Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Average temperature in Finland has risen by more than two degrees

A press release from the University of Eastern Finland: Over the past 166 years, the average temperature in Finland has risen by more than two degrees. During the observation period, the average increase was 0.14 degrees per decade, which is nearly twice as much as the global average.

According to a recent University of Eastern Finland and Finnish Meteorological Institute study, the rise in the temperature has been especially fast over the past 40 years, with the temperature rising by more than 0.2 degrees per decade.

"The biggest temperature rise has coincided with November, December and January. Temperatures have also risen faster than the annual average in the spring months, i.e., March, April and May. In the summer months, however, the temperature rise has not been as significant," says Professor Ari Laaksonen of the University of Eastern Finland and the Finnish Meteorological Institute.

As a result of the temperature rising, lakes in Finland get their ice cover later than before, and the ice cover also melts away earlier in the spring. Although the temperature rise in the actual growth season has been moderate, observations of Finnish trees beginning to blossom earlier than before have been made....

A view over Ropijärvi lake from the south in 2010 September. Shot by Ximonic, Simo Räsänen, Wikimedia Commons, under the GNU Free Documentation License 1.2

With 15 children dead, CDC declares flu epidemic

Liz Neporent in ABC News via Good Morning America: Fifteen children have died from complications of the flu so far this season, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention noted, as it officially declared the illness an epidemic. The number of states reporting a high amount of “influenza-like” illness activity has increased from 13 to 22 since last week’s report from the agency, with outbreaks in every region of the country.

Hospitalizations also climbed this week with seniors and kids younger than 4 accounting for the highest rate of hospitalizations. At least six Tennessee children have died from the flu this year, the state's Department of Health reported. Tennessee is under the widespread outbreak category, as of Monday, according to the CDC. So far, East Tennessee Children’s Hospital has seen 442 children with the flu just this month.

While this year’s strain of the virus is especially severe, ABC News chief health and medical editor Dr. Richard Besser said, flu can always be deadly for children, the elderly and anyone with a compromised immune system. “Every year about a hundred children die from the flu,” he said today on “Good Morning America.”

About 90 percent of flu cases so far this year have been the H3N2 subtype, the CDC reported. Flu strains are named for molecule types surrounding the outside of the virus particle, said Dr. Pritish Tosh, an infectious diseases physician with the Mayo Clinic and a member of the Mayo vaccine research group....

An influenza virus particle, from the CDC

Malaysia flood response denounced anew as nearly quarter million flee

Al-Zaquan Amer Hamzah in Reuters: Malaysia's worst flooding in a decade has forced nearly a quarter of a million people from their homes, officials said on Tuesday, with the government coming under renewed fire for its perceived slow response.

The National Security Council said that "exceptionally high" water levels had cut off rescuers from relief centers as the death toll rose to 21 across the northeast. Fifteen people have been killed in neighboring southern Thailand.

Most criticism was directed at Prime Minister Najib Razak for his absence as the disaster unfolded after being photographed playing golf with President Barack Obama in Hawaii. "No matter how prepared we are, there will always be a bigger and more devastating disaster that tests the capability and resources of the country," the council said in a statement to the online news portal, the Malaysian Insider.

Opposition member Tony Pua denounced the government's reluctance to declare a state of emergency and its "complete lack of urgency" in calling a council meeting....

Nine deaths in Mozambique's torrential rains

AllAfrica.com via Agencia de Informacao de Mocambique: At least nine people died on Saturday morning when torrential rains struck the northern Mozambican port city of Nacala, according to a report on the independent television station, STV. The storm also swept away over 60 houses, mostly built of flimsy materials and severely damaged roads in the city.

The nine deaths were caused by lightning strikes, and by the collapse of a warehouse wall on top of adjacent houses. The collapse caused the deaths of five people from the same household. There were two survivors who are receiving medical care at the local health centre.

The clinical director of Nacala district hospital, Marciana Machatine, said that of the injured people who were taken to the hospital, one had died, but the others were recovering. “Their clinical state is stable”, she said, “but even so they must remain hospitalized for the time being”.

Machatine took the opportunity to urge Nacala households to cover their homes with zinc sheeting rather than with thatch to make them more resistant during storms. Most of the traditional houses in Nacala have walls made of mud bricks, and are covered with thatch. They are always in danger of collapse during heavy rains....

The beach in Nacala, Mozambique, shot by Stig Nygaard Stig Nygaard, Wikimedia Commons via Flickr, under the Creative Commons 2.0 license

Egypt authorities report 10th bird flu death in 2014

Press TV (Ireland): Egyptian health authorities have reported the country's 10th death this year from bird flu as well as the first case of infection with the virus’s H5N1 strain in Cairo. The fatality was reported on Monday. Health Ministry spokesman, Hossam Abdel Ghaffar, said it occurred last week in the southern province of Aswan.

A 42-year-old man was also diagnosed with bird flu and quarantined on December 26 in the capital, Cairo. He is the 25th case of bird flu in the country this year, but the first infection reported in Cairo. Bird flu first appeared in Egypt in 2006.

Mainly in Southeast Asia, the H5N1 strain has killed over 400 people since first appearing in 2003. A separate strain, H7N9 has also killed over 170 people since it first emerged in 2013.  Also on Monday, Chinese state media reported that a man had died from the H7N9 strain in eastern China....

Plucking poultry at the Tomb of Nakht, Western Thebes, 15th century BCE. It's a bit outdated -- but there are no copyright issues!

