Permafrost holds key to release of trapped carbon

Permafrost holds key to release of trapped carbon

The frozen soil of the northern polar regions holds billions of tonnes of organic carbon – and global warming could speed its escape into the atmosphere.

LONDON, 14 April, 2015 − Three sets of scientists in the same week have helped narrow the uncertainties about how the natural world will respond to extra carbon dioxide in the atmosphere caused by the burning of fossil fuels.

Carbon locked in the frozen earth will escape gradually as the Arctic permafrost melts – but the scientists say the process could accelerate.

As greenhouse gas levels soar, and soils warm, and plant roots tap down into the carbon stored there by centuries of ancient growth, they will release potent chemicals that will accelerate microbial attack – and speed up the release of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

The soil carbon cycle is one of the great headaches of climate science. And the Arctic is the first place to look for answers about it, and about how the Earth and oceans that store atmospheric carbon will respond to global warming.

Locked away

Around half of the world’s buried organic carbon is locked away in the soils of the northern circumpolar permafrost, and this huge vault of deep-frozen peat and leaf litter – more than 1,000 billion metric tonnes in the top three metres, at the latest estimate − contains twice as much carbon as is held in the atmosphere.

But the Arctic is the fastest-warming region on the planet, so what will happen as the permafrost thaws and plants begin to move north? Would it all be surrendered to the atmosphere in one devastating exhalation, triggering an explosion in global warming and causing trillions of dollars in economic damage?

An international team within the Permafrost Carbon Network thinks not. Their verdict, published in Nature journal, is that the current evidence suggests “a gradual and prolonged release of greenhouse gas emissions in a warming climate”. That is, humankind would have time to adapt.

“The data from our team’s syntheses don’t support the permafrost carbon bomb view,” says one of the team members, David McGuire, professor of landscape ecology at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

“What our syntheses do show is that permafrost carbon is likely to be released in a gradual and prolonged manner, and that the rate of release through 2100 is likely to be of the same order as the current rate of tropical deforestation in terms of its effects on the carbon cycle.”

Since the tropical forests are already under pressure, this is hardly good news. And the picture is not a simple one.

“Even small changes will have serious effects on carbon concentrations in the atmosphere, and by extension on climate”

As the permafrost thaws, the soil microbes will get to work on the buried carbon, which will inevitably add to the soil warming, and provide an instance of what engineers call positive feedback, according to a team led by Jøgen Hollesen, senior researcher at the University of Copenhagen’s Centre for Permafrost.

He and colleagues report in Nature Climate Change that when they measured heat production in 21 contrasting organic permafrost soils, they found it to be between 10 and 130 times higher than in mineral soils measured in Greenland − and this would have “crucial implications for the amounts of carbon being decomposed”.

And in the same issue of Nature Climate Change, a team led by researchers from Oregon State University have confirmed that any kind of warming or plant growth is likely to get the soil microbes working as hard as they can – partly because the plants use chemistry to free the soil carbon so the bacteria can start to turn it back into carbon dioxide.

Neither of the two Nature Climate Change studies was directly concerned with climate change. The Danish scientists’ findings sprang from concern about what warming might do to the ancient middens that hold as-yet-unexamined evidence of early human settlement in the Arctic. The Oregon team were more concerned about the interactions that go on in the soil, and how they could be measured.

Chemical bonds

They found that plant roots released an exudate that acted to release the chemical bonds that keep a carbon bound to non-organic minerals in the soil. Warming could only speed the process, so more carbon dioxide will get into the atmosphere from the soil because of global warming.

This, again, is positive feedback at work. And it suggests climate scientists might be underestimating carbon loss from the soil by as much as 1% a year.

“Our main concern is that this is an important mechanism, and we are not presently considering it in global models of carbon cycling,” says soil and environmental geochemist Markus Kleber, one of the authors of the Oregon report.

“There is more carbon stored in the soil, on a global scale, than in vegetation, or even in the atmosphere. Since this reservoir is so large, even small changes will have serious effects on carbon concentrations in the atmosphere, and by extension on climate.” – Climate News Network

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Investors chip in as renewables rise towards record level

Investors chip in as renewables rise towards record level

Climate-friendly boost for global energy mix as scientists say solar power alone could now meet the needs of California five times over.

LONDON, 12 April, 2015 − Carbon dioxide levels might be soaring, and governments might be slow to reduce fossil fuel emissions and contain climate change − but the smart money could nevertheless be going into renewable sources such as wind and solar power.

The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) says green energy investments rose by 17% in 2014 to reach a total of $270bn − the first annual increase in three years, and just 3% behind the all-time record set in 2011 of $279bn.

