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California goes nuts for water

March 27, 2014 in Agriculture, Drought, Economy, USA, Water


California's almond orchards may not look so green before long: Growers now have to find their own water sources Image: US Dept of Agriculture Natural Resources Conservation Service via Wikimedia Commons

California’s almond orchards may not look so green before long: Growers now have to find their own water sources
Image: US Dept of Agriculture Natural Resources Conservation Service via Wikimedia Commons

By Kieran Cooke

While recent rainfall has brought welcome relief to California, the amount of precipitation has not been nearly enough to put an end to what is its worst drought on record.  The state’s $45 billion agricultural sector has been particularly hard hit.

LONDON, 27 March – Almonds are good for you. That’s the message California’s enterprising nut growers have been giving to the world – and they have been remarkably successful in their marketing efforts.

The world appetite for almonds is growing by the day – and nut farmers in the west of the US have been cashing in. According to the Almond Board of California the state now produces more than 80% of total world almond output: California’s almond crop has more than doubled since 2006 to 1.88 billion pounds last year.

The trouble is almonds – and other nut crops grown in California – need plenty of water, and right now water is in very short supply. A drought emergency is in force. The snow pack in the Sierra Nevada mountain range – a key source of the state’s water – was recently recorded as being only 24% of its normal capacity for the time of year.

At the end of January, California’s State Water Project – the largest state-built water and power development and distribution system in the US, responsible for supplying water to two-thirds of the state’s 38 million people – stopped supplying local agencies in many areas.

Scientists are busy analysing whether the drought is linked to changes in climate: President Obama, announcing a drought federal aid package, said the state provided an example of what might be in store for the rest of the country as climate change intensifies.

Left fallow

“We have to be clear”, said Obama.  “A changing climate means that weather-related disasters like droughts, wildfires, storms, floods, are potentially going to be costlier, and they’re going to be harsher.”

Under an unprecedented range of restrictions, no water from state projects is being supplied to the agricultural sector. Instead, farmers have to find their own water sources, whether from rivers or by sinking boreholes. Agricultural experts estimate that up to 800,000 acres of farmland will not be planted this year because of lack of water.

Cattle ranchers are selling off livestock due to lack of grass. The US now has its smallest cattle herd since the mid-1950s – and beef prices are at an all-time high.

But it’s perhaps the nut growers who are suffering most. In recent years California’s farmers have moved away from traditional annual vegetable crops such as tomatoes and lettuce and into the far more profitable market for almonds, pistachios and other nuts. Almonds are now California’s second most valuable crop – only sales of grapes are worth more.

The downside is that the nut trees are mainly in regions of central California classified as being under extreme drought conditions. Nut trees demand long-term investment: they need lots of water and take years to produce a crop.

Deeper cuts coming

Nut farmers are now scrubbing up portions of their tree plots in order to concentrate water resources on the remainder. They are digging wells and tapping in to already declining aquifers. In the process they are losing millions in revenue.

Meanwhile traders say prices for almonds and other nuts are likely to rise sharply on the world market next year due to drought-induced crop shortages.

Farmers’ organisations have complained that the agricultural sector has been unfairly targeted with water restrictions, while California’s cities and towns have been only partially affected.

That could be changing. In recent days the state supplier to Silicon Valley – the high-tech hub and likely home of the almond milk-flavoured café latte – announced that for the rest of the year it would be supplying only 80% of the normal amount of treated drinking water to inhabitants. – Climate News Network

Drought ‘makes Amazonia emit carbon’

March 5, 2014 in Amazonia, Carbon, Drought, Forests, South America, Vegetation changes


Fire and drought can turn the Amazon rainforest from a carbon sink to a source Image: Ramos Keith, US Fish and Wildlife Service, via Wikimedia Commons

Fire and drought can turn the Amazon rainforest from a carbon sink to a source
Image: Ramos Keith, US Fish and Wildlife Service, via Wikimedia Commons

By Alex Kirby

Drought and fire can dry the Amazon forest to the point where instead of storing carbon it releases it to the atmosphere, several studies suggest.

LONDON, 5 March – Scientists think there is growing evidence to show that the Amazon forest is less effective at absorbing carbon dioxide than previously thought. Instead, they say, it may often be releasing huge quantities of CO2 to the atmosphere, acting not as a carbon sink but as a source.

Their reasons for this potentially significant rethink were published in two reports in the journal Nature. The first describes the results of researchers who sampled the amount of carbon in the air at four points over the Amazon, to build up a more comprehensive picture of the forest’s response to both light and water.

