Arctic melting sends winter warning to Europe and Asia

Arctic melting sends winter warning to Europe and Asia

Patterns of winds and pressure systems traced by researchers to the decline in Arctic sea ice can transport cold air further south and create harsher winters in Eurasia.

LONDON, October 30, 2014 − A less-icy Arctic could mean that parts of Europe and Asia are twice as likely to experience severe winters, according to new research from Japan.

Masato Mori and fellow climate system researchers at the University of Tokyo report in Nature Geoscience that they see a connection between the loss of ice in the Barents and Kara Seas and the increased probability of colder winters in Eurasia.

Notoriously, the Arctic is one of the fastest warming regions of the planet, and scientists have repeatedly warned that the whole Northern seas could be free of ice by the summer of 2050.

Big freeze

The Japanese team performed 200 different simulations of global atmospheric circulation to disentangle the Eurasian winter effect. As sea ice declined in the two Arctic waters, so there arose persistent patterns of winds and pressure systems that, since 2004, have enabled the transport of cold air further south, and made a big freeze more likely.

There have already been suggestions that changes in Arctic sea ice could be linked to the ferocious recent winter in the north-eastern United States, and there is consistent evidence that the great Arctic melt will continue.

“We can expect these weather extremes to continue
to occur, and maybe worsen”

But the researchers also ran their models forward well into the 21st century, and they don’t think things will get frostier in the long run for southern Russia, Mongolia and other such tracts of the interior.

“We conclude that the sea-ice-driven cold winters are unlikely to dominate in a warming future climate, although uncertainty remains,” they warn

Such calculations are provisional, and the Japanese scientists know their findings are tentative. But earlier research has suggested similar conclusions.

Highly damaging

Peter Wadhams, who heads the Polar Ocean Physics Group at the University of Cambridge in the UK, said the study supported other, earlier analyses.

He warned: “Annual average global temperatures continue to rise, but the distribution of temperature through the year is giving us more extremes, which is highly damaging to food production. As ice continues to retreat, we can expect these weather extremes to continue to occur, and maybe worsen.”

Colin Summerhayes, a marine geologist and oceanographer with the Scott Polar Research Institute at the University of Cambridge, also said that more research was needed. But he added: “The counter-intuitive effect of the global warming that led to sea ice decline in the first place makes some people think that global warming has stopped. It has not.

“Although average surface warming has been slower since 2000, the Arctic has gone on warming rapidly throughout this time.” – Climate News Network

Europe faces crunch decision on climate policy

Europe faces crunch decision on climate policy

As European leaders meet to take a final decision on a new climate and energy policy up to 2030, there is intense interest worldwide to see if Europe opts to take a bold lead in tackling climate change.

LONDON, 23 October, 2014 − It has not been easy. Negotiations on the new climate and energy policy involving all 28 European Union member states have been going on for months – and, in some instances, for years.

The European Council meets today and tomorrow in Brussels with a heavy agenda – including the ebola outbreak in West Africa.

The European Commission’s 2030 policy framework on climate and energy that is up for discussion has two key elements:

  • A binding agreement to cut overall EU CO2 emissions by 40% over 1990 levels by 2030.
  • Achieving savings of at least 30% in energy efficiency across the EU, also by 2030.

The long-term goal is an ambitious one – nothing short of the transformation of Europe’s energy system and its economy. The EU will be decarbonised: the plan is to cut EU greenhouse gas emissions by between 80% and 90% by 2050.

There are other ingredients in the package, which is designed to replace the existing policy, focused on 2020 targets. These include commitments to renewables and to the reform of the EU’s ailing Emissions Trading System, moves towards a more integrated cross-border energy system, plus the phasing out of subsidies for Europe’s coal industry.

The devil, as always, is in the detail. Achieving agreement among EU member countries – each with its own distinctive political set-up and economic ambitions – is difficult, some would say impossible. Many compromises have had to be made.

Binding targets

Some countries still have reservations about the whole idea of setting binding emission reduction targets, saying this will increase energy costs and result in Europe losing its economic competitiveness − particularly with the US, where the price of energy has dropped significantly due to the widespread take-up of shale oil and gas.

Poland is one of the countries that will be hard to convince. It is heavily dependent on coal for its energy, and is fighting against any move to phase out subsidies for the coal industry.

