25 January 2008

Life after collapse

Do recent events in worldwide financial markets herald a societal collapse? Is this the trigger that brings the whole sham down? What will life be like after a collapse?

Certainly, the economic foundations of the world have been shaken. The panic response of the US Federal Reserve has certainly cauterized the wound for now. Unfortunately, economics and the environment are intertwined and poor economic conditions make environmental degradation more likely. Poverty often results in the rationalization of environmentally destructive behaviour, speeding up the deterioration of the planetary ecosystem. It won't just happen because of a financial meltdown; a more thorough razzing of society is needed. So these events are but one part of the long fall. Contrary to popular belief, collapse doesn't (necessarily) mean that all the humans on the planet are going to die off on some short time scale, although that is certainly one possible outcome.

Sadly, a picture of what life after collapse looks like already exists today. Africa is such a model. Technically, it is not really 'post-collapse' as there has never really been a widespread 'peak' in Africa. Rather, those in the so-called 'developed world' have long ridden the back of poorer nations, exploiting them for our prosperity while leaving only crumbs and empty promises. Our desire for 'stuff' has a huge environmental cost, while by and large we have transferred it to the global 'South', creating 'externalities' to our economic system. This creates tensions and shortages will spill over into broader African society.

Warfare and political strife are endemic in Africa -- largely battles over resources and power. Most of these wars are barely noted in the West, although they are often fueled by the greed of multinational corporations, who manipulate the local populace for their own profit and gain. The Congo War -- off and on since 1996 – is an excellent example. The recent post-election violence in Kenya is another.

War, along with the impacts of climate change and environmental degradation, creates refugees. Human nature is that people will do whatever it takes to survive. Regardless of cost or consequences. This is illustrated by case studies in Tanzania, host to the largest concentrations of refugees in Africa. There, the wholesale slaughter of native wild animals is creating an environmental crisis, bound to lead to a loss of biodiversity and damaging future prospects for recovery, economic or otherwise.

Despite the ravages of war, AIDS, malaria, climate change and other woes, overpopulation remains a growing problem, only expected to get worse in coming years. But, like everywhere, if you are rich (or have a lot of guns) you can avoid many of these problems. For example in Ghana, rapid economic development has brought beautiful homes with toilets and running water to the rich, while the poor are now required to use the beaches for 'the facilities', with untreated human waste simply washed into the sea.

To top it off, periodic natural disasters (exacerbated by climate change) arise, destroying crops, threatening livelihoods and continuing the vicious cycle. Plagues of locusts, floods, wildfires and desertification are but some of the issues threatening food security here.

This is a a foretaste of what a societal collapse may look like. Indeed, if you look the signs are already there in many Western countries, including the US. Multinational corporations already control the elections in most countries. The US military is already fighting a resource war on behalf of Haliburton and other corporations. The rich/poor divide in western nations grows every day. If and when people start getting thrown out of their homes, unable to pay the mortgage, there will be a lot of anger. Climate refugees are also a reality in the US, and food security is increasingly becoming an issue. Despite the denial of some, post-peak oil will be an issue, as the demands of the world outweigh the supply, even in an economically depressed environment.

Sadly, some seem to relish collapse. It's not going to be a big adventure. It will create a lot of hardship, a lot of turmoil and a lot of grief. It is a horrible legacy to leave our children. Yes, there are a lot of things wrong with our society as it is currently constructed, as the previous discussion illustrates. But a collapse --catastrophic or otherwise -- would not be a good thing. Maybe something good would come out in the end as a result, but it's a big maybe and trying to achieve the same result without the collapse has more appeal. After all, in the last mass extinction on Earth it took 30 million years for recovery. The die may be cast and it may be too late. But it may not. We simply don't know and it would be incredibly short-sided to simply give up at this point.


