Saturday, January 31, 2009

EU call to carbon action leaves forests in limbo

Steve Zwick in the Ecosystem Marketplace analyzes the issues involved in trying to prevent deforestation through the carbon markets. Long, but worth the read: European Commissioner for the Environment Stavros Dimas says he's all for saving the tropical rainforests, and has often lamented the fact that the destruction of this vital resource contributes about 20% of all greenhouse gas emissions worldwide.

He also says the European Union should do something to halt the loss, but draws the line at letting European industrial polluters pay for the capture of carbon in rainforests – at least when those payments are used to offset their own emissions (a concept called Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradtion (REDD).

The European Council and European Parliament seem to agree. Each signed off on the European Union's climate and energy package in December. That package includes a commitment to develop "financing mechanisms" that will support the rainforests, but pointedly does not mention forestry offsets – in contrast to a proposal that the decidedly REDD-critical European Commission floated in October.

… Dimas and most of the people on his team fear that letting forestry credits into the EU ETS will flood the market for offsets, driving down prices and failing to create an incentive for industrial reductions within the European Union.

..."There is a lot of distrust of offsets in the Commission," he says. "And it is not just because of flooding; there are also concerns that those countries that will host REDD projects will not be able to manage leakage." He believes that risk management mechanisms – such applying a discount factor to allow for leakage or setting up buffer zones – will offset any leakage, but he also says many proponents of REDD under-estimate the capacity issues….

Deforestation in the Usambara Mountains in Lushoto District, Tanga Region, Tanzania. Shot by Mohsin S. Karmali, Wikimedia Commons

Argentine farmers face ruin as drought kills cattle, crops

CNN: …Argentina is one of the world's breadbaskets, providing commodities such as soy, wheat, corn and beef to countries around the globe. In recent years, record-high prices for these products reaped millions of dollars for Argentine farmers, but since the global economic crisis hit, demand and profits have dropped. Now the drought is making matters even worse.

…Facing pressure from farmers, Argentina President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner announced emergency measures this week that will exempt the worst-hit farmers from paying most taxes for one year. "This is a big boost of patriotism, and a sign of support from all Argentines," Kirchner said on January 26. "All other sectors of the economy will continue to contribute, so we can help the farmers who have been affected by this drought."

Kirchner has had a contentious relationship with farmers, who staged noisy protests and strikes last year over an increase in export taxes. Those taxes eventually were reduced, but farming leaders still contend that the government is out of touch with their needs.

They say the measures announced this week fall short, and are demanding a cohesive, long-term plan for dealing with emergencies such as the current drought. If not, they say, they may strike again. "Sure, this plan is approved now, and it helps, but we need money to feed cows, to go back to planting crops, because this drought is impacting life in every sector of society," said Eduardo Buzzi of the Argentine Agrarian Federation….

Calingasta River in the Andes Mountains, Calingasta department in the Province of San Juan Argentina, shot by EagLau, Wikimedia Commons, under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License, Version 1.2

NASA's Orbiting Carbon Observatory preparing to launch

NASA: NASA's first spacecraft dedicated to studying atmospheric carbon dioxide is in final preparations for a Feb. 23 launch from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. Carbon dioxide is the leading human-produced greenhouse gas driving changes in Earth's climate.

The Orbiting Carbon Observatory will provide the first complete picture of human and natural carbon dioxide sources as well as their "sinks," the places where carbon dioxide is pulled out of the atmosphere and stored. It will map the global geographic distribution of these sources and sinks and study their changes over time. The measurements will be combined with data from ground stations, aircraft and other satellites to help answer questions about the processes that regulate atmospheric carbon dioxide and its role in Earth's climate and carbon cycle.

Mission data will help scientists reduce uncertainties in predicting future carbon dioxide increases and make more accurate climate change predictions. Policymakers and business leaders can use the data to make more informed decisions that improve the quality of life on Earth.

…The new observatory will dramatically improve global carbon dioxide measurements, collecting about 8 million measurements every 16 days for at least two years with the precision, resolution and coverage needed to characterize carbon dioxide's global distribution. Scientists need these precise measurements because carbon dioxide varies by just 10 parts per million throughout the year on regional to continental scales.

The Orbiting Carbon Observatory's three high-resolution spectrometers spread reflected sunlight into its various colors like a prism. Each spectrometer focuses on a different, narrow color range, detecting light with the specific colors absorbed by carbon dioxide and molecular oxygen. The less carbon dioxide present in the atmosphere, the more light the spectrometers detect. By analyzing the amount of light, scientists can determine relative concentrations of these chemicals. The data will then be input into computer models of the global atmosphere to quantify carbon dioxide sources and sinks….

Artist's conception of the OCO from NASA

Worst dengue outbreak in Malaysia

Straits Times: Malaysia is going through its worst dengue outbreak ever, health officials said yesterday, with higher rainfall and public apathy being blamed for encouraging the widespread breeding of the Aedes mosquito. In the first 28 days of this year alone, 14 people have died and 5,062 cases have been recorded. This compares with five deaths and 2,855 cases in the same period last year.

…'This is the worst outbreak ever,' Health Ministry director-general Ismail Merican told reporters yesterday. If the trend of 14 deaths a month were to continue for the rest of the year, the number of deaths this year would be higher than the 112 recorded last year.

…Dengue fever is endemic in South-east Asia, and cases in Malaysia have surged since 2003. Despite annual outbreaks and government campaigns to raise awareness, Tan Sri Ismail lamented that many residents were still unaware of the risks involved in allowing mosquitoes to breed on their premises….

Illustration of the dengue fever virus

Reducing nitrate runoff to downstream ecosystems

Science Daily: Agricultural Research Service (ARS) scientists are finding ways to stem the flow of nitrates that are washed out of crop fields into regional surface and groundwater sources. These nitrates come primarily from nitrogen fertilizers that are not taken up by crops. After the nitrates are flushed out of the soil, they flow into subsurface tile drains that channel excess water away from crop fields.

But these underground drains can facilitate the eventual passage of nitrate-laden runoff into the Gulf of Mexico, the Chesapeake Bay and other water bodies. When the runoff enters these areas, it can intensify the development of oxygen-deficient "dead zones," a condition called hypoxia.

