Well drilling has deep impact on health of Great Plains

Well drilling has deep impact on health of Great Plains

Loss of vegetation on North America’s vast rangelands as a result of a huge increase in oil and gas wells invokes memories of the 1930s Dust Bowl disaster.

LONDON, 27 April, 2015 − Oil wells and natural gas may have made individual Americans rich, but they have impoverished the great plains of North America, according to new research.

Fossil fuel prospectors have sunk 50,000 new wells a year since 2000 in three Canadian provinces and 11 US states, and have damaged the foundation of all economic growth: net primary production − otherwise known as biomass, or vegetation.

Brady Allred, assistant professor of rangeland ecology at the University of Montana’s College of Forestry and Conservation, and colleagues write in the journal Science that they combined years of high-resolution satellite data with information from industry and public records to track the impact of oil drilling on natural and crop growth.

They conclude that the vegetation lost or removed by the expansion of the oil and gas business between 2000 and 2012 added up to 10 million tonnes of dry vegetation, or 4.5 million tonnes of carbon that otherwise would have been removed from the atmosphere.

Loss of fodder

Put another way, this loss amounted to the equivalent of fodder for five million cattle for one month from the rangelands, and 120 million bushels of wheat from the croplands. This wheat equivalent, they point out, adds up to the equivalent of 13% of the wheat exported by the US in 2013.

Net primary production – the biomass that plants make from photosynthesis every day, all over the world – is the basis of all wealth and food security. It underwrites all other human and animal activity.

Human wealth depends ultimately on what grows in the ground, or what can be dug from the ground, and most of the latter – such as coal, oil and peat– was once stuff that grew in the ground.

The same net primary production is the basis of what economists sometimes call ecosystem services on which all civilisation depends: the natural replenishment of the water supply, the pollination of crops, the provision of natural nitrogen fertilisers, and the renewal of natural habitat for wild things.

“It took catastrophic disruption of livelihoods and economies [in the 1930s] to trigger policy reforms that addressed environmental and social risks of land-use change”

And what worries the conservation scientists is that this loss of net primary production is likely to be “long-lasting and potentially permanent, as recovery or reclamation of previously drilled land has not kept pace with accelerated drilling”.

“This is not surprising because current reclamation practices vary by land ownership and governing body, target only limited portions of the energy landscape, require substantial funding and implementation commitments, and are often not initiated until the end life of a well.”

They say that the land actually taken up by wells, roads and storage facilities just between 2000 and 2012 is about 3 million hectares. This is the land area equivalent to three Yellowstone National Parks.

The hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking”, used to extract oil and gas is between 8,000 cubic metres and 50,000 cubic metres per well, which means that the total quantity of water squirted into the ground at high pressure during the 12 years to 2012 could exceed 33,900 million cubic metres. At least half of this was used in areas already defined as “water-stressed”.

New wells

The researchers considered the drilling of new wells in Alberta, Manitoba and Saskatchewan in Canada, and in Colorado, Kansas, Montana, Nebraska, New Mexico, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Texas, Utah and Wyoming in the US.

Although there is legislation, it is limited to lands subject to federal jurisdiction, and 90% of all drilling infrastructure is now on privately-owned land − at least, in the US.

A tanker drives past a flaring oil well in North Dakota. Image: Tim Evanson via Wikimedia Commons

A tanker drives past a flaring oil well in North Dakota.  Image: Tim Evanson via Wikimedia Commons

The study’s authors want decision-makers to confront the challenges of this kind of ecological disruption. There are lessons from history in all this, they warn.

“In the early 20th century, rapid agricultural expansion and widespread displacement of native vegetation reduced the resilience of the region to drought, ultimately contributing to the Dust Bowl of the 1930s,” they write.

“It took catastrophic disruption of livelihoods and economies to trigger policy reforms that addressed environmental and social risks of land-use change.” – Climate News Network

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Major changes are in store for electricity industry

Major changes are in store for electricity industry

As the battle to phase out fossil fuels heats up, finding economically viable ways to store surplus electric power is becoming vital.

LONDON, 26 April, 2015 − Inventors are in a race to find the best way of storing electricity to make the most of renewables and cut the use of fossil fuels.

Currently, when more power than needed by consumers is produced by sources such as wind turbines or solar panels, some of the electricity is wasted. But that is changing.

Governments have realised that one of their biggest challenges in cutting the use of fossil fuels is to store surplus electricity for use at peak times.

