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Western US faces worsening wildfires

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

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

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

By Tim Radford

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

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

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

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

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

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

Climate-driven impact

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

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

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

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

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

Reluctant to pay

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

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

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

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

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

AAAS: Climate risks irreversible change

March 18, 2014 in AAAS, Child Malnutrition, Climate risk, Coastal Threats, Extreme weather, Flooding, Food security, IPCC, Weather

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By Alex Kirby

In a highly unusual intervention in the debate over climate policy, US scientists say the evidence that the world is warming is as conclusive as that which links smoking and lung cancer.

LONDON, 18 March – The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) says there is a “small but real” chance that a warming climate will cause sudden and possibly unalterable changes to the planet.

This echoes the words used in its 2007 report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which said climate change might bring “abrupt and irreversible” impacts.

A child with kwasiorkor, caused by evere protein deficiency: Child malnutrition may rise by about a fifth Image: Dr Lyle Conrad via Wikimedia Commons

A child with kwashiorkor, caused by evere protein deficiency: Child malnutrition may rise by about a fifth
Image: Dr Lyle Conrad, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, via Wikimedia Commons

In a report, What We Know, the AAAS makes an infrequent foray into the climate debate. The report’s significance lies not in what it says, which covers familiar ground, but in who is saying it: the world’s largest general scientific body, and one of its most knowledgeable.

The AAAS says: “The evidence is overwhelming: levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere are rising. Temperatures are going up. Springs are arriving earlier. Ice sheets are melting. Sea level is rising. The patterns of rainfall and drought are changing. Heat waves are getting worse, as is extreme precipitation. The oceans are acidifying.

“The science linking human activities to climate change is analogous to the science linking smoking to lung and cardiovascular diseases. Physicians, cardiovascular scientists, public health experts and others all agree smoking causes cancer.

Few dissenters

“And this consensus among the health community has convinced most Americans that the health risks from smoking are real. A similar consensus now exists among climate scientists, a consensus that maintains climate change is happening, and human activity is the cause.”

The report’s headline messages are unambiguous. It says climate change is occurring here and now: “Based on well-established evidence, about 97% of climate scientists have concluded that human-caused climate change is happening.

“This agreement is documented not just by a single study, but by a converging stream of evidence over the past two decades from surveys of scientists, content analyses of peer-reviewed studies, and public statements issued by virtually every membership organization of experts in this field.

“We are at risk of pushing our climate system toward abrupt, unpredictable, and potentially irreversible changes with highly damaging impacts…Disturbingly, scientists do not know how much warming is required to trigger such changes to the climate system.

Expensive to delay

“The sooner we act, the lower the risk and cost. And there is much we can do…as emissions continue and warming increases, the risk increases”.

The AAAS says there is scarcely any precedent for the speed at which this is happening: “The rate of climate change now may be as fast as any extended warming period over the past 65 million years, and it is projected to accelerate in the coming decades.”

Historically rare extreme weather like once-in-a-century floods, droughts and heat waves could become almost annual occurrences, it says, and there could be large-scale collapses of the Antarctic and Greenland ice sheets, and of part of the Gulf Stream, loss of the Amazon rain forest, die-off of coral reefs, and mass extinctions.

The authors acknowledge that what the AAAS is doing is unusual: “As scientists, it is not our role to tell people what they should do or must believe about the rising threat of climate change.

“But we consider it to be our responsibility as professionals to ensure, to the best of our ability, that people understand what we know: human-caused climate change is happening…”

More child malnutrition

At the end of March the IPCC, the UN’s voice on climate science, is due to release a summary of the report of its Working Group II, on impacts, adaptation and vulnerability to climate change.

The London daily The Independent, which says it has seen a draft of the report’s final version, says it will spell out a prospect of “enormous strain, forcing mass migration, especially in Asia, and increasing the risk of violent conflict.”

The newspaper says the report predicts that climate change “will reduce median crop yields by 2% per decade for the rest of the century”, against a backdrop of rising demand set to increase by 14% per decade until 2050. “This will in turn push up malnutrition in children by about a fifth”, it adds.

