Threat to rivers as hydropower gets set for global boom

Threat to rivers as hydropower gets set for global boom

Scientists predict a doubling in production of renewable energy from hydropower over the next 20 years, but building new dams will have a damaging effect on some of the world’s major rivers.

LONDON, 28 October, 2014 − Hydropower, the renewable technology that sets gravity to work and harnesses the energy of rivers, is about to double its output.

The growth will be mostly in the developing world − but the construction of new dams on rivers in South America, South-east Asia and Africa comes at a cost. Around a fifth of the world’s largest remaining free-flowing rivers will be dammed, which presents yet another threat to the wild things that live in or depend on wild water.

Christiane Zarfl − now assistant professor for Environmental System Analysis at the University of Tübingen, Germany − and former colleagues at the Leibniz Institute of Freshwater Ecology and Inland Fisheries in Berlin presented their findings at the International Alliance of Research Universities congress on global challenges, hosted by the University of Copenhagen. The research is also published in the journal Aquatic Sciences.

Renewables, such as solar energy and wind power, now provide about a fifth of the world’s electricity production, and hydroelectric power makes up four-fifths of that. The researchers believe that, within the next two decades, another 3,700 dams may more than double hydropower’s total electricity capacity to 1,700 GW.

Surge of activity

China will remain the global leader, but because of the surge of activity in other countries, its share will fall from 31% to about 25%. The largest number of new dams in South America will be in the Amazon and La Plata basins of Brazil. In Asia, the biggest effort will be in the Ganges-Brahmaputra basin and along the Yangtze.

But while some national economies look for a brighter electric future from hydropower, others have to confront and come to terms with the capriciousness of freshwater delivery.

Professor Jim Hall, Director of the Environmental Change Institute at the University of Oxford, and colleagues argue in Science magazine  that too much water − as well as too little – can seriously damage a nation’s economic health. And climate change means that this unpredictability is likely to present even greater difficulties in the decades ahead.

But challenges exist already. In Ethiopia, a sustained drought has reduced economic growth by 38%. In Thailand, floods in 2011 cost the country $16 billion in insured losses and $43 billion in overall economic losses. In parts of India, half the annual rainfall splashes onto the dusty soils in just 15 days, and 90% of the annual river flows are concentrated into about four months of the year.

Rainfall can vary according to season and from year to year. Climate scientists have also repeatedly warned of a possible increase in extremes of heat and flood. So there are at least three dimensions to the delivery of water on tap.

In the arid regions – and these include most of Australia, the southwestern US, the Middle East and North Africa – conditions are marked by what hydrologists call “strong interannual variability”, which is a delicate way of saying that droughts can last for years and then end suddenly with catastrophic flash floods.

“When these dimensions are combined,” the report’s authors say, “the situation is most challenging – a wicked combination of hydrology that confronts the world’s poorest people.” – Climate News Network

Climate linked to shrink in size of Alpine chamois

Climate linked to shrink in size of Alpine chamois

Scientists have found strong evidence that declining body size in herds of the chamois mountain goats that are hunted in the Italian Alps is linked to warmer spring and summer temperatures.

LONDON, 26 October, 2014 − The Alpine chamois is getting smaller. Researchers have found that climate change and a gradual rise in average temperatures over the last 35 years mean that young chamois now weigh about 25% less than animals of the same age did in the 1980s.

The latest find, reported in Frontiers in Zoology, is yet more evidence that bodymass and climatic conditions are linked, and that mammals have a tendency to respond to rising temperatures by dwindling in size.

“Body size declines attributed to climate change are widespread in the animal kingdom, with many fish, bird and animal species getting smaller,” said Tom Mason, a biologist at Durham University in the UK. “However, the decreases we observe here are astonishing. The impact on chamois weight could pose real problems for the survival of these populations.”

Vital statistics

Chamois, a mountain goat-antelope species native to Europe, are hunted every autumn in the Italian Alps − under strict regulation, which has allowed populations to increase. So the researchers had access to the vital statistics of more than 10,000 yearling chamois (Rupicapra rupicapra) shot between 1979 and 2010 in three hunting districts in the mountains of Trento province in northern Italy.

The researchers found “clear negative temporal body mass trends in all sexes and sites” in all three populations.

In cold conditions, higher body mass confers advantage. Bigger animals will have a lower ratio of skin to volume, and therefore conserve warmth more easily. Conversely, in the tropics, smaller creatures have a greater ratio of surface through which they can radiate heat, and more easily maintain thermal equilibrium.

