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Climate science ‘is beyond argument’

March 17, 2014 in Arctic, Business, Carbon, Climate deniers, Deep Ocean, Economy, Fish, Food security, Global Ocean Commission, Ice Loss, Marine ecology, Ocean acidification, Ocean Warming, Polar ice, Pollution, Science

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Not as sunny as it seems: The ocean is under attack on many fronts, with climate change foremost among them Image: kein via Wikimedia Commons

Not as sunny as it seems: The ocean is under attack on many fronts, with climate change foremost among them
Image: kein via Wikimedia Commons

By Alex Kirby

The Global Ocean Commission says climate change is one of the key threats to the health of the world’s marine life, which it says faces multiple pressures in a warming world.

HONG KONG, 17 March - South Africa’s former Finance Minister, Trevor Manuel, has derided those who deny the scientific argument that climate change is an urgent problem caused largely by human activity.

He told journalists here: “The science is now incontrovertible. There are a few people in the world who deny it, but they are mainly in lunatic asylums.”

Mr Manuel is one of three co-chairs of the Global Ocean Commission, a panel of global leaders who have just ended a meeting here to finalise the proposals they will present to the United Nations in June.

The meeting agreed that another key threat to the world’s oceans is overfishing and the subsidies which help to make it possible. It says this, and the other factors causing ocean degradation, threaten the food security of as many as 500 million people.

It is deeply worried about pollution. With plastic remains now so pervasive that they are found even in deep seafloor sediments, Mr Manuel said, it sometimes seemed that “you might as well not bother to buy seafood at all – just buy the plastic bag it comes in and eat that.”

Shells corroded

The Commission says climate change threatens the oceans in three main ways: by raising the temperature of the water; by reducing its oxygen content; and by increasing its acidity. Antarctic pteropods, small sea snails also known as sea butterflies, are already being found with severely corroded shells because of acidification, and larger creatures, including bigger shellfish and corals, are likely to be seriously affected.

Another of the co-chairs, José María Figueres, the former president of Costa Rica, told the Climate News Network the Commission was concerned at the prospect of exploitation of the high seas in the Arctic as the region’s sea ice continues to melt.

He said: “Beyond Arctic countries’ EEZs (exclusive economic zones stretching 200 nautical miles from the coast), the melting will leave us with a doughnut-shaped hole in the Arctic high seas, which are not under international control.

“Some nations are now looking to explore there for fish, minerals, valuable biodiversity and other resources. I believe we should not go down that route.

We should listen to the science and follow the precautionary principle, keeping this pristine area off-limits for exploitation until we understand the consequences.

Coalition builders

“We’re already pushing the high seas to the limit. We don’t need to push them over the edge by a lack of proper precaution in the Arctic.”

He said: “The jury is still out on whether we have 20 or 30 years ahead as a window of opportunity to act. But why wait? Listen to the science, which is overwhelming, and to the economics, which are sound.”

Describing the Commission as “not just a bunch of treehuggers, but a group that’s grounded itself in good sound economics”, Mr Figueres said the recommendations it planned to present to the UN on 24 June would represent about 20% of its work. The other 80% would involve building coalitions around each recommendation: there are expected to be no more than 10 in total.

The Commission’s third co-chair is the UK’s former Foreign Secretary, David Miliband. He told the Network: “Answers that sit on a shelf are a waste of time, and people who are positively inclined to protect the oceans are held back by institutional inertia.

“But the interplay between climate change and ocean damage is rising, and it very much needs to. The science of most of the last half-century shows us how we’ve been playing tricks with nature.” – Climate News Network

2C rise will be a disaster say leading scientists

December 2, 2013 in Adaptation, Climate, Climate risk, Climate Sensitivity, Emissions reductions, Greenhouse Gases, Science, Warming

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Male maldives Image: Taichi via Wikimedia Commons

A 2C temperature rise would seriously threaten cities like Malé, the capital of the Maldives 
Image: Taichi via Wikimedia Commons

By Tim Radford

Countries round the world have pledged to try and limit the average global temperature rise to 2C above pre industrial figures. That’s way too high and would threaten major dislocations for civilization say a group of prominent scientists.

London, 3 December – Governments have set the wrong target to limit climate change. The goal at present – to limit global warming to a maximum of 2°C higher than the average for most of human history  - “would have consequences that can be described as disastrous”, say 18 scientists in a review paper in the journal PLOS One.

With a 2°C increase, “sea level rise of several meters could be expected,” they say.  “Increased climate extremes, already apparent at 0.8°C warming, would be more severe. Coral reefs and associated species, already stressed with current conditions, would be decimated by increased acidification, temperature and sea level rise.

