Tuesday, November 25, 2014

New technology may speed up, build awareness of landslide risks

A press release from Oregon State University: Engineers have created a new way to use lidar technology to identify and classify landslides on a landscape scale, which may revolutionize the understanding of landslides in the U.S. and reveal them to be far more common and hazardous than often understood.

The new, non-subjective technology, created by researchers at Oregon State University and George Mason University, can analyze and classify the landslide risk in an area of 50 or more square miles in about 30 minutes - a task that previously might have taken an expert several weeks to months. It can also identify risks common to a broad area rather than just an individual site.

And with such speed and precision, it reveals that some landslide-prone areas of the Pacific Northwest are literally covered by landslides from one time or another in history. The system is based on new ways to use light detecting and ranging, or lidar technology, that can seemingly strip away vegetation and other obstructions to show land features in their bare form.

“With lidar we can see areas that are 50-80 percent covered by landslide deposits,” said Michael Olsen, an expert in geomatics and the Eric HI and Janice Hoffman Faculty Scholar in the OSU College of Engineering. “It may turn
out that there are 10-100 times more landslides in some places than we knew of before.

“We’ve always known landslides were a problem in the Pacific Northwest,” Olsen said. “Many people are just now beginning to realize how big the problem is.”…

This massive landslide near Oso, Washington, in March, 2014, killed 43 people and was one of the most deadly in U.S. history. (Photo by Jonathan Godt, courtesy of U.S. Geological Survey)

‘Monster’ fracking wells guzzle water in drought-stricken regions

Anastasia Pantsios in EcoWatch: The fracking industry likes to minimize the sector’s bottomless thirst for often-scarce water resources, saying it takes about 2-4 million gallons of water to frack the average well, an amount the American Petroleum Institute describes as “the equivalent of three to six Olympic swimming pools.” That’s close to the figure cited by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) as well.

But a new report released by Environmental Working Group (EWG) located 261 “monster” wells that consumed between 10 and 25 million gallons of water to drill each well. Among the conclusions EWG teased out of data reported by the industry itself and posted at fracfocus.org is that between April 2010 and December 2013, these 261 wells consumed 3.3 billions of water between them, a average of 12.7 million gallons each. And 14 of the wells topped 20 million gallons each.

“It’s far more relevant to compare those figures to basic human needs for water, rather than to swimming pools or golf courses,” said EWG’s report. “The 3.3 billion gallons consumed by the monster wells was almost twice as much water as is needed each year by the people of Atascosa County, Texas, in the heart of the Eagle Ford shale formation, one of the most intensively drilled gas and oil fields in the country.”

And proving that everything really is bigger in Texas, that’s where most of these monster wells were located, hosting 149 of them. Between them they consumed 1.8 billion gallons of water. The largest was located in Harrison County on the east Texas border, where in March 2013, Sabine Oil & Gas LLC drilled a well using more than 24.8 million gallons of water. Irion County in west central Texas had the most monster wells with 19 averaging water use of 12.9 each. And Texas also had what EWG described as the “dubious distinction” of using more fresh water in fracking, consuming 21 million gallons in 2011 alone….

The Jonah Gasfield in Wyoming, shot by Peter Aergst of the Wilderness Society, Wikimedia Commons, under the Creative Commons 4.0 license

210 million people benefit from mangroves-associated fisheries

Wetlands International: Some 210 million people live in low elevation areas within 10 km of mangroves and many of these directly benefit from mangrove-associated fisheries. Yet, these people are often unaware of the key role mangroves may play, especially if the associated fisheries are offshore.

A new study by Wetlands International, The Nature Conservancy and the University of Cambridge, launched today at World Fisheries Day, concludes that mangrove conservation and restoration in areas close to human populations will render the greatest return on investment with respect to enhancing fisheries.

The fisheries value of mangroves is site specific as it depends on how many fish a mangrove produces, how many fish are subsequently caught by humans, and then what the fisheries value is, both in economic terms, as a food supply or through the livelihoods that they support.

As demands for fish continues to rise with the increase of coastal populations and rapidly growing economies, understanding where mangrove-associated fish productivity is highest is critical. Well-known species that rely on mangroves in one way or another include crabs, prawns, mullet, herring, anchovy, snappers and groupers….

Mangroves in Cuba, shot by Manuel Dohmen, Wikimedia Commons, under the Creative Commons 3.0

Monday, November 24, 2014

Tibetan mega-dam begins operation

Terra Daily via AFP: China has begun generating electricity from Tibet's biggest ever hydropower project, state-run media reported, the latest dam development on Himalayan rivers which has stoked fears in neighbouring India.

The first generating unit of the 9.6 billion yuan ($1.6 billion) Zangmu Hydropower Station, which stands more than 3,300 metres above sea level, went into operation on Sunday, China's official Xinhua news agency said.

The dam on the Yarlung Zangbo river -- known as the Brahmaputra in India, where it is a major waterway -- will be 116 metres (381 feet) high when completed next year, according to reports.

It will have a total generating capacity of 510,000 kilowatts, Xinhua said, making it the largest dam ever built on the Tibetan plateau.

"The hydropower station will solve Tibet's power shortage, especially in the winter," Xinhua quoted an official from the Tibet Electric Power Co. as saying. India has previously expressed concern about damming the Brahmaputra, one of the largest Himalayan rivers and a lifeline to some of India's remote, farm-dependent northeastern states....

An aerial view of the Brahmaputra River in Tibet, shot by Akarsh Simha, Wikimedia Commons via Flickr, under the Creative Commons 2.0 license 

Almost complete loss of glaciers in the Andes expected by 2080

J. Won Park in Arirang: Most glaciers in the Andes will be gone by the year 2080. That's the worst case scenario painted by the World Bank in its latest climate change report.

The report says the world's average temperature could rise by four degrees Celsius by the end of the century, if the world doesn't take appropriate steps to stop global warming. The report, which mostly focuses on Latin America, the Middle East and North Africa, says glaciers have already significantly retreated in the Andes.

It says that, if the trend continues, cities around the mountain range could be at risk of flooding and freshwater supplies could start to dry up. The grim projection goes on to say that, if the average global temperature rises by more than four degrees Celsius, sea levels will rise by almost 60 centimeters.

This would mean an increased risk of storms and tropical cyclones, especially for low-lying countries and small island states. The report also predicts that, in the Middle East and North Africa, warmer average temperatures will threaten already scarce water resources and negatively affect crop yields....

The Perito Moreno glacier in Argentina, shot by Jorge Láscar, Wikimedia Commons via Flickr, under the Creative Commons 2.0 license 

Tanzania needs over $1 billion for climate change

East African Business Week: The government has established that it needs massive financial support to the tune of over $1 billion annually by 2030 coupled with technological support to address climate change adaptation, a feature also approved by the Tanzania technological needs assessment 2010.

The technological support includes concrete actions on adaptation consistent with the NCSS commitment by the international community both through the convention process and bilateral engagement to support national efforts for climate resilient economic growth.

Richard Muyungi of the Vice President’s Office United Republic of Tanzania said last week that about 8% of the land area of Dar es Salaam 140,000 people and economic assets worth more than $170 million are below the 10m contour line in potentially vulnerable areas, with 31,000 people considered at risk.

