Sunday, March 29, 2015

Antarctic ice shelves are melting dramatically

Karl Mathiesen in the Guardian (UK): The ice around the edge of Antarctica is melting faster than previously thought, potentially unlocking metres of sea-level rise in the long-term, researchers have warned. A team of US scientists looked at 18 years’ worth of satellite data and found the floating ice shelves that skirt the continent are losing 310km3 of ice every year. One shelf lost 18% of its thickness during the period.

The loss of ice shelves does not contribute much directly to sea level rise. But they act like a cork in a bottle at the point where glaciers meet the sea – jamming the flow of ice from the massive ice sheets of east and west Antarctica.

Professor Andrew Shepherd, director of the Centre for Polar Observation and Modelling at the University of Leeds, said the rates of ice loss were unsustainable and could cause a major collapse. This is already occurring at the massive Pine Island glacier, where ice loss has doubled in speed over the last 20 years as its blocking ice shelf has melted.

“This is a real concern, because such high rates of thinning cannot be sustained for much longer, and because in the places where Antarctic ice shelves have already collapsed this has triggered rapid increases in the rate of ice loss from glaciers above ground, causing global sea levels to rise,” he said.

The new research, published in the journal Science on Thursday, discovered for the first time that ice shelf melt is accelerating.

Dr Paul Holland, a climate scientist at the British Antarctic Survey (BAS), said the loss of the shelves would speed the complete collapse of the west Antarctic ice sheet, which would eventually cause up to 3.5m of sea level rise. But he said it was highly unlikely this would occur this century. He said the “worst case scenario” for 2100 was that ice sheets would contribute an additional 70cm to the sea level rise caused by the warming of the ocean....

Via NASA, a satellite image of Schokalsky Bay, Antarctica

The Salton Sea: a time-bomb amid California drought

Terra Daily via AFP: At first sight the Salton Sea looks putrid, with dead fish scattered among patches of fetid water in a vast salty lake in the middle of the Californian desert. In the fourth year of a historic drought in the western United States, some say the wetland is an environmental time bomb.

...The sea, which sees some 400 species of migratory birds pass through, was born from a civil engineering accident in 1905, which led to an overflowing of the Colorado River. It lies 71 meters above sea level, south of Joshua Tree National Park, some 250 kilometers (155 miles) southeast of Los Angeles.

...This former seaside resort today looks like a ghost town, its beach marred by an earth mound and scattered with the wrecks of cars and rusting metal of all sorts. From 1970, the Salton Sea began to shrink, leading to a surge in salinity and a reduction in depth which ended its days as a fishing and boating haven.

...To make matters worse, in 2017 a complex agreement which shares water from the Colorado River comes to an end, leading to an expected further decrease in water flowing into the Sea. Wilcox said the body of water will lose a third of its surface area in just a few years, while its bed of sand mixed with sediments of cadmium, phosphates, fertilizer and insecticides will spread further, carried by frequent storms.

...Cases of asthma, lung cancer and other respiratory conditions could surge in an area where they are already four times the national average. Not to mention the billions of dollars in agricultural revenues threatened, and real estate prices which risk collapsing.

"If the Sea dries up it's going to be inhabitable because of the dust here, throughout the whole Coachella Valley," said Randy Rynearson, the salt-and-pepper grizzled owner of an ironmonger's store in Salton City....

A sunset on the Salton Sea, shot by Geographer, Wikimedia Commons, under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.5 Generic license

Lakes become deserts, Iran to fight drought

Prothom Alo via AFP: Nazar Sarani's village in southeast Iran was once an island. It is now a desert, a casualty of the country's worsening water crisis. "We live in the dust," said the 54-year-old cattle herder of his home in the once exceptional biosphere of Lake Hamoun, a wetland of varied flora and fauna, which is now nothing but sand-baked earth.

Climate change, with less rainfall each year, is blamed, but so too is human error and government mismanagement. Iran's reservoirs are only 40 percent full according to official figures, and nine cities including the capital Tehran are threatened with water restrictions after dry winters.

The situation is more critical in Sistan-Baluchistan, the most dangerous area in Iran, where a Sunni minority is centred in towns and villages that border Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Only 15 years ago, Hamoun was the seventh largest wetland in the world, straddling 4,000 square kilometres (1,600 square miles) between Iran and Afghanistan, with water rolling in from the latter's Helmand river.

But with dams since built in Afghanistan as well as other blocked pathways holding back the source of Hamoun's diversity, the local economy has collapsed. ... A study in 2013 by the World Resources Institute ranked Iran as the world's 24th most water-stressed nation, with public consumption around twice the world average.

Government subsidies on water do nothing to encourage efficiency, and public education messages on television and radio are ignored. Agricultural use -- for water-heavy crops such as rice and corn -- is thought to eat up nearly 90 percent of national supply, with experts saying irrigation is poorly managed, resulting in high wastage...

A desert village in Iran, shot by Jeanne Menj Jeanne Menj, Wikimedia Commons via Flickr, under the Creative Commons 2.0 Generic license

Global water use may outstrip supply by mid-century

Space Daily: Population growth could cause global demand for water to outpace supply by mid-century if current levels of consumption continue. But it wouldn't be the first time this has happened, a Duke University study finds.

Using a delayed-feedback mathematical model that analyzes historic data to help project future trends, the researchers identified a regularly recurring pattern of global water use in recent centuries. Periods of increased demand for water - often coinciding with population growth or other major demographic and social changes - were followed by periods of rapid innovation of new water technologies that helped end or ease any shortages.

Based on this recurring pattern, the model predicts a similar period of innovation could occur in coming decades. "Researchers in other fields have previously used this model to predict earthquakes and other complex processes, including events like the boom and bust of the stock market during financial crises, but this is the first time it's been applied to water use," said Anthony Parolari, postdoctoral research associate in civil and environmental engineering at Duke, who led the new study.