In 2014, renewable energies added 103 gigawatts to global capacity. This is roughly equal to the output of all 158 nuclear power reactors in the US.

Wind, solar, biomass, waste-to-power, geothermal, small hydro and marine power contributed an estimated 9.1% of world electricity generation in 2014. This also represents a notional saving in carbon dioxide emissions of 1.3 gigatonnes, which is about twice what pours from the exhausts of the world airlines.

Markets mature

“Once again in 2014, renewable made up nearly half the power capacity added worldwide,” said Achim Steiner, executive director of UNEP.

“These climate-friendly energy technologies are now an indispensable component of the global energy mix and their importance will only increase as markets mature, technology prices continue to fall and the need to rein in carbon emissions becomes ever more urgent.”

But, according to scientists backed by the Carnegie Institution, there is much more that could be done. A team led by Earth system scientists Rebecca Hernandez, now of the University of California Berkeley, reported in Nature Climate Change that solar energy alone could meet the demands of the state of California in the US up to five times over.

Solar power systems based on photovoltaics could generate up to 15,000 terawatts of energy a year. And mirror-driven concentrating systems could add another 6,000 terawatt hours.

California – now in the grip of a calamitous drought that has been tentatively linked to climate change triggered by human investment in fossil fuels – is the most populous state in the US. The researchers calculated that more than 27,000 square kilometres of land would be fit for photovoltaic solar construction, and more than 6,000 square kilometres for concentrating solar power.

“Their importance will only increase as markets mature, technology prices continue to fall
and the need to rein in carbon emissions becomes ever more urgent”

But there is a darker side to the story of renewable energy. On the other side of the Rocky Mountains, scientists have been working on the much more complex carbon budget of biofuels, which deliver energy in liquid form.

They count as renewable energy because, although they emit carbon dioxide when burned, they do not, overall, add to the levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. That is because biofuel crops take carbon dioxide from the air to grow their tissues for conversion to fuel, and return the gas through engine exhausts.

But there have been persistent worries. One is that the conversion of food to fuel may not be the most efficient use of cropland.

Destroy ecosystems

The approach remains carbon neutral, as long as farmers exploit existing cropland. But the danger is that farmers might plough up existing grassland, destroy ecosystems, and release ancient stored soil carbon to the atmosphere, to make global warming worse.

Environmental scientist Tyler Lark and colleagues at the University of Wisconsin-Madison report in Environmental Research Letters that, between 2008 and 2012, US farmers ploughed seven million acres of new land for corn and soy for conversion to biofuels intended as renewable energy for motor transport.

In the course of doing so, they could have emitted as much carbon to the atmosphere as 34 coal-burning power stations in one year – or 28 million new cars on the road.

Nearly a quarter of the land converted came from long-standing prairies and ranges, much of it within the Central Plains, from North Dakota to Texas. And much of this was planted with corn intended for conversion to biofuels.

“It mimics the extreme land-use change that led to the Dust Bowl in the 1930s,” Lark says. “We could be, in a sense, ploughing up prairies with each mile we drive.” – Climate News Network

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Forests can soak up a third of carbon emissions

Forests can soak up a third of carbon emissions

Report commissioned by Prince Charles’s charity says protecting tropical forests could enable them to absorb billions of tonnes of the Earth’s emissions of carbon.

LONDON, 11 April, 2015 − Looking after the world’s tropical forests would be worthwhile in its own right, for the sake of their human and animal inhabitants and their wider effects on the natural world.

But researchers say it would also have a significant bonus. Properly cared for, the forests could cancel out between a quarter and a third of the planet’s carbon emissions.

They argue that it is not just outright destruction of the trees that is the problem, but the ways in which the forests become degraded by the incursion of different forms of development − logging, obviously, but also fires, mining, ranching, roads, and their effect in splitting the huge tracts of forested land into smaller and more isolated patches.

In a report commissioned by Prince Charles, the heir to the British throne, they say deforestation and degradation of the forests may account together for between 14% and 21% (1.4-2.2 gigatonnes of carbon, or GtC; a gigatonne is a billion metric tonnes) of all emissions of carbon, and perhaps even more if tropical peatlands and mangroves are included.

Atmospheric carbon

Against this, the forests absorb almost as much atmospheric carbon as they account for − an annual total of 1.2-1.8GtC, the authors say. But the report argues that simply offsetting the amount of carbon sequestered in this way against the amount emitted is insufficient, for two reasons.