Saturday, December 27, 2014

Soil’s large carbon stores could be freed by increased CO2, plant growth

A press release from Princeton University: An increase in human-made carbon dioxide in the atmosphere could initiate a chain reaction between plants and microorganisms that would unsettle one of the largest carbon reservoirs on the planet — soil.

Researchers based at Princeton University report in the journal Nature Climate Change that the carbon in soil — which contains twice the amount of carbon in all plants and Earth’s atmosphere combined — could become increasin
gly volatile as people add more carbon dioxide to the atmosphere, largely because of increased plant growth. The researchers developed the first computer model to show at a global scale the complex interaction between carbon, plants and soil, which includes numerous bacteria, fungi, minerals and carbon compounds that respond in complex ways to temperature, moisture and the carbon that plants contribute to soil.

Although a greenhouse gas and pollutant, carbon dioxide also supports plant growth. As trees and other vegetation flourish in a carbon dioxide-rich future, their roots could stimulate microbial activity in soil that in turn accelerates the decomposition of soil carbon and its release into the atmosphere as carbon dioxide, the researchers found.

This effect counters current key projections regarding Earth’s future carbon cycle, particularly that greater plant growth could offset carbon dioxide emissions as flora take up more of the gas, said first author Benjamin Sulman, who conducted the modeling work as a postdoctoral researcher at the Princeton Environmental Institute. “You should not count on getting more carbon storage in the soil just because tree growth is increasing,” said Sulman, who is now a postdoctoral researcher at Indiana University.

On the other hand, microbial activity initiated by root growth could lock carbon onto mineral particles and protect it from decomposition, which would increase long-term storage of carbon in soils, the researchers report.

Whether carbon emissions from soil rise or fall, the researchers’ model depicts an intricate soil-carbon system that contrasts starkly with existing models that portray soil as a simple carbon repository, Sulman said. An oversimplified perception of the soil carbon cycle has left scientists with a glaring uncertainty as to whether soil would help mitigate future carbon dioxide levels — or make them worse, Sulman said....

The model projected changes (above) in global soil carbon as a result of root-soil interactions, with blue indicating a greater loss of soil carbon to the atmosphere. (Image by Benjamin Sulman, Princeton Environmental Institute)

Increasingly acidic oceans threaten world's mussel populations

The Guardian (UK) via Press Association: The world’s mussel population could be under threat as climate change causes the oceans to become more acidic, scientists have warned. Mussel shells become more brittle when they are formed in more acidic water, Glasgow University has reported in the Royal Society journal Interface.

Carbon dioxide in the atmosphere causes the oceans to become more acidic and reduces the concentration of the minerals mussels need to generate their shells, according to scientists. However, they also found that mussels may have an in-built biological defence mechanism which boosts shell development when water temperatures rise by 2C.

Dr Fitzer said: “What we’ve found in the lab is that increased levels of acidification in their habitats have a negative impact on mussels’ ability to create their shells. “We worked with colleagues in our School of Engineering to examine the toughness of the shells of the mussels in the more acidic water against those in control conditions.

“What we found was that the calcite outer shells of the mussels past a certain threshold of acidity was stiffer and harder, making it more brittle and prone to fracture under pressure, and the aragonite inner shell became softer.

The shellfish industry is worth more than £250m a year to the UK economy with a large part accounted for by mussels and oysters, the UK Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs reported in 2012....

A mussel shell from the Netherlands, shot by Emma Versteegh, Wikimedia Commons, under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.5 Generic license

World Bank supports greater resilience to climate related hazards in Mozambique

AllAfrica.com via the World Bank: The World Bank Board of Executive Directors approved today an International Development Association (IDA) financing in the amount of US$50 million to support climate change related reforms agreed upon between the Government of Mozambique (GoM) and the World Bank under the Climate Change Development Policy Operation (DPO). This operation will improve the country's resilience to effects of climate change through the implementation of reforms across several sectors of the economy.

Extreme climate related events such as cyclones and floods have devastating effects on agriculture, electricity generation, mining, and transport and communications almost every year in Mozambique.

The country ranks third in Africa in terms of exposure to climate-related hazards and is the only country in Africa considered to be at high risk from each of the major climate hazards - droughts, floods and coastal cyclones. Economic losses average 1.1 percent of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) annually, having cost US$1.75 billion between 1980 and 2003.

The country's GDP fell following the 2000 floods from a forecast of 7 percent to 1.5 percent and the 2013 floods in the Limpopo Valley alone inflicted damages to affected settlements and infrastructure in the order of US$135 million and losses in crops estimated at US$112 million.

The 2013 floods also resulted in at least 44 reported direct fatalities, 170,000 people evacuated in Gaza province alone, and a high prevalence of water-borne diseases and malaria amongst affected populations, most of whom were extremely poor. The floods severely damaged transport, irrigation, water supply, urban drainage, sanitation, and private assets, further disrupting private sector activities....

US Air Force photo of a flood in Mozambique in 2000

Number of Malaysians displaced by worst-ever floods reaches 160,000

Al-Zaquan Amer Hamzah in Reuters: The number of people evacuated due to Malaysia's worst-ever floods jumped to more than 160,000 on Saturday, as Prime Minister Najib Razak reached the worst-hit state after cutting short a vacation in the U.S.

Najib arrived in Kelantan, which has the biggest problems among eight affected states, following his return from Hawaii on Friday after public criticism he had been absent as flooding worsened.

