Friday, September 30, 2011

Rock nitrogen lets trees soak up more carbon dioxide

Futurity: Given that carbon dioxide is the most important climate-change gas, the nitrogen in rocks could significantly affect how rapidly the Earth will warm in the future, researchers say. If trees can access more nitrogen than previously thought, that could lead to more storage of carbon on land and less carbon remaining in the atmosphere, according to a new study published in Science.

“We were really shocked; everything we’ve ever thought about the nitrogen cycle and all of the textbook theories have been turned on their heads by these data,” says Benjamin Houlton, assistant professor of terrestrial biochemistry at University of California, Davis and co-author of the study. “Findings from this study suggest that our climate-change models should not only consider the importance of nitrogen from the atmosphere, but now we also have to start thinking about how rocks may affect climate change.”

Nitrogen, found in DNA and protein, is necessary for all life, is used worldwide as a fertilizer for food crops, and is the nutrient that most often limits plant growth in natural ecosystems. It was previously believed that nitrogen could only enter ecosystems from the atmosphere—either dissolved in rainwater or biologically “fixed” or assimilated by specialized groups of plants and other organisms. Because the amount of nitrogen in these atmospheric pathways is limited, it was thought that most ecosystems could not get enough to facilitate plant growth at maximum rates.

Following this line of thought, it was estimated that the nitrogen contribution from rocks in Northern California was on the same order as atmospheric nitrogen sources, made available through fixation and deposited via rainwater. “To put it in perspective, there is enough nitrogen contained in one inch of the rocks at our study site to completely support the growth of a typical coniferous forest for about 25 years,” says co-author Randy Dahlgren, professor of soil science.

“This nitrogen is released slowly over time and helps to maintain the long-term fertility of many California forests,” Dahlgren says. “It is also interesting to consider that the nitrogen in the rocks from our study site originates from the time of the dinosaurs, when plant and animal remains were incorporated into the sediments that eventually formed the rocks.”...

A path by the River Plym, shot by Derek Harper, Wikimedia Commons via Geograph UK, under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license

Asia reels from floods as storm whacks Vietnam

Associated Press: A tropical storm whacked into Vietnam on Friday, forcing 20,000 people to be evacuated, as the Philippines braced for a new typhoon and several Asian countries reeled under floods after some of the wildest weather this summer.

Prolonged monsoon flooding, typhoons and storms have wreaked untold havoc in the region, leaving more than 600 people dead or missing in India, Thailand, the Philippines, Japan, China, Pakistan and Vietnam in the last four months. In India alone, the damage is estimated to be worth $1 billion, with the worst-hit state of Orissa accounting for $726 million.

Several studies suggest an intensification of the Asian summer monsoon rainfall with increased atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations, the state-run Indian Institute of Tropical Meteorology said. Still, it is not clear that this is entirely because of climate change, especially in India, it said.

After pummeling the Philippines and China this week, Typhoon Nesat was downgraded to a tropical storm just before churning into northern Vietnam on Friday afternoon with sustained wind speeds of up to 73 mph (118 kph), according to the national weather forecasting center.

Heavy rains were reported in northern and central areas. Warnings were issued for flash floods and landslides in mountainous regions, and for flooding in low-lying areas. High winds whipped through the streets of the capital, Hanoi....

NASA's Water Vapor Imagery showing Nesat making landfall over the Philippines, September 27, 2011

Managing future forests for water

Terra Daily: Forest Service Southern Research Station (SRS) scientists recently used long-term data from the Coweeta Hydrological Laboratory (Coweeta) in Western North Carolina to examine the feasibility of managing forests for water supply under the changing weather conditions forecast for the future.

Published in the September issue of the journal Ecological Applications, the analysis examines the interactions among changing weather conditions, forest management, and streamflow using long-term data from paired watershed studies at Coweeta, a 5,600-acre research facility and Forest Service Experimental Forest. ...

"For this study we took one of the longest continuous records of climate and hydrology and coupled it with data from the long-term forest management experiments on the paired watersheds to look at both precipitation patterns and the feasibility of using forest management to sustain water supply."

The data analysis revealed that precipitation patterns are changing and becoming more extreme, in line with what climate models predict for the area. "We found significant increases in temperature and in the frequency of extreme wet and dry years since the 1980s," says Ford. "These findings tied with those on management and streamflow have implications for managers in any area where changes in precipitation patterns could occur."

Management approaches used in Coweeta watershed studies include conventional thinning strategies as well as more intensive approaches such as converting hardwood stands to pines....

Clouds breaking up after a rainy morning in the Blue Ridge Mountains. Shot by, who has generously released the image into the public domain

Unprepared Pakistan faces nature's fury

Shahzad Raza in the Friday Times (Pakistan): Better abolish the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA), writes National Assembly Speaker Dr Fehmida Mirza to Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani. There is no reply so far. The speaker hails from Badin, the worst flood-hit district in Sindh province. She believes the organisations like NDMA are defaming the People's Party government.

The letter shows her anger and frustration over what she calls the poor performance of the NDMA. She deplores the poor response of the authority to provide immediate relief to the homeless people. Khurram Ahmed, the NDMA Spokesman, differs with the idea of abolishing the authority. He says the authority was established under an act of Parliament and enjoys the mandate of the elected representatives.

He defends the NDMA saying the disasters are occurring all over the world with an unprecedented rate. He argues the Met Office had predicted 10 percent less rain in Sindh compared to last year. And the NDMA prepared itself according to the Met Office predictions. He says the NDMA post disaster efforts are extraordinary as it mobilised 166,000 tents to provide shelter to the homeless people of Sindh.

The calamity Pakistan faces is beyond imagination. End of Mayan Calendar or abnormal galactic alignment: Pakistan does not require a cataclysmic activity for devastation beyond imagination. The process seems to have already begun and, though gradual, is getting momentum....

A satellite image of 2010 flooding in Pakistan. Unable to find images from this year's floods -- an ominous sign

Canada's climate costs to soar

The Chronicle Herald (Canada): Climate change will cost Canada and its people about $5 billion a year by 2020, a groundbreaking analysis for the federal government warns. Costs will continue to climb steeply, to between $21 billion and $43 billion a year by the 2050s — depending on how much action is taken on reducing global greenhouse-gas emissions and how fast the economy and population grow, the analysis says.

"Climate change will be expensive for Canada and Canadians," says the report from the National Roundtable on the Environment and the Economy, issued Thursday morning. "Increasing greenhouse-gas emissions worldwide will exert a growing economic impact on our own country, exacting a rising price from Canadians as climate change impacts occur here at home."

