Extremes concern as planet gets hotter and colder

Extremes concern as planet gets hotter and colder

Scientists predict that lethal heat waves in Europe, and ice storms and big freezes across the globe, could become regular events if greenhouse gas emissions are not controlled.

LONDON,  December 18, 2014 − Global average temperatures continue to rise, but new research shows that the extremes of heat and cold are rising even faster.

Scientists report that heat waves have got hotter and cold snaps have got colder at a more extreme rate – and that continuing greenhouse gas emissions will mean that, in another two decades, Europe could experience once every two years the sort of lethal heat waves that occurred once in a thousand years.

Scott Robeson, professor of geography at Indiana University Bloomington in the US, and colleagues report in Geophysical Research Letters that they analysed a set of temperature records from 1881 to 2011 and graded them according to how near or far they were from the normal averages of any particular region of the globe.

Temperature anomalies

They found that the temperature anomalies – extremes of heat and cold – increased more than the overall average temperature of the whole planet. They  also found that cold anomalies – unexpected ice storms, blizzards and big freezes − increased more than the warm anomalies until about 30 years ago. Since then, the heat waves have started to outpace the cold snaps.

The study offers a new way to consider the much-debated “pause” in global warming since 1998. It could be that warming continued over most of the planet, but was offset by strong cooling in the winter months in the northern hemisphere.

Professor Robeson says: “There really hasn’t been a pause in global warming. There has been a pause in northern hemisphere winter warming.

“Arguably, these cold extremes and warm extremes are the most important factors for human society”

“Average temperatures don’t tell us everything we need to know about climate change. Arguably, these cold extremes and warm extremes are the most important factors for human society.”

Robeson and his colleagues are not the first to identify the importance of extremes of temperature in the pattern of global averages. Nor is this the first time that UK Met Office scientists – this time led by Nikos Christidis – have forecast more, and more severe, heat waves, not just in Europe but in many regions.

In 2004, Met Office researchers looked at statistics since 1990 and decided that the 2003 European heat wave − estimated to have claimed at least 20,000 lives, and possibly many more − had been made more than twice as likely because of human influence on the climate.

Pattern of warming

In a paper in Nature Climate Change, they look at the pattern of warming between 2003 and 2012. In that period, summers on average warmed by 0.81°C.

This warming means, they say, that heat waves − and extreme heat waves such as the lethal event in 2003 − have become 10 times more likely.

“Extremely warm summers that would occur twice in a century in the early 2000s are now expected to happen twice a decade,” Dr Christidis says.

“Moreover, the chances of heat waves as extreme as seen in 2003 have increased from about one in a thousand to about one in a hundred years, and are projected to occur once every other year by the 2030-40s under continuing greenhouse gas emissions.” – Climate News Network

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Climate change’s threat of space centre invasion

Climate change's threat of space centre invasion

Rising sea levels and repeated storm damage to natural coastal defences pose an increasing threat to the famous Cape Canaveral rocket launch site in Florida.

LONDON, 15 December, 2014 − Climate change has begun to make its mark on one of America’s most iconic sites – the Kennedy Space Centre at Cape Canaveral in Florida.

Within a decade, according to geologists, the combination punch of rising sea levels and increasing wave energy could start to affect operations at the site where, more than five decades ago, astronauts were launched towards a landing on the Moon.

Peter Adams and John Jaeger, of the University of Florida, have since 2009 been studying the dunes and the beach at Cape Canaveral that historically screened the launch site from even the worst tropical storms.

These dunes were levelled in 2008 during Tropical Storm Fay, in 2011 during Hurricane Irene, and again in 2012 during Hurricane Sandy.

Washed away

Storm waves repeatedly covered a stretch of railroad track built by the US space agency NASA during the 1960s. The line is no longer used, and part of it has been removed to make room for a protective man-made dune. NASA’s own prediction in 2010 was that the line could be permanently breached by 2016.

Hurricane Sandy, the superstorm  that brought catastrophic flooding to New York and caused damage along almost all the US Atlantic seaboard, washed away a section of Cape Canaveral shoreline so close to a US Air Force launch pad that the surrounding fence was left near collapse.

“When you put immovable infrastructure right next to a dynamic environment, something has to give”

Coastal erosion is an enduring fact of life, but during the 1960s the Cape seemed a secure site for one of the great 20th-century adventures.

