Tuesday, July 30, 2013

The Alaskan village set to disappear under water in a decade

Almost no one in America has heard of the Alaskan village of Kivalina. It clings to a narrow spit of sand on the edge of the Bering Sea, far too small to feature on maps of Alaska, never mind the United States.

Kivalina Village

Which is perhaps just as well, because within a decade Kivalina is likely to be under water. Gone, forever. Remembered - if at all - as the birthplace of America's first climate change refugees.

Four hundred indigenous Inuit people currently live in Kivalina's collection of single-storey cabins. Their livelihoods depend on hunting and fishing.

The sea has sustained them for countless generations but in the last two decades the dramatic retreat of the Arctic ice has left them desperately vulnerable to coastal erosion. No longer does thick ice protect their shoreline from the destructive power of autumn and winter storms. Kivalina's spit of sand has been dramatically narrowed.

The US Army Corps of Engineers built a defensive wall along the beach in 2008, but it was never more than a stop-gap measure.

A ferocious storm two years ago forced residents into an emergency evacuation. Now the engineers predict Kivalina will be uninhabitable by 2025.

Kivalina's story is not unique. Temperature records show the Arctic region of Alaska is warming twice as fast as the rest of the United States.

Retreating ice, slowly rising sea levels and increased coastal erosion have left three Inuit settlements facing imminent destruction, and at least eight more at serious risk.

The problem comes with a significant price tag. The US Government believes it could cost up to $400m (£265m) to relocate Kivalina's inhabitants to higher ground - building a road, houses, and a school does not come cheap in such an inaccessible place. And there is no sign the money will be forthcoming from public funds.

Kivalina council leader, Colleen Swan, says Alaska's indigenous tribes are paying the price for a problem they did nothing to create.

"If we're still here in 10 years time we either wait for the flood and die, or just walk away and go someplace else.

"The US government imposed this Western lifestyle on us, gave us their burdens and now they expect us to pick everything up and move it ourselves. What kind of government does that?"

North of Kivalina there are no roads, just the vast expanse of Alaska's Arctic tundra. And at the most northerly tip of US territory lies the town of Barrow - much closer to the North Pole than to Washington DC. America's very own climate change frontline.

Barrow's residents are predominantly from the Inupiat tribe - they hunt bowhead whale and seal. But this year has been fraught with problems.

The sea ice started to melt and break up as early as March. Then it refroze, but it was so thin and unstable the whale and seal hunters were unable to pull their boats across it. Their hunting season was ruined.

For the first time in decades not a single bowhead whale was caught from Barrow. One of the town's most experienced whaling captains, Herman Ahsoak, says the ice used to be 3m (9ft) thick in winter, now it is little more than a metre.

"We have to adapt to what's coming, if we're gonna keep eating and surviving off the sea, but no whale this year means it will be a long cold winter," he says.

Barrow is known as the Arctic's "science city". In summer it hosts dozens of international researchers monitoring the shrinking of the Arctic ice and - no less important - the rapid thawing of the tundra's permafrost layer.

But it is the anecdotes that are as striking as the columns of data. I join a team of scientists taking samples of the ice off Barrow Point.

We motor across the offshore ice on all terrain vehicles, but we are not alone. "You'll be escorted by armed bear guards," my local guide, Brower Frantz, says before we set out.

"The ice is too thin for the polar bears to hunt on so they're stuck onshore searching for food. You don't want to be on your own when you meet a hungry bear," he adds.

Alaska's role in the climate story is about cause as well as effect. As America's Arctic territory warms it continues to be a vital source of the carbon-based fossil fuels seen by most scientists as a key driver of climate change.

Alaska's North Slope is the US's biggest oil field and the Trans Alaska pipeline is a key feature of America's drive for energy security. As production from the existing field tails off there is enormous pressure to tap untouched Alaskan reserves.

Shell has launched an ambitious bid to begin offshore Arctic drilling despite a chorus of disapproval from environmental groups. Concerns intensified when a rig ran aground off the Alaskan coast at the beginning of this year. Operations are currently suspended, but the prize is too valuable to ignore.

Kate Moriarty, executive director of the Alaska Oil and Gas Federation, believes Alaska possesses 50 billion as-yet untapped barrels of oil.

"The reality is the Arctic is going to be developed," she says. "And who do we want in the lead? I say we want it to be the United States because the reality is the world demand for oil and gas is not going to go away."

When President Obama pledged to redouble his efforts to reduce America's carbon emissions last month, his words met with little more than a shrug in Alaska.

The state owes its existence to oil. Revenues from the oil industry make up more than 90% of the state budget. Oil money means no income tax and an annual handout to every Alaskan resident.

And when it comes to balancing two conflicting pressures - a rapidly changing climate on the one hand, the demand to expand the state's carbon-fuelled economy on the other - there is little doubt where the priority lies.

The deputy commissioner of Alaska's Department of Natural Resources, Ed Fogels, makes no apology for Alaska's strategy. "When everyone pounces on Alaska and says 'oh, the climate is changing, the Arctic is changing, things are out of control', we say wait a minute. We've been developing our natural resources for 50 years now. Things are going quite well thank you."

