29 April 2008

Future trajectories

The tally on last year's emissions are in. The verdict: Guilty as charged! Concentrations of CO2 continue to rise at an increasing rate. Last year, the average value rose by 2.4 ppm in 2007; previous concentrations were rising at 2 ppm/year. There is little sign that this is likely to stop anytime soon, given the nearly-meaningless emissions reduction measures announced by the US. The CO2-enhancement experiment will be carried out to the end.

Perhaps more concerning, methane (CH4) levels also rose for the first time since 1998. Methane is a much more potent greenhouse gas, although it has a much lower concentration in the atmosphere. The recent rise does not necessarily imply an immanent trend, but there is some concern. One expected consequence of increasing temperatures is a melting of the Arctic permafrost and/or the methane clathrates under the sea.

This spike in CH4 could be a sign of this beginning to occur. Paleoclimate studies of historical GHG concentrations using ice cores are suggestive, to wit

The study shows, that tropical wetlands emitted substantially less CH4 during glacials; most likely caused by changes in monsoonal precipitation patterns. Together with a reduced atmospheric lifetime, this explains major parts of the glacial CH4 reduction. In addition, boreal methane sources located in wetlands in higher northern latitudes were essentially switched off during the glacial due to the expansion of the northern ice sheets and the very cold temperatures in high northern latitude. However, these high latitude wetlands were quickly reactivated when rapid climate warming events occurred. Also forest fires emit a considerable amount of CH4, which, however, remained surprisingly constant over time. The isotopic measurements show no signs of CH4 emissions by a destabilization of marine gas hydrate reservoirs when climate was warming.

Measurements of the sea floor north of Russia are indicating that the clathrates here are destabilizing.

The permafrost has grown porous, says Shakhova, and already the shelf sea has become "a source of methane passing into the atmosphere." The Russian scientists have estimated what might happen when this Siberian permafrost-seal thaws completely and all the stored gas escapes. They believe the methane content of the planet's atmosphere would increase twelvefold.

If this becomes permanent reality, expect the impacts of climate change to rapidly accelerate. Combined with ever-increasing CO2, this would provide a staggering blow to our society. Such a rapid climate change would render the option of mitigation moot, leaving only the less-appealing tactic of adaptation available.

As noted in this excellent op-ed piece, the relatively small warming we have experienced to date has “...already taken the planet into a condition where human experience no longer provides a reliable indication of the future”. Given the difficulty of society to cope with the global crises we are currently experiencing (only in part due to climate...), it's hard to see how this situation will improve in a more extreme future.

Sadly for our children, it seems unlikely that appropriate measures will taken to mitigate the approaching calamity. It's quite possible that it is too late in any case. This ever-upward carbon trajectory likely means that humanity's future trajectory is downward.

Images: NOAA, via The Great Beyond

24 April 2008

April 2008 wildfire

April has been particularly active for wildfires around the globe. Many of these fires started as agricultural fires which subsequently escaped control.

Particularly hard hit have been southern Russia and northeast China. As of the 23rd, over 500 wildfires have erupted in three regions of Russia. As shown in the image, smoke plumes from these fires have traveled hundreds of kilometers, extending over the Pacific Ocean. Earlier this month, fires raged in the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region of China. These have since been controlled/extinguished.

The Global Drought Monitor suggests that these regions have been undergoing a medium-term drought, exacerbating the fire danger. The unusually heavy snowfalls reported earlier this year in China have damaged a tenth of the nations forests, increasing fuel loads and ramping up fire danger.

The Argentinian capital, Buenos Aires has been 'smoked out' as a result of large pasture clearing fires. More pasture than normal is being cleared for additional soybean production, as farmers seek to capitalize on high commodity prices. A state of emergency was declared, a result of the reduced visibility from the smoke. Some 70 000 hectares have been burnt.

Widespread fire activity was also noted in SE Asia, near the Burma/India border and extending into Laos, Thailand and southern China. Most of these fires are agricultural in nature, but typically some escape into natural areas.

In the United States, a large 9 000+ acre (~4000 ha) fire burned near Fort Carson, CO. The fire took more than a week, and the aid of a snowstorm, to contain. A tanker pilot lost his life while battling the blaze. A wildfire near Big Sur, CA was also noted. While not especially large or damaging, the fire is notable for its timing; this region doesn't usually see fires until mid-summer.

The upcoming fire season in the north is off with a bang, with trends suggesting that the summer could see a repeat of the high levels of fire activity noted last year. Indeed, as global warming increases, increased wildfire activity is likely to be a consequence. However, we cannot unequivocally say these fires are a direct result of climate change at this time.


Image: Earth Observatory Natural Hazards

13 April 2008

For the birds, too

In a previous post I discussed some observations of some of the apparent impacts of anthropogenic climate change on the avian co-inhabitants of the planet. Unfortunately for the birds, climate change is not an isolated issue. Humanity's alterations to the environment extend well beyond climate change -- there is little we have left untouched. Environmental degradation from human activities is rampant, a product of the endless pursuit of unchecked 'economic growth'. And the birds are beginning to pay the price.

