31 July 2007

Odds and Ends

A pseudo-random selection of one-off type items gathered over the past few weeks.

Some quotes from the Pope from this news item from Reuters.

“We all see that today man can destroy the foundation of his existence, his Earth,”

"We cannot simply do what we want with this Earth of ours, with what has been entrusted to us,"

"This obedience to the voice of the Earth is more important for our future happiness ... than the desires of the moment. Our Earth is talking to us and we must listen to it and decipher its message if we want to survive,"

From the Careful What You Wish For category...

A senior Philippines weather forecaster says he hopes more typhoons will lash the country this year to ease a lengthening dry spell that has caused power outages and threatens agriculture.

I thought this essay was quite poignant in tone...

Consequently, it's not that easy to discern the changes in climate.

Not every hot summer day is proof of global warming; nor does one winter's heavy snowfall herald a new ice age. But the number of weather-related disasters has increased significantly, and the rise in temperature in Switzerland since the 1970s is double the average for the Northern Hemisphere.


A dangerous fatalism has spread among many Swiss. They are happy to see the water in the lakes getting warmer, and view the disappearance of the glaciers as a sad but not necessarily bad development. They blithely forget that the ice is also our reserve supply of drinking water, and make light of the fact that the ground is thawing along with the glaciers, sending mudslides into the valley. The tragic stories are rare, and they are reported on the daily news more as entertainment than admonition.

Most Swiss live in stable houses in the lowlands, far from the crashing slopes and the brooks swelling into raging rivers. Those who are affected bravely clear the debris. Then a feeling of solidarity courses through our country, and only spoilsports ask what is the cause and who is to blame. When catastrophe strikes, the TV does not call upon climate experts but instead interviews the men from the fire department, the heroes of the hour.

These posts are some of the last, if not the last, posts from Viridian Design. Bruce Sterling has been blogging on climate change impacts for some time, mostly from a 'sensibly alarmist' point of view, but often with a sarcastic edge. Here is a sample from the latest:

Serbia and the Flames...by Viridian guest star Jasmina Tesanovic.

Today was the hottest day in Serbia ever since the temperature has been measured, 45 C.

If we Serbs were truly interested in our survival as a nation, we'd be scrambling to get some modern hardware for dealing with ecological catastrophes. It's been ten years since Milosevic sold off our forest fire-fighting aircraft and pocketed the money.

We would talk together seriously about last year's massive floods throughout the Danube basin, about this year's deadly heat wave in Serbia and throughout the Balkans, about the state of emergency in our neighbor Greece, about the electricity shortages and blackouts throughout the region, about the woods of our homeland set on fire.

Even tidy Britain is being overwhelmed with their flood catastrophes, while here in Serbia we lack any organized emergency-response because the Serbian state is, by its nature, in an emergency situation all the time.

Instead, the Serbian Parliament spent this day discussing Kosovo: angling for Russian friendship to fend off the US demands, while dodging EU pressure to simply let go of that long-lost province. They have no air conditioning inside the Serbian Parliament, so delegates were comically fanning themselves with official papers while the presidents were sweating in their stuffy official suits.

Listen. Think. Be aware. Enjoy.

More hurricanes, anyone?

One of the more contentious debates regarding climate change impacts is the projected increase in tropical cyclone activity. There has already been a stormy debate over claims that such an increase has already been detected. A new paper opens the debate again.

The article below summarizes the findings...

Climate change has triggered three major shifts in the number of tropical storms that rise up in the North Atlantic, according to a new analysis of 20th century records.

The first change came in 1905, starting a 25-year period with an average of 6.0 tropical storms or hurricanes per year. In 1931, the number jumped to 9.4 per year, and stayed at that level until 1994. The last big shift came in 1995, starting a period through to 2005 with an average of 14.8 storms per year.

However, as pointed out later in the article...

...NOAA's National Hurricane Center says that improvements in monitoring and technology over the last century mean that storms that were not picked up by meteorologists in the past are no longer overlooked (PDF).

The image, from the PDF link above, shows one source of errors in the long-term data set. This error is likely one of many. The errors can vary in many ways. I would think that another 'biggie' would be the different analysis techniques used throughout the dataset. Earlier, ship reports are likely less consistent (if not less accurate) than later satellite estimates. I don't know what, if any steps they have taken in the paper to address such inhomogeneities in the data.


...the improved data from the last half of the century cannot be solely responsible for the increase.

"We are led to the confident conclusion that the recent upsurge in the tropical cyclone frequency is due in part to greenhouse warming, and this is most likely the dominant effect," the authors wrote.

I think that both sides make a reasonable case, and there is probably a bit of all three going on. That is, we are looking at some (unknown) combination of data inhomogeneities, inter-decadal climate variability and anthropogenic climate change. The answers lies in discovering that proportion, a fairly difficult task. The errors are real, and probably more myriad in their ways than described in the linked paper. Nonetheless, one would think that we could get some handle on how large they really are. There really is inter-decadal variability, and it does modulate climate. Anthropogenic climate change is also a reality and the behavior of the weather and climate (including tropical cyclones) over the recent past (say 10 yrs +) is generally consistent with the modeled impacts on extreme weather.