"What the model shows us is that there will likely be a new phase of change in the global water supply system by the mid-21st century," Parolari said...

Chand Baori, the famous step well in Rajasthan, shot by chetan, Wikimedia Commons, under the Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike 3.0 Unported license 

Zimbabwe on alert over cholera threat

IRIN: Children play on the dumpsite in the Budiriro suburb of Zimbabwe’s capital, Harare, scrambling through the garbage and ignoring the clouds of flies and overpowering stench from the rotting, untreated waste.

This was the epicenter of Zimbabwe’s last and worst cholera epidemic, which between 2008 and 2009 killed 4,300 people and in
fected over 100,000. Now, with the emergence of a cholera outbreak in neigbouring Mozambique, which has already infected 14 people in Zimbabwe’s border towns, the question is whether the authorities are ready and better able to cope should cholera spread to Harare.

Joseph Mpofu lives in a compound of three homes just 10 meters from the dumpsite in Budiriro. “Our children are always going down with diarhoea and we have made numerous reports to Harare City to collect the waste, but they have never done so,” he told IRIN, waving away flies settling on nappies hung out to dry.

“The last cholera outbreak started here in Budiriro and we are manufacturing ideal conditions for another outbreak to occur. If the cholera in Mozambique finds its way to Harare, it would spread rapidly,” said Mpofu.

Given the extent of cross-border trade and travel in southern Africa, one of the likely entry points for the highly infectious cholera bacillus would be bus stations like the Mbare terminus, which welcomes people from across the region....

Harare's skyline, shot by Radozw, Wikimedia Commons, under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license

Saturday, March 28, 2015

Disturbed ecosystems are more sensitive to climate change and its risks

Science World Report: When it comes to climate change, disturbed ecosystems may be at risk. Scientists have found that an ecosystem's resistance to changing climatic conditions is reduced when it's exposed to natural or human-caused disturbances.

The findings actually come from one of the world's longest running climate change experiments. Two of the studies were actually situated in Danish heathland ecosystems, which were studied over the period of several years. The scientists found that climate change impacts on the vegetation were minimal in undisturbed heathland. But that wasn't the case in heathland that was disturbed.

"After a heather beetle outbreak heather plants re-established in control plots, but not in plots subject to extended summer drought," said Inger Kappel Schmidt, one of the researchers, in a news release. "The combination of disturbance and drought caused a shift from heathland to grassland." Results from the experimental sites in other countries also showed similar results. It appeared that ecosystems that were more disturbed were less likely to recover.

"The long-term impact of climate change on plant communities is more dependent on short periods where plants are relatively vulnerable, like regeneration phases, than on the longer periods between disturbances where established vegetation is relatively robust," said Johannes Ransiin, one of the lead authors of the new article. "The higher sensitivity after disturbance should also be considered by land managers. Reducing disturbance intensity and frequency in ecosystems could help making them less vulnerable to climatic change."...

Gillis d'Hondecoeter (circa 1575/1580–1638) painted this image of "Paradise" after 1615

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

A difficult climate: Media response to the IPCC

A press release from the University of Exeter: The UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) periodically releases Assessment Reports in order to inform policymakers and the public about the latest scientific evidence on climate change. The publication of each report is a key event in the debate about climate change, but their reception and coverage in the media has varied widely.

A study, published today in the journal Nature Climate Change, has for the first time analysed how Twitter, TV and newspapers reported the IPCC’s climate evidence. Understanding how media coverage varies is important because people’s knowledge and opinions on climate change are influenced by how the media reports on the issue.

The study found that there were markedly different ways in which the media portrayed the IPCC’s latest findings. The researchers investigated this through studying the frames (ways of depicting an issue) the different media sources used to emphasize some aspects of climate change, whilst downplaying others. They also found large differences in how much coverage each Working Group received (the IPCC has three, which focus on the physical science, impacts and adaptation, and mitigation respectively).

The researchers found ten different frames used to communicate climate change: Settled Science, Political or Ideological Struggle, Role of Science, Uncertain Science, Disaster, Security, Morality and Ethics, Opportunity, Economics and Health. The first five frames were used to communicate the IPCC reports much more frequently – whereas the latter frames were not used much at all.

Dr Saffron O’Neill, lead author of the study from the University of Exeter, said: “We know that some of these frames are more engaging for audiences than others: for example, the Opportunity or Health frames are both effective at linking the distant issue of climate change to peoples’ everyday life. But these kinds of frames are little used in newspaper coverage, on TV, or on Twitter.”....

Sunday, March 22, 2015

South-East Asian haze increases risk of respiratory mortality

Research SEA: Since 1997, the massive burning of biomass in Sumatra and Kalimantan, Indonesia, has affected neighbouring countries such as Malaysia, Singapore, Brunei and Southern Thailand. The burning of biomass has generated a significant amount of haze that travels overseas, affecting the region’s economy and public health.

Haze resulting from forest fires is known to increase the concentration of toxic airborne particles that are smaller than ten microns in size, such as carbon monoxide, sulphur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide and ozone. Previous studies have found that airborne particles can cause serious respiratory effects. In 1997, South-East Asian haze increased the number of asthma attacks by 10.7% in Malaysia alone.

Professor Mazrura Sahani, an environmental epidemiology expert at Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia, recently conducted a follow-up study on this issue focusing on Klang Valley, the most populated and most affected area on the west coast of peninsular Malaysia. She analysed the association between mortality rates from respiratory illness in Klang Valley and 88 days of recorded haze events from 2000 to 2007. Haze events typically last for seven days.

Professor Sahani collected respiratory mortality data from Malaysia’s Department of Statistics and obtained environmental data from six continuous air quality monitoring stations in Klang Valley. Her results showed that South-East Asian haze has increased the risk of respiratory mortality in Klang Valley as a result of increased exposure to toxic particles during the haze days. By the sixth day of a haze event, daily mortality rates were higher than normal....

