Thursday, February 28, 2013

Improving climate protection in agriculture

Technische Universität München: Agriculture is responsible for around ten to twelve percent of all greenhouse gases attributable to human activities. This raises the question of how these emissions could be reduced. A recent study has investigated – for the first time – the full range of factors that contribute to greenhouse gas emissions, namely soil and climate conditions, the agricultural model and the farming intensity on both organic and conventional holdings. The study has enabled scientists to develop a new model that will allow agricultural landholders to determine and improve their climate balance.

As part of the study, scientists investigated 40 organic and 40 conventional agricultural holdings across Germany’s four agricultural regions. They focused exclusively on crop and dairy farms. The scientists recorded all relevant climate gas streams during the entire production process, including methane, nitrous oxide and carbon dioxide. In the case of dairy farms, they also factored in the purchase of soybean meal from South America and all related greenhouse gas emissions.

..."There are different ways of improving a farm’s climate balance," explains Professor Kurt-Jürgen Hülsbergen from Technische Universität München (TUM). “One effective strategy is for landholders to grow feed themselves rather than purchase soy from another source. Farms can also streamline production processes and deploy modern technology to obtain higher yields without increasing the amount of energy required.”

In crop farming, increasing nitrogen efficiency is a key factor. High levels of nitrous oxide are released into the environment if crops are unable to utilize all of the nitrogen fertilizer that was spread. The production of nitrogen fertilizer is also energy intensive, which further increases the climate balance of unused nitrogen.

In contrast, the greenhouse gas CO2 can be stored long term as humus in the soil, and thus eliminated from the climate balance. “This can be achieved by planting legumes as part of a diversified crop rotation strategy,” explains Professor Gerold Rahmann at the Thünen Institute. “Using soil less intensively and applying organic fertilizer also helps.”

Organic farming is more energy efficient and produces less land-specific CO2 emissions. This advantage, however, is offset by the significantly lower yields achieved through organic farming practices. The pilot organic crop farms produce around twenty percent less emissions per yield unit than conventional holdings....

A farm near Cuxhaven, shot by Martina Nolte, Wikimedia Commons, under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Germany license.

NOAA and NASA's next generation weather satellite may provide earlier warnings

NASA: A new satellite that will detect the lightning inside storm clouds may lead to valuable improvements in tornado detection. The GOES-R satellite is currently being built with new technology that may help provide earlier warnings for severe weather. The national average is a 14-minute lead time to warn residents of a tornado, but NASA and NOAA scientists are looking to improve severe weather detection to save lives and property. They are developing the Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite-R Series, or GOES-R, to observe thunderstorm development with much greater spatial and temporal detail than ever before. Severe weather knows no specific season and the new technology aboard GOES-R is expected to help provide earlier detection for warnings, whatever the time of year.

On Jan. 29 and 30, 2013, a winter-time tornado outbreak produced multiple tornadoes from the southern Plains states, across the Mississippi River Valley, eastward to the Mid-Atlantic. On Feb. 10, several tornadoes touched down in Mississippi, destroying 200 homes, damaging and causing injuries near Hattiesburg.

"These storms can spin up pretty quickly which limits warning lead-time," said NOAA scientist Steve Goodman. "The radar and storm spotter’s view of tornadoes reaching the ground can be blocked by terrain, or visibility is very poor when the tornado is wrapped in rain. And it's certainly more challenging for storm spotters to observe and confirm tornadoes occurring at night. Sometimes it's just plain hard to come up with enough advance warning."

For the first time, scientists will be able to detect the lightning occurring inside storm clouds, and thus better track how developing storms are moving and intensifying before and during the occurrence of severe weather, Goodman said, all of which will help meteorologists better predict weather disasters...

A powerful cold front moving from the central United States to the East Coast wiped out spring-like temperatures and replaced them with winter-time temperatures. On Jan. 30 at 1825 UTC (1:25 p.m. EST), NOAA's GOES-13 satellite captured an image of clouds associated with the strong cold front. The visible GOES-13 image shows a line of clouds that stretch from Canada to the U.S. Gulf Coast and contain powerful thunderstorms with the potential to be severe. Credit: NASA GOES Project

Take steps to minimize flood risk

An editorial in the Poughkeepsie Journal (New York): The mid-Hudson Valley has seen more than its share of flooding in recent years due to severe storms — and natural disasters like Superstorm Sandy have taken their toll on the region. It seems clear Congress is going to be pushed to approve more disaster relief in the future, but there is only going to be so much funding to go around.

The area is not without means — and ways — to combat these issues. But it has to plan smarter and be fully aware of the strategies and programs in place to help. Storm damage is controllable and containable to a degree. Smart planners, environmental groups and geologists have talked about these strategies for years — but it is incumbent on localities and, in some cases, the state and federal government to implement them. They include:
  • Removing storm debris that can block creeks, streams and other waterways. Failing to do so could make the damage from the next storm worse; excess water needs a place to go, preferably to larger waterways and other places that can absorb runoff.
  • Establishing stronger buffers along streams and wetlands. Development along these fragile bodies of water makes it difficult for them to handle the downpours that occur during big storms.
  • Taking regional approaches to flood prevention. Simply put, water doesn’t care about political boundaries. Controlling flooding simply can’t be done on a town-by-town basis.
  • Saving farmland and open space. Development will continue to occur, especially once the economy gets moving again. That is to be expected and should be embraced. But there has to be a balance by strategically saving lands that will do the most good to preserve farming and help mitigate flooding....
Alvan Fisher's 1853 painting, "Hudson River near West Point"

Myanmar's fish farms suffer amid early heat wave

Myat Nyein Aye in the Myanmar Times:   Unseasonable early heat and freshwater parasites that thrive in hotter water temperatures are devastating fish farms throughout Myanmar, an official from the Myanmar Fish Farmer Association said. “Starting on February 9, the temperature shot up unexpectedly, so many farmers’ fish pools dried up and the fish died as a result of lack of oxygen. Also, deadly parasites tend to grow in fish farms when the temperature increases,” U Soe Tint, the Association’s vice chairman, told The Myanmar Times on February 21.

While fish farmers normally wait to harvest their fish until monsoon season from June until October, they are harvesting their fish now in fear that they will die from the heat or parasites.

The most common parasite affecting fish farms is dactylogyrus, a flatworm known to inhabit fish gills, the Association said. The parasite is temperature dependent: Hotter water temperatures increase the parasite’s life cycle from only a few days to five or six months. Anti-parasitic medicine can be bought from China or Thailand and costs about K250,000 (about US$290).

“Fish farmers who did not use medicine for parasites face higher losses. I used the medicine after suffering about K300,000 (about US$350) in losses when my fish died,” U Soe Tint said, who has a fish farm in Yangon Region’s Twantay township...

Tropical Cyclone Haruna hits southwestern Madagascar via IRIN: National disaster authorities and aid agencies are struggling to reach remote areas of Madagascar's southwestern coast where thousands of people are thought to have been made homeless by Tropical Cyclone Haruna, which made landfall on 22 February as a powerful category two cyclone.