At present, coal and gas plants are left ticking over or running at below capacity, ready to be turned on to full load to meet peak demand. This greatly adds to greenhouse gas emissions.

The UK’s Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology believes that energy storage has vast growth potential as a business opportunity, and is a key to future stable electricity supplies.

Growing fast

The technologies being supported in the UK, US, Japan and Germany − and in other countries where renewables are growing fast – include pumping water up hill, producing hydrogen, turning air into liquid, storing heat, compressing air, and building giant batteries.

The most widely-used method worldwide at the moment is pumped hydroelectricity storage. At periods of low demand at night and the weekend, low-cost surplus electricity is used to pump water uphill to a reservoir. During the day, the water is then released through turbines, and the electricity produced is sold at a premium rate during peak periods.

In the UK, this idea was introduced as long ago as 1963 in order to use surplus power from nuclear plants, which had to operate 24 hours a day. And now that renewables are adding to the problem of surplus energy at night, companies are finding it commercially viable to build new pump storage.

Another technology already in use is compressed air energy storage. Again using cheap electricity at off-peak times, air is pumped into underground caverns or other large-scale natural formations, and then released to drive turbines when electricity prices are high enough to make a profit. The limits to this at the moment are suitable geological formations.

Storing heat that can later be turned into electricity takes a variety of forms. Molten salt and other liquids can be heated during the day − for example, by solar power − and the heat is released at night to drive turbines. This is already being used in Spain to enable solar power to provide electricity after dark.

Another system being developed in the UK involves pumping heat away from a cold, gravel-filled container into a hot one. Reversing this drives a pump that generates electricity.

Cooling gas

Power can also be created by cooling gas into liquids, which then generate electricity as they warm and turn back into a gas, driving turbines as they do so. Cooling air to temperatures below minus 196˚C achieves this, and is being tried in Bury, north-west England, with a five megawatt plant to test whether it is economical.

Battery storage is still potentially the simplest and best method, but building batteries big enough and of cheap enough materials to be viable is still a problem.

One of the current plans is to use parked electric vehicles as a way of storing electricity, by using their batteries − charged up at night and weekends − to release power at times of peak demand.

Because these vehicles are parked most of the time, this could work as a large reservoir of storage capacity as electric vehicles grow more common. This method of storage would also provide a use for old or discarded vehicle batteries when cars have ended their lives.

One of the challenges for large-scale batteries is to find materials that are cheap enough to store large quantities of electricity, and which can be charged and discharged thousands of times without damage. Sodium-sulphur batteries have been developed in Japan and the US for storing surplus grid electricity, and sodium-ion batteries are also being tried.

Balance supplies

A six megawatt lithium-ion battery is being used in Leighton Buzzard, southern England, for three years to test whether it is economically viable as a balance to power supplies in the national grid.

One of the most promising areas – but still expensive – is to use surplus electricity to produce hydrogen. This has the advantage that hydrogen can provide large amounts of power quickly, is easy to transport, and has a variety of applications. It can simply be burned, or can be used to produce a chemical reaction in a fuel cell to produce power without combustion.

Some of the many other possibilities are already in use, such as storing hot water in domestic systems or district heating schemes. Hydro-electricity can also be adapted so that smaller turbines produce power only at peak times, preventing the need for fossil fuel power stations to be on stand-by.

So far, while the economics and feasibility of these schemes and many others is being tested, it is not clear if all of them will eventually be used, or whether other ideas will prove more attractive. What is certain is that more money and time than ever before is being invested in finding out. – Climate News Network

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History lessons highlight climate threat to birds

History lessons highlight climate threat to birds

Evidence from the Ice Ages helps show how vulnerable bird populations are to change driven by human-induced global warming.

LONDON, 25 April, 2015 − Climate change can seriously alter the numbers and the prospects for survival of the planet’s living things, according to researchers in Sweden and China.

The scientists’ findings are the result of taking a long, cool look at the big picture – rather than the still-sketchy evidence from climate change now – of what happened to bird populations during the Ice Ages.

Krystyna Nadachowska-Brzyska and Hans Ellegren, of the Evolutionary Biology Centre at Uppsala University, and collaborators at the Beijing Institute of Genomics used a sophisticated new technique to calculate the rise and fall of population sizes of 38 species of bird during the last several million years − a period punctuated by the advance of vast sheets of ice and shorter warm interglacial periods.

