Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Forest credits would crash carbon markets: Greenpeace

Agence France-Presse: Including forest protection measures in carbon markets would cause carbon prices to crash, and could undo efforts to rein in global warming, according to a Greenpeace report released Monday. Prices in a future carbon market would plummet by 75 percent, making it cheaper for industries in rich nations to buy deforestation offsets than reduce their carbon output at home, a study commissioned by the green group found.

It would also starve developing countries of investments for clean and renewable technologies, said the report, released on the margins of climate talks under the UN Framework Convention for Climate Change. "Cheap forest credits sound attractive, but a closer examination shows they are a dangerous option that won't save the forests or stop runaway climate change," said Roman Czebiniak, a forest expert at Greenpeace International.

Negotiators from 175 nations have gathered here to hammer out a climate treaty -- slated for completion by year's end -- to replace the Kyoto Protocol, which runs out in 2012. Finding a way to reduce emissions from deforestation and forest degradation in developing countries -- an effort known as REDD -- has emerged as a key element in the negotiations.

…"There is broad consensus now that the post-2012 agreement will include some sort of incentives for tropical countries to reduce their deforestation," said Steve Schwartzman, a forests expert at Environmental Defense, an advocacy group based in Washington D.C.
But sharp differences remain on whether these aims are best achieved primarily through market mechanisms, including a future global carbon market, or various forms of public funding and grants.

"Forests are the wild card in these negotiations -- it could be used to bring us closer to our goals, or to water them down," said Czebiniak….

Timber from a Malaysian forest at a sawmill where it is being processed for export. Shot by Stephen Codrington, from  Planet Geography 3rd Edition (2005).  Personal photo by Stephen Codrington uploaded with permission for the benefit of geography on Wikimedia projects,  under Creative Commons Attribution 2.5 License.  This and other photos by Stephen Codrington are available to download and order at his personal website.

Starvation rising as recession takes hold says UN

Kay Sexton at Red Green and Blue: The recent fall in grain prices across the developed world may have given the impression that food security isn’t a problem – but it is. There are more people not getting enough to eat than there were a decade ago.

Prices for grain, globally, are still 20% above the 2006 average, so overall this is a period of extremely high costs for staple foods. And while commodity prices have fallen in international markets, retail prices have not fallen in the developing world at anything like the same rate. In other words, a warehouse full of corn is cheaper, but a bag of corner on a Nairobi street corner is more expensive, than in 2006. And while the immediate suspicion is corruption in the developing world, that’s probably not the main reason for the hiked prices staying high. Cereal stocks are at a thirty year low – a situation made worse by the use of certain crops for bio-fuel – and scarcity of reserves will always keep prices high.

The Food And Agriculture Organisation says that more than a billion people, globally, will go hungry this year and the number of what is horribly called ‘chronically hungry’ people is still rising. By the end of 2008, 963 million people were estimated to be undernourished.

We need to do more to help small agricultural producers to remain on the land. When natural disaster, political upheaval or simple economic pressure strike, the first response from marginal farmers (those only growing enough food to feed their families and selling, or bartering any surplus locally) is to up sticks and head for the nearest city, where they become more of a drain on resources. But there is almost no institutional support for subsistence farmers anywhere in the world….

Thames Barrier gets extra time as London's main flood defence

Guardian (UK): London is less vulnerable to rising sea levels caused by global warming than experts realised, according to a new analysis. Experts at the Environment Agency said the Thames Barrier will protect the city for decades longer than engineers thought, with a six-year study revealing that the barrier's original designs overestimated the threat from climate change.

Rather than becoming obsolete by 2030, as its designers thought, the barrier will not need to be replaced until 2070, the agency said today. Chris Burnham, who worked on the Environment Agency project, called the results "good news". He said the barrier's designers had overestimated the likely sea level rise in coming decades when they gave the flood defence a best-before date of 2030.

"London is defended. We can deal with it," he said. A decision on whether to modify or replace the barrier will not be needed until the middle of the century, the agency said….

Adrian Pingstone shot this image of workers maintaining the Thames Barrier, and generously released it into the public domain. Thank you!

Climate change fears for virus outbreaks in livestock

Science Daily: Global warming could have chilling consequences for European livestock, warned Professor Peter Mertens from the Institute for Animal Health, at the meeting of the Society for General Microbiology in Harrogate on March 30.

Since 1998, rising temperatures have led to outbreaks of bluetongue (BT) across most of Europe, which have killed over 2 million ruminants (mainly sheep). The outbreak (the largest on record) caused by Bluetongue virus serotype 8 (BTV-8), which started in the Netherlands and Belgium during 2006, has since spread to most European countries, including the UK in August and September 2007. This outbreak, the first ever recorded in northern Europe, was not an isolated event. There are also fears that related viruses, such as African horse sickness virus, which can have a fatality rate of more than 95% and shares the same insect vectors as bluetongue, could also be introduced.

Bluetongue is spread by the biting midge, Culicoides imicola, which has recently colonised the northern Mediterranean coast, leading to outbreaks in affected regions. However, BT outbreaks have also been spread by other novel vector species of midge (C.pulicaris and C obsoletus groups), which are abundant across the whole of central and northern Europe. In experiments, a single bite from a fully infected midge can transmit the virus and as midges are blown across Europe "like aerial plankton" it is almost impossible to prevent them getting to the United Kingdom.

Warmer weather increases the rate of infection and virus replication in the midge itself, and increases their activity in more northern areas. Indeed, the 2006 outbreak started in the Netherlands when temperatures were six degrees higher than previously recorded. Mild winters may also play a significant part in the problem, as the midges that are not killed by the cold (in the absence of frosts) may survive in sufficient numbers to maintain a reservoir of the disease. It is clear that BTV-8 can also be transmitted directly between cattle, providing an overwintering mechanism for the virus to survive from one midge season to the next.

Negatively stained bluetongue virus–like particle that caused a cytopathic effect in BHK-21 cells. Scale bar = 50 nm

World malaria map could guide policy

SciDev.net: Researchers have created what they say is the first global map of malaria infection rates in more than 40 years, in an effort to help inform policy and monitor progress in fighting the disease. The map of the extent of Plasmodium falciparum infection, the most deadly type of malaria parasite, is published today (24 March) in PLoS Medicine. It was produced by the Malaria Atlas Project (MAP), a multinational team of over 200 researchers.

