Category Archives: Rainfall

Warming will leave drought-hit California reeling

 

The treeline below Tells Peak in California’s Sierra Nevada mountains Image: Nick Ares via Wikimedia Commons
The treeline below Tells Peak in California’s Sierra Nevada mountains
Image: Nick Ares via Wikimedia Commons

By Tim Radford

Researchers in the US warn that climate change could worsen California droughts by drastically reducing water flow from the Sierra Nevada mountains − and also threatens the extinction of a rare species of fish.

LONDON, 16 September, 2014 − Things could soon get worse for drought-hit California. New research predicts that, by the close of the century, global warming could have reduced the flow of water from the Sierra Nevada mountains by at least a quarter.

Michael Goulden, associate professor of earth system science at the University of California Irvine, and Roger Bales, director of the Sierra Nevada Research Institute at the University of California Merced, publish their alarming findings in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Plant growth

Their research looked not at the long-term projections for precipitation in the US south-west, but simply at the effect of higher average temperatures on plant growth.

Mountains in many ways mimic hemispheres: just as trees become more stunted at higher latitudes, so they get smaller and less frequent at higher altitudes. Temperature ultimately controls plant growth.

But a projected warming of 4.1°C by 2100 would make a big difference to plant growth in the Arctic tundra and around the present alpine treeline everywhere in the world.

The scientists contemplated snow and rain conditions in the King’s River Basin in the Sierra Nevada range. They looked at how much flows downstream to local communities, and how much goes back into the atmosphere as water vapour. Then they did their sums.

They calculated that the 4.1°C temperature rise in the region would increase the density of vegetation at high elevations, with a 28% increase in evapotranspiration − the process that draws water up through the roots to the leaves, and then releases it as vapour through the pores. And what was true for one river basin, they thought, should be true for the whole area. River run-off could drop by 26%.

“Scientists have recognised for a while that something like this was possible, but no one has been able to quantify whether it could be a big effect,” said Professor Goulden. “It’s clear that this could be a big effect of climate warming and that managers need to recognise and plan for the possibility of increased water losses from forest evaporation.”

Endangered fish

MEANWHILE, climate change threatens to wipe out an endangered species of fish in a remote area of Nevada.

The Devils Hole pupfish (Cyprinodon diabolis) is not just rare, it is very rare: the population has fallen as low as 35 individuals. It lives in the geothermally-warmed waters of a limestone cavern in the Devils Hole in the Mojave desert, and its existence was probably always precarious. The fish are little more than 2cms long, iridescent blue, and they have made their home in the upper 25 metres of the cavern’s waters for at least 10,000 years.

Devils Hole pupfish are only 2cms long Image: Nevada Fish & Wildlife Office
Devils Hole pupfish are only 2cms long
Image: Nevada Fish & Wildlife Office via Wikimedia Commons

But Mark Hausner, a hydrogeologist at the Desert Research Institute in Las Vegas, Nevada, and colleagues report in the journal Water Resources Research that there is only a 10-week window in which the water temperatures are optimal, and there is enough food available, for new larvae to hatch.

Climate change is bringing the already-warm water to dangerous temperature levels, and this has already shortened by at least one week the brief opportunity to restore the population. When counts began in 1972, there were more than 500 of the fish. A decade ago there were 171, and at the last count there were only 92.

“This is a fish that does live in a fishbowl, an incredibly hostile fishbowl, and you can’t move the fishbowl,” said one of the report’s authors, Scott Tyler, professor in the Department of Geological Sciences and Engineering at the University of Nevada, Reno. “This is a species that can’t adapt or change or leave to go to a better environment.” − Climate News Network

Drought bites as Amazon’s ‘flying rivers’ dry up

Vapour released by Amazon rainforest trees create vital ‘flying rivers’ Image: Lubasi via Wikimedia Commons
Vapour released from the leaves of trees in the Amazon rainforest create vital ‘flying rivers’
Image: Lubasi via Wikimedia Commons

By Jan Rocha

Scientists in Brazil believe the loss of billions of litres of water released as vapour clouds by Amazon rainforest trees is the result of continuing deforestation and climate change – leading to devastating drought.

SÃO PAULO, 14 September, 2014 − The unprecedented drought now affecting São Paulo, South America’s giant metropolis, is believed to be caused by the absence of the “flying rivers” − the vapour clouds from the Amazon that normally bring rain to the centre and south of Brazil.

Some Brazilian scientists say the absence of rain that has dried up rivers and reservoirs in central and southeast Brazil is not just a quirk of nature, but a change brought about by a combination of the continuing deforestation of the Amazon and global warming.

This combination, they say, is reducing the role of the Amazon rainforest as a giant “water pump”, releasing billions of litres of humidity from the trees into the air in the form of vapour.

Meteorologist Jose Marengo, a member of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, first coined the phrase “flying rivers” to describe these massive volumes of vapour that rise from the rainforest, travel west, and then − blocked by the Andes − turn south.

