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AAAS: Climate risks irreversible change

March 18, 2014 in AAAS, Child Malnutrition, Climate risk, Coastal Threats, Extreme weather, Flooding, Food security, IPCC, Weather

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By Alex Kirby

In a highly unusual intervention in the debate over climate policy, US scientists say the evidence that the world is warming is as conclusive as that which links smoking and lung cancer.

LONDON, 18 March – The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) says there is a “small but real” chance that a warming climate will cause sudden and possibly unalterable changes to the planet.

This echoes the words used in its 2007 report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which said climate change might bring “abrupt and irreversible” impacts.

A child with kwasiorkor, caused by evere protein deficiency: Child malnutrition may rise by about a fifth Image: Dr Lyle Conrad via Wikimedia Commons

A child with kwashiorkor, caused by evere protein deficiency: Child malnutrition may rise by about a fifth
Image: Dr Lyle Conrad, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, via Wikimedia Commons

In a report, What We Know, the AAAS makes an infrequent foray into the climate debate. The report’s significance lies not in what it says, which covers familiar ground, but in who is saying it: the world’s largest general scientific body, and one of its most knowledgeable.

The AAAS says: “The evidence is overwhelming: levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere are rising. Temperatures are going up. Springs are arriving earlier. Ice sheets are melting. Sea level is rising. The patterns of rainfall and drought are changing. Heat waves are getting worse, as is extreme precipitation. The oceans are acidifying.

“The science linking human activities to climate change is analogous to the science linking smoking to lung and cardiovascular diseases. Physicians, cardiovascular scientists, public health experts and others all agree smoking causes cancer.

Few dissenters

“And this consensus among the health community has convinced most Americans that the health risks from smoking are real. A similar consensus now exists among climate scientists, a consensus that maintains climate change is happening, and human activity is the cause.”

The report’s headline messages are unambiguous. It says climate change is occurring here and now: “Based on well-established evidence, about 97% of climate scientists have concluded that human-caused climate change is happening.

“This agreement is documented not just by a single study, but by a converging stream of evidence over the past two decades from surveys of scientists, content analyses of peer-reviewed studies, and public statements issued by virtually every membership organization of experts in this field.

“We are at risk of pushing our climate system toward abrupt, unpredictable, and potentially irreversible changes with highly damaging impacts…Disturbingly, scientists do not know how much warming is required to trigger such changes to the climate system.

Expensive to delay

“The sooner we act, the lower the risk and cost. And there is much we can do…as emissions continue and warming increases, the risk increases”.

The AAAS says there is scarcely any precedent for the speed at which this is happening: “The rate of climate change now may be as fast as any extended warming period over the past 65 million years, and it is projected to accelerate in the coming decades.”

Historically rare extreme weather like once-in-a-century floods, droughts and heat waves could become almost annual occurrences, it says, and there could be large-scale collapses of the Antarctic and Greenland ice sheets, and of part of the Gulf Stream, loss of the Amazon rain forest, die-off of coral reefs, and mass extinctions.

The authors acknowledge that what the AAAS is doing is unusual: “As scientists, it is not our role to tell people what they should do or must believe about the rising threat of climate change.

“But we consider it to be our responsibility as professionals to ensure, to the best of our ability, that people understand what we know: human-caused climate change is happening…”

More child malnutrition

At the end of March the IPCC, the UN’s voice on climate science, is due to release a summary of the report of its Working Group II, on impacts, adaptation and vulnerability to climate change.

The London daily The Independent, which says it has seen a draft of the report’s final version, says it will spell out a prospect of “enormous strain, forcing mass migration, especially in Asia, and increasing the risk of violent conflict.”

The newspaper says the report predicts that climate change “will reduce median crop yields by 2% per decade for the rest of the century”, against a backdrop of rising demand set to increase by 14% per decade until 2050. “This will in turn push up malnutrition in children by about a fifth”, it adds.

Other predictions in the draft, The Independent says, include possible global aggregate economic losses of between 0.2 and 2.0%; more competition for fresh water; and by 2100 hundreds of millions of people affected by coastal flooding and displaced by land loss, mainly in Asia. – Climate News Network

Farming on sand

March 10, 2014 in Black Carbon, Deforestation, Development Issues, Flooding, Food security, Glaciers, Himalayas, Land Use, Monsoon, Rainfall, Soil, Water

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It was once a rice paddy but now it's only sand Image: Kieran Cooke

It was once a rice paddy but now it’s only sand
Image: Kieran Cooke

By Kieran Cooke

The Brahmaputra river is one of the world’s mightiest rivers, with millions dependent on its waters. The river also brings misery, with flooding and erosion major problems: climate change is likely to bring more hardship. Kieran Cooke, one of the editors of the Climate News Network, has been in Assam in northeast India, meeting villagers living on the Brahmaputra’s banks.

