Sunday, August 31, 2008

Faster rise in sea level predicted from melting Greenland ice sheet, based on lessons from Ice Age

Science Daily: If the lessons being learned by scientists about the demise of the last great North American ice sheet are correct, estimates of global sea level rise from a melting Greenland ice sheet may be seriously underestimated. Writing in the journal Nature Geoscience, a team of researchers led by University of Wisconsin-Madison geologist Anders Carlson reports that sea level rise from greenhouse-induced warming of the Greenland ice sheet could be double or triple current estimates over the next century.

"We're not talking about something catastrophic, but we could see a much bigger response in terms of sea level from the Greenland ice sheet over the next 100 years than what is currently predicted," says Carlson, a UW-Madison professor of geology and geophysics.

…Scientists have yet to agree on how much melting of the Greenland ice sheet — a terrestrial ice mass encompassing 1.7 million square kilometers — will contribute to changes in sea level. One reason, Carlson explains, is that in recorded history there is no precedent for the influence of climate change on a massive ice sheet.

"We've never seen an ice sheet disappear before, but here we have a record," says Carlson of the new study that combined a powerful computer model with marine and terrestrial records to provide a snapshot of how fast ice sheets can melt and raise sea level in a warmer world.

…According to the new study, rising sea levels up to a third of an inch per year or 1 to 2 feet over the course of a century are possible. Even slight rises in global sea level are problematic as a significant percentage of the world's human population — hundreds of millions of people — lives in areas that can be affected by rising seas. "For planning purposes, we should see the IPCC projections as conservative," Carlson says. "We think this is a very low estimate of what the Greenland ice sheet will contribute to sea level."….

Aerial photograph of an island just off the coast of Greenland, shot by Túrelio, Wikimedia Commons, under the Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike 2.5 License. A version of this image in a higher resolution is available from the photographer (Túrelio).

For the first time in human history, the North Pole can be circumnavigated

Independent (UK): Open water now stretches all the way round the Arctic, making it possible for the first time in human history to circumnavigate the North Pole, The Independent on Sunday can reveal. New satellite images, taken only two days ago, show that melting ice last week opened up both the fabled North-west and North-east passages, in the most important geographical landmark to date to signal the unexpectedly rapid progress of global warming.

Last night Professor Mark Serreze, a sea ice specialist at the official US National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC), hailed the publication of the images – on an obscure website by scientists at the University of Bremen, Germany – as "a historic event", and said that it provided further evidence that the Arctic icecap may now have entered a "death spiral". Some scientists predict that it could vanish altogether in summer within five years, a process that would, in itself, greatly accelerate. But Sarah Palin, John McCain's new running mate, holds that the scientific consensus that global warming is melting Arctic ice is unreliable.

The opening of the passages – eagerly awaited by shipping companies who hope to cut thousands of miles off their routes by sailing round the north of Canada and Russia – is only the greatest of a host of ominous signs this month of a gathering crisis in the Arctic. Early last week the NSDIC warned that, over the next few weeks, the total extent of sea ice in the Arctic may shrink to below the record low reached last year – itself a massive 200,000 square miles less than the previous worst year, 2005.

"The passages are open," said Professor Serreze, though he cautioned that official bodies would be reluctant to confirm this for fear of lawsuits if ships encountered ice after being encouraged to enter them. "It's a historic event. We are going to see this more and more as the years go by."…

Shown here is an image of the Arctic ice cap from the University of Bremen website, found here. The university says: the ASI sea ice concentration algorithm used here has been validated in several studies (Spreen et al. 2005, Spreen et al., 2008). However, no warranty is given for the data presented on these pages. Please help maintaining this service by properly citing and acknowledging if you use the data for publications: Spreen, G., L. Kaleschke, and G. Heygster (2008), Sea ice remote sensing using AMSR-E 89 GHz channels, J. Geophys. Res., doi:10.1029/2005JC003384

Severe water restrictions in rural Australia

Bendigo Advertiser (Australia): City dwellers in Bendigo are staring down the barrel of a second summer of full-blown water restrictions. And farming communities will fare no better, with no allocations earmarked for irrigators unless things change dramatically.

Even solid rain over the weekend, including 19.4mm on Saturday alone, has so far failed to translate into enough run-off to boost depleted reserves. However, the rain did manage to push winter falls above the average. But the full impact of climate change on Coliban River inflows is becoming apparent.

Coliban Water managing director Gavin Hanlon last week revealed that since 1996, monthly inflows during August have dropped from a long term average of 15,028 megalitres to a mere 5651 megalitres. Mr Hanlon has estimated August, which is traditionally the highest inflow month of the year, will this year yield less than 1000 megalitres into storages. July inflows were only 859 megalitres. He said anything less than 8000 megalitres in the three months from August to October is likely to force continuation of zero rural allocations and ongoing stage four restrictions.

Current water reserves, including an eight-gigalitre reserve in Lake Eildon, give Coliban Water access to about 27 gigalitres _ but almost two-thirds of this is deemed the minimum level to carry over. Mr Hanlon said the water authority is focused on contingency planning based on the worst-case scenario of the past 10 years being repeated. He said a range of options would be pursued to strengthen water security, including accessing groundwater supplies….

Bendigo is that red dot. Map by TalShiar, Wikimedia Commons

Proposal for a south Asian climate change network

Daily Star (Bangladesh): The International Symposium on Climate Change and Food Security in South Asia in its Dhaka Declaration has recommended creating South Asian Network on Climate Change and Food Security and establishing South Asia Climate Outlook Forum to combat challenges of climatic changes in the region collectively.

The five-day symposium that concluded at Hotel Sonargaon in the capital yesterday also emphasised the need for stimulating multi-disciplinary research on the burning issue and identifying effective mitigation and adaptation options, including carbon sequestration in different ecosystems.

