World needs early warning of climate-linked disasters

World needs early warning of climate-linked disasters

A leading French government minister says the number of natural disasters connected to climate change has doubled in two decades, and is urging a global early warning system.

LONDON, 15 March, 2015 − A senior French political leader, foreign minister Laurent Fabius, has told an international conference on how to reduce the risk from natural disasters that 70% of them are now linked to climate change, twice as many as twenty years ago.

Mr. Fabius is the incoming president of this year’s round of negotiations by member states of the UN climate change convention, to take place in Paris in December. He said disaster risk reduction and the struggle against climate change went hand in hand: “It is necessary to tackle these problems together and not separately.”

He was speaking against the background of two events which occurred thousands of miles apart on 14 March, linked by nothing except tragic coincidence.

In the Japanese city of Sendai the third UN world conference on disaster risk reduction began a five-day meeting. In the South Pacific Cyclone Pam brought death and devastation to the 83-island nation of Vanuatu on a scale seldom recorded in the region.

Vivien Maidaborn, executive director of Unicef New Zealand, said the disaster could prove one of the worst in Pacific history. “The sheer force of the storm, combined with communities just not set up to withstand it, could have devastating results for thousands across the region,” she said.

Hope shattered

A Unicef worker in Vanuatu described the cyclone as “15 to 30 minutes of absolute terror” for “everybody in this country” as it passed over.

The president of Vanuatu, Baldwin Lonsdale, told the UN meeting: “I am speaking with you today with a heart that is so heavy… All I can say is that our hope for prospering into the future has been shattered.”

The UN Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon, opened the Sendai meeting, attended by 4,000 people from 186 countries, with a reminder that annual economic losses from natural disasters are now estimated to exceed US$ 300 billion annually.

He said: “We can watch that number grow as more people suffer. Or we can dramatically lower that figure and invest the savings in development. Six billion dollars allocated each year can result in savings of up to US$360 billion by 2030.”

A report released at the meeting, United for Disaster Resilience, prepared by insurance companies working with the UN Environment Programme’s Finance Initiative, said: “In the past decade, average economic losses from disasters were about US$190 billion per year, while average insured losses were about US$60 billion per year. This century, more than one million people have already lost their lives to disasters.”

Alert system

The UN Office for Disaster Risk Reduction, UNISDR, says global climate-related disasters between 1980 and 2011 included:

  • 3,455 floods
  • 2,689 storms
  • 470 droughts
  • 395 episodes of extreme temperature.

Mr Fabius said the creation of a worldwide early warning system for climate disasters could provide the most vulnerable countries, including small island developing states, with access to real-time weather and climate updates, information and communications technology, and with support for an SMS-based alert system. UNISDR’s PreventionWeb already links those working to protect communities against disaster risk.

Since the last such disaster risk conference in 2005, the UN says, at least 700,000 people have died, 1.7 billion more have been affected, and economic losses from major reported disasters total US$1.4 trillion.

The conference is working to prepare a new plan for reducing the risks of disasters. Margareta Wahlström, head of UNISDR, said: “After three years of consultation on a post-2015 framework which updates the current Hyogo Framework for Action, there is general agreement that we must move from managing disasters to managing disaster risk.” She said the framework would help to reduce existing levels of risk and avoid the creation of new ones. − Climate News Network

Share This:

Stalagmite links rain reduction to industrial revolution

Stalagmite links rain reduction to industrial revolution

Research shows the explosion of fossil fuel use to power the 19th-century industrial boom began the pattern of lower rainfall affecting the northern tropics. 

LONDON, 17 February, 2015 − Scientists have identified a human-induced cause of climate change. But this time it’s not carbon dioxide that’s the problem − it’s the factory and power station chimney pollutants that began to darken the skies during the industrial revolution.

Analysis of stalagmite samples taken from a cave in Belize, Central America, has revealed that aerosol emissions have led to a reduction of rainfall in the northern tropics during the 20th century.

In effect, the report in Nature Geoscience by lead author Harriet Ridley, of the Department of Earth Sciences at the University of Durham, UK, and international research colleagues invokes the first atmospheric crisis.

Acid rain

Before global warming because of greenhouse gases, and before ozone destruction caused by uncontrolled releases of chlorofluorocarbons, governments and environmentalists alike were concerned about a phenomenon known as acid rain.

