Sunday, June 30, 2013

Insurance firms 'adapting' to climate change

Steve Scauzillo in the Daily Democrat (California): Rather than adjust to the extreme effects of climate change, many insurance companies are simply not insuring properties in low-lying coastal zones due to the threat of flooding and are canceling policies of homeowners living near hillsides that may catch fire, said insurance and government experts Friday.

California Insurance Commissioner Dave Jones, speaking at a forum examining insurance and climate change at the Pasadena Central Library's Wright Auditorium, urged insurance companies not to cancel policies but instead to plan for the inevitable changes to the planet and increasing damage claims as a result of climate change. "This is the biggest and most fundamental problem we face as a people," Jones told an audience of about 100 people. "And there is room for the insurance industry to take a leadership role as well."

Out of 184 survey responses from insurance companies sent to the commissioner's office, only 23 had a comprehensive climate change strategy. "That is way too low," he said. At stake is how insurance companies respond to huge payouts from increasingly frequent and more extreme weather events such as hurricanes, floods, tornadoes and wildfires, Jones said.

For example, when climatologist models predict more frequent and intense wildfires in Southern California due to longer periods of drought, drier conditions and extended fire seasons, some insurance companies are "pulling back" because they can't manage the risk. "That is a real problem. If a homeowner cannot get insurance, that creates real problems and risks for them," Jones said...

The 2009 Station Fire near Pasadena, shot by Ron Reiring, Wikimedia Commons, under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license

Calgary floods spotlight cities' costly failure to plan for climate change

Amber Hildebrandt in CBC News (Canada): Many Canadian cities and towns are ill-prepared for the rising frequency of catastrophic weather events like the southern Alberta floods, and it’s a problem that taxpayers will ultimately end up paying for, climate change experts say. "There are other disasters waiting to happen in other parts of Canada, but Calgary is a good poster child for inaction on warnings they received not too long ago," said James P. Bruce, former Environment Canada assistant deputy minister.

Many have heaped praise on southern Alberta's emergency response after extremely heavy rain pummelled communities, with several months’ worth of rain falling in the span of hours for some areas. "From a disaster response point of view, the Calgary mayor did a fantastic job in running the whole show," said Kaz Higuchi, a York University professor in environmental studies and former Environment Canada scientist.

But a community's ability to react during a disaster is one thing. Minimizing the impact of a flood is another. Now, the province faces a potentially decade-long cleanup effort that could cost $5 billion by BMO Nesbitt Burns estimates.

Disaster risk management experts say the Alberta situation should serve as a wake-up call to municipalities across the country of the need to spend money and time mitigating the risks before disaster strikes, especially as climate change is predicted to bring bigger and more frequent severe weather events....

Flooded Calgary on June 25, 2013. Shot by Ryan L. C. Quan, Wikimedia Commons, under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license

Saturday, June 29, 2013

Destructive development in Uttarakhand

Praful Bidwal in the News (Pakistan): It will take years to roll back the ecological, social, economic and psychological damage including over 1,000 deaths – wrought by the terrible floods in Uttarakhand, India’s north Himalayan state. The deeper causes of this epic tragedy were man-made, not natural. They include official policies and governance failures: aggressive promotion and runaway growth of tourism; unchecked, unplanned development of roads, hotels, shops, mines and multi-storeyed housing in ecologically fragile areas; and above all, the planned development of scores of environmentally destructive hydroelectricity dams.

These ensured that cloudbursts and heavy rainfall, which routinely occur in Uttarakhand, turned into a catastrophe. My experience as a member of the Ministry of Environment & Forests (MoEF) Expert Appraisal Committee on River Valley Projects confirms the special contribution of dams.

...An early warning system, effective evacuation plans, and a responsive disaster management system would have prevented a massive loss of precious life. But they weren’t in place – another governance failure. Inexpensive radar-based cloudburst-forecasting would have given a three-hour warning. But it wasn’t installed because of inter-agency squabbles. The meteorological department has no reliable record of rainfall at different locations. According to reports, Kedarnath didn’t even have a rain gauge!

...The government has zealously promoted tourism to a point when tourist arrivals reached 25 million, almost two-and-a-half times Uttarakhand’s entire population. Roads, hotels, houses, shops and restaurants were recklessly built upon forest lands, caving ridges, steep slopes, and worst of all, the flood plains of rivers. Encroachment of these ‘natural boundaries’ of rivers is fraught with grave danger. Yet, important government buildings, including a university, a radio station, a jail and the headquarters of a paramilitary force, were built on them.

However, the worst culprits are hydroelectric dams, which have spread like a rash on Rivers Alaknanda, Mandakini and Bhagirathi and their tributaries. Seventy dams have already been built, including 23 mega-projects generating 100 MW-plus. ... Many dams are built on the same river so close to one another that they leave no scope for the river’s regeneration.

...Geologically, Uttarakhand is extremely fragile, being part of the world’s youngest mountain range. Much of it lies in the seismically ‘most active’ Zones IV and V, with high tectonic activity that can suddenly alter the contours of land and the course of rivers. This greatly increases Uttarakhand’s disaster potential. ...

An 1895 photo in the vicinity of Uttarakhand: The dam and the Bhim temple, built by Baz Bahadhur Chand, Raja of Kumaon, in the 17th century at Bhimtal

Clearing up confusion on future of Colorado River flows

Science Daily: The Colorado River provides water for more than 30 million people, including those in the fast-growing cities of Las Vegas, Phoenix and Los Angeles. Increasing demand for that water combined with reduced flow and the looming threat of climate change have prompted concern about how to manage the basin's water in coming decades.

In the past five years, scientific studies estimated declines of future flows ranging from 6 percent to 45 percent by 2050. A paper by University of Washington researchers and co-authors at eight institutions across the West aims to explain this wide range, and provide policymakers and the public with a framework for comparison. The study is published this week in the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society. "The different estimates have led to a lot of frustration," said lead author Julie Vano, who recently earned a UW doctorate in civil and environmental engineering. "This paper puts all the studies in a single framework and identifies how they are connected."

Besides analyzing the uncertainty, the authors establish what is known about the river's future. Warmer temperatures will lead to more evaporation and thus less flow. Changes to precipitation are less certain, since the headwaters are at the northern edge of a band of projected drying, but climate change will likely decrease the rain and snow that drains into the Colorado basin.

It also turns out that the early 20th century, which is the basis for water allocation in the basin, was a period of unusually high flow. The tree ring record suggests that the Colorado has experienced severe droughts in the past and will do so again, even without any human-caused climate change. "The Colorado River is kind of ground zero for drying in the southwestern U.S.," said co-author Dennis Lettenmaier, a UW professor of civil and environmental engineering. "We hope this paper sheds some light on how to interpret results from the new generation of climate models, and why there's an expectation that there will be a range of values, even when analyzing output from the same models."...