Laupani village, Assam, 10 March – The holes are dug laboriously in the dusty, sandy soil. Krishna Maya Sharma stops her work to wipe the sweat from her lined face.

“In the old days we would plant paddy here and have enough to sell at market” says Krishna, a 42 year old mother of six children.

“Now the soil is so bad, sweet potato is the only thing that will grow. The rest of our land is ruined.”

Laupani is a village in the north of the tea state of Assam, spread along the banks of the Brahmaputra river. In the distance, the pink evening light shines on the snow capped ridges of the eastern Himalayas.

The Brahmaputra, its waters rising more than 5,000 metres up on the Tibetan Plateau and flowing for about 3,000 kilometres through China, India and Bangladesh before joining up with the Ganges and out into the Bay of Bengal, is one of the world’s major rivers, 10 kilometres wide in places.

Widespread flooding

According to a recent report by India’s Third Pole organisation, the Brahmaputra carries a volume of water exceeded only by the Amazon and Congo rivers – and greater than the combined flow of Europe’s 20 largest rivers.

The river is a lifeline to millions, delivering vital nutrients to the soils of the plains but its fast flowing waters also cause widespread misery to people like Krishna.

Floods are frequent. There is widespread erosion and massive amounts of sand washed out of the river’s banks are deposited on surrounding fields, making once verdant areas into what looks like an enormous beach. The floods also bring invasive plant species that colonise agricultural lands.

More than 40% of Assam’s geographical area is designated as being flood prone: more than 1.5 million people were displaced by floods in 2012, lives were lost and whole villages were washed away.

Sand accumulations

“The waters were so deep and stayed so long that the grass was destroyed and our cattle died because they had no fodder” says Krishna.

“The sand means our land is no good anymore – my husband has given up being a farmer and is working in construction. Many young men go away to try and find jobs, there is nothing for them here.”

Locals – the majority of whom are poor, subsistence farmers – say river flows are becoming more unpredictable, with erosion and what’s called sandcasting becoming worse.

In part the flooding caused by the Brahmaputra’s waters is a natural phenomenon which has been going on for centuries. As the river’s waters cascade down from the Tibetan Plateau and Himalayas, millions of tons of sediment is washed onto the alluvial plains of Assam and others states in India’s northeast.

Earthquake danger

There are other forces at work: the region is a highly seismic zone. In 1950 the Brahmaputra river basin suffered one of the most violent earthquakes ever recorded. The geology of the area was changed and the river level was raised dramatically, by between eight and 10 metres in places.

Climate change is another factor, with a combination of rising temperatures and accumulations of what’s known as black carbon or soot in the high Himalayas and on the Tibetan Plateau causing glaciers which feed into upper reaches of the Brahmaputra to melt.

Increasingly unpredictable rainfall patterns, with periods of intense downpours, are also contributing to more volatile river flows.

Professor Jogendra Nath Sarma is a locally based geologist who has been studying the Brahmaputra for years.

“Over time different rivers in the Brahmaputra basin have merged, braiding over a very wide area. Thousands of square kilometres of land has been eaten away. Rampant deforestation is another big contributor to land erosion. “

In the past, says Professor Sarma, people would migrate to higher ground during the flood season but now, due to population growth and large scale immigration, there is nowhere for them to go.

Doubtful future

The future does not look good. According to models produced by scientists at the Indian Institute of Technology in Guwahati, Assam’s capital, climate change will result in the Brahmaputra valley region experiencing more flood events.

The Institute says that not only will river peak flows increase: so will the incidence of pre-monsoon flooding, endangering key phases of the agricultural cycle.

Talk of climate change is not of great interest to Krishna, digging holes for her sweet potato plants. She has more immediate things to worry about.

“Life is getting harder. Every time the floods come, I wonder what will happen. But where else can we go?” – Climate News Network


 

 

 

 

Europe’s flood risk may double by 2050

March 2, 2014 in Europe, European Union, Extreme weather, Flooding, Weather Systems

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Floods submerge St Mark's Square in Venice: The prospect is for worse to come Image: Wolfgang Moroder via Wikimedia Commons

Floods submerge St Mark’s Square in Venice: The prospect is for worse to come
Image: Wolfgang Moroder via Wikimedia Commons

By Tim Radford

As much of Europe recovers from the severest winter in several centuries, scientists say average annual flood losses could be almost five times greater by mid-century.

LONDON, 2 March – The catastrophic floods that soaked Europe last summer and the United Kingdom this winter are part of the pattern of things to come. According to a new study of flood risk in Nature Climate Change annual average losses from extreme floods in Europe could increase fivefold by 2050. And the frequency of destructive floods could almost double in that period.

About two thirds of the losses to come could be explained by socio-economic growth, according to a team led by Brenden Jongman of the University of Amsterdam in the Netherlands and Stefan Hochrainer-Stigler of theInternational Institute for Applied Systems Analysis in Austria.