So much sulphur and other industrial pollutants entered the atmosphere that raindrops became deliveries of very dilute sulphuric and nitric acid.

The damage to limestone buildings was visible everywhere, and there were concerns – much more difficult to establish – that acid rain was harming the northern European forests.

But even if the massive sulphate discharges of an industrialising world did not seriously damage vegetation, they certainly took a toll on urban human life in terms of respiratory diseases.

Clean-air legislation has reduced the hazard in Europe and North America, but it seems that sulphate aerosols have left their mark.

Researchers in a cave in Belize. Credit: Dr James Baldini/Durham University

Researchers in a cave in Belize.
Image: Dr James Baldini/Durham University

The Durham scientists reconstructed tropic rainfall patterns for the last 450 years from the analysis of stalagmite samples taken from a cave in Belize.

The pattern of precipitation revealed a substantial drying trend from 1850 onwards, and this coincided with a steady rise in sulphate aerosol pollution following the explosion of fossil fuel use that powered the Industrial Revolution.

They also identified nine short-lived drying spells in the northern tropics that followed a series of violent volcanic eruptions in the northern hemisphere. Volcanoes are a natural source of atmospheric sulphur.

Atmospheric pollution

The research confirms earlier suggestions that human atmospheric pollution sufficient to mask the sunlight and cool the upper atmosphere had begun to affect the summer monsoons of Asia, and at the same time stepped up river flow in northern Europe.

The change in radiation strength shifted the tropical rainfall belt, known as the intertropical convergence zone, towards the warmer southern hemisphere, which meant lower levels of precipitation in the northern tropics.

“The research presents strong evidence that industrial sulphate emissions have shifted this important rainfall belt, particularly over the last 100 years,” Dr Ridley says.

“Although warming due to man-made carbon dioxide emissions has been of global importance, the shifting of rain belts due to aerosol emissions is locally critical, as many regions of the world depend on this seasonal rainfall for agriculture.” – Climate News Network

Share This:

Climate data gives mixed message on storm forecasts

Climate data gives mixed message on storm forecasts

New research suggests that climate change won’t after all lead to more storms − but the bad ones could be even more devastating.

LONDON, 8 February, 2015 − Keep calm and hold on to your hat. The atmosphere will not become increasingly stormy as the planet warms and the climate changes.

The downside is that while the number of storms will probably remain unchanged, and weak storms could even become weaker, new research warns that the strongest storms could become significantly stronger.

For at least three decades, researchers have worked on the assumption that as the average energy of the atmosphere increased with warming, so would the potential for extremes of heat and drought, flood and cyclone, typhoon or hurricane.

Frederic Laliberté, of the University of Toronto in Canada, and atmospheric physicist colleagues don’t exactly disagree: they just took a closer at the way in which some things are likely to change.

Heat engine

They report in the journal Science that they considered the interplay of weather, moisture and temperature around the globe as an atmospheric heat engine – which it is – and compared it to a famous 19th-century theoretical model of energy and output known to engineers, physicists and meteorologists everywhere as the Carnot Cycle.

The engine works like this: air warmed by the sun moves across the ocean and takes up water through evaporation. The warmer the air, the more water it takes up. The air current gets to the Equator and then ascends through the atmosphere, cooling as it rises.

As the air cools, the burden of water condenses and releases heat. When enough heat is released, the air rises even further, pulling more air behind it to produce a thunderstorm.

A more vigorous water cycle could actually take yet more steam out of the atmospheric circulation.
The winds could run out of puff.

So the atmospheric engine’s output is the amount of heat and moisture it distributes between the Equator and the Poles.

“By viewing the atmospheric circulation as a heat engine, we were able to rely on the laws of thermodynamics to analyse how the circulation would change in a simulation of global warming,” Dr Laliberté said. “We used these laws to quantify how the increase in water vapour that would result from global warming would influence the strength of the atmospheric circulation.

To do this, they had to build on climate models, examine climate records for the last 30 years, and simulate the planet’s climate from 1982 to 2098.

Energy budget

They worked out that although the atmosphere is a machine, it isn’t a perfectly efficient one. At least a third of the atmosphere’s energy budget was dedicated simply to evaporating water and then dropping it as rain, and this drain on the overall energy available actually reduced the potential intensity of the winds around the planet, which is why the weather is, quite often, pleasant.