The bend downstream from the Glen Canyon Dam in Page, Arizona. Shot by Christian Mehlführer, Chmehl, Wikimedia Commons, under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.5 Generic license

Humans play role in Australia’s “angry” hot summer

University of Melbourne Newsroom: Human influences through global warming are likely to have played a role in Australia's recent “angry” hot summer, the hottest in Australia’s observational record, new research has found.  The research led by the University of Melbourne, has shown that global warming increased the chances of Australians experiencing record hot summers such as the summer of 2013, by more than five times.

Lead author, Dr Sophie Lewis from the University of Melbourne and the ARC Centre of Excellence for Climate Systems Science said the study showed it was possible to say with more than 90 per cent confidence, that human influences on the atmosphere dramatically increased the likelihood of the extreme summer of 2013. “Our research has shown that due to greenhouse gas emissions, these types of extreme summers will become even more frequent and more severe in the future,” she said.

The study Anthropogenic contributions to Australia’s record summer temperatures of 2013 has been accepted for publication in Geophysical Research Letters, a journal of the American Geophysical Union. The study used climate observations and more than 90 climate model simulations of summer temperatures in Australia over the past 100 years.

Professor David Karoly, a co-author on the paper said the observations, coupled with a suite of climate model runs comparing human and natural influences in parallel experiments, indicated we have experienced a very unusual summer at a time when it was not expected. “This extreme summer is not only remarkable for its record-breaking nature but also because it occurred at a time of weak La Niña to neutral conditions, which generally produce cooler summers,” he said. “Importantly, our research shows the natural variability of El Niño Southern Oscillation is unlikely to explain the recent record temperatures.”...

A public clock in Melbourne showing 45°C on 7 February 2009, the day that Melbourne reached its highest ever recorded temperature of 46.4 °C (115.5 °F). Shot by Melburnian, Wikimedia Commons, under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported license

Researchers discover global warming may affect microbe survival

Newswise via Arizona State University: Arizona State University researchers have discovered for the first time that temperature determines where key soil microbes can thrive — microbes that are critical to forming topsoil crusts in arid lands. And of concern, the scientists predict that in as little as 50 years, global warming may push some of these microbes out of their present stronghold in colder U.S. deserts, with unknown consequences to soil fertility and erosion. The findings are featured as the cover story of the June 28 edition of the journal Science.

An international research team led by Ferran Garcia-Pichel, microbiologist and professor with ASU’s School of Life Sciences, conducted continental-scale surveys of the microbial communities that live in soil crusts. The scientists collected crust samples from Oregon to New Mexico, and Utah to California and studied them by sequencing their microbial DNA.

While there are thousands of microbe species in just one pinch of crust, two cyanobacteria —bacteria capable of photosynthesis — were found to be the most common. Without cyanobacteria, the other microbes in the crust could not exist, as every other species depends on them for food and energy. “We wanted to know which microbes are where in the crust and whether they displayed geographic distribution patterns at the continental scale,” said Garcia-Pichel, also dean of natural sciences in ASU’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. “To our surprise, where we thought a single cyanobacterium would dominate, we found that two had neatly split the territory between themselves. We used to think that one, called Microcoleus vaginatus, was the most important and dominant, but now we know that Microcoleus steenstrupii, the other one, is just as important, particularly in warmer climates,” he added.

While the two look very much alike, M. vaginatus and M. steenstrupii are not even closely related. They have evolved to appear alike because their shape and behavior help them stabilize soil and form soil crusts. Crusts are crucial to the ecological health of arid lands, as they protect the soil from erosion and contribute to land fertility by fixing carbon and nitrogen into the soil and by extracting other nutrients from trapped dust.

After considering data about soil types and chemistry, rainfall, climate and temperature, researchers used a mathematical model that showed temperature best explained the geographic separation of the two microbes. While both are found throughout the studied area, M. vaginatus dominate the crusts in cooler deserts and M. steenstrupii are more prevalent in the southern deserts. “But this was just a correlation,” Garcia-Pichel explained. “To prove the role temperature plays, we tested cultivated forms of the microbes and confirmed that it does indeed make a difference — temperature is what keeps them apart. The point now is that temperature is no longer stable because of global warming.”...

Microcoleus vaginatum and other cyanobacteria, public domain

Experts push ethical case for climate adaptation policies

David Dickson in The strong ethical case for governments and individuals to help communities adapt to the threats of climate change — on top of purely practical or political factors — is emphasised in a report by the top UN committee responsible for monitoring science ethics.

Climate adaptation policies need to acknowledge and express ethical principles already enshrined in international agreements, according to the report approved yesterday (29 May) by the World Commission on the Ethics of Scientific Knowledge and Technology (COMEST) at a meeting in Bratislava, Slovakia.

Such principles include the need to avoid causing unnecessary harm, to treat all individuals fairly and to provide equitable access to a decent standard of living, says the commission, which operates under the auspices of UNESCO (the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization).

The principles also include the need to recognise the right to access and benefit from scientific information, which could strengthen poorer developing countries' demands for access to climate data obtained by richer nations using complex or expensive monitoring equipment.

"The report sets out what anyone who is involved in policymaking on climate change adaptation should be responsible for," said Rainier Ibana, chair of the philosophy department of the Ateneo de Manila University in the Philippines, as well as of the COMEST working group on environmental ethics, which produced the report....

A fountain in the center of Quito, shot by David Adam Kess, Wikimedia Commons, under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license

Friday, June 28, 2013

Goodbye, Miami

Jeff Goodell in Rolling Stone: ...Even more than Silicon Valley, Miami embodies the central technological myth of our time – that nature can not only be tamed but made irrelevant. Miami was a mosquito-and-crocodile-filled swampland for thousands of years, virtually uninhabited until the late 1800s. Then developers arrived, canals were dug, swamps were drained, and a city emerged that was unlike any other place on the planet, an edge-of-the-world, air-conditioned dreamland of sunshine and beaches and drugs and money; Jan Nijman, the former director of the Urban Studies Program at the University of Miami, called 20th-century Miami "a citadel of fantastical consumption." Floods would come and go and hurricanes might blow through, but the city would survive, if only because no one could imagine a force more powerful than human ingenuity. That defiance of nature – the sense that the rules don't apply here – gave the city its great energy. But it is also what will cause its demise.

You would never know it from looking at Miami today. Rivers of money are flowing in from Latin America, Europe and beyond, new upscale shopping malls are opening, and the skyline is crowded with construction cranes. But the unavoidable truth is that sea levels are rising and Miami is on its way to becoming an American Atlantis. It may be another century before the city is completely underwater (though some more-pessimistic­ scientists predict it could be much sooner), but life in the vibrant metropolis of 5.5 million people will begin to dissolve much quicker, most likely within a few decades. The rising waters will destroy Miami slowly, by seeping into wiring, roads, building foundations and drinking-water supplies – and quickly, by increasing the destructive power of hurricanes. "Miami, as we know it today, is doomed," says Harold Wanless, the chairman of the department of geological sciences at the University of Miami. "It's not a question of if. It's a question of when."...