Starting at up to 4.4 kms above the Earth, the researchers’ aircraft collected 17 samples at each point and analysed them for concentrations of five different gases: CO2, methane, nitrous oxide, carbon monoxide and sulphur hexafluoride. They did this in 2010, a year marked by severe drought in Amazonia, and in 2011, which had above-average rainfall.

The drought, obviously, reduced plant production and limited the amount of carbon stored in vegetation, while at the same time large amounts of carbon were released by fire during the dry year. But in 2011 the region was effectively carbon-neutral, experiencing reduced carbon loss from fires and increased carbon uptake by vegetation.

The website Science for Brazil says: “The vegetation managed to absorb not only all the CO2 emitted through natural processes but also the emissions resulting from human activities, including fires.”

‘Far from reality’

The researchers found that the burning of vegetation linked to land use and a reduction in photosynthesis (the process used by plants and other organisms to convert light into chemical energy) meant about 0.48 petagrams (one petagram equals 1,000,000,000,000,000 grams) of carbon were lost from the forest in 2010, against 2011′s carbon neutrality.

As temperatures were similar in both years they say that it was a lack of moisture that lowered photosynthesis rates, not greater heat. Their conclusion is that what the forest really needs is enough water. So the effects of drought and fire together can combine to make the forest a carbon source, not a sink.

The main author of the study is Luciana Vanni Gatti of Brazil’s Nuclear Energy Research Institute (IPEN). She said: “…the lack of rainfall modifies the dynamics of the forest and the carbon balance in the region. Therefore… precipitation is a factor that scientists working with climate forecasting will have to take into consideration in their models. If not, the results will be very far from reality.”

If she and her colleagues are right, and if other forest regions react in the same way, the global consequences could prompt a drastic revision of the forests’ ability to moderate global warming.

Not so green

Support for her team’s conclusions comes in another Nature report, this time dealing with an apparent flaw in one of the reasons why scientists had believed the Amazon forest remained healthy during droughts.

They believed this because the forest appeared green. So, they concluded, it must be absorbing carbon dioxide. But Douglas Morton of the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center and colleagues say the apparent greenness was what Nature calls “an optical artefact of the observation method”.

Satellite measurements in 2003 appeared to show that the Amazon canopy grew more strongly during a drought. As New Scientist reported, young leaves are greener – and reflect more infra-red light – than old foliage, so scientists assumed this was evidence that rainforests grew better during dry years.

It reports that Morton’s team used alternative sensing methods to show that during droughts “NASA’s sensors were not seeing a greener canopy at all. It was a trick of the light – perhaps because fresh foliage growth casts more shadows in the canopy and so absorbs more infrared light”.

Morton told New Scientist: “Seasonal moisture availability governs the balance between photosynthesis and respiration in Amazon forests.” In other words, it concludes, rainforests thrive in the rain. And water availability, rather than light, is the main driver of plant productivity in Amazon forests. – Climate News Network

If it walks like a duck, it probably is climate change

February 17, 2014 in Climate deniers, Climate finance, Extreme weather, Flooding, Journalism, United Kingdom


The morning after the storm: Aberystwyth in west Wales has borne the brunt this turbulent winter Image: Ian Capper via Wikimedia Commons

The morning after the storm: Aberystwyth in west Wales has borne the brunt this turbulent winter
Image: Ian Capper via Wikimedia Commons

By Phil Rothwell

As debate rages over the part climate change may be playing in Britain’s wet and stormy winter, one of the UK’s foremost experts on flood defence says we need to acknowledge reality – fast.

LONDON, 17 February -  We are in danger of losing sight of some glaringly obvious truths about this exceptionally wet and stormy winter which much of the United Kingdom is enduring:

  • Scientists should acknowledge that the current record-breaking weather, in the UK and globally, is being caused by a changing climate
  • We don’t need party political bickering over flood funding, we need the right budget guaranteed for the future and agreed through political consensus
  • We need a land use policy that reduces reliance on expensive flood engineering and moves toward natural catchment management, flood-friendly farming, and village, town and city location and design that reduces risk, not increases it
  • We need a media and political framework that consigns climate change scepticism to the spike and the cutting room floor.

After the wettest and stormiest period in our history and following 2012, a year when we had both the most severe drought and wettest winter on record up until then, the almost complete failure of those in authority to acknowledge anything other than a faint link to climate change is beyond credibility and fundamentally and fatally damages a logical response.

Such a politically motivated head-in-the-sand attitude is severely damaging to any long-term approach to managing such events, let alone their cause.  As I write this President Obama is visiting California to see the impact of the most testing drought in its history, New York is in the grip of deep snow and ice, and the Philippines once again see major flooding. The Somerset Levels and the floods in the Thames Valley are just a pimple on the surface of the world’s problems. But they need a bit more than a knee-jerk political gesture.