Within a generation the Arctic ocean may be ice free during the summer. The rate of warming in the far north is unmatched anywhere else on the planet.

In terms of resource exploitation, shipping access and human settlement Alaska is likely to become a more attractive proposition. Scientists call that a positive feedback effect. For Alaskans on the climate change frontline - and for our planet - it may not be positive at all. More


Sunday, July 28, 2013

Quakes Thought to Help Release Methane From Seabed

Major earthquakes can topple buildings, cause landslides and spawn tsunamis. Now scientists say they can do something else: set off the release of methane gas from the seabed.


In a study published online Sunday in the journal Nature Geoscience, European researchers report that an underwater quake off Pakistan nearly 70 years ago likely fractured seafloor sediments and created pathways for methane, a potent greenhouse gas, to bubble up from below. The researchers say the phenomenon may be widespread enough that climate scientists should take it into account when estimating the amounts of heat-trapping gases in the atmosphere.

“We suggest there is a new source that they might want to consider in the future,” said David Fischer, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Bremen in Germany and the lead author of the study.

Methane, which is formed by the decomposition of organic material, seeps from reservoirs under the seafloor in many places around the world. But under certain conditions it mixes with seawater to form icy compounds, called gas hydrates, in the top layers of sediments. The hydrates act almost like cement, creating a barrier that prevents more free methane from coming up from below.

Dr. Fischer and his colleagues analyzed sediment cores taken in 2007 from two locations in the northern Arabian Sea where hydrates were present and seepage was occurring. They found chemical signatures in the cores suggesting that the methane flow greatly increased sometime in the mid-20th century. Looking through seismic records, Dr. Fischer found that a magnitude 8.1 quake occurred in the area in 1945. The quake, which was centered less than 15 miles from where the cores were taken, and a resulting tsunami, killed up to 4,000 people.

The conclusion was inescapable, Dr. Fischer said. “The quake broke open gas-hydrate sediments and the free gas underneath migrated to the surface.” The hydrates themselves did not dissolve. “They remain there,” he said.

Dr. Fischer said the researchers chose the core locations in the Arabian Sea because they wanted to get a better understanding of how methane seepage was related to tectonics, and the area is in an active zone where one of the earth’s tectonic plates slides beneath another. But they were not thinking about the effect of individual earthquakes, and his discovery of the 1945 quake in the records “was probably a moment I’ll never forget,” he said.

The upward flow of methane is continuing today, and the researchers do not know when it might stop. All told, they estimate that nearly 10 million cubic yards of methane have been released from the core sites over the years. But that is a conservative figure, Dr. Fischer said, because immediately following the quake the flow would have been much higher.

Joel E. Johnson, a geology professor at the University of New Hampshire who was not involved in the study, said the conclusion that quakes can set off methane releases “does seem solid.” Apart from monitoring gas release in real time during an earthquake — a practical impossibility — “this is about as close as you’re going to get” to proving that it occurs, he said.

Scientists have studied how factors like increasing water temperatures could affect the flow of methane from the seabed, Dr. Johnson said, but those kinds of changes occur over very long periods of time. “It’s a very different thing to say, this instant in 1945 probably opened some conduits and the methane system responded,” he said. More


Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Melting Permafrost Found in Antarctica's Dry Valleys

Antarctica's Dry Valleys are home to the oldest ice on Earth. The first signs of the massive thaw disturbing the Arctic's frozen ground have now appeared in one of these valleys, melting a glacier buried since the last Ice Age.

Antarctic Dry Valley

The Dry Valleys are different from the rest of Antarctica. Their ice, some of which is millions of years old, is buried under scoured boulders and dust as fine as flour. The arid landscape looks like Mars and, until now, hadn't changed much since the continent froze about 15 million years ago.

"The Dry Valleys range from being somewhat stable to extremely stable in terms of landscape," said Joseph Levy, a research associate at the University of Texas at Austin's Institute for Geophysics.

But in 2009, Levy said, helicopter pilot Dustin Black spotted a new feature in Garwood Valley, one of the Dry Valleys near McMurdo Research Station where he ferries scientists to and from research camps. "I discovered this huge chunk of buried ice that was beginning to melt," Levy told LiveScience. "It was changing, and changing fast." [Images of Melt: Earth's Vanishing Ice]

The melting ice is a stranded glacier, buried under lake and river sediments for at least 7,000 years. In the past few years, the thawing ground has formed a 50-foot-tall (15 meters) ice cliff that's retreated by 30 feet (10 m), according to a study led by Levy published today (July 24) in the journal Nature Scientific Reports. The thawing ground is melting as quickly as Arctic permafrost, Levy said. Permafrost, or permanently frozen ground, covers about 25 percent of the Northern Hemisphere, and some is thawing in warming regions.

A crumbling ice cliff

"We're seeing the first Arctic-style change to the permafrost in Antarctica, and it's exciting and a little bit scary," Levy said. "The Dry Valleys are host to a lot of very special climate records, and when the ice melts, it's like someone going into a laboratory and breaking all of your experiments."

