Monday, December 31, 2012

Maryland's governor signs executive order on flooding, sea level rise (Maryland):  Gov. Martin O'Malley signed an executive order Friday to increase Maryland's long-term resiliency to storm-related flooding and sea level rise. The Climate Change and Coast Smart Construction Executive Order directs all new and reconstructed state structures, including other infrastructure improvements, be planned and constructed to avoid or minimize future flood damage. It requires new and rebuilt state structures to be elevated two or more feet above the 100-year base flood level.

"As storms such as Hurricane Sandy have shown, it is vital that we commit our resources and expertise to create a ready and resilient Maryland by taking the necessary steps to adapt to the rising sea and unpredictable weather," O'Malley said. "In studying and planning for storms and climate change, we can ensure that our land, infrastructure, and most importantly our citizens are safe and prepared."

The order also directs the Maryland Department of Natural Resources to work with the Maryland Commission on Climate Change, local government and other parties to develop additional Coast Smart guidelines within nine months. Recommendations for applying the new construction guidelines to non-state infrastructure projects that are partially or fully funded in the state's capital budget will also be developed.

Over the past three decades, Maryland's climate has become hotter and water levels within the Chesapeake bay have continued to rise," DNR's Program Manager for Climate Change Policy Zoe Johnson said. "The region's recent extreme storms and weather have demonstrated just how vulnerable our natural resources and infrastructure can be to such events."…

Assateague Island, from the US Army Corps of Engineers

Why some grasses got better photosynthesis

Brown University News: Even on the evolutionary time scale of tens of millions of years there is such a thing as being in the right shape at the right time. An anatomical difference in the ability to seize the moment, according to a study led by Brown University biologists, explains why more species in one broad group, or clade, of grasses evolved a more efficient means of photosynthesis than species in another clade.

Biologists refer to the grasses that have evolved this better means of making their food in warm, sunny, and dry conditions with the designation “C4.” Grasses without that trait are labeled “C3.” What scientists had already known is that while all of the grasses in the BEP and PACMAD clades have the basic metabolic infrastructure to become C4 grasses, the species that have actually done so are entirely in the PACMAD clade. A four-nation group of scientists wondered why that disparity exists.

To find out, Brown postdoctoral researcher and lead author Pascal-Antoine Christin spent two years closely examining the cellular anatomy of 157 living species of BEP and PACMAD grasses. Using genetic data, the team also organized the species into their evolutionary tree, which they then used to infer the anatomical traits of ancestral grasses that no longer exist today, a common analytical technique known as ancestral state reconstruction. That allowed them to consider how anatomical differences likely evolved among species over time.

…Erika Edwards“Now that we have this increasingly detailed bird’s-eye view, we can start to become a more predictive science. ... In terms of genetic engineering we’re going to be able to provide some useful information to people who want to improve species, such as important crops.”

“Now that we have this increasingly detailed bird’s-eye view, we can start to become a more predictive science. ... In terms of genetic engineering we’re going to be able to provide some useful information to people who want to improve species, such as important crops.” Credit: Mike Cohea/Brown UniversityIn C4 plants, such an anatomical arrangement facilitates a more efficient transfer and processing of CO2 in the bundle sheath cells when CO2 is in relatively short supply. When temperatures get hot or plants become stressed, they stop taking in as much CO2, creating just such a shortage within the leaf…

A grassland in Canastra, Brazil, shot by BDG2007, Wikimedia Commons via Flickr, under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license

African scientists call for climate change evidence

Emeka Johnkingsley in African scientists urgently need to build more evidence on the impact of climate change on the continent, a conference has heard. A joint statement issued at the eighth Annual Meeting of African Science Academies last month (12–14November) in Nigeria, notes that Africa lacks much home-grown data about the impacts of extreme weather events and sea level rise.

It says: "Actions required of science include contributions to the development of risk assessments and mapping for various anticipated climate-related extreme events. The refinement of modelling techniques, taking account also of natural systems and traditional knowledge, in developing early warning systems contributes to strengthen risk reduction.”

Nigeria's president, Goodluck Jonathan, launched the statement, entitled 'Climate change in Africa: using science to reduce climate risks', and stressed that climate change information is needed for planning. "We believe that strong evidence-based knowledge on climate change will help policymakers take decisions and actions required to reduce climate risks in Africa," he said.

Roseanne Diab, executive officer of the Academy of Science of South Africa, toldSciDev.Net that a study on the impact of climate change on Africa would take at least two years and should be coordinated by the Network of African Science Academies (NASAC)….

Touaregs in Mali, shot by Alfred Weidinger, Wikimedia Commons via Flickr, under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license

Thousands flee floods as cyclone batters Solomon Islands

Terra Daily via AFP: Thousands of people were forced to flee rapidly rising rivers in the Solomon Islands, officials said Sunday as Cyclone Freda intensified into a "destructive" force storm and headed towards New Caledonia.

Wind gusts had strengthened to more than 231 kilometres per hour (144 miles per hour, 125 knots) as Freda developed into a powerful category four storm, said Sajay Prakesh at the Nadi Tropical Cyclone Centre in Fiji. "These winds are very destructive and can cause huge damage to infrastructure and buildings," he told AFP.

Freda is expected to reach New Caledonia on New Year's Day and "given its current form if it hits New Caledonia Freda will cause huge damage, as it will blow strong winds and heavy rain for six to seven hours".

As the cyclone moved across the Solomons it lashed the South Pacific archipelago, whipping roofs off houses, flattening trees and forcing people to flee rising rivers. Thousands of people from riverside villages had moved to the safety of higher ground, National Disaster Management Office director Loti Yates said….

Cyclone Freda on December 30, 2012, from NASA

Climate likely to hit Pakistan and region severely

Oman Daily Observer: As the Bay of Bengal is cooling down and the North Arabian Sea is warming up, the number of tropical cyclones has increased owing to the temperature shifting trend. Data collected from 56 meteorological stations in Pakistan shows a sharp rise in temperature during the first decade of the 21st century, except the year 2005, while a rise of four degrees centigrade is expected to occur within the century in the Indus delta region.

Impacts included loss of vegetation, deforestation and irregular precipitation, says a study, part of the Synthesis Report 2012, which was released on Sunday. The report provides a summary of results of 11 studies carried out over the past two years (2011, 2012) under the Building Capacity on Climate Change Adaptation in the Coastal Areas of Pakistan, a Worldwide Fund for Nature-Pakistan project jointly administered with partners LEAD-Pakistan and WWF-UK with the financial support of European Union.

Conducted by Pakistan’s chief meteorologist Dr Ghulam Rasul, the study titled Climate Data Modeling Analysis presents eye-opening climatic trends that have been observed in the country in a decade….

Sunday, December 30, 2012

Drought continues in Texas Panhandle; condition improving, experts say

Mollie Bryant in the Amarillo Globe-News (Texas): The Texas Panhandle is still in the grip of severe drought conditions, but this year’s temperatures and precipitation rates suggest that conditions are improving, meteorologists said.

