Friday, October 31, 2008

Happy Halloween!

What's the temperature when you have to wear a costume? That's one of my earliest memories of paying attention to the weather. Didn't want to swelter or freeze in my tiger pajamas and domino mask. Meanwhile, I'm sorry that I won't be at the Halloween Parade in Greenwich Village this year. Current events will no doubt stoke an explosiion of busking creativity. Some of my favorites from parades past: Tippi Hedren from The Birds, complete with birds; twelve people coming as the Louvre, including the Mona Lisa with two guards carrying a felt rope in front of her; gay Bravehearts dressed as Mel Gibson in matching pink kilts; a Chinese dinner, with two children as chopsticks; satanic Dick Cheneys; zombie Henry Kissingers; and, just to fit in with the theme of this blog, a melting iceberg bobbing up Sixth Avenue trailing ice cubes, fake snow and the occasional stuffed seal.

Many thanks to James Harrison for this public domain image from the London Underground.

Financial turmoil should not eclipse climate risk, say insurers Despite a global financial meltdown, climate change still should be considered the top strategic threat to the insurance industry in 2008, according to a new report. While insurance companies are facing short-term cost and profit performance pressure, long-term risk management for climate change should not be overlooked, said Zurich Financial Services Australia in a research report on climate change and insurance.

The world is seeing "an increase" in the frequency and severity of extreme weather events, according to the report. This year, there were devastating snowstorms in China and hurricanes in the United States, with Hurricane Ike likely being the third-costliest hurricane on record. But in spite of the presence of climate-change hazards, the Zurich report said many insurers are "slow or not responding" to the scale of risks and opportunities. Much of the insurance industry faces the "delicate balancing act" of trying to achieve long-term sustainable investment in climate change and at the same time respond to short-term market pressure.

…The world's insurance industry is paid nearly 8% of global gross domestic product to manage risks, said Karl Mallon, director of Climate Risk Pty Ltd. and co-author of the report. "There is already evidence documented in this report of insurers withdrawing cover from high-risk areas, at a time when businesses and homeowners will increasingly need general insurance to deal with mounting climate-change impacts."

…The withdrawal will constitute "a race to bottom for the industry and society," said Mallon. In fact, the insurance industry is facing two storms: the financial turmoil and increasing "vulnerability" to climate-change risks, noted Mallon.

Also, Guy Carpenter's World Catastrophe Reinsurance Market Report for 2008 said debate over climate change has "far-reaching implications" for insurance industry. For instance, Guy Carpenter quoted a study from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change that sea levels are rising by 1.8 mm per year.

"Even if there were prefect causation and definitive statistics on relevant insurance losses, there would be minute changes on a year-on-year basis in insured losses," said the Guy Carpenter report….

Train wreck at Montparnasse Station, Paris, 1895

Learning to adapt to drought in Bangladesh

IRIN: Climate change pundits have not only forecast more water for Bangladesh, brought by flooding rivers, sea level rise and intense weather events like cyclones, but also less water in its already drought-prone parts.

"The fact is that the agriculture sector and food security could be severely affected," said Ad Spijkers, the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) representative in Bangladesh. Agriculture contributes 30 percent to the country's gross domestic product and employs roughly 63 percent of the labour force.

Bangladesh had made "tremendous" progress since the major droughts of 1973/74, 1978/79, 1981/82, 1989, 1992 and 1994/95, he said. In the 1978/79 drought the country lost probably 50 percent to 100 percent of its foodgrains - more than was lost in floods in 1974 - "showing that drought can be as devastating as a major flood or cyclone".

Since then the country has attained a certain level of sufficiency, said Spijkers, but population was a bigger problem than food production, inasmuch as food production was basically keeping pace with population growth.

…An intercropping technology developed jointly by the Bangladesh Sericulture Research and Training Institute, and the Bangladesh Rice Research Institute, recommends the cultivation of rice, wheat, garlic, mustard, chickpeas and mung beans in mulberry fields. The cropping pattern calls for growing rice in the monsoon season, with wheat, mustard, garlic and chickpeas in winter, and mung bean in the pre-kharif season – the summer crop grown ahead of the monsoon season.

Farmers have also been encouraged to diversify into growing mulberry, which is grown mainly to rear silk worms and does well in drought conditions. Sericulture, or silk production, is a labour-intensive industry that can provide a source of income to both male and female members of the household.

Another adaptation strategy is the excavation of miniponds, filled with water harvested during the rains, to rear fast-growing fish varieties as an alternative source of income…..

The Ganges River Delta, NASA

Climate change hits the library shelves, too Like every institution that uses energy, consumes resources, and engages in construction or renovation, libraries have an impact on the environment and on the critical problem of climate change.

As guardians of library collections for future generations, librarians have a responsibility to diminish this impact, as well as an opportunity to do more. Facing up to the challenges of global warming is a chance to lay the groundwork now for the security of their collections and make a decisive contribution to the long-range future of libraries.

Taking action to protect library collections is not only an idealistic professional goal but also a very practical one. Disaster preparation measures and the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions through energy conservation can save money, time, and resources.

There is already an urgent need for libraries to engage in preventative actions, even before concerns related to a deteriorating environment are added to the challenge.

…The undeniable threats libraries face from climate change are coupled with specific needs unique to a library environment. Ranging from catastrophic natural disasters to ongoing pressures to maintain a suitable collections storage environment, librarians must learn about and understand the coming impact of global warming on their collections.