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

South Africa braces for looming drought

Ayanda Mkhwanazi in via Health-e:
South Africa is facing a looming water shortage and experts warn we may not see it coming. "We don't know when it will happen, but we are overdue for it (drought) so we need to start planning for the worst and hope for the best," said Dr Ronnie McKenzie, managing director of the engineering company Water Resource Planning.

"The government is aware of this looming drought," he told Health-e News. "The funny part about a drought is that you don't see it coming, - you only realise it when we are two years into it. For all we know it might have already begun," said McKenzie speaking at the launch of a new government website aimed at tracking the country's water resources.

The website draws from as yet unreleased 2012 study conducted by the Water Research Commission and the Department of Water and Sanitation (DWS). The study's full results are due to be released in April.

...According to DWS Deputy Director General Deborah Mochothli, in the meantime the website should help policymakers plan as demands on water grow....

Animals of the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, South Africa, shot by Peter Thomas, Wikimedia Commons, under the Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike 4.0 International license

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Cropping Africa's wet savannas would bring high environmental costs

A press release from Princeton University (the Woodrow Wilson School): With the global population rising, analysts and policymakers have targeted Africa's vast wet savannas as a place to produce staple foods and bioenergy groups at low environmental costs. But a new report published in the journal Nature Climate Change finds that converting Africa's wet savannas into farmland would come at a high environmental cost and, in some cases, fail to meet existing standards for renewable fuels.

Led by researchers from Princeton University's Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International
Affairs and Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, the study finds that only a small percentage of Africa's wet savannas (2-11 percent) have the potential to produce staple crops while emitting significantly less carbon dioxide than the world’s average cropland. In addition, taking land conversion into account, less than 1 percent of these lands would produce biofuels that meet European standards for greenhouse-gas reductions.

"Many papers and policymakers have simply assumed that Africa's wetter savannas are expendable from an environmental standpoint because they aren’t forests,” said co-lead author Tim Searchinger, a research scholar at Princeton's Program in Science, Technology and Environmental Policy (STEP), which is based at the Woodrow Wilson School. "Governments have used this assumption to justify large leases of such lands to produce food for the outside world and large global targets for bioenergy. But when you actually analyze the realistic potential to produce food or bioenergy relative to the losses of carbon and animal biodiversity, the lands turn out not to be low cost."

Even if these lands are converted for agricultural use, the only way Africa could become an exporter of crops is by depriving its own people of food, the researchers report. Farming a large expansion of Africa's savannas — nearly half of the world's remaining savannas — would also have negative impacts on the rich and diverse population of tropical birds and mammals....

On the Cameroon savanna, shot by Amcaja, Wikimedia Commons via Flickr, under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license 

Biodiversity protected areas in Indonesia ineffective in preventing deforestation

A press release from National University of Singapore: Establishing protected areas in forests is one way to keep deforestation at bay and safeguard biodiversity. However, a study led by researchers from the National University of Singapore (NUS) has revealed that such a measure is ineffective in the case of biodiversity-focused protected areas in Indonesia.

The research, led by Assistant Professor Roman Carrasco of the Department of Biological Sciences at the NUS Faculty of Science and Assistant Professor Alex Cook of NUS’ Saw Swee Hock School of Public Health, found that the monitoring and prevention of road constructi
on within protected areas and stepping up control measures in illegal logging hotspots would be more effective for conservation than reliance on protected areas alone.

...Global rates of tropical deforestation have increased over the last two decades, particularly in Southeast Asia, which lost approximately 32 million hectares of forests between 1990 and 2010. During this period, Indonesia accounted for approximately 61 per cent of forest loss in Southeast Asia.

“Extensive deforestation in Indonesia is a cause for global concern as it contributes substantially to land-based global carbon emissions and potentially high rates of biodiversity loss,” explained Asst Prof Carrasco.

...The research, conducted by Mr Cyrille Brun, a Masters student at the NUS Faculty of Science under the supervision of Asst Prof Carrasco and Asst Prof Cook, looked at the five main islands of Indonesia, namely Sumatra, Java, Kalimantan, Sulawesi and Papua. By using remote sensing maps of land use change from 2000 to 2010 to construct spatial Bayesian models, they analysed deforestation patterns in Indonesia as well as the effectiveness of protected areas. The team used the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) classification of protected areas in order to evaluate the influence of potential factors on deforestation and project future deforestation.

The models showed that deforestation between 2010 and 2020 is likely to occur in close proximity to the areas that have been deforested before 2010, identifying the south and west part of Kalimantan, the north-west Sumatra and West Papua as areas that will be subject to the greatest rates of deforestation...

A logging road in East Kalimantan, shot by Aidenvironment, Wikimedia Commons via Flickr, under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license 

Adapting to climate change will bring new environmental problems

A press release from the University of East Anglia: Adapting to climate change could have profound environmental repercussions, according to a new study from the University of East Anglia. Research in Nature Climate Change reveals that adaptation measures have the potential to generate further pressures and threats for both local and global ecosystems.

Lead researcher Dr Carlo Fezzi, from UEA’s School of Environmental Sciences, said: “Climate change is a just a little bit more complicated than we previously thought.  We need to take into account not only the direct impact of climate change, but also how people will respond to such change - the impact of adaptation. “This is a whole new dimension to the climate change adaptation debate.”

The research team looked at the interaction between agricultural land use and river water quality – both of which will be heavily impacted by climate change.

They studied land use and river quality from more than half a million records covering the whole of the UK and dating back to the early 1970s. They used computer models to predict not only how climate change would lead to agricultural changes, but how these agricultural changes would impact water quality.

