Friday, April 18, 2014

More, bigger wildfires burning western US, study shows

A press release from the American Geophysical Union: Wildfires across the western United States have been getting bigger and more frequent over the last 30 years – a trend that could continue as climate change causes temperatures to rise and drought to become more severe in the coming decades, according to new research.

The number of wildfires over 1,000 acres in size in the region stretching from Nebraska to California increased by a rate of seven fires a year from 1984 to 2011, according to a new study accepted for publication in Geophysical Research Letters, a journal published by the American Geophysical Union.

The total area these fires burned increased at a rate of nearly 90,000 acres a year – an area the size of Las Vegas, according to the study. Individually, the largest wildfires grew at a rate of 350 acres a year, the new research says.

“We looked at the probability that increases of this magnitude could be random, and in each case it was less than one percent,” said Philip Dennison, an associate professor of geography at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City and lead author of the paper.

The study’s authors used satellite data to measure areas burned by large fires since 1984, and then looked at climate variables, like seasonal temperature and rainfall, during the same time. The researchers found that most areas that saw increases in fire activity also experienced increases in drought severity during the same time period. They also saw an increase in both fire activity and drought over a range of different ecosystems across the region.

“Twenty eight years is a pretty short period of record, and yet we are seeing statistically significant trends in different wildfire variables—it is striking,” said Max Moritz, a co-author of the study and a fire specialist at the University of California-Berkeley Cooperative Extension.

These trends suggest that large-scale climate changes, rather than local factors, could be driving increases in fire activity, the scientists report. The study stops short of linking the rise in number and size of fires directly to human-caused climate change. However, it says the observed changes in fire activity are in line with long-term, global fire patterns that climate models have projected will occur as temperatures increase and droughts become more severe in the coming decades due to global warming....

The 2009 Station Fire in the San Gabriel Mountains, above La Cañada Flintridge in Los Angeles County, California. Shot by mbtrama, Wikimedia Commons via Flickr, under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license 

One fifth of China's farmland polluted

Jennifer Duggan in the Guardian (UK): A fifth of China's farmland is polluted, according to an offical report based on the results of an extensive survey. Soil pollution has long been a concern in China due to the country's rapid industrialisation and the report carried on the website of the Ministry of Environmental Protection confirms the extent of the problem. The report states that pollutants in more than 16% of Chinese soil exceeds national standards and that figure rises to 20% for arable land.

It describes the situation as "not optimistic" and said said that the quality of farmland is worrying while deserted industrial and mining land is seriously polluted. The main causes of soil pollution are industry and agriculture, according to the report. Cadmium, nickel and arsenic are the top three pollutants found.

The survey was carried out over seven years, ending in December 2013 and covered around 630 square kilometers of land across the country. According to state media, the survey took around 100,000 samples. Almost 70% of the samples were found to be "lightly polluted" with pollution levels twice the national standard. Around 7% were found to be "heavily polluted" with levels more than five times the national standard.

Most of the affected farmland lies along the eastern coast which is the most developed region and home to much of the country's heavy industry. Heavy metal pollution was particularly bad in the southwest of the country, the report found....

A farm in China, shot by Laika ac, Wikimedia Commons via Flickr, under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license

India's worsening water crisis

Ram Mashru in the Diplomat: In northern India, groundwater supplies are being depleted faster than natural processes can replenish them. According to The World Bank, India is the largest user of ground water in the world, after China. If something is not done soon, an estimated 114 million Indians will soon face desperate domestic, agricultural and industrial shortages.

What is causing this? “Human activities”: primarily wasteful water use (mainly agricultural over-exploitation), a lack of sustainable water-management policies and insufficient public investment. These failings have each been exacerbated by rapid population growth, increasing population density and climate change.

South Asia is a desperately water-insecure region, and India’s shortages are part of a wider continental crisis. According to a recent report authored by UN climate scientists, coastal areas in Asia will be among the worst affected by climate change. Hundreds of millions of people across East, Southeast and South Asia, the report concluded, will be affected by flooding, droughts, famine, increases in the costs of food and energy, and rising sea levels.

Groundwater serves as a vital buffer against the volatility of monsoon rains, and India’s falling water table therefore threatens catastrophe. 60 percent of north India’s irrigated agriculture is dependent on ground water, as is 85 percent of the region’s drinking water. The World Bank predicts that India only has 20 years before its aquifers will reach “critical condition” – when demand for water will outstrip supply – an eventuality that will devastate the region’s food security, economic growth and livelihoods....

Detail of Chand Baori, a step well in Abhaneri, Rajasthan, India, shot by rajkumar1220, Wikimedia Commons via Flickr, under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license 

Illegal logging widespread in Peru

Terra Daily via AFP: A 14-year-old policy to encourage sustainable logging in Peru's Amazonian forest has unwittingly led to large-scale plundering, a study said Thursday. In a paper published in Scientific Reports, researchers said illegal logging was a "plague" on the Amazon watershed -- a haven of biodiversity and precious hardwood species such as mahogany and cedar.

"Much of the timber coming out of the Peruvian Amazon is sourced outside of authorised concession areas," the researchers wrote. A team led by Matt Finer of the Center for International Environmental Law in Washington trawled through data kept by agencies meant to enforce Peru's 2000 Forest and Wildlife Law.

The legislation empowers the government to award concessions for up to 40 years on public land between 4,000 and 50,000 hectares (10,000 and 125,000 acres). These contracts come hedged with conditions: loggers must submit a five-year harvesting strategy, including a highly detailed, year-by-year plan that identifies each individual tree to be cut, with Global Positioning System (GPS) coordinates.