…Air quality and pollution can affect library materials. From black soot commonly found in urban and industrial areas to gaseous and particulate pollutants such as ozone, nitrogen oxides (NOx), and volatile organic compounds (VOCs), microscopic toxins are dangerously easy to overlook.

…Another hazard, water, may be one of the most insidious and relentless sources of trouble for preservation librarians. No stranger to water disasters, the preservation community was galvanized and solidified in reaction to the 1966 flooding of the Arno River in Florence, Italy. An estimated 80,000 pre-1840 volumes and 350,000 post-1840 volumes were seriously damaged in that flood, and preservation efforts went on for years.

Carl Spitzweg, "The Bookworm," circa 1850

New model predicts a glacier's life

Science Daily: EPFL researchers have developed a numerical model that can re-create the state of Switzerland's Rhône Glacier as it was in 1874 and predict its evolution until the year 2100. This is the longest period of time ever modeled in the life of a glacier, involving complex data analysis and mathematical techniques. The work will serve as a benchmark study for those interested in the state of glaciers and their relation to climate change.

The Laboratory of Hydraulics, Hydrology and Glaciology at ETH Zurich has been a repository for temperature, rainfall and flow data on the Rhône Glacier since the 1800s. Researchers there have used this data to reconstruct the glacier's mass balance, i.e. the difference between the amount of ice it accumulates over the winter and the amount that melts during the summer. (1) Now, led by professor Jacques Rappaz from EPFL's Numerical Analysis and Simulations group, a team of mathematicians has taken the next step, using all this information to create a numerical model of glacier evolution, which they have used to simulate the history and predict the future of Switzerland's enormous Rhone glacier over a 226-year period.

The mathematicians developed their model using three possible future climate scenarios. "We took the most moderate one, avoiding extremely optimistic or pessimistic scenarios," explains PhD student Guillaume Jouvet. With a temperature increase of 3.6 degrees Celsius and a decrease in rainfall of 6% over a century, the glacier's "equilibrium line", or the transition from the snowfall accumulation zone to the melting zone (currently situated at an altitude of around 3000 meters), rose significantly. According to this same scenario, the simulation anticipates a loss of 50% of the volume by 2060 and forecasts the complete disapearance of the Rhône glacier around 2100.

"It is the first time that the evolution of a glacier has been numerically simulated over such a long period of time, taking into account very complex data," notes EPFL mathematician Marco Picasso. Even though measurements have been taken for quite some time, the sophisticated numerical techniques that were needed to analyze them have only been developed very recently…..

The Rhone Glacier, shot by Celesta, Wikimedia Commons, under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License, Version 1.2

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Long-term stabilization of carbon dioxide in atmosphere will require major cuts in emissions

Science Daily: Carbon dioxide, the greenhouse gas that has had the largest impact on our climate, will continue to rise even if current national and international targets for reducing emissions are met, scientists warn. But, they say, strong action taken now– such as the 80% target recently announced by the UK government – will continue to have benefits a long time into the future.

A group of scientists have, for the first time, combined the outcomes of proposals by the G8 countries and the UK Government’s Stern Review with the latest knowledge of climate change feedbacks relating to the carbon cycle (the way carbon moves between the oceans, atmosphere and land). Their findings show that short-term cuts alone will not solve the problem and that policy makers need to plan for hundreds of years into the future….

Smokestacks shot by Uwe Hermann, Wikimedia Commons, under the Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike 2.5 License

Methane levels spike up

Xinhua: The amount of methane in Earth's atmosphere shot up in 2007, bringing to an end a period of about a decade in which atmospheric levels of the potent greenhouse gas were essentially stable, according to a team led by researchers from Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Methane levels in the atmosphere have more than doubled since pre-industrial times. Until recently, the leveling off of methane levels had suggested that the rate of its emission from the Earth's surface was approximately balanced by the rate of its destruction in the atmosphere.

However, since early 2007 the balance has been upset, according to a paper on the new findings being published this week in Geophysical Review Letters. This imbalance has resulted in several million metric tons of additional methane in the atmosphere, the authors reported.

Methane is produced by wetlands, rice paddies, cattle, and the gas and coal industries, and is destroyed by reaction with the hydroxyl free radical (OH), often referred to as the atmosphere's "cleanser". One surprising feature of this recent growth is that it occurred almost simultaneously at all measurement locations across the globe….

Methane wafts up from this terraced rice field in Yunnan Province, China, shot by Jialiang Gao,, Wikimedia Commons, under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License, Version 1.2

Yolo County, California ponders the future of agriculture

Daily Democrat (California): How will climate change affect Yolo County's agriculture? There is much in the news these days about the potential effects of higher temperatures, rising sea level, and drought in the Western United States, but translating these global trends into local projections for agriculture is not an easy task.

During the past few months, a group of UC Davis faculty has worked with Yolo County administrators and agencies to understand the agricultural options and complexities in dealing with climate change over the next 50 years. The project was supported by the California Energy Commission and the UC Davis Agricultural Sustainability Institute.

…The UC Davis report, soon to be released by the CEC, is neither a handbook, nor a set of predictions, but instead considers planning issues at both the farm and landscape levels. Several types of methods were used to assemble information relevant to Yolo County's agriculture, e.g., literature reviews, models, landscape analysis, interviews with agency personnel, and a survey of farmers. Based on the analysis of mitigation practices in the report, the most promising management options for reducing greenhouse gas emissions are using less nitrogen fertilizer and farmscaping with woody perennials.

…It should be noted, however, that these projections have not adequately considered the potential for adaptation, and are based on current practices and varieties. Support for investments in technology, plant breeding, and cropping system research will be necessary to ensure yield reliability, and greater agricultural sustainability.