The first is the evidence that human activities are responsible for a significant proportion of CO2 absorption. Second, total emissions are probably much higher than the traditional greenhouse gas (GHG) accounting approach allows.

Taken together, these two factors suggest that slowing damage to the forests and keeping them in the best condition possible is more important than many people have realised.

But the forests continue to suffer damage. The report says: “…it can be argued that the causes and consequences of tropical forest degradation have been given too little attention, with the science now pointing toward degradation being a very significant component both of greenhouse gas emissions and the weakening of forest ecosystems”.

We can act on forests now, therefore buying much-needed time to enable the transformation to a low-carbon economy

It paints a sobering picture of the present situation, saying there is “no sign yet that overall rates of deforestation or degradation are decreasing”. The report says the annual area of global forest lost is about 8.5m hectares.

Rising world demand for timber and wood products, and for farm produce, it says, “will significantly increase pressure on tropical forests over the next few decades”.

The report was commissioned by the Prince’s International Sustainability Unit. In a foreword, Prince Charles writes: “It is an alarming fact that rates of deforestation and degradation continue to rise, and that the underlying causes of this increase are set to become very much more acute…”

But he sounds an encouraging note: “We can act on forests now, therefore buying much-needed time to enable the transformation to a low-carbon economy.”

Considerable uncertainty

There is considerable uncertainty about how much the forests contribute to GHG emissions. In 2012, NASA said that tropical deforestation had accounted for about 10% of human carbon emissions from 2000 to 2005 − a much lower figure than previous estimates.

Forest degradation is often more difficult to detect than deforestation itself, and is almost invisible to satellite monitoring. Research in six tropical countries suggests that degradation by logging can cause significant damage, with GHG emissions on average about 12% of those caused by deforestation.

Together, their impact is serious. The Global Forest Watch online monitoring network says that Brazil lost 5.9% of its forest cover between 2001 and 2012, while Indonesia lost 9.2% over the same timespan. − Climate News Network

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Canada will lose many glaciers as climate warms

Canada will lose many glaciers as climate warms

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Woodlands revival adds new piece to carbon cycle puzzle

Woodlands revival adds new piece to carbon cycle puzzle

Growing number of trees on the world’s savanna grasslands helps offset carbon storage concerns caused by depletion of the great rainforests.

LONDON, 9 April, 2015 − Despite continuing concern about the fate of iconic rainforests, new research shows that the world’s forests have stored away an extra 4 billion tonnes of carbon in the last dozen years and the total amount of woodland has increased worldwide since 2003.

The encouraging news comes from Australian scientists, who report in Nature Climate Change that they used a new technique to analyse 20 years of satellite data, to estimate the overall pattern of growth in global vegetation.

The fate of the forests could hardly be more important. The world’s greenery is part of the natural atmospheric cycle, and the notorious greenhouse effect – the steady rise in carbon dioxide levels in the Earth’s atmosphere since the start of the Industrial Revolution and the use of fossil fuels to power economic growth – is in part also a response to land-use change and forest loss. Growth requires atmospheric carbon dioxide, and burning and land clearance releases it.

Biggest headache

So the study by remote sensing scientist Yi Liu, of the Climate Change Research Centre at the University of New South Wales, and colleagues becomes an important contribution to solving the climate scientist’s biggest headache: making sense of the carbon budget.

Accurate climate models depend on accurate assessment of the carbon cycle, and the forests play a critical role. Timber in the forests is essentially carbon in the bank.

And, for once, the news is encouraging. The great rainforests of the Congo and the Amazon may not be doing so well, but grasslands in other parts of the world have become increasingly more wooded, and there has been a massive expansion of forested land in China.

“The increase in vegetation primarily came from a lucky combination of environmental and economic factors, and massive tree-planting projects in China,” Dr Yi Liu says.

“Vegetation increased on the savannas of Australia, Africa and South America as a result of increasing rainfall, while in Russia and former Soviet republics we have seen the re-growth of forests on abandoned farmland. China was the only country to intentionally increase its vegetation with tree-planting projects.”

The Australian scientists are not the only researchers using instruments in high orbit to identify the green shoots of recovery.

“A lot rides on human decisions to slow
climate change. The clock is ticking
for the future of these forests”

Dmitry Shchepashchenko, a researcher at the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis in Austria, and colleagues report in the journal Remote Sensing of Environment that a cocktail of remote sensing data, UN agency statistics and “crowdsourcing” – help from citizen scientists – has provided new high resolution maps of global forest cover.

This will serve as a basis for other studies, and for economic planning and policy-making. The maps are available on the Geo-Wiki website.

