Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Planning for sea-level rise in San Francisco Bay raises eyebrows

Jeff Quackenbush in the North Bay Business Journal (California): A regional agency tasked with managing environmental restoration and the built environment along the San Francisco Bay shoreline plans to adopt an updated sea-level-rise forecast this fall, but some agriculture and construction groups are concerned those predictions jeopardize major tourism and commerce thoroughfares as well as their properties.

With relatively little public notice, four Bay Area regional bureaucracies, the Association of Bay Area Governments, the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, the Bay Area Air Quality Management District and the Bay Conservation and Development Commission have come together under the Orwellian sounding OneBayArea.org. [read more]

The San Francisco Bay Conservation and Development Commission, a state body made up of representatives from county governments ringing the Bay, in early 2009 floated an amendment to the San Francisco Bay Plan that would update two-decade-old sea-level predictions to account for estimates of ice cap and glacier melting blamed on human activities.

The Bay is forecast to rise 11 to 18 inches by 2050 and 23 to 55 inches by 2100, according to commission staff. In early May, a group called San Francisco Planning and Urban Research Association, or SPUR, released recommendations for government agencies to deal with what the group calls unavoidable sea-level rise from climate change. Based on new BCDC sea-level rise forecast maps, the group estimated 99 miles of major Bay Area roads and highways could be flooded from a 16-inch rise, and 186 miles from a 55-inch rise. Affected could be interstates 680 and 880 plus highways 12, 37 and 101. SPUR said Highway 37 should be rerouted via Highway 121.

… Some winery owners in the Carneros region straddling Highway 121 between Sonoma and Napa counties also are concerned. Ceja Vineyards President Amelia Ceja said that many of the visitors to the property historically have come north through from San Francisco via highways 101, 37 and 121. Napa Valley Vintners is preparing a comment on the amendment, according to Rex Stults, industry relations director….

San Francisco Bay salt ponds, shot by Grombo, Wikimedia Commons, under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license

Arabic training manual on gender, climate change released

MENA-FN from the Jordan Times: The first Arabic language training manual on gender and climate change was released on Monday with the aim of mainstreaming gender considerations in climate change mitigation and adaptations efforts in Jordan. The Arabic version, which was issued by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), clarifies the linkage between gender and climate change, experts in sustainable development and climate change said yesterday.

It aims at increasing the capacity of decision makers in developing gender-responsive climate change policies and strategies, particularly since women are important actors of change and holders of significant knowledge and skills related to mitigation, adaptation and reduction of risks associated with climate change, according to the manual.

During yesterday's launch ceremony HRH Princess Basma noted that women form the majority of the world's impoverished population and are the most in need of sustainable development. But despite the fact that women are the most dependent category on natural resources, they remain marginalised in the formulation of environmental policies, added the Princess, who is president of the Jordanian National Commission for Women (JNCW).

She underscored that this situation renders women the category most affected by the impact of climate change. But given the fact that women are the most dependent on natural resources, their experience qualifies them to be an essential source in formulating applicable policies in climate change adaptation and mitigation, Princess Basma underscored. "Women in this case are a defining factor for the success of any environment-related strategy," she pointed out….

Children on the road to school in Jordan, shot by Jeanhousen, Wikimedia Commons, under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported license

Room for the river -- in the Netherlands, along the Mississippi

Renee Jones-Bos, the Dutch ambassador to the US, reflects on the recent Mississippi floods in the New Orleans Times Picayne: Nature can be ruthless. Whether you live along the Mississippi River or in the Dutch delta, water is at once your best friend and your worst enemy.

When snow falls in Montana, or rain in western New York, it cascades through America's heartland and along the Mississippi River system that drains two-fifths of the U.S. landmass. Similarly, a snowflake falling in Switzerland or a raindrop falling in northern France follows a familiar course to the Netherlands. The Mississippi River deltaic plain and the Rhine-Maas delta are the river systems' valves.

…For me, as ambassador of the Netherlands, this year's Mississippi flooding is a reminder of 1993 and 1995, when our rivers swelled to unprecedented levels. Large tracts of farmland were inundated; 250,000 people were evacuated. Direct flood damages exceeded $300 million, or 0.5 percent of Dutch GDP.

Our pat response to previous floods was much like those in the United States: Build the dikes higher, constrain the rivers more tightly, master the landscape. But something changed in the Netherlands in the late 1990s. More homes and businesses than ever had been built directly "behind the dikes," in subsiding land. Climate change began to produce wetter winters, leading to repeated, dangerous river crests.

Room for the River was born. This project, which started in 2006, restores the river's natural flood plain in places where it is least harmful in order to protect those areas that need to be defended. By 2015, through a series of 35 projects costing $3 billion, we will have lowered and broadened our flood plain and created river diversions and temporary water storage areas. We will restore marshy riverine landscapes to serve once again as natural "water storage" sponges and provide biodiversity and aesthetic and recreational values.

Complementing Room for the River are two corollary policies: "Retain, Store, Drain" and "Living With Water." They encourage neighborhoods to retain water where it falls, using cisterns, green roofs and floodable parks. Living With Water demands that urban planners and water managers create communities wherein water is a cherished asset and not something to fear and keep out of sight.

These efforts have not come without controversy. The Netherlands is the world's third-most-densely populated country. Intensive land use is common. Forgoing hard-won reclaimed land is politically difficult. But the disastrous floods of the '90s provided fertile political ground to start a process involving all stakeholders: citizens, businesses and local governments…

A scene from the 1993 flooding in the Netherlands, by Michiel1972, Wikimedia Commons

Food prices to soar up to 180% as supplies tighten

Agrimoney.com: Prices of agricultural commodity prices are to soar by up to 180% by 2030, unless governments take action to tackle the squeeze on food supplies presented by climate change and a growing world population.

