Weather extremes will be the norm as world warms

Weather extremes will be the norm as world warms

The World Bank says the Earth is on an unavoidable path towards a 1.5˚C heat rise by mid-century – but it could reach 4˚C by 2100 unless immediate action is taken to avoid dire impacts for millions of people.

LONDON, 26 November, 2014 − As the planet continues to warm, heat waves and other weather extremes that happen perhaps once in hundreds of years − if ever − would become the “new climate normal”, a World Bank report says.

The consequences for development would be severe: failing harvests, shifting water resources, rising sea-levels, and millions of people’s livelihoods put at risk.

The World Bank report, the third in its Turn Down the Heat series, says even very ambitious mitigation action taken today will not stop global average temperatures reaching about 1.5˚C above their pre-industrial level by the middle of this century. They are already 0.8˚C higher, and likely − on present trends − to reach about 4˚C by 2100.

Poor and vulnerable

“Today’s report confirms what scientists have been saying – past emissions have set an unavoidable course to warming over the next two decades, which will affect the world’s poorest and most vulnerable people the most,” said Jim Yong Kim, President of the World Bank Group.

“We’re already seeing record-breaking temperatures occurring more frequently, rainfall increasing in intensity in some places, and drought-prone regions like the Mediterranean becoming drier. These changes make it more difficult to reduce poverty. . . They also have serious consequences for development budgets.”

“Tackling climate change is a matter of reason,
but also of justice”

The report was prepared for the Bank by the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (PIK), and the UK independent thinktank, the Overseas Development Institute.

The report’s lead author, Professor Hans Joachim Schellnhuber, director of PIK, said: “Tackling climate change is a matter of reason, but also of justice. Global warming impacts in the next decades are likely to hit those hardest that contributed least to global greenhouse gas emissions: the global poor.”

Chain of impacts

Dr Bill Hare, founder and CEO of the Berlin-based not-for-profit organisation, Climate Analytics, is another lead author of the report. He said: “Assessing the entire chain of climate impacts − for example, how heat waves trigger crop yield declines, and how those trigger health impacts − is key to understanding the risks that climate change poses to development.”

Many of the worst projected impacts can still be avoided by holding warming below 2˚C, the report says. It analyses the probable impacts of 0.8˚C, 2˚C and 4˚C of extra heat on agricultural production, water resources, ecosystem services and coastal vulnerability across Latin America and the Caribbean, the Middle East and North Africa, and parts of Europe and Central Asia.

A common threat across the three regions is the risk posed by heat extremes. State-of-the-art climate modelling shows that “highly unusual” extremes − similar to the heat waves in the US in 2012 and in Russia and Central Asia in 2010 − would increase rapidly under a 4˚C emission pathway. It also shows that the risks of reduced crop yields and production losses increase significantly above 1.5˚C to 2˚C.

Key findings across the regions include:

  • Latin America and the Caribbean: Heat extremes and changing rainfall will damage harvests, water supplies and biodiversity. In Brazil, without further adaptation, crop yields could decrease by 2050 by up to 70% for soya and 50% for wheat with 2˚C of warming. Ocean acidification, sea level rise, cyclones and temperature changes will affect coastal livelihoods, tourism, health, food and water security, particularly in the Caribbean.
  • Middle East and North Africa: A large increase in heat waves, combined with warmer average temperatures, will put intense pressure on already scarce water resources, seriously affecting human consumption and regional food security. In Jordan, Egypt, and Libya, harvests could fall by up to 30% with 1.5˚ to 2˚C warming by 2050. Migration and climate-related pressure on resources may increase the risk of conflict.
  • Western Balkans and Central Asia: Melting glaciers and shifts in the timing of water flows will lead to less water resources in summer months and high risks of torrential floods in Central Asia. In the Balkans, a higher drought risk will affect harvests, urban health and energy generation. In Macedonia, yield losses are projected of up to 50% for maize, wheat, vegetables and grapes at 2˚C warming by 2050.

