Tag Archives: Impacts

Svalbard’s reindeer thrive as climate warms

Warm welcome: Svalbard's distinctive reindeer are increasing in numbers. Image: courtesy of Dr Jonathan Codd, University of Manchester
Warm welcome: Svalbard’s distinctive reindeer are increasing in numbers
Image: courtesy of Dr Jonathan Codd, University of Manchester

By Alex Kirby

The rising temperatures that have many negative impacts in the Arctic region are not a problem for a Norwegian subspecies of reindeer whose population increased by a remarkable 30% last year.

LONDON, 21 July, 2014 − There will be winners as well as losers as climate change intensifies, and scientists say they have just found one species that is prospering already.

Far from threatening the reindeer on the Norwegian high Arctic archipelago of Svalbard, rising temperatures appear to be driving a remarkable increase in the animals’ numbers.

Scientists from the University of Manchester, UK, and the Arctic University of Norway in Tromsø have found that the numbers of Svalbard reindeer, continuing a trend that has been observed over the last 36 years, increased by 30% in the last year.

Physically counted

The scientists established the population spurt by counting the reindeer in the valley of Adventdalen, in central Spitsbergen. They say their research is one of only very few studies on animal populations and climate change that involves animals being physically counted annually, rather than estimated.

The total number of animals − including all births and all deaths − in Adventdalen has been recorded annually since 1979 by a team led by Dr Nicholas Tyler, of the Arctic University of Norway.

Svalbard’s reindeer population had increased in close parallel with winter warming in the last 35 years, growing from an average of around 600 animals in the early 1980s to around 1,000 today.

Dr Tyler said: “Winter warming is widely held to be a major threat to reindeer across the Arctic, but, in Svalbard, global warming has had the opposite effect. Our data provides remarkable confirmation of this counter-intuitive observation.”

This summer, a team from Manchester, led by Jonathan Codd and Nathan Thavarajah, helped with the annual census of reindeer in Adventdalen.

Dr Codd, the programme director for zoology at the university, said: “The results revealed a remarkably successful year for Svalbard reindeer. Despite very high numbers in 2013, the population increased by almost 30% and reached a new record of just over 1,300 animals − more than three times the population size in 1979, when the present series of counts began.”

The team found very little winter mortality and very high calving. There were over 300 calves in the valley, the second highest number recorded.

Streets awash

“The substantial increase in the numbers of reindeer is linked with frequent and pronounced periods of warm weather last winter,” said Dr Codd. “In February, the temperature rose above freezing for six days, reaching a maximum of +4.2°C, and the streets of the Norwegian settlement at Longyearbyen were reported awash with melt water.”

Dr Codd told the Climate News Network: “We count the reindeer by walking the same set routes every day, and there is no possibility of any double counting.

“There are signs that Svalbard’s predators are in good shape. I think most of the polar bear populations are at least stable, and the Arctic foxes are doing pretty well too.

“But neither seems to be bothering the reindeer. The foxes will eat dead deer, but don’t attack live ones. And the main prey of the bears is seals.

“And the reindeer can move fast if they need to. I’ve heard reports that they have been known to reach a speed of 50 miles an hour (80 kph).” − Climate News Network

New clue to Antarctic food-web puzzle

Strength in numbers: thousands of Adélie penguins at a rookery Image: Michael Van Woert/NOAA NESDIS, ORA via Wikimedia Commons
Strength in numbers: thousands of Adélie penguins in an Antarctic rookery
Image: Michael Van Woert/NOAA NESDIS, ORA via Wikimedia Commons

By Tim Radford

A landmark research study that shows one species of penguin is thriving while other populations are in rapid decline offers new insight into how climate change is affecting Antarctica.

LONDON, 16 July, 2014 − Good news from Antarctica: the continent may be warming, the ice shelf may be at risk, and the food chain may ultimately become precarious, but the Adélie penguin population – at least for the moment − is higher than ever before.

The news does not suggest that global warming and climate change are actually good for this important indicator species, which has certainly been in decline on the Antarctic Peninsula. But it does represent an advance: for the first time, a comprehensive study has concluded with a full census of the species.