Long time series of homogeneous data would be a boon! Potentially, marine sediment cores from coral reefs provide such a source of data.

The recent increase in the number of major Atlantic hurricanes may just be a return to the norm after a period of unusually low storm frequency, say researchers.

...marine sediment cores of coral samples from the northeast Caribbean ... build a proxy record of wind shear and sea-surface temperatures since 1730, and from this they estimated hurricane activity since that time.

High wind shear – the difference in speed and direction between low winds that blow close to the Earth's surface and winds that are higher up in the atmosphere – causes a decrease in rainfall, which generates denser coral. This is because less rain runs off the land into the sea, raising the water's salinity and affecting the way coral polyps build their skeletons.

To me, the connection to hurricanes seem a bit stretched...I think that a lot could happen to confound the presumed relationship at any given location. There are two at least semi-independent variables that the link depends on. How are the two potential effects separated? The general representativeness of the data also needs to be understood perhaps through a combination with other proxy data sets from around the region. Still, the dataset is a good start, but a considerable amount of work remains for the data to be taken at face value.

The implications of this research are important in that they tell us something of the relationship of the climate models to the observed climate. The models suggest that the changes observable to date should be fairly small to date, and difficult to observe. If changes this large are completely associated with climate change, then the climate models used in the IPCC reports are too conservative. The reality on the ground during the next few years will clarify this picture enormously. One can hope that our climate outlook isn't as grim as would appear from these last few years of observations.

28 July 2007

Welcome to our new reality

Just a bit of weather news from this week...

In its second heatwave this summer temperatures in Greece soared to 45 degrees Celsius (113 Fahrenheit) this week, following an earlier heatwave in June which set a new 110-year record of 46C.

Record temperatures this month have caused up to 500 deaths in Hungary, put 19,000 Romanians in hospital and triggered forest fires across Bulgaria.

And Britain saw this week its worst floods in 60 years, which have left about 350,000 people without running water.

But is it global warming?

The wildfires in Europe aren't simply confined to Bulgaria...In fact, as witnessed by NASA satellites, the fires are worse further to the west. See here also.

And as suggested by the title, it is not simply Europe...

Rescuers dropped relief supplies to hundreds of people in Indonesia's Sulawesi island on Friday after days of torrential rain triggered landslides and floods.

Floodwaters have poured into or destroyed more than half a million homes in India's northeast in the past couple of days, officials said on Wednesday.

On the Iran-Afghanistan border, a large dust plume has been observed.

Source points for the storm appear in an area known as the Hamoun wetlands, once an oasis for people and wildlife. By the start of the twenty-first century, a combination of expanded irrigation and severe drought had sucked the region dry, and winds that had once been cooled by wetland water began blowing dust.

The western United States has also been suffering through extreme drought and numerous wildfires, with Utah experiencing it largest ever wildfire at 363 000 acres (147 000 ha). See also here and here, for example.

So what is going on here? These sorts of events, occurring simultaneously, are extremely unusual. Or is this simply a reflection of increased information awareness? Have these sorts of events always gone on simultaneously, and we have never put the pieces together until now? I find that unlikely, at least for the last 10-20 years or so. And even beyond that, people had some inkling of what was going on in the wider world.

Is it just part of the vagaries of the normal chaos of weather, as the Deniers would have us believe? The usual method of blaming it all on El Nino is not valid this time. We are currently experiencing neutral to weak La Nina conditions. Besides, ENSO has been showing its own erratic behaviour for the last 20 years or so itself.

Or is it climate change? In a statistical sense, we cannot say with absolute certainty. These events are certainly consistent with the expected impacts of climate change. But perhaps similar weather happened before we took consistent global observations. We just don't know for sure, but I have my doubts about this. There is only so far these sorts of rationalizations can take you before they become ridiculous.

Even on the off chance that these events are not related to anthropogenic climate change, they are the harbinger of things to come. We should take these events and learn from them, as a model of what to expect more frequently in the future. 2007 is on track to be the second warmest year on record. We need to start getting serious about adaptation to and mitigation of climate change if humanity is to survive and thrive. This sort of weather is soon likely to be our everyday reality.

26 July 2007

An ocean of trouble

While humans are responsible for the majority of the observed climate change to date, we are not the only ones who are at risk. The entire biosphere is affected and a seemingly isolated impact can come back to have a potentially large effect on humanity. These sorts of effects often follow the so-called Law of Unintended Consequences. Sadly, many impacts of this type are beginning to be observed in the oceans, which is experiencing a warming and an increase in sea levels due to climate change, as well as being overfished and heavily polluted. Below are links to recent news items describing impacts on marine fauna.

British scientists have determined Antarctic limpets might not be able to survive global warming.

...striped bass -- one of the bay's most beloved fish for food and sport -- as a creature under pressure from the heat. Foundation officials said the bass, also called rockfish, cannot tolerate water temperatures much above 76 degrees.