The programme was jointly sponsored by Ohio State University, World Meteorological Organisation (WMO), Food and Agriculture Organisation, UN Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific, Dhaka University and the Bangladesh government. Around 250 participants from 17 countries attended the event.

Prof Rattan Lal, director of Carbon Management and Sequestration Centre of Ohio State University, presented the Dhaka Declaration. Experts at the programme observed that climate change will increase temperature, decrease availability of fresh water, contribute to the rise in sea level, glacial melting in the Himalayas, increased frequency and intensity of extreme events, and shifting of cropping zones in South Asia affecting agriculture and food sector, economy, societies and environment.

Prof Lal said, "The serious problems of soil degradation and desertification are likely to be exacerbated by climate change through accelerated erosion, fertility depletion, salinisation and acidification and that subsistence agriculture, characterised by low productivity and extractive farming, is extremely vulnerable to such climatic change."…

Scientists discover key to cold tolerance in corn - longer growing season, growth in colder regions possible for tropical crops

Biopact: Demand for corn - the world's number one feed grain and a staple food for many - is outstripping supply, resulting in large price increases that are forecast to continue over the next several years. Part of the reason for this state of things is the heavy reliance of the U.S. biofuels industry on corn. However, if this crop's intolerance of low temperatures could somehow be overcome, then the length of the growing season, and yield, could be increased at present sites of cultivation and its range extended into colder regions.

Drs. Dafu Wang, Archie Portis, Steve Moose, and Steve Long in the Department of Crop Sciences and the Institute of Genomic Biology at the University of Illinois may have made a crucial breakthrough on this front, as reported in the September issue of the journal Plant Physiology. Interestingly, their discovery goes beyond corn and may make it possible to breed highly productive food and energy crops like sugar cane in such a way that they can grow at higher latitudes....

Saturday, August 30, 2008

Methane gas oozing up from Siberian seabed: Swedish researcher

Agence France-Presse: Methane, a potent greenhouse gas, is leaking from the permafrost under the Siberian seabed, a researcher on an international expedition in the region told Swedish daily Dagens Nyheter on Saturday. "The permafrost now has small holes. We have found elevated levels of methane above the water surface and even more in the water just below. It is obvious that the source is the seabed," Oerjan Gustafsson, the Swedish leader of the International Siberian Shelf Study, told the newspaper.

The tests were carried out in the Laptev and east Siberian seas and used much more precise measuring equipment than previous studies, he said. Methane is more than 20 times more efficient than carbon dioxide in trapping solar heat….

Nikolay Dobrovolsky (1837-1900), Crossing the Angara in Irkutsk (1886). Wrong part of Siberia, but some images I can't resist.

Hurricane Gustav update -- a selection of stories

New Orleans scrambles to evacuate ahead of Gustav
AFP - 20 minutes ago
NEW ORLEANS, Louisiana (AFP) — Desperate to avoid a repeat of the 2005 Katrina catastrophe, New Orleans began mandatory evacuations Saturday as another ...
US more prepared for Gustav, than Katrina-FEMA
Reuters UK, UK - 39 minutes ago
By Ayesha Rascoe WASHINGTON, Aug 30 (Reuters) - Facing its first major storm since 2005, the US emergency management agency said on Saturday it is better ...
Forecasters struggle with hurricane predictions
The Associated Press - 40 minutes ago
MIAMI (AP) — When a hurricane like Gustav forms, people often have two questions for forecasters: Will it hit me? And how strong will it be? ...
Hurricane watch issued for Gulf Coast of US
Houston Chronicle, United States - 41 minutes ago
© 2008 AP NEW ORLEANS — The National Hurricane Center has issued a hurricane watch for Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana and part of Texas. ...

Waves of change in New Jersey's flood map

The Daily Record (New Jersey): The Federal Emergency Management Agency is updating New Jersey's flood maps, showing which areas are most at risk when the next big storm hits. These map revisions come as climate-change experts are predicting more frequent and severe storms.

Because flooding occurs where land and water meet, which adds up to a lot of places in this state we're in, the updated flood maps are both a new tool and a new opportunity to use land more wisely. The maps outline the geography of floodplains, and serve as the basis for state, county and local land-use regulations and emergency management plans. They also determine which property owners need to buy flood insurance, and what rates will apply.

Three years ago, the flood maps were outdated and didn't reflect real-world conditions. In 2005, FEMA began a congressionally-mandated modernization initiative to bring the maps and the mapping process into the digital age…..The update has been contentious in coastal Monmouth, where thousands of additional homes may be included in the flood zone; residents are filing comments and appeals ahead of a September deadline.

…But will our elected officials and state regulators make the all-important connection between this new data and what it tells us about sound land use decisions? Protecting watershed lands and keeping sprawl away from our streams and rivers is the surest way to fight flooding and pollution….

Public involvement usually leads to better environmental decision making

National Academies News: When done correctly, public participation improves the quality of federal agencies' decisions about the environment, says a new report from the National Research Council. Well-managed public involvement also increases the legitimacy of decisions in the eyes of those affected by them, which makes it more likely that the decisions will be implemented effectively. Agencies should recognize public participation as valuable to their objectives, not just as a formality required by the law, the report says. It details principles and approaches agencies can use to successfully involve the public.

In response to legislation and pressure from citizens' groups over the last three decades, federal agencies have taken steps to include the public in a wide range of environmental decisions, such as how best to clean up Superfund sites or manage federal forest lands. Although some form of public participation is often required by law, agencies usually have broad discretion about the extent of that involvement. Approaches vary widely, from holding public information-gathering meetings to forming advisory groups to actively including citizens in making and implementing decisions.

