Sea urchins refine survival instincts as oceans change

Sea urchins refine survival instincts as oceans change

As climate change adds to the threat of extinction faced by many species, new research shows how sea urchins can adapt to the increasing temperature and levels of acidity in Antarctic waters.

LONDON, 17 December, 2014 − The sea urchins of the Southern Ocean could be safe from the threat of extinction. They may not enjoy global warming and the increasingly acid oceans, but new research indicates that they can adapt to climate change.

Researchers from the British Antarctic Survey and Bangor University in Wales − in what they describe as the largest study of its kind − collected 288 urchins of the species Sterechinus neumayeri from waters off the Antarctic Peninsula, carried them to Cambridge in the UK, and tested them in aquarium tanks over a two-year span, covering two full reproductive cycles.

During this time, they report in the Journal of Animal Ecology, they changed the water chemistry and turned up the temperature. The environment was made less alkaline and the thermometer notched up another 2°C − which are the conditions sea creatures could expect by 2100 if the world goes on burning fossil fuels and pumping greenhouse gases under the notorious business-as-usual scenario.

Intricate network

Research like this matters because it helps scientists to better understand the intricate network of environmental conditions that underwrite life on the planet, and because it provides answers to one of the big questions of climate change: how will it affect the estimated seven million species with whom humans share the planet?

According to the journal Nature, the lowest estimate is that 10 species become extinct every week, and the number could be as high as 690 a week. The uncertainty is an indicator of how little is known about the diversity of life on the planet.

The oceans, in particular, have been hard hit by human action. Other marine survival studies have not been encouraging: ocean acidification promises to be very bad news for corals, and therefore for the rich and diverse communities that depend on coral reefs. It also offers a survival threat to bivalves that exploit ocean chemistry to build protective shells.

Other experiments have shown that it can affect the survival behaviour of fish, and can even affect the lugworms that anglers favour as bait for fish.

But the news from the laboratory aquarium in Cambridge is encouraging. It took the sea urchins six to eight months to acclimatise and adjust to the new acidity levels and temperature − but they survived.

Artificial insemination experiments suggested that the urchins could spawn successfully under the new conditions, but to be sure of this, the researchers need more time. Antarctic invertebrates mature very slowly and sea urchins could live for 40 years or more.

“With predictions of warmer, more acidic waters in the future, this work shows how resilient these animals are to climate change,” said Melody Clark, project leader for the Adaptations and Physiology Group at the British Antarctic Survey.

“It also emphasises the importance of conducting long-term experiments in making accurate predictions. These animals live a long time, and so they do everything really slowly. They take around eight months to get used to new conditions, and two years to produce gonads (sexual organs). If we had stopped this experiment at three or even six months, we would have got very different results.”

Change habitat

Sea urchins cannot easily change their habitat: they must adapt or perish. But four-legged, warm-blooded terrestrial creatures have another option. In another instance of long-term research, scientists have established that small mountain mammals are prepared to move uphill as the climate warms.

Karen Rowe, biodiversity research fellow at Museum Victoria in Melbourne, Australia, and colleagues report in Proceedings of the Royal Society that they looked at records of observations of small mammals, made between 1911 and 1934 at 166 sites in the Californian mountains. Then, between 2003 and 2010, they surveyed the same species in the same locations.

Warmer winters are bad for hibernating mammals such as the chipmunk. Image: Vlad Lazarenko via Wikimedia Commons

Warmer winters are bad for hibernating mammals such as the chipmunk.
Image: Vlad Lazarenko via Wikimedia Commons

Altogether, they looked at 30,000 observations that recorded the foraging and breeding ranges of 34 species of chipmunk, gopher, pika, shrew, deer mouse, woodrat and squirrel at altitudes that varied from sea level to about 4,000 metres.

Moving uphill

Since the first, historic set of systematic measurements, the average temperatures in the region have climbed by 0.6°C, and many mammals have shifted their range accordingly – by moving uphill.

The pattern wasn’t consistent, but the researchers identified a problem for those animals that normally hibernate: warmer winters could be very bad news for creatures adapted to the chillier mountain slopes. And those animals that live at the highest altitudes might soon have nowhere to go.