The researchers used data from nearly 8,000 surveys of how many people were carrying the parasite in their bloodstream in malaria-prone areas in 2007 to map malaria risk. They found that fewer people live in high-risk malaria areas than previously thought. Some 70 per cent of the 2.4 billion people in malaria-prone areas live in low-risk areas where mathematical models predict that simple interventions such as bednets could eradicate the disease.

"The map shows us, surprisingly, that the majority of the endemic world is in fact very low risk," says Bob Snow, one of the report's authors, from the Kenya Medical Research Institute and the UK-based University of Oxford. All of Latin America was found to be at low risk, as was most of Central and South-East Asia, although pockets of intermediate and occasionally high transmission remain.

But the map also shows that the risk of contracting malaria remains high in Central and West Africa where control, rather than eradication, should therefore be the aim of the next ten years. Of the people estimated to live in high-risk areas worldwide, 98 per cent lived in Africa…

Monday, March 30, 2009

Floods, ice jams, blizzards strike the Great Plains

Environment News Service: The North Dakota National Guard Sunday airlifted giant one-ton sandbags to block the water rushing through a major breach in the Fargo city flood protection system. A Black Hawk helicopter from the North Dakota National Guard lifted the enormous reinforced plastic bags of sand and clay dirt, each weighing a ton, and carried them to the site of Fargo's Oak Grove Lutheran School and lowered them to bolster the weakening levee there.

Only hours earlier, while most of the city slept, a leak in the dike was discovered at Oak Grove, and two of the school's five buildings had taken water," says Sgt. 1st Class David Dodds. About 60 members of the National Guard's Quick Reaction Force and emergency crews from the city responded to the breach, holding back as much of the Red River as they could.

After the breach was stabilized, the giant sandbags were airlifted using cables and hoists suspended from the choppers. Eleven bags, from one of three prepositioned locations in Fargo, were transferred to the Oak Grove site. The reinforced plastic material used for the giant sandbags typically is used for holding agricultural products, such as soybeans, as they are lifted onto railcars or semi-trailer trucks. The levee is now stabilized and a secondary dike is holding. No evacuations were required.

…Ice is jamming up on rivers large and small across North Dakota. To get advice, on March 24, Governor John Hoeven sent a National Guard jet to Omaha, Nebraska to pick up Roger Kay, an Army Corps of Engineers expert with two decades of experience fighting ice jams.
After evaluating the ice formations on the Missouri River, Kay said the one south of Bismarck that backed up Missouri River water into neighborhoods last week was moderate in size but "very severe" in terms of impact....

The Red River of the North drainage basin, with the Red River highlighted. Karl Musser created the map based on USGS and Digital Chart of the World data. Wikimedia Commons, under the Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike 2.5 License

Africa's agriculture vulnerable to breakdown under climate change

Solve Climate: ...Africa’s future if climate change continues apace looks grim: the devastation of its farms and fisheries, flooding of its river deltas, and the ruin of its mangrove swamps and coral reefs. Such damage will be worsened by Africa’s awesome poverty, because the continent has far less money to spend on adaptation and mitigation than the industrialized West.

So far, too little attention has been paid to global warming’s impact on African agriculture. Its vulnerability to breakdown has been put into sharp relief by recent droughts and the global food crisis. As the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s 2007 report notes, “By 2020, in some countries, yields from rain-fed agriculture could be reduced by up to 50 percent. Agricultural production, including access to food, in many African countries is projected to be severely compromised. This would further adversely affect food security and exacerbate malnutrition.”

The working paper observes that agricultural systems will be “severely compromised” by anthropogenic climate change. For Africa, this will be particularly cruel. Researchers note that agriculture contributes between 10 and 70 percent of GDP across the continent. In turn, they observe that, “In other countries, additional risks that could be exacerbated by climate change include greater erosion, deficiencies in yields from rain-fed agriculture of up to 50 percent during the 2000-2020 period, and reductions in crop growth period. … A recent study on South African agricultural impacts, based on three scenarios, indicates that crop net revenues will be likely to fall by as much as 90 percent by 2100, with small-scale farmers being the most severely affected.”

Of course, such estimates were made based on the now-outmoded 2007 IPCC projections. The worst-case scenarios of those models are now assumed to be totally realistic, if not downright conservative….

"Drought has turned farmland into useless soil and sand" A farmer examines the soil in drought stricken Niger during the 2005 famine. Still from a Voice of America TV report

Climate denialism in Texas textbooks

A press release from Environmental Defense Fund: Indicating doubt about the existence of global warming, today's final vote on textbook language by the Texas State Board of Education flouts leading scientific consensus as well as the board's own scientific advisors.

Surprising environmentalists, the board's last-minute decision Wednesday changed the language in a school textbook chapter on Environmental Systems to include the phrase "analyze and evaluate different views on the existence of global warming."

Dr. Ramon Alvarez, senior scientist with Environmental Defense Fund, said that to deny the existence of global warming is not only an affront to the board's own advisors, but also to established science, citing agreement by the National Academy of Sciences, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and even one of the state's premier academic institutions, Texas A&M University. "In a last-minute assault on science and sensibility, the board appears to be supporting its own ideological views rather than those of proven science," Alvarez said. "Experts around the country, including the tenured faculty of Texas A&M's Department of Atmospheric Sciences, agree that our climate is warming and that humans are responsible."

The new textbook language also positions Texas children behind regions already addressing global warming. "The tragedy of this ruling is that it places Texas children at a competitive disadvantage in science education, thus failing them as they prepare to compete in the global marketplace," said Jim Marston, regional director of Environmental Defense Fund.

The outdoor track of Texas Christian University, shot by General125

Shampoo in the water supply triggers growth of deadly drug-resistant bugs

Guardian (UK): Fabric softeners, disinfectants, shampoos and other household products are spreading drug-resistant bacteria around Britain, scientists have warned. Detergents used in factories and mills are also increasing the odds that some medicines will no longer be able to combat dangerous diseases.

