21 December 2007

Future food

Human behaviour is negatively impacting on our food supply. The more insidious effects of climate change and other human-induced environmental woes are one cause. Another more immediate cause is that policy decisions on resource use and exploitation are being driven from a misguided agenda of short-term gain. Judging from the increased exposure in traditional media sources, a potential crisis is brewing.

The reason for the exposure? Soaring food prices worldwide. Food prices worldwide have increased by 40% in the last year. In the US, the current amounts of food inflation have been unseen since the 1970s. While some of this increase in the result of increased drought over many areas (a sign of climate change?), for instance in Australia, much of it is due to humans and the policy decisions made for us. The increasing diversion of grains, especially corn, to the production of ethanol and other biofuels is a major culprit in the price rises.

This is just the immediate threat. Warming temperatures, increasing droughts and the like – the expected effects of climate change-- will likely make agriculture more difficult in the near future. It is not just now we should be worried about, but the future as well.

Indeed, the effects of climate change are already being felt. The regions of the earth that experience tropical weather are expanding poleward, likely to bring a change in traditional growing conditions in a given area. Such shifts are being noted in around the world:

Rising CO2 levels may also effect aquatic food sources like fish, wither directly through ocean acidification or indirectly by alterations in oceanic bacteria, the basis of life on our planet. Despite the harsh realities already being felt, some recent research suggests that we may be underestimating the likely effects of climate change on agriculture, as previous research was likely oversimplified and failed to account for important second-order effects.

So what to do? A necessary step is to expand research in this area. Investing in new, heartier crop varieties like heat-tolerant beans or higher-yielding wheat is essential. Also crucial to understand are farming methods to maintain production levels with less fossil-fuel-based fertilizer. In general, the whole idea of mass-produced industrial agriculture will be nonviable. Having enough to eat without cheap oil is going to be tricky. Ask the Cubans (with sarcastic commentary from Bruce Sterling). Food is going to have to be produced more locally. Nations (like Australia) will have to ensure the capacity to feed themselves. Whether you are a nation, a tribe or an individual, when push comes to shove and resources are scarce, human nature says you will be unable to rely the goodwill of neighbours. (But growing enough of you own food is hard work...). New areas for growing food, indoor and urban growth for example, will also have to be exploited. That said, expanding cultivated land by clearing forests is likely to lead to diminishing returns. Agriculture and climate change is a two-way interaction.

A shift in our policies to something more sensible is needed. Human beings, not economic systems, should be our primary concern. For example, recent bumper harvests in Malawi suggest policies set by organizations like the World Bank to instill some rigid ideological economic purity reduce food amounts and cost human lives. The increasing push for biofuels is also short-sighted. Do you really need to deprive people of food so that you can go to the mall and buy some useless junk? Sustainable policies -- those that will provide a benefit now, but also conserve to provide a boon next year, next decade and next century – are also desperately needed. Instead, our current focus is on the needs of the economic system. The recent decision to raise the North Sea cod quota is just such an example. A slight upturn in surviving baby cod numbers results in an 11% increase in the catch. Great! Let's risk the future for a profit today! The failure of the recent Bali climate to set a meaningful target for climate change mitigation is another example. This mostly occurred because of the constant obstruction of the US, worried solely about themselves and their profits.

Not having enough food is a sure-fire step to instigating societal collapse. The time for profit uber alles is over. The time is now to focus on preserving the environment and our food supply for now and future generations.

Image: iStockphoto/Susan Stewart

18 December 2007

Glacial language changes

Languages are constantly evolving. As new ideas and experiences are introduced into a given culture, their language adds new words to facilitate communication. Similarly, as ideas become outmoded or fall out of favour, words become obsolete or obscure, no longer used in normal discourse. This is a natural part of a living language.

Unfortunately, the realities of climate change may help in driving the future evolution of the English language. In particular, the word glacier may become obsolete because we may no longer have the concept of “an extended mass of ice formed from snow falling and accumulating over the years and moving very slowly..." As has been noted before on planet doom?, glaciers around the world are in retreat. Further instances on this trend have also been noted of late.

In Chile, the 30 000-year-old San Rafael glacier has retreated 12 km since 1871. This behaviour is consistent with the majority of Chile's glaciers, which 'are not in balance with current climatic conditions'. The warming temperatures mean that new snow is unable to replenish the lost mass as icebergs calve off the glacier.

In the high Alps of Europe, glaciers were once a source of ice for the cafes of Paris and Marseille. Swiss glaciers are now in retreat, being replaced by vegetation where once there was only ice. The changes are widespread, causing problems for ski resorts and resulting in a loss of water supplies, as the source melts away in the warming climate.

The Rockies in western North America are seeing similar problems. The glaciers in Montana's Glacier National Park will likely be melted away before 2030. Computer modeling suggests that about a quarter of this melting is due to natural temperature variations; the remainder is due to human alterations of climate. Only 25 of 150 glaciers remain in the park today. In British Columbia, retreating glaciers have recently revealed tree stumps that are 7000 years old, indicating the last time the region was ice-free.

In Tibet, recently drilled ice cores are lacking the signs of the radioactive tests of the 50s and 60s present in every other ice core around the world. This missing signal suggests that this Tibetan ice field has been shrinking at least since the A-bomb test half a century ago. As noted in a previous post, this spells trouble for the substantial portion of the world's population who depend on these glaciers for water. In western China, high-altitude glaciers in Xinjiang and portions of Tibet have shrunk by 18% over the last five years due to global warming.

The adjective glacial isn't particularly apropos here, either. The changes are happening at anything but “extremely slowly”. That usage of the word may be headed for the language's rubbish bin as well. However, the real tragedy here isn't the potential loss of a few words from the English language. Rather, the true disaster is the rapid loss of glacial ice, along with rapid ice melt also occurring in Greenland and in the sea ice of the Arctic. This will disrupt the ecosystem, leading to a loss of biodiversity, and negatively impact the lives of those who depend on these regions for their livelihood. Once gone, they are unlikely to return. The loss is likely permanent.

While opinions vary, in my view the Bali conference resulted in a watered-down agreement (with glacial meltwater?). It does nothing meaningful to stop crises like these from occurring. I guess it's better than nothing, but more must be done. Cracks in our society are already appearing, and delaying action just makes future mitigation more difficult. Citizens of the world must continue to pressure their governments to act responsibly on climate change. But it can't just be left up to governments; they won't act unless forced. We -- particularly in the so-called developed world -- must act as individuals to reduce our ecological footprint and live a more sustainable lifestyle. Lots of small actions can add up to a meaningful difference.


