29 September 2007

The future of Oz

The news from Australia is dire. Climate change is not a problem for the future, rather the signs are becoming increasingly frequent that it has already arrived. Many sectors of Australian society are feeling the brunt of what looks more and more like climate change. And as bad as the situation is now, conditions could possibly get worse.

The most obvious sign of climate change is the drought which is still ongoing. Some of the effects were previously noted in this earlier post. As a result, “[w]e are seeing crop losses and irrigation areas under a huge amount of pressure”. Farmers are facing problems remaining viable, and consumers are also likely to feel the pinch through higher food prices. The grain crisis is also affecting beef cattle production here, with the industry in disarray. The drought is so persistent that some have taken to avoiding the term altogether, instead calling it the 'permanent dry'. Others say as there was no long-term perspective on the Australian climate, it was still too hard to separate influence from global warming from normal variability.

One mechanism for increased drought and climate change in Australia could be the recent findings of the weakening of the Walker circulation over the Pacific Ocean, which has resulted in an unprecedented El Nino dominance. Such a situation is conducive to drought conditions over Australia. This situation could also be related to the increase in weather favorable for bushfires, which has been particularly sharp in the southeast over the past 5-10 years.

Other threats also exist for the future. A paleo-record of tropical cyclone (TC) activity in north Queensland suggests that a recent lull in TCs over Australia could be about to end. This was a natural variability, but the future pattern may be exacerbated by global warming. Indeed, 2006 saw TCs Larry and Monica, both of which were very intense storms producing enormous damage across northern Australia. These could be a taste of things to come.

Climate change also threatens national icons like the Sydney Opera House, Sydney's beaches and the Great Barrier Reef. Heat-related deaths could triple and tropical diseases like dengue fever could extend to more temperate regions of Australia. Rising sea levels could also provoke extinctions of tropical birds in the Northern Territory.

Many of these worse case scenarios are preventable with unified global action to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases. To this end, Australia should ratify the Kyoto protocol. Despite the ominous signs of impending doom from climate change and other environmental issues, John Howard still doesn't really believe in climate change and refuses to take appropriate action. Australia is still part of the problem. Token gestures will not be enough.

Fortunately, the citizens of Australia have an opportunity to enact a positive change. Climate change is shaping up to be a major election issue in the upcoming federal elections. If we want to have a viable future, these issues should be at the forefront in the process of choosing our government. In the long run, the costs of doing nothing will outweigh the costs of acting now. If we wait for absolute certainty, it will be too late. As Vaclav Havel notes in this New York Times op-ed piece, we have a moral imperative to act...

We can’t endlessly fool ourselves that nothing is wrong and that we can go on cheerfully pursuing our wasteful lifestyles, ignoring the climate threats and postponing a solution. Maybe there will be no major catastrophe in the coming years or decades. Who knows? But that doesn’t relieve us of responsibility toward future generations.

27 September 2007

Tangled Bank 89

The blog carnival Tangled Bank #89 is up over at Aardvarchaeology, including posts on beasties, doctorin', 'nurvs' and 'hypnerotomachia'.

All the posts I read were good, but I found the stories about iffy medical experimentation and the increasing incidence of measles in the UK due to the autism-vaccine scare especially interesting.

My post 'Down south' is also featured in the carnival.

Read and Enjoy!

26 September 2007

Bushfires and climate change in SE Australia

A bit of self-promotion...

The Climate Institute of Australia today released a report entitled “Bushfire Weather in Southeast Australia: Recent trends and projected climate change impacts”. I am proud to say that I am the lead author on the report. I will briefly summarize the results.

The basic idea of the study was 1.) to evaluate the potential changes to weather conducive to bushfires in 2020 and 2050 using two CSIRO climate models made for the IPCC 4th Assessment, and 2.) compare these changes predicted by the model to what has been observed to evaluate how well the model is doing.

The first part was fairly straightforward, and follows on from a similar study we did a couple of years ago using the IPCC 3rd Assessment. The results were also similar. Broadly speaking, we found a 10-30% increase in fire danger across southeast Australia (NSW, VIC, TAS,ACT, SA and southern QLD) for the worse case scenarios by 2050. This was accompanied by a doubling of high-risk 'extreme' days, where wildfires are generally uncontrollable. We also looked at some of the extreme upper ranges, where much of the house loss and other types of damage occur, finding a similar increase.