But the overall picture of a greener world remains uncertain. On the same day, scientists backed by the Carnegie Institution in Washington reported in Nature Geoscience that drought damage has already led to widespread forest death, and the toll could be much greater by the 2050s.

They based their study on the condition of the trembling aspen forests of the American southwest during the drought of 2000-2003.

Once again, their work is aimed at improving climate models and calculations of the response of forests to climate change, and could throw new light on the processes at work in forests subjected to water stress.

Drought damage

That is because the arboreal vascular system that transports water from the roots to the leaves is itself damaged by drought. But at what level would drought impose permanent damage on a tree’s physiology?

The Carnegie scientists were able to establish a drought threshold for the trembling aspen (Populus tremuloides), and the drought at the beginning of the century is known to have killed 17% of the species in Colorado.

The research is fundamental: just one study of one species in one region that provides a starting point for further studies, and thus for surer measures of vegetation response to climate change, and ultimately to a better understanding of the carbon cycle.

“Finding the thresholds in plant physiology, after which climate stress causes tree mortality, will allow us to resolve uncertainty over the fate of forest ecosystems in a changing climate,” says the study leader, William Anderegg, a researcher at Princeton Environmental Institute in the US.

“But, most importantly, a lot rides on human decisions to slow climate change. The clock is ticking for the future of these forests.” – Climate News Network

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Climate poses new threat to survival of Arabian oryx

Climate poses new threat to survival of Arabian oryx

Global warming is the suspected cause of the series of dry years in Arabia that have brought starvation to a desert species saved from extinction.

LONDON, 7 April, 2015 − One of conservation’s triumphs – the reintroduction of the oryx to the deserts of Arabia – could be at risk because of climate change, according to a new book.

The animal already beautifully adapted by thousands of years of evolution to an arid environment met a problem on its return: even deserts have droughts.

The Arabian oryx had been hunted almost to extinction before a handful were captured in 1962 and flown to Phoenix, Arizona, as the nucleus of a captive breeding programme.

By 1972, the last wild oryx had been captured or killed in Oman, but the bloodline survived in captivity.

The first reintroductions to the wild began in 1982, and numbers began to increase. There were incursions by poachers, but there were more releases.

However, there have been so many dry years over the last two decades − according to Malcolm Smith, once chief scientist for the Countryside Commission in Wales, in his new book, Back from the Brink − that many of the newly-wild oryx have not been able to find sufficient grazing.

Closely monitored

The animal is one of the most closely monitored in the world. Of all recorded deaths, 19% have occurred in fights between males, 13% have been due to poaching, and 65% have been due to starvation.

The succession of particularly dry years in the region might be due to global warming as a consequence of human combustion of fossil fuels.

Since climate simulations seem to predict that, in general, moist regions will get more rain and dry regions will experience ever drier regimes as greenhouse gas levels build up in the atmosphere, things don’t look good for the oryx − although captive populations for the time being remain secure.

Other recently-rescued species may face even leaner times − once again, because of climate change.

Spanish and Portuguese authorities have established safe territories for the Iberian lynx and, by 2013, more than 300 lived wild in Spain, while 150 lynx paced the enclosures in the breeding centres awaiting reintroduction.

But the wild rabbit makes up 90% of the lynx’s diet, and rabbit numbers are limited by hunting and by outbreaks of myxomatosis and rabbit haemorrhagic disease.

There have been fears too, that southern Spain and Portugal may become too hot and dry to sustain the prey, let alone the predator.

Such threats to biodiversity, and to individual animals, are not new. Climate change has in various ways reportedly threatened Arctic marine mammalscreatures of the Borneo forests,  and chimpanzees in isolated woodland in West Africa.

Whole ecosystems that evolved in geographical climate zones may be doomed to sudden and rapid change.

But Malcolm Smith’s book concerns itself only with the choicest last-minute success stories of conservation bodies: with those creatures that were all but gone when the conservationists stepped in.

They were hunted, their habitats had been destroyed, and their ecosystems were always precarious. But climate change was, at the time of rescue, the least of their problems.

Large Blue butterfly (Maculinea arion). Image: PJC&Co via Wikimedia Commons

Large Blue butterfly (Maculinea arion).
Image: PJC&Co via Wikimedia Commons

One instance he explores shows just how intricate the living arrangements of charismatic species can be, and illustrates the finely-balanced play of climate and ecological stability in preserving a species.

The Large Blue butterfly (Maculinea arion) exists in respectable numbers worldwide, but became all but extinct in the UK − with changes in farming practices and land use the suspected causes.