That is because more development and investment means there is more at risk from any flooding. But the other third of the increase will be delivered by climate change, and a shift in rainfall patterns in Europe.

From 2000 to 2012, floods in European Union countries averaged €4.9 billion (US $6.8 bn) a year in losses. In the floods of June 2013, losses tipped €12 bn (US $16.6 bn) in nine countries of Central and Eastern Europe. The annual average losses could increase to €23.5 bn (US $32.4 bn) by 2050.

Unprecedented floods like those of 2013 occur on average once every 16 years now. By 2050, the probability will have increased to once every 10 years.

Floods widespread

The team looked at monthly peak river discharges in more than 1,000 river sub-basins to begin making their estimates: they also matched these peak flows with atmospheric circulation patterns. The point of the study was to deliver more accurate information.

“We brought together expertise from the fields of hydrology, economics, mathematics and climate change adaptation, allowing us for the first time to comprehensively assess continental flood risk and compare the different adaptation options,” said Brenden Jongman.

And Dr Hochrainer-Stigler said the new study for the first time accounted for the correlation between floods in different countries. Risk-assessment models tended to consider river basins as independent entities. “But in actuality, river flows across Europe are closely correlated, rising and falling in response to large-scale atmospheric patterns that bring rains and dry spells to large regions.”

All of this points to greater strains on the pan-European Solidarity Fund that finances recovery from disaster within the European Union. “If the rivers are flooding in Central Europe, they are also likely to be flooding in eastern European regions,” he said. – Climate News Network

If it walks like a duck, it probably is climate change

February 17, 2014 in Climate deniers, Climate finance, Extreme weather, Flooding, Journalism, United Kingdom

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The morning after the storm: Aberystwyth in west Wales has borne the brunt this turbulent winter Image: Ian Capper via Wikimedia Commons

The morning after the storm: Aberystwyth in west Wales has borne the brunt this turbulent winter
Image: Ian Capper via Wikimedia Commons

By Phil Rothwell

As debate rages over the part climate change may be playing in Britain’s wet and stormy winter, one of the UK’s foremost experts on flood defence says we need to acknowledge reality – fast.

LONDON, 17 February -  We are in danger of losing sight of some glaringly obvious truths about this exceptionally wet and stormy winter which much of the United Kingdom is enduring:

  • Scientists should acknowledge that the current record-breaking weather, in the UK and globally, is being caused by a changing climate
  • We don’t need party political bickering over flood funding, we need the right budget guaranteed for the future and agreed through political consensus
  • We need a land use policy that reduces reliance on expensive flood engineering and moves toward natural catchment management, flood-friendly farming, and village, town and city location and design that reduces risk, not increases it
  • We need a media and political framework that consigns climate change scepticism to the spike and the cutting room floor.

After the wettest and stormiest period in our history and following 2012, a year when we had both the most severe drought and wettest winter on record up until then, the almost complete failure of those in authority to acknowledge anything other than a faint link to climate change is beyond credibility and fundamentally and fatally damages a logical response.

Such a politically motivated head-in-the-sand attitude is severely damaging to any long-term approach to managing such events, let alone their cause.  As I write this President Obama is visiting California to see the impact of the most testing drought in its history, New York is in the grip of deep snow and ice, and the Philippines once again see major flooding. The Somerset Levels and the floods in the Thames Valley are just a pimple on the surface of the world’s problems. But they need a bit more than a knee-jerk political gesture.

“Over a million properties in Britain’s major conurbations have not flooded this winter because of action over the last few years to protect them”

In the 2007 floods in the UK 10 times as many properties were affected, mainly in urban areas in the north. The limited and largely rural impacts of the current winter, appalling for a few,  are in fact testimony to a successful flood risk management strategy.

Diverting resources to towns and cities, increasing flood protection to often ill-judged development, has proved a major success for the Environment Agency and the policy driver of investment which is targeted where most people live. Over a million properties in Britain’s major conurbations have not flooded this winter because of action over the last few years to protect them.

Many of the houses that have flooded are in rural locations in a flood plain best used to accommodate floods and relieve pressure downstream, thereby reducing even more major losses. We should be congratulating ourselves for a policy that is clearly working, protecting the most populated areas and using the sparsely-populated countryside for flood storage and mitigation.

Of course, whilst such a policy makes economic sense, in rural, social, personal and financial terms it can be a disaster. People are still affected, villages isolated, farmers managing reservoirs not wet meadows. This brings nothing but misery.

But the answer does not lie in more and bigger defences, or massive pumps. We should reforest the uplands, use different farming methods on upper catchment slopes, dam more upstream rivers and streams, create wet storage areas, end development in flood plains, and where there’s redevelopment do it in a way that absorbs and manages water through urban drainage systems and flood-sensitive design.