On Saturday, Najib announced an additional 500 million ringgit ($143.31 million) will be spent to aid victims after the flood subsides, following an initial government allocation of 50 million ringgit two days ago. The number of people evacuated topped 160,000 at 0700GMT Saturday, according to the New Straits Times newspaper, a sharp increase from 100,000 a day before.

The prime minister attended briefings with the National Security Council, the National Disaster Management and Relief Committee, state government and local emergency responders, a statement on Friday said.

Taken during the 2007 Johor flood in Kota Tinggi, Malaysia, shot by Mr Tan, Wikimedia Commons via Flickr, under the Creative Commons 2.0 license

Second Christmas in ruins in Philippine disaster zone

Terra Daily via AFP: Thousands of residents of the typhoon-weary city of Tacloban in the mainly Catholic Philippines prepared Wednesday to mark their second Christmas in ruins following two giant storms. A huge streetside Christmas lantern was the sole sign of the nation's most festive holiday in the city's Magallanes district, where shanties have replaced a community flattened by tsunami-like waves whipped up by Super Typhoon Haiyan 13 months ago.

Magallanes shopkeeper Aida Comendador, 46, lined up at the nearby local social welfare office to collect up to 10,000 pesos ($224) in government subsidies for repairs to her severely damaged house in the city on the central island of Leyte.

"We've managed to put up a ramshackle shelter out of 20 pieces of roofing sheets donated by a Catholic charity, but we still don't have a door and proper beds," the mother of three told AFP.

Haiyan, the strongest typhoon ever to hit land, left 7,350 people dead or missing, and the coastal neighbourhood of Magallanes highlights the slow pace of reconstruction.

Roughly a million people need to be moved away from Magallanes and other coastal areas deemed vulnerable to the monster waves generated by Haiyan, according to a 160-billion-peso ($3.6 billion) government rebuilding plan....

Temporary shelters provided by the United Nations sit beside remaining damage from Typhoon Haiyan as the aircraft carrying U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry arrived in Tacloban City, Philippines, to announce $25 million in fresh U.S. recovery aid on December 18, 2013. [State Department photo/ Public Domain]

Friday, December 26, 2014

Return of the beavers, or terraforming in your back yard

A press release from the University of Saskatchewan: Over-trapping nearly wiped out the beaver 100 years ago but the ambitious rodents have bounced back and have created ponds on three continents that cover an area about the size of Switzerland, according to University of Saskatchewan research published in the Royal Swedish Academy of Science journal AMBIO.

The researchers also noted an associated increase in methane emissions from those ponds. At the end of the 20th century, beaver activities contributed up to 800 million kilograms of methane to the atmosphere each year, about 200 times greater than in 1900. And on balance, that is a good thing, explained Colin Whitfield, hydrologist with the Centre for Hydrology at the University of Saskatchewan.

“We found that valuable habitat area has been established by beavers over the last century,” Whitfield said. “While this habitat contributes to global methane emissions, the magnitude of this methane source is lower than many other natural sources and unlikely to be a dominant climate-change driver.”

Beavers are architects of geomorphic change; they drastically alter water flow through a landscape and their dams create ponds where there was once swift-moving water. Carbon-rich plant matter decomposing in the oxygen-poor pond bottoms releases methane into the atmosphere, Whitfield explained.

...“We found global beaver numbers have grown dramatically on the three continents they currently inhabit North America, Eurasia and South America, to a population of over 10 million,” he said. “We estimate this has led to the creation of more than 42,000 square kilometres of aquatic pond areas as well as over 200,000 kilometres of shoreline habitat.”

The result is habitat for birds, greater biodiversity and improved water quality. “Continued range expansion and population growth in combination with anticipated increases in surface water temperatures suggests that the contribution of beaver activity to global methane emissions may continue to grow,” said Whitfield....

A beaver down the street from me, pausing in his relentless campaign to inundate the landscape. Shot by Brian Thomas. Public domain, sez me.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

In Jakarta, that sinking feeling is all too real

Bill Tarrant at the Thomson Reuters Foundation via Reuters: …"Jakarta is a bowl, and the bowl is sinking," said Fook Chuan Eng, senior water and sanitation specialist with the World Bank, who oversees a $189 million flood mitigation project for the city.

The channels of the Ciliwung and other rivers are sinking. The entire sprawl of Jakarta's north coast - fishing ports, boatyards, markets, warehouses, fish farms, crowded slums and exclusive gated communities - it's all sinking. Even the 40-year-old seawall that is supposed to keep the Java Sea from inundating the Indonesian capital is sinking.

…Flooding from overflowing rivers and canals in the area is at least an annual event that forces Rahmawati and the rest of the kampong to evacuate to public buildings nearby. High-water marks from the last big flood, in 2013, are still visible on the walls of the kampong.

Jakarta is sinking because of a phenomenon called subsidence. This happens when extraction of groundwater causes layers of rock and sediment to slowly pancake on top of each other.

The problem is particularly acute in Jakarta because most of its millions of residents suck water through wells that tap shallow underground aquifers. Wells also provide about a third of the needs of business and industry, according to city data….

Jakarta's skyline, shot by Vian kadal, Wikimedia Commons,  under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Salinity matters

A press release from the European Space Agency: Measurements of salt held in surface seawater are becoming ever-more important for us to understand ocean circulation and Earth’s water cycle. ESA’s SMOS mission is proving essential to the quest.

