Category Archives: Weather

Climate puts US at risk of multi-billion bill

Overheating: US crops such as cotton face a %20 drop in yield Image: Wars via Wikinmedia Commons
Overheated economy: US crops such as cotton face a 20% drop in yield
Image: Wars via Wikimedia Commons

By Alex Kirby

A study of the possible cost of climate change to the US economy warns government and business that billions of dollars could be at risk through damage to property, reduced harvests and workers incapacitated by extreme heat.

LONDON, 29 June, 2014 − The sheer economic cost of climate change to Americans could be far greater than many realise, an influential study says.

The study was commissioned by the Risky Business Project, a research organisation chaired by a bi-partisan panel and supported by several former US Treasury Secretaries.

It expects climate change to have varied impacts across different regions and industries. Rising sea levels, it says, could destroy many billion dollars’ worth of coastal properties by 2050, and warming temperatures, especially in the south, south-west and mid-west, could cut the productivity of people working outdoors by 3%.

Without a change in crops, harvests in these regions could fall by 14%. But further north, in states such as North Dakota and Montana, winter temperatures will probably rise, reducing frost and cold-related deaths and lengthening the growing season for some crops.

Kate Gordon, executive director of the Risky Business Project, said : “We still live in a single integrated national economy, so just because it’s not hot where you are doesn’t mean you won’t feel the heat of climate change.”

Michael Bloomberg, a former mayor of New York, said: “Damages from storms, flooding, and heat waves are already costing local economies billions of dollars. We saw that firsthand in New York City with Hurricane Sandy.

Costs of inaction

“With the oceans rising and the climate changing, the Risky Business report details the costs of inaction in ways that are easy to understand in dollars and cents − and impossible to ignore.”

Hank Paulson, a former Treasury Secretary and co-chair of the Risky Business Project, said the report shows us that “our economy is vulnerable to an overwhelming number of risks from climate change.

“But if we act immediately, we can still avoid most of the worst impacts of climate change and significantly reduce the odds of catastrophic outcomes. But the investments we’re making today will determine our economic future.”

In a section on short-term climate threats, the authors say: “The American economy is already beginning to feel the effects of climate change. These impacts will likely grow materially over the next 5 to 25 years…”

“Just because it’s not hot where you are doesn’t mean
you won’t feel the heat of climate change”

They say there is a 1-in-20 chance of yield losses of more than 20% in corn, wheat, soya and cotton crops over that timespan.

On energy, they say changes in temperature driven by greenhouse gases will probably mean a need to build roughly 200 average coal-fired or natural gas-fired power plants between 2020 and 2045, costing up to $12 billion per year.

Climate impacts, the report says, are unusual because future risks are directly tied to present decisions. By failing to lower greenhouse gas emissions today, decision-makers put in place processes that increase overall risks tomorrow.

By 2050, on present trends, $66bn-$106bn worth of existing coastal property will probably be below sea level nationwide, with $238-$507bn worth by 2100.

By mid-century, the average American will probably see 27 to 50 days over 95°F (35°C) each year − two to more than three times the average annual number of such days seen over the last 30 years. By the end of the century, this number will probably average 45 to 96 days over 95°F each year.

But the study says that the south-west, south-east, and upper mid-west will probably see several months of 95°F days annually.

Human threshold

In the longer term, extreme heat during parts of the year could pass the threshold at which the human body can no longer maintain a normal core temperature without air conditioning. At these times, anyone who has to work outdoors, or without access to air conditioning, will face severe health risks and possible death.

The authors say they hope it will become standard practice for the American business and investment community to factor climate change into its decision-making process. They say: “We are already seeing this response from the agricultural and national security sectors; we are starting to see it from the bond markets and utilities as well.

“But business still tends to respond only to the extent that these risks intersect with core short-term financial and planning decisions.”

And the authors warn the government: “We also know that the private sector does not operate in a vacuum, and that the economy runs most smoothly when government sets a consistent policy and a regulatory framework within which business has the freedom to operate.

“Right now, cities and businesses are scrambling to adapt to a changing climate without sufficient federal government support…” − Climate News Network

Satellite zooms in on crucial carbon questions

 

Data booster: an artist's impression of the OCO-2 satellite in orbit. Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech
Data booster: an artist’s impression of the OCO-2 satellite in orbit
Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech

By Tim Radford

The ability of scientists to make accurate predictions about future effects of CO2 will be boosted by vital data from a US satellite being launched to take a detailed inventory of the planet’s sinks and sources of carbon.

LONDON, 28 June, 2014 − The US space agency NASA is about to send up a satellite that will provide vital data for predicting future effects of CO2 by taking the measure of the planetary carbon budget.

