Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Famine in the Horn of Africa (1984) was caused by El Niño and currents in the Indian Ocean

AlphaGalileo via the University of Ghent: Oceanic patterns are important drivers of climatic variability. There is a clear link between periods of drought in the North Ethiopian Highlands and oceanic phases of El Niño, the Indian Ocean Dipole and the Southwestern Monsoons.

In order to prove these links, PhD student Sil Lanckriet (Department of Geography, Ghent University) analyzed weather data since the 1950s, as delivered from a meteorological computer model. He used a procedure known as ‘empirical orthogonal teleconnection analysis’ (EOT). According to Piet Termonia of the Royal Meteorological Institute, such statistical techniques are a clear step forward, since they allow linking oceanic patterns across the planet with the climatic situation at a particular location on the earth surface.

For his PhD, Sil Lanckriet is studying climatic fluctuations in Ethiopia over the past centur
ies, as well as their impact on periods of drought and processes of soil erosion. His study area is located in Korem, the place written in our collective memory by several BBC documentaries, Live Aid and by the pictures of Sebastião Salgado. His promoters Jan Nyssen and Amaury Frankl are well acquainted with the area. They even relocated the exact locations of the pictures and documentaries that were world news at the time. “Our research experience in Ethiopia shows that it is certainly possible that a similar drought will occur again, but this time it will probably not lead to a famine as in 1984. The Ethiopians have been very active on matters such as reforestation and soil and water conservation. We could prove that the land is now much less vulnerable for the occurrence of droughts”.

Enyew Adgo (Bahir Dar University) points out that East African meteorological agencies are well aware of the interactions between the Ethiopian weather and fluctuations of El Niño in the Pacific Ocean. The researchers show that similar patterns in the Indian Ocean should be incorporated by the meteorological models, in order to improve the prediction power of systems for Famine Early Warning...

Approaching Zanzibar, shot by Rob, Wikimedia Commons via Flickr, under the Creative Commons 2.0 license

German water supply threatened as climate change boosts droughts

Stefan Nicola in Bloomberg News: German water supplies will become increasingly threatened this century as climate change raises the risk of droughts and water shortages in the country.

While Germany is considered water-rich, more water evaporates than falls as rain in the eastern part of the country, according to a report by a German parliamentary committee. Average temperatures may rise 3.5 degrees Celsius by 2100, resulting in more precipitation in the winter and less in the summer, the authors wrote.

“This will worsen the already unfavorable water balance in eastern Germany, which will further increase
the risk for droughts and a generally worse water availability,” they wrote. Temperature increases in southern Germany will also threaten water supplies and as a result “biodiversity, and availability of snow in ski resorts.”....

Feed of river power plant Speichersee, Aschheim near Munich, Germany, shot by Richard Bartz, Wikimedia Commons, under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.5 Generic license

Malaysia air quality 'unhealthy' as haze obscures skies

Terra Daily via AFP: Air quality around Malaysia's capital Kuala Lumpur and on Borneo island was "unhealthy" on Tuesday, with one town reaching "very unhealthy" levels as haze -- mostly from forest fires in Indonesia -- obscured skies. Kuala Lumpur residents wore face masks as protection from the choking smog, while visibility was low.

Nine out of some 50 measuring stations recorded air pollutant index readings above 100, which signify "unhealthy" air quality. Readings in Sibu town in Sarawak state on Borneo breached 200 -- designated as "very unhealthy" -- on Monday, but recovered slightly Tuesday.

A reading of above 300 signifies "hazardous" air. In Indonesia, the National Disaster Management Agency deployed a chopper to conduct water bombing to West Kalimantan on Borneo to tame 268 so-called hotspots detected in the province as haze also shrouded skies there and on Sumatra island....

Haze in Kuala Lumpur, shot by Krisjohn, Wikimedia Commons via Flickr,  under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license

NOAA: ‘Nuisance flooding’ an increasing problem as coastal sea levels rise

A press release from NOAA: Eight of the top 10 U.S. cities that have seen an increase in so-called “nuisance flooding”--which causes such public inconveniences as frequent road closures, overwhelmed storm drains and compromised infrastructure--are on the East Coast, according to a new NOAA technical report.

This nuisance flooding, caused by rising sea levels, has increased on all three U.S. coasts, between 300 and 925 percent since the 1960s. The report, Sea Level Rise and Nuisance Flood Frequency Changes around the United States, also finds Annapolis and Baltimore, Maryland, lead the list with an increase in number of flood days of more than 920 percent since 1960. Port Isabel, Texas, along the Gulf coast, showed an increase of 547 percent, and nuisance flood days in San Francisco, California increased 364 percent.

"Achieving resilience requires understanding environmental threats and vulnerabilities to combat issues like sea level rise," says Holly Bamford, Ph.D., NOAA assistant administrator of the National Ocean Service. "The nuisance flood study provides the kind of actionable environmental intelligence that can guide coastal resilience efforts."

“As relative sea level increases, it no longer takes a strong storm or a hurricane to cause flooding,” said William Sweet, Ph.D., oceanographer at NOAA’s Center for Operational Oceanographic Products and Services (CO-OPS) and the report’s lead author. “Flooding now occurs with high tides in many locations due to climate-related sea level rise, land subsidence and the loss of natural barriers. The effects of rising sea levels along most of the continental U.S. coastline are only going to become more noticeable and much more severe in the coming decades, probably more so than any other climate-change related factor.” ...

2003 flood damage at the US Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Act now on climate change or see costs soar, White House says

Roberta Rampton in Reuters: Putting off expensive measures to curb climate change will only cost the United States more in the long run, the White House said on Tuesday in a report meant to bolster a series of actions President Barack Obama has proposed to address global warming.

"Each decade we delay acting results in an added cost of dealing with the problem of an extra 40 percent," said Jason Furman, chairman of Obama's Council of Economic Advisers. "We know way more than enough to justify acting today," Furman told reporters.

The report drew its conclusions from 16 economic studies that modeled the costs of climate change. It was released as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency holds public hearings on its plan to cut carbon emissions from power plants - the centerpiece of Obama's climate action plan.