ARS research leader Patrick Hunt, agricultural engineer Kenneth Stone, and soil scientist Matias Vanotti developed a process for denitrifying nitrate-laden runoff in subsurface drains before the runoff reaches sensitive aquatic ecosystems downstream. They cultured and encapsulated denitrifying bacteria in polymer gels and verified their denitrification rates. The resulting product was called "immobilized denitrification sludge," or IDS.

…The team concluded that the daily nitrate removal rate of a one-cubic-meter bioreactor would be approximately 94 grams per square meter of nitrate from field runoff. This is significantly higher than removal rates reported for in-stream wetlands, treatment wetlands, or wood-based bioreactors….

The general form of a drainage basin, in an image created by Benjamin D. Esham for the Wikimedia Commons

Friday, January 30, 2009

Greenpeace stays on message even when you're lost

Greenpeace Brazil has the best "404 Page Not Found" notification, combining a pointed message with a sense of humor: Sorry! We couldn't find that page! This could have happened for several reasons:

1. The page may be extinct, like many whales, chimpanzees, and gorillas in the wild could be without your help.

2. The page may have moved, like many Pacific Islanders will have to do when their homes sink beneath the waves due to global warming.

3. You may have made a mistake typing the address, or we made a mistake creating a link. Mistakes happen. Chernobyl and Bhopal should have taught us that they can have devastating consequences, which is why releasing inadequately tested genetically engineered crops into nature is stupid and dangerous.

4. Our web server may be malfunctioning. This happens to large complicated technical systems often, which is why the Star Wars missile defense system will never work and shouldn't be deployed.

Roland Savery painted this image of a live Dodo, which was brought to Europe in the early 17 century

Nigeria loses 8.6 percent GDP to land degradation

This Day (Nigeria): Nigeria is losing 8.6 of her national income to poor land management. Sustainable land management touches on the environment and climate change. This comes as the desert is encroaching from the north and the Atlantic Ocean is washing away the low-lying shores of the south. No part of the country was spared the loss of value of land.

How to tackle this problem is the proposition of a study of what constitute good and sustainable management practices. Flagged off Monday in Abuja, the study is to review public expenditure of land management in Nigeria. The Federal Government is commissioning the report with the support of the World Bank and the Washington-based International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI).

Experts at an inception workshop for the study said economic impacts of sustainable land management can be measured by taking a look at land degradation. A primary finding, citing a 2006 study, is that the loss of the value of the degraded land is 8.6 per cent of the Nigerian GDP.

… Nyonya tied poverty alleviation to sustainable land management. He told THISDAY that, if Nigerian policy makers are serious about the fight against poverty, they should show through budgetary allocation to land management and agriculture.

Zuma Rock in Abuja, Nigeria, shot by Shiraz Chakera, Wikimedia Commons via Flickr, under Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike 2.0 License

Climate change prompts Macau government to set up flooding alert

Macau Daily Times: As the weather bureau predicted that Macau's sea level will raise 0.5 metres by 2050 and the future tropical cyclones will be more fierce, the government has initially set out a three-class flooding alert mechanism to help residents be prepared for seawater intrusion.

In the response to lawmaker Ng Kuok Cheong's interpellation, Secretary for Administration and Justice, Florinda Chan, said conditions of Macau's street flooding were already greatly improved in which "flooding blackspots have been reduced from nearly 40 to five".

When Typhoon Hagupit swept Macau in September last year, Chan said the flooding was not caused by drainage blockage, but the "storm surge that led to a rapid rise of water level and eventually a severe seawater intrusion". On the day when the typhoon hit Macau the water level stood at 4.6 metres, which was the second highest record in history, following 4.74 metres back in 1927.

Chan said in order to let the public be able to be prepared for the coming of seawater intrusion, the Civic and Municipal Affairs Bureau in collaboration with the Meteorological and Geophysical Bureau (SMG), the Port Authority and also the Land, Public Works and Transport Bureau have outlined a three-class flooding alert mechanism.

…The Secretary said the mechanism would help the public understanding the severity of flooding and also help officials "tackle the problem effectively".

Why climate scientists and aid workers don't talk

Megan Rowling in Reuters AlertNet: Last May, the Red Cross office for West and Central Africa decided it wasn't going to let the flood disaster of 2007 happen again. The floods had affected over 800,000 people when torrential rains pummelled the region, destroying crops and homes.

Red Cross partner, the African Centre of Meteorological Applications for Development, and other forecasters issued warnings for abnormally heavy rains during the 2008 wet season. Acting on their advice, the aid agency decided to issue an early appeal for funds to help countries prepare, including stocking up on relief supplies in major cities.

Yet such cases of collaboration remain relatively rare. At a recent seminar bringing climate scientists and aid workers together in London, organised by the Humanitarian Futures Programme, a research initiative based at King's College that helps aid agencies tackle major challenges to their work, participants agreed they didn't communicate enough.

… One major problem is that scientists tend to focus on how the climate will change in 20 to 100 years' time, whereas humanitarian workers want nearer-term forecasts for their planning - ranging from this week's weather to the next wet or dry season, and up to around five years ahead.

…Fortunately, according to Liverpool University's Morse, this mismatch of time horizons should be fixed in the next few years as more money is made available to fund shorter-term forecasting. But it's not just a matter of time. Another complaint from aid agencies is that forecasts aren't available on a small enough geographical scale to be useful in the field…..

Cyclone Nargis makes landfall, 2008, via NASA

Analyzing the genome of a heat and drought resistant cereal plant

German Research Center for Environmental Health: The global climate is changing, and this change is already impacting food supply and security. People living in regions already affected by aridity need plants that can thrive / grow under dry conditions.

One example is sorghum: Also known as milo, durra, or broomcorn, sorghum is a grass species that can grow up to five meters in height and is extremely resistant to aridity and hot conditions. The grass, which originates from Africa, can thrive under conditions and locations where other cereal plants cannot survive due to lack of water.