The two geologists, working as partners with NASA and the US Geological Survey, began looking at a problem that seemed to have been getting worse since 2004: chronic erosion of a six-mile stretch between the two launch pads used for the Apollo missions and space shuttle launches.

According to Dr Adams, the slow rise in sea levels and the increased energy of the ocean’s storm waves – both symptoms of global warming – are almost certainly to blame. He said: “Is it affecting NASA’s infrastructure? The answer’s yes.”

Although man-made dunes will protect the site for the immediate future, the space agency has already spoken of a “managed retreat”. And Dr Jaeger  said: “When you put immovable infrastructure right next to a dynamic environment, something has to give.”

Evidence of flooding

As a coastal facility, Cape Canaveral is naturally vulnerable to hurricanes, which tend to lose their energy as they hit the coasts. But University of Iowa scientists report in the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society that they have found evidence of flooding by tropical cyclones as far inland as Iowa, in the Midwest.

Gabriele Villarini, a civil and environmental engineer, found the evidence in 30 years’ worth of discharge records from more than 3,000 US Geological Survey stream measurement stations.

Between 1981 and 2011, the US was hit by more than 100 tropical cyclones or hurricanes that did their worst damage at the coast, but could also be linked with major flooding far inland.

“Our results indicate that flooding from tropical cyclones affects large areas of the US and the Midwest, as far inland as Illinois, Wisconsin and Michigan,” Villarini said. – Climate News Network

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Disaster looms if loss of Amazon rainforest continues

Disaster looms if loss of Amazon rainforest continues

Brazilian climate expert proposes five-point “battle plan” in a war against the Amazon deforestation that is having increasingly dire impacts on the regional and global climate.

SÃO PAULO, 12 December, 2014 − The relentless destruction of Brazil’s Amazon rainforest will endanger the global climate unless it can be stopped and restored, says a new report by a leading climate scientist.

In an eloquent, hard-hitting scientific assessment report entitled The Future Climate of Amazonia, Dr Antonio Donato Nobre, a researcher at Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research (INPE), traces the climatic potential of the world’s greatest remaining rainforest.

He looks at its critical functions for human society, its destruction through deforestation and fire, and he discusses what needs to be done “to stop the runaway train that the climate has become since human occupation in forest areas”.

The report talks of the Achilles’ heel of Amazonia − the danger that the invincible hero will fall – and warns that its future climate has already arrived. Approximately 20% of Brazil’s Amazon forest has been clear cut, while forest degradation has disturbed the remaining forest to varying degrees − directly affecting an additional 20% or so of the original area.

Forest degradation

Dr Nobre says there are clear indications that a reduction of approximately 40% of the rainforest may trigger a large-scale transition to a savanna landscape over time. “There is no doubt,” he says, “that deforestation, forest degradation and associated impacts have already affected the climate both near and far from the Amazon.”

He spells out the sheer scale of the devastation: the total deforested area is greater than the size of two Germanys or two Japans. It is equal to 184 million football fields – which means that, over the last 40 years, the equivalent of 12,635 football fields have been deforested per day.

Dr Nobre is critical of the Brazilian government’s recent claims that deforestation is falling. He says: “There is no reason whatsoever to celebrate the relatively lower rates of clear-cutting in recent years, especially since − after the adoption of the new Forest Code (2011), with its wide amnesty for those who deforested − a distinct tendency towards further increases in the annual rates has already been observed.”

“We must regenerate, as widely as possible,
all that has been changed and destroyed”

So concerned is Dr Nobre about what is happening that he believes only a virtual war effort can save the rainforest. His battle plan – with ignorance the first enemy to overcome − has five steps:

1.Popularising forest science: On the basis that knowledge is power, scientific facts about the role of the forest in creating a friendly climate, and the effect of deforestation in leading to an inhospitable climate, must become common knowledge.

2. Zero deforestation: The harm deforestation does to human beings and the economic losses it causes should be compared with that of tobacco, Dr Nobre argues. When Brazil introduced a new Forest code that scaled back protection, the consequences of changed land use on the climate were never discussed by the politicians. While economic growth and market demand create pressures that leads to deforestation, planning weaknesses foster the invasion and occupation of forested areas − and all these loopholes must be sealed urgently.