“By 2030, without adaptation, this will increase to more than 100,000 people and over $400 million assets and rise further in later years. We are worried because large proportion of GDP is associated with climate sensitive sectors, particularly agriculture whereas rainfall decreases by up to 15% and there is no adaptation average maize yields could decrease by up to 16% by 2030 a loss of around 1 million tonnes a year and 25 - 35% by 2050 equivalent to 2 to 2.7 million tonnes per year,” Muyungi affirmed...

A 2011 flood in Dar es Salaam, shot by Muddyb Blast Producer at Swahili Wikipedia, Wikimedia Commons, under the Creative Commons 3.0 license

New global disaster reduction strategy must include vulnerable people

Jessica Hartog at the Thomson Reuters Foundation: Last week, international experts on disaster reduction met in Geneva to develop a new global framework to make the world more resilient to increasing natural disasters.

It is clear that disasters such as earthquakes, typhoons and floods are on the rise and have huge impacts. The U.N. Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNISDR) estimates that in the last 20 years, 1.3 million people have been killed by disasters. Of these deaths, 93 percent were in developing countries, highlighting how the poor are disproportionately vulnerable to disasters.

But there is more to the story than mortality rates. In the last 20 years, around 4.4 billion people have been affected in some way or another by disasters.

For people whose assets have been damaged or destroyed, farmers whose harvests have been lost, or communities whose road infrastructure has been damaged - cutting them off from their work, schools and markets -  economic losses are thought to have totalled $2 trillion in the same period.

It is expected that disasters will only continue to increase if we do not take measures to stop this trend. Major drivers are climate change and the growth of cities in areas that are already exposed to floods, tropical storms and earthquakes. This is why an internationally agreed disaster risk reduction strategy is so important....

From the 2010 flooding in Thailand, shot by Napast3379, Wikimedia Commons, under the Creative Commons 3.0 license 

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Polar code agreed to prevent Arctic environmental disasters

Karl Mathiesen in the Guardian (UK): The international body in charge of sea safety adopted measures on Friday to protect people and the environment during a predicted shipping rush in the Arctic. But environment groups and insurers said the International Maritime Organisation (IMO) Maritime Safety Committee had failed to address key issues including a proposed ban on heavy fuel oil and how to safeguard against cowboy operators.

The committee, which met in London this week, signed off on the Polar Code and various amendments to the Safety of Life at Sea (Solas) convention. These changes, which include mandatory requirements for ship design, crew training and search and rescue protocols, are expected to be ratified by the full IMO next year and come into force in 2017.

Melting sea ice due to global warming and pressure to cut costs makes the Arctic commercially enticing to shipping companies who want to avoid the circuitous, pirate-ridden voyage from China to Europe via the Suez Canal. Tourism, fishing and fossil fuel operations are also looking toward one of the world’s most fragile and extreme environments.

Evan Bloom, director of the US State Department’s Office of Ocean and Polar Affairs said: “More and more people are going to be in the Arctic for one reason or another. In the future there may be [more] fishing vessels... There will be more and more tourism. There will be more and more commerce.” He says this increases the likelihood of something going wrong in a region where there is currently very little capability to respond in either a search and rescue or environmental clean-up capacity.

...According to insurer Allianz, Russia predicts a 30-fold increase in shipping by 2020 and an ice-free Northern Sea Route by 2050. China has suggested that by 2020, 5-15% of its trade value - close to $500bn - could pass through the Arctic....

Sea ice off Baffin Island, via NASA

Salinity matters when it comes to sea level changes

A press release from Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory: Using ocean observations and a large suite of climate models, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory scientists have found that long-term salinity changes have a stronger influence on regional sea level changes than previously thought.

“By using long-term observed estimates of ocean salinity and temperature changes across the globe, and contrasting these with model simulations, we have uncovered the unexpectedly large influence of salinity changes on ocean basin-scale sea level patterns,” said LLNL oceanographer Paul Durack, lead author of a paper appearing in the November issue of the journal Environmental Research Letters (link is external).

Sea level changes are one of the most pronounced effects of climate change impacts on the Earth and are primarily driven by warming of the global ocean along with added water from melting land-based glaciers and ice sheets. In addition to these effects, changes in ocean salinity also can affect the height of the sea, by changing its density structure from the surface to the bottom of the ocean.

The team found that there was a long-term (1950-2008) pattern in halosteric (salinity-driven) sea level changes in the global ocean, with sea level increases occurring in the Pacific Ocean and sea level decreases in the Atlantic. These salinity-driven sea level changes have not been thoroughly investigated in previous long-term estimates of sea level change. When the scientists contrasted these results with models, the team found that models also simulated these basin-scale patterns, and that the magnitude of these changes was surpri
singly large, making up about 25 percent of the total sea level change.

“By contrasting two long-term estimates of sea level change to simulations provided from a large suite of climate model simulations, our results suggest that salinity has a profound effect on regional sea level change,” Durack said. “This conclusion suggests that future sea level change assessments must consider the regional impacts of salinity-driven changes; this effect is too large to continue to ignore.”...

Lined with bottles triggered at different levels of the ocean, this conductivity, temperature and depth profiler bearing a suite of sampling bottles is a mainstay of oceanography. It can be deployed to depths of 6,000 meters to study changes in ocean temperature and salinity. Photo courtesy of Ann Thresher/CSIRO

Britain left 'exposed' to more floods and heatwaves

Ian Johnston in the Independent (UK): The UK is dangerously "exposed" to increasingly extreme weather brought about by climate change, a leading adviser to the Government has warned.

Professor Lord Krebs, who chairs an expert group of the independent Committee on Climate Change (CCC), said thousands of lives could be lost in searing heatwaves, and a lack of spending on flood defences would lead to "unnecessary flood damage" unless action was taken. He called on Britain and other countries to do more to cut greenhouse-gas emissions, saying global warming could have "profound implications" even for wealthy countries such as the UK.

In an article for The Independent on Sunday, on our website, Lord Krebs applauded some steps of recent years, noting that 1.4 million homes were protected, and no one died, in last winter's floods. "And yet," he said, "the UK is still exposed in key areas."

The National Audit Office and the CCC's Adaptation Sub-Committee, which he chairs, have concluded "not enough money is being spent on flood prevention". Lord Krebs said: "As a result, unnecessary flood damage will occur... The current approach in England is to 'build and protect'; to allow development on the floodplain as long as there are flood defences in place," he said. "This simply stores up costs and risks for the future. Indeed, such development is encouraged."...

The English countryside near Cold Moor, shot by Scott Rimmer, Wikimedia Commons via Geograph UK, under the Creative Commons 2.0 license 

Second bird flu outbreak found on Dutch farm

Seed Daily via AFP: Dutch officials have detected a second case of bird flu on a southern Netherlands farm, officials said Thursday, but could not yet say whether the strain was of a highly contagious variety discovered earlier this week.

The latest outbreak was detected in three barns containing 43,000 chickens on a farm at Ter Aar, just east of The Hague, the Dutch food and safety watchdog NVWA said. The outbreak was of the H5 strain, but "it is not clear whether it was of the highly pathogenic variety or not," added the Dutch economic affairs ministry in a letter sent to parliament on Thursday. "The earliest results are expected by the end of tomorrow (Friday)," it said.

