Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Expert urges effective management of water resources

Business Ghana: West African countries have been urged to adopt aggressive water management policies to ensure the sustainability of water resources in the face of dwindling raw water resources in the sub-region due to climate change.

Dr Lakhdar Boukerrou, the Regional Director of West Africa Water Supply, Sanitation and Hygiene (WA-WASH) under the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), gave the advice.

He said a more proactive water resource management and preservation is becoming increasingly critical in West Africa to human survival since agricultural and other crucial economic activities hinges largely on rainfall and ground water.

The environmental expert was speaking to the Ghana News Agency on the sidelines of a WASH Governance Training Programme, held in Kumasi under the auspices of USAID, Global Water for Sustainability and Florida International University
(FIU).

Dr Bourkerrou said though West Africa had enough water resources to ensure continuous water supply to citizens, negative farming practices, bad mining practices and other economic activities, if not stopped, can compromise water security, adding "water is not a finite commodity"...

Super storm lashes Australian east coast for third day

Reuters: A cyclonic storm lashed Australia's east coast for a third day on Wednesday, causing millions of dollars of damage to property and infrastructure in Sydney and other cities. Three people have been killed in the wild weather, which has washed away houses, cut power to more than 200,000 homes and stranded a cruise ship off the coast in mountainous seas.

The Bureau of Meteorology warned that a second storm cell was gathering off the coast north of Sydney, with gale force winds of up to 100 km per hour (62 miles per hour) and heavy winds lashing the coast.

The storm caused havoc in Sydney, felling trees, downing power lines and knocking out traffic lights. Delayed and canceled transport services due to flooding and strong winds left many commuters stranded in the wet.

New South Wales State Premier Mike Baird urged Sydneysiders to delay unnecessary travel and avoid traveling during peak times if possible. "There is no doubt this is a very severe storm event, indeed it is a once in 10-year event," Baird told reporters.

The Insurance Council of Australia said more than 7,500 insurance claims had been lodged. NSW State Emergency Service deputy commissioner Steve Pearce said damage costs were already in the millions and were expected to rise....

Sydney Harbor in better weather, shot by Andy, Wikimedia Commons via Flickr, under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license

Monday, April 20, 2015

Windstorm Niklas to cost German insurers 750 million euros

Reuters: German insurers are likely to face damage claims of around 750 million euros ($808 million) from windstorm "Niklas", which struck the country on March 31, insurance trade body GDV said on Monday.

That would make Niklas, which entailed wind speeds of up to 192 kilometers (119 miles) per hour, one of the five most costly storms to hit the country in the last 15 years, the GDV said of its estimate, which is preliminary.

Germany's third-largest insurer Talanx on Monday said it had penciled in a cost in the low double-digit million euro range from the storm and said this did not include claims faced by its subsidiary, reinsurer Hannover Re....

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Greenland darkening to continue

A press release from City College of News York: Darkening of the Greenland Ice Sheet is projected to continue as a consequence of continued climate warming, Dr. Marco Tedesco, a City College of New York scientist, said at the European Geosciences Union (EGU) General Assembly in Vienna today.

Tedesco told a press conference in the Austrian capital that the projection is based on a model that only accounts for the effects of warming on snow grain size and melting.

An associate professor in City College’s Division of Science and head of its Cryospheric Processes Laboratory that he founded, Tedesco is an authority on the Greenland Ice Sheet where he has conducted annual research.

He noted that a darkening of the Greenland Ice Sheet associated with increasing temperatures and enhanced melting occurred between 1996 and 2012. It was promoted by:

  • Extensively and persistently increased surface snow grain size;
  • The expansion and persistency of the areas of exposed bare ice and by the increased surface impurities concentration associated with the appearance of dirty ice;
  • Increased impurities concentrations due to consolidation with snowmelt. 

Tedesco, however, added that his research had not found any evidence that points to either increased atmospheric deposition of impurities or to the number of fires over Eurasia and North America as being factors....

NASA photo of Greenland ice flowing around a ridge of bedrock

Rainforest protection akin to speed limit control

A press release from the University of Bonn: The destruction of the Brazilian rainforest has slowed significantly. With around 5000 square kilometers annually, the loss is now about 80% lower than in 2004. Led by the Center for Development Research (ZEF) at the University of Bonn, an international team of researchers has evaluated the effectiveness of forest law enforcement in the Brazilian Amazon. In some federal states of the Brazilian Amazon region enforcement has been more effective than in others. The results are presented in the journal "PLOS ONE".