3. An end to fires, smoke and soot: Using fire as a tool for clearing land is a deeply ingrained habit that must be stopped. The fewer sources there are of smoke and soot, the less damage will be done to the formation of clouds and rain, resulting in less damage to the green-ocean rainforest.

4. Recover and regenerate forest: Stopping deforestation is not enough to reverse threatening climate trends. “We must regenerate, as widely as possible, all that has been changed and destroyed,” Dr Nobre says. Reforestation on such a scale implies a reversal of land use in vast areas that are now occupied − difficult in the current scenario − and land zoning technologies will be needed.

5. Governments and society need to wake up: In 2008, when the global financial bubble burst, governments around the world took just 15 days to decide to use trillions of dollars of public funds to save private banks and avoid what threatened to become a collapse of the financial system. The climate crisis has the potential to be immeasurably worse than any financial crash, yet still there is procrastination − despite the abundance of scientific evidence and of viable, creative and appealing solutions.

Unavoidable reality

In a final warning, Dr Nobre’s report predicts that climate chaos “has the potential to be immeasurably more damaging than World War II. What is unthinkable today may become an unavoidable reality sooner than expected.

“China, with all its serious environmental problems, has already understood this and has become the country with the most ongoing reforestation activities.

“Restoring native forests is the best bet we can make against climate chaos, and is the only true insurance policy we can buy.” – Climate News Network

* The Future Climate of Amazonia: Scientific Assessment Report by Dr Antonio Donato Nobre, CCST Earth System Science Centre, Ministry of Science and Technology/National Institute for Space Research.

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Climate turbulence deals costly blow to olive oil yield

Climate turbulence deals costly blow to olive oil yield

Worldwide consumption of olive oil has grown rapidly in recent years, but climate extremes and disease have seriously damaged this year’s crop in many regions and pushed prices up.

LONDON, 2 December, 2014 − Attention all those cooks who cannot produce a meal without adding a splash or drizzle of olive oil. The price of your favourite culinary ingredient is rising fast – driven in large part by changes in climate.

Spain accounts for nearly 50% of total world olive oil production, but an unusually warm spring this year caused damage to olive trees during their flowering period. Then a prolonged drought hit many regions − including the southern province of Andalucía, which produces 70% of Spain’s crop. As a result, this year’s harvest is predicted to be half that of 2013.

In Italy, which has 15% of world production, a mild winter and warm spring was followed in summer by cloudbursts of torrential rain in many areas. Farmers and processors are describing 2014 as the worst year for olive oil production in living memory, with overall yields down by nearly 40%.

Trees blighted

The warm spring and generally humid conditions in Italy are also believed to have encouraged the spread of the Xylella fastidiosa pathogen – which blights trees, causing them to wilt and shed their leaves – and given rise to infestations of the olive fruit fly, Bactrocera oleae

Both have devastated crops in many areas, and autumn hail storms have added to the woes of Italy’s olive oil producers.

Olive farmers in southern France, northern Africa and other olive oil producing regions round the Mediterranean Basin have faced similar problems.

Producers are now predicting a big hike in olive oil prices worldwide − in some markets, prices have gone up by 30%.

The destructive olive fruit fly, Bactrocera oleae. Image: Alvesgaspar via Wikimedia Commons
The destructive olive fruit fly.
Alvesgaspar via Wikimedia Commons

In its latest assessment report on global climate, the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warned of the impact of increasing temperatures in the Mediterranean Basin region, with the possibility of more droughts and increasing desertification.

Such warming has serious implications for a region that is a world leader in the production not only of olives, but also a wide range of other crops.

Worldwide consumption of olive oil has risen sharply over the last 20 years, with consumers rushing to buy a product that is not only a tasty addition to various dishes but is also believed to be good for the health.

Large plantations

To meet demand, farmers and large agricultural corporations around the Mediterranean region have rushed to grub out old, often terraced, rain-fed olive groves, replacing them with large plantations of olive tree monoculture.

These newly-planted areas, particularly in southern Spain, are fed by water that is often piped in from hundreds of miles away. When there’s a drought – or when disease or pests strike – the large plantations are vulnerable.

Olive oil production is very much an up and down business. A bumper crop in the Mediterranean region in 2013 is believed to have contributed to this year’s downturn: trees are tired after over producing last year.