Other predictions in the draft, The Independent says, include possible global aggregate economic losses of between 0.2 and 2.0%; more competition for fresh water; and by 2100 hundreds of millions of people affected by coastal flooding and displaced by land loss, mainly in Asia. – Climate News Network

Old Greek plays record halcyon days

March 8, 2014 in Climate, Europe, History, Weather

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The theatre at Epiidaurus, where many of the leading dramatists' plays were performed Image: plusgood via Wikimedia Commons

The theatre at Epiidaurus, where many of the leading dramatists’ plays were performed
Image: plusgood via Wikimedia Commons

By Tim Radford

History and literature provide evidence of consistently mild mid-winter weather in ancient Greece, helping climate scientists to reconstruct the past and so understand the future.

LONDON, 8 March – In fifth century Athens, in January at least, the skies were clear and the rain stayed away. The days, to use a classical reference, were halcyon.

Two Greek researchers have combed the great plays of Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides and the bawdy comedies of Aristophanes to deliver a long-term weather report for mid-winter days from 458 BC to 401 BC. They report in the Royal Meteorological Society’s journal Weather that, clearly, the city was a good place to hold open-air stage productions in mid-winter. Sophocles, in his masterpiece Oedipus at Colonus, actually says so:

“A distant music, pure and clear rises from green secluded vales. The constant trill of nightingales deep in their haunts of tangled vine, of sacred ivy, dark as wine, thick is the god’s inviolate wood; rich in berries and rich in fruit, the sun is curtained; the wind is mute, in winter.”

To understand the climate of the future, scientists must reconstruct the patterns of the past, long before the first formal weather records. They do this by examining pollens in lake beds, growth rings in ancient trees, ice cores and ocean muds to deliver circumstantial evidence of bygone seasons.

Balmy mid-winter

But there are also indirect references in human records: in naval log books, in medieval tax records, in monastic manuscripts, and in chronicles from Baghdad in the golden age of Islamic scholarship.

Christina Chronopoulou of the National and Kapodistrian University of Athens, and a colleague from Panteion University in the same city, decided to comb 43 surviving works performed during the Lenaia celebrations in mid-winter. They found seven clear direct and indirect references to the beneficial halcyon days of mid-winter.

The halcyon days are now a cliché but once referred to the myth of Alcyone, the grieving widow who was turned into a kingfisher by the gods, and who nested on the beach at midwinter.

But the fact the ancient Greeks routinely watched and expected to watch drama in open amphitheatres during the Attic month of Gamelion, which ran from 15 January to 15 February, provides indirect confirmation of good weather. Halcyon days, say the authors, are “atypical winter-time weather periods characterized by sunny and calm conditions” and the result of a stagnant high-pressure system that dominates the area at such a time of year.

Observant dramatists

And, as they worked through some of the great plays, they found enduring references to clear skies: in Agamemnon, by Aeschylus, in 458 BC a character spends his nights on the roof “to know thoroughly the throng of stars…” Aristophanes in The Birds in 414 BC describes a wedding.  Attic weddings lasted for three days and were performed in the open air, another indicator of mellow conditions. The Birds also contains references to a “skiadeion”, a parasol, an umbrella to provide shade from the sun, rather than shelter from the rain.

Euripides in Medea in 431 BC mentions “the temperate and sweet breezes” while Aristophanes in The Frogs in 405 BC actually addresses “you halcyons who chatter by the ever-flowing waves.”

“Combining the fact that dramatic contests were held in mid-winter without any indication of postponement, and references from the drama about clear weather and mild winters, we can assume that those particular days of almost every January were summery in the 5th and maybe the 4th centuries BC,” said Dr Chronopoulou. – Climate News Network

Offshore wind could calm hurricanes

February 26, 2014 in Climate, Coastal Threats, Energy, Extreme weather, Hurricanes, Technology, USA, Weather Systems, Wind power

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It's smaller, but the same principle applies: Wind energy is dissipated as it crosses a wind farm Image: By Michael via Wikimedia Commons

It’s smaller, but the same principle applies: Wind energy is dissipated as it crosses a wind farm
Image: By Michael via Wikimedia Commons

By Tim Radford

US scientists say that very large wind farms could not only withstand a hurricane: they would also weaken it and so protect coastal communities.

LONDON, 26 February – US engineers have thought of a new way to take the heat out of a hurricane. Fortuitously-placed offshore wind farms could make dramatic reductions in wind speeds and storm surge wave heights.

Hurricanes are capricious consequences of peculiar sea temperature and wind conditions, while wind farms are the outcome of years of thoughtful design and investment, and not an emergency response to a severe weather warning.