Heather Lynch, assistant professor of ecology and evelotion at Stony Brook University in New York, and Michelle La Rue, research fellow at the University of Minnesota’s Polar Geopspatial Center, used high resolution satellite imagery to measure levels of penguin guano – the fertiliser industry’s preferred term for seabird excrement – on the continent.

They then used that as the basis for calculating the numbers of birds in a colony necessary to account for all that digested and evacuated seafood.

They report in a journal called The Auk: Ornithological Advances that they identified at least 17 populations of Adélie penguins not previously known to exist, but failed to pinpoint 13 already-recorded colonies, and declared eight of them eradicated.

Their estimate for the total Adélie population in and around the Southern Ocean stands at 3.79 million, which is 53% higher than all previous estimates.

Useful evidence

The researchers call their work a “landmark” study, and see it not as evidence that climate change is going to work for the benefit of one particular species, but more as a useful piece of the great food-web puzzle in a changing climate.

Penguins have been in rapid decline in the West Antarctic Peninsula, which has become one of the fastest-warming regions on the planet. Warmer weather and increased rain have already started to take toll of Magellanic penguins in Argentina, and researchers recently predicted long-term decline for the iconic Emperor penguin on Antarctica itself.

But this is only long-term decline. As long as Antarctica stays cold and the ice shelf stays stable, the researchers say, the population could, in the short term, actually rise.

That is because what matters most to the species that nest in Antarctica is the supply of fish and krill around the continent’s edge. The health and resilience of the Adélie population – and the Emperor penguin, the leopard seal, the cetaceans, and so on – ultimately depend on how the krill and fish populations respond to climate change.

Humans, too, fish for commercial supplies of Antarctic krill, which provides a source of food for fish farms.

“Our finding of a 53% increase in Adélie penguin breeding abundance, compared to 20 years ago, suggests that estimates of krill consumption by this species may be seriously underestimated,” Dr Lynch said. “Leaving enough prey for natural krill predators is an important element in ensuring fisheries proceed sustainably.”

But a second team confirms in Nature Communications that there are strong links between climate and marine life, and that changes in factors such as wind speed and sea ice can have knock-on effects right around the Antarctic food web.

Since 1990, scientists aboard US research vessels have been conducting annual surveys along the western side of the Antarctic Peninsula, measuring populations of photosynthetic algae.

These peak every four to six years, according to changes in atmospheric pressure between the mid-latitudes and Antarctica itself.

Glacial meltwater

In winter, when cold southerly winds blow across the Peninsula, the winter ice extends. Winds drop from spring to summer, reducing the retreat of the ice. So the water column in summer then is stable, and the phytoplankton multiply, fed by iron-rich glacial meltwater.

The blooms of phytoplankton are what the krill need to multiply, and when the krill are around in huge volumes, the Adélie and other penguins, fur seals, baleen whales and albatross don’t have to go so far to find food.

But marine scientist Grace Saba, who did her research while with the Virginia Institute of Marine Science, before moving to Rutgers University, New Jersey, reports that these ideal conditions – negative phases of the Southern Annular Mode (SAM), to give it the technical terminology – are not guaranteed in future. If the world goes on burning fossil fuels, conditions will probably change.

“Projections from global climate models under business-as-usual emission scenarios up to the year 2100 suggest a further increase in temperature and in the occurrence of positive-SAM conditions,” Dr Saba said.

“If even one positive SAM episode lasted longer than the krill lifespan – four to six years with decreased phytoplankton abundance and krill recruitment – it could be catastrophic to the krill population.”  − Climate News Network

Europe faces deadly cost for climate inaction

Smoke from Russian forest fires obscures the Sun in 2010 Image: Ximonic, Simo Räsänen via Wikimedia Commons

Smoke from Russian forest fires obscures the Sun in 2010
Image: Ximonic, Simo Räsänen via Wikimedia Commons

By Tim Radford

A failure to act to reduce the impacts of climate change could cost Europe dear in lives lost and economic damage, according to a European Commission study.

LONDON, 13 July 2014 − Inaction over climate change costs lives. And in the case of European inaction, it is estimated that this could one day cost 200,000 lives a year.