Biologists have confirmed this effect in fossil records: skeletal evidence shows that ancestral horses, deer and primates all got smaller as temperatures soared during a dramatic hot spell 55 million years ago. And they have found tentative evidence in a long study of the weights of America’s wild bison across a range of prairie temperatures.

Scientists have also warned that to survive dramatic global warming, humans could shrink to almost Hobbit-like dimensions.

The Alpine studies establish that the lower bodyweights of the chamois native to the region are linked to temperature, rather than to the availability of food.

Levels of nourishment

The same long-term data records reveal that the Alpine meadows that feed these mountain goats are just as productive, and deliver the same levels of nourishment, as they did four decades ago. But Alpine temperatures on average became between 3°C and 4°C warmer over the same period.

“We know that chamois cope with hot periods by resting more and spending less time searching for food, and this may be restricting their size more than the quality of the vegetation they eat,” said Stephen Willis, a co-author. “If climate change results in similar behavioural and body mass changes in domestic livestock, this could have impacts on agricultural productivity in coming decades.”

Wild animals are anyway under pressure from human population growth and loss of habitat, but the latest findings present new puzzles.

Body mass is valuable: it gets a grazing animal through the harshest winters. So chamois numbers are likely to fall, or may have to be kept low.

Dr Mason said: “This study shows the striking, unforeseen impacts that climate change can have on animal populations.” – Climate News Network

Universities trash football in waste reduction league

Universities trash football in waste reduction league

Shouts of “what a load of rubbish” are heard at hundreds of football matches around England every weekend – but researchers say fans should direct them at overflowing waste bins rather than at players and referees.

LONDON, 25 September, 2014 − Most English football clubs, and the millions of fans who watch them, don’t think beyond what is going to happen on the pitch in the next 90 minutes. Saving the planet is the last thing on their minds, according to research into the Football League.

At the other end of the scale, universities are seriously concerned about their effect on the environment. The world’s top teaching universities are combining to lower their impact, and believe that their students − the leaders of tomorrow − will continue these efforts when they begin their careers.

Football, which has a major influence on the behaviour of millions of young people, is a major industry in the UK.

Eleven tiers make up English football’s pyramid. The Premier League is at the apex, followed by the Championship and Football Leagues One and Two, and then a national league structure – with 59 leagues across the country providing a feeder system through to the Football League.

This means that hundreds of matches take place each week, attracting crowds of spectators in varying numbers. While the numbers decrease in the lower leagues, the huge amount of games played means the aggregate number of spectators is on a par with the Premier League.

Extra revenue

Of course, the big money is made by Premier League clubs, which get millions in revenue from sponsorship and worldwide TV. But one thing all the clubs have in common is that food and drink generates extra revenue and plenty of waste.

Football does sometimes manage to notch up an environmental goal. Like many large businesses, some of the top clubs take seriously the amount of waste that fans produce during matches − mainly because it costs clubs a lot of money to dispose of it.

For example, Arsenal FC now has its own waste recycling centre, and Manchester City and Manchester United have made such improvements in waste generation and disposal that none of their waste now goes to landfill.

In the lower leagues, however, the problem is still largely ignored.

The School of Biological Sciences at the University of Essex, UK, decided to investigate to see how much rubbish was produced by the highest profile and most popular sport in England, and what effect they had on greenhouse gas emissions.

The amount of waste generated by each one of the nine million fans who watched games in the lower leagues in the 2012/13 season was 3.27 kg each. That amounts to 30,146 tonnes of waste over the season, about a quarter of which went to landfill and produced more than two million kg of carbon dioxide to add to climate change.

In their paper, published in Scientific Research, the researchers say that waste per person at an average lower league match was 10 times that produced on big sporting occasions such as FA Cup finals – less than a quarter of a kilo, compared with 3.27 kg.

The amount produced over a season by the eight lower tiers o f the football league is three times the amount produced at the 2012 London Olympic Games. According to the researchers, this shows that the management of the lower league football clubs need to do more to monitor and reduce their waste.

The incentive, apart from saving the planet, is that taking rubbish to landfill is expensive. The tax each club has to pay per tonne of waste produced has increased from £7 in 1996 to £40 a tonne in 2014.

“Although many corporate organisations have moved to a wider social audit . . . football clubs have not yet moved in this direction”

The paper suggests that football also has a moral responsibility because sport has wider effects than other businesses in providing support and inspiration in such areas as education, health and fitness, environment, art, and culture.

