Tag Archives: Warming

Svalbard’s reindeer thrive as climate warms

Warm welcome: Svalbard's distinctive reindeer are increasing in numbers. Image: courtesy of Dr Jonathan Codd, University of Manchester
Warm welcome: Svalbard’s distinctive reindeer are increasing in numbers
Image: courtesy of Dr Jonathan Codd, University of Manchester

By Alex Kirby

The rising temperatures that have many negative impacts in the Arctic region are not a problem for a Norwegian subspecies of reindeer whose population increased by a remarkable 30% last year.

LONDON, 21 July, 2014 − There will be winners as well as losers as climate change intensifies, and scientists say they have just found one species that is prospering already.

Far from threatening the reindeer on the Norwegian high Arctic archipelago of Svalbard, rising temperatures appear to be driving a remarkable increase in the animals’ numbers.

Scientists from the University of Manchester, UK, and the Arctic University of Norway in Tromsø have found that the numbers of Svalbard reindeer, continuing a trend that has been observed over the last 36 years, increased by 30% in the last year.

Physically counted

The scientists established the population spurt by counting the reindeer in the valley of Adventdalen, in central Spitsbergen. They say their research is one of only very few studies on animal populations and climate change that involves animals being physically counted annually, rather than estimated.

The total number of animals − including all births and all deaths − in Adventdalen has been recorded annually since 1979 by a team led by Dr Nicholas Tyler, of the Arctic University of Norway.

Svalbard’s reindeer population had increased in close parallel with winter warming in the last 35 years, growing from an average of around 600 animals in the early 1980s to around 1,000 today.

Dr Tyler said: “Winter warming is widely held to be a major threat to reindeer across the Arctic, but, in Svalbard, global warming has had the opposite effect. Our data provides remarkable confirmation of this counter-intuitive observation.”

This summer, a team from Manchester, led by Jonathan Codd and Nathan Thavarajah, helped with the annual census of reindeer in Adventdalen.

Dr Codd, the programme director for zoology at the university, said: “The results revealed a remarkably successful year for Svalbard reindeer. Despite very high numbers in 2013, the population increased by almost 30% and reached a new record of just over 1,300 animals − more than three times the population size in 1979, when the present series of counts began.”

The team found very little winter mortality and very high calving. There were over 300 calves in the valley, the second highest number recorded.

Streets awash

“The substantial increase in the numbers of reindeer is linked with frequent and pronounced periods of warm weather last winter,” said Dr Codd. “In February, the temperature rose above freezing for six days, reaching a maximum of +4.2°C, and the streets of the Norwegian settlement at Longyearbyen were reported awash with melt water.”

Dr Codd told the Climate News Network: “We count the reindeer by walking the same set routes every day, and there is no possibility of any double counting.

“There are signs that Svalbard’s predators are in good shape. I think most of the polar bear populations are at least stable, and the Arctic foxes are doing pretty well too.

“But neither seems to be bothering the reindeer. The foxes will eat dead deer, but don’t attack live ones. And the main prey of the bears is seals.

“And the reindeer can move fast if they need to. I’ve heard reports that they have been known to reach a speed of 50 miles an hour (80 kph).” − Climate News Network

Hi-tech quest for Arctic sea ice answers

Walrus surfacing through sea ice off the Alaska coast Image: Joel Garlich Miller/USFWS via Wikimedia Commons
Breakthrough: walrus surfacing in sea ice off the coast of Alaska
Image: Joel Garlich Miller/USFWS via Wikimedia Commons

By Tim Radford

A sophisticated array of automatic sensors will allow scientists to conduct the longest ever monitoring programme to determine the precise physics of summer sea ice melt in the Arctic.

LONDON, 20 July, 2014 − An international team of scientists plan to spend months watching ice melt. But although it will take longer and cost a lot more than watching paint dry, it will be much more interesting and rewarding.

They plan to discover just how the Arctic ice retreats, the rate at which it melts, and the oceanographic processes at work.

The Arctic ice cap is a vital part of the climate machine, and the basis of an important ecosystem. But although the polar ice once stretched far further south, it has been both thinning and shrinking for more than three decades. This melting shows signs of accelerating, with consequences for nations far to the south, but researchers still don’t know much about the physics of the process.

Suite of technologies

So the US Naval Research Laboratory, oceanographers from France and the US, the British Antarctic Survey, the Korean Polar Research Institute, the Scottish Association for Marine Science, and the Universities of Cambridge in the UK and Yale in the US have co-ordinated a suite of technologies to monitor every detail of this summer’s ice retreat from the Alaskan shoreline, northwards.

