Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Northeast Brazil reels from worst drought in 30 years

Terra Daily via AFP: The worst drought to hit Brazil's impoverished northeast in 30 years is wreaking havoc among thousands of local farmers, including small producers like Jose Holanda de Moraes who have lost entire harvests.

"Last year, I produced 800 kilograms (1,763 pounds) of cotton, 300 kilos of sesame and 400 kilos of black beans," said de Moraes, a 43-year-old farmer near Apodi in Rio Grande do Norte state. "This year I planted seeds but it did not rain and I lost everything," he told AFP.

De Moraes farms 19 hectares (47 acres) in the village of Moacir Lucena right in the heart of the semi-arid Sertao hinterland where less than 150 millimeters of rain fell in the first half of this year.

In 1999, the government confiscated some land in the area and redistributed it to landless peasants as part of an agrarian reform program. The Sertao, a region known as the "Drought Polygon," covers the northeastern states of Piaui, Ceara, Rio Grande do Norte, Paraiba, Pernambuco, Alagoas, Sergipe and Bahia. The area is covered by a distinctive scrubby vegetation consisting mainly of low thorny bushes adapted to the arid climate.

Over the past decades, the cyclical droughts have caused large-scale migrations to the Amazon basin and to the urban centers of southeastern Brazil. An estimated four million people have been affected by the current drought in a region where scant rains normally fall between February and April...

In northeastern Brazil, shot by Maria Hsu, Wikimedia Commons via Flickr, under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license

Chronic 2000-04 drought in the US, worst in 800 years, may be the “new normal"

Oregon State University: The chronic drought that hit western North America from 2000 to 2004 left dying forests and depleted river basins in its wake and was the strongest in 800 years, scientists have concluded, but they say those conditions will become the “new normal” for most of the coming century.

Such climatic extremes have increased as a result of global warming, a group of 10 researchers reported today in Nature Geoscience. And as bad as conditions were during the 2000-04 drought, they may eventually be seen as the good old days. Climate models and precipitation projections indicate this period will actually be closer to the “wet end” of a drier hydroclimate during the last half of the 21st century, scientists said.

Aside from its impact on forests, crops, rivers and water tables, the drought also cut carbon sequestration by an average of 51 percent in a massive region of the western United States, Canada and Mexico, although some areas were hit much harder than others. As vegetation withered, this released more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, with the effect of amplifying global warming.

“Climatic extremes such as this will cause more large-scale droughts and forest mortality, and the ability of vegetation to sequester carbon is going to decline,” said Beverly Law, a co-author of the study, professor of global change biology and terrestrial systems science at Oregon State University, and former science director of AmeriFlux, an ecosystem observation network.

“During this drought, carbon sequestration from this region was reduced by half,” Law said. “That’s a huge drop. And if global carbon emissions don’t come down, the future will be even worse.”

...It’s not clear whether or not the current drought in the Midwest, now being called one of the worst since the Dust Bowl, is related to these same forces, Law said. This study did not address that, and there are some climate mechanisms in western North America that affect that region more than other parts of the country....

Keota, Colorado, abandoned during the Dust Bowl of the 1930s

Mozambique's agricultural fortunes rest on a choice between Obama and Annan

Joseph Hanlon in the povertymatters blog at the Guardian (UK): Mozambique is a development paradox. Rural poverty is increasing despite high growth rates and billions of dollars in aid. Now the country has been targeted by two contrasting models of agricultural development. The Barack Obama model was backed by the G8 in Washington in May, while the Kofi Annan model was proposed by the Africa Progress Panel (APP). Which works better for the poor?

The APP, which is chaired by Annan and counts a former IMF head and a former US Treasury secretary among its members, is heavyweight and conservative. It says one of the biggest dangers in Africa is the growing inequality between rich and poor, which is creating a threat of social instability. In sub-Saharan Africa, the APP argues, "the pattern of trickle-down growth is leaving too many people in poverty". The panel warns that Mozambique is one of Africa's more unequal countries, pointing out that – despite having huge agricultural potential – the republic is a net importer of staple foods.

The APP report calls for "fundamental change" in both donor and African government policies. "Raising the productivity of smallholder farmers is critical," it says. "Smallholder agriculture must be placed at the centre of a green revolution in Africa." This will require more government action and more support for small farmers. Let's call this the Annan model.

The second agricultural model for Mozambique was agreed in Washington in May, when G8 leaders adopted a new alliance for food security and nutrition proposed by President Obama and USAid. The idea is to use giant agribusiness to end hunger in Mozambique and five other countries. The first project in Mozambique will be to support Cargill, the giant grain trader and largest private company in the world, to take 40,000 hectares of farmland. US officials say this will include some smallholder contract farming, which means Cargill will not make enough profit from the investment, so the giant transnational grain trader must be subsidised from G8 aid. Let's call this the Obama model.

The two models are incompatible. The APP report points specifically to the very large land concessions in Mozambique, and warns that "for Africans, the benefits of large-scale land acquisitions are questionable"....

Farmers in Mozambique, shot by Alan Meier, Wikimedia Commons, under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license

UK fire brigades union attacks government inaction on flood response

Marketwire: The Fire Brigades Union has attacked today's government decision to risk public safety in England and Wales by refusing to require fire and rescue services to respond to flood emergencies, despite the wettest June on record.

Last month firefighters carried out scores of rescues and protected vital national infrastructure during major flooding. Although the fire service routinely responds to serious floods, it is not mandated to do so by law. This means that funding for firefighters and the specialist equipment needed is not guaranteed and has to be found within existing budgets.

Exercise Watermark, the flood rescue exercise in 2011 showed that the fire and rescue service does not have enough firefighters, boats and equipment needed to respond to flooding over prolonged periods (1). However the Westminster government has concluded that placing a statutory duty on the fire and rescue service to respond to flooding "is not the best way forward at this time" (2).

