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Questions on the future of fracking

April 23, 2014 in Economy, Energy, Fossil fuels, Fracking, Methane, Shale Gas, USA, Water

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Fracking the Bakken of North Dakota: To ensure US energy self-sufficiency - or to fetch the highest price? Image: Joshua Doubek via Wikimedia Commons

Fracking the Bakken of North Dakota: To ensure US energy self-sufficiency – or to fetch the highest price?
Image: Joshua Doubek via Wikimedia Commons

By Kieran Cooke

The fracking industry is the new star on the US energy scene, credited by its backers with bringing down domestic fuel prices and revitalising the US economy. But amid the talk of an energy revolution, there are questions about just how long the fracking boom can last.

LONDON, 23 April – There’s no doubt that fracking – the complex process through which oil and gas is extracted from deposits of shale rock deep underground – has revolutionised the US energy sector. Fracking, says the oil and gas industry, will bring an end to the country’s dependence on fuel imports: self-sufficiency is the stated goal.

Governments in other countries, including the UK, are jealously watching developments in the US: many are seeking to promote their own shale energy boom.

Though the oil and gas produced from fracking are fossil fuels, some green groups see the industry as potentially helpful in fighting climate change: the idea is that these fuels – particularly supposedly cleaner fracked gas – will act as transition energies till renewables like solar and wind power are properly developed. When that happens, the theory goes, we can all embrace a fossil fuel-free future.

Earlier this month the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) tentatively endorsed the use of shale gas, despite concerns that the fracking process releases considerable quantities of methane – a potent greenhouse gas – into the atmosphere.

Depleting aquifers

There are other questions about the future of fracking. The process uses vast amounts of water: the Ground Water Protection Council, made up of various US state water regulatory agencies, estimates that each fracking operation requires between two and four million gallons of water.

With parts of the US like a pincushion, punctured by thousands of wells, that’s an awful lot of water. The US Government’s Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) says the more than 35,000 oil and gas wells engaged in fracking use up to 140 billion gallons of water each year, roughly equivalent, it says, to the annual consumption of a city of five million. A cocktail of chemicals is added to water in the fracking process, and most water used is not recycled.

Moreover, many regions where fracking is most intensive are also areas prone to serious water shortages. A 2013 report by the Western Organization of Resource Councils (WORC), a network of community groups across four states in the US west including North Dakota, one of the main fracking areas, said water used in the extraction process threatened supplies for agriculture and for rural communities.

Bursting point?

“There is mounting evidence that the current level of water use for oil and gas production simply cannot be sustained and that projected increases in use may lead to a crisis”, says the WORC. “Something has to give.”

Then there are questions about the whole financial basis of fracking, with critics warning that the industry is a bubble that will soon burst – “the new subprime” threatening not only the energy sector but also the US financial system.

Billions of dollars have been sunk into the fracking industry. Fracking is a far more expensive process than most conventional oil and gas exploration, involving both vertical and horizontal drilling techniques.

At first shale wells produce large volumes of oil and gas but production tends to taper off fast. New wells then have to be sunk in order to maintain production. Typically, shale companies operate on substantial levels of debt, continually faced with having to service their vast borrowings.

While up-to-date, detailed information on the overall state of the fracking industry is hard to come by, some analysts say production is already showing signs of peaking, causing nervousness among investors.

Export potential

Many operators focus on the extraction of shale oil, which commands higher prices in the market: infrastructure for shale gas – which involves the construction of compressor stations, storage facilities and thousands of miles of pipelines – is still relatively undeveloped.

That’s why, say some analysts, rather than spend billions of dollars developing domestic infrastructure, the US gas industry is urging the authorities to build terminals to export shale gas in the form of liquefied natural gas (LNG) to Europe and Asia, where it will fetch prices up to five times higher. Already two bills have been introduced into Congress aimed at fast-tracking LNG exports.