The warning has been made by Birmingham and Warwick university scientists, who say disinfectants and other products washed into sewers and rivers are triggering the growth of drug-resistant microbes. Soil samples from many areas have been found to contain high levels of bacteria with antibiotic-resistant genes, the scientists have discovered - raising fears that these may have already been picked up by humans.

"Every year, the nation produces 1.5m tonnes of sewage sludge and most of that is spread on farmland," said Dr William Gaze of Warwick University. That sludge contains antibiotic-resistant bacteria whose growth is triggered by chemicals in detergents, he explained. "In addition, we pump 11bn litres of water from houses and factories into our rivers and estuaries every day, and these are also spreading resistance."

The study is important because it suggests that the problem of drug resistance is not merely the result of the over-prescription of antibiotics or poor hygiene standards in hospitals. However, the team stressed the emergence of the most deadly superbugs - such as MRSA that has caused thousands of deaths in hospitals - is not linked to the use of disinfectants.

"Our research shows drug resistance is not confined to hospitals, but is out in the community. It is spreading and all the time it is eroding our ability to control infections. It is extremely worrying," said Professor Liz Wellington, also of Warwick University….

A plate culture of Enterobacter sakazakii performed during an antibiogram study. The clear areas around each antibiotic disc indicate the regions on inhibition in the otherwise uniform bacterial lawn. From the Centers for Disease Control

Russia plans elite army unit in race for Arctic resources

Daily Mail (UK): The race to militarise the Arctic began in earnest yesterday as Russia announced that it will deploy a dedicated military force to protect its interests in the oil and gas-rich polar region. The operation to gain control of vast mineral resources under the ice cap is being put in the direct control of Moscow's intelligence services - the former KGB.

Its Arctic strategy document said the creation of a group of forces there must 'ensure military security under various military-political circumstances'. Russia is vying with the U.S, Canada, Norway, and Denmark (Greenland), which also have territory touching Arctic waters, for the area's oil and gas reserves.

It is building six new nuclear submarines, which will be armed with improved nuclear-tipped cruise missiles, the ITAR-Tass news agency reported yesterday. They will be 'capable of ensuring military security,' in the region, according to the report.

The dispute between the five countries has got increasingly heated as it became apparent that as global warming melted the polar icecaps, natural resources buried beneath the surface would be much easier to access. Under current international law the five countries are allowed a 200 mile economic zone north of their shores.

...Moscow [lodged] a claim in 2001 to 463,000 square miles of the Arctic ocean – an area the size of western Europe - with the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. It spent nearly £20billion in a bid to prove the Lomonosov Ridge, an underwater shelf that runs through the Arctic, is really an extension of its territory....

Depth profile through the Arctic Ocean. Gakkel Ridge is an active spreading zone with a central valley in the middle; Russia claims that the Lomonosov Ridge is supposed is a remnant of the Siberian Shelf. Image by Hannes Grobe, Alfred Wegener Institute, Wikimedia Commons, under Creative Commons Attribution 2.5 License

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Climate change felt in richest fishing ground

Philippine Daily Inquirer.net: Ariel Domiguez, 42, has been fishing for 16 years in waters off Verde Island in Batangas province, considered to have the most diverse marine life on the planet. But because of climate change and its threat of rising sea levels and lower fish yields, Dominguez is thinking about the possibility that he might eventually have to quit his job, pack up his belongings and transfer to higher ground.

…The Verde Island Passage has been called the “center of the center” of the world’s marine biodiversity by the US Smithsonian Institute. But even here, the effects of global warming are starting to be felt.

…According to a recent international study of seven countries in Southeast Asia, the entire Philippines is considered to be among the “most vulnerable” areas to climate change in the region. “Based on this mapping assessment, all the regions of the Philippines…are among the most vulnerable regions in Southeast Asia,” said the study “Climate Change Vulnerability Mapping for Southeast Asia” by Arief Yusuf and Herminia Francisco.

The study -- which covered the Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia, Cambodia, Thailand, Laos, and Vietnam -- arrived at its conclusions after looking at the “exposure” and “sensitivity” to climate change of areas in these countries and their “adaptability” to these changes.

…While it ranked Metro Manila as the 7th most vulnerable area to climate change in Southeast Asia, the study also included a map that showed the entire Philippines colored in orange indicating that all its regions were vulnerable. “We better come up with projects for mitigation and adaptation. We have to set up systems to easily adapt to the inevitable,” said Paolo Pagaduan, a project manager of the World Wildlife Foundation….

The view of Verde Island, Batangas City, Philippines from Monte Maria, Brgy. Pagkilatan, Batangas City. Shot by Kampfgruppe, Wikimedia Commons, under the Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike 3.0 License

Dust may settle unanwered questions on Antarctica

Science Daily: Dust trapped deep in Antarctic ice sheets is helping scientists unravel details of past climate change. Researchers have found that dust blown south to Antarctica from the windy plains of Patagonia – and deposited in the ice periodically over 80,000 years – provides vital information about glacier activity.

Scientists hope the findings will help them to better understand how the global climate has changed during the past ice age, and so help predict environmental changes in the future. The study indicates that the ebb and flow of glaciers in the Chilean and Argentinian region is a rich source of information about past climates – which had not until now been fully appreciated by scientists.

The study, carried out by the Universities of Edinburgh, Stirling and Lille, shows that the very coldest periods of the last ice age correspond with the dustiest periods in Antarctica's past.

During these times, glaciers in Patagonia were at their biggest and released their meltwater, containing dust particles, on to barren windy plains, from where dust was blown to Antarctica. When the glaciers retreated even slightly, their meltwater ran into lakes at the edge of the ice, which trapped the dust, so that fewer particles were blown across the ocean to Antarctica. Dust from the ice cores was analysed and found to be a close match with mud of the same age in the Magellan Straits, showing that most of the dust originated in this region.

…Professor David Sugden, of the University of Edinburgh, said: "Ice cores from the Antarctic ice sheet act as a record of global environment. However, the dust levels showed some sudden changes which had us puzzled – until we realised that the Patagonian glaciers were acting as an on/off switch for releasing dust into the atmosphere."….