According to the country's National Disaster Risk Management Office (BNGRC), over 17,000 people have been affected by the storm, with 13 reported deaths and about 1,500 houses destroyed or flooded. Speed boats and traditional boats were mobilized over the weekend to rescue people stranded in trees and on rooftops.

The most affected districts are Morombe and Toliary, where a burst dyke in an area called Fiherenana caused widespread flooding. According to BNGRC, 25,000 people may need to be evacuated as moderate rains are expected to continue over the next few days.

The government, NGOs and UN partners started distributing food aid to 3,000 people in six shelters in Toliary on 24 February. "Today [25 February], we reached another 4,800 people. Our emergency food supplies have come in, so now we can also hand out biscuits and rice, so people can get through the first five days," Willem van Milink, the World Food Programme's (WFP) country representative, told IRIN.

Initial situation assessments by local authorities and humanitarian partners also started on 24 February, but bad weather over the weekend made it impossible to fly over the area. "There is a whole area behind Morombe that we don't know about yet," he said....

Tropical Cyclone Haruna in the Mozambique Channel, via NASA, February 20, 2013

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

US cities in front line as sea levels rise

Deborah Zabarenko in Reuters: The signs of rising water are everywhere in this seaport city: yellow "Streets May Flood" notices are common at highway underpasses, in low-lying neighborhoods and along the sprawling waterfront. Built at sea level on reclaimed wetland, Norfolk has faced floods throughout its 400-year history. But as the Atlantic Ocean warms and expands, and parts of the city subside, higher tides and fiercer storms seem to hit harder than they used to.

Dealing with this increased threat has put Norfolk at the forefront of American cities taking the lead on coping with intense weather, from floods to droughts to killer heat, without waiting for the federal government to take the lead.

In Norfolk, home to the largest U.S. Naval base and the second biggest commercial port on the U.S. Atlantic coast, floods are a perennial problem that has worsened in recent decades, Assistant City Manager Ron Williams Jr told Reuters.

The relative sea level around Norfolk has risen 14.5 inches (.37 meter) since 1930, when the low-lying downtown area routinely flooded. The floods are worse now, because the water doesn't have to rise as high to send the river above its banks and into the streets, Williams said. At the same time, severe storms are more frequent. "We've had more major storms in the past decade than we've had in the previous four decades," he said. Extreme rainfall events have increased too.

Williams does not call what's happening in Norfolk a symptom of climate change. "The debate about causality we're not going to get into," he said. Still, many scientists see the frequent flooding as consistent with projected consequences of rising global temperatures, spurred by increased emissions of greenhouse gases.

No matter what city leaders call it, some of their actions speak louder than words. Williams said Norfolk, a city of 243,000, needs a total investment of $1 billion in the coming decades, including $600 million to replace current infrastructure, to keep the water in its place and help make homes and businesses more resilient....

The USS Harry S. Truman heads up the Elizabeth River as it passes the downtown Norfolk waterfront, US Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Tyler Folnsbee/Released

Knowledge adaptation key to local innovation, finds review

Rachel Mundy in The adaptation of scientific findings to local needs is key to improving the economic impact of research funding in developing countries, according to an independent evaluation of the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency's (SIDA) innovation programmes.

The bulk of innovations in poor countries are not immediately based on new research findings, but on local or small-scale innovations through activities such as reverse engineering or translating available knowledge to home-grown needs, says the report released last month.

The message for research funding agencies is that new research findings do not automatically lead to innovation and economic growth. Instead, what is required is a better understanding of — and support for — the linkages between the supply of new ideas from research, and the demand for those ideas by local economies.

"Inclusive development through innovation that improves quality of life in developing countries is of great importance," says Ana Gren, research advisor at SIDA, who is leading a working group that is writing a SIDA position paper in response to the review.

Gren says that other international aid agencies might note the benefits of supporting high-quality scientific research geared towards promoting economic growth, and suggests they should be open to backing it.

The report highlights the importance of supporting innovation initiatives that link government, universities and business to yield incremental innovations that increase economic productivity and build trust among people in developing countries....

Geometric model of the top division of disciplines, created by Zouxiaohui, public domain

Environmental concerns reach fever pitch over plan to link Red Sea to Dead Sea

Josie Glausiusz in Nature: An ambitious plan to build a pipeline to carry water from the Red Sea to the shrinking Dead Sea lurched forward this month, after the World Bank held hearings to gather public comments on the proposal. But environmentalists charge that alternative plans to save the Dead Sea would be cheaper, more flexible and would have less impact on the region’s ecosystems.

If the project proceeds, a 180-kilometre buried pipeline will carry up to 2 billion cubic metres (m3) of sea water per year from the Gulf of Aqaba on the Red Sea through Jordanian territory to the Dead Sea.

The Dead Sea is world's lowest inland area. Proposals have been put forward to set up the pipeline so that the downward flow of the water goes through a hydroelectric plant that would in turn power a desalination plant, providing up to 850 million m3 of fresh water per year to the parched region. Brine from the desalination plant would be discharged into the already-saline Dead Sea, replenishing water that is evaporating from the lake at a rate of more than 1 metre per year.

The estimated cost of the project would be at least US$10 billion, of which about $2 billion would be for facilities that would pump the desalinated water from the Dead Sea towards Amman — a distance of 200 kilometres, and a difference in altitude of 1,000 metres....

Satellite view from NASA of the Dead Sea

Ex-wildlife chief warns of climate change in South Carolina

Sammy Fretwell in the State (South Carolina): Following revelations the state wildlife department has failed to release a major climate change report, the agency’s former chief said the department should be leading efforts to brace South Carolina for the consequences of global warming.

John Frampton, who left the Department of Natural Resources last year, said that the Earth’s rising temperatures will undoubtedly affect the state’s landscape and wildlife in coming years and that the DNR is well qualified to examine the impacts in South Carolina. “I would liked to have seen the DNR be a leader,” Frampton said this week. “I would have liked to have positioned our staff ... on this. We have experts in the agency” to assess climate change.

His comments came days after The State newspaper reported that a team of DNR scientists had voiced serious concerns about climate change in South Carolina, although their report has been under wraps since Frampton announced he was leaving the agency in late 2011.

DNR officials say that their priorities have changed and that there is less urgency to release the study, which they say needs some revision. Frampton championed the study and recommended its release in late 2011. The Nov. 18, 2011, draft says it was ready for release. In the 102-page report obtained recently by the newspaper, scientists recommend increasing public awareness about climate change, while continuing to study the impacts of global warming in South Carolina.

...The climate report lists potentially substantial threats to South Carolina — ranging from the invasion of exotic eels and piranha to flooding of seaside homes and destruction of ecologically valuable marshes if temperatures continue to rise.

But the study also notes that man-made pollution sources have contributed to global warming. That point is widely accepted by scientists but attacked by politicians concerned about new regulations for industry...

