December 11, 2013 12:23 pm
When it comes to climate change, carbon dioxide may get all the attention, but it’s not the only greenhouse gas. In fact, it’s not even the strongest, on a molecule-by-molecule basis—not by a long shot. The “greenhouse warming potential” of a gas is a measure of how good the gas is at trapping heat, crossed with how long it tends to hang around in the atmosphere. So while carbon dioxide gas has a greenhouse warming potential of 1, methane, or natural gas, has a potential of 34. In a new study, a team of researchers have reported the discovery of a gas that has one of the highest greenhouse warming potentials ever seen: 7,100.
The gas, perfluorotributylamine, or PFTBA, says the Guardian, has been “in use by the electrical industry since the mid-20th century.” PFTBA is produced in or imported into the U.S. at scales higher than a million pounds per year. No one knows how much of it escapes to the atmosphere. Because it’s a complex chemical with no natural analogue, say the scientists in their study, there are no biological sinks out there in the world waiting to pull it out of the atmosphere, like trees do to carbon dioxide. They think that PFTBA probably hangs out in the air for at least 500 years, before it its broken down by chemical reactions in the upper atmosphere
PFTBA, say the scientists, is the most efficient greenhouse gas they’ve ever seen, on a molecule-by-molecule basis. But, because other greenhouse gases stay in the atmosphere longer, some, like sulfur hexafluoride, have higher greenhouse warming potentials.
The scientists say that if the concentration of perfluorotributylamine measured in Toronto, where they did their research, was the same all over the world (a pretty big assumption), then at its current levels the gas would be responsible for trapping 0.00015 watts of energy for every square meter of the planet. By comparison, carbon dioxide is responsible for 1.56 watts per square meter. But even if PFTBA isn’t evenly distributed all over the planet, it could still be an important factor contributing to local warming.
What this really means is that carbon dioxide, produced by burning fossil fuels and other activities, is definitely still the dominant driver of global warming. But, we need to take care to not get tunnel vision because, if we’re not careful, there are these other, newer gases that could cause just as much trouble at much lower concentrations.
More from Smithsonian.com:
December 6, 2013 12:18 pm
At the University of Bristol, climate scientist Dan Lunt decided to have a spot of fun. He wondered what the climate would look like in Middle Earth. The result? This report–which Lunt assures us he did for free, in his own time, and which turned the powerful tools of modern climate science on Tolkien’s fictional world.
“Because climate models are based on fundamental scientific understanding, they can be applied to many situations,” says Lunt in his report. “They are not designed solely for simulating the climate of the modern Earth, and, in theory, the same underlying science should apply to any time period in the past.”
Any period, sure, but also any place. With that in mind, Lunt turned to an advanced climate model designed by the United Kingdom’s Met Office, which he ran using the supercomputers housed at the University of Bristol’s Advanced Computing Research Centre.
With the model capable of simulating basic systems, like wind and rainfall patterns, and temperature or plant growth, all that as left was for Lunt to plug in the realm of Middle Earth—the peaks of the Misty Mountains, the rolling hills of the Shire. Unfortunately, with no detailed records of the astronomical procession of Arda, the planet of which Middle Earth is a part, Lunt had to fill in a few blanks, using Earthly values for the behavior of the Sun or the rotation rate of the planet.
Like in the real world, the weather followed familiar patterns, dictated by the shape of the land. Rain falls as air climbs up and over mountains, leaving deserts on the lee side. Colder weather grips the north, while the temperature climbs nearer the equator. “East of the Misty Mountains,” says Lunt, “the temperature decreases the further eastwards one travels. This is because, just as in the European regions of the Earth, the further from the ocean the greater the ‘seasonality’ – i.e. winters become colder and summers become warmer. But winters cool more than summers warm, and so the annual average temperatures in general decrease away from the ocean.”
With his model-calculated distributions of the rainfall and temperature in hand, Lunt had a question: “Where in Earth is most like a certain place in Middle Earth?”
Statistically comparing Middle Earth to Earth, he says, “eastern Europe has the greatest concentration of Shire-like climate, in particular Belarus.” In the U.K., the most Shire-like places are Lincolnshire and Leicestershire. Then, of course, parts of New Zealand also fit the bill.
There aren’t many Shire-like places in the U.S., unfortunately. But there is one place, one region of Middle Earth, that has an American analogue: “Los Angeles and western Texas,” he says, “are notable for being the most Mordor-like regions in the USA.”