Hansen at helm

The paper’s lead author is James Hansen, now at Columbia University, New York, and the former NASA scientist who in 1988 put global warming on the world’s front pages by telling a US government committee that “It’s time to stop waffling so much and say the evidence is pretty strong that the greenhouse effect is here.”

Hansen’s fellow authors include the economist Jeffrey Sachs of Columbia University and the biologist Camille Parmesan, of the University of Plymouth in the UK and the University of Texas at Austin, USA.

Their argument is that humanity and nature – “the modern world as we know it” – is adapted to what scientists call the Holocene climate that has existed for more than 10,000 years – since the end of the Ice Age, the beginnings of agriculture and the first settlement of the cities.

Warming of 1°C relative to 1880–1920 keeps global temperature close to the Holocene range, but warming of 2°C, could cause “major dislocations for civilization.”

Clear arguments

The scientists study, uncompromisingly entitled “Assessing ‘dangerous climate change’: required reduction of carbon emissions to protect young people, future generations and nature” differs from many such climate analyses because it sets out its argument with remarkable directness and clarity, and serves as a useful briefing document for anyone – politicians, journalists and lay audiences – anxious to better understand the machinery of climate, and the forces that seem to be about to dictate climate change.

Its critics will point out that it is also remarkably short on the usual circumlocutions, caveats, disclaimers and equivocations that tend to characterise most scientific papers. Hansen and his co-authors are however quite open about the major areas of uncertainty: their implicit argument is that if the worst outcomes turn out to be true, the consequences for humankind could be catastrophic.

Feedback is critical

The scientists case is that most political debate addresses the questions of reducing greenhouse gas emissions, but does not and perhaps cannot factor in the all potentially dangerous unknowns – the slow feedbacks that will follow the thawing of the Arctic, the release of frozen reserves of methane and carbon dioxide in the permafrost, and the melting of polar ice into the oceans. They point out that 170 nations have agreed on the need to limit fossil fuel emissions to avoid dangerous human-made climate change.

“However the stark reality is that global emissions have accelerated, and new efforts are underway to massively expand fossil fuel extractions by drilling to increasing ocean depths and into the Arctic, squeezing oil from tar sands and tar shale, hydro-fracking to expand extraction of natural gas, developing exploitation of methane hydrates and mining of coal via mountain-top removal and mechanised long wall-mining.”

Still time

The scientists argue that swift and drastic action to limit global greenhouse gas emissions and contain warming to around 1°C would have two useful consequences. One is that it would not be far from the climate variations experienced as normal during the last 10,000 years, and secondly that it would make it more likely that the biosphere, and the soil, would be able to sequester a substantial proportion of the carbon dioxide released by human industrial civilisation.

Trees are, in essence, captive carbon dioxide. But the warmer the world becomes, the more likely it is that existing forests – the Amazon, for example – will start to release more CO2 than they absorb, making the planet progressively even warmer.

Therefore the scientists make a case for limiting overall global carbon emissions to 500 gigatonnes rather than the 1,000 billion tonnes in the 2°C rise scenario.

“Although there is merit in simply chronicling what is happening, there is still opportunity for humanity to exercise free will,” says Hansen. – Climate News Network

 

Warsaw – Day 11: Civil society turns its back on talks

November 21, 2013 in Climate, Emissions reductions, Human response, Policy, Public Awareness, Science, Warming

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The opening last week of COP 19: But by today some had had quite enough Image: Mateusz Włodarczyk

The opening last week of COP 19: But by today some had had quite enough
Image: Mateusz Włodarczyk via Wikimedia Commons

By Paul Brown in Warsaw

The Climate News Network’s Paul Brown, at the UN climate talks – the 19th Conference of the Parties of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change – reports on a day which saw an unprecedented mass exit from the procedings by green groups and other campaigners.

Half the green groups taking part in the climate negotiations here have staged a mass walk–out in protest at the lack of progress.

It is first time in 19 years of tortuous annual negotiations over targets and timetables for saving the Earth’s climate from overheating that the non-governmental organisations have felt sufficiently frustrated to take such a step.

Many of the 800 people involved are members of national delegations and are an important part of pushing the negotiations to a successful conclusion.

The groups concerned, some of them – like ActionAid, Oxfam and WWF – normally considered moderate, issued a joint statement saying that the climate talks here were set to “achieve virtually nothing.”

Enough is enough

The statement said: “The actions of many rich countries here in Warsaw are directly undermining the Climate Change Convention itself, which is an important multilateral process that must succeed if we are to fix the global climate crisis.

“The Warsaw Conference has put the interests of dirty energy industries over that of global citizens – with a Coal & Climate Summit being held in conjunction; corporate sponsorship from big polluters plastered all over the venue; and a presidency (Poland) that is beholden to the coal and fracking industry.