Natural change

The results answer questions about how species fared during periods of natural change, in an era when human numbers were tiny and human technology insignificant.

But they also highlight the vulnerability of already-endangered bird populations during a period of change driven by global warming as a consequence of greenhouse gas emissions into the planet’s atmosphere from the widespread use of fossil fuels.

The researchers exploited techniques made possible only in the last decade or so to recreate the past.

They compared genomic mutations among unrelated individuals in each species, and employed a new mathematical technique that goes by the name of “pairwise sequentially Markovian coalescent”, or PSMC, to tease out the history encoded in those comparisons.

“Climate events significantly affect the effective breeding sizes of bird populations”

The reasoning goes like this: mutations in DNA occur at a more or less predictable rate through the generations of a species, so DNA can be considered both as an indicator of relationships and as a kind of clock.

Using such a clock, based on DNA inherited only through the maternal line, scientists long ago calculated a potential date for the origins of Homo sapiens.

In 2011, a team of scientists reasoned that the same clock, subjected to some mathematical interrogation, might answer questions about how many individuals might have existed in a population at a particular time.

Their first result was to confirm from the variation – or lack of variation – in the genome samples that some distant catastrophe caused a sharp drop in human population numbers 60,000 years ago or more, after which human numbers expanded again.

Now the same techniques have been applied to genomic evidence from barn owls, budgerigars, bald eagles, Dalmatian pelicans, domestic pigeons and Pekin ducks, as well as less familiar creatures such as the rhinoceros hornbill of south-east Asia, and the kea, a ground-dwelling alpine parrot from the South Island of New Zealand.

“The majority of all species exhibit cyclical swings in numbers, and these swings often coincide with the periods of ice ages,” Dr Ellegren says. “The last ice age (110,000-12,000 years ago) had a particularly heavy impact on birds. Many species suffered their most dramatic falls in numbers then.”

What the scientists were looking for was something called “historically effective population size” in their choice of species − broadly, the number of survivors that could interbreed and rear the next generation.

In the case of, for example, the downy woodpecker of North America, this number was at a low point of 150,000 two million years ago, then rose to 1.2 million before falling, around 100,000 years ago, to about 200,000.

Severe declines

They found severe declines in 22 of the 38 species over a period that coincided with the last ice age. Two species of eagle and the common ostrich saw their numbers reduced from tens of thousands to mere thousands. But even much more numerous species, such as pigeon and budgerigar, experienced significant change.

Scientists have already begun to measure change in the natural world in response to average temperature rises by shifts either in timing or latitude, or even altitude.

The Uppsala research offers a kind of baseline of historical change, and could help conservation bodies now concerned with saving species already considered at risk of extinction because of habitat destruction, hunting and human-induced climate change.

“The results from our study document that such climate events significantly affect the effective breeding sizes of bird populations,” the authors conclude. – Climate News Network

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World group seeks ban on uranium and nuclear power

World group seeks ban on uranium and nuclear power

It’s time to end the myth that nuclear power is a cost-effective, practical or safe response to climate change, says World Uranium Symposium.

LONDON, 24 April, 2015 − Uranium mining across the world should cease, nuclear power stations be closed and nuclear weapons be banned, according to a group of scientists, environmentalists and representatives of indigenous peoples.

Three hundred delegates from 20 countries that produce uranium for nuclear power, weapons and medical uses called for an end to all uranium mining in a declaration launched on Earth Day this week at a meeting in Quebec, Canada.

The venue for the World Uranium Symposium was chosen because Quebec state is currently considering whether to continue its moratorium on uranium mining, having already closed down its only nuclear power plant in 2013.

Symbolic choice

The city of Quebec is also symbolic because this is where Canada, the US and the UK made a co-operation agreement in 1943 that led to the building of the world’s first nuclear weapons. Two of the resulting A-Bombs were used to destroy the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945.

But the symposium was more concerned about the damage that existing uranium mining is doing to the welfare of indigenous peoples, and the “erroneous view” that nuclear power can help solve the problem of climate change.

The declaration applauded the expansion of renewable energy and the significant strides in phasing out nuclear power following the growing awareness that “nuclear power is not a cost-effective, timely, practical or safe response to climate change”.

“The risks to health, safety and the environment represented by the entire nuclear fuel chain . . . greatly exceed the potential benefits for society”

It called for “a worldwide ban on uranium exploration, mining, milling and processing, as well as the reprocessing of nuclear waste, and the irresponsible management of radioactive waste”.