Like all science, the findings will be tested − first by other scientists and then by the planet itself. Time will tell. But the conclusion is that a more vigorous water cycle could actually take yet more steam out of the atmospheric circulation. The winds could run out of puff.

This wouldn’t work smoothly, though. Air masses that didn’t get to the top of the atmosphere would be weakened, but those that did get to the top would be more tempestuous.

“Powerful storms are strengthened at the expense of weaker storms,” Dr Laliberté says. “We believe atmospheric circulation will adapt to this less efficient form of heat transfer and we will see either fewer storms overall, or at least a weakening of the most common, weaker storms,” – Climate News Network

Share This:

Education protects best from climate risks

Education protects best from climate risks

Many of us accept that the world is warming but will not necessarily recognise that climate change caused by human activities is responsible. Social scientists say better education is the answer.

LONDON, 24 December, 2014 − Researchers in the US have confirmed the great global warming paradox: people recognise that climate may be changing and that the storms, floods or heat waves they experience are not normal − but whether they attribute the abnormalities to man-made climate change depends on their existing beliefs.

Political party identification, the researchers found, plays a role in these matters. Democrats generally believe in the idea of global warming, Republicans do not.

Aaron McCright, a sociologist at Michigan State University, and colleagues report in Nature Climate Change that they analysed Gallup Poll data from 2012 on the responses of 1,000 people to temperatures in their home states.

The winter of 2012 was the fourth warmest in the US since 1895. Around 80% of US citizens reported that winter temperatures were warmer than usual, and those polled by Gallup also recognised that the conditions were out of the ordinary.

But only 35% believed that the main cause of the abnormally high temperatures was global warming. “Many people had already made up their minds about global warming and this extreme weather was not going to change that,” said Dr McCright.

Mistaken assumption

“There has been a lot of talk among climate scientists, politicians and journalists that warmer winters like this would change people’s minds. The more people are exposed to climate change, the more they’ll be convinced. This study suggests that this is not the case.”

The research confirms a pattern, and others have already hypothesised that humans are not very enthusiastic about dealing with threats that lie some way in the future. The Michigan State researchers conclude that “actual temperature anomalies influence perceived warming but not attribution of such warmer-than-usual winter temperatures to global warming.

“Rather, the latter is influenced more by perceived scientific agreement; beliefs about the current onset, human cause, threat and seriousness of global warming; and political orientation. This is not surprising given the politicisation of climate science and the political polarisation on climate change beliefs in recent years.”

So the message is: personal experience might help spread support for the idea of adaptive measures, but it may not increase support for mitigation policies.

The North American warm winter of 2012 was only one of a string of extremes that indicate a pattern of change: the 2010 Russian heat wave, Superstorm Sandy on the US East Coast in 2012 and Typhoon Haiyan in the Pacific in 2013 were all natural disasters consistent, the researchers say, “with expectations for a warming world.”

Education matters most

Which is why Wolfgang Lutz of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis and colleagues argue in the journal Science that although huge sums of money will be spent on engineering adaptations to climate change, the urgent need is for universal education.

The researchers looked at recently-published analyses of disaster data from 167 countries in the last 40 years and found that making people aware of the hazards and their own vulnerability might do more than sea walls, dams, irrigation systems and other protective infrastructure.

For the researchers, knowledge is power. “Our research shows that education is more important than GDP in reducing mortality from natural disasters. We also demonstrated that under rapid development and educational expansion across the globe, disaster fatalities will be reduced,” said Raya Muttarak, one of the co-authors.

“Education directly improves knowledge, the ability to understand and process information, and risk perception. It also indirectly enhances socioeconomic status and social capital. These are qualities and skills useful for surviving and coping with disasters.” – Climate News Network

Share This:

Climate threatens striking change to US weather

Climate threatens striking change to US weather

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

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

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

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

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

More evaporation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Potential energy

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

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

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

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

Share This:

Ice loss sends Alaskan temperatures soaring

Ice loss sends Alaskan temperatures soaring

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

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

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

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

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

Most striking

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

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

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

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

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

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

Warming faster

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

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

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

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

Share This:

Solar dimming reflects complexity of climate change

Solar dimming reflects complexity of climate change

Reduced monsoon rainfall and increased river flow are two extremes that new research has linked to man-made impacts on climate caused by air pollution.