…This awareness of climate change bodes well for agricultural preservation in Yolo County, as vigorous planning strategies are needed to increase the benefits to growers from payments to increase the mitigation of greenhouse gasses, and to reduce vulnerabilities to climate change through innovative practices and landscape management.

Desperate Chesapeake Bay watermen threaten to sue EPA

Environment News Service: Watermen in two states, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, and five other parties today notified the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency that they intend to go to federal court to force the agency to require pollution reduction in the waters of Chesapeake Bay, the national largest estuary. Today's notice of intent to sue is required for any citizen lawsuit against the EPA to enforce the Clean Water Act.

"We are doing this because we're backed into a corner. We've all been preaching to clean the bay up, with no results," said Captain Larry Simns president of the Maryland Watermen's Association. "We're at a crucial point here. Unless we do something now we're going to lose the bay completely."

Scientists have determined that this year the bay suffered the fourth worst dead zone since 1985. Dead zones happen when nutrients from sewage treatment plants, agricultural runoff and other sources enter the bay and stimulate blooms of algae. When these algae die they sink to the bottom and decompose, removing oxygen from the water.

Dead zones have left too little oxygen in the bay over 10 months of the year, and in July, 40 percent of the bay's mainstem was affected. Lack of oxygen kills fish and blue crabs or drives them from their preferred habitat.

The Chesapeake Bay's crab population is near historic lows. As a result, Maryland and Virginia have had to severely limit the commercial crab harvest, putting hundreds of watermen out of work….

Rendition of Chesapeake Bay by Kmusser, Wikimedia Commons, under the Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike 2.5 License

Manmade global warming evident on every continent, polar report finds

Guardian (UK): No corner of the Earth is immune from the effects of global warming, according to a new study that confirms manmade temperature rises in both the Arctic and Antarctic regions. Temperature records over the last century show that warming in the planet's coldest and most remote wildernesses is caused by human emissions of greenhouse gases.

The study, published today in Nature Geoscience, is the first to find the fingerprints of manmade global warming on the Antarctic, where a shortage of data makes it hard to be sure. Last year's report, from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), said human influence could be detected on every continent, except Antarctica. Climate sceptics have exploited this omission to question the science of global warming.

In the new study, Nathan Gillett, then working at the Climatic Research Unit at the University of East Anglia, though now at Environment Canada, compiled, with colleagues, climate data across the Arctic and Antarctic regions since 1900, and compared the patterns with those produced by computer simulations with and without human activity.

They say only the models that included human influences – such as emissions of carbon dioxide and chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) – were able to reproduce the observed temperature trends.

Gillett said: "The main message is that for the first time we are able to directly attribute warming in both the Arctic and Antarctica to human influence. Melting of ice shelves has implications for sea-level rises."….

Antarctica's Mt Herschel (3335 meters above sea level) from Cape Hallet, with Seabee Hook penguin colony in the foreground. Shot by Andrew Mandemaker, under the Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike 2.5 License

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Role of soil microbes in global warming clarified

Science Daily: Current models of global climate change predict warmer temperatures will increase the rate that bacteria and other microbes decompose soil organic matter, a scenario that pumps even more heat-trapping carbon into the atmosphere. But a new study led by a University of Georgia researcher shows that while the rate of decomposition increases for a brief period in response to warmer temperatures, elevated levels of decomposition don’t persist.

“There is about two and a half times more carbon in the soil than there is in the atmosphere, and the concern right now is that a lot of that carbon is going to end up in the atmosphere,” said lead author Mark Bradford, assistant professor in the UGA Odum School of Ecology. “What our finding suggests is that a positive feedback between warming and a loss of soil carbon to the atmosphere is likely to occur but will be less than currently predicted.”

Bradford, whose results appear in the early online edition of the journal Ecology Letters, said the finding helps resolve a long-standing debate about how unseen soil microbes respond to and influence global climate change. Other scientists have noted that the respiration of soil microbes returns to normal after a number of years under heated conditions, but offered competing explanations. Some argued that the microbes consumed so much of the available food under heated conditions that future levels of decomposition were reduced because of food scarcity. Others argued that soil microbes adapted to the changed environment and reduced their respiration accordingly.

Bradford and his team, which included researchers from the University of New Hampshire, the Marine Biological Laboratory at Woods Hole, Duke University and Colorado State University, found evidence to support both hypotheses and revealed a third, previously unaccounted for explanation: The abundance of soil microbes decreased under warm conditions.

“It is often said that in a handful of dirt, there are somewhere around 10,000 species and millions of individual bacteria and fungi,” said study co-author Matthew Wallenstein, a research scientist at Colorado State University. “Our findings add to the understanding of how complex these systems are and the role they play in feedbacks associated with climate change.”

… “Although our results suggest that the impact of soil microbes on global warming will be less than is currently predicted,” Bradford said, “even a small change in atmospheric carbon is going to alter the way our world works and how our ecosystems function.”

Metaphorical photo alert! Rust and dirt on a baking plate, shot by Roger McLassus, Wikimedia Commons (where it was a candidate for picture of the year in 2006), under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License, Version 1.2

Overhaul farming policy for drought, says Australia's Productivity Commission

The Australian (Australia): Rural policy faces its biggest shake-up in years, after the Productivity Commission attacked drought-relief payments as encouraging poor farming practices. The Government's key economic advisory agency will release a report today proposing major changes to the Government's Exceptional Circumstances drought-relief system, including a shift from unlimited drought support payments to grants to help farmers improve their ability to withstand future droughts.