“While mammals can avoid heat stress by behavioural means (such as shifting daily activity), warming winters lead to increased energy expenditures for hibernators and reduce the snow layer, which acts as insulation for non-hibernators,” they conclude.

“Global climate projections suggest that disappearing climates will be an increasing challenge for predicting future species’ responses.” – Climate News Network

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Climate change’s threat of space centre invasion

Climate change's threat of space centre invasion

Rising sea levels and repeated storm damage to natural coastal defences pose an increasing threat to the famous Cape Canaveral rocket launch site in Florida.

LONDON, 15 December, 2014 − Climate change has begun to make its mark on one of America’s most iconic sites – the Kennedy Space Centre at Cape Canaveral in Florida.

Within a decade, according to geologists, the combination punch of rising sea levels and increasing wave energy could start to affect operations at the site where, more than five decades ago, astronauts were launched towards a landing on the Moon.

Peter Adams and John Jaeger, of the University of Florida, have since 2009 been studying the dunes and the beach at Cape Canaveral that historically screened the launch site from even the worst tropical storms.

These dunes were levelled in 2008 during Tropical Storm Fay, in 2011 during Hurricane Irene, and again in 2012 during Hurricane Sandy.

Washed away

Storm waves repeatedly covered a stretch of railroad track built by the US space agency NASA during the 1960s. The line is no longer used, and part of it has been removed to make room for a protective man-made dune. NASA’s own prediction in 2010 was that the line could be permanently breached by 2016.

Hurricane Sandy, the superstorm  that brought catastrophic flooding to New York and caused damage along almost all the US Atlantic seaboard, washed away a section of Cape Canaveral shoreline so close to a US Air Force launch pad that the surrounding fence was left near collapse.

“When you put immovable infrastructure right next to a dynamic environment, something has to give”

Coastal erosion is an enduring fact of life, but during the 1960s the Cape seemed a secure site for one of the great 20th-century adventures.

The two geologists, working as partners with NASA and the US Geological Survey, began looking at a problem that seemed to have been getting worse since 2004: chronic erosion of a six-mile stretch between the two launch pads used for the Apollo missions and space shuttle launches.

According to Dr Adams, the slow rise in sea levels and the increased energy of the ocean’s storm waves – both symptoms of global warming – are almost certainly to blame. He said: “Is it affecting NASA’s infrastructure? The answer’s yes.”

Although man-made dunes will protect the site for the immediate future, the space agency has already spoken of a “managed retreat”. And Dr Jaeger  said: “When you put immovable infrastructure right next to a dynamic environment, something has to give.”

Evidence of flooding

As a coastal facility, Cape Canaveral is naturally vulnerable to hurricanes, which tend to lose their energy as they hit the coasts. But University of Iowa scientists report in the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society that they have found evidence of flooding by tropical cyclones as far inland as Iowa, in the Midwest.

Gabriele Villarini, a civil and environmental engineer, found the evidence in 30 years’ worth of discharge records from more than 3,000 US Geological Survey stream measurement stations.

Between 1981 and 2011, the US was hit by more than 100 tropical cyclones or hurricanes that did their worst damage at the coast, but could also be linked with major flooding far inland.

“Our results indicate that flooding from tropical cyclones affects large areas of the US and the Midwest, as far inland as Illinois, Wisconsin and Michigan,” Villarini said. – Climate News Network

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Scientists hammer out warning on climate change risks

Scientists hammer out warning on climate change risks

A group of international experts says time is rapidly running out to take serious steps to avert the impacts of global warming by prioritising a switch to clean energy systems.

LONDON, 4 December, 2014 − The all-too-familiar story of ice loss in the world’s polar regions, repeated over and over by researchers in the last two years, is being told yet again – this time for the benefit of delegates at the UN climate change conference currently being held in Lima, Peru.

A report in Earth’s Future journal by distinguished scientists from an international group called Earth League aims to remind the delegates that time is running out to avert the serious impacts of climate change.

Each summer, most of the surface of Greenland now starts to melt – and to darken, which means it absorbs more light, and becomes increasingly more likely to go on melting.