“When Japan announced that it was following Canada and backtracking on emission cuts commitments previously made, and Australia gave multiple signals that it was utterly unwilling to take the UN climate process seriously, the integrity of the talks was further jeopardized.”

Many individual statements from experienced campaigners underlined the lack of progress. Susann Scherbarth, for Friends of the Earth Europe, said: “We are walking out in frustration and disappointment, enough is enough.”

Samantha Smith, leader of WWF’s global climate and energy initiative, said: “We have been forced to take this action because of the failure of governments to take these talks seriously. We are not walking away from the UN process on climate change, just this conference in Warsaw.”

However, half the NGOs decided to stay in the talks and continued lobbying for progress. Several said they understood the sentiments of those outside but felt that there was still hope.

Nocturnal negotiations

The negotiations to try to rescue something from the talks were set to continue through a second night. Delegates are trying to negotiate the skeleton of an agreement whose aim is to bind the 194 participating nations into a new deal to help prevent the climate overheating. It is due to be signed in Paris in 2015. Pledges of emission cuts and of timetables to achieve them are not expected at this summit, but some time next year.

The main sticking point at Warsaw has been the lack of funds to help developing countries adapt to climate change and repair the losses caused by sea level rise and extreme climate events. There is one day left for formal negotiations, but in fact they are expected to run into Saturday to try to reach a deal.

Any countries or delegates who might have been relieved at the loss of campaigners from the conference can expect to see them back again at the next conference in Lima, the Peruvian capital, in 2014. In the meantime the NGOs said they would concentrate on raising public awareness of the threat to the planet and would organise as many civil protests as possible.

The groups are: ActionAid, the Bolivian Platform of Climate Change, Construyendo Puentes (Latin America), Friends of the Earth (Europe) Greenpeace, Ibon International, the International Trade Union Confederation, LDC Watch, the Pan-African Climate Justice Alliance, the Peoples’ Movement on Climate Change (Philippines), Oxfam International and WWF. – Climate News Network

Cosmic rays add little to climate change

November 8, 2013 in Climate deniers, Cosmic rays, Science, Solar activity, Warming

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Not guilty as charged: The Sun has little effect on climate change Image: Stefan Wernli via Wikimedia Commons

Not guilty as charged: The Sun has little effect on climate change
Image: Stefan Wernli via Wikimedia Commons

By Paul Brown

A theory favoured by many climate deniers is that cosmic rays, not human activity, are responsible for global warming. The rays can have played at most a very small part, new research finds.

LONDON, 8 November – Changes in solar activity, sunspots and cosmic rays, and their effects on clouds, have contributed no more than 10% to global warming, according to two British scientists.

The findings, published in the journal Environmental Research Letters, revisit the basic science that it is increasing carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases that are causing most climate change. They also re-examine the alternative case made by climate deniers: that it is the Sun’s changing activity and not us that is causing the Earth to heat up.

The two scientists, Professor Terry Sloan at the University of Lancaster and Professor Sir Arnold Wolfendale at the University of Durham, conclude that neither changes in the activity of the Sun, nor its impact in blocking cosmic rays, can be a significant contributor to global warming.

Clouds and their role in keeping the Earth’s surface cool by reflecting sunlight back into space have been one of the biggest uncertainties of climate change science.

The acknowledged role of sunspots and cosmic rays in forming clouds has been fertile ground for climate deniers, who have cast doubt on whether anthropogenic climate change (in other words, change caused by humans) is occurring at all.

Eleven-year cycle

Sunspot activity, which ebbs and flows on an 11-year cycle, decreases the cosmic ray flux by periodically increasing the solar wind – a stream of charged particles emitted by the Sun.

The solar wind’s greater magnetic field deflects away some of the cosmic rays that would otherwise hit the Earth from elsewhere in the galaxy. So, if the theory linking cosmic rays and cloud formation is correct, increased sunspot activity could potentially reduce cloud cover.

To try to quantify the effect that solar activity – whether directly or through cosmic rays -may have had on global temperatures in the twentieth century, Sloan and Wolfendale compared data on the rate of cosmic rays entering the atmosphere with the record of global temperatures going back to 1955.

They found a small correlation between cosmic rays and global temperatures occurring every 22 years; however, the changing cosmic ray rate lagged behind the change in temperatures by between one and two years, suggesting that the cause of the temperature rise might not be attributable to cosmic rays and cloud formation, but could be caused by the direct effects of the Sun.

Nuclear tests

By comparing the small oscillations in cosmic ray rate and temperature with the overall trends in both since 1955, Sloan and Wolfendale found that less than 14% of the global warming seen during this period could have been caused by solar activity.