Business groups have said the EPA's plan would hurt jobs in the coal sector and harm the U.S. economy. The White House and environmental groups have pushed back against that argument.

Last month, a bipartisan report commissioned by former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, former Secretary of the Treasury Henry Paulson and environmentalist Tom Steyer forecast a multibillion-dollar price tag for climate costs such as property losses from storms, declining crop yields and soaring power bills during heat waves....

Carl Frieseke's 1914 painting, "Unraveling Silk"

Organic farming has grown rapidly, says EU

EurActiv: The organic farming sector has grown rapidly over the past ten years, to about 500,000 new hectares every year, according to EU statistics. Both the number of organic farm holdings and area grew by more than half between 2003 and 2010.

In 2011, the European Union had 9.6 million hectares of organic farming land. The year before, there were more than 186,000 of such farms registered across the then 27-country bloc. Organic farming is defined as food production which has a minimal impact on the environment by operating as naturally as possible.

The EU has standards for organic farming, including the use of chemicals, in pesticides, fertilisers and animal medication, as well as the protection of animal welfare. Genetically modified organisms are not allowed to be used in organic agriculture.

Data shows that organic farmers are generally younger than the average conventional farmers in the EU. In 2010, some 61.3% of organic farmers were under 55, compared to 44.2% in the non-organic agriculture.

The majority of holdings (83%) and land (78%) used for organic farming were in the 15 ‘older’ member states, those that joined the European Union before 2004, such as France, Italy, Germany, Belgium and the UK. The EU attributes the greater share to national and European legislation....

A vegetable market in Pantin, outside Paris. Public domain

UN agency calls for urgent action to protect global soil from depletion, degradation

UN News Centre:  The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) is calling for urgent action to improve the health of the world's limited soil resources to ensure that future generations have enough supplies of food, water and energy.

"Soil is the basis for food, feed, fuel and fibre production," Maria Helena Semedo, FAO Deputy Director-General, said in a news release issued today. "Without soils we cannot sustain life on earth and where soil is lost it cannot be renewed on a human timeline. The current escalating rate of soil degradation threatens the capacity of future generations to meet their needs.”

Government officials and experts are meeting today in Rome for a three-day meeting of the Global Soil Partnership – which brings together a broad range of stakeholders stressing the need for governments to preserve soil. Under its Global Plans of Action, leaders have endorsed a series of measures to safeguard soil resources through strong regulation and investment. Without soils we cannot sustain life on earth and where soil is lost it cannot be renewed on a human timeline. The current escalating rate of soil degradation threatens the capacity of future generations to meet their needs.

"We need commitments from countries and civil society to put the plan into reality. This requires political will and investments to save the precious soil resources our food production systems depend on," Ms. Semedo said.

Experts at the conference warn that some 33 per cent of world soil is already moderately to highly degraded due to erosion, nutrient depletion, acidification, urbanization, and chemical pollution. And the growing global population – which is expected to exceed 9 billion by 2050, resulting in a 60 per cent increase in the demand for food, feed and fibre – will put an even greater strain on land resources....

Image by 4028mdk09, Wikimedia Commons, under the Creative Commons 3.0 license

New study confirms water vapor as global warming amplifier

A press release from the Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science at the University of Miami: A new study from scientists at the University of Miami Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science and colleagues confirms rising levels of water vapor in the upper troposphere – a key amplifier of global warming – will intensify climate change impacts over the next decades. The new study is the first to show that increased water vapor concentrations in the atmosphere are a direct result of human activities.

“The study is the first to confirm that human activities have increased water vapor in the upper troposphere,” said Brian Soden, professor of atmospheric sciences at the UM Rosenstiel School and co-author of the study.

To investigate the potential causes of a 30-year moistening trend in the upper troposphere, a region 3- 7 miles above Earth’s surface, Soden, UM Rosenstiel School researcher Eui-Seok Chung and colleagues measured water vapor in the upper troposphere collected by NOAA satellites and compared them to climate model predictions of water circulation between the ocean and atmosphere to determine whether observed changes in atmospheric water vapor could be explained by natural or man-made causes. Using the set of climate model experiments, the researchers showed that rising water vapor in the upper troposphere cannot be explained by natural forces, such as volcanoes and changes in solar activity, but can be explained by increased greenhouse gases, such as CO2.

Greenhouse gases raise temperatures by trapping the Earth’s radiant heat inside the atmosphere. This warming also increases the accumulation of atmospheric water vapor, the most abundant greenhouse gas. The atmospheric moistening traps additional radiant heat and further increases temperatures. Climate models predict that as the climate warms from the burning of fossil fuels, the concentrations of water vapor will also increase in response to that warming. This moistening of the atmosphere, in turn, absorbs more heat and further raises the Earth's temperature....

A NASA color-enhanced image of upper tropospheric water vapor

People are dying because of a heat wave in Japan

Kate Zavadski in New York magazine: Climate change sure is taking a toll on Japan. The island nation is in the middle of a heat wave so severe, it has taken the lives of at least fifteen people in the last week. More than 8,000 others have had to visit the ER, almost half of them over age 65.

The hottest day so far was Saturday, when nearly 2,000 people were rushed to the hospital as temperatures in many cities topped 95 degrees Fahrenheit. And unfortunately, the heat shows no signs of abating. A forecast for Otsuki, Japan — a city whose weekend temperatures reached 102 degrees Fahrenheit — shows highs in the 90s for most of this week. Tokyo is projected to hover in the upper 80s, but expected thunderstorms are sure to ramp up the humidity in both cities.

Japan is hit particularly hard by extreme temperatures because of its aging population. About 25 percent of Japanese citizens are age 65 or older, compared to just 14 percent in the United States. This isn't the first time a heat wave took a heavy human toll on Japan, either: Just last year, record high temperatures killed 17 people there, and hospitalized almost 10,000 others....