But, according to new research in Nature Climate Change, a giant wind farm off the coast of New Orleans in 2005 could have lowered the wind speeds of Hurricane Katrina by between 80 and 98 miles an hour, and decreased the storm surge by 79%.

Katrina was a calamitous event that caught civic, state and federal authorities off-guard, and devastated the city. But an array of 78,000 wind turbines off the coast would, according to Mark Jacobson of Stanford University, and Cristina Archer and Willett Kempton of the University of Delaware, have defused its force dramatically – and turned a lot of hurricane energy into electricity at the same time.

Wind turbines turn in the wind to generate energy. The laws of thermodynamics are inexorable, so a national grid’s gain is the wind’s loss, because wind energy is dissipated as it crosses a wind farm. One turbine literally takes the wind out of the sails of another.

Tempest models

One of the three Nature Climate Change authors, Cristina Archer, last year examined the geometry of a hypothetical wind farm to work out how to place turbines most efficiently to make the best of a gusty day, rather than have one bank of turbines turning furiously while the others barely stir.

But this same translation of wind circulation to electrical circuitry suggested another accidental consequence. Mark Jacobson and his colleagues used sophisticated computer models to test the impact of a hurricane on a wind farm, and since the US has both cruel experience and highly detailed records of hurricane events, he and his Delaware partners decided to model three notorious tempests: Superstorm Sandy, which slammed into New York in 2012 and caused $82 billion damage in three US states, Hurricane Isaac, which hit Louisiana the same year, and Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

“We found that when wind turbines are present, they slow down the outer rotation winds of a hurricane,” Professor Jacobson said. ”This feeds back to decrease wave height, which reduces movement of air toward the centre of the hurricane, increasing the central pressure, which in turn slows down the winds of the entire hurricane and dissipates it faster.”

And Cristina Archer put it more vividly: “The little turbines can fight back the beast,” she said. Her colleague Willett Kempton added: “We always think about hurricanes and wind turbines as incompatible. But we find that, in large arrays, wind turbines have some ability to protect both themselves and coastal communities from the strongest winds.”

Double benefit

The conclusions are based entirely on computer simulations. Real world tests are for the moment unlikely, chiefly because wind farms tend to have dozens or, at the most, hundreds of turbines and the hurricane experiment was based on turbines in their tens of thousands, delivering hundreds of gigawatts.

But Professor Jacobson and Dr Archer tend to think big anyway. They argued in 2012 that four million wind turbines in the world’s windiest places could generate at least half the world’s electricity needs by 2030 without interfering too greatly with global atmospheric circulation.

The tempest-taming qualities of really big wind farms would deliver an added bonus: they could offer protection to vulnerable coastal cities. The costs of wind-farming on such a scale would be huge, but then the losses to coastal cities from flooding and storm damage in a rampant climate change scenario are expected to rise to $100 trillion a year by 2100.

The three authors calculate that the net cost of such projects – after considering all the good things that could come from them – would be “less than today’s fossil fuel electricity generation net cost in these regions and less than the net cost of sea walls used solely to avoid storm damage.”

A sea wall to protect one city might cost anything from $10 billion to $29 billion, and that is all it would do: protect that city. A really big wind farm would offer protection during cyclones, typhoons or hurricanes and generate carbon-free energy all year round. – Climate News Network

If it walks like a duck, it probably is climate change

February 17, 2014 in Climate deniers, Climate finance, Extreme weather, Flooding, Journalism, United Kingdom

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The morning after the storm: Aberystwyth in west Wales has borne the brunt this turbulent winter Image: Ian Capper via Wikimedia Commons

The morning after the storm: Aberystwyth in west Wales has borne the brunt this turbulent winter
Image: Ian Capper via Wikimedia Commons

By Phil Rothwell

As debate rages over the part climate change may be playing in Britain’s wet and stormy winter, one of the UK’s foremost experts on flood defence says we need to acknowledge reality – fast.

LONDON, 17 February -  We are in danger of losing sight of some glaringly obvious truths about this exceptionally wet and stormy winter which much of the United Kingdom is enduring:

  • Scientists should acknowledge that the current record-breaking weather, in the UK and globally, is being caused by a changing climate
  • We don’t need party political bickering over flood funding, we need the right budget guaranteed for the future and agreed through political consensus
  • We need a land use policy that reduces reliance on expensive flood engineering and moves toward natural catchment management, flood-friendly farming, and village, town and city location and design that reduces risk, not increases it
  • We need a media and political framework that consigns climate change scepticism to the spike and the cutting room floor.

