How they took Earth’s temperature – and found a fever

It isn’t just that last year was warmer than ever. It’s the fact that every analysis shows the amount of warming last year was without precedent.

The World Meteorological Organization’s assessment of global mean surface temperature, showing 2015 in orange. (K = degrees Kelvin, which in this context is the same as Celsius.)

The World Meteorological Organization’s assessment of global mean surface temperature, showing 2015 in orange. (K = degrees Kelvin, which in this context is the same as Celsius.)

It isn’t easy to get the head around how science worked out that Earth’s surface in 2015 was exceptionally warm. Here’s my explanation.

In past years I’ve tried to report findings as soon as possible, usually around mid-January, when the US National Atmospheric and Oceanic Administration’s Climate Data Center and NASA’s Goddard Institute of Space Studies release their analyses of records dating back to 1880.

Some readers thought I was favouring these findings over the UK source, the combined dataset of the Met Office Hadley Centre and the Climate Research Unit of the University of East Anglia, whose analysis starts in 1850. So this year I waited until all were in.

Besides that “big three”, Australia’s Bureau of Meteorology compiles its own global time-series based on the UK dataset. The Japan Meteorological Agency has its own dataset starting in 1891, and Berkeley Earth, a privately-funded US group, analyses data all the way back to 1750.

All these analyses draw on millions of observations. Some come from about 1500 strategically-located land stations, but bearing in mind that over two-thirds of Earth’s surface is ocean, most are from ships at sea and ocean buoys, increasing in number every year.

Some people have questioned the small number of land stations used (about one for every 100,000 square kilometres) and pointed to location (valley or mountaintop, grass or asphalt surface) affecting absolute readings. Both questions are largely resolved by the anomaly technique.

Absolute temperatures in various locations are less important in studying global climate than change over time. To discern this scientists look at anomalies: how much the temperature in each given place diverges from the long-term average for that location.

To establish a global mean, each agency uses its own methodology. That makes for sometimes pronounced differences in ways of processing the data and handling inevitable gaps over space and time. This independence is a good insurance against shared errors and biases.

The possibility of duplicated errors was tested by the Berkeley group, set up in 2010. Its co-founder, Richard Muller, had believed global temperature analyses used corrupt data and faulty techniques.

To the contrary, Berkeley Earth found that established datasets were robust, and that if the various agencies had erred about global warming, it had been on the conservative side.

In late January the World Meteorological Organisation released its 2015 temperature report. WMO draws threads together from many sources, including the major US and UK datasets. It also goes to the European Centre for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts, which uses weather forecasting systems to fill in observational gaps such as for polar regions.

All sources in all countries reveal a steadily warming world, with every year since 2000 among the 20 hottest years. The only 20th century year in the top 10 is 1998, which held the record for seven years thanks to the powerful 1997-98 El Nino.

And all the different sources, without exception, showed last year to be warmest of all, by the widest margin on record. WMO put it at 0.16C above 2014, 0.27C above 1998 and over 1C above the mean when warming began in the 19th century.

Australia’s mean in 2015 – 0.83C above the 115-year average – made this our fifth-warmest year on record. The strong El Nino got our fire season off to an early start, with Tasmania experiencing catastrophic fire weather in October.

Looking ahead, meteorologists are anticipating a warm 2016, maybe even warmer than 2015 depending on how long this El Nino continues. Longer term, the UK’s Met Office expects that if we get any relief from warming it will be short-lived.

Taking Earth’s temperature is tough science, as is studying deep ocean temperature, ocean acidity, extreme weather, sea levels, ice sheet stability, species survival and so on. Australia’s BOM and CSIRO are among global leaders in this continuing challenge.

Yet incredibly, CSIRO head Larry Marshall told the ABC’s 7.30 last week that CSIRO had more important things to do than investigate how climate changes. There’s nothing more important, and that statement will haunt his career from now on. But that’s a whole new discussion, for next time.

