How the Warming Arctic Helped Drive a Deep Freeze Into Texas

The sub-zero temperatures causing blackouts across the southern U.S. are connected to climate change.By Brian K SullivanFebruary 16, 2021, 11:10 AM PST Change, Bitter Cold Create Chaos for Energy SystemsUnmuteClimate Change, Bitter Cold Create Chaos for Energy Systems





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The Earth’s poles are warming faster than anywhere on the planet. While the consequences of that aren’t completely understood, it’s becoming apparent that many of the world’s extreme weather events owe the Arctic at least some of the credit.

A blast of cold air that swept out of Canada in mid-February, moving across the Great Plains and deep into the South, has overburdened the electrical grid and triggered widespread power outages in Texas, which like many southern states relies predominantly on electric heating, according to the Energy Information Administration. It was the second time in six months that extreme temperatures have brought grids to their knees—a heatwave across California in August caused a spike in energy demand for cooling equipment, forcing rolling blackouts for the first time since 2001.

Is the Texas cold blast connected to climate change? “I have argued a definitive yes,” said Judah Cohen, director of seasonal forecasting at Atmospheric and Environmental Research, part of risk analytics firm Verisk, who’s spent more than a decade studying what warming across the Arctic means to weather for the rest of the world.

While Cohen is more confident in making this connection than many in his field, the data show plainly that the region is a warming faster than the rest of the planet. The North Pole has been heating up about twice as fast as the rest of Earth for the last 30 years, according to the National Snow & Ice Data Center. “Most scientists agree that this rapid warming is a signal of human-caused climate change,” the center’s website says.

Texas Blackouts To Continue Today and Into Early Tuesday
Idle oil drilling rigs near Midland, Texas, on Feb. 13.Photographer: Matthew Busch/Bloomberg

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In the Northern Hemisphere’s summer, this has led to a decrease in the contrast between the heat of the equator and the cold of North Pole. The strength of the summer jet stream, a river of wind that propels weather systems around the globe, depends on extreme temperature differences between these two regions. As the planet warms and this contrast diminishes, the jet stream weakens and can no longer push large weather patterns out of the way. This is what caused  wildfires above the Arctic Circle, droughts throughout the world, and record-setting heat waves from Moscow to the U.S.

In the case of the Texas cold snap, the phenomenon began in the first week of January, when air in the stratosphere above the Arctic warmed suddenly. This set up a slow-moving atmospheric chain reaction that weakened the polar vortex, the girdle of winds that keeps frigid air corralled at the North Pole, allowing it to spill out into the temperate regions of Asia, Europe, and North America. Once the cold starts rolling south, very little can stop it.

“As the old saying goes, there is nothing between the Arctic and Dallas but a barbed wire fence,” said Dan Pydynowski, a meteorologist with AccuWeather Inc. “So when you get a direct discharge like this it will go all the way.”

While these events happen about six times per decade, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Cohen maintains that climate change has increased the frequency with which the polar vortex weakens and allow the cold to air to run amok.

Texas has certainly seen snow before, said Bob Henson, a meteorologist with Yale Climate Connections. But he urged observers not to be distracted by individual anomalies. “We know the climate of the central U.S. can produce events like this,” he said. “The point is, when you sum up all the events that are happening 365 days a year, that is when you see climate change most vividly.”

texas weather GETTY sub
Pedestrians walk on along a snow-covered street in Austin on Feb. 15.Photographer: Montinique Monroe/Getty Images

Across the U.S., severe thunderstorms and hail damage have been rising for decades. Some of that is due to increasing population, but that doesn’t explain the full extent of the increase. While scientists aren’t sure about the precise cause, there’s broad agreement that the weather is changing. 

In the past year, many parts of the world’s oceans reached record warm temperatures. The Atlantic produced an all-time high of 30 hurricanes and tropical storms in 2020. Vast areas the west were consumed by wildfires, including parts of Oregon and Washington that were once too wet to produce the required dry brush as fuel. Studies by reinsurers Munich Re and Aon both show weather-related natural disasters around the world increasing over the years, while damage from other events such as earthquakes and volcanoes has remained the same.