“Climate change is a generation-defining issue. We cannot afford party politics and the political short-termism of budget planning”

Far away from the knee-jerk throw-money-at-the-problem response in government, there is a truly sustainable approach to both floods and their causes. Combining national land use policy for climate change mitigation with better town and city protection and design is a valuable way forward, replacing high engineering costs with a flood-friendly approach to land management. But it’s not on the political agenda.

Instead we get a feast and famine approach to flood funding. Budget cuts are made in the hope that there will be no flood in the next few years. It happened after 1953, 1998, 2007, and now again in 2014. Cut the budgets until there is a flood and then restore them in the face of public and press criticism.

A decade ago a major Government study into climate change and flood risk, the Foresight Report, recommended a budget of £1 billion per annum, rising with inflation to keep pace with climate risk. The Pitt report in 2007 confirmed this scale of investment need. No Government has come close to matching these proposals, and the consequences become increasingly clear.

Climate change is a generation-defining issue. We cannot afford party politics and the political short-termism of budget planning to dictate a nation’s response to a threat of such scale. We certainly can do without Ministers so climate-sceptic that they delete any references to climate change in their briefs, or seek to blame the Environment Agency for flooding rural areas when that is the inevitable consequence of Government flood management policy.

We need realism about solutions. Most drainage engineers will tell you that dredging the Somerset rivers will make little impact on flooding, at most reducing the length of major floods by a few days.

“Scientists need to grasp the nettle, abandoning their reluctance to ascribe any one event to climate change”

Ironically the rivers would have been dredged last year if, as Government policy requires, the local authorities could have found funds to match those offered by the Environment Agency at the time. Increasingly the authorities are being given greater responsibility for flood management – at a time when their funding is being cut and they cannot find the cash.

What we really need is for the major political parties to meet together and agree a 30-year approach to funding, governance and land use policy in the face of the greatest threat to our lives and our environment ever. You never know. It might look like joined-up policy in the face of high risk, and restore some credibility to the political process.

Scientists, too, need to grasp the nettle and urge the need for long-term planning, abandoning their reluctance to ascribe any one event to climate change. The media should take a responsible science-driven approach and not feed the fire of misplaced scepticism or politically motivated ignorance.

The views peddled by eloquent sceptics such as Nigel Lawson have no place in a rational discussion. Such an approach is akin to denying there is any link between smoking and cancer, or obesity and heart disease. There is no place in a rational government for climate change denial.

The division in the country is fed by political uncertainty. The nation is under threat – and those charged with governing it, or in opposition, need to have that branded on their foreheads so they are forced to confront the reality every time they look in the mirror. – Climate News Network

Phil Rothwell was until December 2013 the Head of Flood Risk Policy at the UK Environment Agency.

Coastal flooding ‘may cost $100,000 bn a year by 2100′

February 11, 2014 in Climate finance, Coastal Threats, Extreme weather, Flooding, Sea level rise, Warming

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The only way is up: A rapid start on cutting emissions is essential Image: Jan Smith via Wikimedia Commons

The only way is up: A rapid start on cutting emissions is essential
Image: Jan Smith via Wikimedia Commons

By Tim Radford

On the world’s present course, the cost by 2100 of tackling coastal flooding could be beyond the reach of the poorest countries – and ruinously expensive for richer ones.

LONDON, 11 February – If global warming continues on its present ominous path, and if no significant adaptation measures are launched, then coastal flooding could be costing the planet’s economies $100,000 billion a year by 2100.

And perhaps 5% of the people on the planet – up to 600 million people – could be hit by coastal flooding by the end of the century, according to new research in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Jochen Hinkel from the Global Climate Forum in Berlin and colleagues have compiled, for the first time, global simulation results on future flood damage to buildings and infrastructure on the world’s coastal flood plains.

They expect drastic increases in economic damage because, as sea levels rise with the decades, so will population and investment: there will be more people with more to lose.

Right now, coastal floods and storm surge damage cost the world between $10 billion a year and $40 billion. But as the megacities grow – think of Lagos, or Shanghai, or Manila – more people will be at risk, and, among them, greater than ever numbers of the poorest.

“If we ignore this problem, the consequences will be dramatic,” says Hinkel. “Countries need to take action and invest in coastal protection measures, such as building or raising dykes, amongst other options.”

Provoking a response

And his co-author Robert Nicholls from the University of Southampton warns: “If we ignore sea level rise, flood damages will progressively rise and presently good defences will be degraded and ultimately overwhelmed, hence we must start to adapt now.”

All such projections involve assumptions about the future that cannot be tested, so the authors spread their bets: they considered a range of scenarios involving crude population growth, levels of economic growth with time, and a series of predictions of sea level rise, as icecaps and glaciers melt, and as the oceans warm and expand according to predictable physical laws.

