Rare water data drives heating debate underground

Rare water data drives heating debate underground

Global warming’s effects are being felt even below the Earth’s surface, as researchers find that temperatures are rising not only in oceans, but also in subterranean freshwater sources.

LONDON, 25 November, 2014 − Two great bodies of water have begun to feel the heat. European scientists report that they have evidence that the planet’s groundwater – the subterranean ocean of freshwater that bubbles into wells, freshens desert springs, scours great underground limestone caverns and makes possible the irrigation of crops in the world’s farmlands – may be responding to climate change.

And out on the open sea, average global surface temperatures in the northern summer of 2014 were the highest ever recorded.

Both claims will require verification from other sources: in science, one set of measurements is never enough.

Precious resource

In the case of the groundwater temperature rises, this will not be easy. Although water authorities everywhere are concerned about the depletion of this precious resource, and there are routine chemical and microbiological checks, sustained records of groundwater temperatures are rare.

But a team from ETH Zurich in Switzerland and Karlsruhe Institute of Technology in Germany had an advantage: they had data from four wells near the German cities of Cologne and Karlsruhe, where temperature records have been maintained systematically for nearly 40 years.

They report in the journal Hydrology and Earth System Sciences that, after a detailed study of evidence from the four sources, they were able to identify a pattern of very small but significant rises in the groundwater temperatures that mirrored – but came later than – changes in average temperatures above ground. That is, even far below the surface, global warming is making its presence felt.

Research like this is not easy, and there will be plenty of questions and some argument about how they reached these conclusions.

Warming stages

Groundwater is ancient rainfall that seeped down into the bedrock and filled the pores in the soil. As it is drawn from one source, it moves to fill the gap, so there will be questions about how “old” the water is, how swiftly it is being replenished, how well insulated it is from the surface, and how close it might be to seepage from surface rivers.

However, the data reveals not just a rise in temperatures over the four decades, but also a series of warming stages that echo patterns of warming in the atmosphere far above.

“Global warming is reflected directly in the groundwater, albeit damped and with a certain time lag,” says Peter Bayer, senior scientist in engineering geology at ETH Zurich.

Meanwhile, Axel Timmermann, professor of oceanography at the University of Hawaii’s International Pacific Research Centre, says that global mean sea surface temperatures in 2014 were the highest ever recorded.

They were higher even than those of 1988, a year marked by a powerful El Niño event that warmed the Pacific and reversed climate patterns, with sometimes catastrophic consequences in the form of floods, droughts, windstorms, forest fires and harvest failures.

Unexpected slowdown

The 2014 ocean warming may have brought to an end the so-called global warming hiatus, in which average surface air temperatures rose only very slowly between 2000 and 2013.

While there have been a number of possible explanations for this unexpected slowdown – unexpected because greenhouse emissions have increased in that time – there has been no clinching argument. But Timmerman says that the long pause may have come to an end.

He says: “The 2014 global ocean warming is mostly due to the North Pacific, which has warmed far beyond any recorded value and has shifted hurricane tracks, weakened trade winds and produced coral bleaching in the Hawaiian islands.

“Record-breaking greenhouse gas concentrations and anomalously weak North Pacific summer trade winds, which usually cool the ocean surface, have contributed further to the rise in sea surface temperatures. The warm temperatures now extend in a wide swath from just north of Papua New Guinea to the Gulf of Alaska.” – Climate News Network

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Green Revolution trebles human burden on planet

Green Revolution trebles human burden on planet

American researchers say seasonal swings in temperatures and CO2 levels are evidence of how agricultural advances and the population explosion have tilted nature’s balance.

LONDON, 22 November, 2014 – Humans are changing not just climate overall, but also the difference between seasons in any given year.

Researchers in the US believe they now know why global warming has begun to announce itself both in annual rises in temperature and in the seasonal records of carbon dioxide in the northern hemisphere − the same seasonal variation in atmospheric chemistry that also contains within it the signature of the Green Revolution and the 20th-century population explosion.

And it’s all because the natural swing from high carbon dioxide levels to low each year has become more dramatic in the last 50 years.

Each year, in the northern hemisphere growing season, the CO2 levels drop as plants grow and soak up the atmospheric carbon.

