Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Climate change responsible for super-charging winter storms, scientists say

Suzanne Goldenberg in the Guardian (UK): Winters may be getting shorter, but watch out when it does snow: climate change is super-charging storms like the blizzard engulfing the American north-east, scientists said on Monday.

The heavier storms of recent years – snowfalls that shut down cities and brought heavy flooding to coastal areas of New England – carried the imprints of climate change, as researchers get better at detecting the fingerprints of global warming – even from snow.

It was too soon to pin the current storm to climate change, but a trend line was emerging, the scientists said. “The snow season is getting shorter,” said Kevin Trenberth, a climate scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research. “But the interesting thing is you can end up with heavier snows in part because of climate change.”

In general, climate change produces more extreme precipitation in North America – and if it’s cold enough, that produces snow. ... Nor’easters pack their punch from the contrast between cold land temperatures at the warmer Gulf stream and surrounding waters. Five of New York’s biggest snow storms have occurred since 2000, and 2014 was the hottest year in 130 years of temperatures records.

...“You can easily get as much as 20% more snow out of a storm than you would otherwise, as long as it is cold enough so that all of that moisture gets converted into snow. And that is usually the case in the wintertime,” Trenberth said....

NASA image of the current visitor to Carbon Based headquarters, January 27, 2015

After ebola, what next for West Africa’s health systems

IRIN: As rates of Ebola infection fall in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone, planning has begun on how to rebuild public health systems and learn lessons from the outbreak. Nobody is declaring victory yet. But in Sierra Leone, the worst-affected country, there were 117 new confirmed cases reported in the week to 18 January, the latest statistics available, compared with 184 the previous week and 248 the week before that. Guinea halved its cases in the week to 18 January – down to 20 – and Liberia held steady at eight.

The epidemic is not over until there are zero cases over two incubation periods – the equivalent of 42 days. “It’s like being only a little bit pregnant – there’s no such thing as a little Ebola. We have to get to zero, there can be no reservoirs of Ebola,”  Margaret Harris, spokesperson of the World Health Organization (WHO), told IRIN.

But after 21,724 cases and 8,641 deaths in nine countries since the epidemic began in Guinea last year, there is some light. And health workers are already starting to look at what’s next. “Right now important meetings are going on in each country to work out what needs to be done to rebuild - in some significant respects to build health systems almost anew - and to build back better,” said Harris.

A European Union donor conference isdue at the beginning of March in Brussels. “What we want to see as a country is a resilient health system that can withstand shocks,” Liberia’s Assistant Health Minister Tolbert Nyenswah told IRIN. “Our plan [to be presented in Brussels] will be finalized by the end of February. It will be well costed with tangible goals.”

Ebola tested the public health systems in the three West African countries to near destruction – most places in the world would have also struggled. But where the three failed was at the basic “nitty-gritty” level of “standard surveillance, testing and monitoring, the containment of cases, the bread and butter of public health”, said Adia Benton, a social anthropologist at Brown University in Rhode Island....

Ebola training in Guinea, shot by CDC Global CDC Global, Wikimedia Commons via Flickr, under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License

Satellites for peat's sake

A press release from the European Space Agency: Satellites can help us to safeguard nature’s richest carbon storehouses – peatlands. Peatlands make up just 3% of land but capture twice as much carbon as all forests combined. They are also an important source of drinking water and provide a home to many rare and threatened animals and plants.

Ecosystems work best when left intact but these wetland areas are being threatened by human exploitation, resulting in vast carbon emissions, frequent and uncontrollable fires and loss of valuable landscapes.

 Rezatec in Oxfordshire, UK, supported by ESA’s Integrated Applications Promotions programme, in the Peat spotter project will give landowners an easier and cheaper way of calculating the potential economic value of conserving or restoring their peatlands and monitoring the results of their investment.

“Peat spotter helps landowners to manage their peat resource more sustainably through mapping the area, measuring the carbon it contains and monitoring how its integrity is changing over time,” says Patrick Newton, CEO of Rezatec.

To do this, satellite imagery is used to locate and create initial mappings of peatlands. This information is enriched with ground data collected by field agents using handheld devices. An app prompts users in the field for measurements, satnav adds location information, and the data are then sent directly to a centralised office via satcom for analysis. The new approach is a cost-effective way of measuring peat extent and how intact it is over wide and potentially remote areas that are otherwise expensive to measure or inaccessible from the ground....

A peat deposit in Hanhisuo, Finland, shot by Ohikulkija, Wikimedia Commons, under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license

Vitter: Obama's Climate agenda threatens flood insurance prices for Louisianians

We can expect to see more of this. From Insurance News Net: Today, Sen. David Vitter (R-La.), Chairman of the Small Business & Entrepreneurship Committee, sent a letter to President Barack Obama, regarding the Administration's recent efforts to develop expansive new federal floodplain management standards based on preconceptions in the President's Climate Action Plan. The Obama standards could drastically change floodplain maps, which would inevitably affect flood insurance rates.

"Before President Obama begins to meddle with floodplain standards, we need an open dialogue with those directly impacted by flooding and infrastructure development," said Vitter. "The worst part - the Administration's plans could unnecessarily drive up flood insurance rates on small businesses and others across Louisiana who rely on affordable flood insurance, as well as increase the costs to other funded infrastructure projects."

Vitter has extensively fought to lower flood insurance prices. Last year, Vitter helped pass a flood insurance fix bill to protect against unaffordable rate increases. He's also been working to get the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to reduce administrative costs of the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) and to increase participation in the program. According to the NFIB, nearly 40% of small businesses remain closed following a flooding disaster.

Last year, Vitter led efforts to pass the Water Resources and Reform Development Act (WRRDA) into law. As the lead Senate Republican on the conference committee who negotiated the final legislation, Vitter ensured that the bill included improved funding mechanisms to assist with flood control. In recent years, Vitter has also secured funding for flood control measures in Louisiana, enabling local officials to make key infrastructure improvements to better protect Louisianians....