The fracking industry has repeatedly said that all the drilling and disruption is worthwhile in order to achieve US energy self-sufficiency. But with production becoming increasingly difficult and expensive, and with the frackers anxious to recoup their expenditure by exporting to Europe and China, achieving that self-sufficiency looks more and more like a distant dream. – Climate News Network

Western US faces worsening wildfires

April 21, 2014 in Drought, Extreme weather, Jet Stream, USA, Wildfires

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Smoke billows from the Las Conchas fire, which burned 150,874 acres in New Mexico in 2011 Image: Jerry Friedman via Wikimedia Creative Commons

Smoke billows from the Las Conchas fire, which burned 150,874 acres in New Mexico in 2011
Image: Jerry Friedman via Wikimedia Creative Commons

By Tim Radford

The US is likely to experience more warm, dry winters in the west and unusually cold ones in the east and south-east, an international research team says.

LONDON, 21 April – Wildfires in the western United States are getting worse. In the last 30 years they have become both bigger and more frequent, according to a new study in Geophysical Research Letters.

Philip Dennison of the University of Utah and colleagues found that the number of wildfires that burned more than 1,000 acres (405 hectares) increased at the rate of seven fires a year between 1984 and 2011, over an area stretching from Nebraska to California. The total area left smouldering each year increased on average by 355 square kilometres.

The trend is linked to climate change and the implication is that it is likely to become more severe in the coming decades.
“We looked at the probability that increases of this magnitude could be random and in each case it was less than 1%,” said Dr Dennison.

The researchers used satellite data to measure areas destroyed, and matched the evidence against seasonal temperatures and rainfall over the same period. Most areas that saw more fires were also likely to have experienced increases in drought during the same time.

That the US west has been hit by severe drought and has been ravaged by wildfire is hardly news. The connection between drought and wildfire is not straightforward: changes in forest management practices, for instance, could explain some of the increase. In some ecosystems, fire is part of the natural cycle of growth, death and regeneration.

Climate-driven impact

But on balance, high temperatures and sustained drought tend to increase the risk of fire, and the Utah study is the first to make a point of looking at the evidence over nine different ecological regions – mountain forests, warm deserts, grasslands.

Last year, researchers found evidence of an historic increase in wildfire in Alaska, an increase also linked to a pattern of regional warming associated with a build-up of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

And a second piece of research suggests that the pattern of heat and drought in the west, and winter ice storms in the east of the US, began a long time ago and is likely to continue.

Scientists from Utah, California, Alaska, Ohio, Japan and China report in Nature Communications that an analysis of oxygen isotope ratios in lake sediments and cave deposits across the US and Canada yielded a picture of temperature patterns, and of changes to the jet stream that brings winter weather to the North American continent, over an 8000-year period.

A trend for warm dry winters in the west and fierce extremes of cold in the east of the US seems to have set in about 4000 years ago and may increase as global average temperatures rise.

Reluctant to pay

“A sinuous or curvy jet stream means unusual warmth in the west, drought conditions in part of the west, and abnormally cold winters in the east and south-east,” said Gabriel Bowen of the University of Utah.

Human-caused climate change is reducing the temperature differences between the equator and the poles, with the polar regions becoming warmer. This tends to make the phenomenon of a sinuous jet stream more frequent, or more intense, or both, which means more extremes of weather in winter in the east, and unseasonal drought or warmth in the west.

Although ice storms, drought, wildfires and hurricanes have cost US residents dearly, public attitudes still present a puzzle. Four months after Hurricane Sandy brought unparalleled levels of flooding and destruction to the New York region in October 2012, scientists at Rutgers University in the US conducted a survey of opinion among 875 residents of New Jersey, which saw some of the worst of the devastation.

The scientists report in the journal Risk Analysis that they found strong support for government policies to reduce the likelihood of damage from future hurricanes. A majority agreed that climate change presented a risk to them and their families.