FEMA photo of a 2000 flood in the Miami-Dade area

UK Water Bill strikes insurance compromise to protect flood-prone properties

Conor McGlone in The [UK] Government has agreed a deal with the insurance industry that will cap flood insurance premiums, linking them to council tax bands and ensuring people know the maximum they will have to pay.

After negotiations with the Association of British Insurers (ABI), the Government brokered a deal which replaces the current Statement of Principles that runs out at the end of July.

To fund this, a new industry-backed levy will enable insurance companies to cover those at most risk of flooding. All UK household insurers will have to pay into this pool, creating a fund that can be used to pay claims for people in high-risk homes.

Environment Secretary Owen Paterson said: "Flooding is terrible for anyone affected by it. We have worked extremely hard with the industry to reach an agreement on the future of flood insurance.

"There are still areas to work through but this announcement means that people no longer need to live in fear of being uninsurable and that those at most risk can get protection, now and in the future."...

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

Food security weakening "on a scale we haven't seen"

Laurie Goering at the Thomson Reuters Foundation: Population growth, rising affluence, water shortages and climate change are combining to create unprecedented pressure on the world’s food supply - pressure that is likely to play out both as slow rises in hunger and as famines linked to extreme weather events, a leading agriculture expert says.

“We have yet to grasp what climate change means in terms of food security,” says Lester Brown, an environment and agriculture specialist and president of the U.S.-based Earth Policy Institute. “We’re looking at changes on a scale we haven’t seen yet.”

In India, for instance, to keep grain harvests growing, groundwater is being pumped for irrigation at a rate much faster than it is being naturally replaced. In north Gujarat, water tables are falling by 20 feet (6.7 meters) a year, Brown said. At the same time, India’s monsoon rains - vital for agriculture - show signs of shifting, this year coming at least two weeks earlier than expected and causing widespread deaths in the Himalaya region of India and Nepal.

As India’s population continues to grow by 18 million people a year, its wealthy turn to a richer diet, its poorest struggle to get enough calories each day, and its farmers battle more extreme weather, the country’s risk of food shortages is growing, Brown said in an interview in London.

“I think water is going to be the constraint,” he said. Countries like Syria, Saudi Arabia, Yemen and Iraq have already seen their water availability - and grain production - peak and begin to decline. Now “the question is what happens when that occurs in a big country,” such as India, said Brown, who last year published “Full Planet, Empty Plates,” a book on “the new geopolitics of food scarcity.”...

Biofuel boom could accelerate warming in tropics

Wagdy Sawahel in The large-scale conversion of land for biofuel farming could make some tropical regions even warmer, according to a study. Researchers from the US-based Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), assessed the impact on the climate of increased biofuel production by modelling two scenarios: one where trees are chopped down to plant biofuel crops and one where forests are maintained and fertilisers and irrigation are used to intensify the production of biofuel crops.

They found that both scenarios have a negligible impact on global warming. For example, in the first scenario the additional cropland reflects more sunlight, counterbalancing the warming associated with fewer trees and higher greenhouse gas concentrations. Also, in both scenarios, increasing the proportion of biofuels used would reduce warming by using fewer fossil fuel-based energy sources. But their findings also point to significant regional differences.

Willow Hallgren, a researcher at MIT's Center for Global Change Science, tells SciDev.Net that the real significance of the study is that it reveals that energy policies promoting large-scale biofuel plantations as a way of cutting carbon emissions will exacerbate existing warming trends in the tropics. Hallgren says that the study differs from others looking at the climate impacts of biofuels because it incorporates "numerous 'real world' determinants of where and how much biofuel crops are grown".

The areas where this regional warming would occur are located in the Amazon basin and in central and western Africa, she says.  The policy in which the biofuel expansion is embedded determines how much the local climate will warm, says Hallgren. "If you protect tropical forests, you greatly lessen this regional warming, which would likely have significant ecological, economic and social impact on people living in those regions," she says...

African grasslands, plus baobab, shot by Harvey Barrison, Wikimedia Commons via Flickr, under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license

Dutch government introduces nitrogen-reduction bill for nature areas

Seed Daily via UPI: The Dutch government this week is pushing Parliament to pass a law that would reduce nitrogen leaching from farms and industrial sites into dozens of designated nature zones.

Dutch Economic Affairs Secretary Sharon Dijksma announced Monday that after years of debate on the issue of reducing nitrogen from farm waste runoff into the European Union-designated "Natura 2000" network of nature protection areas, a bill to do so has been submitted to lawmakers.

In a statement, Dijksma touted the government's Programmatic Approach to Nitrogen bill, which was first proposed in 2009 and has gone through several failed attempts and a prolonged period of negotiations with stakeholders such as farmers' organizations, provincial governments, local water boards, and industrial and transportation groups.

"In the Netherlands, more than 130 Natura 2000 sites have high loads of nitrogen," she said. "This is due to economic activities such as agriculture, transport and industry. This bill, the Programmatic approach to Nitrogen, brings clarity in the rules so that nature and the economy can be balanced for their mutual benefit."...

Sunset in a Dutch field, shot by FotoDutch, Wikimedia Commons, under the Creative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Central Texas still in a severe drought

Texas WATR News: As the region heads into what is forecast to be a hot, dry summer, the Lower Colorado River Authority is reminding residents that Central Texas is still in the grasp of a severe drought and that everyone needs to do their part to conserve and use water wisely.

Because of the extended period of dry weather, the amount of water flowing into lakes Travis and Buchanan, called inflows, has been reduced to record-low levels for several years.

The lakes serve as reservoirs for more than a million Central Texans and businesses and industries throughout the lower Colorado River basin. The combined storage of both stands at 38 percent full, and weather forecasts hold little hope of significant relief in the near future.

“We’re not going to run out of water, but everyone needs to understand that this is a serious situation,” LCRA General Manager Becky Motal said. “It’s going to take a significant amount of rain over an extended period of time to refill our lakes. We don’t know when that will happen, so it’s critical that everyone follow the watering restrictions put in place by their local water providers and conserve water wherever and whenever they can.”...

Lake Travis in central Texas, during the 2011 drought, shot by Erik A. Ellison, Wikimedia Commons,  under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license

Bangladesh polders under threat

IRIN: Changing weather patterns, poor maintenance and lack of investment are taking their toll on Bangladesh’s extensive polder system, viewed by many as a first line of defence for coastal communities against tidal surges, experts say.

“Many of the polders are in various states of disrepair,” Wahida Ahmed, former disaster risk reduction manager for ActionAid, told IRIN, citing extensive damage by cyclones Sidr (2007) and Aila (2009). “This puts millions of coastal residents at risk.”

Her comments come one month after Cyclone Mahasen struck southern Bangladesh, killing 17 people and resulting in the evacuation of more than one million, the government’s Ministry of Disaster and Relief reported.

Cyclones strike Bangladesh’s coastal regions almost every year, in early summer (April- May) or in the late rainy season (October-November), while a severe cyclone (wind speeds of 90-119km per hour) strikes every three years on average.

