Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Hurricane Sandy: The hidden costs

Kate Dalley in the BBC: The full impact from the huge storm Sandy, which was downgraded from a hurricane late on Monday, is yet to be known, and the full financial cost may be difficult to calculate. Damage totalling $10bn to $20bn (£6bn-£12bn). That's how much some analysts expect Sandy, the so-called "Frankenstorm" currently charging up the US East Coast, to cost when all is said and done.

But that number - large as it is - underplays the full economic impact of Sandy's wrath, ignoring both the human and government costs and the unexpected economic boom that major storms can bring. "The costs are generally calculated as damages to houses, structures, and other assets. For the US, they are calculated by taking the insured losses and multiplying by two, under the assumption that half of losses are insured," says William Nordhaus, a professor of economics at Yale University.

"It does not generally include losses such as lost work, time spent preparing and taping up your windows, losses from worrying, or (in the case of Yale) the lost learning from cancelling classes," he adds.

….Make no mistake - the storm will lead to historic levels of financial damage, not to mention dozens of lives lost. It has claimed 69 lives in the Caribbean.

Apart from the physical destruction of property, there are additional costs to governments, businesses and individuals. These are often more about the human cost and less to do with the physical wealth destroyed by a storm….

From NASA, a view of Sandy showing the entire earth

US preparedness for superstorm impresses Philippine senators

Norman Bordadora in the Philippine Inquirer: The onslaught of Hurricane Sandy showed even the most powerful nation on earth was no match to severe weather conditions caused by climate change, senators concerned with disaster risk reduction and management told the Philippine Daily Inquirer on Tuesday.

Senator Loren Legarda, chair of the Senate committee on climate change, indicated that Philippine officials could learn a thing or two about political will as shown by New York’s shutdown of its subway system and the mandatory evacuation of residents as the hurricane was about to hit.

Sen. Gregorio Honasan, chair of the Senate committee on public order, nonetheless, said the country has not been too far behind the US in terms of disaster response despite the disparity between the superpower’s superior capability with what’s available in the Philippines.

“Their sense of preparedness is amazing and the political will of their leaders like Mayor Bloomberg is laudable considering he closed down the subways, forcibly evacuated residents as he did in Hurricane Irene,” Legarda said when asked if Filipinos could learn anything from the US response to Sandy. “Even President Obama has been on national TV warning people to take it seriously,” Legarda told the Philippine Daily Inquirer in a text message.

Legarda said the severity of the hurricane “can be an important campaign issue as it is for many parts of the world.” Americans would go to the polls early next month to again choose their President and other leaders for the next four years.

“That is why it is sad and uncanny that [Obama's rival] Mitt Romney mocks the climate change beliefs of President Obama as he did in a September speech when he cited healing the planet and leveling the ocean as if they were non-issues,” Legarda said….

This is a jpg photo of a NYC metro billboard warning of Hurricane Sandy

Climate change adding sting to mosquito bite, says WHO report

The Economic Times (India): The warning is ominous — climate change and global warming will make vector-borne diseases like dengue and malaria - already causing havoc in the country more lethal. A landmark report on climate change and health, published by the World Health Organization on Monday, said that in the last 100 years, the world has warmed by approximately 0.75 degree Celsius. Over the last 25 years, the rate of global warming has accelerated, at over 0.18 degree Celsius per decade. Global health will suffer a loss of $2 billion-$4 billion per year by 2030 due to climate change.

Global warming, which has occurred since the 1970s, caused over 1.4 lakh excess deaths annually by 2004. "Many of the major killers such as diarrhoeal diseases, malnutrition, malaria and dengue are highly climate-sensitive and are expected to worsen as the climate changes," said WHO.

It added, "Malaria is strongly influenced by climate. Transmitted by Anopheles mosquitoes, malaria kills almost one million people every year. The Aedes mosquito vector of dengue is also highly sensitive to climate conditions. Studies suggest that climate change could expose an additional 2 billion people to dengue transmission by the 2080s."

WHO said over the last century, the surface area on which malaria remains a risk has been reduced from half to a quarter of the earth's landmass, but due to demographic changes the number of people exposed to malaria has increased substantially over the same period….

A World War II-era anti-malaria poster from the US

Index aims to guide adaptation investment

Jon Christianson in AlertNet: Channeling private investment toward climate adaptation will be crucial to supplement public funds and raise the tens of billions of dollars needed each year, say the authors of an index intended to help guide that investment and highlight investor opportunities.

The Global Adaptation Institute (GAIN) Index, launched in 2011 and updated this month, evaluates the vulnerability of countries to climate change and their readiness to withstand its impacts, based on a wide range of data, from efforts to control corruption to variations in crop yields.

The data and rankings are intended to provide a factual base for public and private investors to make good decisions about where to most effectively invest money, according to Juan José Daboub, a former managing director of the World Bank.

“The goal of this is try to bring everyone to the same table,” said Bruno Sanchez-Andrade Nuño, GAIN’s director of science and technology. According to Nuño, all of the data and formulas used to draw GAIN’s conclusions can be found on the site’s website....

Post Sandy from a local point of view

Lucky, lucky, lucky here in the northwest corner of Connecticut. Our generator thrummed into life for about five minutes on Monday night, and then fell silent as the grid returned. A few wobbly brown-outs, but nothing worse. One falling hickory took a swing at our house and missed.  Other vulnerable trees fell. Oh, and no internet, so I'm posting from the public library. 

Monday, October 29, 2012

Tracking hurricane Sandy: As storm 'zigs', it's also changing dramatically

Pete Spotts in the Christian Science Monitor: With hurricane Sandy on final approach to formally making landfall near the southern tip of New Jersey late Monday evening, the storm is on the verge of an unusual shift. Even as it makes a left turn to head toward the coast, it also is swapping energy sources to become an extratropical cyclone.

Such transitions occur several times a year to typhoons in the western Pacific, notes Clifford Mass, an atmospheric scientist at the University of Washington at Seattle, in an e-mail exchange. "But to have it occur over the western Atlantic and then to recurve inland with such a major effect is extraordinary," Dr. Mass adds.

The shift from tropical to extratropical tends to intensify the storm for a period, as well as redistribute winds and rainfall in ways that can shift the regions most heavily affected by wind and rain. In Sandy's case, such changes already have been factored into forecasts from the National Hurricane Center and local National Weather Service forecast offices in the eastern US.

Indeed the hurricane's vast size – tropical-storm-force winds extend up to 420 nautical miles from Sandy's center – has prompted federal officials to warn people not to focus on where the storm makes landfall because the areas affected by coastal surges, heavy rains, and high wind remain extensive...