“We found that a moderately warmer climate in the range of between 1oC and 3oC will be mainly beneficial for agriculture in Great Britain. Particularly in the eastern uplands and midlands, warmer temperatures will boots crop yield and allow for more livestock. But some localised losses can be expected - particularly in the east of England, where lower rainfall may increase the risk of drought.

“This intensification in agricultural practices in response to climate change, however, will also create new environmental pressures. For example changes in the agricultural sector will have a knock on effect for water quality – because they will cause increased amounts of nitrates and phosphates in streams and rivers....

A combine in a wheat field, shot by Dan Kollman, Wikimedia Commons, under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license

Trends in the frequency and intensity of floods across the central United States

Journalist's Resource: In North America the winter of 2014-2015 was one for the record books — in particular, 108.6 inches of snow fell in Boston, breaking a longstanding record. But melting snow can bring rising waters, as indicated by a March 2015 report from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), which highlighted the approaching flood risks for New England and Upstate New York as well as for southern Missouri, Illinois and Indiana.

The role of human-induced climate change in the increasing frequency and severity of extreme weather events is well established. The 2014 Vermont Climate Assessment found that since 1960 average temperatures in that state have climbed 1.3 degrees and annual precipitation by nearly 6 inches, with the majority of the increase occurring after 1990. The 2011 Vermont floods and those in North Dakota in 2009 show how devastating such events can be. The projected rise in sea levels will also create profound challenges for coastal communities large and small.

According to a 2013 report from the Congressional Research Service (CRS), just 18% of Americans living in flood zones have the required insurance — not comforting news for them or for federal and state governments, charged with providing material and financial disaster relief after the fact. Data from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) indicates that between 2006 and 2010, the average flood claim was nearly $34,000, and large events can impose substantially higher costs. According to the CRS, the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) paid out between $12 and $15 billion after Hurricane Sandy — more than triple the $4 billion in cash and borrowing au
thority it initially had. Starting in 2016, states seeking to receive disaster-preparedness funds must have plans in place to mitigate the effects of climate change, or risk losing funding, FEMA announced in March 2016.

A 2015 study published in Nature Climate Change, “The Changing Nature of Flooding across the Central United States,” examines long-term trends in the frequency and intensity of flood events. The researchers, Iman Mallakpour and Gabriele Villarini of the University of Iowa, used data from 774 stream gauges over the period 1962 to 2011. Gauges had at least 50 years of data with no gaps of more than two continuous years. The 14 states examined were Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North and South Dakota, Ohio, West Virginia and Wisconsin....

North Dakota flood response, shot by The National Guard, Wikimedia Commons via Flickr, under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Vanuatu provides lessons in cyclone survival

Stephen Coates in Reuters: Villagers in Vanuatu buried food and fresh water as one of the strongest storms on record bore down on them, fleeing to churches, schools and even coconut drying kilns as 300 kph winds and massive seas tore their flimsy houses to the ground.

Despite reports of utter devastation six days after Cyclone Pam pummeled the impoverished South Pacific island nation, Vanuatu appears to be providing something of a lesson in how to survive a category 5 storm. The United Nations says the official death toll is 11 and Prime Minister Joe Natuman told Reuters it would not rise significantly.

"The important thing is that the people survived," he said in an interview outside his office overlooking the hard-hit capital of Port Vila. "If the people survived, we can rebuild."

...Two days ago, a helicopter flight over the north of Efate revealed scenes of total devastation with at least one coastal village destroyed and no sign of life.  When visited a day later, dozens of villagers were back rebuilding with what materials they could find and reporting only one injury, said Barnes, who was on Cayman Island in 2004 when Hurricane Ivan hit.

Sebastian Rhodes Stampa, disaster co-ordinator for the U.N.'s humanitarian affairs office said he was impressed by the country's ability to deal with the storm. "In very few places that I have worked have I seen such a resilient population," Rhodes Stampa, who has worked in major disaster sites including the Philippines after Typhoon Haiyan, told Reuters in Port Vila....

The Mamas Market in Port Vila, Vanuatu, on March 15, 2015. Shot by Graham Crumb, Wikimedia Commons via imagicity, under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported Licence 

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Ignored by government, Canadian academics offer their own climate policy

Lesley Evans Ogden in Science: Under the conservative government of Prime Minister Stephen Harper, Canada has become a tough and frustrating political environment for researchers trying to advance evidence-based policies to reduce emissions. The country has withdrawn from international climate pacts, muzzled government climate researchers, and put new regulatory efforts on the back burner. Now, one group of prominent Canadian academics is trying to change the dynamic by releasing its own set of climate policy recommendations for the nation.

“We believe that putting options on the table is long overdue in Canada,” write the 71 authors of the Sustainable Canada Dialogues report, released today. The authors, whose expertise ranges broadly across scientific, sociological, and political disciplines, were organized by Catherine Potvin, a climate and policy researcher at McGill University in Montreal. One goal, she says, is to encourage Canadians—and ultimately their government—to support “ambitious and thoughtful commitments to emission reductions” at a global negotiating conference set for Paris in December. The group is trying “to do whatever can be done to raise the level of ambition of Canada prior to the Paris conference,” Potvin tells ScienceInsider.

“Climate change is the most serious ‘symptom’ of non-sustainable development,” concludes the report, which offers a detailed policyroad map for Canada to achieve 100% reliance on low-carbon electricity by 2035. It calls for Canada to reduce greenhouse emissions by 26% to 28% below 2005 levels by 2025 and eliminate at least 80% of emissions by midcentury. Ten major recommendations include calls to impose a price on carbon emissions through a tax or pollution permit trading system, add more solar and wind power to Canada’s bountiful hydropower supplies, and eliminate subsidies for fossil fuels....