….As part of an international consortium of scientists, researchers at Helmholtz Zentrum München are analyzing the genes of sorghum, the first plant of African origin whose genome has been sequenced. Dr. Klaus Mayer of the Institute of Bioinformatics and Systems Biology of the Helmholtz Zentrum München described the scientists’ research goal: ”We want to elucidate the functional and structural genomics of sorghum.“ He went on to explain: ”That is the prerequisite for making this important grain even more productive through targeted breeding strategies. As German Research Center for Environmental Health, sustaining the food supply is one of our most important research topics. That is why we are trying to learn something about the molecular basis of the plant’s pronounced drought tolerance in order to apply this knowledge to other crop plants in our latitude zone as well.

…Due to biochemical and morphological specialization, such plants use a special kind of photosynthesis (in which first a molecule with four carbon atoms is formed, thus the name). They can assimilate carbon at higher temperatures and more efficiently than ”C3 plants“ and are especially suitable for the production of biomass for energy…

Sorghum, USDA

Thursday, January 29, 2009

'Worst drought' looking likely, California official says

San Jose Mercury News: ....California appears to be heading into a third dry year — and the first significant drought since the early 1990s. It could get even worse. "We may be at the start of the worst California drought in modern history," warned Lester Snow, director of the state Department of Water Resources. "It is imperative for Californians to conserve water immediately at home and in their businesses."

State water managers months ago told their customers — which include a few East Bay and South Bay agencies and Southern California — they would likely get 15 percent of their requests for Delta water. That figure might have to be reduced. Many local water agencies, including the Contra Costa Water District, are waiting for definitive figures before announcing decisions about water rationing in March or April, but the likelihood of rationing in many parts of the state is high ... and growing.

…It would take 30 feet of snow in the Sierra to bring the snowpack up to normal, state meteorologist Elissa Lynn said. "That's probably not going to happen," Lynn said. "We're in a third dry year." The state's major reservoirs are about one-third full, or about half of where they normally would be this time of year….

An aerial shot of Mount Shasta (in California) from the west, shot by Ewen Denney, Wikimedia Commons, under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License, Version 1.2

Heating from carbon dioxide will increase five-fold over next millennia

University of Liverpool News: Scientists at the University of Liverpool have found that heating from carbon dioxide will increase five-fold over the next millennia. Scientists studied the impact that current carbon emissions have on the delicate balance between air and sea carbon exchange. They found that the ocean’s ability to store excessive amounts of carbon dioxide over thousands of years will affect the long-term heating of the planet.

The ocean acts as an enormous carbon sink which naturally absorbs any extra carbon dioxide added to the atmosphere. Its ability to store more carbon dioxide than both the atmosphere and land provides long-term storage for the carbon dioxide emitted by human activities. Scientists at Liverpool, however, have found that if all conventional coal, oil and gas carbon reserves are exhausted, the excessive amounts of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere will begin to alter the ocean’s natural chemistry and hinder its ability to absorb and exchange the gas.

Professor Ric Williams, from the University’s School of Earth and Ocean Sciences, explains: “It is accepted that rising atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations lead to an increase in heating around the globe. It was, however, unclear as to how the ocean’s ability to store carbon could affect the future overall heating of the earth.

“The excessive amount of carbon in the atmosphere will make the oceans more acidic and hamper the ability of the oceans to absorb further carbon from the atmosphere. The extra carbon dioxide remaining in the atmosphere will lead to an increase in the overall heating of our planet, making sea levels rise and exacerbating the melting of the Arctic ice caps….

Andreas Tille took this haunting shot of Eyjafjallajökull, a glacier in Iceland. The image was voted a featured on Wikimedia Commons, and I'm using it under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License, Version 1.2

Engineers give U.S. infrastructure a 'D' grade, $2.2 trillion price tag

Environment News Service: America's infrastructure gets an overall grade of "D" and needs $2.2 trillion in repairs and upgrades over the next five years to meet adequate conditions, according to a new report by the nation's professional engineers.

The new 2009 Report Card for America's Infrastructure, released today by the American Society of Civil Engineers, ASCE, assigns an overall grade of D to the nation as well as individual grades in 15 infrastructure categories, but no grade is higher than C+. "Decades of underfunding and inattention have endangered the nation's infrastructure," the engineers said today. Since the ASCE's last report card in 2005, there has been little change in the condition of America's roads, bridges, drinking water systems, and other public works.

But the cost of fixing these infrastructure problems has gone up. Deteriorating conditions and inflation have added hundreds of billions to the total cost of repairs and needed upgrades. ASCE's current estimate of $2.2 trillion is up from the $1.6 trillion estimated in 2005. "In 2009, all signs point to an infrastructure that is poorly maintained, unable to meet current and future demands, and in some cases, unsafe," the engineers warn.

…With the nation's infrastructure receiving renewed attention from the White House, Congress, and the public as part of an economic stimulus package, the Report Card offers informed guidance from professional engineers on where funds would best be spent....

Damage from Hurricane Isabel, photo by Butch Ducote, FEMA

Flood warnings in South Africa

BuaNews (Tshwane, South Africa): The South African Weather Service has issued a warning of floods in certain parts of Gauteng as heavy rains are expected on Wednesday and Thursday. Speaking to BuaNews on Wednesday from the National Forecast Centre in Pretoria, Meteorologist, Elke Brouwers said there was a possibility of flooding in certain parts of the province.

"We are predicting 80 percent chance of rain for the remainder of today and Thursday," she said. Ms Brouwers could not foresee which areas would be most affected by the rains, but she however urged motorists to be extra careful on the roads. "At this stage it is difficult to single out the areas where there might be floods. As we are expecting heavy rains in the next hour or two, we would like to urge our motorists to be extra cautious while driving in rainy conditions," Ms Brouwers said….

A sheep farm in Gauteng, South Africa, shot by NJR ZA, Wikimedia Commons, under the Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike 3.0 License

Hurricanes' climate footprint felt for months

Michael Reilly at MSNBC: Just as a changing climate shapes the strength and frequency of hurricanes, the storms may have a huge effect on climate, leaving "footprints" in the atmosphere and ocean. …[T]he full interplay between hurricanes and climate remains an enigma.