Pesticides. Lessons from the 1960s are going unheeded. Songbirds in the Americas are being wiped out from the use of highly toxic pesticides and chemicals for export agriculture in Latin America. That these chemicals are dangerous has been well-understood since the early-1960s, with the publication Rachel Carson's Silent Spring.

By some counts, half of the songbirds that warbled across America ’s skies only 40 years ago have gone, wiped out by pesticides or loss of habitat...

The migratory songbirds in most trouble include the wood thrush, the Kentucky warbler, the eastern kingbird and the bobolink...

While the pesticide usage is the proximate cause for the die-off, the underlying fault is found in our economic system. By 'externalizing' environmental costs , along with the exploitation of the citizens of the global South, maximum profit be created from the system.

Habitat destruction. Migratory and endemic shorebirds in Australia “...have suffered a massive collapse in numbers over the past 25 years”.

A large scale aerial survey study covering the eastern third of the continent by researchers at the University of New South Wales has identified that migratory shorebirds populations there plunged by 73% between 1983 and 2006, while Australia's 15 species of resident shorebirds - such as avocets and stilts - have declined by 81%. The study is published in the scientific journal Biological Conservation.

"This is a truly alarming result: in effect, three-quarters of eastern Australia's millions of resident and migratory shorebirds have disappeared in just one generation," says an author of the report...

"The wetlands and resting places that they rely on for food and recuperation are shrinking virtually all the way along their migration path, from Australia through Indonesia, the Philippines, Malaysia and up through Asia into China and Russia."

Most the the lost wetlands are claimed for human use. Agriculture and industry are the main culprits. As global economic growth (and population) expands, the pressure on the land rises. The demand for biofuels contributes. This is a global problem. For example, conservation programs in the US are under threat as farmers rush to take advantage of record-high prices for agricultural commodities.

Climate Change. Climate change affects bird in many subtle but potentially threatening way. Birds respond to various environmental cues – for example, the presence of water or a certain type and abundance of vegetation – to determine their behaviors.

Early experience affects where birds breed for life in some species. Birds from areas with poorer food and shelter have harder lives compared the nearby neighbors in richer environments. As the landscape changes in conjunction with the climate, some birds may simply not survive. For example, changes to migration timing caused by the observed earlier arrival of spring could be disastrous. If another species a bird depends on (for food, say) doesn't make the equivalent change, then it will be unavailable when needed. Recent reports from around the globe indicate that some bird species' migration habits are changing, while others are seeing shifts in their historic ranges.

Some, if not most, of the observed climate change is direct result of CO2 emissions, a byproduct of the “cheap” fossil fuel-based energy that runs our society. Again, by externalizing the environmental costs (e.g. pollution), our economic system covers up the true costs, allowing some corporation to register a 'profit'. The general public bears the cost with an increasingly altered ecosystem. A public subsidy of personal enrichment.


So, will we awaken to a global silent spring someday soon? If such a thing were to happen, one would hope that it would serve quite effectively as a Cataclysm, an un-ignorable environmental clarion call. However, it's not just one thing that needs to be fixed. Toxic pollution, wanton land clearance, ongoing and future climate change, CO2 emissions – all are playing a role and all must be tackled simultaneously. Humanity is running a dangerous experiment on the planetary ecosystem.

The worldwide decline in numbers in birds is a warning sign. A proverbial canary in a coal mine. A common theme in the problem is the economic system we choose to follow. A big part of the solution is to change to the accounting in society. True environmental costs must be factored in. The hyper-consumerism of the global North must be culled. The paradigm of 'endless growth' smashed by the reality of finite resources.

Failure to heed the warning has dire consequences, and not just for birds. Allowing the environmental consequences of our actions to remain unchecked creates an unacceptable risk for the future of our children. Climate change and these other environmental problems are real, no matter how much we may wish otherwise. We must act now with wisdom and foresight to correct the perverse incentives for environmental harm in our current economic system. We should do it not just for ourselves, but for the birds, too.

Images: by me!

Note: The birds pictured aren't particularly threatened in any way...

10 April 2008

The refutation of nonsense

Unfortunately for future generations, the idea that “global warming stopped in 1998” seems to be gaining credence in the popular imagination. The claim is that the 'global warming hoax [has been] exposed by record global cold'. These are dangerous thoughts that need to be vigorously countered with proper data analysis which accounts for the physical behaviour of the climate system.

The claims are nonsense that is at odds with what the data show. The indicators are clear –- anthropogenic climate change is a reality which isn't going away, no matter how much we may wish it to be so.

Consider the image which shows a time series of the NASA GISS annual globally-averaged temperature anomalies. Where is the lack of warming since 1998? I just don't see it. The general trend is generally ever-upward, as it has been since the mid-1970s. It is true that this year is expected to be cooler than the previous few years. It's part of the interannual variability. The recent past has been characterized by a cold Pacific ocean associated with a strong La Nina event. January and February were quite cool over parts of the globe, with unusual snow amounts and occurrences reported in some regions. But northern Eurasia experienced well above normal temperatures during these two months, and the data for March indicate that most land areas are now running well above normal. The La Nina is rapidly breaking down, and neutral conditions are returning to the Pacific.