They will use an array of floats, buoys, sensors, thermometers, tethers, GPS receivers and automated weather stations to measure every detail, such as the flow of warmer water, growth and pattern of waves, the wind speed and direction, air pressure, and humidity.

There will be buoys fixed in the ice to record both the melting and – later in the year – its refreezing, and an array of ice-tethered profilers to monitor the changes in the upper ocean. Autonomous sea gliders, too, will be released to explore below the ice shelf and report back every time they surface.

The Arctic summer ice is an example of positive feedback. Ice reflects sunlight, so it is its own insulator, and keeps itself cold. But as it melts and retreats, the exposed darker ocean waters can absorb more radiation, and bring more warmth to the edges of the retreating ice, thus accelerating the process.

It freezes again, but – on average – each year the ice cap becomes thinner, and the total area frozen continues to shrink. Researchers think they understand the big picture, but now they want the confirmatory fine detail.

Melt season

“This has never been done at this level, over such a large area and for such a long period of time,” said Craig Lee, of the University of Washington, who leads the Marginal Ice Zone Programme project. “We’re really trying to resolve the physics over the course of an entire melt season.”

The project began in March, when researchers planted an array of sensors along a line 200 miles to the north of Alaska. In August, a Korean icebreaker will install more equipment, and a team from Miami is studying high resolution satellite pictures of ice floes in the region. Biologists will also want to understand the effect of temperature changes on marine micro-organisms.

“The field programme will provide unique insight into the processes driving the summer melt of Arctic ice,” Dr Lee said. “It’s the automation and unprecedented collaboration that allows us to be out there for the entire season. You couldn’t afford to be out there at this intensity, for this length of time, any other way.” − Climate News Network

It’s the greenhouse gases, stupid!

An anti-coal protest outside the Parliament Hoiuse in Victoria last year Image: John Englart (Takver) via Wikimedia Commons
An anti-coal protest outside the Parliament House in Victoria last year
Image: John Englart (Takver) via Wikimedia Commons

By Alex Kirby

Critics accuse Australia of showing a complete disregard for the science of climate change and its impacts by voting to repeal the country’s carbon tax.

LONDON, 19 July, 2014 – Australia, one of the world’s principal emitters of carbon dioxide, has voted to cancel its carbon tax in what has been described as “the perfect storm of stupidity”.

The decision had cross-party support in the Senate vote, passing by 39 votes to 32, with only the Labor and Green parties voting against repealing the carbon pricing scheme they introduced, and which took effect two years ago.

By fulfilling what the prime minister, Tony Abbott, had called his “pledge in blood” to repeal the tax, Australia has left itself with no legal basis for trying to achieve its international 5% greenhouse gas emissions reduction target.

The former climate change minister, Penny Wong, said Abbott had “staked his political career … on fearmongering and scaremongering”. Repealing the tax meant “this nation will have walked away from a credible and efficient response to climate change”.

Selfish politics

She said: “I think future generations will look back on these bills and they will be appalled . . . at the short-sighted, opportunistic, selfish politics of those opposite, and Mr Abbott will go down as one of the most short-sighted, selfish and small people ever to occupy the office of prime minister.”

But one backbencher said opposition parties were hypocrites for refusing to accept the will of the voters. Insisting that he had ”an open mind”, he said Brisbane had recently had its coldest day in 113 years.

The agriculture minister, Barnaby Joyce, said the tax had imposed high costs on families, and questioned whether it was needed. “Look at the weather today, look at the way you are dressed,” he said. “No one thinks it is too hot.”

Roger Jones, a professorial research fellow at the Victoria Institute of Strategic Economic Studies (VISES) at Australia’s Victoria University, described the repeal of the tax as “the perfect storm of stupidity”.

“It’s hard to imagine a more effective combination
of poor reasoning and bad policy making”

Professor Jones said: “It’s hard to imagine a more effective combination of poor reasoning and bad policy making, a complete disregard of the science of climate change and its impacts . . . a total failure of governance by government.”

The non-partisan Climate Institute said Australia had taken “a monumentally reckless backward leap”, while the Australian Conservation Foundation said the vote “makes Australia an international embarrassment”.

The government claims that the carbon pricing scheme has been ineffective, although CO2 emissions fell by 0.8% in the first calendar year of its operation − the largest fall in 24 years.

No cap on emissions

It says it will now achieve its 5% emissions reduction target, compared with 2000 levels, by 2020 with its Direct Action policy, which will offer competitive grants over the next four years to companies and organisations that voluntarily reduce emissions. The policy puts no overall cap on emissions.