To check their findings they reviewed their own previous studies and all the other work they could find on the subject, to see whether they could find other evidence of a link between solar activity and increasing global temperatures.

Their findings indicated that, overall, the contribution of changing solar activity, either directly or through cosmic rays, was even less and cannot have contributed more than 10% to global warming in the twentieth century.

Sloan and Wolfendale also discussed the results from an experiment at CERN in Switzerland called CLOUD, where researchers are looking at ways in which cosmic rays can ionize, or charge, aerosols in the atmosphere, which can then influence how clouds are formed. They also examined instances where real-world events produced large-scale ionization in the atmosphere.

Events such as the Chernobyl nuclear disaster and nuclear weapons testing would have been expected to affect aerosol production in the atmosphere, but no such effects could be seen.

Professor Sloan said: “Our paper reviews our work to try and find a connection between cosmic rays and cloud formation with changes in global temperature.

“We conclude that the level of contribution of changing solar activity is less than 10% of the measured global warming observed in the twentieth century. As a result of this and other work, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change state that no robust association between changes in cosmic rays and cloudiness has been identified.” – Climate News Network

What happens when the world dries out

November 1, 2013 in Climate, Deserts, Population, Science, Warming, Weather

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African bush elephants in Samburu National Reserve, Kenya Image: Vicente Polo

African bush elephants in Samburu National Reserve, Kenya: How much aridity can they tolerate?
Image: Vicente Polo

By Tim Radford

A warming world carries many threats, and now scientists have discovered that a change in atmospheric conditions could have serious consequences for soil chemistry

LONDON, 1 November – A warmer, drier world will be bad news for those people who already live on the edge. Higher temperatures will do more than evaporate the soil moisture: they will alter the natural soil chemistry as well.

Manuel Delgado-Baquerizo of the Universidad Pablo de Olavide, in Seville, Spain, and fellow scientists report in Nature that they looked  at soil samples from 224 dryland ecosystem plots in every continent except Antarctica.

Drylands matter: they account for more than 40% of the planet’s land surface and they support more than 38% of its population. Drylands add up, in the dusty language of science, to the largest “terrestrial biome” of all.

And even though on average more warmth will mean more evaporation, and therefore more water vapour in the atmosphere and more precipitation in some of those zones that already have ample rainfall, the pattern could be different in the arid lands.

All the calculations so far indicate that these drylands will increase in area, and become drier with time. Already 250 million people are trying to scrape an increasingly meagre living from lands which are degrading swiftly, either because they are turning to desert, or because they are overgrazed.

Hard on microbes

But to make things worse, climate scientists predict that between 2080 and 2099, soil moisture will decrease by between 5% and 15% worldwide. And that in turn could have a profound effect on the levels of carbon and nitrogen nutrients naturally in the topsoils.

What keeps soils alive, and productive, is the compost or humus of leaf litter, animal dung, withered roots and other decaying vegetation in the first metre or so of topsoil: this in turn feeds an invisible army of tiny creatures that recycle the nutrient elements for the next generation of plant life.

But these microbes also need water to thrive. The consortium of researchers predicted that as the soils got drier, biological activity would decrease, but geochemical processes would accelerate. That is, nutrients that depended on little living things in the soil would drain away, but other elements – phosphorus among them – would increase, because they would be winnowed from the rock by mechanical weathering or erosion.

The research team tested this argument with samples from 16 countries, including the Negev desert in Israel, the woodlands of New South Wales in Australia, the Altiplano of Peru, and the Pampas lowlands of Argentina.

Balance upset

These regions could all expect from 100mm of rainfall a year to 800 mm; all soil samples were analysed in the same laboratory in Spain.

And as predicted, they revealed an increasing imbalance: more phosphorus, less carbon and nitrogen as they became drier. Such a trend would actually feed back into global warming: ideally, more vigorous plant growth would absorb more carbon dioxide.

But if vegetation wilts, and soils turn to dust over large areas of already parched land, then the carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere will increase even more.

“Plants need all of these elements, in the correct amounts, and at the right times, but increasing aridity will upset this balance, leading to a breakdown in essential soil processes,” said David Etheridge, of the University of New South Wales, one of the authors.

“As the world’s population grows, people will increasingly rely on marginal lands – particularly drylands – for production of food, wood and biofuels. But these ecosystems will be severely affected by imbalances in the cycle of carbon, nitrogen and phosphorus.” – Climate News Network

Why the Emerald Isle remains so green

October 29, 2013 in Book Reviews, Forecasting, History, Science, Weather

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The fields of Ireland: persistent rain has shaped Irish culture as much as it has shaped it's landscape. Image: John Sullivan via Wikimedia Commons

The fields of Ireland: A history of rain has shaped Irish culture as much as it has shaped its landscape.
Image: John Sullivan via Wikimedia Commons

By Kieran Cooke

Ireland is often called the Emerald Isle – it rains so much that the grass there is always green. But there’s a lot more to the Irish weather than rain.

