Category Archives: Climate

Hydropower illuminates a piece of history

Cragiside mansion, which pioneered the use of hydroelectricity in 1878 Image: National Trust
Cragside mansion, which pioneered the use of hydroelectricity in 1878
Image: National Trust

By Alex Kirby

A British conservation charity has turned to technology thousands of years old – the Archimedes screw − to provide electricity for lighting one of the historic mansion houses it looks after. 

LONDON, 31 July, 2014 − Hydropower is making its return to one of the UK’s grand houses, which almost 140 years ago pioneered the use of water to provide electricity.

A modern version of an ancient device, the Archimedes screw, has been installed at the Cragside mansion, in north-east England, to harness the power of a stream in the grounds and provide lighting for the house − which in 1878 became the first in the world to be lit by hydroelectricity, provided by a turbine.

The new system, a galvanised turbine 17 metres long, will produce enough energy to light the 350 bulbs in Cragside, although not enough to power its computers, freezers, fridges and heaters. It will generate about 12kw of electricity − enough, over a year, to provide the property with around 10% of its electricity.

Cragside was built by the 19th-century inventor and innovator, Lord Armstrong, who used the lakes on his land to generate hydroelectricity. It is now in the care of the National Trust, the charity responsible for conserving historic houses and countryside across England, Wales and Northern Ireland (a separate body does the work in Scotland).

Sculptural sight

Andrew Sawyer, the Trust’s property curator at Cragside, said: “It is a very visual demonstration of the way hydropower works, an almost sculptural sight in the landscape.

“Hydroelectricity is the world’s most widely used form of renewable energy, so we are looking forward to sharing this very special part of its heritage.”

The Trust is committed to reducing its energy use by 20%, halving fossil fuel consumption, and generating 50% of its energy from renewable sources by 2020. This will enable it to cut its energy costs by more than £4m annually, releasing more money for conservation.

Installing the modern Archimedes screw at Cragside Image: North News and National Trust
Installing the modern Archimedes screw at Cragside
Image: North News and National Trust

Earlier this year, it installed at one of its Welsh properties, Plas Newydd, a marine source heat pump, which uses sea water to provide all the heating the house needs.

At Cragside, water from the lowest of the five lakes on the estate will feed through the Archimedes screw and into the stream below. As the water passes down through the spiral blades, the device uses its energy to turn the screw. The energy is then converted into electricity by a generator.

Power-saving potential

The Trust has replaced all 350 lightbulbs in Cragside with LED bulbs, whose low electricity consumption improves the scheme’s power-saving potential.

But despite the screw’s ability to cope with a wide range of flow levels in the lake, fed by a stream that rises in nearby moorland, there will be some times of year when the water level is too low to produce any power.

Sarah Pemberton, regional head of conservation for the Trust, said: “The technology is easy to maintain due to the simple mechanics, and because it works at low speed, it’s possible for fish to pass through the turbine unharmed.”

The Trust is working with a 100% renewable electricity supplier, Good Energy, to provide clean energy at 43 more of its historic properties. − Climate News Network

New seeds of hope for Nepal’s farmers

Growing concern: in Nepal, 50% of arable land is planted with rice Image: Sigismund von Dobschütz via Wikimedia Commons
Growing concern: in Nepal, 50% of arable land is planted with rice
Image: Sigismund von Dobschütz via Wikimedia Commons

By Om Astha Rai

Climate-resilient varieties of rice could help to protect crop yields from the ravages of droughts and floods caused by the increasingly erratic weather patterns in South Asia.

KATHMANDU, 30 July, 2014 − Farmers badly affected by changing weather patterns in South Asia now have the opportunity to improve food security by planting new varieties of rice capable of withstanding the impact of both severe droughts and floods.

This is particularly good news for countries such as Nepal, where around 65% of its more than 26 million people are involved in agriculture. Rice is the country’s most important crop, planted on more than 50% of its arable land.

And it comes at a time when new research using satellite imaging has highlighted the growing need to change agricultural practices in South Asia as higher average temperatures cause the reduction of crop yields on the Indo-Gangetic plain.

Scientists say the new seeds, developed by the International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines and approved by the Nepal Agricultural Research Council (NARC), are vital in order to deal with changing weather patterns − in particular, the increasingly erratic behaviour of the all-important South Asia monsoon.

