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 LÀmmetorp outside of FinspÄng 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.

12 June 2008

Why do dolphins strand themselves?

It's been a particularly rough patch for dolphins as of late...

In Madagascar, 55 melon-headed whales (a species of dolphin) have died after coming ashore in the northwest part of the country. In Cornwall, 26 dolphins have died in a mass stranding. A pathologist who examined some of the 26 dead mammals said today: "On the face of it, it looks like some sort of mass suicide - but the question is why? The dolphins had swallowed and inhaled big chunks of mud from the estuary. Their lungs and stomachs were full of it. That is very bizarre indeed." An unusual number of dolphin strandings was also noted in Cornwall earlier this year, as well.

The question is indeed 'Why?'.

One hypothesis suggests a natural mechanism, a combination of particular weather conditions and a gently sloping coastline, which can cause the dolphins to not 'see' the approaching shore and result in a stranding. Other, human-induced causes may also be to blame.

Pesticides and other aquatic toxins could play a role. Dolphins stranded in Victoria, Australia over the past two years have shown elevated levels of mercury contamination. "Dolphins may be becoming stranded as a direct consequence of mercury contamination which damages their neurological system. They become potentially confused and disorientated, and strand themselves." Similarly, toxic algal blooms (on the increase in recent years, likely due to agricultural fertilizer runoffs) may lead to epilepsy and behaviourial abnormalities in California sea lions. Even low-levels of chemical contamination can lead to these difficulties in marine mammals. And such persistent chemical pollution is pervasive in the ocean, even affecting the deep-sea cephalopods on which dolphins and whales feed.

Other factor could be sonar and other loud noises produced by ships in coastal waters. Military exercises, including the use of sonar, were noted nearby in the recent Cornwall case. In the Madagascar case, ExxonMobil was carrying out seismic surveying roughly 50 km from the stranding site. The coincidence is certainly interesting, and worthy of further consideration. But determining ultimate cause-and-effect is an extremely difficult process.

I've noted previously, dolphins and other marine mammals have been sighted in unprecedented locales in recent times. Much of this shift in range of these creatures is believed to have been driven by climate change. The melon-headed dolphins in the example fit this pattern, having never before been seen in Madagascar.

Allowing myself to anthropomorphicize for a moment, one chain-of-reasoning that fits these (admittedly selected) facts: As climate changes, the animals-- affected to some degree by persistent chemical pollution -- move to new (and unfamiliar) territories. Not knowing a particular area may mean the creatures are not familiar with the pitfalls (e.g. 'sonar-terminating' coastlines) of a given area. So when startled or panicked, by say sonar or depth charges, the dolphins may make 'poor decisions' (being neurologically damaged) and stumble into a blind alley (a la the natural mechanism noted above).

This is just a homemade hypothesis, unlikely to withstand serious scientific scrutiny. But it illustrative of the problem at hand. Like the Blind Men and the Elephant, we have a collection of facts and perceptions, each of which likely contain some grain of truth. The trick is to discern the true nature of what we face. ExxonMobil and/or the military make easy and tempting targets for blame, but it is difficult to escape the idea that the elephant in the room is really Our Way of Life. The real solution lies in changing our destructive lifestyles so that they better harmonize with the rhythms of Nature.

Image: ENN

04 June 2008

Africa and the realities of climate change

"There’s a very academic discussion happening in Europe right now still asking 'is the climate already changing' and 'is climate change noticeable today'. Here in Burkina Faso that debate is not happening, because the effects already speak for themselves.”

So begins the diary of the UN Secretary General's Special Advisor on conflict, Jan Egeland, who is traveling through the Sahel this week to draw attention to a region the UN believes is experiencing the worse effects of climate change in the world today. I have previously offered the idea that Africa today provides a living model for a post-Collapse future: grinding poverty coupled with environmental degradation, food insecurity, endemic warfare and disease. A possible future should our environmental concerns remain unchecked.

Large swathes of northern Africa are currently undergoing drought, from the Horn of Africa in the East to the Sahel region in the west. Up to six million children are endangered in Ethiopia from the drought. UNICEF notes, "Widespread drought, poor rainy seasons, heavy loss of livestock, limited food supply and soaring prices of food, fuel and fertilizer linked to the global food crisis are contributing to the troubled outlook for children in Ethiopia."

Despite the drought in this region, this news item notes “Twenty-five people have died and over 200 displaced following yesterday's flooding in Jijiga town, Somali State southeastern Ethiopia according to the residents.” (The article diverts from the main topic and describes the history of the region and the massive military presence in the area...).

Similar weather patterns have been noted of late in western Africa, specifically in Sierra Leone and Burkina Faso. Egeland's diary notes:

"Climate change in Burkina Faso does not mean there is less rain, it means that rainfall has got less predictable. And weather overall has become much more extreme in the way it comes – the heat, the cold, and the peaks and troughs of rainfall.

"People cannot predict when rain will come. And then when it does, it falls in buckets. Last year in Burkina Faso, there were eight rainfalls over 150mm – that means eight major floods in one four month period.

"The alternative to floods is basically no rainfall – it’s all or nothing, and either way is a crisis for some of the poorest people on earth, in ways that are just completely unpredictable.

These impacts now being seen in Africa (and elsewhere) are just the proverbial tip of the iceberg. This is the reality of climate change. The warming to date has been relatively modest. What happens as the warming continues to grow larger and the effects become more pronounced?

A particularly sad fact is that it is not Africa's fault. Egeland again:

"...[T]he average citizen in Burkina Faso is emitting 0.38 tonnes of CO2 every year. While the Chinese emit 10 times more, the British 30 times more and the Americans 75 times more per capita...

"It just proves this enormous moral issue that those who contributed nothing to climate change are bearing the brunt of the changes it is causing, whereas we who caused it all have gotten away with it – the north is getting away with murder basically.

And all for the benefit of our corporate masters, who continue to prevent any meaningful action to be taken to rectify the problem. As the US struggles to pass a semi-meaningful emissions control bill, the coal industry continues to manufacture doubt, treating telly viewers to “visions of a dystopian future where Americans are forced to cook their breakfast over candles, or where thousands of jobs have been lost because of what one opponent called 'economic disarmament' by the US.”

At least we in the Global North have breakfast, while many in the world, particularly Africans, have never even been given a fair chance to become 'economically armed' in the first place. If you are looking for dystopia, turn your eyes towards Africa. There lies our future too, unless we begin to take meaningful action to stop climate change and other environmental degradation now.


Image: WorldChanging