That is the warning in a new European Commission (EC) study, which also says that failing to take the necessary action could burn 8,000 square kilometres of forest, and commit European taxpayers to at least €190 billion (US$259 bn) a year in economic losses.

Flood damage, too, could exceed €10bn a year by 2080, while the number of people affected by droughts could increase sevenfold, and coastal damage from sea level rise could treble.

The study weighs the bleak consequences of inaction. Scientists considered what would happen if the politicians and players on the continent worked with international partners to constrain global warming to a 2°C rise, or alternatively took no action and allowed global temperatures to soar to 3.5°C. They analysed the impact of climate change in agriculture, river floods, coasts, tourism, energy, droughts, forest fires, transport infrastructure and human health.

All involved in the research emphasised that their projections were conservative – that is, they were underestimates – and imagined a planet 60 years from now that was occupied by its present population, at its present state of economic growth. In a more populated, more developed world, the losses would be hugely greater.

Probable underestimates

The biggest and most obvious cost was to human health: premature death – from heat stress or other climate-related impacts – would account for €120 billion; coastal losses would claim €42 billion and agriculture €18bn. The worst-hit regions would be southern and south central Europe, which would bear 70% of the burden; northern Europe would experience the lowest.

If the world keeps temperature rise to the current international target of 2°C, there will still be huge costs, but the constraint would knock at least €60 billion off the overall bill. It would save lives too,  reducing the notional premature death toll by 23,000, and would burn only about 4,000 square kilometres of forest.

Calculations such as these − which are aids to political and economic planners, and intended to spur forthcoming political action − are uncheckable, but they are also almost certainly underestimates. They take no account of losses of, for example, biodiversity, on which it is impossible to place a value, and they do not include the consequences of catastrophic tipping points, such as the melting of Arctic ice.

Connie Hedegaard, the EC’s Commissioner for Climate Action, said: “No action is clearly the most expensive solution of all. Why pay for the damages when we can invest in reducing our climate impacts and becoming a competitive low-carbon economy?

“Taking action and taking a decision on the 2030 climate and energy framework  in October will bring us just there, and make Europe ready for the fight against climate change.” – Climate News Network

Atlases reveal climate and weather impacts

NASA says Arctic sea ice thickness in some areas has halved since 1980 Image: Hannes Grobe 20:05 via Wikimedia Commons

NASA says Arctic sea ice thickness in some areas has halved since 1980
Image: Hannes Grobe 20:05 via Wikimedia Commons

By Alex Kirby

Two new atlases provide clear visual evidence of the effect climate change and extreme weather can have on people and property.

LONDON, 12 July 2014 – For people who find it hard to believe the Earth really is warming, new visual evidence will soon be available – two atlases, one showing graphically the retreat of Arctic ice, the other the human and economic price exacted by extreme weather.

The 10th edition of the National Geographic Atlas of the World is to be published on 30 September. The publication’s geographer, Juan José Valdés, says the reduction in multi-year ice – ice that has survived for two summers – is so noticeable compared with previous editions that it is the biggest visible change since the breakup of the USSR.

“You hear reports all the time in the media about this,” he said. “Until you have a hard-copy map in your hand, the message doesn’t really hit home.” He believes atlases “open people’s eyes to what’s happening in the world.”

The Arctic sea ice has been retreating in the last 30 years or so by 12% each decade, NASA says. (On land the change is even more marked. Spring and autumn on the Greenland icecap have warmed by more than 3°C, although summer temperatures have not changed)

According to NASA’s Operation IceBridge the sea ice is now as much as 50% thinner than in previous decades, falling from an average thickness of 3.8 metres (12.5 feet) in 1980 to 1.9 m (6.2 ft) in recent years. May 2014 represented the third lowest extent of sea ice for that month in the satellite record, the US National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC) says.

Self-supporting

The ice loss is accelerated by what scientists call a positive feedback: the warming in effect fuels itself. Thin ice reflects light less effectively than thick ice, allowing more sunlight to be absorbed by the ocean, which further weakens the ice and warms the ocean even more.

The melting ice also triggers another feedback. Thinner ice is flatter and scientists say this allows melt ponds to accumulate on the surface, reducing the ice’s reflectiveness and absorbing more heat.