Finer's team found that by September 2013, the authorities had scrutinised 388 of the 609 logging concessions. More than 68 percent of the 388 were found either to have committed "major violations", or were suspected of it....

Bamboo and ferns in in the Peruvian Amazon, shot by Tadd and Debbie Ottman, Wikimedia Commons via Flickr, under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license 

Invasive species 'hitchhiking' on water sports kit

A press release from the University of Leeds: Foreign species that are devastating water ecosystems could be “hitchhiking” around Britain on canoeists’ and anglers’ kit, according to a new study. Invaders like the killer shrimp, zebra mussel and American signal crayfish have already caused extensive environmental damage and millions of pounds of economic costs.

The new research, led by the University of Leeds and the Centre for Environment Fisheries and Aquaculture Science (Cefas), found that the cleaning habits of anglers and canoeists could be a key part of the problem. The study, based on a survey of more than 1,500 water sports enthusiasts across the UK, found that 64% of anglers and 79% of canoeists used their equipment in more than one waterway in a fortnight.

A significant proportion of those people (12% of anglers and 50% of canoeists) said they did not clean or dry their kit before moving to the new waters. Dr Alison Dunn, Reader in Evolutionary Ecology in the University of Leeds’ Faculty of Biological Sciences, who led the Leeds group, said:  “This is really alarming because some of the most dangerous invasive species can easily survive in damp equipment.

...Co-author Dr Paul Stebbing of Cefas said: “The killer shrimp is not the only invader capable of ’hitchhiking’ into new ecosystems on water sports equipment. The signal crayfish, which has been laying waste to native white-clawed crayfish populations, persists between three and seven days. Some invasive viruses and diseases can survive well over a month.”

...The “Check, Clean, Dry” campaign asks water sports participants to:

  • Check all gear and clothing for live organisms, particularly in areas that are hard to inspect. 
  • Clean and wash all clothing, footwear and equipment properly. 
  • Dry all equipment thoroughly as many species can live for many days in moist conditions....
Angling near Kesh, shot by Kenneth Allen, Wikimedia Commons via Geograph UK, under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Groundbreaking nationwide study finds that people of color live in neighborhoods with more air pollution than whites

A press release from the University of Minnesota: A first-of-its-kind study by researchers at the University of Minnesota found that on average nationally, people of color are exposed to 38 percent higher levels of nitrogen dioxide (NO2) outdoor air pollution compared to white people.

Nitrogen dioxide comes from sources like vehicle exhaust and power plants. Breathing NO2 is linked to asthma symptoms and heart disease. The Environmental Protection Agency has listed it as one of the seven key air pollutants it monitors. The researchers studied NO2 levels in urban areas across the country and compared specific areas within the cities based on populations defined in the U.S. Census as “nonwhite” or “white.”

The health impacts from the difference in levels between whites and nonwhites found in the study are substantial. For example, researchers estimate that if nonwhites breathed the lower NO2 levels experienced by whites, it would prevent 7,000 deaths from heart disease alone among nonwhites each year.

The study entitled “National patterns in environmental injustice and inequality: Outdoor NO2 air pollution in the United States” was published in the April 15 issue of PLOS ONE, a leading peer-reviewed scientific journal.

“We were quite shocked to find such a large disparity between whites and nonwhites related to air pollution,” said Julian Marshall, a civil engineering associate professor in the University of Minnesota’s College of Science and Engineering and co-author of the study. “Our study provides a great baseline to track over time on important issues of environmental injustice and inequality in our country.”...

An aerial view of Harlem and the Harlem River, New York City, shot by Gryffindor, Wikimedia Commons,  under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Canadian economy will lose billions to climate change

Kim Nursall in the Toronto Star:   A new report on the financial implications of climate change notes that while natural catastrophes are estimated to cost Canadians $21-$43 billion per year by 2050, popular economic measures like GDP fail to capture the escalation, discouraging preventative investment.

The TD report follows a recent and alarming warning by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change that governments are ill-prepared for a warming world. If action is not immediately taken, the UN report projected risks could become unmanageable.

Monday’s report detailed the Canadian perspective on increasingly frequent natural catastrophes — the average number per year has doubled over the past three decades — and how by 2020 they will sap an estimated $5 billion from the economy.

“The reality is that the frequency of weather events has increased,” said lead author and TD economist Craig Alexander. “Storms that used to occur every forty years are now occurring every six years. And because of the composition of Canadian economy and society, we’re ending up with more damaging events.”

Although increased frequency is one reason that natural disasters are leading to higher costs, Alexander explained that as Canada’s economy becomes more prosperous, and more and more people move to cities, there’s that much more to lose if a severe weather event strikes....

Riverfront Avenue in Calgary during the 2013 flooding, shot by Ryan L. C. Quan, Wikimedia Commons, under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license

Building better soybeans for a hot, dry, hungry world

NASA: A new study shows that soybean plants can be redesigned to increase crop yields while requiring less water and helping to offset greenhouse gas warming. The study is the first to demonstrate that a major food crop can be modified to meet multiple goals at the same time.

The study, led by Darren Drewry of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif., used an advanced vegetation model and high-performance computer optimization techniques. It found that by redesigning soybean plants in various ways, it was possible to increase soybean productivity by seven percent without using more water. Soybean plants also could be redesigned either to use 13 percent less water or to reflect 34 percent more light back to space without a loss of crop yield. The research was funded by the National Science Foundation with support from JPL and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

"My intuition would have told me that some of these goals are mutually exclusive -- that there is a fundamental tradeoff between increasing productivity and conserving water," said Drewry. "We are now able to say that there actually is a combination of traits that will make progress toward all of these goals simultaneously." The study by Drewry and coauthors Praveen Kumar and Stephen Long (both of the University of Illinois) was published April 4 in the journal Global Change Biology.