“These new varieties can really change the future of the country’s farmers,” says Dr Dil Bahadur Gurung, NARC’s executive director. “The new rice can, in most cases, beat the effects of droughts and floods.

Reduce impact

“All these varieties have been tested in Nepal’s soil and climate over and over again. If all the country’s farmers replace their traditional varieties with these new ones, the impact of climate change on our agriculture could be reduced considerably.”

Local scientists say the timing of the South Asia monsoon − the only source of irrigation for the majority of Nepali farmers − is changing.

“Each year, we see the monsoon arriving later,” says Mani Ratna Shakya, a leading meteorologist in Nepal. “The duration of the monsoon is also getting shorter as each year passes.”

According to Nepal’s Meteorological Forecasting Division, the monsoon − which usually arrives in Nepal during the first week in June − came 10 days late this year.

Droughts are becoming more frequent. This year, the monsoon is generally judged to be very weak, leaving a vast area of arable land parched, particularly in western parts of Nepal. And often, when the rains eventually do arrive, they are torrential, causing flash floods.

So far, NARC has approved six drought-tolerant varieties of rice, under the name Sukkha − meaning dry.

“Ordinary rice varieties dry out and die in droughts,” says Hari Krishna Uprety, a paddy expert at NARC. “The new seeds survive droughts even in the early stage of growth. And uncertainty about the onset of monsoon has made these varieties even more important.”

Hari Krishna Uprety, NARC paddy expert, with new rice seed varieties Image: Om Astha Rai
Hari Krishna Uprety, NARC paddy expert,
with the new rice seed varieties
Image: Om Astha Rai

The new varieties still need water, of course, but they become more drought tolerant by being able to store energy during the early stages of their growth.

Two rice varieties capable of surviving flood conditions for up to two weeks have also been approved by NARC.

Erratic climate

Although the experts are backing the introduction of the new seeds in order to combat an increasingly erratic climate, persuading farmers to change their cultivation methods is a difficult task.

Farmers are often reluctant to replace traditional rice varieties, which in Nepal tend to be specific to each part of the country, depending on soil conditions, elevation, and other factors.

The new seeds are no more expensive than the traditional ones, and farmers even get a 30% discount on seeds approved by NARC, but a factor that could hamper uptake is that distribution is through the National Seed Company, which is not yet reaching out to farmers in every village.

But scientists warn that the new varieties must be planted – not only to combat changes in climate, but also to feed growing populations. – Climate News Network

• Om Astha Rai is a reporter with Nepalese national newspaper, Republica Daily.

Climate changes ensnare Antarctic predator

Antarctic fur seals at Stromness on South Georgia island Image: Liam Quinn via Wikimedia Commons
Antarctic fur seals at Stromness on South Georgia island
Image: Liam Quinn via Wikimedia Commons

By Tim Radford

British scientists have recorded lower birth weights in female Antarctic fur seals as warming seas deplete their prime food source − but they have also observed genetic variations that could be crucial for survival.

LONDON, 29 July, 2014 − Climate change has begun to take its toll of one of Antarctica’s top predators. The Antarctic fur seal is being born with a lower weight and tends to breed later than earlier generations − almost certainly in response to the reduced availability of its prime food, krill.

But the fur seal (Arctocephalus gazelle) is also changing in other ways. British Antarctic Survey (BAS) scientists report in Nature that those females that survive to motherhood are more likely to have a higher level of genetic variation − a characteristic known as “heterozygous”, associated with higher fitness in many species.

In a world of environmental change – of warming seas and changing ocean chemistry – this confers a survival advantage, in that the individual is more likely to cope with the stresses of change.

Research such as this is based on long periods of observation, and the scientists gathered data from as far back as 1981 to assess the changes in a population of fur seals in South Georgia, in the southern Atlantic.

Genetic samples

They measured age, body length, weight, counted the numbers of sea pups, noted the diet, and recorded climate data. They also took genetic samples from 1,728 seals.

“Compared with 20 years ago, we can see that female fur seals are now born with a lower weight, those that survive and return to breed tend to be the bigger ones, and they have their first pup later in life than they used to,” said the report’s lead author, Jaume Forcada, BAS marine mammal leader.

“Such changes are typically associated with food stress. An important food source for the seals is Antarctic krill, and decades of data collected at South Georgia show how changes in the seal population have occurred over time with krill availability.