A group of countries, led by Germany, wants EU energy efficiency targets to be binding, while others, led by an increasingly Euro-sceptic UK government, say each country should be allowed to set its own energy efficiency goals – and that there should be less interference by Brussels.

Meanwhile, scientists and economists say the new package – even if it is approved − is not nearly ambitious enough.

Professor Jim Skea, a vice-chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, says countries are doing only what is politically achievable, rather than what is necessary to transform the EU’s energy sector.

“I don’t think many people have grasped just how huge this task is,” Skea told BBC news. “It is absolutely extraordinary and unprecedented. My guess is that 40% for 2030 is too little too late if we are really serious about our long-term targets.”

Some business interests remain firmly opposed to the EU’s new energy regime, but many of Europe’s biggest corporations − frustrated by frequent changes in policy and by political interference − are backing a call for more robust action on climate change.

Risks and impacts

“We remain increasingly concerned at the costs, risks and impacts associated with delayed action on climate change on our markets, supply chains, resources costs, and upon society as a whole,” says an open letter to the European Council from the Climate Group and 56 other leading EU businesses and organisations.

With relations between the EU and Russia increasingly strained due to events in Ukraine and elsewhere, European countries are concerned about their energy security and dependence on gas imports from Russia.

A report by the ECOFYS consultancy and the Open Climate Network group says gas imports into Europe could be cut in half by ramping up investment in renewable energy and achieving greater energy efficiency. Emissions targets would also be met much sooner.

A separate report by Ernst & Young, the professional services company, says the EU is in danger of missing out on the financial benefits of developing renewable technologies.

Stable long-term targets and smart industrial policy, Ernst & Young says, can help Europe secure its slice of “a cake that will be worth hundreds of billions of dollars by the turn of the century”. – Climate News Network

Sea rise may still pose a man-sized threat

Sea rise may still pose a man-sized threat

Although new research discounts the likelihood of a two-metre sea rise this century, the predicted impacts of global warming are still bad news for the many millions of people living at or near sea level.

LONDON, 21 October, 2014 − For those who think climate change means deep trouble, some comfort: there is a limit to how deep. Danish-led researchers have looked at all the projections and satisfied themselves that, at the very worst, sea levels this century will rise by a maximum 1.8 metres − roughly the height of an average man.

They report in Environmental Research Letters that they contemplated rates of melting in Greenland and Antarctica, the retreat of mountain glaciers worldwide, and the impact of groundwater extraction for agriculture and industry.

They also looked at all the projections for thermal expansion of the oceans, because warmer water is less dense than colder water and therefore occupies a greater volume. Then they began to calculate the band of possibilities.

“We have created a picture of probable limits for how much global sea levels will rise this century,” said Aslak Grinsted, assistant professor in the Niels Bohr Institute’s Centre for Ice and Climate at the University of Copenhagen. “Our calculations show that seas will likely rise by around 80cm. An increase of more than 180 cm has a likelihood of less than 5%. We find that a rise in sea levels of more than 2 metres is improbable.”

Critical infrastructure

The worst-case scenario, he says, is something that it would be wise to consider for critical infrastructure, such as the Delta Works, a series of construction projects that protect a large area of land in the south-west of the Netherlands, or the Thames Barrier, which aims to prevent London from being inundated by exceptionally high tides and storm surges from the North Sea.

The finding comes with two important provisos: one is that any significant rise remains extremely bad news for people in those regions of the planet that are already more or less at sea level − among them the coral atolls of the tropical oceans, the Netherlands, the Nile Delta, Bangladesh, Venice in Italy, and some of the world’s great maritime cities.

The other is that the man-high limit extends only to 2100, and researchers have repeatedly warned that, once begun, sea level rise will continue for centuries.

The Danish calculations fall into the category of things that could happen: melting in polar waters inevitably means even warmer equatorial waters, and another ominous projection for the near future is that commercially valuable fish could desert the tropics by 2050.

William Cheung, head of the Changing Ocean Research Unit at the University of British Columbia, Canada, and Miranda Jones, an environmental scientist at the same university, considered what would happen if the world warmed by 3°C by 2100.

“The tropics will be the overall losers. This area has
a high dependence on fish for food, diet and nutrition”

They report in ICES Journal of Marine Science that, under such a scenario, tropical fish could move away from their present habitats at a rate of 26 kilometres a decade. Even with a 1°C warming, they would desert their home waters at 15 km a decade.