In the 1960s, 123 polders (low-lying tracts of land enclosed by earthen embankments), including 49 sea-facing polders, were constructed to protect low-lying coastal areas from tidal floods and salinity intrusion in southern Bangladesh. Instrumental in the region’s agriculture development, they have also played a key role in mitigating the loss of life and damage during tidal surges.  “Polders play a crucial role in avoiding waterlogging from tidal surges. The recent Cyclone Mahasen was low in intensity, but the damage could have been significant from the resultant tidal surges and flooding. But the polder networks allowed the water to run off, avoiding long-term flooding,” said Delwar Hossain, executive engineer of the Bangladesh Water and Development Board which maintains an extensive database of coastal polders, including their length, location, construction year and cost....

A mugger crocodile in Bangladesh, shot by Dhruvaraj S, Wikimedia Commons via Flickr, under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license

Discontent rises with Singapore haze

Kirsten Han in the Diplomat: Although a bustling, densely populated city-state, Singapore has nonetheless managed to maintain a reputation for having relatively clean air. Once a year, though, the island is engulfed in smog and haze, a result of forest fires caused by slash-and-burn tactics employed by plantations in Indonesia. For more than a decade now Singaporeans have endured the consequences of unethical plantations choosing the easy way out in clearing their land. Still, usually people just cough and scratch their noses, grumble a little and continue on their way.

Not this year, though, as the Pollutant Standards Index (PSI) climbs higher than ever before. At one point it hit 401, classified by the National Environment Agency (NEA) as “very hazardous”. It’s all anyone can talk about. The Twitter hashtag “#SGHaze” is constantly trending in Singapore, and social media feeds are clogged with screencaps, comments and postings from those obsessively monitoring the PSI figures. The severity of this year’s haze problem has brought to the surface a plethora of worries and criticism of the government.

With the smog hitting record levels, people have been advised not to remain outdoors for long periods of time. Several companies and employers have asked their employees to work from home, or stop working completely. McDonald’s temporarily ceased its delivery service, citing health concerns for its workers. Despite this, the government has yet to issue an official “stop work” order, and many construction workers – most of them low-paid migrant workers from Bangladesh, India or China – are still toiling away in hazardous conditions.

Transient Workers Count Too (TWC2), an NGO focused on migrant workers’ rights, wrote in a statement published on that website that it “is gravely concerned that current bad haze conditions will affect the health of workers in many trades, e.g. construction, marine, sanitation, landscaping.”...

Singapore haze at night, shot by mqnr, Wikimedia Commons via Flickr, under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license

Study reveals potent carbon-storage potential of manmade wetlands

Terra Daily via SPX: After being drained by the millions of acres to make way for agriculture, wetlands are staging a small comeback these days on farms. Some farmers restore or construct wetlands alongside their fields to trap nitrogen and phosphorus runoff, and research shows these systems can also retain pesticides, antibiotics, and other agricultural pollutants.

Important as these storage functions of wetlands are, however, another critical one is being overlooked, says Bill Mitsch, director of the Everglades Wetland Research Park at Florida Gulf Coast University and an emeritus professor at Ohio State University: Wetlands also excel at pulling carbon dioxide out of the air and holding it long-term in soil.

Writing in the July-August issue of the Journal of Environmental Quality, Mitsch and co-author Blanca Bernal report that two 15-year-old constructed marshes in Ohio accumulated soil carbon at an average annual rate of 2150 pounds per acre-or just over one ton of carbon per acre per year.

The rate was 70% faster than a natural, "control" wetland in the area and 26% faster than the two were adding soil carbon five years ago. And by year 15, each wetland had a soil carbon pool of more than 30,000 pounds per acre, an amount equaling or exceeding the carbon stored by forests and farmlands....

Point Pelee marsh in Ontario, shot by Andrea, Wikimedia Commons via Flickr,  under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license

Egypt, Ethiopia square off over new Nile River dam

David Arnold in via Voice of America: Egypt and Ethiopia are doing their best to lower tensions after weeks of increasingly heated rhetoric over a giant Ethiopian dam project that Cairo believes will reduce the flow of water in the Nile River. The foreign ministers of the two countries met at the beginning of the week in Addis Ababa and agreed to hold further talks and review the recommendations from a panel of experts on what's being called the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, or GERD.

Construction on the dam started two years ago on Ethiopia's Abbai, or Blue Nile, river, whose basin accounts for about 75 percent of the water flowing into the lower Nile River. The project is about 20 percent complete and Egyptian officials worry that when it's finished in 2017, it will severely reduce the flow of water through the lower Nile channel and turn the arable parts of their country back into a desert.

A day after Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi visited Addis Ababa earlier this month, Ethiopia diverted the Abbai River's flow temporarily to carry out the next stage of dam construction. Even though the water diversion was a brief, news of the interruption touched off a furor in Cairo. Morsi said Egypt would not tolerate losing "one drop" of Nile water and made thinly veiled threats of military action by saying "all options are open."

The Ethiopians, apparently, were not intimidated. "I don't think they will take that option unless they go mad," said Ethiopia's president, Haile Mariam Desalegn. The foreign ministry in Addis Ababa said construction on the dam would not stop "for a second."...

Blue Nile falls in Ethiopia, shot by CT Snow, Wikimedia Commons via Flickr, under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Is Arctic permafrost the "sleeping giant" of climate change? It's a sight Miller won't soon forget. Flying low and slow above the pristine terrain of Alaska's North Slope research scientist Charles Miller of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory surveys the white expanse of tundra and permafrost below. On the horizon, a long, dark line appears. His plane draws nearer, and the mysterious object reveals itself to be a massive herd of migrating caribou, stretching for miles.

"Seeing those caribou marching single-file across the tundra puts what we're doing here in the Arctic into perspective," says Miller, who is on five-year mission named “CARVE” to study how climate change is affecting the Arctic's carbon cycle. CARVE is short for the “Carbon in Arctic Reservoirs Vulnerability Experiment.”  Now in its third year, the airborne campaign is testing the hypothesis that Arctic carbon reservoirs are vulnerable to warming, while delivering the first source-maps of greenhouse gases carbon dioxide and methane.

About two dozen scientists from 12 institutions are participating. "The Arctic is critical to understanding global climate," says Miller. "Climate change is already happening in the Arctic, faster than its ecosystems can adapt. Looking at the Arctic is like looking at the canary in the coal mine for the entire Earth system." Over hundreds of millennia, Arctic permafrost soils have accumulated vast stores of organic carbon - an estimated 1,400 to 1,850 billion metric tons of it.  That's about half of all the estimated organic carbon stored in Earth's soils.

In comparison, about 350 billion metric tons of carbon have been emitted from all fossil-fuel combustion and human activities since 1850. Most of the Arctic’s sequestered carbon is located in thaw-vulnerable topsoils within 3 meters of the surface. But, as scientists are learning, permafrost - and its stored carbon - may not be as permanent as its name implies. And that has them concerned. "Permafrost soils are warming even faster than Arctic air temperatures - as much as 1.5 to 2.5 degrees Celsius in just the past 30 years," says Miller. "As heat from Earth's surface penetrates into permafrost, it threatens to mobilize these organic carbon reservoirs and release them into the atmosphere as carbon dioxide and methane, upsetting the Arctic's carbon balance and greatly exacerbating global warming."...

