of the day, all the solutions are going to be country-specific,” says Sha Yu, an earth scientist at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory and University of Maryland’s Joint Global Change Research Institute in College Park, Md. “There’s not a universal fix.”

    But there are some common themes for how to accomplish this energy transition — ways to focus our efforts on the things that will matter most. These are efforts that go beyond individual consumer choices such as whether to fly less or eat less meat. They instead penetrate every aspect of how society produces and consumes energy.

    Such massive changes will need to overcome a lot of resistance, including from companies that make money off old forms of energy as well as politicians and lobbyists. But if society can make these changes, it will rank as one of humanity’s greatest accomplishments. We will have tackled a problem of our own making and conquered it.

    Here’s a look at what we’ll need to do.

    Make as much clean electricity as possible

    To meet the need for energy without putting carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, countries would need to dramatically scale up the amount of clean energy they produce. Fortunately, most of that energy would be generated by technologies we already have — renewable sources of energy including wind and solar power.

    “Renewables, far and wide, are the key pillar in any net-zero scenario,” says Mayfield, who worked on an influential 2021 report from Princeton University’s Net-Zero America project, which focused on the U.S. economy.

    The Princeton report envisions wind and solar power production roughly quadrupling by 2030 to get the United States to net-zero emissions by 2050. That would mean building many new solar and wind farms, so many that in the most ambitious scenario, wind turbines would cover an area the size of Arkansas, Iowa, Kansas, Missouri, Nebraska and Oklahoma combined.

    Such a scale-up is only possible because prices to produce renewable energy have plunged. The cost of wind power has dropped nearly 70 percent, and solar power nearly 90 percent, over the last decade in the United States. “That was a game changer that I don’t know if some people were expecting,” Hidalgo-Gonzalez says.

    Globally the price drop in renewables has allowed growth to surge; China, for instance, installed a record 55 gigawatts of solar power capacity in 2021, for a total of 306 gigawatts or nearly 13 percent of the nation’s installed capacity to generate electricity. China is almost certain to have had another record year for solar power installations in 2022.

    Challenges include figuring out ways to store and transmit all that extra electricity, and finding locations to build wind and solar power installations that are acceptable to local communities. Other types of low-carbon power, such as hydropower and nuclear power, which comes with its own public resistance, will also likely play a role going forward.

    Get efficient and go electric

    The drive toward net-zero emissions also requires boosting energy efficiency across industries and electrifying as many aspects of modern life as possible, such as transportation and home heating.

    Some industries are already shifting to more efficient methods of production, such as steelmaking in China that incorporates hydrogen-based furnaces that are much cleaner than coal-fired ones, Yu says. In India, simply closing down the most inefficient coal-burning power plants provides the most bang for the buck, says Shayak Sengupta, an energy and policy expert at the Observer Research Foundation America think tank in Washington, D.C. “The list has been made up,” he says, of the plants that should close first, “and that’s been happening.”

    To achieve net-zero, the United States would need to increase its share of electric heat pumps, which heat houses much more cleanly than gas- or oil-fired appliances, from around 10 percent in 2020 to as much as 80 percent by 2050, according to the Princeton report. Federal subsidies for these sorts of appliances are rolling out in 2023 as part of the new Inflation Reduction Act, legislation that contains a number of climate-related provisions.

    Shifting cars and other vehicles away from burning gasoline to running off of electricity would also lead to significant emissions cuts. In a major 2021 report, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine said that one of the most important moves in decarbonizing the U.S. economy would be having electric vehicles account for half of all new vehicle sales by 2030. That’s not impossible; electric car sales accounted for nearly 6 percent of new sales in the United States in 2022, which is still a low number but nearly double the previous year.

    Make clean fuels

    Some industries such as manufacturing and transportation can’t be fully electrified using current technologies — battery powered airplanes, for instance, will probably never be feasible for long-duration flights. Technologies that still require liquid fuels will need to switch from gas, oil and other fossil fuels to low-carbon or zero-carbon fuels.

    One major player will be fuels extracted from plants and other biomass, which take up carbon dioxide as they grow and emit it when they die, making them essentially carbon neutral over their lifetime. To create biofuels, farmers grow crops, and others process the harvest in conversion facilities into fuels such as hydrogen. Hydrogen, in turn, can be substituted for more carbon-intensive substances in various industrial processes such as making plastics and fertilizers — and maybe even as fuel for airplanes someday.

    In one of the Princeton team’s scenarios, the U.S. Midwest and Southeast would become peppered with biomass conversion plants by 2050, so that fuels can be processed close to where crops are grown. Many of the biomass feedstocks could potentially grow alongside food crops or replace other, nonfood crops.