A panoram of Otsuki, shot by jonny-mt, Wikimedia Commons, under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported license

Monday, July 28, 2014

Commission calls for California to lead in climate change adaptation

Twain Harte News (California): The Little Hoover Commission recently sent a message to the state’s leaders: California is beginning to see the initial effects of a warming climate as ongoing efforts by world governments fall short in reducing carbon emissions. Governments statewide must plan now for the impacts of climate change.

The Little Hoover Commission is a bipartisan and independent state agency charged with recommending ways to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of state programs.

A new anticipated environmental reality beginning to envelop California includes a Pacific Ocean rising along 1,100 miles of shoreline, irregular precipitation that includes downpours and drought, higher temperatures, larger, more destructive wildfires and diminishing snowfalls. All suggest eventual damage to property, infrastructure and the natural environment, higher insurance rates, disruption of supply chains and financial insecurity.

“It is already too late to head off impacts of climate change. Even as actions to curb greenhouse gases continue, California must prepare for the inevitable,” said Little Hoover Commission Chairman Pedro Nava. “Preparing well will cost far less than rebuilding infrastructure and managing emergencies.”

In its report, “Governing California Through Climate Change,” the Little Hoover Commission calls on the Governor and Legislature to assume the same leadership role in climate change adaptation and risk assessment as it has for addressing greenhouse gases that contribute to a warming atmosphere. “State government in California sets the pace in reducing carbon emissions. The Commission asks the state to exercise the same global leadership in climate adaptation,” said Mr. Nava.

...The Commission found that there is no single-stop administrative structure in place to create statewide climate adaptation policy, overcome institutional barriers and govern the state’s response to climate change impacts. Adaptation efforts are scattered throughout the bureaucracies of state government...

Brocken Inaglory took this beautiful shot of Point Lobos in California, Wikimedia Commons, under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license

Disaster-resilient school design in the Philippines

Maricris Irene V. Tamolang in the Philippine Daily Inquirer: While some schools in the Philippines serve as evacuation centers in times of calamities, none are especially designed to adapt to and withstand natural disasters. Like other structures vulnerable to tropical storms, schools get damaged or worse, destroyed, depriving evacuees the safety they most need.

To address this problem, three incoming senior architecture students at the University of the Philippines Diliman came up with a climate-adaptive and disaster-resilient school design strong enough to survive supertyphoons like “Yolanda.”

With inputs from the group’s adviser, Nicolo del Castillo, “Taklob,” which means cover (derived from the word “Tacloban”), topped the school category of “Build Forward,” a competition sponsored by a property developer. The team members modeled Taklob after the structural design of a bridge introduced in their Architectural Structures IV class last semester, said Rafael Khemlani, who suggested the idea.

This model mainly accounted for the arches and cable wires that replaced the conventional columns in most construction projects, he said. Each classroom has an area of 76.5 sq m. It has a restroom and an evacuation supply storage—both located at the rear side—and doors at both ends of the front side. The floor is elevated 1 meter from the ground to prevent damage from storm surges.

...“We won’t call it a green design because the main element used is mostly steel,” Mervin Afan said. “But it is sustainable because of its tropical feature, allowing air to pass through easily. It is climate-adaptive because of its flexibility. During hot days, you can leave the storm shutters open and when the rainy season sets in, you can keep them closed.”...

A Philippine resident sits outside of his home in the aftermath of Super Typhoon Haiyan. US military photo

Staving off disasters together

Nicola Banwell in the Dhaka Tribune (Bangladesh): Collaboration between the public and private sectors, also known as Public Private Partnerships (PPPs), can create an enabling environment for community resilience and disaster risk reduction. Public private partnerships involve harnessing investment, expertise, and innovation from the private sector for better public infrastructure – including both physical infrastructure (as in roads, railways, etc) and social infrastructure (such as hospitals, schools, and health services).

Small and medium enterprise (SMEs) and other private sector investment is a key strategy in sustainable development financing in the emerging post-2015 development agenda as well.

There is great scope for harnessing private sector strengths and expertise in disaster risk reduction as PPPs increase access to technical expertise and knowledge, as well as resources and innovative solutions. Mainstreaming disaster risk reduction in the private sector can create ample opportunities for the development of innovative technology, and steer public demand and consumers toward disaster resilient materials, solutions, and technology.

Furthermore, because of the private sector’s direct relationship with consumers, producers, and those in the supply chain, private sector investment has the potential to reach a wide range of individuals, communities, and enterprises.

Disaster losses undermine business performance and sustainability, while simultaneously resulting in widespread loss to populations in terms of life, livelihood, and infrastructure. For these reasons, PPPs are of mutual benefit to both parties.

For example, the safety and resiliency of communities can be promoted by the private sector through investment in disaster risk reduction, quality assurance, and standard setting in urban structures, and the development of resilient power and water infrastructure. At the same time these investments also protect their own business continuity, as it enables the private sector to provide their goods and services reliably, with reduced interruption. Further to this, in the event of a disaster, the reliable provision of goods and services allows the community access to vital goods and services....

Fishing in a flooded field in Bangladesh, shot by Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Wikimedia Commons via Flickr, under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license

Tropical Storm Hernan forms off Mexico's Pacific coast

Terra Daily via AFP: Fearing potentially deadly flooding, Mexican disaster officials are closely monitoring the weather after Tropical Storm Hernan formed off the country's Pacific coast of Mexico late Saturday.

Hernan was located 585 kilometers (more than 360 miles) southwest of the tourist port of Manzanillo and was moving in a northwesterly direction, parallel to the coastline, at a speed of 22 kilometers per hour, Mexico's National Meterological Service (SMN) reported at 0300 GMT.

The storm was packing maximum winds of 65 kilometers per hour, with gusts up to 85 kilometers per hours, the SMN said.

The Miami-based National Hurricane Center, which had slightly different figures, warned that Hernan was picking up strength. "Additional strengthening is expected" overnight Saturday to Sunday, "and Hernan could be near hurricane strength by Sunday afternoon," the NHC said....