Pretty scary stuff, but wait for the other shoe to drop...

Looking at the observations revealed that over the past 5 fire seasons in southeast Australia, we have consistently exceeded the fire danger predictions the model made for 2050. In other words, we are already there! The 2006-7 fire season was, by many measures, the worse fire weather we have experienced in our records at many of the stations. The 2002-3 season was also quite bad (Canberra bushfires), but unlike previous times, there hasn't really been much of a break between these two extreme seasons, which is unprecedented. Our records are limited. For example, the few long time series we were able to gather only extend back to the 1940s, and so fail to encompass some historically bad events like the 1939 Black Friday bushfires in Victoria. There are, as always, a few issues with the data, but we have done our best to work around those and we openly acknowledge what and where the problems exist.

Now, of course we cannot absolutely attribute all of that change to climate change, and we were very careful in the report not to do so. We cannot rule out interdecadal variability, for example. We did detect apparent 20-year cycles in the weather data, and we are currently in an upswing (apparently) in recent years. But, the peaks we are seeing now are higher than those in the past. We hypothesized that what we are seeing is some combination of climate change and interdecadal variability. The test of our hypothesis comes in the next 5-10 years of observations. If natural variability is playing a large role, the we will see a decline in the upcoming years, with a retreat towards conditions more like the 2020 model projections. If we don't see this decrease, the conclusion must be that the climate models are too conservative in this instance, and we are underestimating the impacts of climate change.

This last point is akin to the recent situation with the polar ice caps, wherein the melting is proceeding at a much faster pace than what was previously predicted. We don't have a complete understanding of the climate system (nor does anyone claim we do) and the models may be wrong. Unfortunately, not wrong in our favor. It all points to the fact that the time to act on mitigation of and adaptation to climate change is now (which is the point the Climate Institute is making with our report).

With this report, we have hit the major media outlets in Australia. We were the lead story on the 7:30 Report, a national news magazine. Transcripts and videos here (your humble blog author is featured in these interviews). I saw the report this evening, and I feel they did a pretty good job of reflecting the uncertainties and not exaggerating too much. We have also stories in most of the major newspapers in Australia. Will try to update with links to a few of these stories in the near future...

For those interested in the progress of this year's bushfire season in Australia, I encourage you to visit my other blog, the Australia Bushfire Monitor. There, I keep tabs on the major bushfire developments and events as they occur throughout the country.

25 September 2007

The more things change...

As the months pass, it becomes more and more obvious that the climate is changing. Yet many of the developed nations of the world, particularly the United States and Australia continue their recalcitrant foot-dragging ways, refusing to enact even the simplest measures to combat anthropogenic climate change.

In a just-published study in Geophysical Research Letters, there is now a suggestion that we have weakened the so-called Walker circulation, the Pacific-wide east/west circulation, an crucial part of the El Nino-Southern Oscillation (ENSO) phenomenon. Record sea-level pressures in Darwin, Australia, weaken trade winds and high sea surface temperatures in the Pacific are all linked, resulting in a period of unprecedented El Nino dominance of the climate. These changes are profound, and destined to wreak further havoc on the climate system, particularly in Australia.

AS events unfold, more of the populace of the world seek positive climate action. Two of three people polled in a 21-nation survey indicate that 'major steps' are needed soon to effectively combat global warming. Eighty percent believe humans are the source of the observed climate change.

At the same time, the leaders of the world's two leading emitters of greenhouse gases, the United States and Australia (per capita), remain with their heads stuck in the sand, refusing to take meaningful action. Bush refuses to attend UN climate negotiations organized in New York to kick off post-Kyoto negotiations for fear of 'damaging the economy'. Alexander Downer, Australia's Foreign Affairs minister, says we need to move on from the Kyoto protocol (which it is not a part of), apparently preferring the 'aspirational' targets of the toothless APEC proposal negotiated a few weeks ago in Sydney. The nations seem to be waiting for some technological miracle (which may or may not come), rather than making the hard choices required to effectively manage the situation.

