Antarctic ice is under attack from sea and air

Antarctic ice is under attack from sea and air

Satellite and radar studies show that twin forces causing the vast ice shelf to thin and become less stable could have a serious impact on global sea levels.

LONDON, 18 May, 2015 − Scientists have measured the rate of thinning of the great sea ice shelf of the Antarctic Peninsula and have identified the mechanisms at work above and below the shelf.

The collapse of floating sea ice makes no direct difference to global sea levels – but the effects could nevertheless lead to higher waters everywhere.

Paul Holland, of the British Antarctic Survey (BAS), and research colleagues from the US report in the journal The Cryosphere that they used satellite measurements and radar studies between 1998 and 2012 to confirm that the Larsen C ice shelf has lost four metres of ice, and is a metre lower at the surface.

Warmer waters

This is the largest of three shelves that have been under study for decades; the Larsen A and Larsen B shelves have already broken off and drifted north to warmer waters.

The Antarctic Peninsula is one of the fastest-warming regions of the world: 2.5°C in the last 50 years.

“What’s exciting about this study is we now know that two different processes are causing Larsen C to thin and become less stable,” says Dr Paul Holland, lead author of the BAS study.

“Air is being lost from the top layer of snow (called the firn), which is becoming more compacted, probably because of increased melting by a warmer atmosphere.

“We expect that sea-level rise around the world will be something in excess of 50 cm higher by 2100 than it is at present”

“We know also that Larsen C is losing ice, probably from warmer ocean currents or changing ice flow. If this vast ice shelf − which is over two and a half times the size of Wales, and 10 times bigger than Larsen B − was to collapse, it would allow the tributary glaciers behind it to flow faster into the sea. This would then contribute to sea-level rise.”

A collapse of the shelf could occur within a century. When the two companion Larsen glaciers broke away, the glaciers that flowed from the ice-capped continent towards the sea began to accelerate.

Offshore ice, held fast to the shoreline, is a factor that helps keep glacier flow at its proverbially glacial pace. Once it has gone, the frozen rivers of ice onshore naturally begin to flow faster.

“We expect that sea-level rise around the world will be something in excess of 50 cm higher by 2100 than it is at present, and that will cause problems for coastal and low-lying cities,” says David Vaughan, director of science at the BAS.

“Understanding and counting up these small contributions from Larsen C and all the glaciers around the world is very important if we are to project, with confidence, the rate of sea-level rise into the future.”

The study is a confirmation of earlier research in which other groups, using different approaches, have already identified shelf ice loss and have warned that Antarctic melting could accelerate. Satellite-based measurements have also linked glacial melting with an acceleration in sea level rise.

Precision measurement of sea level rise is not easy. Oceans rise and fall with the tides, the water isn’t level anyway, and salinity and temperature differences in the oceans, and gravitational anomalies in the ocean basins, all mean that the ocean surfaces naturally undulate.

And the continents don’t keep still. Land surfaces from which researchers base their measurements also slowly rise or fall.

Accelerated rise

Christopher Watson, senior lecturer in the School of Land and Earth at the University of Tasmania, Australia, and colleagues report in Nature Climate Change that a different approach to the problem suggests that – contrary to previous estimates – sea level rise has accelerated in the last decade.

He and his colleagues searched not just global positioning satellite evidence from the surface waters but also from the land for signs of “bias” in the data. They also used evidence from hourly tide gauges from around the world and recalculated the rate of change.

What they found was that, overall, sea level rise in the last two decades has been at a rate just under, rather than just over, 3mm a year.

But the overestimate for the first six years of the survey had been much higher, which in turn suggested that the rate of rise had actually accelerated during this century, in a way that is consistent with the rate of glacial melting − at least from the Greenland and West Antarctic ice caps. – Climate News Network

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Scientists weigh up new evidence on Antarctic ice melt

Scientists weigh up new evidence on Antarctic ice melt

Southern continent’s mysteries start to unfold as satellite data is used to measure the extent and pattern of increased ice loss that threatens to be a “runaway problem”.

LONDON, 7 May, 2015 − Antarctica has been losing its ice cover at an average rate of 92 billion tons a year since at least 2003, according to new research.