Posted in atmospheric science, Australian politics, Bureau of Meteorology, bureaucracy, changes to climate, climate politics, climate system, CSIRO, extreme events, science, sea level, temperature | Leave a comment

Biomass energy facts that we need to know

Wood is the new king of renewables in Europe, but how renewable is it?

Finger-sized wood pellets made from plant material, mostly wood. Converted UK power plants will not use any other fuel. PHOTO

Finger-sized wood pellets made from plant material, mostly wood. Converted UK power plants will not use any other fuel. PHOTO


The Europeans are the undisputed leaders in global action to reel in carbon emissions, working hard to drive down their own emissions while devising creative, cost-effective ideas for global action.

We should all admire their resourcefulness, focus and genuine achievement in making climate action a goal for all. But that doesn’t mean we should accept without question everything they do.

On the basis of phasing out fossil carbon, European electricity generators have turned to a traditional fuel: plant material that would otherwise have been waste, including woody forest residue left over from logging operations. At least, that was the plan.

Business interests are converting coal power stations into wood-burners, hastening the slow demise of coal. The process is driven largely by government subsidies to help the conversion and generous carbon credits to ensure they’re profitable. So far, so good.

Scandinavian countries have long generated electricity from biomass, mainly wood with which they’re richly endowed. From the 1990s eastern European countries, notably Poland and the Baltic states, have been developing wood-fired power.

In recent years five key EU countries have joined them by converting coal plants to burn biomass: the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands. The process isn’t without controversy.

Coal miners (who know a lot about subsidies) object to governments bringing the price of wood fuel down below that of coal, oil and gas. As they point out, wood when burned emits about 20 per cent more carbon dioxide than coal.

Defenders of wood power respond that unlike coal, which was laid down over millions of years, wood is renewable because new trees can grow in their place and recover all the carbon lost in the generator furnace. And they have the 1997 Kyoto Protocol to back them up.

But in putting wood-fired electricity on the same footing as wind, solar and similar renewable sources, the Kyoto Protocol makes two hugely significant carbon accounting errors. It pretends that no carbon is emitted in harvesting, transporting and processing wood (obviously wrong) and that like wind and solar power, wood is instantaneously renewable. It actually takes decades or centuries for the carbon lost in burning wood to be recovered by replacement trees.

All wood-fired energy measures and policies since Kyoto have ignored this basic knowledge. Backed by international protocols, biomass is now listed as Europe’s largest renewable energy source. Advocates elsewhere, including Australia, expect similar privileged treatment.

Last October, a detailed investigation by the US-based online journal Climate Central described a disturbing new aspect to the wood-power story: the export, mainly from North America, of millions of tonnes of pelletised wood each year for the furnaces of Europe, Korea and Japan.

Despite biomass energy’s claim to be dealing with waste, the pellets required by the converted furnaces use no waste at all. They come from harvesting operations, mainly in the US, whose sole or main purpose is biomass energy, Climate Central’s John Upton reported.

Power plants demand steady supply. “You just can’t build a significant energy sector from picking up the slash from a cyclical lumber industry,” a US forest scientist told Upton. Hence the special-purpose harvesting.

Last year when Australia’s government added biomass energy to the Renewable Energy Target, it stipulated that biomass fuel can only be a by-product of operations whose primary purpose is not energy production.

However, it’s not hard to see something like the situation in the US wood-pellet export market happening here. A harvest whose primary purpose is sawlog could still produce a greater volume of woodchips, all of which, in a depressed export market, could end up in a furnace.

There would seem to be value in using forest residue for producing electricity instead of burning it on the forest floor, though I fail to see how we can prevent energy generation, with its relentless demand for fuel, eventually becoming a primary driver of harvesting.

But the bottom line is emissions. We must discard the myth that wood is an emissions-free energy source, and insist that those emissions are accounted for in full, without any free Kyoto passes.

Posted in biofuels, biological resources, biomass energy, carbon, carbon emissions and targets, carbon offsetting, carbon sequestration, coal-fired, energy, forest science, forests and forestry, land use, renewable energy, science, solar, trees, wind, wood | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Government blindness spells doom for an ailing company

Will Hodgman and Paul Harriss have allowed mindless ideology to trump common sense, to the detriment of Forestry Tasmania.