Satellite images from the Centre for Weather Forecasts and Climate Research of Brazil’s National Space Research Institute (INPE) clearly show that, during January and February this year, the flying rivers failed to arrive, unlike the previous five years.

Alarming proportions

Deforestation all over Brazil has reached alarming proportions: 22% of the Amazon rainforest (an area larger than Portugal, Italy and Germany combined), 47% of the Cerrado in central Brazil, and 91.5% of the Atlantic forest that used to cover the entire length of the coastal area.

Latest figures from Deter, the Real Time Deforestation Detection System based on high frequency satellite images used by INPE, show that, after falling for two years, Amazon deforestation rose again by 10% between August 2013 and July 2014. The forest is being cleared for logging and farming.

Tocantins, Pará and Mato Grosso, three states in the Greater Amazon region that have suffered massive deforestation, are all registering higher average temperatures.

As long ago as 2009, Antonio Nobre, one of Brazil’s leading climate scientists, warned that, without the “flying rivers”, the area that produces 70% of South America’s GNP would be desert.

In an interview with the journal Valor Economica, he said: “Destroying the Amazon to advance the agricultural frontier is like shooting yourself in the foot. The Amazon is a gigantic hydrological pump that brings the humidity of the Atlantic Ocean into the continent and guarantees the irrigation of the region.”

“Of course, we need agriculture,” he said. “But without trees there would be no water, and without water there is no food.

“A tonne of soy takes several tonnes of water to produce. When we export soy we are exporting fresh water to countries that don’t have this rain and can’t produce. It is the same with cotton, with ethanol. Water is the main agricultural input. If it weren’t, the Sahara would be green, because it has extremely fertile soil.”

Underestimated

Like other climate scientists, Nobre thinks the role of the Amazon rainforest in producing rain has been underestimated. In a single day, the Amazon region evaporates 20 billion tonnes of vapour − more than the 17 million tonnes of water that the Amazon river discharges each day into the Atlantic.

“A big tree with a crown 20 metres across evaporates up to 300 litres a day, whereas one square metre of ocean evaporates exactly one square metre,” he said. “One square metre of forest can contain eight or 10 metres of leaves, so it evaporates eight or 10 times more than the ocean. This flying river, which rises into the atmosphere in the form of vapour, is bigger than the biggest river on the Earth.”

The fear is that if the Amazon rainforest continues to be depleted at the present rate, events like the unprecedented drought of 2010 will occur more often. The fires set by farmers to clear areas for planting or for cattle-raising make it more vulnerable.

Nobre explained: “The smoke from forest fires introduces too many particles into the atmosphere, dries the clouds, and they don’t rain. During the dry period, of the fires, the forest always maintained a little rain that left it humid and non-flammable, but now two months go by without rain, the forest gets very dry, and the fire gets into it. Amazon trees, unlike those of the Cerrado, have no resistance to fire.”

Nobre’s warning in 2009 was that if deforestation did not stop, there would be a catastrophe in five or six years time. Five years on, his words are now proving to be prophetic as São Paulo and all Brazil’s centre and southeast suffer their worst ever drought, with devastating effects on agriculture, energy and domestic water supplies. – Climate News Network

Weather patterns show climate is changing US

Streams feeding the Verde River in Arizona may be drying up Image: Jennifer Horn via Wikimedia Commons
Streams feeding the Verde River in Arizona may be drying up
Image: Jennifer Horn via Wikimedia Commons

By Tim Radford

Fiercer tornadoes, more prolonged periods of drought and loss of native fish species are some of the damaging impacts predicted for the US as greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise.

LONDON, 10 September, 2014 − The climate is changing . . . and America’s heartland and southwest are changing with it.

In the southwestern state of Arizona, the streams may be drying up − and that could mean that native fish species will die out.

In the midwest states that citizens call Tornado Alley, the evidence is that there are fewer tornado days per year, but the density and strength of those tornadoes that do form is growing as greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise.

And in the west, which is in the grip of a prolonged drought, things are looking up − but not in a good way. Relieved of the weight of water they normally bear – the 240 billion tonnes of snow and rain that have not fallen since the drought began – the land is starting to rise, with mountains as much as 15 millimetres higher.

More arid

The current drought may not be evidence of climate change – there is a long history of periodic drought in the region – but in general the US southwest is expected to become steadily more arid as planetary temperatures soar.

Kristin Jaeger, assistant professor at Ohio State University’s School of Environment and Natural Resources, reports in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the USA that she and colleagues decided to model the surface flow of the Verde River Basin in Arizona by 2050.

Fish that live in these waters are already threatened or endangered, their survival depending on being able to move around the watershed to eat, to spawn and to raise offspring. But the computer simulations for the future suggest that there will be a 17% increase in dried-up streams and a 27% increase in days when there will be no flow of water at all.

What this will do is sever connections between streams, and the deeper pools will become isolated. Native species, such as the speckled dace, the roundtail chub and the Sonora sucker, will increasingly have nowhere to go.

Dr Jaeger calls the estimates conservative. She and her fellow researchers did not take account of the groundwater that will be removed to support the expected 50% increase in human population in Arizona by 2050.