After the wettest and stormiest period in our history and following 2012, a year when we had both the most severe drought and wettest winter on record up until then, the almost complete failure of those in authority to acknowledge anything other than a faint link to climate change is beyond credibility and fundamentally and fatally damages a logical response.

Such a politically motivated head-in-the-sand attitude is severely damaging to any long-term approach to managing such events, let alone their cause.  As I write this President Obama is visiting California to see the impact of the most testing drought in its history, New York is in the grip of deep snow and ice, and the Philippines once again see major flooding. The Somerset Levels and the floods in the Thames Valley are just a pimple on the surface of the world’s problems. But they need a bit more than a knee-jerk political gesture.

“Over a million properties in Britain’s major conurbations have not flooded this winter because of action over the last few years to protect them”

In the 2007 floods in the UK 10 times as many properties were affected, mainly in urban areas in the north. The limited and largely rural impacts of the current winter, appalling for a few,  are in fact testimony to a successful flood risk management strategy.

Diverting resources to towns and cities, increasing flood protection to often ill-judged development, has proved a major success for the Environment Agency and the policy driver of investment which is targeted where most people live. Over a million properties in Britain’s major conurbations have not flooded this winter because of action over the last few years to protect them.

Many of the houses that have flooded are in rural locations in a flood plain best used to accommodate floods and relieve pressure downstream, thereby reducing even more major losses. We should be congratulating ourselves for a policy that is clearly working, protecting the most populated areas and using the sparsely-populated countryside for flood storage and mitigation.

Of course, whilst such a policy makes economic sense, in rural, social, personal and financial terms it can be a disaster. People are still affected, villages isolated, farmers managing reservoirs not wet meadows. This brings nothing but misery.

But the answer does not lie in more and bigger defences, or massive pumps. We should reforest the uplands, use different farming methods on upper catchment slopes, dam more upstream rivers and streams, create wet storage areas, end development in flood plains, and where there’s redevelopment do it in a way that absorbs and manages water through urban drainage systems and flood-sensitive design.

“Climate change is a generation-defining issue. We cannot afford party politics and the political short-termism of budget planning”

Far away from the knee-jerk throw-money-at-the-problem response in government, there is a truly sustainable approach to both floods and their causes. Combining national land use policy for climate change mitigation with better town and city protection and design is a valuable way forward, replacing high engineering costs with a flood-friendly approach to land management. But it’s not on the political agenda.

Instead we get a feast and famine approach to flood funding. Budget cuts are made in the hope that there will be no flood in the next few years. It happened after 1953, 1998, 2007, and now again in 2014. Cut the budgets until there is a flood and then restore them in the face of public and press criticism.

A decade ago a major Government study into climate change and flood risk, the Foresight Report, recommended a budget of £1 billion per annum, rising with inflation to keep pace with climate risk. The Pitt report in 2007 confirmed this scale of investment need. No Government has come close to matching these proposals, and the consequences become increasingly clear.

Climate change is a generation-defining issue. We cannot afford party politics and the political short-termism of budget planning to dictate a nation’s response to a threat of such scale. We certainly can do without Ministers so climate-sceptic that they delete any references to climate change in their briefs, or seek to blame the Environment Agency for flooding rural areas when that is the inevitable consequence of Government flood management policy.

We need realism about solutions. Most drainage engineers will tell you that dredging the Somerset rivers will make little impact on flooding, at most reducing the length of major floods by a few days.

“Scientists need to grasp the nettle, abandoning their reluctance to ascribe any one event to climate change”

Ironically the rivers would have been dredged last year if, as Government policy requires, the local authorities could have found funds to match those offered by the Environment Agency at the time. Increasingly the authorities are being given greater responsibility for flood management – at a time when their funding is being cut and they cannot find the cash.

What we really need is for the major political parties to meet together and agree a 30-year approach to funding, governance and land use policy in the face of the greatest threat to our lives and our environment ever. You never know. It might look like joined-up policy in the face of high risk, and restore some credibility to the political process.

Scientists, too, need to grasp the nettle and urge the need for long-term planning, abandoning their reluctance to ascribe any one event to climate change. The media should take a responsible science-driven approach and not feed the fire of misplaced scepticism or politically motivated ignorance.

