Thursday, January 31, 2013

Chesapeake Bay shows signs of recovery, but pollution persists

Ian Simpson in Reuters: The Chesapeake Bay, North America's biggest estuary, is still ailing but making some progress as it struggles to recover from over-fishing and pollution, a partnership overseeing its revival said on Thursday.

The number of juvenile crabs is the highest in two decades, rockfish are stable and last year's "dead zone," the part of the bay without enough oxygen to support life, seems to be the smallest since 1985, the Chesapeake Bay Program said in its 2011-12 "Bay Barometer."

On the down side, water clarity was very poor and only a third of the bay met standards for dissolved oxygen, a measure of water's health. The oyster population also was at less than 1 percent of historic levels. "While we clearly have a lot of work to do, the bay is resilient and we have reason for hope," Nick DiPasquale, director of the federal and state program, said in a statement.

The Chesapeake Bay, home to more than 3,600 species of plants and animals, has been fouled by decades of over-fishing and pollution. Pollutants include sediment, manure, trash and chemicals that flow into it from its 64,000-square-mile (166,000-square-km) watershed across six states.

The Chesapeake Bay Program was formed in 1983 to restore the estuary, where salt water from the ocean mixes with fresh water. It includes Maryland, Pennsylvania, Virginia, the District of Columbia, the Environmental Protection Agency and citizens groups.

The group said that most of the bay's feeder freshwater streams were in poor or very poor condition. Water murkiness and algae levels in 2011 were the worst since 2009. But the big Susquehanna Flats grass bed survived Tropical Storm Lee in 2011. In another sign of health, grasses in the middle of the Chesapeake showed "dramatic increases," the program said....

A creek beside Cedar Lane, Bethesda, Maryland, making its way to the Chesapeake, shot by Andrew Bossi, Wikimedia Commons, under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.5 Generic license

Building climate awareness in Islamabad

The Express Tribune (Pakistan): Research, awareness campaigns and the integration of disaster risk reduction (DRR) strategies in planning and development are essential to help Pakistan cope with future climate change challenges. These were the recommendations of a recently conducted survey by Save the Children to assess the impacts of climate change on children and their families in the Indus Basin.

The report’s draft and recommendations were presented by Dr Inayatullah, a climate change expert working with Save the Children, at a seminar in Islamabad on Tuesday titled “Building Resilience in Indus Basin”.

The study was conducted earlier this month. It involved a quantitative survey and focus group discussions with a sample of 200 households– 703 boys, 634 girls and 269 children under age-five. The study participants belonged to five villages each from districts along the Indus River — Nowshera, Rajanpur, Shikarpur and Nasirabad.

Inayatullah said the respondents reported an increase in the severity of summer, changes in rainfall patterns, and an increase in mosquitoes, all of which are also signs of climate change. According to the survey, 80 to 98 per cent of respondents were worried they will run out of money to buy food and 90 to 96 per cent respondents at Rajanpur, Shikarpur and Nasirabad reported their families had to cut the size of their meals or skip them entirely because they could not afford to buy food.

“Climate change is a hunger multiplier since it affects crop yields and agricultural productivity negatively,” Inayatullah said. “Large scale food security will be challenged, not only in Pakistan, but worldwide due to climate change in the coming years.”...

The aftermath of an earthquake in Islamabad, from Voice of America

Prediction of monsoon rainfall activity close at hand

Terra Daily via SPX: The amount of rainfall and number of tropical storms during the summer monsoon season greatly impact the agriculture, economy, and people in Asia. Though meteorologists and climate scientists have worked for years to develop helpful prediction systems, seasonal predictions of these two types of weather phenomena are still poor.

Scientists working at the International Pacific Research Center, University of Hawaii at Manoa, have now made a promising breakthrough for predicting in spring both the summer monsoon rainfall over East Asia and the number of tropical storms affecting East Asian coastal areas. The study is published in the January 21, 2013, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The scientists have shown that both the East Asian summer monsoon and the storm activity in the western North Pacific are controlled by fluctuations in the western Pacific Subtropical High (WPSH), a major atmospheric circulation system in the global subtropics centered over the Philippine Sea.

When this system is strong in summer, then monsoon rainfall tends to be greater than normal over East Asia, and in the western North Pacific there tend to be fewer tropical storms that make landfall.

With the help of computer modeling experiments, the scientists found that these summer fluctuations in the WPSH are more than 65% predictable in spring. When the Indo-Pacific warm pool shows a dipolar sea surface temperature anomaly (that is, an unusually warm Indian Ocean together with an unusually cool western North Pacific) or the central Pacific tends to cool in spring, then the WPSH will be strong and stable with ensuing greater summer monsoon rainfall over the East Asian monsoon front and the Ganges River Valley in India, but fewer tropical storms will affect East Asian coastal areas and the western subtropical Pacific....

Monsoon rains in Punjab, shot by Sanyambahga, Wikimedia Commons, under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license

1953 North Sea Floods anniversary: More needs to be done on ‘flood resilience’, leading engineer claims

Skegness Standard: A leading figure from the Institution of Civil Engineers (ICE) has warned that more needs to be done to improve the ‘flood resilience’ of communities - including those hit by the devastating 1953 North Sea Floods which killed thousands. Sixty years after the devastating floods of 1953, the UK and Europe remains under threat of rising waters in the face of climate change and increased rainfall.

But continued investment in infrastructure must be matched with increasing the flood resilience of communities, experts have claimed. Professor David Balmforth, the vice president of the ICE and chair of the Inter-Institutional Flooding Group, said coastal regions are now better protected by sea defences, reliable flood forecasting, and well-established emergency response measures.

But he has raised concerns that progress on making communities more “flood resilient” was less advanced, arguing that work in this area might be the key to tackling flooding in the future. “It is important that we continue to invest in appropriate levels of flood defence works in the future,” he said.

“However, of equal importance is building the flood resilience of our communities. Flood forecasts are not universally embedded in the day to day life of all communities at risk of flooding, and in too many cases, communities do not even realise that they are at risk.

