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US cools on states’ climate action

April 1, 2014 in Emissions reductions, Fossil fuels, Policy, Public Awareness, USA

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The federal government is now more active on climate change, the individual states less so Image: Wikimedia Commons

The federal government is now more active on climate change, the individual states less so
Image: Wikimedia Commons

By Tim Radford

While Washington is doing more to address climate change, individual American states are scaling back their policies – apparently to public approval.

LONDON, 1 April – In the last five years – five years marked by heat waves that broke all temperature records, an unprecedented superstorm that devastated New York, catastrophic blizzards in the north-eastern states and sustained drought in the south-west – American citizens have become more divided in their views on climate change.

In 2008 seven out of 10 believed it was their state’s job to address global warming if the federal government failed to do so. The proportion is now down to one in two. The degree of commitment to an opinion has also changed. In 2008, 41% agreed strongly with that position. Now only 19% do so, according to a report from the University of Michigan.

The report, by the University’s Centre for Local, State and Urban Policy, also reveals that a greater number of people are opposed to increases in fossil fuel taxes as a means of reducing greenhouse gas emissions: in all, 71% are against, and of these, 55% are strongly against. Overall, only 5% strongly support increases in such taxes.

Gasoline taxes as an instrument to reduce greenhouse emissions were supported by only 23% of respondents in 2008; this proportion fell to 17% in 2013.

Paradoxically, a large majority of Americans continue to support the argument that a proportion of electricity in any state should come from renewable sources. However, only 29 states so far have agreed such a mandate, and all of them before 2008.

The research is not directly concerned with public recognition of the reality of climate change, although other pollsters and analysts report that opinion tends to shift according to argument and direct experience of climate extremes.

“This less engaged era of state activity has come as American public support for state-level actions regarding global warming has declined”

Instead it is concerned with the more complex question of democratic responsibility for response, and the authors observe that voter attitudes and state policies seem to be broadly in step.

So the question is about whether people think federal or state government should take the initiative.

“Since the turn of the 21st century it has been the states, and not the federal government, that have been the leaders in efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions,” the authors conclude.

“But just as the federal government under the Obama Administration has emerged as a more aggressive player in climate change policy, the states have entered into a period of more limited effort and even modest decline in terms of policies targeting global warming.

“This less engaged era of state activity has come as American public support for state-level actions regarding global warming has declined from where it was five years ago.” – Climate News Network

California goes nuts for water

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

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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

Rockies flora show climate impact

March 19, 2014 in Adaptation, Mountains, Phenology, USA, Vegetation changes

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Sky pilot, alpine buttercup and old-man-of-the-mountain in full bloom in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado Image: John Holm from Leadville, CO, uploaded by Hike395, via Wikimedia Commons

Sky pilot, alpine buttercup and old-man-of-the-mountain in full bloom in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado
Image: John Holm from Leadville, CO, uploaded by Hike395, via Wikimedia Commons

By Tim Radford

An intensive study of the flora of one meadow in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado over nearly 40 years reveals a widespread and consistent pattern of climate-induced change.

LONDON, 19 March – Two thirds of alpine flowers have changed their pattern of bloom in response to climate change. Half of them have begun to bloom weeks earlier than normal, one third are reaching their peak bloom well ahead of the traditional almanac date, and others are producing their last blooms later in the year.

The season of flowers – that feast for bees and butterflies, and a signal for insectivorous birds to make the most of their moment in the sun – is a month longer than it was four decades ago.

This conclusion comes with two qualifications. The first is that it is limited to one meadow in one location in Colorado’s Rocky Mountains in the US. But the other is that it is the product of a meticulous, painstaking 39-year-long study by one researcher. So it follows that since there is not much room for mistake or argument about the pattern in one well-studied location, then a similar pattern probably does apply in many upland temperate zone sites.

