Tuesday, March 21, 2023

I guess it's possible to be optimistic about the new IPCC report, and some are. I'm not.

The newest United Nations report on planetary climate, different from previous cautious reports, minces few words. 

Things are getting worse, and faster than ever, and we have no time left to act. Paraphrasing Yoda, it's time to do something; simply trying is not an option.

“The report is a full-throated call for the massive—yet doable—changes our species must enact to limit the damage that comes with each fraction of a degree of warming,” said Wired, the online magazine. 

There is now more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, 410 parts per million, than in the past 2 million years—that’s before there were humans on our planet. No other period in the past 2,000 years has seen climate warming as fast as in the past 50 years.

The impacts of these changes have been seriously inequitable. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change 2023 report says the people least responsible for the change are suffering the most.

“Widespread and rapid changes in the atmosphere, ocean, cryosphere and biosphere have occurred. Human-caused climate change is already affecting many weather and climate extremes in every region across the globe. This has led to widespread adverse impacts and related losses and damages to nature and people. Vulnerable communities who have historically contributed the least to current climate change are disproportionately affected,” the report said in its summary for policymakers.

You can find the actual report summary and various associated documents here

Nearly half the world’s population is vulnerable and at risk of climate change disruptions, from coastal inundation, storms, flooding, drought, food and water shortages, and related issues. That risk is playing out now, and continues to increase.

“Between 2010 and 2020, human mortality from floods, droughts and storms was 15 times higher in highly vulnerable regions, compared to regions with very low vulnerability,” the report said.

The already-observed changes include water shortages, crop failures, livestock health problems, reduced fishery yields, malnutrition, infectious diseases, community displacement, and immense impacts on ecosystems. The report cites throughout how much faith it has in its observations.

“Climate change has caused substantial damages, and increasingly irreversible losses, in terrestrial, freshwater, cryospheric, and coastal and open ocean ecosystems (high confidence). Hundreds of local losses of species have been driven by increases in the magnitude of heat extremes (high confidence) with mass mortality events recorded on land and in the ocean (very high confidence). Impacts on some ecosystems are approaching irreversibility such as the impacts of hydrological changes resulting from the retreat of glaciers, or the changes in some mountain (medium confidence) and Arctic ecosystems driven by permafrost thaw (high confidence.)”

As we move along in time, it gets worse. “Every increment of global warming will intensify multiple and concurrent hazards.”

There are two primary options: Mitigation, or doing something about it; and adaptation, or learning to live with it.

The report says we have the technology to mitigate, to turn things around. But it would take severe and dramatic action. We do not seem to be willing as a planet to do what’s necessary.

“Deep, rapid, and sustained reductions in greenhouse gas emissions would lead to a discernible slowdown in global warming within around two decades, and also to discernible changes in atmospheric composition within a few years.”

But we are not spending enough money on it, and not committing enough of our policy initiatives to it.

So what about adapting? Realistically, even with drastic action, things would get worse before the arrow of livability starts to turn upward. So some adaption will be required anyway.

Clearly the poorest among us will be hit soonest and hardest, and they will have the fewest opportunities to adapt. The wealthier communities will be able to adapt, to a degree. But increasing climate change will threaten even their adaptation options.

“Adaptation options that are feasible and effective today will become constrained and less effective with increasing global warming. With increasing global warming, losses and damages will increase and additional human and natural systems will reach adaptation limits,” the report said.

To avoid catastrophe, the report says, the world needs immediate and severe cuts in greenhouse gas emissions. To limit the worst impacts in the coming few decades, emissions need to be driven to near zero.

But policies currently in place don’t do that. If anything, they leave emissions flat, meaning the situation continues to get worse.

This is the frustration. We can do it. We must do it.  But it is not clear we will do it.

What are the odds that this particular planet can galvanize its systems to do what the IPCC says is required? Here is the IPCC’s vision:

“Effective climate action is enabled by political commitment, well-aligned multilevel governance, institutional frameworks, laws, policies and strategies and enhanced access to finance and technology. Clear goals, coordination across multiple policy domains, and inclusive governance processes facilitate effective climate action. Regulatory and economic instruments can support deep emissions reductions and climate resilience if scaled up and applied widely. Climate resilient development benefits from drawing on diverse knowledge.”