Deforestation of the Amazon rainforest featured in international press headlines for a long time. However, Brazil has made substantial efforts to protect rainforests ecosystem services lately. "Over the last decade, there has been a significant decline in deforestation," says Dr. Jan Börner, the Robert Bosch junior professor at the Center for Development Research (ZEF) of the University of Bonn. According to national statistics, in 2004, 27,772 square kilometers of forest fell victim, primarily to agricultural use; by 2012, deforestation had decreased to 4,656 square kilometers.

Rainforest destruction is driven in particular by large cattle ranchers and farmers, but also small-scale agriculture. New roads promote timber extraction and clearing. With an international team of researchers from the University of Freiburg, the Humboldt University in Berlin and the Institute of Applied Economic Research (IPEA) in Brazil, Börner studied around 15,000 forest law violations across the Brazilian part of the Amazon basin to measure how effective the implementation of the rainforest protection was. "Forest law enforcement is, in principle, similar to speed limit control in traffic: the higher the penalties and the more frequent the controls, the greater the deterrence potential", explains Börner.

...The study suggests that effective rainforest protection hinges on the physical presence of regulators and the actual delivery of disincentives on the ground. This often involves effective collaboration between enforcement authorities at federal and state levels. Based on those criteria, forest law enforcement was particularly effective in the Brazilian states of Mato Grosso and Pará. "Public prosecutors in these states have dramatically increased the pressure: They maintain black lists of agricultural enterprises that violate the protective provisions", reports the ZEF scientist. "For example, wholesale dealers may then no longer buy products from these sources."...

NASA image of afternoon clouds over the Amazon rain forest

China's struggle for water security

Business Standard via AFP: Way back in 1999, before he became China's prime minister, Wen Jiabao warned that water scarcity posed one of the greatest threats to the "survival of the nation".  Sixteen years later, that threat looms ever larger, casting a forbidding shadow over China's energy and food security and demanding urgent solutions with significant regional, and even global, consequences.

The mounting pressure on China's scarce, unequally distributed and often highly polluted water supply was highlighted in a report released at the World Water Forum this week in Daegu, South Korea.

Published by the Hong Kong-based NGO, China Water Risk (CWR), it underlined the complexity of the challenge facing China as it seeks to juggle inextricably linked and often competing concerns over water, energy supply and climate change.  "There are no one-size-fits-all solutions to China's water-energy-climate nexus," the report said.

"More importantly, China's energy choices do not only impact global climate change, but affect water availability for Asia," it said, warning of the danger of future "water wars" given China's upstream control over Asia's mightiest rivers.

The Qinghai-Tibetan plateau is essentially the world's largest water tank and the origin of some of Asia's most extensive river systems including the Indus, Brahmaputra and Mekong.  The most significant link in the nexus the report describes is the fact that 93 percent of China's power generation is water-reliant....

In Yunnan, on the Tibetan Plateau, shot by Popolon, Wikimedia Commons, under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license 

Niger says 2.5 million suffering food insecurity

Africa Daily via AFP: More than 2.5 million people in Niger are suffering from food insecurity because of a shortfall in the cereal harvest due to bad weather and crop pests, the agriculture minister said Saturday.

"A survey conducted since December 2014 indicated that 15.7 percent of the population, or 2,588,128 people, are in a situation of food insecurity, including 410,297 in severe insecurity," Maidagi Allambeye told MPs. The situation has been aggravated by the presence of some 200,000 refugees who had fled attacks by Boko Haram and other militants.

Food insecurity in the poor Sahel country, which is plagued by recurring food crises, is linked to a cereal deficit of more than 230,000 tonnes at the end of the 2014 crop year, he explained. The government attributed the shortfall to drought, floods and caterpillar attacks.

"We cannot say that Niger is suffering chronic insecurity but this is still very common," said Vigno Hounkanli, a spokesman for the World Food Programme in Niamey, which has helped some 480,000 people since June...