In the US, tornadoes are a fact of life – and death. In 2011, for example, it experienced 1,700 storms during the tornado season, and 550 people died. But scientists have begun to detect a pattern of change. In 1971, there were only 187 days with tornadoes, and in 2013, there were only 79 days, according to James Eisner, a geographer at Florida State University, and colleagues in a report in the journal Climate Dynamics.

But the tornadoes that do form are distinguished by what the scientists call “increasing efficiency”. They are more severe, and there are more of them on a given day.

“We may be less threatened by tornadoes on a day-to-day basis, but when they do come, they come like there’s no tomorrow,” said Professor Eisner.

Meanwhile, Adrian Borsa  and other researchers at Scripps Institution of Oceanography in San Diego report in the journal Science that they have been looking at data from GPS satellite ground stations, to discover that – thanks to the current drought – all of them are on the move.

Highest uplift

Overall, the surface of the arid west has gained 4mm in altitude since the drought began, and the highest uplift, 15mm, has been measured in the mountains.

They put it down to the water that has not fallen and which would normally have covered the mountains as heavy snow. Altogether, the water deficit is 240 gigatonnes, or 62 trillion gallons − the equivalent of a 10cm layer of water across the entire west of the US.

This is roughly the equivalent of the mass of ice lost each year from the Greenland ice sheet.

The crustal movement is not expected to have any impact on the likelihood of earthquakes in, for example, California, but the study could offer researchers a new way of measuring fresh water resources over very large regions.

It could be a case of don’t worry about all those rainfall gauges, just watch how the earth moves. Or, in the researchers technical language, such observations “have the potential to expand dramatically the capabilities of the current hydrological observing network”. – Climate News Network

Elections sideline São Paulo drought crisis

Drought has now hit dams on rivers such as the Paranapanema Image: José Reynaldo da Fonseca via Wikimedia Commons
Past prime: drought has now hit dams on rivers such as the Paranapanema
Image: José Reynaldo da Fonseca via Wikimedia Commons

By Jan Rocha

As South America’s biggest city suffers its worst drought in over a century, São Paulo state politicians are putting re-election prospects ahead of the need to introduce measures to address a desperate situation for millions of people.

SÃO PAULO, 25 August, 2014 − Outside the semi-arid area of the north-east, Brazilians have never had to worry about conserving water. Year in, year out, the summer has always brought rain.

But that has changed dramatically. São Paulo, the biggest metropolis in South America, with a population of almost 20 million, is now in the grip of its worst drought in more than a century − a water crisis of such proportions that reports on the daily level of the main reservoir arefollowed as closely as the football results.

The lack of rain is also affecting the dams that produce most of Brazil’s energy, highlighting the urgent need to diversify power sources.

And yet the state governor, wary of the effects on his prospects in forthcoming elections, has refused to introduce measures to ration, or even conserve, water.

Mighty rivers

Brazil is blessed not only with the mighty Amazon and all its huge tributaries, but also with dozens of other lengthy, broad rivers − once the highways for trade and slaving expeditions, but now providing waterways for cargo, power for dams, and water for reservoirs.It has at least 12% of the world’s fresh water supply.

But five of the principal rivers – the Tiete, Grande, Piracicaba, Mogi-Guaçu and Paraiba do Sul − that cross or border São Paulo, Brazil’s wealthiest state, have less than 30% of the water they should have at this time of year, according to data from the regional Hydrographic Basin Committee and from the National Electric System Operator (ONS).

Other major water sources – such as the Paraná, South America’s second biggest river, and the Paranapanema − are also suffering from the long dry period. The ruins of towns flooded for dam reservoirs have reappeared, fishermen’s boats are beached because the fish have disappeared, and navigation is at a standstill.

The transport of grain and other cargos to the port of Santos, via the river network, had to be suspended after the water level fell by up to eight metres. The equivalent of 10,000 lorryloads of cargo have been transferred by road so far.

Many industries have suspended their activities because of lack of water, and the drought has resulted in the loss of part of the coffee, sugar cane and wheat crops in one of Brazil’s most important agricultural states.

The hydrological period lasting from October 2013 to March 2014 was the driest for 123 years, according to the Agronomic Institute of Campinas, the oldest institute of its kind in Latin America .

Lowest volume

The federal government’s energy research company, EPE, found that in the first three months of 2014 the volume of rain was the third lowest since the 1930s.

It was the third consecutive year of reduction for the reservoirs of the hydroelectric dams that make up the South-east/Centre-West System, where many of Brazil’s biggest cities are located. From 88% in 2011, the volume of water in them had fallen to 38% by April 2014 – the month in which the dry season begins in this region.

By mid-August, the reservoirs of the Cantareira system, which supplies the water for almost 8.5 million of São Paulo’s inhabitants, had fallen to just 13.5% of capacity.

Yet the state government of São Paulo has so far refused even to admit that there is a crisis. The problem is the October elections, when Governor Geraldo Alkmim is running for re-election. Like most politicians, he does not want to be associated with a crisis. The word “rationing” is taboo.

