Monday, March 31, 2014

How the US scuppered climate progress at Copenhagen

Oliver Tickell in the Ecologist: Today the IPCC launches its latest review of world climate. But how to translate its grim findings into action when US is deploying its full armoury of intelligence and diplomatic dirty tricks to sink any prospect of an effective global climate agreement? The climate talks were deliberately and highly effectively scuppered by a 'dirty tricks' operation carried out by the NSA and other US security agencies - including the pivotal leak to The Guardian of the Danish text.

Today the IPCC revealed its latest information on how human emissions of greenhouse gases are affecting planet Earth, and will continue to do so way into the future. The diagnosis, and the prognosis, both make terrifying reading. We can expect declining crop yields, increasing climate instability, more extreme weather events, rising sea levels, ocean acidification - and all the rest of it.

But what really matters is what, if anything, we do about it. And despite the increasing certainty that the world is already experiencing the impacts of climate change, there is precious little chance that the world's governments will suddenly do anything effective. Last time it seriously tried, at Copenhagen in 2009, that attempt was spectacularly blown out of the water. Today we ask - how, why, and who did it?

The 2009 Climate Summit in Copenhagen was promoted as being the world's 'great hope' to secure an international agreement to tackle climate
change. Most countries entered into the negotiations with immense goodwill - even though there were always going to be thorny, complex issues to tackle, such as: how emissions cuts were to be divided up among countries; and how much money rich countries would pay over to poor countries suffering the impacts of climate change to help them adapt and move to low carbon development pathways.

But the hope did not last long. As The Guardian's Environment Editor John Vidal commented on Democracy Now: "Copenhagen was just a complete nightmare, a diplomatic meltdown, I think is the fairest way to say it, where you had countries accusing each other of genocide. You had a total failure of the diplomatic process, that text which was meant to enhance everybody and bring them together in fact did the absolute opposite, and it shattered the confidence and the trust between different countries."...

Research clarifies health costs of air pollution from agriculture

A press release from NASA: Ammonia pollution from agricultural sources poses larger health costs than previously estimated, according to NASA-funded research.

Harvard University researchers Fabien Paulot and Daniel Jacob used computer models including a NASA model of chemical reactions in the atmosphere to better represent how ammonia interacts in the atmosphere to form harmful particulate matter. The improved simulation helped the scientists narrow in on the estimated health costs from air pollution associated with food produced for export – a growing sector of agriculture and a source of trade surplus.

"The 'cost' is an economic concept to measure how much people are willing to pay to avoid a risk," Paulot said. "This isused to quantify the cost for society but also to evaluate the benefits of mitigation."

The new research by Paulot and Jacob calculate the health cost associated with the ammonia emissions from agriculture exports to be $36 billion a year – equal to about half of the revenue generated by those same exports – or $100 per kilogram of ammonia. The study was published December 2013 in Environmental Science & Technology.

The new estimate is about double the current estimate by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which suggests a cost of $47 per kilogram of ammonia. The scientists say the new estimate is on the high end of the spectrum, which reflects the need for more research into characterizing the relationship between agricultural ammonia emissions and the formation of the harmful fine particulate matter – a relationship that's not as straightforward as previous estimates assumed.

"The effect of ammonia on fine particulate is complex, and we believe that the models previously used in the United States to price ammonia emissions have not captured this well," Paulot said.

The map shows increase in annual mean surface concentration of particulate matter resulting from ammonia emissions associated with food export. Populated states in the Northeast and Great Lakes region, where particulate matter formation is promoted by upwind ammonia sources, carry most of the cost.

Water-energy nexus reaches crisis level in Asia

Parameswaran Ponnudurai in Eurasia Review:  A coal-linked project in China’s dry Inner Mongolia region has caused a local water table to plunge and a local lake to shrink. In neighboring India, a thermal power plant has been forced to shut down because of severe water shortages.

In Southeast Asia, impoverished Laos risks destroying the spawning grounds of migratory fish species that feed millions of people along the key Mekong River as it pushes ahead with the controversial Xayaburi dam project aimed at selling electricity to power-hungry Thailand. Wealthy Singapore, meanwhile, is consuming large amounts of of energy to overcome its water scarcity challenge even as the island nation’s progress toward water self-sufficiency is considered exemplary.

Decisions made in Asia for water use and management and for energy production are having major impacts on each other and serious repercussions for the region, according to studies highlighted on World Water Day last week. The nexus between water and energy is quite evident in the region largely because of poor and uneven access, and the cross use of the two resources for exploitation, officials say.

“Some of the statistics are quite startling,” Shamshad Akhtar, Executive Secretary of the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP), said in a speech last week when commemorating a World Water Day event in Bangkok.

He said that while 4.3 billion people or about 60 percent the global population live in Asia, people in the region only have access to 38 percent of the world’s fresh water. As a result, Asia has the lowest regional per capita water availability in the world. In parallel, Akhtar said, Asia’s energy consumption also remains lower than the global average, but is expected to rise sharply in the next three decades, to drive the required pace of regional economic growth....

Inner Mongolian Desert, shot by Fir0002, Wikimedia Commons, under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.5 Generic license 

Climate change adaptation not enough - Generation Zero

Voxy (New Zealand): The latest report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) highlights the need to manage the unavoidable and ensure we are avoiding the unmanageable impacts of climate change, says youth climate change organisation Generation Zero.

Responding to the major conclusions of the report, the work of over 2000 subject experts, Generation Zero Policy Director Alec Dawson explains, "the report shows that the impacts of climate change are already being felt across the world in all continents, and predicts that there will be significant impacts for the next generation. These include serious changes to the lives of people in coastal areas, global drops in crop yields, and impacts of heat waves and and inland flooding in urban areas."

