Downsizing may be the new nuclear option

Downsizing may be the new nuclear option

As delays and spiralling costs hit plans for big nuclear power stations, building thousands of small reactors could be part of a strategy to fight climate change.

LONDON, 9 October, 2015 – Nuclear reactors that will fit on the back of a truck are the great new hope for nuclear industry expansion.

These small modular reactors (SMRs) are being backed by the US, China and the UK as part of a low-carbon electricity strategy to deploy alongside renewables.

Several manufacturers are designing and building prototype reactors that are similar to the power providers for icebreakers and nuclear submarines. They vary in capacity up to 30 megawatts − enough to produce enough electricity for a small town.

All the major manufacturers, electricity suppliers, regulators and some enthusiastic politicians will attend an SMR summit in London for two days from October 20, with the aim of getting the reactors from the design and development stage to widespread deployment.

Critical time

The push to develop SMRs comes at a critical time for the nuclear industry as the building of traditional large nuclear power stations is increasingly marked by cost over-runs and delays.

They are also seen as out of step with modern grids, where small-scale renewables close to the point of use are beginning to dominate.

The idea of SMRs is that they can fit the modern pattern and be deployed close to population centres where the power is needed, so avoiding the 10% power loss from large reactors that is inevitable because of the vast distances the power is transmitted.

In most countries, safety and the need for large quantities of cooling water dictate that traditional large nuclear power stations are sited on the coast, or in remote places isolated far from big towns and cities.

The UK’s National Nuclear Laboratory, a government body, believes there is vast potential for SMRs, estimating that they could provide 65-85 gigawatts of new electricity production by 2035, valued at £250-£400 billion (about US$400-615 bn) of business.

If this estimate is anywhere near accurate, this would mean around 3,000 small reactors being deployed worldwide in the next 20 years.

“The next two or three years will be critical in development if small modular reactors are to be deployed extensively in the next 10 years”

Gordon Waddington, of Rowan House consultants, will chair the London meeting. He was formerly a leading engineer with Rolls-Royce, is an expert on the nuclear industry, and believes that SMRs are vital in combating climate change.

Despite this, he says that there are considerable technical problems in the UK over the  deployment of SMRs, with regard to meeting safety and security requirements − including the safeguarding of nuclear materials − while keeping the power produced at an economic price.

The price tag of £1bn-2bn per reactor is well below the £24 billion for current large reactors, but is still a considerable outlay for an as yet untried technology. “It would take a significant leap of faith for any utility to build the first reactor,” Waddington says.

There are also other problems, such as getting local approval for siting the reactors, and getting agreement on prices for the electricity.

However, Waddington also sees it as a “once-in-a-generation opportunity” to get involved in an industry as it takes off, and for a country like the UK to develop SMRs for the domestic market and also for export.

He says: “The next two or three years will be critical in development if small modular reactors are to be deployed extensively in the next 10 years.”

Amber Rudd, the UK government’s Energy and Climate Change Secretary, who has reduced wind and solar subsidies, is keen to underwrite the nuclear industry.

At the governing Conservative party’s annual conference this week, she praised the work of Sheffield University’s Nuclear Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre, and specifically its work on the next generation of SMRs.

Cost to consumers

However, she also revealed that the UK is reviewing its energy policy, which means that support for nuclear − with the extra cost to consumers it will involve − might not be acceptable when wind and solar are already much cheaper, and when electricity demand in the UK is going down.

So far, however, politicians and the nuclear industry keep repeating the myth that the UK’s existing nuclear stations are going to close down in the next decade.

George Osborne, the UK chancellor, last week gave this as the main reason for his government offering a £2 billion loan guarantee to the Chinese if they will help new nuclear construction in Britain.

This is despite the fact that the French company EDF, which owns all but one of Britain’s nuclear stations, has a policy of investing in the old stations and seeking five-year extensions in the lifetimes of all its reactors – in one case, for 20 years.

Some have already been granted extensions and, under British regulations, these extensions could be repeated every five years for decades, provided the reactors remain safe. – Climate News Network

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Climate change raises danger for urban heat islands

Climate change raises danger for urban heat islands

Scientists warn that densely-packed cities face even greater health hazards as greenhouse gases continue to push up temperatures.