A cypress garden in Monck's Corner, South Carolina, shot by Brian Stansberry, Wikimedia Commons, under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported license

New projections of 'uneven' global sea-level rise

Space Daily via SPX: Sophisticated computer modelling has shown how sea-level rise over the coming century could affect some regions far more than others. The model shows that parts of the Pacific will see the highest rates of rise while some polar regions will actually experience falls in relative sea levels due to the ways sea, land and ice interact globally.

Reporting in the journal Geophysical Research Letters researchers have looked ahead to the year 2100 to show how ice loss will continue to add to rising sea levels. Scientists have known for some time that sea level rise around the globe will not be uniform, but in this study the team of ice2sea researchers show in great detail the global pattern of sea-level rise that would result from two scenarios of ice-loss from glaciers and ice sheets.

The team, from Italy's University of Urbino and the UK's University of Bristol, found that ice melt from glaciers, and the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets, is likely to be of critical importance to regional sea-level change in the Equatorial Pacific Ocean where the sea level rise would be greater than the average increase across the globe. This will affect in particular, Western Australia, Oceania and the small atolls and islands in this region, including Hawaii.

The study focussed on three effects that lead to global mean sea-level rise being unequally distributed around the world. Firstly, land is subsiding and emerging due to a massive loss of ice at the end of the last ice age 10,000 years ago when billions of tons of ice covering parts of North America and Europe melted. This caused a major redistribution of mass on the Earth, but the crust responds to such changes so slowly that it is still deforming. Secondly, the warming of the oceans leads to a change in the distribution of water across the globe.

Thirdly the sheer mass of water held in ice at the frozen continents like Antarctica and Greenland exerts a gravitational pull on the surrounding liquid water, pulling in enormous amounts of water and raising the sea-level close to those continents. As the ice melts its pull decreases and the water previously attracted rushes away to be redistributed around the globe....

A lighthouse in stormy seas, shot by Steve F, Wikimedia Commons via Geograph UK, under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Scientists create new maps depicting potential worldwide coral bleaching by 2056

EurekAlert via the University of Miami Rosenstiel School of Marine & Atmospheric Science: In a study published today in Nature Climate Change researchers used the latest emissions scenarios and climate models to show how varying levels of carbon emissions are likely to result in more frequent and severe coral bleaching events.

Large-scale 'mass' bleaching events on coral reefs are caused by higher-than-normal sea temperatures. High temperatures make light toxic to the algae that reside within the corals. The algae, called 'zooxanthellae', provide food and give corals their bright colors. When the algae are expelled or retained but in low densities, the corals can starve and eventually die. Bleaching events caused a reported 16 percent loss of the world's coral reefs in 1998 according to the Global Coral Reef Monitoring Network.

If carbon emissions stay on the current path most of the world's coral reefs (74 percent) are projected to experience coral bleaching conditions annually by 2045, results of the study show. The study used climate model ensembles from the upcoming Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

Around a quarter of coral reefs are likely to experience bleaching events annually five or more years earlier than the median year, and these reefs in northwestern Australia, Papau New Guinea, and some equatorial Pacific islands like Tokelau, may require urgent attention, researchers warn.

...The findings emphasize that without significant reductions in emissions most coral reefs are at risk, according to the study. A reduction of carbon emissions would delay annual bleaching events more than two decades in nearly a quarter (23 percent) of the world's reef areas, the research shows.

..."More so than any result to date, this highlights and quantifies the potential benefits for reefs of reducing emissions in terms of reduced exposure to stressful reef temperatures."

Coral shot by Janine, Wikimedia Commons via Flickr, under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license

Global surveys show environment ranks low on public concerns

William Harms in the UChicago News: A newly released international study reveals that the issue of climate change is not a priority for people in the United States and around the world. The surveys showed that when asked to rank priority worries, people were five times more likely to point to the economy over the environment. Additionally, when asked about climate change, people identified the issue as more as a national problem than a personal concern.

Coordinated surveys, conducted by the International Social Survey Programme (ISSP) in 33 countries from 1993 through 2010, “are the first and only surveys that put long-term attitudes toward environmental issues in general and global climate change in particular in an international perspective,” said Tom W. Smith, director of the General Social Survey, a project of the independent research organization NORC at the University of Chicago, and author of a paper that summarizes the surveys.

In the surveys, respondents were asked the relative importance of eight issues: health care, education, crime, the environment, immigration, the economy, terrorism and poverty.

The economy ranked highest in concern in 15 countries, followed by health care in eight, education in six, poverty in two, and terrorism and crime in one country each. Immigration and the environment did not make the top of the list in any country over the 17-year period. In the United States, concern for the environment ranked sixth while the economy was No. 1.

In terms of national averages, the order of concern was the economy (25 percent); health care (22.2) education (15.6); poverty (11.6); crime (8.6) environment (4.7), immigration (4.1) and terrorism (2.6), the surveys showed. Terrorism’s low ranking was notable in light of the widespread attention the issue has received since 2001, though it topped the list of concerns in Turkey...

A polar bear near Svalbard, shot by Paul W.J. de Groot, Wikimedia Commons, under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license

How much water is used at power plants?

Jordan Macknick in Environmental Research Web: US power plants – in particular their cooling systems – are responsible for more than 40% of the nation's freshwater consumption. However estimates of how much water is used at individual power plants can vary greatly. What is more, most long-term projection models for power-plant water use lack sufficient data when it comes to different regions of the country.

The development and construction of future power plants will depend, in part, on water availability in a particular region. Understanding how much water is used in different types of plants, be they coal, nuclear or based on renewable sources, will thus be crucial for developers and policymakers alike.

We collected published water-use data from academic literature, state and federal government agencies, non-governmental organizations and industry. We converted these data into a consistent metric of gallons of water use per Megawatt-hour (MWh) of electricity generated. This approach allowed us to provide estimates of the amount of water consumed for each type of electricity-generating technology and cooling system.

Our results show that certain low-carbon electricity technologies using recirculating cooling systems, such as concentrating solar power, coal with carbon capture and storage, and nuclear power, can consume more water than conventional technologies like subcritical pulverized coal and natural-gas combined-cycle technologies....

Photo of the Glen Canyon Dam by Brian Thomas

Global warming and airflow changes 'caused US and EU heatwaves'

The Guardian (UK) via Reuters: Global warming may have caused extreme events such as a 2011 drought in the United States and a 2003 heatwave in Europe by slowing vast, wave-like weather flows in the northern hemisphere, scientists said on Tuesday.

The study of meandering air systems that encircle the planet adds to understanding of extremes that have killed thousands of people and driven up food prices in the past decade.

Such planetary airflows, which suck warm air from the tropics when they swing north and draw cold air from the Arctic when they swing south, seem to be have slowed more often in recent summers and left some regions sweltering, they said.

"During several recent extreme weather events these planetary waves almost freeze in their tracks for weeks," wrote Vladimir Petoukhov, lead author of the study at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research in Germany.