Instead, unofficial rationing – what might be called rationing by stealth – is in operation. At night, the São Paulo Water Company, Sabesp, is reducing the pressure in the water system by 75%, leaving residents in higher areas of the city with dry taps.

Over 80% of the country’s energy comes from hydroelectric power, and dozens more giant dams are under construction or planned, mostly in the Amazon basin. The government has been strangely reluctant to invest in, or even encourage, other sources of abundant renewable energy, such as wind, solar and biomass.

The over-reliance on hydropower has already led to a distortion. The back-up system of thermo-electric plants, run on gas and diesel, and designed for emergencies, has had to increase production from 8% in 2012 to cover 25% of energy demand this year − thus contributing to higher carbon emissions.

Politics have also interfered with the special crisis committee set up to monitor the drought situation, with representatives from local and federal agencies unable to agree on what to do.

The Sao Paulo energy company, CESP, unilaterally decided this month to reduce the volume of water released from the shared Jaguari reservoir to the neighbouring state of Rio de Janeiro for electricity generation, in order to keep more for its own water needs.

Dangerous precedent

For Marcio Zimmerman, executive secretary of the Ministry of Mines and Energy, CESP’s action creates a dangerous precedent. “There will be chaos if everyone decides to rebel against the ONS,” he said.

The realisation that climate change is already leading to major changes in weather patterns has sounded alarm bells among the business community about the need to diversify energy sources and conserve water.

Early this month, at a seminar organised by the Brazilian Business Council for Sustainable Development, the chief executives of more than 20 top companies drew up a list of 22 crisis-related proposals to be put to the presidential candidates in October’s election.

Newspaper editorials are now urging the politicians to take their heads out of the sand and involve the population in a serious discussion on the crisis and its effects on the water supply, energy generation, and food production .

The Rio newspaper O Globo declared: “They belittle the potential for efficiency available in a society accustomed to waste. When they act, it might be too late.” – Climate News Network

Emissions are fuelling Australian droughts

Water depth marker in Lake Albert, South Australia Image: Bidgee via Wikimedia Commons
Water depth marker in the dried out bed of Lake Albert, South Australia
Image: Bidgee via Wikimedia Commons

By Tim Radford

The Australian prime minister may be scathing about climate science, but new research shows that burning fossil fuels is a significant factor in the long-term rainfall decline that is leaving southern regions of the country parched and sweltering.

LONDON, 17 July, 2014 − American scientists have just confirmed that parts of Australia are being slowly parched because of greenhouse gas emissions – which means that the long-term decline in rainfall over south and south-west Australia is a consequence of fossil fuel burning and depletion of the ozone layer by human activity.

Such a finding is significant for two reasons. One remains contentious: it is one thing to make generalised predictions about the consequences overall of greenhouse gas levels, but it is quite another to pin a measured regional climatic shift directly on human causes, rather than some possible as-yet-unidentified natural cycle of climatic change.

The other is contentiously political. Australia’s prime minister, Tony Abbott, has in the past dismissed climate science as “crap”, and more recently has cut back on Australian research spending.

Australia has already experienced a pattern of heat waves and drought – punctuated by catastrophic flooding – and even now, in the Australian winter, New South Wales is being hit by bush fires.

Tom Delworth, a research scientist at the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, reports in Nature Geoscience that he and a colleague conducted a series of long-term climate simulations to study changes in rainfall across the globe.

Pattern of change

One striking pattern of change emerged in Australia, where winter and autumn rainfall patterns are increasingly a cause of distress for farmers and growers in two states.

The simulation showed that the decline in rainfall was primarily a response to man-made increases in greenhouse gases, as well as to a thinning of the stratospheric ozone layer in response to emissions of destructive gases by human sources.

The computer simulations tested a series of possible causes for this decline, such as volcanic eruptions and changes in solar radiation. But the only cause that made sense of the observed data was the greenhouse explanation.

South Australia has never been conspicuously lush and wet, but decline in precipitation set in around 1970, and this decline has increased in the last four decades. The simulations predict that the decline will go on, and that average rainfall will drop by 40% over south-west Australia later this century.

Dr Delworth described his model as “a major step forward in our effort to improve the prediction of regional climate change”.

In May, scientists proposed that greenhouse gas emissions were responsible for a change in Southern Ocean wind patterns, which in turn resets the thermostat for the world’s largest island.

Australian scientists report in Geophysical Research Letters that they, too, have been using climate models to examine Antarctic wind patterns and their possible consequence for the rest of the planet.

Temperature rise

“When we included projected Antarctic wind shifts in a detailed global ocean model, we found water up to 4°C warmer than current temperatures rose up to meet the base of the Antarctic ice shelves,” said Paul Spence, a researcher at Australian Research Council’s Centre of Excellence for Climate System Science. This temperature rise is twice previous estimates.