LONDON, 6 October, 2015 – However hot the weather gets, it will be worse in the cities – and scientists in the US have just worked out how much worse by measuring the notorious urban heat island effect.

They planted 150 sensors in and around Madison, the Wisconsin state capital, in time for the heatwaves that hit the US in 2012, and found that the city experienced twice as many hours at temperatures above 90° Fahrenheit (32°C) than the surrounding rural areas.

Sealed roads and pavements, bricks, tiles, concrete and slate all absorb heat. But densely-packed cities also generate their own heat − from traffic exhausts, lighting, central heating, and air conditioning.

Greater investment in air conditioning will make things worse, as all the heat inside buildings will be dumped into the streets, adding to the stress.

Cooling mechanism

Furthermore, water – which, when it evaporates, cools the grass and the trees – runs off the urban pavements into subterranean drains, so cities surrender another natural cooling mechanism.

The consequence is that any urban area is likely to be several degrees warmer than the surrounding countryside. Half of the world’s billions now live in cities; by 2050, it will be two-thirds.

Extremes of heat are likely to become more pronounced and more frequent as global average temperatures climb in step with greenhouse gas discharges from the combustion of fossil fuels, so the crowded cities could become a serious health hazard, especially in the tropics.

As temperatures stayed above 40°C in southern Pakistan in June this year, so many died that cemeteries in Karachi  ran out of space. About 65,000 people had to be treated for heat stroke.

“Projections are underestimating the amount of heat urban communities need to prepare for”

“Not only do heatwaves intensify the urban heat island, but the heat island also intensifies the heatwaves, which is pretty much the opposite of what you’d want,” says Jason Schatz, an environmental researcher at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

He and research colleague Christopher Kucharik report in Environmental Research Letters that Madison’s airport recorded 39 days with temperatures higher than 90°F in 2012. Downtown Madison experienced more than 49 days of dangerous temperatures.

Conversely, when a polar vortex delivered extremes of cold to the northern and eastern US in the winter of 2013-14, Madison gained from the urban heat island effect as city-dwellers experienced 40% fewer hours at below-freezing temperatures.

Frequent extremes

Climate scientists have repeatedly warned that climate change will bring greater and more frequent extremes of heat and drought that could compromise electricity supplies, which in turn would amplify the risks to health.

Other scientists have tried to find a form of city planning that might relieve the city-dweller, and have confirmed that the more trees and green spaces, the better the environment.

Madison normally experiences nine days a year with temperatures higher than 90°F, but climate scientists forecast that, by mid-century, this temperature will be surpassed on average by 29 to 37 days. And these projections do not allow for the urban heat island effect − the extra swelter factor at the heart of every big city.

“Cities are where most people will encounter future warming, and projections are underestimating the amount of heat urban communities need to prepare for,” Dr Kucharik warns. – Climate News Network

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Warmer winters slow the growth of forest giants

Warmer winters slow the growth of forest giants

Trees coming into leaf later and bumblebees with shorter tongues are just two of the impacts on nature that researchers are linking to global warming.

LONDON, 4 October, 2015 − Spring is arriving ever earlier as greenhouse gas levels rise and global temperatures warm, and the northern hemisphere growing season is now two weeks longer  than it was in 1900.

But, paradoxically, new research shows that forest giants that once responded to the early spring are beginning to slow down – because they miss the chill.

Yongshuo Fu, an Earth system scientist at Peking University, Beijing, and colleagues report in Nature journal that they have measured a slowdown in the response of oaks and other forest citizens to the change in temperatures and carbon dioxide levels.

Where these species, on average, unfolded their first leaves four days earlier, with every 1˚C rise in temperature, they now do so only 2.3 days earlier for every additional 1˚C.

Ever-earlier spring

The reason is that, to take full advantage of the ever-earlier spring, these deciduous species first need to feel a period of chill. And as temperatures on average rise, the extent of true winter chill diminishes.

The researchers concede that there may be other or additional reasons why alder (Alnus glutinosa), silver birch (Betula pendula), horse chestnut (Aesculus hippocastanum), beech (Fagus sylvatica), lime (Tilia cordata), oak (Quercus robur) and ash (Fraxinus excelsior) seem to be slowing in their leafy response.