Inexorable pattern

Later in the year, as leaves fall, crops are harvested and consumed, and soil is freshly tilled, most of that CO2 gets back into the atmosphere. It’s an inexorable pattern that follows the seasons.

Systematic measurements of CO2 levels began in 1958, and they show that swings within each year from high to low, and back again, have increased in amplitude by 50%, and go on increasing by 0.3% every year.

Two groups of researchers report that they concentrated on the northern hemisphere because that’s the part of the globe where most of the continental landmass, most of the vegetation and the greatest part of the human population is concentrated.

And both groups identified the cause of the widening CO2 swing as being as mix of steadily higher temperatures and the Green Revolution – the dramatic advance in agricultural productivity that fuelled the trebling of the human burden of the planet in less than a human lifetime.

“Changes in the way we manage the land can literally alter the breathing of the biosphere”

Josh Gray, research assistant professor in the Department of Earth and Environment at Boston University, US, reports with colleagues in Nature journal that they have gone one better by identifying the crop that makes the biggest difference: maize, or corn.

Together, the world harvest of maize, wheat, rice and soybean grew by 240% between 1961 and 2008, increasing the uptake of carbon during that time by 330 million tonnes.

Maize, grown ever-more intensively in the mid-western US and in China, is responsible for two-thirds of this change, the researchers calculate. Dr Gray calls the super-productive croplands “ecosystems on steroids”.

Carbon cycle

Ning Zeng, professor in the Department of Atmospheric and Oceanic Science at the University of Maryland, US, and lead author of the other Nature paper, reports that he and colleagues devised a new model of the terrestrial carbon cycle to explore the increase in seasonal CO2 swings, and the role of the Green Revolution in these swings.

There are several reasons for the increasing swings: average temperatures have started to rise; there is the natural “fertilization” effect of carbon dioxide, as some plants respond well to higher levels; and as the Arctic regions have thawed, more growing land is available − and vegetation has been marching north.

But a fourth reason is that farmers are now producing more yield from the same land, and the same crops. Between 1961 and 2010, the area of land planted with the world’s great crops grew by 20%, but – with improved strains, better fertilizers, and more irrigation − yield grew threefold. So more CO2 was taken up each year, and more released.

“What we are seeing is the effect of the Green Revolution on Earth’s metabolism,” said Professor Zeng. “Changes in the way we manage the land can literally alter the breathing of the biosphere.” – Climate News Network

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Fall of ancient civilization offers climate warning

Fall of ancient civilization offers climate warning

Prolonged drought – a familiar climate-related issue in the modern world – is believed by scholars to have been a key factor in the implosion of the powerful Assyrian empire 2,700 years ago.

LONDON, 19 November, 2014 − Two scholars have a new explanation for the collapse of one of the great Bronze Age civilizations. The Assyrian empire of the 7th century BC – based in Nineveh, in what is now northern Iraq – may have collapsed at least in part because of a population explosion and climate change in the form of sustained drought.

And, they point out, there are lessons in ancient history for the modern world as well.

Adam Schneider, an anthropologist at the University of California, San Diego, and Selim Adali, of the Research Centre for Anatolian Civilizations at Koç University in Istanbul, Turkey, put forward their proposal in the journal Climatic Change.

They say that demographic and climatic factors played an indirect but significant role in the collapse of a civilization chronicled not just in clay tablets and archaeological marvels but in the Hebrew scriptures and the Christian Old Testament.

Historic links

The climate change theory of history is now well established. In the last two years, researchers have linked both the dissolution of the Minoan empire in the ancient Mediterranean and the collapse of Levantine civilizations of the near East and the Harappan civilization of the Indus Valley to sustained drought.

Others have identified seasons of plentiful rainfall as the impetus for the conquest of Russia, China and Persia by the Mongol horsemen of Genghis Khan.

The connections with modern conflict, too, have been made before. In 21 studies of upheaval and conflict in modern societies, researchers have found clear links with rises in temperatures.

And just days after the Assyrian study was published in Climatic Change, research in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences identified a link between temperature and rainfall anomalies in sub-Saharan Africa and violence in the region during the last 30 years.

“Hindsight . . . allows us to piece together from the past what can go wrong if we choose not to enact policies that promote longer-term sustainability”

Schneider and Adali looked through what climate scientists call “proxy evidence” of rainfall patterns in the Tigris Valley of northern Iraq more than two and a half millennia ago.