The roundtable is a group of business leaders, academics and researchers chosen by the federal government to advise Ottawa on how to deal simultaneously with challenges in the economy and the environment. The group generally assumes that the world will be able to contain global warming to about two degrees by 2050, as promised....

Thursday, September 29, 2011

My own failing dam

I run a story about a judge halting the Belo Monte dam project, but with total hypocrisy I ignore the ailing hunk of concrete and rock in my back yard. I'm talking about a literal dam. Shown here after today's soaking rain, this dam does an erratic job of blocking a stream that flows into the Housatonic River.

Another fact is obvious in this photo. The dam is falling apart. When we bought the house ten years ago, the structure was in pretty bad shape, a result of having skipped the rebar when pouring the concrete. A decade of wear has collapsed the spillway even more, and allowed more water to flow around the edges of the concrete walls.

Local beavers do figure-eights in the headwaters, waddle ashore, and plug holes where they can, tut-tutting at our lack of attention to the unconfined water. Their own dams are upstream, and the inhabited ones are in great shape.

A proper repair would require permissions from our local Inland Wetlands regulators, which would probably be doable. Then comes the expense. A minimal job would cost tens of thousands of dollars. The Architectural Digest version would cost several times that at least. I've done dozens of drawings of artful concrete structures, and then set them aside.

For now, we're letting it fail, and enjoying the sound of rushing water.

New modelling results link natural resources and armed conflicts

Science Daily: The EU Joint Research Centre (JRC) has developed a statistical modelling tool which allows the risk of conflict occurrence in developing countries to be analysed. Combining online news reports with geographical satellite data, the tool establishes a link between natural resources and the risk of conflict. A key advance is the very detailed scale of the data (most being gathered to the square kilometre) and the fact that the modelling is based on the seriousness of the conflicts. When tested, the model successfully identified the correlation between resource-rich areas of land and occurrence of conflict.

This approach has potential use in the European Commission's development aid planning and crisis prevention.

Commissioner for Research, Innovation and Science, Máire Geoghegan-Quinn, said: "This new tool developed by European researchers at the JRC can make a decisive contribution to resource management and conflict prevention in developing countries. A better understanding of the factors and conditions that lead to tension and insecurity will mean better decisions on aid and crisis prevention mechanisms."

The model makes it possible to perform statistical comparisons between conflict events and geo-referenced datasets, such as those on natural resources (including mineral resources), land cover, distribution of population and economic activity, electrification rates, terrain and other geographical data....

Brazilian judge orders construction of Amazon dam to stop

Tom Phillips in the Guardian (UK): A Brazilian judge has ordered construction to be suspended on a controversial hydroelectric dam in the Amazon. In his ruling, Judge Carlos Castro Martins said that all working on the Belo Monte dam that interfered with the natural course of the Xingu river should be halted because of the risk that fish stocks would be damaged.

The £7bn dam would reputedly be the third largest in the world, after China's Three Gorges and the Itaipu project on the Brazil-Paraguay border. The injunction is the latest development in a decades-long battle against the Belo Monte dam, plans for which were originally conceived in the mid-1970s but subsequently shelved after major protests.

Brazil's government argues that the dam is essential to the energy needs of the country's booming economy. A full environmental licence for the construction was issued in June, with federal authorities promising a series of initiatives to lessen the social and environmental impact of the dam.

But on Tuesday, activists from the anti-dam Xingu Para Sempre movement claimed the project had brought "unprecedented chaos" to the riverside town of Altamira, with thousands of impoverished migrants having arrived by boat or road in search of work...

A Greenpeace protest against the Belo Monte Dam from April 201, shot by Roosewelt Pinheiro/Agência Brasil, Wikimedia Commons, under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.5 Brazil license

Climate change affects Namibia’s trade routes

The Namibian: Trade between Namibia and other countries could suffer severely when roads and railways are damaged by floods caused by changing weather patterns as a result of climate change. Laudika Kandjinga from Integrated Environmental Consultants Namibia (IECN) made this observation during a presentation titled ‘Trade and Climate Change - How does it Affect Namibia?’

The Friedrich Ebert Stiftung (FES) and the Agricultural Trade Forum (ATF) organised the breakfast meeting that took place at the NamPower Convention Centre on Tuesday Namibia is a trade-dependent country that mainly exports beef, diamonds, fish and grapes to international markets, and imports a wide variety of goods from South Africa.

Kandjinga warned that disruptions to the supply, transport and distribution chains would raise the cost of doing trade. Damage to infrastructure is mostly caused by rising sea levels, erosion and inland flooding.

It has negative consequences for the Walvis Bay Corridor with its dry port and harbour that are strategically positioned to give the country a competitive edge as a transport hub for all regional and international trade between SADC countries, Europe, the Americas, and the rest of the world.

The cost of repairing roads and the creation of new trade routes to provide access to and from landlocked southern African countries is a matter of concern, Kandjinga said.

“Trade is a key factor in Namibia’s economic development with her small domestic market and other economic activities. Some sectors are largely dependent on raw materials and should they become depleted as a result of climate change, it will have a direct impact on their viability,” he cautioned....

A satellite view of Walvis Bay, Namibia, from NASA

Typhoon shuts down Hong Kong, hits China

Terra Daily via AFP: A powerful typhoon brought Hong Kong to a shutdown Thursday, with financial markets and businesses forced to close as it swept past before slamming into the Chinese island of Hainan. Typhoon Nesat, which claimed 35 lives when it barrelled across the Philippines this week, buffeted Hong Kong with winds of up to 121 kilometres (75 miles) an hour.

Weather authorities in mainland China issued the first red typhoon alert of the year as Nesat gained momentum near Hainan, an island popular with tourists. China's National Meteorological Centre warned of flooding and mudslide risks on Hainan and urged the cancellation of all outdoor activities.

About 300,000 people were evacuated in Hainan in the face of the strongest typhoon to hit China this year as it landed in Wenchang city packing winds of up to 151 kilometres an hour. Authorities in the island province called boats back to port, suspended flight and ferry services and closed schools, but there were no immediate reports of injuries or damage.

In Vietnam, authorities said fishing boats should return to port and urged farmers to harvest crops quickly to reduce potential losses from Nesat, which is expected to reach northern provinces on Friday. The Hong Kong Observatory hoisted a number-eight tropical cyclone warning before dawn, triggering the closure of schools and transport services, and authorities opened typhoon shelters for those seeking refuge...