The research comes at a time when global food security is threatened by population growth and climate change. The United Nations estimates that food production will need to increase 70 percent by 2050 to meet the world's food needs. Today, yields of major crops are increasing slowly or not at all. Soybeans are the world's most important protein crop...

USDA photo of soybean seeds

Rising activist deaths are a symptom of our global environmental crisis

Oliver Courtney in the Guardian (UK): This week the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) confirmed what 99.9% of those who work on environmental issues already knew: we need to change something pretty drastic if we want to avoid a rise in temperature of less than 2C.

...That same message comes through strongly in the research by Global Witness that identifies a significant recent upturn in killings of the very people who are protecting the environment and land rights.

...Huge deals for land, forests and other natural resources continue to be done behind closed doors, without sufficiently considering the social or environmental costs or consulting those who live on the land. When they resist, local communities and indigenous people are branded "anti-development" and bulldozed out of the way, often with the help of the authorities who are meant to protect them.

Ironically, such communities typically practise a better and more sustainable approach to development. Those responsible for their persecution enjoy almost total impunity, while monitoring of threats to this particularly vulnerable group is almost non-existent.

We can trace this problem back to the same forces that lie behind climate change – soaring consumption in the rich world is driving us far beyond the planet's natural boundaries. Things like forests and land are finite, but we are liquidating them faster than ever, generally for the short-term gain of a few vested interests, and at massive cost to the rest of us....

A public domain image of environmental activists, by Lorédan

Coastal homeowners in the UK should prepare for the worst as climate change brings worse weather

The Western Daily Press (UK): The Inter-Governmental Panel on Climate Change has just reported on the future risks of climate change. Richard Bagwell looks at how the issue may affect coastal property owners Climate change modelling suggests we should expect more extreme weather events, including the devastating coastal flooding we have recently witnessed.

The Environment Agency states that more than 5.5 million, or one in six, properties are at risk of flooding across England and Wales. The latest UKCP09 climate change projections indicate rising sea levels, while increasingly severe and frequent rainstorms mean risk of floods will increase.

For coastal property of any description, flood defences will be increasingly important, as will plans for managed retreats that have been announced in some parts of the country. The legislative framework, including the Water Resources Act 1991, the Land Drainage Act 1991 and the Coastal Protection Act 1949, was updated by the Flood and Water Management Act 2010 and associated regulations.

The Flood and Water Management Act 2010 required the Environment Agency to "develop, maintain, apply and monitor a strategy for flood and coastal erosion risk management in England".

This strategy document describes what needs to be done by all organisations involved in flood and coastal erosion risk management, including councils, internal drainage boards, coastal protection authorities, water and sewerage companies, highways authorities, and the Environment Agency...

Watching the coast in Lyme Regis, shot by Wissekerke, Wikimedia Commons,  under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license 

Amazon rain forest's biggest enemies are fire and climate change

James Maynard in Tech Times: The Amazon rain forest is facing dangers from climate change and droughts, which are leading to frequent wildfires in the ecosystem.  Fires are normally rare in the rain forest, due to thick tree cover that keeps the ground cool and wet.

Deforestation and climate change are combining to create "tinderbox" conditions in many areas of the Amazon, according to researchers from Penn State University. The ecosystem may reach a "tipping point" where fires create enough damage to make recovery difficult, new research reveals.

"We documented one of the highest tree mortality rates witnessed in Amazon forests. Over the course of our experiment, 60 percent of the trees died with combined drought and repeated fire. Our results suggest that a perfect firestorm, caused by drought conditions and previous fire disturbance, crossed a threshold in forest resistance," Jennifer Balch, an assistant geography professor at Penn State who led the study, said.

Over eight years, researchers set fire to plots of the Amazon rain forest, each of which was nearly 125 acres in size. By studying deaths of the trees, investigators were able to study how drought affects both the intensity of fire and tree mortality. The southeast area of the Amazon, where the experiment was performed, is especially vulnerable to climate change, according to the study.

The period of time during which the research was conducted included 2007, during which there was a severe drought in southeastern regions of the Amazonian rain forest. That year, fires destroyed 10 times more forest than in an average year, according to Douglas Morton at NASA. That amounts to an area the size of a million soccer fields....

Fires along the Xingu River, viewed by NASA

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Long-term predictions for Miami sea level rise could be available relatively soon

A press release from the National Science Foundation: Miami could know as early as 2020 how high sea levels will rise into the next century, according to a team of researchers including Florida International University scientist Rene Price.

Price is also affiliated with the National Science Foundation's (NSF) Florida Coastal Everglades Long-Term Ecological Research (LTER) site, one of 25 such NSF LTER sites in ecosystems from coral reefs to deserts, mountains to salt marshes around the world.

Scientists conclude that sea level rise is one of the most certain consequences of climate change. But the speed and long-term height of that rise are unknown. Some researchers believe that sea level rise is accelerating, some suggest the rate is holding steady, while others say it's decelerating.

With long-term data showing that global sea levels are steadily rising at 2.8 millimeters per year, and climate models indicating that the rate could accelerate over time, Price posed a question to colleagues: How soon will Miami residents know what sea levels will be in the year 2100?

"In Miami, we're at the forefront of sea level rise," Price says. "With the uncertainty in what we currently know, I was looking for information that could help us plan better for the long-term."

Price and a team of international researchers set out to answer the question. They analyzed data from 10 sea level monitoring stations throughout the world. They looked into the future by analyzing the past....