Matt Wrack, FBU general secretary said: "The Fire Brigades Union fears that the public will be put at risk because fire authorities will not have the resources to respond to flooding, particularly in the context of massive cuts to the fire and rescue service....Government reports show that flood risk has increased and is increasing. Flood defences can help, but there will always be extreme weather which requires emergency intervention. I call on the government to make sure the public enjoys the protection of a properly equipped fire and rescue service."...

London fire brigades truck, shot by Jackus2008, public domain

Pacific Coral Triangle 'at risk of collapse'

Nora Gamolo in SciDev.net: The Coral Triangle, a roughly triangular marine zone in the Indo-Pacific region that is considered to have the world's richest concentration of marine biodiversity, is facing potential ecological collapse due to heavy pressure inflicted by human activities, according to a new report.

The warning appears in a collaborative study, 'Reefs at Risk Revisited in the Coral Triangle', produced by a consortium led by the World Resources Institute, a global environmental think-tank based in Washington DC, United States.

It serves as a status report on the wellbeing of coral reefs in or near the six countries comprising the triangle. The study aimed to identify where reefs are most threatened and to provide "baseline data to help groups establish and prioritise specific management strategies," Kathleen Reytar, a lead author of the study, told SciDev.Net.

According to the report, 85 per cent of reefs in the Coral Triangle are directly threatened by local human activities such as overfishing, the use of poisons and dynamite in fishing, watershed-based pollution (fertilisers, pesticides and other runoff from the land), and coastal development....

Image by Eurobas, Wikimedia Commons, under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported

Monday, July 30, 2012

Canadian bureaucrats still ignoring climate risk

Will Campbell in the Ottawa Citizen: Environment Canada is worried that the Harper government's own effort to encourage public servants to more carefully consider the risks and possible impacts of climate change is falling on deaf ears, documents show.

A special framework on climate change adaptation introduced in last year's budget calls on bureaucrats across the government to routinely think about how decisions they make today could be hit by climate change in the years ahead.

The goal is to ensure officials get savvy to climate risks, so federal policies and programs are better able to withstand ground-level changes — melting permafrost destabilizing infrastructure in Canada's North, for instance, or ocean acidification killing sockeye salmon.

However, internal documents show that the team implementing the plan fears it may be dismissed in some corners of the bureaucracy, since officials won't have to keep track of how their decisions deal with climate-related risks.

Without requiring such an explanation, the adaptation blueprint would likely be ignored by parts of the federal government that don't typically give a second thought to the country's warming climate, warns an Environment Canada memo from July 2011 obtained by The Canadian Press through the Access to Information Act...

A Lambert conformal conic projection from the The Atlas of Canada prepared by STyx, Wikimedia Commons,  under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license

Ocean acidity rivals climate change as environmental threat

The Smithsonian puts a confusing title to this article, since acidification is a consequence of greenhouse gas emissions: .... [W]ithin the last 50 years, human industry has caused the world’s oceans to experience a sharp increase in acidity that rivals levels seen when ancient carbon cycles triggered mass extinctions, which took out more than 90 percent of the oceans’ species and more than 75 percent of terrestrial species.

Rising ocean acidity is now considered to be just as much of a formidable threat to the health of Earth’s environment as the atmospheric climate changes brought on by pumping out greenhouse gases. Scientists are now trying to understand what that means for the future survival of marine and terrestrial organisms.

In June, ScienceNOW reported that out of the 35 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide released annually through fossil fuel use, one-third of those emissions diffuse into the surface layer of the ocean. The effects those emissions will have on the biosphere is sobering, as rising ocean acidity will completely upset the balance of marine life in the world’s oceans and will subsequently affect humans and animals who benefit from the oceans’ food resources.

The damage to marine life is due in large part to the fact that higher acidity dissolves naturally-occurring calcium carbonate that many marine species–including plankton, sea urchins, shellfish and coral–use to construct their shells and external skeletons. Studies conducted off Arctic regions have shown that the combination of melting sea ice, atmospheric carbon dioxide and subsequently hotter, CO2-saturated surface waters has led to the undersaturation of calcium carbonate in ocean waters. The reduction in the amount of calcium carbonate in the ocean spells out disaster for the organisms that rely on those nutrients to build their protective shells and body structures....

Some clown fish off the coast of Spain, Esv, public domain

US farmers urge Obama administration to suspend ethanol quota amid drought

Suzanne Goldenberg in the Guardian (UK): The Obama administration was urged on Monday to stop diverting grain to gas amid warnings of an "imminent food crisis" caused by America's drought. US government forecasts of a 4% rise in food prices for US consumers because of the drought have sharpened criticism of supports for producing fuel from corn-based ethanol.

Meanwhile, research published last week by the New England Complex Systems Institute warned of an "imminent food crisis" because of the diversion of corn stocks to ethanol. "Necsi has warned for months that misguided food-to-ethanol conversion programs and rampant commodity speculation have created a food price bubble, leading to an inevitable spike in prices by 2013. Now it appears the "crop shock" will arrive even sooner due to drought, unless measures to curb ethanol production and rein in speculators are adopted immediately," the researchers warned.

In the latest move, the country's meat, dairy and poultry producers called on the Environmental Protection Agency to suspend this year's quotas for corn ethanol production.

"The extraordinary and disastrous circumstances created for livestock and poultry producers by the ongoing drought in the heart of our grain growing regions requires that all relevant measures of relief be explored," said the petition to the EPA's administrator Lisa Jackson.

It went on to warn that the requirement for corn ethanol production was further beating up corn prices, which were already at record levels because of the drought in the mid-west. "We are worried about having enough corn, soybean and other crops at any price to feed our animals," Randy Spronk, the president of the National Pork Producers Association told a conference call with reporters....

New Energy Corporation's ethanol plant in South Bend, Indiana, shot by cassini83, public domain

Beijing disaster necessitates risk analysis

Liu Tao in China. org: In our country, which is famous for its ability to mobilize, we have always been able to recover from the deadliest of natural disasters with coordinated rescue efforts and national unity. However, most people cannot believe that a tragedy like the recent Beijing floods could happen in a super-modern city - the core area of our nation, during the recent unexpected rainstorm.