But since many deciduous trees depend on a frosty spell to release them from their periods of dormancy, it seems a likely factor.

The scientists show once again that as humans change the climate, they are also changing the ecosystems that support all life on Earth

To identify the slowdown, the researchers used data from the Pan-European Phenology Project, which for 33 years has monitored the unfolding of the first leaves of all seven species at 1,245 sites across central Europe.

The scientists used direct observation, and confirmed their hypothesis with computer models to show once again that as humans change the climate, by increasing carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere as a consequence of the combustion of fossil fuels, they are also changing the ecosystems that support all life on Earth.

And in the same week, US scientists report that as global warming begins to change the mix of mountain wildflowers each spring, pollinating insects too are beginning to respond.

Nicole Miller-Struttmann, a biologist at the State University of New York, and colleagues report in Science journal that, in the last 40 years, the tongues of two species of alpine bumblebee have grown shorter.

Bumblebees need long tongues to reach deep into the flower tubes of the plants they favour. But warmer summers have meant that the flowers they favour most in the Rocky Mountains have become less frequent, and pollinators that once specialised have now become generalist foragers, grabbing honey where they can.

In the course of doing so, two that are commonly found at high altitudes, species Bombus balteatus and B. sylvicola, have evolved shorter tongues.

Gaining altitude

The mix of flowers at lower altitudes has become impoverished, and although mountain flowers have been gaining altitude over the decades, the gain in higher growth has not been enough to offset the loss for the bees.

The research confirms a wider picture of change as a consequence of global warming. In the Americas, plants are colonising higher slopes, and in Europe the bumblebee has also been feeling the heat, and losing part of its range.

In general, high altitude sites seem to be warming faster than the lowlands.

Research of this kind provides a local snapshot of global change, and what it means for individual species in nature’s mix.

“We see broader bumblebee foraging niches, immigration by short-tongued bumblebees, and shorter tongue length within resident bee populations as floral resources have dwindled,” the scientists conclude.

“In remote mountain habitats − largely isolated from habitat destruction, toxins, and pathogens − evolution is helping wild bees keep pace with climate change.” – Climate News Network

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Climate threatens Pacific with seesaw sea levels

Climate threatens Pacific with seesaw sea levels

Scientists say coasts and communities in the Pacific region face more extreme weather hazards as climate change magnifies the devastating El Niño effect.

LONDON, 28 September, 2015 − El Niño, that periodic bubble of heat that hits the tropical Pacific every few years, has nothing to do with climate change – but the phenomenon could be made much more devastating by climate change, according to two new studies.

And that is bad news for a region where vulnerable coastlines are already at risk from serious storms, floods and rising sea levels.

One set of researchers reports in Science Advances that, in response to El Niño, Western Pacific sea levels will fall and rise more frequently by 2100. When they fall, they threaten the corals with a foul-smelling tide; when they rise, they threaten to flood the atolls.

And another group reports in Nature Geoscience that the alternating impact of a blistering El Niño and its chillier sister, La Niña, could bring more extreme flooding and more damaging erosion to the entire Pacific region.

Scientists have already warned once this year that a periodic cycle of warming and cooling in the Pacific could increase in frequency.

Bubble of heat

El Niño is a cyclic phenomenon that tends to manifest itself at Christmas time, which is why, long ago, Peruvian fishermen started giving it the name that means “The Child” in Spanish.

A great bubble of ocean heat moves eastward across the Pacific, causing sea levels in one place to rise, in another to fall, bringing floods and storms to the normally dry west coasts of the Americas, and bringing drought and even forest fires to the rainforests of Indonesia.

A notorious El Niño in 1998 helped make that year one of the hottest ever recorded, and since then meteorologists and climate scientists have been puzzling about what will happen to this natural cycle as carbon dioxide levels rise − in response to human combustion of fossil fuels − and in turn raise average global temperatures.

Matthew Widlansky, a climate researcher at the International Pacific Research Centre in Hawai’i, and colleagues report in that global warming will enhance El Niño-linked sea-level extremes.

This, in turn, will mean very low sea levels in the western Pacific, followed six months later by a seesaw in north-south sea levels, in which the seas drop by as much as 30 centimetres, to expose vulnerable coral ecosystems. And these could double in frequency.

