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Drought adds to Syria’s misery

April 19, 2014 in Agriculture, Conflict, Drought, Movies, Warming

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A Roman water cistern in Syria: Many reservoirs today are less than half full Image: James Gordon from Los Angeles, California, USA via Wikimedia Commons

A Roman water cistern in Syria: Many reservoirs today are less than half full, despite heavy winter snowfall
Image: James Gordon from Los Angeles, California, USA via Wikimedia Commons

By Kieran Cooke

Thousands have died and millions have been displaced by the conflict in Syria. Severe drought in the region – part of what many believe is an ongoing, climate change-related dry period – is heaping added misery on people.

LONDON, 19 April – The conflict in Syria has devastated much of the country’s agricultural sector. But while the fighting has left large tracts of farmland abandoned, irrigation systems smashed and livestock neglected, other forces have also been at work.

Syria – and much of the Eastern Mediterranean region – is in the grip of one of the longest periods of drought on record. The World Food Programme (WFP) says the recent rainfall season in Syria, which usually lasts from October to April, produced less than half the long term average precipitation.

When the harvest of wheat – the staple food – is brought in next month it’s likely to be 30% down on last year – and less than half its pre-conflict level.

“This is part of a wider pattern of drier than average conditions which has dominated across the eastern Mediterranean from southern Turkey to western Syria, Lebanon and Jordan”, says the WFP.

Ultra-dry stretch

With other agencies, it is trying to look after the food needs of more than four million people displaced by the fighting in Syria. It says the drought could mean that number increasing to more than six million. A poor harvest will also lead to yet more increases in food prices.

The present period of drought hitting Syria and the wider region – including large parts of Iraq – started in 2008: dry conditions persisted through 2009 and 2010. Despite heavy snowfalls over the recent winter, water supplies in many reservoirs are less than half their normal level.

“Going back to the last 100 years I don’t think you can get a five-year span that’s been as dry “, Mohammad Rafi Hossain, an environmental economist at the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) told Reuters news agency.

Many analysts say the drought – and a lack of action by the Syrian authorities to halt soaring food prices – was one of the factors driving the initial 2011 uprising against the regime of Bashar al-Assad.

At special risk

With crops destroyed by lack of water, desperate farmers and their families were forced to move to cities and towns in search of work and food. There they combined with students and other activists in large-scale protests against the Government.

The Syrian drought and the role played by farmers in the protests against the  Damascus regime form one of the episodes in Years of Living Dangerously, a film series on climate change starring several prominent Hollywood actors now being aired on cable TV in the US.

The World Bank says the Middle East region is particularly vulnerable to climate change. The UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and others have repeatedly warned that a changing climate – particularly a “drying out” in some of the world’s most productive agricultural regions  – will lead to rapidly increasing food prices and create serious social and political tensions. – Climate News Network

The energy revolution is in reverse

April 18, 2014 in Climate, Emissions reductions, Energy, Fossil fuels, Greenhouse Gases, IPCC, Mitigation, Nuclear power, Policy, Shale Gas, Subsidies, Warming

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Not-so-calm waters ahead: The IPCC urges a move away from business as usual Image: Walter Siegmund via Wikimedia Commons

Not-so-calm waters ahead: The IPCC urges a move away from business as usual
Image: Walter Siegmund via Wikimedia Commons

By Henner Weithöner

The UN climate panel’s prescription for tackling climate change is admirably clear. The problem is that the world is heading in precisely the opposite direction.

BERLIN, 18 April – Keeping the rise in global average temperatures to no more than 2°C above pre-industrial levels will not be prohibitively expensive, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) says, though it won’t be easy.

There’s just one problem: the atmospheric facts show that the world is not simply ignoring the IPCC. It’s moving smartly away from the clean energy future that the Panel says is attainable towards an inexorably hotter and more risky future.

Reaching the target will mean cutting greenhouse gas emissions by 40-70% over 2010 levels by mid-century, the IPCC report says. Yet what is happening at the moment is the exact opposite: average global emissions rose by a billion tonnes a year between 2000 and 2010, faster than ever before.