From August 1973: Patterned Ground Shows Ice Polygons (Lattice Outlines) and Typical Summer Arctic Tundra. Patterned Ground, Ice Polygons, and Permafrost Are Found Along the Entire Route of the Line, Although They Are Relatively Rare South of the Yukon River. Alaska (US state). Environmental Protection Agency, Project DOCUMERICA.

Obama's climate strategy falls short: experts

Terra Daily via AFP: Environmental groups said Tuesday that US President Barack Obama's plan to combat climate change is long overdue but not enough to reverse a global problem that is outpacing the solutions.

Some experts warned it will be an uphill battle to implement the policies Obama announced, using his executive powers since US lawmakers are unable to come to agreement on how to preserve the economy while cutting pollution.

A key obstacle will be to finalize standards on power plants before Obama leaves office in three years, and the missing link is a carbon tax to punish polluters and reward greener power endeavors, some experts said.

The Center for Biological Diversity described Obama's plan as "modest" and warned it falls short by failing to set a nationwide pollution cap for carbon dioxide at no greater than 350 parts per million.

"We're happy to see the president finally addressing climate change but the plain truth is that what he's proposing isn't big enough, and doesn't move fast enough, to match the terrifying magnitude of the climate crisis," said senior counsel Bill Snape....

Unstable building, shot by Nevit Dilmen, Wikimedia Commons, under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license

Sea level rise, more Category 5 storms threaten Philippines

Jojo Malig in ABS-CBN News: Which cities and coastal areas in the Philippines will be under water if the sea level rises by 2- and-a-half feet before the turn of the next century? A temperature rise of just 2 degrees Celsius by 2040 will mean an average of 75 centimeters sea level rise in the Philippines and the rest of Southeast Asia by 2080-2100, according to a June 2013 report for the World Bank by the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research and Climate Analytics.

The study, "Turn Down The Heat," also warned that the Philippines will experience fewer but more intense storms reaching Category 5 such as supertyphoon Pablo that struck Mindanao last year. It also said that global warming will cause rural displacements because of reduced productivity of farms and the death of coral reefs that serve as feeding and spawning grounds for many fish species.

This, in turn, will result in more illegal settlers flocking to cities and more people becoming exposed to floods, heat waves, and diseases. The study cited Metro Manila, a coastal metropolis with poor households found in low-lying areas that are vulnerable to tidal and storm surges.

"Storm surges are projected to affect about 14 percent of the total population and 42 percent of coastal populations. Informal settlements, which account for 45 percent of the Philippines’ urban population, are particularly vulnerable to floods due to less secure infrastructure, reduced access to clean water, and lack of health insurance," the bank said Tuesday in a statement....

Water scarcity in Singapore pushes 'toilet to tap' concept

Deutsche Welle: Singapore is one of Asia’s most powerful economies, but it lacks a reliable water supply. Wastewater-reuse plants could change that by soon recycling enough sewage to meet 50 percent of the nation’s water needs. Singapore is a city of superlatives. The banking Mecca, Asia’s answer to Geneva and Zurich, has the world’s highest concentration of millionaires. The affluent city-state has a booming economy with investments pouring in.

...But the prosperity and economic boom are unable to mask one of Singapore’s most pressing problems: it simply does not have enough water to meet its needs. The city-state has to import several millions of liters of fresh water from neighboring Malaysia via pipelines. In fact, the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) has officially classified the island state as “water poor.” Alternatives are urgently needed.

The water Singapore imports from Malaysia makes up around 30 percent of its total supply. With 2.4 meters of precipitation a year – the global average is only 1 meter – rain is another crucial source of blue gold. Another 30 percent come from the island’s 17 reservoirs. But digging further reservoirs is not feasible because space is at a premium in Singapore – the country is the size of the German city of Hamburg...

That led the government to launch a project called “NEWater” back in 2003. It involves recycling wastewater to highly purified water, providing a more cost-efficient and eco-friendly solution. The concept of recycling wastewater into what’s called greywater certainly isn’t new, with long-running initiatives already well underway in Israel, Spain, Scandinavian countries and the US. But with NEWater, Singapore has quickly gained an international reputation for efficient recycling of wastewater. The initiative already supplies around one third of the country’s water demand, and that number is expected to grow to more than half by the year 2060....

Singapore skyline. The floating balls are part of a New Year's celebration. Shot by bryangeek, Wikimedia Commons via Flickr, under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license

Flood risks in Venezuela increased by “new rains” linked to climate change

Humberto Marquez in IPS: “The river is reclaiming its place, the water has risen up to here,” says Ana Polanco, crouching down to hold her hand high above her head in the little tin house she shares with her children in El Hueco, one of the communities on the east side of the Venezuelan capital besieged by the polluted and deceptively calm Guaire River. Stretching a total of 72 kilometres, the Guaire crosses Caracas from west to east in an almost straight line, but as it leaves the city, it begins to snake along a series of hairpin curves. For the past quarter of a century, the flooding of this section of the river has wreaked havoc in neighbouring communities such as La Jóvita, La Línea and El Hueco, which sits at the bottom of a hill carpeted with precarious housing.

Residents and local governments are making preparations to confront the dreaded “new rains”, which cause landslides that block the channels and ravines that would otherwise help to drain the swollen river. Further aggravating the situation are the tons of liquid and solid waste that flow into the river from homes, businesses and industries in this city of almost five million people.

The “new rains” are “associated with climate change: during most of the 20th century, rains fell little by little, slowly increasing and then diminishing, but now they are short-lived and intense,” explained Nicola Veronico, the manager of environmental affairs at the Metropolitan City Hall of Caracas.  “The same amount of rain that used to fall over the course of weeks or a month can now fall in a single morning. It only takes two hours of torrential rain for the Guaire to overflow,” Gabriel D’Andrea, the director of Civil Protection in the populous Caracas municipality of Sucre, told Tierramérica.

...This change, she added, “is not something that is going to happen in the future. It has been happening since the 1970s, and trends indicate that in the decades to come, the temperature will rise, the water supply will decrease, and rain/drought cycles will be altered. The big challenge is to define adaptation strategies and measures.”...

A 1960 flood in Venezuela, public domain

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Obama to address climate change in speech Tuesday

USA Today: Environmentalists who have been prodding President Obama to address climate change get their answer this week.

Obama announced via video this weekend that he will deliver a climate change speech Tuesday, outlining "a national plan to reduce carbon pollution, prepare our country for the impacts of climate change, and lead global efforts to fight it."

Obama is expected to announce a series of executive actions to address global warming. Congressional legislation is considered unlikely, given the fact that Republicans control the U.S. House and have enough to mount filibusters in the Senate.

One possibility: New restrictions on greenhouse gas emissions from existing power plants, new efficiency standards for energy use, and programs to promote development of renewable energy sources on public lands....

