History lessons highlight climate threat to birds

History lessons highlight climate threat to birds

Evidence from the Ice Ages helps show how vulnerable bird populations are to change driven by human-induced global warming.

LONDON, 25 April, 2015 − Climate change can seriously alter the numbers and the prospects for survival of the planet’s living things, according to researchers in Sweden and China.

The scientists’ findings are the result of taking a long, cool look at the big picture – rather than the still-sketchy evidence from climate change now – of what happened to bird populations during the Ice Ages.

Krystyna Nadachowska-Brzyska and Hans Ellegren, of the Evolutionary Biology Centre at Uppsala University, and collaborators at the Beijing Institute of Genomics used a sophisticated new technique to calculate the rise and fall of population sizes of 38 species of bird during the last several million years − a period punctuated by the advance of vast sheets of ice and shorter warm interglacial periods.

Natural change

The results answer questions about how species fared during periods of natural change, in an era when human numbers were tiny and human technology insignificant.

But they also highlight the vulnerability of already-endangered bird populations during a period of change driven by global warming as a consequence of greenhouse gas emissions into the planet’s atmosphere from the widespread use of fossil fuels.

The researchers exploited techniques made possible only in the last decade or so to recreate the past.

They compared genomic mutations among unrelated individuals in each species, and employed a new mathematical technique that goes by the name of “pairwise sequentially Markovian coalescent”, or PSMC, to tease out the history encoded in those comparisons.

“Climate events significantly affect the effective breeding sizes of bird populations”

The reasoning goes like this: mutations in DNA occur at a more or less predictable rate through the generations of a species, so DNA can be considered both as an indicator of relationships and as a kind of clock.

Using such a clock, based on DNA inherited only through the maternal line, scientists long ago calculated a potential date for the origins of Homo sapiens.

In 2011, a team of scientists reasoned that the same clock, subjected to some mathematical interrogation, might answer questions about how many individuals might have existed in a population at a particular time.

Their first result was to confirm from the variation – or lack of variation – in the genome samples that some distant catastrophe caused a sharp drop in human population numbers 60,000 years ago or more, after which human numbers expanded again.

Now the same techniques have been applied to genomic evidence from barn owls, budgerigars, bald eagles, Dalmatian pelicans, domestic pigeons and Pekin ducks, as well as less familiar creatures such as the rhinoceros hornbill of south-east Asia, and the kea, a ground-dwelling alpine parrot from the South Island of New Zealand.

“The majority of all species exhibit cyclical swings in numbers, and these swings often coincide with the periods of ice ages,” Dr Ellegren says. “The last ice age (110,000-12,000 years ago) had a particularly heavy impact on birds. Many species suffered their most dramatic falls in numbers then.”

What the scientists were looking for was something called “historically effective population size” in their choice of species − broadly, the number of survivors that could interbreed and rear the next generation.

In the case of, for example, the downy woodpecker of North America, this number was at a low point of 150,000 two million years ago, then rose to 1.2 million before falling, around 100,000 years ago, to about 200,000.

Severe declines

They found severe declines in 22 of the 38 species over a period that coincided with the last ice age. Two species of eagle and the common ostrich saw their numbers reduced from tens of thousands to mere thousands. But even much more numerous species, such as pigeon and budgerigar, experienced significant change.

Scientists have already begun to measure change in the natural world in response to average temperature rises by shifts either in timing or latitude, or even altitude.

The Uppsala research offers a kind of baseline of historical change, and could help conservation bodies now concerned with saving species already considered at risk of extinction because of habitat destruction, hunting and human-induced climate change.

“The results from our study document that such climate events significantly affect the effective breeding sizes of bird populations,” the authors conclude. – Climate News Network

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Call for an end to ‘business as usual’ option on climate

Call for an end to ‘business as usual’ option on climate

UN special envoy urges a unified approach to global action on tackling the interlinked issues of climate change, sustainable development and human rights.

LONDON, 23 April, 2015 − Mary Robinson, the UN Secretary General’s special envoy on climate change, has warned that the whole issue of climate is much too important to be left to governments and their leaders.

Robinson, who was the first woman president of Ireland and is now head of the MRFCJ foundation promoting climate justice, said it is a battle for all of us − and that now is the time for action, not for the continuation of business as usual.

Speaking at the Grantham Institute for Climate Change at Imperial College, London, Robinson said that the UN conference on climate change in Paris at the end of this year must achieve concrete, ambitious results.