This is a picture of Syncrude's base mine in Athabasca. The yellow structures are the bases of pyramids made of sulphur - it is not economical for Syncrude to sell the sulphur so it stockpiles it instead. Behind that is the tailings pond, held in by what is recognized as the largest dam in the world. The extraction plant is just to the right of this photograph and most of the mine is to the left. Shot by Tasty Cakes, public domain

Russian scientists say climate change to blame for mysterious Siberia craters

Guardian (UK) via AFP: Russian scientists have now discovered seven giant craters in remote Siberia, a geologist told AFP on Thursday, adding that the mysterious phenomenon was believed to be linked to climate change.

The discovery of an enormous chasm in a far northern region known to locals as “the end of the world” in July last year prompted speculation it had been caused by a meteorite or even aliens.

 “We have just learnt that in Yakutia, new information has emerged about a giant crater 1km [0.6 miles] in diameter,” the deputy director of the Oil and Gas Research Institute of the Russian Academy of Sciences, Vasily Bogoyavlensky, told AFP.

He said this brought to seven the number of reported pits. “Footage allows us to identify minimum seven craters, but in fact there are plenty more,” he said.

All of the craters have been discovered in the remote, energy-rich Yamalo-Nenetsky region in north-western Siberia. Scientists say that rather than aliens or meteorites, the holes are caused by the melting of underground ice in the permafrost, which has possibly been sped up by rising temperatures due to global warming....

A coat of arms from the Krasnoyarsk District

Angolan provincial governor decrees 24 hours of mourning via Angola News Agency: The governor of the southern Benguela province, Isaac Francisco dos Anjos, Friday declared a 24-hour mourning over the death of 66 citizens victim of heavy rains that hit the region on 11 March.

The tragedy hit mainly the municipalities of Lobito, Catumbela and Benguela.

In a press release delivered to Angop, the government expressed solidarity and dismay to the family of the rain victims.

In addition to the sixty-six people died in Lobito, among adults and children, the rain also destroyed 119 houses, 8 schools and 42 houses without coverage....

From a 2009 flood in Luanda, Angola, shot by Paulo César Santos, Wikimedia Commons,under the Creative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication 

Food concerns mount in Vanuatu after monster cyclone

Reuters: International aid agencies ramped up appeals for cyclone-hit Vanuatu on Wednesday, warning that the powerful storm that affected more than two-thirds of the South Pacific island nation had wiped out crops and destroyed fishing fleets, raising the risk of hunger and disease.

Residents of the southern island of Tanna said food and basic supplies were running low, while relief workers were still battling to reach many islands pummeled by Cyclone Pam's gusts of more than 300 kph (185 mph) on Friday and Saturday.

The United Nations said the official death toll was 11, but many officials anticipate that number will rise once they are able to more thoroughly inspect the outer islands of the scattered archipelago.

 Sweden said on Tuesday that a Swedish man aged around 80 who had emigrated was among the dead. Sune Gudnitz, Pacific head of the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, said getting food supplies to isolated communities was a concern. "The challenge of getting things out, whether it's people or goods, remains. We want to avoid creating a bottleneck in (Vanuatu capital) Port Vila, so we very quickly need to work out a plan for getting things out," Gudnitz said....

A post-Pam boat graveyard in Vanuatu, shot by Graham Crumb, Wikimedia Commons, under the Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike 3.0 Unported license

Modern irrigation systems boost carbon emissions

Environmental Research Web: As water scarcity increases in the Mediterranean, there is pressure on the agriculture industry to reduce water losses, improve efficiency and boost water productivity. In recent years, government-subsidized pressurized irrigation systems have replaced traditional low-efficiency surface irrigation schemes in many countries, in an attempt to minimize water losses and improve efficiency.

But researchers are warning that, despite making water savings, these modern irrigation systems are increasing the food-production system's contribution to climate change.

"These pressurized irrigation systems use more energy and therefore have higher carbon emissions than traditional gravity-operated systems," said Andre Daccache, from Cranfield University, UK. "We have carried out the first large-scale assessment of agricultural water demand in the Mediterranean region and estimated the carbon-dioxide emissions associated with water abstraction for irrigation."

...The calculations also revealed that Spain, which is becoming more reliant on groundwater and on pressurized systems to irrigate crops, uses three times the energy of Egypt, a country that almost exclusively employs water from the River Nile and is still largely dependent on traditional gravity-fed systems.

"While Spain is saving water with these new irrigation systems, it is clear that its carbon-dioxide emissions will be higher," said Daccache. "We were expecting to see a difference in energy use between countries but we were surprised by the size of the difference. The problem is that Spain with a dry climate and scarce surface-water resources does not have many options when it comes to irrigation technologies."...

An irrigation sprinkler in Adaja, Spain, shot by David A. Nafria, Wikimedida Commons, under the Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike 3.0 Unported license 

Monday, March 16, 2015

Friction means Antarctic glaciers more sensitive to climate change than we thought

A press release from Caltech: One of the biggest unknowns in understanding the effects of climate change today is the melting rate of glacial ice in Antarctica. Scientists agree rising atmospheric and ocean temperatures could destabilize these ice sheets, but there is uncertainty about how fast they will lose ice.

The West Antarctic Ice Sheet is of particular concern to scientists because it contains enough ice to raise global sea level by up to 16 feet, and its physical configuration makes it susceptible to melting by warm ocean water. Recent studies have suggested that the collapse of certain parts of the ice sheet is inevitable. But will that process take several decades or centuries?

Research by Caltech scientists now suggests that estimates of future rates of melt for the West Antarctic Ice Sheet—and, by extension, of future sea-level rise—have been too conservative. In a new study, published online on March 9 in the Journal of Glaciology, a team led by Victor Tsai, an assistant professor of geophysics, found that properly accounting for Coulomb friction—a type of friction generated by solid surfaces sliding against one another—in computer models significantly increases estimates of how sensitive the ice sheet is to temperature perturbations driven by climate change.