Proponents of public participation argue that those who must live with the outcome of an environmental decision should have some influence on it. Critics maintain that public participation slows decision making and can lower its quality by including people unfamiliar with the science involved. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Food and Drug Administration, and departments of Energy and Agriculture asked the Research Council to assess whether public participation achieves desirable outcomes, and under what conditions.

Substantial evidence indicates that public participation is more likely to improve than to undermine the quality of decisions, the report says. Although scientists are usually in the best position to analyze the effects of environmental processes and actions, good analysis often requires information about local conditions, which is most likely to come from residents. Moreover, public values and concerns are important to frame the scientific questions asked, to ensure that the analyses address all of the issues relevant to those affected….

Thomas Nast's cartoon of Boss Tweed, Wikimedia Commons

Friday, August 29, 2008

Using past boondoggles as a baseline

Over at Miller-McCune, Ryan Blitstein writes a fascinating article about Bent Flyvbjerg, who “believes he’s found the way to take the doggle out of multibillion-dollar boondoggles.” Since climate change adaptation will probably involve huge, very expensive mega-projects, it’s crucial to understand how these behemoths flounder into misery. It’s a long read, but well worth it: ….Adapted from Nobel Prize-winning research by American economists, the Flyvbjerg (pronounced “FLIU-bee-yah”) approach rests on close analysis of the history of similar, completed megaprojects. The strategy may seem obvious, but it could save billions of dollars by avoiding unworthy projects and restraining spending on those that proceed.

Already, the United Kingdom and the Netherlands have hired Flyvbjerg or adopted his methods. In the U.S., the ideas are also gaining traction: Federal Transit Administrator James Simpson name-checked Flyvbjerg in a June speech, lauding his research into managing megaproject risk management and accountability. “That’s exactly where we’re headed,” Simpson said.

A decade later, by collecting data from 20 nations on five continents, Flyvbjerg had produced the first statistically significant analysis to show … [t]he vast majority of public works projects go drastically over budget and aren’t as well patronized as proponents claim. He also found that modelers didn’t seem to be improving their estimates over time; the scale of overruns remained relatively constant. Rail and highway projects are often the worst boondoggles, and they form the bulk of Flyvbjerg’s research. But other researchers have found dangerous overoptimism in all kinds of megaprojects….

An aerial view of Boston's Big Dig, a project famously plagued by cost overruns and deadly accidents. Wikimedia Commons

London's mayor warns city to prepare for future drought, floods and heat

This Is London (UK): Floods, heatwaves and drought could cause a virtual collapse of the capital unless action is taken to address climate change, Boris Johnson warned today. Launching London's Climate Change Adaptation Strategy, the Mayor said global warming would affect all Londoners. "For London, scientists currently forecast warmer, wetter winters and hotter drier summers, coupled with an increase in the frequency of extreme weather and rising sea levels," he said.

The report estimates 1.25million people would be affected by a major flood. It goes on to suggest ways to tackle climate change and mitigate its effects. But it comes as the Mayor faces increased criticism from environmentalists for failing to appoint a green adviser within his administration.

…Speaking at the Thames Barrier last night, Mr Johnson said: "Urban areas are inherently vulnerable to the impact of climate change - the density of people and assets means that there is automatically more at stake. "The strategy I am launching today outlines in detail the range of weather conditions facing London, which could both seriously threaten our quality of life - particularly that of the most vulnerable people - and endanger our preeminence as one of the world's leading cities."

The plan sets out a case for new green areas across London to help offset the "urban heat island" effect caused by large buildings trapping heat. It also calls for new plans to deal with flooding.

…Robert Runcie, the Environment Agency's Thames regional director, said: "London's world class city is currently protected from the increasing risk of tidal flooding by the Thames Barrier, which will see us into the next century as the people and businesses of London move forward in adapting to meet the challenges of climate change…..

The Thames Barrier, shot by Andy Roberts from East London, England, Wikimedia Commons via Flickr, under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 License

Fay’s heavy rains bring record flooding to parts of drought stricken North Carolina

US Geological Survey: The remnants of what was Tropical Storm Fay brought a deluge of water to parts of North Carolina that were parched by a record-breaking drought. Yet scientists watching the rapidly changing water situation find themselves cautioning residents that this drought is far from over.

"Despite the currently high streamflows, effects of the drought likely will linger, as ground-water levels have not returned to normal," said Dr. Jerad Bales, director of the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) North Carolina Water Science Center. "Moreover, the intensity of the storms resulted in rapid runoff, providing little opportunity for the ground-water system to be replenished."

On August 26-27, twenty-four hour rainfall totals at 33 of 74 rain gauges operated by the USGS in Mecklenberg County exceeded the 100-year rainfall—50 of those gauges exceeded the 25-year rainfall. (There is a one-percent chance that the 24-hour, 100-year rainfall is any given year.) Rainfall totals in excess of 10 inches were reported at 7 of the rain gauges in and around the County. An additional 53 sites reported more than 5 inches for the event….

North Carolina topographic map, Wikimedia Commons

Tropical Storm (or Hurricane) Gustav -- a selection of stories

Tropical Storm Gustav Trashes Jamaica, Heads towards Cayman Islands
RTT News, NY - 28 minutes ago
(RTTNews) - Tropical Storm Gustav has left Jamaica after trashing Caribbean island nation on Friday, killing at least 11 people and causing widespread ...
Gustav Grows Stronger, Aims for Cayman Islands, Western Cuba
Voice of America - 38 minutes ago
By VOA News US forecasters say Tropical Storm Gustav is near hurricane strength as it closes in on the Cayman Islands and western Cuba. ...
Gustav becomes a hurricane once again
Beaumont Enterprise, tx - 45 minutes ago
By SARAH MOORE After pulling away from Jamaica and onto warm Caribbean waters, Gustav has once again reached hurricane intensity, according to an Associated ...