“Our buildings and infrastructure are also not always designed to resist flooding and more can be done to make them flood resistant – in much the same way that we have made buildings more energy efficient. We have yet to learn that building resilience against floods must be at the heart of any future flood risk management strategy,” he said....

Canvey, a city in Essex, UK, during the 1953 North Sea flood, from a US Army helicopter

New study highlights impact of environmental change on older people

EurekAlert via the University of York: Recent natural disasters illustrate vulnerability of older people: majority of deaths from the Great East Japan Earthquake (2011) and Hurricane Katrina (2005) occurred among older people.

Researchers at the Stockholm Environment Institute at the University of York and Simon Fraser University's Gerontology Research Centre in Canada are calling for better awareness among policy makers and the public of the impact climate change and deteriorating environmental quality will have on an ageing population.

According to UN projections, by 2050, nearly 25 per cent of the global population will be aged 55 or over. An aging population and environmental change are two key policy challenges which need to be addressed to ensure a safe, secure, equitable and sustainable future. But international policy makers have given little attention to the effects global environmental change will have on older people.

...Dr Gary Haq, of SEI, said: "Our study shows that older people are particularly vulnerable to environmental change – but awareness among policy makers and older people is lagging behind. There is an urgent need for policy makers to better understand the interaction between global ageing and the environment to prevent and minimise disproportionate negative impacts on older people."

...Professor Gloria Gutman, Research Associate at Simon Fraser University's Gerontology Research Centre said: "Older people themselves, and especially those with chronic illnesses, need to recognise that environmental change can affect them personally. Data from around the world show that weather-related disasters kill older people at a disproportionate rate."...

This man, an evacuee from New Orleans after hurricane Katrina, waits to be seen by a DMAT team member at the airport. Photo by: Liz Roll of FEMA

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Winter to hang on in US Northeast

Terra Daily via UPI: The U.S. Northeast is likely to experience six more weeks of winter weather lasting into March, long-range forecasters at say.

The Northwest is also likely to have winter maintain its grip on the region, regardless of what Punxsutawney Phil has to say on Groundhog Day, forecasters said.

A couple of winter storms may impact the Northeast in February and March, they said. "I think we could still see some late-season winter storms [in the Northeast]," AccuWeather lead long-range forecaster Paul Pastelok said.

Snow along the Interstate 95 corridor from Washington to New York City and Boston is not unusual, he said; "Typically, February to March is the season on the East Coast."...

The south end of Boston covered in snow, in 2008, shot by Ben Becker, Wikimedia Commons via Flickr, under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license

Haiti launches microfinance catastrophe insurance program

Susana Ferreira in Reuters: When Hurricane Sandy struck Haiti late last year, the home Guerda Pierre shares with her three children and mother in Cabaret, north of Port-au-Prince, was flooded — and so was the merchandise she sold to make a living.

"The books, the food, everything was wet after Sandy," said Pierre. The plantain plants and beans in her garden were also destroyed. But unlike the majority of Haitians, Pierre had an insurance policy.

As a borrowing client at Fonkoze, a Haitian microcredit organization, she was automatically covered under its natural disaster insurance policy. Through MiCRO (Microinsurance Catastrophe Risk Organization), she had her existing debt wiped clean, a new credit account with Fonkoze instated for the same amount. And she received a payout of about $60 to help her get back on her feet quickly.

On Tuesday, the International Finance Corporation (IFC), a division of the World Bank, announced $1.7 million in funding, plus technical assistance, to support the program.

MiCRO, the first natural catastrophe insurance scheme of its kind in Haiti, was founded by Fonkoze, the international relief organization Mercy Corps and a number of other partners after a devastating earthquake in Haiti in January 2010. The program was rolled out officially in January 2011, and all of Fonkoze's microloan clients across the country were automatically insured — well in time for the hurricane season...

US Marine photo of aid to Port-au-Prince after 2010's Hurricane Tomas

Efforts on to improve Pakistan's climate change adaptation

The Nation (Pakistan): Director NDMA Brig Sajid Naeem has said that the government is working to improve climate change adaptation in the country to ensure that the risks faced by millions of poor and vulnerable communities across Pakistan are reduced, said press release issued here on Tuesday.

Addressing a seminar ‘Building Resilience in the Indus Basin’, organized by ‘Save the Children’ here, Brig Sajid said that Pakistan remains vulnerable to climate change and this vulnerability is likely to increase in the coming decades. We must all be prepared for a world that is changing.

Aqeel Nawaz, Director Programme Quality, Save the Children, said, “It is essential that the most vulnerable people in the most vulnerable districts of Pakistan are equipped with the resources and knowledge to help them cope with the effects of climate change’.

For poor and vulnerable communities living near the Indus River, their exposure to the impact of a changing climate pushes them further into poverty and hunger.

Although the Indus River System is a resource of great importance for the entire country and region, the changing environment has increased the risk of humanitarian disasters manifold for the people who rely on food and livelihoods from the mighty river....

Mali war against Islamists halts climate adaptation projects

Soumaila T. Diarra in AlertNet: Escalating conflict with Islamic militants in Mali is leading to the suspension of development and aid programmes in the country, threatening efforts to deal with climate change, hunger and other problems, aid and development workers say.

In the central city of Segou, Demba Cisse, a representative of the aid group Afrique Verte, said the conflict had forced the group to halt a project designed to improve farmers’ cereal crop yields.

The France-based group helps Malian farmers use new seeds adapted to the climate in different parts of the country. “On the one hand it allows the farmers to get certified seeds adapted to each agro-ecological area of the country. On the other, it helps them to change their way (of farming) to prevent and manage the food crises linked to droughts,” Cisse said. “The system of improved seed distribution we established helps farmers to cope with climate change,” he said.

The project began in 2007 with about 30 seed banks in villages around the central city of Douentza. These were community stores managed by local people, giving the villages’ farmers access to 100 tonnes of improved seeds. The experiment, funded by international donors, was judged a success and expanded to other parts of the country...

