31 May 2008

Geo-engineering III

It's baaaack! And guess who the villain is this time.

I've stated my opposition to various geo-engineering schemes before. It's a terrible idea, a band aid solution to avoid making the changes to the world that are needed. It potentially has extremely negative unintended consequences and it may not actually work at effectively reducing CO2 in the atmosphere, touted as its main benefit.

This article reports on 'ocean fertilization' issues being discussed at a UN biodiversity conference (my emphasis):

Practically all developing countries want the UN conference to approve a global moratorium on 'ocean fertilisation' until scientific evidence can prove that the practice does not bring new pollution risks. But some industrialised countries, led by Australia, want to avoid a strong ban.

Is this another part of K-Rudd's long-term climate plan? Australia isn't alone on this, though. Brazil is also involved, acting as a provocateur. Perhaps this is their intended 'offset' plan in return for however much they decide to exploit the Amazon. From the article:

..."what Australia wants on 'ocean fertilisation' is obvious. It wants that the UN convention on biological diversity does not touch the subject, and transfer it instead to the London convention" on the Prevention of Marine Pollution by Dumping of Wastes and Other Matter...[which] is being updated through the London Protocol, which will eventually replace the former. Under the new protocol, all dumping is prohibited except for acceptable waste on the "reserve list".

The leading global company in the business is the Australia-based Ocean Nourishment Corporation (ONC). The Australian government's support for the company and for 'ocean fertilisation' has won it the Greenpeace nomination for the Golden Chain Saw Award for the worst polluters.

Here is the link to Ocean Nourishment Corporation. It sounds so benign, doesn't it? How could anyone possibly be against nourishment? I always worry when the top of the web page proclaims that it “is an ethical organisation”. It seems a bit defensive to me. They don't want to dump iron in the ocean, rather urea. Their advertised benefits are twofold: 1.) The removal of CO2 from the atmosphere, and; 2.) Stimulating the base of the food chain, thereby increasing ocean production.

The logic on the second item to be that because “oceans represent 70% of the earth's surface but currently provide only 6% of human protein every year”, the oceans must be underutilized. (That slacker ocean is not pulling its weight!). Given the level of overfishing humanity has been applying to the planet, that idea seems a bit of a stretch.

From a casual reading of their website, much of what they are proposing to do is unproven. To be fair (and provided they follow their stated protocols), they would seem to be trying to do the experiment in some kind of sane way. But I question the need for the experiment at all.

Unfortunately, short of the international moratorium on fertilization noted in the original article, it would seem that the general populace has little choice in whether this experiment is performed or not.

Besides ONC, a handful of private companies, all registered in the U.S., are planning to launch 'ocean fertilisation' projects in unregulated high seas after specific projects in the Philippines, Ecuador, Oman, and Morocco provoked a storm of complaints from civil society groups.

The unmitigated pursuit of profit never stops. Many are threatened so that a few can enrich themselves. We really don't understand the ocean ecosystem well enough to start performing such radical experimentation on it. There is lots that can go wrong and there are many potential unintended consequences. The Precautionary Principle dictates that we avoid this line of inquiry at this time. We have other solutions we can try; there is no need for desperation yet. And this is a desperate solution.


Image: Diatoms through the microscope, Wikipedia.

28 May 2008

Brazil and the future of the Amazon rain forest

Brazil has been in the news as of late, with President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva defending his government's environmental stewardship of the Amazon rain forest, saying the world needed to understand that the Amazon belonged to Brazilians.

Some concern is warranted, given the dramatic resignation of the environment minister a few weeks ago. An excellent article detailing the background of the situation notes that after a series of lost battles to implement the government's own stated environmental policies, Marina Silva gave up, feeling the battle was lost. Pro-development forces have won.

It is now likely that the government will move rapidly to build more highways and hydroelectric power stations within the Amazon region, making it easier for agribusiness and mining companies to move in.

This anecdote sums up this attitude:

One day, Lucio Flores, a Brazilian Terena Indian, was travelling by truck through the Amazons region alongside a local landowner. Looking at the dense tropical forest around, the landowner said, "Look at this, there is nothing here."

A little further as they left the forest to cross a soybean plantation, the landowner exclaimed: "But here there is soy!" To him, forest was nothing, soy everything.

...For [Flores], the story was a symbol of the opposed views dividing the business community and indigenous peoples. "For agro business, nature is nothing," Flores said. "For us, it is all."