Robert Hart of Florida State University analyzed two decades of climate data from the tropics, and found that each storm leaves a wake of anomalously cool water and warm air behind it that can persist anywhere from one to two months, depending on the storm's strength.

Scientists have known for years that hurricanes cause cool ocean waters to well up, but Hart was surprised at how long the atmosphere retained a "memory" of each storm. That got him thinking: if one storm can have such a lasting impact, what does a whole season of storms do to Earth's climate? Would there be a difference in effect between an active hurricane season and a quiet one?

Hart performed a series of calculations and came up with a striking preliminary answer: hurricane seasons that spawned more storms (like 2005, for example) led to quieter winters in the northern hemisphere, and quiet hurricane seasons led to winters with lots of storm activity.

The reason, Hart speculates, is that hurricanes bring large amounts of heat out of the tropics and toward the poles. When a season has more storms, more heat is deposited closer to the poles and the tropics are cooled off more, so that when winter sets in there is less temperature difference between the poles and tropics….

Hurricane Wilma, 2005

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Biochar and reforestation may offer better global cooling potential than ocean fertilization

Mongabay: The first comprehensive assessment of the climate cooling potential of different geoengineering schemes has been conducted by researchers at the University of East Anglia (UEA). The results are published in the journal Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics Discussions Among the findings, according to a statement from UEA:

Enhancing carbon sinks will take nearly 100 years to bring atmospheric carbon dioxide levels back to pre-industrial levels and will require sharp cuts in emissions.

Stratospheric aerosol injections and sunshades in space — a concept supported by Paul J. Crutzen, winner of the 1995 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his work on the hole in the ozone layer — have "by far the greatest potential to cool the climate by 2050" but carry the greatest risk.

Adding phosphorous to the ocean via existing activities may have greater long-term carbon sequestration potential than iron or nitrogen fertilization schemes.

Sequestering carbon by planting forests and as 'bio-char' — charcoal added back to the soil — have greater short-term cooling potential than ocean fertilization. Bio-char also offers to potential to boost soil productivity for agriculture.

Increasing the reflectivity of urban areas could reduce urban heat islands but will have minimal global effect. The same goes for schemes involving ocean pipes and stimulating biologically-driven increases in cloud reflectivity.

The beneficial effects of some geo-engineering schemes have been over-estimated and mis-calculated in previous calculations….

Dr Alexander Thorkel (Albert Dekker) from Dr. Cyclops (1940)

The drama of drainage in the UK New legislation on water management and flood prevention must make responsibilities clear, ensure adequate funding is provided and tackle the issue of SUDS [--Sustainable Urban Drainage Systems]. Those were the calls from the Environment Agency, local authorities, water companies and other bodies involved in water and flooding as they gathered to discuss the forthcoming Floods and Water Bill.

A draft version of the bill is currently being drawn up by Government and is expected to be published in the spring. But the bodies that will be working on the ground to implement the measures in the bill told Government what they wanted to see in the bill at a recent CIWEM conference, in London.

The Environment Agency said one of the major issues it wants to see addressed in the bill is Sustainable Urban Drainage Systems (SUDS). Elliot Robertson, flood and coastal risk management at the agency, said: "We need to improve surface water management. "This is the key gap in the legislation that needs to be filled. We want Surface Water Management Plans and SUDS firmly adopted and maintained."…

"Brown" green roof and rainwater system at The Green Shop, Bisley, Gloucestershire, UK. Shot by thingermejig, Wikimedia Commons via Flickr, under Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike 2.0 License

Fresno State researchers identify regional climate challenges

Central Valley Business Times (Fresno, California): A climate-change study by California State University, Fresno researchers, commissioned by the city of Fresno, forecasts significant challenges ahead to water, air quality, agriculture and landscapes, transportation, energy use, buildings and settlements in the central San Joaquin Valley Projections include rising temperatures, more extreme-heat days, 15 percent to 20 percent variation in rainfall, fewer but more intense storms and higher-elevation snows.

...The report suggests a number of ways in which the greater Fresno community could adapt to or mitigate the effects of climate change, including the following:
• Reduce water consumption, especially from aesthetic uses such as landscaping
• Increase the area’s ability to capture, store and retrieve water from less frequent and more intense precipitation events
• Develop crop contingency plans in case changing temperature and precipitation regimes reduce the viability of current, major crops supporting our economy
• Support the Fresno Green Building Program and expand it where possible into retrofit and renovation projects
• Support compact growth and New Urbanism principles
• Develop green jobs
• Showcase green technologies and green communities in the Fresno area
• Develop a long-term sustainability research and development program with local educational institutions

A Fresno corner store, shot by Dorothea Lange for the WPA in 1939

Australia on health alert amid worst heat wave in a century

Voice of America News: The Australian government is allocating more than $6 million to investigate the potential impact of climate change on health, as the country's southeasern corner endures its most severe heatwave since 1908. Meanwhile, a new U.S. study says the damaging effects of a climate change have become largely irreversible.

As parts of southern Australia sizzle in the sort of conditions not seen for a hundred years, the federal government has announced a multi-million dollar study on the impact of climate change on health. Researchers believe that a warmer climate is likely to have a profound impact on the well-being of Australians, including a higher incidence of mosquito-borne illnesses, heat exposure and mental illness.

Health authorities in northern Queensland are currently trying to contain an outbreak of potentially fatal dengue fever, which has so far affected about 200 people. Professor Tony McMichael from the Australian National University says warmer weather attributed to climate change could prove to be catastrophic to health.

"There are simple direct effects like the impact of increased frequency and severity of heat waves on rates of death; particularly in older persons," the professor said. "Of course with increased climatic variability, more extreme events, we're going to see also more injury and death and post-traumatic stress from things like cyclones and extreme bushfires."….

A hot air balloon over Brisbane, shot by Cyron Ray Macey from Brisbane, Wikimedia Commons via Flickr, under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 License

Pastoralists in Africa grapple with climate change

IRIN: As many as 250 million people in Africa may not have enough water to meet their basic needs by 2020 because of climate change, a specialist in poverty, environment and climate change said on 27 January. "The day-to-day impacts of climate change, such as higher temperatures and erratic rainfall, are increasing many people's vulnerability to hazards," Charles Ehrhart, the poverty, environment and climate change network coordinator for CARE International, told policy-makers and representatives of pastoralists from the Horn, eastern and central Africa, at a consultative meeting on ways of mitigating the humanitarian effects of climate change on pastoral areas.