Typhoon Nesat over the South China Sea on September 28, 2011. Shot by NASA

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Ice shelves quickly disappearing as Arctic warms

Randy Boswell in the Montreal Gazette: Two of Canada's top experts on the state of the country's Arctic ice shelves say the region's latest summer meltdown has led to the virtual disappearance of one of these "unique and massive geographical features" and the continued disintegration of several others, adding up to a 50 per cent loss of the ancient structures over the past six years.

The Serson Ice Shelf, which extended across 205 square kilometres of Ellesmere Island's northern coastline just five years ago, has been reduced after more disintegration this summer to two sections of just 25 square kilometres and seven square kilometres.

More breakups have occurred on the nearby Ward Hunt Ice Shelf, along the coast of Canada's northernmost island, compounding previous calving episodes that destroyed the Markham and Ayles ice shelves in recent years.

"Since the end of July, pieces equalling 1 1/2 times the size of Manhattan Island have broken off," said Luke Copland, a geographer at the University of Ottawa, said in a statement released Tuesday with colleague Derek Mueller, an ice scientist at Carleton University, also in Ottawa. "This is our coastline changing," added Mueller. "These unique and massive geographical features that we consider to be part of the map of Canada are disappearing and they won't come back."...

Two NASA image from 2002 show ice breaking away from the Ward Hunt Ice Shelf

Pakistan: Another victim of climate change

Environment News Service: Environmentalists are blaming climate change for the unprecedented massive monsoon rains in Pakistan, which so far this year have affected eight million people, claiming 350 lives and damaging 1.3 million homes. Over the past month, the country's southern region has received the highest monsoon rains ever recorded, local metrological experts confirm.

In August, the southern parts of the country received 270 percent above-normal monsoon rains. And in September, the monsoons rains were 1,170 percent above normal, says Dr. Qamar-uz-Zaman Chaudhry, Adviser Climate Affairs. The Sindh province, where six million acres of land were inundated in current floods, had experienced severe drought conditions before the monsoon season and had not received any rainfall at all during the past 12 months. Aid agencies are scrambling to help the multitude of flood victims - more than 1.5 million people are living in temporary camps.

Pakistan has witnessed swift climate change because of rising temperature and flooding downpours in the past two years. Climate experts consider this unexpected change as a part of broader regional climate changes also happening in the neighboring countries.

"Our country is experiencing climate change and the monsoon patterns, which had focused India and upper parts of Pakistan, and now it has shifted to Sindh and adjacent areas," believes Arif Mehmood, a weather expert affiliated with the Pakistan Metrological Department....

Zimbabwe needs climate change policy

Tonderayi Matonho in the Zimbabwean (UK): ...Zimbabwe is faced with immense issues in dealing both with difficulties that climate change brings and some of the new opportunities and funding streams that emanate from the climate change negotiations.

In order to benefit fully, there is an urgent need for a localized and comprehensive policy document for Zimbabwe that incorporates the various pieces of legislation and statutory instruments that are found within different line ministries.

Presenting the Government of Zimbabwe position on the need for a policy document at a recent workshop, Dr Washington Zhakata who heads the Climate Change Office under the Ministry Of Environment and Natural Resources Management, admitted the need for a policy. He said it would take some considerable time, but all the background information was now available and the process would start soon.

Many believe that protracted international negotiations are putting developing countries, especially in Africa, at risk as the developed countries continue to use delaying and frustrating tactics. “If developed countries continue to undermine such efforts, developing countries should adopt more audacious proposals,” said Toga Fakarayi of Birdlife Zimbabwe....

200 million depend on melting glaciers for water

Fabíola Ortiz in IPS: At least 200 million people in the world are in danger of being left without water, because they depend for their supply on glaciers that are melting, although paradoxically the process creates the illusion of plentiful water resources. While the average global temperature has risen by 0.6 degrees Celsius in the last 100 years, the temperature of glaciers has increased by 1.5 degrees in just two decades.

Local communities, especially in the Himalayan and Andes mountain ranges, are the most affected. If the temperature is below zero, "ice remains frozen, but if it rises even a little bit, it is enough to turn the ice to water," Marco Rondón, a Colombian expert on natural resource management at the Canadian government's International Development Research Centre (IDRC), told IPS.

When the ice surface shrinks, the meltwater produced each year affects the way of life of people living close to the glaciers, Rondón told IPS at the 14th World Water Congress being held Sept. 25-29 in Porto de Galinhas in northern Brazil. The accelerated rate of glacier melting was highlighted by one of the panels at the Congress, which was organised by the government of the state of Pernambuco and the International Water Resources Association (IWRA), a not-for-profit network that promotes debate on water administration and management.

In the Andean region, close to 10 million people depend directly on water from glaciers. In addition, many cities depend on the food produced in areas irrigated by glacier meltwater, such as Lima, the capital of Peru, a country with some 500 glaciers. According to Rondón, about 30 percent of the Andean ice surface could melt in the next few decades....

The Perito Morino glacier in the Andes, shot by Calyponte, Wikikmedia Commons, under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported

Who's most vulnerable to climate change?

Laurie Goering in AlertNet: Which countries are going to suffer most from climate change? It’s a hard question to answer, as any U.N. climate negotiator can tell you. But there’s now an excellent guide that suggests some answers. The Washington-based Global Adaptation Institute has released its annual look at climate vulnerability - a data-rich trove of interactive maps, statistical charts, rankings and other information on which countries are most naturally vulnerable, which suffer governance and other relevant problems, and which are making progress preparing for climate change.

The “readiness matrix”, for instance, suggests that Zimbabwe, Myanmar and Eritrea are the nations least prepared to deal with climate change, while Burundi and Central African Republic are the most intrinsically climate-vulnerable countries.

A disturbingly high number of African countries feature in the “highly vulnerable, least prepared” corner of the matrix. Other states in that category include Yemen, Bangladesh, Papua New Guinea and India.

The rankings indicate which countries are most vulnerable to - or least prepared to act - on a variety of climate-related threats to food systems, health, infrastructure and water. It’s even possible to correct the rankings for gross domestic product (GDP), to see who’s doing best given their financial limitations....

Earth image by Stephen Slade Tien, Wikimedia Commons, under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

University of Arizona to study human-fire-climate interactions

Spero News: A University of Arizona-led research team will study the interplay among human activities at the wildland-urban interface, climate change and fire-adapted pine forests. While fire is a natural part of the Southwest's forests and grasslands, the region's massive forest fires this year were exacerbated by decade-long drought. In addition, more people are living in or near fire-adapted ecosystems, increasing the likelihood that human activities will affect and be affected by forest fires.