Locator map of Niger by Vardion, Wikimedia Commons, under the Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike 3.0 Unported license 

That sinking feeling: Developing nations speak out on climate change

Thom Mitchell in New Matilda: Developing nations around the world - rarely big emitters of carbon emissions - are ramping up their calls for radical global action to tackle the climate threat that is already looming large for low-lying countries.

As Vanuatu grapples with the fall out of category five Tropical Cyclone Pam which struck the Pacific nation on March 15, developing nations’ calls for action from high-emitting nations like Australia are being amplified.

At the United Nations Third World Disaster Risk Reduction conference in Sendai, Japan, calls to action from Vanuatu’s President and other highly exposed nations came at a grimly ironic time - March 14 to 18 - as Pam bore down on, then battered, the Pacific.

“Overnight a devastating disaster can wipe out years of development and reduce people [to] a state of increased poverty,” Baldwin Lonsdale, the President of Vanuatu, said at the conference.

"According to the World Bank report of 2012 it places Vanuatu on the map as the most prone country in the South Pacific region in all natural hazards such as earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, tsunami, drought, floods, landslides, tropical cyclones and impacts of climate change and rising sea level,” he said....

Hideaway Island on Vanuatu, shot by Graham Crumb, Wikimedia Commons, under the Creative Commons Atribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license 

Saturday, April 18, 2015

The dramatic growth in plant cover will not offset the damage made from deforestation

Tom Bawden in the Independent (UK): The dramatic growth in plant cover in the past decade gives a huge boost to the battle against global warming. But any celebrations should be muted by this sobering fact: the extra carbon being stored by this additional vegetation, while enormou
s, only represents seven per cent of the 60 billion tonnes of carbon that has been emitted into the atmosphere over the same period, which will remain there for centuries.

There is no sense, then, in which the increased carbon uptake of our plantlife detracts from the urgent need to step up the fight against climate change by cutting fossil fuel use and protecting woodland. eThe need to preserve our diminishing rainforests is particularly acute.

This report may have identified a surprisingly big increase in plant cover, but there is nothing unexpected about the confirmation it provided about tropical deforestation.

The devastation of the rainforests is particularly worrying because these not only act as a major carbon sink – they also provide one of the most “biodiverse” habitats in the world, supporting vast networks of inter-dependent species.

Total plant cover has increased in the past decade, but in many cases the quality of this cover is far lower than the loss of the tropical forests it is helping to offset. Only about half of the rainforest loss has been offset by growth in coniferous and mixed-leaf forests, with much of the rest of the increase coming from shrubland and savannas...

Canada wild rye, shot by Dehaan, Wikimedia Commons, under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported license

Can't pay? Won't pay! -- putting a price on water

Space Daily via AFP: It's arguably our most vital and precious natural resource, and one that is growing dangerously scarce from China to California, but no matter how much we value water, we're not that keen on paying for it.

The issue of pricing water is extremely sensitive -- socially, politically, economically -- but it's an issue that is being revisited with increasing frequency as warnings of a looming global crisis over water scarcity grow louder.

A recent editorial in The Economist and an op-ed piece in the New York Times -- on China's and California's chronic water shortages respectively -- both insisted that the best way forward was to raise prices.

The suggestion raises the hackles of those who feel pricing public water is tantamount to monetising nature, while others say there is simply no alternative given UN estimates that the world will face a 40 percent "global water deficit" by 2030.

"If you have an artificially low price for a product, you tend to consume more of it and tend not to give it importance," said Angel Gurria, secretary general of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD)....

Photo by Juhanson, Wikimedia Commons, under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license

Study puts a price on the help that nature provides agriculture

Sylvia Kantor in the Washington State University News: A team of international scientists has shown that assigning a dollar value to the benefits nature provides agriculture improves the bottom line for farmers while protecting the environment. The study confirms that organic farming systems do a better job of capitalizing on nature’s services.

Scientists from Australia, Denmark, New Zealand, the United Kingdom and the United States describe the research they conducted on organic and conventional farms to arrive at dollar values for natural processes that aid farming and that can substitute for costly fossil fuel-based
inputs. The study appears in the journal PeerJ.

“By accounting for ecosystem services in agricultural systems and getting people to support the products from these systems around the world, we move stewardship of lands in a more sustainable direction, protecting future generations,” said Washington State University soil scientist John Reganold, one of the study’s authors.