Unlike other ice sheets that are moored to land above the ocean, most of West Antarctica's ice sheet is grounded on a sloping rock bed that lies below sea level. In the past decade or so, scientists have focused on the coastal part of the ice sheet where the land ice meets the ocean, called the "grounding line," as vital for accurately determining the melting rate of ice in the southern continent.

"Our results show that the stability of the whole ice sheet and our ability to predict its future melting is extremely sensitive to what happens in a very small region right at the grounding line. It is crucial to accurately represent the physics here in numerical models," says study coauthor Andrew Thompson, an assistant professor of environmental science and engineering at Caltech....

The Thwaits Glacier in West Antarctica, from NASA

Majority of natural disasters climate related, official says

Alex Kirby in Responding to Climate Change: A senior French political leader, foreign minister Laurent Fabius, has told an international conference on how to reduce the risk from natural disasters that 70% of them are now linked to climate change, twice as many as twenty years ago.

Fabius is the incoming president of this year’s round of negotiations by member states of the UN climate change convention, to take place in Paris in December. He said disaster risk reduction and the struggle against climate change went hand in hand: “It is necessary to tackle these problems together and not separately.”

He was speaking against the background of two events which occurred thousands of miles apart on 14 March, linked by nothing except tragic coincidence.

In the Japanese city of Sendai the third UN world conference on disaster risk reduction began a five-day meeting. In the South Pacific Cyclone Pam brought death and devastation to the 83-island nation of Vanuatu on a scale seldom recorded in the region.

Vivien Maidaborn, executive director of Unicef New Zealand, said the disaster could prove one of the worst in Pacific history. “The sheer force of the storm, combined with communities just not set up to withstand it, could have devastating results for thousands across the region,” she said.

A Unicef worker in Vanuatu described the cyclone as “15 to 30 minutes of absolute terror” for “everybody in this country” as it passed over....

Sendai's skyline at dawn, shot by Caveman2, Wikimedia Commons, public domain

Predicting which African storms will intensify into hurricanes

A press release from the American Friends of Tel Aviv University: Hurricanes require moisture, the rotation of the earth, and warm ocean temperatures to grow from a mere atmospheric disturbance into a tropical storm. But where do these storm cells originate, and exactly what makes an atmospheric disturbance amp up full throttle?

A new study published in Geophysical Research Letters by Tel Aviv University's Prof. Colin Price and his graduate student Naama Reicher of the Department of Geosciences at TAU's Faculty of Exact Sciences finds most hurricanes over the Atlantic that eventually make landfall in North America actually start as intense thunderstorms in Western Africa.

"85 percent of the most intense hurricanes affecting the U.S. and Canada start off as disturbances in the atmosphere over Western Africa," says Prof. Price. "We found that the larger the area covered by the disturbances, the higher the chance they would develop into hurricanes only one to two weeks later."

Using data covering 2005-2010, Prof. Price analyzed images of cloud cover taken by geostationary satellites, which orbit the Earth at the precise speed of the earth's rotation and take pictures of cloud cover every 15 minutes. This enab
led Prof. Price to track the variability in cloud cover blocking the earth's surface in West Africa between the months of June and November — hurricane season.

...According to Prof. Price, only 10 percent of the 60 disturbances originating in Africa every year turn into hurricanes. And while there are around 90 hurricanes globally every year, only 10 develop in the Atlantic Ocean.

..."If we can predict a hurricane one or two weeks in advance — the entire lifespan of a hurricane — imagine how much better prepared cities and towns can be to meet these phenomena head on," Prof. Price says. He is currently examining the thunderstorm clusters around the eyes of hurricanes to study the intensification process of those destructive phenomena....

Hurricane Fred in 2009, with Africa in the background. Via NASA

A call for tougher standards for the built enivronment

A press release from the United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction: A UNISDR private sector champion today called for the high standards that are typically applied to major infrastructure projects to be the benchmark for the majority of urban areas that are residential and home to small businesses.

Mr. Aris Papadopoulos, retired CEO for Titan America and the first Chair of UNISDR’s Private Sector Advisory Group, said the areas where the biggest proportion of people live and where the majority of smaller enterprises are located are generally the most exposed and vulnerable locations.

“The ‘built environment’ is where we spend 95 per cent of our lives,” Mr Papadopoulos said. “And it is in residential areas and commercial districts for SMEs (small-medium siz
ed enterprises) where 80 per cent of destruction from disasters occur.

“Unfortunately, building codes present the lowest common denominator and they are often not enforced as well as they are when it comes to larger infrastructure. But let’s look at what the automobile industry did in the 1960s: they embarked on a great change towards safety for cars. Why do we not have the same radical change in our approach to the built environment?”

Mr. Papadopoulos was speaking at the ‘Business and Private Sector: Investing in Resilient Infrastructure’ session at the Third UN World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction.

He pointed to ‘Five Visions for a Resilient Future’ unveiled at the World Conference by the UNISDR Private Sector Partnership (PSP), which he said was a roadmap to “move from disaster reaction to resilience pro-action”.

The vision comprises the following five elements: strong public private partnerships; resilience in the built environment; risk-sensitive investments and accounting; positive cycle of reinforcement for a resilient society; and private sector risk disclosure....

High water on the Danube near Vienna in 2013, shot by VIEX - Ernest Niedermann, Wikimedia Commons,  under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license

In Russia, a drying lake threatens an 'era of water wars'

Angelina Davydova in Reuters via the Thomson Reuters Foundation: In Russia's Siberian south, near the border of Mongolia, the world's largest freshwater lake is shrinking. The surrounding communities depend on Lake Baikal, which contains about one-fifth of the earth's unfrozen freshwater reserves, for their power, water and livelihoods.