The views peddled by eloquent sceptics such as Nigel Lawson have no place in a rational discussion. Such an approach is akin to denying there is any link between smoking and cancer, or obesity and heart disease. There is no place in a rational government for climate change denial.

The division in the country is fed by political uncertainty. The nation is under threat – and those charged with governing it, or in opposition, need to have that branded on their foreheads so they are forced to confront the reality every time they look in the mirror. – Climate News Network

Phil Rothwell was until December 2013 the Head of Flood Risk Policy at the UK Environment Agency.

Coastal flooding ‘may cost $100,000 bn a year by 2100′

February 11, 2014 in Climate finance, Coastal Threats, Extreme weather, Flooding, Sea level rise, Warming

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The only way is up: A rapid start on cutting emissions is essential Image: Jan Smith via Wikimedia Commons

The only way is up: A rapid start on cutting emissions is essential
Image: Jan Smith via Wikimedia Commons

By Tim Radford

On the world’s present course, the cost by 2100 of tackling coastal flooding could be beyond the reach of the poorest countries – and ruinously expensive for richer ones.

LONDON, 11 February – If global warming continues on its present ominous path, and if no significant adaptation measures are launched, then coastal flooding could be costing the planet’s economies $100,000 billion a year by 2100.

And perhaps 5% of the people on the planet – up to 600 million people – could be hit by coastal flooding by the end of the century, according to new research in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Jochen Hinkel from the Global Climate Forum in Berlin and colleagues have compiled, for the first time, global simulation results on future flood damage to buildings and infrastructure on the world’s coastal flood plains.

They expect drastic increases in economic damage because, as sea levels rise with the decades, so will population and investment: there will be more people with more to lose.

Right now, coastal floods and storm surge damage cost the world between $10 billion a year and $40 billion. But as the megacities grow – think of Lagos, or Shanghai, or Manila – more people will be at risk, and, among them, greater than ever numbers of the poorest.

“If we ignore this problem, the consequences will be dramatic,” says Hinkel. “Countries need to take action and invest in coastal protection measures, such as building or raising dykes, amongst other options.”

Provoking a response

And his co-author Robert Nicholls from the University of Southampton warns: “If we ignore sea level rise, flood damages will progressively rise and presently good defences will be degraded and ultimately overwhelmed, hence we must start to adapt now.”

All such projections involve assumptions about the future that cannot be tested, so the authors spread their bets: they considered a range of scenarios involving crude population growth, levels of economic growth with time, and a series of predictions of sea level rise, as icecaps and glaciers melt, and as the oceans warm and expand according to predictable physical laws.

What they could not predict – because such things require political decisions of the kind they hope to provoke with their forecasts – would be the civic and political responses in the next eight decades as storms become more violent and floods more frequent.

Nor did they try to incorporate the natural consequences of human settlement: how much subsidence, for instance, would occur as humans pumped groundwater from aquifers or quarried strata for building material, all things that would lower the levels of the land already at risk from invasion by the sea.

But their predictions, while alarming, are only reinforcements of earlier investigation. In August a World Bank team calculated that floods would be routinely costing coastal cities $1 trillion a year by 2050.

In July last year, a team from Stanford University in California looked at the challenge of building sea defences and proposed that by far the most efficient solutions would all be natural: dune systems, mangrove forests, reefs, water meadows, kelp forests and natural estuary ecosystems provided the best protection for many people in many circumstances.

And in December scientists from the University of Massachusetts considered the devastation wreaked on New York and other American cities by Superstorm Sandy in October 2012 and warned that such things could happen again and that, once again, natural systems might provide the most efficient  buffers against the buffetings of the weather.

Huge losses

The PNAS authors consider for the purpose of their argument only the increasing costs of either maintaining sea barriers such as dykes, or raising them.

By 2100, global average sea level rise could be as low as 25 cms, or as high as 123 cms; between 0.2% and 4.6% of the world’s population could be affected by flooding each year; and losses could be as low as 0.3% or as high as 9.3% of global gross domestic product.

It doesn’t matter very much whether by the end of the century the losses hit the low end of these projections, or the high. They will always be huge. “Damages of this magnitude are very unlikely to be tolerated by society and adaptation will be widespread”, the authors warn.

And there will be tracts of land that no dykes could ever save from the rising waters. The poorest countries are in any case unlikely to be able to meet the costs of sustained protection from the sea.

