Six things to know about Antarctic ice

  • 07 Jul 2014, 15:00
  • Roz Pidcock

This article was originally published in November 2012.

When scientists talk about ice and climate change, it's often about how quickly it's disappearing. So recent  news stories  about Antarctic sea ice growing may come as a surprise. 

The amount of ice in the ocean around Antarctica is indeed increasing, but this is only part of what's going on in the Antarctic as a whole. We've put together six things you should know about climate change and Antarctic ice.

1. Antarctic waters are warming faster than the global average

Along with the rest of the world, the Antarctic is warming up. The Southern Ocean, which surrounds the continent of Antarctica, has been warming faster than the rest of the world's oceans since the 1950s, at a rate of  0.17 degrees Celsius compared to a global average of 0.1 degrees. The increased rate of warming is mainly due to the way large weather systemstransport heat to the poles.

2. Despite rapid warming, there's more Antarctic sea ice

Despite rapidly warming water, the amount of ice that floats on the Southern Ocean around Antarctica - known as sea ice - is slightly increasing. On 26 September 2012, the USNational Snow and Ice Data Centre (NSIDC) confirmed that Antarctic sea ice reached a record extent - a measure of sea ice cover - of 19.44 million square kilometres.

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Factcheck: Has the US shale gas revolution saved more carbon than the entire solar and wind industry?

  • 07 Jul 2014, 14:55
  • Simon Evans

CC2.0 Dennis Dimick

The American shale gas revolution shaved more off global carbon emissions than all the world's windfarms and solar panels put together in 2012 according to Chris Faulkner, boss of US fracking firm Breitling Energy.

We think he's wrong. Even with some pretty heroic assumptions, he's only almost right. Let's see why.

The UK connection

Faulkner made his claim at a fringe meeting of the Council of Europe in Strasbourg. He had been invited to speak by UK Conservative MP David Davis, a long-standing critic of climate change policies in general and wind energy in particular.

Faulker said:

"In 2012, the shift to gas has managed to reduce carbon dioxide emissions by about 300 million tonnes. Compare this to the fact that all the wind turbines and solar panels in the world reduce carbon dioxide emissions, at a maximum, by 275 million tonnes. In other words, the US shale gas revolution has by itself reduced global emissions more than all the well-intentioned solar and wind in the world."

US coal emissions

To start with, let's look at US coal emissions. In 2012, US coal plants emitted 1,653 million tonnes of carbon dioxide. That's 529 million tonnes below peak coal emissions, which were 2,182 million tonnes in 2005.

Let's generously assume all of that reduction is due to cheap shale gas displacing coal use. It takes about half as much carbon to generate a unit of electricity from gas as it does from coal. So the maximum carbon saving is half the coal emissions avoided. That's 265 million tonnes of carbon dioxide, in the same ballpark as the 300 million tonnes Faulkner claimed.

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BBC upholds complaint over Today Programme Nigel Lawson interview

  • 07 Jul 2014, 12:30
  • Roz Pidcock

Earlier this year BBC Radio 4's flagship news programme came under fire after a discussion it hosted about the possible links between severe flooding in the UK and climate change. Now the BBC has agreed the programme gave "an inaccurate and misleading impression of the evidence."

The Today Programme featured climate scientist Professor Sir Brian Hoskins, head of the Grantham Institute for Climate Change at Imperial College, in a head-to-head with Lord Nigel Lawson, founder of climate skeptic lobby group the Global Warming Policy Foundation.

Soon after it aired, the programme received a series of listener complaints accusing it of promoting a false balance, and giving the impression Lawson's views carry equal weight to Hoskins' when it comes to explaining the science behind recent storms, heavy rainfall and flooding.

The Today Programme initially defending the interview, saying the lines of questioning "were designed to help listeners judge how to assess the recent bad weather in the context of climate change".

But in a letter seen by Carbon Brief, the BBC Editorial Complaints Unit has upheld the complaints, concluding the programme "gave an inaccurate and misleading impression of the evidence".

Cause for complaint

Back in February, The Today Programme invited Lord Lawson to discuss with Professor Sir Brian Hoskins the role, if any, of climate change in the flooding engulfing parts of the UK.

Hoskins began by explaining how scientists know climate change is linked to heavier bursts of rainfall, but made clear that any link with the frequent storms that hit the UK last winter is far less clear.