2,000 feared dead in India flood

Guardian (UK): Two thousand people are now feared dead in the floods caused after a river changed course, submerging hundreds of villages in northern India and sparking claims that the Indian government is playing down the scale of the tragedy. Although the official death toll in India's Bihar state is just 65, aid agencies claim thousands are missing in the flooded area. The Kosi river breached its banks 11 days ago on the border with Nepal, flowing through a channel 75 miles (120km) east of its natural route.

ActionAid's emergencies adviser for Asia, Dr PV Unnikrishnan, said that by omitting those feared dead the authorities could 'underplay' the need for massive relief operations in the area. "By not counting those gone missing, the government estimates not only result in inadequate compensation and rehabilitation processes, but also underplay the need for rescue and relief," said Unnikrishnan.

India's Disaster Management Division said more than 2.6 million people in 16 districts have been affected by the flooding. A spokesperson for Britain's Department For International Development in Delhi said, although the Indian monsoon saw heavy rains every year, this summer it devastated an area that had historically never been under water. "Last year 20 million people were affected. This year it's far less but they are in a region that does not have the capacity to deal with floodwaters like this," said the spokesperson....

A 1935 photo of a flood in Bihar, from Service Civil International, Wikimedia Commons

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Palm oil producers in Indonesia reject moratorium on forest destruction

Mongabay: Palm oil companies operating in Indonesia have rejected a proposed moratorium on clearing forests and peatlands for oil palm plantations, reports the Jakarta Post. The Indonesian Palm Oil Producers Association (GAPKI) — a group with 250 palm oil producers — said that a ban on converting natural ecosystem for oil palm estates would hurt the economy, increasing unemployment and poverty.

"Indonesia does not need to apply a moratorium on its forest. GAPKI strongly rejects the forest conversion moratorium idea," GAPKI executive Derom Bangun was quoted as saying by the Jakarta Post at a Greenpeace-organized conference on palm oil in Semarang, Indonesia. Derom's comments come three months after Didiek Hadjar Goenadi, executive director of GAPKI, said that palm oil companies would only develop "idle land" — including former forest concession areas, some of which include rainforests and peatlands. At the time Didiek estimated that Indonesia has some seven million hectares of idle land suitable for oil palm or rubber plantations….

A palm oil plantation in Cigudeg, Bogor, in Indonexia. Shot by Achmad Rabin Taim from Jakarta, Indonesia, Wikimedia Commons, under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 License

Global warming to 'change face of Brazilian farming' Brazil's agriculture could be severely affected by climate change, with soya hardest hit by rising temperatures, report Brazilian scientists. They based their projections on climate models developed by the UK Met Office's Hadley Centre for Climate Prediction and Research.

The researchers considered two possible scenarios for the future: an optimistic one, with a 1.4–3.8 degrees Celsius temperature rise by 2100, and a pessimistic one, with a rise from 2–5.4 degrees Celsius. They modelled the impact of such temperatures on agricultural land and their effect on Brazil's nine most important crops — cotton, rice, coffee, sugar cane, beans, sunflower, cassava, maize and soya.

Under the most optimistic scenario, by 2020, six of Brazil's food crops — rice, coffee, beans, cassava, maize and soya — could have dropped in value by a total of 6.7 billion Brazilian reals (US$4 billion). The rise in temperature will increase the loss of water through evaporation from soil and plant transpiration, reducing crop-growing areas particularly in northeast Brazil.

Soya will be the most threatened, with land suitable for soya cultivation predicted to drop by about 20 per cent by 2020 and 40 per cent by 2070, even under the optimistic scenario. But sugar cane cultivation could double in a few decades because of the crops' ability to adapt to higher temperatures and increases in carbon dioxide.

…He adds that the most pessimistic scenario will only be realised if there are no efforts to mitigate climate change and minimise the impact of rising temperatures by modifying production techniques. Suggestions to minimise impacts include better use of soil by alternating grazing and planting land, encouraging the production of crop varieties adapted to drought and genetic improvement of plants….

Victor Meirelles painted "A Primeira Missa no Brasil" in 1861. Museu Nacional de Belas Artes, Brazil. Wikimedia Commons

African civil groups demand massive climate change compensation

Ekklesia (UK): A number of key African civil society organisations have come together with church development campaigners, to demand billions in compensation from rich countries for the impacts of global warming. The demand comes at the close of the United Nations climate change talks in Accra, Ghana.

A number of countries, including the Philippines on behalf of the G77 group of developing countries and China, have made proposals for financing a global response to climate change. During the meetings the European Union was forced to admit that it had nothing significant to put on the table at this point.

"A serious and equitable response to climate change will require rich countries to pay billions in public funds to help poor countries develop in a sustainable, low carbon manner. So why have the EU, which like to claim global leadership in the response to climate change, turned up with empty pockets again?" asked Nelson Muffuh, adviser on the UN climate talks to the UK-baed international development agency Christian Aid.

Acting as a pan-African alliance for climate justice, the African organisations are clear that any response to climate change must see rich countries taking on their full responsibility for the problem. … Ewah Eleri, from the International Centre for Energy, Environment and Development in Nigeria said: ‘Developed countries need to demonstrate their seriousness about tackling climate change by committing funds to compensate poor countries for the damage caused by their greenhouse gas emissions and finance clean development. Palliatives will no longer do.’...

Michaelangelo's Last Judgement

New LIDAR system sees the sky in three dimensions

Actualites EPFL (News from the Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne, Switzerland): On August 26, EPFL, the Swiss National Science Foundation and Switzerland's National Weather service, MeteoSwiss, will inaugurate a new LIDAR measurement system in Payerne, Switzerland. This technically innovative installation, unique in the world, will provide continuous data on atmospheric humidity for Western Switzerland's weather forecasting headquarters.