But when the water near the surface gets that hot, they sometimes cannot dive to cooler water because, as a result of the bay's existing pollution problems, there is often little oxygen at lower depths.

Finally, there's global warming's most direct effect – more heat.

Turtles lack sex chromosomes. Their genes do not directly determine whether a hatchling comes out male or female. Instead, buried eggs take their cue from the ambient temperature. For leatherbacks, temperatures below 29.4 degrees C (85 degrees F.) produce a clutch that is mostly male; above that, it's mostly female. With a mere 2 degree C (3.6 degrees F.) increase, a nest will produce all females. A few degrees higher yet, and the "boiled" eggs don't hatch at all.

In order to maintain a viable breeding population, a cool, male-producing year has to come at least once every five to 10 years, says James Spotila, a professor of environmental science at Drexel University in Philadelphia. If male years begin to come only every 20 years because of climate change, the turtle could become extinct.

...jellyfish are thriving because of warming oceans and over-fishing, which is eliminating their predators and competitors. In the Black Sea, now thought to have passed an ecological tipping point, one sample found that 90 per cent of the biomass was jellyfish...

There is a link between these last two stories, and an indicator of the linkage of effects noted above. Apparently seas turtles are one of the few creatures that prey on jellyfish. Fewer sea turtles mean more jellyfish. Jellyfish are more than an inconvenience to beach-goers. Rather, they prey on the young of fish consumed by people. Hence, more jellyfish means fewer fish that we eat and a potential reduction in the food supply. An example of how anthropogenic climate change threatens us at many different levels, not simply more extreme weather.

We have a relatively poor understanding of how the various components of the biosphere interact. It is past time to stop our uncontrolled experiment in atmospheric carbon dioxide enhancement and live sustainably, in harmony with the natural world.

24 July 2007

Climate change and the British floods

The big news of the week in climate change is the publication of a paper in Nature by X. Zhang et al. which detects an anthropogenic effect on average precipitation amounts in latitudinal bands around the globe. From the abstract:

...that these changes cannot be explained by internal climate variability or natural forcing. We estimate that anthropogenic forcing contributed significantly to observed increases in precipitation in the Northern Hemisphere mid-latitudes, drying in the Northern Hemisphere subtropics and tropics, and moistening in the Southern Hemisphere subtropics and deep tropics. The observed changes, which are larger than estimated from model simulations, may have already had significant effects on ecosystems, agriculture and human health...

The Independent and other newspapers are already making the link with the record rainfall and floods in Britain.

Flood-ravaged Britain is suffering from a wholly new type of civil emergency, it is clear today: a disaster caused by 21st-century weather.

This weather is different from anything that has gone before. The floods it has caused, which have left more than a third of a million people without drinking water, nearly 50,000 people without power, thousands more people homeless and caused more than £2bn worth of damage - and are still not over - have no precedent in modern British history.

Nothing in the past hundred years, in terms of flooding caused by rainfall, has been as bad. According to the Environment Agency, even the previous worst case, the extensive floods of spring 1947, which were aggravated by the vast snow melt that followed an exceptionally hard winter, has been surpassed.

"We have not seen flooding of this magnitude before," said the agency yesterday. "The benchmark was 1947, and this has already exceeded it." And the 1947 floods were said to have been the worst for 200 years.

I suspect that the coincidence of the publication of this paper and the flooding events will leave an indelible imprints of the British people. If this does not serve as a wake-up call for the reality of climate change for them and rest of the world, it is unlikely that anything will.

23 July 2007

Southern Hemisphere impacts

Being a resident in the under-represented (in the media) Southern Hemisphere, it's nice to hear about things that are happening in our neck of the woods (so to speak)...Here are a few items related to climate impacts in the SH and equatorial regions.

Global warming is drying up mountain lakes and wetlands in the Andes and threatening water supplies to major South American cities such as La Paz, Bogota and Quito, World Bank research shows.

Australia's worst drought in a hundred years is driving its kangaroos into cities in search of food and water, experts say.

In Canberra, referred to as the Bush Capital for its pockets of parklands scattered throughout the city, residents encounter the common sight of eastern gray kangaroos on the streets

Canberra's urban kangaroo sightings have been complemented by reports of greater numbers of kangaroos in other cities and towns in the southeast of Australia, apparently driven there in search of food.

North-west Queensland graziers says low temperatures and heavy unseasonal rain last month led to stock losses on many properties.

"It's never happened in the hundred years of records we've got. Here at Werrington we had 12 inches of rain...”

  • New Zealand: Wild weather's cost – Nelson Mail via Climate Ark

    Tornadoes in Taranaki, severe flooding in the Far North, storm damage in Coromandel, Auckland and other districts and the southern whiteout have caused an estimated $32 million in damage this month, with the detailed assessments still to come. Nelson had provided a foretaste of what was to happen when a deluge at the end of May flooded parts of Stoke and was described as a once-in-50-years downpour. It is almost as if weather demons have been unleashed - except that there have been similarly catastrophic storms in many other years. Rather than leaping to the conclusion that climate change is responsible and that we are in for much more of this type of thing, the response should be to acknowledge that it has happened before and will happen again, and to prepare for it.