And while the scientists can’t yet say for certain that human-made climate change is the main cause, they warn that the ice loss has the potential to have serious impacts on sea level rise.

The southern continent is the Earth’s largest store of fresh water, but is also its least studied area, having had no known human visitors until the late 18th century. So while scientists have a clear idea of processes at work in the Arctic, the big picture at the other end of the planet has been uncertain.

Heavier snowfalls

West Antarctica has been losing vast chunks of ice, but greater average warmth has meant there have been heavier snowfalls, and the icepack in east Antarctica has been on the increase.

Now Christopher Harig and Frederik Simons, geoscientists at Princeton University in the US, report in the journal Earth and Planetary Science Letters that gravitational satellite data has delivered a method of “weighing” the ice sheet, and identifying a pattern of change.

Most of the loss has been from the West Antarctic region, where the glaciers are increasingly unstable. In 2008, the region was shedding ice at the rate of 121 billion tons a year. By 2014, this rate of loss had doubled.

At the same time, the ice sheet in East Antarctica had thickened – but  the gain made up for only about half the ice lost from the west.

Most scientists would be hard-pressed to find mechanisms that do not include human-made climate change”

In the period since 2003, ice loss over the whole continent increased at the rate of six billion tons a year. West Antarctica’s melting rate, however, accelerated by 18 billion tons a year during the same timespan.

So the researchers did the sums and arrived at an annual average loss of 92 billion tons a year. This could be envisaged as an iceberg the size of Manhattan Island in New York, and more than 1,600 metres high.

What the researchers cannot be sure of is the cause: is a natural cycle of climate at play, or is it a consequence of global warming because  of greenhouse gas emissions from the burning of fossil fuels?

“We have a solution that is very solid, very detailed and unambiguous,” Dr Simons says. “A decade of gravity analysis alone cannot force you to take a position on this ice loss being due to anthropogenic global warming. All we have done is take the balance of the ice on Antarctica and found that it is melting – there is no doubt.

Rapidly accelerating

“But with the rapidly accelerating rates at which the ice is melting, and in the light of other, well-publicised lines of evidence, most scientists would be hard-pressed to find mechanisms that do not include human-made climate change.”

The two scientists used data from a US-German research satellite called GRACE − short for Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment.

The agency linked to the ice loss is a measured warming of the southern ocean that is reducing the sea ice, which in turn holds back the flow of ice on land. So glaciers are melting, and flowing towards the sea at a faster rate.

“The fact that West Antarctic ice melt is still accelerating is a big deal because it’s increasing its contribution to sea level rise,” Dr Harig says. “It really has the potential to be a runaway problem.

“It has come to the point that if we continue losing mass in those areas, the loss can generate a self-reinforcing feedback, whereby we will be losing more and more ice, ultimately raising sea levels.” – Climate News Network

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Flood risk to nuclear sites raises meltdown fears

Flood risk to nuclear sites raises meltdown fears

Sea level rise, storm surges and bursting dams all pose an increasing danger to nuclear power stations as the climate changes.

LONDON, 5 May, 2015 – Safety checks following the Fukushima disaster in Japan in March 2011, when a 10 metre-high sea wall was overtopped by a tsunami, have shown that nuclear plants are at greater risk of catastrophic flooding as a result of climate change.

All nuclear plants need large quantities of water for cooling so all must be built close to the sea, large rivers or lakes. This makes them vulnerable to sea level rise, storm surges and to the possible collapse of large dams upstream from poor construction, floodwater or seismic activity.

Since nuclear plants are designed to operate for as long as 60 years and need around a further century to decommission, accelerating sea level rise and more intense rainfall may present serious problems.

There are currently 435 operating nuclear reactors in the world, many of them potentially vulnerable to flooding because of natural disasters. Examples from the UK, Finland and the US show that the extent of the danger is not always being disclosed.

In Britain, after discovering in May 2013 that one of their reactors would be at risk during a storm of inundation by seawater, the owners, EDF Energy, quietly shut it down. The reactor, at Dungeness and built on a shingle beach beside the English Channel, supplies 750,000 homes.