OCO-2, more formally known as Orbiting Carbon Observatory-2, is planned for launch on July 1 and will circle the globe, taking an inventory of those places on the planet that absorb carbon from the atmosphere (the sinks) and those places that release it into the atmosphere (the sources).

Although the satellite’s acronymic name pleasingly evokes CO2, the carbon dioxide greenhouse gas that is now at higher levels in the atmosphere than at any time in the last 800,000 years, this is pure accident. The first attempt to launch an orbiting carbon observatory came to grief when the satellite failed to separate from the launch rocket. OCO-2 is the second attempt.

Future build-up

“Knowing what parts of Earth are helping to remove carbon from our atmosphere will help us understand whether they can keep on doing so in future,” said the project scientist Michael Gunson, of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. “Quantifying these sinks now will help us predict how fast CO2 will build up in the future.”

Carbon dioxide exists in the atmosphere only in trace amounts: 400 parts per million. But humans are adding 40 billion tons of the gas a year by burning fossil fuel, destroying forests and quarrying lime for cement.

Less than half of this total stays there: the rest is taken up by forests on land and by algae in the oceans. But quite how much, for how long, and how predictably, remains a puzzle.

Climate scientists need to know more about sinks and sources to make more accurate predictions. And governments, planners and foresters need to know more about the ways the forest world absorbs and emits carbon dioxide.

The new satellite will use onboard spectrometers to take hundreds of thousands of measurements every day to answer these complex questions of supply and demand. Researchers are also likely to match the data with other studies of the planet’s changing forests.

Scientists at Ludwig Maximilian University in Munich − where records show that average temperatures have risen by 1.5°C in the last century − have been observing at ground level, to measure changes in the growing season.

There are around 16,000 species in the Munich Botanical Garden, and researchers have measured changes in leaf-out times for 500 species to establish why the characteristic forests of the region are likely to change with warming temperatures. The answer is that some species burst into leaf when daylight reaches a certain number of hours, while some respond to temperature.

This will put central European species − such as beech, which buds when there are 13 hours of daylight, whether the spring has arrived early or not − at a disadvantage. Southern species, which respond instead to rising temperatures, will gain a growing advantage.

Inexorable change

Meanwhile, in the US, foresters have begun to resign themselves to inexorable change in the iconic forests of Minnesota.

A report by the US Forest Service warns that, in the next 100 years, the evergreen white spruce and balsam fir and cool-climate deciduous trees, such as tamarack and quaking aspen, could give way to black cherry, eastern white pine, sugar maple and white oak.

As temperatures rise, researchers expect to see longer growing seasons, increases in heavy precipitation, more flooding and erosion, more drought stress, increasing risks of forest fire, and many more invasive pest species.

“Our assessment gives forest managers in Minnesota the best possible science on the effects of climate change so they can make climate- informed decisions about management today,” said Stephen Handler, the report’s lead author. – Climate News Network

Monsoon brings late relief to scorched India

 

Sweltering heat has hit Kolkata street hawkers by keeping many customers away Image: Biswarup Ganguly via Wikimedia Commons
Fierce heat has hit Kolkata street hawkers by keeping many customers away
Image: Biswarup Ganguly via Wikimedia Commons

By Shiba Nanda Basu

Meteorological researchers in India suspect that climate change is a contributory factor to the changing weather patterns that have caused  the late arrival of the monsoon after a summer of swelteringly dry heat that has broken temperature records

Kolkata, 24 June, 2014 − At last, the rains have come. The summer monsoon arrived in West Bengal last week – almost two weeks later than usual − and brought relief to Kolkata and other cities and states across India that have been enduring an unusually hot summer.

A temperature of 41.5˚C was recorded in Kolkata in late May – the highest in 10 years – while temperatures in New Delhi  earlier this month exceeded 43˚C for seven consecutive days, and at one stage reached 48˚C. Other cities and states have had record temperatures, and many lives have been lost due to the heat.

Livelihoods have also suffered. Kolkata is famous for its bustling streets and pavements crowded with hawkers, but throughout recent months there has been a deserted look to the city.

“We have had to close our stalls earlier than usual and there’s been hardly any customers,” says Asraf Ali, a street hawker. “People from neighbouring districts, who are our main customers, have not been coming into the city due to the terrible heat.”

Absence of humidity

One thing that’s been worrying residents of Kolkata is an unusual period of what is called “dry heat” – an absence of humidity. Locals say this has made daytime conditions even more scorching.

Aminul Hasaan, a worker in one of Kolkata’s notoriously polluting leather tanning factories, says: “I was working so hard, and usually I sweat so much. But in the weeks before the monsoon I felt my forehead was always dry. It made me feel sick.”

Anshujyoti Das, who works for Express Weather, a private weather research organisation that aims to provide location-specific weather forecasts, says the dry heat indicates certain changes in weather patterns.