The change in the world weather patterns, reflecting rising levels of greenhouse gases, "will have adverse effects" on both yields and output "across all developing regions", including some of the largest agricultural producing countries, Oxfam said. "Climate change poses a grave threat to food production," the charity said, citing dangers to underlying yields and of droughts and floods "which can wipe out harvests at a stroke".

Estimates suggested that rice yields may fall by 10% for every rise of 1 degree Celsius in minimum temperatures during growing countries' dry season, with potentially "catastrophic" declines in yields in sub-Saharan Africa.

Corn productivity was poised to fall 35% short of potential in 2030 in South Africa, which remains a significant exporter of the grain, if overtaken by many Latin American countries. Climate change poses a threat to these countries too, including Brazil, where wheat output will fall 20% below where it would be in 2030.

In rice, China, the world's largest producer, will lose 9% of its potential to the changes in the weather patterns evident in the "climate chaos" which has sent the world "stumbling into our second food price crisis in three years"….

A farmer tends rice fields in China, shot by Markus Raab, Wikimedia Commons, under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.5 Generic license

Strengthening Guyana’s sea defenses

National Communications Network (Guyana): The Public Works Ministry says is taking the necessary steps to ensure that the sea defence structures across the country are resilient to the effects of the rising global sea levels. The Ministry says with the changes and several weather related occurrences an analysis is necessary to ensure the right strategies are implemented to deal with these sea level rises.

The Transport Minister Robson Benn says with climate change, global sea level rise is imminent; hence engineers are observing trends in Guyana’s weather pattern to arrive at an analysis. “We have a sense based on the predicted versus actual events that we have a bit higher water and more predication in the system and we know in any event we have to prepare….

The Minister also says freak events occurring within a short space of time along the West Bank of Demerara and other areas are of major concern. He notes that free boards on the west coast along the river embankment had to be raised to accommodate the sea level rise. Some embankments were also raised while others were restored.

“If two of them happen in a fairly short space of time as it happened then it tells us something, it means the probability stand will tell us something but we have to go through that and come up with a proper analysis.”….

Monday, May 30, 2011

Sea-bed oxygenation can solve eutrophication

Environmental Research Web: Researchers at the University of Gothenburg in Sweden have demonstrated that pumping oxygen-rich surface water down to the sea floor is an effective method of dealing with eutrophication. The researchers, led by Anders Stigebrandt, conducted pilot studies in two fjords in Sweden. A large wind-driven pump is now to be tested in open water in the Baltic.

The team found that oxygenation of the sea bed creates the necessary conditions for the establishment of new ecosystems that enable nature to deal with eutrophication.

"Today everyone is focused on reducing nutrient inputs to the sea to reduce eutrophication in the Baltic, but by helping nature to deal with the phosphorus that is discharged we can create a turbo effect in the battle against eutrophication," says Stigebrandt. "If oxygen-free bottoms in the Baltic are oxygenated, it can be anticipated that every square kilometre of bottom surface will be able to bind 3 tonnes of phosphorus in a short time, which is a purely geochemical effect. If the bottoms are then kept oxygenated for a prolonged period, fauna becomes established on and in the bottoms. This leads to the bottom sediments being oxygenated down to a depth of several centimetres, and the new ecosystem probably contributes to the possibility of further phosphorus being bound to the sediment."…

A phytoplankton bloom the Baltic Sea, shot by NASA

Richelieu flooding and the issue of rebuilding

Montreal Gazette: The bleak, wet spring of 2011 has thrown public spirits into a tailspin, but no more so than for those Quebecers who live up and down the Richelieu River, an area experiencing its worst overland flooding in 150 years.

…In other words, there's a history to the pattern of settlement along the Richelieu, and that needs to taken into consideration when it comes to deciding what kind of financial compensation residents should get for property damage caused by the floods. It's the same thing in the Red River valley in Manitoba. We're not talking about cottagers who have cavalierly built pleasure palaces over the past two generations with no regard for flood risks. We're talking about settlement regions deeply rooted in Canadian history.

Insurance companies don't cover overland flood damage, which is why the taxpayer inevitably plays a role in the compensation equation. Quebec has a law that caps compensation for flood victims at $100,000, except where the law is overridden by a decree. On May 10, Public Security Minister Robert Dutil said a decree would be passed raising the cap for Richelieu flood victims to $150,000, and on May 21 Premier Jean Charest said his government was considering raising the cap another notch.

Clearly this is becoming an important political and policy question, given new and extraordinary weather patterns. It may well be that $150,000 is the appropriate cap; more study is needed. What's important is to try to establish a limit that is demonstrably reasonable. That criterion would not be met by full compensation of all affected residents for all of their property damages. There has to be some recognition of personal liability for people who, knowing what we all do about weather and climate change, choose to live beside a river prone to flooding….

Flooding of the shores of the Richelieu River on May 23rd 2011. One can see water level reaching the Gouin bridge, which was closed to traffic. The photo is taken on the Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu side looking at Iberville. Shot by Pierre cb, Wikimedia Commons, nder the Creative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication

Poor urban people involved in Jakarta’s flood handling

BERITAJAKARTA.COM (Indonesia): As the newest member in Steering Committee on a C40 (Climate Leadership) Group meeting, which focusing on climate change handling, Jakarta will take active role in the decision making on C40 Group meeting in Sao Paulo, Brazil, June 1, 2011. For start, Jakarta will involve poor urban people, who are the most affected by climate change, in handling floods as a form of attention for them.