The report adds that forest damage and thawing permafrost in northern Russia could release carbon and methane. With 2˚C warming by 2050, methane emissions could increase by 20% to 30% across Russia. − Climate News Network

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Rare water data drives heating debate underground

Rare water data drives heating debate underground

Global warming’s effects are being felt even below the Earth’s surface, as researchers find that temperatures are rising not only in oceans, but also in subterranean freshwater sources.

LONDON, 25 November, 2014 − Two great bodies of water have begun to feel the heat. European scientists report that they have evidence that the planet’s groundwater – the subterranean ocean of freshwater that bubbles into wells, freshens desert springs, scours great underground limestone caverns and makes possible the irrigation of crops in the world’s farmlands – may be responding to climate change.

And out on the open sea, average global surface temperatures in the northern summer of 2014 were the highest ever recorded.

Both claims will require verification from other sources: in science, one set of measurements is never enough.

Precious resource

In the case of the groundwater temperature rises, this will not be easy. Although water authorities everywhere are concerned about the depletion of this precious resource, and there are routine chemical and microbiological checks, sustained records of groundwater temperatures are rare.

But a team from ETH Zurich in Switzerland and Karlsruhe Institute of Technology in Germany had an advantage: they had data from four wells near the German cities of Cologne and Karlsruhe, where temperature records have been maintained systematically for nearly 40 years.

They report in the journal Hydrology and Earth System Sciences that, after a detailed study of evidence from the four sources, they were able to identify a pattern of very small but significant rises in the groundwater temperatures that mirrored – but came later than – changes in average temperatures above ground. That is, even far below the surface, global warming is making its presence felt.

Research like this is not easy, and there will be plenty of questions and some argument about how they reached these conclusions.

Warming stages

Groundwater is ancient rainfall that seeped down into the bedrock and filled the pores in the soil. As it is drawn from one source, it moves to fill the gap, so there will be questions about how “old” the water is, how swiftly it is being replenished, how well insulated it is from the surface, and how close it might be to seepage from surface rivers.

However, the data reveals not just a rise in temperatures over the four decades, but also a series of warming stages that echo patterns of warming in the atmosphere far above.

“Global warming is reflected directly in the groundwater, albeit damped and with a certain time lag,” says Peter Bayer, senior scientist in engineering geology at ETH Zurich.

Meanwhile, Axel Timmermann, professor of oceanography at the University of Hawaii’s International Pacific Research Centre, says that global mean sea surface temperatures in 2014 were the highest ever recorded.

They were higher even than those of 1988, a year marked by a powerful El Niño event that warmed the Pacific and reversed climate patterns, with sometimes catastrophic consequences in the form of floods, droughts, windstorms, forest fires and harvest failures.

Unexpected slowdown

The 2014 ocean warming may have brought to an end the so-called global warming hiatus, in which average surface air temperatures rose only very slowly between 2000 and 2013.

While there have been a number of possible explanations for this unexpected slowdown – unexpected because greenhouse emissions have increased in that time – there has been no clinching argument. But Timmerman says that the long pause may have come to an end.

He says: “The 2014 global ocean warming is mostly due to the North Pacific, which has warmed far beyond any recorded value and has shifted hurricane tracks, weakened trade winds and produced coral bleaching in the Hawaiian islands.

“Record-breaking greenhouse gas concentrations and anomalously weak North Pacific summer trade winds, which usually cool the ocean surface, have contributed further to the rise in sea surface temperatures. The warm temperatures now extend in a wide swath from just north of Papua New Guinea to the Gulf of Alaska.” – Climate News Network

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Obama pledge gets dollars flowing into climate fund

Obama pledge gets dollars flowing into climate fund 

Many developing countries are already suffering the impacts of climate change, but a special fund to help them adapt to a warming world has been bolstered by promises of billions of dollars from wealthier nations.

LONDON, 20 November, 2014 − It’s been quite a week for those waiting for some action on climate change.

After US President Obama and China’s President Xi Jinping announced radical plans to cut back on greenhouse gas emissions, Obama then called on nations at the G20 summit in Brisbane, Australia, to agree to a new deal on climate.

And when he backed that up by pledging US$3 billion to the Green Climate Fund (GCF), set up in 2010 to promote low emissions and climate-resilient projects in the developing world, other countries quickly reached for their cheque books.