Altogether, the two scientists considered the possibilities for 802 commercially important species, concluding that such a set of migrations might introduce new potential catches in Arctic waters, but could be very bad news for tropical fishermen, and for the hundreds of millions who depend on fish as a source of protein.

“The tropics will be the overall losers,” Dr Cheung said. “This area has a high dependence on fish for food, diet and nutrition. We’ll see a loss of fish populations that are important to the fisheries and communities in these regions.”

Accelerated rates

Paradoxically, as researchers consistently forecast accelerated rates of melting in polar waters, the Antarctic sea ice in September occupied a greater area than ever before, with the five-day average on September 19 reaching 20 million sq km, according to the US National Snow and Ice Data Centre.

That means that while most of the planet continued to warm, the Antarctic continent and the seas around it were icier, for one season at least.

Such measurements ultimately depend on satellite and aerial surveillance, and according to Claire Parkinson, climate change senior scientist at  the NASA Goddard Space Flight Centre, the anomaly simply reflects the complexity of climate dynamics and the diversity of the Earth’s environments.

“The planet as a whole is doing what was expected in terms of warming,” she says. “Sea ice as a whole is decreasing as expected, but just like with global warming, not every location with sea ice will have a downward trend in ice extent.”

But, overall, the planet is still saying goodbye to ice. The Antarctic’s gain is roughly a third in area of the loss of ice in the Arctic. – Climate News Network

Climate renews famine risk to Africa’s Sahel

Climate renews famine risk to Africa’s Sahel

With population increasing and food demand far outstripping supply, the Sahel is vulnerable to a new humanitarian crisis − and researchers warn that rising temperatures will only make matters worse.

LONDON, 20 October, 2014 − The Sahel, the arid belt of land that stretches from the Atlantic to the Red Sea and separates the Sahara desert from the African savanna, is no stranger to drought and famine.

Now scientists in Sweden say the Sahel faces another humanitarian crisis even than in the recent past − with the changing climate partly responsible.

Writing in the journal Environmental Research Letters, the researchers from Lund University say people in the Sahel need more food, animal feed and fuel every year. But demand, which has more than doubled over a recent 10-year period, is growing much faster than supply.

Fewer resources

Data from 22 countries shows the result: fewer resources per capita and a continued risk of famine in areas with low primary production – that is, the availability of carbon in the form of plant material for consumption as food, fuel and feed.

Human numbers are part of the reason. Between 2000 and 2010, the population of the Sahel grew from 367 million to 471 million people − an annual rise of 2.2% over the decade.

But crop production remained essentially unchanged, so the margin between supply and demand for primary production is shrinking every year, while the Sahel’s population is forecast to total nearly a billion people by 2050.

Children's graves at a refugee camp in Kenya during the famine in 2011 Image: Andy Hll/Oxfam via Wikimedia Commons
Children’s graves at a Kenyan refugee camp during the 2011 famine
Image: Andy Hall/Oxfam via Wikimedia Commons

Some studies suggest that modern plant strains can withstand the effects of drought better than traditional cultivars, although this was not a focus of the Lund team.

They were mainly concerned with the staple crops grown regionally − such as sorghum and millet, which are used as food for people, with the residues used as fodder for livestock − and with the dry woodlands that provide fuel.

They used remote analysis and satellite images to calculate annual crop production in the 22 countries they studied, and compared the figures with data on population growth and consumption of food, animal feed and fuel. This relationship helps to measure a region’s vulnerability.

The study shows that 19% of the Sahel’s total primary production in 2000 was consumed. Ten years later, consumption had increased to 41%.

Reduced harvest

It says several forecasts suggest that harvests will be reduced as a result of the higher air temperatures the region is now experiencing, even though climate change is predicted to result in the Sahel receiving more rain in future.

So, the researchers say, climate change can only increase the vulnerability of the Sahel.

Asked by the Climate News Network whether higher air temperatures alone were likely to cancel the gains from increased rainfall, one of the study’s authors, Hakim Abdi, a doctoral student in physical geography and ecosystem science at Lund, said: “The short answer is yes. Studies indicate that higher temperatures offset both increased rainfall and CO2 fertilisation.