Image of Glacier National Park from NASA Earth Observatory

12 December 2007

On the realities of climate change

Go and read this excellent essay "Beyond the point of no return" by Ross Gelbspan posted over at Gristmill. I think he has managed to crystallize the essence of everything I have been trying (or wanting) to say here at planet doom? (in an admittedly much more scattershot way) in his post. A few excerpts:

We have failed to meet nature's deadline. In the next few years, this world will experience progressively more ominous and destabilizing changes. These will happen either incrementally -- or in sudden, abrupt jumps.
This slow-motion collapse of the planet leaves us with the bitterest kind of awakening. For parents of young children, it provokes the most intimate kind of despair. For people whose happiness derives from a fulfilling sense of achievement in their work, this realization feels like a sudden, violent mugging. For those who feel a debt to all those past generations who worked so hard to create this civilization we have enjoyed, it feels like the ultimate trashing of history and tradition. For anyone anywhere who truly absorbs this reality and all that it implies, this realization leads into the deepest center of grief.
To keep ourselves afloat, we need to change the economic and political structures that determine how we behave. In this case, we need to elevate the ethic of cooperation over the deeply ingrained reflex of competition. We need to elevate our biological similarities over our geographical differences. We need, in the face of this oncoming onslaught, to reorganize our social structures to reflect our most humane collective aspirations.

11 December 2007

Breaking down in Bali

All's not well at the UNFCCC conference in Bali. News reports suggest that the negotiations to create a roadmap for the post-Kyoto climate agreements are becoming bogged down. It would seem that the various nations of the world have come with their set-in-stone predetermined positions rather than coming to honestly negotiate. And they aren't moving from those positions.

Following the findings of the IPCC, the draft UN resolution is calling for industrialized nations to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 25-40% by 2020.In the same objections we we have all heard before, the Canadians (with support the US) have said:

"The agreement should include binding emission reduction targets for all major emitters.

"Developed countries should be required to take action more quickly, but major industrialised developing countries should also have binding targets."

And the pro forma response from the developing nations is that their per-capita emissions are a long way below western levels, and that taking on targets would slow their economic growth.

Stop me if you've heard this before...

Of course, the US -- the prime supporter for the exploitative capitalism which has done so much of the damage -– is acting to undermine the talks, pushing to hold their own, separate meetings. They have, along with the EU, also pushed for a lowering of trade barriers for so-called green goods to gain access to markets. All for their advantage, of course.

It is particularly sad to see Australia's (apparent) complicity in all of this. While ratifying Kyoto was a good thing, new PM Rudd had rapidly backed off election promises to set emissions targets,while blaming the previous government for their inaction on the issue. It is especially disheartening because one of his main agenda items was making a difference on climate issues. But it looks like the same old game so far...

I don't want to be completely cynical as the conference isn't over yet, but basically it looks like we humans are going to pursue our great 'carbon dioxide enhancement experiment' to the bitter end. Some climate scientists also see an agreement as unachievable. The early warning signs aren't enough to make us realize the harm we are doing. Instead we hold out faint hopes that technology or the Sun will somehow save us. I suppose that, like a train wreck or some natural calamity, raises unfolding climate change makes for fascinating 'disaster porn', as well as unveiling some fascinating scientific questions. But I'd personally rather not be titillated in that way, and there are lots of other scientific enqueries to make.

Solving the issue all comes down to economics. A fundamental problem of our society is that we live our lives in servitude to an malignant economy that has been specifically constructed to externalize costs to the greater environment. Nothing matters but the financial bottom line. Little penalty is applied in our current system for destruction of our 'natural capital', be it air, land or sea. A healthy economy should serve our needs, not vice versa. Further, we are conditioned through relentless advertising to consume at all costs in a futile attempt to fulfill our otherwise meaningless existence. Community and family have become unimportant, replaced by extreme competition. This is all completely artificial, a man-made construct. It doesn't have to be this way. Taking back the world from the bankers and the economists is a key step to repairing the environmental damage to our world. I don't know what comes after, but it's got to be better than leaving our children a legacy of social chaos, a disaster-plagued landscape and an ocean full of nothing but jellyfish.

05 December 2007

Indonesia: Microcosm of climate change

The UNFCCC Conference on Climate Change is taking place in Bali, Indonesia until 14 December. This international meeting is the opening stages of negotiations for a comprehensive treaty on the adaptation to and mitigation of climate change. In many ways, the location is ideal. While the meeting is happening in Bali, a resort island, Indonesia as a whole represents a world in miniature for climate change. A wide range of the expected impacts of climate change are already beginning to be observed there.

Indonesia is an archipelago, with over 17 500 islands (6000+ inhabited) and a predominantly Muslim population of over 230 million. The country has seen its share of internal political strife, with several separatist movements in the last decade. It has also faced economic turmoil, particularly hit by the 1997 Asian financial crisis. Straddling a major thrust fault, the nation is also subject to strong earthquakes and significant volcanic activity (source: CIA World Factbook). More to the point of this blog, there are many environmental issues of concern in Indonesia.

As an archipelago, the nation has an intimate relation with the sea. There are numerous coral reefs in the country. These have been long damaged by blast fishing and pollution, but now warming of the oceans associated with climate change is resulting in large-scale bleaching of the reefs. If unchecked, these could disappear within decades. Rising sea-levels are also a threat, with the possible disappearance of many small islands. Jakarta's airport could be flooded with sea water by 2035, and the Presidential Palace, 10 km inland could be flooded by 2080.

Indonesia also faces a threat to its food stocks. More erratic weather patterns have been observed over the past few years, making it increasingly difficult for farmers to successfully maintain crop yields. Indonesia lost 300 000 tons of crop production every year between 1992 and 2000, three times higher than the previous decade. Fish stocks are also dwindling, likely due to overfishing. Increasingly erratic climate variability associated with climate change suggests that these trends are likely to continue in the future.

Indonesia's extensive tropical forests are also in danger. Land clearing, particularly of the peatlands, can result in an enormous CO2 source. Much of the forest is being deliberately burned off to make room for palm oil plantations to make allegedly 'green' bio-fuels. At other times, the erratic climate results in widespread drought over the region, which dries out the forest an creates conditions suitable for massive wildfires. Conditions during the 1997-8 El Nino resulted in a particularly dramatic fire season here. Should such conditions become more frequent the resulting emissions of CO2 and destruction of forest could be devastating. Indonesia has made a proposal for wealthier nations to pay to avoid deforestation. It reeks of blackmail, but it may have to be adopted to avoid even worse consequences.

Climate-change-affected disease is also on the increase in the nation. This year has seen a particularly virulent strain of dengue fever become widespread. Whereas previously, fatalities from the disease mostly occurred among children, now 20% of the fatalities are adults. This is out of the realm of past experience. There have also been an unusually high number of cases of dengue in SE Asia in the past year.