Jakarta Governor Fauzi Bowo said one of the climate change victim is poor people. Those who included in almost poor urban people category will include in very poor urban people category if hit by climate change disaster. Because of that, Jakarta Capital City Government continuously tries to deal with climate change threats quickly and effectively. This commitment is part of Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) target in alleviating poverty in Jakarta.

“Studies found that Jakarta’s poor people are a productive group and an integral member of this city`s economy. They are very agile and adaptive to the actions they took, either individually or within their community. But, they are also very vulnerable to flood risk impacts. They have contribution and important role in finding solutions to deal with Jakarta’s vulnerability to climate change disasters, so they must be involved in handling floods,” he stated, Monday (5/30).

…“Jakarta is experiencing rapid growth which has been able to provide opportunities for sustainable urban development, poverty alleviation and the ability to survive. Nevertheless, climate change is another threat from a variety of challenges faced by Jakarta, which is vulnerable to more extreme climate change situations,” he explained….

From the Tropenmuseum Collection, a photo of a 1949 flood in Old Balandongan in Jakarta

One Australian town -- 400 properties at risk from sea rise

Alex Johnson in the Geelong Advertiser (Australia): More than 400 commercial properties in Geelong and along the Surf Coast are at risk of sea-level inundation, according to the latest report forecasting the likely impact of climate change. The Geoscience Australia report, which is due to be released in full later this week, predicts that between 347 and 417 commercial buildings are at risk across the region.

The coastal inundation would be the result of a 1.1m, climate change-induced sea-level rise by 2100 and combined with a major weather event, according to the report which was previewed in the Herald Sun yesterday. Of the 1000 light industrial buildings statewide that are facing inundation, including warehouses and manufacturing assembly lines, one third of them, or up to 374 buildings, are in the Greater Geelong area.

Hundreds of kilometres of roads are also at risk of coastal flooding under the projected scenario, to be detailed in the full report later this week. The leaking of the report comes as the Federal Government steps up its push for a carbon tax, which is aimed at forcing big polluting industries, like Geelong's Alcoa aluminium smelter, to pay for the emissions they produce….

An overview of Geelong, shot by Marcus Wong Wongm, Wikimedia Commons, under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Venezuela, China to launch satellite next year

Space Daily: Venezuela and China will develop an observation satellite to be built in Asia and launched from South America in 2012, according to Venezuela's science and technology minister. Ricardo Menendez said Thursday that the earth-observation satellite, to be built at a cost of $140 million, would be used to monitor troop movements and illegal mining as well as study climate change and the environment.

"We will have a satellite with the ability to monitor our territory 24 hours a day," he told reporters at the unveiling of the project. "The Venezuelan state will monitor the development and impact of natural phenomena such as earthquakes, floods and heavy rainfall," he added.

The contract was signed by the Venezuelan ministry and the state-owned China Great Wall Industry Corporation. The launch was set for October 2012, four years after the launch of the "Simon Bolivar," the first-ever Venezuelan satellite, named for the Latin American independence hero and also built with Chinese aid.

"As with the first satellite, the second will be made available to other countries in Latin America and the Caribbean," Menendez said….

A NASA image of Venezuela from space -- not from one of the satellites in the article, unfortunately

NASA's TRMM satellite saw heavy rainfall in supercell that spawned Joplin, Missouri tornado

Science Daily highlights the increasingly fine grain that satellites can provide for weather monitoring: On Sunday, May 22, 2011, the Tropical Rainfall Measuring Mission (TRMM) satellite captured an image of the rainfall rate in the supercell thunderstorm that generated the deadly twister that struck Joplin, Missouri.

TRMM is a satellite that is managed by both NASA and the Japanese Space Agency, and monitors rainfall rates in the tropics. It's often used for hurricane research, but also calculates rain rates in other weather systems. On May 22 at 2042 UTC (3:42 p.m. CDT), about two hours before the deadly tornado touched down in Joplin, Missouri, TRMM captured rainfall rates in a supercell thunderstorm that was approaching Joplin from the west. A supercell, also known as a rotating thunderstorm, is a thunderstorm with a deep, continuously-rotating updraft.

"This supercell contained a deadly tornado as it moved into southwestern Missouri a few hours later and hit Joplin, Missouri," said Hal Pierce, meteorologist on NASA's TRMM team who created images using TRMM rainfall imagery. TRMM's Microwave Imager (TMI) and Precipitation Radar (PR) were used to create images that showed an analysis of rainfall in the vicinity of the storm. TRMM data revealed a large area of heavy rainfall, where rainfall rates were more than 2 inches (50 millimeters) per hour.

Two hours after the TRMM satellite captured that heavy rainfall, the tornado touched down in Joplin with winds up to 198 miles per hour, according to the National Weather Service. As of May 25, 125 people were reported killed, making the twister the most deadly in the U.S. in over 60 years….

NASA's TRMM satellite looked down on the supercell of thunderstorms before it raked over Joplin, Missouri on May 22, 2011. TRMM captured this image of the cell's rainfall at 20:42 UTC (3:42 p.m. CDT local time). The yellow and green areas indicate moderate rainfall between .78 to 1.57 inches per hour. Red areas are considered heavy rainfall at almost 2 inches per hour. Credit: NASA/SSAI, Hal Pierce

Philippine local governments asked to factor climate change adaptation in housing programs

MindaNews (Philippines) covers one aspect of the effort in the Philippines to reduce vulnerability to disasters: Vice-President Jejomar Binay has asked local governments to include climate change adaptation measures in their land use and land development plans for housing, as the Pagibig Fund announced the portfolio fund this year reaching P5 billion for housing programs would be mainly coursed through them. Binay also disclosed that government would rush to fill in the housing backlog of 3.7 million units.