Satellite view of Patagonia, the source of the dust that lands in Antarctica

California must act now to save the coastline

An editorial in the Monterey County Herald (California): The headlines were alarming in many California newspapers two weeks ago: …The occasion was the release of an obviously alarming report by the Pacific Institute, a respected Oakland think tank, about global warming's impact on California's coastline by the end of the century. It is the first of several studies commissioned by the state to assess the impacts of global warming on California life. Future studies will focus on drought, snowpack, wildfires and other climate-related issues.

…Whether the projections prove realistic or fanciful, we would be foolhardy not to respond in some orderly and relatively united fashion. In various combinations, there would seem to be three major courses of potential action.

The first, and seemingly the most logical, is for California to continue and even step up its pioneering efforts to combat global warming.

…The second course, every bit as logical as the first, is to accept global warming and systematically begin moving people, structures and infrastructure out of the ocean's path wherever possible while strengthening existing measures to discourage coastal construction, especially in low-lying areas.

…The third obvious tack is to accept the warming trend and begin to fortify the coast to protect the status quo. The Pacific Institute study concluded that California would need about 1,100 miles of new or modified structures such as dikes, seawalls and bulkheads to protect against the potential flooding. That cost is estimated at $14 billion, plus annual maintenance expenses of about 10 percent of construction costs.

That strategy, however, might be summarized as destroying the coast in order to save it. Until and unless someone comes along to disprove the global warming theory, our vote is for a combination of options one and two.

The Monterey Marina in Monterey Bay, shot by mamamusings, Wikimedia Commons via Flickr, under Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike 2.0 License

Innovations in adaptation

New Nation (Bangladesh): Modeling studies undertaken by the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT) on the potential impact of climate change on dryland crops show that the drop in yields can be minimized through the use of adapted and improved crop varieties plus soil and water management innovations. The interventions can be further strengthened through developing improved varieties and hybrids that are better targeted for climate change adaptation including enhancing capacities of the farming communities.

ICRISAT studies show that climate change will modify the length of the growing period across the semi-arid tropics of Asia and sub-Saharan Africa, but this can be dealt with by re-targeting and re-deploying the existing crop varieties.

…Allocation of improved financial resources and policy support to agricultural research to enable dryland crops to overcome the adverse impacts of climate change will help the poor farmers of the semi-arid tropics to sustain their productivity and their incomes in the medium-and long-term, Dr Dar said. ICRISAT studies have generated a "hypothesis of hope", which states:

1. The impact of climate change on the yields under low input agriculture is likely to be minimal as other factors will continue to provide the overriding constraints to crop growth and yield.

2. The adoption of currently recommended improved crop, soil and water management practices, even under climate change, will result in substantially higher yields than farmers are currently obtaining in their low input systems.

3. The adaptation of better 'temperature-adapted' varieties could result in the almost complete mitigation of climate change effects that result from temperature increases….

Saturday, March 28, 2009

US prepared to shelter 30,000 flood victims

Raw Story, via Agence France-Presse: The US government is bracing itself to care for up to 30,000 people fleeing record flooding in the country's northern plains, a top official said Friday. US Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said amid "historically unprecedented" flooding in the Red River valley between the states of Minnesota and North Dakota, the federal government had readied itself to house and feed 30,000 people for up to a week.

Hospitals and scores of homes were evacuated Friday as snow-melts swelled the Red River, breaching at least one levee and threatening miles of sandbag dikes set up by volunteers. An estimated 3,500 people have been evacuated so far from the area so far.

But many fear the worst is yet to come, with river levels expected to rise to a 112-year record of 42 feet (13 meters) by 1:00 pm (1800 GMT) on Saturday. "The river has not even crested yet," said Napolitano. "In the worst case scenario we could be dealing with 80,000 to 100,000 people evacuated," she told reporters. But Napolitano said the vast majority of potential evacuees -- around 77 percent -- would likely stay with family or friends, leaving the government to care for the rest….

The US Army Corps of Engineers shows Grand Forks, North Dakota, during the 1997 flood. The 2009 flood in Fargo is worse.

Ample evidence Florida's feeling effects of climate change

An article in the Palm Beach Post (Florida) has several detailed lists of climate impacts on various Florida species: …People who study South Florida's environment say global warming is starting to have a significant impact on Florida's fish, fowl and flora. Among those beginning to see the signs is [Don] Hammond, a private researcher in Charleston, S.C., who retired after 35 years with that state's Department of Natural Resources. He now runs a company called Cooperative Sciences Services. His fish, tagged in waters between South Florida and North Carolina, appear to be migrating farther north. Last year, one in five were hooked anew between North Carolina and Massachusetts, and one swam its way to the waters off of Nova Scotia.

…To help separate fact from conjecture, the University of South Florida is turning its 756-acre Ecological Research Area into an an outdoor lab to track the effects of climate change. The site, operational this spring, will monitor the usual indicators of seasonal change — such as the migration of birds — to see if they are happening earlier than in the past, said George Kish, coordinator of the project….

Project raises Tahoe awareness about global warming

Tahoe Daily Tribune (California): While California rests on the verge of releasing a strategy to adapt to global climate change, a South Lake Tahoe-based conservation group continues a more than three-year process to encourage groups in the Sierra Nevada to adjust to the global phenomenon. The Sierra Water and Climate Change Adaptation Pledge is a Sierra Nevada Alliance project and is designed to raise awareness about the effects of climate change on the mountain range, said Alliance Americorps Member Robert Collier.

Among climate change’s potential effects is the loss of at least 25 percent of the Sierra snowpack by 2050, according to the California Department of Water Resources. Such a loss is a concern for both the health of local economies in the Sierra, as well as California’s a water supply, said Marion Gee, Water and Climate Change Program Associate for the Sierra Nevada Alliance.

The pledge is an informal agreement to incorporate seven guiding principles — including educating others about climate change and prioritizing projects that will succeed under multiple climate change scenarios — into decision-making processes when possible, Collier said….

A boat on Lake Tahoe, shot by Ville Miettinen, Wikimedia Commons via Flickr, under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 License

Rain-soaked southern Africa hit by worst floods in years

Terra Daily via Agence France-Presse: Southern African countries have been hit by the worst floods in years, killing more than 100 people and displacing thousands, as a tropical storm threatened to bring more pain on Saturday.