5-day forecast track for Tropical Depression Eighteen of the 2012 Atlantic hurricane season, from the National Hurricane Center

50% in 10 years: a new global collaboration to restore fisheries

Hal Hamilton in the Guardian (UK): One billion people in the world depend upon fish for their primary protein. This supply is vulnerable from overfishing and ocean pollution, but wild fisheries can be restored to health.

Representatives of 30 organisations are designing a global collaboration to bring 50% of fish and fisheries within sustainable management in 10 years. Economists at the World Bank estimate that the benefits of reform would add at least $20bn (£12.45bn) annually to the global economy.

Many major retailers have sustainable seafood programmes and frequently pledge that by a certain date some or all of their seafood cases will be filled with products that are certified sustainable. But will they achieve this goal? A fish buyer for one of the world's largest retailers simply told me: "It's not going to happen."

Fisheries that have been certified over the last 10 years are primarily those fisheries that were already best managed before. The next wave of fishery improvement to feed demand in rich countries is not keeping up, and as more and more consumers demand sustainable products, the gap between supply and demand will grow. The hopeful news is that, with the right interventions, ocean and fishery health can rebound.

The Prince of Wales' International Sustainability Unit recently commissioned a set of 50 global case studies and among the lessons is one clear message: we know what to do in order to manage our ocean resources wisely, and good management pays. World Bank economists estimate an average 11% return on investment from fishery improvement....

Seine net fishing in the Haor in Bangladesh, shot by Balaram Mahalder, Wikimedia Commons, under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license

USGS storm-surge sensors deployed ahead of Hurricane Sandy

Science Daily: torm response crews from the U.S. Geological Survey are installing more than 150 storm-tide sensors at key locations along the Atlantic Coast -- from the Chesapeake Bay to Massachusetts -- in advance of the arrival of Tropical Storm Sandy.

Working with various partner agencies such as NOAA, FEMA, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the USGS is securing the storm-tide sensors, frequently called storm-surge sensors, to piers and poles in areas where the storm is expected to make landfall. The instruments being installed will record the precise time the storm-tide arrived, how ocean and inland water levels changed during the storm, the depth of the storm-tide throughout the event, and how long it took for the water to recede.

"In the hours and days before Irene made its epic sweep up the eastern seaboard last year, USGS deployed a record number of storm-surge sensors that yielded important new information on storm tides along some of the most populated coastline in the United States," said USGS Director Marcia McNutt. "Now with Sandy we have the opportunity to test and improve predictive models of coastal zone impact based on what we previously learned."

Storm-tides are increases in ocean water levels generated at sea by extreme storms and can have devastating coastal impacts. In locations where tidal forecasts are known, the sensors being installed can also help determine storm surge. For differences between storm-surge and tidal-surge, visit the National Hurricane Center's website (http://www.nhc.noaa.gov/surge/).

This information will be used to assess storm damage, discern between wind and flood damage, and improve computer models used to forecast future coastal inundation...

Zimbabwe turns to drought-resistant crops

Madalitso Mwando in AlertNet: As planting season approaches amid concerns about successive poor harvests, research into drought-resistant seeds is gaining momentum in an indication that the Zimbabwean government is waking up to the reality of climate change. Earlier this month, the country’s Meteorological Services Department announced that another drought is likely during what should be the rainy season.

Zimbabwean farmers have suffered a succession of poor harvests with yields far below what the country needs, forcing the agriculture ministry repeatedly to revise its projections for harvests. Farmers and their unions blame the cyclical uncertainties of their sector not only on a lack of up-to-date farming technology, but also on their inability to obtain seed varieties that can survive the low rainfall caused by climatic shifts.

Despite erratic rainfall, farmers have continued to follow traditional planting seasons. This has increased their frustration as crops wilt from lack of rain. But this could soon change, thanks to progress by government scientists researching faster-maturing and drought-tolerant seed varieties, holding out the hope of much-needed relief for thousands of farmers across the country.

The Scientific and Industrial Research and Development Centre (SIRDC), in partnership with the University of Zimbabwe and Biotechnology Research Institute (BRI) has developed a drought-resistant variety of maize seed called Sirdamaize 113. Farmers have had to wait between 150 and 180 days before harvesting their traditional maize crop, but the centre says the new seed takes only 136 days to mature...

Millions at risk of flooding from Hurricane Sandy

Terra Daily via AFP: Millions of people are at risk of life-threatening flooding when Hurricane Sandy plows into the northeastern US, the director of the National Hurricane Center said Sunday. "The system is so large that I would say millions of people are at least in areas that have some chance of experiencing either flash flooding or river flooding," Rick Knabb told reporters during a telephone conference call.

He also said the storm could produce peak surges at high tide of six to 11 feet in the Long Island Sound, NY Harbor, Raritan Bay, a swath of the most heavily populated portions of the US coastline. "Don't focus on the fact that this is a category one hurricane," he said, referring to the Sandy's current low rating on the five-rung Saffir-Simpson scale.

"The storm surge threat for a large area is a life-threatening hazard," he emphasized. NHC forecaster Todd Kimberlain said the storm has the potential to break a number of different records. "I think it's fair to say it would be up there. If it's not historic it would be near historic," he told AFP....

A woman walking her dog through the flood waters in East River Park in Manhattan's East Village after Hurricane Irene, August 2011. Shot by David Shankbone, Wikimedia Commons, under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported license

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Biodiversity protection needs community input

T.V. Padma in SciDev.net: A pledge to increase support for biodiversity targets in developing countries is welcome, but care for indigenous people is vital too. This month's meeting of the 11th Conference of the Parties (COP 11) to the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), held in Hyderabad in India, came as a reality check on the capacity of the international community to implement pledges on biodiversity made two years ago in Nagoya, Japan.

At that landmark meeting in Nagoya, countries agreed on 20 global biodiversity targets for 2010–2020 (called the Aichi Targets, after the province in which Nagoya is located) and outlined a protocol on access and benefit sharing to ensure that local communities benefit from profits made by governments or companies from their resources. But Nagoya had an unfinished third agenda that Hyderabad inherited — the mobilisation of financial resources to meet the Aichi targets. India also endeavoured to use the meeting to focus on links between biodiversity and livelihoods.

Unlike the climate change meetings of the past few years, high-level negotiations on biodiversity are not closed-door sessions. The result is more input from civil society organisations (CSOs) and less drama — even if only some of the CSOs' concerns are addressed.

For example, CSOs and some official delegations, notably from Bolivia and the Philippines, called for a moratorium on tests in synthetic biology and geo-engineering. Scientists observed that this would neither fill knowledge gaps nor lead to more informed decision-making in these emerging and controversial fields. The meeting finally called for precaution and more scientific evidence before large-scale deployment of these technologies. There now seems to be a broader understanding, reflected at the meeting, that biodiversity is a cross-cutting issue, and UN agencies and international centres that focus on plants, food, fish, livestock and health need to talk to each other....