Paying their dues

Japan says it will be giving $1.5 billion to the GCF. Britain indicated it will be pledging a similar amount.  France and Germany have already announced they will be giving the $1 billion each. Sweden is pledging more than $500 million. And other countries in the developed world are lining up to pay their dues.

The GCF, which operates under the auspices of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, is holding a special High-Level Pledging Conference in Berlin today.

“This week’s announcements will be a legacy of US President Obama,” said Hela Cheikhrouhou, GCF’s executive director. “It will be seen by generations to come as the game‐changing moment that started a scaling‐up of global action on climate change.”

Obama said money paid into the GCF would help developing countries leapfrog some of the dirty industries that fuelled growth in the industrialised world, and will allow them to build clean-energy economies.

“Along with the other nations that have pledged support, this gives us the opportunity to help vulnerable communities with an early warning system, with stronger defences against storm surge, climate resilient infrastructure, to help farmers plant more durable crops,” Obama said.

In the past, calls for cash to support the Fund’s activities in the developing world have been largely unsuccessful. Now the mood seems to have changed.

“It will be seen by generations to come as the game‐changing moment that started a scaling‐up of global action on climate change”

In the US, the Republicans – who now control both houses of Congress – are for the most part firmly opposed to Obama’s new-found zeal for action on the climate.

The White House feels that public attitudes on climate change issues are changing, both within the US and around the globe, but a brave new, fossil fuel-free world is still a long way off.

There are big questions about how the emissions reductions announced in the US-China agreement are to be achieved.

And the pledges to the GCF look impressive, but leaders of the wealthier nations have a tendency for making grand monetary gestures at international gatherings –then not following through with the cash.

Despite this, climate change has been put firmly among the top items on the international agenda. Momentum has also been built towards achieving a new global deal at the UN Climate Change Conference in Paris late next year.

Clear message

The past week’s events have also sent a clear message to the fossil fuel industry, and to investors in the sector: many of the most powerful countries in the world now agree that greenhouse gas emissions have to be cut.

The message has not gone down well with Tony Abbott, the Australian prime minister, and host of the G20 summit.

Although Australia is considered by scientists to be one of the countries most vulnerable to global warming, the Abbott government has made known its scepticism on the issue and has rolled back various measures aimed at combating changes in climate.

It has also strongly backed the development of several large-scale coal mining operations on the east coast, adjacent to the waters of the Great Barrier Reef. – Climate News Network

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Climate threatens striking change to US weather

Climate threatens striking change to US weather

Global warming is expected to have an explosive effect across America as scientists predict that there could be a 50% increase this century in the frequency of lightning strikes.

LONDON, 17 November, 2014 − Climate scientists foresee a brighter future for America − but no one will thank them for it, as global warming is expected to increase the total number of lightning strikes across the US this century by 50%.

David Romps, assistant professor in the Department of Earth and Planetary Science at the University of California, Berkeley, and colleagues report in Science journal that they looked at predictions of rainfall, snow, hail and cloud buoyancy in 11 different climate models. They concluded that the outcome could only be more atmospheric electrical action.

Right now, the continental US is hit about 25 million times a year by lightning.

But Dr Romps said: “With warming, thunderstorms become more explosive. This has to do with water vapour, which is the fuel for explosive deep convection in the atmosphere. Warming causes there to be more water vapour in the atmosphere, and if you have more fuel lying around, when you get ignition, it can go big time.”

More evaporation

Warmer weather means more evaporation. But higher temperatures also mean that the atmosphere’s capacity to hold water vapour increases as well, with a potential for more clouds, more flow of air, and more precipitation.

The volume of water hitting the ground – as hail, snow, sleet or rain – offers a measure of the convection properties of the atmosphere, and convection generates lightning.

Hundreds of people are struck by lightning each year, and scores are killed, but these remain a very small proportion of accidental deaths in any year. The real hazard might lie far from populated areas: half of all wildfires are caused by lightning strikes.

Lightning also generates more nitrous oxides in the atmosphere, which could also affect atmospheric chemistry. So it makes sense to know what to expect as the planet warms.