Ice cliff erosion since 2001. The solid white lines indicate infrared radiometer and sonic ranger field of view. The dashed line indicates the area of erosion between the initial ice and sediment deposition (Pleistocene/Holocene epochs) and 2001.

Credit: Joseph Levy, University of Texas Institute for Geophysics.

The unique Dry Valley ecosystem — which has adapted to the harsh, dry climate —could also be affected by the sudden influx of meltwater, Levy said.

In 2001, the study's baseline, about 2,800 cubic feet (80 cubic meters) of ice and sediment melted out of the buried glacier, the researchers found. Between January 2011 and January 2012, more than 388,000 cubic feet (11,000 cubic m) of the ice cliff disappeared.

"You can see giant blocks calving off and tumbling down the cliff," Levy said.

Before the discovery, scientists thought the Dry Valleys were a sea of stability in the rapidly changing polar regions — seasonal freeze and thaw cycles neither added nor took away from the underlying permafrost. And unlike regions of Antarctica that are warming, temperatures in the Dry Valleys stayed the same or cooled in the past 20 years.

The sun shines in

But in their search to explain the sudden melting in Garwood Valley, Levy and his colleagues found one weather shift in the valley. For still-unknown reasons, the U-shaped gorge is baking under more intense sunlight. Weather stations record increased sunlight in the valley in recent years, which means more solar radiation is heating the thin, dark blanket of dirt on top of the frozen ground. The ice is effectively cooking underneath.

"Right now, we have the observations that we are getting more sunshine reaching the ground, but we don't have a good model as to why," Levy said.

He added that it's unlikely that all of Antarctica's Dry Valleys will start melting to the extent seen in Garwood Valley. Some have thicker sediment layers that insulate permafrost, instead of absorbing and transmitting heat. "There are parts of the deep interior Dry Valleys that seem very resistant to melting," Levy said. More


Arctic methane 'time bomb' could have huge economic costs

Scientists say that the release of large amounts of methane from thawing permafrost in the Arctic could have huge economic impacts for the world.

The researchers estimate that the climate effects of the release of this gas could cost $60 trillion (£39 trillion), roughly the size of the global economy in 2012.

The impacts are most likely to be felt in developing countries they say.

The research has been published in the journal Nature.

Scientists have had concerns about the impact of rising temperatures on permafrost for many years. Large amounts of methane are concentrated in the frozen Arctic tundra but are also found as semi-solid gas hydrates under the sea.

Price of gas

Previous work has shown that the diminishing ice cover in the East Siberian sea is allowing the waters to warm and the methane to leach out. Scientists have found plumes of the gas up to a kilometre in diameter rising from these waters.

In this study, the researchers have attempted to put an economic price on the climate damage that these emissions of methane could cause. Methane is a powerful greenhouse gas, even though it lasts less than a decade in the atmosphere.

Using an economic model very similar to the one used by Lord Stern in his 2006 review of the economics of climate change, the researchers examined the impact of the release of 50-gigatonnes of methane over a decade.

They worked out that this would increase climate impacts such as flooding, sea level rise, damage to agriculture and human health to the tune of $60 trillion.

"That's an economic time bomb that at this stage has not been recognised on the world stage," said Prof Gail Whiteman at Erasmus University in the Netherlands, and one of authors.

"We think its incredibly important for world leaders to really discuss what are the implications of this methane release and what could we indeed do about it to hopefully prevent the whole burst from happening."

The researchers say their study is in marked contrast to other, more upbeat assessments of the economic benefits of warming in the Arctic region.

It is thought that up to 30% of the world's undiscovered gas and 13% of undiscovered oil lie in the waters. Transport companies are looking to send increasing numbers of ships through these fast melting seas. According to Lloyds of London, investment in the Arctic could reach $100bn within ten years.

Methane belch

But according to the new work, these benefits would be a fraction of the likely costs of a large scale methane emission. The authors say a release of methane on this scale could bring forward the date when global temperatures increase by 2C by between 15 and 35 years.

"We are looking at a big effect," said Prof Peter Wadhams from the University of Cambridge, "a possibly catastrophic effect on global climate that's a consequence of this extremely fast sea ice retreat that's been happening in recent years."

Some scientists have cautioned that not enough is known about the likelihood of such a rapid release of methane. Even though it has been detected for a number of years, it has as yet not been found in the atmosphere in large amounts.

Prof Wadhams says the evidence is growing.

"We are seeing increasing methane in the atmosphere. When you look at satellite imagery, for instance the Metop satellite, that's gone up significantly in the last three years and the place where the increase is happening most is over the Arctic," he said. More


Antarctic bottom water disappearing

New research by teams of Australian and US scientists has revealed a massive reduction in the amount of Antarctic Bottom Water found off the coast of Antarctica.

Argo Float

Comparing detailed measurements taken during the Australian Antarctic program’s 2012 Southern Ocean marine science voyage, to historical data dating back to 1970, scientists estimate there has been as much as a 60% reduction in the volume of Antarctic Bottom Water – the cold dense water that drives global ocean currents.

In an intensive 25-day observing program in January this year, temperature and salinity samples were collected at 77 sites between Antarctica and Fremantle (Western Australia). Such ship transects provide the only means to detect changes in the deep ocean.