The report will also say the existing EC system is dividing communities because eligibility for assistance is given according to arbitrary lines on a map indicating which areas are drought-declared. The release of the report follows news in The Australian yesterday that the National Farmers Federation had scrapped its long-term support for the EC system.

In its submission to the Productivity Commission's inquiry into drought assistance, the NFF called for adaptation grants for successful farmers and HECS-style loans to help others build their businesses to the point where they can afford to invest in adaptation. The NFF also called for time-limited income support for struggling producers while they considered whether to apply for exit grants to leave the land.

The Productivity Commission's report is the last of three reports commissioned by the Rudd Government when it took office late last year. A Bureau of Meteorology report released earlier this year warned of more frequent droughts because of climate change, while an expert panel investigating the social effects of drought last week called for an end to no-strings assistance…..

Parched fields outside Benambra, Australia, shot by Fir0002 , Wikimedia Commons, under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License, Version 1.2

Experts call for better data on climate change migrants

Reuters AlertNet: There's no shortage of researchers lining up to tell us that climate change poses a big threat to coastal cities and their populations - from Dhaka to New Orleans to Mombasa. At the recent launch of the U.N.'s State of the World's Cities 2008/2009 report, lead author Eduardo Lopez Moreno noted that 3,351 of the world's cities are located in what's known as the "low elevation coastal zone" - less than 10 metres above sea level.

"In case there is an increase in sea level, there will be a displaced population of more or less 400 million people," he told reporters. It's a jaw-droppingly big figure. But how accurate are such warnings, and how useful are they?

….Worryingly, no one seems to have a definitive answer to these questions. According to a report from the U.N. news service IRIN, nowhere is the debate more heated than in Bangladesh - often cited as a country under threat from rising seas.

…As highlighted in the latest issue of Forced Migration Review (FMR) - which focuses on climate change and displacement - humanitarian and development workers are under pressure to respond to the consequences of global warming without really knowing what they're up against. The U.N. deputy high commissioner for refugees, Craig L Johnstone, describes the status quo in stark terms - arguing that we've hit an "analytical stone wall" and are in "desperate need of a better understanding of the size and the characteristics of this issue".

…The article argues that getting a better handle on climate-related migration will require an effort to develop "objective and empirically-based detailed numerical scenarios". And to produce these, we need more advanced computer models, better base-line data and and increased capacity of institutions and governments to track the movement of forced migrants within and across national boundaries, Brown says….

From 1950, Korean refugee carrying her belongings in a jug on her head, while fleeing from Pohang, South Korea. Photo by US Navy

Everglades restoration close to failure

Environmental Science & Technology: The plan to restore the Everglades at a cost of more than $10 billion is making scant progress, and vital parts of the ecosystem could be lost if the situation isn’t turned around, warns a September 29 report from the National Research Council (NRC).

The discouraging assessment comes as Florida negotiates a $1.75 billion deal to purchase 187,000 acres of farmland from U.S. Sugar Corp. The land, which lies between Lake Okeechobee and Everglades National Park, could significantly help in restoration efforts, but those impacts could be a decade or more away, the report says.

Once a continuous river of grass flowing from Lake Okeechobee to Florida Bay, the Everglades has been diked and drained to meet human demands for farmland and drinking water, the report says. Overengineering has doubled freshwater discharge to the Atlantic Ocean while slashing flows to Everglades National Park by 44%.

Recognizing that the ecosystem would eventually collapse if historic water flows were not restored, the federal government and the state of Florida launched the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan (CERP) in 2000. But in NRC’s second biennial review of CERP, the authors note that none of CERP’s 50 major projects have been completed, and some key projects are far behind schedule.

Efforts to restore natural water flow to Everglades National Park have been plagued for 20 years by political fights, litigation, and cost escalation. If a relatively modest proposal to modify the Tamiami Trail, a U.S. highway that blocks water flow to the park, continues to be bogged down, the outlook for CERP is dismal, the report predicts.

A white ibis in the Everglades, shot by a National Park Service employee

China warns more extreme weather to come

Xinhua: China warned on Wednesday that it faces more warmer weather, more extreme climate events and more severe drought in the future. "Extreme climate phenomena, such as high temperatures, heavy rain and snow and severe droughts, have increased in frequency and intensity," it said in a white paper released Wednesday.

The average temperature of Earth's surface in China had risen by 1.1 degrees Celsius from 1908 to 2007, according to the white paper. But China admitted that it was difficult to control greenhouse gas emissions because of the ongoing industrialization process and its coal-dominated energy mix.

“To advance further towards its development objective, China will strive for a rational growth of energy demand," said the white paper. "The coal-dominated energy mix cannot be substantially changed in the near future, thus making the control of greenhouse gas emissions rather difficult."

The sea level will rise faster than ever, it also warned. In China's coastal zones, the sea surface temperature and sea level have risen by 0.9 degree Celsius and 90 mm, respectively, over the past 30 years. Climate change has had visible adverse effects on China's agriculture and livestock-raising sectors, manifested by severe damages to crops and livestock in extreme weather, the report stated….

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Predicting the climate future

Environmental Research Web, by their prolific mainstay, Liz Kalaugher: How successful will efforts to reduce carbon emissions actually be? And what will that mean for our climate and society? These are the billion-dollar questions that everyone working in climate research, conservation, human development, government and even business would love to know the answers to. With that in mind, UK sustainable development charity Forum for the Future has teamed up with Hewlett Packard’s HP Labs to devise five scenarios for the social, political, economic and psychological consequences of climate change by the year 2050….