"So instead of bringing in cool air after having brought warm air in before, the heat just stays," he said in a statement of the findings in the US journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. A difference in temperatures between the Arctic and areas to the south is usually the main driver of the wave flows, which typically stretch 2,500km- 4,000km (1,550-2,500 miles) from crest to crest....

The Loire River at Nevers, during the 2003 heat wave, shot by Cypris, Wikimedia Commons, under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license

Thirsty crops and hungry people

Seed Daily via SPX: ...Agriculture is in fact one of the world's most insatiable consumers of water. And yet it's facing growing competition for water from cities, industry, and recreation at a time when demand for food is rising, and water is expected to become increasingly scarce. Take irrigation, for example, says Fred Vocasek, senior lab agronomist with the nation's largest crop consulting firm, Servi-Tech, Inc., in Dodge City, KS.

"Irrigation withdrawals in the United States have stabilized since about 1980, but food consumption trends are following the upward population trend," he says. "In other words, we have an increasingly hungry world with stable, or limited, freshwater supplies for food production. So, how do we keep pace with the widening gap?"

The principal answers, say the symposium speakers, lie in three areas: Protecting our limited stores of freshwater in lakes, streams, and the ground (blue water); optimizing the use of water in crop production (green water); and reusing "waste" water (gray water) that has already served some purpose, such as food processing or energy production.

But those answers also raise a host of additional questions, says Vocasek, who co-organized the session with John Sadler of the USDA-Agricultural Research Service. Who gets the water from an aquifer when farmers want it for irrigation, a gas company wants to pump it for fracking, or a city hopes to water a new golf course? How do we convince producers to adopt water-conserving technologies and practices when it's not in their economic interest to do so? Why can't farmers simply irrigate less?...

Mobile irrigation equipment on a field outside Motala, Sweden. Photo by Riggwelter, July 5, 2006. Wikimedia Commons, under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license

Monday, February 25, 2013

Extreme weather linked to giant waves in atmosphere

Tanya Lewis in Live Science: Extreme weather events have been on the rise in the last few decades, and man-made climate change may be causing them by interfering with global air-flow patterns, according to new research.

The Northern Hemisphere has taken a beating from extreme weather in recent years — the 2003 European heat wave, the 2010 Pakistan flood and the 2011 heat wave in the United States, for example. These events, in a general sense, are the result of the global movement of air.

Giant waves of air in the atmosphere normally even out the climate, by bringing warm air north from the tropics and cold air south from the Arctic. But a new study suggests these colossal waves have gotten stuck in place during extreme weather events.

"What we found is that during several recent extreme weather events these planetary waves almost freeze in their tracks for weeks," lead author Vladimir Petoukhov, of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (PIK) in Germany, said in a statement. "So instead of bringing in cool air after having brought warm air in before, the heat just stays."

How long these weather extremes last is critical, the researchers say. While two or three days of 86 degrees Fahrenheit (30 degrees Celsius) pose little threat, 20 days or more can lead to extreme heat stress, which can trigger deaths, forest fires and lost harvests

...The researchers created equations to model the motion of the massive air waves, determining what it takes to make the waves plough to a stop and build up. The team then used these models to crunch daily weather data from the U.S. National Centers for Environmental Prediction. During extreme weather events, the waves were indeed trapped and amplified, the scientists found. They also saw a significant increase in the occurrence of these trapped waves...

A shelf cloud, shot by NOAA

Hotter, wetter climate slashes labour capacity by 10%, study shows

The Guardian (UK) via Reuters: Earth's increasingly hot, wet climate has cut the amount of work people can do in the worst heat by about 10% in the past six decades, and that loss in labour capacity could double by mid-century, US government scientists reported on Sunday.

Because warmer air can hold more moisture than cooler air, there is more absolute humidity in the atmosphere now than there used to be. And as anyone who has sweltered through a hot, muggy summer knows, it's more stressful to work through hot months when the humidity is high.

To calculate the stress of working in hotter, wetter conditions, experts from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration looked at military and industrial guidelines already in place for heat stress, and set those guidelines against climate projections for how hot and humid it is likely to get over the next century.

Their findings were stark: "We project that heat stress-related labour capacity losses will double globally by 2050 with a warming climate," said the lead author, John Dunne of NOAA's Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory in Princeton.

Work capability is already down to 90% during the most hot and humid periods, Dunne and his co-authors wrote in the journal Nature Climate Change. Using a middle-of-the-road projection of future temperature and humidity, they estimate that could drop to 80% by 2050....

A stonemason from a 1448 illustration, Hausbuch der Mendelschen Zwölfbrüderstiftung, Band 1. Nürnberg 1426–1549. Stadtbibliothek Nürnberg, Amb. 317.2°

March of the pathogens: Parasite metabolism can foretell disease ranges under climate change

Morgan Kelly in News at Princeton: Knowing the temperatures that viruses, bacteria, worms and all other parasites need to grow and survive could help determine the future range of infectious diseases under climate change, according to new research.

Princeton University researchers developed a model that can identify the prospects for nearly any disease-causing parasite as the Earth grows warmer, even if little is known about the organism. Their method calculates how the projected temperature change for an area would alter the creature's metabolism and life cycle, the researchers report in the journal Ecology Letters.

Lead author Péter Molnár, a Princeton postdoctoral researcher of ecology and evolutionary biology, explained that the technique is an all-inclusive complement to current methods of predicting how climate change will affect disease, which call for a detailed knowledge of the environmental factors a specific parasite needs to thrive. But for many parasites, that information doesn't exist.

The more general Princeton model is based on the metabolic theory of ecology. Under this premise, all biological organisms need a balance between body size and body temperature to maintain the metabolism that keeps their organs functioning. Like any cold-blooded creature, disease-causing parasites rely on external temperatures for this balance. Scientists with knowledge of a parasite's body size and life cycle could use the Princeton metabolic model to predict how the organism would fare in altered climates.

"Our framework is applicable to pretty much any parasite, and utilizes established metabolic patterns shown to hold across a wide variety of species," Molnár said. "It would be impossible to ever gather enough data to develop a separate climate-change model for each existing and emerging disease in humans, wildlife and livestock," Molnár said. "With our physiological approach, many of the parameters for a specific pathogen can be predicted based on what is known about metabolic processes in all parasites, so that the model remains applicable to new and less-studied species as well."...

A cameo by the Marburg virus, image from the CDC

Palestine establishes disaster loss database

Berta Acero in the news archive for the UN Office for Disaster Risk Reduction: The Government of Palestine supported by the United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNISDR) has taken steps to establish its first national disaster loss database. The initiative was launched in the presence of the Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General for Disaster Risk Reduction and UNISDR Chief, Margareta Wahlström, who began a visit to Palestine this week.