“Even if krill is very abundant, environmental variation determines its availability in the seals’ feeding grounds. This variation is driven by climate, which impacts local atmospheric, sea ice and oceanographic conditions.”

If the climatic conditions are adverse, then krill is harder to find, which makes it tough on fur seals and, directly or indirectly, all other Antarctic predators. But the picture for the moment remains uncertain.

Recently, other researchers pronounced that the population in Antarctica of the Adélie penguin – another greedy consumer of krill – is higher than all previous estimates, which suggests that some species at least are, for the moment, finding enough for supper.

But the krill population is sensitive to a south polar phenomenon called the southern annular mode (SAM), a seasonal pattern of winds and pressures that changes from time to time.

Survival fitness

The BAS team found that the seal population responded to the notorious El Niño cycle in the Pacific, and to the SAM, and that the data from this population clearly showed a response to climate change. Overall, the number of heterozygous seals has increased by 17%, but other indicators of survival fitness are not so encouraging.

“Over the last two decades, the proportion of breeding females that are highly heterozygous has increased, as these individuals are more likely to survive the changing conditions,” said the report’s co-author, Joe Hoffman, reader in population genetics at Bielefeld University, Germany.

“Strong selection by the environment can drive rapid evolution. However, in this case the seals do not appear to be evolving because surviving females do not pass their heterozygosity on to their offspring.

“Therefore, with each new generation the process of selection has to start all over again, with only those individuals that happen to be born heterozygous having a good chance of survival. As the climate continues to change, many fur seal pups are not surviving to adulthood, and the population is declining.” – Climate News Network

Rising heat hits Indian wheat crop

 

Feeling the heat: crop harvests in India yielding less Image: Yann via Wikimedia Commons
Feeling the heat: the yield from wheat harvests in India is falling
Image: Yann via Wikimedia Commons

By Alex Kirby

Satellite imaging highlights the growing need to change agricultural practices in South Asia as higher average temperatures cause the reduction of crop yields on the Indo-Gangetic plain.

LONDON, 28 July, 2014 − Researchers in the UK have established a link between changing climate and agriculture that could have significant consequences for food supplies in South Asia.

They have found evidence of a relationship between rising average temperatures in India and reduced wheat production, which was increasing until about a decade ago but has now stopped.

The researchers, Dr John Duncan, Dr Jadu Dash and Professor Pete Atkinson, all geographers at the University of Southampton, say an intensification is predicted for the recent increases in warmth in India’s main wheat belt that are damaging crop yields.

The greatest impact that the hotter environment has on wheat, they say, comes from a rise in night-time temperatures.

Vulnerability

Dr Dash said: “Our findings highlight the vulnerability of India’s wheat production system to temperature rise. We are sounding an early warning to the problem, which could have serious implications in the future and so needs further investigation.”

The team is the first to use satellite imagery to establish the link between warming and crop yields. The images were taken at weekly intervals, from 2002 to 2007, of the wheat-growing seasons to measure the “vegetation greenness” − an indicator of crop yield.

The imagery, of the north-west Indo-Gangetic plain, was taken at such a high resolution that it was able to capture variations in local agricultural practices. The plains stretch over much of northern and eastern India, and into parts of Pakistan, Nepal and Bangladesh.

The data was then compared with climate and temperature information for the area to examine the effect on growth and development of the crop.

The study, published in the journal Global Change Biology, found that warmer temperatures reduced crop yield. Greater warmth during the reproductive and ripening periods, in particular, had “a significant negative impact on productivity”. But it was the warmer nights that did the greatest harm.

In some parts of the Indian wheat belt, growers have been advancing their growing season to make sure that the most sensitive point of the crop growth cycle falls within a cooler period. But in the long term, the researchers say, this will not help, because of the high average temperature rises predicted.

Dr Dash said farmers would have to think seriously about changing to more heat-tolerant wheat varieties. “Currently in India, 213 million people are food insecure and over 100 million are reliant on the national food welfare system, which uses huge quantities of wheat,” he said.

Regular data

“We hope that soon we will be able to examine agricultural practices in even greater detail, with the launch of the European Space Agency’s Sentinel satellites, which will provide regular data at even higher spatial resolution.”

In 2012, India was the world’s second largest wheat producer, with 94.9 million tonnes. It was self-sufficient and able to sell some wheat overseas, although the government has now limited exports.