The powerful Dutch poultry industry has now been paralysed for a second time this week with a nationwide ban on the transport of all poultry and related products since 2:00 pm (1300 GMT) on Thursday. The ban will last up to 72 hours.

Authorities have also thrown a 10 kilometre (6.2 mile) cordon around the farm, with four other farms also being tested for avian influenza. The chickens are being destroyed and the farm disinfected, the NVWA added....

A rooster in the grass, shot by fir0002 | flagstaffotos.com.au, Wikimedia Commons, under the GFDL 1.2 license

Climate fund receives $9.3 billion pledge

BBC: Thirty nations meeting in Berlin have pledged $9.3bn (£6bn) for a fund to help developing countries cut emissions and prepare for climate change. The Green Climate Fund was to have held at least $10bn by the end of 2014, so the pledge is just shy of the target.

The South Korea-based fund aims to help nations invest in clean energy and green technology. It is also designed to help them build up defences against rising seas and worsening storms, floods and droughts.

Rich nations previously vowed that by 2020, developing countries would get $100bn (£64bn) a year from such a fund. The US had already pledged $3bn and Japan $1.5bn. The UK, Germany and France have promised about $1bn each, and Sweden more than $500m million.

Smaller amounts were offered by countries including Switzerland, South Korea, the Netherlands, Denmark, Norway, Mexico, Luxembourg and the Czech Republic. After co-hosting the donors' conference, German Environment Minister Gerd Mueller hailed the achievement, saying humanity must fight climate change so "it doesn't go the way of the dinosaurs"....

A 2004 flood in Dhaka, shot by Raiyan Kamal, Wikimedia Commons, under the Creative Commons 2.5 license 

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

New York state snow emergency: five dead, 100+ trapped in monster winter storm

NBC News: Troopers in all-terrain vehicles set out Wednesday to reach drivers trapped in a ferocious winter storm that dumped 5 feet of snow outside Buffalo, New York — with plenty more on the way. More than 130 miles of Interstate 90, the main artery running east and west across New York state, remained closed, with no word when it would reopen. More than 100 cars were reported trapped on Tuesday night.

Authorities in Erie County, which includes Buffalo, reported a fifth death, a 46-year-old man found in a car. Four were reported Tuesday, one in a car crash and three from heart attacks, including two people who were shoveling snow.

The towns south of Buffalo were believed to be the hardest hit, but snow totals were hard to come by. The National Weather Service said some places could approach the record for a single-day snowfall in the United States, 6 feet 4 inches.

...Gov. Andrew Cuomo declared a state of emergency for 10 counties, and the National Guard was activated to help clean up. The state deployed 526 snowplows and 17 large snow blowers. The weather service warned that 3 to 8 more inches of snow could fall Wednesday, and up to 2 feet more by Thursday night outside Buffalo....

The early stages of a 2006 lake effect snow storm in Buffalo, New York, shot by Jason Safoutin, Wikimedia Commons, under the Creative Commons 2.5 license 

EU court rules UK government must clean up dangerous air pollution

John Vidal in the Guardian (UK): The government will be forced to urgently clean up illegal air pollution in British cities following a ruling on Wednesday in the European court of justice. It is likely to see many diesel cars and heavy goods vehicles restricted from city centres within a few years.

The landmark case, brought by a small environmental group through the UK courts, will allow people to sue the government for breaching EU pollution laws and will force ministers to prepare plans for many cities to improve air quality.

The court firmly rejected Britain’s long-standing approach to complying with EU air pollution laws which has been to appeal to Europe for time extensions. The government has admitted that under current plans, several cities in the UK will not meet its legal limits for the toxic nitrogen dioxide gas (NO2) until after 2030. This is 20 years after the original deadline set by Europe.

Instead, UK courts will now be able to order the government to produce a plan which achieves NO2 limits in a period of time as “short as possible”. The UK Supreme court is expected to interpret what the time frame should be next year.

“Thousands of people die because of air pollution in Britain every year. This ruling will save lives by forcing the government to finally take this issue seriously. They will now have to come up with an urgent plan to rid our towns and cities of cancer-causing diesel fumes,” said Alan Andrews, lawyer with Client Earth which brought the case.

“This sets a groundbreaking legal precedent in EU law and paves the way for a series of legal challenges across Europe,” he said....

London smog from St. Paul's, shot by Iain Buchanan, Wikimedia Commons via Flickr, under the Creative Commons 2.0 license

Study counters case for climate change-violence link

Lou Del Bello in SciDev.net: Climate change is far from being solely to blame for violence in Sub-Saharan Africa, say researchers — other factors matter much more. Their paper, published on 10 November in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, contradicts earlier studies that found that higher temperatures are a major risk factor in conflict.

For instance, last year a different group concluded that a shift towards hotter conditions by a single statistical unit known as a ‘standard deviation’ — equivalent to, for example, warming an African country by 0.4 degrees Celsius for a year — caused a four per cent rise in the likelihood of personal violence and a 14 per cent increase in conflict between groups.

But now a team led by John O’Loughlin, a geographer at the University of Colorado Boulder in the United States, says that previous research may have overlooked other key triggers such as political instability, poverty and geographical conditions.

O’Loughlin’s team examined these factors alongside exceptionally hot or dry periods in Sub-Saharan Africa to assess the chances of increased violence. Breaking the area down into subregional grids, the researchers pinpointed 78,000 ‘conflict events’ from the past 33 years and matched them with weather conditions and social and geographical factors.

They found that conflicts such as riots, protests or violence against civilians were more common when temperatures were particularly high. But they also discovered an inconsistent relationship between temperature deviations on the one hand and different types of conflict and different subregions on the other.

And, more critically, they found that longer periods of higher temperatures and wet or dry conditions had less impact on conflict than other influences, such as recent nearby violence and a lack of democracy, says O’Loughlin....

A British jeep passes a sign warning against looting on the outskirts of Ravenna, Italy, 7 December 1944. From the Imperial War Museum

Questions over Mali's ebola response

IRIN: The failure of a top Malian hospital to detect probable cases of Ebola has raised questions about whether the country's health system is sufficiently prepared to tackle the disease.

"We have several confirmed cases," Samba Sow, head of the Mali's National Centre for Disease Control (CNAM), told IRIN. "Our goal is to prevent the virus from spreading." But the government only released an Ebola emergency plan on 30 October, a week after the first Ebola case.

In Kayes, where a two-year-old girl tested positive for Ebola on 23 October, the hospital was caught off-guard. Only two of its 160 workers had received training on how to detect and treat Ebola patients and how to protect themselves while doing so, said hospital director Toumani Konaré. "The staff had the right protective gear, but they didn't know how to use it," he told IRIN.

Before the current outbreak in Mali, the World Health Organization (WHO) had categorized the country as at-risk, due to its long border and strong economic ties with Guinea, where the epidemic began. It was targeted as a country to receive technical assistance, including training on infection prevention, epidemiological surveillance and contact tracing.

Sow said preparations started in April. However, those preparations were focused mostly on the 805km border that Mali shares with Guinea. The government started to send a few health workers to check travellers for fever and other signs of the virus among the chaos of trucks, buses, bush taxis and motorbikes at border checkpoints.