Indonesia names Sinar Mas, APRIL, among eight firms behind Singapore haze

Jessica Cheam in Eco-Business: Indonesia has blamed eight companies, including Singapore-based Sinar Mas and Asia Pacific Resources International (APRIL) for the fires raging across its land of Sumatra that has blanketed parts of Malaysia and parts of Singapore in its most severe haze in history.

Senior presidential aide Kuntoro Mangkusubroto was reported by news wires on Friday saying: “The majority of hotspots in Riau (province) are inside APRIL and Sinar Mas concessions,” The environment minister said not all eight companies were Singapore based, but declined to name the rest of them. He added that investigations are still ongoing and he was not able to elaborate further where these companies are from, although Indonesia is expected to name the companies in the next few days.

Indonesian Environment Minister Balthasar Kambuaya met his counterpart from Singapore, Dr Vivian Balakrishnan in Jakarta on Friday, who handed a letter from Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong to the Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono.

Dr Balakrishnan had earlier in the week called on Indonesia to name and shame the companies so that commercial pressure can be applied on them to prevent and address the haze.

Some of the world’s major largest palm oil companies such as Singapore-based Wilmar International and Malaysia-based Sime Darby have denied involvement in the burning, although Wilmar has been reported to say it cannot control local practices of slash-and-burn for agricultural and other purposes...

Singapore haze on June 17, 2013, shot by Brian Jeffery Beggerly, Wikimedia Commons via Flickr,  under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license

A simple explanation for the complex climate variations in the Sahel

Alessandra Giannini in Environmental Research Web: A recent article in Environmental Research Letters (ERL) provides a simple interpretation of how the oceans influence the climate in the Sahel. The analysis makes sense of past droughts and the current trends towards increased rainfall, consistent with near- and long-term model projections.

...Drought came about abruptly in the Sahel in the early 1970s and scientists studying its cause focused on local factors. They postulated that rapid population growth had led to extensive farming and that degradation of marginal land had engendered drought – something that further degraded vegetation cover in the region.

In recent years drought in the Sahel has alternated with flooding and desertification has been replaced by re-greening. An alternative explanation relating the evolution of the Sahelian climate to global rather than local influence has gained ground. This influence is the oceans, the dominant source of moisture for semi-arid regions like the Sahel.

Our article provides a simple interpretation of the influence of the oceans on the Sahel, one that makes sense of past drought and of the current trend towards increased rainfall in near- and long-term projections.

...In the case of the Sahel, the global tropical sea-surface temperature average provides a quantitative estimate of the influence on deep convection, while the local North Atlantic average provides an estimate of the increase in moisture. The two can evolve independently but it is the difference between them that matters when it comes to predicting Sahel rains...

The Bandiagara Cliffs in the Dogon region of Mali, shot by Personnel, Wikimedia Commons, public domain

Rising sea levels put Mekong Delta at risk

Vietnam Net Bridge: This is revealed in a World Bank report titled Turn down the heat: Climate extremes, regional impacts and the case for resilience, which was released globally last week. The report said the rapid rise would mean a loss of about 12 per cent of crop production due to inundation and salinity intrusion. It was projected that rice production could drop by about 2.6 million tonnes per year.

The report said the Mekong Delta and two other Asian river deltas in Asia were particularly at risk because they were less than two metres above sea level. It said that rising sea levels, more intense tropical cyclones and land subsidence caused by human activities, would disrupt the main economic activities of the delta - agriculture, aquaculture, fisheries and tourism.

The Washington-based development bank estimated the cost of adapting shrimp and catfish aquaculture in the Mekong Delta would range from US$130-190 million per year. HCM City was also declared to be among coastal cities in Southeast Asia hardest hit by rising seas and increased storm surges. The report claimed that up to 60 per cent of the built-up area could expect rises of up to one metre.

Ajali Acharya, the World Bank Viet Nam's environment cluster leader, said the report provided scientific evidences on which Viet Nam and development partners could help the country move along the low-carbon, climate-resilient, sustainable-development path.

Tran Thuc, director of Viet Nam's Institute of Meteorology, Hydrology and Environment, agreed with the World Bank's recommendation that Southeast Asian countries intensify actions to address the impacts of climate change. He said Viet Nam had made remarkable efforts, with short-term priority going to climate adaptation...

Across the river from Ho Chi Minh City, shot by Violetbonmua, Wikimedia Commons, under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license

Insurance firms press governments on climate adaptation

John Parnell in Responding to Climate Change: A leading insurance think tank overseen by executives from some the world’s top firms has called on governments to step up effort to protect against the effects of climate change.

The Geneva Association warned that warming oceans, the main conveyor of heat around the globe, have now locked-in shifts in climate regardless of how successful attempts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions are. In a new report, the think-tank said the changes men the industry will have to change the way it predicts the chances of risks like floods and droughts hitting.

“Given that energy from the ocean is a key driver of extreme events, ocean warming has effectively caused a shift towards a ‘new normal’ for a number of insurance relevant hazards,” said John Fitzpatrick, secretary general of the Geneva Association. “This shift is quasi irreversible – even if greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions completely stop tomorrow, oceanic temperatures will continue to rise.”

The report identifies three potential areas where shifts in ocean temperatures could have an effect on climate patterns, and on the way they currently decide how likely certain damaging weather events could take place.
Higher sea levels, largely from thermal expansion will mean existing tidal defences are less effective.
“Drier dry and wetter wet” will shift rainfall patterns create more challenging, less predictable conditions for agriculture.
The impact on large scale weather patterns such as the Monsoon and the El Niño and La Niña cycles are currently poorly understood adding further uncertainty....

The blue hour, in Bruges, shot by Arcalino, Wikimedia Commons,  under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license

Monday, June 24, 2013

Canada's power supplies could be hit for months by floods

The Guardian (UK) via Reuters: Power cuts in the Canadian oil capital of Calgary could last for weeks or even months, city authorities said on Sunday, after record-breaking floods swept across southern Alberta, killing three people and forcing more than 100,000 to flee their homes.

Some Calgary residents were able to return to sodden homes as rivers dropped and some evacuation orders were lifted. But Bruce Burrell, director of the Calgary Emergency Management Agency, said power restoration in the city centre, where many of Canada's oil companies have their headquarters, could take days, weeks or even months. Many oil companies were making plans for employees to work from home.

"This is an evolving situation and because of the volatility of electricity and water and the infrastructure that was damaged we have got a lot of issues with restoring power to different parts of the city of Calgary," Alderman John Mar told CBC radio. "We are facing an absolutely gargantuan task."

Heavy rains were blamed for the spilling of 750 barrels of synthetic oil from a pipeline about 70km (43 miles) south of Fort McMurray in northern Alberta early on Saturday.

"We are still investigating the cause, however, we believe that unusually heavy rains in the area may have resulted in ground movement on the right-of way that may have impacted the pipeline," Enbridge, Canada's largest pipeline company, said in an emailed statement. It has shut two major oil pipelines serving Canada's oil sands region as a precaution. Provincial authorities said it was too early to count the cost of the flood damage because rivers have not peaked in some places.