Image: Guernica by Pablo Picasso

23 January 2008

Weather Whirligig 1

This is the first in what will be an informal series of posts with the aim of providing quasi-periodic updates of the unusual weather which (seemingly) occurs with ever-increasing frequency. The posts will be somewhat 'bare-boned', a simple record of unusual, high-impact and/or disastrous weather events provided for future reference. My commentary will be minimal in these posts. I will aim for a weekly/fortnightly time scale.

I am not trying to make any claim that any particular event included is a response to climate change. Rather, I think the record will speak for itself. A log of events such as this will help to ascertain the validity of such claims. Agencies such as the Red Cross and Munich Re are already making such claim. I have made them myself.

By February or March during the typical rainy season [in southern Africa], the intense rain puddles on the saturated ground and pushes brimming rivers, reservoirs, and lakes over their banks. In 2008, the floods began in January. These floods killed 6 people in Mozambique and are the worst since 2000-1. Image above is a before/after set from these floods.

Heavy rains and flooding in northeast Australia have been both a blessing and a curse for drought-hit farmers, but more rain is needed to break a seven-year drought. The floods are continuing in central Queensland (two weeks after this story initially ran), as remnants of a tropical cyclone moved southward over the continent. The flooding and heavy rain in eastern Australia are historically associated with mature La Nina conditions similar to those being currently observed.

There have been a number of deaths and considerable damage to crops in the Middle East as temperatures in the region fall to exceptional lows...In Syria, temperatures have dropped to minus 16 degrees Celsius [and t]here has been widespread damage to crops in Syria, Jordan and Israel.

Cold weather and heavy snow have struck unusually large swathes of central and eastern China, causing fatal accidents, bringing down power lines and destroying crops.

Image: EO Natural Hazards

17 January 2008

Great Game 2.0: Antarctica

A new version of Great Game is afoot, this time centred on Antarctica and its potential resources. The region will likely be a flashpoint in the medium- to long-term future as oil gets scarce and the region becomes more accessible due to climate change. The players are already lining up and the opening moves are being made. It's every man for himself.

As a result of humanity's CO2 enhancement experiment, the climate of Antarctica is changing. Sea ice surrounding the continent is expanding, but the significance of any trend is small. The mechanisms controlling the size of the sea ice are poorly understood, but it is known that there is some link with ENSO (which itself may be changing from global warming). A new, comprehensive study shows that as a whole, the Antarctic ice sheets are losing mass. This is apparently focused on the West sheet and on the Antarctic Peninsula. The melting of the ice sheet could have serious implications for sea level rise around the world. Some caution is urged, as more studies are needed to confirm the result. Still the results seem consistent with earlier research (using a different method) noted earlier on planet doom?. There is some suggestion that these sorts of changes could result in the local extinction of Adelie penguins on the Peninsula within a decade.

Antarctica also potentially represents a vast, untapped source of resources, especially oil. As it was once part of the super-continent Gondwanaland (along with South America, Africa and Australia) and covered with extensive vegetation, many believe it may contain a so-called supergiant oil field. The Ross and Weddell Sea regions alone are estimated to contain 50 billion barrels of oil, roughly equivalent to Alaskan reserves. While this oil is difficult to obtain given Antarctica's extreme conditions, oil prices of $150-200 a barrel (later this year?) make extraction here more economically feasible. Climate change may act to make the area more accessible. The treaty prohibiting mineral resource exploitation is set to expire in 2048, but as peak oil bites this will probably fall by the wayside before then.

Indeed, like dogs marking the trees they pass, many nations are already acting in such a way as to establish (or reinforce) claims to the continent. Some of these efforts were noted in an earlier post. They have picked up pace in the ongoing austral summer. Korea is looking to establish another base. The Chinese have climbed the highest peak on the Antarctic ice sheet for the second time. Venezuela is showing some interest (but no action yet). Chile is also acting to protect its claim, with the re-establishment of bases and visits by high-level military officials.