The consolidation of historical disaster loss data will provide critical baseline information on disaster losses that will inform risk sensitive development planning policies and programmes and strengthen community resilience to disasters. Ms. Wahlström presided over the launch in Ramallah alongside Dr. Said Abu-Ali, Minister of Interior, whose Ministry is leading disaster risk reduction efforts in the State of Palestine.  "The Palestinian Government is taking this workshop seriously to gain expertise and knowledge which will translate into action and support all sectors", said Dr. Said Abu-Ali.

Palestine is highly vulnerable to natural hazards, mainly earthquakes, floods, landslides, droughts and desertification. The whole region frequently faces small to mid-scale disasters and is vulnerable to large-scale urban disasters, triggered by seismic activity and climate change.

This January a winter storm struck the region and caused severe damage to the agriculture and infrastructure in the Northern West Bank. About 12,000 people across 190 communities were affected by this storm.

"The recent winter storm in January 2013 is a small early warning to all sectors that Palestine can be affected by weather related events that are beyond the usual patterns," stated Dr Mohammad Abu-Ramadan, Minister of Planning and International Cooperation during his meeting with Ms. Wahlström. The January storm caused over $50 million in with severe damage to the agricultural sector...

The Gaza Strip in 2005, CIA photo

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Minnesota draining its supplies of water

Josephine Marcotty in the Minneapolis Star-Tribune: ...Minnesotans have always prided themselves on their more than 10,000 lakes, great rivers and the deep underground reservoirs that supply three-fourths of the state’s residents with naturally clean drinking water. But many regions in the state have reached the point where people are using water — and then sending it downstream — faster than the rain and snow can replenish it.

Last year, Minnesotans used a record amount of water, fueling a rising number of conflicts from the Iron Range to Pipestone. Now state regulators, who have never said no to a water permit, for the first time are planning to experiment with more stringent rules that will require some local communities to allocate scarce water.

“It’s scary,” said Dennis Healy, who runs the Pipestone Rural Water System in southwest Minnesota. “The time is coming that there is going to have to be some rationing.”

In the short term, that means farmers and businesses may have to share water with competitors, or even leave the state. Eventually, homeowners may face higher water bills and routine watering bans.The prolonged drought that scorched Minnesota last summer is not to blame, but it provides a glimpse into how climate change, with its weather extremes, could make matters even worse. From now on droughts may be more severe. And then when it rains, it often rains so hard that much of the water runs off the land before it can soak into the ground.

In Minnesota, how the rain falls and the snow melts is crucial because virtually all the state’s water comes from the sky. Over the centuries, water accumulated below the surface, slowly seeping into the ground and the aquifers that store many billions of gallons between grains of sand and fissures in the rock. Today that groundwater and the aquifers supply most of the homes, ethanol plants, millions of irrigated acres, swimming pools and golf courses across the state....

Pose Lake in Minnesota, shot by Reid Priedhorsky (R27182818)), Wikimedia Commons, under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license

African women hit hard by climate change

Denise Darcel in Epoch Times: African women walk for miles across harsh terrain to find clean water sources, planting and harvesting crops through scarcity and drought. Climatic disasters, such as floods, hurricanes, and landslides, can separate families, exposing women to human trafficking, hunger, and loss of life in a matter of moments.

Women must be an integral part of the climate change discussion in Africa, says the United Nations Initiative of the Inter-Agency Network on Women and Gender Equality. Yet, women are rarely involved in forming climate change policies.

More than 80 percent of African women work in agriculture; approximately 95 percent of the continent relies on agriculture for its livelihood. Women are thus key figures in economic development, and should be key figures in developing preventive measures or plans for repairing the damage caused by climate change, says the U.N.

According to the U.N. website, it is “imperative that a gender analysis be applied to all actions on climate change and that gender experts are consulted in climate change processes at all levels, so that women’s and men’s specific needs and priorities are identified and addressed.”...

Women in Zambia's Eastern Province hold bags of tilapia fingerlings in June 2007. The villagers are learning fish farming from US Peace Corps volunteers. State Department photo, in the public domain

Monsanto to appeal Brazil GM seed ruling

Seed Daily via UPI: Biotechnology giant Monsanto Co. plans to appeal a Brazilian court ruling that threatens to put at risk billions of dollars in royalty payments from Brazilian farmers. The U.S. agricultural products company said it is seeking extension of the patent on its Roundup Ready soybean seed, used by millions of Brazilian farmers, to counter the claims.

The dispute assumed epic proportions last year when millions of Brazilian farmers sued Monsanto over what they claimed were overpayments of royalties on genetically modified soybean seeds. The court ruled in favor of the farmers, saying Monsanto owes them at least $2 billion paid since 2004.

Brazil is the largest producer of genetically modified agricultural produce after the Unites States and a major customer for Monsanto. The company is seeking to resolve the dispute and secure its proprietary rights before it starts to sell another modified seed.

Monsanto said it will "move forward with the next phase of the appeals process to secure its intellectual property rights and ensure its business isn't disrupted in the country."

Monsanto previously obtained patent protection in Brazil for its first-generation Roundup Ready soybean products. It sought to correct the term of its patent rights in Brazil to conform to a 2014 patent term granted in the United States. Monsanto seeks to have the ruling by a single superior court judge overturned by a full panel of supreme court judges....

India's rice revolution: Chinese scientist questions massive harvests

John Vidal in the Guardian (UK): China's leading rice scientist has questioned India's claims of a world record harvest, following a report in last week's Observer of astonishing yields achieved by farmers growing the crop in the state of Bihar.

Professor Yuan Longping, known as the "father of rice", said he doubted whether the Indian government had properly verified young Indian farmer Sumant Kumar's claim that he had produced 22.4 tonnes of rice from one hectare of land in Bihar in 2011.

Yuan, director-general of China's national rice research centre and holder of the previous record of 19.4 tonnes a hectare, asked: "How could the Indian government have confirmed the number after the harvesting was already done?"

The dispute centres on a controversial method of growing rice that is spreading quickly in Asia. System of Rice Intensification (SRI) uses fewer seeds and less water, but seeks to stimulate the roots of young plants, mainly with organic manures. It can work with all kinds of seeds, including GM, and has the effect of getting plants to grow larger, healthier root systems.

Many scientists initially doubted whether yields of this magnitude were possible, but peer-reviewed papers have shown consistent improvements over conventional rice farming methods.

... Norman Uphoff, professor of agriculture at Cornell University in the US, defended Kumar and the Indian authorities. "The yield measurements for Kumar and other farmers in the Nalanda district of Bihar, which matched or exceeded the previous record, were at first rejected by Indian scientists, who did not believe such results were possible....

A rice paddy in India, shot by mtkopone, Wikimedia Commons via Flickr, under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license

Are restoration efforts in China halting soil erosion?

Kate Langford in News and Events at World Agroforestry: Immense effort has been put into combating soil erosion in China over recent decades, but how effective have these been? A new study published in Critical Reviews in Environmental Science and Technology found a strong positive relationship between vegetation cover and soil erosion reduction benefit.