To avoid the worst impacts of climate change as cheaply as possible, the report urges an energy revolution to end the dominance of fossil fuels. The IPCC says  investments in renewable energy need to triple, with subsidies to fossil fuels declining and a switch to natural gas to help countries to get rid of coal.

The path to lower emissions may cost the energy giants dear, the IPCC acknowledges. “Mitigation policy could devalue fossil fuel assets and reduce revenues for fossil fuel exporters,” Professor Ottmar Edenhofer, co-chair of the IPCC’s Working Group III, which produced the report, told a public meeting here. “To avoid dangerous interference with the climate system, we need to move away from business as usual.”

‘Negligible’ cost

Another controversial point is the report’s inclusion of nuclear power as a low-carbon option (it acknowledges that it has declined globally since 1993 and faces safety, financial and waste-management concerns). The report also advocates carbon capture and storage (CCS), noting that it remains untested on a large scale.

But the IPCC insists that diverting hundreds of billions of dollars from fossil fuels into renewable energy and cutting energy waste would shave just 0.06% off expected annual economic growth rates of 1.3%-3%. “Statistically you won’t notice,” said Dr Ryer Gerlagh, a co-ordinating lead author on the economics chapter of the report.

Li Shuo of Greenpeace China said: “Science has spoken: climate action is no burden, it’s an opportunity. As renewable energies are growing bigger, better and cheaper every day, the age of dangerous and polluting coal, oil and gas is over. The only rational response to this report is to start the phase-out of fossil fuels immediately.”

Wrong direction

Global temperatures have risen about 0.8°C since record-keeping started in 1850. Current pledges by governments to reduce emissions by 2020 have set the world on a path to between 3 and 5°C of warming by 2100, the IPCC says.

The Working Group III contribution to the IPCC’s Fifth Assessment Report (AR5) is intended to provide a comprehensive assessment of the options for mitigating climate change through limiting or preventing greenhouse gas emissions. It may have shown that those options exist and are affordable. But that is very far from showing that governments can be persuaded to use them. – Climate News Network

Henner Weithöner is a freelance journalist in Berlin specialising in renewable energy and climate change.

Greenland’s icecap loses stability

April 13, 2014 in Arctic, Glaciers, Greenland, Ice Loss, Sea level rise, Warming

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The calving front of the Jakobshaven Glacier in western Greenland in April 2012 Image: NASA ICE via Wikimedia Commons

The calving front of the Jakobshaven Glacier in western Greenland in April 2012
Image: NASA ICE via Wikimedia Commons

By Tim Radford

Greenland is losing ice from part of its territory at an accelerating rate, suggesting that the edges of the entire ice cap may be unstable.

LONDON, 13 April – Greenland – the largest terrestrial mass of ice in the northern hemisphere – may be melting a little faster than anyone had guessed.

A region of the Greenland ice sheet that had been thought to be stable is undergoing what glaciologists call “dynamic thinning”. That is because the meltwater from the ice sheet is getting into the sea, according to a study in Nature Climate Change.

In short, Greenland’s contribution to sea level rise has been under-estimated, and oceanographers may need to think again about their projections.

Shfaqat Khan from the Technical University of Denmark and colleagues used more than 30 years of surface elevation measurements of the entire ice sheet to discover that overall loss is accelerating. Previous studies had identified melting of glaciers in the island’s south-east and north-west, but the assumption had been that the ice sheet to the north-east was stable.

Four times as fast

It was stable, at least until about 2003. Then higher air temperatures set up the process of so-called dynamic thinning. Ice sheets melt every Arctic summer, under the impact of extended sunshine, but the slush on the glaciers tends to freeze again with the return of the cold and the dark, and since under historic conditions glaciers move at the proverbial glacial pace, the loss of ice is normally very slow.

But global warming, triggered by rising levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, has changed all that. Greenland’s southerly glaciers have been in retreat and one of them, Jakobshavn Isbrae, is now flowing four times faster than it did in 1997.
Now the Danish-led team has examined changes linked to the 600 kilometre-long Zachariae ice stream in the north-east.