They considered the evidence of lake sediments and confirmed that many parts of the region experienced a “short but widespread dry phase” during the mid-to-late 7th century BC.

They also unearthed written evidence from 666 BC that welcomed “copious rains, huge floods, a fine rate of exchange…” to mark a new accession to the throne. But by 657 BC, another letter stated that “this year’s rains were diminished and no harvest was reaped”.

In fact, Assyrian engineers had established an impressive series of canals, waterways, cisterns and reservoirs to conserve water, and archaeological finds reveal that the imperial farmers grew barley and wheat, grapes, cucumbers, pomegranates, flax and cotton among many other crops.

But demand, too, was on the increase. The empire of built by Sennacherib, a king identified in biblical chronicles, had ambitions for the local populations. In at least 20 known acts of mass deportation, half a million people were resettled in the heartland.

Nineveh grew fivefold in area, and the population growth, the scientists think, placed significant strains on the immediate supplies of food in the region.

Conflict and insurrection

Within five years of the 657 BC drought, the Assyrian economy was struggling, and conflict and insurrection had broken out. By 609 BC, a remarkable civilization had been destroyed.

A multi-year drought, the researchers argue, “would have placed serious stress on the agricultural economy of the Assyrian state and, by extension, upon the imperial political system”.

They see parallels with today, as the fate of the Assyrian empire offers lessons for modern society about the hazards of valuing short-term economic growth over long-term security and sustainability.

“The Assyrians can be ‘excused’ to some extent,” they conclude, “for focusing on short-term economic or political goals that increased their risk of being negatively impacted by climate change, given their technological capacity and their level of scientific understanding about how the natural world works.

“We, however, have no such excuses, and we also possess the additional benefit of hindsight, which allows us to piece together from the past what can go wrong if we choose not to enact policies that promote longer-term sustainability.” – Climate News Network

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Climate threatens striking change to US weather

Climate threatens striking change to US weather

Global warming is expected to have an explosive effect across America as scientists predict that there could be a 50% increase this century in the frequency of lightning strikes.

LONDON, 17 November, 2014 − Climate scientists foresee a brighter future for America − but no one will thank them for it, as global warming is expected to increase the total number of lightning strikes across the US this century by 50%.

David Romps, assistant professor in the Department of Earth and Planetary Science at the University of California, Berkeley, and colleagues report in Science journal that they looked at predictions of rainfall, snow, hail and cloud buoyancy in 11 different climate models. They concluded that the outcome could only be more atmospheric electrical action.

Right now, the continental US is hit about 25 million times a year by lightning.

But Dr Romps said: “With warming, thunderstorms become more explosive. This has to do with water vapour, which is the fuel for explosive deep convection in the atmosphere. Warming causes there to be more water vapour in the atmosphere, and if you have more fuel lying around, when you get ignition, it can go big time.”

More evaporation

Warmer weather means more evaporation. But higher temperatures also mean that the atmosphere’s capacity to hold water vapour increases as well, with a potential for more clouds, more flow of air, and more precipitation.

The volume of water hitting the ground – as hail, snow, sleet or rain – offers a measure of the convection properties of the atmosphere, and convection generates lightning.

Hundreds of people are struck by lightning each year, and scores are killed, but these remain a very small proportion of accidental deaths in any year. The real hazard might lie far from populated areas: half of all wildfires are caused by lightning strikes.

Lightning also generates more nitrous oxides in the atmosphere, which could also affect atmospheric chemistry. So it makes sense to know what to expect as the planet warms.

“We already know that . . . the more precipitation,
the more lightning”

The scientists examined US Weather Service data for 2011, and the counts from the National Lightning Detection Network, to see if they could confirm a link between cloud buoyancy and precipitation as a predictor of lightning. They also looked at data from balloon-borne instruments released every day in the US to measure the rate at which clouds rise.

As a result, they calculate that 77% of the variation in lightning strikes could be predicted from knowledge of the two conditions.

“Lightning is caused by charge separation within clouds, and to maximise charge separation you have to loft more water vapour and heavy ice particles into the atmosphere,” Dr Romps said. “We already know that the faster the updrafts, the more lightning, and the more precipitation, the more lightning.”