The Ministry of Health says the Kouremalé border checkpoint, where an imam who died of Ebola in Mali on 27 October had entered from Guinea, checks more than 1,000 people and 150 vehicles per day....

Italy faces billion euro bill for killer rainfall

Terra Daily via AFP: Torrential rain drenched northern Italy again Monday as the damage suffered by just one of the regions hit by floods and landslides was put at one billion euros ($1.25 billion).

In Sesto Calende, a small town near Lake Maggiore and the Swiss border, the central square resembled a giant pond, a handful of sandbags doing a poor job of preventing the water from soaking the ground floors of houses and businesses. "It is a nationwide problem caused by decades of neglect and poor governance," said one resident, Mauro, with a resigned shrug.

A total of 12 people have died in weather-related accidents in northern Italy since mid-October. Three deaths at the weekend included a pensioner and his granddaughter who were buried alive when a landslide hit their house on the shores of Maggiore in the early hours of Sunday morning, the third tragedy of its type in less than a week.

Claudio Burlando, the president of the Liguria region, which includes the entire Italian Riviera, said the damage incurred on his patch alone in the last month now exceeded one billion euros.

Apart from the clean-up costs, millions of euros worth of crops have been destroyed and many fields rendered unsuitable for grazing or planting, while motorways and other infrastructure, including a Genoa cemetery where zinc coffins were washed away at the weekend, will have to be repaired at public expense.

Most costly of all, the water-management systems which have proved incapable of dealing with exceptional conditions will have to be upgraded....

Sesto Calende on the Ticino River, shot by Markus Bernet,Wikimedia Commons, under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license 

Monday, November 17, 2014

Corps of Engineers embraces uncertainty of climate change

A press release from the US Army Corps of Engineers: The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is adapting the way it operates to accommodate climate changes that could cause floods and droughts. "During the past 50 years, much of the U.S. has seen an increase in periods of high temperature and severe floods and heavy downpours and droughts," said Lt. Gen. Thomas Bostick, commanding general, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. "We all have observed changes to the frequency and the severity of these events."

In April and May of 2011, he said, residents in the Mississippi basin experienced some of the worst flooding seen since 1927. The next year, in 2012, droughts in the same region impacted navigation along the same river, which required "a significant response effort" to get traffic moving again on the river.

"That is what the nation, and the world, is experiencing," Bostick said. "These changes are increasing the risk and the vulnerability of operations, missions and infrastructure; effective climate change preparation and resilience are important to the corps. Adaptation and preparation is not an optional thing for the Corps of Engineers. It's something we feel we have to do."

During a press conference Thursday, at the Corps of Engineers headquarters here, Bostick explained that the corps is aware of climate change, and is changing the way it operates to accommodate changes due to climate.

"We're translating science into policy, we are adapting new infrastructure to withstand changes in climate, and we are looking at our existing infrastructure to see where it is vulnerable to changing climate and the steps we must take to make it more resilient," Bostick said. "We are also looking at how all of this fits into a systems approach."...

US Army Corps of Engineers photo of a dam at Burnsville Lake in West Virginia

Netherlands bans poultry transport after discovering bird flu

Seed Daily via AFP: Dutch officials on Sunday banned the transport of poultry in the Netherlands after the discovery of a highly infectious strain of bird flu which could jump to humans.

The "highly pathogenic" form of avian influenza discovered at a farm in the centre of the country is very dangerous to birds and "contamination can occur from animals to humans," the Dutch government said in a statement. About 150,000 chickens at the farm in Hekendorp are to be destroyed by Dutch health authorities, which for the moment have not identified the exact strain of flu.

Avian influenza is fatal for chickens, and poses a health threat to humans, who can become sickened by handling infected poultry. The H5N1 strain of bird flu has killed more than 40
0 people, mainly in Southeast Asia, since first appearing in 2003. Another strain of bird flu, H7N9, has claimed more than 170 lives since emerging in 2013.

The Dutch transport ban is to last a maximum of 72 hours and includes moving poultry, eggs and bird manure....

A poultry farm in Hungary, shot by Civertan, Wikimedia Commons, under the Creative Commons 3.0 license

Mudslides kill four along Swiss-Italian border

Yahoo News via AFP: At least four people were killed as landslides triggered by torrential rain slammed into houses and buildings on either side of the Swiss Italian border Sunday, police and media said. In the rain-drenched southern Ticino region of Switzerland, two people died and four were injured when a mudslide slammed into a small residential building, regional police said.

On the other side of the border, a pensioner and his granddaughter were killed when another landslide engulfed a house on the Italian shores of Lake Maggiore, local media reported. Three other family members survived.

Those landslides were the latest of many to recently have hit northern Italy and southern Switzerland amid incessant rainfall over recent weeks. They also came a day after storms in southern France killed six people, including a mother and her two small sons whose car was swept away in flooding.

In Switzerland, the bodies of two local women, aged 34 and 38, were pulled Sunday from the rubble of the three-story apartment building in Davesco-Soragno, near Lugano, after being hit by the mudslide shortly before 2:30 am (0130 GMT), Ticino police said.

Another resident had returned home after the landslide hit and was unharmed, but police said they were still searching the area to make sure no one else was under the rubble. The tragedy came 10 days after a young mother and her three-year-old daughter were killed when a landslide swept away their house in the same region...

A foggy road near Ticino, shot by Luca Casartelli, Wikimedia Commons via Flickr, under the Creative Commons 2.0 license

Groundwater warming up in synch

Peter Ruegg at ETH in Zurich: Global warming stops at nothing – not even the groundwater, as a new study by researchers from ETH Zurich and KIT reveals: the groundwater’s temperature profiles echo those of the atmosphere, albeit damped and delayed.

For their study, the researchers were able to fall back on uninterrupted long-term temperature measurements of groundwater flows around the cities of Cologne and Karlsruhe, where the operators of the local waterworks have been measuring the temperature of the groundwater, which is largely uninfluenced by humans, for forty years. This is unique and a rare commodity for the researchers. “For us, the data was a godsend,” stresses Peter Bayer, a senior assistant at ETH Zurich’s Geological Institute. Even with some intensive research, they would not have been able to find a comparable series of measurements. Evidently, it is less interesting or too costly for waterworks to measure groundwater temperatures systematically for a lengthy period of time. “Or the data isn’t digitalised and only archived on paper,” suspects the hydrogeologist.

Based on the readings, the researchers were able to demonstrate that the groundwater is not just warming up; the warming stages observed in the atmosphere are also echoed. “Global warming is reflected directly in the groundwater, albeit damped and with a certain time lag,” says Bayer, summarising the main results that the project has yielded. The researchers published their study in the journal Hydrology and Earth System Sciences.

The data also reveals that the groundwater close to the surface down to a depth of around sixty metres has warmed up statistically significantly in the course of global warming over the last forty years. This water heating follows the warming pattern of the local and regional climate, which in turn mirrors that of global warming.

The groundwater reveals how the atmosphere has made several temperature leaps at irregular intervals. These “regime shifts” can also be observed in the global climate, as the researchers write in their study. Bayer was surprised at how quickly the groundwater responded to climate change....

The Portuguese cistern of El Jadida, shot by Fulvio Attisani, Wikimedia Commons, under the Creative Commons 3.0 license

Will geoengineering make people give up cutting their carbon footprint?