This has retreated by about 20 kms in the last decade, whereas Jakobshavn has retreated about 35 kms in 150 years. The Zachariae stream drains around one-sixth of the Greenland ice sheet, and because warmer summers have meant significantly less sea ice in recent years, icebergs have more easily broken off and floated away, which means that the ice stream can move faster. The researchers used satellite studies to measure ice loss.

“North-east Greenland is very cold. It used to be considered the last stable part of the Greenland ice sheet,” said one of the team, Michael Bevis of Ohio State University in the US.

Deep impacts

“This study shows that ice loss in the north-east is now accelerating. So now it seems that all of the margins of the Greenland ice sheet are unstable.”

The scientists used a GPS network to calculate the loss of ice. Glacial ice presses down on the bedrock below it: when the ice melts, the bedrock rises in response to the drop in pressure, and sophisticated satellite measurements can deliver enough information to help scientists put a figure on the loss of ice.

They calculate that between April 2003 and April 2012, the region was losing ice at the rate of 10 billion tons a year.

“This implies that changes at the margin can affect the mass balance deep in the centre of the ice sheet,” said Dr Khan. Sea levels are creeping up at the rate of 3.2 mm a year. Until now, Greenland had been thought to contribute about half a mm. The real figure may be significantly higher. – Climate News Network

More CO2 limits plants’ protein output

April 12, 2014 in Agriculture, Carbon Dioxide, Soil, Uncategorized, Vegetation changes, Warming

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The Mojave desert: As CO2levels rose, it took up unexpectedly large amountsofthe gas Image: Rennett Stowe via Wikimedia Commons

The Mojave desert: As CO2 levels rose, it took up unexpectedly large amounts of the gas
Image: Rennett Stowe via Wikimedia Commons

By Tim Radford

With increasing warmth drying more of the Earth, arid soils may absorb more carbon dioxide – but that in turn is likely to limit protein production.

LONDON, 12 April – As global temperatures rise, more than one third of the land surface may become more arid. Although there will be changes in rainfall patterns, heat – and the attendant evaporation of the soil – could extend ever drier conditions to more and more farmland and cities, according to research in the journal Climate Dynamics.

The new study – which excludes Antarctica – is led by Benjamin Cook, a climate scientist both with the University of Columbia’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory and the US space agency Nasa. It is based on climate simulation, and forecasts that 12% of the land surface will be subjected to drought by 2100 just through changes in rainfall. Throw in the increased heat, though, and the drying effect will be spread to 30% of the land.

Even those regions that might be expected to get more rain will be at greater risk of drought. This would be very bad news for the wheat, corn and rice belts of the south-western US and south-eastern China.

“For agriculture, moisture in the soil is what really matters,” said Cook’s co-author, Jason Smerdon. The research confirms previous studies, and the more recent warnings from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, and other studies, have predicted that extremes of temperature will be bad news for farmers anyway, with yields  likely to be affected.

But nothing in climate research is simple. The extra warming will be a direct consequence of ever-higher levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. A study in Nature Climate Change has just revealed that arid zones offer an unexpected source of what engineers call negative feedback.

Carbon sink

A 10-year experiment in the Mojave desert in the US has shown that as carbon dioxide levels increase, arid areas take up unexpectedly large amounts of the gas.

“They are a major sink for atmospheric carbon dioxide, so as CO2 levels go up, they’ll increase their uptake of CO2 from the atmosphere. They’ll help take up some of that excess CO2 going into the atmosphere. They can’t take it all up, but they’ll help,” says Dave Evans, a biologist at Washington State University.

All land surfaces absorb some carbon. Until now, most attention has been paid to the role of forests as major “sinks” of carbon. But the US experimenters marked out nine octagonal plots of the desert and blew air with current levels of CO2 over three of them, and air with 550 parts per million of CO2, the expected level by 2050, over another three. Three received no extra air at all.

Then the researchers excavated the soils to a depth of a metre to measure the absorbed carbon and were surprised by the gain in carbon during a relatively short exposure in the plots exposed to the extra carbon dioxide.

Arid and semi-arid soils account for a large proportion of the planet’s land surface: overall, they could increase carbon uptake to account for between 15% and 28% of the amount currently being absorbed by land surfaces.