Dr. Eric Notebaert, associate professor of medicine at the University of Montreal, co-president of the Symposium, and member of the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment, said that the symposium delegates all agreed that “the risks to health, safety and the environment represented by the entire nuclear fuel chain – from uranium mines, to power reactors, to nuclear weapons, to radioactive wastes – greatly exceed the potential benefits for society”.

Dr. Juan Carlos Chrigwin, a physician affiliated with McGill University, and president of Physicians for Global Survival, said: “The issuing of this World Declaration on Uranium is the culmination of essential work carried out over many years by international coalitions who, despite geographical and cultural differences, share common objectives and who desire to shape a common vision of a better world.

“Uranium does not provide a viable or sustainable approach for dealing with climate change, nor for providing isotopes for medical use. Today, there are a number of medical and energy alternatives that are cheaper and safer.”

The declaration is open for organisations and individuals to sign on the internet and is bound to put further pressure on an industry already suffering from falling confidence.

The price of uranium has dropped from $138 a tonne in 2007 to less than $40 a tonne currently as plans to build more nuclear stations have been shelved in several countries.

While the search continues for rich new uranium deposits − particularly by China in Africa and the US in Greenland − it is unlikely to be economically viable to exploit them at current prices.

Carbon footprint

According to the World Nuclear Association, 52% of the world’s production comes from 10 mines in six countries. The largest is in Canada, followed by one in Australia, but the largest single producer is Kazakhstan, which has four mines in the top 10 in the world. In Africa, Niger and Namibia are also big producers.

While many pro-nuclear governments − including the UK’s − regard nuclear power as a clean, low-carbon form of energy, the politicians ignore the carbon footprint of the mines and the consequences for the health of workers.

It is in developing countries that the miners and the local environment tend to suffer most because of open cast mines. For example, large areas of Kazakhstan are too dangerous to inhabit as a result of mountains of uranium tailings and mildly radioactive dust.

The Symposium’s co-president, Dr. Dale Dewar − a physician who is associate professor at the University of Saskatchewan and is co-author of the book, From Hiroshima to Fukushima to You − summed up by saying: “We are calling on national and international leaders to protect our planet and our populations from any further nuclear catastrophes. Anything less would be irresponsible.” – Climate News Network

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Call for an end to ‘business as usual’ option on climate

Call for an end to ‘business as usual’ option on climate

UN special envoy urges a unified approach to global action on tackling the interlinked issues of climate change, sustainable development and human rights.

LONDON, 23 April, 2015 − Mary Robinson, the UN Secretary General’s special envoy on climate change, has warned that the whole issue of climate is much too important to be left to governments and their leaders.

Robinson, who was the first woman president of Ireland and is now head of the MRFCJ foundation promoting climate justice, said it is a battle for all of us − and that now is the time for action, not for the continuation of business as usual.

Speaking at the Grantham Institute for Climate Change at Imperial College, London, Robinson said that the UN conference on climate change in Paris at the end of this year must achieve concrete, ambitious results.

Transformation

“Now is not the moment to manage expectations or get cold feet – 2015 is the moment to catalyse a transformation,” she said.

She also called for a more unified approach to global action on the interlinked issues of development, climate change and human rights.

“Till very recently,” she said, “climate change was thought of in terms of the science and the environment – not as a human rights and sustainable development issue. Now governments and the UN are changing their approach.”

“This is a serious moment – we must have funds to build a new kind of economy”

Many countries struggling to develop are having to spend enormous amounts on adaptation measures in relation to climate change, she said. It means that countries such as the Philippines − hit by typhoons and other disasters − are spending millions just to stand still.

“We have to change course,” Robinson argued. “This is a serious moment – we must have funds to build a new kind of economy.”

Robinson said that what she termed the “business as usual” model of development “has resulted in dangerous levels of pollution, caused climate change and biodiversity loss, and has failed to eradicate poverty and inequality”.

All countries, she said, should make a transition towards a zero-carbon economy − which is ultimately the key to long-term prosperity, but is a tremendous challenge, particularly for developing countries.

Alternative way

“No country has developed without fossil fuels to date, so co-operation is key to providing the technology, finance, skills and systems to create an alternative way of developing,” she said.

Robinson also expressed concern that the International Monetary Fund is still focusing on economic growth and not on climate change. It must alter its outlook, she said.

