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Menopausal Mother Nature

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Global ‘Stilling’: If you feel the wind is coming to a halt, climate change may be behind it

Parts of Europe have reported a ‘wind drought’, as wind speed in many places slowed about 15 per cent below the annual average or even more. Researchers suspect a global ‘stilling’ is at play — wind speed slacking as global temperatures go up. 

2021’s summer-fall was one of the least windy periods in the United Kingdom in the past 60 years, a report in an American online magazine Yale Environment 360 said. This had dramatic effects on power generation. 

Wind farms produced 18 per cent of the UK’s power in September of 2020, but in September of 2021, that percentage plummeted to only two per cent. The UK was forced to restart two non-operational coal plants to make up the energy gap.


Read more: Overshadowed: Will wind power lose out to solar energy in India


The recent declines in surface winds over Europe renewed concerns about a ‘global terrestrial stilling’ linked with climate change. However, there have been conflicting reports and data on this. 

Annual wind speeds dropped by 5-15 per cent in large parts of Europe, central Asia, eastern Asia and North America, a 2010 study published in Nature journal found. The most pronounced effect was seen across Eurasia. 

Global mean annual wind speed decreased significantly at a rate of 2.3 per cent per decade during the first three decades, beginning from 1978, the analysis showed. 

In 2019, though, a group of researchers found that after 2010, global average wind speeds had actually increased — from 7 miles per hour to 7.4 miles per hour. However, it also indicated speedier winds over a nine-year period, contrary to last summer in the UK. 

Despite conflicting data, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) forecast slowing winds for the coming decades. Average annual wind speeds could drop by up to 10 per cent by 2100, according to IPCC. 

Along with global warming, another factor behind stilling may be ‘surface roughness’ — an uptick in the number and size of urban buildings that drag on winds.

The wind has been an overlooked element of climate change studies, which helps explain why the debate over these trends continues, explained the report. 

“It seems likely that the movement of the westerlies towards the poles observed in the modern era will continue with further human-induced warming,” Gisela Winckler, a researcher at Columbia University’s Lamont Doherty Earth Observatory. Westerlies are the prevailing mid-latitude winds that blow from west to east. 

Winckler was the author of a 2021 study that looked into the behaviour of winds by examining where and how much dust settled on earth during the Pliocene era. The era from 5.33 million to 2.58 million years ago had temperatures and carbon dioxide levels similar to what they are today. 

Her models indicate “that the winds [will be] weaker and stiller.”

Europe is all in on wind power as an alternative to coal and other fossil fuels, the report pointed out. About a fourth of the UK’s energy is from offshore wind turbines and the European Union gets about 15 per cent of its electricity from wind.

Wind farms provide nearly 10 per cent of utility-scale electricity generation in the United States. By 2050 the amount of power produced is projected to nearly quadruple. But if wind speeds diminish, it could be harder to reach that goal, the report said. 


Read more: Why climate negotiators should look at wind energy prospects


By 2100, wind speeds will decrease over most of the western US and the East Coast, but the central US will increase. Several other studies predict similar variability — both regional and seasonal — worldwide, according to the report. 

“The recent wind drought is a clear reminder of how variable this form of generation can be,” Hannah Bloomfield wrote last year in The Conversation, “and it cannot be the sole investment for a reliable future energy grid.” Bloomfield is a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Bristol who studies wind and wind energy. 

While stilling has occurred in some parts of the world, the report also noted wind is blowing more fiercely — and more often — than ever before. Earlier this year in central New Mexico, for example, wildland firefighters, ranchers, and others described wind events as unprecedented.

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