“Over a million properties in Britain’s major conurbations have not flooded this winter because of action over the last few years to protect them”

In the 2007 floods in the UK 10 times as many properties were affected, mainly in urban areas in the north. The limited and largely rural impacts of the current winter, appalling for a few,  are in fact testimony to a successful flood risk management strategy.

Diverting resources to towns and cities, increasing flood protection to often ill-judged development, has proved a major success for the Environment Agency and the policy driver of investment which is targeted where most people live. Over a million properties in Britain’s major conurbations have not flooded this winter because of action over the last few years to protect them.

Many of the houses that have flooded are in rural locations in a flood plain best used to accommodate floods and relieve pressure downstream, thereby reducing even more major losses. We should be congratulating ourselves for a policy that is clearly working, protecting the most populated areas and using the sparsely-populated countryside for flood storage and mitigation.

Of course, whilst such a policy makes economic sense, in rural, social, personal and financial terms it can be a disaster. People are still affected, villages isolated, farmers managing reservoirs not wet meadows. This brings nothing but misery.

But the answer does not lie in more and bigger defences, or massive pumps. We should reforest the uplands, use different farming methods on upper catchment slopes, dam more upstream rivers and streams, create wet storage areas, end development in flood plains, and where there’s redevelopment do it in a way that absorbs and manages water through urban drainage systems and flood-sensitive design.

“Climate change is a generation-defining issue. We cannot afford party politics and the political short-termism of budget planning”

Far away from the knee-jerk throw-money-at-the-problem response in government, there is a truly sustainable approach to both floods and their causes. Combining national land use policy for climate change mitigation with better town and city protection and design is a valuable way forward, replacing high engineering costs with a flood-friendly approach to land management. But it’s not on the political agenda.

Instead we get a feast and famine approach to flood funding. Budget cuts are made in the hope that there will be no flood in the next few years. It happened after 1953, 1998, 2007, and now again in 2014. Cut the budgets until there is a flood and then restore them in the face of public and press criticism.

A decade ago a major Government study into climate change and flood risk, the Foresight Report, recommended a budget of £1 billion per annum, rising with inflation to keep pace with climate risk. The Pitt report in 2007 confirmed this scale of investment need. No Government has come close to matching these proposals, and the consequences become increasingly clear.

Climate change is a generation-defining issue. We cannot afford party politics and the political short-termism of budget planning to dictate a nation’s response to a threat of such scale. We certainly can do without Ministers so climate-sceptic that they delete any references to climate change in their briefs, or seek to blame the Environment Agency for flooding rural areas when that is the inevitable consequence of Government flood management policy.

We need realism about solutions. Most drainage engineers will tell you that dredging the Somerset rivers will make little impact on flooding, at most reducing the length of major floods by a few days.

“Scientists need to grasp the nettle, abandoning their reluctance to ascribe any one event to climate change”

Ironically the rivers would have been dredged last year if, as Government policy requires, the local authorities could have found funds to match those offered by the Environment Agency at the time. Increasingly the authorities are being given greater responsibility for flood management – at a time when their funding is being cut and they cannot find the cash.

What we really need is for the major political parties to meet together and agree a 30-year approach to funding, governance and land use policy in the face of the greatest threat to our lives and our environment ever. You never know. It might look like joined-up policy in the face of high risk, and restore some credibility to the political process.

Scientists, too, need to grasp the nettle and urge the need for long-term planning, abandoning their reluctance to ascribe any one event to climate change. The media should take a responsible science-driven approach and not feed the fire of misplaced scepticism or politically motivated ignorance.

The views peddled by eloquent sceptics such as Nigel Lawson have no place in a rational discussion. Such an approach is akin to denying there is any link between smoking and cancer, or obesity and heart disease. There is no place in a rational government for climate change denial.

The division in the country is fed by political uncertainty. The nation is under threat – and those charged with governing it, or in opposition, need to have that branded on their foreheads so they are forced to confront the reality every time they look in the mirror. – Climate News Network

Phil Rothwell was until December 2013 the Head of Flood Risk Policy at the UK Environment Agency.

Evidence ‘suggests climate change is worsening UK winter’

February 9, 2014 in Climate deniers, Extreme weather, Flooding, Natural Variability, Rainfall, United Kingdom


Flooding on the Somerset Levels in the West of England: Parts have been under water for weeks Image: Nigel Mykura via Wikimedia Commons

Flooding on the Somerset Levels in the West of England: Parts have been under water for weeks
Image: Nigel Mykura via Wikimedia Commons

By Alex Kirby

Scientists at the UK Met Office say all the evidence supports the theory that the exceptionally wet and stormy winter affecting much of Britain is caused at least in part by climate change.

