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).

15 October 2007

A bigger picture

Today is Blog Action Day, where 15000+ bloggers all speak out on one issue, the environment. As that is the usual focus of planet doom?, I have decided to focus on the big picture today. What are our most pressing problems and what are we going to do about it. I always vaguely talk about solutions. Today I expand on some of those ideas. It turned out to be a bit of an extra-long rant, but I hope you will enjoy it anyway!


To me, climate change is obvious. Yes, I know, paleoclimate studies tell us the climate has changed many times in the past and that climate change is a natural phenomenon. But many of the more extreme changes deduced from past evidence were not entirely “natural”; rather, they were the result of some greater climate forcing being applied (which have mostly arisen from natural phenomenon).

But the recent changes are unprecedented. The forcing in the case is humanity's uncontrolled CO2 enhancement experiment; since the dawn of the Second Industrial Revolution in the mid-19th century, humans have -- heedless to the consequences – added approximately 35% to the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere. That CO2 is a radiatively active gas -– absorbing infrared radiation and affecting the climate -- has been known for over 100 years. The effects of this enhancement on today's climate are readily apparent. To name a few:

The effects listed abovecan be thought of as 'primary' effects. These flow through the environment and produce more subtle 'secondary' effects. These aren't any less threatening, just indirect. Just a few

Climate change is not a isolated issue; rather, it goes hand-in-hand with many other environmental issues like overpopulation, overfishing, deforestation, desertification and the like. The root causes of most of these problems are our self-interested greed, the idea that our species exists 'outside' of nature – the Earth was created for us to exploit – and the “she'll be right, mate” attitude taken towards the dilemmas created by our poor stewardship of the planet.

The beginning of the end for these attitudes was revealed in 1962 with Rachel Carson's Silent Spring, which helped launch the modern environmental movement. Despite this wake-up call, our complacency large remains today. Like syphilitic emperors of yore , we fiddle with trivialities – the latest mobile phone, Britney Spears, or “monitizing” our inane blogs (planet doom? is proudly ad-free)– while our civilization burns around us.

To be fair, we have taken some small steps to rectifying our environmental problems ; for example, more of us recycle now and the use of more efficient light bulbs is encouraged or even mandated in some places. But these are but small initial steps for the long journey ahead. Individual action is important, but nothing less than a re-thinking of our current worldview and a re-organization of society will be needed to overcome the problems we face. Some big, but prudent, steps are needed now to maintain a decent standard of living and avoid a complete collapse of our society. These must be implemented in a global framework; if we don't all pull together, nothing will get done

Some of the things I think need to be done are listed below. These are some broad themes,developed from the various readings I have done over the months/years. They are woefully short on detail. I don't personally have all the answers (and neither does anyone else...). It is obviously impossible to do all of these immediately, but we need to start working towards these goals to avoid an even worse fate.

Reduce Pollution

  • Stop emitting greenhouse gases now! Carbon dioxide is a serious problem, a noxious effluent from our way of life. Cap-and-trade or carbon tax needed to provide the economic motivation

  • Agricultural reform. Current farming practices wreak havoc on the environment. Pesticides, fertilizer runoff, erosion, soil degradation...There's got to be a better way

  • More public transport. Drive less, walk more, ride a bike. We can't all drive a high-environmental impact vehicle for every little trip.

  • Energy conservation. Insulate your house and use efficient appliances. Turn your telly off, it rots your mind anyway.

  • Develop alternate energy sources. Eliminate coal, oil and gas to the extent possible. We've likely hit peak oil anyway, so it's not viable for too much longer. Avoid nuclear if possible. Let's try solar and wind power

Social Reform

  • Reduce the population. There are too many of us. Encourage people to have fewer children. If we don't do it, disease or warfare or some other calamity will do it for us...

  • Stop consumerism. Going shopping should not be a source of entertainment. We don't need most of the stuff that we buy/use. More stuff does not make you happier. Ask yourself, “Do I really need this?” before you make a purchase.

  • Work for global fairness and justice. The current system works through plunder and exploitation of the poor. This needs to stop. Instead of us-vs-them, let's work towards creating a mutually inclusive society where everyone is entitled to a minimum standard: healthy food, clean water, basic medical care, a safe environment and a right to meaningful employment.

  • Change our personal values. More respect for the environment. Less focus on material things.