The two-day meeting was one of a series organised by the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) and the African Union (AU), aimed at developing a continent-wide policy framework to secure and protect the lives, livelihoods and rights of pastoralists in Africa. Ehrhart said by 2020, climatic changes would have contributed to water stress, land degradation, lower crop yields and increased risk of wild fires, resulting in a 50 percent decline in agricultural productivity. The consequences, he added, would be severe food and water shortages, with affected populations coming under significant pressure to migrate.

…Moses Ndiyaine, a pastoralist from Tanzania, suggested the creation of a special global fund for pastoralists to help them devise early-warning mechanisms, improve veterinary services and lobby their governments for pastoralist-friendly legislation.

Jeanine Cooper, OCHA-Kenya head of office, said there was an urgent need to address longer-term drivers of food insecurity in marginal agricultural areas to enable vulnerable populations build resilience by supporting coping and adaptive strategies. She said poor and erratic rainfall, reduced maize production due to post-election violence in early 2008 and high costs of farm inputs, as well as high fuel costs, had precipitated a food crisis in Kenya.

A nomad at prayer in Africa, photo probably taken by Kazimierz Nowak (1897-1937) during his trip through Africa - a Polish traveller, correspondent and photographer. Probably the first man in the world who crossed Africa alone from the North to the South and from the South to the North (from 1931 to 1936; on foot, by bicycle and canoe).

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Measuring tropical forests with lasers

Science Daily: New technology deployed on airplanes is helping scientists quantify landscape-scale changes occurring to Big Island tropical forests from non-native plants and other environmental factors that affect carbon sequestration. U.S. Forest Service and Carnegie Institution scientists involved in the research published their findings this month in the journal Ecosystems and hope it will help other researchers racing to assess threats to tropical forests around the world.

"Our results clearly show the interactive role that climate and invasive species play on carbon stocks in tropical forests, and this may prove useful in projecting future changes in carbon sequestration in Hawaii and beyond," said Gregory Asner, with the Carnegie Institution's Department of Global Ecology. Airborne technology might be the best way to quickly examine rugged ecosystems covered with dense vegetation that make them difficult to study on the ground or with satellites, according to the scientists.

"These findings showed airborne data correlated with data derived from study plots on the ground," said Flint Hughes, a Forest Service ecologist at the agency's Institute of Pacific Islands Forestry and one of the study's authors. "They also demonstrated what might be the most important environmental factors affecting forest biomass and carbon sequestration."

Hughes and his colleagues compared field measurements with data derived from the Carnegie Airborne Observatory (, a system that uses a combination of lasers capable of measuring elevation to within six inches, GPS and advanced imaging spectrometers that can identify plant species from aircraft.

…Study results suggest fast-growing invaders decrease biomass levels, while slower-growing species increase biomass stocks.

Sample imagery from the Carnegie Airborne Observatory

Climate change's impact on invasive plants in Western US may create restoration opportunities

EurekAlert: A new study by researchers at Princeton University's Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs has found that global climate change may lead to the retreat of some invasive plant species in the western United States, which could create unprecedented ecological restoration opportunities across millions of acres throughout America. At the same time, global warming may enable other invasive plants to spread more widely.

The study, "Climate change and plant invasions: restoration opportunities ahead?", was co-authored by Bethany Bradley, a biogeographer, Michael Oppenheimer, a geoscientist, and David Wilcove, a conservation biologist, at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School, and is published in the journal Global Change Biology. The article is accessible online at

The researchers assessed the relationship between climate change and the distribution of five prominent invasive plants in the western United States – known colloquially as the "kudzus of the West" – cheatgrass; spotted knapweed; yellow starthistle; tamarisk; and leafy spurge. Such plants are defined as invasive because they were brought into this country from other lands and now dominate and alter ecosystems in ways that threaten native wildlife, agriculture, and ranching. All have greatly expanded their ranges in recent decades in the western U.S., causing millions of dollars in damage to farmlands and rangelands. Invasive plants are increasingly expensive to control, and it is widely believed that global warming will make the problem worse.

But Bradley and her co-authors find that global warming may also reduce the competitiveness of some invasive plants if conditions become climatically unsuitable to the weeds, "creating opportunities for restoration in areas currently dominated by intractable invasive species," according to the study.

A bumblebee voguing on spotted knapweed, shot by Cody Hough, college student and photographer in the Michgian area, Wikimedia Commons, under the Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike 3.0 License

WHO says no evidence of China bird flu epidemic

Terra Daily via Agence France-Presse: The World Health Organisation said Tuesday there was no evidence of a bird flu epidemic in China after a fifth person died of the disease this month, but urged caution over the Lunar New Year holiday. An 18-year-old man succumbed to the deadly H5N1 strain of the virus Monday, bringing to five the number of fatalities from the disease so far this year in China, compared to just three in the whole of 2008.

The number of cases has sparked fears of an epidemic, particularly during this week's Lunar New Year, as hundreds of millions of families across China reunite around huge feasts that include poultry. Peter Cordingley, WHO spokesman for the Western Pacific Region, said there was no need for undue alarm. "What we are seeing is so far within our expectations and broadly matches previous years," he told AFP. "There is no evidence of an epidemic. Also, the China cases are geographically scattered and sporadic, with no sign of any connection between them."

Cordingley urged caution during the biggest holiday of the year in China, saying the mass movement of people and poultry brought a heightened risk of humans mingling with chickens. "(This) is not a situation we are comfortable with, and the increase in consumption of chicken meat presents dangers of people unknowingly handling infected meat," he said. "Members of the public should take every precaution when preparing chicken meat for the table."…

This transmission electron micrograph (TEM), taken at a magnification of 150,000x, revealed the ultrastructural details of an avian influenza A (H5N1) virion, a type of bird flu virus which is a subtype of avian influenza A. At this magnification, one may note the stippled appearance of the roughened surface of the proteinaceous coat encasing the virion. Taken by the paparazzi at the Centers for Disease Control

CARICOM Secretary-General calls climate change "an attack on our development"

ISRIA: Secretary-General, His Excellency Edwin Carrington has pointed to the need for enhanced relations between CARICOM and the United Kingdom (UK) to confront the challenges posed to the Region's development by climate change.