What they could not predict – because such things require political decisions of the kind they hope to provoke with their forecasts – would be the civic and political responses in the next eight decades as storms become more violent and floods more frequent.

Nor did they try to incorporate the natural consequences of human settlement: how much subsidence, for instance, would occur as humans pumped groundwater from aquifers or quarried strata for building material, all things that would lower the levels of the land already at risk from invasion by the sea.

But their predictions, while alarming, are only reinforcements of earlier investigation. In August a World Bank team calculated that floods would be routinely costing coastal cities $1 trillion a year by 2050.

In July last year, a team from Stanford University in California looked at the challenge of building sea defences and proposed that by far the most efficient solutions would all be natural: dune systems, mangrove forests, reefs, water meadows, kelp forests and natural estuary ecosystems provided the best protection for many people in many circumstances.

And in December scientists from the University of Massachusetts considered the devastation wreaked on New York and other American cities by Superstorm Sandy in October 2012 and warned that such things could happen again and that, once again, natural systems might provide the most efficient  buffers against the buffetings of the weather.

Huge losses

The PNAS authors consider for the purpose of their argument only the increasing costs of either maintaining sea barriers such as dykes, or raising them.

By 2100, global average sea level rise could be as low as 25 cms, or as high as 123 cms; between 0.2% and 4.6% of the world’s population could be affected by flooding each year; and losses could be as low as 0.3% or as high as 9.3% of global gross domestic product.

It doesn’t matter very much whether by the end of the century the losses hit the low end of these projections, or the high. They will always be huge. “Damages of this magnitude are very unlikely to be tolerated by society and adaptation will be widespread”, the authors warn.

And there will be tracts of land that no dykes could ever save from the rising waters. The poorest countries are in any case unlikely to be able to meet the costs of sustained protection from the sea.

“If we do not reduce greenhouse gases swiftly and substantially, some regions will have to seriously consider relocating significant numbers of people in the longer run”, says Hinkel. He and his co-authors want to see some significant long-term thinking.

His colleague Professor Nicholls adds: “This long-term perspective is however a challenge to bring about, as coastal development tends to be dominated by short-term interests of, for example, real estate and tourism companies, which prefer to build directly on the waterfront with little thought about the future.” – Climate News Network

Evidence ‘suggests climate change is worsening UK winter’

February 9, 2014 in Climate deniers, Extreme weather, Flooding, Natural Variability, Rainfall, United Kingdom

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Flooding on the Somerset Levels in the West of England: Parts have been under water for weeks Image: Nigel Mykura via Wikimedia Commons

Flooding on the Somerset Levels in the West of England: Parts have been under water for weeks
Image: Nigel Mykura via Wikimedia Commons

By Alex Kirby

Scientists at the UK Met Office say all the evidence supports the theory that the exceptionally wet and stormy winter affecting much of Britain is caused at least in part by climate change.

LONDON, 9 February – The British Government’s main climate science adviser, the UK Met Office, says the present exceptionally wet and stormy winter “could be a manifestation of climate change.”

Its chief scientist, Dame Julia Slingo, says the variable UK climate means there is “no definitive answer” to what is producing this winter weather, with the “most exceptional period of rainfall in 248 years”. But “all the evidence suggests there is a link to climate change”.

She said there was no evidence to counter what the basic science says will happen as the world warms – that heavy, fierce downpours of rain will occur more often.

“Nobody has come forward to counter the basic premise that if you have a warmer world you are going to get more intense heavy rain rates”

Dame Julia told BBC Radio: “We know that warmer air holds more water…As scientists we always go back to the evidence base. I always challenge the climate sceptics to provide me with the same level of scientific integrity of the evidence base. I can’t see it.

“Nobody has come forward to counter the basic premise that if you have a warmer world you are going to get more intense heavy rain rates…as we’re beginning to detect now over the UK.”

The Met Office, with the UK’s Centre for Ecology & Hydrology (CEH), has published a report, The recent storms and floods in the UK, which strikes a cautious note.

It concludes: “It is not possible, yet, to give a definitive answer on whether climate change has been a contributor or not” to the frequent and torrential rain, storms and floods affecting much of the UK since early December.

But deep in the detail of the report’s findings are clear statements by its authors showing they are convinced that climate change may be partly responsible, despite the well-known fickle nature of the British weather.

The report says, for example, that although the number of strong winter storms over the mid-latitude North Atlantic – the path of the current storms – has not increased since 1871, the storms’ average intensity has grown significantly. The continual run of deep depressions through December, January and into February is also unusual.

“What in the 1960s and 1970s might have been a 1 in 125 day event is now more likely to be a 1 in 85 day event”

There are questions as well about whether the jet stream “is making greater excursions north and south, and whether these waves in the jet stream are becoming more locked in one position.

“This is a critical question because it raises the possibility that disruption of our usual weather patterns may be how climate change may manifest itself.”