It is Australia, already claiming some 42% of the continent, who are making the boldest moves in the game. Many of these moves are made ostensibly for scientific and environmental reasons. These are likely just cover stories. The country has established a passenger air service to the continent, the first of its kind, reducing the time it takes to reach the continent (from Hobart) to a mere five hours. The ongoing kerfuffle with Japan over their 'scientific whaling' program is another bold gambit. While essentially a policy that I personally support (let's hear it for the 'sea-hippies'), we should not be fooled about what it really means. This started when the protesters tried to serve notice that the whalers are in violation of Australian law, a claim which Japan doesn't recognize, and which is unenforcible anyway. Rudd (the Australian PM) is obviously thinking several moves ahead, attempting to establish some moral validity to back up the claims to sovereignty, looking to gain a large slice of any future pie to be had. Nations don't risk diplomatic incidents over whales.

The game has begun. It's likely to be long and arduous, and we will likely all be losers in the end as we ravage the last pristine place on Earth to continue living our unsustainable lives.


Image: NASA Visible Earth

12 January 2008

Nice weather we're having...

Just a few reports of some of the more interesting weather observed recently.

  • Snow in Baghdad -- Snow has fallen in Baghdad for the first time in memory, and delighted residents are declaring it an omen of peace.

  • Winter Tornadoes –- Tornadoes were reported or suspected Monday [7 Jan 08] in southwest Missouri, southeastern Wisconsin, Arkansas , Illinois, and Oklahoma. Two people were killed in Missouri.

  • Latin America Natural Disasters -- There were the rains in November that left most of the southern Mexican state of Tabasco under water for weeks, including large parts of the city of Villahermosa. In October, Tropical Storm Noel triggered flash floods in the Dominican Republic that killed dozens. In September, Honduras faced the category five Hurricane Felix, just as Jamaica and Belize had been battered by the similarly strong Hurricane Dean the month before.

This is just a smattering of extreme weather events being observed around the globe on a regular basis. It's not hard to discover just how unusual 2007 was weather-wise. The news is full of severe droughts, record high temperatures and the like.

Such events are no longer unusual, they are the new normal. But if you attribute these events to climate change, you get accused of being alarmist; an “availability entrepreneur”. True, you can't ascribe any single event to climate change...But how widespread and how often do such events have to occur before we accept the reality of our situation? The re-insurers already know the truth and are taking it into account. To wit (emphasis added):

"The figures confirm our expectations," said Munich Re board member Torsten Jeworrek. "The trend in respect of weather extremes shows that climate change is already taking effect and that more such extremes are to be expected in the future."

"We should not be misled by the absence of megacatastrophes in 2007," he added in the report.

When big business truly gets involved, things may actually begin to change. Still, given the amount of greenwashing out there, and the general tepidness of the Bali agreement, we have a long way to go before any real progress is made, cheery outlooks notwithstanding.

But hey, maybe things are about to change for the better because snow in Iraq is awfully close to Hell freezing over...

Image from NASA MODIS Rapid Response Realtime Archive

09 January 2008

Global Wildfire 2007: A sign of climate change?

In the previous post in this series, I discussed wildfire activity observed around the globe in 2007. It was an extremely active fire year , and nearly 100 lives were lost around the world. This post will continue the series, focusing on two related questions: Is wildfire activity increasing? and Is this related to climate change?

There are many telling trends here. Data from the National Interagency Fire Center show generally fewer numbers of fires but more area burnt, particularly since 2000. Many of the events noted in the previous post were unprecedented, including the tundra fires in Alaska, the Greek fires and the California wildfires. The Western US has seen fires of similar magnitude several times over the past few years. The Victorian Alps earlier this year burnt areas which experienced a similarly large wildfire in 2003. These so-called mega-fires are becoming increasingly common, despite the ever-increasing amount of money and resources devoted to wildfire suppression.

Despite these apparent trends, the honest answer to the questions above must be “We don't know”. Large, devastating wildfires have also been seen in the past. The available data records are short and/or sparse; a lot of work remains to be done on cleaning up and filling in gaps in the data. Whatever data there are is also confounded by human activity. Using simple metrics like area burnt or the number of fires can also be misleading, as fire management practices have changed over the years. Our detection and surveillance of fires is much more efficient than in the past, especially in remote regions of the world. Still, there are many reasons to think that they are increasing and that climate change is to blame.