Less protein

This sounds like good news, on balance. It may not be, as far as food supplies are concerned. In the same issue of Nature Climate Change a second study reports on experiments into the effects of elevated levels of carbon dioxide on wheat.

Carbon dioxide is seen as a fertiliser of plants and indeed, without it, there would be no plants. But Arnold Bloom, a plant scientist at the University of California Davis reports that, according to his experiments, elevated levels of carbon dioxide also inhibit the conversion of nitrate into protein in crops.

Wheat provides nearly one fourth of all protein in the global human diet. Other studies have shown the same effect with wheat – and also with rice, barley and potato tubers.

“When this decline is factored into the respective portion of dietary protein that humans derive from these various crops, it becomes clear that the overall protein available for human consumption may drop by about three per cent as atmospheric carbon dioxide reaches the levels anticipated to occur during the next few decades,” Bloom said. – Climate News Network

Early springs surprise many species

April 7, 2014 in Adaptation, Arctic, Climate, Polar ice, Species loss, Warming, Wildlife

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Roe deer numbers have been particularly hard hit by seasonal disruption.  Image: Marek Szczepanek via Wikimedia Commons

Roe deer numbers have been particularly hard hit by seasonal disruption.
Image: Marek Szczepanek via Wikimedia Commons

By Tim Radford

As seasonal change suffers ever more disruption, many species are struggling to adapt quickly enough.

LONDON, 7 April – Spring is arriving earlier. This is not necessarily welcome news for Arctic creatures or the roe deer of France. It could be awkward for flower festival organisers as well.

Julienne Stroeve of the US National Snow and Ice Data Centre and colleagues will report in Geophysical Research Letters that the length of the Arctic melt season is growing by several days each decade. When the melt starts earlier, the Arctic Ocean absorbs more radiation: enough in some places to melt four feet in thickness from the Arctic ice cap.

“The lengthening of the melt season is allowing for more of the sun’s energy to get stored in the oceans and increase ice melt during the summer, overall weakening the sea ice cover,” says Stroeve. The Arctic sea ice has now been in decline for four decades.

The seven lowest September sea ice extents in the satellite record have all occurred in the last seven years. A new examination of satellite imagery and data from 1979 to the present shows that the Beaufort and Chukchi Seas are freezing up between six and 11 days later per decade. But the earlier melt is more ominous than the later freeze: the sun is higher and brighter, and delivers more warmth to the seas.

Festival disruption

The earlier spring presents no problems for many plants but it may not be much fun for the organisers of flower festivals who like to announce their events well in advance. Tim Sparks of Coventry University reports in the journal Climate Research that over its 46-year history, the Thriplow Daffodil Weekend in Cambridgeshire in eastern England has been forced to bring its dates forward by 26 days.

The event can attract up to 10,000 visitors, and has raised £300,000 (US $500,000) for charity, so it clearly helps the organisers to set up some advance publicity. Since 1969, mean temperatures in March and April in the UK have risen by 1.8°C.

“The study represents one of the first solid pieces of evidence of flower tourism having to adapt to climate change,” said Professor Sparks. “The issues faced by Thriplow are a microcosm of the wider picture.”

Flower festivals may be able to adapt. Sadly, the roe deer of Champagne have yet to get the message about climate change. To flourish, both nectar seekers and herbivores have to time their breeding patterns to the surge in plant growth.

Three French scientists looked at records of a population of roe deer in the Champagne region of France, and found that although spring has been arriving increasingly earlier, the fawns are being born at around the same dates as they were 27 years ago, and their survival rate is falling, they report in the Public Library of Science journal PLOS Biology. Overall, the roe deer population in the region is also in decline.

Great tits have kept up with climate change, because reproduction is cued by temperature, so they are around at the same time as the explosion in food sources. What sets the biological pace for roe deer is day length, the authors think, and this is not affected by climate change. - Climate News Network

Climate change ‘makes violence likelier’

March 31, 2014 in Adaptation, Climate risk, Conflict, El Niño, IPCC, Warming

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A UN peacekeeper chats to local youths in Darfur: Many governments now give high priority to climate change as a security issue Image: © UN Photo/Albert Gonzalez Farran

A UN peacekeeper chats to local youths in Darfur: Many governments now regard climate change as a security issue
Image: © UN Photo/Albert Gonzalez Farran

By Alex Kirby

Scientists say there is a direct link between changing climate and an increase in violence, reinforcing a key finding of the latest IPCC report.