LONDON, 29 October – It’s said that in one day in Ireland you can experience four seasons of weather.

That’s a considerable understatement: Irish weather is so skittish that spring, summer, autumn and winter can often occur all within an hour: visitors have been known to go through four changes of clothes before breakfast. Others give up – and opt to stay in bed.

Obviously such perverse weather behaviour makes life difficult for the nation’s forecasters. They have developed what the late great Irish meteorologist Brendan McWilliams termed “the honourable ploy of hedging” – forecasters bluff their way through by predicting every type of weather imaginable.

Yet as Damian Corless points out in this informative and often amusing book, Ireland’s climate – that’s long-term meteorological trends as opposed to short-term or daily weather patterns – has been remarkably stable over the past 9,000 or so years.

This is particularly the case when climate patterns in Ireland are compared to those in regions such as North Africa where, over the same period of time, the Sahara was being turned first into lush farmland and then back into harsh desert.

“There have been some extreme episodes of prolonged famine and pestilence down the millennia, but the rarity of such fierce disruptions serves to underline just how stable and dependable Ireland’s climate has been for its people.”

Corless takes us through a dizzying array of facts and fables on the Irish climate and, as with all good Irish narratives, he is not afraid of going off on a tangent or two. We learn some ancient history.

“The first settlers (in Ireland) arrived around the beginning of a particularly warm period known as the Holocene Climatic Optimum. This pleasant interlude kept Ireland up to 3°C warmer than it is today for the first 4,000 years of human habitation, spanning from around 7,000 BC to 3,000 BC.”

Irish connections are made. It was an Irishman, Sir Francis Beaufort, who in the early 19th century devised a system of measuring wind speeds, giving birth to the Beaufort wind scale still in use today.  And it seems that Guglielmo Marconi, who through his pioneering work on long-distance radio and telegraph transmissions did so much to lay the foundations of present-day weather forecasting, was a man with Irish roots: his mother was Irish and so was his first wife.

Historical role

But where Corless is most interesting is on how climate and particular weather events played a role in shaping history. The Spanish Armada, limping home after their defeat by the English in 1588, was forced to take the long route back to Spain, around Scotland and the west coast of Ireland.

A series of westerly gales drove the Spanish ships on to the jagged shores of Ireland. “The Spanish losses off the coast of Ireland greatly exceeded those in the skirmishes with the English navy. As the grieving Spanish put it themselves, the flower of Spain’s nobility was cut down in Irish waters.”

According to Corless, the Irish weather also put paid to Oliver Cromwell, the man who has come to symbolize the cruelty of British rule in Ireland.

The story goes that Cromwell caught a fever from a mosquito bite while bludgeoning his way across the bogs of Ireland: he was never the same man again, dying before he could properly establish his republican revolution.

But the weather also acted against the Irish themselves. In 1796 a French attempt at ousting the English from Ireland failed due to furious storms off the Irish coast: in the mid-19th century the damp Irish weather was a major factor behind the spread of the potato blight and the death or emigration of millions in the famine.

In more recent times, weather systems in Ireland helped shape the destiny of Europe. Though Ireland was neutral in World War Two, through an old agreement it would transmit weather reports to London.

Corless tells the story of how Ted Sweeney, a postmaster at Blacksod Bay in County Mayo on Ireland’s west coast, sent a vital forecast to London of the approaching Atlantic weather.

Armed with this information, the Allied commanders decided to postpone the D-day invasion of France by a day: gales in the English Channel were avoided, and the tide of war was turned.

No book on Irish weather would be complete without some proverbs – and Corless has plenty of them.

“If the dog’s stomach rumbles the weather will change” is one to listen out for.

“When the mist on the new moon dies of thirst, dry weather is in store” is as mystifying as Irish weather itself. - Climate News Network

Looks Like Rain: 9,000 years of Irish Weather, by Damian Corless, The Collins Press, 2013, 14.99

Forest people ‘can gather carbon data’

October 29, 2013 in China, Forests, Indonesia, Laos, Redd+, Science, Vietnam

 

The people on the spot - as here in China - can often do as good a job of carbon measuring as scientists from outside Image: Michael Køie Poulsen, Nordeco

The people on the spot – as here in China – can do as good a job of carbon measuring as scientists from outside
Image: Michael Køie Poulsen, Nordeco

By Alex Kirby

Researchers say the people who live in some of the world’s most fragile forests can establish how much carbon they contain as accurately as scientists equipped with hi-tech measuring instruments.