The disparity between warming and cooling becomes most apparent in the all-time records. In the last year 292 all-time hot records have been set, according to the National Centers for Environmental Information, compared to three low temperature extremes. Scientists repeatedly point to this to show the world is getting warmer. What on Earth?The Bloomberg Green newsletter is your guide to the latest in climate news, zero-emission tech and green finance.EmailSign UpBy submitting my information, I agree to the Privacy Policy and Terms of Service and to receive offers and promotions from Bloomberg.

“It’s no secret that extreme weather events are happening more frequently,” said Jennifer Francis, senior scientist at the Woodwell Climate Research Center in Woods Hole, Massachusetts. “Climate scientists have been predicting this behavior for years, maybe decades, so it comes as no surprise whatsoever that we’re seeing back-to-back extremes of various types around the globe.”

relates to How the Warming Arctic Helped Drive a Deep Freeze Into Texas
Snowplows clear the road in Oklahoma City on Feb. 14. Photographer: Sue Ogrocki/AP Photo

During the worst of the cold on Monday, 157 million people across the U.S. were living under winter storm warnings or weather advisories, said Brian Hurley, a senior branch forecaster with the U.S. Weather Prediction Center. Dallas was colder than Anchorage, Alaska. The cold itself damaged or forced power suppliers offline in a part of the country ill-prepared for frigid temperatures.

“The sorry state of the U.S. electric grid is a shining a bright light on the glaring need for grid modernization,” Francis said, as well as “mounting vulnerabilities in infrastructure of all sorts.” 

Up until about two weeks ago, winter was relatively mild across the U.S. January was the ninth warmest across the 48 contiguous states, with temperatures among the 10 warmest for the month in Washington, Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Minnesota, Michigan, and Maine, the Centers for Environmental Information said. December was also mild in most places.

It’s not yet possible to connect the extreme cold of the last few days directly to climate change, but Henson says that doesn’t matter in the bigger picture.

“Climate change is real regardless of an extreme cold outbreak,” he said. “You don’t need to explain every cold and snow outbreak to explain climate change.”

US cold snap: Why is Texas seeing Arctic temperatures?


US cold snap: Why is Texas seeing Arctic temperatures?

Icy roads
image captionScenes such as this one – in Odessa, Texas – are unusual for the state

Texas is known for its sprawling deserts and excruciating heatwaves – but right now, it’s blanketed in a thick layer of ice.

The state is seeing some of its coldest temperatures in more than 30 years, with some areas breaking records that are more than a century old.

Parts of Texas hit 0F (-18C) on Sunday, and weather warnings are going to stay in place through the week.

So why is this normally boiling state suddenly freezing over?

According to the US National Weather Service (NWS), this is down to an “Arctic outbreak” that originated just above the US-Canada border, bringing a winter snow storm as well as plummeting temperatures.

Cold air outbreaks such as these are normally kept in the Arctic by a series of low-pressure systems, the NWS said. However, this one moved through Canada and spilled out into the US last week.

Temperatures in the city of Dallas for example will reach a high of 14F (-10C) on Monday when it should be more like 59F (15C) at this time of year.

For the first time in the US state, all 254 counties are under a winter storm warning, US media report. The temperature in Dallas is already colder than in Anchorage, Alaska, CBS News reports.

Texas map

In a statement on Sunday night, President Joe Biden declared an emergency in Texas, which authorises US agencies to co-ordinate disaster relief in the state.

Rotating power outages have been initiated by the state’s power grid operator, the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (Ercot), early on Monday, to reduce demand on the electricity system.

“Traffic lights and other infrastructure may be temporarily without power,” it added in a tweet. captionUS: Extreme cold weather continues

It has also issued a level-three energy emergency alert, urging consumers to reduce electricity use.

Nearly 120 car accidents were reported on Sunday, Houston Fire Chief Samuel Peña tweeted.

Hundreds of flights in and out of the state have also been cancelled.

The weather has already proved deadly. On Thursday, icy roads led to a massive crash involving more than 100 vehicles in Fort Worth, killing six people and leaving dozens more needing hospital treatment. captionHow a deadly crash with over 100 cars began on an icy Texas highway

“The expansive dome of sub-freezing temperatures across the northern tier of the country has laid the foundation for winter storms to wreak havoc from coast to coast, not only going into this weekend, but also into next week,” the NWS said in a statement released on Friday.