This is not meant to single Indonesia out for particular blame. These problems, and many variants thereof, are occurring worldwide even as the negotiations ensue. Rather, this is a call to the delegates who are negotiating our future in Bali: Consider the impacts on the local environment of the conference. Take a look at what is happening around you. Do not underestimate the impact that climate change can and will have on our future. Of course, it is not just climate change but a whole host of environmental issues, like overfishing and deforestation, that need to be considered in the negotiations. Overpopulation and peak oil also should not be neglected. The basic framework for the future of our species and our planet is being decided at this meeting.

To use a sporting analogy, it's late in the second half and we are a few goals down. We can give up; we are sure to lose that way. Or we can keep playing like there is no tomorrow (because there isn't...). It is time to put aside our differences and play together as a team. Let's win one in spite of what the Gipper (and his ilk) have done to put us so far behind.

03 December 2007

Climate change: Who pays?

In the lead-up to the UNFCCC Bali conference, many of the difficult issues facing negotiators have been reported in the press. Many of the issues deal with the question 'Who pays?', which is discussed in the following. The answers thus far are all over the map and depend on where on the map you are. Most nations support calls for action, but few seem willing to lead. I fear that many are still underestimating the enormity and urgency of the situation. For instance, there is little agreement on what constitutes dangerous climate change.

Many developing nations say the “rich” countries should pay. India is pledging to keep its per-capita emissions lower than those of the rich world. China argues that global warming is primarily the fault of Western industrialised nations and they should be made to bear the brunt of cleanup costs. Other Latin American nations, including Brazil, offer much the same rationale.

Many of the developed world nations brings similarly short-sighted reasons primarily based on their self interest and a perceived financial threat. The United States has refused to ratify the Kyoto protocol primarily because China is exempted from greenhouse gas reductions. Canada, once a world leader in environmental issues, has lost its way , a result heavily influenced by industry interests. Until recently Australia followed a similar path to the US, but the newly elected government is seeking to remedy this situation. Japan and Europe are meeting their obligations under the treaty through purchase/transfer of carbon credits and have been generally willing participants and leaders on the issue.

There is merit in the arguments of both rich and poor countries. Rich countries did create most of the problem, largely through energy intensive, wasteful consumer-driven lifestyles. This story on the desire for perceived bargains shows that we are generally unwilling to give up this lifestyle. This report, issued in the US, holds out the idea that CO2 can be reduced without a change to the consumer lifestyles. (What about the rest of the environment?). This lifestyle choice perpetuates the problem. At the same time, nations like China and India can do more. While their per capita numbers are low, those two nations are quite high in total emissions, ranking among the developed nations. This is a result of the environmental issue that is rarely discussed: overpopulation.

In the rich nations, there is an obligation to lead, assist developing nations with adaptation and technology transfer, and to change our lifestyles to something more ecologically sustainable. Repairing the environmental damage within those countries is also an obligation. In developing nations, the onus is to prevent future environmental damage (e.g. avoid deforestation), reduce population growth and develop sustainable economies, with the assistance of the rich nations. All nations need to act in concert to deal with the increasing number of natural disasters and to be willing to welcome and accept climate refugees as the need arises.

As it stands now, the various attitudes displayed by the 'two sides' reflect a deep disconnect with reality and a general failure to truly grasp the scale of the problem. Instead, the focus is only blame (and the avoidance thereof). The truth is we all have a moral obligation to do what we can. None of us are free from blame, and it is a pointless waste of time to partition it out. We all have to live with the consequences of climate chaos and we all need to bear the cost, each according to their ability.

02 December 2007

More on geo-engineering

Following my recent post on the perils of geo-engineering via iron fertilization of the ocean, several more related items have hit the news. Below is a synopsis of these items.

A new paper reported in National Geographic News provides further evidence for a significant (if not dominant) role of hydrogen sulfide in producing the mass extinction at the end of the Permian 250 million years ago. I was following a Scientific American article which hypothesized the same thing, along with the mechanism. This new article supports that mechanism, but any possible link with geo-engineering remains speculation on my part.

From ScienceDaily (and elsewhere)...”Research performed at Stanford and Oregon State Universities suggests that ocean fertilization may not be an effective method of reducing carbon dioxide in the atmosphere...”

Basically, this method of sequestering carbon only works in the plankton sinks to the deep ocean. However, the authors found that “...less carbon was transported to deep water during a summertime bloom than during the rest of the year”.

In short, it doesn't appear that carbon is effectively sequestered using this methodology. Still, these findings apparently don't dissuade some:”Some scientists have suggested that verification may require more massive and more permanent experiments. Together with commercial operators they plan to go ahead with large-scale and more permanent ocean fertilization experiments” (emphasis added).

There are already efforts underway to begin a commercial venture based on this idea, regardless of any potential consequences. Actually, the experiment has been performed numerous times since the mid-1990s, as noted here. Here is the chief of the Planktos Corp says, responding to criticism

The iron ore to be used in the test is the same as dust blown naturally by the wind into the ocean...

"Hundreds of millions of tons of dust are landing in the ocean every year. How can anyone suggest that our 50 tonnes of rock dust will provoke some cataclysmic result?"

He is, of course, correct in this assertion. One experiment isn't going to make a big difference in the grand scheme of things...I see several problems with this, nonetheless, and remain opposed to the idea in general.

Consider the simple arithmetic of the company's proposal. If the vast amounts of dust are already landing on the ocean and we still face ever-rising CO2 levels (2006 highest on record), how much more are dust/whatever is going to have to put in for this to be effective? It would seem to be an unfeasible amount given the numbers above. To truly sequester enough CO2 by this method would likely entail severe damage to the marine ecosystem. I don't think that this company is truly interested “sav[ing] the planet from the ravages of fossil fuels”, but rather profiteering on genuine societal problems. IMO, this behaviour is unethical.

This attitude is symptomatic of the larger problem at hand here. The “profit motive” is part of the attitude that got us into the current environmental mess we face in the first place. It seems unlikely to present a particularly useful solution to the problem. This just signals that we can keep doing what we want to the planet heedless of the consequences. Replacing this attitude is the key to the problem. There are lots of easier steps to take before we consider grandiose schemes -- Energy conservation, alternate energy research, emissions cuts,agricultural reform, better land management,a reduction in consumerism – let's try those before we resort to the extremely risky steps involved in schemes like geo-engineering.

Fortunately, wiser heads are beginning to prevail on this issue. There are more general calls, from the World Conservation Union for example, going out to at least do more farsighted research into the issues before simply charging in and hope it works out for the best. Personally, I think we should focus on other, more mundane alternatives first, rather than shilling out our limited research funding into crazy schemes designed to fix environmental problems with little or no cost.


James Hrynyshyn at The Island of Doubt has a good take on the issue, commenting on the debate started at The Intersection.