LONDON, 29 October – You don’t have to be a sophisticated scientist equipped with all the latest gizmos in order to work out just how effective a particular forest is as a carbon sink, a critical way of soaking up greenhouse gases

The job, researchers believe, can be done just as accurately by the people who live in the forests, most of whom probably have neither modern instruments nor scientific training.

And the forests themselves will probably gain as well, because the local people will have more reason to feel they are buying into the trees’ conservation and so will have an incentive to protect them and work with conservationists from outside the forests.

The study, Community Monitoring for REDD+: International Promises and Field Realities, was published in a special issue of the journal Ecology and Society and was carried out by researchers at the Nairobi-based World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF) and colleagues from Europe and south-east Asia.

It is on the agenda at the Oslo Redd Exchange, which aims to improve the workings of the UN’s Redd+ programme (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation).

Promise – and reality

The team studied some of south-east Asia’s most complex, carbon-rich forests: lowland forest in Indonesia, mountain rainforest in China and monsoon forest in Laos and Vietnam.

They report that they found that local communities – using simple tools like ropes and sticks – could produce forest carbon data on a par with the results obtained by professional foresters using high-tech devices.

The UN says its Redd+ projects must ensure local communities’ “full and effective participation.” But the study found that nearly half of official Redd+ projects, which depend on the accurate measurement of carbon stored in the forests, do not engage communities in this data gathering.

Finn Danielsen, the study’s lead author and senior ecologist at the Nordic Foundation for Environment and Development in Copenhagen, Denmark, says: “Saving the world’s forests requires us to close the massive gulf between international promises and realities on the ground.

“Our research shows that if more Redd+ projects were to include community monitoring, we would see a more just global effort to fight climate change that meaningfully incorporates insight from people who depend on forests for everything from their incomes to their food – and are eager to protect these precious natural resources as a result.”

Similarities ‘striking’

To establish whether forest dwellers could provide accurate monitoring of above-ground forest carbon stocks, the researchers trained community members in simple measuring techniques and sent them to 289 forest plots to measure the trees’ number, girth and biomass per hectare. They then compared the community measurements with those gathered by professional foresters using handheld computers and other elaborate aids.

The community monitoring was done with some basic equipment, apart from GPS devices: measuring tapes, ropes marked at intervals, paint and pencils.

The researchers say: “The results showed strikingly similar results between community members and professional foresters across countries and forest types.

“This corroborates a small but growing body of research suggesting that, when armed with the simplest of techniques and equipment, community members with limited education can accurately monitor forest biomass – previously thought to be the domain of highly-trained professionals.” They say the community data also met the standards of the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

Subekti Rahayu, an analyst at ICRAF who conducted fieldwork for the study, says: “We’re convinced that engaging communities is ultimately the most cost-effective approach. The small extra cost would be largely offset by its benefits to both local people – who would earn wages and gain training from these activities – and larger global efforts to address climate change.” – Climate News Network

Arctic is warmer than in 40,000 years

October 24, 2013 in Arctic, Climate, Permafrost, Polar ice, Science, Warming

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Gifford MIller collecting the now-exposed tundra plants on Baffin Island, Canada. These climate clocks suggest unprecented warmth in the Arctic Image: Gifford Miller via AGU

The now-exposed tundra plants on Baffin Island, Canada suggest exceptional warmth in the Arctic
Image: Gifford Miller via AGU

By Tim Radford

Average summer temperatures in the Canadian Arctic are now at the highest they’ve been for approaching 50,000 years, new evidence suggests.

LONDON, 24 October - Good news for Arctic mosses, if not for any other Arctic creatures: little tundra plants that have been buried under the Canadian ice can feel the sunlight for the first time in at least 44,000 years.

The implication is that the Arctic is now, and has been for the last 100 years, warmer than at any time in the last 44,000 years and perhaps for the last 120,000 years.

This also means that the Arctic is warmer now than it was in what geologists call the early Holocene, the end of the last Ice Age – when the peak summer sunlight was roughly nine per cent greater than it is today, according to Gifford Miller of the University of Colorado Boulder, in the US.

The mosses studied by Dr Miller, of course, could feel nothing: they were dead. But they could tell a story, all the same.

The Arctic ice cap has been in constant retreat for the last century, and glaciers almost everywhere have been melting: there are fears that the process has begun to accelerate as greenhouse gases concentrate in the atmosphere.

But as the ice recedes, it exposes evidence of the past, preserved over the millennia in the natural deep freeze.