A porter hauling hay in Mali, shot by Jelle Jansen, Wikimedia Commons via Flickr, under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

New research will help shed light on role of Amazon forests in global carbon cycle

Julie Chao at the Berkeley Lab News Center: The Earth’s forests perform a well-known service to the planet, absorbing a great deal of the carbon dioxide pollution emitted into the atmosphere from human activities. But when trees are killed by natural disturbances, such as fire, drought or wind, their decay also releases carbon back into the atmosphere, making it critical to quantify tree mortality in order to understand the role of forests in the global climate system. Tropical old-growth forests may play a large role in this absorption service, yet tree mortality patterns for these forests are not well understood.

Now scientist Jeffrey Chambers and colleagues at the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab) have devised an analytical method that combines satellite images, simulation modeling and painstaking fieldwork to help researchers detect forest mortality patterns and trends. This new tool will enhance understanding of the role of forests in carbon sequestration and the impact of climate change on such disturbances.

“One quarter of CO2 emissions are going to terrestrial ecosystems, but the details of those processes and how they will respond to a changing climate are inadequately understood, particularly for tropical forests,” Chambers said. “It’s important we get a better understanding of the terrestrial sink because if it weakens, more of our emissions will end up in the atmosphere, increasing the rate of climate warming. To develop a better estimate of the contribution of forests, we need to have a better understanding of forest tree mortality.”

...If these results hold for most tropical forests, then it would indicate that because we missed some of the mortality, then the contribution of these forests to the net sink might be less than previous studies have suggested,” Chambers said. “An old-growth forest has a mosaic of patches all doing different things. So if you want to understand the average behavior of that system you need to sample at a much larger spatial scale over larger time intervals than was previously appreciated. You don’t see this mosaic if you walk through the forest or study only one patch. You really need to look at the forest at the landscape scale.”...

A mortality map of the Amazon near Manaus, Brazil based on Landsat satellite images shows the spatial pattern of tree mortality. A Landsat image from NASA, found on the LBL National Lab website

Toronto must overhaul aging infrastructure to meet dramatic climate change projections

Laura Kane in the Toronto Star: Toronto must overhaul its aging infrastructure to adapt to dramatic new climate change projections — a process that could cost billions — say some councillors and environmentalists. But some fear the city is not taking the matter seriously enough, as the chair of the Parks and Environment Committee remains skeptical of the projections.

A study commissioned by the city and set to be discussed Tuesday by the parks committee predicts temperatures about 4.4 degrees warmer and a marked increase in extreme storms by 2040. “If people are concerned about a crumbling Gardiner, this study makes it look like a teeny, tiny pothole,” said Franz Hartmann of the Toronto Environmental Alliance. “If we’re not paying attention, it will literally be catastrophic.”

The study, called “Toronto’s Future Weather and Climate Driver Study,” foresees Toronto’s climate 30 years in the future as marked by fewer but more intense storms, less snow in the winter and increased heat and humidity in the summer.

Torontonians have already braved three of the worst storms in the city’s recorded history in the past 12 years, and sweltered through the earliest known heat wave on June 19, 2012. The city’s roads, sewers, storm drains and electrical grids were simply not built to withstand the new climate, said Councillor Gord Perks, a member of the committee.

“If you took Toronto and put it in another part of the world, our infrastructure would be wrong for that weather. This is the same kind of problem,” he said. He said the study means the city has “billions of dollars of work to do,” including expanding the capacity of sewers and re-engineering green spaces to accommodate ponds of rainwater....

The CN Tower in Toronto struck by lightning, shot by Raul Heinrich, Wikimedia Commons, under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license

Sea change: the Bay of Bengal's vanishing islands

John Vidal in the "globaldevelopent" blog in the Guardian (UK): School teacher Nurul Hashem lives in a grass hut set among coconut palms and pine trees, just yards from a pristine beach on the sparkling Bay of Bengal. It sounds idyllic, but he longs to return to the island of Kutubdia, 50 miles away, where his family home has been swallowed by ever-rising tides and is now out at sea under several feet of water.

To make matters worse, the local government, which welcomed him when he arrived three years ago, wants him and thousands of other families who have fled to the coast from the island, to make way for an airport and hotel developments.

Kutubdia is one of many islands off Bangladesh and India affected by increasingly rapid erosion and some of the fastest recorded sea-level rises in the world. These "vanishing islands" are shrinking dramatically. Kutubdia has halved in size in 20 years, to around 100 sq km. Since 1991, six villages on the island of fishermen and saltworkers have been swamped and about 40,000 people have fled. Like Hashem, most have relocated to the coast near Cox's Bazar.

"The sea water is rising every day," says Hashem, who calls himself a "climate refugee". "We lost everything. We are not happy, because we must move again. Climate change is making thousands of people homeless."....

Machilipatnam Beach early in the morning, shot by Govind.salinger, public domain

Vietnamese scientists want climate plans changed

VietnamNet Bridge: Many scientists of southern cities and provinces have called for a new approach to climate change adaptation that would be tailored to each specific region.  Commenting on a draft proposal by the Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources (MENR), participants at a conference held in HCM City said it [the draft] should be revised.

The MRC is the inter-governmental body responsible for cooperation on the sustainable management of the Mekong Basin whose members include Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Viet Nam.  The conference, held by MENR and the Central Committee for Publicity and Education on Coping with Climate Change and Resource Conservation, was also attended by leaders of southern localities stretching from Da Nang to Ca Mau.

Dr Duong Van Ni of Can Tho University said that different approaches were needed for each locality because the impact of climate change varied from area to area within the country.

"The risks from climate change include higher sea levels. But the upper part of the Mekong River is also affected, which means the Cuu Long (Mekong) Delta needs a clear strategy to have reserves of fresh water," he said. "Water volume from the upper to the lower part has changed dramatically in recent years due to climate change and changes made in the upper basin. This could lead to a major water shortage in the next 20 years," Ni added...