To be fair, not all of the citizenry of these two countries are ignorant of the dangers of climate change. Australia's top policeman notes that the impacts of climate change are the biggest security threat of the future. US-based studies are suggesting that centralized coal and nuclear power plants should be phased out in favor of alternate energy sources. Australians also desire alternate energy sources, but would prefer some subsidies from the government to lower the cost. The token gestures made to date are not satisfactory.

There is hope and the time to act in these countries is coming soon. An election is immanent in Australia, expected to occur by the end of the year. National US elections will be held in little over a year. The citizenry of these nations must see through the sophistry of the current leadership and elect insightful leaders who are willing to place the environmental and climate issues of the forefront of the public policy agenda where they belong. The stakes are high and the time for dithering is past. We must act now to insure stability for future generations.

24 September 2007

Skeptics everywhere


Ran across this article from the Christian Science Monitor (which generally has responsible coverage about global warming/climate change that I have noticed...)

...does not believe that anthropogenic (human-caused) greenhouse gases – mainly from coal-fired power plants and motor vehicles spewing carbon dioxide – are the main culprits. In fact, he says, "It's my belief that in the last 100 years or so natural variations have played a bigger role."

Among the forces of nature he cites are changes in solar radiation, "very significant influences" of the tropical Pacific (El Nino and La Nina events in decades-long cycles), as well as changes in Earth's tilt and orbit over cycles lasting thousands of years.

This whole line of argument is tantamount to denying that CO2 acts as a radiative forcing. This is not controversial. The basic science has been known for quite some time, over 100 years. Carbon dioxide has increased by 35% since the beginning of the industrial revolution c.1850 or so. Humans are responsible. Not only is CO2 a climate forcing, but it is the largest climate forcing

As for solar radiation, yes, the Sun's output does vary. However, as shown recently in a well-publicized paper by Lockwood and Forhlich [PDF] , 'All the trends in the Sun that could have had an influence on the Earth's climate have been in the opposite direction to that required to explain the observed rise in global mean temperatures'. This is not speculation, this is taken from direct observation of the Sun.

There also variations of the Earth's orbit. These are known as Milankovitch cycles. As correctly noted in the quote, they occur over thousands of years. Given these long time scales, these forcings cannot be responsible for the recent increases in temperature, either. These cycles are responsible for the formation of glacial and interglacial periods and such. The tilt of the earth and other factors involved have not changed significantly over the Industrial era.

The tropical Pacific has also been behaving in something of an unprecedented fashion in recent decades. Since the mid-70s, El Nino, the warm phase of the El Nino-Southern Oscillation (ENSO) phenomenon, has been quite pronounced. There were 'monstrous' events in 82-83 and 97-98 and an extended multi-year episode in the early-90s. This century has seen El Nino in 2002-3 and 2006-7 (and almost in 2004-5). La Nina has quite quite weak since the late-80s. Even the ongoing La Nina is not particularly strong...It has really only 'limped across the line' to reach that status, and is not expected to persist.

Not much is certain about the interaction of climate change and ENSO. A highly uncertain outlook for the future suggests that it will remain about the same. But climate models do a pretty poor job at simulating ENSO, so that result is highly speculative. It is not hard to find credible papers in the literature which suggest that global warming has already affected ENSO. Further, a recent study has shown that the heat over the US in 2006 is attributed to greenhouse gases, not ENSO.

The evidence for climate change is strong. It is not just the amount of change, but the pace at which it is occurring. Without question, natural environmental variability plays a role in producing the observed changes. However, the evidence for CO2 forcing is also strong, and as it and other greenhouse gases accumulate at an ever-increasing rate, the effects are going to continue to get worse. The timing is too coincidental: a known climate forcing and a sharp temperature rise. It's not hard to connect the dots. Even if by some chance the majority of climate scientists were wrong, moving towards a greener lifestyle and society is not a bad thing. It has been estimated that up to 40% of deaths worldwide can be attributed to human pollution. It is time for humanity to clean up its act along with the planet.

We're all in this together, and together is the only way out.

18 September 2007

Odds and ends

A few miscellaneous news items related to previous posts on planet doom?