About 60 percent of the continental United States is experiencing drought, according to the weekly U.S. Drought Monitor’s report released Thursday, but the Texas Panhandle is no stranger to hot, dry weather after going through the worst drought in state history during 2011. The drought took a toll on local water resources, and in October 2011, the Canadian River Municipal Water Authority voted to no longer use water from Lake Meredith, which reached a record low of about 28.6 feet last week according to the authority’s website.

Although this year’s weather has been less extreme, temperatures were still above average and precipitation was below average, National Weather Service meteorologist Andrew Moulton said. Amarillo has had about 12 inches of precipitation so far this year, and although that falls short of our average annual precipitation of 20 inches, it’s still a vast improvement from last year, a record low of about 7 inches, Moulton said.

Right now, weather patterns are stuck are in a neutral phase between El Nino and La Nina, he said. Both weather phenomenons result from sea surface temperatures, but they create opposite weather patterns. La Nina creates warm, dry conditions in the Texas Panhandle while an El Nino is characterized by increased rainfall. ...

Dorothea Lange called this 1938 shot "Tractored out"; Power farming displaces tenants from the land in the western dry cotton area. Childress County, Texas,

Filipinos must learn to prepare for stronger typhoons

GMA News: While his hope for “a hazard-free, disaster-free 2013” may be too much to ask for, Environment Secretary Ramon Paje said that the public must at least be prepared for stronger storms, “so we can avoid a repeat of Pablo and other destructive typhoons."

Paje had earlier declared that stronger typhoons are “the new normal” that Filipinos should learn to accept and prepare for. “We must accept the fact that because of climate change, the typhoons [have] become much stronger and the volume of rainfall has increased tenfold,” he said.  

The “new normal” also includes the stronger gustiness of tropical cyclones entering the Philippines, which should be something people should consider when constructing structures, Paje added.

“We therefore recommend that all houses and public buildings to be constructed must have the ability to survive strong winds and storm surge. We have to make sure that new buildings are able to resist the effects of typhoons and floods,” he said. 

He also repeated his call for the strict enforcement by local government units of the “no man’s land” rule in permanent danger zones identified by the Department to mitigate the effects of flashfloods and landslides.... 

US Navy photo of a 2006 mudslide in Leyte

Bumblebees do best where there is less pavement and more floral diversity

Seed Daily via SPX: Landscapes with large amounts of paved roads and impervious construction have lower numbers of ground-nesting bumblebees, which are important native pollinators, a study from The University of Texas at Austin and the University of California, Berkeley shows.

The study suggests that management strategies that reduce the local use of pavement and increase natural habitat within the landscape could improve nesting opportunities for wild bees and help protect food supplies around the word.

The study also suggests that increasing the number of species-rich flowering patches in suburban and urban gardens, farms and restored habitats could provide pathways for bees to forage and improve pollination services over larger areas.

The findings have major implications for global pollinator conservation on a rapidly urbanizing planet. "We are potentially in a pollinator crisis," said Shalene Jha, lead author and assistant professor of biology at The University of Texas at Austin. "Honey bees are declining precipitously, and wild bees have also been exhibiting population declines across the globe. Native bees provide critical pollination services for fruit, nut, fiber and forage crops. Understanding how bees move around the landscape can help us both preserve biodiversity and improve crop yields."

Animal pollination is estimated to be worth over $200 billion in global crop yields....

Tacuina sanitatis (XIV century). Public domain

Multi-agency climate change adaptation project in Jamaica meeting targets

The Jamaica Observer: With less than a year before its scheduled completion, activities are on track for the 30-month Climate Change Adaptation and Disaster Risk Reduction Project which got underway in October 2010.

The project is being jointly implemented by the United Nations Environment Programme, the Meteorological Office of Jamaica along with other key government agencies. It is funded by the European Union.

"The three components have all implemented approximately 70 per cent of their targeted activities for the first half of the project," said Chris Corbin of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), who are partners in the project with the Government of Jamaica and the European Union.

The $515-million project is aimed at increasing resilience and reducing risks associated with natural hazards in vulnerable areas due to climate change threats, including rising sea levels, warmer global temperatures, and more severe weather events such as hurricanes and droughts.

It is also intended to contribute to sustainable development in Jamaica. "This will be achieved through rehabilitating watersheds, improving coastal ecosystems management and building climate change capacity and awareness as articulated in Vision 2030, Jamaica's National Development Plan," according to information from UNEP's website....

A house in Kingston after 2007's Hurricane Dean, shot by Christina X, Wikimedia Commons via Flickr, under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license

Cyclone Freda tears roofs off houses in Solomon Islands

Terra Daily via AFP: Freshly formed Cyclone Freda whipped roofs off houses and flattened trees in the Solomon Islands as it gathered strength en route to New Caledonia, forecasters said Saturday.

There was also flooding from rising rivers as winds of up to 130 kilometres an hour (80 mph) blew in, but there were no reports of deaths or injuries, Solomon Islands Meteorological Service officer Manoah Tepa said.

"Cyclone Freda is now a category two cyclone and it is continuing to intensify. It will become category three by midnight tonight having very destructive winds," said Sajay Prakesh of the Nadi Tropical Cyclone Centre in Fiji.

Although the cyclone was moving away, parts of the Solomon Islands were being hit by "very strong winds and heavy rain," said Prakesh....

Cyclone Freda on December 28, 2012

Saturday, December 29, 2012

The day the dam broke--a Carbon Based original

    On December 26 in a local church, a neighbor read several stories by James Thurber.  One of these was "The Day the Dam Broke," which recounts a stretch of two hours in 1913 when sudden rumors of a failed dam in Columbus, Ohio, provoked a mass panic.  Thurber says, "The fact that we were all as safe as kittens under a cook stove did not, however, assuage in the least the fine despair and the grotesque desperation which seized upon the residents of the East Side when the cry spread like a grass fire that the dam had given way." 

    To comic effect, Thurber dwells on the terror that erupts instantly and the citizens' shamefaced return to their lives when no waters appear.  (Actually, a similar theme crops up in a number of Thurber stories, such as, "The Night the Bed Fell Down.")

    Residents fled east to avoid the rushing waters of the Scioto River. There were none. Authorities worsened the alarm.  Soldiers patrolling the streets announced that the dam had NOT failed.  Everyone heard as, "The dam has NOW failed.

    But were the citizens of Columbus so irrational to flee? Dams do break, and it's usually disastrous when they do.  In fact, in a real dam break, everyone downstream must act quickly to reach higher ground.  Thurber observes that everybody ran because the starting the cars of that era required a crank, and presumably that took too much time with an inundation gushing at one's heels.  

    The irrational part lay in not bothering to check for water, even after some minutes.  But coastal dwellers today, if they heard a tsunami warning, would remember the horrifying YouTube videos of the Aceh tidal wave coming ashore in 2010.  They would flee in an instant. I know I would.

    Nothing in Thurber's story considers the dam's soundness and its state of repair, or the quality of its management.  But presumably, after the panic of 1913, the leaders of Columbus probably checked the dam and made inquiries into what they could do to prepare for an actual dam break.  But that's a much less amusing story.

    This is how everyone wants climate change to turn out -- a hasty alarm that we slink away from when its foolishness is revealed. But of course, that doesn't fit the climate change pattern.  Evidence from direct observations, the paleoclimate record, and climate models all corroborate anthropogenic global warming.   This means intensified water cycles, more weather-related disasters, and a variety of other effects.