    Cut methane and other non-CO2 emissions

    Greenhouse gas emissions other than carbon dioxide will also need to be slashed. In the United States, the majority of methane emissions come from livestock, landfills and other agricultural sources, as well as scattered sources such as forest fires and wetlands. But about one-third of U.S. methane emissions come from oil, gas and coal operations. These may be some of the first places that regulators can target for cleanup, especially “super emitters” that can be pinpointed using satellites and other types of remote sensing.

    In 2021, the United States and the European Union unveiled what became a global methane pledge endorsed by 150 countries to reduce emissions. There is, however, no enforcement of it yet. And China, the world’s largest methane emitter, has not signed on.

    Nitrous oxides could be reduced by improving soil management techniques, and fluorinated gases by finding alternatives and improving production and recycling efforts.

    Sop up as much CO2 as possible

    Once emissions have been cut as much as possible, reaching net-zero will mean removing and storing an equivalent amount of carbon to what society still emits.

    One solution already in use is to capture carbon dioxide produced at power plants and other industrial facilities and store it permanently somewhere, such as deep underground. Globally there are around 35 such operations, which collectively draw down around 45 million tons of carbon dioxide annually. About 200 new plants are on the drawing board to be operating by the end of this decade, according to the International Energy Agency.

    The Princeton report envisions carbon capture being added to almost every kind of U.S. industrial plant, from cement production to biomass conversion. Much of the carbon dioxide would be liquefied and piped along more than 100,000 kilometers of new pipelines to deep geologic storage, primarily along the Texas Gulf Coast, where underground reservoirs can be used to trap it permanently. This would be a massive infrastructure effort. Building this pipeline network could cost up to $230 billion, including $13 billion for early buy-in from local communities and permitting alone.

    Another way to sop up carbon is to get forests and soils to take up more. That could be accomplished by converting crops that are relatively carbon-intensive, such as corn to be used in ethanol, to energy-rich grasses that can be used for more efficient biofuels, or by turning some cropland or pastures back into forest. It’s even possible to sprinkle crushed rock onto croplands, which accelerates natural weathering processes that suck carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere.

    Another way to increase the amount of carbon stored in the land is to reduce the amount of the Amazon rainforest that is cut down each year. “For a few countries like Brazil, preventing deforestation will be the first thing you can do,” Yu says.

    When it comes to climate change, there’s no time to waste

    The Princeton team estimates that the United States would need to invest at least an additional $2.5 trillion over the next 10 years for the country to have a shot at achieving net-zero emissions by 2050. Congress has begun ramping up funding with two large pieces of federal legislation it passed in 2021 and 2022. Those steer more than $1 trillion toward modernizing major parts of the nation’s economy over a decade — including investing in the energy transition to help fight climate change.

    Between now and 2030, solar and wind power, plus increasing energy efficiency, can deliver about half of the emissions reductions needed for this decade, the International Energy Agency estimates. After that, the primary drivers would need to be increasing electrification, carbon capture and storage, and clean fuels such as hydrogen.

    A lot of the technology needed for a future with fewer carbon dioxide emissions is already available. The Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System in the Mojave Desert focuses sunlight to generate steam. That steam spins turbines to make electricity.ADAMKAZ/E+/GETTY IMAGES

    The trick is to do all of this without making people’s lives worse. Developing nations need to be able to supply energy for their economies to develop. Communities whose jobs relied on fossil fuels need to have new economic opportunities.

    Julia Haggerty, a geographer at Montana State University in Bozeman who studies communities that are dependent on natural resources, says that those who have money and other resources to support the transition will weather the change better than those who are under-resourced now. “At the landscape of states and regions, it just remains incredibly uneven,” she says.

    The ongoing energy transition also faces unanticipated shocks such as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which sent energy prices soaring in Europe, and the COVID-19 pandemic, which initially slashed global emissions but later saw them rebound.

    But the technologies exist for us to wean our lives off fossil fuels. And we have the inventiveness to develop more as needed. Transforming how we produce and use energy, as rapidly as possible, is a tremendous challenge — but one that we can meet head-on. For Mayfield, getting to net-zero by 2050 is a realistic goal for the United States. “I think it’s possible,” she says. “But it doesn’t mean there’s not a lot more work to be done.” More

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    Cyclones in the Arctic are becoming more intense and frequent

    CHICAGO – In January 2022, a cyclone blitzed a large expanse of ice-covered ocean between Greenland and Russia. Frenzied gusts galvanized 8-meter-tall waves that pounded the region’s hapless flotillas of sea ice, while a bombardment of warm rain and a surge of southerly heat laid siege from the air.

    Six days after the assault began, about a quarter, or roughly 400,000 square kilometers, of the vast area’s sea ice had disappeared, leading to a record weekly loss for the region.

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    The storm is the strongest Arctic cyclone ever documented. But it may not hold that title for long. Cyclones in the Arctic have become more frequent and intense in recent decades, posing risks to both sea ice and people, researchers reported December 13 at the American Geophysical Union’s fall meeting. “This trend is expected to persist as the region continues to warm rapidly in the future,” says climate scientist Stephen Vavrus of the University of Wisconsin–Madison.