The last item brings up a valid point. We cannot “leap to the conclusion” that these events are due to climate change. Events of similar magnitude have happened before. At issue is the timing and frequency of such events. Those are the true marks of climate change. Yes, droughts have happened in Australia before. Yes, it has rained in Queensland before, but not usually this much in the dry season. (Actually, a big swath of tropical Australia received their highest on record rainfall in June...). The questions I ask (as always) are: Why now and why globally? Doesn't that tell us that something is happening?

If we as a society wait until we have absolute statistical certainty before deciding to act to mitigate/adapt to climate change, we don't have a lot of hope. It is much more sensible to plan on these things happening more frequently in the past (for example, the 1-in-50 year flood becomes a 1-in-10 year flood) and adopt an appropriate risk management strategy to cope with issues before they unfold, rather than after.

22 July 2007

The story continues here

In this post we will revisit some earlier posts where new information has been reported.

Following up on Climate impacts in China...Tibet is apparently doing it tough, with a warming rate 10 times as great as China as a whole.

The average annual temperature in Tibet, the roof of the world, was rising at a speed of 0.3 degrees Celsius every 10 years, Xinhua said.

In a follow-up of Glacier follow-up, multiple sources reported the following story on the impact of melting glaciers on sea-level rise.

The rapid melt of small glaciers and mountain ice caps will be the main source of sea level rise over the next century, according to a new study.

There have also been two items related to the Coral Controversy. The first is that near-misses by hurricanes appear to reduce the threat of coral bleaching from warm water.

...[A]ll hurricanes and tropical storms that passed within about 450 miles [~720 km] of the reefs caused surface-water cooling, with the greatest effect — a drop in average temperatures of as much as 5.5 degrees Fahrenheit [~3.3 C] — from storms that passed within 250 miles [~400 km].

The second is an skeptical (and vitriolic) op-ed piece about the impacts of climate change on the Great Barrier Reef and indeed, the whole idea of global warming.

So why have we been swindled into believing this almost pristine system is just about to roll over and die when it shows so few signs of stress. There are many reasons and processes that have caused this and some of them are the same as why we should all be more than a little sceptical about the hypothesis that CO2 is causing global warming.

The first reason is that there is some very bad science around. Second, a mainly biological oriented scientific community seems to take little heed of the geological history of corals...

If it is part of the natural cycle, then why is it happening more frequently at this point in time? It's not the sun and it's not cosmic rays. It's the CO2. Its not pleasant to think about, but humans did it. Accept it, and let's move on to practical solutions for mitigation and adaptation. No more denial.

Climate impacts in China

Several stories regarding the climate change impacts have been in the news recently. Many of these are focused on the Tibetan Plateau. Due to its size and its position near the tropics, the Tibetan Plateau is one of the most ecologically diverse alpine communities on Earth. Impacts here have widespread consequences.

Aerial photos and satellite images had shown wetlands on the frigid Qinghai-Tibet plateau, which feed the Yangtze and Yellow rivers, had shrunk more than 10 per cent over the past four decades, reports the China Daily, citing the Chinese Academy of Sciences - a key government think tank.

"The wetlands at the origin of the Yangtze have suffered the most, contracting by 29 per cent," the paper said.

Wang Xugen, a CAS researcher, says the wetlands play a key role in regulating the flow of the rivers, which provide water for hundreds of millions of people and nearly half the country's farmland.

"The shrinking of the wetland on the plateau is closely connected with the global warming," the paper quoted him as saying.

This isn't the only problem on the Plateau...

...[I]n the permafrost area of Fenguoshan, average precipitation has been increasing only in certain months of the year, while the general trend points toward drier periods.

The evidence is found in the permafrost itself, the overlying ground surface layer which freezes in the winter and thaws in the summer.

“In the last 20 years, larger portions of frozen ground have melted during summer,” says Professor Li. “With less water and more sand on the ground, desertification is just one step away.”

“Warming temperatures will certainly continue, but weather events such as rain, snow and wind are becoming less predictable,” Professor Li adds.

Experts today agree on one trend: Glaciers, rivers, wetlands and lakes — all elements of the fragile high-altitude ecosystem — are being altered at a speed never seen before.

Professor Li has personally witnessed the retreat of Yuzhu glacier, the highest peak in the Eastern Kunlun Mountains.

“I was in Xidatan, near Yuzhu Peak, for the first time in the 1980s, and when I went back, ten years later, the tongue of the glacier had retreated by 50 metres,” he says. “Nowadays it is about 100m higher than it used to be.”

There is some apparently good news...

But how significant is that statistic really, when the same story later says that China has 2.64 million sq km of desert? It's a pretty marginal area in comparison.

There is also an unusual flood season this year.

Unusually heavy summer rains led to widespread flooding across central China in June and July 2007.