The Soil Moisture and Ocean Salinity satellite, SMOS, is monitoring changes in the amount of water held in the surface layers of soil and concentrations of salt in the top layer of seawater – both of which are a consequence of the continuous exchange of water between the oceans, the atmosphere and the land. Launched in 2009, SMOS has provided the longest continuous record of sea-surface salinity measurements from space.

The salinity of surface seawater is controlled largely by the balance between evaporation and precipitation, but fresh water from rivers and the freezing and melting of ice also changes the concentrations. With a wealth of salinity data from SMOS now in hand complemented by measurements from the US–Argentinian Aquarius satellite, which uses a different technique, scientists gathered recently at the UK Met Office to review the benefits this has brought to science.

Speaking at the Ocean Salinity Science and Salinity Remote-Sensing Workshop, Prof. Dame Julia Slingo, Met Office Chief Scientist, said, “We need to understand the role of salinity in the closure of the hydrology cycle – arguably the weakest point in global climate modelling.

“Salinity, and particularly sea-surface salinity, is a challenging but important topic for ocean circulation and climate variability about which we need to know more, especially given the recent climate-warming hiatus. The SMOS mission, now celebrating five years in orbit, is providing detailed global measurements of ocean-surface salinity that are now used to address some of these challenges.”....

From the European Space Agency: Average sea-surface salinity values. Areas of red indicate regions of high salinity, and areas of green indicate regions of low salinity. The map is overlaid with the simplified global circulation pattern called the ‘thermohaline circulation’. The blue arrows indicate cool deeper currents and the red indicate warmer surface currents. Temperature (thermal) and salinity (haline) variations are key variables affecting ocean circulation.

Egypt denies Ethiopia row over dam study deadline

Nazret.com via Anadolu Agency: Egyptian Irrigation Minister Hossam Moghazi on Friday denied reports that Ethiopia had asked to extend the deadline for a technical study on the anticipated impact of a controversial mega-dam that it is building on the Nile River's upper reaches. "The agreement between Cairo, Addis Ababa and Khartoum to allow a six-month period for carrying out the evaluation has not changed," Moghazi told The Anadolu Agency.

In recent days, certain Egyptian media outlets had reported that Ethiopia had asked to extend the sixth-month deadline to two years. Moghazi, however, said some research firms that had been shortlisted by a tripartite technical committee to conduct two impact studies on Ethiopia's dam project had asked to postpone submission of their proposals.

He added that the committee had given the firms a December 30 deadline by which to submit proposals.

Since September, a Tripartite National Committee – a 12-member experts' panel responsible for aiding implementation of recommendations issued by an International Panel of Experts – has held two working sessions in Addis Ababa and Cairo.

At the two meetings, representatives of the three countries were able to produce a list of seven firms, one of which will be selected to conduct the studies.

Ethiopia says the multibillion-dollar Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam is needed to generate badly-need energy. The project has strained Ethiopia's relations with downstream Egypt, which fears the project will reduce its historical share of water...

The Nile seen from the International Space Station. Via NASA

Uganda faces agriculture output drop

Paul Tentena in East African Business Week: Agriculture is repeatedly described as the backbone of Uganda’s economy. But in terms of productivity, it has the lowest output per worker researchers say. According to Edward Bbaale, a researcher with Centre for Basic Research and School of Economics at Makerere University, it  implies that the majority of workers in Uganda are holders of low paying jobs.

This is an issue, which means that there are low prospects of overcoming the problem of poverty by those employed in agriculture. “Even when Uganda records growth in the agricultural and manufacturing sectors, youths remain jobless while growth in the services and industrial sectors is generating jobs for them. So, is it necessary for so many Ugandans to engage in agriculture? Especially, at this point in time, when the demographic changes of the population are generating a window of opportunity to raise per capita income and thus reduce poverty?” Bbaale said.

Bbaale, in his research paper entitled ‘Is Uganda’s Growth Profile Jobless?’, points out that more people should be engaged in other productive activities and sectors rather than agriculture if Uganda has to reduce on its poverty levels and create jobs for the young people.  He however, cautions that agriculture still remains important because it is a major employer in Uganda.

...Overall, the promising sectors for poverty reduction through productivity and employment generation in Uganda by order of importance are; services sector, industrial sector and manufacturing. If adults manage to engage in these sectors, the demographic shift will have an important poverty reducing impact.

The services sector was employing over 2 million Ugandans, that is 19% in 2006 and 22% in 2011 of the labor force. It had all its contributions positive; contributed 39% to output per worker and 14% to the growth in employment. Since agriculture generates low income for its workers this puts a policy question on the productivity of jobs held in the agricultural sector....

A handful of millet in Uganda, shot by Pete Lewis/Department for International Development (UK), Wikimedia Commons, under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license

Lives of danger, poverty on Philippines' typhoon coast

Terra Daily via AFP: Life is a constant throw of the dice for farmer Nilo Dilao and other residents of the Philippine island of Samar, the ground zero for many of East Asia's deadliest storms. Homes, boats, crops, livestock and jobs are all on the line each time the monster winds roar in from the Pacific Ocean, leaving survivors to mourn their dead and pick up the broken pieces, year in and year out.

"Life is a struggle here," Dilao, 43, told AFP a few days after Typhoon Hagupit destroyed his shanty and killed more than 20 people this month. He likened the plight of local people to those of stray chickens. "We're scratching at the soil non-stop in hopes of finding a scrap to eat," he said.

Hagupit came a year after Super Typhoon Haiyan, the strongest ever storm recorded on land, killed 7,350 people on Samar and neighbouring islands.