The report concludes: “Although many corporate organisations have moved to a wider social audit of their performance that includes triple bottom line reporting of their economic, environmental and social performance, football clubs have not yet moved in this direction.”

In contrast, some of the world’s top teaching universities − meeting at the University of Copenhagen in Denmark this week – have launched a green guide to reduce their impact on the environment.

The International Alliance of Research Universities (IARU) guide focuses on sharing experience about how universities can become more sustainable. This includes reusing materials, eliminating rubbish and recycling as well as extensive programmes of reducing energy use in laboratories, lecture theatres and residential accommodation.

Among the universities taking part are Oxford and Cambridge in England, Yale in the US, Peking in China, Tokyo in Japan, Eth in Switzerland, and the National Universities of Singapore and Australia.

Green guide

Jørgen Honoré, University Director at Copenhagen, said in launching the guide this week: “Universities have the opportunity to create cultures of sustainability for today’s students and tomorrow’s leaders, and to set their expectations for how the world should be. The green guide provides real-world examples to inspire innovation and creative action at universities around the globe.”

The guide includes 23 case histories from these major universities, including installation of solar roofs, and some have already made big strides in reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

“At the University of Copenhagen, we have already achieved ambitious targets,” Honoré said. “We have reduced our energy consumption per person by 20%, and we have cut our CO2 emissions per person by nearly 30% since 2006.

“Many of our buildings have been made more energy efficient − for example by replacing ventilation units, installing LED lighting, insulating pipes, and making laboratory work more energy efficient.”

In the war on waste reduction, it seems that the current score stands at something like Football United 1, University Academicals 5. – Climate News Network

‘Amazon of UK’ being destroyed for grouse shooting

‘Amazon of UK’ being destroyed for grouse shooting

Managing moorlands so that more birds can be reared for lucrative shooting parties is adding to climate change by destroying layers of peat and releasing large quantities of stored carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

LONDON, 6 October, 2014 − Burning large tracts of heather on the peat-covered hills of Britain so that more red grouse can be reared for the rich to shoot has always been controversial.

The revenue from overseas visitors flying in from such places as the Middle East and Japan to shoot birds has long been used by the country estate owners to justify the practice.

But the first definitive scientific report into the effects that burning heather has on wildlife and climate change shows the damage to the environment is far worse than previously thought. The water run-off from the damaged peat also adversely affects the aquatic life in the rivers that drain the moorlands of Britain.

The report was released to coincide with start of the moorland burning season in Britain, when gamekeepers set fire to large areas of old heather in order to encourage new growth next year to feed chicks that will be shot in the autumn.

Britain contains 75% of the world’s remaining heather moorland, and its owners say that without the revenue from grouse shooting it would disappear.

Significant findings

The EMBER report (Effects of Moorland Burning on the Ecohydrology of River basins)  is the result of five years work by a team from Leeds University in the north of England, which is a popular area for shooting grouse.

Among the significant findings was that burning heather dried out and warmed the peat it grows in, causing the peat to disintegrate and release large quantities of stored carbon dioxide − so adding to the perils of climate change.

Professor Joseph Holden, from the School of Geography at the University of Leeds and co-author of the study, said: “Altering the hydrology of peatlands so they become drier is known to cause significant losses of carbon from storage in the soil.

“This is of great concern, as peatlands are the largest natural store for carbon on the land surface of the UK and play a crucial role in climate change. They are the ‘Amazon of the UK’.”

The EMBER project − funded by the Natural Environment Research Council, with additional support from the Yorkshire Water treatment and supply utility − assessed the impacts of heather burning on moorland consisting mainly of peat on higher land.

It compared 120 patches of peat in 10 river catchment areas across the English Pennines, with an equal split between burned and unburned areas. The area studied spanned from near Ladybower Reservoir in Derbyshire to Moor House National Reserve, which straddles the border between Cumbria and County Durham.

The red grouse is a major target during the shooting season. Image: Trish Steel via Wikimedia Commons
The red grouse is a major target during the shooting season
Image: Trish Steel via Wikimedia Commons

Among the numerous important findings of the EMBER project, the researchers discovered that the water table depth – the level below which the ground is saturated with water – is significantly deeper in areas where burning has taken place, compared to unburned areas.

A deeper water table means that the peat near the surface will dry out and degrade, releasing stored pollutants, such as heavy metals into rivers, and carbon into the atmosphere.

Other important findings from EMBER include a decrease in the diversity and population sizes of invertebrates, such as insect larvae, in rivers draining from burned areas, and up to a 20˚C increase in soil temperature in the immediate years after burning, compared to unburned sites.