Image from a 1973 flood in Pierre Part, Louisiana. National Archives photo

Wiggles: Inconsistencies undermine model reliability for projecting decade-to-decade warming

Science 2.0: A new study finds that most climate models may have wiggles that undermine accuracy - but they are likely underestimating the degree of decade-to-decade variability occurring in mean surface temperatures as Earth's atmosphere warms.

The models also provide inconsistent explanations of why this variability occurs in the first place and such discrepancies undermine the models' reliability for projecting the short-term pace as well as the extent of future warming, the study's authors warn.  As such, we shouldn't over-interpret recent temperature trends, no matter what blizzard his New York City and leads to exploitation of climate science to generate media pageviews.

"The inconsistencies we found among the models are a reality check showing we may not know as much as we thought we did," said lead author Patrick T. Brown, a Ph.D. student in climatology at Duke's Nicholas School of the Environment. "This doesn't mean greenhouse gases aren't causing Earth's atmosphere to warm up in the long run. It just means the road to a warmer world may be bumpier and less predictable, with more decade-to-decade temperature wiggles than expected. If you're worried about climate change in 2100, don't over-interpret short-term trends. Don't assume that the reduced rate of global warming over the last 10 years foreshadows what the climate will be like in 50 or 100 years."

To conduct their study, they analyzed 34 climate models used by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in its fifth and most recent assessment report, finalized last November.  The analysis found good consistency among the 34 models explaining the causes of year-to-year temperature wiggles, Brown noted. The inconsistencies existed only in terms of the model's ability to explain decade-to-decade variability, such as why global mean surface temperatures warmed quickly during the 1980s and 1990s, but have remained relatively stable since then....

Wrong kind of model -- Fashion Week in Budapest, shot from stylemagazin.hu, Wikimedia Commons

Monday, January 26, 2015

Going with the flow

A press release from the University of California-Santa Barbara: Millions of Americans live in flood-prone areas. In 2012 alone, the cost of direct flood damage hit nearly half a billion dollars. However, because the factors contributing to flood risk are not fully understood, river basin management — and even the calculation of flood insurance premiums — may be misguided.

A new study by UC Santa Barbara’s Michael Singer and colleagues presents a paradigm shift in flood hazard analysis that could change the way such risk is assessed in the future. The results are published in the journal Geophysical Research Letters.

Existing analyses attribute flood hazard to how often high water flows occur. They don’t, however, take into account the ability of river channels to accommodate them. The researchers present a novel method that compares the effects of channel capacity and stream flow on flood hazard frequency. They also document how flood hazard has changed over time in more than 400 streams across the United States.

“Our results demonstrate that changes in river channel boundaries directly impact flood hazard trends across the U.S.,” said Singer, an associate researcher at UCSB’s Earth Research Institute. “We show that in order to accurately calculate flood hazard and insurance premiums for river basins, channel capacity needs to be considered jointly with stream flow.”

...The findings revealed that important trends in channel morphology through time were three times more common than those related to water quantity, indicating that changes in the channel’s geometry tend to offset increases in water flow. “That raised alarm bells,” Singer said. “It suggests that a lot of areas that we might not have considered to have trends in flood risk actually do.”...

Red represents increases and blue decreases in flood hazard frequency. Deeper colors indicate sites with statistically significant trends. Image from the UC Santa Barbara website

Climate change influences the quality of life for Kenyan women

Dr, Fibian Lukalo in AllAfrica.com via the Star (Kenya):
...According to the United Nations Population Fund, women in sub-Saharan Africa walk an average of 6km each day to collect water. Many times this water is not even safe for drinking and places a heavy burden on these women. Water weighs 3.6kg per gallon [A litre of water weighs 1kg, hence a 5litre container means 5kg].

Women risk a lot, physically, emotionally and mentally to carry back to their families (on their backs) life itself! The situation is dire for pregnant women who risk premature births, prolapsed uterus, back injuries and lower reproductive tract infections.

This female connection to water goes way beyond the symbolism found in history, religion, cultural practices and norms, literature and legend. Some examples include the foundation of Timbuktu (Mali), Mami Wata (West Africa), and the legend of the Red Bull (South Africa). Women are affected to a much greater degree by climate change and the socioeconomic and environmental disasters it brings.

Here in Kenya, the vicious nature of water seeking to follow its course will be witnessed by the flooding to occur in Budalangi, Nyando, Kano plains, Athi plains, Ewaso Nyiro basin and parts of all major cities. In regard to saving the lives of women in the 47 counties, can we as a nation have a county water meter?

...For all the mothers living in flood plains, this rainy season you will be experience a decline in supplies of quality water sources and food [grown on land]. Other declines will include low supplies of dry firewood, an increase in poverty, low nutritional levels, poor sanitation, susceptibility to physical injuries, increase in water-based vector diseases, cholera, malaria infections, lowering educational standards, scarcity in food supply, employment and income opportunities....

Children carrying a jerry can of water in Wajir, Kenya, photo by Oxfam East Africa Oxfam East Africa, Wikimedia Commons via Flickr, under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Greenland Ice: The warmer it gets the faster it melts

Space Daily via SPX: Melting of glacial ice will probably raise sea level around the globe, but how fast this melting will happen is uncertain. In the case of the Greenland Ice Sheet, the more temperatures increase, the faster the ice will melt, according to computer model experiments by Penn State geoscientists.

"Although lots of people have thought about sea level rise from the ice sheets, we don't really know how fast that will happen," said Patrick Applegate, research associate, Penn State's Earth and Environmental Systems Institute.