Creating a timeline of climate change

The researchers used a technique called radiocarbon dating to establish that the mosses had been screened from the elements for at least 44,000 to 51,000 years. Since radiocarbon dating is only accurate for about 50,000 years, the mosses could have been buried for perhaps 120,000 years, since the last “interglacial” when the polar regions experienced a natural thaw.

Miller and colleagues report in Geophysical Research Letters that they did their fieldwork on Baffin Island in the Arctic Circle, and measured the radiocarbon ages of the dead mosses in at least four different locations.

They were careful to pick their 145 samples within one metre of the receding ice cap. Since the ice is receding at two or three metres a year, they could be sure the plant tissues had just been exposed that season.

Since the plants could only have taken root in sunlight, they were evidence that the exposed terrain was once free of ice. They became silent witnesses, telling researchers about the changes through time in the frozen North.

“The key piece here is just how unprecedented the warming of Arctic Canada is. This study really says the warming we are seeing is outside any kind of known natural variability, and it has to be due to increased greenhouse gases in the atmosphere,” said Miller.

Recent decades critical

Since radiocarbon clocks can only tick for so long, the Colorado team used ice cores to provide clues to the climate history of Baffin Island: each winter’s snowfall and summer melt is preserved in the icepack and like the growth rings in a tree provides a calendar of annual change.

The last time temperatures on Baffin Island were as high as today was about 120,000 years ago. About 5,000 years ago, after a mellow period in the early Holocene, the Arctic began to cool again, and stayed cool until the beginning of the last century.

“Although the Arctic has been warming since about 1900, the most significant warming in the region didn’t really start until the 1970s,” said Dr Miller.

“And it really is in the last 20 years that the warming signal from that region has been just stunning. All of Baffin Island is melting, and we expect all of the ice caps to disappear, even if there is no additional warming.” - Climate News Network

Mangrove map pinpoints carbon riches

October 19, 2013 in Climate, Greenhouse Gases, Marine ecology, Mitigation, Science, Vegetation changes, Warming

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A dense mangrove forest at Vashi Creek, near Mumbai,India Rudolph A Furtado via Wikimedia Commons

Packed with potential: a dense mangrove forest at Vashi Creek, near Mumbai, India
Image: Rudolph A Furtado via Wikimedia Commons

By Alex Kirby

Worldwide study of mangrove swamps’ carbon storage capacity will help scientists identify where efforts should be focused to protect these rich resources for climate change mitigation

LONDON, 19 October – Scientists have known for centuries that mangroves are one of the most carbon-rich ecosystems on Earth. Now that knowledge has been refined with the development of a map and model that pinpoint just how much carbon is stored in different mangrove areas around the world.

The discovery, published in Conservation Letters, will be of practical use because understanding this variability is critically important in developing policies and setting priorities to safeguard the carbon stores, and possibly expanding them.

The new model used by the researchers enabled them to map the variations among the world’s mangrove forests and pinpoint those areas with the most carbon.

All mangroves are important for storing carbon, but some that ranked particularly high in the study include forests in Sumatra, Borneo and New Guinea, on the Pacific coast of Colombia, and in Northern Ecuador.

Mark Spalding, principal investigator on the project and a marine scientist at the US-based worldwide conservation organisation The Nature Conservancy, says: “These results can help guide decisions regarding priority areas for the conservation and rehabilitation of mangroves for climate change mitigation.”

Laying foundations

The model is built on the work of field scientists and draws on studies from 35 countries. “This hard work on the ground by researchers lays the foundation for the task of modelling,” says the report’s lead author, James Hutchison, research assistant with the Department of Zoology’s Conservation Science Group at Cambridge University, UK.

“But it is through the combination of their many stories that we can build up a bigger picture and extrapolate to areas where no one has actually worked.”

Mangroves, like all plants, capture carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and store it in their leaves, roots and trunks (their biomass), and in the soil. However, unlike most other forests, mangrove soils do not have a maximum storage capacity, but keep on storing carbon in the soil, for centuries or even millennia.

In this way, mangroves actively contribute to mitigating climate change by continuously removing greenhouse gases from the atmosphere.

Carbon traps

Mangroves are also extremely productive ecosystems – more so than most other tropical forests. This means that they can increase their biomass faster and trap more carbon than their counterparts.

The researchers’ model indicates that mangroves contain 1.6% of the total tropical forest biomass, even though they occupy only 0.6% of the total tropical forest area.

When mangrove forests are cut down for timber, or converted to agriculture or to aquaculture ponds, almost all their carbon is released into the atmosphere. Their very high biomass means that clearing even small tracts of mangrove generates high volumes of CO2.

Spalding says: “Mangroves provide timber, fish resources and coastal protection functions worth millions of dollars. Maintaining these ecosystems is an absolute win-win strategy.”