But the outlook is not good. As temperatures rise in southern Europe and around the Mediterranean, olive oil production will come under increasing pressure – and prices will continue their upward trend, hitting the pockets of all those keen cooks. – Climate News Network

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Weather extremes will be the norm as world warms

Weather extremes will be the norm as world warms

The World Bank says the Earth is on an unavoidable path towards a 1.5˚C heat rise by mid-century – but it could reach 4˚C by 2100 unless immediate action is taken to avoid dire impacts for millions of people.

LONDON, 26 November, 2014 − As the planet continues to warm, heat waves and other weather extremes that happen perhaps once in hundreds of years − if ever − would become the “new climate normal”, a World Bank report says.

The consequences for development would be severe: failing harvests, shifting water resources, rising sea-levels, and millions of people’s livelihoods put at risk.

The World Bank report, the third in its Turn Down the Heat series, says even very ambitious mitigation action taken today will not stop global average temperatures reaching about 1.5˚C above their pre-industrial level by the middle of this century. They are already 0.8˚C higher, and likely − on present trends − to reach about 4˚C by 2100.

Poor and vulnerable

“Today’s report confirms what scientists have been saying – past emissions have set an unavoidable course to warming over the next two decades, which will affect the world’s poorest and most vulnerable people the most,” said Jim Yong Kim, President of the World Bank Group.

“We’re already seeing record-breaking temperatures occurring more frequently, rainfall increasing in intensity in some places, and drought-prone regions like the Mediterranean becoming drier. These changes make it more difficult to reduce poverty. . . They also have serious consequences for development budgets.”

“Tackling climate change is a matter of reason,
but also of justice”

The report was prepared for the Bank by the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (PIK), and the UK independent thinktank, the Overseas Development Institute.

The report’s lead author, Professor Hans Joachim Schellnhuber, director of PIK, said: “Tackling climate change is a matter of reason, but also of justice. Global warming impacts in the next decades are likely to hit those hardest that contributed least to global greenhouse gas emissions: the global poor.”

Chain of impacts

Dr Bill Hare, founder and CEO of the Berlin-based not-for-profit organisation, Climate Analytics, is another lead author of the report. He said: “Assessing the entire chain of climate impacts − for example, how heat waves trigger crop yield declines, and how those trigger health impacts − is key to understanding the risks that climate change poses to development.”

Many of the worst projected impacts can still be avoided by holding warming below 2˚C, the report says. It analyses the probable impacts of 0.8˚C, 2˚C and 4˚C of extra heat on agricultural production, water resources, ecosystem services and coastal vulnerability across Latin America and the Caribbean, the Middle East and North Africa, and parts of Europe and Central Asia.

A common threat across the three regions is the risk posed by heat extremes. State-of-the-art climate modelling shows that “highly unusual” extremes − similar to the heat waves in the US in 2012 and in Russia and Central Asia in 2010 − would increase rapidly under a 4˚C emission pathway. It also shows that the risks of reduced crop yields and production losses increase significantly above 1.5˚C to 2˚C.

Key findings across the regions include:

  • Latin America and the Caribbean: Heat extremes and changing rainfall will damage harvests, water supplies and biodiversity. In Brazil, without further adaptation, crop yields could decrease by 2050 by up to 70% for soya and 50% for wheat with 2˚C of warming. Ocean acidification, sea level rise, cyclones and temperature changes will affect coastal livelihoods, tourism, health, food and water security, particularly in the Caribbean.
  • Middle East and North Africa: A large increase in heat waves, combined with warmer average temperatures, will put intense pressure on already scarce water resources, seriously affecting human consumption and regional food security. In Jordan, Egypt, and Libya, harvests could fall by up to 30% with 1.5˚ to 2˚C warming by 2050. Migration and climate-related pressure on resources may increase the risk of conflict.
  • Western Balkans and Central Asia: Melting glaciers and shifts in the timing of water flows will lead to less water resources in summer months and high risks of torrential floods in Central Asia. In the Balkans, a higher drought risk will affect harvests, urban health and energy generation. In Macedonia, yield losses are projected of up to 50% for maize, wheat, vegetables and grapes at 2˚C warming by 2050.