To make accurate forecasts, meteorologists need data on the vertical distribution of temperature and humidity in the atmosphere. The LIDAR system developed by EPFL can collect these data continuously and automatically up to an altitude of 10km. On August 26, EPFL will officially transfer this custom-developed LIDAR to MeteoSwiss, and from this point on Swiss forecasters will have access to this source of vertical humidity data for the models they use to calculate weather predictions. The project was supported by funding from the Swiss National Science Foundation.

The LIDAR system developed by EPFL is a relative of the familiar RADAR systems used widely in weather forecasting. Instead of sending radio waves out looking for water droplets, however, the LIDAR sends a beam of light vertically into the sky. The "echo" here is a reflection of that light from different layers in the atmosphere. This reflection is used to build an instantaneous vertical profile of temperature and humidity….

Image of the new LIDAR system from the EPFL's website

Saving lives through smarter hurricane evacuations

MIT News: Hundreds of lives and hundreds of millions of dollars could potentially be saved if emergency managers could make better and more timely critical decisions when faced with an approaching hurricane. Now, an MIT graduate student has developed a computer model that could help do just that.

Michael Metzger's software tool, created as part of the research for his PhD dissertation, could allow emergency managers to better decide early on whether and when to order evacuations -- and, crucially, to do so more efficiently by clearing out people in stages. The tool could also help planners optimize the location of relief supplies before a hurricane hits.

….Because many of these managers have never had to confront the life-or-death realities of an approaching hurricane, they need a consistent analytical framework to consider the sequence of complex decisions that they need to make. For example, a poorly planned evacuation could cause roadway gridlock and trap evacuees in their cars -- leaving them exposed to the dangers of inland flooding. As another example, ordering too many precautionary evacuations could lead to complacency among local residents, who might then ignore the one evacuation advisory that really matters. "All in all, this is a complex balancing act," Metzger says.

The concept of evacuating an area in stages -- focusing on different categories of people rather than different geographical locations -- is one of the major innovations to come out of Metzger's work, since congestion on evacuation routes has been a significant problem in some cases, such as hurricanes Katrina and Rita. Metzger suggests that, for example, the elderly might be evacuated first, followed by tourists, families with children, and then the remaining population. The determination of the specific categories and their sequence could be determined based on the demographics of the particular area.

Hurricane evacuation route marking along highway on the Texas Gulf Coast, shot by Junglecat, Wikimedia Commons, under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License, Version 1.2

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Drought stricken, Iran buys US wheat for first time in 27 years

Agence France-Presse: Wracked by drought, Iran has turned to the United States for wheat for the first time in 27 years, marking a setback for Tehran's search for agricultural self-sufficiency. According to a recent US Department of Agriculture report, Iran has bought about 1.18 million tonnes of US hard wheat since the beginning of the 2008-2009 crop season in June.

The number, which has been growing steadily all summer, already represents nearly 5.0 percent of US annual exports forecast by the USDA. The last time Iran imported US wheat was in 1981-1982.

"Number one -- they need to import a large amount of wheat," said Bill Nelson, a grains market analyst at Wachovia Securities. "If they need wheat right now, the US is the place to go." According to Nelson, Iran's wheat production has been hammered by several months of drought, with crop forecasts of roughly 10 million tonnes this year, about five million tonnes short of the country's needs.

…Although Iran is subject to a growing number of sanctions imposed by Western countries that want Tehran to suspend its nuclear enrichment program, these US grain exports, like those of medications, are "legal and encouraged," a State Department spokesman, Robert McInturff, told AFP. They require authorization from the Treasury because of a law Congress approved in 2000, the Trade Sanctions Reform and Export Enhancement Act (TSRA), he noted.

…Analysts noted that Tehran could have used an intermediary, like Syria, to import US wheat to avoid having the sale recorded in official data. "Maybe the relationship between Iran and the US is not as terrible as it has been," Nelson said. In fact, a senior US diplomat took the unusual step of sitting at a negotiating table with Iranians in July. The United States is also considering sending diplomatic personnel to Tehran….

Tehran from space, NASA, Wikimedia Commons

Africa condemns delay on Adaptation Fund

Afrique en ligne (France) reports from the big meeting now underway in Accra: Delegates attending the Climate Change Talks here have reacted with dismay at the continued negotiations on the climate change Adaptation Fund, eight months after the fund was established.

PANA reports that the participants, representing civil society groups on climate change and sustainable development, sharply criticized the current negotiations, saying that developing countries, hard pressed by impacts of climate change and in a hurry to begin implementation, have to contend with more negotiations about the Fund. They said: "The Fund remains a shell as all indications are that industrialized countries have decided to shun it simply because they do not have control over its governance. This also is the reason they are rushing to put their funds in the new climate change funds started by the World Bank."

The Adaptation Fund was established to finance concrete adaptation projects and programmes in developing countries that are parties to the Kyoto Protocol. Developing countries require international assistance such as funding and technology transfer to support adaptation as well as resources to reduce the risk of disasters....

The boredom of waiting, shot by Marlith, Wikimedia Commons, under the Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License

Feeling the heat in New Mexico

Santa Fe Reporter: ...Here in New Mexico, state officials are devising plans to cut the amount of greenhouse gas emissions New Mexicans contribute to the atmosphere, scientists are saying water resources must be managed differently and activists are urging the fossil fuel industry to change the way it does business.

“A lot of people are concerned about sea level rise in coastal areas, which is obviously a very serious and legitimate concern, but I think that the kinds of problems we’re projecting here in New Mexico, in some ways are worse—and they are going to hit us faster,” Jim Norton, director of the Environment Protection Division within the New Mexico Environment Department, says.

Norton points to scientists’ projections that the southwestern United States will experience longer droughts. Longer droughts, combined with hotter temperatures, will cause greater evaporation—from soils and reservoirs—so the effects of the droughts will also be more severe. “You can argue,” he says, “that we’re going to get hit harder and faster than the coastal areas that get so much attention.”....