India’s production was exceeded only by China’s. But China is building up its reserves of wheat, and is now widely seen as working more energetically than many developing countries for an ambitious global climate change agreement.

Dr Dash told the Climate News Network: “Ten years ago, India’s yield of wheat was increasing. Today, it’s stagnant − and the predictions are that, by 2050, average temperatures will be 5% higher than they are now. This is a wake-up call for the whole of South Asia.” − Climate News Network

Data adds to confusion over polar sea ice

The expansion of Antarctic sea ice may have been overestimated. Image: Jason Auch via Wikimedia Commons
The expansion of Antarctic sea ice may have been overestimated.
Image: Jason Auch via Wikimedia Commons

By Tim Radford

Possible errors in the interpretation of satellite data may help to explain scientists’ puzzlement over indications that sea ice cover is apparently increasing in the Antarctic, but is shrinking visibly in the Arctic.

LONDON, 26 July, 2014 − Scientists believe they may have found explanations for two inconsistencies in their understanding of global warming.

One cause for head scratching is in the Antarctic, where the sea ice seems to be getting bigger when it ought to be shrinking, and another has been the apparent slowdown overall in the rate of global warming for the last decade.

Climate scientists around the world have been picking away at both puzzles, and not just because climate sceptics and energy industry lobbyists use them as ammunition to argue that global warming is not a problem at all. Scientists are naturally unhappy when data doesn’t match their predictions − and they want to know the reason why.

The Antarctic problem is hard to miss. The Arctic Ocean sea ice is shrinking visibly, and the entire sea could be ice-free most summers in a few decades. But even though there is clear evidence from separate sources that West Antarctica is responding to climate change, the southern hemisphere ice cover, overall, has been increasing.

Or has it? Ian Eisenman, a climatologist at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California San Diego, begs to differ. He and colleagues report, in The Cryosphere journal, that it could be due to an error in the way satellite data is processed.

Spliced together

Scientists have been using satellite data to check sea ice cover for 35 years. But the data does not come from one instrument on just one satellite: observations transmitted from a series of satellites have been spliced together.

One report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change said the sea ice cover was more or less constant, but a later report said it had grown by 16,500 square kilometers a year between 1979 and 2012.

“When we looked at how the numbers reported for the trend had changed, and we looked at the time series of Antarctic sea ice, it didn’t look right,” Dr Eisenman said.

The researchers think that the difference between the two datasets might be linked to a change in satellite sensors in 1991, and the way the data collected by the two instruments was calibrated. What the Scripps team has done is identify a source of possible error, but it hasn’t settled the question one way or the other.

Since the Arctic and Antarctic are very different places, it would be unrealistic to expect the patterns of melting to be the same. And it may still be that southern hemisphere sea ice is growing.

However, while that question remains open, there is less doubt about the long slowdown in the rate of average global warming during the 21st century.

Missing heat

Separate teams of researchers have proposed a series of possible explanations for the failure of the climate to keep up with the projections of the climate scientists. These have included the suggestion that the missing heat may be “concealed” in the deep oceans, and that a pause in warming was going to happen anyway, but it just happened earlier than anyone expected.

Shaun Lovejoy, professor of physics at McGill University in Canada, reports in Geophysical Research Letters that there is yet another explanation. He argues, from statistical analysis, that coincidentally with the increase in man-made emissions of greenhouse gases, there has been a natural cycle at work, and that the most recent human impact on climate has been damped down by a cooling phase.

He had already ruled out with 99% certainty the possibility that natural variation could explain all the ups and downs of global average temperatures since 1800. This time he used the same statistical approach to the data for the 15 years from 1998 to the present.

His research suggests that there has been a natural cooling of 0.28°C to 0.37°C since 1998, which is in line with natural variations that occur every 20 to 50 years. “The pause has a convincing statistical explanation,” Lovejoy says. – Climate News Network

Boom-or-doom riddle for nuclear industry

Doubling up: solar panels at a nuclear power plant in the Czech Republic. Image: Jiří Sedláček (Frettie) 
Doubling up: solar panels at a nuclear power plant in the Czech Republic.
Image: Jiří Sedláček (Frettie) via Wikimedia Commons

By Paul Brown

The nuclear industry remains remarkably optimistic about its future, despite evidence that it is a shrinking source of power as renewables increasingly compete to fill the energy gap. 