    What's more pertinent is speed. Climate change as a whole does not suddenly appear full blown. It builds slowly and on any given day doesn't impinge on people's minds or their lives. A catastrophe right in front of us grabs all our attention, but sorting out the climate signal it contains is not so obvious, nor is it the most pressing task when the waters are rising. 

    The analogy between Thurber's story and climate change would be even better if there were a well-funded movement in Columbus whose goal was to stop any effort to maintain the dam. Actually, something similar has happened to infrastructure in the United States, as state and local governments have allowed bridges, roads, dams, water treatment plants, and so on to fall into disrepair.  Decades of skimped maintenance has resulted in degraded service and outright failures.  The American Society of Civil Engineers gives US infrastructure a "D," and estimates a five-year investment of $2.2 trillion will be necessary to bring everything into good repair.

    We have time to prepare for slow-moving risks.  The cry of denialists notwithstanding, it's worth spending money today to avoid a catastrophe tomorrow.  Of course, we've already lost decades in the battle against climate change, thanks to fossil fuel industry's propaganda onslaught.  But there is still plenty we could do, and we will need to spend decades at it.

    Not long after our neighbor finished his Thurber reading, a sleeting snowstorm began, and was still underway a day later.  But everyone returned to their homes in an orderly way.

Thurber's own illustration for "The Day the Dam Broke"

Friday, December 28, 2012

Travel chaos as deadly storm hits northeast US

The Times of India: The US northeast was battered by heavy snow and strong winds on Thursday as a mighty storm carved a violent arc across several states, killing more than a dozen people and snarling holiday travel.

More than 3,000 flights have been cancelled since Christmas Day including 746 on Thursday, as the storm wreaked havoc from the Gulf of Mexico to the Great Lakes before heading northeast, according to tracker FlightAware.

In New York City, high winds caused major air traffic delays: 186 flights were cancelled outright at the three major airports -- Kennedy, LaGuardia and Newark. "Winter weather has arrived for many parts of the state, so as a precaution we have opened the emergency operation center to coordinate response efforts using all state and local resources," New York governor Andrew Cuomo said.

New York mayor Michael Bloomberg used residents still without power two months after deadly superstorm Sandy slammed into the city in October to seek refuge in emergency shelters. Although the storm was winding down late Thursday, a warning for heavy snow remained in effect overnight in New Hampshire and western Maine, the National Weather Service said.

The storm was departing the region, the government forecasters said, "but not before dumping another six to eight inches (15 to 20 centimeters) of snow over portions of Maine."...

Shot by Jeff the quiet, public domain

International aid helps Cuba adapt to climate change

Patricia Grogg in AlertNet via IPS: "Adaptation to climate change is urgent and must be part of development," said Bárbara Pesce-Monteiro, the United Nations resident coordinator in Cuba, assessing the damage done by hurricane Sandy in the eastern region of the country.

She said the damage was very serious, especially in Santiago de Cuba, a city of almost half a million people and a services hub for other towns. In order to support the country at such a difficult time, the United Nations system in Cuba designed an action plan that will serve as a framework for assistance from the international community.

The plan, to be put into effect over the next six to 18 months, will benefit three million people in the most affected provinces: Santiago de Cuba, Holguín and Guantánamo. The main areas of concern are early recovery, housing, water and sanitation, health and education.

Sandy, regarded as the most devastating hurricane to strike the eastern part of the island in the last 50 years, claimed 11 lives in late October and caused considerable losses in housing, educational and health facilities, agriculture and food crops, as well as major interruptions in electricity and water supply, now largely overcome.

United Nations agencies initially mobilised 1.5 million dollars in emergency funding, supplemented by an appropriation of 1.6 million dollars from the Central Emergency Response Fund of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.

The action plan entails seeking 30.6 million dollars to deal with the urgent needs of the population that suffered the brunt of the hurricane's impacts, along with a strategy aimed at improving living conditions for those affected....

Hurricane Sandy damage at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Photo by Sgt. Ryan Hallock Date Taken:10.25.2012, credited to DVIDSHUB, Wikimedia Commons via Flickr, under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license

Fresh cyclone brews in Pacific

Terra Daily via AFP: A fresh cyclone was brewing in the South Pacific Friday, forecasters said, just two weeks after destructive Cyclone Evan caused widespread devastation in Samoa and Fiji.

A cyclone warning has been issued for the Solomon Islands which are expected to bear the brunt of winds in excess of 100 kilometres an hour (60 mph) over the weekend before the storm swings towards New Caledonia.

Although it was in its formative stages Friday, the US Joint Typhoon Warning Centre said it had the potential to develop into a "significant tropical cyclone" over the next 24 hours. In the Solomon Islands, fishermen were urged not to go to sea and people living in coastal areas were advised to move to higher ground.

Chief forecaster Manoah Tepa told reporters "rough seas, heavy rain and strong winds" were expected. New Zealand-based meteorological service Weatherwatch said the storm, expected to be named Freda, was expected to be over New Caledonia on New Year's Day....

Tropical Cyclone Evan on December 19, 2012, in a NASA mug shot

Lack of water could limit India's social, economic growth in future

Netindian Network News: Prime Minister Manmohan Singh today said that most objective data available pointed unerringly to the conclusion that water, or the lack of it, could well become the limiting factor for India's social and economic growth in the future.

"With around 18% of the world's population but only 4% of its usable fresh water, India already faces a scarcity of water, which is a vital and stressed natural resource," he said at the 6th meeting of the National Water Resources Council here.

Dr Singh said climate change could further aggravate the distortions in water availability in the country. Receding glaciers would negatively impact flows in the country's major rivers and pose a major new threat to the welfare of millions of our people, he said. He said rapid economic growth and urbanization today were widening the demand supply gap and leading to worsening of the water-stress index.

"Our water bodies are getting increasingly polluted by untreated industrial effluents and sewage. Groundwater levels are falling in many parts due to excessive withdrawals, leading to contamination with fluoride, arsenic and other chemicals. The practice of open defecation, which regrettably is all too widespread, contributes further to contaminating potable water sources," he said.

Dr Singh said the situation called for judicious management of the country's limited water resources and a paradigm shift in its approach to this vital issue. ...

A reflection of the Taj Mahal on the Yamuna River, in Agra, shot by, Wikimedia Commons via Flickr, under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license

Zimbabwe ill-prepared for rainfall extremes, farmers say

Madalitso Mwando in the Zimbabwe Mail: Thumeliso Matshobana knows what the devastation of too much water looks like. A smallholder farmer in Zimbabwe’s Midlands, he watched helplessly last year as floods destroyed crops, livestock, homes and schools. The heavy rains, he says, came as “a total surprise.”

The floods left a trail of destruction in traditionally dry and impoverished rural areas of the Midlands and Matebeleland, and rebuilding has been a slow and painful process. “We want rain but not the kind that kills us and destroys our livelihoods. But no one ever seems to know exactly the kind of rains we will have,” Matshobana lamented.