Economic Reform

  • Develop a sustainable capitalism. Capitalism is the worst economic system, except for all the other ones that have been tried. It, in one form or another, is here to stay. But it needs to account for environmental factors. The environment provides many services which aren't currently accounted for. These need to be taken into account to measure the true costs of our actions.

  • Stop militarizing the economy. Our basic capitalistic society collapsed in 1929. It was jump-started by WW2, and the insane military build-up has continued since then. Our whole economy is based on bigger bombs, more guns and always finding an enemy to fight. It is a destructive, poisonous way to live life, and if the half a trillion dollars spent on the largely pointless Iraq war had been spent tackling the problems we face, we would be a lot closer to the solutions we need. This economic system is beginning to break down as well.

So is this a Utopian pipe dream? Of course it is, but it is at least something to strive for. Will we ever reach it? I doubt it, as it involves overcoming a lot of basic human biological nature, like selfishness, greed and looking out for one's tribe. But it is something to try for. The alternative is to give up and continue along our current dead-end path. And that is not possible. We cannot give up. We have a moral imperative to future generations to avert our future course away from its current path. I don't want my family or my children's children to live on planet doom.

14 October 2007

River impacts

In this post from planet doom?, the possibility of enhanced flooding along rivers due changes in water uptake from vegetation was briefly noted. In general, rivers face many dangers from both our current environmental management practices and climate change. A few recent items below highlight these threats.

A new study suggests that many rivers impacted by dams or extensive development will require significant management interventions to protect ecosystems and people, Because of the changes in the flow of rivers globally wrought by damming and/or development, most have a diminished capacity to adjust to the changes expected with global warming.

The changes to river systems are expected to vary -- some are expected to have large increases in flood flows while other basins will experience water stress such that there is not enough water to meet human needs. For example, by the 2050's, mean annual river discharge is expected to increase by about 20 percent in the Potomac and Hudson River basins but to decrease by about 20 percent in Oregon's Klamath River and California's Sacramento River

Recent news items demonstrate some negative effects of human 'management' of river systems, even before we have felt the full brunt of climate change. This news article reports that 15 000 wildebeest dies while crossing the Mara river in Kenya. Such a mass death was the first of its king in recent memory. Many of the animals died as a result of being trampled. Some officials blame the destruction of the nearby Mau forest for changing weather patterns and affecting tide levels, and they called on the government to curb the deforestation.

The Three Gorges dam in China is also proving to be an 'ecological disaster', even before it is fully completed. The water quality of the Yangtze's tributaries is deteriorating rapidly, as the dammed river is less able to disperse pollutants effectively. The incidence of algae blooms have risen steadily since the reservoir was completed in 2006. The rising water is also causing rampant soil erosion, resulting in riverbank collapses and landslides along the shores of the Yangtze's tributaries.

These events illustrate examples of the dangerous secondary effects we have seen with our current environmental degradation. Climate change will likely exacerbate these effects. The inter-linkages within the biosphere means that even relatively simple alterations to the environment are likely to have unforeseen consequences. Great care is required if we want to avoid the worst follow-on effects. This especially applies to climate change, about which we are woefully ignorant and arrogantly overconfident -- a dangerous combination. The time is now for prudent action to (try to) pull back from the brink of dangerous climate change, before it is too late for future generations.

13 October 2007

Greening the Earth with CO2: A good thing?

Despite what skeptical websites like this would have you believe, our uncontrolled experiment in CO2 enhancement (35% and rising!) is unlikely to end favorably on our already overstressed planet. Even without considering a radiative forcing of ~1.5 W m-2 and its heating,the enhancement of CO2 is likely to have many negative impacts on our environment.

Plants are likely to be subject to so-called CO2 fertilization, wherein the additional gas added by humans allows plants to grow more quickly. It's a physiological fact that vegetation needs CO2 to enact photosynthesis. But different plants react differently. Some show a strong response while others react more slowly. Recent observations and research are beginning to discern some of the details of how this fertilization works.

The birch trees seem better at nitrogen foraging than aspens... In mixed stands of aspen and birch subjected to elevated carbon dioxide levels, birch trees increased recent nitrogen acquisition by 68 percent, compared to a 19 percent increase among the aspens.

...some of the ecosystems that are potentially most responsive to CO2 are grasslands and savannahs in the South[ern Hemisphere]... these are also some of the biggest ecosystems globally.

The effects of elevated CO2 may already be in play, as indicated by fairly consistent evidence of "bush encroachment" or "shrub encroachment" in many grasslands of the world...