The new measurements suggest the densest waters in the world ocean are gradually disappearing and being replaced by less dense waters. These measurements concur with a recent study by US-based researchers which showed that Antarctic Bottom Water is contracting over much of the global ocean. The ocean profiles also show that the dense water formed around Antarctica has become less saline since 1970.

‘It’s a clear signal to us that the oceans are responding rapidly to variations in climate in polar regions,’ Voyage Leader and Chief Scientist, Dr Steve Rintoul, said.

‘The sinking of dense water around Antarctica is part of a global pattern of ocean currents that has a strong influence on climate, so evidence that these waters are changing is important.’

Dr Rintoul, an oceanographer with the CSIRO and the Antarctic Climate and Ecosystems Cooperative Research Centre, led the scientific voyage from Hobart, south to Commonwealth Bay, before turning west along the Antarctic coast and returning to Fremantle. The ship visited Commonwealth Bay as part of a celebration of the centenary of Sir Douglas Mawson’s Australasian Antarctic Expedition. Dr Rintoul’s team had the opportunity to repeat oceanographic measurements made by Mawson’s team 100 years ago, obtaining one of the few century-long records obtained anywhere in the ocean.

‘Our measurements collected in 2012 are quite different to those collected by Mawson in 1912,’ Dr Rintoul said.

‘The water is cooler now than it was then, indicating a change in ocean currents that may be related to a reduction in the amount of dense water formed near Antarctica – as less dense water is exported, less warm water flows into the region to replace it.

‘When we speak of global warming, we really mean ocean warming: more than 90% of the extra heat energy stored by the earth over the last 50 years has gone into warming up the ocean.

‘The Southern Ocean is particularly important because it stores more heat and carbon dioxide released by human activities than any other region, and so helps to slow the rate of climate change. A key goal of our work is to determine if the Southern Ocean will continue to play this role in the future.’

The causes of the observed changes in the Southern Ocean are not yet fully understood. Changes in winds, sea ice, precipitation, or melt of floating glacial ice around the edge of Antarctica, may be responsible. Data collected on the latest voyage will help unravel this mystery.

A major challenge is the lack of observations at high latitude, where much of the ocean is covered by sea ice in winter. During the voyage, scientists deployed nine drifting profilers, called Argo floats, which will transmit profiles of temperature and salinity every 10 days for the next five years.

‘The Argo floats have revolutionised our ability to measure the ocean, particularly in winter when ship observations are very rare,’ Dr Rintoul said. More


Monday, July 22, 2013

How the U.S. Clean Air Act Brought the Rains Down in Africa

You know how the story goes: a hypothetical butterfly flaps its wings. The air pressure changes ever so slightly. Winds shift. Fronts collide. And the next thing you know, a hurricane kicks up halfway around the world.

We fall back on the “butterfly effect” every time we mean to say that all life is connected, or that small actions can have enormous consequences. It’s what showed George Bailey the light in It’s a Wonderful Life, and it’s what Dr. Ian Malcolm was stuttering about in Jurassic Park. But new research reminds us that the theory is far more than a Hollywood trope.

In a paper published Friday in the journal Geophysical Research Letters, a team of researchers from the University of Washington shows that decades of drought in Africa were caused, at least in part, by pollutants emitted by the United States and Europe. Throughout the 60s, 70s, and 80s, coal-burning factories spewed sulfate-laden aerosols into the atmosphere with reckless abandon. These tiny particles -- which volcanoes can also emit naturally -- reflect sunlight and produce more reflective, longer-lasting clouds. The increased cloud cover caused temperatures to drop across the Northern Hemisphere, which in turn, caused rain patterns to shift away from certain areas of Africa. These shifts, the researchers argue, contributed to droughts that choked central Africa and resulted in 100,000 deaths between the 60s and 80s.

Meanwhile, with the intention of improving air quality at home, the U.S. and Europe began to restrict coal pollution in 1970 with the Clean Air Act and other legislation. It’s only now, after decades worth of precipitation observations, that researchers have been able to tie the end of the African drought to western legislation. As our factories scaled back production of sulfate aerosols, the pollution’s cooling effect slowly reversed and rainfall in Africa returned to historic levels by the mid-1980s.

If you’re suddenly feeling all warm and fuzzy inside -- “We fixed a devastating drought!” -- the story isn’t over. Aerosols weren’t the only pollutants in the atmosphere messing with the climate. Carbon dioxide has been flapping its wings, too. In a companion study, the research team argues that climate change is affecting the Northern and Southern Hemispheres at different rates, with the Northern warming faster thanks to its greater landmass. Last century's aerosol pollution masked this warming pattern, however. According to the researchers, temperatures in the north remained steady because the aerosol-related cooling balanced out the greenhouse effect created by increased carbon dioxide.

Understanding how each piece affects the whole is crucial to combatting climate change. That’s why NASA plans to launch a fleet of aircraft and satellites this summer to take exhaustive samples of the atmosphere. Their mission is to better understand how air pollution and natural emissions (like those from forest fires) play into atmospheric composition and climate. Ultimately, such information might lead to better policy decisions both for our own country and the global community to which we’re inextricably bound. More


Saturday, July 20, 2013

Bernie Sanders: Through the looking glass

During what Sen. Bernie Sanders called an Alice in Wonderland hearing, Senate environment committee Republicans on Thursday contradicted or ignored the near-unanimous consensus by climate scientists that global warming is real and man-made.