Adam Corner in the Guardian (UK): If you thought there was a machine that could magically remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and bury it underground, would you be less likely to worry about reducing your own carbon footprint?

The question is not entirely hypothetical. Geoengineering is the catch-all term for a suite of technologies that could one day be used to alter the Earth’s climate and combat global warming. Most of them are unlikely to ever see the light of day: they are considered too risky, too unpredictable, or too reckless to be taken seriously by the scientific community.

...As geoengineering has gradually moved on to the policy agenda, debates about the ethics of meddling with the global thermostat have become more prominent. Central among these is whether geoengineering might undermine fragile public and political support for the more pressing business of reducing carbon emissions.

This is what is known by economists and philosophers as a ‘moral hazard’ argument: the phenomenon whereby people who feel insured against a particular risk are more likely to exhibit risky behaviour. Will the prospect of geoengineering make people feel ‘insured’ against the risks of climate change, and indulge in ‘riskier’ environmental behaviour themselves?

In a paper published in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society on Monday, my colleague Nick Pidgeon and I attempted to answer that question. Using a nationally representative online survey, we provided 610 people with a ‘factsheet’ about geoengineering, and then asked them a series of questions. One striking finding was that some people seem more susceptible to the ‘trap’ of the moral hazard than others.

People who were wealthier, and who identified with self-focused values such as power and status, were more likely to agree with the statement “Knowing geoengineering is a possibility makes me feel less inclined to make changes in my own behaviour to tackle climate change.”...

A smoggy sky in Taiwan, shot by Carrie Kellenberger, Wikimedia Commons via Flickr, under the Creative Commons 2.0 license

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Prepare for more lightning

Will Dunham in Reuters: Rising global temperatures may cause a big jolt in the number of lightning strikes in the United States over the rest of the 21st century in the latest example of extreme weather spawned by climate change, scientists say.

Researchers forecast on Thursday that lightning strikes will increase by about 50 percent by 2100 in the continental United States because thunderstorms will become more explosive in the coming decades thanks to a warming planet.

This increase could lead to more wildfires because lightning already triggers half of these blazes in the United States, the researchers said. Lightning also kills dozens of Americans annually, with that risk expected to rise.

Considering factors including precipitation levels, cloud buoyancy and warming air, the scientists predicted a 7 percent increase in the number of lightning strikes with each degree Fahrenheit global average temperature increase (12 percent for each degree Celsius).

The 11 different climate models used in the study pointed to an increase of 7 degrees Fahrenheit (4 degrees Celsius) between now and 2100. "There are about 30 million strikes per year in the contiguous U.S. now. So, in 2100, we would expect about 45 million per year," said climate scientist David Romps of the University of California, Berkeley and the U.S. government's Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, who led the study published in the journal Science....

Lightning over Lausanne, shot by Orphée, Wikimedia Commons, under the Creative Commons 3.0 license

Farmers and scientists divided over climate change

A press release from Purdue University: Crop producers and scientists hold deeply different views on climate change and its possible causes, a study by Purdue and Iowa State universities shows. Associate professor of natural resource social science Linda Prokopy and fellow researchers surveyed 6,795 people in the agricultural sector in 2011-2012 to determine their beliefs about climate change and whether variation in the climate is triggered by human activities, natural causes or an equal combination of both.

More than 90 percent of the scientists and climatologists surveyed said they believed climate change was occurring, with more than 50 percent attributing climate change primarily to human activities. In contrast, 66 percent of corn producers surveyed said they believed climate change was occurring, with 8 percent pinpointing human activities as the main cause. A quarter of producers said they believed climate change was caused mostly by natural shifts in the environment, and 31 percent said there was not enough evidence to determine whether climate change was happening or not.

The survey results highlight the division between scientists and farmers over climate change and the challenges in communicating climate data and trends in non-polarizing ways, Prokopy said. "Whenever climate change gets introduced, the conversation tends to turn political," she said. "Scientists and climatologists are saying climate change is happening, and agricultural commodity groups and farmers are saying they don't believe that. Our research suggests that this disparity in beliefs may cause agricultural stakeholders to respond to climate information very differently."

...Focusing on the causes of climate change, however, is likely to polarize the agricultural community and lead to inaction, said study co-author Lois Wright Morton, professor of sociology at Iowa State University. To foster productive dialogue, she said, scientists and climatologists need to "start from the farmer's perspective."...

A 1935 image of a truck garden in Oregon, from the OSU Collections, Wikimedia Commons via Flickr Commons, under the Creative Commons 2.0 license

Ocean primed for more El Nino

Space Daily via SPX: The ocean is warming steadily and setting up the conditions for stronger El Nino weather events, a new study has shown. A team of US, Australian, and Canadian researchers sampled corals from a remote island in Kiribati to build a 60-year record of ocean surface temperature and salinity. "The trend is unmistakeable, the ocean's primed for more El Nino events," says lead-author Dr Jessica Carilli, now based at the University of Massachusetts, Boston.

Team member Dr Helen McGregor from the Research School of Earth Sciences at The Australian National University said the change in El Nino patterns could have a major impact on Australia's weather. "During an El Nino event warm waters to the north of Australia move eastward, taking their rainfall with them," she said. "This changes the pattern of Australia's rainfall and droughts significantly."

El Ninos occurs irregularly every two to seven years and have often coincided with severe droughts in Queensland and New South Wales. The current conditions show that a weak El Nin
o has brought warmer and drier conditions to Australia for late 2014.

The team focused on regional differences in sea temperatures that generate the circulating winds known as the Walker Circulation, which drive the trade winds that bring moisture across the Pacific Ocean to the north of Australia.

The island from which the corals were sampled, Butaritari, was chosen for its location at one end of the Walker Circulation....

A causeway on Butaritari, shot by Tauʻolunga, Wikimedia Commons, under the Creative Commons 2.5 license

Micro loans can offset effects of climate change

The Daily Star (Bangladesh): Microfinance institutions should modify their financial products for those at vulnerable climate zones to deal with global warming, a keynote speaker at a climate change seminar said yesterday.

The MFIs offer three types of products: loans, savings and insurance. Each product can be modified depending on the type of shock the MFI customers might be suffering from, said Fazle Rabbi Sadeque Ahmed, coordinator of Palli Karma-Sahayak Foundation's Community Climate Change Project.

For instance, in areas that are becoming more prone to flooding, MFIs can encourage: aquaculture initiatives among farmers, floating gardens, investment on raised tube wells for safe water and new houses to be built on raised beds or raised embankments.

All these measures can be supported by making use of loans, savings and insurance products that include a set of climate sensitive conditions, he said.

Ahmed's comments came at the inaugural session of a daylong seminar styled 'climate change adaptation at community level: the role of MFIs', jointly organised by the Institute of Microfinance and Bangladesh Water Partnership. The event was aimed at identifying the bankable projects and overcoming the challenges at village level in implementing climate change resilience through microcredit....

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Ebola a stark reminder of link between health of humans, animals, environment

Emily Caldwell at the Ohio State University News Room: For many, global public health seems like an abstract and distant problem – until the Ebola virus is diagnosed among people in our midst. Though no one would call the Ebola pandemic a good thing, it has presented an opportunity for scientists to alert the public about the dire need to halt the spread of infectious diseases, especially in developing and densely populated areas of the world.