“This relatively warm water provides a huge reservoir of melt potential right near the grounding lines of ice shelves around Antarctica,” Dr Spence said. “It could lead to a massive increase in the rate of ice sheet melt, with direct consequences for global sea level rise.”

Since the West Antarctic ice sheet holds enough water to raise sea levels by 3.3 metres, the consequences would indeed be considerable.

“When we first saw the results it was quite a shock,” Dr Spence said. “It was one of the few cases where I hoped the science was wrong.” – Climate News Network

Climate puts US at risk of multi-billion bill

Overheating: US crops such as cotton face a %20 drop in yield Image: Wars via Wikinmedia Commons
Overheated economy: US crops such as cotton face a 20% drop in yield
Image: Wars via Wikimedia Commons

By Alex Kirby

A study of the possible cost of climate change to the US economy warns government and business that billions of dollars could be at risk through damage to property, reduced harvests and workers incapacitated by extreme heat.

LONDON, 29 June, 2014 − The sheer economic cost of climate change to Americans could be far greater than many realise, an influential study says.

The study was commissioned by the Risky Business Project, a research organisation chaired by a bi-partisan panel and supported by several former US Treasury Secretaries.

It expects climate change to have varied impacts across different regions and industries. Rising sea levels, it says, could destroy many billion dollars’ worth of coastal properties by 2050, and warming temperatures, especially in the south, south-west and mid-west, could cut the productivity of people working outdoors by 3%.

Without a change in crops, harvests in these regions could fall by 14%. But further north, in states such as North Dakota and Montana, winter temperatures will probably rise, reducing frost and cold-related deaths and lengthening the growing season for some crops.

Kate Gordon, executive director of the Risky Business Project, said : “We still live in a single integrated national economy, so just because it’s not hot where you are doesn’t mean you won’t feel the heat of climate change.”

Michael Bloomberg, a former mayor of New York, said: “Damages from storms, flooding, and heat waves are already costing local economies billions of dollars. We saw that firsthand in New York City with Hurricane Sandy.

Costs of inaction

“With the oceans rising and the climate changing, the Risky Business report details the costs of inaction in ways that are easy to understand in dollars and cents − and impossible to ignore.”

Hank Paulson, a former Treasury Secretary and co-chair of the Risky Business Project, said the report shows us that “our economy is vulnerable to an overwhelming number of risks from climate change.

“But if we act immediately, we can still avoid most of the worst impacts of climate change and significantly reduce the odds of catastrophic outcomes. But the investments we’re making today will determine our economic future.”

In a section on short-term climate threats, the authors say: “The American economy is already beginning to feel the effects of climate change. These impacts will likely grow materially over the next 5 to 25 years…”

“Just because it’s not hot where you are doesn’t mean
you won’t feel the heat of climate change”

They say there is a 1-in-20 chance of yield losses of more than 20% in corn, wheat, soya and cotton crops over that timespan.

On energy, they say changes in temperature driven by greenhouse gases will probably mean a need to build roughly 200 average coal-fired or natural gas-fired power plants between 2020 and 2045, costing up to $12 billion per year.

Climate impacts, the report says, are unusual because future risks are directly tied to present decisions. By failing to lower greenhouse gas emissions today, decision-makers put in place processes that increase overall risks tomorrow.

By 2050, on present trends, $66bn-$106bn worth of existing coastal property will probably be below sea level nationwide, with $238-$507bn worth by 2100.

By mid-century, the average American will probably see 27 to 50 days over 95°F (35°C) each year − two to more than three times the average annual number of such days seen over the last 30 years. By the end of the century, this number will probably average 45 to 96 days over 95°F each year.

But the study says that the south-west, south-east, and upper mid-west will probably see several months of 95°F days annually.

Human threshold

In the longer term, extreme heat during parts of the year could pass the threshold at which the human body can no longer maintain a normal core temperature without air conditioning. At these times, anyone who has to work outdoors, or without access to air conditioning, will face severe health risks and possible death.

The authors say they hope it will become standard practice for the American business and investment community to factor climate change into its decision-making process. They say: “We are already seeing this response from the agricultural and national security sectors; we are starting to see it from the bond markets and utilities as well.

“But business still tends to respond only to the extent that these risks intersect with core short-term financial and planning decisions.”

And the authors warn the government: “We also know that the private sector does not operate in a vacuum, and that the economy runs most smoothly when government sets a consistent policy and a regulatory framework within which business has the freedom to operate.

“Right now, cities and businesses are scrambling to adapt to a changing climate without sufficient federal government support…” − Climate News Network

Flow chart unclear for glacial rivers

 

Confluence of the Indus and Zanskar rivers that rise in Tibet SImage Sundeep Bhardway via Wikimedia Commons
Confluence of the glacial Indus and Zanskar rivers flowing from Tibet
Image: Sundeep Bhardwaj via Wikimedia Commons

By Kieran Cooke

Glaciers in the high Himalayas and on the Tibetan Plateau are a vital source of water for millions of people in Asia, but scientists question what will happen to supplies if the rate of melting continues to rise due to climate-related factors

 

LONDON, 19 June – A new study examining river basins in the Asia region suggests that amounts of water supplied to the area by glaciers and rainfall in the Himalayas will increase in the coming decades.