As Mozambique braced for the arrival of a strengthening tropical storm Izilda, record river levels across the region threatened to exacerbate floods which have already affected hundreds of thousands of people.

Namibia's government declared a state of emergency last week in areas where floods have affected over 350,000 people, 13,000 of whom were displaced, according to numbers released by the United Nations on Friday.

Another 160,000 people have been affected in Angola.

The Zambezi river, along Namibia's northeastern Caprivi Region, rose to 7.82 metres (25 feet) this week, its highest level in 40 years, before slightly dropping, Caprivi Governor Leonard Mwilima said. "We have large areas submerged by water and access to several villages is cut off," he said.

…Some are blaming climate change for the floods. "We must seriously consider the present floods and those of a year ago as having to do with climate change," Guido van Langenhove, a Namibian government hydrologist, told AFP.

Locator map of Southern Africa by Xiong, Wikimedia Commons, under the Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike 2.5, Attribution ShareAlike 2.0 and Attribution ShareAlike 1.0 License

Friday, March 27, 2009

US Forest Service firefighting budgets revamped

Summit Daily News (California): The U.S. Forest Service may be able to stop raiding recreation budgets to pay for firefighting if House Bill 1404 makes it to President Barack Obama’s desk. The Federal Land Assistance, Management and Enhancement (FLAME) Act was passed by the U.S. House Thursday by a vote of 412-3 and now heads for the Senate. The measure requires federal officials to update national fire-management plans every five years and maintain a separate budget for firefighting.

In recent years, firefighting has eaten up to half the agency’s budget annually. As those costs have soared, staffing in other areas has dropped. Resource specialist positions for basic inventory and monitoring have been cut by 44 percent. Staff for servicing the 192 million annual visitors to national forests has been cut by 28 percent, and biologist and technician positions have dropped by 39 percent. White River National Forest rangers said they couldn’t comment directly on pending legislation. But in past years, the White River, like other national forests, has had resources diverted from recreation programs and other areas to pay for firefighting in other parts of the country — especially toward the end of the fiscal year.

Manpower can also be affected. Often, rangers from local districts are called away from their posts for weeks at a time to join in firefighting efforts in other states. That can hamper local trail-work projects and even slow planning for ski-area proposals. When major blazes broke out in California last year, national forests in the rest of the country, including the White River, had to foot at least part of the bill, affecting their ability to complete other projects.

...According to a press release from Congressman Jared Polis’ office, the House unanimously approved an amendment that requires timely updates of the fire plans and budgets. Without the amendment, the plans could quickly fall out-of-date from things like climate change and the pine-beetle infestation.

“My district is a prime example of why we need an ever-evolving fire management plan,” Polis said in his statement. “We’ve been hit hard by climate change and the pine-beetle epidemic that has killed millions of acres of forest and has brought the threat of wildfire to our backyards.” By continually revising the plan, federal agencies will take climate change, the pine-beetle infestation, population growth, and other factors of change into account and ensure that the plan remains an effective tool into the future, Polis said....

Fire-fighting plane, shot by Hogne, Wikimedia Commons, under Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike 1.0 License

Dust plays a larger than expected role in Atlantic's temperature

Science Daily: The recent warming trend in the Atlantic Ocean is largely due to reductions in airborne dust and volcanic emissions during the past 30 years, according to a new study.

Since 1980, the tropical North Atlantic has been warming by an average of a quarter-degree Celsius (a half-degree Fahrenheit) per decade. Though this number sounds small, it can translate to big impacts on hurricanes, which thrive on warmer water, says Amato Evan, a researcher with the University of Wisconsin-Madison's Cooperative Institute for Meteorological Satellite Studies and lead author of the new study. For example, the ocean temperature difference between 1994, a quiet hurricane year, and 2005's record-breaking year of storms, was just one degree Fahrenheit.

More than two-thirds of this upward trend in recent decades can be attributed to changes in African dust storm and tropical volcano activity during that time, report Evan and his colleagues at UW-Madison and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in a new paper. Their findings will appear in an upcoming issue of the journal Science and publish online March 26.

…In the new study, they combined satellite data of dust and other particles with existing climate models to evaluate the effect on ocean temperature. They calculated how much of the Atlantic warming observed during the last 26 years can be accounted for by concurrent changes in African dust storms and tropical volcanic activity, primarily the eruptions of El Chichón in Mexico in 1982 and Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines in 1991.

In fact, it is a surprisingly large amount, Evan says. "A lot of this upward trend in the long-term pattern can be explained just by dust storms and volcanoes," he says. "About 70 percent of it is just being forced by the combination of dust and volcanoes, and about a quarter of it is just from the dust storms themselves."….

A dust storm off the coast of Morocco was imaged by NASA’s MODIS Aqua meteorological satellite on March 12, 2009. A new study by UW-Madison researcher Amato Evan shows that variability of African dust storms and tropical volcanic eruptions can account for 70 percent of the warming North Atlantic Ocean temperatures observed during the past three decades. (Credit: Photo: courtesy Amato Evan)

Red River rising into history

Minneapolis Star-Tribune: The Red River of the North rose to a level never seen in recorded history this morning, fueling fears that a catastrophic failure of flood defenses could occur. The river's level stood at 40.44 feet at 7:15 a.m., surpassing the previous record of 40.1 feet reached in 1897, and kept rising to a crest that could reach 43 feet by Saturday afternoon.

Even as residents of Fargo and its sister city of Moorhead, Minn., fled their homes overnight, desperate volunteers continued to pile sandbags on top of sodden levees. The extent of evacuations among the cities' 125,000 residents wasn't immediately clear this morning.

But Moorhead officials dramatically broadened their evacuation plan this morning, recommending the evacuation of all residents living in the city's core. The new evacuation covers roughly a 10-block wide area of the city north of Interstate 94. In announcing it, the city reported that storm sewers are starting to back up.

Shortly after the evacuation was announced, a sign hung on one empty house declared, "WE'RE GONE." Nearby, near the river's edge, another resident continued operating pumps in a desperate attempt to keep his house dry….