In National Geographic’s atlas the multi-year ice, which is older, is shown as a large white mass, with the maximum extent of sea ice – the pack ice that melts and refreezes each season – shown by a simple line. This edition shows the area of multi-year ice is strikingly smaller than previously.

Some scientists say the atlas should show the total ice area at the end of the Arctic summer, including the remaining ice newly formed in the previous winter. This total minimum cover is measured in September, while total maximum cover is measured in March, at the end of winter.

Omitting the minimum cover means ice one year old or less is not being shown, the critics say. But the mapmakers say they do not show the minimum extent because there is only so much information they can include without confusing users.

There is also criticism of the atlas’s reliance on a single year (the new edition uses 2012 data, an extremely low year for ice cover). The critics say this probably over-emphasises long-term trends. But if 2013, a year with more ice, is shown, the mapmakers counter, it could under-emphasise the trend towards rising temperatures.

Steep underestimate

The second publication, the Atlas of Mortality and Economic Losses from Weather, Climate and Water Extremes 1970-2012, is the work of the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) and the Centre for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters (CRED) of the Catholic University of Louvain (UCL) in Belgium.

Disasters caused by such extremes, it says, are increasing globally, killing people and slowing economic and social development by years or decades. The period covered, the authors say, saw 8,835 disasters, 1.94 million deaths and US$2.4 trillion of economic losses resulting from droughts, extreme temperatures, floods, tropical cyclones and related health epidemics.

Preparations start in Geneva, Switzerland, on 14 July for the third World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction, to be held in Japan in March 2015 by the United Nations.

Jochen Luther of WMO told the Climate News Network: “It’s not necessarily the number of extreme events that is increasing, but the increasing exposure and vulnerability that turns them into disasters, as well as better reporting of them than in the past.”

The UN’s Global Assessment Report on Disaster Risk Reduction 2013 said direct and indirect losses from natural hazards of all kinds had been underestimated by at least half because of problems with data collection. – Climate News Network

Arctic warming upsets birds’ breeding calendar

 

A chick of the Arctic migrant bird, the red-necked phalarope Image: US Fish and Wildlife Service via Wikimedia Commons
Early bird: a chick of the Arctic migrant, the red-necked phalarope
Image: US Fish and Wildlife Service via Wikimedia Commons

By Tim Radford

As global warming increasingly causes Arctic snow to melt earlier, researchers warn that it could have a long-term adverse effect on the breeding success of migrant birds.

LONDON, 8 July, 2014 − Arctic migrants are nesting up to seven days earlier as the world warms. The sandpiper makes a beeline for the Alaskan shores, to join the phalarope on the beach and the songbirds in the woods − and all because the winter snows are melting earlier.

Conservation scientists Joe Liebezeit and Steve Zack – both then of the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) – and colleagues report in the journal Polar Biology that they looked into nearly 2,500 nests of four shorebird species in Alaska – two sandpipers, two phalaropes − and a songbird called the Lapland songspur over a nine-year period.

Nest timing

They recorded when the first eggs were laid. And they also assessed snow melt in nesting plots at different times in the early spring, and took note of predator abundance and the seasonal flush of vegetation − both of which can affect nest timing − to see what mattered most in terms of breeding.

“It seems clear that the timing of the snow melt in Arctic Alaska is the most important mechanism driving the earlier and earlier breeding dates we observed in the Arctic,” said Liebezeit, now of the Audubon Society of Portland, Oregon.

“The rates of advancement in earlier breeding are higher in Arctic birds than in other temperate bird species, and this accords with the fact that the Arctic climate is changing at twice the rate.”

During the nine years in which the scientists conducted their study, they found that nesting advanced by between four and seven days.

“Migratory birds are nesting earlier in the changing Arctic, presumably to track the earlier springs and abundance of insect pray,” said Steve Zack, who is the WCS co-ordinator of bird conservation.

“Many of these birds winter in the tropics and may be compromising their complicated calendar of movements to accommodate this change. We’re concerned that there will be a threshold where they will no longer be able to track the emergence of these earlier springs, which may impact breeding success or even population viability.”