The twin announcements coincided with the regional housing caravan mounted by the key agencies under the Housing and Urban Development Coordinating Council (HUDCC). Binay has offered the services of the HUDCC-member agencies to the LGUs to assist the latter in crafting their comprehensive land use plan, formulating a housing program for both the formal sector and the informal settlers, and drawing up a site development plan.

“But make it sure that you include risk reduction actions and adaptation measures to climate change,” he told participants to the housing summit on Thursday called by the vice president for the Southern and Southwestern Mindanao regions.

…Agencies like the National Housing Authority and the Socialized Housing Finance Corp. (NHA), the newest national shelter agency, showed again their mandates at providing affordable housing to Filipinos but emphasized that those living in danger zones and risk areas should be prioritized…

Mexico authorities alert country to high temperatures

Latin American Herald Tribune: Mexican emergency management officials issued a preventive alert as an intense heat wave sent temperatures climbing to more than 40° C (104° F) in several areas of the north and between 32°-40° C (90°-104° F) across most of the country. Meanwhile the governments in most of the 31 states and the Federal District (Mexico City) alerted the public to take precautions against the rising temperatures in order to avoid sunstroke and other ills.

The Sinaproc emergency management agency said Friday in a communique that the states suffering “extreme heat” of over 40° C (104° F) in some areas or across most of their territory are Sonora, Chihuahua and Coahuila, Nuevo Leon and Tamaulipas, all located in the north.

Similar temperatures also occur in Sinaloa (northwest), San Luis Potosi (central), Veracruz (east), Chiapas, Tabasco, Campeche and Yucatan, the latter four in the south-southeast of the country. Sinaproc recommends that the population drink more water, avoid prolonged exposure to sun rays, wear white or light-colored clothing and use caps, hats or parasols….

Mexico City in 1628. Mexico City around the time of Hasekura's visit. 1628 painting

Is insurance up to the task of disasters?

An editorial in the Clarion-Ledger delves into a knotty insurance issue: U.S. Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss., is looking in the right direction in seeking federal legislation to clarify wind vs. water issues in hurricane insurance. But his proposed legislation may not go far enough. Wicker's proposed bill would establish a formula to determine property losses caused by wind or by water in hurricanes, and the formula would apply only in cases where structures are left as slabs.
The wind-versus-water disputes led to lengthy lawsuits in Mississippi after Hurricane Katrina struck in 2005. As Wicker noted, after meeting with Southern insurance commissioners last week, including Mississippi's Mike Chaney and fellow members of the National Association of Insurance Commissioners, the awards from Katrina-related court cases over wind vs. water damages were inconsistent by insurers and for victims.

Wicker's proposal - the Consumer Option for an Alternative System to Allocate Losses (COASTAL Act) would provide consistency, which could bring more stability to the insurance marketplace and encourage companies to write in those regions.

The urgency for action is increasing. Extreme weather phenomena have greatly impacted the United States in recent years including floods and associated landslides, hurricanes and associated ocean surges, tornadoes, heat waves, droughts and forest fires….

September 6, 2005 -- Destroyed houses in Gulfport, Mississippi, where Hurricane Katrina caused extensive damage. FEMA/Mark Wolfe

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Cities affect storms, but downwind areas can get the worst of it

Brian Wallheimer in the Purdue University news: Urban areas modify thunderstorms that can eventually get stronger and more violent as they leave the cities and move to downwind areas, according to a Purdue University study. Using 10 years of data from storms around the Indianapolis metropolitan area, Dev Niyogi, an associate professor of agronomy and earth and atmospheric sciences, observed how storms altered as they approached an urban area.

"About 60 percent of the daytime thunderstorms seem to change their characteristics," said Niyogi, lead author of the findings reported in the Journal of Applied Meteorology and Climatology. "Before the storms approach the urban area, we see them as a more organized line of storm cells. As the storms get past the urban area, there are smaller but more cells, signifying splitting. So, quite often, we see storms approach the city, split around it and come back together on the other side to create a more intense storm."

Niyogi, who also is Indiana's state climatologist, said most of the storms that followed the pattern occurred during the daytime and preceded or came with a cold front. He and his team analyzed the storms' changing characteristics on radar, as well as on a time lapse statistical analysis that measured the size and number of cells present as a storm passed over the Indianapolis urban area.

Niyogi's graduate students, Patrick Pyle and Lei Ming, used a weather model to run simulations of the conditions that preceded the storms. In some simulations, the Indianapolis urban area was removed, changing the weather patterns.

"Interestingly, the storms only appeared in the model simulations when the Indianapolis urban area was present," Niyogi said. "This shows that the urban area can help create an environment that can at times trigger storms." Niyogi said a number of factors are at play - tall buildings alter wind patterns, and heat and pollution can affect the creation of storms….

Aerial view of Indianapolis, shot by Derek Jensen

Assessing the influence of Alaska glaciers is slippery work

Amy Hartley in the news room for the University of Alaska at Fairbanks: With an estimated 34,000 square miles of ice, an area about the size of Maine, Alaska’s multitude of glaciers have a global impact. Anthony Arendt, an assistant research professor at the University of Alaska Fairbanks Geophysical Institute, has outlined the complexity and influence of Alaska glaciers in this week’s issue of the journal Science. In his article, Arendt explains the importance of integrating field observations and more precise glacier simulation models.

“We have used satellites to measure the mass changes of all of Alaska’s glaciers, but there are also many glaciers that need to be measured in the field,” Arendt said. “We need these field observations to better understand the processes that are controlling glacier changes.”