The report says there is now some emerging evidence that, over the United Kingdom, daily heavy rain events may be more frequent: “What in the 1960s and 1970s might have been a 1 in 125 day event is now more likely to be a 1 in 85 day event.”

It says there is an increasing body of evidence that shows that extreme daily rainfall rates are becoming more intense, and that the rate of increase is consistent with what is expected from fundamental physics. – Climate News Network

Drought will worsen one day somewhere

December 28, 2013 in Drought, Flooding, Hydrology, Uncertainty

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The severity of drought is on the increase, but its localised impacts remain unclear Image: Bert Kaufmann from Roermond, Netherlands, via Wikimedia Commons

The severity of drought is on the increase, but its localised impacts remain unclear
Image: Bert Kaufmann from Roermond, Netherlands, via Wikimedia Commons

By Tim Radford

An international research team says many more people will go short of water as the world warms. But who will be affected, and where, remains uncertain.

LONDON, 28 December – Droughts by the end of this century somewhere in the world will be 20% more frequent. But the catch is that nobody right now can predict with any certainty which places will feel the effects soonest, or more frequently.

Thirty research teams from 12 countries report in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that unless greenhouse gas emissions are reduced on a global scale, an extra 40% more people are likely to experience real water scarcity.

While some will have too little water, others might have too much. Of the areas investigated, more than half could also expect increases in river flooding.

The areas most likely to experience drier climates and more prolonged droughts include the Mediterranean, the Middle East, the southern USA and southern China.

Southern India, western China and parts of east Africa could experience what one author, Simon Gosling of the University of Nottingham, UK, calls “substantial increases in available water.”

Neither such predictions of drought nor the admissions of uncertainty are in any way new. The significance of the latest research perhaps lies in its scale, its thoroughness and the fact that it confirms, once again, the unhappy picture of climate change in a world which resolutely goes on burning fossil fuels (this is always called “the business as usual” scenario”).

Uneven effects

The study incorporated five global climate models to simulate ways in which climate change might affect flood hazard, drought, water scarcity, agriculture, ecosystems and even the spread of malaria.

The interpretations of such simulations are always spoken of in terms of “signal to noise ratio” and of “global hotspots”; and of probabilities and trends rather than predictions. But the overall conclusion is that drought severity is on the increase and some places are going to feel the impact of climate change worse than others.

The research was led by Christel Prudhomme of the UK Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, who said: “Our study shows that different representations of terrestrial water cycle processes in global hydrological models are responsible for a much larger uncertainty in the response of hydrological drought to climate change than previously thought. We don’t know how much changed climate patterns will affect the frequency of low flows in rivers.”

A warmer world inevitably means more evaporation, and warmer air temperatures mean that the capacity of the atmosphere to carry water vapour will also increase.

But where the extra water will fall is still unresolved. “More water under climate change is not necessarily always a good thing”, says Simon Gosling.

“While it can indeed help alleviate water scarcity, assuming you have the infrastructure to store it and distribute it, there is also a risk that any reductions in water scarcity are tempered by an increase in flood hazard.” – Climate News Network

Rising floods give UK insurers headaches

November 30, 2013 in Climate risk, Flooding, Insurance, Weather

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2008 floods in Tillicoultry, Clackmannanshire, Scotland. Image: John Chroston via Wikimedia Commons

2008 floods in Tillicoultry, Clackmannanshire, Scotland.
Image: John Chroston via Wikimedia Commons

By Kieran Cooke

The UK insurance industry is struggling to cope with the increased risk of flooding events associated with climate change.

LONDON, 30 November – The insurance industry doesn’t like climate change. Global warming is introducing a whole new element into the business of quantifying risk – the basic function of the insurance business. One of the main challenges facing insurers is the increased occurrence of floods in many countries.

The UK is one of the world’s leading insurance centres:  a recent seminar at the University of Oxford in the UK examined flood patterns in Britain over recent years.

Not only is the incidence of flooding increasing – it is also becoming ever more unpredictable. “No business, particularly the insurance industry, likes volatility” says Matt Cullen, a floods specialist at the Association of British Insurers (ABI). “There’s no doubt there’s been a ramping up of flooding in the UK since the 1990s and this tends to spook the insurers. And the situation is only going to get worse with climate change.”

Assessing when and where flooding occurs is a highly complex business, says Professor Edmund Penning-Rowsell, of Oxford’s School of Geography and the Environment. Flooding is episodic and can also be very localised, he says: a particular area might be flooded for two years in succession and then be dry for ten years – while another, previously dry area sees the waters rise and homes wrecked.

Flood risk increasing

The ABI says flood-related costs in the UK have been rising dramatically: over the 2000 to 2010 period the industry paid out £4.5bn (US$7.2bn) to those whose homes or businesses had been hit by flooding – a 200% rise on pay-outs in the previous decade.