While these changes may seem quite benign on the surface, they actually pose many subtle threats. By altering the composition of forest and savanna ecosystems, we affect the biodiversity in that particular biome. The effects of this alteration are unknown but are unlikely to be positive. Such changes can contribute, among other things, to species extinction, enhance summer flooding by altering water uptake and/or change the fire regime. These effects can act as further feedbacks on the environment, further accelerating change.

The fact is that we humans remain quite ignorant about the workings of the ecosystems of the Earth. It is quite arrogant of us to think that we can alter our environment willy-nilly and not expect problems to arise. We certainly don't know enough to manage the problems; any 'solutions' we try are just as likely to worsen the problem as they are to fix it. Even discounting the warming effect of CO2, the evidence suggests that our “enhancement experiment” is not going to end well. The best thing we can do is to act to slow down or even stop the experiment by reducing our emissions of greenhouse gases. It is the responsible thing to do for future generations.

11 October 2007

Tangled Bank 90

The new edition of the Tangled Bank blog carnival is out over at The Other 95%. The usual potpourri of interesting science blog posts across a variety of disciplines.

My recent post on the danger to coral reefs is included.

Go over, have a read and expand your horizons.

Profit uber alles?

To effectively combat environmental degradation and climate change, we need to listen to one another – as individuals, as states and as nations – to work together to overcome these global crises. Instead, we are seeing a selfish “me-first” sort of attitude at all levels

In Inner Mongolia, the grasslands are turning to sand. The deserts in this region of China are expanding – now ~28% of the land surface, up from 18% in 1994. It hasn't rained in 6 years. Sandstorms are increasingly common, increasing respiratory problems in the region, especially for children and the elderly. These problems are due to desertification, an old problem largely due to unsustainable development, including over-cropping, over-grazing, improper irrigation practices, and deforestation. It is largely preventable. Rather the government chooses to pursue profit, with year-round grazing and coal mining.

In Egypt, the government also chooses a destructive path for the future, attempting to “green the desert”. The government is encouraging people to move to the desert by pursuing a plan to reclaim 3.4 million acres of desert over the next 10 years. The plan involves massive irrigation from the Nile river. This is a disastrous and irresponsible plan, likely (in the long run) to cause more problems than it solves. The strain on resources will be enormous, and will create tensions between nations that share the Nile. These sorts of environmental tensions are dangerous, given the growing evidence of environmental links to the genocide in neighboring Darfur, Sudan.

A final example of short-sighted behaviour comes from Indonesia. There, the government is practicing “eco-extortion”, demanding payment of $5-$20 per hectare not to destroy its remaining forests. To me, this reeks of greed and pure profit motive. “Pay us or we'll damage the environment” -- a fit of childish pique. The developed nations of the world do have an obligation to assist still-developing nations in overcoming the perils inherent in our current future path. As a matter of fairness, these nations need to have their standards of living raised, but this sort of blackmail should be resisted.

While these examples are focused on the developing world, these nations are merely following the example the developed nations have set in the past. We are more guilty of these sins. Our behaviour must be changed if we expect others to follow. Leading-by-example is the best way to blaze the trail forward.

The current focus on short term profits is unhealthy, a hangover of the sort of 19th and 20th century thinking which brought about this mess in the first place. It is time for humanity to grow beyond this and redefine prosperity. A new economy is needed, with proper accounting for the “services” the environment provides. A move away from rampant consumerism and endless economic growth and acceptance that the word's resources are finite is crucial.

08 October 2007

Lessons from the past

New research results reported in Australia have re-emphasized the importance of understanding climates of the distant past. Researchers at the Australian National University in Canberra have compared ice cores from a New Zealand and Greenland glaciers, finding that the cooling in the Younger Dryas, a period of abrupt cooling about 13 000 years ago, began about 1000 years later in the Southern Hemisphere, which apparently warmed while the north was cooling and escaped the worse effects of the ensuing ice age. Previously, this event has been hypothesized to have been a global effect.

The 'spin' on the news article has been that Australia can escape a 'new ice age' or, appealing to some of the more unsavory characteristics of Australian response to refugees, may face the threat of climate refugees from the northern hemisphere. These takes are silly, and undermine the seriousness and potential implications of the results. To be fair, though, the last article linked does contain a fair bit of science background and the silly emphasis is not the fault of the scientists involved, but rather the reportage...