In her UN role, Robinson will be at the centre of a series of big international meetings on climate change and development issues this year.

A conference in July in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, will urge countries to commit more funds to climate finance, and to institutions such as the Green Climate Fund.

In September, the UN General Assembly is due to adopt a post-2015 strategy for achieving various development goals around the world.

And in December, in Paris, a new global climate change agreement is due to be worked out, under the auspices of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. − Climate News Network

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Scientists zero in on only solution to climate crisis

Scientists zero in on only solution to climate crisis

Panel of international climate scientists says the world has only until 2050 to become a zero-carbon society − but the rewards for doing so would be immense.

LONDON, 22 April, 2015 – If you want to know what we have to do to avoid catastrophic climate change, 17 of the world’s leading climate scientists have worked out a simple but challenging solution: the world, they say, must turn by mid-century into a zero-carbon society.

The signatories to today’s “Earth Statement” say: “This trajectory is not one of economic pain, but of economic opportunity, progress and inclusiveness. It is a chance too good to be missed.

“The latest science indicates that there are critical thresholds in the Earth system. Transgressing them may lead to dramatic and irreversible environmental changes.

“We are probably edging very close to such thresholds, and may already have crossed one with regard to melting of parts of Antarctica. Sea-level rise of more than one metre due to this event alone may be inevitable.”

Window of opportunity

They are convinced that time is short. “The window of opportunity is closing fast,” says Johan Rockström, chair of the Earth League, an international group of scientists from leading research institutions working on issues caused by climate change, natural resource depletion, land degradation and water scarcity.

“We are on a trajectory that will leave our world irrevocably changed, far exceeding the 2°C mark. This gamble risks disaster for humanity, with unmanageable sea-level rise, heat waves, droughts and floods.

“We would never consider this level of risk in any other walk of life, yet we seem prepared to take this risk with our planet. Conversely, the scientific evidence shows that we can create a positive future, but only with bold action now.”

The 2°C threshold is the limit beyond which world leaders have agreed to prevent global temperatures rising as climate change intensifies.

“For the sake of fairness, rich countries and progressive industries can and should take the lead and decarbonise well before mid-century”

The Earth League’s first Earth Statement is issued as a warning ahead of the UN climate conference in Paris in December − referred to by the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change as COP21, the 21st conference of the parties to the original climate treaty.

The League is supported in its statement − published today to mark Earth Day, an annual reinvigoration of the global environmental movement − by the Global Challenges Foundation.

Professor Jeffrey Sachs, director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University, US, and one of the authors of the statement, says: “COP21 is the moment of truth − the last chance to stay within the 2°C upper limit.

Quality of life

“The key to success is deep decarbonisation by mid-century. Our studies show that this can be accomplished, at modest cost, and with a significant improvement in the quality of life.”

The Earth Statement lists what it calls “eight essential elements of climate action”, which it says any agreement achieved in Paris in December should achieve in order to provide the world with a good chance of avoiding dangerous climate change.

They include the need for the process of deep decarbonisation to start immediately. One of the eight points, which may prove contentious, reads: “Equity is critical. Every country must formulate an emissions pathway consistent with deep decarbonisation.

“For the sake of fairness, rich countries and progressive industries can and should take the lead and decarbonise well before mid-century.”

Prof Rockström and Prof John Schellnhuber, a fellow Earth League member and director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, will present the Earth Statement tomorrow at the fourth Nobel Laureates Symposium on Global Sustainability in Hong Kong. – Climate News Network

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Antarctica blows hot and cold – for now

Antarctica blows hot and cold – for now

Natural variability may at the moment be affecting Antarctica’s temperature more than human activity, but climate change will still be a major influence.

LONDON, 19 April, 2015 – German scientists have identified a pattern of natural change in Antarctica. The discovery appears to suggest that human influence may not be a cause of apparent warming in the seas around the great, frozen continent. Instead, natural variability might have a role.

The finding doesn’t undermine the thesis that human burning of fossil fuels is enriching the atmosphere with greenhouse gases and triggering climate change: it might however account for the so-called pause in the rate of warming this century.

The verdict remains inconclusive. But new evidence published in the journal Climate Dynamics introduces a new layer of complexity in the understanding of the planetary climate system.

In brief, the rate of warming in the northern hemisphere is considerable, and highest in the Arctic Circle. Overall, the southern hemisphere remains colder, and evidence from the Antarctic has been ambiguous, although there have been widely reported fears of potentially dramatic change in West Antarctica. Rapid melting in the region would constitute a “climate tipping point” which would have consequences across the entire planet.