The report adds that forest damage and thawing permafrost in northern Russia could release carbon and methane. With 2˚C warming by 2050, methane emissions could increase by 20% to 30% across Russia. − Climate News Network

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Rare water data drives heating debate underground

Rare water data drives heating debate underground

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

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

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

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

Precious resource

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

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

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

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

Warming stages

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

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

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

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

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

Unexpected slowdown

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

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

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

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

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Climate threatens striking change to US weather

Climate threatens striking change to US weather

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

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

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

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

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

More evaporation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Potential energy

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

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

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

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

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Arctic melting sends winter warning to Europe and Asia

Arctic melting sends winter warning to Europe and Asia

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

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

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

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

Big freeze

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

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

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

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

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

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

Highly damaging

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

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

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

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

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Insurance industry sleeps through climate alarm calls

Insurance industry sleeps through climate alarm calls

Disasters linked to climate change could cost insurance companies billions of dollars, but a new survey finds that many of them − particularly in the US − are paying scant attention to the threat.

LONDON, 30 October, 2014 − Insurance is all about assessing risk, so you might expect companies in the sector to be intimately involved with one of the most potent risks facing the world – the possibility of catastrophic climate change.

Yet a survey by Ceres, a US not-for-profit group that lobbies for more environmental awareness in the business sector, has found a startling lack of action by most insurers on the issue.

In total, more than 300 insurers − a large proportion of them based in the US − were canvassed and then given various ratings associated with their response to climate change –ranging from “leading” to “minimal”.

“Most of the companies responding to the survey reported a profound lack of preparedness in addressing climate-related risks and opportunities,” the Ceres report says. “Only nine insurers, or three per cent of the 330 companies overall, earned a ‘leading’ rating.”

Forecasting techniques

The Ceres survey examined the structures and management that companies have in place to deal with climate change, their forecasting techniques, how they communicate on the issue with policyholders and investors, and how the companies were dealing with their own carbon emissions.

On all counts, the majority of companies were found wanting, with the relatively smaller companies performing less well than the bigger concerns.

The insurance industry is considerably bigger in the US than elsewhere, but only two of the nine companies that earned leading ratings in the survey are based in the US. Non-US companies that gained a leading rating include the re-insurers Swiss Re and Munich Re, and the XL Group.

Property and Casualty insurers are on the frontline of climate change risks, and “there is compelling evidence those risks are growing”

The survey looked in detail at two key segments of the insurance industry: Property and Casualty (P&C), and Life and Annuity (L&A).

Ceres says P&C insurers are on the frontline of climate change risks, “and there is compelling evidence those risks are growing”.

Hurricane Sandy, which hit the Caribbean and the eastern seaboard of the US in late 2012, resulted in $29 billion of insured losses in the US.

“A tremendous amount of property (both insured and uninsured) is increasingly threatened by sea level rise,” Ceres says.

A report earlier this year by CoreLogic, a financial analysis and advisory company, identified more than 6.5 million homes in the US at risk of storm surge damage, with a total reconstruction value amounting to $1.5 trillion.

“Extreme weather is also exacerbating supply chain risks and causing business interruption losses,” Ceres says.

In 2011, there was serious flooding in Thailand, and international companies with manufacturing plants there suffered between $15 billion and $20 billion in losses.

Profit margins

Most P&C insurers pay inadequate attention to climate risks, but the L&A segment of the industry is even more lax, Ceres says. L&A insurers have trillions of dollars worth of investments that may be affected by climate change. If those investments are not managed with climate change in mind, then profit margins will suffer and companies might struggle to meet their liabilities in the long term.

The insurance industry also isn’t paying nearly enough attention to how global warming will affect human health and mortality, Ceres warns. The survey shows that most health insurers are not preparing for climate change-related temperature extremes, decreasing air quality, and the increased spread of diseases.

“As risk carriers, risk managers and major investors, every insurer should develop and issue a public climate risk management policy for the benefit of their shareholders, policy holders and employees,” Ceres recommends.

Separately, the Bank of England, the UK’s central bank, has written to 30 leading insurance companies asking for information on how they assess the impact of climate change-related events on their operations. – Climate News Network

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Ice loss sends Alaskan temperatures soaring

Ice loss sends Alaskan temperatures soaring

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

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

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

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

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

Most striking

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

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

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

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

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

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

Warming faster

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

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

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

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

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