That “makes it hard for us villagers to make necessary preparations,” he said, expressing what has become a common sentiment about unpredictable rain patterns that seem to vex even the country’s meteorological services department.

The Met office, as it is known in Zimbabwe, issued a flood advisory in late November, predicting heavy downpours. But because the Met office has been off the mark many times in the past with its weather predictions, which are now questioned by farmers and disaster preparedness organizations, farmers such as Matshobana find themselves with little idea what to expect or what to do to prepare for floods.

Japhet Hadebe, a climate change researcher working with the Zimbabwe Environment Research Organisation (ZERO) says climate change monitoring remains “a complicated issue in Zimbabwe.”...

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Planners wary of coastal sea rise in St. Augustine area

Peter Guinta in the Florida Times-Union: Scientists studying the effect of higher sea levels on the 100,000-acre Matanzas Basin — which runs from Anastasia Island to Crescent Beach — say that rising waters will turn coastal marshes into open water and coastal forests into marshes. U.S. Army Corps of Engineers projections point to a potential 3- to 7-inch sea level rise along St. Johns County’s coast over several decades.

Kathryn Frank, assistant professor at the Department of Urban and Regional Planning at the University of Florida, said coastal marshes are an important wildlife habitat that should be preserved. “Higher sea levels come from global warming,” she said, explaining that rising average temperatures heat up and thus expand sea water. The higher temps also melt ice and glaciers on land masses such as Greenland and the Antarctic. That ice melt then runs into the sea.

“We’re land-use planners who focus on preserving ecosystems and habitats,” Frank said. Teams of scientists are working for UF and the Guana Tolomato Matanzas National Estuarine Research Reserve on this project, which began in November 2011 and runs to October 2014.

A workshop Dec. 6 at Flagler College, “Planning for Sea Level Rise in the Matanzas Basin,” was designed to inform the public that rapid sea level rise can mean flooding, coastal erosion, saltwater intrusion into the water supply, storm surges moving farther inland and habitat and species changes in the Matanzas Basin.

Michael Shirley of the Guana reserve said his agency has tracked sea levels for quite a while. “We have many salt marshes [along our coast], [which are] some of the most sensitive habitats to sea level rise,” he said. “Salt marshes are important to our coastal economy, affecting ecotourism, fishing, absorbing the impact of storms, helping to detoxify runoff. They act as a water filter by absorbing nutrients. They are the canary in the coal mine for sea level rise.”...

Matanzas River near Fort Matanzas, in St. Johns County, Florida, shot by Ebyabe, Wikimedia Commons, under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license

Amazon regional alliance to confront the climate emergency

Milagros Salazar in IPS: "When someone in Peru sneezes, someone in Brazil catches a cold. When a barrel of oil is produced in Ecuador, a neighbouring country ends up buying it," says prominent environmentalist Yolanda Kakabadse.

Everything that happens in Latin American countries is closely connected, as if they were vital organs shared by the same body, maintains Kakabadse, former environment minister of Ecuador and current regional director for Latin America and the Caribbean of the Climate and Development Knowledge Network (CDKN).

This is why the CDKN is promoting an initiative that will allow Brazil, Colombia, Peru, Ecuador and Bolivia to exchange and assess evidence-based information on the risks, impacts and threats of climate change shared by the countries of the Amazon region.

The aim is not only to measure impacts that are already evident, but also to foresee damages in the medium to long term. What will be the implications for the lives of the most vulnerable people if global temperatures increase two degrees by 2025? This is the kind of questions that need to be asked, explained Carolina Navarrete of the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT), which is also supporting the initiative.

For example, Navarrete told Tierramérica*, "a two-degree increase in temperature could make it necessary to move coffee crops up 300 meters higher, and the same thing would happen with other crops. How can we prepare for this situation without causing pressure on sensitive areas, such as protected natural areas, for example?"

The goal of the project is help the region's authorities respond to these crucial questions for the population's survival with concrete actions, Kakabadse and Navarrete told journalists from the five countries gathered in Puerto Maldonado, the capital of the Peruvian Amazonian region of Madre de Dios....

The photo was taken 1986 in the Peruvian region of Ayacucho, shot by Torox, public domain

Asia Development Bank grants $251 million in loans to Viet Nam

VietnamNet: Nguyen Van Binh, Governor of the State Bank of Viet Nam and Tomoyuki Kimura, Country Director of the Asian Development Bank (ADB) in Viet Nam, yesterday signed three loan agreements totalling US$251 million in Ha Noi. The loans are aimed at helping Viet Nam streng-then education quality, ensuring a reliable electricity supply and improving flood and drought management and mitigation.

"Viet Nam's future growth will depend on a labour force skilled enough to meet the needs of the job market and a reliable electricity supply to meet rapidly growing energy demands," said Kumara. "It also needs funds to mitigate risks posed by floods and droughts."

A $90 million con-cessional loan from the ADB's Asian Development Fund for the Second Upper Secondary Education Development Project will help improve the readiness of upper secondary school graduates for tertiary and vocational career development. This will be achieved by enhancing the quality of upper-secondary education to meet international standards, improving access to upper-secondary education for disadvantaged groups, including girls and ethnic students, and strengthening the management of upper-secondary education.

Another $110.19 million loan represents the second tranche of a $730 million power transmission investment programme to Viet Nam that the ADB approved in December 2011. The loan partially supports the implementation of the seventh National Power Development Master Plan to ensure supply to industrial, commercial and residential consumers....

Working for better pastoralists livelihood in Ethiopia

The Ethiopian Herald: Characterized by erratic rainfall and high mean temperatures, Ethiopia's dry land accounts for 60 per cent of the country's landmass. These areas have most effectively supported the pastoral livelihood system. Pastoralism converts periodic rainfall and patchy vegetation into nutritional and economic value through the sale and consumption of livestock and other related products.

This requires reliable access and efficient utilization of scarce natural resources across vast terrains to support livestock herds. As Ethiopia has showing a rapid progress by about 11 per cent annual growth rate since 2004, the pastoral regions have come under increasing pressure from a range of anthropogenic factors. Population expansion, resource base diminishing and climate change are the factors affecting per capital livestock holdings. Due to these elements, the productivity of those animals is decreasing and pastoralism has been compromised.

At the same time, these challenges are tied with opportunities that can have positive, significant and those transitioning out of pastoralism. As part of its Growth and Transformation Plan, the Government of Ethiopia has renewed strategies to maximize land and resource productivity and demonstrated commitment to natural resource management at the watershed level, even.

In this regard, the U.S government developed a new five year Pastoralist Resilience Improvement and Market Expansion (PRIME) programme to promote adaptation to climate change, food security and livestock market development in pastoralist areas of Ethiopia. PRIME will support improved Natural Resource Management (NRM) in the pastoral areas at a landscape level. The programme proposes a multistakeholder engagement approach to NRM.

PRIME will also bring together government, traditional institutions, and community representatives across districts and zones to devise an appropriate system for effective management of pasture areas and water points which are critical inputs in the livestock production system....