“Utilising many years of data enabled us to definitively identify how the major climate drivers affect coastal hazards across the Pacific”

“The possibility of more frequent flooding in some areas and sea level drops in others would have severe consequences for the vulnerable coastlines of Pacific islands,” Dr Widlansky says.

Patrick Barnard, a coastal geologist at the US Geological Survey in Santa Cruz, California, and colleagues report that they took a different line of approach to arrive at a similar conclusion.

Thirteen research institutions looked at data from 48 Pacific beaches in the US, Canada, Japan, Australia, New Zealand and Hawai’i from 1979 to 2012 to see if patterns in coastal change could be linked to climate cycles such as El Niño and La Niña. They too found that climate change was likely to make such events worse.

“Shoreline behaviour can be controlled by so many different factors, both locally and regionally, that it’s been difficult to isolate the signal until now,” Dr Barnard says.

Predict impacts

“However, utilising the many years of data we were able pull together in this study enabled us to definitively identify how the major climate drivers affect coastal hazards across the Pacific. This will greatly enhance our ability to predict the broader impacts of climate change at the coast.”

C o-author Mitchell Harley, a civil and environmental engineer at the University of New South Wales, Australia, says: “Coastlines of the Pacific are particularly dynamic as they are exposed to storm waves generated often thousands of miles away.

“This research is of particular importance as it can help Pacific coastal communities prepare for the effects of changing storm regimes driven by climate oscillations like El Niño and La Niña.

“To help us complete the puzzle, for the next step we would like to look at regions of the Pacific like South America and the Pacific Islands, where very limited shoreline data currently exists.” – Climate News Network

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All nations must share blame or lose climate battle

All nations must share blame or lose climate battle

Brazilian expert says developing countries must also play their part in cutting emissions if the world is to avoid dangerous climate change.

LONDON, 27 September, 2015 −The developing world’s most polluting nations must abandon the decades-old rhetoric that blames rich countries for climate change and share responsibility for reducing emissions to avoid dangerous overheating, according to Brazil’s best-known scientist.

José Goldemberg, who took office as president of the São Paulo Research Foundation (FAPESP) this month, named Brazil, India and Indonesia − which account for 14% of global emissions − as the three key developing countries that need to abandon an outdated vision of development and use more energy-efficient technologies.

“Without these countries – which were exempt from reducing their emissions by the Kyoto Protocol – making significant efforts, it will be impossible to avoid a global warming of 2°C by 2100, a value that scientists consider as the maximum tolerable to prevent more dramatic climate change than those already taking place,” he said.

Goldemberg, a nuclear physicist and alternative energy expert, said on taking office that it was time for Brazilian scientists to play a leadership role in society and shake off the “ivory tower” approach that prevents academics engaging with the outside world.

Danger threshold

In an open letter to delegates attending the Paris negotiations in December, which are aimed at reaching a global agreement to keep temperatures below the 2°C danger threshold, he called for a new approach from the developing world.

“The United States, China and the European Union, whose emissions account for about 45% of the [world] total have announced ambitious and quantifiable goals.

“Russia and Japan contribute to 7%. The remaining 48% of emissions originate from more than 150 other countries whose individual contributions are less than 1%, with the exception of India, Brazil and Indonesia, who represent 14%.

“Several developing countries have argued that reducing carbon emissions will seriously affect their development, and that the continued use of fossil fuels at low prices is still the best option available to them.

“This is an outdated vision of development. It was valid during the 19th and 20th centuries, when countries industrialised, but it was precisely the indiscriminate use of fossil fuels that has led to the serious pollution problems we are facing today.”

He held up China as a country that has embraced more energy-efficient technologies and renewable energy sources as a new avenue for sustainable development. It had enabled China to announce that, from 2030, it will reduce its coal consumption – and, consequently, greenhouse gas emissions.

“Several developing countries have argued
the continued use of fossil fuels at low prices
is still the best option available to them”

Goldemberg then launched into an attack on his own country’s failure to capitalise on its own success in producing ethanol from sugar cane − “an excellent substitute for gasoline”.