Potential energy

Their climate models predicted, on average, an 11% increase in convective available potential energy for every extra degree Celsius rise in average temperatures. They calculated that if average planetary temperatures were to rise by 4°C, the potential for lightning strikes would go up by 50%.

Their calculations are limited to the US mainland and may not apply equally to other parts of the planet. Overall conditions, and therefore the potential for thunderstorms, tend to vary widely.

But the continental US – the predictions do not include Hawaii or Alaska − is flanked by two oceans and with a subtropical sea to its south. It is distinguished by a sharp temperature gradient and dramatic topography, and is already a forge for fierce and destructive tornadoes, and a target for frequent hurricanes.

So the barometer remains set for future storms, with added lightning. – Climate News Network

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Science offers new view of human survival hopes

Science offers new view of human survival hopes

Astrophysicists say questions about the sustainability of civilisation on our high-tech planet may soon be answered scientifically as a result of new data about the Earth and other planets in its galaxy.

LONDON, 15 November, 2014 − Two American scientists have just sought to find a way of answering the ultimate global warming question: how long can any species last once it has discovered how to exploit fossil fuels and change the conditions under which it first evolved?

In doing so, they have sidestepped the great challenge of astrobiology. This is that all thinking about life in the universe is handicapped by a simple problem: because there is only one so-far identified instance of life in the universe, it is impossible to arrive at a generalisation.

But Adam Frank, assistant professor of astrophysics at the University of Rochester in New York, and Woodruff Sullivan, professor of astronomy at the University of Washington in Seattle, propose a way round the problem.

Energy intensive

They report in The Anthropocene journal that since they were interested in the potential lifetimes of human, humanoid or other intelligent species with energy intensive technology (SWEIT), they could start by using a famous equation to estimate the number of such species that exist now or have already gone extinct.

The Drake Equation is the intellectual basis of the search for extraterrestrial civilisation. It calculates the number of possible planetary systems in all the known galaxies, the proportion of these that might be hospitable to life, and the proportion of habitable planets that might be fit for the emergence of a technically-advanced or SWEIT civilisation.

They reason that, even if the chances of a high-technology species are just one in a thousand trillion, that means that a thousand such SWEIT civilisations exist or have existed in our local region of the universe.

Prof Frank says: “That’s enough to start thinking about statistics − like what is the average lifetime of a species that starts harvesting energy efficiently and uses it to develop high technology?”

“We have no idea how long a technological civilisation like our own can last”

But another part of the puzzle is also uncertain. “We have no idea how long a technological civilisation like our own can last,” Frank says. “Is it 200 years, 500 years or 50,000 years? Answering this question is at the root of all our concerns about the sustainability of human society.

“Are we the first and the only technologically-intensive civilisation in the entire history of the universe? If not, shouldn’t we stand to learn something from the past successes and failures of these other species?”

Human threats

The two authors considered the ways in which human action could threaten human civilisation, including: the partial or complete collapse of 95% of all fish stocks in the last 50 years; the diminishing supplies of fresh water; the loss of rainforest habitat; the acidification of the oceans; and, of course, the change to the climate system. All are a consequence of the use of energy-intensive technology.

They also contemplated the relatively new science of sustainability: how long can such action continue? They note that 20,000 scientific papers that address sustainability have appeared in the last 40 years, and the numbers of these articles has doubled every eight years.

Then they looked at what little could be known from astrobiology − the study of life beyond the solar system. None has been found, but in the last two decades a huge number of extrasolar planets have been identified. The local solar system has been explored in detail, and the Earth’s own history is now well studied.

So astronomers could now be in a position to make judgments about the potential conditions for life on the “exoplanets” identified so far. For the purpose of estimating an average lifetime for an extraterrestrial species, it wouldn’t much matter what form the life took, it would affect entropy, the thermodynamic balance of order and disorder.

“If they use energy to produce work, they’re generating entropy,” says Prof Frank. “There’s no way round that, whether they’re human-looking Star Trek creatures with antennae on their foreheads or they’re nothing more than single-cell organisms with collective mega-intelligence.

Feedback effects

“And that entropy will almost certainly have strong feedback effects on their planet’s habitability, as we’re beginning to see here on Earth.”

With this in mind, the report’s authors started to consider the sustainability lessons of Earth’s own history − marked by five mass extinction events in the past 500 million years – and a set of recent human-driven changes so marked that some geologists have labelled the present era the Anthropocene. Their conclusions are less than optimistic.