The South Saskatchewan River is expected to burst its banks in the city of Medicine Hat in south-east Alberta on Monday. About 10,000 have been evacuated. The floods already look worse than those of 2005, which caused C$400m (£248m) damage in the province....

Children playing in floodwater in Calgary on June 21, 2013. Shot by Sean Esopenko, Wikimedia Commons via Flickr, under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license

Tasmania's old growth forests win protection after three-decade battle

Bridie Jabour in the Guardian (UK): Almost 200,000 hectares of Tasmania’s old growth forest have been world heritage listed, bringing hope that a three-decade fight between environmentalists, politicians and loggers is over.

The World Heritage Committee has extended the heritage listed boundary of the Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area by more than 170,000 hectares after accepting a proposal from the Australian government which will give the areas the highest level of environmental protection in the world. The old growth forest areas now added to the heritage listing are in the Upper Florentine as well as within the Styx, Huon, Picton and Counsel River Valley.

Logging will continue in the forest in areas Environment Minister Tony Burke described as “less contentious”. The proposal the government put to the World Heritage Committee was the work of people within the forestry industry as well as environmentalists, including Miranda Gibson who famously spent 457 days living in a tree in the old growth forest in a campaign for extended environmental protection.

Speaking from Hobart where she had watched a livestream of the World Heritage Committee handing down the decision, Gibson said she was thrilled and had contemplated returning to the tree if she was unhappy with the decision.

“It’s good to know I don’t have to go back to the tree unless I want to visit,” she said. “The hardest part [of living in the tree] was not knowing how long I would be up there or if the loggers would come and log around me. It was obviously also very isolating.”...

Logging in the Styx Valley, Tasmania, shot by TTaylor, Wikimedia Commons, under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.5 Generic license

The contribution of particulate matter to forest decline

Bonn University: Air pollution is related to forest decline and also appears to attack the protecting wax on tree leaves and needles. Bonn University scientists have now discovered a responsible mechanism: particulate matter salt compounds that become deliquescent because of humidity and form a wick-like structure that removes water from leaves and promotes dehydration. These results are published in “Environmental Pollution”.

Nature conservationists call it “lingering illness”, and the latest report on the North-Rhine Westphalian forest conditions confirms ongoing damage. Bonn University scientists have now shown that salt deposits on leaves may decrease the drought tolerance of trees, thereby contributing to forest decline. “Our study reveals that so-called wax degradation on pine needles may develop from deposited particulate matter”, says Dr. Jürgen Burkhardt from the Institute of Crop Science and Resource Conservation. Wax helps to protect leaves and needles from water loss.

It has long been known that air pollutants accelerate wax ageing and that “wax degradation” is closely related to forest damage. “Wax degradation was addressed by many studies in the 1980s and 90s, but sound explanations for both the degradation mechanism and the high correlation with forest damage have yet been missing”, Dr. Burkhardt reports. Previous approaches assumed chemical reactions for wax degradation, whereas the present study reveals physical reasons. “The deposition of hygroscopic salts is capable of decreasing the drought tolerance of trees”, co-author Shyam Pariyar says.

...Recently, regional forest damage has been reported in the western USA and other parts of the world. A relationship with increasing climate change-type drought has been proposed, but the newly discovered mechanism involving particulate matter might contribute to the regional forest damage. “Particularly because air concentrations of hygroscopic particles have largely increased within the last decades”, says Dr. Burkhardt...

A foggy forest near the northern Rhine, shot by Thomas Klein-Hitpaß (Rototom), Wikimedia Commons, under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license

Open data reveal extent of land grabbing The total area of land controlled by foreign investors globally is similar to the size of Poland, according to the most up to date estimates contained in an online database that aims to document large-scale land acquisitions or 'land grabs'. The database, called the Global Observatory, reveals that investors have acquired 32.8 million hectares since 2000 — up from its 2012 estimates of 26.2 million hectares.

Land grabs are often not conducted openly, which has made them difficult to monitor. However, the revamped online tool, revealed this month (10 June), allows for the crowdsourcing and visualisation of data as well as the verification of sources of such data, to promote transparency and accountability in land and investment decisions.

Most of that land has been acquired in Sub-Saharan Africa, with the top three investor countries being the United States, Malaysia and the United Arab Emirates.

Land grabbing has recently moved to the forefront of the international development agenda. Following the global rise in food prices in 2008, investors and some foreign governments bought land in the global South — often parcels totalling thousands of hectares — to try to cash in on agricultural commodities and secure food supplies....

Terraced farms in Bolivia, shot by Christopher Walker, Wikimedia Commons via Flickr, under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license

Don't treat water risk in isolation, warns SABMiller chief

Maxine Perella in A joined up approach to water, food and energy is critical if big business is to safeguard against future risks in water security, according to SABMiller chief executive Alan Clark.

The boss behind one of the world's leading breweries highlighted the pressing issue in the company's latest sustainable development report, and said his company was now taking steps to collaborate with governments across the world to address the problem.

As part of this work, SABMiller will be actively encouraging governments to set resource policy in an integrated way to maximise both economic and social value.

"Water security risk cannot be tackled in isolation, it needs to be addressed alongside food and energy security with businesses, governments and civil society working in partnership to develop practical, local solutions," Clark stated.

He said that water scarcity was "already becoming a reality" for some of SABMiller's breweries, and that the company had worked hard to improve water efficiency within its operations - last year saw an 8% improvement, while fossil fuel emissions per hectolitre of lager produced fell by 10%...

Photo by Tomasz Sienicki, Wikimedia Commons, under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.5 Generic license

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Crews work to save Colo. town as wildfire grows

USA Today via AP: Fanned by another afternoon of high winds, the erratic wildfire threatening tourist areas of the southwestern Colorado mountains grew to 100 square miles on Saturday, and fire officials said they saw little hope for a break before Tuesday.

Still, they remained optimistic of saving the popular summer retreat of South Fork, and some 600 firefighters spent another day trying to keep the flames from moving in on the Wolf Creek Ski area and the historic mining town of Creede.

"I like our chances," fire operations chief Russ Long said when asked about the chances of protecting South Fork from one of three blazes in the so-called West Fork fire complex that were sparked last week by lighting in forests turned tinder by lingering drought and beetle infestations that have killed thousands of acres of spruce trees.

But he emphasized that firefighters were strictly in defensive mode, with no containment of the fire. The blaze's rapid advance on Friday prompted the evacuation of hundreds of summer visitors and the town's 400 permanent residents, and it could be days before people are allowed back into their homes, cabins and RV parks, fire crew officials said. South Fork Mayor Kenneth Brooke estimated that 1,000 to 1,500 people were forced to flee.

The fire's movement toward South Fork had slowed overnight Friday when winds dropped and the flames moved into a more healthy section of forest. But 30- to 40- mph winds returned Saturday afternoon, grounding aircraft and spreading the fast-moving flames to the north....