Ecology changing

The calendar of Arctic life is shaped by ice, and the ecology of the region is beginning to change as the area of sea covered by ice shrinks with successive summers.

But Ingrid Onarheim, of the University of Bergen’s Geophysical Institute, and colleagues warn in the journal Tellus − published by the International Meteorological Institute at Stockholm University − that the Arctic ocean is losing ice even in winter, at least north of the island of Svalbard, Norway.

A study of satellite records shows that this region is losing winter ice at the rate of almost 10% per decade, and the north Atlantic water that enters the Arctic ocean at this point has been warming at 0.3°C per decade. At the same time, the surface air temperature has been warming at 2°C per decade, and researchers have recorded an average rise in winter temperatures of 6.9°C in the last 34 years.

They believe that winds have not caused the long-term warming or loss of ice, so it must be warmer ocean temperatures pushing into the region west of Svalbard. The ice, furthermore, has thinned with the decades, making it more likely to melt and retreat with each succeeding winter. – Climate News Network

UK doctors vote to end fossil fuels funding

Unhealthy view: fossil fuel industries will not be funded doctors Image: Peter Gordois/geograph.org.uk via Wikimedia Commons
Clean break: fossil fuel industries will no longer get funding from the UK medical profession
Image: Peter Gordois/geograph.org.uk via Wikimedia Commons

By Alex Kirby

The British medical profession’s influential national organisation has sent out a strong message about climate change by deciding to withdraw its funds from the fossil fuel industry and to support renewable energy instead.

LONDON, 1 July, 2014 − The body that represents doctors in the UK has voted to end its investments in fossil fuel companies − making it the first national medical organisation in the world to do so.

A motion passed at the annual representatives’ meeting of the British Medical Association (BMA) − in effect, its annual general meeting − marks its commitment to withdraw financial support for fossil fuels and to pursue instead a corresponding increase in its investments in renewable energy.

This is in keeping with the statement by the recent Lancet Commission that climate change “could be the biggest global health threat of the 21st century”.

The BMA motion is understood to have been passed by a majority of about two-thirds, as part of a broader motion calling for a switch to renewable energy and the creation of a new alliance of health professionals focusing on the health effects of climate change.

Growing support

Tabled by members of the BMA’s Retired Members’ Forum and several of its local committees, the motion is part of growing support for the fossil fuel divestment movement, both internationally and in the UK.

Supporters of disinvestment argue on two main grounds. They say avoiding the worst impacts of climate change demands a rapid move away from fossil fuels; and if world leaders agree to do this, they say, most oil and gas will have to be left in the ground as unburnable, becoming “stranded assets”.

There were some dissenting voices during the debate on the BMA motion, but most of those who opposed it questioned how affordable and achievable it was likely to be, rather than expressing misgivings about what it set out to do.

The clause that called for divestment passed as a “reference”, meaning that the spirit and intent are kept but the BMA’s Council is not required to adhere to the exact wording. However, BMA watchers insist that it does represent a clear commitment to divest.

During the debate, the BMA’s Chair of Council and its treasurer said the Association would seek to divest “carefully and properly”, and not “only if [they] feel like it”.

An editorial published in the British Medical Journal in March called for divestment from fossil fuels because of the “scale and immediacy of the threat to human survival, health and wellbeing” posed by unmitigated climate change.

“The decision of the BMA adds momentum to a growing
divestment movement . . . around the world”

The health charities Medact, the Climate and Health Council and Healthy Planet UK, which represent health professionals and medical students, have since called on other UK health organisations to divest from fossil fuels.

Sir Andy Haines, professor of public health and primary care at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, told the Climate News Network: “The decision of the BMA adds momentum to a growing divestment movement, including universities, cities and theological institutions and foundations around the world.

“There is a growing body of evidence that many policies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions can improve health in the near term as well.

Principled position

“Undoubtedly, the principled position of the BMA will encourage other institutions to do the same and increase the likelihood that a strong agreement on climate change can be negotiated by the end of 2015.”

Isobel Braithwaite, a medical student who is the co-ordinator of Healthy Planet UK, told the Network: “In a sense, this vote is symbolic, because unless an organisation has billions to invest it can’t by itself make a huge difference.