When David Inouye of the University of Maryland began his research, he was a graduate student who just wanted to know what sources of nectar were available for hummingbirds and bumble bees. So he started counting flowers about 3,000 metres above sea level in Crested Butte, Colorado, at the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory. And he carried on.

Big picture

He and colleagues report in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that they chose 60 common wildflower species – most of them perennial herbs – and they specifically excluded the rarer species because there was not enough data. So they made their judgement on the basis of two million flower counts, during the 39-year interval in which summer air temperatures increased by about 0.4°C per decade and in which the spring snow melt advanced by about 3.5 days per decade.

And they also specifically looked at the entire pattern of spring and summer bloom: the big picture of what biologists call phenology, the timing of biological events, in one place.

“Most studies rely on first dates like flowering or migration, because they use historical data sets that were not intended as scientific studies”, said Professor Inouye. “First flowering is easy to observe. You don’t have to take the time to count the flowers. So that’s often the only information available. It has taken a lot of effort to get the comprehensive insights needed for this analysis which helps us understand how ecological communities are going to change in the future.”

Biologists around the world have begun to use phenological shifts as indicators of climate, and as a basis for future conservation plans, and all of them have observed a pattern of change.

Consistent findings

European researchers confirmed that plants were either moving to higher latitudes, or blooming earlier in response to global warming, and that birds, butterflies and blossoms were actually heading to higher altitudes. Some have used historic observations by one of America’s literary giants as the basis for their research into climate change, and others have looked at the consequences of changes in the plant timetable for the grazers and predators that depend on specific plant communities.

But Inouye and colleagues now think that much of the phenological evidence so far has underestimated the numbers of species that have altered their flowering times, and probably overestimated the magnitude of change: what matters in the field or the meadow is the sum of all the changes, and not just the first dates of flowering.

Inouye and students divided the meadow into 30 plots, and counted flowers every other day for 39 years, for five months every year. So because of the initial basis of the research, continued for so many years, the scientists had sure data on changes for individual species, including the first flowering, the peak flowering and the last blooms, along with a measure of changes in abundance.

The date of first flowering has advanced by six days per decade, the spring peak is on average five days earlier per decade, and the last flower of autumn has been three days later every decade. – Climate News Network

Climate change ‘raises extinction risk’

February 28, 2014 in Endangered Species, Extinction, USA, Warming, Wildlife

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A weather eye for possible risks: Climate change will make extinction likelier for many species Image: By Ren West via Wikimedia Commons

A weather eye for possible risks: Climate change will make extinction likelier for many species
Image: By Ren West via Wikimedia Commons

By Tim Radford

Climate change doesn’t pose a unique threat of extinction to a species, scientists say. It just makes the risk more likely to become a reality.

LONDON, 28 February – Environmental scientists believe they have a blueprint for extinction. They report in Nature Climate Change that they have identified those factors that might make a species more likely to slip away into eternal oblivion as the planet warms and climate conditions change.

It turns out that they knew them all along. There is, the researchers conclude, nothing specifically different about climate change as a threat: it could however make extinction much more likely.

Richard Pearson of University College London (and formerly of the American Museum of Natural History) and colleagues decided to take a small subset of species at risk, and look closely at the factors that determine species extinction.

They chose 36 amphibians and reptiles endemic to the United States. Reptiles and amphibians almost everywhere seem to be vulnerable for a mix of reasons: among them habitat destruction, environmental pollution and the introduction of new predators and new diseases. The more exquisite the ecological niche occupied by the species, the smaller its overall population and the more precarious its chances of survival.

The researchers examined all the information available on salamanders, turtles, tortoises, snakes and lizards and concluded that, overall, there was a 28% chance of extinction by 2100. But without climate change, this risk dwindled to 1%.

“Surprisingly, we found that the most important factors – such as having a small range or low population size – are already used in conservation assessments,” said Dr Pearson. “The new results indicate that current systems may be able to better identify species vulnerability to climate change than previously thought.”