The Climate Change Authority, which provides expert advice on Australian government climate change mitigation initiatives, and which the government wants to abolish, has said Australia’s “fair share” of international emissions reductions has now increased to between 15% and 19% by 2020.

Scientists in the US say parts of Australia are being slowly parched because of greenhouse gas emissions – which means that the long-term decline in rainfall over south and south-west Australia results from fossil fuel burning and depletion of the ozone layer by human activity.

Australia is 15th in the list of the world’s largest CO2 emitters. It also makes a sizeable contribution to emissions overseas: in 2013, it was the world’s second largest coal exporter. − Climate News Network

New clue to Antarctic food-web puzzle

Strength in numbers: thousands of Adélie penguins at a rookery Image: Michael Van Woert/NOAA NESDIS, ORA via Wikimedia Commons
Strength in numbers: thousands of Adélie penguins in an Antarctic rookery
Image: Michael Van Woert/NOAA NESDIS, ORA via Wikimedia Commons

By Tim Radford

A landmark research study that shows one species of penguin is thriving while other populations are in rapid decline offers new insight into how climate change is affecting Antarctica.

LONDON, 16 July, 2014 − Good news from Antarctica: the continent may be warming, the ice shelf may be at risk, and the food chain may ultimately become precarious, but the Adélie penguin population – at least for the moment − is higher than ever before.

The news does not suggest that global warming and climate change are actually good for this important indicator species, which has certainly been in decline on the Antarctic Peninsula. But it does represent an advance: for the first time, a comprehensive study has concluded with a full census of the species.

Heather Lynch, assistant professor of ecology and evelotion at Stony Brook University in New York, and Michelle La Rue, research fellow at the University of Minnesota’s Polar Geopspatial Center, used high resolution satellite imagery to measure levels of penguin guano – the fertiliser industry’s preferred term for seabird excrement – on the continent.

They then used that as the basis for calculating the numbers of birds in a colony necessary to account for all that digested and evacuated seafood.

They report in a journal called The Auk: Ornithological Advances that they identified at least 17 populations of Adélie penguins not previously known to exist, but failed to pinpoint 13 already-recorded colonies, and declared eight of them eradicated.

Their estimate for the total Adélie population in and around the Southern Ocean stands at 3.79 million, which is 53% higher than all previous estimates.

Useful evidence

The researchers call their work a “landmark” study, and see it not as evidence that climate change is going to work for the benefit of one particular species, but more as a useful piece of the great food-web puzzle in a changing climate.

Penguins have been in rapid decline in the West Antarctic Peninsula, which has become one of the fastest-warming regions on the planet. Warmer weather and increased rain have already started to take toll of Magellanic penguins in Argentina, and researchers recently predicted long-term decline for the iconic Emperor penguin on Antarctica itself.

But this is only long-term decline. As long as Antarctica stays cold and the ice shelf stays stable, the researchers say, the population could, in the short term, actually rise.

That is because what matters most to the species that nest in Antarctica is the supply of fish and krill around the continent’s edge. The health and resilience of the Adélie population – and the Emperor penguin, the leopard seal, the cetaceans, and so on – ultimately depend on how the krill and fish populations respond to climate change.

Humans, too, fish for commercial supplies of Antarctic krill, which provides a source of food for fish farms.

“Our finding of a 53% increase in Adélie penguin breeding abundance, compared to 20 years ago, suggests that estimates of krill consumption by this species may be seriously underestimated,” Dr Lynch said. “Leaving enough prey for natural krill predators is an important element in ensuring fisheries proceed sustainably.”

But a second team confirms in Nature Communications that there are strong links between climate and marine life, and that changes in factors such as wind speed and sea ice can have knock-on effects right around the Antarctic food web.

Since 1990, scientists aboard US research vessels have been conducting annual surveys along the western side of the Antarctic Peninsula, measuring populations of photosynthetic algae.

These peak every four to six years, according to changes in atmospheric pressure between the mid-latitudes and Antarctica itself.

Glacial meltwater

In winter, when cold southerly winds blow across the Peninsula, the winter ice extends. Winds drop from spring to summer, reducing the retreat of the ice. So the water column in summer then is stable, and the phytoplankton multiply, fed by iron-rich glacial meltwater.

The blooms of phytoplankton are what the krill need to multiply, and when the krill are around in huge volumes, the Adélie and other penguins, fur seals, baleen whales and albatross don’t have to go so far to find food.

But marine scientist Grace Saba, who did her research while with the Virginia Institute of Marine Science, before moving to Rutgers University, New Jersey, reports that these ideal conditions – negative phases of the Southern Annular Mode (SAM), to give it the technical terminology – are not guaranteed in future. If the world goes on burning fossil fuels, conditions will probably change.