LONDON, 9 February – The British Government’s main climate science adviser, the UK Met Office, says the present exceptionally wet and stormy winter “could be a manifestation of climate change.”

Its chief scientist, Dame Julia Slingo, says the variable UK climate means there is “no definitive answer” to what is producing this winter weather, with the “most exceptional period of rainfall in 248 years”. But “all the evidence suggests there is a link to climate change”.

She said there was no evidence to counter what the basic science says will happen as the world warms – that heavy, fierce downpours of rain will occur more often.

“Nobody has come forward to counter the basic premise that if you have a warmer world you are going to get more intense heavy rain rates”

Dame Julia told BBC Radio: “We know that warmer air holds more water…As scientists we always go back to the evidence base. I always challenge the climate sceptics to provide me with the same level of scientific integrity of the evidence base. I can’t see it.

“Nobody has come forward to counter the basic premise that if you have a warmer world you are going to get more intense heavy rain rates…as we’re beginning to detect now over the UK.”

The Met Office, with the UK’s Centre for Ecology & Hydrology (CEH), has published a report, The recent storms and floods in the UK, which strikes a cautious note.

It concludes: “It is not possible, yet, to give a definitive answer on whether climate change has been a contributor or not” to the frequent and torrential rain, storms and floods affecting much of the UK since early December.

But deep in the detail of the report’s findings are clear statements by its authors showing they are convinced that climate change may be partly responsible, despite the well-known fickle nature of the British weather.

The report says, for example, that although the number of strong winter storms over the mid-latitude North Atlantic – the path of the current storms – has not increased since 1871, the storms’ average intensity has grown significantly. The continual run of deep depressions through December, January and into February is also unusual.

“What in the 1960s and 1970s might have been a 1 in 125 day event is now more likely to be a 1 in 85 day event”

There are questions as well about whether the jet stream “is making greater excursions north and south, and whether these waves in the jet stream are becoming more locked in one position.

“This is a critical question because it raises the possibility that disruption of our usual weather patterns may be how climate change may manifest itself.”

The report says there is now some emerging evidence that, over the United Kingdom, daily heavy rain events may be more frequent: “What in the 1960s and 1970s might have been a 1 in 125 day event is now more likely to be a 1 in 85 day event.”

It says there is an increasing body of evidence that shows that extreme daily rainfall rates are becoming more intense, and that the rate of increase is consistent with what is expected from fundamental physics. – Climate News Network

Oxford breaks 247-year rainfall record

February 4, 2014 in Extreme weather, Rainfall, United Kingdom


By Ian Curtis

Large parts of England have just emerged from their wettest January since records began in 1910. But one city in the English Midlands, though its total rainfall did not match the national deluge, broke a much longer record.

OXFORD, 4 February – Weather observers at Oxford University have confirmed that the rain which fell on the afternoon of 31 January made the month the wettest since their records began almost 250 years ago. The downpour meant that the total recorded at the University’s Radcliffe Meteorological Station overtook the previous high of 138.7mm, a record which has stood since January 1852.

Parts of south-east and central southern England had already recorded twice their average rainfall – with 175.2mm -  between 1 and 28 January, breaking a century-long sequence.

But Oxford’s January rainfall of 146.9mm, though below the national figure, is nearly three times the month’s long-term average of 52.5mm.  Dr Ian Ashpole, the Radcliffe Meteorological Observer at the School of Geography and Environment, says: “It has been the very high number of ‘very wet’ days this January – rather than a few monster ones – that has led to the record. Oxford residents have had to endure consistently miserable weather conditions all month, with only one rain-free day.”

Since records began in the 1760s only 14 out of nearly 250 Januaries have had more than 100mm of rain. “This really shows how extreme this year has been”, said Dr Ashpole.

“January 2014 has been the wettest-ever of any of the three winter months of December to February. It beat the 143.3mm of December 1914, one hundred years ago. Our December-January combined total has also been a record-breaker with 244.6mm.”

Dr Ashpole measures the 10.0mm of rain that took January's total into the record books Image: Courtesy of Ian Curtis

At Green Templeton College, Dr Ashpole measures the 10.0mm of rain that took January’s total into the record books
Image: Courtesy of Ian Curtis

For those passionate about their statistics Dr Ashpole has also identified another extreme: “In the 45 days from 18 December when the rain was settling in we recorded more at the Radcliffe than for any other 45-day winter period. The total of 231.3mm was way ahead of the next nearest  – 209.4mm from 1 December 1914 to 14 January 1915 – in a database of nearly 9,000 such periods.”