“Although such rapid changes are not a new phenomenon, the present instance is the first (we know of) where the primary agent of causation is knowingly watching it all happen and pondering options for its own future,” they conclude.

“One point is clear: both astrobiology and sustainability science tell us that the Earth will be fine in the long run. The prospects are, however, less clear for Homo sapiens.” − Climate News Network

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UK ignores pledge to end fossil fuel support

UK ignores pledge to end fossil fuel support

Despite promises to phase out subsidies to the coal, oil and gas industries, a new report says the UK and other G20 governments are still providing them with massive financial help.

LONDON, 12 November, 2014 − Leaders of the G20 group of industrialised countries agreed in 2009 to phase out subsidies to fossil fuels “in the medium term”, and repeated that promise in 2013. Yet a new report says that the UK is still giving close to £1.2 billion ($1.9bn) annually to support oil, coal and gas.

The Overseas Development Institute thinktank (ODI) and the Oil Change International (OCI) campaign group say in their joint report, “The Fossil Fuel Bailout”, that G20 governments are estimated to be spending $88bn every year subsidising exploration for fossil fuels.

“Their exploration subsidies marry bad economics with potentially disastrous consequences for climate change,” the authors say. “In effect, governments are propping up the development of oil, gas and coal reserves that cannot be exploited if the world is to avoid dangerous climate change.

Triple-lose scenario

“By providing subsidies for fossil fuel exploration, the G20 countries are creating a ‘triple-lose’ scenario.

“They are directing large volumes of finance into high-carbon assets that cannot be exploited without catastrophic climate effects.

“They are diverting investment from economic low-carbon alternatives, such as solar, wind and hydro-power.

“And they are undermining the prospects for an ambitious climate deal in 2015.”

The report says the UK government is pouring £750m ($1.19bn) a year in national subsidies into the declining North Sea oil and gas industry – and £414m ($65m) into overseas exploration.

TheFossilFuelBailout_Infographic_A

 

The report − published just before the G20 Leaders’ Summit in Brisbane, Australia, on 15 and 16 November − contains the first detailed breakdown of fossil fuel exploration subsidies by the UK and G20 countries.

The authors say that, despite the 2009 pledge, the UK “has dramatically expanded the scope of its oil and gas exploration subsidies, in particular for shale gas and offshore resources”.

Since 2009, generous tax breaks for exploring in riskier, deep-water fields in the North Sea have benefited some of the largest oil and gas firms in the world. The report estimates that the biggest beneficiary was the French oil giant, Total, which received £524m, while Norway’s Statoil was given £253m and the US’s Chevron £45m between 2009 and 2014.

The government’s expenditure of £414m annually in public finance for fossil fuel exploration outside the UK included Azerbaijan, Brazil, Ghana, Guinea, India, Indonesia, Ireland, Nigeria, Poland, Qatar, Russia, Spain, Tunisia, Uganda, and the US.

Shelagh Whitley, climate and environment research fellow at the ODI, says: “Scrapping fossil fuel exploration subsidies would begin to create a level playing field between renewables and fossil fuel energy.”

Bad economics

The report’s authors say that further exploration for new reserves is not only environmentally unsustainable but is also bad economics. With rising costs for hard-to-reach reserves, and falling coal and oil prices, public subsidies are propping up fossil fuel exploration that would otherwise be deemed uneconomic.

The top 20 private oil and gas companies invest £23bn globally in exploration − less than half the £55bn being ploughed in by G20 governments. The report says this highlights the industry’s dependency on public subsidies to find new reserves.

Yet £55bn is almost double what the International Energy Agency estimates is needed annually to provide electricity and heat for all by 2030.

The report recommends that phasing out exploration subsidies should be the first step towards meeting the G20 governments’ existing commitments to eliminate inefficient fossil fuel subsidies and to avoid harmful climate change. − Climate News Network

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Scientist acts out dramatic effect of climate change

Scientist acts out dramatic effect of climate change

A spellbinding solo performance by veteran climate scientist Chris Rapley puts the climate debate centre stage – and earns the admiration of London theatre critics.