The same thing is happening in the Arctic Ocean, where open sea is now absorbing radiation that would once have been reflected by sea ice.

Irreversible melting

In West Antarctica, a warming ocean has begun to advance, and the glacial ice to retreat, which means more loss of ice, and more warming, and more retreat. With this retreat comes the first sign of irreversible melting in some parts of the ice sheet.

The snows of the Greenland ice sheet alone hold enough water to raise sea levels by seven metres or more. But the retreat of the ice in the Arctic quite literally opens up new territory for another feedback: as permafrost thaws it will release tens of thousands of years of stored carbon, to stoke up greenhouse gas levels and trigger yet more warming.

There is still a chance that humanity can take steps and limit global average temperature rise to 2°C, but the current rates of greenhouse gas emissions could push temperatures to an average of 4°C or more above the averages at the start of the Industrial Revolution by the end of the century.

“Our climate would be as different from pre-industrial conditions as it was when the Earth began to emerge from the last ice age”

“If this occurs,” the Earth League scientists warn, “our climate would be as different from pre-industrial conditions as it was when the Earth began to emerge from the last ice age some 18,000 to 20,000 years ago.”

They add:  “Considerable risks, with potentially serious impacts, are already expected at 1°C to 2°C warming, which will require large investments in adaptation.”

If the temperatures rise beyond the 2°C target, societies will experience increasing risks from extreme events, along with other changes that could make several parts of the world “susceptible to extremely high social and economic costs.

This includes risks to global food production, freshwater supply and quality, significant sea level rise, changes in disease patterns and possibly higher risk of pandemics.”

All this, too, has been said before. But the fact that a group of scholars, economists, geographers and meteorologists from distinguished universities, institutes, academies and laboratories in Europe, the US, Mexico, Brazil and India felt the need to say it once more, with feeling, is an indicator of the urgency of the problem.

Greater risk

As things stand, they say, there is a 30% probability that global average temperatures will exceed 2°C by the end of the century. This is a risk “much greater than we normally accept for other potentially dangerous societal risks, such as nuclear power generation, terrorism, and human health epidemics”.

The report’s authors point out that change is possible, and that a global energy revolution has already begun. Energy demand is many developed countries is falling, and renewable energy use increasing.

“The world may be approaching a point,” they say, “where the technological feasibility and economic benefits clearly tip in favour of a large-scale transition to an economy powered by clean and efficient energy.”

However, they warn that these changes can only happen “by prioritising access to cheap modern energy systems and higher mitigation requirements on richer nations who have caused the bulk of CO2 emissions from fossil fuels so far”. – Climate News Network

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Ocean heat drives surge to global warming record

Ocean heat drives surge to global warming record

Climate scientists say this year looks likely to enter the record books as the world’s hottest, with the warming of the oceans causing striking changes.

LONDON, 3 December 2014 − It’s official, even though it won’t be conclusive for a few months yet: if present trends continue, 2014 will be one of the hottest years on record − and quite possibly the hottest of them all.

Preliminary estimates by the World Meteorological Organisation (WMO) − published to provide information to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change annual round of negotiations, currently being held in Lima, Peru − show this year is set to be a record breaker largely because of record high global sea surface temperatures.

These, combined with other factors, helped to cause exceptionally heavy rainfall and floods in many countries and extreme drought in others.

Christiana Figueres, executive secretary of the Convention, said: “Our climate is changing, and every year the risks of extreme weather events and impacts on humanity rise.”

Above normal

It is the warming of the oceans − which the WMO says “will very likely remain above normal until the end of the year” − that is chiefly perplexing the scientists.

The WMO’s provisional statement − to be finalised in March next year − on the Status of the Global Climate in 2014 shows that the global average air temperature over the land and sea surface from January to October was about 0.57°C above the average of 14°C for the 1961-1990 reference period, and 0.09°C above the average for 2004 to 2013.

If November and December follow the same trend, the WMO says, then 2014 will probably be the hottest on record, ahead of 2010, 2005 and 1998. This confirms the underlying long-term warming trend.

“The provisional information for 2014 means that 14 of the 15 warmest years on record have all occurred in the 21st century,” said the WMO secretary-general, Michel Jarraud. “There is no standstill in global warming.