That said, other 1-2 year periods of 'global cooling' are easily visible in the data. When the next El Nino comes -- perhaps as early as 2009-- we will likely return to record-high global mean temperatures. It's only a matter of time. Excluding the data north of about 60 N will also give an apparent 'leveling off' of temperatures and the 'no warming since 1998' idea gets 'validated'...but what exactly is that supposed to tell you? If global temperature is desired, the whole globe needs to be considered...

The apparent recovery of sea ice in the Arctic is also being used to cast doubt on the reality of climate change. After reaching record low extents in September 2007, the ice area has 'recovered', apparently providing proof of the 'hoax'. Time series plots (at left) of Arctic sea ice anomaly from Cryosphere Today, show this to indeed be the case. The ice has recovered all the way to the areas (also anomalously low) seen in 2005. Wow! The ice came back during the long polar night. Before we start making grand pronouncements about the non-validity of climate change, can we at least wait and see what happens this year (and preferably a few more after that...)? The long polar summer has just begun. Ice extent won't reach a minimum again until September. It's also true that Antarctic sea ice has been anomalously high. But there is no reason to expect a symmetric response between the hemispheres. Paleo-climate studies indicate that quite clearly.

Make no mistake, humans are affecting the climate system. The link between increasing CO2 concentrations (35% and rising!) and enhanced greenhouse warming is undeniable. It is foolhardy to do so, and this is tantamount to what climate change deniers are doing. Exactly what the effects are going to be remains uncertain, but the early indications (as detailed here on planet doom?) are not positive. Acting now to prevent the (likely) worse effects to come is crucial; when The Cataclysm occurs, it may well be too late. The source of our environmental problems is our lifestyle and the society we have created. We have reached the limits to growth; the neoliberal philosophy is bankrupt. It's time to pay the piper. Techno-solutions will ease the way, but ultimately a lifestyle change will be required to create a lasting solution.

Images: NASA GISTEMP and Cryosphere Today, links above

03 April 2008

On raising environmental awareness

The defining issue of the early-21st century is the environment. Widespread awareness of humanity's climate and environmental issues is growing. The global adoption of Earth Hour this past Saturday is symbolic of the dawning realization that our lifestyle is increasingly damaging the planet. People are gradually developing some mindfulness towards the issues and demonstrating a willingness to sacrifice, even in a small way, to solve the problems.

For all the good of Earth Hour, though, much remains to be done. The event was only a symbol. “Turning off lights for 60 minutes isn't going to stop the Antarctic ice sheets melting, stop thousands of Pacific Islanders losing their homes from rising sea levels or stop the Earth's temperature rising one jot.” Many didn't participate. In general, the paramount importance of climate change and other environmental issues remains understated and unappreciated in broader society. This is not accidental.

Using ethically-questionable tactics akin to those derived by the tobacco lobby, huge amounts of resources are dedicated to obfuscating the issues at hand ultimately creating confusion, delay and apathy towards the issues. Creating a desire to wait until some later time to act is a risky tactic. The motivations for such behaviour are unclear to me; I would guess extreme self-interest, a rigid ideology and/or a profit uber alles worldview. But missing from this paradigm is the awareness that we are all in this together. Money may buy a temporary refuge, but we all need the ecosystem to survive.

Unfortunately, these tactics are having an effect. The desire for delay is working. But time is running short for society to act. The window to affect positive environmental change is closing. Failure to decisively act within the next 5-10 years likely guarantees radical (irreversible) alterations to the natural environment. Indeed, such changes are already beginning to be observed – The canaries are dying, one by one. But it is apparently not enough to create the critical mass required to tackle the issues

So what will bring about the shift in worldview required to tackle this 21st century challenge? It will likely require some an event of phenomenal magnitude -- a Cataclysm – to galvanize the world into unified action. A event so large that any lingering doubts of the environmental perils we face will be obliterated.

Sadly, I suspect that we will see such an event in the coming years. The exact form remains unknown and, in fact the Cataclysm will probably be something we didn't see coming at all. The tragedy is that this is the alarm needed to shake the complacency of society. There will still be doubters after the event, just as there are still people today who believe in creationism and that the earth is flat. But we won't listen anymore; the lies and distortions will no longer have any sway. We can only hope that it is not too late for meaningful action.

A full understanding of the environment-at-large is still a way off. The feedbacks and interactions between the different spheres are subtle and difficult to discern. But we know enough to get a general idea of what will likely happen. And research from both the arts and sciences demonstrate that the outcome is likely to be bad. The consequences of our actions are potentially enormous. If we don't want to pay the price, then the best course for humanity is prompt action to stabilize anthropogenic climate change, stop polluting, reduce the population and adopt a 'bright green' lifestyle. Proaction, not the more-typical reaction, is a more sensible course to follow. But it won't come unless we demand it of ourselves and our leaders.


Image: NASA Visible Earth

Composite satellite image of 5 Atlantic TCs in 2005. Image via EurekAlert!