With Vermont and most of the country in the grip of another summer heat wave, Republicans on the Senate environment committee repeatedly tried to cast doubt on whether climate change is even occurring, let alone what should be done about it. They ignored a NASA report that last month was the second warmest June in recorded history. The ignored a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration report that 2012 was the hottest year on record in the United States.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Is the Season for Climate Change Denial Finally Over?

Three years after the National Academy of Sciences, a grouping of our country's top scientists, declared "Climate change is occurring, is caused largely by human activities, and poses significant risks," it's hard to believe that there are still Senators who call climate change a "hoax."

One year after a prominent climate skeptic, Berkeley Professor Richard Muller, took an independent look at all the data and wrote an op-ed in the New York Times declaring that global warming is real, and that "Humans are almost entirely the cause," it is surprising to see editorial boards that still deny there is anything to worry about.

Six months after the United States experienced the hottest year in our history and the arctic ice pack shrunk to the smallest extent ever recorded, it confounds logic that some captains of the fossil fuel industry still insist that there is no evidence that climatic changes are occurring due to the use of their products.

And just months after the amount of heat-trapping carbon dioxide in the atmosphere passed 400 parts per million, a concentration higher than ever before seen in human history, it defies understanding why the U.S. Congress refuses to take steps to protect our health and our communities from the threat of climate change.

But because the deniers persist, it's good news that Sen. Barbara Boxer (D, Cal.) has called together a collection of scientists and other experts Thursday to testify before the Senate Environment Committee at a hearing aptly titled, "Climate Change: It's happening now."

Only in Washington would that be a controversial proposition -- 97 percent of climate scientists acknowledge that climate change is caused by human activity and 65 percent of the American people say it's a serious problem. Sen. Boxer's group of climatologists, oceanographers, meteorologists and economists will outline the current state of climate science.

This much we know: seven of our 10 warmest years in the U.S. have occurred since 1998, and globally the 15 hottest years on record have all occurred since 1997. The American West has been steadily drying over recent decades, and last year wildfires burned 9.3 million acres of forests and fields.

We are already paying high costs for the consequences of our changing climate. Last year, crop losses due to record drought, damage from storms and floods, wildfires and other disasters aggravated by climate change caused $140 billion in damage in the U.S. alone. New York City says it will need to spend $20 billion to protect itself from rising sea levels caused by climate change and to fortify its defenses against a repeat of the devastating sea surge from Superstorm Sandy.

The time for denial is long over. Now is the time for action. That's why President Obama last month promised to tackle the United States' largest single source of heat-trapping carbon dioxide, our 1,500 existing power plants. They account for 40 percent of our national carbon footprint, yet there has until now been no federal limit on the amount of carbon pollution they can emit.

The administration can act without waiting for Congress to pass a new law because the Clean Air Act already gives the Environmental Protection Agency the ability and the responsibility to reduce this pollution. At the president's request, the EPA, taking input from the states, industry, scientists and the public, will devise cost-effective regulations, a task it has done for many other pollutants over the decades, nearly always at a cost far less than opponents initially claimed.

Predictably, opponents once again cried that the president was killing jobs and hurting the economy, without even knowing what approach the EPA will take and what the plan will look like.

The Natural Resources Defense Council studied the issue and came up with a plan that tailors pollution limits to the energy mix of each state, and gives electric utilities the flexibility to hit their targets in the most cost effective way. By relying heavily on ending energy waste and improving energy efficiency, our plan would slash power plant carbon pollution by 26 percent at a cost of only one percent of industry revenues. An analysis by independent economic experts shows that it would create over 200,000 jobs and save families money on their electric bills.

We are already paying a high price for failing to confront the climate change threat. The longer we delay taking action, the more these expenses will rise, and the more our children and our grandchildren will suffer the impacts. More


Monday, July 15, 2013

2001-2010, A Decade of Climate Extremes

The first decade of the 21st century was the warmest decade recorded since modern measurements began around 1850.

It saw above-average precipitation, including one year –2010 – that broke all previous records. It was also marked by dramatic climate and weather extremes such as the European heatwave of 2003, the 2010 floods in Pakistan, hurricane Katrina in the USA, cyclone Nargis in Myanmar and long-term droughts in the Amazon Basin, Australia and East Africa.

The new report by the World Meteorological Organization (WMO), The Global Climate 2001-2010, A Decade of Climate Extremes, analyzed global and regional temperatures and precipitation, as well as the aforementioned extreme events.

“A decade is the minimum possible timeframe for meaningful assessments of climate change,” said WMO Secretary-General Michel Jarraud. “WMO’s report shows that global warming was significant from 1971 to 2010 and that the decadal rate of increase between 1991-2000 and 2001-2010 was unprecedented. Rising concentrations of heat-trapping greenhouse gases are changing our climate, with far reaching implications for our environment and our oceans, which are absorbing both carbon dioxide and heat.”