Glacial patterns are difficult to predict — even for current computer models. Alaska glaciers often behave independently of one another. They retreat and surge, and are subject to volcanic and oceanic influences, in addition to changes in precipitation and warming temperatures. Data collected in the field will help refine existing models, so that a more accurate picture of changing sea level can be drawn.

“Alaska glaciers have been losing mass more rapidly since the mid-1990s than they were several decades earlier,” Arendt states in the article. “Understanding whether this trend continues will require an integration of observations across disciplines, as well as the development of robust glacier simulation models.”

According to Arendt, glaciers and ice caps make up a mere three percent of the ice on our planet, yet they account for about half of the sea level contribution. These dynamic chunks of ice are tremendously influential on future coastlines….

The Hayes glacier in Alaska, shot by the US Fish & Wildlife Service

As Mississippi River recedes, flood warning lifted for New Orleans

John Pope in the Times-Picayune: Based on a drop in the level of the swollen Mississippi River, the National Weather Service on Friday canceled its weeks-long flood warning for New Orleans and points downriver. Despite this development for south Louisiana, the weather service’s flood warning remains in effect for points upriver, including Baton Rouge, where levee seepage has led the state Office of Transportation and Development to close River Road’s southbound lane from North Third Street to State Capitol Drive.

In New Orleans, the river’s flood stage is 17 feet, but the weather service saw no reason to maintain the flood warning as the Mississippi’s level dropped to 16.8 feet, where it is expected to stay through Monday before dropping another 0.1 foot on Tuesday, said Jeff Graschel, service coordination hydrologist for the weather service.

There are several reasons for the change, he said, including falling levels upstream and the Bonnet Carre and Morganza spillways’ ability to divert some of the flow. As a result of these factors, Graschel said, “we’re going to keep (the water level) right below flood stage.” The levee system in New Orleans protects the city from water levels as high as 20 feet….

In New Orleans, some levee repair post-Katrina in the Industrial Canal, shot by Stephen Marchetti, Wikimedia Commons via Flickr, under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license

As La Niña subsides and hurricane season begins, will drought-stricken states finally get relief?

Tom Yulsman in Climate Central explores a dangerous interrelation apparently brought on by the La Nina event that devastated the world this year: One usually doesn’t cast a hopeful eye to the tropics during hurricane season. Yet that’s precisely what National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) scientists did earlier this week during a briefing on the deadly and expensive drought afflicting much of the southern United States.

Texas and New Mexico have been hit particularly hard, with upwards of 90 percent of all counties in severe to exceptional drought (the latter being the most dire category). From January through April, New Mexico averaged a scant 0.79 inches of precipitation, making this the third-driest such period on record. And over the last month, the state has received less than 5 percent of its normal precipitation.

In the Lone Star State, 34 fires scorched nearly 62,000 acres in just the seven-day period ending May 27 — a follow on from a series of blazes in April that destroyed more than 400 homes. Austin has seen more than its share of woes. The elevation of Lake Travis, from which the city draws its drinking water, is 20 feet below average for this time of year, says Kris Wilson, a former television meteorologist and current senior lecturer in journalism at the University of Texas. In April, he came perilously close to losing his home in a wildfire. “I’ve never seen it quite so dry as it has been,” he says. “And it’s not done, I don’t think.”

During their briefing, NOAA scientists agreed. While there have been some pockets of relief, “drought has intensified since late April in Texas, New Mexico and Oklahoma,” said Victor Murphy, climate program manager for NOAA’s National Weather Service Southern Region. And dry conditions are expected to continue in Texas for at least one more month, and possibly more.

Murphy says drought conditions could begin to ease in New Mexico by mid-June, when the annual summer monsoon typically begins. And Texas could eventually get some relief during this summer’s hurricane season, which starts June 1….

Wildfire in Texas and Mexico, from a NASA satellite on April 14, 2011

Recent fires and flooding don't concern insurance companies as much as climate change

Global Toronto: Insurance companies aren’t alarmed by the spate of natural disasters that have made headlines in Canada recently, but they do have another pressing concern – climate change. The companies are in good financial shape because Canadian regulators are some of the most cautious in the world, according to James Geuzebroek, acting vice president of the Insurance Bureau of Canada.

“The companies are well-capitalized and can absorb losses like those caused by the fires in Slave Lake and elsewhere in Alberta,” he said, adding that the companies will have no problem making a “significant payout” to people whose homes have been lost or damaged by fire.

However, those affected by the flooding in Manitoba and Quebec aren’t as lucky. Insurance policies don’t cover the cost of “overland flooding,” said Geuzebroek. In some cases, damage caused by sewer backup is covered, but not all homeowners have that proviso in their policies.

Though insurance companies aren’t concerned about the cost of recent natural disasters in Canada they are concerned about climate change – which, Geuzebroek said, has led to an increase in destructive weather patterns and, as a result, a spike in the number of claims being filed.

Geuzebroek said the spike is not due to overland flooding specifically but rather to severe weather that includes heavy rain and strong winds. He said payouts worldwide have doubled every five to ten years since the 1950s and are projected to increase further….

Great Slave Lake at Yellowknife, shot by sfbnurse http://www.flickr.com/people/sfbnurse/, Wikimedia Commons via Flickr, under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license

Friday, May 27, 2011

Venice may be less at risk from seas than feared

Alister Doyle in Reuters reports on some semi-encouraging news for that most ravishing of cities: Venice may be less at risk than feared from rising sea levels because damaging storm surges are likely to get less frequent this century as a side-effect of climate change, an expert said on Thursday. Shifts in storm patterns in the Adriatic Sea could be a local impact of global warming, and this could offset higher sea levels in a city whose St Mark's Square and other historic areas are often flooded.