The Lower Valley of the Omo River, UNESCO World Heritage Site, and inhabitants of Southern Ethiopia. Shot by AnnaMaria Donnoli, Wikimedia Commons, under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license

Thousands flee Malaysia floods, dam wall broken

Terra Daily via AFP: Floods triggered by torrential monsoon rains in Malaysia forced almost 14,000 people to flee their homes and seek shelter at relief centres, the official Bernama news agency said Wednesday.

Heavy rain coinciding with high tide flooded hundreds of homes in three northeastern states -- Terengganu, Pahang and Kelantan -- with some 13,746 people moved to evacuation centres, it said amid forecasts of more downpours.

Bernama said the flood situation was deteriorating as the number of evacuees continued to rise and some major roads in Pahang were closed as rivers burst their banks.

Muhammad Helmi Abdullah, the meteorological department's weather forecast director, warned that there could be more rain in Terengganu, Pahang and southern Johor state in the next few days.

"We expect intermittent rain to heavy showers in (some parts of) the states," he told AFP, adding that the northeast monsoon season would last until March and the affected states could experience at least three more "heavy rain" episodes....

A scene from a 2007 flood in Malaysia, shot by Ab Rahman, Wikimedia Commons, under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Amazon deforestation brings loss of microbial communities

EurekAlert via the University of Massachusetts at Amherst: An international team of microbiologists led by Klaus Nüsslein of the University of Massachusetts Amherst has found that a troubling net loss in diversity among the microbial organisms responsible for a functioning ecosystem is accompanying deforestation in the Amazon rainforest.

Nüsslein, an expert in tropical rain forest microbial soil communities, says, "We found that after rainforest conversion to agricultural pastures, bacterial communities were significantly different from those of forest soils. Not only did the pasture soils show increased species numbers, these species were also less related to one another than in rainforest soil. This is important because the combination of lost forest species and the homogenization of pasture communities together signal that this ecosystem is now a lot less capable of dealing with additional outside stress."

He and colleagues studied a large farm site over the past four years at the frontier where farmers drive agriculture into pristine rainforest in Rondonia, Brazil, to convert rainforest to agricultural use. Findings in part validated previous research showing that bacteria in the soil became more diverse after conversion to pasture. However, in its fourth year, their study overcame limitations of earlier investigations to show that changes in microbial diversity occurred over larger geographic scales. Results appear in the current issue of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

In addition to Nüsslein at UMass Amherst, the research group includes first author Jorge Rodrigues at the University of Texas at Arlington with Brendan Bohannan at the University of Oregon, James Tiedje at Michigan State University, and others at the University of Sao Paulo. Lead investigators Nüsslein and Rodrigues emphasize that the study is an equal collaboration among the four research groups.

Findings do not support earlier study conclusions, instead they show that the loss of restricted ranges for different bacteria communities results in a biotic homogenization and net loss of diversity overall. Scientists worry that the loss of genetic variation in bacteria across a converted forest could reduce ecosystem resilience. The researchers hope their work will provide valuable data to those making decisions about the future of the Amazon rainforest....

From NASA: The 38-kilometer-long Lago do Erepecu (Lake Erepecu) in Brazil runs parallel to the lower Rio Trombetas (Trombetas River), which snakes along the upper half of this astronaut photograph. Water-bodies in the Amazon Rainforest are often so dark they can be difficult to distinguish. In this image, however, the lake and river stand out from the uniform green of the forest in great detail as a result of sun-glint on the water surface. Sun-glint is the mirror-like reflection of sunlight off of a surface directly back towards the viewer, in this case an astronaut on-board the International Space Station. Forest soil is red, as shown by airfield clearings near Porto Trombetas (image far upper left), a river port on the south side of the Trombetas River.

Supporting climate-friendly food production

Seed Daily via SPX: This summer, record temperatures and limited rainfall parched vast areas of U.S. cropland, and with Earth's surface air temperature projected to rise 0.69 degrees Celsius by 2030, global food production will be even more unpredictable, according to new research conducted by the Worldwatch Institute.

Although agriculture is a major driver of human-caused climate change, contributing an estimated 25 to 30 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, when done sustainably it can be an important key to mitigating climate change, write report authors Danielle Nierenberg and Laura Reynolds.

Because of its reliance on healthy soil, adequate water, and a delicate balance of gases such as carbon dioxide and methane in the atmosphere, farming is the human endeavor most vulnerable to the effects of climate change.

But agriculture's strong interrelationships with both climatic and environmental variables also make it a significant player in reducing climate-altering emissions as well as helping the world adapt to the realities of a warming planet.

"The good news is that agriculture can hold an important key to mitigating climate change," said Reynolds, Worldwatch's Food and Agriculture Research Associate.

"Practices such as using animal manure rather than artificial fertilizer, planting trees on farms to reduce soil erosion and sequester carbon, and growing food in cities all hold huge potential for reducing agriculture's environmental footprint."...

Typhoon-hit Philippines threatened by new storm

Terra Daily via AFP: A tropical storm set to hit the Philippines on Christmas Day could spark floods and landslides, forecasters warned, even as the country struggles to recover from a typhoon that killed hundreds.

Tropical Storm Wukong is expected to bring strong winds and heavy rain to southern island Dinagat from 10:00 pm (1400 GMT), as well as nearby islands Samar and Leyte, the state weather service said.

"These could bring floods and landslides, particularly in landslide-prone areas like southern Leyte and Samar," the service's Nathaniel Servando said.

Servando said storm surges of up to four metres (13 feet) were also expected on the coasts of the three islands.

However, he said the storm was expected to spare the large southern island of Mindanao, which was devastated by Typhoon Bopha earlier this month.

Wukong would pass northwest across the central islands Wednesday and blow out to the South China Sea on Thursday, he said....

Tropical Storm Wukong on Christmas day

Creating resilient cities for a safer future

Kristen Avis in Designbuildsource: While the apocalypse predicted by the Mayans unsurprisingly failed to come true, the fact remains that disasters often strike unannounced and cities must be prepared for the worst.

Since over half the world’s population lives in cities, it is integral that those who plan, run and live in these cities are equipped with the knowledge, communication networks and tools they need to continue to function in the event of an emergency such as a natural disaster, a power grid failure, or a social uprising.

The UNISDR launched the Making Cities Resilient: My City is Getting Ready! campaign in May, 2010 to address issues of local governance and urban risk management, and local governments across the globe are taking part.

The threat of disasters is a regular occurrence for local government officials. The UNISDR says officials need better access to tools and policies to effectively deal with disasters that may occur. The campaign calls for commitments on the part of local governments to create resilient cities and increase support by federal governments to cities for strengthening local training and capabilities.

Better Cities Now lists five factors that make a city resilient. The first factor is establishing feedback loops. Public utility providers need feedback loops so different areas can help keep one another prepared when an emergency is imminent. Technical, economic, political and social links all create a more resilient city that can better withstand disruption....

A lightshow in of the Rotterdam, in commemoration of the May 1940 bombardement by Nazi Germany. Shot by Trebaxus, Wikimedia Commons, under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license

Insurance and more for Sri Lanka's disaster preparedness

Rasika Somarathna in Daily News (Sri Lanka): The Disaster Management Ministry is planning to introduce a special insurance scheme for homes in identified disaster prone areas to protect property owners against potential losses during a natural calamity.