At first reading, that looks like good news, as an estimated 1.3 billion people in Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, Nepal, China and elsewhere are dependent for their water supplies on rivers fed by glaciers and snowmelt.

But the less welcome news is that scientists are unsure what will happen after 2050 if the rate at which glaciers melt continues to increase as a result of climate change.

Scientists say rising temperatures and more intense rainfall patterns in the higher Himalayas are causing the retreat of the majority of glaciers in the region.

Heat build-up

They say glacier melt is also being caused by black carbon – particulate matter that, in South Asia, comes mainly from cooking fires, the burning of waste, plus coal burning and diesel exhausts. The black carbon, or soot, falls on the glaciers, reducing reflectivity and increasing heat build-up.

This latest study of glacier melt and water flows, appearing in the journal Nature Climate Change, was carried out by scientists at Future Water, a Netherlands-based research group, Utrecht University, and the Nepal-based International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development.

It assesses the contribution of glacier and snowmelt to the region’s river basins, incorporating some of the world’s mightiest rivers – the Indus, the Ganges, the Brahmaputra, the Mekong and the Salween.

The scientists say that highly-sophisticated modelling techniques were used to study the river basins in unprecedented detail.

They report: “Despite large differences in runoff composition and regimes between basins and between tributaries within basins, we project an increase in runoff at least until 2050, caused primarily by an increase in precipitation in the upper Ganges, Brahmaputra, Salween and Mekong basins and from accelerated melt in the upper Indus Basin.

“These findings have immediate consequences for climate change policies where a transition towards coping with intra-annual shifts in water availability is desirable.”

Uncertain supplies

But while the study says that, up to mid-century, little change is likely in the amount of glacier melt water flowing into river basins, it is unclear what will happen thereafter to the water supplies for  what is a significant portion of the world’s population.

“Our study does not include projections after 2050,” Arthur Lutz, lead author of the study, told Climate News Network. “However, at some point in time, the contribution of glacier melt to the total flow will decrease, because of the decreasing glacier extent. When this happens, it will differ for different river basins and sub-basins.”

The study says the long-term outlook is particularly uncertain for the upper Indus basin. While glacier melt contributes only 11.5% of the total runoff in the upper basin of the Ganges river, it contributes more than 40% of total water runoff in the upper Indus basin.

The Indus river, which flows for nearly 2,000 miles from high up in the Hindu Kush-Karakoram Himalaya mountain range down to the Arabian Sea, is vital to life in Pakistan, providing water for 90% of the country’s agricultural crops. Hydro plants along the Indus also supply about half the country’s electricity. – Climate News Network

Rainforest tribes seek World Cup spotlight

 

Kayapò tribal leaders from the Amazon rainforest put their case to the media Image: Sue Cunningham/SCP
Kayapò tribal leaders from the Amazon rainforest put their case to the media
Image: Sue Cunningham/SCP

By Kieran Cooke

Tribal leaders from the Amazon rainforest are using the glare of publicity on the football World Cup in Brazil to highlight an impassioned plea for recognition of their lands and an end to dam building and deforestation

LONDON, 17 June − Chief Raoni Metuktire, head of the Kayapò indigenous group from the Xingu region, deep in the Amazon rainforest, sits in a packed lecture hall in London. With his jutting lip plate and large feather headdress, the elderly, gently-spoken tribal leader is an imposing presence.

“When I’m gone I want my children and grandchildren to live in the forest as I have done,” he says. “I ask for your help. In the past, we didn’t knock down the trees, destroy the land and build dams, but now all that is happening.

“The climate in the forest is changing: it is a lot hotter than it used to be, and the pattern of the winds is altering.”

Lungs of the world

The Amazon rainforest – often referred to as the lungs of the world – has a major influence on the world’s climate. Its trees and vegetation act as a vital carbon sink, soaking up carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

Megaron Txucarramãe, a long-time campaigner for land rights for indigenous tribes in the Amazon region, sits alongside Chief Raoni, his uncle.

“The logging in our region is increasing,” he says. “Our lands and those of other indigenous tribes should be properly demarcated, but the Brazilian government is seeking to alter the constitution and undermine our land rights, giving more power to loggers, dam builders and mining companies.

“While the government worries about building stadiums
for the World Cup, our land is being threatened.”

“We went to Brasilia [Brazil’s capital] to protest, but we were received with rubber bullets, tear gas and pepper spray. While the government worries about building stadiums for the World Cup, our land is being threatened. I would like to ask the world to pay attention to our problems and help us.”

In a tour of European capitals that coincided with the opening of the World Cup, the two tribal leaders met Prince Albert of Monaco and, in London, Prince Charles. They also took their message to the Norwegian royal family.

The Kayapò are by far the largest ethnic group in the Xingu region. After years of campaigning and sometimes violent struggle, the group succeeded in having 19,000 square miles of land demarcated as an indigenous reserve in 1992.