The company informed the Office for Nuclear Regulation that it was being shut down as a precaution. The reactor remained off-line until 15 October that year while a new sea wall was constructed – losing the company around £100 million in revenue.

Serious problem

Although the company did announce the closure at the time, the extent of the problem and the length of the shutdown were not announced. Later EDF admitted that the emergency works had taken place following an assessment of the flooding danger after the Fukushima disaster.

Stephen Thomas, professor of energy policy at the university of Greenwich in London,
criticised EDF for its attitude. He was quoted by the UK’s Independent newspaper as saying: “If a plant closes for five months it is not just fiddling about, it is something serious, and EDF can’t pretend it is not…we need to be told the truth.”

The same fears were raised in the US by the Union of Concerned Scientists after a report was leaked about the danger to nuclear reactors from dams bursting. According to a report by the US Nuclear Regulatory Authority (NRC), which had been withheld, more than 30 nuclear installations were in danger from flooding. The Commission was later accused of using security concerns to mask embarrassing information.

Higher odds

Among many revelations in the report was the fact that the authorities had known for a decade or more that the failure of a dam upstream from the Oconee nuclear plant in South Carolina would cause floodwater to overwhelm its three reactors, possibly causing a catastrophic meltdown. The odds of the dam bursting were far higher than the chances of the accident that devastated Fukushima.

Oconee is one of the largest nuclear plants in America and has been operating since 1983. Its owner, Duke Energy, remains confident that it could shut the plant down safely in an hour, before floodwaters from upstream could reach the reactors. The NRC has decided that this is sufficient safeguard.

Dave Lochbaum, director of the Nuclear Safety Project at the Union of Concerned Scientists, said: “The NRC knows – and has known for many years – that flooding from dam failures can disable the emergency equipment needed to prevent reactor core meltdown.

“The risk of a serious nuclear accident remains always above zero as a result of unexpected phenomena taking place”

“The agency must require plants to address known flooding hazards and thoroughly investigate other plants that may be at risk and require them to resolve any potential hazards.

“If such a flooding accident occurred, the NRC would quickly determine which other plants were vulnerable and require them to strengthen their protection against similar events. Wouldn’t it be smarter for the agency to do that before an accident occurs?”

More open about its problems is Finland’s Loviisa nuclear power plant on the Baltic Sea, which was flooded by a 1.73-metre storm surge in 2005. Since then four cooling towers have been built 10 metres above sea level to avoid inundation in a new storm surge, and new floodgates and waterproof doors have been installed to protect the reactor. A new road has been built above flood level so that emergency services can reach the plant to pump away floodwater.

Even so, the Rain Project, a consortium of experts on safety and climate change, thinks more can be done to protect against potential disaster. Christer Pursianen is professor of societal safety and environment at the Arctic University of Norway.

He says that although Finland is in the forefront of nuclear safety, more needs to be done to train staff in emergencies and to develop  links with neighbouring countries so as to gain experience in disaster prevention: “The risk of a serious nuclear accident remains always above zero as a result of unexpected phenomena taking place.” – Climate News Network

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Scientists zero in on only solution to climate crisis

Scientists zero in on only solution to climate crisis

Panel of international climate scientists says the world has only until 2050 to become a zero-carbon society − but the rewards for doing so would be immense.

LONDON, 22 April, 2015 – If you want to know what we have to do to avoid catastrophic climate change, 17 of the world’s leading climate scientists have worked out a simple but challenging solution: the world, they say, must turn by mid-century into a zero-carbon society.

The signatories to today’s “Earth Statement” say: “This trajectory is not one of economic pain, but of economic opportunity, progress and inclusiveness. It is a chance too good to be missed.

“The latest science indicates that there are critical thresholds in the Earth system. Transgressing them may lead to dramatic and irreversible environmental changes.

“We are probably edging very close to such thresholds, and may already have crossed one with regard to melting of parts of Antarctica. Sea-level rise of more than one metre due to this event alone may be inevitable.”

Window of opportunity

They are convinced that time is short. “The window of opportunity is closing fast,” says Johan Rockström, chair of the Earth League, an international group of scientists from leading research institutions working on issues caused by climate change, natural resource depletion, land degradation and water scarcity.