If all the ice in the Greenland Ice Sheet melts, global sea level would rise by about 24 feet. In the last 100 years, sea level in the New York City area has only increased by about one foot. However, storm surges from hurricanes stack on top of this long-term increase, so sea level rise will allow future hurricanes to flood places where people are not ready for or used to flooding. A vivid example occurred during Hurricane Sandy when parts of the New York City subway tunnel system flooded.

Greenland might be especially vulnerable to melting because that area of the Earth sees about 50 percent more warming than the global average. Arctic sea ice, when it exists, reflects the sun's energy back through the atmosphere, but when the sea ice melts and there is open water, the water absorbs the sun's energy and reradiates it back into the air as heat.

Arctic sea ice coverage has decreased over the last few decades, and that decrease will probably continue in the future, leading to accelerated temperature rise over Greenland. Floating ice does not add to sea level, but the Greenland Ice Sheet rests on bedrock that is above sea level.

Feedbacks in the climate system cause accelerated temperature rise over the Arctic. Other feedbacks in the Greenland Ice Sheet that contribute to melting include height-melting feedback. A warm year in Greenland causes more melt around the edges of the ice sheet, lowering the surface. The atmosphere is warmer at lower altitudes, so the now lower surface experiences even more melting. This process can lead to accelerated ice melt and sea level rise....

A glacier seen from offshore near Amassalik, Greenland, shot by Christine Zenino Christine Zenino ,Wikimedia Commons via Flickr, under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license

Friday, January 23, 2015

Indigenous people measure carbon that satellites miss

Bjorn Carey in Futurity via Stanford University: Indigenous people govern about half of all remaining undeveloped land on the planet. New research with indigenous people in the Amazon suggests they may outperform satellites in measuring the true carbon storage potential of the rainforest. That finding could influence how indigenous people in Guyana and elsewhere manage their forests and may lead to greater opportunities for these communities to engage in carbon offset programs.

The project, described in the journal Forest Ecology and Management, grew out of efforts to engage indigenous peoples to gain better understanding of ecosystems that have been relatively undisturbed by modern civilization. ...“The people know the trails really well, and some of them will walk two days to get to their plot and make measurements,” Fragoso says. “They can make really good measurements in really isolated areas, where government workers would never get to. Generally, professional scientists will not travel these distances on foot to verify carbon estimates.”

While satellite observations would most likely identify each of these plots as “forest” and assigned them a standardized value for carbon storage, the field workers identified 11 habitat types with trees, each of which requires a different set of calculations for determining its carbon storage potential. Because they could be more specific about the biomass of each vegetation type making up a plot, they were able to calculate that forests in Guyana contain 20 to 40 percent more carbon than previously estimated.

...These areas probably play a much larger role in the global climate than previously assumed, Fragoso says, and indigenous people need to be better represented at global climate talks. These land-owners have more carbon storage at their disposal to sell as carbon credits to governments and corporations looking to offset their greenhouse gas-producing activities.

...This is the first model for turning indigenous people into field researchers capable of producing scientifically rigorous calculations for carbon, says Fragoso, who is now planning to share the concept with other indigenous nations around the world.

Rainforest in Guyana, shot by Loriski, Wikimedia Commons, under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Drought triggers insurance payout in Sahel ahead of humanitarian aid

Business Ghana: ARC Insurance Company Limited (ARC Ltd) will pay US $25 million in drought insurance claims to three countries in the Sahel this month. Mauritania, Niger and Senegal, which paid a combined premium of US $8 million, will use the payout to mobilize early interventions in response to drought; based on pre-approved contingency plans.

The catastrophe insurance model was developed specifically for unique African climate issues by the African Risk Capacity (ARC), a Specialized Agency of the African Union, and its affiliated mutual insurance company, ARC Ltd. The inaugural pool was set up in 2014 to help Member States build resilience to extreme weather events and protect food insecure populations. Coverage for tropical cyclones and floods will be available in 2016.

"This African-owned approach is addressing specific country-level climate change concerns, decreasing reliance on external aid, and promoting a sustainable solution to one of our continent's biggest challenges." said Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, Nigeria's Minister of Finance and Chair of ARC's Governing Board.

By purchasing parametric drought insurance policies last year, Kenya, Mauritania, Niger and Senegal became the first African countries to embrace this new model of innovative funding, taking a major step in transforming the disaster response paradigm on the continent

Robert Piper, the UN regional humanitarian coordinator for the Sahel, acknowledged."These first payouts by ARC represent a milestone in Government leadership and financial innovation for emergency response across the Sahel. ARC's information and action is spearheading what will be a substantial global emergency response over the coming months to mitigate what could otherwise become a major food security crisis."...

Harmattan dust obscures the harbor at Saint-Louis, Senegal, a few miles from the Mauritanian southern border. This sort of weather is common in the Sahel climatic zone in December. Photo taken at about 4 p.m. in the afternoon. Shot by T.K. Naliaka, Wikimedia Commons,  under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Water crises seen as a top threat in next decade

Lou Del Bello in SciDev.net: Pressure on fresh water resources may be the main global threat in the next decade, but the world is failing to mitigate the risk and avoid a crisis, according to a survey of leaders from business, government, universities, international organisations and NGOs by non-profit foundation the World Economic Forum (WEF).

Published in its Global Risks 2015 report released ahead of the WEF’s annual meeting in Davos, Switzerland, this week (21-24 January), the survey reveals a belief that water crises pose the greatest risk in terms of global impact. This places it ahead of hazards such as the spread of infectious diseases, the failure to adapt to climate change and interstate conflict, prompted by the rise of the Islamic State.

The WEF defines water crises as a significant decline in freshwater quality and quantity, resulting in damage to human health or economic activity or both. The report points to a study projecting that, by 2030, the global demand for water will exceed sustainable supplies by 40 per cent. Most of the world’s water supply is currently used in agriculture, according to the UN, with the World Bank predicting that food demand will rise by fifty per cent in the next two decades, as population grows and dietary habits change.