“Record-breaking heat, combined with torrential rainfall and floods, destroyed livelihoods
and ruined lives”

“What we saw in 2014 is consistent with what we expect from a changing climate. Record-breaking heat, combined with torrential rainfall and floods, destroyed livelihoods and ruined lives. What is particularly unusual and alarming this year are the high temperatures of vast areas of the ocean surface, including in the northern hemisphere.

“Record-high greenhouse gas emissions and associated atmospheric concentrations are committing the planet to a much more uncertain and inhospitable future.”

Weather patterns

The high January to October temperatures occurred in the absence of a full El Niño-Southern Oscillation (ENSO). An ENSO occurs when warmer than average sea-surface temperatures in the eastern tropical Pacific combine, in a self-reinforcing loop, with atmospheric pressure systems, affecting weather patterns globally.

Among the remarkable features of 2014’s first 10 months are land surface temperatures. The WMO says they averaged about 0.86°C above the 1961-1990 average, the fourth or fifth warmest for the same period on record.

Global sea-surface temperatures were unequivocally the highest on record, at about 0.45°C above the 1961-1990 average. Temperatures were particularly high in the northern hemisphere from June to October for reasons, the WMO notes, that “are subject to intense scientific investigation”.

The ocean heat content for January to June was estimated to depths of 700m and 2000m, and both were the highest recorded. Around 93% of the excess energy trapped in the atmosphere by greenhouse gases from fossil fuels and other human activities ends up in the oceans, so the heat they contain is essential to understanding the climate system.

The early part of 2014 saw global-average measured sea level reach a record high for the time of year. Arctic sea-ice extent was the sixth lowest on record, according to the National Snow and Ice Data Centre, in the US, but Antarctic daily sea ice reached a new record for the third consecutive year.

Some impressively anomalous rainfall and floods made 2014 a year to forget as fast as possible. The UK winter was the wettest on record, with 177% of the long-term average precipitation. In May, devastating floods in south-east Europe affected more than two million people, and in Russia, in late May and early June, more than twice the monthly average precipitation fell in parts of southern Siberia.

In September, southern parts of the Balkan peninsula received over 250% of the monthly average rainfall, while parts of Turkey had more than 500%. Heavy rains caused severe flooding in northern Bangladesh, northern Pakistan and India, affecting millions of people.

Searing drought

In contrast, parts of north-east China, large areas of the western US, Australia, and Brazil experienced searing drought.

But the incidence of tropical storms and cyclones recorded was lower than the 1981-2010 average in much of the world.

The WMO Global Atmosphere Watch Programme shows that atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide (CO2), methane (CH4), and nitrous oxide (N2O) reached new highs in 2013  − the most recent data processed to date.

Globally-averaged atmospheric levels of CO2 reached 396.0 parts per million (ppm), approximately 142% of the pre-industrial average. The increase from 2012 to 2013 was 2.9 ppm, the largest year to year increase.

Atmospheric CH4 concentrations reached a new high of 1,824 parts per billion (ppb) in 2013, about 253% of the pre-industrial level, and concentrations of N2O reached 325.9 ± 0.1 ppb, a rise of 121%. − Climate News Network

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Hi-tech mirror is cool new answer to air con problem

Hi-tech mirror is cool new answer to air con problem

As extremes of heat increasingly threaten to become the norm, scientists have invented a new way to reflect sunlight and beam heat away from buildings straight back into space.

LONDON, 1 December, 2014 − A new material – and a new science called nanophotonics – could offer a revolutionary way to cool down the baking cities of tomorrow.

Climate scientists have repeatedly warned that greater extremes of heat will become the norm, and also that as temperatures rise to potentially dangerous levels, the energy costs of new air conditioning investment will significantly feed back into yet more global warming.

But Aaswath Raman, research associate in the Ginzton Laboratory at Stanford University, California, reports with colleagues in Nature journal that seven layers of hafnium oxide and silicon dioxide on a roof could do something very surprising.

Release warmth

They could directly reflect 97% of the sunlight away from the building, and at the same time release warmth in exactly the right infrared frequency to pass through the Earth’s atmosphere as if it wasn’t there.