China's air pollution again at danger levels

The Guardian via AP: Dangerously high pollution levels have shrouded Beijing in smog for the second time in about two weeks, forcing airlines to cancel flights because of poor visibility and prompting the city government to warn residents to stay indoors.

The outlines of buildings in the Chinese capital receded into a white mist as pedestrians donned face masks to guard against the thick, caustic air. The US embassy reported a level of PM2.5, one of the worst pollutants, at 526 micrograms per cubic metre, or "beyond index", and more than 20 times higher than World Health Organisation safety levels over a 24-hour period.

The Beijing city government advised residents to stay indoors as much as possible because the pollution was "severe". It said that because there was no wind, the smog probably would not dissipate quickly.

Visibility was less than 100 metres (109 yards) in some areas of eastern China, the official Xinhua news agency reported. Air China cancelled 14 domestic flights in or out of the Beijing airport, and an airport in the eastern city of Qingdao was closed, cancelling 20 flights....

A smoggy day in Tianamen Square, shot by McKay Savage, Wikimedia Commons via Flickr, under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license

Monday, January 28, 2013

California's Central Valley irrigation intensifies rainfall, storms across the Southwest

UC Irvine News: Agricultural irrigation in California’s Central Valley doubles the amount of water vapor pumped into the atmosphere, ratcheting up rainfall and powerful monsoons across the interior Southwest, according to a new study by UC Irvine scientists.

Moisture on the vast farm fields evaporates, is blown over the Sierra Nevada and dumps 15 percent more than average summer rain in numerous other states. Runoff to the Colorado River increases by 28 percent, and the Four Corners region experiences a 56 percent boost in runoff. While the additional water supply can be a good thing, the transport pattern also accelerates the severity of monsoons and other potentially destructive seasonal weather events.

“If we stop irrigating in the Valley, we’ll see a decrease in stream flow in the Colorado River basin,” said climate hydrologist Jay Famiglietti, senior author on the paper, which will be published online Tuesday, Jan. 29, in the journal Geophysical Research Letters. The basin provides water for about 35 million people, including those in Los Angeles, Las Vegas and Phoenix. But the extra water vapor also accelerates normal atmospheric circulation, he said, “firing up” the annual storm cycle and drawing in more water vapor from the Gulf of Mexico as well as the Central Valley. When the additional waves of moisture bump into developing monsoons, Famiglietti said, “it’s like throwing fuel on a fire.”

Famiglietti, an Earth system science professor in the School of Physical Sciences, and colleague Min-Hui Lo, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of California Center for Hydrologic Modeling who is now at National Taiwan University, painstakingly entered regional irrigation levels into global rainfall and weather models and traced the patterns.

“All percent differences in the paper are the differences between applying irrigation to the Central Valley and not applying it,” Famiglietti said. “That’s the point of the study – and the beauty of using computer models. You can isolate the phenomenon that you wish to explore, in this case, irrigation versus no irrigation.”...

An irrigation canal in the Central Valley, shot in 1972

Pakistan, UN seek to cut risk of glacial lake floods

Rina Saeed Khan in AlertNet): Abdul Jabbar was in his house in the Bindu Gol valley of Pakistan’s northern Chitral district when a glacial lake burst through the ridge holding it back high above. .. The boulders and rocks deposited by the massive flood also blocked the Chitral River at the base of the valley for 12 hours. When the river finally broke through, it swept away bridges and damaged settlements downstream.

As temperatures in Pakistan’s mountain regions rise and glacial lake outbursts become more common, people in Chitral - where every valley has at least one glacier - are becoming more anxious. “We need to study this glacier,” said Jabbar. “We believe the melting ice underneath the glacier might burst through again.”

The U.N. Development Programme (UNDP) and Pakistan’s Ministry of Climate Change have chosen Bindu Gol valley as one of two sites for a new project to reduce the risks of glacial lake flooding in northern Pakistan. This $7.6 million project is one of the first initiatives to be funded by the U.N.-backed Adaptation Fund, which finances programmes that help developing countries adapt to the negative effects of climate change.

The other project site is the picturesque valley of Bagrote in the northern mountain region of Gilgit-Baltistan, which is home to half a dozen glaciers. In Bagrote, glaciers and humans exist in close proximity, but the warming climate is bringing more dangerous conditions for the valley’s inhabitants.

Glacial Lake Outburst Floods (GLOFs) are happening regularly, caused by glaciers melting in the summer months. Floods occur when the natural dams - formed of ice or glacial sediment - containing the lakes are breached. They can occur quite suddenly, carry a lot of debris and cause considerable damage.

“Glacial flood events are more frequent now in Bagrote, destroying houses, livestock, graveyards and orchards. The community’s expectations from this project are high,” explained Shahid Ali, the head of a community-based organisation in the valley....

Bagrote Valley, in Gilgit-Baltistan, Pakistan, shot by Zensky, public domain

Groundwater fate and climate change Simon Fraser University earth scientist Diana Allen, a co-author on a new paper about climate changes' impacts on the world's ground water, says climate change may be exacerbating many countries' experience of water stress.

"Increasing food requirements to feed our current world's growing population and prolonged droughts in many regions of the world are already increasing dependence on groundwater for agriculture," says Allen. "Climate-change-related stresses on fresh surface water, such as glacier-fed rivers, will likely exacerbate that situation. "

Add to that our mismanagement and inadequate monitoring of groundwater usage and we may see significant groundwater depletion and contamination that will seriously compromise much of the world's agriculturally-grown food supply." In "Ground Water and Climate Change," Allen and several other international scientists explain how several human-driven factors, if not rectified, will combine with climate change to significantly reduce useable groundwater availability for agriculture globally.

The paper was published in late 2012 in the journal Nature Climate Change. The authors note that inadequate groundwater supply records and mathematical models for predicting climate change and associated sea-level-rise make it impossible to forecast groundwater's long-range fate globally....