27 November 2007

The unquiet sea

Some updates and follow-ups on a few topics related to the sea that have previously discussed on planet doom?.

The trend towards increasing numbers of jellyfish being observed in the oceans continues. This was earlier noted to be a result of overfishing , killing off their natural predators and climate change

The jellyfish, covering an area of around 10 square miles , engulfed the Northern Salmon Company's cages off the province's northeastern coast, suffocating 100,000 fish...

...jellyfish [only] "bloom" in such quantities...every decade or so and [this] appearance off the Irish coast was also due to unusual environmental factors including higher-than-normal water temperatures. [emphasis added]

The swarm was reported the next day as heading towards Scotland, prompting the issuance of warnings.

The impacts of climate change on coral reefs continues to become more apparent, as evidenced by these recent news items.

...[S]oft corals, an integral and important part of reef environments, are simply melting and wasting away and...this could mean a global marine catastrophe.

Environmental stress...is damaging the symbiotic relationship between soft corals and the microscopic symbiotic algae living in their tissues. There is no doubt that global warming is to blame...

It is not just climate change, but rather the whole range environmental degradation that both humans and Nature impose on the ocean that causes problems.

The delicate balance of the Caribbean's coral reefs is in jeopardy as more parrotfish end up on dinner plates, international scientists said on Wednesday.

The colorful grazing fish, named for their parrot-like beaks which are used to scrape up algae, play a vital role in stopping seaweed from smothering coral. But their numbers are now being threatened by over-fishing.

The sad thing is that these fish -- the last line of defense against the seaweed -- don't taste particularly good (apparently, I've never had one). Rather, all the tasty fish have been over-exploited and are now too rare. So we're just moving on to the next species down the list as we systematically ravage the ocean. Hooray for humans!

The seas face many perils, including ocean acidification and warming temperatures. A $2-3 billion proposal went out today to improve our knowledge of the ocean, which are “as little understood as the Moon”, through an ambitious but plausible research program. A much better line of research than the re-opening of UFO research called for a few weeks ago [unless, of course ,the aliens are going to help solve our environmental problems (*_*)]. Not enough money, you say? How about we take some money from the military budgets of the world and invest in saving the planet rather than finding new and creative ways to destroy it and everything on it. Surely its not that hard. Three billion is chump change compared to what the US has spent to date on the Iraq debacle (cost so far, $1.6 trillion).

26 November 2007


A few days ago, I heaped some scorn on a scheme that the (now outgoing!) Australian government has adopted to the tune of $A10 million; an unproven technology to make rain, even when there are no clouds. As presented, the details on the whole endeavor were sketchy, from how the technology was supposed to work to the funding and decision making process. Well, another news item has appeared with a few clues about how the device is supposed to work which confirms my earlier suspicion that this is complete and utter nonsense. In addition, a cloud physics expert and member of the WMO Weather Modification panel is quoted. He basically says (albeit much more diplomatically) that we, the Australian people, have been hornswoggled! Sold up the river by a deceitful MP (who unfortunately was re-elected), apparently in an effoty to line his campaign donor's pockets.

Here is a quote from this new article, focusing on how it (allegedly) is supposed to work. I will give a few of my own scientific criticisms afterward (My graduate research was on cumulus and storm dynamics, so I do have some insight into this...)

Scientists involved in testing the Australian Rain Corporation technology, including Professor Jürg Keller of the University of Queensland, say the ionisation system uses a ground-based device to attract water molecules.

These condense, generating heat that, in turn, triggers an up-draft of the kind that occurs when clouds form naturally.

The basic idea here just seems fanciful, not reality-based. Excuse me for being technical (for background, here is Wiki's cloud physics article, though it is not particularly insightful...), but some problems that I see with this are:

  • Where is this moisture coming from? From the moisture in the air above the device, or is it attracting it from10s to 100s of km away, an alluring siren's song that the water vapor molecules just can't resist?

  • With the most hydrophilic of cloud condensation nuclei, you might get an extremely small drop at say 90% RH (relative humidity). This is very rare. Generally, a small supersaturation (i.e. 100+%) is required to get a small drop to form and grow. If, as claimed, it can produce rain “under a blue sky” (i.e. presumably not 100% RH), how do the drops grow to precipitation size in this?

  • Generally in a cumulus cloud (which would appear to be the model they are working off of...), the updraft comes before the water condenses and droplets form, not after as suggested here. In fact, the water is often detrimental to the kinetic energy of the updraft. It doesn't follow that because water condenses, an updraft and rain will form. Think of fog. Think of cumulus clouds that don't rain.

  • An unstable environment is required for cumulus clouds. The influence of the broader environment doesn't even seem to be considered here.

These are just a few of the more obvious problems with this. The whole idea seems vaguely reminiscent of the whole cosmic ray/climate connection which has been posited but is in fact generally unsupported by either careful theoretical considerations or the data. There is very little correlation between the temperature trends and cosmic ray activity.

The scandal here is not with proposing new ideas and hypotheses. Rather the issue is way it has been done. It all seems very underhanded and 'hush-hush'. Apparently, no one with any genuine expertise was consulted on this. If they were consulted , their advice was ignored. By all means, let's apply science and innovation to help mitigate our climate problems . But not large handouts to campaign donors with half-baked ideas (and please, let's not dump stuff into the ocean). The appearance of impropriety is too strong (please, let's have an inquiry into this). It is very difficult to get research funding in Australia and there are numerous innovative and unfunded researchers whose projects offer a genuine chance at making a contribution. Let's fund those, rather than chasing mirages in the desert.

24 November 2007

'Roof of the World" falling in

Tibet, a Plateau region in central Asia, is a region facing many problems. Besides having its culture overrun by China in the 1950s, the “roof of the world” has a host of environmental issues to contend with, many wrought by encroaching climate change.

Tibet was covered in tall cypress trees 4600 years ago but today is mainly a desert pasture. Tibet's spiritual leader-in-exile, the Dalai Lama, seems to imply that this is due to corrupt Chinese officials. They may very well be exacerbating the trend, but Tibet has been largely deforested for a long time, a result of clearing primarily to accommodate crops and livestock.

The average of altitude of Tibet is over 4900 m, and the region is mountainous. There are many glaciers in the region, with more being discovered all the time. As is the trend worldwide, many of the glaciers are shrinking. Over the past 100 years, the area covered by glaciers in the area has shrunk by an estimated 30%. The Tibetan Plateau is the source of of many of China's major rivers. As the glaciers there melt away, China's future water supply comes under threat.