“We already know that . . . the more precipitation,
the more lightning”

The scientists examined US Weather Service data for 2011, and the counts from the National Lightning Detection Network, to see if they could confirm a link between cloud buoyancy and precipitation as a predictor of lightning. They also looked at data from balloon-borne instruments released every day in the US to measure the rate at which clouds rise.

As a result, they calculate that 77% of the variation in lightning strikes could be predicted from knowledge of the two conditions.

“Lightning is caused by charge separation within clouds, and to maximise charge separation you have to loft more water vapour and heavy ice particles into the atmosphere,” Dr Romps said. “We already know that the faster the updrafts, the more lightning, and the more precipitation, the more lightning.”

Potential energy

Their climate models predicted, on average, an 11% increase in convective available potential energy for every extra degree Celsius rise in average temperatures. They calculated that if average planetary temperatures were to rise by 4°C, the potential for lightning strikes would go up by 50%.

Their calculations are limited to the US mainland and may not apply equally to other parts of the planet. Overall conditions, and therefore the potential for thunderstorms, tend to vary widely.

But the continental US – the predictions do not include Hawaii or Alaska − is flanked by two oceans and with a subtropical sea to its south. It is distinguished by a sharp temperature gradient and dramatic topography, and is already a forge for fierce and destructive tornadoes, and a target for frequent hurricanes.

So the barometer remains set for future storms, with added lightning. – Climate News Network

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Scientist acts out dramatic effect of climate change

Scientist acts out dramatic effect of climate change

A spellbinding solo performance by veteran climate scientist Chris Rapley puts the climate debate centre stage – and earns the admiration of London theatre critics.

LONDON, 11 November, 2014 − Climate science has just made cultural history – yet again. Following on from the sci-fi blockbuster The Day After Tomorrow and the Al Gore documentary movie An Inconvenient Truth, research has got personal and turned into a five-star dramatic soliloquy on the London stage.

Chris Rapley is a professor of climate science at University College London, a former director of the British Antarctic Survey, a former director of the Science Museum in London − and now, unexpectedly, an actor on the stage of the historic Royal Court theatre.

He is the star and only member of the dramatis personae of 2071, a play named after the date at which, he says, his eldest grandchild will be the age he is now. He has collaborated with playwright Duncan Macmillan, and with Katie Mitchell, a director with a track record of interest in the hard themes of humanity’s future on Earth.

No physical action

The performance, however, could almost be called anti-theatre. There is no conflict, no violence, and there is − beyond the discreet waving of a hand or the re-positioning of a leg − almost no physical action at all. The actor Rapley sits in one place, with only a glass of water as a prop, and embarks on a monologue.

Furthermore, it is in one sense an anti-dramatic monologue, sounding in many ways remarkably like a procession of extracts from the abstracts of scientific papers, or the executive summary of any number of publications of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

There are few concessions to popular language: the diction and choice of terminology is of the kind you tend to hear at science briefings.

The difference is that it is gently and intelligently glossed − so cryosphere and lithosphere are identified as the worlds of ice and rock within a second of utterance.

The story unfolds calmly enough, with a kind of curriculum vitae of the actor, then a history of climate, then a history of climate research, and then the conclusions. It is the slow build-up to an alarming set of possibilities in a swift-changing world, with a time interval for action that is diminishing rapidly.

It ought not to work. But for this Climate News Network reporter, it does work − yet another spellbinding testament to that wonderful mix of space, lighting, darkness, silence, muted music, measured words and eager audience that we call theatre.

Emotive topic

Some critics and theatergoers will, inevitably, have reservations. Time Out magazine found its lack of theatricality “not a bad thing: sobriety feels important when tackling such an emotive topic”. The London Evening Standard took a cooler approach: “He lets the data speak for itself. But the approach feels too dry.”

But first responses were warm. There was a generous welcome from the Daily Telegraph, and Michael Billington – a distinguished dramatic critic who has declared his enthusiasm for theatre as a political instrument − gave it the highest rating of all in The Guardian: five stars.

His only complaint is that there is no printed text, as there is a lot of information delivered in a performance that lasts hardly more than 70 minutes.