• Efficiency First – the development of innovative energy-efficiency technologies has brought about a consumerist, low-carbon world…..

• Under the Service Transformation scenario, the high price of carbon in 2020 meant that businesses changed their models to sell services rather than products, with Europe taking the lead. Collective laundry services have replaced individual washing machines and mass public transport and rent-a-bike and rent-a-car schemes have replaced car ownership.…

• Redefining progress, on the other hand, sees the establishment of more sustainable living and a “wellbeing economy”, with countries prioritizing economic and social resilience over economic growth, and governments regulating the economy tightly. …

• As a result of the Environmental War Economy, economies in 2050 are forcibly re-focused on climate change issues as if they were fighting a war against it. Greenhouse-gas emissions began to decline in 2030 but the cost to individual liberty has been huge, and governments have strong powers to regulate and “rationalize” business…..

• Under the Protectionist World scenario, countries wage war over scarce resources like water, and globalization no longer exists. There was a climate agreement in 2010 but factions developed after accusations of cheating and secret, undeclared power stations. As a result, the world has fractured into protectionist blocs….

The "redefining progress" illlustration from the website for Forum for the Future

Wildflower declines in Thoreau's Concord woods are due to climate changes

Science Daily: Drawing on records dating back to the journals of Henry David Thoreau, scientists at Harvard University have found that different plant families near Walden Pond have borne the effects of climate change in strikingly different ways. Some of the plant families hit hardest by global warming have included beloved species like lilies, orchids, violets, roses, and dogwoods.

Over the past 150 years, some of the plants in Thoreau's woods have shifted their flowering time by as much as three weeks as spring temperatures have risen, the researchers say, while others have been less flexible. Many plant families that have proven unable to adjust their flowering time have experienced sharp declines or even elimination from the local landscape -- the fate of nearly two-thirds of the plants Thoreau found in the 1850s around Walden Pond in Concord, Mass.

"It had been thought that climate change would result in uniform shifts across plant species, but our work shows that plant species do not respond to climate change uniformly or randomly," says Charles C. Davis, assistant professor of organismic and evolutionary biology in Harvard's Faculty of Arts and Sciences. "Some plants around Walden Pond have been quite resilient in the face of climate change, while others have fared far worse. Closely related species that are not able to adjust their flowering times in the face of rising temperatures are decreasing in abundance."

Some 27 percent of all species Thoreau recorded in the mid-19th century are now locally extinct, and another 36 percent are so sparse that extinction may be imminent. Plant families that have been especially hard-hit by global warming have included lilies, orchids, buttercups, violets, roses, dogwoods, and mints. Many of the gainers have been weedier mustards and knotweeds, along with various non-native species…..

Don't let the financial crisis cause environmental catastrophe in Indonesia

Jakarta Post (Indonesia): The media bombardment on the global economic crisis has left us in no doubt that the impacts will be deep and far reaching. … But there's all too little mention of what this might mean for the environment.

My fear is that we are going to allow a financial crisis to turn into a ecological catastrophe. With an election looming, I am concerned that the Indonesian government will be tempted to offer short-term fixes at the long-term expense of the country's fragile ecosystems. President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono is going to face his biggest test. He's long espoused the importance of environmental protection and famously placed Indonesia on the map of eco-responsible states during his passionate interventions at last December's climate change convention in Bali.

….Indonesia's stunning natural environment and rich resources however, are facing sustained challenges both from natural phenomena and human activity. Mounting population pressure together with inadequate environmental management is a challenge for Indonesia that hurts the poor and the economy. Total economic losses attributable to limited access to safe water and sanitation are conservatively estimated at two percent of GDP annually, while the annual costs of air pollution to the Indonesia economy have been calculated at around US$400 million per year. These costs are disproportionately borne by the poor because they are the ones more likely to be exposed to pollution and less likely to be able to afford mitigation measures.

…The country's administrative and regulatory framework cannot yet meet the demands of sustainable development in spite of a long history of support for policy and capacity development both from within the government and with international donor support. Indonesia's ministries concerned with environment and natural resources management have benefited from good national level leadership, and also from an active network of civil society organizations throughout the country that are focused on environmental issues, with significant advocacy experience. But improving Indonesia's approach to environment and natural resources management is extremely challenging…..

A panorama in Bali, shot by *drew, Wikimedia Commons, under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License, Version 1.2

Mekong nations save forests to help fight climate change

Viet Nam News: Experts from six Mekong River nations yesterday agreed that preserving forests was one of the most effective measures to fight the impacts of global climate change. The representatives from Viet Nam, Cambodia, Thailand, China, Laos and Myanmar discussed ways of reducing greenhouse gas emissions from deforestation and degradation at a workshop that opened in Ha Noi.

The workshop, co-hosted by Ministry for Agriculture and Rural Development (MARD) and the University of Queensland in Australia, also drew presenters from non-Asian countries and international organisations. At the meeting, which will run for four days, participants noted that the earth was getting hotter because of rising levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. This is largely caused by a dramatic increase in burning fossil fuels to produce energy.

Viet Nam is one of the five countries that will be worst affected by climate change. If greenhouse gases are not slashed within the next 50 years, sea levels are expected to rise by one metre. The Hong (Red) River and Mekong River deltas, which contain most of the Vietnamese population, would also be affected, according to the Deputy Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development Hua Duc Nhi.

