16 December 2008

Climate change and South America: New beginnings in an old story

Like the rest of the world, South America (SA) is experiencing considerable environmental degradation. This is both a cause of and because of climate change; a result of human greed and apathy toward the natural world – a self-destructive social paradigm . Historically, SA has not been a significant factor in driving climate change (although currently Latin America as a whole is responsible for 12% of the annual global greenhouse gas emissions). That said, this does not mean the continent has escaped the some of the more deleterious effects of human environmental meddling.

Throughout South America (also Mexico), glaciers are in retreat (see these earlier posts). This tendency is particularly pronounced in the southern portion of the continent, Patagonia. In Chile, glaciers in the region have receded up to 580 meters due to reduced rainfall and rising temperatures in the region over the last century. Earlier this year, glaciers in Argentina were observed to break up in the winter for the first time. However, two glaciers have proven to be exceptions to the larger trend – one in Argentina and one in Chile are currently expanding.

The danger presented from the melting glaciers is not merely cosmetic. Rather, the receding glaciers represent a threat to the fresh water supply for both the local populace and agriculture. No glaciers means no fresh water, a dire situation. Still, local governments follow the same path. Recently in Argentina, a carefully crafted law meant to protect this resource was rejected in favor of business development and 'progress'. In Chile, near-future plans to address climate change are widely seen as insufficient.

One of the major sources of GHG emissions in SA (and globally) is deforestation. In an earlier post, some of the issues and attitudes regarding towards the Amazon rain forest were examined with the hope that Brazil would exercise the moral choice of conserving the rain forest for the long-term benefit of all. The actions of the Brazilian government tell one story; the annual tally of forest loss tells another.

The Brazilian government is making an attempt at conservation. A show of force with a crackdown on illegal loggers and a pledge to reduce the rate of deforestation by half in the next decade are some high-profile actions taken recently. Unfortunately, the annual amount of forest cleared has risen for the first time in three years. This is being driven by farmers and cattle ranchers clearing forest in response to capitalize on high commodity prices around the world.

Deforestation is not confined solely to Brazil, but rather endemic throughout the region. And while the effects on the global climate are significant, the local and regional impacts can also be large. For example

  • In Colombia, deforestation is behaving synergistically with an unusual rainy season, exacerbating flooding along with avalanches and landslides -- 50 people have been killed, 85 injured, nine are missing and 735,000 have been left homeless. A local meteorologist notes “Human beings are the problem...Cutting down trees in the river basins means that the rains are not contained, but sweep down rapidly into streams and rivers, which rise and overflow.”

  • In Paraguay, one of the last uncontacted indigenous tribes is being threatened as their forest homeland is reduced to cattle pasture. More tragically, the lands are protected under some native title legislation; the national government isn't (can't or won't?) enforcing the law.

Like the rest of the world,a common theme in SA appears to be the inability of many of the continent's governments to affect meaningful measures to halt the slide of environmental degradation, opting instead for the illusory panacea of short term economic growth. That said, many nations on the continent are experimenting with new forms of governance. Ecuador's new constitution states: "Nature or Pachamama, where life is reproduced and exists, has the right to exist, persist, maintain and regenerate its vital cycles, structure, functions and its processes in evolution." That is, it grants explicit rights to Nature. Early next year, Bolivia is likely to enact a new constitution that empowers the long-suffering indigenous people of that nation.

There is no guarantee of success, though -- significant hurdles remain to be overcome. More trials of this sort are needed to develop a new zeitgeist, a different way of living for the 21st century. The current paradigm of the global North has run its course; an apparent dead end of financial insolvency, endless warfare and destruction of the natural world. The world should learn from and improve upon these experiments. We may well be witnessing the beginnings of a 'New American Century', but this time led from the South and based on the principles of social justice and environmental sustainability.

Image: Wikipedia

27 November 2008

More fish tales

As humanity's impact on the environment continues becomes increasingly apparent, more measures are being made to stem the tide of the over-exploitation of the world's fisheries.

The International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT) passed a "total allowable catch" limit of 22,000 tons of bluefin for 2009. This number is down from the 29 500 tons allowed in 2008, but well in excess of the 15 000 tons recommended by ICCAT's own scientists. This is the legal allowable catch; illegal fishing will likely drive the total number of fish caught much higher. Environmental groups call the measure a disgrace.

The agreement also includes stricter measures aimed at limiting illegal tuna catches, defines mechanisms for control throughout the marketing chain and closes many outstanding loopholes. The EU apparently played hardball politics to get the higher than recommended quotas passed, threatening to penalize developing nations present at the meeting should they not agree to the higher limits. It seems to me that more and/or stricter laws are unlikely to staunch the flow; the EU has simply chosen to make sure that the national interests of its member nations are met. They're getting theirs while the getting is good, while paying lip service to the idea of sustainable fishing.

The last great US fishery is also looking at a reduced quota next season. Fisheries scientists recommended that next year's catch in the eastern Bering Sea, the main walleye pollack-fishing region for US boats, be cut by 18% to 815,000 tonnes. This continues a series of cuts in recent years that have seen the quota drop from almost 1,500,000 tons in 2005. Many argue that further reductions are needed with a quota to a quota around 500,000 tons in order to give the walleye pollack a chance to recover from years of overfishing. Pollock stocks have declined 20 percent per year since 2003, dipping to their lowest level since the late 1970s.

Will these cuts work? Such limits have been imposed before, with mixed results. In Scotland, stocks of herring and mackerel are on the verge of being (re)declared sustainable, following several years of cooperative conservation efforts. This is being hailed a success by local fishermen. Despite this, the season is limited to about 8 weeks a year to ensure conservation efforts are maintained.

However, the results on the other side of the Atlantic are not as positive. Atlantic cod is a symbol of boom-and-bust commercial fishing. After 50 years of heavy harvesting in the late 20th century, the Canadian cod fishery collapsed in the early 1990s. Total bans ensued, and fisheries managers expected to see a recovery. However, after 15 years of little to no fishing, local populations show no sign of rebounding. In fact, some will continue to spiral downward to extinction.

The main problem is that adult cod have been dying at an unusually high rate in recent years. No one knows why, but one cause might be increased predation by seals. The problem may be more widespread: The neighboring Scotian Shelf cod population also took a nosedive in the 1990s. While most other cod populations off Canada appear to be stable, the same could have been said about the southern Gulf population up until a few years ago.

It is not clear what the final outcome of these quota cuts will be. The ecology involved is complex and not fully known. And human actions further complicate matters. Over-fishing is but one of the many environmental disasters caused by human irresponsibility. We have a deleterious effect on the entire globe -- the short-sidedness of Our Way of Life. Strong economic incentives to curb our excesses are needed, while we discover new ways of living and co-existing with the ecosystem at large. A part of the natural world, not apart from it.