The outskirts of South Fork, Colorado, shot by Pmsyyz, Wikimedia Commons, under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported, 2.5 Generic, 2.0 Generic and 1.0 Generic license

Flood waters recede in France after damaging Lourdes

Channel Newsasia: Authorities said Friday that flood waters were receding in southwestern France after claiming three lives and damaging the Catholic pilgrimage site Lourdes. "The flood's recession has been clearly confirmed," the prefect's office for the Pyrenees-Atlantiques region said in a statement, adding that water levels were expected to return to normal by Friday afternoon.

Many roads remained closed however and some residents were still unable to return to their homes. The floods this week sent water pouring into the religious sites at Lourdes, forcing thousands of tourists to be evacuated and suspending visits.

But fears the sites would all need to be closed for weeks were allayed on Thursday when officials said the town's celebrated grotto would be accessible to visitors within days. Lourdes, where the Virgin Mary is said to have appeared to a local peasant girl in 1858, is visited by six million people every year, with the numbers in July and August peaking at up to 40,000 a day.

Officials said 37 hotels in the town were badly damaged by the floods and would not re-open for several months. The grotto should re-open on Friday afternoon but the underground Basilica of Saint Pius X, which can normally host up to 25,000 pilgrims, remained partly flooded, with its floor covered by 30 to 40 centimetres (12 to 16 inches) of mud....

A mosaic at the Rosary Basilica in Lourdes, shot by Fczarnowski, Wikimedia Commons, under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license

India floods: Unusual weather systems clash was trigger

Navin Singh Khadka in BBC: An unusually intensive fusion of two weather systems from opposite directions triggered this week's devastating floods in northern India and western Nepal, authorities have said. They say the monsoon advancing towards the west of South Asia combined with westerly winds for an unusually long time and with an extraordinary intensity, which resulted in days of torrential rains.

Weather authorities in India and Pakistan have warned there is still a threat that the dangerous combination will cause more devastating floods.

At least 560 people are known to have been killed and thousands are missing in northern India. The death toll is expected to rise further. The worst-affected areas are in India's Uttarakhand state, where floods have flattened homes and swept away roads and bridges.

More than 40,000 people, many of them Hindu pilgrims, are still stranded in what the government has described as a "national crisis."...

Aerial view of Haridwar, Ganga Arti, in Uttarakhand, shot by Prashant Chauhan, Wikimedia Commons via Flickr, under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license

Current global food production trajectory won't meet 2050 needs

University of Minnesota News: Crop yields worldwide are not increasing quickly enough to support estimated global needs in 2050, according to a study published June 19 in the open access journal PLOS ONE by research associate Deepak Ray and colleagues from the Institute on the Environment (IonE) at the University of Minnesota.

Previous studies estimate that global agricultural production may need to increase 60–110 percent to meet increasing demands and provide food security. In the current study, researchers assessed agricultural statistics from across the world and found that yields of four key crops — maize, rice, wheat and soybean— are increasing 0.9–1.6 percent every year. At these rates, production of these crops would likely increase 38–67 percent by 2050, rather than the estimated requirement of 60–110 percent. The top three countries that produce rice and wheat were found to have very low rates of increase in crop yields.

"Particularly troubling are places where population and food production trajectories are at substantial odds," Ray says, "for example, in Guatemala, where the corn-dependent population is growing at the same time corn productivity is declining."

The analysis maps global regions where yield improvements are on track to double production by 2050 and areas where investments must be targeted to increase yields. The authors explain that boosting crop yields is considered a preferred solution to meet demands, rather than clearing more land for agriculture. They note that additional strategies, such as reducing food waste and changing to plant-based diets, can also help reduce the large estimates for increased global demand for food.

 "Clearly, the world faces a looming agricultural crisis, with yield increases insufficient to keep up with projected demands," says IonE director Jon Foley, a co-author on the study. "The good news is, opportunities exist to increase production through more efficient use of current arable lands and increased yield growth rates by spreading best management practices. If we are to boost production in these key crops to meet projected needs, we have no time to waste."...

A Ukrainian wheat field, shot by Raimond Spekking, Wikimedia Commons, under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license

Shipping firms warn of haze danger in Malacca Strait

Terra Daily via AFP: Shipping companies warned Friday that the haze emanating from forest fires in Indonesia could lead to accidents in the busy Malacca and Singapore straits, risking a potentially devastating oil spill.

The Singapore Shipping Association (SSA) said more than 140 ships, including oil tankers and passenger ferries, navigate the narrow waterways on any given day and reduced visibility due to the smog has made conditions dangerous.

"The SSA is gravely concerned with the effects of the worsening hazy conditions on the safe navigation of ships through the Straits of Malacca and Singapore," it said. Daniel Tan, the trade body's executive director, said the Malacca and Singapore straits are among the busiest and narrowest shipping lanes in the world...

Smoke from Indonesian fires, view by NASA on June 19, 2013

Saturday, June 22, 2013

Obama aide promises support for Florida., other states threatened by sea-level rise

Christa Marshall in E&E News:  At a conference that touched on everything from the possible submergence of the Florida Keys to contaminated drinking water wells, President Obama's principal environmental adviser told south Florida officials yesterday that the "next step" in the administration's efforts on climate change involves supporting state and local governments.

White House Council On Environmental Quality chief Nancy Sutley did not say whether additional money or incentives to help south Florida and other coastal regions prepare for rising sea levels would be part of President Obama's upcoming plan on climate change, expected in coming weeks. "You never get ahead of the boss," she said.

But she emphasized that Obama's earlier speeches mentioned not just curbing emissions but helping the nation prepare for climate change. "We've been thinking about what else we need to do as a federal government to help ensure to meet that goal," said Sutley at the Rising Seas Summit in Fort Lauderdale, organized by the Association of Climate Change Officers.

The Department of Agriculture's announcement of seven regional hubs on climate change this month is an example of the administration's local focus, according to Sutley.

At the conference, southeast Florida officials said they are making progress in preparing for rising sea levels, even as scientific research paints a catastrophic future of flooding for many communities. In the Florida Keys, for example, modeling suggests that 86 percent of Monroe County could be completely inundated at high tide with 3 feet of sea-level rise....

An aerial view of Miami, shot by Towpilot, Wikimedia Commons, under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license

Chinese wine heads to Europe

Seed Daily via AFP:  For years the Chinese have been buying up wine from Europe, but with domestic wine production predicted to overtake Australia and Chile by next year, Tiana Wu is hoping European drinkers are ready to be tempted by a glass of her "Yunnan Red".

"We produce one million cases per year. We're exploring the possibility of exporting," Wu told AFP at Vinexpo in Bordeaux, one of the world's largest wine and spirit fairs.

"Our wines have a unique taste, and we want to see if consumers here accept it or not," added Wu whose family runs a wine business, Yunnan Red, in China's southern Yunnan province.

Vinexpo chief Robert Beynat says China's growing domestic wine production has enabled it to steadily climb the ranks of wine producing countries. "By next year we expect them to be number six, ahead of Australia, Chile and a lot of countries. We are very happy about that," he said....

A 12th century Chinese wine beaker