Friday, February 29, 2008

Follow-up to Bali: Conference on development and disaster response

Underway right now, according to the Norway Post: The two-day conference “Changing the way we develop: dealing with disasters and climate change”, is being arranged under the umbrella of the Oslo Policy Forum 2008, in cooperation with the UN Development Programme (UNDP) and ProVention Consortium.

The focus will be on the political and economic challenges involved in adaptation to climate change and the need for more proactive efforts in this area. The conference is expected to result in practical recommendations on how adaptation to climate change and prevention of humanitarian crises can be integrated into development cooperation.

Ghana, Malawi, Vietnam and Norway will be represented at political level. Bangladesh, Canada, China, Denmark, Finland, France, India, Italy, Indonesia, Luxembourg, Norway, Sweden, Switzerland and the UK are among the countries that will be represented at senior-official level. The Secretary-General of the World Meteorological Organization (WMO), the UNDP directors of development policies and crisis prevention, and the Secretary-General of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) will participate, as well as Professor Jeffrey Sachs (Columbia University) and others.

Oslo seen from the King's castle, Bjørn Erik Pedersen, Wikimedia Commons

Future 'battlegrounds' for conservation very different to those in past

Terra Daily reports on a study about mismatches and discrepancies in the struggle to preserve biodiversity: Biologists at the University of California, San Diego have developed a series of global maps that show where projected habitat loss and climate change are expected to drive the need for future reserves to prevent biodiversity loss.

Their study, published online in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B, provides a guide for conservationists of the areas of our planet where conservation investments would have the most impact in the future to limit extinctions and damage to ecosystems due to rapid human-driven climate and land-use change.

The researchers found that many of the regions that face the greatest habitat change in relation to the amount of land currently protected -such as Indonesia and Madagascar-are in globally threatened and endemic species-rich, developing tropical nations that have the fewest resources for conservation.

Conversely, many of the temperate regions of the planet with an already expansive network of reserves are in countries-such as Austria, Germany and Switzerland-with the greatest financial resources for conservation efforts, but comparatively less biodiversity under threat.

"There's a huge discrepancy between where the world's conservation resources are concentrated and where the greatest threats to biodiversity are projected to come from future global change," said Walter Jetz, an assistant professor of biological sciences at UC San Diego, who headed the study. "The developed nations are where the world's wealth is concentrated, but they are not the future battlegrounds for conservation."

"While many details still have to be worked out, our study is a first baseline attempt on a global scale to quantitatively demonstrate the urgent need to plan reserves and other conservation efforts in view of future global change impacts," he added.

…To conduct their study, the researchers examined the impact of climate and land use changes on networks of biological reserves around the world and contrasted them to four projections of future global warming, agricultural expansion and human population growth from the global Millennium Ecosystem Assessment. They discovered that past human impacts on the land poorly predicted the future impacts of climate change, revealing the inadequacy of current global conservation plans.

"The past can only guide you so much in the future," said Tien Ming Lee, a graduate student and the first author of the study. "This is why we may have to change our future conservation priorities if we want to be effective in conserving biodiversity in the long run."

Lee said the study also confirmed the longstanding argument that wealthy countries with few threats to future biodiversity loss would do better to spent their conservation dollars on underdeveloped countries with greater threats of future extinctions than in their own backyards. "Tropical countries are currently sitting on vast tracts of forests that are substantial carbon sinks and if they can get adequate financial help to protect these habitats, both global climate change and biodiversity loss could be mitigated," he said. Funding for the study was provided by the National Science Foundation.

Daintree Rainforest, "Adz," Wikimedia Commons

Evidence of 'rain-making' bacteria discovered in atmosphere and snow

Science Daily: Brent Christner, LSU professor of biological sciences, in partnership with colleagues in Montana and France, recently found evidence that rain-making bacteria are widely distributed in the atmosphere. These biological particles could factor heavily into the precipitation cycle, affecting climate, agricultural productivity and even global warming. Christner and his colleagues published their results on Feb 29 in the journal Science.

Christner's team examined precipitation from global locations and demonstrated that the most active ice nuclei -- a substrate that enhances the formation of ice -- are biological in origin. This is important because the formation of ice in clouds is required for snow and most rainfall. Dust and soot particles can serve as ice nuclei, but biological ice nuclei are capable of catalyzing freezing at much warmer temperatures. If present in clouds, biological ice nuclei may affect the processes that trigger precipitation.

Biological precipitation, or the "bio-precipitation" cycle, as David Sands, Montana State University professor of plant sciences and plant pathology calls it, basically is this: bacteria form little groups on the surface of plants. Wind then sweeps the bacteria into the atmosphere, and ice crystals form around them. Water clumps on to the crystals, making them bigger and bigger. The ice crystals turn into rain and fall to the ground. When precipitation occurs, then, the bacteria have the opportunity to make it back down to the ground. If even one bacterium lands on a plant, it can multiply and form groups, thus causing the cycle to repeat itself.

"We think if (the bacteria) couldn't cause ice to form, they couldn't get back down to the ground," Sands said. "As long as it rains, the bacteria grow."

The team's work is far-reaching. Sands and his colleagues have found the bacteria all over the world, including Montana, California, the eastern U.S., Australia, South Africa, Morocco, France and Russia.

These research findings could potentially supply knowledge that could help reduce drought from Montana to Africa, Sands said. The concept of rain-making bacteria isn't far-fetched. Cloud seeding with silver iodide or dry ice has been done for more than 60 years. Many ski resorts use a commercially available freeze-dried preparation of ice-nucleating bacteria to make snow when the temperature is just a few degrees below freezing…

Rain near the village Lunde, the north of Funen, Denmark, by Malene Thyssen, Wikimedia Commons

Rock studies help crack questions of glacier thinning in West Antarctica

British Antarctic Survey: Boulders the size of footballs could help scientists predict the West Antarctic Ice Sheet’s (WAIS) contribution to sea-level rise according to new research published this week in the journal Geology.

Scientists from British Antarctic Survey (BAS), Durham University and Germany’s Alfred Wegener Institute for Polar and Marine Research (AWI) collected boulders deposited by three glaciers in the Amundsen Sea Embayment – a region currently the focus of intense international scientific attention because it is changing faster than anywhere else on the WAIS and it has the potential to raise sea-level by around 1.5 metres.

Analysis of the boulders has enabled the scientists to start constructing a long-term picture of glacier behaviour in the region. An urgent task is to put recent ice sheet changes into a historical context, and determine if these are part of a natural retreat since the end of the last glacial period (about 20 thousands years ago), or if they are a result of recent human-induced climate change.

Lead author Dr Joanne Johnson of BAS says, “Until now we didn’t know much about the long-term history of this part of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet because the region is incredibly remote and inaccessible. Our geological findings add a new piece to the jigsaw and will be used for improving computer models – the most important tools we have for predicting future change.”

Initial results show that Pine Island Glacier has ‘thinned’ by around 4 centimetres per year over the past 5,000 years, while Smith and Pope Glaciers thinned by just over 2 cm per year during the past 14,500 years. These rates are more than 20 times slower than recent changes: satellite, airborne and ground based observations made since the 1990s show that Pine Island Glacier has thinned by around 1.6 metres per year in recent years.

