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As Earth warms from human activities, brutal cold waves are becoming less severe, not more so

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Visualization of the late January outbreak of Arctic cold in the Midwest and Great Lakes

Visualized in this animation of GOES-16 weather satellite images is the outbreak of frigid Arctic air in the Upper Midwest and Great Lakes regions of the United States on January 29 and 30, 2019. In the false color scheme (characteristic of what’s known as ‘Air Mass RGB’ imagery), the coldest air is depicted in pale shades of yellow to beige. (Source: CIMSS Satellite Blog)

As brutal cold spilled out of the Arctic and enveloped much of the U.S. Upper Midwest and Great Lakes in late January, news stories tied the event to global warming. Here’s a sampling of headlines:

“Brace for the Polar Vortex; It May Be Visiting More Often” (NY Times)

“The Polar Vortex And How It’s Related To Global Warming (Forbes)

“Polar Vortex Linked to Climate Change (WGBH)

An increasing but still contested body of science suggests that rapid and intense warming in the Arctic actually is triggering changes in the jet stream that can affect weather far to the south. So these stories were accurate — as far as they went.

But as it turns out, intense Arctic cold snaps like the one at the end of January have become less widespread and common as the globe has warmed due to human activities, not more so. And so by downplaying or even leaving that key bit of context out, some of the coverage didn’t go far enough.

Consider the graphic below showing the change in unusually cold temperature in the contiguous 48 U.S. states between 1948 and 2015:

Unusually cold temperatures have become less common

Trends in unusually cold temperatures at individual weather stations that have operated consistently since 1948. Blue upward-pointing symbols show where these unusually cold days are becoming more common. Red downward-pointing symbols show where unusually cold days are becoming less common. (Click on the map for an interactive version. Source: EPA)

The red, downward-pointing symbols tell the tale. They show where unusually cold days have become less common over time. Meanwhile,  the blue symbols show were cold snaps have become more common.

How many blue symbols can you count? Look harder…

Here’s another way to look at it:

Percentage of the land area of the contiguous 48 states with unusually cold daily high and low temperatures during the months of December, January, and February. The thin lines represent individual years, while the thick lines show a nine-year weighted average. Blue lines represent daily highs, while purple lines represent daily lows. The term “unusual” in this case is based on the long-term average conditions at each location. (Source: EPA)

Percentage of the land area of the contiguous 48 states with unusually cold daily high and low temperatures during the months of December, January, and February. The thin lines represent individual years, while the thick lines show a nine-year weighted average. Lighter blue lines represent daily highs, while darker blue lines represent daily lows. The term “unusual” in this case is based on the long-term average conditions at each location. (Source: EPA)

As the graph shows, since about 1980, the percentage of the contiguous 48 states that has experienced particularly cold episodes during winter has dropped significantly.

Over the long term, record high temperatures have become increasingly common since the 1970s, whereas the opposite has happened with record cold temperatures:

Record heat is outpacing record cold

As the source of these graphs, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, puts it:

If the climate were completely stable, one might expect to see highs and lows each accounting for about 50 percent of the records set. Since the 1970s, however, record-setting daily high temperatures have become more common than record lows across the United States

Kenneth Kunkel, a researcher at North Carolina State University who studies extreme weather in the long-term context of climate, notes that past North American cold waves have been much worse than what we’ve experienced in recent years. Quoted by my colleague (and long-time friend) Andrew Revkin in National Geographic, Kunkel cited cold waves in 1936, 1970, 1977, 1983, 1989, and finally 1996.

“Nothing since then has approached the magnitude of those,” Revkin quotes Kunkel as saying. “Since that time they’ve been kind of wimpy, really.”

This is not to say that extreme weather outbreaks possibly resulting from amplified warming in the Arctic are insignificant. They may well be yet another symptom of the climate system becoming increasingly ornery as we’ve poked at it with the big stick of heat-trapping greenhouse gases. Like a grizzly bear, you never quite know just how the climate beast will respond when you make it angry. Sometimes, it will surprise you.

We also need to keep our eyes on the overall trend: Although winter hasn’t been repealed, and cold snaps obviously still occur, over the long term, the globe is getting warmer overall, and brutal Arctic outbreaks will likely continue to be less common and widespread.

Some might be tempted to conclude that global warming is therefore a good thing. But here’s the thing about wild beasts: Once they get angry enough, they can hurt you real bad.

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Ecology

Globe Climate: Canada’s resource reckoning is coming

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Good afternoon, and welcome to Globe Climate, a newsletter about climate change, environment and resources in Canada.

This afternoon, the Alberta government announced that it is restoring a coal mining policy it revoked last spring. At the time, the move provoked a widespread public backlash detailed by The Globe. The original decision, which opened up more than 1.4 million hectares to exploration, was made without public consultation. Premier Jason Kenney previously defended the changes.