“We are on a trajectory that will leave our world irrevocably changed, far exceeding the 2°C mark. This gamble risks disaster for humanity, with unmanageable sea-level rise, heat waves, droughts and floods.

“We would never consider this level of risk in any other walk of life, yet we seem prepared to take this risk with our planet. Conversely, the scientific evidence shows that we can create a positive future, but only with bold action now.”

The 2°C threshold is the limit beyond which world leaders have agreed to prevent global temperatures rising as climate change intensifies.

“For the sake of fairness, rich countries and progressive industries can and should take the lead and decarbonise well before mid-century”

The Earth League’s first Earth Statement is issued as a warning ahead of the UN climate conference in Paris in December − referred to by the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change as COP21, the 21st conference of the parties to the original climate treaty.

The League is supported in its statement − published today to mark Earth Day, an annual reinvigoration of the global environmental movement − by the Global Challenges Foundation.

Professor Jeffrey Sachs, director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University, US, and one of the authors of the statement, says: “COP21 is the moment of truth − the last chance to stay within the 2°C upper limit.

Quality of life

“The key to success is deep decarbonisation by mid-century. Our studies show that this can be accomplished, at modest cost, and with a significant improvement in the quality of life.”

The Earth Statement lists what it calls “eight essential elements of climate action”, which it says any agreement achieved in Paris in December should achieve in order to provide the world with a good chance of avoiding dangerous climate change.

They include the need for the process of deep decarbonisation to start immediately. One of the eight points, which may prove contentious, reads: “Equity is critical. Every country must formulate an emissions pathway consistent with deep decarbonisation.

“For the sake of fairness, rich countries and progressive industries can and should take the lead and decarbonise well before mid-century.”

Prof Rockström and Prof John Schellnhuber, a fellow Earth League member and director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, will present the Earth Statement tomorrow at the fourth Nobel Laureates Symposium on Global Sustainability in Hong Kong. – Climate News Network

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Canada will lose many glaciers as climate warms

Canada will lose many glaciers as climate warms

Climate change could cause many glaciers in western Canada to start to disappear by 2040, affecting people and places that depend on their water.

LONDON, 10 April, 2015 − As the world warms, many of the great frozen rivers of Canada will not just retreat, but could vanish altogether.

New research suggests that maritime glaciers in the far northwest might survive, but more than two-thirds of Canada’s existing glaciers in British Columbia and Alberta could be lost altogether by 2100.

Garry Clarke, a glaciologist at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, says: “Soon our mountains could look like those in Colorado or California, and you don’t see much ice in those landscapes.”

The consequences for the forests, grasslands, animals and communities that depend on glacial meltwater could be serious. The disappearance of the glaciers will also create problems for Canada’s hydroelectric industry, for agriculture and grazing, for the mining industry, for the salmon fishery, and for tourism.

Professor Clarke and his colleagues report in Nature Geoscience that they devised a model – a high-resolution computer simulation – of the glaciers of western Canada that explicitly mimicked glacial flow. Then they tested it with a range of scenarios for climate change, driven by human combustion of fossil fuels and rising atmospheric carbon dioxide levels in the last two centuries.

“Once the glaciers are gone, the streams will be a lot warmer and this will hugely change freshwater habitat”

There are more than 17,000 glaciers in British Columbia and Alberta, covering more than 26,000 square kilometres of the two provinces, and holding an estimated 2,980 cubic kilometres of ice. This puts western Canada as more glaciated than the Himalayas (which have less than 23,000 sq kms of glacier): the entire continent of South America has only 31,000 sq kms of glacier.

The researchers found that maritime glaciers in the northwest would endure, in a diminished state. But overall, the volume of the glaciers in western Canada would shrink by 70%, give or take 10%.

Right now glaciers, most of them between 100 and 200 metres thick, are thinning at a rate of about a metre a year. The peak flow of meltwater would most likely occur between 2020 and 2040. Thereafter, the rivers would be in decline.

Potential sea level rise as a consequence of this, the scientists say, would be “modest” at around 6mm, but the consequences for that part of Canada would be substantial.