Farmers use cover crops like hairy vetch mixed with triticale or rye grass to supply organic matter to soil and make nitrogen available to plants. (Photos by Sylvia Kantor, WSU)

Earthworms turning the soil, bees pollinating crops, plants pulling nitrogen out of the air into the soil and insects preying on pests like aphids – these are a few of nature’s services that benefit people but aren’t often factored in to the price we pay at the grocery store.

The value of ecosystem service benefits provided to people by nature is rarely quantified experimentally in agricultural studies and is generally not taken into account in the real world of economic markets...

A bee pollinating a flower, shot by João Carvalho, public domain

Ethiopian dam deal ignores science, warn experts

Rehab Abd Almohsen in SciDev.net: Water scientists from Egypt have raised concerns over a declaration governing the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam that is meant to ensure fair access to Nile water for countries downstream.

The Declaration of principles, which the leaders of Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan signed in Khartoum, Sudan, on 23 March, is meant to regulate Nile water use following political upheaval over the dam, which is about a third into its construction.

Talking to SciDev.Net, scientists monitoring the declaration’s creation have warned that concerns over the dam’s impact on the environment and local people have been sidelined for gains in political negotiations.

Nader Noureddine, a water resources and soil researcher at Cairo University, says the technical committee appointed by all three countries to oversee the dam’s construction will be allowed to study documents provided by the Ethiopian government, but “will not be allowed to visit the dam or to witness the work on the site”. This, Noureddine says, will seriously impact its ability to make an evidence-based assessment of the dam’s environmental impacts.

“They are not even allowed to discuss issues like the width of the reservoir and specifications of the dam,” Noureddine says. A report from the committee is due to be issued in around 15 months.

Meanwhile, Dia El-Din Ahmed El-Quosy, a professor at Egypt’s National Water Research Center and former advisor to the country’s Ministry of Water Resources and Irrigation, says: “The agreement is free of any technical details, such as how the dam reservoir will be filled.”...

NASA image of the Aswan Dam in Egypt

Sunday, April 12, 2015

‘Warm blob’ in Pacific Ocean linked to weird weather across the US

Hannah Hickey at UW Today (University of Washington): The one common element in recent weather has been oddness. The West Coast has been warm and parched; the East Coast has been cold and snowed under. Fish are swimming into new waters, and hungry seals are washing up on California beaches.

A long-lived patch of warm water off the West Coast, about 1 to 4 degrees Celsius (2 to 7 degrees Fahrenheit) above normal, is part of what’s wreaking much of this mayhem, according to two University of Washington papers to appear in Geophysical Research Letters, a journal of the American Geophysical Union.

“In the fall of 2013 and early 2014 we started to notice a big, almost circular mass of water that just didn’t cool off as much as it usually did, so by spring of 2014 it was warmer than we had ever seen it for that time of year,” said Nick Bond, a climate scientist at the UW-based Joint Institute for the Study of the Atmosphere and Ocean, a joint research center of the UW and the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Bond coined the term “the blob” last June in his monthly newsletter as Washington’s state climatologist. He said the huge patch of water – 1,000 miles in each direction and 300 feet deep – had contributed to Washington’s mild 2014 winter and might signal a warmer summer.

...Bond says that although the blob does not seem to be caused by climate change, it has many of the same effects for West Coast weather. “This is a taste of what the ocean will be like in future decades,” Bond said. “It wasn’t caused by global warming, but it’s producing conditions that we think are going to be more common with global warming.”...

Image of the warm blob in April 2014 from NOAA

Why Brazil's megadrought is a Wall Street failure

Amy Larkin in the Guardian (UK): It’s hard to overestimate the appalling environmental and economic crisis that’s brewing in Brazil right now. The country is in the grip of a crippling megadrought – the result of pollution, deforestation and climate change – that deeply threatens its economy, society and environment. And the damage may be permanent: São Paulo, Brazil’s largest city and industrial center, has begun rationing water and is discussing whether or not it will need to depopulate in the near future.

But if Brazil’s drought is shocking, Wall Street’s shortsighted approach to the country is appalling. Institutional investors’ reports on the country – the seventh largest economy in the world – cite worries about inflation, government cutbacks and low consumer confidence. But I could not find a single analysis that mentioned the existential threat facing the country: the megadrought that is expected to last decades and could destroy the Brazilian economy. Not a single analysis cited the brutal global impact that this will cause.