Weather warnings for severe winter conditions are going to remain in place until at least Tuesday, when the weather system will begin to move north.

Amarillo will see a high temperature of just 2F (-17C), breaking the city’s previous record of 12F (-11C) that was set in 1895, a forecaster from the service’s Weather Prediction Centre, Marc Chenard, told Reuters news agency.

Odessa, Texas
image captionThese are some of the state’s coldest temperatures for more than 30 years

Similarly, Lubbock will only reach a high of 9F (-13C). These temperatures are “40 to 50 degrees [Fahrenheit] below average”, Mr Chenard said.

Parts of Oklahoma and the Texas panhandle are predicted to see as much as a foot of snow this week, while Dallas will have four inches.

Mr Chenard warns of more dangerous road conditions in Houston, caused by sleet and freezing rain.

The moon controls the release of methane in Arctic Ocean

Date:December 14, 2020Source:UiT The Arctic University of NorwaySummary:The moon controls one of the most formidable forces in nature – the tides that shape our coastlines. Tides, in turn, significantly affect the intensity of methane emissions from the Arctic Ocean seafloor. High tides may even counter the potential threat of submarine methane release from the warming Arctic.Share:    FULL STORY

It may not be very well known, but the Arctic Ocean leaks enormous amounts of the potent greenhouse gas methane. These leaks have been ongoing for thousands of years but could be intensified by a future warmer ocean. The potential for this gas to escape the ocean, and contribute to the greenhouse gas budget in the atmosphere, is an important mystery that scientists are trying to solve.

The total amount of methane in the atmosphere has increased immensely over the past decades, and while some of the increase can be ascribed to human activity, other sources are not very well constrained.

A recent paper in Nature Communications even implies that the moon has a role to play.

Small pressure changes affect methane release

The moon controls one of the most formidable forces in nature — the tides that shape our coastlines. Tides, in turn, significantly affect the intensity of methane emissions from the Arctic Ocean seafloor.

“We noticed that gas accumulations, which are in the sediments within a meter from the seafloor, are vulnerable to even slight pressure changes in the water column. Low tide means less of such hydrostatic pressure and higher intensity of methane release. High tide equals high pressure and lower intensity of the release” says co-author of the paper Andreia Plaza Faverola.

“It is the first time that this observation has been made in the Arctic Ocean. It means that slight pressure changes can release significant amounts of methane. This is a game-changer and the highest impact of the study.” Says another co-author, Jochen Knies.

New methods reveal unknown release sites

Plaza Faverola points out that the observations were made by placing a tool called a piezometer in the sediments and leaving it there for four days.

It measured the pressure and temperature of the water inside the pores of the sediment. Hourly changes in the measured pressure and temperature revealed the presence of gas close to the seafloor that ascends and descends as the tides change. The measurements were made in an area of the Arctic Ocean where no methane release has previously been observed but where massive gas hydrate concentrations have been sampled.

“This tells us that gas release from the seafloor is more widespread than we can see using traditional sonar surveys. We saw no bubbles or columns of gas in the water. Gas burps that have a periodicity of several hours won’t be identified unless there is a permanent monitoring tool in place, such as the piezometer.” Says Plaza Faverola

These observations imply that the quantification of present-day gas emissions in the Arctic may be underestimated. High tides, however, seem to influence gas emissions by reducing their height and volume.

“What we found was unexpected and the implications are big. This is a deep-water site. Small changes in pressure can increase the gas emissions but the methane will still stay in the ocean due to the water depth. But what happens in shallower sites? This approach needs to be done in shallow Arctic waters as well, over a longer period. In shallow water, the possibility that methane will reach the atmosphere is greater.” Says Knies.

May counteract the temperature effects

High sea-level seems thus to influence gas emissions by potentially reducing their height and volume. The question remains whether sea-level rise due to global warming might partially counterbalance the effect of temperature on submarine methane emissions.