“Additionally, a recent study found that increase in future rainfall in the Sahel, a region where the soil generally receives little nutrient input and is over-exploited, causes nutrient leaching, and hence induces nitrogen stress.

“When we were in our study site in North Kordofan in Sudan, the most common complaint we received from the villages we visited was the lack of water.

“I think that if a drought occurs with an impact that matches or exceeds the ones in 1972/73 or 1982/83, we will see serious consequences − worse impacts than past ones.” − Climate News Network

Outlook palls for fossil fuel investments

Outlook palls for fossil fuel investments

Warnings within the world of high finance are coming thick and fast that the increasingly urgent need to combat climate change means investors could lose heavily by sinking funds into coal, oil and gas.

LONDON, 18 October, 2014 − Like most central bank governors, Mark Carney, the Governor of the Bank of England, chooses his words carefully.

So the financial community – and government policy makers − sat up and took notice earlier this month when Carney, addressing a World Bank seminar on corporate reporting standards, said he was concerned about investments in fossil fuels.

“The vast majority of reserves are unburnable,” Carney said.

‘Tragedy of horizons’

He warned companies, investors and policy makers that they need to avoid what he described as the “tragedy of horizons”, and to look further ahead to meet challenges such as climate change.

Investors are being repeatedly told that money sunk into fossil fuels is not only bad for the climate, but is also potentially seriously dangerous to financial health.

The fundamental idea espoused by a wide spread of influential voices – ranging from the International Energy Association (IEA) to finance funds that have many billions of dollars worth of investments under their control − is that, in order to combat climate change, a large portion of the world’s remaining fossil fuel reserves must stay in the ground.

“Not more than one-third of proven reserves of fossil fuels can be consumed prior to 2050 if the world is to achieve the 2˚C goal,” the IEA says.

Limiting a rise in average global temperatures to 2˚C by mid-century is considered to be the minimum necessary to prevent catastrophic climate change.

As action is taken and regulations are tightened, investments in fossil fuels, whether in a coal mine or in oil or gas exploration and production, will become frozen – or, in the parlance of the finance industry, “stranded”.

In the lead up to a major UN conference on climate change in New York last month, a group of high-roller investment funds − which, together, control more than $24 trillion worth of assets – called for an end to fossil fuel subsidies and for urgent action on climate change.

“We’re not going to be able to burn
it all. Science is science”

Barack Obama, the US president, has joined in the chorus, calling for fossil fuels to stay in the ground. “We’re not going to be able to burn it all,” Obama said earlier this year. “Science is science. And there is no doubt that if we burned all fossil fuels that are in the ground right now that the planet’s going to get too hot, and the consequences could be dire.”

Major campaigns calling for divestment from fossil fuels have been launched. Groups such as 350.org, which campaigns for more awareness on climate issues, have had considerable success in persuading various bodies – from universities to the UK’s leading medical association − to stop investing in fossil fuels.

A number of pension funds, with billions of dollars worth of investments under their control, have said they will either cut back or stop putting money into the fossil fuel industry.

Public pressure

Meanwhile, giant coal, oil and gas corporations have been told they could face a public backlash if they seek to avoid or deny public pressure on climate change issues.

But for those who want to see an end to the fossil fuel industry, the battle is by no means won. It is only just starting.

A report by the Carbon Tracker Initiative and the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment says the world’s 200 largest publicly-quoted fossil fuel companies spent an estimated total of $674bn on exploring and developing new reserves in 2012. And that figure does not include the hundreds of billions of dollars spent on exploiting existing fossil fuel sites.

Coal, the most polluting of fossil fuels, is still king in many regions of the world, particularly in the fast-growing economies of China and India. Coal companies, urged on by politicians, are still investing billions in new facilities.

Tony Abbott, Australia’s prime minister, opening a huge new mine in Queensland that will produce about 5.5 million tonnes of coal each year, said last week: “Coal is vital for the future energy needs of the world. So let’s have no demonisation of coal – coal is good for humanity.” – Climate News Network

Ice loss sends Alaskan temperatures soaring

Ice loss sends Alaskan temperatures soaring

Scientists analysing more than three decades of weather data for the northern Alaska outpost of Barrow have linked an astonishing 7°C temperature rise to the decline in Arctic sea ice.

LONDON, 17 October, 2014 − If you doubt that parts of the planet really are warming, talk to residents of Barrow, the Alaskan town that is the most northerly settlement in the US.