Mr Dawson; "Adaptation is essential to manage the unavoidable but we also need to avoid the unmanageable impacts of climate change. The reality is that on the world's current emissions path we are on track for around four degrees of warming by 2100. In their 2012 report 'Turn down the heat', the World Bank said "there is no certainty that adaptation to a four degree world is possible".

"Minimising these impacts depends upon a global response, and New Zealand has a huge opportunity to be a leader in taking the world away from fossil fuel use and into a low-carbon world free from catastrophic climate change."...

Richard Palmer photo of Lake Mapourika in New Zealand, Wikimedia Commons, under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license

Massive UN report says climate risks go beyond red alert

NBC News: Global warming is driving humanity toward a whole new level of many risks, a U.N. scientific panel reports, warning that the wild climate ride has only just begun. Disasters such as killer heat waves in Europe, wildfires in the United States, droughts in Australia and deadly flooding in Mozambique, Thailand and Pakistan highlight how vulnerable humanity is to extreme weather, a Nobel Prize-winning group of scientists says in a massive new report released early Monday. The dangers are going to worsen as the climate changes even more, the report's authors say, and no one is immune.

"We're all sitting ducks," Princeton University professor Michael Oppenheimer, one of the main authors of the 32-volume report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, said in an interview.

After several days of late-night wrangling, more than 100 governments unanimously approved the scientist-written 44-page summary — which is aimed at world political leaders. The summary mentions the word "risk" an average of about five times per page. "Changes are occurring rapidly and they are sort of building up that risk," said the overall lead author of the report, Chris Field of the Carnegie Institution for Science in California.

These risks are both big and small, according to the report. They are now and in the future. They hit farmers and big cities. Some places will have too much water, some not enough, including drinking water. Other risks mentioned in the report involve theprice and availability of food, and to a lesser and more qualified extent some diseases, financial costs and even world peace.

"Things are worse than we had predicted" in 2007, when the group of scientists last issued this type of report, said report co-author Saleemul Huq, director of the International Centre for Climate Change and Development at the Independent University in Bangladesh. "We are going to see more and more impacts, faster and sooner than we had anticipated."....

Canberra bush fires in 2003, public domain

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Before the Washington mudslide, warnings of the unthinkable

Darryl Fears in the Washington Post: ... At least 18 people have been confirmed dead, and up to 30 more are likely entombed in a thick gray muck, swallowed by the land, perhaps never to be seen again. For two tiny logging towns — Darrington’s population is 1,400 and Oso’s is 180 — the death on such a wide scale is unimaginable. Bogged down by relentless rain that continued Saturday, workers have failed to unearth many bodies, all but assuring that the landscape will be preserved in the short term as a mass graveyard.

...[S]ome are now questioning whether many of the homes should have been built at all in the valley below a hillside that commonly shifts, sending mud raining down about once a decade. At least four new homes have been built since the last major landslide muddied the valley eight years ago.

The Snohomish County officials who control land use permits asserted last week that there was no way of knowing a giant mudslide would ever happen there. In fact, the area was primed for just such an extraordinary event, according to geologist Daniel J. Miller, who twice surveyed the area for local Native American tribes who rely on the river’s health for fishing and for the Army Corps of Engineers. He wrote in his 1999 report that the Hazel Landslide, as the mountain is known, was constantly shifting, experiencing landslides and would one day suffer “a catastrophic failure.”

...An ancient glacier is jutting out of the mountain, making its flat plateau unstable, Miller said. The Stillaguamish River was eroding it from below. Rows of conifer trees that helped to mitigate erosion by sucking water through their roots and releasing it into the atmosphere were chopped down by loggers. Rain fell on the bald spots they left, drenching dirt and sand, making the mountain even more precarious.

March 2014 has been a ­record-breaker, the wettest in Seattle’s history. Miller realized his warning was not heeded when he visited the site following a major landslide in 2006 that did not do nearly as much harm. He could not believe what he saw.

...Charity Prueher, 41 and raised in Oso, said homeowners rarely mentioned the slides. When they did, the coursing mud was considered a small disruption, more of an annoyance than a major problem. “They’re so content with the beautiful place where they live, they don’t think anything would happen,” Prueher said....

Lisa Bishop and her dog, Cody, with Northwest Disaster Search Dogs, watch as a Washington National Guard helicopter flies over the debris field caused by the mudslide in Oso, Wash., March 27, 2014. US National Guard photo

Africa’s first ‘Islamic-compliant’ livestock insurance pays 100 Kenyan herders for drought-related livestock losses

Susan Macmillan in ILRI News: Today, for the first time in Africa, an insurance policy that combines an Islamic-compliant financial instrument with innovative use of satellite imagery is compensating Muslim pastoralists for drought-induced losses suffered in Kenya’s northeastern Wajir County, where livestock are valued at Ksh46 billion (USD550 million).

Thirty women and 71 men in arid and semi-arid Wajir are the first beneficiaries of livestock insurance that conforms to the Islamic concept of takaful, in which risks are shared among a group of participants. Through a contract called tabbaru (donation), participants make contributions to a risk fund. In the case of a payout, which happened today, the fund makes payments commensurate with the contributions received.

The pilot program is paying approximately Ksh500,000 (USD5,800) for losses suffered to their herds of sheep, goat, cattle and camels during the long dry season that typically ends in March. The herds were insured last August by Takaful Insurance of Africa (TIA) with an Index-Based Livestock Insurance (IBLI) product, branded as Index-Based Livestock Takaful (IBLT).