Just days after the post Disease and climate change, which noted the possibility of the disease Leishmaniasis extending its range comes a report detailing just that. Nine people in north Texas, in the vicinity of Dallas have been confirmed to have acquired the parasitic disease. The people who have fallen afoul of this infliction have not visited areas where the disease is endemic. "This is very strong evidence that the areas we need to consider endemic are moving north", reported the doctor confirming the diagnosis.

The melting ice of the Arctic is affecting political and social change in Greenland. While the retreat of the ice is eliminating the traditional way of life based on hunting, the warming is also allowing residents to produce potatoes and broccoli. It is also record catches of fish and creating opportunities for exploitation of mineral resources, possibly including oil. The potential wealth from mineral exploration is fueling dreams of a self-sufficient and independent Greenland, as well as creating social tensions and upheaval.

Finally, Australia's climate change woes continue. Despite a La Nina being officially declared recently(by the US, anyway. Australia still hasn't officially announced it yet...), unprecedented drought continues is the agricultural regions of the nation. Historically, La Nina years bring abundant rainfall to Australia, but the late timing and unusual temperature structure of this particular event is preventing this from occurring. As a result, the wheat harvest is likely to fail again this year, sending already high prices soaring. The wine industry, one of the leading exports, is also threatened if the drought continues. In Sydney, current water restrictions have been made permanent, in anticipation of continuing and future drought.

Worldwide, the signs continue to point towards ongoing climate change. If, as seems likely, these trends continue, we face a crisis of unprecedented magnitude. While we cannot be 100% certain these effects are due to climate change, do we really want to take the chance? It is our children's future. Let's take steps to correct our unsustainable lifestyle and give them a chance at a better life.

16 September 2007

Down south

Antarctica. The bottom of the world. On average, the coldest, driest and most elevated region the planet. Antarctica contains approximately 90% of the ice found on Earth. As a consequence, the goings-on in this extremely remote locale impact the rest of the globe. Understanding what happens here is critical to understanding the changing climate. Unfortunately, our current picture of the events on the continent is far from clear.

Most of the controversy lies in discerning what exactly is going on with the ice. Observations from the Arctic show that ice there is getting thinner and summer melting is proceeding more rapidly and to a greater extent than previously observed. Some claim that this was being offset by increasing ice in the Antarctic (e.g. here and here). Other studies suggest that the Antarctic as a whole is losing mass. The question is important because of the implications of melting ice sheets on global sea level rise.

Part of the controversy arises because the results depend on where the measurements are taken. The East Antarctic ice sheet, the world's largest, is apparently stable. However, West Antarctic and the Antarctic Peninsula have been less so. In 2002 a large portion of the Larsen B ice shelf collapsed in dramatic fashion. Recent satellite images also show that portions of West Antarctica approximately the size of California melted in January 2005 (image). Studies also show that glaciers on the Antarctic Peninsula are moving more quickly into the ocean over the last 10-15 years. These trends are alarming, and suggest that sea level could rise more quickly than anticipated in IPCC AR4.

The Southern Ocean which surrounds Antarctica also plays an important role in regulating the climate. This region is also undergoing modification as well. This ocean plays a role as a carbon sink, removing CO2 from the atmosphere. Recent reports have suggested that this sink is not as efficient as it once was, potentially leading to an extra enhancement of CO2 in the future. The suspected causes of this are human activities: the ozone hole and climate change. As an offset of sorts, though, the shedding of icebergs off Antarctica could help to reduce CO2 levels in the atmosphere. The icebergs act as floating estuaries, impacting the ecology and chemistry of the surrounding ocean. Phytoplankton around the icebergs capture CO2, removing it from the ocean and allowing the ocean to absorb more CO2.

An experiment is planned near the Antarctic Peninsula in early-2009 to attempt to exploit this characteristic of plankton. The idea is to fertilize the ocean with iron to encourage plankton growth. As has been noted before, this geo-engineering project reeks of humanity's hubris, and is more likely than not to end badly through some unforeseen consequence.