Peculiar lifestyle

Until 1972, nobody quite understood the peculiar lifestyle of the Large Blue. It lays its eggs on the flower bud of the wild herb, thyme. A larva hatches and, after an initial vegetarian diet, falls off the plant. Thereafter, its life depends on just one species of red ant, Myrmica sabuleti.

The Large Blue grub secretes a fluid that somehow suggests that of a red ant queen grub, so the ants take it home and nurse it. The Large Blue caterpillar turns carnivore and, for 10 months, feeds on red ant larvae.

In pupate form, it makes queen ant noises and the ants continue to protect it. It hatches, gets out to the open − still protected by the ants − and flies off. It then has about a week in which to find a thyme flower bud, mate, and lay its eggs.

But the complexities multiply. The thyme flower bud that bears the eggs must be within metres of the right kind of red ant nest, or the larva perishes.

Dependent on temperature

The grass above the ant nest must be closely grazed because the ants’ survival is dependent on temperature, and if the grass grows even a centimetre ground is shaded, the nest temperature drops by 2°C to 3°C, and the ant colony is at risk − along with any parasitic caterpillars in the nest.

So the thyme has to flower at the right time, very near a red ant nest, the herbage has to be closely cropped, and the temperatures have to stay near the optimum.

If anything goes wrong, there are no surviving Large Blue larvae to pupate. If things go well, and too many Large Blue grubs are taken into a colony, the ant larvae are all consumed, and both ants and butterflies perish.

And then there’s the climate question − one that affects almost all insects.

“Overall, butterfly populations have moved northward by about 75km in the last 20 years as overall temperatures have risen,” Smith writes. “They are likely to move yet further.” – Climate News Network

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“Water Man of India” makes rivers flow again

“Water Man of India” makes rivers flow again

Revival of traditional rainwater harvesting has transformed the driest state in India, and could be used to combat the effects of climate change across the world.

Chennai, 6 April, 2015 − School textbooks in India have been telling children for generations that Rajasthan is an inhospitable state in the northwest of the country, constrained by the hot, hostile sands of the Thar Desert.

But the driest state in India has a softer, humane face as well – that of Rajendra Singh, known as the “Water Man of India”, whose untiring efforts in water conservation in arid Rajasthan have led to him being awarded the Stockholm Water Prize, commonly referred to as the Nobel Prize for Water.

Singh did not attempt to design a new technology to address Rajasthan’s water problems. He began simply by de-silting several traditional surface level rainwater storage facilities – called “johads” in the local Hindi language − that fell out of use during British colonial rule. And, in doing so, he has quenched the thirst of villages that were dying.

Thousands of villages followed his example, and so much water was captured and soaked into aquifers that dry rivers have begun to flow again.

Water wars

Singh believes that water conservation is vital to combat the effects of climate change and to avoid “water wars” in the future.

And such is his reputation on water issues that he received a call from Prince Charles, heir to the UK throne, seeking advice on how to handle the devastating summer floods in England in 2007.

In an interview with Climate News Network, Singh recalled how he began making water flow again in perennially dry Rajasthan by inculcating do-it-yourself initiatives in the villagers.

He explained: “I imbibed Gandhian ideals during my school days that emphasised working for empowerment of villages.

“As an Ayurvedic (traditional medicine system in India) doctor, I went to the Alwar district of Rajasthan early in 1982 to start a clinic and spread awareness among youth about health and hygiene.

“I was perturbed because the majority of young men had already left the village, and the rest were about to leave for green pastures in the cities as they were unable to battle the water scarcity. Besides, they also wanted to earn good money.

“Women, old people and children were left behind in the village. I reworked my doctor plans to address the water scarcity, as that would actually save people from several diseases.

A village johad in arid Rajasthan. Image: LRBurdak via Wikimedia Commons

A village johad in arid Rajasthan. Image: LRBurdak via Wikimedia Commons

“Along with the support of the villagers, I de-silted a couple of johads in Alwar. When rains filled them, people in neighbouring villages trusted my initiative and over 8,000 johads are renovated now.

“Hordes of youth have returned to their villages as water filled tanks and the standard of living in hamlets rose in a big way.”

He said that five rivers in this region had revived and started to flow again.

Johads are simple tanks built across a slope, with a high embankment on three sides and the fourth side left open for rainwater to enter. They hold water during rains and recharge the aquifer below to ensure continuous water supply to the neighbourhood in the dry season.

“Community-based water management yields
long-lasting results and is the only solution for water shortages”

But Singh explained: “After the advent of bore wells and pipelines connecting every hamlet in India, we forgot the traditional water conservation facility used by our ancestors.”

Having won the Stockholm prize, what does the future hold for the Water Man?