Dr Brown said: “Even small changes in soil temperature can affect the decomposition of organic matter and the uptake of nutrients by plants. But we found increases as high as 20˚C, with maximum temperatures reaching over 50˚C in some cases.

“Such changes in thermal regime have not previously been considered in the debate over moorland management with fire, but could explain a lot of the changes we see in terms of soil chemistry and hydrology following burning.”

Dr Sheila Palmer, also from the School of Geography at the University of Leeds, and a co-author of the report, concludes: “Our hope is that the EMBER project findings will help all parties involved in assessing the range of benefits and impacts of moorland burning to work together in developing policies for the future management of our uplands.”

However, the Moorland Association, which represents the shooting estates, defended the practice of heather burning to promote greater numbers of grouse.

In a statement, the Association said: “Heather is kept young and vigorous by controlled burning. If left unburned, it eventually grows long and lank, reducing its nutritional value.

Burning cycle

“The burning cycle creates a pattern of different-aged heather. The oldest provides cover for the grouse and other birds; the new shoots, succulent food for birds and sheep. A skilfully burnt moor will have a mosaic of heather and other moor plants of differing ages and the rich variety of wildlife they attract.”

The association says that mowing heather is an alternative to burning, but not always possible because of rough terrain. It is also more expensive.

André Farrar, planning and strategy manager at the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, which has long campaigned for the end of burning heather and the destruction of wildlife to promote grouse shooting said: “Managed burning has a profound impact on the life support systems of the peatlands in our hills.

“This supports the need to phase out and stop burning on deep peat soils in the uplands. It should also trigger a concerted effort to agree how to bring these special places back into better condition, involving Government, its agencies, and landowners.” – Climate News Network

UN population growth data is bad news for climate

UN population growth data is bad news for climate

Sophisticated new analysis indicates an 80% probability that the planet’s population will continue to rise this century, with serious implications for food security, political stability − and climate change.

LONDON, 19 September, 2014 − The demographers may have got it wrong. New projections say the population of the planet will not stabilise at 9 billion sometime this century. In fact, there is an 80% likelihood that, by 2100, it will reach at least 9.6 bn − and maybe rise as high as 12.3 bn.

The latest data, published in the US journal Science, has profound and alarming implications for political stability, food security and, of course, climate change, since greater numbers of people mean greater demands on agricultural land, water and fuel.

At the heart of the findings − led by Patrick Gerland, of the United Nations Population Division in New York, and backed by sociologists, statisticians and population scientists from Seattle, Singapore and Santiago in Chile − is both new data and a more sophisticated approach to the mathematical probabilities for fertility and life expectancy, and for international migration.

Larger families

The new evidence is that, contrary to previous expectations, women in Africa are still having larger families − in part, because contraceptives are not available and because mortality linked to HIV infection has been reduced.

So, by the end of the century, Africa – once relatively sparsely populated, but now home to around one billion people – will have to feed between 3.5 bn and 5.1 bn.

The new information is available because the UN Population Division re-examines its calculations every two years − and the new techniques include the adoption of a methodology known to mathematicians as “Bayesian probabilistic”.

In the new scenarios, Africa remains at the heart of the population explosion, and African women on average have 4.6 children. There are 4.4 bn people in Asia now, but this is expected to peak at 5bn in 2050 and then decline. North America, Europe, Latin America are expected to stay below 1bn each.

“Earlier projections were strictly based on scenarios, so there was no uncertainty,” said Dr Gerland. “This work offers a more statistically-driven assessment that allows us to quantify the predictions and offer a confidence interval that could be useful in planning.”

The study makes no mention of climate change, and the demographers are more concerned with the numbers of young workers who will have to support increasingly elderly populations. But population, economic growth and global warming are inexorably linked.

Most climate change predictions, when they incorporate population growth at all, have been based on the long-standing assumption that the planet’s burden of humans will peak around 2050, and then begin a slow decline.

Because of this, some researchers have been able to put forward arguments for optimism and propose that climate change can be contained and food security assured with careful management and new thinking.

But recent research suggests that while climate change will open more land in higher latitudes for potential crop growth, the gains will not be great, because the conditions for multiple harvests in the tropics will be reduced.

There are other factors. For example, land once available for crops is disappearing under tarmac and cement as the world’s cities grow, and even with a projected population peak of 9bn, an estimated additional 1.5 million square kilometers of tilth and pasture would be lost to the cities by 2030.