"Higher sea levels will be counteracted by less severe storm surges," Alberto Troccoli, of the Pye Laboratory of the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation in Australia, told Reuters. "There's a balancing effect" between impacts of climate change, he said of a study he led with colleagues in Italy and Britain and published in the journal Climatic Change this month.

"Tidal flooding events might not be exacerbated over the current century, with potentially beneficial consequences for the conservation of the city," they wrote of Venice, one of the cities most exposed to a rise in sea levels.

They projected that the number of storm surges northwards through the Adriatic that cause floods in Venice would decrease by about 30 percent by 2100 because storms would tend to shift further north in Europe. Under certain wind conditions, the Adriatic acts as a funnel along which waters build up towards Venice at the northern end. Italy is building flood barriers known as MOSE, Italian for Moses, to protect the city.

The most severe combination of storms and high tides of recent decades happened during the Great Flood of 1966 that pushed up water levels in Venice by 194 cms (76.38 inches) above normal….

Some flooding in Venice, shot by Giovanni.mello, Wikimedia Commons, under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported

Globalization exposes food supply to unsanitary practices

Seed Daily: As the United States continues to import increasingly more of its food from developing nations, we are putting ourselves at greater risk of foodborne disease as many of these countries do not have the same sanitary standards for production, especially in the case of seafood and fresh produce, say scientists at the 111th General Meeting of the American Society for Microbiology in New Orleans.

"Approximately 15 percent of food consumed in the United States in 2006 was imported. Sanitation practices for food production are not universally equivalent throughout the world. Importing foods can move diseases from areas where they are indigenous to locations where they are seldom or do not exist," says Michael Doyle of the University of Georgia.

"The reality is we are going to continue to import foods at a greater rate in large part because labor costs in developing countries are much lower than they are here. We are going to see more food coming from developing countries which frequently have lower standards for producing foods," says Doyle.

In 2010 over 80% of fish and seafood consumed in the United States was imported, and much of that came from Asia. Raw domestic sewage and/or livestock manure are frequently used in fish farming in many Asian countries…

Omul fish from Lake Baikal, shot by Jan van der Crabben, Wikimedia Commons, under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license

Human impacts of rising oceans will extend well beyond coasts

EurekAlert cites a study about one instance of a far-reaching issue. There's the impact, and then there are the consequences of the impact: Identifying the human impact of rising sea levels is far more complex than just looking at coastal cities on a map. Rather, estimates that are based on current, static population data can greatly misrepresent the true extent – and the pronounced variability – of the human toll of climate change, say University of Wisconsin-Madison researchers. "Not all places and not all people in those places will be impacted equally," says Katherine Curtis, an assistant professor of community and environmental sociology at UW-Madison.

In a new online report, which will publish in an upcoming issue of the peer-reviewed journal Population and Environment, Curtis and her colleague Annemarie Schneider examine the impacts of rising oceans as one element of how a changing climate will affect humans. "We're linking economic and social vulnerability with environmental vulnerability to better understand which areas and their populations are most vulnerable," Curtis says.

They used existing climate projections and maps to identify areas at risk of inundation from rising sea levels and storm surges, such as the one that breached New Orleans levees after Hurricane Katrina, then coupled those vulnerability assessments with projections for future populations.

It's a deceptively challenging process, the authors say. "Time scales for climate models and time scales for human demography are completely different," explains Schneider, part of the Center for Sustainability and the Global Environment at UW-Madison's Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies. "Future climate scenarios typically span 50 to 100 years or more. That's unreasonable for demographic projections, which are often conducted on the order of decades."

…"Adaptation and mitigation strategies are developed and implemented at a local level. Part of the problem with large-scale population and environmental impact estimates is that they mask the local variation that is necessary in order for a local area to effectively respond," Curtis says.…Even using rough estimates of sea level rise, their analysis makes clear that planning ahead for mitigation and adaptation will be crucial, Schneider says…

Crashing waves, shot by Fir0002, Wikimedia Commons, under the Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike 3.0 License

100-year storm risk reduction elevation map released for Louisiana

Bayoubuzz: Is South Louisiana safe in the event there is a hurricane such as Katrina? The Corps of Engineers has released an updated Status Map of the Hurricane and Storm Damage Risk Reduction System (HSDRRS). The color-keyed map illustrates the established 100-year risk reduction elevations for individual areas throughout the system.

…By June 1, 2011, 89% of the System perimeter construction will defend against a storm with a 1% chance of occurring in any given year. The remaining 11% of the System perimeter includes the HSDRRS levees co-located with the Mississippi River levees on the west bank, where construction is suspended until high river stages recede.

86% of the System perimeter is constructed to 100-year design criteria. 2% of the System perimeter is constructed using temporary engineered interim structures which meet the 100-year criteria and are temporary in nature, to be replaced by permanent features. 1% of the System perimeter has engineered construction closures on-site to be used, should a hurricane threaten the area, to close discrete access points that are under construction, such as railroad/highway crossings.

…The Corps has strengthened and improved 133 miles of levees, floodwalls, gated structures and pump stations, forming the new Greater New Orleans perimeter system. Funded at almost $15 billion, the HSDRRS is the Corps’ largest civil works program ever, and the Corps’ number one domestic priority.