But Billington writes: “If we look to theatre to increase our awareness of the human condition, the production succeeds on all counts.” And he ends unequivocally: “It is better than good. It is necessary.” − Climate News Network

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Scientists call for zero option on CO2 emissions

Scientists call for zero option on CO2 emissions

New research shows that while cuts in short-lived pollutants such as methane and black carbon have benefits, the only long-term answer to global warming is to stop carbon dioxide emissions completely.

LONDON, 4 November, 2014 − European researchers have confirmed once again that there is only one effective way to limit climate change: carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuels must be reduced to zero.

There are other greenhouse gases and atmospheric pollutants that contribute to global warming, and it would certainly be good to reduce these.

But cuts in atmospheric methane emissions from cattle, or black carbon from diesel engines, coal mines and coal-burning cooking stoves, or other pollutants would not in the long run make a significant difference.

These pollutants are short-lived. They stay in the atmosphere from days to a decade, while CO2 lasts thousands of years. And if CO2 emissions were reduced sharply, some of those short-lived pollutants would in any case be reduced along with them.

Climate impact

Joeri Rogelj, of  the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA) in Austria, and fellow climate impact scientists report in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS)  that the benefits of limiting what are known as short-lived climate forcers (SLCFs) would be real in terms of public health, but small in terms of climate impact compared to the mitigation of CO2 emissions.

“Stabilising climate at any temperature means that, at some point, global CO2 emissions have to become zero,” Rogelj says. “Although near-term action on short-lived climate forcers can help reduce warming in the coming decades, and also provides other societal benefits, such as clearer air, it will not buy us time for delaying the reductions in carbon dioxide emissions that are required to stabilise the climate at safe levels.”

 “Hopes that cutting other emissions would do a large part of the job now turn out to be misguided”

The study follows only days after the launch of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s synthesis report, which stresses the urgency of reducing carbon dioxide. Other research within the last year has reached the same conclusion.

But Dr Rogelj says that, prior to the study published in PNAS, there has been only fragmented information available about the joint climate benefits of reducing greenhouse gas and air pollution.

The new research looks at the connections between CO2 and the other, shorter-lived pollutants. It shows that although it is important to limit pollutants such as methane and hydrofluorocarbons, the impact of such measures − in both the short and long terms − becomes small in scenarios that keep global warming to 2°C above pre-industrial levels.

And steps to reduce black carbon have less significance because this will dwindle in any case with any reduction in CO2 emissions.

 Complex issue

“Because information was so fragmented, misinterpretations have been common,” Dr Rogelj told the Climate News Network. “Given the complexity of this issue, this is not surprising.

“With our integrated analysis, we hope to provide clearer and more consistent scientific guidance for policymakers on this issue. Our results and discussion clearly highlight the identified synergies, trade-offs and pitfalls.”

Hans Joachim Schellnhuber, director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, and one of the co-authors of the report, emphasises the same point.

“The one and only thing that can avoid the bulk of risks that would come with unbridled climate change is rapid CO2 reduction,” he says. “Hopes that cutting other emissions would do a large part of the job now turn out to be misguided.” – Climate News Network

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Sea rise may still pose a man-sized threat

Sea rise may still pose a man-sized threat

Although new research discounts the likelihood of a two-metre sea rise this century, the predicted impacts of global warming are still bad news for the many millions of people living at or near sea level.

LONDON, 21 October, 2014 − For those who think climate change means deep trouble, some comfort: there is a limit to how deep. Danish-led researchers have looked at all the projections and satisfied themselves that, at the very worst, sea levels this century will rise by a maximum 1.8 metres − roughly the height of an average man.

They report in Environmental Research Letters that they contemplated rates of melting in Greenland and Antarctica, the retreat of mountain glaciers worldwide, and the impact of groundwater extraction for agriculture and industry.

They also looked at all the projections for thermal expansion of the oceans, because warmer water is less dense than colder water and therefore occupies a greater volume. Then they began to calculate the band of possibilities.

“We have created a picture of probable limits for how much global sea levels will rise this century,” said Aslak Grinsted, assistant professor in the Niels Bohr Institute’s Centre for Ice and Climate at the University of Copenhagen. “Our calculations show that seas will likely rise by around 80cm. An increase of more than 180 cm has a likelihood of less than 5%. We find that a rise in sea levels of more than 2 metres is improbable.”