“If we do not reduce greenhouse gases swiftly and substantially, some regions will have to seriously consider relocating significant numbers of people in the longer run”, says Hinkel. He and his co-authors want to see some significant long-term thinking.

His colleague Professor Nicholls adds: “This long-term perspective is however a challenge to bring about, as coastal development tends to be dominated by short-term interests of, for example, real estate and tourism companies, which prefer to build directly on the waterfront with little thought about the future.” – Climate News Network

Evidence ‘suggests climate change is worsening UK winter’

February 9, 2014 in Climate deniers, Extreme weather, Flooding, Natural Variability, Rainfall, United Kingdom

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Flooding on the Somerset Levels in the West of England: Parts have been under water for weeks Image: Nigel Mykura via Wikimedia Commons

Flooding on the Somerset Levels in the West of England: Parts have been under water for weeks
Image: Nigel Mykura via Wikimedia Commons

By Alex Kirby

Scientists at the UK Met Office say all the evidence supports the theory that the exceptionally wet and stormy winter affecting much of Britain is caused at least in part by climate change.

LONDON, 9 February – The British Government’s main climate science adviser, the UK Met Office, says the present exceptionally wet and stormy winter “could be a manifestation of climate change.”

Its chief scientist, Dame Julia Slingo, says the variable UK climate means there is “no definitive answer” to what is producing this winter weather, with the “most exceptional period of rainfall in 248 years”. But “all the evidence suggests there is a link to climate change”.

She said there was no evidence to counter what the basic science says will happen as the world warms – that heavy, fierce downpours of rain will occur more often.

“Nobody has come forward to counter the basic premise that if you have a warmer world you are going to get more intense heavy rain rates”

Dame Julia told BBC Radio: “We know that warmer air holds more water…As scientists we always go back to the evidence base. I always challenge the climate sceptics to provide me with the same level of scientific integrity of the evidence base. I can’t see it.

“Nobody has come forward to counter the basic premise that if you have a warmer world you are going to get more intense heavy rain rates…as we’re beginning to detect now over the UK.”

The Met Office, with the UK’s Centre for Ecology & Hydrology (CEH), has published a report, The recent storms and floods in the UK, which strikes a cautious note.

It concludes: “It is not possible, yet, to give a definitive answer on whether climate change has been a contributor or not” to the frequent and torrential rain, storms and floods affecting much of the UK since early December.

But deep in the detail of the report’s findings are clear statements by its authors showing they are convinced that climate change may be partly responsible, despite the well-known fickle nature of the British weather.

The report says, for example, that although the number of strong winter storms over the mid-latitude North Atlantic – the path of the current storms – has not increased since 1871, the storms’ average intensity has grown significantly. The continual run of deep depressions through December, January and into February is also unusual.

“What in the 1960s and 1970s might have been a 1 in 125 day event is now more likely to be a 1 in 85 day event”

There are questions as well about whether the jet stream “is making greater excursions north and south, and whether these waves in the jet stream are becoming more locked in one position.

“This is a critical question because it raises the possibility that disruption of our usual weather patterns may be how climate change may manifest itself.”

The report says there is now some emerging evidence that, over the United Kingdom, daily heavy rain events may be more frequent: “What in the 1960s and 1970s might have been a 1 in 125 day event is now more likely to be a 1 in 85 day event.”

It says there is an increasing body of evidence that shows that extreme daily rainfall rates are becoming more intense, and that the rate of increase is consistent with what is expected from fundamental physics. – Climate News Network

Oxford breaks 247-year rainfall record

February 4, 2014 in Extreme weather, Rainfall, United Kingdom

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By Ian Curtis

Large parts of England have just emerged from their wettest January since records began in 1910. But one city in the English Midlands, though its total rainfall did not match the national deluge, broke a much longer record.

OXFORD, 4 February – Weather observers at Oxford University have confirmed that the rain which fell on the afternoon of 31 January made the month the wettest since their records began almost 250 years ago. The downpour meant that the total recorded at the University’s Radcliffe Meteorological Station overtook the previous high of 138.7mm, a record which has stood since January 1852.

Parts of south-east and central southern England had already recorded twice their average rainfall – with 175.2mm -  between 1 and 28 January, breaking a century-long sequence.