Volunteers in the Fargodome fill sandbags in the effort to build dikes and levies against the rising Red River, shot by Adam Quartarolo, Wikimedia Commons, under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License

HSBC makes 'green' insurance push

Environmental Finance: HSBC plans to integrate sustainability into its insurance business, launching ‘green’ insurance products across its global operations this year. Sunny Sehgal has been appointed as the bank’s first senior manager for sustainable insurance. He was formerly head of environmental risks in the bank’s insurance brokerage business. Based in HSBC’s London headquarters, Sehgal will co-ordinate global strategy for sustainability in the group’s insurance businesses and examine how climate and sustainability risks impact the bank.

“Most of the insurance industry is just starting to address risks associated with climate change and other sustainability issues, even though it is in the front line when it comes to the financial impacts of climate change” Sehgal said.

The bank has already launched of a number of green insurance products, including consumer insurance products in Latin America which put a slice of the premium towards environmental causes. HSBC plans to embed sustainability into insurance products in all the regions where it operates….

Up to 100 dead and thousands evacuated in Indonesian dam collapse

IRIN: At least 2,000 people are now staying in four evacuation centres, including universities and government offices, after a dam burst outside Jakarta early on 27 March, killing dozens and leaving scores more missing, officials said. "We have identified 52 casualties already," Rustam Pakya, head of the Ministry of Health's Crisis Centre, told IRIN in the Indonesian capital. "But I expect the death toll to reach about 100 because many more are still missing."

At least 400 houses in the industrial town of Cirendeu in Tangerang, Banten Province, were reportedly affected by the sudden gush of water following the collapse of a section of the 3m high Situ Gintung dam at about 2am. Priyadi Kardono, head of data and information for the National Disaster Management Agency, told IRIN about eight homes were completely destroyed while the rest were either partially damaged or submerged.

He said the collapse happened after three days of rains in the area. “With about 400 houses affected and an average of five people per house, there are at least 2,000 victims,” Tia Kurnyawan, a disaster response officer from Red Cross Indonesia, told IRIN….

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Fewer hurricanes expected this year

Disaster News Network: The 2009 hurricane season doesn’t get underway for another two months, but the early prognosticators are already putting out the word on how they believe the storms will play out. Accu-Weather’s chief long range and hurricane forecaster Joe Bastardi said he believes there will be fewer named storms this year than in 2008, though eight of those storms will become hurricanes – the same number as last year.

Of those eight, only two will become major storms, three fewer than last year. Half of the storms that form this year will make landfall in the United States and only one will be a major storm.

Bastardi said the weak La Niña in the Pacific will dissipate. That, coupled with high pressure in the eastern Atlantic will produce stronger than average easterly trade winds across North Africa, which will favor the formation of storms off the coast of that continent in the middle and later parts of the season.

This year in part of a regular multi-year pattern, apart from global climate change, water temperatures in the Atlantic are expected to be higher than average which will raise the chance of a major storm hitting the east coast, probably north of the Carolinas.

That’s potentially good news for the Caribbean which was hammered by storms last season and Florida and the Gulf region which has suffered many storms in the last few years….

2008's Hurricane Ike in Key West, Florida, Photo by Tech. Sgt. Thomas Kielbasa via flickr

Integrating Europe's climate responses

EurekAlert: Specific measures to tackle climate change, such as emissions trading, will only be successful if they are coherently supported by other government policies addressing economic and social issues, says a report published today by the Partnership for European Environmental Research (PEER). PEER membership is formed from seven of the biggest European environmental research institutes.

The report explains that, in order to create an effective, Europe wide climate policy, climate change issues must be better integrated into both general and sector-specific policies such as taxation, transportation, and land use planning. By doing this the necessary changes in production processes and consumption patterns to tackle climate change will be achieved.

Lead author, Dr. Per Mickwitz, from the Finnish Environment Institute (SYKE), said, "Although the inclusion of climate change mitigation and adaptation in general governmental programmes and strategies has substantially increased in recent years, much more is needed in terms of integrating climate issues into specific policy measures. Annual budgets, environmental impact assessments and spatial planning procedures are three examples of existing measures which we believe have significant potential to be climate policy instruments."

The new report assesses the degree of climate policy integration in six different European countries, at national and local levels, as well as within key policy sectors such as energy and transport. It analyses measures and means to enhance climate policy integration and improve policy coherence. The report shows that when climate policy is integrated into an increasing number of policy sectors such as energy, transport and land use, many latent conflicts are reopened. These include conflicts over nuclear power, taxation, hydro power, mobility and other issues involving values and ideology. If such conflicts are not recognised early they provide a barrier to effective climate policy integration….

Juggler at Circus Festival 2007 in Kerava, Finland, shot by Anneli Salo, Wikimedia Commons, under the Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike 3.0 License

Mohawk River's challenges in spotlight

Times-Union (Albany): More than 100 researchers, environmentalists and residents, all with an interest in the Mohawk River, will gather at Union College on Friday to discuss challenges facing the river, from climate change and floods to battles over how much of the river can be diverted for drinking water in New York City and elsewhere.

"The Mohawk has a lot of competing interests along it," said John Garver, chairman of the college's geology department and conference co-organizer. While devastating floods in June 2006 still are in the minds of many people who live along the river, Garver said droughts are just as critical.

Already, New York City is getting about 15 percent of its drinking water from the aging Gilboa Reservoir on Schoharie Creek, one of the Mohawk's major tributaries, and sometimes that can drop the creek a couple of feet in just hours when a lot of water is sent downstate.

To the east, the Mohawk Valley Water Authority, which supplies water for about 130,000 people in and around Utica, is suing the state Canal Corp. to get more water from the Hinckley Reservoir on West Canada Creek, the river's other major tributary. "It is these competing issues of water use that are very important, especially during low flow," said Garver. "Who gets what in the dry days of August?"

…"Global climate change will have an impact on the Mohawk," said Garver. "It looks like we will have more extreme weather and more water than normal, which may mean more floods like 2006 are a certainty." A study of the Schoharie shows about 30 percent more water flows into the river each year, compared with the 1940s….