Large swathes of the country have been hit by severe flooding this summer, killing more than 400 people so far.

In the nearby landlocked city of Chongqing, hit by the heaviest rainfall since records began in 1892 [my emphasis], 37 people had died and the city and its suburbs had become "isolated islands" as streets flooded, Chinese media said.

The Health Ministry said the floods, and outbreaks of algae on lakes caused by hot weather and pollution, threatened drinking water supplies. It said officials must pay more heed to the problem.

While these floods and precipitation cannot be explicitly attributed to climate change, the timing of it says something ...Why are all these 'unusually heavy' and 'highest ever'-type events happening on a global scale occurring now? Surely the fact that 2007 is the 1st or 2nd hottest year on record thus far gives some validity to the hypothesis that these floods and other events are due to climate change.

China's huge population (1.3 billion) and economic circumstances place mean it is a pivotal player in determining the future of the planet. In terms of totals, China is the biggest emitter of carbon dioxide (The US still emits the most per capita) and they have recently released their first climate change plan, saying it is intent on tackling the problem but not at the expense of economic development.

This attitude is something of a disaster for the planet, not only in terms of climate change, but also the use of the finite resources available on our planet. Yes, China has every right to better her people through economic development, but it would be better if they could learn from the mistakes made by the West during the 20th century. But, we in the West must do something too, other than cutting emissions by shifting them to China. That is a fool's game that benefits nobody. We should lead by example, altering our lifestyles to reject the mindless consumerism of the past 60 years or so, and allow for generous foreign assistance to developing nations to raise their standard of living to produce an equitable standard for all of the world's citizens. The selfish 'me first' attitude we currently exhibit will only bring resentment, and indeed already is.

18 July 2007

Glacier Follow-up

Since posting Ice: Going, going... a few days past, several more articles regarding the glaciers have been released. The tone of that post is still in evidence. Glaciers are in retreat around the world.

D.P. Dobhal, a glaciologist who has spent three years climbing and poking the Chorabari glacier, stands at the edge of the snout and points ahead. Three years ago, the snout was roughly 27 meters, or 90 feet, farther away. On a map drawn in 1962, it was plotted 262 meters from here...

A recent study by the Indian Space Research Organization, using satellite imaging to gauge the changes to 466 glaciers, has found more than a 20 percent reduction in size from 1962 to 2001, with bigger glaciers breaking into smaller pieces, each one retreating faster than its parent. (See also this note at Oil Change.)

The problem is not simply that the Aletsch is melting, scientists say. Glaciers have melted for 2,500 years in Europe; at one ice-age point, the Aletsch nearly covered local mountain peaks. What concerns scientists is the pace of the melt.

"Yes, it should retreat, but not so fast. The glacier is in rapid retreat, which is a fact and a clear sign of climate change," Mr. Albrecht says.

In the past 30 years, studies show, the Aletsch has been losing 50 meters of length a year and is thinning. Some years show gains in length, others record losses. But the overall figure is one of shrinkage. Last year, it lost 115 meters – though in 2004 and 2005, the glacier gained about 50 meters per year.

"At this rate, by 2100 about 80 percent of the surface of the glacier will be gone," says Ralph Logon, a Swiss geomorphologist and expert on glaciers.

The remarks of the Swiss highlight the complexities involved in glacial advancement and retreat. This was also noted in the remarks on Kilimanjaro in my previous post and in the selections from Status of the Siachen Glacier In The Himalayas – Climate Science: Roger Pielke Sr. Research Group Weblog. This glacier is apparently one of the larger glaciers in the Himalayas and has demonstrated a complex behaviour of advances and retreats since records began in 1862.

So, the behaviour of glaciers is complex, but I don't feel that a few counter-examples of non glacier-melting negates the general consensus of rapid glacial reduction in association with anthropogenic climate change. I think that the evidence for this consensus conclusion is overwhelming.

Yes, the dynamics of glaciers needs to be better understood in order to place these findings in a broader context. They should not be taken as a call for non-action on the climate. We cannot wait until we have absolute certainty if we wish to ease the multiple threats posed by climate change.

16 July 2007

This week's news from A Few Things Ill Considered

Link below for a comprehensive list of all news stories related to climate change this week..

Many of the topic related to climate impacts noted there were also discussed at planet doom? this week, including posts about coral reefs and the cryosphere.

Link: A Few Things Ill Considered: Another Week of GW News, July 15, 2007

Ice: Going, going...

The cryosphere includes regions with snow, ice, ice shelves, sea ice, glaciers, frozen ground and icebergs. It plays several important roles in the climate of our planet, from reflection of solar radiation to driver of ocean circulation. Recent observations have highlighted the continuing damage it has suffered due to climate change.


  • Crisis looms for Bolivia as glaciers melt – ABC News

    The glaciers in the Andes mountains of Bolivia provide about half the drinking water for two million people down the mountain. But the glaciers are now melting at an unprecedented rate and will be completely gone within 20 years.