A FEMA image of a 2000 flood in Miami

Making dams safer for fish around the world

Tom Rickey at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory: Think of the pressure change you feel when an elevator zips you up multiple floors in a tall building. Imagine how you'd feel if that elevator carried you all the way up to the top of Mt. Everest — in the blink of an eye. That's similar to what many fish experience when they travel through the turbulent waters near a dam. For some, the change in pressure is simply too big, too fast, and they die or are seriously injured.

In an article in the March issue of the journal Fisheries, ecologists from the Department of Energy's Pacific Northwest National Laboratory and colleagues from around the world explore ways to protect fish from the phenomenon, known as barotrauma.

Among the findings: Modifying turbines to minimize dramatic shifts in pressure offers an important way to keep fish safe when passing through dams. The research is part of a promising body of work that aims to reduce such injuries by improving turbine designs in dams around the world.

PNNL researchers are working with officials and scientists from Laos, Brazil, and Australia — areas where hydropower is booming — to apply lessons learned from experience in the Pacific Northwest, where salmon is king and water provides about two-thirds of the region's power. There, billions of dollars have been spent since 1950 to save salmon endangered largely by the environmental impact of hydropower.

"Hydropower is a tremendous resource, often available in areas far from other sources of power, and critical to the future of many people around the globe," said Richard Brown, a senior research scientist at PNNL and the lead author of the Fisheries paper. "We want to help minimize the risk to fish while making it possible to bring power to schools, hospitals, and areas that desperately need it," added Brown....

A sluice at Brazil's Itaipu Dam, shot by Herr stahlhoefer, public domain

Chronic malnutrition harms Côte d’Ivoire’s north

IRIN: Forty percent of Ivoirian children in the northern region are chronically malnourished, the country’s highest rate, which has not fallen for the past six years. The effects of a drawn-out conflict, desertion by aid groups and inadequate medical staff have contributed to the situation. Food scarcity here is often due to harsh weather and high food costs.

The average rate of chronic malnutrition nationally is not much lower though, at 30 percent. Côte d’Ivoire’s northern region is mostly arid and on the fringes of the Sahel. Malnutrition levels here compare to Niger’s 40 percent and are slightly higher than Burkina Faso’s 34 percent.

The 2002-2009 political turmoil that split Côte d’Ivoire into rebel-held north and government-controlled south devastated public services in the in the north. Under rebel rule, private firms also fled, while the economy tumbled and insecurity rose. The region was, however, spared much of the violence sparked by the 2010 election dispute.

“The crisis significantly weakened the already precarious food security levels in this part of the country. Population displacements disrupted agricultural activities from 2002 to 2005,” said Bernard Kouamé, a nutrition expert based in the commercial capital Abidjan.

“Health infrastructure was degraded. The absence of health personnel for months on end and the fracturing of the health system greatly affected access to health services. The country has not totally recovered from these problems,” he said....

Deforestation of Central America rises as Mexico's war on drugs moves south

Frederic Saliba in the Guardian (UK): According to Kendra McSweeney: "Drug trafficking is causing an ecological disaster in Central America." McSweeney, a geographer at Ohio State University, is the co-author of a recent report on the little-known phenomenon of "narco-deforestation" that is destroying huge tracts of rainforest that are already under threat from other quarters.

Viewed from the air, the tropical forests of Honduras, Guatemala and Nicaragua are scarred with landing strips and roads built illegally by the narco-traffickers for transporting drugs to the US, the leading world market. "These protected ecological zones have become the hub for South American cocaine," according to McSweeney, who stresses that the annual deforestation rate in Honduras more than quadrupled between 2007 and 2011, a boom-period for drug trafficking. In 2011 alone, 183 sq km of forest was destroyed in the east of the country, including in the Río Plátano Biosphere Reserve, an endangered Unesco world heritage site. This was in addition to the pre-existing problem of forest destruction due to illegal logging.

The wave of devastation has been moving south down the American continent, as drug crackdowns have taken force in Mexico. This is known as the efecto cucaracha, or cockroach effect, with reference to the survival instinct this creature has of seeking refuge next door as soon as it has been of chased out of one house. In the Laguna del Tigre national park in north-east Guatemala, deforestation has increased by between 5% and 10% in the past seven years. That coincides with the war against drug trafficking launched at the end of 2006 by the former Mexican president Felipe Calderón (2006-2012), with backing from the US.

Take the powerful Sinaloa cartel. When it was headed by Joaquin Guzmán, alias El Chapo, before his arrest on 22 February, the Mexican mafia extended its influence in Central America via local gangs. For McSweeney: "Narco-deforestation enables cartels to occupy territory to the detriment of their competitors. If that continues, the entire Mesoamerican [Central American] biological corridor, which stretches from Panama to Mexico, will be affected by tree felling."...

Burned jungle in Mexico, shot by Jami Dwyer, public domain

Ho Chi Minh Declaration dodges Mekong dams dispute: rivers group

Medilyn Manibo in Eco-Business: Non-profit group International Rivers expressed disappointment over the unresolved dispute concerning the proposed dams on the Mekong River at the second Mekong River Commission (MRC) Summit held recently in Vietnam.

International Rivers, which works with an international network of organisa
tions that aim to protect rivers and local communities against unsustainable management, said that the actions and statements of government leaders in the region did not clearly denounce the current rush of dams being built along the mainstream portion of the lower Mekong river.

Ame Trandem, the environmental group’s Southeast Asia programme director, explained how the on-going construction of dams pursued by the Lao government poses a threat to local communities and their livelihood.

Government leaders from Cambodia, Lao People’s Democratic Republic (Lao PDR), Thailand and Vietnam presented the Ho Chi Minh Declaration as the outcome of the summit, which concluded on April 5. The declaration set new priorities for the MRC, an intergovernmental body that facilitates regional cooperation agreements between the four member countries.