Analogous to the classic Fire Triangle, three interacting factors all have to be present for a wildfire to occur. First, suitable atmospheric conditions, given by the weather and/or climate must be present. Second, adequate fuel amounts and types must be available for combustion. Finally, ignition must occur. If one of these is missing, then a wildfire cannot occur. All of these factors are subject to change with global warming. Indeed, the changes are already being seen.

Most obvious are direct changes in the weather and climate. Temperatures are increasing and droughts are becoming more frequent. Both of these have a direct impact of fire weather. Indeed, research has shown that in SE Australia an upward trend in fire weather has been observed, especially since 2001 or so. Additionally, factors such as the changing of the seasonal timing (e.g. spring starting earlier) are a direct result of global warming affecting atmospheric conditions and hence wildfire.

Changes in fuel conditions are also expected with enhanced CO2 and climate change. Enhanced CO2 acts to fertilize plants, potentially making more fuel available for burning. Further, changes in the types of fuels are likely to result, with shrubs and other woody plants replacing grasslands in many parts of the world as a result of increasing CO2. This could change the frequency and intensity of fire in a given location (even decreasing it...). Invasive weeds and plants can also move, driven by climate change, and alter the fire regime of a place.

Global warming is also driving changes in fuel through other more subtle means. Pine beetles are infesting trees in Canada, killing trees and making them available for burning. The less-intense winter observed in recent years has failed control the population of the beetles, resulting in more widespread infestations. Similar infestations have been reported in the northwestern United States.

Climate change skeptics often claim that the apparent increase in wildfires is solely due to fuel management practices -- not enough prescriptive fire to prevent fuel from building to dangerous levels. But if atmospheric conditions are not conducive to burning, then no wildfire will occur. The weather and climate also act to grow the fuel, prepare it for combustion and spread the flames once started. The recent fires in southern California suggest otherwise; many of the regions burnt this year burnt just 4 years ago.

Lightning is a natural source of ignition for wildfires, especially when it occurs in thunderstorms with low precipitation. It is not known how global warming will affect such storms, but with more widespread drought conditions, it seems reasonable to think that more such storms could be a possibility. Unfortunately, a large fraction of wildfire ignitions are arson related (about 50% in Australia) or have other human causes. But this should not be taken as an excuse or a special category of fires. Humans have always caused fires. For countless generations before European contact in Australia the Aborigines were lighting fires, helping shape the landscape into its current fire-conducive state. The same is true of other indigenous cultures as well. Humans are part of the natural environment and we ignore this at our own peril.

Wildfire activity is predicted to increases as a result of climate change. Indeed, the available evidence suggests that we are already seeing some of that increase, but we cannot answer the question with an unequivocal 'Yes' at this point in time. Nonetheless, society needs to begin considering the possibility and prepare for the effects. Even should the current observed levels of activity not be climate change-driven (unlikely!), the fire activity of recent years provides a good archetype for the types of disasters we can expect. Management strategies will have to be adjusted and considered beforehand. As will be discussed in the next part of the series, wildfires have many more implications than simply 'stuff burning down'. Planning and forethought will be needed to overcome the most deleterious effects.


Image: Canberra Bushfire 2003 from BBC News

03 January 2008

Global wildfire 2007

Wildfires are an issue in many places around the world, and the past year has seen a continuation of the apparent trend towards larger, more intense fires. Worldwide, wildfire activity was quite pronounced during the past year. This post will highlight some of the major fires observed during the past year or so from around the globe. For sake of brevity, this won't be a complete discussion; I won't note agricultural burning which is more prevalent than wildfire. For a more thorough listing, see the EO Natural Hazards Fire Archive (with excellent imagery), a main source of information for this post. The discussion will be arranged more-or-less chronologically. There will be some bias towards Australia and North America; the nature of the media and the fire coverage makes this a necessity.