Losses of farmland

In addition, the encroachment of the world’s deserts and the erosion of once fertile farmland continues to exact its toll. Statisticians say that between 19 hectares and 23 hectares of land is abandoned every minute. With the latest, and more alarming, population projections, these losses of farmland can only increase.

But these are all projections, rather than predictions. Armed with such information, governments could take steps to ensure a more secure future.

The authors of the Science paper argue that fertility decline could be helped by better access to contraception, and by the education of women.

They add, grimly, that things could also get worse: “It should also be noted that the projections do not take into account potential negative feedback from the environmental consequences of rapid population growth.

“The addition of several billion people in Africa could lead to severe resource shortages, which in turn could affect population size through unexpected mortality, migration, or fertility effects.” – Climate News Network

Bluefin tuna follow prey to warming high Arctic

Bluefin tuna follow prey to warming high Arctic

A research ship’s surprise catch of bluefin tuna further north than ever recorded indicates that climate change is restructuring the food web as the waters of east Greenland get warmer.

LONDON, 8 September, 2014 − Biologists and fishermen aboard a scientific cruise in the Arctic while they investigated mackerel stocks caught more than they bargained for − three large bluefin tuna, each weighing about 100 kilograms.

The research ship was sailing through the Denmark Strait, which separates Greenland from Iceland. Bluefin tuna are very seldom found near Greenland, and there are no other scientific reports of them venturing that far north. The most recent report of a tuna anywhere near was a stranding in 1900, a long way south at Qaqortoq, on the south-western tip of Greenland.

Details of the find, during a cruise in August 2012 organised by the Center for Macroecology, Evolution and Climate at the University of Copenhagen, have now been published in the journal Global Change Biology.

Expanded range

The lead author, Professor Brian MacKenzie, said bluefin tuna usually search for prey in areas where surface temperatures are warmer than 11°C.

At the time of the catch, the Denmark Strait was unusually warm, and one of tuna’s preferred prey species, mackerel, had already expanded their range into the region.

Professor MacKenzie and his colleagues write: “Regional temperatures in August 2012 were historically high and contributed to a warming trend since 1985, when temperatures began to rise.

“The presence of bluefin tuna in this region is likely due to a combination of warm temperatures . . . and immigration of an important prey species to the region. We conclude that a cascade of climate change impacts is restructuring the food web in east Greenland waters.”

They say their data was too limited to estimate how many tuna came so far north, but because bluefins are a schooling species − with schools having from 10 to 100 individuals − and because the three tuna were caught in the same haul, it is likely there were many more present.

The report says: “Satellite imagery showing the spread of warm water from the south-east towards east Greenland suggests that recent warming and climate change may have opened a migration pathway from the European shelf towards Greenland for migratory species.”

It acknowledges that the fish may have swum to the Denmark Strait from the north-west Atlantic, and concludes: “Our results show that rising temperatures have been progressively leading a . . . trophic [high in the food chain] cascade into east Greenland waters via improved thermal conditions for migratory prey and predator species.”

New fishing quotas

Nobody knows why bluefin tuna disappeared from the waters near Denmark and in the Norwegian Sea during the 1960s, nor when they might return. But Iceland and Norway have been allocated new fishing quotas of 30 tonnes each for the species in 2014.

An adult bluefin tuna is typically 1.5m-2m long, but some have been as big as 4.5m and weighed 650 kg. The fish are highly prized for sushi, especially in Japan.

Further climate-related changes in distributions of commercial fish such as mackerel and herring will mean new fishery and ecosystem management plans are going to be needed, says the report’s co-author, Helle Siegstad, head of the Department for Fish and Shellfish at the Greenland Institute of Natural Resources.

The Denmark Strait tuna will be discussed at the annual science conference of the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea (ICES), which starts on 15 September in the Spanish coastal city of A Coruña. – Climate News Network

Doors open at Ban Ki-moon’s ‘Last Chance Saloon’

Doors open at Ban Ki-moon's 'Last Chance Saloon'

The UN secretary-general is attempting to prevent world leaders sleepwalking into disaster by asking them to make new pledges at a climate summit this month on cutting greenhouse gases.

LONDON, 3 September, 2014  It is widely acknowledged that the planet’s political leaders and its people are currently failing to take enough action to prevent catastrophic climate change.

Next year, at the United Nations climate change conference in Paris, representatives of all the world’s countries will be hoping to reach a new deal to cut greenhouse gases and prevent the planet overheating dangerously. So far, there are no signs that their leaders have the political will to do so.