Carry on conserving

And his co-author Resit Akçakaya of Stony Brook University in the US said: “The bad news is that climate change will cause many extinctions unless species-specific conservation actions are taken; but the good news is that the methods conservation organisations have been using to identify which species need the most urgent help also work when climate change is the main threat.”

So to preserve biodiversity conservationists have to do what many are doing already: focus on species that occupy a small or dwindling space, or are few in number.

Other predictions of future extinction under climate change have usually been based on the rate at which habitat with the right climate will shift or contract, and researchers have been more concerned with how easily species can adapt or migrate and why some species do better than others at shifting to new ground.

In the latest research, the scientists selected a class of animals but did not try to make individual predictions for each species: what they were looking for were general principles.

“Our analysis will hopefully be able to help create better guidelines that account for the effects of climate change in assessing extinction risk,” said Dr Pearson. – Climate News Network

Offshore wind could calm hurricanes

February 26, 2014 in Climate, Coastal Threats, Energy, Extreme weather, Hurricanes, Technology, USA, Weather Systems, Wind power

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It's smaller, but the same principle applies: Wind energy is dissipated as it crosses a wind farm Image: By Michael via Wikimedia Commons

It’s smaller, but the same principle applies: Wind energy is dissipated as it crosses a wind farm
Image: By Michael via Wikimedia Commons

By Tim Radford

US scientists say that very large wind farms could not only withstand a hurricane: they would also weaken it and so protect coastal communities.

LONDON, 26 February – US engineers have thought of a new way to take the heat out of a hurricane. Fortuitously-placed offshore wind farms could make dramatic reductions in wind speeds and storm surge wave heights.

Hurricanes are capricious consequences of peculiar sea temperature and wind conditions, while wind farms are the outcome of years of thoughtful design and investment, and not an emergency response to a severe weather warning.

But, according to new research in Nature Climate Change, a giant wind farm off the coast of New Orleans in 2005 could have lowered the wind speeds of Hurricane Katrina by between 80 and 98 miles an hour, and decreased the storm surge by 79%.

Katrina was a calamitous event that caught civic, state and federal authorities off-guard, and devastated the city. But an array of 78,000 wind turbines off the coast would, according to Mark Jacobson of Stanford University, and Cristina Archer and Willett Kempton of the University of Delaware, have defused its force dramatically – and turned a lot of hurricane energy into electricity at the same time.

Wind turbines turn in the wind to generate energy. The laws of thermodynamics are inexorable, so a national grid’s gain is the wind’s loss, because wind energy is dissipated as it crosses a wind farm. One turbine literally takes the wind out of the sails of another.

Tempest models

One of the three Nature Climate Change authors, Cristina Archer, last year examined the geometry of a hypothetical wind farm to work out how to place turbines most efficiently to make the best of a gusty day, rather than have one bank of turbines turning furiously while the others barely stir.

But this same translation of wind circulation to electrical circuitry suggested another accidental consequence. Mark Jacobson and his colleagues used sophisticated computer models to test the impact of a hurricane on a wind farm, and since the US has both cruel experience and highly detailed records of hurricane events, he and his Delaware partners decided to model three notorious tempests: Superstorm Sandy, which slammed into New York in 2012 and caused $82 billion damage in three US states, Hurricane Isaac, which hit Louisiana the same year, and Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

“We found that when wind turbines are present, they slow down the outer rotation winds of a hurricane,” Professor Jacobson said. ”This feeds back to decrease wave height, which reduces movement of air toward the centre of the hurricane, increasing the central pressure, which in turn slows down the winds of the entire hurricane and dissipates it faster.”

And Cristina Archer put it more vividly: “The little turbines can fight back the beast,” she said. Her colleague Willett Kempton added: “We always think about hurricanes and wind turbines as incompatible. But we find that, in large arrays, wind turbines have some ability to protect both themselves and coastal communities from the strongest winds.”