Ecologists preparing for boom in urban wildlife 'invaders'

John Vidal in the Guardian (UK): First came the urban fox, then flocks of colourful tropical parakeets. But now deer, woodpeckers, hedgehogs, jackdaws, birds of prey and exotic spiders, fish and insects are colonising British cities, say wildlife experts. Previously unseen muntjac, roe and fallow deer now boldly enter inner-city areas such as Finsbury Park in north London and have been seen in cemeteries, gardens and golf courses on the outskirts of Edinburgh, Sheffield, Bristol, Guildford and Newcastle, says the London Wildlife Trust's deputy director, Mathew Frith.

He gave a warning that people could soon expect to see wild boar in suburban streets and gardens: "It will not be too long before they impact on our urban areas. They have no natural predators, it is complicated to hunt them, and their numbers are increasing. We can expect them soon."

Birds of prey, once common in cities, have this year returned in numbers. Red kites, extinct in England and Scotland by the 1800s and down to just a few pairs 20 years ago, are now not just seen flying over London and other cities, but have been found feeding in gardens in places such as Reading, Frith says.

In a remarkable turnaround from the polluted wildlife deserts of the 1970s, inner-city parks and private gardens are now attracting creatures once practically extinct in urban areas and providing habitats for wildlife seldom seen before in Britain. The invaders, which are mostly welcomed by ecologists but worry local authorities as their numbers increase, are becoming bolder every year as they fill ecological niches....

Ringing your doorbell soon. National Park Service photo

Improving healthcare response in Haiti

Space Daily: Earthquakes, tsunamis and hurricanes have taken their toll on many parts of the world. Communities struggle for years to rebuild without immediate access to basic necessities like proper healthcare. Satellites are helping to make this transition easier. A new system designed by The Institute for Space Medicine (MEDES) in France and Local Insight Global Impact (LIGI) in Portugal, and supported by ESA through its integrated Applications programme, provides access to healthcare using satellite telephones and satellite navigation.

It is designed for regions where trained medical professionals are sparse and where communications are limited due to the damage caused by a natural disaster. Telephone cables can be blown down, rendering phone networks useless. The system has been used with success in Haiti, where the massive earthquake of 2010 has left its mark.

Health units in many Haitian regions are few and far between and if someone decides to make the journey to a unit, there is a very good chance no one will be there to provide care. This system makes up for the lack of local health care by ensuring anyone from anywhere can be trained to report the symptoms of a patient accurately.

It uses a special interface designed for satellite and smartphones that walks a user through a series of steps to send data as SMS messages via satellite or a ground-based system, if available. This information is then accessed by local and national health systems via an Internet portal....

Aftermath of the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, shot by UN Photo/Logan Abassi United Nations Development Programme, Wikimedia Commons via Flickr, under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license

Australian business and government must protect infrastructure

Katina Curtis in the Herald Sun (Australia): As a land of droughts and flooding rains, Australia should be well prepared for the extreme weather that climate change will bring - but it isn't.The Climate Institute says government and business have much to do to protect Australia's infrastructure from damage in natural disasters.

Science shows that as sea levels and global temperature rise, the frequency of extreme floods, droughts and bushfires will rise exponentially. "Australia, with its history of extreme weather events, should be better prepared, but our performance is patchy at best," The Climate Institute chief executive John Connor told AAP. "It's a high-stakes gamble with predictions that we're going to see more and more extreme weather events in the future."

The institute's report, Coming ready or not: Can Australia's infrastructure handle climate change?, says the electricity, financial services and insurance, and road and rail sectors are underprepared. It says early preparation has begun to protect property against the impacts of more frequent extreme weather events, while preparations are relatively advanced in the water industry.

"Government and business should urgently address the gaps in climate change adaptation in order to avoid unnecessary loss of life, incomes and damage to major infrastructure assets," says the report, released on Monday. "Progress is being made, but it is piecemeal, locked in past paradigms and unco-ordinated." ...

The wet season at night in Darwin, shot by TourismNT, public domain

New York prepares for the worst from Sandy

MarketWatch: New York prepared for the worst Sunday as two powerful storm systems, guided by Hurricane Sandy, headedtoward the nation’s most populous city, where heavy rain, strong winds and flooding were expected to hit as early as late Sunday. Mandatory evacuations were not in effect in New York, but the order could come on Sunday, when officials expect to have a better idea of where Sandy would strike. A decision on whether the city’s mass transit system would close will also come late Sunday.

“We’re planning for the worst; we’re hoping for the best and decisions on this will be made tomorrow,” Metropolitan Transportation Authority Chairman Joseph Lhota told a Saturday news conference

Sandy weakened overnight into a tropical storm then strengthened again into hurricane with sustained winds of more than 75 miles an hour. Another system that often results in severe winter storms moved across the nation from the worst, and was expected to boast Sandy’s strength. The hybrid storm could impact as many as 50 million people, according to published reports.

In New York City, Mayor Michael Bloomberg told a Saturday afternoon press conference the city would very likely feel Sandy’s effects for several days, with flooding and bridge closures to be expected. Bloomberg said the city was not requiring evacuations of low-lying areas especially at risk for flooding, saying officials should have a better idea of where Sandy would hit late Sunday afternoon or evening. “If it were to hit land in Baltimore or in Nantucket, New York would just have some heavy winds, and a little bit of flooding, and a lot of rain; if it were to hit closer to home, the flooding, the rain and the winds will all get much more problematic,” Bloomberg said....

The World Financial Center in Manhattan, built on landfill and vulnerable to flooding. Shot by Fanghong, Wikimedia Commons,  under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license

Saturday, October 27, 2012

US faces gap in weather satellite data

Space Daily via UPI: The United States is facing a gap in crucial satellite coverage that provides invaluable data for predicting storm tracks, officials warned. A number of recent official investigations have pointed to years of program mismanagement, lack of funding and delays in putting replacements in orbit that will leave the Unites States without sufficient satellites and make forecasts of storms like Hurricane Sandy, expected to hit the U.S. Northeast next week, less accurate, The New York Times reported.

Research has shown that if satellite data had not been available forecasters would have underestimated by half the massive snowfall that hit Washington in the 2010 blizzard nicknamed "Snowmageddon." Existing polar satellites that scan the entire planet one strip at a time as they orbit are reaching the end of their life expectancies, and the next replacement, dubbed the Joint Polar Satellite System or JPSS-1, is not expected to launch until early 2017.