In other words, a host of institutional investors have found worrisome things to say about Brazil, but none seem to be aware of – or, at least, willing to face – the country’s greatest threat. Attempting to separate economies from environment – as many of these analysts seem to do – is like trying to separate mind and body. It simply doesn’t work.

We will never repair our business models and government policies to conform to the real environmental constraints of the 21st century until we repair this fundamental flaw in our economic system. Investors and analysts regularly review a host of factors – including national debt, inflation, currency devaluation and other financial considerations – when they formulate their economic predictions. Their decision to omit the environment as a fundamental economic consideration is willfully ignorant and negligent....

A dried up reservoir in Paraguacu, Brazil, from 2012, shot by WOtP, 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 infected 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....

More food, low pollution effort gains traction

A press release from the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science: Nitrogen fertilizers make it possible to feed more people in the world than ever before. However, too much of it can also harm the environment. Professor Eric Davidson, director of the UMCES Appalachian Laboratory, has been leading a group of scientists, economists, social scientists, and agriculture experts in figuring out how to produce more food while lowering pollution at the same time. He calls it a “Mo Fo Lo Po”: more food, low pollution.

“The main objective is to produce abundant, nutritious, and affordable food and give farmers a chance to make a living, but do all of this while minimizing pollution of the environment,” said Davidson, whose research career has focused on how human changes to the land affect carbon and nitrogen in soil, water, and air.

Averaged globally, about half of the fertilizer nitrogen applied to farms is typically removed with the crops, while the other half either remains in the soil or is lost from the farmers’ fields. Knowledge and techniques already exist to make agriculture more productive and environmentally sustainable at the same time, yet many economic and social barriers still stand in the way of widespread adoption of practices by farmers.

...“Our objective is to bring together communities of scientists and stakeholders who would otherwise be unlikely to get together to talk about nitrogen issues as it relates to food security, pollution, human health impacts, global warming, ozone destruction, and the list goes on,” he said.

Less than two years later, the group has produced a collection of papers in Journal of Environmental Quality, published this month. A special section on Nitrogen Use Efficiency, guest edited by Davidson, provides a closer look at the economic, social, and technical impediments to improving efficiency of nitrogen use in crop and animal farms....

Photo of wheat stalks by CSIRO, Wikimedia Commons, under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported license

Satellite eyes on threat to US freshwater

A press release from NASA: NASA has joined forces with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and U.S. Geological Survey to transform satellite data designed to probe ocean biology into information that will help protect the American public from harmful freshwater algal blooms.

Algal blooms are a worldwide environmental problem causing human and animal health risks, fish kills, and taste and odor in drinking water. In the United States, the cost of freshwater degraded by harmful algal blooms is estimated at $64 million annually. In August 2014, officials in Toledo, Ohio, banned the use of drinking water supplied to more than 400,000 residents after it was contaminated by an algal bloom in Lake Erie.

The new $3.6 million, multi-agency effort will use ocean color satellite data to develop an early warning indicator for toxic and nuisance algal blooms in freshwater systems a
nd an information distribution system to aid expedient public health advisories.

“The vantage point of space not only contributes to a better understanding of our home planet, it helps improve lives around the world,” said NASA Administrator Charles Bolden. “We’re excited to be putting NASA’s expertise in space and scientific exploration to work protecting public health and safety.”

Ocean color satellite data from NASA’s Aqua, the USGS-NASA Landsat, and the European Space Agency’s Sentinel-2 and -3 are currently available to scientists, but are not routinely processed and produced in formats that help state and local environmental and water quality managers. Through this project, satellite data on harmful algal blooms developed by the partner agencies will be converted to a format that stakeholders can use through mobile devices and web portals.

“Observations from space-based instruments are an ideal way to tackle this type of public health hazard because of their global coverage and ability to provide detailed information on material in the water, including algal blooms,” said Paula Bontempi of the Earth Science Division at NASA Headquarters in Washington....

A toxic algae bloom in Lake Erie in 2011, viewed by a NASA satellite

Thursday, April 9, 2015

African islands meet to address climate change and disaster risk challenges

ClimDev-Africa: Representatives of African Small Island Developing States (SIDS) have convened here for a two-day workshop to develop a collaborative framework for support to address the challenges of climate change and manage disaster risks.