But in the past four months the lake’s water level has dropped so low that experts are calling it a crisis – one they warn could lead to conflicts in Russia over water. The lake is now at its lowest level in over 30 years and experts predict it will keep dropping until melting mountain snow and spring rains begin to recharge the lake around late April or mid-May.

The problem, scientists and environmentalists say, is a combination of climate change and growing use of hydropower. During last year's unusually dry summer and autumn, the lake got only 67 percent of the freshwater inflow it normally receives; experts predict in the first quarter of 2015 that figure will fall to 50 percent.

...Lake Baikal's dramatic drying already is causing tensions between the two regions that rely on it. In the Buryat Republic, upstream of the lake, wells are running empty and the area's fishing industry is struggling with decreasing fish populations.

..."Welcome to the era of water wars in Russia," said Alexander Kolotov, Russian coordinator of the international ecological coalition Rivers Without Boundaries. "Water is becoming the country's most valuable resource."....

The village of Enkhaluk on the eastern shore of Lake Baikal, shot by Аркадий Зарубин, Wikimedia Commons, under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Tuvalu among other Pacific nations also battered by cyclone

Terra Daily via AFP: Nearly half the population of Tuvalu have been severely affected by the devastation wrought by Cyclone Pam, Prime Minister Enele Sopoaga said Sunday, with other Pacific island nations also taking a hit.

While the focus has been on devastation in neighbouring Vanuatu, Tuvalu -- a grouping of nine coral atolls with a population of less than 11,000 -- is also struggling to cope, he told Radio New Zealand International.

"Forty five percent of the population of Tuvalu, most of whom are on the outer islands, have been affected, badly, severely affected," he said of the island chain some 1,550 kilometres (960 miles) northeast of Vanuatu.

"We are worried about the aftermath in terms of hygiene and supplies of essential materials like food, medicine and water."

Few details of the impact were given. But Sopoaga said most people living on the outer islands of the ex-British colony formerly known as the Ellice Islands had been affected, with houses and crops washed away....

Devastation after Cyclone Pam, March 14, 2015. Shot by Graham Crumb Graham Crumb, Wikimedia Commons, under the Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike 3.0 Unported license

Saturday, March 14, 2015

Vanuatu devastated by one of the strongest tropical cyclones in Pacific; at least eight dead

Yahoo News via 7 News: At least eight people have died in Vanuatu, a senior aid official says, in one of the strongest tropical cyclones to have hit the South Pacific. It comes amid unconfirmed reports that more than 40 people may have perished elsewhere in the country as a result of Cyclone Pam.

The official death toll in Port Vila stands at six, with another 20 confirmed injured, according to Vanuatu's National Disaster Management Office. One person has also died in Papua New Guinea's West New Britain province after a tree fell onto a house during strong winds driven by the storm.

Vanuatu coordinator of climate change not-for-profit organisation 350, Isso Nihmei, said he and others tried to rescue three people in Port Vila who later died in hospital.

"We heard some of the people who were living close. They were shouting and calling us. So once we went down there, we saw this guy who was already dead," he said.

"There [were] other people on the other side, so we went down to rescue them but they were really weak....

NOAA image from March 14, 2015, of Cyclone Pam over Vanuatu

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Experts sound warning over flu dangers in China, India

Terra Daily: Scientists sounded warnings Wednesday over H7N9 bird flu in China and the H1N1 strain of swine flu in India that have jointly claimed more than 1,700 lives. H7N9 virus presents a high risk of becoming pandemic if China fails to close loopholes in its live poultry trade, researchers reported in the journal Nature.

A different team, writing in the US journal Cell Host and Microbe, said a strain of H1N1 "swine" flu in India may have acquired mutations enabling it to spread more readily. Looking at H7N9, epidemiologists led by Yi Guan at the University of Hong Kong sought to understand why this dangerous strain emerged in China in 2013, faded away and then rebounded in 2014.

The reason lies in the live poultry sector, they found, with China's eastern province of Zhejiang a springboard for spreading the virus south- and eastward. In the 2014 outbreak, H7N9 mixed with other flu viruses, helping to create new strains, the team said.

Their evidence came from throat and faecal swabs taken from chickens at live markets in Zhejiang, Guangdong, Jiangxi, Jiangsu and Shandong provinces from October 2013 to July 2014. No H7N9 was found among ducks. Further proof came from analysis of flu virus samples taken from patients at hospitals in the southern city of Shenzhen, in Guangdong province across from Hong Kong...

An electron micrograph of H7N9 from the Centers for Disease Control

Rapid coastal population growth may leave many exposed to sea-level rise

Science Daily: The number of people potentially exposed to future sea level rise and associated storm surge flooding may be highest in low-elevation coastal zones in Asia and Africa, according to new projections published March 11, 2015 in the open-access journal PLOS ONE by Barbara Neumann from Kiel University, Germany, and colleagues.

Many coastal areas are densely populated and exposed to a range of coastal hazards, including sea level rise. As coastal population density and urbanization continue to increase, researchers are investigating how coastal populations may be affected by potential environmental impacts at global and regional scales in the future. Based on four different sea-level and socioeconomic scenarios, the authors of this study assessed future population changes by the years 2030 and 2060 in the low-elevation coastal zone and estimated trends in exposure to 100-year coastal floods.

From the scenario-based projections, the researchers estimated that the number of people living in the low-elevation coastal zone, as well as the number of people exposed to flooding from 100-year storm surge events, was highest in Asia
. China, India, Bangladesh, Indonesia, and Viet Nam had the largest numbers of coastal population per country and accounted for more than half of the total number of people living in low-elevation coastal zones, both now and in the future scenarios. However, Africa was estimated to experience the highest future rates of population growth and urbanization in the coastal zone, particularly in Egypt and sub-Saharan countries in West and East Africa. While the authors' research method does not explicitly consider possible population displacement or out-migration due to factors such as sea level rise, the results highlight countries and regions with a high degree of potential exposure to coastal flooding, and also help to identify regions where policies and adaptive planning for building resilient coastal communities are essential....