LONDON, 31 March – US scientists say there is evidence that a warming climate is closely related to political and social instability and a higher risk of conflict.

Professor Solomon Hsiang and colleagues  described in the journal Nature in 2011 how they had investigated whether anything linked “planetary-scale climate changes with global patterns of civil conflict”.

They examined evidence of a possible link between El Niño, the periodic weather disruption off the Pacific coast of South America, which affects the weather and causes higher temperatures across much of the world, and its partner, the cooler La Niña phenomenon, with outbreaks of unrest.

After analysing data from 1950 to 2004, they found that “the probability of new civil conflicts arising throughout the tropics doubles during El Niño years relative to La Niña years.”

They wrote: “This result, which indicates that ENSO may have had a role in 21% of all civil conflicts since 1950, is the first demonstration that the stability of modern societies relates strongly to the global climate” (ENSO, the El Niño/Southern Oscillation, is the scientific term for the cycle of alternating warmer and cooler years).

“Climate change can indirectly increase risks of violent conflicts in the form of civil war and inter-group violence”

The work of Professor Hsiang and his colleagues predates one of the key conclusions of the latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, entitled Climate Change 2014: Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability, from the IPCC’s Working Group II.

This details the impacts of climate change so far, the future risks from a changing climate, and the opportunities for effective action to reduce the risks.

The report says: “Climate change can indirectly increase risks of violent conflicts in the form of civil war and inter-group violence.” It does not however argue that there is a direct link between climate change and conflict.

Professor Hsiang’s study is cited in a report by a London-based group, the Environmental Justice Foundation, which works to protect the environment and to defend human rights. Its report, The Gathering Storm: Climate Change, Security and Conflict, says the world’s major military powers increasingly regard climate change as a significant threat.

The EJF says: “In 2012, one person every second was displaced by a climate or weather-related natural disaster.

“With millions of people forced to move each year by rapid-onset climate-related hazards and slow-onset environmental degradation, social wellbeing, human rights, economies and even state stability are at risk…at the highest level, climate change is being assessed as a risk to national security and potentially to global stability.”

It identifies several points of concern, including the shrinking of Arctic ice; competition over water resources in Central Asia; sea-level rises and small island developing states; and climate change-induced migration in the Sahel region of Africa.

“We find strong causal evidence linking climatic events to human conflict… across all major regions of the world”

The EJF report says that while climate change may not be the sole cause of conflict in future, it will play an increasingly significant role as “a threat multiplier”.

It cites a 2013 study by Professor Hsiang and others published in Science, an analysis of data drawn from archaeology, criminology, economics, geography, history, political science, and psychology.

The authors write: “We find strong causal evidence linking climatic events to human conflict across a range of spatial and temporal scales and across all major regions of the world.”

They say every 1°C rise in temperature has been estimated to cause a 14% increase of intergroup conflict and a 4% increase of interpersonal violence.

With the possibility of global average temperatures rising by 2-4°C this century, they conclude: “Amplified rates of human conflict could represent a large and critical impact of anthropogenic climate change.”

EJF is campaigning for the recognition of climate change as not simply an environmental problem, but as a human rights issue as well. It wants the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) to establish a special rapporteur on human rights and climate change. – Climate News Network

UK seabirds sound climate warning

March 28, 2014 in Climate, Marine ecology, Ocean Warming, USA, Warming

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A Scottsh kittiwake: Numbers have plunged since 2000, with climate change thought to be reducing their main food source Image: By DickDaniels (http://carolinabirds.org)via Wikimedia Commons

A Scottsh kittiwake: Numbers have plunged since 2000, with climate change thought to be reducing their main food source
Image: By DickDaniels (http://carolinabirds.org)via Wikimedia Commons

By Alex Kirby

Once-familiar Scottish seabirds are among species whose numbers in the UK are falling sharply, scientists say – and the suspicion is that climate change is to blame.