The actions proposed in this document include expediting the implementation of MRC’s basin-wide studies to reduce negative impacts of development projects in the river, including hydropower, as well as prioritising initiatives on battling the effects of natural disasters and the impact of climate change and rising sea level on the river basin...

Khon Phapheng Falls on the Mekong River in Laos, shot by Rup11, Wikimedia Commons, under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported2.5 Generic2.0 Generic and 1.0 Generic license

Monday, April 14, 2014

New disaster risk reduction strategies needed rather than “rearranging deckchairs on Titanic”

Stella Dawson at the Thomson Reuters Foundation: Countries must develop new strategies for preventing damage from natural disasters and invest in rapid-response systems so that they can bounce back quickly after catastrophe hits, development officials and policymakers said.

The number of natural disasters has doubled in the last 30 years, economic costs have quadrupled in size, and low-income countries and small islands are at risk of having their entire economy wiped if disaster hits, according to the World Bank.

Without a new strategy, the number of lives lost and the economic costs will escalate at an even faster rate, officials said.  For instance by 2050, 1.5 billion people will live in cities exposed to major storms and earthquakes, double the number today. “We must make this part of a comprehensive policy to be prepared for tougher weather and more natural disasters that are coming out of climate change in the years ahead,” Borge Brende, foreign affairs minister for Norway, during World Bank spring meetings, which wrapped here in Washington this weekend.

“We are doing too much rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic rather than dealing with what will be hitting us,” he said.

For every $100 spent today on official development aid, only 40 cents goes to disaster prevention and preparedness, a sum that is clearly inadequate given the increasing frequency of natural disasters, according to Rachel Kyte, special envoy for climate change at the World Bank.

The damage is getting worse. The World Bank says 2011 was the costliest year on record for disasters at $380 billion, and between 1980 and 2011 over 70 percent of disaster-related losses were weather related....

A feral goat grazing in the Valley of Rocks in the UK, shot by Mark Robinson, Wikimedia Commons via Flickr,  under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license 

Cyclone warning lifted on Australia's Barrier Reef coast

Terra Daily via AFP: Cyclone Ita rolled out into the Coral Sea on Monday leaving thousands of homes without power and floods down Australia's Barrier Reef coast, officials said, as danger warnings were lifted. Downgraded from a category four to a category one storm after making landfall late Friday, Ita swept off the coast with gales and torrential rain trailing in its wake.

Electricity was slowly being restored to some 16,000 homes that were cut off while floods closed local roads, emergency officials said. No deaths or major destruction were reported. The Bureau of Meteorology lifted the last cyclone warning south of Mackay and north of Rockhampton on Monday morning and Ita was expected to be further downgraded to a low pressure system during the day.

"Tropical Cyclone Ita is expected to maintain a southeast track as it moves offshore away from the Queensland coast," the latest bulletin said.

Further north in Cooktown, which bore the brunt of the storm, water was rationed to drinking and "minimal" sanitation only, with severe shortages due to storm damage.

Queensland premier Campbell Newman inspected the damage in Cooktown on Sunday, where four buildings were destroyed and another 50 were damaged by the storm. Banana plantations in the region were flattened....

On April 11, 2014, Ita was a Severe Tropical Storm. Via NASA

REDD+ and a green economy are inseparable – but concerns for equity remain

Angela Dewan in Landscapes: The world is transitioning to a green economy, but the many synergies between greater sustainability and the forest-focused REDD+ mechanism are underutilized, according to a recent United Nations report.

Countries with tropical forests have for years been preparing for a full-scale implementation of REDD+, and can offer a wealth of knowledge and lessons learned for the broad shift towards a green economy, according to the report.

“If designed well, REDD+ can thereby contribute to the key elements of a green economy: low-carbon development, social inclusiveness, increased human well-being and respect for natural capital,” says the report, “Building Natural Capital: How REDD+ Can Support a Green Economy” by the UN Environment Program’s International Resource Panel.

The relationship works in both ways — REDD+ is only likely to flourish in a world dedicated to greening the global economy, the report says, as many policies targeted at sustainability could be conducive to REDD+ implementation.

Jeff McNeely, chief author of the report, says that to avoid the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s dire projections of global warming and its effects on the economy, “the transition to sustainability must be accelerated, not postponed.  REDD+ is one indication of what can be done,” he says...

A small bridge in a tropical forest, shot by Steve Hillibrand, US Fish and Wildlife Service 

Climate change adaptation tool helps predict disease risk

The Poultry Site: A tool to calculate the risk of food and waterborne diseases under current or future climate change conditions has been established following a recent EU funded study. Free to use, the online tool can help guide climate change adaptation, such as improvements to water management, by estimating the likelihood of contracting four diseases under a range of environmental conditions.

It is known that climate affects health, for example, excess rainfall can cause sewage overflow, leading to outbreaks of waterborne disease, and higher temperatures can influence disease incidence by either encouraging or restricting pathogen reproduction, depending on the species.

Concerns have therefore been raised about the impacts of climate change on public health. In response to a World Health Organization call for new decision-support tools to assess climate change’s potential health impacts, the authors of this EU-funded study,A Decision Support Tool to Compare Waterborne and Foodborne Infection and/or Illness Risks Associated with Climate Change, J Schijven, M Bouwknegt, A M de Roda Husman et al developed a software package to assess the risk from climate change (CC-QMRA: Climate Change Quantitative Microbial Risk Assessment).