Brazil's case is legally right given the international political system. It's their forest, they can raze it if they so please. But that choice threatens the globe with climate instability and environmental calamity for many years to come. Such a decision would not be a sound ethical choice.

The attitude reflected in the anecdote above is analogous to the idea of terra nullius, or 'empty land' employed in the conquest of Australia. Today the idea is seen for the ruse it is, scurrilous behaviour on the part of colonists. Rapaciously destroying the the rain forest in the name of never-ending 'economic growth' will similarly be seen by future generations as the atrocity that it is

Lula's amusement that countries who were among the world's worst polluters want to talk about preserving the rain forest points to the need for leadership on this and other environmental issues by the Global North. Brazilians can't be forced to preserve the rain forest or even use it sustainably. The richer nations must act decisively, not just talk -- lead by example.

Ultimately, it is in Brazil's interest to preserve the forest as well as the globe's. Everybody will pay for climate change in the end. If Brazil wants to be a leader in the 21st century, over-exploitation of a one-time gift from Nature for fleeting 'growth' is a poor choice. Visionary thinking is required to develop new models for living harmoniously with the environment. In some ways, beginning from a less-damaged environmental state could provide a head start for developing these methods. This is a saner path to future leadership.


Image: Mouth of the Amazon river, northern Brazil. False-color MODIS image from 26May08.

24 May 2008

Why are honeybees declining?

Bees continue to die in droves in both the US and the UK. Both wild bees and domesticated honey bees are affected. Similar episodes of Colony Collapse Disorder (or Mary Celeste Syndrome in the UK...) were also noted last year, although the numbers appear to be larger this year. I haven't read any reports from other parts of the world.

While the cause remain somewhat unknown, ongoing research is shining some light onto the source of this ailment.

In fall 2007, a team led by Diana Cox-Foster, professor of entomology, reported a strong correlation between CCD and the presence of Israeli acute paralysis virus, making the pathogen a prime suspect in the disease. Since that time, researchers have introduced IAPV to healthy honey bee colonies in a controlled greenhouse environment in an effort to induce a collapse.

Cox-Foster noted that within a month, infected colonies had declined to small clusters of bees, many of which had lost their queens. "These data indicate that IAPV is a highly pathogenic virus," she said. "But they do not yet support a finding of IAPV as the sole cause of Colony Collapse Disorder. We still suspect that additional stresses are needed to trigger CCD."

I would not be surprised if further research implicates human meddling as being an ultimate source of these stresses. We have profoundly altered the environment on a very rapid time scale; just some of notable changes are: enhanced CO2, land use, and pesticides along with other persistent chemical pollution.

A post on TreeHugger notes this about enhanced CO2 and how it affects bees:

Curiously, 80 years ago bee scientists noted that CO2 was the controlling factor in bee colonies. Later scientists observed that bees exposed to high CO2 become incapable of performing their normally incredible navigation skills and become lost bees. It can be no wonder that with our recently imposed 44% higher CO2, - often 2-4 times higher locally - bees have no means to know that their time tested last gasp means to protect the colony will not suffice.

This is certainly an interesting hypothesis, although there are a few quibbles (e.g. The CO2 increase is exaggerated; CO2 has not gone up 44% in less than 80 years...). It seems improbable, though, unless there is some hard biological threshold that has been crossed in the last few years. Make no mistake, year-to-year increases in CO2 are alarming, but I wouldn't imagine that they are so rapid as to cause this sort of sudden onset. (I could easily be wrong about that, though...)

Habitat loss is undoubtedly important in some cases. This seems to be important in the loss of the wild bees (repeat link). But most of the honey bees are domesticated, so they don't really have a 'habitat' per se; they go wherever the managers put them.

Pesticides (linked earlier) seem a likely contributor, though.

[S]cientists analyzing pollen, wax, adult bees and brood (larvae) have found the presence of dozens of chemicals, including pesticides used by agricultural producers to protect crops and by beekeepers to control hive pests such as parasitic mites.

...Some of these compounds could react with each other to cause toxic effects or could combine with viruses or poor nutrition to weaken immunity and cause colony collapse. We also need to do more research to understand these chemicals' sub-lethal effects on bees."