IBLI uses satellite imagery—measuring the conditions of grazing lands—that is fed into an algorithm that predicts livestock loses. Predictions beyond the 15-percent level trigger indemnity payments. Drought conditions in much of Wajir County have surpassed the index trigger and active contract holders in these areas were compensated today.

This payout is critical for building confidence in the concept of insurance for the pastoral, drought-prone regions of East Africa, where life revolves around livestock and droughts can bring disaster,” said Andrew Mude, who leads the IBLI program of the Nairobi-based International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI)....

Wajir from the air, shot by lex Maisuradze, Wikimedia Commons, under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license

Famous paintings help global warming experts track climate change over the decades

James Maynard in Tech Times: Paintings from J.M.W. Turner and other artists are being used to track how pollution levels may have changed over time. Investigators are examining what vivid sunrises and sunsets painted by artists could tell us about the environmental effects of volcanic eruptions.

William Turner was born in England in 1775, and lived until 1851. He is best known as a landscape artist, including a wide variety of sunset paintings. The Lake, Petworth sunset, fighting bucks by the artist is one of the paintings investigators examined to clues to ancient eruptions.  In 1815, the Tambora Volcano in Indonesia erupted, spewing thousands of tons of debris into the air. Much of this material traveled around the road, making sunsets and sunrises redder and more dramatic.

Christos Zerefos, from the Academy of Athens in Greece, led the investigation.  "Nature speaks to the hearts and souls of great artists. But we have found that, when coloring sunsets, it is the way their brains perceive greens and reds that contains important environmental information," Zerefos told the press.

Researchers studied 554 paintings of sunsets created between 1500 and 2000. A total of 181 artists created the art works, including Rembrandt, Hogarth, Gainsborough, and Rubens.  "We found that red-to-green ratios measured in the sunsets of paintings by great masters correlate well with the amount of volcanic aerosols in the atmosphere, regardless of the painters and of the school of painting," Zerefos explained.

Greater than normal levels of red predominated in areas affected by volcanic ash, study says. This allows a way of measuring the aerosol optical depth, a total of all the dust, ash and other particulate matter in the atmosphere at a given time....

Turner's "Petworth Park"

World “woefully unprepared” for climate impacts on food

A press release from Oxfam: ...Oxfam’s briefing paper, ‘Hot and Hungry: How to stop climate change derailing the fight against hunger’ analyses ten key factors that will have an increasingly important influence on countries’ ability to feed their people in a warming world. Across all ten areas, Oxfam found serious gaps between what governments are doing and what they need to do to protect our food systems. The results also show that while many countries – both rich and poor – are unprepared for the impact of climate change on food security, it is the world’s poorest and most food insecure among them that are least prepared and most at risk. The ten gaps, “failing” policy areas that will undermine the world’s ability to feed itself in a warming world, are:
  • International adaptation finance (score: <1 li="">
  • Crop irrigation (score: < 1/10)...
  • Crop insurance (score < 2/10)...
  • Agricultural research and development (R&D) (score: 2/10):....
  • Social protection (score: 3/10)...
  • Weather forecasting (score: 3/10)...
  • Gender discrimination (score: 5/10)...
  • Food stocks (score 5/10)...
  • Agricultural investment (score: 7/10)...
  • Humanitarian aid (score: 6/10)...

Coral cultivation offers hope to devastated western Indian Ocean reefs

Wanjohi Kabukuru at the Thomson Reuters Foundation: Marine scientists in the Seychelles are propagating and replanting corals resistant to bleaching in the hope of replacing destroyed reefs in the western Indian Ocean with ones that are more resilient.

Each workday, Claude Reveret and Sarah Frias-Torres of Nature Seychelles, a not-for-profit environmental organisation, lead a team of scuba divers down to the ocean floor around Praslin, the country’s second-largest island, and the nearby Cousin Island Special Reserve.

There they take part in an unusual undersea gardening project – cultivating corals that have proven resistant to the stress caused by warming water, which has led to the collapse of coral reef systems in the western Indian Ocean.

The large-scale death of coral reefs has exposed the Seychelles to increased erosion and the loss of fisheries that the reefs had harboured. The Indian Ocean island nations of Mauritius and Comoros and the eastern African countries of Mozambique, Tanzania, Kenya and Somalia are also affected.

The restoration project, which began in 2010 with over $700,000 in funding from the US Agency for International Development and the UN Development Programme, “is our response to climate change effects,” says Reveret....

Marie Louise Island, Amirantes, Outer Islands of the Seychelles. Shot by Acp at de.wikipedia, Wikimedia Commons,  under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license 

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Risk of Washington mudslide ‘unforeseen’? Warnings go back decades

Ken Armstrong, Mike Carter and Mike Baker in the Seattle Times: While a Snohomish County official said the area hit by the mudslide “was considered very safe,” the hillside’s history of slides dates back more than 60 years. One expert says he was shocked when homebuilding was permitted after a big 2006 slide.

Since the 1950s, geological reports on the hill that buckled during the weekend in Snohomish County have included pessimistic analyses and the occasional dire prediction. But no language seems more prescient than what appears in a 1999 report filed with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, warning of “the potential for a large catastrophic failure.”

That report was written by Daniel J. Miller and his wife, Lynne Rodgers Miller. When she saw the news of the mudslide Saturday, she knew right away where the land had given way. Her husband knew, too. “We’ve known it would happen at some point,” he told The Seattle Times on Monday. “We just didn’t know when.”