“What often seems like an abstract notion becomes very concrete when a deadly virus previously contained in Western Africa infects people on American soil,” said Wondwossen Gebreyes, professor of veterinary preventive medicine at The Ohio State University. “It does create a certain sense of urgency and awareness that this world is much smaller than we think.”

Gebreyes is the lead author of an article published in the Nov. 13, 2014, issue of PLOS Neglected Tropical Diseases that makes the case for accelerating efforts to put “One Health” into action. One Health refers to a strategy to more fully understand and address the links between animal health, human health and the environment.

The paper emphasizes the danger of zoonotic infections – those transmitted from animals to humans – and the staggering damage they do, especially in developing nations that lack a variety of resources. These diseases don’t just kill people, but they cause tremendous economic harm in a variety of ways: killing livestock, reducing the ranks of qualified health and education providers, creating political unrest and stopping development in its tracks.

There is an urgent need for progress. Approximately 75 percent of emerging infectious diseases are those transmitted from animals to humans, and the world is on pace to experience at least one deadly disease outbreak each year.

...“To attain a true One Health approach, we need broad recognition of the interconnectivity among the health of humans, domestic or wild animals and the environment, which are all closely linked by the pathogens that they share,” he said....

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Ground water depletion driving global conflicts

Chris Arsenault at the Thomson Reuters Foundation: Global ground water supplies, crucial for sustaining agriculture, are being depleted at an alarming rate with dangerous security implications, a leading scientist said.

"It's a major cause for concern because most of the places where it (ground water depletion) is happening are major food producing regions," James Famiglietti, a University of California professor who conducts research for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), said in an interview with the Thomson Reuters Foundation. "India is the worst off, followed by the Middle East, and the U.S. is probably number three ... the Chinese, particularly on the north China plain, are more water limited than people believe."

Famiglietti's conclusions are based on his latest research paper "The global ground water crisis" published in the journal Nature Climate Change last month. The study uses analysis of satellite images to warn that ground water in many of the world's largest aquifers is being exploited at a far faster rate than it can be naturally replenished.

Farming accounts for more than 80 percent of the United States' water use, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and the figures are similar globally. Famiglietti has been called to the Pentagon a number of times to discuss the potential impact of groundwater scarcity with leading military planners....

A dried up pool at Fairburn Ings, shot by Bernard Bradley, Wikimedia Commons via Geograph UK, under the Creative Commons 2.0 license

Wildfire suppression a losing battle

Tim Radford in the Standard-Examiner via Climate News Network: A research report says towns, rural settlements and even whole societies will become increasingly vulnerable to catastrophic losses unless people learn to live with wildfire, rather than try to fight it.

But Max Moritz, of the College of Natural Resources at the University of California, Berkeley, and research colleagues from the United States and Australia report in Nature journal that they also found evidence from three continents suggesting that government policies can make things worse.

Fire-fighting strategies and land-use practices actually encourage development on inherently hazardous landscapes, and so risk making losses more calamitous in the decades to come as climate change and population increase exacerbate the hazard.

The researchers considered the Mediterranean basin of Europe, the southwestern U.S., and Australia — three regions in which wildfires play a part in the natural management of the ecosystems, and therefore all naturally at risk, and all home to communities badly hit by wildfires in recent years.

The research paper concludes: “The ‘command and control’ approach typically used in fire management neglects the fundamental role that fire regimes have in sustaining biodiversity and key ecosystem services. Unless people view and plan for fire as an inevitable and natural process, it will continue to have serious consequences for both social and ecological systems.”

Researchers develop new model to study epidemics

A press release from New York University: For decades, scientists have been perfecting models of how contagions spread, but newly published research takes the first steps into building a model that includes the loop linking individual human behavior and the behavior of the epidemic itself.

The first results of the highly complex modeling led by researchers at the New York University Polytechnic School of Engineering were recently spotlighted as “brilliant research” by the American Physical Society.

Eventually, the team hopes the model will more accurately predict who should be vaccinated and isolated first and what travel restrictions will be most effective in preventing different epidemics. The speed of mass communication and modern travel requires changes to most current models. Even underdeveloped countries now have electronic devices that quickly spread the word about diseases and airplanes can carry the infected everywhere nearly as quickly, explained Alessandro Rizzo, visiting professor of mechanical engineering and a leader of the research effort. Modeling thus must be improved by accounting for contagions that spread mor
e slowly than travelers and ones that spread more quickly.

The new model also takes into consideration the differing rates at which the infected and those who merely fear infection react and thereby spread disease. For example, prior work by other researchers indicates that symptomatic people will often self-isolate and—not surprisingly—that the actions of the infected are more relevant to the spread of an epidemic than those of healthy individuals who are avoiding a contagious area. But in some kinds of epidemics, ill people who are asymptomatic behave as if they are healthy, selfishly infecting others. The new model seeks to account for these individual reactions and more.  The research team expects that a fully tested and working model is several years away...

1918 image of a Spanish flu mask in New South Wales

Dengue's spread flies under the radar amid ebola scare

AFP: One of the most familiar sounds in Malaysia's capital is the approaching drone of a fumigation fogger spewing thick white plumes of insecticide, part of so-far futile efforts to arrest a spiralling dengue fever outbreak.

Malaysia is among several countries across Asia and Latin America grappling with a mosquito-borne virus that is proving tough to eradicate as it infects millions.

While the Ebola threat has captured headlines, the World Health Organization (WHO) warns that dengue -- while far less lethal -- has become one of the fastest-growing global health threats, contracted by 50-100 million people each year.

"The increase in dengue incidence and severity of the outbreaks is a global phenomenon, with a 30-fold increase over the past five decades," said Ahmed Jamsheed Mohamed, a doctor in the WHO's Southeast Asia office, adding that eradication is "not seen as feasible in the near future".

...While Ebola has killed nearly 5,000 people this year, mainly in west Africa, with an estimated 13,000 infections, dengue kills up to 20,000 annually, and 40 percent of the world's population live in dengue-risk areas....

Mosquito larvae, photo data unavailable 

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Florida water demand shrinks even as state, US grow

Andy Reid and Kevin Spear in the Sun-Sentinel (Florida): Aross the country and in Florida, Americans are only using as much water as almost 45 years ago, even though the population has grown by more than 100 million people, the U.S. Geological Survey reported this week. Environmentalists point to efficient toilets, low-flow showers and limits on lawn sprinkling, saying water conservation is the way to go.

"We have hardly scratched the surface of what can be achieved by really effective efforts toward water conservation," Audubon Florida's Charles Lee said in a comment on facebook.com/envirospear.

In Florida, increased water demand has been anticipated for years but has failed in nearly spectacular fashion to materialize. Earlier this year, a USGS report for Florida stated that freshwater use in the state decreased 22 percent from 2000 to 2010, while the state's population increased 18 percent. In South Florida, the amount of water used is about the same as it was in 1995, even with 1.1 million more people in the region, according to the South Florida Water Management District.

As a result, per capita water use in Broward, Palm Beach and Miami-Dade counties also dropped about 22 percent from 1995 to 2010, according to the district. In 1995, the average person in southeast Florida used 184 gallons of water per day. That dropped to 142 gallons per day by 2010.