Photo of old US Highway 66 in Newkirk, New Mexico. Taken on October 25, 2003 at 4:30 PM local time by Joseph Houk, who has generously released the image into the public domain. Thank you, Joseph

Allianz on adaptation

The German insurer Allianz has recently expanded their public material on climate change adaptation. They have an interview with Martin Gansneder, Allianz Climate Solutions, Center of Competence for Climate Change: Why should an insurance company think about climate change adaptation?

We are affected through higher claims, especially in the property insurance, and the variability of these claims is also rising. We could simply adapt our underwriting policies and pricing models, but that would mean that some customers could not afford insurance any more. So, it is in our interest to offer our customers ways to adapt to climate change, avoid excessive losses, and even participate in mitigating climate change.

How do you help consumers mitigate and adapt to climate change?

First of all, we give them the possibility to improve their energy efficiency and save money. This also helps protect the environment, because less carbon dioxide is emitted. In Germany, Allianz offers an Energy-ID program, which includes consulting, finance, and assistance to improve the energy efficiency of homes and offices.

We also support adaptation to climate change. Even traditional storm insurance covers against certain impacts of climate change, but it would be certainly greenwashing to offer it as a climate change product. We must go further and cover new risks like changing weather patterns. Many customers sometimes face a very warm winter one year and a very cold winter the next. With weather derivates [sic], we can protect them against these changing whether phenomena....

One million trapped as Indian river shifts course

Terra Daily, via Agence France-Presse: More than one million people have been trapped by floodwaters in eastern India after heavy monsoon showers caused a major river to shift its course, a minister said Tuesday. Massive rains in Bihar state caused the Kosi river to swell, breach its banks and flow through a channel it had previously abandoned.

Water levels in the new river, about one mile (1.6 kilometres) across, are not receding, said Bihar Disaster Management Minister Nitish Mishra. The torrential water washed away villages and small dwellings in its path and trapped "not less than one million people in the widespread flooding," he said. Four northern districts of the state were the worst hit by the river's changed course….

This map of Bihar in India by Zakuragi, Wikimedia Commons, under the Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Hurricane Gustav -- a selection of stories

Oil industry battens down as hurricane Gustav approaches
The Canadian Press, HOUSTON - 1 hour ago
HOUSTON — Oil companies ramped up preparations to evacuate some facilities as hurricane Gustav made its way toward the US Gulf of Mexico, ...
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Is a mega-Katrina "hypercane" possible?

The Daily Galaxy: MIT's Kerry Emanuel describes the worst nightmare hurricane that could ever happen -a "hypercane" with winds raging around its center at 500 miles an hour. Water vapor; sea spray and storm debris are spewed into the atmosphere, punching a hole in the stratosphere 20 miles above the Earth's surface; at landfall, its super-gale-force winds would flatten forests and toss boulders with a 60-foot tsunami-like storm surge flooding nearby shores. The water vapor and debris could remain suspended high in the atmosphere for years, disrupting the climate and the ozone layer.

Could this happen? Possibly. But this hypercane scenario is one of Emanuels' computer models. A professor at MIT's atmosphere, oceans and climate program, Emanuel studies the physics of hurricanes, deconstructing their behavior, and digs into their geological past -- all to understand what makes these monster storms tick.

No one knows for sure how hurricanes get started. The ingredients for cooking one up still remain a mystery. A basic recipe: ocean water 80 degrees or warmer, super humid air, and a bunch of storms with thunderheads. Some assembly still required: "Hurricanes are accidents of nature," Emanuel says. Hurricanes don't happen by themselves," he continues. "They literally need to be triggered."

To create such a monster storm, parts of the ocean would have to warm up to at least 100 degrees, and only the impact of a large asteroid hitting the tropical ocean or a massive undersea volcano could generate such intense heating. Emanuel and his colleagues theorize that asteroid-triggered hypercanes may have contributed to massive global extinctions millions of years ago…..

Katrina steps ashore, 2005. NASA, Wikimedia Commons

Warming-wary investors press companies

Bloomberg, via the CERES website: Shareholders filed a record 57 climate-related petitions with U.S. companies this year as they pressed for a higher value on the environment, the Ceres coalition of investors and green activists said. A global-warming resolution at Consol Energy Inc., the third-biggest U.S. coal producer, was backed by almost 40 percent of shareholders, the highest vote ever for this type of petition, Boston-based Ceres said today. In 2008, 26 resolutions were proposed at companies that included ConocoPhillips and Exxon Mobil Corp. and won support from an average 24 percent of shareholders, Ceres said.

Some U.S. investors want more information on climate-change risks and have petitioned the Securities and Exchange Commission to force companies to disclose global warming risks to profit. The vote at Pittsburgh-based Consol impressed Dan Bakal, director of electric power programs for Ceres, which says its members include 72 institutional investors with total assets of more than $7.3 trillion.

"I was a bit surprised,'' Bakal said in an interview yesterday. "Management is sending a clear signal that they don't think this is a reasonable request and management tends to control a significant number of shares, so to see a 40 percent vote does send a pretty strong message.''

Twenty five shareholder resolutions were withdrawn after companies, including Ford Motor Co., the second-largest U.S. automaker, made climate-change commitments, Ceres said. Ford agreed in April to reduce by 30 percent new vehicle greenhouse- gas emissions linked to climate change by 2020…

Greenland's largest glaciers predicted to disintegrate soon

Terra Daily: Researchers monitoring daily satellite images here of Greenland's glaciers have discovered break-ups at two of the largest glaciers in the last month. They expect that part of the Northern hemisphere's longest floating glacier will continue to disintegrate within the next year.