The various interactions and relationships between ice, ocean and atmosphere are complicated. Antarctica also provides the opportunity for us to better understand these processes. Ice cores from the continent has pushed the paleo-climate record back to 800 000 years, the longest available. A series of underground lakes has also been discovered in the last decade or so. Careful study of these lakes, which have been undisturbed and isolated from the atmosphere, may lead to new insights into many of the biological and physical processes occurring in the region.

Antarctica is unique in the world, critical to the global climate and (relatively) unspoilt by humanity. It presents an opportunity for humans to learn more of the world around us -- a way to plan for adaptation to and/or mitigation of our accelerating climate crisis. It unique status arises in part from the outstanding Antarctic Treaty, which prohibits territorial claims and militarization of the continent. As the climate warms and the region becomes more accessible, we must avoid a repeat of the debacle we are witnessing in the Arctic, with the rush by several nations to claim the regions of the Arctic for nationalistic resource exploitation, particularly oil. We must move away from our addiction to oil. In order for mankind to have a future,this sort of selfish short-term thinking must be avoided, while embracing a sustainable, one-planet paradigm. It is the only way forward.

13 September 2007

Disease and climate change

Throughout history, disease has played a major role in human affairs. From The Fourth Horseman by A. Nikiforuk:

...[E]pidemics have crumbled empires, defeated armies and forever changed the way we live and love. Smallpox conquered the New World...Plague defeated feudalism [and] fertilized the seeds of capitalism...Malaria extended the viability of the slave trade...the Fourth Horseman rides into our lives at his convenience. (Page xv of introduction)

Our current experiments in environmental modification – greenhouse gas enhancement, land use changes and the like – are saddling up his steed for yet another foray through our overpopulated world. The signs are already appearing, as evidenced by the following recent news items

  • The central highlands region of Kenya, previously malaria-free, is experiencing widespread outbreaks of the disease as mosquitoes expand their range due to rising temperatures associated with global warming. [item]
  • Leishmaniasis, a flesh-eating and sometimes fatal disease will become more prevalent as the climate warms. The sand fly whose bite transmits the parasitic infection is typically only found in the tropics. As temperatures rise, it is able to colonize and broader range and transmit the disease. [item]
  • Global climate change has for several years been contributing greatly to the spread of cholera through associated increase in the frequency of torrential rain, floods and periods of drought. [item]
  • A suggestion that climatic change will render conditions more favorable for human plague, which is still reported regularly in Central Asia. [item]
  • Legionnaire's disease is on the rise in the UK. Last year, the number of cases was the highest ever reported. The the limited evidence available indicates that the increase could be the result of climate change. [item]

Deadly new diseases also emerge regularly, due in part to “...[e]xplosive population growth, intensive agricultural practices, and changes in sexual behavior”.Relatively recent emergees include Ebola -- a new outbreak of which is being reported in the Congo, and bird flu, for which first documented case of human-to-human transmission has been reported in Indonesia. Whatever relationship, if any, these diseases have to climate change is unknown. But as the WHO report linked above indicates, human activities are the source of these maladies.

The spectre of human-induced pandemic, wither through climate or other sources, serves as another wake-up call to humanity. It is time to change our ways. We need to reduce our heedless exploitation of the planet, sensibly reduce the population (how?) and assist those in need in order to prevent future calamity. It is a difficult task, and no-one knows all the answers. The most arduous journey begins with a few small steps. We need to take those steps now.

11 September 2007

Arctic meltdown

The news from the Arctic just keeps getting worse. The events currently unfolding in these regions are the clearest indication that something is amiss with the climate system.

The most obvious effect is the vast reduction in the areal coverage of Arctic sea ice. As of 4 September, the previously observed record low has declined still further, to 4.42 million km^2. A new update should be available in the next few days.

One result of the melting ice is that the long sought after Northwest Passage also opened to non-icebreaker ships for the first time since observations began in the 1970s. The image below, from the NASA Earth Observatory website, shows the unprecedented event from a satellite perspective.

The permafrost is also melting in many areas of the Arctic. According to the article, the feedback effects that this is likely to have are uncertain. From the article:

Permafrost collapse in peatlands tends to result in the slumping of the soil surface and flooding, followed by a complete change in vegetation, soil structure, and many other important aspects of these ecosystems...vegetation responds to the flooding with a boost in productivity. More vegetation sequesters more carbon away from the atmosphere in plant biomass.