The insurance is to be extended to home owners whose houses are located within identified risk zones subject to recurring natural disasters such as floods, earth slips, quakes etc. An official said the insurance premiums would be borne by the ministry. A proposal in this regard has already been formulated.

Disaster Management Minister Mahinda Amaraweera recently said his ministry is prepared to demonstrate earthquake resistant construction techniques for those planning to build houses or other structures in earthquake prone areas.

Minister Amaraweera said his ministry will also introduce several other measures to lessen the impact of natural disasters in the coming year. Another such measure, according to the minister is the upgrading of the Meteorology Department. He said plans were afoot to install latest equipment available in the international market to upgrade the capacity of Meteorology Department and improve its prediction capability. The Doppler radar installed at the summit of Gongala Mountain in Deniyaya at Rs 400 million too will begin operations from next year, he said....

Monday, December 24, 2012

Severe drought has lasting effects on Amazon

Hannah Hoag in Nature: A study published today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences sheds light on the long-term effects of drought on the Amazon rainforest — giving clues about how the rainforest might be affected by global warming in the future. The researchers report that the severe drought that hit the rainforest in 2005 had lasting effects on the forest canopy, such that it remained damaged at least four years later.

The effects of the 2005 drought have been debated since 2007, when researchers reported in Science that photosynthesis within the canopy had increased, leading the Amazon basin to ‘green up’ during the dry period. But in 2010 another group reported that they were unable to reproduce the results using the same data3.

“The ‘green-up’ is a short-term response and a bit of a red herring,” says Oliver Phillips, a tropical ecologist at the University of Leeds, UK. But the latest study “transcends that debate”, he says. “The question of the underlying health of the forest is much deeper than the instantaneous response.”

A drawback of the method used in the earlier studies — which used satellite measurements to estimate forest greenness using reflected solar radiation — is that the data can be muddied by clouds and atmospheric aerosols. So for the latest study, Sassan Saatchi, a remote-sensing expert at the California Institute of Technology Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, studied the forest’s microwave ‘silhouette’, showing its contours instead of its greenness. To look at canopy structure, he and his colleagues used microwave satellite data, which are unaffected by clouds, from a NASA probe. When it passed over lush canopy, the satellite sensor recorded a smooth signal. Bare branches, thinned leaves and missing trees showed more roughness.

The researchers found that more than 70 million hectares of rainforest in the western Amazon — an area nearly twice the size of California — were hit by the drought. And the canopy’s recovery dragged on long after the drought ended, with its biomass and fullness still below pre-drought levels in 2009 when the satellite suffered a mechanical failure. In 2010, an even stronger drought hit a larger swathe of the Amazon....

Aerial view of the Amazon, shot by lubasi, Wikimedia Commons via Flickr, under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license

Smaller Colorado River projected for coming decades, study says

EurekAlert via the Earth Institute at Columbia University: Some 40 million people depend on the Colorado River Basin for water but warmer weather from rising greenhouse gas levels and a growing population may signal water shortages ahead. In a new study in Nature Climate Change, climate modelers at Columbia University's Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory predict a 10 percent drop in the Colorado River's flow in the next few decades, enough to disrupt longtime water-sharing agreements between farms and cities across the American Southwest, from Denver to Los Angeles to Tucson, and through California's Imperial Valley.

"It may not sound like a phenomenally large amount except the water and the river is already over-allocated," said Richard Seager, a climate scientist at Columbia University's Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory and lead author of the new study.

The study expands on findings published in 2007 in the journal Science that the American Southwest is becoming more arid as temperatures rise and rainfall patterns shift from human-caused climate change. It also comes on the heels of a major study of the Colorado River Basin by the U.S. Department of Interior that projected longer and more severe droughts by 2060, and a 9 percent decline in the Colorado's flows.

"The projections are spot on," said Bradley Udall, an expert on hydrology and policy of the American West, at the University of Colorado, Boulder. "Everyone wondered what the next generation of models would say. Now we have a study that suggests we better take seriously the drying projections ahead."

The present study narrows in on three key regions for water managers—the Colorado River headwaters, the greater California-Nevada region and Texas, which gets nearly all of its water from within state borders. The study makes use of the latest models (those used by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in its Fifth Assessment Report due out next fall), to estimate seasonal changes in precipitation, evaporation, water runoff and soil moisture in the near future, 2021-2040. "It's a much finer grain picture than the one we had in 2007," said Seager....

The Colorado River, near Page, Arizona, shot by Adrille, Wikimedia Commons,  under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license

How shrubs are reducing the positive contribution of peatlands to climate

The Swiss Federal Institute for Forest, Snow and Landscape Research (WSL): For the first time, a group of scientists from WSL and EPFL described why on the long run peatlands may not be able to continue fulfilling their role as the most effective carbon stocking ecosystems. They studied the mechanisms behind a phenomenon known as shrub encroachment of peatlands: Complex plant-microbe interactions are at the root of this worldwide vegetation change. The findings have been published online today in Nature Climate Change.

Peatlands (bogs, turf moors) are among the most important ecosystems worldwide for the storage of atmospheric carbon and thus for containing the climate warming process. In the last 30 to 50 years the peat (Sphagnum) mosses, whose decay produces the peat (turf), have come under pressure by vascular plants, mostly small shrubs. A new study by scientists from the Swiss Federal Institute for Forest, Snow and Landscape Research WSL and from the Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne describes for the first time what lies behind this change in vegetation and explains why vascular plants are at an advantage over peat (Sphagnum ) mosses in a warmer climate.

The research team closely monitored four peatland sites at altitudes ranging from 600 m to 1900 m over a period of three years. The selected altitudinal gradient reflects the expected changes in climate conditions for the year 2050  in northern Switzerland. They observed that the increase of shrub cover and soil temperature along the altitudinal gradient were responsible for a decrease of almost 50% of the production of new litter by peat mosses, the main contributors to peat accumulation.

The analysis showed that vascular plants can increase the availability of soil nitrogen (a primary nutrient for plant growth) by means of specific compounds contained in their leaves. They exploit the nutrient for their growth through the mediation of specific fungal symbiosis at root level (the mycorrhiza), a process  that becomes more and more frequent when soil temperature increases. At the same time, with higher soil temperature vascular plants release a greater amount of organic matter into the soil through their roots (the so called “root exudates”) and this stimulates the decomposition activity of soil microbes....

A gully with peat moss, shot by Chris Eilbeck, Wikimedia Commons via Geograph UK, under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license

Science key to reducing impacts of future natural hazards in developing countries

University of Cambridge Enterprise: The use of science to reduce the effects of future natural hazards such as floods, droughts and earthquakes must be stepped up and adopted more widely, according to a newly published Foresight report.

The report, 'Reducing Risks of Future Disasters: Priorities for Decision Makers' sets out how the threat of future disasters resulting from natural hazards can be stabilised if decision makers make better use of technological developments and existing risk assessment methods. This will save lives, livelihoods and resources in developing countries.

The report also urges that disaster risk reduction is routinely built in to developments as diverse as urban infrastructure, ecosystem protection and mobile telephone regulation. These measures would help reduce the cost of disasters, which has outstripped the total international aid investment over the past 20 years and has led to the loss of 1.3 million lives and $2 trillion of damage.