Now a UA-led interdisciplinary team of researchers will examine how humans in the Southwest have responded to changes in the surrounding forests over multiple centuries with the help of a four-year, $1.5 million grant from the National Science Foundation. "Humans and fire are interconnected all the way back to our beginnings," said Thomas W. Swetnam, principal investigator on the grant and director of the UA Laboratory of Tree-Ring Research.

The project is about forest fire history, fuels and forests, how human activities have changed them, and the influence of drought and dry conditions, he said. "Drought and dry conditions are going to keep going on, so there's an urgency in understanding what's happening," Swetnam said. "We're seeking to know how we can live in these forests and these landscapes so they are more resilient in the face of climate change."...

From July 2011, the Las Conchas Fire seen from Placitas, New Mexico. Shot by John Fowler, Wikimedia Commons via Flickr, under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license

Climate change set to increase ozone-related deaths over next 60 years

Science Daily: Scientists are warning that death rates linked to climate change will increase in several European countries over the next 60 yrs. A new study, which is being presented at the European Respiratory Society's Annual Congress in Amsterdam, predicts that Belgium, France, Spain and Portugal will see the biggest climate-induced increase in ozone-related deaths over the next 60 years.

The research is part of the Climate-TRAP project and its health impact assessment lead by Prof Bertil Forsberg from the Umea University in Sweden. The aim is to prepare the health sector for changing public health needs due to climate change.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), climate change that has occurred since the 1970s caused over 140,000 excess deaths annually by the year 2004. In addition to its impact on clean air, drinking water and crop production, many deadly diseases such as malaria and those which cause diarrhea are particularly sensitive to climate change.

In this new research, the scientists used emission scenarios and models to assess the health impacts of a changing climate. They took projections from two greenhouse gas emission scenarios, A2 and A1B, and two global climate models, ECHAM4 and HADLEY, to simulate how the various future ozone levels are affected by climate change.

...The findings revealed that since 1961, Belgium, Ireland, The Netherlands and the UK have seen the biggest impact on ozone-related deaths due to climate change. The results predicted that the biggest increase over the next 50 yrs is likely to be seen in Belgium, France, Spain and Portugal, who could expect an increase of between 10 and 14%. However, Nordic and Baltic countries are predicted to see a decrease over the same period.

The problem with dams

Peter Bosshard, director of International Rivers, in Common Dreams: When the World Commission on Dams reviewed the development effectiveness of dams, multipurpose projects with large dams, power plants and irrigation schemes had the worst social, environmental and economic track record. As the world is grappling for appropriate answers to climate change, influential actors such as the World Bank want to give these complex schemes a second chance. They are wrong. While we need to integrate the concerns of climate change, water, energy and food security, we don’t need to go back to old-fashioned multipurpose schemes like the Narmada dams. And while we need to store water to adapt to a changing climate, we can do so in other ways than the big, centralized reservoirs of the past.

Large dams and reservoirs are not well-suited to a changing climate for two reasons. First, the arteries of our planet are already suffering from a higher rate of species extinction than any other major ecosystem. Climate change will compound the pressure on vital freshwater resources, and will make projects with large ecological footprints unaffordable. Secondly, big reservoirs cannot respond flexibly to the rapid shifts in streamflows that climate change brings about. Dams that reflect past hydrological patterns may become unsafe as storms intensify, and uneconomic as droughts become more frequent.

Climate change has already begun affecting the world’s rivers and dams. Only last month, Bhutan’s Prime Minister Jigmi Thinley warned: “The climate is changing, global warming is real and the impact on our hydrology is very severe… Hydropower may not be the sort of exponential source that we considered it to be.” Countries like Tanzania are suffering frequent brownouts because they depend on hydropower projects that are ill-matched with today’s climate. A new paper in the scientific journal, PLoS Biology, found that “particularly for large [water] infrastructure projects, the risks for investors, communities, and ecosystems are extremely high given uncertainties in future hydrological conditions”. It concluded that “climate-infrastructure mismatches may make poor nations even poorer”....

Gordon Dam, Southwest National Park, Tasmania, Australia. Shot by Noodle snacks, Wikimedia Commons, under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license

Disaster preparedness saves lives

Voxy (New Zealand): The World Bank says Japan's systematic and careful investments in seismic safety and tsunami preparedness over several decades saved countless lives during the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami. Speaking at the 5th International Conference on Flood Management (ICFM5), the World Bank's Sector Director for Sustainable Development in East Asia and Pacific, John Roome, said Japan's example shows country's should invest in preparedness.

"Following Japan's example, countries around the world need to take steps in reducing risk, by focusing on risk information, financing frameworks, urban planning, early warning systems, and involving communities who are not mere victims of disasters but the first responders during an emergency and critical partners in reconstruction," "said Roome in his keynote address. "The resilience and community spirit demonstrated by the people of Japan in the aftermath of the earthquake and tsunami stands out as a shining example of strength in the face of tremendous adversity."

The conference's theme, "Floods: From Risk to Opportunity", reflects the urgent need to be better prepared for the risks posed by floods and to make use of the opportunities created by these devastating events.

Across the world, floods have caused serious damages this year. In March, Japan was hit by a powerful earthquake which created a devastating tsunami. In January, the state of Queensland in Australia witnessed the worst flooding in decades. In the US, millions of acres of farms were inundated and businesses shut down by flooding along the Mississippi River. In Brazil, a series of floods and mudslides early in the year caused at least 900 deaths.

While risk and potential for failure is vested in every system, not every natural hazard needs to automatically translate into devastating loss of life and property. There are concrete steps governments can make in reducing the underlying and future risks, and Japan's own excellent track-record in preparedness and risk reduction demonstrates that prevention pays, Roome reiterated...

Japan is ready for anything. Statue of Godzilla shot by Mizunoumi, Wikimedia Commons, under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license

Mapping human influence on land use

Nadya Anscombe in Environmental Research Web: A set of new indices that measure the influence of markets on global environmental change have been developed by researchers from the Netherlands, the US and France. The researchers hope that the data will enable more accurate modelling and prediction of man's impact on the environment.

"When looking at issues like land use, global data on parameters such as soil quality or climate are available with high spatial resolution," Peter Verburg from the Amsterdam Global Change Institute told environmentalresearchweb. "However, global socio-economic data is harder to obtain at high spatial resolution. When investigating land-use change and the influence of human activities on the environment, nationally averaged data, such as gross domestic product (GDP), do not give an accurate picture."

Markets have become one of the most important factors driving human activities and their interactions with the global environment. For this reason Verburg and his colleagues developed market-influence indices and assessed their strengths and weaknesses as predictors of global spatial patterns, such as land use, human populations, plant-species richness and biomes.