Hurricane Katrina makes landfall in August 2005

Mountain plant boundary can help monitor climate change

Nadya Anscombe in Environmental Research Web reports on some fascinating research: Researchers in Austria have, for the first time, quantitatively defined the transitional boundary or ecotone between alpine plants that can handle occasional snowfall and frost and nival plants, which grow under snow and need longer snow cover, on Mount Schrankogel in the Austrian Alps. They believe that this alpine-nival ecotone can be used as a sensitive tool in the monitoring of the effect of climate change on the biodiversity of mountainous ecosystems.

Michael Gottfried and colleagues from the University of Vienna used the same statistical methods as are employed to calculate the summer snowline and found that the alpine-nival ecotone and the summer snowline coincided very closely.

"We are very pleased to at last have a robust and mathematically sound method for showing what we, as field ecologists, already knew from observations," Gottfried told environmentalresearchweb. "Many people believe that the boundary between trees and alpine plants is the only ecotone in the Alps. But we have shown there is another important ecotone in the higher mountains – the alpine-nival ecotone at around 3000 m."

Alpine plants dominate extended regions of dwarf shrub heath or grasslands (alpine tundra) located at lower altitudes while the cryo-tolerant nival plants grow at higher altitudes in scattered cushion fields, restricted to a few favourable habitats. The research has shown that, as climate change moves the summer snowline up the mountain, so the ecotone follows. "In the 10 years between 1994 and 2004, the alpine-nival ecotone moved around 20 m up the mountain," said Gottfried.

…Monitoring the movement of the alpine-nival ecotone and the snowline is important because as the snowline moves up the mountain, nival plants are in danger of becoming extinct. While Gottfried admits that the disappearance of these plants may not have a direct economic impact, he believes that "their loss would greatly impact the biodiversity treasure and genetic diversity of mountainous regions". The researchers now want to apply their techniques to other mountainous regions around the world….

From 1839, Physical Geography. Humboldt’s Distribution of Plants in Equinoctial America, According to Elevation Above the Level of the Sea.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Agriculture is crying out for attention from the G8

Larry Elliott in the Guardian's "PovertyMatters" blog (UK): Two-thirds of the people in sub-Saharan Africa are employed on the land but agriculture is responsible for only 4% of government spending. One billion of the 6 billion people in the world go hungry every day, yet for decades donor countries have tended to concentrate their efforts in other sectors of development – notably health and education.

However, one small benefit of the otherwise alarming increase in global food prices over the past three years has been that attention is now being paid to how to increase food yields and agricultural productivity in those parts of the world still awaiting their equivalent of Asia's green revolution.

The G8 and G20 agreed in 2009 to commit $22bn to increasing food security, but so far only half of that sum has been spent or is on course to be disbursed. So, with the G8 meeting in Deauville on Thursday, it was a good time for Bill Gates to put pressure on the rich countries of the west to make good on their promises. Gates, whose Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has committed $1.7bn to agricultural development, told a meeting in Washington that three-quarters of the world's poorest people rely on small plots of land for their livelihood, and that making them more self-sufficient was money well spent by donors, despite pressures on budgets.

Sylvia Mathews Burwell, president of the foundation, said in an interview with the Guardian this week that Bill Gates's speech was meant to signal the start of a major push on agriculture during this year. "There is a clear understanding that, after decades of neglect, agriculture is on the global agenda," she said. "America and the rest of the developed world have an important role to play, because investments in agriculture have high returns."…

In the Congo, spreading cassava chips to dry, shot by Ken Wiegand for USAID

Pakistan’s first climate change policy ready

Suhail Yusuf in Dawn (Pakistan) discusses the release of Pakistan’s new climate change policy: After being devastated by the most severe flood in history, Pakistan has formally approved its first draft of the climate change policy. “In fact Pakistan is among the few developing countries which has prepared such a comprehensive national policy on a subject which is on top of the global priority agenda may be after war on terror,” said Dr Qamaruzaman Chaudhary, former director general of Meteorological Department of Pakistan and leading author of the policy.

The policy draft has already been accepted by the country’s Ministry of Environment and is ready for the cabinet’s approval. In 2008, the Climate Change Task Force was formed for the policy draft. Some 40 experts from different but related fields strived for two years to finalise it. The task force also consulted federal and provincial agencies, organisations and other experts.
The country has diverse ecosystems which include coastlines, deserts, arid zones, mountains and glaciers. These areas are in danger due to population growth, lack of planning and mismanagement. For Pakistan, climate change is a reality as data of temperature from the last 100 years shows a visible increase in heat. It is also among the top countries vulnerable to climate change.

“Particularly, during the last two decades, extreme weather events like heavy rains, heat and droughts have increased,” Chaudhary said. This pattern of extreme weather could be noticed in Thar. The region is an arid zone where drought arrives after every three years, and may stay put for 12 months or more….

Sea level will rise a foot higher on New Jersey Coast by 2050

Kirk Moore in the Asbury Park Press (New Jersey): Sea level likely will be a foot higher along New Jersey by 2050, and at the end of the century “Atlantic City’s going to see three feet,” said geology professor Ken Miller of Rutgers University.

To see what the beaches would do on their own in response to rising sea levels, just compare the present geographic locations of Island Beach State Park or the wildlife refuge at Holgate to those of the heavily developed resort neighborhoods next door.

“It’s not that they’re disappearing — they’re moving,” said Norbert Psuty, professor emeritus at Rutgers, displaying aerial photographs that show the wild beaches shifting hundreds of feet westward. “Island Beach is in the process of breaking down and being transported inland,” Psuty said at a Wednesday conference on climate change and coastal hazards. At the southern tip of Long Beach Island, the refuge beach now lines up with the middle of Holgate’s street grid.

“What we’re seeing today is unprecedented” — a regional sea level rise rate of 4 millimeters per year after millennia during which sea level was stable or rising by perhaps 1 millimeter a year, Miller said. He studies the shifting coastline with core samples that drill down through tens of thousands of years of sediment.