The scientists reached their conclusions by investigating how long the boulders have been exposed to cosmic radiation rather than being shielded by ice or sediment. Co-author Dr Mike Bentley from the University of Durham said, “When rocks are left high and dry by thinning glaciers they are exposed to high energy cosmic rays which bombard the rock. This creates atoms of particular elements that we can extract and measure in the laboratory - the longer they have been exposed the greater the build-up of these elements. The discovery that we can place a fix on when rocks were left behind by the ice has revolutionised our understanding of how the Antarctic ice sheet has behaved in the past. "

One of the boulders in questions, from the British Antarctic Survey

Caribbean countries should be compensated for global warming

Sir Ronald Sanders, a Caribbean diplomat, raises issues of climate justice and compensation in the Huntington News (West Virginia): The Caribbean is a victim of climate change caused by larger countries and yet no attempt is made to compensate the area for the damage being done to it by the profligate emissions of harmful gases by larger countries.…In a real sense, the countries of the Caribbean are paying for the abuse by other countries.

… With insurance companies raising premiums with each hurricane, and commercial banks charging high rates of interest on loans, plus the high cost of importing material, the cost of doing business in the Caribbean becomes increasingly more prohibitive in the face of climate change.

This observation is true too for non-tourism business. Heavy rains and flooding affect agricultural production in the small islands and in the mainland territories. In Guyana, for instance, heavy and unseasonable rainfall threatens the sugar and rice industries and makes dry-weather roads from the interior dangerous if not impassable. In turn, this affects the costs of transportation in critical areas such as forestry.

What all this adds up to is that the region becomes less attractive as an area for doing business.

The question arises as to what can be done about it? The experts call for programme to be agreed at a global level that would compel individual states, particularly the major users of fossil fuels to cut down on the emissions of harmful gases. Attempts to do achieve this have been lukewarm at best.

…One salvation for small island states and mainland territories with low lying coastlands is that climate change is beginning to affect industrialised countries as well. They too have low lying areas that are threatened by the sea and by rivers.

…So far in the Caribbean, the focus has been on measures to mitigate the impact of climate change. These measures have been viewed in the context of what individual countries could do to limit the damage caused by disasters and how best they might try to recover from them. But, no Caribbean country has sought to introduce into trading arrangements the matter of compensation for the damage being done to the region by the emissions from the industrialised countries.

Yet, if the Caribbean is so low an emitter of harmful carbons but is a major victim of the high emissions of many of its trading partners, surely a formula could be worked out by which the Caribbean trades its low use for meaningful development assistance.

No doubt, the trading partners such as the EU, who at 14%, are the third largest emitter of harmful gases, would argue that such a discussion should take place in an international forum such as the World Trade Organisation (WTO) or the Kyoto Protocol. And, undoubtedly if the Caribbean were to try to introduce the notion of compensation for its low emissions and damage caused by high emitters, there would be considerable resistance.

But every journey starts with a first step. And, the Caribbean could take the first step by introducing the concept in the African, Caribbean and Pacific group and exploring whether, together, they might advance the idea in the international institutions such as the UN and the WTO.

Map of Caribbean Islands by Raimond Spekking, Wikimedia Commons

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Denial goes solar: Here comes the sun, again

Bad Astronomy takes on the recent recurrence of that hardy meme, the sun (not human activity) is causing climate change: For some reason, people want to blame the Sun for global warming. This, despite there being no evidence for it, and plenty of evidence against it. The latest round was brought to my attention from DarkSyde, a science blogger at DailyKos. In an article he put up last night, he notes that an online mag called Daily Tech has a blogger who is claiming that last year was cooler than average… which contradicts a study by NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies that shows that last year was among the hottest on record.

Which one is right? Duh. NASA. The Daily Tech columnist evidently confused a below-average January temperature for an entire year’s worth. Oops.

He also quotes anecdotal data about places having cooler than normal weather. While he acknowledges this is only anecdotal data (though it’s his biggest paragraph in the story), he forgets that scientists have been saying for years now that global warming does not mean every place on Earth gets hotter. Some places get colder, much colder. The weather patterns changes, and arctic air can be brought down to areas on the planet that don’t usually get them.

…The Daily Tech article is very misleading — even plain old wrong — and that hurts the rational discourse on this topic… especially when garbage hounds like Matt Drudge pick up on it, as he did on his website today. The comments on the Daily Tech article are full of errors, too: several people are saying it’s the Sun causing this climate change. That is utter baloney.

Let me make that clearer: BALONEY. I wrote about this extensively in my upcoming book, so I talked to quite a few solar astronomers about this very topic. In general the solar output varies very little over the course of a year, less than 1%. Over the whole sunspot cycle, though, it’s a little more complicated. The sunspots darken the Sun by about 1%, but they are surrounded by regions called faculae, which are actually brighter in the visible and ultraviolet. So when the Sun is its spottiest, it’s actually brighter than average by about 0.1%.

At most, this would raise the temperature of the Earth on average by 0.2 degrees Celsius (and it’s generally less), and we are measuring increases much larger than that (not to mention the trending just keeps going up, and doesn’t rise and fall with the sunspot cycle). People have also tried to tie global warming to sunspots by invoking cosmic rays; when sunspots are at a minimum the Sun’s magnetic field is weakest, and it lets subatomic particles from outer space into the solar system. This can seed clouds (so it’s claimed) and cool the Earth. Maybe, kinda, sorta. The evidence for this is incredibly weak, and it’s not taken very seriously yet.

People who try to tie global warming to the Sun are in for a losing fight, it seems, though in many cases this just makes them scream all the louder. But they have very very spotty (har har) evidence, and what they do have does not come close to explaining the rise in temperature we see on Earth.

This image shows the Sun as viewed by the Soft X-Ray Telescope (SXT) onboard the orbiting Yohkoh satellite, NASA Goddard Laboratory for Atmospheres, Wikimedia Commons

Flood mitigation in New York state

Since Carbon-Based is located in “southern tier” of New York, I hope you’ll indulge a little local news, from WBNG News (Binghamton, New York): Governor Eliot Spitzer today announced that New York State, through the State Emergency Management Office (SEMO), will provide $650,000 to local governments for flood mitigation projects with strong educational and training components that address watershed management. The announcement was made by Michael Balboni, the administration’s Deputy Secretary for Public Safety, at the 2008 Flood Summit which convened today in Binghamton.

The Summit was proposed by Governor Spitzer to provide a forum for discussing a variety of issues associated with flooding, such as watershed management, state and local response activities and ways government can better protect our residents and property.

Over the last four years, New York has been struck by nine floods so serious that they were all declared major federal disasters. The cost of these events was staggering, with nearly $500 million spent for emergency response and repairs to the public infrastructure alone.

“Today’s summit brings together state and local officials, as well as other stakeholders, to develop a comprehensive strategy to address flooding across the state,” said Governor Spitzer. “With the funds made available today, State Emergency Management will enable local governments to help their communities mitigate, prepare for and respond to flooding.”