LONDON, 28 March – Several familiar British birds are now showing drastic declines in numbers as the reality of climate change strikes home even at these temperate latitudes.

Scientists believe climate change is the driving force behind a crash in the numbers of kittiwakes, a seabird species which used to thrive in northern Scotland. The birds are doing so badly that there are fears some colonies could disappear entirely.

The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) is the UK’s largest nature conservation charity. In a report to mark the publication on 31 March by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) of its latest findings, the RSPB says that on current trends kittiwakes face extinction from areas that were once core strongholds.

It says that since 2000 kittiwake numbers have declined by 87% on Orkney and Shetland, two island groups north of the Scottish mainland. The islands were once home to thriving cliff colonies of thousands of birds, but today, the RSPB says, many cliffs are virtually empty in the breeding season.

It says research shows that sea temperature changes are affecting the availability of the birds’ preferred prey, small fish called sandeels.

Leadership challenge

Paul Walton, head of habitats and species for RSPB Scotland, says: “Ten years ago Marwick Head on Orkney was a thriving seabird city – but now it looks like a ghost town. Evidence points to rising sea surface temperatures driving huge declines and species shifts in plankton populations. This is the food of sandeels, and the sandeels are food for the birds.”

Two other seabirds are declining sharply. Razorbills are down 57% from a total of 2,228 in 2000 to just 966 in 2013, and guillemots have fallen by 46% during the same period.

The RSPB wants the Scottish Government to designate key seabird feeding sites as marine protected areas. But it says a much bigger challenge is to persuade world leaders to heed the warnings in the IPCC report and do more to tackle climate change.

Other UK wildlife and habitats are also threatened by climate change. Machair is a rare, wildlife-rich coastal grassland, mostly found on Scottish islands,  and home to a traditional agricultural system that works in close harmony with nature. Working the machair is a big part of Gaelic culture, supporting corncrakes, ringed plovers, dunlins and great yellow bumblebees.

The machair is singled out in the IPCC report as one of the habitats most threatened by climate change. The IPCC says rising sea-levels, and the increased risk of storms and flooding, will mean the land becomes increasingly eroded.

Compounding the pressure

Another British bird of concern to the RSPB is the Dartford warbler, found on the heathlands of southern England and very sensitive to the cold. The species has been steadily moving northwards, apparently because of climate change. It is declining on the southern edge of its range in Spain, and in the UK conservationists are working hard to create new heathland habitat for the birds to move into.

Dotterels are birds which breed only on the highest mountain tops of Scotland. Their numbers have fallen from 630 breeding males in 1999 to 423 in 2011. Again, the RSPB believes, climate change is the culprit.

Martin Harper, the RSPB’s conservation director, says: “Kittiwakes, dotterels and Dartford warblers are three examples of wildlife being affected on our doorstep, but further afield the picture is stark for a whole range of species.

“Climate change will compound the many existing pressures on wildlife including habitat destruction, the introduction of non-native invasive species, over-exploitation and pollution.

“The overwhelming scientific consensus suggests that unless we take urgent action to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions, climate change will commit many species to extinction this century. The silent kittiwake colonies on Orkney should be a warning.” – Climate News Network

Warmer winters will limit Olympic snow

March 22, 2014 in Greenhouse Gases, Temperature Increase, Warming

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Is Sochi, home of the 2014 Winter Olympics, now on the skids? Few host cities look likely to survive Image: By Lite via Wikimedia Cpmmons

Is Sochi, home of the 2014 Winter Olympics, now on the skids? Few host cities look likely to survive
Image: By Lite via Wikimedia Cpmmons

By Tim Radford

Only one in three of the cities which have staged the Winter Olympics in the last 90 years is likely to be cold enough to do so as this century draws to its end.

LONDON, 22 March – The future looks cloudy for the Winter Olympics. If the world keeps on burning fossil fuels in the usual way, then of the 19 cities that have staged the event since 1924, only six are likely have enough natural snow and ice by the 2080s.

Daniel Scott, a geographer at the University of Waterloo in Canada and colleagues from Ontario and Innsbruck, Austria report in the journal Current Issues in Tourism that, on average, daytime temperatures in February at the Games sites between 1924 and 1950 were 0°4C. During the 21st century, this had changed dramatically. The average daytime maximum temperatures had reached 7.8°C.