Conservation efforts take much of the credit, district officials said. "Our freshwater is a limited resource," said Mark Elsner, the district's water supply administrator. "The conservation initiative is hitting. … We are definitely more efficient than we were 20 years ago."...

Aerial view of Jim Woodruff Lock and Dam, impounding Lake Seminole on the Chattahoochee River and Flint River confluence. The Apalachicola River flows out of the dam. The dam spans the Florida–Georgia border. US Army Corps of Engineers photo

Analysing heat waves – new index allows predicting their magnitude

A press release from the Joint Research Centre: JRC scientists have developed a new index to measure the magnitude of heat waves, in cooperation with colleagues from five research organisations. According to the index projections, under the worst climate scenario of temperature rise nearing 4.8⁰C, extreme heat waves will become the norm by the end of the century. Heat waves like the one that hit Russia in summer 2010, the strongest on record in recent decades, will occur as often as every two years in southern Europe, North and South America, Africa and Indonesia.

The Heat Wave Magnitude Index is the first to allow comparing heat waves over space and time. It takes into account both the duration and intensity of heat waves and can serve as a benchmark for evaluating the impacts of future climate change. Results also show that the percentage of global area affected by heat waves has increased in recent decades, and the probability of occurrence of extreme and very extreme heat waves is projected to increase further in the coming years.

The index is based on an analysis of daily maximum temperatures, which was carried out to classify the strongest heat waves that occurred worldwide during three study periods (1980-1990, 1991-2001 and 2002-2012). In addition, a combination of models is used to project the future occurrence and severity of heat waves, under different scenarios as established in the latest Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

Taking into account the disastrous effects of the 2003 and 2010 heat wave events in Europe, and those of 2011 and 2012 in the USA, results show that we may be facing a serious risk of adverse impacts over larger and densely populated areas if mitigation strategies for reducing global warming are not implemented...

Earth on the stove, shot by Lesserland, Wikimedia Commons, under the Creative Commons 0.0 license

The ‘Yolanda’ tragedy

Babe Romualdez in the Philippine Star: It’s been a year after that fateful day on November 8, 2013 – but to this day, no one can say for certain how many people perished in the aftermath of Typhoon Yolanda [also known as Haiyan]
.  Estimates on the number of casualties are as high as 7,000 with some 1,800 missing or presumed dead – which is not too far from the projection made by police chief superintendent Elmer Soria who was eventually sacked as Eastern Visayas regional head for saying the number of fatalities could reach 10,000.

No one could have predicted the kind of devastation that Yolanda would bring, with the super typhoon now having gained infamy as the strongest ever to hit not only the Philippines but the world – whose power was described by meteorologists as “off the charts,” and that its intensity could not be tracked or handled by widely used satellite intensity scales because it has approached the “theoretical maximum intensity for any storm, anywhere.”

As some experts have noted, no amount of preparation could have spared Eastern Visayas from the intensity of the super typhoon. This was particularly true with Tacloban City that was the hardest hit because its location put it in the middle of two bodies of water that hit it with towering waves as high as five meters brought about by the storm surge – the first one coming from the direction of the Pacific Ocean through Tacloban Bay, then the second one from Cancabato Bay.

Storms, typhoons, earthquakes and other natural calamities do not choose – they can hit any country regardless of economic stature, they do not distinguish  “names” nor political affiliation, neither religion nor social status. Devastating as they are, tragedies such as that wrought by super typhoon Yolanda can also bring out the best in people, seen in the way Filipinos banded together as they gave donations, volunteered time and effort to repack relief items and offered prayers for casualties as well as survivors. The response from the international community was – for lack of a better word – overwhelming, with help still pouring in until this very day to speed up the rehabilitation of the areas that were damaged....

Typhoon Haiyan viewed from the International Space Station, November 9, 2013

Vietnam eyes water-saving technology for its rice farms

Fatima Arkin in SciDev.net: Agriculture experts say application of alternate wetting and drying (AWD) technology in Vietnam’s rice farms, one of South-East Asia’s largest rice-producing countries, holds great promise in cutting water use and greenhouse gas emissions from rice cultivation without sacrificing yield output.

Vietnam along with Bangladesh and Colombia recently partnered with the Climate and Clean Air Coalition (CCAC) to introduce the large-scale application of AWD, also known as controlled irrigation in which farmers periodically drain rice paddies rather than keeping them perpetually flooded. The number of non-flooded days can range from 1 to 10 day
s. The technology can reduce water use by 25 per cent and estimated to cut methane from flooded rice field by 50 per cent.

But getting farmers to adopt it will be a struggle, Nguyen Hong Son, vice-president of the Vietnam Academy of Agricultural Sciences, tells SciDev.Net during an interview at the Fourth International Rice Congress in Bangkok, Thailand (27 October to 1 November).

...Aside from economic savings through lower water consumption and pumping costs, there is also evidence that AWD can help crops perform better and improve soil conditions so that machines can operate more efficiently in the fields, says Björn Ole Sander, who is coordinating the effort.

But AWD is not without controversy. Adopting the irrigation method will increase nitrous oxide emissions, which Sander himself acknowledges will be anywhere from 20 to 100 per cent. Still, given that paddy rice does not produce much nitrous oxide to begin with, the decrease in methane, which the crop produces in heaps, will more than offset any increase in nitrous oxide, says Sander. “We still have a huge overall reduction in greenhouse gas emissions,” he adds...

A rice farmer in Vietnam, shot by Wayne77, Wikimedia Commons, under the Creative Commons 3.0 license

Solving the poo problem in South Africa

Miriam Mannak in AllAfrica.com: Access to toilets for Cape Town's growing urban poor is a regular flash-point, featuring angry demonstrations and hurled allegations by competing political factions. The city - and the Western Cape province in which it is located - are governed by members of the Democratic Alliance. Most of the South Africa's people live in areas governed by the ruling African National Congress, which won over 60 percent of the votes in recent national elections.

But whoever is in charge, South Africa shares a practical and political headache with urban areas around the world: providing sanitation to an influx of people, primarily from poor rural communities. "On current evidence," writes Richard Palmer in a blog post carried on the Future Cape Town website,  "it seems the truth of the matter is that providing basic sanitation services to South Africa's poor seems too big a challenge for our major cities, regardless of who governs them."

A report by the South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC), published in March, doesn't leave much to the imagination. According to researchers, members of 1.4 million South African households don't have access to sanitation and are therefore forced to relieve themselves in the open. The bulk of them live in rural areas of KwaZulu-Natal, North West and the Eastern Cape.

Additionally, 26 percent of all South African households, 3.8 million in total, only have access to below-standard sanitation infrastructure. These facilities have crumbled and deteriorated to such extent that they can be considered unfit to be used....

A view of Soweto, shot by Medpro, Wikimedia Commons via Flickr, under the Creative Commons 2.0 license

Friday, November 7, 2014

Future air quality could put plants and people at risk

EurekAlert via Sheffield University: By combining projections of climate change, emissions reductions and changes in land use across the USA, an international research team estimate that by 2050, cumulative exposure to ozone during the summer will be high enough to damage vegetation. Although the research findings - published in Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics Discussions - focus on the impact in the USA, they raise wider concerns for global air quality, according to lead researcher Dr Maria Val Martin, from the University of Sheffield's Faculty of Engineering

"Modelling future air quality is very complex, because so many factors need to be taken into account at both a global and local scale," says Dr Val Martin. "The picture isn't uniform across the USA, with some areas seeing much higher surface ozone levels than others. However, our findings show that the emissions reductions we're expecting to achieve won't guarantee air quality on their own, as they will be offset by changes in climate and land use and by an increase in wildfires. This is an issue that will affect all parts of the world, not just the USA."