That could create a gap in satellite coverage available to forecasters of at least a year, officials said.

"There is no more critical strategic issue for our weather satellite programs than the risk of gaps in satellite coverage," Jane Lubchenco, the undersecretary of commerce responsible for the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration, said in a memorandum ordering a restructuring of the JPSS-1 program...

An artist concept of the polar-orbiting NPP spacecraft flying over the North Pole.  NASA

Sandy to erode many Atlantic beaches

US Geological Survey: Nearly three quarters of the coast along the Delmarva Peninsula is very likely to experience beach and dune erosion as Hurricane Sandy makes landfall, while overwash is expected along nearly half of the shoreline. The predictions of coastal change for the Delaware, Maryland and Virginia peninsula is part of a larger assessment of probable coastal change released by the U.S. Geological Survey Friday.

"Model forecasts are run anew for each hurricane, as each case has unique factors in terms of storm intensity, timing with respect to tides, angle of approach, and must account for ever-changing details of coastal dune configuration," said USGS Director Marcia McNutt. "These models help us understand where emergency management resources might be most needed." Overwash, the landward movement of large volumes of sand from overtopped dunes, is forecasted for portions of the east coast with the projected landfall of the storm. The severity of overwash depends on the strength of the storm, the height of the dunes, and how direct a hit the coast takes.

 “On the Delmarva Peninsula, near the storm's expected landfall, close to three quarters of the sandy coast is expected to see beach and dune erosion. Fifteen percent of the coast is very likely to be inundated by waves and storm surge,” said USGS Oceanographer Hilary Stockdon from the USGS St. Petersburg Coastal and Marine Science Center. In these areas, waves and storm surge would transport large amounts of sand across coastal environments, depositing sand both inland and offshore and causing significant changes to the landscape, Stockdon noted.

The models show that along the New Jersey shore, 81 percent of the coast is very likely to experience beach and dune erosion, while 7 percent is very likely to experience overwash. It also indicates that on the south shore of Long Island, N.Y., including Fire Island National Seashore, 43 percent of the coast is very likely to experience beach and dune erosion. Overwash and inundation are not expected in these areas because of the relative high dune elevations.... 

Quogue, NY, January 21, 2010 -- Severe beach erosion and damage on Long Island's South Shore is the result of the November nor'easter. Photo by Ed Edahl for FEMA

Climate change mitigation 'far cheaper than inaction'

Daniela Hirschfeld in SciDev.net: Tackling the global climate crisis could reap significant economic benefits for both developed and developing countries, according to a new report. The impacts of climate change and a carbon-intensive economy cost the world around US$1.2 trillion a year — 1.6 per cent of the total global GDP (gross domestic product), states 'Climate Vulnerability Monitor: A Guide to the Cold Calculus of A Hot Planet'. For this reason, "adapting to climate change is very likely a cost-effective investment in almost all cases and should be central to any climate change policy", the report says.

The new publication was launched during the 67th session of the UN General Assembly, in New York, United States, last month (26 September). It was produced by Development Assistance Research Associates (DARA), an independent aid analysis organisation, and the Climate Vulnerable Forum, a global partnership of nations that are disproportionately affected by global warming.

The authors highlight that shifting the world economy to a low-carbon footing will cost around 0.5 per cent of GDP for the current decade. As the report points out, this is significantly lower than the actual and projected costs of responding to climate change and maintaining a carbon-intensive economy. The report warns that the impact of the expected increase in temperature and carbon-related pollution could double the actual costs to 3.2 per cent of GDP in 2030, and will cause six million deaths every year, up from 4.5 million each year....

Milo Winter's 1919 illustration for "The Ant and the Grasshopper", from Aesop's Fables

Central American farmers seek buffers against climate change

Danielle Marie Mackey in National Catholic Reporter: In 2009, El Salvador was not only the most vulnerable country in Central America to climate change -- it was No. 1 in the world. In the past several years, natural disasters have hit the country with increasing frequency. Their intensity and duration have risen exponentially, as well as their cost.

The total economic loss from three of the five storms in 2009-2011 is estimated at some $1.3 billion, with much of that coming from lost crops.

"With climate change, we face a challenge much greater than we ever could have imagined a few decades ago," Salvadoran Minister of the Environment Herman Rosa Chávez said at an Oct. 11 conference announcing a new study on the impact climate change will have on countries in the region. "Each year that we do not act is one more year of losses."

Storms are not the only problem. An increased frequency of uncommon weather patterns has had a wide impact. This year, for instance, drought ravaged farmers both in the United States and in Central America -- prompting fears of a worldwide spike in food prices.

This combination of events causes serious consequences for people who do not have access to economic or institutional buffers, like insurance, that enable them to survive this type of shock. In Central America, the livelihoods of a million small-hold farmers of maize and beans, the region's staples, will be at risk. The food security of the region is under threat.

That problem is the subject of the new study "Tortillas on the Roaster," an effort of Catholic Relief Services (CRS), the International Center for Tropical Agriculture, and the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center....

Farmers survey a field in Nicaragua, shot by Neil Palmer (CIAT), Wikimedia Commons via Flickr, under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license

Philippines storm toll rises sharply

Terra Daily via AFP: The death toll from Typhoon Son-Tinh in the Philippines rose sharply to 24 Saturday as casualty reports came in from isolated central islands and the far-flung south, the government said. Drowning and landslides were given as the cause of 11 deaths on small islands in the country's mid-section, the National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council said in its latest tally.

The other 13 victims were carried away by flash floods, buried by landslides, hit by falling trees and flying debris, electrocuted, or died from exposure to the cold, it added.

The official death toll from the typhoon, which was classed as a weaker "tropical storm" when it passed over the Philippines, had stood at six on Friday.

Eight fishermen from the central and southern Philippines remained missing at sea, the government agency said...

Friday, October 26, 2012

Not-so-permanent permafrost

US Geological Survey: As much as 44 billion tons of nitrogen and 850 billion tons of carbon stored in arctic permafrost, or frozen ground, could be released into the environment as the region begins to thaw over the next century as a result of a warmer planet according to a new study led by the U.S. Geological Survey. This nitrogen and carbon are likely to impact ecosystems, the atmosphere, and water resources including rivers and lakes. For context, this is roughly the amount of carbon stored in the atmosphere today.

The release of carbon and nitrogen in permafrost could exacerbate the warming phenomenon and will impact water systems on land and offshore according to USGS scientists and their domestic and international collaborators. The previously unpublished nitrogen figure is useful for scientists who are making climate predictions with computer climate models, while the carbon estimate is consistent and gives more credence to other scientific studies with similar carbon estimates.