Interestingly, the authors discovered that when vegetation cover is below 60 per cent, the soil erosion reduction benefit increases sharply with increasing vegetation cover. But when cover exceeds 60 per cent, the benefits may be diminished. Says co-author, Jianchu Xu from the World Agroforestry Centre, “This implies that vegetation restoration programs should probably aim for only partial vegetation cover”.

Xu warns, however, that because of the variation which occurs in the natural environment, one has to be careful not to universally apply this percentage. “Each location has its own specific characteristics in terms of geographical conditions, vegetation species, forest/grass ratio, age of species and management regime.”

The critical vegetation cover percentage is also determined by factors such as rainfall characteristics, soil type, slope and rainfall intensity. The spatial distribution of vegetation is also significant. In the study, conducted by scientists from the World Agroforestry Centre, National University of Singapore and the Kunming Institute of Botany, a wide range of different sites were analysed to represent the varying climatic zones in China.

Soil erosion is second only to population growth as the biggest environmental and public health problem facing human society; costing an estimated US $400 billion per year globally. In China, top soil is being lost 30 to 40 times faster than the natural replenishment rate as a result of rapid development. Soil erosion is of particular concern in the upper and middle reaches of large river basins such as the Yangtze River, Yellow River and Pearl River...

The eroding edge of the loess plateau just north of Linxia City (near the Wanshou Guan pagoda). Shot by Vmenkov, Wikimedia Commons, under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license

Saturday, February 23, 2013

NASA sees Saudi Arabia draining their non-renewable aquifers

NASA: The green fields that dot the desert draw on water that in part was trapped during the last Ice Age. In addition to rainwater that fell over several hundred thousand years, this fossil water filled aquifers that are now buried deep under the desert's shifting sands. Saudi Arabia reaches these underground rivers and lakes by drilling through the desert floor, directly irrigating the fields with a circular sprinkler system. This technique is called center-pivot irrigation.

Because rainfall in this area is now only a few centimeters (about one inch) each year, water here is a non-renewable resource. Although no one knows how much water is beneath the desert, hydrologists estimate it will only be economical to pump water for about 50 years.

In this series of four Landsat images, the agricultural fields are about one kilometer (.62 miles) across. The images were created using reflected light from the short wave-infrared, near-infrared, and green portions of the electromagnetic spectrum (bands 7, 4, and 2 from Landsat 4 and 5 TM and Landsat 7 ETM+ sensors). Using this combination of wavelengths, healthy vegetation appears bright green while dry vegetation appears orange. Barren soil is a dark pink, and urban areas, like the town of Tubarjal at the top of each image, have a purple hue.

NASA and the U.S. Department of the Interior through the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) jointly manage Landsat, and the USGS preserves a 40-year archive of Landsat images that is freely available data over the Internet. The next Landsat satellite, now known as the Landsat Data Continuity Mission (LDCM) and later to be called Landsat 8, is scheduled for launch in January 2013....

In this series of four Landsat images, the agricultural fields are about one kilometer across. Healthy vegetation appears bright green while dry vegetation appears orange. Barren soil is a dark pink, and urban areas, like the town of Tubarjal at the top of each image, have a purple hue. Credit: NASA/GSFC

Circulation changes in a warmer ocean

AlphaGalileo: Circulation changes in a warmer ocean In a new study, scientists suggest that the pattern of ocean circulation was radically altered in the past when climates were warmer. Ancient warm periods offer useful insights into potential future warming and its impacts.  The mid-Pliocene, ~3 million years ago, was a relatively recent period of global warmth that is often considered as an analog for our future.

During this warm period, unusually warm surface conditions existed in the North Atlantic, which has often been simply explained by the intensification of the existing pattern of ocean circulation. However, reproducing these changes with climate models has eluded researchers for more than a decade—suggesting either that there was something wrong with the long-standing explanation or with the models used to predict the behavior of warmer oceans.

A team of Bergen scientists reevaluated the existing observations and used the Norwegian Earth System model (NorESM) to carry out simulations to better understand ocean circulation during the warm mid-Pliocene.

They illustrated that the largest changes occurred in the deep Southern Ocean, but not in the North Atlantic, indicating that the existing explanation was not adequate. They found that the data and simulations pointed toward an altogether different pattern of ocean circulation, with Antarctic waters playing a stronger role due to faster renewal of the deeper water masses in the Southern Ocean during the mid-Pliocene. This alternative explanation provided a solution to the long standing discrepancy between reconstructions of ocean circulation at the time and available model simulations.

The team also addressed the unusual warmth in the North Atlantic during the warm mid-Pliocene.  The observed high latitude warmth was shown not to require the intensification of todays ocean circulation and the transport of ocean heat to the north, rather it was a direct response to changes in insolation and atmospheric carbon dioxide levels at the time. The study highlights just how differently ocean circulation was when the planet was warmer and carbon dioxide levels were high...

Simulated changes in sea surface temperature (oC, contours) with comparison to reconstructed changes (circles) in the North Atlantic.

Commission aims to draw attention to deteriorating oceans

Yojana Sharma in The Global Ocean Commission, a new independent body of politicians, businessmen, development experts and scientists, will meet for the first time next month, in Cape Town, South Africa, to start work on proposing the sustainable use of the oceans' natural resources.

The commission will analyse the major threats to the high seas that are beyond national jurisdictions or over 200 nautical miles from coastlines. Its findings will also aim to inform the first laws to protect ocean biodiversity, which the Rio+20 summit stipulated should be in place by 2014. The outcomes may also lead to a major overhaul of international laws governing the high seas, and better protection of biodiversity and the livelihoods of people in developing countries.

"This large proportion of the global ocean is under severe and increasing pressure from overfishing, damage to important habitat, climate change and ocean acidification," said a statement released at the commission's official launch in London last week (12 February).

The global ocean "is essential to the health and wellbeing of each and every one of us" said José Maria Figueres, former president of Costa Rica and co-chair of the commission alongside South African minister Trevor Manuel and UK minister David Miliband.

...About 75 per cent of world fish stocks are overfished, according to estimates. This unsustainable use threatens the livelihoods of the 200 million people who depend on fishing, 90 per cent of whom are in developing countries....

Fishing net in Togo, shot by Ferdinand Reus, Wikimedia Commons via Flickr, under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license

Siberia could experience widespread permafrost thaw due to global warming

Lee Rannals in RedOrbit: More evidence is pointing to the nightmare scenario that global warming is taking a toll on our planet. Oxford University scientists say that a global temperature rise of 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit could thaw the ground over a large area of Siberia, threatening the release of carbon from soil.

If the thawing of Siberia’s permafrost occurs, it could see that over 1,000 gigatons of the greenhouse gases carbon dioxide and methane are dished out into the atmosphere, adding an even larger global warming threat.

The scientists studied stalactites and stalagmites from caves located along the permafrost frontier in Siberia, where the ground stays permanently frozen in a layer of tens to hundreds of feet thick. Because these cave features only grow when liquid rainwater and snow melt drips into the caves, these formations record 500,00 years of changing permafrost conditions.