“My immediate plans are to take up a global-level campaign on water conservation and peace,” he said. “As predicted by several experts, the next world war will be for water. Unless every one of us starts at least now to save water and protect the water bodies, we face severe conflicts − apart from suffering climate change impacts. I will be leading the global water walk in the UK in August 2015.

“During his two visits (2004 and 2006), Prince Charles told me that he was impressed by the johad model of conservation. He then called me in 2007 to be part of his team of water engineers to work out all possibilities to address the crisis during the floods in England. They listened to my suggestions on creating the johad model on hilltops and downhill to arrest water in the hills and prevent floods in the future.”

In India, however, he is not confident that the government has the right ideas. “Our government is pushing a different idea of inter-linking of rivers, which will only politicise the water crisis. I was part of the national-level body to clean up the holy Ganga River from 2010 to 2012, but I quit as there was lack of accountability and it ended up as a toothless organisation.

“Inter-linking of rivers is not a solution for flood and drought. As far as India is concerned, it will result only in inter-linking of corruption and politics.

Hearts and brains

“What we need is inter-linking of the hearts and brains of people to take up water conservation in their homes and community. If exploitation of river water and polluting the river are stopped, every river will flow. Water engineering should be focused on conservation of each drop, and not on changing the course of rivers, which are designed by Mother Nature.”

Singh is also against the idea of privatising water supplies, and does not believe it would result in people using water more judiciously.

“Water is not a commodity,” he said. “In my own example, johads are de-silted by the people and used by people. Community-based water management yields long-lasting results and is the only solution for water shortages.

“When people realise their need and de-silt lakes and ponds as a group, they can use the water without having to pay for it. Right to water is every man’s right, and monetising water will increase conflicts in the society.

“Helping a community to have access to clean and safe water means helping the community to have a dignified life.” – Climate News Network

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Water crisis pushes Brazil towards solar power at last

Water crisis pushes Brazil towards solar power at last

Without water to feed its hydroelectric dams, drought-hit Brazil is turning to the solar energy source once dubbed a fantasy by the country’s president.

São Paulo, 5 April, 2015 − Brazil’s devastating drought could have the unexpected consequence of finally prompting one of the sunniest countries in the world to take solar power seriously.

The combination of an imminent energy crisis, as reservoir levels fall too low to generate power, and the appointment of a more open-minded Energy Minister promise a rapid change in the situation.

The drought, which has produced a crisis in the supply of water, has seen a dramatic drop in the levels of the reservoirs that supply dozens of hydroelectric dams in the southeast and centre west − Brazil´s industrial powerhouse and major population centre.

As Brazil now begins the seven-month dry period, when rain is traditionally sparse, the reservoirs in the drought-affected region could fall to as little as 10% of their capacity, which the new Mines and Energy Minister, Eduardo Braga, admits would be “catastrophic” for energy security.

Energy mix

It means that plans to introduce solar energy into the energy mix are at last being considered as Brazil seeks alternatives to hydroelectric dam, on which it relies for up to 80% of its energy.

The contribution of wind power, produced by onshore wind farms in the Northeast and South, has begun to grow.

But solar energy, dubbed “a fantasy” by President Dilma Rousseff just a few years ago, has been ignored. Only 400 homes in Brazil have photovoltaic (PV) panels installed on their roofs, because the cost is so prohibitive.

However, Braga has announced plans to turn dozens of hydroelectric dams in the southeast and centre west − which run the risk of becoming white elephants as the waters diminish − into solar energy farms.

Thousands of solar panels attached to buoys would be floated on the surface of the dwindling reservoirs to provide an alternative source of power.

Ministry officials have calculated they could add up to 15,000 megawatts (MW) of power, which is higher than the maximum capacity of two of Brazil´s latest Amazon megadams − Jirau, on the Madeira river, and the controversial Belo Monte, on the Xingu.

Reduce evaporation

The solar panels would have the added advantage of reducing water evaporation while at the same time being cooled by the water, boosting their conversion efficiency.

Pilot projects are about to begin on two dams owned by state companies − Sobradinho, on the São Francisco river in Bahia, and Balbina, on the Uatumã river in the Amazon.  If they are successful, the solar panels will be introduced into the dams in the southeast and centre west.

Brazil will not be the first country to experiment with floating solar power. Australia is trying it out with PV panels on the surface area of a wastewater treatment facility in Jamestown, South Australia. Their energy will power the plant.

Tax breaks for the production of photovoltaic panels have also been promised by Brazil’s Energy Minister, who also plans to introduce new rules to encourage the use of solar panels on buildings with large roof areas.