The grant program will be administered by SEMO. As in past grant rounds, SEMO will notify County Executives, County Emergency Managers, and County Hazard Mitigation Coordinators of the program details and deadlines; this information will also be available in notices placed in the New York State Register.

Applications for these mitigation funds will be evaluated based on their expected effectiveness at educating the public about mitigation programs and opportunities, training local officials and volunteers about measures and techniques proven to reduce the loss of lives and properties from disasters, and enhancing previous and current mitigation projects and activities. Examples of eligible projects include:

  • Working with local public works officials and contractors to determine appropriate stream management techniques for their community;
  • Educating local elected officials about techniques to protect and restore important public documents that could be damaged in a disaster;
  • Training school officials about steps they can take to avoid the loss of life, destruction of records, or damage to public educational facilities;
  • Identifying local hazards and developing related outreach activities; and
  • Developing and implementing public awareness or education campaigns about locally-identified risks and appropriate preparation and response.

Senator John Bonacic said: “We need a substantial state investment in flood prevention. There is simply no reason why we should spend millions of dollars on post-flood activity when we can invest monies more wisely in pre-flood mitigation. This funding is a good first step, but we will need a continuous investment in order to provide a permanent solution to prevent flood damage.”….

Flood mitigation of the Old School: Noah's Ark by Edward Hicks (1780-1849), Wikimedia Commons

Scientists advance 'drought crop'

BBC News: Scientists say they have made a key breakthrough in understanding the genes of plants that could lead to crops that can survive in a drought. Researchers in Finland and the United States say they have discovered a gene that controls the amount of carbon dioxide a plant absorbs. It also controls the amount of water vapour it releases into the atmosphere. This information could be important for food production and in regulating climate change.

Plants play a crucial role in the regulation of the atmosphere by absorbing carbon dioxide from the air. They absorb the gas through tiny pores on their leaves called stomata and these pores also release water vapour as the plant grows. In extremely dry weather, a plant can lose 95% of its water in this way. Scientists have been trying to find the gene that controls the response of the stomata for decades.

Now teams in Finland and California are reporting in the journal Nature that they have found a crucial genetic pathway that controls the opening and closing of these pores. The researchers say that this understanding could allow them to modify plants so that they continue to absorb carbon dioxide but reduce the amount of water released into the atmosphere, enabling them to thrive in very dry conditions.

Professor Jakko Kangasjarvi from the University of Helsinki says this work is the first step on that road "It opens the avenue, it is still several years away but before this publication, there was no single component which would have so many different effects... there was no target to modify, now we know the target," he said.

While the experiments have been done in a variety of cress, the scientists say that the underlying genetic mechanisms are the same in many food plants, including rice. It is believed that this new genetic understanding of how to control the amount of water that plants use could be commercialised within the next 20 years.

Dry earth in the Sonora desert, Mexico, Tomas Castelazo, Wikimedia Commons

Quantifying climate deaths

Dr Simon Lewis is a Royal Society research fellow at the Earth and Biosphere Institute, University of Leeds. In a comment in the Guardian (UK), he asks, what is the mortality burden of climate change? It’s not an easy question: …We know that climate change-related events are killing people, yet there is no comprehensive global monitoring program to document the lives lost due to climate change. There is no official climate-change body count.

…The World Heath Organisation publishes the only global estimate of the number killed by climate change - about 150,000 annually. Worryingly, this estimate comes from a single modelling study in 2002, and includes only four impacts of climate change (deaths from one strain of malaria, malnutrition, diarrhoea-type diseases and flooding). It is, as the authors point out, a highly conservative first estimate and, by now, considerably out of date.

Why are we relying on a single, limited, out-of-date study for our information on the numbers of people killed by climate change? This is not a criticism of the WHO; the real question is why they are apparently alone in this effort. The core of the climate-change community, of course, is that group studying the atmosphere. Their questions therefore don't often relate directly to human health. The medical profession is obviously more interested in saving lives now than in the slower and longer term effects of climate change, and so have been late in engaging with the question.

Naturally, funding influences which questions are answered. Politicians have not asked for a body count. But why not? Perhaps there are parallels with another politically charged issue involving widespread mortality, where nobody counted: the war in Iraq. Governments probably do not want to hear about people dying in foreign lands because of their own choices. Who is going to fund comprehensive studies when the headline might read "British carbon emissions responsible for 3,000 deaths last year"?

The precise relationship between greenhouse gas emissions and deaths that both the environmentalists and Judge Cooper wanted information on should not be beyond scientists in the future. Equivalent statements are routinely made by medical specialists, such as the proportion of all stroke deaths attributable to hypertension in a given year, or attributing lung cancer deaths to passive smoking. It is merely a question of deciding whether it is an important question to answer.

Such an understanding is essential for two quite different reasons. First, it is a basic issue of justice. The dead should be remembered and their families and friends should understand the factors involved in their deaths. Second, it seems likely that the numbers of people killed by climate change has been significantly underestimated. This means that, in addition to issues of the morality of equating human lives with the time spent waiting in airport queues, such cost-benefit analyses used to shape government policy with major climatic impacts, such as building a new runway at Heathrow, are likely to be biased by underestimating the cost in human lives of such decisions.

US National Cemetery in Arlington, Virginia, Turelio, Wikimedia Commons

Monsoon intensity driven by Earth's orbit, says a study that uses a new measuring technique

A little bit down in this story from Terra Daily (via Agence France-Presse) is a mention of new tool for paleoclimatology – measuring oxygen isotope ratios in stalagmites: The monsoon rains that drench tropical and subtropical Asia from June through September vary in duration and intensity in keeping with tiny wobbles in Earth's orbit as it circles the Sun, according to a study released Wednesday. These cycles wax and wane every 23,000 years, said the study, based on the breakthrough use of stalagmites from a cave in central-eastern China to measure changes in climate patterns over the last quarter million years.

"The implications are that the present Asian summer monsoon is relatively weak in comparison to a few thousand years ago and that is will stay at this level for centuries more," lead researcher Hai Cheng of Nanjing Normal University in China's Jiangsu Province told AFP. The findings, however, do not take into account the relatively recent impact of greenhouse gas-driven global warming, which climate scientists predict could significant alter monsoon patterns.

Three irregularities in the movement of Earth -- its orbit, the angle at which it is tilted, and the axis of rotation -- all combine to create a periodic variation in the amount of incoming solar radiation, explained Cheng. It is this so-called precessional cycle that is largely responsible for longterm changes in monsoon duration and strength, the researchers found.

Monsoons occur with the seasonal reversals of wind directions caused by temperature differences between the land and sea. While found elsewhere in the world, they are most pronounced in Asia in part due to the impact of the massive Tibetan Plateau.

Economies in tropical and sub-tropical Asia, especially around the Indian subcontinent, depend on monsoon rainfall to grow crops on land that is largely unirrigated. But heavy monsoons can also bring massive flooding, causing severe economic damage and loss of life.

As significant as the findings, arguably, are the methods used to collect them. Cheng and his colleagues measured the oxygen isotope ratios locked in the stalagmites built up from the floor of the Sanbao Cave to determine changes in climate over millennia, said the study, published in the British journal Nature. Compared with other commonly used proxies of paleoclimatology such as tree-rings and ice cores, speleothems -- as these mineral deposits are called -- provide a record over a much longer timescale.

This technique "will likely replace the Greenland ice records as the chronological benchmark for correlating and calibrating climate variability," said Cheng. It also allows for a new level of precision, achieved by measuring the growth of the isotope thorium-230 from the slow radioactive decay of uranium, found in trace amounts in the deposits.

"What emerges is a record of monsoon variation unprecedented in its detail and chronology stretching back 224,000 years," said Jonathan Overpeck and Julia Cole, both geologists at the University of Arizona, in a commentary, also in Nature. The word "monsoon" is thought to have originated from the Arabic word "mausim," which means season.

Cave vulcanos on the floor of Gruta da Torrinha, Chapada Diamantina, Bahia, Brasil, by Renata Shibuta Marques, Wikimedia Commons

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

There will be floods

A friend of Carbon-Based, Alex Prud'homme, has a pertinent piece in today's New York Times: Last month, a 30-foot section of levee ruptured in Fernley, Nev. While the cause of the breach, which swamped 450 homes and forced dozens of people to evacuate, is unknown, anyone familiar with the drowning of New Orleans by Hurricane Katrina will tell you this: Levees fail.

Indeed, there are more than 100 antiquated earthen berms across the country in danger of collapsing. What happened in Nevada is a harbinger of a much larger problem nationwide.

In Texas City, Tex., for instance, levees protect 50,000 residents and $6 billion worth of property, including almost 5 percent of the nation’s oil-refining capacity. Imagine the consequences, in this day of $100-a-barrel oil, if those defenses fail.

Even more vulnerable are the 1,100 miles of levees in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, north of San Francisco. Cobbled together 150 years ago to provide farmland, they are now part of an intricate, fragile system that supplies fresh water to California, the eighth-largest economy in the world.

On a recent visit, I noticed that the water had risen nearly to the top of the levee on one side, while the land had subsided at least 30 feet below on the other side. The water pressure against the decrepit berm was palpable. Should the levee crack, be overtopped by a storm or liquefied by an earthquake, saltwater will surge inland, destroying lives, perhaps flooding Sacramento and paralyzing California.

A year ago the United States Army Corps of Engineers, which builds and maintains many of these levees, admitted that 122 are at risk of failure. California, with 37 at-risk levees, and Washington State, with 19, are the worst off. But the list includes levees near Albuquerque, Detroit, Hartford, Honolulu, Los Angeles, Omaha and Washington.

These levees were designed poorly and built of whatever material was close at hand — clay, soft soil, sand mixed with seashells. Tree roots, shifting stones and rodents weaken them further. The land the berms are built on often subsides, while the waters they restrain constantly probe for weak spots.

Sadly, America’s flood-protection system has long been undermined by bureaucratic turf wars, chronic underfinancing by Congress and a lack of political leadership. The heart of the problem is the Corps of Engineers, which Congress has “streamlined” relentlessly for decades, imperiling its mission through budget cuts and neglect. The Corps has a good set of engineering guidelines for levees, but it doesn’t always follow them. Now largely staffed by civilians, the Corps has a backlog of projects it does not have the money to accomplish.

Business has also ignored the levee problem. Developers, abetted by the Supreme Court’s vague 2006 ruling on the Clean Water Act, have rushed to fill in wetlands and build in floodplains.

But water is an inexorable force that, sooner or later, will assert itself. This is a lesson others have taken to heart. In 1953, a hurricane in the North Sea breached dikes and flooded the Netherlands, setting off a period of national soul-searching. Realizing that they had suffered from poor engineering and communication, the Dutch spent billions of dollars to create a world-class flood control system and are now armed for a once-in-10,000-year event.

The United States isn’t even prepared for a once-in-100-year event. In light of climate change, we need to emulate the Netherlands and make flood protection a national priority.

For starters, we need to reinvigorate the Army Corps of Engineers and give it a mandate to build and maintain a coherent, robust, nationwide flood protection system — as opposed to the ineffective, piecemeal measures that failed so catastrophically in New Orleans.

Second, the laws stemming from the 1928 Flood Protection Act, which immunize the Corps from prosecution when its levees fail, must be repealed. Already, the Corps has quietly begun to decertify some of its levees, effectively abdicating responsibility when disaster strikes.

And finally, citizens and businesses who benefit from levees should apply their skills and resources to their upkeep. For years, we have relied on dredging, bulldozing and building ever-taller walls to control nature. Instead, the Corps should work with other government agencies, businesses, scientists and environmental groups to develop a greener, more intelligent system that integrates traditional engineering with natural defenses like wetlands, islands and reeds. Such an approach will be costly and require maintenance, but will prove far more effective than our current methods.

The need to eliminate dangerous levees gives Congress the chance to rethink land and water use, and how they are connected. We should integrate nature and technology, build only in areas that can be adequately protected and allow some wetlands to return to their naturally unconstrained state. After all, experts say, there are only two types of levees: those that have failed, and those that will fail. If we have learned anything from Hurricane Katrina, it’s that we cannot simply wish natural flooding away.

A river levee is blown up at Caernarvon, Louisiana during the Mississippi flood of 1927. The source for this image is US Army Corps of Engineers (via Wikimedia Commons), and the incident shown is vivid reminder of the Corps’ shocking irresponsibility when it comes to maintaining levees – according to many, the dynamiting was done to save the wealthier sections of New Orleans, but it flooded much of St. Bernard’s Parish and Plaquemines Parish. The Corps never even says “my bad.”

In Vietnam, scientists grapple with global climate change, development

Viet Nam News: Climate change now affected food and energy as well as water resources and biodiversity across the globe, Meteorology, Hydrology, and Environment Institute director Tran Thuc warned yesterday. "The sooner we deal with climate change, the less future consequences we will have to carry," he told a national climate-change conference in Ha Noi. "How to tackle climate change and develop is the question we are trying to answer," he said.

…About 250 scientists and staff of science, technology, and natural resources and environment departments attended the conference. They discussed 16 reports and provided ideas and comments for a draft national programme to adapt to climate change.

…Chief technical adviser to the Viet Nam-Sweden Co-operation Programme for Strengthening Environmental Management and Land Administration, Per Bertilsson, described how several European countries were dealing with climate change. Denmark had created a new Climate Ministry last November, he said. Its brief was to work on climate change mitigation and adaptation and to prepare for Denmark’s hosting of the 15th world climate meeting in Copenhagen.

Sweden’s climate strategy and policy was to reduce the country’s greenhouse gas emissions by 4 per cent in 2008-2010 against the 1990’s figure and 50 per cent by 2050. Sweden’s Government also worked on raising taxes on carbon dioxide and lowering taxes for workers and environmental-friendly cars, he said.

Environment Research, Education and Development Centre representative Vu Van Ninh highlighted the fact that 90 per cent of the global climate change was caused by humans and their use of fossil fuel for industrial development.