NASA image of Hernan, July 27, 2014

Drought hits China food production

Reuters: Severe drought and scorching heat has damaged over a million hectares of farmland in China's Henan and Inner Mongolia provinces, with no immediate relief in sight, state news agency Xinhua reported.

Henan in central China is experiencing its worst drought in 40 years with precipitation at less than half of normal levels, the agency said. Some 900,000 hectares of crops have been damaged, it said.

Henan is a big producer of food crops, including soybeans, barley and rice. In some regions of the province, governments have shut off water supply to businesses such as commercial swimming pools and bath houses, while water intensive industries have been asked to restrict usage, Xinhua said....

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Water, water — not everywhere: Mapping water trends for African maize

Molly Sharlach at Princeton Journal Watch: Researchers analyzed water availability trends in African maize-growing regions from 1979 to 2010. Each quarter-degree grid cell represents a 200-square-mile area and is colored according to its average water availability level during the maize growing season. In redder areas, water availability is more limited by rainfall levels, while bluer areas are more limited by evaporative demand. (Image source: Environmental Research Letters)

Today’s food production relies heavily on irrigation, but across sub-Saharan Africa only 4 percent of cultivated land is irrigated, compared with a global average of 18 percent. Small-scale farming is the main livelihood for many people in the region, who depend on rainfall to water their crops.

To understand how climate change may affect the availability of water for agriculture, researchers at Princeton University analyzed trends in the water cycle in maize-growing areas of 21 African countries between 1979 and 2010. The team examined both levels of rainfall and the evaporative demand of the atmosphere — the combined effects of evaporation and transpiration, which is the movement of water through plants.

Overall, they found increases in water availability during the maize-growing season, although the trends varied by region. The greater availability of water generally resulted from a mixture of increased rainfall and decreased evaporative demand.

However, some regions of East Africa experienced declines in water availability, the study found. “Some places, like parts of Tanzania, got a double whammy that looks like a declining trend in rainfall as well as an increasing evaporative demand during the more sensitive middle part of the growing season,” said Lyndon Estes, the study’s lead author and an associate research scholar in the Program in Science, Technology and Environmental Policy at the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs...

Researchers analyzed water availability trends in African maize-growing regions from 1979 to 2010. Each quarter-degree grid cell represents a 200-square-mile area and is colored according to its average water availability level during the maize growing season. In redder areas, water availability is more limited by rainfall levels, while bluer areas are more limited by evaporative demand. (Image source: Environmental Research Letters, from the Princeton website)

Friday, July 25, 2014

Stanford biologist warns of early stages of Earth's 6th mass extinction event

Bjorn Carey in the Stanford University News Service:  The planet's current biodiversity, the product of 3.5 billion years of evolutionary trial and error, is the highest in the history of life. But it may be reaching a tipping point. In a new review of scientific literature and analysis of data published in Science, an international team of scientists cautions that the loss and decline of animals is contributing to what appears to be the early days of the planet's sixth mass biological extinction event.

Since 1500, more than 320 terrestrial vertebrates have become extinct. Populations of the remaining species show a 25 percent average decline in abundance. The situation is similarly dire for invertebrate animal life.

And while previous extinctions have been driven by natural planetary transformations or catastrophic asteroid strikes, the current die-off can be associated to human activity, a situation that the lead author Rodolfo Dirzo, a professor of biology at Stanford, designates an era of "Anthropocene defaunation."

Across vertebrates, 16 to 33 percent of all species are estimated to be globally threatened or endangered. Large animals – described as megafauna and including elephants, rhinoceroses, polar bears and countless other species worldwide – face the highest rate of decline, a trend that matches previous extinction events.

Larger animals tend to have lower population growth rates and produce fewer offspring. They need larger habitat areas to maintain viable populations. Their size and meat mass make them easier and more attractive hunting targets for humans.

Although these species represent a relatively low percentage of the animals at risk, their loss would have trickle-down effects that could shake the stability of other species and, in some cases, even human health.

..."Where human density is high, you get high rates of defaunation, high incidence of rodents, and thus high levels of pathogens, which increases the risks of disease transmission," said Dirzo, who is also a senior fellow at the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment. "Who would have thought that just defaunation would have all these dramatic consequences? But it can be a vicious circle."...

An elephant killed by hunters in what was then German East Africa

Western US states using up groundwater at an alarming rate

Eric Hand in Science:  For the past 14 years, drought has afflicted the Colorado River Basin, and one of the most visible signs has been the white bathtub rings around the red rocks of Lake Mead and Lake Powell, the two biggest dammed lakes on the river. But there is also an invisible bathtub being emptied, below ground. A new study shows that ground water in the basin is being depleted six times faster than surface water. The groundwater losses, which take thousands of years to be recharged naturally, point to the unsustainability of exploding population centers and water-intensive agriculture in the basin, which includes most of Arizona and parts of Colorado, California, Nevada, Utah, New Mexico, and Wyoming.

The study is the first to identify groundwater depletion across the entire Colorado River Basin, and it brings attention to a neglected issue, says Leonard Konikow, ahydrogeologist emeritus at the U.S. Geological Survey in Reston, Virginia, who was not involved with the work. Because ground water feeds many of the streams and rivers in the area, Konikow predicts that more of them will run dry. He says water pumping costs will rise as farmers—who are the biggest users of ground water—have to drill deeper and deeper into aquifers. “It’s disconcerting,” Konikow says. “Boy, water managers gotta do something about this, because this can’t go on forever.”

...Famiglietti says it makes sense that cities and farmers turn from surface water to ground water during drought. But he is surprised by the magnitude of the loss. The groundwater depletion rate is twice that in California’s Central Valley, another place famous for heavy groundwater use.

Regulation and monitoring of groundwater extraction are rare. The basin’s surface water is apportioned precisely under the Colorado River Compact, a 1922 agreement among seven states. In contrast, groundwater extraction is often the local right of the landowner. “If you own the property, you can drill a well and pump as much as you want,” Famiglietti says. “That’s just the way it is.”...