At the ceremony for the presentation of Credentials by His Excellency Fraser Wheeler, Plenipotentiary Representative of the UK to CARICOM, on Friday January 23, 2009 at the headquarters of the CARICOM Secretariat, Georgetown, Guyana, Secretary-General Carrington stated that climate change "was not a future fear, but a current yearly incremental crisis- an attack on our development - one we cannot confront alone."

In highlighting the link between climate change and the economic development of the Region, Secretary-General Carrington cited the decisions of nations like the UK, in regard to the phenomenon, and the Caribbean's mainstay industry, tourism.

Particularly, he stated, the decision made by European countries to impose incremental taxes on airline tickets for long destinations, including the Caribbean, to offset the cost of adapting to climate change caused by carbon emission by those countries, meant that "the Caribbean like Peter is not just paying for Paul but for all."….

The CARICOM flag

A voice from the World Social Forum

IPS: A human banner made up of more than 1,000 people, seen and photographed from the air, sent the message "SOS Amazon" to the world, in the first action taken by indigenous people hours before the opening in northern Brazil on Tuesday of the 2009 World Social Forum (WSF). The mass message reflects "our concern about global warming, whose impact we will be the first to feel, although we, the peoples of the Amazon, have protected and cared for the forests," Francisco Avelino Batista, an Apurinán Indian from the Purus river valley in the Brazilian Amazon, told IPS.

"We are raising our voices as a wake-up call to the world, especially the rich countries that are hastening its destruction," said Edmundo Omoré, a member of the Xavante indigenous community from the west-central state of Mato Grosso on the border between the Amazon region and the Cerrado, a vast savannah region in the centre of the country. Both men belong to the Coordinating Committee of Indigenous Organisations of the Brazilian Amazon (COIAB), which joined the Quito-based Coordinating Body of Indigenous Organisations of the Amazon Basin (COICA) to create their "message from the heart of the Amazon."

Nearly 1,300 indigenous people from about 50 countries, although mainly from Brazil, plan to raise the issues of their rights as original peoples and environmental preservation at this year’s edition of the WSF, which runs through Sunday in Belém, a city of 1.4 million people and the northeastern gateway to the Amazon. Indigenous people have participated in the WSF in previous years, but this time a much larger presence was sought. The aim was for 2,000 to take part, but transport costs and financial difficulties prevented many participants from coming from other countries and from remote areas within Brazil itself….

A house on the Amazon River, photo by Ricadito (I think), Wikimedia Commons, under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License, Version 1.2

Monday, January 26, 2009

Nile Delta fishery grows dramatically

Terra Daily: While many of the world's fisheries are in serious decline, the coastal Mediterranean fishery off the Nile Delta has expanded dramatically since the 1980s. The surprising cause of this expansion, which followed a collapse of the fishery after completion of the Aswan High Dam in 1965, is run-off of fertilizers and sewage discharges in the region, according to a researcher at the University of Rhode Island Graduate School of Oceanography.

Autumn Oczkowski, a URI doctoral student, used stable isotopes of nitrogen to demonstrate that 60 to 100 percent of the current fishery production is supported by nutrients from fertilizer and sewage. Her research will be reported in the Jan. 21 online edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. "This is really a story about how people unintentionally impact ecosystems," Oczkowski said.

Historically, the Nile would flood the delta every fall, irrigate nearby agricultural land, and flow out to the Mediterranean, carrying with it nutrients to support a large and productive fishery. Construction of the dam stopped the flooding, and the fishery collapsed.

"That's when fertilizer consumption in the country skyrocketed," said Oczkowski. "The Egyptians were fertilizing the land, and then fertilizing the sea with the run-off. It also corresponded with a population boom and the expansion of the public water and sewer systems."

As a result, landings of fish in coastal and offshore waters are more than three times pre-dam levels. While increased fishing effort in recent years may have played some role in the recovery, Oczkowski's findings indicate that anthropogenic nutrient sources have now more than replaced the fertility carried by the historical flooding….

The Nile Delta from space, NASA

Desertification in Nigeria

This Day Online (Nigeria): Current statistics by the Federal Ministry of Environment shows that Nigeria [loses] about 600 meters yearly of its arable land mass to desert encroachment.

A statement issed yesterday by Special Assistant to the Minister of Envronment, Mr Rotimi Ajayi, noted that the Minister, Mr John Odey, was worried by the state of things and charged the people to cultivate non-timber forest trees to combat desertification in the Northern belt of Nigeria. Odey gave the charge during a meeting with officials of the Forestry Unit of the ministry in Abuja, weekend.

According to Ajayi, the meeting was to enable the minister appraise the unit's scope of work and gravity of the problems of desertification in Nigeria. "Deforestation has been estimated to contribute not less than 20 per cent to climate change globally and Nigeria ranks highest in Africa, on the problem of deforestation.

“At the current estimate, desert encroaches into the Nigerian landmass at the speed of 600 meters per annum, thereby threatening the country's food base," he said. He said that there was need to change Nigerian's attitude towards the forest, which could only be done by integrating the needs of the masses into the forest development plans….

The Niger River in Malia, well north of Nigeria, shows the encroaching desert. NASA

New study shows impacts largely irreversible

NOAA: A new scientific study led by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reaches a powerful conclusion about the climate change caused by future increases of carbon dioxide: to a large extent, there’s no going back.

The pioneering study, led by NOAA senior scientist Susan Solomon, shows how changes in surface temperature, rainfall, and sea level are largely irreversible for more than 1,000 years after carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions are completely stopped. The findings appear during the week of January 26 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

“Our study convinced us that current choices regarding carbon dioxide emissions will have legacies that will irreversibly change the planet,” said Solomon, who is based at NOAA’s Earth System Research Laboratory in Boulder, Colo. “It has long been known that some of the carbon dioxide emitted by human activities stays in the atmosphere for thousands of years,” Solomon said. “But the new study advances the understanding of how this affects the climate system.”