To try to speed up the process, the UN secretary-general, Ban Ki-moon, has invited world leaders to UN headquarters in New York on 23 September for a grandly-named Climate Summit 2014.

He said at the last climate conference, in Warsaw last year, that he is deeply concerned about the lack of progress in signing up to new legally-binding targets to cut emissions.

If the summit is a success, then it means a new international deal to replace the Kyoto Protocol will be probable in late 2015 in Paris. But if world leaders will not accept new targets for cutting emissions, and timetables to achieve them, then many believe that political progress is impossible.

Danger threshold

Ban Ki-moon’s frustration about lack of progress is because politicians know the danger we are in, yet do nothing. World leaders have already agreed that there is no longer any serious scientific argument about the fact that the Earth is heating up and  if no action is taken  will exceed the 2°C danger threshold.

It is also clear, Ban Ki-moon says, that the technologies already exist for the world to turn its back on fossil fuels and cut emissions of greenhouse gases to a safe level.

What the major countries cannot agree on is how the burden of taking action should be shared among the world’s 196 nations.

Ban Ki-moon already has the backing of more than half the countries in the world for his plan. These are the most vulnerable to climate change, and most are already being seriously affected.

More than 100 countries are currently meeting in Apia, Samoa, at the third UN Conference on Small Island Developing States, which ends tomorrow. In their draft final statement, they note with “grave concern” that world leaders’ pledges on the mitigation of greenhouse gases will not save them from catastrophic sea level rise, droughts, and forced migration.

“We express profound alarm that emissions
of greenhouse gases continue to rise globally”

Many of them have long advocated a maximum temperature rise of 1.5°C to prevent disaster for the most vulnerable nations, such as the Marshall Islands and the Maldives.

The draft ministerial statement says: “Climate change is one of the greatest challenges of our time, and we express profound alarm that emissions of greenhouse gases continue to rise globally.

“We are deeply concerned that all countries, particularly developing countries, are vulnerable to the adverse impacts of climate change and are already experiencing an increase in such impacts, including persistent drought and extreme weather events, sea level rise, coastal erosion and ocean acidification, further threatening food security and efforts to eradicate poverty and achieve sustainable development.”

Devastating consequences

Speaking from Apia, Shirley Laban, the convenor of the Pacific Islands Climate Action Network, an NGO, said: “Unless we cut emissions now, and limit global warming to less than 1.5°C, Pacific communities will reap devastating consequences for generations to come. Because of pollution we are not responsible for, we are facing catastrophic threats to our way of life.”

She called on all leaders attending the UN Climate Summit in New York to “use this historic opportunity to inject momentum into the global climate negotiations, and work to secure an ambitious global agreement in 2015”.

This is a tall order for a one-day summit, but Ban Ki-moon is expecting a whole series of announcements by major nations of new targets to cut greenhouse gases, and timetables to reach them.

There are encouraging signs in that the two largest emitters – China and the US – have been in talks, and both agree that action is a must. Even the previously reluctant Republicans in America now accept that climate change is a danger.

It is not yet known how many heads of state will attend the summit in person, or how many will be prepared to make real pledges.

At the end of the summit, the secretary-general has said, he will sum up the proceedings. It will be a moment when many small island states and millions of people around the world will be hoping for better news.  Climate News Network

Food security faces growing pest advance

Food security faces growing pest advance

A world with more people will see more competition for food. Many of our competitors may not be human, because natural pests are spreading far and wide.

LONDON, 29 August 2014 - Coming soon to a farm near you: just about every possible type of pest that could take advantage of the ripening harvest in the nearby fields.

By 2050, according to new research in the journal Global Ecology and Biogeography, those opportunistic viruses, bacteria, fungi, blights, mildews, rusts, beetles, nematodes, flies, mites, spiders and caterpillars that farmers call pests will have saturated the world.

Wherever they can make a living, they will. None of this bodes well for food security in a world of nine billion people and increasingly rapid climate change.

Dan Bebber of the University of Exeter, UK,  and colleagues decided to look at the state of pest populations worldwide. They combed the literature to check the present status of 1,901 pests and pathogens and examined historical records of another 424 species. This research included the records made since 1822 by the agricultural development organization CABI.

Crop pests often emerge in one location, evolve and spread. That notorious potato pest the Colorado beetle, for instance, was first identified in the Rocky Mountains of the US in 1824.

Rising trend

The scientists reasoned that climate change and international traffic made transmission of pests across oceans and other natural barriers increasingly probable, and tried to arrive at a rate of spread.