"This study quantifies the impact on Earth's two most important chemical cycles, carbon and nitrogen, from thawing of permafrost under future climate warming scenarios," said USGS Director Marcia McNutt. "While the permafrost of the polar latitudes may seem distant and disconnected from the daily activities of most of us, its potential to alter the planet’s habitability when destabilized is very real."

To generate the estimates, scientists studied how permafrost-affected soils, known as Gelisols, thaw under various climate scenarios. They found that all Gelisols are not alike: some Gelisols have soil materials that are very peaty, with lots of decaying organic matter that burns easily – these will impart newly thawed nitrogen into the ecosystem and atmosphere. Other Gelisols have materials that are very nutrient rich – these will impart a lot of nitrogen into the ecosystem. All Gelisols will contribute carbon dioxide and likely some methane into the atmosphere as a result of decomposition once the permafrost thaws – and these gases will contribute to warming. What was frozen for thousands of years will enter our ecosystems and atmosphere as a new contributor.

"The scientific community researching this phenomena has made these international data available for the upcoming Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. As permafrost receives more attention, we are sharing our data and our insights to guide those models as they portray how the land, atmosphere, and ocean interact," said study lead Jennifer Harden, USGS Research Soil Scientist....

Permafrost patterns shot from a helicopter in the High Arctic by Brocken Inaglory, Wikimedia Commons, under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license

NASA sees Hurricane Sandy as the "Bride of Frankenstorm" approaching U.S. east coast

NASA: NASA's TRMM satellite revealed Hurricane Sandy's heavy rainfall and the storm is expected to couple with a powerful cold front and Arctic air to bring that heavy rainfall to the Mid-Atlantic and northeastern U.S. Some forecasters are calling this combination of weather factors "Frankenstorm" because of the close proximity to Halloween. However, because Sandy is a woman's name, the storm could be considered a "bride of Frankenstorm."

NASA satellites have provided forecasters at the National Hurricane Center with rainfall data, infrared, visible and other data on Sandy and will continue to do so. Dr. Marshall Shepherd who works with TRMM data provided an insight into the storm's development.

The Tropical Rainfall Measuring Mission (TRMM) satellite had a partial view of hurricane Sandy on Oct. 25 at 1425 UTC (10:25 a.m. EDT) after it had passed over Cuba and moved into the Bahamas. An eye was hard to find but TRMM's Microwave Imager (TMI) data showed that a large area of intense rainfall was occurring around Sandy's center of circulation. Hal Pierce of NASA's TRMM Team at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md. used a GOES-13 satellite image captured at the same time to fill in the part of the image not viewed by TRMM to create a total picture of the storm.

With its combination of passive microwave and active radar sensors, TRMM is ideally suited to measure rainfall from space. For increased coverage, TRMM can be used to calibrate rainfall estimates from other additional satellites. The TRMM-based, near-real time Multi-satellite Precipitation Analysis (TMPA) made at NASA Goddard can be used to rainfall over a wide portion of the globe. TMPA rainfall totals were tallied for the seven-day period from Oct. 18-25, 2012.The heaviest rainfall occurred over open ocean where totals were as high as 325 millimeters. Rainfall amounts as high as 250 millimeters were measured over eastern Cuba and some extreme southern areas of Hispaniola.

Hurricane Sandy passed over the islands of Jamaica and Cuba causing at least 21 deaths. Extensive flooding and other damage were reported near the capital city of Kingston and other areas of Jamaica....

TRMM rainfall totals were tallied for the seven-day period from Oct. 18-25, 2012. The heaviest rainfall occurred over open ocean where totals were as high as 325 millimeters. Rainfall amounts as high as 250 millimeters were measured over eastern Cuba and some extreme southern areas of Hispaniola. Hurricane Sandy's track with appropriate symbols is shown overlaid in white. Credit: SSAI/NASA, Hal Pierce

Climate change mitigation 'far cheaper than inaction'

Daniela Hirschfeld in SciDev.net: Tackling the global climate crisis could reap significant economic benefits for both developed and developing countries, according to a new report. The impacts of climate change and a carbon-intensive economy cost the world around US$1.2 trillion a year — 1.6 per cent of the total global GDP (gross domestic product), states 'Climate Vulnerability Monitor: A Guide to the Cold Calculus of A Hot Planet'.

For this reason, "adapting to climate change is very likely a cost-effective investment in almost all cases and should be central to any climate change policy", the report says.

The new publication was launched during the 67th session of the UN General Assembly, in New York, United States, last month (26 September). It was produced by Development Assistance Research Associates (DARA), an independent aid analysis organisation, and the Climate Vulnerable Forum, a global partnership of nations that are disproportionately affected by global warming.

The authors highlight that shifting the world economy to a low-carbon footing will cost around 0.5 per cent of GDP for the current decade. As the report points out, this is significantly lower than the actual and projected costs of responding to climate change and maintaining a carbon-intensive economy.

The report warns that the impact of the expected increase in temperature and carbon-related pollution could double the actual costs to 3.2 per cent of GDP in 2030, and will cause six million deaths every year, up from 4.5 million each year. And although developing countries are the most vulnerable, "the world's major economies are in no way spared"....

The national tree of the Maldive Islands, shot by P.K.Niyogi, public domain

"Wild West" timber trade threatens Congo forests

Jonny Hogg in Reuters: Officials in Democratic Republic of Congo are colluding with foreign logging firms to support illegal logging, harming local communities and risking the destruction of the world's second largest forest, a report by a campaign group says. Derelict ports in Congo's riverside capital Kinshasa are piled high with logs ready to be shipped out to China and Europe as part of the lucrative timber trade.

Much of the timber has been harvested using permits signed by the ministry of environment in direct contravention of Congolese law, advocacy group Global Witness said in the report. Congo's forest is part of the Congo Basin that spans six countries in the central Africa region covering about 500 million hectares, over 130 million of which is in the Congo. It contains thousands of species and a quarter of the world's remaining tropical forest.

According to the report on Thursday so-called artisanal logging permits - meant only for small scale tree felling by Congolese nationals - are being awarded to foreign firms. The companies then use industrial methods to cut and export large quantities of wood out of the country, while sidestepping the environmental and social obligations demanded of industrial logging operations.

Attempts to bring order to Congo's chaotic forestry sector have seen a ban on all new industrial logging licenses since 2002, but this has done little to improve the situation according to Colin Robertson, one of the report's authors...