But the mangroves are being lost far faster than most other forest types worldwide. The Nature Conservancy is working with the global not-for-profit organisation Wetlands International to document the ecosystem services provided by mangroves and to find ways to manage them that maximise those services. – Climate News Network

US nuclear closures could raise emissions

October 16, 2013 in Business, Climate, Energy, Greenhouse Gases, Nuclear power, Policy, Renewables, Science, Warming

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

First production of useable electricity from nuclear energy, at Argonne National Laboratory on December 20, 1951 Image: US Department of Energy via Wikimmedia Commons

The first useable electricity produced from nuclear energy was at Argonne National Laboratory, Idaho, in 1951
Image: US Department of Energy via Wikimedia Commons

By Paul Brown

Producing electricity with cheap gas threatens to force the shutdown of uncompetitive US nuclear plants, bringing the prospect of a big rise in the country’s greenhouse gas emissions

LONDON, 16 October – Nuclear power is fighting for its life in the US because the price of natural gas has plunged so low that it is struggling to compete.

This bleak assessment appears in the magazine Nuclear Energy Insider at a time when gas industry experts say that the price of gas may fall even lower in the US as more efficient ways to extract it from shale come on stream.

Although the Nuclear Energy Insider is supportive of the nuclear industry, the magazine says: “Nuclear is seen as yesterday’s power source, while natural gas is the energy of the here and now due to its low cost and domestic extraction.”

This is because it is cheaper to produce power from natural gas than nuclear even with a carbon tax, according to a recent study – although it points out that, in the long term, the price of gas may change.

Safety concerns

The magazine describes how some nuclear plants have managed to reduce running costs, and therefore the price of electricity, by refueling more often and increasing efficiency. However, as a result of the Fukushima nuclear power plant accident that followed the March 2011 earthquake in Japan, there is limited scope for cutting costs because of safety and regulatory concerns.

Other ways of cutting costs include integrating nuclear stations with other power plants, and so sharing IT and management functions.

However, David Hess, director of capacity optimisation at the World Nuclear Association, says that while there is always scope for some improvements, “the fact is that US plants are very efficient now”.

In some US markets, which are highly regulated, nuclear power is protected, and the extra cost of producing electricity is passed on to consumers in their bills. In other states, where there are unregulated markets and where generators compete merely on price, “operators may be massively exposed”, the magazine says.

The US has the largest number of nuclear reactors of any country in the world, with 104 operating in the 65 commercial nuclear power plants in 31 states. They produce around 20% of American electricity, so the future role of nuclear will make a significant difference to US greenhouse gas emissions.

Recently, US emissions have gone down because many electricity producers have switched from coal power plants to cheaper gas. Using gas reduces by about a third the amount of carbon dioxide produced for the same amount of electric power.

However, turning off nuclear stations because they are no longer economic would have the opposite effect, and would cause a massive and politically embarrassing rise in US emissions. Some nuclear plants will certainly be unable to compete if gas prices continue to fall.

Steven Mueller, president and chief executive officer of Southwestern Energy, predicting that gas prices would continue to go down, said the cost of a well to produce gas by fracking has dropped by 14% in the last five years.

National treasure

Speaking to the Oil & Gas Journal, Mueller said industry was still in the early stages of learning the best and cheapest way to exploit this resource. With unconventional gas the US “has a national treasure with long-term, low-price implications.” He did not believe that gas would be a short-term energy resource to be replaced by renewables.

The boom in American gas supplies is changing the world’s energy markets. Cheap coal no longer needed for America’s own electricity production is now exported to European power stations, and tanker supplies of Middle East gas once destined for the US have been diverted to Europe.

Whatever happens, the long hoped-for nuclear revival in the US now looks a remote possibility. If old nuclear power stations whose capital cost has long been written off cannot compete with gas, then new nuclear build has no chance.

The last hopes for new nuclear stations still seem to be countries in other parts of the world with high energy prices and a reliance on imported fuel. Most of Europe has plumped for renewables as a better long-term bet, but the UK is still hoping to do a deal with French, Chinese and Japanese companies to build new nuclear stations.

The British Government has been in negotiation for more than a year with the French giant EDF to build two reactors, costing £14 billion, at Hinkley Point in Somerset. EDF, owned by the French Government, is demanding guaranteed electricity price subsidies for 35 years in order to take the risk on new build.

The price EDF is demanding would be double the existing price of electricity in the UK, and might not go down well with consumers who will have to foot the bill.  Another stumbling block is that the subsidies will breach EU rules on competition and will be resisted by environment groups, and possibly by countries such as Germany that are phasing out nuclear in favour of renewables. An announcement on a deal is expected within days. – Climate News Network