The looming shortages may be aggravated by an 85 per cent increase in water demand from the energy sector by 2035, the International Energy Agency anticipates....

Lake Vianden in the Netherlands, shot by Vincent de Groot - http://www.videgro.net, Wikimedia Commons, under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 license 

Sunday, January 11, 2015

From the US Drought Monitor

The US Drought Monitor: Very cold weather returned to the western and central U.S. in late December and early January, accompanied by light precipitation. From January 2-5, snow covered at least 50% of the contiguous U.S. By the afternoon of January 6, the NWS had issued wind chill advisories for Deep South Texas and along and east of a line from eastern Montana to the central Gulf Coast, excluding southern Florida.

...In California’s key watershed areas, mostly dry weather prevailed for a second consecutive week, following a highly beneficial, 3-week wet spell. By January 4, heavy precipitation briefly overspread non-drought areas of the Pacific Northwest, leading to melting snow, local flooding, and mudslides. Farther east, soaking rains returned across much of the South, erasing most of the lingering concerns about dryness and drought. Some of the heaviest rain, generally 2 to 4 inches or more, fell from eastern Texas to the southern Appalachians.

In contrast, Florida’s peninsula experienced an extended period of warm, mostly dry weather, although colder air arrived late in the drought-monitoring period. Elsewhere, mostly dry weather in the upper Midwest contrasted with periods of precipitation from the Ohio Valley into the Northeast.

The adaptation imperative

Achim Steiner (the executive director of the UN Environment Programme) in Project Syndicate: ... The good news is that the Lima “Call for Climate Action” made sufficient progress to enable preparations for a comprehensive climate deal in Paris. But it also left many questions unresolved – a shortcoming that was reflected in discussions on adaptation. Though the new emphasis on this important topic is welcome, how to deliver the funding, technology, and knowledge that countries, communities, and ecosystems need to adjust to climate chang
e requires further articulation.

Even if we limit the rise in global temperatures, climate change is here to stay. Communities are already facing more extreme and frequent droughts, floods, and other weather events. These consequences will only intensify.

Yet the UN Environment Programme’s first adaptation report, released in Lima, showed that the world remains wholly unprepared to cover the costs of adaptation. And those costs will be far higher than was previously thought. According to the report, even if the temperature target is met, the cost of adaptation will reach 2-3 times the previously anticipated $70-100 billion per year by 2050 (an increase of as much as fivefold is possible, though less likely).

....To be sure, the world is making some progress toward addressing adaptation needs. Adaptation funding from public sources reached $23-26 billion in 2012-2013. According to a recent assessment by the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, global financial flows for mitigation and adaptation measures amounted to $340-650 billion in 2011-2012.

Furthermore, pledges at the Lima conference by Australia, Austria, Belgium, Colombia, Norway, and Peru bring the Green Climate Fund to nearly $10.2 billion. And the impact of climate change is increasingly, though still inadequately, being factored into national and local budgets.

But much more financing will be needed to prevent a funding gap after 2020. The Green Climate Fund, for example, is supposed to reach $100 billion per year – ten times higher than it is now – in the next five years....

Alfred Thompson Bricher (1837-1908), "Crashing Waves," date unknown

MPs to investigate TTIP trade deal's impact on European environmental protections

Damian Carrington in the Guardian (UK): The impact of the controversial Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) trade deal on environmental protections in Europe is to be investigated by the UK parliament. MPs are to examine if the agreement could weaken regulations on chemical and pesticide use, oil and gas extraction and genetically modified food.

The Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) is a planned free trade agreement between the European Union and the US, which its backers say will boost both economies. But critics fear it will weaken regulations and place the interests of companies above those of citizens, with 1.25 million people signing a petition against TTIP. The ongoing negotiations have been criticised for their secrecy, prompting the European Commission to release a slew of documents on Wednesday, including some negotiating texts.

“Greater transatlantic trade and investment could be beneficial for Britain, but we must monitor these talks carefully to ensure they are not trading-in the rules that keep our food and environment safe,” said Joan Walley MP, chair of the Environmental Audit Committee (EAC), which launched its inquiry on Friday. “We will be investigating whether it really is possible to sign such a deal and at the same time safeguard European environmental standards, as negotiators have claimed.”

A recent report from the Center for International Environmental Law (Ciel) argues that the European chemical industry wants the US system of chemical risk assessment to be adopted, which the group says would allow the use of over 80 pesticides currently banned in the EU. Other campaigners say US biotech companies want to use TTIP to open EU borders to imports of genetically modified food.

...Trevor Hutchings, at WWF UK, said the US-EU trading relationship is the largest in the world and as a result places significant pressure on the environment. TTIP should improve, not reduce, environmental protection, he said: “Unfortunately a number of TTIP provisions have the potential to undermine existing environmental standards.”...

A view of a German chemical plant, shot by Eugen Nosko - Deutsche Fotothek, Wikimedia Commons, under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Germany license

Canal could turn Lake Nicaragua into ‘dead zone’

Paula Leighton in SciDev.net: The Interoceanic Canal that will run through Lake Nicaragua could kill life in the vast lake and have other serious effects on the country’s environment and economy unless safeguards are put in place, an independent international panel of experts has warned.

Scientists from the InterAmerican Network of Academies of Science joined biodiversity, engineering and hydrology experts from the Nicaraguan Academy of Sciences (CAN) and the International Council for Science (ICSU) to warn that the project must minimise “unintended adverse consequences” that could do economic, environmental and social harm.

Because of a lack of publicly available information from the Nicaraguan government and HKND, the Chinese firm building the canal, the panel sought to identify “the main technical and scientific questions” in order to “contribute to a public and transparent debate”, Jorge Huete-Pérez, CAN vice-president, tells SciDev.Net.