It's not all good news, though...

...[T]he report also cautions that this flooding associated with collapsing permafrost also increases methane emissions. Methane is an important greenhouse gas, which is more powerful than carbon dioxide in its ability to trap heat in the earth’s atmosphere.

Unfortunately, the methane release will likely eventually balance or outweigh whatever the sequestration effect is observed.

There are also ominous signs that the melting of the Greenland ice sheet is accelerating (from The Independent)...

High up inside the Arctic circle the melting of Greenland's ice sheet has accelerated so dramatically that it is triggering earthquakes for the first time.

Scientists monitoring the glaciers have revealed that movements of gigantic pieces of ice are creating shockwaves that register up to three on the Richter scale.

The speed of the arctic ice melt has accelerated to such an extent that a UN report issued earlier this year is now thought to be out of date by its own authors.

The effect on ecosystems of the North is severe. Spring is now arriving about a fortnight earlier, with consequences for the biomes of the region.

A study of a range of animals and plants living in the high Arctic has revealed that many of them are responding to the earlier spring by flowering or laying their eggs significantly ahead of their normal times of the year.

On average, the breeding and flowering seasons in the Arctic have shifted by 14.5 days but some species of mosquitoes have begun laying their eggs 30 days earlier than in the mid 1990s...

...[T]he change in timing of emergence, egg-laying and flowering could disturb local food
webs with some animals appearing ahead or behind of others on which they rely for food.

The changes in the Arctic are also affecting polar bears, which are now expected to be functionally extinct in some regions as soon as 2030. Read the excellent posts on this over at Climate Progress and at The Island of Doubt.

That these changes are related to global warming seems obvious. The claims of the Deniers and doubters are disappearing faster than the Arctic ice. The time for action is now. Half-hearted, insincere measures like the recent APEC agreement won't do the job that needs to be done. The UN says that 2/3 of the emissions cuts for the future need to come from developing countries. That may be, but the developed world democracies must also play a major role -- in political and scientific leadership, in developing and implementing the appropriate policies and in financial and technical support for making the necessary adjustments. Citizens of these democracies must bring the issue of climate change to the forefront in upcoming elections and choose leaders who will lead, rather than those who deny, obfuscate and try to sustain the unsustainable status quo. It is the only way forward.

08 September 2007

For the birds

Around the world,from Antarctica to Scotland, birds are feeling negative impacts from climate change. Their habits are changing and their numbers are dropping. Both terrestrial and pelagic birds are affected. Here is a rundown of some of the latest to be reported.

Changes in climate are resulting in lower numbers and changing behaviours of avian species

...[T]he past and the present signal a worrisome future for the world's 17 species of penguins...

"Penguins are the bellwether of climate change. As birds they're pretty much at the top of the food chain and act as two-footed bio-indicators of the health of the environment, marine and terrestrial,"

"[T]he list of threats is phenomenal". ...habitat loss, human disturbance, competition from commercial fisheries, oil spills, marine pollution and predation by foxes and dogs. Finally, there's the big one: global warming.

...[M]any wildfowl no longer needed to migrate as far as the UK from places like Greenland and Siberia because of warmer winters.

Numbers of seven regular visitors, including the shelduck, mallard and turnstone, are declining, it warned.

But the overall number of waterbirds wintering in the UK has doubled since the late 1970s, a report adds.

The State of the UK's Birds 2006 report, says in particular the number of wading birds including the black-tailed godwit and the avocet, had increased markedly, mainly due to action by conservationists.

Extreme weather events likely associated with climate change-- for example the recent British floods -- also have an effect on avian species.

Bitterns are counted by the number of males that are "booming" – making the low, far-carrying call that attracts the female. Within the past 20 years there were as few as 11 booming males in all of the country, but strenuous conservation efforts had this spring brought that up to more than 50.