Transformation

“Now is not the moment to manage expectations or get cold feet – 2015 is the moment to catalyse a transformation,” she said.

She also called for a more unified approach to global action on the interlinked issues of development, climate change and human rights.

“Till very recently,” she said, “climate change was thought of in terms of the science and the environment – not as a human rights and sustainable development issue. Now governments and the UN are changing their approach.”

“This is a serious moment – we must have funds to build a new kind of economy”

Many countries struggling to develop are having to spend enormous amounts on adaptation measures in relation to climate change, she said. It means that countries such as the Philippines − hit by typhoons and other disasters − are spending millions just to stand still.

“We have to change course,” Robinson argued. “This is a serious moment – we must have funds to build a new kind of economy.”

Robinson said that what she termed the “business as usual” model of development “has resulted in dangerous levels of pollution, caused climate change and biodiversity loss, and has failed to eradicate poverty and inequality”.

All countries, she said, should make a transition towards a zero-carbon economy − which is ultimately the key to long-term prosperity, but is a tremendous challenge, particularly for developing countries.

Alternative way

“No country has developed without fossil fuels to date, so co-operation is key to providing the technology, finance, skills and systems to create an alternative way of developing,” she said.

Robinson also expressed concern that the International Monetary Fund is still focusing on economic growth and not on climate change. It must alter its outlook, she said.

In her UN role, Robinson will be at the centre of a series of big international meetings on climate change and development issues this year.

A conference in July in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, will urge countries to commit more funds to climate finance, and to institutions such as the Green Climate Fund.

In September, the UN General Assembly is due to adopt a post-2015 strategy for achieving various development goals around the world.

And in December, in Paris, a new global climate change agreement is due to be worked out, under the auspices of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. − Climate News Network

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Rich nations urged to cut temperature rise targets

Rich nations urged to cut temperature rise targets

Senior scientist says voices of poorer nations must be heard in the political tussle over reducing the “utterly inadequate” global warming limit.

LONDON, 31 March, 2015 − The official target of limiting global warming to a 2˚C rise has been described by a senior scientist as “utterly inadequate” to protect the people most at risk from climate change.

That’s the conclusion reached by one of the authors of the recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) assessment report, in an analysis of the political tussle between rich and poor nations at last December’s UN conference on limiting temperature rise.

Richer countries were happy to limit global average temperature rises to 2˚C, while middle and low-income nations would have preferred to contain warming within 1.5˚ C or lower.

Possibilities of calamity

But Dr Petra Tschakert, associate professor at Pennsylvania State University’s Earth and Environmental Systems Institute, reports in the journal Climate Change Responses that the agreed limit contains within it the possibilities of calamity for many people.

“The consensus that transpired during this [UN conference] session was that a 2˚C danger level seemed utterly inadequate, given the already observed impacts on ecosystems, food, livelihoods and sustainable development,” Dr Tschakert says.

“A low temperature target is the best bet to prevent severe, pervasive and potentially irreversible impacts, while allowing ecosystems to adapt naturally, ensuring food production and security, and enabling economic development to proceed in a sustainable manner.”

Her analysis is not of itself new, nor is it much disputed − other leading scientists have also warned that such an international agreed limit could be disastrous.

But her commentary in the journal reveals something of the debate among the government representatives and experts who must meet and prepare for global action.

Global average temperatures have been creeping up at fractions of a degree per decade for more than 30 years, and some degree of further global warming is now inevitable.

Scientists at the IPCC have from the start warned that – without steps to dramatically reduce the combustion of fossil fuels – the planet could warm by 4˚C or more, and sea levels could rise by up to a metre by 2100. In 2009, governments met in Copenhagen and settled on a limit of 2˚C.

“This should happen now, and not only when climate change hits the rich world”

But this target has always been contested. More than 100 poorer nations and small island states − such as Tuvalu, recently pounded by a tropical cyclone Pam − have repeatedly said that a 2˚C rise is unsafe, and called for a 1.5˚C limit.

The World Health Organisation argued at the December UN meeting that, as far as human health was concerned, there was no safe limit, and people already faced hazards from undernourishment, and from food and water-borne infections.

Heatwaves, such as the one that hit Russia in 2010, may have caused 10,000 additional deaths, while floods, hurricanes and other extreme weather events are likely to be more frequent and more severe hazards in a 2˚C world.