Daniel Miller, a geomorphologist, also documented the hill’s landslide conditions in a report written in 1997 for the Washington Department of Ecology and the Tulalip Tribes. He knows the hill’s history, having collected reports and memos from the 1950s, 1960s, 1980s and 1990s. He has a half-dozen manila folders stuffed with maps, slides, models and drawings, all telling the story of an unstable hillside that has defied efforts to shore it up.

That’s why he could not believe what he saw in 2006, when he returned to the hill within weeks of a landslide that crashed into and plugged the North Fork of the Stillaguamish River, creating a new channel that threatened homes on a street called Steelhead Drive. Instead of seeing homes being vacated, he saw carpenters building new ones. “Frankly, I was shocked that the county permitted any building across from the river,” he said. “We’ve known that it’s been failing,” he said of the hill. “It’s not unknown that this hazard exists.”...

US Airmen with the Washington National Guard in Oso on March 27, 2014, public domain

Friday, March 28, 2014

New study shows major increase in West Antarctic glacial loss

A press release from the American Geophysical Union: Six massive glaciers in West Antarctica are moving faster than they did 40 years ago, causing more ice to discharge into the ocean and global sea level to rise, according to new research. The amount of ice draining collectively from those half-dozen glaciers increased by 77 percent from 1973 to 2013, scientists report this month in Geophysical Research Letters, a journal of the American Geophysical Union. Pine Island Glacier, the most active of the studied glaciers, has accelerated by 75 percent in 40 years, according to the paper. Thwaites Glacier, the widest glacier, started to accelerate in 2006, following a decade of stability.

The study is the first to look at the ice coming off the six most active West Antarctic glaciers over such an extended time period, said Jeremie Mouginot, a glaciologist at University of California-Irvine (UC-Irvine) who co-authored the paper. Almost 10 percent of the world’s sea-level rise per year comes from just these six glaciers, he said. “What we found was a sustained increase in ice discharge—which has a significant impact on sea level rise,” he said.

The researchers studied the Pine Island, Thwaites, Haynes, Smith, Pope and Kohler glaciers, all of which discharge ice into a vast bay known as the Amundsen Sea Embayment in West Antarctica. The amount of ice released by these six glaciers each year is comparable to the amount of ice draining from the entire Greenland Ice Sheet annually, Mou
ginot said. If melted completely, the glaciers’ disappearance would raise sea levels another 1.2 meters (four feet), according to co-author and UC-Irvine Professor Eric Rignot.

The decades of increasing speeds and ice loss are “a strong indication of a major, long-term leakage of ice into the ocean from that sector of Antarctica,” noted Rignot...

The calving tongue of the Thwaites Glacier in West Antarctica, shot by NASA ICE / James Yungel, Wikimedia Commons via Flickr, under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license 

Research suggests autumn is ending later in the northern hemisphere

A press release from the University of Southampton: A study ... suggests that on average the end of Autumn is taking place later in the year and Spring is starting slightly earlier. A team of researchers examined satellite imagery covering the northern hemisphere over a 25 year period (1982 - 2006), and looked for any seasonal changes in vegetation by making a measure of its ‘greenness’. They examined in detail, at daily intervals, the growth cycle of the vegetation – identifying physical changes such as leaf cover, colour and growth.

The project was led by University of Southampton Professor of Geography Peter Atkinson, who worked with his colleague Dr Jadunandan Dash and in collaboration with Professor Jeganathan Chockalingam from the Department of Remote Sensing at the Birla Institute of Technology in India.

Professor Atkinson says: “There is much speculation about whether our seasons are changing and if so, whether this is linked to climate change. Our study is another significant piece in the puzzle, which may ultimately answer this question.”

The team was able to examine the data for specific vegetation types: ‘mosaic’ vegetation (grassland, shrubland, forest and cropland); broad-leaved deciduous forest; needle-leaved evergreen forest; needle-leaved deciduous and evergreen forest; mixed broad-leaved and needle-leaved forest; and mixed-forest, shrubland and grassland. They analysed data across all the groups, recognising that forests which have not changed size due to human intervention, for example through forestry or farming, provide the most reliable information on vegetation response to changes in our climate.

The most pronounced change found by the researchers was in the broad-leaved deciduous and needleleaved deciduous forest groups, showing that Autumn is becoming significantly later. This delay in the signs of Autumn was generally more pronounced than any evidence for an earlier onset of Spring, although there is evidence across the groups that Spring is arriving slightly earlier.

Professor Peter Atkinson comments: “Previous studies have reported trends in the start of Spring and end of Autumn, but we have studied a longer time period and controlled for forest loss and vegetation type, making our study more rigorous and with a greater degree of accuracy....

Fall foliage in Ontario, shot by aiko99ann, Wikimedia Commons, under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported2.5 Generic2.0 Generic and 1.0 Generic license

Namibian agriculture in major decline due to drought via the Namibian: country's economy grew by 4,4% last year despite a severe drought, which was rated as one of the worst in recent years, the Namibian Statistics Agency said in the rebased GDP statistics for 2013. The agriculture sector was worst hit by the drought and contracted by 26,9% compared to a growth of 8,8% in 2012.

The agency said the 4,4% GDP growth was due to the growth in the secondary and tertiary industries that recorded growth rates 8,7% and 6,4% respectively.

The secondary industries' growth was mainly driven by the booming construction sector. The Agency said growth in the construction sector was due to growth in the construction works in the mining and public sectors.

Primary industries on the other hand, recorded a decline of 9,3% compared to a growth of 16,7% in 2012. This was due to the poor performance of the agriculture sector, the fishing sector, which contracted by 2,6% and the mining and quarrying sector that recorded a decline of 1,2% in 2013. "The drop in mining output is attributed to the decline in uranium production," the agency said....