Image: Der Spiegel

25 November 2008

A sad tale: Antarctic whaling

As austral summer approaches and the 'high season' of the Antarctic opens up, Australia and Japan are gearing up for another round in the Great Game 2.0, the quest to control Antarctica and the potential resources it represents if and when the Antarctic Treaty breaks down.

The lead ship of the Japanese whaling fleet, the Nisshin Maru, has set out on its annual 'scientific whaling' expedition. The ship left from Innoshima in western Japan with little fanfare. A Greenpeace spokesperson said, “Constant pressure on Japan's whaling industry...has reduced the fleet to sneaking out of port in a fog of crisis and scandal, desperate to avoid attention”.

Last year, diplomatic tensions rose between Australia and Japan, a result of confrontations between anti-whaling activists Sea Shepherd and the whalers. Protesters launched stink-bombs and boarded the Japanese ships without permission and were held captive for several hours. Ultimately, the whalers returned home with only around half the numbers of whales killed for their 'study' than had been planned.

This year, it is anticipated that Japan will have a quota of 850 minke and 50 fin whales. The Australian government is unlikely to send an official vessel to monitor the activity. Also, Greenpeace has decided not to send an anti-whaling ship this year amid expectations Japan may send a coastguard ship with the fleet to ward off activists. (Wouldn't this be technically illegal under the Treaty, which prohibits militarization of the continent?). Sea Shepherd again plans to disrupt the hunt, hoping to send two ships this season.

Earlier this year, Japan's scientific body in charge of the whaling endeavor published a paper claiming a 'key finding' from the research:

The new study analysed measurements taken from 4,689 adult whales killed by the Japanese whaling fleet between 1988 and 2005. It found that blubber thickness and overall fat weight had decreased by 9% over the period, which it called a 'substantial decline". Girth of the animals was down 4%. The study says: "This is the first time a long-term decline in energy storage in minke whales has been demonstrated."...

...[T]he decline in blubber was down to shrinking numbers of Antarctic krill, a shrimp-like crustacean at the heart of the food chain. The amount of blubber lost is roughly equivalent to 36 fewer days of intensive summer feeding.

Krill numbers in the water around the rapidly-warming Antarctic peninsula have collapsed by about 80% since the 1970s. This is blamed on the loss of sea ice, which provide shelter and food for krill.

The study says the impact of global warming on the minke whales is unclear because no similar krill measurements have been made in that region of the Southern Ocean. But it claims that competition for krill from other predators such as the humpback must also be "considered as a likely explanation".

Some criticisms:

  • They then claim that the Antarctic minke whales that they did the study on must be competing with other whales, like humpback whales that are increasing in numbers, for a limited amount of krill. We think the science behind showing those trends is very weak at best and the explanation they put forward is extremely simplistic.

  • Lots of dead bodies will provide robust data, so if you kill lots of whales then you will be able to get some information. The question is whether the benefits outweigh the number of whales killed and how they were killed. Scientific whaling is not about science, and there is no pressing conservation need that requires it to be done. (Link same as before)

I tend to agree with the critics. There is a lot of pointless slaughter for not a lot of benefit; a relatively minor finding with a fairly speculative conclusion*. And this is apparently one of the few (the first?) peer-reviewed article to appear describing the results of this 20-year experiment. Scientific whaling is obviously a sham, a cheap facade, a cynical ploy to evade the international moratorium on commercial whaling.

While there is no doubt that many in Australia care deeply about the whales, I still maintain that the Australian Government has an ulterior motive, namely reinforcing its claim to Antarctica by re-affirming its moral claim in the area. This season, rather than risk a potentially violent confrontation, Australia is sending a scientific expedition to prove it was not necessary to kill the ocean mammals to study them. Let the 'pirates of compassion' directly confront the whalers, while the government pursues legal avenues. Plus, if there is no official presence there is no pressure to stop the activists.

And make no mistake, the Treaty is failing. Already suggestions are being made to end the Treaty, under the guise of environmental protection. While the environment is feeling the effects of humanity, mainly through overfishing , allowing national claims opens the door for further exploitation to the continent. It's already happening in the rapidly degrading Arctic, it will happen down South given the slightest chance, despite good intentions and promises to the contrary. Something should be done to protect the Antarctic, I doubt this is it...

Another version of the tragedy of the commons is revealing itself and Australia is making some clever moves in the early rounds of this Great Game. Whales make a good cover story and it's popular domestic politics. Realpolitik says the game must be played, failure to do so automatically results in a loss. Unless the rules change, this is The Way the World Works.

Protecting the whales is the right thing to do, as well. Taking out the upper links of the oceanic food web will have unknown consequences on the ecosystem at-large. Further, some species of whales share brain structures that make us human, indicating the possibility of consciousness and high-level emotional functioning. Bluntly put, killing whales may be murder. Whaling in the Antarctic (or anywhere) is an ethical atrocity and should be stopped immediately (and permanently). Humans have done enough to the world around us. Let's evolve in our own thinking and draw the line here.

*Question: How do we know this isn't the result of consistently killing the biggest and best whales for the 20 years for scientific whaling, leaving only the less fit? An example of evolution in action? Or do the Japanese cull whales indiscriminately, killing whatever they see regardless of age, size or maturity?

Image: Reuters.
Also: The book Harpoon: Into the Heart of Whaling is a enjoyable read on the history of whaling.

14 November 2008

Teaching ourselves to fish

Give a man a fish, and he'll eat for a day. Teach him how to fish, and he'll eat forever. Or so the old aphorism goes. But is it true given the current state of the evidence?

In Europe, the crisis is becoming dire as deep cuts to the numbers of fish extracted from the ocean are being proposed. For 2009,the following measures have been proposed:

  • No fishing at all west of Scotland for cod, haddock and whiting west of Scotland;

  • A 25% cut in herring catches in the North Sea and west of Scotland;

  • A continued a ban on anchovy fishing in the Bay of Biscay;

  • A new ban on fishing for spurdog and porbeagle, two species of deep-sea shark.

Ironically enough, these cuts come after a poorly thought out 11% increase in the numbers of cod taken agreed to last year...Bluefin tuna in the Atlantic are also threat of becoming depleted.

Sharks are also under extreme duress, with a quarter of sharks and rays threatened with being fished out of existence in the Northeast Atlantic. Critically endangered sharks in include the gulper shark, prized in the cosmetics industry for its liver oil, and the two sharks most valued in Europe for their meat -- the spiny dogfish and porbeagle sharks.

The shark's path to extinction isn't confined solely to Europe. Rising affluence in Asia is stoking demand for shark fin, widely viewed as a delicacy when shredded in soup. Much of this is supported by illegal fishing activity, with 'hotspots' found off Central and South America as well as in the western and central Pacific. Tragically, most of this catch is a complete and utter waste, because in many cases crews on illegal vessels slice the fins off sharks and dump the less valuable carcasses overboard.