Image by Hans Hillewaert, Wikimedia Commons, under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license

Cities change temperatures for thousands of miles

NCAR-UCAR AtmosNews: Even if you live more than 1,000 miles from the nearest large city, it could be affecting your weather.

In a new study that shows the extent to which human activities are influencing the atmosphere, scientists have concluded that the heat generated by everyday activities in metropolitan areas alters the character of the jet stream and other major atmospheric systems. This affects temperatures across thousands of miles, significantly warming some areas and cooling others, according to the study this week in Nature Climate Change.

The extra “waste heat” generated from buildings, cars, and other sources in major Northern Hemisphere urban areas causes winter warming across large areas of northern North America and northern Asia. Temperatures in some remote areas increase by as much as 1 degree Celsius (1.8 degrees Fahrenheit), according to the research by scientists at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography; University of California, San Diego; Florida State University; and the National Center for Atmospheric Research. At the same time, the changes to atmospheric circulation caused by the waste heat cool areas of Europe by as much as 1 degree C (1.8 degrees F), with much of the temperature decrease occurring in the fall.

The net effect on global mean temperatures is nearly negligible—an average increase worldwide of just 0.01 degrees C (about 0.02 degrees F). This is because the total human-produced waste heat is only about 0.3 percent of the heat transported across higher latitudes by atmospheric and oceanic circulations.

However, the noticeable impact on regional temperatures may explain why some regions are experiencing more winter warming than projected by climate computer models, the researchers conclude. They suggest that models be adjusted to take the influence of waste heat into account....

This composite image shows a global view of Earth at night, compiled from over 400 satellite images. New research shows that major cities, which generally correspond with the nighttime lights in this image, can have a far-reaching impact on temperatures. (Image courtesy NASA and NOAA.)

Major floods hammer northern Australia

Terra Daily via AFP: Two people were missing and the body of a third person was recovered from raging floodwaters as severe storms pounded northeastern Australia on Sunday, forcing more than 1,000 to flee their homes.

Army aircraft were deployed in the northern state of Queensland, where storms generated by former tropical cyclone Oswald unleashed punishing rains and localised tornadoes and floodwaters threatened several major towns.

One woman was plucked to safety in Biloela, 600 kilometres (400 miles) northwest of the state capital Brisbane, after spending eight hours clinging to a tree.

At Gympie north of Brisbane, three families had been forced to retreat to the roofs of their homes and had been awaiting rescue for more than seven hours after helicopters could not reach them due to the winds, town mayor Ron Dyne said....

A 2006 flood in Cairns, Queensland, shot by Rob and Stephanie Levy, Wikimedia Commons via Flickr, under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Mozambique floods prompt humanitarian crisis

Terra Daily via AFP: Tens of thousands of Mozambicans are stranded without food and water after floods swept through the south of the country this week, sparking a large-scale humanitarian crisis.

With the displaced now living in the open and eating grasshoppers to survive, the Mozambican government and international agencies like the Red Cross are warning of a looming catastrophe.

When the floods came on Wednesday, residents of Chokwe town escaped the raging flow of the Limpopo River with what little they could carry.

Alegria Hlangwe only had time to grab one of her children. Her other two sons were across town....

Saturday, January 26, 2013

Escaped crocodiles -- a Carbon Based original

    Every now and then, a news story shines a bright light on risks and shows the unpredictability of the various systems we occupy.

    Even a professional worrier might have failed to predict what happened in the town of Modimolle in Limpopo province in South Africa, near the border with Botswana. The town is home to the Rakwena Crocodile Farm. 

    For the past week, rains have soaked the ground, and flooding has been widespread.  Rising water forced the farm to open their cages to avoid a storm surge crushing the animals. Once floating free, some 15,000 crocs slithered into the depths of the swollen Limpopo River, no doubt ecstatically.

    "Before there were only a few crocodiles in the Limpopo River. Now there are plenty," said one of the farm's proprietors. "We go catch them when farmers phone us."  One turned up in a rugby field 75 miles away.  Some nearby citizens climbed on their roofs to escape the flood and spotted crocodiles circling their houses, much in the style of countless New Yorker cartoons.

    A later report says that many have been recaptured thanks to an effort from the police and the army, but more than half are still on the loose, like a mass reptilian version of The Fugitive. Their eyes glow in dark, according to one paper, so it's often easier to catch them at night. So far, no injuries or fatalities have come up in my news feeds.   I'm sure everyone in Limpopo province and elsewhere downstream is checking twice before dumping the garbage or walking down to the soggy end of their yard.

    My wife said to me, "I guess the crocodiles are really black swans." It's a safe bet that very few people -- maybe nobody -- considered the perils of a crocodile farm in a flood plain.  Perhaps floods are rare in Limpopo Province, and maybe the farm has always been high enough -- until this week. 

    The farm's website says, "The Curio shop stocks a wide variety of crocodile leather belts, hats, purses, and rifle slings.  Light lunches can be booked and tasty crocodile meat dishes are available."  No word about treading carefully if you notice that all the cages are empty.

    Charles Perrow in 1984 invented the idea of a "normal accident," also known as a system accident, which occurs when many small failures, accidents and mistakes suddenly coalesce in a big disaster.  Perrow says that normal accidents come about when interactive complexity encounters tight coupling.    Normal accidents are tough to predict because a situation with many moving parts -- like a nuclear power plant, for example --- prevents people from keeping track of all possible interactions. 

    I don't know how complicated the Rakwena Crocodile Farm's organization is, whether they have operating manuals, departments that don't communicate well with each other, and snarls of bureaucratic barriers that veil what's actually going on.  Something tells me that a crocodile farm is not as involved as a nuclear power plant, and that its systems are not as tightly coupled.  But a flood is a crisis for both.

    First of all, a flood disrupts the power to an entire area and makes roads impassable. The emergency services are impaired at the exact moment you need them most.