“There are limits to what current weather risk management strategies can cope with. These limits will be increasingly tested in a warmer world,” the authors write.

The Olympic Winter Games are big business. In 1924 there were 250 amateurs from 16 countries competing in 16 medal events. In 2010 in Vancouver, Canada there were 2,500 athletes – amateur and professional – from 82 countries competing in 86 events.

High stakes

Around 1.5 million spectator tickets were sold in Vancouver, and worldwide media broadcast revenues were more than $1.2 billion. Broadcasts reached 200 nations and a potential audience of 3.8 billion. So the Games are now a big tourist attraction, and at the same time a spectacular showcase for the host country as a future destination for pleasure-seekers.

But, say the researchers, it now looks as though artificial snow technology could become more important than ever, and some places that invested heavily in Olympic facilities will become increasingly marginal, high-risk or downright unreliable.

The authors did three things. They considered the pattern of change over the last 90 years. They analysed the minimum requirements in temperature, weather and snowfall for a games venue. And then they considered the likely warming of the next 80 years in two scenarios – one with low greenhouse gas emissions, and one under the notorious “business-as-usual” scenario.

Games planners ideally need the following: daytime maximum temperatures no higher than 10°C in February and minimums of 0°C or below (so that the slush can freeze again); as little rain as possible (because that’s really bad for snow and discouraging for spectators); natural snow deep enough for alpine and cross country skiing; and overall temperature conditions that would make artificial snowmaking possible if the natural snowfall is not enough.

Few candidates left

They distilled all these to two basic requirements: a reliable daily minimum of 0°C and 30 cms of natural snow on the hillsides. And then they checked all these against the predictions for 19 cities and resorts around the world that have already staged the games and watched the candidates eliminate themselves.

Chamonix in France, home of the first-ever games, and a famous winter playground for more than a century, becomes “high-risk/marginal” by mid-century and, under the high emissions scenario, simply “unreliable” by 2080.

The same is true for Grenoble in France, Oslo in Norway and Sarajevo in Bosnia-Herzegovina. Vancouver becomes not reliable under the high emissions scenario by 2050, and thereafter under all cases. Garmisch-Partenkirchen in Germany and Sochi in Russia, home of the 2014 games, become not reliable under all scenarios. By 2050, only 10 places will still be suitable, with reliable snow and ice. By 2080, this total will be down to six

That raises some big questions: what future is there for winter sports? Will new winter sports powers and regions emerge? Could anyone ever devise truly artificial snow – stuff that would not depend on the temperature? In a substantially warmer world, celebrating the second centennial of the Olympic Winter Games in 2124 would become “increasingly challenging,” the researchers say. – Climate News Network

Warmer freshwater emits more methane

March 20, 2014 in Greenhouse Gases, Methane, Warming, Water, Wetlands

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Swamps, marshes, rice paddies and all freshwater ecosystems are sources of methane Image: By vastateparksstaff (Uploaded by AlbertHerring) via Wikimedia Commons

Swamps, marshes, rice paddies and other freshwater ecosystems are sources of methane
Image: By vastateparksstaff (Uploaded by AlbertHerring) via Wikimedia Commons

By Tim Radford

Scientists think the amount of methane emitted to the atmosphere from freshwater ecosystems will increase as the climate warms, triggering further warming.

LONDON, 20 March – British scientists have identified yet another twist to the threat of global warming. Any further rises in temperature are likely to accelerate the release of methane from rivers, lakes, deltas, bogs, swamps, marshlands and rice paddy fields.

Methane or natural gas is a greenhouse gas. Weight for weight, it is more than 20 times more potent than carbon dioxide over a century, and researchers have repeatedly examined the contribution of natural gas emitted by ruminant cattle to global warming. But Gabriel Yvon-Durocher of the University of Exeter and colleagues considered something wider: the pattern of response to temperature in those natural ecosystems that are home to microbes that release methane.

They report in Nature that they looked at data from hundreds of field surveys and laboratory experiments to explore the speed at which the flow of methane increased with temperature.