The water in Lake Nicaragua, Central America’s largest lake, is currently suitable for drinking, irrigation and “other ecosystem services essential to Nicaragua’s economy”. The lake is particularly vulnerable because it is shallow, with an average depth of 12.5 metres, and is exposed to wind action that encourages sediment to be brought back into suspension

Canal construction, which began last month, will require the lake to be dredged to a depth of 30 metres for 105 kilometres. Together with ongoing maintenance and traffic, it will considerably lower water quality and may impair the lake’s usefulness, says the summary document of a workshop on scientific and technical issues associated with the canal, held in Managua, Nicaragua, on 10-11 November....

An 1870 map of an earlier attempt at a canal across Nicaragua. Created by Julius Bien and Company, it is titled Panoramic View of the Nicaragua Canal

New research outlines global threat of smoldering peat fires

A press release from the Desert Research Institute: ...New research published this week in the journal Nature Geoscience, co-authored by Adam Watts, a fire ecologist at Nevada’s Desert Research Institute (DRI) and deputy director of DRI’s Climate, Ecosystems, Fire and Applications Program, outlines the threat of drying peatlands (also known as mires) across the globe and their increased vulnerability to fire and carbon loss.

Peatlands – which make up around three-percent of the Earth’s land surface and store approximately 25-percent of the world’s soil carbon – are deposits of plant material and organic matter mixed with soil that is too wet to support high levels of decomposition. Peatlands are found on all seven continents. Already the largest fires on Earth in terms of their carbon footprint, these smoldering fires burn through thick layers of peat, built up over thousands of years, which blanket the ground in ecosystems ranging from the tropics to the arctic.

"When people picture a forest fire, they probably think of flames licking up into tree tops, and animals trying to escape,” said the study’s lead author Merritt Turetsky, a professor of Integrative Biology at University of Guelph in Ontario, Canada. “But peat fires tend to be creeping ground fires. They can burn for days and weeks, even under relatively wet conditions. They lack the drama of flames, but they produce a lot of smoke.”

That smoke contains large amounts of carbon and makes peat fires dangerous to human health. It can worsen air quality and even trigger asthma and other respiratory problems. “In addition to the amount of carbon released, the types of emissions also can make smoldering fires of greater concern than fires where most of the combustion takes place in flames,” said Watts, who is studying the emissions from burning peat and many other types of organic fuels with his DRI colleagues to determine their potential effects in the atmosphere and on our global climate.

“Peat fires are an example of wildfires having effects far beyond the areas where they occur, and these effects can last for a very long time,” he added....

A peat fire in Selengor, Malaysia, shot by Tan Yi Han, Wikimedia Commons, under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Ebola vaccine will soon be tested in West Africa

Richard Harris at NPR's "Goats and Soda" blog: Ebola vaccine developers are on track to start testing their products in West Africa in about a month, the World Health Organization said at a press conference today. And it's a race against the clock — testing will become more challenging if the number of new Ebola cases continues to drop.

Two vaccines have already passed the preliminary safety trials — one from GlaxoSmithKline and a second being developed by Merck and a small biotech company called NewLink Genetics. The
next step is to find out whether either or both will actually protect people from this deadly disease.

Testing has been a delicate subject, because the most effective tests involve a comparison group that will not receive an actual vaccine – at least not right away. Some people object to tests like this because they feel they are being exploited as experimental subjects.

But vaccine organizers hope they've found a way to involve West African citizens without alienating them. Liberia, Sierra Leona and Guinea each have different testing strategies, Dr. Marie-Paule Kieny, Assistant Director-General at the WHO, said at a news conference Friday.

Liberia's current plan is to test both vaccines in a head-to-head trial, and have a third group that will receive a placebo shot. Each of the three groups will include 9,000 volunteers. That test could start as early as the end of January, Dr. Kieny says....

Friday, January 9, 2015

Epic survey finds regional patterns of soot and dirt on North American snow

C. Dang in EurekAlert via the University of Washington: Snow is not as white as it looks. Mixed in with the reflective flakes are tiny, dark particles of pollution. University of Washington scientists recently published the first large-scale survey of impurities in North American snow to see whether they might absorb enough sunlight to speed melt rates and influence climate.

The results, published in the Journal of Geophysical Research, show that North American snow away from cities is similar to Arctic snow in many places, with more pollution in the U.S. Great Plains. They also show that agricultural practices, not just smokestacks and tailpipes, may have a big impact on snow purity.

During their almost 10,000-mile trek across North American snowfields, the researchers were particularly interested in the Bakken oil fields of northwest North Dakota. "With all this oil exploration, diesel trucks and new oil wells, people wondered: Is there a huge amount of air pollution making the snowpack darker?" said lead author Sarah Doherty, a research scientist at the UW's Joint Institute for the Study of the Atmosphere and Ocean.

What they found was that these activities do appear to be adding extra soot to the snow, but perhaps just as important is the dirt. Disturbance from clearing oil pads, new housing sites and all the extra truck traffic on unpaved roads means dirtier snow. But even away from the oil fields, soil is disturbed by agriculture. "Our work suggests that land use and farming practices might matter as much as diesel emissions in many parts of the Great Plains," Doherty said.

....Their main focus was black carbon, a very light-absorbing particle emitted by burning diesel, coal or wood. Many countries have regulated black carbon because of its effects on air quality and human health, but more recently climate scientists also have become interested because the tiny particles darken the snow and hasten melting. The cleanest samples they collected were from northern Canada, with overall levels of black carbon, or soot, similar to that of Arctic snowpack. The Pacific Northwest and Rocky Mountain states had levels slightly higher. The Great Plains readings were more variable and sometimes two to three or more times higher than in other parts of the country, typically 15 to 70 nanograms of soot per gram of snow....