Too simple

But Josef Ludescher of the Institute for Theoretical Physics at the Justus Liebig University of Giessen and colleagues made an analysis of the full range of air temperature records from the southern continent and decided that the simple picture of a consistently cold and hostile world possibly modified by human activity was too simple: instead they found a propensity for “large and enduring natural excursions from the mean.”

Put simply, sometimes the winds blow colder, sometimes not quite so cold, but the coldest spells last for decades, followed by extended periods that might be measurably warmer overall.

The finding – it is based on sophisticated mathematical analysis and like all such hypotheses invites both confirmation and demolition by other climate science researchers – has a consequence: it means that the warming now observed in Antarctica may not be because of human influence. Or it may be that any human influence is so far swamped by a larger cyclic shift between two natural states.

“So far it seemed that there were hardly any major natural temperature fluctuations in Antarctica, so almost every rise in temperature was attributed to human influence,” said Armin Bunde of the Justus Liebig University, another member of the team.

“Global warming as a result of our greenhouse emissions from burning fossil fuel is a fact. However the human influence on the warming of West Antarctica is much smaller than previously thought. The warming of East Antarctica up to now can even be explained by natural variability alone.”

“At the end of this natural cold spell temperatures will rise even more fiercely – globally, but also in Antarctica”

But the study – if backed by other findings – could explain another climate puzzle. Although global warming increased rapidly during the last three decades of the last century, the rate of warming has slowed. All but one of the hottest years ever recorded have been in this century, and 2014 broke all records, but the rate at which the temperatures have risen has slowed.

There have been many potential explanations for this apparent slowdown. And perhaps the proposed Antarctic cycle has a role in that too.

“Our estimates show that we are currently facing a natural cooling period – while temperatures rise slowly but inexorably, due to our heating up the atmosphere by emitting greenhouse gases,” said another of the authors, Hans Joachim Schellnhuber, of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research.

“At the end of this natural cold spell temperatures will rise even more fiercely – globally, but also in Antarctica, which therefore is in danger of tipping.” – Climate News Network

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Permafrost holds key to release of trapped carbon

Permafrost holds key to release of trapped carbon

The frozen soil of the northern polar regions holds billions of tonnes of organic carbon – and global warming could speed its escape into the atmosphere.

LONDON, 14 April, 2015 − Three sets of scientists in the same week have helped narrow the uncertainties about how the natural world will respond to extra carbon dioxide in the atmosphere caused by the burning of fossil fuels.

Carbon locked in the frozen earth will escape gradually as the Arctic permafrost melts – but the scientists say the process could accelerate.

As greenhouse gas levels soar, and soils warm, and plant roots tap down into the carbon stored there by centuries of ancient growth, they will release potent chemicals that will accelerate microbial attack – and speed up the release of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

The soil carbon cycle is one of the great headaches of climate science. And the Arctic is the first place to look for answers about it, and about how the Earth and oceans that store atmospheric carbon will respond to global warming.

Locked away

Around half of the world’s buried organic carbon is locked away in the soils of the northern circumpolar permafrost, and this huge vault of deep-frozen peat and leaf litter – more than 1,000 billion metric tonnes in the top three metres, at the latest estimate − contains twice as much carbon as is held in the atmosphere.

But the Arctic is the fastest-warming region on the planet, so what will happen as the permafrost thaws and plants begin to move north? Would it all be surrendered to the atmosphere in one devastating exhalation, triggering an explosion in global warming and causing trillions of dollars in economic damage?

An international team within the Permafrost Carbon Network thinks not. Their verdict, published in Nature journal, is that the current evidence suggests “a gradual and prolonged release of greenhouse gas emissions in a warming climate”. That is, humankind would have time to adapt.

“The data from our team’s syntheses don’t support the permafrost carbon bomb view,” says one of the team members, David McGuire, professor of landscape ecology at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

“What our syntheses do show is that permafrost carbon is likely to be released in a gradual and prolonged manner, and that the rate of release through 2100 is likely to be of the same order as the current rate of tropical deforestation in terms of its effects on the carbon cycle.”

Since the tropical forests are already under pressure, this is hardly good news. And the picture is not a simple one.