“Earth systems are interconnected in ways that we are still deciphering, and our study reveals one of such interconnections in the Arctic: The moon causes tidal forces, the tides generate pressure changes, and bottom currents that in turn shape the seafloor and impact submarine methane emissions. Fascinating!” says Andreia Plaza Faverola

The paper is the result of a collaboration between CAGE, Centre for Arctic Gas Hydrate, Environment and Climate at UiT The Arctic University of Norway, and Ifremer under the project SEAMSTRESS — Tectonic Stress Effects on Arctic Methane Seepage

Democrats say Interior botched polar bear study in pursuit to drill ANWR

BY REBECCA BEITSCH – 07/17/20 03:07 PM EDT 6144,433

Just In…


Democrats say Interior botched polar bear study in pursuit to drill ANWR

© Getty Images

Democratic lawmakers are pushing back against Department of the Interior plans to drill in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR,) arguing the agency wasn’t thorough before concluding that drilling activity wouldn’t harm local polar bears.

A review of the environmental impacts of drilling in the area “makes the unsupportable conclusion that industrializing the entire Coastal Plain—including the most important terrestrial denning habitat for among the most imperiled polar bear population on the planet—will not jeopardize the survival and recovery of the species,” Democratic lawmakers on the House Natural Resources Committee wrote to Interior in a letter spearheaded by Rep. Jared Huffman (D-Calif.).

“This fundamentally flawed analysis ignores the overwhelming scientific evidence that identifies devastating impacts to polar bears from oil and gas activities,” they added.

The so-called biological opinion produced on the topic came after the department in February made the unusual decision to open its research to public comment. The already peer-reviewed research looked at how seismic activity from the oil and gas industry affects polar bear “denning” as they raise their young cubs.

Environmentalists and scientists raised the alarm, calling it an attempt by the Trump administration to discredit its own government scientists.

“What it looks like to me is they’re giving industry the opportunity to negate the study,” said Andrew Rosenberg, director of the Center for Science and Democracy and the Union of Concerned Scientists.

The 2017 tax bill opened the door to drilling in the arctic, something Interior noted in its response.

“Representative Huffman and the other Democrat members who signed this erroneous letter apparently don’t understand that the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act enacted in 2017 requires an oil and gas leasing program in the Coastal Plain. It would serve them well to have a better, basic understanding of the laws under the jurisdiction of the Committee,” the department said in an email.

A number of major banks, including Morgan Stanley, Goldman Sachs, JPMorgan Chase and Wells Fargo, have already pledged not to finance any drilling in ANWR.

The department recently finalized another rule that would allow hunting tactics that make it easier to kill bear cubs and wolf pups in Alaska.

The rule, finalized in June, ends a five-year ban on baiting hibernating bears from their dens, shining a flashlight into wolf dens to cause them to scurry, targeting animals from airplanes or snowmobiles and shooting swimming caribou from boats.

Russia declares state of emergency over Arctic Circle oil spill caused by melting permafrost

The spill of diesel has caused rivers to run red

Updated 4:44 p.m. PDT June 5, 2020

Melting permafrost caused a fuel tank holding 21,000 tons of diesel oil to collapse in Russia’s Arctic Circle, leading to a 135-square mile oil spill.

According to Rosprirodnadzor, the Federal Service for Supervision of Natural Resources, 6,000 tons spilled onto the ground, another 15,000 tons into the water. Oil products got into the Ambarnaya and Daldykan rivers and in almost all their tributaries.

The spill occurred in the city of Norilsk, Russia, at a power plant operated by Norilsk-Taimyr Energy Co., a subsidiary of Nornickel. The town is located above the Arctic Circle in Russia’s far North.

An emergency situation has been declared, the company said on its website. Russian President Vladimir Putin agreed to introduce a federal-level emergency regime because of the spill after the Minister of Emergency Situations Yevgeny Zinichev suggested it.

Greenpeace has already called the spill the first accident of such a large scale in the Arctic. The organization believes that damage to water bodies alone from a diesel spill in Norilsk could amount to more than $85 million.

A diesel fuel storage tank failed when the permafrost it was built on began to soften. As a result of damage to the tank, fuel spilled onto the roadway and a passing car caught fire.

“The accident was caused by a sudden sinking of supporting posts in the basement of the storage tank,” the company said in a statement.