Two types of forest are shown in this image in the north of the DRC. At bottom left is a tropical evergreen forest with an extremely dense canopy, a forest type known locally as limbali forest. Most of the rest of the scene is occupied by a more open forest in which stands of trees (dark green patches) are separated from each other by a sea of lower-growing plants (light green). The appearance of openness, however, is something of an illusion. A dense under story of plants, such as wild ginger that can grow to be 2 meters tall, makes a thicket so impenetrable that you could not walk through it without a machete

Flood-hit Pakistan moves toward disaster insurance

Saleem Shaikh and Sughra Tunio in AlertNet:... Across Pakistan, families hit by three consecutive years of extreme weather disasters – particularly severe flooding and droughts – are struggling to find ways to recover from ever-more-frequent disasters. According to a report of the Federal Flood Commission, the 2010 floods, the worst in 80 years, alone claimed some 1,985 lives, and affected over 20 million people, 17,553 villages and 2 million hectares of crops.

Insurance, Pakistani officials say, may be one way of coping with the enormous social and economic consequences of such extreme weather. Zafar Iqbal Qadir, chairman of the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA), based in Islamabad, said the country has hammered out a plan to create national disaster risk insurance, which aims to eventually make it mandatory for Pakistan’s entire population to be insured against disaster risks.

A pilot phase of the programme, to be implemented starting in March 2013 with funding support from the World Bank, will provide free or subsidised insurance to those judged the country’s poorest and most vulnerable. Eventually, officials hope farmers, livestock producers and others will be included as well, said Ahmad Raza Sarwar, director of the National Institute of Disaster Management. Sarwar told AlertNet that the size of the insurance premiums each person or family might pay is still being negotiated with insurance firms, as is the amount of coverage.

Details of the insurance are still being worked out among the disaster management authority, the Ministry of Climate Change, the Finance Ministry, and the Federal Economic Affairs Division, but authorities are confident it will soon be completed, said Mehmood Alam, federal secretary of the Pakistani climate change ministry....

US aid to Pakistan during the 2010 floods, US Marine Corps photo

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Rains help shrink drought but High Plains in the US still parched

Carey Gillam in Reuters: Many areas of the drought-stricken United States continued to see improvement over the last week as steady rains started recharging parched soils, but for key agricultural areas of the U.S. Heartland, there was little relief, according to a climatology report issued Thursday. "We've seen some improvement ... but the impact of the drought and the dryness is far from over," said Brian Fuchs, a climatologist at the National Drought Mitigation Center at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

Roughly 61.79 percent of the contiguous United States was suffering from at least "moderate" drought as of October 23, down from 62.39 percent a week earlier, according to Thursday's Drought Monitor, a weekly compilation of data gathered by federal and academic scientists.

The portion of the United States under "exceptional" drought - the most dire classification - held steady at 5.84 percent and was mostly in western Kansas and Nebraska.

In the High Plains, which include Kansas, Nebraska and the Dakotas, severe or worse drought levels covered 84.90 percent of the region, improved from 87.42 percent the prior week. An estimated 27.44 percent of the region was still in the worst level of drought, unchanged from a week earlier.

Nebraska is the worst hit state in the country, with fully 77.58 percent of the state classified in exceptional drought, unchanged from a week earlier. Winter wheat farmers who have planted or are wrapping up planting their new crop will need significant rainfall and/or snow to provide enough moisture to grow a healthy crop....

Plaque, 1895, Rookwood Pottery Company, painted by Albert Robert Valentien (1862-1925), earthenware, standard glze line, Cincinnati Art Museum, shot by Wmpearl, Wikimedia Commons, under the Creative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication

EU keeps fishing subsidies, attacked by environmentalists

Terra Daily via AFP: The EU agreed on Wednesday to maintain controversial fishing subsidies, sparking a sharp response from environmental groups who say the payments encourage overfishing of already stressed stocks. At the same, the European Commission announced an accord on fishing quotas, cutting them on 47 species it said were over-fished, with increases for 16.

After tough, drawn-out talks which went into the night, a draft statement said that ministers would keep subsidies for modernising fishing fleets through to 2017 as part of a wider policy to put the industry on a sustainable basis. The subsidies pay for modernising existing vessels or taking older boats out of the fleet and are jealously guarded by the main fishing powers -- France, Portugal and especially Spain.

Critics, however, say this only increases fishing capacity at a time when the focus should be on reducing the catch so as to allow stocks to recover. In June, the EU agreed a series of reforms, chief among them proposals to set so-called Maximum Sustainable Yields (MSY) -- the maximum amount of fish that can be caught without compromising a stock's ability to reproduce.

Scientists say, for example, that 80 percent of Mediterranean stocks are overfished although the situation has improved in Atlantic waters....

A fishing boat in the harbor at Naples, shot by Cannedcat, Wikimedia Commons, under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license

Overwhelming support in Asia for a new international agreement on disaster risk reduction

UN Office for Disaster Risk Reduction: High-level delegations from 50 countries across Asia and the Pacific -- the most disaster-prone region in the world -- today united around a call for an international agreement on disaster risk reduction to follow on from the Hyogo Framework for Action* in 2015.  Margareta Wahlström, the UN Secretary-General's Special Representative on Disaster Risk Reduction and Head of the UN Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNISDR), today welcomed the outcome of the 5th Asian Ministerial Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction contained in the Yogyakarta Declaration.

Ms. Wahlström said: "This Conference has been a major breakthrough in ensuring that building disaster resilience and reducing risk are embedded into the post-2015 development agenda. The world has always looked to Asia for leadership in disaster management and the Yogyakarta Declaration outlines clearly what the region's expectations are for a new international agreement on disaster risk reduction.  "The tone for the week was set by President Yudhoyono of Indonesia when he voiced his fears that disasters could push millions of people back into poverty unless we take preventive action now to tackle the rapid growth in exposure of people and industry to floods, earthquakes and other natural hazards. Climate change is accelerating the frequency of extreme weather events."

The 5th Asian Ministerial Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction, organized by UNISDR in collaboration with the Indonesian National Disaster Management Agency (BNPB) closes today and was attended by 2,600 participants including delegations from 72 countries. Representation included two Heads of State and 25 government ministers.

The Conference outcome was unanimously agreed today at a full-plenary session. Key elements of the Final Declaration include: identification of accountability measures for effective implementation of a post-2015 Disaster Risk Reduction Framework; political commitment to deliver at all levels; awareness, education and public access to information; improved governance; the promotion of resilient investments; and the allocation of resources to build local capacity. Conference participants also resolved to hold consultations which will contribute to the development of a post-2015 framework agreement on disaster risk reduction....

Bangladesh resistant rice may not fill food gap

Syful Islam in AlertNet: Bangladesh is about to release five new drought- and salt-tolerant rice varieties to help farmers cope with rising salinity and more frequent droughts - but some scientists and researchers say the yields are little better than those of current types and will not be sufficient to meet rising demand in the face of climate change. Climate scientist Ahsan Uddin Ahmed, executive director of the Centre for Global Change, told AlertNet Bangladesh is now self-sufficient in rice production but needs urgently to look ahead to 2040-2050 when climate change will have a greater impact on food production and when ensuring food security, particularly for the country’s poorest, will be more difficult.

Ahmed said Bangladesh needs to adopt a long-term food plan very soon, and it must ensure, among other things, that no more arable land is taken for industrialisation or urbanisation. That will be a challenge as urbanisation continues in the country, including of farmers displaced by climate impacts and pushed into Bangladesh’s cities.

Of the five new rice varieties to be released soon by scientists at the Bangladesh Rice Research Institute (BRRI), four are high-yielding and the fifth is a hybrid. They will increase overall rice output by three million tonnes a year if they are widely adopted, the BRRI director general told reporters. The research institute has released 61 high-yielding modern varieties of rice since 1970, and 80 percent of the country’s rice-growing land is currently cultivated with BRRI-developed varieties.

Extreme drought and the contamination of paddy fields by salty water as a result of flash floods and storm surges have become very common in this low-lying country, one of those most severely affected by climate change.

Shot of the Bangladesh Rice Research Institute by Md. Murshed Akram Tareq, Wikimedia Commons, under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License, Version 1.2 or any later version

Flood disaster and national emergency management in Nigeria

Elvis Ndubueze in This Day (Nigeria):  As the issue of Climate Change and its effect on Nigeria becomes clearer,  the mitigation of natural hazard, its prevention and the response to it will test the effectiveness of Nigeria’s national emergency management. To reduce further human suffering currently being experienced across the country, occasioned by the sweeping flood, a prominent role is expected by the nation’s National Emergency Management Agency (NEMA). It therefore pre-supposes that NEMA should have taken the centre stage in all of the flood disasters that happened while others queue behind them contributing to the efforts both financially and physically. This is what we see in other climes. It demonstrates readiness and effectiveness of an agency while it provide a showcase of a country always prepared ahead of any calamity that may befall it as a result of human activities that has now brought about climate change.

Disaster reduction in Nigeria is both possible and feasible if the available sciences and technologies related to natural hazards are properly applied. The extent to which society puts this knowledge to effective use depends firstly upon the political will of its leaders at all levels. Coping with hazards - whether natural or attributable to human activity - is one of the greatest challenges of the applications of science and technology in the 21st Century.

While governments cannot prevent an earthquake or a hurricane from occurring, or a volcano from erupting, or sea from rising, governments in other parts of the world are applying the scientific knowledge and technical know-how that are already available to increase the resistance of these natural hazards or disaster, or to issue early warnings and organize proper community response to such warnings.

Over the last three decades, scientific knowledge of the intensity and distribution in time and space of natural hazards and the technological means of confronting them have expanded greatly. The dramatic advances in understanding the causes and parameters of natural phenomena and in the techniques for resisting their forces were presented, in the mid-80s, by Dr Frank Press, a lead scientist, as the rationale which made propitious the launching of the international decade devoted to reduce significantly the consequences of natural hazards and responding to disaster....

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

India expands its biodiversity databases

T.V. Padma in SciDev.net: India is expanding its biodiversity databases and linking them in a network so that policymakers for programmes that address biodiversity, climate change and socio-economic concerns have ready access to information. An Indian Bioresources Information Network (IBIN) was launched this month (11 October) by M. S. Swaminathan, eminent crop scientist and founder of the M.S. Swaminathan Foundation of India, on the sidelines of the 11th conference of parties of the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), in Hyderabad.

IBIN builds on a 14-year-old agreement between India's department of biotechnology (DBT) and the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) to combine remote sensing data with ground observations to characterise biodiversity and landscapes. "Landscape characterisation is important for any evolving landscape conservation strategy," P. S. Roy, a scientist with the Indian Institute of Remote Sensing, Dehra Dun, under ISRO, said during a discussion on IBIN on 17 October.

DBT has already compiled three databases – one on biodiversity characterisation at landscape level, which comprises a spatial database on vegetation/land use types, landscape fragmentation, disturbance regimes, species richness, biodiversity value, and biological (plant) richness. A second database is on plants, animals, marine and microbial resources, while a third is on vegetation, forest cover and other landscape elements. The three datasets are the largest on the country's biological resources, K. N. Ganeshiah of school of ecological sciences, University of Agriculture Sciences, Bangalore, told SciDev.Net.

IBIN would forge links with existing biodiversity databases, Ganeshiah said. This adds to the efforts of The Indian Biodiversity Information System (IBIS), started in 2010 by the Foundation of Ecological Security, a non-government organisation based in Anand, Gujarat state, to expands its database on birds to mammmals. IBIS announced this at the COP-11 meeting on 14 Oct...

Asian elephants at nagarhole National Park, India, shot by Dineshkannambadi, Wikimedia Commons, under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license

A Mississippi River diversion helped build Louisiana wetlands

Terra Daily via SPX: The extensive system of levees along the Mississippi River has done much to prevent devastating floods in riverside communities. But the levees have also contributed to the loss of Louisiana's wetlands. By holding in floodwaters, they prevent sediment from flowing into the watershed and rebuilding marshes, which are compacting under their own weight and losing ground to sea-level rise. Reporting in Nature Geoscience, a team of University of Pennsylvania geologists and others used the Mississippi River flood of the spring of 2011 to observe how floodwaters deposited sediment in the Mississippi Delta.

Their findings offer insight into how new diversions in the Mississippi River's levees may help restore Louisiana's wetlands. While scientists and engineers have previously proposed ways of altering the levee system to restore some of the natural wetland-building ability of the Mississippi, this is among the only large-scale experiments to demonstrate how these modifications might function.

The 2011 floods broke records across several states, damaged homes and crops and took several lives. The destruction was reduced, however, because the Army Corps of Engineers opened the Morganza Spillway, a river-control structure, for the first time since 1973 to divert water off of the Mississippi into the Atchafalaya River Basin. This action involved the deliberate flooding of more than 12,000 square kilometers and alleviated pressures on downstream levees and spared Baton Rouge and New Orleans from the worst of the flood.

For the Penn researchers, the opening of the Morganza Spillway provided a rare look into how floods along the Mississippi may have occurred before engineered structures were put in place to control the river's flow. "While this was catastrophic to the people living in the Atchafalaya Basin, it was also simulating - accidentally - the sort of natural flood that used to happen all the time," Jerolmack said....