“Projections from global climate models under business-as-usual emission scenarios up to the year 2100 suggest a further increase in temperature and in the occurrence of positive-SAM conditions,” Dr Saba said.

“If even one positive SAM episode lasted longer than the krill lifespan – four to six years with decreased phytoplankton abundance and krill recruitment – it could be catastrophic to the krill population.”  − Climate News Network

Waste problems still haunt nuclear option

Closing shot: the nuclear popwer plant at San Onofre, California Image: D Ramey Logan/WPPilot via Wikimedia Commons
Closing shot: the nuclear power plant at San Onofre, California
Image: D Ramey Logan/WPPilot via Wikimedia Commons

By Paul Brown

Nuclear power is seen as one of the possible solutions to climate change, but the recent closure of five US power stations is forcing the industry to face up at last to the damaging legacy of how to deal with radioactive waste.

LONDON, 15 July, 2014 − Long-term employment is hard to find these days, but one career that can be guaranteed to last a lifetime is dealing with nuclear waste.

The problem and how to solve it is becoming critical. Dozens of nuclear power stations in the US, Russia, Japan, and across Europe and Central Asia are nearing the end of their lives.

And when these stations close, the spent fuel has to be taken out, safely stored or disposed of, and then the pressure vessels and the mountains of concrete that make up the reactors have to be dismantled. This can take between 30 and 100 years, depending on the policies adopted.

In the rush to build stations in the last century, little thought was given to how to take them apart 40 years later. It was an age of optimism that science would always find a solution when one was needed, but the reality is that little effort was put into dealing with the waste problem. It is now coming back to haunt the industry.

Profitable business

Not that everyone sees it as a problem. A lot of companies view nuclear waste as a welcome and highly profitable business opportunity.

Either way, because of the dangers of radioactivity, it is not a problem that can be ignored. The sums of money that governments will have to find to deal with keeping the old stations safe are eye-wateringly large. They will run into many billions of dollars − an assured income for companies in the nuclear waste business, stretching to the end of this century and beyond.

The US is a prime example of a country where the nuclear waste issue is becoming rapidly more urgent.

The problem has been brought to the fore in the US because five stations have closed in the last two years. The Crystal River plant in Florida and San Onofre 1 and 2 in California have closed down because they were judged too costly to bring up to modern standards. Two more − Kewaunee in Wisconsin andthe  Vermont Yankee plant − could no longer compete on cost with the current price of natural gas and increased subsidies for renewables.

Nuclear Energy Insider, which keeps a forensic watch on the industry, predicts that several other nuclear power stations in the US will also succumb to premature closure because they can no longer compete.

The dilemma for the industry is that the US government has not solved the problem of what to do with the spent fuel and the highly radioactive nuclear waste that these stations have generated over the last 40 years. They have collected a levy − kept in a separate fund that now amounts to $31 billion − to pay for solving the problem, but still have not come up with a plan.

Legal action

Since it costs an estimated $10 million dollars a year to keep spent fuel safe at closed stations, electricity utilities saddled with these losses, and without any form of income, are taking legal action against the government.

The US government has voted another $205 million to continue exploring the idea of sending the waste to the remote Yucca Mountain in Nevada − an idea fought over since 1987 and still no nearer solution. Even if this plan went through, the facility would not be built and accepting waste until 2048.

The big problem for the US, the utility companies and the consumers who will ultimately pay the bill is what to do in the meantime with the old stations, the spent fuel, and the sites. Much of the fuel will be moved from wet storage to easier-to-manage dry storage, but it will still be a costly process. What happens after that, and who will pay for it, is anyone’s guess.

The industry is having a Nuclear Decommissioning and Used Fuel Strategy Summit in October in Charlotte, North Carolina, to try to sort out some of these issues.

But America is not alone. The UK has already closed a dozen reactors. Most of the rest are due to be retired by 2024, but it is likely that the French company EDF, which owns the plants, will try to keep them open longer.

The bill for dealing with existing nuclear waste in Britain is constantly rising and currently stands at £74 billion, even without any other reactors being decommissioned.

The government is already spending £2 billion each year trying to clear up the legacy of past nuclear activities, but has as yet found no solution to dealing with the thousands of fuel rods still in permanent store at power stations.

As with the US, even if a solution is found, it would be at least 2050 before a facility to deal with this highly dangerous waste could be found. By that time, billions of pounds will have been expended just to keep the used fuel from igniting and causing a nuclear meltdown.

It is hard to know how the industry’s finances could stand such a drain on its resources without going bankrupt.

Similar problems are faced by Germany, which is already closing its industry permanently in favour of renewables, and France, with more than 50 ageing reactors.