Under a long-standing agreement between the UK Government and the insurance industry, insurers have guaranteed that cover would be available to homeowners – even those judged to be in high flood risk areas – as long as the authorities continued to spend money on flood prevention works.

That agreement ended in mid-2013: in a move being keenly watched in other parts of the world, UK insurance groups and the Government are now trying to come up with a formula which both guarantees continuing flood risk cover for homeowners in future and also ensures the continued financial viability of the insurance industry.

Poor at greatest risk

Often, say insurance analysts, it’s the poorer in society who live in homes most exposed to flood risk. If there was a move towards a free-for-all in the insurance market, those households would either find it impossible to find insurance – or be forced to pay highly expensive premiums to specialist brokers.

The ABI is proposing setting up a new scheme called Flood Re which would provide insurance at what it says would be an affordable level for those most at risk from flooding. Flood Re would run a multi-million pound fund — financed by a general levy on all household insurance policies — which would cover the costs of flood claims.

The Government has given its tentative approval to the idea. However, the scheme is dependent on continuing government expenditure on building up flood defences.

According to UK government figures, about 5.2 million properties in England alone – that’s one in every six properties in the country – are at risk of flooding, either from rivers or the sea or from surface water flooding.

At present the UK is spending about £600m ($960m) per year on tackling flooding. The Government admits that, just to maintain existing flood protection levels, expenditure will need to rise by around 80% by 2035. And that estimate, say officials, does not include the cost of managing the risk of surface and groundwater flooding. – Climate News Network

Warsaw – Day 3: World faces more ‘perfect storms’

November 13, 2013 in Africa, Australia, Drought, Europe, Extreme weather, Flooding, Heatwave, Sea level rise, South America

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Angola's national tree, the imbondeiro or baobab, helped it through the 2013 drought Image: Alfred Weidinger via Wikimedia Commons

Angola’s national tree, the imbondeiro or baobab, helped it through the 2013 drought
Image: Alfred Weidinger via Wikimedia Commons

By Paul Brown in Warsaw

One of the Climate News Network editors, Paul Brown, is in the Polish capital, host of the UN climate talks – the 19th Conference of the Parties (COP 19) of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. His latest report describes records continuing to tumble as sea levels rise and warming continues in 2013.

 

The world continues to heat up in 2013, with regional temperature records being broken and sea level rise accelerating, the World Meteorological Organisation (WMO) says in its latest report, Provisional Statement on Status of Climate in 2013.

Sea level rise was particularly significant in the Pacific around the Philippines and had contributed greatly to the devastation caused by the super-typhoon Haiyan, Jerry Lengoasa, deputy general secretary general of the WMO, said here.

The population should have been warned about the tsunami effect of a seven-metre storm surge caused by the typhoon, he said, so that they could have been better prepared to retreat to higher ground.

With the typhoon season not over yet there had already been 30 named storms in the Pacific this year; this was above the average of the last three decades.

Mr Lengoasa said: “What the science tells us is not that there will be more storms, but that the storms we do have will be more violent. ‘Perfect storms’, if we can call them that, like hurricane Sandy last year and typhoon Haiyan this year will become the normal.”

Sea level had risen a third of a metre in the central Philippine area since 1901, making the area much more vulnerable to storm surges. The average sea level rise round the globe was much lower but was speeding up, and was now 3.2 millimetres a year. This is double the annual average of the last century – 1.6 mm.

Australian heatwave

Mr Lengoasa made special mention of the unprecedented heatwave in Australia, which had the hottest month ever observed in January 2013, and the hottest summer on record. On 7 January a new national averaged daily maximum for Australia was set at 40.3°C, and Moomba in South Australia reached 49.6°C.

At the same time as Mr Lengoasa was speaking the Australian Government was being attacked in a nearby meeting for watering down its commitments to tackle climate change.

The German organisation Climate Analytics said that Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s plans to dismantle the current climate legislation in his country could lead to Australia increasing emissions in 2020 rather than meeting its target of reducing them by 5% on their 2000 levels.

Even the 5% target was inadequate and consistent with an increasing global temperature rise of 3.5 to 4°C, well above the 2°C danger level that world leaders have agreed must not be exceeded.  Climate Analytics claimed that under the Abbott plan emissions would increase by 12% by 2020.

Australia ‘the new climate pariah’

Bill Hare, director of Climate Analytics, said: “The existing legislation would have bent the relentless upward curve of Australian emissions downwards, a first step towards a low carbon, climate-safe future. The new policy will see this dismantled and replaced by a climate policy that goes against the science.”

An Australian climate campaigner for Climate Action Network, Julie-Anne Richards, said her country was the new pariah in climate action. “Even the United States and China take more action in fighting climate change than Australia”, she said.