However, only about one in five of those surveyed were prepared to contribute to a fund, or pay increased state sales taxes, or agree to an extra tax on gasoline sales to pay for mitigation. Four out of five were strongly opposed to this idea. – Climate News Network

Science finds new routes to energy

April 17, 2014 in Agriculture, Biofuels, Carbon Dioxide, Energy, Technology

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The research opens the way to more nutritious soya beans grown with less water Image: H. Zell via Wikimedia Commons

The research opens the way to more nutritious soya beans grown with less water
Image: H. Zell via Wikimedia Commons

By Tim Radford

Scientists in the US have found new ways to make biofuel, increase crop yields and exploit carbon dioxide through novel applications of familiar materials.

LONDON, 17 April – While politicians posture, and climate scientists sigh sadly, researchers in laboratories continue to devise ingenious new ways to save energy, increase efficiency, and make the most of solar power.

Darren Drewry of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California and two colleagues from the University of Illinois have a computer model that could design soybean crops able to produce 8.5% more nourishment, use 13% less water and reflect 34% more sunlight back into space.

They report in the journal Global Change Biology that they can achieve all three goals by breeding for slightly different leaf distribution on the stalk, and for the angle at which the leaf grows, using a technique called numerical optimisation to try a very large number of structural traits to get the best results. “And surprisingly, there are combinations of these traits that can improve each of these goals at the same time,” says Dr Drewry.

In the great evolutionary challenge match, plants fight for the light and try to put each other in the shade. “Our crop plants reflect many millions of years in the wild under these competitive conditions,” said Stephen Long, a plant biologist. “In a crop field we want plants to share resources and conserve water and nutrients, so we have been looking at what leaf arrangements would best do this.”

Once future agricultural scientists have worked out what they most want from a crop – and in arid zones, water economy must rate highly – the programme can decide the best configuration of leaf. From that, future breeders could select traits from the enormous library of existing soybean variations.

Lomg-lasting benefit

They could reduce the canopy to let light through to lower levels to increase yield, or they could heighten the canopy to reflect light back into space and offset climate change.

“We can also model what these plant canopies can do in a future climate, so that it will be valid 40 or 50 years down the line,” says Praveen Kumar, an environmental engineer.

At Stanford University in California, other scientists have thought of a way to make biofuel without benefit of fields, plants or sunlight. They report in Nature that they have devised an oxide-derived copper catalyst that can turn carbon monoxide – the lethal gas in car exhausts and coal-burning power stations – directly into liquid ethanol of the sort now made from corn and other crops.

What’s more, they say, they can do this at room temperature and normal atmospheric pressures. The technique rests on the ability to turn copper oxide into a network of nanocrystals of metallic copper that would serve as a cathode in an electrolysis reaction and reduce carbon monoxide to ethanol.

Biofuel is expensive: it takes time, fields, fertiliser and water. It takes 800 gallons of water to grow a bushel of corn, which in turn yields three gallons of ethanol. The new technique could eliminate the crop, the time, and a lot of the water.

Ten-fold efficiency gain

And it opens another way to exploit captured CO2 as a power source. Carbon dioxide can be turned efficiently and easily into carbon monoxide. The new oxide-derived copper catalyst could then turn carbon monoxide into ethanol with ten times the efficiency of any normal copper catalysts.

The team would like to scale up their catalytic cell and see it powered by solar or wind energy. “But we have a lot more work to do to make a device that is practical,” said Matthew Kanan of Stanford.

Meanwhile, scientists in Oregon report in the Royal Society of Chemistry journal RSC Advances that they have tested a new way to tap the sun’s rays, and to use that power to make solar energy materials at the same time.

Once again, the match of nanoscience and copper has provided unexpected consequences. By focusing light continuously on a continuous flow micro-reactor, the researchers have synthesized copper indium nanoparticle inks that could make thin-film solar cells in minutes. Other processes might take hours to deliver the same materials.

“It could produce solar energy materials anywhere there’s an adequate solar resource and in this chemical manufacturing process, there would be zero energy impact,” said Chih-Hung Chang of Oregon State University. – Climate News Network

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

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

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