The tribal leaders say the government of President Dilma Rousseff – which faces an election in October – is now threatening the land rights of indigenous groups and the health of the whole Amazon by allowing mining and other projects to go ahead.

In recent years, Brazil has embarked on a wide-ranging dam building programme in the Amazon. The Xingu river, a major tributary of the Amazon river, runs through the Kayapò’s lands. Despite various court judgements and continuing protests by the Kayapò and other groups, construction of the Belo Monte dam − which will be one of the world’s biggest when it is completed − began on the Xingu in 2011.

After years of decline in deforestation rates in the Amazon rainforest, they then increased dramatically by 28% over the 2012 to 2013 period, with many blaming controversial reforms to Brazil’s forest laws pushed through by a powerful and extremely wealthy land lobby.

Weather patterns

In recent months, large parts of Brazil have been suffering a drought that is one of the worst on record. Environmentalists say deforestation in the Amazon has disturbed weather patterns and has resulted in less rainfall in many areas.

Patrick Cunningham, who has travelled extensively through the Xingu region, photographing and documenting the lives of the indigenous tribes, is a spokesman for Tribes Alive, a group that highlights indigenous peoples’ issues.

He said: “Chief Metuktire and Megaron are not only asking for an end to the destruction of their lands, they are also campaigning to stop what is a suicidal rush to develop their region.

“Such actions will not only be a setback for them but also for the whole of Brazil as rain patterns alter farther south, in what is the most agriculturally productive region of the country.” – Climate News Network

Europe faces cereals crop crash

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Cereal numbers: yields could be slashed from barley fields such as this one in Suffolk, UK Image: Eileen Henderson via Wikimedia Commons

Cereal failures: yields could be slashed from barley fields such as this one in Suffolk, England
Image: Eileen Henderson via Wikimedia Commons

By Tim Radford

Two new studies raise concerns that Europe’s wheat and barley yields could be heading for a serious fall as a result of temperature rise and an increase in extreme weather

LONDON, 2 June − Harvests of wheat and barley across Europe could be 20% lower by 2040 as average temperatures rise by 2°C. And by 2060, European farmers could be facing very serious losses.

As the likelihood of weather extremes increases with temperature, the consequences of lower yields will be felt around the world. Europe produces, for example, 29% of the world’s wheat.

Two consecutive studies in Nature Climate Change examine the challenges faced by the farmers − the first of the reports being by a team led by Miroslav Trnka, of the Czech Global Change Research Centre in Brno.

They considered the impact of changing conditions in 14 very different wheat growing zones − from the Alpine north to the southern Mediterranean, from the great plains of Northern Europe to the baking uplands of the Iberian peninsula, and from the Baltic seascapes of Denmark to the fertile flood plains of the Danube.

It is a given that farmers are at the mercy of the weather, and that crops are vulnerable to unseasonal conditions. But a rise in average temperatures of 2°C is likely to increase the frequency of unfavourable conditions.

Incidence of drought

The researchers, therefore, factored in such data as the numbers of days with very high temperatures, the incidence of drought, late spring frosts, severe winter frosts with too little snow, spells with too much rain, spells when the weather is too cool at the wrong time.

Altogether, they totted up 11 sets of adverse conditions that could blight winter wheat in all 14 sample environments. They then used climate models to simulate the probability of things going wrong once, and also more than once, in any single growing season. And they found that, by 2060, the occurrence of adverse weather conditions would increase for all environments.

“This is likely to result in more frequent crop failure across Europe,” they conclude. “The study provides essential information for developing adaptation strategies.”

Adaptation strategies − according to Frances Moore and David Lobell, of Stanford University, California, in the second of the Nature Climate Change studies − are exactly what European cereal farmers should be thinking about.

They analysed the yield and profit records from thousands of European farms between 1989 and 2009. They then matched the data with climate records to test performance under a suite of different weather histories, and ran simulations using 13 different climate models.

“Modest amounts of climate change
can have a big impact on yields. . .”

“The results clearly showed that modest amounts of climate change can have a big impact on yields of several crops in Europe,” Moore said.

“This is a little surprising because the region is fairly cool, so you might think it would benefit from moderate amounts of warming. Our next step was to measure the potential of European farmers to adapt to these impacts.”

Increasing levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere should, in theory, be good for crops – fertility should increase – but a procession of recent scientific studies has painted a different picture.

Plant protein levels

With extra heat comes a greater likelihood of drought to slash maize yields.  And even when the extra carbon dioxide increases growth, it may reduce the levels of all-important plant protein in the yield.

In addition, extremes of heat at the wrong time in the growing season could devastate crops, while the change in average temperatures will open the way for invasions of new kinds of pest.

The Stanford researchers argue that what matters most is how quickly farmers in Europe can adapt, and how crop yields will respond.

“By adaptation, we mean a range of options based on existing technologies, such as switching varieties of a crop, installing irrigation, or growing a different crop,” Lobell said.