LONDON, 11 November, 2014 − Climate science has just made cultural history – yet again. Following on from the sci-fi blockbuster The Day After Tomorrow and the Al Gore documentary movie An Inconvenient Truth, research has got personal and turned into a five-star dramatic soliloquy on the London stage.

Chris Rapley is a professor of climate science at University College London, a former director of the British Antarctic Survey, a former director of the Science Museum in London − and now, unexpectedly, an actor on the stage of the historic Royal Court theatre.

He is the star and only member of the dramatis personae of 2071, a play named after the date at which, he says, his eldest grandchild will be the age he is now. He has collaborated with playwright Duncan Macmillan, and with Katie Mitchell, a director with a track record of interest in the hard themes of humanity’s future on Earth.

No physical action

The performance, however, could almost be called anti-theatre. There is no conflict, no violence, and there is − beyond the discreet waving of a hand or the re-positioning of a leg − almost no physical action at all. The actor Rapley sits in one place, with only a glass of water as a prop, and embarks on a monologue.

Furthermore, it is in one sense an anti-dramatic monologue, sounding in many ways remarkably like a procession of extracts from the abstracts of scientific papers, or the executive summary of any number of publications of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

There are few concessions to popular language: the diction and choice of terminology is of the kind you tend to hear at science briefings.

The difference is that it is gently and intelligently glossed − so cryosphere and lithosphere are identified as the worlds of ice and rock within a second of utterance.

The story unfolds calmly enough, with a kind of curriculum vitae of the actor, then a history of climate, then a history of climate research, and then the conclusions. It is the slow build-up to an alarming set of possibilities in a swift-changing world, with a time interval for action that is diminishing rapidly.

It ought not to work. But for this Climate News Network reporter, it does work − yet another spellbinding testament to that wonderful mix of space, lighting, darkness, silence, muted music, measured words and eager audience that we call theatre.

Emotive topic

Some critics and theatergoers will, inevitably, have reservations. Time Out magazine found its lack of theatricality “not a bad thing: sobriety feels important when tackling such an emotive topic”. The London Evening Standard took a cooler approach: “He lets the data speak for itself. But the approach feels too dry.”

But first responses were warm. There was a generous welcome from the Daily Telegraph, and Michael Billington – a distinguished dramatic critic who has declared his enthusiasm for theatre as a political instrument − gave it the highest rating of all in The Guardian: five stars.

His only complaint is that there is no printed text, as there is a lot of information delivered in a performance that lasts hardly more than 70 minutes.

But Billington writes: “If we look to theatre to increase our awareness of the human condition, the production succeeds on all counts.” And he ends unequivocally: “It is better than good. It is necessary.” − Climate News Network

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Climate change will send pollen count soaring

Climate change will send pollen count soaring

Bad news for hay fever and asthma sufferers as US researchers demonstrate that man-made rises in CO2 emissions could lead to a 200% increase in the levels of pollen from grasses.

LONDON, November 9, 2014 – Scientists have identified a new hazard that will arrive as a result of climate change: a huge increase in hay fever and pollen allergies.

A team of researchers from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, US, report in the Public Library of Science journal PLOS One that as man-made carbon dioxide and low-level ozone levels rise, so will grass pollen production and allergen exposure − by up to 200%.

Many predictions of the problems of global warming are, in effect, simulations: researchers take a climate model, add a few parameters, identify a trend or isolate a possibility, and run it forward to see what happens. Using such techniques, researchers have predicted that heat extremes themselves will present health hazards, and have confirmed that cutting CO2 emissions will certainly save lives.

Notorious irritant

But Jennifer Albertine and her colleagues at Amherst tried the other approach: they grew plants in laboratory conditions, using different atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide and of ozone – the O3 version of oxygen (O2) that plays an important protective role in the stratosphere, but is a notorious irritant and health hazard in traffic-choked cities.

A field of Timothy grass (Phleum pratense). Image: Matti Virtala via Wikimedia Commons
Timothy grass (Phleum pratense).
Matti Virtala via Wikimedia Commons

They selected for the experiment the grass Phleum pratense, widely known as Timothy grass and common in lawns, pasture and meadows everywhere. Then, at the appropriate moment, they bagged the flowers, captured and measured the pollen production, and used enzymes to get at an allergen protein called Phl p 5.

The news is not good for those who dread the start of the hay fever season in spring. As atmospheric CO2 doubled to 800 parts per million, there was a 53% increase in pollen production per grass flower.