He said: “Ethanol is non-polluting, unlike gasoline, and is renewable because cane is a crop that grows every year. It’s like solar energy transformed into a liquid.”

He said Brazil had managed to produce large quantities as a cost that could compete with petrol and had assumed global leadership in the field, but government behaviour – “the result of personal and ideological idiosyncrasies” – had seriously damaged the industry.

Because the price of ethanol had been pegged to the price of petrol in order to try to reduce inflation, the production of ethanol had been hit, and 100 of the existing 450 plants faced serious financial problems and went out of business.

The industry could contribute to the sustainability of the planet and generate millions of jobs, but is now fighting hard to survive. The 25 billion litres of ethanol used in Brazil as a substitute for gasoline reduces carbon emissions by 50 million tonnes − 10% of the country’s emissions, excluding deforestation.

Great potential

He said that in 2008, before the Brazilian government began to interfere, ethanol production was expanding in Brazil and Central America and India.

Africa also had great potential because it was suitable for growing sugar cane, and there was a ready export market to Europe and the US, which could not produce ethanol so cheaply from corn and other crops.

He accepted that there had been criticism of ethanol because some experts claimed that it contributed towards deforestation in the Amazon and damaged food production, and some doubted that it actually reduced the emission of gases that cause global warming.

These issues, he said, had now been fully examined in a study involving 137 experts from 29 countries and 82 scientific institutions, in a report entitled Bioenergy and Sustainability.

Goldemberg hoped that the report would help to inform people and eliminate many of the barriers raised against the use of ethanol, which, in many countries, could significantly contribute to the overall reduction of greenhouse gas emissions. – Climate News Network

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Harder rains set to fall as the world warms

Harder rains set to fall as the world warms

Scientists pinpoint when global warming emerged – and predict increasingly greater climate extremes in hot, cold and wet weather trends.

LONDON, 26 September, 2015 – In not quite the words of the singer Bob Dylan, a hard rain is going to fall. Australian scientists predict that precipitation extremes with large variability will emerge in the Northern Hemisphere in the coming decades as part of a “wettening trend”.

In other words, an even harder rain will fall − and then you’ll really know that the climate has changed.

Andrew King, a climate system scientist at the Climate Change Research Centre at the University of New South Wales and at the University of Melbourne, is lead author of a report in the journal Environmental Research Letters.

He and colleagues say they have pinpointed the moment when global warming, as a result of human influences, emerged in the historic record in some parts of the world. They can now also predict when it will become even clearer in places so far untouched.

Story of warming

Although climate change can be predicted, it can only be identified after the event. That is because, while climate is the average of all the extremes of weather, the weather can get pretty extreme, even within a stable climate.

From the late 1980s onwards, global average temperatures began to tell a consistent story of warming.

But if those temperatures are now on the increase because of the continual rise in carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere, as a consequence of the human exploitation of fossil fuels, then there must have been some moment in the past when the signs of change could have been detected, and when a new climate trend developed.

Such questions sound academic, but the better humans understand the past, the more likely they are to be prepared for the future.

“It is likely to bring pronounced precipitation events, on top of the already existing trend
towards increasingly wet winters”

So Dr King and his colleagues used state-of-the-art computer models to simulate not just climate change, but the way that extreme events have begun to change. “Both hot and cold extremes have already emerged across many areas,” they say.

The scientists examined average and extreme temperatures because these would, of course, be most sensitive to global warming − and therefore evidence should show in historic records.

“Remarkably, our research shows you could already see clear signs of global warming in the tropics by the 1960s, but in parts of Australia, south-east Asia and Africa it was visible as early as the 1940s,” Dr King says.

Changing pattern

First the scientists saw a rise in average temperatures; then the changing pattern of extremes of climate began to confirm the picture.

There are exceptions: the continental US, especially on the East Coast, has yet to show any obvious warming signals, but these could appear in the next decade.

And although greater warming means more evaporation and more precipitation, in many places this heavier rainfall is still so far within the range of “normal” extreme weather.

“We expect the first heavy precipitation events with a clear global warming signal will appear during winters in Russia, Canada and northern Europe over the next 10 to 30 years,” says Ed Hawkins, a meteorologist at the University of Reading in the UK, and one of the report’s co-authors.