This study was funded by the European Centre of Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC), an agency of the EU. It estimates the risk of infection by norovirus, Cryptosporidium, and Campylobacter and non-cholera Vibrio species, which can all cause gastroenteritis....

Feeding chickens in Hungary, shot by Civertan, Wikimedia Commons, under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license 

Heavy rains render 500 families homeless in Malawi

AllAfrica.com via the Malawi News Agency: About 489 families in Nkhata Bay District have been rendered homeless following damage of their houses due to heavy rains which have been falling for the past four days.

The district's Assistant District Disaster Risk Management Officer (ADDRIMO), Oswel Mkandawire, said four traditional authorities have been badly affected, especially those along Limphasa and Lweya rivers which were flooded due to prolonged rains.

"In TA Timbiri, we have recorded 117 homeless families while in TA Fukamalaza 30 families have been affected. In Senior Chief Mkumbira 208 houses have been damaged," Mkandawire explained, adding that 134 families in TA Mankhambira are also homeless following damage of their houses. Meanwhile, 47 families are camping at Chikale Primary School after their houses completely got damaged.

Statistics relating to crop damage were not available as Mkandawire's office and that of Agriculture had not done assessment due to high water levels in the affected areas. "We are yet to assess crops that have been damaged because we are waiting for the water level to be low so that the assessment can be carried out smoothly," Mkandawire said.

He has since appealed to individuals, companies and other well wishers to come in and assist the victims. On her part, Village Headwoman Timbiri, whose area has been seriously affected, said all the crops they were expecting to harvest in few weeks to come, have been damaged and washed away by the heavy rains....

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Is global warming just a giant natural fluctuation? Nope

A press release from McGill University: An analysis of temperature data since 1500 all but rules out the possibility that global warming in the industrial era is just a natural fluctuation in the earth’s climate, according to a new study by McGill University physics professor Shaun Lovejoy.

The study, published online April 6 in the journal Climate Dynamics, represents a new approach to the question of whether global warming in the industrial era has been caused largely by man-made emissions from the burning of fossil fuels. Rather than using complex computer models to estimate the effects of greenhouse-gas emissions, Lovejoy examines historical data to assess the competing hypothesis: that warming over the past century is due to natural long-term variations in temperature.

“This study will be a blow to any remaining climate-change deniers,” Lovejoy says. “Their two most convincing arguments – that the warming is natural in origin, and that the computer models are wrong – are either directly contradicted by this analysis, or simply do not apply to it.”

Lovejoy’s study applies statistical methodology to determine the probability that global warming since 1880 is due to natural variability. His conclusion: the natural-warming hypothesis may be ruled out “with confidence levels great than 99%, and most likely greater than 99.9%.”

To assess the natural variability before much human interference, the new study uses “multi-proxy climate reconstructions” developed by scientists in recent years to estimate historical temperatures, as well as fluctuation-analysis techniques from nonlinear geophysics. The climate reconstructions take into account a variety of gauges found in nature, such as tree rings, ice cores, and lake sediments. And the fluctuation-analysis techniques make it possible to understand the temperature variations over wide ranges of time scales.

...While his new study makes no use of the huge computer models commonly used by scientists to estimate the magnitude of future climate change, Lovejoy’s findings effectively complement those of the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), he says. His study predicts, with 95% confidence, that a doubling of carbon-dioxide levels in the atmosphere would cause the climate to warm by between 2.5 and 4.2 degrees Celsius. That range is more precise than – but in line with -- the IPCC’s prediction that temperatures would rise by 1.5 to 4.5 degrees Celsius if CO2 concentrations double....

Ice floes shot by michael clarke stuff, Wikimedia Commons via Flickr, under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license 

Health at the heart of climate change agenda

The Hindu: Climate change may trigger the emergence of new and unfamiliar infections and pose new challenges for disease control in Kerala. According to the State Action Plan on Climate Change (SAPCC) prepared by the Department of Environment and Climate Change, the health sector will have to contend with the outbreak of vector and water borne diseases, new breeding sites of vectors, pathogens and bacteria, occurrence of new and emerging diseases, and increase in mortality due to extreme events caused by climate change.

There is a need for Kerala to put health at the heart of the climate change agenda, the action plan states. Observing that the emergence of dengue fever, chikungunya, and other viral diseases are highly sensitive to climate conditions, the document notes that combating these diseases will extract a toll on public health and the economy.

The report warns that climate change can also result in diseases such as Lyme disease and tick-borne encephalitis as well as salmonella and other food borne infections caused, transmitted or harboured by insects, snails and other cold-bloode
d creatures. “When infectious diseases appear in new locations where people lack immunity and health services do not have experience in control or treatment, the effects can be dramatic.”

The report says that people living in coastal regions, waterlogged areas, cities, and hilly areas are particularly vulnerable to climate change....

The chikungunya virus, image by A2-33, Wikimedia Commons, under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license

Unity is strength in the marketing of smallholder farm produce

Seed Daily via SPX: Smallholder farmers often face the challenge of accessing markets and selling their produce at competitive prices because they produce in small quantities that may not be commercially viable. The farmers are now being advised to adopt market interventions such as 'collective action' where they can come together as a group to pool their harvests and sell it in bulk.

A study conducted by the World Agroforesty Centre (ICRAF) in Cameroon has shown that effective implementation of collective action improves market access for smallholder producers of agroforestry products and reduces transaction costs leading to improved income and food security.

The study, published in the journal Current Opinions on Environmental Sustainability, says smallholder farmers, who are mostly in rural areas, often do not have access to information regarding prices in urban areas, furthermore, most production systems in Africa are done on a small scale and, hence, farmers acting individually are not able to participate in new markets such as supermarkets where larger quantities and standardization of products are often required.