The Columbia River, which flows from the interior to the Pacific coast of Washington and Oregon, yields the largest hydroelectric production of any river in North America. And the impact on freshwater ecosystems could be considerable.

“These glaciers act as a thermostat for freshwater systems,” said Professor Clarke. “Once the glaciers are gone, the streams will be a lot warmer and this will hugely change freshwater habitat. We could see some unpleasant surprises in terms of salmon productivity.” – Climate News Network

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Shrinking of ice shelves raises sea level concerns

Shrinking of ice shelves raises sea level concerns

Evidence of rapid reduction of West Antarctica’s shelf ice could have serious implications for global sea levels in a warming world.

LONDON, 29 March, 2015 – Scientists in the US report that the volume of Antarctic shelf ice is diminishing, and that there has been an 18% shrinkage in the mass of some ice floating on coastal waters over the last 18 years.

And because much of the loss has been off West Antarctica, where shelf ice helps to keep the ice sheet stable, it could mean that global sea levels will rise even faster as a result of increased glacial flow into the ocean.

The findings once again raise concern about the link between man-made emissions of greenhouse gases and the dangerous new world of global warming, climate change and sea level rise.

Fernando Paolo, a researcher at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California, San Diego, and colleagues report in the journal Science that they used continuous radar altimetry measurements − taken from three European Space Agency satellites between 1994 and 2012 − to compose a high-resolution record of shelf ice thickness.

Declined swiftly

They found that the total volume of shelf ice – the thickness multiplied by the shelf area – around Antarctica stayed more or less the same from 1994 to 2003, but then declined very swiftly.

The ice shelves of West Antarctica lost ice during the entire period, and although East Antarctica had been gaining shelf ice, these gains ceased after 2003. Some shelves had lost 18% of their volume.

“Eighteen per cent over the course of 18 years really is a substantial change,” Paolo says. “Overall, we show not only that the total ice shelf volume is decreasing, but we see an acceleration in the last decade.”

Shelf ice is frozen sea, so when it melts, it makes no difference to sea levels. But there could be an indirect effect.

“The ice shelves buttress the flow from grounded ice into the ocean, and that flow impacts sea levels rise, so that’s a key concern from our new study,” says co-author Helen Fricker, a glaciologist at the Scripps Institution.

In climate science, one such study is never enough: such conclusions need support from other studies. But the ice volume measurements are likely to add to growing concern about West Antarctica.

“The ice shelves buttress the flow from
grounded ice into the ocean, and that
flow impacts sea levels rise”

One earlier study looked at the potential loss of ice from West Antarctica by examining the “grounding lines” of the terrestrial glaciers, and found evidence of continuous and accelerating retreat. In effect, the West Antarctic ice sheet could be approaching a point of no return, scientists reported.

And a second group used other satellite measurements to calculate that ice was being lost from the southern continent at an increasing rate – around 150 cubic kilometres a year from West Antarctica.

So the Scripps study indirectly backs up earlier findings. It calculates that most mass has been lost from ice shelves in the Amundsen and Bellingshausen seas, off the coast of West Antarctica. These account for less than 20% of the total West Antarctic ice-shelf area, but contribute more than 85% of the total ice-shelf volume loss from West Antarctica.

Slow process

Were the West Antarctic ice sheet to melt completely – a long, slow process at almost any temperatures – sea levels would rise by more than three metres worldwide.

At current rates, a couple of the ice shelves off the western coast of the continent could disappear completely within 100 years, the Scripps team says.

Although the Arctic is one of the fastest-warming places on the planet, and although this warming has been directly linked to man-made climate change, the pattern of temperature shifts in the southern hemisphere has been more ambiguous.

The Scripps team have now begun to think about possible reasons for the loss of shelf ice in the far south, and one factor might be the cycle of El Niño events – natural and periodic bubbles of Pacific ocean warmth that have waxed and waned at intervals and changed the prevailing weather patterns worldwide through history.