They found that more than one in 10 of all pest types can already be found in half of the countries that grow the host plants on which these pests depend. Most countries reported around one fifth of the pests that could theoretically make their home there.

Australia, China, France, India, Italy, the UK and the USA already had more than half of all the pests that could flourish in those countries. The pests that attack those tropical staples yams and cassava can be found in one third of the countries that grow those crops.

This trend towards saturation has increased steadily since the 1950s. So if the trend continues at the rate it has done during the late 20th century, then by 2050 farmers in western Europe and the US, and Japan, India and China will face saturation point.

They will be confronted with potential attack from just about all the pests that, depending on the local climate and conditions, their maize, rice, bananas, potatoes, soybeans and other crops could support.

Early warning

“If crop pests continue to spread at current rates, many of the world’s biggest crop-producing nations will be inundated by the middle of the century, posing a grave threat to global food security,” Dr Bebber said.

Three kinds of tropical root knot nematode produce larvae that infect the roots of thousands of different plant species. A fungus called Blumeria graminis causes powdery mildew on wheat and other grains; and a virus called Citrus tristeza, first identified by growers in Spain and Portugal in the 1930s, had by 2000 reached 105 out of the 145 countries that grow oranges, lemons, limes and grapefruit.

Predictions such as these are intended to be self-defeating: they present a warning of what might happen if no steps are taken.

“By unlocking the potential to understand the distribution of crop pests and diseases, we’re moving one step closer to protecting our ability to feed a growing global population,” said Timothy Holmes, of CABI’s Plantwise knowledge bank, one of the authors. “The hope is to turn data into positive action.” - Climate News Network

Pre-history proof of climate’s see-saw sensitivity

Pre-history proof of climate’s see-saw sensitivity

Computer simulations reaching back deep into the last Ice Age have enabled scientists to put a historic perspective on how even small variations in the climate system can lead to dramatic temperature change.

LONDON, 24 August, 2014 − It doesn’t take much to change a planet’s climate – just a little shift in the Northern hemisphere glacial ice sheet and a bit more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. After that, the response is rapid. The tropical rain belt moves north and the southern hemisphere cools a bit, in some sort of bipolar see-saw response.

Sound familiar? It does, and it doesn’t. It all happened long before the internal combustion engine, or even the new Stone Age.

Researchers from the Alfred Wegener Institute’s Helmholtz Centre for Polar and Marine Research, Bremerhaven, the University of Bremen, Germany, and the University of Cardiff in the UK, report in Nature journal that they have made climate simulations that agree with observations of historical climate change that date back 800,000 years.

Long before the present alarms about global warming through the emission of carbon dioxide from fossil fuels, climate researchers were puzzled by the phenomenon of the Ice Ages and the “interglacials” that punctuated those long periods when the Arctic ice extended from the North Pole to the Atlantic coast of France, and over huge tracts of North America.

Vanished species

Mysteriously, and at great speed, the temperatures would rise by up to 10°C and the vast walls of ice would retreat. Lion, hyena and rhinoceros would invade the wild plains of what is now southern England, and now-vanished species of humans would hunt big game and gather fruit and seeds in the valleys and forests of Europe and America.

Since the end 10,000 years ago of the last ice age – itself a very rapid event – was the springboard for agriculture and civilisation, and eventually an Industrial Revolution based on fossil fuels, the story of climate change plays a powerful role in human history.

So any analysis of the tiny shifts in ice cover that seemed to trigger these dramatic, bygone events can be helpful in understanding the long story of the making of the modern world.

The researchers found a tentative scenario involving weak ocean currents, and prevailing winds that shifted the sea ice and allowed the oceans and atmosphere to exchange heat, pushing warmer water into the north-east Atlantic.

These changes precipitated a dramatic warming of the northern hemisphere in just a few decades, and the retreat of the glaciers for an extended period before the ice returned to claim much of the landmass again. But, overall, such changes tended to occur when sea levels reached a certain height.

“The rapid climate changes known in the scientific world as Dansgaard-Oeschger events were limited to a period of time from 110,000 to 23,000 years before the present,” said Xu Zhang, the report’s lead author.

“The abrupt climate changes did not take place at the extreme low sea levels, corresponding to the time of maximum glaciations 20,000 years ago, or at high sea levels such as those prevailing today. They occurred during periods of intermediate ice volume and intermediate sea levels”

Climate swings

Co-author Gerrit Lohmann, who leads the Wegener Institute’s palaeoclimate dynamics group, said: “Using the simulations performed with our climate model, we were able to demonstrate that the climate system can respond to small changes with abrupt climate swings.