An autumn view of the Schoharie Creek, facing Northwest from the Schoharie creek bridge, shot by Stressmint, Wikimedia Commons, under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License

Climate change may wake up Australia's ‘sleeper’ weeds

Insciences.org: Climate change will cause some of Australia’s potential weeds to move south by up to 1000km, according to a report by scientists at CSIRO’s Climate Adaptation Flagship. Weeds cost Australia more than A$4 billion a year either in control or lost production and cause serious damage to the environment.

In an address today in Perth to the GREENHOUSE 09 conference on climate change, CSIRO researcher, Dr John Scott, said, however, that those cost estimates were only based on the damage caused by weeds known to be active in Australia. “Out there, throughout the nation, are many weed species lying low but with the potential to take off and add to the economic and social burden of weed control,” Dr Scott said.

“One critical unknown is what these lurking weeds will do under climate change. Will their distributions change? Will they spread north or south, east or west, and will these movements change them into full-blown pest species?”

A recent CSIRO report for the Australian Government’s Land and Water Australia looked at what effects climate changes anticipated for 2030 and 2070 might have on the distribution of 41 weeds that pose a threat to agriculture (“sleeper” species) and the natural environment (“alert” species). “We found that climate change will cause most of these weeds to shift south, with wet tropical species making the greatest move – over 1000km,” Dr Scott said…..

Invasive weeds in a gully above Para Hills, South Australia near Adelaide. Visible are non-native grasses, fennel, artichoke thistle, bamboo and olives. Shot by Peripitus, Wikimedia Commons, under the Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike 3.0, Attribution ShareAlike 2.5, Attribution ShareAlike 2.0 and Attribution ShareAlike 1.0

Blizzard dumps snow on flooded North Dakota

Terra Daily, via Agence France-Presse: A heavy blizzard dumped wet snow on volunteers rushing to fill sandbags and build temporary dikes to hold off rising flood waters in North Dakota Wednesday as officials prepared to use explosives to break up ice jams on swelling rivers. President Barack Obama issued a federal disaster declaration for 34 counties and two Indian reservations and the entire state was under a major flood warning.

The storm's blustering winds knocked out power to towns across the largely rural prairie state and made many roads impassable as it dumped snow and freezing rain, officials said. Several bridges and roads were already closed due to flooding as an unusually heavy snowpack began to melt on top of saturated land that has not yet fully thawed.

Low-lying homes across the state were evacuated as rivers and creeks spilled over their banks but damage had largely been restricted to water in basements….

A 1966 photo of Jamestown, North Dakota

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Impending water shortages spell unforeseen financial losses

Environmental Science & Technology: As the climate continues to change, water shortages will hit all industries hard, warns a new report from the nonprofit water research group Pacific Institute. Commissioned by Ceres, an investor network group, and published at the end of February, the report also tells businesses—and their customers and investors—what to measure to prepare for the inevitable droughts, shortages, and polluted water resources.

Although many of these impacts have been forecast in the past decade, Pacific Institute reports that most businesses are not thinking about looming water problems. Using information from 120 companies in eight industrial sectors covering food, clothing, pharmaceuticals, mining, energy, and more, the authors used a risk framework to calculate the industries’ “water footprints”.

Some companies that sell water-based products already have run up against barriers, the authors report. For example, beverage and food companies Coca-Cola and Nestlé have had trouble situating their facilities in places like drought-stricken California. Silicon computer chip makers also have suffered: one estimate suggests that the shutdown of one plant because of a lack of clean water could amount to losses of up to $200 million per quarter.

So far, water use for energy has trumped water conservation and protection, the report’s authors say. This is especially true in such regions as the Athabasca oil sands in Canada, where water is used for excavating an energy source (crude oil) and then returned to the environment contaminated with drilling oils and other waste….

Dry Falls in Washington State, shot by Ikiwaner, Wikimedia Commons, under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License, Version 1.2

Reducing deforestation is cheapest way to arrest global warming: Expert

Newstrack India, via IANS: Minimising the cutting of wood and its use as fuel can go a long way to fight global warming, and do so in an affordable way, an expert asserts. 'Forest clearance and wood burning have emerged as a major cause of global warming over the last few decades. Deforestation alone contributes over 25 percent gases responsible for global warming,' Michael Kleine of International Union of Forest Research Organisations (IUFRO) told IANS.

The UN however estimates it contributes around 20 percent. Kleine added: 'Reduction in number of trees as a result of ignorant deforestation means that there would be fewer trees to absorb CO2 (carbon dioxide), the gas primarily responsible for global warming.' Kleine is coordinator of the special programme for developing countries (SPDC) that is sponsored by IUFRO.

Kleine was in Chandigarh recently to participate in an international conference on forests. He is based in Vienna, Austria, where the headquarters of IUFRO is located. 'Deforestation has virtually gone out of control and the world's policymakers have to rope in some sweeping guidelines to curtail it. When a tree grows, it takes in CO2 from the air but when wood dies it returns additional CO2 to the environment,' said Kleine.

Kleine said that a very small part of global GDP (gross domestic product), only one percent, is spent to arrest global warming. He said: 'It is a well-accepted fact that arresting deforestation and planting new trees is one of the most economical ways to cut global warming. But our governments are not paying any heed in this direction at all.'….

Jim Corbett National Park in India, shot by netlancer2006 from Bangalore, Wikimedia Commons via Flickr, under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 License
AllAfrica.com via Catholic Information Service for Africa (Nairobi): The floods ravaging Angola and Namibia are a further illustration of the urgent need to tackle global warming, the head of the Anglican Church in Southern Africa, Archbishop Thabo Makgoba of Cape Town, said on Tuesday.

"We have had enough of talking. The international community cannot continue to prevaricate while countries like ours are increasingly suffering inestimable human cost, in deaths, displacement, and the destruction of livelihoods.
Northern Namibia is experiencing the worst flooding in decades, as is southern Angola. This year has already seen serious storms, flooding and loss of life in Gauteng and Kwa-Zulu Natal in South Africa, as well as in Mozambique.