LONDON, 26 July, 2014 − The headline figures for 2014 from the nuclear industry describe a worldwide boom in progress, with 73 reactors presently being built and another 481 new ones either planned or approved.

The World Nuclear Association (WNA) official website paints a rosy picture of an industry expected to expand dramatically by 2030. It says that over the period 1996 to 2013 the world retired 66 reactors, and 71 started operation. Between now and 2030, the industry expects another 74 reactors to close, but 272 new ones to come on line.

This represents a much larger net increase in nuclear electricity production than the basic figures suggest because most of the newer power stations have a bigger capacity than those closing down.

Pipe dream

Detractors of the industry say that these projections are a pipe dream and that nuclear power will not expand at that pace, if at all, and that solar and wind power will grow much faster to fill the energy gap.

Which projection is correct matters enormously because the world is both short of electric energy and needs to replace fossil fuels with low carbon sources of power to save the planet from dangerous climate change. Nuclear energy and renewables such as wind and solar are in competition to fill the gap.

The figures show that nuclear production is currently in decline from a peak in 2006, and is now producing less than 10% of the world’s electricity needs.

World solar capacity, on the other hand, increased by 35% in 2013, and wind power by 12.5% − although, added together, they still do not produce as much power as nuclear.

All the evidence is that wind and solar will continue to grow strongly, and particularly solar, where technological advances and quantity of production means that prices have dropped dramatically.

Costs of producing energy are hard to compare because solar is small and local and dependent on sunshine, while nuclear is large and distant and must be kept on all the time. However, research suggests that solar is already producing cheaper power per kilowatt hour than nuclear, the costs of which have not come down.

Commercial market

Both costs and time seem to be major factors in deciding which technology will gain market share. Nuclear stations are expensive and a long time passes before electricity is produced, making them almost impossible to finance in a normal commercial market. Solar panels, in contrast, can be up and running in days, and wind turbines within weeks.

Historically, nuclear power plants have always been built with government subsidy – a pattern that is continuing across the world. For example, the two countries with the largest number of reactors under construction − China, with 29, and Russia, with 10 − have populations with no democratic say in the matter.

Critics of the WNA figures say that while the claims for reactors planned and proposed might be real, the chances of most of them actually being built are remote.The US is said to have five reactors under construction, five more planned and 17 proposed – but with existing nuclear stations closing because they cannot compete with gas on price, it is unlikely that all of these will be completed by 2030.

The UK, which has a government keen to build nuclear stations, is said to have four stations planned and seven more proposed. The first of these stations was due to be opened by 2017, but work has not yet been started. The earliest completion date is now expected to be 2024, and the rest will follow that.

The delay in Britain is partly because the subsidies offered to French, Chinese and Japanese companies to build the UK reactors are under investigation by the European Commission to see if they breach competition rules.

Massive subsidies

Martin Forward is from the English Lake District, where one of the four nuclear stations is planned, and runs Cumbrians Opposed to a Radioactive Environment. He said: “I cannot see how nuclear has any future in Europe because of cost. Nuclear needs massive subsidies to be financially viable, but these are currently illegal under European law, so it is unlikely that the British ones will be built.

“Even if the government can get over that hurdle, there are many problems to overcome − for example, the designs of the stations have to be finalised. The process could take years, by which time wind, solar and other renewables will have expanded so much it will make nuclear redundant.”

The industry does not accept this, pointing to the US, where utilities hope that all five plants currently under construction will be producing power by 2019.

Siobhan O’Meara, a senior analyst at Nuclear Energy Insider, is one of the organisers of an annual “nuclear construction summit”, the sixth of which is taking place in Charlotte, North Carolina, in October.

She said: “With nuclear new build taking off once again across the globe, it’s never been more critical to finance, plan and deliver your construction programmes on time and budget.”

Time will tell who is right. – Climate News Network

Offshore turbines get approval of seals

Fishing grounds: Sheringham Shoal wind farm off the north Norfolk coast, England Image: Haradl Pettersen/Statoil via Wikimedia Commons
Fishing grounds: Sheringham Shoal wind farm off the Norfolk coast, England
Image: Harald Pettersen/Statoil via Wikimedia Commons

By Tim Radford

Researchers tracking the movements of seals in the North Sea reveal that “artificial reefs” created by wind farms and pipelines are becoming attractive as foraging grounds on fishing expeditions.