Last week’s Lapoinya protest, in which two people were the first to be arrested under Paul Harriss’s harsher laws. PHOTO Mercury

Last week’s Lapoinya protest, during which two people became the first to be arrested under Paul Harriss’s harsher laws. PHOTO Mercury

When representatives of industry, timber workers and the conservation movement signed an accord back in 2011, some of us hoped Tasmania’s crippling forest wars were over.

With an election still years away, supporters of the Tasmanian Forest Agreement thought its whole-of-community approach to forestry might become the new standard. But they overlooked the smouldering resentment of a certain Member of the Legislative Council.

Peace was the last thing on Paul Harriss’s mind in March 2014 when, having been elected to the lower house, he became resources minister. To him, the TFA was simply the previous government’s craven surrender to green extremism.

Righteous indignation fuelled his drive for harsher penalties for forest protest. He lost the battle for mandatory penalties in parliament, but won four-year maximum prison sentences when his bill passed in November 2014.

Now, after a long pause, the wars are back. In the first skirmish last week, two people were arrested at a coupe near Lapoinya in the state’s north-west.

In the middle of the Lapoinya confrontation Forestry Tasmania’s chairman, Bob Annells, and three of the remaining five board members resigned. The minister said these were just personal matters. That’s hard to believe, but if it’s true the timing was awful.

When he took the helm of Forestry Tasmania in 2012, Annells understood that an organisation in crisis, as it has been for many years now, does not need enemies.

For three years, despite some traumatic downsizing, the company’s staff and board have been steadily building new paradigms around its role, including its dealings with country communities. Throughout last year they worked hard to win over the people of Lapoinya.

My parents had a farm near Lapoinya when I was born. I don’t remember living there, but I do know what it’s like to grow up in the bush. You can build a deep, powerful affinity with it, such that if it’s threatened you won’t like it. You may feel compelled to oppose its removal.

Jessica Hoyt, now a nurse living in Hobart, can’t see Lapoinya as others do – as production forest with no special values – because it was her childhood home. Asked about the proposed harvesting after her arrest under the new laws, her simple, passionate response was “it’s wrong”.

When first announcing its workplace protest bill the government said it was targeted at forest “extremists”. Its first two victims have been Hoyt and a retired Wynyard anaesthetist, also with strong personal ties to the district. If these are extremists then I don’t understand the word.

But Lapoinya, which for all I know may be a perfectly legitimate harvest, is a side issue. The root cause of Forestry Tasmania’s problems won’t be found in native forest operations, but in politics.

The TFA opened a door to a big market expansion via Forest Stewardship Council certification. We don’t yet know the outcome of the FSC application, but the government couldn’t have helped its cause by “ripping up” the TFA and raising protest penalties.

Then came news late last year of the “authorised” sale of 50,000 hectares of hardwood plantations – the backbone of Forestry Tasmania’s long-term viability – to “offset losses” for two more years. How is that different from a receivers’ fire sale when a bankrupt business is being wound up?

Sustainability of wood supply is a key requirement for FSC certification. Losing control of that plantation resource raises questions about the company’s capacity to meet its legislated targets.

When a government is elected, it has a responsibility to govern for all. Will Hodgman should know that hostility towards portfolio stakeholders is no basis for a ministerial career. He should not have put Harriss in charge of forestry operations.

But it was the blind leading the blind. The premier has for many years echoed Harriss’s extreme pronouncements. Held captive by their shared ideological spin, Paul Harris and Will Hodgman have dug themselves a deep, dark hole, and it’s only getting deeper.

Their only way out is to repudiate their present attitudes and policies, but for them that would obviously be a bridge too far. Their mindless intransigence may prove fatal for Forestry Tasmania.

Posted in biofuels, biological resources, biomass energy, forest science, forests and forestry, investment, land use, leadership, local economy, Tasmanian politics, trees | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment