Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Goodbye, 2008!

A tough year, summarized here with Rembrandt's "Flight into Egypt."

I had another photo picked out, too. A battered truck fleeing an ominous cloud of airborne topsoil during the Dust Bowl, that Depression-era ecological disaster in the U.S. One look and it made you think of Henry Fonda as Tom Joad. But the image wasn't in the public domain. I'll make do with the exalted biblical allusion. It hardly feels appropriate, given the violent Israeli attack on Gaza.

Carbon Based will take a brief break for revelry and reflection. Maybe even some resolution, if my mood is ambitious, but don't count on it. I'll be back soon enough, trying to bring you the latest news about adapting to climate change. Happy New Year...

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Better climate coping through public-private partnerships

The Chief Risk Officer at Swiss Re (a former employer of mine) discusses development in Newsweek: Even if the world were to take steps to quickly and dramatically limit greenhouse-gas emissions, the levels already in the atmosphere will continue to alter our climate in the coming decades. As the focus of the debate on global warming shifts to assessing the impact of rises in temperature and coping with their effects, it has become increasingly clear that the developing world will face some of the greatest challenges. Dealing with this problem will require broad partnerships between public, private and nonprofit organizations.

…This will be especially problematic for populations heavily reliant on agriculture for their livelihood, as climate change will have a dramatic impact on the world's ability to produce food.

…With no formal insurance markets, the poor living in agricultural areas typically cope with economic crisis through self-insurance such as using savings, going into debt or selling assets. But these approaches will not be enough to cope with the unpredictability of climate change. We need to offer these populations more resilient, more modern financial tools.

The difficulty is developing solutions that effectively reach these large populations, the majority of whom work small plots of land in areas where weather patterns have been poorly documented. We cannot deliver solutions through the same channels that would be used in the United States and Europe. Establishing a strong network of partnerships involving the private sector, local government and nonprofit organizations will be essential.

…Another challenge is to overcome the reluctance of farmers to experiment with higher-risk—but more productive—technologies, such as high-yielding seeds. If farmers can get more resources to produce food, and rainfall-index insurance to manage their exposure to risk, they may feel more confident taking on production risks, which also provides protection from greater poverty being caused by climate change….

Elkhorn Slough acquisitions help combat global warming

San Jose Mercury News: The need to protect coastal marshes, where great seabirds journey and tiny shellfish scurry, has focused largely on saving wildlife. This month's expansion of the Elkhorn Slough, however, highlights another reason to care for the wetlands: global warming.

Three properties added in recent weeks to the federally and state-managed preserve mean more land to soak up water, a key to preventing flooding and lessening the impacts of sea-level rise as the Earth's climate warms, environmentalists say. "The wetlands are not just for wildlife habitat, but serve the fundamental needs of humans," said Mark Silberstein, executive director of the Elkhorn Slough Foundation.

The new properties, while expanding the 7,000-acre preserve by just 38 acres, serve as vital links to "connecting drainage bottoms", Silberstein says, which allows more water to percolate through the marshlands. In addition to nourishing plants and animals as well as the water supply, this means providing a buffer to warming. "It's becoming painfully clear that we have to take care of these things," Silberstein said.

The prospect of climate change has environmentalists pushing to restore and expand wetlands across the nation, perhaps most aggressively in low-lying parts of the Southeast most susceptible to flooding, but in California as well. In addition to moderating tides and absorbing runoff, wetlands have an uncanny ability to capture carbon in the atmosphere, says David Lewis, executive director of San Francisco's Save the Bay, which is working to restore the sloughs of the Golden Gate….

Aerial view of Moss Landing, Monterey County, California, USA. The Elkhorn slough runs the area and about 6 miles (8 km) inland. The huge Moss Landing Power Plant is visible at the center. US Army Corps of Engineers

Study: Climate change to mean shorter ski seasons in Rockies

Wenatchee World: A study of two Rocky Mountain ski resorts says climate change will mean shorter seasons and less snow on lower slopes. The study by two Colorado researchers says Aspen Mountain in Colorado and Park City in Utah will see dramatic changes even with a reduction in carbon emissions, which fuel climate change.

University of Colorado-Boulder geography professor Mark Williams said that the resorts should be in fairly good shape the next 25 years, but after that there will be less snowpack — or no snow at all — at the base areas, and the season will be shorter because snow will accumulate later and melt earlier.

If carbon emissions increase, the average temperature at Park City will be 10.4 degrees warmer by 2100, and there likely will be no snowpack, according to the study. Skiing at Aspen, with an average temperature 8.6 degrees higher than now, will be marginal.

The key to the survival of the larger ski areas in the Rockies will be adaptation, according to the study by Williams and Brian Lazar, a scientist at Boulder-based Stratus Consulting. The researchers said they expect many U.S. ski areas to follow the lead of resorts in the European Alps already dealing with snow shortages by storing water to use for snowmaking. The two also suggest that resorts add gondolas to ferry skiers from low-snow base areas to snowier spots and expand operations at higher elevations.

…More snowmaking, though, will require more water, a challenge in an area where most of the water rights are already allocated, the researchers said.

Snowmaking, shot by Sugarloaf (apparently a press release), Wikimedia Commons, under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License, Version 1.2

German scientist warns of accelerating climate change

Deutsche Welle: Climate change is happening more rapidly than anyone though possible, the German government's expert, Hans Joachim Schellnhuber, warned in an interview. The threats posed by climate change are worse than those imagined by most governments, warned Hans Joachim Schellnhuber, the scientist who heads the Potsdam Institute for Research on Global Warming Effects and acts as an adviser to German Chancellor Angela Merkel on climate-change issues.

Schellnhuber warns that previous predictions about climate change and its catastrophic effects were too cautious and optimistic. "In nearly all areas, the developments are occurring more quickly than it has been assumed up until now," Schellnhuber told the Saarbruecker Zeitung newspaper in an interview published Monday, Dec. 29. "We are on our way to a destabilization of the world climate that has advanced much further than most people or their governments realize."

...For the Arctic, the global warming which has already occurred of 0.8 degrees Celsius has already stepped over the line, Schellnhuber said. If Greenland's ice cap ice melts completely, water levels will rise by seven meters (23 feet). "The current coastline will no longer exist, and that includes in Germany," he said…

The port of Hamburg around 1900

Storm surge barrier going up in New Orleans

Environment News Service: Defense of Greater New Orleans' most vulnerable area from storm surge has begun with the groundbreaking for the Inner Harbor Navigation Canal Lake Borgne Surge Barrier Project, the largest design-build civil works project in Corps history.

It is unusual for a civil works project to be designed and constructed simultaneously, but the Corps says the expedited process is necessary given the compressed timeframe to achieve 100-year flood protection in 2011.

When completed, the $700 million surge barrier, similar to a floodwall but much larger, will run for nearly two miles near the confluence of the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway and the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet. The 26 foot high barrier will run north-south from a point just east of Michoud Canal on the north bank of the waterway and just south of the existing Bayou Bienvenue flood control structure.

Navigation gates will be constructed where the barrier crosses the GIWW and Bayou Bienvenue to reduce the risk of storm surge coming from Lake Borgne and/or the Gulf of Mexico. The openings for each gate will be 150 feet wide….

Aerial view of a northern section of Jean Lafitte, Louisiana at the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway (GIWW). US Army Corps of Engineers

Monday, December 29, 2008

The Tennessee coal ash spill -- a selection of stories

At Plant in Coal Ash Spill, Toxic Deposits by the Ton
New York Times, United States - 38 minutes ago
By SHAILA DEWAN In a single year, a coal-fired electric plant deposited more than 2.2 million pounds of toxic materials in a holding pond that failed last ...
Roane County water worries
WVLT, TN - 1 hour ago
HARRIMAN, Tenn. (WVLT) -- The Environmental Protection Agency says a water sample near the TVA ash spill in Roane County shows a high level of arsenic. ...
Well water near Tenn. spill may be unsafe
The Associated Press - 5 hours ago
KINGSTON, Tenn. (AP) — Some water samples near a massive spill of coal ash in eastern Tennessee are showing high levels of arsenic, and state and federal ...
Tennessee sludge spill estimate grows to 1 billion gallons · Environment
CNN - Dec 26, 2008
(CNN) -- Estimates for the amount of thick sludge that gushed from a Tennessee coal plant this week have tripled to more than a billion gallons

A photo the Tongariro National Park in New Zealand, which served as the landscape for Mordor in The Lord of the Rings films, shot by
Mrs. Gemstone, Wikimedia Commons via Flickr, under Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike 2.0 License

Natural disasters 'killed over 220,000' in 2008

Agence France-Presse: Natural disasters killed over 220,000 people in 2008, making it one of the most devastating years on record and underlining the need for a global climate deal, the world's number two reinsurer said Monday. Although the number of natural disasters was lower than in 2007, the catastrophes that occurred proved to be more destructive in terms of the number of victims and the financial cost of the damage caused, Germany-based Munich Re said in its annual assessment.

"This continues the long-term trend we have been observing. Climate change has already started and is very probably contributing to increasingly frequent weather extremes and ensuing natural catastrophes," Munich Re board member Torsten Jeworrek said.

Most devastating in terms of human fatalities was Cyclone Nargis, which lashed Myanmar on May 2-3 to kill more than 135,000 people and leave more than one million homeless. …Six tropical cyclones also slammed into the southern United States, including Ike which, with insured losses of 10 billion dollars, was the industry's costliest catastrophe of the year. In Europe, an intense low-pressure system called Emma caused two billion dollars worth of damage in March, while a storm dubbed Hilal in late May and early June left 1.1 billion dollars' worth.

…According to provisional estimates from the World Meteorological Organization, 2008 was the tenth warmest year since the beginning of routine temperature recording and the eighth warmest in the northern hemisphere. This means that the ten warmest years ever recorded have all occurred in the last 12 years, Munich Re said.

Devastation from Cyclone Nargis, US State Department

Pakistan and climate change

The News (Pakistan): ….Several nations, including India and China, have developed national plans of action on climate change. Their plans have identified areas where gaps in capacities exist, investments need to be made, and immediate actions need to be taken. Pakistan needs such a plan too. … [K]ey areas of priority for investment and action are outlined here.

Water security: The receding glaciers will increase water flows in the Indus basin, followed by permanent reductions. Sustained water availability for agriculture will help reduce our food insecurity. … Efficient water-management, including water pricing based on the principles of cost recovery, will play a critical role in providing water security for the next half century when the population will increase and the per-capita water availability will diminish to alarming levels.

Food Security: Food security however will need R&D investments on heat-resistant varieties of wheat that is the staple for most people; rice, a net foreign exchange earner; and cotton, the backbone of our textile sector. … A priority area of investment for food security would require substantial increase in our presently inadequate storage capacity for grain and other agricultural produce. …Absence of clear policies and of absence of serious research on biofuels, biosafety, and biotechnology only accentuates the food insecurity….

Indus River via satellite, NASA

Wealthy, developed nations have a duty to help poorer ones clean up so they don’t repeat the same mistakes

A. James Barnes in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram: The United States and other highly developed nations should provide financial and technological assistance to China and other developing countries to facilitate their use of clean and sustainable energy technologies.

Ideally, such assistance would be structured as part of an agreement where all the major developed and developing countries agree to cap and then reduce their emission of greenhouse gases. But we should not delay such assistance pending a comprehensive global agreement; it is in our national economic interest as well as our national security interest to provide it — and we have a moral imperative to do so as well.

As the Council on Foreign Relations notes, "Unchecked climate change is poised to have wide-ranging and potentially disastrous effects over time on human welfare, sensitive ecosystems and international security." We should take reasonable measures within our control to address this prospect, even if at times it may allow others to a "free ride."

…The United States faces the prospect of having to invest billions of dollars to adapt to the climate change that will take place. It can be more cost-effective to help other countries avoid contributing to the buildup of greenhouse gases that will occur if they use dirty, inefficient or unsustainable technologies. As the old saw goes — "an ounce of prevention is better than a pound of cure." And increasing the global demand for low-carbon technologies that we develop can boost jobs in this country.

…. How can we in good conscience ask poorer countries to restrain their hopes for economic development and to avoid coming up to our per capita levels of carbon emission — and not be willing to help? That is morally indefensible. As the old Indian saying goes, the earth is not inherited from our fathers but is borrowed from our children. We should act responsibly to pass a viable earth on to all the children of the world.

The Alchemist, 1663, Cornelis Pietersz Bega

Sunday, December 28, 2008

New tool fertilizes fields and reduces runoff nutrients

Agricultural Research Service: A new field tool developed by Agricultural Research Service (ARS) scientists applies poultry litter to fields in shallow bands, reducing runoff of excess nutrients like phosphorus and nitrogen.

Poultry litter—a combination of poultry manure and bedding material, such as pine shavings or peanut or rice hulls—is a natural fertilizer. The conventional method of applying it to fields utilizes a broadcast spreader, which scatters the litter across the soil surface. Because it rests on top of the soil, the litter is vulnerable to runoff in heavy rains.

A new tool developed by ARS agricultural engineer Thomas R. Way and his colleagues at the agency's National Soil Dynamics Laboratory in Auburn, Ala., offers a solution. The tool digs shallow trenches about two to three inches deep in the soil. It then places the poultry litter in the trenches and covers it with soil. Burying the litter significantly reduces the risk of runoff.

Designed to attach to a tractor, the litter applicator can dig four trenches as it is pulled through the field….

Photo courtesy of Thomas R. Way, ARS.

Running dry, running out

Juliette Jowit, the Guardian (UK): Nearly half of the population in England and Wales now live in areas of "water stress" where supply might not keep up with demand - a problem usually associated with parched regions such as north Africa and the Middle East. The huge pressure on water supplies from large and wealthy populations in areas with relatively low rainfall is detailed in the most comprehensive report yet on the state of water resources by the Environment Agency.

The report, which will be published in the new year, warns that many rivers, lakes, estuaries and aquifers are already being drained so low that there is a danger to wildlife and a risk to public supplies in dry years, especially as climate change brings drier summers while the population is increasing. People are also using far too much water ...

The agency will use the report to argue for aggressive increases in the number of homes with water meters to reduce demand, and will support proposals by water companies to spend billions of pounds on infrastructure projects such as reservoirs and desalination plants to improve supplies and protect the environment. It is also expected to argue for a new system of regulation under which companies would be allowed to earn more profit if they reduced demand, a system pioneered in California and already being considered for UK energy companies….

A log spanning the River Dove in Farndale, Yorkshire Moors, shot by Klaus with K, Wikmedia Commons, under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License, Version 1.2

Unusually severe weather events challenged insurers in 2008

Insurance Information Institute: Preoccupied with the economic downturn and the U.S. presidential election, many Americans were unaware of the severe hurricanes and frequent tornadoes that caused billions of dollars in insured losses nationwide this year, according to the Insurance Information Institute (I.I.I.). Property/casualty insurers paid $24.9 billion to policyholders for losses incurred through the first nine months of 2008, ISO’s Property Claims Service found.

There were 16 named storms this Atlantic hurricane season, making 2008 the year with the fourth-highest number of named storms since such records started being kept in 1944. Nine of the named storms became hurricanes, three of which made landfall in the U.S.: Dolly (Texas, in July); Gustav (Louisiana, in September); and Ike (Texas, also in September). The three U.S. hurricanes combined produced more than $11 billion of the $24.9 billion in insured losses for the year between January and September 2008.

…Disaster losses along the coast are likely to escalate in the coming years, in part because of huge increases in development. It is predicted that catastrophe losses will double every decade or so due to growing residential and commercial density and the cost of rebuilding expensive properties.

Moreover, this year has been one of the deadliest U.S. tornado seasons in more than a decade. The average annual number of tornado-related deaths nationally for the 10 years, 1997-2006, was 62. Yet more than 120 people have died to date in U.S. tornadoes in 2008. About 1,000 tornadoes occur annually but at least 1,600 tornadoes struck the U.S. through the first nine months of the year, according to NOAA’s National Weather Service. The number of tornadoes in 2008 may rival the record set in 2004, when more than 1,800 twisters were reported.

Tornado in Kansas, May 22, 2008

Humans, ocean shaped North American climate over past 50 years, says NOAA

Science Daily, via NOAA: Greenhouse gases play an important role in North American climate, but differences in regional ocean temperatures may hold a key to predicting future U.S. regional climate changes, according to a new NOAA-led scientific assessment. The assessment is one in a series of synthesis and assessment reports coordinated by the U.S. Climate Change Science Program.

This latest assessment, Reanalysis of Historical Climate Data for Key Atmospheric Features: Implications for Attribution of Causes of Observed Change, describes what has changed—and why—in North America’s climate over the past half century. The assessment addresses the likelihood and extent to which human activity or natural variations have driven surface warming, precipitation, droughts, and floods.

“A major implication of this assessment is that improving predictions of regional sea-surface temperatures will be crucial to predicting climate variability across the U.S. from years to decades, as well as projecting long-term regional climate changes,” said Randall Dole, lead author and a scientist at NOAA’s Earth System Research Laboratory in Boulder, Colo.

…Drought impacts have likely become more severe as surface temperatures warmed, increasing evaporation, reducing soil moisture, and causing other water stresses. The scientists found no long-term trends in where or how often droughts occur or in how much rain or snow has fallen on average each year.

…“Using reanalysis and attribution methods we can now say with more confidence what’s driving some of the extreme climate conditions of the past few years: whether it’s global warming, El Niño, La Niña, or some other pattern,” said NOAA scientist Martin Hoerling, also of the Earth System Research Laboratory and a lead author on the report. “That’s the information policymakers and the public ask for.” Hoerling also heads NOAA’s climate attribution team….

Adriaen van der Kabel (1659-1705), "Stormy sea with boats and nearby cliff"

New Jersey to counter global warming

Courier Post (New Jersey): Imagine a "zero-waste" Garden State, widespread use of electric or hydrogen fuel cell cars and green buildings that conserve energy and water. That's one vision for the future to 2050 in a draft state report released recently.

…And a major concern in New Jersey is sea level rise because of global warming, the draft state report says. "The state is especially vulnerable to significant impacts" because of land subsidence, the topography of its coastline, coastal erosion and very dense coastal development, the report says.

…90 percent of development in New Jersey will be in areas with existing public infrastructure and 99 percent of that development will be redevelopment. All New Jersey residents will have alternative ways to get to work beyond single-occupancy vehicles.

…According to the plan, New Jersey Transit will commit $29.7 billion to keep the transit system in a state of good repair, build the proposed Trans-Hudson Express Tunnel (a rail tunnel) and complete other projects that could grow ridership over time….

The wetlands near Cape May, New Jersey, US Army Corps of Engineers

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Climate change has health implications

Daily Astorian (Oregon): …The World Health Organization is increasingly focusing on global warming's potential affects on factors critical to human health, such as safe drinking water, sufficient food, secure shelter and good social conditions, especially in poorer nations.

Rising sea levels put coastal areas and island nations at risk of flooding and may make some areas uninhabitable. Drought may also cause mass migrations to other regions.

The Centers for Disease Control - the federal agency whose mission is to protect the health of all Americans - is focusing on a long list of possible health consequences of climate change, including:
  • injuries caused by severe weather (hurricanes, cyclones, tornados, flooding) and heat exposure,
  • increases in allergies, asthma and respiratory illness rates due to increases in ground-level ozone levels, airborne allergens and other pollutants,
  • increases in diseases carried by mosquitoes and other insects - malaria, dengue fever, yellow fever, West Nile virus and others,
  • increases in water-borne illnesses such as cholera and other diarrheal diseases,
  • threats to the safety and availability of food and water supplies,
  • negative impacts of mass migration and regional conflicts…..
Public health nursing during the New Deal in the US, from the FDR Library

Floods could follow ice in Midwestern US

VOA News: The U. S. National Weather Service is warning that rain, rising temperatures and thick fog could lead to flooding in the midwestern United States Saturday after days of cold weather, heavy snow and ice. The Weather Service issued flood watches and warnings for parts of the states of Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Missouri and Wisconsin.

Heavy fog grounded all flights at the Midway airport in Chicago, Illinois, Friday night, and there were more than 400 cancellations at the city's O'Hare airport, a major travel hub. A warm front is also entering the northwestern United States. Rain in some parts of Oregon and Washington is expected to wash away much of this week's massive snowfall and could cause flooding….

Mackinac Bridge (in Michigan) during a 2006 snowstorm, shot by , Wikimedia Commons, under the Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike 2.5 License.

Credit crunch means more poaching

Guardian (UK): A growing demand for cheap meat has spawned a boom in black market game and a rise in organised gangs of poachers operating across Scotland, police have claimed.

According to Scotland's National Wildlife Crime Unit, more than 335 incidents have been recorded in the last 18 months, although many gamekeepers and landowners fear that figure is only a small proportion of the true number of offences. Venison appears to be the top target for gangs as they hunt red, fallow, sika and roe deer, often using illegal weapons, traps and snares which cause unnecessary suffering as wounded animals are left to die slowly.

Grampian, Tayside, Central and Strathclyde police have all experienced poaching in recent months. Many incidents are in rural areas where organised gangs feel they can operate freely with little chance of being caught….

A French caption says, "Always at war with the law, that's the poacher's lot..." An 1881 illustration by Charles Delfort, Wikimedia Commons

Climate change refugees seek a new international deal

Climate Change Corp: …The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) estimates that there will be 150 million environmental refugees by 2050. The Institute for Environment and Human Security, affiliated with United Nations University, estimated the number of environmental refugees at 20 million in 2005 and predicted the number could be 50 million as early as 2010.

In spite of millions in danger of becoming refugees, at present there is no international law to protect their rights. UNHCR, the United Nations’ refugee agency, does not recognise climate or environment refugees as these categories are not included in the list of legal refugees under the UN’s 1951 Refugee Convention. The Convention currently defines a legal refugee as a person who has fled his or her country due to persecution by the state for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion.

Anthony Simms, head of the climate change programme at UK-based New Economic Foundation, and the author of a book titled “Environmental Refugees: The Case for Recognition” argues that environmental refugees should be given UN refugee status as environmental displacement of people amounts to “environmental persecution”. Simms argues that developed nations should take responsibility as climate change comes a result of their policies….

Darfur refugee camp in Chad, shot by Mark Knobil from Pittsburgh, Wikimedia Commons via Flickr, under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 License

Ben Bova: It’s best to prepare for the worst on global warming

Physicist and science fiction writer Ben Bova recently wrote about climate change in the Naples News (Florida): …Assertions and accusations are not facts. Wishful thinking or political opposition are not measurements. OK, I don’t much like Al Gore either, but his exaggerations about global warming don’t mean that the globe isn’t warming.

If man-made emissions of greenhouse gases are a critical factor in global warming, that’s good news! If we’re the cause we can do something about it.

…How will the world’s political situation change when millions, perhaps billions of people have to leave their homelands because of droughts or floods? We have terrorism and wars today; tomorrow might see much, much worse.

Climate change might not come gradually, either. In the past, severe changes in climate have overtaken the world in the span of a few decades. The gradual changes we measure today may reach a tipping point, a sort of “greenhouse cliff,” where the global climate shifts too rapidly for us to protect ourselves from its drastic effects.

One reader offered a semi-practical suggestion. Pointing out that methane is also a potent greenhouse gas, he proposed a “flatulence tax” on the 6 billion humans who are expelling tons of methane into the atmosphere every day. Apparently such a tax has already been considered in Alabama — on the cows, sheep and other farmyard animals that contribute methane to the atmosphere.

Seriously, though, to me it seems better to prepare for the worst. Instead of denying the obvious, we should take steps now to reduce our use of fossil fuels, to develop new and clean sources of energy, to change the world in the direction we want to go, rather than be overtaken by disaster.

Earth seen from Apollo 17

Friday, December 26, 2008

British insurance industry devising flood guidelines

Telegraph (UK): The Association of British Insurers (ABI) is working on a set of flood-prevention guidelines for all newly built properties put up for sale. The trade body for underwriters expects the measures to be incorporated into new buildings, although, coming at a time of a depressed housing market, they could pile further pressure on to the ailing housebuilding industry.

However, the ABI insisted that it plans to work with the construction industry, and will approach developers, planners, builders and local authorities to gauge their opinions next month. Stephen Haddrill, director general of the ABI, said that after last year's flooding in the UK that left insurers with at record £3bn bill, such action is needed to enable underwriters to assess flood risk better.

"Adapting to climate change is a major challenge for society," he said. "Taking climate change into account when designing, building and locating new properties will mean that people will be better protected against our increasingly unpredictable weather. "It will also help to ensure that flood insurance remains as widely available as possible."…

Botley Road, Oxford, during the 2007 flood, shot by John Barker, Wikimedia Commons via Flickr, under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 License

Active 2009 hurricane season predicted by WSI

A press release from WSI Corporation: WSI Corporation has issued their first look at the 2009 Atlantic tropical season. The 2009 forecast calls for 13 named storms, 7 hurricanes, and 3 intense hurricanes (category 3 or greater). These forecast numbers are all larger than the 1950-2008 averages of 9.8 named storms, 6.0 hurricanes, and 2.5 intense hurricanes. The expectations for an active 2009 season arise from (1) the expected continuation of warmer-than-normal Atlantic Ocean temperature anomalies into next summer and fall and (2) the likelihood of a favorable or neutral wind shear environment associated with the lack of an El Nino event.

The 2009 WSI forecast comes on the heels of a very successful 2008 forecast. The December preseason forecast values of 14 named storms, 7 hurricanes, and 3 intense hurricanes were slightly smaller than the final observed values of 15/8/5. The subsequent updates improved the forecast further – the April updated forecast values of 14 named storms, 8 hurricanes, and 4 intense hurricanes were almost perfect.

According to WSI seasonal forecaster Dr. Todd Crawford, “Since 1995, most tropical seasons have been more active than the long-term averages, due to warmer Atlantic Ocean temperatures. We do not see any reason why this active regime will not continue in 2009. It should be noted that the Atlantic temperatures are cooler than last year, however, and we currently do not expect 2009 to be quite as active as 2008.”

WSI has been providing industry-leading seasonal forecasts for energy traders since 2000. The next full seasonal forecast package, which will include forecasts for late winter temperatures in both the US and Europe, will be issued to clients on January 13 and to the press on January 20. The next update on the 2009 tropical season will be issued to clients on April 14 and to the press on April 22.

Damage from Hurricane Kathleen, 1976. FEMA

Widespread flooding forces state of emergency in Marshall Islands

Terra Daily via Agence France-Presse: A state of emergency was declared in the Marshall Islands late Christmas Eve as widespread flooding displaced hundreds of islanders, damaged dozens of homes and threatened public health. Government officials said Wednesday the flooding showed how vulnerable the western Pacific atoll nation is to very small changes in weather conditions.

The islands have been pounded three times in the past two weeks by powerful waves caused by storm surges that coincided with high tides, swamping the main urban centres of Majuro and Ebeye that are less than a metre above sea level. Houses and roads were damaged but the torrent also destroyed cemeteries, "contributing to the already alarming sanitary conditions with the widespread debris caused by the high wave action," President Litokwa Tomeing said.

Tomeing, who declared the state of emergency, said at least 600 people were forced to take refuge in government-designated shelters, churches, and with other family members....

Aerial shot of Bigej Island, Kwajalein Atoll, Republic of the Marshall Islands

Despite a soaking from Fay, Florida faces drought for 2009

Orlando Sentinel: Central Florida should brace for another drought in 2009. The Climate Prediction Center shows a big part of Florida -- from near Tallahassee to Lake Okeechobee -- will be withering in a dry spell by early spring. The federal agency's experts think sparse rainfall will persist across much of the Southeast until late spring. It would be the state's fourth year in a row for drought, and the eighth this decade.

State officials are standing by with response plans that include increasingly strict restrictions on water use. "The outlook through May isn't particularly good," said hydrologist Tom Mirti at the St. Johns River Water Management District in Palatka.

The Orlando area might be parched now if it weren't for a taste in August of the record-setting downpours of Tropical Storm Fay. Most of Florida was doused by Fay's rains, especially Fort Pierce, Melbourne and southwest Volusia County, where neighborhoods were flooded by as much as 2 feet of rainfall. But the region that Fay swerved around -- the greater Tampa Bay area -- is now worried about its shrinking supply of drinking water.

Dave Bracciano, demand-management coordinator at Tampa Bay Water, said Fay and other tropical storms dumped only about an inch of moisture in the area. The C.W. Bill Young Regional Reservoir, a key source of water, is critically low. An artificial lake in Hillsborough County fed by the Alafia and Hillsborough rivers, the reservoir should be holding 6 billion to 7 billion gallons but has less than half that much…

Egret on a hot tin roof in Key West, Florida, shot by Ianaré Sévi, Wikimedia Commons, under the Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike 3.0 License

Climate change threatens livelihoods in Southern Africa

IPS: Climate change will affect the Zambezi River basin more severely than any other river system in the world, according to Kenneth Msibi, Water Policy and Strategy Expert for the Southern African Development Community (SADC). Increased floods, drought and increased levels of disease threaten lives and livelihoods all along the river’s length. "Frequent floods and intense droughts are becoming more frequent occurrences in our region. We need to use our existing water resources as a catalyst for development so that we don’t get overwhelmed by the effects of climate change," said Msibi.

Coordinator for the Climate Change and Adaptation in Africa project, Miriam Kalanda-Sabola, told IPS that farming communities in Malawi and Tanzania, for instance, have in the past 30 years experienced considerable negative climate change effects in both semi-arid and high rainfall areas. Throughout the basin, agriculture is mostly rain-fed, and the people of these states are facing declining agricultural productivity which is being linked to worsening poverty and increasing food insecurity.

The semi-arid areas of Tanzania have seen declining crop yields, poor livestock production, and increasing domestic animal diseases. Many communities have abandoned the production of traditional crops. But farmers in areas of high rainfall are also in difficulty. "The high rainfall areas in Tanzania are facing declining soil fertility, stunted crop growth, destruction of mature crops in the field and stored ones," said Kalanda-Sabola.

In Malawi's semi-arid areas, communities are seeing increasing periods of hunger and loss of property due to floods while droughts have reduced grazing for livestock due to droughts. Meanwhile, the high rainfall areas are experiencing soil erosion and frequent landslides, increasing incidence of malaria and loss of crops and animals due to floods….

The dried up Ruaha River in Tanzania's Ruaha National Park, shot by Paul Shaffner, Iringa, Tanzania, Wikimedia Commons via Flickr, under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 License

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Experts detail three rules for successful technological fixes

Science Daily: Technology can do great things, but it also can be over sold as panacea for a host of social ills. A better use of technology can be gained if those who guide technology policy, and thus investment, are clear about how to apply it and know what to expect from their efforts. This is the conclusion of an opinion piece in this week's (Dec. 18) Nature magazine written by Daniel Sarewitz of Arizona State University and Richard Nelson of Columbia University. Sarewitz and Nelson describe three rules that can help technology and science policy makers become smarter about where to apply technological fixes and what to expect as a result.

… Their first rule is that technology must largely embody the cause-effect relationship connecting problem to solution. For example, vaccines work with great reliability because they address almost all of the important variables necessary for preventing the disease. So, the application of vaccines is routinely done with great success despite "a notoriously dysfunctional health care system in the U.S."

Rule number two is that the effects of the technological fix must be assessable using relatively unambiguous or uncontroversial criteria. The benefits of the fix, that is, must be obvious to all. "Such clarity (in benefit) allows policy and operational coordination to emerge among diverse actors and institutions, ranging from doctors and parents to school districts, insurance companies, vaccine manufacturers and regulatory bodies," Sarewitz and Nelson state.

…Rule number three is that research and development is most likely to contribute decisively to solving a social problem when it focuses on improving a standardized technical core that already exists. In other words, science is at its best when it improves upon a scientific base (like vaccine technology) than elucidating theoretical foundations, causes or dynamics of a problem (like how people do or do not learn)....

Disasters warning for Asia-Pacific

Sydney Morning Herald: Australia's neighbours in the Asia-Pacific region face an era of "mega-disasters" affecting hundreds of thousands of people as urbanisation, climate change and food shortages amplify the impact of natural catastrophes such as earthquakes and cyclones in coming years, scientific research has shown.

The research - which has prompted the Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, and the Indonesian President, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, to establish a joint disaster training and research centre - identifies Indonesia, the Philippines and China as the countries most likely to experience large-scale disasters. Scientists at Geosience Australia analysed the incidence of hazards such as earthquakes, cyclones, tsunamis and volcanoes throughout the region and then estimated the numbers of people who would be killed or injured or lose their homes or essential services.

This risk assessment found that so-called mega-cities in the Himalayan belt, China, Indonesia and the Philippines were prime candidates for earthquakes that could cause more than a million deaths. Hundreds of thousands could be seriously affected by volcanoes erupting on average once a decade in Indonesia and once every few decades in the Philippines.

...Dr Simpson said population growth was the main reason the Asia-Pacific was highly vulnerable. "As populations grow, people are beginning to settle on areas they wouldn't have historically - steep slopes that might be vulnerable to landslides or coastal areas near large river mouths which are likely to flood every couple of years."

The Sundarbans a few months after Cyclone Sidr, shot by "joiseyshowaa," Wikimedia Commons via Flickr, under Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike 2.0 License

UK floods still haunt families 18 months on

The Times (UK): Thousands of people have spent their second Christmas in temporary accomodation, 18 months after the flooding in the summer of 2007 destroyed homes across the country. At least 500 families are still out of their houses, with about one tenth still living in caravans whilst they wait for their homes to be renovated or for the money from insurance companies to pay for the damage.

Severe flooding across the UK last July forced 17,000 families from their homes, and sparked one of the largest recovery efforts since the second world war. More than 1,000 households were not back in their houses in mid-November, and the government said around 500 families would still be out of their homes by Christmas. Four hundred families in Morpeth are also “homeless” after flooding there last September damaged 1,060 homes.

Thirteen people died either during or because of the floods in 2007. 55,000 properties were flooded, and 7,000 people had to be rescued by the emergency services. The final cost to the insurance industry is thought to £3.1 billion.

Hull, the city most badly affected by the flooding, saw 100mm of rainfall in one day: “We had the equivalent of 25 olympic swimming pools falling on Hull in 24 hours. The actual volume of rain was unbelievable," said Gilly Greensitt from Hull City Council. They received almost 10,000 emergency calls in two days, as the flooding hit 91 of the city's 99 schools, and damaged 1300 businesses....

Flood gate in Hull, shot by Immanuel Giel, October 2006, Wikimedia Commons

What's the best way to help survivors?

An old article from Disaster News Network: After riveting disaster images evaporate from TV news, public compassion dries up - just when disaster survivors need focused help. Months, weeks - sometimes even days - after a disaster, it's hard to recreate the wave of "armchair urgency" people feel when they're soaking in graphic footage. Some people show up early at a disaster site with good intentions but little preparation, said Bernard Scrogin, a veteran responder with Lutheran Social Services of Texas and Louisiana.

"That caused some problems in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina," he explained. "Some volunteer groups down there got a call from people who said, 'hey, 200 of us are getting on buses, and we're coming down tomorrow to do work.' They went down there with no transportation, no equipment - just ill-prepared. Their hearts are in the right place but we're trying to help people realize they need to think ahead."

That means getting affiliated with a responding group - and often helping out months down the road during long-term recovery.

Until then, give cash, agreed responders. "I know people don't like to hear that the best thing they can do is give money," said Tom Hazelwood, executive secretary for U.S. disaster response for the United Methodist Committee on Relief. "The best thing a person can do is to be in touch with their denomination's response office to find about about specific needs. And, frankly, the biggest need is likely to be money."...

Swedish life preserver at lake Ringsjön in Scania. Shot by David Castor, Wikimedia Commons

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Carbon Based takes to the road tomorrow -- will we adapt successfully?

Weather outside frightful for US, Canada travelers
Sydney Morning Herald, Australia - 30 minutes ago
Holiday travelers across much of North America have been left scrambling with deadly snow, ice and rain storms hammering the United States and Canada on the ...
Winter storms strand thousands of holiday travellers in US
Monsters and - 39 minutes ago
Washington - Heavy snow and freezing temperatures has left thousands of passengers stranded at airports in the northern United States ahead of Thursday's ...
Weather Causing Holiday Travel Problems
Eyewitness News Memphis, USA - 1 hour ago
Memphis , TN – People traveling out of Memphis International Airport experienced some delays the day before Christmas, but nothing like what travelers in ...
Plane slides off runway at O'Hare, USA - 1 hour ago
CHICAGO -- No one was injured tonight when an American Airlines plane hit an icy patch while turning onto a runway at O'Hare International Airport and slid ...

Photo of a woman in a mini-skirt struggling through a blizzard shot by one of the lechers at NOAA

Coal plant spill in Tennessee -- a major environmental disaster

Democracy Now: Greenpeace is calling for a criminal investigation into a major environmental disaster at a coal plant outside Knoxville, Tennessee. Early Monday morning, a forty-acre pond containing toxic coal ash collapsed. 2.6 million cubic yards of coal ash spilled out of the retention pond, burying homes and roads. Over 400 acres of land are now under as much as six feet of sludge. Environmentalists say the spill is more than thirty times larger than the Exxon Valdez oil spill.

The sludge has flowed into the Emory River, a tributary of the Tennessee River, which provides drinking water to millions of people downstream in Tennessee, Alabama and Kentucky.

Environmentalists say the disaster could take months, if not years, to clean up. The Environmental Protection Agency staff member has arrived at the scene to test the ash for toxic metals and mercury, a neurotoxin that concentrates in coal ash. Greenpeace warned that coal ash typically contains high concentrations of toxic chemicals like mercury, cadmium and other heavy metals. The coal plant and retention pond are both operated by the Tennessee Valley Authority….

Little Emory River in Tennessee, before the spill (and perhaps not even near the spill -- I can't tell), shot by ChristopherM, Wikimedia Commons, under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License, Version 1.2

Food security in Uganda's Karamoja region precarious, says UN agency, via IRIN: Food insecurity in Uganda's drought-prone region of Karamoja will worsen in 2009, the UN World Food Programme (WFP) has warned. The agency said the focus of the humanitarian community would be mainly on Karamoja because of its tenuous food situation, exacerbated by the widespread failure of the latest harvest, with yields about 30 percent of the expected output.

WFP said prospects for improved food security and nutrition were poor as the region was facing its third successive failed harvest. Karamoja has one main harvest season annually in August-September. "We are currently catering for about 700,000 people, but this number is expected to go as high as 950,000," Stanlake Samkange, WFP country representative, told IRIN on 22 December.

"They will need food aid because many places in Karamoja did not harvest anything because of the worsening climatic conditions. Harvests have been around 30 percent while other areas have recorded even lower rates than that. WFP will soon launch an emergency operation to assist an estimated 900,000 people for approximately a year."

Karamoja, often referred to as Uganda's "wild west", remains the poorest and most marginalised part of the country. It is caught in a cycle of natural disasters, conflict and limited investment, which perpetuates underdevelopment and hunger….

Inundation in Papua New Guinea

Environment News Service: A five-member UN Disaster Assessment and Coordination team arrived today [December 23] in Papua New Guinea to help identify the aid needs of some 32,000 victims of severe sea swells that struck the northern shoreline and neighboring islands. Caused by a low depression in the Pacific Ocean off Guam and New Caledonia, the swell affected five provinces - East Sepik, Madang, Manus, Morobe and New Ireland - as well as the autonomous region of Bougainville.

The swells destroyed houses, food and water supplies, damaged crops and led to the loss of gardening tools. Main needs initially identified by the government include water containers, tarps, water purification tablets, food rations and insecticide-treated anti-malarial bed nets.

An inter-agency assessment group including the UNDAC team has been deployed in East Sepik. The team, set to remain in the islands for seven to 10 days, is supporting the National Disaster Centre in Information Management by compiling available data on damage, impact, and needs….

Location map for Papua New Guinea by Vardion, Wikimedia Commons, under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License, Version 1.2

Green homes that can withstand cyclone winds for Bangladesh

Science Daily: Home foundations and frames built of a lightweight composite material that may bend - but won’t break - in a hurricane and can simply float on the rising tide of a storm’s coastal surge? Sounds too Sci-Fi? Maybe like something from the distant future? Well, the technology is closer than you think. A professor at the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) is set for six months of overseas research aimed at making it a reality, now.

UAB Associate Professor of Engineering Nasim Uddin, Ph.D., and his collaborators are behind the innovative work. Beginning Nov. 22, Uddin will spend six months in Bangladesh as a visiting lecturer and researcher at the BRAC University. Uddin will work to strengthen the university’s post graduate-program in disaster mitigation while he furthers his ongoing research into natural fiber-based composite technologies for low-cost residential coastal housing, engineered to withstand hurricane strength wind and storm surge damage.

…“Coastal people everywhere face serious threats, but imagine if we can build a home that would still be there after the storm,” Uddin said...Uddin said that Bangladesh is the ideal country for his research. The Asian nation is one of the most disaster prone and densely populated in the world, offering a unique opportunity to better understand the potential real-world applications of the tree-fiber composite technology in construction….

Jute might be a source for strong composite material (photo of jute warehouse in Germany from the German Bundesarchiv)

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Terra Daily: Researchers watching the loss of ice flowing out from the giant island of Greenland say that the amount of ice lost this summer is nearly three times what was lost one year ago. The loss of floating ice in 2008 pouring from Greenland's glaciers would cover an area twice the size of Manhattan Island in the U.S., they said.

Jason Box, an associate professor of geography at Ohio State, said that the loss of ice since the year 2000 is 355.4 square miles (920.5 square kilometers), or more than 10 times the size of Manhattan. "We now know that the climate doesn't have to warm any more for Greenland to continue losing ice," Box said. "It has probably passed the point where it could maintain the mass of ice that we remember.

"But that doesn't mean that Greenland's ice will all disappear. It's likely that it will probably adjust to a new 'equilibrium' but before it reaches the equilibrium, it will shed a lot more ice. "Greenland is deglaciating and actually has been doing so for most of the past half-century."

…The research team has been monitoring satellite images of Greenland to gauge just how much ice flows from landlocked glaciers towards the ocean to form floating ice shelves. Eventually, large pieces of these ice shelves will break off into the sea, speeding up the flow of more glacial ice to add to the shelves. Warming of the climate around Greenland is believed to have added to the increased flow of ice outward from the mainland via these huge glaciers….

A glacier in Greenland, shot by Ville Miettinen from Helsinki, Finland, Wikimedia Commons, under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 License

Water strategy discussed in Jordan

Jordan Times: A ministerial water conference on Monday adopted guidelines for a water strategy for the Mediterranean, which will focus on protecting water quality and finding a balance between drawing on new water resources and managing demand. The strategy, which will also address the impact of climate change, will be discussed at a higher level during a meeting of the heads of member states of the Union for the Mediterranean (UPM) by the end of 2010.

Addressing the participants, Minister of Water and Irrigation Raed Abu Saud said water scarcity in Jordan and the region constitutes the greatest challenge for any future development projects. “Currently, the estimated annual water deficit in Jordan is 500 million cubic metres [mcm], while the per capita water share is around 150 cubic metres annually compared to the international standard of 1,000 cubic metres per year,” Abu Saud said at the meeting, which was attended by 19 representatives from UPM member states, including Israel and the Arab League.

He added that the difference in the water situation between countries of the north and the south calls for strong cooperation and the development of appropriate frameworks for the sustainable management of water resources, as well as feasible solutions to bridge the gap between the water availability in the northern countries and scarcity in the south.

…Abu Saud warned that MENA countries are facing a serious challenge as water reserves in these areas might run out within the next few decades. Meanwhile, Jean-Louis Borloo, the French minister of ecology and sustainable development and planning, noted all countries, whether located in the Mediterranean or beyond, would benefit from peace and stability in the region…

A sandstone monument in Jordan's Wadi Rum, shot by David Bjorgen, Wikimedia Commons, under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License, Version 1.2

Prepare for longer emergencies due to climate change, says Canada's Emergency Measures Organization

CBC News (Canada): The rise of freak weather storms as a result of global warming means that New Brunswickers should add extra water and supplies to their emergency stockpile, according to the director of the provincial Emergency Measures Organization. Traditionally, homeowners have been warned to keep 72 hours worth of food and water in case they are disconnected from the power grid because of a severe storm or flood.

Ernie MacGillivray, the director of the Emergency Measures Organization, said even if most people were able to sustain themselves for 72 hours that would have given emergency responders the ability to deal with the most urgent cases. But times are changing as the climate changes. Now MacGillivray said people should be prepared now to be without power for as long as a week.