"With the sheer number of compounds we're finding in hives, it's hard to believe that pesticides aren't contributing to the general decline in bee health,

Whatever the cause, the sustained loss of bees -- both wild and domesticated -- at this rate will certainly be Cataclysm-level event, particularly if is (or becomes) global in extent. Bees provide direct services to humanity, playing a vital role in agriculture (among other things). It would be hard to argue that humanity didn't cause it ('It's all the Sun's fault,' won't really cut it in this instance!), and it would hit 'doubt manufacturers' right where it hurt. It's a race against time, one of many we must win to avoid living on planet doom.


image: Shaun Curry /AFP. Extracted from The Guardian. I also know it's not a honeybee, but hey...it's a nice piccy anyway

22 May 2008

Evolution in action

An eighth of US high school biology teachers believes creationism represents valid science. They are ignoring the evidence of their eyes. Evolution is apparently going on right before our eyes. Denial takes many forms, and the unreality of it all is not particularly helpful to society.

Southeast Texas (my original home...) is apparently becoming infested with a previously unknown species of ant. The ants

...belong to the genus Paratrechina, like others seen in Colombia, the Caribbean and Florida... but are different enough for entomologists to only guess at their species

...The ants often eat fire ants, with which they are sometimes compared, and they “outcompete” fire ants for the food supply and reproduce far faster

Having been the victim of fire ants on many occasions in my earlier life, I found the last point particularly interesting. The ants have been reported in 5 counties in this region, and are not expect to move too far inland from the coast. Is this an invader species rapidly adapting to a new clime? Or is something else driving this? Maybe a misidentification?

On remote Gough Island in the South Atlantic, giant carnivorous mice are threatening the worlds largest seabird colony. The humble house mouse, introduced onto the island by whalers within the last 150 years or so

...has somehow evolved to two or even three times the size of an ordinary British house [mouse], and instead of being a vegetarian, eating insects and seeds, has adapted itself to become a carnivore, eating albatross, petrel and shearwater chicks alive in their nests. They are now believed to be the largest mice found anywhere in the world.

The Great Beyond links to an apparently gruesome video of an attack. (I declined to watch it...). With a nigh-unlimited and easily obtained food supply, it's not hard to imagine these parameters driving the evolution of the mice. (Just consider the relationships of modern humans of the global North with food consumption or energy use...). Too bad the birds, several species of which are critically endangered, haven't responded.

While these changes are not driven by climate change per se, they are human caused problems. Even seemingly innocuous manipulations of the environment – intentional or otherwise – have enormous, often unpredicted impacts. We need to be cautious in our actions, altering the environment as little as possible while still maximizing the potential of humanity. This is our reality.

The minions of unreality – creationists, astrologers, climate change deniers – are a stubborn lot. Their anti-science attitudes contribute towards a business-as-usual inaction (or a purely reactive response, at best), a likely disaster for the planet. To progress towards real solutions, we must overcome this sort of willful ignorance of reality. Evolution happens! The stars don't care! Anthropogenic climate change is here and now! The manufacture of doubt must stop.

21 May 2008

Corporate climate change complicity

In news that should come as no surprise to even casual readers of planet doom?, a recent study in Nature indicates that even with the relatively modest(!) ~0.5 degree or so of anthropogenic warming we've experienced [solar cycle magnitude is about 0.1 degrees], we are witnessing large changes to the planet's physical and biological systems. The damage is quite evident already:

Observed impacts included changes to physical systems, such as glaciers shrinking, permafrost melting, and lakes and rivers warming. Biological systems also were impacted in a variety of ways, such as leaves unfolding and flowers blooming earlier in the spring, birds arriving earlier during migration periods, and plant and animal species moving toward Earth's poles and higher in elevation. In aquatic environments such as oceans, lakes, and rivers, plankton and fish are shifting from cold-adapted to warm-adapted communities.

And the evidence of humankind's destructive path grows. Seemingly oblivious to the consequences, it seems likely that we are going to do next-to-nothing to prevent this calamity. Adaptation is to be our selected path. That has made clear. Our corporate leaders have dispatched their minions to 'manufacture uncertainty' about the climate (and other environmental issues, too...).

These act not just by creating doubt, but also by impugning the motives of scientists and researchers: They're out to protect their jobs,doing it for the $$$ (yeah, right), reveling in their 15 minutes of fame and the like...Other, more sinister theories as to the motives of climate scientists also exist. There are also attempts to formulate government policy, as well..

Why are the corporations complicit in the continuation climate change? What are their motives? First, some background.

A corporation is a soulless, non-human entity designed to make money. A collection of individuals equipped with all the human rights, but none of the responsibilities. It pursues financial rewards amorally, with a complete disregard for anything other than the bottom line. Corporations dominate the Global North; they exert enormous influence over the political process and define a significant fraction of mass culture through advertising and media control. They are legally bound to maximize profits. Their interests are not the same as the general populaces.