Japan, still dealing with the aftermath of the Fukushima accident in 2011, is composed of crowded islands where few people will welcome a nuclear waste depository.

Many countries in the former Soviet bloc with ageing reactors look to Russia − which provided them − to solve their problems. But this may be a false hope, as Russia has an enormous unsolved waste problem of its own.

Dramatic rise

In all these countries, the issue of nuclear waste and what to do with it is a problem that has been put off − both by the industry and politicians − as an issue to be dealt with sometime in the future. But the problem is becoming more urgent as the costs and the volume of waste rises dramatically.

Unlike any other form of generation, even dirty coal plants, getting rid of nuclear stations is no simple matter. To cleanse a nuclear site so that it can be used for another industrial use is difficult. Radioactivity lasts for centuries, and all contamination has to be physically removed.

For many critics of the industry, the nuclear waste issue has always been a moral issue − as well as a financial one − that should not be left to future generations to solve. The industry itself has always relied on its continuous expansion, and developing science, to deal what it calls “back end costs” at some time in the distant future.

But as more stations close, and fewer new ones are planned to raise revenue, putting off the problem no longer seems an option, either for the industry or for the governments that ultimately will have to pick up the bill. – Climate News Network

Bold pathways point to a low-carbon future

Brighter future? Sunrise over a wind farm in the Cambridgeshire Fens, UK Image: David Clare/Climate News Network
Brighter future? Sunrise over a wind farm in the Cambridgeshire Fens, UK
Image: David Clare/Climate News Network

By Alex Kirby

The positive message from a scientific report for the UN Climate Summit is that the tough task of cutting CO2 emissions to limit global temperature rise to below 2°C is definitely achievable by following a set of bold, practical steps.

LONDON, 11 July 2014 − Scientists often hesitate to give a cut-and-dried, yes-or-no answer when asked how serious climate change is going to be, and whether the world can still escape significant damage.

Surprisingly, perhaps, a report prepared for a UN conference in September is unequivocal. Yes, it says − the worst is not bound to happen.

The good news is that the world can keep climate change within what are thought to be acceptable limits. The less good news is that while it is possible, it certainly won’t be easy.

The report shows how the countries that emit the most greenhouse gases (GHGs) can cut their carbon emissions by mid-century to prevent dangerous climate change. Prepared by independent researchers in 15 countries, it is the first global co-operation to identify practical pathways to a low-carbon economy by 2050.

The Deep Decarbonisation Pathways Project (DDPP) report is an interim version prepared for the UN Climate Summit to be held in New York on 23 September. The full DDPP report will be ready in the spring of 2015.

Dangerous change

The UN Secretary-General, Ban Ki-Moon, said the report tried to show how countries could help to achieve the globally-agreed target of limiting temperature rise to below 2°C. “Ambitious national action is critical to averting dangerous climate change,” he said. “This report shows what is possible.”

The report aims to help countries to set bold targets in the run-up to the UN climate talks to be held in Paris in 2015.

The work is led by the Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN), an initiative of Columbia University’s Earth Institute for the UN, and the Institute for Sustainable Development and International Relations (IDDRI), a policy research institute based in Paris.

Jeffrey Sachs, the director of the SDSN, said the world had committed itself to limit warming to below 2°C, but not to practical ways of achieving that goal.

He said: “This report is all about the practicalities.  Success will be tough – the needed transformation is enormous – but is feasible, and is needed to keep the world safe for us and for future generations.”

“The issue is to convince the world that the future is as important as the present”

Fatih Birol, chief economist of the International Energy Agency, said: “The issue is to convince the world that the future is as important as the present. Paris 2015 may well be our last hope.”

Despite the global agreement to stay below 2°C, the world is on a path that, without action, will lead to an increase of 4°C or more. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change said in its Fifth Assessment Report, known as AR5, that such a rise might exceed the world’s ability to adapt.

It said that a 4°C rise could endanger harvests and cause drastic sea-level rise, spread of diseases, and the extinction of ecosystems.

Some leading climate scientists − including NASA’s former chief climate scientist, Professor James Hansen, who is now at Columbia University − say that even a 2°C rise would be very dangerous. But many politicians regard it as an essential commitment.

The 15 national pathways examined in the report all show the importance of three factors for achieving radically lower carbon emissions.

The first is greatly increased efficiency and conservation in all energy use.

Renewable sources

The second factor is taking the carbon out of electricity by using renewable sources, “such as wind and solar, as well as nuclear power, and/or the capture and sequestration of carbon emissions from fossil-fuel burning”.