Lots of media reports—ignoring the essence of the report—are all about the upside: “We can fix this! Yes, we can!”

The Christian Science Monitor takes the middle path, noting that the IPCC “walks a fine line between desperation and hope in an effort to spur a more forceful global response.”

Some publications get lost in the weeds. CNBC decided to focus on reflecting the sun's light and heat back into space. Others wondered whether carbon capture technology is ready for prime time.  

All the while ignoring the elephant in the room--we need to stop burning oil and coal.

So, the thinking goes, maybe we can do these interesting techie things, and keep on burning coal in power plants and gasoline in our big luxury cars. And everything will be just fine.

That, of course, is dithering. And while dithering, perhaps we can ponder this: 

How much misery are we willing to subject our grandchildren and their grandchildren to, to keep living the way we are living?

© Jan TenBruggencate 2023 

Friday, March 10, 2023

Climate shifts further: La Niño is over, El Niño coming by summer

The La Nina oceanic condition, which we’ve been in for many months, has ended, and an El Nino appears likely to form in the summer or fall.

That’s the latest prediction from the Climate Prediction Center: 

It builds on the report we filed last month, when we suggested a fair chance of El Nino by mid year. That fair chance now seems to have been elevated to a pretty good chance. Spring predictions tend to be problematic, but most models see us going that way.

Thus the La Nina cool phase of Central Pacific climate is behind us, and we are in something called ENSO-neutral, ENSO being the term for the whole warm-cold cycle, El Niño Southern Oscillation.

Most climate prediction models now suggest we should shift into El Niño during the summer, and it might happen pretty quickly: “it is possible that strong warming near South America may portend a more rapid evolution toward El Niño.”

One of the things that can mean for Hawai’i is that we are likely to have a more active hurricane season. Also some other changes. More on that a little further down.

But one the questions that still challenges climate researchers is where climate change is taking the ENSO pattern broadly. There’s some suggestion that the past 40 years—since 1980—have been a little cooler than expected, a little more La Niña.

Now, many researchers say their models suggest the next few decades may swing toward more active El Niño conditions. But they don’t fully trust those models: the computer climate models of past climate don’t match up real will with actual observations of the climate. So how to be sure? A whole lot of smart people are working hard to make sense of that.  A discussion on this can be found at the ENSO blog

Among the variables: Warmer oceans can feed circulating storms, but warmer oceans and changing wind conditions can also cause changes in deep ocean upwellings. If they bring cool water to the surface from the deep ocean, then that could reduce the energy available to circulating storms like hurricanes. Changes in cloud cover could also create cooler surface conditions. And there are other variables.

“Heroic efforts are being done at modeling centers around the world to improve the representation of the physical processes,” wrote Kris Karnauskas, of the University of Colorado-Boulder.

That’s the long term.

For the coming year, what does an El Niño mean for us? There’s a nice NOAA fact sheet here. 

It suggests wetter weather at first, in late summer and fall, then drier. Maybe a dry winter this year. Weaker trade winds. More hurricanes and tropical storms. Warmer water around the Islands.

And sea levels slightly higher than normal, meaning big storm surf will reach farther inland.

All in all, interesting times.

© Jan TenBruggencate

Friday, February 24, 2023

The international enigma, a baffling sphere on Japan beach, would be no mystery to Hawai'i beachgoers

(Image: Fuji News Network image of the globally baffling sphere on Hamamatsu City beach.)

A UFO. A dragon egg. A communist plot. Another spy balloon.


International media report they’re baffled by a mysterious metal sphere that washed up on a Japan beach.

It wouldn’t be baffling to any Hawai’i beachgoer, because we see them all the time. They wash up regularly, sometimes painted orange or yellow, but most often covered with brown-red rust. Big, hollow (or occasionally foam-filled) steel spheres used in various maritime activities.

The sphere in question, 4-5 feet in diameter, washed up on a long stretch of sand off Hamamatsu City. It caused great consternation, locally and internationally. It was isolated with yellow caution tape. Authorities subjected it to tests to determine it was empty. Eventually they hauled it off the beach and disposed of it.