Even the fish that aren't merely tossed overboard aren't particularly utilized in an efficient fashion. Nearly one third of 'forage fish' –anchovies, sardines and the like -- are ground-up into meal and fed to pigs, poultry, and even farm-raised fish. Domestic pigs and poultry are such gluttons for seafood that together they consume six times the amount of fish eaten in the United States and double the amount in Japan. These fish provide food for seabirds, marine mammals and larger fish; their removal may be putting the entire oceanic food web at risk.

Aquaculture -- fish-farming -- is apparently no better, particularly in the ocean. While perhaps feasible at a small-scale and as part of a larger process with multiple uses of water, a group is claiming that ocean salmon farming is devastating the world's oceans.

Three or more kilogrammes of wild fish is needed to produce one kilo of farmed salmon. The ocean bottoms under and around the open-ocean net pens are usually devoid of any life, buried under the excrement of up to a million salmon overhead...

Other impacts of the farms, including rampant disease and salmon as invasive species, are described in the linked article.

Overfishing (and its disruption to the biosphere) is but one of the many consequences of humanity's reckless exploitation of the natural environment. The ongoing Great CO2 Enhancement Experiment is also having strong impacts: Increasingly rapid ocean acidification; ecosystem changes driven by the unusual(?) melting of the Arctic ice caps, Indian ocean circulation oddities wrought by both natural variability and climate change. Humanity takes from the natural world, contributing little (if anything) back.

Because the oceans are owned by everyone and no one, a classic 'tragedy of the commons' scenario arises. All take, few give back. Laissez-faire rules the day. Some toothless attempts are made to curb the excess: agreements, quotas, licenses and such are easy to write and impose. We have heaps of them now regarding fisheries. Unfortunately, only those law-abiding souls with a conscience are bound by them; the dominant economic and social paradigms dictate that such people are losers, in both the literal and pejorative sense*. The oceans are too big to effectively police; people can and will (and indeed do) take what they want when they want it. Given the performance to date, this strategy is unlikely to succeed.

The parable cited above is remains true. Metaphorically speaking, Gaia has just been giving us fish; the earth is finite, unlike our seemingly insatiable demands. Humanity has not learned to fish yet, because we have failed to heed the lessons. The most straightforward path, as twisty as it may be, is to make the cost of extracting resources (like fish) prohibitively expensive when done at unsustainable levels. Given that money is about the only thing(s) that gets anyone's attention, the changes must be economic. Proper valuation of environmental considerations must be made in the general economy. This pretty much requires a change in the value system (of the global North in particular, but everyone really) lives by. Consumption must once again come to refer primarily to tuberculosis, not Our Way of Life.

It is late in the piece, and dramatic changes to the planetary ecosystem could be 'locked in'. Or not, we don't know for sure. The risks are large and we should act as best we can. It is time to listen to the lessons being taught and learn to fish.

*Summarizing the paradigm, not a personal viewpoint...
Image: Spiny dogfish shark found dead in a net. From
The Guardian.

29 October 2008

Climate change: The reality of now in Victoria

The Great CO2 Enhancement Experiment (~40% and rising!) continues unabated, and looks set to continue for the foreseeable future. Unfortunately, the results are coming in, and the verdict doesn't look good. Numerous lines of evidence from around the globe (as presented previously at planet doom?) support the idea that this is the case.

A recent jaunt across country Victoria prompted some reflection on the effects of climate change closer to home. Much of Australia, the southeastern corner in particular, is experiencing a long-term drought. In Melbourne, the drought is of 'unprecedented severity' – annual rainfall has been below average for 12 consecutive years. And the drought continues, with record-low monthly rain in September, and very little rain thus far in October.

Drought is a regular climatic event in this part of Australia, often corresponding with ENSO – El Nino years are dry, while La Nina years typically bring relief. Unfortunately, the recent La Nina brought little precipitation to the region. This may in part be related to the unprecedented events observed in the Indian Ocean; a third consecutive positive Indian Ocean Dipole (and apart from El Nino two years in a row, too). Historically, the positive IOD does show a negative relation with rainfall over this part of the continent.

The impacts of the drought are widespread, with concerns continuing to grow over the availability of water resources. The Murray-Darling river system -- southeastern Australia's lifeline – is a particular concern. For a third year running, very little water has been made available for irrigation along the river (also reported last year), with zero allocation in some parts. Nearly 90% of the wetlands in the MD Basin have disappeared. These effects are being exacerbated by human mis-management, with individual states acting on an ad-hoc basis.

Similar impacts are seen throughout Victoria. For much of the state, streamflows in the rivers are currently running below 10% of capacity. In total, water storage across the state is at 22% of capacity. Melbourne, a city of over 3m people, is slightly better off with storage levels at 34%. Water restrictions are in place..

Another consequence of the drought is the threat of wildfire becomes larger. In the current environment, the forested areas of Victoria are a particular are of concern for the upcoming summer. The water catchment areas of Melbourne are a concern; a major bushfire is these regions could increase the difficulty of maintaining an adequate water supply for the future.

The current drought is unprecedented in Australia's recorded history (over 100 years). This is climate change, part of the growing climate instabilities being observed around the globe. An enhancement (a corruption!) of the natural variability. The hysteresis in the Earth system means the effects, from causes long past, are only now becoming apparent. And the causes (i.e. CO2 radiative forcing) continue today, meaning that these events and their impacts are but a foretaste of our future.

Australia and Victoria are among the first -- by no means the last -- to confront the new realities of climate change. Adaptation will be a long, difficult process. Water – vital to human life -- is but one issue among many. Understanding how climate and the hydrologic cycle interact is crucial for the future. As Australian federal and state governments try to manage the current water crisis, the globe will be watching to learn from both our mistakes and successes. Adaptation is an unknown challenge and recent events provide an opportunity to lead the world towards a brighter, greener future.

In both a local and global sense, the time to act is now. Inaction is not an option. Society must adapt to the immediate realities and simultaneously try to minimize future impacts, through both emissions reductions and the development of a less environmentally intense lifestyle. We owe a moral obligation to future generations to accomplish this, a Green New Deal for the 21st century.

Images: 1. Low water levels in Thomson Dam via The Age
2. A nice gum tree in Lake Eildon NP, by me

10 October 2008

Arctic summer blues

Of all the evidence implicating Man's deleterious impact on the climate of the Earth, few (if any) are more unequivocal than the goings-on in the farthest reaches of the North Hemisphere, the Arctic. As the boreal summer of 2008 fades, even a brief survey of the region reveals the extent of the damage and the depth of humankind's folly...

While some degree of benefit may be felt by a few segments of society in these regions (see also the Iceland video linked above...), the consequences of climate change are dire for most—both locally and globally. Polar bears are becoming increasingly endangered, as their primary habitat disappears during the summer. Some may shrug their shoulders and say 'So what?', but they fail to realize the danger. The impact of a damaged segment of the Earth system isn't necessarily localized, but rather cascades through the different interlocking 'spheres'. For example, the loss of aquatic sea otters in Alaska has effects on the terrestrial eco-system.