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Daily Briefing | Shale gas struggling to convince as future UK energy choice

  • 07 Jul 2014, 09:15
  • Carbon Brief staff

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Global warming latest: Amount of Antarctic sea ice hits new record high 
The Daily Mail reports on data from the US National Snow and Ice Data Centre (NSIDC), which suggests there is 2.1 million square kilometres more ice around the southern continent is than usual for this time of year. Dr Mark Serreze from NSIDC explains the reason could be water melting from beneath the Antarctic ice shelves and re-freezing back on the surface. Scientists the changes in Antarctic sea ice are much less significant for monitoring climate change than the melting of the Arctic ice cap, says The Times. Nevertheless, a box below the Mail on Sunday article by climate-skeptic blogger Andrew Montford calls the fact that models have been unable to predict the Antarctic increase as "another mishap to tarnish the credibility of climate science". 
Mail on Sunday 

Climate and energy news

Shell sails ahead without UK shale 
Andrew Brown, Shell's director of upstream international business is sceptical about the potential for shale oil and gas development in Britain, reports the Sunday Telegraph. Brown's comments will come as a blow to energy minister Michael Fallon as he prepares to open the latest round of exploration licences, the piece explains. In an interview with the Sunday Telegraph, Brown said, "It's a matter of geology, costs, access, you know, it's a combination of factors that would mean it's not yet somewhere we would focus on." 
The Sunday Telegraph 

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Updated: The science of fracking and earthquakes

  • 04 Jul 2014, 11:55
  • Mat Hope

CC: G Thomasen

Should you worry that fracking will cause earthquakes? The short answer is: probably not.

But as more studies are conducted, researchers are developing their understanding of how the fracking process interacts with seismic activity.

Last year, a widely-cited study concluded that compared to other kinds of mining, fracking usually only causes minor tremors. But two papers in the past twelve months suggest the processes associated with fracking could increase the likelihood of small tremors.

We take a look at the evidence.

Fracking and earthquakes

Hydraulic fracturing - known as fracking - involves pumping a fluid made of water mixed with chemicals at high pressure into a drilled well. The fluid creates fractures in the rock, making it possible to extract oil or gas trapped there. So fracking essentially causes minor earthquakes by design, as cracking the rock causes tremors.

But research shows fracking very rarely causes earthquakes people can actually feel. The US Geological Survey found the number of small earthquakes in the USA increased significantly as the fracking industry was developed there. But the vast majority of those earthquakes were "micro" earthquakes registering less than 1 on the  moment magnitude scale - a modern version of the better known Richter scale.

Shale gas exploration is simply not in the "premier league" of serious earthquake causes, says Professor Richard Davies, director of Durham University's Energy Research Institute. Its study of 198 locations showed fracking caused much smaller tremors than other mining processes. Davies has said most fracking induced earthquakes release less energy than someone  jumping off a ladder onto the floor.

Wastewater earthquakes

The Durham study caught the media's attention, with a  swathe of headlines declaring fracking was not a significant cause of earthquakes. But it is worth pointing out that fracking has been linked to some earthquakes that have been felt, if only in three places: one each in Lancashire, the USA, and Canada.

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Daily Briefing | Insulation industry hit by government policy cuts

  • 04 Jul 2014, 09:15
  • Carbon Brief staff

Credit: Cdpweb161

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Insulation market to 'shrink by 69 per cent' in this parliament 
Analysis by industry group the Association for the Conservation of Energy (ACE) and the Energy Bill Revolution campaign shows the number of home insulation installations has fallen 60 per cent in a year. The drop was largely caused by the government's decision to curb its main company-led energy efficiency scheme, the Energy Companies Obligation, the research suggests. 

Climate and energy news

Green energy budget faces squeeze as power prices forecast to stay flat this decade 
Credit rating agency Moody's has said power prices may stay low for years, not rise as the government expects. That could mean the government ends up paying more for renewable energy subsidies than it anticipated. 

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IPCC authors discuss how science meets politics in the latest summary for policymakers

  • 03 Jul 2014, 19:30
  • Roz Pidcock

The science of climate change, as expressed through the work of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), is pretty well-established.

Over the last quarter of a century, the organisation has refined its review of the scientific literature in a series of weighty reports. Producing these reports is a complex affair requiring a huge team of volunteers, a years-long drafting process, and securing the approval of governments worldwide.

So perhaps it's not surprising that the process sometimes gets criticised by some of those involved. This time around, some scientists complained after text about how countries should be categorised in terms of their greenhouse gas emissions got taken out of a summary.

A new issue of the journal Science, published today, features some different perspectives on what happened - and what it can teach us about where science and policy converge.