But Oxford’s January rainfall of 146.9mm, though below the national figure, is nearly three times the month’s long-term average of 52.5mm.  Dr Ian Ashpole, the Radcliffe Meteorological Observer at the School of Geography and Environment, says: “It has been the very high number of ‘very wet’ days this January – rather than a few monster ones – that has led to the record. Oxford residents have had to endure consistently miserable weather conditions all month, with only one rain-free day.”

Since records began in the 1760s only 14 out of nearly 250 Januaries have had more than 100mm of rain. “This really shows how extreme this year has been”, said Dr Ashpole.

“January 2014 has been the wettest-ever of any of the three winter months of December to February. It beat the 143.3mm of December 1914, one hundred years ago. Our December-January combined total has also been a record-breaker with 244.6mm.”

Dr Ashpole measures the 10.0mm of rain that took January's total into the record books Image: Courtesy of Ian Curtis

At Green Templeton College, Dr Ashpole measures the 10.0mm of rain that took January’s total into the record books
Image: Courtesy of Ian Curtis

For those passionate about their statistics Dr Ashpole has also identified another extreme: “In the 45 days from 18 December when the rain was settling in we recorded more at the Radcliffe than for any other 45-day winter period. The total of 231.3mm was way ahead of the next nearest  – 209.4mm from 1 December 1914 to 14 January 1915 – in a database of nearly 9,000 such periods.”

January 2014 had 23 days with 2mm or more rain in a day, 14 days with more than 5mm of rain recorded and 4 days with above 10mm of rainfall. The only rainless day was 11 January.  The five previous wettest Januaries were 1852, with its 138.7mm; 1995 (131.4mm); 1948 (127.3mm); 1877 ( 115.1mm); and 1939 (112.8mm).

In a predictable cruel twist by the British weather, the formal final measurement at the Radcliffe station in Green Templeton College was made in blazing sunshine. And, despite (or possibly because of) some newspapers’ call to “bring us sunshine”, January was the 10th sunniest since records began in 1881: over 80 hours compared with the average of 54. The month was also very mild, the 15th warmest on record, with an average of 6.0°C compared with the long-term January average of 3.8°C.

The Radcliffe Meteorological Station at Oxford University possesses the longest series of temperature and rainfall records for one site in Britain. These records are continuous from January 1815, with irregular observations of rainfall, cloud and temperature from 1767. The Station is overseen by the School of Geography and Environment. It is located at the University’s Green Templeton College. - Climate News Network

Ian Curtis is on the staff of the School of Geography and Environment, University of Oxford

Penguins feel climate change’s impacts

February 1, 2014 in Antarctic, Climate, Extreme weather, Marine ecology, Rainfall, South America, Weather, Wildlife

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Adélie penguin chicks chase an adult in the hope of finding food Image: Liam Quinn from Canada via Wikimedia Commons

Adélie penguin chicks chase an adult in the hope of finding food
Image: Liam Quinn from Canada via Wikimedia Commons

By Tim Radford

Scientists have identified climate change as the direct cause of rising mortality among penguin chicks hatched in Argentina.

LONDON, 1 February – Climate change is bad for penguin chicks. If rain doesn’t soak their feathers and kill them with cold, then extremes of heat could finish them off with hyperthermia.

Over a 27-year research project in the world’s largest colony of Magellanic penguins, on the arid Argentine coast, researchers have seen a greater number of deaths directly attributable to climate change.

“We’re going to see years where almost no chicks survive if climate change makes storms bigger and more frequent during vulnerable times of the breeding season”, says Ginger Rebstock, who, with Dee Boersma, reports on the state of penguin survival in the Public Library of Science journal PLOS One.

The two scientists, biologists from the University of Washington, Seattle in the US, believe starvation and weather are going to make life harder for the offspring of the 200,000 pairs of penguins that breed each year at Punta Tombo, on Argentina’s Atlantic coast.

The number of storms during the first two weeks of December – when all the chicks are less than 25 days old and their downy coats are not yet waterproof – has increased between 1983 and 2010.

Every new chick is at hazard: over the span of study, the researchers calculate that 65% of chicks do not survive, 40% of them die by starvation. But climate change has begun to offer new dangers.

A Magellanic chick, still too young to have an adult's waterproofing, in the rain Image: D Boersma/University of Washington

A Magellanic chick, still too young to have an adult’s waterproofing, in the rain
Image: D Boersma/University of Washington

Some years up to half of all chicks die because of the weather. Punta Tombo is historically an arid region. In the last 50 years, the scientists report, rainfall has increased. The number of wet days has increased, the number of consecutive wet days has increased and the level of rainfall during those days has continued to increase.