And international media had fun with it. Perhaps because, after the Chinese balloon and the “pico” balloons shot down over Alaska, Canada and Lake Huron, we were primed for stories about weird round things.

The Guardian breathlessly wondered whether it was a “Spy Balloon, UFO or Dragon Ball” or maybe even a stray mine. 


The BBC called it a “mystery sphere” and said Japan was perplexed, with some folks calling it a “Godzilla egg.” 

Oh my. But, nope.

The British media network Unilad suggested some folks thought it was a devious device sent by China or North Korea. 

Uh, uh.

The India Times reported that February 23, 2023, Japanese authorities confirmed it was “marine equipment” that had washed ashore. 

They wash up periodically on Hawaiian beaches, too. They are industrial buoys, used by maritime industries for various purposes. One popular purpose in Hawai’i is as floats for FADs or fish aggregating devices. They are also used as moorings for ships, with one end chained to an anchor and the other tied to the boat. They are sometimes used to support oceanographic monitoring equipment.

And occasionally they break free and end up as marine debris on beaches.

You can buy them

And they don’t always come as spheres

Many, like the Hamamatsu City sphere, have connection points at both ends

© Jan TenBruggencate 2023

Wednesday, February 22, 2023

Wrapping up the shot-down balloons story: Yes, balloons can crash planes

 We may not learn a whole lot more about the four objects shot down during February 2023 by American jets, other than they appeared to all be balloons carrying some sort of payload.

The first was a Chinese-owned giant balloon that drifted across North America from Alaska to North Carolina, where it was shot down February 4 after it passed the coast into the Atlantic. As best we know, it had surveillance equipment on board, multiple antennas, and presumably the capacity to track and report on U.S. communications. 

U.S. intelligence agencies tracked it from takeoff in south China, all the way to its downing off the Carolinas. We assume that we were able to gather significant intelligence from it while it operated, and more after most of it was recovered from the Atlantic. 

Three more balloons were shot down over the coastal ice in Alaska February 10, the forests of the Yukon in Canada February 11 and over the waters of Lake Huron February 12.

News reports indicate all three of them were most likely very small “pico balloons,” which are much smaller than the Chinese balloon, hard to track on radar, and which normally carry miniature payloads. One standard for these balloons is to carry transceivers that allow ham radio operators to communicate with them, or to transmit messages to them to be retransmitted to other radio operators.

None of the three small balloons was recovered, but an Illinois radio and balloon hobbyist group said the Canadian object was probably theirs.

The Northern Illinois Bottlecap Balloon Brigade said it might have been one of their mylar balloons, with the call sign K9Y0. It had been up for half a year, and had circled the globe nearly seven times. They don’t know for sure that the Yukon object, but they said it stopped transmitting about the time of the reported destruction of an object by a U.S. Fighter’s rocket. Aviation Week reported on it here. 

There may be dozens of similar balloons orbiting our planet at any time, on top of the weather balloons, corporate spy balloons, hot air balloons, party balloons, and nations’ spy balloons. In all, this Scientific American article says there may be hundreds to thousands up over the U.S. at any given time. 

Some have radio transponders so aircraft can detect them, some are reflective so they show up clearly on radar, but some are ghostly hard to detect, yet still dangerous to an aircraft that might suck one into its engine or around its control surfaces.

While plane-balloon interactions are rare, they have occurred. Most result in only minor damage to the plane, as when this Air Canada flight took out a weather balloon in 2019. https://simpleflying.com/air-canada-weather-ballon-collision.

But some have caused crashes.

Forty-five people were killed in a 1970s Russian crash after a propellor plane hit a weather balloon. 

In California in 1994, a twin-engine Piper Comanche went down, killing its pilot, after it apparently hit party balloons. 

In 2007 a Cessna lost a wing after hitting the tether line for an inflatable airship. 

And there are near misses, as when this Qatar Airlines Boeing jet managed to dodge a large balloon over Brazil last year. 

© Jan TenBruggencate 2023

Monday, February 13, 2023

Maybe alien, maybe not balloons, speculation rampant about the mysterious shot down objects

 (Image: U.S. Navy assault craft working on the recovery of debris from the Chinese balloon shot down over South Carolina February 4. Credit: U.S. Navy.)

