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.