Air temperatures changed too. The minimum temperatures decreased by up to 3°C and the number of these colder days increased. Storms, too, make it more difficult for foraging parents to gather enough food to feed their chicks.

Sea ice changes

“Starving chicks are more likely to die in a storm”, says Prof Boersma. “There may not be much we can do to mitigate climate change, but steps could be taken to make sure the Earth’s largest colony of Magellanic penguins have enough to eat by creating a marine protected reserve, with regulations on fishing, where penguins forage while raising small chicks.”

Further south, extreme weather is beginning to make life difficult for the Adélie penguins of Ross Island in Antarctica. Amélie Lescroël from the CNRS in France and colleagues report in the same edition of PLOS One that abnormal sea ice conditions reduce access to food.

Antarctic penguins are of course adapted to sea ice: it is their preferred habitat. But they must respond to short and long term changes in ice levels. For 13 years, scientists have monitored the feeding success of the Ross Island colony and observed that the birds could cope in those seasons when there was less sea ice.

But climate change in Antarctica, too, creates new problems for the birds and limits their foraging efficiency.

“Our work shows that Adélie penguins could cope with less sea ice around their summer breeding grounds”, said Dr Lescroël. “However, we also showed that extreme environmental events, such as the calving of giant icebergs, can dramatically modify the relationship between Adélie penguins and sea ice.”

If the frequency of such extreme events increases, then it will become hard to predict how penguin populations will get by, she thinks. – Climate News Network

Warming ‘will double extreme El Niños’

January 20, 2014 in Climate, El Niño, Extreme weather, Ocean Warming, South America, Warming, Weather Systems

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A NOAA vessel services a buoy used to measure ocean temperatures and provide warning of El Niños Image: Courtesy of NOAA/US Dept of Commerce

A NOAA vessel services a buoy used to measure ocean temperatures and provide warning of El Niños
Image: Courtesy of NOAA/US Dept of Commerce

By Tim Radford

Rising global temperatures are likely to double the frequency of the most severe El Niños, the periodic atmospheric disruptions which affect weather in much of the world.

LONDON, 20 January – An El Niño is part of a natural cycle: a huge blister of heat in the equatorial Pacific, usually around Christmastime, that periodically triggers unseasonal floods in the western US, and extreme heat and forest fires in the Indonesian rainforest and the Australian bush.

It happens and seems to have happened through human history. It has nothing to do with global warming or climate change. Except this: according to the latest study by climate scientists in Australia, the US, China and Britain, global warming is likely to make the most extreme El Niño events happen twice as frequently.

Since an El Niño episode is characterised by – the scientists say in Nature Climate Change – “severely disrupted global weather patterns, affecting ecosystems, agriculture, tropical cyclones, drought, bushfires, floods and other extreme weather events worldwide,” this is unlikely to be welcome news.

Right now, and for the past year, conditions in the equatorial Pacific have been neither unusually warm nor unusually cool. There is no El Niño right now. But for two summers running, even without help from unusual Pacific conditions, Australia has been hit by record temperatures and appalling forest fires, so the news is ominous.

Wenju Cai of Australia’s CSIRO marine and atmosphere research and colleagues report in the journal that extreme El Niño events tend to happen when sea surface temperatures higher than 28°C develop in the normally cool and dry eastern Pacific, to trigger big shifts in the atmospheric convection zones (areas of instability caused by temperature differences), and climate models show that these episodes have normally occurred every 20 years or so.

Profound impact

Now, as carbon dioxide levels rise and the global average temperatures creep up, these extreme events are likely to be twice as frequent: every decade or so.

The last extreme event, in 1997-98, caused an estimated $35 billion (US dollars) in damage and claimed an estimated 23,000 lives worldwide. It also made 1998 the hottest year ever in average global temperatures, a record that lasted for more than a decade.

“The question of how global warming will change the frequency of extreme El Niño events has challenged scientists for more than 20 years. This research is the first comprehensive examination of the issue to produce robust and convincing results”, said Mike McPhaden of the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, one of the co-authors.

The authors warn that potential future changes in such extreme events could have “profound socio-economic consequences.” They conclude: “With a projected large increase in extreme El Niño occurrences, we should expect more occurrences of devastating weather events, which will have pronounced implications for twenty-first century climate.” – Climate News Network