LONDON, 13 October, 2014 − Two separate studies have confirmed the extent of human influence on climate change – and, for once, carbon dioxide is not the usual suspect.

One team has just found that air pollution dimmed the skies of northern Europe, reflected sunlight back into space, reduced evaporation, and increased river flow.

The second group reports that similar aerosol pollution had a quite different effect on the Asian monsoons: in the second half of the 20th century, the darkening skies reduced temperatures and cut the summer monsoon rainfall by 10%.

The two seemingly contradictory findings underscore two clear conclusions. One is that climate science is complex. The other is that human activity clearly influences the climate in different ways.

Worldwide concern

Both studies are concerned with an era when there was, worldwide, more concern about choking smog, sulphuric aerosol discharges and acid rain than about man-made global warming. They also both match complex computer simulation with observed changes in climate during the second half of the 20th century

Nicola Gedney, a senior scientist at the UK’s Meteorological Office, and colleagues report in Nature Geoscience that she and colleagues looked at the growth in aerosol pollution, especially in the Oder river catchment area of central-eastern Europe, that followed the increased burning of sulphurous coal in Europe right up till the late 1970s.

The consequence of that burning was a reduction in sunlight over the hemisphere. But this began to reverse with clean air legislation and a widespread switch to cleaner fuels. River flows, which had been on the increase, were reduced.

“We estimate that, in the most polluted central Europe river basin, this effect led to an increase in river flow of up to 25% when the aerosol levels were at their peak, around 1980,” Dr Gedney said. “With water shortages likely to be one of the biggest impacts of climate change in the future, these findings are important in making projections.”

Aerosol pollution

Meanwhile, a group led by Debbie Polson, a researcher in the University of Edinburgh’s School of Geosciences, Scotland, focused on aerosol pollution and the Asian summer monsoons, which provide four-fifths of the annual rainfall of the Indian subcontinent.

They report in Geophysical Research Letters that they calculated annual summer rainfall between 1951 and 2005, used computer simulations to quantify the impact of increasing aerosol emissions and greenhouse gases during that time, and factored in natural variations, such as volcanic discharges.

They found that, overall, levels of rain during the monsoon fell by 10%, and this change could only be explained by the influence of aerosols from car and factory exhausts.

“This study has shown for the first time that the drying of the monsoon over the past 50 years cannot be explained by natural climate variability, and that human activity has played a significant role in altering the seasonal monsoon rainfall on which billions of people depend,” Dr Polson said. – Climate News Network

Share This:

Oxford is rewriting ancient weather record books

Oxford is rewriting ancient weather record books

New data added to the unique archive documenting Oxford’s weather since 1767 shows that the university city has just had its second driest September on record – following close on its wettest January.

LONDON, 8 October, 2014 – Several parts of the world like to claim that their unpredictable weather allows you to experience spring, summer, autumn and winter in the space of a single day. The city of Oxford, in the English Midlands, cannot make that boast, but it has broken a surprising number of weather records in a fairly short time.

In its latest bout of meteorological exuberance, Oxford has just had its second driest September since records began almost 250 years ago. It recorded 4.1mm of rainfall over last month, with 1929 the only previous year to have had a month with a lower total − just 2.5mm.

This follows hard on the heels (climatically speaking, at least) of the first month of 2014, which was, by contrast, the wettest January the city has recorded, with total rainfall of 146.9 mm − almost three times the normal and 35 times September’s paltry figure.

Rainiest stretch

Go back a little further, though, for wet weather that really meant business: the nine months from 1 April to 31 December 2012 proved the rainiest nine-month stretch in Oxford’s recorded experience.

Yet the people of Oxford might at that point have been lulled into expectations of balmier weather, because 2011 had turned out to be the city’s joint second-warmest year on record. Six of the top 10 warmest years recorded have occurred since 2000, the warmest being 2006.

Oxford, home of the oldest university in the English-speaking world, knows the details of its weather peaks and troughs so well because it possesses a unique archive.

The Radcliffe Meteorological Station, based at Oxford University’s Green Templeton College and maintained by the university’s School of Geography and the Environment, holds the longest series of temperature and rainfall records for one site in Britain, with records dating back to 1767.