Glaciers in the Tianshan mountains of Xinjiang, near China's western border, are shrinking at "alarming speeds", the Xinhua news agency said on Thursday, citing a local scientist.

Higher temperatures, melting permafrost, a reduction in polar ice and increased flooding are expected to raise the repair and replacement cost of thousands of infrastructure projects as much as $6.1 billion for a total of nearly $40 billion — about a 20 percent increase — from now to 2030, according to the study, by the Institute for Social and Economic Research at the University of Alaska Anchorage.
Sea Ice
The trends of sea ice concentration presents many problems now and in the future. The amount of sea ice has been declining in recent years.
Future climate change may affect global ocean circulation because of reduced Antarctic winter sea ice formation in large open water areas...
Melting sea ice is driving mother polar bears onto land in northern Alaska to give birth, scientists have found.

Pregnant polar bears build snow dens to protect new cubs from the Arctic winter. The researchers found that between 1985 and 1994, 62% of polar bear dens were built on sea ice – but that number dropped to 37% between 1998 and 2004
Ice Sheets

A new NASA analysis of climate change warns that the Earth’s remaining ice sheets could melt much faster than predicted, drowning even the most alarming projections by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in a sea of unprecedented disaster.

The cryosphere is one of the more sensitive regions to climate change. Changes to the cryosphere, once they reach a particular point, should be a readily visible indicator of climate change. With the items listed above, and other data found at the National Snow and Ice Data Center, the oncoming threat to humanity should be more than obvious. Its time to take action.

The above images are from the National Snow and Ice Data Center. The top shows a glacier in the Cascade Mountains in 1928 (left) and in 2000. The bottom image shows a near real-time satellite composite of the extent of Arctic Sea Ice from 13 July 2007.

15 July 2007

Increase in Mediterranean TCs?

Beyond Katrina highlights an article on the possibility that climate change may bring more tropical cyclones to the Mediterranean region, linking to this story in the Times Online. The gist of the story:

“We have detected for the first time a risk of tropical cyclone development over the Mediterranean based on anthropogenic climate change,” said Miguel Gaertner, lead researcher at the environmental sciences faculty of the University of Castilla-La Mancha in Toledo, Spain.

The Times article also notes some recent occurrences of similar phenomena.

Recently, however, researchers found hurricanes forming where they had never been seen before. In 2004 Cyclone Catarina became one of the very few ever to form in the South Atlantic, hitting the coast of Brazil.

Then, in 2005 Hurricane Vince formed around Madeira, an area that had never before produced such storms. It even struck Spain – another first.

A quick search on Wikipedia suggests that while events like Catarina and Mediterranean TCs are rare. Looking at the times of occurrence noted in those articles, it would appear that they are becoming more frequent in recent years,consistent with the hypothesis of climate change. However, whether that is due to better observing and/or data in the modern era or an actual trend remains unclear at this time (and likely to remain so...).

There is also the issue of the categorization of these storms. Are they polar lows, subtropical cyclones or tropical cyclones? In some sense, it is really a matter of semantics. The fact is that unusual storms are occurring at unusual times and in unusual places. This is the issue.

The consequences may be relatively minor now, but they are potentially large in the future. A sensible risk management approach would be to act now to prevent catastrophe down the road.

14 July 2007

Dolphins in Scotland

Warm-water dolphins spotted off Scotland -- UPI

EDINBURGH, Scotland, July 13 (UPI) -- Common dolphins have been sighted in unprecedented numbers this summer in the cold waters off Scotland.

Pods as large as 300 have appeared in the Moray Firth near Aberdeen, The Scotsman reported.

The common dolphin is a warm water animal, only rarely seen in the North Sea and more usually found in the Mediterranean. Scientists say rising temperatures have allowed them to move north.
More unprecedented happenings...

Coral Controversy

In recent years, coral bleaching has been observed in many places of the world. Up to 90% of reefs in parts of the Indian Ocean have been permanently damaged. In 1998 and 2002, 5% of the Great Barrier Reef were severly damaged in mass bleaching events. One cause of this is warmer sea surface temperatures (SST). There are other factors as well, both anthropogenic and natural.

As a result of this sensitivity to warmer SST, one of the projected impacts of climate change has been the widespread destruction of coral reefs. However, recent research reported in The Australian newspaper suggests otherwise:

Researchers in north Queensland have found many corals contain microscopic algae that protect them from temperature fluctuations.

The study by the Australian Institute of Marine Science in Townsville, which clashes with the work of many coral experts who have long claimed the reef is doomed by climate change, used DNA analysis to show many corals stored several types of algae that kicked in to provide nutrients when temperatures increased.


"The potential for this hidden back-up algae to provide nutrition to coral during heat stress is far greater than previously thought," said the study's lead researcher, Madeleine van Oppen.

She acknowledged the work was viewed as controversial in coral reef sciences.

The research team believes bleaching, widely associated with the death of coral, is part of coral's natural cycle of life.

Obviously, more research needs to be done, but this provides a glimmer of hope. Still, the issue is controversial: Soft Corals "Melting" Due to Warming Seas, Expert Says -- National Geographic.