Nuclear energy still attracts widespread and determined opposition, and carbon capture and sequestration (trapping CO2 emissions and storing them underground or beneath the sea floor) has not yet proved that it can work on a commercial scale.

The third factor involves replacing fossil fuels in transport, heating and industrial processes with a mix of low-carbon electricity, sustainable biofuels, and hydrogen.

The authors say their interim report shows the critical long-term importance of preparing national deep decarbonisation plans for 2050.

Emmanuel Guerin, the DDPP’s senior project manager, said the pathways were crucial to shaping the expectations of countries, businesses and investors. − Climate News Network

Gene machinery helps plants handle CO2 rise

 

The mouse-ear cress (Arabidopsis thaliana) provides vital scientific clues Image: Alberto Salguero Quiles via Wikimedia Commons
Mouse-ear cress (Arabidopsis thaliana) provides valuable scientific clues
Image: Alberto Salguero Quiles via Wikimedia Commons

By Tim Radford

The discovery of how plants respond to increasing levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere could provide agricultural scientists with new tools to engineer crops that can deal with droughts and high temperatures.

LONDON, 10 July, 2014 − Biologists in the US have identified the genetic machinery that tells a plant how to respond to more carbon dioxide caused by the burning of fossil fuels.

Four genes from three different gene families together control the density of stomata, or breathing pores, on the foliage of the healthy plant. As carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere rise, plants respond and make fewer stomata.

That means they can detect a gradual change in the levels of a vital gas – a change from 280 parts per million 200 years ago to 400 parts per million now – and change their plumbing arrangements.

In theory, more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere should be better for plant fertility, and the reduction in stomata means that they should use water more economically. Water is a big expense for the growing plant.

Lose water

“For each carbon dioxide molecule that is incorporated into plants through photosynthesis, plants lose about 200 molecules of water through their stomata,” says Julian Schroeder, professor of biological sciences at the University of California San Diego, who led the team that reports in Nature  journal.

“Because elevated CO2 reduces the stomatal density in leaves, this is at first sight beneficial for plants, as they would lose less water. However, the reduction in the number of stomatal pores decreases the ability of plants to cool their leaves during a heat wave via water evaporation. Less evaporation adds to heat stress in plants, which ultimately affects crop yield.”

Quite how crops will respond to a greenhouse gas world has been exercising field biologists, agronomists and government planners for decades.

Plants respond to warmth and to plentiful carbon dioxide. But, as researchers found in April this year, that may not make crops more nourishing. It would be possible to have vigorous growth but lower protein yields in, for example, fields of wheat.

There is a second unresolved question: a warmer world will mean more evaporation, more rainfall in some regions, and greater aridity in others − not helpful to productive farming.

A third challenge is that extremes of heat in the growing season can have a catastrophic effect on the harvest later in the year.

But the San Diego research may, in the end, help tomorrow’s farmers. The study shows that when their test species Arabidopsis thaliana – a little mustard plant also known as mouse-ear cress − senses a rise in atmospheric levels of CO2, it increases the levels of a peptide hormone that alters the genetic machinery in the skin of growing leaves, and blocks the formation of stomata.

The challenge was to identify all the proteins involved, and the genes that are at work.

Plant health

“This change causes leaf temperature to rise because of a decrease in the plant’s evapotranspirative cooling ability, while simultaneously increasing the transpiration efficiency of plants,” the report says. “These phenomena, combined with the increasing scarcity of fresh water for agriculture, are predicted to dramatically impact on plant health.”

The more researchers know about the physiological response of a growing thing, the more confidently they can predict how it will react to changing conditions, the better they will be able to advise farmers on the plants to sow, and the more likely it is that they will be able to breed new strains that can adapt to new conditions.

“At a time when the pressing issues of climate change and inherent agronomic consequences which are mediated by the continuing atmospheric rise of CO2 are palpable, these advances could become of interest to crop biologists and climate change modellers,” said molecular biologist Cawas Engineer, lead author of the paper. – Climate News Network 

Critics refute assets claim by ‘Orwellian’ Shell

 

Clouded view? A Shell oil refinery in the UK Image: S Parish/geograph.org.uk via Wikimedia Commons
Clouded view? Sunset over a flare stack at a Shell oil refinery in the UK
Image: S Parish/geograph.org.uk via Wikimedia Commons

By Alex Kirby

The world’s biggest oil company has been accused of ‘doublethink’ in claiming that its fossil fuel assets will continue to be highly profitable and in demand, while recognising the need for decisive action on climate change.

London, 9 July 2014 − Is investment in fossil fuels a prudent bet? For some time, critics have been warning major oil and gas companies that their reserves could soon be worthless if the world acts decisively on climate change.