The Mark Wilmer Pumping Plant on Lake Havasu, on the border between Arizona and California, near Lake Havasu City, Arizona. Shot by Kjkolb, Wikimedia Commons,  under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license

Rising temperatures hinder Indian wheat production

A press release from the University of Southampton: Geographers at the University of Southampton have found a link between increasing average temperatures in India and a reduction in wheat production. Researchers Dr John Duncan, Dr Jadu Dash and Professor Pete Atkinson have shown that recent warmer temperatures in the country’s major wheat belt are having a negative effect on crop yield. More specifically, they found a rise in nighttime temperatures is having the most impact.

Dr Jadu Dash comments: “Our findings highlight the vulnerability of India’s wheat production system to temperature rise, which is predicted to continue in the coming decades as a consequence of climate change. We are sounding an early warning to the problem, which could have serious implications in the future and so needs further investigation.”

The researchers used satellite images taken at weekly intervals from 2002 to 2007 of the wheat growing seasons to measure ‘vegetation greenness’ of the crop – acting as an indicator of crop yield. The satellite imagery, of the north west Indo-Gangetic plains, was taken at a resolution of 500m squared – high enough to capture variations in local agricultural practices. The data was then compared with climate and temperature information for the area to examine the effect on growth and development of the crop. The study, published in the journal Global Change Biology, found that:

  • warmer temperature events have reduced crop yield
  • in particular, warmer temperatures during the reproductive and grain-filling (ripening) periods had a significant negative impact on productivity
  • warmer minimum daily temperatures (nighttime temperatures) had the most significant impact on yield

In some areas of the Indian wheat belt, growers have been bringing forward their growing season in order to align the most sensitive point of the crop growth cycle with a cooler period. However, the researchers have also shown that in the long-term this will not be an effective way of combating the problem, because of the high level of average temperature rise predicted for the future.

Dr Dash comments: “Our study shows that, over the longer period, farmers are going to have to think seriously about changing their wheat to more heat tolerant varieties in order to prevent temperature-induced yield losses....

A wheat field in Phagwara, Punjab, India, shot by Sixtybolts, Wikimedia Commons via Flickr, under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license

Building food security in Ethiopia

IRIN: Ethiopia’s Productive Safety Net Programme (PSNP), set up in 2005, aims to make fully food secure the millions of people still dependent on food aid, provide support to the vulnerable to prevent the depletion of livestock, and create productive assets at community level. But nearly a decade on and over US$3 billion spent, how successful has it been?

PSNP claims to be a programme that bridges the response gap between emergency relief and long-term development aid, and helps build resilience.  Initially, it was available in four regions - Tigray, Amhara, Oromiya, and the Southern Nations and Nationalities’ Peoples’ Region - and was later extended to the more remote regions of Afar (in 2006) and the Somali Region (2007), according to the World Bank, one of its main backers.

The Ethiopian government spends 1.1 percent of GDP on PSNP and a complementary scheme called the Household Asset Building Program (HABP).  Both schemes are largely donor funded. The current phase of PSNP (2010-2014) which includes HABP, costs more than $2 billion. Donors include the World Bank, International Development Association (IDA), the US Agency for International Development (USAID), Danish International Development Assistance (DANIDA), UK Department for International Development (DFID), European Commission, the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (SIDA), the governments of Canada, Ireland, Netherlands and the World Food Programme and the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF).

PSNP provides transfers - cash or food - to between six and eight million chronically food insecure Ethiopians for six months each year, according to DFID. At least 85 percent of the beneficiaries receive cash transfers as wages for labour on small-scale public works projects. These projects are selected by the community and contribute to environmental rehabilitation and local economic development, while 15 percent are “direct support” beneficiaries (disabled, elderly, pregnant or lactating women) who receive unconditional transfers.

Both donors and the government have become increasingly aware that PSNP does not really help secure those who have very limited or no assets against shocks, and help them “graduate” from a chronic situation to a state of food security....

Food aid at Dolo Kobe camp in Ethiopia, USAID photo

Forest rights offer major opportunity to counter climate change

Carey L. Biron in IPS: The international community is failing to take advantage of a potent opportunity to counter climate change by strengthening local land tenure rights and laws worldwide, new data suggests.

In what researchers say is the most detailed study on the issue to date, new analysis suggests that in areas formally overseen by local communities, deforestation rates are dozens to hundreds of times lower than in areas overseen by governments or private entities. Anywhere from 10 to 20 percent of worldwide greenhouse gas emissions are attributed to deforestation each year.

The findings were released Thursday by the World Resources Institute, a think tank [in Washington] , and the Rights and Resources Initiative, a global network that focuses on forest tenure.

“This approach to mitigating climate change has long been undervalued,” a report detailing the analysis states. “[G]overnments, donors, and other climate change stakeholders tend to ignore or marginalize the enormous contribution to mitigating climate change that expanding and strengthening communities’ forest rights can make.”

Researchers were able to comb through high-definition satellite imagery and correlate findings on deforestation rates with data on differing tenure approaches in 14 developing countries considered heavily forested. Those areas with significant forest rights vested in local communities were found to be far more successful at slowing forest clearing, including the incursion of settlers and mining companies.

In Guatemala and Brazil, strong local tenure resulted in deforestation rates 11 to 20 times lower than outside of formally recognised community forests. In parts of the Mexican Yucatan the findings were even starker – 350 times lower....

Misol-Há Waterfall in Mexico, shot by Jorge Mori, Wikimedia Commons,  under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Western wildfires burn through firefighting budgets

Brad Knickerbocker in the Christian Science Monitor: As 26 major wildfires currently rage across the American West – 18 of them in Oregon and Washington – they’re rapidly burning through firefighting budgets as well.

As a result, experts warn, firefighting agencies such as the US Forest Service and the US Department of the Interior have to raid other fire-related programs – forest management and fire preparedness, for example – to battle the blazes.

The reasons for this are multiple and complicated: Years of fire suppression instead of letting fires burn naturally allowed fuel levels to grow dangerously; climate change has brought on changes in weather patterns; and housing and other development pushed into what’s known as the “wildland-urban interface” – some 60 percent of all new homes built since 1990, according to environmental economist Ray Rasker.