“Even small changes will have serious effects on carbon concentrations in the atmosphere, and by extension on climate”

As the permafrost thaws, the soil microbes will get to work on the buried carbon, which will inevitably add to the soil warming, and provide an instance of what engineers call positive feedback, according to a team led by Jøgen Hollesen, senior researcher at the University of Copenhagen’s Centre for Permafrost.

He and colleagues report in Nature Climate Change that when they measured heat production in 21 contrasting organic permafrost soils, they found it to be between 10 and 130 times higher than in mineral soils measured in Greenland − and this would have “crucial implications for the amounts of carbon being decomposed”.

And in the same issue of Nature Climate Change, a team led by researchers from Oregon State University have confirmed that any kind of warming or plant growth is likely to get the soil microbes working as hard as they can – partly because the plants use chemistry to free the soil carbon so the bacteria can start to turn it back into carbon dioxide.

Neither of the two Nature Climate Change studies was directly concerned with climate change. The Danish scientists’ findings sprang from concern about what warming might do to the ancient middens that hold as-yet-unexamined evidence of early human settlement in the Arctic. The Oregon team were more concerned about the interactions that go on in the soil, and how they could be measured.

Chemical bonds

They found that plant roots released an exudate that acted to release the chemical bonds that keep a carbon bound to non-organic minerals in the soil. Warming could only speed the process, so more carbon dioxide will get into the atmosphere from the soil because of global warming.

This, again, is positive feedback at work. And it suggests climate scientists might be underestimating carbon loss from the soil by as much as 1% a year.

“Our main concern is that this is an important mechanism, and we are not presently considering it in global models of carbon cycling,” says soil and environmental geochemist Markus Kleber, one of the authors of the Oregon report.

“There is more carbon stored in the soil, on a global scale, than in vegetation, or even in the atmosphere. Since this reservoir is so large, even small changes will have serious effects on carbon concentrations in the atmosphere, and by extension on climate.” – Climate News Network

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Investors chip in as renewables rise towards record level

Investors chip in as renewables rise towards record level

Climate-friendly boost for global energy mix as scientists say solar power alone could now meet the needs of California five times over.

LONDON, 12 April, 2015 − Carbon dioxide levels might be soaring, and governments might be slow to reduce fossil fuel emissions and contain climate change − but the smart money could nevertheless be going into renewable sources such as wind and solar power.

The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) says green energy investments rose by 17% in 2014 to reach a total of $270bn − the first annual increase in three years, and just 3% behind the all-time record set in 2011 of $279bn.

In 2014, renewable energies added 103 gigawatts to global capacity. This is roughly equal to the output of all 158 nuclear power reactors in the US.

Wind, solar, biomass, waste-to-power, geothermal, small hydro and marine power contributed an estimated 9.1% of world electricity generation in 2014. This also represents a notional saving in carbon dioxide emissions of 1.3 gigatonnes, which is about twice what pours from the exhausts of the world airlines.

Markets mature

“Once again in 2014, renewable made up nearly half the power capacity added worldwide,” said Achim Steiner, executive director of UNEP.

“These climate-friendly energy technologies are now an indispensable component of the global energy mix and their importance will only increase as markets mature, technology prices continue to fall and the need to rein in carbon emissions becomes ever more urgent.”

But, according to scientists backed by the Carnegie Institution, there is much more that could be done. A team led by Earth system scientists Rebecca Hernandez, now of the University of California Berkeley, reported in Nature Climate Change that solar energy alone could meet the demands of the state of California in the US up to five times over.

Solar power systems based on photovoltaics could generate up to 15,000 terawatts of energy a year. And mirror-driven concentrating systems could add another 6,000 terawatt hours.

California – now in the grip of a calamitous drought that has been tentatively linked to climate change triggered by human investment in fossil fuels – is the most populous state in the US. The researchers calculated that more than 27,000 square kilometres of land would be fit for photovoltaic solar construction, and more than 6,000 square kilometres for concentrating solar power.

“Their importance will only increase as markets mature, technology prices continue to fall
and the need to rein in carbon emissions becomes ever more urgent”

But there is a darker side to the story of renewable energy. On the other side of the Rocky Mountains, scientists have been working on the much more complex carbon budget of biofuels, which deliver energy in liquid form.

They count as renewable energy because, although they emit carbon dioxide when burned, they do not, overall, add to the levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. That is because biofuel crops take carbon dioxide from the air to grow their tissues for conversion to fuel, and return the gas through engine exhausts.