In outdoor daytime tests that lasted for five hours, the temperatures in the structure below the new material fell to 4.9°C below the temperatures outside. And this effect was achieved without any use of electricity.

This new technique, which the scientists call photonic radiative cooling, could offer new ways of preserving food, chilling vaccines and saving lives in impoverished tropical regions far from any electrical supply.

“What we’ve done is create a way that should allow us to use the coldness of the universe as a heat sink during the day”

Carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases absorb infrared light, and thus store heat from fossil fuels − but not at the wavelengths of between 8 and 13 micrometres.

Since this “transparency window” in the atmosphere can be exploited to radiate the heat directly into space, the authors say: “The cold darkness of the universe can be used as a renewable thermodynamic resource, even during the hottest hours of the day.”

The relatively new science of new materials – and the unexpected properties of old materials when made in layers only a few atoms thick – continues to surprise.

The science has already delivered photovoltaic cells that turn light directly into current, smart metals that can detect their own fractures, and also water-repelling fabrics that stay permanently clean.

The Stanford researchers started with layers of hafnium oxide – an inert material already used in semiconductors and optical coatings – and silicon dioxide, a compound also known as silica or quartz, and widely used both in microelectronics and as a food additive.

Unexpected properties

From these, they were able to fashion, on a thin silver base, an ultrathin film that carried with it two unexpected properties: it was a near-perfect reflector of visible light, and an efficient emitter for infrared light. The fabric is just 1.8 microns thick – a micron is a millionth of a metre – and could be sprayed onto structures.

There are problems yet to be solved. The first practical one is how to get the heat from inside the building into its new, super-efficient exterior coating. The second is to find ways to make the stuff in industrial quantities, and then work out how to use it most effectively. But it offers a new way of thinking about energy efficiency.

“Every object that produces heat has to dump that heat into a heat sink,” said Professor Shanhui Fan, Stanford scientist and one of the report’s authors. “What we’ve done is create a way that should allow us to use the coldness of the universe as a heat sink during the day.” – Climate News Network

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Bronze Age lost its cutting edge before climate crisis

Bronze Age lost its cutting edge before climate crisis

Archaeologists claim to have unearthed evidence in Ireland that it was the rising power of iron, not climate change, that brought about the collapse of many ancient civilizations.

LONDON, 23 November, 2014 − Climate change – so often and so recently coupled with the decline of early civilizations in the Near East, the Indus Valley and the Mediterranean – may not have ushered in the collapse of the late Bronze Age after all.

A new study suggests that Bronze Age cultures everywhere collapsed not because of sustained drought or flooding, but because of technological change. The gradual spread of iron foundries and smithies, they say, undermined the economic strengths of those centres with monopolies on the production of, and trade in, copper and tin − the elements in the alloy bronze.

Ian Armit, an archaeologist at the University of Bradford in the UK, and colleagues base their argument on careful studies of ancient climate, using a combination of pollen data and other evidence, plus 2,000 precision-dated archaeological finds from Ireland, from between 1200 BC and 400 AD. This evidence tells a different, but equally familiar, story.

Went wrong

They report in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that although there was indeed a climate crisis around 750 BC – an event linked to the end of the cultures associated with Knossos in Crete and Mycenae in the Peloponnese – things had started to go wrong two generations or more before.

There had been a clear peak in human activity between 1050 and 900BC, followed by a steady decline and then a rapid fall between 800 AD and 750BC. Since copper was mined in Ireland – and alloyed with tin from Britain to make bronze – the Celtic populations of the place and time enjoyed high socio-economic status and power.

“The impact of climate change on humans is a huge concern today as we monitor rising temperatures”

They were involved in international trade, and at the heart of a global culture. Bronze, both literally and metaphorically, gave the Irish of the time a cutting edge. Such power and status started to evaporate with the advance of iron smithies. Copper and tin are relatively rare metals, but iron is found almost everywhere.

“Our evidence shows definitively that the population decline in this period cannot have been caused by climate change,” Professor Armit concludes.

But he says that the switch to increasingly rainier conditions in Ireland in 750 BC would have had its own impact. “It is likely that poor climatic conditions would have affected farming. This would have been particularly difficult for vulnerable communities, preventing population recovery for several centuries.”

Archaeology is a combative science: the evidence is preserved only precariously and a new discovery can, and often does, change the picture.

Contributing factor

Written records are fragmentary, interpretations open to dispute, and artefacts are often difficult to date. So reconstructions of the distant past are always tentative, and other groups have been careful to “link” or “associate” climate change with historical conflict. Climate would be a contributing factor, not necessarily a prime cause.

But the British scientists argue that, on the evidence from Ireland, a global bronze age civilization was coming to an end for reasons that were ahead of, and independent of, drought or flood, heat waves or sustained cold.

Professor Armit says: “The impact of climate change on humans is a huge concern today as we monitor rising temperatures globally.

“Often, in examining the past, we are inclined to link evidence of climate change with evidence of population change. Actually, if you have high-quality data and apply modern analytical techniques, you get a much clearer picture and start to see the real complexity of human/environment relationships in the past.” – Climate News Network

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Iron’s mixed blessing for health of oceans

Iron’s mixed blessing for health of oceans

New research shows that iron fertilisation stimulates growth of the plankton that help transport carbon dioxide to the deep ocean – but swells the number of small creatures who feed on plankton and whose shells put CO2 back into the atmosphere.

LONDON, 16 November, 2014 − Technology’s answer to climate change in a world in which humans go on releasing carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has just had another setback. The idea of fertilising the planet’s oceans with iron filings to stimulate green growth and turn the oceans into a carbon sink isn’t so simple as hoped.

Two studies – both involving experiments at sea – have confirmed that trace elements such as iron affect plankton growth, and that more iron can mean more carbon dioxide exported to the sea bed in the form of dead and buried life forms. But new research in Nature Geoscience shows that the story is more complex.

Ian Salter, bioscience researcher at the Alfred Wegener Institute’s Helmholtz Centre for Polar and Marine Research, Germany, and colleagues report that they took a closer look at what happens around the Crozet Islands in the Southern Ocean − basaltic islands that deliver a steady natural supply of iron to the surrounding waters.

Carbon pumped

More iron meant more phytoplankton, which meant that more carbon was pumped into deeper waters. But more phytoplankton also meant more little creatures such as foraminifera, which graze on phytoplankton, and then make shells of calcium carbonate − a process that puts carbon dioxide back into the atmosphere.

Dr Salter and his colleagues estimate that the carbonate manufacture in waters naturally fertilised by iron reduced the overall amount of carbon transferred to the deep ocean by between 6% and 32%, whereas in waters not fertilised by iron, the reduction was 1% to 4%. So added iron might make the phytoplankton grow, but it also soups up the return of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere.

The finding is not conclusive. It doesn’t settle the question of whether the presence of trace iron ultimately assists the removal of more carbon from the atmosphere in the long term.

It also doesn’t answer questions about how things might work in warmer waters, and doesn’t offer a guide to the overall effect of iron deliberately added to waters where the phytoplankton don’t bloom in profusion.

“We are in the middle of an experiment we cannot reverse, but which we still don’t understand . . .”

But it does provide a snapshot of science in action, and is yet another reminder that the climate system – and especially the traffic in carbon between rock, water, air and living tissue – is immensely complex, and still puzzling.

And if that wasn’t already clear, new research in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences confirms that there is a lot more to be learned about the role of oceans in climate science.

Researchers report that ocean temperatures have been far more variable over the last 7,000 years than anyone had realised.

Thomas Laepple, a climate scientist at the Alfred Wegener Institute, and Peter Huybers, Professor of Earth and Planetary Sciences at Harvard University, US, combed the climate archives, examined indirect evidence from sediment cores and corals and other sources, and reconstructed sea surface temperatures in a range of different locations over a period of thousands of years.

Then they picked 20 climate models and conducted more than 100 test runs to see if they could simulate the same pronounced fluctuations in ocean temperatures in the same places over the same timescale

Greater discrepancies

They could − but only for short periods. The longer the time sequence, the greater the discrepancies. Over timescales of a thousand years, the models underestimated the variations by a factor of 50.

“Fundamentally, there are only two explanations,” Dr Laepple says. “Either the climate archives do not provide reliable temperature data, or the climate models underestimate the variability of the climate. Or both may be true to some extent.”

Neither finding suggests that climate scientists don’t know what they are doing. In fact, quite the reverse: researchers are establishing just what they can be sure about, and what remains uncertain.

Nor does either finding suggest that long-term alarm over the consequences of increasing levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide is based on uncertain science.

Dr Laepple says: “We are in the middle of an experiment we cannot reverse, but which we still don’t understand well enough to make clear statements at the regional level on longer timescales. Unfortunately, we will just have to continue with this uncertainty for some time.” – Climate News Network

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Scientist acts out dramatic effect of climate change

Scientist acts out dramatic effect of climate change

A spellbinding solo performance by veteran climate scientist Chris Rapley puts the climate debate centre stage – and earns the admiration of London theatre critics.

LONDON, 11 November, 2014 − Climate science has just made cultural history – yet again. Following on from the sci-fi blockbuster The Day After Tomorrow and the Al Gore documentary movie An Inconvenient Truth, research has got personal and turned into a five-star dramatic soliloquy on the London stage.

Chris Rapley is a professor of climate science at University College London, a former director of the British Antarctic Survey, a former director of the Science Museum in London − and now, unexpectedly, an actor on the stage of the historic Royal Court theatre.

He is the star and only member of the dramatis personae of 2071, a play named after the date at which, he says, his eldest grandchild will be the age he is now. He has collaborated with playwright Duncan Macmillan, and with Katie Mitchell, a director with a track record of interest in the hard themes of humanity’s future on Earth.

No physical action

The performance, however, could almost be called anti-theatre. There is no conflict, no violence, and there is − beyond the discreet waving of a hand or the re-positioning of a leg − almost no physical action at all. The actor Rapley sits in one place, with only a glass of water as a prop, and embarks on a monologue.

Furthermore, it is in one sense an anti-dramatic monologue, sounding in many ways remarkably like a procession of extracts from the abstracts of scientific papers, or the executive summary of any number of publications of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

There are few concessions to popular language: the diction and choice of terminology is of the kind you tend to hear at science briefings.

The difference is that it is gently and intelligently glossed − so cryosphere and lithosphere are identified as the worlds of ice and rock within a second of utterance.

The story unfolds calmly enough, with a kind of curriculum vitae of the actor, then a history of climate, then a history of climate research, and then the conclusions. It is the slow build-up to an alarming set of possibilities in a swift-changing world, with a time interval for action that is diminishing rapidly.

It ought not to work. But for this Climate News Network reporter, it does work − yet another spellbinding testament to that wonderful mix of space, lighting, darkness, silence, muted music, measured words and eager audience that we call theatre.

Emotive topic

Some critics and theatergoers will, inevitably, have reservations. Time Out magazine found its lack of theatricality “not a bad thing: sobriety feels important when tackling such an emotive topic”. The London Evening Standard took a cooler approach: “He lets the data speak for itself. But the approach feels too dry.”

But first responses were warm. There was a generous welcome from the Daily Telegraph, and Michael Billington – a distinguished dramatic critic who has declared his enthusiasm for theatre as a political instrument − gave it the highest rating of all in The Guardian: five stars.

His only complaint is that there is no printed text, as there is a lot of information delivered in a performance that lasts hardly more than 70 minutes.

But Billington writes: “If we look to theatre to increase our awareness of the human condition, the production succeeds on all counts.” And he ends unequivocally: “It is better than good. It is necessary.” − Climate News Network

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Why warnings on climate spark aggressive denials

Why warnings on climate spark aggressive denials

A new book argues that death threats and abuse illustrate how climate change messengers are being demonised in a way that is without parallel in the history of science.

LONDON, 8 November, 2014 − If you don’t like the message on climate change, it seems that the answer is to shoot the messenger.

According to a new book by veteran environmentalist George Marshall, thousands of abusive emails − including demands that he commit suicide or be “shot, quartered and fed to the pigs, along with your family” – were received by climate scientist Michael Mann, director of Pennsylvania State University’s Earth System Science Centre, who drew and published the “hockey stick graph”  that charts a steep rise in global average temperatures.

Glenn Beck, a commentator on Fox TV, called on climate scientists to commit suicide. A climate denial blogger called Marc Morano claimed that one group of climate scientists deserved “to be publicly flogged”. And the late Stephen Schneider found his name and that of other Jewish climate scientists on a “death list” maintained by an American neo-Nazi website.

Very strange

As Marshall points out in his absorbing, all-embracing, immensely readable book, Don’t Even Think About It: Why Our Brains are Wired to Ignore Climate Change, something very strange is going on.

Louis Pasteur’s revolutionary microbiology work on disease prevention never resulted in him having to think about how to use a gun. Jonas Salk never needed to fortify his house as result of working on the development of a polio vaccine.

Other scientists are trusted and respected. But the way climate scientists are now treated, Marshall argues, is without parallel in the history of science: “They have been set up to play that role in a climate storyline that, it would seem, cannot refute climate change without demonising the people who warn us about it.”

Forget, if you can, the people who seem to be whipping up these furious responses. Climate change can only be met or mitigated by action − and there are plenty of reasons why a very large number of people nod in agreement about what must be done and then fail to insist that it is done.

Dan Gilbert, a psychologist who won the Royal Society’s science book prize in 2007 with an examination of the puzzles of happiness, says that climate change is something unlikely to strike fear in the human heart anyway. It is impersonal, it is gradual, it is amoral, and it isn’t – or doesn’t seem to be – happening now.

“A distant, abstract, and disputed threat just doesn’t have the necessary characteristics for seriously mobilising public opinion”

Other researchers have pointed out the alarming tendency, shared by all humans, to believe what they want to believe. Furthermore, climate change is not (death threats and public flogging fantasies aside) an immediate or an emotional issue. “A distant, abstract, and disputed threat just doesn’t have the necessary characteristics for seriously mobilising public opinion,” says the Nobel laureate, Daniel Kahneman.

There are other difficulties. When, for instance, will the awful things start to happen? How do you mobilise public opinion on an argument with uncertain timescales, imprecise outcomes and real puzzles about the costs and benefits of any actions? No one, Marshall says, is ever going to march under a banner of that says “100 months before the Odds Shift into a Greater Likelihood of Feedbacks”.

Marshall founded the Climate Outreach and Information Network (COIN), based in Oxford, England. He is a veteran of Greenpeace and the Rainforest Foundation, and there isn’t much doubt about what he thinks and knows to be true.

But the appeal of this book is that he lets others talk. He examines the political doublethink that seems to infect some legislatures in the US. He listens to the sceptics, the worriers, the oil giants, the conspiracy theorists, the celebrity environmental campaigners, and the other ones who invoke imagery of death, fever and smoking ruin.

And he refers to the University of Oxford’s Future of Humanity Institute, which polled academic experts on global risk, and found an estimate of a “19 per cent probability that the human species will go extinct before the end of the century”.

Altruistic behaviour

The title, direction and burden of this book seem to augur almost apocalyptic failure to confront the coming crisis. But, of course, Marshall pulls out an ace near the end.

He concludes that while human brains may be hard-wired to not worry about what may or may not happen in two generations, they also have an immense capacity for pro-social, supportive and altruistic behaviour.

“Climate change is entirely within our capacity for change,” he says, “It is challenging, but far from impossible.”

That is good to know. And the book ends with some serious advice about how to make the case for action – and instead of capital punishment, we get generously shouty advice in capital letters. CLIMATE CHANGE IS HAPPENING HERE AND NOW, he reminds us. And he urges campaigners to DROP THE ECO-STUFF, especially the polar bears.

Marshall suggests that we really do try to contain global average warming to 2°C. He quotes John Schellnhuber, director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, who told the Australians: “The difference between two and four degrees is human civilisation.” And, yes, do think about it. – Climate News Network

  • Don’t Even Think About It: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Ignore Climate Change, by George Marshall (Bloomsbury, price £20).

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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

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