Professor Peter Guthrie, Thalia Konaris and former PhD student Faye Karababa, all from the Department of Engineering, have been involved in the report. The work was undertaken through Consultancy Services at Cambridge Enterprise.

“Death and destruction are not the inevitable consequences of natural hazards,” said Government Chief Scientific Adviser Sir John Beddington, who led the research. “We need to grasp this. Urbanisation over the next three decades, particularly in Africa and Asia, will continue. While this could lead to greater exposure and vulnerability, it also presents the greatest opportunity to protect large concentrations of people....

Filipinos urged to heed weather advisories, geohazard maps

Philippine Information Agency: The Eastern Visayas Regional Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council called on local government units and the public to heed weather advisories and to take geohazard maps seriously.  Office of Civil Defense Director Rey Gozon made the call as Pagasa has spotted and is currently monitoring a Low Pressure Area off Eastern Mindanao.

The LPA is expected to bring moderate to heavy rains (5.0 - 15.0 mm/hr) and thunderstorms in Bicol Region, Visayas and Mindanao, particularly over the provinces of Samar, Leyte, Agusan and Surigao which may trigger flashfloods and landslides.

Strong to gale force wind is expected to affect the seaboards of Luzon and the Eastern seaboard of Visayas and Mindanao.

Gozon said that the Department of Environment and Natural Resources, particularly its Mines and Geosciences Bureau has distributed geohazard maps which identified disaster prone areas to all LGUs, so they will be properly guided in taking the necessary steps before, during and after a calamity.  “The geohazard maps are critical planning tools in the local government’s risk reduction program,” Gozon emphasized.

Geohazard maps contain information as to the level of susceptibility of areas to flooding and landslide, including areas that could possibly be used as relocation or evacuation sites, in case of calamities....

A seismograph at Pinatubo

Sunday, December 23, 2012

NASA's Operation IceBridge data brings new twist to sea ice forecasting

NASA: Shrinking Arctic sea ice grabbed the world's attention again earlier this year with a new record low minimum. Growing economic activity in the Arctic, such as fishing, mineral exploration and shipping, is emphasizing the need for accurate predictions of how much of the Arctic will be covered by sea ice. Every June, an international research group known as the Study of Environmental Arctic Change (SEARCH) publishes a summary of the expected September Arctic sea ice minimum known as the Sea Ice Outlook. The initial reports and monthly updates aim to give the scientific community and public the best available information on sea ice.

Researchers rely on models that use estimated ice thickness data and simulated atmospheric conditions to forecast how sea ice will change during the summer. For the first time, near real-time ice thickness data obtained by NASA's Operation IceBridge has been used to correct a forecast model's initial measurements, which could lead to improved seasonal predictions.

In a paper published last month in the journal Geophysical Research Letters, Ron Lindsay, IceBridge science team member and Arctic climatologist with the Polar Science Center at the University of Washington in Seattle, outlined efforts to use IceBridge data to improve the accuracy of seasonal sea ice forecasts. Lindsay and colleagues used a new quick look sea ice data product that IceBridge scientists released before the end of the Arctic campaign earlier this year. The quick look data, intended for use in time-sensitive applications like seasonal forecasts, supplements the final sea ice data product typically released roughly six months after the campaign. By using new data processing techniques, IceBridge scientists were able to publish the quick look measurements in a matter of weeks. "The idea was to make the data available for anyone to use for the Sea Ice Outlook," said sea ice scientist Nathan Kurtz of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md.

The work outlined in Lindsay's paper marks the first use of IceBridge quick look data in an ensemble sea ice forecast (computer) model. "An ensemble forecast is where you run a single forecast model many different times," said Lindsay. In this case, they ran the Pan-Arctic Ice Ocean Modeling and Assimilation System (PIOMAS) model seven times using conditions from previous summers. PIOMAS uses sea ice extent, the area of sea containing sea ice, and atmospheric data to simulate ice and ocean conditions....

A Digital Mapping System (DMS) mosaic of Arctic sea ice. The dark areas are leads, or open areas of water. Identifying leads is one of the necessary steps in preparing IceBridge’s quick look sea ice thickness data product. Credit: NASA / DMS team

A fatal gap between science and policy?

David Dickson in little more than 30 years ago, a major UN conference on science and technology for development held in Vienna, Austria, ended on an upbeat note with an agreement in principle to set up a US$250-million fund to finance capacity-building projects.

Sadly, the heady optimism among delegates, which I remember vividly, was short lived. No major donations were received and science slipped off the international aid agenda for the next two decades, during which time the gap in scientific capacity between rich and poor nations grew larger.

The latest negotiations, COP 18, ended in Doha, Qatar, earlier this month with a similar agreement to establish a mechanism to transfer money from rich to poor nations to compensate for the "loss and damage" caused by rich countries' addiction to carbon-based fuels. Judging from media reports, this decision was met with an enthusiasm similar to that at the 1979 Vienna conference.

But there is no binding commitment, and the possibility of significant money becoming available looks remote given that rich nations have so far failed to act on the 2010 promise to raise US$100 billion a year by 2020 to help developing nations cope with climate change.

The otherwise disappointing outcome of COP 18 reflects the growing gap between the science and the politics of climate change. While the scientific case for action hardens, the ability politicians to act appropriately — by replacing the soon-to-terminate Kyoto Protocol, for example — appears to be diminishing, creating a scenario for global disaster.

Science communicators in general — and science journalists in particular — have a key role in bridging this gap. We must present scientific evidence to politicians and the public in a way that means such evidence becomes the basis for sound decisions....

Reading a newspaper in Addis Ababa, shot by Terje Skjerdal, Wikimedia Commons via Flickr,  under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license

Woman rescued from floodwaters as Britain braces for more bad weather

Amelia Hill in the Guardian (UK): A woman spent almost an hour clinging to a tree in the middle of a fast-flowing flooded river before a police helicopter spotted her in the early hours of Sunday morning. The swollen waters had swept the unnamed woman from her car and she was fighting to stay afloat when the Devon and Cornwall police helicopter saw her.

Rescued by a RNLI lifeboat, she was treated for exposureThe woman was then reunited with a man and a child who had been trapped in the car when the River Taw broke its banks and had been rescued by firefighters. The dramatic rescue came as forecasters predicted more rain would fall in the next few days: 165 flood warnings were in place across all regions of England – as well as in Wales.

The wet but warm weather has led to dozens of people being moved to emergency shelters, with more warned they too could be forced to leave their homes to escape the rising floodwaters. The Met Office has issued a yellow alert for rain on Christmas Day, covering Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly, Devon and Somerset.

Rail services warned that trains were so badly affected that many of those hoping to travel to see friends and family for Christmas must expect considerable disruption. Those using the First Great Western rail service have been told not to make "non-essential" journeys.

Scotland has had 30 flood warnings, with Perthshire, Tayside, and Angus particularly badly affected. And significant flooding in Stonehaven, near Aberdeen, has led to about 60 people being relocated and a reception centre being set up at Mackie Academy....