More from Smithsonian.com:
November 29, 2013 12:20 pm
The 2013 hurricane season was supposed to be terrible. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration predicted between 13 and 20 named storms, up from 2012 when Isaac and Sandy hit the United States. But the season—which ends tomorrow—has been far more subdued than they thought. In fact, 2013′s hurricane season was the least active since 1982, and not a single hurricane made landfall in the United States.
The higher-than normal activity forecast by NOAA is based on three factors, all of which favor more, rather than fewer, tropical storms. The first is higher-than-normal sea-surface temperatures in the Atlantic, which supplies energy for tropical storms. The second is that hurricane activity has historically waxed and waned in cycles that last between 25 and 40 years. An active cycle began in 1995, which suggests we should expect more storms than average until 2020, at least. Finally, there’s no evidence of an El Nino event in the Pacific Ocean this summer; El Nino’s can strengthen upper-level winds across the tropical North Atlantic, which can tear hurricanes apart before they can gather strength.
But that didn’t happen. No hurricanes made landfall, and only two of the storms that formed in the Atlantic Basin became hurricanes. Andrew Freeman, also at Climate Central, explains why the predicted season didn’t happen:
Meteorologists have cited several reasons for suppressing Atlantic storms this year. Those inhibiting factors include an unusual abundance of dry, dusty air blowing off Africa’s Sahara Desert, an unusually stable atmosphere across the tropical North Atlantic, with broad regions of sinking air and above-average wind shear, which refers to winds blowing in different directions or at different speeds with height.
Of course, the rest of the world didn’t get off the hook quite as easily as we did. Super Typhoon Phailin hit India in September, and Super Typhoon Haiyan devastated the Philippines recently. But in the United States, the skies have been calmer than anybody predicted.
More from Smithsonian.com:
November 25, 2013 10:36 am
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change‘s Fifth Assessment Report, the latest in a series of comprehensive reviews of climate science, will be completed in 2014. These reports are dense and packed with science, so the IPCC put together this video, which boils down the highlights of the panel’s work in language anyone can understand. The aim: get people up to speed on what’s happening with the world’s climate.
If watching the nine minute video is too big an ask, however, here are the highlights:
- Humans are driving climate change.
- Many of the observed recent changes to the climate and planet are unprecedented, on the order of decades to millennia.
- Each of the past three decades has been warmer than all other decades since 1850, and the last 10 years have been the warmest on record.
- Carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere have increased by 40 percent since the Industrial Revolution.
- CO2 levels are higher now than they’ve been for the past 800,000 years.
- Sea level has risen by more than 7 inches between 1900 and 2010.
- Climate models are becoming ever more sophisticated and now can project future impacts on a regional rather than just global scale.
- Choices we make today will determine whether the climate warms by just 2 degrees Celsius or more than 4 degrees.
- The changes currently underway represent a “multi-century” commitment to a very different planet.
More from Smithsonian.com:
November 22, 2013 12:51 pm
In April of this year the Pew Research Center released a report saying that nearly half of Americans were fans of fracking, while the other half either didn’t like it or didn’t have an opinion on the matter. What’s interesting about this is that, according to a new study by the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication, most Americans, when asked, don’t even know what fracking is. Of the 1061 people the Yale project polled, only 9 percent said they knew “a lot” about fracking, 38 percent knew “some” or “a little” about it, while 39 percent people said they’d never heard of it. A super helpful 13 percent of the people didn’t know what they knew.
According to the Yale research, 58 percent of the people didn’t have an opinion on whether fracking is good or bad, while the rest were split down the middle as to whether they liked it or loathed it. Maybe the Pew team caught a particularly well-informed bunch, or maybe people just like to have opinions on things.
So for all the fakers out there, or for the people too shy to say anything, here we offer a (very) brief crash course on fracking, an introductory video by Philipp Dettmer that hits many of the major perks and pitfalls that the technology offers:
If you want to know more, Smithsonian Magazine has written a fair bit about the opportunities…
Thanks to the Gas Boom, America Is Producing More Fuel Than Russia Or Saudi Arabi
Is Shale the Answer to America’s Nuclear Waste Woes?
Where in the World Will the Fracking Boom Visit Next?
Two Companies Want to Frack the Slopes of a Volcano
…and hazards of fracking:
Researchers Find Fracking Might Cause Earthquakes After All
‘Fracking’ for Natural Gas Is Linked With Earthquakes
Oklahoma’s Biggest-Ever Earthquake Was Likely Man-Made
Radioactive Wastewater From Fracking Is Found in a Pennsylvania Stream
Live Closer to a Gas Well, And There’s Likely More Gas in Your Water