The indices that the team has calculated reflect market accessibility and market influence. The market-access index not only takes into account the distance that people need to travel to access a market but also their mode of transport and therefore the time and monetary cost involved. The two market-influence indices calculated by the researchers are measured either in dollars per capita (market influence) or dollars per square kilometre (market density)....

A land use map of Romania from 1990

Monday, September 26, 2011

Inefficient water use is 'sleeping giant' of global water challenge

Luke Walsh in Inefficiency, rather than water scarcity, is the greatest global water challenge according to new research published today, which says fears of water shortages are unfounded as major river basins contain enough resources to double food production if used properly.

The work released today (September 26) at the start of the XIV World Water Congress in Brazil claims, while water-related conflicts and shortages abound throughout the rapidly changing societies of Africa, Asia and Latin America, there is 'clearly sufficient water' to sustain food, energy, industrial and environmental needs during the 21st century.

...The report from the Challenge Program on Water and Food (CPWF) of the CGIAR finds the 'sleeping giant' of water challenges is not scarcity, but the inefficient use and inequitable distribution of the massive amounts of water that flow through the breadbaskets of key river basins such as the Nile, Ganges, Andes, Yellow, Niger and Volta.

CPWF director, Alain Vidal, said: "Water scarcity is not affecting our ability to grow enough food today. Yes, there is scarcity in certain areas, but our findings show that the problem overall is a failure to make efficient and fair use of the water available in these river basins. This is ultimately a political challenge, not a resource concern..."

Water coursing over the spillway of Ghana's Akosombo Dam, shot by ZSM, Wikimedia Commons, under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license

Climate change opportunities in Africa

CRI (China): Tens of millions of lives throughout eastern Africa have been plagued by drought-induced famines in recent times, but one Kenyan Scientist - Richard Odingo, of the University of Nairobi, believes that the drought may also bring opportunities.

Also a Chairman of Kenya's National Climate Change Activities Coordination Committee, Mr Odingo elaborated on his point of view in an exclusive interview with CRI before a focused discussion held in Beijing Monday afternoon.

"If you can bring in, for example, climate change adaptation, which works and which our people are happy with, which improves their welfare and which is sustainable---that is an opportunity. It's a question of ideas; how best to do adaptation. Climate changes is there, we cannot stop it. But we know it's coming; it's taking a slow movement, so there is time to adapt. There is always a need for what we call a "red cross approach, "first aid". But in the long term, you really need to get to the root of the problem and solve the problem rather than hope that every time when people cry out, you go with first aid, you go with ambulances. That is what I call an opportunity".

The drought, the worst of the last 60 years, has created a severe humanitarian crisis in countries in the Horn of Africa. From Somalia to Ethiopia to Kenya, starving men, women and children are scrambling to find food and water as the crisis worsens. Among those worst affected are Somalis, who are fleeing their country in droves for the refugee camps in Kenya, which were filled to capacity years ago...

Nitrate levels rising in northwestern Pacific

Terra Daily: Changes in the ratio of nitrate to phosphorus in the oceans off the coasts of Korea and Japan caused by atmospheric and riverine pollutants may influence the makeup of marine plants and influence marine ecology, according to researchers from Korea and the U. S.

"Normally in a marine environment nitrate is the limiting factor, but increased nitrate in the ocean can spur growth and create a situation where phosphorus becomes the nutrient in short supply," says Raymond G. Najjar, professor of oceanography, Penn State. "This change in nutrients could favor organisms that are better suited for high nitrate and low phosphorus."

According to the researchers, the effects of anthropogenic nitrate pollution from the air have been shown to be significant in local lakes, streams and estuaries in Norway, Sweden and the U.S. "This is the first evidence of increases in nitrate in ocean waters not in an enclosed estuary like the Chesapeake Bay," said Najjar. "These are large, very deep bodies of water and it is surprising to see increased nitrate in these large seas."

...They also compared the amount of nitrogen deposited from the air between 2002 and 2008 for Korea and Japan with the amounts of nitrate in the water during that same time period to show that the increased levels in the water are directly correlated to an increase in human-generated atmospheric nitrogen....

Nakdong River flowing through the region of Andong, South Korea, shot by Theda Grimoire, Wikimedia Commons via Flickr, under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license

River basins enough to sustainably double food production

Scientific Blogging: While concern about water is always real, scare tactics like virtual water do more harm than good for rational policy making. Objective analyses show we don't have a food issue looming that science and technology can't address.

New research in Water International further says there is clearly sufficient water to sustain food, energy, industrial and environmental needs during the 21st century. We just need to be more efficient. Massive amounts of water flow through the breadbaskets of key river basins such as the Nile, Ganges, Andes, Yellow, Niger and Volta - the key reason why pseudoscience like virtual water can claim there is a problem but there have been no wars over water in those regions.

While Africa has the biggest potential to increase food production, researchers identified large areas of arable land in Asia and Latin America where production is at least 10 percent below its potential. For example, in the Indus and Ganges, researchers found 23 percent of rice systems are producing about half of what they could sustainably yield.

The analysis – which involved five years of research by scientists in 30 countries around the world – is the most comprehensive effort to date to assess how, over vast regions, human societies are coping with the growing need for water to nurture crops and pastures, generate electricity, quench the thirst of rapidly growing urban centers, and sustain our environment. The findings also present a picture of the increasingly political role of water management in addressing these competing needs, especially in dealing with the most pressing problem facing humanity today: doubling food production in the developing world to feed a surging population, which, globally, is expected to expand from seven to 9.5 billion people by 2050....

A farm near Luxor, Egypt, shot by Wouter Hagens, Wikimedia Commons, under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license

No birds sing in monoculture forests

Ines Acosta in IPS: Artificial single-species forests are expanding fast in countries of the developing South, fuelled by low production costs and incentives from governments, and causing severe social and environmental impacts, warned experts from around the world who met this week in the Uruguayan capital.

The so-called "green deserts" are encroaching on the fertile soil of South America and other regions, with the proliferation of plantations of fast-growing and high water-demanding trees to be used to produce pulp and paper, and for other industrial uses, displacing local communities and threatening native ecosystems.

..."Some 350 kg of paper per person a year are consumed in Europe, half of which is packaging, while in Brazil and Uruguay the average is 50 kgs per person annually," Brazilian activist Winfridus Overbeek, international coordinator of the Uruguay-based World Rainforest Movement (WRM), told IPS.

Overbeek said that in Europe as well as North America, there is no longer enough space to plant the trees required for that high level of consumption, so companies are shifting production to countries of the developing South. He also pointed to the different opportunities found by transnational corporations in the developing world, where fertile land abounds and production costs and wages are lower than in the industrialised North.