Double benefit

The conclusions are based entirely on computer simulations. Real world tests are for the moment unlikely, chiefly because wind farms tend to have dozens or, at the most, hundreds of turbines and the hurricane experiment was based on turbines in their tens of thousands, delivering hundreds of gigawatts.

But Professor Jacobson and Dr Archer tend to think big anyway. They argued in 2012 that four million wind turbines in the world’s windiest places could generate at least half the world’s electricity needs by 2030 without interfering too greatly with global atmospheric circulation.

The tempest-taming qualities of really big wind farms would deliver an added bonus: they could offer protection to vulnerable coastal cities. The costs of wind-farming on such a scale would be huge, but then the losses to coastal cities from flooding and storm damage in a rampant climate change scenario are expected to rise to $100 trillion a year by 2100.

The three authors calculate that the net cost of such projects – after considering all the good things that could come from them – would be “less than today’s fossil fuel electricity generation net cost in these regions and less than the net cost of sea walls used solely to avoid storm damage.”

A sea wall to protect one city might cost anything from $10 billion to $29 billion, and that is all it would do: protect that city. A really big wind farm would offer protection during cyclones, typhoons or hurricanes and generate carbon-free energy all year round. – Climate News Network

US urges fishing ban in melting Arctic

February 24, 2014 in Adaptation, Arctic, Fish, Indigenous peoples, Marine ecology, Ocean Warming

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A US Coastguard vessel patrols the Arctic Ocean: Once the ice goes, the trawlers will not be far behind Image: PA1 Timothy Tamargo via Wikimedia Commons

A US Coast Guard vessel patrols the Arctic Ocean: Once the ice goes, the trawlers will not be far behind
Image: PA1 Timothy Tamargo via Wikimedia Commons

By Alex Kirby

Washington is urging countries that share the Arctic to ban commercial fishing in the offshore Arctic Ocean, something that will soon be possible for the first time in human history as the ice melts.

LONDON, 24 February – The countries that ring the Arctic Ocean will soon face a dilemma: can they risk commercial fishing fleets shooting their nets in those soon-to-be-ice-free seas?

Before long – quite possibly before mid-century – the Arctic Ocean will be free of ice during part of each summer, scientists are now saying confidently. For better or worse that will open up huge opportunities for shipping and hydrocarbon exploitation. And for the first time in recorded history it will allow the fishing boats access to whatever has lived undisturbed until now beneath the ice.

A three-day meeting began today in Nuuk, the capital of Greenland, where US officials are hoping to persuade the other nations which border the Arctic Ocean to introduce a moratorium on high seas fishing there (the other members of the group are Canada, Russia and Norway).

David Benton, of the US Arctic Research Commission (USARC), said the Americans were proposing an agreement “that would close the international waters of the Arctic Ocean to commercial fishing until there is a good scientific foundation on which to base management of any potential fishing”.

All coastal countries control fisheries within 200 miles of their own coastlines. The high seas beyond that limit belong to no country and can be protected only by international agreement.

Once the five Arctic nations have agreed a fishing moratorium, Benton said, they would then approach other countries with major commercial fishing fleets, such as China, Japan and Korea, to negotiate full protection for the central Arctic Ocean.

Previous ban

The Arctic was experiencing a fairly rapid rate of change, said Benton, as the permanent ice melted. “That’s potentially causing large changes in the ecosystem, but we don’t understand what’s going on up there. If we want to do things right, this is the approach we should be taking.”

In 2009, the US adopted its own Arctic Fishery Management Plan, closing American waters north of Alaska to commercial fishing until scientific research proves that the fishery is sustainable. Scott Highleyman, director of the international Arctic program for the Pew Charitable Trusts, said that had been a precaution that took account of the way warming was changing the Arctic ecosystem faster than science could keep up with it.

He told the Los Angeles Times: “There are no stock surveys or scientific assessments for fish there. You don’t want to fish a place where you don’t know the fish population dynamics. Any time we’ve done that, it led to catastrophic overfishing.” One example, Highleyman said, is the New England Atlantic cod fishery, which was shut down in the 1980s due to overfishing, costing 50,000 jobs.