A snowy landscape in Theodore Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota. National Park Service photo

Europe’s olive trees threatened by spread of deadly bacteria

Arthur Neslen in the Guardian (UK): First it was Europe’s ash trees under threat from disease. Now it’s the continent’s olives in the firing line. A killer pathogen that has established itself in southern Italy is now “very likely” to spread, posing a major risk to European olive trees, according to an assessment by the European Food Safety Authority (Efsa).

Xylella fastidiosa, also known as olive leaf scorch, has taken hold in the Apulia region at the southernmost tip of Italy, where several thousand hectares of olive plantations are now affected. The bacterium kills infected plants by preventing water movement in trees, causing leaves to turn yellow and brown before falling off, their branches following soon after.

Its “establishment and spread in the EU is very likely,” the scientists’ report says. “The consequences are considered to be major because yield losses and other damage would be high and require costly control measures.”

The disease’s impact comes on top of a particularly bad year for Spanish and Italian olive growers in 2014 due to pests and the weather, with harvests in Italy down 40-50%. Spain and Italy account for 70% of Europe’s olive output, leading to warnings that olive oil prices will rise. “The outbreak in Apulia is very severe,” said Giuseppe Stancanelli, one of the report’s advisors. “The bacteria is deadly and many plants in Lecce province are dying because of it.”

Xylella is an exotic pathogen common in the Americas and the Middle East, which is thought to have been brought to Europe by infected insects carried with plant commodities, or travelling as stowaways....

An olive tree, shot by Anna Anichkova, Wikimedia Commons, under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license

Pakistan's coastal villagers retreat as seas gobble land

Rina Saeed Khan in Reuters via the Thomson Reuters Foundation: For fisherman Sammar Dablo, it was as if "the seawater stole our homes" when land erosion forced his village to relocate further inland on Pakistan's south coast.

The people of the fan-shaped Indus Delta, where the Indus River meets the Arabian Sea, are among the poorest of the poor, mostly illiterate and living in wooden shacks on the mud flats. As seawater has washed into the delta, destroying thousands of hectares of fertile land and contaminating underground water channels, they survive by fishing in the saltwater creeks where dolphins are a common sight.

...The move was not easy, as households had to spend 15,000 rupees ($149) each to build new huts for themselves, he added. The story of Phirt village is not an isolated case. According to Dablo, many other communities in the delta are also shifting as their land disappears.

The latest scientific report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change pointed out that at the same time as sea levels are rising, most Asian deltas are sinking due to groundwater extraction, floodplain engineering and the trapping of sediment by dams.

The Indus Delta has seen an 80 percent reduction in sediment since the early 20th century, according to a 2009 paper published in Nature Geoscience. Around 20 dams and a large number of canals divert the waters of the Indus River, depriving the delta of fresh water.

Some inhabitants have moved to inland mud flats, where they do not have to buy the land they occupy. Others are decamping to Karachi’s coastal villages where relatives have settled. ... Climate change is clearly increasing vulnerabilities in the delta area. Sea-level rise is contributing to higher storm surges, erosion, flooding and salinity, according to WWF-Pakistan...

NASA view of the Indus River delta

German heart disease deaths from heatwaves to rise fivefold

Sophie Yeo in Responding to Climate Change: Five times as many people will die of heart disease in Germany by 2098 as climate change causes more intense heatwaves. This is the finding of a study which the German government has funded as part of their climate adaptation strategy.

The valleys of the Rhine, the Danube and some regions in the East will suffer the most. Specifically, the Upper Rhine valley will experience heatwaves of over 31C each day by the end of the century, the authors found. They say that research rarely investigates how climate change will impact cause specific deaths.

“Studies investigating the heat-mortality relationship are of major importance to design preventive measures, which are able to minimize the future heat wave risks,” said Stefan Zacharias from the German Meteorological Service, which conducted the research

The results are based on a moderate emissions scenario up to 2098. Coronary heart disease is responsible for around 17% of all deaths in Germany. Between 2001 and 2010, it killed an average of 403 people on every summer day where temperatures were normal. This increased by 15.2% during heatwaves, adding up to 331 excess deaths every year.

Climate models suggest that, by the end of the 21st century, heatwaves in Germany will be three times as frequent, 25% longer, and around 1C hotter....

Combined heat and power station in Hanover-Linden, Germany. View in westerly direction from an adjacent high-rise of the "Ihmezentrum" housing area. Shot by ChristianSchd Christian Schröder, Wikimedia Commons, under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license

More Malawi floods in the next two weeks

Yamikani Yapuwa and Memory Kutengule in AllAfrica.com via Malawi News Agency:  The Department of Climate Change and Meteorological Services has warned of high rainfall amounts which will eventually trigger flash floods and flooding in potential flood prone districts in the next two weeks. Director of Climate Change and Meteorological Services Jolam Nkhokwe said the trend is as a result of the activeness of Congo air mass coupled with a low pressure area in the Mozambique Channel.

He said: "Our two main rain bearing systems which are the Inter Tropical Convergence Zone (ITCZ) and Congo air mass coupled with a low pressure area located in the Mozambique Channel remain active. "This will consequently cause wide spread rainfall associated with high rainfall amounts. The high rainfall amounts cumulatively are expected to trigger flash floods and flooding in potential flood prone districts such as, Nsanje, Chikhwawa, Phalombe, Mangochi, Salima, Nkhata bay and Karonga," warned Nkhokwe.

Nkhokwe further warned that during this period severe thunderstorms are expected and would be accompanied by strong winds and lighting because of the accumulation of heat energy in the atmosphere. "The general public is therefore being advised to be indoors during periods of severe thunderstorms to avoid lighting strikes and should take caution when crossing swelling rivers," cautioned Nkhokwe.

And Assistant District Disaster and Risk Management Officer for Blantyre, Alibewake Maulawo has disclosed to Malawi News Agency that at least 561 households in Blantyre District have been affected by the stormy rains since October last year....