A massive 11-square-mile (29-square-kilometer) piece of the Petermann Glacier in northern Greenland broke away between July 10th and by July 24th. The loss to that glacier is equal to half the size of Manhattan Island. The last major ice loss to Petermann occurred when the glacier lost 33 square miles (86 square kilometers) of floating ice between 2000 and 2001. Petermann has a floating section of ice 10 miles (16 kilometers) wide and 50 miles (80.4 kilometers) long which covers 500 square miles (1,295 square kilometers).

What worries Jason Box, an associate professor of geography at Ohio State, and his colleagues, graduate students Russell Benson and David Decker, all with the Byrd Polar Research Center, even more about the latest images is what appears to be a massive crack further back from the margin of the Petermann Glacier. That crack may signal an imminent and much larger breakup. "If the Petermann glacier breaks up back to the upstream rift, the loss would be as much as 60 square miles (160 square kilometers)," Box said, representing a loss of one-third of the massive ice field.

Meanwhile, the margin of the massive Jakobshavn glacier has retreated inland further than it has at any time in the past 150 years it has been observed. Researchers believe that the glacier has not retreated to where it is now in at least the last 4,000 to 6,000 years. The Northern branch of the Jakobshavn broke up in the past several weeks and the glacier has lost at least three square miles (10 square kilometers) since the end of the last melt season…..

The Jakobshavn/Ilulissat Glacier on the western coast of Greenland, a World Heritage site, shot by NASA.
This image is a false-color (near-infrared, green, blue) view acquired by the Multi-angle Imaging SpectroRadiometer’s nadir camera. The brightness of vegetation in the near-infrared contributes to the reddish hues; glacial silt gives rise to the green color of the water; and blue-colored melt ponds are visible in the bright white ice. A scattering of small icebergs in Disco Bay are visible.

Taking earth's temperature via satellite

Science Daily: Imagine adding a thermometer to GoogleTM Earth. That's the vision of Agricultural Research Service (ARS) scientists Martha Anderson and Bill Kustas, who see the need for high-resolution thermal infrared imaging tools -- such as those aboard the aging Landsat satellites -- as vital to monitoring earth's health. These thermal data are especially important given the combination of global warming and the growing population's increasing demand for water.

As with GoogleTM Earth, users could zoom in from the continental scale to a single field or irrigation operation. Thermal remote sensing of the earth's land surface and plant canopies from satellites is a valuable way to diagnose water stress and drought conditions. Also, thermal imaging can be used in lieu of precipitation data, providing much-needed information on soil moisture status in data-poor parts of the world.

The ability to map evapotranspiration and soil moisture via satellite has broad applications in monitoring drought and water consumption, administering irrigation projects, predicting water demand, and providing information for hydrological and weather forecast computer models.

Landsat 5 is more than 24 years old; Landsat 7 is 9 years old, but already has operational problems. When the Landsat satellites fail, which could happen at any time, there will be a gap in high-resolution thermal measurements until the National Aeronautics and Space Administration launches its HypspIRI satellite, possibly sometime between 2013 and 2020.

Landsat 5, showing its age. NASA, Wikimedia Commons

Monday, August 25, 2008

Intensity of human environmental impact may lessen as incomes rise

Science Daily: The richer you are, the more of the world’s resources you can afford to consume. But in many parts of the world, rising incomes are not having the proportionate effect on energy consumption, croplands and deforestation that one might expect, a new 25-year study shows.

By examining a variety of government and industry data spanning 1980 to 2006, Rockefeller University’s Jesse Ausubel and his colleagues say that dematerialization — the declining consumption of energy and goods in comparison to a country’s gross domestic product — is actually driving a trend toward rising environmental quality. The results are published this week in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

“For generations, people have lightened their environmental impact by multiplying their consumption less than their income,” says Ausubel, director of the Program for the Human Environment. “We have found encouraging evidence that this trend continues, particularly in places like China and India.” While consumers increase their use of staples more slowly than their affluence grows, producers also play a role as access to better technology allows them to get more from less….

A 1907 "Puck" cartoon of J.D. Rockefeller, Wikimedia Commons

TS Fay does major damage

Disaster News Network zeroes in a pattern -- not a hurricane, not a major storm in absolute terms, but a shocking amount of property damage and all-round mayhem: A look at the Safirr-Simpson scale might lead people in the future to believe that Tropical Storm Fay was a minor storm. But after the storm inched its way back and forth across the state, making landfall in Florida a record four times, there were at least 13 deaths and more than 1,000 homes damaged.

By Sunday night, remnants of the storm was still causing headaches for residents in the Florida Panhandle and in Tallahassee where some residents were being evacuated by boats.

"Even in Seminole County, where the damage was light compared to other parts of the county, there were many people who were put out of their homes by the rains," said the Rev. David Knox of Christ Episcopal Church in Longwood….Most of Florida's 63 counties had at least a passing meeting with Fay....

NASA view of Tropical Storm Fay over Florida

The odds of climate catastrophe

Solve Climate: Dr. Martin Weitzman is considered one of the world's top economists.… His area of expertise is Environmental Economics, and he says there’s a chance, roughly around 1%, that the temperature of the Earth will rise by 36 degrees fahrenheit in around 200 years. In other words, there’s a small chance that global warming will lead to a mass extinction comparable to others that have happened before on Earth. For context, the "small chance" is 10,000 times more likely than the asteroid strike which wiped out the dinosaurs, a once in a hundred million year occurrence.

Dr. Weitzman is not an alarmist by any stretch of the imagination. Look at his paper -- On Modeling and Interpreting the Economics of Catastrophic Climate Change -- and you'll see for yourself. …The point of the paper is to explore an important question: given that the probability of catastrophic climate change might be about 1% in 200 years, what's the most rational way to place our bets? To answer the question, he considers the economics of catastrophes and shows that cost-benefit analysis (CBA), a standard tool of analysis, doesn’t work well on the big picture of climate change.