Soft coral communities in tropical waters may literally be melting away because of bleaching events, which have been dramatically accelerated by global warming, a leading expert says.
Maoz Fine, of the Interuniversity Institute for Marine Sciences at Eilat, Israel, said global warming will subject most reefs to deadly temperature increases by the year 2030.

Preparing reefs now for dramatic climate change should be the most important task, he said.

"If we want to see reefs in the near future, we must remove all other disturbances such as overfishing, increased pressure from tourists, sewage, and so on," he said.

"Many acute disturbances can be prevented, and this will definitely increase the resilience of reefs."

This story from ScienceDaily suggests that it takes a significant amount of time for the reef system to recover, and preservation may require even more extreme measures...
Overall, the time frame needed by surgeonfish and tangs, triggerfish, rabbitfish, and the coral-building algae to completely rebuild their populations to pre-fishing levels may exceed the length of the study."Decisions made by managers to close areas to fishing in an effort to save fish populations can be unpopular but necessary," added McClanahan. "What this study has shown us is that many fish populations take long periods of time to recover fully, and that permanent bans on fishing in some parks are necessary if we're to conserve healthy coral reef systems."
The possible impacts above don't even take the likely effects of ocean acidification into account (from National Geographic):

More troublesome to marine habitats, biologists say, may be the potential impact of rising ocean acidity from fossil fuel use.

Acting as a carbon sink, the ocean absorbs atmospheric carbon dioxide. One 2005 study estimated that half of Earth's airborne CO2 was ultimately trapped by the ocean.

Through a series of chemical reactions, this dissolved CO2 turns ocean water more acidic.

Corals build their skeletons from waterborne calcium carbonate, the same mineral that makes limestone.

Rising ocean acidity retards the speed at which calcification can occur and in some cases may cause corals to build weaker skeletons.

The organisms, in effect, suffer a sort of osteoperosis.

All in all, if one of your ambitions (and one I would personally recommend) in life is too see the wondrous beauty that is a coral reef (or if you want your kids to see one...), the time to do it is now rather than later.

See Also:

Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority

13 July 2007

The Four Horsemen

Now, I'm personally not one for the Bible or religion, but it would seem that the traditional Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse: Pestilence,War, Famine and Death have been unleashed upon the Earth with climate change. Climate change impacts are not simply changes to the weather which will bring some minor inconveniences and annoyances to our existence. Rather, the fabric of our society and the survival of our species are potentially at stake. These effects are becoming apparent now.

Pestilence: South-east Asia Grapples With Dengue -- Inter Press Service News Agency

The surge in the number of dengue cases has already prompted health officials to say that 2007 may rank as one of the worst years recorded for a disease that is endemic from Burma to Brunei.

‘’There is a risk we are heading towards an epidemic situation in the region,’’ says Dr. John Ehrenberg, advisor for malaria and other vector-borne diseases at the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) Western Pacific regional office. ‘’We are seeing a serious increase in the number of cases relative to previous years in Singapore, Cambodia, Vietnam and Malaysia.
Its not just the countries above. Indonesia and and Thailand are reporting increases in the number of reported cases and deaths. Why the upswing now?
The WHO attributes the current increase in the number of dengue cases to climate change. The deaths due to dengue fever are among the 77,000 deaths recorded annually in the Asia-Pacific region linked to global warning, the Geneva-based health agency said at a recent conference in Malaysia.

‘’We have now reached a critical stage in which global warming has already seriously impacted lives and health, and this problem will pose an even greater threat to mankind in the coming decades if we fail to act now,’’ said Shigeru Omi, WHO regional director for Western Pacific.
The story also suggests that the worst epidemic on record was observed in 1998.

Global Warring: Climate Change Could Be The Root Of Armed Conflicts - Science Daily

Climate change, and the resulting shortage of ecological resources, could be to blame for armed conflicts in the future, according to David Zhang from the University of Hong Kong and colleagues. Their research, which highlights how temperature fluctuations and reduced agricultural production explain warfare frequency in eastern China in the past, has been published online in Springer’s journal Human Ecology.

But we didn't really need a study to know that. It is happening already in Darfur, Sudan, along with Famine: Environmental Degradation Triggering Tensions and Conflict in Sudan -- United Nations Environment Programme press release.

The most serious concerns are land degradation, desertification and the spread of deserts southwards by an average of 100km over the past four decades...

...[T]here is mounting evidence of long-term regional climate change in several parts of the country. This is witnessed by a very irregular but marked decline in rainfall, for which the clearest indications are found in Kordofan and Darfur states.

In Northern Darfur for example precipitation has fallen by a third in the past 80 years says the report by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and its Post-Conflict and Disaster Management Branch.

The scale of climate change as recorded in Northern Darfur is almost unprecedented, and its impacts are closely linked to conflict in the region, as desertification has added significantly to the stress on traditional agricultural and pastoral livelihoods.