He says: “We cannot claim that this is the direct result of climate change, but we can’t brush the issue under the carpet. We must conduct studies to ascertain the reasons behind such unusual weather patterns.”

One possible cause for the dry conditions is thought to be the absence of the north-westerly storms that usually lash Kolkata and surrounding areas in the run-up to the monsoon.

On average, five to seven such storms hit in April and May, but this year only one was recorded. There was also an absence of moisture-laden winds blowing from the south.

Due to the conditions, the local government authorities extended summer vacations at 57,000 primary schools and more than 18,000 secondary schools. And the city police in Kolkata decided that traffic constables aged 55 and above should be relieved of their duties because of the extreme heat.

Dilip Adak, a senior officer at Kolkata’s traffic department, said: “We try to help [traffic policemen] by providing oral rehydration kits and umbrellas, but often that is not enough.”

Driving up prices

About half of India’s 1.25 billon people are involved in agriculture and are dependent on the summer monsoon rains. The late arrival of the monsoon can have a serious impact, driving up prices of many agricultural goods.

The latest report from the Indian Meteorological Department shows that the monsoon has not only arrived late but is less intense than normal, with many areas receiving well below average rainfall.

Climate change and the influence of an El Niño – a periodic warming of waters in the western Pacific that affects prevailing trade winds, with serious consequences on both sides of the Pacific and Indian Oceans – are seen as important influences on the behaviour of the monsoon– Climate News Network

• Shiba Nanda Basu is a reporter with The Statesman newspaper, Kolkata, India.

• Additional reporting by Kieran Cooke.

US corn’s gravy train faces derailment

 

A field of Maize in the Corn Belt state of South Dakota on the American Great Plains Image: Lars Plougmann via Wikimedia Commons
A ripening field of maize in the American Corn Belt state of South Dakota
Image: Lars Plougmann via Wikimedia Commons

By Kieran Cooke

The US produces enough corn in one year to fill a freight train stretching round the world, according to a recent study. But climate change and unsustainable use of water resources and fertilizers threaten this vast industry.

LONDON, 22 June, 2014 – One-third of cropland in the US is devoted to corn. It produces nearly 40% of the world’s corn, and a record harvest last year was valued at nearly $70 billion.

But now there are warnings that this mighty agricultural edifice – which supports not only farmers, but a legion of food and animal feed, transport and other companies, big and small − could be seriously damaged by a changing climate.

To make matters worse, increasingly scarce water supplies could also have an adverse effect, and so too could the intensification of growing techniques − in particular, the overuse of  fertilizers and pesticides.

A study by Ceres, a US not-for-profit group that lobbies for more environmental sustainability in the business sector, looks at the risks facing one of the country’s main industries.

Negative impact

States in the American Midwest and the Great Plains region – known as the Corn Belt − account for the bulk of corn production. But the study warns: “Record-breaking weather events – including prolonged drought, intense precipitation and high temperatures – are increasingly common in the Corn Belt and are negatively impacting corn yields and corporate profits.”

Floods in 2010/11 caused millions of dollars worth of crop losses in many areas. Lands were also degraded, and erosion increased. The following year there was drought, when the rains didn’t arrive and temperatures soared.

“The 2012/13 drought exemplified the vulnerability of the US corn supply chain to extreme weather,” the study says.

The bulk of US corn output goes either to animal feed or to the production of ethanol fuels, with only 10% going to food processing.

According to the report: “The 2012/13 drought had unusually severe financial impacts for many companies in the US corn value chain, hitting the meat and grain trading sectors particularly hard.

“Impacts ranged from interruptions to corn supply − which affected meat processing and ethanol refining activities − to operational challenges linked to insufficient water for manufacturing facilities, to low Mississippi river water levels that restrict transport of agricultural goods.”

While the percentage of corn production shipped abroad is relatively small, the US is still the world’s biggest corn exporter. Shortages or rising prices can have an adverse impact on the developing world, with the potential for outbreaks of serious social unrest.

The study points out that extreme weather events in recent years have resulted in large-scale price volatility. This in turn has led to what it calls riskier growing practices, with farmers and the big agricultural conglomerates seeking to cash in on rises in the market by using ever more fertilizer and pesticides on their lands.

The US government’s recent National Climate Assessment said the negative effects of climate change, such as higher temperatures and drought, would outweigh any positive impacts in the Midwest and Great Plains.

The Ceres study says corn is particularly sensitive to higher temperatures, and much of the corn is grown in regions where water supplies are already limited. In future, corn growing might have to move to cooler and more water-abundant areas further north.

Northward shift

“Higher temperatures and increased water stress mean that increased irrigation for corn will be required. Given limited water supply in parts of the Great Plains region, a northward shift in corn acreage is predicted, increasing the risk of stranded agricultural assets, such as processing, storage and transportation infrastructure.”