In several countries of Latin America, as well as in southern Africa and in Asia, monoculture eucalyptus and pine plantations are advancing, to supply paper pulp factories. Plantations of oil palm, first established in Indonesia, are also expanding in those areas....

A teak tree plantation in Latin America, shot by Raypeloors, Wikimedia Commons, under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Small islands states sound alarm at UN over their vulnerability to climate change

UN News Centre: Representatives of small island States took to the podium at the General Assembly today to exhort the world to pay greater attention to their vulnerability to climate change, stressing that sustainable development will not be possible as rising sea levels threaten to swamp them.

From the Caribbean to the Pacific to the Atlantic, the small island countries said the world was not moving quickly enough to either mitigate the effects of climate change or support the poorest countries as they tried to adapt to them.

“The very existence of small islands States like those in the Caribbean and the Pacific could be imperilled if current trends are not reversed or altered,” the Prime Minister of Barbados, Freundel Stuart, told the Assembly’s annual general debate in New York.

“We must be cautious, therefore, about how we use fossil fuels, about carbon emission levels and about the unregulated treatment of waste. The planet has begun to protest through dramatic changes in climate change and the prospect of sea level rise,” said Mr. Stuart.

Grenada’s Prime Minister Tillman Thomas called for agreement at ongoing United Nations-led climate change negotiations on measures aimed at reducing the emissions of greenhouse gases blamed for global warming, and for the quick disbursement of funding to help small island States adapt....

Fakaofo Atoll in the Tokelau Group, photographed from 30,000+ feet on October 19, 2005. Shot by Marshman (I think), Wikimedia Commons, under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license

Pakistan's floods termed a wake-up call

Faiza Ilyas in Speakers at a seminar on flood relief measures have said that in the wake of climate change reports, it has become crucial for Pakistan to make special efforts to meet the challenges posed by natural disasters whose frequency has increased over the past few years.

They added that this could be done by identifying vulnerable areas, making plans to ensure their safety and constituting teams of trained volunteers across the country that could be called in at the time of a calamity.

The seminar, ‘Sharing what we saw: A story of pain and suffering’, was organised at the University of Karachi on Saturday by the university’s disaster management volunteer corps that recently visited Nawabshah, Thatta, Sujawal, Gharo, Badin and adjoining areas to distribute relief goods among more than 700 families.

Sharing her observations, Prof Dr Shahana Urooj Kazmi, pro-vice chancellor of KU, said that the scale of devastation in the interior of Sindh was much bigger than last year’s losses and the poor, especially women and children, needed immediate help.

“During our visit, we saw thousands of people, who lost their villages to floods, staying in the open by roadsides or in make-shift shelters that lack the basic necessities of life. They were in dire need of potable water, food and medicines and were suffering from various ailments,” she said, adding that children had lost their schooling and playgrounds and were found sitting idle and frightened....

Melting ice is Earth's warning signal – and we cannot ignore it

Damian Carrington in the Guardian (UK): Ice is the white flag being waved by our planet, under fire from the atmospheric attack being mounted by humanity. From the frosted plains of the Arctic ice pack to the cool blue caverns of the mountain glaciers, the dripping away of frozen water is the most crystal clear of all the Earth's warning signals.

It relies on neither the painstaking compiling of temperature records back through history nor the devilish complexity of predicting the future with supercomputers. Ice on Earth is simply and unambiguously disappearing. Last week saw the annual summer minimum of the Arctic ice cap, which has now shrunk to the lowest level satellites have ever recorded. The ice at the roof of the human world is faring little better: mountain glaciers are diminishing at accelerating and historic rates.

The lower glaciers are doomed. Kilimanjaro may be bare within a decade, with the Pyrenees set to be ice-free by mid-century and three-quarters of the glaciers in the Alps gone by the same date. As you climb higher, and temperatures drop, global warming will take longer to erode the ice into extinction. But at the "third pole", in the Himalayas, the ice is melting as evidenced by dozens of swelling milky blue lakes that threaten to burst down on to villages when their ice dams melt.

The threat posed is far greater than even this terrifying prospect: a quarter of the world's people rely on Himalayan meltwater, which helps feed the great rivers that plunge down into Asia. The Yellow, Yangtze, Mekong, Brahmaputra, Ganges and Indus nourish billions and will eventually lose their spring surges...

Glacier flowing down the side of Nordvestfjord (Scoresby Sund), Greenland, shot by Hannes Grobe, Wikimedia Commons, under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.5 Generic license

Groundwater greed driving sea level rises

Michael Marshall in New Scientist: Slowly and almost imperceptibly the seas are rising, swollen by melting ice and the expansion of seawater as it warms. But there's another source of water adding to the rise: humanity's habit of pumping water from underground aquifers to the surface. Most of this water ends up in the sea.

Not many scientists even consider the effects of groundwater on sea level, says Leonard Konikow of the United States Geological Survey in Reston, Virginia. Estimates were published as far back as 1994 (Nature, DOI: 10.1038/367054a0), but without good evidence to back them up, he says. The last report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change said that changes to groundwater reserves "cannot be estimated with much confidence".

Konikow measured how much water had ended up in the oceans by looking at changes in groundwater levels in 46 well-studied aquifers, which he then extrapolated to the rest of the world. He estimates that about 4500 cubic kilometres of water was extracted from aquifers between 1900 and 2008.

That amounts to 1.26 centimetres of the overall rise in sea levels of 17 cm in the same period (Geophysical Research Letters, DOI: 10.1029/2011gl048604).

That 1.26 cm may not seem like much, but groundwater depletion has accelerated massively since 1950, particularly in the past decade. Over 1300 cubic kilometres of the groundwater was extracted between 2000 and 2008, producing 0.36 cm of the total 2.79-cm rise in that time. "I was surprised that the depletion has accelerated so much," Konikow says....

Children wading in the flooded streets of Brisbane, 1893

Saturday, September 24, 2011

What happens when we dodge a thunderbolt? A further Tim Prentice update

Weeks after Hurricane Irene came and went, I followed up with the brilliant sculptor down the road, Tim Prentice, on how he protected his kinetic outdoor sculptures. His preparations were small, it turns out. He moved a caged lobster made of sheet metal named Fred into his barn, even though Fred demanded to face the gale unassisted. Tim's prudence turned out to be unnecessary. The storm was a non-event in Cornwall, if you ignore the power being out for two days. Some of our neighbors did get walloped, but nothing like the devastation to the north in Vermont.