As with the deforestation issue above, attribution of the source of this is somewhat politicized. The Chinese government hypothesizes that climate change is driving much of this. Tibetan activists place much of the blame on China's environmental policies. In reality, it is not likely an either/or situation, but rather a combination of both. That Mt Everest, the world's tallest mountain (which is not entirely within China's control), is undergoing significant melting (see image pair -- same site, 1968 on top, 2007 below), would suggest that climate change is driving much of this. Still, humans can have a large impact on the climate through land use changes...

Other evidence also suggests climate change. Temperatures in Tibet are rising at a rate about twice the global average, about 0.3 C per decade. This is consistent with other elevated regions of the world. The region has also been facing something of a drought, which is of course not a sign of climate change by itself. Still, much of the region has seen record-low humidity over the past few months, and parts of Tibet have seen 'Exceptional' levels of drought (see here for interactive global map). These observations are consistent with accelerating climate change around the globe. The Chinese are resorting to the creation of artificial snow, a first for the region in order to alleviate the extended dryer-than-normal conditions.

The impacts of climate change in Tibet have serious implications for the globe. Millions of people rely on the rivers which begin in this region for drinking water and irrigation. As a whole, China has been observing many impacts of climate change during the course of this year, from increasing desertification to extreme floods. Attempts to stabilize the flow of the Yangtze river (which incidentally originates in Tibet) with the Three Gorges dam have not been going well to date; the dam is creating more environmental problems than anticipated. If not effectively managed, these events create the possibility for future humanitarian crises (like food shortages), which in our increasingly volatile world can create the triggers for larger conflagrations.

Such a possible future highlights the need for effective action in adapting to and mitigating against climate change. The western nations need to show leadership at the upcoming Bali climate talks, rather than bickering and finger-pointing. Assigning blame is a pointless exercise. It may be too late to avoid some problems, but giving up and doing nothing insures that the worse will happen.

22 November 2007

Tangled Bank 93

The new Tangled Bank is up over at from Archaea to Zeaxanthol. Go an give it a read. THe usual wide variety of posts is on offer. Something for everyone!

My recent post on the perils of geo-engineering is included.

20 November 2007

Liberal Party Green

I didn't really want to write another post on the upcoming Australian federal election, but the desperate attempts by Liberal party members to express concern over climate change and other environmental issues is such transparent pandering that I feel it is necessary to bring these issues to the fore, just in case some poor delusional soul thinks the Coalition actually gives a toss about the environment.

Here's the only green that the Liberals and the Coalition are interested in...

Their true motives are readily apparent in these news items today.

Turnbull found the time to announce that the Government, already in caretaker mode, would bankroll to the tune of $10 million the investigation of an untried Russian technology that aims to trigger rainfall from the atmosphere, even when there are no clouds.


Mr Searle says all the literature he has seen on the technology shows it to be a bogus science.

"The one that is being touted at the moment sounds very similar to a group in the USA called the Cloudbusters, and they're supposed to ionise the atmosphere in order to make clouds out of blue skies and then to produce rain from those clouds," he said.

Electrification of the ionosphere to create clouds out of thin air. Certainly sounds a lot like the secret Australian rain device - no photographs allowed - that so excited the Minister and those who will share his six-month $10 million research funding.

The company receiving the funding is called the Australian Rain Corporation. The link provided gives absolutely no information, stating “Our Products and Services are available on personal request only.” Based on the little information I have seen, this looks incredibly shady, little more than wishful thinking. The secrecy involved and Turnbill's evasive answers only reinforce that notion. It looks like political payback and embezzlement to me, all performed under the pretense of acting on the environment. There's a video in the link; the story is a transcript of that video.

Incumbent Coalition candidate Dave Tollner...claim[s] nuclear power is the only way to effectively tackle global warming. He was scathing about any policy that would see Australia reduce its uranium mining.

"We should be praying that China and India take as much of our uranium as possible to reduce their reliance on coal power. The fact is, the only way that we are going to produce ongoing baseload power... is to export as much of our uranium to them as possible."

Australia gets rich while pretending to care about the environment. Wonder if he has any interests, 'friends' or 'donors' in the business?

Finally, a real howler

Foreign Affairs Minister Alexander Downer says Australia will be pushing for a declaration on climate change at a meeting of Asian nations in Singapore.

Mr Downer says he wants the 16 countries at the meeting, including China and India, to sign an agreement on reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

Uh, excuse me? You've been in government for nearly 12 years and have spent a large portion of that time even denying that climate change was even a reality, and now this. What happened to the wondrous 'diplomatic breakthrough' that was the APEC agreement, with its aspirational goals, that you were raving about just under three months ago? What's wrong with signing the international Kyoto Protocol? At least that will get us some respect (a tiny bit, but some) at the post-Kyoto negotiations in Bali next month.

Polls suggest the Coalition is likely to lose government on Saturday. But if Rudd and his Labour cronies think they can coast on this issue once elected, they are wrong. The genie is out of the bottle. As highlighted by the recent IPCC AR4 synthesis report, this is a pressing issue requiring real action, not mere lip service.

By all means, vote with your conscience. I'm not telling you who to vote for. But don't rationalize a vote for the Coalition with environmental issues. They're only in it for the money.

Natural variability vs. climate change

Global changes in weather and climate are undoubtedly being observed. Are these signs of climate change, or of some other natural (interdecadal) variability? Does it have to be an either/or proposition? Here are two examples that highlight the importance of these questions.

A team of NASA and university scientists has detected an ongoing reversal in Arctic Ocean circulation triggered by atmospheric circulation changes that vary on decade-long time scales. The results suggest not all the large changes seen in Arctic climate in recent years are a result of long-term trends associated with global warming.

That's the lede of the story, something to give those who think it is all natural variability (i.e. skeptics) hope. But the key words are 'not all'. The authors are not claiming that global warming is not part of the picture, regardless of changes in the Arctic Oscillation. The relationship between interdecadal variability and climate change remains unclear. In fact the changes in the AO could be related to climate change.

Further highlighting this uncertainty is a report of a talk from a climate change conference in Australia.

...[S]cientists should reassess the use of El Nino as a forecasting tool because climate change seems to be altering the way weather processes like El Nino work.

..."The leverage that El Nino exerts on Australia is principally through its La Nina phase, principally through the flood phase of the El Nino cycle,"

Despite the on-going La Nina, much of Australia remains mired in drought, going on 11 years in some regions of the southeast. From a historical perspective, this should be a time of abundant rain in Australia. Is climate change having an impact on ENSO, or is this some heretofore unobserved pattern in its behaviour? Since the early-90s, when we began to observe unusual behaviour in ENSO, this debate has raged. The IPCC expects little change in ENSO, but there is low confidence in that projection.

We are undoubtedly doing something to our atmosphere and our planet on quite large scales. For example, observations show we have seriously altered the carbon cycle of the planet. In some areas, we have also changed the amount of insolation reaching the surface, due to smog and pollution. It seems inconceivable that such significant changes would not have some effect on the climate. With our relatively limited observations, we also know there are coherent patterns on very long time scales.