The rainstorm in Beijing caught people off guard, reflecting that our city infrastructure and disaster prevention capabilities are lagging behind, and our risk prevention strategies cannot match the pace of our cities' rapid pace of development.

...German sociologist Ulrich Beck affirmed that modern society is a risk-oriented society. In the pre-modern era, as people were mainly living in the countryside, social risk was also decentralized. Only during the process of modern industrialization, when people started to migrate to the industrial centers and formed ultra-large cities, social risk started to become centralized around urban areas.

With the centralization of the population, cities are facing not only facing the increasing threats of industrial pollution, environmental deterioration and a rise in crime rates, but also are more prone to natural disasters, civil unrest and terrorism.

Geographic location and level of infrastructure development largely affects a city or region's flood risk. Places at lower altitude, regions with underdeveloped infrastructure or urban-rural fringe zones can be considered severe-risk areas. Therefore, we need to conduct detailed risk evaluations of urban areas and their surroundings. The evaluation should be based on the "urban risk structure" and "risk probability" and cover every region to eradicate the blind spots. Relevant quantitative research and statistical models for risk management also need to be established....

Beijing, viewed by NASA's Landsat satellite

Introduction of Asian ladybugs into Europe was a serious mistake

Wageningen University: In retrospect, introducing the Asian ladybug into Europe was a serious mistake. The insect was introduced some twenty years ago in a conscious attempt to combat aphids. But research carried out at Wageningen UR (University & Research centre) into the invasion of this foreign insect has shown that the disadvantages far outweigh this single advantage. The Asian species is displacing the native European ladybug and has become a pest that can contaminate homes and spoil the taste of wine. The researchers concerned have reported their findings in the latest edition of the scientific journal Plos One.

The Asian ladybug, Harmonia axyridis, which originated in China and Japan, is larger than its European counterpart and has an almost invisible dent towards the rear of its wing cover; the colour and dots are much the same.

The foreign insect was introduced into France in the early 90s, and was first used in the Netherlands in around 1996. The Asian ladybug was a formidable weapon in the fight against aphids in greenhouses and on avenue trees, from which lice excrete sticky honeydew onto cars.

However, time has shown that these insects, which have very few natural enemies in Europe, are also devouring the native ladybugs. Furthermore, colonies of the Asian variety hibernate in houses and other buildings, where their excrement can cause contamination. Last but least, it has been discovered that when the supply of aphids runs out, this insect has an appetite for grapes and spoils the taste of the wine.

...On discovering that introducing Asian ladybugs had been a mistake, use of these insects in Europe was banned. Unfortunately, populations had already become well-established in many European countries. The best way to tackle the nuisance caused by non-native animals and plants is to introduce natural enemies. But this too can be a risky business, which is why the Netherlands has asked Wageningen University and the Plant Protection Service [Plantenziektekundige Dienst] to draw up an environmental risk analysis for the natural enemies of non-native species....

Asian ladybug, shot by John Alan Elson, Wikimedia Commons, under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported

Sunday, July 29, 2012

No risk of flood, but forced to insure

Jeffrey Meitrodt in the Star-Tribune (Minnesota): Thousands of homeowners in Minnesota and across the country are being pressured to buy flood insurance by their mortgage lenders, despite evidence showing that many of these homes are well outside danger zones. Though the federal government's new flood maps are more accurate than ever, state and local officials say lenders and their agents are making obvious mistakes in their interpretation of flood risk.

Chisago County officials said they have intervened this year on behalf of 20 property owners who were wrongly classified as living in high-risk zones where flood insurance would be mandatory. Officials in Stearns and Washington counties also have taken steps to correct the record for dozens of homeowners who face minimal, if any, risk of flooding. "We're seeing too many problems," said Ceil Strauss, Minnesota's floodplain coordinator.

In many cases, lenders are giving homeowners just 45 days to buy flood insurance or threatening to obtain it for them, often at exorbitant prices. Some homeowners have been told their premiums could run as high as $6,400 a year.

Authorities expect the problem to get worse. Over the next two years, the Federal Emergency Management Agency will introduce new flood maps in more than two dozen counties in Minnesota, including Hennepin, the state's most populous. The maps will trigger more flood-risk reviews by mortgage lenders.

Often, lenders receive commissions for the new flood policies they impose on borrowers. Fees can amount to as much as 20 percent of the annual premium. In New York, officials are exploring whether to ban lenders from charging commissions on the forced placement of property insurance, calling such payments a "perverse incentive."....

Norman County, MN, March 29, 2009 --Flooded farms and rural communities in Norman County adjacent to the Red River of the North. Andrea Booher/FEMA

Flood-hit North Korea braces for more heavy rain

Radio Australia: State media says heavy rains are expected in most parts of the country over the next two days, with downpours set to deluge the west coast and the northern province of Jagang. More than 200 millimetres are forecast in some areas.

The warning comes a day after North Korea revealed floods which began on July 18 killed 88 people, injured more than 130, and left almost 63,000 people homeless. State-run KCNA says more than 30,000 hectares of farmland have been 'washed away', with roads and factories destroyed.

After decades of deforestation the impoverished North is particularly vulnerable to flooding. Dozens were killed or injured by a storm and torrential rains in June and July last year, which left thousands homeless and large areas of farmland flooded.

With rugged terrain and outmoded agricultural practices, the communist state faces serious difficulties in feeding its 24 million people. Hundreds of thousands died during a famine in the mid to late 1990s. Following a visit to the country, UN agencies estimated last November that three million people would need food aid in 2012....

Korea Bay in North Korea, via NASA

Papua New Guinea casts wide net against malaria

Catherine Wilson in IPS: In Papua New Guinea, a Pacific Island nation located south of the equator, 90 percent of the population is at risk of malaria and 1.9 million cases are reported every year.  But, according to a recent medical study, a programme to distribute long-lasting insecticide treated mosquito nets to every district in the country has dramatically reduced malaria infections.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) claims half the world’s population is susceptible to the infectious disease transmitted to humans by mosquitoes carrying the malaria parasite, with pregnant women, young children and people living with HIV/AIDS especially vulnerable.  In 2010 there were 216 million reported cases of malaria worldwide and 655,000 fatalities, representing a 25 percent drop in the mortality rate since 2000.