January 2014 had 23 days with 2mm or more rain in a day, 14 days with more than 5mm of rain recorded and 4 days with above 10mm of rainfall. The only rainless day was 11 January.  The five previous wettest Januaries were 1852, with its 138.7mm; 1995 (131.4mm); 1948 (127.3mm); 1877 ( 115.1mm); and 1939 (112.8mm).

In a predictable cruel twist by the British weather, the formal final measurement at the Radcliffe station in Green Templeton College was made in blazing sunshine. And, despite (or possibly because of) some newspapers’ call to “bring us sunshine”, January was the 10th sunniest since records began in 1881: over 80 hours compared with the average of 54. The month was also very mild, the 15th warmest on record, with an average of 6.0°C compared with the long-term January average of 3.8°C.

The Radcliffe Meteorological Station at Oxford University possesses the longest series of temperature and rainfall records for one site in Britain. These records are continuous from January 1815, with irregular observations of rainfall, cloud and temperature from 1767. The Station is overseen by the School of Geography and Environment. It is located at the University’s Green Templeton College. - Climate News Network

Ian Curtis is on the staff of the School of Geography and Environment, University of Oxford

Drought intensifies in western US

February 3, 2014 in Agriculture, Drought, Extreme weather, Food security, Forests, USA, Vegetation changes


Low water in California's San Gabriel dam after two years of drought Image: Shannon1 via Wikimedia Commons

Low water in California’s San Gabriel dam after two years of drought
Image: Shannon1 via Wikimedia Commons

By Kieran Cooke

In recent days California has announced its most severe water restrictions ever as drought continues to hit the state. Scientists say the region’s rainfall has been declining over the years and the consequences are serious.

LONDON, 3 February – January is the month when Californians put on their rain jackets – but not this year.

It’s the month which is usually wettest in the western US, when rivers and reservoirs are replenished: this year there was virtually no rain through January in much of the region, following on from an exceptionally dry period through much of 2013.

A vast area of land in the western region of the American land mass, stretching from the province of Alberta in Canada across to parts of Texas in the US and on down into Mexico, is suffering as reservoirs and rivers dry up. A state of emergency has been declared in several areas, including California.

Dr Wallace Covington is director of the Ecological Restoration Institute at Northern Arizona University. “What we’re seeing across this region is an intensification of long-established aspects of climate change”, Covington told Climate News Network.

“I hate to sound pessimistic but all around in these large watersheds we’re seeing a degradation of water structure and function. There’s increased erosion leading to desertification, and with the dry conditions and generally stronger winds the forest fire season is being extended.”

Covington is an internationally recognised expert on forest restoration who has been studying tree growth in Arizona for many years, particularly among its ponderosa pines – the Pinus ponderosa.

30-year drought

“Longer drought periods and increasing temperatures are resulting in attacks by bark beetles – which can eventually kill off trees – becoming increasingly severe.

‘The trees can’t produce adequate moisture: if enough photosynthesis is going on they can fight off the beetles and their larvae. But in northern Arizona we’ve been under drought conditions for about 30 years and it’s getting worse. We’ve been losing pines that are 300 or 400 years old at an alarming rate.”

At the end of last month California’s State Water Project – the largest state-built water and power development and distribution system in the US – said it would stop supplying water to local agencies in many areas in order, said officials, to use what water remained “as wisely as possible”.

The agencies – which supply water to about 25 million people and to about 750,000 acres of farmland – would in future have to look elsewhere for water, including from local reservoirs or from groundwater sources.

Mr Jerry Brown, California’s governor, says the water shortages are “a stark reminder that California’s drought is real” and has asked people to reduce their water consumption by at least 20%.

Food price fears

The western region of the US is one of the world’s main agricultural production regions and if the drought is prolonged global food prices could rise. In some areas ranchers have been forced to sell off their herds and in others farmers are abandoning their crops.

In southern California, an area which produces a wide variety of vegetables, fruits, nuts and other crops, farmers are complaining that water supplies are being diverted to towns and cities from their lands.

“It’s not as if there hasn’t been enough warning about what’s happening”, says Covington.

“These changes have been going on over decades but the trouble is our political and management systems respond only in four to five year cycles, not to 40 or 50 year trends.

“This is above national – it’s global. Yet our institutions are national at best. And we don’t have a lot of time to act.” – Climate News Network

Penguins feel climate change’s impacts

February 1, 2014 in Antarctic, Climate, Extreme weather, Marine ecology, Rainfall, South America, Weather, Wildlife


Adélie penguin chicks chase an adult in the hope of finding food Image: Liam Quinn from Canada via Wikimedia Commons

Adélie penguin chicks chase an adult in the hope of finding food
Image: Liam Quinn from Canada via Wikimedia Commons

By Tim Radford

Scientists have identified climate change as the direct cause of rising mortality among penguin chicks hatched in Argentina.

LONDON, 1 February – Climate change is bad for penguin chicks. If rain doesn’t soak their feathers and kill them with cold, then extremes of heat could finish them off with hyperthermia.

Over a 27-year research project in the world’s largest colony of Magellanic penguins, on the arid Argentine coast, researchers have seen a greater number of deaths directly attributable to climate change.

“We’re going to see years where almost no chicks survive if climate change makes storms bigger and more frequent during vulnerable times of the breeding season”, says Ginger Rebstock, who, with Dee Boersma, reports on the state of penguin survival in the Public Library of Science journal PLOS One.

The two scientists, biologists from the University of Washington, Seattle in the US, believe starvation and weather are going to make life harder for the offspring of the 200,000 pairs of penguins that breed each year at Punta Tombo, on Argentina’s Atlantic coast.

The number of storms during the first two weeks of December – when all the chicks are less than 25 days old and their downy coats are not yet waterproof – has increased between 1983 and 2010.

Every new chick is at hazard: over the span of study, the researchers calculate that 65% of chicks do not survive, 40% of them die by starvation. But climate change has begun to offer new dangers.

A Magellanic chick, still too young to have an adult's waterproofing, in the rain Image: D Boersma/University of Washington

A Magellanic chick, still too young to have an adult’s waterproofing, in the rain
Image: D Boersma/University of Washington

Some years up to half of all chicks die because of the weather. Punta Tombo is historically an arid region. In the last 50 years, the scientists report, rainfall has increased. The number of wet days has increased, the number of consecutive wet days has increased and the level of rainfall during those days has continued to increase.

Air temperatures changed too. The minimum temperatures decreased by up to 3°C and the number of these colder days increased. Storms, too, make it more difficult for foraging parents to gather enough food to feed their chicks.

Sea ice changes

“Starving chicks are more likely to die in a storm”, says Prof Boersma. “There may not be much we can do to mitigate climate change, but steps could be taken to make sure the Earth’s largest colony of Magellanic penguins have enough to eat by creating a marine protected reserve, with regulations on fishing, where penguins forage while raising small chicks.”

Further south, extreme weather is beginning to make life difficult for the Adélie penguins of Ross Island in Antarctica. Amélie Lescroël from the CNRS in France and colleagues report in the same edition of PLOS One that abnormal sea ice conditions reduce access to food.

Antarctic penguins are of course adapted to sea ice: it is their preferred habitat. But they must respond to short and long term changes in ice levels. For 13 years, scientists have monitored the feeding success of the Ross Island colony and observed that the birds could cope in those seasons when there was less sea ice.

But climate change in Antarctica, too, creates new problems for the birds and limits their foraging efficiency.

“Our work shows that Adélie penguins could cope with less sea ice around their summer breeding grounds”, said Dr Lescroël. “However, we also showed that extreme environmental events, such as the calving of giant icebergs, can dramatically modify the relationship between Adélie penguins and sea ice.”

If the frequency of such extreme events increases, then it will become hard to predict how penguin populations will get by, she thinks. – Climate News Network

2013 was fourth warmest year recorded

January 22, 2014 in Climate deniers, El Niño, NOAA, Rainfall, Temperature Increase, Warming slowdown, Weather


Drought in Ethiopia, one of the countries which experienced record warmth in 2013 Image: By USAID Africa Bureau via Wikimedia Commons

Drought in Ethiopia, one of the countries which experienced record warmth in 2013
Image: By USAID Africa Bureau via Wikimedia Commons

By Alex Kirby

Arguments that global warming has slowed or even stopped since the turn of the century are undermined by US data which show that 2013 maintained the warming trend of recent decades.

LONDON, 22 JanuaryPeople who argue that global warming has stopped and the Earth’s average temperature has not risen this century should perhaps read no further. US scientists say 2013 was the fourth warmest year globally since records began in 1880.

The National Climatic Data Center (NCDC), part of the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, says in its Global Analysis of the last year that 2013 ties with 2003 as globally the fourth warmest year on record.

The annual global combined land and ocean surface temperature was 0.62°C above the 20th century average of 13.9°C, marking the 37th consecutive year (since 1976) that the yearly global temperature was above average.

The warmest year on record is 2010, which was 0.66°C above average. Including 2013, nine of the 10 warmest years in the 134-year period recorded have occurred in the 21st century. Only one year during the 20th century – 1998 – was warmer than 2013.