 “Changing climate is a dominant driver,” says Jason Funk, senior climate scientist for the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), noting in a conference call with reporters Wednesday that the typical fire season has grown from five months to seven months.

For one thing, changing climate has meant smaller snowpacks. That makes for more dry fuel, as well as stressed trees vulnerable to disease and insect damage. For example, the acreage damaged by bark beetle infestations around the West and therefore less fire resistant amounts to an area about the size of Colorado. “Effectively, we have a tinderbox the size of Colorado just waiting for a spark,” Dr. Funk says...

NASA image of smoke plumes from multiple wildfires in Washington state. Wildfires include the Carlton Complex and the Chiwaukum Creek Fire, part of the Mills Canyon Complex. Image taken on 07/18/2014 at 20:30 UTC by the NASA Aqua satellite using the MODIS instrument. 

Growth, global warming threaten African species

Moki Edwin Kindzeka in Voice of America: Researchers meeting in Cameroon say Africa may lose up to 30 percent of its animal and plant species by the end of the century due to global warming, population growth and unregulated development. The researchers from 20 African, American and European universities say sub-Saharan Africa is losing forest land faster than any place on Earth.

Loggers are cutting down trees to meet unrelenting timber demand from China, Europe and the United States. Meanwhile, countries are recording 3 percent population growth per year, and land that was once covered by forests is being used for homes, industries and plantations for cash crops. That means a loss of habitat for many types of African animals and plants, that are already under pressure from the rise in greenhouse gases in the atmosphere and ensuing global warming.

Thomas Smith, from the Center for Tropical Research at the University of California, said, "With a 1.5 degree rise in global temperature, Africa may lose 30 percent of its animals and plants. And unfortunately with the increase in CO2 that has been now estimated to be up to three degrees in terms of rising global temperatures --  that means we may lose 40 percent of all mammal species in Africa by the end of the century."

An example of the animals disappearing is the African chimpanzee. Mary Katherine Gonder of the Department of Biology at Drexel University, said the chimps' forest home is disappearing, and the animals themselves continue to be hunted and sold as food in and around the Congo Basin forests.

"What will happen over the next 20 years, the distribution of those chimpanzees will change," said Gonder. "Their habitat will change fundamentally and they will no longer be around. So it is a real threat. The habitat for those chimpanzees will be gone."....

Sulky chimpanzee (drawn by T. W. Wood). Figure 18 from Charles Darwin's The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals. Caption reads "FIG. 18.—Chimpanzee disappointed and sulky. Drawn from life by Mr. Wood."

Poland suffers first cases of African swine fever in pigs

Terra Daily via AFP: Poland on Wednesday confirmed its first cases of deadly swine fever in domestic pigs, as the World Trade Organisation reviewed a Russian embargo on EU pork imports imposed over the disease. "Test results showed the first outbreak of African swine fever on a farm with five pigs," in the eastern region of Bialystok bordering Belarus, Polish veterinary authorities said in a statement.

The animals were destroyed and 37 surrounding farms with 192 pigs were put under quarantine, it added. The development comes the day after fellow EU member Latvia declared a state of emergency in a second area of the Baltic state as efforts continued to contain an outbreak of the fever among pigs.

Lithuania ordered a mass cull of wild boar earlier this year, targeting 90 percent of the estimated 60,000 living on its territory, after the disease was detected in animals thought to have come from Belarus. Poland first imposed measures in February to safeguard its lucrative pork exports, worth 912 million euros ($1.2 billion) last year, after the disease was found in two wild boar....

Jatki (Old Abattoir alley) - "In Memory of Slaughter Animals" memorial. Shot by Julo, public domain

Typhoon Matmo spares Taiwan major damage

Jenny Hsu in the Wall Street Journal: Typhoon Matmo brought fierce winds and torrential rain to Taiwan on Wednesday injuring at least 10 people, but sparing the island major damage. The typhoon made landfall around 12 a.m. local time Wednesday in the eastern coastal counties of Taitung and Hualien and has dumped some 600 millimeters of rain in the mountainous areas, according to the Central Weather Bureau.

Taiwan's Central Emergency Operation Center reported at least nine noncritical injuries related to the typhoon. The weather bureau said Matmo moved out to sea at about 4:20 a.m. and is expected to hit eastern China later Wednesday. At about noon on Wednesday was moving northwesterly at approximately 20 kilometers per hour with maximum sustained winds of 155 kilometers per hour.

Schools and offices across Taiwan were closed on Wednesday because of the storm. Trading on the Taiwan stock exchange and foreign-exchange markets was also halted. The strong wind shattered windows, uprooted trees, washed out at least one bridge, and disrupted electricity in the county of Hualien on the east coast of the island, affecting about 30,000 residents.

Taiwan's airport authority said that 43 international flights to and from Taoyuan International Airport were canceled Wednesday morning. A handful of domestic flights were also been suspended. Most rail services had resumed after earlier disruptions....

Typhoon Matmo, via NASA, July 24, 2014

Genetically modified mosquitoes set to be released in Brazil to combat dengue

Justine Alford at IFL Science: ... Mosquitoes kill more people each year than all other animals combined, and on average they kill even more people than humans do. It is estimated that over 1 million people die per year from mosquito-borne diseases, such as Malaria and Dengue Fever, and millions more endure pain and suffering.

Tackling this problem has proved a formidable task in the past, but a very small UK-based company called Oxitec have been developing and implementing an exciting and cost effective technique that could help curb vector-borne diseases in problem areas without the negative environmental impacts that other approaches often bestow. This sustainable technique, which involves the release of “sterile” insects into the wild, has already proved a success story in several dengue mosquito trials in different areas of the world, and can also be applied to control other insect problems such as agricultural pests which risk food security. Furthermore, a factory in Brazil is set to be opened next week in order to raise and release these mosquitoes on a commercial scale in order to tackle Dengue Fever.