Sunday, July 14, 2013

Massive ice sheets melting 'at rate of 300bn tonnes a year', climate satellite shows

A satellite that measures gravity fluctuations on Earth due to changes in the massive ice sheets of Greenland and Antarctica has detected a rapid acceleration in the melting of glacier ice over the past decade, which could have a dramatic impact on sea levels around the world.

The sheets are losing around 300 billion tonnes of ice a year, the research indicates.

However, scientists have warned that the measurements gathered since 2002 by the Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment (Grace) flying in space are still too short-term for accurate predictions of how much ice will be lost in the coming decades, and therefore how rapidly sea levels will rise.

“In the course of the mission, it has become apparent that ice sheets are losing substantial amounts of ice – about 300 billion tonnes a year – and that the rate at which these losses occurs is increasing,” said Bert Wouters of Bristol University’s Glaciology Centre.

“Compared to the first few years of the Grace mission, the ice sheets’ contribution to sea-level rise has almost doubled in recent years,” added Dr Wouters, the lead author of the study published in the Earth sciences journal Nature Geoscience.

The Grace satellite measures tiny fluctuations of the Earth’s gravity field resulting from the loss of ice into the sea, but it cannot yet point to a long-term trend. Ice sheets also melt because of variations in the weather due to shifting ocean currents or decade-long oscillations in the weather systems of the North Atlantic Ocean.

A few more years of observations would be needed for the Grace experiment to point to whether global warming rather than natural variability is behind the loss of ice in the Antarctic, while it could take another 10 years of data to demonstrate a link with the loss of ice in Greenland, Dr Wouters said.

At the moment, the ice loss detected by the Grace satellite is larger than what would be expected from just natural fluctuations, but the acceleration in ice loss over the last few years is not, the scientists said.

Professor Andrew Shepherd of the University of Leeds said that less than a decade of satellite data from the Grace experiment is too short to establish with confidence whether the ice sheet losses are truly accelerating.

“Fortunately, we can appeal to data from other, longer satellite missions to get a long-term perspective, and our own analysis of their data confirms that the rate of ice sheet losses has indeed accelerated over the past 20 years,” Professor Shepherd said.

The melting of the world’s two great ice sheets is one of the greatest unknowns in climate-change science. Together, the ice sheets of Greenland and Antarctica contain about 99.5 per cent of the Earth’s glacier ice, which could increase average sea levels by 63 metres if they were ever to melt completely – an event that would in any case take many centuries.

Trying to predict how much they are likely to contribute to sea-level rise over the coming century has been notoriously difficult because of a lack of reliable and widespread ground observations from these remote and inaccessible places.

An estimate published earlier this year suggested that the ice sheets together, combined with mountain glaciers, could contribute anywhere between 3.5cm and 36.8cm to average sea levels by the year 2100, which would be in addition to the smaller sea-level rise due to the thermal expansion of the warmer oceans. More



Tuesday, July 9, 2013

We work on climate change every day By John Kerry

Everywhere I travel as secretary of state – in every meeting, here at home and across the more than 100,000 miles I’ve traveled since I raised my hand and took the oath to serve in this office – I raise the concern of climate change.

I do so not because it’s a pet issue or a personal priority, but because it’s critical to the survival of our civilization, and that means it’s a critical mission for me as our country’s top diplomat.

Is it also personal to me? Of course it is. The environment has been one of the central causes of my lifeever since I entered public life as an activist.

When I was just 26, I attended an Earth Day celebration in Massachusetts in 1970. It was an eye-opening immersion into the power of the grassroots to identify a problem, force it onto the national radar screen, and demand action — action that would come not from the goodwill and benevolence of Washington, but because citizens demanded it. The explosion of our activism on that very first Earth Day led to the creation of the EPA, the passage of the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act, and so much more. People demanded action and the politicians followed.

Today, people all over the world are demanding action on climate change, and those of us in positions of authority globally have a responsibility to lead the way toward progress.

So it’s personal, absolutely — but leading the way is also the right role for the United States.

We are not just the “indispensable nation” — today we must be the indispensable stewards of our shared planet. What one country does impacts the livelihoods of people elsewhere, and what we all do to address climate change now will largely determine the kind of planet we leave for our children and generations to come. From the far reaches of Antarctica’s Ross Sea to tropical wetlands in Southeast Asia, we have a responsibility to safeguard and sustainably manage our planet’s natural resources.

I am passionate about this, not based on ideology, but based on facts and based on science. It’s not just people all over the world crying out for action — it’s the very science that is screaming at us.

Twelve of the hottest 13 years on record have occurred since 2000. Glaciers are melting across the globe. Arctic sea ice volume has shrunk by 80 percent since 1979. Extreme weather events are increasing — like a massive, lethal heat wave in Moscow in 2010, enormous floods in Pakistan that same year that killed nearly 2,000 people and affected 20 million, and two “100-year droughts” in the Amazon in five years that led to the release of billions of tons of CO2, a fifth of all global CO2 emissions from energy in one year alone. In 2012, the United States endured 11 extreme climate- and weather-related events that each caused more than $1 billion in damage.