This progress, while still short of the global target of 50 percent mortality rate reduction, is attributed to the widespread use of insecticide treated bed nets, improved diagnosis and access to medicines. In Papua New Guinea, which accounts for 36 percent of all confirmed malaria cases in the Western Pacific region, prevention is vital, as mosquitoes quickly adapt to greater human mobility and higher recorded temperatures.

...In the meantime, the National Malaria Control Programme (NMCP), a partnership between the National Department of Health, Rotarians Against Malaria, Population Services International, OilSearch Health Foundation and the PNG Institute of Medical Research, is working to improve vector control strategies, including distribution of Long Lasting Insecticidal Nets (LLINs).

An LLIN is a mosquito net treated in a factory with insecticide, which repels or kills mosquitoes that come into contact with its surface. Each net has a life span of at least three years. The nets are most effective when used at night when the main malaria carrying mosquitoes are active, thus protecting people as they sleep....

Mosquito netting made into a tent, shot by malte, Wikimedia Commons, public domain

Pakistan’s flood forecasting system is flawed, warn experts

Intikhab Hanif in Dawn (Pakistan): Foreign and local experts have identified flaws in the existing rain and flood forecasting system of the country and called for speedy improvements so that remote-sensing technologies being provided to it may be better utilised.

Attending a two-day workshop titled ‘Accuracy and Reliability of Flood Forecasting Models by Use of Remote Sensing Techniques’ — which was organised jointly by the Pakistan Meteorological Department and Unesco under a project funded by Japan — experts from Australia, France, Japan and Taiwan and representatives of the concerned Pakistani organisations underlined the need to factor in climate change models while developing the capacity to predict and manage floods.

The participants of the workshop were of the opinion that significant investments were needed in flood management efforts and said the Japanese government spent at least 1 per cent of its GDP in such initiatives every year.

They said that remote-sensing technologies for prediction of rainfall, floods and river flows, which were being utilised efficiently in many countries, were now being transferred to Pakistan under the project funded by Japan.

“Early warning, evacuation and preparedness are parts of a continuous process which spans across field observations, model forecasting, dissemination, evacuation and preparedness. If there is no data there will be no preparedness. However, the on-ground rainfall and river flow data networks are inadequate to successfully customise these technologies for Pakistan,” it was observed....

River Kali Sindh in Sawai Madhopur, shot by PP Yoonus, who has released it into the public domain

Midwest drought brings fourth smallest Gulf of Mexico 'Dead Zone' since 1985

A little ironic good cheer from NOAA: NOAA-supported scientists have found the size of this year’s Gulf of Mexico oxygen-free ‘dead zone’ to be the fourth smallest since mapping of the annual hypoxic, or oxygen-free area began in 1985. Measuring approximately 2,889 square miles, the 2012 area is slightly larger than Delaware.

The survey also found a patchy distribution of hypoxia across the Gulf differing from any previously recorded. This is in stark contrast to last year, when flood conditions, carrying large amounts of nutrients, resulted in a dead zone measuring 6,770 square miles, an area of the state of New Jersey. The last time the dead zone was this small was in 2000 when it measured 1,696 square miles, an area slightly smaller than Delaware.

“The smaller area was expected because of drought conditions and the fact that nutrient output into the Gulf this spring approached near the 80-year record low,” said Nancy Rabalais, Ph.D., executive director of the Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium (LUMCON) who led the survey cruise. “What wasn’t expected was how the scattered distribution of hypoxia areas differed from any others documented in the past. Confirmed, however, is the strong relationship between the size of the hypoxic zone and the amount of fresh water and nutrients carried to the Gulf by the Mississippi River.”

The smallest recorded dead zone to date measured 15 square miles in 1988. The largest dead zone, also called a hypoxic zone, measured to date occurred in 2002 encompassing more than 8,400 square miles. The average size of the dead zone over the past five years has been 5,684 square miles, more than twice the 1,900 square mile goal set by the Gulf of Mexico/Mississippi River Watershed Nutrient Task Force.

Hypoxia is fueled by nutrient runoff from agricultural and other human activities in the Mississippi River watershed, which stimulates an overgrowth of algae that sinks, decomposes and consumes most of the life-giving oxygen supply in bottom waters.

The hypoxic zone off the coast of Louisiana and Texas forms each summer and threatens valuable commercial and recreational Gulf fisheries. In 2010, the dockside value of commercial fisheries in the Gulf was $639 million. More than 4.6 million recreational fishers took an estimated 22 million fishing trips in 2010, further contributing to the Gulf economy."...

NASA image of sediment and runoff in the Gulf of Mexico

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Jamaica will create a climate change department

Jamaica Information Service: Minister of Water, Land, Environment and Climate Change, Hon. Robert Pickersgill, has given the assurance that the proposed Climate Change Department will be fully implemented by the end of the year.

Speaking in the House of Representatives on Tuesday (July 24) during his contribution to the 2012/13 Sectoral Debate, Mr. Pickersgill said the department will help to drive coordination and management of Jamaica’s climate change efforts.

He informed that a draft report for the establishment of the entity has been completed and submitted, with the assistance of two international consultants from the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). In the meantime, Mr. Pickersgill noted that the Ministry has implemented a number of initiatives and projects geared towards adaptation to climate variability and change.

Among these are the Climate Change Adaptation and Disaster Risk Reduction Project, which is funded by the European Union and the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP). "This project has gained significant ground in fulfilling its objectives to strengthen Jamaica’s adaptive capacity and contribute to sustainable development,” he informed.

...Additionally, he noted that the Ministry is working towards increasing the resilience of the country’s coastal eco-systems to climate change impacts through a number of activities....