The final result of this ecological damage to the Arctic is ultimately unpredictable, and quite likely to be global. But it most likely won't be positive. But the prospects of the radical changes to our world needed to avert this slow-motion catastrophe don't appear to be forthcoming. Nothing will be done until it is too late. We could save the planet if we wanted, but we're too damn cheap!*

And all this gives me the blues. The Arctic Summer Blues to be exact. Imagine the music of your favorite 12-bar blues rock song ('Red House' by Jimi Hendrix is a good one...) and sing along:

The polar ice is melting...

and its getting more stormy too!

The glaciers are retreating...

as the permafrost turns to goo!

There's only one thing to do for sure...

Stop emitting CO2!!

Image: Science Daily. Muir glacier: August 1941, August 1950 and August 2004.

*This sentence paraphrased from 'Hocus Pocus' by Kurt Vonnegut.

24 September 2008

Scenes from a dying Earth?

A nice collection of NASA satellite imagery captured this month over at guardian.co.uk. Typical planet doom? -type material. Worth a look if you're in to that sort of thing!

The image shows the diversion of the Kosi River (India) into an unused channel, a result of heavy monsoon rain further upstream. Floods continue in the region.

Other images in the collection show

  • 'concerning' cracks forming in the Petermann Glacier in Greenland, generally symbolic of the rapid, human-induced decline of the Arctic in recent years.

  • large wildfires in southern Africa, which have resulted in at least 89 deaths.

  • hurricane-affected regions of the CaribbeanCuba and Haiti have been hit particularly hard several hurricanes. Galveston and the rest of SE Texas have also been heavily affected by Hurricane Ike (Cat 2 at US landfall; 4 in Cuba)).

Snapshots of a dying planet, or just run-of-the-mill climate varibility? These images show nothing definitive, no Cataclysms. Just more datapoints documenting a changing environment, driven by both natural and anthropogenic forces. Only time will tell (and that time may well be soon...).


In other news, posting is likely to continue to be lite-N-fluffy here for the foreseeable future – lots of meatspace obligations and a touch of burnout. I haven't given up, though...just a bit of a break. The 'collection of found items' in the sidebar will continue to be updated regardless of the level of posting activity.

08 August 2008

Indian Ocean climate impacts

In the recent post regarding the continuing impacts of Cyclone Nargis, I noted some unusual behaviour in the Indian Ocean SST. In particular, I noted that we are quite possibly headed into an apparently unprecedented third consecutive occurrence of the so-called Indian Ocean Dipole.

This behaviour of the IOD has not only been observed during the last few years, but is also a part of a longer trend of the past decades. The years 1994 and 1997 saw unusually strong positive IODs (e.g. this time series to 1990); 2006 was a moderate to strong event and this year remains to be determined...

In recent days, several instances of the impact of the Indian ocean have been noted. Both short- and long(er)-term impacts are noted.

The first item notes that tuna catches across the Indian Ocean have fallen sharply in the last two years and early indicators for this year show catches to be markedly below recent averages. Conservationists blame years of unchecked exploitation while processors say climatic conditions may be driving the fish deeper away from their nets.

As before, this illustrates the complexity of environmental problems and the difficulty of assigning ultimate cause and effect (and hence legal blame punishable by lawsuits). There are merits to both sides of the argument, and the reality of the situation is some nebulous gray between the two extremes. Years of overfishing have undoubtedly occurred and weakened the population, making it more susceptible to an unusual climatic event.

The recent IOD behaviour and The timing of the fishing loss event provides strong circumstantial evidence in favor of a climate effect. Normally a negative dipole follows a positive event. Fish populations are affected by changes in ocean conditions (El Nino was known for years by Peruvian fisherman for its impact of the anchovy haul, and the first(?) 'ENSO' paper explicitly linking ocean and atmosphere appeared in a tuna fishery journal...) and breaking the 'regular cycle' with the recent double IOD may have disrupted the fish's recovery. A triple positive IOD event could prove a disaster for Indian Ocean fisheries, hastening the inevitable end from overfishing.

The second item notes a recent study which identifies a link between a warming Indian Ocean and less rainfall in Africa. Rainfall in eastern Africa during the rainy season, which runs from March through May, has declined about 15 percent since the 1980s. Declines in rainfall in Ethiopia, Kenya, Tanzania, Zambia, Malawi and Zimbabwe were linked to increases in rainfall over the ocean.

Using both diagnostic (to identify how the observed decline work) and predictive modeling, the authors suggest "We can be quite certain that the decline in rainfall has been substantial and will continue to be. This 15 percent decrease every 20-25 years is likely to continue."

The study also notes that with current trends in emissions and local agricultural capacity the number of undernourished people could increase by more than 50 percent in eastern Africa by 2030. Coupled with the fishing problems noted above, the region looks set for continued troubles for years as a result of climate change.

A few final thoughts. As I've hinted at before (see also this post at Atmoz), these seemingly natural (but unusual) events are not caused by climate change, rather they are the climate change. This is how climate change manifests itself: increasing climate instability and an 'exaggeration' of normal behaviour.

The atmosphere and ocean radiate and stir, flux and transport, edging towards equilibrium, while never fully achieving it. This is in response to myriad of climate forcings on a variety of time scales. The forcing from a slowly-varying orbit and a reasonably well-behaved Sun has brought a certain dynamic equilibrium to the climate in recent millennia. Unfortunately, the relentless radiative forcing from the Great CO2 Enhancement Experiment is particularly large at this moment in Earth's long history and is driving the Earth's climate system in new ways (releasing the stored solar energy of millions of years in a century will do that...).

We are witnessing but the beginning of a long process of change; there are no stopping points in the immediate future. The CO2 already in the atmosphere will remain* for 100 years or so, committing us to a lengthy period of climate instability. Continuing the emissions of CO2 just adds to the forcing and drives the Earth systems harder, resulting in more chaos. These events in the Indian Ocean are just a foretaste of things to come.

*barring the unlikely event of successful geo-engineering project or some such...

Image: Extracted from Africa: Atlas of our Changing Environment

05 August 2008

Whirligig 4: Summer 2008 climate report

Another installment of my occasional Weather Whirligig series. The idea here is to highlight reports of unusual and/or extreme or weather and climate events. Inclusion here is not meant by me to imply a cause-and-effect relationship with climate change. Rather, they are merely data points for future consideration...

It's the depth of (boreal) summer and it's hot.

  • The warmest day ever in Reykjavik was recorded on Wednesday[30 July] when the mercury reached 25.7 degrees Celsius...Northern Europe is currently enjoying unusually warm temperatures, with Stockholm in Sweden hovering around 30 degrees Celsius for the past week.