...The model showed that, if greenhouse gas emissions peak in 2040, then by 2050 surface ozone will remain below levels set to safeguard human health, despite increases in ozone caused by higher temperatures and changes in agriculture and forestation. If emissions continue to rise until 2100, then some areas of the USA will see surface ozone above the safe levels set for human health.

However, when the researchers looked at the cumulative impact of ozone over three months in the summer - a standard growing season - they found that under both scenarios, the surface ozone levels would be high enough to cause damage to plants. This was particularly because during the summer, there were higher emissions from transport and industry of nitrogen oxides, which react with sunlight to create ozone.

...Co-researcher Professor Colette Heald, from Massachusetts Institute of Technology, adds: "Poor air quality is not just an issue in cities. Air pollution in pristine regions such as National Parks degrades visibility and can damage ecosystem health. Protecting natural ecosystems - and our enjoyment of them - will require us to consider and manage the impacts of emissions and climate change on future air quality."

A scorched cornfield in Castroville, Texas, shot by Billy Hathorn, Wikimedia Commons, under the Creative Commons 3.0 license

Denying problems when we don’t like the solutions

A press release from Duke University: There may be a scientific answer for why conservatives and liberals disagree so vehemently over the existence of issues like climate change and specific types of crime. A new study from Duke University finds that people will evaluate scientific evidence based on whether they view its policy implications as politically desirable. If they don't, then they tend to deny the problem even exists.

“Logically, the proposed solution to a problem, such as an increase in government regulation or an extension of the free market, should not influence one’s belief in the problem. However, we find it does,” said co-author Troy Campbell, a Ph.D. candidate at Duke's Fuqua School of Business. “The cure can be more immediately threatening than the problem.”

...The researchers conducted three experiments (with samples ranging from 120 to 188 participants) on three different issues -- climate change, air pollution that harms lungs, and crime. “The goal was to test, in a scientifically controlled manner, the question: Does the desirability of a solution affect beliefs in the existence of the associated problem? In other words, does what we call 'solution aversion' exist?" Campbell said. "We found the answer is yes. And we found it occurs in response to some of the most common solutions for popularly discussed problems."

For climate change, the researchers conducted an experiment to examine why more Republicans than Democrats seem to deny its existence, despite strong scientific evidence that supports it. One explanation, they found, may have more to do with conservatives' general opposition to the most popular solution -- increasing government regulation -- than with any difference in fear of the climate change problem itself, as some have proposed.

Participants in the experiment, including both self-identified Republicans and Democrats, read a statement asserting that global temperatures will rise 3.2 degrees in the 21st century. They were then asked to evaluate a proposed policy solution to address the warming. When the policy solution emphasized a tax on carbon emissions or some other form of government regulation, which is generally opposed by Republican ideology, only 22 percent of Republicans said they believed the temperatures would rise at least as much as indicated by the scientific statement they read. But when the proposed policy solution emphasized the free market, such as with innovative green technology, 55 percent of Republicans agreed with the scientific statement.

...."Recognizing this effect is helpful because it allows researchers to predict not just what problems people will deny, but who will likely deny each problem,” said co-author Aaron Kay, an associate professor at Fuqua. “The more threatening a solution is to a person, the more likely that person is to deny the problem.”...

"Peter's Denial," by A.N. Mironov

Aid agencies adapt to Ebola challenge

IRIN: From using Bitcoins to fundraise, to adopting new strategies to prevent malaria victims appearing to be Ebola cases, to working with new partners - aid agencies in West Africa are learning to adapt fast. "The response to every humanitarian crisis has to be context specific," said Nigel Clarke, the director of programme development and quality for Save the Children's operations in Liberia. "That's the key standard that humanitarian agencies utilize in all crises. But this Ebola crisis is unprecedented because of all the associated risks of cross infection."

Humanitarian workers, for example, would normally want to bring people together during times of crises, to do things such as spread key messages, distribute food and other supplies, and sit down with communities in groups to discuss needs, Clarke said.  "But a lot of those things are not possible in this context and so we are having to sort of adapt as we go."

In order to help get the outbreak under control, they have now branched out and partnered with the governments of Sierra Leone, Cuba and the UK, as well as other health agencies and workers, to establish and run a treatment centre in Freetown's Kerry Town.  The new, 100-bed Ebola Treatment Unit is the first time that Save the Children has ever worked on a global health emergency in this capacity.

"We're all in a place now where we never thought we would be," said Rob MacGillivray, Save the Children's country manager in Sierra Leone. "In the past, we never considered direct case management, but eventually the outbreak overtook us and now we've had to fight this battle in a way we've never fought a humanitarian battle in the past."....

An ebola virus particle, shot by NIAID, Wikimedia Commons via Flickr, under the Creative Commons 2.0 license

Getting more out of Nature: genetic toolkit finds new maximum for crop yields

A press release from Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory: Scientists at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory (CSHL) today announced a new way to dramatically increase crop yields by improving upon Mother Nature’s offerings. A team led by Associate Professor Zachary Lippman, in collaboration with Israeli colleagues, has discovered a set of gene variations that can boost fruit production in the tomato plant by as much as 100%.

Plant breeders will be able to combine different gene variants among the set to create an optimal plant architecture for particular varieties and growing conditions. The set of mutations will enable farmers to maximize yield in tomatoes and potentially many other flowering plants, including staple crops like soybeans.

“Traditionally, plant breeders have relied on natural variation in plant genes to increase yield, but yield gains are plateauing,” Lippman notes. “There is an immediate need to find new ways for plant breeders to produce more food.” Worldwide more than 842 million people do not receive adequate nourishment, about 1 person in 8 alive today. The cost of food is expected to increase and hunger is likely to become more widespread as the global population expands to beyond 9 billion by 2050.

...In a study published today in Nature Genetics, Lippman’s team identifies an array of new gene mutations that allow, for the first time, a way to fine-tune the balance of florigen to anti-florigen. This maximizes fruit production without compromising the energy from leaves needed to support those fruits. “We mixed and matched all of the mutations,” explains Lippman. “And we were able to produce plants with a broad range of architectures. Together, our collection of mutations forms a powerful toolkit for breeders to pinpoint a new optimum in flowering and architecture that can achieve previously unattainable yield gains.”

The breakthrough benefit of the toolkit, says Lippman, is that it allows farmers to customize genetic variations for particular varieties and growing conditions. “For example, we found that different combinations boost yields for cherry tomatoes and other fresh-market tomatoes compared to tomatoes that are processed for sauce, ketchup, and other canned products.  We’ve tested this in multiple genetic backgrounds, in multiple years, and in multiple environments – and the toolkit always provides a new maximum yield.”...

Photo from the CSHL website: With multiple genetic variants, breeders can combine different mutations to provide a new optimum for their particular tomato variety (as shown above) and growing conditions.