Samar, about half the size of Belgium, is often the first major Asian landmass hit by the more than 20 tropical storms or typhoons that are born in the Pacific Ocean each year.

With much of the mountainous island stripped by deforestation, most of its 1.8 million residents live on narrow, sea-level strips along the coast, at the mercy of the storms' ferocious winds and tsunami-like ocean surges....

In Samar, after 2013's Typhoon Haiyan. US Department of Defense photo

NOAA establishes ‘tipping points’ for sea level rise related flooding

A press release from NOAA: By 2050, a majority of U.S. coastal areas are likely to be threatened by 30 or more days of flooding each year due to dramatically accelerating impacts from sea level rise, according to a new NOAA study, published today in the American Geophysical Union’s online peer-reviewed journal Earth’s Future.

The findings appear in the paper From the Extreme to the Mean: Acceleration and Tipping Points for Coastal Inundation due to Sea Level Rise, and follows the earlier study, Sea Level Rise and Nuisance Flood Frequency Changes around the United States, by the report’s co-author, William Sweet, Ph.D., oceanographer at NOAA’s Center for Operational Oceanographic Products and Services (CO-OPS). The new analysis was presented at a news conference today at the annual AGU fall meeting in San Francisco.

NOAA scientists Sweet and Joseph Park established a frequency-based benchmark for what they call “tipping points,” when so-called nuisance flooding, defined by NOAA’s National Weather Service as between one to two feet above local high tide, occurs more than 30 or more times a year.

Based on that standard, the NOAA team found that these tipping points will be met or exceeded by 2050 at most of the U.S. coastal areas studied, regardless of sea level rise likely to occur this century. In their study, Sweet and Park used a 1½ to 4 foot set of recent projections for global sea level rise by year 2100 similar to the rise projections of the Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change, but also accounting for local factors such as the settlement of land, known as subsidence.

These regional tipping points will be surpassed in the coming decades in areas with more frequent storms, the report said. These tipping points will be also be exceeded in areas where local sea levels rise more than the global projection of one and half to four feet. This also includes coastal areas like Louisiana where subsidence, which is not a result of by climate change, is causing land to sink below sea level....

FEMA image from 2005, Houston evacuating from Hurricane Rita

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Rwanda fills climate data gap to protect against storms

Paula Park in SciDev.net: Rwanda’s weather service is now better able to forecast floods and other natural disasters after scientists bridged climate-data gaps left by the 1994 genocide.  The collection of national rainfall and temperature records lapsed for after the genocide, and the absence of reliable records had hampered the Rwanda Meteorology Agency’s ability to forecast threats such as torrential rain or flooding that damaged homes and crops, and caused fatalities.

But researchers have now combined Rwandan weather station observations from before and after the 15 year gap with satellite data on rainfall patterns over the past 30 years. It has enabled the Rwanda Meteorology Agency to fill hole in its observations, says Marcellin Habimana, a climate processing officer at the agency.

Rwanda’s data gap is typical of many Sub-Saharan African countries. “Africa is very sparsely sampled,” Elfatih Eltahir, a civil engineer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, United States, tells SciDev.Net.

There are just 1,152 stations in Africa within the World Weather Watch programme that reports to the World Meteorological Organisation (WMO), so each covers 27,347 square kilometres, according to German NGO the Institute Water for Africa.  In comparison, it says, the 287 WMO weather stations in Germany each cover an area about 20 times smaller than that....

Mt. Katsimbi in Rwanda, shot by Micah Zarnke, Wikimedia Commons, under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license

Heavy snow kills 5, disrupts travel in Japan

Terra Daily via AFP: At least five people have died in heavy snow that has blanketed swathes of Japan, reports said Thursday, with more than two metres (6ft 7ins) lying in some places and more forecast.

Two elderly women were killed on the northernmost island of Hokkaido, Kyodo News reported, with one hit by a snow-plough and another buried when a warehouse collapsed under the weight of fallen snow. Two men, meanwhile, died in traffic accidents on snow-bound roads, one in Hokkaido and the other in Hiroshima further south, police said.

Another man, 68, was discovered dead outside his home in Niigata on the main island of Honshu, police said, with reports saying he had fallen from the garage roof while removing snow.

There was also widespread disruption to travel, with around 100 domestic flights cancelled, adding to the 450 that were grounded on Wednesday, including some international routes, officials and media said....

Snow in Sapporo in 2009, shot by aokomoriuta, Wikimedia Commons, under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported2.5 Generic2.0 Generic and 1.0 Generic license  

Improving forecasts for rain-on-snow flooding

Hannah Hickey at University of Washington Today: Many of the worst West Coast winter floods pack a double punch. Heavy rains and melting snow wash down the mountains together to breach riverbanks, wash out roads and flood buildings. These events are unpredictable and difficult to forecast. Yet they will become more common as the planet warms and more winter precipitation falls as rain rather than snow.

...Most of the largest floods on record in the western U.S. are associated with rain falling on snow. But it’s not that the rain is melting or washing away the snow. Instead, it’s the warm, humid air surrounding the drops that is most to blame for the melting, Wayand said. Moisture in the air condenses on the cold snow just like water droplets form on a cold drink can
. The energy released when the humid air condenses is absorbed by the snow. The other main reason is that rainstorms bring warmer air, and this air blows across the snow to melt its surface. His work support previous research showing that these processes provide 60 to 90 percent of the energy for melting.