Mangrove stand on the Black River in Jamaica, shot by Stufffreak, Wikimedia Commons, under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license

Evidence for climate extremes, costs, gets more local

Alister Doyle in Reuters: Scientists are finding evidence that man-made climate change has raised the risks of individual weather events, such as floods or heatwaves, marking a big step towards pinpointing local costs and ways to adapt to freak conditions.

"We're seeing a great deal of progress in attributing a human fingerprint to the probability of particular events or series of events," said Christopher Field, co-chairman of a U.N. report due in 2014 about the impacts of climate change.

Experts have long blamed a build-up of greenhouse gas emissions for raising worldwide temperatures and causing desertification, floods, droughts, heatwaves, more powerful storms and rising sea levels. But until recently they have said that naturally very hot, wet, cold, dry or windy weather might explain any single extreme event, like the current drought in the United States or a rare melt of ice in Greenland in July. But for some extremes, that is now changing.

A study this month, for instance, showed that greenhouse gas emissions had raised the chances of the severe heatwave in Texas in 2011 and unusual heat in Britain in late 2011. Other studies of extremes are under way.

Growing evidence that the dice are loaded towards ever more severe local weather may make it easier for experts to explain global warming to the public, pin down costs and guide investments in everything from roads to flood defenses....

The concourse at London's Waterloo Station during a... 1955 heat wave. Real up-to-the-minute photo research. At this rate I'll run a shot of the 2012 Olympics in 2069. Shot by Ben Brooksbank, Wikimedia Commons via Geograph UK, under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license

US public supports programs helping farmers adapt to climate change

Michigan State University News: A survey conducted by Michigan State University reveals strong public support for government programs to assist farmers to adapt to climate change.

According to NASA research, global temperatures have been rising for decades, and it’s affecting all aspects of agriculture. Regardless of what those surveyed believe causes climate change, more than 65 percent of them support government assistance for farmers, said Scott Loveridge, MSU professor of agricultural, food and resource economics.

This year has been a particularly harsh example. This summer’s drought is wreaking havoc on much of the nation’s row crops, and close to one-third of states’ counties have been declared natural disaster areas and are seeking federal aid. In Michigan, record-setting temperatures in March prompted fruit trees to blossom. Freezing weather in April wiped out nearly all of the state’s fruit crops.

Farmers are feeling the impact now, and consumers are already seeing increased food prices, which are projected to get worse. In these tight economic times, empathy doesn’t automatically translate to support for financial assistance. So Loveridge was surprised how many people support the notion of financial assistance for farmers.

“I didn’t expect the strong level of public support for helping farmers adjust their production techniques to long-term changes in the climate,” he said. “The overall support is likely strongly linked to concerns about recent food price fluctuations, long-term food security or recognition of agriculture’s contributions to the economy.”....

Hay rolls in a field near Lodi, Michigan, shot by Dwight Burdette, Wikimedia Commons, under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported license

Islamabad's taps dry up as water shortages worsen

Saleem Shaikh and Sughra Tunio in AlertNet: ...An escalating water shortage in and around Pakistan’s bustling capital has been caused by population growth and a combination of failing rains and high temperatures which experts link to climate change.

The shortages, and growing demand for water, is leading residents who can afford it to drill boreholes, while others are forced to buy what they need from private water tankers charging exorbitant sums.

...Islamabad, situated in the scenic Margalla Hills in the country’s north-west, once received abundant rain throughout the year. For the past 10 to 12 years, however, rainfall has declined, although until now the resultant water shortages affected mostly poor and middle-income neighbourhoods.

But with too little rain to adequately recharge the underground aquifers and the large reservoirs that provide water for the city and nearby areas, the water shortage is for the first time affecting even upscale areas.

Temperatures, which until about a decade ago rarely soared beyond 30 degrees Celsius (86 Fahrenheit), now reach as high as 48C (118F), causing demand for water to skyrocket. “Rising temperature during summer days is a major cause of why water shortages have become routine for the last few years,” said Ghulam Rasul, chief weather scientist at the Pakistan Meteorological Department...

Seventh Avenue in Islamabad. Photograph taken from Damn-e-Koh, Islamabad, shot by Maria Ly, Wikimedia Commons, under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license

Friday, July 27, 2012

Hidden rift valley discovered beneath West Antarctica reveals new insight into accelerating ice loss

British Antarctic Survey: Scientists have discovered a one mile deep rift valley hidden beneath the ice in West Antarctica, which they believe is contributing to ice loss from this part of the continent. Experts from the University of Aberdeen and British Antarctic Survey (BAS) made the discovery below Ferrigno Ice Stream, a region visited only once previously, over fifty years ago, in 1961, and one that is remote even by Antarctic standards.

Their findings, reported in Nature this week reveal that the ice-filled ancient rift basin is connected to the warming ocean which impacts upon contemporary ice flow and loss.

The West Antarctic Ice Sheet is of great scientific interest and societal importance as it is losing ice faster than any other part of Antarctica with some glaciers shrinking by more than one metre per year. Understanding the processes that influence ice loss from West Antarctica is important to improve predictions of its future behaviour in a warming world.

Dr Robert Bingham, a glaciologist working in the University of Aberdeen’s School of Geosciences and lead author of the study, discovered the rift valley whilst undertaking three months of fieldwork with British Antarctic Survey in 2010.

Dr Bingham, whose fieldwork was funded by the UK’s Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) said: “Over the last 20 years we have used satellites to monitor ice losses from Antarctica, and we have witnessed consistent and substantial ice losses from around much of its coastline.

“For some of the glaciers, including Ferrigno Ice Stream, the losses are especially pronounced, and, to understand why, we needed to acquire data about conditions beneath the ice surface.”...