As I said in Sweden in May, climate change is truly a life-and-death challenge for all of us.

There was no mistaking President Obama’s words in his second inaugural address or in his State of the Union address this year: The United States is committed to meeting this challenge head on, working in cooperation with our partners around the world through ambitious actions to reduce emissions, transform our energy economy, and help the most vulnerable cope with the effects of climate change.

But these are not problems that can be solved by one nation alone. By definition, rescuing the planet’s climate is a global challenge that requires a global solution. So we must all demand that the biggest contributors to climate change have the most skin in the game.

That is why, shortly after I arrived at Foggy Bottom, I began working with our special envoy for climate change, Todd Stern, not just to find new ways to elevate the discussion of climate change globally, but to find new ways of cooperating with other countries right now.

Dealing responsibly with the clear and present danger of climate change was the focus of my first trip to China in April. I spoke with President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang about how we can work together to address the threat of climate change and its impact on our two nations’ economies and security. People on the streets of Beijing want a healthy climate just as much as people on the streets of Boston do.

I stood with State Councilor Yang Jiechi to announce that we would put our efforts on an accelerated path, making climate change and energy policy a priority at the upcoming U.S.-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue.

To confront this challenge head on, we created the U.S.-China Working Group. Our goal is to spur creative, cooperative new ways of addressing the climate challenge — and in its first few months, this working group has already broken new ground.

When we last met with China’s leaders in California just a couple of weekends ago, after productive and candid dialogue, President Obama and President Xi were able to announce that the United States and China have agreed to work together and with others via the Montreal Protocol to phase down the production and consumption of hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), highly potent greenhouse gases used in refrigerators and air-conditioners. This could eliminate nearly two years’ worth of current global greenhouse gas emissions between now and 2050.

And next month, we have another opportunity to make progress when we meet for the Strategic and Economic Dialogue in Washington, where both the United States and China will present new joint initiatives to curb climate change.

Our new climate change working group is an example of how two motivated and committed countries can take strong and swift action to reduce global emissions and put the world on the path to a clean-energy economy.

By keeping the pressure on each other to take ambitious action and replicating this effort around the world, we will create a virtuous cycle to address the climate challenge the right way: together. In a more collaborative environment, I am absolutely confident we will find the solutions and push the curve of discovery. We can do it without jeopardizing our economies — in fact, we will grow them.

And the United States will be working not just with China, but around the globe. Next I will be traveling to India, where once again climate change and energy will be vital to the conversation.

I hope you will share your thoughts and ideas on new climate initiatives we could undertake. If ever there was an issue that demanded cooperation, public participation, and committed diplomacy, this is it. More



Monday, July 8, 2013

Global threat to food supply as water wells dry up, warns top environment expert

Lester Brown says grain harvests are already shrinking as US, India and China come close to 'peak water'

Iraq facing water shortages

Wells are drying up and underwater tables falling so fast in the Middle East and parts of India, China and the US that food supplies are seriously threatened, one of the world's leading resource analysts has warned.

In a major new essay Lester Brown, head of the Earth Policy Institute in Washington, claims that 18 countries, together containing half the world's people, are now overpumping their underground watertables to the point – known as "peak water" – where they are not replenishing and where harvests are getting smaller each year.

The situation is most serious in the Middle East. According to Brown: "Among the countries whose water supply has peaked and begun to decline are Saudi Arabia, Syria, Iraq and Yemen. By 2016 Saudi Arabia projects it will be importing some 15m tonnes of wheat, rice, corn and barley to feed its population of 30 million people. It is the first country to publicly project how aquifer depletion will shrink its grain harvest.

"The world is seeing the collision between population growth and water supply at the regional level. For the first time in history, grain production is dropping in a geographic region with nothing in sight to arrest the decline. Because of the failure of governments in the region to mesh population and water policies, each day now brings 10,000 more people to feed and less irrigation water with which to feed them."

Brown warns that Syria's grain production peaked in 2002 and since then has dropped 30%; Iraq has dropped its grain production 33% since 2004; and production in Iran dropped 10% between 2007 and 2012 as its irrigation wells started to go dry.

"Iran is already in deep trouble. It is feeling the effects of shrinking water supplies from overpumping. Yemen is fast becoming a hydrological basket case. Grain production has fallen there by half over the last 35 years. By 2015 irrigated fields will be a rarity and the country will be importing virtually all of its grain."

There is also concern about falling water tables in China, India and the US, the world's three largest food-producing countries. "In India, 175 million people are being fed with grain produced by overpumping, in China 130 million. In the United States the irrigated area is shrinking in leading farm states with rapid population growth, such as California and Texas, as aquifers are depleted and irrigation water is diverted to cities."

Falling water tables are already adversely affecting harvest prospects in China, which rivals the US as the world's largest grain producer, says Brown. "The water table under the North China Plain, an area that produces more than half of the country's wheat and a third of its maize is falling fast. Overpumping has largely depleted the shallow aquifer, forcing well drillers to turn to the region's deep aquifer, which is not replenishable."