Of nearly 3,000 monthly records since Oxford’s measurements began, only 30 have been drier than last month. This puts September 2014 in the top 1% of the city’s driest ever months.

Dr Ian Ashpole, who collects the daily measurements for Radcliffe, said of the latest record to fall: “Based on analysis of variability around the mean September rainfall over the last 248 years, we can say that no Septembers since 2000 have been unusually wet, but three have been unusually dry.”

Emerging trend

Only one of the other 30 driest months has occurred in the autumn (September to November); 14 have been in spring (March to May), eight in summer (June to August), and the remaining seven during the winter. Four of the driest months have occurred this century.

This year’s September record may be part of an emerging trend in the month since 2000. The 248-year long-term average for September is 60mm, but since the turn of the century 12 have been below this average, including six under 50% of expected rainfall. Only two years have been above the 60mm average − 2008 (72.9mm) and 2006 (90.8mm).

September 2014’s temperature was not quite as extreme as the low rainfall, but still came in at equal seventh (with 1998) at 15.9°C, compared with the long-term average of 13.7°C. Five of the warmest eight Septembers since 1767 have been recorded since 1998.

However, the data from Radcliffe applies only to the city of Oxford and a short distance around it, and can tell us nothing about weather elsewhere in the UK or further afield. – Climate News Network

Share This:

Less snow won’t end blizzard hazard

Less snow won’t end blizzard hazard

New research predicts that while there will be less snow in a warming world, the sort of severe snowstorms that caused chaos in the US this year will remain a serious hazard.

LONDON, 6 September, 2014 − There’s still a chance that some people who dream of a white Christmas will get their wish. While there may be less snow falling overall in a warming world, there will still be blizzards.

Paul O’Gorman, an atmospheric scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the US, reports in Nature that he studied daily snowfall in the northern hemisphere through the prism of 20 different climate models. Each of these projected climate change over a century, according to various emissions of greenhouse gases.

He also looked at seasonal average and extreme snowfall events, both under current conditions and as the planet warms. And the conclusion is that the kind of snowstorms that hit the US in 2014 will remain a hazard, even though there may be fewer of them.

Climate models

“Many studies have looked at average snowfall over a season in climate models, but there’s less known about these very heavy snowfalls,” Dr O’Gorman said. “In some regions, it is possible for average snowfall to decrease but the snowfall extremes actually increase.”

Climate scientists have consistently warned that a rise in average planetary temperatures is likely to be accompanied by a rise in the frequency or intensity of extreme events.

By these, they usually mean windstorms, floods and heat waves. But ice storms remain part of the picture too. That is because even as temperatures on average creep up, there will be places and seasons where the rain could still turn to snow.

The study found that, under high warming scenarios, those low-lying regions with average winter temperatures normally just below freezing would see a 65% reduction in average winter snowfall. But in these places, the heaviest snowstorms on average became only 8% less intense. In the higher latitudes, extreme snowfall became more intense, with 10% more snow, even under scenarios of relatively high average warming.

Heaviest falls

There is a relatively narrow temperature range − just below freezing point − at which the heaviest snowfalls seem to occur.

“People may know the expression, ‘It’s too cold to snow,’” Dr O’Gorman said. “If it’s very cold, there is too little water vapour in the air to support a very heavy snowfall, and if it’s too warm, most of the precipitation will fall as rain.

“Snowfall extremes still occur in the same narrow temperature range with climate change, and so they respond differently to climate change compared to rainfall extremes or average snowfall.” – Climate News Network

Share This:

Elections sideline São Paulo drought crisis

Elections sideline São Paulo drought crisis

As South America’s biggest city suffers its worst drought in over a century, São Paulo state politicians are putting re-election prospects ahead of the need to introduce measures to address a desperate situation for millions of people.

SÃO PAULO, 25 August, 2014 − Outside the semi-arid area of the north-east, Brazilians have never had to worry about conserving water. Year in, year out, the summer has always brought rain.

But that has changed dramatically. São Paulo, the biggest metropolis in South America, with a population of almost 20 million, is now in the grip of its worst drought in more than a century − a water crisis of such proportions that reports on the daily level of the main reservoir arefollowed as closely as the football results.

The lack of rain is also affecting the dams that produce most of Brazil’s energy, highlighting the urgent need to diversify power sources.