A scene in the Atchafalaya Basin in Louisiana, USA. Photo by the US Army Corps of Engineers, public domain

Pollution as big a health problem as malaria or TB, finds report

Stephen Leahy in the "globaldevelopment" blog at the Guardian (UK): Waste from mining, lead smelters, industrial dumps and other toxic sites affects the health of an estimated 125 million people in 49 low- and middle-income countries. This unrecognised health burden is on the scale of malaria or tuberculosis (TB), a new report has found.

This year's World's worst pollution problems (pdf) report was published on Tuesday by the Blacksmith Institute in partnership with Green Cross Switzerland. It documents, for the first time, the public health impact of industrial pollutants – lead, mercury, chromium, radionuclides and pesticides – in the air, water and soil of developing countries. "This is an extremely conservative estimate," said Bret Ericson of the Blacksmith Institute, a small international NGO based in New York City. "We've investigated 2,600 toxic sites in the last four years, [but] we know there are far more."

The US has an estimated 100,000-300,000 toxic sites, mainly factories or industrial areas, but toxic sites in the low- and middle-income countries assessed in the report are often in residential areas. "We see a lot of disease when we go into these communities," said Ericson. "But we were surprised the health burden was so high – as much as malaria."

Ericson cited gold mining in the Nigerian state of Zamfara by way of example. In 2010, Médecins Sans Frontières doctors carrying out vaccinations in villages in Zamfara were shocked to see so few children. The villagers were small-scale gold miners who crushed gold-bearing rocks inside village compounds; the raw ore contained extremely high levels of lead, which had killed hundreds of children and left thousands more with lead poisoning.

The health impact of exposure to toxins at the 2,600 sites identified in the report was estimated using the disability adjusted life years (DALYs) metric, which the World Health Organisation (WHO) and other bodies use to measure overall disease burden. The metric is expressed as the number of years lost due to ill-health, disability or early death, with one DALY equivalent to one lost year of healthy life. The estimate for impact of pollution from toxic sites is 17m DALYs; according to the WHO, malaria's annual toll is 14m DALYs....

A gold mine uphill from a river, location unknown, shot by Nateko, Wikimedia Commons, under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported

Sandy approaches hurricane strength as it nears Jamaica

Reuters: Tropical Storm Sandy picked up speed and strength on its approach to the south coast of Jamaica on Wednesday and was forecast to make landfall as a hurricane later in the day, the U.S. National Hurricane Center said. Emergency authorities on the Caribbean island closed schools and prepared shelters to take in residents of flood-prone areas.

The storm was centered about 120 miles south of the Jamaican capital, Kingston, on Wednesday morning and was moving north at 14 miles per hour (22 km per hour) with top sustained winds of 70 miles per hour.

A tropical storm watch has been issued for south Florida, but Sandy's expected path will not take it into the Gulf of Mexico, where U.S. oil and gas operations are clustered.

A hurricane warning was in effect for both Jamaica and Cuba, although forecasters said Sandy is expected to be only a weak Category One hurricane on the five-step Saffir-Simpson scale of hurricane intensity, with winds topping out at 80 mph...

Tropical Storm Sandy on October 23, 2012, from NASA

Farm runoff is accelerating demise of protective coastal salt marshes

Robert S. Eshelman in E&E News: Pollution from agricultural production degrades coastal salt marshes more quickly than previously thought, according to a study published in the journal Nature. The decline of these ecosystems, the authors add, not only harms the plants and animals that inhabit them but undermines the storage capacity of one of the world's primary carbon sinks.

"Perhaps the most obvious [benefit that salt marshes provide] is they're nursery grounds for many fish, shellfish and birds, especially migrating birds that use them as feeding stops," said John Fleeger, an emeritus professor of biology at Louisiana State University and one of the researchers involved in the study. Coastal marshlands, he added, also provide protection for cities. As storms pass over marshes, they lose energy; the wetlands absorb storm surges that can batter coastal settlements. "That's a very important function, especially if you think of New Orleans and Katrina," Fleeger said. "Many people feel the strength of Katrina was heightened by the loss of salt marshes in the last 50 years or so."

Salt marshes also play a significant role, he said, in mitigating the onset of climate change and helping reduce the vulnerability of coastal cities to the impacts of rising sea levels. Just as these ecosystems buffer storm surges, Fleeger said, they also absorb the imperceptible rise in sea levels brought about by a warmer atmosphere.

Marshes also sequester carbon. Degrading marshes means less carbon is being pulled from the atmosphere but also that the carbon stored in those soils is emitted back into the atmosphere....

A salt marsh in Sachsen-Anhalt, Germany, shot by K. Retzlaff, Wikimedia Commons, under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Acting on disaster warnings: Don't miss the human factor

Sudhir Kumar in SciDev.net: The Great East Japan Earthquake and subsequent tsunami of 11 March 2011 challenged global ideas about responding to disasters. It showed that structural defences alone, such as breakwaters, coastal dykes and tidal barriers, cannot provide protection from tsunamis of such magnitude. The events of that day also emphasised the importance of 'end-to-end' early warning systems (systems spanning all steps from hazard detection through to community response). A Japanese government study, published in the Japan Times in August 2011, has found that only 58 per cent of people in coastal areas of Fukushima, Iwate and Miyagi prefectures heeded tsunamiwarnings immediately after the earthquake and headed for higher ground.

Of those who attempted to evacuate after hearing the warning, just five per cent were caught by the tsunami.  The report's findings raise the question of why some people act on early warnings while others ignore them. 

As climate change alters the risks posed by extreme weather events, how a community responds to early warnings will be a decisive factor in how people fare in hydro-meteorological events, including cyclones, blizzards, heavy snowfall, avalanches, coastal storm surges, floods, drought, heat-waves and cold spells.

There are barriers to action. The first may be the technical language used by warning systems. Individuals and communities may not be able to understand the meaning of obscure terms such as 'Cyclone Category 4', or the significance of a given wind speed.

Even when a community receives a warning, people's perception of risk may discourage them from heading for safety. In 2008, for example, Myanmar's Department of Meteorology and Hydrology detected Cyclone Nargis at an early stage, but people underestimated its intensity and believed that staying indoors would offer protection from winds, floods, and sea surge. 

The early warning system itself may underestimate the risk, as occurred when floods struck Mumbai, India, on 26 and 27 July 2005. A subsequent fact-finding committee found a significant gap between rainfall forecast (between 65 millimetres and 124.9 millimetres) and actual rainfall (944 millimetres — the eighth heaviest rainfall during a 24-hour period on record). Several hundred people lost their lives in the flooding.... 

Glenwood Springs, CO, June 8, 2002 -- The evening sun barely penetrates the smoke and ash as evacuees flee West Glenwood because of the spreading wildfires in Garfield County. Photo by Bryan Dahlberg/FEMA News Photo