ICRAF scientist and marketing specialist Dr. Amos Gyau and co-authors synthesize some of the lessons learned over two decades of implementing collective action, and cite studies that show how collective action in marketing agroforestry products has enabled farmers to access information and sell in markets which would otherwise be out of reach.

"Farmers are able to obtain the necessary information, meet quality standards and operate on a larger scale when they pool financial and labor resources together"...

A 1905 painting by Witold Wojtkiewicz, "Tillage"

New towns going up in developing nations pose major risk to the poor

A press release from the University of Colorado at Denver: Satellite city projects across the developing world are putting an increasing number of poor people at risk to natural hazards and climate change, according to a new study from the University of Colorado Denver.

Throughout Asia, Africa and Latin America `new towns’ are rapidly being built on the outskirts of major cities with the goal of relieving population pressures, according to study author Andrew Rumbach, PhD, assistant professor of planning and design at CU Denver’s College of Architecture and Planning.

The towns often sit in high flood risk zones but designers have minimized the dangers through land elevation, new building codes and quality construction. The problem, Rumbach says, are the informal settlements that invariably crop up beside these new cities and supply their labor force. When cyclones or monsoons occur, they suffer flooding along with diseases like cholera, hepatitis and dysentery. “Clearly, we need to expand the scope of planning for these new cities to include the communities where the poor will live,” said Rumbach, who specializes in dealing with natural hazards.

The study will be published in the July 2014 issue of the journal Habitat International and is already available online at ScienceDirect.

Many nations are aggressively creating new towns. In India, the government has set an ambitious plan to build 100 of them with a million people each by 2020. Rumbach focused his research on Salt Lake, a fully mature new town on the outskirts of Kolkata (formerly Calcutta)...

A map of Salt Lake, a suburb of Kolkata, created by Planemad, Wikimedia Commons, under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Future-proof UK coastal areas against rising sea levels, says National Trust

The Guardian (UK) via Press Association: A clear national strategy is "urgently needed" to help future-proof coastal areas from rising sea levels and extreme weather, according to a report published by the National Trust on Friday. The trust, one of the UK's biggest coastal owners, says many of its sites have been "battered" by storms and "hit hard" by high tides this winter.

Birling Gap, part of the Seven Sisters chalk cliffs in East Sussex, experienced seven years of erosion this winter – leaving its cafe and shop teetering metres from the edge. Part of the footpath down to the golden sands of Rhossili on Gower, South Wales – recently voted the UK's best beach – has been washed away by storms.

The charity says it has been forced to "fast-track" decisions over how to adapt coastal areas in the months ahead, rather than years or decades.  Simon Pryor, natural environment director at the National Trust, called for the government to ensure strategies to future-proof the coastline are implemented.

"There is a natural inclination to want to defend the coastline with concrete, but our coastline is dynamic and the forces of nature that have forme
d it are part of its beauty," Pryor said. "Hard defences will always have their place, but the winter storms that hit many coastal places hard have provided a valuable reminder that they have a limited life.

"Where we can we need to give natural processes that have formed our coast the space to work, and create areas where the coastline can realign as the sea levels rise. Natural habitats such as sand-dunes and salt marshes can act as buffer zones that absorb the impact of storms and very high tides."...

The Seven Sisters chalk cliffs in East Sussex, pre-erosion, shot by StephenDawson, Wikimedia Commons, under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license

Study resolves controversy over nitrogen’s ocean “exit strategies”

Catherine Zandonella at the Office of the Dean for Research at Princeton University:
A decades-long debate over how nitrogen is removed from the ocean may now be settled by new findings from researchers at Princeton University and their collaborators at the University of Washington.

The debate centers on how nitrogen — one of the most important food sources for ocean life and a controller of atmospheric carbon dioxide — becomes converted to a form that can exit the ocean and return to the atmosphere where it is reused in the global nitrogen cycle.

Researchers have argued over which of two nitrogen-removal mechanisms, denitrification and anammox, is most important in the oceans. The question is not just a scientific curiosity, but has real world applications because one mechanism contributes more greenhouse gases to the atmosphere than the other.

“Nitrogen controls much of the productivity of the ocean,” said Andrew Babbin, first author of the study and a graduate student who works with Bess Ward, Princeton’s William J. Sinclair Professor of Geosciences. “Understanding nitrogen cycling is crucial to understanding the productivity of the oceans as well as the global climate,” he said.

In the new study, the researchers found that both of these nitrogen “exit strategies” are at work in the oceans, with denitrification mopping up about 70 percent of the nitrogen and anammox disposing of the rest.

...Essential for the Earth’s life and climate, nitrogen is an element that cycles between soils and the atmosphere and between the atmosphere and the ocean. Bacteria near the surface help shuttle nitrogen into the ocean food chain by converting or “fixing” atmospheric nitrogen into forms that phytoplankton can use.

Without this fixed nitrogen, phytoplankton could not absorb carbon dioxide from the air, a feat which is helping to check today’s rising carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere. When these tiny marine algae die or are consumed by predators, their biomass sinks to the ocean interior where it becomes food for other types of bacteria....

Princeton University graduate student Andrew Babbin (left) prepares a seawater collection device known as a rosette. The team used samples of seawater to determine how nitrogen is removed from the oceans. (Research photos courtesy of A. Babbin)

New dams signal the end of Kenya's killer floods

AllAfrica.com via the Star (Kenya): The Government has set aside funds to implement a national water harvesting and storage programme in the current financial year. The Ministry of Devolution and Planning and the Ministry of Environment, Water and Natural Resources shall undertake the works through the National Youth Service, eight water services boards, and six regional development authorities."