  • A major national park in Canada's Arctic has been largely closed after record high temperatures caused flooding that washed away hiking trails and forced the evacuation of tourists...The combination of floods, melting permafrost and erosion means that the southern part of the park will remain shut until geologists can examine the damage...

  • CIMSS Satellite Blog notes 03 August 2008 marked the 22nd consecutive day of daily high temperatures of 90º F or higher at Denver, Colorado. The old record was 18 consecutive days, set back in 1874 and 1901. The post also illustrates an example of the effects of land use/cover on temperatures and the local climate.

Drought is often another feature of summer. As this example from Ethiopia shows, the timing of the rain is as equally important as the amount.

The green highlands of West Badawacho in south-west Ethiopia are not a place where you would expect to find hunger. The land is fertile and lush...[However,] the lushness of the land masks a near total crop failure across the district...[T]he poor harvests of 2007 and the repeated failure of the crucial March-May rains have spelled disaster.

In recent weeks the rain has arrived but it is too late. While the countryside is transformed into a sea of green, 50% of farmland lies uncultivated. So many livestock died in the recent drought that farmers are struggling to plant maize by hand. For those who have managed to get a crop down, it won't be harvested until September, and then production is expected to be low.

And with heat and drought comes wildfire...

  • High levels of fire activity have continued to plague northern California. The Telegraph fire -- near Yosemite National Park -- has burnt ~34 000 acres and is 60% contained. 22 homes have burnt and 33 firefighters have been injured battling the blaze. Suppression costs have run to $24m.

  • A wildfire in Turkey (Antalya province) has been burning for five days. One person has died and another is missing... It has also killed livestock and destroyed 60 houses, a school, a mosque, and dozens of farm buildings...4 000 ha of woodland has been burnt.

  • Burning season has begun on the island of Sumatra in Indonesia. This deliberate burning for agricultural land clearance is producing a worsening haze that has cut visibility in the busy Malacca strait to below 5 km. Officials fear the number of hot spots could exceed last year's record as the current dry season will be marked by less rain than usual (an impact of the nascent Indian Ocean Dipole, perhaps?).

Finally, there is this from Texas, rarely content to be second-best* at anything: Texas plagued by heat, drought, water parasite, wildfire. Sadly, three have died during the current heat wave, which looks set to continue for the foresee-able future...

The 'good news' of the season is that the polar ice cap isn't going to completely melt away this summer (but it is getting thinner). Not as low as last year, but likely 2nd or 3rd lowest.

Are these events a harbinger of climate instability or merely 'normal' weather? What has to happen to answer this question? to change minds? to act?

*They've had to learn to accept that Alaska thing...

31 July 2008

Cyclone Nargis: 3 months later

While the storm itself came and went nearly three months ago, the Ayeyarwady Delta region of Myanmar continues to feel the effects of Cyclone Nargis. The storm left nearly 140 000 dead or missing, and severely affected another 2.4m more. Women and children bore the brunt of the death toll, with roughly 60% of fatalities reported as women.

Economic losses are expected to run to the $4b mark, comparable to the costs of the Boxing Day tsunami in Indonesia. An estimated 450,000 houses were destroyed and another 350,000 damaged; more than 4,000 schools decimated, and about 75 percent of local health facilities wrecked. The storm also destroyed livelihoods in the primarily agricultural and seaside area, killing livestock and sweeping away tools, seeds and fishing equipment.

The local fishing industry remains crippled, with only a fraction of small-scale fisherman having returned to work. Further, the cyclone devastated fish-processing facilities in the area, exacerbating unemployment and the conditions of Myanmar’s poor.

The damages are not only physical, but psychological as well. The survivors continue to suffer from pervasive trauma, further challenging the process of rebuilding shattered lives. Teachers are seeing first-hand the problems children face in returning to their studies. Almost half her students show signs of difficulty concentrating on their lessons. Some feel 'completely bleak'. This woman, a survivor of the storm, has quite a story:

"That night I went into labour in a small bamboo, thatched house on the banks of the Pyapon River to deliver my first child. But as the wind roared, my husband and I struggled outside only to see our home destroyed right before our very eyes.

“As the rain poured down and the water began to reach my chest, my husband lifted me on to some floating debris. As I lay there, the labour pains became so painful I began to scream. I needed help.

"Finally, among the broken pieces of wood I gave birth around six in the morning, but almost died in the process. I had lost so much blood. Both my husband and the woman who had helped me deliver thought I was gone. But a single hope kept me hanging on – that my son needed me.

"After the cyclone, I thought the worst was over. But finally I understood that the worst of our hardship – bringing our lives back to where they were – had only just begun.

Her son's name is Nargis...The rest of her story (follow the last link) is quite illustrative of the problems faced by many, a result of not only the TC itself, but exacerbated by poverty and an apathetic government response. (and general repression).

Cyclone Nargis also appears to have had a broader climate impact. Conditions continue to look favorable for the positive phase of the Indian Ocean Dipole this (austral) spring. Cool sea surface temperatures off Sumatra have been observed since mid-May, and remain through the most recent observations (21-27Jul; SST anomalies). The is also an absence of deep convection om the area.

The positive phase of IOD has a widespread climate impact, affecting the Southern Hemisphere storm tracks and altering rainfall patterns. In Australia, it often results in large regions of the country having a below-median rainfall totals. A continuation of drought conditions for some, perhaps.

Nargis's role in this is that, as noted in this recent paper, severe TCs in the Bay of Bengal during the April-May period often serve as the trigger for IOD events, in fact may be necessary. The first step in a complex sequence of events, a chain reaction involving the non-linear interactions of ocean, atmosphere and geography.

Building on the conclusions of this paper, should an IOD develop in 2008, it would be unprecedented in the ~100 yr observational record. A hat trick, three in a row. The event of 2007 was unusual in that it occurred during La Nina, the first time that has occurred, and also was the second observed case of two-in-a-row.

Confronted with such observations of course raises some questions...Is this a sign result of man's influence on the global climate or something extremely rare but purely natural? Climate change or natural variability? A sign of climate instability to come?

The are several lessons to be learned here. One is that seemingly singular weather events like Nargis often have very long term effects. Not just on the people directly involved, but also those subsequently affected by any further natural disasters (e.g. wildfire, drought, flood...) that may arise as a result of this initial event.

The second lesson was learned before. Our corporate masters have selected a purely reactive response (i.e. adaptation only) to climate change, nominally because it is cheaper and easier to 'implement'.(It really involves doing nothing now and just hoping for the best) In the long run, this is neither the cheaper nor the easier path, though. The impacts can be complex and extend well-beyond the immediate event, inflating both economic and environmental costs.

An ounce of prevention is better than a pound of cure. Mitigation – stopping our destructive lifestyles -- is absolutely necessary. Attempting to halt (to the degree possible) the apparently increasing climate instability, without resorting to some half-baked geo-engineering scheme, is much more prudent. While the initial costs are higher, the potential payoff in the future is much greater. And future generations are what this is about.