In the last 34 years, the average October temperature in Barrow has risen by more than 7°C − an increase that, on its own, makes a mockery of international efforts to prevent global temperatures from rising more than 2°C above their pre-industrial level.

A study by scientists at the University of Alaska Fairbanks analysed several decades of weather information. These show that temperature trends are closely linked to sea ice concentrations, which have been recorded since 1979, when accurate satellite measurements began.

The study, published in the Open Atmospheric Science Journal, traces what has happened to average annual and monthly temperatures in Barrow from 1979 to 2012.

Most striking

In that period, the average annual temperature rose by 2.7°C. But the November increase was far higher − more than six degrees. And October was the most striking of all, with the month’s average temperature 7.2°C higher in 2012 than in 1979.

Gerd Wendler, the lead author of the study and a professor emeritus at the university’s International Arctic Research Center, said he was “astonished”. He told the Alaska Dispatch News: “I think I have never, anywhere, seen such a large increase in temperature over such a short period.”

The study shows that October is the month when sea ice loss in the Beaufort and Chukchi Seas, which border northern Alaska, has been highest. The authors say these falling ice levels over the Arctic Ocean after the maximum annual melt are the reason for the temperature rise. “You cannot explain it by anything else,” Wendler said.

They have ruled out the effects of sunlight because, by October, the sun is low in the sky over Barrow and, by late November, does not appear above the horizon.

Instead, they say, the north wind picks up stored heat from water that is no longer ice-covered in late autumn and releases it into the atmosphere.

At first sight, the team’s findings are remarkable, as Barrow’s 7.2°C rise in 34 years compares with a global average temperature increase over the past century of up to about 0.8°C. But what’s happening may be a little more complex.

Warming faster

The fact that temperatures in and around Barrow are rising fast is no surprise, as the Arctic itself is known to be warming faster than most of the rest of the world.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says observed warming in parts of northern Alaska was up to 3°C from the early 1980s to the mid-2000s. It also concludes that about two-thirds of the last century’s global temperature increase has occurred since 1980.

But Barrow’s long-term temperature rise has not been uniform, the Fairbanks study says. Its analysis of weather records between 1921 and 2012 shows a much more modest average annual rise, of 1.51°C. In 2014, the city experienced the coolest summer day recorded − 14.5°C.

So one conclusion is to remember just how complex a system the climate is − and how even 34 years may be too short a time to allow for any certainty. − Climate News Network

Australia gets early blast of more extreme heat

Australia gets early blast of more extreme heat

Summer has come early across much of Australia – and as temperatures soar to record seasonal levels in many areas, the bushfire season has started well ahead of schedule.

LONDON, 14 October, 2014 − It’s the time of year when many Australians start to think about eating outdoors or heading for the beach after work. Early spring, and the temperatures are rising – particularly this year.

The Australian Government’s Bureau of Meteorology (BOM) says maximum temperatures in September across much of the country were higher than average, with central and south-western areas experiencing their warmest September on record.

Australia is considered to be particularly vulnerable to the effects of a climate change, and 2013 was the country’s hottest year since records began, with average temperatures 1.2˚C above the long-term average.

In one seven-day period in early January last year, record national average temperatures exceeded 39˚C.

Unprecedented levels

September started off cool in Sydney, Australia’s most populated city, but then heated up to unprecedented levels for this time of year. For the first time, temperatures climbed to more than 32˚C for two consecutive days in the month.

Meanwhile, overall September rainfall was 27% below the monthly average − and the dry conditions mean the bushfire season has come early. The south of the island of Tasmania has fared particularly badly, with fires fuelled by dry conditions and high winds.

Areas round Sydney and throughout New South Wales – the country’s most populous state − have also been hit by bushfires, with fire warnings going out to more than a million homeowners.

Despite growing evidence that human-induced climate change is a major reason for Australia heating up, the Liberal-National coalition government led by Prime Minister Tony Abbott has taken little action on the issue.

It has abolished a carbon tax introduced by the previous Labour government, abolished a Climate Commission that gave advice on the impact of warming, and is seeking to downgrade modest renewable energy targets.

Polluting fuel

Australia is one of the world’s leading producers of coal – the most polluting fuel, which is responsible for a significant portion of climate changing greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs). The country’s per capita GHG emissions are among the highest in the world.