In addition, "forecast climate change is expected to further reduce food production due to declining rainfall and increased variability, particularly in the Sahel belt. A drop in crop yields of up to 70 per cent is forecast for the most vulnerable areas," says the Sudan Post-Conflict Assessment.
All of these, of course, are bringing the fourth horseman, Death. Another track it is taking: Death Rates Will Rise Because Of Global Warming, Researchers Warn - Science Daily
Global warming will cause more deaths in summer because of higher temperatures but these will not be offset by fewer deaths in milder winters finds an analysis published online ahead of print in Occupational and Environment Medicine.
Again, this one has already been observed in 2003 European heat wave, which claimed 35 000 lives.

While we most likely cannot avoid all adverse effects at this late date, we can act to reduce our emissions while continuing to grow the economy (from Science Daily). The real question is: can we get the Deniers to at least act as if climate change is a possibility and take appropriate steps to reduce the effects on ourselves and future generations.

10 July 2007

Over the Top Down Under

A lot about climate change and Australia in recent days. Most of it is speculation, but interesting and relevant nonetheless. First, some likely impacts:

North Australian barramundi may be forced to migrate as far south as New South Wales as climate change impacts on sea temperatures.
A central eastern Queensland mine has turned up bat fossils which show climate change has had a negative impact on the state's bat population.
An ecology professor from the University of Tasmania has warned the World Heritage Area in the state's south is under extreme threat from climate change.
Only one of these (the bats) is an observed impact. The other two are speculation. Maybe they won't happen. Shall we hope the Deniers are right and take the chance? I suspect that we are going to. If (and when) it does turn out badly, Australia cannot claim that they were not at least partially to blame. We've led and continue to lead (myself included!) an irresponsible lifestyle.
For a country of just 21 million, Australia has a huge impact on the global ecosphere. Domestically, the CSIRO have just estimated that our less than one third of a per cent of the world's population produces 1.43 per cent of its CO2 (more than 4½ times our share proportionally) and there is much we could and should be doing to address that. Unfortunately, our government has been a standard bearer for the “business as usual” lobby - preferring to deny, delay and dodge any movement to address the issues.
It's not much CO2 in the grand scheme of things, but it is a lot per capita (second highest). There are several problems:
  1. Australia’s reliance on coal for our nation’s energy and its unwillingness to adopt alternative energy sources has contributed greatly to our status as a high carbon emitter.
  2. Australia is also in the unenviable position of being geographically isolated both internationally and domestically. As a result, we rely heavily on high carbon emitting air transport for travel both intra and interstate as well as internationally.
  3. ...[O]ur heavy reliance on livestock both domestically and for export. The impact of livestock in terms of carbon dioxide and methane is something that has received little attention to date but it impacts more on greenhouse gas emissions than travel.
None of these are excuses not to act, though.

Our inaction and lack of leadership continues to harm the global ecosystem, global co-operation and action. We must not continue to use other nation’s lack of action or vastly different circumstances as an excuse not to change our behaviour. By introducing emissions targets along with developing and implementing strategies and technologies to achieve them, we can show leadership in our region. It makes economic and environmental sense.

There is no single strategy that will address all the challenges of climate change, but to have no strategy, is a betrayal of our children and future generations - it is their future we are trashing through our inability or unwillingness to act now.
The last article linked above is an opinion piece by Andrew Bartlett , a member of the Australian Democrats and has been a Senator for Queensland since 1997.

07 July 2007

Is this normal?

From the Bulletin of the American Meteorology Society article 'State of the Climate 2006'.

An excellent annual summary of 2006. Our planet continues to change...

06 July 2007

Same Drought, Different Meanings

Without a doubt, much of the US (and other parts of N America?) is currently experiencing a severe drought, as shown in the plot below.

Much of the Southeast is experiencing moderate to extreme drought, regions of drought are suggested around the Great Lakes, and much of the Southwest also has severe to extreme drought (which I would guess extends into Mexico...)

An important question arises related to the issue of attribution of the droughts. The New York Times article says:

drought... in the Southeast ... is more unusual, producing conditions not seen in more than 50 years in some places, and longer in northern Alabama.

Much of the region, government scientists say, is suffering from a rare sharp dry spell, though they are reluctant to attribute it to climate change. “In terms of its intensity, this one is very severe,” said Donald Wilhite...

Those ever-responsible, cautious government scientists :-) ...

Meanwhile, at Climate Progress in these [1 2 3] stories, the general tone of the articles is more of an implication of climate change (although Romm argues that he does not explicitly say that...).

Are these droughts the result of 'natural' cycles or induced by climate change? The truth is that we don't know. There have frequently been very bad droughts in the past, and we have a somewhat limited understanding of inter-decadal oscillations and teleconnections that could drive such natural cycles. Similarly, we can certainly say that these observations are consistent with the hypothesis of global warming, but we won't have statistical certainty for a long while yet. A third, more realistic option is that there is some combination of the two factors involved.

How do we decide scientifically? When, as a society, do we say 'Enough is enough' and begin to act? How will we know when it is climate change?