Costs, to the agricultural industry and to the US government are mounting. In 2012-13, the government’s Federal Crop Insurance Programme paid out a record $10.8 billion to farmers, mostly for reasons related to the drought.

Ceres says farmers and the large conglomerates that control increasing amounts of agricultural land must learn to farm more sustainably. In many cases, this means a less intensive crop regime.

There should be more measured use of fertilizers and pesticides. More efficient irrigations methods and charging systems that encourage less water use should also be implemented.

More mixed cropping should be introduced in order to preserve soil fertility, the report recommends. And companies should examine their supply chains, and pressure the farming sector to put in place better land practices.

Perhaps most controversially, Ceres has a simple message that is likely to cause a storm of anger across the Corn Belt: buy less corn. – Climate News Network

Longer flight paths can cut climate impact

Aircraft contrails in the sky above Reading, just west of London Image: University of Reading
Aircraft condensation trails line the sky above Reading, just west of London
Image: University of Reading

By Alex Kirby 

British scientists have developed a simple framework that shows how aircraft can become more environmentally friendly by choosing flight paths that reduce the formation of their distinctive vapour trails − even if it means flying further

LONDON, 21 June, 2014 − Air travel is a rapidly-growing source of carbon dioxide and is helping to heat the Earth. It accounted for 6% of the UK’s total greenhouse gas emissions in 2011.

But researchers from the University of Reading, UK, say the CO2 that aircraft emit may be less damaging to the climate than the vapour trails they often leave behind them.

Writing in the journal Environmental Research Letters, the scientists demonstrate that aircraft contribute less to global warming when they avoid the places where the thin-shaped clouds of vapour − called condensation trails, or contrails − are produced, even if that means flying further and emitting more CO2.

Wispy clouds

Contrails form only in parts of the sky with very cold and moist air, often in the ascending air around high pressure weather systems. They sometimes stay in the air for many hours, eventually spreading out to resemble natural, wispy clouds.

Previous research by scientists at Reading has shown that, on average, 7% of the total distance flown by aircraft is in cold, moist air where long-lasting contrails can form − 2.4 billion km out of a global total of 33 billion km flown in 2005.

The new findings from Reading follow research published recently in the journal Nature Climate Change showing that the amount of global warming caused by contrails could be as large as, or even larger than, the contribution from aviation’s CO2 emissions.

The work was carried out by three scientists in Reading’s Department of Meteorology − Dr Emma Irvine, Professor Keith Shine, and Professor Sir Brian Hoskins, who is also chair of the Grantham Institute at Imperial College London.

“It may be possible to mitigate [contrails’] effect
by routing aircraft to avoid them”

Dr Irvine said: “If we can predict the regions where contrails will form, it may be possible to mitigate their effect by routing aircraft to avoid them. Our work shows that, for a rounded assessment of the environmental impact of aviation, more needs to be considered than just the carbon emissions of aircraft.”

Just like natural clouds, contrails reflect some of the sun’s incoming energy, and so produce a cooling effect. But they also trap some of the infra-red energy that radiates from the Earth into space, and so have a warming effect − again, like other clouds. The researchers say detailed calculations show that, generally, the warming influence is greater than the cooling.

But the picture is more complex than that. For a start, the team estimates that smaller aircraft can fly much further to avoid forming contrails than larger ones.

With a small aircraft that is predicted to form a contrail 20 miles long, an alternative route would have a smaller climate impact if it adds less than 200 miles to its journey . For larger aircraft, the alternative route could still be preferable, but only if it added less than 60 miles to the journey.

But there is a further twist. The team had to allow for the varying length of time the different impacts would persist. As Dr Irvine explained: “Comparing the relative climate impacts of CO2 and contrails is not trivial. One complicating factor is their vastly differing lifetimes. Contrails may last for several hours, while CO2 can last for decades.”

Feasible and safe

Nor are the relative climate impacts the only factors for aviators to think about. Air traffic controllers would need to be sure re-routing aircraft flight by flight is both feasible and safe, and weather forecasters would want to know whether they can reliably predict when and where contrails are likely to form.

As well as CO2, aircraft engines emit a number of other gases and particles that can also alter climate – such as oxides of nitrogen and sulphur gases − and their effects might also depend on the route taken.

The researchers have devised a framework to calculate how much further an aircraft could travel in a single flight before the extra CO2 that is emitted causes more warming than the contrail would have caused. It takes into account the characteristics of the aircraft and the prevailing weather conditions, since the altitude at which contrails are formed depends greatly on weather patterns.

They are confident their work has practical implications. “The mitigation targets currently adopted by governments all around the world do not yet address the important non-CO2 climate impacts of aviation, such as contrails,” Dr Irvine said.