It’s the fastest increase since the end of the last ice age, when melting glaciers raised sea levels by 40 millimeters a year, Miller told a crowd that included more than 200 area high school students….

Campers at the Island Beach State Park, New Jersey, shot by Gaurav Pandit, Wikimedia Commons, under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported license

World Bank calibrating its measurement of sustainability

Emilio Godoy in IPS (Tierramérica) reports on a World Bank effort to actually the monitor the impacts of the projects that it backs: The World Bank is working to update the mechanisms it uses to measure the effects of the financing it provides, particularly in environmental and social terms, now that it is gearing up to administer the new Green Climate Fund. "The Bank is working to deepen the measurement of impacts," not only "the outcomes associated with a project, but also its long-term effects, such as impacts on health, ecosystems or the quality of life of the population," Gustavo Saltiel, the director of sustainable development for the World Bank in Mexico, told Tierramérica.

The World Bank is one of the leading financers of environmental projects in Mexico, as well as projects to combat climate change since 2009. Since 1999, the multilateral institution has disbursed 672 million dollars in loans for 43 projects in Mexico aimed at developing the low-carbon economy, energy efficiency, renewable energies, sustainable transportation, and improved air quality.

But the results of these projects and the transparency with which these funds are used by the Mexican authorities have been questioned by civil society organisations.

The World Bank has established safeguard policies to "promote socially and environmentally sustainable approaches to development as well as to ensure that Bank operations do not harm people and the environment," according to its website.

These safeguard policies include the Bank's policy on environmental assessment of loan proposals and the corresponding safeguards regarding cultural property, disputed areas, forestry, indigenous peoples, international waterways, involuntary resettlement, natural habitats, pest management and safety of dams.

Evaluations of these policies "have demonstrated the poor work done (by the Bank) in monitoring the execution of measures to mitigate social and environmental risks," Vince McElhinny of the non-governmental Bank Information Center, based in Washington, told Tierramérica….

Marginalized settlement "Colinas del Río", in the municipality Benito Juárez of the State of Nuevo León in Mexico. December of 2005. Photography taken by LeCire

Drought poses major risks to companies in China

Robert Kimball at the World Resources Institute website spells out the business implications of the drought along the Yangtze River in China: For the last five months, a severe drought in central China has brought water levels in the Yangtze River to near-record lows. The drought’s impacts – from threatened drinking water supplies to disruptions in manufacturing – have rippled through the population and economy of China. They are a reminder of the diverse and complicated ways in which water, or the lack thereof, can pose risks for companies, investors and policy makers.

Although companies and investors are becoming increasingly aware of the importance of water in the 21st century economy, many still struggle to evaluate where and how their assets, suppliers or product markets can be impacted by water risks. Something as simple as a prolonged lack of precipitation and resulting low river flows has exposed businesses in China to a variety of tangible financial risks, including:

Loss of shipping capability, leaving supply chains high and dry: Reduced water levels in the Yangtze have left parts of the river impassible to the ships that transport over one billion tons of cargo along the river every year.

Electricity shortages threatening production: A lack of water to run hydroelectric dams, including the 18,000 megawatt Three Gorges dam, has cut hydroelectric power production in China by as much as 20%. As a result, some manufacturers have had to ration their power use, and China may be forced to burn 1 million more metric tons of coal per week to cover the gap.

Disruptions to agriculture affecting production and prices: The drought has forced farmers in China to delay planting spring crops such as grain and cotton. The potential loss of cotton output has already driven up the price on global commodities markets.

Map showing location of the Three Gorges Dam, created by Rolfmueller, Wikimedia Commons, under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Two Greenland glaciers lose enough ice to fill Lake Erie

Ohio State University Research News reports on a better way of measuring iceloss in the Arctic: A new study aimed at refining the way scientists measure ice loss in Greenland is providing a “high-definition picture” of climate-caused changes on the island. And the picture isn’t pretty.

In the last decade, two of the largest three glaciers draining that frozen landscape have lost enough ice that, if melted, could have filled Lake Erie. The three glaciers – Helheim, Kangerdlugssuaq and Jakobshavn Isbrae – are responsible for as much as one-fifth of the ice flowing out from Greenland into the ocean.

“Jakobshavn alone drains somewhere between 15 and 20 percent of all the ice flowing outward from inland to the sea,” explained Ian Howat, an assistant professor of earth sciences at Ohio State University. His study appears in the current issue of the journal Geophysical Research Letters. As the second largest holder of ice on the planet, and the site of hundreds of glaciers, Greenland is a natural laboratory for studying how climate change has affected these ice fields.

Researchers focus on the “mass balance” of glaciers, the rate of new ice being formed as snow falls versus the flow of ice out into the sea. The new study suggests that, in the last decade, Jakobshavn Isbrae has lost enough ice to equal 11 years’ worth of normal snow accumulation, approximately 300 gigatons (300 billion tons) of ice.

“Kangerdlugssuaq would have to stop flowing and accumulate snowfall for seven years to regain the ice it has lost,” said Howat, also a member of the Byrd Polar Research Center at Ohio State. Surprisingly, the researchers found that the third glacier, Helheim, had actually gained a small amount of mass over the same period. It gained approximately one-fifteenth of what Jakobshavn had lost, Howat said.

The real value of the research, however, is the confirmation that the new techniques Howat and his colleagues developed will provide scientists a more accurate idea of exactly how much ice is being lost….

In Greenland, the Gothab glacial ice flow in 2004, shot by Susan M. Ottalini, Wikimedia Commons, under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license