…"Sustainable forest management in sub-Mekong river countries will help increase the absorption of carbon dioxide and reduce greenhouse gas emissions," said Deputy Minister Nhi. He said workshop participants hoped to agree on policies that would speed up the implementation of the REDD programme, considered vital to help Mekong River countries reduce climate-change impacts.

Nhi said Viet Nam had adopted a national forestry-development strategy that ran from 2006 to 2020. It was aimed at speeding up afforestation, improving forest quality as well as increasing economic benefits from forests to help those who lived in forested area. The ministry had built bio-gas facilities on farms raising livestock, encouraged the development of clean energy, and begun afforestation and forest-protection programmes…..

Mangrove in Can Gio forest, shot by Tho nau, Wikimedia Commons, under the Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License

Earthworm activity can alter forests' carbon-carrying capabilities

Purdue University News: Earthworms can change the chemical nature of the carbon in North American forest litter and soils, potentially affecting the amount of carbon stored in forests, according to Purdue University researchers. The Purdue scientists, along with collaborators from the Smithsonian Institution and Johns Hopkins University, study the habits of earthworms originally brought to North America from Europe. They want to determine the earthworms' effect on forest chemistry by comparing carbon composition in forests that vary in earthworm activity.

Some earthworms eat fallen leaves and other plant material - the litter of the forest floor - while others eat roots or soil organic matter. This begins a decomposition process in which organic materials pass through the animals' digestive tracts and back into the soil.

The research team found that forests with greater numbers of invasive earthworms tend to have litter and soil organic matter enriched in the plant material lignin, which is typically harder for bacteria to decompose, said Purdue biogeochemist Timothy Filley. Sites with low numbers of these earthworms accumulate plant carbon in forms more easily degraded by bacteria.

Overall, the amount of carbon in the litter and duff layer, which is the surface mat of decaying organic matter and roots, decreases because of earthworm activity. However, the change in carbon chemistry may make it harder for soil organisms to decompose the carbon remains. After earthworms feed on forest litter, they take the carbon down into the soil and mix it in, potentially leading to a buildup of carbon in the soil…

Earthworm photo by Luis Miguel Bugallo Sánchez (Lmbuga Commons)(Lmbuga Galipedia), Wikimedia Commons, under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License, Version 1.2

Monday, October 27, 2008

Responding to climate change in Africa (South Africa): One of Madeleen Helmer's biggest discoveries in her work as a humanitarian has been that it's ordinary people in Africa who rank among the best experts on climate change. Until recently, says Helmer, the head of the Red Cross Red Crescent Climate Centre, climate change was viewed "very much as a scientific research issue".

"But there's another group of experts," says Helmer. "These are people who've been living in the same place for 20 or 30 years or longer. They observe what's going on with the weather. They don't know about greenhouse gases and might just call it funny weather but they see the rain patterns changing and it's worrying them.

"We found it was very difficult to make people aware of the risk of HIV and Aids in Africa. It was taboo and we lost a lot of time because of that. The good news with climate change is that people themselves are observing what's happening. This is fertile ground to build community readiness programmes."

Helmer was speaking at the 7th Red Cross Red Crescent Pan African Conference in Sandton this week, which thrashed out the pressure that accelerating climate change, HIV and Aids and other infectious diseases were placing on African communities as well as the urgent need for funds to tackle this.

….Her centre has invested heavily in "innovative" climactic early warning technology to better prepare for disasters. But it's also about helping the poorest to adapt to future weather changes. "Our main responsibility is to prepare people to be less vulnerable. We say there are a zillion options to adapt to climate change.

…Climate change, says Helmer, has robbed Africans of traditional knowledge systems to predict the weather. "That asset is no longer reliable and it's one of the few the poor have," she laments…..

Composite satellite image of South Africa in November 2002, NASA

A ghastly flood scenario for the Thames

Lloyd’s: Imagine record floods along the Thames Valley between Richmond and Oxford. Picture luxury homes under water; the M25 temporarily transformed into a picturesque ox bow lake, plus public transport and businesses grinding to a halt. Now try and put a figure on the insured losses associated with this entirely plausible event. That’s what Lloyd’s has asked its insurers to do.

The Corporation has added a major UK flood to its set of Realistic Disaster Scenarios (RDS) for 2009. Lloyd’s uses RDS to stress test individual syndicates, and the market as a whole, to see how they stand up to chains of accumulated exposure in very extreme cases. Existing RDS events that Lloyd’s insurers use for stress testing include earthquakes in California or Tokyo, windstorms hitting Florida or the Gulf of Mexico and airlines colliding over large cities.

So why has Lloyd’s introduced a new RDS so close to home? “We identified several different factors that are converging to create one worrying dynamic,” explains Paul Nunn, Head of Exposure Management at Lloyd’s. “The most obvious development is climate change, and the scientific consensus that global warming will lead to more extreme rainfall events,” Mr Nunn says.

But at the same time as the exposure and the peril is growing, there is uncertainty around how much longer UK insurers will continue to automatically include flood risk in their property policies. “Inclusive flood cover could well disappear within the next few years in the UK and that could lead to a big change in the market and the insurers who write it,” Mr Nunn believes. “Lloyd’s has a robust risk management strategy and these different forces at work ring alarm bells with us,” he says....

J. M. W. Turner, "Rain, Steam and Speed - The Great Western Railway" (1844), National Gallery, London. The painting depicts an early locomotive of the Great Western Railway crossing the River Thames on Brunel's recently completed Maidenhead Railway Bridge.