Tim said, "We lost a few branches here and there, but that just means we have plenty of firewood for the winter." Fred has since moved out of the barn back to his usual post.

Were all the warnings about Irene justified? Luck steered the storm away from Carbon Based and our neighbors. We could have skipped all the preparations. We know that now, but we can't be sure what will happen the next time. Had the storm followed a slightly different track, we could have experienced Vermont-level destruction.

A risk that doesn't happen doesn't mean that the warnings were unnecessary. Of course, psychology being what it is, the next mega-storm may get short shrift because people will remember that Irene wasn't so bad in their neighborhood. They will think that way, even though Irene resulted in some $3 billion in losses.

This gap between direness of the warnings and the actual outcomes is endemic to discussions of long-term risks. How do we stay prepared for chronic dangers that will be around for decades-- like climate change? The classical environmental campaign, at least in caricature, involves scaring as many people as much as possible, to spur citizens' willingness to act. But in the long term, this is counterproductive. Most of us quickly get exhausted by overused alarms.

Climate change demands that we maintain our willingness to act for decades. We have to find ways of staying vigilant without triggering resistance in all of us, and without getting tired of the Cassandras.

In short, we have to learn to hover in the breeze like one of Tim's sculptures, and learn when to ask to be taken inside.

Above, Tim Prentice's open-air porch, with one of the worst-insulated windows ever. Below is Fred, the wimpy lobster. Photos by Brian Thomas

Recalibrating in space for greater modeling accuracy

Science Daily: A new paper published in Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society A, explains weaknesses in our understanding of climate change and how we can fix them. These issues mean predictions vary wildly about how quickly temperatures will rise, resulting in serious implications for long term political and economic planning, experts say. The paper's lead author is Dr Nigel Fox of The National Physical Laboratory, The UK's National Measurement Institution.

Earth's climate is undoubtedly changing, but how fast and what the implications will be are unclear. Our most reliable models rely on data acquired through a range of complex measurements. ...Dr Nigel Fox, head of Earth Observation and Climate at NPL, says: "Nowhere are we measuring with uncertainties anywhere close to what we need to understand climate change and allow us to constrain and test the models. Our current best measurement capabilities would require >30 yrs before we have any possibility of identifying which model matches observations and is most likely to be correct in its forecast of consequential potentially devastating impacts. The uncertainties needed to reduce this are more challenging than anything else we have to deal with in any other industrial application, by close to an order of magnitude. It is the duty of the science community to reduce this unacceptably large uncertainty by finding and delivering the necessary information, with the highest possible confidence, in the shortest possible time."

The solution put forward by the paper is the TRUTHS (Traceable Radiometry Underpinning Terrestrial- and Helio- Studies) mission, a concept conceived and designed at NPL. This which would see a satellite launched into orbit with the ability to not only make very high accuracy measurements itself (a factor ten improvement) but also to calibrate and upgrade the performance of other Earth Observation (EO) satellites in space. In essence it becomes "NPL in Space."

...However, not only will it provide its own comprehensive and climate critical data sets but can also facilitate an upgrade in performance of much of the world's Earth observing systems as a whole, both satellite and ground data sets. By performing reference calibrations of other in-flight sensors through near simultaneous observations of the same target, it can transfer its calibration accuracy to them. Similarly its ability to make high accuracy corrections of atmospheric transmittance allow it to calibrate ground networks measuring changes at the surface e.g. flux towers and forests and other reference targets currently used by satellites such as snowfields of Antarctica, deserts, oceans and the Moon. In this way it can even back correct the calibration of sensors in-flight today....

The TIMED satellite, from NASA, used here as a generic satellite illustration

Suriname urges speedy creation of UN-backed climate change adaptation fund

UN News Centre: Suriname has urged the international community to move quickly to create the United Nations-backed climate change adaptation fund to support vulnerable developing countries that risk losing their peoples’ livelihoods to the effects of climate change.

“Our understanding of the climate change suggests that our planet will undergo considerable changes over the next 50 years, impacting all areas of society,” President Desiré Delano Bouterse told the General Assembly.

“For Suriname and its low-lying coastline, this means a vulnerable exposure to a rising sea level, risking inundation of our fertile soil and fresh water reservoirs.” An estimated 80 per cent of the South American country’s population lives in coastal areas.

The climate change adaptation fund was established by the Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) to finance concrete adaptation projects and programmes in developing countries....

The lessons we never learn

Farooq Abbasi in a blog on (Pakistan): Almost a year from now, I remember browsing through images of the Pakistan flood victims as I sat alone in the night shift at work. I saw the hopelessness in the faces of the victims, and today I see similar expressions on this year’s flood affectees as a video plays in front of me on the television screen – a troubling reminder of government negligence perhaps?

The 2010 floods were obviously the first of its kind in Pakistan and took every one by surprise. It’s a shame that a year later we haven’t learnt at all and a large number of people are affected again. According to various government officials, this year at least 270 people have died in Sindh, 5.3 million people and 1.2 million homes have been affected and 1.7 million acres of crops have been destroyed.

In a recent television interview with DawnNews the Pakistan Meteorological Department (PMD)’s Director Dr Muhammad Hanif confessed negligence in issuing a warning last year, however he said an early warning was issued for the floods to all the stake holders this year. So the question is why didn’t the responsible authorities take preventive measures?

...Looking at the comparison it is interesting to note that the areas that somehow were spared last year from the devastation are now the most affected areas by the rain-triggered-floods. The severe rains caused an overflow in the Tarbela and Mangla dams as the water level exceeded the capacity of the dams.

More than a year after the 2010 calamity, over 800,000 families remained without permanent shelter, according to aid group Oxfam, and more than a million people needed food assistance....

A US helicopter near the Tarbela Dam during the 2010 floods in Pakistan, shot by Paul Duncan, U.S. Marine Corps

Pacific hurricane Hilary swells to category four

Terra Daily via AFP: Hurricane Hilary swelled to a Category Four storm on Friday but was moving away from Mexico's Pacific coast and was not expected to strike land, according to the US-based National Hurricane Center.

Packing winds of 145 miles (230 kilometers) per hour, the storm was 125 miles (200 kilometers) southwest of the resort town of Zihuantenejo, the NHC said. Hilary was moving into the open Pacific at a speed of 10 miles (16 kilometers) per hour, the NHC said in its 1200 GMT bulletin.

"On the forecast track, the core of Hilary should continue moving farther offshore of the southwestern coast of Mexico today," the NHC said....