Records from 400,000 years ago show that a global warming of 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit is enough to cause substantial thawing of permafrost far north from its present-day southern limit.

“The stalactites and stalagmites from these caves are a way of looking back in time to see how warm periods similar to our modern climate affect how far permafrost extends across Siberia,” lead author Dr Anton Vaks of Oxford University’s Department of Earth Sciences, said in a statement. “As permafrost covers 24 percent of the land surface of the Northern hemisphere significant thawing could affect vast areas and release gigatonnes of carbon.”...

Permafrost in South Gydan, Siberia, shot by Skonstantinov09, Wikimedia Commons, under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license 

As predators decline, carbon emissions rise

Space Daily via SPX: University of British Columbia researchers have found that when the animals at the top of the food chain are removed, freshwater ecosystems emit a lot more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

"Predators are disappearing from our ecosystems at alarming rates because of hunting and fishing pressure and because of human induced changes to their habitats," says Trisha Atwood, a PhD candidate in the Department of Forest and Conservation Sciences in the Faculty of Forestry at UBC.

For their study, published in the journal Nature Geoscience, Atwood and her colleagues wanted to measure the role predators play in regulating carbon emissions to better understand the consequences of losing these animals.

Predators are bigger animals at the top of the food chain and their diets are comprised of all the smaller animals and plants in the ecosystem, either directly or indirectly. As a result, the number of predators in an ecosystem regulates the numbers of all the plants and animals lower in the food chain. It's these smaller animals and plants that play a big role in sequestering or emitting carbon.

When Atwood and her colleagues removed all the predators from three controlled freshwater ecosystems, 93 per cent more carbon dioxide was released into the atmosphere...

A mountain lion in West Virginia, shot by ForestWander, Wikimedia Commons via Flickr, under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 United States license

Friday, February 22, 2013

Food: sustainability, security, self-reliance

Caroline Allen in the Ecologist: Poor harvests and rising food costs have become a depressingly familiar news item, with unusual weather patterns affecting food production across the US, Russia and in the UK. At the same time, more and more people are struggling to feed themselves and their families.

...There are plenty of reasons to be concerned that the recent food price rises are part of a longer term trend: a larger global population, rising meat consumption, increasing pressure on farm land and use of crops for fuel are all reasons why global demand for food staples will increase.

While there is no definitive proof that climate change is responsible for the recent abnormal weather, models suggest a warming planet will cause changes in weather patterns that will have a major effect on food production.

It’s not just growers and farmers who will be affected - a recent study by Oceana concluded that some of the poorest nations can expect to lose up to 40% of their fish-catch by 2050 due to climate change and ocean acidification. Many people in these countries are reliant on seafood as their major source of protein.

It is clear that we cannot rely on our food supply to operate in the way that is has previously. We need, urgently, to build resilience into it. Naturally, the food industry will call for more intensification and larger scale enterprises, more big business and an end to ‘uneconomic’ small scale farming.

....However, there is much evidence that the external costs of this ‘revolution’ have been high and to continue down this route is unlikely to bring further benefits. On the contrary, the impacts on soil, water resources and biodiversity will likely result in lowered yields. Our own health and that of our rural communities and the countryside has suffered….

Arcimboldo's "The Greengrocer"

Drought, climate change to force water use changes

Michael Overall in Tulsa World: A tsunami is rising on the horizon and people can either start planning for its impact now or wait until it's too late, a water conservationist warned Thursday. Not a literal tsunami, of course, but water shortages will create a crisis of epic proportions, explained Jim Martin, conservation director for the Berkley Conservation Institute.

"It's a problem nobody wants to talk about," Martin said during a "conservation summit" on the eve of the Bassmaster Classic, which has attracted media to Tulsa from across the country this week. "We have to start talking about it."

Climate change and population growth will force the United States to re-prioritize the use of water, Martin predicted. More than half the continental United States is currently under drought conditions, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

And the U.S. Drought Monitor shows the entire state of Oklahoma under "severe," "extreme" or even "exceptional" drought conditions. "We keep talking about it," Martin said, "as if the problem will go away once it starts raining."

In the short term, perhaps it will, he said. But long-term, water resources are being stretched thin. From Atlanta to the Pacific Northwest, metropolitan areas are already straining to keep up with demand.

The immediate solution is usually to dig deeper wells. But eventually, he said, "you've dug as deep as you can dig."…

A water tower in Geary, Oklahoma, shot by Platemaker, Wikimedia Commons, under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported license

Nepalis adapt to changing climate

Kieran Cook in Scientific American via Daily Climate: Environmental resource conflict – or the potential for it – is never far away in the Himalayas.

In the west of the region, arguments between Pakistan and India over vital water resources in areas bordering the two countries continue. In the east tensions are rising as India expresses concerns about a spate of planned dam-building projects by China on rivers flowing into Indian territory, particularly on the mighty Brahmaputra. Meanwhile Nepal and the north Indian state of Bihar accuse each other of mismanaging water resources that straddle the border.

Regional cooperation is limited and, in many areas, non-existent. In some countries data on vital environmental factors, such as river flows and management, falls into the category of national security and is closely guarded.

The International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development, founded in the early 1980s and based in Kathmandu, Nepal's capital, is the only intergovernmental body gathering cross-border environmental information and monitoring climate change across a region stretching from the mountains of the Hindu Kush and Afghanistan in the west to Yunnan in southwest China in the east.

It's an area described as a climate "hot spot," with temperatures in many parts rising faster than the global average. In an ambitious project, the center has been gathering information on communities' attitudes and responses to climate change and socio-economic factors affecting their livelihoods. More than 6,000 households – mainly in mountain areas – have responded to a detailed questionnaire….

Pisang village in Nepal, shot by Solundir, Wikimedia Commons, under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license

Slight climate change can reduce drought effect in wheat Increased carbon dioxide levels caused by climate change may help wheat cope with drought, according to researchers at The University of Western Australia.   In a world-first study, PhD student Eduardo Dias de Oliveira found that when wheat is exposed to more CO2, it is better able to cope with high temperatures and water restrictions.

As long as the temperature does not rise 2ºC more than average, combining the effects of elevated carbon dioxide and high temperature with water restrictions actually improves biomass and grain yield.

Mr Dias de Oliveira's finding could have significant impact on the future of crop production in the Mediterranean-type climatic wheat-growing regions of Australia, where climate change is expected to have a severe impact on annual yields of 20 million tonnes of wheat over the next 50 years.

…"Our studies unravelled the impact of interaction between elevated CO2, high temperature and water stress in wheat. The vital information generated from the project will help towards developing climate ready wheat for the future," Professor Siddique said.  The PhD project is supported by UWA, CSIRO and Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (DAFF)….

Hybrid wheat, shot by Dehaan, Wikimedia Commons, under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported license

Australian wine industry leading way on climate adaptation

Alina Eascot and Clint Jasper in ABC News (Australia): A study has concluded many McLaren Vale wine producers are leading the world in preparing for future climate change.