“We believe it is important for scientists to assess the overall impact of aviation and the robustness of any proposed mitigation measures in order to inform policy decisions.” − Climate News Network

Rainforest tribes seek World Cup spotlight

 

Kayapò tribal leaders from the Amazon rainforest put their case to the media Image: Sue Cunningham/SCP
Kayapò tribal leaders from the Amazon rainforest put their case to the media
Image: Sue Cunningham/SCP

By Kieran Cooke

Tribal leaders from the Amazon rainforest are using the glare of publicity on the football World Cup in Brazil to highlight an impassioned plea for recognition of their lands and an end to dam building and deforestation

LONDON, 17 June − Chief Raoni Metuktire, head of the Kayapò indigenous group from the Xingu region, deep in the Amazon rainforest, sits in a packed lecture hall in London. With his jutting lip plate and large feather headdress, the elderly, gently-spoken tribal leader is an imposing presence.

“When I’m gone I want my children and grandchildren to live in the forest as I have done,” he says. “I ask for your help. In the past, we didn’t knock down the trees, destroy the land and build dams, but now all that is happening.

“The climate in the forest is changing: it is a lot hotter than it used to be, and the pattern of the winds is altering.”

Lungs of the world

The Amazon rainforest – often referred to as the lungs of the world – has a major influence on the world’s climate. Its trees and vegetation act as a vital carbon sink, soaking up carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

Megaron Txucarramãe, a long-time campaigner for land rights for indigenous tribes in the Amazon region, sits alongside Chief Raoni, his uncle.

“The logging in our region is increasing,” he says. “Our lands and those of other indigenous tribes should be properly demarcated, but the Brazilian government is seeking to alter the constitution and undermine our land rights, giving more power to loggers, dam builders and mining companies.

“While the government worries about building stadiums
for the World Cup, our land is being threatened.”

“We went to Brasilia [Brazil’s capital] to protest, but we were received with rubber bullets, tear gas and pepper spray. While the government worries about building stadiums for the World Cup, our land is being threatened. I would like to ask the world to pay attention to our problems and help us.”

In a tour of European capitals that coincided with the opening of the World Cup, the two tribal leaders met Prince Albert of Monaco and, in London, Prince Charles. They also took their message to the Norwegian royal family.

The Kayapò are by far the largest ethnic group in the Xingu region. After years of campaigning and sometimes violent struggle, the group succeeded in having 19,000 square miles of land demarcated as an indigenous reserve in 1992.

The tribal leaders say the government of President Dilma Rousseff – which faces an election in October – is now threatening the land rights of indigenous groups and the health of the whole Amazon by allowing mining and other projects to go ahead.

In recent years, Brazil has embarked on a wide-ranging dam building programme in the Amazon. The Xingu river, a major tributary of the Amazon river, runs through the Kayapò’s lands. Despite various court judgements and continuing protests by the Kayapò and other groups, construction of the Belo Monte dam − which will be one of the world’s biggest when it is completed − began on the Xingu in 2011.

After years of decline in deforestation rates in the Amazon rainforest, they then increased dramatically by 28% over the 2012 to 2013 period, with many blaming controversial reforms to Brazil’s forest laws pushed through by a powerful and extremely wealthy land lobby.

Weather patterns

In recent months, large parts of Brazil have been suffering a drought that is one of the worst on record. Environmentalists say deforestation in the Amazon has disturbed weather patterns and has resulted in less rainfall in many areas.

Patrick Cunningham, who has travelled extensively through the Xingu region, photographing and documenting the lives of the indigenous tribes, is a spokesman for Tribes Alive, a group that highlights indigenous peoples’ issues.

He said: “Chief Metuktire and Megaron are not only asking for an end to the destruction of their lands, they are also campaigning to stop what is a suicidal rush to develop their region.

“Such actions will not only be a setback for them but also for the whole of Brazil as rain patterns alter farther south, in what is the most agriculturally productive region of the country.” – Climate News Network

Aircon turns up the city heat

 

Burning up: the blazing night lights of  Phoenix in the Sonora desert, US Image: Alan Stark via Wikimedia Commons
Burning up: the blazing night lights of Phoenix in the Sonora desert, US
Image: Alan Stark via Wikimedia Commons

By Tim Radford

Increasing use of air conditioners to stay cool is having the vicious circle effect – especially at night – of worsening the problem of cities getting hotter as the climate changes, say US researchers

LONDON, 9 June − Researchers in the US have identified a way in which city-dwellers are inadvertently stoking up the heat of the night – by installing air conditioners.

Because the cities are getting hotter as the climate changes, residents are increasingly investing in aircon systems − which discharge heat from offices and apartment blocks straight into the city air. And the vicious circle effect is that cities get still warmer, making air conditioning all the more attractive to residents.