The dams are coming up in a massive way that could make a huge difference, especially in drought-prone areas. But this is not the first time national policy is driving water harvesting and storage. It has always been in word, with the obvious skews across the last five decades.

The eight water service boards were established under the Water Act of 2002, but their impact has been minimal, with some moribund. Athi Water Services Board and Lake Victoria North Water Services Board have rolled out their water storage plans for the current financial year.

Lake Victoria South Water Services board has put out bids for Oriwo Dam in Kibiri Ward of Karachuonyo Constituency. Coast Water Services Board is also working on Kahindi, Maponda, Madiani, Kwa Kazungu and Kasidi dams, among others, for the water-scarce coast.

Others - Tana Water Services Board,Tanathi Water Services Board, Northern Water Services Board, and Rift Valley Water Services Board are also making similar moves. Lake Victoria South Water Services Board covers one of the areas that suffered a devastating drought over the last year, ending March, with wide coverage in the local media. It is also one of the areas with huge gullies along which water dams could be built, at minimal cost....

Collapsed bridge on the Voi River, located west of the Aruba Dam, in Tsavo East National Park, Kenya. This photograph was taken on an adjacent bridge used by game viewer vehicles. Shot by  Christopher T Cooper (CT Cooper), Wikimedia Commons, under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported license

Quick start and challenges for UN’s tech transfer body

Jan Piotrowski in SciDev.net: The “lightning speed” with which a UN-led initiative to transfer technologies for tackling climate change to developing nations has been set up is impressive, but remaining challenges could prevent its success, a member of its advisory board says.

Difficulties in encouraging applications for technological assistance and concern about finding enough partners to build a viable international network of expertise were two issues raised at the third advisory board meeting of the Climate Technology Centre and Network (CTCN) in Copenhagen, Denmark, last month (19-21 March), says Heleen de Coninck.

The associate professor of innovation studies and sustainability at the Netherlands’ Radboud University Nijmegen and outgoing board member credits the CTCN’s relative autonomy from UN bodies for its rapid progress. It is now up and running with US$35 million of funding just over a year since it was approved at the UN climate change conference in Doha in late 2012. “This has been set up at lightning speed for the UN. Everyone is admiring how quickly it has been achieved,” she tells SciDev.Net.

Under the auspices of the UN Environment Programme, the CTCN aims to provide developing nations with climate-related technology transfer and capacity building through the shared expertise of its 11 core research institutes and a wider network of partners.

After a planning phase, the network opened for applications for assistance in February. Several have now been received, including a request from Chile for expert assistance in setting up a biodiversity monitoring system, says de Coninck....

Food on a conveyor belt in Seoul, shot by Daderot, Wikimedia Commons,  under the Creative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication 

We need an apartheid-style boycott to save the planet

Some inspiration from Desmond Tutu in the Guardian (UK): Twenty-five years ago people could be excused for not knowing much, or doing much, about climate change. Today we have no excuse. No more can it be dismissed as science fiction; we are already feeling the effects.

...Who can stop it? Well, we can, you and I. And it is not just that we can stop it, we have a responsibility to do so. It is a responsibility that begins with God commanding the first human inhabitants of the garden of Eden "to till it and keep it". To keep it; not to abuse it, not to destroy it.

...People of conscience need to break their ties with corporations financing the injustice of climate change. We can, for instance, boycott events, sports teams and media programming sponsored by fossil-fuel energy companies. We can demand that the advertisements of energy companies carry health warnings. We can encourage more of our universities and municipalities and cultural institutions to cut their ties to the fossil-fuel industry. We can organise car-free days and build broader societal awareness. We can ask our religious communities to speak out.

We can actively encourage energy companies to spend more of their resources on the development of sustainable energy products, and we can reward those companies that do so by using their products. We can press our governments to invest in ren
ewable energy and stop subsidising fossil fuels. Where possible, we can install our own solar panels and water heaters.

...It makes no sense to invest in companies that undermine our future. To serve as custodians of creation is not an empty title; it requires that we act, and with all the urgency this dire situation demands.

Desmond Tutu in 2007, shot by Elke Wetzig (Elya), Wikimedia Commons, under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license

Friday, April 11, 2014

New research puts conventional theories about Titanic disaster on ice

A press release from the University of Sheffield: Academics at the University of Sheffield have dispelled a long-held theory that the Titanic was unlucky for sailing in a year with an exceptional number of icebergs and say the risk of icebergs is actually higher now.

Previously it had been suggested that the seas which sank the famous cruise ship – which set off on its maiden voyage 102 years ago today (Thursday 10 April 2014) – had an exceptional number of icebergs caused by lunar or solar effects. But academics at the University have shown the ship wasn’t as unlucky as previously thought.

Using data on iceberg locations dating back to 1913 – recorded to help prevent a repeat of the Titanic – they have shown that 1912 was a significant ice year but not extreme.

Professor Grant Bigg who led the research, said: “We have seen that 1912 was a year of raised iceberg hazard, but not exceptionally so in the long term. 1909 recorded a slightly higher number of icebergs and more recently the risk has been much greater – between 1991 and 2000 eight of the ten years recorded more than 700 icebergs and five exceeded the 1912 total.”

He added: “As use of the Arctic, in particular, increases in the future with the declining sea-ice the ice hazard will increase in water not previously used for shipping. As polar ice sheets are increasingly losing mass as well, the iceberg risk is likely to increase in the future, rather than decline.”

The iceberg which sank the Titanic was spotted just before midnight on 14 April 1912 500m away. Despite quick action to slow the ship it wasn’t enough and the ship sank in just two and a half hours. The disaster saw 1,517 people perish and only 700 survive....