A recent report on Australia’s climate, produced by BOM and the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO), the national science agency, predicts temperatures rising across the country by between 0.6˚C and 1.5C by 2030, compared with the rise of 0.6˚C between 1910 and 1990.

The report says: “Data and analysis from BOM and CSIRO show further warming of the atmosphere and oceans in the Australian region. . . this warming has seen Australia experiencing warm weather and extreme heat, and fewer cool extremes.

“There has been an increase in extreme fire weather, and a longer fire season, across large parts of Australia.” – Climate News Network

Croppers pose new threat to Amazon rainforest

Croppers pose new threat to Amazon rainforest

Analysts in the US say parts of the Brazilian Amazon may face new deforestation as ranchers move from raising beef cattle to cultivating crops such as palm oil.

LONDON, 12 October, 2014 − Despite Brazil having made great strides in reducing logging in the Amazon region, a US study says the country faces a renewed threat to its forests.

The report’s authors − who focused on the Amazon states of Mato Grosso and Pará, where they interviewed ranchers and meat processors − say the cost of raising beef cattle is prompting many ranchers to consider switching to crops such as palm oil.

The study by Datu Research, a global economic research firm based in Washington DC. was commissioned by the Environmental Defense Fund.

After decades of deforestation, it says, efforts to curb the losses have been working. Between 2005 and 2013, the rate of loss fell by nearly 80% − although  the Brazilian government’s figures show that losses rose again by 29% in the year to 31 July 2013.

The beef industry, meanwhile, which had caused nearly 75% of earlier deforestation, has continued to grow rapidly.

Curb on emissions

Researchers have argued that by taxing cattle on conventional pasture and by subsidising semi-intensive cattle rearing, Brazil could curb up to 26% of the global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions caused by the loss of forests. This in turn adds up to about one-fifth of all human-caused GHG emissions.

But the forests face problems from another quarter. The authors of the Datu Research study say pressure from Western companies requiring deforestation-free supply chains for beef from the Amazon risks being overwhelmed by big increases in demand from non-Western countries.

Russia’s recent embargo of Western beef, for example, means it has increased its demand for Brazilian beef by over 10%, creating alternative markets that do not require deforestation-free operations.

The amalgamation of the meat processors has reduced the ranchers’ bargaining power. The market share of the three largest processors − JBS, Marfrig and Minerva − grew from 24% in 2011 to 37% in 2013.

The study’s authors also say many small and medium-size processors report that, unlike their big competitors, they have restricted access to finance, which reduces their ability to monitor deforestation.

Poor regulation of cattle-raising is another problem − expensive for those ranchers who comply with the rules, yet allowing those who ignore them to escape with impunity. Licensing agencies sometimes lose entire applications, and illicit cattle operations can still enter legitimate supply chains.

Falsified documents showing the origin
and destination of cattle are easily obtained

It is not difficult, the report says, to circumvent a system that is meant to track cattle from ranch to slaughterhouse. Falsified documents showing the origin and destination of cattle are easily obtained, and cost as little as R$200 (about US$85).

A major factor in prompting ranchers to fell the forests is the harsh economic dilemma they face. The study found that the cost of going deforestation-free on 145 hectares is R$412,000 (US$167,000), nearly double the R$217,500 cost of simply clearing forest for beef production.

And while newly-deforested land can sustain cattle for at least five years at no further cost, managing pasture properly is expensive because it needs fertilizers, machinery and other investments, which cost about R$50,000 annually.

Land tenure is another problem. Several ranchers told the authors they had been waiting, sometimes for more than 20 years, to receive legal title to their land. Without a title, banks will not lend ranchers the money they need to change to a deforestation-free operation.

Foreign demand

The study found that deforestation driven by land speculation is increasing rapidly in Brazil. A further concern is the growing foreign demand for a range of crops whose cultivation requires the removal of trees. The Federation of the Industries of the State of São Paulo says production of four crops alone − soya, corn (maize), sugarcane and palm oil − will need more than 10.5 m more hectares of land by 2023.

Palm oil is fairly new in Brazil, but it is well placed to grow faster than any other commodity. The government of Pará estimates that, by 2022, palm oil plantations for biofuel will cover 700,000 ha, which would make Brazil the world’s third largest producer, behind Indonesia and Malaysia.