“But we think that the leadership the BMA has shown will help to encourage other health organisations, in the UK and elsewhere, to follow suit.”

David McCoy, a doctor who chairs Medact, said: “In the same way that ethical investors choose not to profit from tobacco and arms sales, the health community worldwide is correctly calling for divestment from another set of harmful activities.” − 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

Heat has deadly impact on Nepal’s Gulf workers

 

Migrant workers have helped create the spectacular Doha skyline, Qatar Image: Darwinek via Wikimedia Commons
High price: migrant workers have helped create skylines like Doha’s in Qatar
Image: Darwinek via Wikimedia Commons

 

By Kieran Cooke and Om Astha Rai

Temperature extremes resulting from climate change have led to serious concerns about the impact on human health − but warnings have come too late for many Nepali migrants who have died working in Gulf states.

LONDON/KATHMANDU, 27 June, 2014 − Sabin is a 22-year-old from a small town in eastern Nepal, in the foothills of the Himalayas. But he isn’t living there now. To support his family, he’s been working as a truck driver in Qatar for the last five years.

“When I arrived in Qatar I could not believe the heat,” he says. “I never knew such extreme temperatures in my home place. Without AC (air conditioning) in my truck, I wouldn’t be able to survive. I would simply die.”

Sabin is part of an estimated 400,000-strong contingent of Nepalis now working in the small Gulf state − and he is one of the lucky ones. A substantial number of his fellow workers have died because of the conditions they have to work and live in – and the searing heat is thought to be a major factor in the high mortality rate.

Construction workers in Qatar, where summertime temperatures can reach 45˚C or more, are particularly vulnerable to heat exposure.

Dipesh has worked on various projects in Qatar. He has seen fellow Nepali workers − most of whom come from villages high up in the Himalayas, where they are used to a cool climate − wilt in the heat and then, ironically, die as a result of the cold in air conditioned rooms.

‘Killer machine’

“Especially for those working in the construction sector, the AC is like a killer machine,” Dipesh says. “They are exposed to extreme temperatures outside, then when they get breaks in the day, they fall asleep in the artificially-cooled rooms. Some of them never wake up – they die in their sleep.”

Qataris have the highest income per capita in the world, but only 6% of the 2 million people in the country are citizens. The rest are immigrants − the majority coming from Asia.

While exact statistics are hard to come by, because workers who speak out fear repercussions,  it is believed that at least 60 Nepalis − most of them working in the construction industry − have died in Qatar this year alone. In the majority of cases, the cause of death was officially given as heart disease. But many of the Nepalis believe that most of the deaths were caused by heat stroke.

The human body is designed to maintain a core temperature of 37˚C. Health specialists say that the physical impact of heat is often neglected, and should be considered in discussions about climate change.

A multi-centre international study programme called Hothaps (high occupational temperature: health and productivity suppression) is examining the issue, particularly in relation to increasingly high temperatures being recorded in some regions due to climate change.

“Heat transfer goes into the body and only
evaporation of sweat can reduce body heat”

“If the ambient air temperature is higher than 37˚C, heat transfer goes into the body and only evaporation of sweat can reduce body heat,” Hothaps says. “However, such evaporation is less and less effective as the humidity level goes up and, at 100% relative humidity, sweating continues but creates no body heat loss.”

Studies have shown that when the core body temperature rises above 38˚C, physical and mental capabilities diminish rapidly and there is an increased risk of accidents.

When the body temperature is above 39˚C, heat stroke occurs, while above 40.6˚C there’s the strong possibility of life-threatening “severe hyperpyrexia”, or high fever – leading to death.

Heat not only affects health but can also have a big impact on economic activity, with the productivity of workers labouring outside dropping by as much as 80% during the hottest hours of the day in summer in cities such as New Delhi.

Increased urbanisation, particularly in parts of Asia, is only adding to the problem. The “heat island effect” means that cities are often several degrees warmer than the countryside, so those in urban areas are at greater risk of heat stress.

This has considerable implications for the economic future of tropical countries, which are seeing spikes in temperatures related to climate change.

