State climate scientists shed insight on climate change
Global climate change is the “most urgent, number one” issue facing humanity today, Bill Nye said in an interview on Crossfire.
New Jersey and other states in the Northeast just witnessed the coldest winter in recent times, but almost every other country and ocean in the northern hemisphere saw the warmest, according to data released by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Globally, March 2015 was the warmest in the last 135 years, said David Robinson, a state climatologist and professor in the Department of Geography. The last 12 months are likewise the warmest of any 12-month period in the last 13 decades.
“Last summer was close to average (temperatures, but) the previous four summers have all ranked in the top 12 going back 120 years in New Jersey,” he said. “The last 12 to 24 months have been very warm globally, and every month we’re setting a new record for the warmest 12 months.”
Global climate change has already had serious, noticeable effects on weather patterns, said Kevin Trenberth, a Distinguished Senior Scientist with the National Center for Atmospheric Research’s Earth System Laboratory.
Several notable “super typhoons,” including Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines and Cyclone Pam, which hit Vanuatu, have caused billions of dollars’ worth of damage and killed several thousand people.
“Last summer there was a hurricane that went through Hawaii,” Trenberth said in an email. “The developing El Niño (in the Pacific Ocean) increases odds that this could happen again this summer.”
El Niño and La Niña events are responsible for precipitation conditions in certain parts of the country, Robinson said. New Jersey is located in a more central area with regards to winds, so it is not impacted as much as states like Florida or California are.
While El Niño events cause more precipitation, La Niña cause less in affected regions, he said.
An El Niño event may be developing in the Pacific Ocean right now, Trenberth said.
There is a blob of warmer-than-average water off the west coast of the US that has impacted weather throughout the country.
“(The blob) is more a symptom than a cause (of climate changes),” Trenberth said. “When storms encounter that region they pick up more moisture and buoyancy and can lead to heavier rains when the winds make landfall.”
The warm water increases the pressure of the air above it, which leads to “fair weather” over the west coast, Robinson said. Colder air is pushed further north and lack of precipitation is at least partly responsible for California’s severe drought.
If an El Niño event had formed earlier in the winter, it may have rained in California, Trenberth said. The event has little to no impact on the state in the summer, so residents must now wait until the end of the year to see if it rains again.
“That’s what’s happening out west, and if (the jet stream is a rope and you) give it a shake … it bulges to the north out west, (so) it’s going to have a reaction, and that’s going to be a dip in the jet stream in eastern North America,” Robinson said.
This dip allows colder air from the Arctic to reach down to the Northeast part of the country and is responsible for the severity of the last two winters in New Jersey, he said.
This weather pattern can be likened to a roller coaster, he said. The jet stream dividing the cold and warm air currently exists south of New Jersey.
“That pattern is what we’re in today and what we’re going to be in the next few weeks at least,” he said. “It’s been that way for the last 18 months. It’s made the western half of North America warm and the eastern half quite cool.”
It was possible the “blob” is a natural event that happens occasionally, said Anthony Broccoli, a professor in the Department of Environmental Sciences. This might just be the "next time" it formed, rather than a completely unprecedented event.
“There’s a question: Is that water being made warmer because of global warming?” Robinson said. “It may be that it’s just accentuated further by global warming.”
What is definite is that the area of warm water has existed for the last few years, Broccoli said. It is uncertain what will happen with this blob in the near future.
Climate changes not only have an effect on weather but also on a host of marine organisms. As climate change alters the weather, it also alters ocean conditions, said Diane Adams, an associate professor in the Department of Marine and Coastal Sciences in the School of Environmental and Biological Sciences.
One effect is that ocean acidification, a result of increased carbon dioxide in the air, hinders the ability of organisms like oysters and clams to produce their hard shells, Adams said. Without these harder shells, the organisms can’t develop and will subsequently die out.
Each year, the oceans absorb about one quarter of the carbon dioxide released into the air. This carbon dioxide reacts in the ocean to produce bicarbonate ions, which prevent shelled organisms from being able to calcify, according to a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration website.
Cold water is better able to absorb carbon dioxide than warm water, Robinson said. At some point the oceans will be too warm and too full of this gas to be able to absorb any more, but at that point it will likely be too acidic for most sea creatures to survive for very long in it.
“If we lose some of these species, it has an immediate effect that some people are aware of,” Adams said. “There are businesses that have gone out of business, because the oysters all died because of acidification.”
Losing these organisms not only hurts businesses, but also larger ecosystems. These bivalves are filter feeders, helping to clean the water, Adams said. Losing them could have effects in terms of water quality producing larger ecosystem effects.