The leaking diesel oil had extended as far as 7 miles from the accident site and turned long stretches of the Ambarnaya bright red.

In Russia, diesel is dyed red if it’s used for heating of buildings and structures. Red diesel is usually pumped into special storage tanks and subsequently consumed as an energy source.

Zinichev told Putin that the Norilsk plant had spent two days trying to contain the spill before alerting his ministry. The region’s governor, Alexander Uss, had told Putin that he became aware of the oil spill on Sunday only after “alarming information appeared in social media”.

According to Russian media, the liquidation team has already cleaned about 53,000 cubic feet of soil at the site of the diesel fuel spill in Norilsk and pumped out 201 tons of fuel. More than 130 tons were removed from the Ambarnaya river.

Nornickel is the world’s leading producer of nickel and palladium producer. Palladium is a rare metal used to make catalytic converters.

One of the company’s key co-owners is Vladimir Potanin who was listed as the richest man in Russia with the fortune of $25 billion. The billionaire has lost $1.5 billion due to the consequences of the accident, according to Forbes’ Real-Time Billionaires ranking.

The Investigative Committee of Russia has opened a criminal case of negligence due to untimely reporting of an accident near Norilsk, according to the agency’s website. Who or what, exactly, the criminal case has been opened on was not specified. Russian authorities have already arrested the head of one of the units of a thermal power plant.

As global warming has raised temperatures, especially in Arctic latitudes, melting permafrost has become a major problem. In many colder areas buildings and structures are built on permafrost which can be as hard – and had been as permanent – as concrete.

That has begun to change with warming temperatures, causing damage to buildings and changing

Source: USA TODAY Research;  Google Earth; Planet Labs Inc.; Associated Press/RU-RTR/Kremlin;

Thousands of Species Are Fleeing to Earth’s Poles en Masse, And a Pattern’s Emerging

We know that global warming is forcing many animals around the world to flee their normal habitats, but now, an exhaustive analysis has shown marine species are booking it for the poles six times faster than those on land.

Drawing together 258 peer-reviewed studies, researchers compared over 30,000 habitat shifts in more than 12,000 species of bacteria, fungi, plants, and animals.

The resulting database, named BioShifts, is the first comprehensive analysis of its kind, and while the database is limited by our own, human research biases, the data we have certainly suggests marine species are following global thermal shifts much closer than land animals.

While land species definitely are moving closer to the poles as the planet heats up, this shift is “at a pace that is much slower than expected, especially in areas with warm climates,” the authors write.

In the review, amphibians were found to be moving up slope at over 12 metres a year, while reptiles seem to be headed towards the equator at 6.5 metres a year.

Insects, which incidentally carry many diseases, were found to be moving poleward at 18.5 kilometres per year.

Relatively, that’s a lot, but in the bigger picture, marine species were moving towards the poles at an average pace of nearly 6 kilometres per year, while land animals were only shifting upslope at a mean pace of nearly 1.8 metres per year (slightly faster than previous estimates for land species, but still comparatively slow).

This discrepancy between land and water could exist for several reasons. It might, for instance, be a product of temperature sensitivity. Air conducts heat 25 times less effectively than water, and many land animals can easily regulate their body temperature if they want.

On the whole, this would logically leave marine species and many ectotherms – cold-blodded species – much more susceptible to Earth’s fluctuating temperatures.

Plus, animals in the water can migrate a lot easier if the need arises. On land, human activities often impede the movement of animals. In fact, when animals were exposed to a high degree of anthropogenic disturbances, the authors of this analysis found they tended to move against the thermal grain and not with it.

This is consistent with the general idea that land use and climate change may force species in opposite directions, a sort of push and pull of re-distribution.

“On land, habitat loss and fragmentation due to land use changes may impede the ability of terrestrial species to track shifting isotherms [lines on a map connection regions with the same temperature],” the authors write.

“These complex interactions need to be accounted for to improve scenarios of biodiversity redistribution and its consequences on human well-being under future climate change.”

If the authors are right, and marine life is tracking along temperature changes more closely, it could have dire and far-reaching repercussions. Some of which we might have seen before.