An open letter to the Arctic governments, signed by 2,000 scientists from around the world, says that if the Ocean is overfished that will damage species that live there, including seals, whales and polar bears, and the people who use them for food.

“Until recently, the region has been covered with sea ice throughout the year, creating a physical barrier to the fisheries,” the scientists wrote. “A commercial fishery in the central Arctic Ocean is now possible and feasible.” – Climate News Network

Cities’ twin heat problems face relief

February 15, 2014 in Population, Temperature Increase, Urban Heat

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A hot day in Beijing's Tiananmen Square: Cities are usually hotter than the countryside Image: Tactesh882 via Wikimedia Commons

A hot day in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square: Cities are usually hotter than the countryside
Image: Tactesh882 via Wikimedia Commons

By Tim Radford

Climate change aside, cities tend to be warmer than the surrounding ciuntryside. Now researchers in the US have found ways that may lessen the effects of both problems.

LONDON, 15 February – Even without global warming, atmospheric temperatures are likely to rise later in the century: the expansion of the cities will see to that.

Climate scientists and meteorologists long ago recognised the “heat island” effect created by the cities, and made sure routine measurements were not distorted by urban sprawl. But Matei Georgescu of Arizona State University and colleagues think that as populations grow, and cities begin to spread, temperatures will rise anyway.

So, they report in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, they have tested a few strategies to mitigate the rise of city temperatures and perhaps at the same time turn down the rate of rise in greenhouse temperatures as well.

The argument goes like this: roofs, paved roads, pipes, wiring, traffic, central heating and air conditioning, industry and commerce and other such urban trappings could raise temperatures by 1°C to 2°C.

And cities are certain to expand: the population of the US is expected to grow to somewhere between 422 million to 690 million by 2050, with up to 260,000 square kilometers of land newly covered by roofs and roads.

Winter problems

Global urban area is expected to grow by 185% by 2030; much of that will be in China and India. In that same time Africa could see the greatest proportional increase: African cities are expected to expand sixfold.

“Urban expansion within these areas will almost certainly be highly concentrated, exposing highly vulnerable populations to land use-driven climate change,” the authors say.

So the researchers started to think about some simple changes that could reduce urban temperatures. The first conclusion was that adaptations needed to be tailored to local climates and needs.

One simple answer is the “cool roof” – paint it white so it reflects the sunlight, and in California’s Central Valley, at least, the temperature levels fall. In other simulated environments, the measure didn’t work so well: reflective roofs lowered the temperature too well in winter, necessitating extra investment in heating fuels.

“Green” roofs, covered with turf or planted with transpiring foliage, were more effective in other urban climates: these highly transpiring structures did not compromise summertime energy savings by demanding additional energy in winter.

Horses for courses

With judicious planning and careful choice of design, it could be possible not only to counteract urban growth temperature increases but even offset the effect of greenhouse gas warming as well, not just over the cities, but beyond the cities as well.

But there was no simple, one-size-fits-all answer. Geography played an important role in any such calculations.

The study delivered unexpected results. In Florida, the team’s simulations significantly reduced rainfall, a result that would have implications for water supply and local ecosystems.

“For Florida, cool roofs may not be the optimal way to battle the urban heat island because of these unintended consequences,” Georgescu said.

“We simply wanted to get all these technologies on a level playing field and draw out the issues associated with each one, across place and across time.” - Climate News Network

North Dakota promises to turn down the lights

February 8, 2014 in Energy, Pollution, Shale Gas, USA

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By Kieran Cooke

The US state of North Dakota is in the midst of a shale oil and gas boom.  Critics say the industry has been allowed to grow without proper regulation, but oil producers are now promising to be more mindful of the environment.