The ice margin of the Ferrigno Ice Stream, where it flows into Eltanin Bay, shot by Rob Bingham, the British Antarctic Survey

Scant rain to give scorched Southwest US crops little relief

Sam Nelson in Reuters: Crops in the northern and eastern U.S. Midwest will benefit from showers and cooler temperatures over the next week but heat and drought will continue to punish crops in the southwest, an agricultural meteorologist said on Friday. "Crops will continue to deteriorate. The corn crop is already gone and in the north and east, beans will improve some but not in the southwest," said Don Keeney, meteorologist for MDA EarthSat Weather.

"There will be additional rain in the eastern Midwest today and showers in the northwest tomorrow and Sunday," he said. But a dire picture for crops was given for the first half of August by Keeney and other agricultural meteorologists.

Keeney said that over the next week, northern and eastern crop areas would receive from 0.50 inch to 1.00 inch of rainfall and temperatures will turn moderate with highs in the low 90s (degrees Fahrenheit).

Mere sprinkles of maybe 0.10 inch are likely in the southwest, including most of Illinois, Iowa, Nebraska, Kansas and Missouri, and a return of temperatures to the upper 90s F and low 100s F, he said.

Corn and soybean conditions have been on a rapid skid since farmers planted each crop earlier than usual and at a breakneck pace. Farmers planted the most area to corn in 75 years this year, only to see it wilt in the most expansive drought in over a half century, and now soybeans are deteriorating at a rapid pace....

Parched ground in the middle of the US -- this picture from the 2011 drought, from Al Jazeera English via Flickr, Wikimedia Commons, under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license

Vietnam's cities discuss climate change plan

Vietnam News: Authorities and experts have called for efforts to make Viet Nam's urban centres and cities more climate change resistant. At a conference organised by the Ministry of Construction, Viet Nam Urban Forum and Da Nang People's Committee, experts discussed directions for urban centres and cities – particularly technical solutions and better policy development of urban management – so they could adapt to growing climate change challenges.

Speaking at the opening, Trinh Dinh Dung, Construction Minister and chairman of the Viet Nam Urban Forum, said the country had made progress in urban development, resulting in economic growth and higher incomes.

However, rapid urbanisation had caused major challenges in population, energy and food security, since most of Viet Nam's urban centres and cities were located along the coast and on lowlands, facing threats of storm, floods and rising sea levels. At the same time, cities located in mountainous areas had to cope with flash-floods, landslides, forest fires and drought.

Cities generated 70 per cent of the country's GDP and climate change posed a major threat to the country's continued efforts in sustainable development and poverty reduction, the conference heard.

Van Huu Chien, Chairman of the Da Nang People's Committee, said as one of Viet Nam's major coastal urban centres the city had been, and would be greatly impacted by climate change. "If nothing can be done about climate change adaptation in major cities, it's expected that the lives of residents will be disturbed, for sure," Chien said....

Trying to stay dry in a 2008 flood in Hanoi, shot by haithanh, Wikimedia Commons via Flickr, under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license

New research makes possible rapid assessment of plant drought tolerance

UCLA Newsroom: UCLA life scientists, working with colleagues in China, have discovered a new method to quickly assess plants’ drought tolerance. The method works for many diverse species growing around the world. The research, published in the journal Methods in Ecology and Evolution, may revolutionize the ability to survey plant species for their ability to withstand drought, said senior author Lawren Sack, a UCLA professor of ecology and evolutionary biology.

"This method can be applied rapidly and reliably for diverse species across ecosystems worldwide," he said of the federally funded research by the National Science Foundation. ... Earlier this year, Sack and his research team resolved a decades-old debate about what leaf traits best predict drought tolerance for diverse plant species worldwide. However, these leaf traits are too difficult and time-consuming to measure, often taking up to two days for one species, Sack said.

The UCLA team worked with collaborators at the Xishuangbanna Tropical Botanical Gardens (XTBG) in Yunnan, China, to develop a method for measuring leaf drought tolerance that is 30 times faster. It is based on an important trait known as "turgor loss point." During drought, the leaf cells’ water becomes harder to replace. The turgor loss point is reached when leaf cells become so dehydrated their walls become flaccid. This cell-level loss of turgor — or swollenness — causes the leaf to become limp and wilted, and the plant cannot grow, Sack said.

The new method, based on a technique called "osmometry," requires only about 10 minutes per leaf, sufficient to make a fast estimate for a given species.

...The turgor loss point, which varies widely among species, is a powerful determinant of the plant’s drought tolerance. The UCLA team previously showed that the turgor loss point can predict the dryness of the ecosystem from which a plant species comes....

In biology, turgor pressure or turgidity is the pressure of the cell contents against the cell wall, in plant cells, determined by the water content of the vacuole, resulting from osmotic pressure. Image by LadyofHats, public domain

China flooding gives government another credibility crisis

David Pierson in the Los Angeles Times: Deadly rain that battered [China's] capital over the weekend has left the Chinese government knee-deep in its latest credibility crisis. Authorities are accused of underreporting the number of dead while failing to provide adequate infrastructure to safeguard against flooding in a swiftly modernizing metropolis.

The official death count in Saturday's downpour, described as the heaviest in more than 60 years, was 37 people. The deluge paralyzed Beijing's outdated drainage system, flooding wide swaths of the city, toppling homes, downing power lines and trapping an unknown number of motorists in submerged vehicles.

Fangshan, a rural district on the southwestern edge of Beijing, was inundated by a torrent of muddy floodwater, raising suspicion that hundreds of dead may still be unaccounted for. A stretch of the G4 expressway leading through the area was under several feet of brown water and dozens of vehicles were submerged.

...The collective frustration of millions of Chinese is being shared on the country's frenetic Twitter-like microblogging platforms, outpacing the ability of censors to scrub away criticism of the government's response to the rainstorm.

China's  leaders faced a similar situation a year ago when two high-speed trains collided in the southern city of Wenzhou, killing dozens of people. Then, as now, the public questioned the accuracy of the death toll and the competency of the rescue effort. The government also drew criticism for ignoring safety issues as the nation undergoes rapid modernization...

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Link found between climate change, ozone loss and possible increase in skin cancer incidence

EurekAlert: For decades, scientists have known that the effects of global climate change could have a potentially devastating impact across the globe, but Harvard researchers say there is now evidence that it may also have a dramatic impact on public health.