In a message to Bishops Andre Soares of Angola and Nathaniel Nakwatumbah of Namibia, Archbishop Makgoba said, "On behalf of the Anglican Church of Southern Africa, I offer condolences to those who have lost loved ones. We assure them, and all who have been injured, or suffered loss through these floods, of our love and prayers.' He called on churches to give what support they could, in prayer, and in practical help, to those who had been affected."…

The Fish River Canyon in Namibia, shot by Timc2000, who has generously released the image into the public domain

U.N. plans guide to fighting climate-change disasters

Alister Doyle in Reuters: A proposed U.N. study of climate extremes will be a practical guide for tackling natural disasters and fill a gap in past reports focused on the gradual effects of global warming, experts said. Floods, mudslides, droughts, heatwaves or storms are often the main causes of destruction and human suffering tied to climate change, rather than the creeping rise in average temperatures blamed on a build-up of greenhouse gases.

"We are saying a lot about changes in mean temperatures but the impacts on real people, real companies, are taking place at the extremes," said Chris Field, a co-chair of a group in the U.N.'s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Better knowledge of extreme climate events could help governments, companies or humanitarian organizations to cope with natural disasters, he told Reuters on Tuesday during a March 23-26 IPCC meeting in Oslo.

"Most importantly (a special study) will be a guide for how we can get going with practical measures in countries vulnerable to climate change," said Ellen Hambro, head of the Norwegian Pollution Control Authority which is hosting the talks. About 100 scientists are meeting in Oslo to map out a possible special U.N. report about climate extremes by Field's group, under a proposal by Norway and the U.N.'s International Strategy for Disaster Reduction….

Melting snow prompts border change between Switzerland and Italy

The Independent (UK): Global warming is dissolving the Alpine glaciers so rapidly that Italy and Switzerland have decided they must re-draw their national borders to take account of the new realities. The border has been fixed since 1861, when Italy became a unified state. But for the past century the surface area of the “cryosphere”, the zone of glaciers, permanent snow cover and permafrost, has been shrinking steadily, with dramatic acceleration in the past five years. This is the area over which the national frontier passes and the two countries have now agreed to have their experts sit down together and hash out where it ought to run now.

Daniel Gutknecht, responsible for the co-ordination of national borders at Switzerland’s Office of Topography, said “the border is moving because of the warmer climate”, among other reasons. In Italy, the change in frontier requires that parliament approve a new law before it can happen. Franco Narducci, an opposition member of the foreign affairs committee, is preparing the bill to be put to MPs. The draft law has already been endorsed by the Foreign Minister, Franco Frattini, and is expected to become law before the end of next month. In Switzerland no new law is required to make the changes.

The zones affected include areas around the Matterhorn, the 4,478-metre-high mountain known in Italy as il Cervino. The frontier will have to be shifted between a few metres and a hundred metres, but there will be no impact on border communities as the frontier, which is more than 4,000 metres above sea level, is well above any human habitation…..

The Matterhorn reflected in the Riffelsee, shot by Dirk Beyer, Wikimedia Commons, under the Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike 2.5 License

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Air pollution linked to higher heart attack risk

Environment News Service: Scientific evidence is mounting that connects an increase in particulate air pollution with an increase in heart attacks and deaths. Research from the relatively new field of environmental cardiology includes a 16-year-long Harvard University study of six U.S. cities that found fine particulate pollution, even at levels below the federal health standard, can shorten lifespans by two years. A majority of these earlier deaths were due to heart disease.

A study in Salt Lake City found that when a steel mill shut down for a period of months, there was a four to six percent drop in mortality in neighboring areas. The mortality rose to previous levels when the steel mill reopened. A study of 250 metropolitan areas around the world found that a spike in air pollution is followed by a spike in heart attacks.

The people who seem to be most susceptible to environmental pollutants are those who are already vulnerable, including the elderly and people with coronary artery disease. There is some evidence that diabetics, women and people who are obese may be at greater risk. Cardiovascular disease is the leading cause of death in the industrialized world. In the United States, it kills approximately one million people per year, accounting for over 40 percent of all deaths.

To examine this emerging research in greater detail, Aruni Bhatnagar of the University of Louisville and Robert Brook of the University of Michigan have organized a symposium called Environmental Factors in Heart Disease, to take place April 21 at an Experimental Biology conference in New Orleans. The 120-year-old American Physiological Society is one of the sponsors of the annual conference.

Dr. Bhatnagar, from the Division of Cardiology, Department of Medicine, University of Louisville, will speak on environmental aldehydes exposure and cardiovascular disease. His research shows that the risk of having a heart attack increases in parallel with time spent in traffic the previous day….

London's smog in 1904, as captured by that noted atmospheric observer, Claude Monet

Diatoms' ability to sequester carbon affected by temperature

Science Daily: Tiny creatures at the bottom of the food chain called diatoms suck up nearly a quarter of the atmosphere’s carbon dioxide, yet research by Michigan State University scientists suggests they could become less able to “sequester” that greenhouse gas as the climate warms. The microscopic algae are a major component of plankton living in puddles, lakes and oceans.

Zoology professor Elena Litchman, with MSU colleague Christopher Klausmeier and Kohei Yoshiyama of the University of Tokyo, explored how nutrient limitation affects the evolution of the size of diatoms in different environments. Their findings underscore potential consequences for aquatic food webs and climate shifts.

“They are globally important since they ‘fix’ a significant amount of carbon,” Litchman explained of the single-cell diatoms. “When they die in the ocean, they sink to the bottom carrying the carbon from the atmosphere with them. They perform a tremendous service to the environment.”

…Litchman analyzed data from lakes and oceans across the United States, Europe and Asia and found a striking difference between the size of diatoms in freshwater and in marine environments. In oceans, diatoms grow to be 10 times larger on average than in freshwater and have a wider range of sizes.

…“On a global scale, increased ocean temperatures could make the ocean more stratified,” she explained. “This would cause less mixing and create stronger nutrient limitation and less frequent nutrient pulses. A change like this would select for different sizes of diatoms. If smaller sized diatoms dominate, then carbon sequestration becomes less efficient and there may be more CO2 remaining in the atmosphere, which would exacerbate global warming.” ….

Microfossils from marine sediments, shot by the redoubtable Hannes Grobe/AWI, Wikimedia Commons, under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License