“At medium sea levels, powerful forces − such as the dramatic acceleration of polar ice cap melting − are not necessary to result in abrupt climate shifts and associated drastic temperature changes.”

How much this tells anybody about modern climate change is open to debate. Right now, according to this line of evidence, the planet’s climate could be in one of its more stable phases of the Earth’s history.

But while the conditions for the kind of rapid change recorded in pre-history do not exist today, Prof Lohmann warns that “sudden climate changes cannot be excluded in the future”. – Climate News Network

‘Free riders’ undermine climate treaty hopes

‘Free riders’ undermine climate treaty hopes

Norwegian researchers warn that hopes of getting an effective agreement on climate control will slip further away unless key polluting countries get serious about emissions reductions – and face sanctions if they don’t comply.

LONDON, 23 August, 2014 − An effective treaty to reduce greenhouse gas emissions will probably remain elusive, according to a new research study, because the steps likely to win political agreement would be ineffective, while those that could produce results would be politically unfeasible..

In fact, the Norwegian researchers conclude, the world is actually further away from an effective climate agreement today than it was 15 years ago, when the Kyoto Protocol was adopted.

The research is the work of a team from the Centre for International Climate and Environmental Research – Oslo (Cicero) and Statistics Norway, the country’s Central Bureau of Statistics.

Slow progress

The key question the researchers asked was what conditions could achieve an international agreement that would substantially reduce global climate emissions, in view of the extremely slow progress in the UN negotiations. They concluded that there is little basis for optimism.

Professor Jon Hovi, of the University of Oslo and Cicero, headed the project. He says there are three essentials for a robust agreement:

  • It must include all key countries − in other words, all the major emitters.
  • It must require each member country to make substantial emissions cuts.
  • Member countries must actually comply with their commitments.

While emissions cuts benefit all countries, he says, each country must bear the full costs of cutting its own emissions. So each is sorely tempted to act as a “free rider” − to enjoy the gains from other countries’ cuts while ignoring its own obligations.

“Cutting emissions is expensive, and powerful interests in every country proffer arguments as to why that particular country should be exempted,” Professor Hovi explains. “This inclines the authorities of all countries to take decisions that make them free riders.”

The researchers identified five types of free rider. Some countries − the US, for example − never ratified the Kyoto Protocol. Others, such as Canada, ratified it but later withdrew.

Developing countries ratified the Protocol, but it did not require them to make any cuts. The countries of Eastern Europe also ratified Kyoto, but it cost them nothing as their transition from a centrally-planned economy to a market economy meant their economies could not afford to cause significant emissions anyway.

Finally, the team says, some of the countries that accepted relatively deep commitments under Kyoto may have failed to live up to it. The final compliance figures are not yet available.

“Each and every country must be certain
that the other countries are also doing their part.”

“We must eliminate free riding,” Professor Hovi says. “Each and every country must be certain that the other countries are also doing their part. It’s the only viable option.”

He thinks any country avoiding its treaty commitments must face consequences: “Free riding must be met with concrete sanctions. The question is what type of enforcement could conceivably work and, if such a system exists, would it be politically possible to implement it.”

He and his colleagues recommend financial deposits, administered by an international secretariat. At ratification, each country would deposit a significant amount of money, and continue to do so annually until the agreed emissions reductions start. The total amount deposited by each country should match the cost of its commitments.

At the end of the reduction period, those countries that had met their cuts targets would receive a full refund of their deposit, plus interest. Those that had failed to do so would forfeit part or all of it.

Practical problems

But Professor Hovi concedes that not only would there be several practical problems with such a scheme, but there is little chance that it would be adopted anyway, because strict enforcement of an agreement is not politically feasible.

The researchers say that some countries – such as the US – support international systems of enforcement that can safeguard compliance with an agreement. “At the same time, other key countries have stated a clear opposition to potent enforcement measures – either as a matter of principle or because they know that they will risk punishment,” Professor Hovi says.

“For example, China opposes mechanisms that entail international intervention in domestic affairs as a matter of principle. China is not even prepared to accept international monitoring of its own emissions.

“The UN principle of full consensus allows countries opposed to enforcement measures to prevail by using their veto right during negotiations.”

Governments will try to revive hopes that agreement can be reached on an effective climate treaty when the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) meets in Paris late in 2015. − Climate News Network