The study says that that only already-degraded land should be used for palm oil, so that producers do not end up illegally clearing new land.

Deforestation in the Amazon region has a considerable impact on the world’s climate as the forest is a vital carbon “sink”, soaking up greenhouse gases. If it stopped acting as a sink and became instead a source of carbon, the consequences could be profound. − Climate News Network

Oceans’ greater heat explains warming ‘pause’

Oceans' greater heat explains warming 'pause'

New technology is helping scientists to re-assess how much heat is being absorbed by the world’s oceans – much more in some regions than realised, they say.

LONDON, 7 October 2014 – One of the most hotly-argued questions in climate research – whether global warming has slowed or even stopped – appears to have been definitively answered. And the scientists’ conclusion is unambiguous: the Earth continues to warm at a dangerous pace.

All that’s happening, they say, is that the extra heat being produced – mainly by the burning of fossil fuels – is concentrating not in the skies but in the seas. They have found new evidence that backs them up.

Instead of driving up the temperature of the atmosphere quite as fast as predicted, the evidence shows that the heat from greenhouse gas emissions is warming the oceans much more rapidly than had been realised.

In some regions the water appears to have been warming, for over 40 years, more than twice as quickly as thought, for instance in the upper 2,300 feet (700 metres) of the southern hemisphere’s oceans.

Paul Durack from the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California and colleagues compared direct and inferred sea temperature measurements with the results of climate models. Together the three sets of measurements suggest estimates of northern hemisphere ocean warming are about right.

Serious under-estimate

But the team report in Nature Climate Change their estimate that warming in the southern seas since 1970 could be far higher than scientists have been able to deduce from the limited direct measurements from this under-researched region. Globally, they conclude the oceans are absorbing between 24 and 58% more energy than thought.

The researchers were able to use data from satellites and from a new source – Argo floats, a fleet of more than 3,000 free-floating monitors which drift through the water and measure the temperature and salinity of the upper 6,500 feet (2,000 m) of the ocean.

A year ago, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change published its Fifth Assessment Report. Professor Chris Rapley, a former director of both the British Antarctic Survey and  the Science Museum in London, told the Climate News Network then of his alarm at what the IPCC said about the oceans.

He said the Earth’s energy imbalance, and evidence that the 93% of the energy build-up absorbed by the oceans continued to accumulate, meant the slow-down in the rise of surface temperatures appeared “a minor and temporary fluctuation”.

Speaking of the latest research, Profesor Rapley told the Network: “The newly reported results of a combination of satellite altimetry measurements of globally mapped sea level rise combined with ocean heat modelling, and a further analysis of the in situ measurements from the Argo buoys, add to the evidence that the so-called ‘pause’ in global warming is confined to surface temperature data, whilst the planet’s energy imbalance continues unabated.

Cold depths

“Once more we need to assess our appetite for risk, and consider seriously what measures we should take to minimise the threats to food and water supplies, the impacts of extreme weather, and the consequences of these to the world economic system and human wellbeing.”

A second study, also published in Nature Climate Change, by scientists at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, concluded tentatively that all ocean warming from 2005 to 2013 had occurred above depths of 6,500 feet, and that it was not possible to detect any contribution by the deep oceans to sea level rise or energy absorption.

Josh Willis, a co-author of this study (which like that by Dr Durack and his colleagues results from the work of NASA’s newly-formed Sea Level Change Team)  said the findings did not throw suspicion on climate change itself. He said: “The sea level is still rising. We’re just trying to understand the nitty-gritty details.”

This study therefore leaves several questions still unanswered. Will more research find evidence that deep water is in fact warming, for instance? Why are the oceans now apparently absorbing more heat than they once did? And if the southern oceans are heating up faster, then may that help to speed up Antarctic ice melt?

One urgent question that needs answering is how much longer the water near the surface can continue to absorb the extra heat which human activities are producing. Another is what will happen when the oceans no longer absorb heat but start to release it. The answers could be disturbing. – Climate News Network

‘Amazon of UK’ being destroyed for grouse shooting

‘Amazon of UK’ being destroyed for grouse shooting

Managing moorlands so that more birds can be reared for lucrative shooting parties is adding to climate change by destroying layers of peat and releasing large quantities of stored carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

LONDON, 6 October, 2014 − Burning large tracts of heather on the peat-covered hills of Britain so that more red grouse can be reared for the rich to shoot has always been controversial.