Late 2006 and early 2007 saw many fires. This is the peak of the fire season in southern portions of Australia. The past fire season was among the most intense on record, at least in terms of fire weather, part of a jump which has been seen since approximately 2001. Fires in the eastern Victorian Alps in Australia burned out over 1 million hectares beginning in early December and extending well into January. Other major fires in Australia were noted near Dwellingup, Western Australia (which was razed by bushfire in 1961...) and in Tasmania. Fire activity in southeast Australia continued into April.

As austral winter begin, fire activity in the north began to heat up. The Sweat Farm Road fire in Georgia (USA) grew rapidly in April. Other major fires were reported in Georgia and Florida at the end of May, a result of the extreme (and ongoing!) drought in those areas. May also saw a large wildfire in northern Minnesota.

As boreal summer progressed, fire activity progressed northward into the wildlands of the Far North of North America. In June, Quebec reported more than 4.5 times the 20-year average area burnt had already occurred, suggesting an unusually severe fire season. The spruce forests in Alaska were also ablaze in June. In July, the tundra on the North Slope of Alaska was ignited by a lightning strike. This fire burned until October; at 100 000+ hectares burnt, it was the largest tundra fire on record in the state. Fires in Manitoba forced the evacuation of hundreds of residents.

In the western regions of the continental US, the summer saw numerous large wildfires. Utah reported its largest fire on record at 363 000 acres. Idaho and eastern Oregon also saw numerous fires ignited by dry lightning, several which burned in excess of 100 000 acres. Over 2007, Idaho saw nearly 2 million acres burnt by wildfire. Fires from Idaho also extended into Nevada. Large fires in Idaho and Montana burnt well into September.

California is one of the more fire prone regions of the world and it saw several so-called mega-fires during late-summer. Some of these were the Moonlight fire (63 000+ acres) in northern CA and the Zaca (200 000+ acres) fire in southern CA. The most-widely reported fires of the year occurred throughout southern CA in late-October, forcing the evacuation of over half a million people in the state. The image above is from these fires, captured by the NASA MODIS instrumentation.

Other regions of the globe also saw significant wildfire activity. Much of southern Europe experienced an unprecedented heatwave, which was accompanied by widespread wildfires in Italy and other regions of SE Europe, including Croatia where 11 firefighters were killed battling the blazes. Large fires in the Canary Islands forced thousands of evacuations. Perhaps most tragic, more than 60 people were killed in extensive wildfires in Greece in late-August, many of which were deliberately lit.

South Africa experienced extreme wildfire activity in eastern portions of the nation, resulting in the loss of several lives, while simultaneously undergoing floods on the opposite side. In Algeria, several people were killed in scores of forest fires in the Atlas Mountains. In Paraguay (South America) over 1700 fires were started in September, resulting in 400 000 hectares of forest burnt. Following the fires, widespread hunger was seen as the blazes had destroyed much of the season's crops. 50 000 people were left homeless and 8 people were killed.

In Australia, the 2007 fire season has been particularly active until recently, with numerous large fires observed. Much of western Kimberley (in Western Australia) burnt, with fires persisting for several months. Unusual fire activity was also observed in central Northern Territory and in regions south of the Gulf of Carpentaria. While widespread, the fires had little economic impact, burning in sparsely populated areas. In December, wildfires on Kangaroo Island in South Australia and in the Goldfields region of Western Australia have resulted in the loss of life. For updates on the bushfire situation in Australia, see the Australia Bushfire Monitor.

The impact of wildfires over past year has been large, resulting in numerous lives lost and significant amounts of property damaged. Fire activity is seemingly on the increase. And the losses aren't just economic, but everything from air quality to biodiversity is damaged in these events. Several questions arise: Is this level of fire activity unusual? What is the impact of climate change? These questions will be addressed in part 2. The myriad impacts of fires, which are more far-reaching than the active portion of the fires themselves will be discussed in part 3. These will be posted in the next week or two.