“It is likely to bring pronounced precipitation events, on top of the already existing trend towards increasingly wet winters in these regions.” – Climate News Network

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Forest loss and land degradation fuel climate crisis

Forest loss and land degradation fuel climate crisis

UN studies show that the combined effects of degraded farmland and the felling and burning of trees are costing the planet trillions of dollars in ecosystem losses.

LONDON, 25 September, 2015 – The planet’s forests have dwindled by 3% − equivalent almost to the land area of South Africa − in the last 25 years, according to a new assessment by the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation.

While the planet continues to lose its forests – albeit at a slower rate – through felling, burning or being turned into farmland, another UN study predicts that the economic cost of degraded agricultural land in the form of lost ecosystem services now amounts to up to US$10 trillion a year.

Within 10 years, 50 million people could have been forced to abandon their homes and livelihoods to become migrants. If all those people were assembled in one place, they would constitute the planet’s 28th biggest nation in terms of population.

Increasing levels

Forest loss and farmland degradation are both part of climate change accountancy. The rise in greenhouse gases is in part linked to the loss of forest cover to soak up the carbon dioxide released by the burning of fossil fuels.

But increasing levels of heat and drought are likely to accompany climate change, increasing the area of desert or land too arid to support life and industry.

So in losing forest, and in watching farmland become saline because of over-irrigation, or exhausted by intensive cultivation or overgrazing, or simply increasingly too arid to support vegetation, humans are witnessing the loss of all sorts of valuable services not normally recorded by accountants.

Ideas such as “natural capital” and ecosystem services are attempts to place a practical value on things that nature normally delivers for free.

The percentage of global land area hit
by drought doubled between the 1970s
and the early years of this century

That is because living things – plants and soil fauna in particular – provide food, fibres, medicines and building materials, as well as helping to provide clean water, regulate disease, and recycle nutrients.

The United Nations University report believes that the loss of these services could now be between $6.3 trillion and $10.6 trillion a year in value. This is between 10% and 17% of global gross domestic product.

Alternatively, the “lost services” per square kilometre amount to between $43,000 and $72,000. Or, to put it yet another way, that is between $870 and $1,450 per person per year for everyone on the planet.

And 57% of world agricultural land is now either moderately or severely degraded, the report says. The percentage of global land area hit by drought doubled between the 1970s and the early years of this century.

Ecosystem services

One-third of Africa is threatened by desertification, and land cover changes since 2000 are responsible for half to three-quarters of the value of lost ecosystem services.

Separate from this, but also part of the overall climate change accounting equation, has been the steady loss of forests.

Researchers recently completed the first realistic “census” of the planet’s forests, and arrived at an inventory of more than three trillion trees, but also the conclusion that humans were destroying forests at the rate of 15 billion trees a year.

The latest UN global forest assessment acknowledges that, 25 years ago, around 7.3 million hectares were being lost each year. This slowed to 3.3m hectares a year between 2010 and 2015.

Tropical forests were hardest hit, with a loss rate of 10%. A decline in “natural forest” has been offset by a 66% rise in planted forest, and Australia in particular has actually gained 1.5m hectares of forested land in the last five years. – Climate News Network

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Ecuador’s plants head uphill to escape warmth

Ecuador's plants head uphill to escape warmth

In just two centuries many plant species have scrambled 500 metres up the Andes in search of cooler temperatures, Danish scientists say.

LONDON, 20 September, 2015 – In 1802, the great explorer Alexander von Humboldt went up a mountain in Ecuador, and made a note of every plant and its elevation as he climbed.

In 2012, Danish researchers retraced his footsteps. They found that, in response to global warming, the plants Humboldt recorded had moved more than 500 metres uphill.

When Humboldt, whose “physical tableau” became one of the oldest plant data sets in the world, climbed the 6,268-metre Chimborazo volcano the highest plant was at 4,600 m. Naia Morueta-Holme  of Aarhus University and colleagues report in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that they found that the vegetation had gone up in the world.

“Right up at 5,185 m, we found the last trace of vegetation, a defiant little plant belonging to the sunflower family and half-covered in snow – in full flower in spite of the cold conditions, the thin air and the harsh wind,” she said.