Locator map of Malawi by TUBS, Wikimedia Commons, under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Scientists 'must be emotionally charged' about climate change to highlight its dangers, claims expert

Tom Bawden in the Independent (UK): Climate scientists must inject more emotion and personal experience into their communications with the public to underline the dangers of global warming, according to a leading professor.

Chris Rapley, a professor of climate science at University College London, is urging colleagues to ditch “academic, fact-based approaches” to the subject in favour of “charged” narratives. He recently performed 2071, a one-man show giving a personalised account of what climate change means for him, at the Royal Court theatre in London and the Deutsches Schauspielhaus in Hamburg.

Professor Rapley was prompted to do his show amid a growing realisation that scientists were not communicating the dangers of climate change and the importance of tackling it as well as they could. “There is a growing recognition among the science community that results that are emotionally, ideologically or politically charged need to be communicated using a different approach to the traditional ‘information deficit’ method,” Professor Rapley told The Independent.

“A narrative approach in which the scientist offers  the insights based on their personal experience provides a powerful alternative. But  it is one with which academics, trained to adopt an ‘academic’, fact-based approach, and driven to satisfy professional norms of impartiality and objectivity, find themselves uncomfortable.”

He added: “Not all scientists have to engage with society as communicators or as participants in policymaking, but a sufficient numberneed to do so in order to justify society’s investment in their science,” he said....

A polar bear in Spitzbergen, shot by Jerzy Strzelecki, Wikimedia Commons, under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license

Travel chaos as heavy snow hits Turkey

Terra Daily via AFP: Heavy snowfall descended on large parts of Turkey on Tuesday, snarling road and air traffic and leading to closures of schools, reports said.

In the northern province of Karabuk, a school bus went off the road and turned over on to its side in slick conditions caused by snow, leaving a student dead and 18 others injured, the Dogan news agency reported.

The snowfall also seriously disrupted road traffic across Turkey and caused trouble with the electricity network causing some power cuts, particularly in the northern parts of the country.

Turkey's national flag-carrier Turkish Airlines cancelled 44 international and domestic flights in and out of Istanbul and some other cities including the capital Ankara.

In mega-city Istanbul, the authorities appeared to take every precaution including closing down schools. But the snow has so far failed to appear in the city in the quantities predicted. Some ferries across the Bosphorus have been cancelled....

A 2008 snowstorm in Istanbul, shot by David Benito davidbenito, Wikimedia Commons via Flickr, under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license 

Drought led to massive “dead zone” in Lake Erie

A press release from the Carnegie Institution: Lake Erie just can’t catch a break. The lake has experienced harmful algal blooms and severe oxygen-depleted “dead zones” for years, but now a team of researchers led by Carnegie’s Anna Michalak and Yuntao Zhou has shown that the widespread drought in 2012 was associated with the largest dead zone since at least the mid-1980s.

Until now, the size of the dead zone each summer and the factors explaining the variability from year to year have been elusive. Using 28 years of data collected in and around the lake, the team
was able to “measure” the size of the dead zone each summer and identify factors that explain the year-to-year variability for the first time. They found that the 2012 drought, with extremely low water inflow from tributaries, was associated with a record-breaking dead zone in the lake, and that meteorological factors together with agricultural practices explain why these events vary annually. Previous studies have focused on phosphorous from agricultural runoff as the primary driver of the lake’s dead zones, but this analysis shows that the inflow of water from tributaries is actually the largest explanatory factor. The results are published in Environmental Science & Technology.

“Fresh water dead zones—areas depleted of oxygen—result when massive amounts of phosphorus and nitrogen are added to the water, often from fertilizer runoff from agriculture,” explained Michalak. “The excessive nutrients promote excessive growth of algae. When the algae die and decompose, the oxygen in the water gets used up and can drop to levels too low for aquatic life to survive. This happens especially when the water is stratified, with warm water layered on top of cold water, keeping new oxygen from reaching the bottom of the lake.”

The revelation about the size of the dead zone in 2012 comes on the heels of the record-setting harmful algal bloom that occurred in 2011, and the closure of the Toledo water supply in August 2014 due to high concentrations of Cyanobacteria-produced toxins at the city’s water intake. Whereas the record-setting dead-zone event occurred during the 2012 drought, the 2011 record-setting algal bloom was attributed to intense spring storms and various other confounding factors....

NASA image of a 2011 toxic algae bloom in Lake Erie

Predicting ENSO devastation

Sandhya Sekar in SciDev.net:A new computer model can help forecast the socio-economic devastation caused by rainfall and floods triggered by the El Nino-Southern Oscillation (ENSO) phenomena.  Philip Ward from VU University, Amsterdam, who with his colleagues created the ‘cascade’ modelling framework, says that it is capable of predicting the effect of ENSO on floods at the global and regional scales.

“During El Niño years, the risk is higher than average in north-eastern India, the findings suggest,” says Ward in an interview with SciDev.Net. “On the other hand, some basins in eastern India show lower than average damage during La Niña years.”

ENSO refers to the effects of anomalous sea surface temperatures off the western coast of South America that cause climatic changes across the tropics and subtropics. Southern Oscillation refers to temperature variations on the surface of the tropical eastern Pacific Ocean (warming and cooling known as El Niño and La Niña, respectively) and in  surface  air pressure in the tropical western Pacific.

Ward’s approach, published in September in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, combines three different models that predict rainfall, water drainage patterns and also the socio-economic impacts of floods, including on GDP.

The models found abnormal flood volumes across more than a third of the earth’s surface during El Nino years when the oceans were warmer than usual, and also during La Nina years when the oceans were colder.  “Our models and results are already at a resolution of one square kilometre which we have found to be very useful for many users of the data in practical applications,” Ward tells SciDev.Net....