    Many nuclear plants are on vulnerable sites because they use nearby rivers as a coolant.  But rising water can knock out operating electricity to the plant, and endanger the backup generators that keep critical cooling equipment running for the reactors and the pools of spent fuel.  Floodwaters can breach retaining walls. This is what happened at the Fukushima-Daichi plant in Japan, resulting in major escapes of radioactive material and damage to the reactors.  

    If thousands of crocodiles reside on your property, you must have ready access to fresh water, or a very long garden hose.  A flood could mean a major escape of powerful swimming predators. Not as bad as airborne particles of cesium-137, but still not anything you want to encounter on your morning constitutional.  

    We keep discovering that we inhabit fragile structures.   Climate disruption adds new layers of complexity, and stresses everything in ways we haven't experienced before.  Our arrangements often turn out to be much less flexible and resilient than anyone predicted.  (I hasten to add that climate change isn't the culprit behind the crocodile escape.)  The precise cause is less important than a danger growing in plain sight, with no one able to take effective preventive steps. 

    Or maybe we are underestimating the reptilian ingenuity of crocodilus nilotikus. Somewhere, caged reptiles brood, watching with slitted yellow eyes and dream of freedom, much like the main character in John Crowe Ransom's poem, "Crocodile," which ends:

    Full length he lies and goes as water goes,
    He weeps for joy and welters in the flood,
    Floating he lies extended nearly a rood,
    And quite invisible but for the end of his nose.

A statue of a crocodile at the Neptune Fountain in 1951, on Marx-Engels Platz in Berlin

Friday, January 25, 2013

Extinction rates not as bad as feared ... for now

EurekAlert via Griffith University: Concerns that many animals are becoming extinct, before scientists even have time to identify them, are greatly overstated according Griffith University researcher, Professor Nigel Stork. Professor Stork has taken part in an international study, the findings of which have been detailed in "Can we name Earth's species before they go extinct?" published in the journal Science.

Deputy Head of the Griffith School of Environment, Professor Stork said a number of misconceptions have fuelled these fears, and there is no evidence that extinction rates are as high as some have feared. "Surprisingly, few species have gone extinct, to our knowledge. Of course, there will have been some species which have disappeared without being recorded, but not many we think," Professor Stork said.

Professor Stork said part of the problem is that there is an inflated sense of just how many animals exist and therefore how big the task to record them. "Modern estimates of the number of eukaryotic species have ranged up to 100 million, but we have estimated that there are around 5 million species on the planet (plus or minus 3 million)."

...Other good news for the preservation of species is that conservation efforts in the past few years have done a good job in protecting some key areas of rich biodiversity. But the reprieve may be short-lived.

"Climate change will dramatically change species survival rates, particularly when you factor in other drivers such as overhunting and habitat loss," Professor Stork said. "At this stage we have no way of knowing by how much extinction rates may escalate.But once global warming exceeds the 2 degree barrier, we can expect to see the scale of loss many people already believe is happening. Higher temperature rises coupled with other environmental impacts will lead to mass extinctions"....

Roelant Savery's 1628 painting, "Noah's Ark"

Water restored in Chile capital after day-long cut

Space Daily via AFP: Water has been restored in Chile's capital Santiago after a 24-hour pollution-related outage that affected more than two million people, the water utility said Wednesday.

The cut-off in the supply of drinking water to more than 593,000 homes from early Tuesday was linked to contamination in a key river that supplies the city and forced the closure of several businesses.

The Aguas Andinas water utility announced that all services had been restored as of 5:00 am (0800 GMT)....

A map of Santiago, Chile, from around 1712.

Scientists dismiss geo-engineering as a global warming quick fix

Claire Martin in the "Surprising Science" blog at the Smithsonian: Installing a giant mirror in space to block sunlight, dispersing mass quantities of minerals into the oceans to suck carbon dioxide from the air and infusing the Earth’s upper atmosphere with sun-reflecting chemicals might sound like the stuff of science fiction, but they’re actual techniques that have been contemplated by scientists as possible quick solutions to climate change. More specifically, they’re examples of geo-engineering, a hotly contested subset of climate science whereby the Earth’s environment is intentionally manipulated in order to mitigate the effects of global warming.

Since cutting greenhouse gas emissions has been something of an exercise in futility, the idea behind geo-engineering is to put systems in place that manage the carbon dioxide that’s already emitted into the atmosphere. The two basic methods are solar radiation management—whereby a small amount of the sun’s heat and light is reflected back into space—and carbon dioxide removal, which involves the capture of CO2 or its uptake by the oceans.

A new study published yesterday in the journal Environmental Research Letters poked holes in one proposed approach to carbon dioxide removal. The research, conducted by scientists from Germany’s Alfred Wegener Institute for Polar and Marine Research, showed that dissolving the mineral olivine into the oceans would be an inefficient way of reducing atmospheric carbon dioxide...

Photo of an eclipse by asmoth, released into the public domain

Corruption still a massive global problem

Independent European Daily Express: Transparency International released its’ 2012 Corruption Perception Index on Wednesday and it reveals little improvement in public sector corruption. Results from the annual rankings show that more than two-thirds of the 176 countries surveyed by the anti-corruption watchdog were perceived as very corrupt.

According to Transparency International (TI), “Corruption continues to ravage societies around the world.” The organisation’s chair, Huguette Labelle, called on governments to “take a tougher stance against the abuse of power.”

Countries are scored on a scale from zero, which is very corrupt, to 100, which is very clean. Any score below 50 is deemed to have a “serious corruption problem.” Of the 176 countries surveyed, only 53 managed to score 50 or above. TI noted that although citizens in several countries challenged corrupt leaders and forced them from power, it has not improved their positions on the index.

The Arab Spring revolutions have so far failed to reduce corruption and levels of bribery and abuse of power remain high. Egypt, which scored just 32, fell six places and is now ranked 118th; Morocco slipped down eight places to 88th; Tunisia fell two places to 75th. Libya scored 21 but that was an improvement and it rose from 168th place to 160th.