Dengue fever is the fastest-growing mosquito-borne disease in the world; incidence has increased 30-fold over the last 50 years, and currently it affects around 50-100 million people each year and causes around 25,000 deaths. It’s a viral disease spread primarily by two species of mosquito; Aedes aegypti and Aedes albopticus, although the former is responsible for the majority of transmissions. Dengue is sometimes nicknamed “breakbone fever” because of the agonizing bone pain associated with the illness, and severe cases may result in the often fatal manifestation dengue hemorrhagic fever. Currently there are no vaccines or effective antiviral drugs, meaning that mosquito control is the only viable option to control the disease....

A mosquito, photographed by ProjectManhattan , Wikimedia Commons, under the Creative Commons 3.0 license

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Has Antarctic sea ice expansion been overestimated?

A press release from the European Geosciences Union: New research suggests that Antarctic sea ice may not be expanding as fast as previously thought. A team of scientists say much of the increase measured for Southern Hemisphere sea ice could be due to a processing error in the satellite data. The findings are published today in The Cryosphere, a journal of the European Geosciences Union (EGU).

Arctic sea ice is retreating at a dramatic rate. In contrast, satellite observations suggest that sea ice cover in the Antarctic is expanding – albeit at a moderate rate – and that sea ice extent has reached record highs in recent years. What’s causing Southern Hemisphere sea ice cover to increase in a warming world has puzzled scientists since the trend was first spotted. Now, a team of researchers has suggested that much of the measured expansion may be due to an error, not previously documented, in the way satellite data was processed.

“This implies that the Antarctic sea ice trends reported in the IPCC’s AR4 and AR5 [the 2007 and 2013 assessment reports from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change] can’t both be correct: our findings show that the data used in one of the reports contains a significant error. But we have not yet been able to identify which one contains the error,” says lead-author Ian Eisenman of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at University of California San Diego in the US.

...In the study published in The Cryosphere, Eisenman and collaborators compare two datasets for sea ice measurements. The most recent one, the source of AR5 conclusions, was generated using a version of Bootstrap updated in 2007, while the other, used in AR4 research, is the result of an older version of the algorithm.

The researchers found a difference between the two datasets related to a transition in satellite sensors in December 1991, and the way the data collected by the two instruments was calibrated. “It appears that one of the records did this calibration incorrectly, introducing a step-like change in December 1991 that was big enough to have a large influence on the long-term trend,” explains Eisenman.

“You’d think it would be easy to see which record has this spurious jump in December 1991, but there’s so much natural variability in the record – so much ‘noise’ from one month to the next – that it’s not readily apparent which record contains the jump. When we subtract one record from the other, though, we remove most of this noise, and the step-like change in December 1991 becomes very clear.”

With the exception of the longer time period covered by the most recent dataset, the two records were thought to be nearly identical. But, by comparing the datasets and calculating Antarctic sea ice extent for each of them, the team found that there was a stark difference between the two records, with the current one giving larger rates of sea ice expansion than the old one in any given period. If the error is in the current dataset, the results could contribute to an unexpected resolution for the Antarctic sea ice cover enigma.

An iceberg off the Antarctic coast, shot by Christopher Michel - 091203_iceberg_6964, Wikimedia Commons via Flickr, under the Creative Commons 2.0 license 

Can Modi clean the Ganges, India's biggest sewage line?

Space Daily via AFP: Standing on the banks of the river Ganges a day after his election triumph, Prime Minister Narendra Modi vowed to succeed where numerous governments have failed: by cleaning up the filthy waterway beloved of India's Hindus. From a prime minister already known for the scale of his ambitions, it was a bold but calculated promise to improve the health of what the deeply religious leader referred to as his "mother".

Success would pay huge dividends in endearing him further to his core Hindu supporters -- and correcting the long-standing neglect of the river would perfectly demonstrate his fabled administrative skills. But nowhere is the scale of the challenge more evident than in the northern town of Kanpur, around 500 kilometres (300 miles) from the capital, which is known for its large leather-treatment industry.

A river believed to cleanse sins is used here as a giant sewage line for the largely untreated excrement of five million residents and a disposal facility for millions of litres of chemical-laced industrial waste. Some devout pilgrims still brave the obvious dangers of submersing themselves in the water, in which fecal coliform bacteria can be 200 times the safe limit, according to local authorities.

But even they are increasingly put off. Local boatman Vijay Nishad, who has been rowing religious visitors on the river for more than 15 years, says his business is suffering. "Around 100 or 200 people came to bathe this morning but they left without going in the water because of the dead fish and the terrible stench," he told AFP as he oared his boat....

A downstream view of the Ganges from a railroad bridge in Kanpur, shot by Faizhaider, Wikimedia Commons, under the Creative Commons 3.0 license 

New water balance calculation for the Dead Sea

A press release from the Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research: The drinking water resources on the eastern, Jordanian side of the Dead Sea could decline severe as a result of climate change than those on the western, Israeli and Palestinian side. This is the conclusion reached by an international team of researchers that calculated the water flows around the Dead Sea. The natural replenishment rate of groundwater will reduce dramatically in the future if precipitation lowers as predicted, say the scientists, writing in the journal Science of the Total Environment. Even now, the available groundwater resources in the region are not sufficient to meet the growing water requirements of the population and agriculture. If the situation worsens, it could therefore have serious social, economic and ecological consequences for the region.

A reliable inventory of existing water resources around the Dead Sea, on the border between Israel, Palestine and Jordan, forms the basis for sustainable water management. The lowest lake on earth is not only one of the biggest tourist attractions in the Middle East; more than four million people rely on the groundwater resources in its catchment basin. For a long time, the complex hydrology of this region presented major unknown factors in the local water balance equation. To some extent it still does. Thanks to improved computer simulations, the researchers were able to
work out – on an international scale for the first time – how much water actually infiltrates from rainfall and replenishes the groundwater reservoir: around 281 million cubic metres per year. This means that we now also know what the maximum withdrawal limit should be if this resource is to be managed sustainably.