Critics of action on global warming frequently say that proposals to reduce emissions are economically illiterate and that CBA should be used to make more informed decisions. In contrast, Weitzman says CBA analysis of climate action so far has made an important error of omission: it has simply ignored the possibility of catastrophic outcomes.

…Spending money now to slow global warming should not be conceptualized primarily as being about optimal "consumption smoothing" so much as an issue about how much insurance to buy to offset the small chance of a ruinous catastrophe that is difficult to compensate by ordinary savings. How much insurance to buy. It's a question every homeowner answers. In this case, the home in question is the planet.

This painting by Donald E. Davis depicts an asteroid slamming into tropical, shallow seas of the Yucatan Peninsula in what is today southeast Mexico. The aftermath of this immense asteroid collision, which occurred approximately 65 million years ago, is believed to have caused the extinction of the dinosaurs and many other species on Earth. NASA, Wikimedia Commons

Swiss Re recommends new forms of private-public partnerships to tackle climate adaptation

Some full disclosure – I used to work at Swiss Re. From the Finchannel: According to Swiss Re, new forms of private-public partnerships are required to anticipate and respond to the risks related to climate change. Today, at the International Disaster and Risk Conference (IDRC) in Davos, Peter Forstmoser, Swiss Re’s Chairman of the Board of Directors, presented the benefits of a risk management approach to climate adaptation.

The impact of hazardous events is continuing to rise, driven by interacting forces, including global warming, population growth, density of assets and the increasing vulnerability of ageing infrastructure. Such developments and the exposure to climate change in general fall disproportionately on developing nations, partly due to their limited capacity to adapt financially.

…Peter Forstmoser, Swiss Re’s Chairman of the Board of Directors, said at today’s International Disaster and Risk Conference (IDRC) in Davos, Switzerland: “To cope with the financial consequences of climate-related disaster risks, new forms of private-public risk transfer will allow governments, development banks or NGOs to leverage their funds through the use of insurance and capital market instruments.”

Swiss Re recently secured a lead role in the Caribbean Catastrophe Risk Insurance Facility (CCRIF). This facility is a good example of how new forms of public-private risk transfer can make societies more resilient by securing finances before an event occurs. Established in 2007, the CCRIF insures government risk. It is designed to limit the financial impact of catastrophic hurricanes and earthquakes to 16 Caribbean governments by quickly providing short-term liquidity when a policy is triggered by an event.

…Swiss Re believes that a Country Risk Officer, comparable to the role of a Chief Risk Officer which is common today in global corporations, is a useful model to develop an integrated perspective across the social, economic and environmental risks of a country. The Country Risk Officer would take the lead in creating a national risk landscape, promoting the common understanding and forward-looking dialogue essential for risk prevention and adaptation measures.

Destruction in Sauk Rapids, Minnesota after the 1886 tornado. Wikimedia Commons

Two million hit by Indian monsoon, toll reaches 800

Terra Daily via Agence France-Press: The death toll from monsoon-related accidents reached 800 and two million people have been displaced by flooding following heavy rains across India, officials said on Sunday. At least 26 people died in overnight accidents in northern Uttar Pradesh, taking the toll to 686 in the country's most populous state since the monsoon struck in June, Relief Commissioner G. K. Tandon said.

"Several districts are receiving continuous rains for the past month and a half," Tandon said in the state capital Lucknow as local aid agencies backed by World Health Organisation staff rushed emergency supplies to those affected. Tandon put the number of people hit by the floods at 1.29 million and said 3,000 villages were swamped in Uttar Pradesh, in monsoon damage he described as "unprecedented".

Lightning strikes, boat accidents and house collapses are common during the June-September monsoon in tropical India…..

Monsoon clouds over Lucknow, shot by Sunnyoraish, Wikimedia Commons. Sunnyoraish at has generously released the image into the public domain -- many thanks

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Abandoning a birders' paradise to the sea to save entire British preserve

The Times (UK): A swath of Britain’s most popular bird-watching reserve is to be abandoned to the rising sea. The RSPB [Royal Society for the Protection of Birds] is to sacrifice part of Titchwell Marsh, on the north Norfolk coast, to protect its freshwater marshes and reedbeds, which are at risk of being being destroyed by the erosion of sea defences and rising sea levels. The charity said that climate change was one of the reasons for going ahead with the scheme.

The reserve, which is visited by more than 90,000 bird watchers every year, hosts rare species such as marsh harriers, bearded tits and bitterns on its freshwater and brackish marshes. An inundation of sea water would have devastating results, such as destroying the stock of rudd, which are eaten by bitterns, and preventing the rare bird from breeding for at least eight years, the charity said.

The RSPB decided to build new defences behind the brackish marshes after experts concluded that parts of the wall would need to be replaced in five years. Under the £1.5 million plan for a managed retreat, the brackish marsh will be allowed to return to saltmarsh and mudflats that are fully exposed to the tide.

The society said that concrete sea defences, which were deemed to be the only other option, were inappropriate for a wildlife site. “We faced a stark choice between sacrificing the brackish marsh or losing the whole site to the sea,” said Rob Coleman, manager of the reserve.

“I know this is a huge change for Titchwell and for the very many people who share our deep love for the reserve, but the need to go ahead with this scheme was clear.” Helen Deavin, the RSPB project manager in charge of the scheme, said: “We’ve got to bear in mind the impacts of climate change such as sea level rises along the coast and increased storminess. These problems aren’t going to go away.”…

Freshwater lagoons at RSPB Titchwell Marsh nature reserve, Norfolk, United Kingdom. Photo by Bogbumper, Wikimedia Commons, under the Creative Commons Attribution Share Alike 3.0 Unported License