“We’re looking into connections between El Niño events in the tropical Pacific and changes in the Antarctic ice sheet,” Paolo says. “It’s very far apart, but we know these teleconnections exist. That may ultimately allow us to improve our models for predicting future ice loss.” – Climate News Network

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Eyes in the sky see seas rising alarmingly faster

Eyes in the sky see seas rising alarmingly faster

Scientists analysing sophisticated satellite data warn that rises in sea level more rapid than expected are increasing threats to coastal cities and food security.

LONDON, 27 March, 2015 − Satellite observations show that sea level rise may have been underestimated, and that annual rises are increasing.

A collaborative effort between maritime organisations and space agencies in measuring sea level rise has come to the conclusion that it has been increasing by 3.1 millimetres a year since 1993 – higher than previous estimates.

The evidence is growing from a number of recent studies of the ice caps that sea level rise is accelerating, posing a threat to many of the world’s largest and most wealthy cities − most of which are also important ports.

Many of these in the developing world have little or no protection against rising sea levels. Some in Europe – such as London and Rotterdam − already have flood barriers to protect areas below high tide or storm surge level, but  these will need to be replaced and raised in the next 30 years.

Delta areas in Egypt, Vietnam, Bangladesh and China – vital to each of the nation’s food supply – are already losing land to the sea.

Difficult to measure

One of the problems scientists have had in getting accurate worldwide data is that the sea does not rise evenly around the globe. This, added to the fact that in some places the land is sinking and in other places is rising, makes exact information difficult to measure from tide gauges.

Since 1991, it has been possible to measure the surface of the oceans across the entire globe by using satellite altimetry, whereby the satellite emits a signal towards the ocean’s surface and receives the reflected echo. The sea level is calculated from the round-trip time between the satellite and the sea surface and the position of the satellite along its trajectory.

While the data from tide gauges provides information about local changes relative to the land, the use of altimeter satellites enables the recording of data on a global basis.

Luciana Fenoglio-Marc, a scientist specialising in physical and satellite geodesy at the Technical University of Darmstadt, Germany, uses these and other satellite geodetic observation data in her research.

She is working with the European Space Agency and the European Organisation for the Exploitation of Meteorological Satellites, and in close consultation with the German Federal Institute of Hydrology and the Federal Maritime and Hydrographic Agency of Germany.

This lends credibility to the report that European coastal cities are not sufficiently prepared for the threats that climate change poses

The increase of around 3.1mm per year since 1993 indicates a marked rise in the average sea level when compared to previously recorded values, which show a sea level rise of between 1mm and 2mm per year in the 20th century.

In its fifth Assessment Report (AR5, 2013), the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) predicted a further increase in the global sea level of 30cm to 70cm by the end of the 21st century, based on a scenario involving a medium rate of global warming.

The report predicted that increases will not be even, but will have a greater impact on some regions than on others. The result could be coastal flooding and rising groundwater levels – an outlook that makes it essential to have a reliable data basis for dealing with the dangers this poses.

Protecting coasts from the rising seas will require considerable adaptations, particularly in such low-lying coastal regions as the North Sea coast of Germany and the many low-lying islands in the tropics.

Another aspect of the work with satellites is measuring ocean density to see how much water expansion − because of warming − is leading to sea level rise. A direct estimation of mass changes in the Mediterranean Sea show expansion to be the cause of an average sea level rise of about 2.1mm per year since 1993.

According to the IPCC, about 35% of the sea level increase between 1993 and 2010 was the result of thermal expansion, and the rest was due to melting ice and increasing run-off from land. But the latest observation shows this may not be true of the Mediterranean.

Too cautious

There is wide debate about whether the IPCC estimates of sea level rise have been too cautious, suggesting that the sea level will rise more than a metre this century – and some have even suggested that the rise could be two metres.

This is mainly because there has been uncertainty about how much of the huge icecap in Greenland, and most of all in Antarctica, would contribute to sea level rise by 2100 – if at all.

Research published since the IPCC estimates were made show that both icecaps will be large net contributors to sea level rise, and possibly much quicker than previously thought.

This lends credibility to the report last week that European coastal cities are not sufficiently prepared for the threats that climate change poses. The report − titled Underfunded, Unprepared, Underwater? Cities at Risk – is by the E3G non-governmental organisation, and it says governments across the European Union are leaving their major cities exposed to danger from climate change, including floods, heat waves and sea level rise.