Biofuels boom and bust in Kenya

IPS: The Kenyan government has hailed bio-diesel as an innovation that combines green politics with poverty reduction. But recent drops in biofuel prices have caused concern about the sustainability of alternative fuel production. Rural farmers who have invested all their savings into growing oil seeds now fear they have opted for the wrong venture.

Over the last few years, the Kenyan government, NGOs and industry have pushed the production of bio-diesel -- which is environmentally sustainable because it emits fewer toxic air pollutants and greenhouse gasses than petroleum-based fuels -- and many small-scale farmers have placed their hopes into oil seeds [like jatropha] as a new avenue to earn money. Initially, biofuel projects seemed to be a success, with farmers more than doubling their usual income.

…However, the farmers’ luck ran out in April when biofuel prices suddenly plummeted from an average of $10 per kilo to less than $0.5 per kilo. Biofuel research companies, producers and NGOs supporting the production of environmentally friendly diesel had created an artificially high demand for the seeds, which resulted a high pricing structure that could not be maintained in an open market in the long-term.

In addition, the development of regulatory policy frameworks and local infrastructure needed to manufacture bio-diesel took longer than expected. As a result, Kenya has only few biofuel processing plants that struggle to keep up production with seed supply, and many rural farmers cannot afford the costs of transporting their seeds to the nearest factory.

…John Kioli, director of Nairobi-based NGO Green Africa Foundation, agrees that more money needs to be invested into small-scale biofuel production to turn around the downward trend in pricing. "For profitable and sustainable markets to be realised, local communities need their own processing plants that absorb locally available seeds. The guiding principle should be to use local raw material for local production and for local consumption," he explained….

Shown here, the top of a Jatropha plant as part of a hedge near Falan, Mali. The source of this image is (though I found it on Wikimedia Commons, under the Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike 2.5 License). The photo is by R. K. Henning Permission: The photos may be downloaded and published only with the citation of the name of the photographer and the website of its origin:

Environment costing Arab countries 5 percent of GDP, says study

Agence France Presse: Degradation of the environment in Arab countries is costing them around five percent of gross domestic product every year, according to a study presented in Manama on Monday. The report, "Arab Environment: Future Challenges" says Arab countries face a shortage of drinking water and desertification as well as air and sea pollution because of climate change and other problems.

"Climate change, population growth and the rapid pace of urban and economic development in some Arab countries are multiplying ecological risks in the region," the experts said in the study. The "inadequate exploitation of natural resources is sapping economic development and efforts to reduce poverty" in the Arab world, according to the study, presented to the first annual conference of the Arab Forum for Environment and Development.

The experts estimate "the annual cost of economic degradation in Arab countries reaches an average of five percent of their GDP."….

Bahrain National Museum, shot by Soman, Wikimedia Commons, under the Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike 2.5 License

Conserve or restore: the economic case

Environmental Research Web: A US-wide analysis has found that native terrestrial ecosystems generally provided more valuable goods and services than ecosystems that had been restored. The factors examined included water regulation, greenhouse-gas removal, storm protection, nutrient cycling, soil-erosion control, production of biodiversity, recreational and aesthetic value, as well as production of commodities such as hay, lumber, fish and game.

“Our results indicate that conservation is preferable to restoration,” said Walter Dodds of Kansas State University. “Some laws governing wetlands say that it's OK to develop as long as there's not a net loss of the ecosystem, so developers will create an artificial wetland and pave over the old one. But if the two wetlands don't have the same value, maybe the no net-loss policies are somewhat misguided.”

Dodds and colleagues from the Arizona Department of Water Resources, Simpson College, the Kansas Department of Health and Environment, Colorado State University, Utah State University, South Dakota State University and a prairie restoration consultancy found that restored lands offered 31% to 93% of native land benefits within a decade after restoration, depending on the type of ecosystem.

“Overall, natural ecosystems had a higher value," Dodds said. "For instance, people will pay more to go to an old-growth forest than to one that's just been logged."….

Photo from brochure Seattle and the Orient. "A Washington Fir 9 Feet in Diameter"

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Yosemite glacier on thin ice

The Olympian (Olympia, Washington) has a long story, full of detail:… As signals of climate change begin to come into focus in the Sierra Nevada, its melting glaciers spell trouble in bold font. Not only are they in-your-face barometers of global warming, they also reflect what scientists are beginning to uncover: that the Sierra snowpack - the source of 65 percent of California's water - is dwindling, too. More of the Sierra's precipitation is falling as rain instead of snow, studies show, and the snow that blankets the range in winter is running off earlier in the spring. And snow in the Sierra touches everything. Take it away and droughts deepen, ski areas go bust and fire seasons rage longer.

Some glaciers already have melted away, including the first Sierra glacier discovered in Yosemite by John Muir in 1871. Today, the remaining 100 or so are withering, including Lyell, the second-largest, which could be gone inside a century. "All across the Sierra, glaciers are transitioning into ice patches. Ice patches are transitioning to snow fields. And snow fields are transitioning into bedrock," said Greg Stock, a geologist with Yosemite National Park who joined Devine last month on an annual survey of the Lyell glacier….

Lyell Glacier is the largest remaining glacier in the Sierra Nevada mountains of California, National Park Service image

Ranking methods to save the world

New Scientist: When it comes to repairing damage done to the Earth's climate there's no shortage of ideas, ranging from schemes to put "sunshades" in orbit to burying the offending carbon dioxide underground. But ideas won't be enough, so there is an urgent need to rank those proposals to work out which should undergo rigorous testing, argues Philip Boyd of the National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research in Dunedin, New Zealand.