New model now capable of street-level storm-tide predictions

David Malmquist in a press release from the Virginia Institute of Marine Science at William & Mary:   The water that surged into the intersection of New York City’s Canal and Hudson streets during Hurricane Sandy—to choose just one flood-ravaged locale—was ultimately driven ashore by forces swirling hundreds of miles out in the Atlantic.

That simple fact shows not only the scale and power of a tropical cyclone, but the difficulty of modeling and forecasting its potential for coastal flooding on the fine scale needed to most effectively prepare a response.

Sandy caused more than $50 billion in damage, left millions without electricity, and killed 72 people. © Sandy caused more than $50 billion in damage, left millions without electricity, and killed 72 people. © Now, a study led by Professor Harry Wang of William & Mary’s Virginia Institute of Marine Science demonstrates the ability to predict a hurricane’s storm tide at the level of individual neighborhoods and streets—a much finer scale than current operational methods.

The study, published in today’s issue of the Journal of Marine Science and Engineering, shows that with the right input, the team’s high-resolution computer model was able to simulate water levels to within 6-8 inches of those observed in New York City and surrounding areas during Hurricane Sandy’s approach and landfall in late October 2012. This includes sections of Manhattan where buildings and other infrastructure divert and channel floodwaters in exceptionally co
mplex ways.

“Storm-surge modeling is a tough problem,” says Wang. “People are interested in the possibility of flooding on a very fine scale, on the order of their house, office, or street.” But for a forecast model to work, he says, “We have to resolve the boundary conditions——data on tides and winds—very far away, out into the open ocean. And we have to have that information far enough beforehand to provide time for people and agencies to respond.”

Wang and his modeling team—fellow VIMS researchers Derek Loftis, Zhuo Liu, David Forrest, and Joseph Zhang—conducted their study by “hindcasting” Hurricane Sandy’s landfall along the U.S. Atlantic coast. In this technique, scientists initiate a computer model with data collected before a past event, and then test the model’s accuracy by comparing its output with observations recorded as the event unfolded....

Modeling Animation: Storm-tide flooding of the Battery in New York City through several tidal cycles during Hurricane Sandy as modeled by Professor Harry Wang and colleagues at VIMS. Values are in meters above sea level. Still from animation created by Dr. David Forrest.

Governments reject IPCC economist's 'meaningless' climate costs estimate

Suzanne Goldenberg in the Guardian (UK): Britain has dismissed as "completely meaningless" a key economic finding cited in part of the draft United Nations climate report from a dissenting author who went public on Thursday with criticisms of the report, the Guardian has learned.

Scientists and government officials are gathered this week in Yokohama, Japan, to agree on the exact wording of a final summary of the UN report – seen as the authoritative account of climate change science – before its release on Monday. Britain and other governments have been severely critical of a finding from Richard Tol, a Dutch economics professor at Sussex University, according to documents made available to the Guardian.

The summary of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report on the impact of global warming cites research by Tol on global economic losses due to climate change, which he put at between 0.2% and 2% of income. That is far lower than estimates of the costs of climate change by the economist Nicholas Stern.

Britain and other governments rejected the finding as an underestimate when the draft was first circulated to officials last December, noting that Tol did not include the potential for catastrophic damages due to climate change. "This statement … risks being deeply misleading," British officials wrote.

The US and other countries have seen a rise in the number of extreme weather events such as hurricanes and flooding costing more than $1bn. "It seems reasonable to conclude that the quoted figures of 0.2% to 2% are at best an underestimate, and at worst completely meaningless," the officials wrote....

Thursday, March 27, 2014

African women push for equality in land and resource rights

Elias Ntungwe Ngalame at the Thomson Reuters Foundation: ....[M]illions of female African farmers ... are disadvantaged by cultural practices and laws that deny them equal access to land. But African women’s rights activists are intensifying their efforts to push governments to speed up land reform processes and establish clear legislation securing women’s rights to own, access and control land and other natural resources.

According to Gregory Muluh, coordinator of the Grassfield Project, a government initiative assisting women farmers in Cameroon’s northwest, the country still has no law that protects land tenure for women.

“Even if people know that refusing women the right to own land is wrong, there is nowhere to complain, and women end up swallowing a bitter pill,” Muluh told Thomson Reuters Foundation during a visit to the Grassfield Project last year. “Instituting a legal provision to safeguard the rights of women to land ownership is imperative if we really want them to contribute fully to development.”

The African Women's Network for Community Management of Forests (REFACOF), an international NGO, believes only reforms that include legal safeguards giving women equal say in decisions made by customary and state authorities on managing land and forest resources will boost gender equality on the continent.

“We know that wherever land rights are being ignored, women are indisputably the most affected. Banding together and raising awareness of these issues is the first step toward ensuring all women’s rights are recognised,” Cécile Ndjebet, president of REFACOF, told Thomson Reuters Foundation....

A farmer at the women’s agricultural cooperative of Walikaly village in Siguiri Prefecture, Guinea. Shot by Laura Lartigue for USAID

Flood of dead pigs in China reservoir

Terra Daily via AFP: Hundreds of dead pigs are being recovered every month from a Chinese reservoir, partly due to government efforts to stop carcasses making their way onto the dining table, state media said Wednesday. The revelations about the reservoir in Qionglai, in the southwestern province of Sichuan, are the latest scandal relating to food safety to hit China.

The news comes one week after authorities found 157 dead pigs in a river in Jiangxi province. A year ago China was stunned by the appearance of more than 16,000 dead pigs floating along parts of the Huangpu river which flows through the country's commercial hub Shanghai. The dead creatures also started to drift along rivers into the Qionglai irrigation reservoir five years ago, the Western China City Daily reported.