Since it takes an average of 30 years from planning to complete construction of a major flood barrier to protect a city, the report warns that the problem needs to be given urgent consideration and funding. – Climate News Network

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Deep concerns as climate impacts on Gulf Stream flow

Deep concerns as climate impacts on Gulf Stream flow

Ocean scientists find evidence of an increasing slowdown in the Atlantic’s “invisible river” that could seriously affect weather and sea levels in the US and Europe.

LONDON, 25 March, 2015 − Climate scientists have once again confirmed an alarming slowdown in the circulation of the Atlantic Ocean − the process that drives the current that warms Europe, and powers the planetary climate.

And this time, they are prepared to say that the changes are recent − and may be linked to global warming.

The Atlantic Conveyor is a great invisible river that flows in two directions at the same time. The equatorial surface waters − warm, and therefore less dense − flow towards the north in the form of the Gulf Stream. Around Greenland, the denser and colder Arctic waters sink to the ocean bottom and begin their progress towards the south.

It is the difference in temperatures that maintains the turnover and keeps the climate engine going.

As a consequence, the two-way traffic of warm and cold water redistributes heat around the planet and keeps Britain and maritime Europe in relatively mild conditions.

But as global average temperatures rise, and the Greenland ice sheet melts, ocean scientists have warned that the speed of the ocean turnover could be put at risk.

Greater weakening

Stefan Rahmstorf, an ocean physicist at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research in Germany, is lead author of a report in Nature Climate Change that says they now have evidence of a slowdown during the 20th century, and greater weakening since the first alarms 40 years ago about the possible effects of greenhouse emissions.

“It is conspicuous that one specific area in the North Atlantic has been cooling in the past hundred years, while the rest of the world heats up,” Professor Rahmstorf says. “Now we have detected strong evidence that the global conveyor has indeed been weakening in the past hundred years, particularly since 1970.”

The paradox of the Atlantic current is that, in a warmer world, it could slow down or halt, which would deliver uncomfortable consequences for maritime Europe.

Fears of such an effect provided the scenario for the 2004 climate disaster movie, The Day After Tomorrow, which predicated a frozen Britain and a glaciated US.

“Now we have detected strong evidence that the global conveyor has indeed been weakening in the past hundred years, particularly since 1970”

No such extreme outcome was ever likely, but the Gulf Stream certainly makes a big difference to Britain. A former UK chief scientist once calculated that it delivered 27,000 times the warmth that Britain’s power stations could supply and, as a consequence, the UK is on average 5°C warmer than it might be, given its latitude.

Strength of current

At a number of points in the last two decades, researchers have wondered about the strength of the Atlantic current, but since systematic oceanographic record-keeping began only relatively recently, they had no way of distinguishing between a natural oceanic cycle and real change.

So the Potsdam team used all available data, and “proxy temperatures” derived from ice-cores, tree-rings, coral, and ocean and lake sediments, to reconstruct the story of the Atlantic current − and, in particular, the phenomenon called the Atlantic meridional overturning circulation (AMOC) − for the last 1,000 years.

The changes happening now have no precedent since 900 AD, they say. And the increasingly rapid melting of the Greenland icecap – bringing an increased flow of water that is less saline and also less dense, and therefore less likely to sink − could disturb the circulation.

The consequences of all this could, they say, “contribute to further weakening of the AMOC” in the coming decades.

Atlantic Conveyor: a graph of the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation (AMOC). Image: Stefan Rahmstorf/PIK

Atlantic Conveyor: a graph of the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation (AMOC).
Image: Stefan Rahmstorf/PIK

This is not the first such alarm. The same weakening was identified last year, but at the time researchers could not be sure they were not looking at a natural fluctuation.

Now they are sure, and they suspect that the cooling of the north Atlantic that they now observe is even stronger than most computer simulations have so far predicted.

“Common climate models are underestimating the change we’re facing, either because the Atlantic overturning is too stable in the models or because they don’t properly account for the Greenland ice sheet melt, or both,” says one of the co-authors, Michael Mann, professor of meteorology at Pennsylvania State University in the US.