So as we meet the future and the consequences of Our Way of Life, let us hope that we face the challenges with the tenacity shown by the Burmese victims of Cyclone Nargis.

Images: 1. An aerial view of Myanmar. Taken from one of the linked stories. The metadata on the pic suggests it was taken in early July. Credited to Contributor/IRIN.
2. Extracted from Global SST Anomaly for week ending 27 Jul 2008 at the BoM. Sorry for cutting off the scale. Blue is negative (cool) anomalies, red positive.

26 July 2008

Get on up and testify!

A funky rhythm begins, soon punctuated by a staccato horn section...ba-DA-DA-DA-DA-DAH! A figure (right) steps up to the mike:

Brethren, we are gathered here today to hear about a New Thang...Papa's brand new bag!...called climate change. Is it happening? Is it real? Just listen to this 80-year-old farmer as he watches a (much needed) hard rain fall in Queensland. Say it, brother!

I thought I knew something about the weather, but now I'm not so sure.

I had some criteria that I lived by for a lifetime and none of them now with this global warming are worth talking about, they're non-existent.

Normally we get rain in March, April and then some in June, well that didn't happen.

Good Lawd!! The weather's gettin' funky...Just listen to this farmer from Wisconsin tell of the wild weather over the last year! Testify!

The weather turned against us in May of last year. We had a nice rain on Mother's Day, then for nearly three months we watched the pastures dry up, the corn shrivel, and the dust blow...In early August, the rains returned to Southwestern Wisconsin, in some places nearly 20 inches in a week's time...


The cows were on good pasture until early December when the snows started and never seemed to let up. Over 100 inches of snow fell from December through April...The snow melted slowly and...we waited for the warm winds of spring. And we waited.


It was an abnormally cool spring and a wet one. Some of the early planted corn didn't come up or came up yellow and stunted. We plant our corn late...Then on June 7-8, we got another hundred-year rain: 10 inches in 36 hours. Flooding was worse than last August.

Help me! -- But tell me, isn't it still Man's World? Don't we still run the show? What have we done wrong? Let's hear from this Maldivian government minister:

Why have the warnings of the past 20 years gone unheeded?

Why does mankind continue to pursue manifestly unsustainable economic growth strategies at the expense of the global ecosphere?"...[H]ow can we change the global debate on climate change? And how can we move the world from an attitude of self-indulgent negligence to one of shared responsibility and global solidarity?

The world has failed to humanise climate change.

Oh Lawd have mercy! Lawd have mercy! ...Fred, let me tell ya something...I don't feel good...Can we just hit it and quit?

As the band groovingly ad-libs along, the disembodied voice of the last witness chides:

...attitude of self-indulgent negligence...

...shared responsibility...global solidarity...

The world has failed to humanise climate change.

Hit it!


Image: James Brown in the Blues Brothers, via Google Image. I added the caption.

18 July 2008

Climate change: The state of play

The upcoming years promise to be challenging for all. The problems humankind faces are many. Global economic meltdown , food shortages and peak oil are but three of the (interrelated) problems we face. But most serious problems -- threatening not just the social fabric but the very means of our existence --are the myriad environmental issues we face, including (but not limited to) anthropogenic climate change.

Unfortunately many seem to doubt the reality of this fact. The skeptics, deniers, delayers, inactivists -- call them what you will -- are numerous, outspoken and seemingly appear to be achieving their goal preventing meaningful action in addressing these issues. They operate through misleading statistics, a twisting of the facts and observations and ad hominem attacks* on persons attempting to illuminate these issues. Willful ignorance and viewing the world through an ideological lens appears to be the order of the day.

How do we know climate change is happening? There are many ways to examine this question. The most common method is through use of a globally-averaged temperature, As discussed in a previous post, this unambiguously shows a long-term upward trend, apparent since the mid-70s.

Unfortunately, people tend to focus on the short-term weather noise and so 'don't see the forest for the trees'. Or they deny that CO2 really does absorb (and emit) IR radiation, minimizing the effects of humanity's contribution to the composition of the atmosphere (even without the warming, the addition of CO2 is probably not a good thing). Or they blame the Sun or natural variability, all of which have been considered by climate scientists. These effects aren't zero, but they aren't large enough to explain the observed rises, either. And there are, without a doubt, genuine data quality issues, but again not large enough to explain the temperature rise.

There are perhaps better ways to spread the message. I try to do this here at planet doom? By using observations of changes occurring in the natural world: to animals and/or ecosystems. Many scientists do this more rigorously, but their results don't appear to be widely publicized or promoted. There's lot happening that is unprecedented and this provides very strong evidence of climate change.

Perhaps we should ask the indigenous people of the world, who are more attuned to the natural world and remain closer to their traditional ways of life. Are the people of small island nations (like the Maldives or Kiribiti) confused as their homes disappear into the sea, a result of warmer temperatures and rising sea levels? Are the Inuit mistaken as they lose their way of life as a result of the massive changes to Arctic? What about observations from all over Africa?

These issues are real, and the time for acting on solutions is now. But for these solutions to happens we not only need (metaphorically speaking) to be on the same page, but reading from the same book! It is time to accept our responsibility for these issues (particularly those of us in the Global North).

But there are no 'magic bullets'. There is not one simple solution to all of our climate change and other environmental woes (nor to our economic, food or energy crises either, for that matter...). Radical shifts in society, occurring over several generations, will be required. New ways of thinking and living are needed.

Realistically, the adult generations of today are going to be unable to fully accommodate these changes required; our worldview is too ingrained to be changed easily with much success. Too much change in too short of a time results in paralysis and future shock. The best we can hope for at this point is to begin this long process: put a price on carbon and other environmental 'externalities'; seek out alternative energy sources and embrace energy efficiency and conservation measures. We also must avoid apocalyptic thinking. The most important step is to inculcate an awareness of environmental thinking and lifestyle into the youth (both alive and unborn) of today. These are the best steps to insure future generations.

In some ways, the 21st century hasn't begun yet. Sure the numbers have ticked over, but globally we remain mired in 'twen-cen' modes of thought. Old paradigms die hard, and it will probably take a Cataclysm – an environmental disaster of unprecedented magnitude – to fully shake of these outdated modes of thought. We can wish otherwise, but many of the current doubters will remain unconvinced until it is no longer possible to believe otherwise.

These doubters don't have a complete hold on the world, though. Some nations** are making the effort to move into the 21st century. K-Rudd is calling for the adaption of an CO2 emissions trading scheme here in Australia, tentatively to begin in 2010. Many are opposed because it will 'destroy the economy' (like that isn't happening already?) and many only see the flaws in it. Given the size of Australia's population, the scheme won't 'save the world'. That is not the reason it needs to be adopted, though. Rather, it's about leadership. The countries that can break the old modes of thought will be leaders in the future. This scheme may be (and most likely will be) imperfect...these things can be fixed in the future (according to the plan, it will be reviewed in 2013...). Will it be enough? Unlikely, but it is a start.