Climate impacts

Dr Tschakert’s argument is that a global average limit may be a convenient and compelling instrument for discussing climate change impacts, but nobody in the world actually faces a global average.

Such a notional limit is the average of extremes and variation across regions, all of which are subject to different hazards − ranging from glacial melting to coral bleaching − that could be disastrous for people in those regions, many of whom are among the world’s poorest.

Dr Tschakert says: “These implications emphasise what is truly at stake – not a scientific bickering of what the most appropriate temperature target ought to be, but a commitment to protect the most vulnerable and at-risk populations and ecosystems, as well as the willingness to pay for abatement and compensation..

“This should happen now, and not only when climate change hits the rich world.” – Climate News Network

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Climate is now main worry for conservation group

Climate is now main worry for conservation group

The devastating effects of a changing climate have become the biggest challenge faced by a leading protector of the UK countryside.

LONDON, 24 March, 2015 − The head of one of the UK’s best-known conservation groups says the greatest threat to its work is now climate change.

Dame Helen Ghosh, director-general of the National Trust, told BBC Radio that there is devastation of wild Britain and the creatures that live there. “Who would have thought that the house sparrow and hedgehog were going to become rare?” she said.

“For the future and we see this on our coastline, in our countryside, even in our houses climate change, we think, is the big threat to us.”

The Trust is the charity responsible for the care of countryside and historic houses across England, Wales and Northern Ireland (a separate body does the work in Scotland).

It is also one of Britain’s largest landowners, with 600,000 acres (250,000 hectares) and 700 miles (1,125 km) of coastline in its care, and more than 300 historic buildings − all held in trust for the future.

About 20 million people go to the Trust’s houses and gardens annually, but 200 million visit its upland, lowland and coastal sites.

Destruction of habitats

Dame Helen said: “The main challenge to our conservation purpose is the destruction of habitats, of wildlife − the fact that we see precious species 60% in decline.”

She suggested that, apart from climate, the other cause of that was intensive land management.

When it comes to recognising the risks of a warming world, Dame Helen is certainly well qualified. As a former leading civil servant, one of her last jobs before joining the Trust was to head the UK government’s Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, which at that time had climate change as one of its responsibilities.

As part of its efforts to help address climate change, Dame Helen said the Trust would be getting 50% of the energy it uses in its houses and properties from renewable sources by 2020.

For example, she said, there would be “lots of hydro schemes across the country, lots of biomass boilers” as part of the renewable energy policy. The Trust aims to reduce its own energy consumption by about 20%.

It will also be working with its own tenant farmers, she said, “to try to make sure that land is farmed in environmentally-friendly ways that we get production, and also the bees and the butterflies”. Climate News Network

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Changing weather patterns hit Pakistan’s crops

Changing weather patterns hit Pakistan's crops

Torrential rain and hailstorms have raised fears that Pakistan’s winter crops yield could be seriously depleted – and global warming is the likely culprit.

Islamabad, 23 March, 2015 − Anxious farmers in Pakistan waited for weeks for the rains to arrive – but when the skies finally opened, the downpour was so intense it destroyed crops and put the harvest in jeopardy.

“We weather scientists are really in shock, and so are farmers, who have suffered economic losses due to crop damage,” says Muzammil Hussain, a weather forecasting scientist at the Pakistan Meteorological Department (PMD).

“The wind from the southeast has carried moisture from the Arabian Sea. Normally, the northeast wind brings rain during winter, and the southeast wind brings monsoon rains in summer. But the pattern has changed this year because of what is believed to be global warming.”

Unusually heavy

Farmers across much of Pakistan plant winter crops of wheat, oilseed and potato late in the year and wait for rains to water the land. This year, the rains arrived more than three weeks late and were unusually heavy, accompanied by violent hailstorms. Along with the rains, temperatures also dropped.

Ibrahim Mughal, chairman of the Pakistan Agri Forum, says excessive moisture due to heavy bouts of late rain is likely to lead to outbreaks of fungus on crops, and production could be halved.

“If the rains come a month ahead of the harvesting time [April to mid-May], it is always disastrous,” he says. “It can hit production for a crop such as wheat by between 20% and 30%, and if the rain is accompanied by hailstorms and winds then the losses can escalate to more than 50%.”

Arif Mahmood, a former director general at PMD, says the onset of winter across much of Pakistan is being delayed by two to three days every year, and there is an urgent need for farmers to adapt to such changes.

