It’s The Extraction, Not The Emissions, That Matters

Since personal obligations have kept me busy this week over Thanksgiving, I will not be publishing the conclusion of the “Sudden Cardiac Arrest” series until December 8th. This week, I am reprising a column from September, 2012, with this new introduction, which I hope will help to shed some light on two recent, but seemingly contradictory news stories. In 2013, carbon dioxide emissions in the United States were down by 3.7% compared to 2012. In stark contrast, gloggbal emissions, at a staggering 10 billion tons, were 2.1% higher than in 2012.

Coal_Burning_Power_Plant_Smoke_StacksAs I explained in “If We Mine it or Drill it, We’re Going to Burn It,” news stories which focus on carbon emissions are inherently misleading. Since the air in the atmosphere is all mixed together, it does not matter from which country the emissions originate. The parameter that truly matters is the rate at which we are extracting carbon, in the form of coal, oil, and natural gas, from below the ground.

The widespread utilization of hydraulic fracturing (fracking) combined with horizontal drilling in the U.S. has resulted in a significant increase in extraction of natural gas. Natural gas is difficult and expensive to export, so nearly all of this increased supply is being burned in domestic power plants to make electricity. As more electricity in the U.S. is being generated from natural gas, the amount produced by burning coal is decreasing. Generating an equivalent amount of electricity from natural gas rather than coal releases less carbon dioxide. Therefore, the shift towards natural gas for electricity production in the U.S. is the primary reason that carbon dioxide emissions from the U.S. have been reduced. As nice as this may sound, it doesn’t really matter.

To understand why it doesn’t matter, one need look no further than Appalachia, the heart of the U.S. coal mining industry, rumors of whose death have been greatly exaggerated. Despite the loss of a portion of the electricity market, U.S. coal extraction is at an all-time high. Since coal is easy to transport, it is being shipped all over the world, particularly China and India, to generate electricity there.

The end result of the natural gas “boom” from fracking and the increase in coal exports is an increase in the extraction of underground carbon from the U.S. This is the story that matters about the U.S. contribution to carbon dioxide emissions and global warming. We are making it worse, not better.

For more detail and the underlying science, follow the link above to my previous column. If you have a comment or question use the interface below or send me an email to

Landmark Climate Change Report Adopted

STOCKHOLM – The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change uses the strongest words yet in its latest assessment on the state of the climate system.

The panel now says it’s “extremely likely” that human activity has been the dominant cause of global warming since 1950.

The last assessment in 2007 used the words, “very likely.” The full report comes out Monday.

Hurricanes Part III: Frequency and Global Warming

Over the last several decades the media have consistently reported that global warming would result in more frequent and more powerful hurricanes.  The graph below shows the data for total frequency of hurricanes in the Atlantic since 1944, as well as the number of strong hurricanes, defined as category three and above.  While I have seen analyses of these data which have attempted to tease out an increasing trend, there has not been a noteworthy change in either the frequency or the strength of hurricanes during this period, despite rising air and water temperatures.

hurricane frequency

The lack of change in hurricane frequency and intensity is consistently referenced by climate change deniers as evidence that scientists have been wrong, biased, or participating in some massive conspiracy. The problem with both the news stories and the accusations of malfeasance is that there has never been a scientific consensus that global warming would result in either more frequent or stronger storms.

The inaccurate news coverage of the potential effects of global warming on hurricanes is another example of poor science reporting in the mainstream media.  I believe that this failure stems from an unwillingness to spend the time and to commit sufficient news bandwidth to grapple with complex scientific issues.  Fortunately here at, we can delve into these matters at a level of detail sufficient to understand what is really happening.

Given that one of the prerequisites for a hurricane is a water temperature of at least 79.7 °F, it is tempting to assume that warmer oceans would result in more and perhaps stronger storms.  If water temperature were the only parameter which affected hurricanes, then this assumption might turn out to be correct.  However, as is often the case with phenomena in nature, the situation is a bit more nuanced.  Let’s consider the parameters other than water temperature which effect hurricanes and how these may be impacted by global warming.

In order for a tropical cyclone – the precursor to a hurricane – to get started, a mass of cold air must be positioned above an area of warm water.  Furthermore, since the strength of the storm is dependent on the rate of condensation of water droplets in the upper atmosphere (which happens faster as the air gets colder) the initial strength of the storm is dependent on air temperature.  Therefore, to the extent that global warming is increasing the temperature of the air above the ocean, both the probability of hurricanes forming and the expected storm strengths are directionally reduced.

Another key parameter in the formation of a tropical cyclone is the need for low wind shear, which sounds counter intuitive at first.  In order for the circulating air flows of a cyclone to form and stabilize, the other air movement in the area must be limited; otherwise the cyclone never becomes “organized”.  The research I have read on the potential impact of global warming on winds in the Atlantic is inconclusive.  However, to the extent that warmer temperatures may result in stronger winds above the oceans (a reasonably likely scenario), the probability of hurricanes being formed would be reduced.

Despite not having a noticeable effect on frequency or strength, global warming is having two definite effects on hurricanes.  The warming of the oceans does result in more days per year when the surface water temperature is at or above 79.7 °F, which is lengthening hurricane season.  According to the Pew Center on Global Climate Change, the duration of hurricane season has grown by five days per decade since 1915. Therefore, in coming decades we should anticipate hurricanes starting in May and continuing through December.  Global warming is also causing sea level rise from the thermal expansion of ocean water as well as the melting of the polar ice caps.  Increases in the baseline level of the ocean reduce the amount of storm surge necessary to cause damage along the coast line, as evidenced recently in Manhattan by Superstorm Sandy.

I believe that part of the problem regarding news reports on the impact of global warming on hurricanes is that headlines about an impending series of superstorms create more of a splash than a thoughtful review of the slow steady lengthening of hurricane season and the number of inches that sea level is rising each decade.  Perhaps a hurricane on Christmas will increase the buzz-worthiness of the actual science.

There is still no sign of Barry out over the Atlantic, so he must still be working away on Vilcom Circle.  Have a comment or question?  Use the interface below or send me an email to