The study examines the consequences of allowing CO2 to build up to several different peak levels beyond present-day concentrations of 385 parts per million and then completely halting the emissions after the peak. The authors found that the scientific evidence is strong enough to quantify some irreversible climate impacts, including rainfall changes in certain key regions, and global sea level rise.

If CO2 is allowed to peak at 450-600 parts per million, the results would include persistent decreases in dry-season rainfall that are comparable to the 1930s North American Dust Bowl in zones including southern Europe, northern Africa, southwestern North America, southern Africa and western Australia.

The study notes that decreases in rainfall that last not just for a few decades but over centuries are expected to have a range of impacts that differ by region. Such regional impacts include decreasing human water supplies, increased fire frequency, ecosystem change and expanded deserts. Dry-season wheat and maize agriculture in regions of rain-fed farming, such as Africa, would also be affected. Climate impacts were less severe at lower peak levels. But at all levels added carbon dioxide and its climate effects linger because of the ocean.

Francisco de Goya, The Fates or Atropos (ca 1819-1823)

Fast action needed to avoid climate chaos: study

Reuters: Global temperature rises due to climate change could be kept below the critical 2 degree mark by fast international action to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 70 percent by 2030, a report said on Monday. Scientists say that if temperatures increase beyond 2 degrees, humanity faces severe environmental fallout, such as melting polar ice caps and rising sealevels.

Increasing numbers of scientists and politicians question whether the 2 degrees goal is achievable, given the slow progress of international negotiations so far. But it is not too late to avert dangerous climate change, said the report by consultancy McKinsey and backed by ten organizations including energy companies, Enel, Vattenfall and Royal Dutch Shell.

"Achieving the deep emissions cuts required to keep global warming below the 2 degrees limit is possible but difficult," said McKinsey director Tomas Naucler. Global investment of 530 billion euros ($686 billion) would be needed by 2020, and 810 billion by 2030, the report added.

Countries would offset much of the cost by simultaneously cutting their bills for oil, gas and coal, resulting in a net cost of less than 1 percent of gross domestic product….

Climate change enhances grassland productivity

Red Orbit: More frequent freeze-thaw cycles in winter can increase biomass production according to the results of a recent study conducted by the Helmholtz Center for Environmental Research (UFZ), the University of Bayreuth and the Helmholtz Center in Munich. For their experiment at the Ecological-Botanical Garden of the University of Bayreuth the researchers installed underground heating on their plots, thereby enabling five additional thawing periods to take place in the winter of 2005/2006.

They found that on the manipulated plots ten percent more biomass grew compared to on the control plots. Such increased plant productivity can be explained by several factors, like for example an increase in nitrogen supply in the spring, according to the researchers account in the scientific journal New Phytologist.

…Due to global warming and a greater absence of an insulating snow cover, these cyclic processes are likely to increase. In spite of this and apart from a study from the North of Sweden there are hitherto practically no investigations that have conducted research on the significance of these cyclic processes for plants. Scientists working together with Jürgen Kreyling therefore set up an experimental site on the outskirts of Bayreuth to investigate the effects of extreme weather events such as droughts, torrential rain and freeze-thaw processes.

…In the following summer the plants were harvested twice, dried and then weighed. Here it was found that the manipulated plots produced 10 percent more above-ground biomass than the control plots on which in the previous winter less freeze-thaw cycles had occurred. In comparison it was also found that root length up to five centimeters soil depth was reduced.

Image by Katy Prairie Conservancy, Wikimedia Commons, under the Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike 3.0 License

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Waste heat: The other global warming

Bina Venkataraman in the Boston Globe: Human civilization will heat up the planet; the glaciers will melt and the seas will rise. It's a familiar refrain by now, with a familiar solution: stop pumping out the greenhouse gases that trap the sun's heat. But even if we bring the greenhouse effect under control, says a Tufts astrophysicist, the earth will warm up anyway, thanks to a completely different source of heat that we create ourselves.

Over the next 250 years, calculates Eric J. Chaisson in a recent paper, the earth's population will start generating so much of its own heat - chiefly wasted from energy use - that it will warm the earth even without a rise in greenhouse gases. The only way to avoid it, he says, is to rethink how we generate energy.

His paper examines the planet's growing pool of waste heat, a widespread phenomenon that nonetheless has been little studied as a cause of climate change. …The culprits in the waste-heat problem are not only dirty fossil fuels like coal and oil, but also some "clean" power sources like nuclear and geothermal energy, which still add to the problem by pumping new heat into the atmosphere. The only way to stop waste heat-induced global warming, in Chaisson's view, is to rely on energy that already reaches the earth's surface: sunlight, and the wind and the waves that it powers.

…Since his paper was published in July, the most frequent criticism Chaisson has heard is that the waste-heat problem diverts attention from the far more urgent question of how to tackle greenhouse gas emissions. If we cook ourselves with carbon dioxide first, critics say, waste heat will make little difference.

…Long-range ideas like Chaisson's are uncommon in the realm of policy, where the pressure is great to deal with present-day challenges that affect people alive today. But such long-term thinking has been an important thread in the environmental movement, and holds an undeniable grip on the popular imagination….

An industrial furnace in the 1907 paper factory in Krępa, Poland. Shot by Mohylek, Wikimedia Commons, under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License, Version 1.2

Rain tanks may attract dengue fever mozzies

Canberra Times (Australia): The return of rainwater tanks in Australia's back yards could bring the mosquito that carries dengue fever back to areas as far south as Sydney. After arriving in Australia on ships carrying infected water barrels in the late 19th century, the mozzie spread from Queensland to Sydney and west to Perth.

But by the late 1960s it had been restricted to the northern half of Queensland thanks in part to the removal of old galvanised rainwater tanks, the installation of piped water, insecticides and new power lawnmowers that helped keep yards tidy. But now, thanks to climate change, the backyard rainwater tank is making a resurgence - and a new study warns the dengue mozzie could hitch a ride.