"The ideas for how to change our climate keep getting pumped out. They get lots of column inches," says Boyd. "My concern is that we will reach a tipping point, people will ask what are we doing about it, and none of the schemes will have been tested." Boyd proposes that an international body such as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change prioritise the schemes according to possible risks involved, how quickly they could be got of the ground, their cost, and how efficiently they would change the climate.

Climate scientist Martin Manning of the University of Victoria in Wellington agrees that a systematic ranking is needed, in part because there is little communication between research communities working on different approaches….Any assessment should be broadened to include other techniques besides geo-engineering, such as using plants for sequestration, says Manning, who worked for the IPCC during the last assessment.

Some schemes could quickly be dismissed, but testing even one of the feasible schemes will still be a herculean task. "We have only started to realise how complicated and interconnected Earth systems are, and scale up will be difficult," Boyd says….

Altai shaman with gong, from a Russian postcard before the Soviet revolution (between 1911 and 1914)

South Korea land grab killing migratory birds

Reuters: A huge South Korean land reclamation project has destroyed wetlands, killed migratory birds and pushed endangered species toward extinction, a report obtained at the weekend said. The Saemangeum land reclamation, completed in 2006 on the west coast and covering about 400 square kms (155 sq miles) -- about seven times larger than Manhattan -- has removed one of the largest feeding grounds on the Yellow Sea for hundreds of thousands of migratory birds who pass by each year, it said.

"Within Saemangeum, (we) recorded a decline of 137,000 shorebirds, and declines in 19 of the most numerous species, from 2006 to 2008," according to the study by conservation groups Birds Korea and Australasian Wader Studies Group that will be released at an international Ramsar convention on wetlands this week in South Korea.

South Korea, now one of the world's largest economies, launched its reclamation project decades ago to increase its farm land when it was trying to rise from the ashes of the 1950-1953 Korean War and now says it will use the land for factories and recreation sites.…"There have been large declines and some of this is irreversible," said Nial Moores, a British-born conservationist and director of Birds Korea. "We anticipate the declines will not only continue but become more obvious in other species."….

Saemangeum Estuary, South Korea, shot by a NASA satellite

British climate satellite monitoring in peril

Free Internet Press: A major program to monitor climate change from space could be in jeopardy after it emerged that the British government is poised to slash funding for the project. Climate scientists and campaigners have expressed deep concerns over the likely cut to the £128 million (about $220 million) promised to the Kopernikus program, which came to light just days after the government stepped up its commitment to reducing carbon emissions.

"The worry from the scientists is that it is essential to understand and monitor this change globally and it's not clear at this stage whether we're going to have the essential measurements to do that," said Paul Monks, an atmospheric chemist at the University of Leicester.

Kopernikus is the world's most ambitious environmental monitoring project. Led by the European Space Agency (ESA) and funded by European member states to the tune of more than €1 billion, it features satellites and a network of ground stations to monitor the effects of climate change, such as deforestation and coastal erosion. It has the specific purpose of providing accurate data for policymakers around the world.

The first of the five satellites, packed with scientific instruments, Sentinel 1, is due to be sent into orbit in 2011. "It's essential that we recognize that the Earth is changing and that we put an Earth-management plan in place. Kopernikus is that global view of a changing environment," said Monks.

…"There is going to be a huge need for data on deforestation, water runoff, flooding, sea-level rise, coastal erosion, large-scale fires," said Mary Taylor, climate change campaigner at Friends of the Earth. "Satellite data can be extremely helpful in gathering lots of good, precise data about where exactly changes are happening on the Earth's surface."

Satellite animation by MG****, Wikimedia Commons, under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License, Version 1.2

Flooded and parched in Bangladesh

New Nation (Bangladesh): Drinking water in Bangladesh is often full of salt as rising sea levels force water further inland. Expensive technology offers solutions but who will foot the bill?

Momtaj Begum, holding her baby daughter, is among hundreds of women queuing for a pitcher of drinking water at a desalinisation plant in Tafalbaria, a remote village in the Bagerhat district in south-west Bangladesh. 'We have to walk this long way to the desalinisation plant as the water in the pond in our village has turned too salty and muddy to drink,' says Khadiza, a neighbour who had joined in the scramble for fresh water. The women make several trips a day along muddy roads and paths from their home in neighbouring Khuriakhali in the Sundarbans, the world's largest mangrove forest and a UNESCO world heritage site. Their village pond is full of water, but today not a drop of it can be drunk.

The tidal surge whipped up by Cyclone Sidr in November 2007 has contaminated the pond with salt and dirt. The nearby Baleswar River used to provide fresh water, but it is also full of salt and dirt.

Residents of coastal areas have put up with saline surface water for years, but it is getting worse. Researchers have discovered saline water further inland than in the past, as far as 130 km. This is partly because global temperature rises are causing sea levels to rise, occasionally flooding low-lying areas.

….International donors have advised the government in Bangladesh to undertake 'climate-proof' adaptation projects. Indeed, many people are already doing this at a household level. In the coastal belt, people usually drink water from ponds, sometimes purifying it with lime and medicines. Or they rely on the few water desalinisation plants operated by NGOs and government agencies.

…Earlier this year, the head of the present caretaker government of Bangladesh, Dr Fakhruddin Ahmed, told businesses and global leaders at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, about the devastating impact of climate change on Bangladesh. He made an international appeal to establish a global fund for assisting vulnerable countries in adapting to the new challenges faced by climate changes….