And yet the state governor, wary of the effects on his prospects in forthcoming elections, has refused to introduce measures to ration, or even conserve, water.

Mighty rivers

Brazil is blessed not only with the mighty Amazon and all its huge tributaries, but also with dozens of other lengthy, broad rivers − once the highways for trade and slaving expeditions, but now providing waterways for cargo, power for dams, and water for reservoirs.It has at least 12% of the world’s fresh water supply.

But five of the principal rivers – the Tiete, Grande, Piracicaba, Mogi-Guaçu and Paraiba do Sul − that cross or border São Paulo, Brazil’s wealthiest state, have less than 30% of the water they should have at this time of year, according to data from the regional Hydrographic Basin Committee and from the National Electric System Operator (ONS).

Other major water sources – such as the Paraná, South America’s second biggest river, and the Paranapanema − are also suffering from the long dry period. The ruins of towns flooded for dam reservoirs have reappeared, fishermen’s boats are beached because the fish have disappeared, and navigation is at a standstill.

The transport of grain and other cargos to the port of Santos, via the river network, had to be suspended after the water level fell by up to eight metres. The equivalent of 10,000 lorryloads of cargo have been transferred by road so far.

Many industries have suspended their activities because of lack of water, and the drought has resulted in the loss of part of the coffee, sugar cane and wheat crops in one of Brazil’s most important agricultural states.

The hydrological period lasting from October 2013 to March 2014 was the driest for 123 years, according to the Agronomic Institute of Campinas, the oldest institute of its kind in Latin America .

Lowest volume

The federal government’s energy research company, EPE, found that in the first three months of 2014 the volume of rain was the third lowest since the 1930s.

It was the third consecutive year of reduction for the reservoirs of the hydroelectric dams that make up the South-east/Centre-West System, where many of Brazil’s biggest cities are located. From 88% in 2011, the volume of water in them had fallen to 38% by April 2014 – the month in which the dry season begins in this region.

By mid-August, the reservoirs of the Cantareira system, which supplies the water for almost 8.5 million of São Paulo’s inhabitants, had fallen to just 13.5% of capacity.

Yet the state government of São Paulo has so far refused even to admit that there is a crisis. The problem is the October elections, when Governor Geraldo Alkmim is running for re-election. Like most politicians, he does not want to be associated with a crisis. The word “rationing” is taboo.

Instead, unofficial rationing – what might be called rationing by stealth – is in operation. At night, the São Paulo Water Company, Sabesp, is reducing the pressure in the water system by 75%, leaving residents in higher areas of the city with dry taps.

Over 80% of the country’s energy comes from hydroelectric power, and dozens more giant dams are under construction or planned, mostly in the Amazon basin. The government has been strangely reluctant to invest in, or even encourage, other sources of abundant renewable energy, such as wind, solar and biomass.

The over-reliance on hydropower has already led to a distortion. The back-up system of thermo-electric plants, run on gas and diesel, and designed for emergencies, has had to increase production from 8% in 2012 to cover 25% of energy demand this year − thus contributing to higher carbon emissions.

Politics have also interfered with the special crisis committee set up to monitor the drought situation, with representatives from local and federal agencies unable to agree on what to do.

The Sao Paulo energy company, CESP, unilaterally decided this month to reduce the volume of water released from the shared Jaguari reservoir to the neighbouring state of Rio de Janeiro for electricity generation, in order to keep more for its own water needs.

Dangerous precedent

For Marcio Zimmerman, executive secretary of the Ministry of Mines and Energy, CESP’s action creates a dangerous precedent. “There will be chaos if everyone decides to rebel against the ONS,” he said.

The realisation that climate change is already leading to major changes in weather patterns has sounded alarm bells among the business community about the need to diversify energy sources and conserve water.

Early this month, at a seminar organised by the Brazilian Business Council for Sustainable Development, the chief executives of more than 20 top companies drew up a list of 22 crisis-related proposals to be put to the presidential candidates in October’s election.

Newspaper editorials are now urging the politicians to take their heads out of the sand and involve the population in a serious discussion on the crisis and its effects on the water supply, energy generation, and food production .

The Rio newspaper O Globo declared: “They belittle the potential for efficiency available in a society accustomed to waste. When they act, it might be too late.” – Climate News Network

Share This: