Climate change is likely factor in Syria’s conflict

Climate change is likely factor in Syria’s conflict

Researchers say climate change probably caused the savage drought that affected Syria nearly a decade ago − and helped to spark the country’s current civil war. 

LONDON, 2 March, 2015 – In a dire chain of cause and effect, the drought that devastated parts of Syria from 2006 to 2010 was probably the result of climate change driven by human activities, a new study says.

And the study’s authors think that the drought may also have contributed to the outbreak of Syria’s uprising in 2011.

The drought, which was the worst ever recorded in the region, ravaged agriculture in the breadbasket region of northern Syria, driving dispossessed farmers to the cities where poverty, government mismanagement and other factors created the unrest that exploded four years ago. The conflict has left at least 200,000 people dead, and has displaced millions of others.

The study, by scientists from Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory at Columbia University, US, is published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The authors are quite clear that the climatic changes were human-driven (anthropogenic) and cannot be attributed simply to natural variability, but are careful to stress that their findings are tentative.

“We’re not saying the drought caused the war,” says Richard Seager, one of the co-authors. “We’re saying that, added to all the other stressors, it helped kick things over the threshold into open conflict.

“And a drought of that severity was made much more likely by the ongoing human-driven drying of that region.”

Link with violence

Their study, although it contains new material, is not the first to suggest a possible link between extreme weather and the likelihood of violence.

Some researchers have investigated whether there may be a link between El Niño and La Niña − the periodic Pacific weather disruptions − and outbreaks of unrest.

Syria was not the only country affected by the drought. It struck the Fertile Crescent, linking Turkey, Syria and Iraq, where agriculture and animal herding are believed to have started around 12,000 years ago.

Suggestions of a global connection between climate change and political instability is being taken seriously by two influential groups − insurers and military planners.

The Levant has always seen natural weather swings. Other research has suggested that the Akkadian empire, spanning much of the Fertile Crescent about 4,000 years ago, probably collapsed during a long drought.

Drought can lead to devastating consequences when coupled with pre-existing acute vulnerability

But the authors of the Lamont-Doherty study, using existing studies and their own research, showed that the area has warmed by between 1°C and 1.2°C since 1900, and has undergone a 10% reduction in wet-season precipitation.

They say this trend is a neat match for models of human-influenced global warming, and so cannot be attributed to natural variability.

Global warming has had two effects, they say. First, it appears to have indirectly weakened wind patterns that bring rain-laden air from the Mediterranean, reducing precipitation during the usual November-April wet season. And higher temperatures have increased the evaporation of moisture from soils during the hot summers.

The authors say an episode of this severity and length would have been unlikely without the long-term changes.

Other researchers have observed the long-term drying trend across the Mediterranean region, and have attributed at least part of it to anthropogenic warming.

The researchers say Syria was especially vulnerable because of other factors − including a huge increase in population from four million in the 1950s to 22 million in recent years.

Water-intensive crops

The government has also encouraged water-intensive export crops such as cotton, while illegal drilling of irrigation wells depleted groundwater, says co-author Shahrzad Mohtadi, an international affairs consultant at the US Department of State.

The drought’s effects were immediate and overwhelming. Agricultural production − typically, a quarter of Syria‘s gross domestic product − fell by a third. In the northeast, livestock was practically wiped out, cereal prices doubled, and nutrition-related diseases among children increased steeply.

As many as 1.5 million people fled from the countryside to cities already strained by waves of refugees from the war in neighbouring Iraq.

“Rapid demographic change encourages instability,” the authors say. “Whether it was a primary or substantial factor is impossible to know, but drought can lead to devastating consequences when coupled with pre-existing acute vulnerability.”

Solomon Hsiang, professor of public policy at the University of California, Berkeley, says the study is “the first scientific paper to make the case that human-caused climate change is already altering the risk of large-scale social unrest and violence”. – Climate News Network

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Seeing is believing: scientists trace greenhouse effect

Seeing is believing as scientists trace greenhouse effect

High-precision field instruments in the US have provided the first real-time “action shots” of the increasing impact of CO2 on global warming.

LONDON, 28 February, 2015 − Government scientists in the US say they have directly observed for the first time the greenhouse effect in action, while monitoring the way carbon dioxide in the Earth’s atmosphere absorbed increasing amounts of thermal radiation from the surface.

Their measurements, taken over a period of 11 years in Alaska and Oklahoma, confirm predictions made more than 100 years ago, and repeatedly examined: there is a greenhouse effect, and the greenhouse gas that most helps the world warm is carbon dioxide.

The phenomenon is known in climate science shorthand as radiative forcing, which happens when the Earth absorbs more energy from solar radiation than it emits as thermal radiation back into space.

The sun shines through the greenhouse gases as if they were glass, and warms the rocks. The rocks emit infra-red waves, but the transparent gases now keep the heat in, as if they formed the glass roof of a greenhouse.

Radiative forcing

Although this radiative forcing has been assessed, quantified, modelled, predicted and worried about, the scientists say this is the first time it has been formally tested outside, in the open air.

Daniel Feldman, geological project scientist at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California, and colleagues report in Nature that the increase in temperatures over the period adds up to two-tenths of one Watt per square metre per decade.

And this small notch in the thermometer record is linked to an increase of 22 parts per million in carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere in the decade. Much of this extra CO2 comes from the burning of fossil fuels.

The finding is no surprise. For 30 years, climate scientists have recorded a steady average annual rise in planetary temperatures.

“We see, for the first time in the field, the amplification of the greenhouse effect because there’s more CO2 in the atmosphere . . .”

They expected it, and they predict that unless the world makes a switch from coal, oil and natural gas to solar, wind, water and wave energy, or biofuels, or nuclear or geothermal power sources, global average temperatures will go on rising inexorably. The glaciers and icecaps will melt, sea levels will rise, and climate extremes – especially heat waves, and probably floods – will also increase.

So the Nature study is just a piece of tidying up. But it is an illustration that the calculations can be confirmed by direct measurement − by catching carbon dioxide in the act, so to speak. Laboratory measurements said it would happen, computer simulations said it would happen, and now direct measurement completes the picture.

Solar radiation

“We see, for the first time in the field, the amplification of the greenhouse effect because there’s more CO2 in the atmosphere to absorb what the earth emits in response to incoming solar radiation,” Dr Feldman says.

“Numerous studies show rising atmospheric CO2 concentrations, but our study provides the critical link between those concentrations and the addition of energy to the system, or the greenhouse effect.”

The study is built on 3,300 measurements in Alaska and 8,300 in Oklahoma, under clear skies and using high-precision instruments.

Carbon dioxide is not the only greenhouse gas: water vapour also plays a role, along with oxides of nitrogen and methane or natural gas.

But the study was powerful enough to isolate carbon dioxide’s contribution, and even register a dip in this radiative forcing early every year as the green shoots of spring begin to take up the greenhouse gas to build the new leaves and stems that nourish a hemisphere.

The authors conclude that the results confirm theoretical predictions, and provide empirical evidence of just what rising CO2 levels can do. – Climate News Network

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Ancient landscapes point to dramatic climate change

Ancient landscapes point to dramatic climate change

Scientists believe Chinese civilisation could have been founded by climate refugees after the collapse of an Inner Mongolian culture over 4,000 years ago.

LONDON, 26 February, 2015 − Chinese and US scientists have uncovered prehistoric evidence of mass migration triggered by climate change.

Something occurred 4,200 years ago – a collapse of the monsoon system, the sapping of the groundwater, the sudden drainage of a lake – that brought a Neolithic culture to an end and left nothing but sandy landscapes in China’s Inner Mongolia region.

Archaeological evidence has revealed the jade carvings that once marked the Hongshan culture, along with evidence of hunting, fishing and even commercial traffic with Mongolian shepherds. And then the artefacts stop.

There is a 600-year period marked by no evidence of human settlement at all. Where there had once been streams, lakes grassland and forest, and a flourishing new Stone Age culture, only shifting sand dunes remained.

Recent origin

Xiaoping Yang, professor in the Institute of Geology and Geophysics at the Chinese Academy of Sciences, Beijing, and research colleagues from China, New Mexico, Hawaii and Texas report in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that they used a new laboratory technique to show that the northern Chinese deserts were not – as many had thought – millions of years old.

Instead, they are of very recent origin, and the researchers found evidence of dramatic change during human settlement.

In addition, the exploration of artefacts in the region – and the discovery, among other things, of a jade object that might be a dragon − now suggests that Chinese culture and identity may have its origins in the far north, rather than in the Yellow River basin, which has been the archaeologists’ working hypothesis until now.

“This study has far-reaching implications for understanding how human populations respond and adapt to drastic climate change”

If that was so, then one of the world’s great civilisations was founded by climate refugees.

Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. The Beijing team used space-based radar topography measurements to show that the dunes and depressions of the Hunshandake region of northern China had once been home to lakes fed by a system of streams and rivers.

This was then confirmed with fossil evidence of tree pollens and algae that typically float in freshwater lakes.

The scientists built up a timetable of events by dating sediment samples with a technique called optically-stimulated luminescence, which reveals when minerals were last exposed to sunlight.

They started with the proposition that an extraordinary series of droughts occurred in the northern hemisphere around 4,200 years ago, in North Africa, the Middle East and the Mediterranean.

Something similar happened in Hunshandake at around that time. The monsoon rainfall weakened, the lake levels dropped dramatically, and the water table was lowered drastically − and perhaps finally.

The researchers call it a “rapid and catastrophic shift”. And they warn that their research suggests that attempts to reverse the advance of the deserts in the region are likely to have limited success, because the change in the hydrological system is irreversible. Any water that fell there would just trickle away.

Human departure

Such discovery of links between climate and human departure is not isolated. In the last two years, meteorologists and archaeologists have identified climate change as a factor in the collapse of the Bronze Age Mediterranean culture, the implosion of the Assyrian empire at Nineveh in the 7th century BC, and the end of the Indus Valley civilisation 4,000 years ago.

Climate has also been implicated in the advance of the armies of Genghis Khan in the 13th century.

While climate change cannot explain everything about such shifts in ancient history, it is a factor.

But, say the Beijing scientists, “our evidence suggests that Hongshan culture was devastated by combined regional green/desert vegetation shift”, and that the change was intensified and made final by a sudden and final sapping of the groundwater table below the lakes and pastures in the region.

The scientist who used the optically-stimulated luminescence technique, geologist Steven Forman, of Baylor University in Texas, says: “This study has far-reaching implications for understanding how human populations respond and adapt to drastic climate change.” – Climate News Network

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Climate change opens new doors to deadly diseases

Climate change opens new doors to deadly diseases

Scientists warn that humans will face epidemics of diseases never encountered before as global warming drives animals and parasites into new habitats.

LONDON, 23 February, 2015 − Disease emergencies such as the eruption of Ebola in West Africa or the spread of West Nile virus in North America may be a consequence of climate change − and could become more frequent as the world warms, according to scientists.

That is because the change in climate conditions means that the insects that transmit diseases, and the animal hosts that serve as a natural reservoir of infection, can spread to new territories.

Malaria, which kills 600,000 people a year, has moved to higher latitudes and higher altitudes, claiming new victims.

But, the scientists argue, the issue is wider than that. Ease of travel, the international traffic of large volumes of crops and animal products, and increasing human disruption of ecosystems are all factors in the spread of what they call emerging infectious diseases (EID).

Agents of disease

And there could be yet another factor: humans haven’t completely appreciated just how opportunistic parasites and other agents of disease can be.

Zoologists Daniel Brooks, of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, and Eric Hoberg, of the US National Parasite Collection, argue in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society that changes in climate will mean changes in habitat. And changes in habitat will mean that animals are exposed to new pathogens – anything that causes a disease – and parasites.

It follows that humans will increasingly be exposed to epidemics of new diseases never encountered before on such a scale. But it will not, Professor Brooks says, be like the plot of the 1971 science fiction movie, The Andromeda Strain, about a single deadly global infection.

“There are going to be a lot of localised outbreaks putting pressure on medical and veterinary health systems,” he says. “It will be the death of a thousand cuts.”

Infectious microbes evolved to survive in a natural host, occasionally spreading to a new host. The assumption has been that because evolution is a gradual process, new host infections would be rare. But microbes have turned out to be much more resourceful.

“There are going to be a lot of localised outbreaks . . . It will be the death of a thousand cuts”

When humans hunted capuchin and spider monkeys out of existence in Costa Rica, their parasites switched promptly to the local howler monkeys.

In the Canadian Arctic, as temperature patterns changed, lungworms have moved northward and switched hosts from caribou to musk oxen.

The implication is that pathogens are more versatile and opportunistic than anyone had predicted. In which case, humans are likely to see more emerging infectious diseases as conditions change.

The two scientists propose a “fundamental conceptual shift” in thinking about disease.

“Even though a parasite might have a very specialised relationship with one particular host in one particular place, there are other hosts that may be as susceptible,” Professor Brooks says.

Resistance could evolve too, but this would then mean that the pathogen became a chronic disease problem, rather than an acute one.

Unexpected circumstances

So public health chiefs and veterinary scientists will be called upon to co-operate in increasingly unexpected circumstances, especially as climate change begins to alter the ground rules.

“Palaeontological studies suggest that species with large geographical ranges and with high ability to disperse are most successful at surviving large-scale environmental perturbation and mass extinctions,” the two authors conclude.

“Thus, the species most successful at surviving global climate changes will be the primary sources of emerging infectious diseases (EID), so host extinction will not limit the risk of EID.

“The planet is thus an evolutionary and ecological minefield of EID through which millions of people, their crops and their livestock wander daily.” – Climate News Network

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Sardines swim into northern waters to keep cool

Sardines swim into northern waters to keep cool

Fish species in subtropical European waters are migrating north to escape warming seas − leaving fishermen who rely on them for a living with empty nets.

LONDON, 20 February, 2015 − Several important fish species that for centuries have been part of the staple diet of people in the Mediterranean region are abandoning sub-tropical seas because the water is too warm and are heading north.

Sardines, which for generations have been the most abundant commercial fish species in Portugal, are moving away. They are now established in the North Sea, and are being caught in the Baltic – a sea that until recently was normally frozen over in the winter.

Sardines, anchovies and mackerel − three fish species that are important in the diet of many southern European and North African countries − have been studied by scientists trying to discover how climate change and warming seas are affecting their distribution.

Fishing industry

As well as the affect on the fishing industry, the abundance or disappearance of these species is crucial for many other marine species that rely on them for food.

A pioneering study, published in Global Change Biology, analysed 57,000 fish censuses conducted over 40 years, and has tracked the movement of these fish during this period.

It confirms that the continued increase in water temperature has altered the structure and functioning of marine ecosystems across the world. But it also shows that the effect has been greater in the North Atlantic, with increases of up to 1.3 ºC in the average temperature over the last 30 years.

This variation in temperature directly affects the frequency and range of pelagic fish, which live in the middle of the water column and are directly influenced by temperature, rather than habitat. It includes the sardine (Sardina pilchardus), anchovy (Engraulis encrasicolus), horse mackerel (Trachurus trachurus) and mackerel (Scomber scombrus), among others.

Sardines and other fish represent “an exceptional bioindicator to measure the direction and speed of climate change expected in the near future”

They feed off phytoplankton and zooplankton, and are themselves the staple diet of large predators, such as cetaceans, large fish and marine birds. These fish occur off the shores of many coastal countries in the world and are important sources of protein.

Scientists have known that fish were moving to new areas, but did not know whether it was in response to their main food supply plankton moving first or whether it was a simple response to changing temperatures.

The new study has developed statistical models for the North Sea area, and confirms the great importance of sea temperatures.

“Time series of zooplankton and sea surface temperature data have been included to determine the factor causing these patterns,” Ignasi Montero-Serra, lead author of the study and researcher in the department of Ecology at the University of Barcelona, explains to the Scientific Information and News Service.

To demonstrate the consequences of the warming of the seas, the research team analysed fish censuses from commercial fishing performed independently along the European continental shelf between 1965 and 2012, extracted from data provided by the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea.

The study, which is the first to be carried out on such a large timescale and area, allows for the dynamics of this species to be understood in relation to the rapid warming of the oceans that has been happening since the 1980s.

The results reveal that sardines and other fish with fast life cycles, planktonic larval stage and low habitat dependence are highly vulnerable to changes in ocean temperature, and therefore represent, Montero-Serra says, “an exceptional bioindicator to measure the direction and speed of climate change expected in the near future”.

Accelerated increase

Montero-Serra says that accelerated increase in temperature of the continental seas has resulted in sardines and anchovies − with a typically subtropical distribution − increasing their presence in the North Sea and “even venturing into the Baltic Sea”. And the presence of species with a more northern distribution, such as the herring and the sprat, has decreased.

The analysis is therefore a clear sign that species in the North Sea and Baltic Sea are “becoming subtropical”.

This is due to the pelagic fish being highly dependent on environmental temperatures at different stages of their life cycle − from reproductive migrations and egg-laying, to development and survival of larvae.

According to the researchers, the changes in such an important ecological group “will have an effect on the structure and functioning of the whole ecosystem”, although they still do not know the scale of the socio-economic and ecological repercussions. – Climate News Network

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Climate impacts on European farmers’ yields per field

Climate impacts on European farmers’ yields per field

Scientists says changes in temperature and snow or rainfall are key factors in the stagnation of wheat and barley yields across Europe since the early 1990s.

LONDON, 19 February, 2015 – Farmers in Europe have already begun to feel the pinch of climate change as yields of wheat since 1989 have fallen by 2.5% and barley by 3.8% on average across the whole continent.

And two Californian scientists now believe that changes in temperature and snow or rainfall during the last quarter of a century are at least partly to blame.

The pinch may be gentle, but environmental scientists Frances Moore and David Lobell, of Stanford University, believe it is real.

They report in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that although changes in farming and environmental policies explain much of the stagnation of yields in Europe in the last 25 years, at least 10% of this change could be attributed to climate trends.

Sugarbeet and maize harvests have gone up slightly − and that, too, could be pinned on global warming.

Overall trends

It is no small challenge to find an overall trend to crop yields across a continent that stretches from Scotland to the Black Sea, from northern Norway to Sicily, and over a timescale that embraces floods, droughts, forest fires and heat waves that may or may not have been made worse or more frequent by global warming, but which would have occurred anyway.

The other complication is that, in the same 25 years, the patterns of agricultural subsidy and market demand have also changed.

But the Stanford scientists started with conditions on the farms in the 1980s, when Europe’s farmers were, on average, getting 0.12 more tonnes of wheat and barley per hectare than the year before. Yields per field were rising steadily.

“Agriculture is one of the economic sectors most exposed to climate change impacts”

“If they had continued growing at that rate after 1995, wheat and barley yields would be 30% and 37% higher today, respectively,” they write.

Climate trends could perhaps account for around 10% of the stagnation revealed in the statistics. The remaining change could be put down to economic and political shifts and other factors.

One of these would be that crops had been improving to a point called the biophysical limits: just how much weight of grain could one stalk hold anyway? So some change would be expected, and climate must be a component of that.

To arrive at their conclusion, the two scientists looked at the predictions made for climate change – southern Europe was always expected to become drier, but farmers in moist northern climates could benefit from temperature increases – and the available data, and then applied sophisticated mathematical probability techniques to isolate the possible impact of climate change so far.

Social costs

They have looked at the economic and social challenges of global warming before. Last year, they warned that Europe’s farmers were going to have to adapt to climate change in the 21st century, and Moore and a colleague claimed last month that economists had badly underestimated the economic and social costs of each tonne of carbon added to the levels of CO2 in the atmosphere.

The new research is, they argue, important because “agriculture is one of the economic sectors most exposed to climate change impacts, but few studies have statistically connected long-term changes in temperature and rainfall with yields.

“Doing so in Europe is particularly important because yields of wheat and barley have plateaued since the early 1990s ,and climate change has been suggested as a cause of this stagnation.” – Climate News Network

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Temperature rise leaves dogs racing on thin ice

Temperature rise leaves dogs racing on thin ice

Alaska proudly boasts of hosting the “greatest dog sled race on Earth”, but climate change has forced a switch in the historic event’s course.

LONDON, 18 February, 2015 − The Iditarod sled race in Alaska is a 1,000-mile endurance test in which competing teams of dogs and their drivers race at dizzying speeds across the frozen tundra.

But this year’s race, due to be held in early March, has had to be re-routed due to a lack of snow. And Jake Crouch, a climate scientist with the National Climatic Data Center, says rising temperatures are to blame.

“This is a pretty big deal,” Crouch told the New York Times. “One of the things we’re seeing with climate change is that the high latitudes are experiencing the brunt of it. They’re very vulnerable.”

Seasonal increase

According to the US government’s Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), temperatures in Alaska have increased by an average of 3.4˚F over the last 50 years, with winter temperatures showing the biggest seasonal increase, rising by an average of 6.3˚F over the same period.

The EPA says the rate of warming in Alaska is double the national average. Estimates are that average temperatures in the state will increase a further 3.5˚F to 7˚F by mid-century.

Deep snow – vital for what is described by Iditarod’s organisers as the greatest dog sled race on Earth – has been in particularly short supply this year, with only 19 inches falling since August on the race start near Alaska’s capital, Anchorage, compared with 50 inches normally.

“This year, you can’t go through a rock,” one of the sled drivers – who are locally known as a “mushers” – told Alaska’s Fairbanks Daily News-Miner.

“There’s boulders and rocks that we’ve never seen there in 20 some years that are littering all the gorge, places that you’d never even see a rock because you’re going over feet of snow through there. This year, you’re looking at bare ground.”

For only the second time in its 43 year history, the start of the Iditarod has had to be moved away from close to Anchorage to near the city of Fairbanks, 360 miles further north.

“The Arctic environment is changing extremely rapidly. It is time for the rest of the world to take notice, and also to take action . . .”

Although there was more snow for last year’s race, several competitors were forced out through injuries sustained after encountering bare rocks and gravel on the course.

Alaska has been feeling the multiple impacts of climate change for some time. Coastal erosion is increasing as protective sea ice along the shoreline is being lost, and roads built across the state’s permafrost have fractured or collapsed due to ice melt. Other infrastructure, including oil and gas pipelines, is under threat.

Cracks in permafrost

Homes have collapsed due to cracks opening in the permafrost beneath them. And people are being forced to abandon traditional hunting practices due to changes in wildlife distribution brought about by changes in temperature.

At the end of last year, more than 35,000 walruses were found crowded together on a beach in northeast Alaska.

“Due to loss of ice in offshore areas, walruses are foraging in more coastal areas and using beaches for resting,” said a report by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

“The walruses are telling us what the polar bears have told us and what many indigenous people have told us in the Artic,” Margaret Williams, the head of the World Wildlife Fund’s Arctic programme, told the Associated Press news agency. “And that is that the Arctic environment is changing extremely rapidly.

“It is time for the rest of the world to take notice, and also to take action to address the root cause of climate change.” – Climate News Network

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Power brokers’ chains hold back forests protection

Power brokers’ chains hold back forests protection

UK thinktank says inaction by the ‘Forest 500’ means global efforts to end deforestation by 2030 are not keeping pace with the rate of destruction.

LONDON, 11 February, 2015 − The world will not, on present rates of progress, reach its goal of ending tropical deforestation within 15 years.

The Global Canopy Programme (GCP), a thinktank based in Oxford, UK, says many of those who could protect the forests by ensuring that deforestation does not contribute to commodity supply chains are failing to act.

The GCP, which draws together international experts on tropical forests, has compiled what it says is the first comprehensive ranking of the “Forest 500 − power brokers who control the global supply chains that drive over half of tropical deforestation.

Influential actors

It has identified, assessed and ranked 250 companies, with total annual revenues of more than US$4.5 trillion; 150 investors and lenders; 50 countries and regions; and 50 other influential actors, as it calls them – a wide-ranging group of banks, international agencies and non-governmental organisations.

Together, the 500 control the complex global supply chains of key “forest risk commodities” − such as soya, palm oil, beef, leather, timber, pulp and paper − that have an annual trade value of more than $100 billion and are found in over 50% of packaged products in supermarkets.

The GCP says only a small minority of the 500 have equipped themselves to tackle this problem, which makes a significant contribution to climate change and other environmental problems, as well as worsening poverty.

Deforestation and land use change cause more than 10% of global greenhouse gas emissions, undermine regional water security, and threaten the livelihoods of more than a billion people.

Assessed against dozens of policy indicators, only seven of the Forest 500 scored the maximum number of points − companies Groupe Danone (France), Kao Corp. (Japan), Nestlé S.A. (Switzerland), Procter & Gamble (US), Reckitt Benckiser Group (UK), Unilever (UK), and banking and financial services giant HSBC (UK).

“Deforestation is in our chocolate and our toothpaste, our animal feed and textbooks, buildings and furniture, investments and pensions”

At the other end of the scale, the GCP says, 30 companies − many based in Asia and the Middle East − and numerous investors scored zero points. Countries received varied scores, with Latin American nations scoring high in forested regions and the Netherlands and Germany coming top among countries that import forest risk commodities.

Of investors assessed, sovereign wealth funds and hedge funds scored very low for their sustainable investment policies, while banks achieved higher scores.

“We are currently all part of a global deforestation economy,” says Mario Rautner, a GCP programme manager.  “Deforestation is in our chocolate and our toothpaste, our animal feed and our textbooks, our buildings and our furniture, our investments and our pensions.”

“Our goal with the Forest 500 is to provide precise and actionable information to measure the progress of society to achieve zero deforestation.

Global supply chains

“Together, these 500 countries, companies and investors have the power to clean up global supply chains and virtually put an end to tropical deforestation.”

He adds: “Though the Forest 500 findings highlight that much work needs to be done, the good news is that a number of big players across sectors are demonstrating the leadership that is needed.

“Putting policies in place is just the necessary first step in addressing tropical deforestation, and their implementation will be critical in order to transition to deforestation-free supply chains by 2020.”

At the UN Climate Summit last year, prominent representatives from business, governments, indigenous communities and civil society signed the New York Declaration on Forests. It spells out ambitious commitments to halve deforestation by 2020 and to end it by 2030.

A similar pledge to achieve net zero deforestation by 2020 has been made by the Consumer Goods Forum, a global association of companies and service providers, including major manufacturers and retailers. − Climate News Network

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Growing concern over Iceland’s rising landmass

Growing concern over Iceland’s rising landmass

Satellite data confirms a global warming link between the melting of icecaps and an accelerating increase in the height of Icelandic hills.

LONDON, 10 February, 2015 − Iceland is certainly going up in the world − but that’s not necessarily good news. As the ice melts and glaciers retreat, the mantle below the crust of the Atlantic island has responded, and the ice-capped hills are rising by an average of 30mm a year.

And scientists says that their analysis of precision data from a network of satellite stations indicates that this uplift is accelerating by one or two millimetres a year.

Isostasy is not a new idea. Geologists have known for more than a century that the rigid plates of the Earth’s crust − the lithosphere − ride on a viscous, springy mantle called the asthenosphere.

As crustal mass is lost – the erosion of mountains, for instance, or the retreat of Ice Age glaciers – the asthenosphere responds, and the landmass rises. Similarly, when a volcanic cone is built by a series of rapid eruptions, the asthenosphere below starts to respond to the new burden by sinking.

Heaving and sinking

The principle is well established, and there is geological evidence of this slow heaving and sinking everywhere. But nobody had expected to be able to measure it as it happens.

Kathleen Compton,  of the University of Arizona’s Department of Geosciences, and colleagues report in Geophysical Research Letters that they used a network of 62 global positioning satellite stations to measure ground movements with exquisite accuracy.

They chose a set of stable icecaps away from the more active volcanic zones, to eliminate the heaving and sighing of the bedrock that is connected with eruption. Enough data was available from early installations of GPS stations to confirm that uplift from the end of the last ice age about 9,000 years ago was more or less at an end.

“What we’re observing is climatically-induced change in the Earth’s surface”

A glacier year that began in October and ended in September was chosen, so that measurements would not be confused by spring melting or early snowfall.

In the last 30 years, the world has warmed and the high latitudes of the northern hemisphere have warmed the fastest. The Arctic melting season has been advancing at the rate of about 17 days a decade.

The researchers’ measurements show that uplift began about 30 years ago, with some sites in Iceland now rising at 35mm a year. And this rate is increasing.

“Our research makes the connection between recent accelerated uplift and the accelerated melting of the Icelandic ice caps,” said Compton, a doctoral student.

“Iceland is the first place we can say accelerated uplift means accelerated ice loss,” said her co-author, associate professor Richard Bennett. “What we’re observing is climatically-induced change in the Earth’s surface.”

Volcanic activity

There is a tantalising possibility that they may also be observing a change in volcanic activity. Geological evidence suggests that, as the glaciers began to retreat 12,000 years ago, Iceland’s eruptions increased thirty-fold.

Other researchers have raised the possibility that warming-induced ice loss could increase the frequency of eruptions now.

But the Arizona team simply wanted to establish a connection between the rate of melting and the rate of uplift, and used mathematical models to confirm the coupling.

Dr Bennett says: “There’s no way to explain that accelerated uplift unless the glacier is disappearing at an accelerating rate.” – Climate News Network

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Climate data gives mixed message on storm forecasts

Climate data gives mixed message on storm forecasts

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

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

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

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

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

Heat engine

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Energy budget

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

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

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

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

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