During the Permian-Triassic Extinction, the most calamitous event in Earth’s history, researchers say very few marine organisms stayed in the same habitat as oxygen levels plummeted.

“It was either flee or perish,” according to oceanographer Curtis Deutsch of the University of Washington, and for over 50 percent of marine species at the time, it was unfortunately the latter.

Today, as temperature increases squeeze animals into ever-narrowing habitat ranges, those animals already swimming towards he poles are also at risk of running out of cooler water.

Of course, this is happening on land, too. Animals found high up in the mountains are said to be riding an “escalator to extinction” as temperatures and competition push them over the brink. It’s just that in the water this escalator seems to be moving faster.

“We suggest that commercial fishing may speed up the displacement of marine species distribution through resource depletion and population crashes at the trailing edge, whereas low constraints on dispersal in the oceans may allow marine species living close to their upper thermal limits to better track climate warming at the leading edge,” the authors predict.

As impressive and necessary as the new database is, however, the authors acknowledge it has serious limits.

Despite its comprehensive nature, the meta-analysis used to create BioShifts only covers 0.6 percent of all known life on Earth, and the animals we have researched tend to be the most charismatic, or important to humans, focused predominantly in the northern hemisphere.

So while we call this a global meta-analysis, it’s not really. Instead, it’s as close as we can get given the circumstances.

Still, we can only work with what we’ve got, and it looks like the animals we do know of are struggling to find new habitats in the face of a growing climate crisis.

BioShifts is a way for us to help track those changes so we can possibly predict what will happen next.

The Arctic Is Unraveling as a Massive Heat Wave Grips the Region

It wouldn’t be spring in the climate change era without a massive heat wave in the Arctic.

Freakishly warm air has billowed up from Siberia over the Arctic Ocean and parts of Greenland, and the heat will only intensify in the coming days. The warmth is helping to spread widespread wildfires and to kickstart ice melt season early, both ominous signs of what summer could hold.

The Arctic has been on one recently. Russia had its hottest winter ever recorded, driven largely by Siberian heat. That heat hasn’t let up as the calendar turns to spring. In fact, it’s intensified and spread across the Arctic. Last month was the hottest April on record for the globe, driven by high Arctic temperatures that averaged an astounding 17 degrees Fahrenheit (9.4 degrees Celsius) above normal, according to NASA data.

Now, a May heat wave has pushed things into overdrive. Martin Stendel, a climate scientist at the Danish Meteorological Institute, told the Washington Post that the mid-May warmth is “quite extraordinary…there is no similar event so early in the season.”

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Siberia has been one of the blistering hot spots on the globe all year, and heat is pushing out of the region and traversing the Arctic. Plumes of abnormally warm air have snaked over the North Pole. Norway’s weather service is forecasting temperatures there will approach freezing in the coming days. That might not sound hot, but remember, this is the North Pole. The warmth could pose a threat to sea ice, which saw its fourth-lowest extent on record for April.

Heat has also gripped portions of Greenland, where the ice sheet’s annual melt got started two weeks early. According the Polar Portal run by three Danish research institutions, including the Danish Meteorological Institute, the western and southern margins of the ice sheet saw abnormal melt over the weekend, and more warmth could spur more melt this week as well. The season is still early, and the spike in melt is relatively small compared to previous sudden upticks in melting (See: last summers’s record-setting meltdown).

Still, early melt is never a good thing, and doubly so given this year’s lower-than-normal snowfall. That means more crusty, dirty snow on the surface could absorb more warmth in summer, something that helped spur record mass loss last year. And when there’s less mass added to the ice sheet, it can set up more mass loss year over year. The ice sheet is already losing six times more mass than it was in the 1980s, so this setup is not good!

Siberian wildfires within the Arctic Circle
Siberian wildfires within the Arctic Circle
Image: Pierre Markuse (Flickr)

Adding to the not-goodness are the massive wildfires raging in Siberia. The region has quietly been ablaze since last month, and flames have continued to spread across millions of acres. While most have burned below the Arctic Circle—or 66.5 degrees North—the warmth has allowed at least some flames to spread north of it. Satellite monitoring expert Pierre Markuse tweeted an image on Monday showing fires creeping across the tundra in the Republic of Sakha that makes up most of eastern Siberia. There are also signs that some “zombie” fires from last fire season have reignited after smoldering underground in peat-rich soil. Congrats if you had that on your climate crisis bingo card.

