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Economy

AM Briefing: Blizzards, Floods, and Tornadoes

On the crazy winter storm, America's carbon emissions, and deep-sea mining

AM Briefing: Blizzards, Floods, and Tornadoes
Heatmap Illustration/Getty Images

Current conditions: A blizzard is slamming Turkey near Istanbul • Central and Southeast Asia are experiencing unusually high temperatures • Researchers confirmed 2023 was the hottest year ever recorded.

THE TOP FIVE

1. America’s carbon emissions fell for the first time since the pandemic

America’s greenhouse gas pollution from energy and industrial activities fell by 1.9% in 2023 compared to the year before, according to energy research firm the Rhodium Group. This marks the first time since the pandemic that carbon emissions have dropped. But perhaps more importantly, the reduction happened even as the broader American economy grew. “It’s the first time this decade that the United States has hit the important mark of growing its economy and cutting its climate pollution at the same time,” says Heatmap’s Robinson Meyer. Climate pollution from the power sector fell by 8% last year, a greater decline than in any other part of the economy, driven partly by the death of the coal industry, partly by an exceptionally warm winter. But there is still much work to be done: America must roughly triple its pace of pollution reductions to meet its Paris Agreement goal of cutting emissions in half by 2030. “Emissions cuts of that magnitude are probably not feasible,” Meyer says.

2. Another dangerous winter storm is on the way

More than 400,000 customers are without power this morning as massive winter storm systems sweep across the country. To the east, a surface cyclone dropped torrents of rain and left more than 6 million people under flood warnings. Streets were submerged in cities along the East Coast, including Annapolis and Baltimore, Maryland; and Alexandria, Virginia. By early evening on Tuesday, the daily rain record for Washington, D.C., had been broken. The rain has tapered off but as National Weather Service meteorologist Patrick Wilson told The New York Times: “The worst time for flooding is right after the rain stops.”

Weather advisories as of early morning January 10NWS and NOAA

The storm is also blasting states with strong wind gusts, and at least 15 tornadoes were reported in the South. More than a foot of snow fell in parts of the Central Plains. On the West Coast, a blizzard warning was issued for the Cascade and Olympic mountains – the first such warning in over a decade. That storm system will make its way east and is expected to “intensify explosively” by the weekend, bringing blizzard conditions to the Midwest, severe storms to the South, and more flooding to the East Coast. The cold snap will linger into next week.

Temperature predictions for the weekendNWS and NOAA

Scientists say climate change is supercharging winter storms. Dr. Jennifer Francis, a senior scientist with the Woodwell Climate Research Center, explained to the Union of Concerned Scientists last year that warmer temperatures give weather systems “more fuel to work with in the form of water vapor and heat, more moisture, and as a result, these storms are dumping more precipitation.”

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  • 3. Climate chaos dominates WEF Global Risks Report

    The World Economic Forum (WEF) released its 2024 Global Risks Report today, outlining the biggest risks the world faces in the long and short term. While last year’s report focused largely on economic risks like inflation, the WEF says the top risks for the next two years are misinformation and extreme weather events. Looking a bit further into the future, over the next 10 years climate change and environmental issues account for half of the 10 top global risks, as nations are unprepared for the “triggering of long-term, potentially irreversible and self-perpetuating changes to select planetary systems [which] could be passed at or before 1.5C of global warming, currently anticipated to be reached by the early 2030s.” The report is the result of a survey of more than 1,400 global experts across government, business, and academia. The annual WEF meeting in Davos kicks off next week.

    Global risks, rankedWEF

    4. Norway greenlights deep-sea mining

    Norway’s parliament voted to allow deep-sea mining in its Arctic waters, a move that “paves the way for a new frontier in mining,” writes Adam Vaughan at the Times of London. Demand for critical minerals that help power many of our technologies – including wind turbines and electric cars – is expected to grow more than three times by 2030, and companies have been eyeing the seabed as a source. Some suggest seabed extraction could be less environmentally harmful than traditional mineral mining, but environmentalists worry it could destroy delicate ecosystems. More than 20 countries recently backed a moratorium on deep-sea mining.

    5. Study calculates climate impact of Gaza conflict

    The conflict between Israel and Hamas in Gaza is generating large amounts of greenhouse gas emissions, according to a recent study. The research finds that, in the first 60 days of the war, the emissions footprint of Israel’s military response – including pollution from military vehicles, exploding bombs and rockets, and aircraft missions – was “roughly the equivalent of 75 coal-fired power plants operating for a year.” The study has yet to be peer reviewed. However it is the first attempt to quantify the conflict's climate impact, The Guardian reports.

    THE KICKER

    2023 was the first year in which every single day was at least 1 degree Celsius hotter than the pre-industrial average.

    Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect the fact that Norway is not the first country to approve commercial deep-sea mining. We regret the error.

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    Jessica  Hullinger profile image

    Jessica Hullinger

    Jessica Hullinger is a freelance writer and editor who likes to think deeply about climate science and sustainability. She previously served as Global Deputy Editor for The Week, and her writing has been featured in publications including Fast Company, Popular Science, and Fortune. Jessica is originally from Indiana but lives in London.

    Technology

    AM Briefing: TerraPower Breaks Ground

    On Bill Gates’ advanced nuclear reactor, solar geoengineering, and FEMA

    TerraPower Just Broke Ground on Its Next-Gen Nuclear Project
    Heatmap Illustration/Getty Images

    Current conditions: Heavy rains in China are boosting the country’s hydropower output • Late-season frost advisories are in place for parts of Michigan • It will be 80 degrees Fahrenheit and cloudy today near the Port of Baltimore, which has officially reopened after 11 weeks of closure.

    THE TOP FIVE

    1. Bill Gates’ TerraPower breaks ground on next-gen nuclear project

    TerraPower, the energy company founded by Bill Gates, broke ground yesterday on a next-generation nuclear power plant in Wyoming that will use an advanced nuclear reactor. As Heatmap’s Emily Pontecorvo and Matthew Zeitlin explained, these reactors are smaller and promise to be cheaper to build than America’s existing light-water nuclear reactor fleet. The design “would be a landmark for the American nuclear industry” because it calls for cooling with liquid sodium instead of the standard water-cooling of American nuclear plants. “This technique promises eventual lower construction costs because it requires less pressure than water (meaning less need for expensive safety systems) and can also store heat, turning the reactor into both a generator and an energy storage system.” TerraPower is still waiting for its construction permit to be approved by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, and TheAssociated Press reported the work that began yesterday is just to get the site ready for speedy construction if the permit goes through.

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    Donald Trump snapping a wind turbine.
    Heatmap Illustration/Getty Images

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