Critical infrastructure

The worst-case scenario, he says, is something that it would be wise to consider for critical infrastructure, such as the Delta Works, a series of construction projects that protect a large area of land in the south-west of the Netherlands, or the Thames Barrier, which aims to prevent London from being inundated by exceptionally high tides and storm surges from the North Sea.

The finding comes with two important provisos: one is that any significant rise remains extremely bad news for people in those regions of the planet that are already more or less at sea level − among them the coral atolls of the tropical oceans, the Netherlands, the Nile Delta, Bangladesh, Venice in Italy, and some of the world’s great maritime cities.

The other is that the man-high limit extends only to 2100, and researchers have repeatedly warned that, once begun, sea level rise will continue for centuries.

The Danish calculations fall into the category of things that could happen: melting in polar waters inevitably means even warmer equatorial waters, and another ominous projection for the near future is that commercially valuable fish could desert the tropics by 2050.

William Cheung, head of the Changing Ocean Research Unit at the University of British Columbia, Canada, and Miranda Jones, an environmental scientist at the same university, considered what would happen if the world warmed by 3°C by 2100.

“The tropics will be the overall losers. This area has
a high dependence on fish for food, diet and nutrition”

They report in ICES Journal of Marine Science that, under such a scenario, tropical fish could move away from their present habitats at a rate of 26 kilometres a decade. Even with a 1°C warming, they would desert their home waters at 15 km a decade.

Altogether, the two scientists considered the possibilities for 802 commercially important species, concluding that such a set of migrations might introduce new potential catches in Arctic waters, but could be very bad news for tropical fishermen, and for the hundreds of millions who depend on fish as a source of protein.

“The tropics will be the overall losers,” Dr Cheung said. “This area has a high dependence on fish for food, diet and nutrition. We’ll see a loss of fish populations that are important to the fisheries and communities in these regions.”

Accelerated rates

Paradoxically, as researchers consistently forecast accelerated rates of melting in polar waters, the Antarctic sea ice in September occupied a greater area than ever before, with the five-day average on September 19 reaching 20 million sq km, according to the US National Snow and Ice Data Centre.

That means that while most of the planet continued to warm, the Antarctic continent and the seas around it were icier, for one season at least.

Such measurements ultimately depend on satellite and aerial surveillance, and according to Claire Parkinson, climate change senior scientist at  the NASA Goddard Space Flight Centre, the anomaly simply reflects the complexity of climate dynamics and the diversity of the Earth’s environments.

“The planet as a whole is doing what was expected in terms of warming,” she says. “Sea ice as a whole is decreasing as expected, but just like with global warming, not every location with sea ice will have a downward trend in ice extent.”

But, overall, the planet is still saying goodbye to ice. The Antarctic’s gain is roughly a third in area of the loss of ice in the Arctic. – Climate News Network

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Climate renews famine risk to Africa’s Sahel

Climate renews famine risk to Africa’s Sahel

With population increasing and food demand far outstripping supply, the Sahel is vulnerable to a new humanitarian crisis − and researchers warn that rising temperatures will only make matters worse.

LONDON, 20 October, 2014 − The Sahel, the arid belt of land that stretches from the Atlantic to the Red Sea and separates the Sahara desert from the African savanna, is no stranger to drought and famine.

Now scientists in Sweden say the Sahel faces another humanitarian crisis even than in the recent past − with the changing climate partly responsible.

Writing in the journal Environmental Research Letters, the researchers from Lund University say people in the Sahel need more food, animal feed and fuel every year. But demand, which has more than doubled over a recent 10-year period, is growing much faster than supply.

Fewer resources

Data from 22 countries shows the result: fewer resources per capita and a continued risk of famine in areas with low primary production – that is, the availability of carbon in the form of plant material for consumption as food, fuel and feed.

Human numbers are part of the reason. Between 2000 and 2010, the population of the Sahel grew from 367 million to 471 million people − an annual rise of 2.2% over the decade.

But crop production remained essentially unchanged, so the margin between supply and demand for primary production is shrinking every year, while the Sahel’s population is forecast to total nearly a billion people by 2050.