Wholesale change

The scientists found changes all the way up the mountain. Individual species have moved up 500 m in the last 210 years. Glaciers are in retreat, the snow cover is lighter, and the lower parts of the mountain are now cultivated.

Humboldt’s tableau provides an insight into potential response to climate change as a consequence of rising carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere, driven by fossil fuel combustion by human society.

“Even though the plants have kept up on average until now, we see many individual species that are lagging behind, while others – especially common species that are good at spreading and living under many different conditions – are moving upslope.

“We can thus expect even more drastic changes in the vegetation in the future, and there are concerns about how the rare and specialised species will survive, particularly in the tropics, where most of them grow,” Dr Morueta-Holme, now at the University of California at Berkeley, said.

Airborne menace

And according to a new study in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B, in the far north the Arctic mosquitoes are hatching earlier and growing faster. Lauren Culler of Dartmouth College in the US and colleagues made computer models of mosquito populations as a consequence of climate change and predict that, as Arctic temperatures rise by 2°C, the probability of mosquito survival and emergence from the tundra snowmelt would increase by half.

Since Arctic mosquitoes have a reputation for being more than usually ferocious, this could be uncomfortable for the caribou and any other potential donors of a blood meal. And since mosquitoes are also pollinators of tundra plants, and prey for Arctic birds, the overall impact on Arctic ecology could be significant.

The scientists used laboratory studies and fieldwork in western Greenland to follow the changing life cycle of the mosquito: warmer spring temperatures caused the creatures to emerge two weeks early and their larval and pupal stages were shortened by 10% for every 1°C increase in temperature.

Diving beetles consumed more of the immature mosquitoes, but they were at risk for shorter periods, so overall their chance of survival was greater. At 2°C, the chance of survival increased 53%. And as the insects increased in abundance, and moved further north, Dr Culler predicted “negative consequences for the health and reproduction of caribou.” – Climate News Network

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India in disarray over strategy on global warming

India in disarray over strategy on global warming

Researchers in India say its action on climate change is suffering because, unlike China, it has not developed the institutions needed to co-ordinate policy.

NEW DELHI, 18 September, 2015 – India, the world’s third largest emitter of greenhouse gases (GHGs) after China and the US, is also one of the countries most vulnerable to climate change.

Yet some of India’s own academics say their government’s climate policy is seriously flawed because of institutional shortcomings, poorly co-ordinated official action, and insufficient sharing of available knowledge.

Navroz Dubash, senior fellow at the New Delhi-based Centre for Policy Research (CPR), is the lead author of a working paper and a subsequent policy brief on how India can give its climate policy effective institutional form.

He identifies the main problems as a lack of continuity in institutions, lack of co-ordination among government departments, and limited ways of aggregating knowledge.

Large array      

“On international engagement, it is hard to be pro-active when the task of keeping up with the large array of discussions is so great,” he says. “To be pro-active requires developing a long-term strategy, assessing its merits, and then gradually promoting the idea over time.”

Dubash argues that India needs to learn from the example of neighbouring China, the world’s biggest emitter of GHGs, where climate change policy is organised around a National Leading Committee on Climate Change (NLCCC) headed by the prime minister.

Early 2008 saw the establishment in India of the prime minister’s special envoy on climate change to co-ordinate the ministries dealing with work related to climate change − from improving crop varieties and energy efficiency to cutting vehicle emissions and conserving natural resources.

“That ushered in a co-ordinated period of work leading to much progress on climate action,” Dubash says. “ But, two years later, the prime minister’s special office was dismantled following a tussle for control with the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change(MoEFCC).”

“If the objective is to make climate change action relevant to all, then one has to build logical links across departments and ministries”

Since then, he says, India has struggled to co-ordinate its work on climate issues, despite a proliferation of institutions for climate governance.

“The office of the prime minister’s special envoy on climate change did not only ensure proper co-ordination, but also helped to generate forward momentum on the National Action Plan on Climate Change (NAPCC),” Dubash says.

Then there is the matter of the proliferating missions. Under the NAPCC, India formed eight separate missions for energy efficiency – such as sustainable habitat, agriculture, water − dedicated to combating climate change.

Dubash says: “At the domestic level, if the objective is to make climate change action relevant to all, then one has to build logical links across departments and ministries. Here, the lack of a co-ordinating agency becomes an obstacle.”