A summary for policymakers

When the IPCC releases a new report - which happens about every five or six years - it also puts together a summary of the most politically relevant conclusions. This is called the Summary for Policymakers, or SPM.

During a long and painstaking process in the week before the report's launch, every word of the SPM has to approved by all 195 governments under the United Nations banner.

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Explained: Fugitive methane emissions from natural gas production

  • 03 Jul 2014, 16:20
  • Mat Hope

CC: T Evanson

For half a decade, researchers have tried to answer the question of how much methane escapes from natural gas wells into the atmosphere. The recent emergence of fracking and shale gas has brought the issue to the fore. But studies continue to present varying results. 

Natural gas is mainly methane, some of which escapes during the drilling, extraction, and transportation process. Such outbreaks are known as fugitive emissions.

They're a problem because methane is a potent greenhouse gas - approximately  25 times more powerful than carbon dioxide over a 100 year timescale. The issue has been thrown into sharp relief because gas production has undergone a boom in recent years.

The discovery of large amounts of gas locked in shale rock means the US's production has  increased by about 25 per cent in recent years. That's helped  push energy prices down and  reduce the US's emissions. Many other countries are now also keen to explore shale gas's potential, citing the US as an example.

Gas emits about half the carbon dioxide of coal when it's burned, leading some to tout it as a  relatively "clean" fuel. But if fugitive emissions are too high, it makes gas a less attractive fuel for policymakers and industries interested in reducing greenhouse gas emissions. And so the question of just how big fugitive emissions are is a pressing one.

Contested evidence

The data is contested. Some people - often advocates of decarbonisation - suggest the fuel is  nowhere near as "clean" as some companies declare. Others - often industry voices - accuse campaigners of  cherry-picking evidence.

There's certainly a wide range of estimates on the extent of the problem.

Estimates of gas production leakage rates are expressed as a percentage of total production. When we looked at this question in 2012, they ranged from 0.6 to four per cent.  

Over the past two years, the upper end of this range has increased. Some studies now suggest the amount of gas leaking from wells could be as high as nine per cent.

We've put some of the key estimates in the chart below:

Fugitive Emissions Bar Chart

Source: Various, see  this Google Doc for details. Graph by Carbon Brief. Note: ^ means value is for unconventional - i.e. shale - gas wells only, * means the value in the graph is the mid-estimate or mean of a range where a 'best estimate' is not given.

So why is there such a range of results?

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Daily Briefing | ExxonMobil defies market and invests in oil refinery

  • 03 Jul 2014, 09:15
  • Carbon Brief staff

Credit: National Wildlife Federation

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Climate change 'not wholly to blame' for reef death in the Caribbean 
Overfishing and pollution are the main reasons the area of Caribbean coral reefs has halved since the 1970s according to Carl Gustaf Lundin, director of the global marine programme at the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). The Times reports his comments that action to protect the reefs has been delayed because climate change was thought to be the biggest threat. 
The Times 

Climate and energy news

Nine States Join Climate Denier's Lawsuit Seeking To Dismantle EPA Carbon Rule 
West Virginia, Wyoming, South Carolina, Ohio, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Alaska, Alabama, and Kentucky have joined a law suit contesting the US Environmental Protection Agency's right to impose climate regulations on the power sector. EPA rules that would regulate emissions from new power stations have already survived one round of legal attack but have yet to enter force. We took a look at the history of EPA climate rules last week, including how they have survived legal attacks so far and likely to be here to stay. 
Climate Progress 

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Overconfident predictions risk damaging trust in climate science, prominent scientists warn

  • 02 Jul 2014, 18:15
  • Roz Pidcock

There's a heated academic tussle going on over climate predictions. A high profile group of scientists has criticised the results of a paper published in Nature last year, which made some very precise forecasts for when different parts of the planet would feel the effects of climate change.

Last year's paper predicted to within a year or two when different regions would consistently see temperatures exceeding the bounds of natural variability. Writing in Nature today, the paper's critics say that's a level of confidence that can't be supported by our current understanding of climate science.

What may sound like a fairly technical dispute raises some tricky questions about the limits of science, and the way journals choose what to publish.

"Unprecedented" climate change

In October last year a Nature  paper got quite a bit of attention from the media with some bold statements about when different regions of the world can expect to enter the realms of "unprecedented" climate change. We covered it, here.

Reuters talked about a "shift to a new climate", while the  Daily Mail opted for the punchier ''Apocalypse Now: Unstoppable man-made climate change will become reality by the end of the decade'.

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