Mr Lengoasa’s presentation was a summary of the weather statistics up to the end of September this year. He said that the year was on course to be among the ten hottest years ever recorded, and warmer than both 2011 and 2012. “It looks as if after a dip during the La Niña episodes, the temperatures are rising again”, he said, cautioning that the statistics were for nine months only.

The year had also been notable for regional floods and droughts. In South America, much below average rainfall was recorded in North East Brazil, where parts of the region suffered their worst drought in 50 years. The Brazilian plateau, the monsoon region of South America received the least rainfall since records began in 1979. The southern African countries of Angola and Namibia “were gripped by one of the worst droughts in the past 30 years.”

At the other extreme in Europe Germany, Poland, the Czech Republic, Austria and Switzerland had intense and extended flooding in late May and early June, and the West African summer monsoon brought welcome rainfall over most of central and western parts of the Sahel. – Climate News Network

Warsaw – Day 2: Extreme weather – who suffers most?

November 12, 2013 in Climate, Climate risk, Extreme weather

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Image: © Marek and Ewa Wojciechowscy/Trips over Poland via Wikimedia Commons

Image: © Marek and Ewa Wojciechowscy/Trips over Poland via Wikimedia Commons

By Paul Brown in Warsaw

One of the Climate News Network editors, Paul Brown, is in the Polish capital, host of the UN climate talks – the 19th Conference of the Parties (COP 19) of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. He reports that developing countries have been hit hardest in the last 20 years as climate change takes hold.

Haiti topped the chart as the country most at risk from extreme weather events in this year’s Global Climate Risk Index, because of the devastation caused by Hurricane Sandy in 2012 that left 200,000 people homeless and destroyed many crops.

The Index, released on the second day of the UN climate conference here, noted that while the damage in New York made all the headlines it was in Haiti that losses were greatest.

All ten of the countries most at risk from extreme events in the 1993 to 2012 period were developing countries, emphasising the message in Warsaw that poor countries cannot cope with the increasing number of catastrophes by themselves.

The major issue at the conference in the wake of the current Philippine disaster is how to finance “loss and damage” caused by an increasingly unstable climate.

The index, compiled by a think tank called Germanwatch from figures supplied by the giant re-insurance company Munich Re, lists ten countries most affected in 2012 and the long-term climate risk from loss of life and damage from 1993 to 2012.

The Philippines came second in the 2012 list because of a devastating cyclone in that year and is almost certain to come number one in next year’s table because of the current crisis caused by super-typhoon Haiyan, which has killed more than 10,000 people.

“…the self-help capacity of countries is being overwhelmed by the scale of the climate disasters they are facing.”

Pakistan came third in both this year’s list and the 2011 table, showing its increasing vulnerability to floods and droughts.

In the 20-year long-term risk list Honduras was first, Myanmar (Burma) second and Haiti third, reflecting a constant battering of these countries by extreme weather events.

Christoph Bals, policy director of Germanwatch, said: “The report illustrates that the self-help capacity of countries is being overwhelmed by the scale of the climate disasters they are facing.

“These are the countries that have contributed least to climate change because they have tiny emissions, yet they are the countries that are suffering most from it. Developed countries that have caused the problem have a moral responsibility to help.”

Bals admitted that the list had flaws, in that it did not include the gradual effects of sea level rise and melting glaciers, but said there were no data for the losses caused in this way, only by more sudden disasters. Africa was also under-represented because losses from drought were hard to evaluate.

“Our people have contributed least to climate change, yet they are enduring great suffering.”

Muhammad Irfan Tariq, director general of the Climate Change Division of the Pakistan Government, who helped launch the report in Warsaw, said: “The report makes clear that my country is already adversely affected by climate change. Loss of glaciers, floods and droughts are causing suffering and loss of life, not to mention the economic losses in a mainly agricultural economy.

“In 1950 we had 5,000 litres of fresh water available for each person in the country. Now it is less than 1,000. As a result we are suffering loss of energy from hydro-electricity, shortages of food, and general water scarcity. We need more reservoirs to capture the snowmelt in the spring to last us for the year.

“Our people have contributed least to climate change, yet they are enduring great suffering. We have had disastrous floods followed by three years of droughts; we have not the resources to deal with this on our own.”

Unusually several European countries, including Serbia and Bosnia/Herzegovina, made the 2012 list. The report says that after experiencing the hottest summer in 40 years the Balkan countries suffered from extensive droughts that destroyed most of their crops.

The ten most-affected countries in 2012, in order of seriousness, are Haiti, the Philippines, Pakistan, Madagascar, Fiji, Serbia, Samoa, Bosnia/Herzegovina, Russia and Nigeria.

The top ten for 1993 to 2012 are Honduras, Myanmar, Haiti, Nicaragua, Bangladesh, Vietnam, the Philippines, the Dominican Republic and Mongolia (equal 8th), and Thailand and Guatemala (equal 10th). – Climate News Network