Climate predictions

“That is another example where observations suggest that climate model predictions are in some respects still overly-conservative when it comes to the pace at which certain aspects of climate change are proceeding.”

Another of the authors, Jason Box, professor of glaciology at the Geological Survey of Denmark and Greenland, adds that “the human-caused mass loss of the Greenland ice sheet appears to be slowing down the Atlantic overturning − and this effect might increase if temperatures are allowed to rise further”.

The stakes are high. If the Atlantic conveyor system continues to weaken, ocean ecosystems will change, fishing communities will be affected, and some coastal cities – such as New York and Boston in the US − could be hit by additional regional sea level rises.

The 2004 Hollywood version – promoted with a huge poster of New York’s Statue of Liberty all but covered by ice – is not likely to happen. But if the ocean circulation weakens too much, there could be a relatively rapid and difficult-to-reverse change in the world’s climate system.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change estimates that there is a one-in-10 chance of this “tipping point” happening within the 21st century.

But the evidence from the Potsdam team is now likely to prompt other climate scientists to go back to their calculations and re-evaluate the risk. – 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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Population increases flood and drought threat to cities

Population increases flood and drought threat to cities

As cities worldwide expand to cope with rising populations, scientists predict a huge increase in urban land vulnerable either to flooding or drought by 2030.

LONDON, 11 March, 2015 − Many of the great coastal cities of America, Asia and Africa will be at increased risk of damaging floods − even without the increasing effects of climate change.

And there will be problems with the other extreme, as scientists also predict that the urban area exposed to drought would double by 2013.

Burak Güneralp, a geographer at Texas A&M University, and colleagues report in the journal Global Environmental Change that by 2030 almost 5 billion people will live in cities, and coastal urban areas will spread out over danger zones of low elevation.

In 2000, about 30% of global urban land – 200,000 square kilometres – was in high-frequency flood zones. By 2030, this will have risen to 40%, or 700,000 square kilometres. And there could also be a growth in the urban extent of drylands 500,000 square kilometres.

Exposed area

So the city regions vulnerable to flood would increase 2.7 times, while the area exposed to drought would double.

The report’s authors says that disasters due to water-related hazards – floods, droughts and windstorms − made up nearly 90% of the 1,000 most catastrophic events between 1900 and 2006 − and because of increasing urbanisation, economic losses have soared.

In the 20 years from 1992-2012, flood and drought hazards caused $600 billion in damage, and in 2013, floods and drought accounted for more than a quarter of all global insured losses.

The message from the authors to tomorrow’s urban planners is: watch where you build new developments or permit new settlement.

“Potential future changes in the extent and layout of urban areas are typically ignored in resilience planning for these cities”

“Urban areas exposed to flood and drought hazards will increase considerably due to the sheer increase in their extents, primarily by socioeconomic forces,” Dr Güneralp says. “In particular, coastal megacities will house a majority of the urban populations, and they will increasingly be hubs of significant economic activity in the coming decades.

“Yet potential future changes in the extent and layout of the urban areas are typically ignored in resilience planning for these cities.”

The Texas team made their calculations with geographic information systems, existing urban maps and city growth forecasts. They did so without factoring in climate change, but they warn that all hazards will be amplified by rising average global temperatures.

Human numbers exposed to a once-a-century flooding event in 136 port cities across the world are expected to increase threefold by 2070, and their economic infrastructure –roads, houses, power and water services, offices and factories – will increase tenfold.

Water shortages

Meanwhile, the number of city-dwellers who could face perennial water shortages is expected to increase fivefold by 2050 − to around 160 million people.

The Texas scientists considered the great delta cities of China, Vietnam and India, but they also included the American megalopolises of New York, Baltimore, Houston and Miami, which are all vulnerable in their own ways.

Their research reinforces fresh reminders – on the eve of yet another disaster risk reduction conference, in Sendai, Japan − that global disasters of all kinds claimed 700,000 lives, changed the lives of 1.7 billion people, and cost cities and states at least $1.4 trillion in the last 10 years.

And 87% of these disasters were climate-related, according to the UN International Secretariat for Disaster Reduction. − Climate News Network

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