Microbes, algae, freshwater plants and animals are all part of an active ecosystem and take their nourishment from and return waste to the atmosphere. Healthy plants take carbon dioxide from the atmosphere with photosynthesis. Most of the methane in freshwater systems is produced by an important group of microbes called Archaea that live in waterlogged, oxygen-free sediments and play an important role in decay.

Plant uptake of carbon dioxide is affected by temperature, and so is microbial methane production. Respiration also releases carbon dioxide. The questions the researchers set out to answer were: which gas is more likely to be released in greater quantities as temperatures rise? And is the outcome the same whether they examine the Archaea only, or all the microbes in an ecosystem, or the entire package of submerged freshwater life?

More heat, more methane

The answer is, the scientists say, that methane emissions go up with the mercury, and that the ratio of methane to carbon dioxide also goes up in step with temperature. And the result is the same whether you consider the microbes or the whole ecosystem.

“The discovery that methane fluxes are much more responsive to temperature than the processes that produce and consume carbon dioxide highlights another mechanism by which the global carbon cycle may serve to accelerate rather than mitigate future climate change,” says Dr Yvon-Durocher.

This is not the end of the story. All such studies raise as many questions as they answer, and more research is necessary. The next puzzle is how to fit such findings into models of climate change. However, the researchers feel they have cleared up one point. Dr Yvon-Durocher says:

“Our research provides scientists with an important clue about the mechanisms that may control the response of methane emissions from ecosystems to global warming.” – Climate News Network

Malarial mosquitoes flying higher

March 15, 2014 in Africa, Climate, Disease, Mountains, Warming

 

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The Anopheles mosquito. With a warming climate, it could fly higher Image: James Gathany via Wikimedia Commons

The Anopheles gambiae mosquito. With a warming climate, it could fly higher
Image: James Gathany via Wikimedia Commons

By Tim Radford

Scientists are finding that malaria carrying mosquitoes can survive in higher regions in warmer periods. With changes in climate that’s bad news. 

LONDON, 15 March - Things are looking up for the little parasite that infects 200 million people a year, and kills more than 600,000 of them.

As global temperatures rise, so will the altitude at which the Anopheles mosquito and its plasmodium parasite can survive, and so will the numbers at risk from malaria.

The global war against malaria has always been an uphill struggle, but populations in highland regions have usually been safe, because the parasite cannot replicate at low temperatures.

Disease spread

But Amir Siraj of the University of Denver in Colorado in the US and colleagues in the UK and Ethiopia report in the journal Science that they’ve started to consider the effect of climate change on the spread of the disease.

Projections of hazards such as these are difficult: the likelihood of infection can depend on steps civil, national and international health authorities may take, the preparedness of communities depends on spraying programmes and the availability of drugs, and the numbers at risk alter as populations grow and economies develop.

All malaria needs is somewhere warm and wet, and a steady supply of potential hosts. The disease was once endemic in mild, low-lying or marshy areas of Europe (the name comes from the Italian mal aria, or bad air).

It can be controlled by spraying, and by public education. But it remains an enduring hazard in Africa, parts of Asia and South America. Upland communities, however, have tended to be safe.

Data search

But the Denver team decided to forget about all the complex possibilities and just look at some very precise data from 124 municipalities in Antioquia in western Colombia between 1990 and 2005, and 159 administrative units in the Debre Zeit region of Ethiopia from 1993 to 2005.

They reasoned that a match of seasonal temperatures and reported cases would tell them what to expect.

Sure enough, they found that during warmer years, there were more reported cases of malaria in both countries. The “median altitude” at which cases were registered shifted accordingly with annual temperatures. That gave them enough information to consider some alarming possibilities.

In a previous study, scientists predicted that a 1°C rise in global average temperatures could bring an additional three million cases a year in Ethiopia among children under 15. As average temperatures rise, so will the numbers of potential victims soar, and so will the need for investment in mitigation and insect control.

“With progressive global warming, malaria will creep up the mountains and spread to new high altitude areas,” said Menno Bouma of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, one of the authors.

“And because these populations lack protective immunity, they will be particularly vulnerable.”- Climate News Network