Lead author, Dr Michael Kearney of the University of Melbourne, says rainwater tanks and smaller storage tubs like modified wheelie bins are potential breeding sites for the Aedes aegypti mosquito which carries the disease. "The potential direct impact of climate change on its distribution and abundance is minor when compared to the potential effect of changed water-storage behaviour," said Dr Kearney….

Stegomyia aegypti (formerly Aedes aegypti) mosquito biting a human. From the USDA website

Spain and France battered by deadly storm

Yahoo News via Agence France-Presse: Rescuers in Spain and France launched a desperate operation on Sunday to clear wrecked homes, roads and power lines after hurricane-force winds killed 15 people, including four children inside a sports hall near Barcelona.

…One the fiercest storms to hit Europe in more than a decade, the winds came in from the Atlantic and tore into southwest France and northern Spain ripping roofs off houses, pulling down power lines and flattening hundreds of thousands of trees. More than 1.1 million homes in France and hundreds of thousands in Spain remained without power on Sunday. Electricity workers were brought in from Britain, Germany and Portugal to help hundreds sent from the rest of France to patch up power supplies.

A dozen helicopters were sent out to estimate the damage to the French electricity network, which the state electric company said could be worse than a hurricane which battered a wider area of France in 1999.

In Perpignan, near the French-Spanish border, the winds were recorded at 184 kilometres (114 miles) an hour. Fallen trees hampered police and other emergency services from getting to many alerts and brought trains and bus services to a halt. Many rail routes were still cut on Sunday.

"It's the apocalypse," said Peio Poueyts, an official in the tourism office in the French city of Biarritz on the Atlantic coast. Much of the Gironde and Landes regions of southwest France have key forestry industries but huge areas were flattened by the storm, officials said….

A postcard of Perpignan, France, where extremely high winds were recorded. Claimed as personal work by kikiarg, Wikimedia Commons, under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License, Version 1.2

Dramatic expansion of dead zones in oceans likely with unchecked global warming

Science Daily: Unchecked global warming would leave ocean dwellers gasping for breath. Dead zones are low-oxygen areas in the ocean where higher life forms such as fish, crabs and clams are not able to live. In shallow coastal regions, these zones can be caused by runoff of excess fertilizers from farming. A team of Danish researchers have now shown that unchecked global warming would lead to a dramatic expansion of low-oxygen areas zones in the global ocean by a factor of 10 or more.

Whereas some coastal dead zones could be recovered by control of fertilizer usage, expanded low-oxygen areas caused by global warming will remain for thousands of years to come, adversely affecting fisheries and ocean ecosystems far into the future.

Professor Gary Shaffer of the Niels Bohr Institute, University of Copenhagen, who is the leader of the research team at the Danish Center for Earth System Science (DCESS), explains that "such expansion would lead to increased frequency and severity of fish and shellfish mortality events, for example off the west coasts of the continents like off Oregon and Chile".

….He adds that "if, as in many climate model simulations, the overturning circulation of the ocean would greatly weaken in response to global warming, these oxygen minimum zones would expand much more still and invade the deep ocean." Extreme events of ocean oxygen depletion leading to anoxia are thought to be prime candidates for explaining some of the large extinction events in Earth history including the largest such event at the end of the Permian 250 million years ago.

Furthermore, as suboxic zones expand, essential nutrients are stripped from the ocean by the process of denitrification. This in turn would shift biological production in the lighted surface layers of the ocean toward plankton species that are able to fix free dissolved nitrogen. This would then lead to large, unpredictable changes in ocean ecosystem structure and productivity, on top of other large unpredictable changes to be expected from ocean acidification, the other great oceanic consequence of high atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations from fossil fuel burning…..

Sediment filled water meets the blue ocean in this photo at the outflow of the Neuse River after Hurricane Floyd. NASA

Cholera from Zimbabwe spreads in South Africa's rivers: spokesman

Terra Daily via Agence France-Presse: Rivers in South Africa's famed Kruger game park are contaminated with cholera floating downstream from Zimbabwe, but the virus poses no threat to visiting tourists, a spokesman said Friday. "It's in the rivers, but there is no threat for people unless they go and drink from the river or swim in it, which they are not allowed to do," park spokesman Raymond Travers told AFP.

"Each camp has its own water reservoir, treated with chemicals. There's no danger of cholera coming into the drinking water." The deadly but treatable disease spreads in dirty water. More than 2,700 people have died of cholera in Zimbabwe along with dozens of others in neighbouring countries….

Cholera bacteria

Saturday, January 24, 2009

More accurate FEMA flood maps could help avoid significant damages and losses

Science Daily: Significant loss of life, destroyed property and businesses, and repairs to infrastructure could be avoided by replacing Federal Emergency Management Agency flood maps with ones that contain high-accuracy and high-resolution land surface elevation data, says a new report from the National Research Council.

The benefits of more accurate flood maps will outweigh the costs, mainly because insurance premiums and building restrictions would better match the actual flood risks. Coastal region flood maps could also be improved by updating current models and using two-dimensional storm surge and wave models.

….The costs for improving flood maps would come from collecting, updating, modeling, and analyzing the flood-related data; increasing construction of property and businesses; losing land to development; updating regulations; and informing the public of changes. The committee found that these costs would be outweighed by benefits of more accurate flood maps, including reduced loss of life, property, and businesses; more efficient planning and response for emergency services; and preservation of natural functions of floodplains. In addition, better maps would provide more reliable measures of flood hazard, which would enable more targeted land-use regulations and structures to be insured at appropriate levels. Maps that include estimates of the height flood water will rise or exceed during a 100-year flood provide significantly more benefits than those that do not.

...FEMA's transition to digital flood mapping also provides opportunities for better informing the public of flood hazards and risks through maps and Web-based products, the committee noted. To adequately convey risk, the maps and products must show where the flood hazard areas are located and the likely consequences of flooding, such as damage to houses or coastal erosion. Additionally, floodplain residents should know how their land elevation level compares with various possible flood heights, which will offer a finer discrimination of potential risk. Currently, maps that show only floodplain boundaries imply that every building in a designated flood zone may flood and every building outside the zone is safe….

After Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, a flood surge smashed this house in the Upper 9th Ward. Photo by Infrogmation, Wikimedia Commons, under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License, Version 1.2