Lots more on coal and Canada’s resources industry in this week’s newsletter edition.

Now, let’s catch you up on other news.

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Ecology

‘Incredibly destructive’: Canada’s Prairies to see devastating impact of climate change

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As the climate continues to warm at an alarming rate, experts warn if dramatic steps to mitigate global warming are not taken, the effects in Canada’s Prairie region will be devastating to the country’s agriculture sector.

According to Environment and Climate Change Canada, the country is warming, on average, about double the global rate.

Scientists with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in the U.S. recently found 2020 was earth’s second-hottest year on record, with the average land and ocean surface temperature across the globe at 0.98 of a degree C above the 20th-century average.

However, the agency found the northern hemisphere saw its hottest year on record, at 1.28 degrees C above the average.

“(In Canada) we are looking at about 6.4C degrees of warming this century, which isn’t much less than one degree per decade, which is just a terrifying rate of warming,” Darrin Qualman, the director of climate crisis policy and action at the National Farmer’s Union said.

Qualman said there is “massive change coming” to Canada’s Prairies, which will be “incredibly destructive.”

“It’s not going too far to say that if we made that happen, parts of the Prairies wouldn’t be farmable anymore,” he said.

According to the federal government, in 2018 Canada’s agriculture and agri-food system generated $143 billion, accounting for 7.4 per cent of the country’s GDP.

The sector employed 2.3 million people in 2018. The majority of the 64.2 million hectares of farmland in Canada is concentrated in the Prairies and in southern Ontario.

The effects of climate change are already being felt on the ground in the Prairies, Qualman said, adding that the NFU has already heard from farmers complaining of “challenging weather.”

“People are sharing pictures of flattened crops and buildings, et cetera, that have been damaged,” he said. “And we’re still at the beginning of this.”

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Insect-based dog food aims to cut your pet’s carbon pawprint

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Meat has an enormous carbon footprint, with livestock liable for about 15 per cent of worldwide emissions, as we have beforehand mentioned on this e-newsletter. That is prompted specialists to suggest consuming much less meat for sustainability (and well being) causes.

However what about your pet? One research discovered that the methane and nitrous oxide emissions generated by canine and cat meals within the U.S. alone had been equal to about 64 million tonnes of CO2, or roughly the quantity produced by 13.6 million automobiles. And it might be getting worse, with a development towards feeding pets “human-grade” meat.

That is prompted some pet meals makers to look to lower-carbon protein sources — together with bugs.

Research present that producing insect-based meals requires far much less feed, land and water and generates far fewer greenhouse fuel emissions per kilogram than meats comparable to beef, pork or rooster.

That is one of many causes increasingly more pet meals containing insect protein are hitting the market. Purina, a model owned by multinational Nestlé, launched a line of canine and cat meals containing black soldier fly larvae in Switzerland in November.

In Canada, Montreal-based Wilder Harrier began promoting canine treats made with cricket protein in 2015 and pet food made with black soldier fly larvae in 2019. It plans to broaden to launch a line of insect-based cat treats later this yr and cat meals in 2022 due to “a ton of demand,” mentioned firm co-founder Philippe Poirier.

Wilder Harrier initially labored with animal nutritionists on insect-based merchandise to unravel a unique downside — specifically, the founders’ canines had allergy symptoms to frequent meats utilized in canine meals. Poirier mentioned now about half its prospects hunt down the product due to their pets’ allergy symptoms and about half for environmental causes.

Dr. Cailin Heinze, a U.S.-based veterinary nutritionist licensed by the American School of Veterinary Vitamin, has written concerning the environmental influence of pet meals. She mentioned we’re typically “not as involved as we probably ought to [be]” concerning the environmental footprint of pets.

Alternatively, she famous that the longer-term influence of newer diets, comparable to vegan meals and people containing bugs, hasn’t been nicely examined in comparison with conventional pet meals.

Maria Cattai de Godoy, an assistant professor of animal sciences on the College of Illinois who research novel proteins for pet meals (together with bugs, yeast and plant-based substances), mentioned such substances are rigorously examined to find out their security and diet earlier than being added to pet meals. 

“This can be a very extremely regulated trade,” she mentioned, however admitted it is also evolving.

Relating to bugs, she mentioned constructive information “reveals promise in direction of utilizing them increasingly more in pet meals.” Insect-based proteins have additionally earned the endorsement of the British Veterinary Affiliation, which says some insect-based meals could also be higher for pets than prime steak.

However Godoy famous that there isn’t any one-size-fits-all resolution, and pet homeowners ought to take into consideration the wants of their very own particular person pet and analysis whether or not a specific weight loss plan can be appropriate.

She mentioned that other than the kind of protein, issues like packaging and manufacturing strategies may also make a distinction. For instance, utilizing meat byproducts that may in any other case turn into waste would not drive elevated meat manufacturing the identical approach as utilizing human-grade meat.

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