"We should be thinking about how to be more self-sufficient because we do have a changing climate and we're going to have to adapt," MacGillivray said. MacGillivray said climate change is making itself felt in New Brunswick, pointing to several high-profile events in the last year. Many parts of the province were digging out from the first blizzard of the year on Monday that dumped as much as 37 centimetres of snow….

Postcard of ice fishing in Gilford, Ontario

Vietnam braces itself for climate change

VOV News (Vietnam): A national-level target programme integrating climate change issues into socio-economic strategies and plans was announced by a Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment (MNRE) official on December 22. The programme, which formulates and develops programmes to help ministries, agencies and localities to deal with the effects of climate change, demonstrates the determination of the whole country to join together in tackling this big issue, said MNRE Minister Pham Khoi Nguyen.

Nguyen also said that the devising of such a programme is a new experience, not just for Vietnam but for many other countries around the world. The programme will assess the effects of climate change across the whole of Vietnam, including all sectors and localities.

It will focus on scientific research to establish a scientific basis for measures to cope with the effects of climate change. In addition, the programme will help to strengthen and improve the capacity of institutions to make policy decisions, raise public awareness and seek international assistance.

Vietnam is number two out of the world’s top five nations facing disaster as a result of climate change and rising sea levels.

A river in Vietnam, shot by Luis Argerich from Buenos Aires, Argentina, Wikimedia Commons via Flickr, under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 License

Researchers use satellites to measure inland floods

Ohio State University News: Satellites that were designed to measure sea level over the world's oceans can serve a valuable purpose over land, a new study has found. Researchers used NASA's TOPEX/Poseidon satellite and the European Space Agency's ENVISAT satellite to measure the height and extent of flooding in North America, South America, and Asia.

The study shows that satellites can supplement the measurements that the United States Geological Survey (USGS) gathers from flood gauges on the ground -- at little or no cost, said C.K. Shum, professor of earth sciences at Ohio State University.

"After a flood, we can look back at the satellite data to pinpoint when the flood began, and find out how far the flood waters extended, which is really important for flood modeling," he said.

…The researchers want to automate the software so that it can build an archive of flood data. Since the satellites are already in orbit collecting the data, there would be little cost beyond building the database and enabling scientists to access it…

A flood gauge in Germany, shot by Frank Vincentz, Wikimedia Commons,
under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License, Version 1.2

Monday, December 22, 2008

UN suspends carbon-trading auditor

The Times (UK): The validity of the Kyoto Protocol’s $100 billion (£67 billion) carbon-trading scheme has been called into question after the United Nations suspended the world’s largest auditor of clean-energy projects. Norway’s DNV, which claims to have approved half of the world’s carbon-credit ventures, had its accreditation suspended last month after it was unable to prove that its agents had properly vetted projects that it then approved for the carbon-trading scheme.

The episode will provide fresh ammunition to those who have long criticised the EU’s so-called Clean Development Mechanism (CDM), which allows investors in developed countries to fund green projects in the developing world. Once approved, they are then granted carbon credits that can be sold on the open market for profit.

Simon Shaw, chairman of EEA Fund Management, an investor in CDM projects and backer of the carbon-trading market Climate Exchange, said: “This is embarrassing for everybody and clearly bad news for the industry because DNV is the largest validator.” He said his firm had begun using other firms to verify proposed projects after it became apparent that DNV was overloaded.

“It became clear to us last year that they had a lot of work and were unable to resource the work properly.” UN inspectors found five “non-conformities” when they visited DNV last month, including not being able to get evidence that technical experts had examined the projects they had approved….

Coal silos on Pape Avenue in Toronto, circa 1926.

NASA hunts for rubber ducks

Guardian (UK): Sailors, fishermen and cruise passengers should be on the alert. If anybody spots a yellow rubber duck bobbing on the ocean waves, Nasa would like to know. The US space agency has yet to find any trace of 90 bathtub toys that were dropped through holes in Greenland's ice three months ago in an effort to track the way the Arctic icecap is melting. Scientists threw the ducks into tubular holes known as "moulins" in the Jakobshavn glacier on Greenland's west coast, hoping they would find their way into channels beneath the hard-packed surface, to track the flow of melt water into the ocean.

"We haven't heard anything from them yet," Nasa robotics expert Alberto Behar told the BBC. Also missing is a football-sized floating robotic probe equipped with a GPS positioning transmitter and powered by hi-tech batteries. It has failed to communicate its position. "We did not hear a signal back, so it probably got stuck under the ice somewhere," said Behar.

The experiment was intended to examine the movement of glaciers, which has speeded up in recent years. Scientists believe that melting water lubricates the bases of glaciers…

A "geek" rubber duck, shot by powerbooktrance, Wikimedia Commons via Flickr, under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 License

Sunspot data vital clues to climate change

University of New England News (Australia): New discoveries linking periodic changes in the Sun’s magnetic field with global weather patterns could enable scientists to gain a clearer understanding of how additional factors – such as greenhouse gases – contribute to those weather patterns. A newly-published paper by the University of New England’s Dr Robert Baker establishes the connection between solar cycles and the weather by correlating sunspot activity and rainfall figures for south-eastern Australia over the past 130 years.

Cycles of sunspot activity are a visible indication of the periodic changes in magnetic forces within the Sun. The most well-known sunspot cycle is the 11-year “Schwab” cycle, which comprises alternating five-and-a-half-year periods of relatively high and low sunspot activity.

Dr Baker’s paper, “Exploratory analysis of similarities in solar cycle magnetic phases with Southern Oscillation Index fluctuations in Eastern Australia” (Geographical Research, December 2008), shows that periods of increased sunspot activity are consistently associated with those periods of high rainfall in south-eastern Australia predicted by the Southern Oscillation Index (SOI). Periods of drought, such as that which has afflicted Australia for the past six years, are associated with minimal sunspot activity.

...“We have to benchmark the natural system (i.e., the Sun) before looking at additions to it (e.g. carbon dioxide),” he explained. “Comparing current data with those of a century ago can give us an idea of the added effect of greenhouse gases. But sticking your head in the sand and saying the Sun has no effect on climate change is a virtual denial of historical reality.”

It was a quiet day on the Sun in September of 2000. The above image from NASA's sun-observing TRACE spacecraft shows, however, that even during "off days" the Sun's surface is a busy place. Shown in ultraviolet light, the relatively cool dark regions have temperatures of thousands of degrees.