The workshop is being held at the UNECA Headquarters under the auspices of the Climate for Development Africa (ClimDev-Africa) Programme, a joint initiative of the African Union Commission (AUC), the Africa Development Bank (AfDb) and the Economic Commission for Africa (ECA)  ‘s  African Climate Policy Centre (ACPC) a unit of the UNECA’s Special Initiatives Division (SID), which serves as the Secretariat for the ClimDev-Africa programme responsible for establishing the policy basis of the joint initiative.

The workshop aims to provide African SIDS with support to address the urgent challenges posed by climate change and seize opportunities in emerging areas related to the transition towards blue and green economies that are aligned to development aspirations.

The gathering is a follow up to a scoping mission to Cabo Verde, Union of the Comoros, Guinea Bissau, Mauritius, Seychelles and, São Tomé and Príncipe, undertaken by ACPC upon request from the African SIDS. The mission assessed their climate change adaptation and mitigation needs; identified priority interventions aimed at building country resilience to climate change and the means to address residual loss and damage. Africa’s six SIDS are highly vulnerable to climate change and related extreme weather-induced disasters that make it difficult for them to attain their development goals....

Shot of the Seychelles by Anse Takamaka, Mahé, Wikimedia Commons, under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International3.0 Unported2.5 Generic2.0 Generic and 1.0 Generic license

Monday, April 6, 2015

Northern fires caused almost a quarter of global forest loss, contributed to global carbon emissions

Karl Mathiesen in the Guardian (UK): Vast areas of forest in Canada and Russia were lost to fire in 2013, according to new satellite data. But there were encouraging signs from Indonesia, where the loss of forest cover fell to the lowest level in a decade.

Scientists from Global Forest Watch collated 400,000 images of the Earth’s surface to map the world’s forests down to a resolution of 30 metres. Their findings showed that overall the world lost 18m hectares of forest in 2013.

Between 2011 and 2013 fires in the boreal forests of Canada and Russia accounted for almost a quarter of global forest losses. Some of this will return, but northern forests are particularly slow to recover after fire.

Boreal forests are one of the world’s great carbon sinks. But scientists predict that climate change will cause them to burn more often and with greater intensity, unlocking the carbon stored in the wood and soil. Already they are burning more than at any point in the past 10,000 years.

Dr Nigel Sizer, study co-author and director of the forests programme for the World Resources Institute (WRI), said the increase of fires in northern forests had worrying implications for the climate. “If global warming is leading to more fires in boreal forests, which in turn leads to more emissions from those forests, which in turn leads to more climate change. This is one of those positive feedback loops that should be of great concern to policy makers.”...

A 2012 wild fire in Siberia, shot by Савин Игорь Игоревич, Wikimedia Commons, under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license

Sunday, April 5, 2015

As sea level rise accelerates, buying shorefront property becomes a game of musical chairs

Ivy Main at the Energy Collective: Thank God for climate change deniers. They may eventually be the only buyers for shorefront real estate.

Sea level rise may not cause widespread flooding until later in this century or into the next one, but real estate deals involve long timelines: the useful life of a new house or a commercial building can be at least fifty years, while an infrastructure project might last a hundred years or more.

And of course, it’s one thing to lose your house, and another to lose the ground beneath it. Sea level rise means low-lying real estate now comes with an expiration date.

So smart buyers—and landowners—have to consider not just today’s flood maps, but also ones that haven’t been drawn yet. If a rising sea will threaten property some decades from now, it will depreciate over time, like a car. At some point only chumps and climate deniers will buy.

Head-in-the-sand posturing still dominates the headlines, like Florida Governor Rick Scott’s alleged ban on the use of the term “climate change,” or the North Carolina legislature’s silly (and costly) attempt to legislate sea level rise out of existence. Now the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) hopes to force states to get serious about climate change by requiring states to do a better job planning for natural disasters caused in part by global warming. FEMA’s goal is to save money through better planning, but conservatives have attacked the requirement as politically motivated....

FEMA photo of beach houses in Pensecola, Florida, damaged by Hurricane Ivan in 2004

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 AllAfrica.com 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