It compared the region on Adelaide's southern outskirts with a French wine region, Roussillon, because of their climatic similarities. Co-author and Adelaide University lecturer Douglas Bardsley said the average rainfall of both regions was expected to decline in the future, but average temperatures would climb.

He said McLaren Vale growers and winemakers were taking important steps to ensure they remained viable. "They're trying new varieties, varieties from Spain for example which might be more adapted to a future drying climate," he said.

"Different types of irrigation regimes, the different ways of harvesting, of mulching, the different ways that they prune the plant so that berries are shaded during the very hot times of the day. Other agricultural industries and regions could learn from these activities."…

A vineyard in the Barossa Valley, shot by Amanda Slater, Wikimedia Commons via Flickr, under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Climate change is not an all-or-nothing proposition, researcher says

Pam Frost Gorder in Ohio State University Research and Innovation Communications: An Ohio State University statistician says that the natural human difficulty with grasping probabilities is preventing Americans from dealing with climate change. In a panel discussion at the American Association for the Advancement of Science meeting on Feb. 15, Mark Berliner said that an aversion to statistical thinking and probability is a significant reason that we haven’t enacted strategies to deal with climate change right now.

Berliner, professor and chair of statistics at Ohio State, is the former co-chair of the American Statistical Association’s Advisory Committee on Climate Change Policy, and as such, he spent two years talking with U.S. Congressional staffers about climate change. As a result, he’s come to the conclusion that Americans need to understand that climate change is a range of possible events that are more or less likely. However, the negative impacts of climate change can be reduced by taking some moderate actions today, he said.

“The general public has an understanding of tipping points, the moment beyond which things become inevitable. But as soon as you start thinking of climate change as inevitable, it’s easy to throw up your hands and say, ‘it’s too late, so why bother to do anything?’” Berliner said. “It’s like a two-pack-a-day smoker deciding not to cut back on the cigarettes, because he’s as good as gone.”

“The situation is not hopeless. Instead of taking an extreme all-or-nothing view about climate change, we can think of it as a spectrum of possible problems, and look for a spectrum of practical solutions that will do the most good,” he said. From his own career in climate research, Berliner sees climate change as a collection of possible events: some extreme disasters that are unlikely to happen, but still possible; and less extreme events that are much more likely.

It’s the difference, he said, between the low possibility that a coastal town will flood permanently, versus the high possibility that high tides and periodic floods will force the town to close its beaches for more days during the year—a loss to valuable tourism.

It’s human nature to abhor uncertainty, he said, and climate research, like all research, is full of uncertainty. He hopes that opinion leaders will help the public understand the nature of science, and the idea that uncertainties diminish as data accumulates. There will never be a single right answer to the question “what will happen to Earth’s climate?”

“One of the criticisms of climate change research is that different computer models give different answers,” Berliner said. “But the key is not to pick the right climate model, but to pick the right elements out of each of the models.”

As he calculates the effectiveness of potential climate change mitigation strategies, Berliner has determined one thing for sure. “Compromise—if it leads to doing something—is better than doing nothing,” he said....

From 1767, Claude Joseph Vernet's "A storm on the Mediterranean coast"

New projections of 'uneven' global sea-level rise

EurekAlert via the British Antarctic Survey: Sophisticated computer modelling has shown how sea-level rise over the coming century could affect some regions far more than others. The model shows that parts of the Pacific will see the highest rates of rise while some polar regions will actually experience falls in relative sea levels due to the ways sea, land and ice interact globally.

Reporting in the journal Geophysical Research Letters researchers have looked ahead to the year 2100 to show how ice loss will continue to add to rising sea levels. Scientists have known for some time that sea level rise around the globe will not be uniform, but in this study the team of ice2sea researchers show in great detail the global pattern of sea-level rise that would result from two scenarios of ice-loss from glaciers and ice sheets.

The team, from Italy's University of Urbino and the UK's University of Bristol, found that ice melt from glaciers, and the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets, is likely to be of critical importance to regional sea-level change in the Equatorial Pacific Ocean where the sea level rise would be greater than the average increase across the globe. This will affect in particular, Western Australia, Oceania and the small atolls and islands in this region, including Hawaii.

The study focussed on three effects that lead to global mean sea-level rise being unequally distributed around the world. Firstly, land is subsiding and emerging due to a massive loss of ice at the end of the last ice age 10,000 years ago when billions of tons of ice covering parts of North America and Europe melted. This caused a major redistribution of mass on the Earth, but the crust responds to such changes so slowly that it is still deforming. Secondly, the warming of the oceans leads to a change in the distribution of water across the globe. Thirdly the sheer mass of water held in ice at the frozen continents like Antarctica and Greenland exerts a gravitational pull on the surrounding liquid water, pulling in enormous amounts of water and raising the sea-level close to those continents. As the ice melts its pull decreases and the water previously attracted rushes away to be redistributed around the globe.

Co-author Professor Giorgio Spada says, "In the paper we are successful in defining the patterns, known as sea level fingerprints, which affect sea levels. "This is paramount for assessing the risk due to inundation in low-lying, densely populated areas. The most vulnerable areas are those where the effects combine to give the sea-level rise that is significantly higher than the global average."....

From NASA, the first flight of Operation Ice Bridge’s Antarctic campaign flew Oct. 16, 2009, along the Amundsen Coast. The aircraft’s downward-looking Digital Mapping System camera captured images of sea ice from an altitude of at least 20,000 feet.

Child-friendly toilets key in fight to improve global sanitation

Julie Mollins in AlertNet: If toilets meet children’s needs, this will keep them in school longer, reduce the spread of life-threatening diarrhoeal diseases and help meet development goals, according to the charity Water For People. At least 2.5 billion people worldwide do not have proper sanitation facilities. The combined effects of improper sanitation, unsafe water supply and poor hygiene are estimated to cause almost 2,000 child deaths per day, the U.N. children’s agency, UNICEF, reports.

“Allowing youth to become comfortable using toilets and practising good hygiene from a young age, means that as they grow up there are fewer people to educate and convince of the reasons that improved toilets are important,” said Kate Fogelberg, Water For People’s regional manager in South America.   “It’s much more difficult to change adult behaviour than children’s behaviour -- solving the sanitation crisis is as much about changing people’s behaviour as it is about installing toilets.”

Governments are not on course to meet the Millennium Development Goal (MDG) target of halving the proportion of the population without sanitation by 2015 -- one of eight targets agreed in 2000 by U.N. member states.

Water For People works with partners in Africa, Asia and Latin America to deliver improved water and sanitation services, part of its goal to ensure that every household, school and  clinic has access to water and sanitation.

“Children spend several hours a day at school, so improving toilets both at home and at school is crucial to solving the sanitation crisis,” Fogelberg said. “At schools, constructing hand washing stations with taps at varying heights makes it more accessible for children to wash their hands and creates a more hygienic environment.”...