LONDON, 25 July, 2014 − Environmental campaigners and countryside conservators aren’t the only fans of those great arrays of turbines, generating renewable energy from the winds at sea. Grey and harbour seals in the North Sea are beginning to show a preference for offshore wind farms as well.

Deborah Russell, research fellow at the University of St Andrews, Scotland, and colleagues tracked the movements of both the harbour seal (Phoca vitulina) and the grey seal (Halichoerus grypus).

There are an estimated 56,000 harbour seals in the North Sea and around 65,000 of the greys haul out on the British coast on the North Sea alone. Tagged specimens, with their movements tracked by GPS satellite systems as they surface to breathe, reveal a lot about the ecology of each species and their response to environmental change.

Distinct preference

The researchers report in the journal Current Biology that some of their tagged animals seemed to show a distinct preference for offshore wind farms and associated pipelines. Eleven harbour seals headed for two wind farms: one was Alpha Ventus, off northern Germany, and the other was Sheringham Shoal, off the North Norfolk coast, England.

Some individuals regularly cruised the sites, and some even revealed a pattern of grid-like movements as they appeared to forage at individual turbines. Two seals in the Netherlands were tracked along sections of submarine pipeline, on fishing expeditions that lasted 10 days at a time.

A harbour seal with a GPS phone tag used to track movements Image: Current Biology, Russell et al
A harbour seal with a GPS phone tag
Image: Current Biology, Russell et al

The guess is that the seals regarded the offshore structures as artificial reefs where crustaceans settle and fish congregate.

Turbine blades can swirl at speeds of up to 280 kilometres an hour, and represent a danger to  birds and bats − one estimate is that such structures in the US account for 600,000 bat deaths a year. But marine creatures far below the circling blades seem to value a touch of freshly-planted, three-dimensional shelter in the muddy basin of a shallow sea.

“I was shocked when I first saw the stunning grid pattern of a seal track around Sheringham Shoal,” Dr Russell said. “You could see that the individual appeared to travel in straight lines between turbines, as if he was checking them out for potential prey, and then stopping to forage at certain ones.”

Open questions

Only a small proportion of the tracked animals showed a preference for wind farms, and such structures still cover only a trifling area of the available coast. But the research leaves open a number of questions.

One is whether, as wind farms add to the available habitat in the North Sea, they will increase the available fish and crustacean populations, or whether they simply attract the prey and make life easier for innovative predators.

As offshore investment grows, such studies may help engineers to design farms that help both the consumer and the wild things in the offshore waters.

The researchers say: “In this period of unprecedented development of the marine renewables industry, the number of apex predators encountering such structures is likely to increase. The ecological consequences may be dependent on whether such reefs constitute an increase or just a concentration of prey.” – Climate News Network

Climate data shows clear signs of warming

Wreckage caused by Super Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines last year Image: Eoghan Rice, Trócaire/Caritas via Wikimedia Commons
Wreckage caused by Super Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines last year
Image: Eoghan Rice, Trócaire/Caritas via Wikimedia Commons

By Alex Kirby

Hundreds of scientists from 57 countries have fed evidence into a new report that provides a clear picture of how patterns, changes, and trends of the global climate system show that our planet is becoming a warmer place.

LONDON, 24 July, 2014 − However you view the evidence, whatever set of measurements you examine, the picture that emerges is consistent: the Earth is heating up.

The US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) reports: “In 2013, the vast majority of worldwide climate indicators − greenhouse gases, sea levels, global temperatures, etc − continued to reflect trends of a warmer planet.”

This, NOAA says, is the picture painted by the indicators assessed in a report, State of the Climate in 2013, published online by the American Meteorological Society.

Scientists from NOAA’s National Climatic Data Center were the lead editors of the report, compiled by 425 scientists from 57 countries. It provides a detailed update on data collected by monitoring stations and instruments on air, land, sea and ice.

“These findings reinforce what scientists for decades have observed: that our planet is becoming a warmer place,” said the NOAA‘s administrator, Dr Kathryn Sullivan.

Changes tracked

The report tracks patterns, changes, and trends of the global climate system, including: greenhouse gases; temperatures throughout the atmosphere, ocean, and land; cloud cover; sea level; ocean salinity; sea ice extent; and snow cover.