LONDON, 8 FEbruary – The light from thousands of gas flares in North Dakota is so intense that it can be seen from space. The flares come from oil production units in the Bakken oil fields in the northwest of the state – the site of one of the biggest concentrations of the hydraulic fracturing or fracking industry in the US.

A report last year by Ceres, a US organization which promotes more sustainable business practices, said that gas worth approximately $1bn literally went up in flames and smoke in 2012 from Bakken.

Bakken gas flare: North Dakota waits to see whether industry promises will be more than lip service Image: Joshua Doubek via Wikimedia Commons

Bakken gas flare: North Dakota waits to see whether industry promises will be more than lip service
Image: Joshua Doubek via Wikimedia Commons

The report, Flaring Up, said flaring in 2012 contributed 4.5 million tonnes of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere, an amount equivalent to the annual emissions of around a million cars.

The World Bank estimates that flaring around the world accounts for the release of 400 million tonnes of CO2 to the atmosphere each year.

While the flaring of gas – a byproduct of oil production – has been cut back in many regions of the US, about half of the more than 10,000 oil wells in North Dakota are still burning off their gas.

But oil producers now say they hope to significantly decrease flaring in future and have pledged to aim to capture 90% of gas produced by the end of the decade.

Weak regulations

The North Dakota Petroleum Council says construction of gas pipelines and gas processing plants will be speeded up. It is lobbying the state to give financial incentives to encourage the establishment of industries using gas to fuel their activities.

Oil commands a significantly higher price than gas: those involved in North Dakota’s fracking industry have concentrated on oil production and have been been reluctant to invest in gas facilities.

State regulations on flaring are weak. Oil producers can flare gas for a year without paying any taxes or royalties on it: even after that period, producers are usually permitted to carry on flaring, with small or no financial penalties.

The Ceres organization says the announcement by North Dakota’s shale oil and gas producers represents a significant breakthrough: in 2012 Ceres lobbied investors managing $500 billion in assets to send a letter to the US’s largest shale oil producers to reduce flaring – or stop it completely.

“Reducing flaring will not only save energy and reduce climate-threatening carbon pollution”, says Andrew Logan, the director of Ceres’ oil and gas programme. “It will set an important precedent for shale energy production across the US.

Rush to develop

“We know that investors wield enormous power to positively affect the way industries and companies operate. We don’t have to choose between protecting our environment and growing our economy. The future of our economy depends on a healthy environment.”

Due to fracking, North Dakota has become the second biggest oil-producing state in the US after Texas, with production rising from 18,500 barrels per day (bpd) in 2007 to nearly one million bpd now.

While the fracking boom has resulted in the economy of North Dakota expanding faster than that of any other state in the US, the rapid expansion of the oil industry has put a big strain on roads, schools and medical services: there has also been a big rise in crime.

Concerns have also been raised about oil spills and accidents and the pollution of land by oil-related products.

Don Morrison, director of the Dakota Resource Council – a group that describes itself as the watchdog of North Dakota’s prairie lands – says the oil producers’ statement on flaring is ”nothing more than lip service.”

“They are still getting a free ride for flaring”, Morrison tells the Charlotte Observer newspaper. “Until the state stops giving away these tax breaks, flaring won’t stop.” – Climate News Network

Drought intensifies in western US

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

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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

Shellfish feel impact of more acid seas

January 22, 2014 in Adaptation, Algae, Carbon Dioxide, Fish, Greenhouse Gases, Marine ecology, Ocean acidification, Predation, USA

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Low oxygen and rising acidity in the oceans spell trouble for some species of scallop Image: By Jeremy Keith from Brighton & Hove, UK

Low oxygen and rising acidity in the oceans spell trouble for some species of scallop
Image: By Jeremy Keith from Brighton & Hove, UK, via Wikimedia Commons

By Tim Radford

Researchers in the US have discovered that several more marine species are being damaged by the effects of the increasing acidity of the oceans, a direct consequence of greenhouse gas emissions.