Climate change also affects coral that create biodiversity in reefs. Coral interact with sea urchins, which keep algae away and protect the coral from degradation. With increasing temperatures, disease outbreaks are becoming more frequent for sea urchins, killing them in masses and preventing them from keep coral clean, she said.
These effects can really add up, eventually coming to affect humans, Adams said. Trying to battle climate change, then, is of the utmost importance to everyone.
The University is conscious of the effects of climate change, Broccoli said. Over the past several years, it has pursued developing alternative transportation initiatives such as bike-sharing and biofuels for its vehicles as well as more increasing the amount of materials recycled rather than turned into trash.
Michael Kornitas, the University Director of Sustainability and Energy, said that the University, including Newark and Camden campuses, uses up a total of about 546 million kilowatt hours. Most of this is purchased through a third party, but about 27 percent of the energy used is produced by the University.
“We produce energy in a couple of ways,” Kornitas said. “One way is through cogeneration. We have a 13 megawatt plant on Busch Campus and a 10 megawatt plant for Rutgers Biomedical and Health Sciences in Newark.”
Cogeneration plants burn natural gas to turn a jet engine that produces electricity, he said. The heat left over from the process is then used to make hot water that is used for heaters, air conditioning and hot water for buildings all over Busch and Livingston campuses.
Kornitas also said that the University has decreased its energy usage steadily over the past three years. The University’s energy intensity, or energy used per square foot, as well as the energy used per student have both decreased.
Climate change will also bring a change in water distribution across the country, Adams said.
“Flooding is a huge issue. As glaciers melt (and) as weather patterns change, some areas are in drought and have water scarcity while others can’t deal with the water that’s coming in,” she said. “Water is going to be a huge issue in terms of climate change.”
This is already being seen as California is currently in a drought that is not predicted to end anytime soon. Climate change is also the reason for large snowfall in areas like Boston, Trenberth said.
Broccoli said that the University is also better prepared for the fiercer storms predicted to hit the East coast.
“Hurricanes Irene and Sandy identified a lot of areas that need improvement in terms of electric power and backup generating capacity for a lot of important things that happen on campus,” he said.
The University Master Plan’s riverfront proposal has also brought up fears of flooding by the Raritan. While most of the proposed area should be safe from flooding, Broccoli said, it is important to take flooding into account and design structures to be resilient to any possible water damage.
All new buildings in the University are also set to new regulations as well, Kornitas said. The Rutgers Center for Green Building advises and benchmarks buildings for sustainability and efficiency, and new construction projects use recycled carbon and low CO2 paint.
Kornitas also said that it is not solely the University’s responsibility to lower its energy usage. Students, he said, should be aware of what energy they are using. Turning down the heater or air conditioning by a few degrees can make a difference in energy usage.
He said electronics also suck a lot of energy. He advises unplugging devices when fully charged and to plug televisions and gaming consoles into power strips so they can be fully shut off when not being used, as the standby lights still use energy.
Broccoli said that students should pay more attention to their energy efficiency in their daily lives as well. For example, rather than making a long trip to work with someone, students should think about whether they can accomplish the same goal by communicating via Skype or other social media.
The most important thing he believes students should do is to let policy makers know that they care about climate change, he said. Reducing greenhouse gas emissions globally will take a coordinated international effort, and getting it attention starts from citizen concerns.
The rate of emissions worldwide has slowed down in recent times but the planet is still getting warmer, Robinson said.
“Of course we’re seeing global warming,” he said. “There were some people who saw that warming leveled off, and they called that a hiatus (even) though carbon dioxide levels continued to increase.”
Some people presented “proof” that global warming was not happening by showing temperature ranges that began in 1998, he said. That year was an especially warm one, reaching new highs, but it was also an outlier to what is normally expected.
Temperatures have dropped since then, but overall the planet is still getting warmer, he said.
“No one said (temperature) would go up in an organized, step-by-step direction. The last decade was the warmest decade of the last 13 decades,” he said. “There’s also been a suggestion that this slowdown might just be a temporary lull and up the temperatures are going to go in the next decade.”
Broccoli is optimistic about the future, he said. Even though humans have already drastically altered the climate, steps can be taken to reduce the damage as much as possible.
A team effort is required to really have any impact, Robinson said.
“I think it’s going to be through the good work of the generation that our students are part of that this problem is ultimately solved,” Broccoli said, “Both in developing new sources of energy and also creating the political will for our leaders to seriously address this problem.”