The Euro zone economies worst hit by the sovereign debt crisis also fared poorly on the 2012 index: Greece scored 36 and dropped to 94th place and Italy came in at 72nd with a score of 42. 

Denmark, Finland and New Zealand maintained their usual place at the top of the table; all three scored 90 points and shared joint first place. Sweden, Singapore and Switzerland were the next highest ranked nations. The usual suspects were at the bottom of the table as well: Somalia, North Korea and Afghanistan shared joint 174th place with a score of just eight. Sudan is in 173rd place and Myanmar (Burma) is 172nd....

Maasai herders breed fewer, stronger cattle to tackle climate change

Lucas Liganga in AlertNet: The loss of more than half their livestock in the 2009 drought has led Maasai pastoralists in northern Tanzania’s Arusha region to breed fewer, stronger cattle and end their traditional focus on numbers alone as symbols of wealth and status.

The impact of that devastating drought, which dealt a blow to the whole nation’s economy, is still visible in the small number of cattle in many villages of Engarenaibor in Arusha’s Longido district.

The district’s cattle breeders and owners lost at least 120,000 cattle, more than half the total herd of 200,000, as a result of the drought, which plunged the region into poverty and threatened the pastoralists’ traditional livelihood.

The good news emerging from this blow to their way of life is that breeders have realized that in a time of climate change their wealth lies not in the size of their herd but in its quality. “The days of keeping many head of cattle for prestige are gone thanks to the 2009 drought. It has taught us a lesson. A lesson to adapt to climate change,” says cattle owner Ngaiyok Legilisho Kipainoi....

Maasai in the Ngorongoro crater, shot by Nicor, Wikimedia Commons, under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Arctic blast sweeps Canada, US

Terra Daily via AFP: Arctic air sweeping through Canada and parts of the United States sent temperatures plunging to record lows on Wednesday with a wind chill of minus 40 degrees (Celsius and Fahrenheit).

Canada was the coldest nation in the world at the start of the day with with temperatures as low as minus 43.1 degrees Celsius (-45.6 Fahrenheit) in the Northwest Territories, according to public broadcaster CBC.

In Ottawa, buildings cracked in the cold, making sounds like the crash of a wrecking ball.

No significant damage was reported, and only one death has been linked to the cold, a man found dead in Toronto with signs of hypothermia.

In Rouyn, Quebec, temperatures dropped to -40,3 Celsius (-40.5 Fahrenheit), lower even than in Yakutsk, Siberia, which came in at -38,8 Celsius (-37.84).

"Low pressure in southern Canada brought a cold air mass from the north," causing a deep freeze, Environment Canada meteorologist Andre Cantin told AFP.

The cold snap was being felt as far south as the US states of Virginia and Ohio where severe cold warnings pointed to risks of hypothermia and frostbite, as well as carbon monoxide poisoning from poorly ventilated heating sources....

Cold front moving in, public domain

China says major pollutant levels dropping, but hard task ahead

Reuters: China's environment minister said on Thursday that emissions of four major pollutants dropped last year and should fall by a similar level this year, but admitted the country faced a tough task in trying to end chronic air pollution.

This winter's pollution, especially in northern China, has been so severe that even usually pliant state media has criticized government inaction, partly because it can't be hidden from the public unlike other sensitive subjects such as high-level corruption.

But emissions of sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, chemical oxygen and ammonia nitrogen all recorded on-year falls of two percent in 2012, and were expected to drop by the same degree in 2013, or even faster, state media cited Zhou Shengxian as saying.

"To cope with an air quality crisis, contingency measures will be adopted, such as suspending or limiting the production of certain vehicles and limiting emissions and car usage," the official Xinhua news agency cited him as saying.

"The ministry will also ban the operation of vehicles registered before 2005 under exhaust emissions requirements ... and efforts will be made to improve the quality of gasoline and diesel."...

Smog in Beijing, shot by Sejma Prodanovic, Wikimedia Commons via Flickr, under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license

'Climate change in Pakistan turning extreme'

Suhail Yusuf in Data presented at a seminar on climate change in Pakistan highlighted trends where this South Asian country, which stretches from high, snow-capped mountains to a deltaic coast, could be in for a sharp rise in average temperatures and extremely erratic weather.

The seminar, held last month (29 December), analysed data in a new report produced by top non-government organisations, LEAD-Pakistan and the World Wide Fund for Nature-Pakistan, with funding from the European Union.

Data gleaned from 56 meteorological stations showed heat waves increasing from 1980 to 2009, a period marked by glacier retreats, steadily rising average temperature in the Indus delta and changes in temperature behaviour in summer and winter.

The report, titled Climate Change in Pakistan, forecast low agricultural productivity from lack of water for irrigation and erratic rainfall. Conditions in the fertile Indus delta, already facing saline water intrusion and coastal erosion, are expected to deteriorate further.

Ghulam Rasul, chief meteorologist at the Pakistan Meteorological Department and author of the report, told SciDev.Net that although Pakistan's contribution to global greenhouse gas emissions is low, it is among countries highly vulnerable to climate change....

Photo of a Pakistani village by Hi781, Wikimedia Commons, public domain

Davao City in the Philippines is pilot for UN climate adaptation

Antonio L. Colina IV in the Sun Star (Philippines): Davao City is among four cities in the Philippines chosen by the United Nations Human Settlement Program (UN-Habitat) as a pilot area for a study on climate change adaptations.

Roberto Alabado III, City Planning and Development Office (CPDO) acting chief, speaking in Wednesday's Club 888 Forum at Marco Polo Hotel Davao, said the UN-Habitat cited Davao City as being receptive to the projects of UN and its being active in developing a disaster risk reduction program. Other cities shortlisted in the program are Butuan City, Iloilo City and Cagayan de Oro City.

The UN-Habitat will provide the technical assistance on how the local officials will go about with the implementations of plans and projects related to climate change, considering the development of each city. "... The World Food Programme will be the one to finance the study....," he said.