    Rapid Arctic warming and more destructive storms

    The Arctic Circle is warming about four times as fast as the rest of Earth (SN: 8/11/22). A major driver is the loss of sea ice due to human-caused climate change. The floating ice reflects far more solar radiation back into space than naked seas do, influencing the global climate (SN: 10/14/21). During August, the heart of the sea ice melting season, cyclones have been observed to amplify sea ice losses on average, exacerbating warming.

    There’s more: Like hurricanes can ravage regions farther south, boreal vortices can threaten people living and traveling in the Arctic (SN: 12/11/19). As the storms intensify, “stronger winds pose a risk for marine navigation by generating higher waves,” Vavrus says, “and for coastal erosion, which has already become a serious problem throughout much of the Arctic and forced some communities to consider relocating inland.”

    Climate change is intensifying storms farther south (SN: 11/11/20). But it’s unclear how Arctic cyclones might be changing as the world warms. Some previous research suggested that pressures, on average, in Arctic cyclones’ cores have dropped in recent decades. That would be problematic, as lower pressures generally mean more intense storms, with “stronger winds, larger temperature variations and heavier rainfall [and] snowfall,” says atmospheric scientist Xiangdong Zhang of the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

    But inconsistencies between analyses had prevented a clear trend from emerging, Zhang said at the meeting. So he and his colleagues aggregated a comprehensive record, spanning 1950 to 2021, of Arctic cyclone timing, intensity and duration.

    Arctic cyclone activity has intensified in strength and frequency over recent decades, Zhang reported. Pressures in the hearts of today’s boreal vortices are on average about 9 millibars lower than in the 1950s. For context, such a pressure shift would be roughly equivalent to bumping a strong category 1 hurricane well into category 2 territory. And vortices became more frequent during winters in the North Atlantic Arctic and during summers in the Arctic north of Eurasia.

    What’s more, August cyclones appear to be damaging sea ice more than in the past, said meteorologist Peter Finocchio of the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory in Monterey, Calif. He and his colleagues compared the response of northern sea ice to summer cyclones during the 1990s and the 2010s.

    August vortices in the latter decade were followed by a 10 percent loss of sea ice area on average, up from the earlier decade’s 3 percent loss on average. This may be due, in part, to warmer water upwelling from below, which can melt the ice pack’s underbelly, and from winds pushing the thinner, easier-to-move ice around, Finocchio said.

    Stronger spring storms spell trouble too

    With climate change, cyclones may continue intensifying in the spring too, climate scientist Chelsea Parker said at the meeting. That’s a problem because spring vortices can prime sea ice for later summer melting.

    Parker, of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., and her colleagues ran computer simulations of spring cyclone behavior in the Arctic under past, present and projected climate conditions. By the end of the century, the maximum near-surface wind speeds of spring cyclones — around 11 kilometers per hour today — could reach 60 km/h, the researchers found. And future spring cyclones may keep swirling at peak intensity for up to a quarter of their life spans, up from around 1 percent today. The storms will probably travel farther too, the team says.

    “The diminishing sea ice cover will enable the warmer Arctic seas to fuel these storms and probably allow them to penetrate farther into the Arctic,” says Vavrus, who was not involved in the research.

    Parker and her team plan to investigate the future evolution of Arctic cyclones in other seasons, to capture a broader picture of how climate change is affecting the storms.

    For now, it seems certain that Arctic cyclones aren’t going anywhere. What’s less clear is how humankind will contend with the storms’ growing fury. More

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    Extreme weather in 2022 showed the global impact of climate change

    It was another shattering year.

    Climate change amped up weather extremes around the globe, smashing temperature records, sinking river levels to historic lows and raising rainfall to devastating highs. Droughts set the stage for wildfires and worsened food insecurity. Researchers found themselves pondering the limits of humans’ ability to tolerate extreme heat (SN: 7/27/22).

    The extreme events from 2022 pinpointed on the map below are just a sample of this year’s climate disasters. Each was exacerbated by human-caused climate change or is in line with projections of regional impacts.

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    In its Sixth Assessment Report, released in 2021 and 2022, the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, or IPCC, warned that humans are dramatically overhauling Earth’s climate (SN: 8/9/21). Earth’s average surface temperature has already risen by at least 1.1 degree Celsius since preindustrial times, thanks to human inputs of heat-trapping gases to the atmosphere, particularly carbon dioxide and methane (SN: 3/10/22). That warming has shifted the flow of energy around the planet, altering weather patterns, raising sea levels and turning past extremes into new normals (SN: 2/1/22).

    And the world will have to weather more such climate extremes as carbon keeps accumulating in the atmosphere and global temperatures continue to rise. But IPCC scientists and others hope that, by highlighting the regional and local effects of climate change, the world will ramp up its efforts to reduce climate-warming emissions — averting a more disastrous future. More