Rajeshwari Raina, senior scientist at the National Institute of Science, Technology and Development Studies in New Delhi, says: “By structuring the NAPCC components as separate programmes, the government has actually ensured that there is no co-ordination to make meaningful linkages with common interests on reforming the sectors that produce the greenhouse gas emissions.”

This capacity shortfall, Dubash argues, means there is no institutional framework to help officials to understand the complex linkages between areas such as energy, urbanisation, agriculture, and water.


Beyond that, he believes, the institutions that do exist are understaffed, and over-burdened. For example, the MoEFCC has only six full-time staff in its climate unit, which has to cover numerous tasks ranging from keeping track of global negotiations to understanding linkages to trade, aviation and maritime issues.

“This seems like a large set of tasks for six people,” says Dubash, who points to the vastly different approach in China.

“The NLCCC in China co-ordinates the activities of the 27 government agencies addressing climate change. By housing it within the extremely powerful apex decision-making body, the National Development and Reform Commission, China has ensured that climate change is treated as an important and highly-sensitive political and economic issue.” – Climate News Network

  • Athar Parvaiz, a freelance journalist based in Srinagar and New Delhi, specialises in climate and the environment.; Twitter: @AtharParvaiz

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Receding snowpack highlights impacts of California drought

Receding snowpack highlights impacts of California drought

Evidence preserved in tree rings shows that Sierra Nevada snow cover is the lowest for five centuries – and rising temperatures will only make things worse.

LONDON, 16 September, 2015 – The snowpack on the Sierra Nevada range between California and Nevada is lower than at any time in the last 500 years.

Researchers report in Nature Climate Change that the level of snow at the end of March on the high hills was just one-twentieth of the average for the last half century.

Snow is winter rain that doesn’t run off the hills immediately. So in Mediterranean climates − characterised by winter rainfall and warm, dry summers − the snowpack is a vital resource.

It melts steadily through spring and summer to keep reservoir levels high, deliver a steady flow to hydroelectricity generating plants, to irrigate crops through the ripening season, feed the lawn sprinklers in suburban gardens ,and keep the wild woodlands moist enough to damp down the risk of wildfire.

Worst in history

In the past four years, California has been in the grip of the worst drought in recorded history. But systematic rainfall and direct temperature records date only from European settlement.

Now bioscientist Valerie Trouet and colleagues from the Laboratory of Tree Ring Research at the University of Arizona, Tucson, have looked carefully at proxy evidence preserved in the annual growth rings of more than 1,500 blue oaks (Quercus douglasii) at 33 locations in California’s Central Valley.

Satellite images of the Sierra Nevada, comparing March snow cover in 2010 and 2015. Image: NASA/MODIS

Satellite images comparing Sierra Nevada snow cover in 2010 and 2015. Image: NASA/MODIS

From that and other data, they have reconstructed a timeline and a record of the annual winter precipitation in California from 1405 to 2005.

“Our study really points to the extreme character of the 2014-2015 winter,” Dr Trouet says. “This is not just unprecedented over 80 years – it’s unprecedented over 500 years.”

“We should be prepared for this type of
snow drought to occur much more frequently
because of rising temperatures”

Periodic cycles of drought are, and always have been, a feature of California life. Until the last year or so, researchers have been reluctant to blame the drought on man-made global warming and climate change, driven by the release of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere as a consequence of the combustion of fossil fuels.

But as the drought has endured, and shown every sign of being hotter and drier than any experienced before, scientists have cautiously begun to invoke climate change as a factor.

Unprecedented heat

One team has warned that the present unprecedented heat and drought could become the “new normal”, and another that the region could become increasingly vulnerable to such drought.

Although householders, farmers, growers and city dwellers are now subject to state-imposed water restrictions, the natural world, too, has begun to respond − and even the mountains themselves.

Geophysicists have reported that because the burden of snow and water is so light, the mountains have risen as much as 15 millimetres.

Dr Trouet and her colleagues warn that what is happening now could happen again, and again.

“We should be prepared for this type of snow drought to occur much more frequently because of rising temperatures,” she says. “Anthropogenic warming is making the drought more severe.” – Climate News Network

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