The harsh tactics arise for several reasons. On one level, near-term profits may decline if climate change mitigation efforts enacted. Some costs will be incurred. If the costs are too large or the changes demanded are too great, their position of power in society is threatened and the plan of extending corporate governance globally becomes harder to fulfill.

The rush for profits has already contributed to the ongoing global food crisis. Through the use of IMF and World Bank, corporations (and the bankers who run the numbers...) have warped global food production. Nations that were once self-sustaining for basic food production now require imports, provided by multinational conglomerate coroporations. And climate change offers the opportunity to extend this control(my emphasis):

BASF, Monsanto, Bayer, Syngenta, Dupont and biotech partners have filed 532 patent documents around the world for crops genetically altered to adapt to rising temperatures, the ETC Group's report says.

The companies are banking on climate change being the "silver lining" that shifts public perception of genetically altered crops, the report says. The companies see "an opportunity to assert that agriculture cannot win the war against climate change without genetic engineering," the report says. "In other words, industry claims that biotech crops will offer essential adaptation measures."

This kind of monopoly -- the top 10 seed companies control 57 percent of the global seed market, according to the report -- is damaging to the world food market because it limits what kind of research will occur and who will have access to the results, said Hope Shand, ETC's research director.

Revealing not only the profit motive behind maintaining the status quo, but also the long-term strategy. Controlling the world's food supply means control over who lives and dies.

Ultimately it's a fool's game, though. Doing nothing to mitigate climate change insures drastic changes to our world. Money will only protect from the impacts of climate change and environmental degradation for so long. Nature always bats last, and it doesn't like to lose. We must resist the 'easy' path of inaction and at least try to do something. It may be too late, but the path we are seemingly heading down guarantees failure.

13 May 2008

Gaining wisdom through adversity: Lessons of cyclone Nargis

The immediate threat from Cyclone Nargis has passed; the floodwaters have receded. To date 22 000+ 'official' deaths have been acknowledged by the military government; the death toll is likely higher, with 100 000 being a widely quoted figure. The high toll taken as a result interaction of a strong tropical cyclone and several natural and human factors. A low-lying river delta affected by widespread land clearing; the complete unpreparedness of the public, resulting from a lack of warnings to the public and the (relatively) unusual location and timing of the cyclone.

And the situation continues to worsen. To date, the government has refused international aid, allowing disease and malnutrition to take hold. While the military junta enriches itself, it fears a loss of power as anger mounts at the inept response, as has happened in the past.

While a singular event like Nargis cannot be explicitly attributed to climate change, there are lessons to be learned about our future life as the Great CO2 Enhancement Experiment (35% and rising!) continues to evolve. There will be no stopping the experiment. The delayers and doubters have won the socio-political battle, at least for now. Until the Cataclysm little more than token efforts toward climate mitigation will be made (on a global basis...)

What do the impacts of Nargis mean for adaptation to future climate change, since that is to be our path? I think it means we have a long way to go towards that goal. Given this performance, large parts of the world -- like Myanmar – are woefully under-prepared for current weather and climate, much less any more frequent and/or extreme future climate scenarios. The fact that this happened in the Global South under a highly repressive regime is of little consequence; you could make the same argument for New Orleans and Katrina, as well.

Adaptation is going to be more difficult and expensive than currently imagined. While it may seemingly be the only politically feasible thing now, it isn't the best path. The world-at-large is not ready for theses sorts of disastrous events now. Continued warming likely brings ever-worsening storms. The human desire to live by the sea (at high population densities) adds to the cost of these storms -- more people affected, more damage done. These pressures will only increase in the future. Increased amounts of disease, hunger and endemic poverty a possible result.

While some adaptation is required (because we're already committed to some change over the next 50 years or so), mitigation is a far better option. Better to avoid the risks, if at all possible. Both answers require a massive societal change in the end; changing now with a bright green lifestyle now gives us a chance to avoid some of the more drastic effects. Doing nothing almost guarantees a bad result.

The resistance to mitigation come from our leaders –- bankers, lawyers, businessmen – inappropriately insist on absolute certitude when dealing with the future. The future is nothing put a set of ever changing probabilities, nothing is certain until the moment is past. The probabilities are myriad. Instead of waiting for certitude, a risk management based approach of climate change should be taken, where risk is the likelihood of something happening times the consequences of that action. Such an analysis (triple bottom line) would undoubtedly indicate the wisdom a in doing what we can today to try to prevent tragic events like Cyclone Nargis from occurring more frequently.