But there have been persistent worries. One is that the conversion of food to fuel may not be the most efficient use of cropland.

Destroy ecosystems

The approach remains carbon neutral, as long as farmers exploit existing cropland. But the danger is that farmers might plough up existing grassland, destroy ecosystems, and release ancient stored soil carbon to the atmosphere, to make global warming worse.

Environmental scientist Tyler Lark and colleagues at the University of Wisconsin-Madison report in Environmental Research Letters that, between 2008 and 2012, US farmers ploughed seven million acres of new land for corn and soy for conversion to biofuels intended as renewable energy for motor transport.

In the course of doing so, they could have emitted as much carbon to the atmosphere as 34 coal-burning power stations in one year – or 28 million new cars on the road.

Nearly a quarter of the land converted came from long-standing prairies and ranges, much of it within the Central Plains, from North Dakota to Texas. And much of this was planted with corn intended for conversion to biofuels.

“It mimics the extreme land-use change that led to the Dust Bowl in the 1930s,” Lark says. “We could be, in a sense, ploughing up prairies with each mile we drive.” – Climate News Network

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Forests can soak up a third of carbon emissions

Forests can soak up a third of carbon emissions

Report commissioned by Prince Charles’s charity says protecting tropical forests could enable them to absorb billions of tonnes of the Earth’s emissions of carbon.

LONDON, 11 April, 2015 − Looking after the world’s tropical forests would be worthwhile in its own right, for the sake of their human and animal inhabitants and their wider effects on the natural world.

But researchers say it would also have a significant bonus. Properly cared for, the forests could cancel out between a quarter and a third of the planet’s carbon emissions.

They argue that it is not just outright destruction of the trees that is the problem, but the ways in which the forests become degraded by the incursion of different forms of development − logging, obviously, but also fires, mining, ranching, roads, and their effect in splitting the huge tracts of forested land into smaller and more isolated patches.

In a report commissioned by Prince Charles, the heir to the British throne, they say deforestation and degradation of the forests may account together for between 14% and 21% (1.4-2.2 gigatonnes of carbon, or GtC; a gigatonne is a billion metric tonnes) of all emissions of carbon, and perhaps even more if tropical peatlands and mangroves are included.

Atmospheric carbon

Against this, the forests absorb almost as much atmospheric carbon as they account for − an annual total of 1.2-1.8GtC, the authors say. But the report argues that simply offsetting the amount of carbon sequestered in this way against the amount emitted is insufficient, for two reasons.

The first is the evidence that human activities are responsible for a significant proportion of CO2 absorption. Second, total emissions are probably much higher than the traditional greenhouse gas (GHG) accounting approach allows.

Taken together, these two factors suggest that slowing damage to the forests and keeping them in the best condition possible is more important than many people have realised.

But the forests continue to suffer damage. The report says: “…it can be argued that the causes and consequences of tropical forest degradation have been given too little attention, with the science now pointing toward degradation being a very significant component both of greenhouse gas emissions and the weakening of forest ecosystems”.

We can act on forests now, therefore buying much-needed time to enable the transformation to a low-carbon economy

It paints a sobering picture of the present situation, saying there is “no sign yet that overall rates of deforestation or degradation are decreasing”. The report says the annual area of global forest lost is about 8.5m hectares.

Rising world demand for timber and wood products, and for farm produce, it says, “will significantly increase pressure on tropical forests over the next few decades”.

The report was commissioned by the Prince’s International Sustainability Unit. In a foreword, Prince Charles writes: “It is an alarming fact that rates of deforestation and degradation continue to rise, and that the underlying causes of this increase are set to become very much more acute…”

But he sounds an encouraging note: “We can act on forests now, therefore buying much-needed time to enable the transformation to a low-carbon economy.”

Considerable uncertainty

There is considerable uncertainty about how much the forests contribute to GHG emissions. In 2012, NASA said that tropical deforestation had accounted for about 10% of human carbon emissions from 2000 to 2005 − a much lower figure than previous estimates.

Forest degradation is often more difficult to detect than deforestation itself, and is almost invisible to satellite monitoring. Research in six tropical countries suggests that degradation by logging can cause significant damage, with GHG emissions on average about 12% of those caused by deforestation.

Together, their impact is serious. The Global Forest Watch online monitoring network says that Brazil lost 5.9% of its forest cover between 2001 and 2012, while Indonesia lost 9.2% over the same timespan. − Climate News Network

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