The world’s biggest oil company, Shell, recently insisted that its reserves would remain in demand and would continue to sell at a profit, and that no global climate agreement would damage its profits.

But now two groups − the Carbon Tracker Initiative (CTI) and Energy Transition Advisors (ETA) − have today published a response to Shell’s “stranded assets” statement.

The debate itself is warming up, with one critic dismissing Shell’s statement as “Orwellian doublethink”.

The thinktanks’ reply is based on a detailed technical analysis of Shell’s argument. They say they welcome the company’s engagement with the issue, but accuse it in effect of cherrypicking the arguments to suit its case.

Weaker demand

Shell’s approach, they say, is based on dismissing potentially weaker demand for its oil as a result of tougher climate policies, technological advances and slower economic growth.

They also say the company selectively applies different timelines to fit its business strategy, highlighting conventional projects with short lead times and lower capital costs, rather than its growing unconventional and deepwater resources portfolio. This will be more capital-intensive, have longer lead times, and extended payback periods.

Shell, they say, considers only its proven oil and gas reserves, equalling 11.5 years of production at current rates. Adding existing discoveries would extend that period to 25 years, and possibly longer.

The analysis by CTI and ETA points out that while Shell recognises the need for urgent action, it argues that the world will fail to meet the internationally-agreed global warming target of no more than a 2°C rise in temperature.

“. . .as classic a case of Orwellian doublethink
as you are likely to find.”

Anthony Hobley, CEO of CTI, said: “Acknowledging the seriousness of the climate challenge whilst at the same time asserting no effective action will be taken until the end of the century is as classic a case of Orwellian doublethink as you are likely to find.”

The groups also say the company relies on carbon capture and storage (CCS) as a panacea to combat climate change, although it has yet to prove itself at a commercial scale. CTI’s 2013 research showed that CCS could provide only a limited extension (14%) of the carbon budget − the amount the world can afford to emit − to 2050.

Shell’s response, the report’s authors say, selectively focuses on producing oil fields and projects nearest to completion. They point out: “Our analysis examines a broader range of its assets. . . Over the next 10 years, we estimate that Shell could invest some $77 billion in high-risk, high-cost projects (needing a market price over US$95 per barrel).

“If Shell invests the proceeds from its producing assets into resources such as these, it will be at a progressively greater risk to changes in demand caused by measures to cut pollution.”

Unlike Shell, they say, they believe that climate regulation and related environmental policy is gathering pace, while other economic forces such as efficiency are also affecting demand.

Mothballed projects

They believe there is a real risk that global oil demand will decline within the next 10-15years − even without a global climate deal. They say that the lead times of 15-20 years required to bring many newly-discovered resources to market will only compound the possibility that scarce pension fund money and other investments will be lost in mothballed projects.

Oil companies, they recommend, should examine and disclose risks to all potential future production, rather than restricting focus to proven reserves alone.

Shell should also provide more detail on the role its internal carbon price of $40 per tonne plays in hitting demand for its oil, and its $77 billion of potential capital expenditure (2014-25) on new high-cost oil production (above a market price of $95 per barrel) ought to be a focal point for engagement with investors.

To help shareholders to assess risk, oil companies should disclose estimated break-even oil prices (BEOPs) of all new projects, CTI and ETA argue. − Climate News Network

Arctic warming upsets birds’ breeding calendar

 

A chick of the Arctic migrant bird, the red-necked phalarope Image: US Fish and Wildlife Service via Wikimedia Commons
Early bird: a chick of the Arctic migrant, the red-necked phalarope
Image: US Fish and Wildlife Service via Wikimedia Commons

By Tim Radford

As global warming increasingly causes Arctic snow to melt earlier, researchers warn that it could have a long-term adverse effect on the breeding success of migrant birds.

LONDON, 8 July, 2014 − Arctic migrants are nesting up to seven days earlier as the world warms. The sandpiper makes a beeline for the Alaskan shores, to join the phalarope on the beach and the songbirds in the woods − and all because the winter snows are melting earlier.

Conservation scientists Joe Liebezeit and Steve Zack – both then of the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) – and colleagues report in the journal Polar Biology that they looked into nearly 2,500 nests of four shorebird species in Alaska – two sandpipers, two phalaropes − and a songbird called the Lapland songspur over a nine-year period.

Nest timing

They recorded when the first eggs were laid. And they also assessed snow melt in nesting plots at different times in the early spring, and took note of predator abundance and the seasonal flush of vegetation − both of which can affect nest timing − to see what mattered most in terms of breeding.