Then disaster struck. After 2007's wonderfully warm April, cold and rain swept in during the early May Bank Holiday weekend. At Minsmere, the flagship reserve of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds in Suffolk, five bittern nests were washed away, and the young birds died in the low temperatures. "It was cold and wet right across the bittern's breeding range," said Mark Avery, the RSPB's director of conservation. "One wet cold weekend dealt a devastating blow to one of Britain's rarest birds."

But it wasn't just bitterns. Two of Britain's most rapidly-declining farmland birds, the lapwing and the grey partridge, have also suffered terribly from the washout summer. Paradoxically, the lapwings were hard hit by the hot April, because the dried ground was too hard for them to dig out the invertebrates to feed their chicks. But then they were dealt a double whammy by the downpours which followed, and when rivers such as the Severn burst their banks in areas such as Gloucestershire, many nests in the riverside meadows were washed away and the chicks drowned.

The effect of the cold and wet on the grey partridge, which from being a common and familiar bird has declined by nearly 90 per cent in Britain as a whole and is now extinct in many parts of the countryside, was so lamentable that the Game Conservancy Trust issued a special warning notice about what had happened. "Urgent conservation action needs to be taken by all those with a responsibility for managing the British countryside," it said.

Birds are wonderful creatures, bringing pleasure with their grace and their songs. As a casual hobby, I greatly enjoy bird-watching. I find it very sad and disturbing that humankind are eliminating a great variety of birds with our selfish exploitation of the Earth. All the birds probably won't be eliminated; nonetheless, we will be leaving a poorer world for our children, lacking some of the simple pleasures that we now enjoy. As a civilization, we need to get our act together and preserve what we can, before it is too late. We are the cause, whether through land use, pollution, habitat destruction or global warming. We need to be the solution.

For more recent stories along this lines:

06 September 2007

Greek fires: A sign of global warming?

This post from Jennifer Marohasy's blog, a well known lair of Deniers, doubters and head-in-the-sand types, doubts that recent Greek fires (and by extension, one supposes, all of the unprecedented fire activity in southern Europe this summer) are at least partly due to global warming. The idea is completely dismissed, with no evidence provided. Instead, we are to believe the fire is solely due to human factors, namely

  • Changes in land use because 'rural people' who regularly burn-off no longer control the land (increasing fuel load)

  • Transfer of responsibility for bushfire away from land managers to fire agencies and their 'suppression mentality' (increasing fuel load)

  • An over-reliance on technology like fire-fighting aircraft

While I have no doubt that these factors play some role in producing this disaster, this analysis ignores the primary factor required to produce wildfires of this size and intensity. That factor is the WEATHER AND CLIMATE. Does the fuel load play a role? Of course it does. Humans are also responsible in that most of the fires were likely human-lit (though probably not by terrorists or the mafia...). But none of those would matter if the weather conditions were not set up to produce such a fire. That this oversight comes from a a bushfire specialist in WA is all the more disappointing. He should know better.

The fact is that the weather, especially the heat, in southern Europe this summer has not been observed for at least several human lifetimes. All time record highs were observed in Greece earlier this summer (46 C at one point). While temperatures were not that high during the time of the last fires, they were still in the upper 30s and low 40s at the time of fire, more than enough to produce an 'extreme' fire danger rating (in the Australian vernacular).

Is this 'proof' of global warming? No, but it is consistent with the expected effects predicted by the theory. Namely, more heat waves and drought, resulting in an increase in wildfire. Exactly what has been observed. Consider this quote from Climate Progress (albeit it was given in a different context, but still relevant)

Yes, it could all be a grand coincidence or the result of inadequate data — but as a scientist I apply Occam’s Razor. We have data that matches our theory. The simplest explanation is that the theory is right.

Certainly the impact of the fires could have been reduced. The author of the original post makes valid points. Allowing fuel loads to build to such high levels through misguided environmentalism and/or inappropriate management of the land is foolish, and contributed to the disaster. But even with a lower fuel load (and regardless of the ignition source), the fires very well may have been uncontrollable given the meteorological situation and the resource and technology issue above would still be irrelevant.

The issues the author raises are important. But the Earth's changing climate cannot be ruled out as a factor in the devastation caused by these fires. Greece will be a long time recovering from this disaster. Humanity needs to use this as a learning experience to adapt to the changing climate.