Two more auctions for solar power will be held this year. In the first such auction, held at the end of last year, 31 solar plants were chosen to provide a total capacity of 1,048 MW by 2017. The price was just under US$90 per MW − among the lowest in the world.

Solar energy potential, according to some sources, is equivalent to 20 times the total of all the present installed capacity of electrical energy

Factors that contributed to the low cost were the strong solar radiation factor in Brazil, and the fact that many solar parks would be installed in the same areas as wind farms, reducing the need to acquire land or build new transmission lines.

The 20-year contracts for energy supply involve investments of US$1.67 billion, and many foreign companies are already jostling to get a place in the Brazilian sun, in what promises to be a rapidly expanding market in a few years’ time,.

Spanish, Canadian, American, Italian and Chinese companies already have a foot in the door. And as soon as the government and its development bank, the BNDES, come up with the promised tax breaks and incentives, the solar industry could take off.

Vast potential

At the moment, the total solar energy generated in Brazil is a piffling 15MW, much of it from new football stadium roofs installed for the 2014 football World Cup. But its vast solar energy potential, according to some sources, is equivalent to 20 times the total of all the present installed capacity of electrical energy.

While it waits to see if the solar experiment on the dams works, the government is hoping that energy consumption can be reduced by means of publicity campaigns and price increases.

The downturn in the economy, with little or no growth expected this year, will also help. It has also increased the use of thermal electric plants, powered by natural gas, coal and diesel oil to provide 30% − up from 20% − to the national grid.

These are expensive to run, powered by fossil fuels, and contribute to carbon emissions, and they could soon be consigned to history as solar energy becomes a regular part of Brazil´s energy mix. – Climate News Network

Jan Rocha is a freelance journalist living in Brazil and is a former correspondent there for the BBC World Service and The Guardian.

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New ocean energy plan could worsen global warming

New ocean energy plan could worsen global warming

An apparently promising way of producing energy from the world’s oceans in fact risks causing catastrophic harm by warming the Earth far more than it can bear, US scientists say.

LONDON, 4 April, 2015 − One of renewable energy’s more outspoken enthusiasts has delivered bad news for the prospects of developing ocean thermal energy. His prediction is that although the technology could work for a while, after about 50 years it could actually exacerbate long-term global warning.

Of all the renewable energy technologies, ocean thermal energy conversion (OTEC) sounded like the perfect choice. This is a plan to exploit the difference between the warm surface and the cold deeps of the seas, and turn that difference into energy.

The agency that did the work would be a network of vertical pipes floating below the surface: it would not spoil the view from the coast, and it would deliver power day or night, whatever the weather. But there was more.

Enthusiasts pointed out that as a bonus, the pipes used in the energy conversion would bring a flow of nutrients from the cold, deep waters to the less-fertile but sunlit surface of the ocean, thus encouraging the growth of marine algae that would soak up more carbon from the atmosphere. And, as a bonus, the same process would accelerate the downward flow of carbon, where it could be sequestered on the sea bed.

Now one of renewable energy’s more vocal supporters has taken a closer look at the long-term consequences of the ocean pipes and come up with some discouraging news: an engineering programme intended to cool the planet would end up making it warmer. It would work for a while, he says, but after about half a century it would reduce the cloud cover and at the same time reduce the sea ice, to accelerate climate change once more.

Warming exacerbated

Ken Caldeira, senior scientist in the Department of Global Ecology at Stanford University’s Carnegie Institution, California, is one of the more energetic voices in climate research: he and his Carnegie colleagues have already warned that the world is feeling the heat from carbon dioxide released from car exhausts and factory chimneys and he has spoken up loudly for nuclear power, and indeed any “clean” energy sources.

He and Stanford colleagues Lester Kwiatkowski and Katharine Ricke report in Environmental Research Letters that when they began to simulate an ocean dotted with vertical pipes that exchanged deeper and shallower waters, they expected to confirm the value of such an approach. They could not.

“Our simulations indicate the likely sign and character of unintended atmospheric consequences of such ocean technologies,” they conclude, in formal science-speak. “Prolonged application of ocean pipe technologies, rather than avoiding global warming, could exacerbate long-term warming of the climate system.”

Research exercises such as this one cost nothing more than laboratory computing power and research time: their value once again is in reminding governments, campaigners and energy investors that the climate is an intricate piece of global machinery, and that there are no easy answers to the problems presented by renewable energy.

Radical change

They are also a reminder that geo-engineering of any kind to damp climate change could have unintended consequences. In this case – in an ideal, global simulation – it would change the thermal structure of the ocean altogether.