But that was only part of the effect. A greater number of plants flowered as a result of the stimulus of the extra carbon dioxide, which has an effect on plant fertility. And that brought the increase in pollen levels to a startling 200%.

Allergen levels

The increases in low-level ozone – already widely predicted as a consequence of global warming – had no effect on the quantities of pollen produced, although it did tend to suppress the allergen levels in the pollen.

But since the effect of low-level ozone is to irritate the mucous membranes of gasping city-dwellers and actually make the allergic airway response even worse, this is not good. The researchers warn that ozone increases would bring on negative respiratory health effects quite independently on any rise in pollen counts.

“The implications of increasing CO2 production for human health are clear,” warned Dr Albertine.

Her co-author, Christine Rogers, an environmental health scientist, added: “This is the first evidence that pollen production is significantly stimulated by elevated carbon dioxide in a grass species and has worldwide implications, due to the ubiquitous presence of grasses in all biomes and the high prevalence of grass pollen allergy.” – Climate News Network

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Why warnings on climate spark aggressive denials

Why warnings on climate spark aggressive denials

A new book argues that death threats and abuse illustrate how climate change messengers are being demonised in a way that is without parallel in the history of science.

LONDON, 8 November, 2014 − If you don’t like the message on climate change, it seems that the answer is to shoot the messenger.

According to a new book by veteran environmentalist George Marshall, thousands of abusive emails − including demands that he commit suicide or be “shot, quartered and fed to the pigs, along with your family” – were received by climate scientist Michael Mann, director of Pennsylvania State University’s Earth System Science Centre, who drew and published the “hockey stick graph”  that charts a steep rise in global average temperatures.

Glenn Beck, a commentator on Fox TV, called on climate scientists to commit suicide. A climate denial blogger called Marc Morano claimed that one group of climate scientists deserved “to be publicly flogged”. And the late Stephen Schneider found his name and that of other Jewish climate scientists on a “death list” maintained by an American neo-Nazi website.

Very strange

As Marshall points out in his absorbing, all-embracing, immensely readable book, Don’t Even Think About It: Why Our Brains are Wired to Ignore Climate Change, something very strange is going on.

Louis Pasteur’s revolutionary microbiology work on disease prevention never resulted in him having to think about how to use a gun. Jonas Salk never needed to fortify his house as result of working on the development of a polio vaccine.

Other scientists are trusted and respected. But the way climate scientists are now treated, Marshall argues, is without parallel in the history of science: “They have been set up to play that role in a climate storyline that, it would seem, cannot refute climate change without demonising the people who warn us about it.”

Forget, if you can, the people who seem to be whipping up these furious responses. Climate change can only be met or mitigated by action − and there are plenty of reasons why a very large number of people nod in agreement about what must be done and then fail to insist that it is done.

Dan Gilbert, a psychologist who won the Royal Society’s science book prize in 2007 with an examination of the puzzles of happiness, says that climate change is something unlikely to strike fear in the human heart anyway. It is impersonal, it is gradual, it is amoral, and it isn’t – or doesn’t seem to be – happening now.

“A distant, abstract, and disputed threat just doesn’t have the necessary characteristics for seriously mobilising public opinion”

Other researchers have pointed out the alarming tendency, shared by all humans, to believe what they want to believe. Furthermore, climate change is not (death threats and public flogging fantasies aside) an immediate or an emotional issue. “A distant, abstract, and disputed threat just doesn’t have the necessary characteristics for seriously mobilising public opinion,” says the Nobel laureate, Daniel Kahneman.

There are other difficulties. When, for instance, will the awful things start to happen? How do you mobilise public opinion on an argument with uncertain timescales, imprecise outcomes and real puzzles about the costs and benefits of any actions? No one, Marshall says, is ever going to march under a banner of that says “100 months before the Odds Shift into a Greater Likelihood of Feedbacks”.

Marshall founded the Climate Outreach and Information Network (COIN), based in Oxford, England. He is a veteran of Greenpeace and the Rainforest Foundation, and there isn’t much doubt about what he thinks and knows to be true.

But the appeal of this book is that he lets others talk. He examines the political doublethink that seems to infect some legislatures in the US. He listens to the sceptics, the worriers, the oil giants, the conspiracy theorists, the celebrity environmental campaigners, and the other ones who invoke imagery of death, fever and smoking ruin.