Sunrise over the South Pacific, NASA image from the International Space Station

China encourages environmental groups to sue polluters

The Guardian (UK) via AFP: China on Wednesday granted public interest groups more power to sue those that flout environmental protection laws, the country’s highest court said, as Beijing steps up efforts to curb pollution that regularly chokes major cities.

Social groups that work to fight polluters judicially will gain special status and have court fees reduced, the Supreme People’s Court said on its website. They will also be allowed to sue firms or individuals across China, regardless of where the organisation is based.

The term the court used for the groups covers both NGOs and government-backed organisations, although it was not immediately clear whether independent environmentalists will benefit from the regulations.

China has more than 700 registered and regulated environmental protection groups, the official Xinhua news agency cited a ministry official as saying. The new rules came into force on Wednesday, the court said, adding that they were issued “in response to questions on the matter”.

A side effect of the country’s meteoric economic rise of recent decades has been severe pollution in major cities, leading to increased public
dissatisfaction that has unnerved the ruling Communist Party. Recent studies have shown that roughly two-thirds of China’s soil is estimated to be polluted, and that 60% of underground water is too contaminated to drink...

Beijing smog, shot by Kevin Dooley Kevin Dooley, Wikimedia Commons via Flickr, under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

European temperature records smashed amid 2014 heat wave

The Japan Times via AFP: The year 2014 broke a series of heat records in France, Britain, Germany and Belgium, weather agencies reported Monday. In France, “2014 was the hottest year since 1900,” the Meteo-France weather agency said in a statement.

The country’s average annual temperature in 2014 was 1.2 degr
ees Celsius (2.2 degrees Fahrenheit) higher than normal, defined by the long-term average for 1981-2010. The year 2014 dethroned 2011 as the previous warmest year, which was an average 1.1 higher than the benchmark.

Meteo-France also pointed to records in Germany and Belgium, saying in both countries the average annual temperature in 2014 was 1.4 higher than normal. In Britain, provisional data showed 2014 was the country’s warmest year since 1910, according to the Met Office.

The mean temperature in 2014 was 9.9, 1.1 degrees above the 1981-2010 average or 0.2 degrees higher than the previous record of 2006, it said. Eight of Britain’s top 10 warmest years have happened since 2002.

Fifteen of the hottest years in France since the start of the 20th century have been in the last 25 years, Meteo-France said. “In Paris, the thermometer went below 0 C only on two days, compared to the usual 25-odd days of subzero temperatures per year,” it added....

Plate 8, Turgot map of Paris, from 1739

Monday, January 5, 2015

Why we need to reduce our "hidden water" usage

Environmental News Network: The Institution of Chemical Engineers (IChemE) is urging coordinated action to reduce the amount of hidden water used in food and drink production – estimated at up to 1.8 million litres per person every year equivalent to an Olympic size swimming pool.

Each person consumes between 2,000-5,000 litres of water embedded in their food, every day – or between 730,000-1,825,000 million litres annually. Currently, around 90 per cent of all freshwater is used by agriculture (70 per cent) and industry (20 per cent), leaving just 10 per cent for domestic use.

However, as the population grows and more people move to a western-style diet, water extraction is estimated to increase by over 50 per cent to 6,900 billion m3 per year. By 2050, the overall impact will see around two thirds of the world’s population living in ‘water scare’ areas, compared to just seven per cent at present.

Andy Furlong, IChemE director of policy, said: “Chemical engineers provide many of the high level skills needed to provide the water, food, medicines and energy to sustain our ever-growing population. In recent years and decades, we have seen how difficult it has been to agree and set targets to manage issues like climate change. Population growth will throw up similar challenges and will have a direct impact on two of the building blocks for life – food and water. Estimates suggest that we will need to produce 60 per cent more food by 2050. Agriculture will need around 19 per cent more water to produce that extra food...."...

Water distribution in Tipon, Peru, in the Sacred Valley Incan ruins, shot by McKay Savage McKay Savage, Wikimedia Commons via Flickr, under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license 

Good news on forests and carbon dioxide

NASA: A new NASA-led study shows that tropical forests may be absorbing far more carbon dioxide than many scientists thought, in response to rising atmospheric levels of the greenhouse gas. The study estimates that tropical forests absorb 1.4 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide out of a total global absorption of 2.5 billion -- more than is absorbed by forests in Canada, Siberia and other northern regions, called boreal forests.

"This is good news, because uptake in boreal forests is already slowing, while tropical forests may continue to take up carbon for many years," said David Schimel of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California. Schimel is lead author of a paper on the new research, appearing online today in the Proceedings of National Academy of Sciences.

Forests and other land vegetation currently remove up to 30 percent of human carbon dioxide emissions from the atmosphere during photosynthesis. If the rate of absorption were to slow down, the rate of global warming would speed up in return.

The new study is the first to devise a way to make apples-to-apples comparisons of carbon dioxide estimates from many sources at different scales: computer models of ecosystem processes, atmospheric models run backward in time to deduce the sources of today's concentrations (called inverse models), satellite images, data from experimental forest plots and more. The researchers reconciled all types of analyses and assessed the accuracy of the results based on how well they reproduced independent, ground-based measurements. They obtained their new estimate of the tropical carbon absorption from the models they determined to be the most trusted and verified.

...The question of which type of forest is the bigger carbon absorber "is not just an accounting curiosity," said co-author Britton Stephens of the National Center for Atmospheric Research, Boulder, Colorado. "It has big implications for our understanding of whether global terrestrial ecosystems might continue to offset our carbon dioxide emissions or might begin to exacerbate climate change."

As human-caused emissions add more carbon dioxide to the atmosphere, forests worldwide are using it to grow faster, reducing the amount that stays airborne. This effect is called carbon fertilization. "All else being equal, the effect is stronger at higher temperatures, meaning it will be higher in the tropics than in the boreal forests," Schimel said....

Deep forest in Malaysia, shot by Ksmuthukrishnan, Wikimedia Commons, under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license