LONDON, 22 January – Ocean acidification brings fresh problems for Californian native oysters. Like some creature from a horror movie, a driller killer threatens Ostrea lurida, the Olympia oyster that dwells in the estuaries of western North America.

Many species are likely to face problems as pH levels (which measure how acid a liquid is) change and ocean chemistry begins to alter as the world warms and ever more dissolved carbon dioxide flows into the sea and adds to its acidity.

Researchers have observed that coral skeletons are affected and larval oysters find it more difficult to build their first shell structures. The change towards greater acidity seems to trigger learning difficulties in juvenile rockfish  and make it harder for the conch snail to leap out of the way of a predator’s poisoned dart. And three separate research papers bring yet more bad news for yet more sea creatures.

Eric Sanford and colleagues at the University of California, Davis, report in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B that under more acid water conditions, the Olympia oyster experiences a 20% increase in drilling predation.

Researchers conducted a direct experiment involving oysters reared in normal conditions, oysters reared in water high in dissolved carbon dioxide, and an invasive predator from a distant ocean called Urosalpinx cinerea, the Atlantic oyster drill. Their assumption was that bivalves (creatures with a hinged shell) in more acid water would grow thinner shells, and that drilling predators would selectively choose the victims that would be easiest to drill into.

Problems multiply

It didn’t work quite like that – the experimental oysters did not have thinner shells. But these oysters were victims all the same. They were 30% to 40% smaller than the control group of oysters in the other tank “and these smaller individuals were consumed at disproportionately greater rates”, the authors say. The invasive snails, on the other hand, were not bothered by the change in water pH.

The results indicate, say the researchers, that ocean acidification “can negatively affect the early life stages of Olympia oysters.” They have been subjected already to overfishing, disease, habitat loss, pollution and hypoxia, when water is so rich in nutrients that it becomes starved of oxygen and turns into a dead zone where nothing much can survive for long. Extra vulnerability to an invasive driller killer is, the scientists carefully say in non-emotive language, “a relatively novel stressor for this species.”

Hypoxia, too, turns out to be a problem made worse by carbon dioxide. Low oxygen waters are already acidified waters, say Christopher Gobler of Stony Brook University in the US and colleagues in the Public Library of Science journal PLOS One.

They report that a combination of low oxygen and low pH led to higher rates of death and slower growth for young bay scallops and hard clams than expected from either individual factor. “Low oxygen zones in coastal and open ocean ecosystems have expanded in recent decades, a trend that will accelerate with climatic warming”, says Gobler.

Threat to algae

“There is a growing recognition that low oxygen regions of the ocean are also acidified, a condition that will intensify with rising levels of atmospheric CO2 due to the burning of fossil fuels causing ocean acidification. Hence the low oxygen, low pH conditions used in this study will be increasingly common in the world’s oceans in the future.”

And ocean acidification is not just making life good for predators and bad for the prey, it could be threatening to alter the basic biodiversity of the sea. Sophie McCoy of the University of Chicago reports in Ecology Letters that she and Cathy Pfister looked at the dynamics of coralline algae that live around Tatoosh Island, Washington, on the Pacific coast of the US.

These little creatures, like oysters, grow calcium carbonate skeletons. In previous observations in which four species were transplanted to these waters, one species called Pseudolithophyllum muricatum emerged as the undisputed winner. In the 1980s, its skeleton grew twice as thick as its competitors’.

In the latest round of tests, there was no clear winner: no species was dominant, and P. muricatum won less than 25% of the time – a response, the authors think, to changes in the pH of the sea water just in the last 12 years.

The total energy available to the organisms was the same, but their responses were different: those that needed to make more calcium carbonate tissue were under more stress than those that did not.

This experiment was a “real world” test rather than a laboratory experiment. “Field sites like Tatoosh are unique because we have a lot of historical ecological data going back decades,” said McCoy. “I think it is really important to use that in nature to understand what is going on.” – Climate News Network