How much is due to each factor? Perhaps alterations in the patterns of interdecadal variability is how climate change manifests itself, or maybe climate change just exacerbates the natural patterns. We just don't know. We've never scientifically observed climate changes of this magnitude and scale before. So surprises in the behaviour of the climate system should be expected. After all, climate models are not without their flaws, but they are correct to the first order, and they do represent one of the best tools we have in our arsenal to help prevent a greater calamity for mankind.

17 November 2007

Elect to stop climate change now!

From Deltoid:

As I (and many others!) hoped for, climate change has become a major election issue here in Australia. The battle is only half won, though. We need to continue to press our leadership for sensible action as well as summoning the will as a society to follow through on the necessary changes. No grandiose schemes, please.

ps. we also need to make sure and get rid of the current leadership, too!

Just say no to geo-engineering

Geo-engineering, defined here as “artificial modification of earth systems to counteract anthropogenic effects”, is gaining momentum. A commonly proposed method of doing this is to dump stuff into the ocean in the hopes that it will spur the growth of phytoplankton, which in turn will result in an uptake in CO2 from the atmosphere to the ocean. Once the plankton die they sink to the ocean floor, sequestering the CO2. As has been noted on planet doom? previously, this is a well intentioned but (likely) short-sighted attempt at a 'quick-fix' to the problems confronting humanity; a shortcut so that we can avoid making any hard choices about the world we have created.

So what is wrong with it? It is, after all, part of the natural order of things; phytoplankton blooms occur regularly now. A recent event was just observed off the coast of Namibia, in southern Africa, as shown in the MODIS imagery to the right. Phytoplankton undeniably act to sequester CO2. But, as the article notes, they have other effects as well.

After the plankton sink, they are decomposed by bacteria. If the amount of plant material is too large, the water becomes anoxic -- depleted of oxygen –- and a 'dead zone', where fish and other marine fauna are unable to survive, is created in the ocean . Needless to say, this is bad for the marine ecosystem. If material remains to be decomposed, anaerobic bacteria -- which don't need oxygen -- take over. These bacteria initiate a reaction which produces hydrogen sulfide (H2S) --a poison -- which seeps to the surface and kills the fish and other fauna.

In the local region and at the times where this occurs, it becomes a serious issue, but remains generally unimportant on larger scales. But creating more phytoplankton through geo-engineering could become a broader issue. Dead zones are already becoming a problem worldwide, particularly near the mouths of large river systems, due to agricultural runoff. Other regions with restricted water flow, like the Black Sea, are natural anoxic zones. The fact that we have these major environmental problems already being seen suggests that the amount of phytoplankton which would need to be produced to offset the 35% increase in CO2 we have put into the atmosphere to date would be very large. We probably couldn't do it without destroying a large part of the marine ecosystem.

In a paper from last year (Oct 2006) in Scientific American entitled “Impact from the Deep”, an intriguing hypothesis was put forth that a similar mechanism involving anoxic oceans and the production of H2S, rather than the more commonly assumed bolide impacts, may have driven several of the five mass extinctions which have been noted in the fossil record. In this hypothesis, anoxic zones producing H2S rise to the ocean surface and releases the gas to the atmosphere, killing nearby land flora and fauna. Further, the gas may rise to the stratosphere, where there is some indication that it may reduce the protective ozone layer, finishing off the organisms which avoid the initial impact of the gas. In that paper, the chain of events starts with rapid global warming. With geo-engineering we could possibly skip a few steps, and proceed right to the extinction.

This is only a supposition. The fact is that we simply don't know what effect such geo-engineering schemes may have. We don't have a good history at avoiding the so-called Law of Unintended Consequences and so we probably shouldn't tempt fate. Although we can and have altered the environment, it is pure hubris to think that we have any sort of control over it. As a result, we should really put aside these grandiose schemes to save the world and instead focus on the more mundane chores of adapting to the unavoidable changes already in the system and reducing our carbon emissions to mitigate any future effects. Societal collapse and the sixth extinction are distinct futures we face with our current way of life. We need to act with wisdom and forethought to avoid these fates.

15 November 2007

Oekologie #11

Are you an eco-blogger?

Go and read the many excellent examples on offer in Oekologie #11 at 10 000 Birds to help you determine the answer to this edifying question.

My own post on Animal adjustments as a response to climate change is included.

14 November 2007

Societal collapse: Coming soon?

Once the domain of survivalists, religious zealots and other disaffected souls, the possibility of societal collapse has recently gained more respect in the broader, mainstream community, discussed in widely-regarded books and the blogs of the New York Times (and elsewhere!). Questions abound: How realistic is this notion? Are we close to a collapse? Can we act to prevent it?

To say that our planet and society as a whole is facing a few troubles is a bit of an understatement. The climate is unequivocally changing; a casual glance at planet doom? illustrates the many and varied impacts. There are too many people, and food shortages are becoming more apparent. Cheap oil and natural gas, the foundations of our technological society, are at or near peak production. They will only become more scarce (and hence more expensive) in the future. The unbridled global economy is teetering on the brink of collapse, exacerbating the other threats. To top it all off, the most powerful military in the history of mankind is in the control of lunatic war-mongers who will do anything to further the cause of the global corporations.

Despite this, many in positions of influence seek to maintain the status quo, unable or unwilling to acknowledge the reality of the problems facing us. Some of the excuses/reasoning: Climate change is just down to natural variability; There's plenty more oil/natural resources left, the 'greenies' just won't let us drill/mine/clearcut; Technological innovation will save us; Malthus and all the other doomsayers have always been wrong, so they are this time, too; We have other pressing problems, we'll deal with it later; Hakuna Matata – No worries, mate!.

The predicted impacts of these dilemmas are equally varied. James Lovelock, who conceived of the Gaia Hypothesis, suspects that it is too late to mitigate climate change and that billions will perish before the end of the century, leaving only a remnant of humanity surviving at the the poles. Others also support this 'giga-death' point of view. A recent book, The Long Emergency, by JH Kunstler makes a slightly less grim, but still shocking, prediction of the future of (primarily) the US. He expects a complete breakdown of the American way of life, with a return to more agrarian times and a lower energy-intensive lifestyle. Some parts of the US, especially the south and west, fare especially poorly in his vision. A recent post over at Climate Progress on this book discussed this view and, along with many of the commenters, generally rejected at least the severity of it. Of course, those who deny the seriousness of the problem have no dire predictions, expecting the consequences to be minor inconveniences rather than a serious issue. The general mainstream view seems to be along these lines, with some problems, but nothing threatening.