“If the rains come a month ahead of the harvesting time, it is always disastrous”

“Over recent years, winter has been delayed by 25 to 30 days, and also the intensity of the cold has increased, which has affected almost every field of life − from agriculture to urban life.”

This year has also been marked by abrupt changes in temperature. Ghulam Rasul, a senior scientist at PMD, says big swings in temperature are likely to add to the problems being faced by millions of farmers in Pakistan.

“The average temperature during the first two weeks [of March] was between 11 and 13 degrees Celsius, but now it’s on a continuous upward trend and has reached 26˚C over the space of two days,” he reports.

“The winter rains in the north and central area of Pakistan, and the sudden rise and fall in temperature, are related to climate change.”

Serious damage

Similar storms and late winter rains have also caused serious damage across large areas of northern India.

The states of Uttar Pradesh and Maharashtra – the two most populous states in the country – have been particularly badly hit.

In Maharashtra, snow and landslides have blocked roads and cut off towns and villages.

In Uttar Pradesh, there are fears that more than 50% of the wheat crop has been lost in the eastern part of the state. – Climate News Network

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Threat to marine life adds to California’s woes

Threat to marine life adds to California’s woes

Unusually high water and air temperatures off the US West Coast as climate patterns shift mean bad news for sea lions, sea birds and the fishing industry.

LONDON, 22 March, 2015 – California, currently in the grip of a devastating drought and facing an increasingly parched future, has just been dealt another blow. Not only is the land less productive, but the state’s fisheries could also be about to feel the heat.

A new report warns that the climate seems to be shifting to warmer, less productive conditions. And that’s bad news for seabirds, salmon, sea lions − and sea fishermen.

At play, according to the National Atmospheric and Oceanic Administration Regional Fisheries Science Centres, is the effect of unusually high coastal water and air temperatures over the last year, and changes in the California Current that washes the West Coast of the US.

The consequence is a dip in what ecologists call “primary productivity” – in this case, the tiny copepods and other microscopic creatures that are the first level of the food chain.

Higher death rates

This means less for salmon and other marine species to eat, and higher death rates among sea lion pups in Southern California, and among sea birds on the Washington and Oregon coasts.

Commercial fisheries so far have been good, but California’s fishermen have begun to specialise, and could see catches fluctuate and revenues fall as their target species start to feel the effects.

Toby Garfield, director of environmental research atthe NOAA Southwest Fisheries Science Centre, says: “We are seeing unprecedented changes in the environment.”

John Stein, who directs the Northwest Fisheries Science Centre, adds: “We’re seeing some major environmental shifts taking place that could affect the ecosystem for years to come. We need to understand and consider their implications across the ecosystem, which includes communities and people.”

The changes are partly cyclic: the sea surface temperatures are at record heights, and these have combined with shifts in meteorological cycles, such as the Pacific Decadal Oscillation, and the North Pacific Gyre Oscillation.

“We’re seeing some major environmental shifts taking place that could affect the ecosystem for years to come”

The consequence is that the normal upwelling of deep cold waters has weakened in recent years, and so has the supply of nourishing copepods. Sea lion pups and a species of seabird called Cassin’s auklet have been found dying and emaciated, which suggests problems with the food supply.

Since 2014, blobs of warm water have been observed in the Gulf of Alaska and all the way down the coast, and these conditions tend to be accompanied by lower productivity.

In the past, this has meant poorer catches of salmon, anchovy and squid, although better catches of sardines, tuna and marlin. But lately, both anchovy and sardine hauls have been at lower levels.

Double jeopardy

Salmon in particular face double jeopardy in California. Not only is the food supply in the sea threatened, but low snowfalls and greater drought mean that the rivers up which the salmon jump to spawn are less hospitable.

The California drought, the worst in the state’s history, has been tentatively linked to global warming. The changes in the California Current may be a coincidence of natural cycles.

Reports such as these are intended to alert communities to changing conditions. They are not so much prescriptions for doom as practical warnings of potential problems ahead. But the tone may well have become more urgent.

“We are in some ways entering a situation we haven’t seen before,” says Cisco Werner, who directs the Southwest Fisheries Science Centre at La Jolla. “That makes it all the more important to look at how these conditions affect the entire ecosystem.” – Climate News Network

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Earth at risk in new epoch ruled by destructive humans

Earth at risk in new epoch ruled by destructive humans

Scientists warn that our fate is in our own hands as humans now control almost every aspect of the planet, on a scale akin to the great forces of nature.

LONDON, 21 March, 2015 − Nature has been replaced by humans as the driving force behind changes on the planet − and we need to take urgent action if we are to avoid our own destruction.

This is the view of two scientists – including a Nobel prize winner − who support the theory that the planet has entered a new Anthropocene epoch that has succeeded the Holocene, the  current geological warm period that began at the end of the ice age 11,500 years ago.

It is not a new concept − the name Anthropocene was coined 15 years ago by American ecologist Eugene F. Stoermer to describe how humans had taken over from nature to decide the planet’s future − but the authors of a new paper believe they have shown that it is now a frightening reality.

Paul Crutzen, the 1995 Nobel Laureate in Chemistry, from the Max Planck Institute for Chemistry, in Mainz, Germany, and Stanislaw Waclawek, researcher in the Department of Nanomaterials in Natural Sciences at the Technical University of Liberec, Czech Republic, make their case in the paper published in the new Chemistry-Didactics-Ecology-Metrology.

Human footprint

The article claims that the negative impact of the human footprint ensures a gradual destruction of the Earth, “Our survival fully depends on us,” Crutzen says.

The scientists claim that there is overwhelming evidence that what they term “man, the eroder” now transforms all Earth system processes. They offer this list in support of their argument:

  • Excessively rapid climate change, so that ecosystems cannot adapt.
  • The Arctic ocean ice cover is thinner by approximately 40% than it was 20-40 years ago.
  • Ice loss on land is causing the rising sea levels.
  • Overpopulation (a fourfold increase in the 20th century alone).
  • Increasing demand for freshwater.
  • Releases of nitrogen oxide into the atmosphere, resulting in high surface ozone layers.
  • Loss of agricultural soil through erosion.
  • Loss of phosphorous (dangerous depletion in agricultural regions).
  • Melting supplies of phosphate reserves (leading to serious reduction in crop yield).

The paper begins: “Humankind actions are exerting increasing effect on the environment on all scales, in a lot of ways overcoming natural processes.

“During the last 100 years, human population went up from little more than one billion to six billion, and economic activity increased nearly 10 times between 1950 and the present time.”

Industrial activity

In a series of graphics, the two scientists show how the growth of population, industrial activity and, above all, the release of greenhouse gases are causing chaos in nature and threatening our existence.

The paper says: “Taking into account these and many other major and still growing footprints of human activities on Earth and atmosphere, without any doubt we can conclude that we are living in new geological epoch named the Anthropocene.”

Crutzen warns: “This ensures a gradual destruction of the Earth. For the sake of our children and grandchildren, we must change course.” – Climate News Network

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More Antarctic warmth creates heavier snowfall

More Antarctic warmth creates heavier snowfall

Rising temperatures may result in more snow falling in Antarctica, with the ice that builds up flowing to the ocean and raising sea levels.

LONDON, 16 March, 2015 – It may sound unlikely, but the evidence is mounting that the more the Antarctic warms under the impact of climate change, the more snow will fall on it.

Not only that, says a team of European and US scientists, but as the snow turns to ice it is going to flow downhill, borne by its own weight, and contribute to rising sea levels.

The impact of this paradoxical process is likely to be significant. The team, led by scientists from Germany‘s Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (PIK), says each degree Celsius of warming in the region could increase Antarctic snowfall by about 5%.

Ice-core data

The research, published in Nature Climate Change, builds on high-quality ice-core data and fundamental laws of physics captured in global and regional climate model simulations.

The suggestion that Antarctic snowfall is increasing is not itself new, though not all scientists accept the data without qualification.

What the Potsdam scientists have done is important, not simply because they provide new evidence to support the contention, but because they explore its potential consequences.

Katja Frieler, climate impacts and vulnerabilities researcher at PIK, and lead author of the report, says: “Warmer air transports more moisture, and hence produces more precipitation. In cold Antarctica, this takes the form of snowfall. We have now pulled a number of various lines of evidence together and find a very consistent result: temperature increase means more snowfall on Antarctica.”

To reach a robust estimate, the PIK scientists collaborated with colleagues in the Netherlands and the US.

“Ice-cores drilled in different parts of Antarctica provide data that can help us understand the future,” says co-author Peter U. Clark, professor of geology and geophysics at Oregon State University.

“The Antarctic ice sheet could become a major contributor to future sea-level rise, potentially affecting millions of people in coastal areas” 

“Information about the snowfall spanning the large temperature change during the last deglaciation [the uncovering of land by the melting of glaciers], 21,000 to 10,000 years ago, tells us what we can expect during the next century.”

The researchers combined the ice-core data with simulations of the Earth’s climate history and comprehensive future projections by different climate models, and were able to pin down temperature and accumulation changes in warming Antarctica.

The increasing snowfall on the continent will add to the mass of the ice sheet and increase its height.

But the researchers say it won’t stay there. On the basis of another previous PIK study, they say the extra snow will also increase the amount of ice flowing to the ocean.

Dr Frieler says: “Under global warming, the Antarctic ice sheet, with its huge volume, could become a major contributor to future sea-level rise, potentially affecting millions of people living in coastal areas.”

Additional snowfall

As snow piles up on the ice, its weight presses down – the higher the ice, the greater the pressure. Additional snowfall elevates the grounded ice-sheet on the Antarctic landmass, but has less of an effect on the floating ice shelves at the coast, allowing the inland ice to flow more rapidly into the ocean and raise sea levels, the researchers say.

The 5% increase in Antarctic snowfall that they expect for every 1°C rise in temperature would mean an estimated drop in sea-level of about three centimetres after a century.

But they say other processes will cause an eventual rise in sea-level. For example, relatively slight warming of the ocean could cause coastal ice to break off more easily, allowing more of the continental ice mass to discharge into the ocean.

Another co-author is Anders Levermann, PIK professor of dynamics of the climate system, and also a lead author of the sea-level rise chapter in the latest report by Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

He says: “If we look at the big picture, these new findings don’t change the fact that Antarctica will lose more ice than it will gain, and that it will contribute to future sea-level change.” – Climate News Network

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World needs early warning of climate-linked disasters

World needs early warning of climate-linked disasters

A leading French government minister says the number of natural disasters connected to climate change has doubled in two decades, and is urging a global early warning system.

LONDON, 15 March, 2015 − A senior French political leader, foreign minister Laurent Fabius, has told an international conference on how to reduce the risk from natural disasters that 70% of them are now linked to climate change, twice as many as twenty years ago.

Mr. Fabius is the incoming president of this year’s round of negotiations by member states of the UN climate change convention, to take place in Paris in December. He said disaster risk reduction and the struggle against climate change went hand in hand: “It is necessary to tackle these problems together and not separately.”

He was speaking against the background of two events which occurred thousands of miles apart on 14 March, linked by nothing except tragic coincidence.

In the Japanese city of Sendai the third UN world conference on disaster risk reduction began a five-day meeting. In the South Pacific Cyclone Pam brought death and devastation to the 83-island nation of Vanuatu on a scale seldom recorded in the region.

Vivien Maidaborn, executive director of Unicef New Zealand, said the disaster could prove one of the worst in Pacific history. “The sheer force of the storm, combined with communities just not set up to withstand it, could have devastating results for thousands across the region,” she said.

Hope shattered

A Unicef worker in Vanuatu described the cyclone as “15 to 30 minutes of absolute terror” for “everybody in this country” as it passed over.

The president of Vanuatu, Baldwin Lonsdale, told the UN meeting: “I am speaking with you today with a heart that is so heavy… All I can say is that our hope for prospering into the future has been shattered.”

The UN Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon, opened the Sendai meeting, attended by 4,000 people from 186 countries, with a reminder that annual economic losses from natural disasters are now estimated to exceed US$ 300 billion annually.

He said: “We can watch that number grow as more people suffer. Or we can dramatically lower that figure and invest the savings in development. Six billion dollars allocated each year can result in savings of up to US$360 billion by 2030.”

A report released at the meeting, United for Disaster Resilience, prepared by insurance companies working with the UN Environment Programme’s Finance Initiative, said: “In the past decade, average economic losses from disasters were about US$190 billion per year, while average insured losses were about US$60 billion per year. This century, more than one million people have already lost their lives to disasters.”

Alert system

The UN Office for Disaster Risk Reduction, UNISDR, says global climate-related disasters between 1980 and 2011 included:

  • 3,455 floods
  • 2,689 storms
  • 470 droughts
  • 395 episodes of extreme temperature.

Mr Fabius said the creation of a worldwide early warning system for climate disasters could provide the most vulnerable countries, including small island developing states, with access to real-time weather and climate updates, information and communications technology, and with support for an SMS-based alert system. UNISDR’s PreventionWeb already links those working to protect communities against disaster risk.

Since the last such disaster risk conference in 2005, the UN says, at least 700,000 people have died, 1.7 billion more have been affected, and economic losses from major reported disasters total US$1.4 trillion.

The conference is working to prepare a new plan for reducing the risks of disasters. Margareta Wahlström, head of UNISDR, said: “After three years of consultation on a post-2015 framework which updates the current Hyogo Framework for Action, there is general agreement that we must move from managing disasters to managing disaster risk.” She said the framework would help to reduce existing levels of risk and avoid the creation of new ones. − Climate News Network

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Fertilizers help toxic algae thrive in warming world

Fertilizers help toxic algae thrive in warming world

Scientists warn that excessive use of fertilizers, combined with warmer water in lakes, threatens to poison drinking water supplies.

LONDON, 13 March, 2015 − Blue-green algae blooms that can turn toxic in freshwater lakes and can kill bathers, farm animals and domestic pets that drink the water are becoming more widespread across the world, according to new research.

A combination of excess use of fertilizers containing phosphorus and nitrogen, untreated sewage releases, and warmer water caused by climate change is leading to an increasing threat of poisoning to animals and humans that use the lakes for water supplies.

Researchers from France, Italy, Spain, the UK, Malaysia and Canada contributed to the study aimed at discovering whether the algae known as cyanobacteria, which forms a blue-green scum on the surface of lakes, was really increasing or had simply been more widely reported.

The scientists looked closely at 100 lakes in North America and Europe, but their findings would apply to freshwater bodies worldwide. They showed that algae blooms have been increasing over the past two centuries, but the pace has “sharply accelerated since the mid-20th century”.

Acute exposure

Not all blue-green algae growths release poisons into the water, but when they form a scum they frequently release toxins that cause damage to the liver and nervous systems of animals, and can be deadly.

The most common symptoms in humans of acute exposure to harmful algal blooms are skin rash or irritation, gastroenteritis, and respiratory distress.

Chronic, low-dose exposures over a lifetime may result in liver tumors or endocrine disruption, and have also been linked to longer-term degenerative conditions of the nervous system, such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and Lou Gehrig’s Disease.

The study says that lakes subject to excess discharge of industrial fertilizers and sewage had seen the largest increase in blue-green algae blooms, but alpine lakes without these problems has also had an increase, indicating that climate change was also a factor.

In North America, lowland lakes had a 61% increase in blue-green algae blooms, and this rose to 70% in Europe. Both were close to agriculture areas, but alpine lakes further away from farming showed only a 36% increase.

Dr. Zofia Taranu, a biologist at McGill University, Canada, and lead author of the study published in Ecology Letters, says: “Further work as a society will therefore be needed to reduce nutrient discharges to surface waters.”

“Partnerships among freshwater scientists and farmers are starting to happen, and more of this needs to take place”

The study says it is possible to treat water by adding chemicals that bind the toxins together, and to remove them before they reach the tap, but many municipalities do not regularly look for the danger because it has previously not been a problem.

Even so, both the UK and Australia are spending $100 million a year monitoring and eliminating blue-green algae from drinking water. Water catchment control to keep fertilizer and sewage away from drinking water sources, which has been imposed by the EU Water Framework Directive, is essential to prevent the danger to the general population, the report concludes.

Dr Suzanne McGowan, head of the University of Nottingham School of Geography, UK, and PhD researchers Heather Moorhouse and Mark Stevenson, based at the university, took sample cores of sediment from bodies of water in the British Isles, including in the English Lake District, the meres of the West Midlands, lochs in Scotland, and upland lakes in Northern Ireland.

Biomarkers

These were then analysed for pigments that are left behind by blue-green algae, and which remain stable over thousands of years − acting as biomarkers that reveal past levels of algae found in the water during the course of decades.

The analysis showed that, during the last 200 years, more than half of the lakes (58%) had seen significant increases in concentrations of blue-green algae pigments, whereas only 3% showed a significant decrease.

“Our work shows that we need to work harder as a society to reduce nutrient discharges to surface waters,” says Irene Gregory-Eaves, an associate professor of biology at McGill, and co-author of the study.

“Because diffuse nutrient loading – as opposed to end-of-pipe effluent –  is the main issue, we need to build collaborations to tackle this complex problem.

“For example, partnerships among freshwater scientists and farmers are starting to happen, and more of this needs to take place, so that we can strike a balance between maximising crop yields and minimising excess fertilizer application.” – Climate News Network

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