NASA image of Haiphong

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Bangladesh announces nationwide use of SERVIR satellite-based flood forecasting and warning system

A press release from NASA: Bangladesh officials have announced plans to expand a satellite-based flood forecasting and warning system developed by SERVIR to aid an area where floodwaters inundate from 1/3 to 2/3 of the country annually, killing hundreds of people and affecting millions. The system, which relies on river level data provided by the Jason-2 satellite, last year provided the longest lead time for flood warnings ever produced in Bangladesh.

SERVIR is a joint development initiative of NASA and USAID, working in partnership with leading regional organizations around the globe to help developing countries use information provided by Earth Observing satellites and geospatial technologies for managing climate risks and land use. SERVIR and the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development based in Kathmandu, Nepal, developed the Jason-2 based flood forecasting and warning solution.

"Forecasters have the dream to extend lead time for flood warnings," said Amirul Hossain, executive engineer for the Bangladesh Water Development Board. "By using Jason-2 near real-time data, we made a real step forward in the flood forecasting system in Bangladesh."

About 80 million people depend on the BWDB Flood Forecasting and Warning Center flood warnings. This organization has progressively built and expanded its flood forecasting system. However, without data from Jason-2, warnings were issued just three to five days in advance of flooding. During the 2014 monsoon season, the FFWC used the new Jason-2 solution experimentally and was able to forecast flooding eight days in advance at nine locations of the Ganges and Brahmaputra River Basins in the north, northwest, and central part of the country.

..."We hope this is the beginning of a new journey, a new era for further development of the flood early warning system using space data or space technology,” said Hossain. “In the coming year, with support provided by the NASA SERVIR team, we would like to expand the system to many other locations where possible, to enable more people to benefit from this system by receiving more extended lead time for flood forecasts."...

Upper row: The Ganges Brahmaputra Meghna (GBM) river basins and the Ganges-Brahmaputra (GB) delta. Bottom row: The many river deltas (shown as a triangle in each region) located in large remote river basins that lack information for modeling rivers and water management. Image Credit: NASA SERVIR

The green lungs of our planet are changing

A press release from Goethe University (Frankfurt, Germany): Are leaves and buds developing earlier in the spring? And do leaves stay on the trees longer in autumn? Do steppe ecosystems remaining green longer and are the savannas becoming drier and drier?  In fact, over recent decades, the growing seasons have changed everywhere around the world. This was determined by a doctoral candidate at the Goethe University as part of an international collaboration based on satellite data. The results are expected to have consequences for agriculture, interactions between species, the functioning of ecosystems, and the exchange of carbon dioxide and energy between the land surface and the atmosphere.

"There is almost no part of the Earth that is not affected by these changes", explains Robert Buitenwerf, doctoral candidate at the Institute for Ph
ysical Geography at the Goethe University. He has evaluated satellite data from 1981 to 2012 with regard to 21 parameters on vegetation activity, in order to determine the point in time, the duration, and the intensity of growth from the northernmost conifer forests to tropical rain forests. His conclusion: On 54 percent of the land surface, at least one parameter of vegetation activity has moved away from the mean value by more than two standard deviations.

As reported by researchers from Frankfurt, Freiburg and New Zealand in the current edition of the professional journal "Nature Climate Change", leaves are now sprouting earlier in most of the climate zones of the far north. Although they are also dropped somewhat earlier in autumn, the overall vegetation period has grown longer. On the other hand, in our latitudes, trees and shrubs are losing their leaves later than they have up to now.

To date, not much research has been conducted on the regions of the southern hemisphere.  In those areas, the researchers found that in several savannas of South America, southern Africa and Australia, the vegetation activity has decreased during dry seasons. "Although these savannas have similar vegetation and comparable climates, the changes in vegetation activity differ. That may be attributable to the differences in the functioning of the respective ecosystems", says Buitenwerf.

In this respect, the seasonal distribution of leaf growth constitutes a sensitive indicator: it indicates how various ecosystems react to changes in the environment. "Although vegetation changes in the northern hemisphere have conclusively been attributed to climate change by other studies, attributing all the changes found in our study would require a more complex analysis," Buitenwerf emphasizes. In the northern hemisphere it has already been shown that species whose life cycles depend on the vegetation period are endangered by these severe changes.  Consequences for species in the southern hemisphere are as yet unclear....

Redwoods in Muir Woods, shot by Meburian, Wikimedia Commons,  under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license 

Disaster warnings ignored in Sri Lanka

IRIN: Lives and livelihoods are being lost unnecessarily in Sri Lanka because local communities are ignoring disaster warnings, according to officials. More than 70 people died in the last two months of 2014 as a result of floods and landslides while the earlier part of the year was marked by a prolonged drought, severely impacting the rice harvest.

“In both instances, the losses could have been avoided if warnings were heeded but unfortunately they weren’t,” Sarath Lal Kumara, assistant director at Sri Lanka’s Disaster Management Centre (DMC), told IRIN.

The government, through the department of agriculture, asked farmers in early 2014 to reduce the amount of land cultivated for rice and to plant more drought resistant crops because of indications that the monsoon rains might fail. Very few responded to the call.

By the time the 10-month long drought began to ease, Sri Lanka’s rice harvest was estimated to be more than 20 percent short of a government target of four million metric tons. According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization at the end of 2014 all rice varieties had recorded price increases of between 25 to 50 percent over the previous year.

“What we have here is not a problem of lack of water, but a water management problem,” said Ivan de Silva who served as secretary to the Ministry of Irrigation and Water Management until January this year....

The exposed floor of a reservoir in Sri Lanka, shot by Hasindu2008, Wikimedia Commons, under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license