The Arctic is the fastest-warming region on the planet, and these types of heat waves have become a seasonal occurrence. But that shouldn’t make them any less shocking or alarming, particularly since the changes happening there could actually cause the rest of the glove to warm up even more quickly. Melting sea ice exposes darker ocean waters that can absorb more heat, while fires cough up more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, trapping yet more heat. The zombie fires are even more worrisome, since peat is extremely rich in carbon. The stubborn heat looks to be locked in until at least next week, so we’ll get to see all these horrible feedbacks on display through at least then.

Fish & Wildlife Service focuses on food-related causes for 2018 seabird die-off


A group of seabirds — murres, specifically — nesting in the cliffs. (Photo from the public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

The exact cause of the 2018 seabird die-off that affected more than a thousand birds in the Bering Strait region, is still unknown. However, scientists with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service believe it is not related to a strain of avian flu that was found in two seabirds, which is at odds with prior theories from a researcher at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

According to Kathy Kuletz, the seabird section coordinator for Fish & Wildlife Service in Alaska, 26 carcasses from the 2018 die-off were sent to them for sampling. Those seabirds were then transferred to the USGS National Wildlife Health Center in Madison, Wisconsin.

“Some of them were not in real good shape when they (United States Geological Society) got them, but they were able to determine that 14 died of starvation, they were highly emaciated. One died from some kind of trauma and two they couldn’t determine. All of those were tested for avian influenza. Two of those came back positive.”

The two birds that tested positive for avian influenza were a kittiwake from Wales and a thick-billed murre from Savoonga. That thick-billed murre was the exact same bird a University of Alaska Fairbanks researcher came across during her studies on St. Lawrence Island in 2018.

“Of course, birds were starving, so that may have been poor foraging ability, that may have been a result. But we’re looking a little bit more at ‘maybe they were sick,’” said Alexis Will, a researcher with UAF’s Institute of Arctic Biology. Will recently explained how she and her fellow researchers found no evidence thick-billed murres experienced food shortages in 2018.

She cited the thick-billed murre from Savoonga with avian influenza as an indicator that the cause of the die-off from 2018 could be due to disease and not food-related.

U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service disagrees.

“Both H10N6 viruses and H16N3 viruses (or avian flu) have previously been detected in apparently healthy birds,” said Andy Ramey, a research geneticist with USGS’ Alaska Science Center.  “And again, none of these previous detections have been associated with die-off events.”

Based on his more than ten years of studying avian influenza, and previous scientific findings, Ramey is skeptical that the bird disease caused the 2018 die-off. Fish & Wildlife Service is doing more tests and studies to confirm that disease like the avian flu did not cause this large-scale event to happen.

Meanwhile, Ramey, Kuletz and fellow Fish & Wildlife Service seabird biologist Robb Kaler, believe there are other factors contributing to hundreds of birds starving and dying in the Bering Strait region. Those include record warm ocean temperatures, lack of sea ice, and the absence of a cold-water barrier in the Bering Sea from 2018.

“So with the warm water and the lack of sea ice, that’s going to affect the metabolism of both the predator, in this case the seabird, and the prey, whether it’s krill, euphasids or forage fish,” Kaler said. “But that warm water could also affect the abundance and distribution of that prey.”

Although the scientists acknowledge there is still food available for seabirds to eat near St. Lawrence Island, and in the Bering Sea, their prey base is changing and may not be as nutritious as normal. Kaler refers to these types of fish as “junk food.”

“Capelin are very rich in nutrients versus pollock or cod, juvenile cod or pollock, being brought to the nests of a thick-billed murre. Capelin are king and there’s a junk food hypothesis about less nutritional…so the parent has to work harder to provision the nest if they’ve got junk food that they’re bringing back to their chick.”

With ecosystem-wide changes underway in the Bering Sea, Fish & Wildlife Service isn’t ruling out food-related causes of death or that there were potential effects of avian influenza or harmful algal blooms (HABs).