It says greenhouse gases continued to climb, with concentrations of major gases − including carbon dioxide (CO2), methane and nitrous oxide − once again reaching historically high levels. Atmospheric CO2 concentrations rose by 2.8 parts per million (ppm) in 2013 and reached a global average of 395.3 ppm for the year.

Many scientists argue that once CO2 concentrations reach 450 ppm it will be difficult to prevent global average temperatures from rising more than 2°C above their level for most of human history. The present rate of increase suggests that, without drastic emission cuts, that threshold will be reached before mid-century.

Four major independent datasets show that 2013 was among the warmest years on record, ranking between second and sixth, depending upon the dataset used. Sea surface temperatures increased to place 2013 among the 10 warmest on record.

Sea level also continued to rise, in step with a trend of 3.2 ± 0.4 mm per year over the past two decades.

The Arctic went on warming , marking its seventh warmest year since records began in the early 20th century. Record high temperatures were measured at a depth of 20 metres at permafrost stations in Alaska.

The Arctic sea ice extent was the sixth lowest since satellite observations began in 1979. All seven lowest sea ice extents on record have occurred in the past seven years.

Contradictory trends

The Antarctic, too, was consistent, even if only in the apparently contradictory trends it showed. The extent of the sea ice reached a record high for the second year in a row, of 7.56 million square miles on October 1 −  0.7% higher than the previous record high of 7.51 million sq miles in 2012 and 8.6% higher than the record low maximum of 6.96 million sq miles in 1986. But the South Pole station experienced its highest temperature since records began in 1957.

The number of tropical cyclones during 2013 was slightly above average, but the North Atlantic Basin had its quietest season since 1994. However, in the Western North Pacific Basin, Super Typhoon Haiyan had the highest wind speed ever known for a tropical cyclone, with one-minute sustained winds estimated at 196 miles per hour. − Climate News Network

  • State of the Climate in 2013 is the 24th edition in a peer-reviewed series published annually as a special supplement to the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society.

Win-win way to aid food security and climate

Water pressure: rice fields in China use huge amounts of water Image: Chensiyuan via Wikimedia Commons
Water pressure: rice fields in China use huge amounts of irrigation water
Image: Chensiyuan via Wikimedia Commons

By Tim Radford

Scientists in the US believe they have identified a way to feed billions more people, while at the same reducing the strains and stresses on the environment.

LONDON, 23 July, 2014 − Imagine being able to contain greenhouse gas emissions, make fertilizer use more efficient, keep water waste to a minimum, and put food on the table for the 10 billion people crowded into the planet’s cities, towns and villages by the end of the century.

An impossible dream? Not according to Paul West, co-director and lead scientists of the Global Landscapes Initiative at the University of Minnesota’s Institute on the Environment.

He and research colleagues report in the journal Science that if government, industry, business and agriculture set about choosing the best crops for local conditions and then used resources in the most efficient way, the world could be fed on existing land with the least damage to the global environment.

Fresh thinking

This is thinking big: the global view of immediate and local problems. The researchers selected three key areas with the greatest potential for reducing environmental damage while boosting food supply. They thought about water use, food waste, greenhouse gas emissions and polluting run-off from farmland and where fresh thinking could make the most difference in the most efficient way.

They focused on cotton and the 16 food crops that produce 86% of the world’s calories from 58% of the global cropland area. They identified a series of what they called “global leverage points”, and those countries where application of such thinking could make the biggest difference.

The first challenge is to produce more food on existing land. They see an “agricultural yield gap” − that is, a difference between what soil actually produces and what it could produce− in many parts of the world.

And they point out that, in those places where the gaps are widest, simply to close even half those gaps would produce more than 350 million tonnes of additional grain and supply the energy needs of 850 million people − most of them in Africa, plus some in Asia and eastern Europe.

Half of these gains could be made in just 5% of the total harvested area of these crops. Co-incidentally, 850 million is very roughly the number of people the UN currently estimates to be severely malnourished.

The researchers based all their calculations on existing conditions, while recognising that climate change could force people to think again. But the study identified ways to grow food most efficiently, while at the same limiting the impact on climate.

Forests cleared

Agriculture is responsible for somewhere between 30% and 35% of global greenhouse gas emissions, but much of this is because tropical forests are being cleared for farmland. Methane from livestock and from rice fields supplies much of the rest.