Children's graves at a refugee camp in Kenya during the famine in 2011 Image: Andy Hll/Oxfam via Wikimedia Commons
Children’s graves at a Kenyan refugee camp during the 2011 famine
Image: Andy Hall/Oxfam via Wikimedia Commons

Some studies suggest that modern plant strains can withstand the effects of drought better than traditional cultivars, although this was not a focus of the Lund team.

They were mainly concerned with the staple crops grown regionally − such as sorghum and millet, which are used as food for people, with the residues used as fodder for livestock − and with the dry woodlands that provide fuel.

They used remote analysis and satellite images to calculate annual crop production in the 22 countries they studied, and compared the figures with data on population growth and consumption of food, animal feed and fuel. This relationship helps to measure a region’s vulnerability.

The study shows that 19% of the Sahel’s total primary production in 2000 was consumed. Ten years later, consumption had increased to 41%.

Reduced harvest

It says several forecasts suggest that harvests will be reduced as a result of the higher air temperatures the region is now experiencing, even though climate change is predicted to result in the Sahel receiving more rain in future.

So, the researchers say, climate change can only increase the vulnerability of the Sahel.

Asked by the Climate News Network whether higher air temperatures alone were likely to cancel the gains from increased rainfall, one of the study’s authors, Hakim Abdi, a doctoral student in physical geography and ecosystem science at Lund, said: “The short answer is yes. Studies indicate that higher temperatures offset both increased rainfall and CO2 fertilisation.

“Additionally, a recent study found that increase in future rainfall in the Sahel, a region where the soil generally receives little nutrient input and is over-exploited, causes nutrient leaching, and hence induces nitrogen stress.

“When we were in our study site in North Kordofan in Sudan, the most common complaint we received from the villages we visited was the lack of water.

“I think that if a drought occurs with an impact that matches or exceeds the ones in 1972/73 or 1982/83, we will see serious consequences − worse impacts than past ones.” − Climate News Network

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Outlook palls for fossil fuel investments

Outlook palls for fossil fuel investments

Warnings within the world of high finance are coming thick and fast that the increasingly urgent need to combat climate change means investors could lose heavily by sinking funds into coal, oil and gas.

LONDON, 18 October, 2014 − Like most central bank governors, Mark Carney, the Governor of the Bank of England, chooses his words carefully.

So the financial community – and government policy makers − sat up and took notice earlier this month when Carney, addressing a World Bank seminar on corporate reporting standards, said he was concerned about investments in fossil fuels.

“The vast majority of reserves are unburnable,” Carney said.

‘Tragedy of horizons’

He warned companies, investors and policy makers that they need to avoid what he described as the “tragedy of horizons”, and to look further ahead to meet challenges such as climate change.

Investors are being repeatedly told that money sunk into fossil fuels is not only bad for the climate, but is also potentially seriously dangerous to financial health.

The fundamental idea espoused by a wide spread of influential voices – ranging from the International Energy Association (IEA) to finance funds that have many billions of dollars worth of investments under their control − is that, in order to combat climate change, a large portion of the world’s remaining fossil fuel reserves must stay in the ground.

“Not more than one-third of proven reserves of fossil fuels can be consumed prior to 2050 if the world is to achieve the 2˚C goal,” the IEA says.

Limiting a rise in average global temperatures to 2˚C by mid-century is considered to be the minimum necessary to prevent catastrophic climate change.

As action is taken and regulations are tightened, investments in fossil fuels, whether in a coal mine or in oil or gas exploration and production, will become frozen – or, in the parlance of the finance industry, “stranded”.

In the lead up to a major UN conference on climate change in New York last month, a group of high-roller investment funds − which, together, control more than $24 trillion worth of assets – called for an end to fossil fuel subsidies and for urgent action on climate change.

“We’re not going to be able to burn
it all. Science is science”

Barack Obama, the US president, has joined in the chorus, calling for fossil fuels to stay in the ground. “We’re not going to be able to burn it all,” Obama said earlier this year. “Science is science. And there is no doubt that if we burned all fossil fuels that are in the ground right now that the planet’s going to get too hot, and the consequences could be dire.”