“It seems clear that the timing of the snow melt in Arctic Alaska is the most important mechanism driving the earlier and earlier breeding dates we observed in the Arctic,” said Liebezeit, now of the Audubon Society of Portland, Oregon.

“The rates of advancement in earlier breeding are higher in Arctic birds than in other temperate bird species, and this accords with the fact that the Arctic climate is changing at twice the rate.”

During the nine years in which the scientists conducted their study, they found that nesting advanced by between four and seven days.

“Migratory birds are nesting earlier in the changing Arctic, presumably to track the earlier springs and abundance of insect pray,” said Steve Zack, who is the WCS co-ordinator of bird conservation.

“Many of these birds winter in the tropics and may be compromising their complicated calendar of movements to accommodate this change. We’re concerned that there will be a threshold where they will no longer be able to track the emergence of these earlier springs, which may impact breeding success or even population viability.”

Ecology changing

The calendar of Arctic life is shaped by ice, and the ecology of the region is beginning to change as the area of sea covered by ice shrinks with successive summers.

But Ingrid Onarheim, of the University of Bergen’s Geophysical Institute, and colleagues warn in the journal Tellus − published by the International Meteorological Institute at Stockholm University − that the Arctic ocean is losing ice even in winter, at least north of the island of Svalbard, Norway.

A study of satellite records shows that this region is losing winter ice at the rate of almost 10% per decade, and the north Atlantic water that enters the Arctic ocean at this point has been warming at 0.3°C per decade. At the same time, the surface air temperature has been warming at 2°C per decade, and researchers have recorded an average rise in winter temperatures of 6.9°C in the last 34 years.

They believe that winds have not caused the long-term warming or loss of ice, so it must be warmer ocean temperatures pushing into the region west of Svalbard. The ice, furthermore, has thinned with the decades, making it more likely to melt and retreat with each succeeding winter. – Climate News Network

Quick fixes won’t solve CO2 danger

 

Bleak outlook: smoke billows an oil-fired power station in Sweden Image: Mikeinc via Wikimedia Commons
Bleak outlook: smoke billows from an oil-fired power station in Sweden
Image: Mikeinc via Wikimedia Commons

By Tim Radford

New research backs up the growing body of evidence that the only way to limit global warming in the long term is a serious cut in carbon dioxide emissions from burning fossil fuels.

LONDON, 6 July, 2014 − Once again, US scientists have come to the same conclusion: there really is no alternative. The only way to contain climate change and limit global warming, they say, is to reduce carbon dioxide emissions.

It won’t really help to concentrate on limiting methane emissions, or even potent greenhouse gases such as hydrofluorcarbons, or nitrous oxide, or the soot and black carbon that also contribute to global warming. Containing all or any of them would make a temporary difference, but the only thing that can work in the long run is a serious cut in carbon dioxide emissions.

Raymond Pierrehumbert, a climatologist at the University of Chicago, combined new research and analysis and a review of the scientific literature. He reports in the Annual Review of Earth and Planetary Sciences that although livestock emissions such as methane are – molecule for molecule – potentially more potent as global warming agents than carbon dioxide, there remains no substitute for reducing the burning of fossil fuels.

“Until we do something about CO2, nothing we do about methane or these other things is going to matter much for climate,” he said.

Same solution

The conclusion is not a new one. The same solution was recommended by a Californian-led team in June, and university researchers in Oxford, UK, and Bern, Switzerland also said much the same in November last year.

Other greenhouse gases certainly contribute to global warming, and researchers have urged new ways to to be adopted to contain global temperature rises by reducing grazing herds, or by introducing better livestock management, or by making a concerted effort to limit all the other short-lived pollutants.

But, Prof Pierrehumbert argues, that is the point: methane, hydrofluorocarbons and nitrous oxides are all short-lived gases. Remove them, and there is a benefit. But carbon dioxide lingers in the atmosphere, and goes on being a greenhouse gas. Any extra CO2 in the atmosphere will go on warming the planet.

Global thermostat

A one-ton–a-year reduction in methane brings a single lowering of the global thermostat, but a reduction in carbon dioxide of one ton a year yields a climate benefit that stays. That is because, had it been emitted, it would have gone on and on raising global temperatures.

Right now, according to the Earth Policy Institute, coal still accounts for 44% of fossil fuel emissions, oil accounts for 36%, and natural gas accounts for the remaining 20%.

Subsidies for fossil fuels in 2011 added up to more than $620 billion, while renewable energy that year received just $88bn in subsidies.

In the last 200 years, the planet has warmed by 1°C, and 2013 marked the 37th consecutive year of above-average temperatures. The institute calculates that 4 billion people alive today have never experienced a year that was cooler than last century’s average. – Climate News Network