According to scientists at Arizona State University, the air conditioning system is now having a measurable effect. During the days, the systems emit waste heat, but because the days are hot anyway, the difference is negligible. At night, heat from air conditioning systems now raises some urban temperatures by more than 1°C, they report in the Journal of Geophysical Research Atmospheres.

The team focused on the role of air conditioning systems in the metropolitan area of the city of Phoenix, which is in the Sonora desert in Arizona, and conditions in the summertime are harsh there anyway.

But, worldwide, normally warm countries are experiencing increasing extremes of heat, and conditions in cities have on occasion become lethal.

To cap this, cities are inevitably hotspots – and it’s not just because of global warming. The concentration of traffic, commuter systems, street and indoor lighting, central heating, light industry, tarmac, tiles, bricks, building activity and millions of people can raise temperatures as much as 5°C above the surrounding countryside.

At present, 87% of US households have air conditioning, and the US – which is not one of the warmer nations – uses more electricity to keep cool than all the other countries of the world combined. To keep the people of Phoenix cool during periods of extreme heat, air conditioning systems can consume more than half of total electricity needs, which puts a strain on power grids.

The Arizona scientists simulated a 10-day period of unusually hot weather between 10 July and 19 July, 2009, and used computer models and detailed readings from weather records to analyse the effect of air conditioning systems on local temperatures. Even though the biggest demand for air conditioning was in the daytime, they found the biggest difference was always at night.

“Our work demonstrates one Celsius degree local heating of urban atmospheres in hot and dry cities due to air conditioning use at night time,” said Francisco Salamanca, the report’s lead author. “This increase in outside air temperature in turn results in additional demands for air conditioning.

“Sustainable development and optimisation of electricity consumption would require turning wasted heat from air conditioning into useful energy, which can be used inside houses for various purposes − including, for example, water heaters.”

Such actions would reduce local air temperatures: in Phoenix alone, they could directly save more than 1200 Megawatt hours of electricity per day.

In 2012, the US experienced a set of record-breaking temperatures, and the US Department of Energy has warned that days of extreme heat are expected to become more frequent and more intense because of climate change.

But this seems already to be a pattern worldwide, according to recent analyses of climate patterns. And the demand for air conditioning is expected to accelerate in India, China and other emerging economies. – Climate News Network

Europe faces cereals crop crash

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

 

Cereal numbers: yields could be slashed from barley fields such as this one in Suffolk, UK Image: Eileen Henderson via Wikimedia Commons

Cereal failures: yields could be slashed from barley fields such as this one in Suffolk, England
Image: Eileen Henderson via Wikimedia Commons

By Tim Radford

Two new studies raise concerns that Europe’s wheat and barley yields could be heading for a serious fall as a result of temperature rise and an increase in extreme weather

LONDON, 2 June − Harvests of wheat and barley across Europe could be 20% lower by 2040 as average temperatures rise by 2°C. And by 2060, European farmers could be facing very serious losses.

As the likelihood of weather extremes increases with temperature, the consequences of lower yields will be felt around the world. Europe produces, for example, 29% of the world’s wheat.

Two consecutive studies in Nature Climate Change examine the challenges faced by the farmers − the first of the reports being by a team led by Miroslav Trnka, of the Czech Global Change Research Centre in Brno.

They considered the impact of changing conditions in 14 very different wheat growing zones − from the Alpine north to the southern Mediterranean, from the great plains of Northern Europe to the baking uplands of the Iberian peninsula, and from the Baltic seascapes of Denmark to the fertile flood plains of the Danube.

It is a given that farmers are at the mercy of the weather, and that crops are vulnerable to unseasonal conditions. But a rise in average temperatures of 2°C is likely to increase the frequency of unfavourable conditions.

Incidence of drought

The researchers, therefore, factored in such data as the numbers of days with very high temperatures, the incidence of drought, late spring frosts, severe winter frosts with too little snow, spells with too much rain, spells when the weather is too cool at the wrong time.

Altogether, they totted up 11 sets of adverse conditions that could blight winter wheat in all 14 sample environments. They then used climate models to simulate the probability of things going wrong once, and also more than once, in any single growing season. And they found that, by 2060, the occurrence of adverse weather conditions would increase for all environments.

“This is likely to result in more frequent crop failure across Europe,” they conclude. “The study provides essential information for developing adaptation strategies.”

Adaptation strategies − according to Frances Moore and David Lobell, of Stanford University, California, in the second of the Nature Climate Change studies − are exactly what European cereal farmers should be thinking about.

They analysed the yield and profit records from thousands of European farms between 1989 and 2009. They then matched the data with climate records to test performance under a suite of different weather histories, and ran simulations using 13 different climate models.

“Modest amounts of climate change
can have a big impact on yields. . .”