The situation in India may be even worse, given that well drillers are now using modified oil-drilling technology to reach water half a mile or more deep. "The harvest has been expanding rapidly in recent years, but only because of massive overpumping from the water table. The margin between food consumption and survival is precarious in India, whose population is growing by 18 million per year and where irrigation depends almost entirely on underground water. Farmers have drilled some 21m irrigation wells and are pumping vast amounts of underground water, and water tables are declining at an accelerating rate in Punjab, Haryana, Rajasthan, Gujarat and Tamil Nadu."

In the US, farmers are overpumping in the Western Great Plains, including in several leading grain-producing states such as Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas and Nebraska. Irrigated agriculture has thrived in these states, but the water is drawn from the Ogallala aquifer, a huge underground water body that stretches from Nebraska southwards to the Texas Panhandle. "It is, unfortunately, a fossil aquifer, one that does not recharge. Once it is depleted, the wells go dry and farmers either go back to dryland farming or abandon farming altogether, depending on local conditions," says Brown.

"In Texas, located on the shallow end of the aquifer, the irrigated area peaked in 1975 and has dropped 37% since then. In Oklahoma irrigation peaked in 1982 and has dropped by 25%. In Kansas the peak did not come until 2009, but during the three years since then it has dropped precipitously, falling nearly 30%. Nebraska saw its irrigated area peak in 2007. Since then its grain harvest has shrunk by 15%."

Brown warned that many other countries may be on the verge of declining harvests. "With less water for irrigation, Mexico may be on the verge of a downturn in its grain harvest. Pakistan may also have reached peak water. If so, peak grain may not be far behind."


Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Facing Down Conflict: Humanity's Quest For A Future Beyond The Climate Crisis

One doesn’t have to be an ardent news follower to notice the increasing sense of disquiet around the world in a range of countries from Turkey, Brazil, Israel, India, again in Egypt and student protests erupting in Chile, or the thousands braving “torrents of typhoon rains” in Hong Kong to protest Beijing-backed leadership.

The trend is your friend until it ends, as they say in the City. The trouble is, the trend may not be close to ending but rather be seen as the portentous renderings of a world becoming more stressed for a number of reasons.

Goldman Sachs estimates that over the past decade 500 million people from Brazil, Russia, India and China have entered the middle-class category bracket based on income levels. They predict that a further 800 million will be added to that over the next decade. A link between emerging economies entering the middle-class, the empowerment attained by the use of social media and greater demand for social freedoms is strongly suggested. If this is the case then we can certainly expect a growing disquiet in the unfolding future, as old ideologies are challenged by an increasingly secular youth with the speed and flexibility of social media to outpace and outwit state influenced, or over-conservative media outlets.

Add to this the accelerating changes in our planetary climate system putting the squeeze on agriculture, water supplies, and threatening vulnerable towns and cities. The potential for conflict is a growing spectre.

Despite holding the concepts of "strategy" or "planning" with a great deal of reverence, we seem to be incapable of developing them, even when we sense danger is on the way. A good example was the inability of the allies to to accept that Hitler would become aggressive, despite watching him arm the country to the hilt. Another example is the irrational optimism that people felt in the run up to the credit crunch in 2008. We all knew that debt was bad. Our grandparents always told us that. Many experts pointed out the risks, but hubris entered the fray and no sooner had the British Chancellor (& future Prime Minister), Gordon Brown, announced an end to “boom and bust”, we all went bust!

So here we are again. I can turn on any one of my internet connected devices and view daily generated satellite images of the rapid collapse of the Arctic sea ice. I can watch the intensifying droughts engulfing the Western states of the US, I can watch the surface of the Greenland Ice Sheet turn to slush in a matter of days, with accelerated carving of gigantic icebergs that increase sea-levels. We watch open mouthed in despair as towns and cities in Northern Europe, Indonesia, Central America, North America, Canada, Australia, UK and so on and so forth, are deluged or battered by fierce storms that were previously unseen in living memory, at least, that was before the recent one that was meant to be “once in a lifetime”.

Despite all this destruction, upheaval and threat to our civilisation, we do nothing. Instead we wait patiently for our turn to play dice in the climate casino.

Given the serious threat posed by climate disruption, the impacts of which will have an enormous impact on ours and our children’s lives, and is widely accepted by 98% climate scientists, we would do well to have a plan. Of course, up until now, no two leaders seem to be able to agree on anything credible that embraces the science and takes real preventative action. Even President Obama in his groundbreaking climate address last week may have difficulty getting through his proposals that many describe as “a good start”. i find myself asking: why is this?

The Biologist, Naturalist, Theorist, Author and Harvard Professor, Edward O. Wilson, presented his theory in a piece titled ‘Is Humanity Suicidal’ that appeared in the New York Times Magazine in 1993. Here he identified some uncomfortable truths about humanity, some of which I have reproduced below for this article:

Darwin’s Dice May Have Rolled Badly for Earth:

Humanity is a carnivorous primate species.

Humanity has hereditary traits that enhance our destructive impact on our environment.

Humanity is tribal, aggressively territorial, demanding space beyond minimal requirements, and driven by selfish sexual drives.

The Selfish Human

Humanity is genetically programmed to be adverse to cooperation, especially beyond the family and tribal levels. More