Places that experience rain-on-snow flooding are cities on rivers that begin in the mountains, such as Sacramento, California, and Centralia, Washington. In the 1997 New Year’s Day flood in Northern California, melting snow exacerbated flooding, which broke levees and caused millions of dollars in damage. The biggest recent rain-on-snow event in Washington was the 2009 flood in the Snoqualmie basin. And the Calgary flood in summer of 2013 included snow from the Canadian Rockies that caused rivers to overflow their banks.

The UW researchers developed a model by recreating the 10 worst rain-on-snow flooding events between 1980 and 2008 in three regions: the Snoqualmie basin in Washington state, the upper San Joaquin basin in central California and the East North Fork of the Feather River basin in southern California.

Their results allow them to gauge the risks for any basin and any incoming storm. The three factors that matter most, they found, are the shape of the basin, the elevation of the rain-to-snow transition before and during the storm, and the amount of tree cover. Basins most vulnerable to snowmelt are treeless basins with a lot of area within the rain-snow transition zone, where the precipitation can fall as snow and then rain....

The Centre Street Bridge in Calgary, Alberta, during the 2013 floods, shot by Ryan L. C. Quan, Wikimedia Commons, under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license

Tropical deforestation threatens global food production

Chris Arsenault at the Thomson Reuters Foundation via Reuters: Tropical deforestation in the southern hemisphere is accelerating global warming and threatening world food production by distorting rainfall patterns across Europe, China and the U.S. Midwest, a study released on Thursday said.

By 2050, deforestation could lead to a 15 percent drop in rainfall in tropical regions including the South American Amazon, Southeast Asia and Central Africa, the study published in the journal Nature Climate Change said.

Much of the logging taking place is to clear land for agriculture. This can cause a vicious cycle, increasing global warming, lowering food production on farms which in turn leads to growers cutting down more trees for farmland, experts say. "When you deforest the tropics, those regions will experience significant warming and the biggest drying," Deborah Lawrence, a University of Virginia professor and the study's lead author, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Removing trees and planting crops releases carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, contributing to global warming. At the same time, deforested areas are also less able to retain moisture, immediately altering local weather patterns. The study said if current deforestation rates persist in South America's Amazon rainforest, the region's soy production could fall by 25 percent by 2050....

Deforestation in Kalimantan, Indonesia, shot by Josh Estey/AusAID, Wikimedia Commons via Flickr, under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generric license 

The soil, silent ally against hunger in Latin America

Marianella Jarroud in IPS via Tierramerica: Latin America and the Caribbean should use sustainable production techniques to ensure healthy soil, the basic element in agriculture, food production and the fight against hunger.

“Keeping the soil healthy makes food production possible,” said Raúl Benítez, regional director for the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO). “Without good soil, food production is undermined, and becomes more difficult and costly. We are often not aware that it can take 1,000 years to generate one centimetre of healthy soil, but we can lose that centimetre in a few seconds as a result of pollution, toxic waste, or misuse of the soil,” he said in an interview with Tierramérica.

Despite its importance, 33 percent of the planet’s soil is degraded by physical, chemical or biological causes, which is reflected in a reduction in plant cover, soil fertility, and pollution of the soil and water, and which leads to impoverished harvests, FAO warns.

Latin America and the Caribbean have the largest amount of potential arable land in the world. The worst degradation of soil is in Central America and southern Mexico, where it affects 26 percent of the land. In South America that proportion is 14 percent....

Some dirt, shot by 4028mdk09, Wikimedia Commons, under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Global CO2 emissions increase to new all-time record, but growth is slowing down

A press release from the EU's Joint Research Centre: 2013 saw global CO2 emissions from fossil fuel use and cement production reach a new all-time high. This was mainly due to the continuing steady increase in energy use in emerging economies over the past ten years.  However, emissions increased at a notably slower rate (2%) than on average in the last ten years (3.8% per year since 2003, excluding the credit crunch years).

This slowdown, which began in 2012, signals a further decoupling of global emissions and economic growth, which reflects mainly the lower emissions growth rate of China. China, the USA and the EU remain the top-3 emitters of CO2, accounting for respectively 29%, 15% and 11% of the world’s total. After years of a steady decline, the CO2 emissions of the United States grew
by 2.5% in 2013, whereas in the EU emissions continued to decrease, by 1.4% in 2013.

These are the main findings in the annual report ‘Trends in global CO2 emissions’, released today by PBL Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency and the JRC. The report is based on recent results from the joint JRC/PBL Emissions Database for Global Atmospheric Research (EDGAR), the latest statistics on energy use and various other activities.

In 2013, global CO2 emissions grew to the new record of 35.3 billion tonnes (Gt). Sharp risers include Brazil (+ 6.2%), India (+ 4.4%), China (+ 4.2%) and Indonesia (+2.3%). The much lower emissions increase in China of 4.2% in 2013 and 3.4% in 2012 was primarily due to a decline in electricity and fuel demand from the basic materials industry, and aided by an increase in renewable energy and by energy efficiency improvements. The emissions increase in the United States in 2013 (+2.5%) was mainly due to a shift in power production from gas back to coal together with an increase in gas consumption due to a higher demand for space heating....

Sulphur dioxide emissions from a vent in Hawaii. But these emissions aren't made by humans.  Shot by Brocken Inaglory Brocken Inaglory, Wikimedia Commons, under the Wikimedia Commons Share and Share Alike 3.0 Unported license 

Stanford scientist examines ways to put stormwater to use in big cities

Terra Daily: Stanford researchers plan to use data from St. Paul, Minnesota, to determine the value of stormwater, and apply these lessons to water projects in Brazil and Ethiopia. Runoff from rainstorms in big cities can represent both threats and opportunities. Too much runoff in the wrong places causes flooding. Too little rainwater in the right places leads to dried-up creeks and rivers.