*Unfortunately, this tactic is used by all sides of the debate. For my taste, too many climate/environment blogs revolve around the people and politics rather than the issues at hand, with many comments threads (and the posts themselves) rapidly devolving in to mud-slinging and personality conflicts.

** The European Union also has a multi-national trading scheme for CO2. The US tried, albeit unsuccessfully. Maybe after 'the world's biggest polluter' and his Congressional cohorts are gone...

Image: The Age

10 July 2008

July 2008 wildfire

As the Northern Hemisphere moves deeper into summer, wildfire activity continues in many regions there.

Southeastern Russia continues to see significant wildfire activity. NASA's Earth Observatory Natural Hazards noted the smoke from these fires affecting Japan about a week ago. This global composite hotspot map, from 18-28 June 2008, indicates that those outbreaks were were part of a broader area of fire throughout the southeast of the country.

The MODIS real-time imagery for 8 July (right) suggests that many of those continue to burn today, indeed they are quite widespread. This is 4km resolution image covering roughly a 1000 x 1000 km area. The image is a real-time image, so there is some distortion on the edges. (I cut most of this off). 'Enhancing' the image brought out some apparent (but still faint) lat-lon lines; I'm guessing 60N, with longitude lines of 130 and 140 E. North is off center about 10-20 degrees to the right (follow the long lines). That is also reasonably compatible with the other estimate.

Fires across southern Russia have been burning on and off since at least April. This is evidenced by the image of Lake Baikal used in this post shows significant wildfire activity in May. A casual glance through the archived fire maps (from the NASA site above) of the same two 10-day periods each year suggests that fire activity occurs in the region every year. This year seemed a bit more active, especially during April than previous years, and continues a string of apparently active years (2006 and 2007 also)

The current image shows a large smoke plume with some of these fires. The smoke has been notable and widespread in many of these cases. The CIMSS Satellite Blog backtracked some suspicious haze of the northwestern US to a southeastern Russia source.

California is currently undergoing an unprecedented bout of wildfire activity. Over 1000 fires started in a massive lightning storm in late-June. Many fires have been raging uncontained for several weeks, with many smaller fires merging into 'complexes' in many locales. While lightning-ignited fires are not terribly uncommon in the mountains of CA, the sheer number of fires lit in this one event has not been noted previously. In the wildfire post from April some very early fire activity in Big Sur was noted with some sense of foreboding.

A nice image showing the fires California was captured on 6 July. The largest fire is the so-called Basin fire, which has burnt roughly 30 000 ha to date. The situation remains critical, with the fire only ~20% contained. Some gains on the fires around the state have been made, but a heatwave looms over the next few days.

The fires are also affecting on the extremely-endangered California Condor. Under threat are the newly-hatched chicks. Considerable effort has been made to insure their safety, with a helicopter rescue of some eight chicks. The fate of several other breeding pairs remains uncertain.

Other fires have been noted in the northern reaches of Canada, but nothing particularly out of the ordinary has occurred (from perusing some of the info here). The linked image shows some dramatic smoke plume. Real-time imagery from MODIS indicates that there were still fires burning this general area on 8 July. A forest fire in Turkey that killed two people was also reported on EONH. The accompanying image shows a thick smoke plume extending into the Mediterranean and affecting Cyprus.

Are these fires a result of a changing climate? Or perhaps it's just a 'bad year'? Events in California are certainly alarming; large fire events have become increasingly common since 2000. They are no longer an anomaly, but a new ecological reality. Similarly, the apparent increase in fire activity in the Russian forests could reflect some shift in the local climate -- perhaps associated with the large reductions in Arctic ice observed recently and/or the possible melting of the Siberian permafrost. This permafrost/forest ecosystems represents a tremendous carbon storage, the loss of which would likely create considerable climate havoc. Regardless of whatever relationship these or other wildfires may or may not have with global warming, the fact remains that wildfires are an undeniable ecological force. Careful management of wildfire will prove to be an essential tool for both adaptation and mitigation of climate change.

03 July 2008

World's great lakes under threat

A lake is the landscape's most beautiful and expressive feature. It is earth's eye; looking into which the beholder measures the depth of his own nature. ~Henry David Thoreau

Lakes are indeed expressive, and reflecting upon them -- listening to what they are telling us -- does not speak well of humanity's essence. Many of these great lakes are under threat; poisoned, dried-out shadows of their former selves. These lakes are vitally important for their local area, influencing the local weather and providing economic and physical resources for all the flora and fauna. Loss of these resources can prove disastrous (and indeed has...) for the region. The problem is global. And while the immediate sources of danger to the lakes are myriad, the impetus behind them all is the usual suspect, humankind. Our influence ubiquitous; the consequence of Our Way of Life.

On the border of Bolivia and Peru, Lake Titicaca is undeniably polluted, though no detailed studies of the water's state have been done. One apparent cause is 'enormous natural ponds filled with a toxic cocktail of sewage, organic pollution and industrial and mining waste'. The lack of sewage treatment is also a concern for many communities as well. This not only makes the water undrinkable, but the aquatic plants of the lake absorb much of the pollution. These plants are subsequently used as fertilizer or hay to feed livestock. The net result spreading the pollutants into the wider system, with unknown effect.

Out amongst the melting permafrost of Siberia lies Russia's Lake Baikal. The lake is warming rapidly, over 1 degree since the 1940s. This is related to a loss in the annual number of days with ice cover, 18 days fewer in the last 100 years. The changing conditions are posing a threat to the local flora and fauna:

...Baikal's seal, which raises its pups on the ice, could suffer because the animal has several onshore predators. If ice caves the pups are raised in melt, Asian crows could also eat the pups...

Changes in the food cycle have already been seen. Numbers of multicellular zooplankton, which normally live in warmer waters, have increased 335 percent since 1946, while numbers of chlorophyll have risen 300 percent since 1979...

North America's Great Lakes have been an ongoing concern since the 1960s and 70s when high levels of pollution were noted in Lake Erie. Some of these problems, while more under control, exist into the 21st century. Last year, Lake Superior saw record low water levels, a trend expected to continue as a result of the Great CO2 Enhancement Experiment. As with Lake Baikal, warmer temperatures and reduced ice cover result in enhanced evaporation and lower water levels.

The spread of invasive species also threatens the Great Lakes. The Diporeia, a small 'shrimp-like energy dense creature', is undergoing a 'population freefall'. This critter was/is a 'major food source for commercially important species like lake whitefish and many prey fish upon which salmon, trout and walleye rely.' The cause(s):

The spread of invasive zebra and quagga mussels - voracious filter feeders with an overlapping diet - largely coincides with Diporeia's decline and is widely believed to be at least partially responsible. But research cannot yet explain the link...