The 2013 global average ocean temperature (0.48°C) was the highest since 2010, the last time El Niño conditions were present in the central and eastern equatorial Pacific. El Niño is a periodic weather disruption in the eastern Pacific which affects conditions over thousands of miles.

The NCDC says global annual temperature has increased at an average rate of 0.06°C per decade since 1880 and at 0.16°C per decade since 1970.

“…For 2013 as a whole, most regions across the globe were warmer than average”

Regionally, it says, most of the world experienced above-average annual temperatures in 2013. Over land, parts of central Asia, western Ethiopia, eastern Tanzania, and much of southern and western Australia experienced record warmth. Only part of the central United States was cooler than average over land.

Parts of the Arctic Ocean, a large swathe of the south-western Pacific Ocean and parts of the central Pacific, and an area of the central Indian Ocean also set new records for warmth.  Small regions scattered across the eastern Pacific and an area in the Southern Ocean south of South America were cooler than average. No part of the world experienced record cold in 2013.

Perhaps surprisingly for anyone who thinks of the last twelve months as memorable chiefly for the amount of rain that fell, the NCDC says precipitation measured at land-based stations around the globe was near average on balance for 2013, at just 0.31 mm above the long-term average.

However, it adds prudently: “As is typical, precipitation varied greatly from region to region. This is the second consecutive year with near-average global precipitation at land-based stations.”

Taking 2013 as a whole, it acknowledges that some regions were cooler than usual. But it says: “In summary for 2013 as a whole, most regions across the globe were warmer than average.

“Notably, Australia observed its warmest year since national records began in 1910, at 1.20°C above average and 0.17°C higher than the previous record warmest such period in 2005. New Zealand recorded its third warmest year since its national records began in 1909.” – Climate News Network

Rainy mountains speed CO2 removal

January 19, 2014 in Carbon Dioxide, Mountains, New Zealand, Rainfall, Soil


The rainswept Southern Alps are young mountains and growing fast Image: Philip Capper from Wellington NZ via Wikimedia Commons

The rainswept Southern Alps are young mountains and growing fast, providing new rock for weathering
Image: Philip Capper from Wellington NZ via Wikimedia Commons

By Tim Radford

The speed at which soil is produced by rain falling on mountain slopes proves to be much faster than science had realised – with significant implications for carbon in the atmosphere.  

LONDON, 19 January – US scientists have measured the rate at which mountains make the raw material for molehills – and found that if the climate is rainy enough, soil gets made at an astonishing speed. And in the course of this natural conversion of rock to fertile farmland and forest loam, carbon is naturally removed from the atmosphere.

Isaac Larsen of the University of Washington in Seattle and colleagues from California and New Zealand took a closer look at rates of weathering on the western slopes of the Southern Alps in New Zealand. They report in Science that, according to their measurements, rock is being transformed into soil more than twice as fast as previously believed.

On the ridge tops of the NZ mountains, soil was being manufactured by chemical weathering (which is scientific shorthand for rain splashing on rock) at the rate of up to 2.5mm a year.

“A couple of millimeters a year sounds pretty slow to anyone but a geologist”, said David Montgomery, one of the authors. “Isaac measured two millimeters of soil production a year, so it would take just a dozen years to make an inch of soil. That’s shockingly fast for a geologist, because the conventional wisdom is it takes centuries.”

The research matters because – once again – it throws new light on one of the dark regions of the climate machine: how carbon dioxide is removed from the atmosphere, at what rate, and where it goes and where it all ends up.

Temperature drop

The Southern Alps of New Zealand are in geological terms young, and still going up in the world: they include some of the fastest-uplifting mountains on the planet. They are also among the rainiest: more than 10 metres of precipitation a year, on average.

Uplift – the process of mountain-building – provides fresh new rock for weathering to work on. Rainclouds arrive on the prevailing winds from the Tasman Sea, hit the mountain sides, rise, condense and release their burden on the western slopes, to generate colossal run-off, lots of silt and rock fragments and dissolved silica, and to nourish dense, vigorous forests at the bottom of the slope.

And along with all this trickling water and new soil is a steady delivery of carbon, removed from the atmosphere’s carbon dioxide.

The hypothesis that mountains play a role in chemical weathering, carbon dioxide removal and climate change is not new. Decades ago scientists argued that when the continent of India slammed into Asia and lifted up the Himalayas and the Tibetan plateau more than 50 million years ago, this process generated conditions for monsoon rainfall that accelerated the removal of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere at such a rate that global temperatures dropped dramatically and ushered in the Ice Ages.

Such an argument is difficult to clinch, but the latest research from NZ certainly lends support to the reasoning that new mountain chains are influential components in the climate machine.