Major campaigns calling for divestment from fossil fuels have been launched. Groups such as 350.org, which campaigns for more awareness on climate issues, have had considerable success in persuading various bodies – from universities to the UK’s leading medical association − to stop investing in fossil fuels.

A number of pension funds, with billions of dollars worth of investments under their control, have said they will either cut back or stop putting money into the fossil fuel industry.

Public pressure

Meanwhile, giant coal, oil and gas corporations have been told they could face a public backlash if they seek to avoid or deny public pressure on climate change issues.

But for those who want to see an end to the fossil fuel industry, the battle is by no means won. It is only just starting.

A report by the Carbon Tracker Initiative and the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment says the world’s 200 largest publicly-quoted fossil fuel companies spent an estimated total of $674bn on exploring and developing new reserves in 2012. And that figure does not include the hundreds of billions of dollars spent on exploiting existing fossil fuel sites.

Coal, the most polluting of fossil fuels, is still king in many regions of the world, particularly in the fast-growing economies of China and India. Coal companies, urged on by politicians, are still investing billions in new facilities.

Tony Abbott, Australia’s prime minister, opening a huge new mine in Queensland that will produce about 5.5 million tonnes of coal each year, said last week: “Coal is vital for the future energy needs of the world. So let’s have no demonisation of coal – coal is good for humanity.” – Climate News Network

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Ice loss sends Alaskan temperatures soaring

Ice loss sends Alaskan temperatures soaring

Scientists analysing more than three decades of weather data for the northern Alaska outpost of Barrow have linked an astonishing 7°C temperature rise to the decline in Arctic sea ice.

LONDON, 17 October, 2014 − If you doubt that parts of the planet really are warming, talk to residents of Barrow, the Alaskan town that is the most northerly settlement in the US.

In the last 34 years, the average October temperature in Barrow has risen by more than 7°C − an increase that, on its own, makes a mockery of international efforts to prevent global temperatures from rising more than 2°C above their pre-industrial level.

A study by scientists at the University of Alaska Fairbanks analysed several decades of weather information. These show that temperature trends are closely linked to sea ice concentrations, which have been recorded since 1979, when accurate satellite measurements began.

The study, published in the Open Atmospheric Science Journal, traces what has happened to average annual and monthly temperatures in Barrow from 1979 to 2012.

Most striking

In that period, the average annual temperature rose by 2.7°C. But the November increase was far higher − more than six degrees. And October was the most striking of all, with the month’s average temperature 7.2°C higher in 2012 than in 1979.

Gerd Wendler, the lead author of the study and a professor emeritus at the university’s International Arctic Research Center, said he was “astonished”. He told the Alaska Dispatch News: “I think I have never, anywhere, seen such a large increase in temperature over such a short period.”

The study shows that October is the month when sea ice loss in the Beaufort and Chukchi Seas, which border northern Alaska, has been highest. The authors say these falling ice levels over the Arctic Ocean after the maximum annual melt are the reason for the temperature rise. “You cannot explain it by anything else,” Wendler said.

They have ruled out the effects of sunlight because, by October, the sun is low in the sky over Barrow and, by late November, does not appear above the horizon.

Instead, they say, the north wind picks up stored heat from water that is no longer ice-covered in late autumn and releases it into the atmosphere.

At first sight, the team’s findings are remarkable, as Barrow’s 7.2°C rise in 34 years compares with a global average temperature increase over the past century of up to about 0.8°C. But what’s happening may be a little more complex.

Warming faster

The fact that temperatures in and around Barrow are rising fast is no surprise, as the Arctic itself is known to be warming faster than most of the rest of the world.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says observed warming in parts of northern Alaska was up to 3°C from the early 1980s to the mid-2000s. It also concludes that about two-thirds of the last century’s global temperature increase has occurred since 1980.

But Barrow’s long-term temperature rise has not been uniform, the Fairbanks study says. Its analysis of weather records between 1921 and 2012 shows a much more modest average annual rise, of 1.51°C. In 2014, the city experienced the coolest summer day recorded − 14.5°C.

So one conclusion is to remember just how complex a system the climate is − and how even 34 years may be too short a time to allow for any certainty. − Climate News Network

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