The revenue from overseas visitors flying in from such places as the Middle East and Japan to shoot birds has long been used by the country estate owners to justify the practice.

But the first definitive scientific report into the effects that burning heather has on wildlife and climate change shows the damage to the environment is far worse than previously thought. The water run-off from the damaged peat also adversely affects the aquatic life in the rivers that drain the moorlands of Britain.

The report was released to coincide with start of the moorland burning season in Britain, when gamekeepers set fire to large areas of old heather in order to encourage new growth next year to feed chicks that will be shot in the autumn.

Britain contains 75% of the world’s remaining heather moorland, and its owners say that without the revenue from grouse shooting it would disappear.

Significant findings

The EMBER report (Effects of Moorland Burning on the Ecohydrology of River basins)  is the result of five years work by a team from Leeds University in the north of England, which is a popular area for shooting grouse.

Among the significant findings was that burning heather dried out and warmed the peat it grows in, causing the peat to disintegrate and release large quantities of stored carbon dioxide − so adding to the perils of climate change.

Professor Joseph Holden, from the School of Geography at the University of Leeds and co-author of the study, said: “Altering the hydrology of peatlands so they become drier is known to cause significant losses of carbon from storage in the soil.

“This is of great concern, as peatlands are the largest natural store for carbon on the land surface of the UK and play a crucial role in climate change. They are the ‘Amazon of the UK’.”

The EMBER project − funded by the Natural Environment Research Council, with additional support from the Yorkshire Water treatment and supply utility − assessed the impacts of heather burning on moorland consisting mainly of peat on higher land.

It compared 120 patches of peat in 10 river catchment areas across the English Pennines, with an equal split between burned and unburned areas. The area studied spanned from near Ladybower Reservoir in Derbyshire to Moor House National Reserve, which straddles the border between Cumbria and County Durham.

The red grouse is a major target during the shooting season. Image: Trish Steel via Wikimedia Commons
The red grouse is a major target during the shooting season
Image: Trish Steel via Wikimedia Commons

Among the numerous important findings of the EMBER project, the researchers discovered that the water table depth – the level below which the ground is saturated with water – is significantly deeper in areas where burning has taken place, compared to unburned areas.

A deeper water table means that the peat near the surface will dry out and degrade, releasing stored pollutants, such as heavy metals into rivers, and carbon into the atmosphere.

Other important findings from EMBER include a decrease in the diversity and population sizes of invertebrates, such as insect larvae, in rivers draining from burned areas, and up to a 20˚C increase in soil temperature in the immediate years after burning, compared to unburned sites.

Dr Brown said: “Even small changes in soil temperature can affect the decomposition of organic matter and the uptake of nutrients by plants. But we found increases as high as 20˚C, with maximum temperatures reaching over 50˚C in some cases.

“Such changes in thermal regime have not previously been considered in the debate over moorland management with fire, but could explain a lot of the changes we see in terms of soil chemistry and hydrology following burning.”

Dr Sheila Palmer, also from the School of Geography at the University of Leeds, and a co-author of the report, concludes: “Our hope is that the EMBER project findings will help all parties involved in assessing the range of benefits and impacts of moorland burning to work together in developing policies for the future management of our uplands.”

However, the Moorland Association, which represents the shooting estates, defended the practice of heather burning to promote greater numbers of grouse.

In a statement, the Association said: “Heather is kept young and vigorous by controlled burning. If left unburned, it eventually grows long and lank, reducing its nutritional value.

Burning cycle

“The burning cycle creates a pattern of different-aged heather. The oldest provides cover for the grouse and other birds; the new shoots, succulent food for birds and sheep. A skilfully burnt moor will have a mosaic of heather and other moor plants of differing ages and the rich variety of wildlife they attract.”

The association says that mowing heather is an alternative to burning, but not always possible because of rough terrain. It is also more expensive.

André Farrar, planning and strategy manager at the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, which has long campaigned for the end of burning heather and the destruction of wildlife to promote grouse shooting said: “Managed burning has a profound impact on the life support systems of the peatlands in our hills.

“This supports the need to phase out and stop burning on deep peat soils in the uplands. It should also trigger a concerted effort to agree how to bring these special places back into better condition, involving Government, its agencies, and landowners.” – Climate News Network