Brazil and Indonesia, with the planet’s largest reserves of forest, are places where one set of actions could make a big difference. China and India, which produce more than half the world’s rice, are others.

China, India and the US between them emit more than half of all oxides of nitrogen from the world’s cropland, and wheat, maize and rice account for 68% of these emissions.

Rice and wheat are the crops that create most demand for irrigation, which in turn accounts for 90% of global water consumption. More than 70% of irrigation happens in India, China, Pakistan and the US, and just by concentrating of more efficient use, farmers could deliver the same yield and reduce water demand by 15%.

Crops now grown as animal food could supply the energy needs of 4 billion people, and most of this “diet gap” is in the US, China and Western Europe.

Wasted food

In addition, between 30% and 50% of all food is wasted, and the waste of animal food is the worst. To discard a kilogram of boneless beef is the same as throwing away 24 kilos of wheat. Waste reduction in the US, China and India alone could provide food for an additional 400 million people.

The paper is not a plan of action, but rather an identification of where the firmest concerted action could make the biggest differences.

“By pointing out specifically what we can do and where, it gives funders and policy makers the information they need to target their activities for the greatest good,” Dr West says.

“By focusing on areas, crops and practices with the most to be gained, companies, governments, NGOs and others can ensure that their efforts are being targeted in a way that best accomplishes the common and critically important goal of feeding the world while protecting the environment.” – Climate News Network

Germany and UK top “Dirty 30” pollution league

Neurath coal-fired plant, Germany, is one of Europe's worst polluters Image: Bert Kaufmann via Wikimedia Commons
Neurath coal-fired plant, in Germany, is one of Europe’s worst polluters
Image: Bert Kaufmann via Wikimedia Commons

By Kieran Cooke

A new report naming the 30 energy plants pumping out most greenhouse gases in the European Union shows that coal-fired facilities are undermining Europe’s long-term targets on emissions reduction.

LONDON, 22 July, 2014 − It’s not the sort of league table that anyone is proud of leading, but a new report on the European Union’s power sector lists the EU’s 30 most polluting energy plants – all powered by coal.

Germany and the UK tie for first place overall in “Europe’s Dirty 30” league, each having nine of the most polluting power plants, pumping hundreds of tonnes of climate-warming greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.

In the individual polluting category, the mighty coal-fired Belchatow power plant in Poland tops the league, followed by two facilities in the north of Germany – one at Neurath, and the other at Niederaussen.

The report, which is based on 2013 statistics, is the work of a number of organisations, including Climate Action Network Europe, the World Wildlife Fund and the European Environmental Bureau (EEB).

Low coal prices

The report says the EU’s coal-fired power plants – there are about 350 of them in total – are running at or near full capacity due to relatively low coal prices in Europe compared to other less polluting fuels, such as gas.

Although the EU’s use of coal for power generation has dropped significantly compared to 1990 levels, coal consumption in Europe’s energy sector has been increasing in recent years.

Much of the coal burned in Europe is lignite or hard coal – the most polluting kind. The EU has also been importing large amounts of coal, particularly from the US, where many power producers have been switching to fracked gas – less polluting and, in the US, a cheaper fuel.

The report says the price paid for electricity generated from coal does not reflect the damage it causes to the climate, air quality and human health.

“Europe’s coal addiction is bad for people’s health, bad for the environment, and has no place in our sustainable energy future,” says Christian Schaible, a senior policy officer at the EEB.

Arguing for exemptions

“Significant amounts of emissions could be prevented and reduced if operators would just use state-of-the-art techniques available, instead of arguing for exemptions.

“Environmental standards for power plants should serve to protect the people and the environment in Europe, and must be implemented swiftly to do so.”

The report’s authors point out that recent increases in emissions from the EU’s coal-fired power sector are not due to more coal-fuelled facilities coming on stream, but rather because existing plants are running at full capacity.

Some of these plants are due to be phased out under EU directives on pollution control. The study says this is vital if the EU is to meet its emission reduction targets, centred on cutting overall emissions of greenhouse gases by 40% on 1990 levels by 2030.

But there are signs that short-term economic interests are taking precedence over long-term goals on controlling climate change.

“Current developments in EU energy and climate policy may allow or even incentivise the prolonged operation of coal plants, and thus conflict with the EU’s own climate targets,” the report says. – Climate News Network