Water that washes up pollution from city streets can dirty downstream watersheds. Figuring out the best solutions to these problems requires lots of data - data that are easy to get in highly developed countries, but much scarcer in others.

At the American Geophysical Union Fall Meeting in San Francisco, Perrine Hamel, a postdoctoral scholar with the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment, will speak on "Mapping Stormwater Retention in the Cities: A Flexible Model for Data-Scarce Environments." "It's really trying to mimic what would happen in a natural watershed," said Perrine.

Initially, Perrine and co-author Bonnie Keeler from the University of Minnesota Institute on the Environment plan to study the data-rich Capitol Region watershed in St. Paul, Minnesota. Then they plan to extend that work to the data-poor settings of Sao Paulo, Brazil, and Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.

Their goal is to determine the value of stormwater retention services for large cities in developing countries, and to compare their benefits to those of other services like recreation or urban heat island mitigation. Natural Capital Project partners World Wildlife Fund and The Nature Conservancy want to help large cities like Addis Ababa develop in ways that enhance the provision of ecosystem services and that don't create future problems from stormwater runoff. ...

A stormwater management pond in Patuxent, Maryland, shot by Andrew Bossi, Wikimedia Commons, under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.5 Generic licenses  

Fishing quotas defy scientists’ advice

Fiona Harvey in the Guardian (UK): Britain’s fishermen will be allowed to increase their catch of cod and other key fish species next year after late-night wrangling between EU ministers in Brussels resulted in a new set of fishing quotas that flout scientific advice. The quota for cod catches for 2015 will increase by 5% on last year, though scientific advice suggested that it should be cut by 20%.

The UK’s fisheries minister, George Eustice, hailed the deal as a triumph for Britain’s dwi
ndling fishing fleets. He said: “Although these were difficult negotiations, I am pleased that we were able to secure the best possible deal to ensure sustainable fisheries and a strong UK fishing industry. While fishermen had feared there would be major cuts, we were able to keep the same quota as last year for many species, in addition to important increases to the North Sea cod and haddock quota, which will benefit Scottish fishermen.”

UK fishermen will also be allowed to catch 15% more prawns than last year and 15% more plaice in the North Sea, while the haddock catch has been increased by 6%. But in the Celtic Sea, fewer cod and haddock will be allowed to be caught – though the number is still more than scientists advised – and the number of sole to be caught in the Bristol and Eastern channels has been reduced.

Conservationists said the deal, reached after a day and a half of negotiations in Brussels, was not in line with what scientists had advised. After nearly four years of tense negotiations, the EU’s Common Fisheries Policy was finally reformed this year. In its new state, it is supposed to guarantee that fish stocks are managed at what scientists deem to be sustainable levels, known as the maximum sustainable yield.

Andrew Clayton, of the Pew Charitable Trusts, which advocates a sustainable fisheries policy, said: “After decades of failing to get to grips with overfishing, the new common fisheries policy was supposed to bind ministers to setting sustainable fishing limits this year. Instead, they have set a considerable number of [quotas] in excess of the level scientists advised, failing to meet the targets they set themselves for overfishing. These are weak decisions, jeopardising the livelihoods of fishermen and the sustainability of stocks.”...

A fishing trawler in front of the National Marine Aquarium in Plymouth, shot by Darren Rosson Darren Rosson, Wikimedia Commons via Geograph UK, under the Creative Commons 2.0 Generic license

NASA to study how African fires affect climate

Jan Piotrowski in SciDev.net: Climate scientists have received a boost of up to US$150 million from US space agency NASA for a five year campaign to probe how air pollution, manmade fires across Africa and warming oceans may affect our climate.

The money will be split equally among five projects under the umbrella of the agency’s Earth Venture initiative, which is designed to fill major knowledge gaps in earth sciences. A mixture of plane flights and surface measurements will shed light on processes that NASA’s satellite missions cannot pick up.

The projects are: Atmospheric chemistry and air pollution, Ecosystem chan
ges in a warming ocean, Greenhouse gas sources, African fires and Atlantic clouds, and Melting Greenland glaciers....  This is NASA’s second series of Earth Venture suborbital projects, recommended by the National Research Council in 2007. In 2010, the first series of five projects was selected.

"These new investigations address a variety of key scientific questions critical to advancing our understanding of how Earth works," said Jack Kaye, associate director for research in NASA's Earth Science Division in Washington in a NASA press release. “These innovative airborne experiments will let us probe inside processes and locations in unprecedented detail that complements what we can do with our fleet of Earth-observing satellites.”

Collecting hard data is the goal, but NASA scientist Hal Maring says that it is much more than an academic exercise — all projects were selected with a “heavy bias” towards their relevance for policy. “Our mission is to push the boundaries of field science to address weaknesses in our knowledge of Earth systems,” he says. “But behind these words is the assumption that the science better make a difference.”...

NASA image of fires in the Gambia in 2002

From Haiyan to Hagupit - what changed?

IRIN: On the second full day of operations responding to what entered the Philippines as Typhoon Hagupit - since downgraded to a tropical storm - national officials say disaster coordination has improved since last year’s Super Typhoon Haiyan.  Tacloban, the city that bore the bulk of the estimated 6,000-plus fatalities 13 months ago, has reported no casualties thus far.