As reported in a paper published in the July 27 issue of Science, a team of researchers led by James G. Anderson, the Philip S. Weld Professor of Atmospheric Chemistry, are warning that a newly-discovered connection between climate change and depletion of the ozone layer over the U.S. could allow more damaging ultraviolet (UV) radiation to reach the Earth's surface, leading to increased incidence of skin cancer.

In the system described by Anderson and his team, water vapor injected into the stratosphere by powerful thunderstorms converts stable forms of chlorine and bromine into free radicals capable of transforming ozone molecules into oxygen. Recent studies have suggested that the number and intensity of such storms are linked to climate changes, Anderson said, which could in turn lead to increased ozone loss and greater levels of harmful UV radiation reaching the Earth's surface, and potentially higher rates of skin cancer.

"If you were to ask me where this fits into the spectrum of things I worry about, right now it's at the top of the list," Anderson said. "What this research does is connect, for the first time, climate change with ozone depletion, and ozone loss is directly tied to increases in skin cancer incidence, because more ultraviolet radiation is penetrating the atmosphere."...

Super Bags to thwart rice wastage now available to Filipino farmers

Seed Daily via SPX: An airtight, reusable plastic bag that protects stored rice from moisture, pests, and rats, and keeps rice seeds viable, is now available to Filipino farmers in almost 200 retail stores nationwide. IRRI Super Bags reduce losses incurred after harvest that usually stem from poor storage conditions - helping prevent physical postharvest losses that can be around 15%. On top of these losses, farmers also experience loss in quality.

Developed by the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI)'s postharvest experts in collaboration with GrainPro Inc., the IRRI Super Bag is meant for small-scale rice farmers to protect the viability and quality of rice stored in their homes.

The IRRI Super Bag is manufactured by GrainPro Inc. and is marketed as SuperGrainbag. IRRI, through its national partnerships, has verified the benefits of the IRRI Super Bag with tens of thousands of farmers throughout Asia, but acknowledges it is a challenge to bring the bags to millions of farmers in a commercial way.

Philippine farmer Manuel Luzentales Jr. has always wondered how to deal with rats and weevils gnawing their way into his paddy (unmilled rice) stored in ordinary sacks in his house. After attending a seminar in a nearby town introducing the IRRI Super Bags to farmers in the Philippine Bicol region, he decided to test them.

"Before, a 7-month storage caused my rice grains to break from moisture and pest infestations," Luzentales recalls. "I tested the IRRI Super Bags on my harvest for the second planting season of 2010. After keeping my harvest in the IRRI Super Bags for 10 months, the seeds were 100% viable, and none were wasted."...

Rice farmers at work in the Philippines, from IRRI Images, Wikimedia Commons via Flickr, under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license

California governor unveils ambitious water plan

Jim Christie in Reuters: California Governor Jerry Brown and U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar on Wednesday unveiled a multibillion-dollar plan for two giant tunnels that would dramatically reconfigure the state's water delivery system.

The nearly $24 billion project aims to help restore the habitat of the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta and improve the reliability of water supplies to the arid central and southern parts of the state. The state already has two massive aqueducts that move water from the north to the south, but the way in which the water is transferred has severely damaged fish populations and degraded their habitat in the delta.

The planned project is similar to one Brown approved three decades ago when he was first governor. Voters rejected that project amid vociferous opposition from northern California residents. A similar political battle will be fought this time around.

"It's a long time in coming," the 74-year-old Democrat said, asserting that the project balances regional, environmental and agricultural concerns that have long blocked efforts to expand the state's water infrastructure.

The twin 35-mile tunnels would divert water from the Sacramento River just south of the state capital of Sacramento to the aqueduct system. The tunnels would bypass the delta rather than drawing water directly from it, reducing the number of fish killed by pumps and restoring natural water flows.

The tunnels would reduce the risk of environmental lawsuits that could interrupt water supplies, a critical concern for California's multibillion-dollar farming industry. An estimated 25 million Californians who would rely on water from the tunnels would repay the bonds issued to finance them....

Image of head of Old River along lower San Joaquin River provided by M.Burns (CADWR) for release into public domain.

Death toll from Beijing rainstorm climbs to 77

Xinhua: The death toll from rain-triggered disasters and accidents on Saturday in the Chinese capital climbed to 77 after more bodies were recovered, the Beijing flood control headquarters said Thursday. Of the 77 victims, 66 have been identified, including five people who died while carrying out rescue work, Pan Anjun, a spokesman for the headquarters, said Thursday night.

Of the other 61 victims -- 36 men and 25 women -- 46 drowned, five were electrocuted, three died in housing collapses, two by mudslide, two by traumatic shock, two from being hit by falling objects and one was struck by lightning, Pan said. He said a further sharp increase in the death toll is not likely because the search for missing persons is drawing to an end. "But we will not give up searching just yet," Pan said.

Most of the bodies were found in suburban districts, including 38 bodies that were recovered in the hardest-hit Fangshan district, he said.

...The spokesman added that the reasons the death toll was not updated until Thursday evening were because it was difficult to comb through the rain-triggered mudslide debris and identifying the bodies also took time....

Ma Yuan (1160-1225), "The Waving Surface of the Autumn Flood"

Protected tropical forests' biodiversity 'declining'

Mark Kinver in BBC News:  Despite having protected status, the biodiversity in a large number of tropical forests is still continuing to decline, a study has suggested. The authors said the findings should cause concern because the areas have been seen as a final refuge for a number of threatened species.

Habitat disruption, hunting and timber exploitation have been seen as signs of future decline, they added. The findings have been published online by the science journal Nature.

"The rapid disruption of tropical forests probably imperils global biodiversity more than any other contemporary phenomenon," the international team of research wrote. "Many protected areas in the tropics are themselves vulnerable to human encroachment and other environmental stresses."

Tropical forests are considered to be the biologically richest areas on the planet....