The four-day workshop has been organised by the Viet Nam Association for Conservation of Nature and the Environment with support from the Environmental Protection Department, the Meteorology and Hydrology, and Environment Institute and the Viet Nam Union of Scientific and Technological Associations. The delegates will visit Giao Thuy District in northern Nam Dinh Province, 100km south of Ha Noi, tomorrow to examine how climate change has affected the life of coastal people and what they are doing to adapt.

Photo of a parched field from Dien Bien province, from VNA/VNS, by Xuan

Eroding Alaska native village sues energy companies

The Environment News Service reports on a trend that will only gather momentum In the years ahead – climate justice lawsuits: The arctic coastal village of Kivalina and a federally recognized tribe, the Alaska Native village of Kivalina, are suing two dozen oil, coal and power companies that they claim have made the climate warmer, causing their land and homes to slide into the Chukchi Sea. Nine oil companies, as well as 14 power companies and one coal company are named in a lawsuit filed Tuesday in U.S. District Court in San Francisco.

The village of Kivalina is located on the tip of an eight mile long a barrier island located between the Chukchi Sea and a lagoon at the mouth of the Kivalina River 80 miles north of the Arctic Circle. It has been threatened by erosion caused by wave action and sea storms for several decades and a relocation committee was first formed by the community 20 years ago.

An Inupiat village numbering nearly 400 people, Kivalina is the only community in the area where people hunt bowhead whales. The hunters of Kivalina engage in spring whaling from openings in the sea ice - openings that have widened year by year until now open water appears during times when the sea used to ice over. The original village was located at the north end of the Kivalina Lagoon but was relocated. Due to severe sea wave erosion during storms, Kivalina hopes to relocate again to a new site nearby and studies of alternate sites are ongoing.

Financing for the move is estimated to cost hundreds of millions of dollars. The community has encountered difficulties in choosing a new village site and funding the relocation effort.

"An increase in the frequency and intensity of sea storms, degradation and melting of permafrost, and accelerated erosion of the shoreline have recently forced the village into a state of emergency," according to a 2006 Relocation Master Plan written by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

…Climate change scientist Dr. Gunter Weller of the University of Alaska-Fairbanks says Kivalina and another coastal village, Shishmaref, which is not part of the lawsuit, have suffered from erosion that he attributes to three factors, all deriving from global warming.

The townships must be relocated, at an estimated cost of more than $100 million, so they should stand a good chance of a court upholding a claim that they suffered damages because of global warming, Weller has said. The lawsuit was filed on behalf of Kivalina by two nonprofit law groups, Center on Race, Poverty and the Environment and the Native American Rights Fund, as well as six other law firms.

Named in the lawsuit are BP PLC, BP American Inc., BP Products North America, Inc., Chevron Corp. Chevron U.S.A. Inc., ConocoPhillips Co., ExxonMobil, Royal Dutch Shell PLC and Shell Oil Co. Also named were coal company Peabody Energy Corp., and power companies AES Corp., American Electric Power Co., Inc., American Electric Power Services Corp., DTE Energy Co., Duke Energy Corp., Dynegy Holdings, Inc., Edison International, MidAmerican Energy Holdings Co., Mirant Corp., NRG Energy, Pinnacle West Capital Corp., Reliant Energy Inc., The Southern Co., and Xcel Energy Inc.

The Envronment News Service reports on a trend that will only gather momentum In the years ahead – climate justice lawsuits: The arctic coastal village of Kivalina and a federally recognized tribe, the Alaska Native village of Kivalina, are suing two dozen oil, coal and power companies that they claim have made the climate warmer, causing their land and homes to slide into the Chukchi Sea. Nine oil companies, as well as 14 power companies and one coal company are named in a lawsuit filed Tuesday in U.S. District Court in San Francisco.

The village of Kivalina is located on the tip of an eight mile long a barrier island located between the Chukchi Sea and a lagoon at the mouth of the Kivalina River 80 miles north of the Arctic Circle. It has been threatened by erosion caused by wave action and sea storms for several decades and a relocation committee was first formed by the community 20 years ago.

An Inupiat village numbering nearly 400 people, Kivalina is the only community in the area where people hunt bowhead whales. The hunters of Kivalina engage in spring whaling from openings in the sea ice - openings that have widened year by year until now open water appears during times when the sea used to ice over. The original village was located at the north end of the Kivalina Lagoon but was relocated. Due to severe sea wave erosion during storms, Kivalina hopes to relocate again to a new site nearby and studies of alternate sites are ongoing.

Financing for the move is estimated to cost hundreds of millions of dollars. The community has encountered difficulties in choosing a new village site and funding the relocation effort.

"An increase in the frequency and intensity of sea storms, degradation and melting of permafrost, and accelerated erosion of the shoreline have recently forced the village into a state of emergency," according to a 2006 Relocation Master Plan written by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

…Climate change scientist Dr. Gunter Weller of the University of Alaska-Fairbanks says Kivalina and another coastal village, Shishmaref, which is not part of the lawsuit, have suffered from erosion that he attributes to three factors, all deriving from global warming.

The townships must be relocated, at an estimated cost of more than $100 million, so they should stand a good chance of a court upholding a claim that they suffered damages because of global warming, Weller has said. The lawsuit was filed on behalf of Kivalina by two nonprofit law groups, Center on Race, Poverty and the Environment and the Native American Rights Fund, as well as six other law firms.

Named in the lawsuit are BP PLC, BP American Inc., BP Products North America, Inc., Chevron Corp. Chevron U.S.A. Inc., ConocoPhillips Co., ExxonMobil, Royal Dutch Shell PLC and Shell Oil Co. Also named were coal company Peabody Energy Corp., and power companies AES Corp., American Electric Power Co., Inc., American Electric Power Services Corp., DTE Energy Co., Duke Energy Corp., Dynegy Holdings, Inc., Edison International, MidAmerican Energy Holdings Co., Mirant Corp., NRG Energy, Pinnacle West Capital Corp., Reliant Energy Inc., The Southern Co., and Xcel Energy Inc.

Gavel image by AQMD, Wikimedia Commons

An adaptation warning in the United Arab Emirates

7 Days (Dubai): A leading researcher into climate change has warned the UAE that it must plan for the future - as lasting damage to the environment has already been done. In an exclusive interview with 7DAYS, Professor Geoffrey Boulton of the University of Edinburgh said it was too late to just cut down on carbon emissions.

Instead, Boulton said, the country should be looking at how it will adapt to changes in the region, which will be caused by climate change. “Climate change is a very difficult problem and probably the biggest challenge the human race has had to face. It is no longer just a question of reducing carbon emissions,” he said.

“Now we must think about adaptation and the Emirati authorities should ask themselves ‘If we have problems such as no water, or severe pollution how are we going to respond?’ “Because if they don’t - their population will not forgive them.”

Boulton was speaking ahead of a lecture at The British University in Dubai last night and he said there were many ways in which the UAE could adapt to problems caused by climate change. “The Emirates might want to anticipate having genetically manipulated crops which can cope with extreme weather stress,” he said. “There are better ways of using water here - such as more recycling of waste water. And machines such as fridges are much more inefficient than they could be.”