The Carnegie calculations work like this: cold air is denser than warm air. Water funnelled up the pipes on a very large scale from the depths would cool the air above the seas, and increase atmospheric pressure, which would reduce cloud formation over the seas. Since most of the planet is ocean, that means fewer clouds overall, which means more sunlight absorbed by the Earth rather than reflected back into space by the clouds.

And the same mixing of sea waters would bring sea ice into contact with warmer waters, which would mean less sea ice to reflect radiation, with the same result: accelerated global warming.

After 60 years, the simulated network of ocean pipes would cause an increase of global temperature by up to 1.2°C. After a few centuries, the same technology would take temperatures up by a catastrophic 8°5C.

“I cannot envisage any scenario in which a large scale global implementation of ocean pipes would be advisable,” said the report’s lead author, Dr Kwiatkowski. “In fact, our study shows it could exacerbate long-term warning and is therefore highly inadvisable at global scales.” – Climate News Network

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Climate-driven loss of habitat endangers marine mammals

Climate-driven loss of habitat endangers marine mammals

Global survey of threatened Arctic species warns that conservation won’t work without regulation of greenhouse gas emissions to halt climate change.

LONDON, 2 April, 2015 − Three kinds of whale, six varieties of seal, the walrus and the polar bear all have things in common: they are marine mammals, they depend on the Arctic for survival as species, they are vulnerable, and biologists know surprisingly little about them.

And since the Arctic is warming twice as fast as the rest of the planet, their future could become even more threatened as climate change increases habitat loss.

The stress, so far, is on the word “could”, as the first challenge is to establish the facts.

A global study team led by Kristin Laidre, principal scientist at the University of Washington Polar Science Centre in Seattle, reports in the journal Conservation Biology that marine mammals are “disproportionately threatened and data poor compared with their terrestrial counterparts”.

The narwhal, beluga and bowhead whales, the ringed, bearded, spotted, ribbon, harp and hooded seals, the walrus, and the polar bear are “particularly vulnerable due to their dependence on sea ice”.

Important predators

All these animals make their living on the ice and in waters north of the Arctic Circle, and all are important predators. They are also important to indigenous and settler peoples in the frozen North as many can be legally harvested, and others are iconic tourist attractions. Either way, they help communities survive.

“These species are not only icons of climate change, they are also indicators of ecosystem health, and key resources for humans,” Dr Laidre says. “Accurate scientific data – currently lacking for many species – will be key to making informed and efficient decisions about conservation challenges and trade-offs in the 21st century.”

So the researchers set out on what they believe is the first comprehensive global review of what is known about the populations of these animals, and about the way their local habitats may be changing.

“They need ice to find food, find mates, reproduce, and rear their young. It’s their platform of life.”

The study divided the Arctic into 12 regions and began to look at population numbers and trends, and the local pattern of seasonal change in the ice.

They identified 78 distinct populations of the 11 species, and began to assemble estimates of numbers. These range from millions for the ringed seals to a few hundred for the beluga whales of Ungava Bay in the Canadian Arctic.

In many cases, researchers had too little information even to make a guess about whether local populations of any species were stable, declining or increasing. In their table of the trends of the 11 species in the 78 populations, the word “unknown” occurs more than 60 times.

They also charted profound reductions in ice cover. The sea ice naturally advances each winter, and retreats each spring, but because of global warming driven by human emissions of greenhouse gases released by fossil fuel combustion, the pattern of advance and retreat has changed dramatically. By 2040, according to some projections, the Arctic could be more or less ice-free each summer.

Extended summer

But change is visible now. In most regions, the scientists found that the summer period was extended by between five and 10 weeks. In Russia’s Barents Sea, the summer ice period is now 20 weeks longer – five months – than it was 30 years ago.

This presents a threat to the polar bear, and to the seals on which they feed. “These animals require sea ice,” Dr Laidre says. “They need ice to find food, find mates, reproduce, and rear their young. It’s their platform of life. It is very clear those species are going to feel the effects the hardest.”

On the other hand, the whale species might benefit – at least for a while – from reduced ice cover. Open water could offer a wider feeding range and greater marine productivity, and therefore more food.

The scientists provide a set of general recommendations for biologists, local authorities, government agencies and international organisations concerned with conservation of Arctic marine mammals. They also have a message for the entire planet.

As Dr Laidre says: “We may introduce conservation measures or protected species legislation, but none of those things can really address the primary driver of Arctic climate change and habitat loss for these species. The only thing that can do that is regulation of greenhouse gases.” – Climate News Network

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