“We evacuated sooner this year. People need longer than one to two days to evacuate,” Tacloban’s mayor Alfred Romualdez told IRIN, admitting he broke rules to suspend classes before the storm had even entered the Philippine Area of Responsibility. “People need three to four days to evacuate. You cannot force evacuation. Before they can think about evacuating, they need to borrow money from their employer. Then it takes at least one day to return home to provinces.”

More than one million people were transferred to 3,640 evacuation centres, as reported by the National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council (NDRRMC) and the Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD) on 8 December. Eight of the country’s 17 administration regions were affected.

In Tacloban, some 50,000 people were evacuated ahead of the storm, almost all of whom were already displaced from last year’s Typhoon Haiyan. Romualdez estimated at most 6,000 newly displaced. Almost all have returned to their residences.

Rather than waiting until damage assessments were in to request additional military presence, Romualdez requested military reinforcements four days before the typhoon hit, allowing the city to prepare relief goods and “custom-fit” disaster risk reduction to Tacloban’s needs, he said.

....Assistant-Secretary Camilo Gudmalin, who oversees for DSWD the region of Western Visayas, parts of which were still emerging from last year’s super typhoon when they were hit again in the latest calamity, said coordination between national and international responders has improved....

NASA image of Hagupit, December 5, 2014

Sunday, December 14, 2014

17 dead, nearly 100 missing in Indonesian landslide

Terra Daily: Torrential downpours triggered a landslide on Indonesia's main island of Java, killing at least 17 people and leaving nearly 100 others missing, with persistent rain hampering rescue efforts, officials said Saturday.

Hundreds of rescuers were digging with shovels through mud and rubble after the landslide buried scores of houses in Jemblung village in central Java late Friday, the national disaster agency said. The landslide swept down a hillside in the village, sparing only two houses, an AFP correspondent said.

"The rescue team have found 17 bodies," the national disaster agency's spokesman, Sutopo Purwo Nugroho, told AFP, adding that 11 others were badly injured and rescuers were searching for 91 people still missing. The disaster agency said that 200 rescuers and 500 volunteers had joined the search for the missing....

Locator map of Java by Jeanot, Wikimedia Commons, under the Creative Commons 3.0 license

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Global warming's influence on extreme weather

A press release from Stanford University: Extreme climate and weather events such as record high temperatures, intense downpours and severe storm surges are becoming more common in many parts of the world. But because high-quality weather records go back only about 100 years, most scientists have been reluctant to say if global warming affected particular extreme events.

On Wednesday, Dec. 17, at the American Geophysical Union's Fall Meeting in San Francisco, Noah Diffenbaugh, an associate professor of environmental Earth system science at the Stanford School of Earth Sciences, will discuss approaches to this challenge in a talk titled "Quantifying the Influence of Observed Global Warming on the Probability of Unprecedented Extreme Climate Events." He will focus on weather events that – at the time they occur – are more extreme than any other event in the historical record.

Diffenbaugh emphasizes that asking precisely the right question is critical for finding the correct answer. "The media are often focused on whether global warming caused a particular event," said Diffenbaugh, who is a senior fellow at the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment. "The more useful question for real-world decisions is: 'Is the probability of a particular event statistically different now compared with a climate without human influence?'"

Diffenbaugh said the research requires three elements: a long record of climate observations; a large collection of climate model experiments that accurately simulate the observed variations in climate; and advanced statistical techniques to analyze both the observations and the climate models.

One research challenge involves having just a few decades or a century of high-quality weather data with which to make sense of events that might occur once every 1,000 or 10,000 years in a theoretical climate without human influence.

But decision makers need to appreciate the influence of global warming on extreme climate and weather events. "If we look over the last decade in the United States, there have been more than 70 events that have each caused at least $1 billion in damage, and a number of those have been considerably more costly," said Diffenbaugh. "Understanding whether the probability of those high-impact events has changed can help us to plan for future extreme events, and to value the costs and benefits of avoiding future global warming."

Navarre Beach, Florida, after Hurricane Katrina in 2005. FEMA photo

Superbugs could kill 10 million people a year

CBS News: Warnings about the dangers of antibiotic-resistant "superbugs" are taking on new urgency with the release of a frightening new report from the British government. The report says higher rates of drug-resistant bacterial infections could result in 10 million deaths a year by 2050. The report puts the financial toll at a potential $100 trillion.

"That's a tremendous impact," CBS News medical contributor Dr. David Agus told "CBS This Morning." And the problem is not just hypothetical. "It's a real threat today. It's going to be a bigger threat," he said.

Superbugs such as Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, commonly called MRSA, are currently blamed for about 23,000 deaths a year in the United States. Earlier this year, the World Health Organization warned that antibiotic-resistant strains of bacteria have now spread worldwide and could lead to a "post-antibiotic era in which common infections and minor injuries...can once again kill." The WHO report called the problem "so serious that it threatens the achievements of modern medicine."

The risk has grown in recent years as the overuse of common antibiotics encouraged growth of drug-resistant strains. "Every time somebody has a fever, a doctor can give them an antibiotic. We have to stop that," Agus said. Antibiotics don't work against viral infections like a cold or the flu, but patients often ask for the drugs anyway, and too often doctors comply...

Colorized transmission electron micrograph showing USA 300 strain of Staphlococcus aureus, shown in gold, outside a white blood cell, shown in blue. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID). From the National Institutes of Health