Everything about the mystery objects we’ve been shooting down remains in limbo—partly because we and the Canadians have not completed operations to recover them.

Some American officials say it’s a step too far to suggest they are alien craft from extraterrestrial sources. Others won’t rule that out.

But we won’t have clear indications until we can actually inspect the wreckage. Until then, it’s all Area 51-type speculation.

Much of the February 4 Chinese balloon debris is still reportedly off South Carolina in 50 feet of water. The item shot down February 10 over Alaskan sea ice hasn’t been recovered because of harsh Arctic winter weather. The Royal Canadian Mounted Police are working to get at the debris of the February 11 shoot-down in wild country in the Yukon. And American forces are still trying to get at the debris of the February 12 object, which reportedly fell into Lake Huron in the American/Canadian Great Lakes.

Increasingly, descriptions of these devices are bizarre. One thing that seems clear is that they are very different. Early reports suggest they might not even all be balloons, although that’s what Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer believes they are, according to a Los Angeles Times report.  

They are clearly different things. They fly differently. They look different.

The Chinese balloon drifted at 60,000 feet. The Alaskan and Yukon objects at 40,000 feet, and the Lake Huron object at 20,000 feet.

Descriptions vary. The Chinese balloon appeared spherical and as big as three buses. The Alaskan balloon was the size of a small car. The Yukon object was cylindrical. The Lake Huron object octagonal with strings hanging down.

In descriptions, caution has sometimes veered into the implausible, as when Gen. Glen D. VanHerck, the commander of the Air Force’s Northern Command, was asked if they might be from outside our planet. He said, “I haven’t ruled out anything at this point.” Other Administration officials said there’s no indication of anything from outside the Earth being involved.

It makes the most sense that these would all be lighter-than-air balloons of some kind, but VanHerck in a CNN story said, essentially, not so fast.

"I'm not going to categorise them as balloons. We're calling them objects for a reason… What we are seeing is very, very small objects that produce a very, very low radar cross-section," he said. 

In a CNN report, the government also expressed caution about assuming the Alaskan, Canadian and Great Lakes objects are balloons: "These objects did not closely resemble, and were much smaller than, the [4 February] balloon and we will not definitively characterise them until we can recover the debris," CNN reported, citing a White House National Security spokesperson. 

So, what? Drones? If so, how can they stay aloft for periods long enough to be drifting slowly over hours and days?

China sought to put some perspective into the discussions, saying the United States does a lot of its own balloon work. In an Associated Press article, Wang Wenbin, an official of China’s foreign ministry, said “It is also common for U.S. balloons to illegally enter the airspace of other countries… Since last year, U.S. high-altitude balloons have illegally flown over China’s airspace more than 10 times without the approval of Chinese authorities.”

That suggests the possibility that some of the high altitude objects we’re seeing could be our own vehicles, perhaps drifting post-mission.

But the one thing we know is that the Chinese balloon downed off South Carolina was Chinese, as China has confirmed that. And initial indications are that there was American technology in its electronics package. And in response to that, the U.S. has prevented six Chinese aerospace firms from using American technology without U.S. approval.

In a Washington Post report, the White House suggested China continues to downplay its own actual intrusions into the airspace of other nations.

“This is the latest example of China scrambling to do damage control. It has repeatedly and wrongly claimed the surveillance balloon it sent over the United States was a weather balloon and to this day has failed to offer any credible explanations for its intrusion into our airspace and the airspace of others,” said White House spokeswoman Adrienne Watson. 

China says its balloon was collecting atmospheric data, not spying on the land below.

And meanwhile, China was reporting that it was getting ready to shoot down some kind of flying or drifting object over its own territory. 

“Local maritime authorities in East China's Shandong Province announced on Sunday that they had spotted an unidentified flying object in waters near the coastal city of Rizhao in the province and were preparing to shoot it down, reminding fishermen to be safe via messages,” wrote Forbes, citing China’s state-controlled Global Times.

China urged its fishermen to be alert, and to take photos of any debris that lands nearby.

© Jan TenBruggencate 2023