A red-eyed tree frog shot by Careyjamesbalboa, public domain

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

GPS can now measure ice melt, change in Greenland over months rather than years

Ohio State University: Researchers have found a way to use GPS to measure short-term changes in the rate of ice loss on Greenland - and reveal a surprising link between the ice and the atmosphere above it. The study, published in the early online edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, hints at the potential for GPS to detect many consequences of climate change, including ice loss, the uplift of bedrock, changes in air pressure - and perhaps even sea level rise.

The team, led by earth scientists at Ohio State University, pinpointed a period in 2010 when high temperatures caused the natural ice flow out to sea to suddenly accelerate, and 100 billion tons of ice melted away from the continent in only 6 months.

They were able to make the measurement because the earth compresses or expands like a spring depending on the weight above it, letting them use the Greenland bedrock like a giant bathroom scale to weigh the ice atop it. As ice accumulates, the bedrock sinks, and as the ice melts away, the bedrock rises. Measurements revealed that Greenland sank by about 6 mm (about one quarter of an inch) over the winter of 2010, and the researchers determined that half of the sinking (3 mm, or one eighth of an inch) was actually due to high air pressure above the ice, and the other half was due to ice accumulation.

Further, they determined that the bedrock lifted 11 mm (less than half an inch) over the course the summer. Air pressure appeared to affect the bedrock less during this time, so that the bounce-back appears to be mostly due to ice loss.

This method has been used to study ice loss before, in Antarctica as well as Greenland. But previously, GPS could only detect changes over a period of several years, said project leader Michael Bevis, Ohio Eminent Scholar in Geodynamics and professor in the School of Earth Sciences at Ohio State. While shortening the detection time to six months is a substantial advance, Bevis thinks his team will soon do even better....

Composite photograph of a GNET GPS unit implanted in the southeastern Greenland bedrock. Image by Dana Caccamise, courtesy of Ohio State University

African nations to step up access to climate change financing

Capital Eritrea: A workshop is scheduled in Nairobi,Kenya, from 23-27 July 2012, aimed at boosting the capacity of 11 African countries to access and mobilize financial resources associated with climate change. This will enhance the implementation of sustainable land management and climate change adaptation and mitigation for the Member States.

COMESA, EAC and SADC together with the Global Mechanism of the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification have organised the five-day meeting which will highlight potential climate change related domestic and international funding sources for agriculture, energy, mining and other natural resources from the private sector and bilateral and multi lateral sources.

The second in a series of three, the workshop will focus on the opportunities and new directions presented by climate change financing mechanisms from domestic, innovative and multilateral funds such as the Adaptation Fund, Climate Investment Funds, Green Climate Fund, Least Developed Countries Fund (LDCF), Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD+) Financing Mechanisms, Renewal Energy Funds and Special Climate Change Fund (SCCF). Additionally, the workshop will explore strategic options and engagement with the business sector.

Financing mechanisms and instruments can promote practises such as climate-smart agriculture, reforestation, sustainable forest management, improved water management, agro forestry and improved rangeland management....

Nairobi skyline, shot by Sam Stearman, Wikimedia Commons, under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license

Work progresses on Mekong dam?

Terra Daily via UPI: Construction is proceeding at the controversial proposed $3.8 billion Xayaburi Dam site on the Lower Mekong River in northern Laos, observers say, despite calls for the Laos government to put the project on hold until further studies are conducted into the dam's impact on lower Mekong communities.

About 95 percent of the dam's 1,260-megawatt capacity is intended for export to Thailand, which is financing the project. Thailand would operate the dam, turning it over to Laos after 30 years.

The Lower Mekong supports nearly 60 million people who depend on it for their livelihood, says the World Wildlife Fund.

While the Laos government says that only preparatory work on the dam has been conducted, the Bangkok Post reported that work is still under way at the site, including a dike straddling the Mekong River that locals say is obstructing the passage of boats....

The Mekong watershed, created by Karl Musser from USGS data, Wikimedia Commons, under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.5 Generic license

Under a warming climate, Washington’s forests will lose stored carbon as area burned by wildfire increases

US Forest Service, Pacific Northwest Research Station: Forests in the Pacific Northwest store more carbon than any other region in the United States, but our warming climate may undermine their storage potential.

A new study conducted by the U.S. Forest Service’s Pacific Northwest Research Station and the Climate Impacts Group at the University of Washington has found that, by 2040, parts of Washington State could lose as much as a third of their carbon stores, as an increasing area of the state’s forests is projected to be burned by wildfire. The study—published in the July 2012 issue of the journal Ecological Applications—is the first to use statistical models and publicly available Forest Inventory and Analysis data to estimate the effects of a warming climate on carbon storage and fluxes on Washington’s forests.

“When considering the use of forests to store carbon, it will be critical to consider the increasing risk of wildfire,” said Crystal Raymond, a research biologist based at the station’s Pacific Wildland Fire Sciences Laboratory and lead author of the study. “Especially in the West, where climate-induced changes in fire are expected to be a key agent of change.”

...To explore what effect climate-driven changes in wildfire might have on the ability of Washington’s forests to act as carbon sinks, Raymond and station research ecologist Don McKenzie used a novel approach. They combined published forest-inventory data, fire-history data, and statistical models of area burned to estimate historical and future carbon carrying capacity of three regions in Washington—the Western Cascades, the Eastern Cascades, and the Okanogan Highlands—based on potential forest productivity and projections of 21st century area burned.

“Forests on both the eastern and western slopes of the Cascade Range will lose carbon stored in live biomass because area burned across the state is expected to increase,” Raymond said. “Even small increases in area burned can have large consequences for carbon stored in living and dead biomass.”... 
A new PNW Research Station study explored how carbon dynamics in Washington State may be altered by more-frequent wildfires, triggered by a warming climate. The study looked at the effects of greater area burned on both live biomass and nonliving biomass, such as the dead standing trees and downed wood shown here. Photo by Tom Iraci, from the US Forest Service/PNW Research Station website