The study will most likely assess each pioneering city's adaptation capacity and exposure and sensitivity to climate change in order to assess its vulnerability to climate change. He added that a technical working group from UN-Habitat in Manila came to visit Davao City on January 7 to 10 for a four-day workshop on vulnerability, assessment, and adaptability on climate change with officials from the local government of Butuan City....

A village near Magsaysay Park in Davao City, shot by Pascal De Backer, Wikimedia Commons, under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license

South African crocodiles 'in mass escape' during floods

The BBC reports on a flood risk that nobody ever thought of: About 15,000 crocodiles have reportedly escaped from a farm in South Africa's far north amid heavy rains and flooding. The owner was forced to open the crocodile farm's gates on Sunday to prevent a storm surge, the local Beeld newspaper says.

Many of the crocodiles have been recaptured, but more than half are still on the loose, it says. The floods have killed at least 10 people in Limpopo province. The crocodiles escaped from the Rakwena Crocodile Farm, a tourist site about 15km (nine miles) from the small town of Pontdrif, which borders Botswana.

Zane Langman, the son-in-law of the farm's owner, told the newspaper that many of the crocodiles had escaped into dense bush and the Limpopo River, the second biggest in South Africa. "There used to be only a few crocodiles in the Limpopo River. Now there are a lot. We go to catch them as soon as farmers call us to inform us about crocodiles," said Mr Langman....

Crocodiles in South Africa, shot by Dewet, Wikimedia Commons, under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Smaller targets -- a Carbon Based original

    Mark Twain once said (in Pudd'nhead Wilson), "Put all your eggs in one basket and -- WATCH THAT BASKET." Unfortunately for us, we've put a great many eggs in one basket -- properties near the water. 

    Almost half the United States population lives within 50 miles of the sea  or in flood plains, and these growing settlements are regulated haphazardly, if at all. Perverse incentives for coastal and flood-plain property development abound, such as pro-growth policies, insurance availability and lavish reconstruction funds. 

    We would face growing disaster losses even if climate change didn't exist, and the demographic migration to the water just makes climate change impacts exponentially worse.

    Marcia McNutt, who recently announced her resignation as director of the US Geological Survey, told a scientific gathering one instance of what "worse" means. She reported that Superstorm Sandy had scoured away many dunes, leaving towns and cities dangerously bereft of natural defenses against future storms. " Sandy was a threshold for the northeast and we have already crossed it," McNutt told the National Council for Science and the Environment conference in Washington. "For the next storm, not even a super storm, even a run-of-the-mill nor'easter, the amount of breaches and the amount of coastal flooding will be widespread," she said.

    McNutt vocally doubted the possibilities for rebuilding coastal defenses, given the obsession with austerity that grips Washington.  Nobody is willing to invest in public works these days, whether restoring natural defenses such as dunes, or hardening the shoreline through sea walls and other manufactured barriers.

    But even if the funds for such a building program existed, would beefing up shore defenses make sense?  This is not the only response.  

    Charles Perrow points the way in his 2007 book, The Next Catastrophe: Reducing our Vulnerabilities to Natural, Industrial and Terrorist Disasters (published by Princeton).  He doesn't dispute the need to protect our assets from all kinds of threats and to cope with the aftermath of storms, quakes and terror attacks. We must do both. But he stresses a seldom-used alternative -- reducing the size of the target. 

    The target has been growing for a long time. The major reason Hurricane Sandy caused so much damage resulted from decades of unregulated (or barely regulated) development, from allowing unchecked building to continue in known vulnerable areas.  Today's toxic combination of home rule and easily influenced officials makes it hard for governments to resist the commercial forces behind development.  We are stuck in an endless loop of inundation and rebuilding.

    One of Perrow's themes is that proper governance can break this loop, reduce the size of the target and dramatically improve resilience.  We could ease into sane policies through a variety of small steps, such as zoning changes for vulnerable spots. 

    Some of these steps are commercial, such as more astutely designed insurance.  State or local governments could declare that once a property is flooded, it's no longer insurable without significant modifications, such as being rebuilt on stilts.  Some insurers might squawk, but on the whole property insurers are very aware of the risk and would accept some consistently enforced regulations to help change behavior.

    With nudges from local governments, banks could be persuaded to tighten the loan requirements for vulnerable properties, mandating construction to a higher and more flood-proof standard. They could even encourage such innovations as floating houses that are designed to raise and lower with the water level.

    Governments can also pursue buyouts for owners whose property is damaged. Many homeowners have sunk considerable funds into their vulnerable houses, and the chance of being made even partly whole may persuade some to allow their property to be condemned.  Most of them bought these parcels years before any talk of climate change and sea level rise were in the air.  Make them generous buy-outs. Part of good governance is to start thinking now about who should pay for coastal retreat, and how.

    Of course, it would be hard to imagine a more unpopular policy. Everybody loves to live near the water.  I would, too.  At every turn, coastal dwellers will fight a retreat from the coast.    But inland taxpayers should have a say in how to use recovery funds -- and many of us are dubious about paying for a rebuild of the same weak house on the same wet site.

    To shrink the target, governments must resist developers.  Maybe the federal government needs to step in, if only to represent taxpayers who object to money being spent foolishly.

    If we remove massive property concentrations from the coast, then coastal erosion is not much more than an inconvenience, certainly not a billion-dollar disaster.   From higher ground, we could take a much more relaxed approach to huge storms and floods.

    The alternative is the anguish of watching the basket with all our eggs sink under the waves.

South-facing Long Beach on Oak Island, NC, September 17, 1999 -- Hurricane Floyd brought a devastating 15 feet of storm surge that damaged or destroyed hundreds of houses along this community's ocean front, and flattened its frontal sand dunes. Here, elevation worked to save the house but pilings and framing from a local municiple pier ripped through the first floor and some of pilings of Mark (R) and Angela (L) Godfrey's beach home. Photo by DAVE GATLEY/ FEMA News Photo