Image: TRMM satellite estimates of total rainfall and cyclone intensity from Nargis. EO Natural Hazards

06 May 2008

Myanmar flooding from cyclone Nargis

Cyclone Nargis struck Myanmar (Burma) on 2 May 2008. Current NASA MODIS imagery and news reports indicate that this cyclone is an emerging humanitarian disaster.

From an informative Terra Daily news item:

At least 351 people were killed and nearly 100,000 left homeless when tropical cyclone Nargis tore through Myanmar, razing thousands of buildings and knocking out power lines, state media said Sunday.

The meteorological stats of the storm, as gleaned from the news item above...

Nargis made landfall late Friday around the mouth of the Ayeyawaddy (Irrawaddy) river, about 220 kilometres (137 miles) southwest of Yangon, before hitting the country's economic hub...

Electricity supplies and telecommunications in Yangon have been cut since late Friday night as the storm bore down from the Bay of Bengal, packing winds of 190-240 kilometres (120-150 miles) per hour.

These stats put it at the borderline Cat-3/Cat-4, suggesting a storm surge of ~4 m.

The image is a before-and-after comparison of the Ayeyawaddy province of Myanmar.Spatial dimensions of the images are 400x225 km. Yangon (nee Rangoon) is towards the upper right corner. The picture is a false-color image, comprised of visible and short-IR channels. Water appears black here; sediments in the water are dark blue (see here for description). The top panel is from 26 April; the bottom from 5 May, three days after the storm. Judging from the imagery, the area is largely low-lying river delta.

With the aid of this satellite image with the track superimposed, the storm presumably came ashore in the lower left of the image, near the large river. Comparison of the two images suggest the storm surge has been quite extensive. A swath of water is apparent across the peninsula (the storm track, perhaps?). Extended regions of the delta system are underwater –- new islands have formed off the new coastline, albeit temporarily.

The water over the former land is a deep blue hue, suggesting lots of erosion and silt transport out to sea.

Careful examination (and guesswork on the navigation!) indicate that the flood waters are very close to Yangon, as well. This is consistent with this statement (from the above news article): “There are also fears that the poorer outlying areas of Yangon, with their flimsy houses, might have been hard hit.”

An as-I-write post at The Intersection is indicating that up to 10 000 may be dead, and the normally reclusive government is appealing for international aid. These rare appeals, supported by the remote sensing data, would suggest that indeed they were hard hit.

Addendum: From Dr Jeff Masters' WunderBlog:

The storm hit the coast of Myanmar Friday night as borderline Category 3/Category 4 cyclone, with winds of 130-135 mph. After passing over the low-lying and densely populated Irrawaddy River delta region, Nargis made a direct hit on the capital city of Rangoon (Yangon), as a Category 1 storm with top winds of 80 mph...

However, it was the storm surge, not the winds, that was the big killer in Nargis. The storm tracked over the low-lying Irrawaddy River delta region, which is highly vulnerable to storm surge deaths due to its low elevation, dense population, and limited hurricane awareness of the people. I could find no records of a major tropical cyclone ever making a direct hit on the Irrawaddy River delta.
Again, as suggested by the imagery.

Addendum 2: Here is the official NASA Natural Hazards version of the picture above. They use a different 'before' picture, and their fancy image processing software and GIS make their image a bit crisper. Here is a MODIS true-color image of the cyclone at landfall.

Image: compiled by me, from raw material collected at NASA MODIS Rapid Response

01 May 2008


An excellent post over at The Island of Doubt:

It's hard to say just when humanity stopped trying to prevent climate change. Some say only a few prescient individuals ever really took the threat seriously until the dramatic events of 2012. But by then, of course, it was too late to do anything about it. Still, if we have to pinpoint a specific time that the public conversation began to switch from how to avoid catastrophic global warming to learning to live with the consequences, 2008 would be as good a candidate as any.

A similar line of thought has been occurring to me recently. The doubters and deniers have 'won' the battle, at least on the 'socio-political' side of things -- we aren't going to act in any meaningful way to reduce our ever-increasing GHG emissions. This announcement by Russia make that quite clear; GHG reductions are in the 'too-hard' basket. Even the homeless (in the global North) have large carbon footprints. This may change, but only after The Cataclysm. Until then, it's full speed ahead!

The deniers and doubters wrong on the science, though. Theirs is a Pyrrhic Victory, with all of humanity paying the cost, all so that we can continue Our Way of Life.