“The results clearly showed that modest amounts of climate change can have a big impact on yields of several crops in Europe,” Moore said.

“This is a little surprising because the region is fairly cool, so you might think it would benefit from moderate amounts of warming. Our next step was to measure the potential of European farmers to adapt to these impacts.”

Increasing levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere should, in theory, be good for crops – fertility should increase – but a procession of recent scientific studies has painted a different picture.

Plant protein levels

With extra heat comes a greater likelihood of drought to slash maize yields.  And even when the extra carbon dioxide increases growth, it may reduce the levels of all-important plant protein in the yield.

In addition, extremes of heat at the wrong time in the growing season could devastate crops, while the change in average temperatures will open the way for invasions of new kinds of pest.

The Stanford researchers argue that what matters most is how quickly farmers in Europe can adapt, and how crop yields will respond.

“By adaptation, we mean a range of options based on existing technologies, such as switching varieties of a crop, installing irrigation, or growing a different crop,” Lobell said.

“These things have been talked about for a long time, but the novelty of this study was using past data to quantify the actual potential of adaptation to reduce climate change impacts.” – Climate News Network

India’s lethal heat wave strikes again

 

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

Hot spot: policeman Kumar Srinivasan directs traffic in the swetering Chennai heat Image: Pramila Krishnan

Hot spot: policeman Kumar Srinivasan directs traffic in the sweltering Chennai heat
Image: Pramila Krishnan

 

By Pramila Krishnan

Large numbers of people die in India each year because of heat waves − and as climate change takes hold and the country swelters again, doctors are warning the public to take extra precautions

Chennai, 28 May − Kumar Srinivasan, a 34-year-old policeman, is struggling to cope with the heat as he controls traffic at a busy city-centre road junction in Chennai, South India. “I feel like a roasted chicken,” he says. “But it’s actually worse, since I am alive while the chicken would have gone to rest in heaven.”

India is sizzling under hot winds as many parts of the country suffer temperatures hovering above 40˚C. And officials in the National Weather Forecasting Center of the India Metrological Department have warned that “heat waves to severe heat wave conditions would prevail in isolated parts of the country in the last week of May”.

As the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reports confirm that India will continue to get hotter because of climate change, doctors are concerned that the public needs to be warned of the danger they are in.

Excess heat is already claiming many lives. Research published earlier this year in the journal Plos One showed that in May 2010, when the Indian city of Ahmedabad in the state of Gujarat experienced a heat wave with record-breaking maximum temperatures of 46.8˚C, an estimated 1,344 deaths occurred − 43% higher than expected.

Road fatalities

Another chilling statistic in 2012, recently published by the National Crime Records Bureau, is that 5.4% of the total 22,960 road fatalities in India were attributable to heat strokes. That is more than 1,000 people.

The Indian government has done its bit to make the summer slightly more bearable for policemen such as Srinivasan, providing them with packets of aerated fruit juices and buttermilk (yoghurt diluted in water), as well as sunglasses.

“I am just waiting for the summer to be over, or for some of the summer showers that sometimes happen during June,” Srinivasan says before stepping out of the shade of his little booth to start directing traffic manually again in the scorching heat because a power failure has cut out the traffic lights.

Indian politicians, trying to woo voters, put up water pandals (small stalls made of dried palm/coconut leaves) to supply water, and even buttermilk at times, to the public during the recent election period.

In fact, the Indian elections are deliberately timetabled to avoid the worst part of summer, and the entire election process this time was completed by the second week of May, when the sun was beginning to get harsh..

Doctors at the government’s Rajiv Gandhi General Hospital in Chennai have asked the public to take preventive measures to avoid heat strokes – including wearing light-coloured, loose-fitting cotton clothes, staying hydrated, and avoiding strenuous exercise during the day.

“The maximum temperature will reach 40˚C  in many places
in Tamil Nadu . . .  It’s going to be sweltering hot.”

And the Regional Meterological Centre (RMC) in Chennai has been publishing weather projections for the state of Tamil Nadu on its website, keeping people informed with with regular updates of  projections of average temperatures for one week for every district in the state. S.R. Ramanan, director of the RMC, told Climate News Network: “The maximum temperature will reach 40˚C  in many places in Tamil Nadu in the coming days.  It’s going to be sweltering hot.”

While rich and middle-class Indians go for upgraded refrigerators, air conditioners and coolers, the poor households have to settle for earthen pots to keep drinking water cool.

The plight of people is the same, or even worse, in most parts of tropical India during the hostile summers, particularly since fast-moving urbanisation is taking its toll on trees, which are being chopped down to make way for new high-rise buildings, roads and shopping malls

Loss of shade

The loss of the natural shade of avenue trees means that it’s not just humans who are suffering. The bovine population roams around the streets looking for any tiny puddle of urban gutter water to quench their thirst, and the government’s forest department has had to build concrete tanks and fill them with water to try to prevent animals from suffering dehydration.