Now an average of 500 carcasses are retrieved from it every month, the report said, citing Xu Bangchun, one of the two workers hired by local water resources authorities to deal with the remains. "I have no time to do other things at home now that my main job every day is to recover dead pigs," said Xu, who also runs a family farm tourism business nearby. There are more than 300,000 pig farmers along the three rivers that feed the reservoir, the paper said....

A riverbank in Jiangxi, shot by Zhangzhugang, Wikimedia Commons, under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license 

Philippines is best example of need for climate change adaptation – UNDP

Amita Legaspi in GMA News: Through the devastation it experienced after super typhoon Yolanda [internationally known as Haiyan],  the Philippines can push the world to act on climate change. United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) administrator Helen Clark said Thursday that the Philippines is the best example of what climate change can do to people and countries and how actions to prevent it should be made now.

She will be asking President Benigno Aquino III to make a pitch during a leader-level climate change summit in New York in September. The summit will be convened by UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon. "This is a very important platform for President Aquino and the Philippines because you bring such direct experience of what a wild climate does to people and lives," Clark said Thursday.

She cited the moving statements and gestures made by Philippine Climate Change Commission during a conference in Warsaw last year, just after Yolanda struck the central Philippines. "The voices from the Philippines bring it home that climate change is not some distant thing that might hit people some day. It is crazy climate that is hitting people now and we have to act," said Clark.

She said that the Philippines is no stranger to disasters "but this one (Yolanda) happened to be bigger than anything the world has ever seen."...

NASA image of Typhoon Haiyan, known in the Philippines as Yolanda

Palakkad bears brunt of searing heat

The Hindu (India): With temperatures hovering around 41 degrees Celsius for the past couple of days, 25 cases of sunburn have been reported from different parts of the district....The heat wave took the atmospheric temperature in Palakkad town and surrounding areas to 41 degrees Celsius on Wednesday.

The highest temperature of this season was recorded at the IRTC, Mundur, near Palakkad town, at 41 degrees Celsius on March 20. On Wednesday too, the maximum temperature recorded at Mundur was 41 degrees Celsius, while the minimum was 24 degree Celsius.

On Tuesday, the maximum temperature at Mundur was 41 degrees Celsius and the minimum 25 degrees Celsius.

The maximum temperature recorded at the sub-centre of Kerala Agricultural University at Pattambi on Wednesday was 40.1 degrees Celsius and the minimum was 24, as against the 38.2 degrees Celsius (maximum) and 23.5 (minimum) on Tuesday.

The district has been reeling under a severe heat wave in the past two weeks, with many water sources, including the Bharathapuzha and its tributaries, drying up. This has resulted in an acute drinking water scarcity in many parts. The district administration has issued orders effecting a change in the working hours of those labouring in the open during the day...

In Palakkad, a building on the Queen Victoria College campus, shot by PP Yoonus, Wikimedia Commons, public domain 

Global insured losses from catastrophes were USD 45 billion in 2013, Swiss Re sigma says

A press release from my former employer, Swiss Re:  According to the latest sigma study, global insured losses from natural catastrophes and man-made disasters were USD 45 billion in 2013, down from USD 81 billion in 2012. Of the 2013 insured losses, USD 37 billion were generated by natural catastrophes, with hail in Europe and floods in many regions being the main drivers.

  • Total economic losses from natural catastrophes and man-made disasters were USD 140 billion in 2013
  • Global insured losses were around USD 45 billion in 2013, with large contributions from flooding and hail events
  • Around 26 000 lives were lost in natural catastrophes and man-made disasters in 2013
  • A special chapter on climate change in the sigma says rising global temperatures are expected to lead to shifts in the frequency, intensity and duration of extreme weather events

Total economic losses from catastrophic events were USD 140 billion, down from USD 196 billion in 2012 and well below the 10-year average of USD 190 billion. The number of victims in disaster events grew to around 26 000 in 2013 from 14 000 the previous year.

Asia was hardest hit by natural catastrophes in terms of economic losses and victims. Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines in November brought some of the strongest winds ever recorded, alongside heavy rains and storm surges. Around 7 500 people died or went missing, and more than 4 million were left homeless. The second biggest humanitarian disaster of 2013 was the June flooding in the state of Uttarakhand in India, which claimed some 6 000 lives.

Europe suffered the two most expensive natural disaster events in 2013. Massive flooding in central and eastern Europe in May/June after four days of heavy rain caused large-scale damage across Germany, the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland. Total economic losses were USD 16.5 billion, and the insured loss was USD 4.1 billion. Not long after, in late July parts of Germany and France were hit, this time by severe hailstorms. The storms struck heavily populated areas in Germany, which, according to latest estimates, generated most of the entire insured loss total of USD 3.8 billion, the largest ever from a hail event, worldwide...

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Study shows invasive species in waterways on rise due to climate change

A press release in AlphaGalileo via Queen's University, Belfast: One of the most serious threats to global biodiversity and the leisure and tourism industries is set to increase with climate change according to new research by Queen’s University Belfast. Researchers at Queen’s have found that certain invasive weeds, which have previously been killed off by low winter temperatures, are set to thrive as global temperatures increase.

The team based at Quercus, Northern Ireland’s centre for biodiversity and conservation science research, predicts that invasive waterweeds will become more widespread over the next 70 years. The researchers say that additional management and legislation will be required if we are to stop the spread of these pest species.