The professor also leads the Global Change Group - one of the largest researchers of geosciences. He said coastlines and sea levels are already changing in the Arabian Gulf, as a knock-on effect of melting ice caps, and at the same time temperatures are rising.
Boulton’s predictions come from new data he has developed which suggests the Middle East could be reshaped by rising seas that could see populations displaced. The UAE authorities have begun to take steps to combat climate change, not least with the Masdar initiative, which will be the world’s first zero-carbon, zero-waste and car-free city.

However, despite having a population of fewer than five million people, the UAE sits in the top 50 countries for carbon emissions. Boulton said: “No blame should be attached to anyone - we have only just realised what we have been doing. But if we do nothing, in 20 years’ time then there should be blame - and there will be.”

NASA image of the United Arab Emirates, Wikimedia Commons

Major U.S. water agencies form new national “Climate Alliance”

Some water utilities are banding together, all in the semi-arid regions of the U.S. West. From the San Francisco Public Utilities Commision: United by the fact that climate change poses a major long-term challenge to delivering high-quality drinking water, eight of the nation’s largest water agencies announced the formation of an unprecedented coalition, the Water Utility Climate Alliance (WUCA). The alliance will work to improve research into the impacts of climate change on water utilities, develop strategies for adapting to climate change and implement tactics to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions.

Comprised of Denver Water, the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, New York City Department of Environmental Protection, Portland Water Bureau, San Diego County Water Authority, the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission, Seattle Public Utilities and the Southern Nevada Water Authority, the WUCA members supply drinking water for more than 36 million people throughout the United States.

“Water utilities are among the first responders to the effects of climate change,” said Susan Leal, general manager of the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission, which chairs the WUCA. “Our systems are facing risk due to diminishing snowpack, bigger storms, more frequent drought and rising sea levels. We need to be organized to respond to these risks — that’s why we’ve formed this alliance.”

Patricia Mulroy, general manager of the Southern Nevada Water Authority, said, “Water agencies throughout the nation will invest hundreds of billions of dollars in infrastructure over the next 15 years alone, and those investments must be informed by climate projections that are as accurate as possible.”

Emily Lloyd, commissioner of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, said, “We need the best possible research to enhance our understanding of how climate change will impact water supplies, precipitation patterns, hydrology and water quality.”

In its first official act, the WUCA provided comment today on the “Summary of Revised Research Plan” prepared by the U.S. Climate Change Science Program (CCSP). The WUCA identified several key research needs that would improve the drinking water industry’s ability to develop strategies to cope with potential impacts of climate change. The WUCA is urging the CCSP, as well as all researchers and scientists in the climate-change field, to:

  • Reduce the uncertainty in climate change projections by improving and refining global climate models and applying them at the regional or local level;
  • Enhance the collection, maintenance and accessibility of information, making the data more useful for decision-making purposes;
  • Ensure that water providers worldwide have access to consistent climate data;
  • Develop decision-support tools for planning, decision-making and policy-making that can accommodate deep uncertainty and the potential for abrupt climate changes; and
  • Coordinate international research efforts, particularly with those countries that are already experiencing the effects of climate change, such as Australia.

The CCSP integrates federal research on climate and global change. It is comprised of 13 federal agencies with climate change research responsibilities, including the Departments of Interior, Commerce, and Energy, NASA, and the Environmental Protection Agency. The CCSP’s “Summary of Revised Research Plan” is available online at For more information about the WUCA, or to review comments of the “Summary of Revised Research Plan,” visit

Photo of tap water by Alex Anlicker, Wikimedia Commons

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Deforestation a greater threat to the Amazon than global warming

Rhett A. Butler at Mongabay writes about a recent study: …If past conditions are any indication of future conditions, the Amazon rainforest may survive considerable drying and warming caused by global warming, argue researchers in a paper published in Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B.

Examining charcoal and fossil records from across the Amazon basin, Francis E. Mayle and Mitchell J. Power of the University of Edinburgh report that Amazon forests appear to have been "remarkably resilient to climatic conditions significantly drier than those of today, despite widespread evidence of forest burning" during the Early-Mid- Holocene, a period 4000 to 8000 years ago. The conclusion challenges other research suggesting that the Amazon is on the brink of a dramatic die-back due to the interaction of accelerating deforestation, increasing incidence and severity of forest fires, and the effects of climate change.

…Many researchers have argued that while the Amazon has seen transition between tropical forest to savanna in the past, human activity — especially fire and deforestation — is creating unprecedented conditions, pushing it towards a "die-back" tipping point towards the end of the century. Mayle and Power counter by citing evidence of past human influence in the region, noting that charcoal records support the notion that pre-Colombian societies burned Amazon forests. While Mayle and Power concede that ancient burning was likely less extensive than it is today, they suggest that dire projections for the Amazon due to climate change alone may be overstated.

"Humans, rather than climate, may have been the key agents of disturbance of Holocene forests in many parts of the basin, especially if 'pre-Conquest' Amazonia was much more densely populated than previously thought," they write. "However, a drier climate would have had an important influence by making forests more combustible. Anthropogenic burning would therefore have been a more effective tool for forest clearance and, through more frequent fire leakage, would have led to an increase in large wildfires as occurs today during particularly severe droughts."

"Our analysis shows that, notwithstanding floristic changes, the forest biome in most parts of Amazonia appears to have been remarkably resilient to climatic conditions significantly drier than those of today, despite widespread evidence of forest burning," the authors continue. "Although the effects of continually rising CO2, and different climate change scenarios, upon Amazonia's forests over the twenty-first century remain uncertain... our insights from the distant past suggest that the Amazon forest 'dieback' scenario simulated by Cox et al. (2000) and Betts et al. (2004) is unlikely."

"A projected temperature increase of 3-8C over the twenty-first century... in combination with drying and forest fragmentation, would be expected to increase water stress and vulnerability to dieback, although this may be offset by higher CO2 concentrations. Of much greater cause for concern should be the unprecedented rates of deforestation, forest fragmentation... and uncontrolled burning, which are much more serious and immediate threats than climate change."

Francis E. Mayle and Mitchell J. Power (2008). Impact of a drier Early-Mid-Holocene climate upon Amazonian forests [FREE OPEN ACCESS]. Phil. Trans. R. Soc. B, DOI: 10.1098/rstb.2007.0026

Satellite photo of Amazon, above Manaus, by NASA, Wikimedia Commons

Social capital adapt to climate change

Kate Martin in discusses a study about the importance of social networks in adapting to climate stresses: Informal networks of social capital are especially valuable in responding to unexpected shocks - a skill which could prove useful in adapting to climate change. That is the verdict of a twelve-month study by researchers at King's College London into the potential of social capital - which can be loosely defined as the connections within and between social networks that hold collective life together.

The study found that these informal networks existed in even the most formal of organisations, and recommended that they should be embraced inside organisations without being compromised or suppressed. Results of the study, which looked at social capital in the Environment Agency, the scientific bodies of the Welsh Assembly, and a local dairy farmers co-operative called Grasshoppers, were presented at a seminar organised by the Economic and Social Research Council.

Dr Mark Pelling, of King's College London, found that informal social capital networks were particularly valuable in enabling critical thinking and alternative actions to be taken in the face of unexpected shocks. He said: "Local actors are at the sharp end of adaptation. Where social capital is attuned to the imperative of adaptation it can offer a resource for reflexive adaptation - that is for self-organised and critical approaches to adaptation where the goals as well as the mechanisms for adaptation are reviewed and may be changed."