The agency is, however, emphasizing that the 2018 seabird die-off in the Bering Strait region was most likely not associated with avian influenza. Ramey also points out that emaciation is not a clinical sign of influenza in birds, and many of the seabirds they sampled were found to be emaciated.

According to Kaler, they anticipate another seabird die-off will be seen in the Bering Sea this summer while Fish & Wildlife Service works to solve the mystery of the 2018 event. If the Bering Strait region experiences another large-scale dieoff this year, that would be the sixth year in a row featuring mass seabird deaths.

Scientists spotted what might be the biggest hole ever recorded in the Arctic’s ozone layer

Hole in Arctic's ozone layer might be its largest ever
Hole in Arctic’s ozone layer might be its largest ever 01:09

(CNN)The Arctic’s ozone layer developed a tear, which grew into a hole, and then a bigger hole. Now, it may be biggest hole the North Pole’s ozone layer has ever incurred.

This hole in the Arctic ozone layer reached an area of over 620,000 square miles since it was first spotted in February, said Diego Loyola, a scientist at the German Aerospace Center, in a statement to the European Space Agency.
Ozone levels in the area have dropped steeply since then.
That’s unusual for a few reasons. While holes in the ozone layer are reported every year in the Antarctic, where temperatures are much colder, no sizable holes in the ozone layer have been recorded in the Arctic since 2011.
A false-color view shows the total ozone over the Arctic pole between April 2019 and April 6, 2020. Purple and blue mark areas with the least ozone, and the yellow and red mark areas with more ozone. This year, there's signifcantly less ozone.

Even researchers with the Copernicus Program, the European Union’s Earth observation program, who first caught the hole say they aren’t sure why it’s so large.
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“The ozone has been, in this layer, almost completely depleted,” said Vincent-Henri Peuch, director of the Copernicus Atmosphere Monitoring Service.

About the ozone layer — and ozone holes

Life on Earth relies on the ozone layer, which sits in the stratosphere between 9 and 22 miles above the Earth, to protect us from ultraviolet radiation, which is known to cause skin cancer and suppress the immune system. But human-made chemicals have been poking holes in it for years — there’s been a hole in the Antarctic ozone layer every year since 1985, when the first one was reported by the British Antarctic Survey.
There are a few conditions necessary to tear a hole in the ozone layer. Among them are chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), manufactured chemicals that have been phased out of consumer products after they were banned in 1996, and halons, formerly found in fire extinguishers, which accumulate in the atmosphere after they’re emitted during human activity.
These chemicals can remain in the atmosphere between 50 and 100 years. Because of their longevity, the ozone layer isn’t expected to fully heal until the end of the 21st century, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

How ozone holes form

When the Antarctic is cloaked in below-freezing darkness, polar vortexes can form — those are swirls of stratospheric clouds that facilitate the reactions between CFCs and the ozone layer (holes typically form when the weather is -108.4 degrees Fahrenheit).
When conditions are right, and the first sunlight after winter arrives, the ozone breaks the CFC bond to release a chlorine atom, which can poke a hole in the ozone layer, according to NASA Ozone Watch.
It’s much rarer for ozone holes to form in the Arctic, where the mountainous terrain at high altitudes makes it difficult for polar vortexes to form and sustain their power, Peuch said.
But the existence of this record-breaking hole means that conditions must have been right in the Arctic. Peuch said it’s still not clear why this hole formed, though.

What the record-breaking hole means

The level of ozone fell steeply in the affected area throughout February and March, Peuch said.
As a result, the UV radiation that has made it to the Earth’s surface is slightly higher than usual. But because the hole occurred in the winter into early spring, the UV index reached a high of 5, which is unusually high for this region but fairly normal for much of the United States, which hovers around an index of 5 or 6, according to the EPA’s monthly UV averages.
This hole doesn’t pose a huge deal for humans, though, Peuch said. Because the UV radiation is mostly affecting northern Greenland, which he said is sparsely populated, and the exposure won’t last long, the effects of this ozone hole are minor.
One area that is of concern, he said, is how this could affect ecosystems in the area.
“That I cannot tell, but for human health, it’s fairly moderate,” he said.
And the hole isn’t permanent, either: Peuch said he expects it to begin to close as soon as next week.