“These things have been talked about for a long time, but the novelty of this study was using past data to quantify the actual potential of adaptation to reduce climate change impacts.” – Climate News Network

India’s lethal heat wave strikes again

 

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Hot spot: policeman Kumar Srinivasan directs traffic in the swetering Chennai heat Image: Pramila Krishnan

Hot spot: policeman Kumar Srinivasan directs traffic in the sweltering Chennai heat
Image: Pramila Krishnan

 

By Pramila Krishnan

Large numbers of people die in India each year because of heat waves − and as climate change takes hold and the country swelters again, doctors are warning the public to take extra precautions

Chennai, 28 May − Kumar Srinivasan, a 34-year-old policeman, is struggling to cope with the heat as he controls traffic at a busy city-centre road junction in Chennai, South India. “I feel like a roasted chicken,” he says. “But it’s actually worse, since I am alive while the chicken would have gone to rest in heaven.”

India is sizzling under hot winds as many parts of the country suffer temperatures hovering above 40˚C. And officials in the National Weather Forecasting Center of the India Metrological Department have warned that “heat waves to severe heat wave conditions would prevail in isolated parts of the country in the last week of May”.

As the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reports confirm that India will continue to get hotter because of climate change, doctors are concerned that the public needs to be warned of the danger they are in.

Excess heat is already claiming many lives. Research published earlier this year in the journal Plos One showed that in May 2010, when the Indian city of Ahmedabad in the state of Gujarat experienced a heat wave with record-breaking maximum temperatures of 46.8˚C, an estimated 1,344 deaths occurred − 43% higher than expected.

Road fatalities

Another chilling statistic in 2012, recently published by the National Crime Records Bureau, is that 5.4% of the total 22,960 road fatalities in India were attributable to heat strokes. That is more than 1,000 people.

The Indian government has done its bit to make the summer slightly more bearable for policemen such as Srinivasan, providing them with packets of aerated fruit juices and buttermilk (yoghurt diluted in water), as well as sunglasses.

“I am just waiting for the summer to be over, or for some of the summer showers that sometimes happen during June,” Srinivasan says before stepping out of the shade of his little booth to start directing traffic manually again in the scorching heat because a power failure has cut out the traffic lights.

Indian politicians, trying to woo voters, put up water pandals (small stalls made of dried palm/coconut leaves) to supply water, and even buttermilk at times, to the public during the recent election period.

In fact, the Indian elections are deliberately timetabled to avoid the worst part of summer, and the entire election process this time was completed by the second week of May, when the sun was beginning to get harsh..

Doctors at the government’s Rajiv Gandhi General Hospital in Chennai have asked the public to take preventive measures to avoid heat strokes – including wearing light-coloured, loose-fitting cotton clothes, staying hydrated, and avoiding strenuous exercise during the day.

“The maximum temperature will reach 40˚C  in many places
in Tamil Nadu . . .  It’s going to be sweltering hot.”

And the Regional Meterological Centre (RMC) in Chennai has been publishing weather projections for the state of Tamil Nadu on its website, keeping people informed with with regular updates of  projections of average temperatures for one week for every district in the state. S.R. Ramanan, director of the RMC, told Climate News Network: “The maximum temperature will reach 40˚C  in many places in Tamil Nadu in the coming days.  It’s going to be sweltering hot.”

While rich and middle-class Indians go for upgraded refrigerators, air conditioners and coolers, the poor households have to settle for earthen pots to keep drinking water cool.

The plight of people is the same, or even worse, in most parts of tropical India during the hostile summers, particularly since fast-moving urbanisation is taking its toll on trees, which are being chopped down to make way for new high-rise buildings, roads and shopping malls

Loss of shade

The loss of the natural shade of avenue trees means that it’s not just humans who are suffering. The bovine population roams around the streets looking for any tiny puddle of urban gutter water to quench their thirst, and the government’s forest department has had to build concrete tanks and fill them with water to try to prevent animals from suffering dehydration.

Many milkmen live in urban areas and do not take enough care of their cows to protect them from the summer heat, and the Tamil Nadu Veterinary and Animal Sciences University has also found that many aged animals suffer kidney failures in the summer season because of dehydration.

Meanwhile, as more people die every year in India due to heat strokes, social activists are calling for the government to take up initiatives to protect people and spread awareness about preventive measures.

“Curbing privatisation of water and ensuring supply of good quality drinking water for the residents is a major step to avoid dehydration and heat strokes,” said Chennai social activist A.Devaneyan. “The government health department should conduct awareness campaigns to inform people about taking additional care of elders and children during the summer.”

Devaneyan pointed out that the rising number of players in the bottled drinking water industry has also led to rising prices. He said: “A one-litre bottle now costs 20 rupees. How many can afford that?”

Not surprisingly, the popularity of the Tamil Nadu state chief minister, Ms Jayalalithaa Jayaram, also rose after she recently ordered her government to supply water at 10 rupees per bottle − half the price of the “private” water. – Climate News Network.

  • Pramila Krishnan is based in Chennai as Principal Correspondent of the Deccan Chronicle, an English-language newspaper in India.