Reflexive adaptation was most clearly found in Grasshoppers out of the three groups in the study, Dr Pelling said. Richard Price, chief economist and director for economics, statistics and research at Defra, questioned where there was a role for Government to shape social capital. He said: "Perhaps the role for government is no longer solely direct provision, but also the empowerment of citizens creating a framework for collective action where voluntary bottom-up community initiatives can thrive."

Vietnamese women work in a bucket brigade to excavate mud from the suspected crash site of a U.S. F-4B Phantom jet 20 miles outside Hanoi, Vietnam. Photo by Linda D. Kozaryn. (Kozaryn is also the author of the article and seems to be working for the American Forces Press Service.) Wikimedia Commons

Let's go to Europe, say invasive ants

Terra Daily: An ant that is native to Eurasia is threatening to become the latest in a procession of species to invade Europe, as a result of inadvertent human introduction. Research published in the online open access journal BMC Biology demonstrates that the invasive garden ant, Lasius neglectus, which is a threat to native species, may already be more widely established than expected.

Sylvia Cremer is from the University of Copenhagen in Denmark and the University of Regensburg in Germany. Working with colleagues from these institutes and the University of Keele in the UK, she looked at colonies of ants in 14 locations around Europe. Using a combination of genetic, chemical and behavioural analyses, the researchers investigated the similarities between colonies to reconstruct the route of invasion and dispersal strategy of this pest ant.

They established that the invading populations arose from only a handful of introductions to Europe and that infested sites are effective originators for new introductions. Dr Cremer explained what the results imply: "Many more infestations of the garden ant are likely to have taken place already, but have remained undiscovered due to the usual lag phase for invasive species to become established."…

Wrong species, but it's an ant, shot by Thomas Quaritsch, Wikimedia Commons

New report: "Tomorrow's England"

New report on climate change impacts in the southeast of England. Tomorrow’s England: …As the Mediterranean becomes too hot as a comfortable holiday destination, the south coast would be become a more desirable alternative with August temperatures regularly in excess of 30ºC. This would reduce carbon emissions from air travel and airport expansion; however, the increased heat could prove disastrous for transport across the region.

Hot spells could cause chaos on the roads as road surfaces suffer. On the trains, speed restrictions from buckled and fractured rails or trackside fires would become the norm but frozen points would be a thing of the past.

These higher temperatures would also impact on the health of the region. Scientists say the death rate increases 3.3 per cent for every degree rise in temperature above 21.5C while instances of food poisoning would become more frequent.

Flash floods and storm surges are set to increase as the climate changes; this will particularly affect the low-lying South East, impacting thousands of homes and businesses in addition to industrial areas. Hosepipe bans would become permanent as water became more scarce and expensive, especially as water demand in the region is due to rise by 11% over the next 23 years.

1905 map of England, Wikimedia Commons.

Drought in China -- a selection of news stories

China finishes canal to ensure water for Olympics: report
Economic Times, India - 1 hour ago
BEIJING: Beijing has completed a water diversion canal that will provide emergency supplies to the August Olympics, state press said on Tuesday, ...
China's Olympic water province faces severe drought
Guardian Unlimited, UK - 10 hours ago
BEIJING, Feb 26 (Reuters) - The north Chinese province of Hebei, which will supply arid Beijing with much of its water for the summer Olympics, is suffering ...
2.5 million lack water in China
Guardian Unlimited, UK - 13 hours ago
Almost two and a half million people are without sufficient drinking water because of the bad weather in the north of China, according to the state drought ...
Drought leaves 250000 short of drinking water in north China
Xinhua, China - Feb 25, 2008
SHIJIAZHUANG, Feb. 25 (Xinhua) -- About 250000 people in north China¡¯s Hebei Province, which neighbors Beijing, face drinking water shortages as a severe ...
Drought in China leaves millions thirsty
The Age, Australia - Feb 24, 2008
While parts of China have been rocked by record snowfalls, a drought in northern China has left more than two million people without sufficient drinking ...
Drought, snow affect one sixth of China's arable land
Xinhua, China - Feb 24, 2008
BEIJING, Feb. 24 (Xinhua) -- Drought and snow has affected about 22.9 million hectares of China's arable land, more than one sixth of the total. ...

Beijing 2008 Olympics logo, Nagy, Wikimedia Commons

Monday, February 25, 2008

Raising sea walls in Guyana -- a proposal

Starbroek News (Guyana): Executive Director of Conservation International Dr. David Singh is of the view that effective upgrade of sea defences is one of many measures that Guyana could undertake to help combat the effects that climate change brings.

In particular, he said that the heightening of the sea wall to cater for the rising seas as a result of climate change is one that should be looked at. But he acknowledges that such an undertaking might be beyond the coffers of the state and dependent on donors. He said that the nature of donor funding disbursement makes successfully implementing such projects difficult.

Further, Dr Singh said that it is for the engineers to calculate the height that the existing sea defences need to be raised in order to withstand higher sea levels. He said that when the sea defences were built in the 1950s they catered for a certain degree of overtopping, and now that there has been a general increase in the level of the sea since then, the structures are inadequate. He said that because of the rise, existing sea defence structures are put at additional pressure.

This inadequacy of the sea defence has led to salt water intrusion, he said. "Yes, we can build higher sea defences but we must also look at other options as well," he said, adding that with the population concentrated on the coast, it would be difficult for the country to move its capital inland for fear of being overtaken by the sea. "A suite of different approaches is needed - one of them is to invest more in sea defence," Dr Singh said….

View of the ocean, Georgetown, Guyana, by "JukoFF," Wikimedia Commons

Event: 'Adapting to Climate Change in Europe – Options for EU Action'.

Entrepreneur's E-Guide: According to a new press release, on 27 February 2008, the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC) in partnership with the Regional Environmental Center for Central and Eastern Europe (REC), will host a multi-stakeholder roundtable on Climate Change entitled 'Adapting to Climate Change in Europe – Options for EU Action'.

The 27 February roundtable will discuss these issues. Climate change concerns us all. Therefore all actors, in the widest possible sense, from the individual citizen to public authorities, the private sector, businesses, towns and cities, academics, networks, policy makers and authorities at all levels, associations and NGOs are invited to participate actively during the roundtable.
On 29 June 2007, the European Commission adopted its first policy document on adapting to the impact of climate change. The Green Paper 'Adaptation to climate change in Europe - options for EU action,' builds upon the work and findings of the European Climate Change Programme. The Green Paper sets out four lines of priority actions to be considered: early action to develop adaptation strategies in areas where current knowledge is sufficient; integrating global adaptation needs into the EU’s external relations and building a new alliance with partners around the world; filling knowledge gaps on adaptation through EU-level research and exchange of information; setting up a European advisory group on adaptation to climate change to analyse coordinated strategies and actions.