These results suggest that an asymmetric response is possible. I would suspect that this results may play some role in resolving the apparent paradoxical responses in the polar ice, with the record low Arctic ice melt this past boreal summer while the Antarctic recorded its greatest areal extent of sea ice. A repeated claim of the doubters and Deniers has been that it can't be global warming, because the responses of the two poles are different. This research should deflate that line of reasoning to some degree; clearly there can be an asymmetric response.

These results also highlight the importance of the study of paleoclimate. This field provides an insight into the mechanisms of climate change. How does it proceed? What are the important factors? We probably cannot use the Younger Dryas as a direct analogy to our current crisis; each climate change event (now or in the past) likely has its own signature as a result of the particular forcing which drives it and the state of the climate when it happens. The forcing of the Younger Dryas is not really known although it is suspected that a shutdown of the thermohaline circulation in the North Atlantic was the culprit. Recent hypotheses suggest that an asteroid of comet impact was involved triggering the event. Regardless of the cause, large number of mammals went extinct in North America about this time.

Humankind faces enormous trials ahead, whether through climate change or other environmental degradation (or both!). As noted in this editorial from ScienceAlert:

It is time to admit how little we know and face the risks of planetary degradation – this goes way beyond climate change. Biodiversity isn’t just birds, primates and whales; it is planetary function and resilience. In fact, in a changing world, we should be finding ways to increase resilience not reducing it. Under climate change and a growing population we face a crisis of food security and resource management. Instead of “muddling through” we need an urgent program to critically review our conceptual foundations, the data requirements for adequate monitoring, the methods for data analysis and evaluation, and the information needs of communities and institutions for adaptive management.

Praemonitus praemunitus -- Forewarned is forearmed. We need all the information we can get to successfully navigate our future challenges.

07 October 2007

Growing concerns

As noted previously on planet doom?, agriculture is the basis of our civilization and climate change, along with other human mismanagement of our natural resources threatens to erode the very foundations of society. Recent events augur the possibility of widespread starvation as an emergent threat for the future.

Many of the issues at hand center around the soil. Not all of these are directly related to climate change, though. As a worldwide average, agricultural land loses about 1 mm of soil a year, which takes about 10 years to replace. Furthermore, this reduces the ability of the land to support crops, meaning more (petroleum-based) fertilizers need to be applied to generate the same yield. All told, some 30% of the world's arable land has been abandoned since the 1960s (e.g. Suzuki, The Sacred Balance) because the soil has been depleted away.

The application of nitrogen-based fertilizers in agriculture also threatens the broader environment. These fertilizers, invented in the early-20th century, lifted limits on food production and allowed the world's population to soar (undoubtedly part of our current problem...). But it also disrupted the natural cycles of nitrogen in the environment. Agricultural run-off and combustion of fossil fuels all release nitrogen, enhancing vegetation, including invasive weeds and consequently altering local ecosystems. Runoff of nitrates also increases algae, which can kill coral reefs and form toxic algal blooms, leading to so-called 'dead zones' in the oceans.

Agricultural land is also under threat from desertification and drought. Desertification is caused in part by human activities like overgrazing, water demand and deforestation. But climate change poses a greater threat. Changing weather patterns and more frequent droughts lead to more desertification. This, in turn provides a feedback, resulting in even more climate change. Global warming could also increase the incidence of crop disease. Effects of climate change-related drought (Is it?) and the rush to produce biofuels on food production are already beginning to be felt, resulting in increasing food prices in many places.

The food supply from the oceans is also threatened by climate change and overfishing. This season's tuna catch in the Indian Ocean is its lowest in 11 years of reporting. Overfishing is a known problem, but at least somewhat reversible with informed management. The effects of climate change on fisheries may eventually become to great to manage.

These are pressing issues, and the available solutions require careful planning and forethought. Adopting no-till agricultural methods to reduce soil erosion is one step. The population is very high and growing. It will be tricky to manage fertilizer (and pesticide!) use to minimize environmental pollution while still producing enough food. Genetically modified crops or high-tech cross-breeding programs may be needed. 'Forest farming' – using the land for multiple purposes – may be a solution in some areas. A crucial step towards a solution which has been neglected for too long is managing the population to a more sustainable level. But how we do that without a devastating war, pandemic and/or mass starvation is unknown...