...[A]nother possible contributor to Diporeia's decline: water pollutants like pesticides, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), flame retardants or others.

[...]Regardless of the reason, Diporeia's decline has already had some measurable negative effects on various fish species. Alewives...have declined in growth rates, condition...and caloric density since Diporeia populations began declining...

The Great Rift Valley of eastern Africa features its own set of 'Great Lakes'. A recently issued report Africa: Atlas of our Changing Environment details (with excellent satellite imagery) many of the ecological issues facing the region. Lake Victoria was invaded by water hyacinth in the 1990s. Pollution and fluctuating lake levels are also an issue. Many of the problems have their source in the rapid population growth around the lake. Further south, Lake Mawali is suffering from overfishing of the easily-accessible shallow waters. The nutrient-loading of the lake is also being change by fertilizer runoff

A particularly striking case of human-caused ecological disaster is Lake Chad, bordered by Chad, Cameroon, Niger, Central African Republic and Nigeria. The last part of the Sahel diary of UN Special Advisor Jan Egeland provides some insight:

Today we visited what was once Lake Chad in eastern Niger, which as recently as the 1960s covered a total 25,000 sq km, of which 4,000 sq km were inside Niger. Since the droughts that have been recurrent since the 1970s the lake has now has shrunk to nothing inside Niger.

This is a very dramatic environmental crisis, with enormous consequences for hundreds of thousands of people. For me the visit was epitomised by an old customs boat which is now stranded in the middle of the desert, a desert covered in sea shells...

The report noted above states that the Lake has decreased by 95% in the last 35 years or so, a result of climate variability and overuse. One of the many problems associated with the declining lake (from Egeland's diary):

...[T]here are already many conflicts between and among nomads and agricultural people in Niger, and between various ethnic groups, because of the scarcity of resources. Others have estimated that around Lake Chad there are as many as 30 or more named armed groups, and the potential for increased conflict is endless.

The various crises the world's great lakes face are all anthropogenic in origin. Climate change is a factor in many cases, but issues such as pollution, resource use and overpopulation are also paramount. This reinforces the notion that in tackling the environmental issues before us, we cannot focus on climate change to the exclusion of all else. The other issues facing us are important as well. These are difficult, perhaps intractable problems. And it may be too late to stop the damage; we just don't know. That cannot be an excuse for inaction. Doing nothing guarantees failure.

Is there reason for hope? After all, Lake Erie noted earlier recovered somewhat from its 1970s low point. And attempts to rescue the Aral Sea, ravaged by the Soviet Union, are apparently to be bearing some fruit, providing at least a glimmer of hope (but not much more than that, really...). Days are early, and there remains a long way to go. Ideally, we would leave these lakes alone and let them recover on their own. That tactic seems to work for some species in the Great Barrier Reef. However, this is not a feasible option; we (and the rest of the ecosystem...) need the water to survive. The key is effective use and management of the resources these lakes represent, with an eye towards preserving future needs.

Images: 1: Lake Baikal surrounded by hotspots and smoke, 18 May 08. EO Natural Hazards

2: Lake Chad in 1972 and 2007 (right). National Geographic News.

23 June 2008

Coming Attractions?

No particular point here, but the general tone of the image shouldn't go too far amiss... A groovy graphic I saw over at subrealism. From the comments there:

John Hendrix's illustration titled "Doomsday" was 1 of 500 illustrations chosen by the Society of Illustrators to be featured in their newest compilation, Icons & Images: 50 Years of Extraordinary Illustration. Hendrix's "Doomsday" was featured in the January/February 2007 issue of Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. The images for the collection were chosen by a committee from a pool of 25,000 images featured in annual magazines since 1958.

15 June 2008

Scandinavia ablaze

The Scandinavian countries of Norway and Sweden are experiencing some significant wildfire activity this season, particularly during June.

Earlier this month in Sweden:

Eight helicopters and some 150 firefighters, home guards and other volunteers were Tuesday combating a large blaze that has raged for several days in central Sweden, reports said. The blaze near Hassela, some 350 kilometres north of Stockholm, was one of two blazes in the region...

A week later:

Gusting winds are fueling forest fires raging near Lämmetorp outside of Finspång in east central Sweden...

Dry ground and hard winds on Tuesday caused a number of other forest fires...in south central Sweden....

    [T]he fires which have been raging for twelve days outside of Hassela in northern Sweden are now under control.

Even more recently in Norway:

Norway may seek foreign help to extinguish its biggest forest fire since World War Two, which has been raging for five days...

The fire has burned out about 5,000 acres, or 2,000 hectares, near the town of Arendal, about 260 km (160 miles) southwest of Oslo.

Norwegian media reported smoke had wafted as far as Denmark, some 120 km (75 miles) away across the Skagerrak strait.

The fire broke out after an unusually warm and sunny start to June. No lives have been lost but holiday houses have been destroyed and dozens of people evacuated.

The image was captured from the real time imagery from the NASA MODIS Terra satellite on 11 June 2008 and shows the Arendal fire. A small cluster of hotspots can be seen, along with the smoke plume extending towards Denmark. The image is a true colour image roughly 270 x 170 km, with north pointing about 20-25 degrees to the left. Oslo, Norway's capital, is just off-image to the left of the 'N' in NASA. I have slightly tweaked the image to attenuate the 'murkiness' of the original.

Compared to the sizes of wildfires which occurring the United States and other regions of the world, these fires are relatively small. But they are obviously straining the the resources of the local firefighting agencies. The largest fire since WW2 is something to take seriously.

These fires, along with those seen in Russia during April, raise an interesting question in light of a recently published paper suggesting that melting Arctic ice has a warming impact several hundreds of km inland, as well. As suggested over at Hot Topic, this is consistent with the pattern of temperatures observed this past winter with the record ice melt. These unusually warm temperatures likely played a role in producing the enhanced fire weather conditions driving the current fires. Are the carbon reservoirs within circumboreal forests at risk through increasing fire activity from the melting polar ice (as well as from the potential of melting permafrost)?

The last few years in Alaska and Yukon have seen some very severe fire seasons (e.g. Here and here). A paleo-climate record of fire activity in these regions [PDF] is more unclear. The fire activity noted this year, in both Scandinavia and Russia, could also be a sign. Obviously, one data point doesn't prove anything one way or the other. The Scandinavian fires could just be the result of short-term weather fluctuations. It will be interesting to see what happens in other northern areas this year as well. Wildfire activity is expected to be above normal this summer [PDF] in much of northern North America. The impacts of any fires need to be carefully monitored as well.

Is this case overstated? Quite possibly. Wildfire probably won't kill the forest by itself, but it could weaken the ecosystem enough to allow something else to do the job. Possibly another one of the myriad of unexpected impacts of humanity's reckless CO2-enhancement experiment. It's all happening now, and humans will know where we stand in a few years time. We can only hope it is not too late.