Strenuous research

Larsen and colleagues calculate that the young, wet mountain chains of the world make up only 14% of the land area that drains into the ocean, but account for 62% of the sediment, 38% of the total dissolved solids and 60% of the dissolved silica delivered down the rivers and into estuaries and deltas and ultimately to the sea, where huge quantities of this run-off settle to become carbonate rock.

Mountains, in effect, are agencies that turn carbon dioxide from the air into limestone beneath the sea, and the evidence from the Southern Alps is that this happens more speedily than anyone first thought.

To complete the research, the scientists had repeatedly to take helicopter rides to the highest ridges, hike down to collect a burden of new soil, and then climb the steep mountain slopes again to await the return flight.

Back in Washington, they tested their soil samples for levels of beryllium-10, an isotope made at the Earth’s surface by cosmic rays, and therefore an indicator of the newness of the soil, and the rate at which it formed.

“I’ve worked in a lot of places,” said Larsen. “This was the most challenging fieldwork I have ever done.” – Climate News Network

Amazon forest loss threatens five states

December 29, 2013 in Amazonia, Deforestation, Development Issues, Drought, Food security, Forests, Pollution, Rainfall, South America, Water


Deforestation in the Amazon has accelerated again in the last year, with implications far further afield Image: Ramonbicudo via Wikimedia Commons

Deforestation in the Amazon has accelerated again in the last year, with implications far further afield
Image: Ramonbicudo via Wikimedia Commons

By Paul Brown

Water, food supplies and energy production are all in jeopardy as the Amazon forest is felled for profit, campaigners say – and the damage is spreading beyond Amazonia itself.

LONDON, 29 December – The continued destruction of the Amazon to exploit its resources for mining, agriculture and hydro-power is threatening the future of the South American continent, according to a report by campaigning groups using the latest scientific data.

Five countries – Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador and Peru – share the Amazon, and for all of them the forest area occupies more than 40% of their territory. All face threats to their water supply, energy production, food and health.

In addition, the report says, because of the over-exploitation of the region rainfall will fall by 20% over a heavily-populated area far to the south of Amazonia known as the La Plata basin, covering parts of Argentina, Brazil, Bolivia, Paraguay and Uruguay.

Last month it was reported that deforestation in Amazonia had increased by almost a third in the past year, with an area equal to 50 football pitches destroyed globally every minute since 2000.

The report, the Amazonia Security Agenda, authored by the Global Canopy Programme  and CIAT, the International Centre for Tropical Agriculture, says the prosperity of the region is based on the abundance of water.

There always seemed to be an endless supply of water, but the combination of industrial and agricultural pollution and droughts is creating a once unthinkable vulnerability for the five countries of Amazonia.

Profits syphoned off

The huge wealth being generated from the forests comes with large-scale environmental and social costs. Local people do not benefit, and the profits from minerals, mining and agriculture are syphoned out of the region.

The large-scale economic development of the region causes deforestation. That in turn is threatening not only the wellbeing of the local people but the economic stability of the industries themselves.

Climate change is adding to both the uncertainty and the instability. Increasing temperatures, as much as 3.5°C in the near future, changing rainfall patterns and more intense and frequent extreme weather events will have further impacts on the health and well-being of the population. Energy supply from hydro-electric dams will decline.

Big bill coming

Among those welcoming the report is Manuel Pulgar, Peru’s environment minister.  He will play a leading part when the country’s capital, Lima, hosts the 20th summit of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change in December 2014.

He said: “Climate change is a global problem, but one that will multiply local and regional problems in unforeseeable ways. In Latin America, we have taken Amazonia and its seemingly limitless water and forests as a given. But recent unprecedented droughts have shown us just what happens when that water security falters…”

The report says the impacts of environmental degradation that have so far been felt in other parts of the world are now likely to be felt in Amazonia, threatening economic development and security.

Governments in the region, it says, need to recognize that development cannot continue without recognising the damage caused to the water supply and the climate both globally and locally.  Policy makers need scientists to monitor changes to conditions and the economic risks they pose.

Trillions of tons of water

These findings must be shared between academic institutions and governments so that they can decide how to remedy the problem. Annual reviews of dangerous hotspots are also needed, and cross-border groups of experts who could help both national and regional development plans to be worked out.

Carlos Klink, Brazil’s national secretary for climate change and environmental quality, endorsed these findings. “We are understanding more and more how interdependent water, food, energy and health security are across our continent.

“There is also interdependence between the countries that share the Amazon, which recycles trillions of tons of water that all our people and economies rely on.

“The challenge that we are just beginning to recognise and act upon is one of transitioning to a more sustainable economy – one that values the role of a healthy Amazonia in underpinning long-term security and prosperity.” – Climate News Network