06 October 2007

Coral reefs under threat

Coral reefs are hotspots for ocean biodiversity. They are also very sensitive to humankind's uncontrolled 'carbon dioxide enhancement' experiment, both through the warmer sea surface temperatures (and colder, too!) wrought by global warming and as well as increasing dissolved CO2-content leading to ocean acidification. As such, the health (status) of the reefs serves as an early warning for the effects of climate change.

Unfortunately, the news is grim. Corals in Australia, Indonesia and SE Asia are disappearing faster than expected. "We have already lost half of the world's reef-building corals," said John Bruno, lead study author. For humans, it's another suggestion -- like the melting Arctic or increases in dangerous wildfire weather-- that the climate is changing at a faster pace than expected. Put another way, the climate models our current projections are based on may be too conservative.

Understanding exactly what this alarm means is an important endeavor. We are still learning about how coral reefs work. Important questions being asked are “why coral reefs bleach and die, how they respond to climate change – and how that might affect humanity”. The “engines of the reef” -- microscopic algae that feed the coral – are having their genetics investigated to better understand their role in coral bleaching. Given coral's survival through geologic time, it obviously has some survival mechanisms to resist the impacts of climate change. Ancient corals are being examined to determine what these mechanisms are, with the hope that modern corals can survive ocean acidification.

In addition to the overarching ecological impacts, loss or damage to coral reefs can also have an economic impact as well. The Great Barrier Reef in Australia provides a $A6 billion dollar a year industry, another incentive to preserve the reefs and prevent climate change. While climate change is the main threat, other dangers also exist for the reefs of the world. Agricultural pesticides are so poisonous that they can prevent coral spawning, and consequently the reef's ability to regenerate and protect itself. Fertilizer runoff can also promote algal growth, blocking sunlight and killing reefs.

The human impact on the environment is obvious – for example, climate change, land degradation and pollution. It is time to act to minimize that impact. The militant consumerism of current (primarily Western) society is ecologically destructive and socially divisive; it is time to re-imagine society into something environmentally sustainable and mutually inclusive. It is not an easy path, but the alternatives are even less appealing.

04 October 2007

Australia and climate change: The official story

A definitive government study on Australian climate change was published 2 October 2007. The report is entitled (imaginatively enough...) “Climate Change in Australia”. A link to the complete report can be found here. The report is written by CSIRO and the Bureau of Meteorology.

It is interesting to see some of the headlines and the different emphases that the various parts of the country take in their coverage. It is a comprehensive report.

In some ways, the individual news reports all say the one thing: Warming 'inevitable' in Australia. Some prominent Australians don't believe it, but previous readers will know my thoughts on climate change in Australia. Climate change isn't a future problem, it's a here-and-now problem. Hopefully we are not underestimating the unexpected pace and magnitude of change, as much as recent observations of say, polar climate change (particularly the Arctic cryosphere), would suggest we are.

Despite the inevitability of some warming, it is not too late to mitigate the worse effects. But we need to act now. Just because John Howard thinks that any contribution we make towards GHG reduction is worthless (see endnote) doesn't mean it is true. Australian of the Year Tim Flannery has some sound advice on what we should (and realistically could) actually be done to at least prevent some of the worse effects.

Some of the political reactions to the report have been interesting throwbacks. One Liberal Senator is apparently concerned about the Yellow Peril and advocates extensive colonization of the north, particularly “the remote and largely unsettled Top End” to keep other (apparently disease-ridden) migrants and/or climate refugees out. As for the Cape York Peninsula, “Half is locked up as national park and more or less unsupervised Indigenous land," he said,”...it's only a canoe ride across to Papua New Guinea”.

Terra Nullius all over again.

We do have a say and a chance. The federal election is coming soon. Make the environment a top priority in deciding your vote. The rumor is that a change in government will result in Australia signing the Kyoto Protocol. There is hope. But it is time for us to give up our unsustainable ways. It is likely going to crash soon anyway as the global financial situation is grim. Act now for future generations, and for ourselves.


Specifically, Howard notes

Australia contributes only 1.5% of global greenhouse gas emissions, which when compared to China’s greenhouse gas emissions, are an extremely small percentage globally. If Australia was to close down all of its power stations tonight, the savings in greenhouse gas emissions would be replaced by the growth in China's energy sector emissions in less than 12 months.

Mr. Howard (and the next PM), it's not about tit-for-tat. It's about leading by example. If we sign, it puts pressure on the Americans. If they sign, China will likely follow. The path of least resistance might be easy, but is it moral? Is it the right thing to do?