Four species in particular could establish in areas on average 38 per cent larger than previously thought due to projected climatic warming. The water fern, parrot’s feather, leafy elodea and the water primrose, are already highly problematic throughout warmer parts of Europe. Invasive species are considered to be one of the most serious threats to global biodiversity, along with climate change, habitat loss and nutrient addition.

The estimated annual cost of invasive species (plants and animals) to the UK economy is £1.8 billion, with £57 million of impact on waterways including boating, angling and waterway management.

...Dr Ruth Kelly, from the School of Biological Sciences at Queen’s, who led the study, said: “Traditionally upland areas have been protected by low winter temperatures which kill off these invading weeds. Now these are likely to become increasingly vulnerable to colonisation....

Salvinia natans (L.) All. (Water Fern) and Nuphar lutea (L.) Sm. (Yellow Water-lily). Habitat: edges of an oxbow lake near Volgograd Reservoir (Volga). Engelssky District, Saratov Oblast, Russia. Shot by Le.Loup.Gris, Wikimedia Commons,  under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license 

Nordic development fund eyes new climate project

Katia Moskvitch in The Nordic Development Fund (NDF) that helps facilitate climate change investments in developing countries has started discussing several new project ideas with the World Bank — as the small fund celebrates its 25th anniversary.

One is an initiative to mitigate coastal erosion affecting West African cities, a problem that climate change is expected to worsen, says Sari Söderström Feyzioğlu, sustainable development manager at the World Bank.

The NDF, a joint development finance institution of Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden, helps the World Bank “add creative, cutting-edge climate change components to traditional lending and knowledge-generating projects”, she says. For example, the NDF will make it possible to “assess the robustness of future hydroelectric power investments in the face of climate change in the major [African] river basins,” says Feyzioğlu.

Another project under discussion is in Mozambique, she says, where the fund will support efforts to improve the governance of local, artisanal fisheries and transform fishing — a sector already facing habitat loss and degradation due to unsustai
nable use, and that climate change will further damage. The NDF was founded in 1989 to promote economic and social development by providing financing to developing countries. In May 2009, its aim became to provide financial support to developing countries on climate change issues.

It also works with partners such as the African Development Bank, the Asian Development Bank and the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB)....

7 million premature deaths annually linked to air pollution

A press release from the World Health Organization: In new estimates released today, WHO reports that in 2012 around 7 million people died - one in eight of total global deaths – as a result of air pollution exposure. This finding more than doubles previous estimates and confirms that air pollution is now the world’s largest single environmental health risk. Reducing air pollution could save millions of lives.

In particular, the new data reveal a stronger link between both indoor and outdoor air pollution exposure and cardiovascular diseases, such as strokes and ischaemic heart disease, as well as between air pollution and cancer. This is in addition to air pollution’s role in the development of respiratory diseases, including acute respiratory infections and chronic obstructive pulmonary diseases.

The new estimates are not only based on more knowledge about the diseases caused by air pollution, but also upon better assessment of human exposure to air pollutants through the use of improved measurements and technology. This has enabled scientists to make a more detailed analysis of health risks from a wider demographic spread that now includes rural as well as urban areas.

Regionally, low- and middle-income countries in the WHO South-East Asia and Western Pacific Regions had the largest air pollution-related burden in 2012, with a total of 3.3 million deaths linked to indoor air pollution and 2.6 million deaths related to outdoor air pollution.

“Cleaning up the air we breathe prevents noncommunicable diseases as well as reduces disease risks among women and vulnerable groups, including children and the elderly,” says Dr Flavia Bustreo, WHO Assistant Director-General Family, Women and Children’s Health. “Poor women and children pay a heavy price from indoor air pollution since they spend more time at home breathing in smoke and soot from leaky coal and wood cook stoves.”...

Shanghai smog, shot by DL5MDA, Wikimedia Commons, under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license 

Mudslide death toll rises as bleak search continues

Heather Graf, Elizabeth Weise and John Bacon in USA Today:  More than 200 emergency responders and volunteers burrowed through tons of mud, crushed homes and twisted cars for a fifth day Wednesday in search for survivors and bodies buried in the mudslide that devastated the village of Oso.

Snohomish County Emergency Management Director John Pennington confirmed two more bodies were recovered and eight others located Tuesday, raising the death toll to 24. The grim discoveries and the knowledge that dozens of neighbors and friends remained missing darkened the mood of the search effort. The threat of flash floods or another landslide kept responders on edge.

Both Pennington and Snohomish County Fire District 21 Chief Travis Hots acknowledged the chance of finding survivors was small, but said the effort remained a rescue and recovery operation. "We haven't lost hope. There's a possibility that we could find somebody alive in some pocket area as the days go on," Hots said. "We are coming to the realization that may not be a possibility, but we are going full steam ahead."

Hots said about 200 responders used search dogs, heavy equipment and their bare hands Tuesday to dig through the debris field — once a community of a few dozen homes on the Stillaguamish River offering breathtaking views of hillsides and a bluff. On-and-off rain throughout the day created wet roads and dangerous conditions for searchers....

Photo of the Oso, Washington mudslide by the Washington State Patrol, Wikimedia Commons, under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license

Text messages aim to save lives in flood-prone Africa

Space Daily via AFP: Text messaging may be dying out as a means of communication in many parts of the advanced world, but it may yet prove to be a vital life-saver in flood-prone African villages.

An early-warning system that aims to capitalise on the explosive growth of mobile phone penetration in Africa could soon be in place to broadcast alerts to all users at risk from natural disasters such as flooding or hurricanes.

Millions of people in Africa have only limited access to television, radio or Internet but mobile phone ownership has grown exponentially, even in poor remote villages at risk from floods.