Hurricane Hilary on September 23, 2011, from NASA

Friday, September 23, 2011

Floodplain expert talks prevention at conference

Kurt Allemeier in the Quad City Times (Davenport, Iowa): Preventing flood damage beforehand is better than emergency relief after the disaster, a national floodplain expert said Thursday at the Upper Mississippi River Conference. Larry Larson, the executive director of the Association of State Floodplain Managers, gave the conference’s keynote speech at the Isle of Capri Conference Center. He praised Davenport for its approach to flood management with no levee and few hazards or structures in the floodplain.

“Davenport made the wise decision that it wanted to be connected to the river,” he said. With more intense flooding happening more frequently, mitigation is necessary, Larson said. “If your community is going to be resilient, you need to plan for a larger event,” he said. “If we were to spend more on mitigation up front, instead of disaster relief, we’d be better off.”

He pointed out that most communities build only to the 100-year flood level and that isn’t good enough anymore. As an illustration he showed photographs of this year’s Missouri River flooding that covered Interstate 29 and encroached on a nuclear power plant in Nebraska and a coal power plant near Sioux City. The Missouri River remained over flood stage on Thursday.

He also said flood maps should be considered for what can happen in the future, rather basing flood protection on previous flooding. “We can’t use the past to predict the future,” he said. “Our maps of the past are going to have to change because of climate change and hydrology.”...

Davenport, Iowa, May 4, 2001 -- Davenport's River Street lived up to its name when the Mississippi River flowed over its banks and flooded the city's downtown riverfront. David Teska/FEMA News Photo

Pumping groundwater raises sea level

Sarah Simpson lays it out for us in Discover News: Groundwater mining — pumping aquifers faster than they can be replenished — can have nasty consequences. Mining the Ogallala Aquifer (also called the High Plains aquifer), for example, has infamously run the White River dry where it once gushed over Texas' Silver Falls...

Most of the groundwater sprayed on thirsty croplands across America makes its way into streams and rivers. Even though much of the water seeps into the soil first, the vast majority never makes its way back into the aquifer. Instead, it heads toward the sea, where it eventually contributes a surprising share of global sea level rise, reports Leonard Konikow, a hydrogeologist with the U.S. Geological Survey.

In a rigorous new analysis of global groundwater depletion published earlier this month, Konikow estimated that global aquifers lost 4,500 cubic kilometers between 1900 and 2008 — enough to raise global sea level by about 12.6 millimeters. That’s a little more than 6 percent of the total sea level rise that took place over that time.

The actual impact on global sea level would have been much greater had it not been for dams, which stall groundwater’s trip to the sea. In a second paper out last week, Konikow and a group of colleagues showed that between 1972 and 2008, dams retained more water in their reservoirs than people pumped out of aquifers. Specifically, groundwater depletion contributed an average of 0.3 millimeters per year to sea level rise, whereas surface water retention decreased sea level rise by 0.4 millimeters per year.

Dams and pumps may be locked in a zero sum game for now, but the balance of power is shifting. Konikow points out a startling acceleration in groundwater depletion since 1950: one quarter of the depletion from 1900 to 2008 occurred in the final eight years. Indeed, the volume of groundwater lost between 2000 and 2008 was equal to 13 percent of global sea level rise. That means groundwater loss is accelerating right at a time when dams may be unable to keep pace; the reservoirs of old dams continue to fill with sediment, and new dam construction is expected to slow....

The White River flowing across Silver Falls in 1891. Now dried up...

If insurance companies pay out too often farmers will be threatened with ruin

Tilo Arnold in Seed Daily: Insurance can help farmers to survive dry periods. However, it can also result in the long term in overgrazing and therefore threaten their existence if insurance companies pay out in periods of moderate drought and farmers change their management strategies as a result.

This is the conclusion of the world's first study on the ecological effects of rain-index insurance. As the international community decided at the UN Climate Change Conference in Cancun to set up a fund with which industrial nations intend to support developing countries with 100 billion dollars per year from 2020 for climate adaptation, rain-index insurance might experience a boom in the next few years.

Politicians should therefore be particularly cautious if they support such insurance with subsidies for example. Negative effects on the ecosystem can only be prevented if ecology and economics are taken into account, therefore securing the existence of farmers for the long term, according to the scientists in the journal Ecological Economics.

Rain-index insurance protects farmers against weather catastrophes. They do not have to provide specific proof of their losses as is otherwise the case, but the payout is linked to a predefined rain index. If less rain falls than the agreed threshold level, the farmers receive the contractually agreed compensation which should secure their survival.

The insurance is therefore viewed by development aid organisations as a concept to prevent famines brought on by drought like the current famine in eastern Africa for example. According to the UN World Food Programme (WFP), in 2009 around a million people were insured in this way with a total of around one billion US dollars. Around one billion people worldwide, in particular in dry regions, are dependent on livestock farming; a lack of rainfall therefore threatens their existence....

Livestock at San Esteban de los Patos. Shot by Eugenio Vega, Wikimedia Commons, under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported

Swiss Re suggests how India can cut disaster burden

Mayur Shetty in the Economic Times (India): Reinsurance giant Swiss Re has approached the Indian government suggesting ways in which the government could reduce the economic burden of natural disasters which are increasing in frequency. The move comes in the wake of a series of disasters, with the Sikkim earthquake being the most recent. For the world, 2011 is already the second most expensive year in terms of natural disaster losses, second only to 2005 when Hurricane Katrina struck US.

Swiss Re has proposed a host of risk transfer measures that could be taken in advance to deal with the economic consequences of natural disasters. These include the issue of catastrophe bonds, similar to the ones issued by Mexico, or through the purchase of insurance cover by the state itself. Swiss Re, which provides cover to insurance companies from large losses, is also a strategic partner of the World Economic Forum, participating in its Global Risk Network.

These risk transfers mechanisms are seen as crucial for emerging markets like India, primarily because the government has a high level of debt, and secondly, the level of insurance penetration is very low. Because of the low level of insurance penetration, there is a huge gap between the economic loss and the insured loss in the aftermath of natural disaster. As a result, the government ends up picking the tab and the economy suffers.

Speaking to TOI, Ivo Menzinger, MD, global partnerships, Swiss Re, said, "India is very much exposed to all sorts of perils -earthquakes and cyclones-which result in losses of billions of dollars. However there are significant gaps between the economic losses and the insured losses and the government, at the end of the day, is paying for the difference."

A Swiss Re study shows that the economic cost of natural catastrophes has risen from an average of $25 billion a year in the '80s to $ $95 billion in the 1990s and to an average of $130 billion in the last ten years. On average, over the last twenty years, only 20-40% were covered by insurance. Insurance coverage is not widespread particularly in the developing and emerging markets....