For what its worth, my views tend to the darker side of things. But I, like everyone else, don't really know. I don't feel things will be as extreme as Lovelock and Kunstler, but it's not going to be a walk in the park, either. I think our world is in for a major reorganization, and a lot of people are going to perish, due to starvation, warfare and disease. Our self-indulgent, western way of life is going to come crashing down, and the developing world is going to be hit even harder. The pace of climate change is too quick, and the energy and financial problems will only exacerbate things. If we can contain our bloodlust in the inevitable conflicts for resources (food, water, oil...), we have a chance at the future. If not, it is a long fall. And if the world resorts to WMDs to resolve these conflicts, then all bets are off. Mind you, I desperately want to be wrong on this, and look back in 20 years time and laugh at my naivete. My fear is that I won't be able to.

Awareness of these issues is growing, but the magnitude and extent of the crisis is still underestimated. The climate has become an issue for the upcoming national election (24 November) in Australia. But the two major parties have somewhat tentative policies for climate change, and issues like peak are not even really a concern. The minor parties are better, but even the Greens are underestimating the problem. Their campaign literature still speaks of climate change impacts as something that will happen, not as something ongoing. For much of the western world, neoliberal economics and unlimited growth are still the dominant paradigm. As a society, I fear we (myself included) are woefully unprepared for what awaits us.

Regardless of one's personal opinion of the issue, a risk management-type approach should be taken to deal with these issues. Risk can be defined as the likelihood of something happening times the consequences of that event happening. The consequences of a Lovelockian 'giga-death' scenario are incalculable – a very, very large number. So unless the chances of it occurring an infinitesimal (and I suspect they are low, but not non-existent), the risk is large, and prudence dictates action be taken to reduce that risk. Maybe the excuses/rationales noted earlier for inaction will prove to be valid and society is in no danger of a collapse. Even if this is the case, our lifestyles are demonstratively unsustainable, and this must be remedied.

There is also the moral aspect. We owe future generations a right to a viable existence. It should be our goal to at least provide as much to them as was provided to us. As the UN said today (my emphasis):

"The effects of climate change are being felt already," said Yvo de Boer, executive secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).

"Climate change will hit hardest the poorest and most vulnerable countries. Its overall effect, however, will be felt by everyone and will in some cases threaten people's very survival.

"Failing to recognise the urgency of this message and acting on it would be nothing less than criminally irresponsible."

It is time for the rich nations of the world to lead by example and act seriously to adapt and mitigate climate change. We caused the problem, we need to lead the way to fixing it, rather than pointing fingers at China and India. They aspire to the same life we lead and who are we to deny it if we won't curb our own excesses. Blaming others for the problems we caused is pathetic, a sign of the narcissistic, delusional culture we have created. Who knows, maybe the crises we are facing can have some positive outcome and lead to a fairer, more just world for all.

09 November 2007

Keeping tabs on Antarctica

Here is the latest news from Antarctica, the southernmost continent. For past posts on the region on planet doom?, see here.


After an early start and a rapid decrease in ozone levels earlier in the season, the area of the ozone hole is currently below the 1997-2006 average. Recent news reports have noted that this is due to the relatively mild weather conditions, not a sign of the expected recovery. That is still a decade or two off, at the minimum. The image showing the hole is from the NASA Ozone Watch website. There are also some nice time series plots of the current year, as well as graphs showing the interannual variability. The decreased intensity of this year's hole is consistent with forecasts made back in August by the WMO.


A look at the time series found at Cryosphere Today reveals that the annual melting of the sea ice has begun. Last winter, sea ice reached its maximum annual extent, and still remains anomalously high at this time. After the record melts in the Arctic earlier this year, it will be interesting to see what happens in the south. As noted in a previous post, paleo-climate studies show that an asymmetric response to climate forcing between the hemispheres is possible. Hence, there is no reason to expect a record melt in Antartica and the lack of such says nothing about the reality of ongoing global warming and climate change.

A large iceberg was seen calving off the Pine Island glacier, part of the West Antarctica Ice Sheet. See this page at NSIDC for a recent high resolution image of the iceberg. This is apparently a natural phenomenon, occurring every 5-10 years. The iceberg is approximately 70 000 ha in size. The glacier itself is thinning and accelerating towards the sea, but the iceberg is neither a part of nor a consequence of that longer-term change.

As noted in a previous post, the trends in the behaviour of the ice in Antarctica are complex and difficult to decipher. The mass of the ice is apparently of getting less, while the area increases. Anecdotally, the ice in the region has been retreating over the past 15 years. Understanding these behaviour of the ice is crucial for a better understanding of cryosphere/climate system interactions.

Science Activities

As noted above, science and research activities are extremely important in Antarctica and the austral spring is when the activities begin in earnest. Several projects have made the news recently. Some efforts are going into the development of techniques to measure the thickness of the sea ice. Others are attempting to install seismographs or GPS units to measure movements of the ice, with the hope of better understanding the dynamics of the ice sheets and glaciers and their interaction with the land below. These projects mentioned represent only a small part of the science activity which is undertaken during the summer months. Many activities are being undertaken under the auspices of the International Polar Year.


In my last post about Antarctica, I expressed the hope that we humans could avoid the return to the 16th century and the race to claim land to exploit it for nationalistic selfish purposes. Alas, it is not to be. We humans are going to ruin the last unspoilt place on Earth, all to 'safeguard the future'. The UK is investigating making a claim on the surrounding seabeds. China is sending its largest team in two decades this summer to reassert its presence on the continent. Chile isn't backing down from its long-standing claims. Australia actually has the largest claim, but what can they do if their claim is jumped? None of these claims is actually valid at this time because of the Antarctic Treaty, but as it becomes more apparent that we have passed peak oil. I would suspect that all bets are off. Like any addict, our insatiable 'jones' will destroy any moral or ethical qualms we may have. Let's hope there isn't any oil down there...

I find it extremely sad -- but entirely predictable -- that this is happening. We, as a species, should be pulling together now to prevent the larger disaster lurking on the horizon, wrought by the confluence of climate change, peak oil, overpopulation and the like. Instead, we continue with our neo-liberal corporatist ways, externalizing all costs to the environment, in search of the almighty dollar (soon to be euro?). Humans are in deep trouble...I suspect sooner that we think.


Thanks to llewelly for pointing me to the Cryosphere Today website.

For a more thorough take on the societal collapse type stuff, check out the Survival Acres blog. I like the writing there, but personally try to maintain a more positive attitude...

05 November 2007

Animal adjustments

One sign of climate change is a change in the habitat and behaviour of different fauna, both on land and water. Earlier posts on planet doom? noted these sorts of changes in marine fauna. Over the past few months, several reports of unusual animal sightings on land and at sea have been reported. Some of these are summarized below.