... Using the models, the scientists were able, for the first time, to make predictions about possible future changes in the groundwater resources that are so vital for this region: the western (Israeli–Palestinian) side of the lake receives almost twice as much rainfall as the eastern (Jordanian) side. As a result, groundwater replenishment rates are currently around 50 per cent higher on the western side. Climate scenarios predict a decrease in annual rainfall of around 20 per cent. However, the water that currently ends up underground and replenishes these important groundwater resources would be halved. The decrease on the western Israeli–Palestinian side is expected to be around 45 per cent, whereas the water available for the Jordanian (eastern) side would fall by nearly 55 per cent. The social and economic situation could therefore worsen, in Jordan in particular.

Saving and reusing water could therefore be a solution, and the UFZ researchers are developing this concept further with colleagues from Israel, Palestine and Jordan. For instance, the SMART project researched ways of stabilising water supply in the Middle East. The UFZ developed new concepts for decentralised wastewater treatment and made a significant contribution to the water master plan of Jordan, one of the world’s most arid countries. Great importance was attached to adapting the wastewater treatment concept to local conditions, and to collaborating with local scientists and authorities. A special implementation office was set up in Jordan’s Ministry of Water in Amman....

Sinkholes and surface springs in Samar (Western Dead Sea), the Jordan flank of the Dead Sea is visible in the background. Photo: Dr. Christian Siebert/UFZ

Flood alert data not reaching communities in Nepal

Om Astha Rai in Republica: ...Until last year, there was no early warning system in the Mahakali River basin. This year, just a month ahead of the onset of monsoon, the Department of Hydrology and Meteorology (DHM), with support from Mercy Corps, an INGO that has been supporting disaster preparedness programs in Nepal, developed early warning system in the Mahakali River basin.

Under the system, two early warning stations were installed in the Mahakali basin -- one in Dattu VDC of Darchula district and another in Sirsha VDC of Dadeldhura district. However, both stations could be useful only for people living downstream of Khalanga of Darchula, the worst-hit place in last year´s flood.

"We have no early warning system as yet," says Bohara, who now leads a group of Mahakali flood victims fighting for adequate relief and compensation from the government. "We are still vulnerable to floods."

Over the last five years, Nepal has made huge progress in collecting real-time information about floods. Today, flood forecasting stations have been set up in as many as 21 places of seven different river basins. Apart from Mahakali, flood forecasting stations are in operation in Karnali, Babai, West Rapti, Narayani, Bagamati, Koshi and Kankai river systems as well.

In these rivers, if water levels rise above warning points, the system automatically sends sound alarms to government authorities and local people. "If we react to these alarms on time, we can save lives as well as properties," says Rajendra Sharma, chief of flood forecasting section at the DHM....

The Chandani Dodhara suspension bridge over the Mahakali River, shot by Shivagoutam, Wikimedia Commons, under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license 

NASA's HS3 mission spotlight: The HIRAD instrument

NASA: The Hurricane Imaging Radiometer, known as HIRAD, will fly aboard one of two unmanned Global Hawk aircraft during NASA's Hurricane Severe Storm Sentinel or HS3 mission from Wallops beginning August 26 through September 29.

One of the NASA Global Hawks will cover the storm environment and the other will analyze inner-storm conditions. HIRAD will fly aboard the inner-storm Global Hawk and will be positioned at the bottom, rear section of the aircraft.

“HIRAD’s purpose is to map out where the strongest winds are in a hurricane. During its first deployment in 2010 for the GRIP airborne campaign, HIRAD had two interesting hurricane cases, Earl and Karl," said Daniel J. Cecil, the principal investigator for the HIRAD instrument at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center, Huntsville, Alabama. "We have made improvements to the instrument since then, and are looking forward to the next good case - out over water, avoiding land of course!”

HIRAD is a passive microwave radiometer that was developed at NASA Marshall. A radiometer is an instrument used to measure the power of electromagnetic radiation. Because HIRAD is a passive microwave radiometer it detects microwave radiation naturally emitted by Earth. The radiation HIRAD detects is then used to infer wind speed at the surface of an ocean.

The antenna on HIRAD makes measurements of microwaves emitted by the ocean surface that are increased by the storm. As winds move across the surface of the sea they generate white, frothy foam. This sea foam causes the ocean surface to emit increasingly large amounts of microwave radiation, similar in frequency or wavelength, but much lower intensity, to that generated within a typical home microwave oven. HIRAD measures that microwave energy and, in doing so, allows scientists to deduce how powerfully the wind is blowing. With HIRAD’s unique capabilities, the two-dimensional structure of the surface wind speed field can be much more accurately determined than current operational capabilities allow....

A NASA artist's conception of HIRAD imaging

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Is the US National Flood Insurance Program affordable?

Space Daily via SPX: There is often tension between setting insurance premiums that reflect risk and dealing with equity/affordability issues. The National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) in the United States recently moved toward elimination of certain premium discounts, but this raised issues with respect to the affordability of coverage for homeowners in flood-prone areas. Ultimately, Congress reversed course and reinstated discounted rates for certain classes of policyholders.

Carolyn Kousky (Resources for the Future, USA) and Howard Kunreuther's (The Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania, USA) paper in the inaugural issue of the Journal of Extreme Events, "Addressing Affordability in the National Flood Insurance Program", examines the tension between risk-based rates and affordability through a case study of Ocean County, New Jersey, an area heavily damaged by Hurricane Sandy.

Kousky and Kunreuther argue that the NFIP must address affordability, but that this should not be done through discounted premiums. Instead, the authors propose a means-tested voucher program coupled with a loan program for investments in hazard mitigation.

As a condition for a voucher, homeowners would be required to take steps to invest in flood loss reduction measures such as elevating their property. They show that that the cost of a program to homeowners and the federal government would be considerably less than if a voucher were just provided to cover the cost of insurance.

Kousky and Kunreuther conclude that a more detailed, nationwide (United States) analysis is needed to estimate the costs to the federal government of a coupled voucher and mitigation loan program, as well as the expected benefits of reduced flooding losses in the future....

The 1979 Easter flood in Jackson, Mississippi, National Weather Service