Biological work and economic work

A thoughtful, very cool article by Shahid Naheem from the Columbia Spectator online about the contrast between the work of organisms and the work of human economies. He urges us to join the carbon workforce alongside our fellow organisms -- a stimulating prospect!: ...The solution is complex, but it is clear. Work with, reengage, and reenlist our brethren species in the business of running Earth’s life support system. Biodiversity conservation is at once both mitigation and adaptation not only to climate change, but to changes in Earth’s life support system. Don’t get me wrong. Building carbon mineralization towers, putting up windmills, or making better solar cells is important—so is moving away from the coasts, preparing for stronger storms, or moving plants and animals out of harm’s way as the climate changes. Such steps to mitigate or adapt to climate change, however, are distractions. The real challenge is reconnecting our work with the work of all other species in managing Earth’s life support system.

Besides, let’s face it, what could be more interesting, more exciting, and frankly more fun? If, when you awake, you consider that you join forces with lions, wildebeest, aardvarks, moose, whales, hawks, blue jays, juncos, beetles, bees, spiders, oaks, pines, ferns, fungi, and yes, the Yeti crabs deep beneath the Pacific, in running a magnificent global life support system, it changes one’s world view....

Meet your co-worker: E. coli on Macconkey Agar Plate, Centers for Disease Control, Wikimedia Commons

Image from tornado may lead to precise storm warnings

Terra Daily: An unexpected radar image of airborne debris from the Feb. 6 tornado that killed four people in Lawrence County, Ala., might help scientists develop better tools for warning the public when and where strong tornadoes are on the ground.

Scientists in the Earth System Science Center at The University of Alabama in Huntsville (UAHuntsville) are studying radar data from the early morning tornado to see if the radar signature from the debris is so distinctive that computers can be programmed to instantly recognize it, so more timely and precise warnings might be issued.

"The real advantage would be the precision," said Dr. Walt Petersen, the UAH research scientist leading the radar data analysis. "These events are usually going to be associated with large scale mesocyclones, so tornado warnings would probably already have been issued. But those large scale rotation features can cover several miles.

"With this debris signal, we might be able to pinpoint the precise spot where a tornado is on the ground. It would be great to be able to say, 'The tornado is right there, at that town.' If you could automate a system to do that, it would be quite handy and useful."

…This was the first time a significant tornado has hit within range of the advanced radar unit at the Huntsville International Airport since it was put in service in late 2004. Other storm-related debris sightings using similar radar technology at the National Severe Storms Laboratory in Norman Oklahoma have been rare, so every sighting adds substantially to the paltry information previously available.

…The ability to recognize flying debris wasn't something scientists really expected. "This was totally serendipitous," said Dr. Larry Carey, an ESSC scientist working with Petersen. "Everything else we've done (with ARMOR) were things we pretty much expected. This wasn't really planned. It is just an added benefit of the technology."

If computers can be programmed to recognize debris in the radar data, that programming might be a standard feature when the National Weather Service upgrades its existing nationwide NEXRAD radar network to dual polarimetric capabilities beginning in 2009. While the debris feature might not reduce the number of false tornado warnings, it could add a level of urgency and precision to warnings when tornadoes do occur, Petersen said….

Photo of tornado in Seymour, Texas, 1979, from NOAA, Wikimedia Commons

Life expectancy will decline without action: experts

The Sydney Morning Herald reports on a possible reverse in mortality improvements: Life expectancy could begin to decline for the first time in more than a century if the world does not tackle an epidemic of chronic diseases, experts have warned. An international summit in Sydney will be told today that four preventable conditions - heart disease, diabetes, chronic lung disease and some cancers - are responsible for nearly 60 per cent of the world's deaths.

Ruth Colagiuri, an associate professor of public health at the University of Sydney, said 4 million working days were lost each year in Australia due to obesity. "The way we live now is making us sick. It's making our planet sick, and it's not sustainable," she said.

The summit, organised by the Oxford Health Alliance, a coalition of health and business groups including researchers from the University of Oxford, will finalise recommendations for urgent action to be given to the Federal Government's 2020 summit in April.

Professor Colagiuri said fresh food needed to become more affordable and the sugar, fat and salt content of food reduced. Professor Anthony Capon, of the University of Sydney, said cities need to be redesigned as "human habitats" if the dual crises of chronic disease and global warming were to be solved. "We need to build the physical activity back into our lives."

Job, services, schools and shops needed to be built close to where people live and public transport needed to be improved. A US law professor, Lawrence Gostin, of Georgetown University, will tell the summit governments are too focused on terrorism at the expense of chronic diseases. "There's a political paralysis in dealing with the issue. Yet the human costs are frightening when we consider that obesity could shorten the average lifespan of an entire generation," he said.

Life expectancy world map, updated by "Pallando," Wikimedia Commons

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Increased hurricane losses due to more people, wealth along coastlines, not stronger storms, new study says

NOAA reports on a new study in the latest issue of the Natural Hazards Review. Carbon-Based makes a cynical prediction -- the denialist noise machine will seize on this and declare, therefore, we need pay no attention to global warming: A team of scientists have found that the economic damages from hurricanes have increased in the U.S. over time due to greater population, infrastructure, and wealth on the U.S. coastlines, and not to any spike in the number or intensity of hurricanes.
“We found that although some decades were quieter and less damaging in the U.S. and others had more land-falling hurricanes and more damage, the economic costs of land-falling hurricanes have steadily increased over time,” said Chris Landsea, one of the researchers as well as the science and operations officer at NOAA’s National Hurricane Center in Miami. “There is nothing in the U.S. hurricane damage record that indicates global warming has caused a significant increase in destruction along our coasts.”

In a newly published paper in Natural Hazards Review, the researchers also found that economic hurricane damage in the U.S. has been doubling every 10 to 15 years. If more people continue to move to the hurricane-prone coastline, future economic hurricane losses may be far greater than previously thought. “Unless action is taken to address the growing concentration of people and property in coastal hurricane areas, the damage will increase by a great deal as more people and infrastructure inhabit these coastal locations,” said Landsea.

The Natural Hazards Review paper, “Normalized Hurricane Damage in the United States: 1900-2005,” was written by Roger A. Pielke Jr. (University of Colorado), Joel Gratz (ICAT Managers, Inc.), Chris Landsea, Douglas Collins (Tillinghast-Towers Perrin), Mark A. Saunders (University College London), and Rade Musulin (Aon Re Australia).

The team used two different approaches, which gave similar results, to estimate the economic damages of historical hurricanes if they were to strike today, building upon the work published originally by Landsea and Pielke in 1998, and by Collins and Lowe in 2001. Both methods used changes in inflation and wealth at the national level. The first method utilized population increases at the county coastal level, while the second used changes in housing units at the county coastal level.

The results illustrate the effects of the tremendous pace of growth in vulnerable hurricane areas. If the 1926 Great Miami Hurricane were to hit today, the study estimated it would cause the largest losses at $140 billion to $157 billion, with Hurricane Katrina second on the list at $81 billion.

The team concludes that potential damage from storms – currently about $10 billion yearly – is growing at a rate that may place severe burdens on exposed communities, and that avoiding huge losses will require a change in the rate of population growth in coastal areas, major improvements in construction standards, or other mitigation actions.

Image of Hurricane Katrina from NOAA