Now Spain's Nvia, a mobile phone company, has developed the Gooard project, a technology based on geo-targeted alerts that sends text messages to a specific geographical area.

A network of satellites and weather stations will detect the threat and send a text to villagers within 15 minutes, hopefully allowing time for evacuation....

The Limpopo River in flood in Mozambique, US Defense Department photo

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Congress focuses on dams amid California's drought

Kevin Freking in San Francisco Chronicle via AP: California's drought has sparked a new push by federal lawmakers to create or expand a handful of reservoirs around the state, ramping up a political battle that former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger once referred to as a "holy war in some ways." Government agencies have been studying five major water storage projects for nearly two decades, with nothing to show for the effort so far.

Meanwhile, the state's water problems have only grown worse. California has had its third relatively dry winter in a row and court rulings have mandated that more water be released from reservoirs to sustain fish species in Northern California's delta. At the same time, the nation's most populous state, now at 38 million residents, continues to grow beyond the capacity of a water storage and delivery system that was mostly completed in the late 1960s.

This winter is among the driest on record, forcing some communities to ration water and leading farmers to fallow thousands of acres that otherwise would be producing vegetables, fruits and nuts for the nation.

The state Legislature is expected to debate water storage options later this year as it seeks compromise on a multibillion dollar water bond for the November ballot. But California's congressional delegation has provided a jumpstart.

Bills proposed in Congress would authorize a number of projects to expand or create reservoirs. Among the projects are raising the dam at Shasta Lake to store more water in California's largest reservoir, creating a new reservoir in the Sierra Nevada along the upper San Joaquin River east of Fresno and damming a valley north of Sacramento....

In the Mojave Desert, the remains of the Joshua tree once pictured on the cover of a U2 album, shot by Theschmallfella, Wikimedia Commons, under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license

The urgency of adaptation: Combating climate change in Armenia

Serouj Aprahamian in  The UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) will meet in Yokohama, Japan, on March 25-29 to discuss its latest and most comprehensive report on climate change. ... A draft of the upcoming report has already been leaked and the conclusions are downright frightening. Increased temperatures are expected to cause major damage to all aspects of the world’s food system within the next 20 years and displace hundreds of millions of people by the end of the century. Unless urgent action is taken, the report states, millions of people will be left without food and enormous strain will be placed on global security.

Such consequences pose a particularly grave threat to a country like Armenia, with its mountainous terrain, scarcity of land, arid climate, and economic dependence on agriculture. In fact, the World Bank identified Armenia as one of the most high-risk countries in Europe and Central Asia to changing climate extremes.

Over the last 80 years, there has been a marked increase in the country’s temperature and a greater frequency of extreme weather phenomena, such as hailstorms, mudslides, and spring frosts. These changing conditions are already affecting the lives of hundreds of farmers throughout the country.

“Fifteen to twenty years ago, you could easily grow ripe raspberries here,” says Lusine Cherkezyan, a farmer and mother of four in the northeastern Armenian village of Hovk. “I would collect 250 kilos of raspberries from my plot in one day alone. But due to changes in the climate we started seeing locusts and irreparable damage occurring. It’s impossible for people to grow raspberries here anymore.”

Lusine was forced to switch to alternative, less lucrative crops such as cabbage, carrots, or beans. She has struggled to adapt to the changes and it has been tough. Like many others in her village, her husband is forced to work in Russia for several months at a time just to put food on the table.

...Hailstorms have been another major issue for growers in the country. Last May, farmers in the region of Armavir made headlines when they blocked a main highway leading to Yerevan and demanded compensation from the government after their crops were destroyed by hail. A half an hour storm alone is enough to wipe out an entire community’s harvest for the year....

Basalt cliffs in Garni Gorge, Armenia, shot by MEDIACRAT or WOWARMENIA, Wikimedia Commons, under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported2.5 Generic2.0 Generic and 1.0 Generic license. 

Global warming may increase methane emissions from freshwater ecosystems

A press release from the University of Exeter: New research led by the University of Exeter suggests that rising global temperatures will increase the quantity of the key greenhouse gas methane emitted from freshwater ecosystems to the Earth’s atmosphere – which could in turn lead to further warming.
The collaborative study, led by Dr Gabriel Yvon-Durocher from the University of Exeter, collated data from hundreds of laboratory experiments and field surveys to demonstrate that the speed at which methane fluxes increase with temperature was the same whether single species populations of methanogens, microbial communities or whole ecosystems were analyzed.
Dr Yvon-Durocher said: “This is important because biological methane fluxes are a major component of global methane emissions, but there is uncertainty about their magnitude and the factors that regulate them. This hinders our ability to predict the response of this key component of the carbon cycle to global warming. Our research provides scientists with an important clue about the mechanisms that may control the response of methane emissions from ecosystems to global warming.”
Methane is an important greenhouse gas because it has 25 times the global warming effect of carbon dioxide. The production of methane in freshwater ecosystems is brought about by an ancient group of microorganisms called Archaea that exist in waterlogged sediments where there is no oxygen. They play an important role in the decomposition of biomass, but rather than producing carbon dioxide, they produce methane as a by-product of their metabolism.

The report, published today in the leading scientific journal Nature, also showed that the temperature response of methane production is much higher than respiration (production of carbon dioxide) or photosynthesis (consumption of carbon dioxide), indicating that global warming may increase the amount of methanerelative to carbon dioxide emitted globally from aquatic ecosystems, terrestrial wetlands and rice paddies...
Archaeobacteria in a hot springs in Yellowstone National Park, shot by Wing-Chi Poon, Wikimedia Commons, under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.5 Generic license