Winter floods at Bickleigh in 2006, shot by Pauline Burden, Wikimedia Commons via Geograph UK, under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license

Why Russia's cold snap is so deadly

Mark Lallanilla in Live Science: If any nation on Earth is accustomed to dealing with a harsh winter, it would be Russia. But from the farthest reaches of Siberia to downtown Moscow, the Russian people are being pummeled by a winter so brutal it's shattering cold-weather records across the continent — and it's only December.

As temperatures plunge as low as –minus 58 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 50 degrees Celsius) in some areas, the Pravda news site reports that 45 people have died of causes related to the subfreezing weather; 21 people froze to death in just one day. Hundreds more have been hospitalized with frostbite and other conditions.

Subfreezing weather combined with heavy snowfall in some regions have crippled the nation's infrastructure, closing roads, scrambling airline flights and bursting pipes that carry water and heat into homes, schools and businesses, according to

This winter is the coldest on record since 1938, reports The freakish cold spell, which has already lasted five days, is expected to continue through the weekend....

Russian winter, near Moscow, shot by Aleks G, Wikimedia Commons, under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license

The Green Revolution is wilting

Seed Daily via SPX: The Green Revolution has stagnated for key food crops in many regions of the world, according to a study published in the Nature Communications by scientists with the University of Minnesota's Institute on the Environment and McGill University in Montreal, Canada. Led by IonE research fellow Deepak Ray, the study team developed geographically detailed maps of annual crop harvested areas and yields of maize (corn), rice, wheat and soybeans from 1961 to 2008.

It found that although virtually all regions showed a yield increase sometime during that period, in 24 to 39 percent of the harvested areas (depending on the crop) yield plateaued or outright declined in recent years.

Among the top crop-producing nations, vast areas of two of the most populous - China and India - are witnessing especially concerning stagnation or decline in yield. "This study clearly delineates areas where yields for important food crops are stagnating, declining, or never improved, as well areas where yields are still rapidly improving," Ray says.

"As a result, it both sounds the alert for where we must shift our course if we are to feed a growing population in the decades to come, and points to positive examples to emulate."

Interestingly, the researchers found that yields of wheat and rice - two crops that are largely used as food crops, and which supply roughly half of the world's dietary calories - are declining across a higher percentage of cropland than those of corn and soybean, which are used largely to produce meat or biofuels....

A rice field in Indonesia, shot by Mark Veeraart, Wikimedia Commons via Flickr, under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license

Saturday, December 22, 2012

The sense of an ending--a Carbon Based original

    It's December 22, the snow is falling, and I'm basking in relief that Mayan apocalypse fizzled.   A 5,125-year cycle in the Mesoamerican Long Count Calendar ended yesterday -- December 21, 2012.  Some New Age thinkers claimed that this date heralded a major spiritual transformation, the beginning of a new era, or the end of the earth in a collision with a planet or a black hole.

    Historians of Mayan culture scoffed at these internet-stoked rumors and theories, doubting that any authentic sources supported such a gaudy Hollywood interpretation. Astronomers were derisive about talk of black holes or planetary collisions. 

    These party poopers didn't stop hundreds of credulous souls from flocking to Merida in the Yucatan, near the Mayan ruins of Chichen Itza, and to Tikal in Guatemala. The photos look festive.

    There were casualties. In Sergeyev Posad, a village near Moscow, police blamed a retiree's suicidal leap from her apartment window on her Mayan-based fears. And Chinese authorities arrested around 1,000 members of the Church of the Almighty God for spreading tales about the supposed end times.

    Not for the first time, a calendar served as a screen for some people to project their fears of mortality.  The projection plays into our hardwired narrative bias -- we love stories with a beginning, middle and end.  The Mayan curtain rings down with a bang, and the story's ridiculous falsity didn't make it any less satisfying.

    By coincidence, last night I went to the documentary Chasing Ice, director Jeff Orlowski's chronicle of one photographer's attempt to grapple with a single aspect of a real catastrophe.  It's also one that doesn't lend itself readily to a simple narrative.

    The project began in 2005: The National Geographic sent photographer James Balog to document the impacts of climate change in Iceland.  Dubious about climate change before this trip, he saw enough to change his mind and to give him a mission:  He founded the Extreme Ice Survey to systematically photograph the disappearance of a number of Arctic glaciers using an array of time-lapse cameras.  His goal was to provide visual evidence to the world of the reality of climate change. 

    He surely succeeds. We witness two large calving events, in which a large chunk of the glacier face breaks off and floats away.   In Alaska, Greenland, and Iceland, we see moulins with melt water coursing away, and time-lapse sequences showing vast ice fields dwindling and slipping away.

    Another satisfaction to Orlowski's documentary lies in the courage and persistence of Balog and his crew.  They wrangle their cameras into the best position for their shots, or deal with technical failures in the harsh polar landscape.   They even have to redesign and replace the timing mechanism for many dozens of cameras, which costs them months of work.

    Balog rightly describes the images the Survey has collected as beautiful and horrifying. Of course, the visual evidence probably resonates most with those who already believe in climate change. It's unclear whether it will convince any denialists.  A YouTube video showed one self-described Fox News viewer declaring that she now believed in global warming as she left a showing of Chasing Ice, shaken by what she saw. But it's unclear whether the change of heart has lasted, and whether many others will follow her.  Certainly the most recently polling data shows that a sizeable minority of Americans continue to believe that climate change is a fraud, or at worst an overhyped issue.

    Climate change believers who aren't scientists probably exceed the numbers of those who believed in the Mayan apocalypse. Even so, along with evolution and reproductive health, climatology has been plunged into the cauldron where conservatives boil the science they hate.

    We suffer from cultural insanity when a New Age trifle like the Mayan apocalypse can command hours of airtime, while the screaming emergency created by greenhouse gas emissions scarcely rates a fraction of the sustained focus that it needs. As Balog points out, as a result of our own greenhouse gas emissions, we are approaching the end of a relatively benign and hospitable period for human habitation.  The stormy, wet, unstable future we are creating will contain threats whose contours are just coming into view.

    With his narrow focus, Balog attempts to counter the tide of denial and the unshapely vastness of climate change as a whole.  A dying glacier has a definite end point, and our love of story is mobilized when watching its death throes.  Struggling with climate change will be the work of centuries, and it will probably take forms we don't anticipate. It won't be a story with a satisfying arc, or even an ending.

A Mayan zodiac circle, shot by theilr, Wikimedia Commons via Flickr, under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license

Haiti farmers in dire straits after Hurricane Sandy

Seed Daily via AFP: At an isolated farm in the town of Papaye in central Haiti, a group of farmers are counting the costs of Hurricane Sandy and trying to decide their next steps. The news from the meeting is grim.

Flooding unleashed by the massive storm killed more than 50 people and left thousands homeless in Haiti, another woe for an impoverished country still struggling to recover from a 2010 earthquake that left more than 200,000 dead.

Sandy also devastated the Caribbean nation's farming sector -- already reeling from a dry spell. "Haitian farmers were very affected by the drought, and then by the flooding caused by Hurricane Sandy," said Chavannes Jean-Baptiste, the head of the Mouvement des Paysans de Papaye, an influential peasant movement. "Harvests were lost in most parts of the country. And now, there is a real risk of famine."...