Risk of malaria

In some tropical regions, contractors are insisting that their workers make increasing use of “cool periods” – instructing them to work at dawn or dusk, or to labour through the night. One problem of this is that mosquitoes are far more active in the cooler hours, and so the risk of malaria increases.

Some workers, such as those millions involved in agriculture, have no alternative but to work in − and often through − the hottest period of the day.

In Qatar, regulations prohibit companies from making workers labour through the hottest period of the day in the summer months. Adequate worker breaks should also be provided.

But Bhim Prasad Bhandari, who worked as a tea boy in Qatar for four years before returning to his mountain village in Nepal, says: “The monthly salaries for Nepali workers are too low (less that $200), so they are often tempted to work overtime, even in the prohibited hours.

“Some companies do not want to halt their work during the day. The official work time is eight hours, but the Nepalis, who are often burdened with loans and the expectations of their families at home, carry on and work up to 14 hours a day. They live in unliveable conditions.” – Climate News Network

• Om Astha Rai is a reporter with Nepalese national newspaper, Republica Daily.

• Some of the names in this article have been changed to protect the Nepali workers.

Icebergs strip away rich Antarctic habitat

Icy waters near the Rothera research station in Antarctica Image: Vincent van Zeijst via Wikimedia Commons
Icy waters near the Rothera research station in West Antarctica
Image: Vincent van Zeijst via Wikimedia Commons

By Tim Radford

The scouring effect of drifting icebergs that are increasingly breaking free from Antarctic ice shelves as a result of global warming is wiping out fauna that cling to the boulders in shallow waters

 LONDON, 23 June, 2014 − A once-rich habitat in the Antarctic has become an impoverished zone as icebergs, increasingly breaking free from the surrounding sea ice because of global warming, scour the shallow-water rocks and boulders on which a diversity of creatures cling to life.

A report in the journal Current Biology says that researchers who carried out a survey dive in 2013 at Lagoon Island, off the West Antarctic Peninsula, discovered that “no live mega or macro-fauna can be found, the first time this has been observed there, despite being regularly visited by scientific divers since 1997”.

David Barnes, of the British Antarctic Survey, and colleagues report that boulders on the seabed near the Rothera research station had once been richly encrusted with creatures that competed for living space. Now such rocks might only support a single species.

Early warning system

“The Antarctic Peninsula can be considered an early warning system, like a canary in a coal mine,” Dr Barnes said. “Physical changes there are among the most extreme and the biology considered quite sensitive, so it was always likely to be a good place to observe impacts of climate change.

“But impacts elsewhere are likely to be not too far behind. A lot of the planet depends on the near shore environment, not least for food. What happens there to make it less stable is important.”

A research diver surveys the shallow waters of West Antarctica Image: British Antarctic Survey
A research diver surveys the shallow waters off the West Antarctic Peninsula
Image: British Antarctic Survey

Climate change has already begun to affect Antarctica in different ways. Researchers last year found that as icebergs broke free, the surviving ice shelf had begun to melt from underneath from underneath. The effect of the drifting bergs was mixed: at depth in the fjords of the Peninsula, for instance, the species variety seemed to have got richer, according to one set of observations.

But no such effect was observed in the ocean shallows that are being scraped and scoured by drifting icebergs. The researchers say that although no species has disappeared entirely from the region, the numbers are so low as to be negligible.

In 2013, most of the observations seemed to involve just one opportunistic or pioneer species, a suspension feeder called Fenstrulina rugula. What had once been a rich habitat had become one of the simplest seabed systems to be found anywhere.

Ecological roles

“Reduction of complex systems into very simple ones, where many (formerly important) species become too rare to maintain meaningful ecological roles, is a common reaction to anthropogenic disturbance such as overfishing, pollution, introductions of non-indigenous species, and habitat destruction,” the report’s authors say.

“Across West Antarctica, the levels of these disturbances are among the lowest globally, apart from greenhouse contributions to climate change.”

The scientists conclude: “We expect the deeper seabed to become richer in benthic colonisation with more ice shelf collapses and fast ice losses, but hard surfaces in the shallows are likely to become deserts dominated by rapidly-colonising pioneers and responsive scavengers.” − Climate News Network

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