Many milkmen live in urban areas and do not take enough care of their cows to protect them from the summer heat, and the Tamil Nadu Veterinary and Animal Sciences University has also found that many aged animals suffer kidney failures in the summer season because of dehydration.

Meanwhile, as more people die every year in India due to heat strokes, social activists are calling for the government to take up initiatives to protect people and spread awareness about preventive measures.

“Curbing privatisation of water and ensuring supply of good quality drinking water for the residents is a major step to avoid dehydration and heat strokes,” said Chennai social activist A.Devaneyan. “The government health department should conduct awareness campaigns to inform people about taking additional care of elders and children during the summer.”

Devaneyan pointed out that the rising number of players in the bottled drinking water industry has also led to rising prices. He said: “A one-litre bottle now costs 20 rupees. How many can afford that?”

Not surprisingly, the popularity of the Tamil Nadu state chief minister, Ms Jayalalithaa Jayaram, also rose after she recently ordered her government to supply water at 10 rupees per bottle − half the price of the “private” water. – Climate News Network.

  • Pramila Krishnan is based in Chennai as Principal Correspondent of the Deccan Chronicle, an English-language newspaper in India.

El Niño blows hot and cold

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

 

A mud slide caused devastation in northern California after El Niño strick in 1998 Image: Dave Gatley/FEMA via Wikimedia Commons

Devastation caused by a mud slide after El Niño storms struck northern California  in 1998
Image: Dave Gatley/FEMA via Wikimedia Commons

By Tim Radford

Analysis of historic data about the mysterious El Niño, which periodically unleashes such devastating weather events, reveals that it has a bad local side, an even worse global side − and scientists warn that another storm may be brewing

LONDON, 26 May − El Niño, the mysterious meteorological phenomenon that periodically upsets global weather patterns, bringing catastrophic flooding to the arid lands of North and South America, and forest fires to South-east Asia, turns out to be more complicated than anyone had thought.

Sandra Banholzer and Simon Donner, environmental scientists at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada, report in Geophysical Research Letters  that some El Niño events don’t turn up the planetary thermostat, and may even contribute to the apparent and much-debated slowdown in the rates of increase in global warming.

An El Niño – Spanish for “The Child”, and given that name by Peruvian fishermen because they observed it around Christmas – is a blister or bubble of ocean surface heat that migrates from the western Pacific to the east, halting or even reversing the prevailing Pacific trade winds, with disconcerting consequences on both sides of the Pacific and Indian Oceans.

The blister analogy is physical, rather than metaphorical. As ocean temperatures rise, so does the volume, and the sea levels can be 45cms higher than the surrounding, cooler ocean.

Hottest years

But recent studies, say the new report’s two authors, have shown that there may be “different flavours” or types of El Niño. The traditional or eastern equatorial Pacific type is the one that everybody knows about (it made 1998 one of the hottest years ever recorded, and triggered tempests, floods, ice storms, droughts, harvest failures and bushfires around the world). But if an El Niño only gets as far as the central Pacific, it’s a different story, and the effects are more local.

The finding also lends a little extra authority to the forecasts that Australia, which had its hottest ever temperatures in 2013, will see more and worse extremes of heat.

The two authors looked at three sets of data to match long-term changes in global temperatures to the pattern of “hot” and “cold” El Niño events. “Historical analysis,” they say, in the deadpan language of a scientific paper, “indicated that slowdowns in the rate of global warming since the late 1800s may be related to decadal variability in the frequency of different types of El Niño events.”

Meanwhile, Nasa scientists have warned that another traditional El Niño may be on the way. They think so because of data gathered by a satellite called Jason-2, which monitors changes in sea surface height (because pressure, temperature and volume are related, sea surface height becomes another way of taking the ocean’s surface temperature).

“A pattern of sea surface heights and temperatures has formed that reminds me of the way the Pacific looked in the spring of 1997,” says Bill Patzert, of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory at Pasadena, US. “That turned out to be the precursor of a big El Niño.”

Tentative warning

The warning is tentative because it is based only on ripples of change in sea level travelling across the Pacific from Australia to South America. These are linked to changes in the trade winds, and tend to happen from time to time during the southern hemisphere winter. They normally last only a few days, but if they last for months, then an El Niño develops.

For the moment, there is no certainty that one will develop, and nor is there yet any indication of the knock-on effects on global weather patterns.

But although the phenomenon has nothing to do with global warming – it happens anyway, and climatologists have traced evidence of El Niño events back for more than 2000 years – global warming may have something to do with it.

In January, Australian scientists warned that rising levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere could increase the frequency of the most severe El Niño events. – Climate News Network