It is not just animals appearing in new locales. Their behaviour can also change, a natural response to human-induced environmental stress.

  • Some bird species in Australia are responding climate change with a range of behaviours. Some spring migrants are now arriving many days earlier than previously documented. Others are demonstrating new breeding behaviours. These observations are not limited to Australia, but have been noted in North America and Europe previously. See here for a previous post on birds.

  • Snakes have stayed active through the winter in Tasmania. Warming temperatures as a result of climate change is probably to blame for the snakes shunning their normal dormant period.

  • Some good news (sorta...). Mosquito numbers along the Murray River in SE Australia are likely to be down this summer. This is due to low rainfall and decreasing river levels. This is a result of climate change to the degree that the drought is a result of climate change. Only those who live inland and in riverine areas are likely to notice a difference – coastal areas will have the same levels. Personally, I'd rather have the water and no drought...

Of course, climate change is just one way that humans affect the different ecosystems. Pollution and fertilizer runoff from farms and ranches has led to frog deformities, as well as affecting coral reefs and contributing to the creation of hypoxic dead zones in the oceans. General environmental mis-management also plays a role. For instance, over-fishing has resulted in 76% of fish stocks being fully- or over-exploited, placing marine biodiversity at extreme risk. Other examples abound.

Our neoliberal, consumer-based society has failed at providing adequate environmental stewardship. The race for profits, short-term gain and cheap consumer goods has blinded us to our duty to the future. The effects we are having on the non-human beings we share the world with are alarming. We are on the wrong path, both for them and us. There is no guarantee that these animal adjustments will work out satisfactorily.

There are steps we can take to reduce our impact, though. The sooner we act, the 'easier' it will be to correct our unsustainable ways. Unfortunately, a recent poll in the UK (which certainly seems consistent with the attitudes I have encountered in Australia and the US) indicate that majority are unwilling to make the changes required to adapt and/or mitigate to climate change. I fear it will take some sort of mega-catastrophe (the string of unprecedented disasters we've had the past few years hasn't been enough...) to wake people up to the reality of our predicament. We can only hope it won't be too late (if it isn't already...).

03 November 2007

Life in a parallel universe

Climate change is an ongoing reality, but many of our leaders would appear to be living in some alternate reality of their own devising. This is certainly true here in Australia -- the current government imagines that we are leaders on climate change and the deputy prime minister doubts the reality of climate change.

But this failure to grasp reality isn't limited to Australia, it is a worldwide phenomenon -- a natural trait of our species. The government of the US is still censoring climate reports, apparently just hoping the problem will magically go away if it is not discussed. Many of the major polluting nations of the world (e.g. India, China, USA) refuse to abide by any mandatory greenhouse gas emissions reductions (as do many who aren't major polluters). Instead, China is building high emission coal-fired power plants as quickly as they can, in large part in response to service the demand from developed nations for cheap consumer goods. Many rich nations are simply exporting their carbon demand to poorer nations like China, and then rationalizing their inaction because China and India are not included in Kyoto.

These actions are a sign of a deep disconnect with reality. It is time for the nations of the world to grow up. Reducing GHG emissions is the only way to limit the extremely high costs of climate change in the future. As a whole, the EU is managing to meet its Kyoto obligations (but not every individual country within the EU...) while maintaining its economy and an exceptional standard of living. It can be done. The nations of the world must act decisively and cooperatively to overcome the grave threats of climate change. Fatalism is not an option.

Make no mistake, the rate of CO2 emissions is accelerating. The effects of this are also becoming more apparent and widespread. It is time for out leaders to stop the denial and make a full acknowledgment of the reality we have created. The knowledge is out there. We may not know the exact path global warming will take, but it is unlikely to be pleasant. The future of our civilization is potentially at stake. Sensible cooperative action is our only choice.

18 October 2007

Environmental threats to food

Some very serious environmental issues are gaining wider exposure in the media as of late. All three of these issues have been noted previously on planet doom?. And all three threaten the security of our food supply, now or in the future.

A particularly pressing issue is the here and now threat to our food supply. An article from ScienceAlert indicates that world food security is at its lowest levels since recordkeeping began about 50 years ago. The accompanying graphic illustrates the sharp downward trend over the past 6-7 years.

What is driving this? Climate change, especially its effects on amplifying drought. Numerous droughts and unprecedented floods have been reported this year, affecting crop production and degrading the land. Locations around the world -- the United States, India, Europe, Africa, Asia, Australia -- are feeling the pinch. Plant diseases are flourishing in the newly changed climate. Soils are becoming over-used and subject to desertification.

Nitrogen pollution is emerging as a potential threat to diversity. This inert gas, vital to life, is being deposited from the atmosphere to the earth at an increasing rate. This extra nitrogen comes from human sources, namely automobiles and intensive farm practices. This deposition reduces species diversity in grasslands, with unknown consequences. The threat may be reducing. Or it may be too late and we have already passed a tipping point. We just don't know. Does this only affect grasslands, or is this factor playing a role in the loss of diversity (in addition to other human meddling) being observed in forests?

To feed the growing population and makeup for the shortfall in grain we are observing, more intensive agriculture is required. But this causes further nitrogen pollution, further degrading the land and reducing food production...An unpleasant feedback loop. The ScienceAlert article noted above suggests that more scientific/agricultural research input is required, but unfortunately government policy (at least in Oz) is making this unfeasible. The government is making token gestures, but they are apparently underestimating the magnitude of the problem.

Unfortunately, we may not be able to rely on the ocean to makeup the shortfall. Ocean acidification, a byproduct of our CO2 enhancement experiment, is threatening corals and subsequently other marine life. This acidification is proceeding much faster than expected, on the scale of decades rather than the centuries previously imagined.

From the article

Corals and plankton with chalky skeletons are at the base of the marine food web. They rely on sea water saturated with calcium carbonate to form their skeletons. However, as acidity intensifies, the saturation declines, making it harder for the animals to form their skeletal structures (calcify)...[but]“It isn’t just the coral reefs which are affected – a large part of the plankton in the Southern Ocean, the coccolithophorids, are also affected. These drive ocean productivity and are the base of the food web which supports krill, whales, tuna and our fisheries.

So, if the threat from overfishing and marine pollution weren't enough, we now (potentially) have another way to do ourselves in. Overfishing itself is partially responsible for reef destruction, and other fishing methods, designed with 'economic efficiency' in mind, also wreak havoc on biodiversity. Recent observations of the increase in jellyfish numbers suggest that we may have already pushed the ocean ecosystem too far even without acidification...That will just be the coup d'gras.

These new findings indicate that our CO2 enhancement experiment -- and the associated climate change – are truly a threat to humankind. The time has come to get serious about action to rectify this intolerable situation. The future depends on it. Let's hope we act before it is too late (if it is not already).