And he refers to the University of Oxford’s Future of Humanity Institute, which polled academic experts on global risk, and found an estimate of a “19 per cent probability that the human species will go extinct before the end of the century”.

Altruistic behaviour

The title, direction and burden of this book seem to augur almost apocalyptic failure to confront the coming crisis. But, of course, Marshall pulls out an ace near the end.

He concludes that while human brains may be hard-wired to not worry about what may or may not happen in two generations, they also have an immense capacity for pro-social, supportive and altruistic behaviour.

“Climate change is entirely within our capacity for change,” he says, “It is challenging, but far from impossible.”

That is good to know. And the book ends with some serious advice about how to make the case for action – and instead of capital punishment, we get generously shouty advice in capital letters. CLIMATE CHANGE IS HAPPENING HERE AND NOW, he reminds us. And he urges campaigners to DROP THE ECO-STUFF, especially the polar bears.

Marshall suggests that we really do try to contain global average warming to 2°C. He quotes John Schellnhuber, director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, who told the Australians: “The difference between two and four degrees is human civilisation.” And, yes, do think about it. – Climate News Network

  • Don’t Even Think About It: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Ignore Climate Change, by George Marshall (Bloomsbury, price £20).

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Scientists call for zero option on CO2 emissions

Scientists call for zero option on CO2 emissions

New research shows that while cuts in short-lived pollutants such as methane and black carbon have benefits, the only long-term answer to global warming is to stop carbon dioxide emissions completely.

LONDON, 4 November, 2014 − European researchers have confirmed once again that there is only one effective way to limit climate change: carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuels must be reduced to zero.

There are other greenhouse gases and atmospheric pollutants that contribute to global warming, and it would certainly be good to reduce these.

But cuts in atmospheric methane emissions from cattle, or black carbon from diesel engines, coal mines and coal-burning cooking stoves, or other pollutants would not in the long run make a significant difference.

These pollutants are short-lived. They stay in the atmosphere from days to a decade, while CO2 lasts thousands of years. And if CO2 emissions were reduced sharply, some of those short-lived pollutants would in any case be reduced along with them.

Climate impact

Joeri Rogelj, of  the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA) in Austria, and fellow climate impact scientists report in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS)  that the benefits of limiting what are known as short-lived climate forcers (SLCFs) would be real in terms of public health, but small in terms of climate impact compared to the mitigation of CO2 emissions.

“Stabilising climate at any temperature means that, at some point, global CO2 emissions have to become zero,” Rogelj says. “Although near-term action on short-lived climate forcers can help reduce warming in the coming decades, and also provides other societal benefits, such as clearer air, it will not buy us time for delaying the reductions in carbon dioxide emissions that are required to stabilise the climate at safe levels.”

 “Hopes that cutting other emissions would do a large part of the job now turn out to be misguided”

The study follows only days after the launch of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s synthesis report, which stresses the urgency of reducing carbon dioxide. Other research within the last year has reached the same conclusion.

But Dr Rogelj says that, prior to the study published in PNAS, there has been only fragmented information available about the joint climate benefits of reducing greenhouse gas and air pollution.

The new research looks at the connections between CO2 and the other, shorter-lived pollutants. It shows that although it is important to limit pollutants such as methane and hydrofluorocarbons, the impact of such measures − in both the short and long terms − becomes small in scenarios that keep global warming to 2°C above pre-industrial levels.

And steps to reduce black carbon have less significance because this will dwindle in any case with any reduction in CO2 emissions.

 Complex issue

“Because information was so fragmented, misinterpretations have been common,” Dr Rogelj told the Climate News Network. “Given the complexity of this issue, this is not surprising.

“With our integrated analysis, we hope to provide clearer and more consistent scientific guidance for policymakers on this issue. Our results and discussion clearly highlight the identified synergies, trade-offs and pitfalls.”

Hans Joachim Schellnhuber, director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, and one of the co-authors of the report, emphasises the same point.

“The one and only thing that can avoid the bulk of risks that would come with unbridled climate change is rapid CO2 reduction,” he says. “Hopes that cutting other emissions would do a large part of the job now turn out to be misguided.” – Climate News Network

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